Sunday, March 7, 2010

If you had to start again, knowing what you know now, what would you do different?

Facially simple question: If you had to start backpacking (and purchasing or making gear) all over again, where would you start?

First, a story: I discovered REI during my first year of college and I spent hours perusing its racks. My first purchase was a 4400 cubic inch backpack that weighed 4.25 lbs (a full 4 lbs more than my lightest backpack right now). I also bought an REI Halfdome 2, which also weighed somewhere north of 5 lbs (including footprint and stakes).

My lightweight epiphany came sometime after these purchases when a friend of mine showed me his homemade silynylon backpack that was designed on the frameless packs of Ray Jardine. I was floored. Here was a backpack that weighed in at 16 oz that had the same functional capacity as my heavy, overbuilt backpack.

So where would I start? I would read Beyond Backpacking first, and do it at a time before 1999 when I went to Isle Royale with my scout troop. And I would have thrust myself into the make-your-own realm. My mother is a fantastic seamstress, and I would have asked her for her assistance. Back then, my funds were limited and the thrifty nature of making your own appealed to that nature. Making my gear early may also serve to limit the consumerism pressure to constantly exchange and replace gear for lighter alternatives. This would have put me in a good position to develop my so-called "Big Three" (shelter system, sleeping system, backpack system) to somewhere near four pounds (1 lb tarp system; 1 lb backpack; 2 lb quilt + pad system). And the rest of the system would have developed from there according to the principles of lightweight backpacking.

Instead, I carried too much weight for too long and spent too much money and time on heavy alternatives that I thought were essential or necessary. I do not regret it, but I wish my epiphany had come earlier.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sunshine and snow melt on the SHT

I spent Feb. 26-28 on my favorite section of the Superior Hiking Trail: Beaver Bay to Highway 1. The weekend was fabulous - the weather was warm, and with the exception for Sunday morning, there was no cloud in the sky. The weather was so warm throughout the weekend, I hiked in my base layer top for most of Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning into the afternoon. Rarely did I have anything else on my torso besides my top and sunglasses.

I was the first obvious human visitor to the area between somewhere south of Penn Creek and Mt. Trudee in a while. The trail was obvious because of prior indentations (and subsequent snowfall), but there were no fresh tracks. The trail register at the east fork of the Twin Lakes Trail confirmed that what I thought: I was the first person to make an entry in the log since jan 2, 2010, a span of eight weeks.

I also saw only one person physically on the trail, and he was out walking his dog. I saw no other hikers. From my vantage point atop the adjacent ridges, I saw some persons icefishing on Bear and Bean lakes, and two cross country skiers on Bear Lake.

There were at least more recent visitors in the section between Penn Boulevard and Penn Creek. Unfortunately, some snowmobiles south decided to carve their path on the SHT. It made walking easy, but it does not lessen the intrusion. The SHT crisscrosses numerous snowmobile trails, and the trail clearly marked with "Foot Traffic Only" or "No Motorized Vehicles." Signs mean what they say: snowmobilers, stay off.

The trail section between Mt. Trudee and through Tettegouche State Park to Highway 1 was much more compacted, likely because of visitors to the park. The compacted trail pretty much started at the summit of Mt. Trudee and wound its way back through the park.

Somewhere in Tettegouche State Park in amid its cedar forests is a climb dubbed The Drainpipe. It is the toughest single climb on the SHT, and and it reminds me of the Hillary Step, a 40-foot climb on Mt. Everest only 269 vertical feet from the summit (although no where near as difficult). To climb up this section, I had to click up the heel bars on my snowshoes and take it one slow step at a time. This photo does not do it justice.

Because I did an out-and-back, I had the pleasure of going down and then up the Drainpipe. I can compare the two only as such: going down was likely more dangerous because my feet could have more easily slipped out from underneath me (landing me on my butt), but going up was harder because of the single-step/rest-step method I used to get up.

It was the second weekend out with my Betalight. I had initially wanted to modify the anchors by adding ladder lock buckles to the corners, but I did not get the chance to do that before I left. This would allow me to get a tight pitch, and to tighten the pitch throughout the evening should the silnylon sag or the snow shift. Instead, I pitched the shelter as tight as a could, then set up the shelter. My poles (115 cm Gossamer Gear LightTrek 3s) were too short to get a tight pitch, so I had to add rocks under the poles to boost them slightly. This tightened the pitch, and created vents along the base of the shelter because the pitch was not tight to the ground.

I spent Saturday evening on a hill just outside the park boundaries. The moon rose over the lake, leaving a glow over the lake and throwing shadows from everything. It was one of the best campsites I've been at in a while.

Being on top of a hill, it was breezy. I closed up the door to keep drafts off my chin and expected heavy condensation on the interior walls throughout the night. But when I woke up, there was minimal condensation on the interior walls, just some mild condensation directly above my face. The ground-level vents created by the pitching method created sufficient ventilation to prevent an icing, too.

Here is my Final 2.26-2.28.10 Gear List (Google Spreadsheet). You'll notice that I have not calculated my base weight. This was not intentional, but in hindsight it is less important in winter because your clothing system changes throughout the day - you're simply adjusting layers more often.

I made two last-minute gear-list changes: In my initial gear list, I cut out my SMC Snowstakes to save approximately 8 oz off my pack weight. But I added them back in out of sheer convenience. I also listed my sole base layer bottom as a pair of GoLite Stride shorts. But I brought along (and wore) my new Patagonia R1 Bottoms instead because I wanted to have a base layer over my knees.

Taking the snowstakes was the correct decision. I got into camp Friday night at around 12:30 am, and the stakes were convenient. I did not have to go searching for sticks, and the stakes sliced into the packed snow of the designated campsite. However, I should not have worn my R1 bottoms. The temperature was too high for their use, and I was sweating on my legs throughout the day. That all said, as soon as I stopped the bottoms dumped heat, just as the fabric is designed to do.

Because of anticipated weather conditions, I switched from my MSR Dragonfly, a white gas stove, to an MSR PocketRocket, a top-mount canister stove. Canister stoves are not traditionally used in the winter because the temperatures tend to be below the boiling point of the fuel in the canister. I use MSR canisters (almost exclusively), which contain a mixture of isobutane and propane. Isobutane boils at +10F, and propane boils at -43.8F (chart from BPL). Like white-gas stoves, the fuel for a canister stove must be in a gas form to burn efficiently. Thus, when the temps drop below +10F, the canister will start to burn propane almost exclusively, and when that fuel runs out, the stove stops dead. Now, take into effect Boyle's law (as pressure decreases (through using the stove), the temperature decreases) and the canister can cool below +10F and cause the stove to stop working despite the canister being two-thirds full.

The weather cooperated with the stove. The daytime temps were in the mid 20s to mid 30s. I also warmed the canister inside my jacket, and on Sunday (photo posted above) I kept the sun shining on the canister throughout the snowmelt.

It takes about the same amount of fuel to melt snow as to bring 40F water to approximately 180 degrees. According to BPL testing, the PR used an average of 8.3 g of fuel to bring 16 oz of water to a boil under optimal conditions. My testing is yields similar results.

I was surprised by the stove's performance: I used 93 g (of a full 227 g canister) to melt approximately seven cookpots of 25 oz water. I also boiled a small amount of water for oatmeal on Saturday; this amount is not included in the calculations below. I was using the MSR Titan Kettle, which holds 850ml/28.75 oz of fluid brim-full, and my melts were mostly full, but never brim full. Thus, I believe my fuel consumption and water melting data are conservative estimates. All total, I melted 175 oz, or approximately 11 pints, over the course of 48 hours. Running the numbers, I used approximately 8.45 g/pt.

Finally, I did have one major problem with my boots because my feet were wet from Saturday afternoon until I got to my car on Sunday. The snow was melting and despite the GoreTex liner in my boot, my feet were wet.

Problem diagnosis: I do not think snow got in over my boots because I was wearing over-the-calf gaiters. My pants were wet on the outside of the lower part of the gaiters, but this is from condensation on the inside of the packcloth of the gaiters. I do not think it was from excessive perspiration. I was wearing heavy winter socks (SmartWool Mountaineering), but my right sock was wetter than my left (on both days) and on Sunday afternoon (in the sunshine, temps well north of 32F) I wrung water out of my right socks. I think there is a failure of the Gore-Tex lining (similar to the hole I wore in my Saloman on the SHT in 2008), and I'm going to contact Innov-8 to see if it is a warranty issue. I love the boots, but this is unacceptable.

Friday, March 5, 2010

BACKPACKER's gear guide as a guilty pleasure

"Yeah, but those [packs] are made for people who carry f***ing frying pans" - my fiancee's comment as to the packs highlighted by BACKPACKER's annual gear guide

That said, BACKPACKER's annual Gear Guide is a guilty pleasure for me.

I love it because of it nails its perceived purpose so well: it is a compilation of gear of all types, with data on each and spotlight reviews on selected products (more on these in a moment). It is information based on empirical testing. And I have no doubt they beat the crud out of the stuff they test. (Sometimes, they go way, way too far and impose unrealistic expectations on hikers.)

Two sections are most important to me: packs and tents (shelters). I generally ignore shoes because I believe they are so fit-dependent. I also focus less on bags because I have two bags I never intend to replace, and down fill and shell materials can only get so good. Also, last time I checked Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends (along with Valandre and Integral Designs, and to a lesser extent, Marmot), build the best bags out there, or at least have the best reputations. There are others, too.

BACKPACKER did many things particularly well this year. In no particular order, they first included a listing of all of the Editor's Choice winners from 1993 to 2010 (all 193 of them) and ranked them for their longitivity. Their rankings were, from worst to first, "Seemed Smart at the time," "Casualty of bad sales or better design," "Gone, but not forgotten," "Thank god for eBay and Craigslist," "Still around but competitors have caught up," and "Still high on staff gift registry." I'm a big fan of the first and fourth.

Second, they put together a list of stuff that just lasts. A brief perusal of the list reveals some time-honored favorites from some of the most reputable companies out there: MSR XGK (now XGK-EX); Thermarest Z-rest pads; Patagonia Capilene and Regulator fabrics (which includes the R1 Hoody); a Western Mountaineering bag; and a Feathered Friends jacket. I'm a huge fan of this pull-out section because it demonstrates that buying gear that lasts is more important that constant upgrading and replacing when the latest and greatest comes out. And this cuts directly against the consumerism that is promoted on the surface of the Guide.

Finally, BACKPACKER included mini reviews in their database listing. This is an excellent way to add more information to their guide for items that do not necessarily warrant a spotlight review while keeping space to a premium.

However, each year, I have strong disagreements with the highlighted choices, particularly in the lightweight categories. Items are too heavy, too overbuilt, etc.

So lets start with the packs. From an initial standpoint, I disagree with dividing packs into daypacks, weekend packs, and weeklong packs. I disagree because when your distance goes up, the only thing that should change in your pack is food and fuel i.e. consumables. You shouldn't need to carry more clothes, or extra stuff that would fill up a 5,248 cubic inch pack (Here's looking at you Arc'teryx Altra). And necessarily, the packweight goes sky-high. Take the Altra again, which weighs in a a hefty 5 lbs. Other heavyweight winners: REI XT 85/75 and the Osprey Aether 70 (4 lb. 15 oz in medium).

Also, look a the testers carried loads in equal to or in excess of 40 lbs (Black Diamond Infinity 60 p. 64), 50 lbs (Altra, p. 64) or heavier (50-70 lbs, p. 66). The biggest load carried by a tester was 72 lbs. I would like to know what that person was carrying that it added up to that much weight. I also wondered how far they got with it. What is in these monstrous loads that pushes them that high? Are they carrying full-on winter gear or going three weeks without resupply? If not, then they are just reinforcing an idea that if you carry a bigger pack, you can and should carry big loads. It's a vicious cycle, too: carry a heavy tent and you need a heavy pack that can carry it, and then you need heavy boots to help support you ankles. And because you have all that space in the pack, you should just fill it up, too. Also, a tent shelf? Seriously Arc'yeryx. It's about the worst place to put something that dense because it will move the center of gravity of your pack (and you, too) down and behind you. (Lightweight Backpacking and Camping, Beartooth Mountain Press, 2006, Jordan, ed., p. 56-58) This forces you to lean forward more to compensate, otherwise you would fall over. (See Anatomy of a Gear Review, p. 9.)

And the ironic thing is that on the bottom of the Altra entry (outside the Editor's Choice awards section) is an interesting little tip: "Make your own ultralight pack. Trim too-long straps and cut off doodads you don't use; ditch the top kid and framestays." Ha! You can only cut out so much weight from cutting straps. I've cut two ounces off my Vapor Trail, which has notoriously long straps. But the pack itself still weighs in at 34 oz and change. The real weight is in the padding, frame and the fabric.

Another ironic statement, this time coming from the tent section (but applicable to the packs section, too): "Don't be seduced by 'Everest-ready' gear or features you don't use. Buy less expensive - and lighter - products made for what you really do." My argument goes as such: unless you're seriously hard on your gear (enter mountaineers, off-trail bushwackers, and others - you know who you are), you don't need the bombproof fabrics presented on these packs, or at least not all over the place. For example, I'm glad my Vapor Trail has a heavyweight Cordura fabric on the bottom, but it's even better that silnylon is used for the majority of the pack.

But enough about packs. Let's talk about shelters. I'd like to reiterate the "Everest-ready" statement, above. Here's what it means for tents: unless you're facing heavy snowloads, gale-force winds or other worst-case scenario situations, you don't need a tent designed for such. If you do, you know who you are.

Onto the critique: the winner for a "Roomy Ultralight" is a 47 oz, $350 shelter, the NEMO Meta 2P. This is not ultralight by any means. The TarpTent DoubleRainbow weigh in at less than this, plus it has vertical walls and is cheaper. The Meta 2P looks like a Black Diamond Betalight with a bug netting insert. The Meta 2P earned an Editor's choice, so the BACKPACKER eds. must like it, but I criticize their categorization.

Other two person shelters are variations on a two-pole dome tent design: Sierra Designs LT Strike 2 and Zolo 3, Kelty Gunnison Pro, Mountain Hardwear Skyledge 2 and Drifter 3, REI Cirque ASL 2. I could include the Hilleberg Jannu in this category also, but it has an additional pole above the door and Hilleberg is outside the category of the others (bonus points for being successfully used on a Seven Summits attempt).

Another issue: neither tarps nor floorless shelters were given spotlight reviews. The past year or so has been highlighted by the expansion of cuben fiber as a tarp fabric, and it was not presented in the gear guide. As for floorless selters, the Marmot Haven 2P looks like a floorless shelter, but its floor is removable. But there are no other shelters that lack a floor. What gives?

But I digress. If BACKPACKER knows their audience, and this is what their audience wants to read, then let them sell it. I'll continue to carry a 3 oz silnylon rucksack and like it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rab (corporate parent) acquires Integral Designs

From (which is a re-print of this press release): Rab's corporate parent, Equip Outdoor Technology, Ltd. has acquired Integral Designs. Check out the release for details.

Also, check out the BPL discussion (membership not required).