Monday, September 24, 2012

John Muir Trail Gear Review

Below you will find my review of the gear I used on my thru-hike of the John Muir Trail.

Bear in mind that with the exception of a few items, most of my gear was not purchased just prior to my  hike; rather, I accumulated, tested and refined my gear to suit my needs over the last two years. Overall, I was very happy with most of my gear choices. I won't be providing a review for ALL the gear I used but I will touch upon the major items. 

Backpack: ULA Circuit - Hands down the best pack I've ever owned! I've lost a lot of weight (~20  pounds) since I first purchased this pack a year and a half ago, but with all the adjustment options of this pack, I've always achieved a comfortable fit. 

The pack looks, feels and performs flawlessly. It is plenty durable and still has lots of life left. This pack also carries a 25 - 35 pound load effortlessly. Can't say enough about it. 

Tent: Zpacks Hexamid Solo With Beak - In a word: SOLID! Super lightweight and very waterproof. It also dries very quickly in the sun. The beak is very functional and keeps rain out of the tent when pitched correctly. 

My most favorite feature of this tent is that the interior doesn't get wet when setting it up in the rain. While other people struggle with keeping precipitation out of their double wall tents, the Hexamid stays dry because when laid flat on the ground, the tent protects the interior space. It feels great getting into a dry tent after a wet day of hiking. 

Ground Sheet: Zpacks Solo Cuben Ground Sheet (Spring 2011 model) - This groundsheet is simply awesome. It's tough and lightweight - an excellent combo! Sure it's pricey, but it is well worth it because I can see this ground sheet lasting a very long time. 

Sleeping Bag: Montbell U.L. Super Spiral Down Hugger #3 - If you're like me and can't sleep comfortably in mummy bags, this bag is what you need! It's stretchy and perfect for those of us who move more during the night and require more space in our bags. I can easily stretch out in this bag with one leg bent in tree pose! 

In regards to warmth, I'm a warm sleeper and this bag is great down to the mid to high thirties. When the temperature has dipped below that - to ~27 degrees - I've been plenty warm in the bag while wearing my down sweater. I highly recommend this bag. 

Sleeping Pad - REI Stratus Insulated Air Pad - A bit on the heavy side, but I tend to beat my gear up so it was the wise purchase as this air pad seems to be more durable than the competition. All I know is that it sure can take a beating and keep on ticking. And, when it got wet during a night storm, I stayed warm and dry. Great product. 

Like with other regular size pads, it's a bit on the narrow side, so unless you opt for a longer, wider version, you're gonna have to find a way to get comfy. 

Pack Liner - Zpacks Pack Liner - I experienced 6 days of rain on the trail and all of my gear stowed in this dry bag stayed dry. I've never been a fan of pack covers, and I was very happy with my decision to go with this pack liner. 

Joe of Zpacks makes very high quality and durable products. This dry bag comes with the seams taped so you don't have to worry about anything - just insert into your pack and you're ready to go. Yes, it's pricey, but it's very durable, lightweight, and very waterproof.  

Down Jacket - Montbell EX Light Down Jacket - I LOVE this jacket!! I wear a size medium and it keeps me plenty warm down to 30 degrees. It's very comfortable and a perfect fit for my body. It is a bare minimum jacket with no pockets, but it is very lightweight, quite durable and great for layering. I highly recommend this jacket. 

Rain Jacket - Outdoor Research Helium - Very lightweight, very durable, very comfortable. It's waterproofness was put to the test for 6 days on the trail and kept me totally dry. 

It also subs as my wind breaker. This jacket has kept me dry from the Sierra Nevadas to the jungles of Laos. It works!

Rain Pants - Frogg Toggs Dri Ducks UL - Cheap, lightweight and awesome. They are fragile and you can easily put multiple holes in them - by sitting on a rock for example, but with some care and mindfulness they will last a while and serve you well! 

Did I mention I beat up my gear? Well, I almost put a hole in them the first day I wore them when I sat on a sharp rock. Lesson learned and from then on I've been more careful with them. Excellent piece of gear that also subs as my wind pants. Sure you won't win any fashion awards wearing these, but hey, as long as they get the job done, they have a place in my pack. 

Shorts - Nike Running Shorts - I love these shorts because of their versatility. I wore them when I took dips in rivers and lakes, on laundry days when I washed my pants, whenever I didn't want to wear pants, and since they have built in undies, whenever I washed my undies. 

Weighing under 4 ounces, this is one piece of gear I will never think twice about taking with me. 

Socks - Darn Tough 1/4 Cushion Wool - Durable, breathable, comfortable, and dry very quickly. And, with a lifetime warranty, how can you go wrong? 

Make no mistake - socks are one of the most important pieces of gear for any hiker, and I've tried many pairs of socks from various manufacturers prior to these. For my feet and hiking style, these socks are the best fit I've found so far. 

Warm Hat - Mountain Hardwear Wind Stopper Beanie - awesome. Awesome. AWESOME. 

This is one of my favorite pieces of gear! I'm bald and wear this beanie when hiking in cooler weather, when lounging about at camp, and when I sleep. I LOVE it! 

Gloves - Mountain Hardwear Power Stretch Gloves - Not a fan of these gloves. My fingers get really cold when the temps drop below 50 degrees and these gloves don't warm my hands. 

On colder mornings (temps ranging from 30 degrees to 45 degrees), my fingers take over a half hour to get warm - even while hiking. They're also not very durable. Again, I beat up my gear so take that statement with a grain of salt, but for my needs, they just don't get the job done.

Hiking Pants - REI Saraha Cargo Pants - Durable, comfortable, lightweight, breathable. This is one piece of gear I purchased just prior to my hike. They outperformed my expectations and definitely won me over. 

They fit well and are very water repellant. The only recommendation I have for REI is to offer them with insect repellant already applied.  

Hiking Shirt - Smartwool Microweight Long Sleeve - Feels great next to my skin, dries quickly, and is far less stinky than polyester shirts. I wore this shirt for the last four consecutive days on the trail, and - without washing it - on the fifth day, I wore it on the bus and train rides back home. The shirt didn't smell at all. 

These shirts are amazing and their anti-microbial properties are great! Sure, when the shirt gets wet from perspiration, and you wear it day after day without washing it, you start to smell like a sheep, but once dry, it is as good as new. I Love this shirt!

Shoes - Montrail AT Plus - I put over 300 miles on a pair of these in the span of a year prior to hitting the trail. They are super comfortable, very breathable, quick drying and have great grip. During the first 7 days on the JMT, my feet were happy in these shoes, but after day 8 my feet became battered and bruised. I felt every rock I stepped on. That's not a knock on the shoes, but rather my need for shoes with thicker soles. 

I do want to warn you though..from day one, these shoes had a rubber like stench that never dissipated with use as Montrail's customer service team said they would. And, when the shoes got wet during stream crossings, the stench was amplified. Overall, great trail runners that are more durable than other brands. 

Scree Gaiters - LevaGaiters - My favorite piece of gear!! Super easy to use - no glue, no velcro, no mess, no string looping around the bottom of the shoe. Simple and very effective. From day hikes to multi-day outings, I wear these babies everywhere. 

They dry super quickly and breathe very well. They exceeded my expectations from day one and I can't say enough about these gaiters. They are awesome! 

Hat - Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap - Dorky yes, but effective? Totally! I'm not on the trail to win any fashion awards so I don't mind looking a bit goofy - very easy to accomplish with this hat. I also don't use sunblock so this hat saves my skin from the hot sun because it covers most of my face and neck very well. 

It also stays put in windy conditions, dries very quickly and doesn't stink too badly. Love this hat! 

Sun Gloves - Coolibar Fingerless Gloves - This was another last minute purchase and I am very glad with my decision to buy them and more importantly to use them. Because I don't use sunblock, my hands take a beating. Last year, while section hiking the JMT, my hands got sun-burned (yes I applied sunblock liberally) and became very dry. These gloves saved my hands on my JMT hike this year. 

I wasn't sure how comfortable they'd be, but lemme tell ya - they are super comfy. They are also very durable and dry quickly. 

Sleepwear - Terramar Thermasilk EC2 Long Sleeve Top and Bottom - These seem very brittle because they are super thin but they've lasted for two backpacking seasons and don't have a single hole in 'em yet! 

They feel awesome next to my skin and I love wearing them in my sleeping bag. I've never hiked in them and don't plan to as they are solely part of my sleep system, but I love em and wouldn't wear anything else. They provide enough warmth for me as I'm a warm sleeper and the funk factor is very minimal. Great product. 

Sleeping Socks - Goosefeet Down Socks (+ 1 oz extra down, size large) - I purchased these after a cold night of camping in Virginia last year. They are as light as a pair of thick wool socks but WAY warmer. Sure they are more expensive, but I did not have cold feet one night on the John Muir Trail. 

The quality of these socks is exceptional and they are super comfortable. I'm very happy with this purchase. I have worn them down to 30 degrees and my feet have stayed very warm. 

Trekking Poles - Leki Voyager - Not a fan of them on cold mornings, especially after rainstorms because they are very hard to unlock. 

Otherwise, they are great poles and relatively lightweight for the price. The grips feel great and the poles are plenty durable. 

Ditty Bags - Granite Gear Air Pockets (Medium) - I applied Sil Net to these weather resistant bags (equipped with water resistant zippers) in hopes they would keep my maps (outside my pack) and electronics (inside my pack) dry. 

Glad to report that they worked flawlessly! The external bag got rained on for six days and held up very well - not a drop of water inside the bag! These bags are very lightweight, durable and well worth the $. 

Water Bottles - Platypus 1 Liter PlusBottle With Push Caps - These bottles are my favorite for the trail. They are light, pack up small when not in use, plenty durable and easy to clean. What more can you want from a bottle? 

Food Pot - Decor 750mL Round Screw Top Container - This BPA free, plastic container is very durable, lightweight, and surprisingly watertight. I packed teflon tape to apply to this container but never used it as nothing ever leaked from this container. Very happy with this purchase. This is my preferred container of choice on stove less trips. 

Water Treatment - NutraSilver Colloidal Silver - This product peaked more interest from others on the trail than my diet/food or any other piece of gear. Hands down, this product is the best, most efficient and easiest water treatment system available, period! The last thing I want to do on the trail is filter up to 5 liters of water each day. I'm too lazy for that. With this awesome product, all I have to do is add 1 drop to 1 liter of water, wait 15 to 20 minutes, and enjoy. 

NutraSilver does not alter the taste of the water at all, although it does turn the water a yellow color. It also stains my Platypus bottles but those are non-issues for me. What matters to me is that I have NEVER gotten sick in the backcountry while using this product. It's super lightweight, super compact, super effective. I LOVE it!

Bear Canister - Bearikade Weekender - This bear can is lightweight, spacious and very user friendly. But as I found out on the John Muir Trail, it is not waterproof. Water does enter through the screws. Not a major issue though.

If I have to use a bear can, I prefer this one every time. 

Camera - Panasonic SZ7 - This is a great camera at a great price with many great features. It's best feature is the wide angle lens. For the price, you can't beat it. It even takes panorama photos. 

But be very careful. It is not a waterproof camera and you have to be very careful not to get it wet. I experienced 6 days of rain on the trail and my camera paid the price. I did take pictures the first day I hiked in the rain and after that day, the camera developed a black spot in the lens. Lesson learned.

Battery Pack - Anker Astro 5600mAh - Fantastic product! I charged my phone (equipped with an extended battery) twice and my camera 4 times on the trail and it still had 25% juice left.  

It is very durable, well made and super easy to use. 

Satellite Communicator - SPOT Connect - In a word - unreliable. I sent messages everyday from the trail and only about 60% of them were received. IMO, it's not worth the $$ for the unit and the $ for the annual subscription for something that works part of the time. 

I never used the SOS feature so I can't report on that function, but for updating people on your whereabouts, its not very reliable. 

Maps - Blackwood Press JMT Atlas - Very good atlas. Many people besides myself benefited from this atlas on the trail and at resupply points. From Post Office information, to shorter distances between two points, to the elevation profile of the entire trail, this atlas has it all. It makes planning your trip and your day very easy.

Yes, it is more expensive than the Harrison Map pack (which I also had but hardly used), but it is well worth the $. 

**If there's anything I didn't cover from my gear that you're curious about, drop me a line and I'll review it.**


  1. I'm curious how your Circuit backpack performed at maximum load (which I assume was after the MTR resupply)? Did you ever exceed the 35 pound rating on the pack? Reason I ask is that I'm trying to decide between the Circuit and Catalyst. I am likely to be somewhat above 35 pounds after MTR but hopefully short of 40. I like the idea of saving 8 ounces on the circuit vs. catalyst but wary of overloading the pack. Thanks.

    1. Fully loaded after my MTR resupply - with 7 days worth of food & 2.5 liters of water - my pack weighed about 32 or 33 pounds. The MTR scale showed 29 pounds but their scale is off by a few pounds. (That's a confirmed fact by people at MTR).

      I've loaded my Circuit with 37 pounds in the past to test it and it performed flawlessly. IMO, if your pack isn't going to weigh more than 40 pounds at its heaviest, get the circuit because the weight of your pack will drop by ~2 lbs each day as you consume your food anyway.

  2. I was curious about your tent and how the mesh floor did ( I think that's the one with the mesh floor). I keep going back and looking at that tent but the mesh floor scares me. What do you if you have to set it up on a muddy spot. Seems like that would be a pain. And it just dawned on me while writing this that you could put the ground cloth under the mesh.

    I have one of the original SPOT's and love it. But also like you not every single message gets through. A lot has to do with tree cover and such. I have had to use it in an emergency situation and was extremely glad that I had it.

    Loving your blog. The JMT is on my bucket list but kind of scares me.

    1. Hey Melissa,

      Thanks for your comments.

      The mesh floor on my Zpacks solo tent worked amazingly well. I am rough on my gear but the mesh does not have a single hole in it. The cuben fiber groundsheet does, but not the mesh! It's very sturdy.

      What is it about the JMT that scares you? Will you be doing it solo like I did? If so, hike in August. Some refer to the JMT as the John Muir Highway because of all the foot traffic during late July and throughout August :)