Top 5 backpacks of the past 10 years

The close of a decade approaches which, if you’re not stocking it with thinly context’d affiliate links, isn’t so bad an arbitrary cause to re-examine what has happened in the past 10 years.  Lists focus the mind, and the fingers.  The best of these use material goods as a vehicle to examine culture, and since hiking and backpacking media is boring as fuck compared to bike media, in the name of all us impoverished, sedate walkers I’ll aspire to that end here.  First, a list just for backpacks, my favorite, and later a more general accounting.

Kifaru Bikini frame

The most sustained place for development in backpacks the past decade has been in hunting load haulers.  Kifaru doesn’t make the Bikini frame anymore, but it still stands out as the apotheosis of the original Lowe internal suspension design; enough vertical structure to support 100 pounds, enough fabric and padding to keep it comfortable, and just enough else to keep it all held together.  The limits of the Bikini have to do with adding lateral stability without adding too much weight, and the inevitable weight and comfort limitations associated with stay-in-lumbar designs.

Kifaru’s short-lived KU series was a contender here, with an integrated frame and bag making it to this day the lightest load hauling pack ever (2 lbs 10 oz for 5200 cubic inches).  The suspension was at least as bold a design choice as the more obvious main bag fabric (dual layer sil) and minimal features, and I still wonder if the limits of the KU, with even less lateral stability than the bikini, had more to do with its short life at retail than the fragile fabric.

Seek Outside Unaweep 3900

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If Kifaru set the table for the modern hunting pack, Seek Outside (nee Paradox Packs) was at the front of the pack who arrived in 2013-2014 to eat the scraps.  The Paradox u-frame and hanging belt remains the simplest, inherently lightest, and thus in my mind best of the systems which have matured towards 2020.  It is also, again in my mind, the definitive reification of the McHale argument that hanging belts work better than lumbar pad systems.  Around mid-decade Seek made forays with this argument in the hunting sphere, but was beat back by the ideological weight of the Kifaru tribe.

Also like Kifaru, Seek has persistant struggled with coherence in their feature set.  For this reason, the OG (and long discontinued) Unaweep 3900 remains my favorite pack of theirs.  The tall and thin shape suits the use of Talon compression panel to carry all manner of things, and while the non-dimensioned bottle pockets were a bit small, they were also out of the way of the bottom compression strap.  A pack who didn’t have enough time for the market to catch up.

Osprey Talon 22

JMT photosOsprey is the pack company of the past decade.  For proof, hang out in any busy place, backcountry or front, in any national park and take a casual survey.  This fact encapsulates both poles of almost any pack question.  Many of their designs are substantive, while many have as much to do with in-store appeal than function on the trail.  Many of their products are outstanding values (the Talon 22 MSRP has gone up only $10 in a decade), something anything more than casual introspection can only regard as a troubling fact of globalization.

Therefore it is appropriate that the best Osprey product of the past decade is one which was introduced in the previous decade has changed but little in this decade.  Flaws persist (lame side pockets!), but in shape and function the Talon 22 remains the ideal daypack, from day hiking, to mountain biking, to summer backpacking (see above, on the JMT).

Ultimate Direction Signature series

 

Running vests existed well over a decade ago, but in terms of either size (Nathan) or function (Inov8) they had significant shortcomings.  The first generation of the UD vests had issues as well (this first mainstream foray into cuben packs did not go well), but when it came to features and overall vision they set a high bar.  An all star team of pros/designers often does not translate well to production, but in this case it certainly did, and the result continues to define the category, and show just what truly accessible pockets (a huge growth area this decade) should be.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter

The Porter isn’t the most user-friendly, logical, lightest, or best carrying backpack.  But it looks cool, and was the linchpin product in not only changing the pack conversation (back) towards extreme functionality, but doing so in a wave of marketing that provided a timely antidote to lifestyle, hipster, do-little, fashion mongering abyss that gear in the instagram age was for the later part of the decade very close to falling in.  HMG makes capable packs, that cannot be contested.  A lot of their fundamentals were dated when the designs debuted 8+ years ago, but with respect to aesthetics, materials, and design they are bags meant to do thing, demanding things.

And if that isn’t the first ideal for a backpack, I do not know what is.

Introducing North Fork Packraft straps

The astute will have noticed months ago that I’m in the process of launching a pack company, North Fork.  I’m pleased to report that it is going very well indeed, in spite of no overt public evidence of progress.   Two years ago I sketched out a detailed idea of the two packs I wanted to build, and have spent the time since making prototypes to re-examine every relevant detail.  Just because I’d spent the prior decade as a hobbiest settling on my own preferences for wilderness packs did not mean those ideas were the best way of doing things.  This experimentation and development process has been immensely satisfying, largely because I freed myself from all time constraints.  I’d make as many packs, and do as many trips, as necessary for me to be content.

That process is, for the smaller of the two packs, beginning to wind down.  I’ve refined a simple, light, and supportive suspension system that can carry 40 pounds sustainably, involves minimal moving parts, and can be stripped down to completely frameless.  A protracted, 18 month diversion into complex side pocket design brought me right back to the basic design I started with.  Features and bag design took numerous diversions, and got back quite close to my original ideas.  That part is gratifying, that the first decade of experimentation was not misleading, but the assurance I bought in recent years only makes the original knowledge shinier.

I’m aware of exactly how full my days are, and have no intention of going down the solo cottage shop road of over committing and watching the wait times grow.  Thus, the bulk of North Fork packs will be sold as stock, and in batches, which will be available when they are available.  If things go as anticipated, the first run of Tamarisks (40 liters, technical multiday backpacking or race pack) will go live in time to be a winter solstice gift.  Development on the big, UL mission pack will continue into next year.  Ideally I’d like to sell some before next summer.

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To shake out the administrative kinks, and sell a simple thing whose value I’ve tested for even longer, we’re releasing the first run of packraft straps.   A ~70 inch length of 1 inch polypro webbing with a stout ITW buckle (each straps is ~72 inch tip to tip with buckle).  I made the first versions (red, immediately above) back in the pre-cargo fly days.  They weren’t quite longer enough, so I made the second (blue, all other photos) and final version, of which several have been in use for the past seven years.

A really big, really full pack will just about max them out.  The sweet spot for the length is a full 55 liter pack, maybe 36 inches in circumference.  The poly webbing is noticeably lighter in field use than nylon.  One inch webbing provides enough friction on both the buckle and against the pack that a cobble scrapping flip will not tear your gear loose, even if that gear includes a mountain bike (been there).  I have also found out, the hard way, that just because you can fit it inside your packraft does not mean, in the name of maximized puncture resistance, you should, making packraft straps relevant for all boaters.  The straps are also handy for keeping your boat rolled tight, for tying a serious overload to your pack (bear can?  100 meter static line?), and for taming awkward loads generally.  I used one last fall to roll up a bison hide for transport, and chained three together the other week to get our new-to-us (1950s Corona, ‘natch) range tight to the dolly and down many stairs into the kitchen.

Packraft straps are shit that works.  So buy some, or make some yourself.  Small item shipping rates meant that total charges for overseas customers are a bit excessive, even with us (M and I) cutting the profit margin a good bit.  You can bartack poly webbing on a home machine, and if you do enough stitches even poly embroidery thread will hold.  I use bonded nylon tex 90, the bartacks will hold long after the buckle shatters.

This is the long-awaited second phase of what began with our stickers and guidebook 2.5 years ago.  Straps today, with stock and (occasional) custom packs to come later this year.

PS: Half the straps sold over the weekend.  Much gratitude from us for the support, and the interest in the packs to come. 

Counter-less

Shoes of the Crosslite family have been my point of reference for rugged backpacking and hiking for a decade now.  The Crosslite, Crossleather, X Country, Anakonda, and Bushido have shared basic tread patterns, excellent rubber, close fit and low stack height, making them the best choice, for my foot, for technical hiking.  Most of these shoes (the X Country being the exception) had/have more than averagely durable uppers, enough that the tread wears out at around the same time.  Good enough.

Sadly the Bushido, which has been fundamentally unaltered for half a decade, is when it comes to fit the worst of the lot.  I’ve on my third pair, and it has only been through going without insoles entirely that they have enough volume.  Insoles would be ideal for protection from grit, but I can manage.  What I’ve struggled with in both the Anakonda and Bushido has been the aggessive heel counter, aka the plastic reinforcement which wraps and provides structure to the heel cup.  The Anakonda always pinched my heel at the top of the cup.  Thicker than avearage socks and a single layer of tape definitively prevented the little blister I’d otherwise get, again, manageable but annoying.  Pair #1 of the Bushidos did not do this, pair #2 did, and pair #3 did it badly enough that for all of last year they sat unused.  I couldn’t hike more than a mile without serious heel damage.

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So with nothing to loose this winter I put those shoes under the knife, and cut out of the heal counter entirely.  I’ve had a few shoes, the Altra King MT most prominently, which lacked any reinforcement here, the King MT particularly had me suspecting I’d do just fine without it.  The King MT is, like every Altra I’ve used or seen, something of a floppy piece of shit, but that is due to slipshod misfoot design and crappy upper materials, not the presence or absence of a heel counter.

So, I sliced through the upper material, and layer of inner mesh, down to the plastic counter, pealed the material off the outside of the counter and down the inside (this doesn’t take too much effort), and cut the plastic out with tin snips, flush with the sole structure.  I then glued the whole mess back together with multiple layers of Aquaseal, using good Aquaseal technique (i.e. allowing air cure before pressing things together).

A couple hundred miles since, and all signs are good.  The absence of the plastic reinforcement is obvious when I put the shoes on, but it does not negatively impact on trail or off trail performance.  No blisters, and most significantly no durability issues.  I’m not sure I’d care to repeat the procedure, but if I continue to struggle with finding low stack, low drop shoes that have both good tread and durable uppers, I might have little choice.

7/2020 update:

This experiment taught me a lot but was ultimately a failure.  The shoes got a lot of hard, mostly off trail miles last summer and fall, holding up well.  On a trip a few weeks ago, with lots of trail miles, the inner fabric and mesh between the cut counter and my feet began to decay and rip, and the result, even with tape to keep the interface slick, was significant blister formation on the outside of both heels.  I think this failure could have been delayed with more careful cutting, but I also think that the fabric layers, absent the plastic layer, are not strong enough to hold up.

 

 

 

Layering in 2019: insulation

Moreso than with most categories I feel sympathy for beginners trying to come to terms with understanding insulated garments for the outdoors.  Staying warm outside, on the face, shouldn’t be so complicated, and while the nuance and especially implementation of staying warm outside can be hard to hew closely with, having warm enough clothing shouldn’t be much of a mystery.  If action layers are for staying warm during various permutations of on-the-go, pure insulating layers are for keeping you warm while you’re still.  Plenty of concerns usually associated with action layers almost always bleed over into pure insulation, and indeed one of (in two more years I expect to be able to way the) the major recent developments is using lessons from active insulation in warmer garments designed for static activities.

To know how warm a jacket will be, you need to know what kind of insulation it has, and how much is there.  I tempted by the analogy of no one buying a new house from a builder who couldn’t give you the R in the roof without thought, but I’m sure there are plenty of folks who have and will do just that.  Don’t be that person, don’t assume attributes into a jacket based on marketing copy or a pinch test.  I’m loath to buy any insulation from a company that doesn’t list numbers front and center, but if they don’t (looking at you First Lite) they should at least be able to dig them up readily.  If a company can’t do that, run away quickly.

Knowing fill type and weight doesn’t help too much without a half dozen well worn garments in your closet to which you can compare.  Even so, knowing you need more then 4 ounces of down and less than 10 doesn’t help much if you’re in the market for synthetic.

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I haven’t used that many insulated jackets; the above is my best approximation of functional and equivalent warmths.  You can dive into seemingly more precise detail with clo ratings, but shell fabrics bias these rating significantly, and lab findings do not generalize well to the field (below).

Even if you have the necessary amount of insulation along on a trip, implementation can easily sabotage your plans.  Being tired, poorly hydrated, and badly fed can when combined take a huge percentage off the value of your insulation by robbing your body of the ability to make heat.  Bad technique, such as allowing yourself to get too cold during the day and/or letting your base and action layers to take on too much moisture can similarly kill the practical value of insulation.  Not maximizing your mental state also makes it hard to stay warm, both insofar as good psyche is linked to not making the aforementioned mistakes, and in that mental and physical well being cannot in my mind be meaningfully separated.  Embracing discomfort makes a cold, wet night seem warmer.

All that said, some moisture in your action layers is inevitable, and for this reason I now highly prize insulating layers which can not only not degrade significantly when damp, but move moisture.  The Hyperpuff seems like the way forward here.  I’ve had plenty of synthetic jackets which dried fast, but none which dried so well from body heat alone.  How much of this is the insulation, and how much the liner and shell fabric?  My hope is that continued development here will provide more answers.

In summer, I can make do with a lighter insulating layer.  Often this is down, as longer and warmer days make drying out easier, or just an active insulating jacket, as long days make it easy for ones sleeping bag to be the only actual static insulator.  Outside the warmest months of the year I rarely regret something as warm as the Hyperpuff, with a rarely used massive down parka the only other thing needed for those below 0 days.

Bob Open survey update

The initial 6 days of responses display a clear trend.

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With the mean response to question 3 being well below 1, and the slim majority of responses to question 2 amounting to “thought about doing it but don’t have the skills/experience”, it seems clear that there are lots of folks, both past starters/finishers and aspirants, who have some manner of unfinished business with the Open.  Which is awesome to hear.

I’m keeping the survey open for the rest of the week.  With the responses to question 2 largely split on timing (Memorial Day is either great for folks or terrible, it seems) I am seriously leaning towards bumping the start forward 2-3 weeks, while keeping it in the Bob, and using 2019 to test out some manner of extra event(s) elsewhere.  Trent’s link to the Ultra Pedestrian Challenge was very timely, and while I think the mass start, no route format works well in the Bob, having ITTs on set routes makes a lot of sense elsewhere, especially in places with private land and/or permit issues.  Look for more news before the end of summer.

Planning the 2019 Bob Open

It’s time to start planning the 2019 Bob Open.  If you want to cut to the chase, click here to take a 1 minute survey.

Until recently the process of picking a route across the Bob has been simple; I pick out a few places I haven’t been and want to go (often this had to do with the list of un-run or scouted creeks and rivers), identify the nice or at least decent place to camp at the start, and call it good.  Today, I’ve crossed the Bob 12-20 times, depending on the rigor of your definition, and my eyes naturally drift elsewhere.  Here moving to Helena has been a huge blessing, without the singular lure of Glacier and the Bob it’s been easy to look in all directions, and in each case I’ve only found more reasons to go back and go deeper.

The Bob is singular amongst areas in the Northern Rockies.  It is big, it lacks the logistical issues inherent in a National Park, it has lots of floatable rivers and the terrain is complex enough that facilitating multiple options is easy.  The downsides of the Bob, aside from the fact that we’ve all been there for the last 7 years, include long shuttles between trailheads, a relative lack of sustained alpine terrain and thus more technical routes, and an again relatively large amount of extent planning information.  And it lacks personal interest for me.

But this isn’t just about me.  I’ve gotten immense satisfaction out of teaching by proxy, putting people out in the Bob during the spring.  I want to keep doing what will benefit and interest the most people.  Problem with the Bob specifically include that as spring keeps getting warmer faster, the snow factor remains lower than optimal, and rivers tend towards high enough that I worry about accidents.  I also worry that as the Bob becomes more “known” in the internet sense, the probability of woefully unprepared folks showing up and not making good choices increases.  On the other hand, I worry that the other options would just not be as cool.

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For instance, the two options above.  The first goes across the Little Belts from SE to NW, and would cross a bunch of big canyons and high ridges which get a lot of snow and, once things melt out just enough to keep the sleds out, get very little traffic.  Lots of dirt roads, as any perusal of maps will tell you, which raises the spectre of both mountain bike routes, and lots of road walking.  The second option, starting on the West Fork of Rock Creek and running SE across the Pintlers, crosses some big elevation, but requires a paved road crossing, and more significantly, some dancing around private property to do so.  This last is a major issue in parts of Montana; it’d be awesome to for example end the first route by crossing the Smith and traveling through the Big Belts to York, but the west bank of the Smith River is almost impossible to manage for a diffuse event like the Bob Open.

A larger question is what kind of event the Bob will become.  Will it be something locals and semi-locals can integrate into a long weekend, a keystone events for backpackers looking to step up to the next level, or will it be a destination endeavor, a major undertaking out of which most anyone is lucky to emerge without carrying entrails and eyeballs in one hand?

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Like this one.

Making the Bob more of a ski and snowshoe affair has also been a longtime thought of mine, along with doing something in the southwest.  Those are also options I’d like feedback on, from past and prospective participants.

So fill this out, please.  Three questions only.

 

Moonlight on Mount Ascension race report

The number of items on my lifetime outdoor to-do list is no longer especially long, viewed from a discipline perspective.  In a few years I went far enough with mountain biking to know that continuing to progress would require many hours a week training, and involve a high probability of more concussions.  I can go the rest of my life, happily riding dirt occasionally, without ever dipping back into the serious end of the sport.  It took me a decade, beginning at 12 and peaking in my early 20s, to climb harder and better than I ever though I would, and while I actively look forward to when the kids will be old enough to really focus on climbing, my personal ambitions are satiated.  When M and I lived in Moab 15 years ago and technical canyoneering was just barely a thing I drew up a list, and while I’d really like to descend the last two canyons on that list, just like with mountain biking and climbing my interest with canyoneering has passed from learning and searching to enjoyment, and to integrating it into other endeavors.  Even backpacking, the outdoor pursuit I’ve enjoyed most, has lost the sharpness of it’s luster, with the last few years making plain that my learning curve will only continue to flatten dramatically.

I’ve got plenty left to learn, especially when it comes to whitewater boating and skiing, and a few things I’d really like to learn, such as sailing and paragliding.  Hunting will continue to provide a robust learning/entertainment curve for some time.  But one thing from my past stands out, a realm I was never able to enter fully, something with which I have profoundly unfinished business: ultrarunning.

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Really long-term readers will recall the days when Bedrock & Paradox was young, I mostly was too, M and I lived in Arizona, and I tried and failed to get involved in trail ultras.

I ran cross country for one year in high school, finding it dull and too short.  My senior year of undergrad some friends got me psyched and we all entered and ran the Chicago Marathon.  It was a unique and in hindsight great experience, running through a big city with 30,000 strangers, and while I was in great shape I trained too much on trails and blew up my IT bands, full recovery from which (due to impatience, mostly) took several years.  By then we were in Arizona and in addition to the full blown mountain bike obsession I tried build back into running.  I ran the 2007 Moab Red Hot 50k, and had to limp the last half due to knee issues.  I dove into a year of yoga and strength work, went back a year later, and had the same thing happen, almost worse.  I was already registered (and had paid a lot of money and scheduled vacation for) the Coyote 2 Moons 100k in California, and out of stubborness pivoted to hiking the whole thing.

Which worked well.  19 hours and 44 minutes of hiking got me through 63 miles and a whole lot of climbing, still my longest day to date (in terms of miles).  You can read the report here, though the photos got lost in the migration to WordPress years ago.  I’ve done a few foot ultras since, and the hiking only approach consistently netted mid-pack or better on tough courses, so long as I stayed efficient and focused.

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But I’ve still never done what I wanted to do many years ago; really rip a big 12+ hour day, running, on foot.  It being increasingly close to a decade since my last organized, official ultramarathon, when Mike got talking about the Moonlight on Mount Ascension 12 hour race I signed up, last minute.  The only way to get fit again is to get out there and off the couch.

This was by a very far margin the easiest trail race I’ve ever done.  Our local trails have lots of older, more fall line routes which in fitting with modern trends are systematically being replaced with more meandering routes that keep the grades well into single digits.  I’ve always made a point to start foot ultras dead last, as 99% of folks go out far too hard, but never before have I been DFL for so long, and by so much.  The 1000′ of climbing (the data used for race website overstates mileage and vertical by 30-50% for the Ascension loop) out of the gate was hardly enough for me to reel anyone in, and had me thinking about the old Dialism, that roads are for cars, trails for bikes, and off-trail for feet.

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I completed a full first set of loops with no running at all, and let myself run a few of the 2-3% downhills going into the second loop.  This was fun and vastly quicker, but with no running background I was obviously going to grenade my legs if I kept that up, so I reverted to hiking.  The views of Helena were great, and night hiking familiar terrain was quite fun, but not running the gentle descents at 0100 put me to sleep fast.  So after 19 (or so) miles and 5 hours and change I bailed to the van and slept for 5.5 hours.

I was happy to sleep well, happy to wake up and hike another four mile loop in the morning, and very happy to hang out eating pancakes around the finish with everyone.  HURL put on a great race, low-key and organized where it counted.  I was not pleased to be reminded how just how long I’ve wanted to do real trail running, and not succeeded.  So working on that is yet another project.

 

2018 Bob Open unofficially official report

The 2018 Open took place on a long course, and during extraordinary conditions.  A record winter saw the entire Bob complex at over 150% of normal snowfall, with certain areas in the Scapegoat exceeding 200%.  At 2.5 weeks until the start the road to the scheduled start at the Indian Meadows TH was still snowed in for 9 miles, dictating a switch to the North Fork of the Blackfoot.  This precaution ended up being unnecessary, as consistently warm and very sunny weather for two continuous weeks vaporized mid-elevation snow and brought rivers and creeks up to record levels by Memorial Day weekend.  The South Fork of the Flathead exceeded 20,000 cfs, and the South Fork of the Sun 4,000.  Participants saw normally inconsequential creeks become major obstacles, and packrafting was a dodgy prospect on all but the flattest of waterways.

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16 hikers, including one woman, took the start.  Everyone shared the initial miles to the confluence of the North and Dry Forks of the Blackfoot, with two stock bridges moderating the massive (and as of last fall ungauged) river.  Almost everyone continued to share miles up the Dry Fork and into Danaher Meadows and down to The Basin, where several passes (Stadler being the obvious, and most popular choice) led over to the Atlantic side and the relatively straightforward terrain of the North Fork of the Sun and Sun River Pass.  Perennial Open protagonist Dan Durston continued his penchant for unique routes and headed north to pass the Scapegoat massif on the eastern flank, walking lots of snow down into the Green Fork and Straight Creek, which was well flooded and eventually made for fast but intimidating rafting down to the South Fork of the Sun.  Durston portaged a more severe section of the South Fork, camping in the process, before finishing the float to Sun River Butte on his second morning.

Will Blum and Adrian Swanson led the pack through Danaher Meadows, linking up to float a very large Danaher Creek and South Fork of the Flathead, and making it to Big Salmon Creek by 10pm for a 50+ mile first day.  They put back on early in the morning, with the narrowed channel transforming the floating experience substantially.  In Blum’s words: “Just after salmon park the river got spicier, with big (and incredibly fun) standing waves, nasty holes, and complicated hydraulics with counter currents ready to grab you if one of the many diagonal waves pushed you out of the main flow. ”  The pair took out at Black Bear Creek, and Will portaged down to Harrison Creek and floated to Lower Twin Creek, while Swanson headed up Harrison Creek.  Blum took Twin Creek over the divide and down to Bradley Lake, on well consolidated snow, and made it to the Middle Fork of the Flathead at dusk.  Blum hiked a ways downstream, found a good place to packraft across and, mistakenly thinking he had passed Granite Creek, turned right and hiked upstream in the dark, making the lower crossing of Lodgepole Creek by boat, and swimming one of the upper crossings.  A long push until around 330am put him to within a few miles of the Morrison Creek TH, where he bivvied under a tree.  This nearly 70 mile day is one of the more impressive pushes in Open history.

Swanson struggled with horrible deadfall linking Harrison into Corporal Creek, loosing the trail and suffering some gear failures.  In his words; “…all frustrations together with the thought of an easy (ha) float to the reservoir was too much to overcome at the time, so I pulled the plug.”  Swanson did just that the next day, floating the Spotted Bear back to the South Fork, though not without incident.  2 bends in and early in the morning big waves and a hole caused a flip, which a quick mid-river re-entry made unproblematic, and he made the South Fork without further incident.  As Swanson wrote; “I’m not sure why, but I assumed that I could have a relative pool-toy float to the reservoir at this point. I was very wrong. The SF below spotted bear was just as fear-inducing as the narrow channel I swam in the morning. The wide river took a lot of energy and hard-paddling to cross between the inside of the turns. The alternative was to hit the huge 5′ waves at the edge of the bedrock walls.”

On his second day Durston took the west side up the North Fork of the Sun, enjoying shorter miles than the east but suffering from several big creeks and lots of deadfall on the poorly maintained trail north of Gates Park.  A scary swim into a strainer at Moose Creek had Durston using his boat four times that day, at Rock Creek, Lick Creek, the North Fork, and Strawberry Creek.  He made camp at 1030pm on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Flathead, floating the relatively flat miles to Schafer Meadows the next morning and portaging the Three Forks section of rapids before putting back in.  The Middle Fork between Lodgepole and Granite Creeks is quite different than above Schafer, and Durston fell victim to the fast and pushy water, getting swept into a hole and flipped.  As with Swanson, a quick re-entry kept a potentially serious situation from developing further.  The miles up Granite were plagued by deadfall, but Durston ground out the miles to the finish, making the Marias obelisk by 720pm, for a 59 and a half hour finish.

Blum had arrived at the obelisk 4 hours earlier, recovering from his massive day two push and only 90 minutes of sleep to not only make the walk out, but add a traverse over the Continental Divide including Elkcalf Mountain to the mix.  As Blum wrote: “It was actually a pretty easy decision. For one, I didn’t relish finishing the route by roadway because the road had been so much more painful than the trail. On a deeper level, I already felt somewhat disappointed in myself up to that point, despite having made great time. I felt like I had wimped out of running black bear for no reason, and like I had let myself lose track of the reason I come to the wilderness to begin with. I figured there would be no better way to reconnect to that reason than to end the trip with giant commanding views into Glacier, which might be my favorite place on earth. Plus my body felt surprisingly good aside from the foot/tibialis issue.”

Blum and Durston would prove to be the only people to complete the course.  The Helena-based team of Mike, John, and Andrew made their way up the east side of the North Fork Sun River valley, experiencing creek crossings consistently above expectations.  Crossings like Biggs and Route Creeks, ordinarily barely knee deep even in the throes of spring, being major obstacles.  This trio elected to take Wrong Creek over into the West Fork of the Teton on their fourth day, rather than push on in slow conditions and tangle with even worse potential crossings further north.  Kyle Pucko distinguished himself with a long alternate route, walking the Danaher down to the South Fork, and using the Big Prairie pack bridge to facilitate a safe crossing and exit up Gordon Creek and over the Holland Gap to lower Holland Lake.  All other participants took the obvious, shortest exits at Benchmark or Gibson.

With water conditions as difficult as they are ever likely to be, the saving grace of the 2018 Open was warm days and coolish nights (for the fourth year running) which made for both kind temps and snow set up well enough that snowshoes were not needed.  Most importantly, good prep and decision making saw everyone survive the difficult conditions relatively unscathed.

Holy snow

Central-western Montana has had an extraordinary winter, which is necessarily leading to an extraordinary spring.  Massive amounts of snow means massive amounts of water, and in the last month temps have yet to get too warm (which is nice, as upper 60s feels stifling at the moment), and have been punctuated with big storms which have been more than cold enough to snow up high.  The grass I planted is growing in our yard, and we’ve had flood advisories for the past week solid, with plenty more snow waiting for true warmth.  Copper Camp Snotel, near the start of the Bob Open this year, is today reading an even six feet of snow at 6900 feet.  Which is a lot, especially on a wide open, south facing slope.

Little Bear and I took a walk yesterday to investigate, among other things, if the proposed TH for the Bob Open was in fact accessible.  It isn’t, and due to parking and camping issues I’m moving the start a ways east, to the North Fork of the Blackfoot River.

We found abundant snow at very low elevations (4400′ in the above photo), with the earliest flowers and forbs just starting to emerge.  A winter like the one we’re just exiting can seem oppressive, but gives many things.  The many elk, mule and whitetail deer, and the handful of trumpeter swans we saw were doing well, and seemed to appreciate the flooded meadows and tall creeks.  Little Bear got to practice important things like postholing, not getting smacked in the face by willows, and eating ramen with a stick.

It will be an interesting trip across the Bob in a few weeks.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.