My ultimate hunting pack

Last month a reader contacted me about a pack bag for a Seek Outside frame, mentioning these bags as inspiration.  Primary use for the pack would be elk hunting in the Olympics, with capacity and simplicity as main design priorities, along with side pockets which would hold a sizeable tripod and 80mm+ objective spotting scope.  After some discussion, we agreed that I’d try to thread the needle and make side pockets which could both hold these hefty optics, and provide on the fly access to water bottles, backpacking style.

This was a enjoyable project, being in essence the 6th or 7th refinement of a set of dimensions I’ve settled on as ideal for an expedition pack, while tweaking features and materials based on experience.  Hunting, and then packing, elk in coastal rainforest is one of the more demanding activities I can imagine in terms of pack durability and weatherproofing, making the excellent X50 tactical fabric (in ranger green) an easy choice.  In the tactical series the x-ply is a kevlar thread, and far flatter than the traditional dacron, in theory removing it as an abrasion point.  Is does add tear strength, though I can’t see this being useful in the field given the toughness of the face fabric.  The base reinforcement is 500D Cordura, and wraps up the top a few inches for max security while sliding down talus and alder thickets.

Side pockets are 500D Cordura, and 20 inches tall on the front face.  They attach to the uppermost compression strap, and are fully dimensioned with square bases, 5 inches deep on the front edge, 4 inches on the user edge.  I don’t own a big eye, but as seen below they swallow two 48oz nalgenes with room for at least another, when the main bag is crammed full.

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Bag dimensions are almost identical to the packs in the bison post; 42 inch lower circumference (8 inch depth), 50 inch upper circumference (12-13 inch depth), and a 40-42 inch unrolled height against the user.  This large amount of upward taper makes the ~90 liter at full height bag more like 55 liters when rolled all the way to the top of the frame.  This makes a smaller load less floppy, and enhances carry in meat shelf mode, as the lower part of the bag can’t get cantilevered that far out from your back.  The customer asked, in response to my commenting that this was a moderately large bag, what one could do to make a pack even bigger.  A lower circumference approaching 50 inches would add a huge amount of volume, and you could certainly make the bag taller, which I’ve never tried.  Presumably even with stiff xpac fabric and a roll top, at some point you reach a literal tipping point where stability goes downhill.  With Seek frames you can stack extensions, and a custom job on a 30 inch frame could probably get close to 50 inches without issue, in the process truly getting into bivy bag territory.

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Truly custom pack building is the most satisfying type, as well as the most nerve wracking.  Perhaps with enough experience I’ll cease to worry so much about meeting expectations with brand new designs, though at that point the fun level might decline in tandem.  For the moment it’s hard to resist adding a personal anxiety tax each time I agree to such a project.

And hey, it’s September.  Time to go sheep hunting (in only a few days).  Almost sad I won’t be getting this bag dirty myself.

Introducing North Fork Packraft straps

The astute will have noticed months ago that I’m in the process of launching a pack company, North Fork.  I’m pleased to report that it is going very well indeed, in spite of no overt public evidence of progress.   Two years ago I sketched out a detailed idea of the two packs I wanted to build, and have spent the time since making prototypes to re-examine every relevant detail.  Just because I’d spent the prior decade as a hobbiest settling on my own preferences for wilderness packs did not mean those ideas were the best way of doing things.  This experimentation and development process has been immensely satisfying, largely because I freed myself from all time constraints.  I’d make as many packs, and do as many trips, as necessary for me to be content.

That process is, for the smaller of the two packs, beginning to wind down.  I’ve refined a simple, light, and supportive suspension system that can carry 40 pounds sustainably, involves minimal moving parts, and can be stripped down to completely frameless.  A protracted, 18 month diversion into complex side pocket design brought me right back to the basic design I started with.  Features and bag design took numerous diversions, and got back quite close to my original ideas.  That part is gratifying, that the first decade of experimentation was not misleading, but the assurance I bought in recent years only makes the original knowledge shinier.

I’m aware of exactly how full my days are, and have no intention of going down the solo cottage shop road of over committing and watching the wait times grow.  Thus, the bulk of North Fork packs will be sold as stock, and in batches, which will be available when they are available.  If things go as anticipated, the first run of Tamarisks (40 liters, technical multiday backpacking or race pack) will go live in time to be a winter solstice gift.  Development on the big, UL mission pack will continue into next year.  Ideally I’d like to sell some before next summer.

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To shake out the administrative kinks, and sell a simple thing whose value I’ve tested for even longer, we’re releasing the first run of packraft straps.   A ~70 inch length of 1 inch polypro webbing with a stout ITW buckle (each straps is ~72 inch tip to tip with buckle).  I made the first versions (red, immediately above) back in the pre-cargo fly days.  They weren’t quite longer enough, so I made the second (blue, all other photos) and final version, of which several have been in use for the past seven years.

A really big, really full pack will just about max them out.  The sweet spot for the length is a full 55 liter pack, maybe 36 inches in circumference.  The poly webbing is noticeably lighter in field use than nylon.  One inch webbing provides enough friction on both the buckle and against the pack that a cobble scrapping flip will not tear your gear loose, even if that gear includes a mountain bike (been there).  I have also found out, the hard way, that just because you can fit it inside your packraft does not mean, in the name of maximized puncture resistance, you should, making packraft straps relevant for all boaters.  The straps are also handy for keeping your boat rolled tight, for tying a serious overload to your pack (bear can?  100 meter static line?), and for taming awkward loads generally.  I used one last fall to roll up a bison hide for transport, and chained three together the other week to get our new-to-us (1950s Corona, ‘natch) range tight to the dolly and down many stairs into the kitchen.

Packraft straps are shit that works.  So buy some, or make some yourself.  Small item shipping rates meant that total charges for overseas customers are a bit excessive, even with us (M and I) cutting the profit margin a good bit.  You can bartack poly webbing on a home machine, and if you do enough stitches even poly embroidery thread will hold.  I use bonded nylon tex 90, the bartacks will hold long after the buckle shatters.

This is the long-awaited second phase of what began with our stickers and guidebook 2.5 years ago.  Straps today, with stock and (occasional) custom packs to come later this year.

PS: Half the straps sold over the weekend.  Much gratitude from us for the support, and the interest in the packs to come. 

Astral Brewer 2.0; the hiking review

Shoe weight matters.  Read all this stuff if you haven’t recently, the most singular point being that the guy with the lightest shoes was the only one who made it all 1000k.  When I was just getting into serious backpacking, about a decade ago, I got the idea that one ought to have a footwear system that was sub 1 pound all up.  With size 11.5 feet and the need for durable shoes this is not yet realistic, at least not with gaiters and insulating socks, but the ideal is a good totem to keep you honest.

All of which begs the question of what you want in a shoe for serious (big miles, off trail, etc) hiking?  Over at BPL RJ recently published an elegant piece about epistemic issues (“As you immerse yourself in an area of study, defining it becomes more nuanced and complex – and irrelevant.”)  in ultralight hiking, concluding that “…ultralight backpacking is a practice centered around the idea that one should solve a problem using as little as possible, but that which is used to solve the problem should be as effective as possible.”  For me that has involved taking the last decade plus to increase my knowledge and my hiking strength, and drill down with ever more precision into what I needed for consecutive days of tough hiking.  Durable uppers for one, with some protection, and a stiff, low, and not overly padded sole with little if any drop, and an aggressive sole pattern.

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I’ve been interested in Astral’s shoes since their beginning, and with the number of zero drop or close hiking shoes dwindling with the swings in market fashion I bought a pair of Brewers last month, to try out specifically as a hiking shoe.  The Brewer is intended to be a general boating shoe, with a style and performance that lets it cross over (quite heavily I would suspect) into lifestyle wear.  The sole is sticky, but non-marking, for example, and as M noted the fat toe and contrasting stitching gives you the air of being on a July trip out to Orcas Island.

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The twist on evaluating such a shoe today is that I currently hike fewer miles per month than any time in the past decade, or even two.  Backpacking is a demanding activity, and pushing backpacking into more intense realms strips back both illusions concerning the functionality of items, and the many ways in which fitness was previously padding out inadequacies in both gear and technique.

I want to press the Brewers as far as I can as a hiking shoe because the midsole is low (17mm stack) and fairly stiff, while the upper is close to as minimalist as a shoe gets.  There is no heal counter (which will allow for further exploration of the extent to which this is necessary), and very little padding.  One can fold the heel flat and use the shoes as slip ons.  The toe box is broad and Altra-esque, while the tread pattern is largely positive, to maximize contact on slick rocks, but with a grid of large cut outs, enough to clear mild mud and grip in loose soil.  The tread isn’t ideal for Montana hiking, in that it isn’t ideal in steep loose soil and really struggles in mud, but it is more than serviceable.  It’d be an ideal tread pattern for the Colorado Plateau.  The lack of heel counter has not been noticeable, save for a few occasions when mud or deadfall pulled the shoe a bit down on my heel, and I had to wrestle it back on.  It is curious that the shoe could fit this loose and have that degree of movement not really be noticeable even in severe terrain, evidence I suppose that a shoe like this moves with you.  Further pluses are the thick laces, which have been exceptional at staying tied in the face of bushwacking, better than anything else I’ve used.

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The one serious downside has been the lack of padding and/or foot protection in the upper.  The recent traverse reminded me how un-sticky limestone talus can be, with the sides of my toes taking a few good hits and pinches that made me wince at my choice of footwear.  The lack of padding does, moreso than the little drains in the toe and heel, make the Brewer dry as fast (and weigh as little) as it does, but there are costs.  The naked fabric low on the upper is also an obvious future failure point, barring the intervention of more aquaseal  My next shoe purchase will likely be the TR1 Merge, to maintain all the virtues of the Brewer and get more foot protection and durability.  A note on sizing: I would consider the Brewer quite short, and bought 12s to get the same room for socks and foot swelling I normally get from 11.5s.

The Brewers appeal to me a great deal, both because they fit my preferences, as because they’re such a lean design.  You can feel the seams in the upper if you get the lacing tension wrong, and they beg to be worn with slightly thicker socks, to pad things out a hair, though on the aformentioned traverse I used uber-thin 100% synthetic cycling socks, and I don’t think a thicker sock would have added that much of a comfort margin.  At the end of 3 days and 60 miles (20 packrafting, ~15 of the 40 foot miles off trail) I was quite done in, and burlier shoes probably would have taken the edge off.  At the same time, it was nice to know exactly how tired I was, and to know how I could appreciate the shoes even more with sharper legs.

RJ also published another piece, about building lifetime hiking fitness, where he recommends a quiver of hiking shoes to train weaknesses as well as provide rest.  In the hiking realm, the Brewers are an outstanding training shoe, one that provides enough structure and protection for demanding hiking, without anything at all that coddles or supports more than needed.  By that definition, a minimalist hiking shoe indeed.

 

Blue bike tales

Last week, at a yard sale, we saw this pretty blue Trek Antelope 850, and for $40 and in excellent condition I just couldn’t not take it home.

A little digging reveals this Trek is from 1990, close to the vintage of the Bridgestone MB-5 which was my first real bike.  Functionally identical performance between the Bridgestone and Trek, and the Trek has all original components, save the rear tire.

I was nostalgic to re-discover the ride quality of the mountain bike of my youth (second clavicle fracture, endo, 8th grade), but not enough to put up with silly gearing, janky shifting, and less than snappy braking.  I also wanted to maintain the original finish while dealing with the many, expected scars and rusty bits, and to that end I stripped the frame and put on 4 coats of clear before tackling the parts swapping.  So the far too big 28/38/48 rings got replaced with 24 and 36, with slightly shorter 170mm road cranks with a narrower q-factor.  The stock 13-30 7 speed freewheel is a very pragmatic range with nicely spaced jumps, so that stayed, shifted by an ancient thumb shifter I cobbled together by JB Welding a downtube shifter boss to the baseplate of a Sturmey-Archery thumb shifter.  An RX-100 shifter in friction gets the job done.  A future upgrade might be a proper stem shifter mount and another paddle so I can put the front derailleur back on.

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Raiding the parts bin revealed one functional Arch-Rival, for the front, and one functional Tektro canti, for the rear.  It didn’t take too long to recall how to set both up, and the result (at least until winter) is excellent.  The original front tire and its dry rotted sidewalls got confined to the shop rafter museum, and a new Kenda K-rad went on.  Surly Open bars, random brake levers, and new silicon grips complete the build, along with a vintage SR stem that gives more reach and (along with the bar) a healthy, comfy, and unfashionable amount of cockpit flex.

And it rides awesome, though the shakedown got highjacked by LB graduating to a full pedal bike, taking to it from the first trial with only a bit of assistance at the start.

He’s been riding his Cleary Gecko for almost two years, but as a run bike with the cranks removed.  On his first outing back then it became obvious that not only did he need more strength for pedaling, but that learning to both pedal and work hand brakes at the same time was too much.  The steel Cleary, with pneumatic tires, is a lot heavier than the aluminum Yuba with solid foam tires and plastic wheels, but after he mastered modulation hand braking became second nature, and speeds in our hilly neighborhood went up, way up, frighteningly so at times.  But LB has earned my trust with his judgment around streets and cars and bumps, and when a few clean runs down the gently sloped walk in front of his future elementary school begat multiple laps around the block and then back home, I was content to follow, the no-longer toddler making all the decisions.

Naturally, now he doesn’t want to do anything else.

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There are a few in hindsight obvious things about setting a bike up for a ~40 pound small person.  Tire pressures, obviously, can be very low.  The 25/14 gearing on the Gecko is well balanced.  Other things, like keeping the engagement of the brakes light, did not immediately occur to me.  The levers allow for lots of reach adjustment to suit small hands, and the custom small diameter bars and grips make the bike comfortable.  When he outgrows the Gecko, likely by next spring, he’ll surely be ready to add shifting to his skillset.

I’m still looking for whatever makes learning to ski as natural as a strider makes learning to ride.  The next phase of storage installation in the bike and ski room is not too far off.

Counter-less

Shoes of the Crosslite family have been my point of reference for rugged backpacking and hiking for a decade now.  The Crosslite, Crossleather, X Country, Anakonda, and Bushido have shared basic tread patterns, excellent rubber, close fit and low stack height, making them the best choice, for my foot, for technical hiking.  Most of these shoes (the X Country being the exception) had/have more than averagely durable uppers, enough that the tread wears out at around the same time.  Good enough.

Sadly the Bushido, which has been fundamentally unaltered for half a decade, is when it comes to fit the worst of the lot.  I’ve on my third pair, and it has only been through going without insoles entirely that they have enough volume.  Insoles would be ideal for protection from grit, but I can manage.  What I’ve struggled with in both the Anakonda and Bushido has been the aggessive heel counter, aka the plastic reinforcement which wraps and provides structure to the heel cup.  The Anakonda always pinched my heel at the top of the cup.  Thicker than avearage socks and a single layer of tape definitively prevented the little blister I’d otherwise get, again, manageable but annoying.  Pair #1 of the Bushidos did not do this, pair #2 did, and pair #3 did it badly enough that for all of last year they sat unused.  I couldn’t hike more than a mile without serious heel damage.

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So with nothing to loose this winter I put those shoes under the knife, and cut out of the heal counter entirely.  I’ve had a few shoes, the Altra King MT most prominently, which lacked any reinforcement here, the King MT particularly had me suspecting I’d do just fine without it.  The King MT is, like every Altra I’ve used or seen, something of a floppy piece of shit, but that is due to slipshod misfoot design and crappy upper materials, not the presence or absence of a heel counter.

So, I sliced through the upper material, and layer of inner mesh, down to the plastic counter, pealed the material off the outside of the counter and down the inside (this doesn’t take too much effort), and cut the plastic out with tin snips, flush with the sole structure.  I then glued the whole mess back together with multiple layers of Aquaseal, using good Aquaseal technique (i.e. allowing air cure before pressing things together).

A couple hundred miles since, and all signs are good.  The absence of the plastic reinforcement is obvious when I put the shoes on, but it does not negatively impact on trail or off trail performance.  No blisters, and most significantly no durability issues.  I’m not sure I’d care to repeat the procedure, but if I continue to struggle with finding low stack, low drop shoes that have both good tread and durable uppers, I might have little choice.

7/2020 update:

This experiment taught me a lot but was ultimately a failure.  The shoes got a lot of hard, mostly off trail miles last summer and fall, holding up well.  On a trip a few weeks ago, with lots of trail miles, the inner fabric and mesh between the cut counter and my feet began to decay and rip, and the result, even with tape to keep the interface slick, was significant blister formation on the outside of both heels.  I think this failure could have been delayed with more careful cutting, but I also think that the fabric layers, absent the plastic layer, are not strong enough to hold up.

 

 

 

Rebuilding the Osprey Vertigo

Sometimes function is encapsulated in a moment.  Back in the day Todd Goss had a solid gig guiding rock adventure courses for guests at the Green Valley Resort in Saint George, which in either of the few locales (Moe’s valley for convenience, the mountains to avoid the worst heat) involved some steep hiking, some easy scrambling, 5.3 toproping, and a gigantic zip line.  Ideal for adventurous tourists with no climbing background.  The rigging aspect was extensive, to say nothing of the gear hauling, as on public land nothing but the bolts stayed in place.  For a brief time I was the chief rope monkey and hauler, which also involved reeling in clients who yarded too hard on the panic handle.  We rigged them on runners long enough that grabbing the rope was not possible, but for psychological support Todd clipped a dead carabiner to length of rope and a wooden t-handle.  The more reactic and acrophobic clients would do a closed-eyed pullup for the whole 400 foot line, which would leave them hanging in space 20 feet short of the ledge.  I’d chuck them a biner on a 6mm line and haul them in like big fish.  It was fun work and good exercise.  Had M and I been able to better rebound from being booted by a very weird landlord, we might have been stuck in the most evil city in America for years.

In any case, my enduring memory from those days was Todd shucking his 50 pound Osprey Vertigo and unearthing a sheef of lockers and pulleys, and a 500 foot 10mm static line.  Since then the Vertigo, with its padded wings, big wrap around zipper, and perfectly organic Osprey geometry has been the definitive panel loader in my mind, with gear intensive day trips like climbing the ideal application.  So when Little Bear and I hit the jackpot at a local gear sale (see above) and found a thrashed Vertigo for free (!) I was beyond stoked.

The little details of the Vertigo are a delight.  Heavy mesh on the back of the stash pocket.  A generously pleated hanging bladder sleeve.  A hydration hose port which goes through a 5″ tunnel in the top of the pack (a little on the small side for many modern valves, granted).  A big #10 main zip with nickle-plated sliders.  Front compression straps which buckle to the sides for maximum squeeze.

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The straightjacket design of integrating stiff foam into each wing (red portion) is a fascinating design.  Osprey claimed it thus: “The StraightJacket side panels achieve their maximum stiffness when they are perpendicular to your back. Conveniently, this is when the pack is at maximum capacity and needing maximum support. When the pack is relatively empty, the side panels are designed to fold over each other, like arms in a straightjacket, and lie flat against your back. In this mode, they show a high degree of flexibility.”  This is true, but comes at a cost of weight and bulk, as well as crating abrasion point in the lower edges of the back panel (see below).

The suspension on the Vertigo is quintessential 00s, functionally similar but scaled down from the 90s Dana Design suspension.  The frame sheet with single stay goes into a sleeve at the top of the pack, and swaps into the lumbar, with the hipbelt velcroing behind.  The 1″ thick piece of cushy open cell foam slides in front of the framesheet.  The major design issue here is the potential for long term abrasion.  Dana managed this with insane reinforcement and a bunch of dense padding in the lumbar.  The Vertigo had neither, and obviously the previous owner put plenty of miles into this pack even after the sleeve was starting to fail.  I wanted to make this pack useable for me, so this is the number one issue that needs fixing.

The belt and straps on the Vertigo are perfect, mostly as good as these things get.  The soft fabric against the user has a 1/8″ layer of soft foam laminated to it, with 3/8″ of medium-dense (3lb ?) EVA behind.  I cut the straps off (following section) which allows us to see that even on an 18 year old pack with tons of use both foams are functionally new.  The belt is a medium which is Osprey sizing is to this day perfect for me.  The packs torso is also medium, which is way too short.  This is modification issue #2.

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The torso length issue is an easy fix; cut the straps off, cut the load lifters off, sew the first to the second.  The total back length of the Vertigo in medium is 21.5″, the number I would’ve picked had I been building from scratch.  The straps themselves are a bit short, an oddity peculiar to a lot of older packs.  Workable, especially given the quality of the padding.

Making a functional suspension with support the whole length of the pack is considerably more difficult, in no small part due to the swaths of stiff foam in the wings.  maneuvering the pack to get under foot makes for serious limitations.  A single stay with a bit of foam in the back panel provides good load carriage and enough structure.  I could get the top of the back panel under the machine, so sandwiched a layer of 1000D between the layers of fabric to create a stay pocket which doesn’t quite go to the top of the pack, to prevent abrasion.  A small pocket, of double layer 1000D, on the bottom of the belt holds the stay in place when the belt is velcro’d to the pack.  I was able to wiggle a layer of stiff 1/8″ foam into the existing sleeve, and then slide a pocket of 1000D over the bottom, stitching the whole lot to the sides.  This got a bit ugly and was a pain to execute, but got the job done.  I anticipate either hand stitching or gluing (more likely) the bottom of the 1000D sleeve to the exiting lumbar fabric for a cleaner look.

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What will I do with this pack?  I’m not entirely sure, but it was both a fun project and a cool addition to the functional gear museum (unlike the brick-heavy Chouinard axe, which will probably go the on the wall.

How the Imlay Kolob works

Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time.  M and I lived in Moab for most of 2004, which was significantly the first spring after Mike Kelsey’s Technical Slot Canyon Guide to the Colorado Plateau was first published.  Prior to this there was plenty of incomplete or tangential beta for technical slots available, but Kelsey’s publish everything and sort out (ethical, environmental, and accuracy) concerns later approach made the first edition of this book the largest single dissemination on the subject that had or will ever be able to happen.  We were in a unique position of being able to both experience many precious places prior to their first publication (a cold November morning busting microwave sized chunks off the wall in the upper forks of Butler, the day after North Wash had flashed to within a few feet of the base of the Hog Springs footbridge) and to have an easy feast of cheap info before the approach trails were beaten in and non-sketchy anchors established (finding Upper Iron Wash with nothing but fresh g-hook holes).  It was a time of great adventure (reinforcing decades-old drilled angles in the Roost, using knot chocks to rap off snow drifts in Echo) with just enough info and good enough online maps to go most places quickly, and enough unknowns to make it satisfying.

We returned home to Moab after eachs weeks adventure to dry ropes on our apartment balcony and repair wetsuits with a big can of contact cement.  Three different packs which had started the year new or close to it were most of the way to their graves by the time we left.

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The Imlay Kolob is a curious critter, because it is an unabashed specialist.  Tom Jones retired from a career at Black Diamond (where he designed classics like the gen 2 Bullet and the Zippo), and as a climber, to be a hiker with ropes and build canyon gear out of Mount Carmel Junction.  By the time the hybrid version of his Kolob pack was released around a decade ago, canyoneering had become a mature sport on the Colorado Plateau, with a coherent set of demands.  The Kolob Hybrid was the first and still the most coherent reflection of these.

The bare facts of the Kolob are a basic top loading draw cord bag with a floating lid, fixed shoulder straps, removable hipbelt, load lifters, and internal frame set in a pad sleeve.   Back length (base to load lifters) is 21 inches, while the base to strap measurement is 17 inches.  Top circumference is 36 inches, with a 10 inch wide back panel and sides which taper up from 7 to 8 inches deep.  The 40 liter size estimate is thus rather generous, with  30 liters being in my book more accurate.  The Kolob looses a considerable amount of capacity to the aggressively curved bottom, which makes sense.  For this pack bag shape, pocketing, and especially materials must be suited to the canyon environment.   Otherwise there is no reason to steer away from the old method of buying a 40 liter climbing pack on clearance, putting a bunch of grommets in it, cutting a bunch off, and using it for two years until it dies.

Abrasion and water drainage are the twin demands which separate technical canyon hiking from other disciplines.  Skinny sandstone slots are not just phenomenally abrasive themselves, good and safe downclimbing technical often demands using your pack for friction.  I made a simple bag out of X51 before this trip, and after 36 hours and four short but intense slots it was almost worn out.  Similarly, after this trip the 1000D main panel of my pack had a number of holes.  Point being; no single layer of fabric is tought enough for Colorado Plateau slot canyons, mainly because harder objects (bottles, roles) within are an inevitable subject of point abrasion.

To this end the Kolob not only has a radically upswept bottom, that bottom has three layers; holey PVC on the outside, closed-cell foam in the middle, and heavy mesh inside.  The rest of the main body is also two layers, mesh on the inside to hold the weight and expedite drainage, and either PVC or Cordura on the outside for abrasion resistance.  Double layer fabrics, with the inside layer ever so slightly undersized, makes for a massive jump in abrasion resistance, and the Kolob uses this approach in a way which guarantees no water in held in the pack, even if you use it as a kickboard for a 150 yard swim.

The downside of this approach is of course in added weight, with the Kolob weighing over 4 pounds.  Not a huge deal for a technical day pack that might easily be loaded with 30-40 pounds of rope, wetsuit, hardware, and drinking water at the start of a big day.  I have no doubt that the Kolob (and the most recent version, which has a bit less PVC) will hold up better enough than other packs to justify the premium.  The question is, does it carry those big loads also well enough?

Tom characterized the Kolob thus:

The Kolob’s suspension is simple yet sophisticated. Two aluminum tubes provide a rigid vertical structure, which are tied into the pack via six-inch-tall sheet-plastic panels at the top and bottom. The structure is separated from your back by 3/4″ of closed cell foam. The tubes are straight, though some degree of curve is built into the shape of the pack…The Kolob carries really well – the rigidity of the structure controls bounce, an energy-losing effect of flat-bar-based suspensions. The lack of pre-curve in the ‘stays’ allows the pack to have a wide fit range – helped by the willingness of the foam to develop a ‘memory’ of your particular shape.

It’s a unique suspension arrangement in my experience.  The tubes terminate in plastic sleeves held together by a strap and buckle, and this arrangement is inserted into the pad sleeve along with a tri-fold of dense 1/4″ CCF (a very pragmatic bivy pad).  The combo sure is vertically rigid, but between the frame being so short (borderline unuseable for me) and the hipbelt lumbar area not having any real way to not be vertical load transfer to the hips is modest.  Suffice to say past experimentation has me acutely skeptical that the foams “memory” with use will do anything to alleviate these design issues.  Part of the issue is that when this version was produced it was a one-size fits most pack, and taller folks can sorta get along better with a too small pack than smaller folks can with one too large.  Imlay has since added packs built for smaller folks, but none for larger, which is somewhat of a surprise, as I’m not exactly a giant.

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It has to be said that any more effective suspension I can easily imagine would also be more complex and likely less abrasion resistant.  It also has to be said that the reason to Kolob works is that the feature set is tuned to a single goal, with all the salient details (extra bartacks on handle, top photo) well attended to.  It’s a bit busy for my taste, and the frame height issue is a deal breaker, but it is one of the more interesting packs out there, and has been for some time.

Layering in 2019: insulation

Moreso than with most categories I feel sympathy for beginners trying to come to terms with understanding insulated garments for the outdoors.  Staying warm outside, on the face, shouldn’t be so complicated, and while the nuance and especially implementation of staying warm outside can be hard to hew closely with, having warm enough clothing shouldn’t be much of a mystery.  If action layers are for staying warm during various permutations of on-the-go, pure insulating layers are for keeping you warm while you’re still.  Plenty of concerns usually associated with action layers almost always bleed over into pure insulation, and indeed one of (in two more years I expect to be able to way the) the major recent developments is using lessons from active insulation in warmer garments designed for static activities.

To know how warm a jacket will be, you need to know what kind of insulation it has, and how much is there.  I tempted by the analogy of no one buying a new house from a builder who couldn’t give you the R in the roof without thought, but I’m sure there are plenty of folks who have and will do just that.  Don’t be that person, don’t assume attributes into a jacket based on marketing copy or a pinch test.  I’m loath to buy any insulation from a company that doesn’t list numbers front and center, but if they don’t (looking at you First Lite) they should at least be able to dig them up readily.  If a company can’t do that, run away quickly.

Knowing fill type and weight doesn’t help too much without a half dozen well worn garments in your closet to which you can compare.  Even so, knowing you need more then 4 ounces of down and less than 10 doesn’t help much if you’re in the market for synthetic.

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I haven’t used that many insulated jackets; the above is my best approximation of functional and equivalent warmths.  You can dive into seemingly more precise detail with clo ratings, but shell fabrics bias these rating significantly, and lab findings do not generalize well to the field (below).

Even if you have the necessary amount of insulation along on a trip, implementation can easily sabotage your plans.  Being tired, poorly hydrated, and badly fed can when combined take a huge percentage off the value of your insulation by robbing your body of the ability to make heat.  Bad technique, such as allowing yourself to get too cold during the day and/or letting your base and action layers to take on too much moisture can similarly kill the practical value of insulation.  Not maximizing your mental state also makes it hard to stay warm, both insofar as good psyche is linked to not making the aforementioned mistakes, and in that mental and physical well being cannot in my mind be meaningfully separated.  Embracing discomfort makes a cold, wet night seem warmer.

All that said, some moisture in your action layers is inevitable, and for this reason I now highly prize insulating layers which can not only not degrade significantly when damp, but move moisture.  The Hyperpuff seems like the way forward here.  I’ve had plenty of synthetic jackets which dried fast, but none which dried so well from body heat alone.  How much of this is the insulation, and how much the liner and shell fabric?  My hope is that continued development here will provide more answers.

In summer, I can make do with a lighter insulating layer.  Often this is down, as longer and warmer days make drying out easier, or just an active insulating jacket, as long days make it easy for ones sleeping bag to be the only actual static insulator.  Outside the warmest months of the year I rarely regret something as warm as the Hyperpuff, with a rarely used massive down parka the only other thing needed for those below 0 days.

Layering in 2019: mid and wind layers

Since 2011 I’ve owned around two dozen windshirts, and while a third of those were for larger reviews and garments in which I didn’t have an inherent interest, this still amounts to an extravagant total.  As of today there are only four in regular rotation.  In the same period I’ve had at least the same number of fleece pullovers, vests, and hoodies, including half a dozen items in current use, on top of a couple active insulation pieces.  I could, by contrast, cut baselayers down to two or three pieces without issue, and gladly go the whole year with a single hardshell.

All of which is to say that the task of additional weather protection for on the move is far more complex than any other.  The most relevant question is thus which items provide for the greatest range of use/comfort, and why.  Not only will versatile items better trim the closet, using generalism to frame our inquiry makes for more incisive answers.

I call wind and mid layers, which collectively are generally used for added protection while on the move in the backcountry, action layers (nod to Twight and Extreme Alpinism).

Thinner baselayers made with faster wicking fabrics and construction (as discussed previously) best fit and indeed demand action layers that prioritize breathability.  For example, take the opposite extreme, a 200 grams/meter 100% merino shirt which was “cutting edge” 15 years ago.  Hike uphill hard with a pack, even around freezing, and the shirt will get quiet to very wet.  Pop above treeline and get hit by wind, or turn the crest and head downhill with the associated drop in heat production, and you’ll want something to moderate evaporation, least you get cold.  Traditional windbreakers work well here, with limited breathability (<5 cfm, say) making for something of a wetsuit effect.  The disadvantage is of course that further measures will be needed to get ahead of the moisture curve, and if kinder ambient conditions don’t help you out, external heat of some kind, in the form of a fire or added insulation, will eventually be needed.  Modern layering seeks to avoid this, with systems that retain far less moisture under adverse conditions, and need far less input to dry.

There is a broad range of functionality here, with individual metabolism providing heavy influence.  Smaller folks, leaner folks, and those with slower metabolism often need a vastly warmer and more protective action layer.  For every case their is emphatically such a thing as too little or too breathable protection.  A case of too little protection would be the aforementioned thick merino and windbreaker combo, which in most cases has too little insulative value and too much protection against external forces, which makes the body work to hard to maintain equilibrium, which is in turn a poor use of calories and morale.  Too much protection would be a thin synthetic t-shirt and a 100 weight fleece pullover in the same conditions.  This combo is good at moving moisture, statically warm, but provides little protection against external conditions (e.g. wind).  This past fall I revisited using 100 weight fleece in place of a windshirt, and it only took one brisk day and one cold and still morning to think that the lack of control with respect to the wind and transpiration generally was stressing my metabolism more than seemed necessary.

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This is why the nylon 20D mechanical stretch nylon Patagonia developed for the Nano Air series, a fabric found on its own in the Airshed pullover, might be the most significant development in outdoor apparel in the last decade.  The insulation used in the Nano Air Light (above) is different that Polartec Alpha, but the reason it and the regular Nano Air are utterly different in use than other active insulation I’ve used is the shell and liner fabrics.  Not only are they very (but not excessively!) breathable, but the thin, mechanical stretch (spandex free!) fabrics retain amazingly little moisture.  A few weeks ago I was out in -15F on consecutive days.  On one the least breathable component in my system was my BD Alpine Start hoody, with a couple hours work putting a fine coating of frost against the inside.  On the other, a Nano Air over a baselayer (the LaSportiva Troposphere) stayed dry after three hours of hard trailbreaking.  The Nano Airs are even more versatile companions for people who run cold.  Since getting one in late October M has hardly taken hers off.

There are times when a windshirt which blocks a lot of wind has no substitute, including (at least for me) a hardshell.  The sadly discontinued Rab Windveil continues to be my all time favorite here, due mainly to fit and features but also to toughness.  The Alpine Start also remains a favorite, and oddly the windshirt I use most but the one I might let go first.  The fit is frustrating, as is the way it hangs on to just a little too much moisture when conditions are truly challenging.  On the other hand it’s durable, balanced with respect to weatherproofing, and looks good.

If I had to pick only two items from all the action layers I’ve had or have, they would be the Windveil and Nano Air Light.  The Alpine Start would be hard to give up, and the Airshed hasn’t been in my closet long enough for permanent consideration.  The fourth item would be Haglofs Pile hoody, not because it’s more performance oriented than something like a Nano Air hoody (or what the Tough Puff, which I’d love to try), but because fleece still beats active insulation on intangibles, if not on performance.

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Actions layers are the other area, along with baselayers, where I think premium items can be worthwhile.  The Nano Air series, along with the best modern wind layers, are astonishingly efficient.  The premium is steep, when comparing for instance a $35 fleece shirt and the $250 Nano Air Light, but just with baselayers when you’re wearing it almost year round, action layers are a good place to put dollars.

Layering in 2019: introduction and baselayers

Any discussion of layering has to start with it being somewhat of a misnomer; the point of a good layering system is to provider a few solid pieces which cover as great a range of conditions as possible.  If you have to swap, add, or remove layers often, you chose poorly for the day.  That said, technical outdoor clothing is both better and more expensive than ever, so if you pick well a small arsenal can work on almost any day of the year.

Base layers should move moisture quickly, and keep abrasion and sun off your skin.  We’re into the second decade of merino being full fashion in the outdoor realm, and I’m ready to call it ready to die insofar as backcountry performance is concerned.  The virtue of merino was always the extent to which it controlled evaporative cooling by absorbing some of the moisture burden as it moved from skin to the garment surface, with odor control and heat of sorption* being tangential benefits.  As the paradigm of all outdoor garments has shifted towards faster moisture transport and greater air permeability, moisture buffering in base layers has made less and less sense.  There is no point in effectively storing moisture in your base layer when the mid and/or wind layers are not working at full capacity.  Thin wool minimizes this disadvantage, but the continued experiment with introducing synthetics into merino is all the evidence required that merino durability is below 180 grams/meter substantially problematic.

Where wool continues to shine is as lifestyle wear for the urban jungle.  A mildly sweaty 3 mile bike commute makes the odor control of merino highly relevant, and while the aforementioned hybrids don’t hold up to brush and backpack abrasion, they do hold up to repeated laundering.  All my merino shirts have been shunted into daily use under dress shirts, which keeps the -10 degrees mornings a bit more at bay, and allows me to chase kindergarteners at will without being stinky for 3pm meetings.  Insofar as growth in the “outdoor industry” is largely confined to lifestyle or near lifestyle segments, merino has a bright future.

I revisited merino this winter, and quickly got sick of the outer layer of my hats and shirts frosting up, something which was under similar circumstances eliminated by going back to synthetics.  The last six years trend in synthetic baselayers has continued, with fabrics getting ever thinner, and mechanical/structural variations making for increased performance.  Polartec High Efficiency, popularized by the now-classic Capilene 4, has remained the touchstone cold weather baselayer, while sub-100 grams/meter garments have made this the new cutoff for light weight baselayers.  Old tech is also making comeback, in the form of the original synthetic baselayer, polypro.  If poly has won out in baselayers most significantly due its low moisture regain (.5%, roughly), poly ought to do far better with a moisture regain many times less (.06%).  This fall I’ve spent a lot of time in a nylon/polypro/spandex knit, and have been impressed that a not prodigiously light fabric could wick so efficiently, even under difficult (high humidity, near freezing) conditions.  The blend and modern anti-odor treatments seems to have dealt with the old polypro issues (stink, shrinkage at normal laundry temps) quite nicely, with the only downside of this particular piece being the emphatically euro styling (size up).

For the time being my recommendation from two years ago, that with a Cap 4 (now thermal weight) shirt and a Sitka Core LW shirt I could do everything, anywhere holds true.  The Sitka fabrics changed a bit and the features got more complex, but plenty of good options (e.g. the OR Echo series) has come on the scene since.  Most significantly, I continue to recommend that newcomers building a technical wardrobe sink money into quality baselayers, not so much because the performance gain over cheaper ones is massive, but because the gain/$ ratio is the best, and you’ll notice the refinements in function and fit most often, as your baselayers get used more often than anything else (save socks, another area to not skimp).

Next, the fraught world of mid and wind layers.

 

*Of sorption is the phenomenon where energy is given off as liquid water (in this case within the wool fibers of a garment) passes into a gas during evaporation.  It is popularly cited by wool boosters, and I remain skeptical that the effect is for one significant enough to be relevant in the field, and for another, consequential enough to overcome the downsides of having a bunch of water on board your garments.  The largest number I’ve found associated with of sorption in wool is 1 gram of water generating 277 joules (which is roughly .26 BTUs).  That would be a compelling figure, but the study was of carpets in residential settings, where the thermal load and mass presumably made the findings of limited generalizability.  I assume anyone who claims of sorption as a benefit of merino baselayers, without significant caveats, has not given the subject much thought.