Top 5 backpacks of the past 10 years

The close of a decade approaches which, if you’re not stocking it with thinly context’d affiliate links, isn’t so bad an arbitrary cause to re-examine what has happened in the past 10 years.  Lists focus the mind, and the fingers.  The best of these use material goods as a vehicle to examine culture, and since hiking and backpacking media is boring as fuck compared to bike media, in the name of all us impoverished, sedate walkers I’ll aspire to that end here.  First, a list just for backpacks, my favorite, and later a more general accounting.

Kifaru Bikini frame

The most sustained place for development in backpacks the past decade has been in hunting load haulers.  Kifaru doesn’t make the Bikini frame anymore, but it still stands out as the apotheosis of the original Lowe internal suspension design; enough vertical structure to support 100 pounds, enough fabric and padding to keep it comfortable, and just enough else to keep it all held together.  The limits of the Bikini have to do with adding lateral stability without adding too much weight, and the inevitable weight and comfort limitations associated with stay-in-lumbar designs.

Kifaru’s short-lived KU series was a contender here, with an integrated frame and bag making it to this day the lightest load hauling pack ever (2 lbs 10 oz for 5200 cubic inches).  The suspension was at least as bold a design choice as the more obvious main bag fabric (dual layer sil) and minimal features, and I still wonder if the limits of the KU, with even less lateral stability than the bikini, had more to do with its short life at retail than the fragile fabric.

Seek Outside Unaweep 3900

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If Kifaru set the table for the modern hunting pack, Seek Outside (nee Paradox Packs) was at the front of the pack who arrived in 2013-2014 to eat the scraps.  The Paradox u-frame and hanging belt remains the simplest, inherently lightest, and thus in my mind best of the systems which have matured towards 2020.  It is also, again in my mind, the definitive reification of the McHale argument that hanging belts work better than lumbar pad systems.  Around mid-decade Seek made forays with this argument in the hunting sphere, but was beat back by the ideological weight of the Kifaru tribe.

Also like Kifaru, Seek has persistant struggled with coherence in their feature set.  For this reason, the OG (and long discontinued) Unaweep 3900 remains my favorite pack of theirs.  The tall and thin shape suits the use of Talon compression panel to carry all manner of things, and while the non-dimensioned bottle pockets were a bit small, they were also out of the way of the bottom compression strap.  A pack who didn’t have enough time for the market to catch up.

Osprey Talon 22

JMT photosOsprey is the pack company of the past decade.  For proof, hang out in any busy place, backcountry or front, in any national park and take a casual survey.  This fact encapsulates both poles of almost any pack question.  Many of their designs are substantive, while many have as much to do with in-store appeal than function on the trail.  Many of their products are outstanding values (the Talon 22 MSRP has gone up only $10 in a decade), something anything more than casual introspection can only regard as a troubling fact of globalization.

Therefore it is appropriate that the best Osprey product of the past decade is one which was introduced in the previous decade has changed but little in this decade.  Flaws persist (lame side pockets!), but in shape and function the Talon 22 remains the ideal daypack, from day hiking, to mountain biking, to summer backpacking (see above, on the JMT).

Ultimate Direction Signature series

 

Running vests existed well over a decade ago, but in terms of either size (Nathan) or function (Inov8) they had significant shortcomings.  The first generation of the UD vests had issues as well (this first mainstream foray into cuben packs did not go well), but when it came to features and overall vision they set a high bar.  An all star team of pros/designers often does not translate well to production, but in this case it certainly did, and the result continues to define the category, and show just what truly accessible pockets (a huge growth area this decade) should be.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter

The Porter isn’t the most user-friendly, logical, lightest, or best carrying backpack.  But it looks cool, and was the linchpin product in not only changing the pack conversation (back) towards extreme functionality, but doing so in a wave of marketing that provided a timely antidote to lifestyle, hipster, do-little, fashion mongering abyss that gear in the instagram age was for the later part of the decade very close to falling in.  HMG makes capable packs, that cannot be contested.  A lot of their fundamentals were dated when the designs debuted 8+ years ago, but with respect to aesthetics, materials, and design they are bags meant to do thing, demanding things.

And if that isn’t the first ideal for a backpack, I do not know what is.

The vexatious Airshed

Windshirts are complicated, because their job is a difficult one, and an important one. Patagonia’s Airshed, a pullover shirt made from the outer fabric of the Nano Air series, has been around for a few years.  The lack of a hood, concerns over durability, and the expense put me off for a while, but Max’s glowing review, a gift card, and a 50% off sale put me over the edge last winter.  That I’ve put off writing this for close to a year, and still struggle to summarize performance, is evidence of what an odd duck the Airshed is, as well as how action layer performance doesn’t emanate directly from lab numbers.

The relevant numbers are that the Airshed fabric is 44 grams/meter, and the claimed air permeability is 67 cfm (cubic feet/minute).   The Patagonia Houdini, touchstone for the traditional modern windshirt, is 40 grams/meter and somewhere around 5-10 cfm (being over the head of the general public, cfm is not generally featured on product pages).  The BD Alpine Start, touchstone for modern soft shell windshirts, is 80 grams/meter, and roughly 30 cfm.  In theory, the Airshed ought to be breathable like an Alpine Start class windshirt, but as light and thus as quick drying as a Houdini class windshirt.

In this, it succeeds, though as the significantly increased cfm would suggest, the Airshed does not provide the same warmth as the Alpine Start.  This has a lot to do with breathability, but also I think a lot to do with fabric weight and drape.  The Airshed fabric is impressively pliant, and offers exceptionally little resistance to breeze killing dead air space.

At the same time, I found the Airshed oddly not breathable.  During sub zero conditions it accumulates less moisture on the inside surface than the Alpine Start, but during warmer conditions (say 60F) felt stuffy faster.  I’ve worn the Alpine Start as a sun layer in a packraft on a few occasions when I only had a short sleeved baselayer.  Oddly, I’d be less comfortable using the Airshed for the same purpose.  Somehow the Airshed seems more responsive when the moisture gradient between the inside and outside of the fabric is greater.  I also found it unpalatable to wear against the skin.  It dries fast, faster than modern light (~100 grams/meter) baselayers, but does not actively wick, and thus feels clammy.  It feels very similar to the old BPL Thorofare; uberlight, bugproof, quite windproof, and somewhat plastic-baggy.

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For these reasons, I haven’t worn the Airshed a whole lot.  I’m also not a fan of several key features.  The chest pocket zipper is weighty relative to the gossamer fabric, and doesn’t run well unless the neck is zipped almost all the way up.  I removed the pocket, something of an ordeal as the light fabric puckers and pulls like crazy.

The second, and far more significant issue, is the stretch fabric along the cuffs and hem.  This stuff holds water like crazy, an attribute highlighted by how fast the main fabric dries.  Not really a huge deal for a trail running shirt, but an almost fatal flaw in a backcountry piece.  After the struggle of canceling the pocket, I’ve yet to tackle replacing the hem fabric.

Durability has been passable.  There is significant pilling around the front of the waist and along the sides, where the hipbelt action is, but I haven’t yet put a hole in it from brush, which somewhat exceeds expectations.

After a summer of disuse, or of bringing the Airshed and wishing I’d brought the Alpine Start, I cut the sleeves off (easy, the seams are right there), and as a vest the Airshed has promise.  My perhaps longest running complaint about wind or action layers is that they have to be removed and stowed away during serious rain.  Light ones like the Houdini mess significantly with the breathability of a WPB layer, while more breathable ones like the Alpine Start hold too much water, while not contributing enough to the insulation scheme.  My new Airshed vest promises to be a wind layer that can stay on, over a baselayer, for days at a time of mixed weather.

Time (and spring) will tell.

Shit that works: MSR tent stakes

Back in July I seized on a weather window and probable lack of snow and did a big alpine traverse in the Bob.  Early summer in the alpine, especially in the limestone reaches of the Bob that hold water in mysterious places, generally mean bugs.  So when  set my camp the first night, in a notch in the rugged ridge at 8000 feet, I chose the only unambiguously flat spot, right in the middle of the pass.  This had the advantage of being away from the springs on the north side (and would thus hopefully keep the many elk I’d seen that evening from tripping on my guylines), as well as the extensive grizzly diggings along the eastern (and more verdant) edge.  Most importantly, it would take advantage of any breezes to reduce bug pressure.

The disadvantage of this approach is that any storms would come full force, which is just what happened at 3 in the morning.  The thunder and wind woke me up simultaneously, and I had plenty of time to assimilate the simultaneous flash/bangs as the storm rolled over, as I was sitting up with my back against my tarp, hoping to help keep both the paddle sections propping up the rear intact, and the windward end stake from ripping.  Neither of these things happened, and after 20 or so minutes I went back to sleep to the music of frantic rain.

I was sleeping in this tarp, with the wall end fortunately facing dead west.  That end was propped up by my Shuna, with the ridgeline supported by a single MSR Cyclone, and the corners by MSR Groundhogs.  These burly stakes, hammered with significant into the rocky alpine soils, were the main reason my sub 1 pound shelter held tight.

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Pictured above is an MSR Cyclone at top, MSR Groundhog, and DAC J stake (formerly standard with Sierra Designs tents) at bottom.  All are made from stout aluminum alloys which over the years have proven immune to any abuse.  I’ve never bent any of these, and only broken older Groundhogs (10+ years ago) by snapping off the heads pounding them into frozen desert soil with a rock.

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Contrast this with the shit stakes that came with the Sierra Designs Clearwing we bought this summer, and the state they were in after the very first use in the field.  Fortunately that night in the Beartooths only featured pouring rain, and was not accompanied by any wind.

Lesson being; don’t get good tent stakes, get the very best.  If your fancy tent, tarp, or mid can’t stay upright, all other particulars are irrelevant.

I’ve used Groundhogs since they first went on the market, and they’ve only gotten better with time.  For years they were all saw fit to use.  I first came across the Cyclones looking for something that would provide enough holding power in loose soils for the great forces bigger shelters (like the Seek Outside 4 man tipi pictured at top) inevitably enact.  They’re expensive, but they do that job admirably, along with providing reassuring overkill for smaller shelters in extreme conditions.  Anyone who camps in sand or sandy soil should have a few, as well as anyone who camps in the alpine.  Adding stake point to an otherwise vulnerable shelter like a tarp is the traditional approach.  The limit here is in the form of soil conditions, which might not admit two guylines, at an acceptable angle, on a primary load point.  A cyclone can be pounded into almost any ground without buckling, and is a more reliable solution to a guy point that must not fail.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to excoriate the many companies who sell faux-MSR stakes with their shelters, presumably in hopes customers will never have cause to know the difference.  MSR doesn’t cut generous deals on the wholesale front because, building the best stakes on the market, they don’t have to.  Either providing these stakes with your shelter, or having the grace to sell shelters without them, communicates seriousness and respect.

There is currently no substitute.

Shit that works: Rab Pulse hoody

The newish variations of ~100 gram/meter poly baselayers might be my most loved innovation in gear out of the last five years.  As someone whose larger challenge with thermoregulation almost always has to do with managing sweat, and rather rarely with outright heat generation (or more exactly, lack of it), the way these thin fabrics move moisture while still providing skin protection and some buffering against the weather endear them across close to 100 degrees of temperature swing.  As I wrote back in March, it is one of the first areas I recommend novices spend serious gear funds.

img_8120Sun protection on a very hot, no shade August traverse of the Chinese Wall.

Even though truly light poly has been around for half a decade or more, a hoody made from the fabric, with all the right features and most importantly the right fit, has proven ellusive.  The OR Echo line gets the fabric right, but in true OR style, punts on 50+ % of the salient details.  There are oodles of sun hoodies on the market which have a good hood, and decent or better fit, but for reasons which to this day escape me, almost all are made from heavier, relatively spandex-heavy blends.  Fortunately, this year Rab came to our collective rescue with the Pulse hoody.

On the surface the Pulse fabric is identical the micro-grid Patagonia has used in their lightweight capilene for the past few years.  The Rab fabric has a softer hand, and performance which is significantly divergent.  The current lightweight capilene is tough and dries fast, but has always felt a bit plastic-y, like it is loath to accept ones offering of sweat (rather like the Airshed pullover, but not nearly as severe, a topic for another day).  Plus Patagonia has yet to make a hoody in this fabric.  The Pulse fabric breathes beautifully and is very soft.  On Isle Royale I gladly kept it one for a week straight, with it being as cozy on day 7 as day one.  The fabric combines with the hood and cut to make the Pulse as close to being both a good sun layer and a good cool weather layer as I can imagine being achieved.

The hood is roomy and provides full coverage without getting in my peripheral vision.  I appreciate the clean, light finish provided by the absence of a zipper or closure mechanism.  The baggy finish around the jaw and chin makes for good ventilation in hot weather, but flaps in the wind and lets in the cold.  A button to cinch things up is the compromise I’m trying this winter.

The thumb loops are the best compromise I’ve found between being short enough for use without, while at the same time being able to provide real warmth and hand protection with a natural fit.  Bravo Rab.

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Overall fit is a hair on the loose side of regular.  Long sleeves and torso are much appreciated.  I wouldn’t complain if the sleeves were a tiny bit tighter, but I can live with them as is without issue.

The only real fly in the ointment is the durability of the fabric, which hasn’t been stellar.  Granted, my Pulse has seen a lot of serious bushwacking (where the hood is very nice for keeping pine needles out), but on more days than not in the brush, I’ve put a decent hole in it.  For an $80 shirt I’d really prefer better here, but the performance is such that this is for me not a deal breaker.

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The Pulse hoody is certainly good enough that I’d gladly trade in 2 or 3 less versatile shirts so I could use it for everything that didn’t involve either serious bug pressure or serious cold.  Ideologically and practically, not having to make a choice when dressing for 80+ % of trips is much appreciated.

 

Shit that works: the Rocketbox

Our Yakima Rocketbox turns 20 this year.  Over that time, few other items have been as consistently useful when it comes to outdoor adventure.

The US is set up for cars, with the overwhelming majority of prospective destinations not lending themselves to non-private motorized transportation.  If in places like Alaska the wilderness can make hard to get to the wilderness, in the lower 48 the great ocean that is rural America usually makes it hard to get anywhere else.  For this reason some places can feel very remote indeed, even if you’re only a few miles beyond the trailhead; Big Sandy in the Winds, for instance, or Choprock in Escalante.  Add winter weather, and even pavement can be drafted into the wilderness.  During several long drives home from the east side of Glacier and the Bob, riding on the teeth of a storm, unpredictable whiteouts have reduced me to 30 mph with right tires firmly planted the rumble strip, for security when visibility suddenly plunged from 100 meters to 2.

It is logical to get a car big enough to fit all your stuff inside, for security, protection for the elements, and aerodynamics, until you do the math on the dimensions of some of those items, how often you’ll need so much space, and, as important as any other reason, how stinky much of that stuff often is.  A roof box solves all three of these issues.  It should be easily removed and stowed in a garage.  It should be long enough to fit (for instance) 210cm classic skis, and other things which don’t stow well in all but the largest vehicles.  And a roof box is necessarily separate from the passenger space, making it an ideal location for soggy clothing, ripe wetsuits, and muddy boating gear.  The gear itself, and the interior of the cargo box, can be hosed out when convenient and then dried quickly in the sun.

The Rocketbox was essential for organization when M and I were living out of Xterra.  It held all of our trekking, camping, and climbing gear securely and out of the way.  With creativity and a few mods we were able to fit the box and three bikes on the roof (with 48 inch cargo bars).  The box was merely convenient when we lived in a house in Arizona with the same Xterra as primary vehicle, mostly because gear dried so fast in the southwest, and we didn’t do much skiing.  The box, on the same vehicle and with the same living setup, was more important once we moved to Montana, and has become absolutely vital since adding a hatchback and first one and then two children to the mix.  Today, we’ve had enough practice that we can do a week on the road, camping exclusively, with climbing and packrafting gear in tow, and fit everyone in a small (by US standards) car.  With summer sleeping bags there is even space to see out the back window.

(Rocketbox visible at far right.)

In 1999 Yakima made three cargo boxes.  Today they make 9, with only two being comparable (long enough to hold skis, narrow enough for multiple bikes or a boat additionally on the roof).  Wider, shorter boxes seem the fashion, and the worry-free tailgate clearance they provide seems to me a poor choice given their limitations in all other areas.  The other lamentable development is in dual-side opening, the hardwear for which takes up considerable interior space.  Back in the day, the most popular box (the Rocketbox) was available in left or right opening, the other two in right only, which seems like the pragmatic choice anywhere other than New Zealand and Britain.  If the original weren’t still going strong, minus a bit of sun fading, I’d be tempted to look on the used market.

As is, I can’t imagine living without one.  It is the primary car accessory for almost any outdoor activity.

Introducing North Fork Packraft straps

The astute will have noticed months ago that I’m in the process of launching a pack company, North Fork.  I’m pleased to report that it is going very well indeed, in spite of no overt public evidence of progress.   Two years ago I sketched out a detailed idea of the two packs I wanted to build, and have spent the time since making prototypes to re-examine every relevant detail.  Just because I’d spent the prior decade as a hobbiest settling on my own preferences for wilderness packs did not mean those ideas were the best way of doing things.  This experimentation and development process has been immensely satisfying, largely because I freed myself from all time constraints.  I’d make as many packs, and do as many trips, as necessary for me to be content.

That process is, for the smaller of the two packs, beginning to wind down.  I’ve refined a simple, light, and supportive suspension system that can carry 40 pounds sustainably, involves minimal moving parts, and can be stripped down to completely frameless.  A protracted, 18 month diversion into complex side pocket design brought me right back to the basic design I started with.  Features and bag design took numerous diversions, and got back quite close to my original ideas.  That part is gratifying, that the first decade of experimentation was not misleading, but the assurance I bought in recent years only makes the original knowledge shinier.

I’m aware of exactly how full my days are, and have no intention of going down the solo cottage shop road of over committing and watching the wait times grow.  Thus, the bulk of North Fork packs will be sold as stock, and in batches, which will be available when they are available.  If things go as anticipated, the first run of Tamarisks (40 liters, technical multiday backpacking or race pack) will go live in time to be a winter solstice gift.  Development on the big, UL mission pack will continue into next year.  Ideally I’d like to sell some before next summer.

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To shake out the administrative kinks, and sell a simple thing whose value I’ve tested for even longer, we’re releasing the first run of packraft straps.   A ~70 inch length of 1 inch polypro webbing with a stout ITW buckle (each straps is ~72 inch tip to tip with buckle).  I made the first versions (red, immediately above) back in the pre-cargo fly days.  They weren’t quite longer enough, so I made the second (blue, all other photos) and final version, of which several have been in use for the past seven years.

A really big, really full pack will just about max them out.  The sweet spot for the length is a full 55 liter pack, maybe 36 inches in circumference.  The poly webbing is noticeably lighter in field use than nylon.  One inch webbing provides enough friction on both the buckle and against the pack that a cobble scrapping flip will not tear your gear loose, even if that gear includes a mountain bike (been there).  I have also found out, the hard way, that just because you can fit it inside your packraft does not mean, in the name of maximized puncture resistance, you should, making packraft straps relevant for all boaters.  The straps are also handy for keeping your boat rolled tight, for tying a serious overload to your pack (bear can?  100 meter static line?), and for taming awkward loads generally.  I used one last fall to roll up a bison hide for transport, and chained three together the other week to get our new-to-us (1950s Corona, ‘natch) range tight to the dolly and down many stairs into the kitchen.

Packraft straps are shit that works.  So buy some, or make some yourself.  Small item shipping rates meant that total charges for overseas customers are a bit excessive, even with us (M and I) cutting the profit margin a good bit.  You can bartack poly webbing on a home machine, and if you do enough stitches even poly embroidery thread will hold.  I use bonded nylon tex 90, the bartacks will hold long after the buckle shatters.

This is the long-awaited second phase of what began with our stickers and guidebook 2.5 years ago.  Straps today, with stock and (occasional) custom packs to come later this year.

PS: Half the straps sold over the weekend.  Much gratitude from us for the support, and the interest in the packs to come. 

Astral Brewer 2.0; the hiking review

Shoe weight matters.  Read all this stuff if you haven’t recently, the most singular point being that the guy with the lightest shoes was the only one who made it all 1000k.  When I was just getting into serious backpacking, about a decade ago, I got the idea that one ought to have a footwear system that was sub 1 pound all up.  With size 11.5 feet and the need for durable shoes this is not yet realistic, at least not with gaiters and insulating socks, but the ideal is a good totem to keep you honest.

All of which begs the question of what you want in a shoe for serious (big miles, off trail, etc) hiking?  Over at BPL RJ recently published an elegant piece about epistemic issues (“As you immerse yourself in an area of study, defining it becomes more nuanced and complex – and irrelevant.”)  in ultralight hiking, concluding that “…ultralight backpacking is a practice centered around the idea that one should solve a problem using as little as possible, but that which is used to solve the problem should be as effective as possible.”  For me that has involved taking the last decade plus to increase my knowledge and my hiking strength, and drill down with ever more precision into what I needed for consecutive days of tough hiking.  Durable uppers for one, with some protection, and a stiff, low, and not overly padded sole with little if any drop, and an aggressive sole pattern.

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I’ve been interested in Astral’s shoes since their beginning, and with the number of zero drop or close hiking shoes dwindling with the swings in market fashion I bought a pair of Brewers last month, to try out specifically as a hiking shoe.  The Brewer is intended to be a general boating shoe, with a style and performance that lets it cross over (quite heavily I would suspect) into lifestyle wear.  The sole is sticky, but non-marking, for example, and as M noted the fat toe and contrasting stitching gives you the air of being on a July trip out to Orcas Island.

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The twist on evaluating such a shoe today is that I currently hike fewer miles per month than any time in the past decade, or even two.  Backpacking is a demanding activity, and pushing backpacking into more intense realms strips back both illusions concerning the functionality of items, and the many ways in which fitness was previously padding out inadequacies in both gear and technique.

I want to press the Brewers as far as I can as a hiking shoe because the midsole is low (17mm stack) and fairly stiff, while the upper is close to as minimalist as a shoe gets.  There is no heal counter (which will allow for further exploration of the extent to which this is necessary), and very little padding.  One can fold the heel flat and use the shoes as slip ons.  The toe box is broad and Altra-esque, while the tread pattern is largely positive, to maximize contact on slick rocks, but with a grid of large cut outs, enough to clear mild mud and grip in loose soil.  The tread isn’t ideal for Montana hiking, in that it isn’t ideal in steep loose soil and really struggles in mud, but it is more than serviceable.  It’d be an ideal tread pattern for the Colorado Plateau.  The lack of heel counter has not been noticeable, save for a few occasions when mud or deadfall pulled the shoe a bit down on my heel, and I had to wrestle it back on.  It is curious that the shoe could fit this loose and have that degree of movement not really be noticeable even in severe terrain, evidence I suppose that a shoe like this moves with you.  Further pluses are the thick laces, which have been exceptional at staying tied in the face of bushwacking, better than anything else I’ve used.

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The one serious downside has been the lack of padding and/or foot protection in the upper.  The recent traverse reminded me how un-sticky limestone talus can be, with the sides of my toes taking a few good hits and pinches that made me wince at my choice of footwear.  The lack of padding does, moreso than the little drains in the toe and heel, make the Brewer dry as fast (and weigh as little) as it does, but there are costs.  The naked fabric low on the upper is also an obvious future failure point, barring the intervention of more aquaseal  My next shoe purchase will likely be the TR1 Merge, to maintain all the virtues of the Brewer and get more foot protection and durability.  A note on sizing: I would consider the Brewer quite short, and bought 12s to get the same room for socks and foot swelling I normally get from 11.5s.

The Brewers appeal to me a great deal, both because they fit my preferences, as because they’re such a lean design.  You can feel the seams in the upper if you get the lacing tension wrong, and they beg to be worn with slightly thicker socks, to pad things out a hair, though on the aformentioned traverse I used uber-thin 100% synthetic cycling socks, and I don’t think a thicker sock would have added that much of a comfort margin.  At the end of 3 days and 60 miles (20 packrafting, ~15 of the 40 foot miles off trail) I was quite done in, and burlier shoes probably would have taken the edge off.  At the same time, it was nice to know exactly how tired I was, and to know how I could appreciate the shoes even more with sharper legs.

RJ also published another piece, about building lifetime hiking fitness, where he recommends a quiver of hiking shoes to train weaknesses as well as provide rest.  In the hiking realm, the Brewers are an outstanding training shoe, one that provides enough structure and protection for demanding hiking, without anything at all that coddles or supports more than needed.  By that definition, a minimalist hiking shoe indeed.

 

Blue bike tales

Last week, at a yard sale, we saw this pretty blue Trek Antelope 850, and for $40 and in excellent condition I just couldn’t not take it home.

A little digging reveals this Trek is from 1990, close to the vintage of the Bridgestone MB-5 which was my first real bike.  Functionally identical performance between the Bridgestone and Trek, and the Trek has all original components, save the rear tire.

I was nostalgic to re-discover the ride quality of the mountain bike of my youth (second clavicle fracture, endo, 8th grade), but not enough to put up with silly gearing, janky shifting, and less than snappy braking.  I also wanted to maintain the original finish while dealing with the many, expected scars and rusty bits, and to that end I stripped the frame and put on 4 coats of clear before tackling the parts swapping.  So the far too big 28/38/48 rings got replaced with 24 and 36, with slightly shorter 170mm road cranks with a narrower q-factor.  The stock 13-30 7 speed freewheel is a very pragmatic range with nicely spaced jumps, so that stayed, shifted by an ancient thumb shifter I cobbled together by JB Welding a downtube shifter boss to the baseplate of a Sturmey-Archery thumb shifter.  An RX-100 shifter in friction gets the job done.  A future upgrade might be a proper stem shifter mount and another paddle so I can put the front derailleur back on.

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Raiding the parts bin revealed one functional Arch-Rival, for the front, and one functional Tektro canti, for the rear.  It didn’t take too long to recall how to set both up, and the result (at least until winter) is excellent.  The original front tire and its dry rotted sidewalls got confined to the shop rafter museum, and a new Kenda K-rad went on.  Surly Open bars, random brake levers, and new silicon grips complete the build, along with a vintage SR stem that gives more reach and (along with the bar) a healthy, comfy, and unfashionable amount of cockpit flex.

And it rides awesome, though the shakedown got highjacked by LB graduating to a full pedal bike, taking to it from the first trial with only a bit of assistance at the start.

He’s been riding his Cleary Gecko for almost two years, but as a run bike with the cranks removed.  On his first outing back then it became obvious that not only did he need more strength for pedaling, but that learning to both pedal and work hand brakes at the same time was too much.  The steel Cleary, with pneumatic tires, is a lot heavier than the aluminum Yuba with solid foam tires and plastic wheels, but after he mastered modulation hand braking became second nature, and speeds in our hilly neighborhood went up, way up, frighteningly so at times.  But LB has earned my trust with his judgment around streets and cars and bumps, and when a few clean runs down the gently sloped walk in front of his future elementary school begat multiple laps around the block and then back home, I was content to follow, the no-longer toddler making all the decisions.

Naturally, now he doesn’t want to do anything else.

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There are a few in hindsight obvious things about setting a bike up for a ~40 pound small person.  Tire pressures, obviously, can be very low.  The 25/14 gearing on the Gecko is well balanced.  Other things, like keeping the engagement of the brakes light, did not immediately occur to me.  The levers allow for lots of reach adjustment to suit small hands, and the custom small diameter bars and grips make the bike comfortable.  When he outgrows the Gecko, likely by next spring, he’ll surely be ready to add shifting to his skillset.

I’m still looking for whatever makes learning to ski as natural as a strider makes learning to ride.  The next phase of storage installation in the bike and ski room is not too far off.

Layering in 2019: mid and wind layers

Since 2011 I’ve owned around two dozen windshirts, and while a third of those were for larger reviews and garments in which I didn’t have an inherent interest, this still amounts to an extravagant total.  As of today there are only four in regular rotation.  In the same period I’ve had at least the same number of fleece pullovers, vests, and hoodies, including half a dozen items in current use, on top of a couple active insulation pieces.  I could, by contrast, cut baselayers down to two or three pieces without issue, and gladly go the whole year with a single hardshell.

All of which is to say that the task of additional weather protection for on the move is far more complex than any other.  The most relevant question is thus which items provide for the greatest range of use/comfort, and why.  Not only will versatile items better trim the closet, using generalism to frame our inquiry makes for more incisive answers.

I call wind and mid layers, which collectively are generally used for added protection while on the move in the backcountry, action layers (nod to Twight and Extreme Alpinism).

Thinner baselayers made with faster wicking fabrics and construction (as discussed previously) best fit and indeed demand action layers that prioritize breathability.  For example, take the opposite extreme, a 200 grams/meter 100% merino shirt which was “cutting edge” 15 years ago.  Hike uphill hard with a pack, even around freezing, and the shirt will get quiet to very wet.  Pop above treeline and get hit by wind, or turn the crest and head downhill with the associated drop in heat production, and you’ll want something to moderate evaporation, least you get cold.  Traditional windbreakers work well here, with limited breathability (<5 cfm, say) making for something of a wetsuit effect.  The disadvantage is of course that further measures will be needed to get ahead of the moisture curve, and if kinder ambient conditions don’t help you out, external heat of some kind, in the form of a fire or added insulation, will eventually be needed.  Modern layering seeks to avoid this, with systems that retain far less moisture under adverse conditions, and need far less input to dry.

There is a broad range of functionality here, with individual metabolism providing heavy influence.  Smaller folks, leaner folks, and those with slower metabolism often need a vastly warmer and more protective action layer.  For every case their is emphatically such a thing as too little or too breathable protection.  A case of too little protection would be the aforementioned thick merino and windbreaker combo, which in most cases has too little insulative value and too much protection against external forces, which makes the body work to hard to maintain equilibrium, which is in turn a poor use of calories and morale.  Too much protection would be a thin synthetic t-shirt and a 100 weight fleece pullover in the same conditions.  This combo is good at moving moisture, statically warm, but provides little protection against external conditions (e.g. wind).  This past fall I revisited using 100 weight fleece in place of a windshirt, and it only took one brisk day and one cold and still morning to think that the lack of control with respect to the wind and transpiration generally was stressing my metabolism more than seemed necessary.

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This is why the nylon 20D mechanical stretch nylon Patagonia developed for the Nano Air series, a fabric found on its own in the Airshed pullover, might be the most significant development in outdoor apparel in the last decade.  The insulation used in the Nano Air Light (above) is different that Polartec Alpha, but the reason it and the regular Nano Air are utterly different in use than other active insulation I’ve used is the shell and liner fabrics.  Not only are they very (but not excessively!) breathable, but the thin, mechanical stretch (spandex free!) fabrics retain amazingly little moisture.  A few weeks ago I was out in -15F on consecutive days.  On one the least breathable component in my system was my BD Alpine Start hoody, with a couple hours work putting a fine coating of frost against the inside.  On the other, a Nano Air over a baselayer (the LaSportiva Troposphere) stayed dry after three hours of hard trailbreaking.  The Nano Airs are even more versatile companions for people who run cold.  Since getting one in late October M has hardly taken hers off.

There are times when a windshirt which blocks a lot of wind has no substitute, including (at least for me) a hardshell.  The sadly discontinued Rab Windveil continues to be my all time favorite here, due mainly to fit and features but also to toughness.  The Alpine Start also remains a favorite, and oddly the windshirt I use most but the one I might let go first.  The fit is frustrating, as is the way it hangs on to just a little too much moisture when conditions are truly challenging.  On the other hand it’s durable, balanced with respect to weatherproofing, and looks good.

If I had to pick only two items from all the action layers I’ve had or have, they would be the Windveil and Nano Air Light.  The Alpine Start would be hard to give up, and the Airshed hasn’t been in my closet long enough for permanent consideration.  The fourth item would be Haglofs Pile hoody, not because it’s more performance oriented than something like a Nano Air hoody (or what the Tough Puff, which I’d love to try), but because fleece still beats active insulation on intangibles, if not on performance.

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Actions layers are the other area, along with baselayers, where I think premium items can be worthwhile.  The Nano Air series, along with the best modern wind layers, are astonishingly efficient.  The premium is steep, when comparing for instance a $35 fleece shirt and the $250 Nano Air Light, but just with baselayers when you’re wearing it almost year round, action layers are a good place to put dollars.

Layering in 2019: introduction and baselayers

Any discussion of layering has to start with it being somewhat of a misnomer; the point of a good layering system is to provider a few solid pieces which cover as great a range of conditions as possible.  If you have to swap, add, or remove layers often, you chose poorly for the day.  That said, technical outdoor clothing is both better and more expensive than ever, so if you pick well a small arsenal can work on almost any day of the year.

Base layers should move moisture quickly, and keep abrasion and sun off your skin.  We’re into the second decade of merino being full fashion in the outdoor realm, and I’m ready to call it ready to die insofar as backcountry performance is concerned.  The virtue of merino was always the extent to which it controlled evaporative cooling by absorbing some of the moisture burden as it moved from skin to the garment surface, with odor control and heat of sorption* being tangential benefits.  As the paradigm of all outdoor garments has shifted towards faster moisture transport and greater air permeability, moisture buffering in base layers has made less and less sense.  There is no point in effectively storing moisture in your base layer when the mid and/or wind layers are not working at full capacity.  Thin wool minimizes this disadvantage, but the continued experiment with introducing synthetics into merino is all the evidence required that merino durability is below 180 grams/meter substantially problematic.

Where wool continues to shine is as lifestyle wear for the urban jungle.  A mildly sweaty 3 mile bike commute makes the odor control of merino highly relevant, and while the aforementioned hybrids don’t hold up to brush and backpack abrasion, they do hold up to repeated laundering.  All my merino shirts have been shunted into daily use under dress shirts, which keeps the -10 degrees mornings a bit more at bay, and allows me to chase kindergarteners at will without being stinky for 3pm meetings.  Insofar as growth in the “outdoor industry” is largely confined to lifestyle or near lifestyle segments, merino has a bright future.

I revisited merino this winter, and quickly got sick of the outer layer of my hats and shirts frosting up, something which was under similar circumstances eliminated by going back to synthetics.  The last six years trend in synthetic baselayers has continued, with fabrics getting ever thinner, and mechanical/structural variations making for increased performance.  Polartec High Efficiency, popularized by the now-classic Capilene 4, has remained the touchstone cold weather baselayer, while sub-100 grams/meter garments have made this the new cutoff for light weight baselayers.  Old tech is also making comeback, in the form of the original synthetic baselayer, polypro.  If poly has won out in baselayers most significantly due its low moisture regain (.5%, roughly), poly ought to do far better with a moisture regain many times less (.06%).  This fall I’ve spent a lot of time in a nylon/polypro/spandex knit, and have been impressed that a not prodigiously light fabric could wick so efficiently, even under difficult (high humidity, near freezing) conditions.  The blend and modern anti-odor treatments seems to have dealt with the old polypro issues (stink, shrinkage at normal laundry temps) quite nicely, with the only downside of this particular piece being the emphatically euro styling (size up).

For the time being my recommendation from two years ago, that with a Cap 4 (now thermal weight) shirt and a Sitka Core LW shirt I could do everything, anywhere holds true.  The Sitka fabrics changed a bit and the features got more complex, but plenty of good options (e.g. the OR Echo series) has come on the scene since.  Most significantly, I continue to recommend that newcomers building a technical wardrobe sink money into quality baselayers, not so much because the performance gain over cheaper ones is massive, but because the gain/$ ratio is the best, and you’ll notice the refinements in function and fit most often, as your baselayers get used more often than anything else (save socks, another area to not skimp).

Next, the fraught world of mid and wind layers.

 

*Of sorption is the phenomenon where energy is given off as liquid water (in this case within the wool fibers of a garment) passes into a gas during evaporation.  It is popularly cited by wool boosters, and I remain skeptical that the effect is for one significant enough to be relevant in the field, and for another, consequential enough to overcome the downsides of having a bunch of water on board your garments.  The largest number I’ve found associated with of sorption in wool is 1 gram of water generating 277 joules (which is roughly .26 BTUs).  That would be a compelling figure, but the study was of carpets in residential settings, where the thermal load and mass presumably made the findings of limited generalizability.  I assume anyone who claims of sorption as a benefit of merino baselayers, without significant caveats, has not given the subject much thought.