Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Footsteps of Giants: Gear.

You can't do a trip like this without a lot of gear.  And while I'd never claim that there is only one "right choice" for gear, I've made a lot of mistakes on past bike/boat trips that have educated me on what should but doesn't work, and what works best.

Starting with the boats: All 5 of us used modern long-stern Alpacka rafts.  

Doom, Jaybs, Roman, and I were in Yukon Yaks, Brett had a Denali Llama.  

Doom and Jaybs had open boats -- no deck at all -- and no Cargo Fly zippers.

Brett, Roman, and I had whitewater decks on our boats, and cargo zips.

I used my zipper to stash gear low and dry inside the tubes for each of the "big" crossings: The Copper, Controller Bay, and Icy Bay.

I think Roman used his cargo fly on the same crossings.  Not sure if Brett used his.

While I had the whitewater deck on the boat, I opted not to bring the coaming and skirt.  I'd debated it heavily and reasoned that I should pack either those or a light drysuit, but not both, and ultimately concluded two things:

- I already had too much crap to cart along, and

-the drysuit packed smaller, lighter, and was more versatile, able to keep me dry both in *and* out of the boat.

Roman brought his full skirt/coaming/whitewater deck setup, as well as a drysuit.  Like the rest of us, he used the drysuit for big chunks of every day.  I'm not sure I ever saw him use the whitewater skirt setup.

If I owned a Yak with a Cruiser deck I'd have brought it, no question.

None of us had thigh straps, footbraces, or throw bags, and never really missed them.  No real need or use on a trip like this.

I've done a handful of other week+ long bike/boat trips in maritime climates.  On the first I skipped the drysuit, on each successive trip I've taken one.  They are fragile, no doubt -- you have to be smart about how you use them.  That said, I think they are worth their weight in unobtanium when you factor in packed size, personal comfort, and cost.  I would never willingly go without one.

We had zero boat or drysuit damage, thus had no cause to effect repairs.

Paddles: some version of a breakdown paddle is mandatory.  Roman and Doom had Sawyer 5-piece paddles.  Jaybs had a 4-piece Werner.  Brett had a 4-piece Aqua Bound.  I had a 4-piece Mitchell.  These paddles have to be light enough to cart along on your back every day, quick to deploy, comfortable to use for long stretches, and durable against accidental (and some not so accidental) rock impact, as well as unfazed by grit.  They also get used to support our tents, so it's important that the broken-down size (in my case, 3 out of the 4 pieces of my Mitchell make for a near-perfect, taut pitch of either a 2 or 4 man 'mid) works well with your tent.

I own a total of 5 Sawyer paddles and currently 3 of them are broken.  I love the adjustability and light weight, but I rarely take them far from home -- I simply cannot trust them.

The Mitchell I brought is a full-on whitewater paddle with bent shaft.  Overkill for this trip?  Absolutely.  But my race-wrecked hands and wrists go numb quickly on a straight shaft paddle, thus the added mass was very welcome both for comfort and peace of mind WRT durability.

We had zero paddle failures or repairs, though a few times the others' blades and shafts got stuck together and we had to get borderline medieval on them to get them apart.

Tents: We took two HMG Ultamids.  Doom, Brett, and Jaybs shared a 4-man version, complete with bug net and floor.  

Roman and I shared a 2-man, and while we brought the bug net I chose to be penny-wise and pound foolish by forgoing the floor option.  At the start of the trip when the sun was out and our packs were crammed full, it seemed like an OK compromise.  Once the rain started, I didn't feel the same: Wet sand sticks to everything, and no place is sacred.  Had we possessed the floor we would have had much less sand in our clothes, sleeping bags, food, undies, and teeth.  

There turned out to be very few bugs (I think they all drowned...) thus the bug net was superfluous and I'd have traded it for a floor or ground sheet in a heartbeat.

PFD's: We all wore them for the big crossings.  I don't think anyone used them for the quick "disaster style" hops across rivers.  We all opted for improvised inflatable versions.  All had plenty of flotation -- typically more than USCG requirements stipulate.  As with any inflatable, the tradeoff is in saving lots of packed space and weight vs. gambling on durability.  My PFD was also my pillow.

Packs: We each brought our favorite, well-worn and time-tested satchel.  Mine is an HMG 2400 Windrider.  The size is good, the hip-belt pockets are great, and the mesh exterior pockets are priceless.  Pretty much my all-time favorite pack, and "the one" I'd choose if I could only ever have a one-pack quiver.

The others each had an HMG Porter 3400.  Jaybs and Brett added an exterior stuff pocket to theirs.

None of our packs were truly waterproof.  To date I have tried many claimed to be such and found them lacking in both dryness and in how much weight, bulk, and cost were added only to have my gear still end up wet inside.  That said, the fabric on our packs never wetted out and never leaked, thus the only way our gear got wet inside was if we put it in there wet to begin with.  After a few days of rain we didn't really have a choice.

Clothing: In a word, wool.  I wore a long sleeve wool hoodie every moment of the trip -- it never came off, nor did I want it to.  I find this piece to be utterly perfect in design and execution -- so much so that from roughly November through April it is what I wear almost every day.  The fabric is soft to the touch, the cut is neither too tight nor too loose, the hood fits well and is warm, as well as unnoticeable when pulled back.  Finally, the thumb hooks and ample length to the sleeves add a level of comfort that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

I wore wool boxers and wool socks for the entirety, underneath a pair of quick-dry Patagucci pants.  I've owned this pair of pants for 5+ years now, and I can't think of a way to improve them.

I carried a pullover rain shell and some thin rain pants.  The shell was in use most of every day and sometimes even when sleeping.  I used the pants often but would probably opt to leave them next time: My drysuit was drier and I'd never leave home without it.

Sleeping: I own a really nice, really light, supremely packable summer down bag.  I took one glance at our forecast and left it at home.  Instead I brought along an old clapped out 40* TNF synthetic bag that I hacked apart years ago -- removing the zipper and the top ~1/3rd of the bag itself.  The end result is a "half bag" that I scrunch down into when I sleep.  I tend to sleep on my side 95% of the time, and usually fetal, so the added length of a full bag is more or less superfluous.  I supplement it with a synthetic hooded puffy that I also wear around camp.  On the bottom I had a set of wool long johns and an old set of high-loft alpaca wool socks.  These last two are creature comforts that I can do without, but am always glad to have a dry, cozy layer to nest into when camp time rolls around.

Sleep pads: We all used inflatables.  I've owned this one for 3+ years now and taken it on countless trips.  Main benefits as I see them are the handy/quick foot pump, a massive dump valve, and a true-to-advertised width.  I wouldn't mind a shorter version since I don't use the full length, but I own several 3/4 length pads that never get used because they just aren't as comfortable or user friendly as this Nemo.

Footwear: Some sort of light trail runner works best.  Gore Tex is bad -- once wet it never dries out.  I chose a set of these because they fit my feet, are very light, pretty durable, they dry quickly, and the laceless system works well.  You can find them a lot cheaper if you take the time to search.

Phew -- that's a lot of minutia.

Next post will cover bikes and camera stuff, as well as any questions about stuff I've omitted thus far.

Thanks for checking in.


  1. Thanks for the detail Mike. Appreciate it.

  2. This is great information. Thank you.

  3. Howdy Mike - I am always looking for some winter pants when it gets below 30 or so. I can usually suffer traditional leg warmers and baggy shorts, but when it gets colder I have some very old NIKE running type pants that work, but once wet - they stay wet. I tried some Endura pants but they don't fit me well. I am only riding in that weather for a max of 2 hours. Should I be looking at those Patagonia pants?

    1. Definitely not. They are great because they dry quickly, but they also get wet quickly and afford zero cold weather protection.

  4. Nice write up and super helpful. Cheers