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.

Closure options for large packs

A good, simple, light closure for a big (top circumference in excess of 40 inches) pack is somewhat difficult to do well.  Volume in a big pack can fluctuate significantly, and pack height above the frame needs to be controlled so it does not go bobble-headed and flop around.  Additionally, weatherproofing and easy access for accessories (which can be easily lost in a large main bag, are concerns, as is occasionally strapping bulky things up top.  Lastly, weight reduction is important for big packs, which are meant to carry big loads where ounce counting is paradoxically most relevant.  As a matter of style and design integrity, I try to keep even the largest packs below 4 pounds.

Three classic options (pictured left to right) are a rolltop, drawcord with lid, and drawcord with cinch straps.  Rolltops are the simplest option, and provide easy volume reduction and compression, with good weatherproofing.  Their disadvantage is that they use more fabric for the same capacity, relative to a drawcord, and without a lid usually don’t provide additional organization.  Should one go with a rolltop which clips to cinch straps, rather than to itself, those straps add weight and complexity, and must be located such that they are effective with loads of various heights.  Some companies do rolltops poorly by substituting velcro or snaps a properly stiff reinforcement, which is crucial for keeping the rolltop rolled when the pack is particularly full.  I put 1/16″ HDPE sheet in at least one side of a rolltop when I build one, and do not find this to be overkill.

Drawcords are the more classic pack closure, provide the best volume/weight arrangement, provide the best durability,work well with oversized loads, and in smaller packs I find them to almost always be the less fiddly option.  In larger packs this is not the case, mainly due to the need to control height and volume.  Lids do this well enough, though they require 4 straps, need to shaped well, and keeping them from being floppy when the pack is near empty is difficult.  The functionality of lids is great, but I just don’t like the added complexity and weight, and never feel the need for the more extensive pocketing which tends to go along with them.

This leaves cinch straps to keep the drawcord in check, and while this can be both functional and light, I’ve never had it work as well as I wanted.  A single strap, a y strap, and dual straps in a variety of configurations; all created ears of the pack fabric and somewhat even compression.  Plus, I do like at least a small top pocket to keep maps and snacks separate from the bulky main load.

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My current experiment in this area is with a rolltop which clips to itself, coupled with the ability to run dual straps over the top (think sleeping pad or antlers) and a slash pocket right above the top of the frame.  The pocket zipper is over 10 inches long, and a fat #10 vislon.  To maintain the full opening on this pack, which I’ve found invaluable, the bit above the vertical zipper closes with velcro.  It’s the best thing I could think of that would be pliable enough to roll tightly.  Pictured above is the latest version of this pack and this pack.  Revisions over the 2015 version include mouting to the Seek Outside Revolution frame, which vastly simplified construction and increased comfort with odd loads, as well as a #10 coil for the vertical zipper, and slightly fatter circumferences (49 top, 45 bottom, 40 tall).  I also went to a non-floating, segmented compression scheme which provides tons of volume control, as well as the ability to lash stuff on and compress the pack bag, simultaneously yet separately.  I did not change the use of X50 fabric, which is ideal for hard use, nor the essential idea of having an enormous bag into which one can fit just about anything.  This bag is big enough for a five day whitewater packrafting trip, with PFD, drysuit, helmet, and the usual essentials all inside.

This fall I’ll report back.

BD Alpine Carbon Cork 2013 v. 2016

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The Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork trekking poles have been the rugged hiking pole of reference for quite some time.  They are lightish (~8 oz per pole), stiff, very durable, and quite compact.  They are what I recommend to those who prefer long-term investments, hike off trail, are hard on gear, or value having one set of poles for almost everything.  They even come with snow baskets, though maxing at 130cm they’re generally not long enough for skiing.

The older version (circa 2013, top) was already a good pole.  The 2016 version (bottom) has a few changes which in my book are significant improvements.

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Most prominently, BD has gone away from the metal Flicklock Pro they introduced several years ago, and back to a plastic version which is almost identical to the original Flicklock as it was introduced in the early 00s.  The Pro certainly had extra clamping force, but I don’t think that provided any practical advantage, and the added size and mechanical complexity was a downside.  I broke one years ago, and other folks report them being pried open in thick brush.  The original Flicklock has two plastic pieces and one bolt; a design not really in need of improvement.  Why twistlocks still exist in the face of it makes no sense.

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The grip has also changed, the new version being quite a bit slimmed down and less ergonomic, with a flatter rubber end cap.  I like the new version, but some will prefer the old.

The new strap is similar to the old one, but a bit smaller and less heavily padded.  That it cannot be easily removed is my one beef with the Carbon Corks.  Unless you use a drift pin, the only way to remove the straps cleanly is with a knife.  It’d be great to see a small hex head screw  in this role.

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Overall it seems more relevant to ask why one wouldn’t want Carbon Corks than the other way around.  Weight weenies will sacrifice durability and spend more on Gossamer Gear or Locus Gear.  People who prefer to spend less will opt for CostCo or an aluminum model from BD.  And folks who want a tougher, longer pole for winter will get the BD Boundary.  Simple.

Rab Novak

For several years now I’ve been looking for an ideal fleece insulating layer, with only modest success.  This layer should be warm enough for stand-alone use in many three-season conditions, as light as possible, have minimal to no lycra in the fabric, fit over a baselayer but under a shell, and have a few pockets as well as a functional hood.  Until recently almost all men’s fleece jackets were either hoodless, or not as warm as desired.  The old Patagonia Los Lobos jacket came close to this ideal, but the hood was baggy, taking up too much space under a rain jacket and blocking peripheral vision.  I bought an XL women’s Retool hoody from Patagonia, which fit when modified and had ideal fabric, but the kangaroo pocket on this pullover was made from moisture loving mesh, and I could never make the hood fit quite right.  Then a few years ago Rab came out with the Novak hoodie, and all my problems were solved.

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The Novak hides in plain sight as part of Rab’s “Escape” lifestyle line.  It’s a solid coffee shop or bouldering jacket, but this winter and spring I’ve been using it as a technical layer with great success.  The hood, fit, and features are classic Rab.  The sleeves and torso are long, the hood covers my brow and stays put with nothing more than tailoring, and the jacket has two hand pockets and one left chest pocket.  Hem drawcords, good non-absorbent mesh in the pockets, and plain finished cuffs round out the package.

The cuffs are the one aspect of the Novak’s casual intent that come up short in the backcountry.  The sleeves run from the elbow to cuff with minimal taper, making the large wrist opening a significant source of heat loss.  Thankfully the arm seam is plain finished, and the cuff seam serged with only two lines of thread, making it fairly easy to rip a few inches of the cuff seam and 5 or so inches of the arm before giving the lower sleeve quite a bit more taper when sewing it back together.  In the above photo I’ve taken almost two inches of circumference out of each cuff compared to stock, and there is still enough room and stretch for the sleeves to be rolled up above my elbows.

The Novak fabric is 270 grams/meter, 100% polyester “honeycomb” fleece Polartec has been pushing lately.  The exterior has a somewhat dense, rough texture, while the inside is as soft and a bit denser than traditional fleece.  This fabric is a bit thinner than traditional 300-weight fleece, and has a hair of wind resistance.  It dries quickly, and moves moisture fast.  The only downside, relative to the more fluffy heavy fleeces (e.g. Patagonia Synchilla) is that it’s substantially less cuddly for anyone you might have occasion to hug, especially when the Novak is new.

I’ve worn the Novak to work and the brewery plenty, where the warmth and understated look are appreciated.  I also used it as my only insulating layer on this trip, and my primary insulation for this trip.  For outings where internal and external moisture are both probable issues, fleece works better, and when the cold is serious, a thick fleece like the Novak is my preference.

Beyond that, I think there is a good case to be made for something like the Novak as an outright replacement for a light synthetic fill jacket (such as the Rab Xenon) in all circumstances.  The Xenon has an edge in weight (roughly a half pound lighter), packed size, and in having integrated windproofing.  The Novak has the edge in better moisture management, not loosing insulating value with use (or only doing so very slowly), and in being less than a third the price.  When you combine the lower price of entry with how quickly fills like Primaloft loose insulating value, I find the Xenon option hard to justify, both from an economic and aesthetic perspective.

There are now a couple of good, heavier, technical fleece hoodys on the mens market.  Most, like the current version of the Patagonia R3, are a bit lighter than the Novak, but most also approach synthetic fill jackets in price.  At $70 the Novak is a bargain, and it being so functional only enhances the deal.  My only wishes for improvement are the cuff fit, as mentioned, and for the fabric which backs the hem drawcord to not be more absorbent than the main fabric.  Otherwise, the Novak is about as good as fleece gets, given current technology.

LaSportiva Bushido review

Never have I bought a pair of shoes with such low expectations, that over a year later ended up being so close to perfect.

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I purchased the Bushidos, last minute and at full retail, way back in January of 2015, concerned that my Altra Lone Peaks wouldn’t last the trip to New Zealand.  This was a good call, the Lone Peaks survived the backpacking, barely, but wouldn’t have held up to the hunting trip had I brought them.  Their traction is vintage LaSportiva trail runner, which is to say across mediums the best available, but a month of playing with different insoles I could not get them to fit right.  Their drop felt much steeper than the claimed 6mm, the toe box was too small, the instep too structured, and the overall feel a seemingly bizarre throwback to the early 00s and the One Sport Vitesse.  So I put them in the closet and ignored them for most of last year, money wasted.

A bunch of trashed shoes, the utter failure that was the Altra Olympus, and a reluctance to spend more money on more disappointment had me dust them off for Utah, and do what I should have done from the first; run them without any insoles at all.  Suddenly my heel was properly locked in, my toes had enough vertical space, my arches weren’t sore was excessive “support”, and I was able to focus on what the Bushidos at base are, which is an exceptional rugged terrain shoe for hikers and backpacker with decent biomechanical stability.  Being insoleless has the disadvantage of removing what can be a useful buffer between feet and grit, but otherwise has no downsides.  Cushy padding, like that found in many insoles or indeed the midsoles of many other shoes, feels nice in the store but on the trail I’ve always found it be at best useless, and at worst fatiguing.  The Bushidos have give, but its the stout kind that you only notice as substantive after mile 20.

Insofar as the Bushidos are tailored for tough terrain they’re firmly in the lineage of the Crosslite/X Country/Anakonda, possibly the apotheosis of that family.  I loved the Crossleather, for the precision fit, fantastic traction, and upper which outlasted the tread.  The X Country was more minimal, maybe excessively so, but had a wider toebox and the same great sole.  Unfortunately the upper fabric sucked, making it a shoe with a short life, both individually and on the marketplace generally.  The Anakonda fixed the durability problem, and maintained all the good parts of the X Country while adding a bit of structure which translated to a fantastic blend of stability and agility.  They worked well on this trip, for example.  Unfortunately the heel bit, literally, and while that lack of padding could be mitigated by tapping my achilles, it was annoying enough that I was not tempted to get a second pair.

The Bushido, without insoles, fixes all issues, though it is stiffer than any of the above discussed shoes.  I miss having something as flexible as the X Country (and lament the complete lack of such a shoes on the market at present) but the stiff Bushido is the more logical instantiation of Sportiva’s idea.  The Bushido sole sticks to anything, be it wet rock or loose dirt, the upper is durable enough to outlast the rubber, and most significantly the plastic foot cradle and snug-fitting inner locks the foot in flawlessly.  I wore them on this trip carrying the most awkward backpacking load I’ve ever hauled, and foot stability and security was never an issue.  If your joints and legs* are up to snuff, the Bushido has the fit and support for almost any load in any terrain.

Improvements?  The multi-part sole seems pointless compared to the one piece of rubber on its predecessors, and the few windows into the EVA do allow sticks to poke you in exceptionally unlucky circumstances.  Most significantly, the arch support and drop seem when taken together a bit archaic in the modern era, I’d love to wear a 2mm drop Bushido.  Neither of these things are big objection, and I’ll shortly have another pair on the way for summer.  For me**, they’re one of the best backpacking shoes, ever.

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*This is how you stay safe, after all.

**La Sportiva fits lower volume feet, with narrow heels and mid-width forefeet.  That’s my feet.  Fatties generally don’t get along well with Sportiva, and as I want them to keep fitting me, I’d prefer it stay that way.  Leave them alone paddlefoots.