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Gear reviews

28-day Field Test: Osprey Stratos 36 L backpack

The pack rides well and holds a decent amount without the overburdened, hunched-over Boy Scout look that 50+ L packs can lend their users.

I mentioned in my last blog that I wasn’t thrilled with the way my backpack performed on the Camino. The pack I used is an Osprey Stratos 36 L, though I think because I bought the larger size to fit my height, it really has a capacity of 38 L. Speaking of this, I’m not particularly thin, but toward the end of the Camino, when I’d dropped some weight, the tighteners on my hip belt nearly touched, leaving me little leeway if I lost any more weight. Basically, if you’re tall and thin, check the fitting on this pack very carefully – you may not be able to tighten the hip belt so it carries the weight of the pack as it should.

Osprey lists this pack as a day hiker/overnighter. In my opinion, 36 L is overkill for a day bag, unless you’re climbing with ropes and can make use of the ice axe loop and clip on the back. That said, it carries a full load nicely, and I suppose if you had back problems and wanted something with a little more support, this might work as a day hiking pack. The suspension is great, and they’ve designed the bag to carry the load away from your back, allowing for a lot more ventilation and more comfortable carriage.

Though she’s not as hard on her gear, Anne-Claire’s pack of the same model took a full summer of abuse in 2011 at the hands of baggage throwers on three continents and bush taxi middlemen throughout North and West Africa.

I bought this bag because Anne-Claire got the same model before our trip last year, and it held up well to the traveling we did. Being limited to 36 liters is actually a plus for a long trip because you’re less likely to pack stuff you don’t need. The pack by itself is exceptionally light and has some well thought out features, like access to the main compartment through a zippered door, as well as the main draw string entry at the top, and two roomy pockets on the hip belt for easy access to things like a pocket knife or a camera. There’s also another one on the right shoulder strap big enough for a small cellphone. Like pretty much any backpack for sale these days, there’s a hydration sleeve in the main compartment and rigging for a drinking hose.

After less than a week of hiking and only a couple of (carry-on) flights, the strap that attaches the top compartment to the main part of the pack just pulled free.

Osprey’s also created a convenient trekking pole holder with a bungee at the bottom of one side of the bag and then another on the left shoulder strap. I used this attachment frequently on the Camino, as it was nice to have my hands free when we were going through towns, and to just hold my arms in a different position for a change of pace.

This system doesn’t work well once you take your pack off, however. The attached trekking poles then become a sort of sliding weapon, and more than once I nearly took out elderly Spanish women as I was taking my pack off with the trekking poles stowed in place. For long term storage of the poles, I collapsed them to their smallest size and affixed them to the back of the pack with the ice axe holder.

Shoddy quality control. My guess is a simple inspection at the factory (and one by me at the store before I bought) would have revealed a prematurely fraying piece of webbing. Every other Osprey owner I’ve talked to really likes his/her pack.

Unfortunately, about 24 days into our hike, the fabric in the trekking pole attachment on the shoulder strap broke through, rendering the system useless and irreparable without some heavy-duty sewing equipment.

The biggest issue with the pack cropped up much earlier than that. Around day 5 or 6, I went to tighten the strap that attaches the top pouch to the main part of the pack. Without warning, the webbing pulled loose from its stitching. A simple fix involved tying the fraying end to one of the compression straps that goes around the water bottle holder. I did this once, and it held for the rest of the trip, causing no further problems.

The real issue I have with this pack is a lack of confidence in its construction. Yes, the broken webbing was easy to fix, but I’ve been concerned ever since that something else might break. To Osprey’s credit, they responded quickly when I sent them photos of the problem. They said they’d replace the pack when I returned and that I could make field repairs, presumably authorizing me to do something that would ordinarily void the warranty.

I haven’t gone through this process, as I plan to just return it to REI and get a different pack all together. I’m not suggesting Osprey’s not a quality brand. On the contrary, I think their lifetime guarantee sets a standard for the industry, and if I wasn’t as hard on packs, I’d be inclined to try a different model.

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Gear for the Camino

I thought it might be interesting and perhaps helpful to anyone thinking of walking the Camino to highlight some of the gear I took along. I’ll preface this post by saying I’m not a health expert of any kind, so any opinions I have about staying healthy on the Camino are just based on my own experience. This is particularly true of my feelings about footwear, which seem to contradict nearly everyone else’s who we met.

This is not an exhaustive list. The goods that pilgrims choose to bring are as diverse and personal as the reasons they have for doing the Camino. Taste, time of year, and personal preference should all weigh heavily in what to throw in a Camino-bound pack. I will say that although walking 500 miles through the microclimates of northern Spain is challenging, the Camino for the most part is not a technical expedition. This isn’t Everest or the Appalachian Trail. We were never more than an 18-km walk from the next town, and the half dozen or so cities along the way have just about every luxury or emergency supply you’d need.

Shoes

I chose to stick with my Asics trail runners. I bought a new pair of GT-2160 about a month and a half before our trip. Though a beefier sole might have been nice for the constant rocks and the significant portions of roadwalking required by the Camino, I was happy to go with a shoe I knew. I avoided the serious blisters that seemed to accompany every pair of high-top boots we saw along the way. Yes, my feet were sore in a way I’ve not experienced while backpacking on the AT and PCT in the States, but again, I think that’s more a function of the trail substrate than my shoes. I’ll say that I do not have ankle problems. If you do, a high-top boot might be the way to go, as there are sections with some loose rock and the terrain can definitely be uneven.

I will say that 500 miles pretty much destroyed the body of my shoes, though this might be due to my freakishly wide feet (at one specific point). The soles are worn but are still in good shape. We only had two significant rain storms our entire 28 days, and even those were fairly short. My feet got wet as these shoes aren’t Gore-Tex, but this is something I’m used to as I backpack in the States with trail runners as well. In my experience, the occasional value of Gore-Tex is trumped by the extra weight and the increased perspiration it causes, which seems to cause blisters and other foot problems. As we were staying in albergues every night, I was confident I could get even soaking shoes dry by the next morning. Plus, I had decent socks.

Socks

I bought a 3-pack of Stoic wool-blend hiking socks from Steepandcheap.com for about $15. Someone had cautioned that these socks aren’t SmartWools, and while I definitely found that they wore out quickly (all three pairs were pretty much useless after we finished and ended up in the trash in Santiago), the kept my feet comfortable throughout the day. The outer layer pilled quite a bit from the get-go, but that didn’t seem to affect their performance too much. And they dried fairly quickly when washed by hand, though again, the fibers seemed to slough off in my hands as I scrubbed them.

These socks are designated right and left, which after this trip I’m convinced is a racket by sock manufacturers. Let’s be honest – you’re not wearing burlap sacks on your feet. Every athletic sock worth it’s sweat-absorbing weight has a bit of elastic in it, so it should conform to the contours of your foot – either foot. All having right- and left-designated socks seemed to do was make each sock wear more quickly in specific spots, instead of more evenly with sock that end up on one foot or the other at random each time I put them on. If anyone has any information about how fitted socks might be beneficial, let me know and I’ll correct this post. Right now though, I can say that I would have gotten more mileage out of these socks had I ignored the “R” and “L” designations.

Clothing

Pilgrims are easy to spot along the Camino even without their packs. They’re the ones wandering into mass with vented polyester shirts and doffing wide-brimmed nylon hats with chin ties in nice restaurants. If that works for you, great. I enjoy gear shopping as much as the next person. But after our travels last summer shredded a Northface polyester shirt that was a bit scratchy anyway, I decided to go with something a little more comfortable and durable. I bought a cotton-blend Kuhl button down before we left and wore it every day we hiked. I washed it by hand each night, and though it’s definitely showing some wear, I was very pleased with how it worked. Button downs allow more flexibility in regulating heat (i.e., unbutton a button if it’s hot, button up if it’s cold), they dry more quickly on a cloths line, and in a pinch, you look a bit sharper than if you’d just worn a t-shirt.

My shorts are pretty simple, basically a light pair of swim trunks. A hat’s an absolute must for the Camino, as the sun can be fierce and you’re sometimes spending 12 hours a day in it. Forget about trying to hike only in the evening to avoid burning rays – you’ll get quite a bit darker, even up until the 9 p.m. sun in Spain.

I brought along a light scarf, which was perfect for warding of the chill in the morning and for covering my neck from about 10 a.m. on. Sunglasses too were important, as the reflection off gravel paths and wheat fields can feel unrelenting at 3 in the afternoon.

My favorite piece of gear is my Icebreaker sweater. Again a steepandcheap.com purchase, it felt a little overpriced even then at $55, but I wore it every day to stay warm while we were hiking, and then again in the evening. It’s held up very well, especially in the shoulders where I wear my pack. Best of all, it takes a lot to make this thing smell bad. I washed it twice during the entire month, and while I wouldn’t go around hugging strangers, I didn’t earn the nickname “Pigpen” either.

Trekking poles

I was glad I threw in my trekking poles at the end. While I do feel a bit ridiculous with them, like someone who took a wrong turn on the way to the Alps, they’re a great help in climbing hills, help you lock into a rhythm on flat stretches, and are knee-savers on the few brutally steep sections that can last for 10 km sometimes. Nearly every pilgrim has at least one walking stick, some choosing to go the more traditional route and buying one of the ubiquitous wooden sticks that are for sale everywhere along the way.

Sleeping gear

I took just a light silk sleep sack. It weighs almost nothing and kept me pretty warm while keeping the bed bugs at bay. Lots of other pilgrims bring more robust sleeping bags, and one or two nights I would have appreciated a bit of extra warmth. But I’m a pretty warm sleeper and most albergues have blankets (which smell like moth balls) that you can use. For me the space I saved was more than worth being without my sleeping bag.

Pack

This was the most disappointing piece of equipment I brought. After years with a Kelty internal frame pack that was bent all to hell from too many bush taxi rides and tosses by baggage handlers, I got an Osprey Stratos. I’m working on a dedicated post for my experiences with this bag, but I’ll just say broken straps a week into a month-long hike don’t inspire confidence.

The size I chose was just about right. It’s a 38-liter bag, what Osprey calls a daypack/light overnighter, but with a little thrift, this capacity was perfect for the Camino. It would, I believe, suffice for the traveling we did last summer as well. I’ll post my complete review of the Osprey bag soon.

A Single Bag…

Well, almost. It’s hard to believe I routinely traveled with little more than a half-full rucksack when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Now, five years later, paring down my possessions to fit a full-on internal frame pack was a challenge.

With the hope of getting on an earlier flight to Dublin once we arrive in London, we carried on. The gate agent apparently didn’t notice me staggering toward the jet way under the burden of a load complete with rain gear for Ireland, a tent for southern France, and my winter sleeping bag for the Sahara.

Somehow, when I’m toting a roll-aboard suitcase, I tend to attract a suspicious glance or two from airline agents, especially when checking a bag costs as much as a parking ticket with most airlines. That’s often because, with a suitcase, I’ve somehow convinced myself that I have a Mary Poppins-like ability to fit everything I use while I’m at home, and oftentimes, a good deal I don’t. Three pairs of shoes for a weekend trip? Sounds practical. A hardbound complete anthology of James Joyce’s works? Throw it in there, I’ll have loads of time on the plane. It all adds up to a piece of luggage, seams stretched to capacity, the odd sharp bulge threatening the integrity of the ballistic fabric, that betrays my apparent fondness for traveling heavy to anyone with a discerning eye.

“That’ll have to be checked, Sir.”

“What, this?” I feign amazement.

“We can do it right here for you.”

“But I won’t have to pay for it, will I?” I ask, politely as possible.

“No sir,” she says.

Funny how these little plays in real life can make respectable runs. Airlines charge for checked luggage, causing folks like me not to pack lighter, but to stuff the same amount of stuff in a smaller space, which leads to passengers hoofing their dubiously designated carry-on luggage through security and to the gate. The climax arrives when the gate agent, by now old hat in the role of unwitting enabler, offers to check the bag for free at the gate. Not exactly riveting theater, but the seats facing the ticket counter where this all goes down are cheap. I’ve attended quite a few performances in the past year or so, and I’m always left wondering, do the airlines see the fact that you got your bag a little closer to the plane as worth $25 in the gas and labor it would have taken one of their people to get it there? Are they worried that pulling out the measuring tape and verifying that, yes indeed, Sir, you’ve exceeded our size requirements by a full 20 inches, might incite already-grumpy travelers to rally around the discriminatory “baggist” views of the airline?

I’m a proponent of the former. Call me an optimist, but in an industry replete with nonsensical fees and arbitrary safety and security rules (I seriously doubt we’ve foiled the plans of those terrorists who need 4 ounces of liquid for their diabolical plots – “Why did it have to be 3? they say. “With just 1 more ounce, we’d bring America to its knees.”), perhaps the airlines have finally conceded defeat to a flying public willing to take them to the mat in terms of ridiculousness. If you’re willing to carry it through increasingly labyrinthine airports to avoid the levied fees, they seem to be saying, well then, you’ve earned a free spot for your stuff.

Maybe that’s why the gate agent let me on today with my swollen pack.