Top 5 backpacks of the past 10 years

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

Kifaru Bikini frame

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

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

Seek Outside Unaweep 3900


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

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

Osprey Talon 22

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

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

Ultimate Direction Signature series


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

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter

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

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

Black Diamond Hilight snap judgment

15 years ago I bought the first generation of the Black Diamond Firstlight.  It was a remarkable thing for the time, a silnylon floor and ripstop Epic fly which, with the simple design, added up to an almost unprecendentedly low total weight and small packed size.  We used it a bunch for 7 years until passing it along, something I’ve since regretted.  The design is simplicity itself, pitches fast, provides lots of living space for the footprint, and between the steep walls and relatively small panels sheds weather of all types better than two simple crossed poles would suggest.  The most memorable night in the Firstlight was in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of summer.  M and I did RAGBRAI in 2005, out of a single bag consigned to the cargo shuttle each day.  The second or third night out a near-tornado passed nearby, something we only learned the next morning, when we learned how many of our peers had been driven inside the local school by flattened tents.

The Firstlight did eventually cease to repel rain, one assumes due to dirty fabric, something my cleaning never entirely fixed.  I’ve long longed for a reliably rainproof replacement.  To that end we bought a Bibler Eldorado, whose performance was faultless, but whose packed size (due to the laminate fly material) was massive enough that it was never a viable backcountry option.  The long-discontinued Golite Utopia is the only other option, and floorless at that, but those models were a bit low ceilinged and hard to find.

So when earlier this year BD introduced a significantly altered line of ultralight tents, I thought long before jumping on the new Hilight.

The Hilight was introduced, back in the day, as the UL version of the Bibler Ahwahnee, just as the Firstlight was to the I-Tent and Eldorado.  The new Hilight has a 30D sil/poly Polyester for the tent body, non-breathable, which makes venting a priority.  This, and dry entry in the rain, makes the side door, large window, and awning pole of the Hilight sensical for this fabric.  The new Firstlight remains made of Nanosphere, and thus not utterly rainproof.


The Hilight is not a big tent, with the modest length (82 inches) barely adequate for a six footer.  My intentions for this tent are three fold; as a winter ski touring tent, as a fall alpine hunting tent, and as an all season shelter for myself and Little Bear.  In the former two cases I’ll use it solo, and laying diagonally will provide plenty of room for winter sleeping gear.


The detailing on the Hilight is excellent; #5 nickle plated zipper sliders, big zipper flaps, nicely bartacked stake loops, guypoints tied in to laminated reinforcements inside the fly.  It is small, and well built, but it isn’t exactly light.  On my scale the body (in the factory stuff sack) measures 2 pounds 10.5 ounces.  The pole set (in bag) is 1 pound.  The included 8 DAC v stakes (my second favorite, and a very nice thing to see) 4 guylines, and pole splint all add up to 4.5 ounces.  So, you might be a hair under four pounds field weight for the Hilight, but not too far in factory form.


There are enough light tents on the market today that such a figure needs accounting.  Foremost, the Hilight and Firstlight are dead easy tents to pitch fast and then secure on deep snow.  Stamp a platform, erect the tent, stuff a ski in two corners, inverted ski poles in the other two, and off to bed.  Rarely is pitching a mid in similar conditions half as easy, as the stakes must hold tension from the first, rather than waiting for the snow to consolidate while you’re already in bed making dinner.  Mids, even the newer school two pole mids, are much less weight/space competitive with the Hilight if a full nest is added to the mix, indeed, nest inserts are so fussy I’ve roundly conceded them to the bin.  Floorless generally works for bugs in all but the worst conditions, and in those, might as well deal with a proper tent.   This is the rationale for using the Hilight on kid trips, too; it is the simplest and close to most weight efficient containment for active sleepers.


I do wish the HiLight were lighter, though I wouldn’t do that with a lesser fabric.  Our Firstlight had extensive patching along the poles, both due to several run away episodes (user error) and due to persistent chafing of the poles against the fly in strong storms.  I might well do it by hacking some superfluous features, starting with the extensive loops and grommets which exist to mate with the optional fly (2 ounces at least, I reckon), and extending to the huge “flow manifold” tunnel vent on the top of the tent.  On the one hand it’s a logical enlargement of the roof vents in the Eldorado.  On the other it seems a bit redundant given the door and window venting.  Concerningly, there is no way to close this vent.  The inner, smaller pair of the four tunnel reinforcements can be bent in, but that is inside the mesh holes.  How does one keep spindrift out?  How does the vent act (as the catalogue copy claims) “…a central, ceiling exit rope for anchoring in on steep pitches.”  Perhaps BD assumes alpinists will cut out the mesh?

I’ll give the tent a shake or two in stock form, but am assuming now that I’ll be cutting out of the whole vent complex and sewing covers over the mesh vents.  The adorable little pockets welded center panel on each end are also ripe for scissoring.


The Hilight doesn’t stand out on specs alone, but it does on aesthetics and design.  Based on first impressions and past experience it should on performance, too.  Just need a bit more fresh snow for a proper trial.

Hunting the Kaibab

Last week, I fulfilled a longstanding ambition, and went Kaibab squirrel hunting north of the Grand Canyon.


Kaibab squirrels are a subspecies of the Abert’s, a common, ear-tufted rodent seen through the more arid parts of western North America.  The Kaibab developed its distinctive white tail and dark body due to geographic isolation, and are singular enough that the part of the Kaibab plateau is a national natural landmark because of this unique subspecies.  Tassel-eared squirrels are almost exclusively seen in ponderosa pine forests, and the Kaibab has developed life habits highly synced with that tree, making it the most pure representative of this class of rodents.  It does not hibernate, for instance, nor does it store food in anticipation of the winter, and their diet (to quote Hall) “…consists almost exclusively of  items produced by the tree [ponderosa] or of plants symbiotic with it.”  Seeds, cones, and the bark of new shoots are the most significant food sources, with the later being the potentially most relevant, for the Arizona squirrel season, which generally runs for the last three months of the year.

I’ve seen plenty of Kaibab squirrels in my life, with the best directly relevant experience being in mid-October of 2014, when after a canyoneering backpack we spent a few days up on the Kaibab Plateau proper, and saw the squirrels seemingly everywhere we went.  The correlation between seasonal conditions and tree squirrel numbers is not precise, but there was reason last week to assume that the stout winter of 2018-2019, and the dry summer of 2018, might make for slim pickings.  While there is a decent body of ecological literature on the Kaibab squirrel (for a rodent, that is), there is almost nothing out there about hunting them.  There are two broad types of ponderosa habitat on the plateau; pure stands in the flatter parts, and stands more mixed with either pines (Doug Fir, more commonly Pinon and Juniper) or Aspens in the transitional and more broken areas.  The plan was to hunt a representative of each type, and see what happens.

Combining hunting with anything else is complicated.  M and I had met my parents in southern Utah for an early Solstice celebration, and adding a 300 mile day trip from our base near Zion when we had driven 800 two days before was pushing things still further.  Fortunately, we had great weather that morning, and the toddler slept all the way from Hurricane to Jacob’s Lake.  Drawing on my knowledge from the Kaibab Monstercross days I had a spot a little ways south of Jacob’s Lake in mind: extensive stands of mature ponderosa, some gentle gullies to provide different aspects, and flat areas for the kids to roam while my stepdad and I went and looked for squirrels.  It seemed obvious they’d be favoring sunny aspects this late in the year, both for warmth and snow-free ground, and 45 minutes in we spotted one, which ran hell for leather away from us and disappeared up the far side of a stout tree and into a nest 60 feet up.  Oops.  I felt like an idiot; as the person with the shotgun I had waited for the classic pine squirrel pause and lookback at 40-50 yards, rather than taking the running shot I should have almost immediately.  Knowing how few chances we could expect to have, especially given the dearth of sign, had me concerned, and irritated with myself.

Back at the cars the kids were collecting pine cones and enjoying the relative warmth outside, so we two hunters took a short walk around the hill to the south.  The sign we’d seen on our first outing had been concentrated exclusively in a small area with a mix of old growth and new (20-60 feet) ponderosa trees.  The far side of the hill had this habitat, but no squirrel tracks in the patchy, crusty snow.  All morning the wind had been strong enough that hearing anything was improbable, and I scanned continuously between the ground and the canopy, trying to tread that line of possibility between being attentive and trying too hard.  Which was when I saw one.

On the opposite hillside, 100+ yards away, and as with the first one running full speed straight away from us.  But this one climbed the near side of a big ponderosa to the first stubby branch 30 feet up, where it sat, tail curled up, looking at me with seeming passivity.  The question now was whether its tolerance for me moving closer would overlap with the effective range of a improved modified choke and 1 ounce of #8 shot.  I kept eyes glued to it as I closed the distance.  It didn’t seem purturbed, indeed didn’t give any sign of disturbance, while I closed to 45 yards and almost the same level, across the gully, went through the full calming breath cycle as if I were about to take a 300 yard shot on a deer, and at the bang of my shotgun fell immediately to the ground.

I sprinted down and then up the hill to it, not because I was worried about it running away, or because if it did I might somehow catch it with my bare hands, but just to look at it.  The process of hunting obliges one to look at a place in a particular way, here the framing is an objective and potentially foreign as navigation through a tangle of cliffs and canyons.  These days I fully embrace this, and the way in which hunting a place can provide new depth of place, if not an entirely novel experience.  Shooting this squirrel, whose finding took all of two hours, and which may have weighed a bit over a pound, was almost as exciting as shooting a six point bull at ten yards last month, because of the context built up over years.  All on a tag which cost 20 dollars.

I hope to go back for a truly extensive Kaibab squirrel hunt, hopefully soon.


Thanks; part 1

As married adults M and I were content, for over a decade, to ride through the holidays and end of the year without much intentionality. This year that changes, to fit the raised stakes two kids and their indoctrination bring. So we’re currently on the road, working on new habits and traditions. Doing old things, and knocking a few off the big some day list.

Ripped and chewed

One of the privileges of traveling off trail, something often but not necessarily associated with hunting, is getting to know how animals use the landscape, season to season.

We’ve had an atypical autumn in Montana, with big storms and cold temperatures in September and October giving way to moderate temps and a big melt off in the past few weeks.  The impact of this divergence from the norm was, recently, on stark display in one of my favorite places.

As in many corners of Montana, here the first tendrils of winter cause elk to move out of the alpine, and eventually to winter out on the prairie, or at least down in the flats.  I assume this process isn’t as simple as a certain amount of snow forcing movement, as regular freezing temps up high must impact the quality of feed.  In any case, there are a lot of elk in this area, and being elk, they are creatures of habit.  They take predictable stops along their annual journey, one of which is a series of hanging meadows that face southwest, where sun and wind can reliably strip the grass, and aspens, bare.

Evidence suggests that the herd had an early, and extended, stay.

Rarely have I see elk trails so freshly beaten in, and never have I seen so much elk shit in such profusion over so many acres.  The herd had moved on, and their tracks, scat, and trails, along with the grasses they had clipped neatly down and the bark they had ravaged with antlers and teeth, were all frozen in place by the nearness of winter.  Only the hard crust of melting snow revealed that it had been a week, at least, since any elk were present.

What you also get to see, this late in the year, is a hint of what was, a century ago and pre-dam, surely the most striking 5 miles in the Bob.  Note the hanging spring right of center in the featured image, which all spring and summer is 20 feet underwater.  These elk spend all summer and winter in game ranges created around the same time as the reservoir, to guard against the march of the humans.  There are accounts of rangers in the Bob, shortly after the creation of the Forest Service, making a 2 week patrol from Spotted Bear through the North Fork of the Sun and back via Danaher and seeing no mammals save grouse and squirrels.  At the same time that game reserves, hunting seasons, and Pittman-Robertson brought back the elk, the reservoir was built, and ensured the ranches and farms downstream steady water through the fall.


I’m happy I get to see those hills full of elk.  I’m bummed I’ll never get to see the main river canyon full of the ponderosa and cottonwood it surely had 150 years ago.


North Fork updates

The initial run of packraft straps has sold out!  All orders yet to be shipped will be fulfilled and sent out today.  I’ll be making more in early December; until then they’ll appear as out of stock in the store.  The second run might even be a different color.  Taking suggestions now.


Not just for boating, as demonstrated by reader, customer, and Alaskan Scott Yeats.

The development of the Tamarisk pack is proceeding, slowly, with the final area of refinement being the belt shape and foam.  In the next three weeks, expect a series of posts detailing the various features and dimensions you’ll see in the finished pack, and the experience behind them.

Ammo questions

Most will recall that a bit ago Luke commented that “I think a TSX is just tougher then it really needs to be for a deer or even an elk broadside.”  The translation here, for the non-hunters, is that while bullets may be lumps of metal, they are not merely lumps of metal.  300 years ago bullets could be simple balls of lead; with probable ranges relatively short and velocities low the force on the bullets were modest and predictable.  Today both variables are several to many times greater, which means that a modern hunting bullet needs to effective at 50 yards and 3000 feet per second, as well as 400 yards and 1900 feet per second.  A hunting bullet needs to expand predictably under both scenarios, and ideally while hitting relatively little resistance (a broadside lung hit, going through hide, ribs and organs) as well as much more resistance (a quartering shoulder shot, with bone and lots of meat to clear before exit).  Too much expansion and the bullet will not create an exit wound, too little and the bullet will potentially not do enough damage on it’s way through.

The Barnes TSX is an all-copper bullet, renowned as Luke noted for being a tough bullet.  Barstool wisdom has them excelling when they hit bone, something my experience last year endorses.  So, imagine my surprise cutting up some elk and finding this:

That is a 168 grain TSX from a Remington factory load, buried 2 inches deep in a hunk of shoulder.  I don’t recall noticing an entrance wound, or meat damage.  The inescapable conclusion (I suppose?) is that one of my initial misses was in fact a hit, and (evidently?) longer than I had supposed, which I find hard to accept for several reasons.  Barnes does not guarantee the TSX below 2000 or so feet per second.  What I find hard to wrap my head around is how my shot got that slow.

Further damming to the TSX was a recent mule deer hunt, and one of those odd overhead quartering to shots (the deer was 150 yards across a canyon, subtly below me, and facing downhill) which led to a high lung shot that exited out the paunch, and entirely not enough wound damage or blood.  5 years ago I shot a similar sized buck at a similar distance with the same rifle and a 165 grain Federal Fusion, with the exit wound being the size of a softball, and the deer dying instantly.  This year, I faced a fairly lengthy and unpleasant tracking job with a deer that was obviously almost dead for far too long.

So I’m looking for a new go-to ammo, or maybe a return to Fusions.

I’m also reminded, by this ammo situation, both kills this year, and a few of the weirder shots from the past few years that the acting of shooting an animal with a rifle is far more fraught with ambiguity than most folks, individuals or media outlets, care to admit.  An instant bang-flop is the ideal, and it is proper to expect that practice and conservative shot placement makes such a reality most of the time.  But sometimes we hunters make mistakes, and some other times weird stuff happens somewhere within the system.  The wind on the other slope is far stronger than expected, the critters take a big step forward at just the wrong moment, a bullet improbably misses vital points on a trip through the torso, or something else which will never be understood.

I had to go out last week and shoot paper to assure myself that I was not the weak link in the system, and was left contemplating nothing more than the delicious messiness which is big game hunting.

The vexatious Airshed

Windshirts are complicated, because their job is a difficult one, and an important one. Patagonia’s Airshed, a pullover shirt made from the outer fabric of the Nano Air series, has been around for a few years.  The lack of a hood, concerns over durability, and the expense put me off for a while, but Max’s glowing review, a gift card, and a 50% off sale put me over the edge last winter.  That I’ve put off writing this for close to a year, and still struggle to summarize performance, is evidence of what an odd duck the Airshed is, as well as how action layer performance doesn’t emanate directly from lab numbers.

The relevant numbers are that the Airshed fabric is 44 grams/meter, and the claimed air permeability is 67 cfm (cubic feet/minute).   The Patagonia Houdini, touchstone for the traditional modern windshirt, is 40 grams/meter and somewhere around 5-10 cfm (being over the head of the general public, cfm is not generally featured on product pages).  The BD Alpine Start, touchstone for modern soft shell windshirts, is 80 grams/meter, and roughly 30 cfm.  In theory, the Airshed ought to be breathable like an Alpine Start class windshirt, but as light and thus as quick drying as a Houdini class windshirt.

In this, it succeeds, though as the significantly increased cfm would suggest, the Airshed does not provide the same warmth as the Alpine Start.  This has a lot to do with breathability, but also I think a lot to do with fabric weight and drape.  The Airshed fabric is impressively pliant, and offers exceptionally little resistance to breeze killing dead air space.

At the same time, I found the Airshed oddly not breathable.  During sub zero conditions it accumulates less moisture on the inside surface than the Alpine Start, but during warmer conditions (say 60F) felt stuffy faster.  I’ve worn the Alpine Start as a sun layer in a packraft on a few occasions when I only had a short sleeved baselayer.  Oddly, I’d be less comfortable using the Airshed for the same purpose.  Somehow the Airshed seems more responsive when the moisture gradient between the inside and outside of the fabric is greater.  I also found it unpalatable to wear against the skin.  It dries fast, faster than modern light (~100 grams/meter) baselayers, but does not actively wick, and thus feels clammy.  It feels very similar to the old BPL Thorofare; uberlight, bugproof, quite windproof, and somewhat plastic-baggy.


For these reasons, I haven’t worn the Airshed a whole lot.  I’m also not a fan of several key features.  The chest pocket zipper is weighty relative to the gossamer fabric, and doesn’t run well unless the neck is zipped almost all the way up.  I removed the pocket, something of an ordeal as the light fabric puckers and pulls like crazy.

The second, and far more significant issue, is the stretch fabric along the cuffs and hem.  This stuff holds water like crazy, an attribute highlighted by how fast the main fabric dries.  Not really a huge deal for a trail running shirt, but an almost fatal flaw in a backcountry piece.  After the struggle of canceling the pocket, I’ve yet to tackle replacing the hem fabric.

Durability has been passable.  There is significant pilling around the front of the waist and along the sides, where the hipbelt action is, but I haven’t yet put a hole in it from brush, which somewhat exceeds expectations.

After a summer of disuse, or of bringing the Airshed and wishing I’d brought the Alpine Start, I cut the sleeves off (easy, the seams are right there), and as a vest the Airshed has promise.  My perhaps longest running complaint about wind or action layers is that they have to be removed and stowed away during serious rain.  Light ones like the Houdini mess significantly with the breathability of a WPB layer, while more breathable ones like the Alpine Start hold too much water, while not contributing enough to the insulation scheme.  My new Airshed vest promises to be a wind layer that can stay on, over a baselayer, for days at a time of mixed weather.

Time (and spring) will tell.

10 yards

Fortunately the bull died on a slope.  So when it came time to turn it, I knew from two years ago to turn the head, stab the uppermost tines into the ground, grab the lower back leg, and pull hard.  Rather than 20 minutes of near-impossible flailing against snagging willows, this time three tugs had the bull flipped and wedged against the log, stable, and the other flank ready for skinning.

Based on the forecast I hadn’t taken the first hunt of rifle season very seriously.  I woke in the dark and as promised inches of snow blanketed our yard.  Webcams west of town showed fog and light ground blizzards.  I figured I’d drive just out of town, take a nice three hours walk, maybe find a few new tracks to investigate, and come home to regroup for tomorrow.

But the sun came early.  An hour out and I had walked a mile of trail and climbed a mile of steep north facing lodgepole forest to reach the broad curving ridge, ground more than half talus, ponderosa and juniper thick.  Last winter I’d found a rash of elk beds melted into the snow on the ridges vague summit, where a little more flatness let more soil take hold, and he ground was a mix of grass patches and the fallen monuments of passed pines.  I’d shoot the bull 3 hours later within 100 yards of this spot, but at first pass I found only fresh squirrel tracks and, at the edge of the cliffs, another orange vest on the lower section of the ridge.

The sky kept opening, blue tendrils spread south to north, and I went west, up each to the next ridge, glassing from summits.  Way off in the flats there seemed to be two folks cutting up a deer, but I hadn’t brought my spotter or my tripod, so couldn’t confirm.  I only brought one knife, one game bag, two granola bars, and no headlamp.  That one game bag was very large, fortunately, as it fit all ~150 pounds of boned out meat, with enough room to squirm down the slope, amoebalike, and with much twacking,, pulling, tweaking, kicking, and swearing get entirely into my pack.  Which in fitting with my casual prep was smallish, 40 inches circ at the top, and with just enough frame height that carrying 80+ percent of my own weight was possible.

I took my pack off once on the two miles back, and 24 hours after each muscle between my ankles and ribs is sore for it’s own reason.

I found the elk on the final ridge, and botched the sneak.  There were 30 of them, cows, a few spikes, and on bull which at 400 yards obviously had brown tines.  The final approach to the ridge tilted towards the knob upon which most of them were bedded, and I didn’t realize they were watching me for probably 30 seconds.  I belly reversed out of sight and re-snuck in the shadow of a puffy juniper, but the herd was already on the move.  I compounded my inattention and nerves by missing twice on the walking bull at ~250 yards, sending the herd sprinting rather than trotting over the far saddle and out of sight.

Fortunately 30 elk in a hurry across a few inches of fresh snow are easy to track.  Determined to not make any more mistakes on the day, I took it slow.  300 calories and 50 ounces of water wasn’t ideal for an all day pursuit, but if needed it would serve.  From the first, when I saw the herd hook right into the trees, I expected they might end up on the first ridge, and an hour later I was slowly through the pines, expecting to cross my own tracks, .308 cambered and at port arms.

For a few minutes prior I could hear one elk, and then another, scooting ahead of me, kicking loose rocks.  They didn’t seem to like this slope, the group spreading out, then coming back together, the lead elk testing a line, then backtracking.  Matters were simple when things came to a head and I was, suddenly, surrounded by tan patches of fur.  There was only one which had brow tines.  They knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t understand what I was.  A few broke downhill, plowing rocks and branches.  More went uphill, a line tight through the trees back past me.  I clicked off safe and hovered my eye above the scope, waiting the last elk of 10, the one with brow tines, to come in line with a dinner plate sized opening.  He did, and settled on the stock and squeezed the trigger.

The elk was 10 yards away.

Shot placement wasn’t ideal, center of center in both directions, and the air seemed to go out of both the elk and our immediate orbit.  He crashed through the brush, shattering dead limbs.  The instinct which in contemplation had left me shaking and thus, missing, earlier flooded back in.  I stepped up and left, quickly, found an opening, and without thought shot the bull again, right in the ass.  He stumbled forward, obviously on the edge of death, but yet going uphill over snotty rocks and through bushes, the momentum imbuing his life seeming to want to carry him over the top of the hill and into forever.  The power of modern firearms seemed very small, but I chased straight on his heels, catching him, again at 10 yards, face to face across an opening, and shot him a final time, brisket through the shoulder.

I’d later find shoulder, back leg, and ribs shattered, innards liquified by the violence of 2800 feet per second.  Such was this elk that it took all the above to place him off his feet, groaning primeval, three legs flailing, blood foaming from his side.  Standing there I all but dropped my rifle, stricken by what I could, in the moment, do so simply.  What accident of zoology gave such creatures flat teeth and ruminant stomachs?  Were they to evolve instantly and today, with such soft human biomass filling the valleys, surely they’d make business of running us down, skewering and stomping us, having in our livers so much concentrated forb.


My mind was mostly done in when I jettisoned the meat bag into the back of the car.  Lacking the usual hatchet to separate the antlers I had cut off the whole head, thus facing a second load both not un-heavy and very awkward.  It would take me 20 minutes to acceptably strap it to my pack.  But first, I’d enjoy the luxury of daylight, of time to savor being in the middle of the process, and drive a few minutes to recharge with cooked cow and a beer.  The head wouldn’t quite fit in even a large hatchback, so it went on the roof.  Two separate vehicles dove into the pullout to gawk in the 3 minutes of the lashing process, and I made the 20 minute drive home tempted to hide under the dash or pull a bag over my head.

Would you be comfortable carting such evidence around like a parade float?

Shit that works: MSR tent stakes

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

There is currently no substitute.