Category Archives: Gear

Solo backpacking cook sets: light or ultralight?

It’s a cold damp November morning and beyond enjoying the fire and watching the snow, I thought it would be a good time to compare a couple solo cook sets. This could considered to be a comparison between a light and an ultralight option. Specifically, I’m evaluating the GSI Pinnacle Soloist (light) and the Snow Peak Titanium Mini Solo (Ultralight).

GSI (left) and Snow Peak cook sets

I’ve used a version of the GSI soloist for several years and several through hikes. It’s definitely held up well. My only issue was a late night dinner when I forgot to remove the plastic bowl before setting it on the stove. The non-stick surface worked well when I had to remove the melted plastic.

The insulated bowl nests inside the pot

My older version does not have any volume markings so I would typically bring a “heavy” Nalgene bottle along to measure out water for cooking. The new version is made with volume markings to help with measuring water, a plus. The new model also includes GSI’s Foon, their take on the spork. (The foon is no reason to buy this kit.) The rest appears to be the same as my outfit. It weighs 10.2 oz with the included stuff sack/sink. Since the handle locks everything together, I’ve never understood the point of the sack/sink so what I carry weighs an ounce less.

The kit nests together well with a fuel canister, small stove, folding spoon and lighter. The pot holds approximately 37 oz. The lid fits well and can also be used as a strainer. The bowl is insulated and keeps oatmeal warm for a surprisingly long amount of time on a cold morning. If having a cup of coffee is important to you, you need to bring a cup. Otherwise it’s a bowl of coffee.

The aluminum construction and coatings are designed to disburse heat and eliminate hot spots. It’s better than others I’ve used in that regard, but you still need to be careful when creating meals more complicated than boiling water. The updated kit is now at REI for $54.95

A more Ultralight option is the Snow Peak Titanium Mini Solo. I’ve used this kit on a few trips now. This also packs up pretty well, though it may rattle a bit in its mesh bag. A small canister, stove and lighter also nest in the kit, though my spoon has needed to find a new home. The pot holds 30 oz. The cup can be used for either oatmeal or coffee and is well marked with volume graduations. It’s also sized pretty well, holding over 18 oz. The real selling point of this kit is weight, coming in at 6 ¾ oz. The kit is selling for $75.95 at REI.

Handy volume markings on the Snow Peak cup

In actual use, the GSI  brings water to a boil faster. The GSI took two minutes to boil 16 oz of room temperature water compared to nearly 2 ½ minutes in the Snow Peak. My only thought was the larger diameter of the GSI meant the water was shallower and thus easier to quickly heat. No big deal on a short trip, but longer trips may require carrying extra fuel, negating the Snow Peak’s weight advantage. Once the water is boiling, grabbing the handle on the GSI pot is also less risky than the Snow Peak; as it’s longer and better insulated.

Here’s my full comparison on YouTube.

Which kit is better for you? It depends on your priorities. If you’re counting every gram and resupply often enough to make sure fuel isn’t an issue, then the Snow Peak may be the best choice. On the other hand, if saving a few bucks are important, you worry about running out of fuel, you cook meals that require some time on simmer, or if you really want to use a “Foon,” go with the GSI.

Luckily, I own both kits so I can switch depending upon the trip. Actually though, My “go to” kit may just be the GSI pot with the Snow Peak cup nestled inside. The best of both worlds?

Gear Review: Sierra Designs’ Convert 2, Two Person Tent

Sierra Designs’ Convert 2

I was recently given the opportunity to test the Sierra Design’s Convert 2, four season tent. I had not used a four season tent in the past, but was painfully aware of some of the shortcomings of using a very lightweight three season model during the winter months. By contrast, this was one solid shelter. There was a price to pay in the weight department, but not a terrible one.

Basic Specs

MSRP: $499.95

Packed weight: With vestibule 5 lb. 12 oz. Packed weight: w/o vestibule and 4 less stakes 4lb. 9 oz

Shelter Type: Four season, self standing


Floor: 84” long x 55” wide (head), 49” (foot)
Interior: 30.3 square feet
Vestibule: 16.4 square feet
Peak: 43 inches


Floor: 68D 210T poly ripstop nylon
Fly: 20D ripstop nylon
Mesh: 15D no-see-um
Poles: Yunan UL aluminum

The Tent

As always, before heading out into the field, I try new equipment at a location where my house is an easy fallback. Everything was packed nicely in a “burrito” bag not much larger than a similar three season tent. The 15 stakes and three poles all fit within a single compartmentalized sack inside. I immediately noticed everything about this shelter was heavier duty than I was used to. Overall “fit and finish” was excellent. It was obviously well made.

The tent went up intuitively and quickly. Being four season, there was no exposed mesh. I did not turn the hose in it, but it seemed obvious that the tent could be set up in the rain without much water intrusion before the fly could be put on. Staked down and even using just some of the guylines, the pitch was rock solid.

The sides and doorway are nearly vertical, making the tent seem extremely roomy. Two pads and bags fit side by side with floor to spare. The high (43 inch) peak height was outstanding as far as comfort. The 16.4 square foot vestibule was cavernous, with the door set to one side to cheat the winter wind when entering or leaving the shelter. This was a tent I could see being livable through a winter storm if necessary. It packed up easily and fit back in it’s storage bag. It was time for a real world test.

Testing the Sierra Designs Convert 2

Former co-worker and fellow backpacker Bill and I were planning a November trip, but the weather doesn’t always want to cooperate at that time of year in Ohio. However, since I wanted to test the tent, the forecast of rain turning to snow, high wind and a low in the mid-20s wasn’t a deterrent.

We would be hiking the backpack trail at Tar Hollow State Forest. Despite the touristy name, the trails are fairly rigged for the Midwest. It was pouring rain on the drive out, so a second breakfast at McDonalds was in order. The delay ended up giving us around six hours of light to hike the 12+ miles we had planned. A light rain was falling as we began.

Bill, trying out Umbrella Hiking

Bill was carrying his Nemo 3 season tent, so I decided that I’d have no need for the Convert’s vestibule. That decision saved me a bit over a pound in the pack. That was a good decision as the trail was wet, creek crossings were numerous, the hills were steep and switchbacks were non-existent. It’s not often a trail is steep enough that I feel I’m hiking face to face with it, but that was the case in a few spots.

Conditions slowed us a bit, and with the late start, we arrived at the designated camp area in the dark. As no one else was enjoying the Tar Hollow camp experience, we had our choice of spots on the ridge and found a nice flat area without any standing water or apparent widow makers.

The rain had quit, replaced by occasional showers of ice pellets while we set up our tents by headlamp. Again the tent went up quickly and my sleeping bag, pack and all my gear fit in with room to spare. The large doorway is waterproof when closed, so the vestibule would not be missed.  I christened the tent, The Palace.

The Palace

With the wind beginning to howl, I made sure to guy out the sides of the tent. Utilizing a sliding ring, high and low guy out points are both used while only needing one stake. The Palace was quickly locked down and steady.

We kept a fire going for a while after dinner, but eventually the increasing wind, dropping temperature and ice pellet showers drove us to our respective tents. Since I’d be needing every bit of my 23 degree bag’s warming power, I kept The Palace zipped up tight with the foot area venting closed. It would be a good test of the material’s winter weather breathability.

Night’s are long in November, but I slept through the night, warm and dry. Despite the wind, the Convert’s fly remained taut and quiet. The temperature was in the mid 20s by morning. In Bill’s tent, his water froze. Mine did not. In addition, I had no issues with condensation whatsoever. For cold weather camping, this was one impressive tent.


Additional time spent with the tent only reinforced my positive initial impressions. The convert 2 is a well made, roomy, livable 2 person, 4 season tent. For one person, It’s downright palatial. However, as with any tent, there are compromises. While light and price competitive with other four season tents, it is heavy and expensive compared to most three season models. It all depends upon what you are looking for. This is not the tent to take on a summer thru-hike. However, if you’re thinking about expanding your camping horizons into the winter months or well into snowy mountains, this is a great piece of equipment.

  • The two-wall design with a breathable (not mesh) inner wall works well to keep in warmth and let out moisture vapor.
    • The weight, while heavy compared to a three-season tent, is light compared to other four-season tents of its size.
    • The removable vestibule can reduce weight when not needed but adds significant covered space.
    • The vertical walls and high peak make the tent very livable during bad-weather days.
    • Tent stakes are T-shaped, tough, and grip well. However, the tops were not machined off at all and are sharp. You’ll need to wear a glove when sinking the stakes by hand.
    • Two small pockets are adequate, but no more.
    • The suggested retail price is in line with comparable tents at $499.95.
    • A footprint is available. It will add nearly ½ pound to your pack and subtract $30 from your wallet.
Tent body w/o fly


Gear Review: Osprey Exos 58 Backpack

 Osprey Exos 58 Details:

Size: Small 55 liter, Medium 58 Liter, Large 61 Liter
Weight: 2 lb, 11 oz, to 2 lb, 12 oz
Load Range: 20-40 lbs.
MSRP: $220
Warranty: Lifetime

I have used an Osprey Exos 58 pack for years and believe it has been a great all around choice for backpacking. Apparently, I’m not alone in that thinking either. The results of The Trek’s 2017 survey of AT hikers listed it as the most popular pack. Last week, I presented a program at the Adventure Summit in Dayton. The featured speaker, Dale “Grey Beard” Sanders (oldest man to thru-hike the AT) began his presentation by walking out on stage wearing an Exos. When I check my gear closet, two of the three backpacks in there have Exos written on them. So, I had high expectations when Osprey sent me the newest version of the Exos 58 to test.

Grey Beard showing off his pack

I have had extensive experience with older versions of the pack. Besides numerous weekend trips, my first Exos 58 carried my gear on thru-hikes of the Colorado Trail, Long Trail and John Muir Trail. When I sent the pack back for repair of a worn hip belt attachment, I learned that their All Mighty Guarantee was the real deal. Rather than repair the pack they sent me a newer model, at no charge. That pack was happily carried on thru-hikes of the Tahoe Rim Trail and Sheltowee Trace and remains in good shape.

This newest alliteration of the Exos 58 has not yet been on any thru-hikes, but enough shorter trips (Twin Creek and Caesar Creek backpack trails in Ohio and up and down some serious elevation changes in Great Smoky Mountain National Park) to give me a good feel for the new model.

The Pack

Like past versions, the pack is built around an aluminum frame with Airspeed suspension which allows for ventilation room between the load and your back. At 6’ 2” with a 22” torso measurement, I went with the large; actual size 61 liters. The medium is 58 liters and the small is another three liters smaller.

The Exos has a main, top loading compartment, two large side stretch pockets, a large front, stretch/mesh pocket and a removable “brain.” If the brain is removed, an integrated flap still covers the main compartment. There’s also an internal sleeve designed to handle a 3 liter water bladder.

My first test was to see how it would handle one of my larger loads. Arrayed in the photo below is what I pack for a multi-day trip in temperatures down to 25 or so at night. Since it is required on occasion, I included a 650 cubic inch bear canister. The load also contained a solo tent, 20 degree bag, pad, cook kit, 2nd set of clothes, fleece, down vest, rain jacket, rain pants and typical odds and ends.

All my crap!
It all fit!

The entire load fit with (a little) room to spare. No item needed to be hung or strapped to the outside of the pack. My weight at that point was 20 lbs., including 2lb., 12 oz for the pack. Adding in two liters of water and four days of food at 1 ½ lb. per day put me right at 30 lbs.
The pack felt comfortable at that weight, easily adjusting to put most of the tonnage on my hips through a well padded hip belt.

Osprey states the pack can handle up to 40 lbs., but my personal experience was that comfort drops quickly above 35. Thankfully, I rarely need to go that high. With lighter loads (two days of food, no bear canister, no brain), the pack was just a joy to carry. The side compression straps kept smaller loads from shifting. Heavy or light, I had no issues with ill fit or rubbing.

A smaller load without the “brain”

Overall quality of construction was very high. While it has All Mighty lifetime warranty; don’t expect to need it. Although the pack closely resembles the earlier model, there have been some significant changes that affect the use of the product.

New Model Changes

The hip belt has been redesigned to have a wider, but shorter padded area. I found that it quickly adapted comfortably to my body. It also appears to allow the belt to be tighten around a smaller waist size. On the Colorado Trail, I went from 180 pounds to about 165 and nearly ran out of hip belt adjustment. This new version would alleviate that issue. For those that like lots of pockets, the downside to the change is that the zippered pockets on the hip belt are gone. I suppose I could use a few more of the dozen pockets on my cargo pants.

Heading up toward Chimney Tops in GSMNP

The other small pocket to disappear was on the shoulder strap. The folks at Osprey state they were looking for simplification with these changes. On the flip side, the side “water bottle” pockets were made larger and can now handle items like tent poles (or in my case, rain gear) while still giving access to a water bottle without having to remove the pack.

The sternum strap can now be quickly adjusted by simply sliding it up or down, a significant improvement.

The pack comes in two color options; the red & black pictured or a two tone green. I vote for the red & black as it shows up better in pictures and when you lay it down on the trail. Note to whomever found my “forest green” fleece along the Sheltowee Trace Trail: you’re welcome.

Overall, the pack is built to be more durable than past versions. The frame is slightly redesigned, and there’s less stretch material and more nylon on the remaining pockets. The Airspace mesh and brain attachments have been beefed up as well. This should all add to long term durability. On the downside, this tougher version does result in a weight penalty. The Exos 58 in large now weighs 2 lb., 12 oz. This is four ounces more than the previous model. For those looking for the lightest weight possible, removing the brain drops the total by 4 1/2 ounces. In addition, the trekking pole attachment, sleeping pad straps and side compression straps can all be removed to save a bit more.

If weight is an issue, you can consider the Exos 48, though you only save two ounces with that version.  As I occasionally use a bear canister though, the 58 is my choice.

Pros and Cons

• Strong history as a quality lightweight pack. Lifetime Warranty.
• Airspeed suspension keeps ventilation between the load and your back.
• Very comfortable with loads up to 35 lbs.
• New version appears more durable than older model.
• Hip belt can tighten further for smaller waists.
• Easy adjustment of the height of the sternum strap.
• Larger side pockets can handle more than just water bottles.

• Hip belt and shoulder strap pockets have disappeared
• Weight has crept up four oz.

The Verdict

Reward for a steep climb

While certainly not ultralight, I’m a fan of the pack’s design. I’m willing to pay some weight penalty for the comfortable carry and rugged construction. In addition, the ventilation on the back provided by the Airspeed suspension was huge plus on uphill climbs even during some unseasonably warm February weather. Come July, I’ll enjoy the ventilation even more. For me, the comfort and carrying capacity of the Exos 58 “outweigh” the benefits of lighter packs I’ve tried.

Osprey has taken a winning design and fine-tuned it for simplicity and durability. Despite the loss of pockets and the addition of four ounces, the Osprey Exos 58 remains a great option for either overnights or thru-hiking.