Altra Lone Peak 1.5: half brilliance, half crap

Disclaimer: I bought these shoes with my own money at full retail, and for the past six months have not used them as the manufacturer intended. I make no apologies for asking a lot from my shoes, nor for emphatic feelings about this most important item.

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Altra is about to release version 2.5 of their Lone Peak trail runner, a shoe which has been quite influential since it was released. It was probably the first of what is becoming the latest, and I think the best, trend in light outdoor shoes: zero drop, moderate cushion shoes made of durable materials. Based on my experience with the 1.5s, the notoriety is justified. There is a lot to like, really like, about these shoes, which makes the less desirable things stand out all the more.

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The best thing about the 1.5s is the midsole.  The level of cushion, stiffness, and the zero drop are for me perfect.  There’s enough beef for carrying a 40 pound pack in difficult terrain, while still being flexible and low enough to not loose the sleekness and speed for which light shoes exist.  They are quite simply the most comfortable hiking and backpacking shoe I’ve ever had.

The problem with the 1.5s, which dampens the aforementioned virtues considerably, is the poor durability of the mesh fabric.  Aware of this issue and wanting to protect my investment, I put on a coating of aquaseal before wearing them on the trail, and have added more on four different occasions since.  As shown here, this has kept pace with wear, but only just.  I expect mesh to wear before anything else, but the Altra mesh quite simply sucks.

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To go along with the zero drop approach, the Altra toebox is wide and anatomic, which is easily seen in the above photo, which shows a more traditional trail shoe (the La Sportiva Bushido) at right.  The wide toebox is more comfortable, and only sacrifices a small amount of agility and precision in technical terrain.  I have a middling forefoot and a narrow heel, and found the Altra to fit very well throughout.

The toebox does not hold the 1.5s back in rough country; that task is unfortunately accomplished by the lackluster tread pattern and the absolutely awful rubber, which manages to both wear quickly and have poor traction.  On wet rocks the 1.5s are nothing short of frightening, and I hope that in the new versions Altra has simply discarded both and started over.

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Altra does get the rest of the details right.  The velcro gaiter trap is a brilliant feature which is well done.  I’ve never found a glue-on gaiter patch which didn’t eventually fall off, and this solves that problem in a low-profile way which you’ll never notice when it is not in use.  Other good stuff includes the laces, which stay tied well, and the burly rubberized fabric used in the toe bumper.

Will the Lone Peak 2.5 (due in July) improve upon these glaring flaws?  I really hope so.  I bought the Bushidos above right before we left for New Zealand, strictly because I was worried that the Lone Peaks would not last the whole trip, as well as some dis-ease about taking their poor traction fly fishing and mountain hunting.  The Bushidos have the unmatched rubber and tread which Sportiva does so well (they’re probably 2-3 standard deviations better than anything else on the market, including Inov8), but after using the Lone Peaks all fall even 6mm of drop feels weird, as does the narrow toebox.  If Altra put good rubber on the Lone Peaks, I’d be willing to put up with bad mesh, even at 120 dollars a pair.  If they also fixed the durability issue, I’d be in shoe heaven.

Keep it public

I’ve been putting this writing off for months, because putting fingers to keys and pixels to ‘net admits that there are things which need to be said about keeping public lands public. Today, there absolutely are, and that admission is in itself a sad statement.

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I remain acutely skeptical that the current movement to transfer federal lands into state custody will ever come to anything substantive, but the opponents are sure taking the whole mess seriously, which has produced more than enough dialogue to frame the debate.

Sadly, this has mostly taken place on economic terms. The heirs of the Sagebrush Rebellion maintain that state governments and local towns are loosing potential revenue due to federal complacency, while the heirs of Roosevelt trot out vague statistics to demonstrate why states would not be able to shoulder the management burden.

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US federal land.agencies” by National Atlas of the United Stateshttp://nationalatlas.gov/printable/fedlands.html, “All Federal and Indian Lands“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, all this discussion is very much besides the point. Federal land was, starting in the late 1800s and more rapidly in the first quarter of the 20th century, set aside specifically against obvious economic motivations. Preservation was the word when the Adirondacks and Yosemite became state parks, and Yellowstone a national park. Long-term economic arguments about how tourism is superior to extractive industries only followed. That tourism is the most economically use of public lands is a fait accompli, as demonstrated by the states-rights rhetoric being restricted to only wanting a little more logging/mining/roads while maintaining or increasing tourist infrastructure. The problem is that these pro-states arguments are almost identical to those made a century ago. It’s an obscure and uncommon thesis, but the conservation/preservation, public lands ownership and use debate made the Republican party what it is today, and the zenith of that debate between 1910 and 1912 is when the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and started to become the party of Reagan.

TR left the White House in 1908, denying himself a certain third term. Given that he had assumed office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt had a strong claim to a second elective term, as well as the sort of popularity which would have guaranteed him a win. At the national convention, Henry Cabot Lodge had to intervene multiple times to prevent TR from being nominated by acclamation. William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, was TRs hand-picked successor, in no small part because Roosevelt thought Taft the most likely to continue his policies, Unfortunately for Taft, once elected he proved too malleable or indifferent to stand up to industry, and supported either outright or by default significant erosions of TRs conservation work. Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, and made moves to undo the designation of the enormous and visionary Tongass National Forest. TR valued these things, and the ideals they represented, so much that he was compelled to run against Taft in 1912. He failed to win the Republican nomination, and as a Bull Moose candidate in the general election outperformed Taft, splitting the vote and guaranteeing the victory of Woodrow Wilson.

The presidents who followed Wilson have mixed records on conservation, but the overarching narrative is universally in support of conservation and the value of federal lands. National Parks came to be called America’s best idea, Alaska still has a robust salmon fishery, old growth forest still exists in pockets of most western states, and free or cheap opportunities for recreation of all types could as of 2015 occupy many lifetimes. There are many particulars which could be improved, especially wildfire management, but it’s hard to see arguments against the current regime of federal land management as anything other than variations on Cliven Bundy; ahistorical, myopic, and selfish.

Folks are hesitant to say this out loud, and even more hesitant to state what I see as the central point in the debate: the states are too hasty and subject to the winds of public opinion to be good custodians of public land. This is especially true of states like Montana where term limits and biannual legislative sessions have maintained a tradition of true citizen legislators. Like the US Senate, experiencing federal land management in real time can be frustrating, but is the least-worst option. Ecosystems dwell in extra-human time scales, and thus government must be stretched a fair bit to suit it. Land conservation has in the past century been one of the largest success stories in North America. The pushback against it is probably the last kick before the death of a 20th century view about the unalloyed preeminence of the western human, an ideology about which conservation only tells a small part. Insofar as it’s a coherent entity, I can’t take it seriously, but it would be foolish to underestimate it’s advocates.

The legacy of the 21st century will be rewilding littoral areas, and cultivating a less adversarial relationship with the wild which will make it easier for predators to reassimilate. But it will not come easily or with good grace. Be patient and, where necessary, make your voice heard. In the western states that probably means now.

The full suspension spectrum

Today, it’s safe to say that there are more backpack options available for the outdoorsperson than at any other time.  Most of this is due to the ugly inevitability of population growth and the capitalist hegemony, but some of it has to do with a unique diversity of influences on pack design.  As I’ve detailed elsewhere the Jardine thesis concerning lightweight backpacking has been assimilated such that most “serious” backpackers have a hard time looking back beyond it.  Sub 2-pound packs with sub 400 denier fabrics and slim, flexible harness components are expected.  At the other end of the spectrum, human-powered backcountry hunters have spured a revolution in lighter packs which can still carry very heavy loads through rugged country.  Companies like Stone Glacier and Paradox Packs have made it definitive that there are few compelling excuses for any pack to be heavier than four pounds.

IMG_1110The Arc’teryx Altra 62, above at right, is over-engineered with tons of largely purposeless padding, overly complex pockets and straps, and a heavy hipbelt connection, and it is still under 5 pounds thanks to modern materials and sensibilities.

Identity marketing is all the rage, as manufacturers use it to define a niche within a fractured and diverse market.  In order to fight back against the hype it’s useful to examine the full range of backpack suspensions available, take a stab at dividing them into rough categories, and talk about why each category exists, it’s strengths and weaknesses, and the application to which each is best suited.  It’s also worth pointing out how, without fail, every boundary between suspension categories has been blurred and eroded by innovative builders.  It is a good time to be a pack geek.

Backpacks must do a simple job well in rigorous and varied environments, and it is precisely the huge number of hours we spend with packs on our backs which makes that job seem so complicated.

First, a pack must maintain vertical structure under a given load.  This is most commonly and usefully expressed as maintaining torso length.  By resisting collapse which would shorten the distance between the hipbelt and shoulder straps, a pack maintains the ability of the user to adjust weight between these two points as she sees fit.  Collapse in torso length leads to discomfort in very short order, with anything more than low single digits being unacceptable.  To make this possible the supportive components in a pack’s suspension must be sufficiently rigid, and the various connecting points within the design must have minimal ability to flex, twist, and stretch.  As will be discussed below, there are a number of popular packs whose carry capacity is not limited by their frame, but by the poor connection between the frame and the harness components.

IMG_1270Osprey Variants loaded with a lot of beer and packrafting gear.  These packs feature durable fabrics, a ton of features, and a suspension system which is heavier than it needs to be, and they’re still around 3.5 pounds.  If you’re not an obsessive gram-counter there are a lot of good, and cheap, options around today.

Second, a pack must enable comfortable transfer of said weight to the wearer via a hipbelt and shoulder straps.  20 years ago these were often made from thick, stiff padding encased in packcloth.  Fortunately the industry has moved towards thinner, wider, softer, more conforming harness components, as a change in mentality (and a drive to save weight) has prompted ever better foams and laminates.  This is still an area for development, if for no other reason than that it is pretty basic to make a pack which will have no torso collapse whatsoever, making the harness/user interface the sole limiting factor.  80 pound loads are a trial for a hipbelt, and ruthlessly expose any shortcomings.  As above, many packs are limited not by the integrity of their frame, but by the weight at which the hipbelt will cease to be comfortable (usually by slipping down).

There are an infinite number of minor factors which go into making a good pack, but these two are the colossi.  Without them, everything else is just pretty frosting on a shit cookie.

mountain-laurel-designs-exodus-backpack-review-3The MLD Exodus, photo from BPL.

There are remarkably few truly frameless packs still on the market.  I define a frameless pack as one without any provision for a frame structure whatsoever, including a sleeve for a foam pad.  The keystone frameless packs in the recent past are the Golite Breeze, Gust, and first generation Jam.  The best examples currently available are the Mountain Laurel Designs series, Burn through Ark, and the ULA CDT.  The CDT has elastic pad holders, which keep the included foam pad in place, but unlike the packs discussed below this system doesn’t add much of anything to the quality of the load carry.  Frameless packs are of course the lightest, simplest option, and when packed well with a modestly light backpacking load can carry very well up towards 30 pounds, but necessitate careful packing and suffer from a lack of versatility.  With no integral padding or bulky stuff to provide structure a frameless pack isn’t going to carry too well with a wad of cams on board or skis strapped on.  They’ll remain a niche item and continue to be marginalized as the systems discuss below continue to get lighter.

IMG_0464This pack, which I discussed here, is built to accept a folded 3/8″ foam pad in an internal, velcro-d sleeve.  Not the lightest arrangement, but a very versatile one.

For this reason, frameless packs with a pad sleeve are far more common and popular.  Even though packs like the Cilogear 30 liter worksack rely on a 1/4″ sheet of stiff foam folded in half and nothing more, they often represent just enough non-discriminatory support to work well enough in most situations.  Stiff foam well contained with a good hipbelt can carry a lot of weight.  Just as with truly frameless packs, when packed well such that the load forms a sort of frame the weak point of the system will often be the belt-user interface.  Without contour to the back of the pack, there are often gaps which reduce the ability of the hipbelt to work properly.  Under ideal circumstances these packs can approach or even exceed the 30 pound mark, but often circumstances are not ideal, making these packs suited to either plain backpacking, as discussed above, or to varied activities with far lighter loads.  My pack pictured here is almost always used with weights less than 20 pounds.

I have a number of ideas on how to make a hipbelt work more efficiently with such packs, but given how effective and light true frames currently are, I can’t see myself prioritizing these projects any time soon.

OHM_2-0_Backpack_MainVersion 1 of the ULA Ohm, photo from the NOC.

The logical extension of using a foam pad in a pocket to enhance load carry is to use very light frame components to do the same job for less weight.  A stiffer foam pad is multi-use, but the pad and associated fabric and velcro can easily add six ounces.  Lightly framed packs try to maintain a weight close to that of frameless packs, but with more effective load transfer which works with a wider variety of loads and load shapes.  My favorite example here is the original version of the ULA Ohm, pictured above.  The Ohm added a bit of size, load lifters and a carbon hoop along the perimeter of the back panel to the CDT, at the cost of 8 ounces  (18 to 26).  Though it was replaced by the Ohm 2.0, which added a much larger and heavier (5 oz) belt, the original Ohm has remained an enduring classic because not because it’s raw upper carry limit was so high, but because it carried so well across a variety of weights and settings.

There are many such packs on the market, and they’re justifiably popular because they provide a good blend of light weight and forgiving load carry.  The most effective system will depend on variations in anatomy to a large extent, and is a question too large to address well today.  Rather, the more relevant question is when to distinguish between a lightly framed pack and a fully framed, traditional internal.  Over at BPL a number of years ago Will Rietveld proposed that this distinction be made by stating that internal frame packs have a direct connection between the frame (usually stays) and the hipbelt.  It’s a useful idea, but one with enough grey area that as a diagnostic tool it’s almost useless.

hunting_frameKifaru Duplex frame, from Kifaru, International.

The best example of the classic internal frame is the Kifaru Duplex frame, shown here.  Two stays, shaped to the users back, insert into sleeves from the bottom and are held in place by pockets sewn into the base of the removable hipbelt.  The shoulder straps adjust for length via webbing and a buckle which run parallel to the stays.  A comprehensive pictorial overview of the system can be found here.  With only enough fabric to hold the stays in place and enough foam to prevent point pressure between the user and the stays, the Kifaru suspension is almost as direct as is possible

Of course, many good designs use a mediated version of this system for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the extra weight and complication added by Kifaru’s hinged lumbar pad.  The classic Dana Designs internals used a single aluminium stay which inserted from the top and ran into the lumbar pad, behind which the hipbelt attached via velcro.  Hyperlight Mountain Gear, a lighter and more relevant example of an internal frame pack, uses two thin stays which insert from the top into two sleeves inside the pack.  The sleeves are stitching through padding into the non-removable belt (aside from the Ice Pack).  The lack of direct connection in the HMG system has proven to be a limiting factor, and saw the addition of a framesheet in the 4400 series of packs to better stabilize things (at the cost of ~6 ounces).

IMG_3550The Unaweep from Paradox Packs.

The material and padding required to optimize the connection between the hipbelt and the stays of an internal frame pack are a liability, and amount to weight which only serves one purpose.  Oddly enough, a far simpler and lighter system has been around for decades, the full wrap belt bolted directly to the frame which has been a haulmark of external frame packs ever since the original Keltys.

Externals died out just about everywhere aside from moose hauling a long time ago, due to fashion and the bulky, often lurch-prone frames (often 15 inches wide and close to 30 tall).  Their belt system is still the best available, and when Seek Outside figured out how to shrink the frame and introduce flexibility into the system without degrading load transfer, they invented something I’ve been very excited about for the last 15 months.  The Paradox Packs really aren’t internals, and really aren’t externals either, but rather a hybrid of both, and simply put, a major evolutionary step in pack design which goes a long way towards making internal frames irrelevant.

IMG_1306My current project pack; making the Paradox system as light and sleek as possible.  When suspension this robust adds less weight than most internal frames, there is no downside.

I think the most interesting developments in packs during the years to come will be in the areas between the old categories.  How do you make a pack which is almost as light and simple as a frameless pack, but offers better and more versatile load carrying abilities?  (Not yet answered.)  How do you get a pack which will carry anything you can, and do it while being sleek, flexible with light loads, and less than 4 pounds?  (Buy a Unaweep.)  Because of new technologies and the diverse range of influences and demands, pack development is enjoying a golden age at present, and we get to be around to see it.

Silicone seam sealing

Silicone-impregnated (read: coated on both sides) nylon is one the of most significant outdoor gear innovations of the last 15 years. Previously polyurethene (PU) coated fabrics were the only game in town. PU tends to be heavier, and degrades significantly when exposed to UV light and abrasion. Floor delamination was a common cause of tent retirement, often happening when everything else was still in good shape. Silnylon has a much longer service life, is lighter, and is relatively inexpensive.

One major downside is that no one has yet invented a tape which can be used to waterproof the seams of a silnylon shelter, so you’ll have to do it yourself. The following technique is in my opinion by far the best, and as discussed has other uses beyond seam sealing.

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Pictured above is everything you’ll need aside from the shelter in question: mineral spirits, clear silicone sealer, a small glass jar with a lid, and a small foam paint brush.  You must use traditional mineral spirits.  The idea here is that the spirits dissolve the silicone, it is painted into the seam in suspension, and becomes part of the shelter as the spirits evaporate.  I bought non-toxic pseudo-spirits once, and they did not dissolve the silicone.  Same story with various forms of alcohol.

The first step is to squeeze out a good dollop of silicone into the jar, then add mineral spirits  (I use a 1:5 ratio, approximately), close the lid, and shake vigorously for a few minutes until the silicone is completely dissolved.

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The result should look like this, an opaque liquid which is a fair bit thicker than water, but still far from being a paste or gel.  Once this is achieved, simply paint the mixture into the seams with a foam brush.  A little goes a long way, but use a bit of pressure and back and forth to work it into the stitches and folds in the seam.

Obviously, you want to do this on the outside of the shelter.

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Once you’ve gone over the seam and it’s had ~10 minutes to dry, it should look like this.  The sealer will cure to the touch in a few hours, and completely within 24.  By that time the sealing will be all but invisible.  This technique adds far less weight, and is far faster and cleaner than using the Silnet sealer sold in outdoor stores.  If your shelter came with Silnet you can thin it down using this procedure, just use a bit less mineral spirits.

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Seam sealing in winter comes with a few challenges.  First, silicone cures best in warmer temperatures, so even if you have a clear day to work outside it’s best to do it indoors unless it’s quite warm.  You want dry air and temps above 60F.  Second, the fumes here are not too noxious, but it’s ideal to have a heated yet well-ventilated space like a garage or basement with a large door.  Third, you need to figure out a way to keep the seams hanging free of folds for their full length while they cure.  Setting up the shelter properly with full tension can make things easier, but is not necessary.

Lastly, this technique can be used to enhance to rebuild the waterproofing of a silnylon shelter.  The silicone coating will degrade over time, faster with heavy use, and it’s conceivable that well-traveled shelters, especially those seeing lots of the UV exposure and even more especially those made from lesser quality sil will mist under heavy, windblown precipitation.  Misting is of course a polite term for diffuse leaking, which is not desirable.  Not all silnylons are the same, and without diving into the miasma which is hydrostatic head figures, it is fair to say that some companies charge more for their product because they use better materials.  Feel the material; the waxier, thicker, more substantial coatings of good silnylon is easy to recognize.  The more crinkly the fabric, the worse it probably is in this respect.  Thankfully, if you bought a shelter with less-than-ideal materials you can easily bring it up to snuff by using the above method to make a lot of formula, and painting the whole shelter.

Have fun.

The importance of Mehl

I first met Luc Mehl way back in August of 2010, when I was living in Missoula, Luc came down to visit his brother, and thanks to the wonders of the ‘net and friends of friends we met up with Forrest McCarthy and packrafted the Selway.

I was nervous because I’d owned a packraft for all of 2.5 months at that point, but other than that it was a pretty routine excursion.  Luc, as vaguely seen in this photo was running a very overstuffed OR compression sack backpack which truly was a glorified grocery bag.  I didn’t pause to think of how, crap strapped to the outside not withstanding, it was an absurdly small bag for a packrafting trip.  When we stopped for the evening after walking all day, having found Moose Creek far too low for boating, I finally began to understand the Luc was/is not normal.

Forrest had a Golite Shangrila 3, and both Forrest and I had conventional sleeping pads and bags.  Luc had a torso sized foam mat, light puffy jacket and pants, and raingear.  He said he’d sleep by the fire, which seemed like a ridiculous choice even before it started to rain and got dark.  I did little more than shake my head, say “whatever dude” and go to bed.

IMG_0729Luc Mehl lecturing at The Trailhead in Missoula, MT.

It’s apparently been Luc’s m.o. for a while to assume that anything south of Alaska is, outside winter, so warm by comparison that he doesn’t need a sleeping bag.  Mid-summer in the Bob this makes sense, and Luc’s done some big hiking and packrafting traverses there before the golden age of Alpacka came upon us, the details of which are apparently so insignificant Luc can’t recall things like which rivers he actually floated.  Late summer on the Selway it got pretty cold, but Luc seemed to have slept well, and out paddled me easily the next day.  Going without a sleeping bag during the summer Classic is of course routine, though reportedly the approach worked less well in Mexico, especially sleeping at 15,000 feet.

The point is not that Luc is a masochist, which may partly be true, but that he’s managed to cultivate a particularly refined sense of what is a physical necessity insofar as his performance out in the wilderness is concerned, and what is merely for psychological support.  For most of us most of the time this isn’t a distinction we can see well, if at all, and no matter how sanguine you might be it’s likely always a factor.  But as Luc said repeatedly at his talk Wednesday night, the value of wilderness travel in demanding circumstances is that it strips away the secondary fears which are usually all that is available to look at.

The primary fears which lie at that core of your decision-making are almost always more complex and subjective than the secondary fears which are most often discussed.  Will I get lost/run out of food/be eaten by a bear/not make it through the snow? becomes with greater insight Will I get more cold/tired/stressed than I’ve been before and am confident of managing based on past precedent?  This is not to deny that objective hazards like avalanches, rapids, and cliffs don’t pose real dangers, but it is to assert that safety has relatively little to do with on-the-ground reality and almost everything to do with having the mental resources to put forth your best abilities in the moment.

This is why I bailed on the Wilderness Classic back in 2012, because I was scared enough that I knew I’d fuck up (more than I already had).  I had the skills and gear, but not the head.  Maybe I do today, but I’ll have to go back to find out.

When I arrived at Luc’s house for the 2011 Classic he was in the midst of recovering from his Denali Traverse, had just created his website, and was editing the Denali video, learning Final Cut in the process.  Buying that fat Canon DSLR was a massively influential purchase, because it made what Luc knows accessible.  The success of his films in the last three years has not been a surprise, and has been a pleasure to observe.

What Luc knows is that adventure begins and ends in the mind.  He also knows that we’re capable of drastically more adventurous things than we usually assume, even after quite a lot of time spent out there.  His example, and especially the sensitive and non-self-aggrandizing way he tells his stories, have been hugely influential for me.  It’s not going to be easy to be like Luc, but he makes it plain that with the requisite dedication and bravery you could.

I’d not seen Luc speaking with a capitol P until a few days ago, and was not surprised that he did exceedingly well.  He has fantastic photos and video, and as mentioned above a great way of telling us about them, to say nothing of a story very much worth telling.  He framed the journey of Wilderness Classics to Denali to Logan to now in terms of Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow; that an ideal wilderness trip takes a space somewhere along the line between control and flow, with occasional sojourns into arousal.  This is a moving target as skill (and one’s ability to consistently operate closer to the actual ceiling thereof) is constantly changing.  Optimizing reward on and of a trip is tied up in two parallel processes, maximizing flow by matching terrain (challenge) to skill, and best understanding as exactly as possible where your control/flow boundary lies.  Do these things and you’ll have a lot of fun, in the deeper sense.

The alternate, simultaneous function of introspection here is to better understand your flow/arousal and arousal/anxiety boundaries.  Luc touched on this, which is the issue of safety and risk assessment.  Taking for granted, as I think it’s easy and proper to do, that dying out in the woods “doing what you loved” is not desirable, balancing risk and reward becomes a major part of the conversation.  Csikszentmihalyi tells us we can’t have true satisfaction without risk, and while I think that skill is a more complex phenomenon in application than is usually admitted, that we flirt with death when we go after reward is inarguable.

Luc concluded that one answer is to ratchet back the risk-reward edge once you’ve gotten close to it.  He had an intense summer in 2012, with getting caught in an avalanche on Logan and an extraordinary performance in the Classic crammed into a six week stretch.  His trips since have been at least as visionary, his videos at least as poignant, but the level of intensity and exposure to consequence quite a bit lower.  After you’ve been out in the wilderness for long enough, and accumulated a sufficient body of experience, you’ll naturally be drawn to new terrain, and to old terrain in new seasons and conditions.  The temptation to be able to go anywhere in almost any circumstance is tempting, the possibility of an ever fully dialogue with the earth compelling, but there may be some places and some situations which are just too much.  Where and what are these?  No answer will ever be definitive.  Keep thinking, and keep watching Luc, and you’ll keep learning.

Shit that works week: non-black accessories

Black socks and black liner gloves irritate me. Yes, it’s the most universally pleasing color, important if you’re going to make only one available for a low-margin item, and yes it hides dirt. But a pair of black socks, when put into a drawer with six other pairs of black socks, are hard to differentiate, and a single black glove in the depths of a pack or stuff sack is hard to find.

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Which is why I like these lightweight merino socks I bought from Patagonia last year. They’re a nice, dashing red, and the two pairs have been my most-worn socks this year. Not because they’re comfortable and durable (which they are), but because I can always find two of them before I can find two of anything else. I think they’re a little lighter than the current lightweight merino sock, which Patagonia makes in a pleasing variety of bright colors. Alas that Black Diamond did not do so with my current favorite (and out of stock because they’re awesome) light gloves, the Mont Blanc.

Good socks and good gloves are generic lack of other ideas gifts, and while they might be uninspired, they could hardly be more practical.  Socks and liner gloves are disposable items for hard users, and are as vital an appreciated day-to-day as they are unexciting to buy.  The art is getting the right ones for the right person.  I like BD gloves because the mediums fit my skinny fingers well.  I like light, breathable, quick drying socks, so I like those Patagonia socks, and hate Darn Toughs.  If you’re giving these most prosaic of gifts, best do some research first.

Shit that works week: Aquaseal

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Giving the gift of Aquaseal is to the regular outdoorsperson what the gift of socks or quality shaving razors is to anyone else; not exciting, but the pinnacle of practicality.  It is not possible for me to have too much Aquaseal laying around.  The uses are virtually innumerable, and too often when I want some the old tube is 1/3 full and mostly solidified.  That’s the genius of Aquaseal, it’s an air-cure urethene glue, as well as the most frequent determinant of shelf life.  So if you need a plainly unexpected gift this season, look no further.

The obvious uses of Aquaseal are as well known as they are important: seam sealing anything with a PU coating (not Sil!), adding traction stripes to the bottom of an inflatable sleeping pad (or the top), protecting stitch lines on shoes from abrasion, even gluing stuff on your packraft (though official urethene glues are more permanent), and of course patching holes in anything inflatable.  My new favorite use, told to me by the folks at Seek Outside, is to thin it with a bit of mineral spirits, put said slurry in a syringe, and inject-seal the seams on your backpack.

I’m not even going to say it again.

The future of ultralight packs

The future of ultralight backpacks is a ~45 liter bag made of materials which will last multiple years under all but the most abusive use, carry 50 pounds easily, and weigh a fair bit under 2 pounds.

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The future is just about here.  I do need to bend the frame a bit to get those  shoulder straps in better contact.

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This is my latest build on the Paradox frame and hipbelt. This is the standard 24″ tall frame, which I’ve cut to be 3/4″ narrower than the stock 14. The belt is the same one I’ve used for almost everything over the past 15 months. The camo fabric is X33 (simply the best all-around pack fabric available today), the black VX42, the green check 210 denier gripstop from Thruhiker.

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The baffled back pocket floats, only attached via the four compression straps. The Paradox talon system has made me a full convert to this feature; as you can use it to carry everything from a wet jacket to 5 foot pieces of firewood.

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The solution to properly places compression straps and side pockets which are useful is to put a slot in the pocket. Compare the two preceding photos.

The parallel 3/8″ webbing daisy chains are an obligatory feature, they make secondary lashing of just about anything under the compression pocket possible, and facilitate ideal attachment to the bow of a packraft.  The bartacks are sunk into a doubled patch of fabric inside the main bag, making for one layer of webbing and three layers of fabric, total.  The fabric will fail around the tack before the stitching will rip.

My favored way to make pack bags is to use three pieces of fabric; one for the bottom, one for the back panel (against the user), and another for the sides and front. The seam between the later two, which seems to take the most stress, is triple stitched, bartacked in the right places, then felled and stitched and tacked again. The bottom pieces is sewn on last, and seam sealed fairly heavily by hand-rubbing Aquaseal in. The side seams are sealed lightly. I’ve gone to using full 1 inch seam margins for all of this, a big part of the motivation for which is that I’m finally, after 5 years and 30+ packs, making things I know I’ll want to have around for a long time.

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The frame is held in place by the bottom flap.  The flap is tiny, and more to put a layer between the webbing and the ground than anything else.  The generous travel between flap and buckle allows the bottom to be sucked down aggressively, which is key to carrying heavy, dense, smallish loads (like game meat) properly.  A single drain grommet is hidden behind the flap.

A three piece bag design like this one allows for limited options to manipulate the shape of the bag.  From a design and construction standpoint it’s easy to just make a rectangular bottom, which also has the virtue of being easy to load as well as maximizing space in the bag.  A squared-off bottom also hangs up on ledges and logs as you’re climbing around, as is high on my list of most-hated backpack features.  It should surprise no one that this list is not short.

It’s difficult to see, but the bottom of this pack is tapered both in and up.  The bottom edge in the above photo is 13″ wide, finished.  The top edge is 10″.  More hidden is the three inches of vertical rise between the same two points, which over the six inch depth of the pack at the bottom is quite a lot.  The cumulative effect can be seen in the first two photos: the pack lack hard edges in any direction.  Such a design is harder to pack well with rigid objects, but is also much less likely to get caught on stuff out there in the wild.

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It seems I always come back to a drawstrong top with a single top strap (two for packs in excess of 40″ upper circumference) as the most utilitarian closure.  It’s simple and maximizes space, and allows odd things like paddle shafts and deer hooves to stick up and out as needed.

A top strap with a hook buckle is darn handy.  This one can be attached to either the loop on the bag or the loop on the pocket, without any extra buckles flapping around.

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To help this one be a bit more waterproof, I slanted it a bit.  The user-side edge is 3 inches taller, and can be folded over a bit when the pack is full.  I don’t fuss about an absolutely waterproof pack, just one which keeps most precip out and gains minimal weight in the process.

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The key to all of this is of course the Paradox frame.  The VX42 sleeves seen above, and the double layered (inner VX42, outer gridstop) pockets at the top are the only things added to the basic bag. Minimizing the extent and weight of frame-related elements is the key to making a truly light pack which can carry a lot of weight.

Start with the Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet, a bag similar in size and features to the one shown here and generally regarded as the pinnacle of frameless rucksacks. The Prophet is made of a lighter main material, similar shoulder straps, and with no frame whatsoever. The Prophet is claimed at 16 ounces. The next step up in the comparison are packs like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla, ULA Ohm, and HMG 2400 series. As I detailed earlier today all are around the same size, have similar features, and possess suspensions which cost a similar increase in weight over the Prophet (~14 ounces). I have reason to suspect that the 27 ounce total weight I originally quoted for the pack pictured here is inaccurate (our postal scale has finally gone round the bend), but I do know that stepping up to a comparably sized pack which matches or exceeds the load capacity requires an exponential increase in weight. To wit, the now discontinued Timberline 3 from Kifaru, which weighs 4.5 pounds.

I’ve used this pack to pack out two deer (albeit modest distances), and thus know that it takes loads a good deal above 50 pound to render the lack of load lifters a problem, given that the torso is properly sized.  That there is nothing more than a single layer of fabric between your back and the cargo demands a similar packing style to a frameless pack, you just have considerably enhanced load bearing ability and a massively supportive belt to go along with it.  I’ll probably use it for the Bob Open next year, day hunting next fall, any backpacking which doesn’t involve a massive load, and a few gear intensive daytrips.  This pack feels like the culmination of years of work, and a truly large step above that first pack back in the day.

It is, as they say, shit that works.

Shit that works week: a Flat Tarp

There is no substitute for a simple, flat (no curve in the center seam), rectangular tarp. It is the most versatile and pleasing of backcountry shelters.

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But I’ll get ants in my pants! Don’t camp on an anthill, genius. If the skeeters are bad camp on high ridges, gravel bars in wide valleys, and little high points in the midst of big meadows (see below). If the bugs are really bad bring along a 3 ounces Nano.

But I’ll get wet when the rain blows!  No kidding.  Vary your pitch and most of the time, even with a smaller tarp, you’ll be fine.  Sometimes you’ll get it wrong and have to get up in the rain and repitch, which sucks and will make you better.  If the weather is going to be really bad make sure you can camp down in some trees or pack a mid instead.

Need further convincing?  Joery wrote the definitive account back in 2011.

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My flat tarp is 70 inches wide and 80 inches long, which isn’t quite long enough.  I built it out of spinnaker fabric I got cheap, and had to run what I got.  This summer I committed sacrilege and put a wall on one end, giving up versatility for a little more weather protection.  For a tarp which will be a sleeping shelter for one and a cook tarp for 2-4, 6 to 7 feet wide and 9 to 10 feet long is a good size.  Do not skimp on tieouts, especially a few in the middle of the ridgeline.

If I were to buy myself a tarp today, I’d get an Oware 1.8 flat tarp in silnylon.  12 ounces, 90 bucks, and 12 tieouts in all the right places.  The well known ability of silnylon to sag over the course of a steady downpour is a drag, and the fact that my spinnaker tarp doesn’t do this is awesome, but I’d have a hard time paying 215 dollars (Zpacks) or more for a similar tarp in cuben, even if it is half the weight.

Used as a primary shelter a tarp will build skills and foster a neater, closer camping style.  Used as a utility item a simple tarp is good as a tent vestibule, picnic shelter, sun shade, and drop cloth to keep bloody game bags off everything else in your trunk.  Everyone should have one.

Shit that works week: Suunto Observer

Over eight years ago I paid 300 dollars for this watch, which seemed like the height of self-indulgence. M and I had just moved to Arizona for my first truly adult job, and were living in a spacious duplex which was almost empty. We had moved out with a full Xterra and 3 bikes on the roof, so we ate on the floor, slept on a Cordless crash pad, and the bikes had the two-stall garage all to themselves.

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Two of those three bikes have been sold or given away since, but my Observer is on my wrist every day without fail. The stainless finish and aesthetic is handsome, but not overly so, and works with both suits and muddy hiking clothes. As can be seen it’s accumulated plenty of scratches, but aside from a battery change every 20-24 months and ditching the stock band (which chaffed) for a cheesy velcro one I’ve done nothing to it and never had a problem. The waterproofing has certainly met all claims. It tells time accurately, and has a stopwatch, compass, and barometer, all of which I almost never use. What I do use weekly is the altimeter. It’s a barometric altimeter, which means it needs to be recalibrated to a known altitude periodically. If this is done multiple times a day the result is exceptional accuracy; it was one of the secrets to Team Bill and Dave’s success at the Grizzlyman Adventure Race, and along with a paper map and decent compass is one of the only three tools you need for backcountry navigation in any condition.

What the Observer doesn’t have is almost as important as what it does have. It does not have any GPS or HRM function. Also, unlike almost every other Suunto watch, it does not follow the Batman school of fashion accessories. The Observer is no bigger than many men’s watches, making it one of the more stealthy pieces of technical outdoor gear. You can wear it everywhere, just in case. Suunto has not made the Observer in quite some time, but the X-Lander seems to have all the same features in a similar (albeit not as visually pleasing) package. The MSRP hasn’t changed in 8 years, either.

A watch like the Observer makes a good statement in the front country or backcountry. In either case it can be deployed as a good reminder that civilized people leave their phones, in the former case in their pockets unless they have a call, and in the later back in the fucking car.