Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Zebralight H51 Headlamp

If you’ve ever done any night hiking, you can quickly become disoriented and unsettled without a decent light source.  The smallest rustle in the darkness conjures up images of monsters or psychos ensuring our evening won’t be spent sleeping.  Or taking the issue a little less excitedly, a light is helpful for finding tent zippers, reading and any number of miscellaneous camp tasks.

Early on, I used standard headlamps for which the industry is saturated with many great products.  In the last decade, I’ve used various forms of Photo Microlight’s after noting that they were lighter and offered more output than the first version of the Petzl e+LITE (28g/$20) which I loved because it had everything I needed, was simple to use and had a red beam option.  In the last few years I’ve settled on the Photon Microlight II (6.2g/$11.95) but also often used the ITP A3 EOS Upgrade (20g/$19) which is an excellent light for the cost, weight and output, and the strap from my old e+LITE could be easily made to hold it.  All have pro’s and con’s.

For no other reason than because I kept hearing about it, I decided to test the Zebralight H51 (32.2g/$64).  What you get with the H51 is a rugged light with significant output at a weight that is very competitive.

I’ll assume there are plenty of better resources to have a geek discussion on batteries and bulb types, but let’s assume you and I are novice off-the-shelf users.  For comparison of these lights, take the following into consideration:

Zebralight H51
ITP A3 EOS Upgrade
Photon Microlight II

Each of these lights stand out on their own merits.  The Zebralight H51 offers an amazing amount of output.  The Microlight II is extremely lightweight and inexpensive.  The ITP A3 EOS Upgrade is a middle of the road option, but is very competitive cost and performance-wise.

Since I’ve discussed the Microlight II and ITP A3 EOS Upgrade previously, I figure I’d focus on the Zebralight H51.  It is a lot smaller than the picture suggests mainly because it is metallic, thick and bulky looking.  It is not very big.  It is perhaps the size of a chapstick on steroids or perhaps a roll of dimes flared out on each end.  It takes one AA battery which is great considering that’s a very common battery for other items perhaps already in your kit.  The Sanyo Eneloop offers a verifiable increase to performance too which are recommended from the manufacturer and are more commonly used with cameras and photography equipment.

On/Off operation is done with a push of a button on the end.  To the general user, there are three settings – low, medium and high, all white.  To those willing to read the directions and spend time frustrating yourself trying to push the button for a fraction of a second to access other options, you can toggle to two-sublevels for each level and apparently there is even a strobe.  I couldn’t find most of these, but got easily annoyed trying to find them.    Three levels, and a red if that were available, would suit 100% of my needs.  Why manufacturers try to get overly creative is beyond me.

The headband is excessive.  I’m pretty sure it could hold up my shorts.  It is plenty comfortable, just overly engineered.  It comes with a glow-in-the-dark headband fastener as well as a standard version which is nice, but also a bit much.   If I were a soldier needing something robust and sturdy, this would be it.  For lightweight backpackers, manufacturing a more creative solution is necessary unless you’re interested in using the included pocket-style clip.  I personally also like the option of being able to clip it to my hat which isn’t possible, at least not with the accessories that came with it or additional research.

Is it the world’s greatest headlamp option?  Who knows.  It comes down to preference, environment and financial resources I suppose.  It is pretty impressive though.  I'd like it to be lighter and a lighter head mount option.  A red beam would also be nice.  I'd also like the beam to come out the top of the unit, and perhaps the side as an additional option.

Aaron, one of the proprietors of an excellent backpacking and outdoor online magazine over at Trail Groove, recently posted and article about the very similar Zebralight H31W which is definitely worth the read.  On a related topic, become a member of Trail Groove.  The online magazine is excellent and it looks like a great grassroots effort trying to do something this industry greatly needs.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lightweight Fire Tools

If the question were posed – what one thing would you most want in a survival situation, I’m guessing the debate would include a knife and the means to make fire.  In the end, I think fire would win the debate.  After all, fire can make tools in addition to keeping you warm, signaling, providing light, warding off bugs and animals, aid in shaping shelters, purify water, cook food, cauterize wounds, clear areas, etc.

In this context, the next obvious question to a lightweight backpacker is what is the lightest means to make fire?  Author, illustrator, NOLS Instructor, and general outdoor know-it-all Mike Clelland (!) argues in his Ultralight Backpacking Tips book that his choice is a book of matches (which he supplements to a mini-BIC which he uses for his stove).  Arguably matches are also the most delicate and most prone to potential problems (which Clelland armors with a little plastic bag). 

Some may argue that an even lighter option is a magnifying glass.  About the size and diameter of a credit card, these flexible tools can be found at most survival shops and weigh next to nothing.  Course, magnifying glasses only work when the sun is out or when a strong flashlight is filtered through it, not to mention it would be difficult to get it away from your hiking partners who are likely using it to make funny faces, tattoo other unsuspecting hikers, or give bugs the tan of their life.

My backpacking experience with a fire device has bounced around quite a bit.  This has included Fire Pistons (which is a wonderful piece of art that compresses air to a finite point causing an explosion over tinder), Magnesium Fire Starters (this is what is issued to the U.S. Military in most cases and involves scraping a small amount of magnesium into a pile and introducing a spark to it), various flint/fire rod fire starters (can be scraped to add spark to tinder), books of matches, lighters, magnifying glass, etc.

So which worked best?  Well, the one that introduced fire most easily, consistently, reliably and in an actual flame (not spark) was the one I liked the best.  Like Clelland and many others, I carry a mini BIC as my main fire device and have some other form of backup.  For UL purposes, this is a book of matches in a plastic bag.  When I’m not counting grams to the finite degree of needing to get a haircut to lighten my load even further, I like having something that offers a reliable and repeatable spark in all conditions.

When I was at Trail Days this year, there was a cottage shop from Montana who made a variety of things out of antlers.  One product was a giant magnesium/flint striker combination which were seamed together and had an antler handle.  The owner demonstrated its functionality by scraping some of the magnesium into a pile, spritzing water on it, and then used the flint to apply a spark.  It immediately flared up quite impressively.  The problem was it was just too big and heavy and I didn’t see any backpacking uses for it.  At that point he showed me a much smaller version which peaked my interests enough to buy one.

Once I got home, I started doing a little research.  Sure enough, the combination tool of magnesium/flint weren’t hard to find, but clearly not terribly well known as they were new to the industry (although the military was already using this combined technology in their larger and heavier Magnesium blocks).  I found two different kinds at Camping Survival which were intriguing.  Both were smaller, lighter and cheaper than the one I had purchased at Trail Days…and they were on sale.  The Strike Master K7 fire starter was only $6.95 and the smaller Strike Master K1 fire starter was only $4.95.  Both had a flint rod fused to a magnesium block and both were very idiot-proof.

With that, I felt compelled to weigh my options to see how different fire starting options compared:

Magnesium Block             85 grams

Exotac Nano Striker         17 grams

Master K7                           13 grams

Mini BIC                              11 grams

Light My Fire Scout          16 grams

Light My Fire Mini             8 grams

Matches                             4 grams

Master K1                           4 grams

What I find fascinating is that the Strike Master K7 fire starter weighed as much as the book of matches.  The difference is that the Master K7 is far more durable, doesn’t need to be babied, and offers hundreds of opportunities for fire.  At $4.95, it’s tough to not like it.

If you’re in the market and you want something more substantial than a book of matches, consider the other options mentioned herein.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Stoic Down/Pertex

“Stoic” is the house brand of  I can’t say I frequently buy house brands for a variety of reasons, but I’m learning Stoic is one brand I can have faith in.

As with a lot of online retailers in the middle of summer, is making room for their new fall lines of merchandise.  This means 2011/2012 gear can be purchased far less expensively.  One of’s sister sites, which often has better selection and cheaper prices, is  In mid-May, I noticed several pieces of down gear were on sale and thought I’d take a look.

What I found were three very nice garments made of 850-fill goose down with a Pertex shell.  If you’re a lightweight backpacker, these materials should immediately draw your attention as often they are only used by those willing to charge you a premium price.

Hadron Down Vest (6.8oz/$45)

Taking a hard look at them, it was clear designers thought long and hard about making a good product.  Design is roomier, like most American products (and unlike European products…Montbell, Westcomb, Rab, etc.).  Each features a nice waist drawstring and a slight drop tail which I’ve always found worthwhile.  Stitching is tight and down is consistently filled throughout.  Materials are extremely appealing and superfluous features are kept to a minimum.  For example, only the vest has a full zipper.  I think my only gripe is that the cuffs on the Anorak and Cardigan are gigantic and unnecessary, although no doubt would aid in keeping the user warm.

Because this is a year-end sale, colors aren’t great, but I don’t find them to be bad either.  I had ordered all three garments in a green color.  I ended up with two which were green and the vest was an eggplant color.  It was discouraging to not get exactly what I wanted, but the eggplant isn’t bad enough to remotely care.  Besides, I’ve never been a leader in fashion and thus far the trees haven’t complained.

I’m really quite happy with these purchases because each item is really top notch for a great price.  When I compared the weights, materials and fill to other major brands, I noted that these items were comparable or arguably better.  I also like the fact that sends each item in its own biodegradable bag with drawstring.  It’s a nice touch.

Consequently, if you’re in the market for a Pertex/down sleeping bag, check out the Stoic Somous 30 (19oz/$224).  The Stoic Merino 150 Bliss ($34) is also a nice lightweight merino wool summer shirt with a great deep zippered collar for venting and chest pocket.

This sale won’t last forever and colors and sizes are limiting with each day, but take a look.