On the 23 of June 2014 Delmar decided to run a simple poll of BPL readers on what they actually carried. Over 170 responses were received: more than expected. This article summarises the responses.
On the 23 of June 2014 Delmar decided to run a casual poll of BPL readers to answer ten gear questions he had. Figuring people might be willing to answer twenty questions (the polling site could handle more than ten), he asked BPL Forumites to suggest ten more questions, and he included the first group that were submitted. Delmar thought he might get 20 or 30 people responding to the poll, total, but was surprised when scores of participants took it, yielding interesting data. By the end over 170 responses had been received. This article summarizes the responses. Since so many people have contributed to this survey, we have made it an ‘open to all’ article, and published it as quickly as we can.
Why has it been done this way? Delmar posted the following in the Forum thread about this survey:
Friends, this survey has generated more interest than I was expecting. I contacted Roger and asked him if BPL would like the data and graphics when finished. Roger asked me if I’d be willing to write the results into a BPL article. I think I’m far too inexperienced a backpacker to write a good article for a sophisticated audience as we have here, so I declined, and asked Roger if he’d like to write an article instead, based on the data being gathered. He said OK. So I’m shipping the data and graphics to Roger and crew, and you can expect a BPL article with the results sometime after the poll closes. The BPL staff will be able to add deeper and more significant commentary and interpretation than I could hope to.
I am leaving the BPL staff with a couple of difficult to interpret variables by the way I asked some of the questions. For example, it’s difficult to tell which maps people are using based on the way I set up the options, and by allowing multiple choices. (Allowing multiple choices always make the interpretation more complicated.) So the staff will be doing the best they can with the imperfect survey I whipped together. I mention this by way of saying: don’t blame BPL staff for some of the inevitable ambiguity in the results. They’re just working with the survey I wrote. A few interpretation issues aside, there is (to me at least, and Roger seems to think so too) some really interesting data here. So I hope you will enjoy the data when it’s published.
So, without further ado, here are the results. There are three sections: the first covers Gear, the second covers Locale etc, and the third gives a couple of cross-correlations. I did look at doing more cross-correlations, but they turned out to be not really meaningful: the questions were not sufficiently tightly specified in this simple poll. So I have chosen to avoid ‘over-analyzing’ the data.
As to the individual bars in the graphs – you need to interpret them correctly. Look at ‘Pack Size’ for instance: the first bar is labeled ’30’ – that means 0 – 30 L. The next bar is labeled 40: that means 30 – 40 L, and so on. The final bar is labeled > – that means more than the previous bar. The vertical axis shows how many responses there were in that category. On the other hand, graphs like ‘Shelter’ are interpreted differently. The first bar, labeled ‘bivy’ shows that just 5 people ticked this box. About 61 people ticked ‘tent single wall’. And that is about it.
What this article does not cover are the comments some added to their answers. There were some good suggestions for questions there for next time. Noted. A few people pointed out that too many categories were ‘single-choice’ and did not allow for people using different gear for different trips. True – but it started as a very casual survey.
From here on, ‘editorial’ comments are the sole responsibility of Roger, so you know where to pour your wrath. I will add here though that we do not know just how representative the 170+ respondents are of the whole BPL community. If you disagree with the conclusions – did you fill in the survey?
Gear, in all its glory
Pack Size, Liters
A few responses were clearly in cubic inches so they were converted. No-one carries a 1500 L pack!
Clearly, most readers prefer to use a pack with a decent capacity. Does this mean that many of us carry packs with an internal frame, despite the great PR which tiny frameless Cuben packs have received? It would seem very possible. Maybe that is because an internal frame pack is so much more comfortable to wear when it has more than a few kg in it? Mind you, pack Base Weights (next) are not that high.
I will add that my wife likes a large pack even though she keeps the weight down. She has several reasons for this. The first is that her large pack fits her torso really well, so that despite its higher weight it seems to carry more easily. Yes, I do keep offering her lighter packs, but none of them have fitted as well. And ‘fit’ matters! The second is that she finds it harder to reach things in a smaller pack where everything is packed in tightly. Trying to find a packet of biscuits somewhere down there for a much-needed snack in pouring rain can become ‘too hard’. Finally, on some trips (especially long ones in Europe) she needs the volume so she can pack food safely – like loaves of fresh bread and half a kg of cheese bought in a small shop for lunches for the next few days. Squashing that sort of stuff down is just not smart. I know I keep saying it is only weight which matters – but sometimes that is not so.
Pack Base Weight, lb
We measure pack volume in Liters, but Base Weight is still expressed in pounds – at least here. Sigh.
Well, the UL ideal is somewhere between 5 lb and 10 lb, so clearly a lot of us don’t quite reach that Nirvana – although a few did! But let’s be very realistic here: if you are going up in the mountains during shoulder seasons, SUL gear is just not going to hack it. OK, Ryan Jordan did manage it once in the snow, but he had zero room for the unexpected – which happened. That said, a 12 lb Base Weight for shoulder seasons is not bad, especially up in the mountains. It seems to me that 35 lb Base Weights are fairly common among the uneducated, even for weekend walks in the lowlands. But, keep trying!
This covers pretty much the full range of shelters. Bias and opinion rage on. A category which was not included was that of a bivy bag under a tarp. We had a few who wrote that one in. Some others were not sure what category a ‘tarptent’ fell under: for the most part I have called them single-walled tents.
The UL hype is often focused on bivies and hammocks and tarps – but it seems that tents remain very popular. This may, or may not, reflect on where readers camp. I note that cowboy camping (groundsheet and no shelter) and hammocks are low in volume, suggesting that many are going higher in the mountains where these may not be realistic. Of course, as you all know, I am biased in favor of single and double-wall tunnel tents for two people.
Two factors were not covered in this question, making interpretation difficult. The first is whether the shelter in mind is for one person or two. Obviously a bivy will be for just one person, but what about a tent? Yes, a tent may be heavier – unless the weight is shared (in principle) between two. My summer tunnel tent weighs 1.26 kg, which sounds heavy, but that is for two people and works fine in very wet weather. 630 grams per person is very reasonable, and think of the comfort and convenience! But Sue says I snore.
What I cannot tell from this data is just how many of the ‘double wall tents’ are really just a single wall tent with a bug-net inside. There are a lot of such designs on the American market, but few (if any) genuine double-skin tents. So we have some uncertainty here.
Quilts and sleeping bags
This one covers pretty much the full range of warmth layers. It does not cover mats of any sort, which is a pity. Next time maybe. We started with three categories here: down quilt, down sleeping bag and synthetic sleeping bag. The option of a synthetic quilt was not included at the start, but 7 people ‘wrote them in’, so we have included that number as well. Each option allowed for ‘summer’ gear (above freezing) and ‘colder’ gear.
This was most interesting. I am sure many readers will have come from a traditional background and could be expected to still have down sleeping bags, but it seems that good down quilts have really gone mainstream. In a way, that is very gratifying for BPL. Owners of sleeping bags should always remember that they can use a ‘bag’ as a quilt if they want, by just not doing the zip up. In fact, once converted to quilt-use, you might want to consider removing that heavy zip. I did.
A subject beloved of a very large part of our technical readership: stoves! And their alternatives.
Let’s deal with the obvious loser first: liquid fuel stoves running on white gas. Given their huge weight penalty and very high cost, their low score is no surprise – and is thoroughly merited. Definitely dinosaur territory. Interestingly, wood fires fare not much better. Exactly why this is so I am not sure, although I note several problems with them: mess, smoke, lack of wood in high mountains and increasingly, fire hazard regions.
The we have alcohol stoves and ESBIT stoves. I admit to some surprise at how many use ESBIT, given the mess you get on the underside of your pot, but perhaps the ease of use (and very low initial cost) explains its popularity. OK, it works. Alky stoves fare better than ESBIT, as might be expected at BPL.
But the real surprise is the way canister use towers way above the others.
Perhaps the speed/power and ease of use of small upright canister stoves explains this. Yeah, I am biased, but you can see why.
This is an interesting one, and some of the captions need some interpretation.
- ‘Jacket 1’ means Jacket “breathable” (Gore-Tex, eVent, etc)
- ‘Jacket 2’ means Jacket, “breathable” (because it’s loose woven)
- ‘Jacket 3’ means Jacket, not “breathable” but zip ventilated
- ‘Jacket 4’ means Jacket, not “breathable” Period.
I will admit to considerable surprise over the popularity of ‘Jacket 1’. Given the weight and cost of Gore-Tex I was expecting to see this much lower in popularity. I was also a bit surprised at the number of entries for ‘Jacket 4’. On the other hand, I had expected to see far more entries for ‘Poncho’ (which I assume includes ‘capes’), given they way they are discussed so often. Strange.
I will comment here that the phrase ‘not breathable but zip ventilated’ is a bit naive in my humble opinion. I know arm-pit zips feature in many advertisements, but few find they work under serious conditions. On the other hand, a wide-open zip down the front certainly helps. But ‘breathable’ is a bit of a joke anyhow: check where your packs rides against your back. Ha! My solution here is a poncho over my pack.
The entries for rain kilt and rain pants do not surprise me if they relate to up in the mountains. There are times when bad weather is just bad! We carry rain pants as appropriate.
This item contains a few surprises, although the zero entries for ‘nuclear’ does not surprise me. I wonder what Delmar was thinking here?
I had expected to see much higher scores for chemical treatments, but clearly many people are not happy with the whole idea. I will admit that my wife and I have gone off it as well, despite how light it can be. I had expected to see more entries for UV treatment (i.e. Steripen), but it is fairly new and maybe many are still ‘not sure’ about that one.
What did also surprise me at first was the huge popularity for ‘filters’, but I think this needs interpretation. The older pumped filters are definitely dying: MSR seems to have had a really bad run of failures here. I don’t know why. On the other hand, it seems likely that the Sawyer gravity filters are really popular, and one can see why: low cost, long life, light weight, and easy to use. More on filters another day soon. A few people pointed out that they combined a filter (which does not handle viruses) with a simple chemical (which does).
Finally, there is a small contingent which does not treat their water at all. While we do carry a Steripen, most of the time we don’t treat our water at all these days. We are just a bit careful about sources.
This item really contains several alternatives. There’s the perennial argument about compass vs. GPS of course, but also there are different sources for maps (in America). I cannot comment on map sources.
I am seriously gratified to see that map and compass remains so very popular. Compasses do not run out of batteries, and with a map you can see a long way around you. I am sure GPSs have some uses, but they do not replace decent navigation skills among our readers. And I am pleased to see that quite a few also use an altimeter.
An amusing and fun subject, this one. It was suggested by Doug I, so Delmar included it. I do not know what to make of the “don’t poop” category, so I will ignore it (and the suffering).
I know there are some like Andrew Skurka who advocate going without TP, but I can’t help feeling that the hazards are just too great. For a start, finding anything soft or smooth in the Australian bush is highly unlikely, and I suspect the same applies in most other places too. But more importantly in my opinion is the potential health hazard created by possible contamination on your hands when you don’t use TP. The risk has got to be many, many times higher, and I do not think the risks are worth it. Finally, I still can’t see what the fuss about the weight of a little bit of TP is all about. A mouthful of water would weigh more.
Then we have the highly charged issue of what to do with the TP. I know there are some places, like at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where special conditions (pack everything solid out) have to apply, but those places are rare. If you use your eyes in the bush you will soon realize that there are animals around, and those animals poo everywhere. I do not believe that burying your poo does any damage to the bush at all – in remote areas. There is of course the problem of very popular areas where hundreds of people camp. Fortunately, these days the various ‘authorities’ have put in pit toilets or fly-out environmental ones.
But what about the TP? Well, anyone who lives on a farm or uses a septic tank system knows full well that TP decomposes quite quickly, so in my opinion burying it makes a whole lot of sense. That is: burying it: leaving your TP on the surface is simply uncouth and vulgar, and should be condemned. Burning your TP is not recommended in fire-prone areas anyhow!
This whole category was suggested by some BPL readers. There are some important items in this list (collection), along with some ‘not so important’.
For me, the most important item here is Pillow. You are going to spend somewhere between 8 and 12 hours lying down, hopefully asleep. You use a pillow at home to help you get a good night’s sleep: surely the same applies when you are camping? So Sue and I always carry some sort of pillow. However, there are nearly 100 entries here for a pillow, but there are over 170 respondents to this survey. What do the other 70 or so do? I suspect that many of them make up a pillow out of a stuff sack and spare clothing or gear, but didn’t count that as ‘carrying a pillow’ per se. Maybe some always sleep on their backs and don’t need a pillow. We cannot tell, but we can say that more than half of our respondents deem a pillow sufficiently important that the weight is justified.
The next most popular item is a Smart Phone. I don’t even own one, so I may not be qualified to comment. If the trip takes the walker out of range of the towers, one wonders why bother. Some I know carry maps on their smart phone; some use the pseudo (or real) GPS function for navigation, some use the phone as a camera, and some may need to carry the phone to get ‘permission’ to spend some days away from home. Keeps the SO happy you know. I can’t argue with the last one.
This one is a bit contentious: oh well. What the ‘wheels’ category was about I do not know: wheeled Zimmer frames maybe? Anyhow, I asked Delmar why he included ‘wheels’ and he answered “Comic relief. This is probably the most light-hearted survey I’ve ever run. What’s amusing is that every once in a while, someone chooses the silly option in most surveys. But not here … I guess poles and staffs are dead serious subject matter.” To be sure!
Delmar added to the above: “This question was the main reason I ran the survey. I just purchased my first set of trekking poles and was trying to decide whether to carry one or two. So I figured I’d ask the BPL collective. Got my answer!”
Here I have to admit to being in a minority: we don’t carry trekking poles in Australia. There are two main reasons why we (most Australian walkers) don’t: we have never needed them in the past, and they can be an absolute nuisance in the Australian bush anyhow. They just get in the way in the scrub. My biased opinion is that they are a great triumph of marketing spin over common sense – at least in most cases. It is interesting that medical research has shown that you expend more energy when using poles than when going without. However, if you have damaged knees they can be nice to have on long steep downhill sections.
All that said, they can be of use when travelling over snow and ice, and my wife sometimes takes an ultra-light carbon fibre one in the Alps in Europe for that reason. Under those conditions I usually take one of Steve’s CF/Ti ice axes.
This is mainly an American thing, for dealing with bears (and may be raccoons etc?). Overseas readers may safely pass by. The ‘sleep with’ category had the phrase ‘Platonic relationship’ tacked on, while the other one had ‘alternative relationship’. Some humor. What more can I say?
So where do all the BPL respondents live and walk? Well, no surprise: mainly in North America, and mainly on the West Coast. The fine dry summers of the South West must have something to do with its popularity – both for walking and for living. No-one in Antarctica though.
Ken Thompson is responsible for this question: how keen are our readers to go walking? One measure might be how far you are willing to travel, and the range is wide. There are those who can just about walk out the door (we have done that a few times ourselves), those for whom a drive of a few hours is normal (done that often enough), all the way to those willing to travel many, many hours for their ‘fix’. Australia to Europe is a minimum of 24 hours, and it seems we are not alone. But 1 to 4 hours seems most common.
The first few respondents to this question had to answer in hours, but this was soon changed to minutes. I have converted as appropriate.
Trips length and times
Another two measures of keenness are numbers of nights out per year and maximum length of trips. I have put these two together here.
Maximum nights out spreads right across the board, from just 4 nights to, well, more than half the year. Obviously a lot of you are very keen. I suspect that many of you may be constrained by jobs and family from being out more: been there ourselves.
In a way, nights out correlates with trip lengths. Many of you have done quite long trips – hundreds of miles. A few are clocking far longer trips: that has got to mean many nights out of course. Gear is getting a good workout!
Finally, we have Elevation and Climate, a suggestion from Ito Jakuchu. You will have noticed that single and ‘double’-skin tents and down gear rated to >32 F scored quite highly, as did the use of canister stoves. Here we see a lot of you going over 6,000′ or 2,000 m. I am sure those are correlated, but the statistics are not meaningful with the way the questions were asked. I guess the idea of relying on a summer quilt or bag, a small tarp and an ESBIT stove at 9,000′ in the shoulder season somehow lacks appeal. I wonder why? Sure – you can get away with it sometimes, but mountain weather … is variable.
Finally, one can note that dry weather is favored by the majority, but moderate wet weather did not score low. Here I suspect the BPL readership may differ slightly from the mainstream, which will be focused very much on ‘mod/dry’ conditions. I can understand the hot/dry contingent as well: desert walking can take you to some fascinating places. On the other hand, while I don’t mind cold/dry, I have to express some admiration for those who handle cold/wet. To be sure, it can be managed – with the right gear and some skill.
This is a very short section as the questions were not sufficiently tightly worded. However, we can offer two.
Shelter and sleeping gear
It seems that tents may be associated with colder conditions: 62 people used a tent of some sort with down sleeping gear rated for below freezing, while only 35 used a tent of some sort with down gear rated for above freezing. That would seem logical, although there were twice as many <32 F quilts as >32 F ones, so the correlation may not be that strong.
This most interesting graph shows how many people use a GPS as a function of the length of their longest trip. There were 22 people in the first bar (up to 10 miles), 18 in the second bar (10 – 20 miles), 2 people in the 40 – 80 miles category, and so on. It would seem that people who do long trips simply don’t bother with a GPS at all. This fits with my experience – and the batteries don’t last that long anyhow.