Pack materials for 2018

This post and the follow-up a year later have remained among my most popular works, and with 2018 coming into focus they are at last worth updating.  Not too much has changed in the world of backpack fabrics, but time has allowed for enough clarification that a few things are worth saying again.  There are even some new trends to highlight.

Context matters.  I’ve taken plenty of flack over the years for denigrating trail and thru hiking as a useful design metric for backpacks.  This is a statement I still endorse, but do not mistake holding something up as a metric as equivalent to it being the most frequent or likely use.  Plenty of people get along just fine with fabrics I dislike, and unless you really want to count grams current technology makes producing a good, light, functional trail pack simple.  My own interest has always been, putting the outlier of canyoneering aside, in making and using packs which are as light and functional as the best modern packs, and tough enough for trips like this.

R0010199Nylon ripstop on the Gossamer Gear Type 2 (above) and Osprey Rev 18 (below).  Relatively cheap, certainly light, and for small packs durable for years of reasonable use.  Lighter packs carry lighter loads, can thus usually expect more careful handling, and thus can often get away with lighter fabrics, even if they are used most often.

IMG_3948

Pack fabrics can still be separated into two categories depending upon what waterproof coating they have stuck to their backs.  Polyurethene remains the most common, by far, and provides predictable and in many cases quite satisfactory performance.  The strengths of PU coated fabrics are lower prices, a more supple hand, and a lower amount of weight given over to the coating itself.  The downsides are the eventual degradation of the coating, the fact that most PU fabrics are waterproof to a degree which can be reliably if not commonly exceeded in field conditions, and that applying the coating weakens the fabric.  No one is complaining about the tear strength of something like 330D cordura, but I do believe that attribute of hot-application coatings is why they’re not more liberally applied (which would solve the waterproofing issue).  The quality of PU coating varied drastically, from very good to utter crap, which muddies things for both the home maker and the person just wanting to buy a good pack in the shops.

Laminate fabrics such a hybrid cubens and the various Dimension-Polyant fabrics are the second option.  If I were making a canyoneering pack I’d pick a PU fabric like 1000D cordura without hesitation, as the added weight and waterproofing given by a laminate just doesn’t make sense, especially in the face of no current laminate fabric being adequately durable for such use.  I used several test packs made from X51 (500/1000D cordura) last year, including for this two day excursion and even with careful packing 2 days and five canyons had the X51 on the edge of destruction.  For mountain backpacking, especially outside summer, the added waterproofing and weight of laminate fabrics makes them justifiable.

R0021333Cold and knackered along the Escalante in January.  Canyons beat up packs like little else. Laminate fabrics dedicate a greater percentage of their weights to the waterproofing layer, relative to PU fabrics.  I think the later makes more sense in the desert, for this reason.

Why aren’t many (any?) more commercial packs available in laminate fabrics?  First, the fabrics are more expensive, and needle holes which don’t self heal is I still assume a burden in mass production.  Second, D-P laminates face fabrics they don’t themselves produce in in the US, which means that a Chinese or Korean made cordura would be woven on one side of the Pacific, laminated on another, then shipped back again to be cut and sewn into packs.  Last, and most obviously why the first two hurdles haven’t been overcome, it is more difficult to articulate to the masses how your pack is more waterproof than other supposedly waterproof packs, and yet still is not submersible.  Plenty of people are trying to change these dynamics, and 2018 has the best chance yet of one succeeding.

IMG_2859

Abrasion in 1.3 oz pure cuben (above) and 150D hybrid cuben and VX42 (below).  Pure cuben isn’t reasonable for use in a pack, and the above photo show how easily the strong reinforcing fibers and weak mylar film are easily separated from each other.  The pack below is almost 4 years old, and has been a good test for how the two wear.  The cuben body is fine, but keeping it that way has taken lots of tape and aquaseal.

img_5772

Years have only reinforced my conviction that Cuben/DCF is in backpacks mostly hype.  Yes the 150D hybrid is a very good product.  Yes, good packs are made out of it.  But the face fabric itself is still relatively weak in the face of abrasion, and while the laminate itself is without question stronger in every respect than either PU or any PET I’ve seen, using weight and dollars to put strength there continues to not make sense to me.  200-300D nylon face with a thinner cuben film?  Sounds higher performance in every respect.  Since Cuben was purchased by DSM product development and availability has become decidedly less transparent, so while probably the greatest potential resides there in terms of pure pack fabric technology, I don’t expect anything new, one way or the other.

This leaves us with D-P products, which have become more diverse and vastly more widely available.  Rockywoods, for instance, currently sells 10 variants which could be suitable for backpacks, with more commonly available elsewhere.  Much to their credit, D-P has stuck with their fabric nomenclature, which initially seems obtuse but make discussion and differentiation simple.  For our purposes all fabrics have an inner PET laminate (the waterproof part) and an outer woven face fabric.  The V designation means there is an inner fabric laminated to the PET (easily seen by the white inner), while the X designation means the signature x shaped grid of reinforcing fibers is present, laminated within the PET.  Recent trends have gone away from the V layer, something of which I do not generally approve.  In heavier and especially darker face fabrics this results in a very shadowy interior which makes finding things a pain.  In the lighter fabrics, I’m thinking of X21 in particular, the lack of interior scrim takes away a good deal of stiffness, making an already oddly cut prone fabric considerably moreso.  3 years I was already less than fond of VX21, thinking that VX07 punched better given the weight, and that for me VX42 was almost always preferable.  This is not to say that X21 isn’t a good light pack fabric, just that I put it in the sides of a framebag a year ago, and have grown tired of little nicks appearing for no particular reason.

My particular favorites remain the cordura faces on X33 and X50, though VX42 and X42 are very nice.  The slicker face of the 420D plain weave used the latter does very well in brush and sticks, while cordura is better when dragged over rocks.  VX42 has proven difficult enough to put holes in that I’d use it for anything short of the slot canyon abuse shown above, content that I’d be patching holes and nicks infrequently.  X51 ought to be better than X50, but the difference in size between the warp and weft fibers make it a thorough disappointment.  Here my recommendation has not changed in recent years: VX07 for light trail duty, X33 for most things, and VX42 or X50 for abusive applications.

IMG_5567X50 significantly rubbed by 12 miles hauling an elk rack out of the wilderness.  Not overkill in this application.  This also illustrates the way the X grid accelerates abrasion.

A number of areas for improvement are available.  First, more Vspecific fabric options which omit the X grid.  Anyone who has put D-P fabrics to a good test has seen the grid be a major point of abrasion, such that the fabrics would without question last longer without it.  D-P has admitted that branding is at work here, but I also think that packs have become a large enough part of their portfolio that they will shortly be more malleable.   More broadly, it would be swell to see pack fabrics with some manner of durable surface coating that kept them from being saturated under gnarly conditions.  Arc’teryx has done this on a limited basis, so the potential certain exists.

This points to the real future of pack fabrics, which long term is probably in some manner of heavier non-woven.  The woven Dyneema used by Cilogear, HMG, and a few others is impressive, and points towards the way advanced textiles allow traditional fabrics to bend the rules as we know them.  My hope is that fabrics like the Liteskin line from D-P (a non-woven poly face with a woven nylon backer) will out perform traditional fabrics for the same weight, while being less expensive to produce at small and moderate scales than the various dyneema products.

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.

R0023239

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.

IMG_5092

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.

This is not a business

But I am asking you to buy things.
DSC01789
Back in 2010 the end of grad school and move to a new place, with what was finally and undeniably a real job, properly prompted introspection.  One prominent result was upgrading this blog to WordPress and taking it far more seriously.  What I’ve gotten from that commitment has been priceless; a sporadic freelance writing career that has brought both money and interesting projects, collaborations with publications and companies testing and refining outdoor gear, a far more nuanced understanding of myself, and most significantly a community of readers whose depth of commitment and breadth of background never fails to amaze me on the relatively rare occasions when it and I come face to face.  I’m an introvert, something I only poorly understood and could not embrace 7 years ago.  If I wasn’t, I’d probably spend less time writing to and for intimate strangers and more time face to face with strangers in living rooms and bars.

These intangible benefits could not have been purchased in any way other than time and concentration invested over years.  I’ve never made a cent directly from Bedrock & Paradox, and aside from writing gigs for other publications no secondary income either.  To be mild I’ve never been a fan of crowd sourcing, affiliate links, native advertising, and so many of the trappings of our current age.  I like working for a living, doing actual things, getting money without sleight of hand.  I’m also not comfortable asking for donations or doing any kind of subscription service.  On the one hand I’m small potatoes and monetizing in that way just seems insulting to you, the readers.  On the other, there are more demands on my time than ever, something which isn’t going to change, and there are some projects I’d like to push forward now, which require additional funding.

DSC01777

So this is the compromise, three stickers designed by my lovely wife M, the shadowy figure which has made so much of Bedrock & Paradox possible since the beginning.  We’re selling them for $1.50 each, with graduated shipping charges for US and international buyers.  I won’t make too much money on each order, but I will make some, and all of it will go directly towards equipment necessary to get the next phase of Bedrock & Paradox off the ground.  They’re the best vinyl stickers we could find, the samples having survived many rounds in the dishwasher.  They’ll last quite a while wherever you decide to put them, and will hopefully both help us out while both giving you something of substance and making more explicit the bond between reader and author.  Because as ornery as I often am, I wouldn’t keep doing this without knowing I was reaching who I am.

As an additional thank you for investing, and for accompanying us over the years, we’re holding a pack giveaway.  One lucky person will get custody of the most recent version of the 610 pack, shown below and detailed here.  It fits a ~20 inch torso, and will come with shoulder straps, foam pad, and hipbelt.  Pockets exist for dual stays, but you’ll have to supply those.  Full details can be found on the sticker page or the new Bedrock & Paradox store.

Why isn’t this a business?  Because I don’t want to make money, I want to do things, and doing those things happens to require a bit more capitol than we currently have ready access to.  Making money requires compromise for the sake of efficiency, scale, and sensibility.  Long term I have no interest in those things, only in making exactly what I want to make, as best as I can make it.  That is what the stickers exist to fund, and that is what you’ll be voting for if you buy some.