Outdoors: Modernizing gear can be done economically, locally

By the time I graduated from college in 1984, I was raring to get outdoors, to do something strenuous, even epic.

With two buddies from the University of Montana, I backpacked across the Pacific Northwest. Physically, I was unprepared for a long-distance hike, having just spent much of my time in classrooms.

But, by the end of that summer, the rigors of the trail pounded us into well-conditioned hikers. So much so, that in the final weeks, we gave little thought to packing heavy cans of stew and chili. We wanted to put meat back into our diet, which had been dominated by lightweight powder soups, rice and lentils.

The consequence was hefting a pack that at times, weighed as much as 70 pounds. I didn’t fret that at age 24, but these days, I can’t be cavalier about weight.

Age, arthritis, and days spent at a keyboard, not the trail, have forced me to train extra long, even for a simple overnight backpacking trip.

Modern lightweight gear helps shave ounces, which is good for my joints. But anything labeled “ultra-light” in modern catalogs can be awfully pricey, and hard to justify while we still have two kids in college.

So, I have had to upgrade my kit with less expensive items, but it has been a fun exercise while adhering to two rules.

First, I shopped for quality at the lowest price. That sounds simple, but it forced me to do a lot of product research, and to eliminate items that I really liked but did not fit my budget.

Second, I bought the equipment from local sporting goods dealers. I enjoy online shopping as much as anyone, but I wanted to visit the stores, to actually see the products, inspect the quality and test the weight.

Plus, I like supporting the people who run local businesses.

My core kit from the 1980s — external-frame pack, two-person tent, down sleeping bag, cook stove and pot — weighed about 15 pounds. (That’s not including food, water, clothes and miscellaneous items like flashlight, spoon, pocketknife, etc.)

While exploring high-end gear, I figured out that I could spend about $1,260 on lightweight tents, packs, sleeping bags and other items I liked. These products, combined, weighed about 10 pounds.

But, sticking to my two-rule approach, I actually spent $415 for a new kit that weighs about 13 pounds.

Here’s what I came up with:

My old, external-frame pack, about 6 pounds, was replaced with an internal-frame “Terra” from The North Face. It’s around 4 pounds and costs about $150 at Cabela’s.

The 6-pound Eureka Timberline tent that I bought in high school retails now for about $140, but I opted for the single-person Solitaire, also by Eureka. It weighs 3 pounds and cost about $70 at Academy.

A dry cleaner ruined my down sleeping bag, but I replaced it for $70 with a Mountainsmith Poncha 35 synthetic-fill mummy bag, also at Academy.

I was surprised to see that, for about $30, you can still get a portable “grasshopper” propane cook stove, like the one I had in the Boy Scouts. But the necessary 1-pound fuel bottle is too bulky. Instead, I chose the highly rated and extremely compact MSR Pocket Rocket stove, with an 8-ounce fuel canister. I got the stove for about $40 at Academy.

By the way, that fuel canister fits neatly in the 24-ounce stainless steel Stanley cook set, which I got for about $15 at Walmart.

I splurged on a modern air mattress. The thin foam pads I’ve used for years separate me from the cold ground, but they don’t cushion my tired, middle-aged bones. The Big Agnes Air Core mattress costs about $70 at Backwoods, but it’s 24 ounces and rolls into bundle no bigger than my two fists.

Although I didn’t get the absolute best gear on the market, these items are better than anything I’ve used since I was a teenager.

But at the end of this exercise, I had only cut about 2 pounds from the core kit.

So, here’s another idea, that won’t cost anything — cutting some pounds off myself.

My personal weight these days hovers between 178 and 180 pounds. Just losing 15 pounds would get me down to what I weighed in high school. That’s probably pretty close to what I weighed when I finished that long-distance hike in 1984.

If my joints and back could speak, I bet they’d thank me for taking that stress off of them each day, and not just on the trail.