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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

Layering in 2019: introduction and baselayers

Any discussion of layering has to start with it being somewhat of a misnomer; the point of a good layering system is to provider a few solid pieces which cover as great a range of conditions as possible.  If you have to swap, add, or remove layers often, you chose poorly for the day.  That said, technical outdoor clothing is both better and more expensive than ever, so if you pick well a small arsenal can work on almost any day of the year.

Base layers should move moisture quickly, and keep abrasion and sun off your skin.  We’re into the second decade of merino being full fashion in the outdoor realm, and I’m ready to call it ready to die insofar as backcountry performance is concerned.  The virtue of merino was always the extent to which it controlled evaporative cooling by absorbing some of the moisture burden as it moved from skin to the garment surface, with odor control and heat of sorption* being tangential benefits.  As the paradigm of all outdoor garments has shifted towards faster moisture transport and greater air permeability, moisture buffering in base layers has made less and less sense.  There is no point in effectively storing moisture in your base layer when the mid and/or wind layers are not working at full capacity.  Thin wool minimizes this disadvantage, but the continued experiment with introducing synthetics into merino is all the evidence required that merino durability is below 180 grams/meter substantially problematic.

Where wool continues to shine is as lifestyle wear for the urban jungle.  A mildly sweaty 3 mile bike commute makes the odor control of merino highly relevant, and while the aforementioned hybrids don’t hold up to brush and backpack abrasion, they do hold up to repeated laundering.  All my merino shirts have been shunted into daily use under dress shirts, which keeps the -10 degrees mornings a bit more at bay, and allows me to chase kindergarteners at will without being stinky for 3pm meetings.  Insofar as growth in the “outdoor industry” is largely confined to lifestyle or near lifestyle segments, merino has a bright future.

I revisited merino this winter, and quickly got sick of the outer layer of my hats and shirts frosting up, something which was under similar circumstances eliminated by going back to synthetics.  The last six years trend in synthetic baselayers has continued, with fabrics getting ever thinner, and mechanical/structural variations making for increased performance.  Polartec High Efficiency, popularized by the now-classic Capilene 4, has remained the touchstone cold weather baselayer, while sub-100 grams/meter garments have made this the new cutoff for light weight baselayers.  Old tech is also making comeback, in the form of the original synthetic baselayer, polypro.  If poly has won out in baselayers most significantly due its low moisture regain (.5%, roughly), poly ought to do far better with a moisture regain many times less (.06%).  This fall I’ve spent a lot of time in a nylon/polypro/spandex knit, and have been impressed that a not prodigiously light fabric could wick so efficiently, even under difficult (high humidity, near freezing) conditions.  The blend and modern anti-odor treatments seems to have dealt with the old polypro issues (stink, shrinkage at normal laundry temps) quite nicely, with the only downside of this particular piece being the emphatically euro styling (size up).

For the time being my recommendation from two years ago, that with a Cap 4 (now thermal weight) shirt and a Sitka Core LW shirt I could do everything, anywhere holds true.  The Sitka fabrics changed a bit and the features got more complex, but plenty of good options (e.g. the OR Echo series) has come on the scene since.  Most significantly, I continue to recommend that newcomers building a technical wardrobe sink money into quality baselayers, not so much because the performance gain over cheaper ones is massive, but because the gain/$ ratio is the best, and you’ll notice the refinements in function and fit most often, as your baselayers get used more often than anything else (save socks, another area to not skimp).

Next, the fraught world of mid and wind layers.


*Of sorption is the phenomenon where energy is given off as liquid water (in this case within the wool fibers of a garment) passes into a gas during evaporation.  It is popularly cited by wool boosters, and I remain skeptical that the effect is for one significant enough to be relevant in the field, and for another, consequential enough to overcome the downsides of having a bunch of water on board your garments.  The largest number I’ve found associated with of sorption in wool is 1 gram of water generating 277 joules (which is roughly .26 BTUs).  That would be a compelling figure, but the study was of carpets in residential settings, where the thermal load and mass presumably made the findings of limited generalizability.  I assume anyone who claims of sorption as a benefit of merino baselayers, without significant caveats, has not given the subject much thought.





The perfect pole; revised

These poles have worked very well in the 5.5 years since I put them together.  They’ve been light enough, bomber, and the ability to swap lowers and have a pole longer enough for nordic skiing (or pitching a mid with a single pole) has been very handy.


Shortcomings have been two fold.  While the grips themselves have aged well and certainly have the rest of the decade in them, the lack of a solid end plug resulted in dual issues.  The pole with less glue, at right, started working its way out the end of the grip around 3 years ago, and while strategic epoxy stopped progress, the end has never since been as comfy.  At left, the pole with the more solid glue cap bent over under the combined weight of a rain, snow and wind during a magical January night in Choprock Canyon two years ago.  I also want straps, a vaguely controversial admission.  This is mostly for nordic skiing, but after using the Fizan compacts over the past year and a half I’ve come to appreciate having the option of tying in and not dropping poles when I’m tired.

I couldn’t think of a clean way to integrate adjustable straps into the GGear grips, nor a totally satisfactory way to alleviate the above issues, so I looked elsewhere for a solution.  Massdrop ultimately sent me three different sets of Fizans trying to find a pair which didn’t slip (they all did, at least a hair), so I decided to sacrifice one.

img_7121It took a lot of boiling, cutting, and work with pliers, but I separated the plastic core of the grip (above) from the rest of the pole.  The foam part of the grip was a loss, and the brittle alloy of the shaft made extracting it in one piece tricky (and required a LOT of the heat).  The OD of the BD upper is a bit bigger, but the plastic here is maleable enough that some inner sanding and a hammer got them seated.


Next, the grip body.  In the same of simplicity and not leaving the house I used some leftover handlebar tape, doing a short wrap for the lower pommel, and then wrapping the whole thing with more.  If one had more tape and was so inclined, the fashionable grip extensions could be added.

img_7124I’ll update on longevity in a year or so.  My assumption is the tape will need replaced every few years, and my hope is that the plastic grip cap won’t ultimately split after being forced onto the pole.  Regardless of how well this arrangement works, these poles have been one of my more satisfying projects, in that they’ve been a simple and no-compromises solution to (literally) every trip across the seasons., one which has yet to be exceeded by anything commercial, and shows every sign of being equally relevant for another 5 or more years.


Backpack destruction

There are two kinds of hunting backpacks. The first is a burly backpacking pack, with enhanced hipbelt design and some manner or provisions for keeping (boned out) meat weight high and tight to maintain load carry. Internal loops at the tops of the stays are the best option here, as building enough anti-barrel into a frame to make meat shelfing a good option necessitates a lot of weight. The second type of hunting pack is exactly that; a truly rigid frame capable of both not flexing much when loaded to 100 pounds, and resisting barreling to the extent that compression between the pack bag and frame requires.

The first type of pack is best suited to true backpack hunters (i.e. those who don’t just pack in 3-10 miles to basecamp), especially those targeting critters in the deer/sheep category, namely animals sub-300 pounds live weight which when carefully boned and fleshed can be packed out in one trip by a reasonably fit and experienced hunter.  Bare pack weight can be in the 3-4 pound range, and framing can be flexible enough that load carry in the 30 pound range isn’t overly restrictive.  1/5″ by 3/4″ thick 7000 series aluminum is my standard here; much thicker and you get into back brace territory, go down to 1/8″ and load carry above 60 pounds gets too wippy/bouncy.

The second type of pack has a few keystone examples worth discussing.  Kifaru’s combination of wood/carbon laminate stays and 1/8″ HDPE framesheet enjoys continued popularity, the current Duplex Lite being the most recent version.  This combo is effectively vertically rigid under practical hunting loads (>150 lbs), and nicely resistant to barreling.  The enduring popularity of the Duplex is, in essence, that it mimicks the rigidity of a modern external (like the Barney’s) with a narrower and in some cases shorter form factor.  Folks packing a lot of elk, especially in a guide or bro/gang hunting capacity, are well served by such a pack, as are midwestern eHunters who primarily pack dreams, climbing treestands, and sacks back to the feeder, not necessarily in that order.

As a final prolegomena to the title content I ought to mention the Seek Outside frame, as I’ve spent a lot of time under a Revolution, and because the system does a decent job of spanning the gap between the two types here discussed.  The Revolution variants (and the Brooks, which I haven’t used) do a good enough job of fighting barreling.  They are also pretty darn vertically rigid, while still being lively enough when lightly loaded.  The problem is in the bulk of the frame, though given that nothing else currently comes close to this compromise that is a small price to pay.  My trepidation is in the long term prospects of the tubular frame.  After my elk pack out last fall I hosed down my frame, let it dry in the sun over the odd Thanksgiving heat wave, then put it in the closet until April.  When I pulled the frame back out a asymmetry to the bends was unmistakable, and this in the older, heavy duty frames with thicker walled tubing.  I bent the tubing back and used it since without issue, but worst case testing does make me worry about this, long term.

Worst case testing is a useful and very fun exercise, especially if it involves a big pile of stuff your boss paid for wholesale.  Perusing the comments of the GoHunt video is interesting for a couple reasons; it exposes the rampant bias seemingly inherent in users of hunting packs, and displays the faith the Kifaru tribe has in their product of choice.  I have no doubt Kifaru would survive a comparable test well, and given Kifaru’s well documented record of rather imprecise (nice way of saying sloppy) stitching and build standards, it is worth investigating why I think so, contrasted with why Kuiu failed the test so thoroughly.

That the Badlands et al. class of packs ripped and broke should not be a surprise to anyone who has taken one off the hook at an army surplus store.  Generic fabrics and zippers don’t cut the mustard for heavy loads, nor do 6000 series aluminum stays, unless they’re thick enough to also be massively heavy.  My only shock here was just how much those three packs cost, a thought which quickly flowed into wondering why anyone buys them, when you can get an Aether Pro for $375 off the shelf.  Real expertise is not needed here; if a material feels cheap and weak, it probably is, and sentiment will not change that.  I wasn’t surprised at the widespread zipper failures either.  Tearing a #5 slider off the coil isn’t a fair metric, but zipper ends which aren’t either tucked into a seam (like the Metcalf) or reinforced extensively with bartacks and multiple layers of fabric are ripe for failure, and should be avoided.  The dual front spotter/accessory pocket arrangement Kuiu has been using for almost a decade (and copied from Arc’teryx), is an ideal example.  Zipper tape that isn’t #10 is not that strong, and all too often neither are the stitched corners used to install it.

But stitching on a backpack should never, ever fail before the fabric around it.  Any poltroon with a $80 machine from Joanne’s can use anything stronger than nylon embroidery thread to put seams in 500D Cordura that will hold and tear from stitch hole to stitch hole, or in parallel with said stitching.  Kifary is salient here, they don’t use espeically tight or neat stitching, but they do use thread which is strong as hell, which allows them to systematically substitute very hasty quad-passing for bartacking, and still have products which are tougher than anyone who will ever buy them.

Which bring us to broken frames, and perhaps random questions which accompany them.  How much stronger would the Stone Glacier Krux (flat carbon rods) test in a lab, relative to the XCurve (tested in video, carbon rods with titanium joints)?  Are the Mystery Ranch stays actually carbon, or the glass/carbon composite of the NICE frame?  Can someone actually make a curved carbon and/or composite pack stay which is stronger, functionally, than aluminum?  Quite a few have claimed as much, but every example either breaks in my hands or those of others.  Given that the Kuiu frame GoHunt broke is the upteenth, updated version, after the company went through a number of dramatic, public failures, it’s hard to get excited about not-metal in this application.

I’ve broken lots of packs, especially over the past 7 years, when investigating particulars about fabric and design has become a hobby, and occasionally job.  Almost all of them have been through abrasion, generally in the lower third of the pack.  Sawing the lower shoulder strap webbing in half while canyoneering has also happens several times over.  Aside from this, and longer-term point pressure issues in suspension components (as detailed in the Evolution frame review mentioned above), all my pack failures have been induced through hyperbolic, abusive, artificial testing.  It might take 40 or 80 field days to either fatigue one of the those composite stays to failure, and absent access to a private lab machine, the only pragmatic way to accelerate the knowledge curve is to chuck it down a cliff.  This way you learn about the stay, suspension design, and pack material, all at once.  I’m not saying that I’d have many hesitations about taking a Stone Glacier or Seek Outside pack into the field, just because it might fail under barstool lab testing, and I’m certainly not willing to buy into the heavy hipbelt and “yoke” system Mystery Ranch uses.  But the kind of durability the Metcalf evidences in the above video is what every pack designer wants to see in their product, and I would refuse to believe otherwise.

Why Mike Lee is not full of it

A week ago the junior Senator* from Utah caused a good stir with a speech that all you readers ought to peruse, as it is both better and worse than the typical outpourings of press releases and 250 word “articles” have made it to be.  I’ll pick some nits in conclusion, but it’s worth hopping over Lee’s questionable history and logic, straight to the best point he makes, that tourism and recreation are not for rural America the panacea that popular opinion likes to make them.  As Lee writes

The radical wing of the environmental movement today is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that uses its cultural and economic influence to rig the game against hard- working rural America.

It is an alliance of privilege between a new class of royalty: celebrities, activists, and corporate elites who want to save the Earth at the expense of our rural communities.

They delight in seeing vast swathes of untouched lands, fulfilling their idyllic notions of the West.

They envision a landscape dotted only with picturesque resort towns that exist for their pleasure: destinations where they can jet in, spend a few days at the cabin and the shops, take a few pictures of some animals, and then retreat to their enclaves on the coasts.

A charming picture—for them.

Less charming is the picture for the people who live in these areas full time. While tourism has contributed much to the West, communities can’t survive on it alone.

It is a complement to – not a substitute – for broader economic development.

Skip the rhetoric and political red meat and focus on the content they largely cloak.  Are Moab and Aspen (or Crested Butte, or Jackson), or even the less extreme examples of Bend or Bozeman (or Flagstaff, or Laramie), what anyone in the rural west would actually want to hold up as the future?  A tourist economy brings seasonal, and generally low wage, employment, and in fairly short order vacation homes and tourist infrastructure which creates three classes of “normal” permanent residents:

  • seasonal bums, generally young at heart if not also of age, and content to pay big dollars for a couch, closet, or parking space
  • old timers who got in just before the golden days and are weighing the rate their nest egg (e.g. real estate) fattens versus the rate their cartilage decays
  • couples and families working a few too many hours and paying far too much mortgage to get in while they can

When public school teachers and the folks who manage your favorite hangout begin to slide out of the third category, it doesn’t take long for the fabric of a town to become thin indeed, the few thick strands left not enough to catch anyone not just passing by to enjoy the view.  Folks who are new to the whole western scene are generally wowed enough by places like CB and Moab that they don’t see through the facade at all, don’t realize that the barrista commutes 45 minutes each way by bus, and the only reason the 2nd grade teacher they chatted with on the lift can own that perfect house two dirt blocks off main is that his spouse inherited it from great-grandpa miner, or is the head lawyer for the ski hill.  What these same folks almost always don’t realize is that the facade seems so perfect and invisible because it was shaped, by the anonymously intentional force that is culture, exactly for people like them.

It’s quite a bit easier to see the dirty skeleton of Moab, as the town has grown so quickly and so much and so ungracefully.  No goes to La Hacienda and likes it, something which was been true for decades, and yet rather than the 1 hour wait for a table being a regular feature 5 months a year, as it was 15 years ago, that season has grown to 9 months.  This article by Outside Magazine, on Emery County’s quest to build a tourist economy out of Joe’s Valley and the San Rafael Swell, encounters what we might as well call the Moab Question without actually engaging with it.  Do the folks mentioned expect their kids to take over the coffee shop, and would they ever have considered starting it without a spouse whose job provided a steady, reasonable or better income, and presumably along with it, health insurance?  Then again, what choice did they have?

Lee would doubtlessly pipe in here to remind us that families loosing extractive incomes and viable ranching operations is part of what starts the spiral towards sprawl and housing problems.  Cows not condos, as you’ll see on bumper stickers.  The Outside article mentions that local economies around Grand Staircase expanded in the 21st century.  What the article doesn’t mention, but the report it cites makes quite plain, is that a not insignificant part of that increase has been in non-labor benefits, in this case, more residents retiring and going on Medicaid and Social Security.  What the report and article fail to mention is the steady decline in school enrollment, with Escalante High having a total of 67 students (and 4 teachers) in 2016.  Perhaps more growth, and more sustainable growth, is yet to come, but Escalante and the monument with which it has become associated ask real questions about how well conservation can be justified on economic grounds.

This is the flip side of stoke not saving us; a recreation-based economy which incentivizes, and perhaps in the end demands, that those most attuned with big empty wild places not live too close to them.  But if, as Mr. Linck contends, attachment to a place is the most probable driver of long term conversation, are we forced to relegate that to expensive long-distance vacations.  And even to increasingly expensive (but still far less, comparatively) fees for public campgrounds, rentals, and park passes?

One model, which the aforementioned second tier towns (Bend, Flag, etc) have done well with, is to invest in recreation infrastructure as a means to be more competitive on the quality of life front.  Our own little city has a free biking and hiking shuttle, which seems to be 80-90% locals on any given evening.  It’s a draw regionally, and a talking point, but more importantly it is simply an awesome thing to have on hand.  It, and the trails right out the back door it serves, fosters place attachment in a broad swath of folks, and hopefully serves as a model for the future of the western US.

In his speech Lee asks the rhetorical question of why the western states turned out differently than the east, why they have been as he says “handicapped” with so much public land.  The answer, as he is surely well aware, is that by 1890 we were as a country finally figuring things out.  The frontier was officially closed.  People like Theodore Roosevelt were connecting the lose of the bison with the loss of far bigger things, spiritually and ecologically.  No one in the 21st century will ever see what it was like for a squirrel to go from the Ohio to Lake Erie without touching the ground, but anyone who cares to can see clear mountain water flowing through the unroaded labyrinth of the Escalante.  This is so because a few people convinced the many that it was important.

Lee sees himself doing something similar, taking back local land for local people.  And this is important.  It is also important to recognize that those who live far away can have an attachment to a place, and that living somewhere so different can create a perspective and appreciation that is can be more acute precisely because of the sense of contrast, even loss.  On the one hand places like Escalante are overdue; they rode a bubble of cutting and digging and grazing subsidies that were never sustainable.  Just like the logging towns of western Montana and the Pacific NW have had to painfully graduate from the brief era of large clearcuts to the modern era of targeted ones, so to will the desert SW have to find out what a proper way of life actually looks like.  The scary prospect today is having someone like Mike Lee oversee this process.  It’s easy to see him having his way, and the 22nd century opening on a Colorado Plateau with a lot more holes, roads, and condos, without any more multi-generational connections.

Lee claims he wants to give power back to the people, but his sense of “the people” is far too narrow in both time and space.


*Let’s all take a moment and recall what a decent person Bob Bennett was, perhaps the Tea Parties most ignominious casualty.

The permit wall

Late in 2016, as I was packing my gear room, I can across a pile of backcountry permits stuffed toward the back of a low shelf.  It was the sort of place which only gets organized during a big move, and is easy to put off.  So I assembled them all and stuffed them in a folder, and put that folder in a box.  As we moved, and boxed and unboxed, more permits were discovered and added to the folder.  This winter I opened that up, counted and examined the permits and put them in chronological and per-park order.  And now, in the house where we intend to die, and shortly introduce our second kid, it seemed time to do something with them.

So I trimmed them and glued them to a foam board.  And hung it on the wall by our back door, the one you cannot but look at every time you come back inside.

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Now that all the extent permits are in one spot, I can’t look at them without thinking about all the ones apparently went into the garbage.  Brendan and mine’s Grand Canyon trip from 2014.  Our Virgin River permit from 2006, and our Glacier permit from August of 2016.  The central Tonto trail from the summer of 2007.  Many, many Zion canyoneering permits, and many Glacier permits, all unaccounted for.  Extrapolating from those present and missing, and including research cabin trips in winter, I’ve done between 60 and 70 overnights in the Glacier backcountry in the past decade.

There are lots of good memories, starting all the way back in 2007 with this memorable trip down the New Hance and along to the South Kaibab.  This family hiking and packrafting trip along the North Fork of the Flathead.  M and I’s two backpacks in Craters of the Moon, and both our hiking and river permits from our canyon trip with Little Bear when he was 9 months old.

It’s proven to be the perfect momento; an equal reminder of what we have done, and what we haven’t.

Being lost

The farther down the road we went, the more isolated we became and the whiter everything became. I wondered aloud if we were making a foolish mistake; we weren’t even experienced enough with snow to make a guess. Florangela said, “It’s an adventure.” But I kept thinking how all the roads in Yellowstone followed rivers and, if I couldn’t distinguish the next curve, we’d run off the road into icy water, where we wouldn’t die from our wounds but of hypothermia.

There are many ways to be lost. Some have declined due to technology; others are newly born. But in every situation, to be lost is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is frightening, often dangerous, but it also breeds connection—with people, and with places. The maps people carry in their pockets can be a barrier to that connection, but they are also safety nets. And it’s easier to take a leap if you know there’s something at the bottom to catch you.


I find it easy to remember each time I’ve been lost, however expansive the definition.  If by lost you mean having no idea beyond the general where I am, I’m not sure I’ve ever been lost, at least as an adult.  If by lost you mean only knowing my location within a mile or so, I could spend hours reciting examples.  And if by lost you mean knowing where I was but being unable due to circumstance to reliably get myself where I wanted to go, I could tell vivid stories from both the woods and the city.  These last are the most frightening and thus the most memorable of all.

Years ago two friends and I spent a full October day hiking a loop Steve Allen recommended for three days.  I had run a road marathon a week earlier and was at the beginning of what would become a 2 year battle with IT band problems.  Rather than cancel our vacation I took 3200 mg of Ibuprofen each day, changed our itinerary not at all, and really suffered, due to lack of legroom, with 5 people 5’10” or taller in a Subaru for the 16 hour drive between Moab and central Iowa.  We made the loop, but spent the hours of dusk seeing our exit canyon trail into indistinct cow trails through pinons and junipers.  There was just enough light left to see the height of the cliff we found ourselves atop, and just enough energy left in our minds to wander south and feel a way down to the flats below.  The whole time we could see the lights of the interstate in the distance, which reminded us that unless we did something foolish we weren’t going to die, however painful and scary the moments might be.

Years later my mother and I took a cab to the main rail station in Cairo, with an hour in the dark to find the platform for the sleeper train which would take us south.  In the previous 10 days we had consistently been the only white tourists not attached to a tourist group, something I clearly understood as I tried to match the Arabic writing on our tickets (bought days before from an office off Tahrir Square, staffed with fluent English speakers) to the signs along the platforms.  Cairo never seemed more dingy and massive, a mood made purely form our doubt.  Eventually (likely within 20 minutes) a polylingual bystander saw and provided us with the help we obviously needed, and we were able to sleep well and wake up in Luxor.

During the Bob Open in 2016 Derek and I fought our way through deadfall down to Lion Creek, only to take the spur trail across to the outfitter camp and spend an hour postholing around the hillside looking for it to continue downstream, when it was in fact just on the other side.  Our not especially detailed, but particularly trustworthy, map showed the trail crossing to our side at some point, so I knew we’d find it, it was just a question of how long our detour would delay the eventual end of the trip that afternoon, and whether we might sprain an ankle falling through the rotten snow into the hidden logs below.

On that occasion Derek’s GPS could not get a clear enough signal to be of use, and by then 5 years of living in northwest Montana, a corner of the world Google had not yet mapped definitively, had tempered my faith in connectivity.  The mental side of being “lost” had at least in the woods become so routine that by then I was often choosing to intentionally under-map myself, in the name of maintaining adventure.  Something, incidentally, I would never choose to do in the city, either on foot or by car.  Last Christmas we got lost both ways in the wilds of Baltimore, one time when the highway suddenly vanished into residential streets, and Google helped us link the mysteries of 400 year old urban development over to the harbor we could see in the distance, and another when my sense of scale failed me and we walked nearly a mile past the movie theatre, in spite of having a digital map in front of me and obvious landmarks along the waterfront.


All of which is to say that while I might pity anyone who finds much adventure driving along a well maintained paved road, I live in a glass house insofar as I still find it challenging to take the big picture perspective which comes so easily in the woods and put it to use on the rare occasions I’m in a city of more than 30,000.

I was frightened of the woods for a very long time, even for long after I had spent enough nights on the dirt to rarely have trouble sleeping out there.  For the better part of a decade, persistently, ambitions for multi-nights trips would be delayed or curtailed because of trepidation, and when they happened a creeping anxiety would crawl over my back for days between the conception and the casting off.  With time it began to wain, remaining only with bigger trips or longer outings.  In the last four years that has been replaced, with a sharper but less acute concern over select ambiguities.  How miserable will post holing over that pass actually be?  Will there be enough water to float from the first creek?  Where will the elk be?

On the one hand this has been encouraging.  Backpacking is a lot less stressful, if perhaps less rewarding in the moment.  Hunting has been one substitute for the fear of novelty, with trying to find critters and (more significantly) seeing if I can be patient enough to hunt them properly providing another area where the quest for mastery can still run free in all directions.