The 2015 pack fleet

I’ve been doing the pack thing for a while now.  After owning and especially building so many none of them can retain nostalgia for long, with any and every little detail subject to scrutiny, revision, and destruction.  That said, the novelty of cutting and sewing has also waned significantly in the last year, and it’s my intention in 2016 to only act on my best ideas and hopefully let a few of the packs discussed below live for more than 8 months.

These six are the ones currently in my closet, smallest to largest, good points and bad, along with an estimation of whether I’d buy it again and in the case of home made stuff speculation on commercial alternatives.

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HPG Tarahumara.  I’ve had this for a few years, and the elegant simplicity and functionality continues to impress.  The contours of the back and side panels make it both streamlined and large for it’s size, and it’s built of bomber materials to absolutely impeccable standards.

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I know just how good the stitching is because earlier this year I tore the top and most of the side panel seams out to add different shoulder straps and buckles which would interface with the Unaweep.  I’ve torn out a lot of seams, factory stuff and my own, and these were far and away the most difficult.  In this case at least the added quality of domestic manufacturing, and the associated surcharge, is no joke.  That said, the stock shoulder harness just didn’t work, especially for cycling, and the Patagonia Endurance pack straps have made it a solid little number for short ski and bike outings.  The back panel is still sweaty and holds moisture for a while, but I can’t yet find this objectionable enough to mess with it.

Overall I like this pack a lot, though I’m not I would buy it again.  The Osprey Talon 11 I used to have is in many respects a more functional option, though not nearly as stout or stylish.

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Gossamer Gear Type 2.  A fantastic daypack which has gotten a ton of use this year; the Type 2 is just the right size and has just enough pockets for just about anything.  My shoulder strap replacement is nice, and makes the pack feel custom fit for me, but is far from obligatory.

I’d buy it again without hesitation, and recommend it to others.

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610 Diaper pack.  The newest pack in the lineup, and the one with the most and widest variety of iterations behind it.  Based on the last 10 days of hunting and dayhiking, I’m optimistic that I’ve finally got things right.  The side zip works particularly well with the current dimensions, as setting the pack down on the side keeps it stable, gives good access, and keeps the harness out of the mud, all at the same time.  Being able to use or not use the twin aluminum stays is a very nice feature for a pack this size.

It’s hard to think of a good commercial alternative to such a particular pack.  If the zip access were not crucial one of the HMG 2400 series packs would work well, or a Cold Cold World Ozone for less money and more abusive use.  The smaller Black Diamond Speed packs are a good value, and the Speed 30 in large is actually long enough in the torso, something shockingly difficult to find amongst smaller, “technical” packs.

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Stone Glacier Solo.  I really enjoyed hunting out of this pack back in September, it was easy to conclude that a pack this size, with a meat shelf and at least partial panel access, is an ideal platform for warmer weather backcountry hunts.  It has enough space, but is small enough to force discipline and to fit through brush well, and spotting scope access is quick.  Unfortunately the Solo suffers from a few features I find unbearable, mainly the several seams at the top of pack which cause it to leak like mad in the rain, and the excessive strappiness.  You don’t want to shortcut compression for a load shelf, but I have a few ideas that should trim thing considerable, which is a way of saying that this is a pack which will be replaced, when the ideas I’ve been tossing around in my head become sufficiently refined.  The frame I made for this pack works well, the only flaw is that I didn’t quite make their bottom spacing wide enough, and this slightly impinges belt wrap across the lumbar.

If I were buying commercially I wouldn’t get a Stone Glacier, they’re far too expensive when a Unaweep 3900 (below) is hundreds of dollars less.

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Seek Outside Unaweep.  I haven’t used this pack much this year, but there have been quite a few occasions when I had something else along and wished I could zoom home and instantly swap packs.  Simply put the Unaweep is the reference for how a larger pack should carry and function, and anything I come up with or buy has to equal it in all ways and exceed it in some to be worth keeping.  That is not easy to do.  As detailed in the previous post I cut a few things off my Unaweep, and I’ve continued to monkey with different Talon panels, but having it in the closet as a dependable option for anything beyond a light overnight it always welcome.

I didn’t buy this pack, but if I lost it I’d buy another as soon as possible and rest easy knowing I was getting a stellar deal.  I’d probably go for X50 fabric for better durability than VX42, and step up to the mondo 6300 size for a one pack quiver.

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Canyon center-zip. Based on one overnight and one day hunt, I like this pack.  3900 cubic inches is not that big, and the added size will surely come in handy, as will I think the front zipper.  At this point far more testing is need to comment substantively, but given the number of previous packs which fed directly into this one I’m confident this will endure.  But then again I usually am.

The 610 pack, diaper version

R0011620I’ve made this pack, or one to fulfill the same role, 6 or 8 times now.  Most for my own use, a few for friends.  It continually evolves.  The most recent version got axed because the back panel taper got too funky and resulted in a subtle narrowing pinch point in the middle of the pack, which made packing and unpacking a pain.  The top closure was also too complicated, and the hipbelt connection didn’t work properly.

This version is made from scraps and pieces of this pack and this pack, plus some from another pack which never saw the light of the net.  You never get as much material from a cut up project as you think, but I was careful in my cutting and deliberate in my planning, and in this case it worked with no compromises.  Which is rare.  Using the intact backpanel from pack one even expedited construction such that once I got sewing the whole mess took less than three hours.  Which is very rare.  I should note that the death knell for pack one ended up being that damn spreader bar.  Nothing worked to my satisfaction, and an attempt to make a pack with a tapered foam panel that would facilitate similar dimensions did not work out.  So that’s currently an unsolved puzzle.  The tight exterior pad slot with laterally folded blue Walmart works very well, with an ideal balance of support and flexibility for 20 pounds and under, and keeping that feature was a priority.

The other things I wanted in this pack was access, fast, and plenty of it.  Quick and unpredictable diaper changes are a fact of life hiking with an infant, and no pack in the fleet addressed that well enough.  Diameter is 31 inches at the bottom, 35 at the very top.  Backpanel height in 28 inches to the top of the extension collar.  Materials are X33 and X50, with 40D sil/PU for the extension collar, 70D nylon ripstop for the inside of the rear pocket, and WX20 for the pad slot.  All zips are standard #8 YKKs.

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The bottom X50 reinforcements on the side panels will be good for longevity, keep the zipper coil from the worst abrasion, and were dictated by the X33 panels I had to work with being a tad too short once squared up and sewn together,  Ideally I’d have been able to skip the seam on the non-zip side, but I can live with that.

The back panel is 9.75 inches wide all the way up.  Side panels are 7 inch, tapering to 8.5 above the shoulder curve.  The front panel is 7 wide at the pocket bottom, with a half inch of taper up to the extension collar.  4-6 inches of gain in diameter from bottom to top seems to be the magic range for packs, with smaller ones ideally being at the smaller end, really big packs at the larger.  Any less and packing is just a little less easy, any more and things seem to end up feeling ungainly.  As is plain in the penultimate photo, the bottom tapers both in (1.3 inchs per side) and up (3 inches total), to keep things sleek.  You loose capacity and a bit of packing ease compared to a square or rectangular base, but gain considerably in climbing ease and in style.  I am not interested in packs with non-tapered bases, generally speaking.

At the end of these projects there is always something you wish you did differently, almost immediately.  Aside from two minor sewing flaws the only thing to make the list is moving the upper lash loops along the side panel down an inch or so.  Which is not a bad list, at all.

As always, questions are welcome.

The 2016 BD Alpine Start Hoody

As I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere, the Black Diamond Alpine Start hoody is one of the better pieces of outdoor clothing one can buy.  The original version had a fabric which was as perfect as current technology allows; mine has stood up impressively well to lots of use in the past 20 months.  The only things holding it back from functional perfection where a few oddities in the cut (namely the neck) and a hood adjustment which just wasn’t right.

R0011599Thankfully BD has fixed at least the second issue with the newest iteration, while keeping the same excellent fabric.  As can be seen above and below they’ve gone from dual side cinches with internal cordlocks and no rear cinch to a single cinch which wraps around the sides to the back.  It is all but identical to the 2011-2012 Houdini in this respect.  It isn’t my favorite system, as tightening things up exposes rather than covers the backs of your cheeks, but this system does allow the hood to stay glued to your head, bare headed or thick hatted, even with the zipper done well down.  The awesomely articulated armpits remain unchanged.

R0011601I still wouldn’t call the hood truly helmet compatible; it will fit over a trim helmet, but not especially well or easily.

R0011604I can’t address the neck fit issue as I never really noticed it in the first place, and because my new Alpine Start is a large, rather than medium.  The trim fit of the medium is fantastic for active use, more shirt than jacket, but won’t fit over much in the way of insulation.  I wanted a new jacket for colder weather use, and as I couldn’t think of anything with better performance than the Alpine Start, just got another one.  The large is noticeably bigger than the medium, but not too much.  It fits over a few lighter insulating layers not problem, without getting in the way when worn over a t-shirt.  I do wish the cuffs on this larger, longer shirt had a way to cinch tight when needed, and may retrofit velcro tabs to serve that end.

Details, like the felled seams and secondary stitching to contour the dimensions of the chest pocket, are without exception exceptional.

R0011606Overall the Alpine Start is a premium piece of clothing; very functional, very well made, and very expensive.  It is worth it?  There is no useful way to quantify such questions.  You could, by way of example, buy a Sierra Designs Microlight 2 jacket in stead, at a third the retail cost.  The Microlight provides equivalent weatherproofing at a similar weight and bulk, but with much less breathability and less finely tuned fit and feature set.  The satisfaction in wearing one versus the other is at least for me drastically different, but I could make do with either and suffer little in terms of comfort and not at in terms of safety. I regard the Alpine Start as money well spent, but it was between having the Microlight or having no windshell at all, that would also be an easy choice.  A good rule for all gear/cost choices: while good gear is almost always worthwhile if carefully matched with preferences, getting out more and soon should always take first priority.

The five-foot tarp

R0010622A five foot wide tarp is a dead useful thing to have around, for emergency use, hiding from the weather to cook or glass (above), or for a primary solo shelter which will force one to use good site selection and pitching techniques.  It’s also an excellent and relatively cheap and easy MYOG (make ya own geah) project.

Why 5 feet wide?  Most silnylons are between 62 and 58 inches wide per yard.  Subtract between 1 and 2 inches for side seams, selvedge, and cutting the sides parallel and you end up with a tarp about 5 feet wide.  Anything wider requires a lot more material and a large horizontal seam, which if you’re like me you’ll find challenging to keep straight and parallel.  I let the pros make bigger shelters for me.

For a 5 foot by 9 foot tarp you’ll need 3 yards of fabric, plus a little extra.  Why a little extra? Because I highly recommend bonded and then sewn tieouts for these little tarps.  So long as there is not a nick point for a tear to start silnylon is dead strong, and you’ll be amazed at the tension with which you can pitch it.  Needle holes can serve as such a failure point, and one of the only out and out failures from the factory I’ve had in my professional gear testing life was on a silnylon tarp whose tieouts were sewn without any reinforcement panels, and with a too-large needle.  One of the side guy points tore several feet along the stitch line under tension while pitching it in the back yard.

R0011059Bonded reinforcement panels are simple with silnylon.  You’ll need the extra bits of silnylon cut into triangles (I make 6″ by 6″ squares, then cut them in half), 100% silicone, mineral spirits, a brush, plastic grocery bags, and a few heavy flat bottomed objects.  Use this technique on both the main tarp and the reinforcement patch.  Let both dry for a few minutes, then press, weight, and let dry overnight.

I put ten patches on this particular tarp; four in the corners, two centered on the short sides, and two each every three feet along the long edges.  More than this is I think overkill.  Center patches for tieouts can be handy, but aren’t necessary and take more work (they need to seam sealed after sewing).

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After the reinforcing patches have cured, sewing the edge seams is next.  I roll the edge once, sew, then roll again and sew.  To keep the tarp as wide as possible these seams are as small as is practical, around 3/8″.  Small needles and fine 100% polyester embroidery thread are more than adequate for this job.

After the seams are finished, bartack on the webbing loops.  I used 5/8″ polypro webbing, which is lighter and absorbs less water than nylon, and is more than strong enough.  The tack on the seam is load bearing, and goes through six layer of fabric for strength.  The secondary lines of stitching are for insurance purposes.  I put linelocs on the corners for ease of use.

It’s worth noting that not all silnylon is created equal.  The good stuff will feel silky and have a substantial coating on both sides.  The less-good stuff will be more crinkly and slicker.  The reinforcements on this tarp were cut from sil I bought from Bear Paw Wilderness Designs, which did not seem to be good stuff.  I reordered from Ripstop by the Roll, which was more satisfactory.

Camping with such a small tarp is quite practical, even in bad weather, but requires the use of good pitching technique and when the wind kicks up, trees for shelter.  I took this one on my sheep hunt last month, and on both evenings had to repitch during the night to get more protection from blown precipitation.  Had I been more conservative from the start that would not have been necessary.  After each repitch I slept well and myself and my gear stayed dry.

The real value of a small tarp like this is as an emergency shelter.  It will not take too many forced nights out (or planning nights without a sleeping bag) to make you realize that the condensation make mylar bivy sacks less than ideal.  Better to have a tarp which can keep the wind off and keep you dry by allowing your clothing to breath.  As such, making your 5 foot tarp out of bright fabric, for signalling purposes, is something worth considering.  This tarp fits into a softball sized stuff sack and is therefore a practical companion for ski tours and other day outings when emergency shelter might make a big difference.

For those who don’t care to build their own, quality options are available from Oware (50 dollars, basic tieouts) and Mountain Laurel Designs (100 dollars, deluxe tieouts).

All about insulation

Insulation in outdoor clothing can be confusing.

The common question is “will ___ keep me warm during ____”, which is as understandable as it is naive (and bluntly, stupid).  Clothing does not make you warm, clothing keeps you warm, and neglecting metabolic training (ex: burning fats), proper fueling and hydration, and technique (ex: slow down in last 30 minutes before camp to minimize sweat) will always result in failure no matter how fancy your duds.

That said the confusion is quite understandable.  Outdoor marketing hardly ever emphasizes technical details, and many companies outright hide the relevant specifications (and their CS folks often don’t know them).  Appealing solely to “core” outdoor users may not be a sustainable business model for outdoor clothing even under ideal circumstances, but even if it is companies and trade industry groups have made clear that their growth strategy is not growing core users, but in making the tent bigger by bringing in marginal outdoor sports like running and area skiing.  There’s little need for the generic runner or skier to have intimate knowledge of their insulation; they can just go inside, and so long as this is the case knowledge will remain too often at arms length.

To evaluate how warm a piece of clothing might be you need three things: what sort of and how much insulation is in the piece, what shell and liner fabrics (if any) are in play, and how warm comparable pieces have proved for you in the past.  This last requires getting out a decent bit, and buying at least a few pieces of insulating clothing.  It also requires maintaining a sense of your body composition and metabolism: go from 15 to 10 percent body fat and once stopped you’ll get a lot colder a lot faster.  Assuming you know these three things, the following are general principles and suggestions for figuring out how warm a given garment might be, as well as some assorted guidelines for sorting through the noise and hype.  In no particular order.

R0000075Insulation has as much to do with stopping air flow as it does with trapping volumes of air.  The advent of Polartec Alpha and the rush to build synthetic puffies with air permeable fabrics has demonstrated this well, as does the remarkable insulting value maintained by my totally cashed out Rab Xenon, whose shell and liner (both Pertex Quantum GL) are exceptionally air impermeable.  High-dollar shell fabrics like Quantum absolutely make a jacket warmer.  I’m not sure it will ever be possible to make a fairly air permeable fabric which is downproof, but if it is it’d be interesting to see how breathable (and thus, potentially cold) a down puffy might be.

External moisture is rarely a problem for down garments unless you do something neglectful (read: fall in creek).  Ambient humidity and internal moisture are far, far more problematic.  I’ve used hydrophobic, treated down in two applications; first when I overfilled the top third of my Feathered Friends Vireo with 3 ounces of 800 FP treated down from Thru-Hiker, and second in my recently purchased Sierra Designs Better Vest.  Thus far I am not impressed.  A common scenario would have me arriving at a stop (be it to glass, fish, have a snack, or set up camp) with a bit of moisture in my system, especially under my pack.  I try to let this vent as far as possible before I get too cold, but my insulating garments inevitably end up over and covering this moisture, and having to let it pass through.  Alpha does this very well.  Lighter (sub 4 oz fill) down coats generally loose most of their loft over my back and leave me cold.  The Better Vest does exactly this, though it does puff back up (dry out) quite a bit faster.  So maybe there is something to DriDown.  In any case, “tests” like this one are at best misguided and at worst monumentally ignorant of what goes on in the field, and down still has acute weaknesses.  It also remains the only practical game in town for serious cold.

The corollary is that synthetic insulation is still a very useful thing.  All the major sorts of synthetic insulation are way more alike than they are different, save the form they come in.  Climashield maintains loft longer, due to construction, but drapes less well and thus lacks the street appeal of Primaloft.  Alpha is far less warm per weight, both due to the insulation itself and because the shells fabrics are thus far much more air permeable.  Though as I explained above the practical advantages make Alpha (and the like) a very appealing option for multi-day stuff.

I would put 240 grams/meter fleece, a generic 2 oz/800 fill hoodless down coat, and a 60 grams/meter Primaloft One/Gold jacket as roughly equivalent in warmth, if you assume the fleece has a windshirt over top.  Comparing Alpha is as mentioned problematic, but you’d probably need 90 grams/meter to be on equal footing.

Comparing fleece is a complex subject due to the many permutations beyond mere fabric weight.  One major trend over the past decade has been in hi-loft fleeces, which seek to provide more warmth for the weight.  When new these work, and the ones which are shaggy both inside and out are the faster moisture movers of the really warm stuff (think midlayer for skiing at -30).  They do loose loft with use, and there is a lot to be said for the way dense, thin-for-weight old school fleece balances insulation, weight, breathability, and longevity.  The Kiwis know this and keep using microfleece in a variety of weights, when US and now even UK companies have largely abandoned them.  Grid fleece is superior against the skin, generally, but for all-around use microfleece hasn’t really been improved upon in over two decades.  The lycra content in so much of the new stuff gives it a severe handicap.

Variations in clo rating less than .25 are generally less significant than the inter-rater variability when discussing garment warmth.  Put another way; quantifying garment warmth can only get you so far (not very).

IMG_3588So what’s good out there?  The lightest versions of grid fleece, like Capilene 4 or the new Sitka Core LW, make fantastic baselayers.  For midlayers for moving, microfleece around 160 grams/meter is hard to beat.  Rab just discontinued their Micro Pull-On, and if you don’t already I’d highly recommend snagging one.  I’d like to see them make a vest version, too.  There are many shirts like it but in typical Rab fashion the evolved cut puts it above the rest.  There is still a lot to be said for the versatility of a lighter synthetic jacket, and again Rab lead the field with the Xenon X, which has all the right features and light, windproof fabric.  I’d love to see a 80 or 100 gram/meter Xenon, in the old Quantum GL fabric.  It took me a while, but I’ve really warmed up to the Rab Strata, and their new 120 gram/meter Alpha jacket will likely be excellent for ski touring and the like (weight notwithstanding).

I’ve never been a fan of the down sweaters, as especially once loft is degraded they have too little warmth for the weight.  So I’m a fan of the recent trend to make sewn through jackets with 4 or so ounces of fill.  Much more practical.  Some folks will need a massive, baffled parka, but most can do fine with a 4 oz/fill down hoody in addition to the fleece or synthetic they already have.

So, good luck cutting through the nonsense.

The Omnibar

A while ago the folks from Omnibar in Missoula contacted me, both about packrafting beta for the Bob and about trying their product. I said yes, a box of bars showed up in the mail, and I’ve been eating them for the last six weeks. The following are my thoughts.

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When buying day food for backcountry trips two factors share primary importance: calories/weight ratio and eatability.  The former is simple; you need a certain number of calories (Kcal) per day to function well, and the less weight needed to accomplish that the better.  Eatability is a more heterogenous topic, and encompasses everything from taste to durability to the proper nutritional makeup.  While backpacking you need snack/lunch items which won’t smush into oblivion, are easy fast and convenient to access, and can be digested by a potentially stressed and disturbed stomach.  This last factor is built equally of the scientific and the psychosomatic, and one cannot be disentangled from the other.

Omnibars are advertised as 65% sweet potatoes, oats, fruits and nuts, and 35% grass-fed beef from Montana cows.  The company writes that they’re “…jerky plus the essential ratio of ingredients the mind and body require for complete satisfaction” which is an accurate description.  Each package contains two long, thin bars which chew like 1/3 quality beef jerky, 2/3 fancy granola bar.  They’re moist, but not too pliable, and don’t require a ton of water to swallow, even when you have a dry mouth.  They come in four flavors, two of which (Roasted Peanut and Cranberry Rosemary) are mellow, and two of which (Chipolte BBQ and Mango Curry) are more emphatic.  I like spicy stuff, which makes the later two my favorites by a considerable margin.  The BBQ has a particularly pleasing zing to it.  I’d vote for all the flavors to be stronger, but the current range and amplitude is probably good for appealing to a wide market.

In summary, the Omnibars are tasty, very easy to eat and digest, and carry well.  They have a nutritional makeup that I like very much, and which seems to sit well.  At 100 calories per ounce they are quite average when it comes to caloric density, and being a premium product from a new, small company they are quite expensive at 2+ dollars a bar.  Do these advantages outweigh the downsides?  Keep reading.

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As backcountry endeavors have become for me routine, be they on bike or foot or raft, purchasing food for them has naturally become frequent and unremarkable.  I keep a drawer of snacks and dinner items handy, but more often than not the next weeks trip sees me in the grocery store two days out buying food off the rack.  Convenience and cost, both prioritized by the frequency of multi-day trips, have seen me eat a lot of Snickers over the years.  Aside from in hot weather, Snickers are very effective, and for the US consumer their calorie to dollar to ounce ratio is unbeatable.  They also have a lot of sugar, which is fast burning and therefore less than ideal backpacking food.  And there is the question of the long term health and dental effects of eating so much candy.

As can be seen above, the nutritional makeup of Omnibars is a bit different than many energy bars, some of which (Larabar) are functionally identical to Snickers, even if they get there with different ingredients.  Omnibars are noteworthy for their lack of sugars, which in all my ignorance of dietary science I’m attributing their long, slow burn to.  Calorie to calorie they’re almost as carb-y as Probars, another tasty and effective if expensive premium food bar.  Omnibars also have a lot of protein per unit of weight compared to their competition, something I find particularly relevant as keeping up protein intake while backpacking without resorting to various powders (which have their own issues) can be challenging.

Having a free box of Omnibars to grab from has given me cause to reevaluate my cheap-as, food-is-food backcountry diet.  Simply put, Omnibars are pretty darn tasty, very easy to eat, and make me feel stronger and better longer than candy.  They’re the bar equivalent of what I try to (and often slip on) eat daily in the frontcountry, which provides for a continuity of gut which seems like a good thing.  My only real complaints are wanting stronger flavors, wanting more calories per ounce (without significantly altering the nutritional makeup), and wanting them to be cheaper (I see them at health food stores around here for north of 2 dollars each; a 12 bar pack direct from Omnibar is 39 bucks).  Will I be willing to spend that much on these bars in the future?  It’s a tough sell, but prior to seeing them in action the answer would have been a hasty hell no, and now it’s a qualified maybe.

Pack materials redux

This is an update of and the evolution from this post 18 months ago.

R0010048A good pack fabric, like the well patina’d 1000 denier Cordura above, can do a lot of great work, simply. There is a subtle elegance to something which is easily sewn into a finished product which continues as a reliable, innocuous companion for many years and many miles.  The following is a collation of experiences and opinions from the last few years.

R0010038In the first half of 2015 I’ve gone out of my way to beat up on cuben fiber whenever I have the chance.  I don’t think cuben makes sense from a cost/function perspective, but my primary objection is that companies like Hyperlite Mountain Gear have begun to use it as a sole talking point, rather than discussing how they have nice packs which happen to be made of good fabric.

The 150 denier hybrid cuben pictured here is good fabric.  The cuben backing is very waterproof, and the tight polyester face fabric is impressively tough for what is by any standard light duty stuff.  I can’t think of anything of a comparable denier which comes close, but nonetheless there just isn’t that much material there.  As seen above, holes in the poly face are easy to come by, the while the cuben backing does put up a fight, the package just does not stand up to abrasion very well.  Tear strength is pretty good, but abrasion is the source of every hole I’ve ever put in a pack.  If you don’t beat on your gear regularly this heavier hybrid will last a long time, but with other options that weight almost the same, have exactly the same performance properties, and cost half as much I just don’t see a reason for cuben hybrid, other than fashion novelty.

Closing question: would HMG sell more or sell fewer Windrider 3400s if they were made from X33, weighed a few ounces more, and cost 75 dollars less?

R0010035This leaves me with Xpac fabrics, for which my enthusiasm has not diminished.  VX42 is still a favorite, as pictured above and below, which has held up very well and is heavy enough for almost anything but not egregiously so.  As Brendan has often said, the X layer looks cool but doesn’t really do anything but provide an abrasion point.

R0010040The oxford face fabric of VX42 lags behind the plain Cordura face of X33 and X50, which are my current preferred moderate and heavy use fabrics, respectively.  There is just something about the even and symmetrical Cordura weave which stands up proud to abuse of all types.  The X series is quite a bit more pliable and quiet than the VX series, which is welcome, but currently only available retail in multicam prints, which is less so.  I’ve put holes into X33, but it takes more quite a bit of effort.

IMG_1324Highly waterproof fabrics like Xpac and cuben are sexy, but there’s a lot to be said for quality PU fabrics, especially if lots of precipitation is not a regular feature.  Good cordura remains an excellent option.  Sadly, lighter fabrics are more difficult to find.  The 210 denier gridstop from Thru-hiker is still a bit on the expensive side, and still an outstanding option for a moderate use pack.

In summary, I’d use X33 for most packs, and X50 and X51 for pack bottoms, and packs which will get lots of abuse.  210D gridstop is great for pockets and extension collars.  Every year more and better options appear, and more and better retail options come into being.

R0010050All the better for growing a fat quiver.

Dean Potter

It is probable that you know about Dean Potter’s death this past weekend; flying into a cliff while wingsuit flying in Yosemite.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 10.35.53 PMLike most attentive climbers in the 90s, I first heard the name Dean Potter in a tiny Wild Things ad in either Climbing or Rock and Ice, showing the above photo (or one close to it) with a small notation that Potter was doing the first ascent, free solo, of the 5.13 King Tut. Soon after came a series of Prana ads during that brands golden age, including a particularly striking one of the very lanky and ripped Potter spanned out on King Cobra in Yosemite, and soon after that came speed soloing in Yosemite and then Potter’s 2002 season in Patagonia, which cemented his status as one of the most influential climbers, ever.  In many ways the Delicate Arch controversy, base jumping, untethered slacklining, and wing suiting have all been afterwords to five-odd years of phenomenal climbing around the turn of the century.

M and I lived in Moab for most of 2004, and saw Potter around town occasionally.  Out of all the several thousand Moab residents, and the endless tourists passing through, he was by far the most easily recognizable in the grocery store, just as impossibly tall and chiseled and wild-haired in real life as in print.  2004 was the end of my serious involvement in climbing, and I had enough fitness and skill left to attempt to follow the inspiration Potter had given me.  I climbed the Crackhouse in 2 segments, free soloed the Owl, never got past the third move on King Cobra, and onsighted Coyne Crack .  These days I climb a few days a years, and my fingers can never keep up with residual skill, strength, and muscle memory.  I followed Potter tangentially over the past decade, more than well enough to be saddened by his death.

The front page of Potter’s website says “Let go, when I do this whole new world opens up…”  And this is the real value he leaves behind.  The sudden death of such a defiant figure has brought more than the typical number of armchair critics out of the shadows, with the usual cries of a selfish and myopic life life ill-spent.  Apparently Potter leaves behind no children, and thus in my mind public comment is out of bounds.  What does seem relevant is the vigor of the vitriol, and the great extent to which it is detached from reality.  The people most critical of Potter are not climbers themselves, almost without exception, and I do not think this is a coincidence.  Ours is a society constantly looking for ways to let go, while at the same time being terrified of actually doing so, and lashing out at people like Potter who demonstrate that actually letting go could be a daily event.  There are many ways to let go which do not involve a reasonably high probability of death; I’ll never base jump, and had an early retirement from ice and alpine climbing, precisely because the numbers were so bad.  All paths to letting go do not involve unusual exposure to death, but they do without exception involve exceptional exposure to failure.  This, and the challenge to social appearances it inevitably entails, is why our society would prefer to put letting go off on drugs and media experiences in private, dark rooms rather than on small, daily choices.

Dean Potter, and his life and death both, remind us that we all want to let go and exceed our present selves.  The only ambiguity ends up being what we want to let go, and how.

Senate Amendment 838

R0001564 Amendment No. 838 (Purpose: To establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to the disposal of certain Federal land) At the appropriate place, insert the following: SEC. ___. SPENDING-NEUTRAL RESERVE FUND RELATING TO THE DISPOSAL OF CERTAIN FEDERAL LAND.

The Chairman of the Committee on the Budget of the Senate may revise the allocations of a committee or committees, aggregates, and other appropriate levels in this resolution for one or more bills, joint resolutions, amendments, amendments between the Houses, motions, or conference reports relating to initiatives to sell or transfer to, or exchange with, a State or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument, by the amounts provided in such legislation for those purposes, provided that such legislation would not raise new revenue and would not increase the deficit over either the period of the total of fiscal years 2016 through 2020 or the period of the total of fiscal years 2016 through 2025.

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At the end of last month the US Senate passed the above, 51-49.  My understanding is that as a budget amendment it holds no force nor compels any action, but given the larger social context the vote has attracted a lot of attention, binding or no.  In the near sense it all started in Utah, with a law voted in over 3 years ago which “provides a framework for transferring public lands into state ownership.”  To keep a long story simple, there is compelling evidence that the Utah law is intended to make those federal lands private, and that the interests behind the Utah effort are those responsible for the continued national prominence of the issue, and the recent senate budget amendment. This concerns me deeply, and to that end I’ve written the Montana congressional delegation, especially junior senator Steve Daines, who voted for said amendment after specifically stating on multiple occasions that he did not support the transfer of federal lands to the states.  In response to two different letters I received the following letter (twice, identical both times), which has been edited for length.

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Dear Mr. Chenault,

Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition to a recent amendment to the Senate budget resolution related to federal lands. As a fifth generation Montanan, please know that I do not support the transfer of federal public lands to state ownership or the sale of public lands that would reduce Montana’s access to these lands.

Senate Amendment No. 838, sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), does not sell, transfer, or exchange any federal lands. Such action would require the enactment of separate legislation. With that said, states and local governments and Indian Tribes routinely come to Congress to obtain land transfers or conveyances to be used for economic development or to address checker-boarded estates or split estates, a common problem for communities in Montana… The Murkowski Amendment could help facilitate a solution to that matter and enable other exchanges, sales or transfers with states or local governments. These policies are often used to craft balanced public lands measures that strengthen conservation, facilitate economic development, and empower states, local and tribal governments. In fact, these types of exchanges were vital to enacting the 2014 comprehensive lands package, which included the most significant Montana conservation measures in more than 30 years. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act protected nearly 700,000 acres in Montana-400,000 acres along the Flathead River in addition to about 270,000 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front, including 67,000 acres of new wilderness. The 2014 lands package was a historic agreement for Montana and would not have occurred without other land exchanges being enacted alongside the landmark conservation measures. For Montana, the package included the Northern Cheyenne Lands Act, which transferred over 1,500 federally-controlled acres into trust for that Tribe. Another example of the kind of land exchange that could be facilitated by the Murkowski Amendment includes a land transfer in 1996 used to prevent a gold mine from being constructed outside of Yellowstone National Park near Cooke City in return for the state of Montana receiving Otter Creek coal tracts. It is important to note that budget rules threatened the completion of the 2014 lands package. As a result, the Murkowski amendment is designed to safeguard future transfers or exchanges from budgetary hurdles, and to protect the ability of Congress to enact landmark conservation measures like the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. As a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, please know I will keep your concerns in mind should the committee consider related legislation and continue to fight to protect public lands in Montana…

Sincerely,

Steve Daines

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I responded to the senator, thanking him for his letter and his work on the North Fork and Rocky Mountain front acts, expressing skepticism about that the amendment would be limited to the actions he outlined, and requesting that he make a greater effort to make his objection to federal land transfers plain to Montanans. Beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of the whole mess.  The Utah effort can be traced quite directly to a debate which has been simmering since the late 1800s and the rush of western statehood; was it constitutional for the federal government to establish management and “ownership” of so much land?  For example, 86% of Nevada is managed by various federal agencies.  There are many practical arguments to be made on every side, but in the end I think the debate comes down to ideology, which explains its remarkable endurance.  I come down on the side of federalism, and think that the history of these lands being owned by the whole citizenry provides more than enough evidence as to why they should remain in federal custody.

In any case, it is not an issue which is going to go away any time soon.

The ‘mid I’ve been looking for

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

[12/2016 update: the BT2 is now the Silvertip, with modest but significant revisions which make it more friendly to taller folks, and more likely to pitch with one long trekking pole.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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