Somewhere else in Montana

I rode my bike up the hill, slowly, and down the hill, not as fast as expected.

The 3/4 mile of creek upstream of where we put in last year contained a surprisingly sustained gorge. With respect to challenge and beauty it recalled lower Youngs, and the larger drop towards the end was walled in well enough that to portage I had to walk around the remainder.

Lower down I cut my boat, on a mystery rock, and patch-n-go adhered poorly enough to the well worn floor that I spent the final hours sitting in 4 inches of water.
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Having to walk off the verge of hypothermia did not make finding the old trail any less foggy.

Side trails, promised on the 1:100,000 map, passed behind me in non-existence, and I ridgecamped at 7000′, cross eyed at dusk with only 2 liters of water in my pack.

Trail signs, deer tracks, and only 3 granola bars led down and across and all the way back to the creek, my bike, and a bonked-out 2000′ climb.  I still made my car hours before even optimism had indicated.

I want to say what I found because it is important, but not tell anyone where, so maybe you can find the same thing yourself.

Loving and hating the puffy

To begin with, there is the issue of terminology; “puffy” being a plain dumb word, but it is how we refer to synthetic or down fill jackets these days, so so be it.  As with most lexicological nits this one is seemingly benign, but it does promulgate a one-dimensional view of insulated jackets, a problem the outdoor industry has in the last few years finally grappled with in a substantive manner.

I find it odd that off all the layers I wear outside month to month and year to year, the insulating coat is at the beginning of 2018 the one I still find least satisfying.  Baselayers have been going in a good direction for quite some time, by getting thinner and more focused on speedy moisture transfer.  Between the Sitka Core LW line and what Patagonia now calls Thermal Weight I can go out into every condition with no complaints about either fit or performance.  Wool is still sorting itself out, and I’m still paying attention to the various new blends, but if those problems take a further decade to get solved I will remain not at all impatient.  Shells are also in a very good spot, especially the light and quite breathable ones (aka windshirts) that I wear almost all the time.  It will be swell when WPB laminates are both reliable and reliably don’t rely on DWR treatments, but at the moment I’m content enough with how well such things work.

IMG_3253Hot Forge along the Dirty Devil; cold, but good dry conditions once you’re out of the river.

Insulated jackets, on the other hand, are a source of consistent annoyance.  At least, they are here in Montana.  Last winter I had it easy, which is to say simple; I just brought the Hot Forge hoody on everything and was both warm enough and rarely had to worry about internal or external moisture.  Life in the desert is easy like that, with rare precipitation, low ambient humidity, and generally moderate winter temps.  The winter of 17/18 has been quite different.  Since early November we’ve had several feet of snow in town at 4100′, and many times that in the mountains.  Of those ~90 days, probably 1 in 4 has had a low in or below the single digits (F).

It may not be worth saying out loud that these conditions are a lot tougher to insulate for, but it is worth elaborating on exactly why.  Cold weather requires more insulation, of course, but it is also more difficult to manage layers in.  It shouldn’t be so, but I find it harder to stay sweat free at 10F than I do at 30F.  More significantly, colder ambient temps put the refreeze point somewhere within your insulation (or sleeping bag), which means that maintaining the function of your insulation (i.e. keeping it dry) becomes all important, the moreso the longer you stay out.

IMG_5395I’ve been in lots of driving snow this winter, which makes moisture management tough.

The Hot Forge hoody has done fairly well, and save for the truly frigid trips (where I’ve brought my MEC Reflex) has been in almost constant use.  The 4-5 oz of fill provides what I find to be the ideal amount of warmth, and the Primaloft/down blend dries far faster and moves moisture better than either plain down or DWR treated down.  The torso is a bit on the slim side for stuffing with gloves and water bottles, but the cut and feature set is otherwise ideal.

So why the complaining?  It has been possible to flatten the insulation in the Hot Forge in a way the pure Primaloft only does when you submerse it in water, which is a bummer.  A comparably warm Primaloft coat would be much bulkier, so that is a good enough trade off.  What has been disappointing is how quickly the insulation has packed out, leaving the usual down jacket problem spots (inside of the elbows, fronts of the shoulders) a bit thin.  This matches the pattern of what has happened with every thinner, non-baffled down coat I’ve ever owned, and leaves me thinking that under regular use in high moisture areas non-baffled down coats don’t have a functional life any longer than a Primaloft coat, which is to say about 18-24 months.  I still like the Hot Forge plenty, but for winter use in colder, more reliably moisture generating areas it does not strike me as worth full retail.  I don’t think the fill packing down necessarily has anything to do with the synthetic component, as many of the chamber elsewhere remain stuffed full, but this is something worth keeping in mind.  With baselayers and fleece that can last for a decade or more, and windshirt and rain coats whose DWR might make it 5 or more years before becoming dysfunctional, puffy coats end up being the least durable clothing item in the arsenal.  And with premium Goretex jackets excepted, the most expensive.

R0022003Down is better than a blanket when you forgot your puffy, and is also a lot less problematic for folks who don’t put off as much internal moisture.

So what is a better option, if anything?  I’m still scratching my head about that.  A synthetic coat with comparable warmth would be in the ~20 oz range, with the Patagonia Hyper Puff hoody and Nunatak Shaka Apex the leading contenders.  A lighter (and cheaper) synthetic coat isn’t a bad option either, assuming I’ll likely have the Nano Air Light along as well.  I also wonder if an equivalent down coat with more tightly stuffed baffles would hold up longer, better.  Or perhaps new synthetic like Patagonia’s Micro Puff will make this debate moot.  Until then, I’ll keep looking for new options, and keep looking for the cheapest option that will do the job, given the hard life insulated jackets lead.

 

Pack materials for 2018

This post and the follow-up a year later have remained among my most popular works, and with 2018 coming into focus they are at last worth updating.  Not too much has changed in the world of backpack fabrics, but time has allowed for enough clarification that a few things are worth saying again.  There are even some new trends to highlight.

Context matters.  I’ve taken plenty of flack over the years for denigrating trail and thru hiking as a useful design metric for backpacks.  This is a statement I still endorse, but do not mistake holding something up as a metric as equivalent to it being the most frequent or likely use.  Plenty of people get along just fine with fabrics I dislike, and unless you really want to count grams current technology makes producing a good, light, functional trail pack simple.  My own interest has always been, putting the outlier of canyoneering aside, in making and using packs which are as light and functional as the best modern packs, and tough enough for trips like this.

R0010199Nylon ripstop on the Gossamer Gear Type 2 (above) and Osprey Rev 18 (below).  Relatively cheap, certainly light, and for small packs durable for years of reasonable use.  Lighter packs carry lighter loads, can thus usually expect more careful handling, and thus can often get away with lighter fabrics, even if they are used most often.

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Pack fabrics can still be separated into two categories depending upon what waterproof coating they have stuck to their backs.  Polyurethene remains the most common, by far, and provides predictable and in many cases quite satisfactory performance.  The strengths of PU coated fabrics are lower prices, a more supple hand, and a lower amount of weight given over to the coating itself.  The downsides are the eventual degradation of the coating, the fact that most PU fabrics are waterproof to a degree which can be reliably if not commonly exceeded in field conditions, and that applying the coating weakens the fabric.  No one is complaining about the tear strength of something like 330D cordura, but I do believe that attribute of hot-application coatings is why they’re not more liberally applied (which would solve the waterproofing issue).  The quality of PU coating varied drastically, from very good to utter crap, which muddies things for both the home maker and the person just wanting to buy a good pack in the shops.

Laminate fabrics such a hybrid cubens and the various Dimension-Polyant fabrics are the second option.  If I were making a canyoneering pack I’d pick a PU fabric like 1000D cordura without hesitation, as the added weight and waterproofing given by a laminate just doesn’t make sense, especially in the face of no current laminate fabric being adequately durable for such use.  I used several test packs made from X51 (500/1000D cordura) last year, including for this two day excursion and even with careful packing 2 days and five canyons had the X51 on the edge of destruction.  For mountain backpacking, especially outside summer, the added waterproofing and weight of laminate fabrics makes them justifiable.

R0021333Cold and knackered along the Escalante in January.  Canyons beat up packs like little else. Laminate fabrics dedicate a greater percentage of their weights to the waterproofing layer, relative to PU fabrics.  I think the later makes more sense in the desert, for this reason.

Why aren’t many (any?) more commercial packs available in laminate fabrics?  First, the fabrics are more expensive, and needle holes which don’t self heal is I still assume a burden in mass production.  Second, D-P laminates face fabrics they don’t themselves produce in in the US, which means that a Chinese or Korean made cordura would be woven on one side of the Pacific, laminated on another, then shipped back again to be cut and sewn into packs.  Last, and most obviously why the first two hurdles haven’t been overcome, it is more difficult to articulate to the masses how your pack is more waterproof than other supposedly waterproof packs, and yet still is not submersible.  Plenty of people are trying to change these dynamics, and 2018 has the best chance yet of one succeeding.

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Abrasion in 1.3 oz pure cuben (above) and 150D hybrid cuben and VX42 (below).  Pure cuben isn’t reasonable for use in a pack, and the above photo show how easily the strong reinforcing fibers and weak mylar film are easily separated from each other.  The pack below is almost 4 years old, and has been a good test for how the two wear.  The cuben body is fine, but keeping it that way has taken lots of tape and aquaseal.

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Years have only reinforced my conviction that Cuben/DCF is in backpacks mostly hype.  Yes the 150D hybrid is a very good product.  Yes, good packs are made out of it.  But the face fabric itself is still relatively weak in the face of abrasion, and while the laminate itself is without question stronger in every respect than either PU or any PET I’ve seen, using weight and dollars to put strength there continues to not make sense to me.  200-300D nylon face with a thinner cuben film?  Sounds higher performance in every respect.  Since Cuben was purchased by DSM product development and availability has become decidedly less transparent, so while probably the greatest potential resides there in terms of pure pack fabric technology, I don’t expect anything new, one way or the other.

This leaves us with D-P products, which have become more diverse and vastly more widely available.  Rockywoods, for instance, currently sells 10 variants which could be suitable for backpacks, with more commonly available elsewhere.  Much to their credit, D-P has stuck with their fabric nomenclature, which initially seems obtuse but make discussion and differentiation simple.  For our purposes all fabrics have an inner PET laminate (the waterproof part) and an outer woven face fabric.  The V designation means there is an inner fabric laminated to the PET (easily seen by the white inner), while the X designation means the signature x shaped grid of reinforcing fibers is present, laminated within the PET.  Recent trends have gone away from the V layer, something of which I do not generally approve.  In heavier and especially darker face fabrics this results in a very shadowy interior which makes finding things a pain.  In the lighter fabrics, I’m thinking of X21 in particular, the lack of interior scrim takes away a good deal of stiffness, making an already oddly cut prone fabric considerably moreso.  3 years I was already less than fond of VX21, thinking that VX07 punched better given the weight, and that for me VX42 was almost always preferable.  This is not to say that X21 isn’t a good light pack fabric, just that I put it in the sides of a framebag a year ago, and have grown tired of little nicks appearing for no particular reason.

My particular favorites remain the cordura faces on X33 and X50, though VX42 and X42 are very nice.  The slicker face of the 420D plain weave used the latter does very well in brush and sticks, while cordura is better when dragged over rocks.  VX42 has proven difficult enough to put holes in that I’d use it for anything short of the slot canyon abuse shown above, content that I’d be patching holes and nicks infrequently.  X51 ought to be better than X50, but the difference in size between the warp and weft fibers make it a thorough disappointment.  Here my recommendation has not changed in recent years: VX07 for light trail duty, X33 for most things, and VX42 or X50 for abusive applications.

IMG_5567X50 significantly rubbed by 12 miles hauling an elk rack out of the wilderness.  Not overkill in this application.  This also illustrates the way the X grid accelerates abrasion.

A number of areas for improvement are available.  First, more Vspecific fabric options which omit the X grid.  Anyone who has put D-P fabrics to a good test has seen the grid be a major point of abrasion, such that the fabrics would without question last longer without it.  D-P has admitted that branding is at work here, but I also think that packs have become a large enough part of their portfolio that they will shortly be more malleable.   More broadly, it would be swell to see pack fabrics with some manner of durable surface coating that kept them from being saturated under gnarly conditions.  Arc’teryx has done this on a limited basis, so the potential certain exists.

This points to the real future of pack fabrics, which long term is probably in some manner of heavier non-woven.  The woven Dyneema used by Cilogear, HMG, and a few others is impressive, and points towards the way advanced textiles allow traditional fabrics to bend the rules as we know them.  My hope is that fabrics like the Liteskin line from D-P (a non-woven poly face with a woven nylon backer) will out perform traditional fabrics for the same weight, while being less expensive to produce at small and moderate scales than the various dyneema products.

Concerning pack weight

There remains some confusion about how to make a backpack lightweight, and yet still functional.  The simplest and best way remains to raise your own bar; get better at packing, need fewer things, need lighter things, and so forth.  But this can be a hard end to maintain, as I have recently been reminded, and while it can be delightful to sacrifice efficiency at the alter of purity, doing so is not a sustainable end.  To whit, it is a good idea for a backpack to have some (or at least, the correct) external features, though as I discussed years ago features do add up in weight.

Kean observers will recall this video from last year, where I took scissors to a Divide and cut off all that seemed practical.  My scrap pile weighed 4.5 ounces; as many observed not a good reward for the effort expended.  The X42 Divide comes in a little north of 3 pounds as it ships, a figure far enough over the 2 pound magic mark of ~50 liter ultralight packs that it has been the subject of much consternation.  Fully half that 3 pounds is the frame, hipbelt, and shoulder harness, leaving 24ish ounces to account for the bag itself.  A few ounces of that is tied up in the buckles and webbing which adjust the harness, but as my demonstration showed, there really isn’t much fat available for the scalpel.

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My curiosity came full circle a few weeks ago, when I removed those adjustment buckles and sewed my final set of Mountain Hardwear straps (directly) to this much traveled Divide.  These straps are a good bit burlier, and thus heavier and (and is often, but not always, the case) more comfortable than the Seek Outside harness, so it should come as no surprise that they offer little in the way of weight savings.  The pack now weighs 2 pounds and 14 ounces, which discounts all the above features, but includes a pair of 1″ straps and quick release buckles I added across the back.  These do well holding bigger things like ice axes, foam pads, and skis, and are my preferred rig for external attachment.

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So what is the point of all this?  First, I finally have a firm answer to how you’d make fixed shoulder straps work with a frame as rigid as that on the SO.  The attachment point is down towards the base of my shoulder straps, which in concert with the load lifters allow enough distance between my shoulders and the pack that I do not feel at all constrained.  Relative to the stock adjustable shoulder harness sewn on shoulder straps offer considerable less wiggle room for matching individual shoulder shape to the stock frame curvature, which is the most substantial downside of tubular metal frames which are for all intents not really able to be modified by the end user.  With straps of equal materials sewn of does offer a consequential (~3 ounces) savings over an adjustable harness, so there is that.

Second, this experiment begs all sorts of questions about lower weight limits with various approaches to putting a frame in a pack.  The SO frame is absolutely rigid under 100 pounds, something that works very well at 50 pounds, and even 25.  I’ve never  in the past four years of using them thought that the SO frame system had too much load carrying ability.  I have thought it had too much bulk and width, which is a trickier thing to negotiate, as the width allows the frame to wrap around your back, which makes loads very stable indeed.   This remains an undersold aspect of the SO system, how well they work in technical situations.  I’ve used packs with more stability, that I’d have rather used on something like last weekends ski descent, but nothing that I’d rather have used if I’d have had to carry a bulky 25 pounds of winter gear.  There are systems which are better tuned read, not overkill) to moderate loads than the SO frame, but the ancillary benefits of the later goes a very large way towards making up for that excess.

Third, making a light pack not only requires attention to obvious things like balancing minimalism and utility, and selecting materials which will carry the load intended.  Ergonomics and stability are more ineffable, but no less important.    They’re also more subject to individual fit and preference, which is from a design perspective more ambiguous.

Black Diamond Mont Blanc gloves long term review

Much though I hate to admit it, you need gloves.  I have good circulation and am well acquainted with just how cold I can get without it really being a problem, so I try to do without gloves as often as possible, but too often it is just too cold.  Handwear comes with inherent dexterity problems, and because of this my favorite gloves have always been those which give the most protection with the least material and bulk.

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Since September of 2014 my favorite gloves have been the Mont Blancs, from Black Diamond. With a light high-stretch material on the palms and under the fingers, and a windproof laminate fabric on the tops, I’ve been able to wear the Mont Blancs well down into single digits (F) provided the wind isn’t too crazy, and circumstances allow my hands to stay dry.  The main caveats are their slow dry time, which can be problematic in the backcountry, and a fit which does not suit those with wider hands.

My surviving original pair is at top right above, with a brand new pair at top left, and some Dynafit DNA gloves at bottom.  My old gloves are still functional, though enough of the texture has worn off the fingers that grip is compromised.  The fit of the new gloves is a fair bit roomier, especially when it comes to length, as is shown below (old glove at left, new one at right).  The stretch cuff has also been lengthened.

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Glove fit is tricky.  Ideally palm width and especially finger width will be adequate, but no more.  Just as with footwear, gloves which are too tight can actually make you colder.  A big reason I’ve liked the Mont Blancs is that they fit me so well.  On first fitting the new ones seems like they’ll do just fine, with the extra finger room being not needed for me, but not excessive either.  The palm texture on the new version has a different pattern, but the fabric seems functionally identical.

It is also worth mentioning the Dynafit gloves, and comparing them to the Mont Blancs.  Both gloves are around 2 oz a pair, and both have a similar intended purpose.  As opposed to the Mont Blancs, the DNAs take the more conventional approach of having a thicker, less stretchy material on the palm and under the fingers.  This would seem to provide more durability, at the expense of less windproofing.  The DNA gloves do have a more secure grip, though that is a largely theoretical distinction, and are quite a bit less warm than the Mont Blancs in the wind.  The DNAs have a big burly elastic cuff, which feels more secure on the hand, but exacerbates the problem the Mont Blancs already have, namely a slow drying suite of materials.

The Mont Blancs are also noteably cheaper, $25 MSRP compared to $40.

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I use gloves like these the vast majority of the time.  They are good for mountain biking, great for skiing, and even nice for hunting (I can shoot both a rifle and a longbow with them on).  Most of the time I just take two pairs, and a set of light shell mittens if it gets cold.  Hardface fleece gloves are a good alternative for multiday stuff, being about as warm, fairly dextrous, and much faster drying.  I’d still like to see the Mont Blancs in a color other than black.  My original two pairs of Mont Blancs were still functional until a few months ago, when one right glove jumped ship somewhere in the Bob.

If these gloves fit they remain a good option.

What makes a hardshell

To begin; I like the term hardshell far more than rain jacket, as it more fully encompasses the utility and meaning in question.  Outdoor clothing is, or should be, part of a system, one that provides just enough protection from ambient conditions to keep you as warm as you want to be.  Some clothing items do this by primarily trapping air, and others do it by primarily stopping air, and/or water.  Doing any of these things is not complex.  Blending a few together is bit moreso.  Where outdoor garments fail is in failing to get their blend well suited to how humans actually move out in the world, either in the materials used and their attributes, their features and cut, or often, all of the above.

So what, in my experience, makes for a quality hardshell?

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This particular train of thought started about a year ago.  My trusty Haglofs Ozo anorak was (and is) far from dead, but was beginning to fall towards the grave.  The membrane was getting visibly thin inside the shoulders, and the DWR just did not have the zip it once did (retreatment notwithstanding).  As we all know this last is the functional death knell of a modern WPB fabric, who when the face fabric becomes saturated are not quite disabled, but certainly crippled.  So with an eye towards something new and something that might be well suited to some future trips in very wet places, I bought a Helio Alpine shell from Black Diamond.  The Ozo was an 8 ounce anorak with a single chest pocket and no pit zips, made from Goretex Paclite.  The Helio is a 13 ounce (in medium) full zip coat with pitzips, dual chest pockets, and is made from Goretex C-Knit.  At $499 retail is right around double what the Ozo listed for 6 years ago.

While it is not the be-all of hardshells, fabric is crucial.  I don’t wear my hardshell much unless I have to, and I only have to either when it is raining hard, or it is very cold and windy.  A stiffer fabric works better in both of these applications than a softer one.  The surface tension of a hardshell is eventually overwhelmed and then saturated by the weight of water, either falling from the sky or dripping off brush.  A stiff fabric delays this, especially in the face of a good wind, as well as resisting the pumping action of high winds, which pushes warm air out of your layers.  The C-Knit laminate used in the Helio is advertised as more pliable than the flagship formulations like Goretex Pro, but is quite stiff compared to lighter, PU-laminates common in sub-10 oz WPB jackets.  I’d say it’s close to ideal, burly but not too heavy for a hard use shell.

As far as the laminate itself, Goretex has never let me down when it comes to keeping water out.  I remain content to allow the more fashionable, air permeable laminates to come, and it would often seem, go.

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A good hood is vital in a hardshell.  When conditions are bad, nothing else will do.  I’ve owned and passed along a number of otherwise good hardshells (such as the SD Cagoule in the title photo) for no other reason than the hood being less than ideal.  I rarely wear a helmet in the woods anymore, but nonetheless favor helmet compatible hoods because, with the exception of the Haglofs, I’ve yet to meet a non-helmet compatible hood which was not too small for all the layers I at least occasionally want to fit under it.  Full coverage of a few hats and insulated hoods is mandatory, as is a snug fit on a bare head.

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The Helio provides good coverage and enough room.  It comes up a little short with the volume adjuster, which is a single pull in the back of the hood.  This is the same system used in the more recent version of the Alpine Start hoody, where it is entirely appropriate.  I like it less in a hardshell, as while it does allow the hood to be cinched properly when zipped up, it works less well when the neck is a bit open.  With this system one cannot tighten the face opening without also cinching up the volume, which is practice isn’t terrible, but is also not optimal for comfort.  For a 500 dollar serious hardshell I would like to see better.

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Aside from good fabric and a good hood, a good fit is last of my must haves.  The Helio is roomy without being baggy, with room for all the insulation I could imagine wanting under it.  The sleeves and torso are just a bit on the long side, and behave themselves well when making long reaches, and stay tucked under a hipbelt or harness.

Everything else is optional, which is why I’m willing to put up with the insanely tight waterproof zips used on the main zip, pockets, and pitzips.  One handed operation is not possible, even after 10 months of breaking in.  The two big chest pockets are very nice, big enough for maps, with bottom seams that angle contents away from the openings.  The zipper garages are there, but are a bit too small for ideal field use.  Pitzips I would still rather do without, as I don’t think they do much aside from disrupt the humidity required to make Goretex work, but those on the Helio at least don’t add much stiffness to the overall and are generally unobtrusive (until you try to close them).

Overall the Helio is a very good hardshell.  It does the important things well or better, and some of the less essential stuff pretty good, too.  It costs a lot, and I’m hesitant to recommend something so imperfect which costs so much, but it does provide a good blueprint for what works and why.

The year I grew up

It’s an inherently vain exercise, but if I had to pick a favorite moment of 2017 it would be late on the second day of my bike/packrafting trip along the Dirty Devil River.  All the boat dragging, cold, and ambiguity had worn my mind to a jagged, dull edge.  I made camp near the apex of a big bend, where a riffle left a 30 foot wide gravel bar and sandy bench above, for me to pitch my tarp.  I had no precise idea where I was, and in an attempt to sooth that doubt and warm up I climbed quickly up the steep talus and ridge of stacked table tops to the top of the bend before traversing back north to get even higher and see up the big canyon I had floated past.

I knew what the narrows of Happy Canyon would look like from the inside, having been down to them 13 years earlier, and presumed my exit up Poison Springs would be obvious as the only road crossing.  Aside from that I could only very roughly guess, based on the only map I had brought along, a cell phone screenshot of the relevant section of the Utah gazetteer (1:100,000 scale, 200 foot contour intervals).  After 15 minutes of orienting and pondering, and a futile attempt to use the location function on my phone (useless without a base map), I decided that I was probably close to Happy Canyon, and thus almost certainly on schedule.  I hiked back to camp, made a fire, dried more gear, ate, and went to bed.

This is such a fond memory because it so closely mirrored my first packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Flathead.  My first camp was a few miles below the confluence of Youngs and Danaher, and with less than 1000 cfs I worked hard for the 5 miles down to the Pretty Prairie pack bridge.  It was drizzling and cold, and even wearing all my clothes I still got quite, creepingly cold.  The sun came out around noon and I pulled over at the White River to dry everything, my spirits foremost, and figure out where the hell I was.  In the pre-Cairn days the Forest Service map was the only deal around, and that day on my very first wilderness packraft I made distance and speed estimates with all consuming trepidation.

Doubt is precious in the modern world.  While it’s hard to find something out in the wild that hasn’t been documented on the internet, and harder still to deliberately ignore some or all of that information, the biggest challenge of the information age is breaking your mind free from the paths trodden before.  This isn’t to say that my loops on the Dirty Devil or Escalante were especially original, aside from the brief initial bike stretch on the former all the ground was very well trodden.  It is to say that putting together a good route and then seeing it on the ground, especially in a place you’ve long coveted and most especially without undue drama in the process, is something to treasure.

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There are many other memories I might list.  Spending two days wandering around Echo Park during the crux of spring, laying on the beach at Cosley Lake watching Little Bear throw rocks, many morning hours in Bestslope Coffee writing Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, the first night sleeping on the floor downstairs in our 128 year old house, packing my first elk out of a snowy Bob Marshall Wilderness.  And, just as many which are equally joyful, but more immediately weighty: figuring out where we wanted to live for the foreseeable future, waiting to see if our sellers were willing to discount our house such that we were willing to invest in the sort of issues which come with a thing as old as Montana itself, balancing home and the most responsible job I’ve yet had, pondering and ultimately deciding to have a second child.

It has, in short, been a year when any vestiges of un-adulthood were stripped away definitively.

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This won’t be a surprise for any regular reader.   I’ve begun to understand what busy truly is, which has necessitated quantity over quality both on this site and in my life generally.  In 11 years of being 2017 will see Bedrock & Paradox have both the fewest posts and the most traffic, not unlike this year saw the fewest trips, but the highest quality.  Neither of these things look set to change next year.

I’ve been watching the usual flood of highlight reals, awards, and end of the year compilations with the usual interest (it is a good, or at least rich, time to be a consumer of adventure and outdoor media).  A number dwell on the extent to which outdoor trips are inherently unpredictable, and how the art is in rolling with the ambiguity and as needed making lemonade out of lemons.  This is true, but much less so than most people think.  I’ve had plenty of altered adventures this year, one might more bluntly call them failures, due to things like injury or expectations out of line with circumstances.  These happen, and they’re learning experiences, but insofar as adventure outside is ultimately about exploring and better knowing the depths within, an end goal is always going to be trips that in the big picture proceed exactly as planned.  Not because nothing went askew; when I think about my A list trips this year (solo and family) every one of them was riven through with major stress and doubt about at least something.  The best trips go exactly as planned because when you get to them you’ll know enough to have removed most of the external variables, and have gone far enough towards mastering yourself that you’ll be able to push through the inner ones.  Inner and outer variables, they are not exactly the same, but neither is the barrier between them particularly definitive.

I’m talking about mastery, and to my surprise I not only fully arrived in the outdoor realm this year, I’ve been quite close to that benchmark in my job, as well.  Conveniently, the stress of parenting and owning a home have introduced goals which are years if not decades distant, making me not at risk of complacency any time soon.

And that is what I hope for from this website, to be able to continue to grow, and continue to provide plenty of interest to you, the readers.  My request for support back in April confirmed what I had long suspected, that the audience here is small by the standards of the world and of most marketing analysts, but includes people in almost all the right places.  Stickers (which are still for sale, if you’re interested) were the first step, and second one has been a long time in coming, but is nearly here.  In 2018 things are shaping up such that you’ll see my footprint in a few more places, see Bedrock & Paradox get a little more polished, and have a few more things of interest available here, both for free and for sale.

I’m looking forward to showing you.  See you next year.

Quantifying the ideal ‘mid

Pyramid shelters have become inexorably associated with modern “ultralight” backcountry travel.  For me they’re a staple, one I’ve discussed extensively (most recently and completely here), that for many conditions provides a light and simple no-thought solution to whatever weather might come along.  That said, I do think the utility of mids has been overstated.  Their chief virtue is a shape which deals well with both wind and precipitation without requiring too heavy a support structure.  Adding ventilation is at best problematic, and at worst a waste of time and weight.  Trips which don’t require exceptional weather shedding, and favor ventilation (often in concert with bug protection) are in the majority during the warmer six months of the year in Montana, and for an even greater period of time elsewhere.  Having the Tensegrity 2 (which is both sadly discontinued, and still available on clearance) in our quiver has been nice for those trips, and relieved much soggy, claustrophobic bugginess which in years past mids have provided as a mid-summer blessing.

What then makes for an ideal mid shelter?  If mids are good for snow and rain, and most especially for strong winds, it makes sense to maximize those attributes.  Design features which promote wind and snow shedding are worth the weight, anything else has at best a marginal case for existence.

But what are these features, and which attributes and dimensions make a ‘mid work best?

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My favorite mid features, or at least the simplest one to love, are the sod skirt and abundant ground level stake points on the Seek Outside BT2 (red shelter shown above, now slightly modified as the Silvertip).  Having a windy weather specialist that has a big gap along the hem to scope in wind and freeze the occupants has never made any sense to me, and was the sole reason I sold my MLD Trailstar many years ago, and a major reason I sold my MLD Solomid more recently.  The small sod skirt or snow flap arrangement on the BT2 solves this problem definitively.  Even a mid like the BD Megalight (above) which has fairly mild caternary curve along the bottom edges, still leaks a lot of wind unless you carry bury the gap in snow.  Today I find it hard to imagine why I’d ever want a mid without a bottom flap.

That the BT2 has 12 ground level stake points, closer than 3 feet together, both helps seal wind out and adds considerably to the overall pitch strength.  Mids resist wind, rain, and snow by having lots of tension between the apex (supported by the pole) and the hem, supported by stakes.  Unless you bought an Aliexpress special made from shit fabric, your mid will almost certainly fail in one of two ways: high winds and snow will snap your trekking pole, or will pull the stakes out.  The first problem can be addressed with burly trekking poles or a shelter specific pole, the latter by using the right stakes for the soil in question and by having a shelter which lets you use plenty of them.  Mid level guy points are useful, especially for minimizing panel deflection when design constraints put that area at risk, but ground level stake points are the foundation of a solid pitch, and of a solid design.  Square mids like the Megalight, which generally have nearly 9 foot sides and only one guy point at halfway could certainly do with two instead.  12 total for a mid of this size is emphatically not overkill.  The LBO pictured below has only 10, which makes for relatively big spans between stakes on the wider rear portion.  I wouldn’t object to an additional 4 in this spot.

R0023009R0000107R0012840Seek Outside LBO with 3 piece vestibule.  Hopefully these three photos, combined with the chart below, show the somewhat complex shape which I’ve found to perform so well in bad weather.

Sewing flaps and a bunch of guy loops on is easy.  So what about dimensions?   Specifically, what combination of height, length and width make for the strongest overall mid, while still maintaining useable space?

The chart below details a range of mids I’ve used a decent bit in the field, omitting the BT2 (which is no longer made) and including the Supermid (which I’ve never owned, but is something of a touchstone in the genre).  All of the listed dimensions have either been confirmed by me personally, or in the case of the Supermid taken from numbers Chris Wallace put in his BPL review a number of years ago.  My thesis before beginning this investigation was that lower angles would be characteristic of shelters which shed wind well, snow less well, and had less than ideal liveable space.  The Solomid and Cimarron fit into this category.  Higher angle walls would be characteristic of both good wind and good snow shedding, but would be associated with struggles getting stakes to stay put in looser soils, something I struggled with early this year with the SO 4 man tipi.

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As the numbers show, things are not so simple.  I was not surprised that the long wall of the Solomid was the lowest angle in the test.  I sold that shelter because it didn’t take much snow to put the wall down on my face.  I was a bit surprised that the long wall of the Cimarron was essentially the same angle, something which confirms my suspicion that this mid desperately needs to be 6+ inches taller, for both space and snow shedding purposes.  (It is worth noting that the specs for the LBO and especially Cimarron are deceptive, as these shelters are modified octagons rather than rectangles, and thus longer midpoint to midpoint than corner to corner.  I used the former figure as I think it tells more about bad weather performance.)  I was also surprised that the 4 man did not have steeper angles, and that the short axis of the LBO shares almost the same figure with both the Megalight and Supermid (53 degrees, also the wall angle of the BT2).

r0021562img_20874 man tipi, at top, with BT2 and Silvertip, below.

These numbers, and my experience of how they play out in the field, show that there is a tension between specific design elements when making a mid.  Steeper walls are better, within the realm of practicality.  They shed all weather better, and provide for more useable interior space.  Taking this approach too far adds weight, both in more canopy material and especially in a much heavier pole.  Modest winds broke a trekking pole used to pitch the 4 man this past winter, one that in the BT2 and LBO had weathered some of the worst weather I’ve ever witnessed.  I also suspect, but cannot quantify, that longer fabric spans require more staking power, and put more stress on even large and well placed stakes.  On that same trip I had a hard time getting the 4 man anchored well enough, in loose desert soil, to hold up to the canopy tension I wanted.  At the time I assumed it was due to a steeper wall angle, but that is obviously not the case, given that I’ve gotten every other shelter here discussed to work just fine in practically identical circumstances, and was using big premium stakes with the 4 man.

I suspect that making a mid much taller than 72 inches quickly runs into exponentially diminishing returns.

Another prominent issue is shape.  Circular mids, aka tipis like the 4 man and BT2, shed wind demonstrably better than square or rectangular mids.  The lack of long edges along the group also fights snow build up and wall collapse quite effectively.  The disadvantage is in pitch speed, with the time involved for the 4 man and something like the Megalight being 3-4 times greater, as well as in effective interior space.  The Silvertip, with its almost symmetrical hex shape, is a good compromise.  Such a shape allows the virtual box of occupied space to be longer than it is wide, without creating big flat panels to catch wind and snow.

IMG_2623IMG_3397The LBO after surviving the nastiest storm I’ve ever slept well through, the the Solomid after a night I spent only laying north to keep the wind out of my sleeping bag.

So if the dimensions of a good backpackable mid exist within a relatively narrow range, and the other major keys to success involve lots of stake points and appropriate fabric orientation when cut for the panels (an item for another day), what are the things which can be appropriately left off a good mid?  In short, almost everything else.  You need a door, but for shelters of this size I’ve concluded that two doors is a luxury I can do without.  For something like the LBO, for instance, I’d choose to go with a single end zip like the HMG Ultamid 2.  I would stay with the non-urethene #8 zips, and a good zipper flap with plenty of velcro to keep flapping to a minimum.  The massive vent formed by the beak of the LBO is the only one I’ve used which is remotely worth having, and I could easily manage without any vent at all.  Given that they’re all at least fairly fiddly to sew the cost savings involved is reason enough for vents to be left off mids.

A lot of the final weight savings on a mid ought to come down to appropriate materials selection.  Grosgrain ribbon for stake points, for instance, is more than strong enough.  5/8″ grosgrain is far stronger than even the very best 30D silnylon.  On the other hand proper webbing might be justified in this application for the enhanced abrasion resistance.  The material used to reinforce tieouts should also be carefully chosen.  Fabric weight much beyond that of the canopy itself is probably not necessary, and if the fabric chosen for the reinforcement stretches much less than the main fabric you might create one problem in the process of solving another.  Or just pull a Kifaru a tack that shit straight on to an extra wide rolled hem, because that is a really good idea.

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But what about condensation?  Plenty of conditions for which mids are ideally suited, such as sustained cool rain or deep snowy cold, breed severe condensation.  Venting has generally been the answer, but as discussed almost never works very well.  Condensation is worst when air movement is modest, and anything short of massive vents only work well when the wind is blowing to help them along.

The real answer is to have a solid fabric, breathable liner, as pictured above and discussed here.  I’ve kept the liner permanently attached to my LBO since I made it, and it helped keep condensation to a minimumon every hunting trip I took this fall, all of which had moderate to severe condensation potential.  6-8 ounces of liner is massively better than 1-2 ounces of vent, and can be left behind if desired.

The sad conclusion of all this?  No one makes what I want, so at some point this winter I’ll be doing what I promised myself I wouldn’t, ever; buying a bunch of sil and diving back into the slippery process of cutting and sewing precision curves.

Bears Ears in crisis

Add.:  Now that the alterations discussed below have become law (however, we hope, temporary) it is worth paying close attention to the reactions.  Patagonia blacking out their webpage and declaring “The President Stole Your Land” is a satisfying bold statement, but companies on the REI side of the line don’t really have much to loose by saying so, just as they didn’t have much to loose by decamping OR to Denver after Patagonia and a few others had pushed the pendulum far enough.  The extent to which they’ll follow that up with action will be more telling.  The hook and bullet side has been more interesting.  Backcountry Hunters and Anglers blasted the Trump administration with the headline “Administration Chops National Monuments, Panders to Energy Industry, Ignores Will of American People.”  BHA has been accused of being the most lefty of the hunting conservation organizations, fairly or not, and they’re the leaders in the public lands conversation.  Other hunting companies, such as Kifaru, Sitka, and even First Lite, have thus far been silent. 

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2017 has been full enough that I can only take it in part, and Bears Ears National Monument has in its short life been a large piece of a year I’m struggling to sum up.  We were on the east coast when the long-rumored announcement was finally made late last December, close to DC, visiting places like Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Memorial, and easily able due to context and a week of quiet to contemplate what had just happened, and what would likely follow.  We returned to our then home on the Colorado Plateau, and spent the next four months making almost weekly visits to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the surrounding places which ought to be included in the overall conversation.  Since then it has been a slow march to arrive at where we are today, a process whose pauses and dread mirror that which led up to the designation of Bears Ears a year ago.

Apparently, tomorrow, we can expect a radical remapping and reduction of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.  I had far greater ambitions for this post, but the prospect of the reduction is upsetting enough that I really can’t think about it well.  So you’ll have some resources and scattered thoughts below, instead.

Dan Ransom put together the above map of just what the proposed reductions would mean for Grand Staircase-Escalante, and details what would be left out.  The possibility of an improved Hole-in-the-Rock road, with a state park at the end, boggles the mind.  The constituent fact of southern Utah wilderness is that it is riven with roads, but the combination of how poor most of those road are with how rugged the small spaces between them is keeps things wild.  Partitioning Grand Staircase-Escalante follows the RS 2477 debacle as the latest outbreak of this societal disease.  What is the proper role of federal public lands in our 21st century republic?

The first step in answering this could be deciding the proper scope of the Antiquities Act.  In the leaked summary of his investigation, Secretary Zinke wrote “The responsibility of protecting America’s public lands and unique antiquities should not be taken lightly; nor should the authority and the power granted to a President under the Act…The executive power under the Act is not a substitute for a lack of congressional action on protective land designations.”  All drama aside I believe most of us wish that this could be true today.  There is a checkered history of legislative action on public lands in the last few decades.  Things like the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act give one hope.  The persistent inaction in Utah, and the Wilderness Study Areas which have been in limbo since the 70s, do not.  I don’t think there is much question over tourism and recreation being the only long-term solution to how most non-urbanized places in the American west will make their living.  Either directly, via the service industry, or indirectly, by local and regional public lands making otherwise isolated and somewhat backwards small cities (like the one in which I live) more attractive for individuals and businesses.  The Antiquities Act has played a not insignificant part in keeping this possibility alive over the past century.  While the threats to recent monuments like Bears Ears and Gold Butte are real, the argument is not primarily about substance, it is about ideology.  So while it is possible to wish that President Obama could have moved legislation to designate Bears Ears et al, ignoring the impossibility of this and the harm which would have taken place is simply not acceptable.

Trumps revocation and reshaping could well be a principled stand, but it seems more likely to be a matter of political expedience, and of political retribution.  So, can he legally do this?

This article, from 2004, details the quite limited legal precedent surrounding review of the Antiquities Act, concluding among other things that there is no useful precedent for determining whether the attempt to shrink or do away with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is legal.  This article, from September of this year, details each contraction, deletion, and alteration done to a National Monument by presidential proclamation.  It concludes quiet baldly that no substantive precedent exists for what the Trump administration contemplates, at least in scale.  And back in May Politifact concluded that no firm precedent exists, with strong opinions on both sides of the question.

The Antiquities Act has always had problems, and the way in which Trump and his administration are bringing it to a head is no different than all the other ways in which he is highlighting contradictions long dormant in our society and government.  Our best and only hope is that Trump himself will pass on to the shadows sooner, and leave in his wake newfound motivation to confront and manage that which we have avoided for so long.

Shit that works week; again

We’re back!

In the season of flash sales and emails, where impulse purchases push companies into the black and fill our closets with things that aren’t strictly necessary, it behooves us to step back and take a break. As I wrote three years ago:  “A lot of gear upgrading is malarkey, born of boredom or fashion or envy or lust or some other vaguely protestant shortcoming. Buying new stuff is fun, usually harmless in that postmodern capitalist headinthesand way, and sometimes even justified, but most often little substantive reward is gained… Thankfully, there are areas where this is simply not the case, and one can invest in richly made tools and toys which both function so much better and give immense aesthetic pleasure. It is good to live in a world, suffused in money that it is, in which such things are still possible. Where buying a given item will legitimately spur you to get better at a given activity.”  Analytics tell me that the original had and continues to have resonance.

It also pleases me that my regard and affection for the original list has not changed at all since late 2014.  The same Werner Shuna still gets me psyched to paddle every time I snap it together.  I’m still using the same Gossamer Gear grips on my trekking poles, though they are certainly showing their age.  A trip down to the local gear store every 6 weeks or so for Aquaseal remains a staple event.  I wear my Suunto Observer every day.  I still use a flat tarp often.  My Prolite XS died this spring, in circumstances that were not really its fault.  Brightly colored socks, gloves, and hats remain a favorite whose value was emphasized this fall when my favorite (and black) hat went missing.  Many other bits of gear have come and gone since, but all of the above items are either still hanging around providing good service, or died a glorious and inevitable death in the field.

Clothing generally is tough to put on a list like this, it being equally open to boredom and whimsy.  But with rare exceptions technology doesn’t push ahead that fast, so in the list which follows I’m going to mention a few stalwart pieces of apparel along with the more usual, underappreciated basics, and some big ticket items whose utility will prove enduring.  We like gear for a good reason, it not only makes it easier to do important things, items become companions and after the fact become soaked in memories.  The best pieces of gear wind up being as evocative as any photo on the wall or bauble on the shelf.

Thermarest Ridgerest

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Inflatable sleeping pads pop, eventually.  All of them, in fact, though heavier car camping mats can safely double as mild-use pool toys.  My beloved Prolite XS fell victim to the hot Utah sun, but the compelling circumstances of its death failed to make it more comfortable to sleep on.

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If you have to or want to sleep on closed cell foam, and enjoy the light weight, bulk, and thin cushion in equal parts, the Thermarest Ridgerest is the pad you want.  It provides the best mix of comfort, light weight, longevity, and good insulation value.  Shown above are a 5ish year old Ridgerest Solite, and a brand new Ridgerest Solar.  The later is 5mm thicker and .9 higher R value.  The least expensive Ridgerest recently made a comeback, the so-called Ridgerest Classic in all-black.  My Solite was either the first or second year Thermarest added the aluminized coating, and as can be seen (the coated side is up in both photos) it does not last all that long.  Then again, I wasn’t aware of quite how packed out my Ridgerest was until I picked up the new one, so if the coating does have value it at least doesn’t far too fall short of the useful life of the Ridgerest generally.

Coal Frena beanie

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Wise backcountry folks know that when nasty conditions really get going one cannot have too many hats.  Three hats and two hoods is for me not an unusual rig when I’m nice and cold and hunkered down packrafting, glassing, or dead tired and walking into the teeth of a snowstorm.  The warmer of the two insulated hats I usually bring along needs to dry fast, be comfortable enough to wear 24 hours or more straight, stretchy enough to fit over a bunch of other stuff, yet tight enough that while asleep it won’t wander too far.  The Coal Frena does this, with a jaunty range of solids and color blocks available, generally for less than 20 dollars.

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The acrylic at work here is not fancy or nuanced, just on the thick and dense side, which is the large part of the genius here: no seams to restrict stretch, and no panels or liners or reinforcements to trap moisture.  Eventually the material does stretch out a bit (5 year old hat at right, versus 3 year old hat at left) but the lifespan would seem to be more than acceptable.

An Alpacka raft

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Packrafts have the potential to become more popular than canoes, kayaks, or all the permutations of rafts.  They speak to why SUPs have spread so quickly, being easy to transport and making any little backyard bit of water fun, and infuse that with genuine technical prowess and the sort of beginner and intermediate friendliness that only rockered skis and modern, big wheeled suspension mountain bikes have imitated.  They do this all while being one of the most potent tool for real wilderness exploration this side of rubber soled shoes.

So what is not to like?

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Well, they are expensive, and Alpacka rafts in particular have kept pace with and perhaps even outstripped inflation.  But now that Kokopelli rafts are available through REI they’ll be subject to sales and discounts and will count towards your dividend, and just as with SUPs and snowshoes and gravel bikes this will do more than anything short of a government subsidy to push them towards ubiquity.  From a management perspective, as well as that of a misanthrope, I worry about folks with bad judgement unintentionally trying to kill themselves as well as precious places becoming more tramped upon.  But packrafting has given me and more recently the whole family so much joy that I just cannot begrudge them and it to anyone.

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It also warms my heart that with a tool so basic yet sophisticated there remains an option which is both grassroots and cutting edge.  Seeing the 2017 offerings from Alpacka, Aire, and Kokopelli (left to right) side by side this summer just brought home how much better Alpacka rafts are in every way.  Kokopelli clearly chooses not to compete directly in terms of material quality, but it baffles me that they can’t be at least a bit more forward thinking in terms of design, something overseas manufacturing should not inhibit.  The Nirvana is about 4 years behind Alpacka when it comes to nuance.

Yes, with Alpacka boats you are to a certain extent rolling the dice as to where you’ll have a welding irregularity and when you’ll need to glue some seam tape back down, but big picture Alpacka build quality remains adequate or far better, and the designs paddle ridiculously good.  You’ll pay 1.5 to 2 times what you might for a Kokopelli, but a comparable jump in quality and performance in mountain bikes will cost you considerably more.  $1575 is a lot of money (it’s what I’d spend if I were to buy a new boat today; a Gnarwhal self bailer in custom multicolor), but relative to what you get I still think it is one of the best deals in premium outdoor gear around.

A Western Mountaineering sleeping bag

Before Little Bear came along to complicate the picture M and I happily did reams of trips all over with only three sleeping bags, two of which (an Ultralite and an Antelope MF) are from the big WM.  If they were children we’d be worried about pimples and birth control; the Ultralite is a bit over 12 years old, the Antelope 14.  Until the Ultralite suffered an unfortunate burning at the hands of a hot wood stove this past January (and the subsequent drastic patch job) both were essentially brand new, having presumably lost a tiny and difficult to quantify amount of loft over the hundreds of nights they’d been used.

Beyond the basic quality of construction and longevity of premium down insulation, I recommend WM bags because they’re warm, warm in a way the current quilt fad just isn’t going to match.  Increasingly convoluted designs (c.f. Zenbivy) seem to dance with ever growing fervor around the fact that you’ll always be warmer if you are genuinely surrounded by warmth.

For instance, the Antelope MF (which is almost unchanged since we bought ours) has a 62″ shoulder girth, 26 oz of fill in 6′ length, a class leading draft color and hood, and weighs 2 pounds 7 ounces.  The Katabatic Grenadier, also rated to 5 degrees F, has 20 ounces of fill and weighs 1 pound, 14 ounces.  Comparing quilt and bag circumference is never perfect, but the two are pretty close in this regard.  Would you have to spend the 9 ounce difference making the Grenadier as functionally warm as the Antelope?  I would say so.  Katabatic’s Crestone hood is 2 ounces, and the extra 7 get eaten up by the energy spent rolling over with precision and making darn sure you don’t pop that seal between hood and neck baffle.

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Sleeping bags that are true to their temp rating and air tight enough to be boosted 30 degrees lower are shit that just works.  So too are boats that can be beaten up for years without caring, kept in a daypack, and work almost anywhere (so long as the headwind is mild).  There are a few things I almost added to this list; the Nano Air Light hoody (haven’t had it long enough), the MSR Windburner (use it on every trip, could be lighter), the Seek Outside LBO (dimensions are a little funny, too many stakes, beak panel needs cat cut to kill flapping), the BD Alpine Start (sucks up just too much water).  For those there is always next year, and the many trips it should entail.  Start planning, and consider the apocryphal Chouinard quotation: “Buy plane tickets, not gear.”