Black Diamond Hilight review

I’ve used the 2 person Hilight quite a bit in the last year, with performance quite as I expected it to be, perhaps one or two things surprising. This makes for something of a dull write up; it is a quality tent, well conceived, with defined limits. There a few things that could be done better, but so long as one chooses it wisely, the Hilight will make for a good shelter.

Dimensions are the first concern, and really the only area where I think Black Diamond went wrong in the design. 82 inches is simply too short for anyone of average (5’8″ or more) height. I fit in the Hilight, sleeping diagonally when using it as a solo tent, which is how I imagine 90+ of people use it. That is fine, but I think it would make more sense to stretch it a bit, while making it narrower, perhaps even symmetrical. Rather than being 82 inches long, 42 inches wide at the foot, and 50 inches wide at the head, give it the 87 inch length of the Eldorado, and a uniform 48, 46, or even 44 inch width. Two people are going to be in full bivy/alpine mode using the Hilight anyway, so going halfway to providing comfortable room doesn’t seem logical, when a longer and narrower footprint would only be better for both a duo and a soloist.

I’ve been quite pleased with the performance of the Hilight. Snowshedding is a natural strength of little wedge tents like this one, with the near vertical lower walls, and while I (somewhat annoyingly) avoided big snow storms on trips this past, modest snowfalls sluff off unnoticed. I anticipate performance in heavier snows to be more than acceptable. Performance in wind is a bigger question with wedge, and with the Hilight especially, given the wing pole over the doors. In sustained 30-40 mph winds the Hilight has proven very stable, especially when the side guy points are used. It is a very quiet tent under these conditions, with impressively little movement. I look forward to testing it, the wing pole especially, in harsher conditions, but realistically those don’t happen very often. I’d currently take the Hilight most anywhere, anytime in the mountains and be comfortable that with reasonable sight selection and prep I’d do fine.

Ventilation and condensation, and mild weather performance generally, has been an area of unexpected strength and satisfaction. Seeking ease of pitch and total bug protection I took the Hilight on a weeklong packraft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, as well as on an early September elk hunting trip on the prairie badlands of eastern Montana. The former trip ended up being quite warm, somewhat rainy, and had a huge number of ticks. It was really nice to zip into my tent after an evening when I pulled half a dozen or more bloodsuckers off me, and nicer still to have good venting for a whole rainy evening and wake up with almost no condensation. The Middle Fork isn’t a humid environment, but on a permitted river tip one often camps out of necessity closer to the water than ideal moisture management would dictate, and in the Hilight this just wasn’t an issue, due to both the generous venting and the fabric. It was very warm on the elk hunt, and still buggy, which had me appreciating a full tent rather than a tarp, with a full panel of mesh I could leave open to the wind on nights that barely got into the 50s.

Because the venting is so effective, and because resewing and sealing will be a bit of a job, I have yet to get around to cutting the top tunnel vent out. I remain convinced the big, dual flaps make it redundant, but have yet to actually conduct that experiment. Even if I can drop 6 ounces from the canopy, the Hilight is never going to be the choice for truly light and fast trips, unless they involve multiple nights camped on deep snow. Being able to stomp a platform, then use your poles to anchor one side and your skis the other makes this type of tent the clear choice for deep snow camping and ski mountaineering. I would like the corner stake loops to be just a hair bigger. The 104mm wide tails of my spring skis just barely do not fit, though adding cord loops is no big deal.

The accessorizing of the Hilight is something I appreciated every time I used it this past year. As mentioned in the initial post, the stakes are excellent. It is nice to not have to replace, or augment, the stock stakes of a new $400 tent. The guyline is also high quality, and reflective, something I appreciated deeply on the second night of the elk hunt, when darkness and a final futile stalk caught me 3 miles from my tent on a very dark night. I had pitched it atop a knoll precisely to manage this eventuality, but with no moon each knob and ridge becomes like the others, and in my very tired state I was really psyched when my headlamp picked up glowing cord across the coulee, especially as my stash of food and water was inside. In gnarly conditions one could use more cord, but one might well go years with the stock amount being entirely adequate.

There are a lot of lighter, in some cases drastically lighter, double wall tents newly on the market which pencil out as functionally very close to the Hilight. For a lot of users those options, with less robust fabrics, fussier pitches, and worse weather resistance, are probably a better option. I just like the Hilight, added weight be damned, because it is both (surprisingly) versatile, and because it has every appearance of lasting a decade or more. Shelter options are interesting, but I don’t find them especially sexy, and having the Hilight available to tick every non-family tent box I require is both a practical and aesthetic virtue.

Progression 2020

If 2020 was a merciless device which distilled everything already there, into a cold cutting clear hypnotic as overnight ice on an alpine lake, what I learned in the past 12 months was that I did not lack for time. I lack for energy, and for the headspace to use what time I have as well as I would like. This has only accelerated in the last 5 years, as life has filled up with responsibility. Freedom without boundary flows in all directions and disappears as a quick rain in the desert. Build choice into a frame, four lines of duty, obligation, scarcity, and immanence, and coherence comes fast, making freedom comprehensible.

18 months ago I had enduring questions about what my place in adventure would be, given the shortcomings limited days in the field would inevitably bring. When backpacking big miles, there is no substitute for time on feet, and out in wild, technical terrain presence of mind equals safety. How much would my wild mind dull, as years pass and big trips became ever less frequent? A few traverses that summer, and especially the Isle Royale trip that fall, did much to put my fears to ground. In the woods my purpose was clearer and more accessible, moment to moment, than ever before, and any slowness desk hours had put into my legs were more than compensated by confidence and better planning.

I flowed through the swamps and ridges of Isle Royale, and when mid-May opened this year, the virus loomed a little less unknown, and Will invited me on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the timing seemed ideal. It was a difficult trip, the most sustained difficult whitewater I’d ever paddled on that blurringly full first day, but the space between the challenges and what I was able to welcome had never been thinner. The stillness which lingered has lasted to this day, and ran through what was the most technically challenging and accomplished season of paddling I’ve had yet.

The process aspects of pursuits and skills have in the past been circumstantial. I’ve learned to ski and to paddle whitewater because wanted to go places and be on journeys that required these tools and techniques. This past summer of packrafting was the coalescing point for a new mindset built not just around the process of any given trip, whose better embrace is another story, but on the immediacy of the skills in question. This spring, big lonely storms amidst the height of lockdown had me avoiding objective hazard, and provided ideal conditions for getting better at flowing one turn into another on powder through the trees. This summer I read lines and placed my paddle better than ever, because that had become the first goal, and in many cases because I was paddling close enough to my limit that anything less led to some bruising swims. And this fall, with both kids obsessed with biking, I’ve looked forward to hours at the bike park, just trying to hit a berm better.

All of which sounds, when I writer it in retrospect, rather trite and obvious. Was I really so preoccupied with so much other stuff, so much external stuff, so many goals, for so long?

The answer has to simply be yes, and the trip which pushed me firmly over the line to admitting this, out loud to myself was the prairie elk hunt this September. It was on a scenically detailed bit of ground, but with the elk so legion exploration had nothing to do with getting from A to B, and everything with where along that path a bull was likely to be bedded. On the one hand that hunt was a dismal process failure, insofar as my shooting skills let me down on at least several occasions that I’ll forever regard as should-have-been-certains. On the other it was a raging success, in that opportunities were rife and I failed so close to a dead elk so many times, and was thus bludgeoned over the head with all the things I was as a hunter doing properly.

My other goals for hunting in 2020 were to kill some grouse, and put some time into being selective about a big mule deer in the local mountains. I did kill some grouse, which were tasty, and had a lot of fun days within an hour of home hiking around our northerly desert-forests looking for and at mule deer. My explicit goal, for the first time, concerned antler size, because in each year past for I can’t recall how many running I have seen one particularly large antlered and magical buck after I had filled my tag. From the perspective of inches I never saw that deer, and the one I shot was a disappointment. From the perspective of experience the kill, butchering, and walk out were everything exactly as I like about hunting, and this and the elk hunt put together clarified the blend of practice and location which makes hunting distinct from every other form of knowing in the outdoors.

It all, in short, gives me a lot of hope and interest for what might happen this year.

The packout

The snow was crunchy, crisp toe snagging crust over three inches of powder, freeze dried into substancelessness by weeks of sunny days, cold nights and wind.  But I saw the buck before I heard him.  Antlers moving through gaps, left to right, the faint, neat snap of hooves echoing behind.  It was the penultimate evening of deer season, deep towards the winter solstice, and while it was neither as frigid nor as snowy as distant dreams tend to suggest, this buck was full in thrall of the rut, just as hoped.  His nose was on a string, and he followed it, ears and legs and round sleek body barely keeping pace, in a wide circle around me, averaging a bit over 100 yards away for the few minutes until it ended.  Just down the hill a steeper slope of living trees swallowed wholesale the fading light, the dankness of that north-facing slope having kept last decades fire away.  The gentler upper slope, which ended off a limestone crag a few hundred yards above, and into which I had just sidehilled, had been blitzed by the same fire, and it’s place high up in the consistent winds had, still, kept new vegetation to knee height.

I could always see either the antlers or the white rump, and often the line the buck carried atop his back, those three deviances whose exaggerated coherence stand out from branches, rocks, and grass, and have given up so many secrets to so many hunters.  I could not get a clear look at his side, and thus had no shot.  My own crunching feet and readjusting of rifle against first one snag and then another had pulled his attention from nose to eyes several times.  Choice and planning struggled to stay fast enough that when a half second window opened to his lungs, the rest of me would be ready for my finger.  That was what I could control.  Whether the buck circled such that a window would open, that was not up to me.

This is the essence, the essential moment, of hunting.  When practice allows confidence then allows instinct full reign, thought falls away, a millenia-old line pulls you firmly towards and animal, and you can finally kill, with equal parts automaticness and certainty.

The buck vibrated, his life batted out of him, tense for a second, then quickly ran 12 feet and fell over.  He vanished from my sight as easily as a bullet through both his lungs took him out of life.

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I can see the ridgetop from many places in town.  From the hill behind our house, the summit of the roll in at the bike park, the big window at the end of the hall by by my office; in the right light morning or evening the line stands against the hills behind, dark in rockiness and burned timber.  I wonder if many in town have the context to look out and see it.   In my old office I could see it seated at my desk, and one of teachers though my compliment there enamored of the parking lot, so well do the distant mountains become routine.

From the ridgetop, during daylight, town fades into the middle distance, and the immediacy of ridges blending stays most easily in the mind.  At night, the lights of civilization flood across the flats and well up into the hills, and my camp that night felt on the edge of a dark precipice that all but positioned me such that I could, if I wanted, piss off the edge down into someones back yard.  I had realized, 20 minutes from home, that I had not packed a headlamp.  Two flashlights and all the annoying traffic lights kept me from turning around, and I felt acutely that one lack of tool and technology as I cut the buck apart with a light grasped in my teeth.  Having to dedicate a hand to shining the beam where I wanted it seemed worthy of only a short experiment, so I let the abundant snow and slackening wind put a camp for me in a big closets worth of flat between the rocks.  I built a fire, and used that light to melt snow for water and stare, at the distant light strings of familiar roads, and at the somehow less familiar stars as they emerged to compete with the moon.

It was cold up there that night, something my abundant winter sleeping bag let me ignore.  The meat, hung from a branch all night, was frozen solid, and held it’s shape in my pack all the way back.

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The death of Purple

I’ve cracked three nalgene bottles in the past two decades.  The first was a classic 1 liter in milky plastic, before lexan invaded REI and college lecture halls.  It was ancient and wrapped in duct tape, and split radially when I dropped it in the Sylvan Lake parking lot, which was sad.  I think I was relegated to old juice jugs for the rest of that summers rock bumming.  The second was a few years later, Elephant Butte in Arches, at the flat sandstone base of the exit rap.  I got lazy, it might have been the third lap that day and the 40th that year, and let a single kink in the opposite strand rise 30 feet in the air.  I spent 10 minutes trying to huck a partially full 48oz silo through that loop, tied to the other end, before it shattered into pieces striking the rock.  The third was just the other week, when I gave Purple a stout whack on a tree, to split loose the ice which had layered inside after a 10 degree evening.  Purple cracked, and functionally, was no more.

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We found Purple on this trip seven years ago, in the midst of the talus along the west side of Norris Mountain.  Purple has been around a lot, on my first successful elk hunt, most memorably.  And this is why I’ve always like nalgene bottles.  They aren’t invincible, but they’re close enough, in the face of accidents and hot water and intentional abuse, that over the years deep memories accumulate.  Purple has the sticker from our Double Duck, and the one from that place with best coffee porter, and the stack Jamie sent me after I proofed their gorgeous map.  I don’t quite have any ideas what I’ll do with it, but I’m certainly not ready to just put it in the trash.

Without Purple, we have perhaps nine or ten nalgenes in the house.  Some are hiding in dark corners.  A few sit in the mud room and are used daily.  I believe, years ago, I bought one of them.  Another was a gift.  Several more were freebz at trade shows.  The rest, a solid majority, were found in the wild, taken home, cleaned, sterilized, restickered as needed over time, and adopted.  And for the pleasure of keeping fewer gatorade or smartwater bottles out of the wild, I’ll gladly keep hauling the ounces.

Montane Allez Micro Hoodie review

Not necessarily a huge amount to say here: the Allez Micro is a hooded quarter zip baselayer shirt, made from Polartec High Efficiency, a fabric which was one of the very best innovations of the past decade.  I reviewed the Patagonia Capilene 4 hoody back in the day, when it was one of the very first pieces to use the fabric.  Later that year I bought a Capilene 4 long sleeved crew, and have used that since, when the weather gets reasonably chilly.  I ended up passing that gen 1 Cap 4 hoody along, mainly because the hood was too tight for all day comfort.  I’ve periodically missed the warmth and functionality of having a hood in that particular layer, as well as the versatility of being able to use a warmer baselayer hoody as a midlayer, too.  So I bought an Allez Micro, and have been happy.

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The main, perhaps only difference of substance between the Allez Micro and the current Patagonia Thermal Weight hoody is the hood, with the former being a single layer, and the later double.  I much prefer the reduced warmth, and enhanced moisture transport, of the single layer.  For the same reason, I much prefer no pockets on a shirt like this.  I did buy the Allez Micro in size large, which lets me wear it over a t-shirt if desires, while still being slim enough for layering.  This also makes the hood big enough to wear for days at a time, even over a variety of hats.  Sleeves and torso are very long, almost excessively so, though it makes the thumb loops fit ideally, and the fabric is light and flexible enough that some excess around the wrists goes unnoticed.

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Polartec HE was on the vanguard of the defining textile apparel trend of the past decade, and understanding how unusually, occasionally exceptionally wicking and air permeable fabrics interact as various parts of a layering apparatus.  The Allez Micro, for example, is light enough and would seem to be more than fast wicking enough to be a hot weather baselayer.  A few months ago I found myself wearing it on a windless day pushing into the 80s, even at 7000 feet, and having it rather than something like the Pulse hoody contributed significantly to my pace suffering in the heat.  Not only does the grid fabric trap air and as a result add warmth, when worn alone on a calm day, it also wicks too fast to work in hot weather, as the fabric effectively eliminates convective cooling.  That same attribute is of course it’s main virtue in the cold, and why most of the time Polartect HE works best against the skin.

Some sort of shell is often important, in cold, weather, to control evaporative rates and thus provide for some adjustment in heat and cooling.  A big virtue of HE is that it moves moisture so fast that there is a lot of foregiveness in layering.  One can, for instance wear a relatively not-breathable wind layer, to guard against stronger winds and to take advantage of the more limited moisture absorption (relative to soft shell windshirts), and get away with venting via the front zip in warmer and calmer moments.

Something like the Allez Micro also works, decently, as a midlayer over a slower wicking t-shirt, which slows down moisture transport against the skin, but speeds it up through the midlayer.  In this case, there is less wiggle room when it comes to a wind layer, but on something like a spring ski trip where one might have both hot afternoons and very cold mornings (or days), this arrangement might be the best way to cover as many conditions as possible without duplicate layers that can’t all be worn together (for instance, while sleeping).

The Allez Micro is a versatile option, and Montane did well providing the salient details, without anything extra.  Recommended.

My favorite shoes

This fall I’ve been wearing little other than the Astral TR1 Merge, and for the sort of walking I like to do these days, they are far and away the best pair of shoes I’ve ever had.

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While they don’t have a tremendous number of miles on them, almost all of those miles have been off trail.  They went elk hunting in the Montana prairie badlands, did an alpine traverse on broken granite, went hiking, biking, and climbing in the Colorado Plateau, and have spent more time bushwacking and traversing limestones ridges close to home.  All of those are more abusive on shoes than average, in their own way, and the shoes are holding up perfectly thus far.

Traction across mediums has been excellent.  The lugs grip loose soil, either straight on or sidehill, while having enough surface area for good friction on bare rock.  The rubber is soft enough, without wearing too fast.  The midsole is thick and protective enough, without any hinge points, and without feeling unnatural or slow.  They’re supportive enough, for me, for technical mountain biking using flat pedals, but I can tolerate far softer shoes in all areas than most.  Significantly, the modest padding and added material in the heel and toebox have improved both hold and protection; I’ve not experienced any of the unpleasant talus bites I got often in the Brewers.  The only real flaw is the open mesh used in the toungue, which extends down into the toebox just enough to become a magnet for cheatgrass seeds and a conduit for sand.

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For me, they’ve been supportive enough to carry a 70 pound pack on a few occasions (deer pack out, as well as a family backpack load with a toddler on top).  For me and my feet, support means  enough padding and structure to insulate my feet from the terrain, even when I’m suddenly 50% again my own weight, while being pliable enough to not cause hot spots.  Zero drop is a big part of the later, as is the lack of illusory things like ankle support.  The Merges work for me because they’re a coherent package, the level of support, degree of structure, even the sole and rubber all working to serve one particular style of walking.

That style is a light footed one, based on balancing over terrain and using weaknesses and variations for purchase.  Smearing across the loose wet sidehill, rather the kicking steps.  Working the stable pieces of a talus slope, rather than digging through and into the loosest parts to make steps.  This style is as much about strength and ability as it is about the type and style of trip.  People who regularly take big packs into rough terrain are more often drawn to stiff boots due to pace, and indeed due to their line through a place.  This isn’t to say that fast line, fluid pace shoes are not compatible with a big pack, simply that melding such shoes with a heavy pack requires more than simple strength.  It requires a skillset, and that combination is due to how learning conventionally evolves has historically been uncommon.

That is changing, and as fluid line choice under expedition conditions works further toward the norm, I hope shoes like the Merge remain around as options.

A hunting story

This weekend I went hunting.  After a week of peculiar weather that began with 2 feet of snow and lows below zero and ended with sunny highs near 60, it was a quiet day.  The snow had been melting so fast I found no set tracks, new or old, and by the late afternoon had failed to glass up deer or elk in even the shadiest of beds.  When the sun sunk far enough for coolest to seep into the blue I was a ridge further than I had intended to be, and finally seeing deer.  Two bucks working through the sage far below me got me diving off the ridge.  After surfing scree and cactus down the gully I saw a bunch more, out in the flats, 3 feeding, another half dozen bedded.  They were far enough, and the light poor enough, that I pulled out the spotter from kneeling, behind a shrub, and double checked they were not the bucks from earlier.  Elimination said the bucks must still be on the gentle ridge, so I hauled down the final slope and up the wall , diagonaling a fresh deer trail through the pines as fast as possibly imminent shooting would allow.  Short of the crest I went left, trying to hold something dark in my backdrop, and balancing stealth with the fact that if I didn’t find them in the next 10 minutes lack of light would make further pursuit irrelevant.  And I found one, a ways out, antlers tall and white against the sage and then juniper.  He had me pinned, and while I had time for an off-hand shot, the distance was a bit much, and the shrubbery made kneeling or sitting impossible.  There was not answer, and the deer stotted off hautily as daylight left.

This is where the story begins.  I was perhaps 1 and a half miles, straight line, from the car.  My route, on the ground, had been easily three times that.  Reversing the same route and taking out the squiggles would shorten things nicely, the disadvantage being route finding in the dark along forested hillsides and along steep ridges which I knew had at least a few cliff bands.  The safe and palatable alternative was a brief bushwack the other way and a long circuitous walk on trails, faint enough that I would probably briefly get off track a few times.  The safe and unpalatable option was a steep side hill to the paved road, and a long walk on a road with no shoulder.

The deer trail led east through the sage, and in a few hundred yards I had decided to take the direct route.  Continued progress dead east should whack me straight up against the ridge, and a walk along the top would lead me to a saddle.  Ideally I’d contour at the right time, hit the saddle dead on, contour again up the opposite slope to not gain needless elevation, then drop just a hair south to avoid contour lines which looked suspiciously steep on the final descent.  And that is just what I did.  I had to stop after 10 minutes and do what I ought to have done when I got out my headlamp: put my little Silva compass around my neck.  They currently have the Field model listed as a beginner compass.  It’s light without being too small, and I have it strung with a length of reflective 1/16″ bungee, on a loop small enough that it hangs high and tight, but can be pulled far enough out to site a bearing.  I found immediately that my gut had been right, the sidehill in witch I’d been battling thick fir had curved south, and I needed to cross the gully and begin the steep climb.

This I did, skirting a few cliff bands on the way up, and a few more along the ridge top.  Moon rise was still distant enough to give no hint of relief in the night, and I yelled down into the void to double check that I was atop the correct, deep, canyon.  I almost hit the contour correct, bottoming out in the now gentle gully 100 vertical feet from the saddle, and confidence reinforced, missed the cliffs on the decent by 20 yards.  The moon rose and cold sunk as I reached the trail, and I put on all my clothes for the final 15 minute stroll to the road.  What had been a enjoyable and interesting, if unremarkable hunt, had turned into a lovely piece of physical and skills practice by impulsively agreeing to take just a bit of a chance.  With everything going correctly, it took a hair over an hour to go from headlamp on to feet on the trail.  Either safe option would have likely been twice that.

Goats

In the modern hunting game opportunity is a watchword.  It means having the opportunity to hunt a given species in a given place, something increasingly relevant as interest in western hunting increased as some game populations decrease.  It also means having the chance, in a given hunt, to put a stalk on, actively pursue, and attempt to kill an individual animal.  The former question is both a biological and a sociological one.  There is substantial latitude* in the number of tags, for most species, which biological integrity will allow, and state preference for revenue and the number of hunters and animals in the field shapes things significantly.  Montana residents have long expressed their preference for opportunity based wildlife management, which is why we have long seasons for deer and elk, and why in most places in the state residents can hunt those animals with a tag they can buy every year.  While elk hunting in Montana is a high opportunity affair when it comes to possible days in the woods, it is for most people a low opportunity affair when it comes to stalks on a legal animal.  My elk hunting path has been unique and self limited, but as of today I’ve shot 100% of the bulls I’ve had in stalkable range.  In Montana, a foundational assumption in elk hunting is that the overwhelming majority of your time afield will be spent looking for elk, rather than specifically trying to kill them.

Antelope are the opposite, especially in Montana, where you can get an archery only tag every year which allows you to pursue goats virtually everywhere in the state, for nearly 3 months.  The opportunity aspect with antelope is also high in the chances to make stalks, at least with a bow, as the chances of success on each stalk is pretty abysmal, which is why the state can provide so much opportunity, in both senses, in the first place.

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Its an opportunity I relish, mainly because it is the opposite of so much of wild hunting in the 21st century.  Bison, for instance, is in the hunting all to do with the rarity of the tag, and the potential rarity in the animals on the ground.  Once you find one the hunt is essentially over, evidence in most places** of how little experience the bison have with being hunted.  Even grouse hunting in Montana is mostly about a lot of walking, about using time and distance to increase your odds.  Antelope hunting, especially in my favorite spot, is the opposite.

The antelope generally hang in the same spot, way down off the end of the mesa, on a bench hanging between layers.  They usually bed under one of two trees who sit, hundreds of yards from the nearest patch of green, on a seemingly utterly flat field of grass.  The challenge is getting close to them, in my case, with a longbow, within 20 yards.  After a few tries you figure out quickly how good antelope eyes are.  After a few more, you figure out that those grass fields are not flat, and that the little gullies and most importantly the flowing swale of one layer rising into the other can let you get quite close.  But close enough?

This most recent go, the answer was almost.  I clumsily bumped them out of their favored spot, when I foolishly underestimated the cover begin backstopped by dark timber at 600 yards would provide.  I watched them in the spotting scope getting more and more nervous before the lead nanny ran off her twitchiness in a seemingly random direction.  The 14 other ladies followed quickly, the lone buck reluctant and well off the back.  I walked well back, until my head was hidden by the slope, and then circled the cut bank and eased nearly 180 degrees around them, avoiding the cactus as I crawled up to the edge of a particularly large rock, and peaked over.  They were bedded at 100 yards, far enough towards the other edge that I might be able to circle around, again, crawl up that rise, and be within range.

Almost.

As I can best recall I did everything right, but they were still on their feet acting agitated when my eyes cleared the grass, and already being primed, the buck jumped the string hard.  After a hunt a few years ago, in the same spot, I swapped all my knocks for bright orange, and even so it still took me a few minutes of searching to find the arrow.  This at a distance where, were I more reliable at throwing, I could have hit them with a rock.  But this is the illusion of antelope hunting.  On the face you could have 10 stalks a day, bumping the herd, following, bumping them again.  But terrain and circumstance might allow for only one of those stalks to have any real chance, and holding fire for a legit opportunity is the best thing I’ve learning from antelope hunting yet.

*Colorado and Montana are first and second in terms of elk population, and also first and second in terms of both elk hunter numbers each year and elk harvested.  Oregon is third in both elk population and hunter numbers, but usually fifth (behind Idaho and Wyoming) with respect to elk harvested, one assumes due to the difficulty of hunting elk in coastal rainforest (2/5th of Oregons elk are the coastal Roosevelt species).  Wyoming, by contrast, is fourth (or fifth, with similar numbers to Idaho) with respect to elk numbers, but 7th (behind Utah and Washington) when it comes to hunter numbers.  Some states, such as Arizona and Nevada, have low elk populations, and commensurately low hunter numbers.

**The Henry Mountains in Utah being a notable exception, with a long history of hunting, and reportedly wary animals who often result in a once-in-a-lifetime tag going unfilled.  The bison on the Kaibab Plateau having moved, over the past decade, to wintering within the National Park is another.

 

Astral again

Last summer I bought what ended up being one of my favorites shoes ever; the Astral Brewer.  All of the limitations, and virtues, I noted in my review last summer have held true.  The lack of a little extra structure in the sides of the forefoot has gotten me pinched on numerous occasions.  The lack of a heal counter hasn’t been an issue while walking, but has threatened to pull the shoe off a few times in both mud and thick brush.  The rubber is very good, but the tread can be sketchy in mud and downright scary on loose over hardpack.  And while the upper fabric has manged over the past year, it doesn’t have much life left.

And I don’t really care, because the combo of zero drop, the right stiffness, and plenty of toe room is simply sublime, and simply not available in many other shoes.

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So I invested in the TR1 Merge, Astral’s midtop hiking shoe.  The tread pattern is more aggressive, the midsole 5mm thicker, the toe and heel have a rand, and the upper has a bit of padding in the ankle and tongue.  Weight, for my size 12, is 14.1 oz per shoe.

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The Merge does not have a heel counter, but on first glance the rand and doubled fabric provides a nice degree of stability the Brewer lacks.  It will be interesting to see if this breaks down at all.  I’m quite excited about the lightly padded ankle coverage, in a nonwaterproof package that doesn’t pretend to roll abrasion protection into the ephemeral notion of “support”.  I’m bummed by the thin stripes of pure foam in the sole, as the non-rubber areas of the Brewer have made for a few pokey experiences with cactus.

Overall, I could hardly be more excited.  Shoes over the past 5 years have only seem to come with more and more compromises for backpackers who like stout, minimalist shoes.  Exceptions are a big deal.

 

How the Dana Longbed Works

Amongst the few dozen folks worldwide who care about such things, the Dana Designs external frame packs are regarded as the pinnacle of the genre.  I spent a couple hundred field days carrying an Arcflex, and for a number of reasons gladly passed it along a decade ago.  Finding both the load carriage and feature set deficient, I can’t fathom a reason to go back to that tech, but I’m enough of a pack nerd/historian that when a Longbed popped up for cheap enough locally, it was an easy decision to buy it.

First, the numbers.  The early oughts era Dana Designs Longbed is listed as 99 liters, and 7 pounds 13 ounces, stock.  My version, with medium straps and belt, and a regular harness, breaks down as follows:

  • Belt: 14.5 oz
  • Straps: 7.3 oz (pair)
  • Bag: 3 pounds 12.6 oz
  • Harness assemblage: 8.1 oz
  • Magic wands (pair): 7 oz
  • Upper frame 4.9
  • Frame. 1 pound 3.2 oz

121.6 oz, total.  Which is heavy, by any modern standard, and really heavy by most measures.  Modern load haulers are generally 2-3 pounds lighter, in a package with similar capacity, but a more sleek feature set.  The Longbed is not sleek, as evidenced by the bag weight.  Four separate zippers, including a huge #10 U zip to access the main bag, are the main source of the overall weight, along with the huge lumbar pad and hypalon reinforced frame sleeve, which are sewn to and thus included in the main bag weight.  In this respect it is the worst of late 90s pack design, complete with floppy, non-functional mesh sides pockets, and a size that isn’t even that capacious (42 inch top circumference).

These criticisms would be valid for almost any pack of that era, making the more interesting question why this most modern of external frame packs might have something to teach us still.  As mentioned in the posts cited above, making a frame both rigid enough for load hauling and not massively heavy is challenging.  On the one hand the 19 oz Dana frame is porky.  On the other, it is more rigid than something like the Seek Outside Revolution, is at 29 inches taller, and that 19 oz figure includes totally rigid cross bracing.  With a modern belt removing 5-6 ounces, and a less complex overall harness design cutting something close to 2 pounds, the Dana frame might be a more coherent package than it first appears.  

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With the top bar at full extension the Dana frame is a full 36 inches tall, a full ten inches beyond most modern hunting frames.  It is also lighter, shorter, and narrower than something like the Barney’s Freighter frame.  The other argument for external frames, beyond the virtues of tubing over stays, has always the footprint of the frame.  The 26″ by 12″ footprint of modern hunting packs (Stone Glacier, Kifaru, etc) equals, when loaded 10 inches deep, 3120 cubic inches, about half a carefully boned out elk, and more weight than most people will be able to carry over rough terrain.  A load bearing footprint beyond this is handy for loads less easily tamed.  A bison hide is an example with which I have personal experience, or a moose quarter or rack of ribs (which many places in Alaska must come out of the field bone in), which explains Barney’s enduring popularity up north.

For myself, I’ve long wanted to experiment with a larger platform for family load hauling, and the Dana frame makes an ideal platform.  

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Carrying the Longbed in stock form does not make me at all nostalgic for my old ArcFlex.  The external frame is indeed more forgiving of poor packing.  I loaded up a five gallon bucket of iron window weights, resulting in a load too heavy to stand under without rolling over and crawling upright (a boundary I’ve found that for me is right around 100 pounds).  The adhesive properties of the aggressive lumbar pad and thick, soft hipbelt were immediately obvious, as were their longer term impacts, having to cinch things repeatedly as you travel and motion and gravity combine to help things compress.  

The years have taught me that the rough contours of hips require different sorts of padding compared to the less sensitive, and often concave depths of the lumbar.  But I still struggle to see lumbar pads as anything other than a crutch for fit issues.  I’m excited to experiment with the frame.  I’m also excited to put lumbar pads in the bin until something unforeseen comes along.  Dana packs remain the apotheosis of that design, and this pack not suiting me injects confidence into my dismissal.