GDT Gear review

Not a gear problem

Table Of Contents

1. Context

During the month of June, I hiked, or rather, snowshoed about half of the Great Divide Trail (Section A-D). With a start date of June 1, I was about 3-4 weeks ahead of the average start date on the GDT, and I knew months in advance that it would be a heavy snow year. Even worse, in May it became clear that a cold and wet spring would mean 2-3x as much snow than in an average year, as snow melt was delayed by up to four weeks. I was already expecting to snowshow considerable sections, but this meant that even lower elevation sections like Section B were 90% snowshoe time for me. I believe Dan and T Durston only had to snowshoe about 10 km/6 mi during that section. I might write a more in-depth post on the actual conditions, but the important thing here is that apart from a couple of sunny days at the start, it rained every single day and my feet were constantly wet due to the snow. In mid June, I even encountered a 30 hr snowfall period that led to a state of emergency in Calgary due to flooding! Fun fun fun.

Snow storm clearly visible in mid June, as well as the above average snow level and late melt.

Snow storm clearly visible in mid June, as well as the above average snow level and late melt.

I’m mentioning the weather here to give the necessary context for the gear choices I’ve made. My base weight was about twice of what it usually would be for a regular three season thru-hike, but I still tried to stay as light as possible while not putting myself into danger ("stupid light"). I’m not going to review all the gear I’ve used, but some high and low lights and gear I wouldn’t normally carry. Honestly, it’s almost only highlights, I was very happy with the gear I took despite the weather.

2. Framed Nunatak Bears Ears

I have used the frameless Nunatak Bears Ears for a week in the Brooks Range with an Ursack, and with a BV500 on the Yosemite Highe Route as well as a variety of smaller trips. I was worried about two issues on the GDT: Long food carries with up to 9-12 days, and the necessity to carry snowshoes and ice axe. The frameless pack has a single central daisy chain, I wasn’t a fan of how the snowshoes carried (tt certainly would have been possible). I mentioned this to Jan, and as it turned out, he had an extra framed prototype that needed some testing. Unlike the frameless version, it had two parallel daisy chains that should make carrying the slowshoes more stable. And naturally, with the frame, it should carry more weight more comfortably.

Fully loaded framed Bears Ears with snowshoes, ice axe and the bottle holders.

Fully loaded framed Bears Ears with snowshoes, ice axe and the bottle holders.

The framed pack uses the same harness and hip belt system, so I was already familiar with the water bottle holders and knew I was gonna love them on the GDT, especially as two liters should be plenty of water capacity during spring. I did a couple of short hikes testing out the full load, and was pretty confident I’d love the framed version.

Turns out I did! The volume was fantastic for my above average load out of about 15 lbs, it carried the up to 40 lbs incredibly well and the snowshoes were always securely attached with some Sea to Summit straps. The ice axe holder was less fiddly than others, especially as I carried a fully length (65cm) axe and you don’t have to do the twist and turn like on so many other packs.

My only feedback for Jan was minor, and that was reversing the location of the drawcord toggles for the side pockets and ice axe loops, so you could tighten them without removing the pack. Occasionally, the drawcord would loosen while bushwhacking through some of the infamous overgrown trails of the GDT, and it was a bit annoying to tighten things back up.

While the Bears Ears has no hip pockets, it allows for shoulder strap pockets. I used one pocket for small items, and added a Justin’s UL pocket to carry bear spray. As I was going to be alone and not super likely to encounter anyone on trail (once went six days without seeing a human soul, and only encountered two groups in the backcountry in total), I wanted to have the spray easily accessible just in case.

Carrying the Ursack also went well. At the end of the resupplies, I’d stuff my tent or cook pot into the sack to fill up the volume again. It definitely is more fiddly than with a bear canister, but I still prefer the ease of access compared to having it in the main compartment, especially as it allowed packing up all my gear during the rain separately from the Ursack. Unlike with the bear can, I did not find it necessary to attach the Ursack before filling the pack as it’s more flexible.

The pack was definitely one of the stand out items on the trip, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again on similar trips despite the somewhat heavy weight of 38 oz. Other possible trips that come to mind are the Kings Canyon Basin High Route, as it requires both a bear can (in specific sections) and a long food carry (unless detouring); as well as extended trips in the Brooks Range. However, it is a niche pack. The frameless version is already a speciality pack, and the framed version even more so. For regular three season bear country travel, the frameless version is more than enough in my opinion.

On a quick shakedown hike pre GDT

On a quick shakedown hike pre GDT

Would yes again? 100% yes

Disclaimer: I received the pack for free in exchange for feedback, but Jan has never asked me to publicly write about the pack anywhere. For the frameless version, I received a discount but paid the remainder with my own money.

3. Shelter

Having mostly backpacked in the dry and arid Western US, I’m a huge fan of cowboy camping and tarping. But knowing that on average it’ll rain 2.5" each month and the possibility of snow fall was quite high, combined with the fact that you often had to camp in established campsites, where I wasn’t sure how exposed they’d be, I opted for a more sturdy setup: An MLD Duomid in .75 DCF with a Solomid XL Sil Inner. The combo would keep me at a reasonable weight of 28oz, and the Duomid should be able to handle everything the Rockies could throw at it. I opted for Sil for the inner as the weight difference was minimal, and I was worried about pack volume (as well as $$$). I ended up using an oversized stuff sack so it worked out fine - not a ton of fun spending 20 minutes rolling your tent with ice cold fingers to squeeze it into a tight stuff sack.

Mids are also easy to setup - four corners stakes, pop up a pole and you’re done, which was a big factor to me as I knew I would be putting in long days and would have to put up my tent in rain, wind or other fantastic weather.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to use the setup a lot before the GDT and I struggled a little bit at the beginning to get the angles right so that my head would not hit the downward slope of the tent. Ultimately it wasn’t a big deal, but it’s definitely a drawback of mids compared to A-frame shelters (I’m not particularly tall either at 5'10" or 178cm).

As predicted, I did end up loving the simple set up. I used 8" Nano Easton stakes for the four corners, and they did excellently both in soft (snow) and hard (rocky) conditions. I hardly ever used more staked or guylines, but had extra UL guylines attached to the mid side panels, which could be moved around depending on conditions and staked out desperately or together with the corner stakes.

While it was too early in the season to encounter bugs, I loved having the separate inner just for comfort. I have no issue cowboy camping as mentioned earlier, but there’s just something about crawling into a “home” after a day of snow or rain. The big vestibule space was fantastic for all my gear, the couple of times I ate/cooked in there despite being in grizzly country (don’t tell anyone!), and generally just to spread out stuff.

Apart from continuous rain, I didn’t encounter a lot of other extreme weather - wind was not as bad as expected. Of course, there was the day it snowed a foot or so during a 30 hr period, and the tent got covered completely. The snow was quite wet and heavy, and I had to shake it off a couple of times during the night as it stuck to the DCF. I believe this is both a combo of the slope of the Duomid and the DCF fabric - sil of any kind would have probably done better here. My trekking pole als bent slightly under the load.

After the snowstorm with a lowered pole. There was no snow 24hrs earlier, and I couldn't see my own tracks from the day before.

After the snowstorm with a lowered pole. There was no snow 24hrs earlier, and I couldn't see my own tracks from the day before.

would use again: Probably, but maybe in sil for cost reasons. Still not sure I’m a fan of DCF honestly.

4. Cold weather and sleep gear

I don’t think it ever got below freezing interestingly enough, but with the constant rain, snow and high humidity, it felt much colder than the corresponding temperature in dry climates. I typically run cold when static, so I was pretty well prepared in terms of layers:

Item Weight Notes
Patagonia Micro-D fleece 7.5 oz Basic fleece for active use
FarPointe Alpha hoodie (90/60 gsm) 4 oz kept dry, sleep clothes
FarPointe pants (90/60 gsm) 3.5 oz kept dry, sleep clothes
Goosefeet Gear down jacket 8 oz 4.5 oz down fill, no hood
Goosefeet Gear double fill balaclava 2 oz only used a couple of times at night
Goosefeet Gear sil “bread bags” .7 oz size L, no sole
Enlightened Equipment Apex booties 2.5 oz size XL
Decathlon fleece gloves (Trek 100) 0.85 oz cheap and good

The reason for two fleeces was to have a dedicated dry set of clothes to put on at night, one of the best decisions I made. It was almost impossible to keep completely dry during the day, and putting on the Alpha pants and hoody was an instant warmth and morale boost. I slept in them almost every day. Same with the booties. My feet were wet all day, so putting them at camp was a lifesaver. I wouldn’t always wear them throughout the night after I’ve warmed them up, but they were well worth the weight. The custom sil bread bags were way sturdier than regular bread bags, and a good investment when I had to put on my wet shoes at night for whatever reason (something I managed to minimize, and no, please don’t ask why the snow in the vestibule is yellow).

The down jacket and down balaclava luckily only had to come out a couple of times, but I’m fairly certain without them those nights would have been miserable to dangerous. During the snowstorm I was definitely worried about hypothermia but instantly warmed up once I put on the down items. I was wearing everything (dry) I had and the balaclava as tight as it could be without suffocating.

It's called fashion, look it up.

It's called fashion, look it up.

Posthole bruising and the comfort of booties

Posthole bruising and the comfort of booties

Have I mentioned I'm fashionable?

Have I mentioned I'm fashionable?

The Decathlon fleece gloves were enough to keep my hands warm at night and in the morning. They are cheap and light, and I would recommend them to anyone.

I used a Nunatak 3D quilt rated at 25F with 1oz of overstuff and the system worked really well. I’m an active sleeper and just didn’t wanna deal with a quilt, plus the width and length of the 3D made it super comfy. I use this quilt for most of my hikes.

Would use again: Yup, don’t think I’d change a single thing here.

5. Wet weather gear

Item Weight Notes
Columbia Outdry Nanolite 7.2 oz Size M, no longer available
Zpacks Vertice rain pants 3.2 oz Size L
Showa 282 insulated rain gloves 3.8 oz Size L
NRS HydroSkin 0.5 Wetsocks 3.8 oz Size XXL

I used regular trail runners (La Sportiva Akyra) and considered a few options on how to deal with the wet feet I’d inevitably have. From dedicated overboots, Sealskinz waterproof socks, Goretex shoes (gasp) to neoprene socks, there wasn’t much I didn’t look at. This gear item probably gave me the most anxiety, especially as a lot of products I was interested in were out of stock with no clear ETA. Luckily, a generous /r/ultralight member sent me a pair of NRS wetsocks (for free, despite my insistence) and due to his positive feedback, I decided to just give it a go. And while my shoes, socks and feet were wet every single day, not once were they cold even when stomping through waist deep snow for hours. They were amazing. Loved them. Except now they stink.

I had used the Outdry jacket in Alaska before (where it rained about as much) and I completely trusted it to keep me dry. It did not disappoint until I ripped it real good bushwhacking through the Howse floodplains in Section D and now I can’t get a new one. Bummer. The rip would have happened with any jacket, I don’t think it was because of the fabric.

The Zpacks rain pants were a bit of a risk, as they are definitely super UL and might not survive all the ‘shwacking I’d have to do. There were a couple of instances I would have used them but was worried about ripping them. During snowstorm day, they wetted out almost immediately. I could have honestly left them at home, or better, invested in a sturdier set of pants. I was pretty frustrated with my decision here. Putting on wet pants every morning wears on you…

The MVP here was undoubtedly the Showa gloves. I got the insulated version with the shock cord closure (black not blue version), and I wore them constantly. Not only did the keep my hands dry and warm, they were also crucial in getting water from frozen lakes, half frozen streams, and in packing up a half frozen tent every morning. They are not the lightest, but they were the best. Because they were insulated, I could keep my Decathlon gloves dry and never had to use them during the day.

Would use again: Everything but rain pants. I’d probably try out some SilNylon or SilPoly non-breathable pants instead.

6. Snow gear

Snow gear is kind of crucial when you’re dealing with snow, and also the area I had the least experience in. I opted to take full size snowshoes and after some research landed on the Atlas Helium BC model. While MSR is a market leader, their models seemed both too heavy and expensive. The Helium BC has a flat binding, which would make it easier to attach to the backpack, and had a relatively low weight at just over 3 lbs for the 26-inch model.

Unfortunately, I only managed a couple of short day trips with the snowshoes before the GDT, but I immediately noticed an annoying problem with the binding. Although I was wearing trail runners rather than boots, they were apparently too big and the straps would get caught on the side crampons while walking. Not only was it incredibly annoying to not be able to walk smoothly, it also damaged the plastic straps and I had to patch them on the GDT with tape to prevent further damage.

Additionally, they were not able to stand up to the heavy ab(use) of kicking steps, logs, and rocks, and after two weeks I noticed cracks in the side crampons. They didn’t completely break, but I definitely lost my confidence in them.

Cracks in the side crampons

Cracks in the side crampons

Regarding an ice axe, I debated back and forth whether I should take one. The slopes on the GDT are not as steep or icy as for example on the PCT, but I was expecting more snow than average. At the end, I ended up bringing the Tica Ice Tool, and was super glad I did. While not certified for mountaineering, the light carbon meant I could bring a full size (65cm) axe (sorry, tool), which incredibly useful on multiple climbs (Carthew Alderson, Ball pass, …). I never had to use it for self-arrest (thank god), but instead used it for preemptive self-belaying quite frequently. I never was in full slide or anything, but using the axe prevented that. While the Ice Tool has no spike, it wasn’t an issue as the snow was quite soft and deep. It provided a lot more stability than a trekking pole. I also used to to access water in frozen lakes. At 140g (~5oz), it was well worth bringing it along.

Tica Ice tool and a real ice axe

Tica Ice tool and a real ice axe

While I brought some a very minimal set of spikes (Snowline City Spikes), they proved to be quite useless. It never got cold enough at night for the snow to freeze, and spikes are useless in deep snow, especially minimal ones.

would use again: I’d splurge for MSR snowshoes (or maybe Northern Lites?) but would definitely use the Tica Ice Tool. Would leave spikes at home.

7. Summary

I wish I could blame my gear selection for not finishing the GDT, but overall I was very happy with the items I brought. I could have maybe cut some weight, but it really would have made for some uncomfortable nights, and at least once, to potential hypothermia as I was wearing every single piece of clothing including rain gear during the snow storm night.

The only really critical pieces I’d change out are the rain pants and snowshoes. But even then, I don’t think it would have moved the needle to a degree that it would have changed the outcome of the trip. I might have been a bit more comfortable a couple of times, but that’s it.

I covered a lot of ground during this review, so please reach out if something is unclear or there are any questions.

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