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Hiking: Planning My Backpacking Come Back

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

More than twenty years ago now, I took my first back-packing trip in the depths of the Costa Rica jungle. It was glorious, life-transforming, and the challenge of a lifetime. It was also my last back-packing trip.

My second decade of life was a little life-transforming as well. I married a man who has autism, had a few babies (a few of them with autism), began my nursing career, and returned to university for a few more degrees. I also traumatically lost one of my beloved children and poured my heart and soul into creating a midwifery practice in his honor. I served, sacrificed, grieved, and forgot to care for myself. I disconnected with not just hiking and even nature, but I lost tract of who I was entirely.

Now, into my fourth decade, I've embarked very mindfully on another life-transforming journey - a healing journey in rediscovering what is authentic to me. I've been digging in and reconnecting with all the loves of my childhood: #nature being among the greatest of all my passions. The kids and I have jumped in creeks all over the state, toured horse farms, and hiked many, many trails throughout all of our beautiful Indiana state parks. We also created a nature park in our backyard (this was our pandemic project) and walked #barefoot every single day. (I shouldn't admit that I've also collected more than 100 #houseplants.)

My next adventure, later this month, is to complete a three-day, two-night back-packing wonder. Eek! If you follow me on Instagram or our Eden facebook page, you're already aware that my longest, more recent hiking trips have only been about seven miles in length. Neither of these included my backpack. I don't even own a backpack.

I am not often easily intimidated, but remember that Costa Rica trip I mentioned? I almost died and I was fit and young then. In the event you are reconnecting with your authentic self, and nature is part of that, I thought I would share my findings with you in preparation for this great adventure. I also believe hiking is one of the best forms of physical fitness as it is remarkably #grounding.

Shelter: The Most Important Investment

This includes your hiking boots, your sleeping gear, and your clothing. Each of these have evolved greatly from my Costa Rica hike (although I am still hiking even today in the same boots and socks I wore all those many years ago). It seems there are so many more bells and whistles to hiking gear available today. Which are the most critical? What I wish I had given much greater attention, is the need to be warm at night and to pack light. Admittedly, when I planned my hike out of the jungle, I left behind more than half my gear for the Indians to utilize in whatever way they may see fit. I have visions of them straining their soup in my $50 nursing bras and laughing at all the rolls of toilet paper I thought would be vital to my success.

There seem to be about three or four basic options for purchasing a portable shelter. Among those options is where it gets intense, as there are literally hundreds of possibilities. If you're talented, you can find plans and purchase the materials, and craft your own. The easiest may be permanent shelter, such as the shelters found along the Appalachian trail. Keep in mind, these also shelter rodents and all other hikers sharing the trail. If you choose to carry your shelter, it seems you can choose from a tent, a tarp, or a hammock.

The tent offers complete privacy and bug protection. Depending on your tent, you may also achieve wind and rain protection. The design, weight, and cost varies significantly, as well as the complexities of each. Tents are the heaviest of shelter options and finding an inexpensive tent that weighs very little and still offers space doesn't seem to be super probable. What I have learned is it is incredibly important to keep the tent as lightweight as possible. It is one of the biggest items in your pack so offers one of the biggest opportunities to save weight. Trust me, your back will appreciate it.

Ultralight seems to be the new standard for all backpackers. They are lightweight without sacrificing comfort, space, or durability. The one person tent is generally about two pounds and a two person ultralight tent is about three pounds. Go simple. Avoid complex designs that require more poles and guylines. Simple designs are not only faster and easier, but generally more durable. Make sure it is easy to get in and out of by checking where the support frame is located.

Door count and location is also important, especially if you plan to share your tent. These doors should be side-opening so you can step right into your space in the tent. Doors at the end are okay, but it is much simpler to just step right into your space. Headspace is another consideration. You don't need a palace, but you don't want a coffin either. Waiting all day for a storm to pass in a tiny cocoon can be miserable. Look for a tent with a spreader bar in the ceiling, which expand the headroom area so you can sit up and move around without touching the top of the tent. They add minimal weight, but maximize space. Ideally, you want a tent that you can sit up in, but this bivvy tent lets you read and semi-sit up in them.

I wasn't clear in the difference between freestanding verses non-freestanding tents, but this I what I learned. Freestanding are more traditional and come with a framework of poles and keep the tent standing upright. They use stakes and guylines for stability but they are not reliant on them to stand. These can be set up anywhere and are stable. They are are also very fast to set up without requiring intricate webbings of guylines or stakes to tie down.

The non-freestanding tents or trekking pole tents are ultralight because they've ditched the poles. They assume you'll have your own trekking poles so use these as the support, but trekking poles aren't flexible so these tents end up more rectangular than dome-shaped. Guylines and stakes are required for it to stand, so they can be a little more complicated to set up. Finding good ground to stake them down and constantly tweaking the lines for optimal tension can be a hassle. Another point, you need the right size poles. The best trekking poles are adjustable, allowing you to pitch the tent at its maximum height. When you take down the tent, you can then collapse the poles for walking. These tents are lightweight, down even to a pound. They are compact so you'll have more space in your pack. They are also affordable. Another common type of tent is the semi-freestanding tent. These use the poles that hold up part of the tent, but need to be staked down to secure the entire tent. The Nemo Hornet Elite is a favorite.

Still more to consider though... single verses double wall. A tent may have walls which are tarp-like which is a barrier for rain or a mesh-like wall used as an enclosure to keep out bugs. A single-walled shelter is typically the tarp-like wall so they are light, fast, and compact. Without the extra wall, these can be really light. A double-walled shelter is usually the combination of both the tarp-like wall and the mesh-like wall. The advantage is the double-walled tents keep you completely dry. If you are backpacking the Appalachian trail and every single ounce matters, choose a one person tent, but otherwise a one-to-two person tent is the preference.

Material is yet another consideration, whether nylon or dyneema. Silnylon and Dyneema are the most common types of materials used for backpacking tent fabrics and both are great for their intended function - repelling the elements. Dyneema is a high-tech fabric that looks and feels like it was meant for space exploration. It is great for its strength-to-weight ratio. It will weigh less and be a little stronger than its silnylon rival; however, silynylon is much more affordable but needs very gentle handling so it doesn't rip.

Here are a few good options:

  • Big Agnes FlyCreek HV UL for one or two, at about 20 square feet, weighing two pounds and one ounce at $330 for one or $390 for two. This one is right up at the top of the list. They are durable and light enough to compete with non-freestanding tents. I really appreciate that the three sections of poles are all connected and collapse into a single 10" long bundle. The double-wall design is superior in keeping you dry and airy enough to ventilate. There are a handful of guylines to stake down which makes setup a breeze. The guylines also have reflectors so you don't trip over them at night - genius! The front vestibule is one of the most spacious, plenty of room to store your pack; however, this one does not have side doors.

  • Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL for one or two, at 19 square feet, weighing two pounds and three ounces at $350 for one person and $391 for two people. The side doors and the vestibules are the most awesome aspects of this tent. The side doors are fabulous for getting in and out of the tent. These doors also resulted in better ventilation. This tent is a little tight but also a smidge taller. The vestibule is also significantly larger.

  • GOSSAMER GEAR The One and The Two for one or two at 18.3 square feet, weighing one pound five ounces for $299 one-person and $389 for two person. This tent is beautiful. There isn't too much to complain about here. It has good weight, good internal space, good price, good ventilation, good vestibule storage, and two side doors. Set up is rather easy and straightforward. It is a non-freestanding tent however, so subject to those cons. This one also isn't available until mid-November.

  • ZPACKS Plexamid and Duplex for one or two for 15.5 ounces, at 21 square feet, for $555 for one person and $599 for two-person. Did you see the weight on this one? This one is durable, packs tiny, has high interior ceilings and big side-doors for easy access. The roof is single walled so inseparable, and it does have quite a few stakes and guylines. This one wins with weight but you pay for it in awkward design and lack of simplicity.

  • SIX MOON DESIGNS Lunar for one or two, at one pound ten ounces, for 31 square feet for $200. This one has lots of room and is easy to set up, but carry some seam sealer with you as the durability isn't incredibly high and there certainly is risk of the seams leaking.

  • Nemo Hornet 2 Tent allows stargazing and privacy, with two doors, weighing 2 pounds, 6 ounces at 27.5 square feet. Available in one person and two person. Has both bug and rainproof cover. Single pole Lifetime warranty. $370

  • Eureka one person tent with a two pole tunnel design is a very easy set up. Weights 2 pounds and 10 ounces. Twenty-one foot square foot inside.

The tarp is simple, spacious, and lightweight but requires separate poles and a bug net. They don't offer privacy either.

  • TARPTENT ProTrail and MoTrail for one or two, at 21 square feet, weighing one pound at 10 ounces at $199 for one person and $265 for two person. Tarptent is known to make the bes silnylon, non-freestanding tents. This is a minimalist tent. It is very durable, doesn't come with poles, and is affordable. Spacious and easy to set up. Single walled and ultralight.

  • Rainbow is another popular tarptent

  • Gossamer has a SpinnTwinn two person tarp that weighs only 8 ounces which has excellent reviews as well, but again, no bug protection

Hammocks are a low impact shelter that doesn't require flat ground, but they do require two strong trees that are at just the right spacing from each other. It seems they would be the most comfortable of the three options, that is if you aren't a stomach or side sleeper, and they may offer overnight opportunities that tents would not, such as along a rocky cliff or even in a wetter hillside. I am hoping I can squeeze in a hammock just to lounge in during the day. Insulation may be necessary on cooler nights. If you choose a hammock, with these straps, you have less than a pound of carrying weight.

  • This option, the Ridge Outdoor, looks incredible if you are committed to sleeping in it overnight. The really cool thing about this hammock is you can hang it so you can sleep flat. It includes a mosquito net, which is also removable. This one is made from Dynalon and can be set up in one minute. 400# weight limit at 32 ounces itself, with suspension.

  • Since I am wanting a hammock more for fun while on the hike, I want something super light and I found this tiny little hummingbird hammock. Check it out! It weighs less than a lemon and packs smaller than a coffee cup. Holds up to 300 pounds and is designed by a parachute rigger. It weighs 5.2 ounces itself. The hummingbird single+ is longer and wider for increased comfort. A hummingbird double is also available. Hummingbird ultralight tree straps are light at only 2.1 ounces and reviews are good. They're adjustable, quick to set up, and built to hold up to 400 pounds. There are no tree straps included, so make sure to pick this up.

I am less familiar with a bivy/bivvy/bivi, but am intrigued. As I understand, these are essentially a water resistant bag into which one puts their sleeping bag. Bivies are rather light (less than a pound) and maybe comparable to a rain jacket for your sleeping bag. There is just enough of an opening to crawl in your sleeping bag and get comfortable. The downside is you are closed in like being in a coffin so changing clothes in the rain may be a little difficult. The upside is they save significant weight you'd otherwise have to carry along your hike. These too come in a variety of options beyond the basic bivy, adding a face-lift which uses a hoop to keep the top off your face so you can read at night or check your phone. Bug nets are yet another option when choosing the bivy. Keep in mind, an ultralight tent is about two pounds.

There is also the option of sleeping in open air which may be perfect if you don't live in Indiana where the mosquitos will eat you as a snack and the weather changes from minute to minute, but this option does allow you to just throw down a sleeping pad and rest your tired head. If you do purchase shelter, don't forget to consider fabric, stitching, and coating. Check reviews. Expect weather. Double check weights.

Oh... but look what I found... as I researched hiking shelters and then reviewed the packing list I was provided, a sleeping pad was encouraged rather than any of the above options! This leads me down another interesting path of shelter options and now I am even more intrigued! The Big Agnes sleeping pad seems incredibly cool, especially with this bottomless sleeping bag, and honestly, I've learned the hard way that a difficult night's sleep makes for a much harder hike the next day. These may be well worth their weight, which is significant at about three pounds for just the pad and then another three pounds for the sleeping bag. I am thinking these don't need a bivvy?

The Sierra Designs Wicked goose 800 down spring/fall sleeping bag is only about $150 and also comes recommended by a hiker who just completed the AT. It is rated to 30 degrees and weighs about 1.4 lbs. This bag was marked down $100 and is currently out of stock so may not be available any longer. I will mention this again because it was such a huge issue for me: check the temperature rating on your bag. Many thru-hikers begin the Appalachian trail at the beginning of March so it's still getting quite cold. This Zpack is rated down to 10 degrees, and keep in mind, this is a survival rating, not a comfort rating.

The Kylmet sleeping pad was recommended to me by two different people. It is comparable in price and lower in weight than the previous option, but isn't suited for backless or ultralight sleeping bags. Rather, you use it within or under your sleeping bag. I understand that the pad has been completely updated and is a far superior product than it was even last year. The Ensolite sleeping pad, also sold as the REI sleeping pad, is another recommended pad that doesn't need inflating and is only about $5 to $10. This one is incredibly light and lasts forever; however, some say that those are for people who are ultra tough, and the more expensive options are well worth their investment, such as the NeoAir Xlite.

You're not going to believe this... but I just stumbled across yet another amazing option for sleeping gear - the quilt. I didn't really explain above, but when you sleep on your bag, the insulation below you is compressed so it hasn't any real ability to warm you; therefore, companies have started eliminating the back portion of the sleeping bag and created a fitted bag around the sleeping pad. The quilt is similar in that it is made of down but they don't fit around your face and head. In the cooler season you may want a down cap, but in the cooler seasons, it is easier to breathe with the quilt or kick your legs out. Some advise picking up a very thin liner to keep your quilt cleaner.

  • The UGQ Bandit seems to be the winner, but they are more expensive than the open back sleeping bags. The bandit is one of the least expensive quilts however, but the quality is superb. This particular quilt is the lightest one available, but are about a pound-and-a-half to two pounds. This one has pad straps and you can create a footbox. These are made to order so essentially custom fit which means I can't provide you with many tech specs. They are rated from 0 degrees F to 50 degrees F. Temperature control seems to be the key here. They also come in about fifteen different colors.

  • Here is a micro bag liner I found on amazon to include if you are opting for the quilt sleeping gear. It's about $20 and easier to wash and replace than either your sleeping bag or your quilt. Honestly with an open back sleeping bag, this might be nice anyway, sort of like having sheets on your bed.

  • Here is a much less expensive liner than the one mentioned above, which I discovered randomly on amazon so have received no recommendations for this one. It is only $40 though, weighing only 14.5 ounces. It has an R-value of 2.2 which keeps you nice and toasty down to 40 degrees F. I hadn't thought about the chemical smell on these pads, which would be a huge issue for me. This particular pad says it lacks this smell and doesn't have noise, which may also wake me.

If you go this route, you'll want a pillow and this Klymit Pillow X Inflatable was recommended, particularly because it has the four chambers allowing your head to fall right into the middle. It sells for about $17 on amazon.

Now let's talk hiking boots. Again, the options are wide. Waterproof seems a clear must for me, but this isn't apparently an overwhelming consensus. I feel like this made a huge difference for me in Costa Rica and I've hiked in the same boots and soaks all summer and haven't had any difficulty at all. My ankles are well supported and my feet stay dry. I've heard arguments for shorter shoes, more similar to tennis shoes and even barefoot shoes, and of course, the standard hiking boot.

  • Keen boots are popular.

  • Salomon's trail blazers are the most popular on the AT.

  • Brooks Cascadia 13 or 15 Trail Running shoes have been recommended. I am a fan of less is more, so wonder if I might prefer the running shoes over the boots, but having only ever hiked in boots, I do appreciate the stability they offer my ankles.

  • Teva strap on shoes were popular for camp shoes.

Update: With more research and a little more experience hiking, I've developed a new opinion on the hiking boots. See this blog post for a little more discussion.

Good quality socks are also incredibly important and again, many recommendations here.

  • Smartwool and Injinji liners (toe socks to prevent toe blisters) seem to be among the more popular.

  • Darn Tough socks were also receiving several recommendations for hiking, and are fancy. Pack at least one extra pair, but consider two extra.

  • Wool socks would be great when sleeping.

  • Marino wool running socks for Tall People were recommended for those whose shoes rub their ankles. These are inexpensive, about $15 for three pair. Wool dries quickly as well.

When it comes to clothing, there are again, many thoughts here. I overheat easily and if I am being honest, I am quite picky about what touches my skin. I'd rather be comfortable and look weird, than look cool and have scratchy material that rubs my skin in a way that gives me chills just thinking about it. I am also not a big fan of sunscreen so prefer to have a very light weight sun hoodie with sleeves and shorts or yoga pants (sun gloves). Most often I hike in a tank top as I appreciate the sun as I get breaks in the trees and then have some shelter again in the more wooded areas, but I am very mindful of my exposure. I get frequent sun on my skin for shorter periods so that I have a consistent tan and lots of vitamin D, but not the infrequent, long exposure circumstances which cause burns that are not just painful, but increase risk for skin cancer. There is always a happy balance here, but if I can avoid sun screen, I do. In fact, I haven't used it for several years now.

Purchasing running shorts with underwear included allows for less packing. These can be easily cleaned in the stream and hung to dry when at camp. Athleta bras have been recommended for those who need more support, and many have shared a recommendation for these sport bras. I've also had a hiker tell me I was really naive for wearing shorts when hiking because of brush or bites, which may be true, but I am not certain pants would keep the bugs away and shorts do help with temperature regulation.

North Face Dryzzle Hooded Jackets have been recommended for about $160. These breathe well and add a layer in cooler weather, as does the Patagonia Nano Puff jacket for $200. This is very light weight but will really keep you warm too. I like this Arc'teryz zip neck as well, and some have recommended this one for sleeping. This is another top recommended for sleeping. Here is a down hooded jacket from Mountain Hardwear. Patagonia also offers pants which can be slipped over shorts to keep warm or help reduce but bites and these pants from Arc'teryz have also been recommended for hiking.

If hiking in colder weather, which is far more popular than I would have anticipated, you want to think of your clothing preparation different. A fleece jacket and down shirt may be helpful. Smart wool leggings can add extra warmth. Winter gloves and a neck gator may also be necessary depending where and when you are hiking, and a beanie and NRS Neoprene booties. Ice cleats as well. Here are some possum down gloves.

When I was hiking in Costa Rica it was nice and warm during the day but incredibly cold at night. I was miserable! I'll never forget how horrible it was to sleep being that cold and exhausted. Next time, I think I'll be sure I have dry sleeping clothes which are different from my hiking clothes. Being dry and warm should make a huge difference in my overall hike. As I research in preparation for hiking the Appalachian trail, most have shared that it was really cold at night that first month they hiked so would recommend a sleeping bag with a higher down, 800 or above, and one rated to lower temperatures, because if rated to 20, that means you'll survive, but not that you'll be comfortable. This makes all the difference in my opinion.