Finding bargain used gear

Outdoor gear is expensive.  Perhaps not by the standards of motorized sports, but certainly compared to jogging or birding or reading books.  Since becoming firmly established in Montana a decade ago I have been cursed by the perceived necessity of cultivating and maintaining equipage for a wide range (mountain biking, alpine and nordic skiing, snowshoing, fly fishing, bow and rifle hunting, packrafting, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, snow climbing, canyoneering) of pursuits.  Storing all that stuff in a coherent and useable fashion is one issue (for a future post), acquiring it without undue stress is another, a problem with good, sustainable, and not necessarily obvious strategies.

As in “going light” for any distinct activity, the first and best way to spend less on gear is to have and need less of it.  Start with clothing; you don’t need that much of it, and it is far better to buy better and less and simply have things dialed and predictable and that work for places on most days.  Beyond specialist items like a drysuit and chamois shorts the clothing I use changes little one activity and even season to the other.

When it comes to actually purchasing outdoor clothing, buying on sale and out of season goes a long ways.  This has been somewhat less the case the last few years, due to either demand or smarter wholesale purchasing, but the good sales direct from major brands often equal prodeal discounts.  But that is not interesting advice.  What we’re hear to discuss is finding truly exceptional deals on used gear, which is the way to save on the truly big ticket hard good items.

By way of example, the other day I visited a favored emporium whose specific name and location will remain a mystery.  They are not an outdoor specialist, but do sell a decent amount of consignment outdoor gear.  I’ve very occasionally found shockingly good deals there over the years, including last winter a full length Neoair Uberlight for 10 dollars.  On this recent visit I was intrigued enough to purchase a nice pair of Lake MXZ300s (sized up a full size, ideal for cold weather) for 15 dollars.  Towards the end of our (me and the 3 year old) rounds, I saw, crumpled on the floor under a rack, a distinctive combination of red and black and grey nylon in just the right shade and texture.  Further examination revealed an older, but pristine, Kokatat semi dry suit, with relief zip and fabric booties.  Even further examination revealed the zippers, gaskets, and inside laminate to be lacking in obvious issues.  Further examination once I got home revealed a Kokatat fleece onesie inside (it felt a bit bulky).  The price?

50 dollars.  This for the older, almost functional equivalent of what I bought for 750 dollars back in January.

The place to find deals like this is not an established, well stocked used gear store.  Second Wind Sports in Bozeman has the widest and deepest selection of used outdoor stuff I’ve ever seen in one place, by a large margin.  They also have, with few exceptions, the most outrageous consignment prices I’ve ever seen.  500-600 for a clapped out pair of AT skis and bindings, 240 dollars for an absolutely worked over HMG 3400, 80 for a well used Osprey daypack.  Whether this is due to demand volume, or to Brozonians wanting 100% return on their brodeals, I do not know, but I feel safe in assuming that (in a similar vein) Wabi Sabi is a much more expensive place to find used fleece jackets than it was 16 years ago.  Perceived scarcity is highly relevant here.

The same rules apply to Craigslist, Ebay, etc.  Outstanding deals can be had either when the seller is not overly worried about resale, or when they are not aware of what they have.  Ski swaps can be good places for the former, as people are often clearing the shed and motivated by timeliness over maximizing return.   For example, the Dynafit and the Fischer skis shown at top were both had for (the magic figure of) 50 bucks at separate ski swaps.   Going off topic at swaps and sales is also often a solid tactic; looking for things like camping or climbing gear, or headlamps, as people seems less picky about pricing.  The caveat with any of this is time.  There are certain places and instances where good stuff is more probable, but it is still a numbers game.

The other caveat, especially with hard goods, is that a certain, considerable amount of technical background is immensely helpful.  Being able to recognize what a thing is at a glance, and then evaluate if it is in suitable condition and at a price that suits you, potentially all in a few moments while the rush of a swap goes on around you, is not simple.  And the best way to violate the first rule, above, is to buy something just because it is a good deal.

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider which expensive gear items are unapologetically worth it.  For years I’ve used a heavy, ancient (bought in 2004 for $99), janky, increasingly leaky, drysuit, without a relief zipper.  Since buying a new, much lighter one this winter I’ve both brought it more often (as it actually takes up less space than my boat), and been warmer and even drier.  Should have done that quite a while ago.  There are plenty of other examples, things that either make an appreciable difference while in the woods, or enable a whole new pursuit, that for me are always more fulfilling purchases than just another jacket.

My favorite

In the past few years May has firmly become my favorite month of the year.  In May Montana straddles winter and summer perfectly, presenting all the essential virtues of both with few of the downsides of either.  Days are long, longer than easily used awake.  Rivers and creeks and ridgetops and bowls are all full of water, the kind you want, and generally in the proper condition.  Choices are, more than any other time of year, limited only by time, and by motivation.

We’ve had an extra extraordinary May this year, with excellent weather topped off the past week by a huge storm that brought record breaking precip and cold to our corner of the state.  Plenty of folks don’t see the virtue in that, not the kids who wore sandals to school last Friday and saw the snow pile up all day, nor the people who used the previous sunny weekend to put in plants only to see them buried and then frozen (our corn seedlings, at 10 inches tall, stood proud for 48 hours before finally giving in to the second wave of snow, I do not think they weil recover).  But those of use who love this month, and the woods generally, for its very kaleidoscopicism cannot but appreciate the unlooking way nature has kicked human routine repeatedly in the shins over the past week.

My own absence here has been much to do with this very richness of opportunity.  Mountain biking dust, hiking loamy ridges through flowers, rafting clear rivers, snow biking, and powder skiing all happened in the stretch of a week.  

Most significantly, the Bob Open is set for the weekend, with the most interesting and, sort of by extension, most difficult conditions in a decade on tap.  The Wood Creek snotel, usually of little regard past late April when the snow burns out of the mid elevation forests, went from 2 inches to 10 inches to 4 inches back to 10 and then down to 2 inches of snow in the space of 5 days.  The Dearborn River finally woke, and exceeded 1000 cfs and then 2000 cfs for the first time this year, in rapid succession, as rain and sun blasted first new and then old snow out of the headwaters.  The main Blackfoot passed 8000 cfs this morning, and by the time a few of use are on it some time Sunday afternoon I imagine it will be over 10k, which will be both exciting and expedient.  

Over the weekend I made the easy decision to move the start south, to a place more consistently accessible by vehicle, and lacking necessary avalanche exposure on the most obvious initial routes.  For an event that embraces being a non-event having to fall back on conservative decision making seems odd, especially given that we have intentionally and deliberately, tried to avoid attention whenever possible while still being an Open event.  Even before the pandemic outdoor boom I worried about the Open attracting knuckleheads, and about the to the uninitiated outrageous idea of scampering across the Bob this time of year casting packrafting in a problematic light.  After all, this might be the year that sees packraft traffic on the South Fork of the Flathead force the first definitive step towards a permit system.

For the moment I can luxuriate in my planned route, selected via the usual criteria of novelty and the likelihood of sharing it with no one, and of the certainty of adventure and solitude.  It was an usually beautiful winter in our valley, and the promise of a similarly beautiful spring and summer is now guaranteed.  Lurking in the background is the equal certainty that this will be a summer that changes outdoor-ism in the United States forever.  Pandemic restrictions, moreso but also combined with the increase in traffic, has accelerated the inevitable.  On the one hand purposive neglect (by some within the system) has kept wild places wilder, restricting traffic via crowding, small parking lots, lack of toilets, poor roads, hidden and ill maintained trails.  In as much as demand has forced the issue (4500 applications for advanced backcountry permits in Glacier), even more significant has been extraordinary circumstances giving managers an excuse to shift the paradigm.  Glacier put a permit system in place for driving Going to the Sun Road, indeed for using the the main park entrances at all.  Last year was crowded.  So was 7 years ago.  In 2021, we think about things differently.

It will be an important thing to keep in mind this year.

A Walk in the Woods

There was some trepidation associated with the start.   We had three long term ideas of mine intersecting; crossing the Bob on the tail end of winter, combining the South and Middle Forks in one trip, and doing (another) big skiraft.  We also had very large and heavy packs, our inability to get everything inside, and the evolving order of crap strapped outside as the days wore away, giving evidence of this as new mental terrain.

There was a lot of snow.  Given the sun of the past month we had assumed we’d be hiking on dirt well up Monture.  That happened, but we were also firmly in oversnow mode by the cabin 8 miles up, and that first evening camped on the last island of dirt, atop the cutbank above the creek, where a hair more southern exposure provided an island of spring in the face of the winter, which now loomed above to the west, east, and north.  The skiing, in my case, was excellent the second day, and Tom got his snowshoe revenge on the long 5 mile traverse through the trees, where my 186cm planks had me stuck multiple times climbing through the abundant deadfall.  That afternoon we were back in spring, as a twist in the trail gave us dirt, and the continued impacts of the titanic wind storms this winter made us endless mice in a matchstick puzzle.  We made the Hahn Creek cabin by 4pm, and gave ourselves a present of staying there, drying our stuff and having a leisurely dinner around the fire, and going to bed well before dark.

Things went wrong the next day.  Youngs Creek was fat, clear, and glassy, ideal conditions and a meditative float for the miles before the gorge got going.  Tom flipped in the first (and hardest) rapid, making the drop clean before being pasted on to the wall below and rolled upstream.  My difficulty in helping him after highlighted the scant eddies on this fast stretch.  We avoided that peril a few miles later when I spotted the log at the last minute.  Tom portaged, prudently, while I ducked under the far left before ferrying right around a toothy limestone block.  I didn’t quite get far enough, kissed the right edge with my left cheek, and instantly felt my boat collapse around me.  I barely made the willows with enough air to paddle.

The cut was big, 14 inches, with the final 2.5 through both the floor and the tube.  Most troubling, the cut was right up against the tube, with mere millimeters of flap to work with.  I instantly knew this was going to be an iffy repair, and not doable wedged into the willows while it snowed on us.  Tom made his way down to me as without much thought I yard sale’d all my gear in anticipation of no longer paddling.  Tom made the sensible suggestion that we load everything possible into his boat, which I would paddle down to a good camp on the South Fork, while he hiked with my awkward skis and a few other things.  That ended up not including his bear spray, which he wanted when a Griz carrying a moose carcass popped out of the brush at 25 yards.

In the end I could not repair my boat.  I don’t regret hitting the rock; I’ve done so in a functionally identical manner hundreds of times and just happened to get unlucky this time (exacerbated, perhaps, by weight inside the tubes).  I do regret not having a more extensive repair kit, and aim to cure the complacency years of doing things the same way and getting away with it has surely bred.  I’ve now cut the floor of a boat twice, and in neither occasion was patch n’ go or tyvek tape able to fix it.  I also don’t regret our quick and easy decision to bail out the Danaher and Blackfoot.  Without a bomber repair to my boat going deeper into the Bob was simply not worth considering, and Tom and I did well to not give temptation any space.

So we had a long walk out with heavy packs containing lots of stuff we weren’t going to use any more.  We did need skis and snowshoes again, shockingly close to the trailhead, and had an extra mile of snowy road walking to find the car.  By some standards the trip was a failure, due to bad luck and inadequate preparation.  By others it was a smashing success, due to good partnership and a nice place at a special time of year.  We saw no one, obviously, and left carrying the immense quiet that only comes from somewhere so before and beyond civilization.

The Youngs Creek log

Longtime readers and those who have read the guidebook know that I’m not big on packraft beta.   The judgment that comes running with first descent eyes is a prerequisite in the wilderness, and a major part of my decision to put the guide out at all was to drive education as packrafting gets (a bit?) more popular.  That said, I think about everyone 5 years ago expected packrafting to grow faster than it has, at least insofar as backcountry is concerned.  That time may have belatedly come, as Alpacka is currently running a 4 month waiting list.  What sort of boom might the Bob see this summer?

Last summer a friend of a friend took a swim in lower Youngs Creek.  lost his boat, and had a good scare.  A friend and I ran Youngs this past week, had our own adventure (more later), and got a good look at the log which prompted the Forest Service to leave to signs (propped on sticks) at different spots before the Youngs crux, warning of what is downstream.

I’ve always been ambivalent about Youngs.  On the one hand it is a fun and gorgeous stretch.  On the other, it is not a trivial section, with a few tricky moves and, especially at even moderate flows, a lot of push.  Calling the South Fork of the Flathead wilderness flatwater may be accurate relative to something like the Middle Fork of the Salmon, but there are enough exceptions that especially for novices the phrase misleads, drastically.  Youngs Creek could have a lot of carnage this year if runoff doesn’t move the log.   Enough that I am moved to be specific.

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There are actually two logs (red marks at left photo).  The first is a mature lodgepole spanning almost the whole river right below The Pool, a large and later in the summer gorgeously clear eddy at the end of a long riffle.  The danger here is twofold, as running right in the riffle will put you straight into the log, and while running left provides a good setup, you still might not see the log until you’re already parked far river left.  The second log is a broken up larger spruce, which also almost spans the whole river.  Portaging is possible, but brushy, on either side.

Either log could and very possibly will move in the next six weeks.  There is still a lot of snow in the mountains.  Perhaps more significant, the record wind storms we had in west-central Montana in January and February (multiple 80+ year old trees were blown over here in town) appear to have been widespread across the southern Bob complex, at least.  We experienced exceptional blowdown and deadfall everywhere we went this past week, and a good bit of that will necessarily end up in the rivers.

As always, pay attention and be proactive.

Trip meta-planning

There are a lot of backcountry trip planning resources out there, including plenty I’ve written myself.  It is something of a fashionable thing among those of us who know too much, and a good way for those who monetize content to avoid yet another version of that same article which features how to, the best, and at least 2 digits all in the title.

On the one hand this is good.  It is easy to forget how hard the obvious used to be; things like bringing enough but not too much food, or hiking uphill on a chilly, windy day without either sweating or getting cold.  Explaining the details of fundamentals, aka teaching, helps the teacher understand and not take dogma as rote.

On the other hand planning as logistics and gear selection is reductive, in most occasions.  You are not going on a trip to not be (too) cold, you are going on a trip to learn or facilitate or achieve some far more ephemeral thing.  Identifying that can go a long ways towards purity of purpose, which can make the trip itself more enjoyable.

To immediately argue with myself; moreso than with most things there is immense and irreducible virtues in the process of finding purpose in adventure out the long way.  I’ve long been adamant here that the big virtue of backcountry endeavors is the diminution of our personhood, in the ways it is subsumed in context.  For the 21st century soul this is often a deeply novel and disconcerting thing, something I mention to both normalize that anxiety as well as suggest that finding comfort in that vastness is as worthy an end as it is elusive.  Ambiguity is healthy here.

When I think about recent trips, this one stands out as one where I achieved great satisfaction from knowing my purpose well, and because I was able to adjust in the field to prioritize the parts of my original plan which lay closest to my goal.  The day of that trip I recall with least fondness, the second, was entirely on trail and given over to making miles, after the initial paddle that morning.  Going into the trip I knew that big miles was not a way to my primary goal, nor was it something I was well prepared for.  I don’t regret that day of walking, because it set me up so well for days 3 and 4, which were very much on purpose.  The whole experience has endured as a lesson in sacrificing ambition for focus, something which is ever more difficult to do when the stakes and specialness of a trip are high.

My canyon trip a few months ago is another, rather different example.  It did not have quite the same stakes in the planning of Isle Royale, simply due to travel distance, but I also knew that the Colorado Plateau is far enough away that this would be one of two, maybe three trips there this year.  I spent a lot of time in the lead up trying to maximize the route, to make it as rad and unique as possible.  In the end I let that ideal slide away, in favor of a route that was more known and logistically and conceptually simpler.  The primary goal of that trip was not, in the end, to push and expand my knowledge, skills, or experience, but to honor my 40th birthday in a way I knew I would never find wanting in retrospect (family divergence in birthday celebrations having been something M and I have struggled to consistently unite in our marriage).  On those grounds I succeeded, even if the route itself would not, for a variety of reasons, make my personal top 10 of Utah backpacks.

In the end, clarity of purpose not only makes backcountry trip planning simpler and the trips more satisfying, the practice itself is an invaluable act of self knowledge.

Essential Skills: Garment zipper replacement

Replacing a zipper, generally in a full zip jacket, is one of the most common and thus, most essential serious gear repairs you’ll do.  Serious in this case being roughly defined as requiring more than tape or glue to manage.  The zipper on my 4 year old Haglofs Pile hoody recently died, providing a good tutorial on how to effect this repair.

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The first step in any repair is preventative maintenance.  With jacket zippers, the first step here is to buy garments made from good materials.  #5 YKK zips are a good place to start (# refers to size, bigger meaning larger, and the number can generally be found on the back of the slider, bottom stop, or both).  #3 zippers are in full zip jackets a invitation to a short product life.  Zippers fail when the materials wear, so keeping the teeth clean and not yanking too much both go a decent way towards maximizing function.  When separation begins to occur (see above), often a worn slider is at fault.  The metal of the slider wears ever so slightly, enough that it doesn’t fully engage the teeth when pulled up.  Engage the zipper, and bend the two halves together with pliers (this page has good photos).

With my jacket, this did not get the job done.   Wear to the plastic teeth, combined with fraying on the bottom stop, prevented things from seating properly, making total replacement the only option.  As I outline below, this isn’t too difficult or time consuming, but it is also not the most basic repair.  Companies with good warranties and repair policies (e.g Patagonia) will replace zippers, often for free.  Companies with mediocre policies (e.g. OR) will usually send you a new jacket).  Companies with less good policies (e.g. Arc’teryx) will often give you the run around before replacing the garment.  For me repair is both better style and better for the environment.  Knowing I wanted to put a beefier zipper into this specific jacket (packed size and weight not being a concern), I ordered up a #8 YKK coil zip as a replacement, and got out the knife.

Haglofs did a good job making the zipper both well sewn in an fairly easy to remove.  The strip of grosgrain is the key here: remove the little bartack on either end, cut out a few inches of stitching on one end, and at this point the thread is thin enough you can just rip the rest of the stitch line in a good yank.  The zipper itself is sewn directly to the fleece with another line of stitching, similarly slowly cut out a few inches with a knife or seam ripper, then give it a rip.

The only tricky part of sewing the new zipper on is the tendency of fleece to stretch, especially if your machine doesn’t have a walking foot.  Pins aren’t a bad idea to prevent this, or use stitch lines in the garment as reference marks, sewing 3-5 inches at a time and making sure the fabric doesn’t stretch.  If you let the fleece stretch, the zipper will get longer than it should, and the fit will be weird.  Once you’ve stitched the zipper in on either side via a plain seam, and in this case reused the zipper flap, again via a plain seam, flip the garment back right side out (top photo) and top stitch through the folded seam to lock everything in place.

Simple, easy, and now you can fix your own stuff.  Once practiced this is a ~20 minute job.

The B&P mentoring program

Donald Trump has shown, more starkly than almost anything else one could imagine, how deeply structural racial bias and discrimination has been and is, and how it remains in many or even most cases the pivot point for social power in the United States. After the past four years we know more about this, which is to say more about ourselves, than we would under any other circumstances.  Structural bias will in many cases erode away in the face of history, but very slowly, and with the potential for retrograde progress.  It is our responsibility to bend the curve of history, to help social justice along, in consistency and speed.

I’ve been guilty, for a long time, of thinking about wilderness ahistorically, as something which is a precondition for social justice.  I still think this is true, but all too often my assumptions have jumped from wilderness and wild pursuits being physically democratic, insofar as accessibility is concerned, to that accessibility being literally effective.  I grew up spending time outside with my family, going hiking and boating from a very early age.  It wasn’t until I started rock climbing at 12 that I felt ownership over my own learning in the outdoors, and that experience, supported by my family background (read; privilege) allowed me to move on and teach myself canyoneering, mountain biking, hunting, skiing, packrafting, and so forth.  Making the venue and information of and for a given wilderness pursuit accessible is one thing.  Making the self-certainty necessary to teach oneself out there in the wild is another.

That matter is something I would like to help address.

So I’m looking for mentees in 2021, for a small handful of people with aspirations for the backcountry whose background and situation will make achieving those goals more complicated than would be the case for someone like me.  I’m not placing definitive restrictions on the race, orientation, class, or ethnicity who I hope to work with here, but white men are not it.  Yes there has been a lot of attention given to minorities in the outdoors and to social justice within the industry, and a lot of that verbiage has been monolithic and cliched, but the broader point about social justice, that we are neither the agent or architects of the more profound influences on our lives, stands intact.  My hope and intention is to use my experience, something both created and expedited by the circumstances of my birth, to provide an analogous bit of assistance for folks whose place in history would not do the same.

What will this look like?  I don’t know, but am eager to go on a journey with a few folks and find out.  I envision folks having significant and extensive access to my time, over the phone or via Zoom, regarding their hopes, goals, and the personal and skill development they’ll need to get there.  If someone wants to climb the Grand Teton, for example, or packraft the Middle Fork of the Flathead, it is easy to write up a list of hard skills they’ll need to master.  It is less simple to even define the mental aspects and less tangible skills that will be equally essential.  Things like dealing with loneliness and fear; managing layers and bedding during a 48 hour rainstorm; finding a layering system that works to your tastes and physiology.  I envision my roll as having more to do with helping people figure out the most important questions, rather than the more basic process of defining answers.  Perhaps, schedules and COVID concerns allowing, some combination of us might be able to go on a trip, or a few.  If you are based in the vicinity of Helena, Montana, that convenience would allow for more instructional options.

So, if you fit the above criteria and have some adventure goals you think might dovetail well with my knowledge base, send an email to dave at bedrockandparadox dawt com, with Mentorship Application in the subject line, and tell me what your hopes are and how you think I would be effective in assisting you.  This last part is important.  Any reader who has been around a while should be quite familiar with my style, and I think I can assure everyone that my writing does a decent job of representing who I am as a person.  Like any teaching relationship, the person to person dynamic is as important as any more direct factor, and neither of us should waste each others time if it doesn’t seem like we would be a good fit.  That said, in applying I ask for no commitment save to me reading and you writing your words, each with care.

I have no basis for evaluating the interest, but I don’t envision the application period being open for long.  I will update in this post, and notify everyone via email.

Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody

I’ve written an enormous amount about windshirts over the past decade, their importance in a layering system, and the associated subtleties.   To recap; outdoor clothing in general and wind layers in particular have over the past decade explored the range of breathability and overall weather protection in a comprehensive fashion.  Specific to windshirts, the frontier over the past few years has been in making a breathable fabric which is both acceptably light and acceptably tough, and most significantly does not suck up and retain too much moisture.  This last has been the primary liability of the otherwise category defining Alpine Start since in was introduced in 2014.

My 5 year old Alpine Start was getting long in the tooth, with the stock DWR all but gone and a few rips and holes.  I wanted to try something different, perhaps from a company with less evil/capitalist overtones.  The STP (Stretch Terre Planing) hoody is made from 90 grams/meter polyester, with a 4 way mechanical stretch.  Compared to the Alpine Start, which has an 80 grams/meter 93/7 nylon/spandex fabric.  7% spandex is a lot, and all things being equal, poly should absorb much less water than nylon, while potentially (all thing being equal, which they never are) being less abrasion resistant.  Dry time and moisture retention was my priority in a windshirt, so the STP fabric had my attention.

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Virtues of the fabric put aside for a moment (and it is a really good fabric), the STP hoody has a bunch of virtues that well suit backcountry activities, and a few major caveats.  The first and by far most significant downside is the torso volume, which as discussed here is positively huge for the size.  I don’t think I could live with the STP without modifying this, making it a big caveat for folks who can’t or don’t care to cut up their new 125 dollar shell.  The other caveat is the pockets, which sit right under a hipbelt.  They are nice pockets, with the interior side being mesh and the zippers well anchored and smooth running.  They are useful any time one is not wearing a pack, and I both don’t find them a problem under a hipbelt (so long as they’re empty) and don’t mind not having pockets on a windshell when I’m using a big pack.  Around town, skiing, day hiking, or biking the pockets are useful and useable, so there is the argument for that, and it is a good one.

Otherwise the fit and detailing are excellent.  The torso and arm length are both above average.  The minimal cuff detailing, with just a little bit of elastic sewn in, leans in to the strength of the fabric being fast drying.  The little cord thumb loops, unlike so many shirts, are actually big enough to fit over a (gloved!) thumb, and due to this and sleeve length are both useful and easy to ignore when you want to.  The hood is big (not helmet big), and while it lacks a rear draw cord the patterning and soft fabric work to keep it out of your eyes, and the drawcords are external and easy to cinch.  The cords are non-stretch ribbon, and the cord locks anchored bits of neoprene.  They are not easy to loosen, requiring two hands, but the whole interface is secure, and very low profile.  A similar system on a hardshell might go a long way towards solving the dreaded blizzard induced cord end to the face.

Anecdotally the STP fabric has been very fast drying.  On colder but not frigid, humid days I get a bit of bogginess in the Alpine Start which has never been ideal.  My first attempt at quantifying this difference did not endorse my intuitive conclusion, so I’ll be using the STP as a platform for further investigations there.  My assumption is that I’ll use it a ton this spring and summer, and report back.

The counter argument is that pricey, esoteric windshirts like this are chasing minute performance gains which may or may not exist, and that something like the standby, nylon windshirt is the more versatile option and better investment.  And it is hard to argue against that.  No question, something like the Windveil (or Patagonia Houdini) get too sweaty for a lot of activities, particularly winter activities, when the balance between enough protection to not get chilled but not too much is very fine indeed.  On the other hand, when the Windveil gets wet it doesn’t suck up too much water, dries fast, and still blocks the wind.  My sense is still that a more breathable option better fits into the performance sweet spot, but there is also no arguing that most if not all of my windshirt acquisitions over the last half decade have been about geekery, rather than strictly about function.  My aspiration this spring is to make that idea more objective.

Windshirt dry times mini-study

A crucial attribute of windshirts, particularly for backcountry (which is to say, multiday) use is moisture retention and drying speed.  If the most common, indeed only criticism of windshirts as a concept is that they can be viewed as redundant relative to a waterproof hardshell, the rejoinder to that criticism is that unlike a hardshell, a windshirt can be left on almost all the time.  A good windshirt will have an ideal blend of breathability and weatherproofing for the given user and use case.  Drying quickly nicely accompanies breathability where garment utility is concerned, and minimal moisture retention reduced the penalty of using the windshirt as an extra layer when true waterproof protection is required.

My benchmark for a number of years has been a static soak and dry test.  In this case, I took four windshirts I regularly use, immersed them in a sink of water, vigorously kneeded them to ensure total saturation, then allowed them to sit drapped over a metal rack in a 62 degree (F) house for 3 hours.  Weight, dry, soaked, and at one hour intervals post soaking, was taken to the nearest 10th of an ounce.   The test subjects were: a Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody, new three months ago, with significant potions of fabric removed from each side to bring in the torso diameter; a 2014 Black Diamond Alpine Start hoody, heavily used; a 2016 Rab Windveil, extensively used but with a good DWR still active; and a 2018 Patagonia Airshed pullover cut down to a vest, and with the chest pocket removed.

windshirt

Dry time and moisture retention are, as will be discussed shortly, closely related but not the same thing.  Similarly, this test is not reflective of common field conditions, and ignores the more realistic metric of dry time while under the influence of body heat (i.e. while worn).  Years ago I ran the same test with both static and dynamic (worn) dry times, and found that while wearing the windshirt significantly accelerated dry times it did so at rates which hewed closely to those observed under static conditions.  Variations in the heat an individual can put out in a given situation, be that due to variances in metabolism, weather, or circumstances (i.e. how tired and depleted they might be) are going to be more relevant here than anything else.  A static test, such as this one, is more comfortable, less time consuming, and in my experience provides just as much actionable data.

On the face of it each of the four windshirts behaved similarly, soaking up a significant amount of water weight before taking 3 hours to become almost totally dry.  There are a few significant aberrations, the first one being that the Airshed gains significantly more than the other three when taken as a percentage of dry weight.  The Airshed gained 140% (2 oz up to 4.8), while the rest were in the 75-80% range.  This is surprising, and the difference cannot be entirely blamed on the double layer of stretch fabric at the back hem, which as the dry test went on stayed drastically wetter longer than the main Airshed fabric.  Indeed, the .4 oz from dry  at the 2 hour mark was by feel due entirely due to this strip of fabric.  So I need to replace this bit soon, and maybe that extra ~60% of gain was due to this little detail.

The other noteworthy variation is how much slower the STP hoody dried at hour 2, relative to the Alpine Start.  Judging by feel, this was due to the more elaborate detailing, namely the two lower hand pockets and associated layers of fabric, zipper, flaps, and so forth.  My biggest take away, or reminder, from this little project was that under those rare field conditions when things are getting soaked and resoaked, details like cuffs, hem complexity, and the number of pockets and flaps add up to make a big difference in dry time, and thus, warmth and overall functionality.  The project also taught me that advancements or changes in fabrics may have not amounted to substantive improvements in this area.  The Airshed fabric, on its own, may perhaps dry faster than similarly light fabrics, but I do not have the data to say so.  And while intuitively the STP fabric seems to retain less moisture in use than the Alpine Start, I need more information before I can say that is anything other than confirmation bias.

Seems like I need to do more laps around the block with drenched clothing.

Black Diamond Hilight review

I’ve used the 2 person Hilight quite a bit in the last year, with performance quite as I expected it to be, perhaps one or two things surprising. This makes for something of a dull write up; it is a quality tent, well conceived, with defined limits. There a few things that could be done better, but so long as one chooses it wisely, the Hilight will make for a good shelter.

Dimensions are the first concern, and really the only area where I think Black Diamond went wrong in the design. 82 inches is simply too short for anyone of average (5’8″ or more) height. I fit in the Hilight, sleeping diagonally when using it as a solo tent, which is how I imagine 90+ of people use it. That is fine, but I think it would make more sense to stretch it a bit, while making it narrower, perhaps even symmetrical. Rather than being 82 inches long, 42 inches wide at the foot, and 50 inches wide at the head, give it the 87 inch length of the Eldorado, and a uniform 48, 46, or even 44 inch width. Two people are going to be in full bivy/alpine mode using the Hilight anyway, so going halfway to providing comfortable room doesn’t seem logical, when a longer and narrower footprint would only be better for both a duo and a soloist.

I’ve been quite pleased with the performance of the Hilight. Snowshedding is a natural strength of little wedge tents like this one, with the near vertical lower walls, and while I (somewhat annoyingly) avoided big snow storms on trips this past, modest snowfalls sluff off unnoticed. I anticipate performance in heavier snows to be more than acceptable. Performance in wind is a bigger question with wedge, and with the Hilight especially, given the wing pole over the doors. In sustained 30-40 mph winds the Hilight has proven very stable, especially when the side guy points are used. It is a very quiet tent under these conditions, with impressively little movement. I look forward to testing it, the wing pole especially, in harsher conditions, but realistically those don’t happen very often. I’d currently take the Hilight most anywhere, anytime in the mountains and be comfortable that with reasonable sight selection and prep I’d do fine.

Ventilation and condensation, and mild weather performance generally, has been an area of unexpected strength and satisfaction. Seeking ease of pitch and total bug protection I took the Hilight on a weeklong packraft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, as well as on an early September elk hunting trip on the prairie badlands of eastern Montana. The former trip ended up being quite warm, somewhat rainy, and had a huge number of ticks. It was really nice to zip into my tent after an evening when I pulled half a dozen or more bloodsuckers off me, and nicer still to have good venting for a whole rainy evening and wake up with almost no condensation. The Middle Fork isn’t a humid environment, but on a permitted river tip one often camps out of necessity closer to the water than ideal moisture management would dictate, and in the Hilight this just wasn’t an issue, due to both the generous venting and the fabric. It was very warm on the elk hunt, and still buggy, which had me appreciating a full tent rather than a tarp, with a full panel of mesh I could leave open to the wind on nights that barely got into the 50s.

Because the venting is so effective, and because resewing and sealing will be a bit of a job, I have yet to get around to cutting the top tunnel vent out. I remain convinced the big, dual flaps make it redundant, but have yet to actually conduct that experiment. Even if I can drop 6 ounces from the canopy, the Hilight is never going to be the choice for truly light and fast trips, unless they involve multiple nights camped on deep snow. Being able to stomp a platform, then use your poles to anchor one side and your skis the other makes this type of tent the clear choice for deep snow camping and ski mountaineering. I would like the corner stake loops to be just a hair bigger. The 104mm wide tails of my spring skis just barely do not fit, though adding cord loops is no big deal.

The accessorizing of the Hilight is something I appreciated every time I used it this past year. As mentioned in the initial post, the stakes are excellent. It is nice to not have to replace, or augment, the stock stakes of a new $400 tent. The guyline is also high quality, and reflective, something I appreciated deeply on the second night of the elk hunt, when darkness and a final futile stalk caught me 3 miles from my tent on a very dark night. I had pitched it atop a knoll precisely to manage this eventuality, but with no moon each knob and ridge becomes like the others, and in my very tired state I was really psyched when my headlamp picked up glowing cord across the coulee, especially as my stash of food and water was inside. In gnarly conditions one could use more cord, but one might well go years with the stock amount being entirely adequate.

There are a lot of lighter, in some cases drastically lighter, double wall tents newly on the market which pencil out as functionally very close to the Hilight. For a lot of users those options, with less robust fabrics, fussier pitches, and worse weather resistance, are probably a better option. I just like the Hilight, added weight be damned, because it is both (surprisingly) versatile, and because it has every appearance of lasting a decade or more. Shelter options are interesting, but I don’t find them especially sexy, and having the Hilight available to tick every non-family tent box I require is both a practical and aesthetic virtue.