Outdoors and Lifestyle

IMG_0282
Apgar permit office, 10 minutes after opening, July.

Visiting Outdoor Retailer a few weeks ago brought it home to me just how huge a percentage of the outdoor industry is given over to what I’d call lifestyle gear and pursuits.  As a dedicated elitist asshole since my teenage years I find it hard to say “lifestyle” without a permasnear, but having Little Bear around as well as trying to be more broad and ecumenical in my outlook has tempered that, a little.

I define lifestyle outdoor gear as something optimized for everyday city or front country activities, rather than backcountry or a specific sport.  Some sports, like downhill/area skiing, are almost inherently lifestyle sports, which explains the cross pollination between the two.  Another example is SUP.  I still find it’s existence outside tidal environments the height of absurdity, but when LB and I are at the local beach of an evening the appeal of being able to cruise around after work is obvious.  They’re the water version of an Electra cruiser, and on a societal level are surely a better use of hundreds of dollars than a PS4.  Therefore lifestyle outdoor stuff gets a pass, even if it isn’t just a gateway to proper, backcountry outdoor pursuits, and even if the hipster car campers and dayhikers have this summer made Glacier more crowded than ever.

IMG_0382LB, car camping, Many Glacier.

All of this is to say that we all, hopefully, spend a lot of lifestyle time blending the outdoors into daily life.  Hikes before work, bike rides and floats after, dinners picnics, even walking or biking the long way to the pub rather than driving counts.  Life is more fun this way, sneaks in more exercise, and is a way for those of us who take a functional paycut to live in certain places to maximize any given season.

So, as a way to kickstart the celebration of this blogs 10th anniversary (coming in early December), sell out, and kill more innocent pixels I’ll take the next few days to highlight a few awesome lifestyle items which have over the next few years made my life a little better.  Exciting.

Tidbits from Outdoor Retailer

Earlier this week we (M, Little Bear, and I) had the chance to head down to SLC and visit the Outdoor Retailer show as guests of Seek Outside.  It was a good time, and something I’ve wanted to see for quite a while.  As an introvert who is determined to embrace his aversion to strangers I expected to hate the whole experience on a broad level, but really had nothing but fun.  Outdoor stuff is something I’ve cared about and studied my whole life, and in that respect OR was like going from high school to undergrad and suddenly being immersed in interesting classes for the first time ever.  The following are highlights from 5 or so hours of wandering the floor with Luke Fowler from Seek Outside.

MTI’s new Vibe PFD is the item I’m most excited to get in the field.  It’s a pullover with a modest array of features and a very soft, pliant foam which is very well tailored.  Most PFDs use panels of much stiffer foam, which packs poorly, is a worse pillow, and in a packraft often interferes with either the spraydeck, your chin, or both.  It stuck to my torso better than anything I’ve ever tried, yet has 15 1/2 pounds of flotation.  The front pocket has a zippered mesh pocket with a pass-through handwarmer behind.  The yellow band pictured above is quick-release leash tether for a SUP, and points towards how a similar PFD could be built into a truly lightweight rescue vest for backcountry whitewater.

The Vibe will retail for $95 and be available in Feb-March of 2017.

Rab is expanding their use of Polartec Alpha, and for the me the most interesting option is the revamped Strata.  It features 120 grams/meter of the new Alpha, which doesn’t require a liner and resembled a very loose fleece.  The new Strata is still shelled by uncalendered Pertex Microlight, which is a bit more wind resistant and quite a bit tougher than the shell on the Patagonia Nano Air, and features stretch gussets in the cuffs with a nicely integrated thumb loop.  I’ve found the original Strata great for winter and spring, especially ski touring, and a warmer version with improved features will be even better.

The Aire Bakraft packraft/IK hydrid looses the goofy seat/inflation bag/drybag/potato in favor of a normal backrest, and lash points both fore and aft.  It remains behind the curve insofar as easily attaching lots of overnight gear goes, but the thigh straps and self-bailing floor have established themselves as very solid.  Aire will also have an XL version of the Bakraft (right), which will cost around $2000.

Klymit’s Static V Duo is 47 inches wide, a pragmatic option for couples, and families with a small kid.  Most interestingly, the valves have been revamped to allow the stuffsack to act as an inflation bag, a welcome feature.

Adidas’ Terrex Agravic has the kind of upper reinforcements and tread pattern that might sway me away from LaSportiva.  It seemed to have a nice blend of low drop and enough, but not too much, stiffness.

Black Diamond’s Carbon Helio ski pole is molded all in one go; only the tip and strap are separate pieces.  It is very light, and exceptionally stiff, perhaps moreso than any other pole I’ve hefted.  One of those rare pieces of gear with serious and immediate wow factor, which it should given the 300 dollar price tag.

 

Little Bear approves of the new BD kids harness, helmet, and chalk bag.  The First Light hoody (in blue) is BD’s entry into the “active insulation” market, with a very light and airy nylon softshell face fabric which is similar but not the same as the Alpine Start windshirt.  The Alpine Start appears unchanged, save for new colors.

Altra’s FKT shoes, available for both men and women, promises to shake their reputation of combining a great fit and midsole with weak uppers and poor rubber.  The tread is aggressive, the rubber seems softer than their past stuff, and the upper has myriad TPU reinforcements.  At 17mm (or is it 19mm) tall the FKT is comparable to the older Superior.

Astral is expanding their footwear line to have a few more hiking-specific models, which look to have good tread patterns and decent uppers.  Astral has gotten mixed reviews when it comes to build quality, so I’m taking a wait and see approach with their new models.

The flagship of Sierra Designs new Skurka Series (no pressure) is the Flex Capacitor pack, which compresses neatly from a generous 60 to 40 liters using a top to bottom gusset and four compression straps.  Neatly done, but a lot of material and clutter needed to achieve it.  The real noteworthy thing is the overall effect of the wishbone frame (made from alu tent tubing), aggressive lumbar bad, and torso pads.  It certainly seems like SD has managed to build a traditional lumbar pad design with a belt-frame connection robust enough for 50+ pound loads, in a sub 3 pound package, and good torso mobility.  At around $200 pricing will be very attractive.  If you don’t want to spend $350 on a Seek Outside Divide, or strongly prefer to lumbar pad with emphatic pressure, this will be a good option.

The Exped Lightning, about to get dethroned as best budget lightweight load hauler by the Flex Capacitor, gets a new hipbelt and optional mesh accessory pocket.  The rest of the pack appears unchanged.

Osprey had an all-mesh demo pack, with was neat, and the new Aether AG series gets some nicely sized hipbelt pockets with a stiffener sewn into the interior binding (bright orange), which makes one-handed opening and closing easy.

Osprey also has a new entry into the ultrarunning vest category, with more refined pocketing and compression than the smaller Rev packs.

For me the most interesting thing at Patagonia was the continued, robust infant and kid clothing.  The new Micro D hoody, and new colors of Baggies Summit pants, represent two very useful items Little Bear has lived in this spring and summer.  The pants in particular are high quality; double knees for crawling, and a quick drying yet bug proof fabric.  I want an adult-sized technical-fit hoody in the Micro D fabric for myself.

BD’s Blitz packs are clean alpine climbing packs, with a closure that recalls the Patagonia Ascentionist series, but reversed.  The small pocket seems like it should be more useful when the pack is totally full.

Arcteryx does DriDucks (kidding), aka permanent beading technology.  If this DWR-less way to do WPB raingear proves durable and functional it will be a major game changer.

Outdoor Research had a truly massive range of hats, which were displayed front and center in their booth.  I wonder how much of their business is accessories?  Standouts are the excellent, vented bug hats, and the many multicam hats and visors which are now 100% nylon, rather than the cotton blends of past generations.

IMG_0533

This is the Kokopelli Hornet Lite, their deckless boat with 70D tube fabric and 210D floor (the same stuff used in the tubes of their mainline boats).  The Hornet is adult sized, and while I’m sure it could be rolled much smaller than the above the weight and bulk premium all their models have over Alpackas gives me pause.  They do have factory thigh strap lash points which are well positioned, and are working on extension tubes which will allow their boats to be tempered on the go.  Overall it seems good for Alpacka to have real competition, but Kokopelli doesn’t seem as mature with their designs.

In non-photographed news several other companies seem be keeping with the low-drop trend, though many of them are fitness or crossfit rather than trail running companies.  Hopefully the maximalist trend runs out sooner rather than later and sanity returns to the off-pavement shoe world.

Cilogear had a 20 liter worksack made from a cuben/TPU laminate, which the owner preferred I not photograph.  Oddly, the coating side was out, which seems a recipe for delamination.

Otherwise, there were many, many companies making inroads of one sort or another into the hipster/glamping/softcore outdoor market.  Impractically featured, very expensive 25 liter daypacks were a popular item, often in vaguely ethnocentric or colonialist prints.  Though car camping remains an oxymoron, I do like that the outdoor world remains a big tent which embraces and equips many levels of engagement with the wild.  I just hope all these companies make function, in addition to aesthetically appealing, products.  Nothing puts people off camping like a cold sleeping bag and leaky tent.  The new dome tent Sierra Designs had in their booth, touted as the highest quality tent available for 200 dollars, is the sort of thing I’d like to see more of.

Overall, I’m looking forward to going back in the future, to be able to spend more time, and be more systematic.

Seek Outside Unaweep Divide review

Disclaimer: no way around it, I’m biased as hell about this pack.  Seek Outside gave it to me for free, and it is based in small part on feedback I gave on previous Seek Outside packs.  Beyond that, I like the folks at Seek Outside a lot, and they’re always a pleasure to talk to.  That said, I know they wouldn’t want me to hold back when discussing their work, so I’ve done my best to give all aspects equal weight.

ghzAiMny-sRvTIs0Nyh8uBYfiKfqW47kWhklKfO3xwBkL1hIkrs2_fPn0IOw6j9ESmkJE5FwW7wtvUt5QI-RlvRkh-xsu80j15REirdQsdWzY_YCKbbYhiVB1WOpIuVqZmGb7DfX8eI6HgUN4lSMBjAqXSJcYNJXlQOQiTnrF5Bwb5V5laQonBW6vm6lYzv18lOUflL4nr3Hgl6_g6nOzWY-XGSObIsKuFPhoto by Skurka.

I think the Seek Outside Unaweep Divide 4500 (hereafter, the Divide) is a damn good pack.  For a lot of people, and for a lot of uses, I think it is one of the very best packs money can buy.  It is also one of the best values to be had in the pack world, when one takes weight to function into account, and especially if one cares to enter the fact that it is sewn in Colorado into the equation.  I have a number of small complaints concerning the Divide, but overall it is a nearly mature product.  When a fully dialed feature set is added to the existing stellar suspension, the Divide will be a remarkable backpack.

I discussed the dimensions and features of the Divide here, so if necessary peruse that before proceeding, as familiarity will be assumed.

rIKLuBPQAWXCR6lGhajO9R3cPdhOVO7pACr-H9tHSHbd6jfAV-ejUdJMOTgI0ocaNO8eReFlPPISxnrJDm7KjF2lsyLujBHHzzAztFbNhmX7Hc_tGgKA8hUrAgwpENj8sXbBy8tbPj0pJm3Z7g3kQmkxpuxU9JT8c1zXbRJxDiCz92z_gMp46eJFOBeeOAmfir6_cMlRfrWR2LLdj3wvAVsqRVNKyajyhoPhoto by Skurka.

The shockcord cinch on the side pockets has been one of my favorite features.  It is dead easy to loosen a pocket, get something out of it, put it back, and cinch it down, all with one hand while walking.  The pockets can be cinched very tight to provide security while bushwacking.  They do need to be a bit bigger, and a bit taller on the non-user side.  When the main bag is really stuffed full of hard objects (like a rolled up packraft), fitting a standard 1 liter nalgene is a bit harder than it ought to be.  But overall, A grade on these.

Historically I haven’t been a huge fan of mesh pockets, but the Divide one isn’t bad at all.  it’s big enough for plenty of clothing, a wet mid, or even a pair of crampons.  The shock cord cinch closes it securely.  I go back and forth on this feature, on the one hand I want it taller, broader, or both, or even replaced with a big bellowed zip pocket.  On the other it works fine as is, and much of the time I could do without it at all.  The mesh has stood up to abuse very well, including being hauled up a few chimneys with crampons inside.  No real complaints.

The lash straps below the mesh pocket I also have mixed feelings about.  It’s not really a good place to put much, besides a foam sleeping pad, and I can’t imagine anyone actually carries a bear can there.  On the other hand they are removable, potentially handy, and extending the mesh pocket longer would be a likely invitation to overstuffing.  My one sustained quarrel is with the metal bachelor buckles, which require tension to stay put when not in use.  I’ve replaced these with Kuiu hook/carabiner buckles that stay hooked when loose, but can be detached when tying on something bulky.

IMG_0370

The bachelor buckles on the compression straps I like, but they need a small modification to work ideally.  They great because they detach like a quick release, while being unbreakable and being much shorter.  This last is important because it gives the compression straps more travel, and allows the bottom of the pack to be pinched off completely when hauling meat while hunting.  The downside is that they unhook when loose, which can be a pain.  The solution, seen above, is to sew a slightly greater than 1/2″ loop into which the buckle can hook.  It will still come loose, but only with enough effort that it is never accidental.

The harness, hipbelt, and frame are the same Seek Outside ones I’ve been raving about for years, and the last few months of trips have only reinforced my enthusiasm.  It is an external frame, insofar as the frame is outside the bag, and in that the frame doesn’t give or flex under load, and can thus support whatever your muscles and will can.  At the same time, the frame flexs with the body when necessary, and is wide enough that the load wraps around your hips, and is uncannily stable.  In most places there’s only a single layer of fabric between your back and the pack contents, the result being that the Divide is below 20 pounds second only to frameless pack when it comes to dynamic stability, and at 25 pounds and above is the most stable, body hugging pack I’ve ever used.  It is, to put it mildly, counterintuitive that the same pack which can haul out a deer in one load can also stick to you while downclimbing 4th class choss, but the Divide does exactly that.

I do dislike the way the load lifter and top strap buckles are sewn into the same bit of webbing, with some slack between them and the frame.  This is intended to introduce some give into the unyielding frame, which makes sense, but on the rare occasion you need to tighten the hell out of the both the top strap and load lifters the result is an irksome tug of war.  I cut and resewed the load lifters to remove this source of conflict.

Having a 21″ torso, I’ve been running my pack with 2″ extensions cut down to 1.25″, which gives me just a bit of additional lift for heavy loads.  25.25″ isn’t as good as the full 28″ of my Revolution frame when it comes to straight hauling, but it’s a good compromise that ensures I never have to fiddle or adjust anything, no matter when the trip.  At this height the frame is still tucked up against the bag quite seamlessly.  I recommend anyone with a torso of 19″ or greater order 2″ extensions with their Divide so they can experiment.

Other details and complaints are minor.  The X42 fabric is tough as, and the olive a nice low profile color I like (though it sucks in photos).  The lack of a white interior scrim makes it a dark hole of a pack, and finding stuff at the bottom can be a chore.

DSC09853

The tapered packbag is one of the more inobvious strong points of the Divide.  Volume increases exponentially as you fill it further, which means that a bag barely filled to the top of the frame (top photo) is a much smaller one than the same bag stuffed full.  In short, the Divide accommodates both a full load and a partial load quite well, with minimal sag and flap.  The tapered bottom panel, which slants both in and back, does a fantastic job of sliding off ledges and snow, and adds to the climbing prowess.  I do wish the bag were just a hair (2-3″) taller to provide more overload room, and that the rolltop stiffener was stiffer.  I prefer to clip the rolltop to itself, which is faster and cleaner then using the side straps (which I remove).  A stiffer closure would make it easier to get a good seal when the bag is close to max volume.

R0020161

The Divide isn’t a sexy pack, unless your definition is centered around spare lines which cede nothing to anything but function.  But it has that in spades, which makes it equally suited to backpackers of all stripes, hunters who prioritize weight, and semi-technical mountaineers and canyoneers who need both load carrying and agility in the same package.  All the bad things I can say about it are pretty minor, and for personal trips this spring I’ve used nothing else, which I suppose is all the endorsement I need to give.  Because of its spare elegance and above all versatility, it is probably my favorite pack, ever, or at least thus far.

Concerning broification

Broification: a trend in outdoor adventure sports/activities, which results in an increase in the perceived average level of mastery within a given pursuit, thus dissuading novices from pursuing any nascent interest.

R0000206

If you don’t already read Hansi Johnson’s Universal Klister I’d suggest you start, as it’s one of the most authentic outdoor blogs around.  Mr. Johnson does a bunch of stuff outside, from skiing to biking to fishing to hunting, and is deeply involved in trail and recreation advocacy and local politics (in Duluth, MN and the upper midwest).  He has a longitudinal, multifaceted perspective on the industry, and a habit of telling things as they are, which makes him an ideal candidate for inventing and disseminating the term broification, which I attempted to define above.

Johnson views and pursues broification from the perspective of an access advocate, and I would assume, as a dad.  He sees the artificial inflation of things like skiing and biking as a wedge which will separate current practitioners from future ones, and make city and town governments less likely to see outdoor pursuits as future assets.  When the predominant vision of mountain biking involves 1% terrain* and a riding style which exacerbates erosion it understandably ceases to be an example, both for many new riders and for towns who might be looking to build trails as part of a development strategy.  That >2000 dollar mountain bikes have become commonplace, and that quality <1000 dollar bikes less common, only underlines this problem.

That problem being, a significant part of the appeal here, from fishing across to overlanding, skiing, and backpacking, is being a member of an exclusive group.  Not exclusive because others are excluded intentionally or because of socioeconomic factors, but because membership is gained via skill.  That skill is had from time invested in learning the activity, and with that skill comes an enlightened perspective on the world.  You’ll hear it everywhere in the outdoor realm; ____ (cyclists, hikers, etc) are better people.  More trustworthy.  Easy to get along with.  Kinder.  The  depth of friendship with a new acquaintance is often pushed years forward if said acquaintance is made on a backpacking trip or 100 mile ride or powder day.

Johnson’s original post got a big boost last week when it was picked up by Adventure Journal.  There’s a not inconsiderable amount of irony here, as A-J would make about any top-ten list of broifying publications.  Johnson’s post led with a photo of snow-caked blue jeans, A-J a group of mountaineers way the hell up on a snowy peak.  Two decades ago living the dream entailed an old pickup and 50 dollars from the lumber yard.  Today it’s a Sprinter and “custom” mods, starting at 50,000 dollars.  The perception that things of this nature are essential, important, or even the end goal of outdoor activities is probably good for selling stuff to the initiated, but I agree with Johnson that a secondary effect is putting off a certain percentage of newbies.  Why this is a problem is another subject entirely, but I do think it is a problem.

R0020918

I’m far from convinced that the language of advertising in the outdoor industry is the most important factor.  Public land access and the structural/societal reasons why outdoor recreation remains a white and affluent world are far more significant, long and short term.  That said, broification is real.  It is real because it is a problem, and it is a problem because people lie.  They lie in advertising, and they lie on social media.  They, meaning me, lie right here though I try to not do it too often.  Outdoor sports are awesome precisely because of their accessibility.  Anyone reading this, baring significant disability or medical issue, could with a few years of hard work climb iconic, cool stuff.  Probably not 5.14, but definitely hard 5.11.  Anyone with the inclination to learn and the motivation to get out and progress could within 4-5 years do a trip like this one, as pictured above.  Anyone with a decent bike and a year or two of hard riding can go out and ride the Whole Enchilada, walking only a handful of places.

Publications and companies who artificially inflate reality may ultimately be shooting themselves in the foot, both by reducing their potential market, and by radness fatigue.  Authenticity is in the social media age a precious commodity, and broification is if anything inauthentic.

*Both in terms of skill to ride and more significantly the distribution of said terrain across the planet.

wilderness in Wilderness

The Bob is awesome. Video by Michael Reavis.

Anyone who’s been out in the woods a lot and has been paying attention should be aware of this problem; that even the quietest, most fleeting and “natural” of human travel in the wild has a significant impact on the plants and animals who live there full time.  And there is virtually no way, save perhaps the more abstract political/policy realms, in which that impact is anything other than negative.  This isn’t the space to debate the axiomatic, idiomatic importance of wilderness for the human soul, but it is the space to say out loud, repeatedly, that in the 21st century we humans inevitably do violence to parts of what we value when we go out to find it.  At the same time, folks like the Sustainable Trails Coalition point to considerable evidence that the architects of the Wilderness Act intended for people to not only be visitors to Wilderness, but to be catered to in the process.

So perhaps it is time to admit that the Wilderness Act needs revision.  I’ve never been in favor of stock in Wilderness, and I am no longer in favor of bicycles being admitted under certain circumstances.  Instead, lets make Wilderness wilderness and ban any substantive human presence: any buildings, any bridges, and any trail maintenance.  Shoulder areas around the areas of greatest biological integrity can have trails cut and faster-than-foot methods of travel allowed.  Many current roads can remain open, but allowed to fall into decay, and will become bicycle, stock and sub 30 mph ATV only by default.

There is precedent, in the form of the Bear Management Areas of Yellowstone and of Wildlife Management Areas nationally to name two examples, for humans being eliminated entirely from the landscape, at least on a seasonal basis.  I just don’t think it’s realistic to implement that on a grand scale, and have always been in favor of the most democratic way of capping visitation: making stuff hard to get to.  It has simply been too easy, in the midst of all the fighting over what was and was not included by the Wilderness Act, to not ask broader questions.  And as Casey said a few months ago, science and common sense are both telling us, ever more loudly, that the Wilderness Act asked the right questions, but didn’t think big enough.

4th class

The east exit chimney in Rock Canyon in not 4th class.  I’m fairly Steve Allen first called it that, in Canyoneering 2, but Allen’s notorious, egregious overgrading can be justified as he was usually the first person publicizing these things.  What is less easy to justify is the use of that rating in the Hayduke Trail beta, whose routing through the Red Benches has popularized this little chimney, and led to much amusing, hyperbolic chatter.

The west, upper exit chimney in Rock Canyon (pictured above, at left, with the crap camera I had back in 2009) is emphatically 4th class.  Allen calls it easy 5th, and even at that I discounted his rating, and had to back down and pull all the guylines off my tarp for a solo pack haul up the final stretch.

Ratings aren’t a elegant thing to get excited about,and at the risk of being venal I’ll say that in cases like this they are important, and their general integrity should be maintained.  In the case of the Hayduke, you have the internet fashion of the thruhiking “community” running out of objects, and turning to routes like the Hayduke Trail and Sierra High Route.  The later was first publicized by one of the better rock climbers of the 1960s, and the later was pieced together using beta from folks like Steven Allen.  In both cases the technical background of the originators is substantial, while the technical background of the average thruhiking blogger seems to be just barely this side of non-existent.  Simply put, if folks hike the Hayduke and use that standard as a guide for 4th class (“one step below real rock climbing!”) they might well get themselves in trouble in the future.

In the Sierra Club/Yosemite Decimal system, 1st class is hiking, on or off trail.  2nd class is rugged hiking with the occasional use of hands.  3rd class is scrambling, with the near constant use of hands.  4th class is scrambling where all but the exceptionally experienced will want a rope due to exposure.  The translation of exposure means that if you fall off, you’ll probably get hurt.  You’d probably get hurt swan-diving off the top of the east chimney in Rock Canyon, but that’s a scenario whose improbability prevents it from counting towards the rating.  If you slipped off the upper moves in the west chimney, which in trail shoes is easy to imagine, you’d likely bounce off the upper ledge and ricochet a further 30 feet down to the bottom.

While technical difficulty isn’t supposed to influence the transition from 3rd to 4th class, it inevitably does, and this is the tricky bit when you have someone coming from trail hiking to route hiking, rather than from climbing to route hiking (and eventually, as maturity set in and attention span lengthened) to trail hiking.  Physical skill and more importantly experience builds mental strength, which beyond a very basic athletic ability is the only relevant thing when it comes to scrambling.  Climbs like Moonlight Rib are within the physical ability of just about every non-obese or disabled member of the human race, if they can sublimate the experience of exposure well enough to move at their physical potential.  Oversimplifying the mental aspect of scrambling (and easy climbing) doesn’t just get backpackers in trouble, the American Safe Climbing Association writes that

Modern climbers learning in a gym are often misled by the use of the YDS in indoor gyms. The use of the YDS inside is entirely inappropriate, as indoor gyms have little relation to outdoor climbing. Most people who learn in a gym and think they “climb 5.11” would likely DIE attempting a 5.0 chimney system first climbed in the 1930s. Because of this new generation of gym-educated climbers, the use of the lower 5th class ratings has fallen by the wayside, and modern climbing guidebooks typically condense all climbs formerly 5.0-5.6 into the 5.6 rating. A large number of accidents are directly attributable to the use of the YDS in climbing gyms.

Distinguishing between 4th class and 5.3 is, should be, and will remain a problematic task.  Ratings aren’t, and can never be, objective.  But that doesn’t mean that discussion of the details and differences, and attempts to maintain distinctions between concepts, is of no value.  I enjoy reading about hikers more experienced than me getting initiated into, and occasionally beaten down by, comparatively mild off-trail terrain.  Trails are awesome and convenient, but the way stock needs to move through the wild has so completely shaped how contemporary backpackers experience the world, and in the lower 48 the chances to experience major swaths of land totally free of human-built trails so rare, that the collective vision of backpackers is very narrow.  Being able to actually scramble and manage exposure, just liking being willing to get your feet wet, opens important doors.  Hopefully places like Rock Canyon can do that for plenty of folks, lets just make sure they have an accurate picture of what they’re doing.

BD Alpine Start hoody: the final word

Black Diamond’s Alpine Start hoody hasn’t changed much in the two years it’s been on the market (and since I first wrote about it). The material, a light and tough softshell with excellent breathability and darn good weatherproofing, is unchanged and remains the heart of what is (still) the most versatile and all-around best outdoor garment I’ve ever worn.  The features have changed just a bit, with the hood having gotten better for 2016, and some of the fitment oddities (stiff front zip, odd neck cut) having remained the same.  It’s still a brilliant piece, but it is also, frustratingly, still short of perfection.

R0000356

The number of occasions in the past 26 months when I haven’t had the Alpine Start along are very few, and the only reason I can recall them so well if that almost without exception I regretted not bringing it.  I find it windproof enough for fairly cold and windy ski touring, breathable enough for summer hiking, and airy yet bugproof enough to serve as an anti-sandfly layer while fishing.  My original grey one has been canyoneering and bushwacking a bunch, and has yet to get it’s first hole.  For fabric which is 88 grams per meter that is nothing short of remarkable, and I’d suggest that anyone who suggests otherwise is operating in the realm of theory rather than reality.

IMG_2786

IMG_3473

My gripes with version one concerned the hood, which had a floppy brim and cinch cords which didn’t do a good job of preserving peripheral vision, and a neck which felt narrow and set back.  This last thing didn’t bother me as much as a lot of folks, but was noticeable.  Smaller issues were the stiff #5 main zipper, and a torso which was a little shorter than ideal.  As can be seen by comparing this photo with the very first, the hood is the major object of revision.  Instead of perimeter cords which cinch near the jaw, and no rear cord whatsoever, the newer (for me, black) version has perimeter cords which are routed back to a single cordlock in the rear of the hood.  Tightening that cord cinches around the side of the face, and under the ears.  This system keep the hood tight to the head no matter how many hats you might be wearing, and work whether the coat is zipped all the way up or not, but it also pulls the hood back away from your cheeks when tightened (below I’m pointing to where the cord travels back from the edge of the hood to the cordlock).  It’s an improvement, though not ideal.  I’d prefer the extra weight of a true three-point adjustable hood, but can see why BD went a different direction.

R0013074R0013069

Unfortunately the weird neck fit still exists.  I did an experiment with my new, black Alpine Start, and used some material from the hood of my old one to add a dart to the back of the neck.  This makes a noticeable improvement, and confirms my suspicion that BD just needs to add a bit more material to solve this issue definitively.  Doing this is not a beginner project, but does help with fit.

Other objections come down to durability (the #5 zip has been flawless and smooth, so I can live with the stiffness), and preference.  The Alpine Start fits like a shirt, with sleeves and a torso which are trim and just long enough to cover baselayers, when you wear your “normal” size.  For me this is medium.  Last fall I bought a large, thinking that it’d be nice to have a more parka-like Alpine Start.  Going up a size solved the neck issue, but also made the whole thing baggy and very much not to my liking.  So I sold the green large, and bought the current black medium, which aside from larger zipper pulls and the aforementioned neck dart I intend to leave unmodified.

R0013067

Lastly, plenty of folks were curious how long the (very effective, when new) Nanosphere DWR would last.  Just this afternoon I retested my original shirt, and can say that Nanosphere does indeed wear out.  When I reviewed the original after a few months of use four ounces of water hardly leaked through the fabric during the cup test, even after two hours.  After 2+ years of use all four ounces leaked through in just over five minutes, while my new coat next to it held all the water in suspension for the full two hours, save a few drops.

So nothing lasts forever, though I still count the Alpine Start as money well spent, and would not be without one, for just about anything outside.

The most important backcountry skill

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 12.31.04 PM

The above is a screen grab from the latest episode of Meat Eater.  Whats significant here is not the episode itself, which is an excellent one, but what Steve Rinella is doing here.  A few minutes prior he shot a large-antlered, mature mule deer, fulfilling a decades long quest with a perfectly placed 392 yard shot.  After watching to make sure the deer is dead, he packs up and sheds layers for the hike over to the animal, and after taking three steps away from his shooting spot, turns back to examine where he had been, making sure nothing has been left behind.

There is no more important habit to practice, every time, in the woods.

I’ve heard of people leaving behind the usual stuff, like knives, headlamps and water bottles, more times than I can recall.  And for obvious reasons this can be a major bummer, especially as with the exception of water containers and maybe a tiny secondary light you probably don’t have spares.  I’ve also heard of rain jackets, maps, cameras, and even large percentages of remaining food left behind on accident while out backpacking.  This could be an inconvenience, or depending on circumstance could be a good deal more serious.  So in addition to always buying small, frequently used items in bright colors, always look back at the spot you used for a lunch, map, photo, or glassing break.  Make no exceptions, not for 2 hour dayhikes or ten day traverses, and you’ll be well on your way to avoiding problems before they happen.   As Steve shows, even the most exciting moment does not excuse you.

Glacier backcountry permits for 2016

R0010531

Over the past few years summer backcountry permits in Glacier National Park have been increasingly problematic.  An antiquated mail-in reservation system has combined with a sharp increase in applications to create a situation which was no good for anyone.  Prospective backpackers were stuck waiting until well into May or even early June to receive confirmation or denial of their permit, and permit rangers had to deal with 1500+ paper applications.  On April 16th all those sheets of paper were mixed, put into a random stack, and processed by hand beginning at the top.  Thankfully that system will be no more.

Instead, this year applications will be online.  Reservations will be accepted starting March 15th, and processed beginning that date on a rolling basis (something I confirmed this morning in a chat with the chief permit officer).  Fees will also increase; there will be a 10 dollar non-refundable processing fee, a 30 dollar application fee which will only be charged if you are granted your request, and a 7 dollar per person/night fee (up from 5 dollars in years past).

The important thing here is the rolling application processing.  If you want popular sites at popular times, you need to put in an application on March 15th, or put yourself in the hands of walk-in permits (see below).

IMG_0768

Why bother with these hurdles and fees, when uncrowded and permit-free terrain is available just to the south in the Bob?  Because Glacier has the best hiking, mile for mile, in the lower 48.  Places like the Winds and Sierra have far more extensive alpine terrain, but Glacier’s is distilled to a refinement not otherwise seen.

Because the alpine terrain is so concentrated, and that which can be reached by trail so heavily used during the brief months of summer, backpackers must use designated campsites.  The number of truly alpine camps are few, to keep impact down, and therefore slots at those camps are coveted.

The NPS does do a good job of advertising what options are not taken by advanced reservations.  This map provides a clickable view of all the camps in the park, and once applications start rolling in will show how many slots are available each day all summer.  Walk-in permits are also available, beginning at 0700 the day before the trip starts.  Check the campground status chart, and get to a permit office early in the morning.  0530 is not excessive if you’re trying for a premium site.

IMG_0134

Boulder Pass, Hole in the Wall, Stoney Indian (above), Fifty Mountain, Lake Ellen Wilson, Morning Star Lake, and Cobalt Lake.  These are the sites you want, though Cobalt gets less pressure because it isn’t on any of the main loops hikes.  2016 is not the year for delay.

610 pack, the evolution

My best, conservative, estimate is that since 2009 I’ve built roughly 30 backpacks, and owned a further ~20, which were either purchased retail or given to me for review or prototyping.  This is a large number, especially considering that at the moment we only (!) have eleven packs in house, a mere two of which predate this period of my backpack obsession.  There have been a handful of bags that made it to the finished stage but due to flaws in conception or errors in execution never made it into the field, but otherwise all of these approximately fifty packs have seen significant miles, before they meet the inevitable end of sale, modification, or scrappage.  On the one hand using all these has been a joyful and educational process.  My original pack had a lot of things in common with the ones I’m building today, but it also demonstrates how much I’ve learned about fit, suspension, and features.  I used that pack, with its thin shoulder straps and 1.5″ webbing belt for my very first traverse of the Bob, and while I did fine sustainable load carriage was highly dependent upon shoulder strength and a willingness to suffer.

While I have the umpteenth package from Rockywoods arriving shortly for yet another pack modification, I find myself with less time for uninterrupted sewing than ever before, and a marked desire to sort out the pack quiver and be done with it, at least for a while, opening up a bit of space in the closet in the process.

I could make due with two packs for everything, especially now that the majority of outings require the added bulk of a diaper bag.  The first would be a very large one on the Seek Outside suspension.  That end of the quiver is undergoing revision, and will be discussed in an upcoming post.

The second pack would be a tall, slim pack around 30 liters, one that can serve as a daypack for just about any size outing, as well as light duty overnights.  This is the pack I’ve built most often, and written about frequently, so imagine my surprise when the most recent version, which was built from scraps and whose dimension were in some ways a matter of accident and circumstance, is the best yet, and might be one I can live with for a few years at least.

Similar things could have been said about the very first pack in the 610 series, the white pack in the first photo series,and had I been smart enough to leave that bag alone once I got a satisfactory pair of shoulder straps on it I likely wouldn’t have enough content to make this the long post that it is.  Unfortunately I didn’t bother to write down the precise dimensions of that packs panels, so I can’t be sure what made it so good.  The vital ingredients were a thin but not too thin profile, curves that ran in all three dimensions for good aesthetic and definitive snag-proofing, and a gentle increase in circumference from top to bottom, for easy loading.  That was also the pack where I discovered curved side panels, a crucial feature which I did not invent (our Cold Cold World Ozone has a mild version) but did publicize, and which a few companies have since adopted.

I eventually revised the futzed that DX 40 pack into oblivion, which was fine as that fabric had a fatal flaw.  Several similar packs followed, some of which I have no photos of, as well as a few like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla which were different in size but ended being influential in suspension or features.  The Gorilla and the blue and green VX07 and 210 denier gridstop pack both reminded me that burly fabrics and a clean exterior are beneficial for a pack which will get used all the time, as both were fatally shredded in separate outings in Utah slot canyons.

The 2014 version of the 610 was supposed to be my return to the original, with the addition of a few key features like a full side zip and luxury shoulder straps (from the deceased Gorilla).  The mix of VX42 and X51 fabrics worked well, but I screwed up the hipbelt attachment and got a little too fancy with the panel shaping, and after a year of solid use the lure of the scrap bin was too great.

R0012429

All things fabric are subject to change, but the latest version of the 610 is the best yet.

The versatile suspension, discussed here, has proven to be excellent.  Without stays or belt the pack is light and flexible, and with them (how I run it the majority of the time) it can carry anything I’m likely to put in it, including 35 pounds of water and fleece jackets for training walks.  Most importantly the panel dimensions, discussed in detail here, are perfect.

I did change the main side zip out, replacing the #8 coil with a dual slider #10 aquaguard (taken from the now defunct Stone Glacier Solo).  The #8 slipped teeth on a few occasions when closed with force, compelling evidence that it wasn’t going to last.  I also switched out the aluminum hook buckle for the top strap for a little plastic triglide/carabiner hybrid, which came with the Kuiu Ultra 1800 I purchased on sale a few months ago.  The nice thing about this is that it can be detached with one hand (though not with gloves), but unlike the hook stays put when the top strap is loose.  Unless I’m lashing something large on top, I usually just loosen and then slide it to the side when opening to drawcord.  Finally, the refinement of attaching the top strap with a three-bar slider has the unexpected benefit of allowing said strap to be shortened and the excess tucked down inside the back panel, thus allowing you to both have a strap long enough for anything you might carry, as well as a strap which doesn’t flap like mad in the breeze when no excess cargo is being carried.

The whole point of making your own packs is to have exactly what you want; it certainly is not a good way to save either time or money.  While in the end the benefit to me has been deepening my knowledge, it is nice when years of practice gives you something that works as well as this pack does.