Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Backpacking on a Budget - Field Testing a Few Amazon Finds

This past weekend we took a friend's 16 and 12 year old's on their very first backpacking trip. For car camping, you can often get by with items scrounged from around the house (use a sheet/blanket instead of a sleeping bag, a yoga mat instead of a pad, a school bag to pack everything up), but for backpacking things get trickier. Gear weight, volume and comfort can be the difference between a painful slog and a fun adventure. To insure a quality first experience, I promised the kids that we'd outfit them properly.

With this in mind, I went on the hunt on Amazon to find gear options at bargain prices. Here's a few of my finds and how well they worked out in a real life test. Hopefully, the beginner backpacker out there will be able to put this list to good use.

Sleeping Bag - Redcamp Ultralight Sleeping Bag - camping in DC summers are typically *hot*, so you don't need an especially warm bag. With this in mind, the 'Redcamp Ultralight' is an amazing deal. For $19.99 you get a very compact and very lightweight sleeping bag that's quite roomy. The trade off is that it only claims to keep you warm down to around 60°F. This last weekend, one of boys used this sleeping bag and had one night at 58°F and one at 51°F(!). At 58°F, the bag was fine. At 51°F, he was chilly. As long as you keep an eye on temps, I don't see how you can go wrong with this bag. It's also worth noting that the bag is rectangular, and not a mummy style. For new campers, this may be preferred, and it allows for opening up the bag and using it as a blanket. Verdict: Buy.

Sleeping Pad - Naturheike Ultralight Pad - At $39.00, this pad was too lightweight and compact to not at least try. When I opened up the pad at home, I was amazed. It really is utralight and ultracompact. It also inflates and deflates much easier than my Thermarest, though that's because it doesn't have much in the way of loft. It's also crazy long and includes a built in pillow. The main downside appears to be the thickness of the mattress. Still, one of the boys slept on it and said it was comfortable. In some respects, this is a luxury item compared to a simple closed cell foam pad But even those are relatively expensive, and are more bulky than this option. Verdict: Buy.

Pack - Wasing 50L Packable Backpack - I knew this was a stretch when I picked it up on Amazon, but it had Free Returns and cost all of $23.99 to buy. This bag is amazing. It's basically the same size as my standard backpacking pack (an Exos 46), but at a fraction of the cost. It's got slick features, like a stretchy front mesh panel and water bottle pockets. Ultimately, though, it's way to big for a kid to carry and lacks all the features that make a modern bag comfortable to wear, such as a waist belt or suspension system. If I had given this to one of the kids, they'd have been uncomfortable, and if I had attempted to use it myself I'd have overloaded it so much I'd also be in a bad way. Some Ultralight backpackers prefer a frame-less pack, and I could see where picking one of these up would be a no-brainer to try that style of backpack. I decided to keep the Wasing and may use it as a travel bag. But as a kid friendly backpacking solution, yeah, no. Verdict: Skip.

Rain Gear - Frogg Toggs - I think it was over at /r/ultralight where I read along the lines of: all rain gear sucks, but at least Frogg Toggs is cheap and lightweight. Amen, brother (or sister?). Frogg Toggs really is the ideal back-country option. It's super cheap ($15.00) and super lightweight. It's not the most robust, but a bit of duct tape is all it takes to fix tears work. The problem I have with Frogg Toggs is that the sizing is crazy large. A 'small' adult is still huge. I wear a large in most clothing and can get buy with a medium. I haven't found a reliable source for Youth Frogg Toggs jackets, so I was stuck this last trip with oversized adult jackets. Regardless, the jackets did great. And when I got a bit chilly myself, I put on my Frogg Toggs and that helped warm me up. Verdict: Buy.

Knife - Gerber STL 2.0 Knife - The STL 2.0 seemed like the ideal knife for the kids. It's compact, lightweight, and totally functional. I'm not much of a knife guy, but this seemed plenty sharp. The kids used it to open food packages, trim rope and shape cooking sticks. At $8.62, it was great deal, too. The big problem I have with the knife though, is the locking mechanism. It has a frame lock which requires that you put your finger in the path of the blade, if only for a moment, while closing the knife. For kids who had never handled a pocket knife, this seemed to be more dangerous than helpful. With practice, the kids got the hang of opening and closing the knife, but as a starter knife I'd skip this one. Perhaps a Swiss Army knife, what I started with, is the way to go. Verdict: Skip.

Compass - Brunton Key Ring Compass - I purchased a handful of these Brunton Compasses last year for younger kids to take car camping and they worked surprisingly well. They snap to North quickly, hold up well and are less confusing than an orienteering base plate compass. I think they are the ideal starter compass, as they are reliable and low cost (around $8.00). Verdict: Buy.

Umbrella - Crackajack Ultralight Umbrella - This may seem like an odd item to pack for a backpacking trip, but trust me, it's essential. An umbrella is far more comfortable to hike in the rain with than rain gear, and that's only one of the many reasons umbrellas rock. There's a whole slew of lightweight models on Amazon, but this seemed to be the best balance of weight, volume and cost that I could find. At $13.99, it's not super crazy cheap, but it does seem well built and should work well as an all-year-round umbrella to add to our collection. Verdict: Buy.

Flashlights - Nitecore Tube - I had the boys use some older flashlights we had lying around, and while this worked, I could tell that compared to modern standards, they were pretty awful. I recently picked up a Nitecore Tip and I'm blown away by it. Like knives, the flashlight world is filled with a massive spectrum of options, from cheap junk, to crazy expensive awesomeness. The Tip seems like a remarkable compromise between light output (360 lumens!), size (it's tiny) and cost (it's only $30.00). Best of all, it's USB rechargeable, so that the same powerbank that feeds my phone can re-charge my light. After looking at the pathetic light output of the flashlights I gave the kids, I vowed to toss those when I got home and replace them with something like the Tip. After poking around, I decided I'd go with the Nitecore Tube. It's not nearly as bright as the Tip, with a maximum of only 45 lumens, but it's still brighter than many options, very compact, lightweight and a bargain at only $9.20. Best of all, it's USB recharageable. When the sun goes down, those woods get dark, I learned my lesson about not skimping on the quality of light. Verdict: Buy.

Cup / Bowl - Ziplock Twist n' Loc - All four of us used these Tupperware like containers as cups and bowls and they were ideal. These weren't technically an Amazon purchase, as I picked them up locally, and even later found out there's a Giant brand version that's even cheaper. These hold 2 cups, and worked just as well for drinking hot chocolate as they did eating oatmeal. I like that they have some measurements etched on the side, which makes them useful for backcountry baking. While they lack the ability to rest directly on hot coals, like say a Sierra Cup, they more than made up for this by being lightweight, cheap and functional. Verdict: Buy

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