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

R0000334

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.

img_9300

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.

img_9004img_9005

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.

img_9003

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.

img_9001img_9002

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?).

img_8767.jpg

img_8768

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.

A decade in the outdoors

7 things that happened in the past decade; equipment, trends, and the ways the two intersect to create human experience.

The Alpacka booty

The technological advancement of the decade is, for outdoor adventure, without question the packraft. 10 years ago the state of the art was the above. Today, boat shapes make that level of paddling accessible to intermediates. While pushing wilderness whitewater remains the future, especially in the context of landscape trips, modern packrafts are most often put to use making moderate moving water simpler and warmer, which is not a bad thing. Nonetheless, with so much of packraft energy being put into sidecountry and destination backcountry whitewater rather than technical traverses, it’s difficult to not conclude that packrafts haven’t yet justified their seed.  This next decade will tell us how much of a place packrafts, as a backcountry whitewater tool, have in the wider outdoor world.

The great bike divergence

A convergence of several trends have made the past decade an extraordinary one when it comes to bikes that will be ridden on dirt.  When I began working on this series a bit over 9 years ago there were only three “bikepacking” bag manufacturers.  Trans-Iowa was still alive and well and while that event had by 2011 birthed the ethos of modern gravel, the commercial side with pros and more saliently, specialty bikes, was in its infancy.  Allroad bikes are what road bikes for the masses should have been all along; mellow handling, a low gear down in the 20s, rock solid braking, room for a 2 inch tire.  Good on pavement, great on dirt, good enough on mild tech (or more if you’re skilled).  From the other side, these bikes can be coherently viewed as the true successors of early mountain bikes, in terms of both ability and versatility.

Mountain bikes themselves ought to better be called trail bikes, something made very clear by the last decade of development.  2014 gave us the Surly Krampus, and the rapidity with which 3 inch tires were shrunk for 650b rims, widely popularized, and then all-but discarded by the mainstream remains as impressive as it is curious.  The appeal of fat-lite is to the rider who regularly sees not-groomed off road terrain immediate.  For the groomed trail rider they are, apparently, too heavy and imprecise.  And this is I think the quick story of trail biking in the past decade; the move towards specialization, towards bike parks, towards flow trails, towards compartmentalizing and prioritizing downhill ability above all else.  I’ve read more than one commenter in the past week say that, in another 10 years, acoustic mountain bikes will be in the significant minority, especially in “destination” mountain bike spots.  Electric assists will send riders up the shuttle roads and trails, and big, heavy travel and geo will send the same bikes back down specially made gnar (or flow, which remains another word for easy-for-humans).

In short, I’m not sure I want to be a part of the next decade of mountain biking.  Shying away from the broader challenge, from trails not specialized for two wheels, from climbing as much as circumstances allow, from travel at distance across a landscape, isn’t mountain biking as I have known and loved it.  Neither is dirt (road) touring, which is plainly the growth direction for capitol B bikepacking.  If the old Dial formula that roads are for cars, trails for bikes, and off-trail for feet is currently on life support, this coming decade will determine if it survives as anything beyond the fringe of the fringe.

Skimo

A decade ago Greg Hill was just a guy in Canada with questionable music and a wife who could presumably support him financially.  Then came the year of 2 million feet and the TLT 5 boot and a bunch of local races, and today ski gear is a hell of a lot lighter and better suited to a range of backcountry skiing.  The broader ski community is even tentatively embracing human powered alpine skiing as a way to both make money and grow skiing itself.  Win/win?  There doesn’t appear to yet be a clear uptick in avalanche deaths, so perhaps not.

FKTs

IMG_1106

A decade ago the term FKT had only barely begun to grow beyond its use, by one man from Boulder*, to catalogue his own extensive, formidable, and occasionally bizarre ultrarunning accomplishments.  Today, the term itself has become ubiquitous, and the website which birthed it polished and host to a big list of routes and their associated fastest known times.  I continue to have existential objections to the whole project, but as the decade has come to a close my objection has become more pointed.

The internet has made publishing routes so quick, and sharing them in detail so precise, that I begin to worry about both increased traffic in fragile areas, and the poverty of imagination that so many off-the-shelf options will breed.  As crowded as our outdoor world can occasionally be, inspiration and imagination remain the limiting factors.  A good thing and a bad one wrapped into one.

Clothing that breaths

1346283711_67282

A decade ago active insulation wasn’t a thing, and 120 grams/meter wool was state of the art.  Today, we have the Nano Air (since July 2014), Alpha Direct, Polartec High Efficiency (above), light poly baselayers, and windshirts like the Alpine Start.  In other areas (shoes) development has been frustratingly circular, but the clothing we have day to day for the outdoors is exponentially better than 10 years ago.

The Neoair

R0013177

Comfort has long been, and remains, my least favorite word in the backpacking lexicon.  As a concept it is not only subjective, it is monumentally lame.

But the Neoair sure is comfortable.  By moving the bar on how much loft and comfort one could get from a given set of ounces, Thermarest reinvented the sleeping pad in the most significant fashion since their original inflatable.  A Neoair, and the various competitors and clones, allows side sleepers with hips at-home comfort, and allows those less picky to get away with sleeping on slickrock, wooden decking, and generally careless site selection.  Winter pack size shrinks a small but potentially crucial amount.  Like advances in clothing, the ripple effects are significant, and also like the above advances in sleeping pads stand out in the decade in which other sleeping gear was largely staid.

Laminate fabrics

R0010035

As a cuben skeptic I’m not going to give too much credit to DCF for providing much actual performance value, but with its enhanced sex appeal cuben has done more visible work than xpac in moving the conversation about performance fabrics and fabric performance shockingly close to the mainstream.  The need for laminate fabrics is currently vastly overstated in the mind of the enthusiast; for example I see no point in using them over PU in something like a fanny pack with a top zipper, the functional increase in weatherproofing just doesn’t exist.  Even for extreme use cases the value of a laminate pack fabric over good ole Cordura is far less than the overall value brought on in the past decade by the general increase in fabric awareness.  MSR completely revisited their tent fabrics, for instance, while PU/sil blends have become common.  Enthusiastic-level backpackers might actually know the difference between robic and nylon 6.6.  Once some of the fashion talk dies out or moves on I’m tentatively optimistic that a more sophisticated market, with more functional options, will remain.

Which is a nice concluding point to the decade as a whole.

 

*Bonus points to Mr. Burrell, associate of Mr. Bakwin, for writing the dumbest paragraph of the decade, as follows:

Packrafts. Ever since these were invented I’ve been avoiding them. They’re costly, heavy, and while some respectable adventurers use them, I’ve always thought they sort of looked like dorks. Like wearing rubber galoshes on a trail run. Like carrying a plastic lunch box with little bunnies on it during an ultra (OK, that one would actually be very cool). Kayaks and Stand Up Paddleboards are sleek and slender, paradigms of hydraulic efficiency, are great sports I really like, but packrafts are basically glorified pool toys.

 

Top 5 backpacks of the past 10 years

The close of a decade approaches which, if you’re not stocking it with thinly context’d affiliate links, isn’t so bad an arbitrary cause to re-examine what has happened in the past 10 years.  Lists focus the mind, and the fingers.  The best of these use material goods as a vehicle to examine culture, and since hiking and backpacking media is boring as fuck compared to bike media, in the name of all us impoverished, sedate walkers I’ll aspire to that end here.  First, a list just for backpacks, my favorite, and later a more general accounting.

Kifaru Bikini frame

The most sustained place for development in backpacks the past decade has been in hunting load haulers.  Kifaru doesn’t make the Bikini frame anymore, but it still stands out as the apotheosis of the original Lowe internal suspension design; enough vertical structure to support 100 pounds, enough fabric and padding to keep it comfortable, and just enough else to keep it all held together.  The limits of the Bikini have to do with adding lateral stability without adding too much weight, and the inevitable weight and comfort limitations associated with stay-in-lumbar designs.

Kifaru’s short-lived KU series was a contender here, with an integrated frame and bag making it to this day the lightest load hauling pack ever (2 lbs 10 oz for 5200 cubic inches).  The suspension was at least as bold a design choice as the more obvious main bag fabric (dual layer sil) and minimal features, and I still wonder if the limits of the KU, with even less lateral stability than the bikini, had more to do with its short life at retail than the fragile fabric.

Seek Outside Unaweep 3900

IMG_0515

If Kifaru set the table for the modern hunting pack, Seek Outside (nee Paradox Packs) was at the front of the pack who arrived in 2013-2014 to eat the scraps.  The Paradox u-frame and hanging belt remains the simplest, inherently lightest, and thus in my mind best of the systems which have matured towards 2020.  It is also, again in my mind, the definitive reification of the McHale argument that hanging belts work better than lumbar pad systems.  Around mid-decade Seek made forays with this argument in the hunting sphere, but was beat back by the ideological weight of the Kifaru tribe.

Also like Kifaru, Seek has persistant struggled with coherence in their feature set.  For this reason, the OG (and long discontinued) Unaweep 3900 remains my favorite pack of theirs.  The tall and thin shape suits the use of Talon compression panel to carry all manner of things, and while the non-dimensioned bottle pockets were a bit small, they were also out of the way of the bottom compression strap.  A pack who didn’t have enough time for the market to catch up.

Osprey Talon 22

JMT photosOsprey is the pack company of the past decade.  For proof, hang out in any busy place, backcountry or front, in any national park and take a casual survey.  This fact encapsulates both poles of almost any pack question.  Many of their designs are substantive, while many have as much to do with in-store appeal than function on the trail.  Many of their products are outstanding values (the Talon 22 MSRP has gone up only $10 in a decade), something anything more than casual introspection can only regard as a troubling fact of globalization.

Therefore it is appropriate that the best Osprey product of the past decade is one which was introduced in the previous decade has changed but little in this decade.  Flaws persist (lame side pockets!), but in shape and function the Talon 22 remains the ideal daypack, from day hiking, to mountain biking, to summer backpacking (see above, on the JMT).

Ultimate Direction Signature series

 

Running vests existed well over a decade ago, but in terms of either size (Nathan) or function (Inov8) they had significant shortcomings.  The first generation of the UD vests had issues as well (this first mainstream foray into cuben packs did not go well), but when it came to features and overall vision they set a high bar.  An all star team of pros/designers often does not translate well to production, but in this case it certainly did, and the result continues to define the category, and show just what truly accessible pockets (a huge growth area this decade) should be.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter

The Porter isn’t the most user-friendly, logical, lightest, or best carrying backpack.  But it looks cool, and was the linchpin product in not only changing the pack conversation (back) towards extreme functionality, but doing so in a wave of marketing that provided a timely antidote to lifestyle, hipster, do-little, fashion mongering abyss that gear in the instagram age was for the later part of the decade very close to falling in.  HMG makes capable packs, that cannot be contested.  A lot of their fundamentals were dated when the designs debuted 8+ years ago, but with respect to aesthetics, materials, and design they are bags meant to do thing, demanding things.

And if that isn’t the first ideal for a backpack, I do not know what is.

Forward the consumer

I have profoundly mixed memories of my first Outdoor Retailer.  The barely 1 year old Little Bear had an ear infection come on while we were hiking in Glacier just before, was cranky on the drive down to SLC through the night, and the next night required a hasty visit to first urgent care and then the only open pharmacy.  He looks understandably haggard in this post.  On the other side, I had great fun, and learned in way only first experiences can bring.  A majority of the items I featured in that post are in our closets today, in one version or another, or used to be before they broke in one way or another.  Subsequent shows have been bigger (SHOT), weirder (Utah Hunt Expo), and more fun (NAHBS), but I don’t expect anything else to ever rival seeing all that stuff, my stuff, in one place, with all the associated culture.

Culture; will all the positive and negative connotations.

One of the points of contention, about the new Big Gear Show and about OR for a number of years, has been access for the general public.  Trade shows started as a place for shops to see and order next years stuff.  This is antiquated.  Purchasing and product cycles are far more dynamic, driven increasingly by direct to consumer.  I think the BGS folks are correct to make a distinction between the lifestyification of outdoor gear and more core hardgoods.  Lifestyle gear gets a pass, but still.  If it weren’t for those at the edge, little of interest would have happened with outdoor gear.  The “outdoor industry” has long been guilty of myopia as to how broad and variegated that edge can be, just as it as an entity has been guilty about the future of retail and indeed trade shows.  We’re still amongst the experiment of local shops surviving the onslaught of Amazon and Frontc***ntry.com (1), but evidence suggests that if they can, it will be on the backs of service and community, boot fitting and beta.  For a few decades these places have made it into the black via apparel sales, but if these shops go too far that direction, they won’t have aquaseal, repair buckles, and emergency tent stakes anymore, nor staff who know the on the trail relevance of shoe drop.

Therefore, shows should embrace the public.  All the smaller outdoor shops or businesses I’ve known are very aware that a small percentage of customers, the hardcore, the fans, drive a vast percentage of revenue.  These are the people who switch packs every 5 months, kill trail runners every 90 days, and need a new setup or two every .7 ski seasons.  They are the soul of the outdoor industry, not the insiders who buy everything at prodeal and are jaded by highlight reels and having to explain, year after year, what PTFE stands for.  The objection is that users, exposed to new and upcoming stuff, will leave shops hanging with unsold inventory.  My rebuttal is twofold: enthusiasm is more valuable in the long run than sales, and that hardgoods will be less prone to fashion and whim anyway.  I’ve had several spirited discussions with product folks over the years about the value, or not, of discussing development while existing products are still sitting in inventory.  It’s not diplomatic, or even sensical, but my reply has always been that good product will trump all else.  Product cycles can take a haircut, and the “industry” as a whole could do with a reminder that for them, in the 21st century, unedited, conventional capitalism has little place.

But maybe that’s why I didn’t want to be in the outdoor industry after all.

 

1: Is it responsible and sustainable for outdoor websites to subsidize themselves off such negative influences in the form of affiliate sales?

Black Diamond Hilight snap judgment

15 years ago I bought the first generation of the Black Diamond Firstlight.  It was a remarkable thing for the time, a silnylon floor and ripstop Epic fly which, with the simple design, added up to an almost unprecendentedly low total weight and small packed size.  We used it a bunch for 7 years until passing it along, something I’ve since regretted.  The design is simplicity itself, pitches fast, provides lots of living space for the footprint, and between the steep walls and relatively small panels sheds weather of all types better than two simple crossed poles would suggest.  The most memorable night in the Firstlight was in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of summer.  M and I did RAGBRAI in 2005, out of a single bag consigned to the cargo shuttle each day.  The second or third night out a near-tornado passed nearby, something we only learned the next morning, when we learned how many of our peers had been driven inside the local school by flattened tents.

The Firstlight did eventually cease to repel rain, one assumes due to dirty fabric, something my cleaning never entirely fixed.  I’ve long longed for a reliably rainproof replacement.  To that end we bought a Bibler Eldorado, whose performance was faultless, but whose packed size (due to the laminate fly material) was massive enough that it was never a viable backcountry option.  The long-discontinued Golite Utopia is the only other option, and floorless at that, but those models were a bit low ceilinged and hard to find.

So when earlier this year BD introduced a significantly altered line of ultralight tents, I thought long before jumping on the new Hilight.

The Hilight was introduced, back in the day, as the UL version of the Bibler Ahwahnee, just as the Firstlight was to the I-Tent and Eldorado.  The new Hilight has a 30D sil/poly Polyester for the tent body, non-breathable, which makes venting a priority.  This, and dry entry in the rain, makes the side door, large window, and awning pole of the Hilight sensical for this fabric.  The new Firstlight remains made of Nanosphere, and thus not utterly rainproof.

img_8721img_8723

The Hilight is not a big tent, with the modest length (82 inches) barely adequate for a six footer.  My intentions for this tent are three fold; as a winter ski touring tent, as a fall alpine hunting tent, and as an all season shelter for myself and Little Bear.  In the former two cases I’ll use it solo, and laying diagonally will provide plenty of room for winter sleeping gear.

img_8724

The detailing on the Hilight is excellent; #5 nickle plated zipper sliders, big zipper flaps, nicely bartacked stake loops, guypoints tied in to laminated reinforcements inside the fly.  It is small, and well built, but it isn’t exactly light.  On my scale the body (in the factory stuff sack) measures 2 pounds 10.5 ounces.  The pole set (in bag) is 1 pound.  The included 8 DAC v stakes (my second favorite, and a very nice thing to see) 4 guylines, and pole splint all add up to 4.5 ounces.  So, you might be a hair under four pounds field weight for the Hilight, but not too far in factory form.

img_8731.jpg

There are enough light tents on the market today that such a figure needs accounting.  Foremost, the Hilight and Firstlight are dead easy tents to pitch fast and then secure on deep snow.  Stamp a platform, erect the tent, stuff a ski in two corners, inverted ski poles in the other two, and off to bed.  Rarely is pitching a mid in similar conditions half as easy, as the stakes must hold tension from the first, rather than waiting for the snow to consolidate while you’re already in bed making dinner.  Mids, even the newer school two pole mids, are much less weight/space competitive with the Hilight if a full nest is added to the mix, indeed, nest inserts are so fussy I’ve roundly conceded them to the bin.  Floorless generally works for bugs in all but the worst conditions, and in those, might as well deal with a proper tent.   This is the rationale for using the Hilight on kid trips, too; it is the simplest and close to most weight efficient containment for active sleepers.

img_8730

I do wish the HiLight were lighter, though I wouldn’t do that with a lesser fabric.  Our Firstlight had extensive patching along the poles, both due to several run away episodes (user error) and due to persistent chafing of the poles against the fly in strong storms.  I might well do it by hacking some superfluous features, starting with the extensive loops and grommets which exist to mate with the optional fly (2 ounces at least, I reckon), and extending to the huge “flow manifold” tunnel vent on the top of the tent.  On the one hand it’s a logical enlargement of the roof vents in the Eldorado.  On the other it seems a bit redundant given the door and window venting.  Concerningly, there is no way to close this vent.  The inner, smaller pair of the four tunnel reinforcements can be bent in, but that is inside the mesh holes.  How does one keep spindrift out?  How does the vent act (as the catalogue copy claims) “…a central, ceiling exit rope for anchoring in on steep pitches.”  Perhaps BD assumes alpinists will cut out the mesh?

I’ll give the tent a shake or two in stock form, but am assuming now that I’ll be cutting out of the whole vent complex and sewing covers over the mesh vents.  The adorable little pockets welded center panel on each end are also ripe for scissoring.

img_8726

The Hilight doesn’t stand out on specs alone, but it does on aesthetics and design.  Based on first impressions and past experience it should on performance, too.  Just need a bit more fresh snow for a proper trial.