The planning pile

After you’ve picked a good route, picked a good partner, done all the relevant research, and built the best list you can, the only thing left is to make sure you don’t forget anything.

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On longer trips this is rather important, and can be surprisingly difficult.  If all you leave behind is your spoon, little harm will be done.  Forgetting a piece of technical gear, or shorting yourself on food, can have a more serious impact.

For any trip longer than four days I add up my calories.  All of them.  Going hungry is the insecurity I’m most prone to pack.

A week or so out, I pile everything in a place I’ll walk past often.  This visual reminder keeps the details in the forefront of my mind, and makes it more likely I’ll keep reexamining the depths and remember anything I might have thought I packed, but not.  As I write this, I’m pretty sure it’s all there.  Now I just have to drive 17 hours south, and hope lots of skiing and carry loaded packs around the neighborhood with stand up to day 1; a big, rough, technical descent from rim to river.  I’ll be gone next week and most of the week after.

As a housekeeping note: I’ve been experiencing a recent influx of spam designed around the current WordPress filters.  To keep it from piling up in my absence, I tightened said filters quite a bit.  If you’re not a semi-regular contributor here you may be caught in the moderation queue for a little while, and if so I thank you for your patience.

RIT die for synthetic garments

I have issues with hats. This is mostly a performance thing. While the scientific robustness of the old claim that you loose an outsize amount of heat through your head is coming into question, the fact that temperature regulation via hats is fast and easy remains unassailable. As readers will know, I have a brain which is both massive and extremely active, and produces the expectable amount of heat and sweat. Hats which work are something I value highly.

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Oftentimes the best hats need to be modified. One example is the mongrel above, which combines the top of a Patagonia Capilene 4 beanie with the band of an As Tucas Costatiza beanie.  Neither were big enough to cover my ears further than 4 days post-haircut, and the resultant hybrid looks a little funny.

The Dynafit hat shown below is another example.  It is big enough, and is a great warm but not too warm blend of wool and acrylic.  Unfortunately the white and blue combo was the only one on sale, and white is not one of my favorite colors, especially for something which will be often pressed against my unwashed for 4 days forehead.

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There is an easy solution to these aesthetics problems: RIT die, which can be picked up in the grocery store for a few dollars. It’s not advertised as working on synthetics, so special techniques are advised.

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First, get a die-specific pot. Using RIT in something you also use for food is not recommended. Add the die to a minimal amount of water (perhaps 40 ounces for a hat), along with a cup of vinegar. I’ve not done a non-vinegar test, so I can’t testify to its necessity. Bring to boil, add hat, boil for 15-20 minutes, drain die (ideally into a utility sink which won’t stain), rinse hat, wash on cold, dry. Wear.

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The Patatucas hat was died with wine colored RIT, and has been used and washed many times since.  These die jobs are mostly, but not entirely, colorfast after one wash.  I noticed a trace of pink on the pads of my bike helmet the first time.  The Dynafit hat got a fairly light (~10 minutes) treatment in dark green RIT, and is still rumpled from the drier.

Others have reported success with items are large as packs, so have at it.

The Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody

Surely, the windshirt quest will never stop. Finding an ideal active layer for days which are neither warm nor arctic, neither calm nor storming fiercely, involves delicate balancing of contradictory attributes. The shirt must be significantly wind resistant, but quite breathable. It must be light, but tough, especially given that a windshirt will be used more than just about anything else aside from undies and socks.  It must resist rain, and in a durable fashion, not absorb much moisture, and dry quickly when it does.

Conventional windshirts are made from lightish, tightly woven nylon fabrics. The good ones succeed at most of the above, having only suboptimal breathability and durability (though they’re tougher than most think). An example would be the Rab Cirrus, which I discussed here. The recent trend of light softshells, like the Rab Zephyr, typically use a poly/spandex blend. They breath well and the good ones are very tough, but the fabrics tend to suck up and hold on to water in a manner which makes them a liability in multiday wet conditions.

As discussed in the first link, Pertex Equilibrium promises to hit almost all these metrics, save durability. Much though I liked my Rab Alpine jacket, the fragility just wasn’t going to stand. Ergo the continued quest.

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The recent BD Alpine Start hoody is the closest thing I’ve yet found to an ideal windshirt.  It’s more breathable than a Cirrus, and more wind resistant than a Boreas or Alpine jacket.  The Schoeller fabric is 93% nylon, and 7% elastane (spandex, in essence).  The weave is exceptionally tight, and the fabric thinner than you’d expect for the weight (80 g/meter), all of which gives me high hopes for durability.  The nansphere DWR is (thus far) very good.  I’m not calling this a proper review, as these two things aren’t subject to meaningful comment until after months of heavy use.  Most importantly, it dries very fast indeed.

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Thus far I would change nothing at all about the fabric, and the fit and features are 96% good to go.  The hood is big, big enough to go over a smaller helmet, and has an interior channel for a drawcord, with cordlock adjustments on either side of the face.  It cinches down tight over a bare head, and moves with you.  There’s a single chest pocket which is fabric backed, a slim/athletic fit (medium is in line with a company like Rab or Montane), elastic binding at the wrists, and a full circumference drawcord at the waist.  Nothing else is needed in a windshirt.  The main zip is a nice metal #5, one of my favorite things.  My medium weighs 7.2 ounces after cutting out the tags and trimming the hood drawcords.

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The hood is the major thing I would encourage BD to change.  The bottom/chin area could go a little higher for max protection, and the whole hood feels set a hair further back and is completely natural.  When my pack pulls the shoulder back a hair, the zipper presses on my neck.  Not a big deal, and easily dealt with, but less than ideal.  The cordlocks and excess cord are hidden inside the hood, and I’d prefer them outside.  Exterior cordlocks can be used without unzipping the hood, and exterior anchors for the excess don’t flap around and get caught in the zipper.  As seen above, my standard procedure with this sort of think is to tie knots that hold the hood with a little tension (a good default setting for general use) and then trim the cord so that most of the time their is no excess flapping around.

To further the nit-picking, ideally the chest pocket would be backed with mesh rather than fabric, to save a few grams and maximize breathability.  I also wouldn’t mind another 1/2″ or length in the sleeves to make a better seal over gloves, though the current arrangement would stay out of your chalk bag nicely.  The wrists are flexible enough to roll up over my elbows, and the armpit articulation is fantastic.  The hem does not ride while cycling or during the most exaggerated pole plants.

In short, the Alpine Start hoody is close to ideal, an impressive first effort on a demanding garment.  Construction is as good as or better than any top brand you might name.  As mentioned, arm articulation is massive, and most of the seams are felled and then double-stitched.  The only drawback is the price, a rather egregious 149 dollars.  It makes more sense to spend big bucks on a windshirt than on a raincoat, as the former will be used more.  Nonetheless, I’d have hesitated long and hard at full retail on this one.

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Functional remoteness

Most analyses of remoteness in the lower 48 are misleading. They ignore on the ground factors, though for the understandable reason of accessible numbers to crunch. There is the famous claim that the place furthest from any road in the lower 48 is a bit east of the Thorofare valley in Yellowstone. However, 19/20s of this hike is on fast, flat, easy to follow horse trails. Apparently Hinsdale County, Colorado has the fewest roads per capita. Those roads get a ton of peak bagger and 4×4 traffic. Other examples could be discussed.

Then there is the following map, which color codes distance from “major roads.”  I like it, and it’s a good discussion point, but has a few shortcomings.  As the creators discuss in the original post, northern Maine would be much bluer if roads in Canada were included.  That big red section of central Idaho (the Selway and Frank Church complex) is cut in half by the Magruder road.  Most seriously, the roadways which are reservoirs and rivers are not taken into account.  The Fort Peck reservoir cuts that big yellow patch in eastern Montana into shreds, and the Powell/Floyd Dominy reservoir does the same to the spidery yellow patch in south-central Utah.  Both are extensively trafficked by power boats, at least 9 months out of the year.  The Grand Canyon, that big red patch in NW Arizona, suffers the same fate, with close to a quarter million user days on the river each year.

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I’ve long been interested in some coherent formula which would account for functional remoteness; how far a given place is according to the effort required to get there under human power.  A good amount of first hand knowledge and spitballing would be required.  Ideally, the roughness of dirt roads and their frequency of use would be taken into account.  For instance, the Magruder road does prevent the Selway-Frank from being the largest contiguous roadless area in the lower 48, but the central reaches are only driveable (or bikeable) for 3.5 months a year, or less.  A separate set of calculations for winter, taking into account snowmachine access, would also be a great project.

It’s hard to think of places in the northern rockies which are more than a strong 1.3 days hike from the road in the summer, thanks to all the horse trails.  The Selway-Frank suffers similarly, as well as from having several very over-loved rivers.  Because of this, I suspect the most functionally remote places in the lower 48 will be those protected by terrain.  The bushwacking of the Cascades, for example, as well as the wrinkled hide of the Colorado Plateau.  Nonetheless, I would guess you’d be hard pressed to find any places more than 2 days travel from the road, when a sufficiently practical array of routes are allowed.  I find this sad.

The remedy is obvious: drain a few reservoirs, bulldoze and gate a few roads.  Powell, Fort Peck, and Flaming Gorge are high on the first list.  Lee’s Ferry, Magruder, the Salmon River road, Whitney Portal and Benchmark are on the second.  Say no to permits, and yes to longer walks.

Anorak conversions for blown main zippers

It is to be expected that a heavily used jacket with a #3 main zip, like the 2.1 year old Rab Xenon pictured here, will have zipper failure within the useful life of the garment. While manufacturers continue to use these zips on weekly-use pieces, for reasons of weight, cost, and pliability, repairs will be necessary.

Some makers will replace the zipper. I’ve had good luck with Patagonia doing this under warranty. Anymore it’s too much of a headache to be without the jacket for weeks. With some coats it’s worth replacing the zipper. On something like the Xenon picking seams would be a nightmare, due to thin fabrics and the appropriately tight and sturdy stitching. The jacket has a number of ember holes in it already, and the Primaloft One probably has until the end of 2014 until the insulation is shot. Thus the easy, if messy, answer: turn it into an anorak.

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First, zip the zipper shut. It’s ideal to do this conversion when the zip is not so far gone that this is no longer possible. Pick a zipper height; I like 16-18″ from chin down to end.

Sew a tight bartack across the zipper from seam to seam. This one is 2mm wide with a .8mm stitch length.

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Thin thread is a good match for thin fabrics. I used 100% poly embroidery thread.

Next, sew over the zipper seam on both sides, nailing the upper to the draft flap. No draft flap? Make one from some spare fabric. Double stitch both sides. finish with a bartack at the bottom of the open side to take the main force when pulling the anorak on and off.

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Finally, cut the zipper out, carefully. Fuse the sides, very carefully, with a lighter. As can be seen above, this often goes a little wrong with uber-thin fabrics, but this isn’t a big deal with synthetic insulation.

Continue wearing. It’s ugly, but using Primaloft for a town coat is foolish, due to the way it accelerates loft degradation. Get a wool, fleece, or soft shell for that purpose.

Review the review: OGL on Headlamps

I may have given them some shit recently, but a few weeks ago Outdoor Gear Lab atoned for any past sins and then some, with an outstanding headlamp review.

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I can’t think of anything they left unexamined.  Breadth (37 lamps) and depth (beam patterns, real world run times) are present.  Basic theory (why have a headlamp) and advanced issues (why lumens is a deceptive measure) are both covered.  They don’t hesitate to contradict industry claims, both on headlamp specs and on the general way in which lamps are measured (the accompanying “Why Headlamp Claims are Deceptive” is outstanding).  In short, the article took a huge amount of time to put together, and is absolutely worth some of yours to read.  Well done OGL.

Pack materials rundown

I gave in to a somewhat unreasonable obsession with building packs a few years ago, embracing the learning process it provides and admitting that nothing will be perfect and that eventually, anything will go back under the knife to be rebuilt or just scrapped for parts. This lack of attachment helps, I like to think, cultivate some objectivity when it comes to materials and their suitability for various backpack applications. What follows are my summary thoughts on fabrics I’ve used in the last 5 years.

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Rolltop. TX-07 at the top, VX-07 for the throat.

Dimension Polyant v. PU fabrics

Evaluating the level of waterproofing you want is a good place to start when selecting a pack fabric.  In my world this boils down to DP laminate fabrics and everything else.  I’ve never built with cuben, don’t anticipate doing so, and have only owned one cuben pack for a fairly brief period.  I do not see the cost/benefit ratio for cuben being good enough, and am leery of long-term seam strength and UV stability.

That said, performance differences between DP fabrics and more tradition PU (polyurethene) coated fabrics are substantial.  There is a huge variability in PU coatings, but eventually all of them will wear off the fabric.  This is vastly accelerated in high friction areas (the bottom of the main pack bag).  I’ve had less than good PU fabrics (Golite’s recycled 210d gripstop from a few years ago) delam significantly after less than a year of use, and other fabrics (e.g. the Ballistics on the Cold Cold World Ozone shown below) last a very long time indeed.  Determining the quality of a PU coating before you buy is not so easily done.  If you can’t find user testimonials it might be worth the trouble of ordering fabric samples first.

I’m sure that enough abuse will cause DP fabrics to delam, probably via abrasion wearing through the interior scrim, but haven’t gotten close to doing this myself.  It will take a lot of heavy use when/if it happens, and for most people probably isn’t a practical concern.

IMG_2108Well used 1000d Ballistics at left, and DX-40 at right.

Dimension Polyant fabrics

DP fabrics consist of three layers to which pack makers should turn their focus: a face fabric, a waterproof laminate, and an interior scrim to protect said laminate.  Variations in each of these three determine performance.  The nature of the face fabric will dictate abrasion and cut resistance, and variations in the film and scrim will (partially) dictate fabric weight, pliability, and other things.

The VX line of fabrics are the most commonly available, and a good place to start.  They’re fairly stiff fabrics, especially compared to traditional fabrics.  This makes them easy to arrange and sew, and helps packs stand up and hold their shape.  Be aware that with all DP fabrics, errant needle holes are not self-healing.  The polyester scrim used in the VX line is white, making the interior of a pack nice a light, and loose things easier to find.

All VX fabrics are relatively heavy for the abrasion resistance they provide, compare 4.9 oz/yard in VX-07 to 2.8 oz/yard for conventional 70d urethene coated nylon ripstop.  The other parts of the laminate add weight and bulk.  This is to some benefit.  VX fabrics have, for all intents, no stretch.  The extra body increases the tensile and seam strength quite a bit, and make the fabric rather slick on the face.  VX fabrics tend to slide through brush very well.  What the laminate construction does not do is increase abrasion resistance.  As shown in the photo below, use the weight of the face fabric to match fabric to application.

IMG_2499Ski edge abrasion on VX-07 during a diagonal carry.  A burlier face fabric is needed in this application.

In non-abrasion intensive applications, VX-07 is a great fabric.  It is good in all but the most horrendous brush, is easy to work with, and has good enough tensile strength to be used in structural elements of a pack (e.g. the backpanel).  For things like the sides, front, and throat of a pack it’s an excellent choice.

VX-21 has been the most common DP fabric.  I’m not convinced that the 200 denier plain weave face fabric gives much more than VX-07, and that the extra ounce per yard is not well spent.  Like VX-07, VX-21 does not deal well with abrasion, but does well in all other applications.

VX-42 is quite a bit harder to find than either of the lighter fabrics, which is a shame.  The step up in durability is considerable, making 42 the lightest fabric I’d use for the single layer bottom of a general use pack.  For a hard-use bushwacking and scrambling pack, it is not overkill for the upper as well.

WX-40 is the only member of the WX family I’ve used.  The laminate and scrim are different than VX-42, making it a bit lighter and more pliant for the same toughness.  The interior is totally black, which is the only downside.  It’s a shame this has become hard to find, as it’s a nice option to have.

IMG_2281VX-07 (blue), combined with a WX-40 bottom (black) for abrasion resistance, and 210D gridstop pockets.

TX-07 is a lighter variant of VX-07, almost 2 ounces less a yard.  Abrasion resistance is quite poor, making it inappropriate for all but the lightest-use applications, such as extension collars.  It is semi-translucent, providing good visibility inside the pack and cool look.

DX-40 is a specialty fabric, with dyneema in the weave.  Though as seen above the polyester part of the face can get fuzzy fast, this damage appears to be primarily cosmetic.  The combination of the abrasion resistance and waterproofness makes DX-40 a good option for extreme use, like expedition bushwacking in wet environments like coastal Alaska, though it is expensive (~30 dollar/yard) and hard to find.  When the waterproofing of DP fabrics are not required, there are cheaper options with equivalent performance.

IMG_21541000D Cordura (tan) for the main pack exterior, 500D Cordura for the interior elements (blue) and hipbelt (foliage).

PU Fabrics

As mentioned above, coating quality varies quite a lot.  Nonetheless, I prefer to use PU fabrics for applications where long-term waterproofing is not so important.  Examples include the canyoneering pack shown immediately above, and exterior pockets.  PU fabrics are cheaper and more flexible than DP laminates of equivalent weight, attributes which can be put to good use.

Cordura is still the classic nylon pack fabric, and for good reason.  It still has a good combination of weight, abrasion resistance, and general toughness.  500 and 1000 denier remain the most common variants by far, and can often be found on sale for 5 dollars a yard or less if you’re not picky about color.  These fabrics can be had in just about any color you might like.  1000d is about 3 ounces a yard heavier than 500 (8 versus 11, approximately), and is more abrasion resistant.  Realistically, most applications will not require that extra toughness, and 500d is a better choice.  One of the nicest things about heavier Corduras like these is that you can stitch and bartack away without the need for reinforcing fabric to make sure stitching doesn’t pull out.  It can make construction a lot simpler, and thus a pack lighter than you might think.  Cordura is also high-friction, and thus makes a good hipbelt material.  New, slick faced Cordura will wet out after a full day of steady rain or a few hours on the bow a packraft, but moisture retention doesn’t get bad until the fabric has gotten a solid beating which fuzzes out the face a fair bit.  A double silicone coated 500d cordura remains a pack fabric I’d love to try if it existed.

Ballistics nylon is similar to Cordura, with a different, denser weave.  It is typically a bit heavier and more expensive than the equivalent Cordura, and available in fewer colors.  When you need serious abrasion resistance above all else, Ballistics is the way to go.  The gain over Cordura is not huge, and the extra expense is often not worth it in my book (hence the 1000d on the pack above).

IMG_0270GG Gorilla, with grey 140d Dyneema Gridstop.

Dyneema Gridstop has become ubiquitous in the last 5 years.  The distinctive white grid has curb appeal, and the tough threads make for a very effective ripstop.  I’ve used the 140d variant my Gossamer Gear Gorillas, and found it to be acceptable for trail and lighter use off-trail packs.  The fabric takes a beating in side pockets, and during something like canyoneering, but does fine for mild to moderate bushwacking.  The 210d variants (the green stuff above) are a bit more abrasion resistant.  Due to fashion, gridstop is darn expensive compared to Cordura, but the nice tight weave makes it better than comparable weight PU fabrics like the 200d oxfords.

The above fabric do just about everything I’d like them to.  The only other fabric I’ve used in the last few years in 30 and 70d silnylons for interior pockets and extension collars.  As mentioned above, the only thing on my wish list is a double-coated nylon which would resist moisture gain from water long-term.  Even DP laminates retain water weight, which it would be nice to avoid.

Seek Outside Big Sibling stove review

I am not going to discuss the theory and applicability of a backpackable wood stove here. For that, go elsewhere. If you are interested in the lightest and most compact such stove currently available, read on.

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The Big Sibling is the lightest wood stove on the market because it dispenses with a lot of what makes a stove a stove, namely a floor and cooking surface. Instead, it’s a titanium cone capped by a damper, fed via a door (also made of thin ti sheet), and anchored to the ground by three ti tent stakes. The cone is 12.5 inches tall at the base of the damper, and has a 10 inch diameter at ground level. The body and door weigh 3.5 ounces, the damper 1.5, and the three stakes a further ounce, bringing the total to an even 6 before adding an appropriate length pipe.

The whole arrangement, including a 5 foot pipe, rolls into a cylinder 3 inches wide and 15 inches long.

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The cone fits together via folds in the metal on each side, and a wire attached to the door laces through five holes to hold the whole thing together.  A wire loop on the bottom of the door allows it to be raised for feeding.

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Putting the stove together is not complex, but is precise and a bit finicky at first.  As befits an extremely light piece of gear (by which I mostly mean one abstracted beyond that which is conventional, to its essentials), there is a something of a learning curve before you come to the point of optimal efficiency.

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The damper has a wire mesh screen in the bottom, to act as a spark arrestor.  The damper flap is welded on to a ti stake.  Getting the flap assembly into the body of the damper requires a bit of trickery; thread the curved end of the stake through the hole on the side, slide all the way to the flap, then squeeze the damper body to flex it enough and allow the far end of the stake to get through.  Easy and obvious once you’ve done it once.

Drafting is allowed because the door is a bit shorter than the body of the stove, leaving a ~1cm gap.  As can be seen and heard in the video below, this arrangement is extremely effective.  Once a modest bed of coals has been built up, the Big Sibling will burn fast and very hot with the damper wide open.  Damper control is very effective, and burn rate can be controlled widely and fast.

 

The most acute limit of the Big Sibling is the size of wood it can be fed. 2 inch by 6-7 inch pieces are ideal, and to facilitate this a small saw or hatchet is almost mandatory for good performance. Even stuffed full of big, dense pieces of fuel of damped low, the Big Sibling will burn through its cargo fairly quickly. It is not a stove for heating your shelter all night while you sleep, it is a stove for cranking heat to drive off the cold and dry gear while you eat dinner, hang out, and get ready for bed. It can drastically warm a pyramid shelter, but will not allow for a lighter sleeping bag than you would otherwise take.

The floorless nature of the stove naturally makes use on snow problematic. No doubt a metal foil floor atop green sticks could be arranged, something I’ve yet to experiment with.

The only other limitation might be the relative fragility of the titanium stove body. The metal is thin and prone to bending if not handled prudently. I’ve no concerns about longevity, but it should still be handled with care.

Overall, I could not be more pleased with this stove. The weight and space penalty are perfectly acceptable for all but the most light and fast trips, and after a modest bit of learning the functionality is impressive. Outside summer, and the most weight-sensitive trips, it should get a lot of use.

2013 in review: A journey with backpacks

DSC02656Gossamer Gear Gorilla, Red Eagle Meadows.  M photo.

I have a large pile of packs in the closet right now.  The taint of this excess is blunted somewhat by the fact that M and I can wear almost identically sized packs, but the redundancy still gets under my skin.  However, given the huge steps in knowledge I took in the last year, I’m prepared to forgive myself.

Things got kickstarted when I saw the Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador application and thought, why the hell not?  On the surface their packs didn’t hold too much appeal, but I thought that a company with such an illustrious and well respected history was probably deserving of less cynicism.  This was correct.  There’s plenty I don’t like about the Gorilla, and the pack shown above took quite a beating back in October, but it also provided un-noticed service on a bunch of heavily loaded trips.  I’m thinking of the trip above, where I had six liters of water and most of our food at the start of the second day, or the Yellowstone trip where I had a solid week of food on board.  Or even the Tobacco Root trip where I hauled four days of food and a ~27 pound bike up and down mildly technical snow fields.  The Gorilla showed me a new benchmark for load carrying with a 1.5 pound pack, and gave me lots of ideas for how minimal materials can be made to do a lot of work.

The last two packs I’ve built (see below) are breathtakingly better than anything I’ve made previously, and the Gorilla was hugely influential in their design.

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The next big step in my thinking came courtesy of Paradox Packs.  My review of the Evolution frame and 4800 bag was just published yesterday.  It was the most complex such project I’ve yet tackled, and the most satisfying, because of the depth of research I had to do into big load hauling backpacks, as subject I only started to put thought into this year.  I had run several, rather ineffectual experiments in building  load hauler, beginning early in 2013, learning just enough to realize why my designs weren’t working, but not enough to see a solution to the problems.  The Paradox frame showed me answers to almost everything in one broad gesture, and the performance of the pack itself surpassed my expectations considerably.  I’m still processing the lessons, and need more field time before I formulate meaningful conclusions.  As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to it.  There’s little as fun as being back on the sharp end of the learning curve.

2013 in review: 14 landscapes

The year in chronological review; one photo for each month, with two for June and October as I just couldn’t pick. Which is a fitting, as the sheer volume of excellence in 2013 is overwhelming when looked back over.

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As far as trips go, I’m struggling with plans for 2014.  Options are not in short supply, but I’m lacking a major mid-summer deal to really get me excited.  This feeds into my hope for this blog: similar, and probably a bit less frequent content, but I want to keep taking the quality higher and higher.  I can’t wait.