Friday, January 29, 2010

Therm-a-Rest Ridgerest "Solar"

Sleeping pads come in all shapes and sizes and many have very polarized opinions on what works best for them. For me, I’m fortunate because I find more comfort in CCF pads than just about anything else which allows me to save some money and weight while gaining a product nearly indestructible and very thermally efficient. I think my only gripe is that they simply don’t pack small which is actually a pretty big irritant.

For three-season hiking, my preference is for the CCF pads by Gossamer Gear. There simply isn’t anything lighter that gets the job done as effectively. As it gets colder, instead of adding another CCF or bringing something like BPL’s Torsolite which I find laughably small, I elect to use the Therm-a-Rest Ridgerest (torso-size of course). For a nominal gain in weight from the Gossamer Gear pads, I get an R-value at 2.6 which is really the best bang for the weight and size. The Ridgerest Deluxe comes in at at R-Value of 3.1 which is perfect for snow camping.

Well, as released during the 2010 Outdoor Retailer show, Therm-a-Rest is smartly using a technology which made their NeoAir inflatable mattress so infamous in 2009 – a reflective "radiant barrier" layer which will reflect the users body heat back to them thereby keeping them warmer. This is the same principal used in the New Balance Fugu jacket I mentioned earlier this month. If I were a betting man, I'd buy stock in this technology as I fully expect for it to make its way into clothing options at all levels for outdoorsman. After all, why not add a simple no-weight barrier to boost the warmth of anything. It could even be put inside a tent to absorb heat on one side and reflect it on the other...imagine that...a "warm" tent at no appreciable weight gain. How great would that be? Stevenson's Warmlite as been marketing that for years. Think long and hard about this wonderful advance in technology folks...

In July 2010, the RidgeRest and the bigger RidgeRest Deluxe will both be treated with an aluminized surface which will increase the R-value significantly. For example, in the Deluxe it will be increased from 3.1 to 3.5 with no weight gain. This is 13% warmer than previous versions and represents a significant leap and intelligent use of technology to offer you and I a better night of sleep on cold nights and on cooler surfaces.

This is one of those purchases for me which will be a no brainer. The regular size (20”x72”) will come in at 1lb 3 oz at $40 and the large version (25” x 77”) will come in at 1lb 10 oz for $55. Course, cutting them to size will make them anywhere from 7-16 oz for the average person, an industry-leading weight for a great ground insulating product.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Meet TentPak.

Back in July I wrote about a product called JakPak ( which marketed itself as a raincoat, tent, sleeping bag combo. I received quite a few e-mails about the product which generally carried the same theme: nice idea, but unlikely to be successful to the mainstream as people like to pick specific gear from multiple manufactuers and it doesn't really excel in any area.

Along those same lines, I’ve come across another product which will no doubt be met with the same exuberance.
“TentPak” ( is a backpack and tent combo. The company was started in 2008 and offers 12 backpack models with either a 3-season or 4-season tent for two people. The average TentPak weighs a healthy 13 pounds. Prices run from $150 to $375 depending on the model.

Those who used them claim the product is made quite well with high quality components which come standard with many adjustment options.

Although my money will be spent elsewhere, I guess the TentPak and the JakPak both have their audiences. To me, it would make more sense to market it to humanitarian groups for distribution to the homeless or those in need like the unfortunate folks in Haiti than to sell them to folks like you and I. Oh well, what do I know.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Down Socks

If I were to judge the most uncomfortable part of my body while trying to sleep in the backcounty, I think I’d argue it was my feet. I can’t say I was ever really truly uncomfortable, but it was the one area which I felt could use improvement. My discomfort was the fact that they would get slightly chilled about 2am and I found myself keeping them close together to keep them warm. Different socks provided different results, which again, I can’t say were all too terrible as any discomfort I experienced was always quite tolerable. But alas, I’m always looking for ways to tweak my backpacking system and find components which are as top notch as possible to ensure I have the greatest likelihood for comfort and success.

My sleeping socks started with a pair of Expedition REI socks. They were warm, but entirely too bulky and heavy. I then started using a second pair of my standard hiking sock, which for me, is the “Darn Tough” brand ( After several trips, I decided this was a bit overkill and still too heavy. I ended up wearing a pair of Possum Down socks ( which I had imported from New Zealand. They weigh nothing and aren’t meant for hiking, but work fine for my 3-season sleeping needs.

In the winter I considered an insulated bootie. I actually had a pair of Nunatak Teanaway booties ( custom made for me, but ended up returning them when the weight listed on the website was nearly twice as much as the pair provided to me. If you’re looking for a bootie, the Nunatak Teanaway, when made correctly, is the lightest pair I know. Because I had a bit of a gripe against Nunatak after waiting for nearly 3 months for a product that didn’t work and because I didn’t want to pay for a heavier pair from Feathered Friends or a mainstream company, I decided to give the Integral Designs Hot Socks ( a try. They worked fine, but I can’t report an overwhelming difference between that and other pairs of socks with decent insulation.

One of my recent purchases was a down hat from Black Rock Gear ( This was another unique piece of gear which I hadn’t seen on the mainstream market. After verifying the quality of construction and materials, I suggested to the owner that he start making down socks as it was an item I hadn’t seen in the market yet and would make a great product between regular socks and full blown booties. He agreed and said it was something he was going to start working on in 2010.

The idea of down socks has been in my mind since this conversation and I couldn’t help but wonder if it would ever become a reality. I’m someone who appreciates innovation, but generally lack the engineering and manufacturing experience to do things myself. As such, I often need to rely on others to make things I’d like to see. As I was waiting for Black Rock Gear, an individual came forward on to say he just made himself a pair of down socks and offered to make some for others. Seeing my window, I jumped on it. As the orders quickly took off in a matter of days, the owner started his own website “Goose Feet” ( He constructed his down socks from Momentum 0.9 oz Taffeta and he uses 800+ premium goose down fill. The weight of the socks is quite ideal when compared in a weight to warmth scenario with other options. The socks run $55 and weigh 2.0 oz in an extra small, 2.1 oz for a small, 2.2 oz for a medium, 2.3 oz for a large, and 2.4 oz for an x-large. If you weigh whatever socks you sleep in, I think you’ll realize that these down socks are likely lighter and substantially warmer. Keep in mind, they are meant to be worn only as warming socks, so this isn’t a product which you’ll be able to walk on when in camp. They should be considered as an option between a good sock and a heavier down bootie.

After ordering, I assumed the product I would receive was going to be clearly identified with amateur craftsmanship and frayed edges. To my surprise, they are as professional in appearance and construction as anything else on the market. With top notch components and reasonable pricing, this is another one of those pieces of gear which I highly recommend to add to your growing gear closet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Balance Fugu Down Jacket - BUY ONE!

The blogs have been a bit active lately regarding an 850-down goose fill jacket called the “New Balance Fugu”. A little over a year ago this jacket was compared by Richard Nisley in warmth to various offerings from Montbell, several fleeces, and other warming layers. The Fugu was significantly warmer than all of them. The jacket was supposedly being sold for $250-$450.

The problem is, no one could find one (at least I couldn’t). Unfortunately, New Balance wasn’t known for making apparel and it appears as though they got in the apparel business and then got out quite quickly. After making an effort to find one, I eventually gave up when I simply had no luck and I assumed the product was never to resurface again.

Last week there was a positing on that had their hands on some of these jackets and were selling them at a considerable discount ($119). I purchased one…and was completely amazed because it was exactly what I was looking for. In an XXL, it was sub 16 oz (a medium is 13.5oz) and easily put to shame pretty much everything else even close in my gear closet. It was made well, extremely warm, and the price was very right. This past October I put an order in for a Nunatak Skaha down pull-over. I felt so confident with the Fugu that I cancelled my order for the Skaha as the savings of roughly 4 oz wasn’t worth the $400 price tag. You can find the Fugu at:

There are a couple of things I love about this jacket. First, it fits up and around my neck nicely with significant loft. My neck, specifically those big ole blood pumping arteries which help keep my body warm and my pea brain functioning, is something I want to keep warm. Second, it has pockets that are actually useful and actually warm. I also love the fact that it has drawstring adjustment around the waist which is where some UL manufacturers often drop a little weight (i.e. Montbell). One unique feature is that it has a radiant barrier on the interior of the jacket to reflect body heat back to the user. This is a very unique and interesting piece of engineering which actually works. New Balance claims it provides an additional 4.6 degrees of warmth, but other tests have indicated it is actually more. The jacket also comes with a heavy DWR treatment similar to the manufacturing process of Epic which will help tremendously with a light rain and snow. Basically, it’s very well made and my only gripe is that the sleeves are a bit short, but it sure is nice that it comes in regular and tall sizes. Another important factor if your trail name is Jolly Green Giant is the fact that it comes in green. Now that makes it pretty much perfect in my book.

A word of caution, this is NOT the same jacket being sold by The Sportsman Guide. Consequently, Recreation Outlet has a mixture of the Fugu and a jacket that looks just like the Fugu. Be very careful that you don’t get sent the wrong one by mistake. The differences between the two jackets are fairly obvious. First and foremost, the Fugu will never weigh more than 16 oz (the imposter will weigh twice this). Second, the Fugu does not have fleece in the collar. Third, the zipper on the Fugu works, the other one is very poor. Fourth, the Fugu has an interior pocket clearly marking it as a Fugu jacket. The differences in these two jacket is not only appearances and weight, but also fill. The imposter uses an 80/20 ratio of down and of lesser quality. Buyer beware. has pledged to get you the correct jacket if by some reason you get the wrong one. If you aren't impressed with it as soon as you touch it, then you have the wrong one.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Greatest Lightweight Pillow?

Since having children, pillows have become more important to me both at home and in the backcountry. For example, in order for me to sleep while the kids are raising a ruckus, my body has engaged its own survival instinct which includes essentially turning my head to the side to the point that one of my ears is at least partially muffled by the pillow. Another pillow over my other ear and “voilà", a wonderful system which enables me to sleep peacefully while my wife plots my emanate death because she now needs to deal with the kiddies.

I had recently written about some lightweight pillows ( and wanted to follow-up with some additional thoughts and observations after being unsatisfied with the pillows offered on the mainstream market. Although these pillows provide a tolerable night of sleep, I was looking for something a little more comfortable. I found that there wasn’t enough height/depth for commercial backpacking pillows. Those that had decent height/depth, were nothing more than a big pouch of air which was uncomfortable to me as it was like sleeping on a basketball. Other versions were generally unrealistically and laughably small or made to last only for a couple of hours. With that, I set out to design my own pillow. As I tell my wife, I’m an idea man and therefore I needed someone else to do the dirty work as thus far my homemade pillows consisted of a wadded up shirt/jacket/stuff sack, etc.

As I mentioned earlier, Bender with Kooka Bay ( figured out how to use heat sealable nylon to manufacture pillows and inflatable mattress pads at very competitive weights. So, I contacted him with the hopes that he would make my idea into a reality. I’m happy to report his efforts were a great success.

The end product was a $40 62 gram (2.18 oz) 16” x 10” x 5" nylon pillow with internal baffling made from lightweight noseeum mosquito netting which gave the pillow shape to cradle my head on the larger than life 5” of height/depth. Basically, the size in every dimension coupled with the baffling was far more “pillowesque” than anything on the market. When compared to likely the most popular other alternative, the Mont-bell UL Comfort Pillow, mine is .3 ounces lighter and offers greater height/depth which means more flexibility to let air out and adjust the comfort. If you were wondering, the Mont-bell comes in at 2.4 oz, $30, and 18.5” x 10.6” x 3.9”. It too is smartly baffled.

In the picture, my custom pillow is the large dark blue one which is sitting next to some FlexAir pillows from Backpackinglight (white), a Kooka Bay UL pillow (dark blue), and the Cocoon UL Air Pillow (gray).

If you think this might benefit you, give Bender a shout. Unfortunately, Kooka Bay doesn’t give warranties to protect you from spousal retaliation when dodging childcare.

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.