The perfect winter

April had a good trick for us here in Montana, 4 inches of snow in our yard, and twice that in the mountains, with a nice wind chill well below zero.  The skiing was fantastic, the snow sifted light enough that the air of skinning moves waves before you, the air cold enough for visible sparkles of enthusiasm to grow on the way up, and freeze into permanence on the descent.  After the previous two winters, both relentlessly snowy down to the valley floors, last year record breakingly cold, it has been pleasant to have a dark period give us the best of both.  Those distant mountains have been cold and stormy enough to stack up snow, while storms have mostly steered north or south of town, and sun has dried out yards and backyard trails.  This winter we got ease down low, less shoveling and icy walking, while keeping the potential of a proper winter off in the abstract realms of daily visibility, the horizons in all directions growing more clear in their toothiness as the feet of snow accumulate.  

It has reminded me of the easy winters of Colorado or Utah, with sunshine drawing an almost geometric line between civilization, and the build-up of life above, the thing which for the other half of the year will keep civilization possible.

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Ideal winters begin in January but only graduate in April.  Cold holds old snow within the forests and keeps rain away from the summits, making June skiing, July greenery, August boating, and September deer into memories whose edges stay clear for decades. 

It seems that we might have just such a summer, with the complication naturally being that we won’t know for perhaps a month or more what kind, what freedom, of summer we’ll have; as well as the current shelter-in-place rule.  How skiing fits into this, and indeed if it does at all, is a question of the moment.  All the moreso because of the generous, cold, spring storms falling on a finally solid winter base.

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Our local hill has taken a firm stance on the issue, and the above photo, taken 48 hours after 8+ inches of fresh fell, gives good evidence that the locals agree.  My personal compromise has been to skin and ski the local hill often.  It’s a mellow place, with limited avalanche terrain even under un-ideal circumstances, and cruising untouched 28 degree pow is pretty great.   The hope, tentatively expressed in Great Divides new signage, is that around here we can avoid what Colorado, Red Lodge, and the Alps did not, and be able to get out regularly more than 1 or 2 kilometers from our house without falling too easily into old habits. 

The ideal winter demands ideal tools, and my $75 score at a ski swap back in the fall has quickly become the favored over-snow tool.  I’m late to the rocker, center mount, big radius party.  Occasionally it has felt like too much ski, but heavy detuning of the tapered section of the tail and some shifts in technique have over the course of a few hours made me a much better skier than I was last year.

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So I was naturally bummed when at the end of routine waxing I looked closer and noticed a ~16 inch delaminated section.  Judging by the sidewall dent this had presumably got started last month during the big wreck, been hardly noticable at first, and grown over the subsequent days.  So, some shaving, prying, injection of glue, and sealing with Aquaseal was in order.  Hopefully the ski will be good as new, and highlights again why I prefer to buy used skis at fractions of MSRP.

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I certainly missed them this morning, when aspect hunting for good snow resulted in a few misses of wind effect and crust before untouched powder was found.  It all serves to provide gratitude for the here and now, and the backyard.  Six years ago I wrote that I could then retire from backpacking and be content, having expressed my potential as far as would ever be practical.  That is still true, but in those six years I’ve had a lot of fun hunting, learning how to be in the backcountry with our kids, and filling in the gaps.  New places polish old skills, a mirror clarity the fog of the daily cannot provide.  Familiar places build new skills because intimacy provides comfort which in turn allows one to look at things from the other side. 

Since moving here I’ve resolved to embrace this, after 15 years prior spent driving far from one amazing place or another to pursue a specific skill and thus, experience.  Today, it is impossible to not both celebrate and rue this.  My list of questions within a 45 minute radius is years long.  And yet, months of planning, had it run uninterrupted, would have had me hiking out of the Escalante today.  The clarity of novelty would be a nice haven these days.  In its absence I cherish the unexpected opportunities I did take this winter, and resolve to not let this spring and summer get away, no matter what form they take.

Panic

This began two days ago as a hopefully un-trite post about how parks, mainly national, should not be closed during the current Coronavirus crisis.  I wanted to point out how both explicible and sad it was that Yellowstone closed Tuesday.  How parks, however grand, are generally in someones backyard.  Moab had an entirely reasonable request last week when they asked the Governor of Utah to shut down tourism, and how current Moab locals also have an entirely reasonable ability to be out in their greater yard.

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For my part, I left home in the dark this morning and skinned a few laps of our local ski hill.  The surface, ungroomed for almost two weeks how, hadn’t frozen solid yesterday evening, and was covered in two inches of light fresh.  The turns were exceptional, the sunrise and brisk wind enliving as for me only the touch of the wild can be.  I arrived home and continued the arduously ambiguous task of moving all the bargains and history and tenuous emotional bridging I’ve built in my office to the virtual world, and did so with a lightness, having reaffirmed that the world was only so writhingly mutable on a human scale.  Our president excepted, there shouldn’t be too many people on the planet with many illusions left about what it will take to manage this crisis.  Where the illusions remain seems to be in how long life may be altered.  And for that reason I think wild parks should, in the vast majority of cases, remain open.

I was not the only one at the hill at dawn.  A few folks had carpooled up, hiked (rather than skinned) the hill, and on their way down ducked into the terrain park for a few jumps, two things the hill had after the mandated closure asked people to not do.  There has reportedly been a drastic uptick in avalanches in the Colorado backcountry in the past few weeks.  Earlier this week, on a bike ride around town, I had to explain to Little Bear why we could not go play on the equipment which was in the spring sun swarming with other kids.  And this is why, apparently, we can’t have all the parks open during our duress.

This afternoon I was doing what so many have done recently, having a Zoom meeting with my colleagues, discussing how to keep translating our job into a new medium, when word came down that Montana was joining much of the rest of the world, with a shelter in place order.   Nothing stressed me more, until an hour later I tracked down the document itself, and read the clear exception for wide varieties of outdoor activities.  During that search, Little Bear looked over my shoulder, saw the above photo (from our hike this past weekend) and asked when we could go again.

My desire, and its urgency, is in this matter quite trite and thoroughly myopic.  But if this is trite, then almost anything is.  Living after all is made possible by being alive, but does not consistent of it.  Over the weeks to come we’re all going to become more intimate with this.

The Open 2020

I updated the information for the 2020 Bob Open just now.  Removing the mass start option seemed to be the most responsible solution for the uncertainty surrounding the virus.  This means that I encourage everyone for whom the circumstances in two months time make it safe to do the walk, be it the circumstances of ones family, community, or the extent one must travel.  Or in 6 weeks, if such a thing suits them better.  There is a robust snowpack up high, and it could well be a good year for an early May ski traverse.  I also emphatically encourage anyone for whom this trek seems a stretch to stay home this year.  All reasonable guesses point to the public systems in Montana being busy two months hence, making 2020 a poor year for the Open’s first rescue.

There has been much written in the past few weeks about how acceptable it may or may not be to go out and adventure, while Coronavirus is waiting to run through society.  In the last 9 days, since school and then much public business, was largely shut down in central Montana I’ve been so preoccupied with waiting, adapting, and then waiting again that a matter so far distant as the Open escaped me until today.  I’ve yet to form my own opinion, but have from the beginning been struck both by how socially entangled backcountry pursuits seemingly are, as well as how remote they are from the evident pillars of contemporary life.

The mass start has always made for great fun, and as the survey demonstrated Memorial Day is popular both for the holiday and for the conditions.  My fear since the beginning has always been that the Open would be the victim of its own success.  The fulfillment it has given me, through the learning and achievement of others, has been extreme, but further disbanding what little organization exists has always been the sustainable future.  This year will tell all us fans of the Open what that might look like.

Things I’ve broken lately

Last month Little Bear and I went backpacking.  In and of itself this was not unusual, though it was the first time just the two of us had walked in to camp under a tarp.  It was noteworthy because it was February, and we were in shoes, walking over a inch of crusted snow and ice.  In sharp contrast to our first two winters here, this one has fulfilled our valleys reputation as an oasis of brightness.  Which I do not mind at all, as it gives the choice of driving east and hiking, or driving any other direction (including further east) and skiing.  It makes my life easy, and those with short legs easier still.

That afternoon we walked a few miles up a canyon, didn’t slip on the ice, explored a cave, and with a little futzing found a flat spot at last light.  Setting up our big tarp proved complicated, with almost desert-pure dirt frozen solid with the days melt.  On that, or on the many limestone cobbles, I broke a Groundhog, the first time in over a decade of using them.  That heightened the dis-ease of the evening, as Little Bear stood watching me hammer as the deep cold of the dark crept quickly down the hillside.  My fire skills remained sharp, and that warmth did what it has done for tens of thousands of years; put those only newly at ease out under the sky to sleep.  Once in his bag Little Bear’s eyes closed within seconds, and he slept for 12 hours.

The next weekend, as further evidence of our southwestesque winter, the Bear and I went on a bike ride.  It was snowing fast, but the flakes stuck to dry dirt and pavement and impacted traction not at all.  We made our way down to the bike park, and on our second run over the big rollers I felt a click, which I assumed was the basic drivetrain being cranky.  It was in fact my right pedal spindle cracking partway through, damage which completed itself a minute later when I went to spring up the hill at the start of the jump line.  My pedal detached completely, with my shoulder going into the handlebar and knee into the dirt.

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It had been a long time since I’d crashed that hard, on anything.  Sadly, it would not be the last such incident this month.  It had also been a long time, and by that I mean never, since I had bothered to regrease my pedals, or to replace the dust cap which on that pedal shook itself loose riding Little Creek 6 years ago.

Mechanical neglect was not to be blamed for my crash the weekend after, rather personal imprudence.  That same lack of big snow which has been so good for walking and biking in 2020 made the first big storm in months a matter of fervor at the local ski hill.  It also reminded me that resort pow is the most overhyped medium in outdoor recreation, as a foot of blower over icey bumps and rock mainly means you can’t see the potential obstacles.  So it was with me, and while looking to gap down to the cat track on my second run I stuffed a tip into a rock or stump and side slid down a short slope whose powder was a veneer over boulders.  If you were riding the right lift at the right time you might have seen my haste-induced poor form.  I nicked the arm of my fancy shell, broke the leash on my right ski (which it is supposed to do in a nasty fall), and bruised my whole left side in a way which made it hard to walk for the next three days.  I now realize I was quite lucky to not break any bones.

All of that is quite trivial compared to the last week, as Coronavirus precautions have broken the routines whose significance most of us had little cause to understand.  In Montana we have thus far felt a lesser impact than many.  I can still for instance drive 30 minutes and hike for laps at that same, now closed, ski area.  The volume of walking and jogging traffic past our house has neither increased nor decreased, with perhaps only a few fewer cars at the busy times.  Schools are closed for at least a few weeks, and likely longer, so we’re watching a colleagues son and I’m learning how to do therapy remotely.   It’s something our company ought to have had in the repertoire a while ago, so the silver lining of persistent uncertainty is new and unexpected skills, along with a hopefully enduring awareness of how much the innocuous runs our lives.  With bumps being unexpected, though perhaps less so in retrospect, I can only hope that this batch has run through.

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.