As a California resident, before I started my 2016 PCT hike, I was more attuned to outfitters that are based on the Left Coast. (REI and Adventure 16, I’m talking about you!) Lucky for me, though, some kind folks at L.L. Bean were willing to provide me with some key gear, which turned out to be the items I most treasured as key to my safety and well-being on the trail. Please note that these items were provided to me free of charge; after using them for over 800 miles on the trail, they would now be what I would choose to purchase. Here are some photos and comments.
L.L.Bean Microlight UL
1-Person Backpacking Tent
Weight as packed: 36 oz.
Pros: Fast setup, even in high wind; super compact; freestanding; lightweight; survived harsh conditions where other tents did not.
Bottom line: This is now my tent of choice for solo hikes.
I tested this tent in many varieties of harsh conditions, in huge winds and on snow. It was a rock star, even when other hikers around me suffered tent failures (broken poles, snapped guylines, middle-of-the-night tent collapse). In the photo above, I nestled my tent close to some beautiful California flannel bushes, a misleadingly lovely spot in Tylerhorse Canyon (PCT Mile 541.55), which is a harsh, high-desert environment near Tehachapi that offers (in a good year) a meager trickle of water to thirsty hikers. The wind was pretty strong the night I camped here; a nearby hiker endured a tent collapse in the middle of the night. I slept like a baby!
Earlier, at PCT Mile 415, I found myself arriving at the end of the day at a very exposed campsite at 6,219 ft. elevation – the last campsite before a steep hike down the mountain to the Mill Creek Fire Station at 4,913 elevation. My tent and I ended up having a wild ride that night. Here’s how I described my experience, in my Day 28 (April 21) blog post:
Once I get to Mile 415, I find Rainbow, Sparks and Prince with their tents already set up, and a pretty big wind whipping around our exposed site…. I set up my tent nearby. The views at dusk are stellar [photo above].
The moon is full, and for awhile, Prince sings and plays his ukelele, until he announces that his fingers are too cold to continue. He says he thinks the wind will die down, but in fact, it just increases in intensity during the night.
Around midnight, Rainbow decides there will be no sleep in these winds, so he packs up his tent (no mean feat in the high winds) and night-hikes down the mountain.
At some point, Sparks’ tent collapses on him, and he doesn’t even try to set it back up. A guyline on Prince’s tent snaps, breaking a stake.
I lie in my tent, with monster winds bending and flexing the poles that form a frame for my tent. I wonder how much wind it would take to take my tent aloft, with me an involuntary parasailer. My amazing 2-lb.LL Bean tent handles the monster winds with no problem – WOW! – though sleep can’t override my wide-eyed fear as I listen to the howling winds and watch the tent poles bend and flex, bend and flex. Once again, I find myself sending up a huge thanks to my LLBean friends who have provided me with the most critically important gear for my wildest moments on the trail.
[from Blog post, “Day 35 (Apr. 28): Again with the Aqueduct and Monster Winds! and the Start of the Endless Wind Turbines”
In the photo below (May 19, 2016) we’re right below Forester Pass, at a small, exposed campsite at 12,502 ft. elevation (Forester Pass, at 13,188 ft., is the highest point on the PCT). We camped here the night of May 18, and the wind had blown hard all night – sustained winds, rather than occasional gusts – and the low was around 19°F. The red tent suffered a pole break; my tent held up fine. I doubt that any of us slept, because the winds were so fierce, but I was safe and protected, thanks to my phenomenal tent.
A few more comments on this tent: First, because the inner tent is all bug netting except for the bathtub floor, you can star-gaze by not using the rain fly, and still be protected from mosquitoes and other annoyances. Of course, the tent will be less warm, but perhaps you won’t be camping in 19°F temps. Second, this tent is quite narrow – just wide enough for my 20″ Thermarest Neoair XTherm pad. (I often put one trail runner on each side of my pad, just to get the tent wall a little farther from me.) But there is some room to stash gear at either end of the tent, below your feet and above your head, and there’s a vestibule for additional semi-protected gear storage. Finally, like most UL tents, there’s room to sit up only right under the tent’s apex.
In high winds, I loved how I could quickly set up the frame and inner tent, then toss my backpack inside to hold it down while I attached the rain fly and staked it out.
Weight as packed: I swapped out the guylines for lighter spectracord-type lines. The tent comes with sacks for poles, stakes and tent; I did not carry any of them, except for the stake sack. I swapped some of the stakes for lighter-weight ones, though I ended up really liking the provided stakes.
L.L.Bean Neoshell Jacket
Weight (women’s size S Reg): 13.3 oz.
Pros: Super-protective in massive winds as well as all-day rain; easily-accessible chest pockets protected my electronic gear
Bottom line: The best article of clothing I’ve ever owned, hands down.
This Polartec Neoshell jacket is “the next generation of breathable, waterproof and air permeable jackets, made with design input by the U.S. Ski Team.” Its “waterproof construction wards off wet and windy conditions.” I read promotional descriptions like that with a lot of skepticism. Well, call me a believer on this one.
I doubted that I would need a real rain jacket for the Southern California section of the PCT, and didn’t even think about protection from the wind, beyond my 3-oz. Patagonia Houdini jacket, which I ended up leaving behind in favor of this heavier jacket. Wow, was that the right call!
Once I reached Mount Laguna on Day 3, the forecast for the next day was “very high winds (35-45 mph with gusts up to 90 mph), followed by snow overnight.” And the forecast was spot on. Without trekking poles, I would have been blown off the mountain. Even adding or removing a layer of clothing required finding a big blowdown or rock for a modicum of shelter. Despite these crazy conditions, I had an exhilarating day on trail, because my L.L.Bean jacket kept me comfortable through it all. The photo above is at Pioneer Mail Picnic Area on Mt. Laguna about 6 hours into my day’s hike — and no, I do not have the body type of the Michelin Man; I had on every layer I owned, and the wind was puffing out all my clothes. Yet, I was warm and comfortable all day.
Since I started my PCT hike on March 25, which is about one month earlier than typical, I had MANY days of crazy wind or snow conditions. (Yes, those thousands of wind turbines in the Tehachapi area are well-situated!) Every experience described above, where my tent kept me safe in extreme conditions, was preceded by daytime hiking conditions where my jacket saved the day. My take-away from these experiences: don’t leave home without your L.L.Bean Neoshell jacket or your trekking poles.
This jacket is literally the best garment I have ever owned. (Better even than the prom dress my mom custom-made for me!) It is comfortable in a wide range of temperatures, and it protects my electronic gear while keeping it accessible. Though I am a notorious tightwad, I would absolutely buy this jacket at full-price, even though it is somewhat pricey. On the PCT, it proved its worth over and over again, keeping me safe in the wildest conditions.