Sierra Designs Tensegrity 2 Elite review

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The Tensegrity 2 Elite is an exceptional tent, in many ways.  Unfortunately the most significant of those ways is not easy to convey in either words or pictures, and because of this, the unusual design, and the high price I worry that an excellent tent may not be long on the market.

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We purchased (at an industry discount) the Tensegrity specifically as a family backpacking tent; we wanted the lightest and most compact package which would provide sleeping room for two adults plus an infant/toddler, as well as enough elbow room for diaper changes and the other acrobatics that are part of camping with a little kid.  Full bug protection, full floor, and good ventilation were mandatory, while serious storm resistance was not.  I was intrigued by the unconventional design, and beyond wanting to see one first hand, was convinced it would meet our needs.

It has. The most exceptional thing about the Tensegrity is, by far, how much livable space it packs into a small footprint.  88 by 50 inches does not tell the story.  First, the head end gets wider towards the top, and the rainfly/tarp overhangs still further outside. Second, the foot pole is positioned far back, making the rear wall vertical.  At 5’11” I have excess room for gear at my head and no chance of my sleeping bag hitting the rear wall or ceiling.  Tall folks will do well in the Tensegrity, even sleeping on thick air matts.  Changing diapers is comfortably accomplished, with all our gear inside, and there is plenty of room for M to breastfeed while I organize gear or do other small camp tasks.  We’ve had three adults inside, the shortest of whom was 5’8″, along with the kiddo and there was plenty of room for hanging around away from the bugs.  I’ve tried, and failed, to take a photo which accurately conveys how comfy it is to be inside the Tensegrity.  It so far outstrips the competition in this regard that the point simply cannot be overemphasized.

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The Tensegrity is unapologetically built for three season conditions, and prioritizes space and ventilation over weatherproofing.  No other singlewall, integrated tarp-tent has as much venting.  The front and rear walls are mesh with no fabric backing, and while both are well shaded from any conceivable level of rain splash, there is by design no way to keep the wind out.  The sides, which zip fully down and open, can be closed totally by a waterproof panel, or be fully open for venting.  That one can get so much airflow, and full bug protection, while being totally protected from ordinary sorts of rain is a very pragmatic design feature.  These are the sorts of conditions most folks in most places see most often.

That said, the Tensegrity is a single wall tent, and therefore the roof will build condensation faster on clear nights, as it lacks the insulated barrier of a double wall.  It’s tempting to compare the ~3 pound weight to the similar weight of a double wall tent like the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 and assume the later would do better when it comes to condensation management.  In my experience this is not the case, whatever advantage the Copper Spur might gain by having a double wall is given back by having less air flow and less interior air volume for occupants to expire into.  It’s worth revisiting the first point; while on paper the Copper Spur is taller, wider at the head and a bit longer than the Tensegrity, in practice the Tensegrity feels much, much bigger.  The most comparable Tarptent product, the Rainshadow 2, has sloped walls and must thus be over six feet wide to provide similar (less, really) interior space.

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Pitching the Tensegrity is not inherently difficult, unlike some of the asymmetrical tarptents which have become popular, but the setup process does not generalize well from any other tent I’ve used, and one does need to follow the instructions for optimal results.  Pole length for the grommet used is crucial, for example.  Compare the top photo, which is an ideal pitch with vertical tension along the door, with the second photo, where somewhat paradoxically too long poles prevent proper vertical tension, and thus slacken the pitch overall.  A lot of folks online get this wrong, and end up using the optional side guylines in addition to the front awning to tension the shelter.  These lines exist so that the awning can be rolled up in fair weather, and are sewn such that when you try to use them in concert with the awning they don’t add anything of substance.  The whole point the Tensegrity is that one line of continuous tension goes from the rear stake along the edges and down to the outer edges of the front awning, which in turn tensions the trekking poles and holds the shelter up.  Four additional stakes are recommended at the corners of the interior, but these don’t add much in terms of structural support.  And for fuck sake, don’t prop the pole ends on the ground, tension, and call it good.  Sierra Designs added the grommets for a reason, and the result is far superior with them in use.

This is the most substantive weakness of the Tensegrity, that these three stakes, and especially the back stake, get put under quite a bit of force.  You start the pitch from the back, and it is worth taking time to make sure that one stake is very secure.  In loose soils, equalizing two stakes to the one lineloc is probably a good idea.  Other than this, the Tensegrity performs very well within it’s inherent limitations.  It isn’t a tent for significant snow loads, and while the large, unsupported stretches of fabric do move a fair bit in moderate winds, the tent isn’t loud or unstable, and this movement seems to be part and parcel of the design.  Sierra Designs has wind tunnel testing videos on the product page which show wind resistance I consider quite adequate for three season performance.  There are lighter shelters with vastly greater wind shedding ability, but none of them provide anything close to the same amount of liveable space and ventilation.

It is worth noting that while the end to end length, and width of the front awning, are considerable the flexibility of the awnings angle makes it easy to slip the Tensegrity into some very small spaces.  In Utah this spring an ideal spot at the end of a long day had a patch of flat sand only a few feet longer than the interior.  I anchored the awning up and away a bit by wedging pebbles into cracks in the sandstone ledges and tying the guylines to them.  A bit of creativity goes a long way here, though that does add time to the pitch.

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Another significant consideration with the Elite (all silnylon) model is seam sealing, which due to the complexity of the design is a substantial undertaking.  Seams on the fly, floor, and sides all need to be sealed, and if you’re doing this in a garage during the dead of winter as I was in January at least two separate sessions (to allow the sealant to dry, before you repitch the shelter at a different angle) will be necessary.  Not what I would call difficult, but if a couple hour investment post-purchase is off putting the addition weight and poorer longevity of the PU coated (and thus taped) FL model might be indicated.

Besides vast amounts of livable space, the Tensegrity distinguishes itself from the competition (Big Agnes and Tarptent being the most obvious) by being built to noticeably higher standard.  Stitching and finish are exceptionally neat, and the details both little (linelocs with correct amount of nice cord installed, thick coated webbing on the corner tieouts) and big (#5 zippers, straight, no curved paths on the main doors) are done to perfection.  My only niggles are two; replace the two part guy lines on the awning corners with one single long piece for faster use, and make the triangle of fabric where the door zips come together stiffer so it doesn’t snag.  Otherwise Sierra Designs has hit all buttons, functional and fanciful, in a way the competition (whom I’ve slept in but never felt inclined to purchase precisely because they don’t do these things) never has.  Personally, I hope the Tensegrity does well, as this would be evidence of function winning out over hype.

Osprey Poco AG review

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The Osprey Poco AG is a well executed kid carrier for day hiking and perhaps backpacking. It carries the kid exceptionally securely and comfortably, but has serious limitations for women or the long torso’d.

For detail shots of the pack, and my initial thoughts when we bought it, see here.

All photos by M.

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We’ve used the hell out of the Poco AG in the past six months.  As hikers and backpackers before anything, a good kid carrying backpack is essential, and since Little Bear hit six months and could hold himself upright well enough to ride in a pack the Poco has been our most used backpack.

The strength of the Poco is without question the child harness, and the pack structure which accommodates and protects it.  The seat is wide, padded just enough, and the harness is secure.  The height adjustment is quick and intuitive.  The padded drool pad, removable for washing, serves as a great pillow for the inevitable and frequent trail naps.  The framing which holds the kid compartment open is robust, enough that it provides a not inconsiderable amount of armoring if the adult slips on a sidehill.  (Deuter carriers are notably deficient in this regard, which is a largely academic issue for folks who don’t hike off trail.) The kickstand, deployed in the top photo, is convenient and can be extended or retracted by the wearer, with the pack worn.

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The integral, retractable sun shade is another excellent and often used feature.  We’ve yet to convince LB to wear a hat for more than one minute, and hoods are an imperfect solution, so this has been used frequently.  It also, as shown, works well for head support while napping.  The lack of a full length sleeves for the shade to go into when not is use has been a consistent annoyance.  Without this nothing separates it from stuff in the lower cargo pocket, and when that pocket is close to full snagging is almost inevitable.

The aftermarket rain cover, which cinches around the sun shade, isn’t something we’ve used often.  It is effective, and fairly easy to put on, but could be just a hair longer to better cover LB’s feet.

Overall there’s not much Osprey could do better to keep a kid secure and happy in the Poco.

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The adult side of the Poco, by contrast, has a few systemic issues, which may or may not be likely addressed in the near future.  The first is frame height.  The Poco comes in one size, and while it adjusts easily to fit shorter torso lengths, as can be seen above at 21″ I am right at the top end of sizing, and only just get shoulder lift.  By the time most infants are big enough to ride in a pack the kid-pack combined weight will be close to 20 pounds, and our current LB+pack weight of 29 is I would guess about average in terms of the useable window.  Osprey rates the Poco to nearly 50 pounds, and therefore ought to build it to carry that load, which in its squirms and lurches to grab the passing scenery feels a lot heavier than the same amount of gear tightly compressed.

With 30 pounds I could see rating the Poco for a 21″ torso.  At 50, I can’t see it being rated for anything more than 18″.  It’d be ideal if Osprey made two sizes, though presumably on a low margin, low numbers item that is financially unattractive.  It’s worth repeating (from the February post) that given the complexity of the design, 250 dollars for the Poco is a bargain.

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I’ve been impressed by the Poco’s hipbelt.  The stripped down version of the AG suspension functions like a full-wrap belt, with only a tiny amount of stretch which after a few hours requires periodic recinching.  The problem is in the stiff foam wings which provide tension and structure for the mesh which contacts the user.  As a normal, skinny-ish male with little hip curve the foam wings don’t touch me at all, as intended.  M on the other hand is a woman with around average hip curve, and the wings provide a nasty and unfixable pressure point on the bottom edge.  Every woman who I’ve spoken with about the Poco AG reports a similar issue, while almost all men like the belt just fine.

Overall, a kid carrier needs to be built with a virtually expedition grade suspension, and while the frame of the Poco is super stiff, the harness comes up short.  Greater frame height, and more adaptable belt, and cusher shoulder straps are all needed.

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Lastly, I’d love to see Osprey seriously tackle the problem of how to build a kid carrier with serious, backpackable cargo capacity.  2500 cubic inches would do nicely.  My sandwich rig with the Seek Outside Revolution gets the job done, but if the suspension were beefed up the Poco could easily carry the load itself, with some wing pockets, and slightly expanded back pocketing as well.  A niche product for sure, but one can dream.  If anything over the past six months we’ve learned that getting prepped for a backpacking trip with infant is harder than the trip itself; Osprey would do the world a favor by making the packing part a bit simpler.

Tidbits from Outdoor Retailer

Earlier this week we (M, Little Bear, and I) had the chance to head down to SLC and visit the Outdoor Retailer show as guests of Seek Outside.  It was a good time, and something I’ve wanted to see for quite a while.  As an introvert who is determined to embrace his aversion to strangers I expected to hate the whole experience on a broad level, but really had nothing but fun.  Outdoor stuff is something I’ve cared about and studied my whole life, and in that respect OR was like going from high school to undergrad and suddenly being immersed in interesting classes for the first time ever.  The following are highlights from 5 or so hours of wandering the floor with Luke Fowler from Seek Outside.

MTI’s new Vibe PFD is the item I’m most excited to get in the field.  It’s a pullover with a modest array of features and a very soft, pliant foam which is very well tailored.  Most PFDs use panels of much stiffer foam, which packs poorly, is a worse pillow, and in a packraft often interferes with either the spraydeck, your chin, or both.  It stuck to my torso better than anything I’ve ever tried, yet has 15 1/2 pounds of flotation.  The front pocket has a zippered mesh pocket with a pass-through handwarmer behind.  The yellow band pictured above is quick-release leash tether for a SUP, and points towards how a similar PFD could be built into a truly lightweight rescue vest for backcountry whitewater.

The Vibe will retail for $95 and be available in Feb-March of 2017.

Rab is expanding their use of Polartec Alpha, and for the me the most interesting option is the revamped Strata.  It features 120 grams/meter of the new Alpha, which doesn’t require a liner and resembled a very loose fleece.  The new Strata is still shelled by uncalendered Pertex Microlight, which is a bit more wind resistant and quite a bit tougher than the shell on the Patagonia Nano Air, and features stretch gussets in the cuffs with a nicely integrated thumb loop.  I’ve found the original Strata great for winter and spring, especially ski touring, and a warmer version with improved features will be even better.

The Aire Bakraft packraft/IK hydrid looses the goofy seat/inflation bag/drybag/potato in favor of a normal backrest, and lash points both fore and aft.  It remains behind the curve insofar as easily attaching lots of overnight gear goes, but the thigh straps and self-bailing floor have established themselves as very solid.  Aire will also have an XL version of the Bakraft (right), which will cost around $2000.

Klymit’s Static V Duo is 47 inches wide, a pragmatic option for couples, and families with a small kid.  Most interestingly, the valves have been revamped to allow the stuffsack to act as an inflation bag, a welcome feature.

Adidas’ Terrex Agravic has the kind of upper reinforcements and tread pattern that might sway me away from LaSportiva.  It seemed to have a nice blend of low drop and enough, but not too much, stiffness.

Black Diamond’s Carbon Helio ski pole is molded all in one go; only the tip and strap are separate pieces.  It is very light, and exceptionally stiff, perhaps moreso than any other pole I’ve hefted.  One of those rare pieces of gear with serious and immediate wow factor, which it should given the 300 dollar price tag.

 

Little Bear approves of the new BD kids harness, helmet, and chalk bag.  The First Light hoody (in blue) is BD’s entry into the “active insulation” market, with a very light and airy nylon softshell face fabric which is similar but not the same as the Alpine Start windshirt.  The Alpine Start appears unchanged, save for new colors.

Altra’s FKT shoes, available for both men and women, promises to shake their reputation of combining a great fit and midsole with weak uppers and poor rubber.  The tread is aggressive, the rubber seems softer than their past stuff, and the upper has myriad TPU reinforcements.  At 17mm (or is it 19mm) tall the FKT is comparable to the older Superior.

Astral is expanding their footwear line to have a few more hiking-specific models, which look to have good tread patterns and decent uppers.  Astral has gotten mixed reviews when it comes to build quality, so I’m taking a wait and see approach with their new models.

The flagship of Sierra Designs new Skurka Series (no pressure) is the Flex Capacitor pack, which compresses neatly from a generous 60 to 40 liters using a top to bottom gusset and four compression straps.  Neatly done, but a lot of material and clutter needed to achieve it.  The real noteworthy thing is the overall effect of the wishbone frame (made from alu tent tubing), aggressive lumbar bad, and torso pads.  It certainly seems like SD has managed to build a traditional lumbar pad design with a belt-frame connection robust enough for 50+ pound loads, in a sub 3 pound package, and good torso mobility.  At around $200 pricing will be very attractive.  If you don’t want to spend $350 on a Seek Outside Divide, or strongly prefer to lumbar pad with emphatic pressure, this will be a good option.

The Exped Lightning, about to get dethroned as best budget lightweight load hauler by the Flex Capacitor, gets a new hipbelt and optional mesh accessory pocket.  The rest of the pack appears unchanged.

Osprey had an all-mesh demo pack, with was neat, and the new Aether AG series gets some nicely sized hipbelt pockets with a stiffener sewn into the interior binding (bright orange), which makes one-handed opening and closing easy.

Osprey also has a new entry into the ultrarunning vest category, with more refined pocketing and compression than the smaller Rev packs.

For me the most interesting thing at Patagonia was the continued, robust infant and kid clothing.  The new Micro D hoody, and new colors of Baggies Summit pants, represent two very useful items Little Bear has lived in this spring and summer.  The pants in particular are high quality; double knees for crawling, and a quick drying yet bug proof fabric.  I want an adult-sized technical-fit hoody in the Micro D fabric for myself.

BD’s Blitz packs are clean alpine climbing packs, with a closure that recalls the Patagonia Ascentionist series, but reversed.  The small pocket seems like it should be more useful when the pack is totally full.

Arcteryx does DriDucks (kidding), aka permanent beading technology.  If this DWR-less way to do WPB raingear proves durable and functional it will be a major game changer.

Outdoor Research had a truly massive range of hats, which were displayed front and center in their booth.  I wonder how much of their business is accessories?  Standouts are the excellent, vented bug hats, and the many multicam hats and visors which are now 100% nylon, rather than the cotton blends of past generations.

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This is the Kokopelli Hornet Lite, their deckless boat with 70D tube fabric and 210D floor (the same stuff used in the tubes of their mainline boats).  The Hornet is adult sized, and while I’m sure it could be rolled much smaller than the above the weight and bulk premium all their models have over Alpackas gives me pause.  They do have factory thigh strap lash points which are well positioned, and are working on extension tubes which will allow their boats to be tempered on the go.  Overall it seems good for Alpacka to have real competition, but Kokopelli doesn’t seem as mature with their designs.

In non-photographed news several other companies seem be keeping with the low-drop trend, though many of them are fitness or crossfit rather than trail running companies.  Hopefully the maximalist trend runs out sooner rather than later and sanity returns to the off-pavement shoe world.

Cilogear had a 20 liter worksack made from a cuben/TPU laminate, which the owner preferred I not photograph.  Oddly, the coating side was out, which seems a recipe for delamination.

Otherwise, there were many, many companies making inroads of one sort or another into the hipster/glamping/softcore outdoor market.  Impractically featured, very expensive 25 liter daypacks were a popular item, often in vaguely ethnocentric or colonialist prints.  Though car camping remains an oxymoron, I do like that the outdoor world remains a big tent which embraces and equips many levels of engagement with the wild.  I just hope all these companies make function, in addition to aesthetically appealing, products.  Nothing puts people off camping like a cold sleeping bag and leaky tent.  The new dome tent Sierra Designs had in their booth, touted as the highest quality tent available for 200 dollars, is the sort of thing I’d like to see more of.

Overall, I’m looking forward to going back in the future, to be able to spend more time, and be more systematic.

Seek Outside Unaweep Divide review

Disclaimer: no way around it, I’m biased as hell about this pack.  Seek Outside gave it to me for free, and it is based in small part on feedback I gave on previous Seek Outside packs.  Beyond that, I like the folks at Seek Outside a lot, and they’re always a pleasure to talk to.  That said, I know they wouldn’t want me to hold back when discussing their work, so I’ve done my best to give all aspects equal weight.

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I think the Seek Outside Unaweep Divide 4500 (hereafter, the Divide) is a damn good pack.  For a lot of people, and for a lot of uses, I think it is one of the very best packs money can buy.  It is also one of the best values to be had in the pack world, when one takes weight to function into account, and especially if one cares to enter the fact that it is sewn in Colorado into the equation.  I have a number of small complaints concerning the Divide, but overall it is a nearly mature product.  When a fully dialed feature set is added to the existing stellar suspension, the Divide will be a remarkable backpack.

I discussed the dimensions and features of the Divide here, so if necessary peruse that before proceeding, as familiarity will be assumed.

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The shockcord cinch on the side pockets has been one of my favorite features.  It is dead easy to loosen a pocket, get something out of it, put it back, and cinch it down, all with one hand while walking.  The pockets can be cinched very tight to provide security while bushwacking.  They do need to be a bit bigger, and a bit taller on the non-user side.  When the main bag is really stuffed full of hard objects (like a rolled up packraft), fitting a standard 1 liter nalgene is a bit harder than it ought to be.  But overall, A grade on these.

Historically I haven’t been a huge fan of mesh pockets, but the Divide one isn’t bad at all.  it’s big enough for plenty of clothing, a wet mid, or even a pair of crampons.  The shock cord cinch closes it securely.  I go back and forth on this feature, on the one hand I want it taller, broader, or both, or even replaced with a big bellowed zip pocket.  On the other it works fine as is, and much of the time I could do without it at all.  The mesh has stood up to abuse very well, including being hauled up a few chimneys with crampons inside.  No real complaints.

The lash straps below the mesh pocket I also have mixed feelings about.  It’s not really a good place to put much, besides a foam sleeping pad, and I can’t imagine anyone actually carries a bear can there.  On the other hand they are removable, potentially handy, and extending the mesh pocket longer would be a likely invitation to overstuffing.  My one sustained quarrel is with the metal bachelor buckles, which require tension to stay put when not in use.  I’ve replaced these with Kuiu hook/carabiner buckles that stay hooked when loose, but can be detached when tying on something bulky.

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The bachelor buckles on the compression straps I like, but they need a small modification to work ideally.  They great because they detach like a quick release, while being unbreakable and being much shorter.  This last is important because it gives the compression straps more travel, and allows the bottom of the pack to be pinched off completely when hauling meat while hunting.  The downside is that they unhook when loose, which can be a pain.  The solution, seen above, is to sew a slightly greater than 1/2″ loop into which the buckle can hook.  It will still come loose, but only with enough effort that it is never accidental.

The harness, hipbelt, and frame are the same Seek Outside ones I’ve been raving about for years, and the last few months of trips have only reinforced my enthusiasm.  It is an external frame, insofar as the frame is outside the bag, and in that the frame doesn’t give or flex under load, and can thus support whatever your muscles and will can.  At the same time, the frame flexs with the body when necessary, and is wide enough that the load wraps around your hips, and is uncannily stable.  In most places there’s only a single layer of fabric between your back and the pack contents, the result being that the Divide is below 20 pounds second only to frameless pack when it comes to dynamic stability, and at 25 pounds and above is the most stable, body hugging pack I’ve ever used.  It is, to put it mildly, counterintuitive that the same pack which can haul out a deer in one load can also stick to you while downclimbing 4th class choss, but the Divide does exactly that.

I do dislike the way the load lifter and top strap buckles are sewn into the same bit of webbing, with some slack between them and the frame.  This is intended to introduce some give into the unyielding frame, which makes sense, but on the rare occasion you need to tighten the hell out of the both the top strap and load lifters the result is an irksome tug of war.  I cut and resewed the load lifters to remove this source of conflict.

Having a 21″ torso, I’ve been running my pack with 2″ extensions cut down to 1.25″, which gives me just a bit of additional lift for heavy loads.  25.25″ isn’t as good as the full 28″ of my Revolution frame when it comes to straight hauling, but it’s a good compromise that ensures I never have to fiddle or adjust anything, no matter when the trip.  At this height the frame is still tucked up against the bag quite seamlessly.  I recommend anyone with a torso of 19″ or greater order 2″ extensions with their Divide so they can experiment.

Other details and complaints are minor.  The X42 fabric is tough as, and the olive a nice low profile color I like (though it sucks in photos).  The lack of a white interior scrim makes it a dark hole of a pack, and finding stuff at the bottom can be a chore.

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The tapered packbag is one of the more inobvious strong points of the Divide.  Volume increases exponentially as you fill it further, which means that a bag barely filled to the top of the frame (top photo) is a much smaller one than the same bag stuffed full.  In short, the Divide accommodates both a full load and a partial load quite well, with minimal sag and flap.  The tapered bottom panel, which slants both in and back, does a fantastic job of sliding off ledges and snow, and adds to the climbing prowess.  I do wish the bag were just a hair (2-3″) taller to provide more overload room, and that the rolltop stiffener was stiffer.  I prefer to clip the rolltop to itself, which is faster and cleaner then using the side straps (which I remove).  A stiffer closure would make it easier to get a good seal when the bag is close to max volume.

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The Divide isn’t a sexy pack, unless your definition is centered around spare lines which cede nothing to anything but function.  But it has that in spades, which makes it equally suited to backpackers of all stripes, hunters who prioritize weight, and semi-technical mountaineers and canyoneers who need both load carrying and agility in the same package.  All the bad things I can say about it are pretty minor, and for personal trips this spring I’ve used nothing else, which I suppose is all the endorsement I need to give.  Because of its spare elegance and above all versatility, it is probably my favorite pack, ever, or at least thus far.

2015 Alpacka Yukon Yak review

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A year ago exactly I had a very good week; at the beginning of it I won a new raft at the Packraft Roundup, at the end of it Little Bear was born.  After a year of intermittent use I’ve finally gotten a good enough grasp of the new boat to say something meaningful about it.

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My 2015 Yukon Yak has a cargo fly and whitewater deck.  Before I ever put it in the water I glued in points for thigh straps, and rear attachments for skis.  I use a length of 5/8″ polypro webbing for a rear grab handle.  Before I go further, I should say that the dual loop ski lash points are the way to go, as they totally eliminate flop.  I’d also like to see Alpacka make thigh strap lash points a factory option.  Basic straps are an almost mandatory mod for whitewater, even the moderate whitewater I paddle, and while gluing these in yourself isn’t complicated (and is good repair practice) it does take time as well as expensive and nasty smelling glue.

My perspective on packrafting is that I do it as a wilderness activity, usually solo, and usually as a means to the end of a multiday traverse.  With time out limited by work and kiddo, I rarely choose to do a day packrafting trip, and it has been years since I took my packraft on a car-shuttled, “sidecountry” float.  I don’t have particularly developed whitewater skills, and due to the context I usually boat in I maintain a large safety buffer on moving water. All of this heavily influences what I want from a packraft.

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The 2015 Yak is heavier, and more significantly bulkier, than my 2010 Yak, and than I would prefer it to be.  The cargo zipper, extra material involved in the longer boat, and tubing which builds the combing of the whitewater deck all take up a lot of space.  More boat means a larger pack, which is heavier, gets hung up more easily, and so forth.  The advance of packraft performance has a substantial cost associated with it, something which is too infrequently highlighted.

That said, the performance improvements of the 2015 boat over the 2010 boat are enormous, and they apply in almost all circumstances.  It is hard to say they’re not worth the added weight, bulk, and indeed cost.

The longer boat is much faster than the old boat, both in a straight line and when accelerating.  Flatwater paddling and whitewater maneuvering are both massively improved.  The long stern vastly increases stability and hole-punching ability.  I saw all of these first hand, the flatwater speed was obvious in the 2012 Wilderness Classic when Luc Mehl and Josh Mumm easily pulled away from me on the lower Tasnuna, and the value of the long stern was plain when Spencer had a much easier time with the bucking waves of the North Fork of the Blackfoot two years ago.  Having these advantages on my side has been very welcome, and it would have been worth it a few years ago to sell my old boat and pay the difference to upgrade.

The whitewater deck is similarly functional, with reservations.  It’s a lot drier, and a lot warmer, than the cruiser deck.  The added warmth alone justifies the irritation associated with packing the pipes.  It was also nice to see that the deck is seam taped, which was my major complaint about the old deck.  Rigging the whitewater deck takes more time, and getting the skirt around the combing can be a pain with cold fingers, and the skirt does leak a bit and pool water occasionally, but overall it just plain works.

The cargo fly was a greater subject of my skepticism, but I have mostly been converted.  No question, arriving at the takeout with your pack not soaked is very nice, especially on a cold day.  It saves weight too.  Having the weight low and centered improves maneuverability in whitewater, and makes room for skis or a bike.  It is important, especially in more difficult whitewater or if you’ll be doing any portaging at all, to secure the cargo within the tubes so it can’t flop around.  The buckles on the Alpacka dry bags are well thought out in this respect, and with the Seek Outside Divide the bachelor buckles can be hooked to the webbing loops inside the boat.

On the other hand, the zipper does introduce a rather massive point of failure, and in spite of careful and proactive care I’m not at all convinced it won’t wear out well before other parts of the boat.  Whether that happens at all close to the time I’ll want to upgrade, I cannot say.  My zipper did develop a pinhole leak, which was easily fixed, but does not necessarily inspire confidence.

Rather then repeat my request for a ~4.5 pound all up decked boat for light wilderness stuff, I’ll thank Alpacka for making such a capable product.  It was almost startling a few days ago just how much easier the 2015 Yak made the more technical rapids.  That so much performance can be had out of such a light and small package is quite amazing, and while the packraft continues to mature as a product we users should not allow ourselves to forget how revolutionary (for reals) the original implementation of a durable, packable one person boat really, really was.

The BD Hot Forge Hoody is awesome

I’m highlighting this medium-light down jacket both because it provides a great example of how to do such a thing well, and because persistent shoppers can still find it well under 200 dollars in certain sizes and colors, which is a bargain.

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Black Diamond declines to specific the amount of fill in the Hot Forge hoody, which is a shame.  Fill weight is not a definitive statement of comparative warmth, and chasing ones tail over subtle variation in clo is a poor use of energy, but more information is usually better and almost anything to help dispel the voodoo behind “how warm is my jacket” is welcome.  The Hot Forge is a pound in men’s medium, which puts it on the very upper edge of lightweight.  Thankfully it is quite warm, warm enough to easily distinguish it from the many 10-12 ouncers.  As will be discussed the Hot Forge spends weight well on features, but that is only justifiable because the warmth/weight is very good.

The Hot Forge also distinguishes itself by having a full compliment of alpine-style features, many of which are usually only found on much warmer coats.  I own and have owned such coats, and don’t find myself using them often.  For one, it just doesn’t get that cold very often.  For another, I’ve found that two insulating layers provides more versatility and therefore functional warmth than one really big jacket.  That said, a big hood which cinches down well over many layers (up to and including a helmet) is nice when the storm is in full effect, which can happen in mid-summer during a windy evening.  As pictured above, the Hot Forge has a hood which is plenty big, and cinches thoroughly via two side cords, and one back of the hood cord.  It is not perfectly done; the placement of the cords create an odd runnel which in a rain coat would be unacceptable, and I still an baffled by cinch cords whose ends terminate inside the hood.  It has always seemed to me that the cinching tight of a hood is most desired precisely when unzipping to find the damn cord ends is least convenient.  Anyone with an answer to this, do let me know.

The other uncommon feature of the Hot Forge is a pair of internal drop pockets, for the storage of damp gloves and other oddments.  The drying function and general convenience these provide I’ve always found invaluable, especially while skiing, and it’s especially welcome to find them on a lighter jacket.  BD did these particularly well, by integrating the sleeve of the hand pocket into the back (user side) of the drop pockets.  Minimal extra fabric, and maximal exposure to body heat for the pocket contents.

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Other niceties include a smooth #5 main zipper, chest pocket insulated on both sides, exceptionally long arms and torso, and slick stretch fabric cuffs, which are both secure and low-fuss.  Overall, the detailing and finish is what one would expect from a piece which retails for 350 dollars.  BD hasn’t been in the clothing game long, and they still struggle with inconsistent sizing and are hit or miss on certain details (e.g. hoods), but the quality of their materials and build is as good or better than any outdoor clothing you can buy, anywhere.

Lastly, the Hot Forge is insulated with Primaloft Gold, a down/synthetic blend.  I was cynical about this technology when it first appeared, assuming it was largely a way to use less down and thus save money while keeping prices static as the cost of down climbed.  Initial use of the Hot Forge suggests the blend is not just hype.  My issue with down has always been the extent to which it struggles with internal moisture.  Put a down coat on over a few sweaty layers, and watch it wilt.  My limited experience with DWR down has been that the treatment delays this saturation, but does not prevent it, nor does much to accelerate dry time.  The Primaloft Gold seems to resist saturation to a noticeably greater extent than straight treated down, and if it continues to perform like this I will be very, very pleased.

Historically my backcountry trips don’t involve much stationary time outside my sleeping bag, which has made in-camp insulation a low priority.  With the kid, this is going to change significantly, which along with the desire for a warmer and still light layer for glassing (while hunting) drove the purchase of the Hot Forge.  Thus far, it does exactly what I want it to do.

How to aquaseal your trail shoes

Adding aquaseal to one’s trail shoes should be standard practice to maximize useful life, otherwise known as trying to keep the upper hole-free until the tread is worn down to nothing.  If you walk in rough terrain, and especially if you get your shoes wet frequently, this is not always easy to accomplish.  Depending on shoe material and construction, aquaseal may help a little or it may help a great deal.

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Pictured here is all you need: new shoes, old shoes, and aquaseal.  Strictly speaking you only need new shoes (but as will be discussed old ones are handy as a guide), and you can use seam grip rather than aquaseal.  I’ve heard tell, and believe, that seam grip is aquaseal diluted, and as the later is usually the same cost or cheaper I always purchase it.

Old shoes are useful because they provide a good guide for which areas to reinforce.  This varies from both shoe to shoe, and from user to user, depending on how you walk.  If you’re on a new model, or have never before given your shoes the treatment, you can’t go wrong with a coating on either side of the metatarsals (what I do below), along with all lower stitching in the front part of the shoe.  If your shoes have a linear, totally exposed midsole (like the old X Country) it might be prone to delamination, and a bead of aquaseal along the midsole/upper connection is a good idea.

Thankfully the Bushidos are one of the more durable trail shoes I’ve used.  There is minimal area to reinforce, which along with the nice faux-leather and TPU reinforcement patches (which hold aquaseal well) results in a 90 second job.

Other shoes will need more time, and more care.  Shoes with large areas of thinish mesh beg for lots of aquaseal, but excessive thickness will create a rough patch inside that can eat feet.  I ruined a pair of New Balance MT100s this way.  Other shoes, like the Altra Lone Peaks, have such weak mesh that wherever the aquaseal ends will provide the failure point, and short of coating the entire upper a little extra life without gravel-swallowing holes is all you can hope for.

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There is a not inconsiderable extent to which using trail shoes for rugged hiking and backpacking is not ethical; it’s a damn good way to add lots of shoes to landfills.  Until a light, low-topped, resoleable option becomes available, I find it an environmental and economic imperative to try to make the things last as long as possible.

If my new Bushidos can persist as long as the old ones, who have reached the end of useful tread and upper right at the same time (with an aquaseal treatment to help out), I’ll be happy.