Evolution of the Tamarisk; load carriage

I am delighted to report that the Tamarisk is finished.  If by finished I mean that the prototype I completed a month ago and have been testing exhaustively since requires almost no changes.  The patterns can now be set in stone, and the road towards production begin.  This may not be a short road: I’m still trying to nail down a foam supplier who will provide relatively small wholesale quantities of the exact right thickness and density; I’ve all but resigned myself to sourcing the best ladderlocks and quick release buckles from different sources; I’m using this prototype to see if this stuff might be a substitute for 500D Cordura on the pockets and suspension components.   All that and everything else might yet take months, but having the shape, features, and especially suspension where I want it to be is deeply satisfying.

The first goal for this pack, when I started working on it almost 3 years ago, was to have a ~50 liter package that would carry 50 pounds but be optimized for 20-30.  More specifically, I wanted a hipbelt and harness wouldn’t feel clumsy with a daypack type load, and would also be substantive enough that the structure of the suspension (a single stay in this) would be the limiting factor in load carriage.  To make sure that this can be checked off as mission accomplished, I’ve spent the last week and half using my workday workout time (6-7 am) to load the pack with ever increasing weight for the same 4 mile loop.  This isn’t enormously exciting, but does allow for an extended and exacting focus on just how the various elements in the pack respond to another 5 pound increase.  The last three mornings have seen this number creep above 50, this morning, in the form of a painters drop cloth in the bottom, and 26 liters of water on top.  This is a lot, enough to get me sweating even on the flats, at -10 F.  My 4 inch wide, sub 8 ounce hipbelt has been holding firm around my hips, the single stay just beginning to bounce vertically in the way I’ve to recognize as how you want to see a suspension system using aluminum start to reach its limit.

The definitive beginning to defining load carriage in a backpack remains Ryan Jordan’s 2003 article on torso collapse in packs, the thesis being that when a correctly sized pack looses a certain amount of its torso length (10% being a useful threshold) to load induced collapse, the load limit of that pack has been reached.  The other dimension of that puzzle, one which took me the better part of a decade to fully understand, is that the ability of the hipbelt to resist slipping and appropriately contour to the user must at least keep pace with the suspension.  A hanging belt with the right mix of flexible yet supportive structure is the abbreviated answer here, and leaves one with the fairly simple design challenge of optimizing vertical structure for the weight to be carried.  In this case, a single 3mm by 13mm 7075 stay.

It is the simplest suspension system I could design, because it minimizes things like the number of fabric panels and yards of thread, as well as because there are as few performance elements in action as possible.  The theoretical and practical limits of that single stay are in the Tamarisk identical, which is why I’m content that I did what I wanted.

 

Top 5 backpacks of the past 10 years

The close of a decade approaches which, if you’re not stocking it with thinly context’d affiliate links, isn’t so bad an arbitrary cause to re-examine what has happened in the past 10 years.  Lists focus the mind, and the fingers.  The best of these use material goods as a vehicle to examine culture, and since hiking and backpacking media is boring as fuck compared to bike media, in the name of all us impoverished, sedate walkers I’ll aspire to that end here.  First, a list just for backpacks, my favorite, and later a more general accounting.

Kifaru Bikini frame

The most sustained place for development in backpacks the past decade has been in hunting load haulers.  Kifaru doesn’t make the Bikini frame anymore, but it still stands out as the apotheosis of the original Lowe internal suspension design; enough vertical structure to support 100 pounds, enough fabric and padding to keep it comfortable, and just enough else to keep it all held together.  The limits of the Bikini have to do with adding lateral stability without adding too much weight, and the inevitable weight and comfort limitations associated with stay-in-lumbar designs.

Kifaru’s short-lived KU series was a contender here, with an integrated frame and bag making it to this day the lightest load hauling pack ever (2 lbs 10 oz for 5200 cubic inches).  The suspension was at least as bold a design choice as the more obvious main bag fabric (dual layer sil) and minimal features, and I still wonder if the limits of the KU, with even less lateral stability than the bikini, had more to do with its short life at retail than the fragile fabric.

Seek Outside Unaweep 3900

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If Kifaru set the table for the modern hunting pack, Seek Outside (nee Paradox Packs) was at the front of the pack who arrived in 2013-2014 to eat the scraps.  The Paradox u-frame and hanging belt remains the simplest, inherently lightest, and thus in my mind best of the systems which have matured towards 2020.  It is also, again in my mind, the definitive reification of the McHale argument that hanging belts work better than lumbar pad systems.  Around mid-decade Seek made forays with this argument in the hunting sphere, but was beat back by the ideological weight of the Kifaru tribe.

Also like Kifaru, Seek has persistant struggled with coherence in their feature set.  For this reason, the OG (and long discontinued) Unaweep 3900 remains my favorite pack of theirs.  The tall and thin shape suits the use of Talon compression panel to carry all manner of things, and while the non-dimensioned bottle pockets were a bit small, they were also out of the way of the bottom compression strap.  A pack who didn’t have enough time for the market to catch up.

Osprey Talon 22

JMT photosOsprey is the pack company of the past decade.  For proof, hang out in any busy place, backcountry or front, in any national park and take a casual survey.  This fact encapsulates both poles of almost any pack question.  Many of their designs are substantive, while many have as much to do with in-store appeal than function on the trail.  Many of their products are outstanding values (the Talon 22 MSRP has gone up only $10 in a decade), something anything more than casual introspection can only regard as a troubling fact of globalization.

Therefore it is appropriate that the best Osprey product of the past decade is one which was introduced in the previous decade has changed but little in this decade.  Flaws persist (lame side pockets!), but in shape and function the Talon 22 remains the ideal daypack, from day hiking, to mountain biking, to summer backpacking (see above, on the JMT).

Ultimate Direction Signature series

 

Running vests existed well over a decade ago, but in terms of either size (Nathan) or function (Inov8) they had significant shortcomings.  The first generation of the UD vests had issues as well (this first mainstream foray into cuben packs did not go well), but when it came to features and overall vision they set a high bar.  An all star team of pros/designers often does not translate well to production, but in this case it certainly did, and the result continues to define the category, and show just what truly accessible pockets (a huge growth area this decade) should be.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter

The Porter isn’t the most user-friendly, logical, lightest, or best carrying backpack.  But it looks cool, and was the linchpin product in not only changing the pack conversation (back) towards extreme functionality, but doing so in a wave of marketing that provided a timely antidote to lifestyle, hipster, do-little, fashion mongering abyss that gear in the instagram age was for the later part of the decade very close to falling in.  HMG makes capable packs, that cannot be contested.  A lot of their fundamentals were dated when the designs debuted 8+ years ago, but with respect to aesthetics, materials, and design they are bags meant to do thing, demanding things.

And if that isn’t the first ideal for a backpack, I do not know what is.

Shit that works: MSR tent stakes

Back in July I seized on a weather window and probable lack of snow and did a big alpine traverse in the Bob.  Early summer in the alpine, especially in the limestone reaches of the Bob that hold water in mysterious places, generally mean bugs.  So when  set my camp the first night, in a notch in the rugged ridge at 8000 feet, I chose the only unambiguously flat spot, right in the middle of the pass.  This had the advantage of being away from the springs on the north side (and would thus hopefully keep the many elk I’d seen that evening from tripping on my guylines), as well as the extensive grizzly diggings along the eastern (and more verdant) edge.  Most importantly, it would take advantage of any breezes to reduce bug pressure.

The disadvantage of this approach is that any storms would come full force, which is just what happened at 3 in the morning.  The thunder and wind woke me up simultaneously, and I had plenty of time to assimilate the simultaneous flash/bangs as the storm rolled over, as I was sitting up with my back against my tarp, hoping to help keep both the paddle sections propping up the rear intact, and the windward end stake from ripping.  Neither of these things happened, and after 20 or so minutes I went back to sleep to the music of frantic rain.

I was sleeping in this tarp, with the wall end fortunately facing dead west.  That end was propped up by my Shuna, with the ridgeline supported by a single MSR Cyclone, and the corners by MSR Groundhogs.  These burly stakes, hammered with significant into the rocky alpine soils, were the main reason my sub 1 pound shelter held tight.

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Pictured above is an MSR Cyclone at top, MSR Groundhog, and DAC J stake (formerly standard with Sierra Designs tents) at bottom.  All are made from stout aluminum alloys which over the years have proven immune to any abuse.  I’ve never bent any of these, and only broken older Groundhogs (10+ years ago) by snapping off the heads pounding them into frozen desert soil with a rock.

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Contrast this with the shit stakes that came with the Sierra Designs Clearwing we bought this summer, and the state they were in after the very first use in the field.  Fortunately that night in the Beartooths only featured pouring rain, and was not accompanied by any wind.

Lesson being; don’t get good tent stakes, get the very best.  If your fancy tent, tarp, or mid can’t stay upright, all other particulars are irrelevant.

I’ve used Groundhogs since they first went on the market, and they’ve only gotten better with time.  For years they were all saw fit to use.  I first came across the Cyclones looking for something that would provide enough holding power in loose soils for the great forces bigger shelters (like the Seek Outside 4 man tipi pictured at top) inevitably enact.  They’re expensive, but they do that job admirably, along with providing reassuring overkill for smaller shelters in extreme conditions.  Anyone who camps in sand or sandy soil should have a few, as well as anyone who camps in the alpine.  Adding stake point to an otherwise vulnerable shelter like a tarp is the traditional approach.  The limit here is in the form of soil conditions, which might not admit two guylines, at an acceptable angle, on a primary load point.  A cyclone can be pounded into almost any ground without buckling, and is a more reliable solution to a guy point that must not fail.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to excoriate the many companies who sell faux-MSR stakes with their shelters, presumably in hopes customers will never have cause to know the difference.  MSR doesn’t cut generous deals on the wholesale front because, building the best stakes on the market, they don’t have to.  Either providing these stakes with your shelter, or having the grace to sell shelters without them, communicates seriousness and respect.

There is currently no substitute.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Shit that works: the Rocketbox

Our Yakima Rocketbox turns 20 this year.  Over that time, few other items have been as consistently useful when it comes to outdoor adventure.

The US is set up for cars, with the overwhelming majority of prospective destinations not lending themselves to non-private motorized transportation.  If in places like Alaska the wilderness can make hard to get to the wilderness, in the lower 48 the great ocean that is rural America usually makes it hard to get anywhere else.  For this reason some places can feel very remote indeed, even if you’re only a few miles beyond the trailhead; Big Sandy in the Winds, for instance, or Choprock in Escalante.  Add winter weather, and even pavement can be drafted into the wilderness.  During several long drives home from the east side of Glacier and the Bob, riding on the teeth of a storm, unpredictable whiteouts have reduced me to 30 mph with right tires firmly planted the rumble strip, for security when visibility suddenly plunged from 100 meters to 2.

It is logical to get a car big enough to fit all your stuff inside, for security, protection for the elements, and aerodynamics, until you do the math on the dimensions of some of those items, how often you’ll need so much space, and, as important as any other reason, how stinky much of that stuff often is.  A roof box solves all three of these issues.  It should be easily removed and stowed in a garage.  It should be long enough to fit (for instance) 210cm classic skis, and other things which don’t stow well in all but the largest vehicles.  And a roof box is necessarily separate from the passenger space, making it an ideal location for soggy clothing, ripe wetsuits, and muddy boating gear.  The gear itself, and the interior of the cargo box, can be hosed out when convenient and then dried quickly in the sun.

The Rocketbox was essential for organization when M and I were living out of Xterra.  It held all of our trekking, camping, and climbing gear securely and out of the way.  With creativity and a few mods we were able to fit the box and three bikes on the roof (with 48 inch cargo bars).  The box was merely convenient when we lived in a house in Arizona with the same Xterra as primary vehicle, mostly because gear dried so fast in the southwest, and we didn’t do much skiing.  The box, on the same vehicle and with the same living setup, was more important once we moved to Montana, and has become absolutely vital since adding a hatchback and first one and then two children to the mix.  Today, we’ve had enough practice that we can do a week on the road, camping exclusively, with climbing and packrafting gear in tow, and fit everyone in a small (by US standards) car.  With summer sleeping bags there is even space to see out the back window.

(Rocketbox visible at far right.)

In 1999 Yakima made three cargo boxes.  Today they make 9, with only two being comparable (long enough to hold skis, narrow enough for multiple bikes or a boat additionally on the roof).  Wider, shorter boxes seem the fashion, and the worry-free tailgate clearance they provide seems to me a poor choice given their limitations in all other areas.  The other lamentable development is in dual-side opening, the hardwear for which takes up considerable interior space.  Back in the day, the most popular box (the Rocketbox) was available in left or right opening, the other two in right only, which seems like the pragmatic choice anywhere other than New Zealand and Britain.  If the original weren’t still going strong, minus a bit of sun fading, I’d be tempted to look on the used market.

As is, I can’t imagine living without one.  It is the primary car accessory for almost any outdoor activity.

Introducing North Fork Packraft straps

The astute will have noticed months ago that I’m in the process of launching a pack company, North Fork.  I’m pleased to report that it is going very well indeed, in spite of no overt public evidence of progress.   Two years ago I sketched out a detailed idea of the two packs I wanted to build, and have spent the time since making prototypes to re-examine every relevant detail.  Just because I’d spent the prior decade as a hobbiest settling on my own preferences for wilderness packs did not mean those ideas were the best way of doing things.  This experimentation and development process has been immensely satisfying, largely because I freed myself from all time constraints.  I’d make as many packs, and do as many trips, as necessary for me to be content.

That process is, for the smaller of the two packs, beginning to wind down.  I’ve refined a simple, light, and supportive suspension system that can carry 40 pounds sustainably, involves minimal moving parts, and can be stripped down to completely frameless.  A protracted, 18 month diversion into complex side pocket design brought me right back to the basic design I started with.  Features and bag design took numerous diversions, and got back quite close to my original ideas.  That part is gratifying, that the first decade of experimentation was not misleading, but the assurance I bought in recent years only makes the original knowledge shinier.

I’m aware of exactly how full my days are, and have no intention of going down the solo cottage shop road of over committing and watching the wait times grow.  Thus, the bulk of North Fork packs will be sold as stock, and in batches, which will be available when they are available.  If things go as anticipated, the first run of Tamarisks (40 liters, technical multiday backpacking or race pack) will go live in time to be a winter solstice gift.  Development on the big, UL mission pack will continue into next year.  Ideally I’d like to sell some before next summer.

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To shake out the administrative kinks, and sell a simple thing whose value I’ve tested for even longer, we’re releasing the first run of packraft straps.   A ~70 inch length of 1 inch polypro webbing with a stout ITW buckle (each straps is ~72 inch tip to tip with buckle).  I made the first versions (red, immediately above) back in the pre-cargo fly days.  They weren’t quite longer enough, so I made the second (blue, all other photos) and final version, of which several have been in use for the past seven years.

A really big, really full pack will just about max them out.  The sweet spot for the length is a full 55 liter pack, maybe 36 inches in circumference.  The poly webbing is noticeably lighter in field use than nylon.  One inch webbing provides enough friction on both the buckle and against the pack that a cobble scrapping flip will not tear your gear loose, even if that gear includes a mountain bike (been there).  I have also found out, the hard way, that just because you can fit it inside your packraft does not mean, in the name of maximized puncture resistance, you should, making packraft straps relevant for all boaters.  The straps are also handy for keeping your boat rolled tight, for tying a serious overload to your pack (bear can?  100 meter static line?), and for taming awkward loads generally.  I used one last fall to roll up a bison hide for transport, and chained three together the other week to get our new-to-us (1950s Corona, ‘natch) range tight to the dolly and down many stairs into the kitchen.

Packraft straps are shit that works.  So buy some, or make some yourself.  Small item shipping rates meant that total charges for overseas customers are a bit excessive, even with us (M and I) cutting the profit margin a good bit.  You can bartack poly webbing on a home machine, and if you do enough stitches even poly embroidery thread will hold.  I use bonded nylon tex 90, the bartacks will hold long after the buckle shatters.

This is the long-awaited second phase of what began with our stickers and guidebook 2.5 years ago.  Straps today, with stock and (occasional) custom packs to come later this year.

PS: Half the straps sold over the weekend.  Much gratitude from us for the support, and the interest in the packs to come. 

Counter-less

Shoes of the Crosslite family have been my point of reference for rugged backpacking and hiking for a decade now.  The Crosslite, Crossleather, X Country, Anakonda, and Bushido have shared basic tread patterns, excellent rubber, close fit and low stack height, making them the best choice, for my foot, for technical hiking.  Most of these shoes (the X Country being the exception) had/have more than averagely durable uppers, enough that the tread wears out at around the same time.  Good enough.

Sadly the Bushido, which has been fundamentally unaltered for half a decade, is when it comes to fit the worst of the lot.  I’ve on my third pair, and it has only been through going without insoles entirely that they have enough volume.  Insoles would be ideal for protection from grit, but I can manage.  What I’ve struggled with in both the Anakonda and Bushido has been the aggessive heel counter, aka the plastic reinforcement which wraps and provides structure to the heel cup.  The Anakonda always pinched my heel at the top of the cup.  Thicker than avearage socks and a single layer of tape definitively prevented the little blister I’d otherwise get, again, manageable but annoying.  Pair #1 of the Bushidos did not do this, pair #2 did, and pair #3 did it badly enough that for all of last year they sat unused.  I couldn’t hike more than a mile without serious heel damage.

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So with nothing to loose this winter I put those shoes under the knife, and cut out of the heal counter entirely.  I’ve had a few shoes, the Altra King MT most prominently, which lacked any reinforcement here, the King MT particularly had me suspecting I’d do just fine without it.  The King MT is, like every Altra I’ve used or seen, something of a floppy piece of shit, but that is due to slipshod misfoot design and crappy upper materials, not the presence or absence of a heel counter.

So, I sliced through the upper material, and layer of inner mesh, down to the plastic counter, pealed the material off the outside of the counter and down the inside (this doesn’t take too much effort), and cut the plastic out with tin snips, flush with the sole structure.  I then glued the whole mess back together with multiple layers of Aquaseal, using good Aquaseal technique (i.e. allowing air cure before pressing things together).

A couple hundred miles since, and all signs are good.  The absence of the plastic reinforcement is obvious when I put the shoes on, but it does not negatively impact on trail or off trail performance.  No blisters, and most significantly no durability issues.  I’m not sure I’d care to repeat the procedure, but if I continue to struggle with finding low stack, low drop shoes that have both good tread and durable uppers, I might have little choice.

7/2020 update:

This experiment taught me a lot but was ultimately a failure.  The shoes got a lot of hard, mostly off trail miles last summer and fall, holding up well.  On a trip a few weeks ago, with lots of trail miles, the inner fabric and mesh between the cut counter and my feet began to decay and rip, and the result, even with tape to keep the interface slick, was significant blister formation on the outside of both heels.  I think this failure could have been delayed with more careful cutting, but I also think that the fabric layers, absent the plastic layer, are not strong enough to hold up.

 

 

 

How the Imlay Kolob works

Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time.  M and I lived in Moab for most of 2004, which was significantly the first spring after Mike Kelsey’s Technical Slot Canyon Guide to the Colorado Plateau was first published.  Prior to this there was plenty of incomplete or tangential beta for technical slots available, but Kelsey’s publish everything and sort out (ethical, environmental, and accuracy) concerns later approach made the first edition of this book the largest single dissemination on the subject that had or will ever be able to happen.  We were in a unique position of being able to both experience many precious places prior to their first publication (a cold November morning busting microwave sized chunks off the wall in the upper forks of Butler, the day after North Wash had flashed to within a few feet of the base of the Hog Springs footbridge) and to have an easy feast of cheap info before the approach trails were beaten in and non-sketchy anchors established (finding Upper Iron Wash with nothing but fresh g-hook holes).  It was a time of great adventure (reinforcing decades-old drilled angles in the Roost, using knot chocks to rap off snow drifts in Echo) with just enough info and good enough online maps to go most places quickly, and enough unknowns to make it satisfying.

We returned home to Moab after eachs weeks adventure to dry ropes on our apartment balcony and repair wetsuits with a big can of contact cement.  Three different packs which had started the year new or close to it were most of the way to their graves by the time we left.

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The Imlay Kolob is a curious critter, because it is an unabashed specialist.  Tom Jones retired from a career at Black Diamond (where he designed classics like the gen 2 Bullet and the Zippo), and as a climber, to be a hiker with ropes and build canyon gear out of Mount Carmel Junction.  By the time the hybrid version of his Kolob pack was released around a decade ago, canyoneering had become a mature sport on the Colorado Plateau, with a coherent set of demands.  The Kolob Hybrid was the first and still the most coherent reflection of these.

The bare facts of the Kolob are a basic top loading draw cord bag with a floating lid, fixed shoulder straps, removable hipbelt, load lifters, and internal frame set in a pad sleeve.   Back length (base to load lifters) is 21 inches, while the base to strap measurement is 17 inches.  Top circumference is 36 inches, with a 10 inch wide back panel and sides which taper up from 7 to 8 inches deep.  The 40 liter size estimate is thus rather generous, with  30 liters being in my book more accurate.  The Kolob looses a considerable amount of capacity to the aggressively curved bottom, which makes sense.  For this pack bag shape, pocketing, and especially materials must be suited to the canyon environment.   Otherwise there is no reason to steer away from the old method of buying a 40 liter climbing pack on clearance, putting a bunch of grommets in it, cutting a bunch off, and using it for two years until it dies.

Abrasion and water drainage are the twin demands which separate technical canyon hiking from other disciplines.  Skinny sandstone slots are not just phenomenally abrasive themselves, good and safe downclimbing technical often demands using your pack for friction.  I made a simple bag out of X51 before this trip, and after 36 hours and four short but intense slots it was almost worn out.  Similarly, after this trip the 1000D main panel of my pack had a number of holes.  Point being; no single layer of fabric is tought enough for Colorado Plateau slot canyons, mainly because harder objects (bottles, roles) within are an inevitable subject of point abrasion.

To this end the Kolob not only has a radically upswept bottom, that bottom has three layers; holey PVC on the outside, closed-cell foam in the middle, and heavy mesh inside.  The rest of the main body is also two layers, mesh on the inside to hold the weight and expedite drainage, and either PVC or Cordura on the outside for abrasion resistance.  Double layer fabrics, with the inside layer ever so slightly undersized, makes for a massive jump in abrasion resistance, and the Kolob uses this approach in a way which guarantees no water in held in the pack, even if you use it as a kickboard for a 150 yard swim.

The downside of this approach is of course in added weight, with the Kolob weighing over 4 pounds.  Not a huge deal for a technical day pack that might easily be loaded with 30-40 pounds of rope, wetsuit, hardware, and drinking water at the start of a big day.  I have no doubt that the Kolob (and the most recent version, which has a bit less PVC) will hold up better enough than other packs to justify the premium.  The question is, does it carry those big loads also well enough?

Tom characterized the Kolob thus:

The Kolob’s suspension is simple yet sophisticated. Two aluminum tubes provide a rigid vertical structure, which are tied into the pack via six-inch-tall sheet-plastic panels at the top and bottom. The structure is separated from your back by 3/4″ of closed cell foam. The tubes are straight, though some degree of curve is built into the shape of the pack…The Kolob carries really well – the rigidity of the structure controls bounce, an energy-losing effect of flat-bar-based suspensions. The lack of pre-curve in the ‘stays’ allows the pack to have a wide fit range – helped by the willingness of the foam to develop a ‘memory’ of your particular shape.

It’s a unique suspension arrangement in my experience.  The tubes terminate in plastic sleeves held together by a strap and buckle, and this arrangement is inserted into the pad sleeve along with a tri-fold of dense 1/4″ CCF (a very pragmatic bivy pad).  The combo sure is vertically rigid, but between the frame being so short (borderline unuseable for me) and the hipbelt lumbar area not having any real way to not be vertical load transfer to the hips is modest.  Suffice to say past experimentation has me acutely skeptical that the foams “memory” with use will do anything to alleviate these design issues.  Part of the issue is that when this version was produced it was a one-size fits most pack, and taller folks can sorta get along better with a too small pack than smaller folks can with one too large.  Imlay has since added packs built for smaller folks, but none for larger, which is somewhat of a surprise, as I’m not exactly a giant.

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It has to be said that any more effective suspension I can easily imagine would also be more complex and likely less abrasion resistant.  It also has to be said that the reason to Kolob works is that the feature set is tuned to a single goal, with all the salient details (extra bartacks on handle, top photo) well attended to.  It’s a bit busy for my taste, and the frame height issue is a deal breaker, but it is one of the more interesting packs out there, and has been for some time.

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.

Layering in 2019: mid and wind layers

Since 2011 I’ve owned around two dozen windshirts, and while a third of those were for larger reviews and garments in which I didn’t have an inherent interest, this still amounts to an extravagant total.  As of today there are only four in regular rotation.  In the same period I’ve had at least the same number of fleece pullovers, vests, and hoodies, including half a dozen items in current use, on top of a couple active insulation pieces.  I could, by contrast, cut baselayers down to two or three pieces without issue, and gladly go the whole year with a single hardshell.

All of which is to say that the task of additional weather protection for on the move is far more complex than any other.  The most relevant question is thus which items provide for the greatest range of use/comfort, and why.  Not only will versatile items better trim the closet, using generalism to frame our inquiry makes for more incisive answers.

I call wind and mid layers, which collectively are generally used for added protection while on the move in the backcountry, action layers (nod to Twight and Extreme Alpinism).

Thinner baselayers made with faster wicking fabrics and construction (as discussed previously) best fit and indeed demand action layers that prioritize breathability.  For example, take the opposite extreme, a 200 grams/meter 100% merino shirt which was “cutting edge” 15 years ago.  Hike uphill hard with a pack, even around freezing, and the shirt will get quiet to very wet.  Pop above treeline and get hit by wind, or turn the crest and head downhill with the associated drop in heat production, and you’ll want something to moderate evaporation, least you get cold.  Traditional windbreakers work well here, with limited breathability (<5 cfm, say) making for something of a wetsuit effect.  The disadvantage is of course that further measures will be needed to get ahead of the moisture curve, and if kinder ambient conditions don’t help you out, external heat of some kind, in the form of a fire or added insulation, will eventually be needed.  Modern layering seeks to avoid this, with systems that retain far less moisture under adverse conditions, and need far less input to dry.

There is a broad range of functionality here, with individual metabolism providing heavy influence.  Smaller folks, leaner folks, and those with slower metabolism often need a vastly warmer and more protective action layer.  For every case their is emphatically such a thing as too little or too breathable protection.  A case of too little protection would be the aforementioned thick merino and windbreaker combo, which in most cases has too little insulative value and too much protection against external forces, which makes the body work to hard to maintain equilibrium, which is in turn a poor use of calories and morale.  Too much protection would be a thin synthetic t-shirt and a 100 weight fleece pullover in the same conditions.  This combo is good at moving moisture, statically warm, but provides little protection against external conditions (e.g. wind).  This past fall I revisited using 100 weight fleece in place of a windshirt, and it only took one brisk day and one cold and still morning to think that the lack of control with respect to the wind and transpiration generally was stressing my metabolism more than seemed necessary.

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This is why the nylon 20D mechanical stretch nylon Patagonia developed for the Nano Air series, a fabric found on its own in the Airshed pullover, might be the most significant development in outdoor apparel in the last decade.  The insulation used in the Nano Air Light (above) is different that Polartec Alpha, but the reason it and the regular Nano Air are utterly different in use than other active insulation I’ve used is the shell and liner fabrics.  Not only are they very (but not excessively!) breathable, but the thin, mechanical stretch (spandex free!) fabrics retain amazingly little moisture.  A few weeks ago I was out in -15F on consecutive days.  On one the least breathable component in my system was my BD Alpine Start hoody, with a couple hours work putting a fine coating of frost against the inside.  On the other, a Nano Air over a baselayer (the LaSportiva Troposphere) stayed dry after three hours of hard trailbreaking.  The Nano Airs are even more versatile companions for people who run cold.  Since getting one in late October M has hardly taken hers off.

There are times when a windshirt which blocks a lot of wind has no substitute, including (at least for me) a hardshell.  The sadly discontinued Rab Windveil continues to be my all time favorite here, due mainly to fit and features but also to toughness.  The Alpine Start also remains a favorite, and oddly the windshirt I use most but the one I might let go first.  The fit is frustrating, as is the way it hangs on to just a little too much moisture when conditions are truly challenging.  On the other hand it’s durable, balanced with respect to weatherproofing, and looks good.

If I had to pick only two items from all the action layers I’ve had or have, they would be the Windveil and Nano Air Light.  The Alpine Start would be hard to give up, and the Airshed hasn’t been in my closet long enough for permanent consideration.  The fourth item would be Haglofs Pile hoody, not because it’s more performance oriented than something like a Nano Air hoody (or what the Tough Puff, which I’d love to try), but because fleece still beats active insulation on intangibles, if not on performance.

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Actions layers are the other area, along with baselayers, where I think premium items can be worthwhile.  The Nano Air series, along with the best modern wind layers, are astonishingly efficient.  The premium is steep, when comparing for instance a $35 fleece shirt and the $250 Nano Air Light, but just with baselayers when you’re wearing it almost year round, action layers are a good place to put dollars.