Applicational Hiking: When bulk matters more than weight

Greetings Hikers,

Here recently as I prepare my gear for the 2012 winter season, and starting to plan for the 2013 hiking season, one of the issues that I have been facing is that of the overall bulk of my gear. A few years back when I broke the 10 pound BPW and I sold off my three beloved ULA backpacks because they were all too big for my needs at the time, I took myself down a path that lead to me buying gear that was less bulky. As somebody who has always been an advocate that you buy your backpack based on the bulk (cubic inches) of your gear, this is one of those many decisions I made that helped me down the quest to go lighter and lighter, but also resulted in the (at the time) unforeseeable consequence of some day needing to carry more gear for longer hikes in a myriad of conditions.

In this article I want to do yet another article on “Application Hiking”, with my first being my article on “Pocketless hiking” – which was an article to get people to think about their backpacks and the importance of the gear that they carry – and by no means an article to try to convert hikers to going pocketless. It has been my desire to write more about the day to day life of a long distance hiker, rather than just writing gear reviews. In this second article on application hiking I want to address the issue of when I have personally made decisions to carry larger and heavier gear, over lighter weight and smaller gear. This might not make sense to those who know me as a sul/xul hiker, but as much as I enjoy helping others learn about what there is to learn as a sul/xul hiker, I enjoy just as much talking about heavier weight gear when it serves a greater purpose. There has been a lot of discussion on the internet as of late about weight classifications and I have stay quite about it. Reason being, the vast majority of it I fully agree with. As I hopefully make clear (or try to at least) on my “how I define base pack weight” article, the focus and goal needs to be about self-education and experience, not about grams and ounces. The quest to have a lighter backpack is always a good thing – doing so without the necessary levels of experience and education is something I absolutely do not believe in. That is, and will hopefully continue to be, why I write about application hiking and why I will continue to stress that experience on the trail leads to education, and education is what will hopefully keep you from getting yourself into a situation that no hiker should have to face. This self-education includes learning when carrying something that is so small, and so light, that it potentially puts you at risk when you need that piece of gear to actually perform.

I want to use the following three pieces of gear as an example:

The compass
The cup
The whistle

The Compass:

Ok hikers, lets just admit it… sometimes we make the really stupid decision to leave our house without a compass. I have done it, and most hikers I have meet have done it at some point – whether by mistake or intentionally. We all know how stupid it is to do so, but it happens. Even if you have no clue how to properly use a compass, that is still no excuse to go hiking without one: only the most clueless of hikers (who should not be out on the trail anyway) typically have the ability to determine, should they get turned around, whether their car or truck or trail or a town, was to the east, west, north or south. But if you left that compass at home, without some basic survivalist skills, or waiting for an hour to see where the sun goes, you are probably not going to have a clue which way is which. The compass is just one of those things that should never leave your backpack. I remember reading an article by either Shurka or Lint (do not remember which, it was a fair while back) where they used a long piece of cordage to physically tie-off their compass to their backpack, making sure that wherever their backpack was, so was their compass. Until than I had always just kept my compass inside of a hip-pocket. Now, my primary compass is attached to my backpack. I say ‘primary’ because I carry two compasses with me. My primary is a full-on compass, and my secondary is a little one that can hardly do anything more than tell you a ruff direction of nsew – just enough to get me headed in the general direction if my backpack goes swimming down a river during a crossing.

I truly do love the size of the “Brunton Classic Compass“. It gives you the basic features of a compass in a very small size.

I also love the crazy small size of the watch band type compasses. It is what I mentioned above as being useful for nothing more than knowing nsew and I usually have a couple of them on me.

But here is the point of this article: to me, neither of them are reliable enough, for me, as a long distance backwoods hiker. Yes the Brunton can do most of what a compass can do. It is fairly small, it is lightweight at 1.1 ounces – but I find it lacking. For me, the Suunto MC-2G compass is where I turn too when I pull out my map and need to know exactly where I am and where I am going. This is one of the heavier hiking compass that exist, at 4.8 ounces – three times heavier than the Brunton. Do I care about this? Sure, of course I do. Heavier gear always matters to me. Do I let it care so much that I rely on a lesser quality compass? No way! To me, a far superior compass that might be three times heavier, but has the ability to do so much more, is one of those cases where weight and bulk mean nothing when it comes time to hit the trail. The MC-2G is unquestionably one of the finest non military compasses on the market. But what about the mirror and how much it weighs. Sure, the vast majority of hikers will probably never need a sighting mirror on most trails. But as somebody who is developing a new 400 mile trail, I spend the vast majority of my time not on established trails. The mirror also provides a double and triple duty by being something I can use for personal care (example: using it to thread a needle through my foot to drain a blister) and should the worst happen and I need it to flag down a USCG S&R team, it is there for that as well – and I I cannot think of else in just about any long distance hikers backpack could be used in such a situation.

So for me, when it comes the compass, heavier and bulkier is more important than lighter and smaller. Just something to think about.

The Cup:

On a not so serious note, I want to talk about the cup.

I will admit, for the last few years I have been on the extreme when it came to my cook-kit. I wanted the smallest and lightest one I could put together that worked. I spent hundreds of dollars on different setups. I posted at least a half-dozen videos on them. This year, as I have been on the quest to  “be comfortable in 2012” (video link) I have taken a step back from the crazy light and crazy small cook kits and instead gone back to heavier and larger ones.

My cook kits use to be around 1.6 ounces. Now, it is up around the 4.4 ounce range. This additional three ounces has allowed me to have a better performing (and that means less fuel being used, which means less weight needing to be carried per section) and an easier to use, and a safer cooking setup. Oh, it has also given me the ability to actually cook food on the trail inside of the pot, rather than just eating bagged food two or three times a day. Honestly, that gets old really fast. There is just something about putting your food into your cooking pot and cooking it up and not having to eat it out of a bag.

But, cooking pot aside, I also rediscovered the enjoyment of drinking a cup of coffee in the morning and a cup of tea at night. But, with my pot being used, what do I drink out of? Well, this lead me to throw my MSR Titan Cup into my backpack. Unfortunately, a 400ml cup just does not fit into my Evernew 600ml pot, along with the Trail Designs Sidewinder that I switched over to. This meant that I now had to dedicated even more backpack space (bulk) to my overall cooking setup. I was able to stuff some things into the cup, but still, it bothered me that I had to devote that much space to a cup that only got used once or twice a day.

So I went on the hunt.

I was watching a video on youtube awhile back on the Zipka 2 torch because I have been thinking about switching up my head lamp, and after watching his video I hit his main channel page and was going through his other videos when I came across his video on the Sea To Summit X-Mug. How I had never seen it in a store before, or seen a video of it online, or seen another hiker talking about it before, I have no idea – it has been out for quite a while now.

So here as the decision I had to make:

A small solo Ti cup that is 55 grams (1.97 oz) or this X-Mug that is 62 grams (2.21 oz).

The one is 7 grams (0.24 ounces) lighter and consumes a significant amount of bulk space. The other is 7 grams heavier and fits inside of my existing cook kit.

For me, the decision has been an easy one: Out goes the Ti mug, in goes the X-mug.

The X-Mug: Heavier? Yes. Not as durable? Yes. Less bulk space? Yes. Just something to think about.

The Whistle:

Like a compass, a whistle is one of those items that I see a lot of hikers going out onto the trail without. This, honestly, is something I just do not understand. Unless you are hiking in the desert where there are flat areas of land for miles and miles, a whistle is one of the very few pieces of gear that you can use to help others locate you. Perhaps nothing is more important than a whistle, except a fire using green wood for heavy smoke location, when you are in that crucial situation of knowing there are others within a half mile of your location, but you have no idea where they are actually at. A nightmare situation in a S&R situation.

So I am not going to ask “why do you go hiking without a whistle?”. Rather, I want to ask you, “Why do you go hiking with a whistle that sucks?”

I want to give credit where credit is do to those backpack manufacturer that are attaching inline whistles on sternum straps these days – they are better than nothing at all.

But in the end, do you really want to be in a S&R situation where your only source of location is a cheesy little whistle attached to your backpack?

This is yet another one of those cases where – to me – bulk and weight mean less than usability.

A couple years ago I went out and bought well over a dozen whistle (two of each) and I jumped in my truck with a buddy and went out into the hills. I went walking one way and he went walking the other way. We each had a two-way radio that we knew from past experience could reach between two or three canyons and valleys. After we each went over one valley, we contacted each other on the radios and than we took turn blowing the whistles we had with us. Each of us had the identical set of whistles.

Long story made short: the only whistle that each of us used that both of us heard was the “Storm Safety Whistle“. In the world of whistles it is massive and heavy one. It truly is a beast when it comes to how big it is – the biggest whistle I have ever seen.

So, as a long distance backwoods solo hiker which whistle is attached to my backpack along with my massive MC-2G compass? Some little baby sized crazy light weight whistle that you can hardly hear a block away, or a massive hunk of a whistle that you can hear two canyons away? Just something to think about.

In Closing:

Well, I guess I just want to end this by saying that this “Applicational hiking” article is designed to get you thinking about the gear that you carry as a hiker. Like my previous article on pocketless hiking, I am not trying to make any converts of this style, or theory, of hiking. Experience, education, and lots of pondering, is what makes a capable sul/xul hiker.

7 thoughts on “Applicational Hiking: When bulk matters more than weight

  1. John, nice food for thought. What is the highest functioning lightest weight item that’ll get the job done? Being smart on the trail allows you to be prepared for the worst.

  2. As usual, great article John! I enjoyed reading it, and can’t help but thinking of some of our conversations when doing so… :)

    As far as packs, I am glad that I have hung onto my Circuit because I definitely used it on our past hike when I packed it full with all of my gear and as much of my wife’s gear I could get into it… However, this is the reason I have hung onto it, and will continue to do so… Every once in a while, every once in a while actually does come along…

    The compass…I will admit, all of my hikes this year has been with a small button type compass…I do have a slightly heavier Silva Explorer compass, but I just haven’t been carrying it. And I will also admit, I have used a number of excuses for just carrying the small button compass. A few wrapped up in one is that I have been hiking on a well-known, used and worn trail, the AT. Another classic excuse is that I simply do not know all the skills to use one… and then of course the weight thing on top of all of these…

    As far as the cup, well, that has been something that I have yet to leave behind on a trip. I am not keen on having one cooking/eating/drinking vessel, even in the name of light-weight-ness… However, I have always been able to pack stuff inside the cup (even with my “SUL” set-up where the cup actually fits over the top of my Heine pot), so I never felt it was an issue with extra bulk… I have seen those “X” cups and bowls a while back and they looked interesting, but they just haven’t seemed to fit my needs. When I first came across them though, I watched a video by Hike, Bike, Dale using one to steam bake in, so that was cool…

    The whistle… I have carried an REI “Tri-Power Safety Whistle” on all of my trips but the last one. As you mentioned, I relied on the whistle on my pack as well as the “zipper pull” whistle on my lanyard… To be fair though, I did actually mean to put the other whistle back on, but never got around to it… However, I also have one of those Screamer whistles, and maybe I will add that one back on… that is good to know about hearing it so far away!

    Anyway, thanks again for the article, I enjoyed reading it!


    1. I have been using my little x-cup every day since I got it… pretty much always on my desk in my office and than in my desk next to my bed. Used it with water, tea, coffee, hot cocoa, and so forth. Been an amazingly little cup. The fact that it fits inside of my existing cooking system, is all the much better :)

    1. Hey Crystal, I have never given it any consideration. It failed to meet the base-line of decimal requirements that we were after when we did our test. Personally, I stay away from cold weather. If my lips are going to freeze to something, this hiker would rather just be inside a nice warm house ;)

  3. Hi John,

    I also think comfort is important when considering a heavier item than going lighter. I will NOT give up my Neo Air Large weighing in at 16+ ounces. This is the one comfort I will not sacrifice because good sleep helps multiple days of hiking. I ordered a stove/windscreen that you recommended and a Hexamid tarp (after spending multiple days in the sierras at altitude) I DO NOT need that much rain or bug protection so I decided to ditch my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Platinum with Rutal Locura Carbon Poles and I’m proud to say that I’ll be under 5 pounds with FULL comfort! I have also ordered the Black Rock Gear over and under mittens. To get to be under 5 pounds, I had to go over my gear list over and over again to reach this. Thank you for all your help, I HONESTLY wouldn’t be able to get to 5 pounds without your help or Joe’s at Zpack. In my opinion, Joe is the BEST cottage manufacturer and you’re the most knowledgeable person to help to get to SUL!

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