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11 Pieces of Gear for Returning to the Backcountry

A buddy of mine who is thru-hiking the Colorado Trail, all 486 miles from Denver to Durango (follow Nathan Dolenc’s journey here), asked if I’d like to join him on the first leg. I wasn’t in great shape and hadn’t backpacked in over a decade, but “hell yeah!” was my paraphrased response. Hiking 104 miles to Breckenridge in six days would be a challenge, but that’s what I needed—a physical push and a week in the mountains. I also needed to shift away from over a decade of lazy, picnic table car camping; that’s mostly what my family has been doing since having kids, and we’ve enjoyed the luxury of not having to worry about weight. But now, ounces and grams are arguably the most important factor when packing for the backcountry. It was from this perspective, transitioning from heavy car camping to lightweight backpacking, that I began choosing what to bring, what not to bring, and what to bring next time. Here are some of the lessons I learned, told in a tale of 11 (actually, 19, if you want to get technical) pieces of gear.

The Gregory Baltoro 85 is a lot of pack, probably too much for a distance hike, but it’ll be perfect for taking my daughters out, when I’ll have to carry a extra weight.

1. Backpack: I decided to upgrade my 25-year-old Gregory Reality with a burly new Gregory Baltoro 85 ($349.95, pictured above). I loved the new suspension system and all the bells and whistles like water bottle holster, detachable day pack, roomy and practical pockets, and quick-cinching straps. I got this bigger one because I’ll be backpacking with multiple daughters soon and I know I’ll be carrying much of the weight. For this particular hike though, an 85-L pack was way too big and, at 5.03 lbs, too heavy. If given the option, I would have gone with a Gregory Paragon  ($199.95–$349.95 depending on size, 48-68L), a lightweight pack that comes in three sizes and just got a full update in spring 2020; specifically, the Paragon has a suspension system that moves and flexes with the movements of the body and the whole pack weighs a sleek 3.3-pounds.

2. Sleeping Pad: My pad of choice is the Nemo Ultralight Sleeping Pad ($49.95, pictured above strapped to pack), an old school–style, foldable foam pad you sleep on and which straps on the outside of your pack. It doubles as a clean place to lay out food or gear, as a padded seat, or as an grounding mat to insulate you during a lightning storm. (I also brought an air mattress on this trip, in addition to the foam pad, but I jettisoned it on our Day 3 Resupply for being cumbersome, time-consuming, heavy, and redundant in the backcountry—especially when I had a good ole foam pad). This Nemo weighs 10.5 oz. (300g), is 51” x 20”, and nearly one inch thick. Its deeply ridged design makes it comfortable enough between me and the ground. I’m getting another long (72”) one to cut into two for my smallest daughters. 

Mammut Relax Down 0

3. Sleeping Bag: The Relax Down 0 ($319.95) is a natural down bag (90% grey duck down, 10% grey duck feather) from the reliable, innovative Swiss brand, Mammut. It weighs just over 2 lbs (960g), making it a lightweight choice, especially when combined with my foam pad. I’ve had bag-mattress combos that weigh over 5 lbs before, so this is remarkable. The Relax has a re-designed shape that fits well with my sleep style, including extra room in the foot box and extra insulation around the head box that helps reduce noise, and the central 2-way zipper makes adjustments easy. It has integrated deep sleep mask and earplugs as well.

The MSR Front Range Tarp Tent bug insert is lighter than most 2-person tents, even with the tarp.
The Front Range Tarp Tent uses only four stakes and your trekking poles, and can be set up with or without the bug/floor insert, pictured above.

4. Tent: MSR launched the Front Range Ultralight Tarp Tent ($279.95) in February 2020 and I took it for a spin on this hike, despite the fact it is described as a “four-person” tent, according to how many sleeping bags fit on the floor print. That will be perfect when I take it out with my daughters. For me, it served as a comfortable “one-man with all his gear sprawled about.” The simple one-pole (actually, two trekking poles strapped together for a 5’ 4” peak height) pyramid design made it quick to set up and strike, and the low-weight, low-bulk packing was perfect. Sleep on the ground under the tarp, which weighs only 1 lb 10oz. (0.74kg); add the optional Bug/Floor Insert ($249.95) for more protection and it still only adds 1 lb 15oz (0.88kg) to your pack. This was my most-commented-on piece of gear; no one had seen anything like it and everyone acted impressed. A couple of nights, I rolled the dice that it wouldn’t rain and slept in just the bug-screened insert, which gave a full-sky view of the stars (here’s a quick video view from inside the tent at sunset). I’ve never seen another tent that allows this, and can’t wait to show it to my daughters on the trail next week. 

OR’s Echo Tee was a feather-weight workhorse of a hiking shirt. Headsweats’ Crusher hat took care of all the sweat.

5. Tech tee & hoodie: I spent six straight trail days in my yellow-and-gray Outdoor Research Echo Tee ($42, pictured above), washing it twice in cold-water creeks when we rolled into camp and watching it dry in minutes in the late afternoon sun. This technical tee shirt lived up to all its promises: breathable, ultralight (3.1 oz or 89g), some sun protection (UPF 15), moisture wicking, odor control, and an anti-chafing flat-seam design. This shirt was especially well equipped during those first few super-hot days, when the wicking action also helped cool me down. The Echo Tee comes in longsleeve and hoodie variations too. Speaking of hoodies, this Helly Hansen LIFA Active Solen Hoodie ($70) is an ultra-lightweight (140g), breathable alternative to smearing sunscreen on your arms, neck, and ears every day. The material provides 50+ SPF sun protection, but still stays cool. Finally, for my next trip, I’m eyeing this merino wool icebreaker Tech Lite short sleeve crewe ($75), a stretchy, breathable T-shirt, which can serve as both a hiking shirt and a base layer in camp.

6. Hat: This Crusher ($23, pictured above) hat from Headsweats comes in a wide range of colors and designs and is extremely absorbent and quick-drying, sucking the sweat up and then making it disappear. As promised, it mashes up small enough for a pocket, weighs only a few ounces, and I loved drenching it in ice cold creek water every time we crossed a creek. It’s indestructible and comfortable.  

Gerber’s ComplEAT is a fork-spoon-spatula-multitool kit that weighs little and fits in my stove kit.

7. In the Kitchen: It’s hard to find a camping spork / kitchen set that stands out from the rest, but this little kit from Gerber, called the ComplEAT ($29) was practical, especially the little spatula unit which has a serrated edge for cutting cheese and veggies. In addition to the spatula, it includes a fork, spoon, and 4-function multi-tool, all of which nest together for transport (I kept mine in the stove stuff sack), and can snap together to form tongs. All 4 components together weigh less than 2.5 ounces. Bonus item: my fellow teacher/hiker friend, Meg Gardner (@gemcolorado), just wrote to tell me about her family’s “favorite camping thing ever”: the Outdoors Compact Scraper ($5.50). “It transformed our camp kitchen,” she said. “We just pass the scraper around after dinner and the dishes are almost clean before we even think about doing dishes.”

8. Boots: I was planning to hike the first part of the Colorado Trail in all-leather, tough, ankle-height, retro-looking Danner’s Crag Rat USA ($300). I’ve hiked many, many backcountry miles in heavy-ass leather boots (I used Danner’s as a wildland firefighter), so I was not deterred by the 3.6 lbs (1673g)/pair weight. But, alas, when the box came, the shoes were a half-size too small and, even if they’d fit, it was too late to break in the leather. I’ll have to save them for the next trip. Luckily, as a backup, I had a pair of 2015 Hoka One Tors (pictured above, at beginning of article) and my feet lived happily ever after. These boots wrapped my feet like slippers and never failed me. The newest version is the Hoka One Men’s Kaha Gore-Tex ($220), which is considerably lighter (only 36 oz for the pair) than the Danner’s, and may help me to change my mind about all-leather, tough-guy hikers.

9. Socks: The invisible heroes of the trip, choosing socks is a more important decision than it may appear. Especially when you only take three pairs of socks for the week—two for hiking, one for camp, all of them Merino wool–blend Swiftwick Pursuit Hike socks ($23.99). I like the thickness of the six-inch medium cushion crew, and I alternate it with the slightly thinner Ultralight Pursuits ($19.99), which have Olefin blended into the Merino; though they provide less cushion, they stayed dry and did not bunch or blister my feet.

These caffeinated Tailwind drinks were a nice mid-morning boost on the big mile days. I liked the recovery protein shakes for arriving in camp also.

10. Drink Powder: Tailwind Caffeinated Nutrition and Endurance Fuel ($29 for a starter kit with 11 packets) is a “non-GMO, vegan, gluten, soy, and dairy-free” powder made by a sports nutrition company based in Durango, Colorado, the very spot where The Colorado Trail ends (or begins). Their product, they write, “meets backpackers’ calorie, hydration, and electrolyte needs, plus it adds 35mg of caffeine per 100 calories,” or 80mg per serving. They make a variety of flavors, all of which taste fine when you’re thirsty and working hard, and they also have a line of “Endurance Fuel” sans caffeine, and “Recovery / Rebuild” products for when you pull into camp. My crew really loved these, usually for our mid-morning snack break, since we were leaving camp too early to drink coffee. I appreciated the recovery shakes too, after, or toward the end of long days.

The author, left, sports an Outdoor Research Essential Face Mask for the ride from the Colorado Trail trailhead to the LOGE Camps Motel in Breckenridge, after a 23-mile day of hiking. Also pictured: J. Dunbar and Colorado Trail Thru-hiker Nathan Dolenc.
“Colorado Rainbow” headband and face covering.

11. Face Mask: You may be lax on the trail, where there is more distancing than you know what to do with, but have your face covering ready to go at all times, especially when approaching an a popular day-hiker area, or when entering a town. I ordered an Outdoor Research Essential Face Mask Kit before my trip, which includes protective face mask and replaceable filters. This mask offers great coverage around the nose, mouth, and chin, and also provides “basic bacterial filtration and sub-micron particulate protection.” It is washable, built for more active, outdoor use, and uses ear loops. To boot: Outdoor Research is buying 8,000 of these masks for their retailers and staff. This fall, look for OR’s collection of cold-weather Essential Uber Tube neck gaiter and Balaclava face masks, also with replacement filters.

Another option from a fitness/outdoor oriented company is Headsweats’ Reversible Face Mask ($13), made with breathable, moisture-wicking, and water repellant triple layered polyester and available in many fun and colorful prints. They also have a “Colorado Rainbow” Eco Ultra Multipurpose head band ($20, pictured above), made from one recycled plastic water bottle; it can be used as a quick-drying, stretchy, moisture-wicking, Colorado-celebratin’ face covering. 

BONUS VIDEO (volume up!)—How all the gear worked together to create some Damn Good Hiking on the Colorado Trail:

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