These are a Few of My Favorite Things

Last spring, I did a 4-day solo off-trail backpack in the waterless deserts of Joshua Tree National Park. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to write about some of my favorite backpacking gear.

Ex-Ped SynMat UL

I’ve been a fan of the Cascade Design’s Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad since I was a junior in High School (that would be 1985, for those keeping score). The Therm-a-Rest is a self-inflating sleeping pad that combines the best aspects of a foam pad with the best aspects of an air mattress- both comfort and warmth. I’ve found that the “self” aspect of self-inflating declined over time, but other than that, I’ve had no complaints. During my 2012 Joshua Tree backpack, I apparently tore apart some of the internal cells inside the pad, and I had to replace it. I dutifully trekked to REI, which was unfortunately out of stock of the size and thickness that I was looking for. The salesman there talked me into buying an Ex-Ped pad, but I didn’t use it for almost a year afterwards.

While I tried it out in my living room prior to the trip, the first field trial was this spring’s trip. The Ex-Ped is not self-inflating; you have to blow it up yourself. While this is a pain, the other aspects more than make up for it. You’re supposed to store Therm-a-Rest pads unrolled and open, so that the internal foam can fully expand. The Ex-Ped has no such restriction- you can keep it rolled up in its stuff sack, stored in your pack and ready to go. It weighs only 21 ounces, and compresses into a tiny stuff sack. The Ex-Ped has a higher “R” rating (measures warmth), and, best of all, is incredibly comfortable- 2.8″ of padding!

The only downside- price. The pad I’m using cost $175. Totally worth it.

Keen Hiking Boots

First, let me say that all reviews of hiking boots are utterly useless, including this one. The fit of a hiking boot is entirely personal, and fit is the first, second, and third most important things to look for in a boot. That said, Keens fit my feet perfectly. I’ve been using them since last October, and they’re working great. My Keen Targhee II Mid Hiking Boots are ostensibly “light-weight” hikers, but I used them off-trail with a 75 pound pack (yes, really), and never felt a lack of support. I bought a new pair of walking shoes for an upcoming trip to Europe, and I didn’t even think of trying another brand.

Big Agnes Tents

Big Agnes is a company based in Steamboat Springs who make tents that defy the laws of physics. For the last few years, I’ve used a Seedhouse SL1 tent from Big Agnes. I can sit up in the tent (even when using a camp chair made from a cushy Ex-ped mattress), and have plenty of room for gear inside. It weights about 2 pounds, and fits into a stuff sack the size of a bread loaf. They clearly pay attention to details- there’s a convenient pocket right above the door, and the guy lines are coated with reflective material (makes it trivial to find the tent in your headlamp beam). This year we did our first family backpack. In anticipation of many future trips with a Nate (now 4 years old), we sprung for a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL4. This is a roomy three-person tent (labeled as a four-person tent, don’t buy it) that weights a mere 4 pounds, 9 ounces. Great quality, great functionality, and lighter than I would have thought possible.

Disadvantage? Wooooo… price. You pay for that light weight. $270 for my single-person Seedhouse SL, and $500 for the family Fly Creek UL4. For us, it’s worth the cost- as we do longer trips with Nate, and until he can help carry his share of the weight, it could be the difference between possible and impossible. And it’s hard to put a price tag on that.