Gear Reviews: Tent

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The moment spring hits, it takes a lot to keep me inside.  If Andy and I could go hiking and camping every day, we would.  (Here’s to hoping our shot on the Appalachian Trail will come eventually!)  Andy is my first camping partner and from the moment we set off, we’ve had the same tent: REI Co-op Passage Two Tent.20160903_195638

  • Pros
    • This tent is extremely durable.  We’ve taken it on every camp for the past two years and it still is as good as new — It’s still waterproof and there’s no damage such as rips or tears.  It’s truly my favorite tent.
    • The price is great: Whenever you buy REI products, the price is dramatically less than brand name ones.  This tent stands at $160 so you’re talking a major price gap for comparable tents that stand at $700, $600, and $400.  No thank you.  This one is just fine.
    • The epitome of a three-season tent: It keeps us super warm in the winter (It has been below freezing outside and I’m lying inside with my sleeping bag fully unzipped).  However, it is also really cool in the summer — Opening the vents, we have never been too hot inside.
    • Never leaked or been remotely wet.  I saw only one review of a person complaining of this: Learn how to set your tent up correctly and this will never be a problem.
    • Incredibly easy to set up: There are two poles of equal distance and they cross over to the corners of the tent.  Simple.  We’ve set this up in pitch black nights in a matter of minutes.
    • Adjustable ceiling vents.  This is a pro for two different reasons: One, they are large enough to release heat inside the tent in the summer.  Two, they are small enough to easily seal to keep us really warm in the winter.
    • Two large doors so it is easy to get in and out.
    • Love the rectangular floor.  I am a symmetrical person.  I don’t want the floor coming in where my feet are supposed to go.  I want as much room as possible.
    • Minor pro: I love the green that we purchased.  It blends in well with nature, which is appreciated when we wild camp, which is just about every time.img_0087
    • This seems silly but really makes me happy: The sack for the tent, the sack of the poles, and the sack for the stakes and rope actually fit.  I have another tent the annoys me to no end because the pole sack is way too slender and short — I have to pray and force and pray some more to get the poles in and even when I do, they still stick out.


  • Cons
    • It is extremely difficult to get the rainfly lined up.  We have spent way too much time trying to get the rainfly to lay where it is supposed to.  It is as if the fly is one size too small.
    • Super small covered areas for gear storage outside.  It’s so small I’d say it is nonexistent.
    • Could be more headroom for a two-person tent.  If we put a light-weight light in the top mesh pocket, we are constantly hitting our head on it.
    • Mesh pockets are not deep.  We are continuously knocking our small items out of the bottom ones and hitting small items out of the top one.
    • This is more a complaint of all tent-making companies: Saying a tent fits a certain amount of people, literally means lying shoulder-to-shoulder.  Therefore, if you want a one-person tent, go for a two-person; if you want a two-person tent, go for a three-person.  Point blank: What you desire is way too snug so I’d always jump one up.  We cannot fit anything beyond ourselves inside this tent.


  • Rating: IMG_2397IMG_2397IMG_2397IMG_2397 out of Five Vistas
    Note: This review does not count the footprint.  I chose not to buy it — See more below about what we suggest buying instead!


  • Tips for tracking down your own tent

    • I’m going to make a bold suggestion here: Do not buy footprints!  Footprints are additional tent material that is placed under the tent to prevent wear and tear on the tent floor.  Instead, buy Tyvek.  Tyvek is a plastic material (made from teeny tiny fibers) that covers buildings when they are erected.  Here’s the benefits:
      • It is extremely strong and impossible to tear.
      • It is paper-thin, which means it is so light (much lighter than a footprint).
      • Lastly, it is waterproof — Again, we are talking about what is used to cover homes and buildings so there are not leaks.
      • Tyvek normally comes in a massive roll for about $60, which is more compared to a $30 footprint; however, you can cut multiple footprints and multiple rainfly covers and whatever else you need to keep you dry against strong rain.  Tyvek will outlast any footprint, positive.
    • When buying your tent, take it apart in the store and set it up before purchasing it.  Some tents are super complex and that’s the last thing you want if you’re trying to put up a tent in the middle of the night or in a storm.  The simpler the better.
    • I mentioned above to buy one-person up than what you think you need.  (Example — Buy a two-person if you aim for one person inside; buy a three-person if you aim for two people inside.)  It sounds like you’ll have an enormous amount of extra room but in reality you won’t.  It will comfortably fit items like shoes, clothes, and other gear inside instead of feeling that you need to lie upon these items when you go to sleep.

Happy trails!

Hike Twenty-three: Virginia’s Peaks of Otter Flat Top Mountain

It’s warming, which means we had an excuse to hike Virginia’s Peaks of Otter again.  I say again because we attempted this trail a few weekends ago . . . when there was a winter storm advisory . . . when a large amount of snow was expected . . . and when below freezing temperatures were on their way.  Needless to say, the weather won that day because when we arrived to the Jefferson National Forest, we were greeted with thick fog and temperatures so cold that I refused to leave the car after a brief roll-down of my window.
IMG_2493.JPGAndrew didn’t mind either — He had stepped out to look at a map or something and raced back to the car.  I’ve never seen a man run as fast.  Then we drove, forlorn and irritable, back home.  Hike done before it even started.

Sometimes hiking is like that though.  Sometimes you just cannot go — for whatever reason — and I’m trying to learn that is okay.  I’m trying.

So weekends passed until Andrew and I were discussing hiking again.

“Peaks of Otter?” I asked nervous.  Even if it was warmer here, that did not mean it was warmer there.

“Know what?” he hesitated.  I held my breath.  “Let’s go for it.”  I didn’t need more convincing.

So back we drove to Jefferson National Forest where we were greeted with a blue sky, sun, and green meadows.  Essentially, a completely different view from our last visit so I leaned out the window to take pictures as Andrew swirled around the mountain.

We came for the Peaks of Otter consists of many trails.  However, two of the toughest mountains are also the most well-known: Flat Top and Sharp Top.  We had grand desires to hike both in one day, making it a little under ten miles, but (cut to the end of story) after a pretty good climb up Flat Top, we were worn out, breathing heavy, and ready to relax our legs.  Therefore, here is a breakdown of Flat Top Mountain:

  • Six-point-two miles
  • 1,540-foot elevation gain
  • Level Four of Five Difficulty

We set off on the unblazed trail, which was fine with us because Nature lead the way — She seemed to whisper in yellows as various types of daffodils, unusual dogwoods, and fluffy dandelions spotlighted our path.

This is the unusual species of dogwood tree that is strangely named Cornelian Cherry.

Following our path down, we crossed by a calm blue lake located in front of a lodge.
IMG_2759This was the Lake Trail, and it gave a marvelous view of Sharp Top Mountain.
IMG_2765Sharp Top is the most crowded mountain in the Peaks of Otter whereas Flat Top, on the other hand, is more secluded.

IMG_2774.JPGReaching Flat Top a couple miles later, we were warned the first one-point-four miles is straight up, lacking practically any switchbacks.  This made our walk exhausting from the start.
IMG_2785IMG_2804The pops of purple scattered along the path were appreciated not only for their beauty but because they gave me reason to pause on the incline.IMG_2768.JPGIMG_2791
Up and up we continued towards the blue sky.IMG_2794Soon a spur trail appeared on our right . . .IMG_2805This meant we were point-six miles from boulders that were a short distance from our first lookout.
IMG_2808Flat Top Mountain, I soon learned, has a way of teasing hikers — The name sounds dry and mundane, and maybe that is why this trail is more secluded.  However, I’m here to promise you the views are the opposite.  I could see for miles and miles, past the point of vision because land and sky blurred together.
IMG_2837.JPGIMG_2842IMG_2844Each look-out tempted me to stay and I found myself thinking, “Surely the sights cannot get better than this.”   Every time, though, I was wrong in the best way possible.IMG_2841

Crawling down from the boulder, we skipped over white flowers called Blood Root that were sprinkled around the massive rocks.  They popped through the brown leaves and dirt seeming full of excitement.  Their bright white petals stretched, making me think the flowers were awakening from sleep, as their little yellow faces, yawning and reaching further still, absorbed the sun’s rays.IMG_2811IMG_2813IMG_2822.JPGIMG_2819IMG_2820Our summit view was a little over two miles away where we could see the boulders jutting from the mountain in the distance.
IMG_2845.JPGWe set off towards that distant spot until the mountain top appeared to curve before us.
At the summit, we darted left of the trail to avoid people that were at the main look-out on the right, and I was happy we did — The view all around us was incredible and we sat on the rocks for many moments, talking and eating our lunch.
IMG_2879.JPGIMG_2873IMG_2874IMG_2876IMG_2875IMG_2895IMG_2877Leaving the birds and one view, we walked to the right of the trail where we pass US Coast and Geodetic Survey markers and a sign informing us that the summit of Flat Top Mountain is 4,001 feet.IMG_2903.JPGIMG_2905IMG_2901Next, we stepped through the trees and onto smoothed boulders.  Dangling our legs over the mountain, all was calm and peaceful as we cuddled into one another, looking out at our wide view of Bedford and beyond.  We were reminded Bedford lost more men than any other US city of similar size as it was home to the nineteen men that died in Normandy during the first phase of World War II’s D-Day landings.
IMG_2924Below us, the Bedford reservoir could be seen — a bright turquoise blue — and next to us, red buds slowly swelled on trees before opening.
IMG_2906IMG_2907IMG_2908IMG_2910IMG_2909IMG_2935.JPGStanding to go, we turned to walk back down the mountain and our steep declining trail.  Bits of spring we had missed on the way up rose from the ground in vibrant colors.
IMG_2940IMG_2942.JPGSoon, we were at the parking lot where we decided our legs were too sore to trek up Sharp Top Mountain.  Opening our vehicle’s doors, we got inside — happy with our decision to go home and full of appreciation for even a few hours walk in the woods together.



Gear Reviews: Backpacking Pack

The temperature is finally warming outside — Flowers are blooming and birds are chirping, and all of this essentially means I desire to go backpacking and camping every single second of every single day.

It also means I have an excuse to lug out my coveted Osprey Aura AG 65 pack, which is why I figured there’s no better time than now for this review.

My pack is on the left; Andy’s on the right.  He has the Aether AG 70.
  • Pros
    • Anti-gravity system carries weight well (I’ve stuffed forty-five pounds in this pack before then set off for difficult multi-day hikes)
    • One of my favorite aspects: Back mesh panel is truly breathable — My back is never hot or sweaty.
    • The material (therefore the pack) is super durable
    • Comes in various gender-specific sizes with multiple adjustments, making this fit perfectly (For example, there are adjustments at the shoulder, back, chest, and hip areas.)
    • Super easy to move and balance in (Some packs shift weight away from your body so you constantly have to battle feeling like you’re falling backward)
    • Well designed — There are two straps for a sleeping mat and behind that, a compartment to store a sleeping bag.  The large main compartment is roomy and simple, which is all it needs to be.
    • There’s a lifetime guarantee — Any reason, any product, any era.  That’s unbelievably awesome.
    • There’s a flat bottom, making items easy to store (Some packs have a slanted bottom, which drives my OCD tendencies crazy because nothing lays flat)
    • Once in, my three-liter hydration bladder fits perfectly (though there is a con about getting this in and that’s listed below)
    • The sixty-five liter is the perfect size for an overnight camp or extended backpacking trip
    • Top lid is removable, which can reduce weight.  Andy does this when we hike.  (Note: If sold at REI, the top lid can become a daypack too.)
    • This deserves to be listed: I’ve spoken with Osprey representatives a few times and they are super duper nice.  I like buying products from nice people at a nice company.


  • Cons
    • Biggest and major con: The hipbelt is very painful.  True, I have bony hips but there is an extremely thick seam smack-dab in the middle of the hipbelt followed by a divet in the material.  It literally cuts into my skin like a knife.  Looking online for solutions, I sadly found many forums with people reporting the same painful problem.  Some said they have layers of skin that were rubbed raw; others, abrasions on their hips.  There are quite a few DIY propositions, many of which I have tried, so I put all information below in the hopes of helping others suffering.

      Here’s the seam I am talking about: It joins the grey mesh with the black.
    • This is a general backpacking pack issue: It is heavy, weighing in at four pounds.  (Look at it this way: If you aim to carry a twenty-pound pack on a backpacking trip, the pack alone is practically a fourth of the weight, which is unnecessary.)
    • The hydration bladder is hard to get in due to the inside plastic back panel.  Mostly I can only get the bladder in if my pack is complete empty, which is annoying.  (Picture filling up your bladder in the middle of a hike and having to empty your pack to put the bladder back inside . . . )
    • It’s near impossible to run a hydration bladder hose through the shoulder straps because the straps are too tight.
    • There are a bunch of “extras”: hip pockets and whistles and ice tool loops and bungee tie-offs and trekking pole attachments.  True, companies are moving to “ultralight” packs, meaning they are doing away with these extras; however, what I see more is that the ultralight packs simply have less support, making them not carry weight as well.
    • Just an annoying note: The packs in the US do not come with a rain covers (However, they do in other countries, like the UK!)


  • Rating: IMG_2397IMG_2397IMG_2397 out of Five Vistas
    I love this pack — love as in I get made fun of that I’m in a relationship with it because I care for my pack so much.  However, the overall rating is held down solely because of the serious hip-belt issue.

    • NOTE: There is a newer version of my pack available, though it is practically identical.


  • More on this hipbelt issue
    • I mentioned above there are forums with people offering solutions to the hipbelt-seam pain.  The best Jerry-rigging methods range from wrapping clothing or Ace bandages or gauze bandages or moleskin or elastic wrap bandages or surgical tape around hips . . . to cutting material such as yoga mats or humidifier evaporator pads into chunks under the hipbelts.  It is overwhelming and essentially shows something is fundamentally wrong with this hipbelt.  I’ve tried practically everything and the best solution: Weathersealers.  I’ve used ones used around windows that are sticky backed and I’ve used ones around air conditioners (pictured below where I directly sewed them over the seams to prevent me from feeling it).

      Also it adds padding (another benefit) and the rubber aspect ensures the hipbelt does not move or slip (which cuts down on other hipbelt problems people report).  I know it’s not the most stylish solution but when you’re hiking in the middle of a forest, style doesn’t come into play.  What does is comfort.

    • Before the weatherstripping, I tried wearing my pack higher and lower, tighter and looser than it was meant to be.  It didn’t work.  Plus, don’t do that — The pack is intended to be carried a certain way to reduce stress on your body; don’t put unneeded pressure on it because of a different problem.
    •  Lastly, a note: When people hear a hiker is in pain due to his or her pack, they jump to wondering if the pack is the wrong size or the hiker is wearing it wrong.  I want to make it known I was sized for my pack by several REI reps on different occasions.  Also, I told Osprey about this problem and sent them tons of pictures; they confirmed I am in the right size pack, that I have the pack adjusted correctly, and that I am wearing my pack correctly.


  • Tips when tracking down your own daypack
    • I mentioned earlier the top lid can become a daypack if you get your pack at REI.  My pack is from the UK so it does not become a daypack.  Be on the look-out for pros and cons of this:
      • Pros: If you do not have a daypack so if you are thinking of getting into camping and backpacking, this is a win-win because you can score two packs for the price of one.  Also, we’ve gone on hikes where we want to wander from the tent with a little pack so this makes that doable.
      • Cons: A lid that becomes a daypack means more weight (additional straps, zippers, and compartments).  If you can ever shed weight, do it.  Plus, if you’re like me, you already had a daypack.

Happy trails!