Many backpackers consider a five-month thru-hike the ultimate gear test. It’s true: any piece of gear that survives a thru-hike passes a respectable endurance test—especially ultralight gear.
But why not make up a tougher test? Having done four thru-hikes (including yo-yoing the Continental Divide Trail), I wanted to push the backpacking gear endurance limits. The ultimate gear test: traveling through all 54 African countries over four years. It’s part of my effort to make a TV show about The Unseen Africa.
First Some History
I’ve got a record of pushing Gossamer Gear’s limits. It began with my 2006 Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) southbound thru-hike. I sported Gossamer Gear’s now-discontinued G5 Silnylon backpack (a flimsier version of today’s Quiksak. Meanwhile, Maiu, my hiking partner, carried Gossamer Gear’s Uberlight Whisper—a comically light backpack that is similar to today’s RikSak.
Nobody had ever thru-hiked with the Whisper, and Maiu hoped to be the first. Ironically, the day before we were to meet Glen Van Peski (the pack’s designer and Gossamer Gear’s founder) in Southern California, the Whisper suffered a catastrophic tear at the bottom of the pack.
Our solution? Cinch the top of the pack shut and wear it upside down. At just 7 pounds (3 kg) with food and water, her pack could be flipped without the lousy ergonomics creating a burden. You can imagine Glen’s double take when he saw Maiu carrying the Gossamer Gear’s backpack upside down.
Glen offered to send Maiu a new Whisper, but since we had just a week to finish our southbound trek, she preferred toughing it out to reward her loyal backpack with the glory of completing the PCT end-to-end.
For my CDT Yo-Yo, I wanted to go as light as possible, even if that meant having to replace my worn out backpack along the way. I once again used the G5 Silnylon backpack. The extreme conditions and heavy load I sometimes had to endure strained the limits of this fragile and super light backpack. As a result, during that 5,600-mile, 7-month round-trip from Mexico to Canada and back, I went through four G5 backpacks.
Admittedly, that’s pretty extreme and even wasteful. Still, I was trying to do something that had never been done before and I needed all the help I could get. Having the lightest possible pack was critical to my success. Fortunately, Gossamer Gear agreed and was willing to ship me new packs at my resupply points.
Year One in Africa
Although I won’t be hiking through all 54 African countries (I will drive most of the miles), my trip will take 7 times longer than my 7-month CDT Yo-Yo. More importantly, with shipping to Africa being prohibitively expensive, there is no cheap or easy way for Gossamer Gear to resupply me during my four-year expedition. Therefore, for once in my hiking life, being uber-light wasn’t the number one goal—having uber-tough gear was more important. It had to last four punishing years.
Furthermore, the pack had to have uber-capacity. I had no idea all the conditions I would face, how many days of resupply I would need, or how much cold weather gear I might need to carry (yes, folks, it snows in Africa).
My choice? The Mariposa Ultralight Backpack. With a spacious 70-liter capacity, no Gossamer Gear pack has more room. And yet, in keeping with classic Gossamer Gear design: it’s extremely light—under 1 kg fully configured.
I reviewed the Gossamer Gear’s Mariposa backpack on my website before I started my trip. I liked it so much, I took two of them with me to Africa (one for me and one for my cameraman). I also snagged a Minimalist Ultralight Daypack for when I wanted something rugged but tiny.
So how did the Mariposa do after one year in West Africa? It still looks almost new! And that’s not because I haven’t used it. Part of my quest of exploring Africa is to climb the tallest peak of every African country. This goal has taken me through dense jungles where I had to trail blaze with a machete, tear my way through thorny vegetation, and scramble up desert peaks. I also thru-hiked across the entire High Atlas Mountain Range in Morocco during March (when snow persists).
After one year of trashing the two Mariposas around, both of them lost their shock cord top-of-the-pack lashing system for attaching your foam pad or other gear to the top of the pack. Frankly, I don’t care since I never really used it anyway.
One of the packs lost its integrated whistle clip, which is a pity because now there’s no way to clip the sternum strap. Overall, both packs are entering Year Two looking quite strong.
For those curious about how the Minimalist Ultralight Daypack has fared: pretty well considering that I use it more often than the Mariposa. The bottom of the day pack is starting to get small holes, as is the mesh pouch. So I predict it will be looking pretty sad after four tough years.
With packs, I’m like the Incredible Hulk: I’m a brute. I try to be gentle, but when conditions are rough, I focus on survival, not whether my backpack will last three more years. Therefore, this has been a great test so far and I’m only a quarter into it. Stay tuned.
Speaking of staying tuned….
Kickstarter: The Unseen Africa by Francis Tapon
Would you like to see a TV series about my four years in Africa, including scaling its tallest peaks? If so, please support my Kickstarter Project. Many of the rewards include books and videos about my backpacking adventures. Whether you pledge or not, please share the project!