Wednesday, June 27, 2012

BOOK REVIEW - The Ultimate Hang

 When I first started my blog several years ago, the landscape had very few online backpacking resources and even less about lightweight backpacking.  I was motivated to document everything I had learned both to help remember it myself but also to serve as a one-stop resource for others too.  With over 10,000 hits per month, my theory has proven true to a certain degree.  Over the years, many other great blogs, forums and communication tools have been established and it’s fair to say that resources about lightweight backpacking are fairly plentiful nowadays.  Unfortunately, not all facets of the outdoor industry are so thoroughly covered.  Hammocking falls into this black hole to a certain degree and those interested still need to do a great deal of piecing together research to gain a broader understanding.

As noted each year when I attend Trail Days, the outdoor industry seems to be pushing towards hammocking.  Materials, accessories, suspension and design have evolved dramatically in a very short timeframe and it is entirely possible to find highly functional hammock systems which are very comparable to even the most lightweight ground-dweller shelters.  Many highly skilled cottage manufacturers offer custom gear which revels the quality and workmanship of more mainstream outdoor merchandisers.

Hammocking still isn’t entirely mainstream however.  Outdoor markets may or may not have a small shelf dedicated to hammocking, and even then, usually accessory gear is absent (i.e. underquilts, top quilts, tarps, suspension, etc.).  Also, the hammocks represented are from those such as Eagles Nest Outfitter (ENO) which is arguably an entry level brand that dedicated hammockers likely wouldn’t take seriously.

Noting the industry shift (from conventional shelters to hammocking), it’s hard not to consider hammocking.  The problem is, much like what motivated me to start my blog many years ago, there are very few one-stop resources to learn about techniques, technology and gear.  Hammock Forums and its members are a spirited bunch who offer tremendous home-grown insight, but finding compiled information is challenging to say the least.  More often than not, those who want to learn about hammocking are forced to use organizationally-challenged forums or find individual blogs of more experienced hammockers.

Fortunately, a very capable, competent, contemporary, colorful, complete and useful resource is available – The Ultimate Hang, An Illustrated Guide to Hammock Camping written and illustrated by Derek Hansen.

Written, illustrated and published in the same spirit as Mike Clelland’s (!) wonderful books, The Ultimate Hang is exactly what any novice or experienced hammocker needs to fully understand the nuances of hammocks, gear and technique.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is amazingly complete and trendy – meaning you can save a lot of time and effort in research and self-study by simply reading this book.  It is a very clear and detailed view of the history and trends of hammocking which not only spells out how to be safe and secure, but how to lighten your load, stay dry, and have fun while leaving virtually zero impact.  Methods to keep warm, bug free, hanging and suspension techniques, and even MYOG are included.  It is well worth the investment and great illustrations help drive home the narrative.
I particularly liked how very comprehensive information could be gained just from the pictures or the narratives on their own merits.  I liked that so many specific manufacturers and their gear were specifically named as all too often outdoor books talk in generalities and trying to find the same product commercially is difficult, especially when there is a delay in book publishing.  I learned quite a bit from the book and even found a product I hadn’t heard of which likely would have helped me a couple years ago when I tried unsuccessfully to adjust an underquilt (Arrowhead Equipment triangle adapters).  The book goes into great detail on the versatility of a hammock system and makes a great case as to why it is better than tent.  I particularly like all the tips throughout.  One that caught my attention was to put a small CCF pad in the footbox of my quilt and not just under my quilt between the quilt and the hammock.  This explains why hammocks frustrated me at times in the past as my feet always seemed cold because my feet would constantly roll off the pad.  With the pad inside my quilt, I can’t wiggle away.

I had the opportunity to briefly meet Derek Hansen, the author, at Trail Days this year.  Hansen is clearly passionate about hammocking and being able to articulate his passion so clearly and completely is of great benefit to the industry.  Having so much information available in one location trumps all other resources available.  Owning a mini-library of backpacking and technique books, I can honestly say this one is my new favorite.  It is extremely comprehensive and the illustrations pull everything together perfectly.  It is clear a lot of thought went into it and readers will get a lot out of it.  It took me two days of non-dedicated and sporadic reading to make it through because it is one of those books where I found I wanted to press on and it was plenty simple enough despite my lack-luster gene pool.

I highly encourage experienced hammockers and those with an open mind to consider purchasing this book, and for that matter, a hammock!  If for little more, educate yourself about an alternative to more conventional shelter systems and help fund a fellow outdoor enthusiast who put his talents for illustration and writing to good use. Having a one-stop shop to tell you everything you need to know about hammocking is invaluable.  Although I have shied away from a lot of discussion about hammocks in the past because of my own inexperience or failures, I hope to have a few more articles about this topic in the immediate future as this activity is very much relevant and practical.

(Disclosure: This product was provided to me free-of-charge for the purposes of this review and is owned by me.  However, any information contained herein is my personal opinion without bias.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

2012 Gossamer Gear Mariposa (for TALL folks too!!)

It’s like seeing a unicorn, perhaps a leprechaun, Big Foot, Lockness, or even a UFO.  It is something believed to be a mere figment of the imagination of all those who are vertically gifted – a BACKPACK….THAT FITS!

Behold world – the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 2012 and coming soon – in sizes for tall folks!  You may now commence with the obligatory “ooohhhs and aaahhhhs”.

Grant Sible, the President of Gossamer Gear and a man clearly suitable for a very high office as an elected official, was kind enough to let me try out the newly redesigned Mariposa.  I suspect he is either the most generous human since Mother Theresa, or perhaps more accurately, I may have annoyed him sufficiently over the last two years with endless pestering about offering a pack sufficient for tall people. 

The new Mariposa is constructed largely of 140 Dyneema.  It is slightly thinner than what other manufacturers seem to be using which is just fine with me as it is both durable and light.  There are 7 exterior pockets, removable hip belt, curved and ample shoulder straps and many little frills which include a hydration pocket, removable aluminum curved stay, whistle sternum strap, shoulder strap load lifters, removable seat/back pad, and a unique over the top closure system.  There are a variety of ways to manipulate compression too.  Mine is 29 oz which is likely as big and heavy as it gets and many items can be removed.  It is a high volume pack, but has just about every frill that far heavier and commercialized backpacks offer.

I now must depart for adventures in the woods where I intend to put this pack through rigorous testing.  If my wife calls, let her know I’m sacrificing myself for the good of all humanity.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Exped SynMat UL 7 LW

I can’t say I am overwhelmed with the progress of lighter, durable and warmer inflatable sleeping pads.  I’d actually argue that the industry had been fairly stagnant for an irresponsible amount of time in consideration of product innovation.  The Thermarest NeoAir was introduced in the last couple years and made a significant attempt to push technology.  Many speak highly of it, but personally I felt it was terribly uncomfortable. I hated the horizontal baffling, the material was crinkly and noisy, and several field reports have shown for some that it isn’t very durable.  But, it does have a following, now several other expensive models, and it is lightweight and packs small.

Inflatables as a whole are hard for me to rationalize because they are so fragile, expensive, and not very durable.  Blowing warm air (and spit) into a closed dark environment is also a breeding ground for bacteria.  Many deal with this issue by bringing along a separate pump, or at best, a lightweight plastic bag with appropriate nozzle.  I'm not a big fan of bringing extra things personally.  But alas, many swear by inflatables.

Last year I briefly mentioned Exped was coming out with the SynMat UL 7 LW inflatable which I claimed was going to be a rival to the NeoAir.  A Memorial Day flier from REI and a significant discount motivated me to pick one up which is a bit outside my nature considering I don’t regularly carry inflatables.

At 6’5” and unwilling to torture my back by having my legs fall off the end at some point, I picked up the largest version which was 20.9 oz.  It maintained 3.1 R value and was a healthy 77.5” long x 26” wide.  I sincerely appreciated the length and width which so many manufacturers overlook.  It came with a stuff sack and repair kit (unlike the NeoAir).  Packed, it rolls up about the size of a 1 litre Nalgene (is there any comparison where a Nalgene bottle isn’t the reference?).  It is yellow on top and gray on the bottom.  I actually like a bright colored pad because it is perhaps one large item which could be used for emergency signaling if necessary.  The surface has a honeycomb pattern which I’d argue has a slight grip to help prevent the user from sliding around.

If you’ve never purchased anything from the Swiss company Exped, I’m happy to report that what you get is a thoughtful product which appears smartly designed, durable and highly functional.  I’m always happy to see solid overseas achievements hit U.S. shores as it pushes everyone to do better.

My impression of the SynMat UL 7 LW are all favorable.  From end-to-end, I like everything about it.  It is plenty big enough, plenty warm enough, plenty lightweight enough, and I really like the two separate valves for inflating and deflating (unlike the NeoAir).  It took me 16 breaths to inflate it completely (keep in mind, this is the largest version).  Of most importance is the fact that is comfortable and quiet.  In fact, I can argue that it is the MOST comfortable lightweight sleeping pad I’ve ever used.  The more I laid on it, the more I thought how many of you users of inflatable pads would just love it.

So am I a convert?  To a degree I suppose as I can articulate that it would be nice on some trips where weight wasn't as much of a concern to bring something that is far more comfortable than what I normally use.  But, at nearly 21oz, I could literally bring several roles of dense, pop-proof, warmer, less expensive, and more durable closed-cell foam (CCF) pads.  If I weren’t an ounce counter, I wouldn’t have a problem bringing it otherwise.  CCF pads aren’t as comfortable, but if I brought 21 oz of them, I’d argue that they might very well be.  Course, I need significantly less (probably closer to 10-12oz) of CCF pad to be comfortable in even the coldest conditions.  The main downside of the CCF, aside from the fact that it will never be as comfortable as an inflatable, is bulk. CCF pads are a lump of space-filling annoyance.

I do like this pad and feel comfortable recommending it (and highly recommended it even more for bigger people who are normally at a loss for big-boy inflatable options).  I look forward to seeing (and hearing) far less NeoAir’s on the trail.