Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gear reviews from SHT

The high temps (mid 20s) and the hard work overwhelmed my clothing system while hiking the first day. I sweated out my base layer and softshell clothing in my hiking - the snow coming down did not help. With these conditions in mind, I offer the following reviews.

Starting from my feet, my sock combination kept my feet warm - I wore X-static socks, ID VBL socks and then Smartwool Mountaineering socks as warmth socks. All of these were inside my Steger Mukluks. There was little moisture inside my VBL socks when I took them off when I went to bed on night zero. There was a little moisture in my liner socks, but these dried out overnight in my bag.

The mukluks performed well but not flawlessly. The leather laces, moosehide I think, stretched and absorbed water as they sat in my tent overnight. Temps in the tent were high and melted the snow that was attached to them - the laces absorbed it right up. The next morning when I went to my boots on, I pulled one of the laces too hard and it snapped! I lost about a 5 inch chunk of leather. This was not a huge deal because the laces are about three feet long and stretched, but it did prevent my from getting an optimum snug fit on my other foot because I did not want to repeat the breaking. Also, when I was at the cafe in Hovland, the snow on my mukluks melted and soaked the canvas and the leather - this in turn got my warmth sock wet and made my feet cold. I changed into dry socks and wore a pair of boots that were in the car for the ride home. This would not be a problem had I stayed outside, however on the trip I would have needed to go indoors at least twice to get resupply packages. On colder trips, this obviously would not have been a problem.

My softshell pants, a pair of Marmot Scree softshell pants performed well. They repelled snow and exterior moisture beaded up on the outside - however, they did wet out from sweat from my hard hiking on day zero. I did not have this problem on day 1 (Sunday), so I belief this was caused by the warm temps. Each day I was wearing a pair of trusty thin base layer bottoms (Theramar poly pro) underneath. At night, I wore the pants over my VBL pants in a successful effort to dry them out. The fabric is sufficiently stretchy to accommodate a wide range of temps and they are great pants. For $99, they are highly recommended (and not, I did not pay that much). I currently use these pants when I bike to work on a twice and soon-to-be thrice weekly basis and they do a good job breathing and cutting moderate wind.

My softshell jacket, an REI Mistral with PowerShield fabric performed well but is flawed in that it does not have a hood. (related: my rant on rain hats and how useless they are.) Like the pants, they wetted out from sweat but generally, snow bounced off the jacket. Snow that did land melted and the jacket dried quickly. If it had a hood, it would be great - the jacket is very lightweight for a softshell jacket, uses quality materials the construction is decent. The jacket would be excellent if the cut were narrower and if it had pit zips. (Note: You can get all of this and more at Beyond Clothing, where you can customize your own clothing, including softshells.) At night, the jacket was soaked through and through and I put it between my pads to keep it from freezing. I needed to take it off because when I was in camp, I could not dry it out underneath my down jacket without compromising the insulation. More on that later, but I eventually brought the jacket into the sleeping bag and it moderately dried out overnight and was wearable the next day. It dried out completely while I walking out.

That all said, I am now convinced of the value of softshell clothing in temps respectfully below freezing (below about 20F, to use a semi-arbitrary temp). Any more and a hardshell might be preferred. For those of who have read my doubting of softshell clothing, consider this an apology - you were right, I was wrong, now lets all going hiking and forget about it. A softshell may not even be necessary, however, if one goes with a light hooded base layer and a breathable windshirt with a decent DWR - more on this in a later post.

My VBL clothes really had no use in the high temps I experienced. I wore them overnight next to my skin and underneath my softshell pants because they would keep exterior water from getting to my skin. I also tried to wear the jacket briefly on the first day of planned hiking (Sunday), but took it off after getting too hot. I think now that VBL best used when the body is in low metabolic states (i.e. not hiking). I did wear the shirt successfully in 0F degree weather at winter camp training while walking around, but I did not have a pack on and the walking was not strenuous. VBL is still necessary to keep insulation dry - much has been written on this and will not be repeated here.

I made a balaclava out of Epic fabric (which I goofed on and generally did a poor job constructing) but it worked well as a hood substitute. The fabric was moderately breathable and showed good potential for wider uses as a windshirt-on-'roids, a la Wind Things.

My snowshoes, a pair of 25" MSR Lightning Ascents, did me little good on the snow. Many people have suggested to me that I should have used bigger shoes, and I think they are right. I should have gone with a pair of 30" shoes or an even bigger pair. Atlas makes shoes that are 35" long, Crescent Moon makes a 37" pair and of course there are the old military surplus-style ones. That all said, I don't think any pair of snowshoes would have allowed me to wade through that snow effectively. It was just too deep to make any progress and it was light and powdery. The problem was that there was a lot of it and that made it heavy. I could have used two or three feet less snow, and the fresh snow that fell on night zero did not help.

My ID MK1 performed the best of any gear I brought along. I failed to get a solid pitch on night zero but the tent help up to winds without budging and shed snow with ease. The fabric was incredibly breathable and there was minimal condensation on the interior of the tent fabric (or the poles for that matter, a testament to how warm it was in the tent i.e. above the dew point) in the morning. The tent is small, but it is built for climbers. One nitpick - the bag supplied is too small so I brought a larger stuff sack. I also like to roll my tents (not stuff) which further complicates the matter.

I took a TNF Nupste as my sole puffy insulating garment for my torso. In hindsight, the jacket needs some serious DWR on its exterior shell fabric. I refused to cook in the tent, so I was outside waiting for snow to melt and water to boil and had to wear the down jacket (because every other torso layer except my VBL shirt) was soaked. This got the shell wet and probably compromised the insulation. It is a warm jacket, but the weather was too warm and snow melted on contact. This jacket shall be relegated to around-town usage. Without a better DWR, my older version does not below in serious conditions. That said, I will be testing the Sierra Designs BTU jacket, which is really a parka, this winter. It is hooded, has a wp/b shell and so far has kept me warm in some extremely cold conditions around town.

For water bottles, I used 48 oz collapsible Nalgene Canteens. I took two - one as a backup because failure would be catastrophic. I rested the bottle underneath my softshell jacket but on top of my hipbelt while I was walking and the combination worked perfectly. The canteen was easy to pour into and drink out of and the collapsing was nice. For purification, I took chlorine dioxide tablets. These presumably worked well (I did not get sick as a result of poor water quality) but left an chlorine smell to the water and the bottle. The tabs did not affect taste once the water was in your mouth - the smell was not terribly pleasant, however.

A few items I did not extensively use and do not warrant reviews here - my neck gaiter, balaclava, insulated mitts and everything else.

Here's the whole list. It is not all quite accurate, notably the stove weight. I never did get a chance to weigh my fuel bottle without fuel in it.

Pack Carried Worn
Granite Gear Vapor Trail 36.16
Shelter Carried Worn
MK1 XL 77.00
SMC Sno Stake x8 8.47
Sleeping Carried Worn
GG Comp. Sack (XL) 3.84
Blue foamer (57") 7.65
Ridgerest (57") 8.08
Marmot Col, -20 (long) 74.00
Clothes worn Carried Worn
OR Sonic Balaclava
NW Hat (100 weight fleece)
Stephenson's VBL shirt
Base layer bottom (Theramar)
Marmot Scree
BD Jetstream gloves
Base layer top (Theramar)
Neck Gaiter
Footwear Carried Worn
Steger Mukluks, Arctic
MSR Lightning Ascents (25")
Integral Designs VBL socks
Smartwool Mountaineer socks
Fox River X-Static socks
Clothes carried Carried Worn
Fox River X-Static socks 0.85
Smartwool Mountaineer socks 4.62
TNF Nupste 24.83
Stephensons VBL Pants 4.69
Montbell UL Thermawrap pants 9.77
REI Ridgecrest Mitts
S2S stuff sack 1.16
MLD eVent mitts (in pocket)
Softshell hood (Epic), MYOG
Kitchen Carried Worn
DragonFly 15.77
30 oz fuel can

REI 1.3L Ti Pot 4.97
Hot Spark (on ribbon)
Lexan Fork 0.39
30 matches

Hydration Carried Worn
48oz Nalgene Canteen 2.22 2.22
Chlorine Dioxide x20

Emergency Carried Worn
FAK; repair kit 3.70
ACR Microfix
Emergency Fire Kit

Misc Carried Worn
Tikka Plus
CF poles
Cell phone
$20 Cash; ID; 2x key; Credit; Ins
Triptease 1.31
Notebook and pencil 2.22
Toiletries Carried Worn
Toothbrush 0.42
Toothpaste (baking soda)

TP and wet wipes (4x day, 5 days)
Handsanitizer (1 oz)

Sandwich bag (toiletries) 0.07
Navigation Carried Worn
Map(s), average (2)
Silva Polaris compass
Aloksak for phone
Aloksak for maps
Comsumables, trailhead max Carried Worn
Food, 5 days

30 oz White gas

Water, 56 oz
BASE Carried Worn
OZ 292.20 268.37
LB 18.26 16.77
Totals 18.26 35.04



I have been considering purchasing a pair of Steger Mukluks. My biggest issues with them are the fact that they are leather and cotton, which tend to absorb water and don't dry particularly fast. Your experiences seem to confirm that.

I guess as long as they stay dry, you are ok, but as soon as they get wet, that is a problem. Particularly here in Maine where the snow is often deep and damp.

What are your thoughts? Are you going to continue to use them as your cold weather footwear? How would you do things differently?

Matt Lutz said...

I am going to continue to use them in winter, but they are not meant for temps above say 20F, and not certainly for the temps I experienced at the beginning of my aborted thru-hike.

I used the mukluks throughout the '08-'09 winter with much success. The partial failure on the hike was due to the high snow plus the high temps. They are really designed for ultra cold, dry places like Antarctica and the like.

If your snow is wet, deep and damp then I would avoid them and go with something that has a nylon-like outer that will not absorb the moisture.