So how did my equipment perform over the course of three-plus weeks on the trail? I've ended up having to say goodbye to some old friends, a few of which gave up the ghost toward the end of the walk. Here's a review of the most important pieces of equipment.
Gregory Whitney 95 Backpack
I've had this pack since my 2008 walk, and the time has come, alas, to part ways. Gregory—recommended by hiking guru Colin Fletcher in his various books on long-distance walking—is a great, great backpack-manufacturing company, and I'm very brand-loyal to it. This particular pack has been with me all over the United States, parts of Europe, and parts of Asia. It's a beloved travel companion, and I hate to see it go.
One of the pack's greatest virtues, aside from its molded internal frame, is the mass of cleverly designed zippers all over its surface that allow you easy access to all the pack's contents. Unlike my older Gregory from the 1990s, this pack is no mere top-loader: you can get at your contents straight through the back and sides, and there's even a large zipper at the very bottom to allow you to access items located there without having to shift around all the other contents in the pack. The Whitney 95 also has plenty of storage pouches along the side and on the belt, as well as a suite of adjustable straps to tighten your load down and prevent shifting while you're walking. In terms of storage capacity (95 liters) and item-accessibility, the Gregory can't be beat. I've looked at recent backpacks by companies like Osprey, and not one of them features the same sort of zipper-and-pouch configuration that my Gregory has—another reason why I'd rather repair this pack than go searching for another pack of equally good design. (What I really need to do is check Gregory's latest packs.)
But let's talk problems. The Gregory isn't perfect. One major flaw is that the pack's top compartment, which is a pouch that's separate from the backpack's main body, has a tendency to sag in one direction or another. This isn't a huge concern on the trail, but it can cause slight discomfort as well as be an aesthetic pain in the ass. A deeper problem is the pack's hip belt, which was giving me fits even back in 2008, when I was on my 600-mile walk. The main problem with the hip-belt assembly is that the belt itself is made of a slippery synthetic material (probably nylon) combined with a plastic belt buckle. This is, frankly, a stupid design, as the belt tends to slip through the buckle after you tighten it. For us fatties, this quickly becomes an issue as the pack sags lower and lower on our backs, necessitating repeated re-tightenings. A belt-with-holes system would solve this problem right away, and I wouldn't be forced to jury-rig my own leather-belt solution. A third flaw is the chest and shoulder straps. The shoulder straps are hard and tend to bite painfully into your armpits; the chest strap is poorly clipped onto the shoulder straps and tends to pop off. Mine popped off on the very first day of the hike after I had tried to reattach it to the shoulder strap. It was essentially useless after that. I ended up having to use a spare strap, which I'd had the foresight to bring along, as a replacement chest strap. As for the shoulder straps, I took care of the armpit-biting problem by folding up a washcloth and a handkerchief and tucking them underneath the straps to alleviate the pain and pressure. I'd much rather have had pool noodles wrapped around the straps; the foam would have distributed the straps' pressure across a wider area.
In summary, I'd say the Gregory's design virtues all have to do with how it stores and allows access to a load, while its flaws all have to do with how the backpack interacts with the user. I was able to jury-rig my own workarounds to the flaws, but part of me resents having had to do so. I hope the latest generation of Gregories (Gregorys?) has fixed these problems.
Cascade Trekking Poles (Costco)
At under W40,000, these trekking poles were a good example of "you get what you pay for." I should have paid more for better carbon-fiber poles. While the lone pole I used did get me across the country, there were moments on the trail, such as when I was climbing down a very steep incline on my second day of camping, when the pole began to collapse on me. That should never happen: your trekking pole, once extended the desired length, ought to lock perfectly in place no matter how much weight you put on it. I already explained this problem in an earlier post, so I won't ramble on too much here. Suffice it to say that I'd rather have a screw-in locking system than a clip-and-grip one. In fact, once I got back to my place, I tested out my screw-in trekking pole, which cost me only W5,000 when I bought it in Hayang, and sure enough, I was able to put nearly my entire weight on the pole, which budged not an inch. So maybe it's not a matter of getting what you pay for, eh?
Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy Sack
A bivy sack, if you're a committed tenter, takes some getting used to. First off: don't be fooled by how the sack is displayed on websites. Instead, look at YouTube tutorials on bivy sacks to understand both how to set them up and what they're really going to look like when you deploy them. On an online sporting-store catalog, the unfurled sack looks nicely smooth and filled out, but in real life, it's going to be a crinkled, droopy mess. Know that that's what a bivy sack is actually designed to be: the drooping is part of how it performs. In my case, I was cautious when I'd read some customer reviews that talked about condensation being a problem with the $180 version of the sack; when I looked at the $250 version's reviews, those complaints all but disappeared, so I ended up buying the more-expensive version of the bivy. Sure enough, condensation wasn't a real problem.
As you may recall if you've been a dedicated reader, I did a test run with the bivy before I went on my walk. On that day, the test went awkwardly, but when I was on the trail and forced to get friendly with this strange and still-unfamiliar piece of equipment, I quickly learned how best to use it. I am now an expert at inserting my foam roll into the bivy, hooking one end of the roll under the bivy's interior strap, then worming my way into the sack while kicking the foam roll to unroll it while working my way inside. The sack provides adequate shielding from the critters and elements thanks to its two-layer zipper system, but I noticed that my feet kept getting cold. I'm not sure that this is actually a problem with the bivy: it may simply be that I failed to tuck my feet into my sleeping bag, or that I failed to wear thick enough socks (or some other sort of foot-warmer).
I had originally wanted the bivy because I didn't know what sort of ground I'd be camping on, and bivy sacks, unlike most tents, don't require tent stakes for their setup. You can't reliably sink stakes into loose soil, which can get annoying when all you have is a standard pup tent like my original Big Agnes from 2008. That said, there were times when I wished I'd had the Big Agnes, which was much roomier and more comfortable to sleep in. A bivy sack is pretty bare-bones in terms of comfort: it's essentially a sleeping bag for your sleeping bag, an extra shell of protection to keep out rain, cold, and creepy-crawlies. I'm still a bit ambivalent about my bivy, but it's certainly better than nothing when you're out on the trail. I just need to remember either to bring something to cover my feet, or to tuck my feet into my sleeping bag.
Speaking of which:
SEMOO Lightweight Sleeping Bag
I never once used the sleeping bag as a bag. What I did instead was use the sleeping bag as a sort of blanket, unzipping it along its length and placing it on top of myself at night when the air was cooler. My foam roll provided perfect insulation from the ground, and I also didn't want to overheat, which is the main reason why I used the bag as a blanket. I can't say how well the SEMOO might perform in cold, mountainous conditions, but it was fine for spring nights alongside the river. I also appreciated that the bag came with its own compression sac that allows you to reduce how much space the bag takes up inside your backpack. As the hole at the bottom of my backpack got wider and wider over the course of my hike, I began to use the sleeping bag to plug the hole, shoving it against the open wound to prevent other items from spilling out of my pack the way my poor trowel did. I especially liked the fact that my SEMOO cost me only $25, compared to the ridiculous prices for sleeping bags here in Korea, with some higher-end bags costing close to $1000.
Grayl Water-filtration System + Potable Aqua Purification Tablets
My Grayl was a pain in the ass to use because it was so labor-intensive: you have to use your body's weight to push down on the French-press-style water filter. The Grayl itself, being mostly metal except for the plastic filter cartridge, was actually one of the heavier items in my backpack. Despite these disadvantages, though, the filter fulfilled its purpose and kept me pathogen-free for the two days that I used it. (On my third day of camping, I was at a formal campground that had potable-water stations, so I didn't need the Grayl.) In terms of performance, the Grayl was a huge step up from the ridiculous Katadyn pump-action filter that I had used in 2008. That filter didn't do anything to prevent me from getting watery bowels after drinking river water (from the Columbia River), and it was also a pain to use. The Grayl's major disadvantage, however, is that the filter, which works on a nano level, clogs up easily, which means the filter's performance degrades quickly. On my second day of camping, there was already a noticeable difference in filtration efficiency: pressing the French press was much harder. True, the Grayl instruction manual advises you to pre-filter the water you're trying to strain in order to remove excess particulate matter, but that would have added extra steps to an already-slow procedure for me.
The Potable Aqua purification tablets that I used in tandem with the Grayl also worked well. What I did was this: I fetched river water in my large plastic bottles and brought the water back to camp. I wiped off the bottles' exteriors with wet wipes to minimize contamination, then I dumped the tablets into the water to kill off microorganisms. Potable Aqua tablets come in two bottles: the first tablets you throw into the water will give it a nasty rust color as the iodine (well, technically, it's tetraglycine hydroperiodide) works its evil magic. After thirty minutes, you throw in the second set of tablets, which remove the rust color, return the water to pristine transparency, and take out most of the iodine-y taste. The result is water that tastes as if it comes from a swimming pool, but which is perfectly drinkable. Next step: run the purified water through the Grayl. This eliminates most of the nasty aftertaste and makes the water even more palatable. Passing the water through the Grayl also eliminates all the abiotic particles—silt, grit, and various gross things like animal fur.
All in all, my tabs-plus-Grayl system was a winner, keeping me alive and healthy for the brief duration of my riverside camping.
Esbit Pocket Camp Stove and Fuel Tablets
I'm surprised my camp-stove system worked as well as it did, especially since I hadn't bothered to test the system before I went on my hike. I guess I was trusting the German technology to come through for me when I needed it to. The stove is essentially a rectangle of lightweight metal. Two panels on the stove fold out and turn into angled "walls," on top of which you can set your pot or pan to be heated. You then place the Esbit's white chemical briquettes onto the stove's bottom, light them with whatever ignition system you've brought (I brought a cigarette lighter), and voilà—instant heat. I think you're supposed to use only one briquette at a time, but I piled on three, which was enough to get my water boiling rapidly.
When the chemical flame dies, you're left with a bit of a blackened mess at the bottom of your stove (not to mention the scorching on your cookware), but these are minor issues, and the blackened surface of the stove's metal doesn't affect future performance. I simply stored my stove inside a Ziploc bag to keep it from besmirching other items inside my pack.
Coleman 5-piece Mess Kit
This kit is almost exactly the same as the one I'd used in 2008, so I already knew what to expect, performance-wise. My main interest was in having a lightweight pot in which to boil water for my Mountain House freeze-dried meals, since that's all that those meals needed for prep: just add boiling water, stir, zip closed, wait ten minutes, and you're good to go. I didn't end up using any of the other pieces of the mess kit, so I'm wondering why I brought them along. All I needed was the pot, really.
Therm-a-Rest Foam Bedroll
This is the classic foam roll that pretty much every backpacker carries on the outside of his pack. Since I'm already fine with sleeping on the ground, a foam roll is all I need for a more-or-less comfortable night's sleep. As equipment goes, this item is pretty straightforward in its purpose and function; there really isn't much to it. This roll did what I asked it to do, keeping me insulated from the cold ground at night. I suppose there might be some clever way to MacGyver it into a waterproof shelter or something, but otherwise, it's just a foam bedroll.
Food isn't equipment, per se, but it's part of what you pack with you, and like equipment, it does have a purpose and perform a function. I think, however, that I've already written pretty extensively on the types of food that I brought with me, so I'll simply offer a quick summation of my thoughts here.
MREs: never again. They're good, but they're bulky, heavy, and ultimately not worth taking along. In fact, knowing what I now know about opportunities to eat while in town (thanks to my readers' constant harping on this topic), I would drastically reduce the amount of food I'd pack were I ever to do this trip again. In the end, I think I really needed to eat only three camp meals. I could have survived on convenience-store food and restaurant fare pretty much the whole way down. That, or I could have stocked up on Korean-style dried food, spices, and powders to create my own soups.
Mountain House freeze-dried food: keep on packing it. I love the brand, and all the meals taste good. If it ain't broke...
Survival Tabs: cute, but ultimately unnecessary.
Soylent: I never once used this, so that damn pack of powder ended up weighing me down for no particularly good reason. Soylent might be useful in an emergency, but having walked nearly the entire length of the Gukto Jongju, I have a hard time imagining what sort of emergency would leave me on the brink of starvation. When in peril, just walk another 20 miles down the trail, and you're sure to find a restaurant! Food isn't nearly as important an issue as water, anyway, and I've got the water covered.
Toshi, Hat, and Other Clothing and Footwear
My manchettes and my hat both served me well. I didn't purchase them until after I'd been badly sunburned, but I think they did a great job of protecting me for the rest of the journey. The main problem with the hat, however, was how the brim forced my neck into an exaggerated head-forward posture because of my desire to keep the brim from brushing against my backpack.
The soles of my New Balance walking shoes now definitely show the wear that comes of walking 340-plus miles, but the shoes themselves performed well during the walk. They were comfortable, even in rain, and while I occasionally felt a pinch in my pinky toes, the shoes weren't overly tight. My REI socks, which date back to 2008 and are still going strong, also worked well with the shoes, guarding against irritation and the hazards that would have come with wearing cotton socks (odor, blisters, etc.). Footwear is an absolutely crucial consideration for hikers, and in my case, New Balance is the only brand that seems to fit the unique shape of my feet. (Believe me, I've tried other brands.)
My REI cargo/hiking pants also deserve a big shout-out here. Made of light synthetics, the pants are both breathable and generally water-resistant, and they don't reveal sweat stains on unsightly areas of my body (lookin' at you, sweaty ass crack!). If I have one complaint, it's that the pant legs have zippers at their bottoms, and at the end of a long day's hiking, the last thing I want or need is to accidentally tread on a zipper's pull tab when my soles are tender and painful after twenty miles on the road. I'd have loved to take the pants in to a seamstress to get the leg length shortened by about an inch, But Oh Well. Aside from that complaint, the pants worked wonderfully.
My two leather belts performed bravely, although one of the two belts will never be the same. My thinner leather belt was used to hold up my pants; my thicker belt was drafted to supplement my backpack's hip-belt assembly. You may recall that, toward the end of my hike, the belt suffered a severe malfunction when the buckle popped open. Luckily, that malfunction didn't reoccur, and the belt seems to be doing fine for the moment. I've now punched new holes into both of my belts; this will allow me to track the regaining of my weight should I begin to swell up again.
My poor black tee shirt is no longer black after the brutal use I put it through. I'm a sweaty guy, and I was outdoors for nearly a month, so the shirt began to change color thanks to a combination of sun, soap, and sweat. I'd wash that shirt every time I was in a motel, but I don't think it actually became clean until I finally stuck it in my apartment's washing machine a few days ago. I should show you all a side-by-side comparison photo of my two black tees, just so you can appreciate what my one shirt went through.
My bandanna gave me a properly gangsterish sort of look, and it did its sweat-wicking job, but the holes in its fabric that were once tiny are now the size of bona fide rips. Sad.
Lastly, there's the matter of my Spandex cycling pants, which began the walk with holes in the crotch—holes that only got worse as I went along. Imagine hiking for miles with one ball constantly crawling out of your pants. Yeah... that happened. More times than I care to admit. But I used those pants for one reason: to avoid firecrotch. If you're not familiar with what that is, it's basically my term for what happens when a thick-thighed person walks for several hours straight without protection: the inner thighs begin to chafe, becoming red and sensitive, making it hard to do normal things like shift in one's chair or walk across a room without wincing. Spandex cycling pants completely cover and grip the thighs, preventing thigh-on-thigh contact and abrasion, which makes them essential for long-distance walking. An alternative solution to the problem, using Vaseline to lubricate the inner thighs, is inconvenient for long walks because of the need to reapply the Vaseline at annoying intervals. With Spandex pants, you put them on and forget about them.
Samsung Galaxy S4 + charging components
Despite my having dropped the phone and cracked the screen, the portable performed beautifully the whole trip. Being a 2013-era S4, my Samsung Galaxy is considered an old phone at this point, but after I got back to Seoul, I took it to a local service center and got the screen replaced for a whopping W115,000. The process took only about ten minutes (after twenty minutes' waiting in a take-a-number line), and now my phone has a brand-new face and feels like a spanking-new piece of equipment.
The Somi portable charger also worked beautifully the entire trip, keeping my phone nicely charged while I was camping. I had worried about how humidity might affect both electronic items, but ultimately, nothing bad happened.
I contrast my Samsung's performance with that of my BlackBerry from 2008. My BlackBerry (a gift from my parents) did its best to handle the weather, but in the end, it died just as I was arriving in Portland, Oregon. I ended up with a replacement phone (refurbished, I think) that lasted the rest of that walk, but the seeds of my mistrust in the BlackBerry brand had already been planted. Samsung, meanwhile, builds a tough phone. Color me impressed.
A hiker is nothing without his equipment, and overall, my equipment stood me in good stead. Some of the equipment died along the way, but some of it survived, bloodied but unbowed. At this time, I'd like to offer a salute to the following items, now tentatively or definitely among The Fallen:
• my backpack
• my Spandex cycling pants
• my Cascade trekking poles (not worth keeping)
• my trowel (lost along the way)
• my bandanna
It's going to be a real shame when I put the Gregory out to pasture, but unless I can find a place that repairs backpacks, there's not much else I can do.
In the meantime, O Pieces of Equipment, I raise a glass to you all. You were my companions on this trip, and I couldn't have done it without you, so here's to you.