Concerning pack weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

The year I grew up

It’s an inherently vain exercise, but if I had to pick a favorite moment of 2017 it would be late on the second day of my bike/packrafting trip along the Dirty Devil River.  All the boat dragging, cold, and ambiguity had worn my mind to a jagged, dull edge.  I made camp near the apex of a big bend, where a riffle left a 30 foot wide gravel bar and sandy bench above, for me to pitch my tarp.  I had no precise idea where I was, and in an attempt to sooth that doubt and warm up I climbed quickly up the steep talus and ridge of stacked table tops to the top of the bend before traversing back north to get even higher and see up the big canyon I had floated past.

I knew what the narrows of Happy Canyon would look like from the inside, having been down to them 13 years earlier, and presumed my exit up Poison Springs would be obvious as the only road crossing.  Aside from that I could only very roughly guess, based on the only map I had brought along, a cell phone screenshot of the relevant section of the Utah gazetteer (1:100,000 scale, 200 foot contour intervals).  After 15 minutes of orienting and pondering, and a futile attempt to use the location function on my phone (useless without a base map), I decided that I was probably close to Happy Canyon, and thus almost certainly on schedule.  I hiked back to camp, made a fire, dried more gear, ate, and went to bed.

This is such a fond memory because it so closely mirrored my first packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Flathead.  My first camp was a few miles below the confluence of Youngs and Danaher, and with less than 1000 cfs I worked hard for the 5 miles down to the Pretty Prairie pack bridge.  It was drizzling and cold, and even wearing all my clothes I still got quite, creepingly cold.  The sun came out around noon and I pulled over at the White River to dry everything, my spirits foremost, and figure out where the hell I was.  In the pre-Cairn days the Forest Service map was the only deal around, and that day on my very first wilderness packraft I made distance and speed estimates with all consuming trepidation.

Doubt is precious in the modern world.  While it’s hard to find something out in the wild that hasn’t been documented on the internet, and harder still to deliberately ignore some or all of that information, the biggest challenge of the information age is breaking your mind free from the paths trodden before.  This isn’t to say that my loops on the Dirty Devil or Escalante were especially original, aside from the brief initial bike stretch on the former all the ground was very well trodden.  It is to say that putting together a good route and then seeing it on the ground, especially in a place you’ve long coveted and most especially without undue drama in the process, is something to treasure.

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There are many other memories I might list.  Spending two days wandering around Echo Park during the crux of spring, laying on the beach at Cosley Lake watching Little Bear throw rocks, many morning hours in Bestslope Coffee writing Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, the first night sleeping on the floor downstairs in our 128 year old house, packing my first elk out of a snowy Bob Marshall Wilderness.  And, just as many which are equally joyful, but more immediately weighty: figuring out where we wanted to live for the foreseeable future, waiting to see if our sellers were willing to discount our house such that we were willing to invest in the sort of issues which come with a thing as old as Montana itself, balancing home and the most responsible job I’ve yet had, pondering and ultimately deciding to have a second child.

It has, in short, been a year when any vestiges of un-adulthood were stripped away definitively.

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This won’t be a surprise for any regular reader.   I’ve begun to understand what busy truly is, which has necessitated quantity over quality both on this site and in my life generally.  In 11 years of being 2017 will see Bedrock & Paradox have both the fewest posts and the most traffic, not unlike this year saw the fewest trips, but the highest quality.  Neither of these things look set to change next year.

I’ve been watching the usual flood of highlight reals, awards, and end of the year compilations with the usual interest (it is a good, or at least rich, time to be a consumer of adventure and outdoor media).  A number dwell on the extent to which outdoor trips are inherently unpredictable, and how the art is in rolling with the ambiguity and as needed making lemonade out of lemons.  This is true, but much less so than most people think.  I’ve had plenty of altered adventures this year, one might more bluntly call them failures, due to things like injury or expectations out of line with circumstances.  These happen, and they’re learning experiences, but insofar as adventure outside is ultimately about exploring and better knowing the depths within, an end goal is always going to be trips that in the big picture proceed exactly as planned.  Not because nothing went askew; when I think about my A list trips this year (solo and family) every one of them was riven through with major stress and doubt about at least something.  The best trips go exactly as planned because when you get to them you’ll know enough to have removed most of the external variables, and have gone far enough towards mastering yourself that you’ll be able to push through the inner ones.  Inner and outer variables, they are not exactly the same, but neither is the barrier between them particularly definitive.

I’m talking about mastery, and to my surprise I not only fully arrived in the outdoor realm this year, I’ve been quite close to that benchmark in my job, as well.  Conveniently, the stress of parenting and owning a home have introduced goals which are years if not decades distant, making me not at risk of complacency any time soon.

And that is what I hope for from this website, to be able to continue to grow, and continue to provide plenty of interest to you, the readers.  My request for support back in April confirmed what I had long suspected, that the audience here is small by the standards of the world and of most marketing analysts, but includes people in almost all the right places.  Stickers (which are still for sale, if you’re interested) were the first step, and second one has been a long time in coming, but is nearly here.  In 2018 things are shaping up such that you’ll see my footprint in a few more places, see Bedrock & Paradox get a little more polished, and have a few more things of interest available here, both for free and for sale.

I’m looking forward to showing you.  See you next year.

Quantifying the ideal ‘mid

Pyramid shelters have become inexorably associated with modern “ultralight” backcountry travel.  For me they’re a staple, one I’ve discussed extensively (most recently and completely here), that for many conditions provides a light and simple no-thought solution to whatever weather might come along.  That said, I do think the utility of mids has been overstated.  Their chief virtue is a shape which deals well with both wind and precipitation without requiring too heavy a support structure.  Adding ventilation is at best problematic, and at worst a waste of time and weight.  Trips which don’t require exceptional weather shedding, and favor ventilation (often in concert with bug protection) are in the majority during the warmer six months of the year in Montana, and for an even greater period of time elsewhere.  Having the Tensegrity 2 (which is both sadly discontinued, and still available on clearance) in our quiver has been nice for those trips, and relieved much soggy, claustrophobic bugginess which in years past mids have provided as a mid-summer blessing.

What then makes for an ideal mid shelter?  If mids are good for snow and rain, and most especially for strong winds, it makes sense to maximize those attributes.  Design features which promote wind and snow shedding are worth the weight, anything else has at best a marginal case for existence.

But what are these features, and which attributes and dimensions make a ‘mid work best?

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My favorite mid features, or at least the simplest one to love, are the sod skirt and abundant ground level stake points on the Seek Outside BT2 (red shelter shown above, now slightly modified as the Silvertip).  Having a windy weather specialist that has a big gap along the hem to scope in wind and freeze the occupants has never made any sense to me, and was the sole reason I sold my MLD Trailstar many years ago, and a major reason I sold my MLD Solomid more recently.  The small sod skirt or snow flap arrangement on the BT2 solves this problem definitively.  Even a mid like the BD Megalight (above) which has fairly mild caternary curve along the bottom edges, still leaks a lot of wind unless you carry bury the gap in snow.  Today I find it hard to imagine why I’d ever want a mid without a bottom flap.

That the BT2 has 12 ground level stake points, closer than 3 feet together, both helps seal wind out and adds considerably to the overall pitch strength.  Mids resist wind, rain, and snow by having lots of tension between the apex (supported by the pole) and the hem, supported by stakes.  Unless you bought an Aliexpress special made from shit fabric, your mid will almost certainly fail in one of two ways: high winds and snow will snap your trekking pole, or will pull the stakes out.  The first problem can be addressed with burly trekking poles or a shelter specific pole, the latter by using the right stakes for the soil in question and by having a shelter which lets you use plenty of them.  Mid level guy points are useful, especially for minimizing panel deflection when design constraints put that area at risk, but ground level stake points are the foundation of a solid pitch, and of a solid design.  Square mids like the Megalight, which generally have nearly 9 foot sides and only one guy point at halfway could certainly do with two instead.  12 total for a mid of this size is emphatically not overkill.  The LBO pictured below has only 10, which makes for relatively big spans between stakes on the wider rear portion.  I wouldn’t object to an additional 4 in this spot.

R0023009R0000107R0012840Seek Outside LBO with 3 piece vestibule.  Hopefully these three photos, combined with the chart below, show the somewhat complex shape which I’ve found to perform so well in bad weather.

Sewing flaps and a bunch of guy loops on is easy.  So what about dimensions?   Specifically, what combination of height, length and width make for the strongest overall mid, while still maintaining useable space?

The chart below details a range of mids I’ve used a decent bit in the field, omitting the BT2 (which is no longer made) and including the Supermid (which I’ve never owned, but is something of a touchstone in the genre).  All of the listed dimensions have either been confirmed by me personally, or in the case of the Supermid taken from numbers Chris Wallace put in his BPL review a number of years ago.  My thesis before beginning this investigation was that lower angles would be characteristic of shelters which shed wind well, snow less well, and had less than ideal liveable space.  The Solomid and Cimarron fit into this category.  Higher angle walls would be characteristic of both good wind and good snow shedding, but would be associated with struggles getting stakes to stay put in looser soils, something I struggled with early this year with the SO 4 man tipi.

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As the numbers show, things are not so simple.  I was not surprised that the long wall of the Solomid was the lowest angle in the test.  I sold that shelter because it didn’t take much snow to put the wall down on my face.  I was a bit surprised that the long wall of the Cimarron was essentially the same angle, something which confirms my suspicion that this mid desperately needs to be 6+ inches taller, for both space and snow shedding purposes.  (It is worth noting that the specs for the LBO and especially Cimarron are deceptive, as these shelters are modified octagons rather than rectangles, and thus longer midpoint to midpoint than corner to corner.  I used the former figure as I think it tells more about bad weather performance.)  I was also surprised that the 4 man did not have steeper angles, and that the short axis of the LBO shares almost the same figure with both the Megalight and Supermid (53 degrees, also the wall angle of the BT2).

r0021562img_20874 man tipi, at top, with BT2 and Silvertip, below.

These numbers, and my experience of how they play out in the field, show that there is a tension between specific design elements when making a mid.  Steeper walls are better, within the realm of practicality.  They shed all weather better, and provide for more useable interior space.  Taking this approach too far adds weight, both in more canopy material and especially in a much heavier pole.  Modest winds broke a trekking pole used to pitch the 4 man this past winter, one that in the BT2 and LBO had weathered some of the worst weather I’ve ever witnessed.  I also suspect, but cannot quantify, that longer fabric spans require more staking power, and put more stress on even large and well placed stakes.  On that same trip I had a hard time getting the 4 man anchored well enough, in loose desert soil, to hold up to the canopy tension I wanted.  At the time I assumed it was due to a steeper wall angle, but that is obviously not the case, given that I’ve gotten every other shelter here discussed to work just fine in practically identical circumstances, and was using big premium stakes with the 4 man.

I suspect that making a mid much taller than 72 inches quickly runs into exponentially diminishing returns.

Another prominent issue is shape.  Circular mids, aka tipis like the 4 man and BT2, shed wind demonstrably better than square or rectangular mids.  The lack of long edges along the group also fights snow build up and wall collapse quite effectively.  The disadvantage is in pitch speed, with the time involved for the 4 man and something like the Megalight being 3-4 times greater, as well as in effective interior space.  The Silvertip, with its almost symmetrical hex shape, is a good compromise.  Such a shape allows the virtual box of occupied space to be longer than it is wide, without creating big flat panels to catch wind and snow.

IMG_2623IMG_3397The LBO after surviving the nastiest storm I’ve ever slept well through, the the Solomid after a night I spent only laying north to keep the wind out of my sleeping bag.

So if the dimensions of a good backpackable mid exist within a relatively narrow range, and the other major keys to success involve lots of stake points and appropriate fabric orientation when cut for the panels (an item for another day), what are the things which can be appropriately left off a good mid?  In short, almost everything else.  You need a door, but for shelters of this size I’ve concluded that two doors is a luxury I can do without.  For something like the LBO, for instance, I’d choose to go with a single end zip like the HMG Ultamid 2.  I would stay with the non-urethene #8 zips, and a good zipper flap with plenty of velcro to keep flapping to a minimum.  The massive vent formed by the beak of the LBO is the only one I’ve used which is remotely worth having, and I could easily manage without any vent at all.  Given that they’re all at least fairly fiddly to sew the cost savings involved is reason enough for vents to be left off mids.

A lot of the final weight savings on a mid ought to come down to appropriate materials selection.  Grosgrain ribbon for stake points, for instance, is more than strong enough.  5/8″ grosgrain is far stronger than even the very best 30D silnylon.  On the other hand proper webbing might be justified in this application for the enhanced abrasion resistance.  The material used to reinforce tieouts should also be carefully chosen.  Fabric weight much beyond that of the canopy itself is probably not necessary, and if the fabric chosen for the reinforcement stretches much less than the main fabric you might create one problem in the process of solving another.  Or just pull a Kifaru a tack that shit straight on to an extra wide rolled hem, because that is a really good idea.

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But what about condensation?  Plenty of conditions for which mids are ideally suited, such as sustained cool rain or deep snowy cold, breed severe condensation.  Venting has generally been the answer, but as discussed almost never works very well.  Condensation is worst when air movement is modest, and anything short of massive vents only work well when the wind is blowing to help them along.

The real answer is to have a solid fabric, breathable liner, as pictured above and discussed here.  I’ve kept the liner permanently attached to my LBO since I made it, and it helped keep condensation to a minimumon every hunting trip I took this fall, all of which had moderate to severe condensation potential.  6-8 ounces of liner is massively better than 1-2 ounces of vent, and can be left behind if desired.

The sad conclusion of all this?  No one makes what I want, so at some point this winter I’ll be doing what I promised myself I wouldn’t, ever; buying a bunch of sil and diving back into the slippery process of cutting and sewing precision curves.

Shit that works week; again

We’re back!

In the season of flash sales and emails, where impulse purchases push companies into the black and fill our closets with things that aren’t strictly necessary, it behooves us to step back and take a break. As I wrote three years ago:  “A lot of gear upgrading is malarkey, born of boredom or fashion or envy or lust or some other vaguely protestant shortcoming. Buying new stuff is fun, usually harmless in that postmodern capitalist headinthesand way, and sometimes even justified, but most often little substantive reward is gained… Thankfully, there are areas where this is simply not the case, and one can invest in richly made tools and toys which both function so much better and give immense aesthetic pleasure. It is good to live in a world, suffused in money that it is, in which such things are still possible. Where buying a given item will legitimately spur you to get better at a given activity.”  Analytics tell me that the original had and continues to have resonance.

It also pleases me that my regard and affection for the original list has not changed at all since late 2014.  The same Werner Shuna still gets me psyched to paddle every time I snap it together.  I’m still using the same Gossamer Gear grips on my trekking poles, though they are certainly showing their age.  A trip down to the local gear store every 6 weeks or so for Aquaseal remains a staple event.  I wear my Suunto Observer every day.  I still use a flat tarp often.  My Prolite XS died this spring, in circumstances that were not really its fault.  Brightly colored socks, gloves, and hats remain a favorite whose value was emphasized this fall when my favorite (and black) hat went missing.  Many other bits of gear have come and gone since, but all of the above items are either still hanging around providing good service, or died a glorious and inevitable death in the field.

Clothing generally is tough to put on a list like this, it being equally open to boredom and whimsy.  But with rare exceptions technology doesn’t push ahead that fast, so in the list which follows I’m going to mention a few stalwart pieces of apparel along with the more usual, underappreciated basics, and some big ticket items whose utility will prove enduring.  We like gear for a good reason, it not only makes it easier to do important things, items become companions and after the fact become soaked in memories.  The best pieces of gear wind up being as evocative as any photo on the wall or bauble on the shelf.

Thermarest Ridgerest

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Inflatable sleeping pads pop, eventually.  All of them, in fact, though heavier car camping mats can safely double as mild-use pool toys.  My beloved Prolite XS fell victim to the hot Utah sun, but the compelling circumstances of its death failed to make it more comfortable to sleep on.

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If you have to or want to sleep on closed cell foam, and enjoy the light weight, bulk, and thin cushion in equal parts, the Thermarest Ridgerest is the pad you want.  It provides the best mix of comfort, light weight, longevity, and good insulation value.  Shown above are a 5ish year old Ridgerest Solite, and a brand new Ridgerest Solar.  The later is 5mm thicker and .9 higher R value.  The least expensive Ridgerest recently made a comeback, the so-called Ridgerest Classic in all-black.  My Solite was either the first or second year Thermarest added the aluminized coating, and as can be seen (the coated side is up in both photos) it does not last all that long.  Then again, I wasn’t aware of quite how packed out my Ridgerest was until I picked up the new one, so if the coating does have value it at least doesn’t far too fall short of the useful life of the Ridgerest generally.

Coal Frena beanie

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Wise backcountry folks know that when nasty conditions really get going one cannot have too many hats.  Three hats and two hoods is for me not an unusual rig when I’m nice and cold and hunkered down packrafting, glassing, or dead tired and walking into the teeth of a snowstorm.  The warmer of the two insulated hats I usually bring along needs to dry fast, be comfortable enough to wear 24 hours or more straight, stretchy enough to fit over a bunch of other stuff, yet tight enough that while asleep it won’t wander too far.  The Coal Frena does this, with a jaunty range of solids and color blocks available, generally for less than 20 dollars.

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The acrylic at work here is not fancy or nuanced, just on the thick and dense side, which is the large part of the genius here: no seams to restrict stretch, and no panels or liners or reinforcements to trap moisture.  Eventually the material does stretch out a bit (5 year old hat at right, versus 3 year old hat at left) but the lifespan would seem to be more than acceptable.

An Alpacka raft

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Packrafts have the potential to become more popular than canoes, kayaks, or all the permutations of rafts.  They speak to why SUPs have spread so quickly, being easy to transport and making any little backyard bit of water fun, and infuse that with genuine technical prowess and the sort of beginner and intermediate friendliness that only rockered skis and modern, big wheeled suspension mountain bikes have imitated.  They do this all while being one of the most potent tool for real wilderness exploration this side of rubber soled shoes.

So what is not to like?

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Well, they are expensive, and Alpacka rafts in particular have kept pace with and perhaps even outstripped inflation.  But now that Kokopelli rafts are available through REI they’ll be subject to sales and discounts and will count towards your dividend, and just as with SUPs and snowshoes and gravel bikes this will do more than anything short of a government subsidy to push them towards ubiquity.  From a management perspective, as well as that of a misanthrope, I worry about folks with bad judgement unintentionally trying to kill themselves as well as precious places becoming more tramped upon.  But packrafting has given me and more recently the whole family so much joy that I just cannot begrudge them and it to anyone.

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It also warms my heart that with a tool so basic yet sophisticated there remains an option which is both grassroots and cutting edge.  Seeing the 2017 offerings from Alpacka, Aire, and Kokopelli (left to right) side by side this summer just brought home how much better Alpacka rafts are in every way.  Kokopelli clearly chooses not to compete directly in terms of material quality, but it baffles me that they can’t be at least a bit more forward thinking in terms of design, something overseas manufacturing should not inhibit.  The Nirvana is about 4 years behind Alpacka when it comes to nuance.

Yes, with Alpacka boats you are to a certain extent rolling the dice as to where you’ll have a welding irregularity and when you’ll need to glue some seam tape back down, but big picture Alpacka build quality remains adequate or far better, and the designs paddle ridiculously good.  You’ll pay 1.5 to 2 times what you might for a Kokopelli, but a comparable jump in quality and performance in mountain bikes will cost you considerably more.  $1575 is a lot of money (it’s what I’d spend if I were to buy a new boat today; a Gnarwhal self bailer in custom multicolor), but relative to what you get I still think it is one of the best deals in premium outdoor gear around.

A Western Mountaineering sleeping bag

Before Little Bear came along to complicate the picture M and I happily did reams of trips all over with only three sleeping bags, two of which (an Ultralite and an Antelope MF) are from the big WM.  If they were children we’d be worried about pimples and birth control; the Ultralite is a bit over 12 years old, the Antelope 14.  Until the Ultralite suffered an unfortunate burning at the hands of a hot wood stove this past January (and the subsequent drastic patch job) both were essentially brand new, having presumably lost a tiny and difficult to quantify amount of loft over the hundreds of nights they’d been used.

Beyond the basic quality of construction and longevity of premium down insulation, I recommend WM bags because they’re warm, warm in a way the current quilt fad just isn’t going to match.  Increasingly convoluted designs (c.f. Zenbivy) seem to dance with ever growing fervor around the fact that you’ll always be warmer if you are genuinely surrounded by warmth.

For instance, the Antelope MF (which is almost unchanged since we bought ours) has a 62″ shoulder girth, 26 oz of fill in 6′ length, a class leading draft color and hood, and weighs 2 pounds 7 ounces.  The Katabatic Grenadier, also rated to 5 degrees F, has 20 ounces of fill and weighs 1 pound, 14 ounces.  Comparing quilt and bag circumference is never perfect, but the two are pretty close in this regard.  Would you have to spend the 9 ounce difference making the Grenadier as functionally warm as the Antelope?  I would say so.  Katabatic’s Crestone hood is 2 ounces, and the extra 7 get eaten up by the energy spent rolling over with precision and making darn sure you don’t pop that seal between hood and neck baffle.

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Sleeping bags that are true to their temp rating and air tight enough to be boosted 30 degrees lower are shit that just works.  So too are boats that can be beaten up for years without caring, kept in a daypack, and work almost anywhere (so long as the headwind is mild).  There are a few things I almost added to this list; the Nano Air Light hoody (haven’t had it long enough), the MSR Windburner (use it on every trip, could be lighter), the Seek Outside LBO (dimensions are a little funny, too many stakes, beak panel needs cat cut to kill flapping), the BD Alpine Start (sucks up just too much water).  For those there is always next year, and the many trips it should entail.  Start planning, and consider the apocryphal Chouinard quotation: “Buy plane tickets, not gear.”

DIY spraydeck and the perfect backcountry packraft

I’ve written a lot, indeed too much, about the ideal backcountry packraft, and the extent to which the market has continued to drift further towards putting backcountry and sidecountry whitewater front and center.  The new boats are amazing, and will in the next five years help reinvent remote whitewater paddling.  But that isn’t my primary interest; I want a packraft that is light, small, and capable of moderate whitewater, but is also capable of carrying a good amount of extra cargo, making good progress across flatwater into a headwind, and most importantly keeping me warm and dryish in bad weather.  A boat like the 2015 Yukon Yak with a whitewater deck (second from left), does all of these things very well, but weighs north of 7 pounds and takes up as much space as a weeks worth of food.

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There have been too many trips over the past half decade where my big boat was too much weight, but the Scout (far right) was a bit too little.  The Scout can handle a lot bigger water than most think, in that you can move it around perfectly well, but you’ll get very wet, and additional cargo like a bike or even an especially heavy pack is a non-starter.  It’s awesome that Alpacka managed to shave a full pound off the Scout in the latest iteration, but it’s now more firmly a performance alternative to noodles like the Supai Matkat and Klymit LWD than a lightweight wilderness boat.

The now-discontinued Curiyak, second from right, is pretty darn close to the ideal wilderness boat.  It provides a bit more interior room than the Yukon Yak, and as I found out the other week a 70+ pound pack on the bow works just fine, though it is close to the outer limits of what I’d want to use on any kind of moving water.  It doesn’t come close to the whitewater power of the main line boats, with their big sterns and rocker, but for the sort of things I prefer to run onsight, solo, and 20 miles from the nearest pavement it does just fine.  The main shortcoming, other than Alpacka not making it anymore, is the lack of a factory spraydeck.

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I started with a few yards of 40D urethene fabric from DIY Packraft.  Cut and tape carefully to fit around all the tieouts and zipper, put it coating side out for better water beading, then carefully cut a center slit and round cockpit hole, sew in a skirt, then sew a long velcro flap to both pieces, and a drawcord around the hem.  Seam seal with Aquaseal.

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Adhesion is done after sewing is done, with a big roll of clear Tyvek tape (field repair tape, from DIY packraft) and a big (8oz) tube of Aquaseal.  Carefully tape the deck down to the boat, while the boat is fully inflated.  Take care to stretch the deck enough, but not too much.  I messed this up and had to glue a fold.  Once the taping is done (I used two layers all around, it is time to glue.  Aquaseal only cures when exposed to oxygen, so getting it to dry fully is key to strength.  I put a thick bead along the inside, between deck and boat, with the boat half deflated, then carefully let it sit with that seam folded open for 4-5 hours, until the Aquaseal got non-tacky, then fully inflated the boat to compress the adhesive between the two fabric layers, then let that cure for a further twelve hours.  It took 6 sessions to get the adhesive applied all around, which made the whole process take 5 days.

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Whatzitweight?  4 lb 9 oz; including deck, cargo zip, and extensive floor reinforcements from the previous owner.  This does not include a seat.

I’ve been waiting for the tape/glue job to fail, but under modest use over the last four months it has held up perfectly.  The deck is similar to what Alpacka was making a decade ago, and does leak through the velcro, but is simple, light, dry enough and warm.  The 40D heat-seal urethene fabric is perfect; durable and stiff enough to stay put, without adding too much weight.  Too bad the ripstop DIY is currently carrying is not the same stuff.  Initial impressions are that the construction method, materials, and design will do quite nicely, and the boat will be ideal for a whole lot of stuff.  When I had to carry a full critters meat along with all my hunting, backpacking, and boating gear all in one load the 3 pounds saved was most welcome.

Part of the weight savings with this boat is due to the Vectran fabric, which is remarkable stuff.  It’s good to see Alpacka using it across their range.  Unlike the traditional fabric, Vectran has a hard stop point when you’re inflating it, and does not stretch at all once full.  It makes the boat noticeably more rigid, and thus faster and better under load.  Non-stretch, black fabric is a bit of a scary combination if you have your boat out of the water under bright sun, but for those looking to invest in a new boat, the weight savings and extra speed might make Vectran worth the cost.

Your mid wants a liner

The two biggest complaints folks have with floorless pyramid shelters are lying with the creepy crawlies in the dirt, and rubbing up against condensation on the walls.  The first complaint is largely, though not entirely, a matter of changing context and expectation.  The second is a serious issue that can be both a nuisance and a hazard, and I would suggest is right now inadequately addressed by virtually all makers of backpackable mids (read: those with a canopy weight of 32 oz or less).

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There’s an easy though not definitive solution to the condensation issue: liners.  Unless they are truly enormous vents don’t do much to reduce condensation in mids.  If there is enough air circulation (i.e. wind) to make them effective condensation is usually not so bad anyway.  Ditto for the common tactic of raising the hem well off the ground.  The weather shedding shape which makes mids so effective in severe weather just doesn’t do well promoting air circulation.  Change the design to make that happen, and you’ll inherently compromise weather resistance.  Mids are a good quiver of one because they’re geared towards the worst weather most backcountry travelers will experience (ask Jaakko about shelters for polar travel), but when many people buy a mid or tipi, they overpurchase.

Back to liners; my first experience was early this year in a Seek Outside 4 man tipi, and it was a true head slapper moment.  A simple half liner of simple, non-coated nylon turns half your mid into a double walled tent.  As shown below, condensation (or frost) collects on the inside of the silnylon, while the liner (and thus the sleeping bag or head of anyone who rubs against it) stays dry.  Dead simple, pretty darn light, and effective.  The dead air space created also adds a small amount of warmth, though in windy conditions the deflection inherent in mids and the fact that a liner isn’t a true double wall largely erases that benefit.

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So far as I can tell, half liners were invented (like modern PU and later silnylon tipis) by Patrick Smith, at Kifaru.  Interestingly, this mention of liners says that Kifaru began their development when they started working with sil in 2003-2004, intimating that condensation is worse with a silicone coating.  All my mid experience is post-sil, and I’d be interested in further thoughts or experience with that particular question.

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In any case, the functionality of a liner is beyond question, which is why I made one for our Little Bug Out.  Simple 1.1 oz uncoated, uncalendered nylon to maximize breathability while minimizing weight and cost.  It doesn’t need to go all the way to the peak, nor all the way to the hem.  This one required a bit less than 4 yards of fabric, as well as adding four loops, one of each seam, 10 inches below the peak.  Total weight added, 5.5 ounces.  It only impinges on the interior room a tiny big, and not having to keep away from the walls adds, rather than takes away from, the functional space.  I’d like to see a few companies, ideally with folks who do better with >30 inch seams than I do, offer something similar.  They’re cheap and easy to make, and offer a more useful performance bump than the floors and bug nets which seem obligatory.

Mid devotees with a bit of sewing skill should try one out.

Backpack problems, and answers

In the last few months I’ve had impetus from several directions to hit the reset button on backpacks as completely as possible.  Shake off and re-examine as many assumptions as possible before I put them into practice.  This bag, and this post, are only a first step towards that end.

Problem 1: Seams are the enemy.

Seams create weak points and add weight, bulk, and (potentially) complication.  Testing has confirmed my years-old assumption that burly fabrics will rip stitches, while weaker fabrics will rip from stitch hole to stitch hole.  Tuning thread to suit the fabric and reinforcing seams can mitigate but not do away with these issues.  The complication is that bag shaping is a vital factor in making a pack which carries, wears, and uses well.  For the bag below I went back to the roots of the 610 pack and copied my original design as closely as possible.  It sure carries well, and after a few years of love affairs with zippers its not so bad to have a simple top loader that demands some thought in packing, and doesn’t mind sand (this last highly relevant in the desert, and much less so in NW Montana).  It would be possible to make this design with fewer inches of seam overall, but only by adding significantly to the complication and construction difficultly.  Vertical seams are simple, easy to reinforce and if you eschew binding tape in favor of big seam allowances which can be folded and top stitched, pretty darn resistant.  A bag this tall and skinny is a specialist tool for ultralight mountain backpackers and canyon hikers, and really not the most versatile design.

Larger bags, with suitable compression, are more open to compromise.

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Problem 2: Lightweight fabrics which are durable enough for real world longevity.

I’ve written far too often and in many places that lightweight fabrics are not the most efficient way to make a light backpack, and with decently spare designs hardly ever having more than 2 yards once everything is added up (reinforcements, belt, harness, etc) this is true.  But weight is still weight and pack fabrics remain one of the more common areas where fat could be rendered.  This post has been one of my most read, ever, since I published it over three years ago, and while the specific options have expanded, the landscape has not much changed.  And probably won’t until someone starts using woven dyneema in a way where they aren’t obliged to upcharge the hell out of it.  (One wonders if HMG changed their whole 4400 line to woven what the net effect would be on price, over 3 years.)  For my own use, the varieties of 210 denier D-P laminate remain the point where fabric is too light.  I made the body of my fatbike framebag, usually a fairly low impact area, out of X21RC, and the damn thing has a little hole after less than a month.  From what, I could not say.  This is evidence of a divide which will always exist in the different types of durability different people demand; X21 does fine in all but the nastiest brush, but get it close to pointy rocks at it wilts like a rose hit with Fluroxypyr.

The pack pictured here is make mainly from a prototype fabric (the coyote tan stuff), which is a 330 denier Cordura with a very thick PET laminate.  The company in question called me last spring and asked for my thoughts on the ideal pack fabric.  In summary, my feedback was to make X33 without the X-ply, perhaps a thicker film, no backer, and in a nice lighter earth tone.  They delivered, and M and I happily used packs made from it all last summer (seen in action here among other places).  It remains the best pack fabric I’ve used.  I now possess all of what remains from the test run, and am putting it to use very sparingly.  Said company is looking for a party interested enough to invest in a larger production run, and if any reader fits that description, they should email me so I can set up a conversation that might put more of this stuff out into the world.

The reinforcement patches shown are plain PU coated 330 denier Cordura, in a lovely dark dark green that photos poorly put sets off the coyote nicely in natural light.  Laminate fabrics (D-P and hybrid cuben, essentially) have many virtues when used in backpacks, but aren’t the holy grail.  Truly good PU coatings come close when it comes to waterproofing, and hardly anyone is in a position to really comment on how the heavier laminate fabrics will stack up in terms of delamination.  Probably not a pragmatic concern for many, but if light hybrid cuben can start to delam in under a year of heavy use, one has to assume the burly stuff will eventually.  The nice thing for the moment is that the relative scarcity of laminate fabrics and their place as a premium product has kept quality high.  Trying to source good PU Cordura in small batches is a roll of the dice, whereas one can buy X33 or X50 and know all aspects are top shelf.

The reason for the reinforcement patches on the base and sides of this pack are to experiment with how light a fabric will stand up to hard canyon use.  I shredded a simple X51 bag in about 7 total hours of use doing this back in December, and the numerous were all exclusively due to harder things (rope, waterbottle, full drybag) pressing from the inside.  Theses reinforcement patches are 1/4″ bigger than the main body panels, which will hopefully deflect pressure and allow the fabric to perform closer to its potential.

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Problem 3: Enough suspension, but not too much.

At this point, any time I have a hipbelt on a backpack I want some form of rigidish (read, metal) suspension, well anchored.  There are acute limits to just chucking a center stay in, but there are also very substantive benefits, and not that severe a weight penalty.  I was genuinely shocked two weekends ago to see just how vague the connection between the stays and harness elements of the HMG 4400 packs are, testament I deem to how low the bar is in this department.  The trick isn’t just to make a decently stiff without having to add too much weight in the form of supporting and connecting elements, it is to build the proper amount of play into that frame (which is probably why the HMG system is so beloved).  There are plenty of options available for massive loads, and some decent ones for light loads, but it seems to me that the middle ground of 30-50 pounds still needs attention.

Carbon will remain problematic until a company can invest in proper molds and manufacturing which can produce a contoured product that won’t break.  Stone Glacier and Zpacks have, in very different directions, taken straight carbon as far as it can go.  That the former is adding 6 ounces to the stays alone just to achieve a modicum of curve should tell us something about the limitations of a straight frame.

For this pack, I put on thick shoulder straps, an external pad sleeve, and inside the sleeve loops to attach a webbing hipbelt.  90% of the time I won’t use a belt, but it is a good option, and a removable pad adds just the right amount of structure.

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Problem 4: Closures

I have a profoundly mixed relationship with roll tops.  On the one hand they’re clean, weatherproof, provide vertical compression without extra straps, and are the easiest closure to sew (one of the reasons they’re so popular).  On the other, they’re fiddly and require buckles, which are the next enemy after seams, and a more intractable one.  I tried a drawcord and top strap on this one, and am not sure I like it.  In theory it’s faster and allows for overflow capacity, but I’m not sure that theory holds water any more.  There is a large extent to which chasing “easy” closures and quick access ends up being a half-assed solution for organization on the part of the user.

Problem 5: Side pockets

Side pockets on packs are a horrid nuisance.  Slapping on a flat panel of stretch fabric is the simplest solution, and one which actually works pretty well until they get shredded.  Fabric pockets are tougher, and if abrasion against rocks is not much of a concern making them huge and putting them all the way against the bottom seam should guarantee good access and plenty of capacity.  My problem is that I don’t always want side pockets.  In canyons they get destroyed, and they interfere with the placement of compression straps, and the attachment of things such as skis.  Is there a way to make them modular while not sucking?  That is the next project.

Evaluating backpack capacity in the real world

…aka the most exciting topic ever.


It’s important to get the right size pack.  For evidence, I refer to the above photos.  Having to strap stuff outside is occasionally necessary, but it’s almost always bad style, and often somewhat hazardous (lost water bottles, paddle blades, etc).  Evaluating how big a pack will actually be once in use is crucial when shopping sight unseen, but is not as simple as it might seem, both because of the varying methods makers use to rate their bags, and because the shape and layout of a backpack heavily influences both how it measures out, and how usable that capacity becomes.  Due to a whole host of design issues, these last two are not infrequently in conflict.

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Backpack volume is measured in cubic liters or inches.  I strongly prefer the former, as I want to help the standard system finally release its imperialist claws, but mostly because two digit numbers are simpler.  In any case, memorizing a few mental benchmarks to quickly convert the two is useful.  30 liters is not quite 2,000 cubic inches, which is good a day ski touring in frigid temps, or 4 days out in the height of summer.  50 liters is 3,000 cubic inches, which is a 10 day UL backpacking load, or a packrafting day load.  90 liters is 5,500 cubic inches, which is a week long fall hunting load.  130 liters is 8,000 cubic inches, which is not too big for a 10 day packrafting expedition.  And so forth.

The “industry standard” set by the American Society for Testing and Materials is to fill the pack, and all pockets which close with a zipper, with 20mm diameter plastic spheres and then measure the space those balls occupy in another container.  The problems this method presents are diverse and of consequence.  For one, bog standard pingpong balls are not exactly 20mm, so a company aspiring to this standard must purchase special balls.  And if they plan to make a 130 liter pack, quite a few of them.  For another, including zippered pockets but excluding pockets that close with straps or drawstrings, is biased against certain classes of backpacks, if maximum size for a given weight is the goal.  For a third, most pockets, zippered or not, are not designed so that they retain their volume well when the main bag is stuffed full.  Most severely, 20mm balls are rather large, and in my experience significantly under-report size for bags and especially pockets with more complex curves and shaping.

The end result is that pack makers, especially smaller pack makers, usually just make a number up.  They draw on past experience, maybe look at numbers from other companies, make the ethical and stylistic decision concerning how conservative they want their numbers to be, and then go for it.  Some manufacturers follow the old method grading trade climbs, and pick the lowest number they can say out load with a straight face.  A lot more do the same with the highest number that will stick.  Obviously, factors like the personal biases and breadth of experience (or lack thereof) of the person or people in question is of enormous consequence, as is the market in which they seek to operate.  If the intended competition is all 50 liters, it makes sense to call your bag a 50 liter one, too.

For example, look at the Stone Glacier R3 (tactical Solo) on the left, and the Exo K2 2000 daypack on the right.  The R3 is rated as 54 liters, the 2000 as 46 (32 liters for the main bag, 14 for the rolltop and stretch pocket).  I didn’t tape either at the Hunt Expo, though I have owned and used a Solo.  The R3 might be a hair bigger, but overall the packs struck me as very similar in size.  Stone Glacier with, in my opinion, a dead on assessment, Exo with a fairly conservative one.  Exo undersells by labeling their pack the 2000, and marketing it as a daypack, while the Solo/R3 is Stone Glacier’s “minimalist multi-day backcountry backpack.”  Exo made the choice to never give anyone the reasonable option to complain about buying a too small pack, while Stone Glacier appeals to the hard core and aspirational in equal measure.  Neither post actual dimensions of their website, though that’s likely because few customers are geeky enough to want them.  Both made a volume determination based not just on fact, but on marketing.

One company who does post numbers, and very detailed ones, is Hyperlite Mountain Gear.  Luke and I had the chance to see the whole HMG line at IME last weekend, and while I once again failed to bring my tape measure, all HMG’s claimed dimensions seemed at the time quite accurate.  In fact, I’d say that their packs are the current benchmark against which other claims ought to be, and can be most easily and accurately be, measured.  This is helped by a simple bag shape, shared dimensions within families (e.g. a 3400 Porter and Windrider have identical main bags), and in the case of the Windriders anemic pockets with little real capacity worth mentioning.

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HMG’s method of stating height, upper and lower circumference, and back width is the one I find most succinct and demonstrative.  Not coincidentally, it is most commonly found among cottage UL backpack makers, though Osprey at least nods in this direction with most of their products.  It gives a prospective buyer a concrete sense of both overall size, and where that size is being used.  Take some conservative numbers from the HMG 4400 bags for example; with a closed height of 35 inches, and an average overall circumference of 41 inches, a simple cylinder volume will be 4645 cubic inches, or about 76 liters.  Cutting a bit off that due to the pack not being a cylinder when in use adjusts things nicely to 70 real liters.  If your 70 liter pack has dimensions which add to a lot less than an HMG 4400, something suspicious is afoot.

HMG is a good and easy example to follow because all their bags are fairly simple cylinders, with a steady bottom to top taper and little other shaping.  The math will be for them simpler and more reliable than any other, save an orthotope.  Bag shapes that smooth corners, and have a narrower and wider profile in some areas compared to others, will map out as having less capacity.  Depending on what you’re packing, they will have less actual capacity, too.  Loose things like sleeping bags and clothing, and to a less extent tents, sleeping pads, and food, can mold to fit curves and corners if they aren’t packed to tightly beforehand.  Other items, like bear canisters or a rolled packraft, are rigid and cannot adapt.  The closer a pack bag is to a square or fat rectangle in cross section, the more forgiving it will be to pack, and the better it will measure out on paper.

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The above canyon selfie was taken while carrying a tall and fairly thin (2:1 width/depth ratio in spots) backpack.  Such a bag offers more limited options for bulky and semi-rigid objects, but is desirable anyway because it places weight close to the user, and fits easily through tight places.  Design is a tug of war between myriad factors, with no free lunch.

 

My first takeaway from all of this is to be a skeptical consumer.  Get the dimensions of a pack you can’t see first hand, ideally from both the manufacturer and a third party.  If the numbers don’t seem to add up, then they probably don’t  The only way to make an 80 liter pack is to have the height, width and depth add up to that volume.

My second takeaway is to think of volume and dimensions as intertwined factors, when one moves so to do the others.  If you want a shorter pack to, for example sneak through Oak Brush, you’ll either have to make do with less space, or have a deeper and/or wider pack.  For example, if your 80 liter pack is only 30 inches tall, you’ll need the average circumference to be almost 48 inches, which is quite a lot.

Lastly, while there is a lot to be said for buying a pack that will enforce packing discipline, and a lot to be said for having a small pack, generally, don’t be too much of a slave to theory.  Fabric doesn’t add much weight, and be able to put everything in the bag, without egregious cramming, is almost always better for you and all your gear.

How my favorite gear will die

In the last six months I seem to be reaching a point where a bunch of my favorite gear, the stuff I love to use and have recommended without reservation, is wearing out.  Given that this process is for most (myself included*) quite rare and usually gradual and therefore apt to avoid direct attention, it seems valuable to discuss a bunch of things in detail, for future reference.

R0020602Like pants and socks, shoes are semi-disposable gear.  Which is not to say that preventative reinforcement with Seam Grip isn’t a good idea, one which will give you a hundred or more additional miles out of a given pair.

*Recent experience as convinced me that, regardless of how often or how broadly I might get out in the wild, I am relative to the majority of folks quite easy on my gear.  I have habits cultivated at an early age concerning good maintenance, and they’ve been ingrained for the years before LB came along and made unpacking far more arduous.  They also reflect the many years before I bought most things at an industry discount or bro deal, and are a good idea because even at half off a good down jacket or hard shell is quite expensive.  By my standards at least.

Werner Shuna

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My favorite piece ever?  Darn close, certainly.  In the first year, as wear marks accumulated on the blade edges, I assumed the fiberglass blades would eventually delaminate into oblivion, but nearly six years in that seems no closer than it was after six months.  Those blades are damn tough.  What has happened is that the center joint has loosened just a hair, something which was vastly accelerated by strapping them outside the pack for most of this trip (as they just didn’t fit).  The lesson here is twofold; use a pack big enough to fit all your gear with a bit of wiggle room, and that when I replace my paddle it will probably be due to preference rather than a structural issue.  Which certainly makes it one of the better gear investments one could make.

Haglofs Ozo

When I went to Alaska to do the Wilderness Classic in 2011 I fortuitously had at my disposal every WPB shell under 9 oz that was then on the market.  The Ozo was an easy choice, and to this day I’ve yet to find a hard shell I like as much.  Despite a thinness in the shoulder membrane visible the past few years, it has always kept me dry (enough).  And it still does, but the DWR can no longer get itself up to snuff, spray on or wash in or whatever.  WPB without a good DWR does little good, so as of a month or so ago the Ozo is officially retired.

Thermarest Prolite XS

I’ve been quite mean to this pad for the past six years.   Far more often than not it’s been used directly on the ground, and very often as a packraft seat.  In 2014 I put a small hole in it, which was easily patched with Aquaseal.  On the most recent trips it’s deflated quite a bit during the night, enough to be both uncomfortable and cold.  I haven’t yet put it in the tub, but I expect it to be riddled with unpatchable microholes.  Given that degree of reliability, I’ll probably buy another, and soonish.  Ridgerests on slickrock are no fun.

Seek Outside LBO

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(This applies to all shelters made from quality sil.)  Currently the LBO is pitched in the backyard, weathering graupel and 25 mph gusts, with a few dots of silnet hopefully drying.  I put it up for LB and I to play in, and noticed three tiny holes, two seemingly from stove embers and one from the abrasion of a low lying stick.  Aside from these this 3+ year old shelter might as well be brand new.  So long as I don’t let sand kill the zippers, I expect the LBO to last for a decade or more, and or UV to kill it, which points to the importance of picking good shelters that will grow with you and suit many needs.  This ‘mid weathered (and well) the worst storm I’ve ever been in, and I currently think it’s the best one SO makes.  The peak height to footprint ratio is just right, tall enough to shed wind and snow (especially the later, the Cimarron is a bit short for me)) but not so tall relative to the width that achieving optimal stake angles in loose soil is problematic (4 man).  It’s small enough to fit a lot of places, but big enough for the three of us and gear.  Point being, it makes sense to do homework and get what you really want, whomever you buy from.

Gossamer Gear grips

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My perfect trekking poles are hanging tough, but the grips are going to have to be replaced well before anything else.  Getting a good glue plug that will resist pressure over years is the key, something I did better with one pole than the other.  I’ll publish an improved tutorial when I replace them, but the state of these goes to show why most companies go with more durable, and much heavier and less comfortable, grips.

Western Mountaineering Ultralite

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Our Ultralite is 12 years old, and while it’s been used a ton in that time, M and I haven’t come close to putting the nights in a thruhiker, or guide or other professional would in the same time.  Down can be washed often, which is needed to preserve down loft, but that washing does come with a cost.  The Ultralite isn’t quite a full as it once was, and that before I singed a bunch of holes on a wood stove back in January.  The Ultralite isn’t close to the end of it’s life, but at some point (5 years?) the loft and warmth won’t quite be there and it will be to be replaced.  Again, a great investment and one I would make again without hesitation.

Seek Outside Unaweep Divide review

Disclaimer: no way around it, I’m biased as hell about this pack.  Seek Outside gave it to me for free, and it is based in small part on feedback I gave on previous Seek Outside packs.  Beyond that, I like the folks at Seek Outside a lot, and they’re always a pleasure to talk to.  That said, I know they wouldn’t want me to hold back when discussing their work, so I’ve done my best to give all aspects equal weight.

ghzAiMny-sRvTIs0Nyh8uBYfiKfqW47kWhklKfO3xwBkL1hIkrs2_fPn0IOw6j9ESmkJE5FwW7wtvUt5QI-RlvRkh-xsu80j15REirdQsdWzY_YCKbbYhiVB1WOpIuVqZmGb7DfX8eI6HgUN4lSMBjAqXSJcYNJXlQOQiTnrF5Bwb5V5laQonBW6vm6lYzv18lOUflL4nr3Hgl6_g6nOzWY-XGSObIsKuFPhoto by Skurka.

I think the Seek Outside Unaweep Divide 4500 (hereafter, the Divide) is a damn good pack.  For a lot of people, and for a lot of uses, I think it is one of the very best packs money can buy.  It is also one of the best values to be had in the pack world, when one takes weight to function into account, and especially if one cares to enter the fact that it is sewn in Colorado into the equation.  I have a number of small complaints concerning the Divide, but overall it is a nearly mature product.  When a fully dialed feature set is added to the existing stellar suspension, the Divide will be a remarkable backpack.

I discussed the dimensions and features of the Divide here, so if necessary peruse that before proceeding, as familiarity will be assumed.

rIKLuBPQAWXCR6lGhajO9R3cPdhOVO7pACr-H9tHSHbd6jfAV-ejUdJMOTgI0ocaNO8eReFlPPISxnrJDm7KjF2lsyLujBHHzzAztFbNhmX7Hc_tGgKA8hUrAgwpENj8sXbBy8tbPj0pJm3Z7g3kQmkxpuxU9JT8c1zXbRJxDiCz92z_gMp46eJFOBeeOAmfir6_cMlRfrWR2LLdj3wvAVsqRVNKyajyhoPhoto by Skurka.

The shockcord cinch on the side pockets has been one of my favorite features.  It is dead easy to loosen a pocket, get something out of it, put it back, and cinch it down, all with one hand while walking.  The pockets can be cinched very tight to provide security while bushwacking.  They do need to be a bit bigger, and a bit taller on the non-user side.  When the main bag is really stuffed full of hard objects (like a rolled up packraft), fitting a standard 1 liter nalgene is a bit harder than it ought to be.  But overall, A grade on these.

Historically I haven’t been a huge fan of mesh pockets, but the Divide one isn’t bad at all.  it’s big enough for plenty of clothing, a wet mid, or even a pair of crampons.  The shock cord cinch closes it securely.  I go back and forth on this feature, on the one hand I want it taller, broader, or both, or even replaced with a big bellowed zip pocket.  On the other it works fine as is, and much of the time I could do without it at all.  The mesh has stood up to abuse very well, including being hauled up a few chimneys with crampons inside.  No real complaints.

The lash straps below the mesh pocket I also have mixed feelings about.  It’s not really a good place to put much, besides a foam sleeping pad, and I can’t imagine anyone actually carries a bear can there.  On the other hand they are removable, potentially handy, and extending the mesh pocket longer would be a likely invitation to overstuffing.  My one sustained quarrel is with the metal bachelor buckles, which require tension to stay put when not in use.  I’ve replaced these with Kuiu hook/carabiner buckles that stay hooked when loose, but can be detached when tying on something bulky.

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The bachelor buckles on the compression straps I like, but they need a small modification to work ideally.  They great because they detach like a quick release, while being unbreakable and being much shorter.  This last is important because it gives the compression straps more travel, and allows the bottom of the pack to be pinched off completely when hauling meat while hunting.  The downside is that they unhook when loose, which can be a pain.  The solution, seen above, is to sew a slightly greater than 1/2″ loop into which the buckle can hook.  It will still come loose, but only with enough effort that it is never accidental.

The harness, hipbelt, and frame are the same Seek Outside ones I’ve been raving about for years, and the last few months of trips have only reinforced my enthusiasm.  It is an external frame, insofar as the frame is outside the bag, and in that the frame doesn’t give or flex under load, and can thus support whatever your muscles and will can.  At the same time, the frame flexs with the body when necessary, and is wide enough that the load wraps around your hips, and is uncannily stable.  In most places there’s only a single layer of fabric between your back and the pack contents, the result being that the Divide is below 20 pounds second only to frameless pack when it comes to dynamic stability, and at 25 pounds and above is the most stable, body hugging pack I’ve ever used.  It is, to put it mildly, counterintuitive that the same pack which can haul out a deer in one load can also stick to you while downclimbing 4th class choss, but the Divide does exactly that.

I do dislike the way the load lifter and top strap buckles are sewn into the same bit of webbing, with some slack between them and the frame.  This is intended to introduce some give into the unyielding frame, which makes sense, but on the rare occasion you need to tighten the hell out of the both the top strap and load lifters the result is an irksome tug of war.  I cut and resewed the load lifters to remove this source of conflict.

Having a 21″ torso, I’ve been running my pack with 2″ extensions cut down to 1.25″, which gives me just a bit of additional lift for heavy loads.  25.25″ isn’t as good as the full 28″ of my Revolution frame when it comes to straight hauling, but it’s a good compromise that ensures I never have to fiddle or adjust anything, no matter when the trip.  At this height the frame is still tucked up against the bag quite seamlessly.  I recommend anyone with a torso of 19″ or greater order 2″ extensions with their Divide so they can experiment.

Other details and complaints are minor.  The X42 fabric is tough as, and the olive a nice low profile color I like (though it sucks in photos).  The lack of a white interior scrim makes it a dark hole of a pack, and finding stuff at the bottom can be a chore.

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The tapered packbag is one of the more inobvious strong points of the Divide.  Volume increases exponentially as you fill it further, which means that a bag barely filled to the top of the frame (top photo) is a much smaller one than the same bag stuffed full.  In short, the Divide accommodates both a full load and a partial load quite well, with minimal sag and flap.  The tapered bottom panel, which slants both in and back, does a fantastic job of sliding off ledges and snow, and adds to the climbing prowess.  I do wish the bag were just a hair (2-3″) taller to provide more overload room, and that the rolltop stiffener was stiffer.  I prefer to clip the rolltop to itself, which is faster and cleaner then using the side straps (which I remove).  A stiffer closure would make it easier to get a good seal when the bag is close to max volume.

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The Divide isn’t a sexy pack, unless your definition is centered around spare lines which cede nothing to anything but function.  But it has that in spades, which makes it equally suited to backpackers of all stripes, hunters who prioritize weight, and semi-technical mountaineers and canyoneers who need both load carrying and agility in the same package.  All the bad things I can say about it are pretty minor, and for personal trips this spring I’ve used nothing else, which I suppose is all the endorsement I need to give.  Because of its spare elegance and above all versatility, it is probably my favorite pack, ever, or at least thus far.