Sunday, December 1, 2013

How to pack for a trek to the end of the world

Intro

Over the past few days of hostel stays I've landed in places with people frantically packing their backpacks, scurrying around the tourist towns trying to procure things for their journeys, and generally stressing out about what to bring on their hikes. Last night alone I helped three people go through their stuff, figure out what they would need and what they should leave, and pack their bags to maximize comfort and efficiency while minimizing the possibility of getting all of their stuff soaked in a rainstorm. I felt like an REI employee ().

I get it. Few things stress me out as much as packing. Strangely, packing for treks doesn't stress me out, I have it down.

So here’s my list in case it is helpful to anybody for what I packed for a 7 day (6 night) solo trek in highly variable terrain and weather conditions ranging from warm (but not hot) sun to blizzards in well below freezing conditions. This is the exact list of things I brought with me on my adventure on Isla Navarino, Chile.


Shopping

I included some specifics as well for items I’m particularly happy with, including links to pages where you can check them out. By using the links in this page to shop, you will be supporting this blog. I only put links to products and retailers that I use myself and really like.


Some good places to load up on outdoor gear, all with excellent product selection and customer service (pretty much everything outdoor-related I own came from one of these retailers), are:
  • REI () and REI Outlet ()
  • backcountry.com ()
  • Shopping for the patient, backcountry.com runs several ultra-discounted (50% or more) deal-a-minute feeds like * Steepandcheap.com* * and * Dogfunk.com*. If you have a wishlist item and aren't in a hurry, sign up for their alerts, watch their feeds, and get serious discounts on gear!
  • evo Outlet, a Seattle-based outdoor sport retailer

Me, with my pack, surviving the sleet in the Dientes del Navarino on a seven-day solo trek on Isla Navarino.


A few notes

Italicized items are “luxury” items that, while I don’t consider them necessary, were nice/fun enough to have that I found them worth the extra weight to bring them.

All of my stuff listed here together weighed in at around 15 kg (including the water) in my pack (not counting what I wore), which is entirely reasonable for someone of my size to carry.

The key to packing for a trek is to bring exactly what you need and nothing more. The less weight you have to carry, the faster and farther you’ll be able to go and the happier you’ll be. How light you go is really up to you: go ultralight and bring only what you need to survive, or go moderately light (I consider myself to fall in this category) and bring only what you need to survive and be reasonably comfortable.

Side note: where I’m from, “backpacking” means going out in the woods/mountains and living out of your backpack for a period; it seems in the rest of the world this is called “trekking” with “backpacking” meaning more hopping from hostel to hostel and living out of that kind of backpack. I will try to remember to use “trekking” for camping and living out of a backpack to avoid confusion with an international audience, although for me “trekking” implies the presence of facilities and campgrounds or refugios, while for me “backpacking” means true wilderness hiking.

If you are trekking with friends, you can benefit from the “economy of scale” by splitting up carrying shared items like tents and cooking gear and first aid supplies and toiletries. At least in theory. In practice, my two man tent is more than twice the weight of my one-man, I tend to bring fancier (and heavier) food—and things like bottles of booze—when out with others, and I feel more obligated to maintain a certain standard of hygiene with more changes of clothes and things like deodorant, so my pack for my solo trek was actually significantly lighter than it usually is when I’m out with others. Not to mention that several of my past boyfriends liked to use me as a packhorse (“I have fragile bones,” said one as he loaded my pack with the tent and the cooking gear and more than half of the food…that should have been a sign of things to come).

Views like these don't come easy, and make trekking so very rewarding. Lago Windhond, Isla Navarino, Chile.

The List

Essentials

  • Backpacking pack (my Gregory Electra 84L internal frame expedition pack is no longer made, but this one is similar)
  • Waterproof pack cover and garbage bags to put your critical “must stay dry” stuff in inside your pack just in case you go for a swim
  • Trekking poles (Black Diamond Flicklock 3-piece collapsible poles) While some may argue with me that these are not essential, if you are in variable terrain, doing stream crossings, or want to survive long steep downhills with your knees intact, I consider them a must-have. Tip: wrap a few meters of duct tape around your poles so that you have a ready supply for blisters, emergency fixes, etc.
  • 1-man tent with stakes (Doite Zolo Especial 3-season)
  • Sleeping pad (Big Agnes Air Core; their insulated pad is warmer but heavier)
  • Sleeping bag (Marmot Women's Teton 0F/-18C down bag) and bag liner (Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor) for extra warmth. Make sure your sleeping bag is warm enough for the conditions you will encounter! Also beware that down bags, while incredibly warm and light, need to be carefully protected from moisture and stored properly (i.e. only keep them in their stuff sacks during trecks, never store them packed) to maintain their insulating power.
  • Water bottle or bladder (Platypus 3L hydration pack)
  • Headlamp and fully-charged batteries
  • Water filter or sterilizer (SteriPen Ultra…found this very handy for travel but poorly-protected from water damage and I fried mine on only my fifth trip to the backcountry, will bring tablets instead next time)
  • Topographic maps in a waterproof bag
  • Firestarter & lighters
  • Compass
  • Whistle
  • Swiss army knife

Food

Note: pack enough for your trek as well as enough extra in case you get stuck an extra day or two or find that after shivering all night long you are more ravenous than you would normally be. Plan for lots of carbs, a daily dose of protein, calorie-dense foods (like nuts, jerkey, etc.) and a few tasty treats that make you happy (for me, a few of my favorite fruits and veggies and cookies). You won’t get scurvy in a week, but your body will be happier if you are eating a reasonably balanced diet. This list is scaleable to shorter hikes or more people or different metabolic needs. I eat a lot normally, so also eat a lot while backpacking. I have noticed that most of the women I hike with eat and seem to need significantly less food, but in my opinion it’s better to bring more than feel underpowered until you get used to what your particular needs are. Think about how much food you normally eat when you are getting a good amount of exercise and try to figure out the lightest way to pack approximately that amount of food per day. I found this list a nice balance, if boring, of good, calorie-dense, largely lightweight options.

Tip: There’s a reason backpackers like dehydrated food. Avoid schlepping water weight wherever possible. Avoid cans: you can’t burn them when you’ve eaten what’s inside. Minimize packaging you’ll have to carry out when you pack your food. I like to pre-pack most of my food into resealable ziplock bags and put everything into a Tupperware container to cut down on packaging while avoiding messy spillsplosions inside my backpack.

  • 1.5 large packages of spaghetti with 7 dry seasoning packets for each day (tip: add soup mix to the water you cooked the pasta in for a warm treat without using more gas)
  • 4 cups of oatmeal (I packed half as much for my trek and really wished I had brought more)
  • 2 packages of tuna (if you can find these, like I did, in packets vs. in cans, all the better)
  • 1 can of garbonzo beans pre-cooked and mashed up with garlic and seasoning as a sort of makeshift hummusy-mash. Great flavor, as well as a good source of protein. Tasted good cold or warm.
  • 150 g butter (for sandwiches and for adding some oomph to the spaghetti or soup). Cheese is an excellent tasty and calorie-dense alternative, but I’m allergic to it.
  • 10 pitas/Chilean flatbreads for sandwiches (2 sandwiches per long day, 1 per short day)
  • 2 small packages of paté and one sleeve of presliced salami (a stick of salami would have been better than the packaged paté and salami sleeve)
  • 3 large packages of cookies (1/2 package per day). Substitute with granola bars if you can find them, but good whole-grain cookies are great, dense, dry energy food, and at least for me a morale boost.
  • 1 qt. of trail mix (nuts and dried fruit)
  • 6 packages of insta-soup
  • 4 avocados—a real treat in sandwiches! Even if they are a lot of weight, they pack a lot of good fat and flavor that I much appreciated during long slogs. Bell peppers are a lower-waste option, but there were none available when I went shopping.
  • 6 mandarin oranges—another treat!
  • 200 g chocolate
  • 100 g honey and/or marmalade—made oatmeal tasty
  • 1 small container of spice mix (mine is a mix of chili powder, garlic powder, and salt) to make otherwise bland or watery foods  more palatable
  • 6 tea bags (or packets of insta-coffee, if that’s your thing)

Cooking Equipment

  • Large lightweight aluminum pot with a lid
  • Small cooking can with a lid, doubles as a cup (titanium 750mL cup)
  • Camp stove (MSR Pocket Rocket)
  • 2 cans of camp fuel (only used 1, but bring extra)
  • Plastic spork (fork/knife/spoon in one little utensil)
  • Tupperware containers for storing food, doubled as dishes for mixing oatmeal & honey, spaghetti & mix, etc.)
  • 2 lighters

Note that I did not pack stuff with which to wash my dishes. I found a rinse with warm (or even cold) water, a scrub down with snow, and/or a wipe with my camp rag was good enough. Also, in most places in North America, you need to add a bear can or bear bag to this list to keep critters out of your food.

First Aid Kit and Toiletries

All of this fits into a small bag which keeps things in one easily-accessible and organized place. I use one of these Eagle Creek mini packing cubes.

  • Blister stuff (padded tape, moleskine)
  • Package of sanitary wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Pill bottle with painkillers/anti-inflammatories (I carry ibuprofen and motrin PM), Benadryl, decongestant, antidiarrheal medications, and anything else you need (e.g. birth control pills, EpiPen, inhaler, malaria meds, altitude sickness meds, your daily dose of antipsychotics, etc.). I mix everything together in one small pill bottle, taking just what I need, and tape a label to it to remind me what’s what.
  • ACE bandage
  • Sterile gauze
  • Medical tape
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Bandaids
  • Toothbrush
  • Travel toothpaste
  • Floss
  • DivaCup (ladies, if you don’t know what this is, look into it)
  • Contacts, contact case, and small bottle of contact solution…don’t get pinkeye, wash your hands well before removing or placing contact lenses
  • Glasses and glasses case
  • Blistex and chapstick
  • Sunscreen
  • Earplugs (really help with sleeping on windy/rainy nights…or if you have a heavy-breathing tentmate)
  • Small sewing kit with needles (also good for treating blisters), thread, safety pins, and Velcro strips

Note that I did not pack normal toiletry items like soap, shampoo, lotion, a comb, deodorant, facewash, etc. You’re in the woods, you’re going to get filthy, you’re going to stink, and trust me that creek is going to be too cold to want to dunk in for a bath. Embrace your inner filthy swampbeast. You can use wet wipes for sponge bathing if you really start to feel icky in an “I have a bogwater rash” potentially serious sort of way (I wet-wipe washed my feet most nights).

Clothes

Note: this list includes what I wore on the trail and what I packed. In general, just enough to keep warm enough while hiking and a set of dry thermals for emergencies and to stay warm in camp.

Electronics

Note: all of these things are optional, but having a GPS is useful and it is probably a good idea to keep a phone on you even if you’re not going to get a signal to use it.
  • Smartphone with GPS loaded with navigation app (I used BackCountry Navigator for Android, but it was a little buggy) and topo maps with extra battery
  • Battery charger bank (Anker Astro 5600 mAh) with charger cable to charge phone
  • Kindle e-ink e-reader loaded with maps, first aid guides, and fun reading material
  • Mini MP3 player and headphones = instant-energy / morale boost when the slog gets too sloggy (San Disk Sansa Clip)
  • Camera
  • GoPro and spare battery

Miscellaneous

  • Absorbent rag / small towel (used a small car rag I bought at a grocery store…it was perfect)
  • 5 m parachute/nylon cord for tent ties, lines, etc.
  • Zipties and Velcro ties (I have yet to use any of these while backpacking, but they seemed maybe useful so I continue to keep them in my pack)
  • Duct tape (wrapped onto trekking poles for easy access)
  • Large and small plastic garbage/shopping bags (3 each)
  • Resealable Ziploc bags (3)
  • Tissues (3 packs…or 1 pack and a small roll of toilet paper)
  • Shit kit: shivel (= shit-shovel, a.k.a. trowel, for digging a pit for your poo), TP/tissue/wipes, trash bag, hand sanitizer
  • Notebook and pens


Trekking is fun. On Isla Navarino, Chile.

A few additional notes

On packing

A general tip is to put your heaviest/densest stuff next to your back (e.g. if you have a water bladder it goes right up against your back in your pack), lighter stuff goes on the outside. This keeps your center of gravity where it should be.

Pack lengthwise—a bunch of stuff hanging off your back, aside from making you look like a ridiculous hermit crab, will throw off your center of gravity and make it very hard to walk and keep your balance.

If your pack extends much over your head (unless you are carrying, say, skis or a snowboard or a fishing pole), you packed too much, take stuff out. I’m 5’3” and if my full pack for a week of trekking does not extend over my head, neither should yours.

Keep stuff you’ll need during the course of the hike (snacks, compass/GPS, camera, maps, shit kit, water, poncho, pack cover) in outside pockets, ideally outside pockets you can reach without taking the pack off. Other stuff you anticipate needing immediately when you get to camp or in an emergency (firestarter and lighter, first aid kit, waterproof shells, extra layers) in easy-to-access locations as well.

Put your sleeping bag and other sleeping stuff inside a waterproof garbage bag whether it is inside your pack (most good packs have a special compartment at the bottom for stashing your sleeping bag) or tied onto the outside (if this is the case, make sure it’s a sturdy bag, or consider double-bagging and carry backup bags for when sticks or rocks rip your trash bag open). Same thing for any clothes, electronics, or anything sensitive to water.

Stuff sacks for your tent, poles, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, fancy jackets, cooking pots, etc. are nice for keeping things compact and organized, but add ounces and are they really necessary, especially if you’re stashing everything in a waterproof garbage bag anyhow? Ultralight fanatics say no.

On the trail

If you pack well, water will be one of your biggest sources of weight. Know your route and water sources. If there are lots, you can get away with carrying less water at a time. However, I’d never leave camp without at least 1L on me. STAY HYDRATED.

In extremely windy conditions beware of pack covers. Mine blew off in a gust in Torres del Paine and I had nothing else to keep my pack dry in the wind, so when the rainstorm started it got soaked. If you have a pack cover, make sure it’s cinched down tight and tied on somehow so that you don’t lose it like I did.

Practice good pootiquette and always poo well away from water sources and other sensitive areas. I usually carry a “shit kit” (see above) in an outside pocket of my backpack: a small roll of TP, a small package of wet wipes, a garbage bag for the used wipes (carry out your trash, folks!! Unless you’re in a place where you can safely burn it), and a bottle of hand sanitizer. In some parts of the world in very sensitive areas you may be required to pack out your poo. Plan (and maybe adjust your fiber intake…) accordingly.

Speaking of bodily functions…ladies, you save a lot of carrying around used TP if you get good at drip-drying when you pee. Good underwear (e.g. ExOfficio antimicrobial undies) makes this seem less gross. One sign of a true backpacker chick is a woman who can pee without even taking her pack off. I assure you, it is possible. Bring wet wipes for hygiene to avoid yeast or bladder infections. Also, DivaCup. If I’m out backpacking with you and see a bag full o’ tampons and pads I’ll hit you. You’ve been warned.

In camp

Because of the very foul weather I kept my pack and boots, wet/dirty shell clothing layers along with everything else inside my tent with me. I had room inside, and did not have a rain fly to stash it under to keep it out of the weather but out of my tent. This meant I had to be extra-careful to keep my pack dry while hiking. In North American regions with bears or other critters, this is not a good idea, so carry stuff to hang and keep your stuff dry while away from your tent.

Keep tent ventilation openings clear and open.

Keep a dry pair of camp clothes (thermal layers, socks, hat) to change into at the end of the day. It gets cold at night, and you won’t want to be wet on top of it. These layers can all double as additional hiking layers for truly extreme weather, but I wouldn’t ever put them on in wet conditions (if it’s still warm enough to be wet, it isn’t that cold…just walk faster…keep your dry stuff for when you’re stationary in camp).

If condensation in your tent is a problem, make sure your tent is set up correctly (i.e. tight), open whatever vents your tent comes with (my tent, for example, has a trick dual zipper that allows you to fold down the top parts of the doors underneath a little overhang for additional ventilation) and use an absorbent rag to wipe down the inside periodically (wring out the rag outside the tent after you do to prevent the water you just mopped up from condensing right back onto the walls of your tent).

Do not cook inside your tent. You could light your tent on fire, the steam from the water will cause serious condensation problems, you could spill your meal all over your sleeping bag…not worth it.

To keep batteries warm and therefore more functional, keep them in interior pockets while you are hiking and inside your sleeping bag at night.

I put the base layers I’ll be wearing the next day (socks, gloves, sport bra, t-shirt, long-sleeved thermal shirt) in my sleeping bag to pre-warm them for the morning.

Jackets balled up under or in the head of your sleeping bag make great pillows. So does a stuff sack full of the clothes you aren’t wearing.

Your winter sleeping bag should have cinches around the head and shoulders. If it’s cold, cinch! It’s amazing how much heat you conserve if the only opening of your sleeping bag is a little O that your nose (or mouth) pokes through. On really cold nights, be prepared to wear everything you have that is dry (hats, jackets, socks, whateveryouvegot) inside your sleeping bag. Again, hats. If your head is warm, the rest of you will stay a lot warmer, too.

Genius tip from my friend Anneke: In cold weather, fill your water bottle with warm/hot (careful about it being too hot—a lot of plastics don’t stand up well to boiling or very hot water or will leach nasty stuff) water and put the (carefully closed!) bottle into your sleeping bag at night as a heat source.


Good times in a blizzard on Isla Navarino, Chile.


How about you? Any tips to share? Disagreements with what I’ve listed? Is this useful—should I also post my packing lists for traveling, splitboard trips, etc.?