Seek Outside Flight One trouble shooting

The Seek Outside Flight One is a ~50 liter, reasonably featured ~2.5 pound backpack designed to carry loads over 30 pounds well.  Better load carriage and more coherent features than a Windrider 3400, and a burlier build than a Gossamer Gear Gorilla.  In short, a modern lightweight backpack; an increasingly busy class, with the relevant reference point being the Rogue Pando Zoro, a point to which I’ll return in closing.

Unfortunately the Flight One combines a major design flaw with a major construction/patterning issue, the result being the carriage of the belt and lumbar pad not matching the other parts of the pack.  I modified a Flight bag recently for a friend, following Philip’s mod detailed here, an easy job others may wish to emulate.

The Flight One uses an internal U frame, made from thin, solid aluminum rod, with a top piece of alu tube, that pushes on and makes it into a solid rectangle.  The frame fits into a full internal sleeve, very tightly. This tight fit and the 7000 series alloy rod make the frame solid, springy, with an excellent degree of twisting flex.  It’s a really nice solution to the modern pack problem.  The problem is in the lumbar and belt arrangement.  The belt comes in two halves, and adjusts for width with velcro.  It velcros behind the lumbar pad, a la classic Dana Designs.  Dana packs had a very stiff belt, and ran the main alu stay into the lumbar pad itself, both of which prevented sagging.

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The Flight sags quite a bit, mainly because (as seen in the top photo) the lumbar opening is 3/4″ too large.  As seen in the above photo, when I have 40 pounds in the pack, this slack hinges out immediately, effectively reducing the torso length of the pack by over an inch.  In theory a 24 inch tall frame, the longest Seek offers on the flight, ought to be good for all but the tallest users.  But that is a narrow if, and 22.5 inches is, for a taller but not beyond average person like myself, a fast problem at loads around 30 pounds.

Taking the bottom seam out and sewing the pad tighter would be one way to deal with that issue, but removing and resewing structural seams is a bit dodgy on relatively light fabrics like X21.  Instead, my friend obtained extensions for the frame, and I removed the load lifter buckles and haul strap and sewed them 2 inches taller.  A non-reversible modification, but simple and effective.

It’s illustrative to return here to the Zoro, which has had its issues, and takes a quite different approach to the belt-frame interface, using snaps to connect a hanging belt to the base seam, something quite similar to what Seek (re)introduced to the public with their original packs.  Quite simply, I think this is the best way to go about building a pack, both because the connection methods tend to eliminate the possibility for stretch and sag, and because I don’t think lumbar pads really bring anything to the table in terms of enhancing load carriage (whether the lumbar benefits from different kinds of padding relative to the hips is a separate question).

 

How the Dana Longbed Works

Amongst the few dozen folks worldwide who care about such things, the Dana Designs external frame packs are regarded as the pinnacle of the genre.  I spent a couple hundred field days carrying an Arcflex, and for a number of reasons gladly passed it along a decade ago.  Finding both the load carriage and feature set deficient, I can’t fathom a reason to go back to that tech, but I’m enough of a pack nerd/historian that when a Longbed popped up for cheap enough locally, it was an easy decision to buy it.

First, the numbers.  The early oughts era Dana Designs Longbed is listed as 99 liters, and 7 pounds 13 ounces, stock.  My version, with medium straps and belt, and a regular harness, breaks down as follows:

  • Belt: 14.5 oz
  • Straps: 7.3 oz (pair)
  • Bag: 3 pounds 12.6 oz
  • Harness assemblage: 8.1 oz
  • Magic wands (pair): 7 oz
  • Upper frame 4.9
  • Frame. 1 pound 3.2 oz

121.6 oz, total.  Which is heavy, by any modern standard, and really heavy by most measures.  Modern load haulers are generally 2-3 pounds lighter, in a package with similar capacity, but a more sleek feature set.  The Longbed is not sleek, as evidenced by the bag weight.  Four separate zippers, including a huge #10 U zip to access the main bag, are the main source of the overall weight, along with the huge lumbar pad and hypalon reinforced frame sleeve, which are sewn to and thus included in the main bag weight.  In this respect it is the worst of late 90s pack design, complete with floppy, non-functional mesh sides pockets, and a size that isn’t even that capacious (42 inch top circumference).

These criticisms would be valid for almost any pack of that era, making the more interesting question why this most modern of external frame packs might have something to teach us still.  As mentioned in the posts cited above, making a frame both rigid enough for load hauling and not massively heavy is challenging.  On the one hand the 19 oz Dana frame is porky.  On the other, it is more rigid than something like the Seek Outside Revolution, is at 29 inches taller, and that 19 oz figure includes totally rigid cross bracing.  With a modern belt removing 5-6 ounces, and a less complex overall harness design cutting something close to 2 pounds, the Dana frame might be a more coherent package than it first appears.  

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With the top bar at full extension the Dana frame is a full 36 inches tall, a full ten inches beyond most modern hunting frames.  It is also lighter, shorter, and narrower than something like the Barney’s Freighter frame.  The other argument for external frames, beyond the virtues of tubing over stays, has always the footprint of the frame.  The 26″ by 12″ footprint of modern hunting packs (Stone Glacier, Kifaru, etc) equals, when loaded 10 inches deep, 3120 cubic inches, about half a carefully boned out elk, and more weight than most people will be able to carry over rough terrain.  A load bearing footprint beyond this is handy for loads less easily tamed.  A bison hide is an example with which I have personal experience, or a moose quarter or rack of ribs (which many places in Alaska must come out of the field bone in), which explains Barney’s enduring popularity up north.

For myself, I’ve long wanted to experiment with a larger platform for family load hauling, and the Dana frame makes an ideal platform.  

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Carrying the Longbed in stock form does not make me at all nostalgic for my old ArcFlex.  The external frame is indeed more forgiving of poor packing.  I loaded up a five gallon bucket of iron window weights, resulting in a load too heavy to stand under without rolling over and crawling upright (a boundary I’ve found that for me is right around 100 pounds).  The adhesive properties of the aggressive lumbar pad and thick, soft hipbelt were immediately obvious, as were their longer term impacts, having to cinch things repeatedly as you travel and motion and gravity combine to help things compress.  

The years have taught me that the rough contours of hips require different sorts of padding compared to the less sensitive, and often concave depths of the lumbar.  But I still struggle to see lumbar pads as anything other than a crutch for fit issues.  I’m excited to experiment with the frame.  I’m also excited to put lumbar pads in the bin until something unforeseen comes along.  Dana packs remain the apotheosis of that design, and this pack not suiting me injects confidence into my dismissal.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: Shoulder Straps

First: what the hell is happening with those packs, maan?

A lot.  Unfortunately, almost none of that is helping to get you a pack faster.  While the pandemic hasn’t impacted our family as directly or egregiously as it could, or still might, it has made the world more complicated.  I’ve been and remain on a slightly reduced salary, and our decision in early April for M to go back to work has been wise, in that any financial concerns have been well preempted.  What that has meant day to day is that we juggle our schedules, and that my time has been full enough that choices must be made: kid time, spouse time, meals, work, fun and exercise, yes.  Much else (e.g. cleaning, and sewing), no.

And I am ok with that.

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Hopefully one of the things we, as a society, get out of the pandemic is an easier time admitting that doing it all, especially as parents, is neither possible nor desirable.

One of the benefits of such mandatory emphatic choices, and of the necessity of managing creeping universal anxiety, has been lots of time in the woods, both on my own and with the little people.  The prototype Tamarisk has been used almost daily, even if that is only to transport rafting gear 200 yards from car to lake, or on a pint sized bikerafting trip (top photo, 5 miles on gravel, 10 miles of twisty and fast class I+).  I am more confident than ever in the design and size, and embracing the extended and indefinite timeline to tweak a few things (the belt could be a bit better, improved attachment points for a PFD).

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After 6 months of use I remain exceedingly pleased with the shoulder straps, which in packland present a problem whose answer is difficult to properly balance.  Too much padding is certainly a thing, as is too little, too stiff, and too supple.  My old Dana always chafed a little, and never really broke in enough (even after 200+ days) to conform to clavicle and armpit.  The 2012 Gorilla did almost everything right, with the thin foam being a little too stiff, and certainly far too ready to pack out.  The HPG shoulder harness was a study in how far one could get in patterning and conformity, but the Cordura facing against the user chafed and held sweat, and the thin and relatively supple foam let the webbing strap dig in once the load was big enough to stretch the Cordura.

With these three examples as limit posts, I set out a couple years ago to find something well in between them.  Most combinations of foam and materials have worked decently enough, and there is a case to be made for shoulder straps being an ancillary detail to things like the hipbelt and frame, so long as they are good enough.  But the whole point of the Tamarisk is to not just be good enough, and it is easy to recall trips like this one where anything with the least potential for discomfort will sing out to that effect, and loudly.

My current layup for the Tamarisk shoulder straps is a 5mm layer of fairly stiff EVA foam, 5mm 3D mesh turned inside out, and 500D Cordura, with a length of 3/4″ webbing bartacked every 3 inches the whole length.  The result is quite pliable, due to being well under 1/2 an inch thick, yet rigid, due to the EVA.  The thick 3D mesh makes things feel cushy, and wicks sweat (see above), both of which fight chafing during hot 12+ hour days.  Keeping the mesh inside out eliminates the traditional bane of that material, namely the extent to which it traps pine needles and debris, which build up over time no matter the cleaning efforts, eventually becoming abrasive to both clothing and skin.  The greatest cause for celebration is that testing the inverted mesh over the past two years, and this particular foam since January, has revealed no concerns with longevity whatsoever.  img_0010

The packs will come, eventually, but in this age of uncertainty I’m not making any specific promises.

Shorty

For a number of years I’ve wanted a short handy shotgun like my modified Tuffy, but with more ummph.  .410 is an excellent squirrel chambering, and mostly adequate for grouse and rabbit.  With these larger critters range is a practical limiter, not so much outright than with respect to pattern.  With a .410 20 yard shots on a static grouse or snowshoe are reasonable most of the time.  Moving shots are marginal without a high level of skill.  Much beyond that and one runs out of power quickly.  If a short shotgun is a practical tool because of portability, because you might bring it where and when you wouldn’t something bulkier and more refined, marginally expanding capability in a few targeted areas might be worth some extra weight.

I’d been on the lookout for a candidate for a while, and a few months ago we found a Stevens 9478 12 gauge at a pawn shop in Butte.  The folks there were quite willing to let the rather ugly little thing go for less than asking, and I think we paid $70 for it.  First step was to cut 10″ off the barrel.  This made for a cylinder bore.  I was able to unscrew the original bead sight and reinstall it, a welcome economy measure.  Next step was cutting the stock down for a straight grip, and stripping the ugly, slick, and in the end incredibly thick finish.  I left the texture a bit course and did a simple linseed oil finish, which feels nice in the hand.  Testing revealed the length of pull was too long, so I cut nearly an inch off, making it 13.5 inches, and as a test replaced the plastic back plate with a 5mm bit of dense foam, glued on.  Last mod was installing Grovtec flush cups, for the mandatory comfy carry with a sling.

Slimming the stock and reducing the LOP took off enough weight that the balance point was brought back a few inches in front of the trigger guard.  Pointing ergonomics with a shorty shotgun aren’t really a priority in the same way they would be with a full sized over/under, but as it stands the Stevens shoulders fluidly enough that tight, close shots on flushing spruce grouse seem very reasonable.  High, fast, straight away shots which seem to be the standard on ruffed grouse around here likely won’t be in the cards, but a gun like this is as a much about being present for ground sluicing blue grouse and hares 20 miles from the trailhead as anything else, and for that the just sub 5 pound weight will do very well.

I hope for an exhaustive field report in the fall.

Islands of moisture revisited

“…under duress the most important characteristic of your clothing system is not the ability to keep external moisture off you, but the ability to allow internal moisture to escape efficiently without chilling you excessively.”

Me

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In the ~five years since I wrote the above post, and since Sitka popularized the concept of the rewarming drill.  In that time a number of people have produced trials, and a few significant advances in gear have become widespread.  It is worth taking a look at both.

Rokslide recently published a static rewarming drill trial; jump in a lake, get in a sleeping bag, use hot drinks and hot water bottles to see how your insulation manages moisture.  A useful exercise for the unfortunate but inevitable scenario of having to go to bed damp or wet with no other way to dry out.  This can happen in the alpine, or just because of rainy weather without respite.  The lessons from the Rokslide article are mostly old hat: the lightest possible layers (especially against the skin) with the least possible spandex are best.  Anything beyond mid single digits spandex should be categorically out for backcountry stuff in damp climates, as should merino wool.  Synthetic bags and insulating garments provide a significantly larger margin for error, though in the case of the former weight goes up enough that you can almost buy a bigger margin with a premium down bag.  It’s also worth highlighting that women, especially those who require more support than a basic shelf bra/tank provides wear a significant handicap when it comes to eliminating moisture islands from undergarments.

There are also a few versions of the various rewarming drills, static and active, that might be worth watching if you really care to geek out on specifics.  Subtle but significant lessons here are just how much redundant fabric layers (e.g. pockets) can trap moisture, along with how one poorly conceived layer in the system (most often an inartfully selected mid layer, such as a second heavy baselayer) can slow the whole system down.  This performance during a for-video trial is one thing.  The cost lagging dry time can exact on metabolism and morale on day 3 of 5 or 7 quite another.

The most important development in this area, in the last five years, has been in active insulation (Alpha Direct, left; Full Range, right).  The virtues over fleece are in no small part the much lighter fabric (not necessarily garment) weight relative, which vastly increases dry time when internal heat is driving the process.  The advances in fabrics used for shells here also makes a big difference, as they both preserve internal warmth (and thus, temperature gradient) without too far inhibiting moisture transport.  Being able to get wet, be it by falling in a river or sweating too much on a skin track, throw on an active insulation jacket, and then work yourself dry without too much attention to detail has been a game changer.

Lately I’ve been revisiting classic pieces, like the Rab Windveil and Patagonia Capilene 4, that firmly prioritize not only dry time not very low moisture accumulation even under poor circumstances.  And I’ve been impressed, all over, with how well you can do with a system whose ceiling for error is small.  Heavier baselayers, esepcially wool, can in theory do more and better than Polartec HE, just as a softshell windshirt can breath better than the Windveil and peers.  But it is darn nice to just not have to faff much, to leave the second layer on for that extra 20 minutes up the hill with minimal penalty.  If there is any alteration I’d make to these thoughts, it would be that.

The Bob bag

Lets get this out of the way: I won’t make you one of these.  Working with these fabrics and with stretchy Climashield is not something I find fun.  This design is straightforward and quick to make, so create your own ugly.

Ever since my first Wilderness Classic nearly a decade ago I’ve been turning this idea over; what is the lightest and fastest way to get a bit of sleep in the midst of a fast wilderness trip?  Curling up around a fire would seem to be the easiest answer, and has the advantage of self-selecting for only the most vitally needed sleep (read; you get cold and wake up).  The problems are the questionable quality of rest, and the potentially considerable time put into making a fire under unideal conditions.  Adding a tarp or bivy sort of addresses the second issue, but not the first.  In the last decade truly UL sleep items have become common enough that most peoples answer to this question has been to just bring a standard backpacking kit, or at least a light bag, tarp, and minimalist pad.  These systems can be in the 2 pound range, but usually come in between 3 and 4 all told (stakes, etc).  Not much weight, but not a tiny amount either.

The functional intermediary between these has long seemed to be a light synthetic bag come insulated bivy sack.  Enough insulation to maintain ~4 hours of warmth around freezing, and a waterproof/breathable shell with minimal seams, that sort of thing that would allow you to flop under a half ideal spruce and stay protected enough in the just the bag.  Synthetic insulation, as sub 10 oz down fills tend to be overly sensitive to moisture accumulation.  This winter a friend bugged me enough that I finally overcome my reluctance and made two such bags.  In the next few months we’ll truly find out how they perform in the field. 

I used 10D WPB for the shell, .66 oz/yard taffeta for the liner, and 3.6 oz (120 grams/meter) Apex.  The former is the obvious choice, being essentially alone at that weight.  The taffeta has a nice feel and is calendered, with synthetic insulation I reckoned that eeking out every little bit of warmth with low CFM fabrics all around was a good call, with no functional downside.  I went with safety orange for use in signalling aircraft.  I certainly could have used lighter insulation, but past experienced suggested 120 g/m was the lightest that would still be useable in all but the most specialized situations.  I made the neck cinch out of 30D ripstop, as anything lighter doesn’t let the cord run so smoothly, and in time abrades along the opening.

Using the (raw cut) dimensions in the above photo, finished weight was just over 16 ounces.  The fit is narrow, on purpose, but long enough to mostly go over the head of someone a 6 feet tall.

The main design challenge was avoiding any exposed seams in the top of the shell, as I really didn’t want to get into sealing anything.  To fix the top of the insulation to the bag without doing this, I stitched the liner, shell, and cinch tunnel together (left photo) and then folded the shell out of the way, slid the insulation in, and sewed through the interior seam, insulation, and liner fabric (right photo).  Apex is stretchy enough that you can be imprecise here with no problem.

After this, stitch around the side and bottom edges, then put the footbox together.

The footbox is a point down triangle.  The photo show it inside out (left) and then right side out (right) in both cases with the top of the bag facing up.  What you can’t see well is that the top of the footbox is longest, making the two seams run backwards, with the footbox overhanging them.  My expectation is that anything short of serious, sustained rain will not wet this out.

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The ~1 pound weight it what I wanted out of this.  It approaches down bags of comparable warmth, and should exceed them in damp conditions over a few days.  Packed size is another matter.  Squeezing air out of the bag is not a simple thing, and without tons of compression it wants to stay as a roughly basketball-sized lump.  It will go smaller, but in the game of ounces the pack space this demands is less than ideal.

Field report to follow this summer.

Pack prototype sale

[3/20 update: all packs are sold.]

Over the past three years of developing the Tamarisk I’ve built a lot of packs.  There’s no other way to see how ideas work in the field.  Prototyping is a profoundly fun process, and at the same time necessarily protracted and tedious.  The pile of 40-60 liter packs in the house has gotten a little excessive, and most unfortunately, there are a few especially good ones that these days hardly ever get used.

So I’d like some of ya’ll to use them for me.  I have three ready to go.

(numbering is left to right)

Pack one is a 60 liter tough and basic prototype I made for a bushwacking trip on Isle Royale. Features a beefed up version of the Tamarisk suspension (add load lifter and dual density belt padding), X50 main fabric, Tamarisk side pockets, roll top closure, zippered stash pocket above load lifters, and wrap around compression straps. There is no provision for over the top strapping, and one side pocket is coating side out (oops).

42 inch upper circumference, 40 inch lower circumference, 36.5 inch unrolled height.

19 inches midbelt to shoulder straps, 22 inches midbelt to load lifters.

Belt is 25.5 inches padding to padding (somewhat deceptive as the soft padding compresses and thus lengthens under load).

Suggested torso in 19-21 range, fits waists 30-32 inches.

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Pack two is a mid sized experiment that is a bit bigger than the Tamarisk will be, but features close to the same suspension system.  It has a fixed belt with 1/8″ by 1″ stay.  The side pockets were revised several times over, and are thus both a bit rough and a bit on the small and low side (but very easy to access).  The dimensioned rear pocket compresses with the side straps and holds a good amount.  Main fabric is custom 33 xpac (no V ply or X grid) with 500D Cordura on the base overlay and all pockets.

42 inch upper circumference, 38 inch lower, 35 inch unrolled height.

19 inch midbelt to straps, belt is 27 inches padding to padding.

18-20 inch torso, 30-33 inch waist suggested.

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Pack three is a 40 liter early prototype of what became the Tamarisk. Dual 3mm by 13mm stays with sewn in 1/8″ foam padding in back panel. Burly Mountain Hardwear shoulder straps, no load lifters, floating belt. Compound side pockets with a flat, zippered pocket inside the larger drawcord pocket, both of which extend on wings. Tons of fast access to gear. Drawcord closure with top strap, dual daisy chains. Custom plain 33 D-P fabric (no V, no X ply) in main bag, 500D Cordura in side pockets, 1000D Ballistics base reinforcement.  Main downsides to this one are messy sewing on the belt, and a cut up near the top of the bag which I mended with a patch.

37 inch upper circumference, 33 inch lower circumference, 34 inch unrolled height.

Midbelt to straps 20 inches, belt 31 inches padding to padding.

20-22 inch torso and 32-35 waist suggested.

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As noted above all three of these packs are in places quite rough.  Unideal stitching, a few things uneven, mismatched materials, revisions and additions done with expediency rather than aesthetics in mind.  All of the fundamentals are sounds, and if anything goes wrong or needs fixed I’ll take care of it, for life.

Evolution of the Tamarisk; side pockets

Side pockets which are easily accessible on the go and large enough to carry a significant percentage of the days gear (water, food, rain gear, maps, etc) are the defining element of a modern backpacking pack.  Belt and shoulder strap pockets can play supporting roles here, but my last three years of testing has heavily reinforced my conclusion that here is no substitute for good side pockets on a mileage-oriented pack.  How did we manage for so long without them?  Slower and less efficiently.  Just look through this post and cringe.

That said, there are plenty of reasons to try to get along without them if at all possible.  Proper side pockets aren’t at all complicated pieces of design, but getting the details just right is fiddly.   The deeper reasons for avoiding them have to do with the more rugged and technical pursuits.  Backpack width is the most premium number in balancing capacity and performance, and good side pockets necessarily add a lot of this, usually 3-4 inches per side.  A 12 inch wide pack, the limit for conventionally sized adults wanting a sleek pack, could easily grow past 20, which can be a problem in brush and while nordic skiing.  Side pockets also don’t play well with things like a-frame ski carry, at least without making the pocket design more complex and heavy still.

Another limitation of side pockets is their gaping opening, which while bushwacking, hiking in the rain, and crashing on skis become magnets for pine needles, water, and snow.  Pocket security is also a consistent issue, the number of water bottles and cans of bear spray lost during the Bob Open to wrecks, creeping willow branches, and logpile gymnastics is easily in double digits, something that isn’t just an inconvenience, but potentially a safety concern.

When I started developing a pack targeted at trips like the Bob Open pocket accessibility and security was right up with load carriage on my list of problems to understand and find balance for (aka “solve”).  The first prototypes sought extra pocket capacity and utility by extending the pocket out on to a wing which cinched to the hipbelt.  One had a zipped closure, the other a flat zippered pocket inside the bellowed cinch-cord pocket.  These pockets worked well, but didn’t make the cut for a number of reasons.  One, they’re a serious pain to sew, and extending the pocket on to the wing doesn’t add enough function to merit the added complexity.  The zippered security was nice, and it is very possible to make a zippered pocket that is easy to open and close with one hand, so long as the pack is full, if you extended the zips with wings.  The zips become mostly if not entirely unusuable with a partially empty pack.  They’re also a long term durability concern, even with #10s, and in winter the zips can freeze up.

About that accessibility; there is a narrow window of efficacy with side pocket dimensions.  Assuming fairly conventional pack width and a bag that doesn’t hang too far down from the illiac crest, anything beyond 7 inches of depth demands more than most folks shoulder flexibility will allow.  Much less than 6 inches of depth makes for a pocket that gives up capacity.  The obvious answer is to extend the pocket all the way to the base seam, which is what I’ve been doing on all the recent prototypes.  Bumping the base of the pocket up the side panel a hair is tempting, as it enhances abrasion resistance, and a straight base line is the ideal in functional capacity, but in the end more space is better, simpler, even if un-ideal in some ways.

MLD and HMG are the top examples (with pockets that are identical in function if not construction) of a simple design that prioritizes durability over function, with flat, pleated side pockets elevated above the base.  MLD is on record as endorsing the loosen the straps and cant the back off the belt approach to bottle grabbing, with the physics being undeniable and the coherence, in situations where you don’t want to go for the flop, rather lacking.  Gossamer Gear has long been the other side of the coin, with the Gorilla (for instance), having dimensioned (i.e. 3D patterning) pockets right at the base.  These work a lot better than any flat pocket.

The answer to abrasion concerns with low pockets are to pack side pockets intentionally, which occasionally means leaving them empty, as well as using appropriate fabrics.  The 140D gridstop on the old Gorilla was, for instance, too light for my taste even for trail backpacking.  I discovered early in the pocket process that it is possible (easy, on a pack 8 inches or more deep) to make a side pocket too big.  The trick on the Tamarisk (7 inches deep at the base) was to make pockets that could hold a 48oz nalgene and sundries, while also collapsing mostly flat when empty.  Dimensioned pockets have been the only way to make full use of pocket real estate since the side pocket revolution got going, but with the Tamarisk I reverted to a hybrid style.

Against the user they’re dimensioned, and 4 inches deep, while the non-user side is flat, the excess depth of the pocket taken up in two pleats sew into the seam.  The curves of this seam goes both upwards and inwards towards the users spine, in both cases just enough to make for smooth edges without blunting functional capacity (more in the next installment).  The way the pleats limit pocket capacity ends up blending with the dimension of the main bag, creating a pocket that if big, but mostly disappears when needed.  The finishing touch is doubled shock cord, whose tension is adjustable on the fly (shout out to Luke Fowler).  In use tension is high enough that the pocket can almost be sealed shut, while maintaining easy accessibility, and with the perishable elements being user replaceable.

Alpine packs won’t and shouldn’t have side pockets, for the reasons listed above.  But if the wholistic mission of a backcountry pack is limited to 4th class and below, be it on rock, snow, or in the bush, side pockets are a necessity, as the best way to maintain efficiency and keep hydration, nutrition, and day gear close at hand.  As a process they embody well the compromises that shape every aspect of a technical, multiday pack.

 

Evolution of the Tamarisk; load carriage

I am delighted to report that the Tamarisk is finished.  If by finished I mean that the prototype I completed a month ago and have been testing exhaustively since requires almost no changes.  The patterns can now be set in stone, and the road towards production begin.  This may not be a short road: I’m still trying to nail down a foam supplier who will provide relatively small wholesale quantities of the exact right thickness and density; I’ve all but resigned myself to sourcing the best ladderlocks and quick release buckles from different sources; I’m using this prototype to see if this stuff might be a substitute for 500D Cordura on the pockets and suspension components.   All that and everything else might yet take months, but having the shape, features, and especially suspension where I want it to be is deeply satisfying.

The first goal for this pack, when I started working on it almost 3 years ago, was to have a ~50 liter package that would carry 50 pounds but be optimized for 20-30.  More specifically, I wanted a hipbelt and harness wouldn’t feel clumsy with a daypack type load, and would also be substantive enough that the structure of the suspension (a single stay in this) would be the limiting factor in load carriage.  To make sure that this can be checked off as mission accomplished, I’ve spent the last week and half using my workday workout time (6-7 am) to load the pack with ever increasing weight for the same 4 mile loop.  This isn’t enormously exciting, but does allow for an extended and exacting focus on just how the various elements in the pack respond to another 5 pound increase.  The last three mornings have seen this number creep above 50, this morning, in the form of a painters drop cloth in the bottom, and 26 liters of water on top.  This is a lot, enough to get me sweating even on the flats, at -10 F.  My 4 inch wide, sub 8 ounce hipbelt has been holding firm around my hips, the single stay just beginning to bounce vertically in the way I’ve to recognize as how you want to see a suspension system using aluminum start to reach its limit.

The definitive beginning to defining load carriage in a backpack remains Ryan Jordan’s 2003 article on torso collapse in packs, the thesis being that when a correctly sized pack looses a certain amount of its torso length (10% being a useful threshold) to load induced collapse, the load limit of that pack has been reached.  The other dimension of that puzzle, one which took me the better part of a decade to fully understand, is that the ability of the hipbelt to resist slipping and appropriately contour to the user must at least keep pace with the suspension.  A hanging belt with the right mix of flexible yet supportive structure is the abbreviated answer here, and leaves one with the fairly simple design challenge of optimizing vertical structure for the weight to be carried.  In this case, a single 3mm by 13mm 7075 stay.

It is the simplest suspension system I could design, because it minimizes things like the number of fabric panels and yards of thread, as well as because there are as few performance elements in action as possible.  The theoretical and practical limits of that single stay are in the Tamarisk identical, which is why I’m content that I did what I wanted.

 

OR Ascendant Hoody; at last

Since the original Rab Strata I’ve been looking for an active insulation mid/outer layer that can do both with minimal compromises.  That is: provide substantive static weight/warmth, as well as balance breathability and weather protection coherently.  The Strata was more on the outer layer side of things, while somehow not providing as much static warmth as 16 ounces should have provided.  The Nano Air Light is a good bit to the mid layer side of things, which is no vice but does limit it.  There are instances where more outer protection is nice, so why not get it from one garment, rather than two?

The OR Ascendant hoody gets the balance just right.  The Quantum Air shell and 95 grams/meter Alpha Direct work well together, shockingly better in all circumstances than the Strata.  The Alpha Direct seems to wick faster than either the Nano Air or Nano Air Light, and is warmer (and heavier) than either (60 grams/meter and 40 grams/meter, v 95 for the Ascendant).  The shell is more wind resistant than the Nano Air, but the material combo in the Ascendant manages internal moisture just as well.

Fit is very good on the Ascendant, a hair longer than average arms and torso, just enough room for a light midlayer underneath.  Detailing is typical Outdoor Research, which is to say a bit odd and less than ideal.  The hem cordlock is back at 430 on the tail.  Defying expectations, I haven’t sat on it at all, and while it isn’t intuitive, it does have the virtue of being a bit lower and more reliably out from under a hipbelt.  The open hand pockets work fine, as does the #5 Vislon zipper on both main opening and chest pocket.  The chest pocket is a good size, not cavernous nor excessively small, but the material isn’t anchored, which creates a tendency for bunching.  The hood is a bit of a disaster.  The volume adjuster works well, but the under-chin cut and lack of a means to cinch this part of the opening funnels strong wind right under the ears.  Tucking the shock cords just a bit down towards the chin would have sorted this nicely, an unfortunate confirmation that the relation between OR and hoods remains problematic.  The “thumb loops” are even more unfortunate, small and vestigial enough to be the silliest feature I’ve seen on a tech garment in many years (maybe since the roll opening and lumbar cinch on the Montane Spektr?).

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If the Ascendant is, in function if not in details, as close to ideal an active insulation layer as I can imagine, the remaining question is when you’d use it, and why you might invest in one over the potentially much cheaper combo of 100 weight fleece and wind layer.  Potentially, because a fleece alone would not provide the same protection, and a wind layer with an equivalent protection/breathability ratio would not be a bargain item.  The easy answer is that no such combo (aside from this and an Airshed) would move internal moisture anywhere near as well, and most if not all such combos will likely dry slower.  The caveat is to not to use too much insulation for a given situation, especially moving, and expect sustainable results.  Stop and go or generally slower paced activity in cool weather (within 10 degrees either way of freezing F, for me) would be a good use case, as would more aerobic activity in colder weather.  The best use for active insulation remains, in my mind, as an all the time layer for folks who run cold and don’t struggle with sweat management.  What I’m personally excited about is that the Ascendant will be warm enough to be a main insulation layer for summer adventures, one that will be not be limited to static use in the same way a UL down jacket would.

The Ascendant isn’t a replacement for the tragically discontinued Nano Air Light hoody (WTF Patagonia??!), but is the first active insulation piece I’ve used which is almost the same caliber.  The fabric/insulation combo is also becoming quite common, suggesting that other options (with better hoods) may soon be available.