gear

Gear Review: Katabatic Sawatch

Over the years, I’ve been asked repeatedly to write about the items in my backpack, especially those I’ve had problems with or have found that I’d rather not live without.  The Katabatic Sawatch backpacking quilt belongs to the latter category.

If you’ve missed out on the sleeping bag vs. quilt debate thus far, here’s an abbreviated version:  Sleeping bags have backs and, thus, give sleepers an extra layer between themselves and the ground.  But, that layer is so compressed that it can’t function as it should, so the back of a sleeping bag is actually wasted weight.

I became a quilt convert way back in my AT days, when Quiver used a lightweight, summer one.  At the time, I used a synthetic 15-degree Eureka bag — and, unless it was a balmy summer night in Pennsylvania, I was chilly.  (The cool, wet spring and autumn nights of Appalachia make for less-than-warm sleeping, especially in a body that is metabolizing more than it is consuming.)  Quiver’s bag was ridiculously small, ridiculously light, and much warmer than it seemed as though it should be.  And, while my knees or hips or shoulders or elbows often seemed to poke my sleeping bag, displacing stuffing and letting in the cold, the quilt seemed to have plenty of fabric to go around.  I came to see quilts not as backless sleeping bags but as a later species in the evolution of backcountry sleeping gear.

There was one big problem about Quiver’s quilt for me: down.  So, when I learned about the ethical down movement, I was intrigued.  “Ethical down” is a byproduct of the meat industry and is generally not the feathers of birds painfully forcefed for foie gras.  It’s not a perfect rating system, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.  And, I found it acceptable to my moral compass, akin to buying leather shoes at a secondhand store.

Katabatic Gear is a small company based in Colorado, and the down they choose to use is ethically sourced.  In winter 2015, with cash accumulated from long hours doing tech support at the local Verizon retailer, I splurged on the company’s 15-degree model, the Sawatch.  Because of my tendency to hike in moist environments, I chose water-resistant 850fp down for the filling.

When my quilt arrived, I couldn’t believe how light it was.  At home, I pile on the blankets in the winter, appreciating both their warmth and their weight.  Here was a piece of gear that I found unbelievably light, and yet, as I tested it on a winter evening, I could tell that its warmth was the real deal.

Ohana loves the Katabatic Gear Sawatach, too!

Ohana loves the Katabatic Gear Sawatach, too!

The Katabatic Gear Sawatch is one of my no-brainer pieces of gear:  It does exactly what it’s supposed to whenever I need it to and hasn’t let me down.  It kept me warm on snowy nights on the PCT; I slept when most other hikers were shivering.

It’s wonderful to pull it from my pack after a long day of hiking, wrap it around me, and watch its loft increase.  By the time the night’s temperatures start dropping, it’s one big, poofy blanket of loveliness.  On warmer nights (50-60 degrees), too, it hasn’t proven too challenging to sleep with, as it’s easy to lie under a corner of it or remove my feet from the foot box.  (Pro-tip:  On cold nights, shake the down toward the center of the quilt so that it is on top of you; on warm nights, shake it away from you to the sides of the quilt.)

The one challenge I’ve found with the Sawatch is laziness:  It comes with these tiny ropes to secure it to your pad for extra warmth, but I never seem to have the gumption to make that happen.  Even without the straps, I’ve found that, as long as I have a good, uncompromised barrier between myself and the ground, I’ve been warm enough to sleep on snow.

The Sawatch is made with the attention to detail that you’d expect from a small business.  The luxuriously soft fabric comes to a collar at the neck and can be fastened behind the neck with a couple of thick snaps, sewn in an opposing way to enable pairing them in the dark.  The quilt comes with an ultralight stuff sack, as well as an organic cotton bag for off-season storage.  To be honest, I’ve made use of the cotton bag for other gear, as I never put the Sawatch away.

Q&A: A Wardrobe for the Woods

A couple days ago, my friend Kayla asked what I wear to keep warm outdoors.  Our conversation reminded me of the many times people have asked me what I wore during my thru-hike; because of the question’s frequency and the fact that I just enjoyed a layer-clad weekend spent hiking on the snowy high peaks of the northeast, I decided my outdoor wardrobe should be the topic of tonight’s post.

So, what did I wear on my thru-hike?  The same outfit from Georgia to Maine.

Seriously, though.  Thru-hikers describe each other by the color of the shirt or rain jacket we wear:  “Yeah, you know her.  She’s the one with that neon yellow shirt.  She sometimes hikes with the guy who wears those little blue running shorts.”

Because everything we’re not wearing has to be carried in our packs, thru-hikers rarely carry changes of clothes.  Perhaps because of this, every article of clothing we bring with us is often painstakingly chosen.  Lightweight items are important, as are those that repel odors (though that magic only lasts so long).  Fabrics need to perform well; if they’re supposed to wick away moisture or guard against rain or insulate us, they must or they’ll get ditched in a hiker box somewhere.  Another important criterion for me was that anything I wore needed to be colorful.  (They call me Rainbow Dash for a whole slew of reasons.)

When you start talking to people about clothing, a lot of non-thru-hikers find the idea of choosing a few articles of clothing to wear day in and day out for six months rather daunting.  But, it’s actually pretty simple, once you break the basic hiker wardrobe down into a few categories:

IMG_20140915_114424_880

Me atop Katahdin this year, demonstrating some stylish layering

The Standard Outfit

This is that T-shirt and shorts everyone wears most days on the Appalachian Trail, unless you’re unfortunate enough to hike in a really wet year.  Obviously, we avoid cotton like the plague, and, as for shorts, I think I’ve helped advance the trend of hiking in running shorts, which are wildly popular on trail these days.

During my thru-hike, I wore a cerulean blue (my favorite color) Patagonia Capilene 1 shirt and black Reebok shorts with coordinating lime and blue accents (because that’s important!).  My sister decided that the best way to celebrate my birthday on trail was with a change of clothes, and I am quite partial to Outdoor Research’s incredibly lightweight T-shirts as a result.

Beneath that shirt and shorts, I wore synthetic underwear I’d purchased at Walmart.  Unlike many of my fellow hikers, I insisted upon carrying a couple extra pairs.

The Baselayer(s)/The Wicking Layer(s)

Here’s where the fact that I am a Southerner who gets cold easily comes into play.  On my thru-hike, I often carried two sets of top and bottom baselayers.  I’d waited months for Patagonia’s Capilene 2 and 3 products to go on sale and purchased a set of each.  I often rocked the shorts-atop-tights look, and I spent most every non-hiking moment wearing my “sweatshirt,” my lime green Capilene 3 shirt.

These days, I’ve come to love the performance of the Polartec fabric of EMS’s Techwick 2 line.  I highly recommend these baselayers for cold-weather hiking!

The Insulating Layer

The articles of clothing in this layer are some of my very favorite items that I own, in the woods or not.  On my thru-hike, I brought my beloved and fairly lightweight Columbia fleece with me.  It doubled as a pillow for much of the trail.

Recently, I’ve also fallen in love with Patagonia’s Nanopuff pullover, which I’ll be taking with me on the PCT rather than the fleece.  (I suppose that means that I’ll need to find a new pillow.)

The Waterproof Layer

So, basically everything that’s supposed to be waterproof fails midway through the trail, but I still found my rain gear essential while on some of the higher peaks, during some of the wettest and chilliest days, and on the coldest nights.  I’m one of those hikers who swears by rain pants.  (This is a no-judgment zone.)  I carried a Marmot Precip jacket and pants with me in 2012.

The Footwear

Most hikers will tell you that this is the most important category of clothing, and even ultralighters are likely to carry several pairs of socks.  I’ve found that liner socks work well for me:  The perfect combination is Injinji toe-sock liners and Wigwam outer socks.  Injinji now makes a line of trail socks that seem to serve the functions of both liners and outer socks, and I’m kind of in love with them.

Socks go inside boots, hiking shoes, trail runners, or Chacos, but more on that later…

The Cold-Weather Gear

Topping off the ensemble is the gear for the higher extremities.  Quiver gifted his fleece balaclava to me, which I don religiously as soon as I feel remotely cold.  I’ve also slept in it many nights on the trail.  I considered lightweight fleece gloves “luxury items,” but they sure made my life better when I carried them.

And, that’s all there is to it.  Hikers, what’s your favorite part of your wardrobe?

Q&A: My Favorite Piece of Gear

On the Appalachian Trail, we rarely engage in the status-based one-upping or schmoozing conversations of the non-hiking world.  We rarely discuss the jobs we held back home or pop culture, and there isn’t even much talk of politics, perhaps because we’re so far removed from the news media.  Instead, we have a few favorite conversation topics of our own.

In the southern half of the trail, it’s really difficult to get away from conversations about gear.  Up north, all we talk and think about is food.  And, weather and bodily functions are always good topics.

I generally don’t enjoy talking about gear.  Too often, such conversations feel as close to one-upsmanship as we get on the trail, with one hiker advising another about reducing pack weight with a tone of superiority:

“You know,” he says, straightening his shoulders, “I once had a canister stove, but after I created this homemade alcohol one, I’m never going back.  Hey, man, what’s your baseweight?”

You get the idea.

On trail, we have a saying for times like this: “Hike your own hike.”  With gear, that means bring what you need or want, leave what you don’t; take the advice you find helpful, and ignore what you don’t.  Most hikers carry at least a few things that others consider superfluous, but, when you’re living out of a backpack for months, I think it’s important that you love what’s in that pack.

DSCF1324

My sister spent a week on the trail with me during my thru-hike. Here, she and I are “cowboy camping” in Virginia. You can see my heavenly, yellow-orange mattress under my sleeping bag.

So, while the Jardi-Nazis (followers of Ray Jardine’s ultralight backpacking philosophy) might chastise me for it, my favorite piece of gear is my 2.5″-thick air mattress.

During my month-long hike of 2011, I slept on the standard foam pad and hated it.  So many hikers are tired enough at the end of the day that they don’t care what they sleep on.  I was certainly tired enough to fall asleep easily, but I’d wake up hurting and unrefreshed.  While I’d loved sleeping on the ground as a child — admittedly, I lived in Florida, so it was soft and sandy — I didn’t find it as appealing as a side-sleeping young adult.

Between my 2011 hike and my thru-hike, I decided to invest in an Exped inflatable sleeping pad, and (::puts on best television commercial voice::) it dramatically changed my backpacking experience.  I often call it one of my favorite possessions, not just one of my favorite pieces of gear.  At 15.2 ounces (newer models weigh less), it weighs about as much as a full-length ThermaRest Ridge Rest, but I look forward to sleeping and enjoy waking up on it.

(And, what backpacker doesn’t enjoy greeting the day with the sound of releasing the deflate valve?  #sarcasm #thruhikinghumor)

For the last few Mondays, I’ve been answering questions that I’m often asked about hiking.  But, it would be more fun to answer questions from you.  Are you planning to thru-hike and have some questions about long-distance hiking that I might be able to answer?  Are you a trail enthusiast who’d like to know more about the AT?  Are you another thru-hiker interested in sharing your experiences?  Let me know in the comment section!