The present of synthetic insulation

Last year I wrote about my lasting dissatisfaction with synthetic insulated jackets.  Today I’m happy to report that substantial progress has been made, in the form of the Patagonia Hyperpuff.

I bought a Hyperpuff jacket last spring, during the annual 50% off sale, and tested the most intransigent concern for a synthetic insulated jacket, durability, by wearing it as often as possible since, including daily wear.  I’m happy to report that after consistent use durability appears to be at least adequate, that is to say, it is at least as good as the current benchmarks for synthetic durability (e.g. Apex and Full Range).  The insulation is also a good bit warmer for the weight than any other synthetic insulation I’ve worn, including Apex, bringing the Hyperpuff into direct competition with all but the most efficient down coats in the ~1 pound class.

Beyond that, the Hyperpuff is exceptional in every respect when it comes to featuring and fabrics, and is as good as any piece I’ve used to yardstick just how much better outdoor apparel is today compared to 10 or 20 years ago.  The cut is long, slimish, and the articulation of the sleeves and shoulders excellent.  The long tail and longer cuffs, along with the internal elastic and drawcords, stack the deck in your favor when it comes to keeping and maximizing warmth.  With my usual medium I have enough room for a Nano Air Light or other light mid layer, but not enough for a heavier layer (like the Haglofs Pile hoody).  You could make the case that a bit more room would be ideal.  On the other hand, you could make the case that such a slim fit is darn handy in that it can fit under a hardshell, for things like nasty cold packraft floats or excessively windy summits.  It’s also more urban-sexy than the baggy, straight cuts many such jackets still sport.

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The fabric is also noteworthy both for being coffee shop-approved (nice and matte) as well as a bit more breathable than the expected, downproof light nylons.  It’s impossible to say how much of the performance is due to the shell, how much to the liner, and how much to the insulation, at least without dissecting the jacket, but the whole package modulates across a temperature range and disperses moisture in a way we’ve come to expect from active insulation, but has heretofore never been a feature of serious insulating garments.  I’ve put a few pin holes in the arm with embers, but haven’t had any rips or pilling, which is perfectly adequate.

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The pockets are also on point, with the chest pocket not being so deep things get lost, and hand pocket zippers running smoothly, and the one drop pocket having a perfect little mesh drain window in the bottom.  In an ideal world I’ve have two chest pockets (for keeping little things warm), and two drop pockets, but in practice one of each has worked out just fine 99% of the time.

Another year will tell more about how well loft will be retained.  Aside from that ongoing variable, the level of warmth, breathability, and features are all pretty much perfect.  After 11 months of use I’m more content with the Hyperpuff than with any other puffy I can recall owning.

Angles

In the last few days, winter has finally caught up with us. The forecast for the past 24 hours was impressive, 45 and sunny falling to a few degrees (F) below 0, with close to a foot of snow, maybe some rain, and winds up above 20 miles an hour. At my 5000′ camp only a few inches of snow fell overnight, but the temp swing was no joke, and I had to hold a nalgene over the stove for a minute to get it open for breakfast. In any case, the lead photo harkens effectively back to this post; with the steeper 53 degree wall facing the camera shedding snow noticeably better than the 48 degree end wall on the viewers left.

In any case, rather than tussle with a late drive to trailhead and potentially getting seriously plowed in, I hiked from our back door and skipped over three ridge systems late into the night before finding the nice ponderosa patch shown above, which at 2200 was entirely snow free (the steeper wall was a bit harder to get well staked through the 4 inches of long needles and mule deer scat).  The next morning I bushwacked down through more forest service land, climbed up a trail, bumped 40 head of elk, and traversed another ridge, dodging the -30F mph windchill, and made it back down to the bakery by the time my water had frozen solid.

This is all important because the access which allowed me to do a 20 mile loop with less then two miles of pavement door to door is possible because decades ago the city of Helena was visionary enough to protect big tracts of prime open space as city land, and today it facilitates deer and elk winter habitat and property values alike.  This is in turn important because Helena, collectively, is now using these trails and their easy distance from town as a selling point for business and tourism.  Especially insofar as tourism is concerned this means mountain biking, because (as will be relevant shortly) mountain biking is geographically and economically more of a destination affair.  And this is in turn relevant because the practice of having a reasonably expansive mountain bike trail network, a sustainable network, within a town or city is increasingly at odds with how mountain biking is marketed to mountain bikers.  And this conflict may or may not be relevant to what mountain biking looks like in another couple decades.

Long term readers here will know that Bedrock & Paradox started as a cycling blog.  Then 11 years ago M and I moved to Montana and while I still rode my bikes often, the lure of the best of Montana being places where bikes either not able to not allowed to go put them far off the back burner.  Then, two years ago, we briefly returned to the desert southwest, and with an easy reminder that it is and always will be, necessarily, the best mountain biking on earth, I was back paying attention to things I’d ignored for close to a decade.  When we moved to Helena, the excellent and cycling friendly local trails served, along with the constant joy of a toddler and a balance bike, to keep my interest in mountain biking.

One at least subjectively drastic change from back then to now is that Pinkbike has evolved from a barely literate shithole website to a fairly literate, “largest mountain bike site on the web.”  And this is in turn significant because Pinkbike is still doing what they’ve always done, aggregating content, charging a steep premium to native advertisers, and throwing in some skateboarding and BMX on slow days.  And that is in turn significant because it provides the historical underpinning for the way mountain biking is beginning to diverge, potentially into two different sports.  That I’m not personally a fan of jibbing, shuttling, and downhill only is irrelevant.  If you don’t have to go far under your own power, and always have either gravity or internal combustion to help you out, it is little wonder that bikes are becoming something at best a bit discordant with the old, original idea of being able to go both up the hill, down the hill, and to the next state over, all on the same rig.

The logic here comes from several different and converging directions.  In one direction, mountain biking is hard work, and intimidating.  Lots more effort doesn’t get you much faster than walking on the way up, and on the way down there is the constant threat of injury and clumsiness.  In another, the continued acceleration of technology combines with “modern” sensibilities and makes existing, multi-use trails less than satisfactory.  This drives the “need” for berms, as flat corners become tedious, and B-line kickers, as 6 inches of travel pillows the little roots into oblivion.  We see that here, when the local “Enduro” race brings a fusillade of folks on big bikes and full face helmets, taking to the green trails to grind in the braking bumps and french lines for the summer.  In yet another direction, we see increased traffic all but mandating IMBA-spec bench cuts and switchbacks, things which may well lead to lassitude and bad behavior from core mountain bikers.  And we see it from the most relevant direction of all, with prejudice and a shrinking world and increasingly fast and capable bikes resulting in them being banned from more and more of the most interesting places available.

A solution to many of these is in separating mountain bikes from other user groups and making in a separate thing, not unlike downhill skiing.  Bike parks, mountain bike only trails, and shuttles; along with heavy, long travel, low BB, $4000 “affordable” bikes; combined with slapping corners, machine built jump lines, getting sendy, and cultivated skidding.  All of these form a coherent future, but it is a future we want for mountain biking?  Few if any of these may prove, long term, to be compatible with well traveled multi-use trails.  Our own much beloved local shuttle is guilty of concentrating traffic to a drastic degree.  On the one hand this makes pulses of bike traffic more predictable.  On the other hand, it turns the best descent from each shuttle drop into a bumped-out, powdery hole fest by mid summer, and these trails will surely creep wider and wider each year.  Will the bike industry be able to grow in a way which allows for sustainable growth within communities, or will mountain biking become a more isolated and necessarily affluent pursuit?  Is one desirable compared to the other?

It depends on your angle.

Nordic backcountry

When we moved to Montana a decade ago I knew a bit about groomed nordic skiing, and very little about in-area downhill skiing, and almost nothing about anything else.  It’s been quite the learning curve since, with the predominant question being not so much what gear and skills I need, but why there is so little gear and information aimed towards the skiing I want to do.

There are a number of good answers here.  Multiday winter travel is hard work, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.  It gives insight into what the major North American wildernesses would look like in summer if maintenance of historic trails was not such a priority.  Backcountry alpine skiing fits with the cultures current attention span and preoccupation with visuals, as well as into short weekends.  And climate change is making good, skiable snowpack outside higher elevations an increasingly unreliable thing.

Despite all this I’ve sorted out the rig which works best for the trips which are my favorites, even if that equipment remains fraught with compromises.

Boots are the most important piece of gear, in winter and summer, and for backcountry nordic the hardest thing to figure out, and thus the best starting point.  Tech or three pin remain the only real choices.  Tech boots mean warmth and waterproofing, tech bindings mean free pivoting on the ascent, and functionally infinite downhill control.  The shortcoming is that I know of no one, not a single person, who has gotten through a longer nordic backcountry trip with tech boots and didn’t also have destroyed feet.  Consecutive long days is one factor here, but the larger issue seems to be the greater foot movement flat and rolling movement engenders, compared to the skin-up, ski down action for which the boots and bindings were designed.  I’ve been there, and had both the control on sketchy descents, and the feet still warm after being submerged in freezing temps, and the layers of blisters and bruising which tooks weeks to heal.  For the time being I’m taking flexible three pin boots, which have the additional benefit of being walkable during the bare stretches which are an increasing feature.

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Fishscales are, around here, mandatory in the backcountry.  Skins only is not a viable option, even if race-style, near full length mohairs are a fantastically versatile and obligatory part of any backcountry ski kit.  Skin glue failure under harsh conditions is guaranteed, and while kick wax is often effective, over variable snows and temperatures removal becomes a time suck at best, and a creeping liability at worst (kick wax does bad things to skin glue).

My favorite generation of skis are the older Fischer S-Bounds.  They have stout construction, full steel edges, and thick, hard, sintered bases.  The 169 Outtabounds Wax I picked up used years ago has been on many trips, and has gone from being mounted with three pins to tech race and back to three pins.  I finally bit the bullet the other night, discarding many ideas for jigs, and freehanded in negative fishscales with a dremel bit.

Even with flexible boots I’ll occasionally want to skin steep stuff with these skis, so I added heel plates and lowest heel lift Voile has ever made, which is still a bit too high for efficient striding.  To mitigate this, as well as reduce the increase in ramp angle, I put 2mm of stainless washers under each mountain screw.  More would have been ideal, but even with longer screws increasing the leverage was a durability gamble I did not want to take.

Speaking of mounting, failure is not an option I ever want to experience in the field.  Gorilla glue in the holes has proven solid over the years, while still being extractable (with abundant heat on the screw).  I add a generous ring of silicone around the head of the screw before final tightening to make sure water intrusion is never a factor.

Icing is a huge nuisance in the backcountry, and avoiding it can vastly increase efficiency.  I’ve finally started going full on with all my skis, applying clear protective tape to the binding face, the heal lift, and the entire surface of the ski between the too.  Combined with a sintered base and good glide wax application, this prevents almost all ice and snow build up.

Observant folks will have noted the dimensions of these skis (90, 70, 80 mm), along with the 169cm length.  The former is a nice balance for off track conditions, while being too wide to fit in groomed classic tracks.  Wider can be nice during heavy trail breaking, but I’ve rarely found myself wanting that, often to my surprise.  It’s enough sidecut to turn, without ever being hooky.  Most significantly, that length is far shorter than my weight (easily approaching 200 pound with gear and a pack for 4 days) would ever suggest.  Longer skis are faster is straightforward conditions, which I don’t see all that often, as well as provide more float, again, for mid elevation routes often not much of a factor.  What I do value is the manuverability and ease of carrying provided by a ski no taller than my chin.  Advice which might not apply to other conditions, granted.

For broader thought, my Oversnow travel overview from a few years ago is a good place to look.

How to hunt bison in the backcountry

Photo: Mike Moore

Or; how we did our recent hunt, and what I might consider doing differently next time.

First, you have to get a tag.  I explained the particular appeal of the Absaroka-Beartooth tag in this post, and was beyond pleased that my thesis about this hunt was borne out on the ground.  We found a very large, obviously quite old, lone bull in the first likely (flat, grassy, abundant water) spot.  Presumably there were more further down towards the main meadows, but in look and setting he gave me no cause for second thoughts, and as I “snuck” perfunctorily to 60 yards the bison gave me neither a first nor second glance.  What will be of interest as this hunt matures is how long the bison remain so unmoved by humans.  We ran into another party hunting bison, and heard rumors of a third, which accounts for over half the five tags.  Access and terrain seem to suggest that this side of the unit will be the most popular.  How many more years of getting shot will their ancestral memory permit?  And how much harder will this hunt get when that happens?  Montana has given out 5 tags each for three years now.  Around 350 folks applied in 2016, over 500 in 2017, and 406 in 2018.  Many people, including switched on resident hunters, haven’t yet heard of this hunt.  When that emphatically changes, how much will the odds change with it?

Second, you need a good crew of folks.  In this I give myself a large amount of credit, for knowing the right people, and them a lot of credit too, for being as generous with their time, money, and sweat as everyone was.  Jack flew from Fairbanks, and his moose experience and very strong back proved invaluable.  Craig drove (!!) from Los Angeles, and though he had never packed out big game his willingness to suffer and ability to always be attentive and optimistic were essential.  Mike was the elder statesman, in age and experience with big game, as well as with four letter words.  Skinning a bison is not a simple thing, even if you’ve been through a bunch of smaller critters before, and I like to think that he and I tackled that daunting job as efficiently as was reasonable.   Tim, born and raised Montanan, had never been hunting before, which didn’t hold him back from hauling the kind of packs any seasoned hunter would find worthy of bragging rights.  And Norm appeared, magic, at just the right moment Monday, buoying spirits and rallying us all to grab the last bits of meat and get everything out in two total trips.

There is a certain sense to which the whole affair was an anticlimactic, anti-adventure, insofar as everything that could be planned for hewed to course, and absolutely no drama or shenanigans ensued.  I can’t overemphasize just how likely, in the course of a five+ hour night-time butchering session and two day, 700+ pound packing session, minor injuries which could quickly turn major should have been.  The worst thing we had were a few hand nicks from knives, sore shoulders, and in a few cases, trashed feet.  Even the drive in and out, rowdier than anyone anticipated and ripe for cut tires, saw no hazards beyond scrapped running boards.  This is entirely due to an excellent platoon of troops who were attentive and cohesive.

Third, you need to be efficient.  I pulled the trigger a few minutes after 6pm Saturday night.  We had all the meat off, deboned and hung, the hide crudely fleshed and salted and drug a ways away, and the kill site cleaned up and water bottles full by 2330.  Everyone was quite tired, and for my own part I had gotten dehydrated enough that it took most of the next day to get back on an even keel, but through the whole course everyone took and gave orders and did their best.  Jack and Tim gathered fire wood and hung rope while Mike and I skinned, with Craig around to hold legs and hide as needed (an essential job).  Jack then transitioned to boning quarters, Craig to fetching water, Tim to holding limbs and hide, and everyone got their turn to rest around the fire and keep an eye up and down valley for bears.  When the time came it took Jack, Mike, myself, and eventually Craig to move the hide away from the carcass, and we gave up short of our goal due to exhaustion.  None of us are tire-flipping meatheads, but none of us are particularly unfit either, suggesting that the wet hide was both awkward to move and well over 200 pounds.

Fourth, you need a lot of game bags, and a means to safeguard a lot of meat.  In the six miles between the kill and the trailhead there were exactly two places with trees large enough of limb to hold 100+ pound hangs.  One was conveniently on the edge of the meadow in which I shot the bison, the other was almost exactly halfway back to the trucks.  300 feet of cord was well short of what would have been ideal, and forced us into hangs which were too heavy.  They broke limbs, grooved limbs, and often required 3 people to heft into the air.  500 feet would have been more like it.  Also, the bigger game bags I made were too big, and ended up being too heavy.  The smaller ones (18×26″) were ideal, but the material was a bit on the light side.  Two bags ripped on limbs, one failing such that it had to be replaced.  12-14 smaller game bags would have been better.  An electric bear fence would have saved a lot of time and energy, and if/when I get to help out on this hunt in the future one would be highly recommended, and open up more possibilities for meat storage.  A crude estimate is that we had between 600 and 650 pounds of boned out meat to handle.

Fifth, you need a lot of knife blades.  Seeing a bison on the ground is impressive, and getting into the butchering only reinforces this.  The hide on the back of the shoulder and through the whole neck is over an inch thick, and everything from the tissue around the eyes to the silver skin and tendons are proportionally tougher.  We had three scapel-blade knives, and went through something on the order of 16 blades.  We also had a few premium fixed blade knives, which dulled very fast.  Had we relied solely on those someone would have been on almost full time sharpening duty.

My intention was to use a light hatchet to skullcap the horns, like one would on an elk, and this did not work.  The horns are attached with a lot of very thick bone, and it took about 45 minutes of chopping, while most of the team hung meat, to separate both horns separately.  The whole skull, even without the hide, would have been very heavy.  As mentioned the hide itself exceeded all expectations when it came to weight.  I brought in 12 pounds of salt, and spread that after getting the biggest patches of flesh and fat off.  We moved it as far as we could and spread it up on a log, fur up, to promote air circulation.  Both nights were in the low 40s or colder, which kept the meat and hide in good condition.  The hide got a good dose of rain the second night, which added a bit of weight.  Triaging and everyone being tired had me cut the head and back half off, and take out the 1/3 covering the shoulders and a bit on either side.  This piece was easily 80 pounds wet.

img_6578Monday night meat sort, minus the 1/6 already headed to Norm’s house.

Sixth, and most importantly, you need some time and space to appreciate it all.  It seems the exception that hunting trips allow much space for appreciation, with conditions often requiring you dive straight into butchering and then packing.  With a 2000 pound animal this is even more the case, and my level of exhaustion was such that even today, almost six days after pulling the trigger, I’ve only just begun to have the experience catch up with the rest of me.  Surprisingly fancy burgers at the Miner’s Saloon in Cooke City helped a bit, at least giving us all a chance to sit unmoving and try to put a few words down before we all parted ways.  I’m not sure many people, including all of us, have the perspective needed to appreciate what we did over those three days.  Getting it might take a few more years.

Bison meat storage

The only difference between meat storage for the upcoming bison hunt and any other hunt is needing to store a lot more meat, and the need to keep it away from bears.  Which explains the pile of meat care equipment shown below: eight game bags, and 300 feet of paracord.

img_6571.jpgParacord isn’t the lightest or smallest, but it is economical and a good balance between weight/bulk on one side and easy gripping and not grooving limbs on the other.  Fortunately treeline in the GYE goes way up to 9000+ feet, and the spruce are surprisingly robust, presumably due to the abundant water and long summer days.  Hanging meat at a comparable altitude even as close as the Bob would not be so practical.

I’ve been using some basic game bags I sewed from cotton muslin for 4+ years now.  They use one rectangular piece of fabric, french seams on the sides (to prevent seam hole elongation and eventual failure), and a simple paracord drawstring with a reinforced grommet.  Those bags are quite bulky, and while the slow drying properties of cotton is actually handy for hot and dry hunts like New Zealand in summer, it doesn’t make sense for Montana in the fall, so did what I’ve intended to do for a long time and made a pile of new ones out of light polyester.

Joanne’s has a decent range of light polys, but finding one which is both tightly woven and has no stretch takes some doing.  A light color with some flair is a bonus.

I’m packing eight bags for this hunt, five smaller ones (18″ by 26″) and three bigger ones (24″ by 30″).  As can be seen above, my assembly line approach and generally packed schedule lately did not make for neat sewing, but with a stitch length around 1mm and burly nylon thread, I’m confident they’ll last many years, and I’ll never lack for extras in the future, even when I have one animal aging in the fridge when another hunt comes along.

img_6574.jpgAll those games bags, all that cord, and a good stash of latex gloves (Brucellosis is common in Yellowstone bison) fill the above stuff sack.  Not bad for the job at hand.

Bison packs

Beyond rifles (maybe) and a whole lot of gamebags (to be discussed soon) there’s not much bison hunting demands beyond the pursuit of deer or elk, save perhaps when it comes to your backpack.  In a few weeks we can expect to carry out the equivalent of between 3 and 4 mature elk, which will demand unusual measures at the kill site and to store the meat, and multiple trips to get it out.  Multiple trips, especially over multiple days, vastly complicates scent management, which in Grizz country is a big deal.  While hunting, and while carrying lots of meat, you’re already inherently doing a lot wrong insofar as bear management is concerned.  There’s no reason to make things worse.

The two packs pictured here are similar, with almost identical dimensions, very similar construction methods, and fairly similar feature sets.  The black multicam bag is built for the Seek Outside Revolution frame, and optimized not only for hunting, but for use while in meat shelf hauling mode.  Abundant compression (three each side, three front, two each top and bottom) is necessary here, as is lateral stiffness in the frame complex, to avoid barreling the load into your back.  The tan pack is built on an integrated Seek Outside frame, built to hold gear for backpacking, as well as haul boned out meat bagged and hung from internal loops at the top of the frame.  Because of that, it has much less compression, as the demands for load control won’t be that high.

All this (as well as lighter materials) makes the tan pack almost 1.5 pounds lighter, as well as giving it a cleanness and simplicity which are appealing.

The center zip works very well for on the fly accessibility, both in conventional backpacking mode, and while meat shelfing.  The zip opens all the way to the top of the shroud, allowing the pack to splay open, which making loading meat and then gear nice and quick.  I close the final 4-5 inches with velcro, so that with the role top done down three times the zipper is just free (pull can be seen on both packs, above), allowing gear to be loaded and unloaded with the roll top fastened.

The black appears a lot wider than the tan one, which is partly a result of much less stiffer fabric and how they’re easy stuffed for photos, and partly the shape of the base panel.  Each bag is 42-43 inches in circumference at the base, but the black bag is an inch wider against the user, and 2 inches wider along the back, which makes it 1.5 inches shallower.

I’ve been experimenting extensively with shoulder strap and hipbelt padding over the past year, and the current state of my thought is well represented in the tan pack, whose shoulder straps are a single 1/4″ layer of 5 pound EVA, with a layer of 5mm 3D mesh against the user.  The hipbelt uses the same foam and mesh in the lumbar, and softer 2 pound foam in the sides.  Thin shoulder straps are lighter and cleaner, absorb less water, and don’t interfere as much with things like shouldering a rifle.  I’ve not been able to go this thin with any softer foam without having the straps roll and deform under heavy loads.  The thicker 3D mesh has downsides, mainly in the way it collects pine needles, but it pads and wicks and generally prevents chafing better than anything else, though research in this area is ongoing.

I’ve also been experimenting with how possible it is to make pack side pockets which are too big, and to that end the tan pack has pockets which are 5 inches deep, and over 15 inches tall on the front side of the side panel.  Attaching cubic inch measurements to open pockets is a bit silly, so by way of reference I’ll say that you can cram this pack full of gear for a 10 day whitewater, have it absolutely bursting, and fit two two liter soda bottles in each pocket.  Which is overkill without extensive shaping, as a mere nalgene flops around quite a bit.

I had side pockets on the black pack, but cut them off as the design wasn’t that good, and meat shelf loads make conventional side pockets less than ideally useful.  The theory is to have a pocket which attaches to belt and frame, in this case a hacked Mystery Ranch wet rib, which seems promising.  Other meaty details I leave for those with a keen eye.

In keeping with the theme this week, I’ll probably bring the black pack, as it carried out an elk last year, and the meat shelf option makes keeping blood off your gear so simple.  It doesn’t keep blood from staining the pack, or from potentially dripping on to your clothes, opening the possibility that such items might need to be hung.  The Cordura used in the Revolution frame is particularly absorbant, and after a half dozen critters mine is permanently reddish.  Next on the list is making this from laminate fabric, slick side towards the meat.

Bison rifles

This afternoon I ticked one of 2018s hunting goals off the list; putting grouse (ruffed, in this case) back on the menu.

The schnitzel was on the chewy side, due to an old and big bird and more likely to a pan to table time under 2 hours, but with plenty of lemon still reminded why it is a favorite.

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Last fall I shot zero grouse, and put no time into small game hunting.  Grouse, squirrels and rabbits don’t requires visits to marquee locations, but in terms of skill building, taste, and fun are all but the equal of deer and sheep.  (Except our Red Squirrels, still haven’t found a way to cook them into a genuinely good dish.)  Small game hunting is also an easy fit with kids.  Now, we’re two weekends into September, and have put a grouse and a squirrel in the bag, with many more days chasing both to come.

One of my favorite things about Montana is that for the last third of the year you can shoot grouse with just about any firearm you please, including rifles.  Careful shot placement is obviously the order of the day, or the use of light loads and bullets.  The later was at play today, and I shot the ruffed off her log at 30 yards, making for the .350 rem mags first kill in my hands.

Hunting is no different than any outdoor pursuit, in that a name-brand trip is often the impetus to buy new things.  A bison tag would seem to be better reason than most of a new gun, just like a trip down the Nahanni would good reason for a new boat, or a trip to the Alps reason for new skis or ice tools.  The flaw in this thinking is that outings with higher consequences, or at least places where second chances will be harder than usual to come by, would seem to put a premium on gear whose function has become second nature.  And this is the exact problem I currently have with bison rifles.

At top is my Kimber .308, which I’ve carried for hundreds of miles and with which I’ve shot over a dozen big game animals (and over a dozen grouse).  It’s light, shoulders instantly, and I trust it totally.  In the search for more consistent terminal performance and no concerns with lead in meat I’ve been using Barnes TSX bullets, 168 grain.  The bottom rifle is my grandfathers, on long-term loan from my cousin, a Remington 660 in .350 rem mag.  The 660 is a bit heavier, kicks more, and holds fewer rounds in the magazine, but otherwise the guns feel similar, close to identical.  The older 3x M8 on the 660 is even darn close to the FX 4x I’ve had on the Kimber since the beginning.

The question is, which to take?  The heavier, fatter bullet out of the 660 would seem like the obvious choice, but the Kimber goes a hair faster, and I’m shooting a bullet with better sectional density.  But the main factor is that I just haven’t had much field time with the 660, my fault, and something that lingers in the back of my head as less than ideal.

Thoughts?

Premium baselayers: what you get

For the last three years my one-sized solution to any temps above really cold has been the original version of the Sitka LW Core hoody.  With ~100 grams/meter 100% poly bicomponent (grid inner) and a trim, simple fit it is the shirt I spent close to decade waiting for.  A decade ago baselayer fabric wasn’t this light, and the number of properly featured hoodies in appropriately light fabric was limited to one, the BPL Beartooth, in 150 grams/meter merino.  Heavier pieces like the Ibex Indie and Patagonia R1 never worked for me, and I tried several synthetic compression/workout hoodies from the likes of Under Armour, but excessive spandex content and cheap, poorly breathable and stinky poly made them very poor performers.

Fortunately, the logic of light baselayer hoodies has become so widespread that a number of good options exist, which allows us to have a discussion based on price point.

The current Sitka hoody is a bit different, with a deep front zip, larger chest pocket, more colors (still no non-black solid option) and a different fabric with a small amount of spandex.  It also costs $119, when (I think) the original cost $99.  I’m not a fan of any of the changes Sitka made, and either price strikes me as somewhere between excessive and ridiculous.  I’ve enjoyed this shirt, and given how directly they influence performance think good baselayers are an ideal place to use your money, but what exactly do you get compared to less expensive options?

Last month I picked up a TNF Reactor hoody from the local shop, at half off the $40 MSRP.  Made from an unsophisticated jersey knit and with a heavier 130 grams/meter fabric (which would have been the lightest such fabric available a decade ago), the Reactor seems targeted towards a wide audience.

The fit of the two is very similar.  I like the TNF thumb loops over the thumb cords on the Sitka, as they provide more warmth.  It isn’t possible to make thumb loops long enough to be truly comfortable without also making the sleeves annoying long.  The Reactor perfectly splits the difference here, and on my average arms they’re useable for mediate periods without being noticeable when not in use.  I’ve been impressed with how close the fabrics are, functionally.  Being 1/3 thicker and with a structure which doesn’t mechanically enhance wicking would suggest that the Reactor would give up more performance than it in fact does.  The Reactor does stink faster, and the fabric doesn’t feel quite as soft against the skin as the Sitka.

The real shortcoming of the Reactor is the fit of the hood, which is much baggier.  As the top photo shows, the Sitka provides good coverage without interfering with peripheral vision, or feeling tight.  This can be addressed with fairly simple sewing, but absent that capacity limits the Reacters utility, and in the wind is pretty annoying.  TNF also lined the hood, and while the lining fabric itself seems fine, the double layer of fabric significantly increases drying time.  Again, this is a reasonably simple mod, but really shouldn’t be necessary.

Thankfully baselayer hoodies are enough in fashion that almost everyone makes one.  The OR Echo is a standout, with sub 100 grams/meter fabric and a $65 MSRP.  Is something like the Sitka hoody worth the premium over these options?  It might be for bowhunting, but if you don’t need camo the case seems far harder to make.

Shit that works; lifestyle addition

The Wayback Machine doesn’t travel back to when I can first recall the concept of “lifestyle” in outdoor clothing and gear.  It was a North Face catalogue, late 80s or early 90s, talking about a woman from Alaska or the Yukon or Wyoming or some similarly very far from Ohio place, who had fallen out of her boat during a casual afternoon cruise, and survived the ensuing hypothermia in a fairly matter of fact way because, as the catalogue told us, she had thrown on her North Face gear that morning.  Just like any morning.

There is just as much truth and utility as there is malarkey in that thought-picture.

Modern lightweight gear, especially technical clothing, doesn’t make sense in day to day life.  Lighter fabrics get slowly chewed by footwell vibration and dusty floors, less than mega zippers loose metal too fast and split into obsolescence, and fancy insulation engineered for performance first quickly compresses under the monolithic weight of seatbelts and routine.  And yet, that 10 ounce down jacket hides in the corner of a 15 liter bag, with space for lunch and a nalgene.  Pea coats and lambswool sweaters wear well and look better, but feel stolid in the face of unplanned hikes, extended side trips to the park, and the drizzle which catches you walking home late.  Outdoor clothing is the frame without which the house of the industry would not exist, and it’s axiomatic amongst those on the inside that the vast majority of that clothing is sold to non-core users, to better blend on the brewery deck.

But, the best part of modern living are places where the line between daily routine and Big Trips in the Big Places is not so clear.  Once of my absolute favorite things remains solo trips across a big, unknown-to-me stretch of roadless country where I see no recent evidence of other humans.  Some of my other favorite things are riding pump track with my 3 year old son, taking the whole family to the bakery for brunch, tearing out non-native shrubs in our yard, and sinking days that add up to years into a job which is intellectually challenging and emotionally fulfilling.  I want all of these things, and with the purer forms of wilderness adventure being such time-queens, it feels better to absorb the landscape in smaller daily increments, which are best catered to on walks and bike rides and diversions which don’t necessitate a full wardrobe change.  Little kids don’t often go far, and by adult standards they never go fast, but that lack of the need for gear which serves against serious consequences also means you won’t be generating serious heat.  On toddler hikes at toddler pace, best pack a warm coat.

My elitist reservation remains in the form of a question; who can be immersed in all of that, see the air change week to week from the same park, same mid-walk vista, same mountain top, and not in the end both wonder how the landscape sings together and want to go out, far out, to find out more onself?  And that is my problem with the new, third or fourth wave lifestyle outdoor brands; that they’ve making shiny crap that is good for the coffee shop and the hike to Delicate Arch, and whose lack of seriousness is predicated on the rare devotee who will graduate to the more core brands when necessary.  It seems both wasteful and to assume less of humanity than it hopefully deserves.  I understand that practically I would not want every Satruday-noon latte hiker to take five years of labor and become technically skilled backcountry travelers.  Things would get crowded out there eventually.  I just can’t fathom how at least most of them would not eventually want to at least try to get there.  How could you not love straight espresso, and why not have four shots rather than two, when the only consequence is getting more done, and a bit of occasional vibration?

Shit still works, and some of the shit that works well in the variegated, civilized by choice life isn’t necessarily what really works for pure backcountry.  So this edition focuses on those things which wouldn’t be too far amiss, and certainly possess the quality, on a 10 day unsupported trip, while also not being entirely awkward accessorizing a meeting, and whose sweet spot is in the middle: cabin trips, drinks outside in inclement weather, strolls which double into 10 milers.  They’re among the things I use the most, making them most fitting of the title.

Haglofs Pile Hoody

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Fleece is the obvious choice for one-coat fits-most use outside, and this one is the most versatile of the many I’ve tried.  Trim enough and in colors that qualify as business casual (in Montana), with the signature Haglofs hood and outstanding attention to detail (flawless pocket zips and mesh), the meat of the Pile Hoody is the 380 grams/meter fabric, which for those less than ideally nerdy translates to damn thick.  It isn’t windproof, but the modern paradigm of active insulation which started nearly two decades ago with puffy fleece tells us that more, more air-permeable insulation is more versatile and more comfortable more often than less static warmth with integral windproofing.  The Pile Hoody is too cold when the wind really kicks up below freezing, and too warm above 50 or 55F, but a simple and easy choice for most anything in between.  Not a cheap fleece, though in the US Backcountry.com seems to put them on sale predictably.

Spyderco Dragonfly

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I’ve written often about what makes a good knife, and for the past three years the simple fact has been that the Dragonfly is in my pocket 97% of the time, regardless of setting.  Enough that the clip-side end of the handle has faded from sun exposure.  I’ve re-profiled the edge as convex, which makes sharpening a 45 seconds, every couple weeks affair.  Regardless of who sandy, linty, or bloody the knife has been the lock has never done anything other than engage with a crisp snap.  It’s functioned so well for so long that in the last year I just had to tempt fate, and have battened and pried with it a fair bit, out of mere curiosity.  No issues thus far, save some scratches.  I’d still prefer that the rampant dimples and texture be much reduced in the name of easy cleaning, but otherwise I can’t say a bad thing.  And you can still buy one for 60 bucks, a very good deal.

Yeti Rambler

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Yes, it’s a tiny 30 dollar water bottle, from the company that gave us the 300 dollar cooler and the 40 dollar bucket.  It’s as easy to dislike Yeti (especially after you’ve seen them at a trade show) as it is to not find someone claiming their gear isn’t well made.  The 18 oz Rambler is just big enough for a 6 cup Bialetti and a tray of ice, the ideal companion for a summer work day.  My other favorite use is making road trip cowboy coffee; add boiling water and a bunch of grounds, shake, let sit for 10 (or 30) minutes, pour, and enjoy.  I did partially break the handle off the lid doing this, having to resort to extra leverage on a fence after making coffee, overtightening the lid, and then driving up 5000 vertical feet and back down 6 in the space of an hour.  The glue fix on the lid has held  ever since, and I still got my coffee, so we chalk that one up to acceptably survival of user error.  Most importantly, the 18 ozer is a visually and tactically satisfying shape, especially in stainless, unlike (for instance) Hydroflasks, which on the shelf appear as a thought-provokingly complete range of alien sex toys.

All you need by way of drinks containers is this, a Nalgene silo, and a big Dromedary bag.

Human Gear Capcap

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It has a whimsical name, and will close to double the price of your nalgene; unless your water bottle fleet is mostly domesticated from the many free ranging, well seasoned nalgenes of the world.  I found the bottle pictured above nine years ago, melting out of the snow atop Lolo Pass.  The 48 oz size is my favorite, in spite of them being almost too unwieldy in both height and weight.  My recent criteria for building pack side pockets is that they need to provide secure, one-handed silo storage, and if they do that, they’ll do just about anything else.  The Capcap preserves the original nalgene functionality, and adds being able to drink, without spilling, while hiking at full tilt.  I bought two, at full retail, and don’t go into the woods without one, and often both.

Shoe requiem (Altra King MT 1.0)

As with most things here, this isn’t really a proper review, though the first version of the King MT is still available if you wear a men’s 8, but a discussion of one thing as a salient example, of several trends playing out in the world of trail running and hiking shoes.

The first thing you need to know about the King MT is that it is an Altra in most of the very good and very bad senses we’ve come to know since the brand came into existence.  You also need to know that in a few, very significant, ways the King MT is a huge and positive departure from what Altra is generally know for doing.  Most importantly, the rubber does not suck.  The Vibram Megagrip rubber and tread pattern is in fact the first equal I’ve found for the LaSportiva sole which has been mostly unchanged from the Crosslite through the XCountry to the current Bushido (below at left).  The tread puts enough rubber on rock for good wet traction, and is spaced out enough to clear mud.  The lugs function both uphill and down, and are nearly but not quite the equal of the Bushido side hilling.  Given how bad the rubber and tread was on (for instance) the Lone Peak 1.5s, this is a major development.

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The fit of the King MTs are vintage Altra; moderately wide, moderate volume, with a very wide toebox.  The King MT 1.0s fit at least a size small, and the 11.5s are easily 1/2″ shorter than the Bushidos in the same size.  I can make the 11.5s work because of the toebox, but they’re right on the edge of being too short to fit a thick sock combo.  I wore 11s in every previous pair of Altras.  The King MTs also have a massively wide heel cup, to the point I was genuinely worried they wouldn’t fit.  And with my narrow heel they really don’t; I get plenty of vertical slipping, but the sticky “shark skin” fabric combined with the total lack of a rigid heel counter means that there just isn’t anything to rub against.  I’ve put in a bunch of 12+ hour days in the 4 months I’ve had them, with no hint of blisters or discomfort.

Upper durability has been surprisingly good, given Altra’s crap record in that category.  The caveat here is that I applied a lot of aquaseal when new, anticipating problems.  None have come up yet, excepting the huge rip across the toebox caused by snagging my foot on a sharp stick.  Most shoes would have torn, though perhaps not immediately edge of edge.

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The lack of a heel counter and especially the clunky fit comes back to bite the shoes when it comes to side hilling on steep off trail terrain.  The shoe doesn’t fit me well enough to put the traction and sole stiffness to work, and the shoes end up cutting loose from the dirt or rock as they try to rotate around my foot.  Doubtless some folks out there with boatlike feet like this feet, but I can’t help but think most people would be served by a little tighter midfoot and a little more structure.

I don’t think adding a heel counter is necessary, and if anything the King MT highlights just how well not having out would work, provided that the fit and materials were a little more refined.

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I’ve become surprisingly fond of the silly-looking little velcro instep strap, largely because it goes a decent ways towards actually anchoring the foot.  I find myself cranking it down when in use as a boating shoe, or mountain biking with flat pedals.  The King MT does the former quite well, while it’s a bit soft for extended descents on a bike.  I’ve found the strap of limited utility for walking, as the parts which extend inside the shoe on either side are relatively narrow and stiff.  I’ve bruised my midfoot when the strap was too tight, trying to keep things in check during a burly off trail descent.  Extending the structure would help, but by then Altra might as well just use quality overlays in the lacing structure itself, a la Bushido.

The sum total here is that the shoe industry has largely left faster, strong, experienced hikers behind as the pendulum has swung away from minimalist footwear.  Tip to tip the King MT is actually stiffer than the Bushido when new, though it hikes softer because the flex is even throughout, rather than hinging at the metatarsal transition like most “running” shoes.  I don’t reasonably expect many people to be able to manage super soft shoes (like the old XCountry) in genuine backcountry terrain, but I do find the movement away from low drop and functionally wide toeboxes vexing, as those benefits are in essence universal (I suppose the skinny Bushido toebox would be better for 3rd classing handcracks, but the Altra-style wide toebox even fits crampons better..)  LaSportiva, with their class leading midfoot control, is actually in the best position to use big fat toeboxes.

So for the rest of the year I’ll stitch up the King MTs and tolerate their slop.  I’d also tolerate the stupid low toeboxes of the Bushidos if I ever find a way for the heel counters of this pair to not chew me up, but overall the trail shoe picture is bleaker than it’s been in a decade.  It’s not a question of making compromises for next year, only a question of how many will be necessary.