Walking Lighter: Homemade gear and other things I carry on a long walk…

My Inspiration to Walk Lighter

I have been sewing since I was 11 years old and, as an artist, making my own gear was a natural evolution of my hiking experience. My first overnight backpacking experience was about 9 years ago. I used a borrowed Kelty pack that weighed nearly 6 pounds and my sleeping bag weighed almost 5 pounds. By the time I got all my “stuff” into the pack it always ended up weighing ~50-60 lbs. Guys would always brag “oh, that’s nothing, I used to carry an 80 pound pack back in the day”. Fine enough, but after a few miles of hiking I was so tired I would have to prop the pack up on rock or a log to get it back on after a break because I could no longer lift it off the ground and back onto to my body.

After several years of torturing my self with a heavy pack the final touch to inspire me to go lighter happened on a climb of Mt Rainier with that same heavy Kelty pack and all my climbing gear. On the snow slog up to Camp Muir I slipped in the snow and landed on my back. My pack was so heavy I couldn’t get back up without taking it off . The problem was that there was no rock or log around to prop my pack up onto and I couldn’t lift it off the ground and back onto my body. Immediately following that trip I bought a lighter pack and axed a bunch of stuff and clothes from my list of must haves–this included my rain jacket, toiletries, first-aid kit, pocket knife, extra socks, etc. From that trip on I have slowly acquired lighter gear and stopped carrying much of the stuff I used to think I needed.

Every single backpacking experience since my first one has left me with visions for how to hike lighter. A lighter sleeping bag and pack were an obvious place to start. The tent wasn’t such an issue because I only ever carried half of it while my hiking partner carried the other half. I have made all my rain gear, which includes pullover jacket with hood, chaps, skirt, mittens, and booties. I have made my hiking skirt, sun-shirt, sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, puffy jacket, puffy pants, puffy mittens, and modified a lot of my bought gear. I swore I’d never make a backpack, but this year in preparation for my Continental Divide Thru-hike I ended up making three packs.

Me, climbing Cayambe in Ecuador with the heavy Kelty Pack
Me, climbing Cayambe in Ecuador with the heavy Kelty Pack

Homemade Backpack

My backpack design was an evolution of an idea that started as a simple daypack design. I thought “why not just buy some ready made straps and attach them to a ready made light-weight stuff sack?” Then my dreams got bigger and I thought “why not do that for a bigger pack and add a hip-belt too?”

One thing led to another and I ended up making three packs for this hike. The first one was great. I basically made a basket like structure out of very lightweight webbing with a hip-belt and shoulder straps attached to it. The basket webbing structure is designed to hold a large stuff sack. That pack weighs ~9oz. But as I started adding lightweight fabric shear panels and pockets to it I decided to start completely over in hopes to simplify the design for easier replication.

My second pack design was indeed easier to construct, but it still turned out to be very complicated. By the time I started making my husband’s pack, the third generation of my design, I started to think of how I would make it different the next time around. That is until I weighed my pack, the second pack I made, which even with all the pockets and top lid comes in under a pound at ~14 oz.

The primary structure of the pack is grosgrain ribbon, which is like very lightweight webbing. I enclosed the pack with sil-nylon, which is a silicone coated ripstop nylon. It has stretchy pockets on the back and sides. And I designed load lifters that use the top lid as part the tensioning system.

Me wearing the pack I designed and made for my CDT hike
Me wearing the pack I designed and made for my CDT hike

Hiking in Sandals, Socks, and Other Items Worn

I hike in sandals–Chacos Uniweep Z1 sandals are the best. In running shoes and hiking boots I constantly twist my ankles. I think I am supposed to knock on wood here, but I have hiked thousands of miles in sandals and never twisted my ankle. My theory is that shoes constrict the natural articulation and movement of my foot, which doesn’t allow me to compensate for a wobbly step on uneven terrain–thereby the shoe or hiking boot actually causes me to twist my ankle by restricting my natural movement.

About 20 years ago I broke the navicular in my right foot. The navicular is the keystone of your foot arch. For most of those 20 years I would often have a bit of ache in my foot or a shriek of bad feeling when I would turn my foot a certain way, but in the last couple of years since I’ve been wearing Chacos I have nearly forgotten that I had ever broken my foot at all.

My feet and ankles are happier in sandals—they are able to be much more agile and natural in sandals. And happy feet equal happy hiking.

Chacos last forever, have an ergonomic foot bed, and they don’t trap my toes. I also like that they don’t have an internal hard plastic arch support. I’ve hiked in other sandals that do and as soon as the soft cushion foot bed starts to compress and wear out the hard plastic arch support starts to feel like I am walking with a huge stick stuck in my sandal. This does not happen with Chacos.  Chacos also have knobby Vibram outsoles with excellent traction and are thick enough that rocky terrain underfoot is not a problem.

I wear Darn Tough wool socks and am proud to be sponsored by Darn Tough for this thru-hike. They really are the best socks I have ever worn. They literally can hold up to a thru-hike, which is not an easy task. The Darn Tough socks I bought for the Pacific Crest Trail, though a bit threadbare after thousands of miles, are still going strong. If you want a comfortable pair of socks that will keep going long after you have exhausted your motivation to keep walking then Darn Tough is the sock you want.

When the weather is warm I like to hike in spandex shorts, a skirt, and tank top. I do not use sunblock so when the sun is intense and high overhead I use a sun shirt, sun gloves, and a visor with an added neck drape to protect my skin. I like using a visor instead of a hat for two reasons; one, I sweat a lot and the visor provides more ventilation than a hat; and two, I like to wear my hair up because it lets more air circulate around my neck and face, which keeps me cooler.

Hiking in a skirt is something I came to love on my 2012 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. I can wear spandex shorts underneath it and along with a sports bra I am ready for swimming at the first sight of fresh water. When the weather is cooler it also makes it easy and discreet to slip tights on and off no matter who is around. I have also found that in colder weather my butt stays much warmer if I am hiking in a skirt with light tights underneath than if I wear thermals under hiking pants. I designed the skirt I will be wearing on this trek. It has two draw cords on the front so that I can raise the hem in warmer weather and lower it in cooler weather.

Before hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I did not use trekking poles, now I even use them on day hikes. I find I walk up hills faster and they really take the weight off my knees on the down hills.

Chacos, Darn Tough Socks, Warm Weather Hiking Outfit, Sun Protection
Chacos, Darn Tough Socks, Hiking Outfit, Sun Protection

Extra Clothes Carried for Cold Weather

I find I stay warmer simply by adding a variety of light layers as opposed to a heavy bulky layer. I like to use a neck gator to keep the wind from blowing down my neck and into my jacket. The combination of a Buff and light hat covers a wide range of temperatures. Light hiking tights under my skirt are great and with the addition of light leg warmers I am very comfortable down to freezing temperatures. A light thermal shirt with a wind shirt over it is a very warm combination in cold weather. And with the addition of a light insulated jacket, light gloves, and light insulated mittens I am good for a mountain expedition. I made my insulated jacket for this hike. It weighs 10 ounces, it is long enough to cover my butt, has a hood, sleeves long enough to actually keep my wrists covered when I raise my arms, and two inside pockets.

Cold Weather Clothes Carried
Cold Weather Clothes Carried

Homemade Rain Gear

I designed and made all my rain gear. I made it with Ultra-Sil. Ultra-sil is sil-nylon except it is stronger and lighter. It is not breathable, but when it is really raining breathable does not work anyway. My rain gear makes a great vapor barrier and doubles as a lightweight bivy solution on my mountain ventures.

My rain gear consists of a pullover jacket with a hood, which is sort of like a poncho except that it has full length arms, rain chaps, skirt, mittens, and booties (very useful for a sandal hiker).

Homemade Ultra-Sil Rain Gear
Homemade Ultra-Sil Rain Gear

Water & Treatment and Other “Stuff” I Carry

I carry a lot of water bottles. I like to have a five liter capacity in the desert. I carry two 1L Smart Water bottles, a collapsible 1L Platypus bottle, and a 2L Platypus bladder with a hose. I love my 2L Platypus Hoser bladder with the single fill/drink tube opening. It is very light weight, uncomplicated, and I find that if I take a little sips of water often that I actually drink less water and feel less thirsty than if I keep all my water in bottles. I think I always wait too long to drink from bottles because it is such a pain to reach around into my side pocket to get the bottle so when I do finally drink I end up guzzling the whole bottle of water and still feeling thirsty. I keep the Platypus bladder on the outside of my pack in my side pocket so that it is easier to fill and also so I can see how much water is in it

In cattle country I treat my water. In the desert I like to filter my water with the Sawyer Squeeze filter. It only weighs 3 ounces and it is easy to use. As weather gets colder I prefer to use a Steripen for water treatment to keep my hands from freezing. In high mountain areas I do not treat my water.

Other Stuff I carry…

I carry several safety pins. I use these as clothespins to attach wet socks or other wet clothes to one of the draw cords on my pack like a clothesline. I do not carry a pocket knife. The only thing it is good for is opening difficult plastic food packaging. Instead I carry nail clippers, which are lighter than most pocket knives, much more useful, and they can still open up those difficult to get into food items. As a nail biter I also like having an Emory board to keep my nails filed smooth so that I don’t bite them down to the quick.

I use a child’s toothbrush with much of the handle cut off. I do not use toothpaste (not even at home). I prefer using a tooth powder, either homemade from a mixture of kitchen spices, or a ready-made formula like Dr. Christopher’s or EcoDent.

I think the silliest thing I carry in my pack is a one-inch length of eyeliner. It really is a wasted weight in my pack, but I love having it on my town days. I carry a small sewing kit that consists of a sewing needle wrapped in heavy paper and thread on a light plastic bobbin. I carry a couple of water treatment pills just in case I run into some really, really, bad water that I have to drink, but looks as though it needs extra special treatment. I also carry duct tape, Tenacious Tape, Arniflora Arnica Gel, and Arnica homeopathic pills. For my periods I use Instead Soft Cups, which are a disposable menstrual cup. I have tried reusable menstrual cups like The Keeper, but I prefer the shape of the Soft Cup.

I do not carry a stove, but I carry a Ziploc container for use as a bowl and a light spoon for mixing drink mixes, gelling chia seed, mixing protein powders, etc. I carry a bandana and two handy wipes for water pre-filter, wiping the sweat from my brow, washing, drying, blowing my nose, and pee. I also carry toilet paper, a pack a tissues, chapstick on a handy caribiner, and 2 heavy Ziploc-like bags for my wallet and phone.

Lastly, I carry a pillow. It weights 2.4 ounce. I do not use it under my head—it goes between or under my knees, which helps to keep the pressure off my lower back while sleeping.

Water & Treatment and Other “Stuff” Carried

Navigation, Phone, and Camera

I do not usually carry paper maps, but because the CDT is so remote, wild, unfinished, and there are so many route options I have chosen to carry paper for this trek. I will also be carrying a traditional compass, which I do not carry for other hikes.

I have Gaia, a GPS program, on my phone as well as image files of all the maps. I keep my phone in a Mophie battery case for added protection and it can charge my phone 2 1/2 times while on trail. I also carry my phone charger and camera battery charger for when I get to town.

My camera is a Sony NEX. In addition to the battery charger I will carry a spare battery and several SD cards. I will also carry a Mophie battery pack for charging the camera battery while on trail. All this can be stored away in a dry bag during wet or dusty weather.

Navigation, Phone, and Camera
Navigation, Phone, and Camera

Sleeping

My sleeping bag is another homemade ware. It weighs 17 ounces and is all synthetic. It is a cross between a sleeping bag and a quilt in that I did not add insulation on the bottom of the bag in an area the size of my sleeping pad. My sleeping pad is blue foam and goes on the inside of my sleeping bag. The bag has a full length zipper and zips to the bag I made for my husband. I constructed it out of 5oz Climashield Apex insulation and Pertex Quantum fabric. Pertex is a great wind block and I chose it specifically for the bag because most of the time we like to cowboy camp and wind blowing through my bag keeps me from sleeping well.

Homemade Sleeping Bag
Homemade Sleeping Bag

Tent

Zpacs makes amazing tents. This is the Hexamid Twin made of a Cuben Fiber tarp with a bug net attached to close it in. It sets up with trekking poles and weighs ~20 ounces with all the guy-lines, ground sheet, and stakes. It withstands heavy winds like a champion and despite its large looking footprint we have managed to set it up in some of the tiniest of places. One of its best features is that it sets up with the pointy tip of the trekking pole at the ground and the handle at the roof of the tent. Other tents that use trekking poles do just the opposite and though the tip of the trekking pole is meant to stay in a grommet at the roof of the tent I have heard way more than one story of a windy night that shot the person’s trekking pole straight through the roof of their tent shredding their tent to bits. The main downside to the Zpacs Hexamid Twin is it is a little small for two tall people, but most of the time we don’t set it up anyway.

Cuben Fiber Ultralight Tent
Cuben Fiber Ultralight Tent

Gear that I may or may not carry for Colorado

Because I fear being cold I also made a lightweight sleeping bag liner that in addition to being a liner bag it has extra zippers on it so that I can wear it like a jacket/nightgown. I made insulated puffy pants just in case the Colorado mountain weather is colder than my standard hiking garb can deal with. For parts of Colorado I may also carry a heavier set of insulating items, which includes a warmer set of thermals (top & bottoms), neoprene booties, and a light balaclava. Additionally, colder weather means snow, and summer weather means snow-melt, and snow-melt means mosquitoes. So I will likely carry a mosquito head net in these areas.

Sleeping Bag Liner, Puffy Pants, Thermals
Sleeping Bag Liner, Puffy Pants, Thermals

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