Lets Talk: Backcountry Gear

Anyone who hikes all the time, loves talking about gear. I started off with a lot of gear that was either old or borrowed. My parents gave me a lot of their old camping gear, which was very robust, but a bit on the heavy side. Since then I’ve slowly been replacing my gear over the years, though there’s a few older pieces I still use because I love them.

Unlike me, Carolyn used the same crappy gear for years and then this year she decided it was time to finally replace everything all at once. Not ideal on the chequebook, but the two of us having been talking all gear all the time for months, especially in advance of the Black Friday sales, so I figured I’d share some of my favourite pieces of gear that I use!

First off, backpacks. It took me a few years to replace my old 80L travel backpack, which weighed a whopping 7lbs, but subsequently I went a little backpack crazy. A few years ago I got the Gregory 60L Amber, which I loved, but started to find it was a little too big for me as I downsized my gear, so this year I got the Gregory 53L Jade, which I LOVE. The Amber is one size fits all, but I got the Small size in the Jade, so it’s actually 50L and has some great features. My favourite are the suspension back, the fact that you can remove the head of the pack, and the easy access water pockets. Almost all of my friends use Gregory packs, Emily sports the 44L Amber and Carolyn has the 55L Maven. For men, check out the Gregory Zulu or Stout.

Next up, sleeping gear. Having a good sleeping bag and pad can really improve your nights as there’s nothing worse then being cold. A good sleeping bag was the one thing I invested in from the start. I’ve been using the MEC -7 Aquilina bag for years, sadly they don’t make it anymore, but a better alternative would be the MEC -9 Delphinus (it’s warmer, lighter, costs about the same, and it’s purple!). The male version is the MEC -9 Draco. The key things for me in a sleeping bag were getting something that has a high comfort rating and is down (I know it’s not great for wet climates, but its just so warm). I went for a women’s bag because women generally sleep colder than men. If you’re looking for something warmer, Carolyn recently bought the Marmot -18 Lithium, and Brandon uses the Thermarest -30 Polar Ranger when we snow camp. I’ve been looking at purchasing the North Face -29 Inferno bag for snow camping myself.

Don’t forget to put some serious thought in your sleeping pad as well. A good sleeping bag will only do so much if you’re not using a warm pad. When buying a pad, pay special attention to the R-value as this is what tells you how insulating the pad is. My recommendation is to stay above an R-value of 3. Some people buy summer mats with super low R-values, but something around 3 will be a great 3 season mat for you. I used the MEC Reactor 3.8 for a long time because it’s on the cheaper side, but if you can stomach the cost, I’d now recommend the Thermarest Neoair Xlite. It weighs less and in my opinion, is comfier. Currently though, I use the Thermarest Neoair Xtherm. It’s an expensive mat, but it’s 4 season and I use it snow camping as well, so it’s been good value for me.

Moving on to tents. I’ve been using the North Face Talus 3 for years and I absolutely love it (and got it for a steal), but at 6.5lbs, it’s a heavier tent, so I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Although when you do actually sleep 3 people in it, the weight to person ratio is generally less than a lot of standard 2 person tents, so it’s decent value for 3 people, but heavy if you only have 2. I’ve been doing a lot of research on tents lately because I was looking to purchase a new one. I’ve been comparing between ultralight freestanding tents and ultralight tents that are set up using hiking poles. Take my advice with a grain of salt because I haven’t tested these tents, but I narrowed my research down to my top two picks, which were the Big Agnes UL Tiger Wall, and the Gossamer Gear The Two.

I recently purchased The Two, which rings in under 2 pounds and can be set up using hiking poles, or two tent poles purchased from Gossamer. I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet, but looking forward to trying it out next year! I think the downside to this tent will be that it’s a single walled tent. So if you want double walled, check out the Big Agnes, which is a little bit heavier, but still very light. If you’re looking for something a little cheaper, I think one of the best value on the market is the Marmot Tungsten, which comes in both standard and ultralight (higher price, but worth it in my opinion). Again, there’s much lighter tents out there, but you pay for it. Brandon uses this tent, so I do have experience with it.

Stoves and pot sets is one area where I will encourage you to seek advice elsewhere. My stove is the one piece of gear I inherited from my parents that I still use and therefore is ancient. It runs on propane, so the fuel is heavier, but I keep using it because it’s a robust little stove that provides great heat distribution. I also have a smaller stove that runs on iso-butune mix that I love, but I got it in New Zealand, so you can’t find it in North America. Brandon and Carolyn both use white gas stoves, which are a must have if you’re snow camping, but personally I like the gas stoves. In addition, I just have the basic 2 pot set from MSR. It’s pretty cheap and the coating is starting to come off, but it served me well for several years.

I think that about covers it for major pieces of camping equipment, but I’ll link a few more of my favourite miscellaneous items below if you’re on the hunt for any other gear.

Hiking boots: I swear by Vasque, the Breeze is probably the closest to what I currently hike in.

Sit-upon/Pillow: MEC Seat Cushion (I fold it in half to use as my pillow. LOVE IT)

Mug: GSI Infinity Mug (seriously, this thing is the best!)

Safety: Kahtoola Microspikes (excellent for icy conditions), Garmin InReach Mini (could save your life)

Kettle: Sea to Summit Kettle (collapsible and great for hot chocolate on day trips)

Sleeping bag liner: Sea to Summit Reactor Extreme (great for winter camping)

Clothing: Honestly, Costco is the best. They have merino base layers, wool socks, small compressible puffy jackets, puffy slippers, just stay on the lookout for great deals! No need to break the bank on clothing, although I started using merino undies and bra when I hike now and I am a huge fan! They’re a little pricier, but you can usually get them on sale from Icebreaker or Smart Wool. They dry so fast and keep you warm even when they’re sweaty.

The only other thing I wouldn’t skimp on is your rain jacket. If you’re relying on it to keep you dry, it’s worth investing money in. I’m currently saving up for a gore-tex Arc’teryx shell jacket – they’re top of the line for rain jackets, but you definitely pay for it.

Cape Scott and North Coast Trail: Part II

Continuing on from Part I, after an eventful journey to the trailhead and our first night on the trail, we still had 5 more days of fun ahead of us!

We never made it to Nel’s Bight on Day 1 and still had 8km to go to the beach, so we decided to aim for it as our lunch spot on Day 2. We weren’t in too much of a rush in the morning, but we made good time taking down camp (ended up being our fastest day packing up), and had a speedy start, hiking the 4km to the trail junction in just over an hour. At the junction one trail branches off to Nel’s Bight and Cape Scott, while the other continues on the Nissen Bight and the rest of the North Coast Trail. We’d be heading there eventually, but first we wanted to see Cape Scott.

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It’s another 4km from the junction to Nel’s Bight and we continued on with ease. The trail was reasonably muddy on Day 1, but it was surprisingly clear on Day 2. I would say this is the easiest section of trail in the park (except perhaps for the trail to San Jo). The trail continues through the woods with the first landmark being detritus from one of the old Cape Scott settlements. Cape Scott was originally settled by the dutch in the late 1800’s, but it was too remote and the government wouldn’t subsidize any services because they didn’t want to encourage the colony, so it was abandoned. It was settled again in the early 1900’s and peaked at a community of around 200 individuals. There’s not much left now, but you can see some old debris from the community that settled at Hanson’s Lagoon.

On the way to Hanson’s Lagoon, you pass across a large open marsh area. There is a small road that continues on to the lagoon, but our path took us around the lagoon to Nel’s. It’s very green and lush, but the clouds decided to drop a quick bout of rain on us as were passing through and we ended up running most of the way across to the safety of the trees. Though of course once we reached the trees it had pretty much rained itself out, so Brandon joked we must smell bad and nature was just treating us to a quick shower.

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We made it to Nel’s Bight before noon, which Brandon affectionately refers to as Tent City. Along the way we ran into one of the Rangers that lives on Nel’s and he told us the previous evening (saturday night), he’d estimated there were 100 people camping on the beach, so the name was definitely accurate. Fortunately Nel’s is a giant white sand beach with lots of space for tents, so there’s no concern about finding a campsite. It’s the most popular beach in the park because you can hike there in a single day and it’s a popular stopping point for people visiting the lighthouse. Most people camp at Nel’s and day hike to Cape Scott. Since we’d stopped at Fisherman’s River, we had a different destination in mind. Guise Bay is located 4km past Nel’s Bight and it was Brandon’s favourite beach in the park, so we decided to lug our packs the extra 4km.

It was an excellent choice! We stopped at Nel’s for lunch and it was extremely windy, sending huge crashing waves along the beach. It was a little drizzly, so we sent up a tarp but didn’t stay too long. The drizzle didn’t last long though, so it was a nice 4km stroll to Guise. You head back into the woods briefly at the end of Nel’s and then come out at Experiment Bight – another long sandy beach. It’s also perfect for camping, but there’s no water source or facilities so I don’t think it gets used very much. After Experiment Bight you go back into the woods, this time crossing the peninsula to Guise Bay. Because Guise Bay is on the opposite side, it doesn’t get as much wind and the water was a lot calmer. I immediately liked it and with only 1 other tent on the beach, we got a great campsite without the crowds.

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It was overcast most of the day, which I think is super common at Cape Scott, but the rain stayed away for the rest of the day and it did slowly get clearer as the day progressed. We set up our campsite and decided to continue on to finish the rest of the trail to the lighthouse as a day hike. We left our backpacks behind and stuffed our pockets full of snacks. From Guise Bay it’s ~5km round trip to the lighthouse, which is located just outside the park boundary and is a government facility.

I didn’t love the walk to the lighthouse. My feet were starting to hurt after so much walking. I didn’t have any blisters or hot spots, but it was just a general throbbing on the soles of my feet from being on them for too long. Emily was also having a rough time. She has awkwardly shaped pinky toes and she always gets blisters, so she was battling both sore feet and a blister. It was cool to see the lighthouse though. There’s not a whole lot there – it’s just a wire frame tower and what looked to be 3 houses and an office building. I’m not sure if all the houses are occupied, but we talked to one of the inhabitants and he said he’d been living there for the last 20 years! Apparently he gets a supply drop once a month and that’s what he lives on. It was neat but I can’t imagine living so remotely, especially in such a foggy place (sounds like home lol).

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We topped up our water bottles from the tap at the back of one of the buildings (filtered water yay!) and then headed back to Guise. Emily was a bit out of it when we got back – her feet were hurting her a lot and in retrospect, I suspect she may have been a bit dehydrated – so she took a nap. I helped Lien start re-hydrating dinner and Brandon went in search of the water source on the far side of the beach. Lien followed him about 10 minutes later and I was treated to a little show from the other side of the beach. Our timing with collecting water was really good because we didn’t realize the water source was only accessible when the tide was low. I watched as Lien zigzagged his way across the pinch point and disappeared into the woods. He came back out with our water bladders about 10 minutes later and as soon as he reached the pinch point again, he suddenly turned around and took off running back towards where Brandon was still collecting more water. He popped in and out of the woods and ran back across the beach and over the pinch point and was followed moments later by Brandon in a desperate attempt to not get his feet wet! Fortunately we all kept dry and we had collected enough water to see us through the evening and the next day.

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It had been a bit of a mauzy day, both weatherwise and in spirit. Including the lighthouse, we’d trekked 17km, so we were feeling pretty tired. Brandon, our eternal optimist, decided to get a campfire going and I can definitely say the evening improved a lot from there! We got supper started and coaxed Emily out of the tent. The wind dropped down, the clouds lifted, and the fire warmed us all up! It ended up being one of my favourite nights on the trail. We had chili for dinner and then spent the rest of the evening lounging around the campfire listening to music on Brandon’s speaker. The sun never really peaked out, but the clouds did break-up and treat us to a lovely pink glow over the beach as the sun was going down. It was the last week of June and we were further north, so the days were extremely long. We found ourselves staying up so late every night because it would be after 11 by the time it would finally get dark.

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On Day 3 we awoke to a bit more of the same. Again, it wasn’t raining and it was brighter than the previous day, but still pretty cloudy. It was on the cooler side, but it was good weather for hiking. We packed up camp and started back the way we’d come, repeating our 4km hike back to Nel’s Bight and then another 4km to the junction. Just before we left the beach we heard some guys coming down the trail yelling into the woods. We figured they were just making their bear calls because they were the first ones on the trail (we regularly yell into the woods to keep the wildlife away). We were right, but it was because they’d actually seen a bear. They were on their way to the lighthouse and came on to the beach fully armed. One guy had his bear spray held a loft and they were both sporting knives. Apparently a bear had followed them for most of the trail from Experiment Bight to Guise Bay and while he didn’t seem aggressive, they weren’t taking any chances. The bear finally spooked off when they got to the beach, but since we were going back the way they’d just come, we had a nice sing-a-long on the way back – no sign of the bear.

Along the way we ran into some more rangers who were doing maintenance along the trail. They asked us about our plans and we told them we were going all the way to Shushartie Bay. They informed us they were the North Coast Trail maintenance crew and while they had conducted their initial assessment for the year, they hadn’t done any maintenance to date because of COVID. They warned us a lot of the brush needed to be cut back and that some of the trailheads might be difficult to find if the buoys were knocked down, but that the trail was still doable. So with that ominous warning we set off towards it.

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After re-tracing our steps 8km to the junction, we had to go 2 more kilometres to Nissen Bight. It was a long day on the trail because we wanted to go all the way to Laura Creek, a total of 17km with our packs. I always like to do more hiking before lunch than after, so we pushed 10km to Nissen Bight before stopping for lunch. My feet were definitely throbbing by the time we reached the beach and I wasn’t looking forward to another 7km after lunch. But we pushed the thought from our minds and tried to enjoy our lunch. Nissen is another big beach, pretty similar to Nel’s in that there’s lots of camping space and big waves crashing along the beach. I had exhausted my egg salad wraps, so I was on to cheese and salami wraps with dehydrated hummus. The hummus worked out really well, so it made for a filling lunch, though it got a bit repetitive as I ate it for the next 3 days.

Nissen Bight marks the transition from the Cape Scott Trail to the North Coast Trail. Cape Scott has been a well developed trail for ages and sees tons of visitors, while the North Coast Trail is a new trail that was only created in 2008. From Nissen Bight it’s 43km to Shushartie Bay and the water taxi that would bring us back to Port Hardy. We had 3.5 more days of hiking and 3 nights to complete it. I wasn’t too thrilled to be back on my feet, but I was excited to start exploring this less busy and more rugged part of the trail. We trekked another kilometre across the beach as the sun finally started to peak out from behind the clouds and then started our North Coast Trail adventure! To continue, read Part III.

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