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.

Introducing North Fork Packraft straps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layering in 2019: insulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layering in 2019: mid and wind layers

Since 2011 I’ve owned around two dozen windshirts, and while a third of those were for larger reviews and garments in which I didn’t have an inherent interest, this still amounts to an extravagant total.  As of today there are only four in regular rotation.  In the same period I’ve had at least the same number of fleece pullovers, vests, and hoodies, including half a dozen items in current use, on top of a couple active insulation pieces.  I could, by contrast, cut baselayers down to two or three pieces without issue, and gladly go the whole year with a single hardshell.

All of which is to say that the task of additional weather protection for on the move is far more complex than any other.  The most relevant question is thus which items provide for the greatest range of use/comfort, and why.  Not only will versatile items better trim the closet, using generalism to frame our inquiry makes for more incisive answers.

I call wind and mid layers, which collectively are generally used for added protection while on the move in the backcountry, action layers (nod to Twight and Extreme Alpinism).

Thinner baselayers made with faster wicking fabrics and construction (as discussed previously) best fit and indeed demand action layers that prioritize breathability.  For example, take the opposite extreme, a 200 grams/meter 100% merino shirt which was “cutting edge” 15 years ago.  Hike uphill hard with a pack, even around freezing, and the shirt will get quiet to very wet.  Pop above treeline and get hit by wind, or turn the crest and head downhill with the associated drop in heat production, and you’ll want something to moderate evaporation, least you get cold.  Traditional windbreakers work well here, with limited breathability (<5 cfm, say) making for something of a wetsuit effect.  The disadvantage is of course that further measures will be needed to get ahead of the moisture curve, and if kinder ambient conditions don’t help you out, external heat of some kind, in the form of a fire or added insulation, will eventually be needed.  Modern layering seeks to avoid this, with systems that retain far less moisture under adverse conditions, and need far less input to dry.

There is a broad range of functionality here, with individual metabolism providing heavy influence.  Smaller folks, leaner folks, and those with slower metabolism often need a vastly warmer and more protective action layer.  For every case their is emphatically such a thing as too little or too breathable protection.  A case of too little protection would be the aforementioned thick merino and windbreaker combo, which in most cases has too little insulative value and too much protection against external forces, which makes the body work to hard to maintain equilibrium, which is in turn a poor use of calories and morale.  Too much protection would be a thin synthetic t-shirt and a 100 weight fleece pullover in the same conditions.  This combo is good at moving moisture, statically warm, but provides little protection against external conditions (e.g. wind).  This past fall I revisited using 100 weight fleece in place of a windshirt, and it only took one brisk day and one cold and still morning to think that the lack of control with respect to the wind and transpiration generally was stressing my metabolism more than seemed necessary.

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This is why the nylon 20D mechanical stretch nylon Patagonia developed for the Nano Air series, a fabric found on its own in the Airshed pullover, might be the most significant development in outdoor apparel in the last decade.  The insulation used in the Nano Air Light (above) is different that Polartec Alpha, but the reason it and the regular Nano Air are utterly different in use than other active insulation I’ve used is the shell and liner fabrics.  Not only are they very (but not excessively!) breathable, but the thin, mechanical stretch (spandex free!) fabrics retain amazingly little moisture.  A few weeks ago I was out in -15F on consecutive days.  On one the least breathable component in my system was my BD Alpine Start hoody, with a couple hours work putting a fine coating of frost against the inside.  On the other, a Nano Air over a baselayer (the LaSportiva Troposphere) stayed dry after three hours of hard trailbreaking.  The Nano Airs are even more versatile companions for people who run cold.  Since getting one in late October M has hardly taken hers off.

There are times when a windshirt which blocks a lot of wind has no substitute, including (at least for me) a hardshell.  The sadly discontinued Rab Windveil continues to be my all time favorite here, due mainly to fit and features but also to toughness.  The Alpine Start also remains a favorite, and oddly the windshirt I use most but the one I might let go first.  The fit is frustrating, as is the way it hangs on to just a little too much moisture when conditions are truly challenging.  On the other hand it’s durable, balanced with respect to weatherproofing, and looks good.

If I had to pick only two items from all the action layers I’ve had or have, they would be the Windveil and Nano Air Light.  The Alpine Start would be hard to give up, and the Airshed hasn’t been in my closet long enough for permanent consideration.  The fourth item would be Haglofs Pile hoody, not because it’s more performance oriented than something like a Nano Air hoody (or what the Tough Puff, which I’d love to try), but because fleece still beats active insulation on intangibles, if not on performance.

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Actions layers are the other area, along with baselayers, where I think premium items can be worthwhile.  The Nano Air series, along with the best modern wind layers, are astonishingly efficient.  The premium is steep, when comparing for instance a $35 fleece shirt and the $250 Nano Air Light, but just with baselayers when you’re wearing it almost year round, action layers are a good place to put dollars.

Layering in 2019: introduction and baselayers

Any discussion of layering has to start with it being somewhat of a misnomer; the point of a good layering system is to provider a few solid pieces which cover as great a range of conditions as possible.  If you have to swap, add, or remove layers often, you chose poorly for the day.  That said, technical outdoor clothing is both better and more expensive than ever, so if you pick well a small arsenal can work on almost any day of the year.

Base layers should move moisture quickly, and keep abrasion and sun off your skin.  We’re into the second decade of merino being full fashion in the outdoor realm, and I’m ready to call it ready to die insofar as backcountry performance is concerned.  The virtue of merino was always the extent to which it controlled evaporative cooling by absorbing some of the moisture burden as it moved from skin to the garment surface, with odor control and heat of sorption* being tangential benefits.  As the paradigm of all outdoor garments has shifted towards faster moisture transport and greater air permeability, moisture buffering in base layers has made less and less sense.  There is no point in effectively storing moisture in your base layer when the mid and/or wind layers are not working at full capacity.  Thin wool minimizes this disadvantage, but the continued experiment with introducing synthetics into merino is all the evidence required that merino durability is below 180 grams/meter substantially problematic.

Where wool continues to shine is as lifestyle wear for the urban jungle.  A mildly sweaty 3 mile bike commute makes the odor control of merino highly relevant, and while the aforementioned hybrids don’t hold up to brush and backpack abrasion, they do hold up to repeated laundering.  All my merino shirts have been shunted into daily use under dress shirts, which keeps the -10 degrees mornings a bit more at bay, and allows me to chase kindergarteners at will without being stinky for 3pm meetings.  Insofar as growth in the “outdoor industry” is largely confined to lifestyle or near lifestyle segments, merino has a bright future.

I revisited merino this winter, and quickly got sick of the outer layer of my hats and shirts frosting up, something which was under similar circumstances eliminated by going back to synthetics.  The last six years trend in synthetic baselayers has continued, with fabrics getting ever thinner, and mechanical/structural variations making for increased performance.  Polartec High Efficiency, popularized by the now-classic Capilene 4, has remained the touchstone cold weather baselayer, while sub-100 grams/meter garments have made this the new cutoff for light weight baselayers.  Old tech is also making comeback, in the form of the original synthetic baselayer, polypro.  If poly has won out in baselayers most significantly due its low moisture regain (.5%, roughly), poly ought to do far better with a moisture regain many times less (.06%).  This fall I’ve spent a lot of time in a nylon/polypro/spandex knit, and have been impressed that a not prodigiously light fabric could wick so efficiently, even under difficult (high humidity, near freezing) conditions.  The blend and modern anti-odor treatments seems to have dealt with the old polypro issues (stink, shrinkage at normal laundry temps) quite nicely, with the only downside of this particular piece being the emphatically euro styling (size up).

For the time being my recommendation from two years ago, that with a Cap 4 (now thermal weight) shirt and a Sitka Core LW shirt I could do everything, anywhere holds true.  The Sitka fabrics changed a bit and the features got more complex, but plenty of good options (e.g. the OR Echo series) has come on the scene since.  Most significantly, I continue to recommend that newcomers building a technical wardrobe sink money into quality baselayers, not so much because the performance gain over cheaper ones is massive, but because the gain/$ ratio is the best, and you’ll notice the refinements in function and fit most often, as your baselayers get used more often than anything else (save socks, another area to not skimp).

Next, the fraught world of mid and wind layers.

 

*Of sorption is the phenomenon where energy is given off as liquid water (in this case within the wool fibers of a garment) passes into a gas during evaporation.  It is popularly cited by wool boosters, and I remain skeptical that the effect is for one significant enough to be relevant in the field, and for another, consequential enough to overcome the downsides of having a bunch of water on board your garments.  The largest number I’ve found associated with of sorption in wool is 1 gram of water generating 277 joules (which is roughly .26 BTUs).  That would be a compelling figure, but the study was of carpets in residential settings, where the thermal load and mass presumably made the findings of limited generalizability.  I assume anyone who claims of sorption as a benefit of merino baselayers, without significant caveats, has not given the subject much thought.

 

 

 

 

The perfect pole; revised

These poles have worked very well in the 5.5 years since I put them together.  They’ve been light enough, bomber, and the ability to swap lowers and have a pole longer enough for nordic skiing (or pitching a mid with a single pole) has been very handy.

 

Shortcomings have been two fold.  While the grips themselves have aged well and certainly have the rest of the decade in them, the lack of a solid end plug resulted in dual issues.  The pole with less glue, at right, started working its way out the end of the grip around 3 years ago, and while strategic epoxy stopped progress, the end has never since been as comfy.  At left, the pole with the more solid glue cap bent over under the combined weight of a rain, snow and wind during a magical January night in Choprock Canyon two years ago.  I also want straps, a vaguely controversial admission.  This is mostly for nordic skiing, but after using the Fizan compacts over the past year and a half I’ve come to appreciate having the option of tying in and not dropping poles when I’m tired.

I couldn’t think of a clean way to integrate adjustable straps into the GGear grips, nor a totally satisfactory way to alleviate the above issues, so I looked elsewhere for a solution.  Massdrop ultimately sent me three different sets of Fizans trying to find a pair which didn’t slip (they all did, at least a hair), so I decided to sacrifice one.

img_7121It took a lot of boiling, cutting, and work with pliers, but I separated the plastic core of the grip (above) from the rest of the pole.  The foam part of the grip was a loss, and the brittle alloy of the shaft made extracting it in one piece tricky (and required a LOT of the heat).  The OD of the BD upper is a bit bigger, but the plastic here is maleable enough that some inner sanding and a hammer got them seated.

 

Next, the grip body.  In the same of simplicity and not leaving the house I used some leftover handlebar tape, doing a short wrap for the lower pommel, and then wrapping the whole thing with more.  If one had more tape and was so inclined, the fashionable grip extensions could be added.

img_7124I’ll update on longevity in a year or so.  My assumption is the tape will need replaced every few years, and my hope is that the plastic grip cap won’t ultimately split after being forced onto the pole.  Regardless of how well this arrangement works, these poles have been one of my more satisfying projects, in that they’ve been a simple and no-compromises solution to (literally) every trip across the seasons., one which has yet to be exceeded by anything commercial, and shows every sign of being equally relevant for another 5 or more years.