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.

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*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.

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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.

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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.

 

Loving and hating the puffy

To begin with, there is the issue of terminology; “puffy” being a plain dumb word, but it is how we refer to synthetic or down fill jackets these days, so so be it.  As with most lexicological nits this one is seemingly benign, but it does promulgate a one-dimensional view of insulated jackets, a problem the outdoor industry has in the last few years finally grappled with in a substantive manner.

I find it odd that off all the layers I wear outside month to month and year to year, the insulating coat is at the beginning of 2018 the one I still find least satisfying.  Baselayers have been going in a good direction for quite some time, by getting thinner and more focused on speedy moisture transfer.  Between the Sitka Core LW line and what Patagonia now calls Thermal Weight I can go out into every condition with no complaints about either fit or performance.  Wool is still sorting itself out, and I’m still paying attention to the various new blends, but if those problems take a further decade to get solved I will remain not at all impatient.  Shells are also in a very good spot, especially the light and quite breathable ones (aka windshirts) that I wear almost all the time.  It will be swell when WPB laminates are both reliable and reliably don’t rely on DWR treatments, but at the moment I’m content enough with how well such things work.

IMG_3253Hot Forge along the Dirty Devil; cold, but good dry conditions once you’re out of the river.

Insulated jackets, on the other hand, are a source of consistent annoyance.  At least, they are here in Montana.  Last winter I had it easy, which is to say simple; I just brought the Hot Forge hoody on everything and was both warm enough and rarely had to worry about internal or external moisture.  Life in the desert is easy like that, with rare precipitation, low ambient humidity, and generally moderate winter temps.  The winter of 17/18 has been quite different.  Since early November we’ve had several feet of snow in town at 4100′, and many times that in the mountains.  Of those ~90 days, probably 1 in 4 has had a low in or below the single digits (F).

It may not be worth saying out loud that these conditions are a lot tougher to insulate for, but it is worth elaborating on exactly why.  Cold weather requires more insulation, of course, but it is also more difficult to manage layers in.  It shouldn’t be so, but I find it harder to stay sweat free at 10F than I do at 30F.  More significantly, colder ambient temps put the refreeze point somewhere within your insulation (or sleeping bag), which means that maintaining the function of your insulation (i.e. keeping it dry) becomes all important, the moreso the longer you stay out.

IMG_5395I’ve been in lots of driving snow this winter, which makes moisture management tough.

The Hot Forge hoody has done fairly well, and save for the truly frigid trips (where I’ve brought my MEC Reflex) has been in almost constant use.  The 4-5 oz of fill provides what I find to be the ideal amount of warmth, and the Primaloft/down blend dries far faster and moves moisture better than either plain down or DWR treated down.  The torso is a bit on the slim side for stuffing with gloves and water bottles, but the cut and feature set is otherwise ideal.

So why the complaining?  It has been possible to flatten the insulation in the Hot Forge in a way the pure Primaloft only does when you submerse it in water, which is a bummer.  A comparably warm Primaloft coat would be much bulkier, so that is a good enough trade off.  What has been disappointing is how quickly the insulation has packed out, leaving the usual down jacket problem spots (inside of the elbows, fronts of the shoulders) a bit thin.  This matches the pattern of what has happened with every thinner, non-baffled down coat I’ve ever owned, and leaves me thinking that under regular use in high moisture areas non-baffled down coats don’t have a functional life any longer than a Primaloft coat, which is to say about 18-24 months.  I still like the Hot Forge plenty, but for winter use in colder, more reliably moisture generating areas it does not strike me as worth full retail.  I don’t think the fill packing down necessarily has anything to do with the synthetic component, as many of the chamber elsewhere remain stuffed full, but this is something worth keeping in mind.  With baselayers and fleece that can last for a decade or more, and windshirt and rain coats whose DWR might make it 5 or more years before becoming dysfunctional, puffy coats end up being the least durable clothing item in the arsenal.  And with premium Goretex jackets excepted, the most expensive.

R0022003Down is better than a blanket when you forgot your puffy, and is also a lot less problematic for folks who don’t put off as much internal moisture.

So what is a better option, if anything?  I’m still scratching my head about that.  A synthetic coat with comparable warmth would be in the ~20 oz range, with the Patagonia Hyper Puff hoody and Nunatak Shaka Apex the leading contenders.  A lighter (and cheaper) synthetic coat isn’t a bad option either, assuming I’ll likely have the Nano Air Light along as well.  I also wonder if an equivalent down coat with more tightly stuffed baffles would hold up longer, better.  Or perhaps new synthetic like Patagonia’s Micro Puff will make this debate moot.  Until then, I’ll keep looking for new options, and keep looking for the cheapest option that will do the job, given the hard life insulated jackets lead.

 

Pack materials for 2018

This post and the follow-up a year later have remained among my most popular works, and with 2018 coming into focus they are at last worth updating.  Not too much has changed in the world of backpack fabrics, but time has allowed for enough clarification that a few things are worth saying again.  There are even some new trends to highlight.

Context matters.  I’ve taken plenty of flack over the years for denigrating trail and thru hiking as a useful design metric for backpacks.  This is a statement I still endorse, but do not mistake holding something up as a metric as equivalent to it being the most frequent or likely use.  Plenty of people get along just fine with fabrics I dislike, and unless you really want to count grams current technology makes producing a good, light, functional trail pack simple.  My own interest has always been, putting the outlier of canyoneering aside, in making and using packs which are as light and functional as the best modern packs, and tough enough for trips like this.

R0010199Nylon ripstop on the Gossamer Gear Type 2 (above) and Osprey Rev 18 (below).  Relatively cheap, certainly light, and for small packs durable for years of reasonable use.  Lighter packs carry lighter loads, can thus usually expect more careful handling, and thus can often get away with lighter fabrics, even if they are used most often.

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Pack fabrics can still be separated into two categories depending upon what waterproof coating they have stuck to their backs.  Polyurethene remains the most common, by far, and provides predictable and in many cases quite satisfactory performance.  The strengths of PU coated fabrics are lower prices, a more supple hand, and a lower amount of weight given over to the coating itself.  The downsides are the eventual degradation of the coating, the fact that most PU fabrics are waterproof to a degree which can be reliably if not commonly exceeded in field conditions, and that applying the coating weakens the fabric.  No one is complaining about the tear strength of something like 330D cordura, but I do believe that attribute of hot-application coatings is why they’re not more liberally applied (which would solve the waterproofing issue).  The quality of PU coating varied drastically, from very good to utter crap, which muddies things for both the home maker and the person just wanting to buy a good pack in the shops.

Laminate fabrics such a hybrid cubens and the various Dimension-Polyant fabrics are the second option.  If I were making a canyoneering pack I’d pick a PU fabric like 1000D cordura without hesitation, as the added weight and waterproofing given by a laminate just doesn’t make sense, especially in the face of no current laminate fabric being adequately durable for such use.  I used several test packs made from X51 (500/1000D cordura) last year, including for this two day excursion and even with careful packing 2 days and five canyons had the X51 on the edge of destruction.  For mountain backpacking, especially outside summer, the added waterproofing and weight of laminate fabrics makes them justifiable.

R0021333Cold and knackered along the Escalante in January.  Canyons beat up packs like little else. Laminate fabrics dedicate a greater percentage of their weights to the waterproofing layer, relative to PU fabrics.  I think the later makes more sense in the desert, for this reason.

Why aren’t many (any?) more commercial packs available in laminate fabrics?  First, the fabrics are more expensive, and needle holes which don’t self heal is I still assume a burden in mass production.  Second, D-P laminates face fabrics they don’t themselves produce in in the US, which means that a Chinese or Korean made cordura would be woven on one side of the Pacific, laminated on another, then shipped back again to be cut and sewn into packs.  Last, and most obviously why the first two hurdles haven’t been overcome, it is more difficult to articulate to the masses how your pack is more waterproof than other supposedly waterproof packs, and yet still is not submersible.  Plenty of people are trying to change these dynamics, and 2018 has the best chance yet of one succeeding.

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Abrasion in 1.3 oz pure cuben (above) and 150D hybrid cuben and VX42 (below).  Pure cuben isn’t reasonable for use in a pack, and the above photo show how easily the strong reinforcing fibers and weak mylar film are easily separated from each other.  The pack below is almost 4 years old, and has been a good test for how the two wear.  The cuben body is fine, but keeping it that way has taken lots of tape and aquaseal.

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Years have only reinforced my conviction that Cuben/DCF is in backpacks mostly hype.  Yes the 150D hybrid is a very good product.  Yes, good packs are made out of it.  But the face fabric itself is still relatively weak in the face of abrasion, and while the laminate itself is without question stronger in every respect than either PU or any PET I’ve seen, using weight and dollars to put strength there continues to not make sense to me.  200-300D nylon face with a thinner cuben film?  Sounds higher performance in every respect.  Since Cuben was purchased by DSM product development and availability has become decidedly less transparent, so while probably the greatest potential resides there in terms of pure pack fabric technology, I don’t expect anything new, one way or the other.

This leaves us with D-P products, which have become more diverse and vastly more widely available.  Rockywoods, for instance, currently sells 10 variants which could be suitable for backpacks, with more commonly available elsewhere.  Much to their credit, D-P has stuck with their fabric nomenclature, which initially seems obtuse but make discussion and differentiation simple.  For our purposes all fabrics have an inner PET laminate (the waterproof part) and an outer woven face fabric.  The V designation means there is an inner fabric laminated to the PET (easily seen by the white inner), while the X designation means the signature x shaped grid of reinforcing fibers is present, laminated within the PET.  Recent trends have gone away from the V layer, something of which I do not generally approve.  In heavier and especially darker face fabrics this results in a very shadowy interior which makes finding things a pain.  In the lighter fabrics, I’m thinking of X21 in particular, the lack of interior scrim takes away a good deal of stiffness, making an already oddly cut prone fabric considerably moreso.  3 years I was already less than fond of VX21, thinking that VX07 punched better given the weight, and that for me VX42 was almost always preferable.  This is not to say that X21 isn’t a good light pack fabric, just that I put it in the sides of a framebag a year ago, and have grown tired of little nicks appearing for no particular reason.

My particular favorites remain the cordura faces on X33 and X50, though VX42 and X42 are very nice.  The slicker face of the 420D plain weave used the latter does very well in brush and sticks, while cordura is better when dragged over rocks.  VX42 has proven difficult enough to put holes in that I’d use it for anything short of the slot canyon abuse shown above, content that I’d be patching holes and nicks infrequently.  X51 ought to be better than X50, but the difference in size between the warp and weft fibers make it a thorough disappointment.  Here my recommendation has not changed in recent years: VX07 for light trail duty, X33 for most things, and VX42 or X50 for abusive applications.

IMG_5567X50 significantly rubbed by 12 miles hauling an elk rack out of the wilderness.  Not overkill in this application.  This also illustrates the way the X grid accelerates abrasion.

A number of areas for improvement are available.  First, more Vspecific fabric options which omit the X grid.  Anyone who has put D-P fabrics to a good test has seen the grid be a major point of abrasion, such that the fabrics would without question last longer without it.  D-P has admitted that branding is at work here, but I also think that packs have become a large enough part of their portfolio that they will shortly be more malleable.   More broadly, it would be swell to see pack fabrics with some manner of durable surface coating that kept them from being saturated under gnarly conditions.  Arc’teryx has done this on a limited basis, so the potential certain exists.

This points to the real future of pack fabrics, which long term is probably in some manner of heavier non-woven.  The woven Dyneema used by Cilogear, HMG, and a few others is impressive, and points towards the way advanced textiles allow traditional fabrics to bend the rules as we know them.  My hope is that fabrics like the Liteskin line from D-P (a non-woven poly face with a woven nylon backer) will out perform traditional fabrics for the same weight, while being less expensive to produce at small and moderate scales than the various dyneema products.

Concerning pack weight

There remains some confusion about how to make a backpack lightweight, and yet still functional.  The simplest and best way remains to raise your own bar; get better at packing, need fewer things, need lighter things, and so forth.  But this can be a hard end to maintain, as I have recently been reminded, and while it can be delightful to sacrifice efficiency at the alter of purity, doing so is not a sustainable end.  To whit, it is a good idea for a backpack to have some (or at least, the correct) external features, though as I discussed years ago features do add up in weight.

Kean observers will recall this video from last year, where I took scissors to a Divide and cut off all that seemed practical.  My scrap pile weighed 4.5 ounces; as many observed not a good reward for the effort expended.  The X42 Divide comes in a little north of 3 pounds as it ships, a figure far enough over the 2 pound magic mark of ~50 liter ultralight packs that it has been the subject of much consternation.  Fully half that 3 pounds is the frame, hipbelt, and shoulder harness, leaving 24ish ounces to account for the bag itself.  A few ounces of that is tied up in the buckles and webbing which adjust the harness, but as my demonstration showed, there really isn’t much fat available for the scalpel.

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My curiosity came full circle a few weeks ago, when I removed those adjustment buckles and sewed my final set of Mountain Hardwear straps (directly) to this much traveled Divide.  These straps are a good bit burlier, and thus heavier and (and is often, but not always, the case) more comfortable than the Seek Outside harness, so it should come as no surprise that they offer little in the way of weight savings.  The pack now weighs 2 pounds and 14 ounces, which discounts all the above features, but includes a pair of 1″ straps and quick release buckles I added across the back.  These do well holding bigger things like ice axes, foam pads, and skis, and are my preferred rig for external attachment.

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So what is the point of all this?  First, I finally have a firm answer to how you’d make fixed shoulder straps work with a frame as rigid as that on the SO.  The attachment point is down towards the base of my shoulder straps, which in concert with the load lifters allow enough distance between my shoulders and the pack that I do not feel at all constrained.  Relative to the stock adjustable shoulder harness sewn on shoulder straps offer considerable less wiggle room for matching individual shoulder shape to the stock frame curvature, which is the most substantial downside of tubular metal frames which are for all intents not really able to be modified by the end user.  With straps of equal materials sewn of does offer a consequential (~3 ounces) savings over an adjustable harness, so there is that.

Second, this experiment begs all sorts of questions about lower weight limits with various approaches to putting a frame in a pack.  The SO frame is absolutely rigid under 100 pounds, something that works very well at 50 pounds, and even 25.  I’ve never  in the past four years of using them thought that the SO frame system had too much load carrying ability.  I have thought it had too much bulk and width, which is a trickier thing to negotiate, as the width allows the frame to wrap around your back, which makes loads very stable indeed.   This remains an undersold aspect of the SO system, how well they work in technical situations.  I’ve used packs with more stability, that I’d have rather used on something like last weekends ski descent, but nothing that I’d rather have used if I’d have had to carry a bulky 25 pounds of winter gear.  There are systems which are better tuned read, not overkill) to moderate loads than the SO frame, but the ancillary benefits of the later goes a very large way towards making up for that excess.

Third, making a light pack not only requires attention to obvious things like balancing minimalism and utility, and selecting materials which will carry the load intended.  Ergonomics and stability are more ineffable, but no less important.    They’re also more subject to individual fit and preference, which is from a design perspective more ambiguous.

Black Diamond Mont Blanc gloves long term review

Much though I hate to admit it, you need gloves.  I have good circulation and am well acquainted with just how cold I can get without it really being a problem, so I try to do without gloves as often as possible, but too often it is just too cold.  Handwear comes with inherent dexterity problems, and because of this my favorite gloves have always been those which give the most protection with the least material and bulk.

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Since September of 2014 my favorite gloves have been the Mont Blancs, from Black Diamond. With a light high-stretch material on the palms and under the fingers, and a windproof laminate fabric on the tops, I’ve been able to wear the Mont Blancs well down into single digits (F) provided the wind isn’t too crazy, and circumstances allow my hands to stay dry.  The main caveats are their slow dry time, which can be problematic in the backcountry, and a fit which does not suit those with wider hands.

My surviving original pair is at top right above, with a brand new pair at top left, and some Dynafit DNA gloves at bottom.  My old gloves are still functional, though enough of the texture has worn off the fingers that grip is compromised.  The fit of the new gloves is a fair bit roomier, especially when it comes to length, as is shown below (old glove at left, new one at right).  The stretch cuff has also been lengthened.

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Glove fit is tricky.  Ideally palm width and especially finger width will be adequate, but no more.  Just as with footwear, gloves which are too tight can actually make you colder.  A big reason I’ve liked the Mont Blancs is that they fit me so well.  On first fitting the new ones seems like they’ll do just fine, with the extra finger room being not needed for me, but not excessive either.  The palm texture on the new version has a different pattern, but the fabric seems functionally identical.

It is also worth mentioning the Dynafit gloves, and comparing them to the Mont Blancs.  Both gloves are around 2 oz a pair, and both have a similar intended purpose.  As opposed to the Mont Blancs, the DNAs take the more conventional approach of having a thicker, less stretchy material on the palm and under the fingers.  This would seem to provide more durability, at the expense of less windproofing.  The DNA gloves do have a more secure grip, though that is a largely theoretical distinction, and are quite a bit less warm than the Mont Blancs in the wind.  The DNAs have a big burly elastic cuff, which feels more secure on the hand, but exacerbates the problem the Mont Blancs already have, namely a slow drying suite of materials.

The Mont Blancs are also noteably cheaper, $25 MSRP compared to $40.

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I use gloves like these the vast majority of the time.  They are good for mountain biking, great for skiing, and even nice for hunting (I can shoot both a rifle and a longbow with them on).  Most of the time I just take two pairs, and a set of light shell mittens if it gets cold.  Hardface fleece gloves are a good alternative for multiday stuff, being about as warm, fairly dextrous, and much faster drying.  I’d still like to see the Mont Blancs in a color other than black.  My original two pairs of Mont Blancs were still functional until a few months ago, when one right glove jumped ship somewhere in the Bob.

If these gloves fit they remain a good option.