What’s in my pack? (Winter ‘21/‘22)

Far too often I’ve seen gear recommendations for various items, often divorced from a top-down perspective or 1,000 yard picture of how a given item will function in relation with all of the other items that make up a person’s personal “kit” and field gear. For the individuals who have asked me “so what do you use?” I wanted to take the time and get as close as I can to explaining the “what, how and why” for each piece of gear I use. Equipment isn’t selected in a vacuum, but is eventually decided upon after a process of natural selection performed by the end user, usually only after an individual has undergone a long and potentially expensive process of trial and error. This process is a necessary part learning to use your gear and get comfortable, but it isn’t one that you need to begin blindly.

In the following long form article, I’ll list the items that I’ve chosen and attempt to explain why I chose that particular piece of kit. I hope this article can serve as both a good starting point and an insight to my decision making processes.

Starting with the largest container of all, my rucksack. My pack is a Tora Bora CCT ruck from T3 Gear. The combat controller variant of the ruck uses a metal packframe (based off of the venerable ALICE frame) quite similar to the Tactical Tailor MALICE frame. The overland or “standard” version of the Tora Bora uses the same plastic Down East Innovation DEI1606AC packframe that’s used in the USMC FILBE ruck.

The pack features a generous tri-zip design similar to various Mystery Ranch packs and makes accessing my gear a breeze. One of the frustrations I had with my Mystery Ranch SATL was their not-quite-tri-zip design that opens in the front, but still retains the drawstring mouth at the top of the bag. While I don’t have the exact internal volume measurements, it’s very similar, if a bit smaller than the 56L SATL ruck I was using previous to this in the early winter of ‘21/‘22.

I’ve come to favor externally framed packs over their internal frame brothers recently for a number of reasons, the biggest of those being compatibility with body armor and plate carriers. The SATL came close, it really did, but in the end, I just couldn’t appreciate the entire ruck directly up against my back. It ended up being a recipe for prickly heat and I moved on to better solutions.

On the interior, the back of the pack is lined with PALS webbing to attach radio and hydration pouches. The lid features 5 Velcro covered grommets to allow pass through of antennas, cables and hydration bladder tubes. These particular features are exclusive to the combat controller variant of the Tora Bora, and the overland version uses a built in radio pouch and lacks the Velcro covered passthroughs.

Overall, I’m very happy with the pack. It managed to be the perfect size for all my winter gear, with barely a cubic inch of space to spare. I anticipate it being a bit roomier and lighter in the summer months. It’s comfortable and manages to carry the weight very comfortably.

My main shelter system is the Litefighter 1 from LiteFighter Systems. It’s a relatively simple one man tent design that can set set up quickly and in my experience, provides excellent protection from wind, rain, snow and other forms of inclement weather. I’ve personally owned 2 of these tents and have been using this model since mid to late 2018 when I was overseas.

The shelter system, as I have configured it, consists of 4 major components; the tent body, the cold weather kit, the rainfly and the pole kit.

Setup begins with the main tent body, which features a waterproof bathtub floor and bug-proof mesh walls with zipper entrances on both sides. The tent poles form an ‘X’ pattern across the tent, and clips onto the 12 plastic tabs that run down the 4 corners of the tent body, finally being secured into the 4 plastic tabs at the base of the tent.

After the construction of the main tent, the rain fly is pulled over the tent body and clipped onto the same 4 plastic tabs as the tent poles. Once this is complete, the user simply stakes down the tent using the supplied stakes.

Its important to note that, on its own, the LiteFighter 1 is classified as a 3-season tent. “3-season” usually taken to mean a lightweight, single wall tent most commonly used during the Spring, Summer and Fall months; while a “4-season” tent is commonly understood to be some type of double-walled tent that’s better at retaining body heat during the winter and capable of supporting a light to moderate snow load.

As pointed out by others users of the LiteFighter 1, this tent is very unique in that it could easily be classified as a “3-season-plus” tent that can also be easily upgraded to a “4-season” or winter tent with the addition of the separately purchased Cold Weather Kit. The kit consists of a secondary tent “wall” that covers the bug proof mesh of the main tent body, layering between the tent body and the rainfly, and snow anchors that replace the system’s tent stakes if necessary.

The tent, rainfly, stakes and poles by themselves weigh only 4.54 lbs (2.06 kg.) The cold weather kit weighs an additional 2.3 lbs (1.04 kg) on its own, and weighed with the rest of the tent, brings the entire shelter system to a total of 6.84 lbs (3.1 kg.) For a shelter system with the capabilities it possesses, I’m more than satisfied with a total weight just under 7 lbs.

Starting from the ground up, I’m using the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm sleeping pad. An inflatable pad that can pack up to nearly the size of a coke can while weighing only 1.19 lbs (0.54 kg), this pad is a great contender for winter camping. Boasting an R-value of 6.9, it’s kept me warm and toasty to down to -10° nights.

It’s a bit on the more expensive side of sleeping pads, averaging around $219 US, but I found it well worth the price for cold weather camping. While it may not be the lightest choice, the pad can easily be used in the summer. As with all inflatable pads though, it’s best to inflate them and wait for a bit while you set up another part of camp. A pad inflated using warm breath in the cold will seemingly “deflate” during the night, waking you up cursing your sleeping pad. Because of this, it’s best to top off your sleeping pad right before you turn in.

Some individuals online have expressed frustration with how noisy this pad can be, comparing it to scrunching a bag of chips. Personally, I haven’t found this to be that large of an issue. I prefer a very firm sleeping surface, and usually inflate the pad to its maximum. Deflating the pad to allow for a “softer” bed decreases the insulation between your body and the ground, which ends up making you colder and uncomfortable.

Looking forward to more moderate temperatures this summer, I’ll probably give the foam, 2.0 R-value, Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest a shot. A foam pad is less packable, but much more convenient as far as quick mobility and durability goes.

For my winter sleeping bag, I settled on the NEMO Equipment Sonic 0. It’s a fairly uncomplicated, lightweight and comfortable bag with 800 fill power hydrophobic down. It only weighs 3.11 lbs (1.41 kg) and has a nominal packed and compressed volume of 7.7 liters. (Pictured, a can of Yuengling and a Magpul PMAG for scale.)

For those familiar with EN13537 temperature ratings, this bag is has a “survival rating” or “lower limit” of 0° F (-18° C), meaning that it’s rated to keep you alive at the rated temperature, not necessarily comfortable. I am usually comfortable in this sleeping bag with my pad and tent around the region of 15° F (-9.5° C.) There are certainly warmer options out there, but I found this bag to be a good compromise between size, weight, warmth and packability There really isn’t much to be said about the Nemo 0 that hasn’t already been discussed in the review by the folks at the Outdoor Gear Lab, and I highly recommend taking a look at their review.

Previously to picking up the Nemo, I had tried out the Therm-a-Rest Questar 0 mummy bag. I ended up returning it to REI after I mistakenly purchased to Long version of the bag, thinking it would be a good idea to stuff clothing I wanted to keep warm throughout the night in the footbox. In many ways, I consider the Questar to be a superior sleeping bag over the Sonic 0. The bag features stays that loop under your sleeping pad, preventing the bag from rotating and twisting during sleep, and a very comfortable ’L’ shaped foot box that really helps to keep your feet warm. Your mileage may vary, and I encourage you to shop around and see what best fits your needs in a sleeping bag.

Although some may opt to use a rolled up jacket or some other equally comforting analog, I’ve opted to use a semi-inflatable pillow on my cold weather excursions. Too often I’ve found that my jacket or fleece shell has gotten wet from the day’s activities, weather it be from rain, dewy plants and ground cover or melted snow; and I’ve been forced to leave the jacket up to dry out overnight instead of bunching it up and pressing it into service as an ad-hoc pillow. The end result is that I’m forced to choose between a wet jacket in the morning or a neckache and a lack of comfortable sleep from the previous night.

Plenty of people forgo a standalone pillow in an effort to reduce weight. Some may opt to use a combination product such as the Crye Precision Loft Jacket that stows itself in it’s own pocket to be used as a pillow. Personally, I’ve found that it’s one of those items that while certainly not required, absolutely increase your comfort in the field with a minimum trade off in weight.

My choice, the Nemo Filo Elite, weighs only 8.95 oz (0.25 kg) and uses two different padding methods to cushion your brain case during those oh-so-hopefully restful hours. The primary cushion is a square shaped inflatable air bladder, not that uncommon in the camping pillow market. Where it differs from most other camping pillows is the secondary cushioning method. Resting above the air bladder is approximately a centimeter of soft memory foam padding. The combination of the air bladder and the foam makes for a very unique packable and compressible pillow solution that’s exceptionally comfortable at night. One thing that stands out to me about the pillow is it’s adjustability. Because the size of the bladder can vary with different levels of inflation, the softness or firmness of the pillow can be adjusted to best suit the user’s preferences.

Another convenient feature of the Nemo Filo line of pillows is the integrated stuff/compression sack that’s built into the pillow’s exterior.
The exterior “face” of the pillow is made of a soft, elastic fabric material that’s quite comfortable for side sleepers like myself who often find their face in contact with the pillow. Additionally, the inner bladder can be removed and the cover washed separately without worry of damaging the entire pillow assembly.

For only $30 US and coming in at just under 9 oz, I think there’s a strong case to be made for including one in your backpack, regardless of the season.

And finally, for the last component of my sleep system, I have a Cocoon Silk Mummy Liner. It’s marketed as adding at least 10° F to the temperature rating of your sleeping bag, but I mostly use it because it keeps my sleeping bag clean and dry when I hop in wearing my potentially dirty field clothes at night in cold conditions and how it can give a similar feel to bed sheet, making me just a tad more cozy at night.

It’s lightweight at 4.3 oz (21.9 g) and the silk construction is best described as a pair of pantyhose for your sleeping bag. This is another one of those items that, while not being strictly necessary, are a big “nice to have” and quality of life improvement.

My cooking system is a bit of a hodge-podge. I’ve had a few people recommend Jet-Boils and other “complete” cooking systems, but I ended up parting together a solution for myself.

My biggest priority when I was piecing together the cooking set was weight. I’m definitely not an “ultralight backpacker” per se but cutting weight where you can is and effort I consider both prudent and reasonable to make.

My kit consists of 3 main components, my cooking pot, the stove and the isobutane fuel canister. All of those items pack themselves neatly into he pot for storage and I use the pot lid and drawstring mesh pot bag to contain my poking kit supplies when not in use.

Starting with the pot, I’m using a Toaks branded 750ml titanium model. The pot comes in two versions, one with a bail handle and one without. I opened for the model without the bale handle for no particular reason other than that what was what was in stock at my local REI at the moment I found myself in need of one. It comes with the previously mentioned orange, mech, drawstring bag and a titanium cover lid. Weighing only 3.98 oz (0.11kg) it’s a good near-featherlight option for heating water and cooking in the field.

Moving onto the stove, I selected a Soto WindMaster with removable pot supports. When I was searching for a canister stove, the two biggest features I was looking for were boil time and self ignition. While you should always have some alternate method of starting fire, I see no particular reason to select a stove that doesn’t feature an integrated piezoelectric igniter if at all possible. Funnily enough, I found myself somewhat vindicated in my stove selection when my camping companions and fellow hoodlums found themselves without lighters, subsequently being unable to ignite their canister MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe stoves.

As far as boil times goes, Luke from The Outdoor Gear Review recently conducted a comparison between the Soto WindMaster and MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe, measuring the boil time for the WindMaster at roughly 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

This stove is also relatively lightweight, weighing only 3.03 oz (85.9 g) with the 4 leg pot support.

For fuel, I usually stick to 110g size isobutane fuel canisters. This size is just perfect enough to fit into my 750ml pot with the stove sitting on top of it.

The other item I find myself stuffing into the stove kit are little pine fire-starters. I don’t often find myself starting a big campfire, but they’re a nice little thing to have that just makes life more convenient.

While I do usually carry a Nalgene bottle externally, I don’t usually find myself bringing that much water out into the field to start with. I usually rely on water filtration to resupply and create potable water.

Depending on what I pulled out of the closet, I’m usually using either the pictured Sawyer Squeeze or a Sawyer Micro Squeeze. Both are identical in functionality and flow rate, with the Squeeze kit weighing 4.93 oz (0.14 kg.) The kits include the filter and two 32oz “dirty water” bags. To use the system, I collect unpurified water into the bag, screw the filter onto the mouth of the bag, and like the name implies, squeeze the water bag to force unpurified water through the filter and into my Nalgene for later use.

Not pictured, are two important items. A cravat and my backflow kit. A crevat is a simple triangular bandage, a piece of coarse fabric that easily allows water to pass through. Depending on the situation, I may not have access to a clear stream or river, and the water may be of the standing variety or filled with dirty sediment. The crevat enables me to pre-filter my water, keeping that sediment out of my filter and prolonging it’s service life by preventing dirt from clogging it up.

The backflow kit consists of a short hose and a plastic syringe. This is for those times when you weren’t able to get all of the silt, dirt and sediment out of the water using the pre-filter and the filter has become clogged and has allot of resistance to through-flow. To use the backflow kit, you fill the syringe with clean water, connect the tubing to the filter output and the syringe, and force water backwards through the filter in the hope of dislodging the dirt that’s settled in the entrance of the filter.

My “sundries” or general utilities bag contains most of my smaller utility items, batteries and tools and usually lives toward the top of my pack.

For power, I’m using a 30,000 mAh battery pack from RAVPOWER with a single USB-A and USB-C port. The power brick is rated for 90W power delivery, and while I always charge it when I get back home, can easily last for a few weekend long trips before being depleted. I pair it with a USB-C to USB-C cable to charge my phone and a USB-A to dual Micro USB cable to charge to charge both of the Keepower USB chargeable 18650 cells for my weapon light and the two Petzl CORE rechargeable headlamp batteries. I also keep a spare Duracell CR2032 button cell for rifle scopes or handgun red dot sights.

Since I’m the type to engage in somewhat risky or potentially dangerous activities, and I often find myself in areas without cellular signal, I’ve opted to carry a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) as a last ditch attempt to call to help in a life threatening emergency. This particular PLB, the ACR Electronics ResQLink PLB-400, is a relatively simple waterproof distress beacon that operates without a subscription service anywhere you may find yourself on land or sea.

Weighing only 5.8 oz (0.16 kg), the beacon relies on the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system and a built in GPS receiver to broadcast a signal pinpointing your location for search and rescue. The beacon transmits on both 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz and has both a visible and infrared strobe, allowing SAR personnel using night vision to find you easier. For a device you hope to never use, it can seem a bit costly, usually being priced around $300, but I consider it an essential piece of equipment and I’ll never go out into the field without it.

I opted for a PLB over a satellite communicator for a number of reasons. For the uninitiated, a satellite communicator or distress beacon like the Garmin InReach Mini or SPOT messenger are two-way communication devices that rely on different satellite constellations and require an active, paid, subscription service. These devices offer allot of convenience, providing a way to check in with friends and family, send short text messages, and in cases, receive weather forecasts for your current location as well as reporting your progress and location. I personally would rather a distress beacon be a device that’s only used for a singular purpose, something that I don’t have to worry about recharging or making sure I kept up with the billing cycle. For those reasons, and for the ability to truly disconnect when I want some alone time, I opted for the one way PLB-400. All of the mentioned units are similarly priced, and while the InReach Mini offers an abundance of convenient features and uses a more reliable satellite constellation than the SPOT messengers do (Iridium for InReach devices and Globalstar for SPOT), I felt that a PLB was a better fit for me and my preferences.

The other few items I keep on my utility bag are things like a travel hairbrush, wet wipes, a small trowel and minor food items like my favorite brand of Korean instant coffee. I’m also using a Tactikka+ headlamp from Petzl. This little headlamp can run on either 3 AAA batteries or the previously mentioned Petzl CORE rechargeable units.

My cold and wet weather layers are pretty simple. I’ve mostly stuck with the same ECWCS layering system I was issued in the Army. The silk weight Layer 1 top and pants form the first layer, and the layer that is in directly in contact with my body. The “waffle” Layer 2 serves as a mid-weight thermal layer, with a moderate amount of checker patterned poly-pro that helps create air pockets to retain heat. Above those layers, I’ll usually wear some type of field shirt and combat trouser, with a windproof cover and fleece jacket over that to provide insulation for the upper body.

For outergarments, I usually wear a pair of ECWCS Cold/Wet weather Gore-Tex pants and parka. This helps retain heat and provides a waterproof shelter from rain or melted snow.

For gloves, I’ve recently been using a pair of Outdoor Research Illuminator Sensor Gloves. They feature integrated elastic “leash” of sorts that helps to retain your gloves when you might remove them to perform some task requiring greater dexterity. They’re very warm gloves, but they’re not the most waterproof, and I’m actively searching for a better option to replace them with. They offer allot in terms of dexterity however, and are compatible with the capacitive touchscreens found on today’s smartphones and tablets, allowing you to operate those devices without removing your gloves.

In addition to all of the above, I also usally carry a spare change of undergarments, wool socks, a t-shirt and field pants in a waterproof dry bag that I carry towards the top of my bag.

There really isn’t that much more to my gear. If you’re interested in a breakdown of each individual component of my current setup with weight and price, you can find that on my Lighterpack list. If you have questions about a particular item mentioned here or another gear relation question, please feel free to reach out to me or leave a comment below. I hope this article was informative and can serve as a either a starting point for new “kinetic outdoorsman” or a new perspective on how each item of your gear forms pieces of a giant, interlocking puzzle that is gear and kit selection.

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