Evolution of the Tamarisk; side pockets

Side pockets which are easily accessible on the go and large enough to carry a significant percentage of the days gear (water, food, rain gear, maps, etc) are the defining element of a modern backpacking pack.  Belt and shoulder strap pockets can play supporting roles here, but my last three years of testing has heavily reinforced my conclusion that here is no substitute for good side pockets on a mileage-oriented pack.  How did we manage for so long without them?  Slower and less efficiently.  Just look through this post and cringe.

That said, there are plenty of reasons to try to get along without them if at all possible.  Proper side pockets aren’t at all complicated pieces of design, but getting the details just right is fiddly.   The deeper reasons for avoiding them have to do with the more rugged and technical pursuits.  Backpack width is the most premium number in balancing capacity and performance, and good side pockets necessarily add a lot of this, usually 3-4 inches per side.  A 12 inch wide pack, the limit for conventionally sized adults wanting a sleek pack, could easily grow past 20, which can be a problem in brush and while nordic skiing.  Side pockets also don’t play well with things like a-frame ski carry, at least without making the pocket design more complex and heavy still.

Another limitation of side pockets is their gaping opening, which while bushwacking, hiking in the rain, and crashing on skis become magnets for pine needles, water, and snow.  Pocket security is also a consistent issue, the number of water bottles and cans of bear spray lost during the Bob Open to wrecks, creeping willow branches, and logpile gymnastics is easily in double digits, something that isn’t just an inconvenience, but potentially a safety concern.

When I started developing a pack targeted at trips like the Bob Open pocket accessibility and security was right up with load carriage on my list of problems to understand and find balance for (aka “solve”).  The first prototypes sought extra pocket capacity and utility by extending the pocket out on to a wing which cinched to the hipbelt.  One had a zipped closure, the other a flat zippered pocket inside the bellowed cinch-cord pocket.  These pockets worked well, but didn’t make the cut for a number of reasons.  One, they’re a serious pain to sew, and extending the pocket on to the wing doesn’t add enough function to merit the added complexity.  The zippered security was nice, and it is very possible to make a zippered pocket that is easy to open and close with one hand, so long as the pack is full, if you extended the zips with wings.  The zips become mostly if not entirely unusuable with a partially empty pack.  They’re also a long term durability concern, even with #10s, and in winter the zips can freeze up.

About that accessibility; there is a narrow window of efficacy with side pocket dimensions.  Assuming fairly conventional pack width and a bag that doesn’t hang too far down from the illiac crest, anything beyond 7 inches of depth demands more than most folks shoulder flexibility will allow.  Much less than 6 inches of depth makes for a pocket that gives up capacity.  The obvious answer is to extend the pocket all the way to the base seam, which is what I’ve been doing on all the recent prototypes.  Bumping the base of the pocket up the side panel a hair is tempting, as it enhances abrasion resistance, and a straight base line is the ideal in functional capacity, but in the end more space is better, simpler, even if un-ideal in some ways.

MLD and HMG are the top examples (with pockets that are identical in function if not construction) of a simple design that prioritizes durability over function, with flat, pleated side pockets elevated above the base.  MLD is on record as endorsing the loosen the straps and cant the back off the belt approach to bottle grabbing, with the physics being undeniable and the coherence, in situations where you don’t want to go for the flop, rather lacking.  Gossamer Gear has long been the other side of the coin, with the Gorilla (for instance), having dimensioned (i.e. 3D patterning) pockets right at the base.  These work a lot better than any flat pocket.

The answer to abrasion concerns with low pockets are to pack side pockets intentionally, which occasionally means leaving them empty, as well as using appropriate fabrics.  The 140D gridstop on the old Gorilla was, for instance, too light for my taste even for trail backpacking.  I discovered early in the pocket process that it is possible (easy, on a pack 8 inches or more deep) to make a side pocket too big.  The trick on the Tamarisk (7 inches deep at the base) was to make pockets that could hold a 48oz nalgene and sundries, while also collapsing mostly flat when empty.  Dimensioned pockets have been the only way to make full use of pocket real estate since the side pocket revolution got going, but with the Tamarisk I reverted to a hybrid style.

Against the user they’re dimensioned, and 4 inches deep, while the non-user side is flat, the excess depth of the pocket taken up in two pleats sew into the seam.  The curves of this seam goes both upwards and inwards towards the users spine, in both cases just enough to make for smooth edges without blunting functional capacity (more in the next installment).  The way the pleats limit pocket capacity ends up blending with the dimension of the main bag, creating a pocket that if big, but mostly disappears when needed.  The finishing touch is doubled shock cord, whose tension is adjustable on the fly (shout out to Luke Fowler).  In use tension is high enough that the pocket can almost be sealed shut, while maintaining easy accessibility, and with the perishable elements being user replaceable.

Alpine packs won’t and shouldn’t have side pockets, for the reasons listed above.  But if the wholistic mission of a backcountry pack is limited to 4th class and below, be it on rock, snow, or in the bush, side pockets are a necessity, as the best way to maintain efficiency and keep hydration, nutrition, and day gear close at hand.  As a process they embody well the compromises that shape every aspect of a technical, multiday pack.

 

Clouds of our own

I can find no direct evidence that Theodore Roosevelt  ever said that comparison is the thief of joy, but there is in the modern idiom a truthiness to it.  If he did say, or more likely write (he penned around 50 books and over 150,000 letters) that, I like to think he was speaking both about class and tax policy and about intrapersonal and social dynamics.  He was a man far ahead of his time (and indeed, our own) when it came to understanding how governments could reify structural inequalities.  He was also acutely, unusually sensitive, while being a conventional man of his time who generally declined to exposit his more personal emotions.  For all his bluster and exterior velocity he was profoundly aware of how envy could poison, from both within and without.

Cy Whitling recently wrote a nice piece over at Newschoolers, about a dynamic all but essential to my cohort of early Millenials; the decline and fall of the internet forum.  By his account “Instagram wants to create Internet “friendships” that are built on a toxic foundation of comparison. Sure, it’s possible to use the app in a better way, to make those real connections, but you’re fighting the algorithm to do so.”  This is something which is hard to argue, and I count myself lucky to have been born into just the right window, of people who went through high school without cell phones or email, but had the blossuming of online subgroups to be a guide through their 20s, and enough maturity and accumulated personhood by the time the oughts really got rolling to have turning off social as a realistic choice.  Opting out of institutionalized envy is a shitty choice when doing so is tired to social isolation; just ask my 14 year old clients about Snapchat and Tiktok.

The importance of curating one’s social landscape and thus, selecting the grounds for daily comparison, is well established in the literature.  It is also well established in history, with the number spinners and outright fakers in the history of (for instance) polar “exploration” going from deep within the 18th century right up to the present day.  Mr. Teasdale’s essay is worth reading in full, parable of both internal and external deception that it is, as well as a devastating (true) critique precisely because it is thorough and fair and almost pulls no dramatic punches in the process of showing us how to writer such a thing.  One has to pity Mr. O’Brady; for if the mere existence of a project that took so much effort, time, and money was only due to suppurating, inherently superannuated, suffocating comparison to those who had gone before, surely no air can be left for even the smallest joy.

A example, in short of how not to live ones life.  You don’t even have to tell us about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evolution of the Tamarisk; load carriage

I am delighted to report that the Tamarisk is finished.  If by finished I mean that the prototype I completed a month ago and have been testing exhaustively since requires almost no changes.  The patterns can now be set in stone, and the road towards production begin.  This may not be a short road: I’m still trying to nail down a foam supplier who will provide relatively small wholesale quantities of the exact right thickness and density; I’ve all but resigned myself to sourcing the best ladderlocks and quick release buckles from different sources; I’m using this prototype to see if this stuff might be a substitute for 500D Cordura on the pockets and suspension components.   All that and everything else might yet take months, but having the shape, features, and especially suspension where I want it to be is deeply satisfying.

The first goal for this pack, when I started working on it almost 3 years ago, was to have a ~50 liter package that would carry 50 pounds but be optimized for 20-30.  More specifically, I wanted a hipbelt and harness wouldn’t feel clumsy with a daypack type load, and would also be substantive enough that the structure of the suspension (a single stay in this) would be the limiting factor in load carriage.  To make sure that this can be checked off as mission accomplished, I’ve spent the last week and half using my workday workout time (6-7 am) to load the pack with ever increasing weight for the same 4 mile loop.  This isn’t enormously exciting, but does allow for an extended and exacting focus on just how the various elements in the pack respond to another 5 pound increase.  The last three mornings have seen this number creep above 50, this morning, in the form of a painters drop cloth in the bottom, and 26 liters of water on top.  This is a lot, enough to get me sweating even on the flats, at -10 F.  My 4 inch wide, sub 8 ounce hipbelt has been holding firm around my hips, the single stay just beginning to bounce vertically in the way I’ve to recognize as how you want to see a suspension system using aluminum start to reach its limit.

The definitive beginning to defining load carriage in a backpack remains Ryan Jordan’s 2003 article on torso collapse in packs, the thesis being that when a correctly sized pack looses a certain amount of its torso length (10% being a useful threshold) to load induced collapse, the load limit of that pack has been reached.  The other dimension of that puzzle, one which took me the better part of a decade to fully understand, is that the ability of the hipbelt to resist slipping and appropriately contour to the user must at least keep pace with the suspension.  A hanging belt with the right mix of flexible yet supportive structure is the abbreviated answer here, and leaves one with the fairly simple design challenge of optimizing vertical structure for the weight to be carried.  In this case, a single 3mm by 13mm 7075 stay.

It is the simplest suspension system I could design, because it minimizes things like the number of fabric panels and yards of thread, as well as because there are as few performance elements in action as possible.  The theoretical and practical limits of that single stay are in the Tamarisk identical, which is why I’m content that I did what I wanted.

 

OR Ascendant Hoody; at last

Since the original Rab Strata I’ve been looking for an active insulation mid/outer layer that can do both with minimal compromises.  That is: provide substantive static weight/warmth, as well as balance breathability and weather protection coherently.  The Strata was more on the outer layer side of things, while somehow not providing as much static warmth as 16 ounces should have provided.  The Nano Air Light is a good bit to the mid layer side of things, which is no vice but does limit it.  There are instances where more outer protection is nice, so why not get it from one garment, rather than two?

The OR Ascendant hoody gets the balance just right.  The Quantum Air shell and 95 grams/meter Alpha Direct work well together, shockingly better in all circumstances than the Strata.  The Alpha Direct seems to wick faster than either the Nano Air or Nano Air Light, and is warmer (and heavier) than either (60 grams/meter and 40 grams/meter, v 95 for the Ascendant).  The shell is more wind resistant than the Nano Air, but the material combo in the Ascendant manages internal moisture just as well.

Fit is very good on the Ascendant, a hair longer than average arms and torso, just enough room for a light midlayer underneath.  Detailing is typical Outdoor Research, which is to say a bit odd and less than ideal.  The hem cordlock is back at 430 on the tail.  Defying expectations, I haven’t sat on it at all, and while it isn’t intuitive, it does have the virtue of being a bit lower and more reliably out from under a hipbelt.  The open hand pockets work fine, as does the #5 Vislon zipper on both main opening and chest pocket.  The chest pocket is a good size, not cavernous nor excessively small, but the material isn’t anchored, which creates a tendency for bunching.  The hood is a bit of a disaster.  The volume adjuster works well, but the under-chin cut and lack of a means to cinch this part of the opening funnels strong wind right under the ears.  Tucking the shock cords just a bit down towards the chin would have sorted this nicely, an unfortunate confirmation that the relation between OR and hoods remains problematic.  The “thumb loops” are even more unfortunate, small and vestigial enough to be the silliest feature I’ve seen on a tech garment in many years (maybe since the roll opening and lumbar cinch on the Montane Spektr?).

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If the Ascendant is, in function if not in details, as close to ideal an active insulation layer as I can imagine, the remaining question is when you’d use it, and why you might invest in one over the potentially much cheaper combo of 100 weight fleece and wind layer.  Potentially, because a fleece alone would not provide the same protection, and a wind layer with an equivalent protection/breathability ratio would not be a bargain item.  The easy answer is that no such combo (aside from this and an Airshed) would move internal moisture anywhere near as well, and most if not all such combos will likely dry slower.  The caveat is to not to use too much insulation for a given situation, especially moving, and expect sustainable results.  Stop and go or generally slower paced activity in cool weather (within 10 degrees either way of freezing F, for me) would be a good use case, as would more aerobic activity in colder weather.  The best use for active insulation remains, in my mind, as an all the time layer for folks who run cold and don’t struggle with sweat management.  What I’m personally excited about is that the Ascendant will be warm enough to be a main insulation layer for summer adventures, one that will be not be limited to static use in the same way a UL down jacket would.

The Ascendant isn’t a replacement for the tragically discontinued Nano Air Light hoody (WTF Patagonia??!), but is the first active insulation piece I’ve used which is almost the same caliber.  The fabric/insulation combo is also becoming quite common, suggesting that other options (with better hoods) may soon be available.

A decade in the outdoors

7 things that happened in the past decade; equipment, trends, and the ways the two intersect to create human experience.

The Alpacka booty

The technological advancement of the decade is, for outdoor adventure, without question the packraft. 10 years ago the state of the art was the above. Today, boat shapes make that level of paddling accessible to intermediates. While pushing wilderness whitewater remains the future, especially in the context of landscape trips, modern packrafts are most often put to use making moderate moving water simpler and warmer, which is not a bad thing. Nonetheless, with so much of packraft energy being put into sidecountry and destination backcountry whitewater rather than technical traverses, it’s difficult to not conclude that packrafts haven’t yet justified their seed.  This next decade will tell us how much of a place packrafts, as a backcountry whitewater tool, have in the wider outdoor world.

The great bike divergence

A convergence of several trends have made the past decade an extraordinary one when it comes to bikes that will be ridden on dirt.  When I began working on this series a bit over 9 years ago there were only three “bikepacking” bag manufacturers.  Trans-Iowa was still alive and well and while that event had by 2011 birthed the ethos of modern gravel, the commercial side with pros and more saliently, specialty bikes, was in its infancy.  Allroad bikes are what road bikes for the masses should have been all along; mellow handling, a low gear down in the 20s, rock solid braking, room for a 2 inch tire.  Good on pavement, great on dirt, good enough on mild tech (or more if you’re skilled).  From the other side, these bikes can be coherently viewed as the true successors of early mountain bikes, in terms of both ability and versatility.

Mountain bikes themselves ought to better be called trail bikes, something made very clear by the last decade of development.  2014 gave us the Surly Krampus, and the rapidity with which 3 inch tires were shrunk for 650b rims, widely popularized, and then all-but discarded by the mainstream remains as impressive as it is curious.  The appeal of fat-lite is to the rider who regularly sees not-groomed off road terrain immediate.  For the groomed trail rider they are, apparently, too heavy and imprecise.  And this is I think the quick story of trail biking in the past decade; the move towards specialization, towards bike parks, towards flow trails, towards compartmentalizing and prioritizing downhill ability above all else.  I’ve read more than one commenter in the past week say that, in another 10 years, acoustic mountain bikes will be in the significant minority, especially in “destination” mountain bike spots.  Electric assists will send riders up the shuttle roads and trails, and big, heavy travel and geo will send the same bikes back down specially made gnar (or flow, which remains another word for easy-for-humans).

In short, I’m not sure I want to be a part of the next decade of mountain biking.  Shying away from the broader challenge, from trails not specialized for two wheels, from climbing as much as circumstances allow, from travel at distance across a landscape, isn’t mountain biking as I have known and loved it.  Neither is dirt (road) touring, which is plainly the growth direction for capitol B bikepacking.  If the old Dial formula that roads are for cars, trails for bikes, and off-trail for feet is currently on life support, this coming decade will determine if it survives as anything beyond the fringe of the fringe.

Skimo

A decade ago Greg Hill was just a guy in Canada with questionable music and a wife who could presumably support him financially.  Then came the year of 2 million feet and the TLT 5 boot and a bunch of local races, and today ski gear is a hell of a lot lighter and better suited to a range of backcountry skiing.  The broader ski community is even tentatively embracing human powered alpine skiing as a way to both make money and grow skiing itself.  Win/win?  There doesn’t appear to yet be a clear uptick in avalanche deaths, so perhaps not.

FKTs

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A decade ago the term FKT had only barely begun to grow beyond its use, by one man from Boulder*, to catalogue his own extensive, formidable, and occasionally bizarre ultrarunning accomplishments.  Today, the term itself has become ubiquitous, and the website which birthed it polished and host to a big list of routes and their associated fastest known times.  I continue to have existential objections to the whole project, but as the decade has come to a close my objection has become more pointed.

The internet has made publishing routes so quick, and sharing them in detail so precise, that I begin to worry about both increased traffic in fragile areas, and the poverty of imagination that so many off-the-shelf options will breed.  As crowded as our outdoor world can occasionally be, inspiration and imagination remain the limiting factors.  A good thing and a bad one wrapped into one.

Clothing that breaths

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A decade ago active insulation wasn’t a thing, and 120 grams/meter wool was state of the art.  Today, we have the Nano Air (since July 2014), Alpha Direct, Polartec High Efficiency (above), light poly baselayers, and windshirts like the Alpine Start.  In other areas (shoes) development has been frustratingly circular, but the clothing we have day to day for the outdoors is exponentially better than 10 years ago.

The Neoair

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Comfort has long been, and remains, my least favorite word in the backpacking lexicon.  As a concept it is not only subjective, it is monumentally lame.

But the Neoair sure is comfortable.  By moving the bar on how much loft and comfort one could get from a given set of ounces, Thermarest reinvented the sleeping pad in the most significant fashion since their original inflatable.  A Neoair, and the various competitors and clones, allows side sleepers with hips at-home comfort, and allows those less picky to get away with sleeping on slickrock, wooden decking, and generally careless site selection.  Winter pack size shrinks a small but potentially crucial amount.  Like advances in clothing, the ripple effects are significant, and also like the above advances in sleeping pads stand out in the decade in which other sleeping gear was largely staid.

Laminate fabrics

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As a cuben skeptic I’m not going to give too much credit to DCF for providing much actual performance value, but with its enhanced sex appeal cuben has done more visible work than xpac in moving the conversation about performance fabrics and fabric performance shockingly close to the mainstream.  The need for laminate fabrics is currently vastly overstated in the mind of the enthusiast; for example I see no point in using them over PU in something like a fanny pack with a top zipper, the functional increase in weatherproofing just doesn’t exist.  Even for extreme use cases the value of a laminate pack fabric over good ole Cordura is far less than the overall value brought on in the past decade by the general increase in fabric awareness.  MSR completely revisited their tent fabrics, for instance, while PU/sil blends have become common.  Enthusiastic-level backpackers might actually know the difference between robic and nylon 6.6.  Once some of the fashion talk dies out or moves on I’m tentatively optimistic that a more sophisticated market, with more functional options, will remain.

Which is a nice concluding point to the decade as a whole.

 

*Bonus points to Mr. Burrell, associate of Mr. Bakwin, for writing the dumbest paragraph of the decade, as follows:

Packrafts. Ever since these were invented I’ve been avoiding them. They’re costly, heavy, and while some respectable adventurers use them, I’ve always thought they sort of looked like dorks. Like wearing rubber galoshes on a trail run. Like carrying a plastic lunch box with little bunnies on it during an ultra (OK, that one would actually be very cool). Kayaks and Stand Up Paddleboards are sleek and slender, paradigms of hydraulic efficiency, are great sports I really like, but packrafts are basically glorified pool toys.

 

Top 5 backpacks of the past 10 years

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

Kifaru Bikini frame

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

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

Seek Outside Unaweep 3900

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

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

Osprey Talon 22

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

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

Ultimate Direction Signature series

 

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

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter

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

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

Black Diamond Hilight snap judgment

15 years ago I bought the first generation of the Black Diamond Firstlight.  It was a remarkable thing for the time, a silnylon floor and ripstop Epic fly which, with the simple design, added up to an almost unprecendentedly low total weight and small packed size.  We used it a bunch for 7 years until passing it along, something I’ve since regretted.  The design is simplicity itself, pitches fast, provides lots of living space for the footprint, and between the steep walls and relatively small panels sheds weather of all types better than two simple crossed poles would suggest.  The most memorable night in the Firstlight was in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of summer.  M and I did RAGBRAI in 2005, out of a single bag consigned to the cargo shuttle each day.  The second or third night out a near-tornado passed nearby, something we only learned the next morning, when we learned how many of our peers had been driven inside the local school by flattened tents.

The Firstlight did eventually cease to repel rain, one assumes due to dirty fabric, something my cleaning never entirely fixed.  I’ve long longed for a reliably rainproof replacement.  To that end we bought a Bibler Eldorado, whose performance was faultless, but whose packed size (due to the laminate fly material) was massive enough that it was never a viable backcountry option.  The long-discontinued Golite Utopia is the only other option, and floorless at that, but those models were a bit low ceilinged and hard to find.

So when earlier this year BD introduced a significantly altered line of ultralight tents, I thought long before jumping on the new Hilight.

The Hilight was introduced, back in the day, as the UL version of the Bibler Ahwahnee, just as the Firstlight was to the I-Tent and Eldorado.  The new Hilight has a 30D sil/poly Polyester for the tent body, non-breathable, which makes venting a priority.  This, and dry entry in the rain, makes the side door, large window, and awning pole of the Hilight sensical for this fabric.  The new Firstlight remains made of Nanosphere, and thus not utterly rainproof.

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The Hilight is not a big tent, with the modest length (82 inches) barely adequate for a six footer.  My intentions for this tent are three fold; as a winter ski touring tent, as a fall alpine hunting tent, and as an all season shelter for myself and Little Bear.  In the former two cases I’ll use it solo, and laying diagonally will provide plenty of room for winter sleeping gear.

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The detailing on the Hilight is excellent; #5 nickle plated zipper sliders, big zipper flaps, nicely bartacked stake loops, guypoints tied in to laminated reinforcements inside the fly.  It is small, and well built, but it isn’t exactly light.  On my scale the body (in the factory stuff sack) measures 2 pounds 10.5 ounces.  The pole set (in bag) is 1 pound.  The included 8 DAC v stakes (my second favorite, and a very nice thing to see) 4 guylines, and pole splint all add up to 4.5 ounces.  So, you might be a hair under four pounds field weight for the Hilight, but not too far in factory form.

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There are enough light tents on the market today that such a figure needs accounting.  Foremost, the Hilight and Firstlight are dead easy tents to pitch fast and then secure on deep snow.  Stamp a platform, erect the tent, stuff a ski in two corners, inverted ski poles in the other two, and off to bed.  Rarely is pitching a mid in similar conditions half as easy, as the stakes must hold tension from the first, rather than waiting for the snow to consolidate while you’re already in bed making dinner.  Mids, even the newer school two pole mids, are much less weight/space competitive with the Hilight if a full nest is added to the mix, indeed, nest inserts are so fussy I’ve roundly conceded them to the bin.  Floorless generally works for bugs in all but the worst conditions, and in those, might as well deal with a proper tent.   This is the rationale for using the Hilight on kid trips, too; it is the simplest and close to most weight efficient containment for active sleepers.

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I do wish the HiLight were lighter, though I wouldn’t do that with a lesser fabric.  Our Firstlight had extensive patching along the poles, both due to several run away episodes (user error) and due to persistent chafing of the poles against the fly in strong storms.  I might well do it by hacking some superfluous features, starting with the extensive loops and grommets which exist to mate with the optional fly (2 ounces at least, I reckon), and extending to the huge “flow manifold” tunnel vent on the top of the tent.  On the one hand it’s a logical enlargement of the roof vents in the Eldorado.  On the other it seems a bit redundant given the door and window venting.  Concerningly, there is no way to close this vent.  The inner, smaller pair of the four tunnel reinforcements can be bent in, but that is inside the mesh holes.  How does one keep spindrift out?  How does the vent act (as the catalogue copy claims) “…a central, ceiling exit rope for anchoring in on steep pitches.”  Perhaps BD assumes alpinists will cut out the mesh?

I’ll give the tent a shake or two in stock form, but am assuming now that I’ll be cutting out of the whole vent complex and sewing covers over the mesh vents.  The adorable little pockets welded center panel on each end are also ripe for scissoring.

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The Hilight doesn’t stand out on specs alone, but it does on aesthetics and design.  Based on first impressions and past experience it should on performance, too.  Just need a bit more fresh snow for a proper trial.

The vexatious Airshed

Windshirts are complicated, because their job is a difficult one, and an important one. Patagonia’s Airshed, a pullover shirt made from the outer fabric of the Nano Air series, has been around for a few years.  The lack of a hood, concerns over durability, and the expense put me off for a while, but Max’s glowing review, a gift card, and a 50% off sale put me over the edge last winter.  That I’ve put off writing this for close to a year, and still struggle to summarize performance, is evidence of what an odd duck the Airshed is, as well as how action layer performance doesn’t emanate directly from lab numbers.

The relevant numbers are that the Airshed fabric is 44 grams/meter, and the claimed air permeability is 67 cfm (cubic feet/minute).   The Patagonia Houdini, touchstone for the traditional modern windshirt, is 40 grams/meter and somewhere around 5-10 cfm (being over the head of the general public, cfm is not generally featured on product pages).  The BD Alpine Start, touchstone for modern soft shell windshirts, is 80 grams/meter, and roughly 30 cfm.  In theory, the Airshed ought to be breathable like an Alpine Start class windshirt, but as light and thus as quick drying as a Houdini class windshirt.

In this, it succeeds, though as the significantly increased cfm would suggest, the Airshed does not provide the same warmth as the Alpine Start.  This has a lot to do with breathability, but also I think a lot to do with fabric weight and drape.  The Airshed fabric is impressively pliant, and offers exceptionally little resistance to breeze killing dead air space.

At the same time, I found the Airshed oddly not breathable.  During sub zero conditions it accumulates less moisture on the inside surface than the Alpine Start, but during warmer conditions (say 60F) felt stuffy faster.  I’ve worn the Alpine Start as a sun layer in a packraft on a few occasions when I only had a short sleeved baselayer.  Oddly, I’d be less comfortable using the Airshed for the same purpose.  Somehow the Airshed seems more responsive when the moisture gradient between the inside and outside of the fabric is greater.  I also found it unpalatable to wear against the skin.  It dries fast, faster than modern light (~100 grams/meter) baselayers, but does not actively wick, and thus feels clammy.  It feels very similar to the old BPL Thorofare; uberlight, bugproof, quite windproof, and somewhat plastic-baggy.

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For these reasons, I haven’t worn the Airshed a whole lot.  I’m also not a fan of several key features.  The chest pocket zipper is weighty relative to the gossamer fabric, and doesn’t run well unless the neck is zipped almost all the way up.  I removed the pocket, something of an ordeal as the light fabric puckers and pulls like crazy.

The second, and far more significant issue, is the stretch fabric along the cuffs and hem.  This stuff holds water like crazy, an attribute highlighted by how fast the main fabric dries.  Not really a huge deal for a trail running shirt, but an almost fatal flaw in a backcountry piece.  After the struggle of canceling the pocket, I’ve yet to tackle replacing the hem fabric.

Durability has been passable.  There is significant pilling around the front of the waist and along the sides, where the hipbelt action is, but I haven’t yet put a hole in it from brush, which somewhat exceeds expectations.

After a summer of disuse, or of bringing the Airshed and wishing I’d brought the Alpine Start, I cut the sleeves off (easy, the seams are right there), and as a vest the Airshed has promise.  My perhaps longest running complaint about wind or action layers is that they have to be removed and stowed away during serious rain.  Light ones like the Houdini mess significantly with the breathability of a WPB layer, while more breathable ones like the Alpine Start hold too much water, while not contributing enough to the insulation scheme.  My new Airshed vest promises to be a wind layer that can stay on, over a baselayer, for days at a time of mixed weather.

Time (and spring) will tell.

Shit that works: MSR tent stakes

Back in July I seized on a weather window and probable lack of snow and did a big alpine traverse in the Bob.  Early summer in the alpine, especially in the limestone reaches of the Bob that hold water in mysterious places, generally mean bugs.  So when  set my camp the first night, in a notch in the rugged ridge at 8000 feet, I chose the only unambiguously flat spot, right in the middle of the pass.  This had the advantage of being away from the springs on the north side (and would thus hopefully keep the many elk I’d seen that evening from tripping on my guylines), as well as the extensive grizzly diggings along the eastern (and more verdant) edge.  Most importantly, it would take advantage of any breezes to reduce bug pressure.

The disadvantage of this approach is that any storms would come full force, which is just what happened at 3 in the morning.  The thunder and wind woke me up simultaneously, and I had plenty of time to assimilate the simultaneous flash/bangs as the storm rolled over, as I was sitting up with my back against my tarp, hoping to help keep both the paddle sections propping up the rear intact, and the windward end stake from ripping.  Neither of these things happened, and after 20 or so minutes I went back to sleep to the music of frantic rain.

I was sleeping in this tarp, with the wall end fortunately facing dead west.  That end was propped up by my Shuna, with the ridgeline supported by a single MSR Cyclone, and the corners by MSR Groundhogs.  These burly stakes, hammered with significant into the rocky alpine soils, were the main reason my sub 1 pound shelter held tight.

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Pictured above is an MSR Cyclone at top, MSR Groundhog, and DAC J stake (formerly standard with Sierra Designs tents) at bottom.  All are made from stout aluminum alloys which over the years have proven immune to any abuse.  I’ve never bent any of these, and only broken older Groundhogs (10+ years ago) by snapping off the heads pounding them into frozen desert soil with a rock.

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Contrast this with the shit stakes that came with the Sierra Designs Clearwing we bought this summer, and the state they were in after the very first use in the field.  Fortunately that night in the Beartooths only featured pouring rain, and was not accompanied by any wind.

Lesson being; don’t get good tent stakes, get the very best.  If your fancy tent, tarp, or mid can’t stay upright, all other particulars are irrelevant.

I’ve used Groundhogs since they first went on the market, and they’ve only gotten better with time.  For years they were all saw fit to use.  I first came across the Cyclones looking for something that would provide enough holding power in loose soils for the great forces bigger shelters (like the Seek Outside 4 man tipi pictured at top) inevitably enact.  They’re expensive, but they do that job admirably, along with providing reassuring overkill for smaller shelters in extreme conditions.  Anyone who camps in sand or sandy soil should have a few, as well as anyone who camps in the alpine.  Adding stake point to an otherwise vulnerable shelter like a tarp is the traditional approach.  The limit here is in the form of soil conditions, which might not admit two guylines, at an acceptable angle, on a primary load point.  A cyclone can be pounded into almost any ground without buckling, and is a more reliable solution to a guy point that must not fail.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to excoriate the many companies who sell faux-MSR stakes with their shelters, presumably in hopes customers will never have cause to know the difference.  MSR doesn’t cut generous deals on the wholesale front because, building the best stakes on the market, they don’t have to.  Either providing these stakes with your shelter, or having the grace to sell shelters without them, communicates seriousness and respect.

There is currently no substitute.

Shit that works: the Rocketbox

Our Yakima Rocketbox turns 20 this year.  Over that time, few other items have been as consistently useful when it comes to outdoor adventure.

The US is set up for cars, with the overwhelming majority of prospective destinations not lending themselves to non-private motorized transportation.  If in places like Alaska the wilderness can make hard to get to the wilderness, in the lower 48 the great ocean that is rural America usually makes it hard to get anywhere else.  For this reason some places can feel very remote indeed, even if you’re only a few miles beyond the trailhead; Big Sandy in the Winds, for instance, or Choprock in Escalante.  Add winter weather, and even pavement can be drafted into the wilderness.  During several long drives home from the east side of Glacier and the Bob, riding on the teeth of a storm, unpredictable whiteouts have reduced me to 30 mph with right tires firmly planted the rumble strip, for security when visibility suddenly plunged from 100 meters to 2.

It is logical to get a car big enough to fit all your stuff inside, for security, protection for the elements, and aerodynamics, until you do the math on the dimensions of some of those items, how often you’ll need so much space, and, as important as any other reason, how stinky much of that stuff often is.  A roof box solves all three of these issues.  It should be easily removed and stowed in a garage.  It should be long enough to fit (for instance) 210cm classic skis, and other things which don’t stow well in all but the largest vehicles.  And a roof box is necessarily separate from the passenger space, making it an ideal location for soggy clothing, ripe wetsuits, and muddy boating gear.  The gear itself, and the interior of the cargo box, can be hosed out when convenient and then dried quickly in the sun.

The Rocketbox was essential for organization when M and I were living out of Xterra.  It held all of our trekking, camping, and climbing gear securely and out of the way.  With creativity and a few mods we were able to fit the box and three bikes on the roof (with 48 inch cargo bars).  The box was merely convenient when we lived in a house in Arizona with the same Xterra as primary vehicle, mostly because gear dried so fast in the southwest, and we didn’t do much skiing.  The box, on the same vehicle and with the same living setup, was more important once we moved to Montana, and has become absolutely vital since adding a hatchback and first one and then two children to the mix.  Today, we’ve had enough practice that we can do a week on the road, camping exclusively, with climbing and packrafting gear in tow, and fit everyone in a small (by US standards) car.  With summer sleeping bags there is even space to see out the back window.

(Rocketbox visible at far right.)

In 1999 Yakima made three cargo boxes.  Today they make 9, with only two being comparable (long enough to hold skis, narrow enough for multiple bikes or a boat additionally on the roof).  Wider, shorter boxes seem the fashion, and the worry-free tailgate clearance they provide seems to me a poor choice given their limitations in all other areas.  The other lamentable development is in dual-side opening, the hardwear for which takes up considerable interior space.  Back in the day, the most popular box (the Rocketbox) was available in left or right opening, the other two in right only, which seems like the pragmatic choice anywhere other than New Zealand and Britain.  If the original weren’t still going strong, minus a bit of sun fading, I’d be tempted to look on the used market.

As is, I can’t imagine living without one.  It is the primary car accessory for almost any outdoor activity.