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Packing Tip: Cheap Stuff Sack Alternatives

Many of us want to try things before we buy them and see what others are using before investing our hard-earned money in a product. Others of us know what we want, but do not have the money to buy everything at once. When I began backpacking, I found myself in both of these categories. I was looking to save money anywhere I could and slowly grow my collection of gear over time.

As I near the end of this process, I thought I ought to take a moment to share some knowledge and experience regarding stuff-sack alternatives. There are two similar alternatives that I have become fond of, each with its own set of advantages.

Zip-Lock Bags offer the distinct advantage of being waterproof, if sealed well. This is not likely to often be a necessity, but in the situations of a leaky dry-bag going overboard or a downpour without a pack-cover while backpacking, a 100% waterproof container for your clothes and other essentials can be a life-saver (literally).  Zip-Lock bags can be purchased in various sizes, making it easy to tailor to your specific needs for a trip. I find 2-gallon slide-lock bags to be the best for clothes. It is very easy to sit on them while closing to purge air and make the clothes pack extremely small. These bags can be found in packs of 10-12 at many one-stop-shopping style centers for $5-10 which is cheaper than a single stuff-sack or dry-bag of good quality, and these bags can often be used for multiple trips before needing to be replaced.

Why I like them

  • 100% waterproof, if sealed correctly
  • Cheap
  • User able to see the contents without opening the bag
  • Easy to purge air for efficient packing
  • Multiple sizes available
  • Very lightweight
  • Pack in a rather flat, sheet-like shape rather than the impossible to pack “ball” like commercial stuff-sacks tend to

Drawbacks

  • Not breathable
  • Zippers may burst if bag is over-stuffed

 

Mattress Sheet Packaging is another great alternative to stuff sacks. They make a plastic ‘packing brick’ that easily fits into larger packs and can be used as a pillow. These typically zip-shut and are very easy to use. Because of the zipper, the bags are not entirely waterproof, but just like a typical stuff sack, everywhere but the opening is waterproof. This “mostly waterproof” attribute is sufficient in nearly every situation I have encountered, since the stuff-sack should only be a secondary protection and is primarily used for organization. I really like these for backpacking because of their box-like shape and ability to be stacked. They are also typically a throw-away part of packaging, so it is very nice to be able to repurpose these before throwing them in the recycle bin. If someone else went through the hassle of making it, I might as well get as much from it as possible.

Why I like them

  • Mostly waterproof
  • Free – assuming you, or someone you know, buys a mattress cover
  • See the contents without opening
  • Very lightweight
  • Makes boxes/cubes of things rather than the impossible to pack “ball” like commercial stuff-sacks tend to

Drawbacks

  • Not very breathable
  • Zippers may burst if bag is over-stuffed
  • Not entirely waterproof

 

Conclusion

Nearly anything can be used as a stuff-sack. I have seen harness packages, empty water bottles, and pant-legs sewn together at the wide end, all used for packing. The key is to find things that will be lightweight and serve the purpose you need (Waterproof? Breathable? See-through?). If you keep your eyes open, things that can be used should start jumping out at you. If you have any tips/tricks of your own or other alternatives gear for any outdoor sports, please comment them below! I would love to learn the tricks you have and I am sure other readers could benefit from them as well.

 

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GSI collapsable Fairshare Mug Gear Review

GSI collapsable Fairshare Mug

.

Specs:

Color: Green or Blue

Material: Silicone/Polypropylene

Width: Collapsed: 7.1 x 5.4 x 1.7

Open: 10.8 x 5.5 x 4.5 inches

Weight: 7 oz

Features:

  • Collapsable mug
  • Folding handle
  • Tight-sealing lid
  • Ring to allow clipping to pack when not in use
  • Internally marked gradients (Metric and U.S.)
  • 2-position locking handle

My experience:

I was in need of a mug (to drink and eat out of) for a backcountry trip months ago and picked this up at the local store. It looked decent, and has lived up to that expectation in every way. I don’t by any means love it, but I don’t hate it either. The mug holds a perfect serving-size for a hungry me and the lid locks tight my mug to prevent spilling while I rock-hop to a better seat or throw the dirty mug in my pack to be cleaned later.

The Fairshare Mug does not receive all positive marks, however. I cracked the handle after only a month of backcountry use. The handle is my least favorite part of this contraption—It is bulky and completely ruins the packing size. I wish it had arced handles that would just fold around the top frame like some of MSR’s pots have. That would be great! I also wish it was easier to clean. The Fairshare Mug loves to hold bits of food in the ridges and keep itself covered in greasy films from food. The only way I have found to successfully clean the mug in such scenarios is to first scrub it with dirt, then clean it. This method is actually quite efficient for all backcountry cookware.

Performance:

The silicone of the Fairshare Mug is thick and (barring the handle) is quite durable, I anticipate a long life (no signs of wear after 60+ days of backcountry use). The handle, however, is weak and must be treated more carefully. You will be grateful to have the handle when the mug is scorching hot because the silicone does not insulate. The lid seals the mug very well on the Fairshare Mug and allows liquids to be shaken and the mug to flip without spilling. I was happy with most aspects of the mug, but would prefer something else for my backpacking excursions.

What I liked

  • Not terribly heavy for its size and functions
  • The lid turns on tight and stays put
  • 2-position handle
  • Has gradients marked inside the mug for measuring (Metric and U.S.)
  • Dishwasher safe (nice for post-trip cleaning)

What I didn’t 

  • Mug does not insulate at all (hot things will burn your hands if you hold it from anywhere other than the handle)
  • I cracked my plastic handle way too easily
  • Doesn’t compact as small as I would like and the handle pokes out quite a distance making it difficult to fit in my backpack
  • The ribs that fold can be a challenge to properly clean

 

Bottom line

The GSI Fairshare Mug is a good all-around mug/bowl for car-camping and some backpackers, but may be too heavy/bulky for some. I am satisfied but not thrilled with my purchase.

 

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Light My Fire Spork Gear Review

Light My Fire Spork

Specs

Color: Many options (green, yellow, pink, orange, blue, grey, etc)

Image from SmallPlanetSports.co

Material: Copolyester (Heat-resistant plastic)

BPA Free: Yes

Width: 1.5 in

Length: 6.6 in

Weight: .2 oz

Features

  • One end Spoon, other end four-tine fork + knife
  • Easy to clean

My experience

After seeing many of my colleagues eating around the campfire with these Light My Fire Sporks, I had to try one. That was a year ago. I have used the spork on multiple trips but am not thrilled with it. Teeth have broken and the Spork feels clumsy in my hand when I eat. I will probably replace this with fast-food utensils until I can buy something else.

Performance

The Light My Fire Spork lacks durability. While the spork has not snapped, the teeth have broken off from the knife part—rendering it useless. The handle feels clumsy because I must always grip wither a fork/knife end or a spoon bowl. I only get to use one utensil per meal and that is rarely optimal.

What I liked

  • Light
  • Compact utensil set
  • Great color options
  • Since it is only one piece, nobody asks me to “Borrow the part I don’t use” because they forgot their utensils.

What I didn’t

  • Knife teeth keep breaking off (I think I have 3 teeth left)
  • How do you use the knife part without a separate utensil to hold the food that needs to cutting?
  • Must choose whether to use the spoon or the fork for an entire meal or else it has to be washed to keep hands from getting extremely messy

 

Bottom line

The Light My Fire Spork works just fine, but I would not recommend it. It is not very durable, and is inconvenient for eating.

 

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Drinking Goodbye to Friends – Costa Rica day 22

We awoke for a day on the beaches of Costa Rica. The group spent the morning helping the government-employed workers tend the ground where we stayed. We picked up the debris that had fallen from trees and tore down the turtle sanctuary for the season. The last nest has hatched that morning and the sand needed to drift around and re-organize the nutrients before the next season’s horde of turtles would come to lay their eggs.

Everyone enjoyed releasing baby turtles one last time at Playa Hermosa. It was the third nest to have hatched while we were there. While the turtles struggled through the sand, everyone picked the turtle they thought would be fastest. We cheered and bantered over whose was best. Mine did well, but it didn’t pick the quickest path to the water.

A sudden bit of excitement beckoned me over to a group that was forming around a student. I rushed over to see what the commotion was all about and found a very large starfish in one of the guy’s hands. It had bright orange legs that were feeling around in all directions. It was beautiful. After everyone had a look, it was returned safely to the water.

The day was spent hanging out, playing soccer and football on the beach and trying to catch waves in the bad surfing conditions. After playing some football, I waxed my board and paddled out between sets. I waited a long time before finally finding a wave worth riding, but when it came, I hit it and got everything I could from it. I did this several times before the sun had crossed the sky and began to set.I had been surfing for hours and only found a few waves, but I didn’t care. I was moving with the warm ocean waters rather than shivering in a jacket as I would be 24 hours later. I didn’t let myself take any of this for granted.

When the sun was low in the sky, the other surfers and I caught our last waves back to shore and rejoined our respective sub-groups who we had been with for the last weeks. In the groups, we discussed the experiences we had and shared what we appreciated about each person. It was very nice to hear the uplifting talk and each person was affirmed for his or her contributions to the group.

When the meeting was over, we were taken to a restaurant to eat wonderfully prepared meal and taste the only alcohol we were allowed on the trip. Those of us who indulged were faced with a choice between Pilsen or Imperial Beer. I chose Imperial after a suggestion from one of the guides, but after trying a sip of each, I determined Pilsen to be the better brew. After weeks of sweating and being grungy much of the time, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to sit in a restaurant with clean clothes and enjoy my Cajun mahi-mahi and beer.

I found myself enjoying the company of friends in a paradise I knew would not last and I was in the best mood I have been in for as long as I can remember. It was a magnificent feeling. I knew I would not see the guides again unless there was a very fortunate turn of events. As I drank my beer, I felt like I was drinking goodbye to friends.

After dinner, the group went back to the beach at Playa Hermosa. We gathered in the sand and were given a show of Fire Poi by one of our members. It was beautiful to watch the fiery orbs dance around our member’s head while hearing the whoosh of the fast-moving flame. It put me in a trance.

When the show concluded, Felipe’s daughter of 6 years wanted some attention of her own. With a headlamp in each hand, she danced around and twirled the lights while performing her own dance. Everyone applauded for the adorable girl and watched as her face lit up from the attention.

Once the show was over, everyone began to prepare for bed. My group members and I walked down to the water to dip our toes in the Pacific Ocean one last time. We would be leaving early in the morning and would not get to touch the ocean again before we left. The water was warm and everyone was happy enjoying their last bit of paradise before heading home in the morning. I went back to camp and crawled into my hammock to sleep in the warm Costa Rican air.

 

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Releasing Baby Sea Turtles and Surfing – Costa Rica day 21

Shortly after lying down in my hammock, a hard rain began to fall. I quickly rolled out of my hammock and threw my belongings sloppily into one of the tents that had room for an additional guy. Everyone scrambled to put the rain flies on the tents because we had chosen to sleep without them during the trip due to in the Costa Rican heat.

Around 5:00 AM came the almost daily interruption of our morning. This time, however, it was not a rooster, goose, or other fowl, but rather a new bird with a far more annoying call than any had previously made. It literally made the Dolby Surround Sound warm-up noise repeatedly for the entire morning. We were not amused.

Upon leaving our tents in the morning, we were greeted with a wonderful surprise. In the night, one of the turtle nests had hatched in the sanctuary and we were going to release them before breakfast.

A full bucket of baby sea turtles (they were carefully places in their by a man with a glove on) was brought to the beach and the turtles were poured out in a line on the sand. Some had not yet woken up from their slumber and were put back in the bucket so they could be released later that day when they become conscious. The rest began their long journey down the beach with us protecting them from the birds.

We had to release the turtles high on the beach because their journey across the beach is crucial for them to be able to return to this specific beach in order to lay eggs in successive years (The turtles have glands that learn the exact sand composition of the beach and the turtle will return to the same beach for the entirety of their life).

When all of the baby turtles had made their struggle into the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean, I took a walk down the beach. I was amazed at the variety of shells and lack of trash on the beach. It was so clean and natural looking.

Eventually, I wandered back to our camp for breakfast. The waves were not yet sufficient for surfing, so everyone helped do community service around the grounds where we stayed. Some helped with the turtle hatchery while others removed debris from the ground. Coconuts were thrown into the jungle and fallen branches stacked at the edge of the jungle.

When the waves had built enough for surfing, everyone went to the storage room and grabbed boards. Since I had previous experience surfing and have done nearly every board-sport imaginable, I was permitted to forego the padded noob boards and take a hard board. The instructor was really cool about this and took time to teach me how to properly wax a surf board and what to look for should I ever be in the market to purchase one.

After waxing my board, I joined the others in the surf and began catching waves.  I found the board to be a lot of fun and began practicing my turns. It was challenging, but I was successful in making a few turns and was happy with the speed at which I was picking up the sport. I don’t know what it is with myself and water sports, but we just work well together.

Consumed by hunger, we took a break from the waves and went in for lunch. We had fresh pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, coconut, and sandwiches. It was healthy, filling, and delectable. Everyone left the meal with full stomachs and bodies tired from surfing (which is a lot more work that it appears to be!).

I went and laid in my hammock while the rest of the group grabbed their sleeping mats and lay in the shade around me. It was siesta time as the afternoon sun turned the sand too hot to stand. Several members of the group talked and laughed quite loudly, so none slept, but it sure was nice to rest in such a warm beautiful place. It was 88 degrees in the shade with a light breeze. Life could not be better.

Eventually, the group grabbed their boards, I grabbed mine, and together we headed down to the water. We surfed non-stop for hours. As the gigantic sun began to drown into the aquatic horizon, it painted the canvas of the sky a luminescent watercolor of every pink and purple hue imaginable.

Having paddled myself beyond the breakers, I laid half-submerged with my back atop my surfboard in order to watch as the glowing bauble in the sky sank below the horizon. I had never seen the sun so large. Viewing it from a surfboard that was gently bobbing in the warm, Pacific Ocean water made it an unbeatable experience. I found myself having one of the few moments of my life that stand above the rest. Life was pure – Pura Vida.

Upon returning to the beach, we were informed that the other group from our college would be arriving soon. We were all a little nervous as our group had formed a very tranquil atmosphere and the other group was much louder and outspoken. Their arrival, with shouts and song that could be heard from far down the road only made us more nervous. Fortunately their energy did not stay too high for very long and the two groups quickly blended together as they had in the first day of the trip.

Later that evening, everyone was asked to sign up for a one-hour shift watching and protecting the turtle nests during the night. I signed up with a girl whom I had been friends with for a long time but rarely spoke to outside the trip. We got along very well and had many things in common. It was fun to sit and catch up on the last few years where we had been near to one another, but so few words were exchanged.

While everyone got ready to go to bed, our surf instructor broke out his guitar and began to serenade the camp in his Costa Rican accent. He was a well built man with dark complexion and gnarly dreads. The girls all melted when he played “Banana Pancakes” by Jack Johnson, but I rather preferred his renditions of “Jammin” by Bob Marley and “The General” by Dispatch.

I quickly fell asleep because I had essentially been up since 5:00 AM thanks to the Dolby-Surround-Sound-bird and had signed up for a turtle-watch shift in the middle of the night. My hammock was comfortable and I was happy to be in it again (if only for a while).

 

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So That’s Why You Wear a Helmet – Costa Rica day 20

An early morning and a brisk pace allowed us to break camp and be on the river by 7:30 AM. It was going to be a long day and we needed all the time we could get. We headed downriver and quickly came to some challenging rapids. Some flipped in their duckies but the kayaks remained upright through the first few rapids.

I flipped in a rapid called “Rattlesnake.” It was my fault, I tried to go to the right of a boulder but the river pushed left. I hit the pillow and began to roll. A good brace would have saved me, but I didn’t manage a good brace. I flipped just as I flowed off the pillow and onto the tongue to the left of the boulder.

As the current quickly pulled me downriver, I tried to get my paddle in position to flip myself back over, but it collided with rocks and was impossible to get into position. A second or two later, my head met a large boulder that was submerged. It collided hard enough that with my solid hip-snap, I nearly rolled my kayak upright from the force of the collision. I caught a breath as my head came out of the water for a moment, but my paddle was still in a very awkward position and my combat rolls were not yet perfected.

My head splashed back under water, but only momentarily. I had gotten my paddle back to a decent position for rolling and I went for the roll with everything I had. It worked and I was right side up once again. Everything had happened so fast, I couldn’t believe how well I had done with recovering after my mistake had lead me to flip. I certainly still showed signs of being a noob, but I was picking up the sport very quickly.

As I passed Felipe, he began to laugh. I inquired as to what he was laughing about and he replied by telling me to take off my helmet and look for myself. I did and was surprised by the amount of damage the rock had caused. The helmet had a 4×4 inch patch of deep gouges and scratches. I can only imagine how my head would have looked if the hard-shelled helmet was not there to protect it. I looked back at Felipe and said, “So that’s why you wear a helmet” and thank God I had. The helmet worked so well I didn’t even have a headache from the collision.

Another bit of excitement came when we took a break for lunch. We made our buffet on some rocks and began preparing the meal. After a minute or two of peaceful, quiet work, someone shouted something about a crocodile. Sure enough, about 30 yards from us a crocodile was swimming past. Throughout lunch, several other crocs were spotted across the river.

A few members of the group were a little nervous about such a powerful animal being so close. The guides tried to reassure them that it would be fine and that these were “little” crocodiles, only about 8-feet. The students who were nervous didn’t think that little was an adequate description of an eight-foot croc, but considering how large they can grow to, it was a fair assessment.

In the afternoon, the group pulled all of the gear out from the river and began the drive back to headquarters to return the rafting gear. Once that was accomplished, everyone piled into a touring van and were driven to Playa Hermosa, where we would spend the last days of our trip learning to surf and helping with the ongoing sea turtle restoration project (There will be a cool video of this coming soon so stay posted!).

 

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Exploring the Rio General II – Costa Rica day 19

Our second day of kayaking down the Rio General was filled with large rapids, interesting history, and lots of play. Felipe was enjoying watching my excitement for kayaking and showed me how to do some cool tricks (if you missed the video of me kayaking the Rio General, click here to view it!).

The first thing he taught me was how to enter the water from a great height. He had me bring my kayak to the top of a large boulder, about 8 feet out of the water, and launch back into the river. This would be very similar to what I would need to do if I ever am fortunate enough to go over a waterfall in one of theseboats. Felipe made sure that I knew what he felt was the most important step: holding the paddle above your head so it does not knock out teeth. I was careful to follow his suggestion.

Another trick I was taught was sculling (skip to 2:24 in the video to see what sculling is). It is a very useful skill as a good scull can mate with a roll and allow a kayaker the ability to right themselves from nearly any position. When rapids are large and the water is strong, this can prove invaluable to the kayaker as they are tossed around by the waves.

           A little further down river, Santiago flipped one of the girl’s duckies. It was hilarious hearing the scream of surprise and seeing the splash. While he was flipping her ducky, however, I positioned myself to flip him. He was distracted and did not notice me coming up quickly.

In order to flip the ducky, Santiago had to set his paddle down next to him in the river. When I flipped him, he could not hand-roll and did not ask for a T-rescue, he instead simply pulled off the spray skirt and bailed. Everyone laughed because in flipping someone else’s boat, he was flipped worse.

Santiago picked up his kayak (full of water, and therefore extremely heavy) in the middle of the river and drained it over his head. He decided to try to jump in to the kayak from standing on a rock in the river. The kayak bobbed once and spat him back out. He gave up and swam the kayak to shore to drain again and re-enter. I had quite a sense of success in having gotten a guide so well with a flip.

We found a ball in the river and played with it for a while

Challenging rapids awaited us down river. Two were on the border of Class III or IV and really could have gone either way. I managed to make it through both without flipping, but the second rapid was quite an experience. The kayak in front of me flipped so I turned around and surfed a hole in the middle of the rapids to give him space. There was only one kayak behind me and it was Felipe who had eddied out so we could pass him.

I soon found out that Felipe had left the eddy and was quickly coming down towards me. I turned as much as I could and he glided right over my bow and kept going. I turned back around and continued down river. I was very excited about the control I had gained over my kayak and the fact that I had just successfully surfed a hole without any preparation. I had just turned around and did everything I needed with instinct.

Besides running rapids, we also spent time where we learning about the history in the area where we were kayaking. at one point, we pulled off the river to look at ancient rock carvings that lie inconspicuously on boulders along the river. We were also informed that this was one of the areas littered with the famous rock spheres several of us had read about before embarking on the trip.

Hitting a hole backwards for fun

Our last exciting lesson of the day was watching a Jesus Christ Lizard run across the water. The guides scared it so it would run away from us over the water. The lizard earned its name because of its ability to run on the surface of the water. It was quite an amazing sight.

We finally made camp for the last time along the river. We made a large fire on the beach and enjoyed the warm night. Everyone was all-too-aware that our amazing adventure was quickly coming to en end. We would leave in the morning for Playa Hermosa, spend a couple days there, and head home. We resolved to make every remaining moment count.

 

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