Friday, July 11, 2014

Emberlit Three Fuel Stove

If you backpack with me at my current age, the first thing you’ll likely notice is that I have no interest in running down the trail.  For me, if I had to rush past the sights and smells, I probably wouldn’t go backpacking.  If I spend a minute or two observing a blooming flower, a uniquely shaped tree, a rare and spotted salamander, or having a starring contest with a bear or deer, that makes my time in the woods infinitely better.


The older I get, the more it seems I dwell on these things.  I suppose it’s fair to say that I appreciate things more.  I appreciate my time in the woods because these opportunities are more infrequent than they were in the past now that work and life obligations have me entirely too occupied.


It is reflecting on this love affair that I find myself slowly being willing to become more involved with the backpacking environment.  I observe.  I study.  I participate.  I appreciate.  I consciously travel with these things in mind and I constantly remind myself to blend in with nature, to walk lightly, and to leave things as I find them.  I enjoy watching the seasons, the movements of the animals, and I like that I have learned various behavior patterns of both.  I like the process of trying to identify trees to determine which may be good for a bow-drill fire, which were the oldest, and which were likely a good home for a raccoon.  I like the regime of my normal schedule being discarded in favor of waking and sleeping as a result of the movement of the sun.


One experience that has slowly been growing on me is using a wood stove instead of a more conventional gas, esbit or alcohol cooking option.  In fact, going without a stove entirely and just totting foods that don’t need to be cooked or instead using an open fire has been quite enjoyable.  I definitely feel more in touch with the environment around me when I’m not using something that came from a store to do something as simple as cooking when the very environment I’m in is capable of providing so much. 


The beauty of many wood-burning lightweight stoves currently on the market is that they are fuel flexible – meaning they can take natural resources (wood, pine cones, debris, etc.), esbit and alcohol.  If you don’t want to carry fuel or if you want to be guaranteed you’ll never run out of fuel, this is truly a wonderful concept.  I also revel in the fact that I don’t need to worry about alcohol, esbit, or my least favorite, gas.  I’ve come to loathe my JetBoil ever since the fins on the bottom melted without provocation (and it took entirely too much motivation for JetBoil to stand behind their product).  I’m not a fan of using alcohol personally and most of the time I go with esbit despite it being costly.  Being able to use fuel from the environment and break from the commercial grasp of other fuels is a wonderful feeling.  I also get the sense that those before me who walked the same woods have a sense of pride in my recognition that time in the woods doesn’t first require time in a store.


My first wood-burning stove was the Bushbuddy Ultra ($120/5.1oz).  It was a lot of fun, but it did have some drawbacks.  First, it was expensive.  It was essentially a can that couldn’t be folded, so I needed to nest it in a similar sized pot to protect its fragile walls. While it was fun to use and I still like it, overall it sits in my gear closet because of its size and the fact that it is a little fussy to try to keep clean.  It also required me to carry a heavier pot regardless and I was constantly worried about various parts of the meticulously crafted design to get bent, fall off or fail because it was largely one spot-welded unit.


I later moved on to Trail Design’s Classic Ti-Tri ($80/58g).  This was my go-to every-day use stove for roughly 3 years of my young backpacking career.  The problem was that the cone was tall and a pain to pack.  Fortunately, Trail Designs began offering the Sidewinder ($80/49grams) which was a far more squat cone that fit inside of a pot making packing much easier.  For both of these cone designs, they are tremendously efficient, lightweight and work very well.  But, they are very fragile and they have exceptionally sharp edges.  Every time I handle one of these cones I’m convinced I’m going to get cut.  There is a ridge that joins to fasten the cone together and if it is damaged the cone can’t be brought together as a functional unit.  Each cone also only works with a single type of pot sized to the cone, and personally I like to carry cups.  So if I was using the cone, I really couldn’t alternate to a different pot, pan or cup.  The exception is if the cone is used in wood-burning mode where tent stakes are put through the top of the cone which allows most any sized pot, pan or cup to rest on top.  This arrangement can get quite unstable though as the edges are very flimsy top to bottom.


Wanting something more stable, more packable and more flexible to pot/pan/cup size, I decided to look for other options.


First I purchased a Vargo Titanium Hexagon ($52/4.1oz)   There was a lot to like on this small stove, but ultimately I felt the hinge design was too risky (potentially prone to failure and largely unrepairable in the field) and the top was also a bit too small to support a variety of pots/pans/cups.  There was also poor ventilation coming up from the bottom making the stove less efficient.


Next I looked at the Firebox 3” Titanium Nano ($40/ 6oz).  It was a little heavier and physically smaller than I’d like and also had potential hinge issues.


Next I looked at the FireFly UL Titanium Stove ($66/2.7oz).  While definitely the lightest, I was worried that its cooking surface was too small and didn’t have as many surface points to stabilize different pots/pans/cups.  The word “fragile” seemed also relevant.


Next I looked at the Element Titanium Stove ($55/4.9oz) which I had seen before at Trail Days being used by the infamous “Dutch” of DutchWearGear fame.  Much like the others though, I felt like it was a little small and I didn’t like the hinges.  It has its merits though, and a separate grill top can be used.


Finally, I took at look at the Emberlit ($85/5.7oz-titanium, $45/11.3oz-aluminum) and ultimately decided on the titanium version.  What I liked about it was, well, the opposite of what I didn’t like about the others.  It folded entirely flat, had a very stable surface which didn’t require extra parts, it was large enough for fuel and pots/pans/cups of various sizes, and the corners hooked together instead of using a hinge.  It was rugged and fairly foolproof.  If I bent a part of it, I could bend it back without a fuss.  I could also use it as a windscreen which was not possible for some of the other stoves.  It had a useful slot to allow larger branches the opportunity to stick out which meant for me that I didn't need to worry about a knife to process wood (although I wouldn't have minded if the slot were larger).  The Emberlit was a little pricier than I’d like, and at 5.7oz it is a little heavier than I’d like, but it also isn’t the heaviest or priciest, yet it is what I would argue to be the most functional and durable with low fuss.  At the very least, it’s another option – and options are good.  Burn time to boil water was pretty much on par with esbit or alcohol in my experience.  These kinds of stove fire up with almost no effort and work like a chimney.  They are a lot of fun to use in this mode and a small alcohol stove or esbit can also be used with this and the other wood-burning stoves mentioned in this article.


The pictures throughout this entry are from the first time I attempted to use it while in my yard on a very hot and humid Virginia day.  Beside the Emberlit are the Classic Ti-Tri and Sidewinder cones for comparison. 


These pictures remind me to pass along some general cautions.  First, be sure to clear a spot on a debris-free surface to avoid miscellaneous debris being caught on fire.  Second, choose the right wood.  When I first started the fire, it smoked wildly because I used pine.  When I switched to hardwood, it was much cleaner.  Third, the wind and other factors can send the flames up the cup, to include the handle.  Know your pot/pan/cup will likely be hot, so take appropriate caution.  Fourth, the wood will coat the bottom of your pot/pan/cup with a black sticky substance called cresol.  Plan ahead to deal with it, but don’t remove it entirely as the black surface will actually draw in more heat (cook more efficiently).  Finally, you’ll have ash remaining in the stove.  Be a good steward of Leave No Trace and wet them completely before discarding.  Either spread them by hand across a wide area or under a rock or in another manner that allows others to avoid seeing your fire residue.  Plan on smelling like a campfire – you’re welcome.

Friday, June 27, 2014

And the Winner of the StrapSound Bluetooth Speaker is......

As mentioned in my previous blog, RuggedTec ( generously offered to give one of their StrapSound bluetooth speakers to a reader of my blog.

Congratulations to the winner selected at random ----------------------- Josh Mitchell.

Josh - please contact me through my blog and leave a message anywhere with your name, address, and e-mail.  I will NOT publish this information, but I will pass it to the manufacturer who will send it to you directly. 

Thanks all.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Meet the StrapSound Lightweight Bluetooth Speaker - and Enter to Win

RuggedTec ( generously offered me the opportunity to review one of their bluetooth speaker systems in exchange for this review.  I elected to review the StrapSound bluetooth speaker which is a product marketed towards cyclists, but is quite honestly very applicable to many other activities.


Packaging of the StrapSound was well conceived and elegant.  It reminded me of an Apple product where everything seemed to fit just right while making the product standout.  Included is the StrapSound speaker, a very stretchy rubber device which can be used to affix the speaker to a variety of things (and provides the namesake: “StrapSound”), a USB cord for charging, an aux cable, microfiber bag and instructions. 


Power comes from a DC+5V, 1000mA and a 600mAH Lithium-ion battery, but it can also work via USB.  The speaker is 40mm, 4 with a bass booster of 40mm.  The output power is RMA 2Wx1.


The speaker itself has a rubber jacket with a simple rubber seal on one side covering the inputs and the mouth of the speaker on the opposite.  The speaker is about as long as a credit card with the diameter of a golf ball.  More accurately, it is 50x50x80mm.  It weighs a little over 3oz.  Take this to mean that it is small enough and light enough to pack most anywhere.  The StrapSound runs $49 with free shipping.


Overall construction felt solid with no moving parts and a no-fuss/easy-to-use design.  As a low-tech person, I appreciated the simple controls.  The body displays a power button and a +/- for volume control which were sized appropriately and easy to use.  Under the rubber plug on the utility end was a USB and aux cable input.  My StrapSound was lime green which I’m not sure was intentional, but I appreciated it.  It also comes in black.  Charging and pairing it with my iPhone was equally easy.


The StrapSound boasts a six (6) hour rechargeable battery and functions wired or wirelessly.  It is also water-resistant, shock proof, dust proof, and rugged overall.  It is clearly meant for outdoors and doesn’t need to be babied.


I was first tinkering with the StrapSound in my office after charging it for the recommended 5 hours.  There is a little red indicator light next to the input which helped me to identify when it was charged.  My first impression when sound started playing was – POW!  Sound from the StrapSound within my 10’x10’ office was loud almost to the point where sitting next to it was a little too close.  My kids were in the room and they both backed up nearly in unison to give their little ears some space.  While the speaker appears to be on one end, sound definitely permeates cleanly throughout the device.  Volume control is easy enough from the device or my iPhone.


My experience with StrapSound was that it was very easy to accessorize to most any activity.  Sound was amplified indoors and responsible within a respectable area outside.  One of the reasons I like the StrapSound for use in small groups is that the sound covers a reasonable distance within a social circle and is not so overpowering that the guy down the trail or down the block is going to be listening in.  While the system lacks prominent bass, it does fine for what it’s designed for.  Aside from using it around the house and yard, we’ve also taken it family camping and strapped it to handlebars of various bicycles.  It was fun family event to watch my kids get riled up while riding their bikes with the Flight of the Bumblebee chasing them down the street.


Bottom line, if you’re looking for a durable, lightweight and solidly performing Bluetooth speaker, give StrapSound a try.


SOUND like something you’d be interested in?  If so, RuggedTec has generously offered to give one to my readers for FREE.  To be eligible, simply write a comment below and tell me the adventure you’d like to use the StrapSound.  I’ll select someone at random in the next two weeks or so.  Because I don't want to over promise shipping for an American company, US-based entries only.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ultralight Backpacking Spoon (and it's free)

I knew the sickness had taken hold when a week after ordering an expensive 14 gram titanium spoon, I promptly ordered another singularly because it was only 9 grams.  That's right, an "extra" 5 grams was simply too much for me to lug around a moment longer.

And shortly thereafter following months of evasive therapy, I learned that these kinds of little things didn't really matter, that much, most of the time, to some people.

That was several years ago and I'm feeling better now.

So today I decided to find an alternative to the 9 gram spoon.  A lighter alternative.  Using a readily available plastic bottle, I cut a spoon-pattern incorporating the ridge at the bottom.  The result - a surprisingly functional spoon.

Cost - $0 (not my bottle)

Weight - 0 (or at least it wouldn't register on my scale)

Easy of DIY - plenty easy as long as a pair of scissors are within reach

Functional - To a degree.  Using a bottle with thicker sides actually works nicely to strengthen the handle portion.  By design, the bottom of a bottle is already more dense, so the "spoon" part is plenty.  The spoon part is actually deeper than a standard spoon and works well as a scoop.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Inexpensive Lightweight Down Vest

Yesterday it was 67 degrees at my house in central Virginia and later this week the weather is promising more of the same.  This is a bit odd in my neck of the woods for two reasons.  First, the average high in March is in the 50’s.  Secondly, we’ve had two snowstorms in the last two weeks and the lows have dipped into the teens and twenties almost every night.  Fortunately, with March comes the annual push to clear out winter gear for most shops and a chance for those of us in the position to buy to get some inexpensive gear.


I travel weekly for the job I’ve held for the last year.  It isn’t ideal, but it’s been paying the bills.  Getting ready for week after week on the road has taught me how to be more efficient with my traveling gear and my lightweight mentality has continued to serve me well to keep weights low.  I was in need of an inexpensive lightweight down vest now that warmer months are ahead.  “Lightweight” down vests are easier now more than ever to find, but “inexpensive” is not.  Down has been steadily increasing in cost for the last several years primarily because of a down shortage.  Bird flu, coupled with Asian countries consuming less down, means feathers are more costly nowadays.  Secondly, the rise of hydrophobic (waterproof) down has higher manufacturing costs.  While treating down isn’t “the norm” just yet, it is becoming more common as there hasn’t been sufficient long-term studies to enable anyone to claim whether the treatment will compromise the down after a period of time and “waterproof down” sure seems enticing.


Bottom line, I checked all the usual suspects for down vests and decided prices were too high.  My next stop was eBAY where I sourced a new down vest for $18 which included shipping.  The size was XXL, in loden color and was just slightly above 7 oz.  I would imagine a medium would be closer to 5 ounces.  While I do not know the amount of fill, I do know that 550 fill-power was used.  For those that don’t understand the concept of fill-power, the lower the number the more resilient the down and also less expensive.  It also means more is required to achieve the same warmth than if higher fill-power is used.  High fill-power is fluffier, thereby it takes less quantity, resulting in less weight, to achieve the same warmth.  But, high fill-power is more costly and harder to source.  Most budget-conscious down products are made from 550-750 fill-power and these items are usually heavier.  The manufacturer was Hawke and Co., whom I had no previous knowledge, but I believe they have fashion affiliation with companies like Macy’s.  Similar to more expensive apparel, seams are neat and straight and the ankle and waist cuffs are elasticized.  Two zippered hand-warmer pockets are plenty useful and there is an interior stuff pocket to enable the vest to be stuffed into its own pouch.  Even the tags are printed to the fabric versus the annoying dangling tags that seem to always tickle and (gasp!) are unnecessary extra weight.  The fabric is nylon of some kind.  The use of YKK zippers is very welcomed.


I compared this vest to my Stoic vest which I referenced HERE.  The weight and features are very similar, but there are some compromises.  On my Hawke and Co, there are no waist or neck cinches and arguably the cut is more boxy than the Stoic.  While the Stoic has no hand-warmer pockets, it is made of Pertex and is slightly longer with a bit of a drop tail.  While it was tough to tell if either had more fill, I’d give the edge to the Stoic.


Bottom line, if you’re looking for a good-enough inexpensive lightweight down vest, take a look at eBAY for Hawke and Co., search by price, and you can take home a purchase that may also work for your needs.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Gossamer Gear Q-Twinn Tarp and Ultralight Storage Bag

Gossamer Gear was one of the first cottage manufacturers to bring lightweight backpacking gear to the masses.  At the time, they embraced silnylon and spinnaker fabric.  In the following years, while quantities often ran small, what stayed consistent were thoughtful and functional designs and well made products.

Gossamer Gear continues to press into the cuben fiber market, or by the industry name, Cubic Tech CTK non-woven laminate that is exceptionally waterproof and lightweight, with the offering of two new products made from their headquarters in Austin, TX.

The Q-Twinn Tarp (7oz / $315) is an ultralight catenary cut tarp made for two people.  Seams and tieouts are fully bonded, meaning there isn’t a single stitch so you can avoid seam sealing.  The color is a translucent black.  At 7oz, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a lighter and more sizeable alternative.

The Ultralight Storage Q-Series ditty bags (2-6g/$15-$16) are two products that I think the industry has been missing.  Both are made from cuben fiber.  One is a zippered ditty bag (6.5” x 5”) which comes with a small loop of lashing which means it can be fastened to the outside of a pack, branch, shower head, or ridgeline without a fuss.  This is great for anyone who doesn't want to deal with a draw string and wants a shallower and wider option to more easily see the contents of the bag.  The second is a 10” x 3.3” stake bag.  Having a place to store dirty shelter stakes without using a plastic bag or other option which does nothing but puncture or spread soil around is a great help.  At 2-6 grams, they are unnoticeable, and at $15-$16, they are quite affordable.

Happy trails.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper

In the not too distant past, I raved about a very small cottage manufacturer of sleeping pads.  I won’t mention the company here, because unfortunately the owner/operator fell behind on his work and his solution was to keep taking orders (customer money) without providing a product.  His business is now defunct.

One of the products he offered was something that the industry hadn’t seen – an inflatable sleeping pad that tapered both vertically and in width and length.  It meant you could get a ton of cushioning and girth around your torso and have it taper down at the knees where padding, width and extra weight simply isn’t necessary.  By the time his business closed, he was adding synthetic insulation to it which made the pad into a 4-season option.  I had one of his prototypes and the valve simply never worked.  Other than the valve though, it was beautiful and was hands-down my favorite pad.  I returned it to him for a new valve and never saw the pad again.

Several years passed since then and I’m pleased to announce that Gossamer Gear has partnered with Klymit to offer the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper.  Like the prototype I miss so dearly, the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper also tapers both vertically and in width and length.  It comes in 4 sizes and ranges from 7.2oz to 13.80oz.  Pricing is $82 to $99.


·         XLARGE - 28" Wide tapering to 19"  X   56" Long  X  2.5" tapering to 1.5" in height

·         LARGE - 21" Wide tapering to 14.5"  X  56" Long  X  2.5" tapering to 1.5" in height

·         MEDIUM - 21" Wide tapering to 14.5"  X  48" Long  X  2.5" tapering to 1.5" in height

·         SMALL - 21" Wide tapering to 14.5"  X  36"  Long  X  2.5" tapering to 1.5" in height

While the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper is not insulated, it works just fine for 2-3 season use as-is, or a simple foam pad can be added for increased warmth.

Gossamer Gear includes a patch kit and extra valve with purchase.

One thing I really like about the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper is that it has tabs on the side for quilt users to be able to secure their quilt to the pad - a great feature for those of us in the lightweight backpacking community.

I like the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper quite a bit, but there are some drawbacks.  First, I’m not aware of a creative solution to blow it up without using my mouth which means it gains condensation fairly quickly.  Second, while it is refreshing that different sizes are offered, I’d like to see one that was considerably wider.  At 6’5” and 280 pounds, I wear a 54 wide jacket which means I’m very broad shouldered.  I figured the 28” wide XLARGE would suit me just fine, but it isn’t quite big enough as the pad loses measurable width when inflated.

Regardless, Gossamer Gear has introduced another great product and I truly hope it evolves into a padded and wider product that will stay on the market.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Michael Dally with Earth Runners was kind enough to send me sample of their new Bio Earth Runners Sandal which is currently associated with a Kickstarter campaign.  If you choose to contribute, sandals start at $60 (or 20% off).  Orders will be taken throughout December and dispatched in January.  After January, they will be available on the Earth Runner website (


The footwear industry over the last several years has been pressing consumers to try footwear with less padding ultimately mimicking a barefoot walking style.  There are many clever names for this movement, but the concept remains the same.  The spirit of this movement is the belief that by walking closer to the ground and having less robust footwear, the foot is strengthened and walking consciousness and body mechanics are improved.


What put Earth Runners on the map is that they uniquely focused their initial product offerings on being connected to the Earth’s electrical potential by strategically placing copper insets throughout a self-molding conductive sandal sole.  The copper insets curve at the toe base in the shape of the geometric concept called “Golden Mean”.  This shape, coupled with the copper insets, allowed for pressure to be placed on areas of the foot sole believed to offer self-healing effects similar to those achieved by acupuncture.  While wearing a pair of Earth Runners associated with this technology, Voltmeter tests confirmed the charge of the human body is negligible while wearing grounded footwear on the Earth’s naturally conductive surface – the same electrical potential as the Earth.


The Bio Earth Runners Sandal is the next iteration of minimalist footwear inspired by long distance runner.   With a custom molded sole and “zero drop” from heel to toe, the experience is similar to going barefoot while maintaining safety in varied terrains.  The foundation provided is stable.  Copper impregnated conductive laces attach to a copper plug on the bottom of the sandal allowing similar attributes to the conductive sandal soles as described above.   The Tactile Mitosis tread is made of moldable EVA (6mm) and the BioTac bedding is made of recycled car tires.


One of the unique features of the Bio Earth Runners Sandal is the lacing system.  Nylon webbing is routed through the sandal bed, around the big toe and ankle and is ultimately secured with a locking buckle.  It is entirely adjustable, although it is likely they will fit just fine out of the box.


While not necessary, Earth Runners offer Injinji socks whether to improve comfort or to keep feet warmer during cooler temperatures.


In the last two years, I’ve been asked to review three different sandals which were very similar to the Bio Earth Runners Sandal.  After receiving and fiddling with each, I decided to return them as I didn’t feel my finicky feet justified an extended trial and quite honestly – I didn’t find them comfortable.  Largely, I have fairly wimpy feet and prefer more coverage and greater padding in most circumstances.  I was pleasantly surprised when I tried the Bio Earth Runners Sandal.


As advertised, the Bio Earth Runners Sandal both immediately contoured to my foot and I didn’t need to adjust anything.  I elected to use Injinji socks initially due to my lack of foot machismo, but found them comfortable with or without.  They were quite stable in all environments and the traction, something that lacked in every other sandal I’ve tried, was significant.  I found myself thinking about other things rather than worrying about whether my foot was comfortable or if I’d slip.  Essentially, my experience was walking as if I was barefoot without the fuss of being concerned about stepping on something undesirable or the sandal slipping out from under me.  I hope this is interpreted as a high complement to be able to rely on a piece of gear without giving thought to its failure. 


This was also my first use of Injinji socks which I assumed wouldn’t be comfortable because I figured my toe shape wouldn’t be conducive to the unique “finger” design.  I was equally surprised that they proved to be out-of-sight and out-of-mind once properly snugged over each toe.  Pairing them with a sandal is very appropriate in my opinion, although vocal fashionistas may disagree.


In the lightweight backpacking world, I can perceive quite a few applications for the Bio Earth Runners Sandal.  First, there are plenty who would enjoy the simplicity and near weightlessness.  Others would take pride in being able to walk through varied terrain, including forging waterways, without stopping to swap-out or dry-out footwear.  Some would likely enjoy the fact that their feet wouldn’t be as susceptible to sweating and resulting blisters or the dinginess that sticks with more conventional footwear.  Finally, others would likely enjoy simple and lightweight footwear to do double-duty as camp-footwear or for water crossings.  Bottom line – this is a useful product for lightweight backpackers and my only suggestion for improvement is for a slightly longer webbing tag to allow for finite adjustments as desired.


By supporting the Kickstarter campaign, materials and manufacturing costs are kept to a minimum.  You also help towards the down-payment of a new manufacturing facility and legal expenses to get this endeavor off the ground.  Earth Runners offers a 30-day money-back guarantee – so what’s not to like?


(Disclosure: This product was provided to me free-of-charge for the purposes of this review and is owned by me.  However, any information contained herein is my personal opinion without bias.)