Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Top 3 Lightweight Lighting Options

Ever hiked at night? Some find it exhilarating, some find it scary. I suppose I've shared both emotions which seem to be heavily influenced by whether I'm solo or with others.

If you've hiked at night, or had a need for a functional light to help you set up your shelter, hang a bear bag, or otherwise navigate in a foreign place....and you're of the lightweight persuasion, this article is for you.

Right off the bat I'll preference this whole article is geared for lightweight backpackers which means I'll skip mentioning the wonderful products offered by Petzl and others. There are many outstanding headlamps on the market which can turn light into day, but I'm looking for "good enough" in a lightweight package. To me a good headlamp must cast a decent and functional beam with dispersion appropriate for hiking, it must be lightweight and allow me to be hands-free, it must be fairly durable in both construction and protection from outdoor elements, and it sure would be nice if both beam, intensity, and color could be adjusted. After a lot of study and practice, below are my top 3 suggestions - none of which are perfect, but all of which are intriguing. For comparison, the Petzl Tikka 2, a very popular mainstream headlamp, weighs 81 grams and costs around $40. The heaviest item on my list is 29 grams and costs $20.

First up, the Photon Micro-Light II ($12, 12g). Before being introduced to this light, I was very skeptical - standoffish in fact. It was simply too small, too lightweight, and too inexpensive...or so I thought. Since embracing it, despite always trying to find something better, I keep returning to it. Simply, it's just a great, lightweight, and functional option. It runs on a CR2032 battery which is very popular.

Second, the Black Diamond Ion ($20, 29g). This little light has been around for awhile and keeps getting improved. What I like about it is that it is a fully functional headlamp in the sense that it is meant to be worn as a headlamp instead of needing some gimmicky way to attach it like the other two lights mentioned herein. The mount allows for it to tilt up and down and it has two settings for low and high. I like that it comes in different colors. Like anything I pull out of my pack, I want it to be bright so I don't lose it. It runs on a 6-Volt battery, which although popular, may not always be available in trail towns.

Lastly, the ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition ($20, 26g). This replaced my Fenix LDo1, which superhiker Andew Skurka liked so much. The ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition won out in my book because it was lighter, far cheaper, more compact, came in bright colors, had more features, and had better distribution of light. Like other similar small flashlights of the same shape, I needed to rig it to something to wear it on my head. I used the headstrap for my Petzl eLITE which I've since retired and no longer recommend as there are just better options available.

Another thing I like about all three, for which the Photon doesn't have a choice as it only has one intensity, is that when I turn them on it defaults to the lowest setting. I get irritated when I pick up a light in the middle of the night and next thing I know I think I'm having a religious moment as my shelter becomes the lighthouse of the forest. It saves unnecessarily wasted battery too.

Originally when I thought of writing this article, I planned on offering a definitive response as to which one I thought was best. Several times I stood in my darkened basement or on a trail behind my house after the sun went down and I came to the decision that I really can't come to a one-option decision. Each light is wonderful in its own right and it really depends on user preferences. For example, some want several light modes, some want to see far, etc. So you can compare some of the more important features, I made the somewhat helpful chart below.

Some of you may be focused on Lumens, for which the ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition is the brightest, but keep in mind the beam would only last 55 minutes on this setting (80 lumens). Yet the Black Diamond Ion on its highest setting would last for 8 hours (12 lumens). The humble Photon Micro-Light II which only has one setting would last for 12 hours and it's the lightest and least expensive (4.5 lumens). So the question if this is a concern is how many lumens do you need to have to feel comfortable. To me, 4.5 is plenty for night hiking, but I'd also like for a higher setting to see things in the distance if needed and a lower setting for reading. It would also be nice to have a red beam to save my night vision, but none of these have this option (the Photon can be purchased separately in red beam as well as other colors). Regardless, you get the point and I encourage you to take a look at each of these lights as they are all truly wonderful options.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Twigs and Berries, a Conversation to Avoid Neglect

Yes, if I'm willing to have a multi-part series on the value of a good poop-scoop, then it's probably no surprise that I have no shame in addressing the value of good underwear too.

If you haven't been victimized by chaffing, you're really missing out on a wonderful experience of pain tolerance. Chaffing, specifically thigh-on-thigh chaffing is a very unpleasant experience. In fact, it can ruin a hike. Despite being armed with Hydropel and wearing ExOfficio boxer briefs which I thought were sufficient, a couple summers ago I got the pleasure of feeling what I described as being bit in the crotch by a rabid Rottweiler which took a couple weeks to heal. Simply, it hurt to walk and there was really no good way to deal with it other than by being patient and sitting quite patiently in an exposed and vulnerable position.

In the end, for my situation anyway, the most help I could gain to ensure it didn't happen again was to be more selective with my underwear choices. For this reason, I'm going to propose three solutions. First, as mentioned by Ray Jardine and others, simple spandex or polyester "biking" shorts can do double duty as both shorts and underwear. If you can find some treated with silver, you'll gain better anti-microbial properties. Second, as I mentioned in another blog, I've also had some luck wearing very wispy shorts with interior netting for support. The ventilation helps tremendously and as long as you can keep the fabric from bunching up it might just be a good option for you. That leads me to my third point, proper fitting underwear.

As I mentioned, in the past I used ExOfficio snug-fitting boxer briefs which are pretty common in hiking and traveling circles. For me, they simply didn't work well enough for me to keep using them. I then moved on to a pair of Under Armor boxer briefs which were far more robust, more snug fitting, and did their job better. The problem is they run $20-$30 per pair. Simply - this is ridiculous.

For quite a while I've been searching for something on par with Under Armor. About six months ago I stumbled across what I would later learn to be their replacement. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find them again until very recently and I elected not to blog about them until I was able to say they were still being made and could be found by my readers.

So here's the best option I could find...which I prefer over Under Armor. They are significantly cheaper, slightly lighter, and craftsmanship and materials are on par. Yes, and they do the job. Under the STARTER brand name and only available at Walmart, check out the Active-Pro Performance 6" Boxer Brief. They are just $8.88, come in a variety of sizes, and honestly, they are the best underwear I've owned for backpacking as they are just as robust as UA, but just slightly thinner which is helpful for quick drying. Here's the can't find them online and I've learned that some Walmart stores have them while others do not. Simply, you need to put in the time to try to find them. They exist. Some Walmart's have a huge section dedicated to them while others only have the cotton version.

Butt Paste, zinc, and other baby-related creams go a long way too, but that's for another discussion.  I even know of one hiker who dabs alcohol from cotton swabs onto the irritated area.  He claims it hurts tremendously, but quickly makes all the pain go away.

Happy trails.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Getting "Out" From the Comforts of My Own Home

I've been extraordinarily busy for the last several weeks and my outdoor time whether hiking or merely seeing the light of day has been dwindling. Whether it is the strains of working for a new boss who recently hired one of his former employees who strangely enough does exactly what I do (dusting off the resume and hoping for the best) or the fact that I'm pretty sure I tore my MCL, I feel like I'm missing summer. Course, the few times I've braved the day, I was met with triple digit temperatures which singularly made me dream about fall and winter as I camped out in my refrigerator.

When I can't get out, I try to at least keep my spirit alive by checking in on some backpacking or outdoor programming to include many of the blogs listed on the right -------- >. Consequently, I've also watched a few DVD's.

Many of you know about Richard "Dick" Proenneke who quite literally lived in a homemade Alaskan cabin for nearly 30 years. His life during this adventure is documented in a video called "Alone in the Wilderness" by Bob Swerer Productions. His story is really great and he is a product of the World War II generation for which I have a tremendous amount of respect, admiration, and gratitude. For anyone that watched his documentary, they likely learned that he nearly lost his eye in an accident which contributed towards his need to seek refuge in the beautiful wilderness. Likely the thing that stood out most was both his self-sufficiency and his amazing ability to build just about anything, and build it well, with merely an axe, saw, a couple chisels, and some glue. Dick passed away in 2003 and his cabin is now under control of the U.S. Park Service.

Fortunately for those of us that couldn't get enough of Proenneke's escapades, Bob Swerer Productions came out with a sequel (Part II) of Alone in the Wilderness. It can be purchased at for $21.95. It has additional footage, shows Proenneke a little later in his life and a little more hardened from the environment. He reminded me of a trapper the more I watched his very experienced and mechanical actions, very much the mentality of a lightweight backpacker in the sense that he had only what he needed and was quite resourceful with that.

I also picked up "Alaska - Silence and Solitude" which covered a couple weeks in Alaska with Bob Swerer Sr. and Jr. which was interesting watching their child-like enthusiasm for the wild and their firsthand experiences which attempted to echo that of Proenneke.

I also picked up two backpacking DVD's which focused on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I personally have no desire to thru-hike the PCT principally because of the desert areas, but I do like the scenery of the central and northern parts in addition to watching the exchanges between hikers, gear choices, and just experiencing the trail vicariously.

The first was Wizards of the PCT ( which was narrated and was directed by a backpacker named Jester. The DVD was $20. This was one of those purchases which was a donation to the backpacking community. In my opinion, the footage was shaky and showed the less polished side of backpackers. It was pretty underwhelming in comparison to other backpacking videos I've seen and came with a heavy dose of snarky attitude which I assume has something to do with how Jester got his trail name. Nonetheless, it serves as a nice documentation of his personal experience and surely will entice some.

The second was a series of four DVD's called "Walk", "Still Walking", "Even More Walking", and "Walked" ( Although I wasn't thrilled to pay for four DVD's ($45 total) for something that could have been better paired down to just one DVD, the reality is that it is understandable because the narrator and director, a backpacker named Squatch only intended on making a single video. It was his goal to merely bounce around the PCT, talk to backpackers, and get a general idea of the lore of the path so close to his own home. After the first video, it was clear he got the backpacking bug and hiked a 150 mile section as he continued to bounce around and shoot more footage. By the third and following videos it was clear he became a backpacker and continued his trek along the PCT until he finished it. His fourth DVD "Walked" was the best production and quality by far and it served as a who's-who of the backpacker community with appearances from Jester, Joe Valesko (Samurai) from Z-Packs, Disco and Princess of Darkness from the great PCT documentary "The Walkumentry", and even The Onion (one of the first people to yo-yo the CDT along with Francis Tapon (Mr. Magoo) in the same year. I also noticed that ULA-Equipment packs were the most common, followed by Gossamer Gear in a close second, with some people carrying Osprey packs. The production and video quality improved towards the later DVD's and his personality was child-like initially and always inquisitive. I think it represented the "common man's" video of backpacking and serves as a good learning tool. If you decide you want to purchase one, go for the fourth installment (Walked).

I'd also like to take a moment to thank everyone to contributed to the Ultralight A-Z video series mentioned in my last blog. This project was fully funded and you and I can look forward to what will hopefully be a mainstay in lightweight backpacking DVD's.