Shit that works week: the return

The original series has remained amongst my most-read posts throughout the nearly five years since it was published.  This is because, in the end, backcountry gear is not as complicated as we are inclined to think, and because the online world (concerning outdoor adventure and generally) has become ever more fake.

Let us discuss.

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The identity politics of outdoor “recreation” continue to not baffle, but frustrate me.  Frustrate because of the self-defeating circularity.  People who should know better remain, at least implicitly, convinced that backpacker, or ultralight backpacker, or climber, or sport climber or alpine climber or boulderer, is something you are rather than something you do.  Looking at things in the world as the later has the benefit or empowerment and self-actualization; climbed 100 pitches this year? or slept 30 nights in the woods?  You’re a climber or a backpacker.  Engaged in intentional, reflexive packing for a backcountry trip and challenged yourself to not pack too many insecurities?  You’re an ultralight backpacker.  Engaged in a bunch of prevarication online and spent more time worrying about what you might do, when, and with what stuff than actually doing it?

Time to get off your ass.

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Outdoor adventure is the ideal blend of democratic and meritocratic.  You can legally do as much as and close to whatever you want, provided you build the skills.  Want to climb 5.12, paddle class IV in the wilderness, ski across a range, or become truly comfortable sleeping by yourself way back in the woods?  Make a plan, do stuff, fail, learn.  Make due with used, substandard stuff, and be confident in your learning.  Want to embrace and then be subsumed in the Big Wild Places by living on their doorstep?  Move.  Soon.  Sacrifices will be made.  In the former case, months and years spent flailing in the snow, ripping flappers in the gym, sleeplessly waking for each midnight squirrel fart gets old.  It is worth it?  Ideally not because of where the process with take you, though the fluidity of mastery is the best reward, but because the newness of learning has a clarity not found elsewhere.  In the later case, you’ll probably either make less money, spend more on food and housing, or most likely both, but what price living?  To repeat last years installment of this series; “…my problem with the new, third or fourth wave lifestyle outdoor brands; that they’ve making shiny crap that is good for the coffee shop and the hike to Delicate Arch, and whose lack of seriousness is predicated on the rare devotee who will graduate to the more core brands when necessary.”  And as the years pass and my understanding hopefully continues to be complicated, I remain convinced that the somnolent dayhikers all, in some fashion, want to have the skill and mind to go that way, for a week, on their own, and come out on the other side.

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And yes, I have a problem with outdoor media and industry assuming incompetence in the name of inclusivity.  And I celebrate brands (and hopefully by extension ideas) which die a quick and sudden death because they were, in the end, just plain crappy.  Last month Max wrote “Nowadays, few outdoor media outlets provide the critical cross-category analysis that is necessary to help us get the best thing for our needs. Most reviews are optimized for google search rank and are designed to provide advice within the category you are looking for.”  His whole post is worth reading.  Designing gear for not-the-Himalayas is one thing.  Making lame stuff because most folks won’t care after they get the gram is another.  At the same time, there are many beautiful and passionate people in the outdoor industry who have made beautiful, intense things.  The best, as discussed previously in this series, endures year on year and works well across seasons and activities.

In the coming days, I’ll discuss a few more examples.

Layering in 2019: insulation

Moreso than with most categories I feel sympathy for beginners trying to come to terms with understanding insulated garments for the outdoors.  Staying warm outside, on the face, shouldn’t be so complicated, and while the nuance and especially implementation of staying warm outside can be hard to hew closely with, having warm enough clothing shouldn’t be much of a mystery.  If action layers are for staying warm during various permutations of on-the-go, pure insulating layers are for keeping you warm while you’re still.  Plenty of concerns usually associated with action layers almost always bleed over into pure insulation, and indeed one of (in two more years I expect to be able to way the) the major recent developments is using lessons from active insulation in warmer garments designed for static activities.

To know how warm a jacket will be, you need to know what kind of insulation it has, and how much is there.  I tempted by the analogy of no one buying a new house from a builder who couldn’t give you the R in the roof without thought, but I’m sure there are plenty of folks who have and will do just that.  Don’t be that person, don’t assume attributes into a jacket based on marketing copy or a pinch test.  I’m loath to buy any insulation from a company that doesn’t list numbers front and center, but if they don’t (looking at you First Lite) they should at least be able to dig them up readily.  If a company can’t do that, run away quickly.

Knowing fill type and weight doesn’t help too much without a half dozen well worn garments in your closet to which you can compare.  Even so, knowing you need more then 4 ounces of down and less than 10 doesn’t help much if you’re in the market for synthetic.

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I haven’t used that many insulated jackets; the above is my best approximation of functional and equivalent warmths.  You can dive into seemingly more precise detail with clo ratings, but shell fabrics bias these rating significantly, and lab findings do not generalize well to the field (below).

Even if you have the necessary amount of insulation along on a trip, implementation can easily sabotage your plans.  Being tired, poorly hydrated, and badly fed can when combined take a huge percentage off the value of your insulation by robbing your body of the ability to make heat.  Bad technique, such as allowing yourself to get too cold during the day and/or letting your base and action layers to take on too much moisture can similarly kill the practical value of insulation.  Not maximizing your mental state also makes it hard to stay warm, both insofar as good psyche is linked to not making the aforementioned mistakes, and in that mental and physical well being cannot in my mind be meaningfully separated.  Embracing discomfort makes a cold, wet night seem warmer.

All that said, some moisture in your action layers is inevitable, and for this reason I now highly prize insulating layers which can not only not degrade significantly when damp, but move moisture.  The Hyperpuff seems like the way forward here.  I’ve had plenty of synthetic jackets which dried fast, but none which dried so well from body heat alone.  How much of this is the insulation, and how much the liner and shell fabric?  My hope is that continued development here will provide more answers.

In summer, I can make do with a lighter insulating layer.  Often this is down, as longer and warmer days make drying out easier, or just an active insulating jacket, as long days make it easy for ones sleeping bag to be the only actual static insulator.  Outside the warmest months of the year I rarely regret something as warm as the Hyperpuff, with a rarely used massive down parka the only other thing needed for those below 0 days.

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.

 

 

 

 

Why Mike Lee is not full of it

A week ago the junior Senator* from Utah caused a good stir with a speech that all you readers ought to peruse, as it is both better and worse than the typical outpourings of press releases and 250 word “articles” have made it to be.  I’ll pick some nits in conclusion, but it’s worth hopping over Lee’s questionable history and logic, straight to the best point he makes, that tourism and recreation are not for rural America the panacea that popular opinion likes to make them.  As Lee writes

The radical wing of the environmental movement today is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that uses its cultural and economic influence to rig the game against hard- working rural America.

It is an alliance of privilege between a new class of royalty: celebrities, activists, and corporate elites who want to save the Earth at the expense of our rural communities.

They delight in seeing vast swathes of untouched lands, fulfilling their idyllic notions of the West.

They envision a landscape dotted only with picturesque resort towns that exist for their pleasure: destinations where they can jet in, spend a few days at the cabin and the shops, take a few pictures of some animals, and then retreat to their enclaves on the coasts.

A charming picture—for them.

Less charming is the picture for the people who live in these areas full time. While tourism has contributed much to the West, communities can’t survive on it alone.

It is a complement to – not a substitute – for broader economic development.

Skip the rhetoric and political red meat and focus on the content they largely cloak.  Are Moab and Aspen (or Crested Butte, or Jackson), or even the less extreme examples of Bend or Bozeman (or Flagstaff, or Laramie), what anyone in the rural west would actually want to hold up as the future?  A tourist economy brings seasonal, and generally low wage, employment, and in fairly short order vacation homes and tourist infrastructure which creates three classes of “normal” permanent residents:

  • seasonal bums, generally young at heart if not also of age, and content to pay big dollars for a couch, closet, or parking space
  • old timers who got in just before the golden days and are weighing the rate their nest egg (e.g. real estate) fattens versus the rate their cartilage decays
  • couples and families working a few too many hours and paying far too much mortgage to get in while they can

When public school teachers and the folks who manage your favorite hangout begin to slide out of the third category, it doesn’t take long for the fabric of a town to become thin indeed, the few thick strands left not enough to catch anyone not just passing by to enjoy the view.  Folks who are new to the whole western scene are generally wowed enough by places like CB and Moab that they don’t see through the facade at all, don’t realize that the barrista commutes 45 minutes each way by bus, and the only reason the 2nd grade teacher they chatted with on the lift can own that perfect house two dirt blocks off main is that his spouse inherited it from great-grandpa miner, or is the head lawyer for the ski hill.  What these same folks almost always don’t realize is that the facade seems so perfect and invisible because it was shaped, by the anonymously intentional force that is culture, exactly for people like them.

It’s quite a bit easier to see the dirty skeleton of Moab, as the town has grown so quickly and so much and so ungracefully.  No goes to La Hacienda and likes it, something which was been true for decades, and yet rather than the 1 hour wait for a table being a regular feature 5 months a year, as it was 15 years ago, that season has grown to 9 months.  This article by Outside Magazine, on Emery County’s quest to build a tourist economy out of Joe’s Valley and the San Rafael Swell, encounters what we might as well call the Moab Question without actually engaging with it.  Do the folks mentioned expect their kids to take over the coffee shop, and would they ever have considered starting it without a spouse whose job provided a steady, reasonable or better income, and presumably along with it, health insurance?  Then again, what choice did they have?

Lee would doubtlessly pipe in here to remind us that families loosing extractive incomes and viable ranching operations is part of what starts the spiral towards sprawl and housing problems.  Cows not condos, as you’ll see on bumper stickers.  The Outside article mentions that local economies around Grand Staircase expanded in the 21st century.  What the article doesn’t mention, but the report it cites makes quite plain, is that a not insignificant part of that increase has been in non-labor benefits, in this case, more residents retiring and going on Medicaid and Social Security.  What the report and article fail to mention is the steady decline in school enrollment, with Escalante High having a total of 67 students (and 4 teachers) in 2016.  Perhaps more growth, and more sustainable growth, is yet to come, but Escalante and the monument with which it has become associated ask real questions about how well conservation can be justified on economic grounds.

This is the flip side of stoke not saving us; a recreation-based economy which incentivizes, and perhaps in the end demands, that those most attuned with big empty wild places not live too close to them.  But if, as Mr. Linck contends, attachment to a place is the most probable driver of long term conversation, are we forced to relegate that to expensive long-distance vacations.  And even to increasingly expensive (but still far less, comparatively) fees for public campgrounds, rentals, and park passes?

One model, which the aforementioned second tier towns (Bend, Flag, etc) have done well with, is to invest in recreation infrastructure as a means to be more competitive on the quality of life front.  Our own little city has a free biking and hiking shuttle, which seems to be 80-90% locals on any given evening.  It’s a draw regionally, and a talking point, but more importantly it is simply an awesome thing to have on hand.  It, and the trails right out the back door it serves, fosters place attachment in a broad swath of folks, and hopefully serves as a model for the future of the western US.

In his speech Lee asks the rhetorical question of why the western states turned out differently than the east, why they have been as he says “handicapped” with so much public land.  The answer, as he is surely well aware, is that by 1890 we were as a country finally figuring things out.  The frontier was officially closed.  People like Theodore Roosevelt were connecting the lose of the bison with the loss of far bigger things, spiritually and ecologically.  No one in the 21st century will ever see what it was like for a squirrel to go from the Ohio to Lake Erie without touching the ground, but anyone who cares to can see clear mountain water flowing through the unroaded labyrinth of the Escalante.  This is so because a few people convinced the many that it was important.

Lee sees himself doing something similar, taking back local land for local people.  And this is important.  It is also important to recognize that those who live far away can have an attachment to a place, and that living somewhere so different can create a perspective and appreciation that is can be more acute precisely because of the sense of contrast, even loss.  On the one hand places like Escalante are overdue; they rode a bubble of cutting and digging and grazing subsidies that were never sustainable.  Just like the logging towns of western Montana and the Pacific NW have had to painfully graduate from the brief era of large clearcuts to the modern era of targeted ones, so to will the desert SW have to find out what a proper way of life actually looks like.  The scary prospect today is having someone like Mike Lee oversee this process.  It’s easy to see him having his way, and the 22nd century opening on a Colorado Plateau with a lot more holes, roads, and condos, without any more multi-generational connections.

Lee claims he wants to give power back to the people, but his sense of “the people” is far too narrow in both time and space.

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*Let’s all take a moment and recall what a decent person Bob Bennett was, perhaps the Tea Parties most ignominious casualty.

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.

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.

Rab Windveil, windshirt evolution

I’ve written a lot about windshirts over the years, because they’re the most versatile piece of outdoor clothing.  When it comes to the range and frequency of appropriateness, nothing else comes close.  Until waterproof breathable laminates make vast strides in breathability, this will remain the case.  The only question is which windshirt will suit you best.

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A decade ago windshirts largely came in one form, the best example being the Patagonia Dragonfly/Houdini.  Woven nylon shells in the 1-1.5 oz/yard range with a DWR and minimal feature set repelled lots of weather without being too hot, and packed down small enough that their was no real penalty associated with bringing one along.  Their shortcomings were first, as mentioned above, a level of water repellancy too low to serve as a meaningful substitute for a hardshell, and second, a level of breathability which was often far too low.  This last became an especially relevant issue when we moved to Montana 9 years ago, and colder temps and high humidity levels made moisture accumulation in my baselayer a more frequent and serious concern.  I went through the Patagonia Traverse, Rab Boreas, and others before finally landing on the Black Diamond Alpine Start.  The Alpine Start has been ideal, largely because it has the lightest fabric of the all the highly breathable, “soft shell” windshirts I’ve tried.  Making fabrics lighter without loosing function is the now of outdoor garments.

The Alpine Start, and soft shell windshirts generally, do have shortcomings.  For one, even the AS absorbs more water and is heavier and bulkier than traditional windshirts.  For another, there are occasions when more windproofing is wanted, particularly in drier places where humidity is low, and the probability of not having a hardshell around for massive wind is greater.  In other words, our current desert locale is a good place for a conventional windshirt.  Last, the Alpine Start continues to have fit and tailoring issues (shortish torso and sleeves, slightly baggy, funny neck and hood) which make it less than ideal.  So when I happened upon a discounted Rab Windveil last fall on our way back from the Colorado housing scout, I knew it would prove a worthy investment.

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The Windveil is cut from the same pattern (literally, I would guess) as the Rab Cirrus.  Same skinny torso, same long sleeves, same drop tail, same great hood, same nice chest pockets.  Perfect fit and feature set, in my book.  The new Microlight, which bears little resemblance to the heavier stuff used in the older Montane Litespeed, is as light as the Cirrus’ Pertex Quantum, but quite a bit more breathable, and surprisingly comfortable against the skin.  The smaller packed size, enhanced wind resistance, and especially trimmer fit has had me grabbing it more and more often, particularly on windy days and for mountain biking.

Rab claims the “Super DWR” used on the Windveil will “last the life of the garment”, which in turn apparently led Outdoor Gear Lab to claim this DWR as permanent.  If true this would be exciting, but it appears to be a mere marketing exaggeration.  Having a more durable DWR is good, but as my windshirts have always gotten a lot of use, and therefore more frequent laundering, I’ve always had their DWR wash out before the rest of the garment died.  File truly a truly permanent DWR windshirt, such as the better performing Epics in a lighter package, as one of the areas where more growth in the windshirt market would be nice.  For the moment, it will do to appreciate the continued bending of the breathability and weather protection curve.  We can have both in one to an extent not possible, and hardly considered, a decade ago.

 

Why I like the desert

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Like most Americans, or indeed most contemporary humans, I spent a lot of time reading about the desert before I experienced it firsthand. I have some hazy memories of a family swing through the Colorado Plateau of Utah when I was eight, spotty visions I can now place as the chopped steps on the traverse into Hidden Canyon in Zion, an obscure perennial creek in Dinosaur, the Fremont River in Capitol Reef. These do not count. I could only start to get to know the desert, to judge it on my own merits, as a budding adult in college. By then the images of Desert Solitaire were colored by the frenetic emptiness of late teenage years, and by my obsession, the activity which at the time most defined my life and often harshly highlighted the lack of self-certainty back then, rock climbing.  Fortunately climbing tends to provide good views, especially in the desert.  It’s hard to appreciate, from any vantage, the roundabout path erosion took when cutting Onion Creek, but a summit in the Fischer towers helps to clear the air.  One tends to see important things faster when the past few hours featured multiple near falls on X-rated “easy” 5.8.  It was a good start on contemplating what Abbey called “…”this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space…”

In the Bundy era all public lands employees must live a little closer to the edge, but the Bureau of Land Management has relative to the Forest Service and National Park Service always been maligned.  And correctly, sometimes, it did not earn the nickname Bureau of Livestock and Mining for no reason, just as the NPS has occasionally deservedly been called the Dark Service.  The BLM has always had, and I imagine always will have, less affection directed towards it because of the vast generality of its holding, and with few exceptions the lack of proper trees growing upon them.  Americans like forests, instinctively recognizing in them both the roots of our countries vital economic past and the more basic hunter-gatherer fecundity they pass along to their inhabitants.  The North American temperate forests only exist, in their ancestral majesty, within small pockets held back from the axe by terrain or circumstance, but most people live near enough to their weedy, pale cousins that the spectre of a squirrel passing between Lake Erie and the Ohio without touching the ground is at least imaginable.

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The desert has none of these virtues, and it has only been in the combined wake of the Colorado River Compact, World War II, and the interstate highway system that industrial arrogance has become so unbridled as to allow many millions of people to live within the American desert.  Or at least on islands within that ocean, built green and black from asphalt and irrigation.  Phoenix, Vegas, Tucson, St. George, and even more tenuous islands like Moab and Grand Junction are not really in the desert.  At least insofar as their urban confines combine with the designated destinations of National Parks and Monuments to make the intervening spaces, which is to say the vast majority of the desert, disappear from the view of those forced to travel through it with any regularity.

In short; we love the forest because we tamed it long ago.  The unruly exceptions, like the railroad-swallowing rainforests of coastal Alaska, are conveniently very far away.  I’m not sure their is any American alive who can truly recall what the prairie looked like.  It has been buried and transmogrified as definitively as the spring-fed meadows which caused Las Vegas to earn its name.  The desert has rebuffed this treatment, which rightfully makes us uneasy.  Forested mountains decently conceal their un-humanity, while in the Grand Canyon or Book Cliffs all lack of hospitality is left strewn about, carelessly open to incidental viewing.  This is why, metaphysically, Zion and Arches remain the most popular of the “mighty 5” destination parks in the Utah desert.  In Zion wildness is confined by the depth of the main canyon, in Arches it is wrapped up in and staked down to the arches and towers.  In both cases one dead-end road keeps the world from growing to large and disorderly.

For those who spend enough time within the desert, and put down enough experiential anchor points that understanding becomes possible, obsession generally follows.  And it is generally a compulsion of such enduring greediness that peakbaggers are put to shame.  As Abbey wrote “I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman.”  A good choice of words, which he immediately follows with “An insane wish? Perhaps not-at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.”  At the end of the road I think the appeal of the desert lies for me not in its mystery, but in its obviousness.  The desert of the Colorado Plateau pulls no punches, and in most places is laid out plain for all to see, who can.  Places like the Grand Canyon, King Mesa, and Grand Gulch may appear hopelessly corrugated and convoluted, but all their secrets are in fact not secrets at all.  They’re just hard for most of us to see well.