Hiking Mount Rainier's Wonderland Trail

Backpacking General


Mount Rainier National Park and the Wonderland Trail can be deadly for the unprepared.

Every year people die visiting Mount Rainier. Park staff and rescuers have died trying to find or rescue lost and injured hikers. Respect the perils of traveling in the backcountry, and do not become one of these tragedies.

The first death on park record at Mount Rainier was on New Years Day, 1897, when one E.H. Hudson dropped a gun from his pocket and shot himself in the neck. Since then there have over four hundred deaths, many occurring in recent years as visitation increases. Some of these deaths are due to climbing accidents, but many others have occurred to hikers and visitors in other areas of the park.

Always be prepared and have a plan for bad weather, hiking on snow, navigational challenges, injuries, fatigue, and not making your destination by nightfall.

Late summer and early autumn are typically the safest times to hike the Wonderland Trail. Be extra prepared for navigational challenges, river crossings, and bad weather if you’re hiking early or late in the season.

The Ten Essentials

  1. Navigation – Topographic map, a compass, and a GPS receiver
  2. Sun protection – Sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, and clothing for sun protection
  3. Insulation – Hat, gloves, jacket, extra clothes for the coldest weather you can expect in the season
  4. Illumination – An LED headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries
  5. A First-aid kit
  6. Fire – A butane lighter plus matches in a waterproof container
  7. Repair kit and tools – A multi-tool pocket knife with pliers, duct tape, cable ties, and a shovel
  8. Nutrition – Carry extra food for one additional day.
  9. Hydration – 2 liters per day plus a method for water purification
  10. Emergency shelter – Bring a tarp or bivy sack and an insulated sleeping pad

Hypothermia

A major danger on the Wonderland Trail, as well as any trail in the region, is hypothermia. Here are some general tips for avoiding, identifying, and treating hypothermia.

  • Know the symptoms of hypothermia and look for these in yourself and your hiking partners. Abnormal fatigue, confusion, slurred speech, clumsiness and shivering (which subsides as hypothermia worsens) are all symptoms of moderate to severe hypothermia.
  • Don’t wear cotton – only wear wool or synthetic fibers that can still insulate when wet.
  • Make sure you always have a dry (and insulating) change of clothes. Keep some of your clothes in a waterproof bag for this purpose.
  • Make sure your sleeping bag always stays dry, and use the utmost of care if you have a down bag (once down gets wet, there is no way you’ll be able to dry it by the time you need it).
  • Make sure you drink enough liquids and that you’re getting enough to eat.
  • If for some reason you find yourself getting cold, set up your tent, change into dry clothes and get into your sleeping bag. If you have a stove, drink some hot liquids. Fill up your water containers with hot water and place them in your sleeping bag.

Once hypothermia has become severe, chances of survival are slim without emergency medical care to actively rewarm the victim.

River crossings

Remember that a small creek may turn into an impassible torrent after a few minutes of heavy rain. Additionally, most of the rivers encountered on the Wonderland Trail can be impassible or dangerous to ford early in the summer when snowmelt is at its highest. Always try to talk with a ranger first to find out the latest trail conditions.

If you must ford a river, try to do so early in the morning before snow begins melting for the day.

When fording a river, look for calm water that is less than knee deep. Scout downstream and make sure that there’s a spot where you can likely pull yourself to shore if you fall and get swept downstream.

Unbuckle your pack so you can be prepared to slip out of it if you fall. Use hiking poles or two sticks, and wear water shoes or sandals so you have steady footing and don’t hurt your feet on the river bottom.

Never ford a river above dangerous rapids, a waterfall, or logs that could trap you. Angle your path so it’s slightly downstream. Most importantly, if you feel like the conditions are not safe, trust your instincts and wait, or find a safer place to cross.

Navigation

Navigation on the Wonderland Trail can be challenging whenever snow is encountered on the ground. It can also be a challenge in thick fog or bad weather. Areas of particular danger are the Panhandle Gap area, Spray Park, and Windy Gap on the Northern Loop Trail.

Knowledge of navigation by map and compass are mandatory before hiking in the wilderness. Additionally, it’s wise to bring a waterproof map and a durable GPS unit. Know how to use these devices before you get lost! This sounds like a no-brainer, but many people think they can figure it out if they get lost, and discover it’s more challenging to navigate than anticipated.

Never hike solo in the wilderness. A hiking partner is your strongest lifeline.

Research the area you’re visiting, know its dangers, and avoid hiking early or late in the season when snow is on the trail or bad weather is common.

Have a plan for being completely lost or unable to travel due to navigational mistakes, bad weather or injury. A good strategy is to “hug a tree.” If you can, make camp in an exposed and safe location where you might be spotted by searchers from the air. If you are lost, try to avoid descending into valleys where you’ll be difficult to locate. Many lost hikers die in the Pacific NW when they attempt to follow rivers or streams downstream to their source.

Most importantly, share your hiking plans with someone, and check-in with them as soon as you return. If you don’t return, this person can notify the park service to go and look for you.

Share your plans: There is no check-out system for backpackers in the park, and the park service will not know to look for you if someone doesn’t report you missing.

Be aware of the dangers of hiking on snow

Trails can be difficult to see when they are obscured by snowpack. As the snow melts, it can erase marks left by other hikers. Trail markers can be buried under snow.
Hikers can get lost, fall through ice into creeks, or slip off of cliffs or down hillsides. Trees buried in deep snow sometimes form cavities of loose snow that can swallow hikers whole, not to be found until the summer thaw.

A common cause of death in the park is when a hiker slips and falls on a snowy slope. A fall on a slippery hillside can carry someone thousands of feet from the trail without hardly a trace. Even if someone survives an initial fall, they are often injured and unable to find help before dying of hypothermia. Many bodies remain hidden until the snow melts, and many more are never accounted for.

  • Hike in-season to avoid snow at higher elevations. On the Wonderland Trail this is August and September. Use great care when hiking earlier or later in the year.
  • Check with rangers for the latest updates on trail conditions.
  • If you know that you’ll encounter patches of snow, use sturdy water-resistant footwear, keep a light backpack, use hiking poles, and plan for slower progress.
  • Use care when hiking across steep slopes, and be aware that some hikers may have more difficulty maintaining their balance on the snow.
  • Never hike over what appears to be a frozen creek or body of water, or over any area where you hear flowing water under the snow.

Know your physical limits

If you’re new to hiking or aren’t much of an athlete, limit your daily distance to around eight miles. Always give yourself more time to reach your destination than you think you need. This is particularly important if you’re day-hiking and light on the gear you need to safely spend the night. When you get tired, you’re more prone to injuries and falls. In the rugged landscape surrounding Mount Rainier a fall could turn into a serious emergency or worse.

Know how to perform basic wilderness first aid

For a starting point, Wikipedia has a good article on wilderness first aid. If you want a more comprehensive guide, I recommend picking up a copy of NOLS Wilderness First Aid (Nols Library).

Bring extra supplies

Bring more food than you need, carry extra water, and keep an extra set of dry clothes in a waterproof bag. Never hike without rain gear. Make sure you’ve always got the ten essentials.

Large animals

Animals generally pose little threat to visitors in Mount Rainier National Park. On the trail, you are likely to encounter mountain goats, black bears, elk and black-tailed deer. Caution and respect should always be exercised.

Black bears

Black bears attacks are extremely rare in the United States, but can occur if you surprise or make a bear feel threatened.

If you see a bear before it sees you, make some noise to alert it of your presence. Bears have poor eyesight and can be startled if you get too close.

If you find yourself facing a bear on the trail, back away and give it time to leave – especially if you see cubs. Here is a thorough article on black bear safety from WSU.

Never feed bears. This means not leaving food unattended.

Mountain lions

It is rare to see a mountain lion in the wilderness. If you do see a cougar, back away slowly (do not run or turn your back to the lion). Hold any small children and keep larger kids close. If a cougar approaches you, wave your arms, yell, throw things and try to look larger than you actually are.

While it is a rare occurrence in Washington State (and the United States), in the event you or a hiking partner is attacked by a cougar, fight with everything you have and guard your neck and head. Try to hit the lion in the head with a rock or a stick, and try to get dirt into its eyes. Mountain lions will typically focus on one target, and may return again for this same target, even after you’ve repelled an attack. When they attack, they are vicious and determined, and you may need to severely injure or kill the cougar to end the attack. On that uplifting note, let’s move along…

Goats, elk, and deer

Goats can sometimes be aggressive. Don’t get too close. Goats can be curious, territorial, and bold. Although it rarely happens, they sometimes attack people. Always give goats the right-of-way on a trail, and use care if you are near them on a steep slope.

The same treatment applies to elk and deer. Elk and deer can be territorial if you get too close during the fall rut and it’s best to not approach them.

Avoid conflicts by protecting food and scented goods

Mice, black bears, and everything in-between will be attracted to unattended food or scented items.

Keep your food and scented goods hanging or in a bear-proof canister when in camp unless you are eating. Never leave food or scented items in a tent or unattended. When you leave your empty backpack outside of the tent, be sure to unzip all of your pockets, or be prepared to find holes chewed through to wherever you stored that Cliff Bar or bag of trail-mix earlier in the day.

Wilderness safety starts with personal responsibility and preparedness

You are the only person responsible for your safety in the wilderness.

When people need to be rescued, they put rescuers at risk of injury and death, extending tragedy to other families and individuals.

Do your research before hiking and have plans for dealing with emergencies. Always carry the ten essentials, hike with a partner, stay on the trail, and leave your hiking plans with someone at home. If a situation doesn’t feel safe, then it probably isn’t.

Changing your hiking plans is always a more favorable scenario than making the evening news.

Stay safe and have fun!

Being in excellent shape before you start the Wonderland Trail will greatly amplify your enjoyment of your vacation. In contrast to out of shape hikers, physically fit hikers enjoy the scenery more, get injured less frequently, and even see more wildlife (because they hike alertly and quietly). The average hiker will cover the 93 mile trail in 10 days. For most hikers this is a big jump in activity from their daily lives so training before the trip is essential for enjoyment and safety.

The key to any training program is to increase your daily exercise very gradually. Increasing your daily exercise too quickly puts you at a high risk of injuries that could derail your training program by preventing you from exercising for weeks or even months. A good rule of thumb is to increase the number of miles that you walk, run or hike by no more than 10 percent a week. For example, if I run a total of 20 miles this week, I should run no more than 20+0.10×20=22 miles next week. My running partner usually ignores this rule (it is pretty hard to follow if you are excited about an activity!) and I frequently have to run alone while he nurses injuries.

When preparing for a long backpacking trip like the Wonderland Trail, the core elements of a good training program are progressively longer hikes with a backpack to develop strength and balance and vigorous daily exercise to develop physical endurance.

Hiking with a backpack is an essential part of a good training program for obvious reasons. Carrying a backpack over rough terrain uses your core, leg, and foot muscles for balance in a way that everyday locomotion does not. A training program that includes many day hikes and at least two 3-5 day backpacking trips will strengthen your muscles and turn you into a sure footed mule.

Being fit for the trail is not just about strength and balance however. Hiking the Wonderland Trail requires significant physical endurance. Long before you leave for the trail teach your body to expect heavy exercise many days in a row. While daily backpacking would be the ideal way to prepare for your trip, backpacking is not always convenient. No matter — there are many ways to improve your endurance. Cycling, swimming, running and playing sports can all improve your endurance. Find an activity you like and gradually increase the number of days you exercise and the amount of exercise you do each day. Before you are ready to hike the trail you should be comfortable exercising vigorously for an hour or more at least five days a week. Whatever your choice of vigorous exercise, it should be more difficult than hiking with a backpack– remember you are only training for an hour (or a few hours) each day, but you are planning to hike for 6-10 hours each day – make up for the shortened time with increased intensity.

If you exercise vigorously for an hour or more each day and hike and backpack on the weekends you should comfortable hiking the Wonderland Trail. This is the minimum required for an enjoyable trip however. If this is all you do, you will likely be tired and sore for the first few days of your trip, but by the fourth day your body will begin to adjust to the increased workload and you will start feeling strong and energetic.

Before I hiked the Wonderland Trail the first time, I ran around six miles most days on relatively flat terrain. I walked and biked and had a moderately active lifestyle and I went on a few three-day backpacking trips. I was sore and tired the first few days on the trail but by the end of the trip my pack felt light and my step was high.

Finally, if your trip is fast approaching and, despite your good intentions, you are not in as good of shape as you should be there are two things you can do. First, call the Wilderness Information Center and see if they can adjust your campsite reservations to accommodate lower mileage days and days off mid trip. Secondly, take a serious look at what is in your pack. Reducing your pack weight will reduce the strength and endurance required to complete your daily hikes. Browse the ultra light backpacking section to see how you can reduce your pack weight.

– Ruth Thompson – 2011

Finding inexpensive hiking gear for frugal thru-hiking

For the budget-conscious backpacker, a trip to your local backpacking store can be disheartening, and upon first glance, it may even seem that the price of a little trip to the woods is prohibitively expensive. If you’re into having the newest and nicest of everything, be prepared for an initial gear investment of several thousand dollars. Otherwise do what I do and spend as little as necessary on your gear so you can spend more time backpacking and less time working to pay for it.

In a nutshell:

  • Take your time. Start looking for your summer gear in January.
  • Make a list of everything you need and stop by the thrift store once or twice a week to see if any of those items come through. Once you know the layout of a thrift store, this will only take you a few minutes.
  • Garage sales are a great place to find hiking gear. Check Craigslist for garage sales in your area.
  • Shop eBay in the off-season to find big-ticket items like tents and sleeping bags.
  • Check out military surplus for modern-issue gear. Many famous name sporting goods equipment manufacturers supply the military as well as the general public.
  • See if your local sporting goods store resells returned items. The Seattle REI is famous locally for “the basement.”
  • Consider alternative styles of gear (which are frequently lighter too): Join the growing legions of people who are trading in their tents for ultralight tarps. Consider using a poncho that covers both you and your backpack instead of a $400 Gortex rain suit. Use a solid-fuel stove instead of an expensive gas model.
  • Dehydrate your own food. Check out a backpacking food cookbook from the library or buy one from Amazon.com. Dehydrate different types of fruit and vegies as they go on sale at your local fruit stand (don’t bother with the grocery store if you don’t have to).

The key to thrift is giving oneself time to find the best deal on everything. If you truly want to pay the least, it will probably take you a few months to find everything you need and it may involve a little creativity. First, consider buying your gear in the wintertime when it’s in lower demand. Also consider buying used gear. You will save a fortune. I regularly scan the clothing racks at the local Value Village and Goodwill for performance clothing. I can’t tell you how many REI performance wicking backpacking shirts and pants turn up there in excellent condition. At a large thrift store, there’s usually an enormous rack of fleece jackets, and with a little luck and persistence, you will find top-brand items in good condition. Don’t think you will find everything in one trip though; make a list of items that you need and stop by the thrift store once or twice a week on your way home from work. Also be aware that clothing doesn’t have to be sold at a hiking store to work great for backpacking. Go for synthetic fibers – nylon especially as it doesn’t hold body odor like polypropylene.

My local backpacking store also has a returns department where I have had great luck with footwear. Frequently people will wear a new pair of boots for a day or two and change their minds. I found a $150 pair of boots that fit me well and then went to the store’s returns department and found the same pair there for $75. Structurally, they looked brand new, but there was a little mud splashed on the outside (but not $75 worth).

I also look for bigger items on eBay – especially in the off season. I bought my wife a like-new $250 down sleeping bag for $60 in early spring on eBay. The seller said it was too narrow for her in the shoulders and after using it twice, she sold it for not even a quarter of what she initially paid. If you think buying a used sleeping bag is gross, then I suppose you bring your own sheets when you stay in hotel rooms.

If you have some time on your hands for a new hobby, consider making some of your own gear. With some effort and patience, you can make high quality, custom items that are much nicer than what you can buy in the store. There is a thriving internet community of people who make their own gear.

Also consider picking up a few military surplus items. A number of high-end backpacking gear companies have DOD contracts and are supplying the military with some of their highest quality products. For instance, Cascade Designs sells the military its ultra-light line of Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads. Next time you’re at REI, look for the most expensive Therm-a-Rest. That’s the one the military uses, except theirs is drab-green in color. I bought a pair of these from a military surplus dealer on eBay for $25 dollars apiece including shipping. They have some markings on them and are patched in one or two places, but you’d never know in the dark. They’ve worked great for several seasons now, and I suspect I’ll still be using it in ten years.

Use your brains and don’t be bamboozled by salesman and advertisers. You’re just going for a walk in the woods, and carbon-fiber reinforced shoe laces are not requisite. Backpacking has traditionally been an inexpensive pastime and it wasn’t until just a few years ago that anyone but mountaineers would have spent thousands of dollars on their gear.

Gearing Up – If it isn’t a lifeline, don’t bother.

For each of us, there is a weight limit where hiking turns from a pleasant walk to chore of hauling a backpack. A few years ago I had a Gregory backpack that weighed over five pounds, an REI two man tent that weighed another six, and a fifteen degree North Face sleeping bag that weighed another four. Add in a sleeping mat, dual layer Gortex rain gear, fleece lining, a change of clothes, a stove, fuel, cookware, food, first aid kit, map, compass, novel, camera, and a few other sundries, and you’ve easily hit 35 pounds. Unless you’re a big old boy, that’s going to start taking a toll on you before long. Carrying a large backpack causes compression of the spine, and you really don’t want to go there. The only nice thing about a heavy backpack is when you take it off (and the accompanying feeling that you’ve just stepped into a low gravity environment).

Pack weight should and can frequently be kept under a limit such that you don’t notice your backpack most of the time. I wouldn’t have personally believed this was possible when I first started backpacking and forty pounds was my normal pack weight.

The Big Three

Ultra-light backpackers talk of the “big three” items that make up the most weight and are the easiest to replace: the tent, sleeping bag, and backpack. Usually replacing just these items is enough to get your load down to something quite comfortable. Another good idea for lightening up is devising multiple uses for the same item. For example, why not use a tarp tent that employs a collapsible hiking pole rather than a tent pole? How about getting an ultralight backpack that uses a sleeping mat as its frame?

Sharing the Load

So what are some things that can be done to lighten your load? The biggest help is to have a hiking partner since so many items can be shared by two or more people. Water filters, stoves, cookware, tents, and first-aid kits can all be shared – and what a difference it makes to only have to carry half of this weight. In addition, nearly everything is better in life when you have a friend to share your experiences with.

Tent or Tarp? How about a tarptent?

Next, ask yourself if you really need a tent. Most long distance backpackers who hike the Pacific Crest Trail don’t think this is necessary. They carry ultra-light tarps and tarp tents constructed out of high-performance silicone-injected nylon (silnylon) which is waterproof and weighs less than 1.5 ounces per square yard. In my opinion, all backpacking tents should be made out of this material as it allows you to do away with a separate rain fly. The only reason ten manufacturers don’t use silnylon is because it costs over $10 a yard, much more than coated nylon. Increasingly silnylon is showing up in high-end tent models. You might also consider making your own. There are some very good plans on the internet. Henry Shires makes an outstanding line of silnylon tarp tents. These are hybrids between tents and tarps. Henry Shires even has free do-it-yourself plans for his original tarp tent (located here). The one-man version weighs 18 oz, and the two man weighs 24 oz. Henry Shires used this tarptent for a five month trip up the PCT. People modify these plans to include silnylon bathtub floors and fully-sealed mosquito netting. At this point they become full-fledged ultralight tents. All of the materials for these projects can be purchased for under $75.

I was planning to build one of these but my wife wanted something with a little more privacy since campgrounds are often crowded. After a great deal of research, we bought the LL Bean Microlight 2 person tent for $160. As of 2010, I’m convinced this is one of the best ultra-light tent deals on the market. It weighs 3 lbs, 12 oz and is basically a mesh bug shelter with a bathtub floor and a full-coverage silnylon fly. At less than two pounds per person, we couldn’t be happier. It is sturdily constructed, has enough room to sleep 2 comfortably, and enough head room to make changing one’s clothes a reasonable prospect. I suspect we will still be using this in ten years.

Backpacks: Frames: external, internal, or how about no frame at all?

The second of the “big three” is the backpack: Let me address internal versus external frames: The external frame pack has startlingly gone out of style in consideration of its functionality. It is mostly a fashion trend. Unless you climb and/or hike cross-country through brush, you really don’t need an internal frame pack. They are designed to not get caught on things and sacrifice ventilation and comfort to do so. Most of my packs have been internal frames. Regardless of what the manufacturer promises, my back is almost always drenched in sweat when I hike. This translates to blisters – not a problem on a three day hike, but after a week it begins to get quite uncomfortable. There is only one major access point to the contents of an internal frame pack, so it’s often quite an ordeal to get at anything.

My wife has an external frame REI backpack from the 1990’s. She picked it up at a yard sale in like-new condition for $20 and it weighs less than half of what my internal frame pack weighs. It rests mostly on the hips and shoulders and hardly touches the back. Compared to an internal frame, it has much more storage access, and has the ability to easily strap things to the outside. Furthermore, you can move the compartments up or down the frame which allows you to fine-tune the weight distribution. Again, it doesn’t make much sense why internal frame packs have taken the lion’s share of the market.

If you’re going to buy an internal frame pack, you should go as light weight as possible. A lot of people never really consider the weight of the backpack, and if you’re not careful, you can easily walk out of the store with a six pound, overbuilt hunk of nylon. Pay attention to backpack weight because light weight designs have caught on in the market, and brands like REI, GoLite, and Osperey are putting out backpacks that weigh around three pounds and retail for under $200. If you would like to go lighter and cheaper, then consider building your own backpack. Consider becoming a member of Backpacking Light to see some different patterns. There are a number of multi-day pack designs that weigh less than a pound and rely on a folded closed-cell sleeping mat to hold their shape.

Sleeping bags

The last of the big three items is the sleeping bag. These can weigh a lot when made from synthetic materials. I live in the PNW, don’t do snow camping and have always used fifteen degree bags. This rating has always worked well for me in this climate. Down fill is the lightest insulator and this is what I prefer. Down is completely useless when it gets wet, however, so it is crucial that you keep it in a waterproof bag. I keep mine sealed in a durable plastic bag which is then stored inside of a water resistant stuff sack. It could be submerged in water and would still stay dry. If you ever desperately need your sleeping bag, it’s probably going to be after falling into water or becoming rain soaked, so pay careful attention to packing your down bag every morning – pretend it’s your parachute because your life could truly depend on whether or not it stays dry. Synthetic material is heavier than down, but can retain some of its loft when wet. If you’re concerned with your ability to stay dry, you might opt for synthetic rather than down.

Again, I’m a big fan of home-built gear – and this is another project that will save you lots of weight and money. Carrying six feet of heavy-duty YKK zipper adds a lot of weight, and many ultra-light hikers have done away with the zipper all together. Some of the most popular home-brew designs for bags retain the shape of a rectangular sleeping bag, but are only sewn halfway up for easy entry. The top is made to be oversized so you can wrap up in it. This is especially nice for moderating your temperature on warmer nights. Some people employ Velcro patches to keep the bag sealed on colder nights. You can purchase the highest-quality 800+ goose down in bulk and make your own ultra-light quilt for under $90. This may seem like a lot for a homemade bag, but you’re getting the Rolls Royce of materials and a similarly-built brand-name model would retail for at least three times as much.

Beyond the big three, cut every corner you can to shed weight without compromising safety, and you will be thrilled with how much more you enjoy backpacking.

Stoves: Say goodbye to an old friend

The next item to target is the stove. Once the hallmark of light weight, the Whisperlite is no longer considered the most economical option. For a fraction of the weight you can use a solid fuel stove. Esbit makes fuel tablets that retail for about $0.65 a piece and burn for about fifteen minutes – enough to bring about a pint of water to a rolling boil. You’ll probably end up using under $3 worth of fuel each day if you’re cooking morning and night for two people. Yes, it’s more expensive than white gas, but it’s a cheaper initial investment and is still not going to break the bank over the long run. You can buy a little solid fuel stove for under $20 or you can build your own. One interesting design is a beer can solid fuel stove that employs a 24 oz beer can as a cook pot and eating/drinking dish. It weighs 4.4 oz including the stove stand, windscreen, and beer can. The entire apparatus can stay assembled when you’re eating, working as a double-insulated thermos. It only costs $15.95. If you’ve ever had to do surgery on your stove in the backcountry, you will probably appreciate the fact that the only thing that could go wrong with the stove is having it get eaten by a bear. The alcohol stove is also rising in popularity, and many people fashion them out of old tin cans or buy one of the many low-cost models now available on the market. Do a search query to find a plethora of sites on ultralight stoves.

Cookware vs ultralight beerware?

Cookware can cost a fortune if you want brand-name titanium everything. Go ahead if you like spending your time paying for things like this. The best options in my opinion are to cook and eat out of a 24 oz beer can with a titanium spork (usually under $10). If you want a larger pot or are not keen on being seen in the backcountry with a jumbo beer can, consider that my wife decommissioned my expensive MSR cookware set for a super lightweight aluminum pot she found for a few dollars at Goodwill. I was horrified to realize that it weighed less than half of the weight of the MSR kit and had five times the volume. These simple options really will suffice. Usually the deer and marmots aren’t checking to see if your cookware is the most stylish design. Give the cheap alternatives a try before you fall for the marketing and fork over you’re your hard earned cash. And if you’re concerned that you can’t boil water in sixty mile an hour winds in low-oxygen environments with your beer can solid fuel cooking system, face the facts: there’s a good chance you’re probably just doing fat-person backpacking like the rest of us and aren’t going to find yourself halfway up K2 anytime soon.

Raingear: staying dry without remortgaging the house.

The next necessity is raingear which can be both heavy and expensive. You can pay hundreds of dollars for raingear which probably works great, but unless you’re visiting the Hoh Rainforest in the winter or hiking on ridge lines during foul weather, it will largely live in your backpack most of the time. The last time I did the Wonderland, I tried something daring and bought a set of Dri Duck rain gear for $30. The material is waterproof and breathable. After seam sealing, it works surprisingly well for something so inexpensive. The weight of the entire rain suit is under a pound – lighter than my Columbia Gear rain pants. My only complaints are that the seams will leak a little if not sealed and that the thin fabric could tear if it catches on a branch. I suspect with enough use, the backpack will also wear through the shoulders.

If you want to be the coolest person on the trail, you might consider an oversized poncho that covers your backpack as well as you. This saves weight because you can ditch the backpack cover. In addition, imagine how menacing you will look to cougars with your extend-o-hump! This is also the most ventilated option, and you may not even have to wear pants at all with the right poncho. You can get a nice poncho for a song since they don’t need to be breathable. On the downside, ponchos probably aren’t the best bet on windy days.

If you’re doing much hiking at higher elevations or in exposed landscapes, you should probably just stick to Gortex. It is wind-proof, the pants will last you for years if you only wear them when it rains, and you can use the jacket regularly around camp in the morning and evenings. Cabelas sells a set of ultralight Gortex rain gear for about $200. They occasionally offer the pants for free with the full-price purchase of the jacket. If you’re patient, you can find Gortex rain gear at the thrift store – it probably won’t be that lightweight unless you really luck out, however.