Bark River Micro Canadian re-scale

For the past four years my Micro Canadian has always been one of my very favorite objects.  It blends practicality and elegance in a way which few other categories of things can.  Restlessness, and extreme specialization (river rescue), are the only real reasons I’ve used anything else.  To address the former I bought a Bark River Ringtail this past winter (the brown handled knife with the ring, above), the idea being the Micro is a bit short on edge length and blade volume where processing game is concerned.  The Ringtail is very good for that, and has reminded me that if the Micro has any shortcoming, it is the blunter angle of the tip, which makes for a cutting bit whose acuity erodes quickly.

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My parents chose a gorgeous stabilized wood burl for the handle (scales) when they bought me the Micro, and over the years the wood has suffered, with many damper outings causing swelling, and after enough cycles, cracking.  A few weeks ago, one of these cracks propagated far enough towards one of the pins, and the front of one scale fell off.  The knife worked fine without it, and a few hours after sending an email to Bark River about a repair the idea to make new scales myself was firmly stuck in my head.  So I pondered that for another few days, then ordered some safety yellow pieces of G10, 1/8″ thick.  To this day, several weeks after sending the email, I still haven’t heard back from Bark River.

G10 was an easy (and cheap, on sale!) choice, being durable and impermeable.  1/8″ is a hair thinner than the wood scales, something I figured would slim down the somewhat blocky/squarish cross section of the handle as stock.  While I was at it, I knew I wanted to make the scales extend ever so slightly further towards the blade, to give my thump a bit more purchase.

After punching the pins out of the blade and cleaning it up, I clamped the blade to the front of the stacked scales and used that as a template to drill the holes.  I sharpied the outline to the scales, rough cut that out with a coping saw (both scales still together, then epoxied the whole thing together.  In spite of being very careful with alignment one of the rear holes was off a bit, and getting the whole mess together required a bit of last minute swearing and elbow grease.

After the epoxy was set finish work was the simple yet tricky matter of lots of sanding.  G10 sands well; I used an orbit sander with 220 grit for the initial stuff, and finished things off with lots of hand sanding.  I used a 1″ dowel as the template for the finger grooves, which worked well.  I am very pleased with how the whole thing came together.

The past four years of fixing things, renovations, and projects have seen home ownership being a huge catalyst for me embracing making stuff as equal parts an end and a means.  Something like this, which I carry virtually everywhere I go, every day, seems set to serve as a reminder of the many rewards that process has shown me.  Next in this series, my adventures making canoe paddles.

A daypack

After being so impressed with Ultraweave I naturally wanted to make several/a number of bags out of it.  My affinity for burlier pack fabrics goes back to the very beginning, both because I know that many of my favored activities shred lighter pack fabrics, and (more relevantly) because I have an aesthetic preference for things, especially things that I build, to have the potential to last a very long time.  For most of the last decade this has been quite hypothetical (that pack from 2010 looks awful in my today eyes), but in the last 3-4 years my knowledge has been such that I regularly make things that stand the test of time.  Making myself a pack from a fabric that could realistically last decades is today not just an ideological activity.

A daypack is not an especially exciting thing, both because day-type activities are less aspirational, and because designing and building a daypack happens on a persnickety scale.  Fit, for example, is an area where in theory a frameless little pack which will rarely carry more than 10 pounds ought to be forgiving.  Many companies making such packs in one size only would certainly suggest as much.  And yet I’ve found little packs to be difficult in this regard, having no frame and especially no belt and load lifters to take the focus off torso length, and strap size, width, and orientation.  Torso length is relevant both to maximize space, and to concentrate the sweet spot for both fit and comfort in the same location.  This pack is 20 inches exactly, an inch or a little more less than I’d make a larger pack (w/ frame, etc).  This maintains total shoulder wrap, with the pack ending just at the lower edge of my lumbar.  This feels most comfortable, most agile, and places the side pockets low enough for good access.  The upper few inches of the side panels tilt toward the user, on both sides, providing a nice shoulder hugging fit, and maintaining a trim yet generous 7 inches of constant depth.  The front panel is 9 inches wide, the back panel 10.5, with 2 inches of upsweep on the bottom panel.  It is easy to make a pack like this too skinny, in either direction, too pudgy, or to overdo the various tapers and create something with less useable space.

For all the seeming contradiction of a forever fabric and a zipper, the classic clamshell is an obvious choice with a pack this small.  It is cleaner through the brush than a rolltop or drawcord, and far faster to access.  Mid panel always seems to work best with a zipper, and this straight run and constant radius curve, along with dual #10 nickle plated sliders, maximizes durability.  Additional internal features amount to a pad sleeve against the back, a small zippered pocket (9″ by 7″), and another sleeve pocket behind the zippered pocket, handy for garbage or for isolating wet raingear from the rest of the contents.  These details, along with the cord sleeves on the side pockets, were old 200ish denier nylon from a sailbag I got free off craigslist.  Orange seemed a good color to halo through the main fabric, and having touseled accents to such a fancy pack seemed logical.

Side pockets in a small pack that legit fit a nalgene aren’t common.  These envelope a standard nalgene, and carry a 48oz cilo well enough that only a big tumble off a log (did it) will knock them free.  These are 14 inches back to front, with a 3 by 3 inch dimensioned gusset against the user side, and the remaining 11 inches fit down to 7 with a big pleat.  The single pleat restricts the pocket size with a single hard object, but expands easily with softer items, ergo a nalgene doesn’t rattle around, but you can wedge a full set of raingear in.

Hopefully five years from now my current state of knowledge doesn’t prove too antiquainted.

Challenge Ultraweave abrasion testing

Advanced (read: non-nylon) woven fabrics have spent most of the past decade promising to upend standard performance to weight ratios, especially where backpacks are concerned.  Standard and hybrid cuben laminates have been a disappointment in this respect, with inadequate durability and poor balance between performance and cost.  The hype and rhetoric associated with hybrid cuben packs, most specifically the marketing prowess of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, has made a (perhaps the most) significant contribution towards mainstreaming non-traditional pack fabrics, which has resulted in larger interest and market share, and thus the development in recent years of more diverse options in pack fabrics.

Challenge fabrics Ultraweave* is the most interesting pack fabric of the past decade, due to both specs and availability.  100% woven dyneema has been around for almost all of that decade, and used as a halo product by several manufacturers, but maintaining this status has prevented it from being widely available, either as fabric or as a finished product.  Ultraweave, which is 2/3 pure dyneema (in essence) and 1/3 polyester promises to be a functional equivalent.  400D Ultra, for instance, claims 7600 taber cycles** and 200+ psi waterproofing at 4.65 ounces a yard.  VX42, by contrast, is 9.3 ounces a yard, an tests to 1700 cycles, while 1000D Cordura is 9.8 oz/yrd, tests to 4000 cycles, and is (approximately) 3 psi waterproof.  800D ultra is 8.1 oz/yrd, and tests to a staggering 10500 cycles.  VX42 has in the roughly 8 years it’s been widely available been my benchmark for a durable pack fabric, meaning that it is adequate for many years of consistent application in all but the most extreme uses, by which I mean canyoneering and severe scrambling and bushwacking.  Doubling that abrasion resistance while halving the weight is a paradigm altering proposition.

I’ve been working with Superior Wilderness Designs since this spring, testing their new Big Wild load hauler.  Earlier this month I received a proto Big Big Wild, 110 liters, made from 400d Ultraweave with an 800D bottom.  My instructions were to break it, if at all possible.  The first few trips suggested that this would not be easy.  Bushwacking and talus dragging did nothing.  back surfing down cutbanks and rolling a loaded pack down hills left it similarly unscathed.  I went old school on a recent trip and lashed the loaded pack to the front of my packraft, a good reminder that running (and portaging) class IV with such an arrangement is less than ideal.  This did confirm that Ultra is as waterproof as claimed, and reinforced my main interest in D-P fabrics, back in the pre-cargo fly era.  As a side benefit, the past weeks dirt was rinsed clear and the fabric looked brand new.

It was obvious at this point that absent a slot canyon trip, field use was going to take years to significantly stress the fabric.  So I resorted to backyard testing.

We live on a paved road downtown, with steep side streets and alleys that have been left gravel due to how icey they’d be in the winter.  They are not graded often, and have plenty of ruts, grass, small, rocks, big rocks, and potholes.  My first test rig involved clipping the grab handle to the trailer hitch.  The pack, stuffed full of heavy blankets***, flopped sideways easily, which was good for testing the sides and side pockets, but didn’t concentrate forces on the base/front interface, whose fabric transition was my primary interest.  It took three laps, increasing in distance, to make a dent in the fabric, and to refine methods and better control the wear area.  I ended up with cord strung across the open hatchback from the rear roof rack bar, with locking carabiners clipped to side compression straps.  The fourth and final lap, with the pack finally secured as I wanted it, was 7/10ths of a mile.  The total test distance from the four laps was just short of 2 miles.  I made sure to not exceed 10 mph, both for safety****, and to eliminate friction/heat buildup as a source of stress.

The damage report was modest.  The second trial got a golf ball sized elliptical hole on the roll top, unsurprising, given the hard plastic in the stiffener.  This trial also wore halfway through a 3/4″ webbing compression strap where it ran against the buckle.  The final, long trial put a pin sized hole in one bottom corner, and wore notably into the bottom daisy chain, though not to the point of being a structural issue.  The 400D fabric was fuzzed up in many areas, while the 800D was essentially unscathed.  Of greatest interest, the side pockets, which were empty but consistently collected dust and rocks in the first three trials, had no holes or significant abrasions, in spite of the extensive folding caused by the drawcord being cinched.  Aside from patching the one hole, the pack was functionally unscathed.  Consistent with field use, a large amount of the dirt staining washed out when blasted my a hose, leaving the pack at a distance looking essentially new.

In summary, Ultraweave lives up to its specs, and to Challenges’ claims of it being as good or better than anything on the market.  The 400 and 800D are certainly the toughest fabrics for the weight I’ve ever seen, with the 800 being clearly tougher than anything else I’ve used, and the 400D probably being as good if not better than the traditional big guns, 1680D ballistics nylon and 1000D cordura.  The question for consumers will be, is this fabric worth the increased cost?  Rockywoods is currently selling Ultra fabrics as Diamondhide, for 15 dollars a foot.  SWD charges 35 dollars more from a 50 liter Long Haul pack in Ultra, as opposed to more conventional poly face fabric laminate.  This distinctly non-halo upcharge makes that particular option an easy choice.

*Challenge currently has their v3 spec sheet posted on their website, which lists drastically reduced taber numbers.  I have the v8 sheet, from which these numbers are taken.  As discussed here my testing supports the higher figures.

**In my frankly extensive experience abrasion resistance is by far the most important metric in a heavy use pack fabric.  Ultra tear numbers are similarly high, 114/117 lb and 187/161 lb for the 400 and 800.  1000D Cordura is 54/47 (tear, not tensile), for reference, and for me anything about 40 lb is effectively bulletproof.

***To simulate a decent load without any point loading and abrasion.

****I had both kids in the back seat as QC observers of pack and camera position.

Werner Shuna v. Corryvrecken

This past winter I finally got a new paddle.  My almost 10 year old 210cm Shuna is still going strong, with the many chips on the blade edges and loosening of the joints not really making a substantive impact amongst the rapids, but I both wanted something new and shiny, and wanted to have two top drawer paddles for both M and myself to use simultaneously.  It was never really a question to go Werner, as the Shuna has been such an unmitigated delight, but with packrafting having expanded and Werner now making their whole catalogue in 4 piece I had plenty of choices.  After much mulling I decided on a Corryvrecken in 205 cm.

The first decision was that I did not want to get a whitewater paddle.  Werner’s whitewater paddles feel substantially heavier in the hand, and don’t come with the adjustable feather of the touring paddles.  The Shuna has been burly enough for my needs, and I find the adjustable feather invaluable paddling into those inevitable afternoon headwinds, so this was an easy choice.  That said, with the Shuna already in the quiver it made sense to go in a more whitewater specific direction, with a shorter shaft and larger blades.  You can get the Corryvrecken in 200 cm, but I was worried that in a shaft that short I would loose versatility (specifically, not being able to use it comfortably with our wider 2 person packrafts).  I seriously considered getting a fancy carbon paddle, but the performance to dollar ratio seemed off, especially with the standard fiberglass blades being the most durable choice.  That Alpacka stocks the 205 Corryvrecken made the choice easier still, as I could use a discount code.

As promised, the new paddle feels quite distinct from the old.  Tight new joints are welcome.  The shorter length is without question less comfy in the big boats, and in the smaller ones on hours-long mellow paddles.  It is also sharper and faster in whitewater.  The Corry blade is just over 100 square cm larger, a distinction which is very evident.  I’m not yet strong enough to turn the big blade over for hours on flatwater, but the added backbone when bracing and steering, especially in aerated water, has been a huge positive.  Using the longer Shuna for mellower stuff and the shorter Corry in the steeps has worked just as well as you would think.

As a bonus, I can mix and match the blades.  The Corry gets a good bit of its length from the blades, so the Shuna blades on the shorter shaft make for a rather short 198 cm paddle.  The Corry blades on the longer shaft makes for a lengthy 214 cm paddle, which does work nicely for pushing our Explorer 42 fast on moving water.

The fade on the new blades is pretty fun, too.

Finding bargain used gear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential skills: Shoe grommets

These are still my favorite shoes ever, but a whole lot of abrasive desert mud the past few months has revealed a serious design flaw; the webbing lace loop over the instep.  By a month ago, three of the four had cut through.  This is a big deal, as on these relatively floppy shoes that tension holding the heel down is vital for foot stabilization.  Something had to be done.

This isn’t an uncommon problem, as webbing lace loops are lighter, cheaper, and often more zippy looking than metal loops or grommets.  If the shoe in question is designed well, a worn lace loop is worth fixing definitively.  All the things you usually need, save a hammer for the grommet press, is pictured below: a 1/4″ grommet kit from Joanne’s, a sharp and pointy knife, and a lighter.

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The first task is to remove the lace loop entirely.  You’ll want to use and generally enlarge the hole where the loop is sewn into the shoe, and any webbing or bulk left within the shoe will make the grommet less secure.  This is standard bartack removal, but on a small scale.  Cut all the external stitching, slide the blade in between the layers of webbing, get things as loose as possible, then keep sliding the knife in to various spots until everything comes free.  Don’t get impatient and end up with a big ol’ hole in your shoe.

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Once that is done, enlarge and melt the edges of the grommet hole.  Best security will come from exactly enough room for the grommet, no more.  Rest the inside of the shoe and press on the corner of a sturdy workbench, and pound the heck out of the grommet.  All edges should be nice and flat.  I should mention that standard grommets like this won’t work on thicker materials like burly leather boots.  This technique is generally restricted to things in the light hiker or trail runner class.

Then relace and get walking.

Essential Skills: Garment zipper replacement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marin San Quentin tire clearance

It is not really possible to have too much tire clearance on a mountain bike.  Clearance adds versatility, with tires being the fastest and most drastic way to alter the performance of your bike, and especially in the mud, excessive clearance has little downside.  The one significant downside, the demand clearance places on chainstay length and drivetrain compatibility, has been decently addressed by machined chainstay yokes, 1x drivetrains, and wider rear hub spacing.   Sadly, the bike industry is governed by fashion rather than product longevity, with most bikes being designed for the minimum current trends deem acceptable.

Fortunately, there are exceptions.

Plus (read ~3″ wide) tires are a fashion that peaked and rapidly waned.  Tires this fat are a bit much for the manicured trails which have become the industries ideal.  As the San Quentin frame demonstrates, it is very possible to make a bike with plenty of tire clearance, short chainstays (425mm), that also works with the largest chainring you’d ever want to run (I bet you could squeak a 36t in there).  I wouldn’t have purchased the frame without plenty of rumors to this effect, but wanted to put up photos confirming it.  So here they are.

This is a Teraveil Coronado on the stock i29mm rims, set up tubeless and with a good ~week to stretch.  The Coronado is both truly 3″wide, and quite tall, especially on these narrower rims.  As you can see, seatstay and downtube clearance are good, and chainstay clearance is adequate.  It is possible that with such a voluminous tire one might run into trouble with wider rims.

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The San Quentin has truly come alive with these tires.  The stock Flow Snaps grip well, but have a very floppy sidewall, and the lack of both sturdiness and volume made them a big skittish and lacking in support.  I always wanted more, especially on the front, while creeping down steep stuff.  The Coronados, even in the supple casing, are nicely stout, and the tread pattern suits the volume well, gripping well enough and being quite fast.  I did flip the front for better braking traction.

It is also worth following up on my previous difficulties getting the Flow Snaps to go tubeless.  I never fund a sustainable setup, and went back to tubes out of annoyance.  After chasing a few issues with getting the Coronados set up, I can say that both the stock rim strips and tires were the source of my original problems.  The rim strips valve hole was too large to seal well with a Stans valve stem, and the Flow Snap sidewalls never stopped leaking a bit of sealant.  An unfortunate spec shortcut that could be frustrating for someone buying the base model San Quentin as their first mountain bike.

Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody

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

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

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

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

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

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

Windshirt dry times mini-study

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

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

windshirt

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

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

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

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