Closure options for large packs

A good, simple, light closure for a big (top circumference in excess of 40 inches) pack is somewhat difficult to do well.  Volume in a big pack can fluctuate significantly, and pack height above the frame needs to be controlled so it does not go bobble-headed and flop around.  Additionally, weatherproofing and easy access for accessories (which can be easily lost in a large main bag, are concerns, as is occasionally strapping bulky things up top.  Lastly, weight reduction is important for big packs, which are meant to carry big loads where ounce counting is paradoxically most relevant.  As a matter of style and design integrity, I try to keep even the largest packs below 4 pounds.

Three classic options (pictured left to right) are a rolltop, drawcord with lid, and drawcord with cinch straps.  Rolltops are the simplest option, and provide easy volume reduction and compression, with good weatherproofing.  Their disadvantage is that they use more fabric for the same capacity, relative to a drawcord, and without a lid usually don’t provide additional organization.  Should one go with a rolltop which clips to cinch straps, rather than to itself, those straps add weight and complexity, and must be located such that they are effective with loads of various heights.  Some companies do rolltops poorly by substituting velcro or snaps a properly stiff reinforcement, which is crucial for keeping the rolltop rolled when the pack is particularly full.  I put 1/16″ HDPE sheet in at least one side of a rolltop when I build one, and do not find this to be overkill.

Drawcords are the more classic pack closure, provide the best volume/weight arrangement, provide the best durability,work well with oversized loads, and in smaller packs I find them to almost always be the less fiddly option.  In larger packs this is not the case, mainly due to the need to control height and volume.  Lids do this well enough, though they require 4 straps, need to shaped well, and keeping them from being floppy when the pack is near empty is difficult.  The functionality of lids is great, but I just don’t like the added complexity and weight, and never feel the need for the more extensive pocketing which tends to go along with them.

This leaves cinch straps to keep the drawcord in check, and while this can be both functional and light, I’ve never had it work as well as I wanted.  A single strap, a y strap, and dual straps in a variety of configurations; all created ears of the pack fabric and somewhat even compression.  Plus, I do like at least a small top pocket to keep maps and snacks separate from the bulky main load.

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My current experiment in this area is with a rolltop which clips to itself, coupled with the ability to run dual straps over the top (think sleeping pad or antlers) and a slash pocket right above the top of the frame.  The pocket zipper is over 10 inches long, and a fat #10 vislon.  To maintain the full opening on this pack, which I’ve found invaluable, the bit above the vertical zipper closes with velcro.  It’s the best thing I could think of that would be pliable enough to roll tightly.  Pictured above is the latest version of this pack and this pack.  Revisions over the 2015 version include mouting to the Seek Outside Revolution frame, which vastly simplified construction and increased comfort with odd loads, as well as a #10 coil for the vertical zipper, and slightly fatter circumferences (49 top, 45 bottom, 40 tall).  I also went to a non-floating, segmented compression scheme which provides tons of volume control, as well as the ability to lash stuff on and compress the pack bag, simultaneously yet separately.  I did not change the use of X50 fabric, which is ideal for hard use, nor the essential idea of having an enormous bag into which one can fit just about anything.  This bag is big enough for a five day whitewater packrafting trip, with PFD, drysuit, helmet, and the usual essentials all inside.

This fall I’ll report back.

Rab Novak

For several years now I’ve been looking for an ideal fleece insulating layer, with only modest success.  This layer should be warm enough for stand-alone use in many three-season conditions, as light as possible, have minimal to no lycra in the fabric, fit over a baselayer but under a shell, and have a few pockets as well as a functional hood.  Until recently almost all men’s fleece jackets were either hoodless, or not as warm as desired.  The old Patagonia Los Lobos jacket came close to this ideal, but the hood was baggy, taking up too much space under a rain jacket and blocking peripheral vision.  I bought an XL women’s Retool hoody from Patagonia, which fit when modified and had ideal fabric, but the kangaroo pocket on this pullover was made from moisture loving mesh, and I could never make the hood fit quite right.  Then a few years ago Rab came out with the Novak hoodie, and all my problems were solved.

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The Novak hides in plain sight as part of Rab’s “Escape” lifestyle line.  It’s a solid coffee shop or bouldering jacket, but this winter and spring I’ve been using it as a technical layer with great success.  The hood, fit, and features are classic Rab.  The sleeves and torso are long, the hood covers my brow and stays put with nothing more than tailoring, and the jacket has two hand pockets and one left chest pocket.  Hem drawcords, good non-absorbent mesh in the pockets, and plain finished cuffs round out the package.

The cuffs are the one aspect of the Novak’s casual intent that come up short in the backcountry.  The sleeves run from the elbow to cuff with minimal taper, making the large wrist opening a significant source of heat loss.  Thankfully the arm seam is plain finished, and the cuff seam serged with only two lines of thread, making it fairly easy to rip a few inches of the cuff seam and 5 or so inches of the arm before giving the lower sleeve quite a bit more taper when sewing it back together.  In the above photo I’ve taken almost two inches of circumference out of each cuff compared to stock, and there is still enough room and stretch for the sleeves to be rolled up above my elbows.

The Novak fabric is 270 grams/meter, 100% polyester “honeycomb” fleece Polartec has been pushing lately.  The exterior has a somewhat dense, rough texture, while the inside is as soft and a bit denser than traditional fleece.  This fabric is a bit thinner than traditional 300-weight fleece, and has a hair of wind resistance.  It dries quickly, and moves moisture fast.  The only downside, relative to the more fluffy heavy fleeces (e.g. Patagonia Synchilla) is that it’s substantially less cuddly for anyone you might have occasion to hug, especially when the Novak is new.

I’ve worn the Novak to work and the brewery plenty, where the warmth and understated look are appreciated.  I also used it as my only insulating layer on this trip, and my primary insulation for this trip.  For outings where internal and external moisture are both probable issues, fleece works better, and when the cold is serious, a thick fleece like the Novak is my preference.

Beyond that, I think there is a good case to be made for something like the Novak as an outright replacement for a light synthetic fill jacket (such as the Rab Xenon) in all circumstances.  The Xenon has an edge in weight (roughly a half pound lighter), packed size, and in having integrated windproofing.  The Novak has the edge in better moisture management, not loosing insulating value with use (or only doing so very slowly), and in being less than a third the price.  When you combine the lower price of entry with how quickly fills like Primaloft loose insulating value, I find the Xenon option hard to justify, both from an economic and aesthetic perspective.

There are now a couple of good, heavier, technical fleece hoodys on the mens market.  Most, like the current version of the Patagonia R3, are a bit lighter than the Novak, but most also approach synthetic fill jackets in price.  At $70 the Novak is a bargain, and it being so functional only enhances the deal.  My only wishes for improvement are the cuff fit, as mentioned, and for the fabric which backs the hem drawcord to not be more absorbent than the main fabric.  Otherwise, the Novak is about as good as fleece gets, given current technology.

2016 Bob Open gearlist

No video this year. The array of stuff is so familiar that writing it out seems redundant, but folks have consistently expressed value in the video versions, and I like them for future reference.
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We had a mild winter and early spring in northwest Montana, but the last week has brought record precip, which fell as rain in the lower and middle elevations and snow in the highest.  With temps warming a bit the next two days it shouldn’t be a very snowy traverse, but it will be a wet one.  Forecast is for rain, maybe a touch of snow Saturday and Sunday, overcast skies, highs in the 50s, and lower in the 30s.  Mild temps, but if conditions twist just a bit to the harsh side almost ideal hypothermia weather.  The only mild touch is that in the southern half of the Bob early melt has made the rivers lower than usual, even with a fair bit of rain.

Basics

  • Seek Outside Divide 4500 with homemade lid/packraft bow bag
  • Feathered Friends Vireo Nano w/ 3 ounces of overfill in the upper section
  • Thermarest Prolite XS
  • Homemade spinnnaker tarp and Sea to Summit Nano bugnet
  • Homemade trekking poles

Clothing

  • Patagonia Rock Craft pants, Sitka Core LS hoody, BD Alpine Start Hoody, First Lite Dobson boxers
  • Buff, Coal beanie, Arcteryx visor, Rab Novak hoody
  • Sierra Designs Elite Cagoule, BD Liquid Point pants w/ neoprene waistband
  • NRS Hydroskin gloves and socks
  • LaSportiva Bushido, Montbell gaiters
  • Two pair thin go socks, one pair thick sleep socks.

Rafting

  • Alpacka 2015 Yukon Yak w/ thigh straps, cargo fly, WW deck
  • Werner Shuna
  • Inflatable snorkel vest
  • 1 cargo fly drybag, inflation bag

The rest

  • MSR Windboiler
  • Food, bear hang rope, food drybag
  • 2x Voile straps
  • Repair and first aid kit, Petzl Tikka XP, Fenix E11
  • Cairn Bob south map, compass
  • Osprey Grab Bag
  • GoPro w/ spare batts and mounts, Ricoh GR, camera drybag
  • Nalgene bottle with Capcap

This will be my sixth consecutive Memorial Day trip across the Bob.  It will be the first such trip were I’ll be carrying a pack I did not make myself.  In the closet I have a pack I built for this weekend, which is a hair lighter and made of a spiffy prototype fabric, but the Divide is just better.  Better built, and better designed.  I can’t improve on the Seek Outside suspension so until I think of a new idea I’m done trying.  The lid isn’t needed for space, but is handy for organization both on the trail and on the water.

My clothing arsenal is geared for everything being wet, at some point.  Everything is well tested and was an easy choice.  Having three hats and hoods on all four upper body garments is not overkill for this sort of trip.

I’m really looking forward to enjoying the enhanced performance and dryness of the 2015 Yak.  Those characteristics, along with unusually low water, is why I’m leaving the foam PFD at home.

The Windboiler is heavy, but after becoming used to its low-drama speed over the past six months I just can’t leave it at home.  During the Bob I’ve always run out of feet and willpower before I run out of daylight, so taking hot food and foot-resting breaks is an efficient strategy.  I am planning on hiking later than normal this year, hence the double lighting for enhanced bear warning.  And yes, there should be a video next week!

As usual, fire away with questions.

 

 

The nuclear option

I was hoping things wouldn’t have to go this far, but as I discussed here sorting out carry options for baby and multiday gear has not been simple.  Putting this pack on the back of the Poco AG has worked well, but it’s short on space, and relies on the Poco belt, which is good, but not Seek Outside good.  Those thing being the case, there was only one option left.

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That is the Divide, with a UL frame and extensions cut to 25.25″, which gives me just enough shoulder lift when I run the belt in the lower position, and is also right about as tall as the Poco frame.

Thankfully the rigging is both solid and simple to arrange.  Two straps tied to the bottom of the Poco frame cinch around the Divide frame, then the whole thing is compressed with straps running between the Poco load lifter buckles and the top strap buckles on the Divide.  These four straps get lots of tension.  Secondary stability and anchoring is had via hooking the upper compression straps into a webbing strap I looped through the buckles which secure the Poco’s drool pad.

Meredith will carry all the day-access stuff in her pack, and we should be all set.  Load geometry is, to put it mildly, less than ideal, but the Divide suspension is good enough, and I’m trained enough, that I can manage, though I have to hunchback it a fair bit.  My core is not yet strong enough to stand upright with a load cantilevered out so far.  With me carrying this rig, and M with a heavier than usual load her in normal pack, we’ll both be plenty tired well short of 20 miles a day, and more than ready to give Little Bear plenty of squirm breaks along the way.

610 pack, the evolution

My best, conservative, estimate is that since 2009 I’ve built roughly 30 backpacks, and owned a further ~20, which were either purchased retail or given to me for review or prototyping.  This is a large number, especially considering that at the moment we only (!) have eleven packs in house, a mere two of which predate this period of my backpack obsession.  There have been a handful of bags that made it to the finished stage but due to flaws in conception or errors in execution never made it into the field, but otherwise all of these approximately fifty packs have seen significant miles, before they meet the inevitable end of sale, modification, or scrappage.  On the one hand using all these has been a joyful and educational process.  My original pack had a lot of things in common with the ones I’m building today, but it also demonstrates how much I’ve learned about fit, suspension, and features.  I used that pack, with its thin shoulder straps and 1.5″ webbing belt for my very first traverse of the Bob, and while I did fine sustainable load carriage was highly dependent upon shoulder strength and a willingness to suffer.

While I have the umpteenth package from Rockywoods arriving shortly for yet another pack modification, I find myself with less time for uninterrupted sewing than ever before, and a marked desire to sort out the pack quiver and be done with it, at least for a while, opening up a bit of space in the closet in the process.

I could make due with two packs for everything, especially now that the majority of outings require the added bulk of a diaper bag.  The first would be a very large one on the Seek Outside suspension.  That end of the quiver is undergoing revision, and will be discussed in an upcoming post.

The second pack would be a tall, slim pack around 30 liters, one that can serve as a daypack for just about any size outing, as well as light duty overnights.  This is the pack I’ve built most often, and written about frequently, so imagine my surprise when the most recent version, which was built from scraps and whose dimension were in some ways a matter of accident and circumstance, is the best yet, and might be one I can live with for a few years at least.

Similar things could have been said about the very first pack in the 610 series, the white pack in the first photo series,and had I been smart enough to leave that bag alone once I got a satisfactory pair of shoulder straps on it I likely wouldn’t have enough content to make this the long post that it is.  Unfortunately I didn’t bother to write down the precise dimensions of that packs panels, so I can’t be sure what made it so good.  The vital ingredients were a thin but not too thin profile, curves that ran in all three dimensions for good aesthetic and definitive snag-proofing, and a gentle increase in circumference from top to bottom, for easy loading.  That was also the pack where I discovered curved side panels, a crucial feature which I did not invent (our Cold Cold World Ozone has a mild version) but did publicize, and which a few companies have since adopted.

I eventually revised the futzed that DX 40 pack into oblivion, which was fine as that fabric had a fatal flaw.  Several similar packs followed, some of which I have no photos of, as well as a few like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla which were different in size but ended being influential in suspension or features.  The Gorilla and the blue and green VX07 and 210 denier gridstop pack both reminded me that burly fabrics and a clean exterior are beneficial for a pack which will get used all the time, as both were fatally shredded in separate outings in Utah slot canyons.

The 2014 version of the 610 was supposed to be my return to the original, with the addition of a few key features like a full side zip and luxury shoulder straps (from the deceased Gorilla).  The mix of VX42 and X51 fabrics worked well, but I screwed up the hipbelt attachment and got a little too fancy with the panel shaping, and after a year of solid use the lure of the scrap bin was too great.

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All things fabric are subject to change, but the latest version of the 610 is the best yet.

The versatile suspension, discussed here, has proven to be excellent.  Without stays or belt the pack is light and flexible, and with them (how I run it the majority of the time) it can carry anything I’m likely to put in it, including 35 pounds of water and fleece jackets for training walks.  Most importantly the panel dimensions, discussed in detail here, are perfect.

I did change the main side zip out, replacing the #8 coil with a dual slider #10 aquaguard (taken from the now defunct Stone Glacier Solo).  The #8 slipped teeth on a few occasions when closed with force, compelling evidence that it wasn’t going to last.  I also switched out the aluminum hook buckle for the top strap for a little plastic triglide/carabiner hybrid, which came with the Kuiu Ultra 1800 I purchased on sale a few months ago.  The nice thing about this is that it can be detached with one hand (though not with gloves), but unlike the hook stays put when the top strap is loose.  Unless I’m lashing something large on top, I usually just loosen and then slide it to the side when opening to drawcord.  Finally, the refinement of attaching the top strap with a three-bar slider has the unexpected benefit of allowing said strap to be shortened and the excess tucked down inside the back panel, thus allowing you to both have a strap long enough for anything you might carry, as well as a strap which doesn’t flap like mad in the breeze when no excess cargo is being carried.

The whole point of making your own packs is to have exactly what you want; it certainly is not a good way to save either time or money.  While in the end the benefit to me has been deepening my knowledge, it is nice when years of practice gives you something that works as well as this pack does.

 

The 2015 pack fleet

I’ve been doing the pack thing for a while now.  After owning and especially building so many none of them can retain nostalgia for long, with any and every little detail subject to scrutiny, revision, and destruction.  That said, the novelty of cutting and sewing has also waned significantly in the last year, and it’s my intention in 2016 to only act on my best ideas and hopefully let a few of the packs discussed below live for more than 8 months.

These six are the ones currently in my closet, smallest to largest, good points and bad, along with an estimation of whether I’d buy it again and in the case of home made stuff speculation on commercial alternatives.

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HPG Tarahumara.  I’ve had this for a few years, and the elegant simplicity and functionality continues to impress.  The contours of the back and side panels make it both streamlined and large for it’s size, and it’s built of bomber materials to absolutely impeccable standards.

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I know just how good the stitching is because earlier this year I tore the top and most of the side panel seams out to add different shoulder straps and buckles which would interface with the Unaweep.  I’ve torn out a lot of seams, factory stuff and my own, and these were far and away the most difficult.  In this case at least the added quality of domestic manufacturing, and the associated surcharge, is no joke.  That said, the stock shoulder harness just didn’t work, especially for cycling, and the Patagonia Endurance pack straps have made it a solid little number for short ski and bike outings.  The back panel is still sweaty and holds moisture for a while, but I can’t yet find this objectionable enough to mess with it.

Overall I like this pack a lot, though I’m not I would buy it again.  The Osprey Talon 11 I used to have is in many respects a more functional option, though not nearly as stout or stylish.

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Gossamer Gear Type 2.  A fantastic daypack which has gotten a ton of use this year; the Type 2 is just the right size and has just enough pockets for just about anything.  My shoulder strap replacement is nice, and makes the pack feel custom fit for me, but is far from obligatory.

I’d buy it again without hesitation, and recommend it to others.

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610 Diaper pack.  The newest pack in the lineup, and the one with the most and widest variety of iterations behind it.  Based on the last 10 days of hunting and dayhiking, I’m optimistic that I’ve finally got things right.  The side zip works particularly well with the current dimensions, as setting the pack down on the side keeps it stable, gives good access, and keeps the harness out of the mud, all at the same time.  Being able to use or not use the twin aluminum stays is a very nice feature for a pack this size.

It’s hard to think of a good commercial alternative to such a particular pack.  If the zip access were not crucial one of the HMG 2400 series packs would work well, or a Cold Cold World Ozone for less money and more abusive use.  The smaller Black Diamond Speed packs are a good value, and the Speed 30 in large is actually long enough in the torso, something shockingly difficult to find amongst smaller, “technical” packs.

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Stone Glacier Solo.  I really enjoyed hunting out of this pack back in September, it was easy to conclude that a pack this size, with a meat shelf and at least partial panel access, is an ideal platform for warmer weather backcountry hunts.  It has enough space, but is small enough to force discipline and to fit through brush well, and spotting scope access is quick.  Unfortunately the Solo suffers from a few features I find unbearable, mainly the several seams at the top of pack which cause it to leak like mad in the rain, and the excessive strappiness.  You don’t want to shortcut compression for a load shelf, but I have a few ideas that should trim thing considerable, which is a way of saying that this is a pack which will be replaced, when the ideas I’ve been tossing around in my head become sufficiently refined.  The frame I made for this pack works well, the only flaw is that I didn’t quite make their bottom spacing wide enough, and this slightly impinges belt wrap across the lumbar.

If I were buying commercially I wouldn’t get a Stone Glacier, they’re far too expensive when a Unaweep 3900 (below) is hundreds of dollars less.

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Seek Outside Unaweep.  I haven’t used this pack much this year, but there have been quite a few occasions when I had something else along and wished I could zoom home and instantly swap packs.  Simply put the Unaweep is the reference for how a larger pack should carry and function, and anything I come up with or buy has to equal it in all ways and exceed it in some to be worth keeping.  That is not easy to do.  As detailed in the previous post I cut a few things off my Unaweep, and I’ve continued to monkey with different Talon panels, but having it in the closet as a dependable option for anything beyond a light overnight it always welcome.

I didn’t buy this pack, but if I lost it I’d buy another as soon as possible and rest easy knowing I was getting a stellar deal.  I’d probably go for X50 fabric for better durability than VX42, and step up to the mondo 6300 size for a one pack quiver.

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Canyon center-zip. Based on one overnight and one day hunt, I like this pack.  3900 cubic inches is not that big, and the added size will surely come in handy, as will I think the front zipper.  At this point far more testing is need to comment substantively, but given the number of previous packs which fed directly into this one I’m confident this will endure.  But then again I usually am.

The 610 pack, diaper version

R0011620I’ve made this pack, or one to fulfill the same role, 6 or 8 times now.  Most for my own use, a few for friends.  It continually evolves.  The most recent version got axed because the back panel taper got too funky and resulted in a subtle narrowing pinch point in the middle of the pack, which made packing and unpacking a pain.  The top closure was also too complicated, and the hipbelt connection didn’t work properly.

This version is made from scraps and pieces of this pack and this pack, plus some from another pack which never saw the light of the net.  You never get as much material from a cut up project as you think, but I was careful in my cutting and deliberate in my planning, and in this case it worked with no compromises.  Which is rare.  Using the intact backpanel from pack one even expedited construction such that once I got sewing the whole mess took less than three hours.  Which is very rare.  I should note that the death knell for pack one ended up being that damn spreader bar.  Nothing worked to my satisfaction, and an attempt to make a pack with a tapered foam panel that would facilitate similar dimensions did not work out.  So that’s currently an unsolved puzzle.  The tight exterior pad slot with laterally folded blue Walmart works very well, with an ideal balance of support and flexibility for 20 pounds and under, and keeping that feature was a priority.

The other things I wanted in this pack was access, fast, and plenty of it.  Quick and unpredictable diaper changes are a fact of life hiking with an infant, and no pack in the fleet addressed that well enough.  Diameter is 31 inches at the bottom, 35 at the very top.  Backpanel height in 28 inches to the top of the extension collar.  Materials are X33 and X50, with 40D sil/PU for the extension collar, 70D nylon ripstop for the inside of the rear pocket, and WX20 for the pad slot.  All zips are standard #8 YKKs.

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The bottom X50 reinforcements on the side panels will be good for longevity, keep the zipper coil from the worst abrasion, and were dictated by the X33 panels I had to work with being a tad too short once squared up and sewn together,  Ideally I’d have been able to skip the seam on the non-zip side, but I can live with that.

The back panel is 9.75 inches wide all the way up.  Side panels are 7 inch, tapering to 8.5 above the shoulder curve.  The front panel is 7 wide at the pocket bottom, with a half inch of taper up to the extension collar.  4-6 inches of gain in diameter from bottom to top seems to be the magic range for packs, with smaller ones ideally being at the smaller end, really big packs at the larger.  Any less and packing is just a little less easy, any more and things seem to end up feeling ungainly.  As is plain in the penultimate photo, the bottom tapers both in (1.3 inchs per side) and up (3 inches total), to keep things sleek.  You loose capacity and a bit of packing ease compared to a square or rectangular base, but gain considerably in climbing ease and in style.  I am not interested in packs with non-tapered bases, generally speaking.

At the end of these projects there is always something you wish you did differently, almost immediately.  Aside from two minor sewing flaws the only thing to make the list is moving the upper lash loops along the side panel down an inch or so.  Which is not a bad list, at all.

As always, questions are welcome.

The next big pack

There were a few persistent flaws or sources of discontent with this pack, which eventually had to be remedied. Ergo the monster below, and yet another doorway/Bob map photo. It’s been tested in a very basic manner on a dayhike, but backpacking with Little Bear in Utah next week will be it’s first real trip.

R0011158The first issue, and by far the most apparent, was accessibility.  I can almost always pack a ton of stuff well enough to not have to dig deep mid-day, but 4 of 5 reasons for having packs this big is to carry other folks stuff, and in my experience it is simply not possible to ask others to be as organized as I am (or to communicate their system with me).  It didn’t take too much time on this trip or this one (can you get that thing, you know, the one in the food bag you buried in the bottom this morning?) to realize that a better arrangement, unfortunately involving a zipper, was in order.

R0011134Full-height zipper down the middle of the front panel.  #8 standard YKK coil with a big X50 flap and a single slider opening top-down.

R0011137The top buckles shut for security.  The whole thing can be blown open for packing (or carrying massive items in freightor mode using the compression panel) or the zip can be opened without uncinching the top to access certain items.  I contemplated putting a second slider at the bottom for more convenience, but couldn’t get over the certainty that placing a metal pressure point in one of the highest wear areas of a pack would be asking for a hole, so I refrained.

R0011139Second issue was size; the first big pack was not too big, but it was too tall, especially when a lid was added.  Gen 1 was 42 inches tall, with a 42 inch upper circumference and a 38 inch lower circ.  This pack is 36 inches tall (measured totally unrolled, along the back panel), with an upper circumference of 47 inches and a lower circ of 42.  The way this interplays with the Paradox frame makes the pack, especially the upper part, get wider as much as it gets deeper, which seems to be the way to go if you’re trying to weasel excessive capacity out of a pack which can still fit through thick brush.

Spitballing capacity by relying on what other manufacturers rate their packs (specifically the EMR II which inspired the zip), this pack is a hair under 100 liters or 6000 cubic inches.  When I think about trips in the near future, when one of us will be carrying the kid and the other will be carrying virtually everything else, this is in no way seems to big.  DItto for packraft hunting trips.

R0011136The third issue was the desire to do a little to avoid the poking and barreling issues I had with only a single layer of fabric between my back and the pack contents.  I spent too much time thinking of solutions, and in the end went simple with a sleeves inside the pack.  A single layer of Walmart blue closed cell foam goes into this, with a 1 inch by 1/8 inch aluminum stay duct taped to the top of the pad.  This stay runs horizontally across the base of my shoulder blades, and having that bit of rigidity seems key to keeping loads under control.  And it is easily removed if I don’t want it.

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The rainbow loops are reinforced for hanging game bags and thus keeping the weight high and tight where it belongs.

R0011150R0011142The fourth issue was durability, and was addressed by using X50 for the main body and 1000 denier ballistics for the bottom, compression panel, and high-stress areas of the suspension.  The X33/1000D cordura of the old pack had years left in it, but a few holes had appeared and it was generally apparent via skid marks and chafing that for truly long term, worry free use a bit more burl was needed all around.

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R0011147Other than those four things designing this one was a simple matter of refining standard features, such as the bottom panel tied into buckles sewn to the pack.  This flap holds the frame in place at the bottom, and provides compression to shrink the bottom when the pack is underloaded (again, keeping the weight high).  The bottom is canted three inches up to avoid catching to things as you downclimb.  The compression panel is a simple pocket, with an open top that cinches closed when the upper compression straps are tighted.  Big enough for a small static rope or a wet shelter only, so as to not tempt putting weight way out back.  The panel is narrow enough, buckle to buckle, to compress completed flat against the frame for day hunting.  I only used two compression straps on the panel, and they’re spaced almost 15 inches apart, because most of the time more is overkill.  There are occasions when a third anchor in the middle is needed, and to that end I added a webbing loop in each side seam into which straps can be hitched when needed.

The lid is X33.  Much though it pains me to admit it, a lid with 4 points of compression has a lot going for it when it comes to controlling the top of a big pack.  Detatchable side pocket are in the works, but not yet ready for prime time.

Because I tried to keep things as simple as possible, this pack ended up very light for something so large and tough.  I’d guess closer to 3 pounds than 4, all up as shown here.  More than anything this is a testament to why the Paradox frame system allows for light packs: it minimizes to a massive degree the amount of supporting and reinforcing junk necessary for a pack strong enough to carry heavy loads in abusive situations.  I look forward to staining it with sandstone.

The five-foot tarp

R0010622A five foot wide tarp is a dead useful thing to have around, for emergency use, hiding from the weather to cook or glass (above), or for a primary solo shelter which will force one to use good site selection and pitching techniques.  It’s also an excellent and relatively cheap and easy MYOG (make ya own geah) project.

Why 5 feet wide?  Most silnylons are between 62 and 58 inches wide per yard.  Subtract between 1 and 2 inches for side seams, selvedge, and cutting the sides parallel and you end up with a tarp about 5 feet wide.  Anything wider requires a lot more material and a large horizontal seam, which if you’re like me you’ll find challenging to keep straight and parallel.  I let the pros make bigger shelters for me.

For a 5 foot by 9 foot tarp you’ll need 3 yards of fabric, plus a little extra.  Why a little extra? Because I highly recommend bonded and then sewn tieouts for these little tarps.  So long as there is not a nick point for a tear to start silnylon is dead strong, and you’ll be amazed at the tension with which you can pitch it.  Needle holes can serve as such a failure point, and one of the only out and out failures from the factory I’ve had in my professional gear testing life was on a silnylon tarp whose tieouts were sewn without any reinforcement panels, and with a too-large needle.  One of the side guy points tore several feet along the stitch line under tension while pitching it in the back yard.

R0011059Bonded reinforcement panels are simple with silnylon.  You’ll need the extra bits of silnylon cut into triangles (I make 6″ by 6″ squares, then cut them in half), 100% silicone, mineral spirits, a brush, plastic grocery bags, and a few heavy flat bottomed objects.  Use this technique on both the main tarp and the reinforcement patch.  Let both dry for a few minutes, then press, weight, and let dry overnight.

I put ten patches on this particular tarp; four in the corners, two centered on the short sides, and two each every three feet along the long edges.  More than this is I think overkill.  Center patches for tieouts can be handy, but aren’t necessary and take more work (they need to seam sealed after sewing).

R0010626

After the reinforcing patches have cured, sewing the edge seams is next.  I roll the edge once, sew, then roll again and sew.  To keep the tarp as wide as possible these seams are as small as is practical, around 3/8″.  Small needles and fine 100% polyester embroidery thread are more than adequate for this job.

After the seams are finished, bartack on the webbing loops.  I used 5/8″ polypro webbing, which is lighter and absorbs less water than nylon, and is more than strong enough.  The tack on the seam is load bearing, and goes through six layer of fabric for strength.  The secondary lines of stitching are for insurance purposes.  I put linelocs on the corners for ease of use.

It’s worth noting that not all silnylon is created equal.  The good stuff will feel silky and have a substantial coating on both sides.  The less-good stuff will be more crinkly and slicker.  The reinforcements on this tarp were cut from sil I bought from Bear Paw Wilderness Designs, which did not seem to be good stuff.  I reordered from Ripstop by the Roll, which was more satisfactory.

Camping with such a small tarp is quite practical, even in bad weather, but requires the use of good pitching technique and when the wind kicks up, trees for shelter.  I took this one on my sheep hunt last month, and on both evenings had to repitch during the night to get more protection from blown precipitation.  Had I been more conservative from the start that would not have been necessary.  After each repitch I slept well and myself and my gear stayed dry.

The real value of a small tarp like this is as an emergency shelter.  It will not take too many forced nights out (or planning nights without a sleeping bag) to make you realize that the condensation make mylar bivy sacks less than ideal.  Better to have a tarp which can keep the wind off and keep you dry by allowing your clothing to breath.  As such, making your 5 foot tarp out of bright fabric, for signalling purposes, is something worth considering.  This tarp fits into a softball sized stuff sack and is therefore a practical companion for ski tours and other day outings when emergency shelter might make a big difference.

For those who don’t care to build their own, quality options are available from Oware (50 dollars, basic tieouts) and Mountain Laurel Designs (100 dollars, deluxe tieouts).

All about insulation

Insulation in outdoor clothing can be confusing.

The common question is “will ___ keep me warm during ____”, which is as understandable as it is naive (and bluntly, stupid).  Clothing does not make you warm, clothing keeps you warm, and neglecting metabolic training (ex: burning fats), proper fueling and hydration, and technique (ex: slow down in last 30 minutes before camp to minimize sweat) will always result in failure no matter how fancy your duds.

That said the confusion is quite understandable.  Outdoor marketing hardly ever emphasizes technical details, and many companies outright hide the relevant specifications (and their CS folks often don’t know them).  Appealing solely to “core” outdoor users may not be a sustainable business model for outdoor clothing even under ideal circumstances, but even if it is companies and trade industry groups have made clear that their growth strategy is not growing core users, but in making the tent bigger by bringing in marginal outdoor sports like running and area skiing.  There’s little need for the generic runner or skier to have intimate knowledge of their insulation; they can just go inside, and so long as this is the case knowledge will remain too often at arms length.

To evaluate how warm a piece of clothing might be you need three things: what sort of and how much insulation is in the piece, what shell and liner fabrics (if any) are in play, and how warm comparable pieces have proved for you in the past.  This last requires getting out a decent bit, and buying at least a few pieces of insulating clothing.  It also requires maintaining a sense of your body composition and metabolism: go from 15 to 10 percent body fat and once stopped you’ll get a lot colder a lot faster.  Assuming you know these three things, the following are general principles and suggestions for figuring out how warm a given garment might be, as well as some assorted guidelines for sorting through the noise and hype.  In no particular order.

R0000075Insulation has as much to do with stopping air flow as it does with trapping volumes of air.  The advent of Polartec Alpha and the rush to build synthetic puffies with air permeable fabrics has demonstrated this well, as does the remarkable insulting value maintained by my totally cashed out Rab Xenon, whose shell and liner (both Pertex Quantum GL) are exceptionally air impermeable.  High-dollar shell fabrics like Quantum absolutely make a jacket warmer.  I’m not sure it will ever be possible to make a fairly air permeable fabric which is downproof, but if it is it’d be interesting to see how breathable (and thus, potentially cold) a down puffy might be.

External moisture is rarely a problem for down garments unless you do something neglectful (read: fall in creek).  Ambient humidity and internal moisture are far, far more problematic.  I’ve used hydrophobic, treated down in two applications; first when I overfilled the top third of my Feathered Friends Vireo with 3 ounces of 800 FP treated down from Thru-Hiker, and second in my recently purchased Sierra Designs Better Vest.  Thus far I am not impressed.  A common scenario would have me arriving at a stop (be it to glass, fish, have a snack, or set up camp) with a bit of moisture in my system, especially under my pack.  I try to let this vent as far as possible before I get too cold, but my insulating garments inevitably end up over and covering this moisture, and having to let it pass through.  Alpha does this very well.  Lighter (sub 4 oz fill) down coats generally loose most of their loft over my back and leave me cold.  The Better Vest does exactly this, though it does puff back up (dry out) quite a bit faster.  So maybe there is something to DriDown.  In any case, “tests” like this one are at best misguided and at worst monumentally ignorant of what goes on in the field, and down still has acute weaknesses.  It also remains the only practical game in town for serious cold.

The corollary is that synthetic insulation is still a very useful thing.  All the major sorts of synthetic insulation are way more alike than they are different, save the form they come in.  Climashield maintains loft longer, due to construction, but drapes less well and thus lacks the street appeal of Primaloft.  Alpha is far less warm per weight, both due to the insulation itself and because the shells fabrics are thus far much more air permeable.  Though as I explained above the practical advantages make Alpha (and the like) a very appealing option for multi-day stuff.

I would put 240 grams/meter fleece, a generic 2 oz/800 fill hoodless down coat, and a 60 grams/meter Primaloft One/Gold jacket as roughly equivalent in warmth, if you assume the fleece has a windshirt over top.  Comparing Alpha is as mentioned problematic, but you’d probably need 90 grams/meter to be on equal footing.

Comparing fleece is a complex subject due to the many permutations beyond mere fabric weight.  One major trend over the past decade has been in hi-loft fleeces, which seek to provide more warmth for the weight.  When new these work, and the ones which are shaggy both inside and out are the faster moisture movers of the really warm stuff (think midlayer for skiing at -30).  They do loose loft with use, and there is a lot to be said for the way dense, thin-for-weight old school fleece balances insulation, weight, breathability, and longevity.  The Kiwis know this and keep using microfleece in a variety of weights, when US and now even UK companies have largely abandoned them.  Grid fleece is superior against the skin, generally, but for all-around use microfleece hasn’t really been improved upon in over two decades.  The lycra content in so much of the new stuff gives it a severe handicap.

Variations in clo rating less than .25 are generally less significant than the inter-rater variability when discussing garment warmth.  Put another way; quantifying garment warmth can only get you so far (not very).

IMG_3588So what’s good out there?  The lightest versions of grid fleece, like Capilene 4 or the new Sitka Core LW, make fantastic baselayers.  For midlayers for moving, microfleece around 160 grams/meter is hard to beat.  Rab just discontinued their Micro Pull-On, and if you don’t already I’d highly recommend snagging one.  I’d like to see them make a vest version, too.  There are many shirts like it but in typical Rab fashion the evolved cut puts it above the rest.  There is still a lot to be said for the versatility of a lighter synthetic jacket, and again Rab lead the field with the Xenon X, which has all the right features and light, windproof fabric.  I’d love to see a 80 or 100 gram/meter Xenon, in the old Quantum GL fabric.  It took me a while, but I’ve really warmed up to the Rab Strata, and their new 120 gram/meter Alpha jacket will likely be excellent for ski touring and the like (weight notwithstanding).

I’ve never been a fan of the down sweaters, as especially once loft is degraded they have too little warmth for the weight.  So I’m a fan of the recent trend to make sewn through jackets with 4 or so ounces of fill.  Much more practical.  Some folks will need a massive, baffled parka, but most can do fine with a 4 oz/fill down hoody in addition to the fleece or synthetic they already have.

So, good luck cutting through the nonsense.