Osprey GrabBag: looks dumb, works good

I came upon the GrabBag by accident; didn’t even know it existed until a few weeks ago. I had been thinkering about using a small fanny pack for the GrizzlyMan, to keep map and food instantly accessible, and thought that such a thing might be useful for backpacking as well. On-the-go accessibility is an ongoing problem with backpacks. Absent Aarn packs, which I’d be more inclined to try were they less expensive, I’m not aware of any design which deals with the need to get at lots of stuff while hiking, easily, head on. Hip belt and side pockets have taken great strides, but are imperfect solutions, usually being small, insecure, hard to get at, or all three. As it turns out, the GrabBag is a better way.

It also looks really silly, but that is the nature of anything which can serve as a fanny pack.

The GrabBag weighs 4 oz with a fair bit of the very long main webbing strap cut off.  It’s an oddly potato-shaped pocket designed to be attached to the right shoulder strap (above) and clipped to the left.  The main zip is a #5, there’s a mesh organizer pocket within the main pocket, and a stretch pocket on the outside.  The backing is lightly padded and covered with 3D mesh.

The positioning of the bag on the pack harness is ideal. It’s easy to open with one hand, out of the way of arms and hands while on the move, and less prone to interfere while bushwacking than stuff in side pockets. As a hip pack, it works innocuously well.

Notice the right-hand shoulder strap attachments above. Also note the buckle tucked almost out of sight behind the mesh and padding. This mates with the 3/4″ long strap when in butt-pack mode.

The long strap. Not only is it adjustable, so that there isn’t a huge length of webbing dangling down when wearing it attached to the pack harness, but the excess strappage tucks neatly behind the padded panel.  Paying $25 may seem daft for something so small and simple, but is well worth it when you think of the thoughtful detailing and exacting construction.

The stock pack comes with a nifty buckle for the left shoulder strap which mates both of the above in one piece of plastic. I lost it almost immediately. Osprey sent this replacement post-haste. Serious points for prompt and free replacement, a few points subtracted for the cheesy stitching. While I didn’t lose mine while it was attached to the strap, the tendency of this little buckle to jump ship while not under tension is something worth watching. On a long trip it might be worth rigging something like the above without the slots, and putting it semi-permanently on the shoulder strap.

Not only will the GrabBag be great as a fanny pack for evening strolls, fly fishing, and so forth while on trips, it works easily with every pack in the quiver. It might lift the burden for the MYOGer to produce her own side and hipbelt pockets, which are often a time and materials consuming nuisance to both design and sew. It will make the pack feel a bit warmer in hot weather, and having to undo three buckles to take off the pack is a bit much, but overall it does a modest but important job so well that I’m immoderately enthused, and plan on using it constantly.  I’ll keep this space updated accordingly.

Rolltops, drawcords, and larger packs for cycling

I made another bikerafting descent of the main Flathead today, using experience from last trip to dial in the crossings better.  I did fewer boat crossings (six versus nine), rode a lot more, and did the whole deal hours faster.  It’s a sweet route.

With slightly warmer weather and more confidence in my rigging abilities, I left the PFD at home, and just went with the gear you see above.  Stowing boat and paddle in the pack was a lot faster during transitions, and better for riding.  Larger (30+ liter) packs for cycling are not the easiest things to do well, they require a whole host of factors which would never occur to a designer who only has hiking in mind.

The first and most obvious factor is height, a pack used for cycling, especially with the riding wearing a bike helmet, can only be modestly tall before it begins interfering with your head in an annoying and potentially dangerous fashion.  This is most likely to happen at the worst moment: when rolling a very steep drop.  That being the case, it’s difficult for obvious reasons to create much capacity without making a pack too tall.  Going wider is one way, but I find wider packs to be all things equal less stable, and more prone to sideways lurching.  The widest packs can even interfere with arm movement while bushwacking and muscling the bike (to say nothing of off the bike activities like skiing and scrambling).  You can however, as this photo illustrates, make a pack quite a bit deeper than might be desirable for hiking.  The center of gravity of a cyclist sits a bit differently than a hiker.

I’ve been very pleased with the race pack, both generally and for cycling.  The 7″ width and 9″ depth allows lots of weight to be placed low, which is good for cycling, and also compresses well while staying tall (essential for maintaining enough structure to avoid torso length collapse).  I’d encourage you MYOG folks to try making a pack deeper than it is wide, or just buying a Cilogear 30:30 or something similar.

All of this is of course predicated on needing a big pack for biking.  Generally you’ll want to go a little easy on the weight, especially for longer stretches of less technical pedaling (i.e. roads), as pack weight does add stress to the butt/saddle interface (i.e. saddle sores become more likely).  That said, carrying a pack with decent weight while mountain biking shouldn’t be a big deal, and I’m intermittently but continuously astonished by all the folks who can’t stand any weight on their backs while riding.  In my highly biased opinion, if anything short of 20 pounds seems like a big deal in this context, your shoulders and especially core could use some attention.  But I’ve been a backpacker at least as long as I’ve been a cyclist.

Coming at last to the subject at hand, I wasn’t content with the length of the original drawcord closure on the race pack, and cut it off to add a roll top instead.  I didn’t like the roll top at all, and a few days ago cut that off and added a drawcord job back on, just a bit longer than the original.  A roll top may be more weatherproof, and if designed right can add some nice compression, but as it played out on the race pack and on the Mountain Hardwear Thruway the buckles and rolling was just too fiddly.  I was also able to confirm that given similar materials for the collar, and similar volumes when maxed out, a roll top is heavier than a drawcord, mainly due to the buckles (this is splitting grams, the difference is modest).

A past commenter did wonder about the weatherproofing on a drawcord closure without a lid.  The answer is twofold; that I usually have a foam pad lashed over the opening, and that I try to avoid stuffing the pack totally full, so I can roll it a bit before cinching the top strap down.  The top strap is key for this, and something I almost always need anyway.  Not a perfect system, but my favorite at the moment.

I also revised the hipbelt setup on the race pack.  On our Many Glacier trip a while back I slipped on some ice coming down on to the lake, and landed square on the back of the pack.  This ripped out both side attachments, which I had forgotten to bartack.  Oops.   It did give me the opportunity to simplify the design, as the 7″ width of the back panel made a complex hipbelt unnecessary when trying to achieve a full wrap.  The above arrangement works great.  I also bought some of these, specifically to replace the plastic 3/4″ buckle on the waist belt.  The alu hook is secure, effective, and bomber, while the narrow belt eliminates the belly pinching I get from using anything bigger than a 1″ waist buckle while cycling.

In summary, packs are awesome, and having a pack that suits you perfectly because you made it is even more awesome.

A brief rant concerning proprietary buckles

It used to be that if you broke the male end of a fastex buckle, a not entirely uncommon occurrence, the only metric you needed to worry about when finding a replacement was size.  All buckles, be they 1″ or 3/4″, looked like the leftmost pictured below.  One buckle, or part of a buckle, reliably worked with another.

This is no longer the case.  None of the buckles above interface with each other, even the ones which look all but identical.  And this is a quick sample from my spares collection.  Go into REI with a pair of scissors and you’d have a hard time harvesting buckles from any two different brand which matched.  At all.  Do companies have really good customer service, and promptly mail a proprietary buckle for free at customer request?  I have no doubt some do, but am even more certain you can’t buy replacements for most proprietary buckles anywhere.  Given that these fancy designs have no practical value, this is unfortunate.  I imagine most of use would rather see R&D dollars go into better packs than integrating the company logo into zipper fobs (as a very nice Lowe Alpine pack I wore today does).  Of course, in this game of curb appeal few companies can risk not participating.

Ski season is over

Not really, but when the above was waiting for me after work yesterday, I got more exciting than I have about skiing for quite some time. Always seem silly to take the best looking component on the bike, coat it in grease, and hide it from the world in the dirtiest place inside the frame.

This bike began back in 2007, when the largest bonus I ever expect to receive from work (unless I go back to the for-profit sector) arrived unexpectedly.  I contemplated getting a Pugsley, packraft, or full suspension bike.  I got the latter, and rode the Lenzsport Leviathan in a huge number of in-retrospect almost unbelievable rides in the years to follow.  Eventually, largely but not solely due to our move to Montana, my interest verged from pure mountain biking to wilderness exploration, things often but always mutually exclusive.  I wanted a bike better suited to my new interests, and for the final time the Leviathan went up for sale.  After some negotiation, I traded it for a Salsa Mukluk.  And after around 3 months of waiting and the slow accumulation of parts, I rode this bike for the first time last night.

Giggle factor since has been rather high.

Mike and Brian were indispensable, building wheels, acquiring parts, and providing technical and spiritual assistance.  Hiccups were few: I cut the steerer on the first fork too short and had to get another, and the seatpost I had previously was too short.  And last night panic ensued as my Phil bb wrench could not be found.  Fortunately the LBS came through and sold me a new one.

This bike was built primarily to be simple, bombproof, not need upgrades ever, and to suit all genres of riding in which a fat bike might be needed.  The secondary goal, largely driven by the former desires, is to make a bike which will go from Cordova to Gustavus in the early summer of 2013.

To that end, the build is as follows:

-17″ first generation Mukluk frame and fork, Thomson setback post (410) and 90mm 0 degree stem, Mango King Headset.

-Surly front hub, Choppers USA rear hub, Large Marge rims, whatever spokes and nips Mike thought was best.

-BB7s, Avid FR5s (bling!), 760mm Kore Torsion low-rise bar, Ergons, Fizik Gobi XM saddle.

-145 mm +5 offset Phil Wood bb, 165mm Race Face North Shore cranks, 20t and 30t rings, Spot bash, 17-19t Dos Eno freewheel, ancient Shimano derailleur shifted with barrel adjuster and a bit of cable.

-Atomlab pedals, cheapest SRAM 9 speed chain available.

-120tpi Big Fat Larrys.

-MYOG frame bag.

This is going to be fun.  Questions taken in the comments.

Thermomolding for Distance

Thermomoldable ski boot liners are really cool.  They’ve yet to make it into many/any boots designed for touring (horizontal miles, rather than vertical), but they should.  They’re warm, act as a vapor barrier and don’t absorb much moisture, and with care and proper technique can be impressively flexible as regards fit, both for a variety of feet and a variety of fits for a single pair.

Conventional wisdom for downhill-oriented skiing has liners fitting quite close all around, including the toes.  Coming from a hiking background I was skeptical this could work without causing blisters and cold toes, but the last few years of fiddling has shown this to not necessarily be true.  My big boots have some Scarpa overlap thermos in them, and my toes just kiss the liners when they’re flat.  During normal skiing they’ve proven to be very comfortable, even below zero, even out all day.  The only shortcoming comes during extra-ski shenanigans, for example walking downhill for 2.5 miles at the end of yesterday’s outing, a lamentable set of circumstances due to a lack of snow low down and an unwillingness to kill my new skis.  The toe bang which ensued reminded me that after this trip I never got around to reshaping the liners in my TLT 1000s.  I leave tomorrow for a three day wolverine research trip, and the high for the whole time is right around 5 F.  No time like the last minute to make sure your toes don’t fall off.

There is a lot of internet discussion of cooking liners at home.  Having paid a shop to do it, and having done it myself, I don’t think there are too many disadvantages to a home oven.  Set it a hair below 250, the tray in the middle, and rotate the liners frequently.  Don’t burn them, and wait until they’re puffy and starting to really get floppy before you pull them out.

The name of the game when baking liners for distance-oriented touring is lots of toe room, and a snug fit elsewhere (especially the heel).  The only way to achieve the former is some seriously aggressive toe spacers.  Closed cell foam and duct tape gets the job done.  You want to create lots of space with this.

A thin sock, the sort you’ll want to use with thermos anyway, goes over the toe cap.  I got some ultralight merino ski socks from Patagonia recently (thanks Jackie) and thus far they’ve been very nice.  They do not fall down, and hopefully the high nylon content will make them more durable than the equivalent one-season socks from Smartwool.

Once you’ve rigged out your foot and placed the nice hot liner over it (stretch the liner to get it all the way over the heel), the next trick is to get it into the boot shell without causing wrinkles which will create pressure points later.  There are lots of ways to do this, but my approach is simple, quick, and effective: put a plastic shopping bag over your liner-ed foot, and right before you slide that in spray the inside of the shell liberally with cooking spray.  Do this and hold the shell open and you should have no problems.  Be gentle but not hesitant.

Once in, make sure the liner is settled as it should be, and buckle the boot gently.  You want the foam to expand as much as possible, to fill voids and thus facilitate a good fit and max insulation.  Stand on the foot (only do one at a time!) kick the heel in hard a few times, and aggressively wiggle your toes frequently.  I like to stand with about 1/3 body weight on the boot foot, with the toe set up on something 3-4″ tall.  Creating a bomber heel pocket and keeping plenty of toe space are the two goals here.

I like to let the whole rig cool pretty completely, about 15-20 minutes, before removing my foot.  Let the liner sit a further 10 minutes before removing it to get the grocery bag out.

You’ll be able to rebake if you got it wrong, but the process is involved enough that its nice to get it right the first time.

Old LaSportiva trail runner insoles: stock on left, modded for ski boot on right.

I put insoles in my ski boots, mainly to take up volume (my feet are top to bottom really skinny), but also to improve fit and add warmth.  One curious by-product of being accustomed to increasingly minimal trail shoes is that I no longer find arch support tolerable.  Both my ski boots, but these old T2s in particular, have more than I like.  I could get them punched out by a shop, but instead I modify the insoles to relieve this pressure, which seems to work pretty well.

The boots featured in this post are a bit ghetto, and while not ideal better for what I want them to do than anything commercially available.  The comments on my review of the Hok, and the article itself, discuss this in more detail.  They’re also, if you have access to a used gear store, pretty cheap.  Especially nice in the increasingly unaffordable world of backcountry skiing.

On a related note, Luc Mehl’s outstanding article on Fast and Light Winter Travel is now available on his site, for those without a BPL subscription.  Good inspiration to get out while what snow we’ll have is still around.

Best of 2011, part 2

2011 has been an extraordinary year.  If the mission of this blog is to explore the cultural consequences of personal development as driven by outdoor adventure, this should have been a good year for blogging, which it was.  This time last year I wrote that day trips were bullshit, and that the packraft made further gear commentary superfluous.  Today I write that in 2011 I spent more nights in the wilderness than any other year in my life to date (excepting 2003 and 2004, when I was paid to be out in the woods).  I also write that last years use of the packraft to deepen my wilderness appreciation has grown enormously in 2011, and in new ways.

But that is the topic for next post!  This evening I write about gear.  My work at BPL has given me a new perspective, a more objective one.  Having half a dozen or more of a given product at your disposal is invaluable when assessing strengths and weaknesses.  And embarrassing though the excess of riches may at times be, not having any reason to be attached to a given item fosters clarity.  That being said, while I’ve used a lot of good gear this year, these days of reflective angst and (in my case) fantastic feedback remind me that the most enlightening physical things in my possession have not been the ones associated directly with trips.  They’ve been the tools of exploration and explication which have made this such a good year for blogging.

So first, the traditional gear of the year:

Werner Shuna: an amazingly utilitarian and aesthetic tool for packrafting enjoyment.

Haglofs Ozo: close to the perfect rain jacket, and in my world today rain jackets are important.

Rab Boreas: what I expect to be the most-worn garment of 2012.

Surly Karate Monkey: this bike is older than this blog, and even as my cycling interests change the Monkey evolves right alongside, with nothing lacking.

LaSportiva Crossleather: my opinions have not changed in over a year of use, and I made it through the Wilderness Classic with one blister.  They’re not perfect, but more than good enough.

And the less traditional, more abstract or tertiary items; just as worthy:

-Canon S90: far from perfect, but took a lot of good photos which were always satisfying to post here.

-The sewing room: what perspective on gear I may have is due in large part to the hours I’ve spent right here.  I haven’t made too many things, ever, with which I’ve been happy, but every one has been a fantastic learning experience.

-The Flathead: living in the drainage of one of the greatest river systems in the lower 48 is neither luck nor coincidence.  The benefit of doing so has been most of the trips written up here.

-Ya’ll: too bad there’s no less-colloquial neuter plural in Engrish.  Thanks everyone.  That I’m having the useful impact on people I know and those I’ve never met has been the most satisfying experience of the year, bar none.

And last on the gear front, a hint of the future.  Still a few things missing, but not for too much longer.

The Race Pack examined (backpacks for the woods part 4)

A perhaps illustrative case study.

I built the race pack specifically for wilderness racing, the Classic next year in particular.  As explicated before, the Golite Jam I used last year didn’t fit and was too big.  I also wanted to make a pack as light as possible without compromising functionality or durability (or spending money, thus no cuben).  Max load perhaps 25 pounds, a close, stable and slim fit for bushwacking essential.

100% VX-21 fabric.  Shoulder straps and lumbar mesh from my old 2011 Jam (the straps fit me absolutely flawlessly).  21 oz.  20 inches exactly from the bottom of the pack to the straps.  Back and front panels are 7 inches wide, side panels are 9 inch wide, bottom cut on a curve, pack depth is 30 inches (to fit the 27 inch long mid sections of my Werner Shuna).

Top is a simple drawcord cinch, with some 1.9 oz/yard silnylon.  It can let water in, but is easy to make and use.  Compression straps are 1/2″ webbing to save weight, top buckles are quick release for fast use with skis, and can clip together for full wrap cinch.  Not pictured here is the daisy chain on the back, which will work for trying stuff on, but will see use most often for tying the pack to the packraft.  There’s provision for a top strap, and a hole for a hydration hose.  Full length pad sleeve with 1/4″ foam pad.

A pack this small does just fine without load lifters.

One of the crucial features is the contour cut into the side panels.  The very bottom by the belt and the bit by the straps stick out further, which facilitates a back hugging fit.  Even with a frameless pack such things make a big difference.

Subtle details add up.  Note the method strap attachment to the bottom corners, which double as abrasion protection.  Unlike just about every other pack I’ve made, this one does not have a doubled bottom (we’ll see how long that lasts).

I still can’t get compression straps dead even.

The tow strap hip belt is attached only in the center and corners, which balances stability with the capacity to absorb dynamic movement.  One crucial feature is the long, triangular panels along the outside of the lumbar panel.  The back pad sleeve does not extend into wings, which then flex and wrap when the belt is cinched.  Very effective.

I haven’t used the pack a ton, and will update as it proves itself.  Based on past experience I’m pretty confident the suspension and harness will work out well.  The real experiment here is the lack of side pockets (or pockets of any kind other than the pack itself).  Pockets are heavy, and executing them well is a pretty substantial design challenge.  I’ve nailed them with the North Fork pack, but none of the other packs I’ve made.  This pack is to see if I actually need them.

Evolution of the North Fork pack (backpacks for the woods, part 3)

I started building the North Fork pack back in late August of 2010, when I was between finishing up grad school and actually working. My work may look good on the internet, but I’m a pretty awful seamstress, what with my lack of patience and hand-eye coordination.  I go for functionality, but tend to get things wrong the first time around.  I also only have a normal sewing machine, albeit a pretty good one, so the ability to only bartack modest thicknesses of fabric and webbing has to be integrated into a design.

Point being, while this video has been a great hit, and still tells most of the story, I’ve had to change a bunch of stuff on this pack over the last 14 months.  It’s a good case study of how a pack works.

As can be seen from the first photo of the pack, the torso length was too short.  I used to think straps which wrapped back around the shoulders were good, as they worked in combination with load lifters to make the pack respond better to movement while carrying.  This is true, to a certain extent, but it also forces the load away from the body, and with any sort of real weight in the pack you end up doing the hunchback: leaning forward to compensate.  No good.

So I tore out the backpanel and lengthened the torso.  My torso, measured the classic way, is 20.5″.  The effective torso length (distance from straps to place the hipbelt will lie of the iliac crest) of the North Fork pack is 20″.  The distance from the shoulder straps to the bottom of the pack is 22″.

The problem with this measurement is that many (most?) manufacturers use the full back measurement as the effective torso length, which is plainly problematic.  Golite does this, which is why the Jam and Pinnacle have actual torso lengths about 2″ shorter than their claimed lengths.  With a pack like the Jam, which lacks load lifters to blunt the effects of a slightly too short torso length, this means that a lot of folks end up buying a pack which doesn’t fit them.

A large Golite Jam.  This pack does not fit.  Golite should relabel this as a medium and start making an actual large. Paige Brady photo. 

My BD Demon, mentioned in the previous post in this series, has an actual torso length of around 18.5″.  BD claims the large fits 19-23″ torsos, which is a bit generous, but because it has load lifters it fits me very well.

Torso length is crucial for pack fit, and should come very close to the actual torso length of the user when measured from the functional center of the hipbelt.  View manufacturer specs with a cynical eye.  A slightly short torso length has it’s advantages, either with a very light pack or when paired with load lifters.  Due to the likelihood of sagging within the pack system, a pack designed for heavy loads should have a torso length a bit on the long side.

The most important feature of a frameless pack is correct torso length, very closely followed by proper placement, angulation and size of the shoulder straps and belt so they fit a persons anatomy well.  Quality padding, with enough but not too much of both cushion and stiffness, in these suspension components is next.  A good match between the pack shape and load (either via blunt capacity or effective pack compression) is next, as this along with proper packing of the load are what create a “virtual frame”, moreso than any one thing such as a foam pad.

Note angulation of the hipbelt, exact figure arrived at by trial and error.

I nailed the construction of the hipbelt for the North Fork pack on the first attempt.  The attachment of it to the pack, not so much.  I (rather foolishly, in retrospect) left a bit of empty fabric between the padding in the belt and the sewn part.  This sagged like crazy, and moved around a bit under a heavy load.  This not only caused torso collapse, but rubbed my tailbone raw on a few trips before I finally got it right (see above).  The addition of a bit of 3D mesh nicely solved the rubbing issue, and provides a bit of sticky fabric on the lumbar region, further helping load stability.

Hipbelts should not be sewn into the side seams of packs.  There are very few exceptions to this.  In my experience, the bottom of the pack will become rigid when stuffed full, and a belt attached to the sides will leave big gaps right where hipbelt contact is needed most for thorough load transfer.  A light load packed with discipline (Mike Clelland’s fluffy cloud) can remain flexible enough for the pack to conform, but add heavier loads and especially things like packrafting gear and all that goes to hell in a hurry.  Best to just make the hipbelt right from the first.

4-6″ seems to be a good spacing for the two parts of the hipbelt.  A solid, rigid attachment is key, with as little room for sag as possible.  Some sort of cinch strappage tying the bottom corners of the pack to the belt is handy for added load transfer is good.  The Demon uses traditional side cinch straps attached up near the front of the iliac crest, which works fine and is easy to sew.  The above design on the North Fork was chosen for both ease of construction and trying to evoke the system on the 2011 Jam/Pinnacle.  As I’ve noted before, here Golite has a really great system, balancing support and flexibility.  I’ve been happy with this aspect of the North Fork’s design.

The shoulder straps are another area where I’m pretty happy with my selection.  The Arc’teryx straps have nice dual density foam which is cushy and supportive, even over the long haul.  They’re narrow enough that they don’t chafe.  I didn’t sew them on at an angle, like I have with more recent packs, but this hasn’t proven to be problematic.  They are a bit wider apart, and have a bit of slack fabric right where they meet the pack, so that might help.  It’s an idea worth debating, but I’m not sure proper angulation is entirely necessary under all circumstances.

The load lifters have proven very handy, even with the longer torso length.  Just a little tension allows things to be tightened up, and they allow for one more way of varying the load carry slightly throughout a long day with a heavy load.

So then, in summary, a good pack fit depends on:

-proper torso length

-well designed shoulder straps and hipbelt

-proper loading and compression of the pack

-adequate support for the load (given the strength and physiological peculiarities of the user)


What have I missed?

The Quiver Quantified (backpacks for the woods, part 2)

M and I currently own nine packs.  When I collected them all from corners of the house a while ago, she was surprised it was so few.  I say we, and she uses some of them plenty, but let me be honest: I’ve been the prime mover behind acquiring every one of them.  As part of my examination of packs, I thought I should round up all my packs, weigh and photograph them, discuss their purpose, and note why they’re still around.  Because while we have nine packs today, I’ve sold, given away, or built and then torn up at least a dozen more in the past year.

The Micro Packs

L to R: Osprey Hornet 24 (size M/L), Black Diamond Bullet (circa ’03), and Black Diamond Bbee.

The Bullet (15 oz) and Bbee (11 oz) are the smallest packs in the house, small enough that they don’t always get the job done even for day hikes.  When they are big enough they’re great, as both sit innocuously between the shoulder blades and dead with scrambling and bushwacking with ease.  The Bullet is fatter and shorter, the Bbee thinner and longer.  They’re both about the same size, but shape is highly relevant with packs this small and each will carry a load the other cannot (ex: the Bullet will fit a full sized avy shovel, the Bbee is more stable while mountain biking).  I cut the Bullet’s 1″ webbing belt off years ago, while the Bbee has a nice removable one.  The Bullet is 100% Ballistics nylon, and has survived some serious abuse in tight slot canyons with no complaints.  The Bbee has nicer, shaped and lightly padded shoulder straps and a lightly padded back panel.  Both are great, and will be around for the long haul.

The Day Packs

Lowe Alpine Lightflite 25, next to the Bbee.

The Hornet 24 (21 oz) and Lightflite 25 (14.5) are seemingly redundant packs.  The Lightflite is bigger, much moreso than the claimed sizes would seem to indicate, and has a teardrop shape which makes it an exceptional mountain biking pack.  The Hornet has a fantastic compression system, and this and it’s tight shape make it a bit more versatile.  The above weights reflect some hacking off of minor strappage on the Hornet, and the substitution of the Lightflite’s stock straps for those from another pack (for details you’ll have to read my forthcoming BPL bikepacking articles).  Both are good packs, the Hornet probably the better of the two, it being a very good if rather expensive daypack.

We’ve got two more daypacks, a Cold Cold World Ozone (33 oz) and a old Black Diamond pack (23 oz) whose name is escaping me at the moment.  Both were used extensively as canyoneering packs, and show it.  The Ozone is like the Bullet full Ballistics, and the weight above includes big drain grommets, lots of aquaseal and contact cement, as well as a mode to make the lid removable.  It doesn’t get used much these days, but will when we return to canyon country.  The poor BD pack is currently a harness pack, more as an experiment then anything.  It has a great basic harness system and may get reborn with a new pack bag at some point in the future.

The Bigger packs

The Black Diamond Demon (size Large, 42 oz after mods) is the newest pack in the family, right along with the latest incarnation of the all pack (20.5 oz as pictured above).  It’s the sixth major revision of the pack discussed in the first post in this series, after the last one just didn’t work out.  The fit was off and it was too close, size wise, to the North Fork pack.  I removed the aluminum stay for this weighing, and cut two inner pockets out of the Demon and trimmed the waist, shoulder, and load lifter straps.  It’s still a porker, due to both the full Ballistics construction (love that fabric!) and the beefy framesheet and full back padding.  I got this because it looked intriguing (market research), I wanted a beefy pack for hauling ski junk, and M needed a backpacking pack which had a stouter hipbelt and better load transfer.  As many women do, she prefers to put the overwhelming majority of the load on her hips, and because she wears her waistbelt lower on the hips than is orthodox, we use the same size pack even though my torso length is almost 2″ longer.

The all pack/race pack shown above is a weight weenie winter pack and a design experiment.  It’s as light as I can make a pack of that sort right now without sacrificing either features or buying cuben fiber.  The packs are close to the same dimensions through no coincidence: that size is ideal for wilderness racing (the Jam was too big for the Classic).  Which one I’ll use for the races in 2012 will be a matter of assessment over the winter and spring.

The North Fork pack is the load hauler of the quiver, and has evolved extensively over the last 14 months of it’s existence into a form with which I’m finally happy.  The specifics will be the subject of the next post in this series.  As pictured, with a purely foam, dual density frame sheet which is over an inch think in places, it weighs in at a hefty 46 oz.  But there’s nothing I’d cut off, obviously, and no real places to shave weight without sacrificing function.  I’m especially proud of this pack, flaws and all still the best thing I’ve ever built.  I’ve yet to actually use it stuffed full as shown, but the capacity is there if I need it, and I have a few things in the works for next year where I probably will.

Please ask questions and share favorite packs below.  This is a community project which is evolving nicely.

The North Fork pack in use this past weekend.

Winter clothing systems

As a follow-up to this morning’s post: some thoughts on winter clothing systems.

Outdoor ought to always be a system, and that system should always be crafted to best cope with a specific set of conditions in the way in which you commonly encounter them.  As discussed this morning, the former requires an accurate assessment of the environment, while the later is dependent upon an at least reasonable knowledge of your preferences and foibles.  (Do you go hard uphill regardless?  Do you get cold easily?  Do you do another lap no matter the weather? Etc.)

Cold makes life outside less forgiving.  Details matter more.

For example, I bought the above Patagonia Essenshell used last winter.  It’s made of Epic fabric, and I found this particular iteration to have an ideal blend of wind/water resistance and breathability for winter use.  The disappointment was the massive mesh pockets, made of a nice absorbent nylon.  There’s no point in careful temperature management and a breathable shell anorak if the pocket fabric inside the shell (double layered, no less!) sucked up moisture, retains it, and eventually freezes and creates a heat sink.  I cut the mesh out, and left the pocket zips as vents.

When it is cold, and you won’t be going back inside tonight, these details matter.

For me in NW Montana, winter means cold, well below freezing (with a few horrid thaws thrown in).  The certitude of no liquid precip makes life infinitely easier.  Due to their poor breathability, I do not regard hard shells (fully waterproof fabrics) as appropriate for winter clothing, save in boots and vapor barrier socks.  Some trips, especially in locals like the mountains of the Pacific coast, will require a rain shell.  When we have those inevitable thaws around here, I don’t do overnight trips, or even long day trips.  It’s often worth it to skin up through the rain line to find snow, but it’s always a bit miserable, representing as it does the worst conditions available for staying warm.

The is then to construct a system which provides the greatest degree of versatility of the given range of activities, in the likely temperature range, and with the fewest items possible.  Weather protection and venting must be balanced.

For example, when backcountry skiing I have three separate states of motion to cover: skinning uphill, skiing downhill, and being at rest.  The first two are different degrees of exertion, with different requirements for protection from the elements.  For the trip up, assuming mild wind, overcast skis, and temps in the teens, I’d wear a baselayer shirt, light soft shell hooded top, buff head band, long johns, and midweight soft shell pants.  Legs don’t sweat much, and don’t get cold so easily, so I worry about them less.  For guys, more insulation around the crotch (powerstretch boxers or wind briefs) can allow a lighter leg system to work in more frigid temps (I forgot my wind briefs on one trip a few years ago, and had to improvise with a stuff sack down the front of my undies.  I don’t recommend this experience.)  When skinning I wear the lightest gloves I can get away with.  I love the OR Omni because they’ve got some decent wind resistance, but no membrane to slow drying.

For skiing down I need to keep the snow and wind out, but will still be generating heat and don’t want to sweat.  I think a lot of BC skiers mess this part up and over-layer.  For our example I’d add the aforementioned Essenshell, shell mittens, goggles, a warmer hat, and slide the buff down as a face mask.  Quick and simple transitions with dialed gear keep warmth up.

Insulation is a more complex topic.  For our hypothetical, I’d bring my DAS parka.  The Primaloft insulation and dense woven, calendered, 100% polyester shell (less water absorption than nylon) deal with external and internal moisture impressively well.  I try to stay dry, but that’s impossible to do perfectly BC skiing, and the DAS gives me room for error.

A very wet DAS after a day BC skiing in temps not far below freezing, with heavy continuous, wet snowfall all day.  This worked for a day trip.  Doing an overnight in these conditions would be pretty tough, especially without a drying fire at the end of the day.

The nice thing here is that colder temps which, especially on a multi-day trip, would require down insulation tend to be drier.  It’s much easier to keep yourself dry during the day, and thus keep your down coat nice and fluffy.  I use a MEC Reflex for serious cold, which is a very impressive garment.  It’s 2-3 times as warm as the DAS, and only a few ounces heavier.  Given the lack of weight penalty, if I think I’ll be able to stay fairly dry on a trip, I’m lightly to bring the Reflex rather than the DAS, my Micropuff pants, and a lighter sleeping bag.

A final note on fires: I highly recommend them for winter camping.  Good technique and site selection makes them possible more often than you’d think, and the ability to dry out and enjoy the night outside your sleeping bag (and without freezing) is invaluable.  A shovel to dig a fire pit and good synthetic tinder goes a long way.

As ever, please feel to ask questions and share feedback below.