LaSportiva TX3 snap judgment

For reasons discussed below, the LaSportiva TX3 has been on my radar since it came out last year. I received a pair for Christmas, and since then have taken them down a handful of technical slot canyons and on some dayhikes. What follows are my first impressions concerning why they promise to be an excellent shoe for canyon backpacking.

Approach shoes have always had a lot going for them, as well as some serious limitations that for backpacking and longer distance hiking were often all but fatal.  The most egregious is the narrow toebox, which prior to the TX series was all but universal to the genre.  Skinny forefeet creating pressure does indeed make climbing shoes edge well and smear precisely, but I’ve often wondering if the chunkier, more hiking oriented approach shoes didn’t have enough weight and midsole structure that narrow toeboxes weren’t wasted effort.  In 2009 and 2010 I spent a lot of time in Montrails Car to Car, a shoe which shared the big rand and runner’s heal of the TX3, but on long days always killed my feet with inadequate forefoot room and harsh midsole.

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The TX3s have a significantly wider forefoot than any approach shoe I can recall.  Coupled with the burly rand and stout midsole, the feel of the shoe is unique, and in technical terrain confidence inspiring.  They’re stiff enough to heel-toe in slots with minimal foot crunch, the rubber is sticky, and the tread just deep enough to grip well in loose dirt (though I would expect it to do poorly in mud.  Based on initial outings, the shoe seems tough enough to have a useful service life.

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It is worth emphasizing that the TX3 is a stiff shoe.  For this reason I think I’ll like it as a backpacking shoe, when I have a heavy or heavyish pack on, and in technical slots where stiffness prevents foot abuse.  They seem less desirable as a dayhiking shoe, for the same reason.  I’m not sure how many Sportiva will sell to climbers, but for canyon hikers I am optimistic that the TX3 is the best thing to come along in quite some time.

Three trends from 2017 Winter OR

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Sasha photobombs Luke’s beer.

When I first attended OR last year I expected to hate it, as consumerism and massive groups of strangers are two thing with which I have little patience.  I didn’t, in fact I enjoyed it, and while the first day of the winter show today was less novel and captivating due to repetition and being a bit smaller, I still had a good time.  Part of this, both times, has been in my work companion Luke, whose knowledge and interest is as comprehensive as my own.  Which is a rare thing, in 4 out of 5 booths today we could have told the reps about their own products.  The other part is that outdoor gear and the outdoor industry is, warts included, something in which I believe quite a lot.

Most of my coverage is on the Seek Outside blog, with a few oddments below.

Trend 0.0: Broism/Lifestyle

OR is above all else about selling stuff to other people within the outdoor industry, which is a big tent.  Yeti continues to show the industry how to market. They had Hopper soft coolers on sale for $150 mid-afternoon on the first day, and had a very long line of takers. We saw them all that afternoon and evening.

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That said, the retailer part of OR will plainly need to change in the next decade or so as internet sales and the extra cost associated with a retail middle person continue to drive more companies to do more and more of their business online.  The general public is not allowed in OR, and some of the big guys keep most of their stuff behind closed doors, up on the second floor (literally), or on the other side of bouncers (literally).  Crowd control is one thing, but fighting against publicity seems in the end to be besides the point.  It’s still a rad experience for the true gear geek, and could easily continue to grow with minor alterations.

Trend 1: Skimo

Skimo and “fitness” skiing remains a big area of growth, with lots of interesting stuff.  I forgot to take photos of the Voile Objective BC, but it feels every bit as light, stiff, and high quality as initial hopes made it out to be.  Top pick for distance-oriented alpine backcountry.

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Dynafit’s best backcountry ski binding now comes in two different release ranges, a good step towards having light, practical bindings with dependable  (for your weight) release.

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Scarpa’s Alien continues to have the free-est walk mode of any boot, including Dynafit and Sportiva, but that comes at the expense of openings in the shell.  The Alien RS solves these issues, and looks good doing it, but seems a bit less flexible.  Still a very solid option.

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A/the big issue with the first generation of LaSportiva skimo boots was a lower buckle that flipped open while booting.  The new buckle looks to fix that nicely, and is user removeable!  Sportiva sells these separately, and I’m sorely tempted to retrofit my old Siderals.

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Dynafit ski wall showing the rocker and sidecut profile which has become common amongst backcountry skis, and the color palate of the hour.

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 Trend 2: Active Insulation

Polartec Alpha (and the like) has been around for a while now.  It’s fashionable and almost everyone is building with it.  Most of those efforts look like one of the two pieces which defined the category, either the Patagonia Nanoair (stretch face, more breathable) or the Rab Strata (tougher, more windproof face).

Rab seems to be leading the way in new directions, using Alpha Direct (no lining at all) in a number of jackets, including a sweater which is just plain Alpha Direct (below).  It looks and feels like an even looser, fluffier version of Polartec Hi Loft fleece, and should I assume perform similarly.  That is to say, warmer and more breathable for the weight than traditional fleece, and less durable.  Lifespan will be an interesting question, especially when frequently worn without a shell.  The new Vapour Rise Guide has zoned Alpha Direct (with the traditional tricot in other areas) under the trademark Pertex Equilibrium shell.

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Overall folks seem to be admitting, though not out loud, that the traditional puffy jackets with very impermeable face fabrics and liners leave quite a bit to be desired.  The lack of breathability makes them much less comfortable in many cases, and often functionally colder due to poor moisture management.  Hence the rise of active insulation and the  return (quietly) of fleece, like the his and hers 200ish (left) and 300ish weight jackets from Brooks Range shown above.  Down still holds all the cards when it comes to pure warm/weight, but skiers, people who get out in cold weather, and especially people who run cold should check out the various permutations of active insulation and improved fleece.

Trend 3: Old stuff is back

Back in the day I used a six liter Dromedary bag for everything.  Partly because I lived in the desert and needed to carry lots of water, and partly because I was paranoid and liked too much water and overly bomber gear.  Around 8 years ago the Dromedary material became a little less burly, and I was sad.  While my two Droms stayed mostly dormant while we lived in Montana, they’re still ready to go now that they’re back in the desert.

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The new Dromedary bags are every bit as heavy and beefy as the OG version.  There are many lighter options, but when I’m a full days hike from the nearest water source, this is what I want to trust.

While the fashion side of the retro impulse has always been present in the outdoor industry, these visuals and an attempt at the substance behind them seems very strong in 2017.  Companies like Topo Designs aren’t just using a throwback aesthetic to sell shit, though they are doing that, they’re trying to recapture a time when going outside didn’t require so much expensive gear, planning, and forethought.  It doesn’t today, and probably wasn’t nearly as simple (or comfy) 40 years ago, but I can’t fault companies like that for trying to move however ungracefully towards emphasizing the experience of doing stuff over the fatness of ones closet.

Seek Outside BT2 v. Silvertip

I do not think I could overstate how enjoyable, educational, and flattering the past month at my new job has been.  Enjoyable because the crew at Seek Outside operates with both integrity and joy in equal measure.  Educational because, whatever I may or may not know about using gear outside, there are many things about making and selling it I didn’t know I knew, and getting a new window into your lifelong passion is a rare thing.  And flattering because of the many personal contacts I’ve had.  Congratulatory ones written into orders, in person ones from friends stopping by, and surprise contact with readers over the phone.  In the past I’ve been thanked many times for my writing here, and even recognized in person by strangers (very occasionally), but the volume of the last four weeks is quite another thing.

It highlights the responsibility I now have, to everyone out there, my employers, my colleagues, my family, and myself.  There’s the irony that I’ve found a job at which I would cheerfully work 70 hours a week, just when we have a toddler in the house.  There will be the challenge, in the near future, to maintain the impossible separation between my official duties marketing and my public presence, here and elsewhere as an individual.  And most of all there will be the task of producing products as good as many seem to expect, and that I know we at Seek Outside can.  Just know that there is a long list of projects, and that nothing will go out into the world until it is ready.

img_2087My work day yesterday began in the dark, driving up into the canyons to do a training hike and get photos of how the BT2, which I have promoted aggressively here and elsewhere, and the revision of it which came out this fall, the Silvertip.  The BT2 was symmetrical, elegant, and utterly steady in wind and snow.  The interior was a bit on the short side for folks over 6 foot, especially on thick sleeping pads, so the Silvertip was revised to be longer, wider at the head and foot, and a little shorter (to better use fabric and make it possible to pitch with a single 145cm trekking pole).  The above photo shows the sum of these changes as best as I could capture, but it doesn’t show the substantial increase in interior space, which surprised even me the first time I got inside.  The BT2 has been my favorite shelter over the last two years, and the Silvertip should take over that role quite handily.

The heaviest iteration is shown above; with a stove jack and four extra guyouts added to the front and rear, and weighs a hair under 2 pounds.  The Silvertip comes stock with one on each side, in the center, and while I don’t expect the others to be necessary under almost any circumstances, thus far they’ve proven popular with the paranoid.  It is heavy for a two person shelter, but I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a more weatherproof shelter, of any persuasion, without going exponentially heavier.  The design is remarkably silent in moderate (~30 mph) winds, and with 12 ground level tieouts anchoring is generally not an issue.  It epitomizes the stuff I’m excited to be involved in making; light as thoughtfulness will allow, understated, totally dedicated to function, and promising a very long service life and high value.  Even after I crossed into getting free samples and pro deals on most things 275 bucks is still a lot of money.  In this case, I think most will find it cash well spent.

The DST

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A flat tarp isn’t always the shelter I pick, but it is my favorite.  Most of the time I like the un-futzing of a mid for severe weather and pitching on snow, but like most people I’ll take a calm night with a colorful, visible sunrise 4 times out of 5.  For that a tarp is ideal, as it keeps most of the wind and all of the dew off you, and provides for lazy coffee views from bed.

Here at Seek Outside our flat tarp is the DST, which is a 10′ by 10′ sil with tieouts every 2 feet and a big VX42 circle in the middle.  It’s easy to get enamored with the utility of the later.  Sticks, paddles, and just about anything can be pushed up against it to enhance liveable space and expand pitching options.  Those features do make it a bit on the heavy side, 1 pound even, but also make it as burly and versatile as a flat tarp can get.

Flat tarps are also cheap, which along with the learning their use demands makes them perfect for ambitious beginners.  The DST is on the expensive side, at 129, but knowing how well it is sewn, and by real humans (many of whom have been making outdoor gear since I was in elementary school) makes it seem like a bit of a bargain.

It feel luxurious to be living in a place where I’ll be primarily tarp camping all winter.

Sierra Designs Elite Cagoule review

I’ve been putting off writing this for a month or more, until I had it on through a good solid half+ day rain.  But walking out earlier this week in two hours of steady rain, I realized that due to terrain and preference I just don’t hike in that sort of thing very often.  Maybe once a year, on average, and therefore the half dozen or so occasions I’ve had the Elite Cagoule on in 2-4 hour spells of precip are for me quite adequate for evaluative purposes.  If I lived somewhere else or went on more multi-week trips I’d likely have a different opinion, and if you the reader are a consistent deluge hiker you might want a different reviewer.

I discussed and photographed the fundamentals of this anorak here.

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Strong points of the Elite Cagoule are the construction quality and venting features.  It is well put together, the fit is good (save for the hood volume, see below), and details like the elastic and velcro cuffs are dead on.  The armpit vents work astonishingly well, impressive given that I was all but convinced they’d prove a gimmick.  The combination of the mesh backed kangaroo pocket and open “skirt” provide more air circulation through the chest than one would expect.  The neck opening, which closes with three snaps, is just deep enough to use that venting while still keeping your chest protected.  The chest pocket, with no closure mechanism save gussets in the bottom corners, securely held things like maps, yet never let water in.  Overall, Sierra Designs has found an approach that, for backpacking, works much better than any pitzips I’ve ever used.  If function trumps hype and the market of non-core hikers are willing to buy something which won’t be seen in any mountaineering ad, this approach should become the standard.

The Elite Cagoule is a backpacking and hiking specific rain coat, and the same features which work so well while hiking with a pack make it unsuitable for most other wilderness pursuits.  The armpit vents can’t be closed, for one, and vent well enough that in cold wind they hemorrhage body heat.  A 20 minute hail storm with strong upstream winds, endured in a packraft during the Bob Open this year, made that very clear.  This can also be a liability in shoulder season alpine environments.  The skirt, which “closes” with velcro dots and a single pair of snaps at the hem, doesn’t seal up reliably, and if it did wouldn’t provide enough room for a full stride.  This renders it flappy in high winds, unusable on a bike, and a nuisance when paired with a packraft sprayskirt.  I no longer bring the Elite Cagoule on any packrafting trip, or biking trip, or any trip up near treeline where I might really be pushing the warmth boundaries of my clothing system.

None of this is a condemnation of the Cagoule itself, just a reminder that it is a niche rain coat (albeit the biggest niche around).  Sierra Designs also made a few choices which just irritate the hell out of me in all circumstances.  The hood is well shaped, but lacks a rear cinch cord and more seriously is too small.  When I have a hat, hood, or both on under it, and pack straps further constraining fabric mobility, I can’t look too far up without forehead pressure.  More egregiously, the two hood cinch cords on either side of the face are routed inside the garment, which is for me totally unacceptable, and something I just cannot understand.  After initial adjustment I only need to further cinch my hood when the weather really gets nasty, so why the hell would I want to unbutton my coat and let weather in to do that?  The enhanced appearance this gives a puffy coat I can understand, but in a shell it is unjustifiable, common practice though it may be.  The DWR also seems a bit weak, though in truth I haven’t used and washed the Elite Cagoule nearly enough to say anything meaningful on that subject.  I also think the skirt opening should be moved further back.  As mentioned the velcro closure dots are all but useless, and they have to be open to allow for full leg movement anyway.  By being positioned towards the front they’re pushed open with each stride, allowing more of the thigh than seems necessary to get wet.

Overall, the Elite Cagoule is a well built and (with a few small yet serious flaws) functional piece of rain gear for hiking and backpacking.  It takes venting seriously, which is fairly unique amongst WPB rain jackets, and as Sierra Designs conclusively demonstrates is a very effective approach to the problem of sweaty raingear.  With a few tweaks the Elite Cagoule could be even better, and darn close to a faultless jacket for backpacking.

 

Treated v. hybrid down; don’t believe the hype

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For the problem with down jackets and sleeping bags has never been with external moisture (precip, or otherwise).  Modern shell fabrics are good enough, and sticking things in drybags on under raingear or mitigating shelter condensation simple enough, that getting my insulation actually wet this way hardly ever happens.  The only memorable instances involve me failing to screw a canyon keg down tight (Heaps, 2004) or putting a pack with a non-dimension polyant bottom down in a puddle (New Zealand, 2015).

Internal moisture, on the other hand, has been the bane of down insulation, down coats especially, such that a while back I swore them off entirely, save for one massive parka for deep cold.  In Montana the normal range in which I use a moderately warm coat is 40-15 F, temperatures which occur 10 months a year, and where sweating is inevitable.  I need a coat that I can put on over damp, if not wet, baselayers and both stay warm and get dry.  A standard down coat, especially the light ones with 2-3 ounces of high-fill, can do this 1.5 times before they’re just about useless.

On the other hand the compactness and snuggle-factor of down are both high.  Additionally, on the vast majority of trips I bring not one, but two insulating layers.  One is for staying warm while moving slowish, when it’s really nasty, or in a packraft.  The other is for breaks, camps, glassing, and a little extra safety margin.  Every time I don’t use fleece for the first application I end up disappointed, so last year I went back to experimenting with down to maintain the integrity of my two-part system without the whole mess taking up a ton of pack space.

First up was the Sierra Designs Better Vest, which has decent specs as well as being from the company that pioneered DWR down (and claims to have the superior product).  I was not impressed, both with an absurdly  slim fit, and with down which didn’t resist wetting out from inside any better than standard stuff.  The Dridown did dry out faster, but even if the fit hadn’t been whacked out I was still unimpressed enough to move the Better Vest down the road.

Next was the BD Hot Forge hoody, whose fit and detailing I continue to be impressed by (hood excepted).  The insulation, Primaloft Gold, is 70% treated down and 30% “Primaloft ultra-fine fibers”.  I wasn’t expecting to be all that impressed with Gold, compared to normal down, but the way it manages internal moisture has nothing less than shocked me.  In this respect performance is so far above pure treated down that I find it hard to see the purpose of the later.  For example, on the first day of our August trip my baselayer and windshirt got pretty close to soaked, first because of drizzle and then because of sweat inside a rain coat while hiking uphill with a heavy pack.  Camp was at 7000′, it was still drizzling, it was dark, and Little Bear had finally fallen asleep after a lot of crying we choose to just hike through.  I didn’t have the luxury of drying out or paying much attention to my own needs.  After dinner and getting the tent up I stuffed a hot water down my coat, got into my sleeping bag, and went to sleep.  When I woke up a few hours later, my shirts were dry.  Not dryer, dry.  The Hot Forge had matched a full Primaloft coat in what is for me the most important test.

In summary, I’m pretty skeptical about the utility of treated down, and very impressed with Primaloft Gold.  Even if Gold breaks down in a few years and I need a new coat sooner than I would a pure down coat, it will probably still be a worthwhile compromise.  For the last few years I’ve been running a head-to-head comparison between standard and treated down, via the standard 800 fill which came in my stock Vireo Nano, and the 3 ounces of treated down I added to the upper third.  Simply put, I haven’t noticed much of a difference.  There have been plenty of claims about the virtues of treated down, but I think most of them are based on situations which are of little practical importance.  As far as a I know no one makes a down blend sleeping bag in premium materials.  It’d be an expensive experiment, but one in which I’d be very interested.

Infant outdoor clothing

LB shown below in Patagonia Baggies jacket and pants, and Patagonia Micro D crew.dsc00854

If you’re going to do a bunch of outdoor stuff with your infant or toddler, it’s worth getting them some primo or near-premium outdoor clothing.  Given how fast they grow it can seem absurd to spend serious money on something which is grown out of in months, but a few key pieces make the backcountry a lot easier for the parents, and safer and more comfortable for the kid.  Not too many companies make such clothing, with Patagonia having by far the largest selection.  Therefore, Little Bear has been Patagucci’d since an early age.  We live in a posh mountain town with several used gear stores, but baby clothing doesn’t pop up too often.  I think most people horde it, either out of nostalgia or for the inevitable next kid.

There seems to be nearly as much variability with kids as with adults, but since he was 4 months I’ve been impressed with how easily Little Bear keeps himself warm.  Bundling him up in massive layers has rarely been necessary.  That said most of the time he’s along for the ride in either the backpack or the trailer, and needs more insulation than the more active adult, though riding in the pack does take some effort and generate some body heat.

Fleece and quick dry base layers have been his foundation, and well worth the investment.  Babies drool a lot, snot a lot, spill food all over, and occasionally overwhelm their diapers.  Poly garments dry fast, which makes drool less chilling and backcountry laundry more expedient.  LB always has a complete change of primary and secondary layers along on multi-day trips.

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Capilene has served LB well.  The daily capilene long and short sleeve shirts (equivalent to Capilene 1 or silkweight Capilene) are nice for sun protection in hot weather, while the Capilene onesie and pants set (equivalent to Capilene 3) is warm and versatile.  None of the stuff in Patagonia’s winter 16/17 line up is what we’ve used; it’s all listed as 88/12 poly/spandex which is too much lycra for good dry times.  They do sell the Capilene pants separately now, which is good.  These pants are bug proof, but the pajama style stays put better than normal pants on the non-waist of infants.

Microfleece has been LB’s bread and butter, and the Micro D crew (still sold) is a must-have item.  We’ve had three different ones as he’s grown, and all have been used heavily.  Full zip, hooded fleece jackets are also good, in a variety of weights and ideally sized big enough to fit over the Micro D.  Hoods defeat, most of the time, LB’s hatred and intolerance of all hats.  The North Face makes a good one we’ve used a bunch, as does Patagonia, though we found a perfectly serviceable microfleece hoody in 12-18 month at Old Navy.  Fleece pants are, naturally, a good idea as well.

TNF Glacier fleece hoody, and Patagonia Capilene pants and onesie.R0013370

The most crucial piece of infant clothing has been Patagonia’s Baggies jacket and pants.  Made of supplex nylon, they’re tough windbreaker-type garments, and in addition to repelling wind and light rain, are mosquito proof.  The pants especially were the only ones of their type we could find, and even then they had sold so fast we got stuck with what turned out to be very charming pink/salmon numbers.  The double knees provide a little padding while crawling, and the hood helps keep sun off. We haven’t invested in proper rain gear just yet, because with a rain cover on either the backpack or chariot it just didn’t seem necessary, and Baggies works enough during fair weather packrafting.  I would not have wanted to have gone through this past summer, especially a few buggy trips in August, without these.

The last piece of the tech clothing puzzle is insulation.  We splurged early and bought LB a Hi-Loft down coat from Patagonia, and auntie Kate got him another for his birthday.  At retail this is a silly expensive and not very utilitarian item, but the style and packed size is very nice.  Infants are a lot harder to hold in a slippery down coat, and the added warmth only seems to rarely be necessary.  When they’re little a far more practical item is the Patagonia fleece bunting with dual access zips, and leg zips which combine both legs into one (sleeping bag or seal mode).  Sadly these amazing items seem to have been discontinued; we bought aggressively from the use market this spring.  Buntings are less pragmatic for older kids, as the integrated booties don’t walk well, and from 9 months on LB found them too confining.

Capilene pants, Micro D crew, Baggies jacket, fleece bomber hat, Smartwool socks, leather shoes.img_0878

The last mandatory item is socks, specifically wool socks from Smartwool. You cannot have too many of these, as they are both dead useful and tiny (and forever getting lost).  They stay put better than any proper shoes we’ve found, are warm when wet, and make fantastic gloves.  I’ve taken to stuffing a spare pair in each of the two hand pockets of his down jacket, better to keep track of them on dayhikes and backpacks.

Last, and certainly not least, it should be noted that we only purchased a modest amount of all this stuff.  Most of it has been provided to LB by grandparents, aunts, and friends, who have done a fantastic job of making sure he is well outfitted.  If you have an outdoors-inclined family member or friend who has an infant or is expecting one soon, get them some infant outdoor essentials.  They’re the sort of thing which gets used constantly and is the best way to hope to the top of the list of best relative/friend/etc.