gossamer gear

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Ever since I became a NOLS instructor, I’ve been interested in the school’s Lightweight Backpacking Prime courses. Lightweight backpacking is a very small part of NOLS’s course catalog, and very different from any other NOLS backpacking course for a myriad of reasons. Rather than a full trip report here, I’ll try to give a general overview of the course, and what you might expect if you plan on signing up for it. My gear list is also provided at the bottom of this post.

Overview map of our course route for the 12 days

Overview map of our course route for the 12 days

A standard NOLS summer backpacking course consists of three instructors and 10-12 students, aged 16 to 23, on an approximately 30-day course. Students resupply food and fuel in the field twice (either meeting a truck at a trailhead, or a horse-packing group on the trail), so they carry between 7 and 13 days worth of food at the beginning of each ration period. Packs, at the beginning of each ration period, generally weigh between 40 and 50 pounds. The courses put a strong emphasis on cooking elaborate meals from scratch, traveling and navigating off trail, and leadership in a wilderness setting that can be translated very well to a frontcountry setting.

The Lightweight Backpacking course consisted of two instructors and between 6 and 8 students, aged 23 and up (my particular course had six students, aged about 45 to 60). We spent 12 days in the field, with one resupply on day 6, so we carried about 5 and 7 days worth of food at the beginning of each ration period. We only weighed packs just before getting on the bus, so I didn’t get base weights for the students. Almost all of them started with full packs weighing about 30 pounds, so my guess is that base weights were between 15 and 20 pounds.

Timico Lake in the Wind River Range, on a long, semi-off-trail section of the NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Timico Lake in the Wind River Range, on a long, semi-off-trail section of the NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Before you get all grumpy and say “30 pounds isn’t lightweight backpacking!”, let me remind you that this is a LIGHTWEIGHT (not ultralight) backpacking course for beginners, and that for many of the students, adding a few pounds to their base weight was a conscious decision made with the instructors’ input– A 50 year-old first-time backpacker doesn’t need to prove anything by taking a sub-10 pound base weight. Also, this isn’t a course for teaching people how to through-hike the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, where you can easily get into town for resupply and gear replacement every four or five days. We were pretty deep in the wilderness for a solid 12 days, with no detours into town.

Where most NOLS courses consist of students who are still finding their ways in life, the older student age on this course made for a very different emphasis in course teaching. The leadership curriculum wasn’t first and foremost, since most (though not all) of our students were already well-established in their careers and had signed up for the course specifically to gain confidence in wilderness travel rather than to lead groups. Cooking was also a much smaller part of this course, since we used pre-made just-add-water meals rather than a set of basic ingredients to feed ourselves (NOLS has a set of recipes for making these meals, rather than using Mountain House or similar fare). We spent much more time teaching navigation by map and compass, and how to use general lightweight gear, than any of the classes I’ve gotten used to teaching on prior NOLS courses.

Wind River Peak, as seen from the second day of this year's NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Wind River Peak, as seen from the second day of this year’s NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

With the shorter course length, I feel it would have been difficult to get through any more of the leadership classes in much depth compared to a 30-day course, but that may have just been the circumstances of my particular course. In my opinion, the greatest value of NOLS is as a leadership school first, and an outdoor skills school second, so the specific type of skills you go to NOLS to learn are probably less important than the length of course you take, although I know most students probably don’t sign up for courses thinking that.

Here’s my gear list from the course, so you can get an idea of what might work. This is definitely not the exact gear list that everybody should use, but it worked for me. If our weather conditions had been much more harsh, I might have wanted a little more rain protection and insulation, but for the summer conditions in the Wind River Range, this did very well for me.

Clothing Worn

  • Outdoor Research wide-brimmed hat
  • Chilis sunglasses
  • Railriders Adventure shirt
  • Columbia athletic shorts
  • Patagonia Capilene boxers
  • Darn Tough 1/4 cushion socks
  • New Balance Leadville sneakers with Dirty Girl Gaiters

Packing (19.6 oz)

  • Gossamer Gear Kumo* (16.8 oz)
  • ZPacks small dry bag (0.6 oz)
  • Trash compactor bag pack liner (2.2 oz)

Sleep System (27.8 oz)

  • Stateless Society down quilt** (18.2 oz)
  • Gossamer Gear Airbeam short sleeping pad (7.4 oz)
  • Klymit Pillow X (2.2 oz)

Clothing Carried (22.2 oz)

  • Spare socks (Darn Tough 1/4 Cushion) (2.2 oz)
  • Montbell Tachyon Wind Pants (2.9 oz)
  • Westcomb eVent rain jacket (9.2 oz)
  • Montbell UL Thermawrap jacket (7.9 oz)

Toiletries & Such (10.1 oz)

  • Swiss Army Knife classic (0.7 oz)
  • Sunscreen (4.0 oz)
  • Guthook’s bidet (0.8 oz)
  • Lip Balm (0.3 oz)
  • Travel toothbrush (0.7 oz)
  • Dental floss (0.4 oz)
  • Pill bottle with 6 days medications (0.8 oz)
  • Hand sanitizer (2.0 oz)
  • QiWiz Potty Trowel (0.4 oz)

Water Carrying (3.1 oz)

  • Dropper bottle for Aqua Mira (0.2 oz)
  • Bolthouse Farms 1L bottle (1.5 oz)
  • Platypus 1L bottle (1.4 oz)

Accessories (13.2 oz)

  • Petzl e+Lite headlamp (1.0 oz)
  • 2 sets spare e+Lite batteries (0.5 oz)
  • Amazon Kindle Paperwhite w/ trash case (6.6 oz)
  • Pen (0.2 oz)
  • Notebook (3.1 oz)
  • Bug headnet (1.0 oz)
  • Lighter (0.4 oz)
  • Sea-to-Summit long-handled spoon (0.4 oz)

NOLS-Supplied Group Gear (66.5 oz)

  • USGS Topo map set (11.3 oz)
  • Compass (1.7 oz)
  • Bear Spray (14.2 oz)
  • Tarptent Squall 2 (39.3 oz)

NOLS Instructor-specific gear (32.3 oz)

  • First Aid Kit (12.5 oz)
  • Epi Kit (2.9 oz)
  • Garmin Gecko GPS (3.2 oz)
  • Satellite Phone in soda-bottle case (13.7 oz)

Total Base Weight***: 12 pounds, 1.9 ounces.

*The Kumo was definitely a little small for this trip, and in the future I’d go for a Gorilla. The students carried several different packs, including Osprey Exos 48, Granite Gear Crown AC, Hyperlight Mountain Gear Southwest 3400, Gossamer Gear Mariposa, and Gossamer Gear Gorilla.

**This is essentially a home-made quilt that is equivalent to Enlightened Equipment’s down quilts with a 30 degree rating.

***You may notice that certain items are conspicuously missing, like stove, cook pot, toothpaste, etc. The course was split into several 2-person tent- and cook-groups, so we shared as much as possible. The Caldera Cone stove, toothpaste, cook pot, and so on for my group were carried by my co-instructor in order to even out the weight carried.

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.

Last week, I joined a group of Gossamer Gear’s Trail Ambassadors for a retreat to the canyons of southeast Utah. Many of these Trail Ambassadors are currently schmoozing it up at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Show in Salt Lake City, but I only stuck around for the less overwhelming group activities with an amazing bunch of hikers.

Twinkle, showing off a new Kumo in Canyonlands National Park.

Twinkle, showing off a new Kumo in Canyonlands National Park.

After an evening visiting one of my co-instructors from NOLS, I met Glen Van Peski, the founder of Gossamer Gear, in Salt Lake City, then drove four hours to Moab, passing mountains, mesas, and canyons along the way. We arrived at a house that Grant, the president of the company, had rented for the occasion. I was originally pretty hesitant to join the event because I can’t stand being put in close quarters with people I’ve never met before (and sometimes even with people I have met), but the opportunity to meet many of the people on the guest list was too enticing. Luckily, after the first night, when everyone was so excited to meet each other, the night owls and the morning people separated the sleeping quarters well enough to make everybody happy.

Hikers acting like normal people in a house.

Hikers acting like normal people in a house.

And what a crew it was! We had AT and PCT record-setting hikers Snorkel and Anish, writer and podcaster Disco, BackpackingLight guru Will Rietveld, Arizona Trail gateway communities ambassador Sirena, The Real Hiking Viking, and many more. Most of the ambassadors, in fact, are not superhuman hikers– they’re just people who really love to hike, and love to do it with light packs. They’re all super enthusiastic, and all love to hear about each other’s stories and lives. This is the kind of group that makes me very happy to be a part of a hiking community.

Grant watches sunset from Grand View Lookout.

Grant watches sunset from Grand View Lookout.

Several of us (mostly those I mentioned in the previous paragraph) are what I like to call “Trail Famous”, which generated some entertaining discussion. Trail Fame is very different from Actual Fame, because it’s a vague kind of notoriety among a small group of people. For instance, a good bunch of Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers know my name, and know that I make apps for them, but they don’t have any clue who I am. Even at the Trail Ambassador retreat, I heard from a few people, “I thought you’d be a lot older”. (On the AT last summer, I also heard, “I envisioned you as a middle-aged, overweight guy with Doritos stains on your shirt”. Sorry to disappoint!) But along the same line, it was great to be able to put a face with each name I’d heard so often before, and, not surprisingly, find that all of these hikers are just normal people who do what they do really well because they love to do it.

Jan photo bombs Barefoot Jake and Will Rietveld.

Jan photo bombs Barefoot Jake and Will Rietveld.

Will planned and led each of the four day-hikes, which allowed most of us to relax our brains and follow his route-finding through the canyons. There’s quite a bit to say about the alien landscape of the Utah canyons, but I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. In the meantime, hanging out with all these passionate hikers has made me itch to get on a long trail again.

The La Sal Mountains, and a 1000 foot cliff over Arches National Park.

The La Sal Mountains, and a 1000 foot cliff over Arches National Park.

Allison looking off into the canyons.

Allison ponders the canyons.

Another clifftop view over Moab.

Another clifftop view over Moab.

Going down into the Canyonlands.

Going down into the Canyonlands.

At the rim of the canyons in Canyonlands.

At the rim of the canyons in Canyonlands.

Sunset colors in Arches National Park

Sunset colors in Arches National Park

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.

Last month on the Appalachian Trail, I started using Gossamer Gear’s Airbeam Sleeper sleeping pad to give myself a little more cushion in camp. I’ve used thin foam pads for many years, and have always been happy with them, but I just wanted to see if this new sleeping pad could convert me back to the world of inflatables. For the most part, I’m very happy with the Airbeam.

A well-loved shortie sleeping pad.

A well-loved shortie sleeping pad.

The Airbeam Sleeper is an uninsulated inflatable pad with vertical tubes and a tapered design. It comes in three standard sizes (36″, 48″, and 56″), and one large/wide size. Each of the pads uses a tapered design to give you more cushioning at your shoulders. I found this design to be very comfortable– I used the 36″ long pad, which was a full 21″ wide and 2.5″ thick at the shoulder, and 14″ wide and 1.5″ thick at my hip. I noticed the tapered width right away, but the tapered thickness was harder to notice, since the pad feels nicely cushioned all the way around.

Since the pad is uninsulated, it packs very small. And since it’s not terribly large, it inflates very quickly. These were both important factors for me. I own a Thermarest NeoAir for very cold backpacking trips, but the medium size NeoAir takes about twenty lungfuls to inflate, which is exhausting at the end of a long day of hiking. On the other hand, the small Airbeam takes between three and four breaths to inflate. It’s not the most important factor in owning the sleeping pad, but it’s a nice touch.

Side by side comparison of the 56" NeoAir and the 36" Airbeam.

Side by side comparison of the 56″ NeoAir and the 36″ Airbeam.

Compared with the NeoAir XLite, the Airbeam has several pluses and a few minuses. The first I want to address is the width of the sleeping pads– Thermarest’s specs show the NeoAir to be 20″ wide, which is a bit misleading. That width is measured when the pad is deflated. At full inflation, the top of the sleeping pad is only about 18″ wide. I sleep on my side, so the width is fine for me, but others have complained that when sleeping on their backs their arms hang off the sides of the NeoAir. On the other hand, the Airbeam’s width is measured when inflated, so the 21″ width is fully usable. The pad feels very wide. I found it to be pretty plush. The 1.5″ height of the Airbeam also allows you to use a normal sized pillow on the ground rather than on the sleeping pad, giving you more usable space on the sleeping pad for your body. NeoAirs, with their 2.5″ thickness, generally require that you keep your pillow on the pad, which takes away a fair amount of the pad’s length from your body.

Kacey seems to prefer the NeoAir, probably because she has a very dainty butt and wants all the cushioning and insulation she can find.

Kacey seems to prefer the NeoAir, probably because she has a very dainty butt and wants all the cushioning and insulation she can find.

In other areas, the NeoAir XLite and Airbeam are more comparable. I’ll use the Medium Airbeam and Small XLite for comparison, since they’re both about 48″ long. The XLite is slightly lighter (8 oz vs 9 oz), and much better insulated for cold sleepers (R-value 3.2 vs none). The Airbeam is much less expensive ($88 vs $130) and feels more durable. The Airbeam’s side tubes are slightly larger than the middle ones to act as a sort of railing to keep you on the pad, while the NeoAir drops off at the edges. For those of you who complain about the NeoAir being too crinkly and loud, the Airbeam has none of that.

I own a NeoAir XTherm, the winter version of the Thermarest with a very high R-value and more durable bottom, so for me the choice is easy– NeoAir in very cold conditions, and Airbeam in warmer conditions. If you had to choose just one, though, it’s a toss-up. I’d recommend the medium Airbeam over the small, since the small is much shorter than most people will be used to. I also like the benefits of the Airbeam over the XLite in terms of cost, durability, comfort, and lack of insulation (yes, I like the lack of insulation– in summer I don’t want any insulation between me and the ground). Either way, I think my days of thin foam sleeping pads may be numbered.

Disclosure: Gossamer Gear provided an Airbeam Sleeper for me to review. My observations on the pricing of the Airbeam vs the XLite, as such, are probably skewed. As for other comparisons, the price of the Airbeam hasn’t affected my opinions.