Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Plight of the Puffy (and some griping)

Ode to the world of medium and all you medium occupants, all you averaged-sized people with your averaged-sized dimensions, with your average needs always accommodated by the average world around you.  I see you, well, the top of your heads mostly.  I see you chipper and upbeat when you enter your favorite outfitter because you know if your pockets are deep enough that every pack, sleeping bag, tent and apparel item will fit you just fine.  I see you stretched out and fast asleep on airplanes as my knees are in my nose and my shoulders are a significant distance above the headrest making even the slightest hope to crane my neck to catch a glimpse of sleep an impossible fantasy.  I see you in wide-eyed enthusiasm in every store you enter because you know, without a shadow of a doubt, anything in the store you desire to be yours will be available in your size in every color it is offered (I get black).  I see you average-sized people who can walk with ease through a ceiling fan store without your heart skipping a beat and don’t even notice doorways which in one colonial home long ago broke my nose.  I see you averaged-sized people joyfully hopping in your car while I feel like a St. Bernard squeaking through a pet door and knowing full well that even the slightest accident will be a major catastrophe to my sausage body undesirably pouring throughout the car.  I see you invisible in a crowd lacking the eyes on the back of your head burning through your brain from those standing behind you whose sightline has been grossly perverted by what is interpreted to be an eclipse by people like me who don’t fit snuggly into your Gap-Abercrombie- medium-world.  I hear your sighs and see your look of hopelessness when I share a pew or bench with you and I am compassionate to your overwhelming fear when your little one strolls a little too far away from your watchful eye as I’m flopping along in my sizeable crushing gates with all the grace I can muster.  I see you. 

And yet for those of you who make clothing for the masses, you rarely see me.  Leaves and fig leaves be damned, but you leave me little alternative.  God watered my feet a little more than yours – it’s not my fault, yet those of us in the member’s only club of being one-size-too-big are treated like the last pretzel at a dinner party which had been fondled by all the party goers, like the two last squares of toilet paper on a nearly naked roll destined to be hastily thrown in the trash.  Yet when dusting on top of the refrigerator is required, when the shelf above your head needs tightening, when the bully would get more encouragement to go home by looking at my chest than directly into your eyes, when you’re picking sides to a basketball game and need someone to rebound your poor attempt at jock-hood…that’s when you call me, that’s when you call us, just to be discarded again once our usefulness is over.  Me and my 52 extra long frame (not just “long”) have no choice but to take my ball and glove and go home.  We do this reluctantly mind you, but we go.  The alternative is that we’d probably eat you if we got fed up enough, but you’d be nothing more than a pile of Calvin Klein anorexic medium bones quenching only to those with a medium appetites.  So we go.

So here’s to you, you manufacturers of clothing.  I offer you the one finger salute, the “read-between-the-lines” evaluation of your sizing chart and willingness to deviate from the medium world of mouth-breathers, the clear reflection of you being “number 1” in my book.   I bring you, the PLIGHT OF THE PUFFY!!

(Exiting soapbox stage left…)

So my dear readers, I wanted a hooded down jacket, a puffy, one for everyday use but one which was appropriately designed for my lightweight backpacking lifestyle if desired.  Uberlight would be nice, not a necessity, but closer to lightweight than heavy.  The usual suspects were addressed: Patagonia, Montbell, GoLite, Eddie Bauer and those without even a mild reference to XXL or tall were not (which included everyone else).  With over $1,000 on my credit card to test and hastily ship back those of epic failure before the bill comes due and willing to eat the hefty return fees, I gave trying to find a puffy the best shot I could.  The exercise of buying and returning is a common theme in my house.  Usually by the time I find something that works, I’ve paid for it twice.  Stores don’t have what I need and my birthday suit is likely as unappealing to you as it is to me, and not very warm either.  We’ll call that “Plan B”.

As my wife so eloquently put it, “you look like a woman”.  If I wanted to look like I was wearing my son’s shirt (he’s 4), this would be the one.  Costly, tight and featureless.  Less warm than the cheaper Montbell and poor DWR.  Fail.  Returned (burning would have been more desirable).
Likeable, enticing and high quality from a company with a known commodity, proactive environmentalism, and granola-factor.  But, absurdly expensive, too tight, and short pretty much everywhere.  May be a good option for you if you don’t mind spending all of your kids’ college funds. I hope you have short arms though. Fail. Returned.

Best size-offering from Patagonia for us knuckle-draggers.  This is one of Patagonia's staple products that only gets better with each revision, but Patagonia still doesn't offer enough room under the armpit which is more common with European manufacturers than American.  It is heavier than both my New Balance Fugu and BPL Cocoon and not as warm.  A little tight, a little short, and absurdly expensive.  Fail.  Returned...but put in the "maybe" pile when Patagonia has one of their 40% off sales.

By the way, I understand Patagonia offers varying "fits" (relaxed, fitted, etc.).  This has nothing to do with height (i.e. offerings for tall folks) but more along the lines of whether you want their garments to hang on you or be fairly snug.  This is all well and good, but wouldn't the sleeve length remain consistent throughout?  Three Patagonia garments, none of which remotely close to one another when it comes to the same sleeve length in the same size item.  FAIL!

Best weight-to-warmth ratio, a standard in the lightweight backpacking community.  Excellent “lightness” and construction, very economic price in comparison to just about everything else.  But, entirely too tight compromising warmth from compressed loft and not long enough or roomy enough in all dimensions.  Fail.  Returned.  (Old picture without hood of one I current have...same problems, but look at how much more loft there is than the Patagonia Down Sweater...the most puffy of those in this Patagonia comparison....)

Pricey and poor reviews regarding down containment which I can now agree with.  The zipper caught on just about everything and it seemed tighter in the chest than in my midsection which is backwards from how it should be designed.   Long enough, but entirely too tight around my upper ribs and my experience leads me to believe that there isn’t a realistic amount of down throughout (some areas like behind the shoulders are devoid of down entirely).  This wasn’t on par with Patagonia anyway which fit better.  I must say, Eddie Bauer has fallen a long way.  Fail.  Returned.

Roomier than the Microtherm, but guilty of the same poor reviews concerning down containment and once again I could see down floating around but I was a bit distracted by loose threads too.  Equally tight around my upper ribs and entirely too heavy and expensive.  It has a lot more down which was obvious, but not quite what I was looking for as I have quite a few other jackets with more down than a goose factory.  This reminds me of a down jacket I could by at Costco or some other warehouse site where jackets are turned out in mass without much thought to anything other than having two arm holes and a head hole.  Patagonia remains a better option and Eddie Bauer is nothing like it was a couple decades ago when it was the go-to manly-man shop.  Fail.  Returned.

Attractive and from a company that once held a foothold in the lightweight backpacking industry and now offers “good enough” stuff with a heavy dose of inspiring eco-consciousness.  Andrew Skurka didn't complain, so why should I?  I'm guessing you've never heard of this jacket both because it is new and because its price tag is a laughable $375 when in all its full priced glory.  At that price, I sure hope it gets itself up in the middle of night, pees for you, and brings back a glass of warm milk with a cookie.  But, it is made of top notch high end materials which are great for fondling and marketing.  For a $375 jacket, I was shocked to find a couple of things.  First, there is NO hood adjustment.  Instead, it's a well-made hood which I'd say would fit properly on a basketball.  It's just too big towards the back of the head.  If it is singularly meant for those of us who wear helmets, I'd say that this kind of design choice is a terrible one considering there are far more outdoor enthusiasts in every other venue than climbers.  For reference, I wear a 7.5 hat.  If you take a look at the picture above, you can see that I can literally pull the top of the hood down to the bottom of my chin.  Seriously, that's WAY TOO BIG!!!  The baffles on the front and back are in varying sizes which make it look like a Batman costume and  my wife felt it looked like I was wearing a big garbage bag.  Because the larger baffles are on the belly area, it emphasized the very part of my body that I want emphasized the least.  It weighed slightly less than the Patagonia Down Sweater which was appealing especially for such a high quality jacket, but I was absolutely shocked to feel my back shoulder area cold when I went outside on a breezy 40 degree day within seconds of opening the door.  I mean seriously, how often do you say "my back is cold" (me, never, literally until now)?  I suspect this means that the design and insulation in that area must be utterly terrible for that to be even remotely noticeable.  This jacket has a lot going for it though because it is nice in just about every way. Barely roomy enough and long enough arms, a little tight under the armpits.  I compared it to my Montbell UL Down Inner and it was exactly the same size, which wasn't good because I think my Montbell is too tight that it degrades the loft and ends up not warming me up.  Top notch material and manufacturing with great features.  But the con's weighed heavily on me (terrible hood...which is the whole reason I was looking for a hoodie, entirely too expensive, goofy baffles, and cold (?!!?!!) in the back).  So yes, FAIL.  Returned.

If I were you in the world of medium, where of course I'd be eternally happy because the world would be my oyster and about the only thing I'd need to worry about is putting one foot firmly in front of the other without falling down, I think money would be best spent for the warmth, cost and quality of Montbell.  As for me, I guess I'll be wearing what I have and adding a hat.

On on the heels of how nothing seems to fit, there are a few cottage manufacturers out there who dare to roll the dice whether it be for apparel or gear.  These leaders of men make an effort even when it means not catering to their "core market demographic", you know, you medium folks.  These are the amazing few for whom I generally must seek out and solicit.  In honor of one of them, I'll show off a remarkable new bivy in the coming weeks which makes the world of sleeping under a tarp and in poor conditions a bit happier for people who spent a little too much time in their mom's belly like I did.

Now go back to your medium world before I eat you.

UPDATE - February 1st 2012
Unwilling to pay $350 to get a custom jacket, I decided to try one last option - the Mountain Hardwear Nitrous.  I personally love Mountain Hardwear gear and I have no idea why I don't have more of it as normally it is made well and is usually dimensionally bigger than its competitors. I compared it against the GoLite Bitterroot above and found it was lighter (had an ounce less down) but fit better (2" or more wider).  Under the arms was still a little tight and there was still no hood adjustment.  Instead of black, I was able to get green (!!!) which is important when your trail name is Jolly GREEN Giant.  It's made of polyester and not fancy Pertex, but it has received great reviews for its ability to block water and rain.  Likely the other deciding factor was that I got it on sale for $130 and of course it was of great help to have Ben over at GooseFeet agree to put a cinch cord in around the hood.  So........the saga is over, for now, and no one will be eaten, for now.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Introducing the Altra Adam

Are you part of the minimalist footwear movement?  (I acknowledge that probably sounds funny coming from a guy who wears size 14 shoes because no matter how “minimal” my footwear my feet will always look like flippers.)  There is a clear movement in the outdoor industry debunking the myth promulgated for decades that foot comfort is directly related to overly manufactured and engineered footwear.  Historically footwear went from, well “nothing”, to animal skins, leather, and eventually heavy cushioned rubber and foam.  Oddly enough, foot health didn’t improve.  In fact, there are plenty of studies that human feet have become far weaker because they are not stressed to develop needed muscles and consequently get formed into unnatural positions by manufacturers more interested in selling style than function.  These over designed shoes result in posture and gate problems too which can have deep and long lasting effects.

Those leading the lightweight shoe market rely on the fact that minimal footwear helps promote the development of stronger feet which will no doubt equally impact posture.  To lightweight backpackers always seemingly interested in getting closer to nature, this type of footwear has multiple uses.  First, it truly helps you better recognize your surroundings as you pay closer attention to where you step.  Second, with a less robust platform, foot placement is significantly more stable.  Third, there is also an increase to the foot-on-ground sensation which is particularly relevant when hiking on rocks where “feeling” whether your foot is firmly planted and stable is critical.  Lastly, these lightweight shoes also serve as a great option for camp shoes or optional footwear when attempting a water crossing.

Altra Footwear  ( is a lesser known but growing company who is working on gaining a solid foothold in this market.  They have been around for 20 years and have a strong focus on the biomechanics of running and, quite honestly, other better known manufacturers are following their lead.  Bottom line, a shoe should not encourage heel strikes and that’s exactly what Altra Footwear attempts to avoid.  Golden Harper, the Founder of Altra Footwear, was a former All-American runner and running store manager who acknowledged the need for more natural footwear.  After decreasing the heel area so it is as close to the ground as possible (an innovation he refers to as “Zero Dropped”), he noted how the change in design from conventional footwear eliminated more common injuries.  Even his father, a former college athlete who injured his knee and was told he would never run again, used Golden’s new innovation to regain strength in his knee while reducing pressure, gain proper technique, and ultimately was able to run and win major marathons.

“The Adam” is one of several lightweight footwear options offered by Altra Footwear.  I found them to be a great option for people who like having an extra pair of camp shoes or water shoes.  Like other shoes in their product line, men and women’s shoes are not made the same.  All shoes have an ample and anatomically correct toe box which alone helps eliminate many foot problems caused by other manufactures who rely on functionally deficient fashion trends.  Each shoe is as close to the ground as possible, especially in the heel area, which encourages natural motion and foot strike.  Shoes even come with two different types of insoles which can be used or removed entirely, all for the purposes of gaining the right fit as foot strength is developed.

My personal use and observations of “The Adam” couldn’t be more positive.  Right out of the box, I noted the shoes are very visually appealing both in color scheme and design.  The shoes are well-made with high end materials and attention was clearly given to areas which would normally rub or be problematic.  They were far lighter than I suspected too.

Trying on the shoes and getting some solid movement with them was also very welcoming.  The Adam was quite comfortable and definitely changed my gate and posture for the better.  The extra roomy toe box was appreciated for someone like me with big feet.

Since I was a kid, I’ve had pretty poor feet.  Growing up around pools, it wasn’t uncommon for me to wear conventional water shoes after previous days in the pool wore my feet down to the point where they were too sensitive to walk in the water without protection.  In later years, I used those same kinds of shoes when fishing as it wasn’t uncommon for my friends and I to take fishing entirely too aggressively by walking out into the middle of rivers which would have upset any responsible parent.  These shoes remind me of the same feeling from my childhood where the minimalism seems to make me feel youthful and the lower profile encourages running.  I found myself constantly going into a trot, if not a run, even though I had no intent to rush anywhere.  Velcro straps on top of the shoe really helped cinch the shoe down tightly which is something I prefer and was a concern I had with other similar shoe options.  A breathable stretch upper was also something I liked as it prevents ground grit from easily getting into the shoe while still remaining well ventilated.  In my experience I noticed that the shoes required me to walk more deliberately principally because the elevation where I'm familiar with my foot making contact with the ground had changed.  This means I walk more lightly and thoughtfully.  Overtime, I've found that I'm just a little more comfortable as I guess I'm not taking waking for granted.

So what about real world use of these lightweight shoes?  Let me tell you the story of my 33 year old brother in-law.  Like every member of my in-laws and their extended relatives, my brother in-law has the ability to maintain a thin physique while eating whatever he wants and never exercising.  This is a far cry from the genetic disposition on my side of the gene pool where most of my family members gain weight merely driving by a restaurant.  "Exercise" to my brother in-law, and well, almost every member of his family, means pushing off the couch long enough to fetch a bag of Doritos.  Well, in July my brother in-law got the wild idea to run in a marathon.  He went online and learned of the benefit of low profile/natural footwear options and decided to buy himself a pair.  From July to October he ran casually, increasing his mileage each week.  Sure enough, in late October, he ran a whole marathon (26.2 miles) at a respectable pace wearing minimal low profile shoes.  He didn't even wear socks.  Within hours of the race, he could be seen sipping on water, commenting how his legs and feet didn't hurt at all, and kicked back on the couch assuming his more natural position - eating a bag of Doritos.  A week later, he reported no discomfort whatsoever.

Bottom line, these are a very interesting and worthwhile shoe whether you’re a runner, a minimalist footwear user, someone looking to get closer to nature or your improve posture, or a backpacker in need or camp shoes or water shoes.  These are an option worth considering.  The weight is just 4.7 ounces in a size 8 and they run about $79.  This is far lighter than other similar options that I've come across, and in my opinion, these are better constructed.  Also, and thank goodness, an investment in these will help you avoid wearing Crocs and having them compared to clown shoes.

You can find a store close to you at the Altra Footwear website (

(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.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Meet the LifeStraw (and other water treatment devices)

Do you know Warren Doyle?  If you don't, you should at least be impressed by his accomplishments. Doyle has hiked the Appalachian Trail a record 16 times (!!!) over the course of last several decades and has 34,000 lifetime miles under his belt. He holds a PhD and even offers classes for potential Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.  Reading up on Doyle, one of the most unique things he does to cut weight (aside from slack-packing much of the way now that he is in the twilight of his life) is that he does not bring any kind of water treatment with him. He simply drinks from water sources he finds along the trail.  Now granted, he exercises an abundance of common sense such trying to get water as close to the original direct source as possible, avoiding visually defunct sources, ensuring he is not downstream from agricultural runoff or animal feeding areas, etc.

Assuming the rest of us aren’t that trusting and treat our water to some degree, we each likely use a variation of chemical treatment, UV light treatment, or filter option.  Throughout the years I tried each of these to varying degrees and elect to bring one over the other depending on the situation and environmental conditions.  At some point I even used a homemade inline water filter with scrap parts from MSR and Sawyer, but found the whole system to be entirely too finicky and cumbersome.

My first treatment option was a PUR pump filter (380g).  From the start I hated it.  It was clunky, expensive, heavy and clogged.  In fact, it has sat in my closet unused for the last 8 years or so after crushing my hand in the pump mechanism following getting the handle wet where personal fatigue and a slip caused the pump to crush down on my fingers.

My second option was a AquaMira Frontier Pro (57g/$25) which screws nicely on top of a small mouth bottle and treats most everything I’d come in contact with.  I’ve found this filter to be quite wonderful for the size, cost and efficiency.  A close relative is the Frontier (18g/$10) which is designed as an emergency filter.  With its small size, it is a packable item that can make it into a travel kit if there is a concern for water issues and may be suitable for the weekend warrior not needing a voluminous water treatment option.

Over the last couple years, treating water with ultraviolet light has become popular.  I used the Steripen Adventurer (66g/$100) for several outings and found that I’d rather leave it at home.  It’s heavier than I’d like, expensive, uses batteries, susceptible to breaking, does poorly in water that is anything but nearly clear, doesn’t do well in treating water when the water vessel is larger than the size recommended for the unit, etc.  I have no problems taking it with me traveling, but for the most part, it sits on a shelf.

For the last several years I’ve primarily used the chemical treatment Katadyn Micropur ($8 for 20).  It is a small, lightweight, and inexpensive tablet.  I use this product with some kind of homemade pre-filter, like a nylon mesh bag and coffee filter, or a 1 micron biodiesel bag.  For me, this option has been wonderful and effective.

A product offering similar performance to the filters above called LifeStraw ( is better known in third world countries and persons planning for emergencies than to backpackers.  Of no surprise after reading the accompanying marketing literature, this product was originally created to help those affected by the Haitian earthquake and floods in Pakistan.  It is also frequently used by Faith-based organizations servicing impoverished countries on behalf of the United Nations and holds numerous awards to include those from CNN, TIME magazine, and others.

So why should you care about LifeStraw?  Well, it is as effective if not more than the filters mentioned above and costs a measly $19.  LifeStraw purifies a minimum of 1,000 liters of water over its lifetime (AquaMira Froniter can only handle 20 gallons) and removes up to 99.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of protozoan cysts.  It is a good option for those with a tight budget and everyone with an emergency home or car kit.

LifeStraw is a tube capped on both ends with a filter on the inside and otherwise no moving parts.  After uncapping the ends, the user simply dips the bottom portion into the water source and sips from the other end.  I found the flow to be comparable to the Frontier Pro which is the easiest for me to use.  It comes with a helpful lanyard and the caps help avoid dirt and cross contamination. 

In a publication from Vestergaard Frandsen Group S.A., it was noted that he plastic pre-filter located at the bottom of the LifeStraw removes coarse particles larger than 1mm while all particles larger than .2mm were stopped (small enough to stop protozoan parasites and bacteria).  Most backpackers look for filters capable of stopping particles 3 microns and under for it to be effective.  Cleaning it by blowing through it seems to work as well as it does with other options.  A University of Arizona study further stated that LifeStraw performed “well” when challenged with “worst case” water quality as likely in third world countries, a claim that likely these other manufacturers can’t offer.  This study showed that LifeStraw removed 99.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of Cryptosporidium cysts thereby complying with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements.  In the event that you’ve heard of the LifeStaw previously, worth noting is that it no longer uses carbon or iodine and has meets standards for water filtration of bacteria and protazoa. 

As I mentioned, this is a nice option.  You can purchase yours at Green Beetle Gear (

For a more expansive understanding of water nasties, check out my earlier post at some of which is posted below for reference:

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.).

(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.)