New Year, New Gear

My beloved EMS Staright tent in Olympic National Forest

Like a lot of outdoorsy people, I really love gear: tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, jackets, gaiters, boots, etc. When you spend hours, days and weeks at a time outside, the right gear can make all the difference between ecstasy and sheer misery. In the elements, gear isn’t about making a fashion statement; it’s a matter of safety and survival.

Unlike a lot of outdoorsy people who love gear, however, I don’t have a ton of it. I am not somebody who needs to have the latest and greatest every season. Everything I own has to fit in my car so I’m very deliberate about buying new things. When acquiring a new piece of gear, I tend to do a lot of research, buy exactly what I need and then use it to shreds.

Me & Bowie descending Summit Peak in the San Juans on the 4th of July. That massive hole in the knee is a souvenir from climbing over a cactus on the way up New Mexico's Placer Peak.

When I finished college my parents bought me an EMS expedition backpack, a day pack and a tent as my graduation present and I bought myself a North Face down jacket. Six years later (yikes! time flies!) I still use all four on a regular basis.

Sadly, it’s coming time to think about replacing three of the four. The backpack will last me a few more seasons, but the day pack has a broken buckle that pinches my arm when I wear short sleeves, the down jacket has lost most of its loft and the tent has lost all of its waterproofing.

Bowie on the AT in North Carolina with my trusty EMS backpack. I was lucky enough to find a pack that fits my short torso and I plan to use it until the bitter end.

The easiest to replace was the day pack. I have a medium-sized Deuter pack that I use in the winter, when I might need to store a puffy jacket or strap snowshoes to the pack. Deuter’s a German company that has been around for over 100 years and they make a really great pack. I got their SpeedLite 20 in Cranberry/ Fire to replace the old EMS day pack and I love it!

Next, I wanted to replace the down jacket before my trip to Germany so I bought a Marmot Venus jacket with 800-fill down. On the first day of my trip, the jacket sprung a feather leak and by the time I got home, it was molting all over.

Me in the Marmot. I'm surprised there are no feathers showing here!

I must have got a dud. Marmot is a good company and the jacket has been getting great reviews online. I loved the warmth, the weight and the fit, but seeing as my North Face down jacket had lasted me six years without molting more than a few feathers, that much wear in a matter of weeks was unacceptable. Good ol’ REI took it back, no problem, for a full refund. I’m now eyeing an ultralight down jacket from Patagonia. It’s pricey but should keep me warm for years.

Now for the really tough one: a new tent. My tent is an EMS Starlight and even after years of reading reviews and checking out demo models, it’s still my number one all-time favorite 2-person backpacking tent. It’s light and compact, but still has plenty of room for two people, two dogs and vestibule space for the backpacks if it’s raining. I’ve probably spent more nights in that tent than in any one bed. That’s a lot of sunsets, stars and sunrises and I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve grown pretty attached.

Max Patch Sunrise, on the AT in North Carolina

I really love this tent: A few years ago, I was camping with a group of people in Shenandoah National Forest when I wandered off for a night hike and came back to find that somebody else’s dog had ripped a giant labrador-sized hole in the mesh. I was livid!

At the time, I was living on the road and that tent was my home. The lab’s owner didn’t help matters when he said the hole was a good excuse to buy a new tent (he wasn’t offering to pay for it) and suggested I put duct tape on the tear. Duct tape can fix a lot of things, but not a tent! I ended up taking it to a seamstress, who sewed up the hole for $15.

The Starlight with rainfly in Caprock Canyons, Texas

A few hundred stitches fixed the bug mesh, but the Starlight simply can’t hold up in the rain anymore, as I found out last summer at Emerald Lake in Colorado. Despite a thorough rewaterproofing before I left, I woke up in a puddle after a mild overnight rain.

Tragically, EMS no longer makes the Starlight or anything like it. After months of research, I’ve narrowed down my tent choices to two: the Big Agnes Fly Creek and the MSR Hubba-Hubba. At just over 2 pounds, the Fly Creek is nearly half the weight of the 4-pound Hubba-Hubba, but you definitely compromise some space for the weight. I’ll have to try both in store and see if a friend and my two dogs can fit in the Fly Creek.

Bowie & Dio in the Starlight. On the left you can see the lab-sized tear in the mesh, before I had it repaired. In hundreds of nights out, my good dogs have never ripped a tent! I still hold a grudge against labs...

My next big camping trip will be in February. For my birthday, I got myself permits for a 4-night backpacking trek  in the Grand Canyon! I’m not sure if the new tent will happen before that trip or not. Rain is rare in the canyon in February and snow won’t present as much of a problem in terms of getting soaked inside the tent. At any rate, a new tent needs to happen by spring.

I’ll have to save up. The jacket, and both tents run over $300. I am a very frugal person (I have to be, I’m a writer!) but I never compromise quality for cash! When it comes to gear, you really get what you pay for and if you want something that works and lasts, you’re often going to pay a bit more for it. I’d rather pay more to get exactly what I want/ need and have it last for years rather than finding a bargain that will have to be replaced next season.

The Starlight in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

If you have any gear questions, just ask! I’ll write you a post on available brands, styles and technology trends and which might be the best for your endeavors. 🙂

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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5 Responses to New Year, New Gear

  1. Pingback: Grand Canyon: Day 5- Bright Angel Snowstorm! « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

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  4. Joni says:

    I know what you mean about the butt owner of the lab….but really you should blame him/her. It’s like when I see brat kids running around in is the parents that allow them to do it. Hold a grudge against the dogs owner, they were the ignorant ones. It takes hard work to raise decent kids and dogs and some folks are too lazy to put in the time and be consistent.
    Take care,

  5. Pingback: Grand Canyon Retrospective: Day 5- Bright Angel Snowstorm! | Travels with the Blonde Coyote

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