This is a big topic on which much is already written, many opinions held, and where personal preferences reign. So here’s my two cents worth, but what works for me may not for you. See also my clothing page for other sorts of gear.
First of all, consider weight. On a regular hiking trip you will probably be walking fewer hours each day compared to the Te Araroa Trail, and for only a few days, so you don’t have to put up with a heavy pack for long. But that all changes on the TA. Pare weight back as much as you can. Check out lightweight hiking websites. Think about the stuff you really need vs the simply nice-to-have. Do you really need a book? Liquid shampoo? A sheath knife? An inflatable pillow? A coffee brewer? Detergent? More than one cooking or eating container? Get some scales and weigh every single item so you see how much each contributes to the total. A 100g T-shirt, cellphone, or whatever doesn’t seem like much on its own, but they quickly add up.
A 2013 MSc thesis¹ that surveyed hikers on the Appalachian Trail found that hikers with lighter pack weights tended to be finishers, and that all hikers progressively lightened their packs as they discarded stuff they realised they didn’t really need. The conclusion was that you shouldn’t carry more than 20% of your body weight, with a maximum for any person of 30 lb (13.6 kg). The average pack weight for completers was 18% of body weight. Pack weight also correlated with back, shoulder and torso injury.
But what else to consider besides weight? Here are my seven factors:
- Frequency of use
- Comfort value
- Safety value
It is worth checking each item of gear you are thinking about taking against these, but also if you are weighting up (no pun intended) two or more options, such as which type of tent to take. Generally, lighter weight gear is going to cost more and be less rugged. And the less gear you carry, the more you are sacrificing comfort and possibly safety. Generally you should put the greatest gear selection care into those things you are going to use the most. If you are tossing up between two packs and the one you like costs more, don’t worry about the price: that pack will be on your back every single day. But if you are only going to use a tent half a dozen times then why spend a lot on one, or worry about its comfort level? Weight then becomes more important. Of course, there are some things like a personal locator beacon or first-aid supplies that you hope you will never use at all, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them, so that’s where the safety value comes in. Another thing to consider is whether you can use one item for multiple purposes (a towel for a scarf, or a cooking pot for eating out of, say) and reduce the amount you carry that way. Not many things fall into that category, but walking poles that serves as tent poles (see below) is a major one. And I eat out of a lidded food storage container which I also use to carry squashable food.
Before getting into discussing some specific items, I’m going to put my gear list out there, but as I say, personal preference does come into it a lot. My pack base weight in the South Island was 7.4 kg (16.3 lb). In practice I was carrying about 10.2 kg on my back including food and water at the start of each section, though I did often start off sections with some heavy fresh food, so maybe it was a bit more than that. I think this is fairly light, due in part to a light tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cooking gear and, once I’d eaten the freshies, food. But let me say that the tent wouldn’t have stood up to a storm, I was freezing in my sleeping bag on several nights, and the sleeping mat wasn’t as comfortable as inflatable ones. So another kg would have seen me a lot more comfortable. Still, there are people who go way lighter than my 7.4 kg base weight. I’d heard of 4.5kg and thought that was impossible without extreme hardship until I managed to pared my own down to 4.7 kg for the North Island TA. That was the result of a new, lighter pack, no cooker, a lighter parka, no waterproof pants, and fewer warm clothes. Leave out a book and I would be close to 4.5 kg.
You can download my gear list as a spreadsheet and use it to add in your own gear. I’ve placed the South Island and North Island lists side-by-side so you can see where I’ve saved weight. If you are doing both islands then you certainly have an opportunity to shed some of your warmer clothes as you get into the upper North Island.
You can get away with not camping very often on the South Island TA, so there is no point carrying a large, heavy tent if you are just doing this island when you might use it only 7 or 8 times. In fact, with careful planning, spending more than average on accommodation, and maybe good luck, you might be able to avoid camping entirely in the South Island. But don’t get too confident. An issue to consider is backcountry huts, camping ground cabins and backpacker accommodation being full at peak season. You can get round this by going off-peak and booking well ahead but then there are still specific spots where camping is difficult to avoid: in Canterbury, Lake Middleton (stay at expensive Ohau Lodge or sleep under the stars?); Harper Village (no easy alternative, unless you choose not to walk from Lake Coleridge Village to Harper and catch a ride instead, or sleep out); and in Marlborough-Nelson at Pelorus River (sleep out or hitch/bus to Havelock to stay and hitch/bus back next day?) The North Island is a different kettle of fish though and there you can expect to be camping quite often and come to appreciate the benefits of having a good tent.
A conventional, double wall tent with a bathtub floor and its own tent poles is a fairly heavy beast. Even the ones claimed as lightweight, like Macpac’s Sololight or the Nemo Hornet, are over 1kg. So you need to get out of the regular camping tent mindset. Weight can be saved by a design which uses hiking poles instead of tent poles, and by going to a single wall. The downside of single-wall tents is condensation. It’s not much fun waking up in the morning to find the inside of the tent wall wet, especially when you bump against it, and having to dry it out before you can pitch it again. But you can try and minimise condensation by keeping the tent door partially open, camping under trees, and avoiding sheltered hollows. A lightweight cloth like a Chux Superwipe can be handy to wipe off condensation before you pack up the tent.
Further weight can be saved by skipping insect mesh. My experience has been that while campsites can be swarming with sandflies in the South Island, they do go to bed at night. And while you will get mosquitos in the North Island north of about Hamilton, they are not fierce and you can put a shirt or something over your head when sleeping. Or if you have a silk sleeping bag liner, burrow down so it covers your head.
The last weight saver is foregoing a bathtub-style floor and just using a groundsheet, with the risk that water might splash or even flow in under the edges of the tent. Site selection is important again, as good drainage then is key. Sleeping away from the side where the rain might be coming from also helps. For a groundsheet, two alternatives are commonly used. The lightest is Polycryo (cross-linked polyolefin) which you can buy as window insulating material. Bunnings sell it as 3M ‘Window Insulator Kit’. A piece 1m x 2.5m weighs about 50g. A possible alternative that weighs the same is one of those silver survival blankets you can buy at outdoor stores. The reflectorised coating might add some warmth, but it does rub off over time. But a significant downside with this stuff is that it is hard to fold up after use into a compact package. Both Polycryo and survival blankets are very tough and far more puncture resistant than polythene sheeting such as painters’ drop sheets.
The main alternative to Polycryo is Tyvek. It is about twice the weight, but still light, easy to fold and unfold, more comfortable to sit or lie on, and it is tear resistant. It is also white, so great for seeing all those small bits of gear you pulled out of your pack and scattered about. It may absorb some moisture if very wet underneath, requiring you to dry it out. It will also pick up dirt and debris if you put the matt side down. There is a subtle difference in shine between the two sides: always put the shiny side down, as it is very hard to clean stuff off the matt side. Like Polycryo, Tyvek can be used as a groundsheet in addition to a bathtub inner to insure against punctures and tears from rocks or sticks in the floor of an expensive tent.
Speaking of fabric, before we go further, there are three types that tents are typically made out these days, ranging from the cheapest, polyester urethane (PU) coated nylon, through silicone coated (silnylon), which has a better strength for weight ratio, to the expensive but extremely light and strong fabric Dyneema Composite Fabric (DFC). You can read about the difference between PU and silnylon here and between nylon and DFC on the same website here. A key difference besides strength for the last two are that nylon will stretch. This can be a good thing in that it spreads tension over a large area rather than putting all the pressure on a single point like a guy line attachment, but not so good in that it may absorb water (depending on how water proofed it is) and sag down into your living space. Also Dyneema is not so abrasion resistant. So there is potential on both counts for a Dyneema tent to wear out more quickly.
Two Person Tents
Possibly the lightest weight two-wall tent around is the Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Carbon. It has its own carbon fibre poles and the outer is made from Dyneema. It weighs 765g for the 2-person version. That’s an incredibly light 285g per person. It has been well reviewed on Outdoor GearLab, with some provisos, including cost. Which is NZ $2,000 at Gearshop (or USD $1,000 on Amazon). OK, forget the Tiger Wall. Switch to single wall tents. Outdoor Gear Lab loves ZPack’s Duplex (the Flex version with its own poles), also made of Dyneema and accommodating two people. It comes with built-in bug mesh and a bath tub floor. The non-Flex, using hiking poles, is a traditional A-frame shape and weighs just 550g excluding tent pegs. (You need to pay close attention to what is included and excluded in quoted weights, as practices vary, and guy lines may be excluded, and pegs usually are.) At USD $600 the non-Flex is also not cheap (NZ $1,020 incl NZ gst and freight as at April 2021), but it has an incredibly low weight per person for two; or provides a spacious, still very light tent for one.
Other A-frame tents include Gossamer Gear’s ‘The One’ (for one person, 503g with bath tub floor and insect mesh at USD $300) and ‘The Two, (for two people naturally, 667g, $375). Both are available in more expensive Dyneema versions (433g and 590g). You can buy these in Australia from Backpacking Light (and who, incidentally, sell the Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 at AUD $1,500, which seems like a pretty good buy, as well as an extensive range of tents from many manufacturers). Tarptent Aeon Li is given a ‘top pick’ rating on Outdoor GearLab and is 494g but costs about USD $535. Cheaper tents are the Black Diamond Beta Light at 612g (2 people) but with no floor or bug protection and Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp (522g), both about USD $220. All are reviewed at Outdoor GearLab: search for ‘best ultralight tent of 2021’ (or try another year if you are reading this after 2021). Arguably A-frames are less able to stand up to strong winds than some other shapes, but a lot depends on the specifics of how a given tent is designed.
If you are going solo then around 500g is a point to aim for, though you may end up with 700 or 800g. Definitely stay under a kg. You will certainly be looking at a single wall tent that uses hiking poles for support at these sorts of weights. Consider, for example, the DD Hammocks Superlight Tarp tent at 710g with insect mesh, a bathtub floor and vents, which you can buy in NZ from Gearshop for about $400. There are quite a few brands using this sort of design, such as the Chinese made 3F UL Gear Lanshan 1 Pro of a similar weight, but cheaper. Far and away the cheapest version is available from Intents Outdoors in NZ for just NZ $160 and weighing 710g packed weight (i.e. with guys, pegs, bags). Much lighter and more expensive variants include Z-Packs’ Plexamid and Hexamid (433g and 274g) Dyneema tents. The former will cost you twice the price of the DD Hammocks tent, plus freight to NZ and NZ gst; the latter has no bathtub floor and suffers a potential design issue in that there is no ‘eave’ of the outer fabric over the insect mesh, so water can run from one to the other according to an Outdoor GearLab review. Apparently Z-Packs say the idea is the mesh will guide water under your groundsheet. Yeah, well, maybe.
Another design is the pyramid tent, with a central pole. It is a very stable design in wind, but you have to sleep one side or other of the pole. Works best for two people. Hyperlite Mountain Gear make some of these out of Dyneema, but they are very expensive. Substantially cheaper are those by Mountain Laurel Designs such as their smallest, the Solomid. You can chose whether to have the fabric as Silnylon or Dyneema, at 410g vs 310g. More economical, but without a floor or insect mesh (like the Solomid, these are available separately, but adding a lot of weight) is DD Hammocks Superlight Pyramid tent at 460g (excl guys) and costing only about NZ $250 in NZ for a one-person version.
Pyramid variants that are both affordable and very light are the Deschutes Shelter from Six Moons (silnylon, AUD $349, 368g or 230g in Dyneema), and the Hexamid Pocket Tarp with Doors from Z-Packs (Dyneema, USD $300, 172g). These are minimal shelters and neither has a floor nor insect mesh, but you can purchase add-ons or sleep in a bivvy bag.
What we’ve been looking at above are more elaborate forms of tarp[aulin] tents. At its most basic a tarp tent is just a single sheet of fabric, usually pitched in an inverted V between walking poles. But there are many ways of pitching a tarp, including having three edges on the ground in extreme conditions. The plain tarp is certainly the lightest way to go but remember that NZ weather is often windy and rainy, so a tarp tent may not always be very comfortable. Some people sleep in a bivvy bag under a tarp, which means your sleeping bag won’t get wet.
If you want to go minimalist via the plain tarp route then some of the better ones might be Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp at 290g including guy ropes, or their Echo2 at 264g plus guys. I’m intrigued that they describe the latter as having ‘plenty of room for two in a pinch’. If you only put two people in when there is a pinch (a critical moment), doesn’t that imply there isn’t plenty of room for two? Whatever, an interesting feature of the Echo2 is that you can add a ‘beak’ at 134g to close off one end of the tarp tunnel. Both the Hyperlite tarps are made of Dyneema, as is Z-Packs Square Flat Tarp, which is lighter at 221g but made of a less robust (i.e. thinner) grade of fabric. These will all set you back around the USD $300 to $360 mark. The Hyperlite and Z-Packs flat tarps are both well reviewed by Outdoor GearLab. Cheaper options are tarps made from Silnylon, such as Sea To Summit’s Escapist 15D, which you can buy in NZ for about NZ $270. It weighs 300g (without guys?). Or DD Hammock’s slightly narrower but longer Superlight Tarp at 260g without guys for just NZ $190.
Make Your Own
You could always just buy some Dyneema or Silnylon and make a tarp yourself, as it’s pretty straightforward. The cost of importing the fabric from the USA may negate some of the savings though. A supercheap alternative is to make it out of Polycryo. This guy made one about 2 x 3 m at 300g. It is clear plastic, so offers no privacy whatsoever of course and won’t last forever.
I made a very cheap and light tarp-style tunnel tent out of Tyvek weighing about 250g (plus pegs, plus Tyvek groundsheet = 535g total). That’s using the 43gsm lighter weight variety rather than the Tyvek used by the building industry for wall lining. I would say that this stuff is a bit like canvas: breathable, and water resistant, but with dew or rain the fabric takes up water and when you brush the inside walls you get wet.
Home-made Tyvek tent
Hammocks and Bivvy Bags
A few people have tried hammocks on the TA. These can be quite good in the New Zealand bush, as it is often very hard to find a flat, open space to pitch a tent, but bear in mind that large sections of the TA are in tree-less areas, such as Otago and Canterbury and the Ninety Mile Beach. And camping grounds rarely have suitable trees, if any. In general, a hammock will probably limit your options. Bivvy bags are another thing a few people favour, but while they save a lot of weight, I can’t see them being a very pleasant experience in heavy rain. You will also have to figure out how to protect food in your pack from possums and rodents if it won’t fit inside your bivvy.
Sleeping Bags and Mats
Sleeping bag warmth
Go for lighter and compensate for lack of warmth on occasion by wearing some clothes to bed. In fact, note that the sleeping bag ratings you see under the international testing standard EN 13537 or its updated equivalent ISO 23537-1:2016 assume you are wearing long john underwear. You can read about how these ratings are devised and what they mean on Thermarest’s site here. Basically, they give a ‘comfort’ rating as the lowest temperature at which a ‘standard female’ can sleep in a comfortable and relaxed position. Why female? Well because men, on average, can sleep comfortably at lower temperatures, so this temperature rating allows for those who feel the cold more. The next figure, the ‘limit’ temperature is the lowest at which a male can sleep curled up without waking. So anything below this leaves most of us waking up with the cold and wanting to put more clothes on. The ‘extreme’ figure is, well, the lowest which might be survivable but definitely a point at which your life might be in danger from hypothermia. The terms ‘transition’ and ‘risk’ seem to be just ranges where limit and extreme are the lower end of them.
You probably know this, but down bags are lighter than synthetic in terms of weight for warmth and, just as important, crush down much smaller in your pack. Goose down is warmer than duck, and the more down vs feathers (e.g. 90% down and 10% feathers) the better. And the higher the ‘fill power’ (amount of loft, or fluffiness, the down is capable of), the better. There can be ethical issues with down (e.g. live plucking), so check that there is some sort of responsibility statement on how the down is sourced. Down works when it is dry and fluffed up, so don’t expect to have a warm bag by jumping into it straight after you’ve unpacked it. Shake the bag thoroughly to let the down expand. Also, because it will be absorbing your body moisture while you sleep, let your bag air as much as possible before and after using it. Always store down bags uncompressed at home.
Returning to the business of men and women feeling the cold differently, many bags are made in a women’s version to compensate for this. That is, they are made to be warmer. They will also have a different cut to allow for wider hips and narrower shoulders. This article on Section Hiker gives a good run down of the differences.
There is a trend for long distance walkers in the US to take quilts rather than sleeping bags in order to save the weight, but I have no experience of these myself. The theory is that the insulation on the underside of a regular sleeping bag just gets squashed by your body, so serves no useful purpose in keeping you warm and just adds weight. The idea with a quilt is that it works with an inflatable sleeping pad (often with an attachment system) so the pad does the work of keeping you warm on the underside. So if you are going with a quilt then you need to consider the pad’s dimensions and insulation rating as well to create an integrated system.
How a quilt would work with the standard bunk mattresses in a NZ back country hut I don’t know, and I think this may have something to do with why they haven’t taken off in NZ. I guess you need to put your air mattress on top. Note also that quilts don’t usually have a hood, so a warm hat or balaclava also need to be part of your sleep system. And they assume you are wearing some sort of clothing, as bare skin on many sleeping mats (not to mention the plastic-covered DoC mattresses in NZ huts) would not be especially comfortable. I believe that quilts are best suited for where the temperature is above zero degrees. Outdoor GearLab suggest that quilts are not necessarily lighter than the lightest sleeping bags, but can be more flexible in coping with a range of temperatures, as you can open them right out when it’s warm.
So far, I have only found a few quilts for sale in NZ: the Thermarest Vesper 0°C (weighs 460g and is rated as comfort 5°C, limit 0°) at Gearshop; Sierra Designs Nitro at Further Faster and Sea to Summit’s Ember (600g) and Cinder (480g) at the same store; and the former also at Intents Outdoors. All cost between $400 and $600.
Lighter Weight Bags Available in NZ
In general, it looks like Gearshop have the best range of ultralight sleeping bags. Your regular tramping sleeping bag sold at the likes of Macpac, Kathmandu, etc tend to be designed for fairly cold temperatures and are just too heavy. An exception is Kathmandu’s Pathfinder at 710g, made from 700 loft, 90/10 goose down and rated by the manufacturers as 5°C comfort, 0° ‘transition’ and -15° ‘limit’. Its standard price is $500, but who pays full price at Kathmandu? (members price is $300). I have used one of these on the TA and I think its the best value for money combined with balance of warmth for weight sleeping bag you can buy in NZ. On the one hand I have found it too warm in many back country huts (modern ones with decent insulation and perhaps other bodies warming the place up), but too cold camping in Otago and the Canterbury High County where summer temperatures may drop to zero at night, and also in the uninsulated tin huts in Canterbury.
Scouring NZ tramping equipment sites besides Macpac and Kathmandu – Torpedo 7, Bivouac, GearShop, Living Simply, Dwights Outdoors, Further Faster and Intents Outdoors – I didn’t find a great many lighter bags. Bivouac has the Sea To Summit Sport SPII at 490g and 4°C comfort rating at $650, which sounds good but it only has a half zip, which limits the range you can use it in because when its too hot you can’t unzip it down to your feet. (Two-way zips tend to be skipped for weight sometimes too I think, but I consider them essential for keeping feet cool on warm nights when you still want to keep the draft out of your mid-section.) Outdoor GearLab also slate the Sport SPII, saying, ‘A long list of problems unfortunately compromise this ultralight bag’. The other lightweight bag at Bivouac is the Sea to Summit Womens’ Flame at 505g and 2° comfort at the same price, but also with a half zip.
GearShop has Thermarest’s Hyperion 0° (known as the Hyperion 32 in the USA naturally) weighing 460g and with a comfort rating of 5° and limit of 0°, at $700. This is quite a narrow bag in the leg area, which saves weight, but is not so suited to side sleepers. As above, weight is also saved by having only a half zip. Other bags at GearShop are the Rab Mythic (475g, $1,099!), Mythic Ultralight (400g, $1,080), Rab Neutrino Pro 200 (6°, 615g, $800) and two light Big Agnes bags: the Pluton 4 (no temperature rating given by Big Agnes but implied as 4° comfort, though that could be 4° limit, 454g, $640) and Star Fire UL (2°/-4°/-20°, 652g, $747). I love the idea of Big Agnes’ Sidewinder series, designed for side sleepers, with the hood side-facing, but the lightest is 907g.
Finally, a manufacturer I would look at if shopping in NZ or Australia and not wanting to spend a small fortune is One Planet. You can buy their bags at Dwights, Living Simply and a few other outlets in NZ and a larger number in Australia. They have a really useful online chart too – oh that other sleeping bag companies would do this as well so you could read off the specs in a comparative way! Their Nitrous -1 weighs 541g and its temperature specs are 4°/-1°/-16° and price at Dwights is $430. And the Nitrous series (there is a +2 and a -3 as well) all have full length, two-way zips and 800-850 down fill power. While the Nitrous series are more expensive than the discounted Kathmandu Pathfinder, you do get a reasonable weight saving for that extra cost: almost exactly one dollar per gram of weight saved (169g for $170 higher price.)
For a general run-down on what to look for in a light-weight sleeping bag, Outdoor GearLab has a pretty good guide.
Inflatable mats are all the rage these days. They certainly offer a level of comfort undreamed of years ago, but they are expensive and heavy. The lightest is the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite at 250g for the medium size but it’s not cheap (about NZ $460 at NZ’s Gear Shop) and its insulating value is relatively low at R2.5. The Sea to Summit Ultralite, sold at Bivouac for about $150 less, is 480g, more comfortable but just too bulky and heavy for the TA in my view. The alternative are the closed cell foam pads. The Therm-a-Rest Z-lite SOL folds nicely in concertina fashion to strap easily to the outside of a pack, but is still heavy at 410g and costs NZ $85. Macpac’s 10mm thick roll-up pad is 315g and costs $20, and Kathmandu’s version is lighter (and 2mm thinner) at 240g and costs about the same.
Which is best to take, an inflatable mat or a closed cell one? If doing the North Island TA I would spend the money and get the Neo Air Uberlite or XLite (350g, R.4.2), as there is a lot of camping. But if only doing the South Island I would save a pile of money and accept some discomfort for the relatively few nights I might be camping and get a roll mat (depending on my plans after the TA of course). OR, maybe consider just toughening up and sleeping on bare ground! My parents tramped a lot, and there were no mats at all in their day and huts were often without mattresses. My mother recalled fellow trampers who couldn’t afford sleeping bags carrying woollen blankets and stuffing newspapers inside their clothes to keep warm at night. How soft we have become!
Kiwi trampers are gradually adopting these, often carrying one pole, but a pair of poles is essential for long distance walking like the TA. They allow you to go faster, they give you more stability on uneven ground, stabilise you on slippery patches and reduce the impact on your joints when going downhill. They can also be used for supporting tents, whacking cattle, parting blackberry and gorse, probing the depth of murky streams, supporting stream and river crossings, fending off hostile trampers and probably other uses I’ve not yet thought of. The twist-to-lock method of adjusting length is said to be less secure than the lever sort, but tends to result in a lighter pole. Carbon fibre sounds good in theory, but these poles are often heavier than the aluminium ones, and can break, whereas aluminium just bends and can be hammered back straight with a rock or hut axe.
You don’t have to buy one of the expensive brands, though some of these do come with cork handles, which is apparently very nice to hold. Kathmandu’s Fizan Compact, for example, is one of the lightest around, coming in at 170g/pole. It is beaten for weight by the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z at about 150g/pole for the 120cm length, but that costs roughly twice the price and 20g is neither here nor there. I’ve done about 3,000 km on my Fizans, and they are still going, though I’ve had to hammer out some bends caused by my falling over a few times. The Black Diamond is a very nice pole, with better grips than the Fizan, better strap adjustment, smaller packed length, and faster set-up, but it isn’t adjustable and may be more fragile.
When choosing a pole make sure it is the right length: bend your arms at right angles at the elbow and your hand should then grip the handle. That’s the length to set it up each day too. And when using them, rest your wrist on the strap. Google ‘using walking poles’ for more on effective technique.
Packs – Weight Saving Starts Here
Most regular packs are heavy but the good news is that manufacturers are making them lighter all the time. In early 2018 Osprey released their Levity/Lumina packs, which weigh 830g for the 45L and 870g for the 60L versions. That’s as light as you get from a mainstream manufacturer for a multi-day hiking pack. I carried the Osprey Talon 44, as that was the lightest you could buy in New Zealand in 2016 (at about 1100g but now it is now listed as weighing 1510g!). This pack is still around and is worth considering. For some reason it is not on Osprey’s own site though – different names in different countries?. The women’s version (the Tempest) is a bit smaller at 38 to 40L and correspondingly lighter. Forty-four litres is small by Kiwi tramping standards, but you are supposed to be cutting back on carrying all that stuff you don’t really need, remember? I found the Talon 44 fine for size myself, and it wore well, but on the longest section, over the Richmond Range, where I had to carry about 9 days worth of food, it was full to bursting point.
But what of the Levity/Lumina (the Levity is variously claimed to be either unisex, or a mens pack, and the Lumina suited to women)? It has generally been reviewed as having a good harness but fragile, lacking features (Osprey have omitted many extras, such as hip pockets, in order to save weight), and suitable only for light loads. Certainly the fabric doesn’t look like it would stand up to bush-bashing or to the brutal treatment sometimes offered up by transport operators, and the lid buckles are too tiny for large, cold, or gloved hands. The price is about NZ $100 more than the Talon and these packs are not regularly stocked in NZ, but have been sold by Bivouac.
Another Osprey alternative to the Talon is the slightly larger Exos (female version Eja), a 48L pack weighing 1170g. This is popular with long distance walkers for its balance of features (including a trampoline back mesh), weight and price, and it is now finally being sold in NZ.
NZ and Australian Packs: Kathmandu and Macpac
If you need 50L (and it is carrying a 2-person tent that may push you in this direction) then Kathmandu’s Altai is 1.34g and comes in a 100g lighter women’s version. Kathmandu also has the 40L Voltai at 1.22 kg. The design of the Altai looks very good for watertightness, but not so much for the Voltai. Macpac had a lightweight pack, the Tasman 45 (45L) at a claimed 1.1kg, in 2016 but seemed to have dropped it quickly and now have the Fiord at 40L and 1.04kg. That’s a shame, as the Tasman had a nice mesh panel on the back that kept the pack separated from your back (no cold wet T shirt from sweat). A friend bought the Tasman and loves it, so nothing wrong with it and you may be able to find one second hand on TradeMe or elsewhere. The Macpac Fiord looks similar to an Osprey but has bigger hip pockets, which is a definite plus in my view, as there is a lot of stuff you want to have at hand without having to take the pack off – maps, the guides, sunglasses, cellphone/camera, muesli bars/scroggin, etc.
In 2017 Macpac brought out the Pursuit 40 Alpine Series made from the incredibly light and strong Dyneema fabric. That pack was 37L and weighed just 610g, but was a very pared back climbing pack, with no mesh back, no frame, and no padded hip belt, let alone hip pockets. As at Nov 2018 it was no longer listed on Macpac’s website, so a brief-lived experiment it seems. I did buy one of these on sale before they were discontinued and it is my current pack. I slid a sheet of core-flute plastic down the back to give it a bit of a frame and wove a mesh across the back from thin bungy cord so I could store a water bottle. I just love its light weight and the lack of a hip belt is not an issue at all with light loads. I wish it had hip or shoulder strap pockets, but you can buy accessories from other manufacturers to add here. Macpac continue with the Pursuit model, but now in heavier fabric and there are packs better suited to the TA that weigh about the same. If only Macpac revisited the Dyneema Pursuit and refashioned it into a long distance trail pack we’d have an Australasian winner.
Arn Pack: New Zealand Innovation
Speaking of NZ winners, there is the Aarn pack, a novel pack system invented in this country that spreads the load between your front and back so strain on your back is relieved and energy is saved. The packs themselves are relatively heavy (even the lightweight Featherlight one at 1.7 to 1.9kg all up), though I guess the makers would argue that this is offset by better distribution of weight on your body. I’m sure these packs are good for heavier loads, but once you get into the ultralight realm of hiking then load distribution becomes less important in my view.
In summary, if buying in NZ I would look most closely at the Osprey Exos/Eja, the Levity/Lumina, and the Macpac Fiord. The Osprey Talon/Tempest now looks too heavy to me. But if you want to spend the money and get serious about saving weight then you can look at buying from the USA:
American Ultralight Packs
Packs lighter than the lighter Ospreys can be found via lightweight hiking sites in the USA and elsewhere. See the ultralight backpacking section of SectionHiker for example, and ultralight packs at Backcountry Gear or Hyperlite Mountain Gear. But while you may be able to save 200 or so grams, there will probably be a trade-off in comfort and functionality, not to mention a higher price. Note that the very lightest ones don’t have frames, so require very careful packing and light loads to be comfortable. There is a review of ultralight backpacks on Outdoor Gear Lab. The packs here average between 40 and 55 L, and weigh around 850g. The top rated and exceptionally light Z-Packs Arc Blast 55 L weighs just 575g but costs USD $349, plus probably around NZ $100 shipping, so almost NZD $500. Compare that to the $200 to $300 (or less than $200 in a sale) you would spend on buying a pack in New Zealand.
Capacity Claims are Unreliable
Note that manufacturer’s claims for capacity can vary considerably from figures published by independent testers. The Tasman 45 looks a lot smaller than the Osprey Talon 44 for example though its claimed capacity is about the same. Part of it may depend on whether external pockets are included in the capacity measurement or not, so comparing one pack to another requires a consistent measuring methodology.
Lastly on packs there is the issue of waterproofing. It is a fact of life that most packs will leak in sustained heavy rain. If you have a top pocket the stuff in here will probably get wet. You can use a pack cover. Advantages are they cover the top pocket as well as the body of the pack; they often come in bright colours (see cycle stores for fluoro green ones); which is great for being visible when road walking; once removed, the inside of your pack is very accessible, and they double to protect your pack when being transported in buses, planes, etc. Downsides are they won’t keep the pack dry, or floating, if you fall over in a river, and they weigh a bit. A pack liner, or at least a good, well sealed one, will keep your gear dry if you fall in a river, but it can make accessing things in the pack a faff, sooner or later you will probably start getting holes in it, and there is the weight issue again. An alternative is just to put all critical things – sleeping bag, down jacket, spare clothes, maps, cellphone, first aid gear, food that will be affected by water – in separate water-tight bags.
Stoves – Gas or Alcohol?
Most TA hikers have some sort of gas stove. They are quick to set up and get going and burn with a hot, strong flame. The lightest and most compact way to go is to get one of the small screw-in burner heads. Both Kathmandu and Macpac have a titanium one that weighs about 50g. Your weight then is just the additional weight of the gas and the bottle. Make sure you unscrew the stove burner after use, as the tap can be knocked to the on position in your pack and drain the cylinder (it happened to me!)
A problem with gas is knowing how much gas you need, and at any given point, how much is left. With some previous experience you can work out how many burns you can get out of a given size bottle to boil your usual quantity of water. Then, as you go, scratch a mark each time you burn the stove so you know how much you have left before you need a new bottle. This is an inexact business however, and you can easily get caught out. Then there is the question of where you can get a new bottle. Invercargill, Te Anau, Queenstown, Wanaka and maybe Twizel are certain sources, but it’s hard to guarantee there will be a bottle in stock of the size you want in places like Arthur’s Pass or St Arnaud. So you may have to carry much more than you really need.
Another option is an alcohol stove. These are lightweight, you can see exactly much fuel you have left, are cheap to run, and you can buy the fuel almost anywhere there is a store or petrol station. In NZ you want methylated spirits, also known as meths (but you are unlikely to get much joy if you ask the storekeeper for meth, singular, as that’s something else in NZ!) It is coloured purple to identify it and has a foul tasting additive to prevent you drinking it. Make sure you keep your meths stove in a plastic bag when it’s in your pack, as any slight seepage of residual fluid into your cookware or food will make it taste truly horrible. Methylated spirits is usually sold in a one l litre container, more than you want to carry, so you will have to put it into something smaller and throw the rest away (or better, carry it all to the first hut and leave the surplus for someone else). But again, make sure none seeps out in your pack (in another out-of-fuel mishap I lost a whole lot of fuel this way when an insecurely screwed bottle went upside down in my pack – maybe two small bottles are an insurance against this).
Alcohol stoves are not commonly available in stores in NZ. The only one I am aware of is the Esbit brass stove at Bivouac but it weighs 92g, and you still need a pot support. But you can make your own. I was astounded to meet a TA walker who had fabricated one by simply slicing slits with a knife all the way round the top of a tuna can. I made one myself and found it worked like a charm, though it was trickier to use than gas, and it had an issue of being unstable with a pot-full of water on top. I suffered the embarrassment in a crowded hut of the contraption falling over and flaming meths sweeping across the bench top along with my dinner. Fortunately burning meths is easily extinguished with water and my dinner mostly achieved that. Still, the stove itself only weighed 7g and used about 25ml (20g) of meths to boil 600mls of water. You can make a more professional and probably effective version by drilling the holes. Start with the smallest tuna or cat food tin you can buy. New World supermarkets have the Pams brand of tuna cans, as well as Fancy Feast cat food, both of which are perfect. They are made of thin aluminium, which has advantages of weight and heat conductivity.
Note that a drawback with alcohol stoves is that they need a wind shelter outdoors because their flame is not strong. Some say that their use outdoors when there are fire restrictions (which apply for most of the South Island in summer) is prohibited as they are a naked flame. You could argue the same for gas stoves, but admittedly the chances of an alcohol stove falling over, being blown away, or flaring out are greater than for gas. Anyway, in either case you should make sure your stove is not used near dry grass, etc.
Another stove option is solid fuel tablets such as Esbit. They are useful in an emergency, and with the same advantage of alcohol that you know exactly how much fuel you have. But you need a pot stand and something to burn the tablets on, and sources of the tablets can be hard to find. The Bivouac shops in the four main cities have them, and you may find them in hunting and fishing stores in smaller centres. And finally amongst alternatives to gas stoves are wood chip burners. A bit heavy and bulky perhaps but you don’t need to carry fuel (though remember that New Zealand bush is not described as rain forest for nothing, so you could struggle to find dry wood). You can make wood chip burners yourself too.
In summary, the real weight of a stove is best considered as a combination of the stove itself, plus fuel, plus fuel container, over time. Rather surprisingly, Thru-Hiker found that the Esbit solid fuel tablets came out best, and a cat food meths burner and a gas canister with screw-in burner to be about equal at 14 and 28 days.² But I would suggest that you will be carrying more gas (and gas canister) than you really need in NZ for the reasons of difficulty in estimating remaining gas usage and unpredictability of replenishment mentioned above.
Cheap Lightweight Pots – You Heard it Here First!
If you follow my practice and only use a pot to heat water (or food in that water) to a boil, then one pot is all you need, and in fact you may as well use it to do double duty as a mug. Now, you could buy a titanium mug, but here is an ultra money-saving idea: cheap stainless steel kitchenware of the sort sold in Asian stores is occasionally made of such thin metal that its weight is the same as the sort of titanium mug/pot sold in tramping stores. Don’t believe me? My 850ml stainless steel mug that I’ve used for years and which has no dents or deformation weighs 120g. It cost me less than $5. A Toaks 800mm titanium mug/pot weighs 112g, and costs $68 (sale price, plus freight from Gearshop). The only advantage of the titanium pots is that the handles fold away, making packing easier.
Nice to have, but if you take paper maps, a compass, and have the topo maps functional with GPS on your cellphone you should be right. I mainly used the GPS on my cellphone to find out how far I was from the hut towards the end of a tiring day and never once got out my compass, though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carry one. If the weather is murky and you can’t see the marker poles, and the ground trail is not well-defined (common in many open country sections), you could be wishing you had a GPS. And when it’s cold, wet and windy, you might find that fiddling about with a cellphone to get a position fix is just too hard. In the interests of cost and weight savings though, I would favour a smartphone over a GPS device.
A smartphone is pretty useful for its ability to carry back-up maps, downloaded documents like the guides on this site, a GPS, web access for checking weather forecasts and booking accommodation, keeping in touch with other people on the trail as well as the folks back home, taking photos, and oh, making phone calls. However, GPS and photography in particular really drain your battery. You can maximise battery life by only turning them on when needed, keeping your phone in flight mode when out of range, and maybe using a battery saving app. Being in flight mode really cuts down battery drain. If you don’t want to turn flight mode on in areas with cellphone reception you can at least switch wifi off if there is no wifi, as that’s another battery drainer. You can always run a test with your phone over several days before you go, using the GPS a few times and taking a dozen photos with flight mode on to see what % of battery is used.
The ever increasing weight, size and price of cellphones is a pain for the lightweight hiker. Unihertz’s crowdfunded Atom is built for outdoor pursuits and is small and rugged, but fairly heavy. Older phones tend to be lighter, mainly because they are smaller. The iPhone SE weighs only 113g for example. That’s the 2016 version, not the 2020 remake. It does have a small screen but handles the current version of the iOS operating system. The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a much bigger screen and weights only 17g more at 130g. Unfortunately Samsung are not good at supporting their phones and do not offer an Android operating system version beyond 5.0.1 (though you can upgrade to Android 6 if you are game to root your phone and use an independent version). That’s a problem, because the Te Araroa Trail app runs only on Android 6 and above. The S4 will handle Guthook fine though. The iPhone SE works with the TA Trail app.
Many people these days use rechargable battery backup packs, but these weigh about as much as an entire cellphone. Much lighter and sometimes cheaper is simply a spare battery, but only older ones like the Galaxy S4 will take one. The other alternative, solar charging, sounds like a good idea but is yet to be fully practicable in terms of weight. I believe that keeping your phone cool is good for getting maximum charge when you charge it, and for holding the charge. So don’t tuck it under a pillow when charging or leave the phone exposed to the sun at other times.
Recent phones can have much better battery life than older ones, but you pay for that with heavier phones. GSM Arena have a ‘best battery life’ webpage. The Galaxy M51 does well, at 156 hours but it weighs 213g. Still, that may be lighter than carrying a battery pack plus phone. The Xiaomi Poco M3 has a similar rating but is a bit lighter, and the Realme 6i has a whopping 186 hours life, but is not considered a great phone otherwise (neither may be available for sale in NZ).
Cellphone reception is, of course, mostly non-existent in backcountry areas. There are three cellphone networks: Spark, Vodafone and 2 Degrees. Other providers, such as Skinny, Kogan, Slingshot or Warehouse Mobile, just use one of these networks. It is difficult to say which network is best for TA walkers. Apparently none are publishing up-to-date network coverage maps, but Spark used to be better in country areas and is currently rolling out mobile broadband to such places. Skinny is a budget version of Spark and uses the same network. Note that no network covers Cape Reinga. On the other hand, there are plans to provide coverage across highly visited National Parks, including the Tongariro Crossing and Nelson Lakes National Park, for safety reasons. It you are coming to NZ to do the TA then the NZ Pocket Guide has some useful advice on switching to a NZ service.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
If you are on your own and you fall down a bank, or worse, who is going to find you? PLBs are expensive, but then, what is your life worth? There are important differences in the types of beacons. The popular and cheaper SPOT device is essentially an activity tracker and needs a relatively clear horizon to transmit a message to a satellite. Apparently in NZ the satellites it uses orbit closer to the horizon, so there is less chance of a signal being received. PLBs work by transmitting an emergency signal only when you activate them, and work with higher orbiting satellites. A good rundown on the difference between a PLB and an activity tracker is provided by Andrew Burfield in the TA Facebook archives. Outdoor Gear Lab also explains the differences and recommends some models, though you would have to be sure these will operate in NZ. And Mapworld has a brief summary of what is available in NZ. New Zealand coded 406MHz PLB beacons are legally required to be registered in NZ. This enables searchers to know who you are and have some information about you, including your emergency contact people if your beacon is activated, which just might help save your life. So if you buy a beacon second hand you should re-register it under your name. You can register it at beacons.org.nz, plus find plenty of information about beacons there.
These are handy for food items and other uses, but the ‘free’ ones you use to buy nuts and dried fruit at supermarkets are not very robust. The zips tend to fail and the bags get holes in them with repeated use. Better to pay the money and buy better quality bags. Even better, buy double zip bags. BUT, these are not available in NZ! You can buy Hercules resealable bags with twin zips in Woolworths supermarkets in Australia though. Good for putting your electronics in, as well as critical clothes, books, maps, first aid, etc. Consider paper bags too. Clearly not waterproof, but OK for containing food within an outer plastic bag. They have the advantage that you don’t end up carrying a whole lot of empty bags out with you as rubbish, as you can leave them behind in huts for starting fires. And you avoid adding more plastic to the planet.
Another thing you can’t buy in NZ is Glacéau Smartwater. The bottles are ideal for backpacking in my view as they come in long, slim bottles, making them easy to slip down the side of your pack. So far as I can see you can only get the 700ml size in Australia, but they come in larger sizes in the USA and UK. ‘Balance’ water with wild flower flavouring bottles are available in Australia and are perfect – they are 1 litre and slim.
For Bodily Excretions
Women might like to consider two specialist items. One is a pee rag as an alternative to toilet paper. The pros and cons seem well discussed here. And the other is a menstrual cup. Both male and female hikers might also like to consider a bag in which to put used toilet paper for those moments when you have to go in the bushes. Toilet paper takes a surprisingly long time to break down and there is nothing more off-putting than coming a cross an area strewn with toilet paper. And it gives hikers a bad name. The alternative is burying it properly, and you will need to do this with your poo of course. You can buy trowels designed for the purpose, such as the Sea to Summit one available from Bivouac in NZ at 87g, or Coghlans Backpackers Trowel at Hunting and Fishing NZ at 55g and lighter ones again outside NZ. A lightweight alternative and also useful for securing a tent in loose soil might be a large, convex tent peg. Remember to do your business well away from streams to prevent spreading gut infections.
And returning the the subject of peeing, there is the pee bottle to consider for those who have to get up in the night – if you are busting to go and you are in a tent on a cold and rainy night you will be grateful to have one. A wide neck and opaque coating (for discretion) are what you want in a bottle. Look in the dairy drinks department in supermarkets. I’ve seen another suggestion that you use one of the zip lock pouches used for rehydrating commercial dehydrated meals (like Backcountry Cuisine) as they will stand up on their own, reducing the chance of the zip leaking. I’m not sure about this. Yes, they are very light weight, take up no room in your pack, and are possibly easier to use than a bottle, but you don’t want that zip leaking if the bag falls over. Not so easy to ensure in a tent unless you pop it outside, but probably OK in a hut. If you do want a compact solution then Camelbak make a collapsible water bottle (‘Quick Stow Flask’) with a very wide neck that weighs 37g, though it is expensive. It is all more difficult for women of course, but you can now buy funnel gadgets in hiking shops that help. In NZ, Bivouac have them. Hospital suppliers naturally have bottles made for the purpose, for both females and males, but they are bulky. (By the way, contrary to popular opinion, urine is not sterile, so think twice about drinking out of a rinsed pee bottle.)
Suppliers in New Zealand include the Australasian outdoor chain stores Kathmandu and Macpac, with branches in many cities and their own branded gear, plus Torpedo 7, Bivouac, Outside Sports (stores in Te Anau, Queenstown, Wanaka only), Living Simply in Auckland, Dwights Outdoors and Gordons in Wellington, plus a number of independent stores in Wanaka and Queenstown. There are also the mail order Earth Sea Sky (whose products are also carried in other stores) and Gearshop. Many smaller towns also have hunting and fishing stores which carry hiking gear, but it tends to be the heavier variety. And the Rebel Sports chain sell trail runners, often at sale prices. There also seems to be a crop of new independent stores emerging recently. Some may be just an internet front for an offshore company though. I’m thinking of NZ Outdoors here. But Further Faster and Intents Outdoors are genuine kiwi businesses with physical stores (in Christchurch and Auckland respectively).
There is always the well-respected US Outdoor Gear Lab for reviews of clothing and equipment, though you will have to put up with the obsolete measures of pounds, ounces, feet and inches, and reading about gear you can’t buy in NZ stores. However, if you live in the USA you are in a haven for ultralight gear and you would be best to do your shopping there. Even fairly regular gear will be a fair bit more expensive in New Zealand. The price of footwear in particular often gives our American visitors a shock. And if you are in Australia, Backpacking Light in Melbourne imports some lightweight American gear such as Gossamer Gear and Hyperlite packs.
1. ‘Effects of pack weight on endurance of long distance hikers’ by Anthony T Thomas, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, 2013. Available online at Scholarly Commons.
2. This is confirmed by my own tests. The alcohol stoves pictured above use 20g of fuel (25ml) to boil 600ml of water at a starting temperature of about 20 degrees C. The gas stove described with a screw-on burner uses just 10g of gas. But for the smallest type of gas canister (110g gas), you are also carrying about 150g of metal canister and burner. You get about 10 boils out of this. So average weight over time for the two types of stove is actually about the same. You start out carrying more with alcohol stove because you have to carry more fuel, but the weight decreases as you use the fuel (since the weight of the stove itself is negligible), but with gas you are still carrying the 150g weight of the canister even when you’ve run out of gas. Also, the alcohol stoves pictured are primitive, and probably not very efficient compared to some better models that are likely to use less fuel per boil.
Last updated 21 May 2021