The great Andrew Skurka likes to make the point that there are two types of hiking trips: ones that are fun to do and ones that are fun to talk about later. (I’m paraphrasing greatly.) I like to think my trips include both kinds of fun, but if forced to choose I would definitely opt for the former. That philosophy informs my attitude towards ultralight hiking; I love a light pack, but I am reluctant to give up much comfort.
If I must cut out some weight I’ll simplify my food (on one JMT hike I ate energy bars almost exclusively), eliminate a change of clothes, or spend some extra money for the really good stuff. One thing I will not do to save ounces is put up with the cold. If you share my frigophobia, I have some suggestions.
Layering is, of course, essential. I’ll start with items closest to the skin and work my way out. The items I’ve chosen are by no means the only ones suitable, but in all cases I have some experience with the brand or the type and know them to be good.
Light Base Layer. The perfect base layer for me is one I can wear as an outer garment while hiking, that will keep the sun off my upper body, is lightweight, and is moisture-wicking. It’s a bonus if it looks sharp. This Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Zip-Neck is really terrific: it’s rated at 35 UPF for the fierce Sierra sun, has a nifty collar to keep the sun off that part of your neck, and weighs 4 ounces. I always give people the same suggestion when buying a Patagonia product: make sure you like it, because it may never wear out.
Second Layer. I expect my second layer to keep me warm during the day when I am not exerting myself. Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know that I am a connoisseur of the sometimes-more-than-an-hour break. If you are comfortable walking in a layer, you are probably going to be a little chilly in that same layer when you stop. This is also a great shirt for hanging out at camp in the afternoon until the sun gets low. Once again, Patagonia is among the best choices. This Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Zip-Neck Hoody is all kinds of wonderful, and it comes in at less than 8 ounces. It also rolls up small so that it can be tucked away in an external pocket of a backpack, which means it is readily available when you take that long break at the top of a pass.
Jacket. When the sun disappears I want something serious to keep me warm. Mountain Hardware’s Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket definitely does the trick. And while I would do my best not to get it wet, the down in this jacket is treated to help keep its insulating properties if moisture were to intrude. It packs to about the size of a fist, but is cut well below the waist for maximum warmth.
Pants. I’ve started using a quilt instead of a sleeping bag, and I’ve found I like a good set of warm pants for inside the tent. I have an old pair of Polartec fleece, but they are heavy and bulky. What I’d really like is a pair of Western Mountaineering Flash Pants. These come with 850 fill goose down and weigh in at less than 7 ounces. The down is untreated, so don’t get them wet, but they should put an end to cold nights on the John Muir Trail anytime July to September. Try to forget the fact that you will look like the Michelin Man.
I’ll also carry a few other items that help keep me warm. I have an old set of silk-weight, Polartec, long underwear that weighs practically nothing, but is good under my hiking pants if they aren’t quite sufficient. I always hike with wet weather gear and will not hesitate to put them on as an additional layer if the temperatures really plunge. Although two of the pieces I list above have hoods, I still carry a knit pullover cap for my head.
Some may consider this ensemble to be overkill, especially for a three-season hike. That may be true. But of you are like me and want to avoid the hike-light-freeze-at-night syndrome, I think you will find this meets the requirements nicely.
Good hiking, Ray
Hi Ray – that’s so funny, I just ordered a pair of Mont-bell down trousers. I figured they’d have many uses – second layer, pillow, spare trousers to wash the others, seat cushion. Definitely worth brining.
Thanks, Lisa. For those interested in the mont-bells, here is a link: http://www.montbell.us/products/disp.php?cat_id=2101&p_id=2301217&gen_cd=2. They look quite toasty!
As a quilt user myself , I’ve got a hooded North Face Thermoball I picked up for $110 on sale last year. Not quite as light or compact but really warm and 12oz, packs into left pocket.
Terrific buy, David, for a great piece of gear. Thanks for the comment!
I have been using Patagonia’s capilene and marino wool products for years. Recently I purchased a newly designed, high-tech combination marino wool/capilene crew neck (also have a hoodie) product from Patagonia called Marino-Air. Weighing only 7.2 oz, because of its warmth and wide comfort range it can be used as either a base layer or a second layer. I haven’t taken it hiking yet, but living off-grid in a canyon below Lone Pine Mountain I have recently had the opportunity to test it at 15 degrees F. I love it.
Patagonia makes a great product, Gary. Thanks for the comment!
I am also a huge fan of the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer. I was a skeptic at first what with all the hype about it but, I found it to be one of my most valuable articles on my JMT thru-hike.
Thanks for the comment, Bruce!
I am planning a JMT hike next September and been debating weather to purchase down pants vs a medium weight merino wool layer. I have a traditional lightweight down bag and sleep cold but not cold natured. If I go with down I fell like I need another base layer. Any suggestions? And thank you Ray for all your tips!
Sleeping comfortably in cold weather is so personal I am reluctant to make a suggestion, but – for me – the down pants were not necessary until I started using a quilt. If I still carried a sleeping bag I would just carry one I knew was warm enough and skip the down pants. There is really no weight savings in carrying a lighter sleeping bag AND down pants. Good luck, Kim, and thanks for the question.
Not sure about the down pants, you are correct about the Michelin Man look! I always wear a beanie when I get into camp and for sleeping which helps to keep me warm all night. I’ve just purchased a quilt so I’m making that leap too.
Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I was not a down pants guy, either, until I got the quilt. I love sleeping under it, but I definitely needed the extra warmth the pants provide.