Water Tank to Willow Canyon Road Loop – Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

Water Tank to Willow Canyon Road Loop – Laguna Coast Wilderness Park



9.3 miles




1,562 feet







3-4 hours

Water Tank to Willow Road Loop – Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

Hi everyone! Back again with another loop hike for Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.

If you have read our Dartmoor-Emerald Trail Guide, then you know that we love Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Sure, it may not have the subalpine appeal of the San Gabriels, but if you don’t need every hike to have a peak to bag, or if you just love ocean views, then you could do a lot worse than Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. It is also worth pointing out that Laguna Coast Wilderness Park tends to be far less known, and therefore less crowded, than its two neighbors, Crystal Cove State Park and Top of The World.

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is nestled in the Laguna Hills, and provides amazing views of Laguna Beach just below, as well as some of SoCal’s larger peaks to the North and West. The park is primarily made up of fire roads running along the tops of ridges, which are bisected and connected by many winding, single-track trails cutting down into and across the valleys between them. The layout is great for short or long hikes, because you can link the trails together to create any number of loops at whatever distance you prefer your hike to be.

Fence Blocking Water Tank Road.

Entrance on the Right Side of Water Tank Road.

Gate Entrance to the Trail.

This hike starts off with a bang. The climb up from Poplar Street, while shorter, is far more intense than the climb from Dartmoor Street, which is itself no picnic. The first tenth of a mile is unbelievably steep, and still paved. At the .1 mile mark, the trail turns to dirt and continues onwards, up the impossibly steep hill for .4 more miles before finally leveling out. On this trip, the heavy rains from winter had the wildflowers in full bloom, creating bright yellow corridors along the way.

First .1 Miles Paved.

Steep Trail Turns to Dirt.

Water Tank Road Flattening Out.

After 1.6 miles, Water Tank Road meets Bommer Ridge, and Laguna Bowl Road Diverges sharply back to the right. Continue onto Bommer Ridge for about 100 yards to find the intersection with Boat Road to your left, and Laguna Ridge Trail to your right. Take the right onto Laguna Ridge Trail and begin your descent!

(You could also start this hike by climbing up Laguna Bowl Road instead of Water Tank Road, but there is no convenient parking for this option.)

Water Tank Road Meets Bommer Ridge.

Turn Left onto Bommer Ridge

Bommer Ridge Meets Laguna Ridge Trail. Turn Right.

Laguna Ridge Trail offered some amazing views as we descended. Be warned though, it is very tight single track, rutted out so that it is not exactly kind to the knees and ankles. It descends for about a mile, before reaching the bottom right next to Laguna Canyon Road. Here, the trail takes a 90-degree left turn and follows along Laguna Canyon Road. Admittedly, this is one of the lowlights of the hike for me, as it is one of the only places in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park that doesn’t actually feel like the wilderness.

Laguna Ridge Trail.

Laguna Ridge Trail Takes 90 Degree Turn.

Follow the trail as it parallels Laguna Canyon Road for .4 miles and you will pass the turnoff to climb Big Bend on your left, and then reach the Big Bend Parking area a few hundred yards later. At the Big Bend Parking lot, the trail turns to Stagecoach. Stay straight on Stagecoach and continue on!

Pass the Big Bend on the Left and Continue Straight.

Big Bend Parking Lot.

End of Parking Lot Turns into Stagecoach. Continue Straight.

While Stagecoach still follows the Laguna Canyon Road, it somehow feels more lovable to me than the final stretch of Laguna Ridge. Follow it through its gentle undulations for just less than a mile, and it will deposit you in the Willow parking lot.  Cross the parking lot, and stay left, following the signs for Willow Canyon Road.

Willow Parking Lot.

Turn Left for Willow Canyon Road.

Left on Willow Canyon Road. Keep the Fence on the Right.

Willow Canyon Road is nowhere near the violent climb that Water Tank Road was to start this hike, but it does remind you just how much elevation you lost coming down Laguna Ridge Trail. It climbs on for about 1.6 miles, passing turnoffs on the right for Laurel Spur and Bommer Spur, before dead-ending back on Bommer Ridge. Turn left on Bommer Ridge, and make your way back toward Water Tank Road, enjoying the views down into the Canyons and the Ocean along the way.

Continue Straight on Willow Canyon Road to Pass Laurel Spur and Bommer Spur.

Turn Left onto Bommer Ridge.

View from Bommer Ridge.

At this point, you are about 5.8 miles in, and the truly taxing portions of the hike are behind you. The next 1.8 miles follow Bommer ridge, passing turnoffs for Big Bend on your left, and Old Emerald on your right, and finally arrives back at the junction with Water tank Road.

(If you would like to add some distance and elevation to this climb, you could take Big Bend back down to the Big Bend parking lot, and climb back up Laguna Ridge trail. You could also turn right when Willow Road dead ends into Bommer, then take Emerald Canyon Road down into Emerald Canyon, and climb back up to Bommer via Old Emerald Trail.)

Continue Straight Pass Big Bend

Continue Straight Pass Emerald Canyon Road.

Turn Right onto Water Tank Road.

Back at Water Tank Road, take a right and follow it for the remaining 1.65 miles back to the start. Enjoy more great views down into the canyons and the ocean along the descent here, before a final knee busting final half mile.

Ocean View from Water Tank Road.

Cactus Flower on Water Tank Road.

Water Tank Road Decline.

Overall, this is a great hike, with several options to make it longer or shorter, or add elevation by tacking on other options like Big Bend, or a trip into Emerald Canyon. While the portion of the Laguna Ridge Trail along the highway is a bit of a downer, it is a short piece of an otherwise wonderful hike. Given it to do over again, I think I would actually prefer to do this loop backwards. My knees always prefer a shorter, steeper climb with a longer more gentle descent, which is exactly what doing this hike backwards (descending Willow Canyon Road and climbing Laguna Ridge Trail) would offer.

We hope you enjoyed this guide, and that it will prove helpful to you in the future! If so, or if you would like to see another guide in the O.C. or SoCal area, leave us a comment and let us know! And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook.

Water Tank Road Parking and Park Info:


Parking for this hike is street parking, at the end of Poplar Street, Laguna Beach.

Park hours are from 7:00am to sunset daily.

Trails may be closed after rain. Call (949) 923-2235 to make sure the trails are open.

Trail Map

Poplar Street Parking

Gear We Used on This Trail

 Altra Lone Peak 3

A great pair of lightweight, zero drop trail running shoes that are great for hiking. I first bought these shoes after I had injured my foot, and was looking for something with an especially wide toe box. I have loved these shoes for both hiking and the occasional run. If you have never tried zero drop shoes, they take a bit of getting used to, but I loved them so much I wish I could get backpacking or mountaineering boots that were zero drop!

 Saucony Women’s Peregrine 6

Lightweight trail runners. If you are not ready to make the switch to zero drops, or if they just don’t agree with you, this is a great, neutral pair of trail runners. Michole has used these for fifteen plus mile hikes in rocky terrain with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, and loved them every step of the way.

 Men’s Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec

Another pair of lightweight, adjustable, folding poles. I use these and feel that they are the perfect pole for me. I am confident that if/when these poles are retired, I will replace them with another  pair of the same. If you would like to read my full review of these poles, you can find it here.

 Black Diamond Distance FLZ Women’s Poles

A great, lightweight, adjustable, folding set of poles. Michole uses these poles and loves them. In fact, she wrote a full length review on them. If you would like more info on these poles, you can read it here.

 Osprey Stratos 36

This is a great daypack, and will likely serve you on overnight trips, depending on how lightweight and compact your gear is. It features Osprey’s “Anti Gravity” suspension system. This lets more air flow to your back and, more importantly, shifts the weight of the pack from your shoulders and back to your hips. I love the “Anti Gravity” suspension so much, it’s hard for me to imagine ever buying a pack without it. I wrote a full review for this pack, you can find it here.

 Osprey Manta AG 28

A great women’s daypack, the Manta is a dedicated hydration pack that comes with a 2.5 litre reservoir. This has been an extremely solid day pack. Like the Stratos, it features Osprey’s patented “Anti Gravity” suspension. The external mesh storage compartment, as well as several divided compartments with easy access make this a great pack for storing snacks, gloves, hats, or anything else you might want on the go.

Zero to Outdoors: The Definitive Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking Gear Guide

Zero to Outdoors: The Definitive Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking Gear Guide

The Complete Guide to Choosing Gear for Your Outdoor Adventure

So you are ready to get out from behind the computer, smart phone, tablet, or whatever device you are reading this on? Ready to get out of the house, out of the office, out of the city, and into nature? Great, so are we! If you are anything like most people, or anything like us, you probably have a million questions about what gear you need. If that’s the case, you are in the right place. In this guide, I will walk you through some of the most basic questions that people frequently have when it comes to choosing between all of the options on their gear list.

First of all, an outdoor gear list will vary wildly depending on your planned activity. An overnight backpacking trip in Joshua Tree will need an entirely different gear load out than a summer trek along the Appalachian Trail. Which will itself require gear quite unlike what you might use for a three day assault on the summit of Mount Rainier. Whatever your intended outdoor desire is: day hiking, backpacking, car camping, or even general mountaineering; this list is designed to take you from zero to outdoors!

Before we even get started on this, there is one thing you MUST have: knowledge! Venturing out into the backcountry comes with some inherent risks, though they are generally far fewer than many urbanites believe. Furthermore, the more you know, the easier it is to mitigate most risks the backcountry poses. For this reason, if I could recommend only one item before you begin your backcountry adventures, it would be Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.  This book is a great resource for some of the more technical aspects of mountaineering, so if mountaineering is on your bucket list then it is a no brainer. However, I like to call mountaineering “technical hiking,” as hiking lies at the core of general mountaineering. As such, much of the knowledge in Freedom of the Hills, while aimed at climbing mountains, is equally applicable to hiking or backpacking on any trail.

The book is a great introduction to map reading and path finding. It is literally how I learned to plan and find routes using a map and compass. It will also cover much of what you need to know about different weather conditions, what to pack for different scenarios, how to choose objectives, how to stay safe in the backcountry, and so much more! It is even more applicable if you plan to do any hiking in the shoulder seasons (early spring or late fall), in areas where you may encounter snow and/or ice. And of course if you have any interest in rock climbing, ice climbing, avalanche safety, or any of the components of mountaineering, then The Freedom of the Hills is an invaluable resource. I honestly cannot express how strongly I urge you to purchase this book, or check it out from your local library, and consult all of the chapters that apply to your upcoming trip(s). I quite literally have a copy sitting on my bedside table, and I use it frequently for just that.

But let’s be honest, you probably aren’t reading this guide for esoteric recommendations like “arm yourself with knowledge,” so let’s get into it. First up: choosing how to decide what backpack is right for you!

Part 1: Choosing Backpacks

You are ready to take the plunge and explore the great outdoors. First and foremost, you need a backpack!

That much is obvious, but here is where decisions begin. Backpacks come in many shapes and sizes, and with a plethora of features, from general day packs to very specialized packs for certain technical pursuits, such as rock climbing, or ski mountaineering. Here, I will break it down into a few categories based on general intended use.

First, a few general notes on packs, regardless of their intended use.

General Advice for Choosing a Pack

Reservoir Packs

I am a huge fan of packs with reservoirs. You are far more likely to stay hydrated if you can conveniently sip your fluids hands free, than if you have to dig for a water bottle. You don’t necessarily need a pack specifically billed as a “hydration pack.” While these obviously work, they tend to be on the smaller side, which is fine for a day/overnight pack, but not what you are looking for weeklong treks, through hikes, or multi day mountaineering expeditions. Virtually all manufacturers make their larger packs with a place for a hydration bladder, the only real difference is that specialized “hydration packs” typically come with the bladder, rather than needing to purchase one separately.


There is more to sizing a backpack than you might first assume. Your height and weight do not necessarily tell you what size pack you will need. Different people with different builds will require different packs. Sometimes, the frame of a particular pack you love may not fit you, in any size! In that case you may have to move on and simply select another pack. If you are in this situation, I have one suggestion before abandoning the pack of your dreams because it doesn’t fit. If the pack is sex specific: try the pack for the opposite sex. Michole has a very muscular torso for a female her size, and thus struggles with Osprey female packs, due to their cut. The same packs in the male cut, however, fit her perfectly! Likewise, I have a male friend with a very small frame. He could never find a backpack that fit him comfortably, until I suggested trying the female variants.

Lastly, if at all possible, try to try packs on in a store with a knowledgeable staff, such as REI, or if this isn’t an option, with a knowledgeable friend. If neither of those are an option, Osprey has a pretty in depth guide on measuring yourself for a pack.

Internal vs. External Frame Packs

Get an internal frame pack. Why? Because this is 2017, and external frame packs have not been cool since ‘nam. But seriously, internal frame packs are used almost universally now. To the point that most avid backpack users born this side of the 70s don’t even know what an external frame pack is.

Internal Frame Pack: Osprey Atmos 65 AG

External Frame Pack: Kelty Trekker 65


This point is a bit sticky and, like a great deal of things on this list, a matter of personal opinion. Many will recommend shaving ounces anywhere you can in a gear list, as “ounces make pounds.” While I do typically follow this logic, I stray from it when choosing a pack. The reason being that if a slightly heavier pack allows you to carry the weight more comfortably, then it is a great trade. For example: would you rather have a 5 lb pack that made a 50 lb load feel like 40 lb, or a 4 lb pack that made a 49 lb load feel like 49 lb?

Personally, I love the Osprey AG (Anti Gravity) suspension system. It adds about a half pound to a pack, but really transfers the load to my hips, taking multiple pounds off of my back and shoulders.

Technical Purpose Packs

On top of everything else, if you have a very specific purpose for your pack, mountaineering for instance, you should definitely keep that in mind when shopping for a pack. Short trips on glaciers, or general winter trips will require for more, and heavier, gear than summer jaunts. If you will be carrying ropes, ice axes, trekking poles, skis, helmets, etc., these are all things to consider. Firstly because of the added space and weight you will need, and secondly for specific designs. That comfortable anti gravity suspension on the Osprey Atmos might be great for trekking, but you will probably want that weight closer to you if you are doing any climbing. Other features might include extra external straps for carrying ice tools, or even skis.

Pack Size

Daypacks: 20 Litres or Less

For an all day trip, you could easily suffice with a 20 litre pack. Often a day pack is nothing more than a place to store your hydration bladder, a pocket sized first aid kit, a few snacks, and your cell phone and keys.

Overnight-Weekend Packs: 20-50 Litres

An overnight/weekend pack can range anywhere from 20-50 litres. If most of your activities range from longer day hikes to overnight/two night trips, then a pack in the 36-50 litre range will probably cover you for everything. Believe it or not, plenty of people hike the entire Appalachian Trail with a sub 50 litre pack!

Three Night-Week Packs: 40-70 Litres

Packs in this range (particularly the lower end) are extremely popular for their versatility. A 50 litre pack will take you much farther than you might expect. As mentioned above, people seriously hike the AT with them, though I personally wouldn’t recommend it. On the other hand, they are typically small and light enough to not be overly cumbersome for shorter trips, and open the door for more technical uses on shorter trips. A three night early spring ski mountaineering trip in the cascades will require a significantly larger pack than three nights of summer backpacking in Yosemite.

Through Hiking Packs: 60-70 Litres Plus

These are the heavy hitters. Usually designed specifically for long through hikes, carrying heavy loads. They are heavier for obvious reasons, but typically carry heavy loads much more easily than smaller packs. I have strapped 20 lb of gear to the outside of my 36 litre Osprey Stratos, but it was far less comfortable than had that weight been carried in a pack designed to handle such a load.

Packs in this range are likely not your first pack, and you will likely have enough experience with shorter trips to know your style before you purchase one. If you are a gourmet trail chef, towing all the pots, pans, stoves, and fixings for trail delicacies, then opting for the Osprey Xenith 88 probably makes sense. If, on the other hand, you think a trail delicacy is Ramen noodles and a bit of beef jerky, every piece of gear you own serves three purposes, and is made of carbon fiber, then you might hike the AT with an Opsrey Atmos 50 AG.

Part 2: Choosing Footwear

Hopefully by now you know just what pack you want. But wait! It’s empty? You’re naked? Well you can’t very well go on any grand adventures that way! Although the Kalalau Trail is famous for its nude hikers. But even they typically have packs, and (sometimes) even shoes! So here we will aim to fix the latter problem, and get something on those feet that you can log a few, or maybe a few hundred, trail miles in.

Choosing a Shoe Type

The first choice you have to make is what type of shoe is best for your unique set of feet, and the tasks you plan to use them for. The three main types of hiking shoe covered here are: trail runners, hiking/backpacking boots. While these will be worn by the overwhelming majority of hikers, we included more niche shoes as well. These include: trail runners/hiking boot hybrids, sandals, mountaineering boots.

Trail Runners

Plenty of people will log hundreds; maybe thousands of miles per year and never even own a pair of hiking boots. Typically, these people rely on trail runners such as (Altra Lone Peaks) or  (Saucony Peregrines). Many people will through hike the Appalachian Trail this way, and you can bet they are probably the ones hiking it with a 40 litre pack! Trail runners have several advantages over most boots. They are (typically) lighter, cooler, more breathable, and more comfortable than hiking or backpacking boots.

They are often the best choice for people with strong ankles and no existing foot injuries, particularly when used in a hot, wet environment, without too many rocks, or opportunities for rolling an ankle. The last point is relative, and will really depend on your abilities and foot/ankle strength.  For instance, I wore trail runners to hike several trails in Kauai, where the temperature was in the high 80s, with high humidity and showers on and off throughout the day. The light, breathable material kept my feet far cooler than boots. The smaller, but still aggressive, lug pattern gave me enough traction to remain upright in the mud, while not collecting the pounds of mud that would likely have stuck in the treads boots in the same scenario.

The downside to trail runners is that they lack pretty much any semblance of foot or ankle support. The outsole will flex and twist in virtually any direction, so if you are on particularly aggressive terrain, or you are not confident in your feet and ankles taking a pounding, they may not be the best option. They also tend to wear out MUCH more quickly than a pair of boots of equal quality.

Overall, trail runners are likely a solid choice if you:

Hike on relatively flat terrain,

Hike in warm/wet conditions,

Have no foot/ankle issues.

Hiking and Backpacking Boots

The old staple for hikers of all shapes and sizes: the hiking boot. As a rule, hiking boots will run much heavier than trail runners and offer greatly increased torsional support for your feet. Hiking boots are divided further into day hiking boots, and backpacking boots. Day hiking boots tend to be lighter, lower cut, and offer less support than a backpacking boot, but far more than a trail runner. The main upside of backpacking boots is that they are much more stable. This comes from the need to not only protect your ankles over aggressive terrain, but also do it while loaded with 40 extra pounds on their back. For all but the strongest and most experienced, these boots are likely a must if carrying a loaded pack through difficult terrain.

Hiking or backpacking boots may be your best bet if:

You hike in rough terrain with a heavy pack (Backpacking Boots),

You hike in rough terrain with a daypack (Hiking Boots),

You lack strong feet and/or ankles (Hiking/Backpacking Boots),

You hike in colder climates (hiking/backpacking boots).

Backpacking Boots: Salomon 4D II GTX

Hiking Boots: Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP

Specialty Footwear

For the right person, the above shoes options can be used for most of their hiking/outdoor endeavors. Plenty of people have hiked the most daunting through trails in trail runners, and many more wear backpacking boots on even the gentlest of terrain. The footwear that follows is not likely to be a good choice if you aim to have one go to outdoor shoe, but each serves a particular function and seem worth mentioning.

Trail Running and Hiking Boot Hybrids

There are a few shoes that blur the line between a day hiking boot and a trail runner. Shoes like the Men’s Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mid and Hoka Tor Tech Mid come in at a ridiculously light weight, and offer you most of the advantages of trail running shoes, with a fraction of added support around the ankle. You should not expect much more from these shoes than their trail running cousins though, especially when it comes to stability in the soles. Their durability is also going to be much more akin to trail runners than true hiking boots. On the other hand, they still only weigh about half of many day hiking or backpacking boots do so maybe they’re just the middle ground you are looking for.


Believe it or not, there are people who hike in sandals. From the PCT to the tropics, there are hikers who swear by them. It is certainly less common to see sandal clad hikers in the lower 48, though they are there. In tropical climates, however they are quite common. For hikes in Hawaii, or South America where the tropical climate guarantees that you will be hot and wet 24/7 some people trade the protection of shoes for the cool, light, quick drying benefits of sandals. While I don’t think I would ever make this trade myself, pulling pruney feet out of soaking wet shoes does get old. And if you decide to join the nude hikers on the Kalalau Trail, they may be the perfect footwear to complete your ensemble, or lack thereof!

Mountaineering Boots

At the far opposite end of the spectrum from sandals lie mountaineering boots. Compared to backpacking boots, these burly monsters are typically far stiffer and heavier.

They are specifically designed for use with crampons. As such, they frequently include heel and toe welts: for use with step in crampons; or heel welts only: for use with hybrid style crampons. Much of the extra weight and stiffness is the result of a much stiffer shank in the sole. This keeps the boot from flexing when front pointing or ice climbing in crampons. The type of ice you plan to use them on will likely determine how stiff of a boot you need, with steeper climbing requiring more stiffness.

Virtually all mountaineering boots are waterproof, and they come in varying degrees of insulation. They also tend to come with a far heavier price tag than any other hiking/backpacking footwear, coming in anywhere between $250.00 on the low end to around $1,000.00 on the high end. The La Sportiva Nepals and Scarpa Mont Blancs are fairly representative of the middle ground.

Insulation and Waterproofing

The last big decision when it comes to boots is whether or not you want them insulated and/or waterproof. Naturally, insulation is a must if you will be hiking for extended periods in extremely cold weather, particularly if there will be lots of standing around. Personally, I have never wanted for insulation above 20 degrees, but always consider whether your feet run warm or cold. As for Gore-Tex (the gold standard in waterproofing), it is an absolute must if you will encounter much snow, or rain in cold weather. Keep in mind though, the Gore-Tex lining in a boot typically loses its waterproofing capability long before the boot is otherwise worn out. Although Gore-Tex is better than most water proofing methods at allowing your feet to “breathe,” if you sweat in your boot, you are going to have a wet foot in your boot. Many hikers and mountaineers use a thin, sweat wicking sock under a wool sock. This helps keep their feet a bit dryer.


Now that you have decided on what type of shoe is right for you, you need to make sure they are sized properly. Like everything else, this consideration will be greatly affected by what your intended use is.

The easiest decision is if you opted for trail runners, sandals, or lightweight hiking boots; and you intend to use them primarily for day hiking. In this case, you will size them like you would any other athletic shoe.

If on the other hand you plan to use your shoes for more technical pursuits, there are a few more things to take into consideration.

If you plan on using your shoes for a through hike, then sizing them larger than normal is an absolute must. To begin with, you don’t want your toes cramped under any circumstances. On a through hike however, your feet will swell from being on them day after day. Different people experience this to varying degrees, with some people literally gaining three sizes due to foot swelling. While this may be an extreme case, gaining 1.5-2 sizes over the course of a through hike is not uncommon.

While buying boots with a bit of extra room may be a necessity for thru hiking, it is also necessary if you plan on using crampons with your boots. But whether you have mountaineering boots, or you just strap a set of crampons onto your heavy duty backpacking boots, you can’t afford to have your feet moving around in them. This is because using crampons generally involves quite a bit of kicking your toe into the snow/ice to gain solid traction with the spikes. If your boot allows much movement of your foot, you are going to be kicking the toes of your boot all day. As a result, most backpacking and mountaineering boots, and some hiking boots, utilize some sort of “lace lock” to make sure the boots are tightened on your foot, without having to cinch them down around the your ankles, allowing plenty of room for your toes, but not letting them slide forward.

General Advice for Fitting

If at all possible, get fitted for your boots at a legitimate outdoor store, like REI or a local store. Standard big box stores like Dick’s or Sports Challet are not going to be much help, and likely will not even have suitable footwear for most technical outdoor pursuits. If you can’t get sized in person, be sure to consult your chosen manufacturer’s sizing chart. Brands like La Sportiva and Scarpa offer sizing charts and advice on their websites. Also, check with friends or on forums for other people who have experience wearing the boots. Many companies are known for certain fits. La Sportiva boots, for instance, are known for running narrow. Wide footed hikers such as myself tend to steer clear of their boots for this reason, while others love them for it. Scarpa, on the other hand, tend to run much wider, and they are likely the brand I will choose when I finally purchase a pair of dedicated mountaineering boots. Finally, sometimes a specific boot in a manufacturer’s line up will cater to a certain foot type. The Salomon 4D GTX for instance is made with an extra wide toe box, and as a result suits me perfectly.

Finally, if you do end up ordering online, make sure to do it through a retailer with a solid return policy. Often, backpackers and mountaineers will order two or three sizes of a boot, to make sure they end up with the perfect size, and send back the other two. Keep in mind though, the perfect size may not exist in a particular boot, so be prepared to look at another brand if necessary.

Hopefully this will help you pick the appropriate footwear for all of your outdoor needs! Keep reading if you would like to learn about choosing a sleep system!

Part 3: Choosing a Sleep System

So you have shoes and a pack! Congratulations! If you plan to hike the Kalalau trail in the buff, then you are all set, get going! If however, you are going to be somewhere that doesn’t stay above 70 degrees year round, or you are into wearing clothes and not sleeping on the ground, then you need a few more things.

Let’s move on to your sleeping needs, namely a sleeping bag and sleeping pad.

Sleeping Bags

Sleeping bags, like virtually everything on the list, come with a dizzying array of options. Namely: insulation, temperature rating, shape, and length. These options contribute to the holy trinity of sleeping bags: price, weight, and warmth. You can get a bag to satisfy any two of those three things, but you have to sacrifice one. Don’t worry, your budget and intended use for the bag will make it pretty clear which one you should sacrifice. So, without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty.


There are essentially two types of insulation to choose from when picking a sleeping bag: down and synthetic.


As a rule, a down bag will be lighter, warmer, vastly more packable, and last longer than a synthetic bag. Sound too good to be true? There are, generally speaking, two drawbacks to down. First, moisture. Down is an amazing insulator. Unfortunately, it loses its insulating ability when wet. However, the fear of water killing your bag’s insulation has historically been wildly overblown. You will be carrying it in a stuff sack, in your pack. If you expect rain, you should have your stuff sack in a waterproof sack, and either a waterproof cover over or inside your pack. So unless you have a tent that lets water pour through at night, you shouldn’t really have any worries. On top of that, many companies now offer “waterproof down.” While I have never taken it quite this far, I have heard of people sleeping without a tent in the rain, and their waterproof down kept them cozy. With all of these benefits, why would you ever want a synthetic sleeping bag? The third member of the holy trinity: price. The REI Igneo/Joule and Western Mountaineering Ultralight are examples of popular down backpacking bags.


Synthetic bags are heavier and far bulkier than a down bag of similar warmth. But they come in at a far lower price point. On average, a synthetic bag should get you the same temperature rating for less than half the price of a down bag. But it will also likely fill up, and weigh down your pack more than a down bag. The Marmot Trestles is an example of a popular synthetic bag.

So, Which is for You: Down or Synthetic?

Are you on a budget? If not, then get an amazing, warm, light, packable down bag. If you are on a budget, decide whether you will be using the bag solely for car camping, or if you plan to use it backpacking as well. If the answer is strictly car camping, there is really no need to spring for the down bag. There are plenty of synthetic bags that will keep you (relatively) warm for under $100! If on the other hand you plan to do virtually any backpacking, then I highly recommend a down bag. Space in your pack fills up fast, and the pounds on your back add up. For these reasons a synthetic bag just isn’t a viable option for most people to use as a backpacking bag.

Temperature Rating

The temperature rating is mostly straightforward. Almost all sleeping bags use an “EN,” or “European Norm” rating. (This just denotes a standardized method of testing.) Bags come with an EN comfort and lower limit rating.

“EN comfort” denotes the temperature at which the average woman will remain warm. (Women tend to sleep colder than men.)

“En lower limit” denotes the temperature at which the average man will remain warm.


It is important to note that everyone sleeps differently. Some women may sleep warmer than the average man, while some men may sleep colder than the average woman. As such, the EN temperature guidelines should be used as a measuring tool, but try to consider how you sleep. Do you find yourself waking up covered in sweat while others sleep comfortably? Or do you swaddle yourself in covers while others sleep with only a sheet? Take these factors into consideration when choosing a bag.


Sleeping bags largely come in two shapes “mummy,” and “rectangular.”


Mummy bags are by far the most common choice for backpacking, as they will be smaller and lighter than a rectangular bag of similar temperature rating. The down side to mummy bags is that, as the name suggests, they hug your body a great deal more than a rectangular bag: wide at the shoulders,  tapering down to your feet. Some people will not like the restriction of a mummy bag, but do keep in mind that the more snug a bag is, the easier it is to stay warm.


Rectangular bags may be the better choice if you will not be using your sleeping bag for backpacking. This reality is shown by the fact that many synthetic bags, already too heavy and bulky for backpacking, tend to be rectangular. If you are not worried about the extra weight and size of the bag, you may find it very appealing to have a bag that allows you more freedom to move around at night, particularly in the foot area. The inability to move my feet is my biggest problem with mummy style bags.


Length, like shape, is a fairly straightforward two option choice. Most bags come in a “standard/regular,” and “long/tall” lengths: though some bags only come in the standard option. The specs listed on the website or the tag will give some variation of a “fits up to.” Use this to decide whether a standard or long bag is right for you. Keep in mind that extra room in a bag will make the bag a bit colder. However, I suggest erring on the long side, particularly if using a mummy style bag. This will slightly alleviate the tightness around your feet. But more importantly, you can use the extra room to store your socks and base layer for the next day. There is nothing quite like waking up in sub freezing temperatures and having a warm set of clothes to put on, rather than shivering for half an hour as the freezing clothes out of your pack warm to match your body temperature.

Gender Specific Sleeping Bags

Some bags come in gender specific options. Generally, these bags are cut to fit a woman’s contours more than a standard bag; the key differences in cut being a wider hip area and a more narrow chest/shoulder area. They also tend to be a bit warmer than their male oriented or unisex counterparts. Both of these facts make for a slightly bulkier bag. Finally, bags that come in gender specific versions often zip on opposite sides. This allows the bags to be zipped together to form a two person bag. The bags we use for example, the REI Joule and its male counterpart, the REI Igneo, zip on their right and left sides, respectively. Be warned though that the shared body heat you gain from this will not replace the heat you lose from the larger bag, and larger head openings.  I would not recommend it when using your bag at or near their lower limit, but it may be an important feature if you are planning for warm weather hikes with a special snuggle buddy.

Final Thoughts on Sleeping Bags

It basically boils down to a sliding scale between weight/packability, warmth, and price.

    • This mostly comes down to synthetic vs. down.

Your intended use for the sleeping bag will guide which of the three you are better off sacrificing, and which type of insulation you want a bag made of.

    • Cheaper, synthetic bags are great for car camping
    • Lighter/Smaller down bags are great for backpacking, but carry a hefty price tag.

Like with insulation, sleeping bag shape will likely be determined by intended use.

    • Rectangular bags are intrinsically heavier and take up more room than mummy style bags. As such, they are often synthetic.
    • The vast majority of down backpacking bags are mummy shaped.

We recommend opting for a longer bag if on the bubble, mostly for the ability to have warm clothes in the morning.

Sleeping Pads


Many people mistakenly believe that a sleeping bag keeps you warm at night. While sleeping bags are certainly an integral part of your sleep system, they are near worthless in cold climates without a sleeping pad. This is because the insulation in your bag loses its insulating properties when compressed, which is exactly what the portion of your bag under you is. So your sleeping bag really only insulates you from the cold air around you, while a sleeping pad insulates you from the cold ground beneath you. Sleeping pads’ ability to do this is rated by “R value,” which will be explained below.

There are three main types of sleeping pads: Air/inflating, open cell foam/self inflating, and closed cell foam. Like with sleeping bags, the tradeoffs between types of pads are size/weight, warmth, and price. And which is best for you will likely be determined by your budget and intended use for the pad.

Pad Type

Air/Inflatable Sleeping Pads

These pads can range anywhere from the old blowup mattress you pull out of the closet when one too many guests stay over, to the much thinner inflatable pads that can be packed way to almost nothing. They require external help to be inflated, typically a pump, or your lungs. They tend be more comfortable than other pads, as you are literally sleeping on air. On the other hand, they tend to run significantly colder than other pads, because air is not exactly a great insulator. And while the thought of having a pad that packs away to literally nothing is quite attractive for backpacking, a tear in that same pad will reduce it to literally nothing underneath you at night. Needless to say, a patch kit is a must if you plan on using an inflatable pad. Slow leaks, variations in temperature, or even the fabric of the pad stretching can all lead to waking up on a less inflated pad than you went to sleep on.

Overall, these pads may be a great option for use if you:

  •       Live in a mild climate year around,
  •       Don’t mind having to blow it up yourself, and don’t mind carrying a patch kit with you.

They may also be used as an effective piece of a multi-pad sleeping system for very cold climates, with some type of foam pad under them.

Open Cell Foam/Self Inflating Sleeping Pads

Open cell foam pads are something of a middle ground between air pads and closed cell foam pads. These pads rely on a combination of open cell foam and air for insulation. When you take the cap off, the open cell foam expands; sucking air into the pad, then holds it when capped again. To deflate the pad, simply remove the cap and roll it up, forcing the air out as you do so.

These pads sleep warmer than an air pad, due to the insulation of the foam. They also offer more cushioning than closed cell foam pads. Personally, as a side sleeper, I find that open cell foam pads are a bit stiffer once inflated than air pads. This is important for me because air pads allow the air to be displaced, leaving my hip bone jutting into the ground. Backpacking variants, which offer a lengthwise fold before rolling, break down smaller than closed cell foam pads, but are still bulkier than the smallest inflatable pads. Like inflatable pads, they are susceptible to tears, but tend to be made of much stiffer material, so it seems much less likely.

Overall, these pads are a great compromise between inflatable and closed cell foam pads, and are what both Michole and I use. Open cell foam might be the pad for you if you:

  • Want the comfort of an inflatable pad and the warmth of a closed cell foam pad.
  • Want the comfort of an inflatable pad but don’t want to blow it up each night. (Though we have found that a few puffs are necessary if you want a tightly inflated pad.)
  • Don’t mind the bit of extra bulk and weight compared to an inflatable pad, and don’t mind sacrificing the ability to carry it on the outside of your pack without an extra bag, like a closed cell foam pad.

Closed Cell Foam Pads

At the opposite end of the spectrum lie closed cell foam pads. These pads are made of extremely dense foam, and unlike inflatable or open cell foam pads, they do not inflate at all.  Closed cell foam pads are typically very warm and lightweight. They are also the only type of pad that you don’t have to worry at all about getting punctured. Unfortunately, the lack of inflation/deflation means that they don’t offer as much cushion as the other types. It also means that they generally don’t compress as much for packing. They just fold up sort of like an accordion or roll up like a yoga matt. While typically the bulkiest of the three, this may not be too much of an issue. Because closed cell foam pads are the only type durable enough to be safely carried on the outside of your pack. So even though they may take up more space, they aren’t taking up the precious space in your pack. They also tend to be the least expensive of the three.

Overall, these pads are great if you:

  • Are camping in colder climates,
  • Want to be able to carry your pad on the outside of your pack. (Though other pads can be strapped on the outside of the pack if stowed in a durable sack.)
  • Don’t mind a fairly hard sleep surface.
  • Don’t want to bother inflating a pad each night.
  • Don’t want to have to worry about puncturing/patching your pad.

R Value

Sleeping pads are rated by “R value.” The higher the R value, the more the pad insulates you from the cold ground below. R values range from around 1.5-9.5. The typical three season pad is between 2.5-5. While there are pads in the 9.0+ range that are literally rated for the arctic, it is worth noting that R value is additive. So you could have two pads with lower R values accomplishing the same thing as one high R value pad. This is the general path that most take when in extremely low temperatures. Typically, a winter setup will include an air or open cell foam pad with an R value of 3.5-5.0, with a closed cell foam pad under it.

Other Sleeping Pad Considerations: Length and Width

Full vs. ¾ Length

Some ultralight backpackers and mountaineers prefer a three fourths length sleeping pad. These pads typically come in around four feet long, as opposed to the standard six feet long pad. From a padding perspective, there is very little difference, as most of your pressure points are from the waist up. However, you still need something under the end of your sleeping bag for insulation purposes. Many will simply put their pack under their feet.  This remedies another problem with ¾ length pads, which is that they create a drop-off under your knees. For the most part, three fourths length pads are the realm of the ultralight backpacker, or the alpine mountaineer.

Sleeping Pad Width

Most sleeping pads are around 20 inches wide. Some come in wider options, and some, like the pad we use: the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus, simply have extra width on the extra long version. This may be a consideration if you are a particularly broad shouldered individual, or if you just want the extra bit of comfort. Remember though, if you are backpacking: the price of added comfort under your back at night is, often, added pounds on your back during the day.

Now it is time to decide which sleep system is right for you! While there is certainly a dizzying array of options, your intended use for your sleep system should narrow the choices down quite a bit. A good night’s sleep can be the difference between a great next day and a miserable next day. So get busy choosing a sleep system! And if you would like help choosing a tent to use your sleep system in read on. Or start at the beginning if you would like help choosing other items in your outdoor gear load out.

Part 4: Choosing a Tent

So you have your backpack, your boots, and a sleep system. Now it’s time to choose a shelter to hunker down in at night.

General Advice

Price vs. Weight

If you are reading this guide from start to finish, or if you have much experience shopping for outdoor gear, you have probably come to a realization: price and weight operate on a sliding scale. That is certainly true when it comes to tents. Of course, there are a few other variables to consider, namely: three vs. four season, single vs. double wall, livability, ease of setup, and freestanding vs. non. In some cases, these things, rather than price will be sacrificed to maintain a lighter weight, while in other cases you can get all the bells and whistles in a lightweight package for a hefty price tag.

Intended Use

Also like virtually everything else on the list, your intended use for your tent should greatly narrow down your list of prospective choices. Do you plan to use your tent exclusively for car camping or as a stationary base camp for assaults on climbs or higher peaks? If so, then the weight factor really isn’t a factor for you at all. You can pretty much have all of the bells and whistles, and roominess you could want, without breaking the bank. If you plan to use your tent for backpacking on the other hand, tradeoffs must be made. You will either sacrifice weight, livability, or features. Or else, pay the premium for a tent with it all.

Since it is by far the more complicated decision, let’s start with backpacking tents. Everything that is true of backpacking tents will be true of car camping tents, with the exception of weight. Weight is not really a consideration for a car camping tent.

Key Considerations

Single vs. Double Wall

Most backpacking tents are double wall. This simply means that the tent is comprised of a tent body (the inner wall), and a separate rain fly (the outer wall). The tent body is usually made of a breathable, mesh fabric, often thin enough to stargaze from the protection of your tent on clear nights. The rain fly, then, is made of a waterproof fabric, to be used only when it is needed to block rain or wind, or to provide privacy if your tent (like ours) is see through.

The main advantage to double wall tents is their ventilating ability. You expel moisture in your breath at night, and a poorly ventilated tent will lead to you waking up in a pool of moisture. Double wall tents, however, let this moisture out through the inner wall, while the rain fly keeps outside moisture out.

A single wall tent on the other hand, has only one, waterproof wall. This is popular for mountaineering and four season tents, as these would virtually always require a rain fly. A single wall gives the waterproofing benefits of a rain fly, without the added weight, or setup. On the other hand, they do not ventilate nearly as well as double wall tents, leading to excess moisture in the tent, and a far stuffier tent in warm conditions.



Double Wall: MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2



Three vs. Four Season

The vast majority of backpacking tents are three season tents. These tents will get you through spring, summer, and fall almost anywhere in the world, and are great year around in some places, like here in Southern California. The main difference between three and four season tents is not so much the temperatures at which they will keep you warm, this should be taken care of by your sleep system, but how much wind or snow they can stand up to. Their lightweight materials generally mean that three season tents will not stand up to sustained bouts of severe wind or snow. We are not talking one off storms on your local trail here. A three season tent should handle those with flying colors. We are talking about the sustained, violent winds that you find on exposed mountains peaks. Likewise, the few inches of snow that you are likely to encounter in your earliest days on a southbound thru hike of the PCT should be fine in your three season tent. It is only the more significant snow dumps that will cause you big problems.

Four season tents are often referred to as “mountaineering tents.” This is because, typically, only in the mountains, above the tree line, will your three season tent fail you. The high winds of exposed mountain ridges can literally shred the fabric of a lightweight, three season tent. Likewise, the unrelenting snowfall can collect on top of your three season tent, which will not be strong enough to hold it. This scenario can lead to the tent collapsing in on you.

So you might think, “well I can just get a four season tent and use it year round right?” Not so fast. While you could hypothetically do it, a four season tent is really more like a one season tent. Which is why I prefer the term “mountaineering tent.” They are great for their intended purpose, but may not be the jack of all trades you are hoping for. These tents are far more expensive, heavier, and less breathable than their three season counterparts. For example, spending 500 dollars on a three season, two person tent will give you access to all but the most ultra light of lightweight tents. You can easily score a 2-3 lb three season tent for this price, or a sub two pounder if you are willing to give up a few features. On the other hand, 500 dollars barely gets you in the door of the mountaineering tent conversation. And the few tents you can find for this price will be more than double their three season counterparts.

So if you intend to venture frequently into the high mountains, spending nights above the tree line, then a four season tent is definitely for you. Will you want to carry it on a 2,000 mile thru hike? Probably not. Most people who frequent both the high mountains and regular season backpacking own both types of tents. If you do most of your backpacking during normal backpacking seasons, in all but the most extreme places on earth, then stick with a three season. You can always rent a four season tent if you take the odd trip to the high mountains.

Three Season: Sierra Designs Flash 2 FL

Three Seasonl: Sierra designs Nightwatch 2



Four Season: The North Face VE 25

Four Season: Hilleberg Nammatj 2 GT


Single vs. double wall, and three vs. four season should be easy decisions, and basically the same decision, depending on your intended use of the tent. Most will be opting for a three season, double wall tent for obvious reasons. Now the hard choices begin.

By “livability” I basically mean how much space a tent provides, and the functionality of that space. There is no industry standard for how much space each person is allocated when manufacturers label a tent as a 1, 2, 3, or 4 person tent. This means that while two people could comfortably sleep in many two person tents, they may require a three person in some models. To determine how much floor space you need, lay out the sleeping pads of the occupants who will be using the tent, and measure the width at the widest point. You need a tent that is at least that wide. Some ultralight backpacking tents expect occupants to sleep with their heads at opposite ends of the tent, as sleeping pads are widest at the shoulders. As for length, most tents are around 90 inches. Now you know the minimum amount of floor space you need for all of the occupants to lay side by side.

But wait, livability is a bit more complicated than that. Unless you are carrying nothing but a tent, you will need somewhere to store your gear. Most tents come with a vestibule, and some multi door tents come with a vestibule for each door. Vestibules are essentially an added bit of coverage provided by the rain fly, outside of the inner wall. These provide space outside the tent. Depending on vestibule size, this space can be used as a place to stow your gear, change clothes, and/or even a place to cook. Larger vestibules add more weight and a higher price tag, but the ability to store all of your gear safely outside the tent means you can get by with a smaller tent. Some tents, like the appropriately named Copper Hotel by Big Agnes, take vestibules to the extreme, essentially giving you a covered patio outside your tent. For the most part though, a vestibule large enough to stow your gear will be sufficient. If considering a tent with a very small vestibule, or no vestibule, make sure that you will have enough room in the tent to stow whatever gear you can’t fit in the vestibule.

In addition to vestibules, many tents have gear lofts that allow you to store some extra gear, or gear you don’t want left out in the elements (though some vestibules claim to be stormproof). This can be a great place for electronics, or clothes you want easy access to in the morning (unless its cold and you are keeping your clothes warm in your sleeping bag).

Beyond floor space, and whether it will be devoted to you or your gear, consider the shape of the tent walls. Imagine a tent with a domed roof, and a tent with a cubed roof. They may have the exact same amount of floor space, but how roomy it feels in each tent will be quite different. Tents with more vertical walls will feel far roomier than tents with sharply angled walls, but they may be more likely to catch the wind. The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL HV improved on the original Copper Spur UL design by introducing steeper walls. The overall result was a tent that packed down smaller, and offered a roomier interior, without actually adding floor area

Ease of Setup

Freestanding vs. Non-Freestanding

When it comes to ease of setup, there are free standing tents and everything else. While some freestanding tents will certainly be harder to put up than others, and the same is true for non free standing, these differences are shades of grey. Meanwhile, the difference between freestanding and non freestanding is black and white.

“Free standing” means that a tent can be set up with no external aid, such as stakes or guy lines, for support. This makes pitching your tent significantly faster. It also means that you are not limited by the extra space you might need to run your guy lines for a non-freestanding tent. Furthermore, you can easily pick up and move your freestanding tent, which is truly an underrated feature when you realize you pitched it over a nasty rock.  Non-freestanding tents on the other hand are typically lighter. This is because their poles can afford to be made of lighter, less durable material, because they have backup support in the guy lines. So here, the choice comes down to ease of use vs. weight. Most will choose a freestanding tent, which is what the vast majority of tents are now, but some will see those extra few ounces as unnecessary.






Non Freestanding: Sierra Designs Flashlight 2 FL


So, as with most gear discussions, we end as we began: with weight. How light do you need a tent to be? This answer differs depending on whom you ask. Typically, guidelines for a backpacking tent range from 1.5 lb per person, to 3 lb per person. Whoever you ask, anything in the sub 1.5 lb per person range gets you into the “ultralight” category. How light is right for you? It depends on what you find important. I will admit that, on one occasion, I strapped our old four person car camping tent to my pack for a mile hike into the Joshua Tree Desert. I would not recommend it.

Keep in mind that if you have a tent for more than one person, you can split the tent parts up between you. So it really is the per person weight that is important here. Personally, my cycling background makes me rather weight conscious, but as I’ve noted before: I am at times willing to trade a bit of weight for a bit of comfort. This can be seen in my tent choice. The Copper Spur HV UL 2, is a very lightweight, freestanding tent. While it certainly doesn’t qualify as a budget item in my book, it also doesn’t come in on the absurdly expensive end of the spectrum either. And while I was more than willing to sacrifice extra floor space for a lighter load, I was not willing to venture into the Non-freestanding realm to get it even lighter.

Other Considerations


Often times, ultra lightweight tents not only cost an arm and a leg, but they are made of such fragile material that you might end up with your arm and leg sticking out of them if you aren’t careful! This is certainly not always the case, but it’s worth checking the reviews of an ultra lightweight tent, or any tent for that matter, to see if people frequently have durability issues with it.


Some multi person tents have multiple doors, while others use only one. Extra doors typically mean extra zippers, which means extra weight. But for many, not having their partner crawl over them to get out of the tent in the middle of the night is worth the weight of an extra zipper.


Footprints are durable pieces of fabric that go under your tent floor. They are typically much more durable than your tent floor, so they are usually a good investment, especially if you have an expensive tent. The last thing you want is a gaping hole in the bottom of your brand new 500 dollar tent. Footprints are typically sold separately. Many manufacturers make a footprint for each tent. Generic, universal footprints are compatible with most tents for a lower price, and some people even opt to make their own. It is worth pointing out thought, that universal or homemade footprints may not offer all of the options your particular tent is capable of.

Car Camping Tents

Virtually all of what is true for backpacking tents is true for car camping tents. The main exceptions are the tradeoffs. Because with car camping weight is not really a consideration, you can have a tent with all of the space and extra features your heart desires. And because the manufacturers don’t have to use ultra expensive, ultra light material to keep the weight down as the size and features of a tent increase, you can have it all for a much lower price than a backpacking tent.

Tent Alternatives

The vast majority of people are going to use a tent for camping. The vast majority of those people are going to use a freestanding, double wall, three season tent for camping. Because of this, and because this part of the article is about choosing the right “tent,” I will keep this section brief, but I will point out that there are some people who forgo a tent entirely. They often use a minimalist structure or hammock.

Minimalist Shelters

These tent alternatives typically have no, or minimal, poles and are often little more than a tarp. They may or may not have a floor, and generally rely on guy lines and a trekking pole or stick for support. This is essentially the non freestanding tent taken to its logical extreme. They usually offer huge savings in weight, but typically make for a much more cumbersome setup process, and will forgo almost all of the comforts associated with a tent, save for having some sort of roof over your head. It is worth noting that some double wall tents can be pitched without the tent body, leaving you with just the rainfly and footprint, essentially turning your backpacking tent into an ultra lightweight minimalist shelter.


The hammock camper was once a mythical creature, often heard of but never seen. These days are squarely behind us, as many campers have traded in tent for hammock. Camping hammocks often come with a bug net and tarp to keep out the elements and creepy crawlies. While side sleepers don’t generally care for them, many people claim they gave them the good night’s sleep that had eluded them for their entire camping lifetime. They are not without drawbacks though.

  • In some places it can be nearly impossible to find two trees, rocks, or anything else to hang the hammock from.
  • They are Not really a viable option if you would like to sleep with a partner.
  • Because they hang in the air, they are typically much colder than tents. Furthermore, most are not compatible with sleeping pads, which means you must resort to larger, more expensive “underquilts.”

Many people claim that hammocks are a lower cost, ultra lightweight alternative to tents, but this hardly seems true, particularly if you are camping with a partner. While a two person tent can be had for around 3 lb, those 3 lb can be split between the two. Hammocks tents, meanwhile, generally weight at least 2.5 lb, and both partners need to carry their own, so double the weight and the cost.

Now it is time; you are ready! Crunch the numbers, weigh the weights, compare the fabrics. Choose which tent is right for you! Then, keep reading if you would like help choosing clothes for the backcountry, or start at the beginning if you have other questions regarding your outdoor gear list.

Part 5: Choosing Clothing

Here we are, so close to the outdoors that you can almost breathe that alpine air! By now you have a pack, shoes, sleep system, and tent. But wait, you’re still naked?! All right, all right, let’s try to find you some clothes to wear. Unless of course you plan to hike the Kalalau Trail in the buff, like the people I mentioned earlier. Otherwise, read on!

Choosing clothing for the outdoors comes down to choosing the right material for a piece of clothing, and how to layer your clothing.


The number one rule for choosing your hiking clothes is this: NO COTTON! I know I know, you wear cotton, you love cotton, they even make those great commercials about cotton. But seriously, cotton has, almost, no place on the trail. Cotton soaks up water like nobody’s business, and then takes forever to dry. Furthermore, wet cotton loses its insulating ability almost entirely. Since cotton is out, wool and synthetics (typically polyester or poly blends) will be your go tos with down thrown in for cold weather.


Get the images of those rough old sweaters you wore as a kid out of your head. Today’s merino wool is itch and scratch free. Compared to cotton: wool will do a much better job at wicking moisture away from your skin, and it will retain far more of its insulating ability once it is wet. This is an easy characteristic to overlook if you are unfamiliar with cold weather hiking, but it is extremely important. If you do any sort of vigorous hiking, climbing, etc., even in sub freezing temperatures, you are going to work up a sweat. This means that your clothes are going to get wet, and you will need something that continues to insulate you from the chilly air temperatures. Otherwise, when you stop, you will be standing still, soaking wet, and have virtually nothing protecting you from the cold. Wool makes for a great, well, anything. Its biggest downside is cost, as it tends to be more expensive than its synthetic counterparts.


Polyester and Poly Blends

Polyester comes with most of the same benefits as wool. Poly blends range from the 100% polyester “fleece sweater” to poly/lycra or poly/spandex athletic wear. Poly blends can keep you warm or cool, depending on their intended function. They are also usually fast drying and extremely good at wicking moisture away from your skin. The main downside often associated with poly blends is that they do not tend to be as odor resistant as wool. If you are going to be on the trail for a day, this probably isn’t too much of a concern. If you are going to be on the trail for weeks, or even months, it might be.


Depending on how it is manufactured, nylon can have many different characteristics. It is a versatile, durable fabric. Typically, it is used as a shell layer. The stereotypical hiking pant, shirt, or hat is often made of this material. While not naturally water resistant, many treated varieties offer good resistance against both wind and water, though a waterproof layer will still be required if you are out in a deluge.


As with sleeping bags, down offers unparalleled insulation. It is also incredibly lightweight and packable. Many down jackets can literally be turned inside out, and stowed in their own pocket, function as a stuff sack. As I mentioned in relation to sleeping bags, downs biggest weakness (aside from price) has been its inability to insulate when wet. This has not typically been a huge issue for down clothing, as base and mid layers have kept them protected from sweat, and rain layers have kept them from precipitation. Now, huge strides have been made in waterproofing down, so that even if it does get damp, it will not lose its insulating abilities. Historically, synthetic alternatives to down have been far bulkier and heavier, as we saw with sleeping bags. When it comes to down jackets however, there has been tremendous progress made, so that at times it is almost impossible to tell down from its synthetic “primaloft” counterparts. The Patagonia Nanopuff jacket for instance, weighs in at only 11.9 oz., making it just over an oz. lighter than its down counterpart. It also packs down to be stored in its own pocket as a stuff sack.


The key to dressing for success in the outdoors, particularly for long days of hiking, climbing, or multi day trips, is layering. You are likely to encounter a range of temperatures throughout the day. Camping, hiking and climbing in Joshua Tree for instance, it is not uncommon to wake to near freezing temperatures at sunrise, then be faced with temperatures in the 70s by mid day. On a recent summit of Mount Baldy via the Baldy Bowl, We began hiking in the dark, with well below freezing temperatures, only to find ourselves down to our base layers an hour or so later, and back in every layer we had by the time we reached the summit.

Typically, you will wear three layers. (Not including underwear)

  • A base layer: Think classic long johns, made of wool or synthetics.
  • Insulating layers: These are the layers that really keep you warm. You may end up with more or less of these, depending on the temperature.
  • Shell layer: Your typical, hard shell hiking pants or jacket. Rain gear is generally included in this category as well.


All of your clothing options come down to a matter of choice, and nowhere is this more apparent than underwear. Some men go for boxers, others briefs, and some split the difference with boxer briefs. Likewise, some women prefer more coverage in their hiking underwear than their everyday underwear. Others prefer thongs. Many men and women forego underwear all together while backpacking. This is an area where you will want to experiment and try out different things. Keep in mind that your tight, poly/spandex athletic underwear may keep you nice and cool, but will likely start to smell pretty quickly. Also keep in mind that any excess fabric may bunch up and cause you to chafe. Once you decide on the cut you want, it is important to remember that you can find that cut in pretty much any fabric you want.

Tip for backpacking: Always carry three pair of underwear. This way you have one to wear, one to wash and one for whatever emergency might arise.

Base Layer(s)

Your base layer should be made of lightweight, sweat wicking material. Typically wool, but poly blends are becoming more and more popular. The key is that, because it goes directly against your skin, it is able to wick your sweat away from your skin, helping to keep you dry.

Insulating Layer(s)

These are the layers typically made of “fleece” style polyester, and/or down. While one heavier garment can be used for an insulating layer, it provides you virtually no flexibility to deal with rapidly changing temperatures, or an increase or decrease in body heat due to exertion. So most people will opt for multiple insulating layers, so that some can be stripped off, and others kept on, to match whatever need arises. Personally, I opt for a Patagonia R1 poly blend jacket, and Patagonia Nanopuff synthetic down jacket. These layers have kept me warm on the trail in well below freezing temperatures. And while the SoCal weather usually means that I shed the Nano puff pretty early, its tiny compressed size makes it easy to store in my pack, or in the pocket of my R1, if I want quick access to it.

Shell Layers

Typically made of some nylon variant, a shell layer is generally more durable than your insulating layers, and will do a great job of stopping wind and moisture from reaching them. Depending on conditions, many people will forgo a shell layer for their upper body. Conversely, unless the temperatures are extremely cold, people often wear only a base layer and shell for pants, or simply a shell, in warmer weather.

Rain gear is often included with shell layers. Think of rain gear as something of a shell for your shell layer. Rain gear often claims to be “breathable,” but, like with boots, anything that keeps moisture out will keep moisture in. This means that rain gear will often have you baking if used in warm temperatures. It also makes rain gear a great addition to a cold weather layering system, as it can be thrown on to really keep out the wind and trap your body heat.

Other Considerations

The climate of the region you are in will largely dictate your needs, so don’t feel too chained to the base layer, insulating layer, shell layer model. While this is a versatile, widely useful model, you can strip away from, or add whatever you need to, this model to make it fit your particular situation. For instance, on summer day hikes here in Southern California, many people, myself included, will often opt for basketball shorts rather than any sort of pant. They are cool, wonderfully ventilating, and a good pair can also be excellent at wicking away moisture. Many people also opt for tights or yoga pants for similar reasons.

T shirts, made of wool or poly blends, can also be a great addition to your traditional layers, or might serve as your only upper body layer. Just remember to use sunscreen or wear a long-sleeved rash guard of some type under it to protect your skin from the sun.



Wool is the traditional outdoor sock. Many people, again, think of the old, thick, hot, itchy wool sock of yesteryear. But today’s merino wool socks are just as soft and supple as cotton. They also come in a wide range of weights, so that you can find a wool sock suitable for any climate. These socks maintain their insulating properties when wet, and do a decent job wicking moisture away from your feet. Many also blend in synthetic materials, to increase their moisture wicking properties, and help them dry faster. Synthetic blends can also accomplish the same things. Keep in mind, especially if you have waterproof boots, that the moisture created as your foot sweats will have no way out of your shoe. So it is extra important to have socks that will still do their intended function when wet. For this reason, many cold weather hikers will opt for a two sock system. Using a thin, synthetic sock liner to wick moisture away from their feet, under a thick, wool blend sock for insulation. I have heard of winter thru hikers and mountaineers whose boots were literally frozen at the end of the day, but whose feet remained toasty due to this setup.


For three season use, a general pair of lightweight poly blend gloves will suffice. It is only in extremely low temperatures that you will need to break out your winter gloves or mittens. I wear a thin pair of poly bled glove liner and love them. They fit snug enough that in cold weather, such as our recent climb up the Baldy Bowl, I can use them as glove liners, with my leather belay gloves over them. Many people also like a pair of lightweight, sun blocking gloves even in summer. These can not only protect your hands from the sun, but also help you maintain your grip on your trekking poles when your hands are sweaty.

Pro tip-when it comes to lightweight gloves, I don’t think you need to spend a fortune to get an effective pair, unlike some things on the list. One feature that is important for me is touch screen compatibility. We use hike tracking apps, and take most of our pictures on iPhones, so it would be a huge pain to have to constantly pull them on and off to take pictures, or check our progress on an app.


Most outdoor enthusiasts will want two hats: One for warmth, and one for sun protection. Your warm hat will be some type of beanie or skull cap. These can be made from wool, or synthetic alternatives. They can be worn under a helmet while climbing, while on the trail, and especially when settling into your sleeping bag for a long, cold, winter night.

Sun hats on the other hand will be cool, light, and obviously have some sort of bill or brim to shield your face from the sun. These range from the classic fishing style of hat like the OR Somriolet to the “Sahara” style hat like the OR Sunrunner. You can also achieve the same results as a Sahara style hat by using a ball cap and a UV resistant bandanna or buff to cover your neck. You can even even stick one under your fishing/safari style hat for extra coverage.    

Pro tip, if using a bandanna or buff for extra coverage, you can soak these in cold water for a nice cooling effect on sweltering hot days!

Bandannas and Buffs

Historically, a bandanna was seen as a must have accessory for almost any pursuit involving extended time in the backcountry. They are a versatile piece of gear that could be used as a bit of extra insulation, a rag, or serve any other number of functions. In recent years however, a company called “buffs” has taken the bandanna and improved upon it exponentially. Essentially an extremely stretchy, tubular bandanna, a buff can perform almost endless functions. We use ours as neck gaiters, balaclavas, sweatbands, handkerchiefs, etc.

Pro tip- At night, I stuff my jacket in my buff to create a cozy camp pillow!

Now you can hit the trail and maintain a bit of your modesty! Even if you plan to hike in the buff, it would be an awkward trip from the Lihui airport to the Kalalau Trailhead!

As of now, you are so close to hitting the trail you can taste it, and in fact, the major decisions are mostly done. From here on out, we will be dealing primarily with accessory items. So whatever your outdoor aspirations are, get out there and do them!

Keep reading to learn about the 10 essentials for venturing into the backcountry, or start at the beginning if you have other questions about choosing gear for your outdoor adventures!

Part 6: The Ten Essentials

Congratulations, if you have been reading since the beginning, you are nearly done with your journey from zero to outdoors. We are so close to the end that you can feel the snow crunching beneath your boots and taste the rarified air of the great outdoors! We are so close in fact that we are done with what many may think of as the obvious “big things” you need. That doesn’t mean that what’s left is insignificant, however. In fact, some might even call what remains “essential.”

The ten essentials were initially formulated by “the mountaineers,” based out of Seattle Washington. This is the same group who originally authored Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. The fact that their list of the ten essential items one should carry when heading outdoors (particularly into the backcountry) has become the industry standard, should be all the more reason to give that book a read. So without further adieu, what are the ten essentials?

2. Sun Protection


As for sunscreen, look for an SPF of over 30. Also, there is nothing like zinc oxide to block those UV rays. New zinc oxide sunscreen rubs on clear, so you won’t look like that 1970s lifeguard with the white nose.


For sunglasses, you want to block both UVA and UVB rays. You don’t need to spend a fortune on them. You can get a UV blocking, polarized pair of Peppers for less than $30. The exception here is if you plan to hit the high mountains, where hours of sun bouncing off of glaciated or snow covered ground will require a darker pair of sunglasses that block the sun from all angles. For this, you’ll want a pair of sunglasses in the style of the Julbo Mountain or Julbo Glacier. Even these can usually be had for around 100 dollars, far less than what you might spend on a pair of designer street shades of far lesser quality.

Sun Blocking Clothing

Of course, depending on temperature, lightweight, UV blocking clothing can be a good alternative to sunscreen. Even when it’s hot, a lightweight, UV blocking long sleeve rash guard might be preferable to constantly reapplying sunscreen as you sweat it off.

3. Insulation

Insulation generally just means bringing along an extra layer or two of whatever you are using as an insulating layer. In extreme cases (typically mountaineering, or winter hiking), it might mean taking along a basic sleep system. This could be a sleeping bag, pad, bivi sack, or any combination of the three. Be sure to check the forecast before heading out, and pack for the worst case scenario. You might not want to carry that extra sweatshirt and jacket, but you are better off carrying them 1,000 times and never needing them, than not carrying them once and shivering through the night, while you wait for a rescue with a broken leg.

Emergency bivis like the sol escape are lighter and more packable than a general use bivi sack. Not meant to double as a tent, these are a great lifeline to throw in the bottom of your pack and hope you never need.

4. Illumination

Illumination refers to headlamps, flashlight, and lanterns. Headlamps are typically seen as the best of these three. They are hands free, so they can be used for basically any activity, and they are usually smaller than either flashlights or lanterns, so they take up less space in a pack. We use our Black Diamond Storm headlamps for everything from alpine starts on snowy mountains, to cooking dinner while car camping. Flashlights and lanterns can certainly be useful too, particularly when car camping. For use as the main light in an emergency, or for keeping in your pack for worst case scenarios, I definitely recommend a headlamp. Whatever light source you bring, make sure to have extra batteries.

Pro tip, everyone in a party should have their own light source. What would be worse than getting separated from your party and spending the night alone, lost in the woods? Knowing someone else in your party had a light, while you wait for morning in the dark.

5. First Aid

There are a number of companies that make preassembled first aid kits of varying sizes, based on trip length. Adventure medical kits makes a variety starting with the “day tripper,” ideal for one or two people on a day hike, all the way up to the “mountaineer,” for month long trips of up to 14 people! When choosing the appropriate size, I recommend not looking at how long your total trip will be, but how long will you actually be away from town. Hiking the A.T. for instance, you might be on the trail for 6 months, but you will not likely be out of reach of a town for more than 10 days. Once you hit the next town, you can always just replace the item or items that you used. I am also fond of the saying: “The best medical kit is the one you carry.” That two week first aid kit may be great, but if you leave it out of your bag due to weight or space, a day kit in your pack would serve you better. You can also assemble your own medical kit, but you are far more likely to leave out something important, based on not knowing what you don’t know. I recommend buying an appropriate kit for your trip, and then adding anything you feel may be missing, or that you may need due to your particular circumstances.

6. Fire Starter

The standard here is waterproof matches, stored in a waterproof box. This way you get double the protection to make sure that they work in a pinch. Mechanical lighters also come in a waterproof variety. Personally, we have never used a waterproof lighter, and recommend always carrying matches as a backup, just in case your lighter fails.

While the 10 essentials are generally considered a list for those heading into the backcountry, they are not bad things to have for any outdoor adventure. We were recently car camping at Joshua Tree National Park on a recent climbing trip, when the igniter on our MightyMo Stove went out. The stove still functioned perfectly, except for the igniter. And silly us, we had no fire starter! Fortunately, we were able to borrow a lighter and light our stove, but it just goes to show that these things may come in handy even when you don’t expect to need them.

7. Repair Kit and Tools

The mainstay of many hikers’ and backpackers’ repair kit is some form of multitool and/or knife. Some carry one tool that includes a knife, while others prefer to have a separate knife, as this is likely to be your most used item in the multitool. However you break it up, you want a minimum of one flat and one phillips head screwdriver, and one knife blade. Personally, I think that a tool with a pair of needle nose pliers is well worth the extra weight, due to the versatility it affords you. A pair of scissors is also a must have, but some will opt to let their first aid kit’s scissors do double duty. This is probably not the place I would choose to save a few grams, but to each their own. If you go this route, be sure to sterilize them after use!

Other items will be useful in a multi tool depending on your personal desire, and specialty equipment. Some want a multitool with a can opener, while others will make do with their knife and pliers.

Also, be sure to think of the tools needed to repair your own specific equipment. For instance, if you use an inflatable sleeping pad, be sure to bring a patch kit. If you are using strap on crampons, make sure to have a replacement strap in case you cut one, etc.

Finally, duct tape is the crème de la crème of repair tools for many outdoorsmen and women. Hikers and backpackers often wrap strips of duct tape around trekking poles and water bottles for a convenient way of storing it.

8. Nutrition

Like with insulation, this essentially refers to the “extra” food you should bring. We recommend enough extra food for one more day and night than you plan to spend in the wilderness. While many will opt for an extra freeze dried, just add water bag of deliciousness or two, remember that if you are using this food, things have probably already gone awry. So we recommend bringing along something that doesn’t need to be cooked, just in case. Things such as trail mix, energy bars, and our personal favorite: peanut butter!

9. Hydration

Regardless of whether you are going into the backcountry or not, you should always have plenty of extra H2O. Most hiking or backpacking backpacks will be compatible with a water bladder. This is hugely helpful, as you are far more likely to stay hydrated if you can simply turn your head, bite the hose and have a drink, than if you have to dig a bottle out of your pack before you have a drink. It is always a good idea to bring along an extra bottle as well. If planning to hike further than you can carry water, then having some form of water treatment option is key. These range from tablets and liquid purifying solutions, to actual filtration systems. We recommend tablets or liquid purifying options, because they are lighter and have no danger of breaking.

Be sure to check where reliable sources of water are if you plan to take on water from natural sources along the way. Try to be sure they are currently holding water. Summer droughts, or snowless winters can lead to usually reliable streams and creeks being dry.

When traveling in snow, you can always melt it for water, but be sure to account for how much extra fuel this will take, or you could wind up with no hot food and no water. If you want an example of how worth it one extra fuel canister can be, just read Touching the Void, or watch its film adaptation. While a lot of things went terribly wrong for these two climbers, it is really impossible to overstate how much better their situation would have been had they just had enough fuel to continue melting snow for water.

10. Emergency Shelter

This is obviously aimed at mountaineers traveling fast and light, or day trippers. Neither of whom are planning to spend a night, stationary in the backcountry. I weighed in on this a bit when covering insulation, but a lightweight emergency bivi could very well be the difference between life and death in some situations. Or at least the difference between keeping all of your fingers and toes vs. not.

Lightweight emergency bivis, tarps, and emergency space blankets are all made to be lightweight, pack up tiny, so that you can forget they are even in your pack. But you will be glad to remember you have it should a worse case scenario happen.

And there you have it! The ten essentials: your lifeline for venturing safely and happily into the backcountry. It is really time for you to get out and adventure! Embrace the great outdoors!

We are not quite done yet though, we still have one section to go, covering additional items that didn’t really fit into any category, and a few specialty items, for those of you planning to do specific activities, such as climbing or mountaineering. Read on for advice choosing cooking systems, trekking poles, etc., or start at the beginning for help choosing anything on your outdoor gear list.

Until then, make sure you are prepared, and hit the trails!

Part 7: Miscellaneous Hiking and Camping

Here we are! If you have been reading since the beginning, you have finally reached the final section. Continue on for advice  on choosing all of the items that didn’t fit into any of the categories above, as well as specialty items for activities like mountaineering.

Miscellaneous Hiking and Camping Table of Contents

Trekking Poles

I am personally a HUGE fan of trekking poles. And I don’t even rely on them to help generate power as I hike or climb nearly as much as most people would deem to be optimally efficient. Whether you use them to generate power, or just to keep your balance in precarious situations, I believe they are an invaluable tool for anyone hiking on steep or uneven terrain. In fact, I love them so much I wrote an entire post about them, so if you would like a more in depth guide to choosing, and using, trekking poles, you can check it out here.I am personally a HUGE fan of trekking poles. And I don’t even rely on them to help generate power as I hike or climb nearly as much as most people would deem to be optimally efficient. Whether you use them to generate power, or just to keep your balance in precarious situations, I believe they are an invaluable tool for anyone hiking on steep or uneven terrain. In fact, I love them so much I wrote an entire post about them, so if you would like a more in depth guide to choosing, and using, trekking poles, you can check it out here.

Cooking Systems

A cooking system will include a stove, fuel, and some sort of pot and/or pan. In some cases, it will also include an assortment of eating utensils and bowls/plates. Here, we will take each of these things in turn.

Cooking stoves come in two main varieties: canister or liquid fuel. There are a few other options, but they account for a tiny fraction of stoves. How your stove functions is largely dependent upon what type of fuel it burns, so this is the main question when choosing a stove.

Canister Fuel Stoves

Canister stoves burn a mixture of propane and isobutane. They tend to be very small, light, easy to use, and are a favorite of ultra light backpackers. They typically screw directly onto a fuel canister, and sit on top of it. While this is a lightweight, extremely packable option, it generally makes for a much smaller and less stable stove. This might be a problem if you are planning to use larger pots, or cook on uneven terrain. A few “remote” canister stoves use a fuel line to attach to their fuel canister, and can therefore provide a larger, more stable surface for cooking. Other canister stoves are referred to as an “integrated” system. These are made to fit a particular pot, which is typically insulated for use as a one utensil cooking and eating system. The pot will serve as a cooking pot, thermos, bowl, and are often even able to act as a French press for making coffee! (Kiss that bottle of instant Folgers goodbye!)

As far as what they bring to the table for actually, you know, cooking, canister stoves are fairly solid, but at times lag a bit behind their liquid fuel burning brethren. Generally speaking, the strength of a canister stove is taking a pot of water and boiling it: really, really fast. Some canister stoves will allow you to simmer, while others will not. They also tend to lose pressure at altitude and in the cold, producing a much weaker flame. Some canister stoves, like the Jetboil Mighty Mo offer a pressure regulator, which allows you to get a hotter flame in extremely cold weather or high altitude, and makes them excellent for simmering.

Canister stoves also create more waste than liquid fuel stoves, because the canisters are not refillable. This doesn’t present too much of a practical problem though, as most places that sell fuel canisters also accept them for recycling. Per ounce, canister fuel also tends to be a bit more expensive than liquid fuel.

Pro tip- in freezing cold weather, carry your canister in your pocket and sleep with it in your sleeping bag. This will keep the canister warmer, minimizing pressure loss due to the cold.

Regular Canister Stove: Jetboil MightyMo Stove

Remote Canister Stove: Jetboil Luna Satellite Burner

Integrated Canister System: Jetboil Flash Personal Cooking System

Liquid Fuel Stoves

Liquid fuel stoves burn white gas. Rather than sitting on their fuel source like canister stoves, they connect to their fuel bottle via a hose, so they are more likely to offer a large, stable cooking surface. They also maintain their flame’s heat at altitude, and in sub freezing weather. And most will simmer just as well as a good canister stove. So if you are a cold weather, high altitude backcountry gourmet, liquid fuel stoves may be the way to go.

On the other hand, they do come with a few downsides not generally associated with canister stoves. While the bottles are reusable, so are the fuel lines. And like any fuel line, they require cleaning from time to time, as well as maintenance. Things like gaskets, O-rings, etc. will have to be changed occasionally. They also weigh more, and take up more space than your average canister stove and its fuel. Aside from being a bit more work in the maintenance department, most liquid fuel stoves also require priming before use. All taken together, they are definitely a bit more work, and less “ultralight” than canister stoves, but their many benefits make it a worthwhile trade for some backpackers.


As mentioned above, “integrated” canister systems use one pot for virtually everything. This is a great ultralight option for anyone not intending to cook for others, and not intending to actually….. cook. This system excels at boiling water for things like noodles, or “add water” freeze dried meals.

If you and your hiking partner don’t want to share the same bowl, mug, etc., there are other, equally lightweight options. Many companies make a system of bowls and eating utensils that fit inside a pot. We use the GSI outdoors halulite microdualist cookset, and love it! The kit includes a 1.4 litre pot (with lid), 2 14 oz. insulated mugs (with lids), 2 14 oz. bowls, 2 telescoping “sporks,” and a bag to carry a stove. It all stacks together to fit inside the pot, along with a small fuel canister and your stove!

While definitely a step up from the “integrated” system, cooksets like the GSI Microdualist are still pretty minimal, and aimed largely at people looking to boil water quickly. For the backcountry gourmet, an additional backpacking skillet, like the MSR Quick Skillet will open up a whole world of possibilities. (We don’t currently use a backpacking skillet, but the thought of backcountry pancakes means we might before too long!)

Part 8: Mountaineering and Winter Hiking

Winter hiking and mountaineering really deserve their own post. I touch on them, and bare bones necessities a bit in our Baldy Bowl Post. Here, I’ll go into a bit of detail about what each of those pieces of gear does. The important thing to remember is that this gear is worthless at best, and dangerous at worst, if you don’t know how to use it. For that reason I recommend getting in person instruction from someone with experience, or at the very least, reading Mountaineering: the Freedom of the Hills.

Ice Axes

Perhaps no item is more synonymous with any activity than is the ice axe with mountaineering. There is a pretty long and interesting history behind ice axes but, alas, that story will have to wait ‘til another day. Ice axes come in a many shapes and sizes, and each has its intended purpose, strengths, and weaknesses.

First, there are Ice axes and Ice tools. We are talking about ice axes here. Ice tools are used for climbing technical ice, an activity well outside the scope of this post. Ice axes are used to probe for crevasses when travelling on glaciated terrain, aid in climbing low to moderate angle snow/ice, and  to self arrest in the event of a fall.

Shaft Length

The general rule of thumb is to correctly hold your ice axe by the pick/adze while standing strait. The tip of the spike should reach to, or just below, your ankle bone. Most will use an axe between 50 and 70 millimeters long.

Shaft Shape

Historically, all ice axes used straight shafts. Curved shafts were strictly in the domain of the technical ice tool. More recently, however, many ice axes such as the Petzl Summit have been made with a curved shaft. This can make the axe a bit more secure for self belay, provide more leverage for self arrest, and is generally better when swinging the ice axe on steeper terrain. The main drawback of a curved shaft is that it is more difficult to drive deep into the snow for use as an anchor.

Pick Clearance

Pick clearance is measured as either positive or negative. It is measured by the angle of the pick relative to the shaft.


The majority of ice axes today use positive clearance picks. Positive clearance picks are sharper by nature, and better for self arrest. Unfortunately, they dull quickly, and will need to be frequently sharpened if used often.


Negative clearance picks don’t dull as quickly as positives, and thus are great for trips where you will be swinging them into scree, grass, dirt, etc., over and over. However, the negative angle of the pick means that when self arresting, the pick is more likely to skate across harder snow or ice, and fail to stop a slide. I don’t think I need to elaborate on why this is really bad.

Ice axes also come with an adze on the back side of the pick, for chopping steps, digging holes, etc., and a spike on the end of the shaft, for self belay, and general travel.

Michole and I use the Petzl Glacier and Petzl Summit respectively.


Crampons help you maintain traction on ice and frozen snow. Crampons for winter hiking and Mountaineering typically use 10 or 12 points. Personally, I prefer the 12 point variety, even if you don’t always need them. Crampons are generally classified by binding type. The three types of bindings are: strap on, step in, and hybrid. Often, Manufacturers will make a set of crampons available in multiple binding types.

Strap On

Strap on crampons use a strap to attach to your boot. The main advantage is that they are compatible with virtually any boot. These are the best (and only) choice for people who are not serious enough about mountaineering to own dedicated mountaineering boots, but still need a pair of crampons to use with their hiking or backpacking boots. The downside is that they may not be quite as secure as step in or hybrids, allowing your boot to move a bit within the crampon. Handling the straps can also be a bit of a pain with cold hands in thick gloves.

Step In

At the other end of the binding spectrum are step in crampons. These clamp into the heel and toe welts which are found on many mountaineering boots. They are easy to put on with cold, gloved hands, and if they fit your boots perfectly, they are extremely secure. If they don’t fit well, however, there is a chance they could pop off of your boot. For this reason, it is important to test out your mountaineering boot with a particular step in crampon before venturing into dangerous terrain.


Bridging the gap are hybrid crampons. These clamp onto a heel welt like a step in, but still feature a strap for the toe. These are growing in popularity, because they offer most of the security and ease of use as a step in, without being so limiting with boot compatibility. Furthermore, more and more mountaineering boots are being made specifically for hybrids, offering a heel welt but no toe welt.


Microspikes are like crampons little brother. Rather than massive teeth gouging into the ice, they are more like the chains on your car tires. They mostly just add a bit of traction to the shoes you are wearing. Their main advantage is that they are smaller and lighter than crampons. As a general rule, if you are walking on relatively flat ice or frozen snow, these are fine, but they offer virtually nothing the moment the climbing starts. So if you are looking to bag peaks, mountaineer, or hike virtually any sort of incline, go with crampons. In fact, if at all in doubt, go with crampons. It might be a drag carrying a few extra ounces all day, but not nearly as much of a drag as dying over those few extra ounces.


Any time you need an ice axe and crampons, you should also be wearing a helmet. It could protect your head in a slip and fall, which is important, because it’s hard to self arrest when you are unconscious. Also, as ice and snow melts, rocks that they held in place will be released and hurtle down slopes. If you have ever had these tomahawking past your head, you will know that the helmet adds some small bit of security.

Broadly speaking, helmets can be divided into three categories based on the material of their shell. The three main types are: plastic, polycarbonate foam, and foam.


Once upon a time, helmets were made of ABS plastic, with some sort of suspension holding it away from your head, and minimal padding. These “brain buckets” are reminiscent of Vietnam era army helmets. They are rock solid, but offer very little in the way of comfort. Hot, and heavy, the main advantage to these helmets is that they are far cheaper, and less likely to need retiring due to damage from a minor impact, making them a killer bang for your buck investment.

Polycarbonate Foam

Most new helmets are made of foam, and covered with a thin layer of polycarbonate plastic, for damage resistance. Component wise, these are less like an old army helmet, and more like a modern cycling helmet. They offer far superior ventilation and a much lighter weight than their hard shelled counterparts. Like most everything in this guide, lightweight means a heavy price tag. They are also far less bombproof, so you are likely to go through more of them if they see frequent use, than you would if using a hard-shell helmet. Personally, we feel the tradeoff is more than worth it.


A few helmets, like the black diamond vapor and petzl sirocco marketed at climbers looking to go ultra lightweight leave out the protective polycarbonate shell. Instead, they rely solely on the foam. This saves a few ounces, but leaves an extremely fragile helmet that one minor lick will likely retire. They also require careful storage to avoid damage.   When choosing a helmet, decide which shell type suits your needs and budget, then look for easy adjustability and good ventilation. I also think it’s important that a helmet cover as much of your head as possible. We opted for the Black Diamond Vector over the Petzl Meteor, because it seemed a bit lower cut around the ears. This is particularly important if you are using the helmet for climbing, because you will likely turn your head before it hits the wall, so good side coverage is essential.

If you are reading this, chances are you have stuck around for the entire post! We are very grateful that you did, and we hope that it was helpful for choosing everything you need for your own outdoor adventures, whatever you might be! If you found this helpful, please share it with others!

Leave us a comment below and tell us what adventure it is you are planning! Or ask any additional questions that may still be unanswered.

We can’t wait to hear from you, and until then, Happy Adventuring!

Cucamonga Peak Winter Hike Via Icehouse Canyon Trail

Cucamonga Peak Winter Hike Via Icehouse Canyon Trail



11.43 miles




4,198 feet







6-8 hours

It feels like we have had our heads down working furiously on the blog over the last few weeks. While it has taken up a great deal of time, we are so excited to have several new, exciting things coming very soon! On Thursday though, we were able to get away from the work that pays the bills, and working on the blog, to head out for a day in our beloved San Gabriel Mountains, hiking Cucamonga Peak Via Icehouse Canyon Trail. If you would like to see a turn by turn guide, and details for hiking Cucamonga Peak yourself, we have just such a guide. This post is about our most recent trip, and just how different it was from our first one.

We knew that as a North facing climb, Cucamonga holds snow much later in the year than most of the surrounding peaks in the San Gabriels. Having just gotten in an epic climb on the Baldy Bowl, on what was probably the last day of perfect conditions for it this year, we were looking for one more snow-covered climb. As Baldy had been snow free all the way up to the Sierra Club Ski Hut, with even the bowl showing as much scree as snow a week before, we didn’t expect too much, but set off for a great day nonetheless.

Mercifully, we didn’t need an Alpine start this time, because we were not expecting any serious snow conditions. We arrived at Icehouse Canyon, and got on the trail around 7:45, about an hour after sunrise. The weather was great, and it felt significantly warmer than the 32 degrees that had been forecasted. We both stripped down to T shirts within a mile or so.

The stream that graces most of Icehouse Canyon Trail was in rare form. The melting snow from the unusually wet winter made for a far stronger flow than we had ever seen there. In a spot or two the water even covered the trail! It made for a beautiful sight and sound as we climbed. More amazing still, were the several waterfalls, appearing out of the ice that covered the slope on the opposite side of the stream. I always say that Icehouse Canyon Trail is one of the highlights of the San Gabriels, despite its comparatively low elevation. And never was it more spectacular than on this trip.

For most of the first 3.5 miles to Icehouse Saddle, the only snow we saw was on the surrounding peaks, and opposite slope. As we approached the saddle however, we encountered a few patches on the trail. The wind was howling over the saddle as usual, so we opted to keep going rather than stopping to enjoy the scenery. As we began this section of the trail, I was surprised to think that this was our first time going back to Cucamonga Peak since our very first visit to Icehouse Canyon, last September. Since then, the views and solitude of Ontario and Bighorn Peaks, and the Three T’s Trail have held our attention. On this day though, there was no shortage of either to be had hiking to Cucamonga Peak.

Shortly after passing the saddle, we began to encounter frequent, large patches of snow, spilling down the slope from far above to far below, completely covering the trail. We tread very carefully, still using trekking poles for the first few, but we soon broke out ice axes. The patches were still too few and far between to justify crampons, but their steep angle made us happy to have the ice axes, just in case self arrest was needed.

Snow Covering Cucamonga Peak Trail.

After crossing a number of these, and one beautiful snow covered switchback with amazing views, we arrived at the final saddle. There, we were amazed to see a massive sheet of frozen snow still completely covering the northern slope of Cucamonga Peak. We continued on, following the long switchbacks on the scree covered West face, until it wound back around, crossing the ridge, and disappeared under the snow on the northern slope. We stayed on just to the right of the snow and scrambled over boulders and through scree for maybe 150 or 200 yards, before it became too steep. Here, we finally strapped on crampons and helmets, and followed the ridge for the final .8 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation, straight to the summit. I had actually suggested leaving the helmets behind, but Michole had insisted on bringing them. I owe a huge shout out to her, because I was extremely happy to have them for the final climb.

The final climb was Amazing! And we were definitely thankful for this brief stretch of mountaineering here in Southern California, as it was, quite possibly, our last of the season. In the distance we could see the Baldy Bowl, almost completely devoid of snow. For the most part, the final climb up the ridge to Cucamonga Peak was nowhere near as steep as climbing the Baldy Bowl. Still, the sustained climbing, and frequent exposure to a massive, steep runoff on our left made it an exciting climb, and the views back down into the canyons below more than made up for any of the routes deficiencies in elevation or technicality.

Baldy Bowl is the Farthest Peak in the Distance.

Along the way we ran into a German couple, here hiking some of SoCal’s famous peaks on their vacation. They had read about Cucamonga, as one of the more popular peaks in the area, but they had no idea what they were in for hiking it in the shoulder season. We snapped a few photos of each other at the summit before I rushed us all back down. It had been overcast all morning, but the sun had finally come out and I wanted to get off of the snow before it baked for too long. We helped them along the way, and walked all the way back to the trailhead with them. The conversation was nice, as they were about the only people we saw all day. At the bottom, we chatted for a few more minutes, and they even gave us their brand new, year long adventure pass, as they were due to fly back to Germany two days later. (An Adventure Pass is the parking pass for several federal parks here in SoCal.)

Picture on the Summit.

As usual, it was a wonderful day in the mountains. We got a bit more local mountaineering practice in, met some wonderful new people, and had Mexican for lunch back in Huntington!

Are you headed to the San Gabriels? Or do you have stories about past trips there? If so, be sure to tell us about them in the comments below, or just say hello. We would love to hear from you!

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If you would like to read more about our other favorite trails, guides for them, or our experiences on them, check out our guides section.

Icehouse Canyon Trailhead Parking:


Ice House Canyon Trailhead, Mt Baldy, CA 91759

Icehouse Canyon Trailhead Parking Lot

Gear We Used on This Trail

 Men’s Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX

Like the Altras, these boots have an exceptionally wide toe box. As someone with wide feet, this is an absolute must for me. The give me plenty of room in the tow, but the awesome lace locker keeps my foot secure so I don’t bang my toe when kicking steps in crampons. The “4D chassis” keeps my foot from twisting even over the most rocky terrain, and the gore tex lining has kept my feet dry after a full day in the snow without gaiters.

 Salomon Women’s Quest 4D 2 GTX

These are the exact same boot as the men’s, but in a different range of colors.

 Men’s Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec

Another pair of lightweight, adjustable, folding poles. I use these and feel that they are the perfect pole for me. I am confident that if/when these poles are retired, I will replace them with another  pair of the same. If you would like to read my full review of these poles, you can find it here.

 Black Diamond Distance FLZ Women’s Poles

A great, lightweight, adjustable, folding set of poles. Michole uses these poles and loves them. In fact, she wrote a full length review on them. If you would like more info on these poles, you can read it here.

 Osprey Stratos 36

This is a great daypack, and will likely serve you on overnight trips, depending on how lightweight and compact your gear is. It features Osprey’s “Anti Gravity” suspension system. This lets more air flow to your back and, more importantly, shifts the weight of the pack from your shoulders and back to your hips. I love the “Anti Gravity” suspension so much, it’s hard for me to imagine ever buying a pack without it. I wrote a full review for this pack, you can find it here.

 Osprey Manta AG 28

A great women’s daypack, the Manta is a dedicated hydration pack that comes with a 2.5 litre reservoir. This has been an extremely solid day pack. Like the Stratos, it features Osprey’s patented “Anti Gravity” suspension. The external mesh storage compartment, as well as several divided compartments with easy access make this a great pack for storing snacks, gloves, hats, or anything else you might want on the go.

 Black Diamond Vector

Whether you are climbing at the crag or mountaineering, the Black Diamond Vector is a great choice. It is well ventilated, lightweight, very easy to adjust, and features very functional headlamp clips. We chose this helmet over some of its competitors mostly due to the fact that it offers a bit more coverage on the sides. This is extremely important for climbing, because you will likely turn your face away if you hit the wall, exposing the side of your head.

 CAMP USA Stalker Universal

The Stalker by CAMP USA is a great crampon for general mountaineering. The universal, strap on bindings means that they can be used with almost any mountaineering, backpacking, or hiking boots. This makes them an excellent choice for anyone who wants/needs a solid set of legitimate crampons, but does not want to spring for a pair of mountaineering boots. They have served us well on several hikes in ice and snow, including our climb up the iconic Baldy Bowl.

 Petzl Summit

The Petzl Summit is a lightweight ice axe with a curved shaft and a hot forged, positive clearance pick. The design offers maximum clearance for swinging on moderate to steep angle ice, and great leverage whether self belaying or self arresting. I use this ice axe and absolutely love it.

 Petzl Glacier

The Petzl Glacier is a lightweight ice axe with a straight shaft and a hot forged, positive clearance pick. Michole uses this ice axe and has been extremely satisfied with its performance. The same hot forged pick as the more expensive Petzl Summit and its light weight both set this ice axe apart from others near its price point.

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