Gear Reviews

The Murmur's rear and side pockets are tighter than the Kumo's, but are still enough to hold the essentials. Note the translucent material of the pack fabric.

The Murmur’s rear and side pockets are tighter than the Kumo’s, but are still enough to hold the essentials. Note the translucent material of the pack fabric.

After three years of using Gossamer Gear’s Kumo, I decided to try their even lighter pack, the Murmur. All of GG’s packs have been redesigned this year for comfort, style, and functionality, so I was curious about making the switch. The current Murmur is a little smaller than the previous version, and a bit lighter than the Kumo. I’ve used it on several day hikes and overnights this season already, and I’m pretty happy with what I’ve seen.

The previous version of the Murmur was essentially identical to the Kumo, but with lighter materials. The new Murmur is a completely different design, starting with a lighter material. The main pack body is made of Cordura Nylon, which is much lighter than the previous Dyneema material, and translucent enough to see almost all of what you’re packing. The material feels very fragile, but I’ve gotten it caught on lots of poking tree limbs already and can’t find any signs of tearing, so it’s clearly stronger than it looks. It is also water resistant, although I haven’t tested that in any more than a light rain.

The Murmur, half full and being used as a day pack in the White Mountains.

The Murmur, half full and being used as a day pack in the White Mountains.

Features that are new in the Murmur (or similar to older versions) include a roll-top closure system, shoulder straps that have no padding, trekking pole carrying loops, and a removable hip belt with very nice integrated pockets. The hip belt, though well designed, is something I removed right away, since I never use hip belts on ultralight packs. The clips to attach the belt took some futzing to undo, so this is probably something you wouldn’t want to detach and reattach frequently, but on the plus side they leave almost nothing on the pack when detached, so the weight savings is almost 100%. The trekking pole carry loops are very useful, and there’s not much more to say about those.

The sit-light pad included with the Murmur is a lighter version than that of other GG packs. Also, note the thin mesh shoulder straps. In this picture, I've taken off the hip belt, and instead use a Gossamer Gear shoulder pocket for my camera.

The sit-light pad included with the Murmur is a lighter version than that of other GG packs. Also, note the thin mesh shoulder straps. In this picture, I’ve taken off the hip belt, and instead use a Gossamer Gear shoulder pocket for my camera.

The unpadded shoulder straps are unusual compared to GG’s other new packs, which have very plush padding. Since the Kumo is the first pack I’ve owned where I completely did away with hip belts, I was a little worried that the lack of padding in the new Murmur would be uncomfortable. While they are somewhat less comfortable than the padded straps when carrying a full pack, the point of the Murmur is to be the pack for experienced ultralight hikers. I’ve carried the Kumo with about 27 pounds of load before without too much discomfort. I probably wouldn’t try the Murmur with much more than 20, which is plenty for a four-day summer backpacking trip. The up-side to the unpadded straps is also that they are fully mesh, which allows the shoulders to breathe more. I’ve had much less shoulder sweat with the Murmur than with my Kumo.

The Murmur at home for the night under my tarp.

The Murmur at home for the night under my tarp.

A few changes in the design to the Murmur will take some getting used to for me– they’re not necessarily bad, but worth noting. First, the side pockets don’t billow as much as other GG packs, and they seem to have Smart Water bottles in mind. I use wider water bottles, and have to squeeze a little harder to get them into the pockets. Similarly, the stretch mesh for the large rear pocket is less stretchy than the previous version, so I can’t cram as much stuff into it unless the main pack compartment is less full.

The roll-top closure for the pack is nice, but so far I haven’t been able to fill the pack to the point where it’s full enough to warrant extending the roll-top’s side compression straps at all. This shouldn’t be an issue most of the time, but considering the load I had in the pack for a four-day backpacking trip still barely filled the main pack body while pushing the limits of the 20-pound load limit, I wonder what I would have to pack in order to really fill out the main compartment. Maybe lots of puffy insulation.

All in all, it’s a very nice pack with a stylish remodeling that doesn’t add significant weight. I’ll probably continue using it for at least three more years.

You can purchase the pack at Gossamer Gear’s website, using this link:

Weight:
Pack without sit-pad, hip belt, or sternum strap: 8.0 oz
Sit-pad frame: 1.4 oz
Hip Belt: 2.5 oz
Sternum Strap: 0.4 oz
Total: 12.3 oz

Disclosure: Gossamer Gear provided me with a pack through their Trail Ambassadors program at my request.

I’ve been using Mountain Laurel Designs’ bug bivy for a little over a year now, and finding it to be an essential piece of my sleeping and shelter kit in spring and summer. I’ve used tarps for shelter for years, but it seems every year that the Maine black flies and mosquitoes have gotten worse and worse, making for several sleepless nights in the backcountry a few years ago. While the 7.3 oz (including cords) bivy offsets a lot of the weight savings from using an open tarp for shelter rather than an enclosed tent, I’ve found it well worth the extra weight.

The bug bivy in action in a Baxter State Park lean-to.

The bug bivy in action in a Baxter State Park lean-to.

The design is simple– a silnylon floor is connected to a no-see-um netting top, with a half-length zipper at the peak for entry. Grosgrain loops at the four corners allow for staking the bivy out, and two more loops at either end of the zipper can be used to hang the bivy from my tarp, or from lean-tos and shelters on the Appalachian Trail. There’s not much space in the bivy, but there’s enough that I can lay on my stomach, propped up on my elbows in order to read before going to sleep.

Setting up the bivy took some getting used to as well, but the learning curve is low. I stake out all the corners so the bivy is taut, then put my sleeping pad and sleeping bag in. I keep my little things (journal, headlamp, maps, and bag of extra things) next to my head inside the bivy. Once I’m ready to climb in for the night, I attach the hanging loops from the top of the bivy to hang loops on my tarp with a pair of stretch cords with plastic hooks (included with the bivy). I’ve placed cord locks at the bivy end of the stretch cord so that I can quickly adjust the tension of the hang before calling it a night. I still have to be careful when getting into the bivy, since it seems to attract dirt and leaves that I accidentally kick onto it, but you can avoid that with a little mindfulness.

The floor of the bivy is waterproof, but in cases where I expect very wet conditions, I’ll add 1.7 ounces with a Gossamer Gear polycryo ground cloth underneath the bivy.

In AT shelters, where staking the bivy to the ground would be a bad idea, I keep my heaviest items at the corners of the bivy in order to keep it weighted to the ground (not as sturdy as stakes, but it works well enough), and attach the hang cords to either hanging nails in the shelter, or I might gently wedge a stake between the logs of the shelter to make a hanging hook.

So far, the bivy has been worth its weight in gold, allowing me to sleep like a baby under my tarp or in shelters next to swampy ponds in Maine. Take that, mosquitoes and black flies!

MLD builds these to order, with wait times in the order of several weeks, so it might be too late to order yours for this year, but put it on your list for the next holiday season.

Disclosure: This bug bivy was a Christmas gift from a family member, purchased at full price from Mountain Laurel Designs.

Using a Phone on the PCT

You’re ready to hit the trail, your fully-loaded smartphone in hand. But how long will it last when you’re nowhere near an electrical outlet? I decided to find out by testing various conditions with two of the most popular smartphone models: iPhone 6+ and a Samsung Galaxy S5. I tested these models’ battery life with and without the use of a supplemental Ravpower 3,000 mAh and 10,400 mAh external battery pack. The test results conformed to the phones’ and battery packs’ published specs. With that knowledge in hand, I feel comfortable calculating expected battery life of other phones based upon their published specs.

External batteries I used for the tests:

I chose these Ravpower models because they are inexpensive, lightweight, and have a good reputation for reliability.

If you follow these simple steps, you have a good chance that your phone will have power between opportunities to recharge (a note of caution: devices fail — you should NEVER rely solely upon an electronic device as a navigation aid):

  • Keep your phone on airplane mode during the day when not in use
  • Turn your phone completely off while you’re sleeping
  • Do not use your phone for high-battery use activities for more than 2-6 hours per day:
    • GPS use
    • Internet browsing
    • Phone calls
  • Carry an external battery backup, size depending upon how long you expect to hike between town stops and how much you plan on using your device (see charts below)

Reality check: these results closely match my actual experience hiking the PCT with a smartphone and external battery backup.

NUMBER OF DAYS OF PHONE USE UNDER VARIOUS CONDITIONS

Phone Model # days,
no battery/
minimal use*
# days,
no battery/
typical use**
# days,
3000 mAh/
minimal use
# days,
3000 mAh/
typical use
# days,
10400 mAh/
minimal use
# days,
10400 mAh/
typical use
iPhone 6+  8.3  3.6  13.0  6.0  31.8  14.2
iPhone 6  5.0  2.1  9.9  4.4  28.1  12.2
iPhone 5s 3.9  1.6  8.4  3.5  24.8  10.1
iPhone 5 3.2  1.3  7.2  3.0  21.8  8.7
Samsung S5  7.6  3.2  12.1  5.4  30.0  13.0
Samsung S4  6.2  2.6  10.2  4.6  25.8  11.1
Samsung S3  5.4  2.1  12.0  4.8  35.7  13.8

*minimal use: 2 hours high-battery usage + airplane mode 14 hours + device off 8 hours
**typical use: 6 hours high-battery usage (GPS on/internet use/phone call) + airplane mode 10 hours + device off 8 hours

Minimal Use Chart

Typical Use Chart

  • It takes about 5 hours to recharge a 100% drained 3000 mAh external battery from an electrical outlet.
  • It takes about 6.5 hours to recharge a 100% drained 10400 mAh external battery from an electrical outlet.

Other Power Saving Tips: (Updated based upon reader comments)

  • Turn the phone completely off (or at least put it in airplane mode) while charging it from the external battery or you can accidentally drain both the phone and the battery!
  • Turn off your cellular data, Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi when not in use.
  • Reduce display &  brightness to a minimal level.  A brighter screen uses a lot more power than a dim screen.
  • Use a dark background (wallpaper) on your screen.  A bright white background uses more power than a dark background.
  • Set your screen timeout to the shortest possible time.
  • Turn off the phone vibration function.
  • Do not leave apps running when not in use.
  • Keep your phone warm to prevent battery drain (e.g. put it in your sleeping bag at night)
  • Android users: carry an extra device battery rather than a heavier external battery

 

It’s not exactly new technology, but the best new piece of electronic backpacking equipment I picked up last summer was an Amazon Kindle eReader. Despite the fact that it only serves one purpose, and can easily be replaced by my iPhone with the Kindle app, the Kindle fit into a very valuable niche for certain trips.

The Kindle, the trash case, and my morning tea with a little Maine Woods by Thoreau.

The Kindle, the trash case, and my morning tea with a little Maine Woods by Thoreau.

The reason I bought the Kindle was for the NOLS courses I was working on– each NOLS course often brings several books into the field for natural history, science, leadership, and history curriculum, and most of the NOLS curriculum is available in Kindle format. Rather than carrying a large, heavy stack of books into the backcountry for two weeks at a time, I packed a 5.9 oz Kindle, with a 0.7 oz home-made cushioned case (the newer version of the basic Kindle weighs about 1 ounce more than my older version, which I bought refurbished from Amazon for about $70).

On those NOLS courses, I left my iPhone at home and only brought the Kindle. Why? Mainly because I wanted no possible connection to the outside world during the courses, so the iPhone would have been an inappropriate accessory. But there are also some benefits to reading books on the Kindle over the Kindle App on the iPhone. First, the battery in the Kindle lasts seemingly forever– I read about an hour or two each day for 15 days, and still had three days worth of charge in the Kindle when I returned from the field. To get that kind of battery life from the iPhone, even in airplane mode, I would have had to carry spare batteries or a solar charger, which means more weight and stuff to manage. Also, the unlit screen in the Kindle is much easier on the eyes than reading a back-lit screen in the dark. Anyone who spends way too much time at a computer (like me!) knows that it can burn your eyes over time. Reading something more like a book feels like a vacation for your retinas.

For a long-term wilderness excursion like a NOLS course, the Kindle makes a lot of sense. But would I bring the Kindle on a personal backpacking trip? That depends on how much time I think I’ll spend at camp, how long I’ll be away from wall outlets, and how much time I have to relax. If I’m trying to go as light as possible and hike fast, I’ll leave the Kindle at home, since I probably won’t be reading very much in camp. If I’m going for a more relaxed hike and want to hang out in camp for a few hours each night, or if I might get holed up in camp during bad weather for a day or two, the Kindle is a very light and efficient way to access a lot of reading material without any worries about battery life or weight.

I’ve ended up using the Kindle at home more than on the trail by now, but I’ll admit that I’m beginning to enjoy having the small, convenient alternative to a full-sized book even at home where space isn’t as much of an issue. It certainly beats reading books on a lit screen, which is hard on the eyes. And I’ll definitely be bringing this thing on every NOLS course I teach from now on.

Last summer I bought my first piece of Cuben Fiber, a ZPacks Blast Food Bag. Having never owned any Cuben Fiber gear, I just wanted to see what the stuff was like in person, rather than reading about it online. My end goal was to see if I wanted to try a shelter or tarp made of Cuben Fiber, which I’d been hoping to try for quite some time. My only real reservations were durability, since I’ve never met anyone with the lightest fabric for tents, and cost, since Cuben tents and tarps can be extremely pricey. The food bag from ZPacks is less than $30, so that seemed like a good investment. Judging by how many ZPacks Blast Food Bags I saw on the Appalachian Trail last month, it seems like almost every other hiker out there went this route as well.

This summer, a friend ordered some discounted Cuben Fiber from eBay and built a tarp for me to test out on the trail (named The Lupus, after his dog). That gave me even more time to observe the material in action, and I must say I’m nicely impressed with it.

The Lupus Tarp at work in the field.

The Lupus Tarp at work in the field.

First, the reasons I wanted to switch from a silnylon shelter (which I’ve been using for the past 8 years) to a Cuben Fiber shelter. Weight is actually not a part of the equation for me. Let me say that again, though, just to get that straight: even though a tarp with the same construction as my silnylon one would weigh about half as much in Cuben, that’s not at all why I wanted to upgrade.

Here are the reasons:
No Seam Sealing: Cuben Fiber sheets are glued together with an ultra-strong tape/glue rather than sewn. Sewn seams on silnylon leak over time, and silicone seam sealers break down over time. This was a problem for me on the Pacific Crest Trail, and has started to be a problem with my silnylon tarp. I’d rather never deal with seam sealing.
No Stretch: Silnylon is a stretchy material, which is actually kind of nice when trying to pitch the tarp very tightly. But the problem is that when the material gets cold, it stretches on its own, which means the nice, tight tent you pitched in the evening turns into a sagging, flapping mess when the temperature drops at night and the rain starts. Cuben Fiber has no stretch whatsoever, so the tight pitch stays tight.
Newer Construction: Okay, this isn’t actually a feature of Cuben Fiber, but I’ve been looking to get a new shelter to replace my trusty old tarp because I wanted newer features like Linelocks for better adjustments of guylines, a shaped tarp for more efficient set up, and catenary ridge line for a tighter pitch. I figured if I was going to get a new shelter, I might as well go with all the features I wanted.

ZPacks food bag, the most common piece of Cuben Fiber on the AT.

ZPacks food bag, the most common piece of Cuben Fiber on the AT.

The issue of durability, which is the major concern for most people, should be entirely laid to rest. The Blast Food Bag uses a very thick grade of Cuben (1.4 ounce/square yard) for maximum durability, and since the small bag doesn’t need to be incredibly light. The Lupus uses the lightest grade (0.5 oz/yd), the same that ZPacks uses for their shelters. The Lupus stood up to heavy winds without any issues with damage. I’m sure if a tree fell on it, there might be some issues, but then again I can think of more problems than the tent getting damaged in that case. After 8 years of using my silnylon tarp, there is no damage to that tarp, either, and the 0.5 ounce Cuben feels just as durable as the silnylon. If that doesn’t convince you, I’m a big fan of this video by Joe of ZPacks, demonstrating the puncture and tear resistance of silnylon and Cuben.

Note the lack of thread and stitching. Everything is glued, so there are no seams.

Note the lack of thread and stitching. Everything is glued, so there are no seams.

The Lupus, since it was Steve’s first attempt at making anything out of Cuben, isn’t a perfect shelter (I ended up reinforcing the tie-out loops by sewing them, which negates some of the benefit of the glued seams, but the major seams are still only glued), but it has been a wonderful experiment. It saved me almost $200 (the price of a similarly sized tarp from ZPacks) and has given me plenty of food for thought. In the future, I may pony up the high price of a professionally made Cuben shelter, either a larger tarp from Gossamer Gear, a tarp-tent like the Hexamid from ZPacks, or a Duomid from Mountain Laurel Designs. For now, though, I’m pretty happy with my Lupus tarp, which is likely to replace my old Silnylon Scout for general 3-season use.

Inside the Lupus.

Inside the Lupus.