The packraft in 2017

Left to right: Double Duck, 2015 Yukon Yak, Doomiyak, Scout.

When I last sat down to write a treatise on this subject, 4.5 years ago, there wasn’t really all that much to say.  Alpacka Rafts where the only acceptable option for serious use, wilderness or otherwise, and everyone else was dancing around being a serious entrant in that field.  In Alpacka land the pointy sterned boats were maturing quickly, as was the whitewater deck.  Their first drysuit had been launched, to mostly poor reviews, and the Cargo Fly had just been announced.  Kokopelli and the other Alpacka ripoffs were still at least a few years off.

Today things are drastically different.  Kokopelli makes a full range of competitive products, and according to reliable sources their newest self-bailers are impressive whitewater craft.  I’ve not been impressed with build quality, from what little I’ve seen, but that could be a false impression and/or subject to change as they continue to refine overseas manufacturing.  Aire has their Bakraft, bringing IK style down to packraft weight.  MRS et al provide an Alpacka-esque package at a lower cost, and Supai has cornered the SUL flatwater market.  To top it all off, Alpacka’s 2017 line is almost entirely new, and probably represents as much progress as the past four years of packraft evolution combined.

It is no longer possible to write a simple summary of the packraft market.  The models are too many, and their best uses too diverse and specialized for one person to adequately become acquainted with it all.

Screen Shot 2017-04-05 at 8.59.43 PM

Whitewater continues to be the most visible area of growth, and it is logical that packrafting will follow most other outdoor sports in having the pursuit of technical difficulty drive innovation.  I still hold to my past bitching about packrafts being too heavy and WW-oriented, but I also think it is entirely logical that Alpacka has pivoted the classic series to be their generalist boats.  They aren’t offering thigh straps, for instance, and the new and handy weight breakdowns tell us that this series is pretty darn light, it’s just the weight penalty of (for instance) having a truly dry deck that starts to add up.  I did acquire the custom Curiyak shown above specifically to be my UL wilderness boat (once I add a deck), but I fully expect to take my Yak more often than not.  The benefits I detailed in my review last year are just too substantial and universally useful.  On the other hand, the Scout dropped over a pound while still remaining tough enough for the at least occasional rock ding and drag, so there is obviously room for boats to get lighter while remaining appropriately burly.  My bet is that most users will be more than content to tote the extra pounds for the benefit the big gun boats provide, and the weight weenie market might never be substantial enough, or at least not for some time.  Whitewater performance will continue to improve, more slowly one assumes, and packrafts will continue to establish themselves as the best combination of forgiveness and capable whitewater performance.

It is also worth noting that nearly half the Alpacka line are multiperson boats, which points to the breadth of packraft use, and that the new Forager made the PR-49 obsolete.  These legit, 2-3 person boats skew the weight calculus massively and are very appealing for wilderness travel.

Yak floor at left, Doomiyak at right.

Durability will always be a source of tension in boats which have to be so light.  The crucial moment is when you first have to do a field repair, and realize that this is hardly ever a difficult thing.  Reasonable precaution goes a long way, as does prophylactic reinforcement of wear spots.  The recently acquired Doomiyak is an example of just what a good packraft can take and keep on ticking.  I suppose when you’re the breeder rent is free and caution is for the birds.  Nonetheless, I’d like to see pealing seam tape be a less frequent occurrence with Alpackas, and eventually some sort of construction technique which doesn’t place so many prominent wear points along the floor.

In conclusion, it’s a good time to be a packrafter and packraft buyer.  My Scout is still for sale, by the way, though Alpacka’s sale and new model has made selling a niche product even more difficult.  Four rafts seems excessive, and I will go lower on price (email me if interested), but won’t be too upset if it hangs around.




Posted in Backpacking, Cultural critique, Packrafting, Tech | 5 Comments

Sandal hiking with the Bedrock Cairn


Many moons ago I lived in a pair of Chaco sandals, almost year round, save for specific pursuits like climbing or more involved hiking.  Around 8 year ago I was well into a transition to minimalist shoes for hiking and backpacking, and the changes that wrought in my feet made the arch support Chaco used and still uses intolerable.  So the Chacos went on the shelf, and in my dislike of shoes I went from sandal to sandal searching for something that was as quality as Chaco, but lighter and less structured.  Nothing came close to doing that, to put it mildly.  Nothing until this year, when Bedrock Sandals came out with their Cairn.

Billed as a minimalist sandal that can handle hiking the Te Araroa, the Cairn is as close to an ideal hiking sandal as I can imagine.  The vibram rubber is grippy, but wears well, and the tread pattern blends grip in loose stuff with plenty of rubber contact for good friction on slickrock.  The midsole is stout enough to smooth out the spiky rocks, with a good and even flex.  It’d be nice to see something similar in trail shoes, though I expect the Cairns to outlast most if not all trail runners.  Bedrock just released the Cairn Pro, with an even stickier rubber compound, that should go over very well with river runners and strong footed canyoneers.  Were I not so happy with the plain Cairn rubber I’d almost have to try them.


The strapping has a range of adjustment and has been easy to use.  The ladderlock buckles and webbing are a very tight fit, and while they can be hard to work when clogged with sand, that they do not slip in the least strikes me as a worthy tradeoff.  It took me a little while to get used to the toe post, and still find it uncomfortable during steep slickrock sidehilling.  I’m not sure if there is another way to make a minimalist sandal, but I wouldn’t mind more forefoot anchoring.


Adjusting to actually hiking distances of consequence with the Cairns has been a process.  The first time I wore them all day was on the floor at the OR show back in January, and that night I woke up at 0300 with calf cramps.  A month ago I wore them for a 9 mile dayhike, while carrying Little Bear as I almost always am, and had fairly hammered calves and shins for 4 days.  This past week I notched my longest sandal hike yet, 11 miles over varied canyon terrain, and at last had no soreness specifically related to footwear.  11 miles isn’t all that far, but clearly I’m going in the right direction.

As an experiment the Cairns have been a success.  In the past few years, as real minimalist hiking shoes have become more difficult to find, I’ve become accustomed to more structured shoes with more drop.  This isn’t a bad thing, especially with heavier packs having become the norm, but there is also no question that it has made my legs weaker.  I’ve had achilles issues intermittently over the past few years, and throwing true minimalist footwear into the rotation has been part of the plan to address this.


As pictured above, I’ve worn Injinji toe socks with the Cairns for every walk over a few miles.  M has used Chacos as her primary backpacking and hiking shoe for a decade or more, and finds the protective layer socks provide essential.  I see no reason to disbelieve this, and have found the Injinjis up to the task of dealing with sand, mud, and scree.  The only limitations I see for sandal hiking generally, and the Cairns in particular, is the lack of sidehilling stability for really rowdy terrain, and whatever ceiling I might personally have for acclimating to using them for big mile days.  Hopefully my body will continue to adapt, and I’ll be able to enjoy the free feel of sandal hiking for an ever wider array of trips.

Posted in Backpacking, Hiking with ropes, Packrafting, Tech | 4 Comments

Your mid wants a liner

The two biggest complaints folks have with floorless pyramid shelters are lying with the creepy crawlies in the dirt, and rubbing up against condensation on the walls.  The first complaint is largely, though not entirely, a matter of changing context and expectation.  The second is a serious issue that can be both a nuisance and a hazard, and I would suggest is right now inadequately addressed by virtually all makers of backpackable mids (read: those with a canopy weight of 32 oz or less).


There’s an easy though not definitive solution to the condensation issue: liners.  Unless they are truly enormous vents don’t do much to reduce condensation in mids.  If there is enough air circulation (i.e. wind) to make them effective condensation is usually not so bad anyway.  Ditto for the common tactic of raising the hem well off the ground.  The weather shedding shape which makes mids so effective in severe weather just doesn’t do well promoting air circulation.  Change the design to make that happen, and you’ll inherently compromise weather resistance.  Mids are a good quiver of one because they’re geared towards the worst weather most backcountry travelers will experience (ask Jaakko about shelters for polar travel), but when many people buy a mid or tipi, they overpurchase.

Back to liners; my first experience was early this year in a Seek Outside 4 man tipi, and it was a true head slapper moment.  A simple half liner of simple, non-coated nylon turns half your mid into a double walled tent.  As shown below, condensation (or frost) collects on the inside of the silnylon, while the liner (and thus the sleeping bag or head of anyone who rubs against it) stays dry.  Dead simple, pretty darn light, and effective.  The dead air space created also adds a small amount of warmth, though in windy conditions the deflection inherent in mids and the fact that a liner isn’t a true double wall largely erases that benefit.


So far as I can tell, half liners were invented (like modern PU and later silnylon tipis) by Patrick Smith, at Kifaru.  Interestingly, this mention of liners says that Kifaru began their development when they started working with sil in 2003-2004, intimating that condensation is worse with a silicone coating.  All my mid experience is post-sil, and I’d be interested in further thoughts or experience with that particular question.


In any case, the functionality of a liner is beyond question, which is why I made one for our Little Bug Out.  Simple 1.1 oz uncoated, uncalendered nylon to maximize breathability while minimizing weight and cost.  It doesn’t need to go all the way to the peak, nor all the way to the hem.  This one required a bit less than 4 yards of fabric, as well as adding four loops, one of each seam, 10 inches below the peak.  Total weight added, 5.5 ounces.  It only impinges on the interior room a tiny big, and not having to keep away from the walls adds, rather than takes away from, the functional space.  I’d like to see a few companies, ideally with folks who do better with >30 inch seams than I do, offer something similar.  They’re cheap and easy to make, and offer a more useful performance bump than the floors and bug nets which seem obligatory.

Mid devotees with a bit of sewing skill should try one out.

Posted in Backpacking, Hiking with ropes, Hunting, MYOG, Packrafting, Skiing, Tech | 11 Comments

Rab Windveil, windshirt evolution

I’ve written a lot about windshirts over the years, because they’re the most versatile piece of outdoor clothing.  When it comes to the range and frequency of appropriateness, nothing else comes close.  Until waterproof breathable laminates make vast strides in breathability, this will remain the case.  The only question is which windshirt will suit you best.


A decade ago windshirts largely came in one form, the best example being the Patagonia Dragonfly/Houdini.  Woven nylon shells in the 1-1.5 oz/yard range with a DWR and minimal feature set repelled lots of weather without being too hot, and packed down small enough that their was no real penalty associated with bringing one along.  Their shortcomings were first, as mentioned above, a level of water repellancy too low to serve as a meaningful substitute for a hardshell, and second, a level of breathability which was often far too low.  This last became an especially relevant issue when we moved to Montana 9 years ago, and colder temps and high humidity levels made moisture accumulation in my baselayer a more frequent and serious concern.  I went through the Patagonia Traverse, Rab Boreas, and others before finally landing on the Black Diamond Alpine Start.  The Alpine Start has been ideal, largely because it has the lightest fabric of the all the highly breathable, “soft shell” windshirts I’ve tried.  Making fabrics lighter without loosing function is the now of outdoor garments.

The Alpine Start, and soft shell windshirts generally, do have shortcomings.  For one, even the AS absorbs more water and is heavier and bulkier than traditional windshirts.  For another, there are occasions when more windproofing is wanted, particularly in drier places where humidity is low, and the probability of not having a hardshell around for massive wind is greater.  In other words, our current desert locale is a good place for a conventional windshirt.  Last, the Alpine Start continues to have fit and tailoring issues (shortish torso and sleeves, slightly baggy, funny neck and hood) which make it less than ideal.  So when I happened upon a discounted Rab Windveil last fall on our way back from the Colorado housing scout, I knew it would prove a worthy investment.


The Windveil is cut from the same pattern (literally, I would guess) as the Rab Cirrus.  Same skinny torso, same long sleeves, same drop tail, same great hood, same nice chest pockets.  Perfect fit and feature set, in my book.  The new Microlight, which bears little resemblance to the heavier stuff used in the older Montane Litespeed, is as light as the Cirrus’ Pertex Quantum, but quite a bit more breathable, and surprisingly comfortable against the skin.  The smaller packed size, enhanced wind resistance, and especially trimmer fit has had me grabbing it more and more often, particularly on windy days and for mountain biking.

Rab claims the “Super DWR” used on the Windveil will “last the life of the garment”, which in turn apparently led Outdoor Gear Lab to claim this DWR as permanent.  If true this would be exciting, but it appears to be a mere marketing exaggeration.  Having a more durable DWR is good, but as my windshirts have always gotten a lot of use, and therefore more frequent laundering, I’ve always had their DWR wash out before the rest of the garment died.  File truly a truly permanent DWR windshirt, such as the better performing Epics in a lighter package, as one of the areas where more growth in the windshirt market would be nice.  For the moment, it will do to appreciate the continued bending of the breathability and weather protection curve.  We can have both in one to an extent not possible, and hardly considered, a decade ago.


Posted in Backpacking, Bikes and biking, Climbing, Hiking with ropes, Packrafting, Skiing, Tech | 7 Comments

You gotta ask


Because sometimes you might get lucky, this time they might say yes.


Especially in Arizona, where snow passes on like doubt over lunch options.


We’d never stayed at Indian Gardens, a mere 4.5 miles from and 3k below the South Rim, but of all the quasi-frontcountry campgrounds within the NPS, the ones “hardcore” backpackers are likely to pass, this one was at the top of my list.  Like so many glamour locations the hordes have long since rubbed off the aura.  Which is not a good reason to not try to rediscover what it must have looked like before, and is a good reason to try to imagine it as it should be.

So when we drove up from Williams in an ebbing ground blizzard and walking into the Grand Canyon Backcountry office at 230 in the afternoon, I thought what the hell, and asked if they had a spot for the night halfway down the Bright Angel Trail.  They did, we took it, and the snow abated just enough for a 20 minute packing job.


By the three mile rest house, 3 miles (duh) and 2000 feet below the rim the precipitation had stopped, and the sun was almost strong enough to melt the wet out of Little Bears toque.


Even though Arizona rightly shrugs the yoke of daylight savings time, and the storm had placed innumerable tempting puddles in LB’s path, we easily made the campground with time to set up, cook, look around, and get tired before full dark.  Gravel tent pads, two story composting toilets, and a metal picnic table with freshly painted brown wooden awning for each site made Indian Gardens seem close to the road.  The vibrant cacti, luscious cottonwoods, and spring which an effulgent winter had forced from the ground 8 inches from the manicured borders of our site made the place seem what it ought to be seen as; one of the more poignant, piquant locations in North America.


The next morning, a stroll out to Plateau Point and back gave us spring in full there on the cusp of the proper desert at 3700 feet.  Several species of Pricky Pear, grass, flowers, and wrens, as well as a few groups of mule deer, all well on their way towards topping off the fat of spring to survive the heat of summer.


This fullness of the landscape, emphatically polished by the river properly silty and loud 2000 feet below, contrasted nicely with the moody schist and granite of the inner gorge.  This ever-present glower, perspicacious but fervent, is fitting for rock whose formation predates the advent of bacteria on Earth.  The gravitas reminds me of that constant paradox, that any attribute I might see in it is at once only in my head, and all that might be there. Proportioning belief is distinctly problematic when the evidence at hand so far exceeds both the senses, and time.


Carrying a 40 pound pack which is nearly 3/4 child, one now possessing both the height and strength to crane directly at the ground when he so chooses, is a good reminder of the frailty of the individual human.  Doing so up a steady 3000 foot climb is good practice making the passions consistent slaves to reason, in that no matter how dispiriting, a certain number of additional steps will lead inevitably to the rim.  A decade ago I envisioned how exciting it might be to haul our at the time exceptionally hypothetical child over the final stretch.  Which it was, and my excitement blunted and delayed the realization that afterwards, at lunch, said child would be imbued with energy, having napped while I labored, making relaxing with a beer no longer possible in the way it used to be.

I’ll keep mourning that, a little.

Posted in Backpacking, The Adventures of Little Bear | 5 Comments

20 months

What have we learned in the last 20 months?


That when Little Bear is outside most of each day, every day, life is pretty simple.  His appetite for motion is insatiable, and the world of streets and four walls doesn’t frame that very easily.

That people are even more ready to snap judge others parenting than I had thought.  The readiness of strangers to come up and comment, on any range of things, often has me contemplating a hair cut and tattoos which would hopefully, presumably tamp this down.

That toddler balance bikes are one of the best inventions, ever.  LB has had his Yuba since his first birthday, and lots of uneasy pushing in the backyard this fall and winter must have set the stage for a startling transformation early this month, when he went from barely kicking along to full on gliding in about two weeks.  Now his distance record is approaching three miles.

That most people, businesses, and places of employment will say they are kid and family friendly, but the number which really stop and take action to show they understand what that means are few.  My appreciation for, and continued patronage of, the few who get this right is far more fervent than I ever would have thought.  It’s hard to hold many that far in contempt, as 22 months ago I didn’t have a clue.  On the other hand, the persistence of prejudice largely but not exclusively at the hands of the older generation is discouraging.  Those who don’t see the need for a changing table in the men’s room, or would think that I’d spend outside time with my family, are hard subjects for patience.


My appreciation for Patagonia’s toddler clothing has only grown, as well as the thought Osprey puts into their kid carriers.  Kid gear can’t be a high-margin thing, but now that he’s so mobile, and has ambition which so often outstrips his balance, LB needs quick-dry gear at least as much as I do.

Lastly, we’ve begun to come around to car camping.  Not so much because of the heavy packs required, but because of the way nice grassy camp sights make kid locomotion and it’s supervision less energy intensive.  LB’s expectations have been shaped by modern civilization, and while he is a flexible creature, does not appreciate a landscape which completely shuts him down.  Which is a mirror of my gratitude that while he is an amazing pain in ass on a daily basis, and has changed our life completely, he hasn’t eliminated  many of the things in which we found joy during the pre-baby era.  Indeed, with reasonable accommodation they’re as fun and satisfying as ever.

It is easy to co-parent and alternate with one on baby duty and another being productive (be it sewing or mountain biking).  And this is a necessary approach to get much done most days.  But the best days are always the ones where we’re all fully present and doing the same thing.  I’ve always liked working, and am currently swimming in job stuff, both current and potential, here and elsewhere, but family life has been good enough that could I take the next 20 months off to chase the kid full time, I might well do it.

Posted in Backpacking, Bikes and biking, The Adventures of Little Bear | 4 Comments

Backpack problems, and answers

In the last few months I’ve had impetus from several directions to hit the reset button on backpacks as completely as possible.  Shake off and re-examine as many assumptions as possible before I put them into practice.  This bag, and this post, are only a first step towards that end.

Problem 1: Seams are the enemy.

Seams create weak points and add weight, bulk, and (potentially) complication.  Testing has confirmed my years-old assumption that burly fabrics will rip stitches, while weaker fabrics will rip from stitch hole to stitch hole.  Tuning thread to suit the fabric and reinforcing seams can mitigate but not do away with these issues.  The complication is that bag shaping is a vital factor in making a pack which carries, wears, and uses well.  For the bag below I went back to the roots of the 610 pack and copied my original design as closely as possible.  It sure carries well, and after a few years of love affairs with zippers its not so bad to have a simple top loader that demands some thought in packing, and doesn’t mind sand (this last highly relevant in the desert, and much less so in NW Montana).  It would be possible to make this design with fewer inches of seam overall, but only by adding significantly to the complication and construction difficultly.  Vertical seams are simple, easy to reinforce and if you eschew binding tape in favor of big seam allowances which can be folded and top stitched, pretty darn resistant.  A bag this tall and skinny is a specialist tool for ultralight mountain backpackers and canyon hikers, and really not the most versatile design.

Larger bags, with suitable compression, are more open to compromise.


Problem 2: Lightweight fabrics which are durable enough for real world longevity.

I’ve written far too often and in many places that lightweight fabrics are not the most efficient way to make a light backpack, and with decently spare designs hardly ever having more than 2 yards once everything is added up (reinforcements, belt, harness, etc) this is true.  But weight is still weight and pack fabrics remain one of the more common areas where fat could be rendered.  This post has been one of my most read, ever, since I published it over three years ago, and while the specific options have expanded, the landscape has not much changed.  And probably won’t until someone starts using woven dyneema in a way where they aren’t obliged to upcharge the hell out of it.  (One wonders if HMG changed their whole 4400 line to woven what the net effect would be on price, over 3 years.)  For my own use, the varieties of 210 denier D-P laminate remain the point where fabric is too light.  I made the body of my fatbike framebag, usually a fairly low impact area, out of X21RC, and the damn thing has a little hole after less than a month.  From what, I could not say.  This is evidence of a divide which will always exist in the different types of durability different people demand; X21 does fine in all but the nastiest brush, but get it close to pointy rocks at it wilts like a rose hit with Fluroxypyr.

The pack pictured here is make mainly from a prototype fabric (the coyote tan stuff), which is a 330 denier Cordura with a very thick PET laminate.  The company in question called me last spring and asked for my thoughts on the ideal pack fabric.  In summary, my feedback was to make X33 without the X-ply, perhaps a thicker film, no backer, and in a nice lighter earth tone.  They delivered, and M and I happily used packs made from it all last summer (seen in action here among other places).  It remains the best pack fabric I’ve used.  I now possess all of what remains from the test run, and am putting it to use very sparingly.  Said company is looking for a party interested enough to invest in a larger production run, and if any reader fits that description, they should email me so I can set up a conversation that might put more of this stuff out into the world.

The reinforcement patches shown are plain PU coated 330 denier Cordura, in a lovely dark dark green that photos poorly put sets off the coyote nicely in natural light.  Laminate fabrics (D-P and hybrid cuben, essentially) have many virtues when used in backpacks, but aren’t the holy grail.  Truly good PU coatings come close when it comes to waterproofing, and hardly anyone is in a position to really comment on how the heavier laminate fabrics will stack up in terms of delamination.  Probably not a pragmatic concern for many, but if light hybrid cuben can start to delam in under a year of heavy use, one has to assume the burly stuff will eventually.  The nice thing for the moment is that the relative scarcity of laminate fabrics and their place as a premium product has kept quality high.  Trying to source good PU Cordura in small batches is a roll of the dice, whereas one can buy X33 or X50 and know all aspects are top shelf.

The reason for the reinforcement patches on the base and sides of this pack are to experiment with how light a fabric will stand up to hard canyon use.  I shredded a simple X51 bag in about 7 total hours of use doing this back in December, and the numerous were all exclusively due to harder things (rope, waterbottle, full drybag) pressing from the inside.  Theses reinforcement patches are 1/4″ bigger than the main body panels, which will hopefully deflect pressure and allow the fabric to perform closer to its potential.

Problem 3: Enough suspension, but not too much.

At this point, any time I have a hipbelt on a backpack I want some form of rigidish (read, metal) suspension, well anchored.  There are acute limits to just chucking a center stay in, but there are also very substantive benefits, and not that severe a weight penalty.  I was genuinely shocked two weekends ago to see just how vague the connection between the stays and harness elements of the HMG 4400 packs are, testament I deem to how low the bar is in this department.  The trick isn’t just to make a decently stiff without having to add too much weight in the form of supporting and connecting elements, it is to build the proper amount of play into that frame (which is probably why the HMG system is so beloved).  There are plenty of options available for massive loads, and some decent ones for light loads, but it seems to me that the middle ground of 30-50 pounds still needs attention.

Carbon will remain problematic until a company can invest in proper molds and manufacturing which can produce a contoured product that won’t break.  Stone Glacier and Zpacks have, in very different directions, taken straight carbon as far as it can go.  That the former is adding 6 ounces to the stays alone just to achieve a modicum of curve should tell us something about the limitations of a straight frame.

For this pack, I put on thick shoulder straps, an external pad sleeve, and inside the sleeve loops to attach a webbing hipbelt.  90% of the time I won’t use a belt, but it is a good option, and a removable pad adds just the right amount of structure.


Problem 4: Closures

I have a profoundly mixed relationship with roll tops.  On the one hand they’re clean, weatherproof, provide vertical compression without extra straps, and are the easiest closure to sew (one of the reasons they’re so popular).  On the other, they’re fiddly and require buckles, which are the next enemy after seams, and a more intractable one.  I tried a drawcord and top strap on this one, and am not sure I like it.  In theory it’s faster and allows for overflow capacity, but I’m not sure that theory holds water any more.  There is a large extent to which chasing “easy” closures and quick access ends up being a half-assed solution for organization on the part of the user.

Problem 5: Side pockets

Side pockets on packs are a horrid nuisance.  Slapping on a flat panel of stretch fabric is the simplest solution, and one which actually works pretty well until they get shredded.  Fabric pockets are tougher, and if abrasion against rocks is not much of a concern making them huge and putting them all the way against the bottom seam should guarantee good access and plenty of capacity.  My problem is that I don’t always want side pockets.  In canyons they get destroyed, and they interfere with the placement of compression straps, and the attachment of things such as skis.  Is there a way to make them modular while not sucking?  That is the next project.

Posted in Backpacking, Bikes and biking, Hiking with ropes, MYOG, Packrafting, Racing, Skiing, Tech | 11 Comments

A diversion for nostalgia

There was a brief time, which some will remember, when I was at least ok at mountain biking.  That time ended when we moved to Montana and I discovered that while that state has fantastic riding, it has even better a lot of other things.  Western Colorado does have good riding, and in the last few months I’ve been taking it easy (I’ve reached my lifetime limit of concussions) and trying to get back in the groove.


There have been moments, fleeting ones, of what I can only imagine was my old level of skill and confidence.  Like yesterday, railing down Mack Ridge on the fatbike, flying around corners and doing serious tire damage.  The same bike harvested a thorn riding along the local drainage ditch with LB this morning, one large enough that when I yanked it the Stans in the tube would not plug, rather leaking out and weeping through a dozen new thin spots in the sidewall.

There have also been moments of lesser competence, like this afternoon, riding the Ribbon.  The trail, distantly visible as the long sandstone slabs right of top center in the above photo, is one I’ve only ridden once before.  Like then, I self-shuttled up the road, and like then, had a stiff headwind which makes steepish pavement climbing on a singlespeed hard to make efficient.  I made it down upright, walking plenty of sections and enjoying the hell out of the riding.  But the wheels came off 1.75 hours in climbing back up the Tabeguache to Little Park road, and desperate pushing was all I had left.

It got me thinking of that previous time, on the same bike (same wheels, same fork!) and what an insane amount of riding I did in one week.  I remember the rides, even without having written them down, but don’t recall quite how I refueled and generally took care of myself well enough to ride 20-40 miles of tough singletrack each day for a week and then finish it off with the White Rim in a Day.  A week like that unsurprisingly gave me my best bike fitness ever, and requires a specificity and long build up that I may never replicate again.  I would like to get my descending arms a little more up to snuf, and perhaps indulge in a bit of more modern bike technology.

For those who clicked; after that last day the drivers window of the Xterra stayed up until it’s demise 5 years later.  A source of amusement and embarrassment at banks and drive thrus, and a reminder to not worry too much about the transient thorns in life.

Posted in Bikes and biking | Leave a comment

The tranquil and ridiculous


The Colorado Plateau specializes in blending the sublime and the ridiculous, the tranquil and the absurd.  The rules one finds elsewhere in nature generally apply, but in the high desert are often bent, to the point of breaking.  Canyons get narrower as they get bigger, seemingly dry sand eats your shoes and knees with no warning, spring river levels go down as it gets warmer (my particular vexation of the moment), and the desiccated, still land holds gravity and biology at just the edge of possibility.


My favorite example, of the former, are the Moenkopi cliffs we found for ourselves on a weekend adventure with LB and the grandparents.  Moenkopi might not be ubiquitous around the canyons of Utah, but it is common.  These ones though, are the most colorful I’ve seen.  The porous, heterogeneous nature of the Moenkopi made it a popular place to seek out uranium during the Cold War-funded boom of the 1950s, as ore would collect along sills in the strata just below.


This cabin had one room, and was built from thin boards and a layer of tar paper, entirely with roofing nails.  It was built by uranium prospectors, as was the quite decent dirt road we drove for a couple hours to reach our camp, under a cottonwood and next to a thin creek, loud with sediment.  Evidently the height of the boom saw 450 people living in the same bottoms, enough to fund a school of sorts for at least a couple years.  The contrast with the present is immense, it’s hard to imagine finding flat ground for that many trailers and shacks.


In any case, get close to those Moenkopi cliffs and realize that not only are the mudstone cobbles and gypsum veins held together by little other than inertia and gravity, the faces of some pillars overhang a few degrees.  One could with a pickaxe and five minutes hollow out a closet-sized room, the only other requisites goggles and a serious disregard for personal safety.


The next silly thing we found was heavy, recent beaver traffic.  Along a stream that is rarely more than knee deep, often far shallower, and almost always dense to the point of audibility with silt.  With the ideal food (cottonwoods) often a healthy ways back from the water.  I suppose the coyote population is sufficiently sparse that the odds of the two meeting during nocturnal lumberjack outings is modest.

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And then we found some wild horses.  Introduced, though some tribes claimed cultural memory of the Pleistocene horses extirpated by their ancestors, horses have in the modern West become objects of nostalgia.  Ms. Smith didn’t name an album after the noble castor canadensis, after all.  They’re also a damn nuisance, as the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act limits the extent to which they can be managed (read: shot), and only circumstance and the occasional attempted wrangle limits their numbers.  This herd of six had obviously spent the winter in a small serious of meanders, sheltered from the worst of the wind and snow accumulation, with just enough sage to manage the desperate times.  I don’t begrudge them this living as individuals, but I do hold the hammering and denuding they had inflicted against the mugwumps who passed that damn law.  This in one of the few areas within a hundred mile radius where cattle grazing was not grandfathered in to modern management.

When you can buy a horse hunting license I’ll be at the front of the line, and when my current careers grow old I’ll shoot the moon on student debt, get a PhD, and write a thesis on beaver population dynamics in marginal habitats.


LB was unmoved, so long as he had oranges and cookies to eat, and a trekking pole to take on extended loan.


He’s even begun to go hours between hat protests, for which the Scottish complexion he inherited from his mother thanks him.  The many no-assist hikes we’ve gone on over the winter have payed us back in his rock clambering abilities, and his newfound and occasionally startling speed on the strider bike, but that comes at a cost of longer wander breaks while on hikes.  The demise of our ability to backpack point-to-point with anything approaching adult range is still far away, but is visible on the horizon.


What’s also visible is spring.  Even at 6000 feet cottonwood buds are small, but firmly established, and grass shards are visible in cracks amongst the mudflats.  It’s a precious time of year, when the evening gusts die out and you’re far enough to mute the hiss of the creek, the hurried potentiality of green is almost hearable.

Posted in Backpacking, The Adventures of Little Bear | 2 Comments

Evaluating backpack capacity in the real world

…aka the most exciting topic ever.

It’s important to get the right size pack.  For evidence, I refer to the above photos.  Having to strap stuff outside is occasionally necessary, but it’s almost always bad style, and often somewhat hazardous (lost water bottles, paddle blades, etc).  Evaluating how big a pack will actually be once in use is crucial when shopping sight unseen, but is not as simple as it might seem, both because of the varying methods makers use to rate their bags, and because the shape and layout of a backpack heavily influences both how it measures out, and how usable that capacity becomes.  Due to a whole host of design issues, these last two are not infrequently in conflict.

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Backpack volume is measured in cubic liters or inches.  I strongly prefer the former, as I want to help the standard system finally release its imperialist claws, but mostly because two digit numbers are simpler.  In any case, memorizing a few mental benchmarks to quickly convert the two is useful.  30 liters is not quite 2,000 cubic inches, which is good a day ski touring in frigid temps, or 4 days out in the height of summer.  50 liters is 3,000 cubic inches, which is a 10 day UL backpacking load, or a packrafting day load.  90 liters is 5,500 cubic inches, which is a week long fall hunting load.  130 liters is 8,000 cubic inches, which is not too big for a 10 day packrafting expedition.  And so forth.

The “industry standard” set by the American Society for Testing and Materials is to fill the pack, and all pockets which close with a zipper, with 20mm diameter plastic spheres and then measure the space those balls occupy in another container.  The problems this method presents are diverse and of consequence.  For one, bog standard pingpong balls are not exactly 20mm, so a company aspiring to this standard must purchase special balls.  And if they plan to make a 130 liter pack, quite a few of them.  For another, including zippered pockets but excluding pockets that close with straps or drawstrings, is biased against certain classes of backpacks, if maximum size for a given weight is the goal.  For a third, most pockets, zippered or not, are not designed so that they retain their volume well when the main bag is stuffed full.  Most severely, 20mm balls are rather large, and in my experience significantly under-report size for bags and especially pockets with more complex curves and shaping.

The end result is that pack makers, especially smaller pack makers, usually just make a number up.  They draw on past experience, maybe look at numbers from other companies, make the ethical and stylistic decision concerning how conservative they want their numbers to be, and then go for it.  Some manufacturers follow the old method grading trade climbs, and pick the lowest number they can say out load with a straight face.  A lot more do the same with the highest number that will stick.  Obviously, factors like the personal biases and breadth of experience (or lack thereof) of the person or people in question is of enormous consequence, as is the market in which they seek to operate.  If the intended competition is all 50 liters, it makes sense to call your bag a 50 liter one, too.

For example, look at the Stone Glacier R3 (tactical Solo) on the left, and the Exo K2 2000 daypack on the right.  The R3 is rated as 54 liters, the 2000 as 46 (32 liters for the main bag, 14 for the rolltop and stretch pocket).  I didn’t tape either at the Hunt Expo, though I have owned and used a Solo.  The R3 might be a hair bigger, but overall the packs struck me as very similar in size.  Stone Glacier with, in my opinion, a dead on assessment, Exo with a fairly conservative one.  Exo undersells by labeling their pack the 2000, and marketing it as a daypack, while the Solo/R3 is Stone Glacier’s “minimalist multi-day backcountry backpack.”  Exo made the choice to never give anyone the reasonable option to complain about buying a too small pack, while Stone Glacier appeals to the hard core and aspirational in equal measure.  Neither post actual dimensions of their website, though that’s likely because few customers are geeky enough to want them.  Both made a volume determination based not just on fact, but on marketing.

One company who does post numbers, and very detailed ones, is Hyperlite Mountain Gear.  Luke and I had the chance to see the whole HMG line at IME last weekend, and while I once again failed to bring my tape measure, all HMG’s claimed dimensions seemed at the time quite accurate.  In fact, I’d say that their packs are the current benchmark against which other claims ought to be, and can be most easily and accurately be, measured.  This is helped by a simple bag shape, shared dimensions within families (e.g. a 3400 Porter and Windrider have identical main bags), and in the case of the Windriders anemic pockets with little real capacity worth mentioning.

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HMG’s method of stating height, upper and lower circumference, and back width is the one I find most succinct and demonstrative.  Not coincidentally, it is most commonly found among cottage UL backpack makers, though Osprey at least nods in this direction with most of their products.  It gives a prospective buyer a concrete sense of both overall size, and where that size is being used.  Take some conservative numbers from the HMG 4400 bags for example; with a closed height of 35 inches, and an average overall circumference of 41 inches, a simple cylinder volume will be 4645 cubic inches, or about 76 liters.  Cutting a bit off that due to the pack not being a cylinder when in use adjusts things nicely to 70 real liters.  If your 70 liter pack has dimensions which add to a lot less than an HMG 4400, something suspicious is afoot.

HMG is a good and easy example to follow because all their bags are fairly simple cylinders, with a steady bottom to top taper and little other shaping.  The math will be for them simpler and more reliable than any other, save an orthotope.  Bag shapes that smooth corners, and have a narrower and wider profile in some areas compared to others, will map out as having less capacity.  Depending on what you’re packing, they will have less actual capacity, too.  Loose things like sleeping bags and clothing, and to a less extent tents, sleeping pads, and food, can mold to fit curves and corners if they aren’t packed to tightly beforehand.  Other items, like bear canisters or a rolled packraft, are rigid and cannot adapt.  The closer a pack bag is to a square or fat rectangle in cross section, the more forgiving it will be to pack, and the better it will measure out on paper.


The above canyon selfie was taken while carrying a tall and fairly thin (2:1 width/depth ratio in spots) backpack.  Such a bag offers more limited options for bulky and semi-rigid objects, but is desirable anyway because it places weight close to the user, and fits easily through tight places.  Design is a tug of war between myriad factors, with no free lunch.


My first takeaway from all of this is to be a skeptical consumer.  Get the dimensions of a pack you can’t see first hand, ideally from both the manufacturer and a third party.  If the numbers don’t seem to add up, then they probably don’t  The only way to make an 80 liter pack is to have the height, width and depth add up to that volume.

My second takeaway is to think of volume and dimensions as intertwined factors, when one moves so to do the others.  If you want a shorter pack to, for example sneak through Oak Brush, you’ll either have to make do with less space, or have a deeper and/or wider pack.  For example, if your 80 liter pack is only 30 inches tall, you’ll need the average circumference to be almost 48 inches, which is quite a lot.

Lastly, while there is a lot to be said for buying a pack that will enforce packing discipline, and a lot to be said for having a small pack, generally, don’t be too much of a slave to theory.  Fabric doesn’t add much weight, and be able to put everything in the bag, without egregious cramming, is almost always better for you and all your gear.

Posted in Backpacking, Hunting, MYOG, Packrafting, Skiing, Tech | 1 Comment