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The following reviews are based only on my personal experience. I'm not what you'd necessarily call a gear-head or an ultralighter, nor do I have a very extensive collection of equipment. I tend to be one of those "use it up, wear it out, make do, do without" people. But when I do try out a new piece of gear, I'll share my comments here.

The Ramkitten rating system is from 1 to 5 paws, being a near purrrrrfect review.

BACKPACKS

Kelty Women's Tioga (external frame): This pack held up very well over six months on the A.T., even being dropped several times as much as ten feet, so I could descend particularly tricky spots without the weight on my back. With nine separate compartments, the Tioga provides easy access to gear. However, this was too much pack for me; the frame was too wide. And the bottom bar prevented me from sitting to lower myself without leaning forward, so it threw me off balance a bit. The pack tended to shift side-to-side and had to be readjusted often. That isn't to say this isn't a good backpack. Just not the right one for me on trails that require a lot of bouldering and climbing. I may use this pack in the future if I'll be hiking primarily on wide-open trail, as in the desert perhaps.

Ramkitten rates this pack:

Kelty Tornado (internal frame): I really like this pack. Compared to many internals I looked at, it provides very good access to gear. The flap on the back that's designed to hold things like snowshoes and crampons, I find to to be a convenient place to put my sleeping pad and tent. This is a very comfortable pack and at 5 lbs., 6 oz., not all that heavy for an internal frame that can handle the thirty to fourty pounds I frequently carry. I prefer the Tornado to the Tioga, because it moves with me and doesn't hinder me when I'm manuevering around boulders and through tight spots. Purchase price was $150 and well worth it. I have no reason to look for another backpack any time soon.

Ramkitten rates this pack:


TENTS

Integral Designs MK1 Lite: Maybe it was just me, but I didn't like this tent at all. I'd assumed "four-season" meant that it would do just as well in the rain as in snow, but it failed the test. Seems like "one-season" would be a more accurate description; although I never did try it in snow. This single-walled tent is poorly ventilated and at times was wetter inside than out. The MK1 Lite comes with one tube vent at the rear, but this was inadequate, and I couldn't unzip the door more than a few inches when it was raining, as this tent doesn't have a vestibule. More tube vents were available at significant additional cost, but at $450, I was already spending well beyond my budget. I figured that what the tent comes with would be enough. Also, I had difficulty setting up this tent. You have to crawl inside to secure the poles, but the velcro straps were insufficient and the poles often shifted out of place. And after only two or three uses, both poles were permanently bent. I used this tent for nearly a month on the A.T. and had issues with it from day one. I enforced the "Lifetime Satisfaction Guarantee," however, and was refunded the total purchase price. Sorry, Integral Designs, I can't recommend this one, but I do appreciate the company standing by its guarantee. (Important note: Several months after writing this review, I learned in an online backpackers' forum that Integral Designs was using some type of fire-retardent coating on the MK1 Lite, which may have resulted in the condensation problem I experienced. The person who posted that information said he has an MK1 Lite tent that does not have this coating, and he hasn't had the type of condensation problem that I did. So if you're interested in this tent, perhaps you might want to look into that.)

Ramkitten rates this tent:

Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight CD: My home away from home. I carry the two-man version, because I prefer to bring all of my gear inside and still have room to move around and change clothes. No problem with ventilation, as I had with the MK1 Lite. I seam-sealed this tent only once before using it on the A.T. and, in five months and lots of rain, it never leaked. And I discovered that the tent can be taken down while leaving the fly up, which I'm able to do without stepping outside the vestibule. That way, on cold and/or rainy mornings, I stay dry and warmer while packing up and eating breakfast. All I have to do is roll up the fly and strap it and the poles to the outside of my backpack, and I'm ready to go. I also like how the vestibule can be staked to unzip either in the center or on the side -- a handy feature if it's raining or windy, and you want to keep the fly open for added ventilation. My husband and I find this tent to be a bit tight for the both of us, especially because it slopes down so much in the back. But, of course, it's fine for two in a pinch.

Ramkitten rates this tent:

North Face Tadpole: My husband purchased this tent in 1992, and he and we are still using it many years later. This is a three-pole tent with more room at the foot than the Clip Flashlight; although it is heavier. The additional pole makes it roomier all the way around, and even when there are two of us in it, we manage to stuff most of our gear at the foot if it's raining. Can't leave the fly up and take the tent down, as you can with the Clip Flashlight. Then again, this is an old model.

Ramkitten rates this tent:


SLEEPING BAGS & PADS

Z-rest: If you're looking for a cushy night's sleep, this isn't the pad for you, but it's the one I carried from Georgia to Maine and will continue to for the forseeable future. I use the three-quarter, 11 oz. Z-rest. As the name implies, this pad folds up in an accordian fashion, so it's not as bulky as many other foam pads. It's also handy for sitting on on wet ground, as any moisture won't soak in and can just be shaken off.

Ramkitten rates this pad:

Kelty Serrano: I don't really know what to say about a sleeping bag, but this one was as warm as I'd expected it to be; the 0-degree rating seems to be accurate. This synthetic mummy bag is very comfortable, has ample room at the foot, and has retained its loft well.

Ramkitten rates this sleeping bag:

Mountain Test High Lab Liner: I purchased this 1.5-oz. synthetic liner when I passed through Walasi-Yi Center four days into my A.T. thru-hike and slept comfortably from then on. (The 30-degree bag I started out with wasn't warm enough.) This liner adds 20 degrees and serves as a very comfortable summer bag as well. Also, Mountain Test provides excellent customer service. When I e-mailed them about the internal seam coming apart at the foot of the liner, they sent me a new one, no questions asked, and told me to keep my original. They said they were aware of the flaw and had fixed it, which I've found to be true. The replacement liner has held up extremely well. My purchase price was $100.

Ramkitten rates this liner:


COOKING

Esbit fuel tablets: At the moment, this is my first choice for cooking on the trail. Low-tech--or no-tech, actually--just the way I like it, and light-weight (1/2 oz. each). You can hold the tablet while lighting it and have plenty of time to put it down before it really gets going. One tablet burns for about 15 minutes, which is more than enough to boil water and cook a Lipton. If the tablet isn't used up, you can blow it out and save the rest to use again. More than one tablet is sometimes needed for meals that require longer cooking. I burned the tablets in a mini tuna can and propped the pot up over the flame using three tent stakes, until I got a 3.75-oz. Esbit "stove" for $10. While Esbits aren't available at most outfitter stores (Update: As of August, 2003, I'm finding more stores are starting to carry the tablets, so call around.), I called REI and had eighteen or twenty-four tablets maildropped ahead to me on the A.T, without fail. I don't cook every day on the trail, so I can go for a month or more on this supply. The Esbits leave some black residue on the bottom of the pot, but I can get most of it off by rubbing the pot on the ground. I store my cookpot in a bag, so the remaining residue doesn't come off on other gear. Be sure to use a wind-screen and lid to increase efficiency. Cost is approximately fifty cents per tablet.

Ramkitten rates these fuel tablets:

MSR WhisperLite stove: This seems to be a popular stove, but I never made friends with it. I couldn't master the whole priming and lighting thing, and nearly scorched my face a few times, not to mention almost started a forest fire or two when the stove went "Whooosh!" when I flicked my Bic. Of course, this reflects the skill--or lack thereof--of the user, much more than the quality of the stove, but I think I'll stick with the low-tech, no-maintenace Esbits for now.

Ramkitten rates this stove:


WATER PURIFICATION

MSR MiniWorks: This filter is slow at 2.5-3 minutes/liter, and the ceramic cartridge makes the MiniWorks a bit heavier than filters with paper cartridges. On the other hand, you can take the cartridge out and scrubby it to clean off the gunk. A little guage lets you know when too much of the ceramic has been worn away and it's time to buy a replacement cartridge. The literature says the cartridge life is approximately 500 gallons. I paid $65 for the MiniWorks. (Note: MSR has since made the MiniWorks lighter at 12.6 oz and apparently faster, claiming 1 minute/liter. I bought mine in 1996.)

Ramkitten rates this filter:

PUR Hiker: I bought this filter after using the slower MiniWorks for a couple of months on the A.T. At 11 oz. the PUR is lighter and was initially much faster at 1 minute/liter, but the speed didn't last more than a few weeks. I probably should have been more careful when filtering from sources with a lot of sediment. I saw other people put bandanas or coffee filters over the intake. I'm not lazy when it comes to hiking, but I admit I'm pretty lazy with gear. PUR does offer a one-year guarantee on its filters, but I never contacted them about a free replacement. I removed and rinsed the paper cartridge a number of times and lubricated the O-rings, but the filter never seemed to work as easily as it did during the first couple of weeks.

Ramkitten rates this filter:

Polar Pure iodine in solution: This method is fast at the water source, simple, maintenance-free, and inexpensive. One bottle treats approximately 2,000 gallons, but you just keep using it until there are no visible crystals in the trap at the bottom of the bottle. The downsides are that you have to wait twenty minutes to let the iodine do its thing before you drink the water, and there is a taste, but I didn't mind either of those things. To me, the taste was sorta like sucking on an inflatable, plastic pool floaty, but I quickly got used to it and often added Kool-Aid. Just be sure to add drink mix after the purification time is up, so the iodine doesn't adhere to the sugar crystals. I read that somewhere; although that was after I'd been using Polar Pure for three months and adding the drink mix immediately following the iodine. Never got sick, but maybe I was just lucky.

Ramkitten rates this purifier:

Bottom's Up Water Filtration Bottle: The literature says this product has a 200-gallon filter capacity, or more than 1000 uses. The filter is inside the top of the bottle, which you fill from the bottom, then squeeze the water through the filter and into your mouth (or the little cup that fits over the bottom). The cup is useful for filling the bottle. I first used this system on my Laurel Highlands Trail hike and found it to be very convenient, so much so that it felt as if I wasn't even filtering. When I filled the bottle at a water pump that had rusty pipes, the metal was removed and there was no trace of a metallic taste. If there are drawbacks to this bottle, they are that the stream of water is small, so you can't chug when you're really thirsty, and there's no check valve, so you have to leave the cap pulled out in the open position for a minute to let the air back in after you take a long drink; otherwise, there's no ... squeezability left to push the water through the filter. Know what I mean? Still, this is a handy-dandy filter bottle. No need to carry an extra filter or iodine if you use this system.

Ramkitten rates this water filter bottle:


CLOTHING

Marmot PreCip anorak: Very water-resistant (I hesitate to call anything waterproof, but it has to really pour for a while to soak through this jacket) and the rip-stop nylon fabric is tough. I've caught this jacket on branches and sharp objects many times, but there's not a mark or pin-hole on it. Pit-zippers give added ventilation when it's cold and windy enough for me to hike with a shell. I paid $99.

Ramkitten rates this jacket:

Koulius Zaard fleece-lined tights: Not cheap--I paid $75--but well worth it to me. I carry them even in the summer. They dry very quickly and keep me warm without being bulky. I've used the same pair frequently over the past three years, and I swear they still look new. Excellent quaility. Ankle zippers allow you to put them on or take them off without removing your boots. Found mine in a bike shop.

Ramkitten rates these tights:

LL Bean Polartec t-shirt: I found this shirt to be very pill-resistant, just as LL Bean claims. Over six months on the A.T. it held up very well with all that rubbing against my backpack. The Power Dry polyester actually didn't stink as much as other non-cotton t-shirts out there. Really! Even my hiking buddies said so. This item is in the men's wear section, but I prefer the cut to the women's non-cotton tees, which often have shorter sleeves and are narrower at the hem.

Ramkitten rates this t-shirt:

Outdoor Research (OR) Low Gaiters: I never hike without them. They keep the dirt and pebbles out of my boots, deter ticks, and, as long as I tuck my socks below the gaiters, go a long way to keep the rain from getting in there and soaking my boots from the inside-out. I prefer these non-Gor-tex gaiters, because my feet don't get so hot. The little rubber straps that go around the bottom of the boot soon broke, but I found them unnecessary anyway. The boot lace hook and elastic around the ankle are plenty to hold the gaiters in place. The hook does "chew" through laces eventually, but it took four months of hiking nearly every day for that to happen.

Ramkitten rates these gaiters:


FOOTWEAR

Vasque Sundowners: These Gor-tex boots are tough to break in, but once I did, my feet were very happy. I had to temporarily retire these boots after 1,600 miles on the A.T. (plus a couple hundred miles before that), because the treads were worn out, but I plan to have them re-soled to hike again. I got mine on sale for $160, but I usually see them for $189-225. Definitely got my money's worth out of them.

Ramkitten rates these boots:

Vasque Clarions: Much easier to break in than the Sundowners, which is why I bought these to finish the remaining 500-some-odd miles of the A.T. I've used them for many miles since, and they're still in great shape. Less water-resistant than the Sundowners, but a high quality boot which provides the ankle support I need. I paid $142.

Ramkitten rates these boots:

Laguna imi-Tevas: Paid $7 for mine at Wal-Mart. They sure aren't for hiking in, and don't have much in common with Tevas beyond the straps, but they were just fine for wandering around camp and town, and fording rivers. After six months on the A.T. and a week in the Wind River Range, they're still intact. Since I do all my hiking in boots, these sandals are perfectly adequate for an alternative pair of lightweight footwear.

Ramkitten rates these sandals:


ACCESSORIES

Dana Wet-rib: This hip-pouch attaches to the front of any backpack, and is a convenient way to carry a water bottle, camera, guidebook, munchies, a flashlight--whatever small items you might want to get to as you're hiking. Some people might not like having an extra clip to deal with and strap to adjust when taking off and putting on their packs, and sometimes your quad hits the bottom of the water bottle if you raise your leg high enough, but I didn't find those things to be bothersome. The Wet Rib comes in two sizes.

Ramkitten rates this accessory:

MSR DromLite water bag: If I were ever to use a water bag again, I'd certainly go with the clear type, so I could see how much water was left. My DromLite leaked at the mouthpiece, and I didn't like having to open my backpack to get at the bag when it was time to refill, which I usually realized when I ran out. I'm a bottle person, myself.

Ramkitten rates this water bag:

Leki trekking poles: I never hit the trail without them--my third and fourth legs. They saved my knees on the descents, saved my neck numerous times when I slipped or tripped, and gave me a little added umpf on the ascents. I prefer the kind without shock-absorbers, which I feel is a feature not worth the extra money. They telescope, so you can strap them to your pack if you don't feel like using them for a while.

Ramkitten rates these poles:

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