Saturday, May 16, 2009

REPORT – Trail Days 2009, Damascus Virginia

On May 15th and 16th I had the opportunity to attend Trail Days in Damascus Virginia. This location and this date are not random. Damascus is the approximate halfway point on the Appalachian Trail. For those thru-hikers who started their journey on time in March from Springer Georgia, many would be rolling through Damascus over this weekend.

Damascus is a very small town and dubs themselves as “the friendliest town on the trail”. The folks I ran into were indeed friendly in every way, so forgoing a visit to every other town along the AT, I’ll simply assume their self-nominated title is correct. By my observations, Damascus seems to exist solely for AT hikers. There are at least two outfitters, churches which offer showers, coin laundry, a post office, and everything has some quant name referring to backpacking, the AT, outdoors, etc.

The weather mid-May in Virginia is always a little tricky. This year, both days were supposed to be in the 80’s and there was a 60% chance of rain. My wife, I, and our small son dodged few rain drops while sweating bullets, but for the most part the weather cooperated.

Trail Days offers visitors to meet a variety of small cottage manufacturers as well as those who are well know. The town essentially opens itself up to everyone and under every tent is someone signing, selling crafts, or otherwise showing outdoor equipment.

Trail Days is one of the few places lightweight cottage manufacturers gather and I’m very happy it occurs in Virginia as I believe the only other events where you can find them together are both out west. The vendors who made the trip this year included Mountain Laurel Designs, Jacks R Better, Warbonnet Hammocks, Anti-Gravity Gear, Six Moon Designs, Hennessey Hammocks, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Speer Hammocks, and a new comer to the lightweight tent business, Light Heart Gear. Many other vendors were there, like LaFuma, Nemo, Enertia Trail Foods, and various outfitters. Several hiking/backpacking organizations, such as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and The Hiking Society, also made an appearance. To my surprise, despite being on the list earlier in the year, and Gossamer Gear, didn’t make it. One of the sponsors was Backpacker Magazine and I didn’t see them either other than their name on a big sign. Several guest speakers, to include the second thru-hiker of the AT and others who gave photographic portrayals of the trails, provided entertainment and quality reports.

I talked to many vendors simply because I am intrigued with learning about new products and engineering efforts even if I personally can’t use what they are selling. For example, I spoke with Brandon of Warbonnet Hammocks ( about his “Blackbird” offering. It is arguably one of the hottest hammocks on the market as it has extra fabric for a genuine footbox and even a small shelf inside the hammock for gear. It goes up quick, is well made, and it is a nice twist for the tree hangers out there. Brandon is also a quality guy with the best interests of his customers in mind. I also talked with the two Jacks of Jacks R Better ( for about 30 minutes. We covered everything from their very interesting “Bridge Hammock” to their wearable quilts. Both are entertaining fellows who clearly want to deliver a good product and I was very encouraged with what I saw. Unfortunately, I have a bit of bias towards hammocking after failing to find one that worked for me in years past with caused me to return offerings from Speer, Jungle Hammocks, Mosquito Hammocks, The Travel Hammock, Claytor Hammocks, and Hennessey Hammocks. Based singularly on appearance, I felt the Warbonnet Blackbird wasn’t long/big enough for my 6’5” and 275 pounds despite it receiving rave reviews across the board from other hammockers. I should mention that Brandon, the owner of Warbonnet, offered to let me try the Blackbird. Simply, I choose to opt out as I wanted to be respectful of his product and the stand being that he would no doubt need to show it to several hundred people over the weekend and the risk of possibly damaging it was too great to me. Although, I did get a chance to lay down in the Jacks R Better Bridge Hammock, which was very comfortable, I thought it pinched my shoulders too much and wasn’t quite long enough. If I had my choice if it fit, I think the Bridge Hammock provided the most comfortable lay of any hammock I’ve ever tried, but it was over 2 pounds and one to fit me would be heavier to the point that it probably wouldn’t be worth it for me to carry. Either way, I was very impressed by both and I will be leaving my hammock options open.

I also talked with Ron Moak with Six Moon Designs. He mentioned both the Refuge and Refuge X were being redesigned and that they will probably make another appearance in spring/summer 2010 with a bathtub floor and other options. He had pretty much all his shelters and packs on display and it was nice to see them up close and personal. He makes good stuff and it was fun to tinker with everything.

One of the more enjoyable conversations I had was with Ron Bell of Mountain Laurel Designs. After seeing his products, it is pretty clear that his website doesn’t quite do justice to his products (this is a common theme, in my opinion, for the cottage industry and Ron’s site is actually one of the best). First, MLD craftsman ship simply seems to me to be better than others. Second, MLD offerings are well thought out are far more realistic to backpackers who need functional options as compared to other manufactures who cut corners (literally) to try to save a few ounces. Take MLD’s Grace Duo, for example, which is a simple rectangle tarp. The full coverage, which others taper, is much more functional to me and the weight is very responsible. The colors he uses are also very bright which is something I feel is a significant plus as I believe strongly in the emotional impact bright colors of shelters have on the inhabitant. He also uses Cuben Fiber quite extensively which I like a lot. Another structure I liked quite a bit was the floorless DuoMid. It is very similar to offerings by other manufacturers, but seemed to be better made and more roomy in every aspect. He had his eVENT mitts and gaiters on display as well as a couple of pack. All were top notch quality.

Although I don’t have a ton of money in my pocket, if I did I think I’d spend it on a MLD Grace Duo, possibly in Cuben or the bright yellow silnylon, the DuoMid in either silnylon or Cuben, or I’d wait for the Cuben Fiber Refuge X by SMD to be released next year.

Trail Days always proves to be a fun experience as it is always nice to see something new, meet the manufacturers and perhaps give some feedback, and get hands-on experience with the great products of the cottage industry.

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