Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Merino Wool vs. Capilene (Synthetic)

I wanted to mention a topic of conversation I hear frequently with regards the benefits of base layers such a Patagonia Capilene (synthetic) versus merino wool products. Worth mentioning is that there are a ton of other options on the market to include high-tech moisture wicking materials, anti-odor materials, materials under development by NASA and the U.S. military to allow the person wearing them to control their thermoregulation and stink for prolonged periods, etc. My point with this blog was merely to identify a quick list of pro’s and con’s regarding Capilene and merino wool so the user can make an educated decision. Many people are polarized on their opinion regarding this topic, but many don't seem to understand the rationale of choosing one over another. My opinion on both has changed over the years as I learned about which option works best in different situations and wanted to pass this knowledge along.

So why should anyone care about a good base layer? Simply, a base layer is supposed to manage thermoregulation and moisture. When either is out of whack, you will be too. For example, what is more important in rainy or wet conditions – to avoid moisture or to avoid getting cold? 99.9% of the time, the answer is pretty simple – to avoid getting cold. After all, you can be plenty fine while wet, but you’ll be plenty dead when cold. A functional base layer works to manage your body’s temperature, first and foremost, but also to avoid prolonged wetness which can evolve into all kinds of nasty skin/health conditions in addition to cooling you off. Other than thermoregulation, the other key word when describing the importance of a base layer is “wicking” which is nothing more than the movement of moisture away from your body.

The argument in support of merino wool is a popular forum topic which has emerged in recent years because of the legitimate science behind it and the popularity of some mainstream backpacking notables who support its use. The emergence of merino wool versus straight wool has dramatically changed the texture and comfort of wool products which were generally known to be extremely warm, but also extremely uncomfortable and itchy. Most will claim wool is vastly superior when it comes to odor control which is the chief reason it gains so much support. It also offers decent warmth to weight ratio, breathes better than most synthetics, and actually repels moisture a little better due to its fiber structure as merino wool is naturally wicking while synthetic materials generally are not. In fact, most synthetic materials receive a treatment to ensure they adequately transport moisture. In untreated areas or when the treatment wears off, the material begins to retain moisture. Probably of no surprise is the reality that the thinner (more fine) of a material, the greater the likelihood is for it to transport moisture more efficiently. This is true for nearly any fabric. As part of the transport and thermoregulation process, wool essentially absorbs moisture while synthetics allow moisture to run over it instead of through it. Wool also takes a little longer for the user to feel wet because it absorbs the moisture inside the fiber instead of merely running it across the fiber. Unfortunately, merino wool is usually very expensive and rips easily. Some report being allergic to merino products which is generally noted by redness or skin irritation causing the user to itch.

Capilene, however, dries roughly 50% quicker and it has a better warmth to weight ratio, although it feels cooler when wet because it is lighter and more air permeable. It is less costly and won’t rip as easily. Some report it feels clammy when wet. Some Capilene and similar synthetic products use silver treatments on the material or within the materials fibers to make it odor resistant. When it comes to a true measurement of “stink”, it should be noted that body odor in fabric is essentially bacteria. Wool is anti-bacterial by nature whereas synthetic materials are not and therefore wool wins this aspect. As of now, I haven't heard of anyone claiming alergies from Capilene products, although there could be.

In summary, Capiline is lighter, less costly, more durable, dries quicker, and offers decent warmth and stink control. Merino wool is generally more comfortable, offers superior odor control, and wicks better (naturally). It is also a natural material, but one which some may cause some to have an allergic reaction.

So which is better? The answer is that it depends on your preference, function, environment, and wallet...much like most gear. I use both on and off. I think in most conditions, especially prolonged activity over several days, I favor merino wool for its inherent odor control and comfort. When exposed to extreme cold or endless rain, synthetic is generally my choice. Capilene is a mainstay in my sleeping gear as I know sleeping isn't an activity where it is going to get wet or stinky and I’d rather carry the lightest option. Regardless of which I choose, I like light colors in summer and when it's buggy, and dark colors at all other times. The light color is cooler in the summer and doesn't attract as many bugs, and the dark color absorbes more light and thereby helps dry the fabric more quickly (and may retain a little extra heat too).

So – that’s my two cents.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The "Best" Lightweight 4-Season Tent

As I sit here typing this blog, I’m looking at 24” of snow which was dumped in central Virginia in addition to the rest of the eastern states. My back is aching from shoveling and my car will go absolutely no where until a snow plow visits my small and rural residential community. Unlike even a single other person on my street, I got the bright idea to set up my tent the night before the storm so I could gain some additional experience camping in snow and cold conditions. My wife and the closest neighbor within view apparently exchanged several phone calls throughout the evening which generally went something like this: (Neighbor) “Is your idiot husband still outside?” (Wife) “Yes, my idiot husband is still outside?” (Neighbor and Wife while slapping forehead) “What an idiot!”.

After getting rid of my GoLite Shangri-La 2 floorless tent following an evening in another storm in which I accidentally kicked out my supportive trekking pole resulting in the whole structure falling down on me, I’ve been using an older tent I have while contemplating my options for its replacement. The older tent is an 8 pound North Face which I will not be carrying anywhere for any great distance. It’s a good tent, but entirely too heavy and the Shangri-La was supposed to be my solution. Unfortunately, at 6’6”, the Shangri-La simply wasn’t long enough which is a running theme in my life regarding gear.

I’m not a huge snow camper for lots of reasons. First, Virginia isn’t known for season long accumulations of snow and therefore I don’t get a lot of experience as I don't frequently make it out of Virginia. The ski resorts Virginia has actually makes most of its own snow. Second, snow camping is still something I find pretty difficult - meaning I don’t like being unable to travel as much as I’d like and I have personal issues with so little sun during the day as I feel like the day is over just as I get started. Nonetheless, I study the heck out of gear just as personal interest. In this case, it will help me decide what 4-season tent is the best option for me. I wanted to pass along my personal choice for an excellent 4-season tent in the event that some of you may be in the same boat and need a lightweight and functional option.

First and foremost, I’ll go ahead and directly mention the extremely popular manufacturer Tarp Tent and Henry Shire’s various solutions for 4-season shelters. I love Henry’s stuff, but, for example, his extremely popular "Moment" just isn’t strong enough to really handle legitimate snow load. It will handle the generic snow storm many of us would likely experience and it is priced very competatively, so perhaps I'm being overly critical. Oware, Black Diamond, and others have pyramid floorless options which are pretty popular too, but again the surface area lengthwise usually isn't enough and I also don’t like the rigging required on the center pole to achieve its full height.

So what is my choice? The Stephenson’s Warmlite tent ( WARNING….as I mentioned on an earlier blog, the Stephenson’s are/were nudists, so plan on seeing some colorful pictures in addition to their lengthy and difficult to follow narratives. Regardless of their unusual approach to business, if you have the money, I just haven’t found a better engineered and lightweight solution which offers such a great space to weight ratio. Quite honestly, they are a solid option for year round backpacking too. These tents are elliptical shaped which helps a great deal in wind and offers unsurpassed strength and space. It also comes with lots of options in addition to overall size, colors, wind stabilizers, windows, larger entry points, vestibules, vents, etc.

So how light is it? Well, for the model I like, the two-person 2R, it comes in at an astoundingly low 2.75 pounds…and that’s for a double-wall genuine 4-season tent. When compared to Tarp Tent's Moment, the 2R is taller by an inch, wider by 20"-40", longer by 5", comes with a larger vestibule, is capable of handling greater snow loads, is arguably better ventilated, and fits two people instead of one. is also nearly $300 more expensive than the Moment and comes in at around a pound heavier. Stephenson also offers a similar single-wall two-person tent which comes in at a mere 2.33 ounces! One of the reasons I like the double wall is because Stephenson lines it with a reflective barrier which helps keep wind out while preserving interior warmth (it also acts as a well need vapor barrier). It blocks out some light, but that’s one of the reasons why the user can pick their own color as it affords them the ability to lighten the interior color (and exterior) as they see fit. Personally, I’m a big fan of light green on the outside and yellow on the inside as it hides better in the woods and offers decent interior light. Stephenson's offers tents for 2, 3, and 5 people, all at very reasonable weights. If you've got the money to spend, want the extra room, and need something that will truly stand up to the elements, consider the Stephenson's Warmlite tent.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Walkumentary

Over the course of 2009 I had the opportunity to read several great backpacking books and also watch a handful of backpacking DVD’s. Having only minimal time to backpack, I find these resources help fuel my interest and allow me to live vicariously through the accomplishments of others.

One DVD I recently watched was “The Walkumentary” ( in which Lawston “Disco” Grinter takes video of his 2,800 mile thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Near the end of the video, Disco and four friends crown one another with makeshift crowns to recognize their accomplishment of successfully hiking the Triple Crown (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and CDT).

The extremely small number of people who have completed the Triple Crown have accomplished quite an amazing and impressive feat in my eyes. If I’m being honest, I’m quite jealous that they have the time, money, support, and ability to do it as each of those things have long since been crutches of my own and excuses for me being unable to meet similar goals. With most of my time being spent on the Appalachian Trail, I sought out to ask Disco for his impression of the AT versus the CDT and PCT in terms of difficulty, resupply, water availability, etc. I was also curious how he found the time and money to do it. After doing a quick internet search, I found his blog and he was kind enough to respond to my e-mail. Below are his comments:

I think that mile-for-mile, the AT is the toughest on the body and the PCT is the easiest on the body. The CDT, especially in Montana, is really brutal. Lots of up and down, just like the AT, and the lack of maintained trail and in some cases non-existent trail make it the toughest state to hike in on the entire Triple Crown in my humble opinion. The CDT is a good bit easier in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico though. The AT is consistently tough from Georgia to Maine.

The AT is easiest to get water. The southern California section of the PCT in dry years can result in hikers carrying large amounts of water. In 2004, I carried 7 liters out of one spot. In 2008, which was a much wetter year, the most I carried in southern Cali was 3.5 liters. It really depends on the year with the PCT. New Mexico is known to have some long water carries but in the Fall of 2006 when we hiked thru, the most water we carried was 2.5 liters. Mainly because it's a good bit chillier in the desert in the fall. If we had hiked New Mexico in the Spring, it would have been a bit tougher.

Weather . . . the AT has the most rain . . . hands down. The western states are just plain drier. On the PCT in 2008, we didn't get any rain at all until central Washington. Not a drop. We walked from Mexico to central Washington completely free of rain. That'd be the equivalent of walking from Springer to say Gorham without any rain. Having said that, I've been in some brief but violent weather on the CDT . . . thunder, lightning, hail with 50+ mph winds. In 2004 on the PCT it rained 3 out of every 4 days for the last month on the trail. But the AT consistently gets more rain than the CDT/PCT.

Resupply . . . the CDT has the toughest resupply. Especially in Montana/Idaho where you will hike 5 days, hitch 20 miles down to the nearest town and have a convenience store to resupply from for the next 5 days. Lots of mail drops take care of this tough resupply situation on the CDT.

I've logged about 12,000 miles since 1999. I've been able to find the time and the money to do this amount of hiking because I made it basically my #1 priority. Out of that 12,000, I've done four 2,000+ mile hikes. Each time I was in a transition period of sorts. When I hiked the AT, I was just out of college. My first PCT hike, I quit a job. My CDT hike, I had just moved to Colorado and wasn't tied to a job. My second PCT hike, I left a seasonal job. Moneywise . . . I saved money like it was my job. I made saving money for the next big hike a priority. I also got smarter on the trail. I spent $4,500 during my first PCT hike and $2,100 during my second. Staying away from towns and hotels resulted in the bulk of my savings on my second PCT hike.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Lightweight Food Options

A couple years ago I purchased a dehydrator because I was convinced I was going to be backpacking on a near daily basis. After all, dehydrating is what “real backpackers” did and that was my goal. Well, marriage, kids, and eternal responsibility have a way of clarifying reality. In as much as I’d like to use the dehydrator for the backpacking trips I am able to schedule in the midst of balancing life, I use it a lot less than I expected both because it is a bit of a hassle and often I just don’t have the time to deal with it. When I’m pinched for time or need something quick, my options for trail food either include food from the local grocery store or lightweight options available from online sources.

With that, I thought I’d mention a few food sites offering lightweight options which I enjoy.

Both Enertia Trail Foods ( and Pack-It Gourmet ( are likely the best known dehydrated vendors aside from those at REI. To me anyway, these meals taste better and offer solid nutrition.

Harmony House Foods ( offers quite a bit of stuff which includes sizeable portions of only add-in (i.e. beans, spices, tomatoes, cheese, butter powder, etc.). Much like Just Veggies (, they offer items which are nice contributions to any meal and can be used to add taste, nutrition, or just to mix it up.

Aside from, well, “permanently borrowing” (i.e. stealing) from fast food vendors, have you ever wondered where you can get single use packets of things like salt, pepper, relish, mustard, etc.? The answer is Minimus Biz (

If you’re looking for a healthier version of jerky, check out Paleokits ( who sell jerky, nuts, and berries with less sugar and carbs.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Meal Pack ( offers meal replacement options in the form of a bar the size of a standard Cliff Bar. It is packed with calories and might be a good idea if you need to boost your energy with a mega dump of calories (energy). It might also be a decent emergency food option in case you are late making it off the trail.

Few products offer the punch of necessary fat and calories in a lightweight package like peanut butter. If you want to carry something with differing tastes in a single serving container, check out Justin’s Nut Butter (

All of these vendors are identified on the side of my blog in addition to many other links which might help you on your backpacking journey.