Monday, September 09, 2019

2019 Backpacking Mini Reviews

At the end of last July Shira and I did a delightful backpacking trip in West Virginia. Here's some thoughts on new gear we experimented with; hopefully this can serve as useful intel.

Kelty Trailogic TN4 Tent

Verdict: Returned to REI

Shira enjoys backpacking and generally puts up with my crazy trail experiments. But one area where she puts her foot down is shelter. While I may ogle the ultralight 2 man tents at REI, or try selling her on the joy of tarps, she's adamant: a 4 man tent (or larger) is a requirement. Given how little space a 2 man, or even 3 man shelter gives, her request isn't that unreasonable. More importantly, year after year we enjoy having the extra space. Our gold standard for tents is the Euerka Timberline 4 Man Tent. It's the same tent I've been using since Scouts and it has more than proven itself. While I love the Timberline, every year I go on a quest to find a lighter, more backpacking friendly relacement. This year I discovered the Kelty Traillogic TN4 and convinced Shira to use it for our weekend adventure.

On paper the Trailogic is just about perfect. It's a few pounds lighter than our Timberline, stows more compactly and has a novel fly configuration that easily switches from full rain protection to full ventilation. Oh, and it was on clearance at REI.

Alas, a weekend using the Trailogic revealed it just wasn't going to make the cut. The main problem was getting into and out of the tent. The zippers kept snagging, and the lowered height combined with the rain fly placement meant that every entry and exit was a mini ordeal.

I so wanted to love this tent, but it didn't pass the weekend test. So back it went to REI and my search for the elusive lightweight 4 person tent continues.

Sawyer Mini Water Filter

Verdict: Feh. Probably not switching to a filter any time soon.

Since my days as a Scout I've relied on chemical treatment for water purification (back in the day it was iodine, these days it's Aquatabs). Thanks to an Amazon deal, I finally gave a water filter a try.

In the three days that we were on trail I went through the entire range of emotions with the Sawyer Squeeze Mini.

An hour into the hike I tried using the Squeeze for the first time. I scooped water into the bag, attached the filter and squeezed. Moments later pristine water was produced and our group rejoiced! This was magic! Tasty water, nearly instantly--what more could you possibly ask for?! I immediately started making plans: next year, each person would get their own filter.

As the trip proceeded, however, my love affair with the filter started to dim. By the next day, the filtration rate noticeably slowed. Did I need to backflush? That sort of, kind of, but not quite helped. Did I need to squeeze harder? When I applied even more force water started leaking from the sides of the filter. Then I noticed a gasket had come loose. I put it back, but wondered if'd broken something.

While this was going on, I purified a bunch of water with Aquatabs. The nasty chemical taste I expected never appeared.

By the end of the trip, I was so over the Sawyer Mini. I wasn't entirely sure it was working, and it took significant effort to use.

I know from various online discussions that the Sawyer Mini is plagued with issues and is not recommended. With that in mind, it may be worth trying another filter. But mostly I continue to love the elegance of chemical treatment. Who wants to fuss with potentially delicate hardware when a pill can solve the problem?

Sea to Summit X-Pot & X-Kettle

Verdict: These pots are awesome!

Between the larger group we were trekking with, my frustration with our new non-stick backpacking pot and a $20 credit we had at SeaToSummitUSA.com, Shira convinced me to buy the extravagant X-Set 33. These are two pots that thanks to clever use of silicone walls, neatly nest within each other.

In short, the pots are awesome. They were stable, gripped well to our stove and were convenient to use. I'm sure they aren't the lightest option for backcountry cookware, but they are almost certainly the most compact. Shira loved the flexibility of being able to heat up water in two different pots. So much of what we do involves boiling water and pouring it into containers, so having a kettle designed for this task was ideal.

The pots aren't cheap, but as luxury items go, they deliver on all they promise.

Opinel #6

Verdict: Love it.

I've tried a variety of knives for use with younger / newbie campers. The Opinel #6 is currently the winner. The ring locking mechanism is far safer than types that require you put your finger in the path of the blade or don't have a lock at all. And after having tried the Opinel #7 and #8, I know that the #6 is the ideal size. Throw in the tremendous quality to cost ratio and you have a knife that's hard to beat.

Various Freeze Dried Meals

Verdict: Some hit, some miss.

To spice things up this year, we tried a number of REI bought meals for our second night's dinner. (First night is and will always be hot dogs roasted over a campfire). Backpacker's Pantry Fettuccini Alfredo and Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce were both winners. Mountain House Chili Mac was rated as good, but apparently was too cheesy (who knew this was possible?!). GOOD TO-GO Indian Vegetable Korma had a fine flavor, but didn't properly rehydrate. The result was a soupy mess. The same thing happened for the Backpacker's Pantry Mango Sticky Rice. We had such high hopes for this desert, yet it was a dud.

Store-bought meals are definitely pricey, but they were tons of fun. It was eye opening to see that some of the meals could be such flops. Still, we'll learn from the ones that didn't work and will try again in the future.

Hoosier Hill Farm Big Daddy Mac Mix

While the rest of the group ate store bought meals, I decided to experiment with cold soaking my dinner. I combined Minute Rice and TVP with equal amounts of water. After 45 minutes, the mixture was full rehydrated. I then mixed in my secret ingredient: 2 tablespoons of cheddar cheese powder. I didn't bother adding more liquid or olive oil. Once mixed together I had a premium tasting meal. It was a cold soaked success! This stuff is a keeper.

RovyVon A5 Keychain Light

The RovyVon A5 is a sort of Swiss Army knife of flashlights: it's ridiculously compact, contains a primary light, two side LEDs, a multitude of lighting modes, and a glow in the dark handle. One has to wonder if it's a pinnacle of engineering, or a gimmicky mess. After using it on the trip and having it on my keychain in general, I've decided it falls more towards the pinnacle of engineering side of the spectrum.

The main light has a solid selection of brightness choices. The sidelight is useful as a red-light-blinker when I find myself walking on dark roads or trails. Even the glow in the dark handle is useful, as the faint glow was helpful for finding the flashlight in a dark tent. The light comes with a clip that let's me attach the flashlight to the brim of my hat. I've even had success using the light and clip as a pocket dangler.

The main issue with the light: run time. I was surprised that after a 45 minute run the light was struggling to stay alive. Given the small size of the light, I suppose this isn't a surprise. Something's going to give. Still, it's a truly useful light and for keychain duty it's ideal.

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