Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Merino Wool vs. Capilene (Synthetic)

I wanted to mention a topic of conversation I hear frequently with regards the benefits of base layers such a Patagonia Capilene (synthetic) versus merino wool products. Worth mentioning is that there are a ton of other options on the market to include high-tech moisture wicking materials, anti-odor materials, materials under development by NASA and the U.S. military to allow the person wearing them to control their thermoregulation and stink for prolonged periods, etc. My point with this blog was merely to identify a quick list of pro’s and con’s regarding Capilene and merino wool so the user can make an educated decision. Many people are polarized on their opinion regarding this topic, but many don't seem to understand the rationale of choosing one over another. My opinion on both has changed over the years as I learned about which option works best in different situations and wanted to pass this knowledge along.

So why should anyone care about a good base layer? Simply, a base layer is supposed to manage thermoregulation and moisture. When either is out of whack, you will be too. For example, what is more important in rainy or wet conditions – to avoid moisture or to avoid getting cold? 99.9% of the time, the answer is pretty simple – to avoid getting cold. After all, you can be plenty fine while wet, but you’ll be plenty dead when cold. A functional base layer works to manage your body’s temperature, first and foremost, but also to avoid prolonged wetness which can evolve into all kinds of nasty skin/health conditions in addition to cooling you off. Other than thermoregulation, the other key word when describing the importance of a base layer is “wicking” which is nothing more than the movement of moisture away from your body.

The argument in support of merino wool is a popular forum topic which has emerged in recent years because of the legitimate science behind it and the popularity of some mainstream backpacking notables who support its use. The emergence of merino wool versus straight wool has dramatically changed the texture and comfort of wool products which were generally known to be extremely warm, but also extremely uncomfortable and itchy. Most will claim wool is vastly superior when it comes to odor control which is the chief reason it gains so much support. It also offers decent warmth to weight ratio, breathes better than most synthetics, and actually repels moisture a little better due to its fiber structure as merino wool is naturally wicking while synthetic materials generally are not. In fact, most synthetic materials receive a treatment to ensure they adequately transport moisture. In untreated areas or when the treatment wears off, the material begins to retain moisture. Probably of no surprise is the reality that the thinner (more fine) of a material, the greater the likelihood is for it to transport moisture more efficiently. This is true for nearly any fabric. As part of the transport and thermoregulation process, wool essentially absorbs moisture while synthetics allow moisture to run over it instead of through it. Wool also takes a little longer for the user to feel wet because it absorbs the moisture inside the fiber instead of merely running it across the fiber. Unfortunately, merino wool is usually very expensive and rips easily. Some report being allergic to merino products which is generally noted by redness or skin irritation causing the user to itch.

Capilene, however, dries roughly 50% quicker and it has a better warmth to weight ratio, although it feels cooler when wet because it is lighter and more air permeable. It is less costly and won’t rip as easily. Some report it feels clammy when wet. Some Capilene and similar synthetic products use silver treatments on the material or within the materials fibers to make it odor resistant. When it comes to a true measurement of “stink”, it should be noted that body odor in fabric is essentially bacteria. Wool is anti-bacterial by nature whereas synthetic materials are not and therefore wool wins this aspect. As of now, I haven't heard of anyone claiming alergies from Capilene products, although there could be.

In summary, Capiline is lighter, less costly, more durable, dries quicker, and offers decent warmth and stink control. Merino wool is generally more comfortable, offers superior odor control, and wicks better (naturally). It is also a natural material, but one which some may cause some to have an allergic reaction.

So which is better? The answer is that it depends on your preference, function, environment, and wallet...much like most gear. I use both on and off. I think in most conditions, especially prolonged activity over several days, I favor merino wool for its inherent odor control and comfort. When exposed to extreme cold or endless rain, synthetic is generally my choice. Capilene is a mainstay in my sleeping gear as I know sleeping isn't an activity where it is going to get wet or stinky and I’d rather carry the lightest option. Regardless of which I choose, I like light colors in summer and when it's buggy, and dark colors at all other times. The light color is cooler in the summer and doesn't attract as many bugs, and the dark color absorbes more light and thereby helps dry the fabric more quickly (and may retain a little extra heat too).

So – that’s my two cents.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The "Best" Lightweight 4-Season Tent


As I sit here typing this blog, I’m looking at 24” of snow which was dumped in central Virginia in addition to the rest of the eastern states. My back is aching from shoveling and my car will go absolutely no where until a snow plow visits my small and rural residential community. Unlike even a single other person on my street, I got the bright idea to set up my tent the night before the storm so I could gain some additional experience camping in snow and cold conditions. My wife and the closest neighbor within view apparently exchanged several phone calls throughout the evening which generally went something like this: (Neighbor) “Is your idiot husband still outside?” (Wife) “Yes, my idiot husband is still outside?” (Neighbor and Wife while slapping forehead) “What an idiot!”.

After getting rid of my GoLite Shangri-La 2 floorless tent following an evening in another storm in which I accidentally kicked out my supportive trekking pole resulting in the whole structure falling down on me, I’ve been using an older tent I have while contemplating my options for its replacement. The older tent is an 8 pound North Face which I will not be carrying anywhere for any great distance. It’s a good tent, but entirely too heavy and the Shangri-La was supposed to be my solution. Unfortunately, at 6’6”, the Shangri-La simply wasn’t long enough which is a running theme in my life regarding gear.

I’m not a huge snow camper for lots of reasons. First, Virginia isn’t known for season long accumulations of snow and therefore I don’t get a lot of experience as I don't frequently make it out of Virginia. The ski resorts Virginia has actually makes most of its own snow. Second, snow camping is still something I find pretty difficult - meaning I don’t like being unable to travel as much as I’d like and I have personal issues with so little sun during the day as I feel like the day is over just as I get started. Nonetheless, I study the heck out of gear just as personal interest. In this case, it will help me decide what 4-season tent is the best option for me. I wanted to pass along my personal choice for an excellent 4-season tent in the event that some of you may be in the same boat and need a lightweight and functional option.

First and foremost, I’ll go ahead and directly mention the extremely popular manufacturer Tarp Tent and Henry Shire’s various solutions for 4-season shelters. I love Henry’s stuff, but, for example, his extremely popular "Moment" just isn’t strong enough to really handle legitimate snow load. It will handle the generic snow storm many of us would likely experience and it is priced very competatively, so perhaps I'm being overly critical. Oware, Black Diamond, and others have pyramid floorless options which are pretty popular too, but again the surface area lengthwise usually isn't enough and I also don’t like the rigging required on the center pole to achieve its full height.

So what is my choice? The Stephenson’s Warmlite tent (www.warmlite.com/tents.htm). WARNING….as I mentioned on an earlier blog, the Stephenson’s are/were nudists, so plan on seeing some colorful pictures in addition to their lengthy and difficult to follow narratives. Regardless of their unusual approach to business, if you have the money, I just haven’t found a better engineered and lightweight solution which offers such a great space to weight ratio. Quite honestly, they are a solid option for year round backpacking too. These tents are elliptical shaped which helps a great deal in wind and offers unsurpassed strength and space. It also comes with lots of options in addition to overall size, colors, wind stabilizers, windows, larger entry points, vestibules, vents, etc.

So how light is it? Well, for the model I like, the two-person 2R, it comes in at an astoundingly low 2.75 pounds…and that’s for a double-wall genuine 4-season tent. When compared to Tarp Tent's Moment, the 2R is taller by an inch, wider by 20"-40", longer by 5", comes with a larger vestibule, is capable of handling greater snow loads, is arguably better ventilated, and fits two people instead of one. But....it is also nearly $300 more expensive than the Moment and comes in at around a pound heavier. Stephenson also offers a similar single-wall two-person tent which comes in at a mere 2.33 ounces! One of the reasons I like the double wall is because Stephenson lines it with a reflective barrier which helps keep wind out while preserving interior warmth (it also acts as a well need vapor barrier). It blocks out some light, but that’s one of the reasons why the user can pick their own color as it affords them the ability to lighten the interior color (and exterior) as they see fit. Personally, I’m a big fan of light green on the outside and yellow on the inside as it hides better in the woods and offers decent interior light. Stephenson's offers tents for 2, 3, and 5 people, all at very reasonable weights. If you've got the money to spend, want the extra room, and need something that will truly stand up to the elements, consider the Stephenson's Warmlite tent.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Walkumentary

Over the course of 2009 I had the opportunity to read several great backpacking books and also watch a handful of backpacking DVD’s. Having only minimal time to backpack, I find these resources help fuel my interest and allow me to live vicariously through the accomplishments of others.

One DVD I recently watched was “The Walkumentary” (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/walkumentary_dvd.html) in which Lawston “Disco” Grinter takes video of his 2,800 mile thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Near the end of the video, Disco and four friends crown one another with makeshift crowns to recognize their accomplishment of successfully hiking the Triple Crown (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and CDT).

The extremely small number of people who have completed the Triple Crown have accomplished quite an amazing and impressive feat in my eyes. If I’m being honest, I’m quite jealous that they have the time, money, support, and ability to do it as each of those things have long since been crutches of my own and excuses for me being unable to meet similar goals. With most of my time being spent on the Appalachian Trail, I sought out to ask Disco for his impression of the AT versus the CDT and PCT in terms of difficulty, resupply, water availability, etc. I was also curious how he found the time and money to do it. After doing a quick internet search, I found his blog and he was kind enough to respond to my e-mail. Below are his comments:

I think that mile-for-mile, the AT is the toughest on the body and the PCT is the easiest on the body. The CDT, especially in Montana, is really brutal. Lots of up and down, just like the AT, and the lack of maintained trail and in some cases non-existent trail make it the toughest state to hike in on the entire Triple Crown in my humble opinion. The CDT is a good bit easier in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico though. The AT is consistently tough from Georgia to Maine.

The AT is easiest to get water. The southern California section of the PCT in dry years can result in hikers carrying large amounts of water. In 2004, I carried 7 liters out of one spot. In 2008, which was a much wetter year, the most I carried in southern Cali was 3.5 liters. It really depends on the year with the PCT. New Mexico is known to have some long water carries but in the Fall of 2006 when we hiked thru, the most water we carried was 2.5 liters. Mainly because it's a good bit chillier in the desert in the fall. If we had hiked New Mexico in the Spring, it would have been a bit tougher.

Weather . . . the AT has the most rain . . . hands down. The western states are just plain drier. On the PCT in 2008, we didn't get any rain at all until central Washington. Not a drop. We walked from Mexico to central Washington completely free of rain. That'd be the equivalent of walking from Springer to say Gorham without any rain. Having said that, I've been in some brief but violent weather on the CDT . . . thunder, lightning, hail with 50+ mph winds. In 2004 on the PCT it rained 3 out of every 4 days for the last month on the trail. But the AT consistently gets more rain than the CDT/PCT.

Resupply . . . the CDT has the toughest resupply. Especially in Montana/Idaho where you will hike 5 days, hitch 20 miles down to the nearest town and have a convenience store to resupply from for the next 5 days. Lots of mail drops take care of this tough resupply situation on the CDT.

I've logged about 12,000 miles since 1999. I've been able to find the time and the money to do this amount of hiking because I made it basically my #1 priority. Out of that 12,000, I've done four 2,000+ mile hikes. Each time I was in a transition period of sorts. When I hiked the AT, I was just out of college. My first PCT hike, I quit a job. My CDT hike, I had just moved to Colorado and wasn't tied to a job. My second PCT hike, I left a seasonal job. Moneywise . . . I saved money like it was my job. I made saving money for the next big hike a priority. I also got smarter on the trail. I spent $4,500 during my first PCT hike and $2,100 during my second. Staying away from towns and hotels resulted in the bulk of my savings on my second PCT hike.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Lightweight Food Options


A couple years ago I purchased a dehydrator because I was convinced I was going to be backpacking on a near daily basis. After all, dehydrating is what “real backpackers” did and that was my goal. Well, marriage, kids, and eternal responsibility have a way of clarifying reality. In as much as I’d like to use the dehydrator for the backpacking trips I am able to schedule in the midst of balancing life, I use it a lot less than I expected both because it is a bit of a hassle and often I just don’t have the time to deal with it. When I’m pinched for time or need something quick, my options for trail food either include food from the local grocery store or lightweight options available from online sources.

With that, I thought I’d mention a few food sites offering lightweight options which I enjoy.

Both Enertia Trail Foods (http://www.trailfoods.com/#) and Pack-It Gourmet (http://www.packitgourmet.com/) are likely the best known dehydrated vendors aside from those at REI. To me anyway, these meals taste better and offer solid nutrition.

Harmony House Foods (http://www.harmonyhousefoods.com/) offers quite a bit of stuff which includes sizeable portions of only add-in (i.e. beans, spices, tomatoes, cheese, butter powder, etc.). Much like Just Veggies (http://www.justtomatoes.com/), they offer items which are nice contributions to any meal and can be used to add taste, nutrition, or just to mix it up.

Aside from, well, “permanently borrowing” (i.e. stealing) from fast food vendors, have you ever wondered where you can get single use packets of things like salt, pepper, relish, mustard, etc.? The answer is Minimus Biz (http://www.minimus.biz/).

If you’re looking for a healthier version of jerky, check out Paleokits (http://paleokits.bigcartel.com/) who sell jerky, nuts, and berries with less sugar and carbs.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Meal Pack (http://mealpack.com/) offers meal replacement options in the form of a bar the size of a standard Cliff Bar. It is packed with calories and might be a good idea if you need to boost your energy with a mega dump of calories (energy). It might also be a decent emergency food option in case you are late making it off the trail.

Few products offer the punch of necessary fat and calories in a lightweight package like peanut butter. If you want to carry something with differing tastes in a single serving container, check out Justin’s Nut Butter ( http://www.justinsnutbutter.com/).

All of these vendors are identified on the side of my blog in addition to many other links which might help you on your backpacking journey.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

World's Lightest Tent


What does the World’s Lightest Tent weigh? Well, the answer is apparently 9.2 oz in Cuben and 12.5 oz in sil-nylon.

A manufacturer, who I will respect and not name on my blog until it becomes public, has made a one-person full coverage tent (see below for an update). And no, it is not Six Moon Designs...although like the Refuge-X by SMD, this tent cuts weight through the use of Cuben fiber. To cut even more weight, the manufacturer used nanoseeum mosquito netting for both the windows and the floor. Basically, it is a Cuben tarp with mosquito netting everywhere else. It is 9’ long by 4.5’ wide and 45” tall. The extra length affords storage space for your gear. Three sides go completely to the ground while the other remains open with only a beak. In bad weather without adjustment, wind and water could be a factor. In good weather, ventilation and views can't be beat.

Six stakes and one trekking pole are required to set it up and it has been tested, with success, on a CDT thru-hike this year. A couple prototypes have also been thoroughly tested. It will be called the “Hexamid” and a two-person version is in the works.

The Cuben version runs $255 and $195 for the sil-nylon. You can also purchase just the tarp for $145 (3 oz) in Cuben and $85 (6.2 oz) in sil-nylon.

Gotta have it? This shelter will likely go on sale in December, although more colors (white, blue, and green) will start being available in January.



…and for those who were waiting for Six Moon Designs to re-release the Cuben fiber Refuge-X as well as the new “Vamp” for tall hikers, below is an exerpt from SMD’s website:

THE REFUGE-X and CUBEN FIBER (http://community.sixmoondesigns.com/blogs/ronmoak/archive/2009/11/25/closeout-products.aspx)

Over the last year we've had numerous inquiries about the status or future of the Refuge X. I've tried to respond to all questions, but wanted to deliver a more formal response in this post.


We've received lots of feedback from those who purchased the limited number of Refuge X tents we produced. The original idea was to incorporate that feedback into an updated version of the Refuge X. Sometime early this year I realized that if generate a new Cuben Fiber based product, we'll need to significantly alter our production method. One of the original goals for the Cuben shelter was to see if we could incorporate Cuben into a normal production with minimum changes to the production process.


While the Refuge X worked out pretty well, I felt we could do better. So for our next Cuben Fiber model we'll be making significant changes to the production method. We've been too busy lately for me to work out the details on how to best accomplish this.


I've incorporated Cuben Fiber in the design of one of our new shelters for next year. The first version of it will be available in standard silicone nylon. Sometime after the first of the year I plan to sit down and work out the manufacturing details of turning it into Cuben Fiber.


So the bottom line is that we're not abandoning Cuben Fiber, we're simply delaying it until we can release something that meets or highest standards.



First on the design board was the Vamp solo shelter. One of the first criteria for a solo shelter was to provide a comfortable and roomy shelter for tall people. With an overall floor length of 107", the vamp has plenty of stretch out space for the tallest hikers.


I also wanted a shelter that provided ample headroom when sitting up. So we set the support poles three feet apart to maximize the head room. This also has the benefit of making the side walls almost vertical. Which allows for greater interior volume and a smaller space.

The side entry of the Vamp makes getting in and out a breeze. Plus its oversized opening allows for a greater view. With the Vamp we separated the two functions, weather protection and bug protection, into two components, tarp and nettent.


If you're hiking outside of the bug season, you may simply carry the tarp and have a large roomy and secure shelter. Unlike traditional tarps, the Vamp provides full protection at a measly 16 ounces.


Another key component of the tarp / nettent combo is their easy at being mated together. When setting up the combined pair, you first setup the tarp. Then with your shelter secure from the rain, you can easily setup the interior NetTent. The reverse is true when taking down your shelter in a morning rainstorm. This way your inner tent will always remain dry.

The design of the Vamp makes it less prone to problems associated with shifting wind patterns during the night. On setup, one would typically set the pointed end into the prevailing winds. However, with the Vamp, any change in wind direction will have scant effects on your nights comfort.

Together the Vamp Tarp at 16 ounces and the Vamp NetTent at 10 ounces weigh in at a combined weight of 26 ounces. This is a remarkable weight for a very roomy one man double wall shelter. For those wishing to save a few more ounces. The Vamp Tarp will work well with the Meteor Bivy.


The Vamp is also scheduled to start shipping in the first quarter of 2010.
(The tent on the left is the SMD Vamp. The tent on the right is the super ultralight Cuben by.....)

(UPDATE 12/12/09 - If you notice in the comments section, the manufacturer stopped by and didn't have any problems identifying himself. So, for those of you who have read this far, the manufacturer is zpacks at www.zpacks.com, although you may not see it on his site just yet. I had one of the Hexamid prototypes and decided not to keep it. At 6'6" and 285, I simply felt I was too big for it. Despite it being 9' long, the pitch of the tarp was either touching or very close to touching my face and feet 100% of the time. To avoid it, I moved over and the result was that I was on the edge which meant rain and rain spatter would likely bother me. In the end, I'm going to hold out for the two person version. In the same breath, I think this ultralight tent would be a great option for minimalist backpackers who are of average size. Its design really brings forth a whole new concept for lightweight shelters. If you're wondering, no I wasn't concerned about a floor of mosquito netting. As Joe Valesko says, it is more durable than you think. A simple ground cloth of polycryo or tyvek is plenty.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ultralight Pillows


Sleeping in the backcountry can be a challenge without the right gear. Sleep system components must consider ground comfort, warmth, protection from elements (and possibly animals), and often something to cradle your head. Lightweight backpackers have been known to cut any pillow from their gear list and substitute a rolled up jacket, stuff sack, or even a flexible water bladder instead. Some find this comfortable and some don’t. If you’re looking for something a little more substantial which won’t add too many ounces, here are some to think about.

Lighter than those offered by Thermarest or off the shelf at Walmart, but one of the heavier lightweight pillows, is the Cocoon UL Air Pillow which is $19 / 13”x17” / 3.7oz and can be found at http://www.basegear.com/cocoon-ultralight-air-core-pillow.html. This is a very comfortable pillow, but it might be a little heavier than you’d like. Comfort is comfort though, and it might work for you.

A popular mainstream pillow is the Montbell UL Comfort Pillow which is $29.00 / 10.6”x18.5”x3.9” / 2.4oz and can be found at http://www.montbell.us/products/disp.php?p_id=1124290. This is a very durable and long lasting solution. At 2.4 ounces, it is a fair weight for a lightweight pillow, but there are lighter options.

One new vendor which is fairly unknown is Kookabay. This is simply a guy who figured out how to bond materials to form pillows and sleeping pads and is slowly bringing them to market. In my view, he offers likely the lightest and most hearty solution for the weight. That means there are others which are less hearty and more prone to failure and others which are more hearty and unnecessarily heavy. Kookabay’s UL pillow is $30 / 12”x7.5”x3.5” / 1.3oz and can be found at http://kookabay.com/.

There are three pillows offered by BackpackingLight which are worth discussing. They are nothing but disposable hospital pillows and are sold in three packs for the simple reason that they will fail after a handful of uses. Out of those discussed here, these are also the only pillows made of lightweight plastic and don’t have a standard twistable valve. If you’re only using them for a very short period, other than rolling up a jacket or using a stuff sack, these are the lightest option. Quite honestly, they are fairly comfortable too. I’ve found adding a thin 1/4” to 1/8” CCF pad cut to size on top and stuffed into either a shirt or soft pillow case makes it very comfortable and remains lighter than any other option I’ve discussed. BPL pillows include the FlexAir Ultralight Pillow for $10 3-pack / 14.5”x10.5” / .56oz) at http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/flexair_ultralight_pillow.html, the FlexAir Dual Compartment Ultralight Pillow for $13 3-pack / 19”x12.5” / .98oz) at http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/flexair_dual_ultralight_pillow.html, and the FlexAir Plus Ultralight Pillow for $12 3-pack / 19”x12.5”/ .85oz at http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/flexair_plus_ultralight_pillow.html.

UPDATE (23 Feb 2012):
Regrettably, I can no longer recommend or support Kookabay.  In late 2011 and well into 2012, numerous customers came forward to say Kookabay (Ben Neubrander) had defrauded them.  Concerns included taking money for products never provided and providing products with bad valves which were returned for repair and were never repaired (or returned) or refunded.  I was one of those customers.  I attempted to contact Ben numerous times of the last 5 months and he simply did not respond.  Others experienced the same.  He eventually shut down his website and his PayPal account.  It was reported that he had gotten burned out, and just simply walked away without fulfilling his obligations.  Ben had a great product and was plenty fine to deal with when he chose to manage his company responsibly.  It's a shame he experienced some kind of personal hardship, but he did not handle it well.  Simple correspondence with his customers and extended timelines would have likely made everyone happy.  Instead, he just chose to cut and run.  I personally wish him the best and hope to see his products return somewhere, someday, somehow.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stephenson's Warmlite


There’s always a lot of chatter during this time of year regarding ways to keep warm in the cooler months. Most of us know the standard methods which include camping below the treeline on soft ground duff, dressing in layers, stopping drafts, keeping your head covered, drinking something warm or eating spicy foods before going to bed, putting a hot water bottle in your sleep system, and of course getting a warmer sleeping bag or quilt and cozying up to a fire.

Another key method to stay warm is to ensure you have a solid sleeping pad capable of keeping the cold ground from sucking the warmth out of your body. Most people are familiar with r-value and throw it around as if they are pseudo scientists. Most can articulate that it is a measure of thermal resistance with the larger the number translating to the warmer you’ll be. What is missing, however, is the r-value that will keep YOU warm given whatever conditions you're in. Meaning, it is 1, 2, 3, 4? I’m not sure there is a definitive answer other than claims from those who are experienced, but either way many people like to lose sight over the reality that someone sleeping on snow could very well be plenty warm with a sleeping pad with an r-value far less than manufacturers are putting into their sleeping pads. The truth is, you really don’t know until you try. What the r-value tells us is what items are warmer than others and ultimately through thorough testing it tells you what value works for you. Keep in mind, r-value is relevant to clothing, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and anything that will keep you warm.

There are a ton of websites that discuss the relevancy of warmth and ultimately how to achieve it, but my point today was not to address all of these things, but to very briefly mention a rarely discussed manufacturer known as Stephenson’s Warmlite (http://www.warmlite.com/).

All signs point to the fact that this business was started by hippies, or at the very least, nudists. Their lifestyle is inundated throughout their marketing. In addition to pictures that may or may not make you feel uneasy, information on their website, throughout their product guide, and within all distributed literature is a blob of overwhelming information and directions. If you’ve ever seen a large Dr. Bronner’s bottle of soap, you know what I mean. Aside from the unusual marketing, they offer outstanding products from tents, to sleeping bags, and yes, sleeping pads. In fact, their founder was a fairly well known intellectual who talked about r-value, vapor barriers, and the foolishness of crushing down in the 1970's, long before it became popular. Much like many others within the small lightweight backpacking community, their customer service is top notch.

Many have compared the efficacy of sleeping pads and you can find detailed comparative information reflecting r-value, size, cost, etc., on various blogs to include some earlier posts here. The reason I think it is important to mention Stephenson’s Warmlite is because they will make you an air mattress full of high quality down to whatever size you want. They also put extra down in the footbox, something I don't know of anyone else doing. If you’re comparing, for example, one of their stocked items is a 19 ounce Down Air Mattress (DAM) which is the same weight as the biggest NeoAir by Thermarest. If you didn’t care about pack size and were only interested in warmth, the Stephenson’s DAM is substantially warmer than the NeoAir…for the same weight. So while shopping for something to keep you warm in the form of a sleeping pad, don’t forget to take a look at a little know company that makes good high quality gear and offers customizations at your request. Can you stay equally warm with less weight – YES…but it depends on your personal comfort zone within the magical r-value conundrum. If carrying less is your goal, consider layering a 1/4" or 1/8" Gossamer Gear CCF with anything from a NeoAir, Backpackinglight Torsolight, or even a small (or customized) Thermarest Ridge Rest or Ridge Rest Deluxe and you'll be able to sleep quite well in cold temperatures and even snow. Regarding Stephenson's, take a look at their other stuff too, especially their tents as I think many of you would be surprised at their lightweight and very special 4-season designs.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tarp Tent Contrail

Throughout each backpacking year, I often switch between a tarp and fully enclosed shelter. I make this change depending on where I’m backpacking, the weather conditions, the temperature, and even who I’m hiking with as sometimes privacy is nice.

For quite awhile I had been eyeballing Henry Shires Tarp Tent Contrail (http://www.tarptent.com/contrail.html). It was extremely light at 24.5 ounces and quite honestly I thought it was a pretty fair price at $199 considering other tents on the market. Set up requires four stakes, one trekking pole, and with that it is possible to achieve 45” on headroom entrance, 84” of length, and 42/30 inches of width (it tapers towards the feet).

The Contrail represents Shire’s best selling tent which he attributes to the fact that it is extremely lightweight and a fully enclosed shelter for one person. I had held off buying it for about a year because I simply didn’t think it would be big enough for me at 6’6”. To be quite honest, I was waiting for Six Moon Designs to come out with their redesigned version of the two-person 16 ounce cuben fiber Refuge-X or even SMD’s new solo tent for taller hikers known as the “Vamp”. But, design and production were delayed and the previously scheduled release date of fall 2009 was tentatively pushed to spring/summer 2010. I had also been trying to figure out if Gossamer Gear’s The One would fit a person my size and the results weren’t promising enough to buy it. The only other shelter I was looking at was Gossamer Gear’s Squall Classic which was essentially a Tarp Tent/Gossamer Gear joint venture which resulted in a Tarp Tent made of spinnaker fabric that brought the weight down considerably. Unfortunately, it also brought the price up fairly substantially and I didn’t want to buy something that was so expensive which wasn’t guaranteed to work. In the end, it was worth it to me to give the Contrail a shot.

Worth mentioning is Shire’s continued excellent customer service and impressive quality. I’ve always appreciated his product because of his dedication and being quite humble about it. Simply, he is exactly what the lightweight backpacking cottage industry needs. Within just a couple days of ordering, the Contrail arrived and I remain pleased that Shire’s keeps a stock of his products to prevent customers from waiting for their gear to be made.

I immediately set the Contrail up in my basement to quickly assess whether it would fit someone my size. I used a couple of dumbbells to act as tie-outs which are uniquely designed to be completely and easily adjustable which makes it extremely easy to get a taut pitch. If it didn’t immediately fit me size, I was going to return it and Shire’s was plenty fine with that. After setting it up I was pleasantly surprised by the well engineered lines of the structure and the general appearance of quality. Without being overly descriptive, it is exactly what the name implies – a “tarp tent”. It is literally a tarp with a small amount of mosquito netting on the sides, front, and back for ventilation which is attached to a silnylon floor. It has a couple of pockets on the inside, a small vestibule on the outside, and a little flap by the footbox which can be opened or closed to achieve more ventilation or to seal it up in foul weather. Flatly, it is pretty ingenious.

To my surprise, I fit lengthwise and there was actually plenty of elbow room near the entrance. I could sit up at the front, albeit hunched over a bit, with minimal contact to the pitch of the ceiling. Being that this is a truly minimalist shelter, for what it represents, I honestly think would be a perfect shelter for an average-sized camper and a tolerable shelter for bigger folks. If there was a little more height at the front and foot end, I actually might think it was perfect. Pitching it on a level surface meant that all conditions were highly controlled. On a hill, I would likely find the length a bit tight if I slid during my sleep, but this could be mitigated by both finding good tent sites and adding some sealant to the floor to make it a little less slippery. Having done both, I haven’t had a problem yet with the length.

With that, I decided to add the Contrail to my backpacking shelter arsenal. I seam sealed it in the manner suggested by Shires, although it does look like Helen Keller and Stevie Wonder may have tag-teamed the effort. Over time I realized that the single trekking pole necessary to maintain the height at the front entrance could be pulled off to the side. My second trekking pole could be pulled off to the other side which would then create an unobstructed entrance with equal or greater stability and it would also ensure I didn’t accidentally role over my other trekking pole and break it or otherwise allow it to be available to critters who might choose to nibble on the salt in the handstraps.

Aside from the height, which may be fine for smaller people, I only have two complaints. I found that my quilt touched the ceiling at the footbox when I used a fully inflated sleeping pad like the NeoAir. By touching the ceiling, it meant that my quilt would get wet. Because the sleeping area is fairly small, my top entrance bivy wasn’t something I could realistically use as there was no way I could wiggle down into it, so my solution was to put my rain skirt over my feet and that worked fine. When I used my CCF pad and pack under my feet, which is what I use 99.9% of the time anyway, this was not an issue. If you look at Shires' newest offerings, he is now using a curved stay at the footbox of most of his latest tents and I read somewhere that this feature will be on all his new tents as it greatly opens space for minimal weight. Adding a feature like this to the Contrail would be a nice option, although I'm pretty sure a tent similar to the Contrail with this feature would be sold as another tent with other minor differences.

During one hellacious rain and wind storm while on the Appalachian Trail recently, the front vestibule did blow open. The front vestibule is designed to be off the ground several inches to aid in ventilation. With this gap, it is susceptible to strong winds. I sealed it again, which is nothing more than a strip of Velcro, and had no further problems. I should mention I remained completely dry in the rain and tough winds. The silnylon fabric is susceptible to mist and such, but it does not drip down.

On Shire’s website he lists the tent as having variable width and somewhat variable height at the footbox. Essentially, the variable width isn’t realistic as he is counting area which includes mosquito netting on the sides. Obviously anyone who wants to keep their tent in good shape isn’t going to lay on the mosquito netting for any length of time. Similarly, the floor is a genuine bathtub floor which means it does great in wet conditions and can’t really be folded down to expand the width being that it is sewn at the corners. Basically, it’s wishful thinking to say the width is adjustable because it really isn’t. The footbox height, on the other hand, is adjustable. The footbox sits on struts which can be raised or lowered depending on the users preference. After tinkering with it several times, I found a spot somewhere in the middle and just left it alone from there on out believing that additional adjustments just weren’t worth it after a long day hiking.

In the end, the Contrail is a wonder and lightweight 3-season full coverage tent. My only legitimate desire is that it were a little bigger overall, but then again at my size this tends to be my wish for just about everything. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a quality piece of gear at a reasonable price.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Snow Camping at Big Meadows



video
After a 30 mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail with some friends last week, this weekend my wife and I camped at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. Unlike out west or New England, Virginia doesn’t normally pick up snow until late December or January/February. As such, it was a complete surprise to both of us when the forecast mentioned there was definitely going to be precipitation which meant snow as Virginia was experiencing an unusual cold snap. The result was non-stop snow all weekend which resulted in about 6” and effectively shut down the roads on Skyline Drive. The snow and ice also scared away most people who had reservations during mid-October, the peak leaf-peeping season, which meant those who decided to brave the conditions had a wonderful time to see the park during a really great time with limited population. Worth mentioning is how well the Park Service did to treat and clear the roads later in the weekend as well as the great service provided by Aramark whose employees are familiar with finding a way to work even in difficult conditions.

The video shows a deer within a few feet of our tent which woke me up on Sunday morning. Outside of camera range were six others which surrounded our camp. This experience is part of the magic of Big Meadows as deer sightings within camp, and usually within a few feet of someone with a camera, are very typical. It’s a great place to go for anyone who wants to get closer to nature and a quick way to ensure children find immediate enjoyment. Other than deer, I’ve seen black beer, turkey, bobcat, coyotes, foxes, possum, rabbits, frogs, hawks, owls, and other wildlife just about every time I visit.

If you want a quick escape and one which is guaranteed to bring an immediate smile to your face, try Big Meadows. You’ll not only enjoy the wildlife, but you’ll learn about the history of the Park, the history of the Indians and mountain folk who were essentially kicked out when the land was dedicated as a National Park, the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Park who literally broke their backs to build the Park, and the unique nature of the meadow itself which boasts and endless supply of amazing plants and flowers which have a history of their own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

ULA-Equipment Rain Skirt

One piece of gear that gave me some mental grief was rain gear. I simply couldn’t figure out what I wanted to carry which was lightweight and kept me dry. For a long time I wore Gore-Tex Paclite, which worked fine until I started sweating because it didn't breathe very well. Getting soaked from the inside is just about as bad as being soaked from the outside (although it was warmer...which is actually more important than anything else). Ultimately I didn't like carrying it because I rarely used it and continually thought it wasn’t worth the weight. I then switched to eVENT, which was wonderful, but again I didn’t like carrying the extra weight because it was an item I rarely used. DWR treated garments worked to some extent and were lighter, but often felt clammy or cool and eventually the DWR wore off. Finally I wised up and settled for a DriDuck/Frogg Togg outfit which worked fine as I had no intent on using it for bushwacking and it was both lightweight and highly breathable…not to mention inexpensive.

My choices in rain gear then pushed me in a direction I never thought I’d go – to wearing a skirt. I figured the lightest pair of rain pants was good enough, but the reality was that all rain pants are generally a pain to put on because it required that I take off my shoes. With the exception of those made with extremely breathable fabrics, most were usually hot, didn’t ventilate very well, and cost more than I’d like.

In the end, I settled on the Rain Wrap from ULA-Equipment (http://www.ula-equipment.com/). Now I fully appreciate the fact that a man wearing a skirt comes with it a certain lack of machismo, but the reality is that I choose my backpacking gear by electing for function over fashion. The function of a rain skirt works well, but little did I know the skirt would be one of those multi-use pieces of gear which I simply can’t imagine not carrying at this point. The ULA-Equipment Rain Wrap has many imitators, but I like this version for several reasons. Aside from keeping my legs dry and offering good ventilation, the Rain Wrap can also be unfolded flat to be used as a ground cloth, sleeping system cover for drippy shelters, a modesty wrap when doing laundry and not having a spare piece of clothing, and even a sling. I could envision it as a temporary water container too and other things, but you get my point. It even has a key chain and a small pocket for it to pack into itself into a very small package.

A medium is 2.9oz and $25, a large is 3.2oz and $25, and an XL is 3.7oz and $28… less expensive and more functional than any rain pant that I’ve found.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

J Fit Weight Vest


I don’t hike nearly as much as I’d like principally because there are bills to be paid and mouths to feed. With that said, I often find myself not being in the physical condition I’d like to enable me to hike with ease. Usually somewhere around mile 10, my calves and quads start to burn and the bottom of my feet get fatigued. From that point on my level of enjoyment starts to decrease dramatically.

As much as I’d like to say the remedy for this is merely to hike more, the reality is that I simply don’t have the time right now. Therefore to build leg strength and endurance, my only choice is to exercise the necessary muscle groups when I have the time. Leg lifts, leg presses, dips, lunges, and calf raises are all part of my weight routine, but they haven’t given me as much result as I had hoped. Running, cycling, and elliptical cardio efforts have helped with endurance, but not much with leg strength.

To supplement my leg exercises, I decided to buy a weight vest. The first thing I noticed when looking around was how expensive the vests were and then how much more they were when shipping was included. Since weight generally determines the cost of shipping, this drove the prices up dramatically and made purchasing most vests unrealistic.

One vest I liked in particular was from J Fit. It was a 30 pound neoprene vest which seemed about right for the amount of weight I want my body to get used to carrying. It had padded shoulder straps, adjustable chest straps, and a pocket for a music device. It also came with a highly visible reflective tape which allowed the user to be more visible when wearing it outside. Although I didn’t like the increased “dork” factor, the reality is that reflective tape is a good idea being that if a car was bearing down on me, the weight of the vest itself would definitely slow my lackluster cat-like reflexes and thereby the shimmering of the vest itself may be the only thing saving me from becoming a permanent hood ornament.

Ultimately I found the J Fit vest for $57 and only $15 shipping. The seller used the new U.S. Postal Service boxes to his benefit as the slogan of “if it fits, it ships” meant that he could stuff 30+ pounds in a small box and ship it for a fraction of the cost other vendors were pushing. Granted, when I received the box it was completely demolished, but I got it safe and sound otherwise. I’ve worn it several times for everything from short-term hiking to 3+ mile runs and it works great for its intended purpose. Over time I hope it will help me become a better backpacker.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001P2PUUC/ref=ox_ya_os_product

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

New Gear on the Horizon


Grant Sible with Gossamer Gear was nice enough to provide me with some details about a new tent they are working on. It is currently under the personal development of Glen VanPeski and it sounds like the tent is still undergoing quite a few tweaks and "may" be available in 2010. It is diamond-shaped and sets up with two trekking poles and two stakes (think about that...). Because of the shape, it should be plenty long enough for taller backpackers. Again though, this is in the "maybe" stage. I'm anxious to see how it compares to the new "Vamp" tent from Six Moon Designs which is also supposed to be for taller backpackers and is slotted for release in 2010.
Backpackinglight is putting the final touches on a new backpack. The pack is nearly ready for production with only minor cosmetic changes forthcoming. It is roughly 28 ounces and 40L-45L in capacity. It will come with shoulder straps and hip belts which are modular to fit different body types. It comes with a removable frame, roll top closure, two big outside pockets, and hipbelt pockets. The attached grainy picture is all that I have for now. As mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, BPL is also tinkering with a lightweight tent initially referenced as the "Tartan".
A little known favorite company of mine is PHD Mountain Software (http://www.phdesigns.co.uk/). They make all kinds of extremely high end sleeping bags and clothing options. Their gear is literally second to none and many say it is actually better than other options within the US which are generally considered top notch too. Well, PHD is going to be releasing lightweight quilts in the near future. Because they frequently use 900-down fill, they can offer extremely warm products which are still very lightweight. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this great company and I would imagine they will give Nunatak and Western Mountaineering a bit of competition.
Hopefully 2010 will prove to be a fruitful year for lightweight gear.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Grub Pack

Looking for an alternative to keep animals and critters out of your food supply that isn’t as expensive as a bear canister but is more durable than a simple mesh or plastic bag hung from a tree? Well, try GrubPack (http://www.grubpack.com/).


Grubpack is an animal resistant bag made of stainless steel mesh. It is flexible and durable, although an animal could still crush your food if they wanted to. It comes with a polyester Velcro closure which seals better when wet. It is also UV resistant and comes with a brass grommet for hanging. Use it with something like an OPSAK bag to make it waterproof.


So, how much? 18” x 15” (1,178 cu/in) is $29.99, 18” x 20” (1,864 cu/in) is $32.99, and 18” x 26” (2,275 cu/in) is $35.99.
If you're wondering, Rat Sack also makes a similar product (www.armoredoutdoorgear.com).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Integral Designs Hot Socks


For whatever the reason, I’ve focused a disproportionate amount of time on what socks to carry while backpacking. Whether it was to cut ounces, find something more durable or warmer, or to identify a sock that dealt better with moisture and stink, the reality is that socks and foot care are a terribly important topic while on the trail.

First I made the switch from SmartWool to DarnTough for my daily hiking sock. Then I switched from merely another dry pair for sleeping to PossumDown such as those sold by http://www.chocolatefishmerino.co.uk/ or http://www.shopnewzealand.co.nz/ . I find the PossumDown to be a quite impressive sock overall and the material works well for lightweight beanies and gloves too. It wicks well, retains excellent warmth, doesn’t hold stink like cotton, and it is extremely lightweight considering my intent is merely to use it for sleeping.

Last winter when trying out a hammock and not having the ideal gear for the job, I felt like I wanted something a little more substantial for my feet because my quilt wasn’t sewn with a footbox and I was losing a lot of heat through the bottom of the hammock. I also acknowledged some moisture was coming through the hammock which I wanted to avoid.

My solution was the Integral Designs Hot Sock (http://www.integraldesigns.com/product_detail.cfm?id=681) which at between 4.2-4.9oz (small to x-large) was on par with most standard socks like those sold by REI, SmartWool, DarnTough, etc. The difference was that these hotsocks were insulated with Primaloft offering ½” of loft. The outside of the sock was made of Pertex microfiber which allowed it to repel moisture while ensuring it was highly breathable. The bottom of the sock was reinforced with abrasion resistant 500 denier Cordura which is helpful for late night bathroom runs when putting on a shoes is a hassle.

Basically, they are a very warm, functional, and sensible option for cooler temperatures and run around $45.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Some Time on the Appalachian Trail

video video

Over the Labor Day weekend I was finally able to get out for a brief backpacking trip after rehabbing two bad knees since April and following foot surgery just two weeks ago. It is amazing how quickly the body FORGETS simple things like walking with a pack. This is my polite way of saying that making decent mileage wasn't my friend and I found it to be actually quite difficult to find my trail legs. I'm hoping they'll return soon as it is quite discouraging to be unable to do something I enjoy to the extent I feel I should be able to.

I'm fortunate because I live less than 30 minutes from the Appalachian Trail trailhead in Shenandoah National Park and the AT really never gets old to me as there is always something to see. I often get lots of questions from people who have never seen the AT. Although the attached videos are nothing to write home about, I wanted to show a couple things. First, wildlife is in abundance whether it is the deer (pictured) or an endless number of hawks, owls, butterflies, and all kinds of insects. Basically, the forest is definitely alive and there is never a quiet moment. The first video is of two bucks which were literally standing on the trail about 20 yards in front of me as I rounded a corner. They slowly migrated off to the underbrush as I fumbled to find my camera which meant they were mostly out of sight for a decent photo or video. About 30 yards from them I saw a black bear flipping over rocks looking for grubs, but the video isn't worthwhile to post due to the vegetation. The second video is merely a flat part of the trail that I decided to post principally because I constantly hear debates between tent/tarp supporters and hammock supporters about which system is better, especially for the part of the AT that goes through heavily wooded states like Virginia. The trail I walked today, with exception to the two huts I passed, was completely unsuitable for anything other than a hammock. Although the wildflowers throughout the park made the scenery nice, I started to think long and hard if I was ever going to find a place to stop that didn't require that I hang between two trees.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Lightweight Meal Replacement Option


One aspect of my backpacking experience that I’d like to change is the food I carry both in quantity, weight, quality, and effectiveness. Much like many backpackers, I have a tendency to dehydrate what I can and carry lightweight food options. Unfortunately, these meals are often too bulky, a pain to cook, or otherwise lose their appeal.

Other than not eating, dehydrating, taking less food, or bringing less cooking components, there are two simple ways a lightweight backpacker can lower their pack weight when it comes to meals. The first is to skip bringing meals that require cooking. After all, ounces and even pounds can be saved by leaving a stove and fuel behind. Personally, I like a hot meal at least once a day, so I'm not ready to leave my stove at home all too often. When I do, it is often in favor of a fire to cook food anyway. The second method to lighten packweight is to skip a formal lunch and instead eat calorie dense (high energy) snacks throughout the day which is more common as snacks such as nuts can provide more punch than a more formal meal.

One vendor that specializes in replacing meals at minimum weight is Meal Pack (http://www.mealpack.com/). Meal Pack offers a variety of bar-like food items which weigh in at +/- 3 oz. Unlike other snack bars, these bars serve as a nutrition replacement for an entire meal and in the neighborhood of 450+ calories per bar. That’s roughly 150 calories per ounce…which isn’t too bad considering it is more or less an entire meal packed with vitamins and amino acids for about $1.29 per bar. Just think - a packable “meal” around 3 oz for 450 calories at a mere $1.29. Not too shabby. It also cuts down on bulk and the nuisance of trying to grab little things like M&Ms or peanuts. I eat mine over a period of time and not all at once as I really don't want all that energy all at once. I think the only down side is variety in taste as often it is nice to eat many different things for the same snacking period to keep your tastebuds happy.

I first heard of Meal Pack while reading the gear list for Triple-Crown lightweight backpacking adventurer and author Francis Tapon (http://www.francistapon.com/). Well, if it is good enough for him, I figure it is probably good enough for others out there who have a need for dense calories in a tasty lightweight package.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

GoLite...Now for BIG/TALL Folks (Sort of)

I'd like to think my endless pestering of GoLite (http://www.golite.com/) to offer XXL and long's motivated them to finally do it. Regardless of why, I'm happy to report that GoLite is now offering XXL's in apparel. Hopefully they will make their packs and sleep systems longer too.

GoLite is really a pioneer in the lightweight backpacking movement and heavily impacted by one of the premier lightweight founders - Ray Jardine - who had a great influence on the design of gear and its overall function. When GoLite started, it faced a huge hurdle against mainstream manufacturers and they clearly were able to persevere.

Although GoLite nowadays seems to be offering products a little heavier than I'd like when compared to their past history, they continue to offer excellent products which often aren't as hard on the budget as some other smaller cottage industry manufacturers. Check out GoLite.com to see their new website and many new products.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lightweight Stuff Sacks

True lightweight backpackers will generally tell you that a stuff sack is nothing more than unnecessary ounces. After all, a simple trash bag liner in your pack will do fine to keep everything safe and dry. Although this is true for the most part, few things are more annoying to me than emptying out my entire pack to find something that shifted to the bottom. It’s also aggravating to be unable to keep certain gear together. Sure cooking gear can be kept in a pot or cup, sure clothing items can be stuffed inside itself to be kept together, but overall it’s often nice to have compartmentalized gear to help keep it organized and readily available. Because lightweight backpacks generally don’t have extra pockets because that adds weight, compartmentalization can be achieved through lightweight stuff sacks.

If you decide to use stuff sacks, you have a couple of options to keep things light. First, consider cuben/spectralite fiber as it is both very lightweight and waterproof. Two fairly well known cottage industry manufacturers offer very nice cuben fiber stuff sacks at different sizes. These include Mountain Laurel Designs (http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/shop/product_info.php?cPath=24&products_id=63&osCsid=ccde4637859ab4529d035b6ba04f828d) and Z-Packs (http://www.zpacks.com/accessories/stuff_sacks.shtml). Are they cheap? Well, not really, but they are lightweight and durable.

Sea-to-Summit offers a variety of lightweight stuff sacks and also dry bags. Two I find useful when not using cuben are the Sn240 (http://www.seatosummit.com/products/display/38) and mesh sacks (http://www.seatosummit.com/products/display/36) which are good for bear bag systems when used in conjunction with something like an OPSAK (http://www.loksak.com/products/opsak). If you really want a lightweight and waterproof drybag, check out the new DriSeal Drybags by Mountain Laurel Designs (http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/shop/product_info.php?products_id=128&osCsid=fcfac61da0b58635a61bd753c81cef18).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Backpacking Bug...

video

I typically avoid backpacking in the middle of summer principally because I hate dealing with the summer heat and bugs which are always in abundance in Virginia. With the days getting shorter, I'm reminded each day by the scenes in my front yard that backpacking season (at least for me anyway) is right around the corner.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Asics Gel-Trabuco 12 GT-X


One of the things I fail miserably at is getting caught up in the hype about lightweight backpacking. When the forums start going wild and the technology police claim a new innovation, I quickly check my gear to see if I need an upgrade. If the answer is “maybe”, then the answer is really “yes”.

A few years ago, the footwear manufacturer “Inov-8” hit the market. Their design was innovative and seemed to shake a fist at industry trends which required footwear to be constructed to some overly engineered design which only made sense to non-backpacking people in marketing think-tanks. The word spread – lightweight, functional, durable, and effective – and I bought two pairs. I have used those two pairs since then for year round activity. I think Montrail, Vasque, and Inov-8’s lead the local backpacking market, at least that’s what I’ve seen.

Recently I had the opportunity to travel at bit both within the U.S. and abroad. In an attempt to cut down weight and items to pack, I started wearing a pair of my Inov-8’s “off” the trail so I could more easily transition between the cities and the wilderness in the event that an opportunity presented itself to hit the trail. This was actually a big change for me because my backpacking gear is a bit of a religion in my house. It is babied, stored privately, comes out only in special occasions, and is believed to turn into a pumpkin if exposed to situations which don’t accompany a compass. As a result, for the first time I was exposed to greater real world testing of my footwear against all surfaces great and small. What I learned surprised me – my Inov-8’s really weren’t that comfortable after all and I likely didn’t notice this on the trail because of the less hard trail surface and the brainwashing hype. Yes they were light, yes they had a good lug sole, yes they did extremely well when exposed to water, and yes they held up quite well. They also gripped slippery surfaces quite well. But the bottom line was that they didn’t have much cushion, even with the SmartFeet insole.

I started thinking long and hard about my new revelation and wondered how much more comfortable I’d be while hiking with genuinely cushioned shoes. I typically have some free mental time to think about gear and life when I run each day after work. While running recently, it occurred to me that the very shoes I was wearing to run were the most comfortable pair of shoes I owned. Asics. I first learned of Asics in college when I played Division 1 basketball. I often trained with the girls cross country team, not because I was interested in running 10 miles, but because their first seated leader was of great personal interest. So, I bought a pair of Asics and ran both after her and to stay in shape.

Cross country runners are specialty athletes much like backpackers. They too have unique gear which they swear by. They don’t wear their mini shorts or wear pasties because they are attractive; they wear them because they are utilitarian and functional. They wear footwear like Brooks, New Balance, and Asics while major names such as Nike and Adidias are left usually for people who cross train or who aren’t as emaciated. If you want to know where to find good footwear for a certain task – look to the experts who know what works best on pounding surfaces for hundreds of miles.

My point…I checked with Asics to see if they offered a Gore-Tex running shoe. I only wear Gore-Tex footwear when I hike, not because I enjoy my foot being unnecessarily hot, but I’ve learned that the environments I hike have a tendency to wet untreated shoes and personally I hate wet shoes no matter how quickly they dry. I prefer eVENT as a waterproof fabric, but no manufacturer has yet to come out with a decent pair. To my luck, Asics makes a Gore-Tex running shoe called the Gel-Trabuco 12 GT-X and I ordered a pair.

To make a long story short, I compared the Gel-Trabuco 12 to my lightest pair of Inov-8’s. In a size 14, the Inov-8’s weighed in at 441 grams. In a size 13 (Asics run large), the Gel-Trabuco 12’s came in at 490 – not too much of a difference. Their physical size and shape were about the same. The difference was in the comfort. When wearing one on either foot, the Inov-8 felt like I was walking on concrete when compared to the Gel-Trabuco 12. There was no comparison. The Gel-Trabuco 12 also didn’t feel so flimsy, although to the credit of the Inov-8, I’ve never had a problem with durability or fatigue.

The bottom line is that the Inov-8’s in comparison felt very poorly cushioned. Also, where I wanted to hike in the Inov-8’s, I wanted to run in the Gel-Trabuco 12’s…and I knew they could handle it which was questionable with the Inov-8. Another thing I liked about the Gel-Trabuco 12's was an integrated pouch in the sewn-in tongue. The pouch enables the user to tuck the tied part of the shoelaces into it which prevents loose ends from catching to twigs - a nice option for a backpacker. Much like with any Gore-Tex shoe, the Gel-Trabuco 12 is a “hot” shoe. Especially in the summer, your feel will not be tremendously comfortable because they simply don’t breath as well as other shoes without the Gore-Tex membrane. The sole is average in the sense that I wouldn't describe it as a "lug", so it does well in most environments but might be inadequate for difficult hiking conditions. But, the good outweighs the bad and I’d rather have mildly sweaty feet good in most conditions than soaked and blistered feet which can't propel me up a hill that I'll rarely see. In short, if you’re looking for a pair of legitimate trail runners with Gore-Tex and the comfort you need – take a look at the Asics Gel-Trabuco 12…and decide whether to believe the hype.

http://www.asicsamerica.com/products/product.aspx?PRODUCT_ID=240012240&TITLE_CATEGORY_ID=250001545&PARENT_CATEGORY_ID=250001538

(UPDATE: 12/2/09 - The Gel-Trabuco 12's are still going strong, but I swapped them for a size 14.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Warbonnet Blackbird Hammock













This is a gear review I almost hate to write because it is about an absolutely top notch product that I decided to return. Sorry to ruin the suspense. Hopefully this is obvious, but I generally don’t write about hammocking so I hope you read this as a really special item worth the attention.

In the east, hammocking makes a lot of sense because most of our trails have an abundance of trees (and few laws which prohibit hammocking). Most of my time is spent on the Appalachian Trail and anyone who has hiked on the AT will confirm that it is often tough to find a level spot for a tent or tarp because the AT is like a never-ending stairmaster. With this in mind, hammocking offers a legitimate solution to solve this problem.

Several years ago I went through a phase during which I tried out nearly every hammock on the market. My wife still reminds me now of all the money I lost in shipping costs alone. At the time, enough people used a hammock to let my mind wander from the traditional shelter methods and I found the concept of using a hammock to be intriguing. After all, I’d be off the ground and away from the bugs and moisture. Riding out a storm, horizontal rain, and ground water would also be easier to deal with.

The problems with a hammock are fairly obvious. First, they aren’t very spacious when compared to a tent or tarp, they are hugging you 100% of the time, there is very minimal gear storage, they are often heavier than lightweight tent/tarp options, generally hammock users need to be creative to keep themselves warm due to heat loss from the bottom side of the hammock, and lastly, many do require the user to sleep like a banana which isn’t always comfortable.

So I don’t receive nasty-grams by hammockers, yes certain hammocks can compete with lightweight tents and tarps as far as weight is concerned. Those that can are generally meant for summer use only (single layer) and they are often for persons around 150 pounds or lighter (fabric durability). And also yes, hammockers can stay warm by using everything from a closed cell pad, inflatable mattress, or even an underquilt which can be strapped to the bottom of the hammock itself which is plenty effective. And yes again, being bent like a banana can be mitigated to a great extent by lying diagonally or by putting something under the knees. Sag (taughtness) of the ridgeline also plays a role as does personal preference.

Anyway, during my search for a lightweight hammock, I learned several things with the most important being the fact that at 6’6” and 280 pounds, there weren’t very many options. By default, I was either too long to be in the actual sleeping pounch of the hammock and hammocks which could hold me generally needed to be double layered which increased its weight to the point of it no longer being truly lightweight (in my opinion). Generally, double-layered hammocks are either used to support big people like me, for others who wish to use their hammocks in the winter as it gives them a place to store insulation (pad), or by some in jungle climates who are attempting to find greater protection from biting insects who can otherwise bite through one layer.

To make a long story short (something I’m not generally known for), I tried hammocks by Speer, Claytor, Jungle, Jacks R Better, Mosquito, Eagles Nest Outfitters, and Hennessey. Most of these were quite good in quality, but none were comfortable to me. Truthfully, some were flat out annoying. With that, I gave up on any hope to use a hammock and that was that.

This changed in spring 2009 when I met Brandon Waddy of Warbonnet Outdoors (http://warbonnetoutdoors.net/blackbird_h.htm) at Trail Days in Damascus, VA. I had heard about his “Warbonnet Blackbird” hammock as he challenged the typical design of hammocks by integrating an extended piece of fabric to serve as a footbox which effectively allowed the user to stretch out his/her feet almost entirely flat without being bent like a banana. To me, this is a H-U-G-E innovation in hammocking and truly mitigates likely the biggest concern most people have with hammock comfort. One other innovation he included in his product was a little wing on the side which can be effectively used as a gear shelf, again, something no other manufacturers offer. The Blackbird also includes a ridgeline (to ensure the same lay each time and to keep mosquito netting off the user). To date, no one other than Hennessey Hammocks uses a ridgeline because Tom Hennessey, the owner, has a patent on it (amongst other things which is why there has been little innovation in the hammocking industry as a whole). Brandon is challenging the patent in court, so he included it in his design (hopefully this won’t be the wrong decision legally). Like other manufacturers, the Blackbird can also be used as a chair which is a truly wonderful option for use in the backcountry. This alone also made me think twice about a hammock as it sure was a nice thought to be able to sit and rest without getting dirty or needing to carrying a seat pad (or chair for those of you who don’t count ounces).

Meeting Brandon really caused my mind to churn about hammocks again. I wasn’t particularly fond of the weight, which with even a lightweight tarp would be slightly more than my lightest two person tent at around 46 ounces. My theory was that a good night of sleep was worth the extra weight and I had high hopes. With that said, I asked Brandon to build me a Warbonnet Blackbird made of double-layer 1.7 ripstop nylon (31 ounces) as this was really the only option for someone my size. If you were wondering, someone lighter and smaller can get a Blackbird as light as 17 ounces (just the hammock, not including a tarp). A mosquito-proof shelter at 17 ounces with, say a 6 oz Cuben fiber tarp or 9-10 ounce tarp of Spinnaker fabric, would make a nice 23-27 ounce full coverage shelter which makes a lot of sense to someone who enjoys the comfort of a hammock and wants to do it in lightweight style. Heck, that’s plenty light by most shelter standards. In case you were wondering, the lighter version is made of 1.1 ripstop nylon and costs $150 versus $160 for the heavier and double layer that I purchased.

Dealing with Brandon was great and his product reflected impressive craftsmanship and outstanding design. Flatly, it also looked cool which for someone who bears a striking impression to Big Bird (me), I welcomed any help I could get. The hammock was very easy to hang, and really for the first time in my attempt to find a hammock, I found it plenty long enough, plenty wide enough, and extremely comfortable. All-in-all, the look, comfort, and quality were all top notch. I even thought the price was very reasonable compared to other options I saw from other vendors. Basically, I was convinced (and I still am) that it is the best hammock on the market with nothing even close.

Unfortunately, after quite a bit of testing, I just couldn’t get comfortable enough in the hammock to sleep. I could doze off and lounging was great, but as far as legitimate “sleep”, I just couldn’t do it even after trying hard to wear myself out so I had no choice but to sleep. There was always something that bothered me such as the need to put something under my knees and head, and the fact that a minor shift of an arm or leg seemed to cause a ridge in the fabric which made me adjust other things. I just kept adjusting and adjusting and it was all such a fuss that it just didn’t work for me despite it honestly being the best, most comfortable, and most lay-flat hammock I’ve ever tried. I was also surprised to see how much heat was lost through the bottom of the hammock and it made me realize that at temperatures of anything less than about 70 some kind of pad or insulation would be necessary. I think my failure is far more broad than just the Blackbird however, meaning I simply don’t think I’m a “hammocker” because if I was, this would be the one I’d choose and I wouldn't cite the Blackbird as being the issue.

So, for those of you out there in bloggerland who ever thought of giving a hammock a try, I simply can’t say it more concisely or honestly that the Blackbird is the best option I’ve tried. If you choose to go that route, consider a nice tarp by another great cottage industry manufacturer such as Outdoor Equipment Supplier (http://www.outdoorequipmentsupplier.com/) or an underquilt from Jacks R Better (http://www.jacksrbetter.com/) or Te-Wa (http://www.te-waunderquilts.blogspot.com/). Like I said, I can’t say enough nice things about the Blackbird or Brandon and this is one of those backpacking purchases I truly regret not working for me.

(UPDATE (9/24/09) - After returning the Blackbird, I simply couldn't stop thinking about it. I then started thinking that testing a hammock in the humid summers of Virginia when I couldn't sleep on a mattress in college was probably not the best conditions to test the Blackbird. So, I sold a couple backpacks and I purchased it again, this time with the Yeti 3/4 length underquilt also sold by Warbonnet Outdoors. I then added a MacCat Deluxe Spinn UL. So now I have the complete system and only time will tell if it is something I will keep.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Suluk 46 Engineered Backcountry Gear


Around the end of the year I like to mention specific backpacking websites and blogs which I enjoy. I also often have blogs which I write long in advance and release them at dates scheduled in the future as I want content to keep flowing so my site doesn’t get stagnant.

Well, I wanted to break from tradition and mention a fairly unknown website both because I’m intrigued by it and because there is stuff which others may be able to use today.

With that, check out “Suluk 46 Engineered Backcountry Gear” at http://www.suluk46.com/index.html. This site is run by a 31-year old mechanical designer from Canada who, in my opinion, is someone who truly thinks “outside the box”. The project which he was working on that drew my attention was an 11 ounce cuben fiber/pertex momentum down quilt which is an absurd notion that may very well change lightweight backpacking. He also has developed a very functional way to bond cuben instead of sewing through it which ultimately makes it a stronger and less fallible product. He has other great ideas, like how to shorten a NeoAir and a very lightweight titanium stove and ice axe. His background allows him to both think broadly and offer interesting research regarding strength to weight ratios.

He is working on many things here and there and has only a handful of items for sale…but his ideas are forward thinking enough that he may very well have a great future. I was fortunate enough to exchange a couple e-mails with Steve Evans as I was admiring his Cuben quilt and was doing my best to pursuade him into possibly making some LONG shelters out of Cuben. He is 6'3" and understands my plight. To my joy, he said he was looking into it with some seriousness and I can only hope it becomes a reality.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

ONE OUNCE...2200 cu/in Backpack - Believe It!


Have you ever had an urge for a ONE OUNCE backpack? Well, a backpacker named Mark Henley was kind enough to post information on how to construct one out of Cuben fiber fabric on Gossamer Gear's website http://www.gossamergear.com/gossamergear/images/myog/Henley_1oz_instructions.pdf.
If you are a "make your own gear (MYOG)" type of person, this might be an excellent opportunity for you to try your hand at really pushing the limits of lightweight backpacking. Course, if you aren't, you could always purchase a high quality Cuben fiber pack with all the frills from Z-Packs (http://www.zpacks.com/).
If you're wondering where to get the materials, there are many options to include Quest Outfitters (http://www.questoutfitters.com/) and Thru-Hiker Fabrics (http://thru-hiker.com/materials/index.php).