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The Big Outside by Michael Lanza - 1d ago

Down Jacket
REI 650 Down Jacket
$100, 1 lb. 11 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XL, women’s XS-XL
rei.com

When you’re shopping for backpacking and hiking gear on a budget—or just targeting your budget strategically to put more into, say, a better pack, tent, or rain shell—an insulated jacket is one of those items where you can save a significant amount and still take home something that’s going to serve your needs for years. And REI’s 650 Down Jacket fits right into that kind of spending plan. I wore this down jacket on cool mornings in the low 50s on a six-day, 74-mile backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, and came away convinced it’s clearly one of the best values available in a lightweight, three-season puffy jacket today.

There’s nothing glamorous or unique about the 650 Down Jacket; it simply has all you need to stay warm when camping in the backcountry or in front country campgrounds—or hiking around town—in the range of temperatures normally encountered in summer in the mountains and spring and fall in southern climes. The 650-fill-power, RDS (Responsible Down Standard) down makes the jacket reasonably warm for its weight, and warm enough for most people in temps in the 40s Fahrenheit over a base layer.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

The REI 650 Down Jacket.

It lacks a hood, but a wool hat is usually a fine replacement in the temp range this jacket is made for, and the full-length front zipper closes up the collar closely enough to keep wind out. The elasticized hem doesn’t adjust, but extends below the waist and also fits closely enough that you don’t feel the cold air or wind creeping up inside.

The fit is roomy enough to add layers underneath without feeling overly bulky, and the sleeves are long enough to not expose your wrists when reaching overhead; it also comes in six sizes for men and five for women, as well as big and plus sizes for men and women and kids sizes.

The nylon shell fabric blocks wind well and is treated with a DWR (durable, water-resistant finish) to repel light precipitation. The two zippered hand pockets are adequately room and warm, and the jacket stuffs into the left pocket, packing down to a bit larger than a liter bottle—a perfect size for a backpacking pillow, so it saves you a few more bucks there, too.

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The Verdict

While it doesn’t have high-quality down, a hood, or other features (like water-resistant down) of a more-expensive down or synthetic jacket, the REI 650 Down Jacket represents one of the best values you’ll find in a three-season insulated jacket that’s light and packable enough for backcountry use.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase a men’s REI 650 Down Jacket at rei.com, or a women’s REI 650 Down Jacket at rei.com. Or click here to see all of the 650 Down Jacket versions available.

Tell me what you think. I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

See all of my reviews of insulated jackets and outdoor apparel that I like at The Big Outside, and my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets.”

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.

—Michael Lanza

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By Michael Lanza

That first full day was a hard one.

We had hiked less than an hour into the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park the night before, camping in the dense forest surrounding Phelps Lake, where we saw mule deer grazing at dusk and the wind howled through the dark night. In the morning, probably tired from the long previous day of traveling to Jackson, we got a slow start under packs heavy with too much old, oversize gear. The sun starts baking the open lower section of the Death Canyon Trail by mid-morning; so our gorgeous hike beneath soaring granite cliffs and along a roaring cascade quickly also became a hot, dusty climb.

Death Canyon is not the kind of place its name conjures. One of the several major east-west-oriented canyons carved deeply into the eastern front of the Tetons, pouring creeks into Jackson Hole and the Snake River, Death Canyon abounds with life. We saw deer, moose, lots of birds, and black bear scat. On the long ascent of the canyon’s headwall to Fox Creek Pass, we practically waded through vast meadows of wildflowers.

Death Canyon Shelf on the Teton Crest Trail.

And it only got better from there. Knackered from the miles and the alpine sun and not yet acclimated to the high elevations, we nonetheless felt pulled along the Teton Crest Trail over Death Canyon Shelf, a 9,500-foot bench sandwiched between a three-mile-long, 500-foot-tall cliff and the deep trench of Death Canyon. Boulders as big as small houses lay strewn about this tableland, their sides and edges so neatly squared off they look quarried. After pitching our tents near the rim of Death Canyon, with a view of the jagged Tetons unlike anything these native Easterners had seen before, we tried bouldering on those massive rocks, but discovered they had edges that sliced like razors.

After watching the sunset slowly paint the peaks golden, we turned in for a well-earned crash. But one of the locals decided to interrupt our rest. During the night, I heard heavy clomping just outside our tents, and unzipped the door to see a bull elk almost close enough to lean out and touch it, staring back at us as if trying to discern what manner of beast lay before him. In the frosty early morning, we sat on the rim of Death Canyon with binoculars, counting upwards of a dozen moose several hundred feet below us on the canyon floor.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

I fell in love with the Tetons on that first visit, almost 20 years ago, when three old friends and I backpacked from Death Canyon Trailhead to Leigh Lake Trailhead, including a stretch of the Teton Crest Trail. It’s step for step one of the most gorgeous mountain walks in America, a true classic offering all the elements of an unforgettable adventure: views of the incomparable skyline of the Tetons and deep, wide, glacier-scoured canyons flanked by enormous cliffs; wonderful campsites, wildflowers, mountain lakes and creeks; and a good chance of seeing moose, elk, marmots, pikas, mule deer, and black bears.

That’s why I keep coming back.

Click here now to get my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.
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Hiking and Backpacking Shoes
Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX
$185, 1 lb. 11 oz. (US men’s 9)
Sizes: men’s 7-13, women’s 5-10
Moosejaw.com

The trend toward lighter footwear for hiking and backpacking has generally improved the offerings available—but has also produced a lot of shoes that, frankly, lack the support and cushion for rugged dayhiking or lightweight backpacking. Curious to discover whether the new Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX could hold up to hard use, I wore them on a six-day, 80-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon—which included the very rugged Escalante Route—on which I carried upwards of 40 pounds (a substantial portion of it water). And guess what? Despite falling within the weight class of trail-running shoes, these shoes delivered the performance of a boot at least a half-pound heavier.

Don’t mistake the trail-runner weight and pedigree of the Aerios FL Mid for an indicator of flimsy footwear. A compressed EVA midsole and an integrated TPU shank in the midfoot provide a really nice balance between having nearly as much forefoot flex as a running shoe and the lateral rigidity, support, and cushion of a burlier hiking shoe, plus protection underfoot against rocks and roots. Molded foam around the cuff rises just high enough to protect the ankle bones.

Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX.

The medium-volume fit features plenty of toe space, plus a midfoot and firm, supportive heel cup that prevent any forward slipping when going downhill, eliminating the friction that can breed blisters. Even though we carried heavy packs for 43 hard miles in just the first three days of our Grand Canyon trek—in temps that pushed into the nineties—my feet remained in pristine condition at the end of the trip. That speaks volumes about the fit of these shoes, given the heat, mileage, and my pack weight.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

I wouldn’t normally take waterproof-breathable shoes on a dry, hot trip like in the Grand Canyon, but I was eager to test their stability, support, and comfort for backpacking with a moderately heavy load in rugged terrain, so this trip was perfect for them in that respect. Breathability was actually pretty good for a waterproof shoe, thanks to the Cordura mesh uppers: My feet did not get steamy until temperatures rose into the 70s under a hot desert sun. And the Gore-Tex membrane kept water out when I stood for minutes in shallow creeks to test the shoes.

Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX .

The Aerios FL Mid are light enough for dayhiking andtough enough for any trail: In the Grand Canyon, I wore the Aerios on a pair of dayhikes from our camp for two nights at Tanner Beach on the Colorado River, one a six-miler, the other an 18-mile, rugged out-and-back hike on the Beamer Trail. I also wore these shoes on local dayhikes in the Boise Foothills, on which they felt as comfortable as sneakers.

Durability seems respectable for such a lightweight shoe, mostly due to TPU overlays and a toe cap protecting high-wear areas of the uppers. But the exposed, soft midsole foam showed wear and tear along the lateral sides of both shoes; those spots could potentially wear more quickly than the outsole, which is often the part of a shoe that ages the fastest. But the Vibram Megagrip outsole on the Aerios FL Mid is similar or the same as what you’d see on many similar hiking shoes: It has decent grip on rock and shallow, widely spaced, multi-directional lugs that bit well in loose dirt. The shoes gave me confidence when we scrambled up the very steep and loose talus and scree in Papago Canyon on the Escalante Route.

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now. Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX. The Verdict

The Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX delivers unusually strong support and cushion for a shoe in its weight class, making it ideal for lightweight or ultralight backpacking or dayhiking in any terrain.

The low-cut version is the Arc’teryx Aerios FL GTX ($170), also in men’s and women’s sizes.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the men’s Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX at moosejaw.com or the women’s at moosejaw.com, or the men’s or women’s at arcteryx.com, or rei.com, or the men’s or women’s Arc’teryx Aerios FL GTX at moosejaw.com, arcteryx.com, or rei.com.

Tell me what you think. I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

See all of my reviews of hiking shoes and backpacking boots that I like, my reviews of hiking gear and backpacking gear, and my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots.”

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.

—Michael Lanza

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By Michael Lanza

Backpacks come in many sizes and designs for a reason: so do backpackers. Some of us need a pack for moderate loads, others for heavy loads, while still others want a pack designed for lightweight or ultralight backpacking. Some prefer a minimalist pack, others a range of features and access. Everyone wants the best fit and comfort they can find, and almost everyone has a budget.

This review covers my picks for the 10 best backpacks intended primarily (if not exclusively) for backpacking—covering a range of designs, each one a standout for different reasons. In addition, I point out below two excellent packs for kids of all ages. My judgments draw from my experience of many thousands of miles of backpacking over three decades and a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear—first for Backpacker magazine, and now for this blog. I think at least one of these packs will be perfect for you—plus you’ll find some at great sale prices now (and links to those online retailers below).

I’ve listed the pack reviews below in order by weight because that’s the metric that most defines and influences a pack’s design and functionality. The pack you ultimately choose may depend partly on weight, but also on design and on your budget. Each pack review in this article links to that pack’s complete review at The Big Outside. I suggest you narrow your choices to two or three and try them all on.

Not sure what type of pack you need? Start with my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”

The comparison chart below offers a quick look at stats and features that distinguish these packs from one another.

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BackpackPriceVolumeWeightSizesCarries Up To...Features
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider$34555L/3,400 c.i.1 lb. 15 oz.4 unisex30-35 lbs.Waterproof, very durable, 5 pockets
Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55$21058L/3,539 c.i.2 lbs. 7 oz.3 men's and women's30-35 lbs.6 pockets, poles attachment, ventilated suspension, removable lid, rain cover included
Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60$20040-60L/2,550 to 3,650 c.i.2 lbs. 9 oz.2 men's35-40 lbs.Unique expandable capacity range of 40-60 liters, 5 pockets
Osprey Exos 58/Eja 58$22058L/3,539 c.i.2 lbs. 11 oz.3 men's and women's30-35 lbs.Removable lid, ventilated suspension, 5 pockets, poles attachment
REI Flash 45$14945L/2,868 c.i.2 lbs. 14 oz.2 men's and women's, adjustable 25-30 lbs.Unique compression system, 6 pockets
Granite Gear Blaze 60$27060L/3,660 c.i.3 lbs. 4 oz.3 unisex and 2 women's, adjustable45+ lbs.Versatile load capacity, 6 pockets, adjustable torso length and hipbelt, zipper accessing main compartment
The North Face Banchee 65$23965L/3,967 c.i.3 lbs. 12 oz.2 men's and women's, adjustable40+ lbs.Floating lid, 9 pockets, sleeping bag compartment
Osprey Atmos AG 65 and Aura AG 65$27065L/3,967 c.i.4 lbs. 11 oz.3 men's and women's, adjustable45-50 lbs.Unique harness, 9 pockets, poles attachment
Arc'teryx Bora AR 50$49950L/3,050 c.i.4 lbs. 13 oz.2 men's and women's sizes, adjustable40 lbs.Rotating hipbelt, widely adjustable fit, tough, waterproof, 7 pockets
Gregory Baltoro 65 and Deva 60$30065L/3,966 c.i.4 lbs. 15 oz.3 men's and women's50 lbs.Zipper accessing main compartment, 8 pockets, pivoting hipbelt, hydration bladder/daypack
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack in the Wind River Range.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider.
Tough, Waterproof Ultralight

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider
$345, 55L/3,400 c.i., 1 lb. 15 oz.
hyperlitemountaingear.com

When the 3400 Windrider was delivered to my house, the box looked much too small to contain a backpack. Comparable to the best sub-three-pound, ultralight packs, the 3400 Windrider handles 30 to 35 pounds well, but weighs anywhere from a half-pound to nearly a pound less than those competitors. It has the capacity for going several days between resupplies. Its tough Dyneema Composite Fabrics is fully waterproof. The fixed suspension comes in four sizes—more than offered by most high-end pack makers—and the simple harness system works.

Three big, external mesh pockets add nearly 10 liters of capacity, and the roomy, zippered hipbelt pockets offer convenience. A top-loader with a roll-top closure, the 3400 Windrider is noticeably bereft of features found on many other packs. But its minimalist design, durability, capacity, comfort, and low weight will appeal to many backpackers who prefer hiking over simply hauling.

Read my complete review of the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack at hyperlitemountaingear.com.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

The Gregory Optic 58 ultralight backpack in the Grand Canyon.
Ultralight With Extras

Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55
$210, 2 lbs. 7 oz.
moosejaw.com

Gregory Optic 58.

Backpackers who want to go ultralight without switching to a stripped-down style of backpack will like the traditional design of the top-loading men’s Optic and women’s Octal. They sport six external pockets, including two on the hipbelt and a large, stretch-mesh front pocket, and useful features like a quick attachment on the left shoulder strap for trekking poles or sunglasses.

Gregory’s attention to comfort in its first ultralight backpack is reflected in the aluminum perimeter wire with an HDPE framesheet and leaf-spring lumbar pad, which distributes most of the pack’s load across the hips and delivers support for carrying 30 to 35 pounds; and the trampoline-style Aerospan suspension, a tensioned, highly ventilated back panel that allows air movement across your sweaty back. These are well-designed, comfortable packs for ultralighters who want some organizational features of traditional backpacks.

Read my complete review of the Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Gregory Optic 58 at moosejaw.com, a Gregory Optic 48 at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com, a Gregory Octal 55 at moosejaw.com or campsaver.com, or a Gregory Octal 45 at moosejaw.comems.comrei.com, or campsaver.com.

Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

The Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 backpack on the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Two Packs In One

Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60
$200, 2 lbs. 9 oz.

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Backpack
Granite Gear Blaze 60
$270, 60L/3,660 c.i., 3 lbs. 4 oz. (unisex regular)
Sizes: Unisex short, regular, and long, women’s short and regular
Moosejaw.com

How many pounds can a lightweight backpack carry comfortably? Granite Gear’s new Blaze 60 is pushing boundaries in that department. On a six-day, 74-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon—including a hard, 15-mile, nearly 12-hour day hoofing most of the rugged Escalante Route—I carried the Blaze 60 with up to about 40 pounds inside. And that load, even in that terrain, felt clearly within this pack’s comfort zone. In fact, its low weight, superior compression, and versatile design make the Blaze 60 a legitimate short- and long-distance mule, elevating it into the realm of the best all-purpose backpacks on the market.

I rarely had much less than 30 pounds inside it on that Grand Canyon trek, because of the need to often carry four liters or more of water. Granite Gear claims the Blaze 60 carries 50 pounds comfortably; I didn’t push it that far, and 50 pounds is certainly a load that won’t feel comfortable to all backpackers. But personally, I’d feel confident stuffing well over 40 pounds into this sack.

Its new Air Current framesheet flexes slightly along the vertical axis, allowing the pack to move with your torso as you walk or bend, especially in steep or difficult terrain, without feeling like it’s the horse and you’re the cart. The dual-density shoulder harness felt good until around hour nine on our longest days—that’s pretty impressive performance—and it has a whistle on the buckle. The mesh-covered, ventilated back panel fits closely but also has numerous channels for air circulation, which kept the pack relatively cool against my back on days that rose into the 90s Fahrenheit in the canyon.

The Re-Fit hipbelt’s dual-density padding felt so comfortable I didn’t notice the weight on my hips even on the longest, most arduous days in the canyon. The hipbelt also adjusts to fit waists from 26 to 42 inches on the unisex model and 24 to 40 inches on the women’s. Pulling the hipbelt out of its slot in the frame to adjust it required a bit of wrestling to release it from the hook-and-loop attachment—a good thing, ensuring it won’t loosen in use—but then making the adjustment and putting the belt back in place took less than a minute.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

The Granite Gear Blaze 60 in the Grand Canyon.

There’s hardly a human who wouldn’t find a Blaze 60 that fits well. The sizing encompasses a huge range of torso lengths and types, with three unisex sizes designed for men and some women with torsos from 15 to 24 inches, and two women’s-specific sizes for torsos 15 to 21 inches. Plus, four adjustment points on the framesheet, calibrated to torso size,let you reposition the shoulder straps by simply moving a small disc through a slot on each side, and I never had to readjust it.

The spacious main compartment has a wide top opening for visibility and easy loading and unloading. I fit six days’ of food, my clothing and share of team gear, personal stuff that included a camp chair, and often at least four liters of water inside the Blaze 60 without maxing out its capacity. The pack’s superior compression resizes it for smaller loads, with top, side, and front compression straps with buckles, the front straps holding a foam sleeping pad or similarly large piece of gear.

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The Granite Gear Blaze 60.

The six external pockets include a spacious lid; side pockets large enough for a liter bottle and then some, with cord-lock closures to secure items; two hipbelt pockets with water-resistant zippers, each fitting a large smartphone with room to spare for bars; a deep, stretch-woven front pocket; and a removable floating lid with a water-resistant zipperthat converts to an chest pack clipped at two points over your shoulders. In that configuration, though, the lid pocket just hangs over your chest, a setup that’s convenient but really only practical with very little weight in the pocket. Also, clipping a foam pad or something similar under the front compression straps effectively eliminates access to the front pocket.

The fabric makes this one of the toughest packs on the market—especially for its weight—combining 100-denier Robic high-tenacity nylon with Granite Gear’s custom 210-denier Robic nylon UHMWPE triple ripstop (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) in load-bearing and high-impact areas like the bottom, lower sides, and parts of the front. The 210-denier Robic nylon has a strength-to-weight ratio 10 times that of steel. Plus, the main body of the pack is treated with a Barrier DWR (durable, water-resistant coating).

One minor complaint: The front panel zipper accessing the main compartment isn’t as well-positioned or convenient as panel zips found on other backpacks (like the exemplary Gregory Baltoro and Deva series) because it sits behind anything that’s attached under the front compression straps (I attached a foam pad). It also zips up from the bottom, which seems intended to prioritize pulling out a tent or sleeping bag from the bottom, but it’s a straight rather than an arcing zipper, so it doesn’t open widely enough to easily remove a large item like a tent. Zipping downward from the top or having a two-way zipper would seem more sensible. Ultimately, I didn’t use that zipper as much as I frequently use panel zippers on other packs.

Comparing it with some of the best backpacks available today illustrates the unique positioning of the Blaze 60 in the hierarchy of packs: It’s just six to 13 ounces heavier than the Gregory men’s Optic 58 and women’s Gregory Octal 55, the Osprey men’s Exos 58 and women’s Eja 58, the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60, and the REI Flash 45, yet can handle up to about 10 pounds more than any of them. And it’s anywhere from a half-pound to 1.5 pounds lighter than packs designed to carry just several pounds more weight, like Osprey’s men’s Atmos AG 65 and women’s Aura AG 65, The North Face Banchee 65, the Arc’teryx Bora AR 50, and Gregory’s men’s Baltoro 65 and Deva 60.

That’s a balancing act worthy of Cirque du Soleil.

Gear up smartly for your trips. See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.
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Ultralight Backpacking Tent
Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum
$550, 1 lb. 15 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
Moosejaw.com

The sub-two-pound, double-wall, freestanding tent has become like the two-hour marathon of the backpacking gear world: the holy grail that many have come close to achieving, without quite nailing it. Now Big Agnes has set the pace with the Tiger Wall 2 Platinum, a redesign of its Tiger Wall UL2 from 2018 that seizes the grail and—most importantly—avoids shortcomings endemic to other ultralight tents. Taking it out on a six-day, 74-mile spring hike through the Grand Canyon that—not surprisingly—tested the wind resistance of our shelters, I found much to recommend about the Tiger Wall 2 Platinum, and decided it ranks among the very best backpacking tents available today. Here’s why.

The Tiger Wall 2 Platinum remains almost identical to its predecessor, B.A.’s Tiger Wall UL2. But the Platinum version achieves deeper weight savings by using Dominico Textile, a fabric used in parachutes and hang gliders and known for its strength, quality, and durability.

Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum without rainfly.

Like the Tiger Wall UL2, the Platinum version incorporates a hubbed, Y-shaped main pole with a short bridge pole that crosses the center pole. The pole architecture helps creates a shelter that’s quite sturdy, especially for an ultralight tent: It stood up to gusts of 30 to around 40 mph on spring nights in the Grand Canyon, which would be a test for any tent weighing three pounds, nevermind under two pounds.

Despite its weight, the Tiger Wall 2 Platinum delivers livability perhaps unmatched among its competitors in its weight class (and among double-wall tents that are freestanding or nearly so)—an admittedly small category, a fact for which this shelter stands out, anyway. While many ultralight tents trade off headroom and living space, this tent feels impressively livable for its weight, largely due to headroom that allows two people to sit up side by side, because of how that bridge pole lifts the walls above each door.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum interior.

The living space compares with many lightweight two-door, double-wall, two-person tents: 28 square feet of floor area, 86 inches of length, a 39-inch peak height (enough for six-footers to sit up, although some may find their head rubbing against the ceiling), and a floor width that ranges from 52 inches at the head end to 42 inches at the foot. Two standard, 20-inch-wide air mats fit inside with virtually no room to spare at the foot end, but some extra space at the head end. I shared it with a friend—he’s five feet 10 inches, I’m five feet eight inches—and we never bumped each other while sleeping; and with a little sensitivity to the comfined quarters, we moved around inside without invading another’s space much. But two big people might find it cramped.

Also like the Tiger Wall UL2, the Tiger Wall 2 Platinum is almost freestanding: The two foot-end corners require staking. But with any freestanding model, staking it out fully is almost always required not only to keep it from blowing away or bending in wind, but to achieve a taut pitch and maximize living space and ventilation. The Tiger Wall 2 Platinum’s design still makes it easy to pick it up and move it after assembling it, or shake dirt out of it before packing it up. The color-coded DAC Featherlite NFL poles and just nine clips make pitching and dismantling the tent quick and intuitive.

Tiger Wall 2 Platinum without rainfly.

The two large doors not only increase convenience, but their dimensions make coming and going a breeze. The doors have dual zippers—one each along the bottom and top edges—that open separately and join at a bottom corner of the doorway. This design is either convenient or a nuisance, depending on your perspective and what you’re trying to do. It allows opening the door slightly to pass something through or to put on shoes without letting bugs inside; on the other hand, it forces you to deal with two zippers every time you enter or exit, not always a welcome task in the rain. The oversized zipper pulls are easy to locate in the dark.

With a mostly mesh canopy, two doors, and a double-wall design, ventilation is excellent. The rainfly doorways overhang the interior doors, creating a drip line that keeps rain out of the tent.

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now. Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum vestibule.

The two vestibules each have eight square feet of storage space—enough for a mid-size pack and boots, plus a bit of cooking space, which compares to many lightweight tents. Two-way zippers on the doors allow you to ventilate from the top or bottom, or unzip partway from the bottom to prevent windblown rain from getting inside.

The interior has two standard mesh pockets and one oversized wall pocket with media cord ports. The rainfly and tent floor are made of silicone-treated nylon ripstop fabric, making that fabric waterproof and stronger per weight.

Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, or other parks using my expert e-guides. Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum with rainfly.

At an ounce under two pounds, the Tiger Wall 2 Platinum may have no rival in its category when it comes to space-to-weight ratio. (For comparison purposes, tent makers generally provided a minimum or “trail” weight that includes only the tent, rainfly, and poles—not stakes and parts like guylines that vary between models—as well as a packed weight that represents the total poundage for everything in the package.) The packed size of 18×5.5 inches (46x14cm) makes it among the most compact two-person, double-wall tents on the market, too.

One caveat: While this tent uses cutting-edge ultralight materials that have good strength and durability for their weight, I always advocate using some care with any ultralight gear—it usually doesn’t last as long as heavier gear.

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By Michael Lanza

What makes a great backpacking trip? I’ve thought about that more than a mentally stable person probably should, having done many of America’s (and the world’s) most beautiful and beloved multi-day hikes over the years. Certainly top-shelf scenery is mandatory. An element of adventurousness enhances a hike, in my eyes. As I assembled this top 10 list, longer trips seemed to dominate it—there’s something special about a big walk in the wilderness—but two- and three-day hikes also made my list. Another factor that truly matters is a wilderness experience: All 10 are in national parks or wilderness areas.

In the final analysis, though, the only criterion that matters is simple: that it’s a great trip. And that character shows itself over and over in my picks for the 10 best backpacking trips in the country, selected from the many I’ve taken over more than a quarter-century (and counting) of carrying a backpack, both as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and creator of this blog.

Acknowledging my Western bias—it’s where I spend most of my backcountry time—each hike here merits a 10 for scenery. But difficulty and distance vary greatly. So I’ve included the mileage of each—and the longest trips on this list can be chopped up into smaller portions—as well as a difficulty rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the hardest in terms of strenuousness and challenge.

While I’ve numbered my top 10 hikes, that’s not intended as a quality ranking; I think that’s impossible. I regularly update this list as I take new trips that belong on it. If you have a trip to suggest, please do tell me about it in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I hope to get to them all. It’s a tough assignment, but I’m working on it.

Accompanying each hike in my top 10 are Close Runners-Up, trips that are exactly that. My advice: Just do every one of these top 10 and runner-up hikes that you can, when you can. You won’t be disappointed.

Todd Arndt in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.
No. 1 A Grand Tour of Yosemite

Distance: 152 miles
Difficulty: 4

John Muir saw more than a few world-class wildernesses, and he focused much of his time and energy on exploring and protecting Yosemite. A lot of people would argue it’s the best national park for backpackers. After several trips there, I had thought I’d seen Yosemite’s finest corners, including many trails in the park’s core, its section of the John Muir Trail, and the summits of Half Dome and Clouds Rest.

Then, over a total of seven days, I backpacked 152 miles through the biggest patches of wilderness in the park, south and north of Tuolumne Meadows—and discovered Yosemite’s true soul, a vast reach of deep, granite-walled canyons, peaks rising to over 12,000 feet, and one gorgeous mountain lake after another dappling the landscape.

High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park.

See my stories “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” about the 65-mile first leg of that grand tour of Yosemite, and “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” about the nearly 87-mile second leg.

Get my expert e-guides to backpacking the 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne and the 87-mile hike through northern Yosemite.

Want more of a less-committing, introductory backpacking trip in Yosemite? See my story “Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite.” The trip I suggest in that story is described in much greater detail in my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.” That e-guide offers planning tips and suggested daily itineraries for a primary route and alternate itineraries for backpacking trips in the spectacular core of Yosemite, between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.

Close Runner-Up:

Read my “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” about a 40-mile family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park that featured campsites that made both my top 25 all-time favorites and my list of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

Jerry Hapgood backpacking the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.
No. 2 Two Hikes in Glacier National Park

Distance of each: about 90-94 miles (shorter variations possible)
Difficulty of each: 3

With rivers of ice pouring off of craggy mountains and cliffs, deeply green forests, over 760 lakes offering mirror reflections of it all, megafauna like bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, and grizzly and black bears, and over a million acres in Montana’s Northern Rockies, most of it wilderness, little wonder that Glacier is so popular with backpackers.

This top 10 list has long included a 90-mile hike I took in northern Glacier, split into 65- and 25-mile legs, on which we saw all of those things described above—including grizzly bears—and enjoyed a surprising degree of solitude even while hitting many of the park’s highlights.

Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the CDT to Piegan Pass in Glacier National Park.

But in September 2018, three friends and I backpacked about 94 miles through Glacier, from Chief Mountain Trailhead at the Canadian border in the park’s northeast corner to Two Medicine, combining parts of the primary and alternate routes of the Continental Divide Trail, and adding the high, alpine trail from Pitamakan Pass to Dawson Pass above Two Medicine. Yet again, we saw bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, moose, and a griz, and heard elk bugling almost every morning and evening—not to mention vistas unlike anywhere else in America. An experience at least equal to the earlier 90-miler described above, that CDT hike through Glacier immediately vaulted onto this list.

See my story about the first, two-stage, 90-mile hike “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and my story “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” about the more recent, 94-mile traverse through Glacier.

Get my expert e-guides to backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and the CDT through Glacier.

Close Runner-Up:

For much of its distance, the 34-mile Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, in the Canadian Rockies, passes below a long chain of sheer cliffs and mountains with thick tongues of glacial ice.

Time for a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best thru-hiking packs.

Death Canyon Shelf, on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton National Park.
No. 3 Teton Crest Trail

Distance: 33-40 miles, multiple variations
Difficulty: 4

One of my first big, Western backpacking trips was on the Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, and it so inspired me that I’ve returned almost 20 times since to backpack, dayhike, rock climb, backcountry ski, and paddle a canoe. I can’t imagine that jagged skyline ever failing to give me chills.

Bill Mistretta backpacking above the North Fork Cascade Canyon.

Running north-south through the heart of the national park and adjacent national forest lands, the Teton Crest Trail stays above treeline for much of its distance, with expansive views of the peaks, but also drops into the beautiful South Fork and North Fork of Cascade Canyon and the upper forks of Granite Canyon. Various trails access it, allowing for multiple route options, any of them making for one of America’s premier multi-day hikes.

Yearning to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail
and the best short backpacking trip in the Tetons.

See my stories “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” plus all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and all of my Ask Me posts about Grand Teton National Park.

Close Runner-Up:

A two- or three-day hike linking any of the east-side canyons in

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[Michael Lanza note: The following are my responses, updated 4/21/19, to inquiries from readers with specific questions about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park, including how to do it, the best campsites, and what to bring. See also my story American Classic: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.]

Michael,

Thank you for making something so useful as The Big Outside. The website is not only a great resource for useful information but also does such a great job of communicating your passion for the outdoors. In that spirit, I am taking my son to hike the Teton Crest Trail in early July this summer and I had a couple questions.

We will be a group of eight fathers and sons and are staying at the group sites in Middle Fork Granite Canyon, Marion Lake, Death Canyon Shelf, and South Fork Cascade Canyon. After reading your article on packing light, I am wondering if this trip can be done with a one-liter bottle. At that time of year, are there typically enough water sources to allow me to leave the two- or three-liter hydration bladder at home and just take a couple liter bottles? Also, regarding water filters, is there a lightweight one your would recommend for this particular trip?

Also, after reading about the possible side hike to Static Peak, I am wondering if that is doable after waking up from our Death Canyon Shelf campsite. One of the group suggested that it would be easier to do the Static Peak side hike if we skipped camping on the shelf (which I don’t want to do) and instead spent out second night in Alaska Basin. I was hoping for some advice because I would really like to do that side hike from the Death Canyon Group site. I am also wondering if doing the hike and then camping at South Fork Cascade Canyon group site is too much mileage for one day. That said, everyone in our group is in at least average physical shape.

Be well and I look forward to reading about your family’s future adventures!

Best,
Jeff
Gilbert, AZ

Campsite on Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park.

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for the nice words about my blog. Good on you for planning a Teton Crest Trail hike with your son, it’s a favorite of mine and we had a great time backpacking it with our kids. You’ll find numerous articles with useful information about the Teton Crest Trail at this blog.

If you’re going in early July, be aware that there’s normally snow at high passes then, possibly making some of them unsafe, although the primary concern would be Paintbrush Divide, and you could finish down Cascade Canyon instead when hiking south to north (and maybe you’re already planning on that). If you can’t or aren’t hiking over Paintbrush Divide, though, you might think about making the side trip out-and-back up the North Fork of Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude, anyway, because the North Fork is a gem. You might even try adding another night to your itinerary and camping in the North Fork backcountry camping zone. From there, it’s an easy, downhill and flat hike of just a few hours to the Jenny Lake boat dock.

As for water, the Teton Crest Trail does stay pretty high, and you may find yourself hiking stretches of two hours or more between water sources, and longer than that if you make the side trip to Static Peak. You have basically two hours or more of hiking between each of these water sources: Marion Lake, the springs/streams on Death Canyon Shelf, and Alaska Basin. Then Sunset Lake sits about halfway through a stretch of 2-3 hours from Alaska Basin to upper South Fork Cascade Canyon.

The question of how much water to carry partly depends on your hiking pace, but early-morning departures, in cool temps, help keep your water needs lower. I also make a habit of chugging plenty of water when treating or filtering at a water source (and encouraging others to do the same), so that you leave it well hydrated (following the maxim that it’s better to carry water in your belly than on your back). When my kids were little, I let them carry one liter and I’d carry extra.

I typically carry a bladder for convenience while hiking, putting as much water in it as needed between sources, but I also carry a bottle because it’s convenient in camp and sometimes to help fill the bladder. I’d recommend either my system, or choosing between a bladder or two liter bottles, and focusing your efforts at lightening your pack on your gear and food. At those moderately high elevations, you may not feel well if you get dehydrated. I’ve found that the combination of elevation and dehydration can hit kids harder than adults. Besides, an extra bottle and a bladder don’t weigh much.

Click here now to get my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

Death Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

As for a water filter, especially for a group, I’ve come to really like gravity filters like the Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L gravity filter, the MSR Trail Base Water Filter Kit, and the Platypus GravityWorks filter because they’re reliable and do most of the work for you (and they work best with clear, unsilted water, like you usually find in the mountains). I also love the convenience and quickness of using a water bottle filter like the LifeStraw Go. I often carry both types of filters when backpacking.

The side trip to Static Peak is roughly five miles round-trip from Alaska Basin, which for most groups is two to three hours. If you’re doing it from Death Canyon Shelf, depending on where you’re camping on the Shelf, add at least four round-trip miles to that distance. It only makes sense to make that side hike from Alaska Basin, where you could stash your packs. (See my tips in “The Fine Art of Stashing a Backpack in the Woods.”) I’d say it’s possible to do that on the day you hike from the Shelf to South Fork Cascade Canyon, but I would be sure everyone’s up for a day that could stretch to 10 hours or more, and I’d get an early start. That said, Static Peak is really nice, and the trail leading to it from Alaska Basin has great views and feels very remote. Logistically, it does make more sense to camp in Alaska Basin if you want to make the side trip to Static Peak, and it’s certainly reasonable to hike from Marion Lake to Alaska Basin in a day. But the Shelf has some of the best campsite views in the park.

I recommend changing your itinerary, if possible. From Middle Fork Granite Canyon to Marion Lake is at most two hours of hiking. You could eat lunch at Marion Lake and camp on the Shelf that night. Then plan to reach Alaska Basin by late morning the next day, set up camp to spend the night there, and dayhike to Static Peak that afternoon. Then hike to South Fork Cascade the following day. The only other option I can think of, that doesn’t include camping in Alaska Basin, is that you could camp as far north on the Shelf as possible, to position yourself for an early start and a side hike to Static Peak the next day. Tough choices, I know.

Best,
Michael

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail on Death Canyon Shelf.

Michael,

Wow. What an incredibly generous response from you. There are many people like me who are trying to make trips like this happen but are by no means experts. The last thing a dad like me wants to do is take our kids to a great place but then compromise the experience due to bad planning or decisions. Not only is your blog incredibly helpful, but the fact that you take the time to personally reach out to us less experienced but well meaning family adventurers really puts what you are doing over the top.

Your response was really helpful. The national park actually left me a voicemail the other day letting me know that there will be snow on those passes and that we will need ice axes. Because of your advice, we are going to try and schedule a day of high mountain hiking training with Exum Mountain Guides the day or two before we begin the hike. We are hoping this training will be sufficient? I’ll let you know how our hike turns out!

I turned my brother-in-law on to your site and he wound up buying your book and is inspired to take his young kids on national park adventures. At the end of the day, that is what it is all about.

Best,
Jeff

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South Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

Hi Jeff,

The park appropriately warns people of the good possibility of snow at high passes in early July. (The photo above was taken in upper South Fork Cascade Canyon in the first half of August a few years ago.) It’s possible you’ll see an unusual year and the passes will be largely free of snow, or at least safely passable. On the other hand, the day of training with Exum will certainly give you all an introduction to valuable skills that you may use many times.

Still, my advice would be to find out all you can from backcountry rangers (or Exum guides) about snow conditions in the high passes right before your trip starts. If there’s a lot of firm snow remaining, and temperatures are near or below freezing at night, it could pose a risky situation for people who are new to snow travel in the mountains. If hikers and backpackers have created a trough through the snow at the passes, and the snow is softening up by late morning, it may be safe for your group. The Exum guides will probably be able to give you some good advice on whether to go. You can always change your itinerary and find safe trails to hike.

Good luck. Thanks for sharing my blog with others. Please tell your brother-in-law I hope he enjoys my book and I’d love to hear what he thinks of it. Get in touch anytime.

Best,
Michael

Why is this trail such a classic? Read the “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail.”

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Hiking Shoes
The North Face Safien GTX
$140, 1 lb. 10 oz. (US men’s 9)
Sizes: men’s 7-14, women’s 5-11
Moosejaw.com

Few outings test the comfort and support of hiking shoes like a rim-to-rim dayhike across the Grand Canyon. So to take the full measure of the purported extra cushioning in The North Face Safien GTX shoes, I hiked them across the Big Ditch and back again over two days—a total of 42 miles and about 22,000 vertical feet of serious pounding on consecutive days—and finished feeling no small measure of relief that these shoes really are as cushy as TNF claims. They also have other strengths as well as some minor weaknesses.

The Safien stand out for comfort and support: They proved exceptionally cushy when my feet endured the cumulative pounding of over 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss two days in a row in the Grand Canyon. Credit goes to the shoe’s XtraFoam midsole, which has a unique shock-absorbing effect that noticeably reduces the pounding impact on the soles of your feet. (Squeeze the shoe’s midsole with one hand inside and one pressing from the outsole side, and you can feel and visibly see the slight shock-absorbing compression of the midsole.)

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

The North Face Safien GTX shoes.

The medium-volume fit provides plenty of toe space, a snug midfoot that prevents any forward slipping when going downhill, and a supportive, firm heel cup that’s slightly roomier than average compared to other shoe models.

The North Face Safien GTX shoes.

The Gore-Tex membrane kept water out when I stood in shallow creeks to test the shoes, and breathability was good hiking in the Grand Canyon in temperatures ranging from the 20s (on the North Rim in early morning in October) to the 70s Fahrenheit with dry conditions, although I walked through some mud and shallow puddles from heavy rain the day before we hiked. (I had similar conditions dayhiking in these shoes in Bryce Canyon National Park.)

My feet never got more than slightly damp with perspiration, even on afternoons under the hot sun, thanks in large part to the TPU-coated, mesh uppers and gusseted mesh tongue and a below-the-ankle height that allows for more efficient heat release from the collar. The low collar also means no ankle protection, but synthetic overlays on either side provide some protection below the ankle.

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The Safien’s construction also integrates a reinforced, molded toe cap, the heel, and a mudguard—which wraps completely around the shoe just above the outsole—directly into the upper. TNF’s EXTS proprietary outsole has shallow, multi-directional lugs that delivered good traction on dirt and rock trails.

The Verdict

With exceptional cushioning, a waterproof membrane and uppers that breathe well, and good traction on a variety of trail surfaces, The North Face Safien GTX shoes are a good choice for dayhikers and lightweight or ultralight backpackers who prioritize low weight over added support in their footwear. And these shoes come at a competitive price for low-cuts.

The North Face Safien Mid GTX ($150), also in men’s and women’s sizes, offers the same performance with more support and protection, especially at the ankle.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the men’s or women’s models of The North Face Safien GTX hiking shoes or The North Face Safien Mid GTX boots at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com.

Tell me what you think. I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

See all of my reviews of hiking shoes and backpacking boots that I like, my reviews of hiking gear and backpacking gear, and my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots.”

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.

—Michael Lanza

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By Michael Lanza

I stare at the backpack on the ground in front of me. At 85 liters, with every milliliter of it stuffed with about 60 pounds of gear and food, it looks like something that should be lowered by a crane into a container ship rather than attached to a person’s back. If it had legs, teeth, and an appetite for meat, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

In fact, standing at the Sawtooth Pass Trailhead at 7,820 feet in Sequoia National Park, looking up at our imminent ascent to 9,511-foot Timber Gap, I’m thinking the chances that I’ll have an easy time of it are very, very slim. Probably like most parents, before I became a dad I had absolutely no idea how much heavy lifting was involved.

With no small amount of dread, I heft my pack onto one bent knee, slip an arm through a shoulder strap and turn myself until the pack rests heavily on my back. Then I straighten up, feeling like I’ve already surrendered points at the outset of a wrestling match against a formidable opponent. This backpack and I are fated to spend a lot of intimate time together over the next six days.

And of course, this is all my doing.

I wanted to take my kids on their longest backpacking trip to date. I knew they were ready for it, and I liked the idea of exposing them to the shift in mindset that occurs after you’ve been on the trail for more than a few days. But our son, Nate, 12, and our daughter, Alex, 10, still do not carry their full share of gear and food. So I figured our limit was six days. But even with the lightest tents and other gear, fitting some 50 pounds of food inside two adult backpacks required some aggressive shoehorning. My wife, Penny, is carrying the heaviest load she has shouldered in years, and Nate eagerly accepted more than he’s ever carried, including our necessary third bear canister. Still, much of that 50 pounds of food ended up in my pack.

I’ve also been eager to backpack with my family in Sequoia, in the southern High Sierra, home to many of the highest mountains and one of the biggest chunks of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48—a pristine and incredibly photogenic land of razor peaks and alpine lakes so clear you could stand on the shore and read a book laying open on the lake bottom. Hearing about our plans for a nearly 40-mile loop from the park’s Mineral King area, Penny’s brother, Tom, and his 18-year-old son, Daniel, decided to join us.

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While I’ve thru-hiked the John Muir Trail through this part of the Sierra and explored other corners of it—including a rugged, partly off-trail, 32-mile hike in the John Muir Wilderness—this would be my first deep foray into the backcountry of Sequoia, our second national park (designated 18 years after Yellowstone and a week before Yosemite, although the latter had been protected in 1864 as a public trust of California).

With my burly pack compressing my middle-aged spine, we start hiking at mid-morning in classic High Sierra weather: beneath a cloudless, blue sky, with the temperature in the low 60s and a breeze that’s very possibly saving me from heat exhaustion as we plod up through dozens of switchbacks on a sunbaked mountainside. Still, even in these pleasant conditions, within minutes, sweat pours from my head like a fountain.

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