Astral again

Last summer I bought what ended up being one of my favorites shoes ever; the Astral Brewer.  All of the limitations, and virtues, I noted in my review last summer have held true.  The lack of a little extra structure in the sides of the forefoot has gotten me pinched on numerous occasions.  The lack of a heal counter hasn’t been an issue while walking, but has threatened to pull the shoe off a few times in both mud and thick brush.  The rubber is very good, but the tread can be sketchy in mud and downright scary on loose over hardpack.  And while the upper fabric has manged over the past year, it doesn’t have much life left.

And I don’t really care, because the combo of zero drop, the right stiffness, and plenty of toe room is simply sublime, and simply not available in many other shoes.


So I invested in the TR1 Merge, Astral’s midtop hiking shoe.  The tread pattern is more aggressive, the midsole 5mm thicker, the toe and heel have a rand, and the upper has a bit of padding in the ankle and tongue.  Weight, for my size 12, is 14.1 oz per shoe.


The Merge does not have a heel counter, but on first glance the rand and doubled fabric provides a nice degree of stability the Brewer lacks.  It will be interesting to see if this breaks down at all.  I’m quite excited about the lightly padded ankle coverage, in a nonwaterproof package that doesn’t pretend to roll abrasion protection into the ephemeral notion of “support”.  I’m bummed by the thin stripes of pure foam in the sole, as the non-rubber areas of the Brewer have made for a few pokey experiences with cactus.

Overall, I could hardly be more excited.  Shoes over the past 5 years have only seem to come with more and more compromises for backpackers who like stout, minimalist shoes.  Exceptions are a big deal.


Distance learning

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning the new, or newly rediscovered, hikers and bikers and outdoorspeople the pandemic has brought out of rooms amongst the trees.  It is logical, and I see it as an extension of the last decades trend of increased outdoor participation in profile, if not as a percentage of the US population in fact.  The OIA 2019 report is padded, as it has been for at least a decade, with activities such as jogging and rv camping which take place outdoors but are not generally associated with the wild.  This last is important because some of the recent discussion concerning outdoor newbies has been about mentoring, and learning.

Part of me wants to welcome them all.  The other part of me wants to scream how members of the tribe can possibly, when we have yet to pass beyond the immediacy of how over-socialized our world is, get things so wrong.  Especially in the age of the internet, when instructions on every mechanics is easy to find.

I spent my whole childhood in southwestern Ohio.  Whenever I’ve returned, especially in the past decade, the logic of the landscape is jarring.  I learned to climb in a gym, learned to hike on vacations and in the strings of woods which clung to creeks around town, and when things got technical I turned to books.  Basic knots from the BSA hankbook, tracks and plants from all of Tom Brown, klemheist and biner block from Freedom of the Hills.  We never got enough snow to self arrest, but by high school had one BD X-15, a drill bit glued to the hole in a claw hammer, and ancient Salewa 12 points in hiking boots and “discovered” the 25 foot vertical ice pillars which formed on the spillway in our local big woods state park.  It was equal parts this DIY period so far from anything and my poorly-acknowledged introverted nature that has kept me on the self-taught path ever since.

Not everyone has this agency growing up, to say nothing of a family system that gives both a safe neighborhood to roam and fancy, fancifully chosen gear for Christmas.  There is a lot to be said, still, for core outdoor adventure being the ultimate encapsulation of first world privilege, in all its expensive and precisely curated discomfort and challenge.  There is a bit less to be said for the high cost of entry to outdoor pursuits.  This doesn’t hold too much water in things like backpacking, where skill and fortitude and thrift stores can provide 9/10s the practicality bought in a $5000 trip to REI.  It does, sadly, in things like boating and cycling, especially the later, which in the past 15 years has seemingly doubled down on eeking more and more profit as the last bastion of unfiltered yuppism.  There is still less to be said for the meritocracy of information, as today the process of learning has never been more accessible.

There is a stupendous amount of crap information, of course, but given that we’re confining the discussion to wilderness pursuits, the judgment learned in discovering bad advice to be what it is is more valuable than the skill of pitching a tent on six feet of snow or climbing a 9 inch offwidth.  My repeated attempts to convey how mindset creates safety are so perseverative precisely because these intangibles are the most valuable and most enduring things I’ve learned from climbing, backpacking, boating, skiing, and everything else.

Montana social distancing update

On Saturday, the first day of our shelter-in-place order, we hardly left our yard.  The day was blue and in the fifties, we oiled lawn furniture and laid a brick walk, and generally waited for our hearts to catch back up.  Yesterday, Little Bear and I ventured forth in the face of the warmest day thus far in 2020.


There were a lot of people out in the woods.  Far more than just the nicest weekend of the year, or the first where dries might catch something, would suggest.  On the way home we visited the grocery store, my first time in a number of weeks, and there too it was difficult to stay 6 feet away from others.


There were plenty of families out wheeling and casting, but a near majority were folks I struggled to believe all live in one house.  The profusion of 3 thirty something guys in a nice boat and one Kuiu item each suggested that for many, significant aspects of life were no different than last week.  I’ve been reading lots this week, trying to get a grasp on the future, something which has included some sharp criticism of American leadership and the American reaction to the corona crisis.  It is difficult to not think that our odd combination of individualism and sociability may well cause my country to struggle, to both follow directions and put the short term under the priority of the long term.  In the store I thought about this cliche, how the new ideal of personal space would suit me fine by default, and what lessons might be learned by months hence by comparing the American reaction to that of a country like Sweden.


Shit that works: Rab Pulse hoody

The newish variations of ~100 gram/meter poly baselayers might be my most loved innovation in gear out of the last five years.  As someone whose larger challenge with thermoregulation almost always has to do with managing sweat, and rather rarely with outright heat generation (or more exactly, lack of it), the way these thin fabrics move moisture while still providing skin protection and some buffering against the weather endear them across close to 100 degrees of temperature swing.  As I wrote back in March, it is one of the first areas I recommend novices spend serious gear funds.

img_8120Sun protection on a very hot, no shade August traverse of the Chinese Wall.

Even though truly light poly has been around for half a decade or more, a hoody made from the fabric, with all the right features and most importantly the right fit, has proven ellusive.  The OR Echo line gets the fabric right, but in true OR style, punts on 50+ % of the salient details.  There are oodles of sun hoodies on the market which have a good hood, and decent or better fit, but for reasons which to this day escape me, almost all are made from heavier, relatively spandex-heavy blends.  Fortunately, this year Rab came to our collective rescue with the Pulse hoody.

On the surface the Pulse fabric is identical the micro-grid Patagonia has used in their lightweight capilene for the past few years.  The Rab fabric has a softer hand, and performance which is significantly divergent.  The current lightweight capilene is tough and dries fast, but has always felt a bit plastic-y, like it is loath to accept ones offering of sweat (rather like the Airshed pullover, but not nearly as severe, a topic for another day).  Plus Patagonia has yet to make a hoody in this fabric.  The Pulse fabric breathes beautifully and is very soft.  On Isle Royale I gladly kept it one for a week straight, with it being as cozy on day 7 as day one.  The fabric combines with the hood and cut to make the Pulse as close to being both a good sun layer and a good cool weather layer as I can imagine being achieved.

The hood is roomy and provides full coverage without getting in my peripheral vision.  I appreciate the clean, light finish provided by the absence of a zipper or closure mechanism.  The baggy finish around the jaw and chin makes for good ventilation in hot weather, but flaps in the wind and lets in the cold.  A button to cinch things up is the compromise I’m trying this winter.

The thumb loops are the best compromise I’ve found between being short enough for use without, while at the same time being able to provide real warmth and hand protection with a natural fit.  Bravo Rab.


Overall fit is a hair on the loose side of regular.  Long sleeves and torso are much appreciated.  I wouldn’t complain if the sleeves were a tiny bit tighter, but I can live with them as is without issue.

The only real fly in the ointment is the durability of the fabric, which hasn’t been stellar.  Granted, my Pulse has seen a lot of serious bushwacking (where the hood is very nice for keeping pine needles out), but on more days than not in the brush, I’ve put a decent hole in it.  For an $80 shirt I’d really prefer better here, but the performance is such that this is for me not a deal breaker.


The Pulse hoody is certainly good enough that I’d gladly trade in 2 or 3 less versatile shirts so I could use it for everything that didn’t involve either serious bug pressure or serious cold.  Ideologically and practically, not having to make a choice when dressing for 80+ % of trips is much appreciated.


Astral Brewer 2.0; the hiking review

Shoe weight matters.  Read all this stuff if you haven’t recently, the most singular point being that the guy with the lightest shoes was the only one who made it all 1000k.  When I was just getting into serious backpacking, about a decade ago, I got the idea that one ought to have a footwear system that was sub 1 pound all up.  With size 11.5 feet and the need for durable shoes this is not yet realistic, at least not with gaiters and insulating socks, but the ideal is a good totem to keep you honest.

All of which begs the question of what you want in a shoe for serious (big miles, off trail, etc) hiking?  Over at BPL RJ recently published an elegant piece about epistemic issues (“As you immerse yourself in an area of study, defining it becomes more nuanced and complex – and irrelevant.”)  in ultralight hiking, concluding that “…ultralight backpacking is a practice centered around the idea that one should solve a problem using as little as possible, but that which is used to solve the problem should be as effective as possible.”  For me that has involved taking the last decade plus to increase my knowledge and my hiking strength, and drill down with ever more precision into what I needed for consecutive days of tough hiking.  Durable uppers for one, with some protection, and a stiff, low, and not overly padded sole with little if any drop, and an aggressive sole pattern.


I’ve been interested in Astral’s shoes since their beginning, and with the number of zero drop or close hiking shoes dwindling with the swings in market fashion I bought a pair of Brewers last month, to try out specifically as a hiking shoe.  The Brewer is intended to be a general boating shoe, with a style and performance that lets it cross over (quite heavily I would suspect) into lifestyle wear.  The sole is sticky, but non-marking, for example, and as M noted the fat toe and contrasting stitching gives you the air of being on a July trip out to Orcas Island.


The twist on evaluating such a shoe today is that I currently hike fewer miles per month than any time in the past decade, or even two.  Backpacking is a demanding activity, and pushing backpacking into more intense realms strips back both illusions concerning the functionality of items, and the many ways in which fitness was previously padding out inadequacies in both gear and technique.

I want to press the Brewers as far as I can as a hiking shoe because the midsole is low (17mm stack) and fairly stiff, while the upper is close to as minimalist as a shoe gets.  There is no heal counter (which will allow for further exploration of the extent to which this is necessary), and very little padding.  One can fold the heel flat and use the shoes as slip ons.  The toe box is broad and Altra-esque, while the tread pattern is largely positive, to maximize contact on slick rocks, but with a grid of large cut outs, enough to clear mild mud and grip in loose soil.  The tread isn’t ideal for Montana hiking, in that it isn’t ideal in steep loose soil and really struggles in mud, but it is more than serviceable.  It’d be an ideal tread pattern for the Colorado Plateau.  The lack of heel counter has not been noticeable, save for a few occasions when mud or deadfall pulled the shoe a bit down on my heel, and I had to wrestle it back on.  It is curious that the shoe could fit this loose and have that degree of movement not really be noticeable even in severe terrain, evidence I suppose that a shoe like this moves with you.  Further pluses are the thick laces, which have been exceptional at staying tied in the face of bushwacking, better than anything else I’ve used.



The one serious downside has been the lack of padding and/or foot protection in the upper.  The recent traverse reminded me how un-sticky limestone talus can be, with the sides of my toes taking a few good hits and pinches that made me wince at my choice of footwear.  The lack of padding does, moreso than the little drains in the toe and heel, make the Brewer dry as fast (and weigh as little) as it does, but there are costs.  The naked fabric low on the upper is also an obvious future failure point, barring the intervention of more aquaseal  My next shoe purchase will likely be the TR1 Merge, to maintain all the virtues of the Brewer and get more foot protection and durability.  A note on sizing: I would consider the Brewer quite short, and bought 12s to get the same room for socks and foot swelling I normally get from 11.5s.

The Brewers appeal to me a great deal, both because they fit my preferences, as because they’re such a lean design.  You can feel the seams in the upper if you get the lacing tension wrong, and they beg to be worn with slightly thicker socks, to pad things out a hair, though on the aformentioned traverse I used uber-thin 100% synthetic cycling socks, and I don’t think a thicker sock would have added that much of a comfort margin.  At the end of 3 days and 60 miles (20 packrafting, ~15 of the 40 foot miles off trail) I was quite done in, and burlier shoes probably would have taken the edge off.  At the same time, it was nice to know exactly how tired I was, and to know how I could appreciate the shoes even more with sharper legs.

RJ also published another piece, about building lifetime hiking fitness, where he recommends a quiver of hiking shoes to train weaknesses as well as provide rest.  In the hiking realm, the Brewers are an outstanding training shoe, one that provides enough structure and protection for demanding hiking, without anything at all that coddles or supports more than needed.  By that definition, a minimalist hiking shoe indeed.


Layering in 2019: insulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boycott Colorado?

Boaters, fisherfolks, and anyone interested in the subtleties of US public land law will know that stream access laws in the western US vary enormously from state to state.  It is worth considering, especially in the age when the “non-consumptive” side of the outdoor industry is finally flexing political muscle, why the issue of stream access has enjoyed comparatively little publicity.


This chart was published in High Country News, and is as a good a single source of current information as any.  HCN is properly reknowned as a lefty, pro-public access publication.  What makes this chart noteworthy is that the information was pulled from the distinctly right-leaning PERC, who don’t bother to hide their bias but nonetheless have accurate information.  In short, Colorado is among the worst when it comes to recognizing public access.  Most egregiously, while the water in a stream is available for public use, where creeks and river pass over private land the riverbed is considered private.  Wade fishing, dropping an anchor, or even hitting a rock can all be construed as trespassing.

I’ve yet to see a compelling argument that such a stance does not conflict with federal law, in that the US Supreme Court has held that the public holds navigable waterways below the ordinary high water mark, and that “streams which are navigable in fact are navigable in law.”  Which is to say that the range of waterways available to the public is very broad indeed, to the point that even the progressive Montana stream access law is not as extensive as it could be.  The only available conclusion, when it comes to Colorado, would seem to be that the state has made a deliberate choice to cater to (generally wealthy) landowners, persistently.

The logical follow-up from that is not why fly fishers are suing in an attempt to overturn Colorado’s law, but why the outdoor industry, as part of their general embrace of Colorado, has not put public pressure on the state to cut this crap out.  OR moved to Colorado for the foreseeable future, and it is almost easier to list the companies not based there.  Scott and Tenkara USA are worth noting, in the fishing realm, along with conglomerates like Exxel Outdoors (Sierra Designs, Ultimate Direction) and private companies like Big Agnes, and yes, Alpacka Raft.  The Packraft Roundup is being held in western Colorado this year, logical due to the proximity to so many more potential floaters and customers, less logical when it comes to the range of waterways and yes, the politics.

One answer is that many of the higher ups in these companies probably have no clue about the state of stream access, in their state and in others.  Last winter I had multiple folks, longish time Colorado residents and visible presences in the outdoor industry, try to convince me that their state did not have an extensive history of being hostile to floaters.   The other is that the outdoor industry, for all their new found piety in public lands advocacy, still defaults to the position of their most prominent association, who in turns lists as one of its most prominent accomplishments defeating an excise tax which would have brought about one of the largest increases in conservation funding in US history.  Pushing back against a nutbag president via telegenic national monuments is one thing; taking a stand closer to home is more difficult.

Perhaps it is time for the outdoor industry, and those whose days and dollars allow it to exist, to put the squeeze on Colorado (and other states) until its public behavior is a little more consistent?

Packraft the Bob, this year

If you don’t live around here doing a packrafting trip in the Bob Marshall is a pain. Western isn’t close to very much, the regional airports tend to be expensive, there isn’t an easy way to get to the trailheads without a rental car, and even then the number of truly good loop routes is fairly small. That said, dream trips are for doing now, and a trip is the Bob is probably a bit cheaper and certainly more suitable to a 2 week or less time frame than Alaska or the NWT.
Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 4.45.17 PM

It also might be a good particularly good year as far as conditions are concerned.  The southern, higher end of the Bob is along with the GYE the snowiest place in the lower 48 at the moment.  While last year proves that a fat winter can be easily undone by a dry and hot summer, the foundation at least exists for an exceptional floating season.  Especially noteworthy is that lower elevation snow in the greater Bob is at 150% or greater of normal, and so long as this isn’t zapped by a late winter thaw this could saturate groundwater and make for a prolonged process of high altitude snow feeding directly into the rivers and keeping them higher for longer.

Perhaps. Our weird short-term climate reflects the uncertainty of life generally, which is why you should read the following, and start planning. If you’re left with any questions, buy the book at get the full data on flow levels and on the best streams and stretches.

Mid-July is the most certain time of year for a good packrafting trip. Unless the winter proves massive and protracted (see 2011-12) the rivers will be tame and on their way to clear, and weather should warm, and the bugs shouldn’t be too bad. Conversely, unless the winter ends with a fizzle mid-July generally produces good flows in everything by the small and early melting waterways.

If you can drive or otherwise have access to two cars, the world is your oyster. I’d highly recommend sucking it up and running a huge car shuttle to facilitate a big traverse. I still haven’t combined the South and Middle Forks into one trip with a nice ridge hike in between, but that would be the obvious candidate. Next best would be entering the South Fork from somewhere along the Swan, and exiting the North Fork of the Sun via Gibson Reservoir. A full run of either the South or Middle Forks are also obvious choices, the later being good for a shorter car spot, bigger whitewater, or for a later summer float.

If you have access to one car, route choice might be dictated by which side of the complex is easier/quicker to access. The loop we did four years ago, in the video, is a hard option to improve upon for an east side option. The one-car Middle Fork is tougher. Down Lodgepole and up Granite is logistically nice, but very light on paddling. Probably better to park at Bear Creek, hitch to the start of the Skyland dirt road, and plan on spending most of your first day road walking to the trailhead. Anyone who comes along that stretch will probably pick you up, but vehicle traffic is not regular or frequent.

The preferred way to do a one-car South Fork loop is to park at Spotted Bear or Meadow Creek, and do as much ridge walking way up high to the east as your legs and time allow.


For those who for financial or aesthetic reasons prefer to go car-less, a few options exist.  Flying into Missoula and hitching up to one of the Ovando-area trailheads is probably quite feasible (ie doable in 4iish hours); that area is also so close and frequently traveled you could probably hire a ride on Craigslist beforehand, or arrange something with one of the river-shuttle and guiding companies in town.  A day or twos hike will put you on the South Fork, 2 days to a weeks float will put you on slack water, and a single hitch will take you to the Flathead, where you could either fly home or get on the bus back to Missoula.  Hitching south out of the Flathead to a trailhead in the Swan would seem a bit more complicated, but I know folks who have done it.  Amtrack runs along the northern boundary of the Bob, and could be used as either access from Whitefish, or even as farther distant transport from Seattle or even Chicago.  None of the stops (East Glacier, Essex) are enormously convenient for the start of a trip, but could be made to work by those with an extra day for walking or floating.  Walking in along the CDT from East Glacier is fun and scenic walking, though it takes a while to get to the good water.


As for me, 2017 was the first year since I got a packraft that I didn’t float in the Bob at all, though I got plenty of non-Bob floating (and Bob hiking) in trade.  I have a short but prominent list of pieces of water I haven’t floated, as well as the glaring omission of Little Bear still having not done a packrafting trip in the Bob.  I hope to sort out both of those this year, as well as revisit some old favorite friends.  Hopefully the snow keeps piling up and lingers long into May and June.

Upper Level Stream Crossings, updated

A post Philip put up the other day temporarily boosted traffic to this post from 2013, prompting me to give it a re-read.  One of the best things about this website is being able to delve into the past and get a little taste of what my life was like then.  In this case, coming off an excellent and intense Bob Open course.  It’s also nice to read my old words and agree almost entirely with both what I said and how I chose to say it.  I’m bumping that old post for those who may not have been around back then (the comments are illustrative), reposting a revised and amended version below.  It has been a big snow year across much of the American West, and those venturing out in the Northern Rockies or Sierras this spring and summer will likely have to deal with stream crossings a bit above their comfort level.  My thoughts on the subject might help some.

R0020217Minor stream crossing, Bob Open 2016.  A bit over knee deep for 2-3 steps, but fast, very cold, and slick.  Technique wise and especially mentally this sort of crossing is right where many folks start feeling challenged, and where the conventional wisdom comes up short.

Upper level stream crossings can mean two different, but not mutually exclusive things: moving water crossings higher than the knee of the person walking, and crossings far from the assistance of others. Discussed below are several levels of analysis one should bring to such things.

The more I think about the subject of difficult river crossings, the more I chat with and see how people cope with such things in the Bob Open and elsewhere, and the more I read articles like the one mentioned above, the more I am convinced that the mental distinction is more important than the physical one.  I’ve often felt scared contemplating a river crossing, but I’ve never come close to falling while doing one, which I think reflects both the importance of minding ones fear as well as the extent to which that fear won’t (and in wilderness shouldn’t) push us too close to our limits.  Philip says that he doesn’t do stream crossings much more than knee deep, which is a reasonable distinction to draw for ones self, especially in slick and cobble-y New England.  The conventional wisdom on stream crossings, which he sums up well, is made for that kind of approach.

I do not think the conventional wisdom makes much sense for tougher crossings when solo or in a small group.  Frankly, few people have much if any experience with the stuff I discuss below, which would be fine if (unlike the commentor/spammer in the original post) they recognized that and held their tongue.  Just because someone (myself included) claims to know something doesn’t mean they aren’t full of crap.  Judge for yourself.

IMG_1330Swift, cobbled, and flooded.  I swam the lake upstream.

Preparation and assessment is important. It may not be realistic to have a list of all potentially problematic crossings and their solutions, but in the age of satellite photos there is little reason to not do your best.

Volume is the first and most obvious factor. In the lower 48 there is a good chance that some river or creek in the drainage basin has a gauge on it. Find out how close to flood that stream is often running at the time of year you plan to be there.

The drainage basin is the second factor. How big is the basin, what percentage of the aforementioned river volume does it constitute? Insofar as many problem crossings have to do with snow melt, what is the altitude and aspect of this basin? South facing stuff will melt out faster under solar influence, and so forth. Different altitudes melt out at different times. Estimate how much water might be coming down a particular drainage.  Correlating melt with flows become more problematic the further one gets from the snow in question.  Desert river, for example, react very differently than mountain streams.  The largest body of past data is your best hope, even if it doesn’t give much certitude.

Gradient has a massive influence on difficulty, as folks the other weekend found out.  All other things being equal, steeper is harder, both because the water will be faster and because the channel will probably be narrower and thus harder to move up and down.

Vegetation can have an influence on crossing difficulty, insofar as burnt trees can end up in larger drainages and provide bridges.  Not a good thing to count on, for reasons to be addressed.

Geology is perhaps the more important factor, perhaps moreso than volume and drainage (if only because that datas use will depend on previous on the ground experience).  The surface under your foot will make an enormous difference in strategy.  A fast, waist deep crossing with a uniform gravel bottom is pretty easy.  The same on basketball to microwave granite cobbles is terrifying.

Find this stuff out before you go.  Sat photos will even allow for site-specific scouting in many cases.  If the photos are recent that awesome log jam might even still be there.  If you don’t think you’re ready to confront the ambiguities which might come up, don’t go.

IMG_6492Slick cobbles and opaque water are a bad combination.

Once you’ve done your homework and selected a route with crossings that are in theory doable, it is time to put things into practice on the ground.

I’m not a big fan of the conventional wisdom which says to keep your pack loose and unbuckled.  It is true that a big pack (>1/5 body weight) will make it tough to get up if you go down in fast water.  It is also true that unless you’ve done some serious training, such a pack will make a hard crossing much harder simply by virtue of added weight.  Having it loose and floppy will only make this worse.  I’ve also never been especially clear what you’re supposed to do if you shuck your pack in a crossing.  Look for it downstream?  Keep essentials in your pockets and have a long, hungry walk out?  Better to keep a light pack, keep your pack on and well cinched, and if you must carry a big pack (hunting, field research) factor that into trip planning.  You might need to take a different route, or go at a different time of year, or bring more people and/or different gear.

Any upper level crossing requires special preparations before you get wet.  Putting on shell clothing and perhaps a warm hat or vest won’t keep you from feeling the cold water, but it will blunt the shock and save some body heat and function should the crossing take longer than you think, or if you go under.  Removing socks and clothing makes no sense unless conditions are quite warm.  Everything which needs to should be sealed in waterproof bags in your pack, and the pack should be compressed tight.  You want the pack to be as low profile as possible should the water come past your crotch, and you want the pack to absorb as little water weight as possible.  You should trap some air in your dry bags and/or pack liner, but not too much. Some buoyancy in the pack will help in particularly deep water, but too much will make it harder to keep your head up if you have to swim.  Ideally, some practice beforehand will help you tune this.   Lastly, it’s a good idea to have some essentials in waterproof storage in your person.  Firestarters, headlamp, map, and a few snacks.  Whatever you’d need for self-extraction should you have to discard your pack.

It hardly needs to be said that crossing specific shoes like sandals and crocs are not appropriate.  You want the best traction possible for difficult conditions, so just get your shoes wet.  One pole is a good idea, provided it is stiff enough to take body weight.  Two poles are harder to control.  Remove larger pole baskets, as they cause problematic drag.  Clothing, especially pants, should be trim for the same reasons.  Even when soaked WPB boats and heavier pants don’t add that much weight, and won’t pull you down like an anchor.  If there is any chance you might swim, added flotation is a necessity.  A basic snorkeling vest takes up little space, can be worn with a pack, and provides an adjustable amount of flotation in the correct location to keep you head up should you swim.  If it provides enough peace of mind to allow you to perform near your best, it is a worthy addition.

Crossing strategy will be determined by the environmental factors mentioned above, in combination with your own mental and physical abilities.  Scouting for a location can take some time under difficult circumstances.  In the lower 48, most trail fords have been wisely placed, as the requirements of pack trains and hikers are much the same.  It’s worth reading Andrew and Jon’s Open reports for their accounts (and Jon’s photo) of crossing Lodgepole Creek.  As can be seen from the map, Lodgepole doesn’t have too much gradient.  It does have a big basin, and small slick cobbles on the bottom.  Greg Gressel crossed at the lowest spot right above the river, which is steeper and a bit shallower.  Greg lost his feet on that one.  I crossed at the main trail crossing, which is longer but gave me a longer window of recovery before being swept into the Middle Fork.  Andrew, Chris and Jon crossed on a log not far below the upper trail, and bushwacked a good ways back to the lower trail to get on route.  Their thought process, that the upper crossing might be gentler, was a good one.  Lodgepole was just blown out with a lot of melt coming out of its big, south facing basin.  There was no truly easy crossing option.

I crossed Lodgepole facing upstream, with a single stiff trekking pole lengthened to around 135cm.  I had both hands and a lot of body weight on the pole.  The last 1/4 was the deepest and fastest.  For the first 3/4 I angled upstream, while for the last 1/4 I let the current take each step a little backwards.  I put my foam PFD on for this crossing.

I prefer to make upper level crossings facing downstream whenever possible.  Fighting the current by facing upstream takes a lot of energy and is slower, prolonging exposure to cold and further sapping physical and mental energy.  However, foot entrapment is a huge safety concern during high crossings, and for this reason I face upstream and strive for deliberate foot placements when dealing with cobbled and boulder-bottomed streams.  If you loose the upstream fight against the current, pivot quickly and face downstream, tap dancing frantically to keep toes clear of crevices.  For most crossings in the Bob and Glacier this is my favored method.

For crossings with graveled, sandy, or muddy bottoms, a strong diagonal facing downstream is a my preferred method.  A stronger current will increase the ratio of downward to sideways travel.  Lean upstream into the current and drive your heels in, propelling yourself sideways and allowing the current to force you downstream.  Below crotch level this technique is pretty trivial.  Once your pack and butt are underwater the force of the current will speed up the process quite a bit, and by the time your ribs get wet you’ll likely be in intermittent contact with the floor.  This is fine, maintain directional velocity and go with the flow.  If/when you loose your feet for a while, lean into a backstroke and enjoy the flotation provided by your pack.

This technique works well for rivers and streams with muddy bottoms and quicksand, as your never putting too much pressure on any foot, and can lean back into the current for leverage when pulling a foot free.  I’ve used the downstream diagonal technique with good results often, and in many places.  Both Thorofare and Mountain Creeks, in Yellowstone during this trip, yielded to carefully finding the clearest way across the inevitable deep channel, then doing a quick and deliberate downstream stride/shuffle/glide across.  The surprisingly deep crossings of the Escalante during this trip succumbed to the same technique, and speed was important because on those chilly short days managing cold exposure was a serious safety issue.

Scouting a good crossing is vital.  Shallower water, good bottom conditions, and most especially plenty of clear water downstream.  Sweepers, strainers, and rapids should be well avoided.  Whatever your margin for error, double it.  For waterways where silt impedes visibility, caution is warranted and effective difficulty level goes up considerably.

IMG_1160Tapeats Creek, Grand Canyon.  On this October trip not deep, but swift and in places the only option between rock walls.  My mother was nervous, so we gave her plenty of support during the extended downstream wading sections.

The most difficult crossings will be those which do not offer good options.   One example was 25 Mile Creek during the Bob Open back in 2013.  As the map shows, 25 Mile is steep.  It is cobbled.  The drainage isn’t huge, but much of it does face south.  Greg Gressel crossed a bit above the trail, climbing through a steep section split into three braids.  None of those crossings would have been more than 8 feet wide, but the rocks were bigger and the swim uglier if you lost your feet.  Cyrus and Kate inflated boats and rafted around the creek on the Middle Fork, a safe option I seriously considered.  Andrew, Chris, and Jon took the path I outlined on the map; bushwacking up to a flatter spot where they crossed with little difficulty.  The volume of 25 Mile was probably only 2/3 that of Lodgepole discussed above, and thus not too bad when given a reasonable gradient.  I crossed at the trail, facing upstream and taking an upstream diagonal.  The strongest current was at the far side, and my upstream path gave me the furthest margin of error should I have lost my feet at that point.  A swim through the steep riffles below would have been bruising, and a good place to snag a foot.

I’m not a big fan of log crossings.  They have to be really good to be safe, and often tempt you into high consequence, all or nothing situations.

Group crossings can make a big difference, especially for shorter and lighter group members.  Communication and coordination difficulties make many traditional ideas better in theory than application.  The two stack for upstream facing works well, with one person behind the other holding on to shoulder straps, but it can be hard for the second person to see their feet.  Downstream crossings with the weak person leading, and the person behind creating and eddy, weighting their pack, and verbally and physically guiding them are also effective.

R0000283Packing a tahr out down a small but very steep creek in New Zealand.  Cliffs demanded a couple crossings each mile, and often the choice was between wading an 8 foot wide, waist deep pool or climbing across slick a boulder waterfall.  I got my crotch wet a lot.

In the field, calculation and restraint must come first.  Better to hike out than hurt yourself.  At the same time, indecision and timidity will only cause problems.  Once you decide you can do a crossing, do so boldly and with full commitment.  As with most things, safety is primarily created by the mind, and a strong mind comes from experience and practice.

Patagonia Sun Stretch shirt review

DSC01351As I mentioned last week, there are some, stifling hot, occasions when even the lightest knit baselayers aren’t up to the task.  The latest light (100 grams/meter or less) poly baselayers dry fast, but there’s something about the wicking process upon which modern poly shirts depend that just doesn’t get the job done in serious heat.  Too much moisture is left against the skin, while at the same time the fabric minimizes any benefit you might get from evaporative cooling.  I’ve used poly/cotton dress shirts for quite some time, with a fair degree of success, but after a few days they get nasty and chafe.  More seriously, they are one trick critters.  In anything other than darn hot weather they’ll be in your pack, which during an extended summer rain interlude can mead you’re hauling around a damp ball of slime until the solar gets cranking again.

Patagonia’s Sun Stretch shirt is a, and perhaps for the moment the, solution to this problem.  Made from a 52%/48% nylon/poly woven, the Sun Stretch takes the traditional trekking/fishing/safari shirt and builds it from truly light fabric, namely 76 grams/meter.  This light a fabric just can’t absorb much water, which has been a big knock against 100% nylon wovens. The poly percentage also helps with breathability and a pleasant and fairly non-synthetic against the skin feel, the other reason why until now woven shirts have never graced my baselayer closet.  Because it’s a woven and not a knit, the fabric doesn’t actively seek to suck moisture off your skin, which paradoxically helps in very hot weather by letting evaporative cooling do its thing. The Sun Stretch is not the ideal tool for cold weather, but when moisture transport and overall mitigation is a major concern, it isn’t too much of a liability, either.

Limitations are few. First, it comes in Patagonia’s “relaxed” fit, which means that to get good sleeve length you’ll need to put up with a overly voluminous torso. I’m fortunate in that I can fit into a small, with only the littlest hint of shoulder tightness, and could thus find one on sale. I can tolerate the slightly short sleeves. My vote would be for more conventional sizing. The second limitation is that the stink factor, while far from terrible, is not what we’ve come to expect in the age of Polygiene. With blazing fast dry times it’d still be a good travel shirt, but it would need frequent sink washings to maintain a good margin of social acceptability, especially in the first world.


Detailing and construction quality is typical Patagonia, which is to say quite good. The chest pockets are capacious, the zippers both smooth running and small enough in coil to be unobtrusive. The buttons are sewn on, but plenty thick and feel well attached. Little details, like shoulder articulation and buttons to hold up the sleeves, are all present.  I wouldn’t mind a stiffer collar that would stand up for sun protection, but that’s a small issue.

Fit and nitpicks aside I could happily have this and the Sitka Core hoody as my only next to skin layers, year round.  The Sun Stretch is particularly nice in that it can work backpacking or mountain biking, and transfer to a rural burger joint without too thoroughly screaming; I’m a “technical” yuppie goon.  Taken together the Sun Stretch and Core hoody over 200 dollars worth of shirt, but if you’re going for quality and longevity over quantity, they’d be my suggestion.