Our Go-To Fastpacking Gear: Items 6 - 10
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
In the first blog post of this series we introduced 5 major pieces of fastpacking kit; pack, shelter, bivvy, mat & poles. This time we'll dive into some of the more peripheral, but equally important items you'll be relying on when pushing the pace, and your limits out on the trail.
SHOES - Scarpa Spin Ultra ( 339g per shoe)
Shoes are by far the most individual-specific item of gear you'll need to nail down, and no one's recommendation is a substitute for trying on and testing out the actual product. Nothing is more important than a proper fit and comfortable feel - after all, for fastpacking you'll be relying on your shoes to protect and cushion your feet for longer and harder than usual multi-day efforts. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing if the Scarpa Spin Ultras will work for your feet, but we are sure that if this shoe fits, you should definitely consider wearing it.
As the name implies, this particular model is a long-distance specific shoe. That simply means that it has been beefed up with extra cushioning for foot protection and comfort over the long haul. The end result is a shoe that is a bit heavier than many of the short to mid-distance training or racing shoes out there, but the extra weight is a small price to pay for the noticeable benefits on hard overnighters.
What I like
Over the last few years I've dabbled in several models of Salomon, Hoka, Saucony and La Sportiva trail shoes. Some have been pretty great for a certain niche (i.e. dry hard-packed trail), but fairly poor in conditions outside of that specific sweet spot (i.e. wet rock). The Scarpa Spins have slayed everything I have thrown at them with equal aplomb. The Vibram soles paired with grippy, aggressive lugs that are smartly spaced and protrude just the right amount are simply the best all-around platform I have encountered in a trail shoe. They handle wet, dry, loose, hard, rock, dirt, road ... everything... well.
Perhaps their most impressive trait is their durability. Mountain trails in Japan can reduce a shiny, new shoe to a heap of holes and failing rubber faster than you can finish your weekend. Just last year I had a sizable chunk of my new Saucony's sole peel off mid-hike somewhere in the middle of the 不帰ノ嶮 (kaerazu-no-ken), a notoriously technical ridge traverse completed with the aid of chains and ladders bolted into the rock face. During the Bunsuirei Trail Mountain Ultra race, in the span of 24 hours, the rubber toe guards on both feet of my lightly used La Sportivas had peeled almost completely off. You will have no such trouble with these Scarpas. The shoes are built like a tank, and reinforced in all the right places. They will last, period.
What could be better
Not much really. Maybe a speed-lacing system like what is standard on Salomon shoes? Perhaps a lower price?
Rain gear is an imperfect solution to a perfectly common scenario in the mountains - foul weather. No fabric is truly breathable AND waterproof, and as you improve a material's ability to do one, you inevitably impair its ability to do the other. Choosing the rainwear that is right for you boils down to finding something appropriate for the environment and expected weather conditions of the area you're heading into, and the level of protection you desire. On shorter, faster efforts during daylight hours in summer when the forecast looks stellar, you may be willing to go without rain gear altogether, or with something like an ultralight but marginally-waterproof minimalist windbreaker. While such an approach can be valid under those circumstances, in our experience, no matter the forecast, some form of rain wear is a must on any overnight trip.
Most of our fastpacks these days are long traverses done above tree level (between 2,000 and 3,000 meters in elevation), where the weather can change and temperatures can drop rapidly and unexpectedly. Staying dry on an exposed, windy ridge during an afternoon thunderstorm could be the difference between succumbing to hypothermia or not. An environment like that demands a maximum-level of protection from the elements, at hopefully a minimal weight penalty. The Torrent Flier series of rain gear by Japanese outdoor manufacturer MontBell strikes a solid balance between the two.
What I like
This jacket can handle a storm. Rain resistance is courtesy of the two-layer inner GORE-TEX Paclite Plus liner, while the external jacket face is made from MontBell's in-house Ballistic Air Light 12D ripstop nylon. This gives you top of the line waterproofing (a rating of 50,000mm+) with reasonable durability. To give some perspective, Outdoor Gear Lab's highest ranked rain jacket of 2020 is the Arc'teryx Zeta SL, which is also made from two layers of GORE-TEX Paclite Plus and was reviewed glowingly for its "lightweight, top-tier storm-worthiness." The difference is that the Zeta SL uses 40D ripstop nylon, which is more robust - but at the cost of a 37%-heavier jacket. There are lighter jackets out there, but none that I have seen balance weight, quality and price as well as this one.
I'm on my second Torrent Flier jacket, 7 years after buying and using the first one on a series of extended treks through wild places all across the world, and I have had no major issues with the lasting-power of either. I managed to rip a hole in the elbow after taking a fall on Fuji's rocky, volcanic slopes - but I suspect most jackets wouldn't have survived a direct hit from those sharp, porous lava rocks. And small tears are easily repairable at home with cheap, readily available stick-on gear repair tape.
What could be better
I was going to say pit-zips for ventilation, but it appears the latest version has added them.
INSULATING LAYER - FineTrack Polygon 2 UL Jacket (183g)
FineTrack is another Japanese gear manufacturer that has come out with some really innovative, high-quality products over the last several years. Among those that I have found to be most useful is their Polygon 2 UL Jacket. "Polygon" simply refers to their proprietary insulating fabric that is used in the construction of this garment.
What I like
Until I got my hands on this jacket, I had been using an ultralight summer down parka as my main insulating layer for summer hikes, or as part of a layering system for colder weather climbs. The warmth-to-weight ration of down is unbeatable, but its main weakness is that it loses its insulating properties when wet. When I transitioned from a traditional tent and sleeping bag to a setup composed of a single-wall shelter and an emergency bivvy, there was just no way to keep my down jacket dry with the condensation that resulted. I needed something that would stay warm when wet, but was still lightweight - and this jacket fit the bill.
It's a full-zip, which is convenient for putting on and taking off, is almost as light as my 900-fill down hoodie was - and still plenty warm, includes zippered sides for ventilation and packs down quite small. It's more versatile than a down jacket since you don't have to worry so much about it wetting-out from sweat while wearing it on the move or from condensation inside your shelter when wearing it to bed. It also dries very quickly and is machine-washable.
What could be better
There's no way to sugarcoat it, Finetrack products are expensive. I got mine on discount after the newest model was released - and it still was around ¥15,000. Not cheap, but I carry this around with me everywhere, in all seasons - for hiking, backcountry snowboarding, going to work and everything in between. I wouldn't call it stylish, but it does get attention. The version I have doesn't have any pockets, although the current one does have a single pocket on the chest.
MAIN HEADLAMP - BLACK DIAMOND STORM 400 (110g with batteries)
A good headlamp is a vital part of a good adventure. How much lighting you will need can vary from trip to trip depending on what hours of the day you'll be on the move, how many days you'll be out, the technicality of the terrain you may be encountering in the dark and more. I personally have about 4 to 5 headlamps with different specs that I pick and choose from on an trip-to-trip basis. However, the one I find myself putting in the pack most often these days is the Black Diamond Spot 400.
I picked up this headlamp in the lead-up to my first ultra-distance trail race last summer. Prior to that, I hadn't spent much time on the trails in darkness, usually just an hour or so before sunrise on days I wanted to get an early start. But now I was doing night runs and soon a race that would last more than 24 hours and send me through some technical sections in the dead of night. I wanted a brighter, more powerful beam to better, more safely navigate under these circumstances and after a ton of research (and a lot of lingering doubt) settled on the BD Storm.
What I like
To be honest, when I first bought this headlamp, I didn't realize it required 4 AAA batteries as opposed to the 3 needed in all of the other headlamps I have owned. My first reaction was disappointment, as I tend to value simplicity and weight savings very highly, but I soon realized that it did make a noticeable difference in regards to how long the batteries actually lasted. I have made it all night on a fairly high brightness setting without needing to change the batteries. This can of course change depending on the settings, temperature, etc... It is not the brightest headlamp out there, but it is amongst the best of the lot that aren't powered by bulky external battery packs.
I also appreciated the external battery level indicator, fully water and dust-proof sealed body and the locking function that prevents the light from accidentally being turned on inside your pack.
What could be better
Black Diamond's complicated and confusing system of different types of button pushes to activate different lighting settings can be overwhelming at first, but does get better over time.
BACKUP HEADLAMP - PETZL e+LITE (26g with battery)
I imagine the vast majority of people would feel comfortable carrying a single headlamp with fresh batteries on most hikes, while a smaller, more conservative minority would add a spare set of batteries just in case. I also imagine that anyone who would stop there has not experienced their singular light source stop working somewhere mid-trip. For years I had one light and no problems, until the one night with problems made me rethink everything.
Things get old, dropped, broken, lost... and if that thing is essential for your navigational safety and well being, you might be in big trouble. It's not a bad idea to carry a spare sometimes. In the case of the Petzl e+Lite, there is almost no reason not to carry one.
What I like
This is a barely-there back-up that you'll barely notice... until you need it. It takes up no space and weighs almost nothing, yet is surprisingly decent and versatile. If you end up in a situation where you have only this light to guide you on the trail at night, it won't be as good as your main lamp and you'll likely have to slow down and watch your step more carefully, but you will be able to progress forward.
Beyond that, it can be lashed to a helmet or backpack and used as a red or white blinking safety light if you're traveling along the side of a road. You could even wrap it around your wrist and use it as a basic handheld closer to your feet to supplement the beam from you head-mounted light.
What could be better
This is a personal pet peeve of mine, but I am not a fan of how every outdoor product these days seems to come with an un-removable, low-grade emergency whistle attached to it. I'm not advocating against emergency whistles, but I don't need a sub-standard one on my jacket zipper, my backpack's sternum strap and now my backup headlamp. The quality of these afterthought factory add-ons is questionable at the least, and very likely not going to be good enough to get much attention if you need it. My approach has been to cut these flimsy plastic abominations off of everything, including the Petzl e+Lite strap, and to instead carry a proper 122-decibel JetScream whistle in my first aid kit or attached to the outside of my pack on every adventure.
In the next blog segment, we'll introduce the third group of fastpacking items; those that currently comprise our "go suit" - or simply the head to toe clothing and accessories we wear on the trail. Check back soon!