Last year we had a local backpacker freeze to death. They’d likely be alive today if they had brought a Satellite Messenger & activated its emergency signal (by the time they were reported missing and the search crews went out, they had frozen to death overnight). Of course, there are many other good reasons to carry a Satellite Messenger. With newer, 2-way Satellite Messengers you can get interactive help like medical advice (assessment & treatment), other information like helicopter landing sites, best evacuation routes, etc. In fact, you may get enough information to help yourself and not even need a rescue—the best possible outcome.
The older inReach SE is highly capable & a deal for only $250
As of now the small difference in price between the older $250 DeLorme inReach SE vs the $150 SPOT makes the inReach SE as a better deal for price to performance. That is, you get significantly more fictionality and safety for only a $100 more in purchase price. And you have to spread that $100 over the number of year of serviceable life which makes the price difference even smaller on a per/year basis.
Also Pictured is the the 5.4 oz EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery and a better alternative is the Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
Finally the Anker PowerCore 10000(only 6.4 oz) is the lightest option f you need to recharge your electronics a lot. It can charge the inReach many times, a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x.
Both SPOT and inReach Perform Well – either is far better than not carrying anything!
I have used both the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger extensively over years. Both of these units will do the job. They will send out location and emergency messages as well as record tracking waypoints along your route. Either of these units is way better than not carrying anything at all. And they are the perfect complement to your Trip Plan.
Comparison Table – Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT
Advantages of SPOT Satellite Messenger
A single set of lithium batteries lasts a long time—about 120-150 hours of tracking/use in my field experience. The batteries can be easily replaced mid-trip with a spare set. In comparison, the inReach has less tracking time and a non-removable battery that has to be recharged via an external USB battery.
But this battery efficiency comes at a price. The SPOT’s low 0.4 watt transmission power, based on my field experience means fewer successful waypoints/messages sent in difficult receptions areas.
Depending on how much you use your unit, the annual service plan for the SPOT may or may not be less expensive than the as-needed Freedom Plan for the inReach.
* Note: Over time the service plan is far and above the major cost for both the inReach and SPOT
Advantages of Garmin inReach
The Garmin inReach has 2-way communication similar to a Sat. Phone, but the device and service plan cost a lot less than a Sat Phone. Garmin calls it “The satellite communicator that allows you to type, send and receive, track and SOS all from the palm of your hand.”
Better emergency options:
2-way communication is a BIG DEAL! You can send and receive text messages. As such, you can get interactive help like medical advice (assessment and treatment) and a ton of other useful information like helicopter landing sites, best evacuation routes, etc.
And you might even get enough information to help yourself and not need a rescue
If you do need a rescue, the authorities will know what the problem is and therefore show up with the right personnel and equipment. [vs. a “blind” SOS message from a SPOT where they have no idea what the emergency/problem is.]
Finally, you’ll get some peace of mind knowing that help is on the way, and where and when they will arrive
More reliable messaging:
4x higher transmission power, 1.6 watts vs 0.4 watts for the SPOT. In my experience this gives you a higher percentage of successfully sent messages vs. SPOT. This is especially true in difficult transmission areas like dense tree cover and/or tight canyons
Better satellite network (Iridium) equals faster and more reliable message transmission
You get confirmation that your tracking points have been sent. Again, especially helpful if you are a difficult transmission area
You can request and receive a weather report for where you are hiking/climbing
Ease of use: Compose and send/read messages via your smartphone. It’s pretty much the same as regular texting. (You can send them via the unit too, although the typing is tedious).
Cost: There is an option for a month-to-month service plan which might be less expensive than SPOTs annual plan
Conclusion – so which is the Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT?
The Garmin inReach SE+ is by a large margin the better device. The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger’s lack of 2-way messaging, lower transmission power, difficulty to carry in the optimal antenna orientation, and no confirmation that messages or waypoints have been successfully sent are problematic. Especially since there is an alternative unit with similar cost that outperforms it (the inReach). And there just are times when you need to send out a message but are in a crappy reception location (like a deep forested canyon). It’s good (possibly critical) to have higher transmission power and know that your message actually went out!
In summary: you might pay a slightly higher annual price (unit and service plan) for the inReach vs. SPOT, but you get far more functionality, safety, and peace of mind from the inReach. That being said, the SPOT is still a valid Satellite Messenger and is way, way better than not carrying anything at all.
b) Tips on How to Best Use an inReach or SPOT
Tip: Do a quick pre-trip test to make sure make sure your emergency contacts can see both your “location messages” and “tracking waypoints.” The best way to do this is on a quick hike with tracking on and sending out a few location messages along the way. Your contacts should be able to access the web page (e.g. https://share.Garmin.com/xx) and see information like this.
Make a Trip Plan
A Trip Plan and a Satellite Messenger are complementary—you are safest when you have both
Test your unit with your emergency contact(s) before leaving for your trip:
Do a quick pre-trip, test hike and make sure your emergency contacts can see both your “location messages” and “tracking waypoints” on the tracking webpage like the picture above
Send out your basic message types, like OK, Custom and Help (SPOT and inReach) and make sure that each of your emergency contacts receives them
InReach only, make sure your emergency contacts can reply to your text messages and independently send texts to you. Again this is best done with test texts before you leave on your trip
InReach battery drain test. Put your inReach in tracking mode and take it for a 4-8 hour hike on the weekend. Send a few locations and messages along the way. After the hike, check the remaining battery percentage do the calculations on % battery drain per hour. Use this to estimate whether you’ll need a recharging battery on your trip. See Batteries and Recharging below.
Agree on Meaning of Messages and What to Do
Make sure that you and your emergency contacts know/agree on the meaning of the basic message types, like OK, Custom and Help (SPOT and inReach). And that they know what to do for Custom and Help messages. See Trip Plan for examples.
Have an agreement on what to do when tracking points stop and do not resume in an agreed upon time (i.e. within a 12-hour time period).
Have an agreement on what to do when the unit “goes completely dead,” i.e. no tracking points and no messages. See Trip Plan for examples.
All of the above is best done in a Trip Plan. Here is a link to Template Trip Plan Document that you can fill out and use: Full Trip Plan for Backpacking.
My suggestion is to use the tracking mode (10 minute interval seems about best). If nothing else, at the end of your trip you’ll have a nice map of your route and your friends may enjoy following your progress and adventures real-time.
Most important, Tracking Mode can alert your emergency contact of a problem even if you can’t. In a bad accident (especially when off-trail and solo), you may be severely injured (i.e. a serious fall, getting struck by a tree limb, etc.) such that you can’t activate the SOS function of your device. Your tracking (bread crumb trail) will let your emergency contact monitoring the trip (and SAR personnel) know your last known location within 10 minutes. And 1) your lack of moment will tip off your emergency contact that something is not right and 2) it will greatly accelerate locating and getting help to you.
Avoid turning the unit off at breaks (my experience is that I inevitably forget to turn it back on).
When in tracking mode, carry your inReach or SPOT in the correct position for best transmission (see owner’s manual).
For the inReach this is with the antenna pointing towards the sky and free of your body or other obstructions.
The SPOT device should be oriented so the face is pointing to the sky (unit horizontal). This is difficult to do while hiking. If you use the clip provided with the SPOT, it usually ends up hanging vertically (face of the unit pointing away from your pack/body). While not optimal, it seems to work for many people.
Improving Performance in Difficult Reception Areas
Improving performance in difficult reception areas all boils down to increasing your view of the sky. That is, increasing your line-of-sight/unobstructed-sky to the satellites you are trying to reach, along with proper antenna orientation. In other words, your transmission reliability may be impaired if you can’t see a good portion of the sky (e.g. heavy trees, deep canyons, etc.).
This is especially important for SPOT use because in bad reception areas, you will get no indication of whether you have successfully transmitted messages.
Make sure your antenna is properly oriented (see end of Tracking Mode above). This is especially important in difficult receptions areas!
Physically move to where you can get a larger, unobstructed portion of the sky. Try walking to a large clearing in the trees. Or moving to a wider point in a canyon with more view of the sky. You may even need to hike up the canyon wall some to increase the percentage of sky you can see. I had to do this once in the Grand Canyon to initiate a helicopter rescue.
For both SPOT and inReach, delete all pre-trip/at-home messages and tracking points. This will make tracking the trip a lot easier than having a thousand(s) mile long track line from your home to the start of your trip.
inReach only: If you have a limited text plan, know that all incoming messages count towards your plan total—none are free. So let your contacts know to only reply to text messages when needed, like when you ask for a weather report. If 2-3 people reply to each message it can quickly add up.
Consider giving a trusted person (knowledgeable about the account) access to your account. See Trip Plan for an example.
For the SPOT carry a spare set (4) four AAA lithium batteries. Note: once the SPOT starts to blink red you don’t have a lot of operational time left.
For the inReach consider carrying an external USB battery in the range of 6000 to 100o mAh. (This can be also be used to recharge most of your other electronics.)
See lead picture of SPOT and inReach for a visual on these battery options.
Always Bring a Backup Battery!
It’s critical safety precaution to make sure your inReach is always available for use (especially if you are using it in tracking mode during a trip). My three favorite lightweight and high capacity backup batteries are:
Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (pictured right)- With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery This has slightly more capacity (tested) than the Jackery battery but has a slower charging rate & only a built micro-USB cable (altho you can attach your own lightening cable to charge an iPhone). It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 about 1.4x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 2.3x.
Anker PowerCore 10000(only 6.4 oz) this is the lightest option f you need to recharge your inReach a lot. It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x. Its limitation is that it only has one USB port for a cable.
Sometimes a timely rescue is not possible. A Trip Plan and/or a Satellite Messenger like the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger is not the solution to everything. I have been in some extremely bad situations where rescue was not feasible even if I had sent out an SOS. As they say, the best rescue is self-rescue. And to state the obvious, Goal One is not needing rescue in the first place. So be sensible and safe out there.
Finally, a Satellite Messenger should never be considered a license to do silly things or take unnecessary risks.
Smartphones like an iPhone 8+, X or Samsung Galaxy S8 outperform a conventional GPS in almost every way. This post has all the information you need to use your smartphone as a the best backpacking GPS, including getting up to 7+ days of battery life without recharging. Best of all, you can do this for less than $20.
Updated for 2018
Why a Smartphone is the Best Backpacking GPS for trips worldwide
For starters, a large screen smartphone just plain works. We’ve taken our iPhones on numerous packrafting trips in Alaska, winter rafting down the Grand Canyon, technical Canyoneering in Utah, climbing in the Wind Rivers and the Sierras, long hikes in the U.S.A, Patagonia, Turkey, Australia, Europe, and a canoe trip down the length of the Mighty Mississippi River. We get between 5 to 10 days of average use without recharging! And Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy work well too.
Incredible Map Detail and Functionality!
Maps on the better smartphone Apps like GAIA GPS are stunningly sharp and legible. The best example of this is GAIA GPS’ full line of National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps. These are the most trusted and highly-rated maps available for America’s top outdoor destinations. They give you current trails, distances, and other official park info. Vs. USGS TOPO maps where this info is 50 years out of date or just missing. See below…
[click to enlarge and see the full detail of this map from GAIA] Start of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite. Screenshot from GAIA with the stunningly sharp and detailed National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map of Yosemite.
How a Smartphone works as a mapping GPS
To clarify a common misconception: You do NOT need WiFi or Cellular connection for your smartphone GPS to work. Even in Airplane Mode, your smartphone will communicate with GPS Satellites to get your location, just the same as a conventional handheld GPS like a Garmin. That is, your smartphone has a built-in antenna and GPS chip for getting your location from GPS satellites. But for this to work with your maps (e.g. plot your location on map), you DO need to pre-download maps to your App for it to work properly in the backcountry.
There are several excellent Apps like Gaia GPS that let you preload maps and GPS tracks into your smartphone before your trip. Then when you are out on the trail without WiFi or cell service, you can use the preloaded maps along with the iPhone’s GPS to do all the mapping and navigating you need. The downloaded maps are nearly free, and if you already own an iPhone, the cost of using it as a GPS/Mapping device for backpacking is very reasonable—essentially just the cost of the Mapping/GPS App. The GPS units in current smartphones are quite good and have similar accuracy to traditional GPS units like a Garmin full size GPS.
Save yourself $500 and 1/2 pound for a better GPS
The smartphone you own (free!) combined with an App like Gaia GPS (less than $20) is better and far less expensive than traditional $500-$600 backpacking GPS units like these. And since you are unlikely to leave your smartphone in the car at trailhead (that is you are already bringing it with you) the additional weight of using it as a GPS is also zero. So you just saved around 1/2 pound.
Member Level lets you use the full app, and all but a few map sources.
Premium Member Level gives you access to maps like like ESRI World Imagery and National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps the most trusted and highly-rated maps available for America’s top outdoor destinations. They give you current trails, distances, and other official park info. Vs. USGS TOPO maps where this info is 50 years out of date or just missing.
Free Level is in my opinion for demo only. Critically, you can’t download maps for offline use—so it’s a non-starter for backcountry use. And it doesn’t have USGS Topo or OpenHikingMap HD maps.
Recent large screen smartphones have larger and better displays for map use in the field and significantly better battery life than older models. If you use Gaia GPS on your smartphone, and CalTopo for your pre-trip route planning and map printing, then your printed maps will exactly match the maps and waypoints on your smartphone! [Pictured is a map printed from CalTopo, and the same map on an iPhone (with waypoints and routes imported from the CalTopo file, and downloading the same maps as used with CalTopo).]
Battery life is very good for iPhones
Expect to get between 5 to 10 days of battery life in the field without re-charging—normal daily use of the following: the iPhone’s GPS, looking at electronic maps, taking a few photos and some reading of electronic guides/references. Even so, I bring a backup battery just case I need to use the GPS more, or do something silly that drains the battery.
Always Bring a Backup Battery!
It’s critical safety precaution to make sure your smartphone is always available for use as a GPS. My two favorite lightweight and high capacity backup batteries are:
Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (pictured right)- With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery (pictured below) – This has slightly more capacity (tested) than the Jackery battery but has a slower charging rate and only a built micro-USB cable (altho you can attach your own lightening cable to charge an iPhone). It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 about 1.4x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 2.3x.
The current version of Gaia GPS for Android is as good as the iOS version. As such, Android phones like Samsung Galaxy s6/s7 should provide the same excellent GPS mapping functionality as iPhones. The 5.4 oz EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery (left) will charge a standard smartphone two times.
Battery life for Android phones: Not a show stopper, but Android phones appear to have less battery life on-trail than iPhones—more in the range of 3-5 days with moderate GPS use. This seems to be in part due to differences between Android smartphones for both a) the phone hardware and b) variations of the Android OS on installed on phones. As such, the Android environment is not as easily understood/managed vs. tightly controlled, and very predictable iPhone hardware and iOS environment. This makes Android battery management more challenging. Nonetheless, an Android smartphone is a valid & capable backpacking GPS.
Cliff Notes – a jump start to use your smartphone as backpacking GPS
Do: Use your smartphone as a backpacking and hiking GPS. It’s excellent!
Do: Use CalTopo for your pre-trip route planning and mapping. It’s the perfect companion to Gaia GPS on your smartphone.
Do: Download Maps For Offline Use to Gaia GPS before your trip
Note: If you use CalTopo for your pre-trip route planning and map printing, and GAIA GPS on your smartphone, then your printed maps will exactly match the maps and waypoints on your iPhone. That’s a big deal in the field—making everything a ton easier to follow and understand!
Expect: Between 5 to 10 days of battery life in the field for an iPhone with moderate use of GPS, mapping, taking a few photos and use of electronic guides/references. And around 3-5 days with “conservative use” of GPS with an Android phone like a Samsung Galaxy (newer models like the S8 or S9 may do better but you’ll need to test to confirm this)
Do: Put your smartphone in Airplane Mode and leave it there for the duration of your trip. For iPhones the GPS will work in Airplane Mode as of iOS 8.3.
Do: put your screen in auto brightness, and lower your screen brightness to the minimum amount. Screen power is the single biggest battery drain for your phone.
Do: Shut Down all unnecessary apps especially ones like Google Maps and Facebook that use location tracking (the GPS) in the background. (See more tips below for “Battery Conservation Settings” below)
Do: set your GPS App to only get a GPS fix when you manually request it.
Use Tracking mode in your App with discretion. It will drain your battery about 2% to 5% per hour. Note: the current version of GAIA on the iPhone 6+ or 8+ only uses around 2% per hour. This makes it a viable tracking took for trips of 3-4 days (and even longer if you bring a good USB battery to re-cahrge it.)
Good Idea: to test your personal battery use on a couple of long day hikes before taking the smartphone for navigating on a long trip.
Download Maps into GAIA For Offline Use on the trail where WiFi and cellular data are not present — but where the smartphone GPS still works. On the left is a partial list map sources for download. On the right the pink box indicates the area of the map selected for Download from a Rectilinear Area. You can also use the “Download Maps for Track” feature which automatically gets all the maps needed to follow a line, a phenomenally useful feature when setting out on a thousand mile hike or paddle. Download Maps for Track and the wide range of map types are the two features that make Gaia GPS stand head and shoulders above the other available apps.
Battery life in the field for iPhones
From my friends and accomplished long distance hikers, Amy and Jim:
Our daily use of the iPhone includes 5-50 sessions with a mapping app (depending on how ambiguous the route is), 10-20 photos, occasional use of bird guide apps, alarm clock, checking time, reading Wiki Offline, and nightly journal entries. All of our usage is discretionary excepting for the mapping apps and GPS reads. We scale our discretionary use based on how many days remain before the next recharge opportunity. With restrained use, most models of iPhones (especially the iPhone 6 Plus, 8 Plus or X) will last for a week or even ten days. If we only have two or three or four days to the next recharge opportunity, then we take more photos, play more bird calls, etc. Your mileage will depend entirely on your usage patterns. Prior to a multi-day trip, be sure to establish your baseline drain (iPhone asleep and no activity) to make sure that drain is minimized as described in the Battery Drain section. Experiment on day hikes so you can estimate your daily drain based on your own usage patterns.
Baseline iPhone battery drain is 1-3% per day
When all battery conservation measures are in place, the baseline battery drain (phone on, but not in use) of most iPhone models is 1-3% per day. Without proper battery conservations measures, the daily baseline drain will be at least 10% and often over 30%. By baseline drain, we mean that the phone is powered on, but asleep; it is ready for use, but the user is not actually doing anything with it. This is the background drain you will incur even if you don’t take any pictures, look at any maps, or use any apps at all.
Battery Conservation Settings for Android or iOS Smartphones
It’s important to follow these guidelines to conserve your iPhone battery and get the maximum battery life in the field. For day hikes or overnight hikes most of these suggestions are not as important, but they are critical if you want to use an smartphone for a multi-day trip without resorting to a recharge solution (external battery or solar). Our research ended up focusing a great deal on battery life, and we hope these ideas help.
Settings to Optimize Battery Life – iOS and Android Smartphones
This is a list of major settings to increase your battery life. These settings apply to both iOS and Android. In the case of iOS I have included the menu path to change the setting.
Monitor your battery charge percentage. iOS: General->Usage->Battery Percentage = ON.
Airplane Mode = ON. WIFI = OFF. Bluetooth = OFF (unless connected to something like your Delorme inReach). AirDrop = OFF. Personal Hotspot = OFF [for iOS these are all in the “Control Center” (swipe up from bottom of screen)]
Minimize screen brightness and screen use. A bright screen is a significant battery drain. So to minimize battery drain you should make sure the screen is not brighter than necessary. For iOS: Wallpapers & Brightness – Auto-Brightness allows the screen to adjust its brightness based on current lighting conditions. Then still use the minimum brightness necessary to use your smartphone.
Check which Apps have the biggest battery drain. You can do this in iOS via Settings->Battery and look under “Battery Usage”
Shut down unneeded apps. Most apps do nothing while in the background and it is fine to leave them in this inactive state. A few apps (i.e. mapping apps that have engaged the GPS in Tracking mode, Google Maps, and even Facebook) can activate the GPS in background and drain your battery. In theory, if an app is using the GPS there will be a small GPS Location Icon (arrowhead shape) at the top of the screen; e.g. this icon appears when Google Maps is active in the background. But the GPS Icon is not a 100% reliable indicator, so you need to ensure that unneeded apps that might be running the GPS are fully shut down before you start your trip. Here are instructions on how to shut down background apps. (For tech-weenies, here is an article that offers a more complete explanation.)
For all apps still running, minimize use of Locations Services (i.e. GPS use). iOS: Privacy->Location Services = ON but Turn Location Services OFF for any app that you will be using while backpacking unless it is important for that app to have a GPS read. For example, if you use a Camera app and you want it to put a GPS stamp on each image, then leave Location Services on for that app. However, if you don’t care about having a GPS stamp on the image, then turn Location Services off for Camera app so that it does not engage the GPS (and therefore drain battery) every time you take a photo.
Don’t use Tracking Mode (if you need trip tracking use a DeLorme inReach or a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger.) Most smartphone mapping apps like GAIA have features to record a track as you walk, or to guide you to a specified waypoint. But to do this the app must constantly get a GPS read, which is a steady battery drain. So if you are on a multi-day trip, don’t use tracking mode (and use guide me sparingly in GAIA and other apps only when needed). Most of the time, it’s best manually get your current location when necessary. [In our battery tests we found that Tracking mode consumes ~5% of the battery capacity per hour.]
Set your GPS mapping App to only get a GPS fix when you manually initiate it. Some apps like GAIA have excellent battery management (GPS use) settings, but some do not. I have GAIA set to only engage the GPS when I click the location icon.
Keep the iPhone at a reasonable temperature. Batteries achieve optimum service life if used at 20°C (68°F) or slightly below. Avoid letting the iPhone overheat in direct sun, and keep it in pocket close to your body in cold conditions. More detailed battery information in this great article.
Optionally shut down the phone at night. We never fully shut down the phone while on a trip, but if your particular phone has measurable overnight drain you could consider shutting it down every night to conserve battery.
If you need to leave Airplane Mode On (iOS only)
The following iOS settings should be irrelevant when Airplane Mode = ON. They are relevant only to people who choose to keep Airplane Mode OFF for some reason but want to maximize battery conservation. Use any of these as appropriate.
Cellular->Cellular Data = OFF
iTunes&App Stores->Automatic Downoads = OFF and Use Cellular Data = OFF
Notification Center – turn off notifications for all apps – No sounds, no badges, no alerts, no nothing.
General->About->Diagnostics and Usage = Don’t Send
General->Background App Refresh – You can disable each app from doing work while it’s in the background (i.e. not open and visible on the screen). Turn OFF everything that you won’t need to have running in the background while on your trip. For example, you won’t need the Stocks app trying to updated stock prices while you sleep!
Mail, Contacts, Calendars: Fetch New Data -> Push = OFF, and Fetch =..
We use this common sense, 2-day-a-week training program to prepare for hiking 30+ mile days on the AT. But it’s also excellent training for the John Muir Trail, PCT, CDT or even the GR20 in Corsica, considered “the toughest long distance trek in Europe.” And this Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking works equally well for shorter, less intense trips. And it always keeps in mind that fun is the first priority of any trip!
Busy Lives Require Intelligent, Time Efficient Training
We all know pre-trip training is hugely important to the success and enjoyment our next trip, but… Let’s face it, most of us don’t have hours and hours of spare time each week to train for hike or big trip. As such, we need to train intelligently and efficiently—getting the maximum training benefit with the least amount of training time. With this Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking you can be physically prepared for your next big trek with as little as two core hikes per week.
Good training makes even 30+ mile days fun, even over “the rocks of Pennsylvania!” The team grinning ear to ear at the historic or traditional mid-point on the AT, just a few miles before you enter Pine Grove Furnace for ice cream!
And It’s Not All About Speed – Training Has More Important Benefits
It’s good to remember that your first goal on any trip is to enjoy yourself. Reading the following conditioning regimen, you might wrongly assume that we are focused on blazing through the landscape—barely taking time to view and appreciate the wondrous terrain passing through. Quite the opposite, we propose that properly conditioned for a hike, you are more likely to enjoy yourself and appreciate your surroundings.
1) Training Helps You Enjoy the Hike
Not under the physical and psychological stress of being overwhelmed with the effort of hiking, you are more relaxed and fully present to appreciate your surroundings. In addition, the ability to move quickly (when you want) gives you far more options to get to that perfect campsite, have some extra time for a side trip, take more photos, go for a lunchtime swim, bag a peak, or even take a midday nap!
2) Training Makes Trips Possible with Limited Vacation Time
Many of us are short on vacation time. We do not have two to three weeks to leisurely do the John Muir trail or a long section of the AT. Many of us struggle to get a squeeze a longer trip into a single week of vacation. Being a better conditioned and able to hike faster may make the difference between doing a long backpacking trip or not.
Alison descending from the crux of the GR20 Trek. Good training, and a A Light Pack (see our gear list), made all the difference to our enjoyment of this rugged and difficult trek!
Overview of Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking
No fads. No gimmicks. This is just common sense use of tried and true professional training techniques. It is essentially training your body over 8-12 weeks* to hike the daily distance you intend to hike, over the terrain you will hike in, carrying the weight of your backpack. Our training consists of just two conditioning hikes per week; one evening hike after work and a longer weekend hike that still has us back before 2:00 pm allowing ½ of a precious weekend day to do other things.
First and foremost, do what you can! Any walking is better than no walking and no training program is ever perfect. The more miles (feet-on-ground) you accumulate (even if it is on local sidewalks to your workplace) the better off you are. Don’t let perfection stop you from doing whatever you can!
Your core training is hiking/walking with a pack. While running and biking, etc. are all excellent cross training; build aerobic conditioning, strengthen joints and muscles; nothing prepares you to backpack— like hiking with a pack on your back! Specificity, specificity, specificity.
Wear Your Backpack (or a daypack). Work up to having that pack loaded to 75% (or more) of the anticipated pack weight for your trip.
Train on terrain similar to what you’ll hike on. If your trip will be on hilly and rocky trails, train on steepest and rockiest trails you can find nearby (like we did in the Sugarloaf example below). If you’re trip is in the sandy desert, train back and forth on a local beach.
Think creatively on this one. On the super hilly and rocky GR20 we met two fast and fit hikers from the Netherlands–one of the flattest places on the planet. They had trained for the GR20 with heavy packs in sand dunes and in building stairwells. It worked! They were rockin’ the route.
Note: if your hiking will be at over 8,000 feet having good aerobic conditioning will take some of the sting out of the lower oxygen levels at altitude. That is you won’t be as out of breath. This is more efficiently done by running, biking, stairmaster, etc. vs. walking. (Important – this will not help with altitude sickness. There’s no correlation of aerobic fitness to reducing your risk for altitude sickness.)
* Realistically, you should start training in earnest at least 8 weeks before your trip. Prior to that, it really helps to start with a good base of moderate walking, jogging, biking etc. and thus already have basic aerobic and joint muscle conditioning. If you do not have this base, a 12-16 week progressive build-up to pre-trip hiking fitness may be more appropriate.
Some suggested gear to make your training easier and more effective
Training in the exact shoes and socks as you’ll use on your trip is critical for for foot comfort and no blisters!!
Admittedly not necessary & expensive… but it has long battery life & greatly simplifies tracking mileage, hiking speed, & especially elevation gain & loss stats (a pain to get by other methods).
See more here on Tools and Equipment that we routinely use to make monitor and track our training.
The Weekly Training Schedule
This is the weekly training routine that Alison and I use to prepare for our big backpacking trips. This routine uses our limited training time to best advantage. Ideally, each week we do:
One Long and Hilly Hike on the weekend,
One Shorter and Faster Hike midweek and
Supplement this with Other Training: running, biking, Stairmaster, uphill treadmill, swimming etc. as the spirit moves us.
1. Long and Hilly Hike on the weekend
The goal of the long weekend hike is to build up to hiking the same distance and elevation gain and loss as your anticipated longest/hardest hiking days (maybe by increasing mileage and elevation by 5-10% per week as you get fitter).
Our weekend long hike and the foundation of our training: Sugarloaf Mountain is 40 minutes away, giving us more hiking time & less driving time. Our “creative” route on the mountain allowed us to build up to hiking our target of 30 km with 1500 m of elevation gain and loss (19 miles & 5,000 ft) in around 6 hours. To get that much elevation gain, we did the Mountain Loop (green) trail 4x at the start of our hike. [We used CalTopo, the best route planning tool available to plot our route and calculate distance and elevation gain.]
We don’t live in Colorado (Rockies) or California (Sierras), so we do our best to find terrain “similar” to the GR20 within an hour drive from our home . If you live near something like Longs Peak, by all means hike there!
In the above example our goal was 30 km hiking with 1500 m of elevation gain and loss (19 miles & 5,000 ft) in around 6 hours hiking time—about what we believed our hardest days would be.
You may need to be creative with local features. Remember the Dutch hiking up and down building stairwells? E.g. doing multiple laps up and down a small ridge to meet your elevation gain and loss goals. In the example above, we did the Mountain Loop (green) trail 4x at the start of our hike to get in 1000 m or 3,400 ft. elevation gain.
Consider working up to hiking about 15-30% faster than you intend to hike on your trip. This will in some way compensate for hiking back-to-back long days on your trip. We averaged about 5.0 kph (3.1 mph) on our Sugarloaf hikes. [On the actual GR20 we averaged between 2.2 to 2.7 mph most days.]
For your training hikes, log your average hiking speed, total distance traveled, and elevation gain and loss. This will be your key indicator of progress and a measure of your physical preparedness for your trip. Use this information to make realistic estimates of how far you’ll go each day on your trip and plan logistics. You’ll be surprised how accurate your predictions will be!
Find a partner to go with or these long hikes may get stupefyingly boring! Alternatively you can listen to Audio Books (our favorite), Podcasts, or just do a walking meditation.
Finally, consider taking a two or three day weekend backpacking trip a few weeks before your trip. This will give you back-to-back trail day conditioning and give you a pre-trip opportunity to shake out gear. See our: Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking article.
While loading up your backpack is best, and costs the least… weight vests and belts are much easier and faster to use, reducing prep time and increasing on-trail training time.
Training with the same backpack and weight as you intend to use on your trip is the best and least expensive BUT… it can be cumbersome and time-consuming to pack your backpack with the same weight as for your trip. Yes, people have used a combination of gear, towels, duct-taped bricks, water bottles, bags of flour, canned food etc. to mimic what they take. We find that a 10 lb Weight Belt or the RUNFast/Max Pro Weighted Vest (can be loaded in increments up to 20 lb or or 40 lb) are faster and easier to use (especially for midweek hikes) and give you the same training benefit. [Just make sure you do a few long hikes with your actual backpack before your trip!]
2. Shorter and Faster Hike midweek
For our Weekday Shorter and Faster Hike, we focus on hiking fast over easier terrain (laps in a local park, up and down in the hilly section of town, etc.). This develops leg speed and gives us the ability to opportunistically “crush” easier sections of trail, gaining valuable time and distance. This also adds feet-on-ground conditioning time each week.
We try and cover as much distance as we can in about 2 to 3 hours. This allows us to fit the hike in before or after work. (See example hike below)
3. Other Training
Stairmaster is a great training tool! It is a fabulous and time efficient workout that builds essential uphill hiking muscles and aerobic capacity—it can be done in crap weather—or in the dead of winter. It’s a core element of our training. Work up to doing 45 minutes to an hour (or more) alternating between steady pace and faster intervals. I try to do 3,000 to 4,000 ft vert (283 to 377 floors) in a workout. For those doing trips at altitude this is a great opportunity for low impact hiking specific aerobic conditioning. (Note: Stairmaster is not a complete tool since it does not condition you to hike downhill—arguably just as important as going up. On your long weekend hikes you will need to ensure that you also train your legs to go downhill, sometimes steeply. And stairmaster does not simulate sloping/uneven trails and randomly varying step heights. Only up and down hiking trails can do that!)
Stairwells in tall buildings are also excellent midweek or lunchtime conditioning, especially since you go up and down.
Fast walking on a steeply inclined treadmill is also good and time-efficient uphill training. Also consider wearing a pack or a weight belt on the treadmill.
Trail running is a great way to aerobically condition yourself, and to develop the eye-foot coordination to miss rocks, tree roots, holes, and other difficult terrain. This does not need to be fast running at all. Slow jogging, even walking steep hills as necessary is just fine! [Some accomplished trail runners may do a lot of long runs for their trip prep, that’s fine. It’s just not our thing.]
Alison and I also swim and bike during the week, but mostly from long-standing habits as triathletes. Not sure that these are the best training for backpacking, but they probably help some (or do whatever aerobic activity floats your boat.)
Tools and Equipment for Monitoring your Training
Old school tools still work! For free you can get trail miles from signs or paper maps and use your own watch for timing. With these you can record distance hiked, your average speed (and possibly elevation gain/loss) for your training hikes. Photo right is my favorite $35 basic solar wrist watch for hiking.
The Gaia GPS App on a smartphone (in tracking mode) is our favorite way to log essential information from our training hikes—distance hiked, speed, and elevation gain.
Or you can use a GPS watch to record time, mileage, and elevation gain/loss on your training hikes. Good GPS watches are available for around $100. A basic Garmin is just fine.
For free, use old school tools to get trail miles and elevation gain/loss from paper maps or trail signs and use your own watch for timing. My favorite basic watch for hiking is this $35 solar wrist watch.
Viruses, pesticides & harmful chemicals in water are a concern for international hikers, and even areas in the US! Sadly, until recently there were no inexpensive & lightweight water purifiers that could handle all these contaminates. But a few months ago Sawyer solved this dilemma with their new Sawyer Select S2 Water Purifier Bottle. It removes viruses, bacteria, protozoa, harmful chemicals, and pesticides. Best of all, it does this in an inexpensive and easy to use bottle weighing only 10 ounces.
What’s Great About It
The combination of removing protozoa, bacteria, and viruses and pesticides, and other harmful chemicals (and even heavy metals like lead & mercury) is what sets the Sawyer S2 and S3 purifiers apart from all others. Few if any purifiers can remove all these contaminants, and certainly not at their low cost and weight. And surprisingly, you can start drinking purified water in just 10 seconds. It’s that easy!
The Sawyer Select S2 Water Purifier Spec’s
Removes 99.99% of viruses, 99.99999% of bacteria, 99.9999% of protozoa, cysts, chemicals & pesticides
Reduces chemicals to 0.5 parts per billion, up to 40 times lower than the EPA’s maximum rec. level
Reduces pesticides to 0.01 ppb, up to 400 times lower than the EPA’s maximum rec. level
Weight dry: 9.2 oz (260 g) on my scale — wet after use 13.0 oz (270 g)
Time to treat 10 sec. Time to drink from bottle immediate. Time to squeeze ~30 sec. for 20 oz capacity.
The Sawyer Squeeze Filter (and Sawyer Mini) both eliminate protozoa and bacteria. But they don’t eliminate viruses, chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals. And they don’t improve the taste or odor of the water. The Sawyer S2 eliminates all of these with the exception of heavy metals. (You have to upgrade to the S3 for heavy metal removal.) On the plus side, the Sawyer Squeeze has a much longer useful life, is much lighter, and costs less than the S2.
TIP: Soon you can convert your current Sawyer Squeeze Filter into a Sawyer Select S1, S2, or S3 Purifier by purchasing just the bottle and foam. This will save you $15 over the full system. [bottle & foam only option currently not available but Sawyer says they are coming soon] See more here…
Chemical treatments don’t eliminate harmful chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals. They are also not 100% effective in turbid water. The Sawyer Select S2 Water Purifier Bottle is much faster. Water is purified & drinkable in 10 seconds. In comparison, chemical treatments can take up to 4 hours to fully purify water. And you have to carry that water around with you until it’s fully treated. That means you’ll unnecessarily carry 2 to 6 pounds of water in your pack. Finally, chemical treatments leave a taste & some hikers don’t like introducing chemicals into their body.
UV sterilization e.g. the SteriPEN eliminates protozoa, bacteria, and viruses in a few minutes. But it doesn’t eliminate chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals. Another downside: UV pens don’t have a good reputation for battery life & treatment capacity in the field. Finally, UV doesn’t work well with muddy, turbid water. In this case, you’ll have an added step of pouring your water through a pre-filter before using the SteriPEN.
How Does the S2 Work?
A new proprietary Adsorption Technology Foam1 is the key to the Sawyer Select S2 Water Purifier and is what sets it apart form the competition. The S2 Water Purifier consists of three main parts:
Flexible silicone bottle that holds proprietary adsorption foam.
Adsorption Foam Purifier Material1. This proprietary adsorption foam is the first stage of purification. It does almost all of the removal of harmful chemicals, pesticides, and viruses (e.g. Hep A, Hep E, Rotavirus, etc.).
Micro Squeeze Filter2 on top of the bottle. This is the second stage of purification. It removes bacteria (e.g. E coli, typhoid fever, cholera, etc.) and protozoa (.e.g giardia, cryptosporidium. etc.); as well as particulate matter & sediment.
1 The proprietary Foam Adsorption Technology used in Sawyer Select S2 Water Purifier (and S1 and S3 filters) was developed by a partnership between Sawyer and Foamulations LLC . It safely removes contaminants like chemicals, pesticides, and viruses (and heavy metals – S3 only). Adsorption filtration is the process in which harmful chemicals and viruses adhere to the surface of the adsorbent foam membrane. They are permanently captured (adhered to the foam) and neutralized.
2 The new Micro Squeeze Filter is the same diameter and the same flow rate as the Sawyer Squeeze Filter but is shorter and lighter. It uses the same 0.1 micron “Absolute Hollow Fiber Membrane.”
How to Use the Sawyer Select S2 Water Purifier
TIP1: The only thing I would add to these instructions is to use something like a widemouth 20 or 24 oz sports drink bottle to accurately pour water into the 0.75″ diameter opening of the S2 bottle. This 1) makes it easier to collect the water from a stream or lake. And 2) it allows you to make a clean pour without having any contaminated water dripping down the sides of the bottle. That way you can immediately drink from the S2 without worrying about untreated water dripping from the side of the bottle and into your mouth. [For fastest filling, it helps to hold the bottle at a slight angle when you pour the water in.]
Use instructions are right on the side of the S2 bottle.
Useful Life, Cleaning and Storage
The S2 bottle and foam filler last for 800 uses. That’s about 125 gallons. After that you can replace just the bottle and foam. Note: this is also an upgrade option for Sawyer Squeeze Filter owners.
Replacement bottle for S1 – MSRP $44.99
Replacement bottle for S2 – MSRP $64.99
Replacement bottle for S3 – MSRP $74.99
The Micro Squeeze Filter on top of the bottle has a useful life similar to the Sawyer Mini Filter’s or about 100,000 gallons (with backwashing as necessary).
S2 Bottle – Cleaning and Storage
A surprise, but the bottle and foam inside need no backwashing or sterilization between trips. Just squeeze out the excess water from the foam and stow the bottle covered with either the Micro Squeeze Filter or supplied white cap. That is, it’s best to keep the foam damp while in storage. Proprietary ingredients in the foam prevent bacteria and mold growth or bad smells developing. The S2 Bottle is not damaged by freezing.
Micro Squeeze Filter – Cleaning and Storage
Sawyer’s recommendations for post trip maintenance are the same as for the Sawyer Squeeze Filter. So while not absolutely required, it’s a good practice after trips to backwash the filter, sterilize it with a weak bleach solution and then let it air dry. This will promote filter longevity and maximum flow rates. [Instructions are on the outside of Sawyer Squeeze pouches.]
The Micro Squeeze Filter must be kept above freezing when wet. Water freezing in the filter can destroy the hollow fiber membrane. The easiest way to prevent freezing is to put the filter in a Ziplock bag and keep it in your pants pocket or other warm area during the day. And/or sleep with it at night.
Comparison of the S1, S2 & S3 Water Purifications Systems
The S1, S2 and S3 all have the same components (squeeze bottle, adsorption foam, and Micro Squeeze Filter). What varies is:
Contaminates removed: S1 removes the least and S3 removes the most including heavy metals.
(The exact formulation of adsorption foam is what controls the contaminates removed)
Useful life: S1 lasts the longest at 1600 uses, and S3 the least at 400 uses.
Cost: S1 costs the least at $60 & S3 costs the most at $90.
Drink When Thirsty debunks the many myths about hydration and dehydration like “If you are thirsty, it’s already too late” and “If your urine is yellow, you are dehydrated.” This medically sound and well-researched article suggests that Drink When Thirsty is the best and healthiest strategy for hydration during exercise.
This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a slight portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I am never under an obligation to write page post a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.
The manufacturer provided the author a sample of this product for review.
While the Southwest 2400 is our favorite backpacking pack, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak Daypack is our favorite pack for every other need. It is the waterproof ultralight daypack that we trust with $5K to $10K of camera gear in rain soaked places like Iceland or the Northern Coast of Ireland. It is our under-seat carry on pack on the plane. Then when off the plane, we can live out of this same pack for a week of hiking in foreign countries. It is an alpine climbing, done-in-a-day pack. We also use it technical canyoneering, skiing for groceries in a winter blizzard, etc. In summary, it may be the best multipurpose ultralight daypack on the market. Oh, and it also won National Geographic Adventure Mag 2016 “Gear Of The Year.”
Alison on the very wet coast of N. Ireland. Her Hyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak Pack has thousands of dollars of camera gear in it. This despite on and off torrential wind and rain for days on end.
5 Key Features of the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak Daypack
Skiing out to get food during the the Blizzard of 2016.
It’s nearly waterproof. Important when you’re carrying expensive cameras, electronics or clothing you’re depending on to stay warm, like a down jacket.
It’s tough. The black Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), is strong and waterproof, but still light. Pockets are durable, solid fabric.
It’s light. At just over a pound for a 17 liter capacity, it is significantly lighter than most waterproof packs.
Fast gear Access. The clamshell, waterproof top zipper gives faster access to the main pack-bag vs. packs with lids, or roll-top closures. The Daybreak has the perfect combination of external storage: a large bellows back pocket; two side pockets for water bottles, etc.; a nice rear bungie system that you can attach a helmet, crampons or rainwear, etc.; and additional attachment points on both the back of the pack and on the shoulder straps. In summary, you can carry a lot of gear, organize it well and access it quickly.
“Precisely what you need and nothing more.” And finally as with all HMG products the 20 ounce Daybreak Ultralight Daypack epitomizes HMG’s minimal but supremely functional design. As such, they’ve included small details like drain holes for the external pockets, a zippered security pocket for passport, wallet, cash and keys, etc.; and an internal sleeve pocket (I use for maps/papers on-trail and for my 13″ laptop when off-trail/traveling). Oh, and the waist belt is beefy enough to actually handle a decent load!
Walking the Causeway Coast Way in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. We rarely took our rain jackets off! photo: Alison Simon
5 Reasons We Like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak Daypack
There are a number of cheaper functional daypacks. We’ve outlined some of our favorite daypacks in 3 lb Ultralight Day Hiking Checklist.So why is the $225 HMG Daybreak Ultralight Daypack our favorite?
When flying we use or Daybreak packs as our under-seat carry-ons. Then when off the plane, we can live out of this same pack for a week of overnight hiking in foreign countries.
First we carry a lot of expensive camera gear and electronics on every trip. A few hundred dollars to keep it dry and safe vs. the thousands of dollars of camera gear seems like a good investment. [In, fact we often use it as a dedicated camera bag/pack on some trips. It’s much lighter and more waterproof than many camera-specific packs that weigh 3 pounds or more.]
Second, we use our Daybreak Daypacks over and over again. As such the cost is very reasonable if you spread it out over many trips per year over a number of years. E.g. the pack goes on international trips (both carry on luggage and on-trail pack), X-country ski trips, surviving temporary immersion when canyoneering, mountaineering, and trips all around the world.
We know that our packs will survive whatever the terrain or weather dishes out. The fabric is strong and durable and up to bushwhacking and abrasion on rocks. It doesn’t have annoying mesh pockets that snag and tear on everything in creation. And we know that the inside of our pack will remain relatively dry. This is especially important to us since we seem drawn to hiking wet and cold places like Patagonia, Scotland, Iceland, and South Island of New Zealand, etc.
It’s excellent external storage keeps our most needed gear easily accessible. This is much faster and convenient vs. diving into the main bag for commonly needed items. The huge, rear pocket and shock cord attachment system are keys for this.
Finally, the packs are amazingly light given how waterproof and durable they are. Greatly appreciated as much when traveling as when we are on the trail.
SPECIFICATIONS – DAYBREAK ULTRALIGHT DAYPACK
Volume: Internal: 1040 cu. in. (17L) Load capacity: Up to 25 lbs
Small 1.26 lbs | 20.14 oz | 571g
Medium 1.27 lbs | 20.35 oz | 577g Large 1.29 lbs | 20.56 oz | 583g
Large external front pocket, great for hydration/snacks/rain jacket
Removable ice axe attachments
Front shock cord system allows you to lash gear or compress the pack
Two angled side water bottle pockets that are easy to reach while wearing the pack
Clamshell design and long water-resistant YKK zipper allows for wide pack access
Lightly padded 1.5” hip belt with peekaboo pocket to store hip belt when it’s not in use
Internal zippered pocket designed to hold phones/keys/money/etc
Internal sleeve pocket helps to compartmentalize your gear (also fits a 13” laptop)
Bright orange liner makes it easy to see what’s in your pack
Comfortable ¼” padded back panel with chevron-stitched design
Dyneema® Hardline shoulder straps with ¼” foam, spacer mesh and elastic hose keepers
This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a slight portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I am never under an obligation to write page post a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear provided the author a sample of this pack for review.
Many stunning outdoor photos are shot with smartphones. BUT most are no accident. The photographer used good basic techniques & inexpensive gear to get that great photo. The good news is that you too can do this with the 10 following hacks and accessories for better smartphone hiking photography.
The Newest Smartphone Cameras Kick Ass!
The new iPhones (and other high-end smartphones like the Google Pixel) are intensely applying “computational photography” (sophisticated software image processing) to significantly improve photos. This includes dynamic range (ability to handle large differences from the lightest to darkest parts of the photo), color, contrast, texture, and even focus to their photos.
The improvements can be dramatic. So much so, that many times the photos from the new smartphones often look better than photos from much larger “traditional” DSLR cameras. It may take a lot of editing of photos from a traditional camera to clearly see the benefits of a larger sensor. That being said, this article will help you get the very best out your smartphone camera.
The best hiking camera is the one you have with you. For me, that most often is my iPhone. I used my iPhone 6+ to quickly grab a spur of the moment shot of my wife cat napping on warm November afternoon. [And my new iPhone X would have taken an even better photo!]
10 Hacks and Accessories for better smartphone hiking photography
10 Hacks and Accessories for better smartphone hiking photography
For only $25 and some basic technique, you can take far better photos with your iPhone or Android.
Take the photo! Don’t ever think your smartphone camera is holding you back. As hockey great Wayne Gretzky says, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The same applies to photography, maybe more so. Grab your smartphone and start shooting. Some of my best photos were taken on a lark. An “I wonder what this will look like attitude” pays off!
Clean your camera lens. It’s likely filthy! That layer of grime will make every photo worse.
For Android: Open Camera (free), Camera FV-5, and VSCO
Note that your Camera App doesn’t need to be complicated or hard to use. All you really want is control over ISO, shutter speed and focus area. This is mostly for shooting off the tripod in the magic light of dawn and dusk. [Ideally, you want to manually set focus and a low ISO (around 32) to get the best images.]
Tip: Get the best quality photo negatives from your smartphone. If you will be doing serious editing of your photos (see #9 below) then use your camera app to also save in RAW format.
Get a small tripod: This eliminates camera shake, and blurry photos in low light.
Get a remote shutter button: This prevents photo blur when you press your camera to take a photo (the camera moves/vibrates while touching it). It’s also fabulous for high quality selfies (e.g. without your face smashed into the phone see more on this below).
Or use the 2 or 10 second timer setting for your smartphone camera
Or a little known free feature: Your iPhone wired headphone set works as a remote shutter button. Just press the ‘+,’ volume up button to take a photo!
Get closer to your subject and fill the frame (if you can).
Closer is almost always better! So walk, scramble or climb closer to your subject.
DON’T USE YOU CAMERA’S ZOOM! (unless you have one of the new dual lens cameras like the iPhone 7+, 8+ or X. Then go ahead and use that ‘2x’ button.)
All your smartphone’s “zoom” function does is pre-crop your photo. You aren’t getting any more pixels or resolution than if you just cropped it yourself. As such, you might just as well have the additional area around your subject in case you want to use it later.
Try and shoot with the sun behind you, or around 90 degrees from the sun (sun to your left or right.)
If you shoot into the sun, light will fall directly onto your camera lens. This will create washed out low contrast photos lacking in color and detail.
If you absolutely need to shoot into the sun… you can try and shade the lens with your hand, but this can be difficult to do and still tap the shutter button. Sometimes a friend’s hand is a big help.
Take a breath and carefully REVIEW YOUR PHOTO after taking it! You’ll likely not get a 2nd chance, so make sure it’s right.
Sharpness: Enlarge your photo and scan it. Is everything you want in focus, especially critical areas like people faces/eyes & foreground detail?
Exposure: Correct overall exposure? Is there some detail in both shadows and highlights?
Dim Light Problems: Any camera shake (overall photo blur) from a low shutter speed? Smudging, poor color and other nastiness from a high ISO?
People: Eyes open? Good expression? Awkward position, clothing malfunction?
Extraneous Objects: Any odd objects in the photos. E.g. trekking poles you left in the foreground, piece of garbage, somebody photobombing, etc.? Also, make sure you didn’t inadvertently cut off something critical like the top of a mountain.
Use a good photo editing app likeSnapseedto dramatically improve the look of your photos. Spending just a few minutes editing can transform a so-so photo to something special. Many of these programs are free and simple to use.
My personal favorite is Snapseed but some apps like Camera+ also have decent editors.
Tip: Use your camera app to also save in RAW format to give you the most latitude to edit your photos. The RAW file has more dynamic range (ability to capture a larger range of lights to darks without losing detail). E.g. clouds and other light objects will still have good detail while the normal (JPEG or HEIF) files will not.
Manage your battery life and carry a backup battery.
Manage your battery life. Nothing is worse than having an incredible photo opportunity in front of you and pulling out a dead smartphone. With good battery management I get 7 days on trail use hiking with my iPhone. Read more on battery management here. The best batteries for charging smartphones are:
The 5 oz EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery. The highest capacity for its weight, it charges a smartphone 2 to 3 times. I use it on 7-14 day backpacking trips. It has a built-in micro-USB connector and you can connect a lightning cable to its USB port. So you can charge lightening and micro-USB devices at the same time.
Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery. This has faster charging and both micro-USB & lightning connectors. Downside is it has slightly less overall tested (vs. claimed) capacity than the EasAcc.
6 Bonus Hacks
Take the photo! Don’t ever think your smartphone camera is holding you back – I took this shot with a cheap 2011 point & shoot camera but my current iPhone X would have taken a better photo! The major point is that I had a camera and made the time to take the photo. [Pic is Canyonlands UT: An ugly storm of sleet & snow was about to break when a sudden opening in the clouds illuminated the bluff in front of me. I had less than 30 seconds to extract the camera from my pocket, get it out of a waterproof baggie and take the shot before the sun was gone and the heavens opened.]
Take High Quality Selfies. Use one of the small tripods and a Bluetooth Smartphone Camera Remote Shutter. That way you and your friends can easily pose in a picturesque spot many feet from your phone and casually press the remote shutter to take a great photo!
Shoot in the “golden hour” of dawn and dusk. This is when the pro’s shoot. Take the time when you get into camp to scout out some good areas to shoot at dawn and dusk. Then get there with plenty of time to setup and wait for the light show to unfold.
A headlamp is a big help to hike there/setup in the dark, and/or to takedown and hike back in the dark. Use a good Headlamp with a dimming function so you can have low light for not blowing your eyes out when setting but also have a very bright light for hiking.
Protect your smartphone in the field and save weight and money. Rather than bulky, awkward and expensive cases like an OtterBox Case, use the following items:
Pint Ziplock Freezer bag. I highly recommend using a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag used to protect your smartphone from dust, scratches and water (effective, lighter and less expensive than elaborate waterproof cases! And it works well for other electronics.).
Take dreamy blurred water photos. Using Apples new “LIVE” mode or using an app like Slow Shutter Cam. Note that you WILL need to use a tripod and a remote shutter button to get best results. (see above for gear details).
Final Hack – Improvise a “Tripod” to Stabilize your Camera
You can get much of the benefit of a tripod to stabilize your smartphone by improvising a “tripod.” You can brace your smartphone up against a rock, tree, or even hold it against your trekking pole. Remember to squeeze off that shutter gently! Every bit of stability helps to get a sharp photo.
Or better yet, you can use folded garment (or other prop) on top of a rock, or fallen tree to make an improvised tripod/camera rest. Now that you are not holding the camera, remember to put the shutter release on a 2-second delay for sharpest results. But many times pressing the camera will bump it out of position or knock it over. In this case, use a bluetooth remote shutter release (or for iPhone users, remember that your headphones as a remote shutter button) see details in hacks above.
This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.
This is one of the best and most versatile lightweight packs out there—and it’s virtually waterproof! It has a lightweight internal frame to comfortably distribute and carry loads from a few pounds to over 30 lbs, something that most ultralight packs struggle with. Hyperlite Mountain Gear builds all its packs from lightweight, waterproof, tough Dyneema composite fabric (formerly Cuben Fiber). The expandable rear pocket on the Southwest pack and zippered hip pockets give you room for snacks and gear on the go, while the main contents of your pack stay safely below a roll-top closure to keep rain, sleet, and snow away from your gear. Choose a volume – the 2400 cubic inch pack will be plenty for most summer ventures. Longer treks, carrying a bear canister and/or more puffy gear for shoulder seasons make the 3400 a great choice as well.
ULA packs are a great value and a favorite among thru-hikers. ULA makes lightweight packs that are comfortable even when loaded up. It’s a great all-round pack, for those unafraid of buying from cottage manufacturers. ULA also has great options for all sizes of hikers, including different shoulder strap styles, which may be better for female hikers. The Circuit Pack will work for most trips, even those requiring a bear canister. The Ohm 2.0 Pack is great for those with a more compact kit and/or shorter trips (although I carried gear and food for 7 days on the Southern Sierra High Route with a bear canister). Its slim profile gives great balance for scrambling.
Staying in touch in the backcountry has never been so easy. The inReach allows text-messaging-like simplicity of communication even when far from cell service. This differentiates it from the more limited check-in or alert abilities of the SPOT devices. It also adds a layer of safety, comfort, and connection that used to cost much more! This device is lightweight at 6.9 oz, has a long-lasting battery and a durable build. The inReach is an indispensable backcountry communication tool for keeping loved ones updated, and for receiving weather and other important updates from the front country.
For those who are uncertain about going the quilt route, there is no better sleeping bag than Western Mountaineering’s Summerlite. It has a rating perfect for most 3-season ventures, features full baffling, and weighs in at just over a pound. The bag can be zipped up in typical mummy sleeping bag mode, but can also be unzipped and used essentially as a quilt. It is well built, and uses premium 850-fill down. While this is an expensive purchase, it’s common for these bags to last decades.
The Feathered Friends Merlin UL 30 Sleeping Bag is another winner sleeping bag.
A very WARM winner: with 12 oz of 900+ fill power down (vs. the 8 oz in the WM SummerLite), this is likely to be closer a +20 F bag but weighs less than 1.5 pounds! (Although Feathered Friends conservatively rates it +30 F.)
Mountain Hardwear touts the 7.7 oz Ghost Whisperer as “the world’s lightest full-featured down jacket.” For 1.2 oz more than the Montbell EX Light Down Anorak you get a full front zipper and pockets. MH uses a unique “Whisperer 7D x 10D Ripstop” fabric that is light, tough, down proof, and fairly water resistant. Oh, and the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer has won a ton of awards.
This is Feathered Friends’ lightest weight down jacket, but don’t let that fool you. Though this clocks in at only 10.6 oz (Men’s med.), it has 3.7 oz of 900+ fill goose down (9 oz with 2.8 oz down for W’s med.). That’s more than 30% more down fill than the popular, but more expensive Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer. More down fill means more warmth! With a hood, and sinchable waist, this jacket can tighten down to keep all your precious heat in if things get cooler than expected, but the jacket is light enough to take with you on any 3-season outing. There are Men’s and Women’s versions, and as with all Feathered Friends’ goods, it’s made in Seattle, USA.
Weighing less than 14 oz, this is the lightest fully-baffled jacket we know of. Montbell has pulled this feat off by using 900-fill down and a very thin 7-denier ballistic nylon shell. Down accounts for over 40% of the garment weight—an incredible feat of design engineering! If you like to bushwhack through dense evergreens in the depths of winter, this might not be durable enough for you, but for most backpackers, this will allow pushing shoulder season or even through winters (you probably need more in the deep north). Unfortunately, this jacket doesn’t come in a Women’s version yet.
If you hate being cold this is the jacket for you! The Helios jacket is insane puffy and warm. It packs an extra 2 oz. of high-fill down than the Mirage, and uses a more durable outer fabric. (It also weighs 4 oz more.) It’s made in the USA, and is purpose built with mountaineering in mind, so you know it’s warm! Feathered Friends is known for their high quality down and weight-conscious products.
Okay, not everyone needs a siege-proof alpine four-season beast of a tent. REI’s long-time favorite Quarter Dome Tent is a great option for those looking for a reasonably priced lightweight free-standing backpacking tent. If ultralight tarps seem too daunting, this will still help you cut weight, weighing just over 3 lbs, but the Quarter Dome remains comfortable with ample head room, and plenty of space for two backpackers. The increased room/livability from extremely vertical walls is what sets tent apart from most of its peers.
If you want to cut a little weight, but keep lots of space, Big Agnes has you covered with the high volume version of their Copper Spur UL 2 freestanding tent. It comes in at 2 lb. 12 oz on the trail, and can be pitched even lighter using just the fly. This is one of the most spacious 2-person tents out there, which is great if you are going to be stuck in your tent playing cards for a while in bad weather, or just prefer highly livable tents.
This is the pyramid shelter against which all others are measured. These have been used by thru hikers on the longest treks, deep in the wilderness of Alaska, on glaciers and high peaks, and even occasionally as car-camping tents! The design is flexible, durable, functional, livable, and light at 21 oz for the SilNylon version. It can withstand serious storms, and open up on nice nights. It is spacious and comfortable for two backpackers and their gear. Of course, for the gram counters, this tarp also comes in the much lighter cuben fiber (Dyneema composite fabric) version, weighing in at 16 oz even, and costing about $700 depending on the color of fabric used. Note Asym design: one of the few ‘Mids that allows a couple to sleep side-by side without a center pole between them.
This is the upgraded version of the shelter Andrew Skurka took on his epic Alaska-Yukon Expedition. It’s a 1-person version of the Duomid with all the same great features, but it’s lighter and less expensive! It fits 1-person with ample room for gear. This SilNylon version comes in at just over a pound (17 oz). The Cuben fiber (Dyneema composite fabric) is a svelte 12 oz, but costs $465. For such a versatile, lightweight shelter, it’s a bargain! Note: new 2017 Asym, single pole design with 70% of the user space behind the one center pole and the front 30% functions as a vestibule. This offset design allows entry and exit in rainy conditions to help keep the sleep side of the shelter dry like the DuoMid XL design.
Tarptent has been around for ages with a great reputation in the lightweight backpacking community. As the name suggests it combines the best aspects of a tent and tarp. That is, low weight combined with a fully waterproof floor and mosquito protection. The Notch is a great 1-person shelter, that sets up with two trekking poles, and includes a full inner bug netting and a bathtub floor. The Notch will keep you and your stuff dry in a rain storm, and there is ample headroom to sit up and wait out the foul weather from dry comfort inside! The shelter weighs in at 27 oz, which is a fair bit lighter than even the lightest free-standing tents!
Rain jacket “durability” is a complex topic not well understood by most people. This post debunks some durability myths and clearly lays out what to look for in a durable rain jacket. Finally, we list some of the very best durable rain jackets on the market that are also light!
Rain Jacket Durability 101 – How to Select the Best Durable Rain Jacket
Rain Jacket Breathability 101 – How to Select a Breathable Rain Jacket – and how best to use it (coming soon)
What is Rain Jacket Durability?
In brief, rain jacket durability is a complex topic that includes the jacket remaining waterproof while continuing to breathe (vent body moisture), the shell fabric not ripping, seams not failing, and zippers, elastic adjusters, velcro etc. continuing to work without massive cleaning and maintenance.
NOTE: There are many good reasons why you might not buy the most durable rain jacket! Case in point, is the 8 oz, 2.5 layer jacket above, my first choice for so many trips that it finally wore out. See more here…
The 12 oz REI Co-op Rhyolite with its 3-layer eVENT fabric is durable AND Light. At half the price of competitor’s jackets, it’s a great value!
The Three Elements of Rain Jacket Durability
A. Outer shell fabric durability
The ability of the rainwear’s exterior fabric to:
Resist tearing, punctures and abrasion damage
Maintain its water shedding & breathability—usually with a durable, water repellent finish DWR
Note: outer shell fabric “wet out,” the breakdown of this water shedding property, does not completely stop all breathability as is popularly believed. See more below.
B. Inner waterproof/breathable (WPB) membrane durability
The ability of the shell’s inner WPB lining to maintain waterproofness AND breathability:
The WPB membrane should remain physically intact under the wear and tear of garment use (not so easy in regular use with a backpack!).
In particular the WPB membrane should not delaminate from the outer shell, develop cracks, etc. In this case, 3-layer construction jackets are likely more durable. That’s because their inner fabric liner protects the more delicate WPB membrane vs. the unprotected membrane of 2.5 layer jackets.
The WPB membrane should not foul with body oils, dirt, detergent residues or other materials which will cause the WPB membrane to leak.
C. Hardware failures
Zippers that jam, no longer mate at the bottom, or start auto-separating in the field
Elastic adjusters on hoods, cuffs and hems of jackets. Velcro that looses its stick, adjusters/buckles that break or slip, etc.
So What Fails Most Often?
[Two high quality 2.5 layer jackets from big name outdoor gear companies] In my experience, membrane delamination like this in the neck and upper shoulders is the most common way that rainwear permanently fails. While this happens faster to the unprotected WPB membrane of 2.5-layer jackets like these — if you wear a 3-layer jacket long enough it too will eventually delaminate and leak. And backpackers beware: wearing a pack dramatically speeds up this delimitation process for both 2.5 and 3-layer jackets!
1) Waterproof Breathable Membrane Delamination
As the pictures above show, WPB membrane failure is likely the first and most common, non-fixable way rain jackets fail (leak). And note that while the examples are dramatic, many small cracks, punctures, and delaminations are not obvious but will still cause your jacket to leak. This is true for 2.5 and 3-layer jackets, although 3-layer rain jackets usually last longer. This is one reason why the outdoor industry still makes a big deal about 2.5 vs 3-layer construction.
Note: Many outdoor companies like Patagonia, REI and Outdoor Research, offer good product warranties that cover zipper failures, membrane delamination, etc. This will protect your jacket as a long term investment. But if your jacket fails in the field you may have to suffer through wet until you get home and can ship it back for repair or replacement.
Fabric ‘wet out’ reduces but doesn’t completely stop breathability. [click photo to enlarge]
On the left is a traditional fabric surface treated with a DWR that has already started to fail (wet out). Large wetted out areas will reduce the breathability of a rain jacket. In comparison, on the right is a newer, non-chemical water shedding fabric technology, Columbia’s naturally hydrophobic Columbia OutDry Ex Eco Tech fabric continues to bead and shed water.
2) “Wet Out” (DWR failure) – Outer Shell no Longer Beading/Shedding Water
Wet out is another common “failure,” altho it can be fixed. Wet out happens when the durable, water repellent finish DWR no longer beads up and sheds water. The most common reason for this is the DWR finish (a chemical) wearing off after many garment washings, and/or the surface getting fouled with dirt and other compounds. While this doesn’t cause the rain jacket to leak, it does likely slow down the breathability of the jacket (see more below). This makes it easer to sweat out the inside of the jacket if you are working hard. Your DWR can be refreshed by washing the jacket and treating it with a DWR restoring wash compound and/or spray. E.g. some of these form Nikwax.
Note: While, some newer fabrics like Columbia OutDry Ex Eco are inherently hydrophobic and don’t need a DWR. You will still need to keep the fabric free of dirt for best water shedding.
Myth: A Wetted Out Rain Jacket Doesn’t Breathe
It’s a myth rainwear stops breathing once it wets out. This is according to interviews I had with 1) Jeff Mergy, the Director of the Innovation Team at Columbia Sportswear (among other things tech. guy for OutDry Ex Eco Fabric and 2) Dr. Fred Wilson PhD a long term industry scientist who worked for both GORE and eVENT on WPB fabrics.
In an interview I had with Jeff Mergy, he stated that WPB membranes are still breathable when outer shell is wetted out but not as breathable. It is still not clearly understood how less breathable but Jeff believes it is significant. BUT he said that part of what consumers believe is “not-breathable” is often the clammy next skin feel of conventional WPB jackets. Columbia OutDry Ex Eco helps with this by having an actual wicking fabric that feels far more comfortable next to the skin. Even when the outer shell is wetted out. [Note: other 3-layer technologies with a fabric liner should have a similar non-clammy feel.]
3) Fouled WPB Membranes Can Leak
Body oils, dirt, and other compounds can contaminate the inner WPB membrane and cause it to leak. This is another non-permanent failure that can generally be fixed by properly washing your jacket. Nonetheless this is a problem in the field as it can’t be easily fixed until you get home. 3-layer jackets are less prone to membrane contamination since they have a fabric liner that keeps them away from your skin, dirt, oils and other sources of contamination.
From ‘B’ and ‘C’ it should be clear that keeping your rainwear clean, and refreshing the DWR are easy ways to improve the long-term breathability of an waterproofness of your rain jacket. So use products like these form Nikwax.
4) Hardware Failures
Another fairly common failure are front zippers that jam, no longer mate at the bottom, or start auto-separating in the field. In my experience zipper problems are second only to membrane delaminations for “non-fixable” failures. It is why I prefer beefier toothed zippers (vs. coil) on my rain jackets, or even a 1/2 zip rain jacket that eliminates the always risky mating of the zipper at the hem.
5) Ripping, Tearing and Puncturing the Jacket Shell Fabric
Finally, what rarely fails (at least in my 20+ years of using modern rain jackets) is the actual shell fabric of the rain jacket. I’ve used a large number very thin jackets over the years and they have rarely torn, ripped, punctured or had a seam fail. Generally, something else gets them first. (But I do avoid bushwhacking in sub 7 ounce rain jackets if at all possible.) Note that torn, ripped, punctured jackets are rarely covered under any warrantee, so the durability of a rain jacket’s outer shell fabric is a serious consideration if you think you might abuse your jacket.
The Best Durable Rain Jackets
Two of the very best durable rain jackets. (Green – Right) Outdoor Research Realm with its extremely breathable, tough, semi-stretch AscentShell 3-Layer fabric. (Blue – Left) Montbell Storm Cruiserwhich manages a full feature set including big pit zips at only 10 oz. Both have chest pockets well above a pack’s hipbelt.
Not long ago, a getting a durable rain jacket meant getting heavy bulky jacket that cost and arm and a leg. Now you can get a tough and durable rain jacket that is under 12 ounces and possibly as light as 6 – 8 ounces. And some cost less than you’d think!
The following are our picks for the Best Durable but still Lightweight Rain Jackets for Backpacking. The cutoff weight for inclusion is approximately 12 ounces. We believe that for this weight you can get sufficient durability, features, waterproofness and breathability for all activities short of severe bushwhacking and intense alpine climbing (and even then… ). And while we do not exclude running or climbing/mountaineering jackets they also need to be well suited to backpacking (and some are).
Note that many mainstream outdoor apparel brand offer “extremely durable” jackets. These jackets often use GORE-TEX pro with 50-70 denier fabric (or similar). They weigh 16-24 ounces and cost ~ $300-500. These have limited application in sports or professions other than hiking. We strongly believe they are far too heavy for hiking, backpacking or even lightweight mountaineering or climbing.
FEATURES: The REI Co-op Rhyolite is a solid three layer jacket at a great price! It has two well placed chest pockets and adjustable hem, cuffs and hood. REI made some good design choices with this jacket: the pockets are high enough to use when wearing hip straps and it has mesh pocket linings creating two large and effective chest vents (which we prefer over pit-zips). Additionally, the Rhyolite’s seam-free shoulder design is good when wearing a pack and should increase durability in this critical area. If you’re planning on buying this jacket, note that the hem comes up just a little short in the back, and the fabric is a bit on the stiff side (it didn’t bother us).
BEST FOR: Hikers and backpackers looking for a great value in rain protection with good breathability and great ventilation that can endure significant wear and tear. And it has the REI warranty! Note: the jacket uses the more waterproof/but moderate breathability 3-layer eVent DValpine™ fabric (20,000 g/m2/hr) vs. the more highly breathable DVstorm fabric (30,000 g/m2/hr).
TECH: OutDry Ex Eco fabric (“1-Layer” is our term, not the manufacturer’s, since the shell fabric & membrane are one in the same!)
FEATURES: An unusual entry, the OutDry Extreme Eco uses newly developed eco-friendly, “1-layer” technology to make a mid-price, full featured, lightweight rain jacket with elastic drawcord hood (and hood velcro), velcro adjustable cuff, drawcord adjustable elastic hem, and two mesh chest pockets (great for ventilation). From our use the OutDry Ex Eco fabric is waterproof, breathable, and quite tough. And the OutDry technologies inherent water repellence prevents wet out without using traditional PFC-based DWRs. The jacket has a roomy fit for layering and nice length in the back for covering your tail. Some have criticized the Eco for keeping in the heat, but we have not found that to be the case.
Note that compared to the other 3-layer jackets in this category, the fabric in these jackets feels odd, like your first rubber rain jacket in grade school. This may be off-putting to some. But we didn’t find it impaired its performance. And the all-white color while eco may not be some people’s ideal fashion statement for the trail.
BEST FOR: Someone looking for an extremely durable jacket for frequent use that has long term waterproofness and breathability and water shedding (without need to refresh a DWR). This jacket might well survive the longest when worn continually with a backpack.
Possibly the best all-around jacket in this group and at a reasonable price.
TECH: AscentShell 3-Layer, 100% nylon 20 D mechanical stretch ripstop face with 100% Polyester 12 D backer (30,000 g/m2/24h)
FEATURES: The Outdoor Research Realm is a close competitor with the Montbell Storm Cruiser — they’re close in price, weight, feature set. What makes the Realm unique is its high breathability (30,000 g/m2/24h!) AscentShell fabric which also has stretch and a super nice feel. The Realm has two double pockets in the chest (one mesh, one waterproof with a subpocket for an iPhone in the mesh pocket), dual drawcord hood, tough toothed zipper, huge hood, velcro cuffs, and stiffened brimmed hood. The Realm also has great range of motion in the shoulder area making it well suited for climbing as well as backpacking .
BEST FOR: Anyone looking for tough, highly breathable, full-featured rain that works equally well for hiking, backpacking or climbing. Note that the Realm does not have pit-zips, altho its fabric breathability makes these less essential.
FEATURES: The Montbell Storm Cruiser is a full-featured, durable jacket that competes with the Outdoor Research Realm. The Storm Cruiser has all the bells and whistles while remaining at 10 oz! Drawcord adjustable hem, velcro adjustable elastic cuffs, big pit zips, two big waterproof chest pockets (above that pesky hip belt), a good-sized coil zipper and a three way adjustable hood (it’s quite deep). For venting the Storm Cruiser has two large pit-zips vs. the Realm’s single mesh lined chest pocket. This may be more to some people’s liking.
BEST FOR: Anyone looking for tough, breathable, well designed rain jacket that has pretty much every feature, including large pit-zips! Note: This jacket is only available directly from Montbell.
Note: The Patagonia M10 Anorak is the only jacket here that fits in both this 3-layer Durable Category and the ExtremeLight Category below. Quite an achievement if you can deal with the 1/2 zipper and minimal feature set! And it does have a nice chest pocket!
TECH: 3-layer, 2-oz 12-denier 100% nylon ripstop with a WPB barrier and a DWR finish
FEATURES: The M10 Anorak has a huge hood, deep chest zip and Napoleon pocket. The zip on the front contributes to the durability of the jacket (much lower risk of zipper wear and separation) and the reduced feature set leaves less to break while still allowing for full functionality. The jacket does have a snug fit — we had to size up to fit the jacket comfortably. But the Anorak is a standout pick in our list for anyone looking for durability that doesn’t weigh you down. Additionally, the Anorak further improves durability by using tough “welded seams” and moving seams away from the back, neck, and shoulder area (places where the jacket wears the quickest).
BEST FOR: The M10 Anorak is an excellent choice for someone looking for a long lasting fabric and feature set jacket that is incredibly light. Intended for athletes, the Anorak’s slim fit is extremely useful for runners climbers and others not looking for much insulation beneath a rain jacket. Given that, if you want to layer with the Anorak, you should consider sizing up.
ExtremeLight Rain Jackets that are a durable in their own way
I’ve been an REI member since the mid 70’s. Still, when a REI sale comes around, I get overwhelmed trying to find the best lightweight gear among the vast inventory. This year, I decided to prep by going for a 2 hour visit to my local REI Store, and then doing research online selecting more great lightweight hiking and backpacking gear. The result is my Lightweight Hiker’s Guide to REI Gear Up Get Out Sale.
EVENT: Gear Up Get Out Sale. Save up to 30% off at REI.
PLUS: Members Get 20% off one full price item and 20% off one REI Garage Item
Below, I share with you my strategy to get the best out of the REI sale. This is in the following sequence
First: hit the REI GARAGE to use your 20% off any one GARAGE item. Stuff goes fast and sizes/colors are limited to begin with. I’ve noted a few items that I found to be good deals, but be flexible since sizes and colors can go quickly. And do some searching. If you’re a small or very large person, you can totally score here. I’ve only put in items that had several good sizes. Keep in mind that something labeled “men” might be good for women, and vice versa.
Second: Hit the Regular REI Sale Items (I have some picks below). The best items on sale will go quickly. There’s a section below that has Regular Sale Items I thought were good.
Third: shop Full-price Items. This is the last area I would look over. Again in a section below, I have noted some high priced items where 20% off would be welcome, as well as some lower cost options.
Oh, and Patagonia R1 Hoodies & Pullovers are 30% off – might be my favorite sale item! Think of it as “fur for humans.” Possibly the most versatile cold weather base layer ever made. It works over an astonishing range of conditions. Mine has been to many a mountain top all over the world.
Good luck and happy shopping! -AdventureAlan
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Lightweight Hiker’s Guide to REI Gear Up Get Out Sale
A steal if you also use your Members Get 20% off one REI Garage Item.
This jacket has been a staple of the ultralight crowd for years. My wife and I both own one. It’s not the cheapest jacket but it’s light, and uses a generous 3.5 oz of 800-fill-power traceable down. It comes in both a jacket and a hooded version for a little more money. The hooded version is hands-down our favorite!
Insulated with premium 800-fill-power 100% Traceable Down: goose down that can be traced back to birds that were never force-fed, never live-plucked
Pertex® Quantum ripstop nylon shell fabric is the lightest-weight fabric used by Patagonia; variegated channels stabilize the goose down
Slim silhouette layers under a shell and efficiently traps heat; side panels with narrow channels provide shape and reduce bulk
A good pair of hiking shoes, ain’t cheap. So these might be a good choice for the your 20% off any one Garage item.
These are Alison’s and my favorite backpacking and hiking shoes. These are the most comfortable shoe after a 30+ mile day on the trail. One key is the massive toe room that is so kind to trail-swollen feet at the end of the day. They are light and have a zero drop heel for a more natural stride. These come in both Men’s and Women’s models.
We also like the lighter and award winning Altra Superior shoes. We have even taken them technical canyoneering with good success. M’s model and W’s model. One thing that makes the Superiors stand apart is upper fabric is that it stops sand and grit entry while still being breathable!
This is a great chance to stock up on some small holiday presents
And yes, the Swiss Army Classic is well, a classic ultralight knife. But at 25% off don’t stop there if you want something more elaborate for a front country camping knife (e.g. Swiss Army Huntsman Knife) or something in between for everyday carry…
If you want to cut a little weight, but keep lots of space, Big Agnes has you covered with their Copper Spur ultralight freestanding tents. They are some of the most spacious backpacking tents out there, which is great if you are going to be stuck in your tent playing cards for a while in bad weather, or just prefer highly livable tents. The Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 Tent is a longtime favorite among ultralight backpackers.
Light in your pack and easy on your wallet. If you want to cut a little weight, but keep lots of space, look at the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 Tent. It comes in at 2 lb. 15 oz on the trail, and can be pitched even lighter using just the fly. [Note that this is a semi-free standing tent. the rear of the tent does need to be staked out.]
The Jetboil Flash stove is an all-in-one stove, heat exchanger, pot combination. It’s a great option if you want hot water quickly in camp – it’ll get your morning coffee boiling in just two-and-a-half minutes. That’s 3-4 times faster than an alcohol stove system. At 15.2 oz, it’s not too heavy. Or you could consider the Jetboil FlashLite, which weighs 4 oz less, but has a lower 0.8 L water capacity vs. 1.0 L for the Flash.
If wool isn’t your thing… light and durable Patagonia Capilene Midweight baselayers are a great option.
We are particular fans of the Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck Long Underwear Top with its long, center-front zipper for easy venting when you work up a sweat, full underarm gussets and raglan shoulder seams that provide unhindered shoulder mobility, and elastic thumbholes that keep sleeves from riding up and provide partial coverage for your hands.
Quick-drying Polartec® Power Grid™ fabric with 93% (solids) and 63% (heathers) recycled polyester content has a smooth face for easy layering
Brushed fabric with a grid pattern next to the skin provides warmth, breathability and moisture-wicking performance
Polygiene permanent odor control helps keep the fabric smelling fresh, wash after wash
Flatlock seams minimize chafing
Fair Trade Certified sewing means the people who made this shirt earned a premium for their labor
From Darn Tough: “Our unconditional lifetime guarantee is simple and without strings or conditions. If our socks are not the most comfortable, durable and best fitting socks you have ever owned, return them for another pair. For life.”
I like Wool Socks and use them for all my hiking. Darn tough socks are among the best. And they make tons of non-wool socks if that’s your thing. I prefer thinner socks with lower tops.
Custom-count, shrink-treated merino wool that enhances comfort and durability for outdoor activities
Merino wool wicks away moisture and breathes to regulate temperature for outstanding comfort in a variety of conditions
Ring-toe construction hides seams and enhances comfort.
Reinforced heels and toes; elastic support around the arches
One of the best hardshells out there and it costs far less than the competition.
3-layer eVent waterproof breathable membrane is highly breathable & durable
The REI Co-op Rhyolite is a great three layer jacket with two well placed chest pockets and adjustable hems, cuffs and hood. REI made several clever design choices with this jacket: The pockets are high enough to use when wearing hip straps and use mesh pocket lining to creating two effective chest vents for backpackers. Additionally, the Rhyolite jacket is REI’s durable rain jacket, due to tough fabric and seam placement on the shoulders -they directed the seams away from high friction areas on the shoulders and back where a backpack would accelerate wear. If you’re planning on buying this jacket, note that the hem comes up just a little short in the back, and the fabric is just a touch stiff (these issues can be solved with thoughtful sizing).
BEST FOR: Hikers and backpackers looking for rain protection with good breathability and great ventilation that can endure significant wear and tear in formidable conditions.
Warm, comfortable, light and compact. What more do you want?
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir line sets the gold standard for backpacking sleeping pads. This is the “Women’s” version of the XLite, but it’s the right size for most backpackers (all the men I know use it). At 12 oz and with an R-value of 3.9, it’s warmer and lighter than the “Men’s” version. This pad will be a go-to piece of any backpacker’s sleeping kit.
The layering system sounds attractive in theory. But as practiced by most hikers it is seriously flawed. It can be heavy, and expensive. And not used properly it could even make you colder. This article points out the major mistakes hikers make when buying and using a clothing layering system. And of course, it has tips on how to properly select and use a better and lighter layering system!
Lead photo: Hiking in the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind Rivers after a blizzard. I am warm and happy using a very light layering system, weighing less than a pair of hiking boots.
Seasonal Note*: Now that the first snow has hit in the Sierras and Rockies and hard frosts are common in the East… this updated, seasonal version of this post contains:
Some gear hacks (non-clothing) to keep you warm in the “shoulder season.” E.g. Tents/shelters, sleeping bags/quits that will keep you warm and protected with a minimal increase in weight over 2+ season gear.
And honestly at this point, this is a full-on, detailed Guide to Light and Effective Layering for Backpacking and Hiking
Top Mistakes Using the Layering System
People bring too many layers as well as the wrong layers. This costs a lot of money and it’s heavy. Try to find a minimal set of light clothing that will work in a broad range of conditions. It can be done!
A good layering system is NOT about frequently changing layers. Quite the opposite, you should strive to minimize adding or removing layers. A single set of well-selected clothes should work in a broad range of temperatures (from mid-20s °F to around 50 °F) without adding or removing layers. [* “shoulder season” clothing should get you down to +10º to 0º F]
Frequent stops to change layers can seriously chill you. And once chilled it can be exceptionally hard to get warm again. (In cold weather, constant but moderate movement is what keeps you warm.)
Overheating and sweating out clothes will get you very cold in the long run. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness. (And in cold weather it takes a very long time to dry, if ever.)
A windshirt is not all that it’s cracked up to be. An inexpensive, midweight fleece jacket is far more useful cool weather and saves weight. (Among other things, it helps minimize sweating out your clothes!)
A single set of clothes for the entire day: Here I am in late winter conditions at around 4,000 ft on the Appalachian Trail. It’s windy and about 25 degrees. But I’m warm and comfortable hiking at my own pace wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer) , a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. I can hike in this outfit from the mid-20s °F to around 50 °F – going up and down hill without needing to stop for a clothing change.
Why Use a Layering System?
A layering system is really just a set of good hiking clothes. It is supposed to keep you safe and comfortable in a broad range of temperatures and environmental conditions (wind, rain, sleet and snow). The layering system is most useful for cold weather (in warm weather, a light top and bottom usually suffice). Ideally, this layering system should be simple, light and inexpensive.
In cold weather the challenge for a layering system is to have you:
Not freeze when hiking in low temperatures and/or at low physical exertion levels (e.g. walking downhill)
But also not overheat and soak your clothing with sweat as temperatures get warmer and/or at high physical exertion levels (e.g. hiking uphill with a pack on)
To protect you from wind and precipitation
Finally, have a very warm layer ready (usually a down jacket) to keep warm at rest stops and in camp
A Layering System for Hiking and Backpacking
This clothing layering system is designed for 3-season conditions (spring, summer, and fall) and for temperatures from the mid-20s °F and up. It has withstood the test of time and many difficult environments. I’ve used this layering system for the past 5 years hiking in many places and many seasons in the US and on 3 continents. And with surprisingly little variation it has worked exceptionally well from the high mountains, to the desert and jungles of South America. (Note: to be very clear, this system is not for full-on winter hiking. But I have included some clothing adjustments (in blue) for brief periods of winter-like conditions of the shoulder seasons of late fall and early spring.)
The following layering system is slightly tuned towards cooler temperatures of the high mountains, or early spring and late fall at lower elevations (e.g. March on the Appalachian trail). But I’ve also added a few options in a subsequent table for warmer, more humid conditions (e.g. the Appalachian Trial mid-summer, or the tropical jungle).
1) Layering System for Colder Weather
Including the “shoulder season” – Spring or Fall with potential winter-like conditions
A light layering system while summiting in Scotland’s Highlands. I was ribbed by the Scots as “the Yank in trainers [running shoes] and yellow pants” for wearing virtually nothing given the winter conditions. Nonetheless, I summited just fine in my light running shoes and 4 oz shell pants—wearing the same clothing system without changes to the summit and back down.
New highly air-permeable (super breathable) shell, synthetic fill jackets are a new alternative to fleece. More expensive and less durable they may be lighter and more compressible for equivalent warmth. [I still prefer fleece]
Given that I will likely be wearing my jacket more frequently (both for rain and as a “windshirt” when cold), I favor a more breathable & durable 3-layer construction for shoulder season (SS). Outdoor Research Realm is my current favorite.
Your tent doesn’t keep you warm. The hard reality is that the temperature inside your tent, at best, will only be a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
Your tent just keeps the wind and rain off (very important!)—but so will a tarp or pyramid shelter.
What does keep you warm is a puffy down sleeping bag and jacket. Usually used in combo when it’s super cold. That is, down get you the most warmth for its weight.
So get a good down jacket and a down sleeping bag or quilt vs. spending extra bucks and weight on a bomber shelter. That is the difference in weight between a 14 oz pyramid shelter and a 3+ pound tent will get you some incredible warmth in down gear and clothing!
Don’t believe the dire warnings about getting down wet—it’s hard to do. In over 40 years of backpacking all over the world in all sorts of conditions, I have yet to get my down so wet that it didn’t keep me warm. (New water resistant shell fabrics and water resistant down only improve upon this.)
“Women’s” R3.9 lighter/warmer than Men’s. Best for for men too! XTherm, R5.7, is warmer & heavier. For a light, low cost hack cut Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest pad in half & put it over the top of your current pad (shoulder to knees).
3) Layering System for Warm Weather (also Lyme & Zika Protection)
Note: Many of these layers are also perfectly appropriate for cold and temperate weather. As such, they bear serious consideration if you only want to buy one set of clothing for 3 seasons (Spring, Summer and Fall). In contrast to cold weather layering systems, this warm weather version also:
Protects you from Solar Radiation
Keeps you cool when it is hot
Protects you from bug transmitted diseases such as Lyme and Zika
And as stated earlier, long pants and long sleeved shirts are far better and more practical at protecting you from brush, sun, and disease carrying insects. Chemical sunscreens and insect repellent lotions take a lot of time to correctly apply to large areas of skin. And they don’t last nearly as long as the near-lifetime* effectiveness of long pants and long sleeve shirts against bugs and sun.