Rainstorm in the Kenai Fjords, Alaska
On any expedition, gear is usually our third most common topic of conversation, running behind food (the clear favorite), and plans for our next journey. We complain about our gear. We brainstorm strange new ideas that probably wouldn’t work. We love our gear. It’s the thing that keeps us from sitting naked in the devils club in the rain.
Hig and I started doing long-distance off-trail wilderness travel years before we knew anyone else who was doing similar things. As a result, we developed most of our system with very little outside input, passing through some uncomfortable intermediate phases, such as huddling under krumholz spruce trees with no sleeping bag and traveling 800 miles with a Sevylor Trail Boat.
So we’re pretty much self-taught. Which is probably for the best, since neither of us is very good at following advice.
Devils club and alder bushwhack in the Neacola Mountains, Alaska
In planning the gear list for our Journey on the Wild Coast, we considered four major factors:
Weight: This becomes particularly important in the more remote areas of the trip, when we may have to carry 13 to 16 days worth of food at a stretch between resupply points.
Water: Torrential rains, rivers, and ocean fjords are major features of our route. Everything we carry and wear must be ready for a swim.
Brush: Our route is lacking trails, but replete with lush forests and thick bushwhacks. Our gear must be able to survive these shredding conditions, and where possible, be rugged enough to do so for nine months.
Record Keeping: Photography, writing, and communication are key parts of the environmental mission of this trip. Therefore, our arsenal of electronic gadgets is decidedly not "ultralight."
We’ve been fortunate enough to receive sponsorship from a number of gear companies for this expedition: Alpacka Rafts, Backpacking Light, Montrail, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Teko Socks. This obviously has some influence on our gear choices. But this expedition is far too intense for us to settle for whatever we could get for free – we only asked for gear we really wanted.
On a nine-month trip, our gear must necessarily be somewhat modular. Some things will wear out. Some things we’ll mail home. Some things we’ll receive or acquire along the way. And there is no consideration of style that could convince me to bushwhack through the rainforest with a pair of skis in July.
|Alpacka Raft||Alpaca, yellow, silnylon spray deck||2||80.5||161.0|
|kayak paddle||Sawyer, 5 piece breakdown||2||32.0||64.0|
|Therm-a-Rest “life vests”||Modified Prolite 3, 3/4 length||2||14.0||28.0|
|floorless pyramid||Spinnaker, Mountain Laurel Designs||1||16.0||16.0|
|sleeping quilt||2 layers Climashield XP, Momentum lining, Nylon bottom||1||25.5||25.5|
|drysuit||Toray Dermizax, coat and pants, breathable, sealable gaskets||2||26.5||53.0|
|dry booties||Seal Feet while packrafting||2||4.5||9.0|
|fleece suit||homemade, Power Stretch fleece||2||17.0||34.0|
|summer clothes||light shorts and shirt – probably will ditch in Canada||2||12.0||24.0|
|rain mitts||eVENT, Mountain Laurel Designs||2||1.0||2.0|
|insulating hood||Cocoon Balaclava||2||3.0||6.0|
|trail running shoes||Montrail Hardrock and Vitesse||2||29.2||58.3|
|large dry bags||homemade, large||4||3.5||14.0|
|small dry bags||homemade, varying sizes and padding||1||9.0||9.0|
|Cooking and Food||Item||Description||Quantity||Weight||Total|
|Ursack||large size, old model||2||7.0||14.0|
|water container||500ml bottled water bottles||6||0.5||3.0|
|maps||custom printed on Adventure paper||1||2.0||2.0|
|toiletries||sunblock, toothpaste, etc…||1||5.0||5.0|
|knee brace||in case of injury||1||2.0||2.0|
|headlamp||Princeton Tec, waterproof||1||3.0||3.0|
|ice axes||long, lightweight||2||18.0||36.0|
|Communication and Record Keeping||Item||Description/Reason||Quantity||Weight||Total|
|business cards||help explain trip||1||1.0||1.0|
|journal||Rite in the Rain||1||3.0||3.0|
|camera||Canon Digital Rebel XTi with battery||1||20.0||20.0|
|standard zoom lens||24-105mm, IS, f4.0, L||1||23.6||23.6|
|wide angle lens||10-22mm, f3.5||1||13.6||13.6|
|batteries dSLR||each, extra||6||1.5||9.0|
|memory cards||24 gB in Compact Flash||1||3.0||3.0|
|Gorillapod||medium SLR size||1||5.8||5.8|
|video camera||Panasonic SDR S10 with battery||1||7.2||7.2|
|battery chargers||1 each for still and video cameras||1||9.5||9.5|
|memory card reader||small reader +USB cord||1||2.0||2.0|
|GPS||"black box" with 4AA batteries||1||9.00||9.0|
|Kits and Miscellaneous||Item||Description||Quantity||Weight||Total|
|Emergency Kit||first aid, fire starting, knife, passport, cash, etc…||1||22.5||22.5|
|EPIRB||New ACR ResQFix||1||10.25||10.3|
|bear deterrent flare||handheld pull flare, won’t carry until Canada||1||7.0||7.0|
|By Category||Weight per Person (oz)|
|Cameras and Record Keeping||53.3|
|Full Skin-Out Weight||394 (24.6 lbs)|
|Consumables||Weight per Person (oz)||Rationale|
|Water||0-2 lbs each||(water readily available)|
|Food||0-30 lbs||(depends on distance to resupply)|
|Total Pack Weight||24-55 pounds|
Since Hig and I carry very similar gear, I’ve averaged the weight for most of our stuff and just listed them with a quantity of "2.” The actual weight carried will be a little less most of the time – I expect the overlap between needing summer clothes and bear deterrent to be small on this trip. This is a summer/fall list only – I’ll finalize a winter-specific list when it’s closer to winter (when we have all our winter gear)
Discussion of Gear
Packrafting is an integral part of this expedition. We expect it to make up roughly a quarter of our travel distance – and a higher proportion in the convoluted islands and fjords of B.C. and Southeast Alaska. This will be primarily ocean packrafting; paddling across fjords, along cliffy coastlines, and between islands. We’ll also be using the boats to cross major rivers, but on our coastal route, there will only be a few we can float down.
Packraft on calm seas – Kachemak Bay, Alaska
We each carry an Alpacka Raft (with spray deck, Alpaca size), which weighs about 5 pounds. The 4-piece kayak paddle weighs another 2 pounds. Along with a two ounce inflation bag and a bit of patching material, this makes rafting equipment the heaviest category of gear we carry. But the packraft remains in our packs for just about every trip we take. So many new routes open up with a packraft that it’s more than worth the weight. And for this expedition, it’s simply the price for taking a journey not possible in any other way.
Packraft in less calm seas (playing in the surf on the Olympic Coast, Washington)
We’ve tried every way we can think of to give our packrafting gear additional functions. Paddle shafts are good poles for setting up the shelter, rafts make great ground cloths on swampy ground, and in the winter, packrafts double as sleds.
Packraft as sled – Skilak Lake, Alaska
We modify our Therm-a-Rests (by cutting out armholes and adding straps) to be worn as life vest while paddling. And we get more comments on this than on any other piece of gear we carry, second only to the packrafts themselves. As we usually end up answering a lot of concerns about these homemade contraptions, I’ll try to head them off now.
Hig modeling life vest and fleece suit
Basically, there are three major things to worry about. One is flotation – here the Therm-a-Rest performs quite well. The second is puncture resistance, and any inflatable, particularly one with light fabric, is vulnerable to puncture. If we were doing a lot of whitewater, I wouldn’t go with this method. However, most of our paddling will be in the ocean where capsizing is a big danger, but there are few objects that can puncture the vest. The third concern is the ability for the life vest to stay attached to our bodies. We’ve been experimenting with this for years, and currently have a strapping system much better than the original "zip it under the coat" method. It’s nearly impossible for the current version to slip off when the straps are tightened down.
Another important thing, particularly for ocean packrafting, is to set up a system that ensures we don’t lose the raft if we capsize and that we can reenter it quickly. In the river, strings can cause tangling problems, but in the ocean, we use a string to connect the raft, pack, and paddle, and even have a wrist loop on it. Lose the raft in the middle of a bay, and you die. Luckily, Alpacka rafts take about 3 seconds to flip upright and reenter, and don’t hold water afterwards. The only thing that impedes this is the pack. A heavy pack strapped to the front of the boat can make it nearly impossible to flip it upright in the water. So we’ve set up a quick-release system that allows the pack to be quickly unclipped from the boat (even underwater). It remains attached by a long string, acting as a sea anchor, while the boat is flipped upright. After I’m safely in the boat, I use the long string to haul the pack back in.
Our clothing system consists of two main pieces: a breathable drysuit (worn all the time), and a one-piece fleece suit (added underneath when it’s cold). The drysuit is a beta test of a new packrafting suit from Sheri Tingey at Alpacka Raft. The fabric is Toray Dermizax – breathable and stretchy, but waterproof. The cuffs, neck, and feet can all be sealed for packrafting or opened up for hiking (the waterproof booties are separate from the main suit, so they don’t shred while walking). We have never before found raingear that can stand up to this kind of trip, so I’m very excited to see how these suits work.
Hig modeling drysuit
The one-piece fleece suit is homemade from Powerstretch fleece. It’s heavier than most other kinds of insulation, however it deals better with water than anything we have ever encountered. We find "moisture-wicking" base layers to be useless when water is continually coming in from outside. "Puffy" forms of insulation hold tons of water, and take forever to dry. Soaking wet, powerstretch fleece is barely doubled in weight (as we discovered in an at-home experiment with a scrap of fabric and a hanging scale), and most of the water drains out right away. As a result, we can spill out of the boats in a glacial river or fjord and feel warm again easily within a few minutes of walking. By using an extremely simple design, we’ve gotten my suit down to a pound. For our hands, we’ll bring eVENT mitts from Mountain Laurel Designs, and either a pair of cheap hardware store gloves, or wool gloves. For head insulation, we’ll carry a Cocoon balaclava.
Hig modeling fleece suit
On our feet, we’ll wear Teko socks, and Montrail Vitesse or Hardrock trail runners. In this terrain, wet feet are an inevitable fact of life, and we find the Montrails are a good compromise between durability in rough terrain, light weight, and fast draining. We carry two pairs of socks at all times; a wet pair for the day, and a dry pair for sleeping. It took me years to get used to putting on wet socks every morning. These days, I barely even notice it. We’ll get extra socks and shoes in the mail as ours wear out.
You might wonder how we’ll wash – and more importantly, dry – our clothing while traveling in very wet and cold environments. The prospect of carrying more cold water in our gear than is absolutely necessary is rather unappealing. And anything hung on the outside of our packs is more likely than not to end up as a decoration for an alder bush. We limit our laundry to town stops. As towns are the only place where anyone’s around to smell us, this works fine.
Photography and Record Keeping
We’re photographers. I’m a writer. Communicating with others about these places and our experience of them is an important part of the mission of this trip. We’re working to raise awareness of the key environmental issues of this region, and in order to do it, we need to make these places real to people. Here, the goal of carrying less stuff comes in second to the more ethereal goals of capturing the experience and capturing the place.
For our still camera, we carry a digital SLR – a Canon digital Rebel Xti. We’ll be carrying two lenses: a 24-105mm lens with image stabilization and an ultra wide angle 10-35mm lens. We take most shots handheld, but also carry a Gorillapod flexible tripod.
Still camera gear
Our camera has a maximum resolution of 10 megapixels, and at the quality settings we usually use, the images average 9 megabytes in size. This means we need a lot of memory! We’ll be carrying about 24 gigabytes of memory cards with us, but it won’t be nearly enough for the thousands of photos we’ll take across the nine months of the journey. Our plan is to mail a laptop computer ahead of us to the larger towns, allowing us to back up and clear memory cards roughly monthly. We’re also carrying a little memory card reader, so we’ll be uploading small versions of photos to the web anywhere we can grab hold of a computer and an internet connection.
In combination, the camera, lenses, extra batteries, memory cards, card reader, tripod, and the drybags to protect it all come out to a little over 5 pounds. And that’s even leaving our telephoto lens at home! We’re lucky that two people require only one camera.
While the camera is the largest item in this category, we’re carrying a number of other recording gadgets as well. The newest is a 7 ounce water-resistant and shock-resistant camcorder from Panasonic (SDR S10), which records mpeg videos to memory cards. We are experienced photographers, but have basically zero video experience, so I’m really looking forward to playing with this new toy.
Backpacking video camera, a Panasonic SDR S10
On this trip, we’re carrying two separate gadgets with GPS functionality, neither of which we can actually read coordinates from. One is the emergency beacon (see Safety section). The other is a "black-box" GPS made for us by Jon at Kedzig Innovation Group. The basic idea is that this GPS will take a point every 5 minutes as we travel, keeping a continuous track log. We can upload this log whenever we have an internet connection. And by matching the time-stamp on each photo with the time in the track log, we’ll get a precise location for each photo we take. This will be especially critical for those photos documenting environmental impacts and proposed sites of development. For navigation, we’ll use an old-fashioned map and compass.
Wild Coast Journey business card
One of the things we’ve noticed even on much shorter trips is that when we try to explain to folks where we’ve come from and where we’re going, they just give us a puzzled sort of look. Showing works better than telling. So on this trip we’ll be carrying a small number of business cards we’ve created – with a map of the route, the web address, and a sturdy waterproof coating. I’m not sure if we’re the first folks to include business cards as backpacking gear, but I wouldn’t be surprised…
Finally, my journal entries and notes for the book will be recorded the old-fashioned way – with a pencil – on Rite in the Rain waterproof paper. I’m quite religious about writing every night, huddling in the sleeping bag after an exhausting day’s travel, with Hig snoring beside me… Unlike in the past, I’ll actually be carrying a headlamp on this journey, which should eliminate some of the awkward contortions needed to write in the bag, and allow me to more easily decipher my own writing later.
Sleeping and Shelter
As a couple, we have a huge advantage on this front, saving weight and adding warmth by sleeping in a single bag/quilt. Few companies make good two-person options, so we make our own. For the summer and fall, we use a quilt made from two layers of Climashield XP, with Momentum as the outer fabric. The quilt has no insulation on the bottom, but we use a single layer of light nylon to make it into a bag. The main purpose of this is that it prevents either one of us from hogging all the covers! We’ve found sleeping together to be perfectly comfortable, as long as the bag is roomy enough. And the double bag weighs only about 1.5 pounds total.
Homemade Climashield and Momentum bag/quilt
For a pad, we use Therm-a-Rest pro-lite 3s, 3/4 length, modified to serve as life vests (see Rafting above)
In the past, we’ve usually slept under simple rectangular silnylon tarps. This time we’re making a technological leap forward, and are using a spinnaker pyramid tarp from Mountain Laurel Designs. We’ll set it up with our paddle shafts as poles, and it weighs about 1 pound.
Mountain Laurel Designs pyramid tarp in our front yard
This is one category in which all of our stuff is homemade, and some of it is fairly experimental. Most of the sewing on our packs was done by Hig, with some design by a friend of ours, Andrew Mattox. The basic goal was to make packs as light as possible, but still able to withstand bushwhacking. We also wanted removable hip belts – allowing us to use them as fanny packs while packrafting, and as sled-pulling belts while skiing.
We ended up going very different ways with each of our packs. We’ll see which (if either of them) works out better, and reserve the right to get some new ones en route if these get too shredded.
To design my pack, "the Mongrel,” we looked at my old GoLite Gust (used for several years of hard off-trail travel) to see where it was the most beat up. While the top and back of the pack were nearly intact, the sides were shredded, and the bottom had been patched and replaced so many times that I could barely find any remnants of the original fabric. On the new version, we used three different weights of fabric for those three different areas. I use the Therm-a-Rest and paddle shafts as the padding and frame, so the pack itself is mostly a large bag, with straps pilfered directly from the Gust. Rather than being part of the pack, the pockets and fanny pack are threaded onto the removable hipbelt. This way they’re easier to reach, and stay with me when I’m not wearing the pack (especially useful since our clothing doesn’t have pockets). In order for the hipbelt to be modular like this, we’ve made it without any padding. I don’t find this to be uncomfortable at all, as long as the webbing used is wide enough. The whole thing weighs a little under a pound.
Erin’s homemade pack, The Mongrel
Hig’s pack is also frameless, but is more similar to the Arctic Dry bag in design. He used linolock mesh for the bottom and the part that goes against his back, flexible mesh of a more "laundry bag" style for the front, and a system of strings along the sides to keep the gear contained. He assures me that nothing will fall out of it, but I think I’ll carry the small important items (like camera lenses) in my own pack.
The other gear item that falls in the "packing’ category is dry bags. Lots of them. When packrafting, it’s best to assume that your pack is going swimming. Even when this isn’t literally true, the waves and splashing generally soak the pack quite effectively. And past experience has taught me to trust trash bags and ziplocs about as far as I can throw them into a headwind.
Some people go with the one-big-drybag approach to packing. We prefer the many-little-drybags approach. I don’t like putting damp clothes in the same bag as a super dry sleeping bag. I’d also rather not throw all my food (sometimes in leaky ziplocs) on top of our clothes and sleeping bag. Camera lenses need padding as well as a waterproof seal. Emergency firestarters need to stay on my person. I like to wear the camera around my neck. And small items like batteries and memory cards would get lost if they were loose in a large bag with other gear.
At last count, we had 10 dry bags between the two of us, in all shapes and sizes. We make all of these ourselves, with heat-sealable fabric and a small iron. Heat-sealable fabric comes in several different weights, and we make each bag the exact size and toughness that we need (with padding and straps as necessary). The resulting bags are lighter than anything commercially available.
Cooking and Eating
In the past, we’ve cooked directly on open fires. But after playing around with a tin can "hobo stove" this winter, we decided we wanted to bring a small wood stove (the Bushbuddy Ultra), on this journey. We expect it to be particularly useful on snow, where we can set it on top of a platform, and in really wet forests, where we’ll appreciate having to hunt down a smaller quantity of dry wood.
Bushbuddy on the porch
Our pot is a 1.3 liter titanium pot, pitch black from years of fires. It’s one of the few pieces of gear that has managed to survive multiple years of our abuse. Both the pot and lid have handles, and the lid holds enough volume to be used as a bowl – perfect for splitting food between the two of us. We’re also carrying one plastic mug. We only bring one because I’m the sucker for coffee and hot drinks while Hig happily drinks glacial water in 33 degree blowing rain.
We’ll carry a pair of extra-large Ursacks for the first two thirds of our trip, until the bears all go to sleep. This may be an unnecessary precaution – we choose our campsites carefully, and have never had a bear visit our camp or food at night. However, I really don’t want to end up foodless in the middle of a long leg between towns!
Having tried collapsible waterbottles, and finding them to spring leaks at the most inconvenient times, we’ve gone to carrying the half-liter bottles that bottled water comes in. They’re cheap, light, easy to pack into odd corners of the pack, and easily replaceable at any store. For most of our route, water is plentiful enough that we never need to carry much at a time. We’ll bring a few Micropur and iodine tablets to purify water, but we also often drink directly from streams and rivers.
This is the section for odds, ends, and unclassifiables. We do need to know where we’re going, at least most of the time, so we carry topo maps and compasses. We print the maps off our computer, and after some unpleasant experiences with smudged and runny topography, print them all on waterproof "adventure paper.” One tricky calculation for any off-trail journey is how much leeway to give ourselves outside the "planned route.” We don’t want to carry more maps than we need, but often deviate quite far from our initial plans (we’ve walked off the map a number of times this way). Even without much allowance, if we were to carry all the maps for the 4000 miles of travel at once, it would weigh almost three pounds.
Most of the time we navigate with just the topo map, but I find that a compass is critical in flat areas with low visibility. We don’t use it for triangulating a position but instead for holding a straight-line course. A long-ago accident with glue has stuck my compass at 21 degrees of declination, but it still works fine.
There’s not much to say about headlamps, sunglasses, toothpaste, and other toiletries. As we’ll end up buying stuff along the way, the weights of the consumable items will probably vary quite a bit.
One final interesting thing is ice axes. Lightweight long ice axes are useful tools in a number of environments, even beyond snow and ice. We like carrying them in steep and rugged terrain. They’re a third leg in areas too thick for trekking poles to be useful, are good for scrambling on dirt and vegetated slopes, hacking steps on steep glaciers, and of course, for arresting on snow. We’ll probably carry these for the summer portion of our trip, but will likely mail them home for the winter, when we’ll be mostly on more gentle terrain, and will be carrying ski poles in our hands.
What really counts as safety gear? In a way, almost everything but the camera could be placed in this category. But there are a few things which have little other use. One is the EPIRB. This is basically a satellite panic button, calling in the rescue cavalry with the flip of a switch. Some people think it’s cheating. I think it’s a good piece of insurance. We travel in many places where it would be difficult or impossible to self-extract with a major injury. I fully intend to never use it.
Our other unused piece of insurance is bear deterrent. Usually, we’ve carried one can of pepper spray for bear-season trips, though the one time I was bowled over by a bear (in the Kenai Fjords), I didn’t have time to use it! Despite this, we probably will carry some kind of bear deterrent for the B.C. and Southeast Alaska coasts. It will somewhat depend on what we can get in Vancouver (it’s not legal to take pepper spray across the border), but we may replace the pepper spray with pull flares. These are used in Katmai Park, and work on the basic principle that a bear is less likely to charge a spitting mess of acrid smoke and fire. These are handheld flares, not shooting flares, and the point is definitely NOT to shoot them at the bear.
We carry the EPIRB along with knife, firestarter, first aid, raft-patching stuff, and other emergency items in a fanny pack kit (with a waterproof drybag for those items that need it). This kit threads onto the removable hipbelt of the pack, so it can stay on us at all times, even while rafting and skiing. Even if we lose our packs, we’ll have the critical tools for survival.
Doesn’t June through March include a few of those cold months? We expect to hit true winter in Valdez in late November, when we cross from Prince William Sound to the inland side of the Chugach mountains. When people think "Alaska in the winter" they tend to picture the minus sixty degree temperatures of the northern interior. We’ll be following the Pacific and Bering Sea coasts, heading both south and west. The Bering Sea keeps the climate much colder than similar latitudes of Southeast Alaska, and temperatures will be below zero at times, but the type of super-extreme cold seen in the interior is rare here. Instead, our major challenge will be the legendary wind and storms of the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands.
Our two main gear modifications for the winter will be to switch our primary mode of transportation to skiing, and to add more insulation. For clothing, we’ll be adding Cocoon pants and jackets, and a homemade fleece hood with a fur ruff. People with lots of experience tell us that nothing substitutes for fur to warm the face and keep the wind off – and in my limited experience it seems to work pretty well. For sleeping, we’ll be adding a down quilt inside of our summer/fall synthetic quilt (for a total weight of 3 pounds between us), and a full-length foam pad underneath our 3/4 length Therm-a-Rests. The skis are nothing special – we both have pretty basic backcountry nordic skis (Fischer Crown Tech and Karhu XCD). We’ll be able to give up some items for winter, such as our ice axes and bear deterrent, but the skis and extra insulation will probably add about 10 pounds to each of our base weights.
As I write this in June, winter seems a long way off. We plan to make and acquire some pieces of our winter gear during our planned ten-day rest break in Anchorage in December.
Packrafts in the snow
I believe that it’s good to spend a lot of time thinking about gear, especially for a long expedition. I also believe that once you’re out there, whatever gear you happen to have is good enough. Especially with a liberal supply of thread and duct tape.