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.

MLD Solomid review

The Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid is an easy shelter to review, it’s been around a long time, but more significantly MLD’s specs and declared use are dead-on. The Solomid is a well-built, dependable shelter for the solo hiker who wants something which can be pitched very fast in a small spot, and provides excellent weatherproofing. The tradeoff is a modest amount of headroom and potentially very bad condensation.

IMG_0831

The Solomid is available in sil or cuben. The sil version currently costs 195 bucks, and weighs a bit under a pound before seam sealing or adding guylines. It is 8.75 feet long, 3.5 feet wide, and a little over 4 feet tall when pitched to the ground. It can be pitched with one pole substantially offset, but is better with two in an inverted V. Said two pole arrangement requires two trekking or ski poles a little over 140cm long.  The footprint is a perfect rectangle, which along with the small size makes the Solomid one of the fastest and easiest-pitching shelters around.  With a little practice, zero to done in well under a minute is very realistic.

The modest size of the Solomid creates it’s major strengths and it’s major liabilities.  The biggest strength, after the easy of setup, is wind resistance.  The low, shark-fin like shape and perfectly- executed cat curves on the main seams makes the Solo slice through strong winds (from all five directions), and allows it to be very quiet while doing so.  The inverted V pole setup provides additional support along the long side panels, which is welcome for snow and an asset in wind, though the design already deals well with both.

A small shelter is a small shelter, and that has virtues and downsides.  The virtues have already been mentioned, the downsides are enhanced problems with condensation and low headroom.  Condensation is a problem in any enclosed space, and gets worse the more people are packed into a given square footage.  The reason the Solomid is particularly bad here is that other than raised the pitch a bit there’s no way to get more ventilation while still keeping rain out, and condensation is of course worst when humidity is high.  This is an inherent issue with mids, and the Solo is simply worse due to size.  The overhead clearance in the Solo is fine for a 6 footer in a 20 degree sleeping bag, but doesn’t leave much room for sag.  Add a moderate amount of snow and you run a real risk of waking up with the mid all but on your head.  MLD added an XL version this year, which is a hair longer and taller, and a fair bit wider, but I think these downsides will never be entirely separated from this design.

The other major downside of the Solomid is the cat curve along the long edges, which makes it quite impossible to truly seal them from wind against the ground.  As will be discussed below, this runs counter to the major strength of the Solomid and is thus particularly vexatious.

The obvious application for the Solomid is the solo hiker in alpine environments during the nicer 6-8 months of the year.  Space for gear is less of an issue here than during winter, and the concern for maintaining headspace when it snows less regular.  The quick pitch, small footprint, and excellent wind resistance are all major assets here.  The Solomid is less ideal when it’s darn cold, because of the side gaps, and during warmer, milder weather, due to the limited ventilation options.

After using it all year, I recently sold my Solomid.  I was quite pleased with the shelter, and valued it’s virtues, but in the end the somewhat narrow window of ideal use put me off.  My tarp always won out over the summer, and when winter begins to make an entrance I want something bigger and more easily sealed.  The Solomid would have likely still claimed a place in the quiver had it not been so bulky.  For a shelter from a ultralight specialist company the Solo is quite feature-heavy and even overbuilt.  The zipper has two snaps at mid-height, and a snap and small buckle at the bottom.  These, along with the sticky, waterproof #5 zipper are slow to use and bulky.  The top vent, which is quite large, also adds a lot of material, which quite frankly I do not think does very much at all.  The Seek Outside BT2, which could completely envelope a pitched Solomid, is only 9 ounces heavier once sealed, and takes up the same amount of space in a stuff sack.

In short, I think the Solomid is an eminently well-built and designed shelter, but not the most weight-efficient or versatile.  It certainly has a place, and with MLD making a full half-dozen rectangular mids, to say nothing of other companies, there are plenty of other choices which folks might find more suitable.

The 8 best campsites of 2014

Presented in chronological order, with no gesture made towards the impossible task of assigning preference.

IMG_2623February; upper St. Mary River, Glacier National Park

If you’ve hiked the trail between Gunsight Lake and St. Mary Falls you’ve passed right by this little meadow, probably without noticing the clearing in which I pitched the Lil’ Bug Out on this snowy, windy ski trip.  There are big views the opposite direction thanks to the river, though I chose this spot because it gave access to water and kept me away from the abundant deadfall in the old growth spruce forest which envelops the whole valley.  I knew a big storm was brewing, but the one I got exceeded expectations, and is probably the most severe weather I’ve ever camped in.  It didn’t make for big views, but I’ve seen those before, and the sensation of hunkering down as the rain, snow and wind lashed all right was gratifying and, ultimately, cozy.  I even slept well, and the freshly felled, huge tree 150 yards down the trail the next morning convinced me that camping amongst the windbreaks is not always the smart choice.

IMG_2951March; Olo Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park

Brendan and I were at the end of a long and trying second day of our week long figure-eight, and to our distress did not find water in the gravel of Olo when we finally picked a route down to the floor.  We had enough to make due for the night, but I knew we’d do much better in the hard days to come if we could truly rehydrate, refuel, and relax.  I walked to the edge of the house-sized chockstone which forms the first, 100 foot freehanging rap into the initial slot and saw water, so down we went.  Brendan had done his first canyoneering rappel the day before, and this one was as intimidating as they get for the size.  Plus I got the pullcord hung up on a flake, which after much yanking thankfully pulled off, rather than requiring me to prusik the rope in the gathering darkness.  With flawlessly clear weather we ended up camped on the gravel in a 15 foot wide, 200 foot deep, polished limestone slot next to a nice pool of clear water.  The stars, the still air, and the owls who came by later all made it the best camp of a trip full of fantastic, memorable spots.  Brendan has a more descriptive shot here, of breakfast the next morning.

IMG_3397April; North Fork of the Sun River, Bob Marshall Wilderness

I was eager to get after an early bear hunt, too early as it turned out, as I saw no bear sign whatsoever on this muddy trip.  Too cold yet for the fresh green vegetation which forms the majority of Bob Marshall bear diets, I assume.  I did get myself a gorgeous, clear, and very windy two days watching critters in the magic meadows of the Sun, including a successful wolf hunt on elk which took place in the background of the above photo about 20 minutes after I packed up the Solomid.  Seeing that is rare enough, seeing it 10 miles from the road was a privilege indeed.

IMG_0133June; Stoney Indian Lake, Glacier National Park

I hiked all day, through rain and mostly over snow, to get up to the campground which sits just of the sight to the left, at the foot of the lake.  The campground was still under 5-7 feet of snow, and I was left with the task of arranging my tarp out of the driving wind on the flattest piece of snow I could find.  I slept on my deflated packraft and stuck my empty pack into one end of the tarp to keep the rain out when the wind shifted, and took a long time to fall asleep with my body heat slowly drying damp clothes.  I was greeted the next morning with warm sun, a brilliant crampon crossing of Stoney Indian Pass, and the rare sight of Stoney Indian Lake full of avalanche.

DSC06000July; Danaher Creek, Bob Marshall Wilderness

Somehow between M and I the best photo we have of a truly great camp on Danaher Creek is this one, of the LBO and the stacked rocks necessary to pitch it.  After a long first day of hot hiking and fun rafting M, Luke, Spencer, and I were close to the confluence with Youngs Creek.  Ryan Jordan and Scouts had been down days earlier, and thanks to sat blogging we knew to expect a big wood portage.  We found it late, right before we lost the sun and the cold set in.  It had plenty of flat sand camping, good water, firewood, and a few fishing spots all close at hand.  When I roosted a big bull Moose out of the willows scoping the place out I knew we had good mojo, and called it a day.  I caught 4 fish with my first six casts, and we had a fantastic night roasting and eating them around the fire.  This trip, sharing a great loop in the Bob with folks mostly new to wilderness rafting, was one of my favorite trips of the year, and this camp was equal to all the good stuff which came before and after.

IMG_0580 2August; South Fork of the Flathead, Bob Marshall Wilderness

After I decided to cut my Bob traverse into just a South Fork trip, I had permission to fish all the good spots I had never stopped to fish, and camp in all the places I had always wanted to camp.  At the top of the list was this little sliver of sand between Bear Creek and Mid Creek, and I got to it just as a massive evening rainstorm moved in.  I let my fire tend to itself and retreated to my tarp, laying back and listening to rain pound down on the vegetation and water.  It relented eventually, and I was able to fry and eat my trout, sleep long and well to the music of the river, and move on the next day with one more thing checked off the list.

IMG_0829September; Big Horn Peak, Gallatin Mountains

It’s possible for a normal (read: not rich, and not lucky) hunter to go a lifetime without hunting sheep.  The pursuit has become fetishized, driving guiding rates to absurd levels and draw odds well below 1% just about everywhere.  Thankfully Montana still maintains a handful of districts around Yellowstone with a quota and (relatively) cheap over-the-counter tags.  Buying one was one of the better decisions I made this year.  Sheep hunting is venerated first because of it’s rarity (a vicious circle), and second because sheep tend to live in very cool country.  The huge, high volcanic mountains I hunted for those 2.5 days were quite unlike anything else I walked through in 2014.  Take my second camp as an example.  10 feet behind the Solomid is the Yellowstone Park boundary.  15 feet behind my back is a 2000 foot cliff.  The view from atop that cliff revealed mountain goats, elk, and eventually even a few sheep (ewes).  The sunrise on that utterly clear weekend was simply perfect, and the 10,000 foot meadow I camped in one of the most memorable places I’ve ever sunk a tent stake.

IMG_1097October; Crazy Jug Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park

I was nervous before this trip, having spent a lot of time and thought selecting a route which would give my mom a taste of true Grand Canyon backcountry without being excessively demanding.  Correctly extrapolating the abilities of others is not an easy thing to do when route planning, and I’ve missed the mark many times, but on this trip I nailed it.  The first day had been long and tough and went into darkness, but this patio had appeared by headlamp and I knew we had our ideal spot.  Running spring water, a flat surface, and clear sky, and tired folks made for lots of good sleep, and a great keystone image for a great trip.

2015 is close, so raise your beverage to all the great sites to come.

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.

IMG_0733

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.

IMG_0738

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.

IMG_0739

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.

IMG_0744

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 big pack

Not long after I started building packs from scratch I started packrafting, and realized in a hurry a truly large pack was a good idea if you prefer to not have a bunch of stuff yardsaled via straps on the outside. The result was this one. It’s funny to think back to designing and building that one, because a lot of things have stayed the same; while the pack discussed below is in many ways (chiefly having a frame) different, it’s also very much the same. My first ideas about size and features were dead on. Some things are different, such as a much more sophisticated understanding of suspension, and a wider availability of materials. In the fall of 2010 you couldn’t buy even VX21 anywhere at the retail level; Eric Parsons at Revelate (then Epic) Designs sold me five yards out of his shop. It’s been a long, enjoyable, rewarding, and in many ways circular road that took me from that pack to this one.

DSC07868
(This and several of the following photos by M.)

A variety of things this summer put it in my head that I’d need a bigger pack than the 3900 Unaweep. I can do a week-long, unsupported summer packrafting trip out of the Unaweep, with nothing but my PFD strapped externally, but the narrower bag does limit how easy it is to chuck in a bunch of gear. At the same time I knew I didn’t want anything much taller, due to stability and brush clearance issues.

Therefore the pack above was made with a 38 inch lower circumference, 42 inch upper circumference, and a 42 inch height, which maxes at 39 inches with the drawcord actually cinched closed. These dimensions, combined with an exhaustive compression system, allow for flexibility. If you’re bushwacking, load the pack fully and compress it down to shoulder height. If you’re on trail, let the load grow taller and suck it in. If the load is both small and heavy, as in a full disassembled deer on a day hunt, cinch in the lower straps to keep the weight up towards the shoulders.

DSC08073

This is the pack I used in the Grand Canyon this fall, where it was fantastic to have a lot of extra space. On the second morning it was obvious that both M and my mother were tired, so I took the majority of the group gear and food. With the Paradox frame and belt, and a new perspective on what qualifies as a heavy pack, I was able to take on all that and six liters of water and serve the best needs of the group through the long boulder hop of day two.  The muddy slides, downclimbs, and wades of that trip imparted some permanent stains to the fabric and webbing, a welcome bit of character.

IMG_1326

This pack has most of the essential features of the smaller bag I outlined earlier this week. This larger pack came first, and the simple, seam-minimizing layout was driven by the knowledge I’d be using it to carry potentially very large and heavy loads.

Big packs get more abuse the midsized packs (because a heavy load added to a tired hiker equals less care), but less than small packs (which get used most often, and for the most abusive things). Therefore the bottom of this bag is 1000D cordura. The sides are double layered cordura over X33, while the bottom is just a single layer of cordura. A double bottom is largely unnecessary with the bottom flap, and starts adding enough layers that my machine has a hard time stitching it all. Plus over the year I’ve most consistently gotten holes in packs right above the bottom along the sides.

IMG_1320

I’ve gone back and forth, but have decided that for big packs an internal compression strap is handy. This one attaches low on the front panel and buckles to a point right between the tops of the frame. Pulled tight it compresses and stabilizes the load, and (like the old Dana version) pulls the bag back and creates headroom. With a tall pack headroom will be a problem, unless like some companies you don’t contour the frame in above the shoulders (and then exacerbate it with a poor shoulder strap attachment point), which in my opinion is simply wrong.

IMG_1321

For reasons mentioned earlier this week I like drawcord cinches.  When you attach the cordlock to the bag and provide a grab loop on the opposite side of the collar, this system is very fast.  I used some orange 40D sil/PU I had hanging around for the top 8 inches of the collar, to save weight, seal better, and provide a bit of safety during hunting season.

IMG_1323

After some experimentation I arrived at two crossing top straps to cinch the top into order.  Finding a way to do this which isn’t heavy and slow (lid) and doesn’t have a ton of extra strap flying around is challenge with drawcord packs.

As can be seen in the top photo, my first draft was a Y strap, which created rabbit ears from the stiff X33 fabric.  This would not do.  But how to tame the strappage and have enough length for all possible loads?

IMG_1324

The answer was the attach a loop of 3/8 inch webbing to each 3/4 inch top compression strap, and tune the length so that when the straps are girth hitching through the top daisy chain loop there is just enough strap to attach something to the top of a very full pack.  In any other situation, the loop is hitched lower on the daisy, resulting in less slack when the straps are cinched down.

IMG_1327

I use the Paradox talon system with this pack, both the dual-pocketed blaze camo talon, and the slightly larger HPG Tarahumara shown here, modded to work as both a compression panel and a daypack with hide-away shoulder straps.  A just a bit narrower than the width of the front panel is crucial to directing the force of the compression in towards the back and making of the load a narrower, better carrying rectangle.  Full wrap compression straps work fine with light loads, but when really put to the test they sausage a heavy load badly, making it tight without really making it behave.

IMG_1331

Where the full-wrap mode, with talon removed, really come into it’s own is when the pack is compressed into day mode.  As hinted at above, this isn’t really relevant for anyone who isn’t a hunter. However, I like that I can have total load control at any volume between 500 and 7000 cubic inches.

DSC07985

In spite of my or anyone’s obsessions on the subject, a pack is a piece of gear, whose ultimate judgement will only come in what jobs it does and how well. The main pleasure I’ve gotten out of this pack, and indeed the superlative Paradox Packs suspension in general, is how easily they’ve let me carry more than my share of the load. Ultralight packs which max a bit north of 30 pounds are fine, but upon occasion it’s nice to know that both your legs and your bag can handle, easily, a lot more.

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.

img_0724

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

img_0722

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.

Shit that works week: Werner Shuna

IMG_0314

A lot of gear upgrading is malarkey, born of boredom or fashion or envy or lust or some other vaguely protestant shortcoming. Buying new stuff is fun, usually harmless in that postmodern capitalist headinthesand way, and sometimes even justified, but most often little substantive reward is gained. That jacket was probably not quite as warm or waterproof as the new one, but would have lasted another couple years. The old bike tires worked almost as well as the new. That old pack carried just fine if you were actually in shape.

Thankfully, there are areas where this is simply not the case, and one can invest in richly made tools and toys which both function so much better and give immense aesthetic pleasure. It is good to live in a world, suffused in money that it is, in which such things are still possible. Where buying a given item will legitimately spur you to get better at a given activity.

DSC06050

A Werner paddle will make you a better paddler. Even the four piece jobs, which are essential when buying an all purpose packrafting paddle, have an astonishingly imperceptible degree of flex, and transfer human power straight to the water with astonishing directness. They give you no excuses, either, both a blessing and a curse. Paddle one in hard-for-you water and you’ll realize plainly that the missed lines and blown boofs are your fault, and your fault alone. Better paddle more and get better, which will give you a great excuse to use your rad new paddle.

When I acquired my 210cm Shuna, Werner was not yet regularly making their whitewater paddles, which feature burlier blades and blade/shaft connections, in four piece models. Thanks to packrafters, they do now, but were I buying again I’d still get the lighter Shuna. The blade is very dinged up, but only cosmetically, which is impressive given the last three years of abuse. I appreciate the lighter swing and packed weight of the “touring” Shuna. If you bought your Alpacka with a bunch of extras bent on getting gnar, the similarly sized Sherpa would be a good choice.

A Werner packraft paddle is shit that works, shit that will get you worked, and shit that will get you to work harder and better.

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.

IMG_0580 2

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.

IMG_3634

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.

IMG_0704

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.