Hill People Gear Runner’s Kit bag review

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I’d love to see a historical accounting of when outdoor recreation became, in the first world, bifurcated as it is today. My research indicates that by the mid 70s the effete world of hiking/backpacking/skiing/etc was well separated (in, among other places, ads) from that of hook and bullet. Cultural distinctions between these two have only hardened and broadened, at least in America. In my neighborhood, Glacier National Park backcountry visitation peaks with the hikers and backpackers of August, while across the road September elk hunting is the busiest time away from roads in the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex. The stereotypes fail as all such things must in application, but the tropes nonetheless illustrate why the durability of the divide makes me sad. There is something to be said about the big, name-brand scenery which goes along with national parks, and the ideology of pure witnessing and experience which they (along with all the world’s REIs) promote. There is also something to be said for the messier guidelines, poor trail signage, and fish guts burning in the fire of public lands under the less watchful eye of the Agriculture department. You learn a lot about the woods by walking ridgelines light and fast, and you also learn a lot by sitting still for two days and killing something wild and wary.

Human-powered backcountry hunting is driving a generalist revival of folks who do both. Hill People Gear is at the center.

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I’ve been on a quest this year to find a good on-body alternative to pack side and belt pockets, a way to carry food and possibles during the day. The Osprey Grabbag was ok, but a bit small and clumsy to transition from on to off the pack. The Zpacks Multipack didn’t carry well of pack, stuck out too far in use, and the build quality wasn’t especially inspiring. I dug HPG for a while, and decided the thinner, full-footprint Runner’s bag would be best. In foliage.

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The conceptual anchor of the kit bags is being able to carry a pistol, which is the primary purpose of the large compartment against the body. I don’t feel the need to carry (in the BC or ever), so I’ve used my kit bag purely as a utilitarian/possibles bag since I got it a few months ago.

As can be seen in these photos, the pistol compartment on the Runner’s bag is about an inch thick and encircled almost completely by a dual slider #8 zipper. The front compartment is flat, with two organizer pockets inside.

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You wear the kit bag via the mesh and 1.5″ webbing harness. Loosen the side buckles, unclip the right, and slide it over your head.

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I’ve found the harness to be exceptionally comfortable, both without a pack and with packs from 15 to 60 liters in size. This took a minimal amount of fiddling; I put on the kit bag, put on the pack as usual, fasten the sternum strap under the vertical kit bag straps, and I’m done. At first I thought the big 1.5″ side release would chafe, but I’ve never felt it.

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The construction quality, and materials quality, truly is a step above just about anything you’ll find in REI. The webbing is more tightly woven, the coating on the 500D nylon thicker and more even, and the quick-release buckle more positive in action. The zippers run dead smooth and easy with one hand. Everything is spaced properly, the reason for the aforementioned great fit and integration out of the box. The made in American hype and price is for real, you absolutely get what you pay for.

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The function of the kit bag I’m also quite enamored with. It holds a lot, more than you’d think at first glance, and has just enough organization to keep a variety of things where they should be. There is a restriction on size and shape to maintain comfort; an etrex GPS works but a Princeton Tec EOS does not.

Having a days worth of snacks and all the odds and ends you might need on the go is not only efficient, it simplifies pack organization. A lot of the things which end up in little stuffsacks inside bigger stuff sacks in your pack can live permanently in the kit bag, a state of affairs which also makes it less likely you’ll be without any of that when you need it. The other bonus here and one which I thought about (for instance) a lot when packrafting across the Copper this past summer is that things like your knife and fire kit will stay on your person if your pack takes a float or dive. You could even fit a sat phone, though not with the battery attached. The kit bag is also well suited to other tasks where you want x, y, and z close at hand yet out of the way. It’s a great place for extra ammo while hunting, will be great for fly fishing, and was very handy this past weekend for keeping all our bait station gear organized.

Besides the modest added complexity, the only downside to the kit bag is the moisture build up you’ll get under it. Just like a normal pack, it acts as a vapor barrier, no way around it. Not a big deal, but something your systems will have to take into account. In winter it’s extra surface area that will need to get dry, and in the heat of summer I’m assuming I’ll often leave it behind.

Those with exceptionally narrow chests might find the full size kit bags a bit too wide for best fit, and I assume women with larger busts might find the kit bags difficult to wear comfortably.

Overall, the Runner’s Kit bag is an exceptionally well-designed and well built piece of gear. I can’t see it doing the intended job any better, it is just a matter of if the design itself will suit your needs.

2012; the most beautiful year

This has been a difficult year.  To use one easy example, the progression of my wilderness skills was orderly and logical in years past.  In 2008 Chris Plesko and I went to Yellowstone.  In 2009 Kevin Sawchuk and I traversed the Bob in October.  In 2010 I traversed the Thorofare alone in May, and learned to packraft.  In 2011 I completed the Classic.  This year my two “big” traverses ended in failure, at least insofar as completed the route was concerned.  Work had similar struggles, as I closed in on and passed 2 years at my current job and struggled with having a sustainable attitude towards a job whose external worth is often so hard to judge.  These battles are why 2012 has been the best year yet.  Compiling the video below brought back an overwhelming layer of memories, and with it a few tears of gratitude.  Job completed.

In the video you’ll notice something rather different than those from years past; people.  I resolved to do, and did, many trips with others.  And loved it.  Solo has been and will still be a huge part of what I do in the wilderness, but getting better at sharing has been enormously rewarding.  I believe some call this growing up.

Last year I wrote, on the occasion of this blogs 5th birthday, that I hoped to raise the bar on content.  Visually things have stayed stagnant, photography wasn’t a huge focus this year and I chose to sink money into going on trips and buying gear rather than upgrading cameras and hardware.  This will continue to be the case, as I just ordered a new packraft (Scout!) yesterday.  M and I had a conversation a few months later, prompted by the second time I was freshly pressed and saw viewed multiply for a week or two, where I concluded that additional volume was not a desirable goal.  I do not want to be anywhere close to the most read blog around.   I’d need to make content here more regular and more ereadily digestible, neither of which will ever happen.  I don’t compromise lived life for blogging, and I see little value in being easily understood.  I want to be the most influential blog in my strange corner of the universe, and judged by that criteria I’m pleased with my progress.  My writing here and elsewhere has improved, with several posts here and articles on BPL whose influence has been easily seen.  I shall do my best to keep this up.

I’m not going to write about specific gear this time around, because while my curiosity and consumerism is far from dead, reflecting on the last 6 years has made the gear urge seem a bit silly.  So long as I’ve had a reliable mountain bike good adventures have come, and the particulars matter little.  Investing in a fatbike, as I did this year, is worthwhile for the new terrain and ways of thinking it opens.  Worrying about the best tires and fiddling with different drive trains or different amounts of suspension does not provide a good growth-experience to fiddle-time ratio.  3 years ago I was enjoying myself and exploring places quite as well with one pair of skis as I will this winter with six.  All this is why you should expect to see a bit less gear writing here and elsewhere, and why I bought a new Alpacka rather than any of the many other things worthy of said funds.  A packraft opens new places, and I want a lighter one to ease my multi-sport explorations as well as a second boat to more easily bring others along (looking at you Danni/Clayton/Lauren/Megan/Ali/etc).

I have big plans for 2013.  The first 12 weeks are already quite full with Fisher research trips in Glacier and the Fat Bike Summit in Idaho.  M and I hope to (finally) return to the Colorado Plateau in April, and come May boating and spring skiing will be upon us, followed shortly by the orgiastic period of dry-dirt hiking known as summer.  I’ll need to train hard to be able to last from July through September with all I plan to do, and with enough in reserve to hunt deer and elk in the Bob.  There will be lots of trout to catch along the way.

I can’t wait.

Beyond bear spray

When writing with broad strokes, problematic human-bear encounters can be divided into three types.  Daylight visual encounters, where human and bear see each other before impact.  Daylight surprise encounters, which lack more than instantaneous forewarning; and night encounters which for these purposes will mean a bear swatting at or invading a tent with either curious or predatory intent.  The rare night hiking encounters would fall into category two.  Presuming one wants some form of weaponized deterrent, each of these three scenarios must be taken into account.

There will be endless debate about firearms as bear defense, but discussions of caliber and suitability aside there is a finality to this solution which must be comforting.  In scenario one the choice to place deterrent shots with a potentially lethal option held in reserve has many advantages, but any firearm comes up shorter for option two and especially three.  Obviously a highly trained operator is essential.

Bear spray is the most popular option, and is tailored for situations two and three.  In my mind this is a big advantage.  Additionally, spray is cheap and requires little training.  There is good cause for the US Forest and Park Services to push bear spray as aggressively as they do.

There is no major third option.  Bear bangers are popular in Canada, and seem like a decent option for scenario one but quite useless otherwise.  There have been discussions of flare guns as bear deterrents, which would seem to have few if any advantages over bear bangers with the disadvantage of creating a serious fire hazard.

In my mind, pepper spray is the way to go here.  My problem is that the more I learn about spray, the less confident I become.  The design of current canisters is cheap so it will end up in the hands of tourists, but this also means it can break or malfunction with relative ease.  Which it does, with unpleasant results to whichever human happens to be carrying it.  The safety is not safe enough, and easily ripped off by brush.  The design itself it not an easy one to carry in a protected yet ready position.  Bear spray is powered by aerosol, which has a shelf life and doesn’t work in the cold.  It is sensitive to wind, and the canister is not reloadable.

In short, time is long past for a pro-model bear spray.  I want something part way between the current iteration and a pistol, with a blast of capsicum powered by a modest gunpowder charge, and the ability to fire multiple shots without reloading.  I want to be able to carry as much or as little “ammo” as I want for a given trip.  This does not currently exist.  The Mace Pepper Gun is close, but meant for humans and with a too narrow spray (which might be user mod-able).  The Bond Cowboy Defender is small and lightish, and can fire .410 shotgun shells loaded with pepper charges, but I’ve yet to find any good information about range or dispersion.

I’ve heard too many stories of spray safeties pulled off in the brush, cans punctured against rocks, or malfunctions for no particular reason.  I was loading up my pack to float Kishenehn Creek this summer and the head fell off the spray when I picked it up.  Fortunately it did not go off, though I’m still not entirely sure why.  Buildings in Glacier are evacuated multiple times every summer because people assume that something as cheap as bear spray must be a toy and not a weapon.  While there may be a place for spray, to serve the casual visitor, it is time to give it the respect it deserves and produce it as a series tool.

Buck PakLite sheath mod, and Megalight update

The Buck PakLite series are good knives at a great price.  I bought my regular sized Skinner for 19 dollars, and it holds a pretty good edge for a pretty long time.  It’s thick enough (4mm) that you can beat on it while splitting wood with no regrets, but still filets a fish or guts a critter just fine.  The problem is the sheath, which is functional but large and ruins the otherwise slim and trim profile.

Thankfully you can use the existing sheath to make a replacement for almost nothing.

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Cut apart the stitching which holds the two halves of the stock sheath together and you’ll discover a plastic insert.  This insert is stitched in place with a small plastic tab.  Shave that tab off flush and you have a sleek sheath that is plenty durable, safe, and weighs almost nothing.  I stitched a slip-fit cover out of 500D cordura, and glued it to the plastic with Shoe-Goo.
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The velcro tab on the back holds the shock cord in place (this part is not laminated, so that the cord can move freely and if necessary be replaced), as well as holds the sheath stationary inside the gun compartment of my Kit Bag.  I can draw the knife, use it, and replace it all with one hand.

The saga of the ultimate ‘mid also continues; after observing the effects of last weekends moderate snowfall I added guy points to the edge seams, a bit lower than the mid panel points.  These are not meant to provide stabilization in high winds, but to aid in snow shedding.  2 inches of light stuff last night didn’t provide much of a test, but I was secure and toasty inside with the wood stove cranking.
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The ghost squirrels of Montana

I went squirrel hunting today, for the first time in many years. I did this for two reasons.

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First, I’m starting to get a bit bored with backpacking and the paradigm of knowledge associated with it. This is predictable. With most things in my life I either get interested/obsessed immediately or not, follow the learning process to a point with which I’m content, then move on to something else. This happened with climbing, canyoneering, and mountain biking. I still enjoy all three, and still follow them with varying degrees of dedication, but I could die happy without knowing more about them, or without having done more in them. Mountain biking has proven more enduring than climbing, and canyoneering is a situational thing, and while there’s a lot I still want from backpacking the opportunities for revelation are quickly becoming more narrow. That’s the sweet spot I crave, short of mastery but deep enough in to really see new things. In climbing it was getting up one 5.13. In canyoneering doing some of the bigger canyons and a few first descents. In mountain biking a number of endurance races and some of the technical stuff I rode in early 2008 (descending the east side of Moore Fun with three dabs is good enough). In backpacking, it was (apparently) the Classic this year and last, as well as all the routes in Glacier this summer. Next.

Secondly, the proverbial move away from Montana is always lingering. Maybe it will never happen, but if it does having one honest deer/elk season in the backcountry is a goal, and to make that happen next year I need to develop my shooting to a place it has never been. Stalking squirrels gets the job done.

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Montana squirrels are a different creature than the fat midwestern rodents I hunted in my youth.  In three hours out today I heard their shrill admonitions dozens of times, actually saw the little buggers twice, and got one opportunity to shoot.  The rolling fog banks and just-not freezing drizzle completed the atmosphere.  As I was slowly following the calls of one squirrel the gentlerodent above made a bit of noise scampering out a larch limb off to my left.  I circled around and under, 20 horizontal feet away, and 50-60 feet above me he stuck his head out to my side.  In a wonderful moment of precise forgetfulness, all my fretted shooting at stumps earlier went away, the Ruger went up, the safety went off, and I put a bullet through its throat and out its skull.  An easy shot for many, but I was very pleased with myself.

You have to eat what you kill, and squirrel is renowned for being tough.  Pressure cookers and pot pies are typically the order of the day.  I slow-roasted it in a pot with sage, honey, sea salt, alder cider vinegar, a dash of beer, a whole white onion, and three small tart red apples.

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After ~2 hours at 225 it was as close to falling off the bone as these lean, muscley critters will ever get. I should have pulled the lid off and finished with 10 minutes on broil to flash off more vinegar and make the apples a bit crisp.  Hunting wouldn’t be what it is without equal parts joy and sadness, but eating what you shot or caught is pure satisfaction.