You are what you carry in your pack

Chris B. asked me last week to write a gear list regarding what I took, should have taken, and shouldn’t have taken on my recent trip to Mount Mitchell for winter camping. So, without further adieu, here it is:

Head to toe

Here’s what I wore on my trip:

Balaclava – I fought against one of these. I did not want to look like a ninja. But they really are warm. And I have a nose ring, and I think I mentioned before I recently learned that body piercing jewelry can lead to frostbite faster than areas without jewelry. Pros: This kept my face really warm. And I like that you can choose how much/little you want to have covered. I can have my head, my neck, my mouth, or my nose covered, or all of the above. Cons: I can’t wear contacts on the mountain for 3 days, so I wear my glasses. And the balaclava fogs up my glasses. And the fog on the glasses then freezes and becomes solid, leading to absolutely no visibility on the glasses. Which means I was spending the weekend choosing between sight and a warm nose. Bottom line: A necessity. Glasses defogger also a necessity.

 Beanie (for the record, this link does not show my actual beanie. My actual beanie was purchased a couple of years ago and is no longer for sale on REI’s site) – I brought it along for extra warmth in addition to the balaclava. And I spent the entire weekend asking people if my hat was on my head – because I couldn’t tell a difference. Pros: It looked cuter than a balaclava. Cons: I expected to lose it the entire time. Bottom line: Wouldn’t bring again. The balaclava was fine on its own.

 Scarf (again, my actual scarf no longer for sale. Just a fleece scarf from Old Navy.) – I used this way more than I thought I would – it helped with my glasses fogging issue with the balaclava. The scarf was a nice middle ground between completely covered nose and mouth (fog) and completely uncovered nose and mouth (freezing.) I also slept with it over my eyes and nose at night – perfect for that. Pros: Mentioned above. Cons: With all my layers on sometimes I couldn’t find it, making me wonder if I would lose it, but I didn’t. Bottom line: Would definitely bring again.

 Thermals – Base layer for pants and top. Got these at Target. If you get them there, make sure to get the “active” wear ones – the “everyday” and other types were made up of too much cotton for cold-weather camping. Mine are made of polyester and spandex. Cotton doesn’t dry well and loses insulating capabilities when wet – very bad for cold weather. Yes, mine are smurf blue. That’s all they had in my size. Pros: This was a lot warmer than the moisture-wicking running shirts I own. I was pleasantly surprised when I tried them on. Cons: The medium size seemed a little too big, the small a little too small. I went with medium. Bottom line: A necessity.

Fleece – I chose to bring my zip-up fleece, knowing I would need to be able to zip/unzip easily as I regulated my body temperature during the hike. Pros: Comfortable, warm. Cons: None. Bottom line: A necessity.

Coat (again, my coat was purchased too long ago to still be available. But resembles this one.) – A warm addition to the fleece. Pros: Warm. Cons: None. Bottom line: A necessity.  

Jacket – This was a brand-new purchase and my first time wearing it. I absolutely love that it has this: “Recco reflector embedded in the right sleeve can help searchers find you in snow.” Perfect! It’s great to wear as an outer layer to protect against snow or rain. Pros: Comfortable, great pockets, lightweight. Cons: None. Bottom line: Worth the high price tag.

Hiking pants (again, don’t see my actual hiking pants for sale) – These are lightweight and comfortable, and they have a button on the leg that allows them to become cropped pants (not that I used this feature this time!) Pros: They are more comfortable than other pants I’ve owned. Cons: Not fire retardant, and I have 2 new holes from embers to prove it.  Bottom line: A couple of patches later, and they’ll be great pants again.

Hiking socks – Had 3 pairs of socks, one the SmartWool brand in the link, the other two pairs purchased years ago from Jesse Browns. Pros: They worked just fine. Cons: No matter what, my feet were absolutely freezing the whole time. Bottom line: I need to figure out how to have warmer feet. One of the other guys had battery-operated socks. This may be on my to-get list if I go in temperatures this cold again. 

Toe Warmers and hand warmers – I used to think they were a luxury. In this weather, they were a necessity. Pros: Warm feet. Cons: Some of them didn’t work. I think it was the ones that were purchased a year or two ago. Wondering if they have an expiration date. Bottom line: Next time, I will have enough for 2-3 pairs per day.

Hiking boots (my boots, bought years ago)  – All I know about boots is this: Get them professionally fitted at your outdoor store of choice. Make sure they’re waterproof. Pros: They got me up and down the mountain. Cons: They were always freezing cold when I put my feet in them! I meant to try a tip I heard about putting the soles inside my sleeping bag at night to keep them warm but I kept forgetting with everything else I slept with inside that bag (clothes, water bottles, bladder). Also, on the decent my toes kept slamming into the front of them. Bottom line: I think I need a new pair.

Yaktrax – attaches to your hiking boots to make them easy to walk in snow/ice. Pros: I could not – repeat, could not – have done this hike without them. I purchased them last year and didn’t wear them until this year. They’re $20. Get them. Cons: One of mine broke the night before we left, leaving me to get down the mountain with only one. Bottom line: Loving REI’s return policy. Will return them for a pair that’s not broken.

Trekking poles – I couldn’t get up the mountain without the Yaktrax. I couldn’t get down without the trekking poles. Pros: Provide leverage when footing is uncertain. Cons: They didn’t want to lock into place in cold weather, and I had to get Jeff to warm them in his sleeping bag and lock them in for me. Bottom line: Wouldn’t hike a mountain without them.

Gloves and mittons – Yes, both. Needed everything I could get to keep my hands warm! Gloves served as a liner for underneath the mittons, and they also gave me some mobility when worn alone. It’s impossible to do anything with mittons on! But they can help keep hands extra warm.

What’s that extra 30 pounds made of anyway?

Here’s what I carried in my pack:

The pack – I love this pack. I love this pack. I love this pack. Of course, the only thing I have to compare it to is the wrong-size pack I carried the first year, due to a mixup at the REI rental counter. So don’t take my word for it. But this does everything I need. It’s small, but I really don’t want more room to carry stuff – I need to focus on packing as lightly as possible so this keeps me on track. Pros: Lightweight, comfortable, lots of good storage. Bladder storage (they all have that these days, but some of the older packs don’t.) Cons: None. Bottom line: If I didn’t already own this pack, I’d buy it.

Bladder – Say what? I know, strange name. But it’s a water reservoir that you keep in your pack that allows you to drink out of a really long straw and not have to fuss with bottles. It’s really awesome. When there aren’t issues with it. And the one I own (one that came with a day pack that I use for cycling and running), was leaking when I packed my pack at the house. So I borrowed one of Jeff’s that had an insulated tube (try to keep the water from freezing.) And on the hike to the summit I realized that one was leaking too. The guys said it was missing an O ring. Pros: It’s really convenient. Cons: I had leakage problems. Also, it was a constant battle to keep the water from freezing. I slept with it in my sleeping bag. Bottom line: I love and hate this concept all at the same time. And I’m in the market now for a bladder that has a valve that you can turn off (I think that will help with the leaking). 

Bottles – I brought two bottles with me. I used this one to keep stuff in – matches in a waterproof container, extra matches, 550 cord, my headlamp, a glow stick, tampons (sorry guys. And for girls – thank God I didn’t need to use them. Brought them just in case.), and a hotdog/marshmallow roasterPros: It provides a non-squishable, waterproof container for my stuff, and it doubles as a water bottle if necessary. Cons: It’s bulky, so the stuff could probably be more easily packed without the bottle. Bottom line: Worth it for the extra bottle. My other bottle was this one. May she rest in peace. After years with her, she somehow ended up too close to the fire while empty, which led to the slow death of the Nalgene bottle. I brought this one for extra water storage. Pros: Not breakable, wide-mouth (always get wide mouth), held my coffee filter really well. Cons: Meltable. Bottom line: Will be replaced. 

Coffee filter – This fits inside of any wide mouth bottle, add hot water, and viola! Coffee on the mountain. Pros: I used it like crazy last year and it works well. Starbucks Via totally took over this year though. Cons: It can be a messy cleanup, especially when the stream is frozen over and the last thing you want to be doing is shaking out coffee grounds from a filter. Bottom line: I love it, but I love Starbucks Via more. Will continue to bring it, though – it is also good for filtering out dirt from the creek before sanitizing and drinking water.

Starbucks Via – Speaking of. This stuff is amazing. I prefer it to some of the coffee I’ve had on the ground. In restaurants. I don’t even care if it costs an arm and a leg. Pros: Not messy. Conveniently packaged. Tastes good. Cons: Expensive. Bottom line: Who cares? Coffee is worth it. Not having to scrape messy ground out into a freezing cold stream is worth it.

Sleeping bag – At 3 pounds 7 oz, my sleeping bag is the heaviest thing I carry in my bag. It’s a 0 degree bag, recommended to me by REI, and it’s comfortable. It comes with its own stuff sack and storage bag. Pros: Comfortable and cushy. Cons: I actually don’t like the hand and foot warmer fabric it has – it’s scratchy. Bottom line: A great bag for a great price.

Bivy sack – It’s like a tent that’s the size/shape of a sleeping bag. A small personal tent without the hassle of poles. I used it the first night, and then the next two nights shared Chris’ tent. At 4 degrees, the body heat really helped. Pros: Easy to set up. Lightweight. Waterproof. Cons: Can be a bit scary sleeping in the open air. Although a tent really isn’t any “safer” so it’s only a mental thing. Also, you can’t share a bivy with someone else. You can share a tent, which means body heat and warmth. Bottom line: I love it, but maybe for *slightly* warmer weather when I don’t need the body heat. Tip: In packing my pack, I put the sleeping bag inside the bivy, then rolled them up together in the stuff sack. Allowed me to pack them together, which saved space and was one step closer to being set up when it was time to make camp.

Sleeping pad – It’s self-inflating. It’s soft. It works. Pros: It really works. I learned this the hard way last year when Chris helped me inflate it and then forgot to shut the valve, which I didn’t know until the next day. My sleeping experience was *much* better this year with the valve closed. A couple of the guys had the short sleeping pads (comes down to just below the knees) and they complained about it being too cold. I like my longer one (made for women, who sleep colder than men.) Cons: It doesn’t like to self-inflate in the cold, meaning you have to blow it up manually. I could not get enough air in. Chris was kind enough to do it for me, and he made it nice and comfy. Bottom line: Some tips say to bring two sleeping pads in super cold weather. I thought this one worked just fine.

Extra clothes – brought extra thermals, underwear, sports bras. I wore the same outer layers every day.

Sea to Summit stuff sacks – Keeps items organized, dry and compact. I used mine to put the extra clothes in. Pros: Once you get them in the bag and get the bag sealed, you can really condense the size (have you seen the vaccum-sealed commercials for bags? Sorta like that.) Cons: They are kind of pricey. But worth it. Bottom line: Next year I will bring an empty one for dirty clothes. This year I had the in-between stage where I had both clean and dirty clothes. I ended up putting my clean clothes in the sleeping bag with me until I needed them. But I would have liked to have had them more organized.

Day pack – This pack is amazing. In my regular pack, turn it inside out and it becomes a stuff sack (see above.) It’s how I stored my food while hiking. Once at camp, turn it right side out and it’s a summit pack. It has a slot for a bladder, lots of cool pockets to keep everything organized, and it’s lightweight and versitile. Pros: This pack is amazing. And inexpensive! Cons: I got the fun yellow/gray color, which I like but I kinda wish there was something a little more girly. Bottom line: Cool gear for low price. What’s bad about that?

Matches in a waterproof container plus extra matches – Didn’t use them but obviously good to have.

550 cord – Again, didn’t use it but good to have. If I’d used my hammock I would have needed it to put a tarp around me.

Tarp and posts for tarp – I did not use these. I’m glad I had them though – would have been good to block wind if I were in the hammock or to use to cover my pack if it had rained (it was too cold to rain, of course, so I kept it packed!)

Hammock and slap straps – This was my favorite item in my pack. And this was the one big thing I didn’t use. As Jeff and the REI employee warned me, it was just too cold to break it out. But I cannot wait to use it during a warmer trip! Pros, cons, and bottom line: To be reported after a more spring-like hike!

Headlamp – This thing didn’t work well at all. I’m not happy about that – this is the first time it’s happened. It may have been the batteries but it didn’t seem to be – it wasn’t dim, it was just flickering off every few seconds. It could have been the cold, I suppose. Pros: A headlamp is a necessity. I found out the hard way when I didn’t have one. Even with firelight – you can’t see to cook, or to eat, or to do anything. Cons: It didn’t work this time (worked the past 2 years). Bottom line: I need to check batteries, potentially get one that works better in cold weather if that’s the case.

LED lantern – An employee at REI told me that if I get clausterphobia inside a tent, it would help to have a light just outside of it – to help me get my bearings. So I got this lantern for that purpose. Unfortunately, I never got it to work. I don’t know if it was the cold or the batteries or somehow some karma was repaying me and not letting any of my lamps work. Pros: I used a glow stick this time, and the REI employee was right. Cons: Uhm, it didn’t turn on. Bottom line: Will either fix or return.

caribeaners – These are great. You never know what you’ll need to hook where. They secure things to the outside of your pack. I believe I brought 3 of them, all varying sizes. You can never have too many.

Glow stick – Kept this in my “survival” kit and used it since my lantern and headlamp didn’t work. Provided a great “night light” for me – good idea, Chris! – and it actually lasted 2 nights! Will definitely bring again.

hotdog/marshmallow roaster – Didn’t use it this time, but it works great, doesn’t take up a lot of space.

Wet ones – Individually wrapped, these pack up nicely and are good for taking a “whore bath” or wiping off hands after dinner. Tend to get a little hard/dry in the cold, but then again, everything else did too (someone else had moist towelettes from a restaurant)

Titanium mug – Nothing like having to wait for someone else to finish their coffee so you can borrow their mug. Better to just get your own. Also, make sure it’s titanium. Chris had stainless steel/enamel mug. His coffee cold. Mine hot.

Soloist cookset – Ditto for not having to wait for someone else to finish their dinner. This cookset was one of my Christmas presents and I loved it. It folds up neatly – holding a fuel canister, a bowl, a spork, a pot and a bag. The pot with the long handle proved nice for scooping up water from the creek.

Fuel canister – That link doesn’t show you what I have – REI can’t ship them, you have to buy them in-store. But it fit in the bottom of my soloist cookset and you can attach a stove to it to heat water. We didn’t actually use mine, shared the open ones that others brought, but it’s a good idea for everyone to bring fuel so that there is enough. Will use it next time!

First aid kit – Just like a fuel canister, it’s a good idea for everyone to have a first aid kit. And Jeff wrote an article recently about some good things to consider for it.  Check it out as you’re preparing your first aid kit.

Knives – The first year I went hiking to Mount Mitchell with Kevin, Jeff loaned me a knife. When I got home and started unpacking my pack, he saw the knife inside one of the pockets of the backpack. I then got a lecture about how I needed to have a knife on me. Because you never know. Since then, I’ve gotten two knives for Christmas (can you guess who from?) and I carry one in my pocket of my hiking pants and one (a multitool, actually) in a pocket on my pack that’s easy to get to (on my waist.) Haven’t needed to use either of them yet but good to know they are close by!

bandana – these have multiple uses, I don’t know what they all are, but I kept one in my pocket just in case I needed it. Got it at a military surplus store.

Just-add-water meals. I used Mountain House mac and cheese and Backpacker’s Pantry tofu pesto and dark chocolate cheesecake for dinners, and Mountain House eggs and bacon and Backpacker’s Pantry granola with bananas and milk for breakfasts. They were all very good, in my opinion. They’re more expensive then, say, a box of mac and cheese, but here’s the thing – the meal comes in a bag that you can pour the boiling water into and then eat from. Meaning you don’t dirty up a bowl. Meaning the only dishes you have to do at the end is whatever eating utensil you prefer. Totally worth it. Make sure you read the instructions in the store – Chris had a meal that was more complicated than just add water, and he was frustrated with it on the mountain in the cold. Pros: Hot food. Easy cleanup. Easy preparation. Cons: Expensive. Takes up a lot of space in the pack. Bottom line: Worth it. And it makes the pack a lot lighter after you eat them!

Lunchables – brought them for lunch. The meat was frozen when we ate them (I shared one with Chris the second night – we missed lunch on the trail in an attempt to get there before dark. I shared the second with Kevin on the trip down from the summit.)

Sharkies and GU chomps – Brought along in case I needed an energy boost on the trail. Never ate any (have in other years) but they felt hard and frozen through the package!

Trail mix, chex mix and chocolate cookies – Also good to have between meals and are easy to get to on the trail.

Mini bottles, White Russian, and Long Island iced tea – hey, they kept us warm! At least, made us think we were …

Water purifier – I shared with others, who had more advanced methods of purifying water, but I had a few tablets in my survival kit.

Camera – of course. Just brought a small point and shoot. Kept it close (in a jacket pocket) so the battery didn’t freeze.

poncho – Just in case. I already had the nice rain jacket but this was cheap and lightweight.

What I wish I had carried/need to get for next time:

– More toe warmers
– Something else to keep my toes warm – anything! (Chad on our trip had battery-powered heated socks. Yes, I like that idea.)
– A stove (I shared with others)
– Snow pants or an outer shell for my hiking pants
– More hand warmers

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Ok, I *think* that’s everything! If you actually made it all the way through this list, feel free to ask questions/tell me what I missed! And feel free to read our hiking adventures on this blog or over at Mitchell Winter.

Oh, and a tip: Hit up REI’s members-only yard sales (after buying a membership, of course) for a good way to get inexpensive gear. I got a lot of stuff there … (including my $1200 bike for $300, but that’s another story).

Addition: Crystal asked how much all this costs to rent. The short answer is I don’t know. But what I can tell you is this: REI will not rent all this stuff, but they will rent the basics (tent, sleeping bag, pad, pack. Maybe other stuff too.) And if you are a member, the prices are very reasonable. When I rented gear from them, it was a tent, a pad and a pack. I want to say I paid less than $50 for all that gear for the whole weekend. The rental prices are per day and they give you a free day on either end – so you don’t pay the day you pick up or the day you drop off. If you’re trying to start a collection, I think the rental counter is a great place to start.