Hiking the Appalachian Trail in winter isn't for everyone. The Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, for example, are a real weather crapshoot. December weather can go from 50 degrees and sunny to 15 degrees with a foot of snow on the ground in less time than it takes to realize you don't have enough bars on your mobile phone to call for help.
So, your gear had better be up to the task. GearScout loaded up a pack with 30-plus products and headed for the Smokies. We spent three days on the snowy AT walking 23.4 miles to see how well a bunch of gear would do when pushed up against the edge of its intended performance envelope.
Two of us climbed more than 4,000 vertical feet over Mount Guyot in snow, then tromped down in ice, slush and freezing mud. The daytime weather ranged from 30 degrees in light mist/snow to 19 degrees and snowing. The nights got down to 17 degrees inside the AT shelters.
Here's a short list of gear that held up or held us back. Look for more gear reviews at militarytimes.com/GearScout.
Arc'teryx Altra 75 regular
We don't know how Arc'teryx managed to cram all this technology, capability and versatility into a svelte 5.3-pound package. Shelters on the AT meant we didn't have to carry a tent, so the pack's 4,577 cubic inches fit my gear exactly.
The pivoting hip belt is no gimmick — two days of going up should have had some effect on my hips, but I don't think I even adjusted the belt after the first hour. The pack/back interface is achieved by using pack straps that run continuously from the middle of the back up over the shoulder. It's very comfortable, but not as stable as a traditional suspension.
Pros: Loading and accessing gear was easy; multiple main-compartment access points; zippers protected and backed up by novel pad cover.
Cons: Had to cut larger opening for CamelBak tube; needs gear loops on the shoulder straps; no way to lash anything to the bottom.
Marmot Couloir zero-degree sleeping bag
A sleeping bag will make or break your winter camping trip. A good bag will protect you from the cold and wet when all else leaks, tears, freezes or snaps off. A low-quality bag will cause fits of strength-sapping shivers.
The Couloir performed adequately. It was easy to get in and out of, had plenty of room and an easily adjustable hood. But the draft tube didn't cut it. I could feel the 17-degree cold seeping in through the zipper on my knees and thighs all night.
Pros: DWR finish sheds light rain and snow; compresses well; lightweight; no down leaks; interior condensation dried quickly.
Cons: Zipper baffle is too narrow; cold around the zipper.
Nemo Fillo backpacking pillow
If you're going to bring a dedicated pillow backpacking, it better be about three times more comfortable than a rolled-up jacket. The Fillo gets about two-thirds of the way there.
Unused, it folds up quite small. The microfiber pillowtop felt great, and it was a cinch to add some height to the pillow using the attached elastic cords. But, as a side sleeper, I had to put a lot of air into the Fillo for it to support my head. The interior baffles couldn't hold the rectangular shape, and it felt a bit like sleeping on a balloon.
Pros: Memory foam and microfiber top feel great; doesn't take up much room.
Cons: Shape becomes too round when filled with a lot of air; expensive.
Brunton Helios stormproof lighter
The cold killed it. Period. During the day, the Helios wanted to work. Each click brought a weak, sorry-looking flame. But as the temps got closer to 20 degrees, the beefy-looking lighter couldn't even supply a flicker.
We can't blame the lighter, though. Butane just doesn't work below 30 degrees. We tried a butane/propane mix, and that only bought us sputtering performance in the 20s. Above 40 degrees, however, the Helios produces an unwavering flame worthy of an Olympic torch.
Pros: Can't put its flame out with a wind machine when the fuel is warm.
Cons: Butane didn't work below 25 degrees.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping pad
At 2.5 inches thick and 14 ounces, this thing is pure ultralight luxury. It's easily 10 ounces lighter than a standard, self-inflating Therm-a-Rest. It takes up about a quarter of the space and isn't stiff, so it can fit in odd spaces. Comfort-wise, NeoAir holds its shape and keeps you off the ground while supporting the dips and rises comfortably.
Pros: Lightest, smallest compressed ground pad around for its comfort; doubles as a high-visibility panel for rescue.
Cons: Must be blown up; can't take abuse like an egg crate; should come with a patch kit.
Arc'teryx Atom LT Jacket
Fleece is dead. Why carry something so bulky when Arc'teryx's Coreloft insulation is just as warm but compresses down to the size of two fists and weighs only 11.5 ounces? The Atom further nails fleece's coffin shut by adding a windproof, waterproof, breathable face fabric with strategically placed breathable fleece under the arms. You end up with an athletically cut mid- or outer-layer that can keep you warm and dry on the downhills without overheating on the uphills.
Pros: Takes up little room in a pack; synthetic insulation dries quickly; excellent temperature regulation during high-output, cold-weather activities.
Cons: Face fabric may not hold up to much abuse; athletic cut may not suit all body types.
Mountain Hardwear Navigation Pants
Hitting the trail in a pair of soft-shell pants gives you protection from the elements and abrasion unequaled by canvas. But they can be warm and scratchy. MH uses strategically placed chamois panels where the fabric can chafe. It also added surprisingly effective zippered thigh vents that dumped plenty of heat on the uphills. Another great feature is the built-in, removable gaiters. They fit perfectly on my hiking boots and kept snow and scree from getting into my boot tops.
Pros: Thigh vents and gaiters worked great; excellent range of motion; excellent weather protection.
Cons: No dimensional sizing, only letter sizing; synthetics don't have the comfortable feel of natural fibers.
Garmin Dakota 20
The Dakota is a hiker's cockpit heads-up display. Teamed up with Garmin's National Park Service Maps, the trails were routable just like roads in an automobile's GPS system, using hiking trails as opposed to as-the-crow-flies bearings. It comes with a barometer and electronic compass if the tree canopy precludes the use of GPS. The battery lasted about 12 hours in the cold. Switching to battery-saver mode got about 16 hours on the second set of AAs.
Pros: Small size; intuitive controls; accurate; rugged; easy battery changes.
Cons: Screen is hard to read in open sunlight; greatest functionality comes with expensive maps that can only be installed on two units.
Price: $349.99 with 24k National Park Service East Maps
We took a few regulated and unregulated canister stoves for an informal cold-weather performance test.
Liquid fuel will burn in the cold without a hiccup. But it can be messy, and nobody likes pumping and priming for dinner in the cold and dark. Canisters light fast and burn hot and clean, but few work well in the cold. We compared two regulated stoves, with a popular unregulated stove as a control.
Jetboil Flash PCS stove/cup kit
As expected, the unregulated Jetboil ran poorly in the 25-degree weather. At lunchtime, it boiled a half-liter of water in about five minutes. At dinnertime, though, it burned like an anemic pilot light.
The Jetboil was easy to light after we adjusted the piezoelectric starting wire. Out of the box, it was too close to the head and wouldn't light reliably. For warm weather, the Jetboil would be a great choice.
Pros: It worked above 25 degrees; built-in cozy with heat indicator works; heat exchanger efficiency makes the most of reduced flame in cold weather; packs up small.
Cons: Had to adjust ignition system out of the box.
MSR Reactor stove/pot kit
The regulated Reactor's reliability, capacity and speed made it the go-to stove for the trip. The radiant heater combined with the heat exchanger fins on the bottom of the 1.5-liter pot meant almost zero wind interference. There was no hint of surging or sputtering, no matter how cold it was on our trip.
Boil times were about four minutes for a liter at 19 to 20 degrees ambient, which is just incredible for a canister.
Pros: Fuel regulation works; compact, reliable, versatile.
Cons: A little large for a solo trip.
Soto OD-1R Micro Regulator
When the folks at Soto named the regulated Micro, they weren't being coy. It's the size of a salt shaker and produced a powerful flame at 17 degrees ambient on a near-empty canister.
We met up with a frustrated through-hiker whose MSR PocketRocket wouldn't light at all in the cold. We loaned him the Soto, and we had to pry it from his warm, well-fed hands the next morning after giving him sub-five-minute boil times in his half-liter pot.
Pros: Great for those who don't want a canister system; extends the versatility and temperature range of your existing cookware; electric lighter; smaaaaall.
Cons: None. Really.
Suunto Core Watch
The Suunto Core watch originally hit the street in mid-2008, but a major issue surfaced within months of the watch's release: the Core was resetting randomly.
The Core was relaunched in May 2009 with new internals that fixed the problem. We've spent seven uneventful months wearing a Core from the new batch, culminating in its glitch-free operation during our winter hike.
Timekeeping was dead on. Temps jived, and the pressure track accurately forecast the clearing weather. The crystal face held up without a mark after general abuse and even a deliberate attack with a key.
Pros: Easy to read and operate; tough; user-replaceable battery; dual time; display layouts make sense for activities.
Cons: The countdown timer and stopwatch only run 99 minutes; the compass was accurate, but it wandered and took a while to settle (which didn't inspire confidence).