Friday, August 7, 2015

Te Araroa Gear Review

Today we are coming to you with a review of the gear we used on Te Araroa in New Zealand. We realize it's been 4 months since our trek ended, but there are lots of people prepping for the TA right now and asking questions in the forums, so we thought no better time to offer our review. 

We wrote up a gear review at the midpoint of the trail after we finished the North Island and you can read that here, but this post will address 3,000 kilometers of use. 

A reminder: the TA and elements in NZ are different than what we've ever experienced in the US, so a lot of usage was based on this fact. In other words, we wouldn't characterize this as "normal usage." Also, we only consider ourselves semi-lightweight because we like some luxuries when we are in the backcountry. 

TENT 
Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2
Our midpoint gear review addressed all the updates made compared with the 2011 version of the Copper Spur we used on the Appalachian Trail, so we won't get into that here. Although, we did add an extra gear loft for the South Island … the Copper Spur has a great organization system, but you just can never have too many pockets in a tent! 
What we want to address is TA-specific usage. We ended up sleeping in our Copper Spur for 71 nights. It came off the trail with only a few minor holes and tears considering how rough the TA is. We did not start with a footprint (ground tarp), and that wasn't a good choice for our tent floor. It got really beat up on the North Island, but once we added the footprint, there wasn't as much wear and tear. 

Our sleeping surfaces included sand, mud, tree roots, gravel, and many others. We were happy to have a freestanding tent that only needed staking for the rainfly for this reason. We watched different hiking partners with lighter tents/tarps spending so much time finding a good spot and creatively staking out their shelters. Not to say it didn't work for them, just saying we were happy our setup was less than 5 minutes. 

Another thing to note is that the air in NZ is very moist, as you are never far from the sea. Given this, we can count on one hand how many nights we were able to sleep without the rainfly. Constantly using the rainfly did make our sleeping quarters a bit hotter, but the tent has great ventilation. One of its best features, though, is its weather protection. We got caught in some typical NZ rainstorms overnight and always stayed dry. Even when we were camped on wet ground or on an angle where groundwater could potentially flow our way. And the separate vestibules kept our packs dry as well. Nearly every day we were packing up a wet tent, whether from dew or rain, and thankfully, it always dried out quickly. A true testament to its stellar design. 
This was one of the RARE times we were without a rain tarp. You can see the environment was very arid in this section. 

SLEEP SYSTEM
Therm-a-rest X-Lite Sleeping Pads for both, Therm-a-rest Antares HD 20-degree bag (Patrice), Therm-a-rest Auriga 35-degree blanket (Justin) and Nemo Fillo Pillow (Patrice)
There is not much to say about our sleep system that we didn't say in the midpoint review. You have to know your own temperature ranges, and even though a 20-degree bag is on the warm side and not needed on the North Island, I (Patrice) was happy to have it on the South Island. We definitely had cooler nighttime temperatures. One thing to note about using blankets. We slept in 22 backcountry huts, mostly on the South Island. The huts mean you don't need your sleeping pad because there is a mattress on the bunks. However, J needed his sleep sack because otherwise, he'd be sleeping directly on the mattress that so many others have slept on (and some of those mattresses were in need of replacing!). 

COOK SYSTEM 
MSR Microrocket stove, GSI Halulite MicroDualist
We couldn't be happier with our cook system. The microrocket stove attached to a canister fuel of 80/20 blend of isobutane and propane. These were very easy to find on both islands and reasonably priced; we usually carried the medium size canister (8 ounces/230 grams) and we went through 4 for the whole trip. It boiled 1 liter of water in about 3 minutes. We ate mainly dehydrated meals requiring only boiled water, but a few times we cooked in our MicroDualist 1.4 liter pot (fits up to 2.5 cups of food/water). We were very happy with the simmering and cooking time. Tons of people had alcohol stoves out there, but honestly, the weight difference was minimal in the long run and our food was always cooked faster than those with alcohol stoves. Plus, we could cook on any surface without fear of damaging the hut tables or starting a fire!


We also carried the Kung Foon made by GSI, quite possibly J's favorite piece of gear. We got so many looks every time we brought these out. The spoon/fork is made long by attaching chopsticks to the handle.  This allowed us to eat our backpacking meals with ease, getting to the bottom of the bag and not making a mess on our hand.  It also allows you to stir your boiling water without burning your hand.  

FOOTWEAR 
Hi-Tec Ohio Boots/Zuuks (Patrice) and Hi-Tec Altitude Lite Waterproof Hi Tops/Rio Adventure (Justin)
Superfeet Insoles for both
We both went through 2 pair of shoes. I (Patrice) used the Ohio Boots the whole time, while Justin changed from Altitude Treks (low tops) to the Altitude Lite (hi tops) for the South Island. The Lites were not as rugged as the Treks and got beat up a lot faster! We can't say it enough how rugged the terrain is. Footwear is a personal choice, but we both were happy to have a "beefier" shoe and go through fewer pairs for the whole trek than others with lighter shoes did. 
The other thing is we crossed 200+ rivers on the South Island. We typically switch to our camp shoe or go barefoot, but when you are crossing 50+ rivers sometimes in one day, that's just not realistic. So we crossed in our boots. Sometimes, it would take a few crossings before our feet would get wet, depending on how shallow it was. This wasn't true for our hiking partner who had trail runners  his feet were soaked after the slightest moisture on the ground. And his shoes were torn up quicker from all the crossings than ours were. Amazingly, our boots almost always dried out overnight, which surprised us. 


And, as we said in our midpoint gear review, we were happy with our camp shoe choices (Hi-Tec Zuuks and Rio Adventure Sandals) because they were multifunctional for camp, town, and road walking, but still lightweight enough to carry on the trail.

No matter the shoe choice, we recommend an insole, a really easy way to upgrade your footwear. We each went through 2 pair of Superfeet insoles through the whole trek. I (Patrice) used the Carbons and Berrys, while Justin used the Carbons and Coppers. Both were great in comfort and quality. We never tried to buy insoles in NZ, but fellow TA hikers kept telling us there was not a great selection and they were crap quality. Just something to keep in mind! We sent our second set of insoles to our Havelock mail drop (1400K into the trail) and it was the perfect time to switch out. 

GAITERS 
Outdoor Research Wrapid Gaiters (Justin) and a really old pair that OR no longer makes (Patrice)
We feel gaiters are a necessity while trekking thru NZ.  You walk thru so many different types of terrains and you want to keep debris, mud, sand and everything under the sun out of your shoes. Plus, on the South Island, the plant life is deadlier than any animals. Between spaniard grass and tussock, some days would be very bloody. I (Patrice) wore my gaiters religiously and was so glad to have them.  Mine are an older pair that OR no longer makes and are in surprisingly good condition (used on the AT too). Justin used his brand-new OR gaiters on the North Island and would have continued to use his the whole trip, but, as we mentioned in the midpoint gear review, the velcro on the Wrapid Gaiters failed. So he was without gaiters for the South Island and somehow survived. Still, a definite recommendation. 

LIGHTING 
Princeton Tec Vizz headlights
The most important feature we look for in our headlights is long-lasting battery life. Guess what? We carried extra batteries during our 123-day trek and never had to change them in our headlights. The days were getting shorter as we hiked south in NZ and the huts were dark, plus we did some night/early morning hiking, giving our headlamps a run for their money. The Vizz has a battery life that will last 150 hours, with 3 settings (maxbright LED, an ultra bright LED and a red LED). It probably helps that it has a lock options for the on/off button, so the light would not turn on in your pack and waste the battery. Another cool thing about all PTec lights  they include batteries with your purchase! 
Photo courtesy of Kevin Gallagher - Goat Pass Early Morning Hike thanks to the Vizz


BACKPACKS 
Gregory Baltoro 65 Liter (J) and Gregory Deva 60 Liter (P) - 2015 models 
We felt we had PLENTY of room using 60-liter packs. More often than not, our packs were not full. On the AT, we took the tops off when we were carrying less to save the weight (due to summer supplies and shorter distance between resupply). We didn't do that here, but it was always good to have the extra space when we had to carry more food, which happened more often on the South Island. Not only were we eating more, but there was at least one stretch that we carried 10 days worth of food just in case weather kept us stranded. We both got up to the 30-40 pound range with those loads. The key features of the Response AFS suspension stay and EVA foam hip belt allowed both backpacks to carry the heavy loads VERY comfortably. We also loved the independently pivoting shoulder harness and hip straps let that allowed us to tweak the fit according to load and weight loss. Justin, once again, got to the point where he couldn't tighten his hip belt any tighter because of his weight loss. We didn't do this, but with these new models, you can switch out the hip belt for a different size. 

The thing we have always loved about the Baltoro & Deva packs is the organization. We had plenty of pockets to keep things separate and have a system going. For example, there were 2 hip belt pockets - 1 weatherproof for electronics and 1 mesh for snacks. Another upgrade from the older versions was the removable internal hydration bladder bag, giving us a bonus day pack that we used often on this trip. 

TREKKING POLES 
Helinox Passport Series
We insist that trekking poles should be taken on long-distance hikes, especially the TA. Not only is the terrain uneven, rocky and steep, but we crossed 200 rivers on the South Island. You are taking care of your feet with proper footwear, so take care of your knees and give yourself a little more support and balance. Our poles weighed in at just 11 ounces for the pairs (made of the same DAC technology of your tent poles). Amazingly, out of our 4 poles, only 1 broke. These add so much support to your knees and keep your balance. 
Photo courtesy of Kevin Gallagher - Tackling Takitimu Forest on the South Island

WATER FILTRATION 
Sawyer Mini Filter
Everyone said NZ water is the cleanest in the world, but we take no chances and always filter. Especially when we saw cows and sheep making it their business to "crap" up  the water source. In any case, we have used just about every filter from the pump, to the pen, to gravity and drops/chemicals. Nothing is as lightweight (2 ounces), reliable (filters up to 100,000 gallons of water) or easy to use (fill a bag with dirty water and squeeze through a filter to your bottle/bladder) as the Sawyer filters (they make a bigger one that is just 3 ounces). We always made sure to backwash the filter in towns to ensure maximum flow. One caveat would be that we broke a few bags. The "dirty" water bags come in several sizes (16 oz, 32 oz, 64 oz). We always carry 2 bags and broke 3 bags along the way. We just find it to be inevitable and admittedly, are not gentle with our squeezing. 



SOLAR CHARGER 
PowerTraveller PowerMonkey 
Our solar charger is probably the piece of gear we got the most questions and comments about, as it hung strapped to the back Justin's pack everyday.  A lot of people carry those backup batteries, but we carried the PowerMonkey Solar Charger. When we started the trek, we didn't even need to buy a power plug adaptor because we used the solar charger for everything. Then, we had 10 days straight of rain, so we needed the plug. Otherwise, it was a lifesaver the whole rest of the time. I (Patrice) used my Garmin GPS watch almost daily from Auckland on and that would use a full battery some days. After a full day of hiking with the solar charger soaking up sun, it powered up the watch within an hour (1% every every minute). When the iPhone needed charging, it would charge up around 20-40% from the leftover power.  On a full charge it would power up the whole cell phone.  On a full charge it would charge the iPad mini about 20-30%.

BONUS GEAR
Survival
We carried the SPOT Gen1 Satellite Messenger as our personal locator beacon (thanks Fire Marshall for letting us borrow it). We paid the 1-year plan price ($100). At every town stop, we went into the system and changed the message ("The Wandering La Vignes are checking in from Nelson Lakes National Park") and sent it out while in the backcountry. We set it up to be e-mailed to 10 people and it would also automatically share on Facebook. Thankfully, we never needed it for emergencies, but we were very glad to be carrying it. NZ bush is no joke and there is no cell service, let alone towns. We knew more than one TA hiker to be rescued in the NZ backcountry and it is definitely a good safety item to carry. 

Tracking
I (Patrice) wore a Garmin Fenix device as my watch, but also to GPS our days. We learned sometime during the North Island that the mileage listed in the trail notes/maps was off by a kilometer or 2 everyday. That was frustrating. So we started tracking our daily progress to give a little more piece of mind. Using the GPS feature drained the battery daily, but as I said, our PowerMonkey charged it up fully in no time. If you don't use the GPS feature, the battery lasts several days. The watch face is a little bulky, but it never bothered me. 

Clothing
We mentioned this in our midpoint gear review, but J's favorite piece of clothing is his Mountain Hardwear convertible pants, which now have 6,000+ miles on them and are STILL going strong. These pants may be indestructible. With all the trudging through rivers, mud, Spainard grass and tussock on the South Island, I'm not sure how they are still going strong. 

I have 2 favorite pieces of clothing: my Big Agnes Shovelhead Downtek jacket and Buff Headwear. I am a sucker for getting to camp and getting comfy. Nights (and sometimes days) on the South Island were much cooler than the North Island and I got my use out of this poof jacket. Amazingly, it shows no wear and tear for the 50+ nights I wore it. I love 2 main features: the hood and Downtek material, which can (and did) get wet, but still keeps me dry. As for my Buff, it goes on every backpacking/hiking trip I take. It is so versatile (hat, headband, etc.) and I literally can't live without it in the backcountry.

Trowel
As Leave No Trace educators, we find it very important to dispose of waste properly. There were not many outhouses along the TA, so digging holes was a necessity. The GSI trowel weighs in at 3.1 ounces and takes up no room, but it allows you dig the proper hole (6 inches) to bury your waste.  It even has measurements on it in both inches and centimeters and cost $5. The use of the TA is increasing year after year and we saw a lot of improper waste disposal. This is the simple solution to ensuring future hikers can enjoy NZ's beauty as it should be--pristine and unspoiled. 

Sun Lotion & Bug Repellent
You are closer to the sun in NZ, so you better keep lubed up. Sunblock in NZ is expensive. We brought lots over from the states and sent them to our various mail drops. We used Sawyer Stay Put 30 SPF.  We liked this because it was water repellent and stayed on as we crossed hundreds of rivers.  The sand flies are hit and miss in NZ and we hit them.  Keeping them away from us was a must and we used Maxi-Deet and Picaridin, both made by Sawyer. We also treated our gear with Permethrin before we left. All of this helped to keep us mostly bite-free. 
Dozens and dozens of sandflies trying to reach our blood

iPhone 5c
Our Apple iPhone had many uses for this trek. We picked up a SIM card at the airport via Vodafone and were grateful for phone and internet service. A lot of people just used their smartphones for access via WiFi, but WiFi in NZ is not always free. Vodafone offered great 2-month plans (2GB data, 100 texts to other NZ numbers and 100 minutes of international call time). We didn't call the US all too often, mainly used FaceTime, but our calling minutes were especially helpful for arranging shuttles and making reservations at hostels (we found hostels book up quickly on the South Island unlike the North Island).  Service was spotty in the bush, so there were large stretches without any on the South Island, but still, we were glad to have it overall. We also used the phone A LOT with the "I Hike NZ" app. It worked on the satellite, so no service was needed. We also took all our photos with our iPhone, just like we did on the AT. 

iPad Mini
We blogged along the way and when we did the AT, I used my iPhone, which was perfectly fine. But, we decided at the last minute that having a second Internet-capable electronic device would probably be important in NZ since hostels didn't have community computers to use like hostels on the AT had. So either only one of us could use the Internet, or we should bring the Apple iPad Mini. Turns out, that was a killer choice. Not only did it make blogging easier (I used to type up my blog posts on the iPad in the tent a little each night, then share photos from our iPhone to the iPad when we got to town and upload). You have to buy Internet cards from the hostels, so usually we would each buy our own. Occasionally, we would just buy one and share it. 

Disclosure: We received product from Big Agnes, Gregory, Therm-a-rest, Hi-Tec, Superfeet, Sawyer, GSI and Princeton Tec for the purpose of our hike. 


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks! This helps a lot in my planning.

Misti said...

Your write-up about boots just reiterated my love for hiking in boots. I get the concept of feeling ultra-light with trail runners but the tradeoffs just aren't worth it for me.

Now I want to hike!

Hauke said...

Thank you for the review, that'll help us a lot!