The ‘mid I’ve been looking for

Disclaimer: Seek Outside gave me the shelter discussed below for free in exchange for feedback.

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It’s illustrative to think back to the first “cottage” shelter I purchased, one of the first MLD Trailstars, in September of 2009. I was still so little initiated in the ultralight world that I emailed Ron Bell about making one of 70D sil, to which he in essence replied “what the hell for?”  That shelter hung around the closet for a long time, eventually going down the road some time in 2011 or 2012, mostly due to the large footprint, awkward pitch, and modest interior space.

The Trailstar made it’s name with an unmatched weight to wind resistance ratio, and it survived what is still the windiest night I’ve ever spent outside remarkably quietly once I had it well staked.  That windproofing doesn’t just come from good construction, though that it a big part of it, but from a low and aerodynamic shape.  The conundrum is how to approach that degree of windproofing while also having good snow shedding abilities, traits which in ‘mids and tarp shelters seem to be at odds, especially when you introduce the further contradictory requirements of having a relatively small footprint and at the same time decent interior living space.  Oh, and it’d be nice to seal out those pesky drafts along the bottom, while still keeping the ability to raise the hem and vent as needed.

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Thankfully, it is now 2015, and Seek Outside managed to balance all of the above in the Beyond Timberline 2 person tipi, more simply known as the BT2.

The BT2 is as simple and stripped down as possible.  Seek Outside calls it “a purpose built ultralight, storm worthy, backpacking  shelter to help you to go lighter and go further in difficult terrain” and this is a good starting point for analysis.  It’s made of 30D silnylon, which has rightfully become the standard modern shelter fabric.  It’s a symmetrical hexagon, 64 inches (162cm) tall at the peak when pitched tight to the ground.  It is 108 inches wide zipper to zipper (or corner to corner), and 96 inches side to side.  It has a double-reinforced apex cone of DX40 (read: massively puncture resistant) with interior and exterior hang loops, dual doors which open via #8 non-waterproof metal YKK zippers (read: the smoothest, strongest zipper made), with sliders at both the top and bottom.  The zipper flap is a piece of 2″ grosgrain webbing with three velcro patches to keep it closed.

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The tieouts on the BT2 are worth mentioning.  They’re basic loops of 1/2″ webbing, sewn into cordura reinforcement patches on both the inside and outside, and you’ll find a loop on both the inside and outside of the tent.  You’ll also find them places 4″ up from the bottom edge of the shelter.

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This feature is significant for two reasons.   If you stake the BT2 down with the exterior loops, as is most natural, and especially if you use all twelve of the loops, the extra 4″ of silnylon will be tucked under into the interior of the shelter, forming a sod cloth or snow flap which is totally effective in sealing out all wind, as well as almost all flying insects.  Every other mid I’ve owned was cursed by massive drafts in cold winds when there was not enough snow on the ground to pile up over the bottom edge.  Seek Outside has solved this problem in a simple fashion which adds almost no weight to the shelter, and almost no complexity (read: $$) to the production process.  If you want ventilation, stake the shelter using the interior loops, and raise the pole a bit.  If you want more ventilation, extent some of the loops with a bit of cord.

Kevin Timm of Seek Outside also told me, a while ago, that the sod cloth feature helped solve another problem with silnylon shelters; sagging when wet.  Because the tie points are not loaded along a sewn and stretch-less seam, a greater degree of elasticity is preserved within the shelter system, and sagging after a night of rain is much reduced.  It is not eliminated, but I’d estimate that it is reduced by around 50%.  After a night of hard rain a further 1/2″ or so of height in the center pole brings the BT2 back up to ideal tautness.

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Pitching the BT2 is not as fast as with a square or rectangular mid, but it is darn close.  The basic hexagonal pitch shown above is the default, and good for any sort of “normal” weather.  Stakes the non-zippered corner points in a rectangle with a hair of slack between each point, insert pole and tension, stakes zipper corners, then bring pole to complete tension, and done.  A ~1 minute solo pitch is easily done after the first few attempts.

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The BT2 has mid-panel stake points throughout, and by using each of theses and pulling them tight after the initial pitching the shape become aggressively conical and the BT2 becomes miniature tipi shelter.  As I wrote a few years ago this lack of vertical corners facilitates windproofing, something the BT2 does exceedingly well.  It equals the MLD Solomid in this area, and comes darn close to the Trailstar, while providing a lot more interior space.  Thus far the winter of 2014-15 has not cooperated and given me a big snowstorm on a trip, but I’m confident the BT2 will do just fine in that area.

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All that said, it’s important to bear in mind that the BT2 is not a large shelter, nor designed to be a palace for playing cards and waiting out weather.  For one comparison, see the above photo and know that I’m 5’11”. For another, consider that the 108″ corner to corner length of the BT2 is equal to the actual width of the BD Megalight (BD still modestly claims 86″, which accurately reflects the useable width), the length of the MLD Solomid, and is just shy of the 103″ length of the old Golite Shangrila 2.  It’s well shy of the 110-140″ length of the Trailstar.  The BT2 is in it’s 96″ functional length shorter than almost all other comparable mids, a feat it accomplishes by keeping the walls steep.  I have plenty of space to avoid the walls with both the head and foot of my sleeping bag, but again I’m 5’11”.  If you are 6’5″ and sleep atop a 3″ air mat you might push the available length pretty close.

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At 25 ounces for the canopy, the BT2 is light enough and small enough to be a reasonable solo shelter in bad weather.  It fits two no problem, though with only modest room to spare.  Seek Outside makes a nice nest for the BT2 in case of serious bug pressure, but with the sod clothes most won’t need it.  A nice side benefit of the nest is that the walls are high enough, and set far enough from the shelter canopy, that you’re protected from condensation.

Condensation deserves a word, as it’s an inevitable fact of life in single wall shelters.  Vent properly, and anticipate conditions, and you should be able to avoid the worst of it.  The camp pictured immediately above was cold and close to a river, ideal moisture conditions.  It was also blowing 30-40 mph and gusting a bit of snow all night, so fully battening down the hatches and just venting the bottom of the down wind door about 8 inches kept it to a minimum.  The night before, pictured further up, was also close to a lot of water, had more modest winds, and a few torrential rain showers in the early morning.  I left both doors 1/3 open for most of the night, which gave me enough shelter when the rain came up and plenty of ventilation.  Proactive, thoughtful technique works much better than built in vents, which unless they’re really big (Shagrila 2, Seek Outside’s LBO) do just about nothing.

The BT2 is a backpackers shelter, not a campers tent.  It prioritizes function and has just enough convenience to not impede useability.  Beyond the foul weather performance, which I’ve found simply exceptional, I find the minimalist aesthetic hugely appealing.  Based on the first four months of use, I’d say that the BT2 is perfect, and haven’t found a single improvement to suggest to Seek Outside.  And that is a rare thing.

The downsides are minimal and inherent: it’s a floorless shelter, which some folks don’t like.  It requires a pole height which is taller than almost all trekking poles, thus requiring a paddle, specialized pole, or two poles lashed together.  It does not offer an excess of space or feel-good features.  It just offers function, and if that is what you like, you’ll probably want a BT2.  For 230 bucks and a bomber, made in the USA shelter, that is a bargain.

Two good gloves

I dislike gloves, and having warm hands I’m often able to get away without them, but that’s not always the case. Skiing, cycling, and hunting are all examples of activities where cold exposure is increased and the demands for dexterity heightened. The following are two examples of gloves which provide maximum weather protection with minimal inhibition of dexterity.

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The Rab Phantom Grip is at left, the Black Diamond Mont Blanc at right.  The gloves pictured are both men’s medium.

The Phantom is 100% Polartec Wind Pro, with silicone dot palm.  The Mont Blanc combines a laminate, windproof synthetic back with a light stretchy palm material.  As is obvious, the Mont Blanc is thinner and much less bulky than the Phantom, which makes it my favorite of the two when I can get away with it.  The genius of the Mont Blanc is that the back is very windproof right where you need it, while the palm and inside of the fingers breath well to fight sweat and fit very closely.  I wore the Mont Blancs every day hunting in October and November because they don’t impede trigger feel or slow down bolt manipulation in the least.  For the same reason, these gloves give a great grip on handbars.

The Mont Blancs get almost all their warmth from windproofing, so when the ambient temperatures are low I switch to the Phantoms.  The Phantoms aren’t as windproof, so when it’s both cold and windy I’ll add a shell mitt of some type.  The less-tight fit of the Phantoms also promotes good blood flow when it’s darn cold.  Wind Pro has a great dry time for the amount of warmth and wind protection it provides, providing a nice counterpoint to the Mont Blanc, whose only issue is the slow drying laminate material.

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Durability is always a concern with gloves, one reason I try to use fairly inexpensive gloves as my mainstay.  At 20 bucks MSRP, the Mont Blanc is an unmatched value.  At 45, the Phantom is much less so.  Both are reasonably, but not exceptionally, durable.  I had low expectations for the Mont Blanc finger and palm material, but aisde from the touch screen material on the index fingers wearing through, both pairs I own have survived the winter with no holes, which is impressive  The Phantoms have fuzzed out quite a bit on the fingers, and one thumb picked up a hole of unknown origin, which is acceptable.

The Mont Blancs I recommend heartily; indeed they’re my favorite gloves of all time, in spite of the poor dry time.  The Phantoms are a bit expensive given their modest durability, but they are well constructed of a great material.  Combine a pair of each with a good shell mitten and you have a versatile system for less than the cost of a single pair of mid-level Arc’teryx gloves.

Almost nothing

For the first half of this past week I drank no coffee.  Wednesday last we went on a hospital tour, and saw the very posh maternity ward where Little Bear will come into the world this summer.  Four hours later I was at home in the thralls of norovirus, vomiting hard enough I was worried I might break a rib.  I couldn’t eat or drink much the next few days, so wiping the caffeine slate clean seemed like a useful byproduct of the whole sordid affair.  Of course, I drained most of a liter french press this morning before getting off the couch for the days activities, so it did not take long for things to get back to normal.

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Coffee is one habit which has given my life shape for the last decade, plus.  In the recent years of post-grad school adulthood proper, my consumption has hardened into black only and frequent triple espressos, which seems appropriately dour.  I have yet to relapse back into the 2pm espresso habit.

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Wanderings outside have (obviously) been another defining factor, and they too have been quite mellow since we returned from New Zealand, to the point of seeming absence. Thankfully winter has in the past two months been wholly uninspiring, here in Montana, which has made my new inclination to stay home look less outstanding.  In the past I’ve written about the various ways to get outside more often, neglecting out of myopicicity the most salient point: prioritize doing so over social obligations.  In 2015, for the first time, staying local to attend a party is not appears responsibly, it is what I want to do.  Which is to say that soon everything will change, and that will be welcome.

(I still hiked ~25 miles this weekend.  An early spring will at least let me go into the Bob Open with decent dirt miles on my feet for the first time in the events history.)

Skurka’s Core 13

Most gear is something to which I pay little attention.  Packs are a fascination and thus an object of consistent experimentation, even if for example I currently have five very solid 3000+ cubic inch ones in the closet right now.  Most other things, such as stoves and shelters, are boxes to be checked once before moving on.  So long as I have a few which work well, interest is largely absent.

DSC07087August: baselayer t-shirt, Alpine Start hoody, running shorts.

The glaring exception is clothing, towards which I put too much time and money.  Outdoor clothing is hard to get right; why else would there be so much of it?  Even when we can avoid the impulse to merely pursue the novel and fashionable (the answer to the previous question, as well as to why most outdoor brands and shops are able to stay in business), it is easy to build up a seemingly redundant closet in the quest to have an ideal system.  Andrew Skurka recently took a good swing at cutting through the noise, asserting that one could backpack in all 3 seasons (read: outside deep winter) with only 13 items of clothing.  It’s a good departure for discussion, as well as a way to stay the madness of excessive clothing acquisition.  In the following I’ll look at Skurka’s suggestions, and make a few comments of my own.

Before I get started, I need to mention the first rule of being an intelligent consumer of outdoor clothing: pay attention to fabric weight.  I’ll reference it constantly below.  Good clothing companies today make fabric weight a prominent part of their web and marketing copy.  If they don’t, I approach them with trepidation.  If they won’t or can’t tell me over their chat or via email, I don’t buy their stuff.  (Get your house in order First Lite.)

Skurka’s 13 items are as follows. with links to the relevant posts:

  1. short sleeved shirt
  2. long sleeved shirt
  3. bug shirt
  4. running shorts
  5. pants
  6. underwear
  7. fleece top
  8. insulated jacket
  9. insulated pants
  10. rain jacket
  11. rain pants
  12.  sleeping shirt
  13. sleeping bottoms

The first or core layers of 3 season clothing serve to protect externally from sun, bugs, and abrasion, and internally from chafing and temperature regulation issues.  The first six items on the above list all fall into this category.  In his various posts, Skurka highlights the extent to which these objectives can conflict.  Short or long sleeved baselayer shirts are a good example.  In this application merino wool has, in the last decade, become the fabric of reference due to its superior moisture managing properties.  Merino is not inherently warmer than various synthetics when wet, despite frequent claims to the contrary, but it does manage evaporative cooling by absorbing sweat into the wool fibers and releasing them in a moderated fashion.  Merino also does an excellent job of resisting odor, though given enough use between washings it is not immune to bacterial growth.  The only reason, aside from cost, merino has not taken over completely is the difficulty of balancing performance and longevity.  Thicker merinos (>150 grams/meter) have too much fiber and hold too much moisture too long.  I’ve written them off for anything aside from casual, town use, and know exactly no one including cold-blooded light sweaters who having used sub 150 gram wool have any desire to go back.  The problem with thinner merino is poor abrasion resistance, something to which Skurka aludes both in writing and in pictures.  The latest and best solution is to blend polyester with the wool, two examples being Rab Meco 120 and Patagonia Merino 1, both of which are 65% merino and 35% polyester, and 120 grams per square meter (3.5 ounces per square yard).  These shirts are identical in function and appearance, and blend the characteristics of modern merino and polyester fairly well.  They dry fast, but not as quick as the lightest pure poly fabrics, while still having a modicum of moisture buffering.  They resist stink well, but not as well as pure wool.  They’re tougher than the pure wools of comparable weights, but not as durable as pure polyester.  They are currently my preference in shirts for all conditions above 20 degrees F, at which point I swap over to the warmer Capilene 4.

IMG_0515Also August: same short, same t-shirt, and a 70/30 cotton/poly shirt for sun and bugs.

Skurka does an excellent job encapsulating the problems with bug shirts, and I have nothing to add, other than that I dislike heavy bug pressure more than any other adverse environmental factor, and go out of my way to avoid them both by altering my routes to camp in suitable places, and not visiting certain areas at certain times of year.

For 3 season backpacking, Skurka correctly identifies that pants are more often used for leg protection than for warmth.  I could see making due with one pair for everything, though two would be better.  A ~200 grams/meter pair with a bit of stretch (less than 10% lycra content, such as the Black Diamond Modernist Rock jeans) are good for colder weather and abusive applications, while warm weather pants are ideally in the 120 grams/meter range.  Fabrics this thin are not inherently strong, so they should be built as tough as weight requirements allows: 100% nylon plain weave or taslan.  Pants like these are not easy to find, fishing pants seem to be the most likely candidates.  Aside from gloves and socks, pants are the garment which wears out first and most often.  Light nylon pants won’t last forever, perhaps 2-3 years for me, but their ability to dry fast and not cause swamp ass when it’s 85F out more than justifies the cost.

R0001297Lace closure from a destroyed pair of Patagonia board shorts added to BD Rock jeans.  The best pant/short closure, in my book.  I also removed the belt loops from these pants to eliminate all possible pressure points.

Now, a brief digression concerning pant features.  As with just about anything, less is more, though not absolutely.  Waist bands should be wide and slick.  I see no reason for belts (under any circumstances).  Buttons are a good way to close pants, the Patagonia ones which are sewn on with a length of 3/8″ webbing are the best, as thread always seems to wear out.  I really like the closure system on Patagonia board shorts; the lighter, shorter Minimalist Wavefarers are great if you can find them on sale.  Plain stretch waist bands are good if done properly, but most companies integrate too much stretch into these pants  and they end up sagging under heavy packs, which is no good.

Rise through the crotch of pants (and shorts) should be low.  The old style of waists up by the belly don’t actually add more protection, they just add an extra 2 inches above the natural waist for the pants to sag.  This often co-occurs with the aforementioned excess stretch.

Back pockets on pants are useless, except insofar as they function as a double seat (which is something I’d like to see more of, a la the old Patagonia Stand-Up pants).  Front pockets in the jeans model are fine, though I could do without them for the rest of my life.  Cargo pockets are the best, so long as they’re baffled or pleated just enough but not too much, and places up high so your snickers and knives aren’t knee-dragging all day.  Most importantly, cargo pockets should zip forward to open, and back to close.  That almost no clothing designers have had buskwacking unzip their zip-back-to-open cargo pockets is something I cannot understand.

IMG_1085Off trail in the Grand Canyon: thanks to harsh undergrowth and rock scrambling light, quick drying pants are mandatory.

Skurka and I disagree on the particulars of layer 7, though we agree on the principle that folks often need a fourth layer beyond the basic trinity of baselayer, insulated jacket, and rain jacket.  I’ve long been a fan of a light softshell windshirt, something which both functions as a light insulating layer and provides a degree of wind and precipitation resistance.  The issue with early iterations of this idea, like the Patagonia Traverse and before that the Cloudveil Veiled Peak anorak, were fabrics which were too thick and had too much lycra, thus holding too much water and drying too slowly.  The Black Diamond Alpine Start has been a favorite since it came out.  There are a few things I’d change, but the fabric is simply amazing.  It breathes well enough to be a bug and shade shirt so long as you’re not moving too hard, and at a very light 80 grams/meter is astoundingly tough.  Skurka casts aspersions on the traditional tightly woven nylon windshirts for having a narrower window of proper use, and I agree.  The Houdini et al. are on the verge of irrelevance.

There is a lot to be said for a plain 100 weight fleece shirt or vest.  Classic microfleece is great because it traps a ton of air for the weight, and has no lycra, so it dries super fast.  Simple is best, as mesh backed pockets and lycra binding trap water.  You can get these super-cheap from places like LL Bean and Target, but my favorite currently is the Rab Micro Pull-On.  The Micro uses particularly light fleece (160 grams/meter versus the more common 200), and fits incredibly well, especially through the shoulders and arms.  A fleece shirt is a key second layer for cold rain, packrafting, and people who get cold easily. I can’t see myself doing without either the windshirt or the fleece shirt, and not infrequently use both on the same trip.

IMG_0785Cold rain in the mountains; good rain gear and nice fleece shirt under it are both vital.

Insulated coats aren’t too complicated, down for dry places, synthetic for wetter ones.  I’ve only had a limited amount of experience, but thus far I’m not impressed with the types of dri-down.  Alpha and the other more breathable synthetics are very promising.  My main advice here is to pay attention to insulation weight, and not be too much of a gram counter in this area.  If I’m bringing a warm jacket, I want it to be warm.  60 grams/meter synthetic fills are summer weight, 100 is more versatile.  200 weight fleece is roughly as warm as 60 grams/meter Primaloft, which is roughly as warm as a hooded down sweater with 2-3 ounces of 800 fill.  I disagree with Skurka about needing insulated pants for 3 season stuff; I haven’t used my Primaloft pants at all for over a year, including winter.

IMG_3483Insulated jackets should have a nice big, adjustable hood, and plenty (3+) of pockets.  I like internal drop pockets for drying and warming gear on all such coats.  BD Stance Belay hoody shown.

Rain gear is a frequently misunderstood subject, such that I’m done having sympathy for people who don’t understand how it works and then complain about it “failing.”  Modern WPB fabrics are not breathable enough to keep up with perspiration most of the time, but you can overwhelm just about any garment under all but truly cold conditions if you try hard enough.  Anyone who’s worn a totally unbreathable parka under a variety of conditions will know just how breathable Goretex et al actually is, and hopefully quit bitchin’ about how it doesn’t work.  Skurka is absolutely correct to highlight the importance of DWR, and the extent to which it limits the utility of WPB garments on expeditions.  However, most of us with rarely if ever do a trip long enough and far enough between towns to truly make this an issue.

I remain a fan of Goretex, including the oft-maligned Paclite 2.5 layer laminate.  Goretex seems more durable and more consistent than eVent or PU coatings, and I think the rigorous and innovation-stifling certification process Gore insists upon does result in better face fabrics, which overall improves durability and DWR performance.

IMG_0955Hoods are vital, and the Haglofs Ozo remains one of the best ever.

Rain jackets need phenomenal hoods, nothing less is acceptable.  Big stiffened brims, three point cinches which don’t gutter rain into your face, and enough room for hats and hoods are all must-haves.  There are lots of seemingly good rain coats I’ve rejected out of hand due to bad hoods.  Aside from this and nice long articulated sleeves and a long hem, all other features are optional.  I can do without any pockets just fine, prefer anoraks to full zips, and dislike pit zips (though the to-the-hem cagoule-style zips OR and Arc’teryx use works well).  Rain pants need knee-high or higher side zips so they can put on with shoes on.

I don’t wear rain gear unless it’s raining, I’m in a packraft, or I’m walking through high and soaking brush.  This promotes rain gear longevity.  Pant fabrics should be a bit heavier than jacket fabrics.

I used to regard sleep clothes with disdain, and still hardly ever bring them, but they do have a place, especially for folks (like M) who don’t produce as much body heat.  She has convinced me fairly recently that there’s a massive difference between the two of us in this regard, and that damp clothes at the end of a day take a lot out of her.  So I’m learning things and getting a heavier pack as I age.

IMG_1028Women, especially women with low body fat, need more warmth and often more layers.

Clothing systems will always be evolving, especially given that we’re is a period of legitimately rapid innovation in fabrics.  Neoshell and Gore Active are two things I’d like to try and haven’t yet, among many others.  That being the case, the following are what I use today, with parenthetical substitutions for those items no longer in production.

 

  1. Rab Meco 120 short sleeve
  2. Rab Meco 120 long sleeve
  3. ExOfficio Impervio (haven’t used, deferring to Skurka)
  4. Patagonia Minimalist Wavefarer or Patagonia Strider
  5. BD Modernist Rock jeans or Patagonia RPS or BD Highball (haven’t tried last two)
  6. Patagonia Capilene 2 boxer-briefs
  7. Rab Micro Pull-On
  8. Rab Strata Hoodie or Montbell Thermawrap Pro
  9. BD Stance Belay or Patagonia R1 tights
  10. Haglofs Gram Comp II pull (haven’t used, yet)
  11. BD Liquid Point
  12.  Patagonia Capilene 4 crew
  13. Patagonia Capilene 2

Everyone will have their preferences, but function shouldn’t be subservient to fashion or sentimentality.  In the end only experience will tell you what works

 

Snotel for backcountry planning

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Discussion about the Bob Open is heating up over at BPL, as is appropriate for this time of year.  It’s just about late enough in the winter to use what resources are available to make meaningful extrapolations concerning what things will be like out there in two months.  With that in mind, I want to talk a little about the most useful virtual resources for wilderness route planning (at least in the lower 48), Snotel sites.

The National Resources Conservation Services website got a big upgrade this past fall, making the interface faster to use and more informative.  Not all Snotel sites are created equal.  The best ones have the full spectrum of real-time data and are in a useful location.  Snotels are handy for a snapshot of conditions, but much moreso for giving you an idea of how a winter and spring are evolving over weeks and months.  The best way to build that picture can be had by checking the same Snotels daily or weekly while comparing them to the weather forecasts, and the most realistic way to do that (especially if you don’t live nearby) is to focus on a few of the most representative sites.

The individual site pages feature Lat/Longs, which are often inaccurate or not exact enough, but the new page allows you to zoom in on locations which in my experience are accurate.  I don’t find the NRCS basemaps as good as other services, so I prefer to use the former to zoom in and examine site detail on another mapping service.

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My favorite site in the Bob Marshall complex is Badger Pass.  My most frequently used mapping site (because I’m using it for hunting trip planning so often) is the Montana Sportman’s Atlas.  The Badger Snotel site is at 6900′, in a shallow but forested north-facing bowl just west of the Continental Divide (above the double “RD”s in the center of the map).  It gives a good severe-case scenario of snow depth and conditions.  The top photo is the wilderness boundary on the map above, which is the red line which divides the ranger districts.

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The altitude, aspect, and especially forest cover of the Badger Pass Snotel makes it particularly useful, as does the fact that it’s quite a ways from any road.

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For winter trips snow depth and snow density (which can be figured by dividing the depth by the snow-water equivalent) are the most important items, as taken together they tell you how hard the trail breaking will be.  For that you’ll want daily figures, not the monthly averages I’ve screen-shot above.  For spring and early summer trips, snow depth and the various air temperature figures become more important.  What you’re looking for in May is how much snow will be left, where you’ll find it, and how supportable it will be (read: do you need snowshoes).  At some point every spring the snowpack will reach that horrible spot where it’s deeper than 3 feet and warmed all the way through without overnight temps which are low enough to freeze it back up.  Add rain and you have the most horrible wilderness travel condition known.

In mid-March many things could still happen at Badger Pass, but a trend is certainly emerging.  Snow accumulation started strong, especially in December and January, with the depth falling off a bit faster than the SWE when both are compared to the seasonal averages.  What that disparity tells us, when unusually high February temperatures are taken into account, is that a fair bit of melting and a lot of solidifying took place in the past six weeks.  Even if snow depths continue to dip lower as spring wears on, we know there’s a very solid base of dense snow which would presumably provide good and fast travel now (perhaps too fast), but will probably take longer than expected to melt.  Just how this effects the actual weekend of the Bob will not be known until the week prior, and that will mostly come down to precipitation and temperature, but the foundation is being laid for a low snow spring.

The curious Strata Hoodie

Polartec Alpha was developed for the military, as an insulation which would form the core of a garment that would, as an insulator, better straddle the divide between static and dynamic warmth.  Alpha does this by being more air-permeable than synthetic fill insulations such as Primaloft and Climashield, and at the same time more svelt (and thus better suited to shelled jackets) than fleece.  Polartec says, “By placing patented low density fibers between air permeable woven layers we created a more efficient fabric for regulating warmth and transferring moisture.”

R0001282The Strata fits fine, and has the well shaped Rab hood which I quite like.

Warmth in the outdoors is often understood as an overly simple concept.  Static warmth for a dry, stationary body requires only decent fueling and hydration and enough layers.  Dynamic warmth, where said body is in various states of motion through varied environments, is governed by the same rules, but they are interrupted by the need to protect from external, while venting and moving internal, moisture.  Achieving a balance between external protection and internal insulation is, most of the time, the key to sustainable activities in the outdoors.

Passable solutions to the various permutations of the moisture problem have no doubt existed for millennia.  Pretty good ones have existed in the modern clothing paradigm for decades.  What continues to be an occasional complication is finding a way to balance protection and insulation across a range of settings with minimal items of clothing, and with minimal alterations within the items carried.  It is in this area where Alpha might make sense for some outdoor uses.

Alpha is not as warm for a given weight as the down and synthetic fill insulations to which we’ve become accustomed.  The Rab Strata Hoodie weighs about a pound in size medium, 3-4 ounces heavier than the almost identically featured Rab Xenon X.  The Xenon not only has a lighter weight (60 g/meter v. 80 for the Strata) of warmer Primaloft One insulation, it has a lightly lighter and far less air-permeable shell and liner fabric.  One of the marketing saws for Alpha jackets, and the Toray-made clone used by Patagonia and Kuiu, is that the structure of the insulation does not demand the densely woven nylons which have become standard for Primaloft.  This may or may not be the case, but I tend to believe that for an Alpha jacket to function coherently as a unit the liner and shell must do what they can to keep pace with the insulation.  If Alpha can breath better and wick faster than the liner, moisture will stay stuck inside, against the wearer.  If the liner and insulation can move moisture faster than the shell, or at least much faster, water vapor will become trapped inside, and in cold enough weather, freeze solid.

R0001293The neon material is a solid, uncoated nylong ripstop.  They grey fabric is mesh.

The Strata Hoodie does not do any of these things, and the liner (zoned mesh and light nylon ripstop) and shell (nylon plain weave with a textured inner face) seem ideally matched.  The Strata moves moisture several times faster than the Xenon X.

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R0001296I’m not sure the little mesh panels in the neck and hood make much difference, but they are impressively well designed and executed.

This comes at a cost, and that cost is static warmth.  The outdoor garment industry has taken a enhanced interest in breathability in recent years, one result being the many more, more air permeable garments available.  Polartec Neoshell in the hardshell realm, woven windshirts like the Alpine Start, and Polartec Alpha are all examples.  Breathability happens via moisture transport, and moisture within clothing systems happens via evaporation, which necessitates evaporative cooling.  One of the reasons the Xenon and Xenon X jackets have made their reputation as the warmest garments of their class is the very air impermeable Pertex Quantum liner and shell.  Summit a windy ridge after a sweaty climb and throw on the Xenon X and you’ll get immediate and considerable shelter from the wind.

The disadvantage is that the Quantum shells will also hold that sweat inside, and it will take time and often an external heat source of consequence to dry the jacket out completely.  It is in these circumstances that I’ve become enamored with the Strata.  It often provides enough extra warmth and wind resistance to serve as a resting or skiing-down jacket, while still moving moisture.  The difference between how dry the Strata will keep me over the course of a day skinning and skiing laps compared with the Xenon is considerable.  Similar things can be said when hiking slowly in moderate cold, or hard in serious cold.  Worn over appropriate base and wind layers, these combinations are very effective, and impressively free from the need for constant adjustment.

The disadvantage of the Strata is in turn the lack of warmth, which is not due entirely to the increased air permeability.  Patagonia hyped their Nano Air (which we can safely view as darn close in function to Alpha jackets, just with stretch), as the equal to Primaloft coats provided a very wind resistant shell (i.e. hardshell) was put over it when needed.  My anecdotal experience is that this is not the case.  80 g/meter Alpha is significantly less warm than 60 g/meter Primaloft One, even when the two are compared strictly on terms of static warmth.

All this of course begs the question of whether the performance gains of the Strata could be united with a shell which is more wind resistant, or an insulation which is warmer.  Would a partial mesh liner work with Climashield Apex, which is more robust than Primaloft and almost as warm?  Would a chest and shoulder area with greater wind resistance significantly hamper the moisture transport of Alpha insulation?  There are a number of such intriguing questions which might be answered by new garments in the next few years.

As a matter of backcountry policy, the Strata is often a very useful critter, but in most circumstances requires an additional insulating layer.  What will best serve as a companion here, providing enough warmth without too much additional weight, bulk and complication, I have not yet decided.  Fleece works well enough, but does not directly address the need for additional wind resistance, and insofar as both are bulky and suited to use on the go this combination is duplicative.  Another, more traditional synthetic fill shell makes sense, but results in a heavy and bulky system.  My hope, for spring hunting, hiking, and skiing, is to use a down vest in and outside the Strata.  I will report back.

Altra Lone Peak 1.5: half brilliance, half crap

Disclaimer: I bought these shoes with my own money at full retail, and for the past six months have not used them as the manufacturer intended. I make no apologies for asking a lot from my shoes, nor for emphatic feelings about this most important item.

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Altra is about to release version 2.5 of their Lone Peak trail runner, a shoe which has been quite influential since it was released. It was probably the first of what is becoming the latest, and I think the best, trend in light outdoor shoes: zero drop, moderate cushion shoes made of durable materials. Based on my experience with the 1.5s, the notoriety is justified. There is a lot to like, really like, about these shoes, which makes the less desirable things stand out all the more.

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The best thing about the 1.5s is the midsole.  The level of cushion, stiffness, and the zero drop are for me perfect.  There’s enough beef for carrying a 40 pound pack in difficult terrain, while still being flexible and low enough to not loose the sleekness and speed for which light shoes exist.  They are quite simply the most comfortable hiking and backpacking shoe I’ve ever had.

The problem with the 1.5s, which dampens the aforementioned virtues considerably, is the poor durability of the mesh fabric.  Aware of this issue and wanting to protect my investment, I put on a coating of aquaseal before wearing them on the trail, and have added more on four different occasions since.  As shown here, this has kept pace with wear, but only just.  I expect mesh to wear before anything else, but the Altra mesh quite simply sucks.

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To go along with the zero drop approach, the Altra toebox is wide and anatomic, which is easily seen in the above photo, which shows a more traditional trail shoe (the La Sportiva Bushido) at right.  The wide toebox is more comfortable, and only sacrifices a small amount of agility and precision in technical terrain.  I have a middling forefoot and a narrow heel, and found the Altra to fit very well throughout.

The toebox does not hold the 1.5s back in rough country; that task is unfortunately accomplished by the lackluster tread pattern and the absolutely awful rubber, which manages to both wear quickly and have poor traction.  On wet rocks the 1.5s are nothing short of frightening, and I hope that in the new versions Altra has simply discarded both and started over.

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Altra does get the rest of the details right.  The velcro gaiter trap is a brilliant feature which is well done.  I’ve never found a glue-on gaiter patch which didn’t eventually fall off, and this solves that problem in a low-profile way which you’ll never notice when it is not in use.  Other good stuff includes the laces, which stay tied well, and the burly rubberized fabric used in the toe bumper.

Will the Lone Peak 2.5 (due in July) improve upon these glaring flaws?  I really hope so.  I bought the Bushidos above right before we left for New Zealand, strictly because I was worried that the Lone Peaks would not last the whole trip, as well as some dis-ease about taking their poor traction fly fishing and mountain hunting.  The Bushidos have the unmatched rubber and tread which Sportiva does so well (they’re probably 2-3 standard deviations better than anything else on the market, including Inov8), but after using the Lone Peaks all fall even 6mm of drop feels weird, as does the narrow toebox.  If Altra put good rubber on the Lone Peaks, I’d be willing to put up with bad mesh, even at 120 dollars a pair.  If they also fixed the durability issue, I’d be in shoe heaven.

New Zealand: in conclusion

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DSC09214Photo series by M.

I’ve long been skeptical of the short-term ethos of “traveling” as it exists for the first world bourgeoisie; getting to know a place takes months, years, and thus even the best prepared journey guarantees tourism, and all the worst things which come with it.  That said, New Zealand is the first place where without having lived there for a while I know, am positive, that I’ll go back to.

The South Island is a pleasant place to be.  This is not a surprise; there’s few enough people in a big enough space for patience and politeness to still be the default, and a socialist-ish safety net whose assumption and validity is safe enough in the public eye that life seems secure.  The US, for compelling historical reasons, has not yet been able to figure either of these things out.

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Kiwis take their coffee seriously, and as a whole it is better in all forms than in the States.  Exhibit A would be Jed’s Coffee bags, which are far and away the best way to have trail coffee I’ve ever encountered.  Each bag is pyramid shaped, made of fine mesh, and contains a lot of very good, fine ground coffee.  You get french-press quality flavor, with tea-easy cleanup.  Phenomenal.  Both Dick and I preferred the 4 and 5, but found the 5 harder to obtain.

The Long Black is another Kiwi invention of simple, stunningly obvious genius.  Putting two espresso shots over a bit of hot water (rather than the reverse) makes the Americano seem like the craven tightrope between straight espresso and plain black coffee which it is.  I’ve yet to bother my favorite local barrista with this one, but I’ll have to try soon.

The Long Black is best enjoyed in one of the airy roadside cafes which dot New Zealand.  In the States, the intersection of two solitary, empty yet important highways is most often marked by a gas station and diner.  On the South Island the cafes weren’t always immaculately scrubbed, but they were clean, well-lighted places with good coffee, baked goods, meat pies, and an inviting atmosphere which encouraged one to linger.

New Zealand also lived up to it’s reputation as being intensely wet, and we didn’t even do any off-track hiking west of the divide.  It is then not a coincidence that Kiwi’s remain fans of fleece, as companies like Earth Sea Sky and Stoney Creek demonstrate.  After visiting a number of outdoor and hunting shops (yes, in NZ they’re separate, just like here) I couldn’t resist picking up a Stoney Creek Two-Pocket shirt, which you can see in this photo.  The hem and sleeves and long, the collar high, and the shoulders fitted in a most satisfying manner, but the thing worth noting is the fabric.  It’s microfleece, seemingly not much thicker than the Polartech Classic in my Rab Micro pull-on (160 grams/meter square), but much denser and warmer.  Stoney Creek claims it as 320 grams/meter, making it quite different than what we expect.  The shirt is suitably heavier and bulky and warm, and while not necessarily a lightweight backpacking garment will be great come November, and a fine souvenir besides.

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The downside to New Zealand is of course the enormous flight to get there, which was far easier than anticipated.  Both flights left around 5pm local, which ensures that so long as you can enjoy 14-16 hours lasting for what should only be an eight hour night, your sleep won’t go too far off.  It’s the associated airport and airline nonsense which is the worst, with fatalism the only way to survive the many lines to check baggage, clear security, and wait for the flight.

Our trip home was enhanced by a bit of time in both Auckland and Syndey, and unexpectedly by an extra day in Seattle provided by a mechanical and poor communication on service on the part of Alaska Airlines.

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Fortunately, the non-winter the west is enjoying was in full swing, and we had clear spring weather to take the ferry out to Bainbridge and enjoy sandwiches and a view of Rainier.  This city time was also a more immediate reminder that our local food options here in NW Montana are shitty.  The price we willingly pay for being delightfully far from most other things.  It it often inconvenient, but being right in amongst somewhere you dream of going is one of the most important things of all.

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A blue day

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You may have heard that blue is not a color to be taken for granted, which is a bit mind-bending in a world seemingly ruled above and below by sky and water. Maybe white snow can tell us what we’ve been assuming lightly.

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We were out of town for a month, and based on what we came back to and what we’ve had in the two weeks since it could have been 10 weeks. Sunny days, highs in the low 40s, and no snow at all. Winter can be found up in the mountains, but only clinging to the shady, sheltered pockets. Yesterdays ramble was cut significantly short by thin snow. Up on the Divide you expect windscour and sastrugi just about any time, but I was tagging limestone with my bases even down in the trees.

A good day for sight seeing, if not really for making turns.

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Snow shapes the land year-round, and this little this late into winter inevitably asks two questions: when will we be hiking and biking on dry dirt down in the valley, and how bad will the fires be come summer? Unless things change, the first answer is darn soon, and the second answer is unpleasant to contemplate.

Best using the Gunbearer

In the last two years I’ve tried a number of ways to carry a rifle while hunting with a sizeable pack, and my copy of the Kifaru Gunbearer has been by far the best. It’s not a very complex piece of gear, but building and using one does have a bit of nuance to it, and took me three versions to get right. I’m not going to tell you how to make one; if you can’t sort that out go over and pay the inventors 30 some-odd bucks for one.

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The gunbearer consists of a pocket for the butt attached to the bottom of the pack frame, and a quick-release strap low on the shoulder strap. This second strap wraps around the barrel and stock of the rifle, above the scope but below the forward sling stud. The rifle carries hands-free, and deploys via the left hand forward on the stock and right hand pulling open the upper strap.  Videos illustrate this well.

I like the ability to mount your rifle quickly, and the hands-free carry, but my favorite aspect of the gunbearer is the innocuous, balanced way it stows a potentially awkward and snag-prone piece of equipment.  It looks odd in these photos, but the butt of the rifle always seems to keep out of the way of rocks and logs, and the barrel is right in sight and easy to mind without too much thought.  I’ve been able to climb 4th class rock with a mid-weight pack and a rifle in the gunbearer without (too much) stress.

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My Ruger 77/22 is shown above, which has a weight (6 pounds, unloaded) and length (38″) very close to my Kimber Montana.  Heavier and longer rifles might require a bit of adjustment, and there’s probably a ceiling on the comfort which can be had from carrying really large rifles.

When I first began working with the gunbearer I ran the rifle too high, which puts the scope into your armpit and screws up the balance.  It’s crucial to have the upper strap tight around the barrel and below the sling stud.  Leaning forward, for example when climbing over deadfall, will tip the rifle out of the butt cup at some point, and having the strap tight will keep your rifle from going for a ride.

Needless to say, the gunbearer requires a pack with a stout frame.  Kifaru recommends attaching the cup to the belt, but I’ve found the weight transfer to be much better when it is strapped to the frame, something made easy by the handy Seek Outside design.

I still bring a sling for transporting the rifle around camp, but 95% of the time it stays in the pack.  It even works well with a shotgun for rougher stretches during an upland hunt.  For wilderness hunters, an almost essential piece of gear.

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