Ask Me: What ‘Luxury’ Backpacking Gear Do You Carry?
[Note: I received similar questions from two different readers about choosing which “luxury” items, like camp chairs and sandals, to carry when backpacking—ML]
I really enjoy your reviews and articles. I’m 52 and enjoy backpacking in the Southern Appalachians, typically 10 to 15 miles a day, and head out around eight times a year. I carry around 20 pounds in my Osprey Exos 58. I have the EMS Velocity 1 tent, Thermarest NeoAir all season air mattress, MSR PocketRocket with Titan Kettle, and The North Face Gold Kazoo bag. So I travel pretty light.
I currently use the Therm-a-rest Z Seat Pad, but have been considering stepping up to the Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 Original Camp Chair weighing in at 21 oz. Do you think it would be worth the extra weight to go with the chair? At the end of the day it sure would be nice to kick back in it rather than leaning against a tree or rock while sitting on the Z pad.
Thanks for the compliment and for writing. I have long brought my Big Agnes Big Easy Chair Kit on most backpacking trips, which is just four ounces lighter than the Crazy Creek model you’re looking at, although the Big Agnes model must be less bulky, too, because it uses your air mattress.
But I’m now also a fan of the new Helinox Chair Zero ($120, distributed by Big Agnes), which is also 17 ounces but significantly more comfortable than the Big Easy Chair Kit. The Chair Zero consists of a fabric seat that slips over a shock-corded pole structure that forms the chair’s back and legs; and it assembles quickly, like a hubbed tent pole system. The result is a comfortable seat that’s 20 inches wide, 19 inches deep, 25 inches tall, and whose bottom is 11 inches off the ground. Chair kits are a bit less bulky, but they place your butt at ground level.
The only trips on which I don’t take one of those two chairs are when I’m backpacking ultralight and planning to hike long days and spend little time in camp. Otherwise, I like having a little comfort in camp, and to me, that’s worth carrying another pound—especially when I’m carrying a heavy pack (as when backpacking with my family) and my body needs some rest at the end of the day.
Similarly, I carry a comfortable air mat—though a fairly light one—rather than a lighter but really skimpy foam pad, because the energy I save from having a slightly lighter pack will not make up for the energy I lose due to a poor night’s sleep.
I’m also in my fifties and I get a sore back sometimes, so I take along the few, minimalist luxuries that help me enjoy the trip more. The more time you spend in camp and the less time carrying your pack on the trail, the more beneficial that tradeoff of a little more weight for a lot more comfort in camp.
Hope that answers your question. It sounds like you are probably on the verge of deciding that yourself, anyway!
Get the best gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Thanks for replying so quickly and suggesting options other than the Crazy Creek. I looked up the BA Big Easy Chair and also came across the Therm-a-Rest Trekker Chair Kit, which looks like is compatible with my Neoair mattress and only 9.5 ounces! So I think I will ditch the Crazy Creek chair option and go with the Therm-a-Rest kit.
A small price to pay for some much needed comfort at the end of the day.
Choosing Which Gear to Bring on the John Muir Trail
On June 25, two friends and I are setting out for a nine-day trip on the southern section of the John Muir Trail, Florence Lake to Whitney Portal. I like to pack with a lightweight mindset; carry multi-use items and avoid unnecessary add-ons. I’m trying to decide if I should carry water sandals (Keen Clearwaters) for water crossings so that I don’t spend the rest of the day walking with wet feet. What is your view on the balance of carrying another piece of gear vs. the “costs” of water crossing in my shoes?
Santa Clarita, CA
You’re heading out onto arguably the finest stretch of the John Muir Trail.
To answer your specific question about sandals for water crossings on that stretch of the JMT, it depends partly on water levels when you’re there. A late-June start is early season, with typically plenty of snow and high river and creek levels, making creek fords more difficult and potentially hazardous, so it’s more important to have protective footwear. They can also be frigidly cold and deeper and stronger than they look. Be sure to read about how to ford streams safely.
When friends and I thru-hiked the JMT in late August (for somewhat cooler temperatures and no mosquitoes; you’ll likely see plenty of the latter), we did not carry water shoes, and I don’t recall any water crossings that were a concern. But water levels are much lower by late August.
To avoid getting wet shoes, we probably just forded barefoot, dried our feet on the other side, and put our socks and shoes back on. We traveled ultralight and wore low-cut, non-waterproof hiking shoes to keep our feet cool. We didn’t see any rain; while sunny days aren’t guaranteed in the High Sierra, those mountains are fairly consistently sunny, so you can wear lightweight, non-waterproof, very breathable shoes with mesh uppers (as we did); and if you felt the need to wear those shoes to protect your feet on a difficult crossing, shoes like that would dry out pretty quickly afterward on a sunny day. They’re also light and cool enough to be comfortable as camp shoes. (I just loosen the laces up a lot, wearing them like slippers, so they feel more open and airy in camp.)
You could also carry one pair of waterproof socks; I’ve used and like the SealSkinz Mid-Weight Mid-Length Sock; I wore them in Paria Canyon (photo below), among other places. Put them on with your shoes for crossings—they’ll also keep your feet warmer in cold water—then wear them while hiking until your shoes are dry enough to switch back to regular hiking socks. The waterproof socks could dry out under a backpack compression strap.
If you’re trying to hike as light as possible, I’d leave the sandals home.
But you also raise a general question I wrestle with when planning any trip: what stuff do I really need and not need? I answer that question differently depending on the nature of the trip.
The more time I’m going to spend in camp, the more it makes sense to have the things that will make me more comfortable in camp, like a backpacking chair kit and camp sandals or shoes (the latter assumes I’m backpacking in midweight or heavier boots that are warm). Conversely, the more time I’m spending on the trail, the less it makes sense to carry comfort items for camp.
When I’m backpacking ultralight and hiking long days (as friends and I did on the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop, shown in the lead photo at the top of this story), I don’t take sandals/camp shoes or a chair kit and I carry a short, ultralight air mattress, like a small Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. When I’m backpacking more moderate distances (say, with my family) and not long days, I bring the camp footwear, chair kit, and perhaps a slightly thicker air mat because I’m a little achier after a day carrying a 50-pound pack (backpacking with my family) than an even longer day carrying a 20- or 25-pound pack.
Here’s another way to look at this question: What strategy uses my energy most efficiently? That is very relevant to the decision about how comfortable a sleeping pad or air mat to bring, because if I don’t sleep well at night, the energy I save by carrying a lighter pad won’t make up for the energy lost through loss of sleep. If I’m hiking in heavier boots that are kind of hot, then I may want sandals or camps shoes; but if I’m hiking in lightweight, very breathable low-cuts, I don’t really need the camp shoes. (As I wrote above, I just loosen the laces up and wear my shoes like slippers.)
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I know your question was specifically about sandals for water crossings, but I factor in all the possible uses of gear in deciding what I’ll carry on a trip. You can read more about my approach to backpacking in my story “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun.”
One piece of advice: The JMT has very hot afternoons (true of the High Sierra in general), and you’re starting with your heaviest pack weight on a section, heading south from Muir Trail Ranch, that’s at relatively low elevation without much shade. You’ll also be ascending Mather Pass southbound, which is a tough climb that bakes in the afternoon sun. You’ll enjoy both hikes a lot more if you start both of those days as early in the morning as possible. Same with the hike up the back side of Mount Whitney.
Lastly, I hope you’re planning to camp a night at one of the lakes in the Evolution Basin, to catch the sunset and sunrise there.
Thanks for writing and good luck with your trip.
Be comfortable on your hikes. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
Thank you very much for your great insights. I’m an untied shoes guy in camp. I’d read about creek crossing on the JMT but didn’t know firsthand what to expect. This is our only time window to go. Unfortunately, I know we can’t avoid the mosquitos, but I really appreciate the heads up on Mather Pass.
It’s great hearing from a true outdoor celebrity.
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