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.


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.


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.


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.

Shit that works week; again

We’re back!

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

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

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

Thermarest Ridgerest


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


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

Coal Frena beanie


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


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

An Alpacka raft


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

So what is not to like?


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


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

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

A Western Mountaineering sleeping bag

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

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

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


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

Hydration for multiday backcountry pursuits

15 years ago the hydration system revolution was in full swing.  Hoses and bladders were ubiquitous for day hiking, mountain bikers, backpackers, and even runners.  Bladder tech has only gotten better since; after holding out for years against more gadgets I must admit that the quick disconnect that came with the latest Osprey is darn handy, if not altogether foolproof.  For multiday backcountry pursuits (aka backpacking and its variations) bladders have big issues: they’re clumsy to fill on the go, they often don’t play well with a full pack, and they can break and leak (which often goes undetected until too late).  But the argument bladders made is incontrovertible; that while backpacking a significant amount of water needs to be accessible all the time, ideally with one handed access and removal.  Pack makers of all stripes have had to up their game, and side pockets are much better than they used to be.  Side pocket bottles aren’t always the best solution for the backcountry, but when they are done well they’re preferred 95% of the time.

(The big exception being toting 3+ liters, like below, where bladders are much more compact and you want that weight closer than side pockets can achieve.  Hoses are also largely backwash-proof, handy for toddlers and their disgusting drinking habits.)


Recently there has been a push-back against “overhydration” and the marketing language (hydrate or die!) with which the hydration pack industry has flourished.  While I think many of the particulars of this criticism have merit, on the whole it is profoundly misguided, especially when it comes to multiday backcountry pursuits.

First, the hydration pack industry is indeed a bit much.  Charging 150 bucks for a “technical daypack” isn’t the most utilitarian development the outdoor industry has cooked up, but like with puffy coats the technology bleeds over and the cash keeps companies and retail stores afloat.  For dayhikers who think water purification is a survival necessity, chic 25 liter bags with a 100 ounce bladder makes sense.

Second, the term overhydration isn’t really accurate.  Hyponatremia is about excessively low blood sodium.  It is very easy, especially in decent heat, to drink enough while taking in too few electrolytes, which if taken too far can lead to some pretty bizarre symptoms, and death.  It is only slightly less easy to drink much faster than your gut can absorb, which only results in lots of pissing.  I have no doubt that many, many people have and will continue to drink more water than their body can absorb (1 liter/hour for a 150 pound person, under ideal conditions), and that only some of them could have put most of that water to actual use with better nutrition, but I am certain that to this day many more still drink too little and cruise around dehydrated and underperforming, all other factors considered equally.  Overhydration and hyponatremia are simply never the same thing.

Third, “drink when you’re thirsty” is not inherently inaccurate but doesn’t begin to tell the whole picture, and for the multiday backcountry athlete (meaning someone who works hard and tends to sweat on their trips) is a principal incomplete enough to be actively dishonest.  While you may only be able to process a half liter an hour while hiking hard, you could lose 3-6 times that amount during the same time, through perspiration and respiration.  Do that math; 2 liters of loss average over 14 hours on the move is 28 liters.  Cut that in half for a less severe hypothetical; when and how are you going to replace over 3 gallons of fluid during a 24 hour period, especially when you’re asleep for a third of it?  Drinking when thirsty is unlikely to get the job done.

The vital point here, and the reason why the often cited literature from Noakes et al is of little utility for backpackers, is that day to day recovery and maintenance has to be entirely self contained.  Even a tough, slow marathon is perhaps equivalent to one full on days backpacking effort, and virtually no one running Fog City or Whiskey Row has to hydrate and eat with an eye towards doing the same thing for the following five days.  Even a longer race like the much researched Comrades Ultra doesn’t generalize to multiday backcountry particularly well due to the recovery aspect.  Not everyone backpacks like this, but lots of people stepping out on more severe trips, especially in hot areas like the Grand Canyon or Colorado Plateau get slapped down after the first two days, and my personal experience has led me to believe that many if not most of these folks would do and feel better with a more aggressive and holistic hydration and nutrition strategy.

ak-mountain-wilderness-classic-10Food for the 2011 Wilderness Classic.

I wrote some detailed guidelines for food planning for a backpack a few years ago, but for the purposes of this post it is illustrative to look at the food I brought on the Wilderness Classic six years ago.  That was a ~150 mile effort that ended up taking 3.5 days, with weather that trended more towards cold and wet than warm and dry.  Lots of chocolate and cheese and nuts was geared towards the cold weather aspect, as well as calorie/oz maximization, but I also had lots of salty and easy to digest foods along, the kinds of things (Pringle’s, licorice, Paydays) I usually bring on warmer weather trips, but also take on more strenuous outings.  Simple soups and hot cereals are not only psychologically beneficial, but seem to help get nutrients and especially fluids on board, not only in the stomach but into the blood stream.  The food above ended up being just about perfect, I even had a few extra Snickers to share with Paige, but some drink mixes and/or electrolyte supplements would have been an ideal addition.

It’s common for the uninitiated to look at food lists like the above and see little other than junk food.  That is true, but what is also true is that things like Pringle’s and chocolate and Halvah are well suited to the demands of multiday backcountry outings, especially strenuous ones.  Rules still apply, but they are very different ones.

The 2017 Bob Open

One of the best, if not the best, thing about the Bob Open is that it isn’t about me or anyone else. It’s about everyone, going out and battling with their demons and desires on their own terms and hopefully learning what they wanted. The Bob itself is just a canvas, though not all canvas’s are equal.

I’ve written these summary reports each year because they’re a fun exercise and provide a convenient reference for the future.  They certainly don’t even begin to get at any of the important stuff that took place.  Most info used below can be found here.
The 2017 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open ran from the West Fork of the Teton River to the north end of Lake Inez, and took place after a big snow winter and under sunny and warm conditions.  Saturday, Sunday and Monday all saw temperatures in the 80s at lower elevations, though mostly clear nights kept the abundant snow well frozen until late in the morning. Rivers were high, with the South Fork of the Flathead about 10,000 cfs all weekend.

18 men took the start.  Everyone headed west into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Sun, almost everyone over the Olney/Nesbit pass, whose north side is burned and gains elevation quickly, with a forested south side that sidehills in dense timber and holds snow lower than one would think.  Between the snow and unusually abundant deadfall many folks where starting to feel the burn by the time they reached the Sun in the late morning or early afternoon.  Taking the North Fork valley all the way south to the South Fork of the Sun was the fastest initial option, with one party packrafting and several walking this stretch, and both enjoying good travel conditions.  The next decision point was to take White River pass and trade a higher crossing and potentially tough ford of the West Fork of the Sun for quicker access to the pack bridge at Big Prairie, or to stick to the lowest route at take Stadler Pass into Danaher Creek, avoiding any potentially problematic crossings.  One party discarded the longer and faster Sun River option and headed up Rock Creek to cross Larch Hill pass into the White River valley.  Lastly, the first Bob Open ski participant took the northernmost route; over Washboard Reef, Switchback pass, and Wall Creek pass into the White River drainage.

Big stream crossings were a major theme.  The Spotted Bear River at Pentagon Creek proved challenging, as did the West Fork of the Sun at Indian Creek, with the later providing at least one short ride.  The southernmost ford of the White River near Brushy Park is often big and fast, and this year it was especially so, but one of the larger cruxes of the whole Open proved to be Gordon Creek, whose big basin had plenty of snow for the warm temperatures to melt.  One party declined to cross Gordon and headed out over the Holland Gap instead, while all those who did cross reported a high level of concern, and at least one person took a wee swim.  Noteable is one group coming out of the Danaher that was split up by an impromptu crossing of the South Fork on a recently downed Cottonwood.

Once across the South Fork crossing the Swan Range was still ahead, and was always going to be the crux of any route in such a big snow year.  The one packrafter this year floated the White and South Fork down to Big Salmon, and took Pendant Pass down to Upper Holland Lake.  This is a long and scenic route with a lot of higher altitude, north facing terrain, and as has been the case in the past delivered some tough going.  The penalty for choosing the relatively easy option of the Holland Gap was double digit miles to make it south to Lake Inez, which was always going to be annoying mindnumbing, and this year proved quite mosquito infested as well.  Of the two parties who came over the Holland Gap, one made the official finish, while one demurred and hitched a ride for the final dozen or so miles.  The rest of the crew headed up Youngs and choose either Babcock Creek or Pyramid Pass as their final obstacle.  The former was the shorter route, but the “trail” in upper Babcock is now even more buried in blowdown than in past years, and the going was tough.  Connective tissue problems, fatigue, and general discretion and sanity had several participants pull up short mere miles from the finish, rather than endure a painful stretch of dirt road walking.

The end result is the largest number of starters ever, as well as the largest number (though not largest percentage) of DNFs ever.  In some respects the conditions were ideal, in others they were exceedingly difficult, and the relentless and back-ended routes proved an ideal test of those who made it that far.  The quality of storytelling certainly did not suffer.

Bob Open 2017; midterm analysis

Add:  The stories are piling up over on the BPL forums.   As ever some fantastic stuff, with maybe a bigger dose of happy suffering than usual.  Massively inspired; thanks everyone.


With 18 starters we did set a record for participants this year, and beyond that we certainly set a record for the number of kids, dogs, and significant others camping the night before, which given that the confluence of the North and West Forks of the Teton is one of my favorite places was fun to see.  Plenty of folks asked me if I had regrets at not doing the hike myself, which I didn’t and don’t.  For one, I was and am still quite tired and was glad to spend two nights in a cabin hanging out.  For another, I’ve crossed the Bob over a dozen times now, which makes it ever harder to find routes where I haven’t majorily done.  For yet another, the weather and conditions took a drastic turn for the better which removed some of the novelty from the particular course.  But most important I was able to step back, chat (when I wasn’t chasing the kid), and see everyone’s eyes as they were getting ready.  Which was really fun.


Participants in the 2017 Bob Open are making their way west towards the Clearwater River this morning.  Some may finish today, but it is looking like 3 days and change will be the mean for this longer and tougher course.

Mike M spent last night near Basin Creek along the Danaher, and has been moving well this morning and indeed all weekend.  Especially with the rivers being on the large side, how to get across the South Fork of the Flathead is far and away the biggest pinch point.  Only one person I know of brought a packraft this year, and I assume almost everyone if not everyone else will use the Big Prairie pack bridge.  Depending on what route he chooses over the Swan Crest, expect Mike to cross the river late this morning and camp up high this evening.  His route down the North Fork of the Sun and over Stadler Pass is a bit longer than a few other options, but by far the surest in terms of minimizing miles on snow

Dan Durston started with ski gear and not much else, and a bold plan to match, hoping for ~50% of his miles on snow and a 48 hour finish.  Early yesterday afternoon he was at Big Prairie and his 48 hour aspiration seemed within reach, provided he avoided significant errors skiing up and over the Swan.  Instead, due to injury, fatigue from his first 36 hours, or snow conditions less than expected, he continued hiking south along Youngs Creek and took a ~6 hour camp this past night.  Dan started with only 6000 calories, and a sleeping bag but no shelter of any kind, so he has to be feeling fairly well out there this morning.  Depending on how hard the climb over the crest into Grizzly Basin proves, he ought to finish mid to late afternoon today.  And I would imagine be quite hungry.  He and his wife are starting the Great Divide Trail Thursday, and for that reason he declared Friday evening that he couldn’t get too beat up on this traverse.  I don’t think he succeeded.

It appears that Chase, and ones assumes his partner Derek, bailed out Benchmark late yesterday.  They were going well Saturday, camping near the forks of the Sun, but it seems that something went wrong yesterday afternoon.

Tyler, Jon, and Justin (of Missoula) have left a track with sparse points, but what evidence we have suggests they’ve been going quite well.  The first day saw them make the patrol cabin up Rock Creek, a solid day with a long and rather monotonous push up from Gates Park.  One assumes they tackled the scenic and on a snow year like this quite difficult crossing of Larch Hill Pass yesterday, and this morning they were closing in on Big Prairie.  Provided all goes well a finish later this evening seems quite possible.
The weather east of the Continental Divide has this weekend been exceptional.  Friday had a hard freeze, which should have made for good snow conditions, and the past three days have been sunny, mildly windy, and if anything a little too hot.  The sunny days brought rivers up a bit, but not as much as might have been expected.  I expect most folks will have had a pleasant time out, at least insofar as conditions are concerned.

The absence of any outstandingly fast time this year I put off partly to Dan having taken a route gamble and lost, but mostly on only one packrafter, and a route which avoids big stretches on the South Fork.  For me the likely fastest route certainly involved floating the North Fork of the Sun, which probably would have gone from Wrong Creek to the takeout near Sun Butte in around 4 hours, as well as either the White River or Danaher Creek.  I meant for the finishing stretch to present the most difficult route choice, and on that front it will be interesting to see how folks do on their various routes this afternoon and tomorrow.


Many people have asked what is next for the Open, and when if every it might travel beyond the Bob complex?  It is time for that to happen, but options that provide comparable diversity and wilderness character are hard to find.  Two of the best options I’ve all but discarded for legal obstacles; the Greater Yellowstone due to the impracticality of going across a national park, and the Colorado Plateau due to the difficulty of both including bikes and making a bike non-essential without all but asking everyone to break the law (you can’t possess a bike off trail in Glen Canyon Rec Area, though it is done often).  I need to know more about the Selway-Frank, and other places in the northern Rockies I worry about being too roaded.  Introducing some variety while maintaining the same character, will be my big challenge for next year.  An earlier Open in the Bob certainly would not be out of the question.

Not that, hard

It is easy for me to remember the night before my first Grand Canyon Double Crossing (aka Rim-Rim-Rim). Early December of 2005, living out of our Xterra, driven south and west by cold and the Grand Canyon as our last stop before the true lowlands of Vegas, Death Valley, and J Tree. We slept outside the park and it was cold, which made it hard to not bring too many clothes on what ended up being a 45 mile, 15 hour hike. A corroded battery terminal kept our home stuck at the South Kaibab TH and with me, unable to walk, we spent the night in the El Tovar, which checked that off the list before I knew enough for it to get very long.

Before that day I had never walked 40 miles in a day; very possibly I had never walked much beyond 30. It was long, mentally, and it was hard, physically, and the recollection of the rim lights appearing out of the dark as I ascended the final switchbacks of the Bright Angel hours after sunset still comes instantly to mind. It was my introduction to the world of ultraendurance, my first best lesson on exactly why and how long pushes in the mountains are difficult. It has also inculcated in me a virulent and abiding dislike of accounts which willfully portray ultraendurance as hyperbolically difficult, or that only scrape the surface of just how a 14 hour continuous effort is hard.

REIs “A Walk in the Park” is a good example of storytelling which tries to lean on and exaggerate the weaker parts of interest. 46 miles of road biking on a flat bike path is not that hard. Climbing (hiking) Teewinot isn’t that hard either, though it is a big hill with a telegenic summit. Open water swimming is probably pretty tough; having never done it I couldn’t really say. What is without question quite brutal is turning left when you finally get back to the Lupine Meadows TH and hiking back along Jenny Lake only to swim across it, rather than staying straight and walking the ~mile of road back to your bike.

This isn’t to say that the physical aspects of this Teton Triathlon aren’t hard, it is to say that the extent to which they are or are not within the capacities of the “average” person is irrelevant. The hard part about being about in the woods and exerting yourself for 12+ hours straight is keeping present, eating and drinking, and directing your mind to relish everything in the moment, even the blisters and lactic acid. This is especially tough when, like this Teton Triathlon, the route is contrived and has easy bail points. WZRD et al get into that in the final minutes, but the hyperbole which permeates the first half takes the edge far off.

Giving the mental struggle full credit is not an easy thing to do in any medium, and making a film that keeps backpacking interesting for 17 minutes is just as hard, which is why I was so happy to see that Dean Leslie and pro skier come stinky Instagram sex kitten Kalen Thorien did both in their film on backpacking the Sierra High Route. Leslie is, quite simply, the best adventure filmmaker working today, and Thorien’s dedication to self-filming in the difficult and boring moments provided him with ideal material. It takes a lot of perspective to realize and say that backpacking and endurance stuff in the wood doesn’t teach you anything, it just provides a still enough mirror, and that while out there fear almost never has anything to do with bears or lightening or running out of food or how difficult that next pass is. Difficulty has to do with what you expect of yourself, and how willing you are to bend your will to make that happen.

You are all going to die

Nothing is certain and a lot can change in three weeks, but right now conditions for the Bob Open are shaping up to be as or more challenging than they’ve been, for any years of the formal event or for the two years prior when I did solo trips that weekend.


Compared to three weeks ago the Badger Pass Snotel hasn’t moved down much, in spite of some fairly sunny weather.  It does seem to have topped off a good bit lower than 2014, when on the ground conditions (though not weather) were the toughest of any year between 2010 and 2016.  Depending on daily temps the next three weeks, I expect mid-altitude snow cover to be anything from truly extensive to merely abundant.

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What ground me down so thoroughly the first day in 2014 was the many miles of slowish, ankle and leg stretching snow.  Temps weren’t high enough during the night to rot it out and make postholing a huge issue, but they were warm enough in the day (with a good rainstorm the first afternoon) to turn the top 2-5 inches slushy, which snowshoes or not is like walking on a slippery beach.

The bigger news is that those warmish temps the past few weeks have made the rivers absolutely massive for this time of year.  Sunday morning the South Fork of the Flathead dipped above 14,000 cfs for a few hours, which was an all time record and higher than it ever got in 2016.  Earlier that same morning the North Fork of the Sun bumped above 2,300 cfs, which for that small river is a lot.  In either case you see seams, boils, and instawhirlpools like those shown in the above video, as well as logs and other detritus magically rising and falling within the water column.  They are, in short, flows I find quite scary.

In either case there is more than enough snow left to keep and under the right conditions exceed those flows later this month.  The potential exists for both floating and stream crossing conditions to be quite hazardous.  It all comes down to daily temperatures in the next three weeks.

The final variable is weather.  We haven’t had truly bad weather on Memorial day weekend sine 2012, though those who were out past day 4 in 2015 would disagree.  Rain, and especially snow, will make things colder and potentially influence both navigation and route selection (due to avy hazard) in the later half of this years course.  The die is set, with the probability of genuinely easy conditions almost nonexistent, but there is still plenty of potential for variation.  You have to show up to know for sure.

2017 Bob Open, planning from afar

As things stand today, the family and I will almost certainly be at the start of the 2017 Bob Open, if for no other reason than we rented the (superlatively gorgeous) forest service cabin at the start for the nights of the 26th and 27th.  I’m less certain I’ll actually start the course, but knowing what the obvious routes are and what an extraordinary winter Montana has had it will be difficult to say no.

Not having been in Montana since early November, I find myself in the new to me situation of having to assess conditions and plan from a distance.  Though naturally having done this for each of the last six Mays makes generalizing data to what is on the ground quite a bit easier.


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Of all the Snotels in the Bob I find Badger Pass the most useful, for reasons discussed here.  While I won’t be going especially close to the pass itself, it should give me a decent ideal of how much and more importantly what kind of snow I might find on the passes I will go over.

Badger tells us that a lot of snow fell in the Bob this winter.  More importantly, it tells us that unless a truly remarkable heat wave rolls in there will still be lots of snow at the end of May.  The top graph tells it best, showing snow depth holding steady over the past 30 days, while snow water equivalent slowly increased.  This tells me that the ~80 inches of snow currently lurking in the spruce up at Badger is exceedingly dense and solid, and will take a long time to melt even with warm temperatures.  For the Open I’ll expect snow down to 5000 feet, maybe lower in the trees on north facing slopes, and well over 6 feet in most places above 6500.  Navigational challenges will be a bit more extensive than usual.



It seems likely that lower and low-mid elevation snow will be well cleared out by a fairly warm April, as steadily high but not egregious flows on both relevant rivers show.  This removes the unlikely, but after a winter like one not improbable, scenario of snow persisting below 5000 feet well into May and even June.  Flows this high for this long also mean a high probability of wood being moved around, not necessarily of more wood jams, but certainly in different places.  So much snow does mean that increased deadfall on trails is a certainty.  Only the weather close to go time will determine how big the rivers and streams in fact are.  As the Snotel sites tell us there is still more than enough middle and high altitude snow to make things truly huge, but the elimination of low altitude snow does mean that it will take a more sustained warm period to really bring the waterways up.

Planning wise this data doesn’t necessarily change much.  Lots of snow might prompt you away from a trail on a north facing aspect into a neighboring drainage which is likely to be more melted.  On the other hand, depending on temps in the week before more snow in live forest might be preferable to less snow in a burn, and the tons of downed trees which might there be found.  The potential for problematic stream crossings, a la 2013, certainly has my attention, as does the omnipresent question of whether to bring snowshoes or not.  Hard not to lean yes on a year like this one.

See everyone next month!

Upper Level Stream Crossings, updated

A post Philip put up the other day temporarily boosted traffic to this post from 2013, prompting me to give it a re-read.  One of the best things about this website is being able to delve into the past and get a little taste of what my life was like then.  In this case, coming off an excellent and intense Bob Open course.  It’s also nice to read my old words and agree almost entirely with both what I said and how I chose to say it.  I’m bumping that old post for those who may not have been around back then (the comments are illustrative), reposting a revised and amended version below.  It has been a big snow year across much of the American West, and those venturing out in the Northern Rockies or Sierras this spring and summer will likely have to deal with stream crossings a bit above their comfort level.  My thoughts on the subject might help some.

R0020217Minor stream crossing, Bob Open 2016.  A bit over knee deep for 2-3 steps, but fast, very cold, and slick.  Technique wise and especially mentally this sort of crossing is right where many folks start feeling challenged, and where the conventional wisdom comes up short.

Upper level stream crossings can mean two different, but not mutually exclusive things: moving water crossings higher than the knee of the person walking, and crossings far from the assistance of others. Discussed below are several levels of analysis one should bring to such things.

The more I think about the subject of difficult river crossings, the more I chat with and see how people cope with such things in the Bob Open and elsewhere, and the more I read articles like the one mentioned above, the more I am convinced that the mental distinction is more important than the physical one.  I’ve often felt scared contemplating a river crossing, but I’ve never come close to falling while doing one, which I think reflects both the importance of minding ones fear as well as the extent to which that fear won’t (and in wilderness shouldn’t) push us too close to our limits.  Philip says that he doesn’t do stream crossings much more than knee deep, which is a reasonable distinction to draw for ones self, especially in slick and cobble-y New England.  The conventional wisdom on stream crossings, which he sums up well, is made for that kind of approach.

I do not think the conventional wisdom makes much sense for tougher crossings when solo or in a small group.  Frankly, few people have much if any experience with the stuff I discuss below, which would be fine if (unlike the commentor/spammer in the original post) they recognized that and held their tongue.  Just because someone (myself included) claims to know something doesn’t mean they aren’t full of crap.  Judge for yourself.

IMG_1330Swift, cobbled, and flooded.  I swam the lake upstream.

Preparation and assessment is important. It may not be realistic to have a list of all potentially problematic crossings and their solutions, but in the age of satellite photos there is little reason to not do your best.

Volume is the first and most obvious factor. In the lower 48 there is a good chance that some river or creek in the drainage basin has a gauge on it. Find out how close to flood that stream is often running at the time of year you plan to be there.

The drainage basin is the second factor. How big is the basin, what percentage of the aforementioned river volume does it constitute? Insofar as many problem crossings have to do with snow melt, what is the altitude and aspect of this basin? South facing stuff will melt out faster under solar influence, and so forth. Different altitudes melt out at different times. Estimate how much water might be coming down a particular drainage.  Correlating melt with flows become more problematic the further one gets from the snow in question.  Desert river, for example, react very differently than mountain streams.  The largest body of past data is your best hope, even if it doesn’t give much certitude.

Gradient has a massive influence on difficulty, as folks the other weekend found out.  All other things being equal, steeper is harder, both because the water will be faster and because the channel will probably be narrower and thus harder to move up and down.

Vegetation can have an influence on crossing difficulty, insofar as burnt trees can end up in larger drainages and provide bridges.  Not a good thing to count on, for reasons to be addressed.

Geology is perhaps the more important factor, perhaps moreso than volume and drainage (if only because that datas use will depend on previous on the ground experience).  The surface under your foot will make an enormous difference in strategy.  A fast, waist deep crossing with a uniform gravel bottom is pretty easy.  The same on basketball to microwave granite cobbles is terrifying.

Find this stuff out before you go.  Sat photos will even allow for site-specific scouting in many cases.  If the photos are recent that awesome log jam might even still be there.  If you don’t think you’re ready to confront the ambiguities which might come up, don’t go.

IMG_6492Slick cobbles and opaque water are a bad combination.

Once you’ve done your homework and selected a route with crossings that are in theory doable, it is time to put things into practice on the ground.

I’m not a big fan of the conventional wisdom which says to keep your pack loose and unbuckled.  It is true that a big pack (>1/5 body weight) will make it tough to get up if you go down in fast water.  It is also true that unless you’ve done some serious training, such a pack will make a hard crossing much harder simply by virtue of added weight.  Having it loose and floppy will only make this worse.  I’ve also never been especially clear what you’re supposed to do if you shuck your pack in a crossing.  Look for it downstream?  Keep essentials in your pockets and have a long, hungry walk out?  Better to keep a light pack, keep your pack on and well cinched, and if you must carry a big pack (hunting, field research) factor that into trip planning.  You might need to take a different route, or go at a different time of year, or bring more people and/or different gear.

Any upper level crossing requires special preparations before you get wet.  Putting on shell clothing and perhaps a warm hat or vest won’t keep you from feeling the cold water, but it will blunt the shock and save some body heat and function should the crossing take longer than you think, or if you go under.  Removing socks and clothing makes no sense unless conditions are quite warm.  Everything which needs to should be sealed in waterproof bags in your pack, and the pack should be compressed tight.  You want the pack to be as low profile as possible should the water come past your crotch, and you want the pack to absorb as little water weight as possible.  You should trap some air in your dry bags and/or pack liner, but not too much. Some buoyancy in the pack will help in particularly deep water, but too much will make it harder to keep your head up if you have to swim.  Ideally, some practice beforehand will help you tune this.   Lastly, it’s a good idea to have some essentials in waterproof storage in your person.  Firestarters, headlamp, map, and a few snacks.  Whatever you’d need for self-extraction should you have to discard your pack.

It hardly needs to be said that crossing specific shoes like sandals and crocs are not appropriate.  You want the best traction possible for difficult conditions, so just get your shoes wet.  One pole is a good idea, provided it is stiff enough to take body weight.  Two poles are harder to control.  Remove larger pole baskets, as they cause problematic drag.  Clothing, especially pants, should be trim for the same reasons.  Even when soaked WPB boats and heavier pants don’t add that much weight, and won’t pull you down like an anchor.  If there is any chance you might swim, added flotation is a necessity.  A basic snorkeling vest takes up little space, can be worn with a pack, and provides an adjustable amount of flotation in the correct location to keep you head up should you swim.  If it provides enough peace of mind to allow you to perform near your best, it is a worthy addition.

Crossing strategy will be determined by the environmental factors mentioned above, in combination with your own mental and physical abilities.  Scouting for a location can take some time under difficult circumstances.  In the lower 48, most trail fords have been wisely placed, as the requirements of pack trains and hikers are much the same.  It’s worth reading Andrew and Jon’s Open reports for their accounts (and Jon’s photo) of crossing Lodgepole Creek.  As can be seen from the map, Lodgepole doesn’t have too much gradient.  It does have a big basin, and small slick cobbles on the bottom.  Greg Gressel crossed at the lowest spot right above the river, which is steeper and a bit shallower.  Greg lost his feet on that one.  I crossed at the main trail crossing, which is longer but gave me a longer window of recovery before being swept into the Middle Fork.  Andrew, Chris and Jon crossed on a log not far below the upper trail, and bushwacked a good ways back to the lower trail to get on route.  Their thought process, that the upper crossing might be gentler, was a good one.  Lodgepole was just blown out with a lot of melt coming out of its big, south facing basin.  There was no truly easy crossing option.

I crossed Lodgepole facing upstream, with a single stiff trekking pole lengthened to around 135cm.  I had both hands and a lot of body weight on the pole.  The last 1/4 was the deepest and fastest.  For the first 3/4 I angled upstream, while for the last 1/4 I let the current take each step a little backwards.  I put my foam PFD on for this crossing.

I prefer to make upper level crossings facing downstream whenever possible.  Fighting the current by facing upstream takes a lot of energy and is slower, prolonging exposure to cold and further sapping physical and mental energy.  However, foot entrapment is a huge safety concern during high crossings, and for this reason I face upstream and strive for deliberate foot placements when dealing with cobbled and boulder-bottomed streams.  If you loose the upstream fight against the current, pivot quickly and face downstream, tap dancing frantically to keep toes clear of crevices.  For most crossings in the Bob and Glacier this is my favored method.

For crossings with graveled, sandy, or muddy bottoms, a strong diagonal facing downstream is a my preferred method.  A stronger current will increase the ratio of downward to sideways travel.  Lean upstream into the current and drive your heels in, propelling yourself sideways and allowing the current to force you downstream.  Below crotch level this technique is pretty trivial.  Once your pack and butt are underwater the force of the current will speed up the process quite a bit, and by the time your ribs get wet you’ll likely be in intermittent contact with the floor.  This is fine, maintain directional velocity and go with the flow.  If/when you loose your feet for a while, lean into a backstroke and enjoy the flotation provided by your pack.

This technique works well for rivers and streams with muddy bottoms and quicksand, as your never putting too much pressure on any foot, and can lean back into the current for leverage when pulling a foot free.  I’ve used the downstream diagonal technique with good results often, and in many places.  Both Thorofare and Mountain Creeks, in Yellowstone during this trip, yielded to carefully finding the clearest way across the inevitable deep channel, then doing a quick and deliberate downstream stride/shuffle/glide across.  The surprisingly deep crossings of the Escalante during this trip succumbed to the same technique, and speed was important because on those chilly short days managing cold exposure was a serious safety issue.

Scouting a good crossing is vital.  Shallower water, good bottom conditions, and most especially plenty of clear water downstream.  Sweepers, strainers, and rapids should be well avoided.  Whatever your margin for error, double it.  For waterways where silt impedes visibility, caution is warranted and effective difficulty level goes up considerably.

IMG_1160Tapeats Creek, Grand Canyon.  On this October trip not deep, but swift and in places the only option between rock walls.  My mother was nervous, so we gave her plenty of support during the extended downstream wading sections.

The most difficult crossings will be those which do not offer good options.   One example was 25 Mile Creek during the Bob Open back in 2013.  As the map shows, 25 Mile is steep.  It is cobbled.  The drainage isn’t huge, but much of it does face south.  Greg Gressel crossed a bit above the trail, climbing through a steep section split into three braids.  None of those crossings would have been more than 8 feet wide, but the rocks were bigger and the swim uglier if you lost your feet.  Cyrus and Kate inflated boats and rafted around the creek on the Middle Fork, a safe option I seriously considered.  Andrew, Chris, and Jon took the path I outlined on the map; bushwacking up to a flatter spot where they crossed with little difficulty.  The volume of 25 Mile was probably only 2/3 that of Lodgepole discussed above, and thus not too bad when given a reasonable gradient.  I crossed at the trail, facing upstream and taking an upstream diagonal.  The strongest current was at the far side, and my upstream path gave me the furthest margin of error should I have lost my feet at that point.  A swim through the steep riffles below would have been bruising, and a good place to snag a foot.

I’m not a big fan of log crossings.  They have to be really good to be safe, and often tempt you into high consequence, all or nothing situations.

Group crossings can make a big difference, especially for shorter and lighter group members.  Communication and coordination difficulties make many traditional ideas better in theory than application.  The two stack for upstream facing works well, with one person behind the other holding on to shoulder straps, but it can be hard for the second person to see their feet.  Downstream crossings with the weak person leading, and the person behind creating and eddy, weighting their pack, and verbally and physically guiding them are also effective.

R0000283Packing a tahr out down a small but very steep creek in New Zealand.  Cliffs demanded a couple crossings each mile, and often the choice was between wading an 8 foot wide, waist deep pool or climbing across slick a boulder waterfall.  I got my crotch wet a lot.

In the field, calculation and restraint must come first.  Better to hike out than hurt yourself.  At the same time, indecision and timidity will only cause problems.  Once you decide you can do a crossing, do so boldly and with full commitment.  As with most things, safety is primarily created by the mind, and a strong mind comes from experience and practice.

Backpack problems, and answers

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

Problem 1: Seams are the enemy.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Problem 3: Enough suspension, but not too much.

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

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

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


Problem 4: Closures

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

Problem 5: Side pockets

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