October 2, 2015



My parents have been avid backpackers my entire life, and now that they're in their fifties, they've logged more trail miles than ever. Both of them have flexible, self-determined schedules, so they've been able to take a couple of months each year to go into the back country. In 2012, they hiked the Camino de Santiago through France and Spain. Last year, they finished section-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Then, just this Summer, they came to visit me in Oregon and get started on the Pacific Crest Trail.

My dad's trail name is "Speedo," because when he's not wearing his cargo shorts and sleeveless hiking shirt, he's in his Speedo, ready to rinse off the day's heat in whatever stream or lake can be found nearby. Dad's been a die-hard believer in external frame packs for almost twenty years and only recently switched to a more ergonomic internal-frame design.

The last time I hiked the AT with them, my mom's trail name was "Peabody" named for her frequent potty breaks. If you needed to know where to use the bathroom, she's the one to ask. Now, she goes by "Grunt," and I don't know where that name comes from. There's doubtless a good story behind it. She's been using internal frame packs my whole life.

When I was a kid, my parents bought me an external frame backpack so we could easily adjust it as I grew. Once all of the growth spurts were out of my system, I graduated to an internal frame pack that I've used for the past ten years or so. My work schedule meant that I could only spare a couple of days to hike with them on this trip, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to try out my new Guide's Pack.

The hardest thing to get used to was not having a load-bearing hip belt, which is something most internal and external frame packs depend on to distribute weight. A hip belt ensures that all of the weight is transferred to your legs, rather than digging into your shoulders. Tom has written about this very intentional design choice, arguing that, with the right packing system, a pack can comfortably hold a lot of weight without a hip belt.

I was skeptical at first, but I was only looking at a six-mile hike in each direction, so I figured I wouldn't have to suffer long if the pack ended up being burdensome.

Paradise Loop Trail

We picked out a shelter to hike to, so I didn't have to worry about bringing a tent, I could get by with just my sleeping bag, ground pad, and ENO hammock. I packed a camp stove, even though my parents told me not to, just because it's always good for your pack to have everything you need to spend a night alone. Emergencies do happen, no matter how controlled your hike is, and emergency rations, water, and clothing layers are necessities in the back country.

The Guide's Pack is basically an open-top duffel bag, so I had to rethink my packing strategy. With the Synapse, the focus is on modular flexibility and compartmentalization. There's a place for everything, and I put everything in its place.

When it came to loading up the Guide's pack, I first tried to pack it bottom-to-top, stuffing things that really need to stay dry, like my sleeping bag, clothes, and food in the bottom, and stacking my ground pad, stove, and water on top, these being the things I would most likely reach for first once we got to camp. The Guide's Pack has another pocket on top into which I placed my down jacket (in its stuff sack,) rain jacket (folded into its own pocket,) trail mix, and first aid kit. I don't have any side pockets yet.

Unfortunately, this created an unbalanced distribution of weight, which is an important factor to consider when hiking. With my sleeping bag at the bottom, my Thermarest ground pad took up a full half of the interior pack space. All of the heavier items (like my food, water, JetBoil, and fuel,) ended up crammed into one side of the bag, putting all of the strain on one shoulder. That wouldn't do for two six-mile days.

I couldn't solve the packing problem myself, but my Mom shared with me some trail wisdom. She suggested I unroll my Thermarest inside of my pack, creating a smooth cylinder out of the remaining space, right down the center of the bag. I was amazed at how perfectly the ground pad gave structure to the interior, and the packing order became clear. I put the dry things at the bottom, like my sleeping bag and thermal layers, staggered my Eagle's Nest and the JetBoil dead center, and put my water bottle on the top with the food for easy access. The mouth of the Guide's pack has a drawstring to cinch it shut, and when the bag was closed, it was nothing but smooth contour lines.

The Pacific Crest Trail was originally used for pack animals, so it doesn't have many steep grades. There were a lot of switchbacks through the gravelly canyons at the foot of Mt. Hood that led down to trickling streams (Oregon has had a drought this Summer,) and up to fragrant alpine meadows. I barely noticed I was carrying any weight, making use of the sternum strap and hip belt to keep my pack snug against my back.

When we got to camp, we discovered that the sheltered we intended to stay in had been demolished, part of its foundation still visible underneath the massive tree that must have caused its downfall. No matter, I put my pack down on the stump and strung up my hammock.

Despite the murderous heat that has been plaguing the Pacific Northwest this Summer, it was chilly on the lower slopes of Hood, so we all put on our warm weather layers and crowded around the Jetboil or coffee and a drink my parents have named, "hot yummy," which consists of some Mio added to hot water.

In the morning, I packed up everything neatly into my Guide's Pack and made the trek back out. It only took two hours to reach the trailhead, and I never noticed the weight I was carrying. If I were traveling longer, I would either need a larger bag or some side pockets to make room in the main compartment for a tent or more food, but for just two days, the Guide's Pack was perfect.

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