Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lightweight Trekking Poles








For those of you who haven’t tried them, trekking poles may make a huge different in your hiking style and comfort. For me, a diabetic easily beaten down by endless internal factors and someone with degenerative discs in my lower back, the addition of trekking poles to my gear allowed me to go further, faster, and with far greater safety. It also allowed me to lighten my shelter load as I no longer needed tent or tarp poles because my trekking poles turned out to be plenty sufficient for shelter supports.

Since this blog is dedicated to lightweight backpacking, I figured I’d mention the latest and greatest poles on the market which might work for you.

· Titanium Goat - $150 – 3.2 oz per pole (http://www.titaniumgoat.com/poles.html)

· Gossamer Gear Lighttrek 4 - $150 – 3.4 oz per pole (http://www.gossamergear.com/cgi-bin/gossamergear/Lightrek4_Trekking_Poles.html)

· Backpacking Light STIX Carbon Fiber - $100 – 4.1 oz per pole (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/stix_carbon_fiber_trekking_poles_08.html)

· Komperdell C3 Powelock Carbon – $ Unknown - 5.1 oz per pole – (http://www.komperdell.com/de/stock/touring/snap_lock/175_3601_10.php)

There are a ton of manufacturers who make different kinds of trekking poles which include LEKI (http://www.leki.com/), KOMPERDELL (http://www.komperdell.com/), BLACK DIAMOND (http://www.bdel.com/), and even REI (http://www.rei.com/) if you want something with different options or at a lower price. To be fair to other countries and not get lost in the American bubble, Europe has a ton of vendors which manufacturer some great trekking poles as well as other backpacking equipment. Unfortunately, I haven't seen them and know of them only by reputation.

If you’ve ever wondered whether trekking poles are for you, borrow a pair from a friend or go to your local Thrift Store and pick up a pair of ski poles to try out. Attempting to purchase them at different times of the year may also be a smart decision. For example, REI had a sale in January which had a very nice set of REI Carbon UL Shock trekking poles for 50% off. You can also find them at a discount on websites devoted to gear swaps.

Trekking poles come in many different sizes, materials, and with different frills. Earlier posts in this blog addressed the different options, but finding what works best for you is the most important.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hygiene for the Lightweight Backpacker











One important topic to me, and anyone that I need to share breathing space with, is hygiene. To me, I have real difficulty sleeping when I’m nasty and being clean by the time I get to bed is high on my priority list. Truth be told, I wish it were high on others list too. I also find it important to maintain a certain standard or human connection to the civilized world though routines such as nightly wash-ups, brushing my teeth twice a day, flossing, etc. Other than the obvious personal benefit, the reality is that good hygiene will significantly improve the performance of your clothing, sleep system, etc., as your sweat and body oils do nothing but clog breathability and damage fabrics. Although practicing good hygiene is made a little more difficult in the backcountry, it is achievable.

First and foremost, you don’t need a lot to be clean. My backcountry wash kit consists of something to hold or throw water (water bottle, SilNylon bag or stuff sack, plastic bag….cupped hands), something to dry and scrub myself (bandana, unused clothing, packable towel), and some environmentally-free soap (Dr. Bronner). To give you some links I’ll send you to the Anti Gravity Gear folks (http://www.antigravitygear.com/) which have quite a few good options on their website such as a 1 gallon water SylNylon water bag http://www.antigravitygear.com/proddetail.php?prod=AGWTBG, a fingertip toothbrush http://www.antigravitygear.com/proddetail.php?prod=ULFTTB, and Dr. Bronner’s soap which you’ll need to repackage http://www.antigravitygear.com/proddetail.php?prod=DBLQSP02. Obviously this kind of gear can be found in a lot of places and your preference will obviously guide you. For example, I don’t like the fingertip toothbrush because I don’t like putting my hands in my mouth even if they are clean. I also don’t use a baby toothbrush because they are too small. For me, I simply picked up a regular-sized toothbrush, chopped off the handle to a functional length, and that was it.


Many of you have no doubt heard of backpacking legend Ray Jardine. Jardine coined the term “Dundo Method” in his latest book “Trail Days” to more simply identify the bathing method most of us likely use instead of needing to explain the whole activity. This method was named by Jardine and his wife following their thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. At one point just outside of Skyline Drive, the couple stopped at the “Dundo Picnic Area” to clean up and the name was born. The Dundo Method involves pouring water on yourself while hastily rubbing in a bit of soap, rinsing, and toweling off. To me, this is pretty much just basic bathing outside of a shower with the key being the need to actually rub yourself, with soap, and to rinse it all off as simply dumping water over you won’t solve the greater problem. This method can be accomplished dressed, undressed, or partially dressed, and generally with minimal water and other implements which is the beauty of it. I recommend this type of cleansing on a daily basis.

So what else should you do? Well, keep up with your daily habits is my suggestion. Floss daily, brush your teeth twice per day, wash up at least nightly, and otherwise try to keep yourself clean. Consider wearing merino wool (or Smartwool) to keep the smell down and air out your feet, socks, and any wet clothing often. Truthfully, getting some sun-time on bare skin is almost always a good thing, just be careful of how much skin you show and your audience (i.e. don’t unintentionally cause your 5-minutes of fame to be an ill-advised YouTube moment for the rest of us). Air out your sleep system, tent, and allow it to get some sun time too as frequently as you can. Wash off the back panel and hip belt of your pack to help keep things clean and functional. Wash your clothing when you can, especially your underwear if you never remove them otherwise. Take care of your feet which will require you to change your socks often, give your feet some sun-time, and keep them dry. Ensure you don’t use untreated water on anything which touches any orifice or anything that goes in your mouth. For example, don’t merely dip your tooth brush or yourself in a running stream as water nasties could very well get in your system through methods you never even considered. Your ears and open cuts are prime examples in which water parasites could get into your system. Worth mentioning is the fact that you really shouldn’t bathe yourself, your feet, or your stuff in any body of water in the wilderness. Simply put some water in a container and move at least 100’ away from any water source as otherwise you’ll pollute the water for everyone else. Yes it may be cooling and cleansing to jump in, but if it is a drinkable water source, the rest of us would appreciate not needing to drink your funk…or your pee.

The last topic worth mentioning is, well, how to use the bathroom in the woods. And if you’re wondering, yes there is a formal reference for this topic which includes a book by Kathleen Meyer called “How to Shit in the Woods” (http://www.amazon.com/How-Shit-Woods-Environmentally-Approach/dp/0898156270). Essentially, the key is to respect the environment while keeping you and everyone else far from your recycled food intake. In soil which can be dug, dig down at least 6-8” and make your deposit. How do you dig the hole? Well, you can use a stick, your hands, a tent stake, or believe it or not, there are several options on the market which look like spoons or trowels which handle the job just fine. ULA-Equipment even has a miniature ice axe which they lovingly refer to as a Potty Trowel which can do the job too if you really want to go overkill. Once you make your deposit, stir it up a bit to loosen it, and then put soil back on top. Again, stay far away from any water sources. If the soil is rocky, consider the “smear” method which requires you to smear your output on a south facing rock so the sun can beat it up sufficiently. Some very environmentally conscious people actually carry out their poo, including toilet paper, and this is actually a requirement in some parks. Regarding wiping, some choose to use natural objects such as smooth stones or soft ground duff or leaves while others choose to use biodegradable toilet paper if they don’t plan on packing anything out. For those who do need to pack it out, I know several people who use plastic bags or surgical gloves and simply turn them inside out with the contents inside safety stored once the deed is done. Whatever option you use, just make sure you deal with it properly so animals and folks like me don’t have to see it or deal with it. Also make sure you wash your hands and having an alcohol-based soap for quick clean up is always encouraged. Consider the human condition the next time you attempt to be friendly with another hiker by extending your hand to greet them. Hand-shaking is generally discouraged in the backcountry simply because of the spread of funk. Instead, share your mind and your food, but keep your germs to yourself.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pole Dance

Sorry RH, I had no choice but to post it as it gave me a good chuckle this evening.
video

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lightweight Water Treatment Options
















One backpacking topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about (and researching) was water – how to get it and how to make sure it won’t make me sick. For the most part, American’s are quite ignorant about water concerns because they can find fresh water nearly everywhere during our daily activities. We completely take this luxury for granted and it doesn’t become even the slightest concern until we travel outside of our borders or attempt to take water from a source that isn’t a faucet or a hose. If you ask most Americans, they will tell you to stay away from the water in Mexico as it has become somewhat a lore involving tales of unsuspecting vacationers who fall ill for several days after even merely dipping their toothbrush into tainted water. The reality is, much of the world doesn’t have the luxury of clean tap water and Mexico isn’t in the minority. A few months ago I was in Germany and was shocked to learn that a civilized society such as Germany required that I drink bottled water at every turn. Truth be told, I drank water from the faucet at my hotel before knowing I shouldn’t. I didn’t get sick, but I was warned it just wasn’t very good for me. Trust me, when you are in unfamiliar surroundings and you can’t drink water from your usual sources, YOU NOTICE IT! Backpacking is no different with the exception that most water sources are ponds, streams, springs, glacial melt, ice, snow, etc.

The quality of water in the backcountry is affected by numerous factors which can include temperature, turbidity, animal activity, chemical runoff from businesses or animal fields, runoff from chemically treated roadways, human activity, etc. Mere appearances can only go so far to help you determine which water sources are safe and which aren’t. Therefore, it is a smart decision to treat ALL water when in the backcountry. Although it may seem like overkill to treat 100% of backcountry water, for me it makes logical sense as I have no urge whatsoever to deal with stomach cramps, nausea, weakness, bloating, diarrhea, or vomiting. Often cutting a trip short or seeking medical treatment isn’t really an option, so the responsible choice is to treat everything.

Before treating, it is important to do your best to select safe water sources. Avoid sources with high animal activity or areas impacted by humans. Try to uses water sources which are still and clear as this will allow many microorganisms to sink. Turbulent water may otherwise keep them suspended. Get water from as close to its source as possible, or at the very least, as high upstream as reasonable. If your only options are snow or ice, choose ice. Ice has greater water content. Obviously, stay away from any discolored snow. Practice good hygiene. This includes using only TREATED water for cleaning anything that comes in contact with food, to include food, and even something as simple as your toothbrush. Wash your hands frequently and use soap. If water is bubbly, discolored, smelly, or if you see anything dead around it - stay away from it.

To fully appreciate how to properly treat water, you need to know what the threats are and how to mitigate those threats. Without playing the role of Mr. Science, there are essentially four threats in most water sources which I’ve identified below. So you can fully appreciate how small these items are, you need to understand the term “micron”. A micron is not visible to the human eye and is 1 millionth of a meter, or .0000394 of an inch. A period at the end of a sentence is roughly 500 microns. The unaided human eye cannot see anything smaller than 50 microns. The straining ability of the pores in filters and purifiers is typically measured in microns. Often you will hear friends and salespeople recommend that you seek out a "0.2-micron" filter. Why is this important? Well, one of the most popular filter pumps is the Katadyn Hiker. Guess what, it filters at 0.3-microns. Worried? Maybe you should be...

1) PROTOZOAN CYSTS – These are hard shelled, single-cell parasites which include Giardia and Lamblia and range in size from 5 to 15 microns. This also includes Cryptosporidium Parvum which is 2 to 5 microns in size. Giardia occurs in the small intestine where cysts hatch and give you diarrhea, gas, nausea, and/or cramps and symptoms appear within 1 to 2 weeks and can last 4-6 weeks or longer. Those with weakened immune systems could be more heavily impacted. Cryptosporidium can give you similar symptoms and can also include loose stool, cramps, slight fever, and an upset stomach. These systems generally appear in 2 to 10 days and typically last 2 weeks. Animals and humans carry Protozoa.

2) BACTERIA – Bacteria are smaller organisms which can include E. Coli, Salmonella, Cholera, and Campylobacter Jejuni. They range from .2 to 10 microns and symptoms include diarrhea with appears within 6 hours or 3 to 5 days and last 4 days or longer. Animals and humans carry Bacteria.

3) VIRUSES – Viruses represent the tiniest of organisms ranging from .004 to .1 microns. They include Hepatitis A, Rotavirus, Norwalk Virus, and even Polio. Although these are the least commonly found pathogens in the wilderness water sources, they represent often the most harmful. If you were wondering, most waterborne viruses which affect humans in the backcountry come from human fecal matter.

4) CHEMICALS AND RUNOFF – As the name implies, another water-nasty includes agricultural runoff (herbicides, pesticides, etc.) and industrial runoff (metals, mine tailings, etc.).

So how do you treat for these things? Well, there are many ways which include boiling, iodine, chlorine, bleach, UV light, carbon filters, and physical filters, but here are a couple things to consider. First, Cryptosporidium Parvum is highly resistant to iodine and chlorine. Filters and purifiers work well to treat bacteria. Viruses can slip through most filters. Carbon filters do well against a water source tainted by chemicals or toxins. Based on the micron size of the water-nasties indicated above, a pump filter would need to be able to be able to filter out a micron of .2 or smaller to be effective.

If you read this correctly, it sure seems like there are a lot of ways to treat water but many aren’t effective for everything. There is also a difference between a filter and a purifier. Although both treat microbiological aspects of tainted water, only a filter removes Protozoa and Bacteria while a purifier does this and eliminates Viruses too. Below is what works, what doesn’t, and some limitations:

BOILING
First, boiling water is 100% effective against Protozoan Cysts and non-toxic Bacteria and Viruses. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends bringing water to a rolling boil for one minute to kill microorganisms. At elevations higher than 6,500 feet, the EPA recommends boiling times to be extended to 3 minutes. The problem with boiling is that it is time consuming, requires a lot of fuel, requires appropriate containers to boil water, and it does not remove any sediment.

PHYSICAL FILTRATION
Physical filters force water through a porous internal element housed within a filtering unit. As long as the internal porous element is able to stop microns .2 and smaller, it is a very effective option to treat taint water. They are also the best method to filter out sediment, but can get clogged because of the sediment. Unfortunately, pumps are expensive, heavy, require a lot of effort, and require maintenance. I have known many people who intended to use a pump filter for their entire thru-hike just to have it break 2 weeks into it. Pumps are also ineffective in winter because the pump itself freezes or otherwise can’t process the icy water. Gravity-fed systems take away the need to physically pump, but make the process a little more cumbersome because it requires more parts (one bag drips through a hose filter into another bag, but both can’t hold water at the same time which means you have to carry an extra bag and hose for no reason).

UV LIGHT
A recent effective water treatment is to use an ultraviolet light to treat tainted water. This is the same processes used for decades by commercial bottling plants and commercial water systems. It works by damaging the DNA of microbes, even viruses, causing them to be unable to reproduce and cause harm. These devices exceed the EPA standard for water purifiers by killing Bacteria, Viruses and Protozoa. Unfortunately, they only do well in water that is already clean which generally means a pre-filter is needed. This is also a costly item which requires batteries and quite a bit of care to ensure it isn’t accidentally broken. It is also ineffective against larger volumes of water as most units are designed only for exactly 1 liter.

CHEMICAL TREATMENT
Exposing water to halogens such as iodine or chlorine is believed to kill Bacteria and Viruses, especially in greater doses. Unfortunately, it does not kill all Protozoan Cysts or Cryptosporidium Parvum because of their harder outer shell. Chemical treatment effectiveness also depends a lot on the initial quality of the water. Sediment will remain in water and cold water can take 4 hours or longer to get the full effectiveness of the treatment. In many cases, however, especially with clean water at 50 degrees or above, water can be treated in less than an hour (even 30 minutes) quite effectively. Chemical treatments represent one of the lightest water treatment options. Because there are different chemical treatment options, I felt it was appropriate to identify them below:

· IODINE TREATMENT (such at POTABLE AQUA)
Water treated with Iodine tends to leave water tasting funny and doesn’t clear up any discoloration. It may also be unhealthy for some people, especially pregnant women, individuals with thyroid conditions, people with weakened immune systems, or people who use it for longer than 2 weeks. Iodine must be kept in the manufacturer’s bottle, usually a small brown glass jar with a screw-on cap, as exposure to the elements and light can damage its effectiveness. A couple other downsides of using iodine is that the water stays dirty and that some effectiveness is lost in cold or murky water. I should also mention that it doesn’t taste very nice and also does not kill cryptosporidium.

· AQUA MIRA (by MCNETT) - http://aquamira.com/
Aqua Mira is a chlorine dioxide and typically comes in two separate bottles which must be mixed together, then wait for five minutes, then added to water. It has no taste which is preferable by many. It kills cryptosporidium, which is an advantage over Iodine. Micropur, another chlorine dioxide identified below, is actually a little stronger and is therefore effective with other concerns.

Worth noting about chlorine dioxide technologies is that they are more effective than Iodine and Chlorine for reducing the pathogenicity of water containing bacteria and Cysts because it better penetrates microbial biofilms attached to soil particles which otherwise harbor large quantities of pathogenic microorganisms. For waters which are known to be tainted or are physically dirty, higher dosages and longer waiting times are encouraged.

· MICROPUR (by KATADYN) - http://www.katadyn.us/
Micropur is nearly the same as Aqua Mira (above) with exception to the fact that it comes in a higher dosage. It is thereby effective against bacteria, protozoa, and viruses but has the same limitations in dirty or cold water.

· BLEACH
If you want to deal with a water treatment which I wouldn’t touch because of my personal fear of making a mistake, it is treating the water with household bleach. Bleach should be 4-6% sodium hypochlorite and soap-free. The standard treatment is to add four drops of bleach (sodium hypochlorite) per quart and let stand for 30 minutes before drinking. Bleach treatment can impart an unpleasant taste to water and incorrect measurements can cause serious medical harm.

If you really wanted to be puckered, you could filter your water, treat it chemically, treat it with UV light, and then boil it. This is very impractical, however. It is worth mentioning that you aren’t likely to be exposed to many (or any) of these potential concerns, but you need to plan for the bulk of whatever concern is evident in the environment you’ll be visiting.

Many experts claim combining a chemical treatment with filtration is a very solid option for treating water, but is this a good choice for the lightweight backpacker? The answer is yes and this option and others could be very effective. Personally, I use Micropur tablets (http://www.katadyn.us/brands-products/katadyn/micropur-purification-tablets.html) most of the time without any additional treatment discussed herein as they are the lightest option and very effective. I've also used the Aqua Mira liquid drops and tablets in the past, but I've evolved to the Micropur because they are essentially the same thing with more killing power. If I know I’m going to a place with particularly questionable water, I add a AquaMira Frontier Pro filter (http://www.aquamira.com/consumer/frontier-pro-filter-system). Although I've used a pump and gravity filter in the past, I don't use them anymore as I simply don't feel their weight and mechanics are worth it. Regardless of what treatment choice I use, I always prefilter the water with a small piece of nylon which essentially blocks larger sediment from getting into my water container. The nylon bag I use is actually intended for use as table settings which I picked up from Walmart. Aside from working as a nearly zero weight prefilter, it also holds whatever water treatment option I'm using quite nicely. When I travel I have been known to use a UV Pen such as the SteriPen Adventurer (http://www.steripen.com/steripen_products.html). It works fine and it is very convenient, but I just think it is too mechanical and heavy to take backpacking. At one time I also attempted to utilize a direct inline filter such as those sold by Sawyer (http://www.sawyer.com/biological.htm). The filter turned out to be costly, clumsy, heavy, and generally irritating to use. At this point, I’m very happy with my water treatment choice and I have yet to have any problems in the backcountry. One thing I should mention is that absolutely no treatment solution is going to do you any good if you leave tainted water around the threads and mouth of your water container. If it isn't all treated, it could possibly harm you. Obviously it is tough to treat every last drop all over the container, so make sure you clean off any areas that you'll be touching (especially with your mouth).

Choosing the right water treatment options depends on the water source and preference of the user. For me, I have found an effective and lightweight water treatment which is far more useful and desirable to me than any heavy and expensive mechanical filter.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Choosing the Right Lightweight Backpack




















The right backpack makes all the difference in the world. Since you need to carry all your backpacking supplies, your actual backpack obviously represents a critical part to your comfort and success.

Many people misunderstand the functionality of backpacks and get caught up in the overhyped mass marketing of many manufacturers who claim you need a huge backpack, with every frill, and it must be capable of surviving a nuclear attack. The reality is that it makes absolutely no sense to lug around a bombproof item which is overly expensive, overly big, overly functional, and let’s face it, overly heavy.

To a lightweight backpacker there are many solid options. In fact, I’d argue that obtaining a pack anywhere from 1-3 pounds is very easy. This will immediately save you quite a bit of weight from the standard 5-7 pound backpacks on the mainstream market. To me, carrying a lighter pack makes sense. After all, my pack is merely the mechanism which holds my stuff. Why should it alone weigh as much as the contents?

To understand what pack will work best for you, it is best to understand some fundamentals about the pack itself.

First, there are essentially THREE types of backpacks:
1) RUCKSACK – The “rucksack” is the traditional name for a frameless backpack. Designs are simple and fairly lightweight. Hip belts are optional. This is the choice of many ultralight and lightweight backpackers. Structure to the pack is from a rolled up sleeping pad (described later) or the mere compacted nature of the contents.

2) INTERNAL FRAME – “Internal frame” backpacks were invented in the 1960’s by Greg Lowe. They are the main kind of backpack found on most retailer shelves. As the name implies, these packs use an internal structure to provide rigidity to distribute weight. Frames are often made of plastic, aluminum, foam, or carbon, and are used to transfer the pack load from shoulders to the hips. These packs tend to fit very snugly against the back to provide greater control and stability, although they aren’t very breathable.

3) EXTERNAL FRAME – “External frame” backpacks were used quite a bit in the 1970’s and 1980’s which gained popularity from the military. Generally, these packs offer a smaller pack bag, but maintain lots of external resources to strap things on. They tend to be big and bulky which means they aren’t very stable. They are well ventilated and tend to be less expensive. Think long and hard about what the Indians, Nordic, and Nomadic people carried and you’ll end up here.

There are two types of loading options (although one could argue that a third “hybrid” option also exists):
1) TOP LOADER – As the name implies, these packs load “from the top” into a single large bag with an upright collar. These tend to make organization a little less easy, but they are typically lighter and more streamlined. It is also easier to protect everything when it is in one place.

2) PANEL LOADER – As the name implies, these packs load from “multiple panels/pockets” to access items. These are great for organizing items, but in many cases add unnecessary weight through the use of excess fabrics (for pockets), zippers, etc.

A key component for anyone seeking an comfort is “suspension”. Backpack suspension systems come in the form of internal or external structures which are metal, plastic, carbon, fiber, or foam (or a combination). Because suspension is a component of rigidity, the type of suspension (much like many choices) is subjective. Most of these components are sewn or implemented into the back panel of the pack and distribute weight to the hips. Aluminum and plastic tend to be cheaper while carbon and titanium are lighter and potentially stronger. One easy way to gain rigidity and suspension without adding weight is to use your sleeping pad as structure for you pack and as a means of transferring weight to your hips. Simply roll it up within your pack vertically and put the rest of your gear inside it. Your pack will maintain structure and all your gear will be very protected from the elements. This will also streamline your design to help avoid any issues with tree branches or other abrasive conditions.

Proper fit requires knowing the length of your torso. At 6’6”, I have quite a long torso at 24” which is extremely difficult to fit since most manufacturers only go up to 19”. Proper measurement includes running a tape measure from the bony mass on the back of your neck between your shoulders and running the tape down the center of your back where the top of your hips would meet if a line was drawn horizontally between them. I should mention this is merely a general rule, however, because many people choose to wear their backpacks higher or lower than the top of their hips much like they would a dress belt. Hip structures for women are also different from men and people with larger hips or different walking gates may choose to wear their pack differently. The key is comfort, so don’t get caught up on trying to find a backpack that only goes to the top of your hips unless that is what you are shooting for.

Backpacks are commonly made of all different kinds of fabric which include industrial-grade nylon (most common), SilNylon (most common for lightweight backpacks), and even Cuben Fiber (lightest and most waterproof). Each option has merits depending on your environment and needs.

Many have a tendency to buy a backpack and then the rest of their gear. This is completely backwards. Buying a backpacking should only be attempted after you have all your other gear because you’ll need to know if your gear fits in the backpack. When you shop for a backpack, don’t be bashful about bringing it with you to determine the size you need and to test out carry comforts.

Now that you have an idea of the different kinds of packs, a key question to ask is what a lightweight backpacker should choose. First, lose the notion that you need something bombproof or something that you could find at any outdoor retailer. There are several small cottage industry companies which offer outstanding lightweight backpacks which, in my opinion, are a far greater option than those offered by mainstream manufacturers. In fact, I’d argue that many mainstream manufacturers are slowly starting to see the value of designs offered by these cottage industry manufacturers and future designs are clearly changing leaning more towards lightweight and function. As expected, cottage industry manufacturers deal with autonomy of scale. In essence, they likely choose or can’t afford to send manufacturing overseas or to places with cheaper fabrics or labor. So, if their labor or fabric costs more, then so will their products. A highlight is that they can implement changes on a whim and their customer service is far more personal often willing to add or change things just for you. Personally, I haven’t been scared off prices from the cottage industry at it seems any piece of outdoor equipment worth any value is expensive to some extent and I don’t think prices have been inappropriate in most cases.

So what backpack should you use? Well, it depends on what you’re doing, you’re pack (contents) weight, your environment, and your personal comfort. Dyneema-X fabric is popular with many cottage industry manufacturers such as ULA Equipment (http://www.ula-equipment.com/), Mountain Laurel Designs (http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/), Six Moon Designs (http://www.sixmoondesigns.com/) and GoLite (http://www.golite.com/). This stuff is incredibly durable and a state-of-the-art fabric. If I could only choose one fabric, this would be it. This fabric is also good for bushwhacking and other abrasive conditions and is highly water resistant. These packs usually run from 1-2 ½ pounds. For those who desire to go lighter, SilNylon is a choice offered by cottage manufacturers such as Gossamer Gear (http://www.gossamergear.com/), Fanatic Fringe (http://www.fanaticfringe.com/), and Mountain Laurel Designs (www.mountainlaureldesigns.com). SilNylon is very durable and highly water resistant, although it would not hold up well in abrasive conditions. It is a good choice for someone who has a pack weight of 20 pounds or less including consumables (food, water, fuel, etc.). These packs run anywhere from 10-25 ounces. For those who really want to go ultralight, Cuben Fiber is the latest and greatest fabric on the market which is extremely strong for its weight, waterproof, and can stand up to quite a bit. These kinds of packs are anywhere from 3-8 ounces with all the frills, just make sure you get a thicker quality of Cuben if you want the best option. The leading manufacturer of Cuben Fiber backpacks is Z-Packs (http://www.zpacks.com/). Ripstop and Nylon which are highly durable and less expensive fabrics are used by Granite Gear (http://www.granitegear.com/) which offers full suspension lightweight packs that are both affordable and very popular.

For those seeking a pack, I wouldn’t waste a single ounce of time looking at mainstream gear simply because you can get lighter and better stuff through the lightweight cottage industry. This may change in the future, but it hasn’t yet. I don't want to imply that mainstream gear isn't quality or adequate - because the fact remains that there is a lot of good stuff on the market from many different vendors. For me though, if I had to choose between nearly identical stuff and one weighs less, then I'm selecting the lighter option regardless. At present, and quite simply, the cottage industries have an edge on the mainstream industries in this area. Having used, or owned backpacks from all of the manufacturers below, I highly recommend any of them:

· ULA-Equipment (www.ula-equipment.com)
· Gossamer Gear (www.gossamergear.com)
· Mountain Laurel Designs (www.mountainlaureldesigns.com)
· Six Moon Designs (www.sixmoondesigns.com)
· Granite Gear (www.granitegear.com)
· Fanatic Fringe (www.fanaticfringe.com)
· Z-Packs (www.zpacks.com)

The only downside to picking from one (or more) of these vendors is that these packs often aren’t sold in stores. As such, you may need to buy it just to try it out and then eat the shipping costs if you need to return it. I’ve done this many times and the effort to get the right equipment is well worth the shipping costs. I have also found many of these cottage industry manufacturers are willing to send me samples of their products at no cost. To find out if this is an option, just ask.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Bias of BACKPACKER Magazine


Many of you likely subscribe to BACKPACKER Magazine (http://www.backpacker.com/). I’ve been a subscriber for quite some time. On the positive, I love their pictures and it is always fun to learn about available gear and hopefully gain some valuable insight into one technique or another. BACKPACKER also does a decent job at highlighting trails and testing mainstream gear.

Unfortunately, BACKPACKER is woefully inadequate on many other fronts. Their webpage is absolutely abysmal. Their online gear guide is both biased and very hard to use. Their entire online format is actually three different parts run by three different service teams which do not mesh well together. In fact, a problem with one will no doubt negatively impact the others. Often advice BACKPACKER contributers provide is out of date or even factually inaccurate. Even in their latest issue they make claims that liquid water treatment “kills everything”. I am unaware of any treatment that “kills everything”, with exception of those which humans could not otherwise ingest after being treated. If they are correct, I'd like to know what treatment their referring to as they weren't specific because I guess they are intentionally implying that all water treatments are the same....which simply isn't true. I've even seen issues which gave completely wrong compass navigation advice. I MEAN SERIOUSLY!!!

One thing major thing that absolutely irritates me about BACKPACKER is their total misue of the label "ultralight" almost to the point of absurdity. That topic alone is worth a lot of conversation which will only merely serve to get me more cranky - so I'll assume most of you get my point. For those who don't, in summary, every tent, sleeping bag, and pack on the shelves of REI and Walmart which say "ultralight" -- aren't. BACKPACKER also spends a disproportionate amount of time on articles about Colorado likely because their headquarters is in Boulder. I should also mention that BACKPACKER's inherent bias towards the west is cleared merited. The west has amazing trails and Colorado is in many ways the Mecca of the outdoor industry (I even lived there for a couple of years). But…there is a lot more to the wonder of the American outdoor culture than the west. The Colorado bias seems to spill over into their editors and writing staff too. In fact, a quick review of their backgrounds will likely no doubt reveal most of them are from the Colorado area. Most are also seemingly recent college graduates with degrees in Granola who are happy to work for BACKPACKER to get the chance for some free gear, some face time, and time to essentially give us their limited and inexperienced theories on life. Basically, I'm not convinced readers are getting "expert" or even "researched" guidance most of the time. Instead it appears as though guidance is terribly opinionated instead of educated. Personally, if I were an editor I'd like to know the 10 different ways you could accomplish a goal and perhaps the top three that worked the best. Unfortunately, it seems BACKPACKER publishes things that 21-year old Boulder graduate prefers when doing an overnight out of his truck while downing a six pack with his closest friends. The videos on their website are equally discouraging. I recall one video of a girl trying to show how to properly hang a bear bag. She seemed totally clueless and it clearly took an overabundance of time merely to get it right once as the sun actually set during the making of the video. Another video shows how BACKPACKER chose to test the waterproofness of sleeping bags. I'd hate to label throwing it in a river as even close to "real life" conditions. But alas, I guess "an opinion" from someone and "some form of testing" is better than nothing. Also concerning is the total bias BACKPACKER yields towards mainstream manufacturers. GRANTED…the mainstream manufactures, by definition, are the most popular so giving the “big dogs” their due attention is warranted. I’m completely fine with giving them more face time than others, but how about at least acknowledging there is a whole other market which more often than not they fail to address.


In their latest issue, their annual “Gear Guide”, you will note that BACKPACKER continues to walk hand-in-hand with mainstream manufacturers while nearly completely omitting anything having to do with the ultralight backpacking movement. To be applauded, BACKPACKER recognized Henry Shires with Tarp Tent (http://www.tarptent.com/), briefly commented on GoLite (http://www.golite.com/) and Granite Gear (http://www.granitegear.com/), and mentioned Gossamer Gear (http://www.gossamergear.com/) only by name. To be discouraged, BAKCPACKER barely mentioned these guys and otherwise completely omitted the contributions by ULA-Equipment (http://www.ula-equipment.com/), Six Moon Designs (http://www.sixmoondesigns.com/), Mountain Laurel Designs (http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/), Backpacking Light (http://www.backpackinglight.com/), Titanium Goat (http://www.titaniumgoat.com/), and many, many others. All of these small cottage industry manufacturers offer great niche products for the lightweight and ultralight backpacking community and it is very unfortunate that BACKPACKER remains with their palms so greased by the mainstream group of manufacturers that they can’t even merely recognize the contributions of the cottage industry.

One of the reasons this irks me so much is because of an observable trend noted by the mainstream industry which clearly shows a movement towards redesigning gear and offerings more towards those which have been offered for quite some time by the small, yet quality-driven, lightweight backpacking cottage industry. Gear is getting lighter – as common sense agrees for anyone who needs to lug the load. I will be extremely disappointed when total knock-offs of these products are produced by The North Face, REI, Mountain Hardwear, etc., which I fear is something we can expect in the future….all while many of these small companies function wholly out of their homes or garages and could lose their footing fairly quickly if the mainstream companies choose to permanently borrow their designs and insight. The reality of this happening is real if for no other reason that many cottage industry manufacturers have decided NOT to patent their designs as they are more concerned with people like you and I being able to succeed on our own instead of their profit margin. Henry Shires (http://www.tarptent.com/) remains a good example of this as his tarp tent design has been on the internet for years - provided by him. Of course, it is doubtful that any of these small fish could fight the big fish if it came down to a legal review of patent law.

Following receipt of the BACKPACKER 2009 Gear Guide, I felt inclined to write the editor of BACKPACKER merely to encourage them to be fair to the smaller cottage industries especially when the format is assumed to be a collective gear review. No one is asking for free advertisements, just an unbiased review of all available gear as implied by their magazine. I encourage you to do the same.

I voiced this same sentiment to Henry Shires (http://www.tarptent.com/) and he correctly mentioned that he spends nearly no money on advertising and that his business has solely grown through word of mouth. While this is completely true for both Mr. Shires and others, BACKPACKER knows these cottage industry manufactures exist; they just choose not to include them in most cases. Again, this is very unfortunate.

Backpacking as a whole is about getting in touch with your true self – the self that doesn’t need to be overly concerned with money, possessions, or even the burdens of life. I’ve had more honest heart to heart discussions with people on the trail than nearly any other place I can recall and in many cases these conversations were with nearly complete strangers. My point is that the backpacking industry in many ways is grounded on purity, integrity, and honesty. In my eyes, I don’t think asking these things of BACKPACKER is too much.