I am creating this thread because I believe Sierra adventurers of all types have distinctly different needs from those of AT and other thru-hikers who have embraced Ultra-light (UL) gear and techniques.
Vloggers that I have seen such as Dixie "Homemade Wanderlust" and Darwin "Darwin on the Trail" have lots of info, some of it quite good about UL gear, techniques, hints and hacks.
However...Not all of this makes sense for the sierra backpacker, or sierra backcountry adventurer. You cannot possibly expect the same thing to work as well on a lowland forest walk on the AT as above 10 000 feet at some remote spot in the sierras, even in high summer. So I created this thread to share experiences in this regime. Let's talk about our experiences, and share questions and ideas on everything from bottom of the canyon trails to backcountry travel to technical adventures going light.
During the Summer of Covid-19, I had plenty of time when I could not get out. So, if you can't go into the backcountry, the next best thing is to obsess about gear and techniques, right? Then club acquaintance Ryan and I set off last week on a silly and unsuccessful attempt at Matterhorn peak, with lots of off-trail, attempting to go over the nonexistent Stanton-Virginia pass, with me vowing to go ultra-light and with new spiffy gear for that purpose. Here is a summary of what worked and what didn't. I hope you will follow up with all the UL tips and techniques that you have tried in your sierra high country outings as well. --------------------------------------------------
Pack ------- UL packs are narrow and high. Fundamentally, these suck for high sierras because we have to carry bear cans. Bear cans suck. Packing them vertically... is not so convenient, but honestly, I didn't find it to be a big deal.
I obsessed and worried over buying a UL pack, saw the outdoor gearlab (OGL) review that dissed z-packs (the favorite of everyone I saw in SEKI at high altitude) and I freaked out a lot that all the highest rated UL packs you cannot buy at REI and return if they don't fit. (They have a lot of osprey packs; at one point I had an osprey volt 75 which sucked sucked sucked. The back mesh did nothing; very hard to fit a bladder into it because of bad design. Didn't like features or how it carried for me.)
Eventualy I bought the OGL recommended gossamer gear Mariposa because general consensus is that it carries more weight than Z packs Arc Haul at reasonable comfort level. A couple people said Z-packs shoulder straps were thin, AND they have offered extra pads on their site. In the event.... I could not possibly be happier with my Mariposa. in fact, I wonder that I ever enjoyed backpacking before. I did a one-after-the-other comparison hike between my new Mariposa and my gregory 75 stout, and I oculd not believe how much more comfortable Mariposa is with same weight - obviously a fit issue, but hey, it was the best fitting pack at REI. Which is just incredibly stupid. Shame on REI for not having better packs that are out there.
Features and pockets good on the Mariposa, carries better than any pack I have tried (gregorys, mountain smiths of old). NOTE that i did NOT compare to z-pack arc haul. I would have had to buy one, then ship it back if I didn't like it, and no returns after use.)
Waterproof protection? Z-packs are very waterproof. UL-ers expect you to buy a separate DCF bag for your down bag. I put mine in a trashbag, very thin, but the trashbag got shredded by stuffing bag around bear can. A dry bag came with it but is very heavy (I think maybe ~ 150 g.) Will try heavier trashbag next time.
Conclusion: DO NOT limit yourself in packs to what is easy to get. Too much potential misery. Research a lot, take the risk and deal with the shipping cost of buying a couple packs to return them. Nothing matters compared to how they work with your biomechanics.
Shelter ------- On a windy night at 9000 feet in Sierras, next to a lake, it can seem cold as winter. Bogus mesh tents with flys just block the wind very very poorly. The standard UL tents you see at REI are all mesh, and will be pretty piss-poor in this case.
Z-pack single layer tents look really great and are super light, but have two open sides. You can sort of pitch the flaps to stop the wind, but only sort-of. I would like to see a critical review on this. Anyone have any experience? Compare to a real tent that is light but not just mesh?
UL concept of tarp vs. tent: It’s REALLY nice to have a clean space for your gear. Perhaps one could get some of that without a tent, with a larger ground sheet? Might try this. I slept out 2 nights on just a ground cloth, It was OK not great - my exPed bag has basically no wind blockage. I was cold on the cold night in high summer, but not horrible; having all my clothes on inside the bag made it barely barely tolerable. bivvy bag would have helped, but you don't get that area to spread out, and they weigh more than a tarp and/or ground sheet.
What is your system?
Footwear -------- Much to my surprise, trail running shoes worked fine on scree, slab, boulders, basically at any time except when a rock is rolling over onto your foot (ouch). I'm pretty much sold except...
The UL theory of footwear is not just light, but breathable. Most UL-ers say get non-gtex trail running shoes. You are supposed to just walk through the streams and your feet are supposed to dry because your shoes are breathable.
I got just a little water on my shoes with a splash at a stream crossing, not really going into the stream. It was in perfect ultra-dry high altitude warm sunny mid-day conditions. I think it took hours to really feel dry, so I'm pretty skeptical of this.
Finally, there was a serious issue of foot cleanliness. UL folks are into "dirty girl" gaiters. These are UL gaiters (cheap, $20), but they only go up about 2/3 the way up a hiking sock. There's also something else they don't do: Cover all the way to the toes. So, with a very ventillated shoe (sportive raptor), and what with popular sierra trails being very very dusty down low, well, the front of my feet were absolutely filthy with dust each and every night. Didn't like it! I know gtex doesn't _really_ breathe, but with lowtop footwear, maybe it's worth it to be clean ...?
What is your system?
Cooking ------- I think UL backpacker concept of only metal cup, no bowl or separate pot, works only with small dehydrated meals. I don't think bowls weight that much anyway (~50g) but I think to be efficient if out in pairs, two people should split: 1 cook pot 1 bowl 2 cups (non-insulated light in the summer) That way you can make your own non-commercial meals in the pot. (One person eats out of the pot, the other out of the bowl.) And this way you don't have to get up to clean your cup before hot beverage. That's a big drag.
This is not actually a UL issue, but my Soto UL cartridge stove was excellent in every way but simmering, as I burned my pot twice trying to keep something warm after adding more stuff. Is there *really* a stove out there that simmers, that won't burn a pot filled with chili you want to re-heat?
Better ideas? ANyone have a stove that will re-heat?
Summit Pack ----------- I used my full pack as a summit pack, as it is absurdly light, 865 g. Was OK, but balance odd with only one snack, water bottle and camera. Sea to summit ultrasil is 70 g. My clothing stuff sack is 57 g, and I use it for a pillow. Could I use the ultrasil bag for clothing and pillow, and then for summit pack? That is something I'm keen to test!
Misc UL technique and Equipment Performance Data/ Reviews: ------------------------------- +1 star for GPS watch (no maps, just way points)- helped us find trails. -1 star for GPS watch as it is useless off of waypoints, so no good for alternative routes or in problem situations. (This *is* a UL issue because one is balancing the weight of maps, or less maps + weight of phone and backup batt for map/GPS apps.)
+2 star for trail running shoes, but need to solve problem of filthy feet and some blisters
+5 for Mariposa pack, though it’s not a helium balloon and jet pack, it doesn't do the hauling for you, and narrow tall packs just suck for packing.
-1 for platypus, not wide enough mouth for steri-pen, it was really a pain in the ass.
-1 for fritos. Despite all the fans in the UL/long distance vlog community, these are just too salty. Chex mix and TJ variants are a better choice, and just as crush-resistant.
-1 for dr. Bronners, it clogged at like 49 deg, and stings in the eye when you do your contacts.
+1 for Soto Windmaster stove, though it could still simmer at much lower heat level, and I burned pan twice.
(off topic: -5 stars for twinnings Darjeeling tea bags. Tasteless.) -2 stars for “dirty girl” gaiters. Made for trail runners, they don’t cover your forefoot so your toes are absolutely filthy every day. Also, no zippers are a supreme pain in the ass. A light zipper would have been very, very handy.
I think UL backpacker concept of only metal cup, no bowl or separate pot, works only with dehydrated meals.
Can you save weight leaving your bowl and/or pots behind by eating out of dehydrated meal packs? Let's see what the cost is of all that packaging, something I've always wondered about. Pad Thai Packaging weighed 35 g afterward, out of our garbage. Plastic bags are like 4 g each, my meals have 2-4 bags each, so let's say 27-19 g/meal are wasted, depending (call it 23 g). So, if you make your own meals and bring a bowl that weights 50 g, you break even getting rid of premade meal packaging at 3 or more nights. What about leaving the pot behind? The lightest Ti pot weighs around 103 g - these get the worst reviews, they will absolutely burn and have hot spots. Well, if you can figure out how to boil enough water in your metal mug (typical meals need /12 liter of water) to hydrate a meal-in-a-bag, you will break even after 4 nights for no pot meal-in-a-bag vs. pot and your own packaged meals. However, ...Ti pots that we used as the comparison totally suck, burn with anything other than water. ...metal (Ti) mugs that you can cook in really really suck - your tea or food gets cold right away.
We carried good food, skis, and climbing gear. Our packs always weighed 100 pounds when we hit the trailhead for 2-week trips.
We ate well and had a blast. I reclined in a backpacking chair at night, instead sitting on the damn ground. I had a very comfortable 2-inch foam pad on an air mattress. We stayed in a tent and the mosquitos didn't eat up alive all night.
That ultralight style is just too miserable for my taste.