Sunday, February 23, 2020

Gear Review: REI Quarter Dome SL2

Quarter Dome SL2 on the Olympic Coast.

The Dirt:
REI Quarter Dome SL2

What is it? 2 Person Semi Free-standing Ultralight Backpacking Tent

Comes with: Tent, fly, stuff-sacks, stakes, extra guylines

Materials: Ripstop Nylon

Size: 88 x 52/42 inches. 32 inches peak height.

Minimum Trail Weight: 2 lbs. 8 oz.

REI has finally fielded a true contender in the ultralight semi-freestanding tent market. The Quarter Dome SL2 is an excellent lightweight 2-person option with a more wallet friendly price tag. It may be 5 ounces heavier than a Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2, but it's also fifty dollars less. That's the niche the Quarter Dome SL2 really fits. A bit heavier than comparable tents in its class, but less expensive and even a little roomier. In fact compared to the NEMO Hornet 2, the Quarter Dome SL2 is 3 inches longer and boasts more square footage in both the tent and the area covered by the vestibule.

Comparisons aside, the Quarter Dome SL2 is easy to pitch with its single hubbed pole set. Like other tents in its class, it can only pitch one way, with the pole contacting the ground in the back center of the foot. As long as the foot is staked out properly the result is a quick and sturdy pitch. The rainfly has ample vestibule room and pitches nice and taut. With the great forest green color it looks like it belongs in the woods. 

Stake out the foot. 

Tapered tents are the norm in this class but sometimes space can be so limited that calling a tent a "2-Man" is an exaggeration. Not so with the Quarter Dome SL2. It had plenty of room for several backpacking trips with my wife. With our packs stored under either side of the vestibule, it felt roomier than any ultralight tents we've used in the past. So much so that one beach-side camp morning we lazed in bed watching the waves and felt perfectly comfortable just hanging out.

The tent performed superbly in high coastal winds at Olympic National Park as well as all day downpours in Quinault Rain forest. In fact, in three separate Olympic Peninsula trips over the last year, in many days and nights of heavy rain I stayed totally dry inside, whether from rain or condensation. My only real gripe is that water tends to collect above the fly door and entering and exiting the tent in wet conditions will cause water to run from the roof through the mesh door into your tent. Not a huge deal as long as your in and out of your tent quickly, but after days of rain it can become annoying. 

In Quinault rain forest.
Overall this is a solid 2-person ultralight tent, especially for the price. I would recommend it to anyone who typically shares a tent and wants to lighten their load. Especially if you don't want to pay an arm and a leg. With REI member dividends fast approaching (along with a 20% off coupon) the potential for a great deal in time for Spring is high. If you primarily backpack in extremely wet environments, you might look elsewhere unless you like water splashing on your head every time you open the door.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Gear Review: BioLite Headlamp 330


The Dirt:

What is it? Rechargeable Headlamp

Comes with: Headlamp; micro USB cable

Batteries: 900 mAh Lithium ion

Weight: 2.4 ounces

Max Output: 330 Lumens

Battery Life: High: 3.5 hours: Low: 40 hours

Walk into any REI and have a look at the headlamp wall... Everything looks the same. Dozens of models from Black Diamond, Petzl and Princeton-Tec offering a wide range of lumens, functions and features. They all look the same, and essentially do the same thing. So which one do you choose? In a sea of sameness the Biolite Headlamp 330 rises to the top as an innovative leap forward in headlamp design.

It's all about the strap. All of this headlamp's hardware is built into it, and the battery moved to the back. This makes for a very secure, comfortable fit. The light actually sits flush on your forehead because it's built into the strap. None of the plastic housing touches your skin. The housing is so lightweight and small it's practically unnoticeable while wearing. In fact it feels like a headband, and it doesn't bounce when you walk or run. 

Which brings me to my only complaint.

Because the housing is so small, the single control button up top can be difficult to push when wearing gloves. With anything thicker than fleece gloves, manipulating the button or tilting the light's angle downward is nearly impossible.

Tiny house.

My only gripe aside, I love this headlamp. Other than the size and comfort, the simplicity is a breath of fresh air. Three brightness levels, a red light and strobe, ensure you're not wasting your time cycling through a million useless functions to find the right one. The 330 lumen spotlight is plenty bright for any camping or backpacking situation, and as long as you're not wasting the battery by needlessly running it on high, you can expect it to last any multi-day to week-long trip on one charge easy. 

At $59.95 the Biolite Headlamp 330 is on the expensive side, but remember, it's rechargeable. You'll never have to buy batteries which means you'll save money in the end. Especially considering that a single pack of four Energizer AAA lithium is nearly $10.00.

Bottom line is I would recommend the BioLite Headlamp 330 for hiking, camping, backpacking, running, or just everyday use. It's the most comfortable headlamp on the market, and the functions are simple and easy. If you're looking for a headlamp for mostly winter use, or have big hands, look elsewhere. The tiny button will drive you bonkers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Budget Gear Review: INTEX Camping Mat

The Dirt:

What is it? Camp sleeping mat

Comes with: mat

Size: 26.5 x 72.5 inches. 6.8 inches thick. 

Weight: 3.2 pounds

Insulation: Air (R-Value near zero).

The INTEX Camp Mat is a cheap single person vinyl mat that provides solid summer comfort with decent portability.I purchased three nearly seven years ago, and at least one is still going strong. At the outset, it's important to mention that this pad IS NOT for backpacking. At 3.2 pounds it is extremely heavy and bulky, and frankly a bitch to inflate without a pump.

For under twenty bucks, the INTEX Camp Mat is a good buy. I purchased mine specifically for kids, and for years they have performed that role brilliantly. The mats are nearly seven inches thick at the head, and my kids generally found them comfortable. Because of that insane thickness the mat won't "taco" like other vertically baffled pads have in the past, and the coarse "velvety" top (called "flocking") prevents users from slipping off in the night.

The vinyl material of the mat seems heavy duty and durable. For years mine withstood abuse from kids and dogs, and held up admirably. It wasn't until last summer that two of three began leaking in the night. The leaks I discovered were punctures on the top of the mats (probably from one of the dogs). Normally a leak isn't that big of deal since I work in the outdoor industry and have patched countless leaky pads. In this case however, the punctures were in the "velvety" top of the mat in the flocking. Unfortunately I could not get any patches or adhesives to bind with the flocking making a repair impossible. INTEX recommends sanding the flocking off with sandpaper to repair but even that didn't work for me. All my patches eventually failed. 

Rocco chilling out.

If you forget your electric pump at home you better have some lung power. Even inflating with a bike pump takes a ridiculous amount of time. The valve is the same cheap valve you would find on a pool toy and it shows in the performance. Also, keep in mind this is not a year-round mat. The INTEX Camp Mat has no insulation, which means the air inside will match the outside air temperature.  You'll wake up cold in the shoulder seasons unless paired with something else. 

At just over ten bucks, the INTEX Camp Mat is worth the buy if you have a gaggle of kids and dogs (like me) and don't want to spend real money on a premium camp bed. They are durable and relatively comfortable, as long your using it in summer temps. If you're looking for a bed for yourself and have a job, I would recommend buying something from a reputable brand like REI or Thermarest. The pad might be more expensive, but you can't put a price on a good night's sleep.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Footwear: Go Light, Go Longer.

With the amount and variety of hiking gear available, sometimes choosing the right equipment can be a daunting task. We spend countless hours on the web comparing gear and prices, and reading reviews to find the perfect pack or sleeping bag or shelter. The options are limitless. Do we want an internal or external framed pack? Do we need a frame at all? What size? How many liters? What about a shelter? Should I buy a freestanding double-walled tent, or go with something lighter I have to stake out like a tarp? Do I need the footprint? What about bivy sacks and hammocks? I need a sleeping bag too. Should I buy down or synthetic? What about the temperature rating? Does it need to be water resistant? Should I get a quilt instead? 

The questions are many, and finding the answer that works for you can take a ton of research. 

When it comes to footwear however, that process is often times ignored. We already know what footwear we need, no doubt imbedded into our sub-consciousness from years on the trail… 

We need boots. Heavy high-topped leather boots with great traction, ankle support, and a Gortex membrane to keep our feet dry. Since we already know we need boots, buying them is much simpler. We walk into the outfitter and try some on. We pace around the shoe department and maybe make a few laps up and down the stairs. When one pair stands out above the rest as the most comfortable (or least uncomfortable), we fork over a couple hundred bucks and walk out the door. Done deal right? 

Not so much. 

Our feet hurt, and blisters are forming on our heels and toes. Instead of admitting defeat in our choice of footwear, we spend more time and money treating the symptoms. We buy expensive insoles. We use sock-liners, or better yet we double-up on heavy merino-wool socks. We apply moleskin at the start of the hike in the spots we’re blister prone. We take our boots off on breaks, and sometimes even stop mid-hike to change socks. We carry an extra pair of shoes so we can ditch the boots the moment we reach camp because our feet are screaming. In extreme cases we might take our boots back to the outfitter… and exchange them for other boots. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. I’ve been there. 

This is the way of the hiker; blisters, foot pain, and miserably sweaty feet… But it doesn’t have to be. There exists an effective yet simple alternative... 

Shoes. More and more, hiking shoes and trail runners are replacing boots as the footwear of choice for hikers. 

Most of the time when choosing new gear, weight is a prime consideration (if not, it should be). Even though our backpack is designed to carry 50 pounds, that doesn’t mean we want it to. We are all acutely aware of the pain inducing affects a heavy pack can have on the body… But what if I told you that weight on the feet is actually worse for you than weight on the back? You’ve probably heard the adage that 1 pound on your foot can equal 5 on your back. Well, in terms of energy expenditure, it’s basically true. A US Army study concluded that walking with one pound on the foot expends the same amount of energy as carrying 6 pounds on the back. When you realize that boots can weigh 2, 3, or even 4 pounds, that’s a ton of energy your body is needlessly burning with every step, and fatigue will come much quicker. In The Backpackers Handbook world re-known long distance hiker Chris Townsend writes, “That lighter footwear is less tiring seems indisputable.” 

Shoes aren’t only lighter, they are more comfortable. Thinner synthetic construction and an abundance of mesh ensure good airflow, reducing moisture and the chance of blistering. Flexible soles give your feet the freedom to move naturally, instead of being stuck in the same position for miles on end. The result is that your feet are comfortable longer, making those long hikes more doable than you ever thought. Again, Townsend writes that heavy boots, “make my feet ache after about 12 miles, and after 15 miles all I want to do is stop. Yet in running shoes I can cover twice the distance before my feet complain.” I had a similar experience. On a 12 mile day, hiking fast to beat the darkness, my feet were killing me in my boots. Every step was agony. The pain was so bad I just wanted to quit. I bought a pair of trail runners the next week. Later that summer on a 50 mile mountain trek in central Idaho I hiked faster, with no pain or blisters, all while carrying a much heavier load. I was sold. 

In my experience, the most common reason people say they prefer boots is the need for ankle support. It stands to reason that the rigid boot construction would provide more stability for the foot, and minimize the risk of ankle injury. I however have noticed a dramatic decrease in the amount of ankle problems since I switched to shoes. This is because I step more carefully in shoes, knowing my feet are potentially more vulnerable to slipping, sharp rocks, and other trail hazards. Indeed, it is this lack of protection that is the real trade-off. 

It all comes down to personal preference, and what your specific needs are on a given trip. I find boots still my footwear of choice hiking in snow, or multiple days of rain. The prevailing theory among shoe enthusiasts is that trail runners dry so quickly that getting them (and by default your feet) wet is not something to avoid, which is fine for a stream crossing on a sunny day, but if the forecast for your weekend trip is calling for non-stop rain, then you probably don’t want to spend that time with soaked feet. Like with any gear purchase, do your homework. There are many options between trail runners and heavy leather boots. Brands like Merrell, Keen, and Salomon offer shoes with the benefits of both: low-profile, synthetic materials, plenty of mesh, Vibram soles, and even Gortex. Again, do your research. There are tons of resources online, and lots of great books written by people with thousands of trail miles under their belts. Before you buy don’t forget to stop at your local outfitter and try some on. Pace around the shoe department, and maybe make a few laps up and down the stairs…

This article was modified from a story published a few years ago on the now defunct Mountain Blog. All the work is mine.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Top 5 Most Extreme Ultralight Backpacking Tips

I heard a story once about a first-time backpacker whose load was so heavy he began ditching his gear in the woods not even a mile in from the trail-head. He threw out his frying pan (but kept the pot), a lawn chair, a pint of Jim Beam (he took a drink first), a 15 million candle-power spotlight, and a field guide to flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest (hardback of course). He learned the hard way what all of us experienced backpackers already know: carrying a heavy pack sucks. 

Many backpackers (including myself) have endeavored tirelessly to lighten the load, to ease the burden on our weary bones as we burn through the miles. One of the best ways to lighten up is to swap out your backpack, shelter and sleeping system (collectively known as “The Big 3”) for lighter counterparts. The problem is, good gear is expensive, and it seems the less an item weighs, the more it costs. Consider Hyperlight Mountain Gear’s Ultimade 2 pyramid tent. Made of Cuben Fiber, it only weighs 19 ounces, but costs a whopping $715.0... Yikes! 

In lieu of spending your entire savings account replacing the Big 3, there are other, shall we say, more unorthodox methods of getting that pack weight down. In my attempt to go lighter I have run across some strange stuff that people will do to shave ounces, (because as we all know; ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain!). I'm not referring to the more commonly known techniques like cutting the handle off your toothbrush or removing the backpack lid. I'm talking radical, cutting edge stuff so extreme that I don’t have the courage to try them out myself. I don't have the time or the space to list them all here, so I've decided to just present the top 5. Remember, I don't endorse these techniques, I'm just passing along the information strictly for informational (entertainment) purposes. 

Go Stoveless – I met a guy last year who thru-hiked The Arizona Trail without a stove. He ate cold dinners, and never enjoyed a morning cup of coffee. I know, it sounds terrible, but on a long-distance hike you could save some serious ounces by leaving your camp kitchen behind. On an overnighter however, you won’t have any reason to get up in the morning.

Don't Treat Water – No filter, no chemicals, no problem… right? This movement is picking up steam within the cult-of-ultralight. The theory goes that with experience you should be able to distinguish safe from unsafe water sources. While leaving your water treatment devices at home can potentially shave a few ounces (2 with the popular Sawyer Mini), is contracting the dreaded Beaver Fever really worth it?

Swap the Knife for a Razor – Apparently some gram weenies out there actually think a razor-blade is not only a perfectly good substitute for a knife (shhh, don’t tell Dave Canterbury), but “the ultimate in ultralight backpacking knives,” as one blogger put it. When I'm in the woods, I like to imagine myself as the second coming of Daniel Boone, so for me, not carrying a knife just doesn’t cut it.

Trim Your Zippers – An old backpacking buddy of mine (who shall remain nameless) told me once that to shave weight from his pack he trimmed all the pull tabs from the zippers on his gear. Now, I've heard of trimming the straps off you pack, or cutting the tags off your clothes, but cutting the pull tabs off your zippers? How much weight will that actually save? Needless to say, he had a tough time getting in and out of his tent.

Don't Bother with Toilet Paper – I found this gem in Mike Clelland's book “Ultralight Backpacking Tips”. The book is loaded with useful information for backpackers trying to go light, but when I came to tip number 116, I did a double take. “Liberate Yourself From Toilet Paper” the tip reads. Instead of TP, he recommends wiping your hind quarters with snow, leaves, pine-cones, sticks, and even rocks. I haven't tried any of these advanced ultralight techniques yet, but I will say that if you leave the toilet paper at home, lightening your load will be more important than ever.

This article is my original work. It was adapted from a piece I did on the now defunct The Mountain Blog called "Do What with a Rock". 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Why Wool: The Extraordinary Properties of Merino Wool

Wool in my collection.

Imagine yourself a primitive man, stone tipped spear in hand, slogging through the rain of prehistoric Britain on the hunt... Fast forward a few thousand years. You're a Roman Legionary, marching north toward the snowcapped Alps to meet the barbarian hordes at the empire's edge... Now it’s January 1915, and you along with the rest of your brave crew of explorers are stranded on a vast ice-flow in the Antarctic, after your ship froze solid and sank... At last its 2017 and you're a backpacker on the PCT, braving the High Sierra despite the earlier-than-expected snowfall, and warnings from other hikers to turn around.

What do all these seemingly unrelated scenarios throughout history have in common?

Wool, the super-fabric spun from the fleece of sheep (and other animals) that has been keeping humans warm in the outdoors since the Stone Age. It is a fabric both ancient and advanced, as no man-made synthetic material yet has been able to duplicate all of wool's extraordinary properties. Indeed, wool has been the fabric of choice for military's, explorers, adventurers, and outdoorsmen since ancient times. 

If you’re out of the loop, you might associate wool with childhood memories of itchy socks or smelly old army blankets. I'm here to tell you that today’s Merino wool garments are the crème-dela-crème of next–to-skin comfort. Merino are a breed of sheep prized for their fine wool, which is considered the softest in the world. But its more than just soft. Merino wool is both water resistant and water absorbing, and will retain its insulating properties when wet. It’s flexible, durable, and stain resistant. It’s antibacterial, anti-microbial, and hypoallergenic. It’s a flame retardant and provides protection from UV rays. I know, it sounds like some super space age material that might be used for the construction of rocket ships, but I assure you, I'm talking about all-natural wool that comes from some extremely stalwart mountain dwelling animals. 

It starts with the impressive, but complex nature of the wool fiber itself. The crimped shape of the fibers creates millions of air pockets when packed together, which trap heat escaping from the body, significantly reducing convection. The fibers are so durable that folding or compressing them will not affect the pockets of air, so the insulating property works equally well whether you're hunkered down in the tent or making a bid for the summit. 

What really makes wool such an amazing fiber is its ability to manage moisture. The naturally hygroscopic fibers absorb 30% percent of their own weight in moisture (10 times more than any synthetic) without feeling damp. So, when you sweat, the moisture from your skin is absorbed into the wool, and pulled to the surface where it evaporates, keeping a dry layer of air next to the skin. Since evaporation of perspiration is how the body naturally cools, the process works to keep you warm in cold conditions, and cool in warm conditions, making wool an ideal fabric for any environment. Studies have shown that just sleeping with a wool blanket can significantly lower the next-to-skin humidity 71% of the time. This incredible quality also allows wool to retain its insulating properties when wet. One study showed that a merino wool garment can absorb 60% of its weight in water before it feels wet.

Bottom of the Grand Canyon in a wool shirt.

Another benefit of wool's water absorbing super power is something called “the heat of sorption”. In this process absorbed moisture in cold conditions release stored energy in the wool fabric that generates heat. One source suggests that just a single kilogram of Merino wool generates heat of sorption “equivalent to the output from an electric blanket over eight hours”.

All this means that wool is not only superior at moisture management, it also excels at thermal regulation. Your core temperature won’t fluctuate as much. You won’t overheat, and you'll sweat less. Another study by the University of Otago in New Zealand concluded that when compared to other fabrics “Merino wool was better at minimizing body regulatory fluctuations which may result from changes in exertion or the environment. Wearing Merino wool fabric appears to lead to generally lesser physiological stress during exercise in both hot and cold conditions.”

Wool fibers also contain a natural wax called lanolin that is excreted by sheep through the skin as a water repellent. Lanolin not only helps you stay dry, it has natural antibacterial and anti-fungus properties as well. The absorption of wool, combined with the benefits of lanolin, and the fact that bacteria has difficulty growing on the scaly wool fiber itself, means that your Merino wool garments will remain odor free even after extended use.

Did I mention wool was a flame retardant? Because so much water can be absorbed into the fabric, wool will not catch fire easily, and is self-extinguishing when it does, which means you won’t burn a hole in your shirt if you get tagged by an ember standing by the fire. Wool can also can protect you from dangerous ultraviolet rays. Studies of 236 clothing textiles from the University of Bochum in Germany found wool to be the only fabric to pass European standards for UV protective clothing.

No doubt wool is an incredible fabric, and the reason humans have been using it so long is obvious. In today's outdoor world, Merino wool clothing remains the ideal choice for next-to-skin layers. In quality Merino wool garments, the comfort and performance are second to none, but beware: Merino wool is easily mixed with other fabrics. An item claiming to be made from Merino wool might only be 50% Merino in actuality. Often times these garments will be mixed with a synthetic and claim to possess the benefits of both. Just read the fine print, shop smart, and trust your name brands. It’s not a coincidence that brands like Smartwool and Icebreaker sit at the top of the Merino wool food-chain. They know their wool!

Perfect conditions for wool active-wear.

Disclaimer - The article is my original work. It first appeared in The Mountain Blog in a 2013 article called "Wool the Super Fabric". Recently when I tried to reference the article I could not locate it online. It in fact appears as if The Mountain Blog is now defunct, as I could not find any reference or mention of it on Mountain Gear's website. I decided to reprint the article here with minor changes as a reference for people searching for this information.  

Friday, January 26, 2018

Todd Lake Winter Backpacking

Off the snowshoe route.
 It's strange, but once upon a time I considered winter the off season. No kidding. Back in the day when I was a Spokane local, the thought of backpacking in the snow never even occurred to me. In Arizona, the winter time was desert time. Down there I backpacked year round. Now that I'm in Bend backpacking year round would require a new set of gear and present a new set of challenges, which I would gladly take in lieu of an off season.

 Appropriately prepared with a winter kit, we set off for a local summer hot spot, Todd Lake. This lake, in summer, is always packed. Its parking lot choked with Subarus and Tacomas. A conveyor belt of hikers circling round and round the shoreline. Camping is not allowed in summer. However in winter, the lake is unreachable by automobile due to the closed mountain road. The hike is only a 3-mile jaunt through groomed snowshoe trails. It seemed like a logical first foray into the winter wilds of central Oregon.

Mount Bachelor
Dutchman Flats
The trail-head at Dutchman Flats was near capacity when we arrived at eight on Saturday morning. An unfortunate consequence of being the only snow park in the region with snow. City of Bend, population 90,000. All vying for a parking spot at Dutchman Flats. We set out under a clear blue sky anticipating the sun's appearance over the mountains. The only detraction the constant drone of snow machines. But not a drone as much as a wail. A rising and falling of machine noise. Constant crooning and cranking of so many machines.... In the woods.

In the woods the motors were less noticeable as we left the flats behind. Or maybe we had become used to them by then. The trail lost, we veered off the path navigating by common sense. The lake is that way. We most go that way. The forest became a pitter-patter orchestra by then. The sun melting the snow off the legion of conifers. A conifer concerto if you will.

What is Nate looking at?
 Todd Lake was ice. A cloud hovered just over the surface giving it a dream like appearance. The kind of dream you wake up and try to remember, but only recall bits and pieces. We walked over the ice along the edge toward Broken Top mountain and a suitable camp spot. We nestled in the trees near some streams flowing into the lake from distant mountain tops. The weather was perfect. The scenery amazing. The kind you see on postcards. Some skiers and hikers looped the lake, but otherwise traffic was minimal. No one bothered us save the buzzing of snowmobiles in the distance, and the reek of gasoline. Our constant companion. A constant annoyance. 

The jays were worse. Swooping down from the tree tops to snatch any edible bit left unattended. I've seen people feeding birds from their hands here before. When I've scolded people for doing so I've always been treated like I'm making a big deal out of something small. But it isn't small. Birds stealing your food. Nibbling on your gear. Unafraid of people. It's a big deal because birds, like all animals, naturally have a fear of man. Birds, like other animals, have evolved to feed themselves. Very efficiently I might add or their line would have ended long ago. Feeding birds and other animals is, simply put, unnatural. Some unnatural things we just shouldn't tolerate. Snowmobiles we can live with, because men love machines (it makes them feel manly). But animals need to feed themselves. By feeding them you are harming both the animal and any humans it will encounter in the future

Frozen Todd Lake with Bachelor in the background.
 We lit a fire on the snow and spent the evening watching it slowly sink through the layers. The jays had long ago fled to deeper reaches of the forest after I convincingly won a snowball war I waged on them (to be fair, their offense wasn't much, but boy could they juke a snowball). We made a bench where we watched the sunset. We were warm and content. We slept well. Probably one of the best night's sleep I've ever had while backpacking.

grey jay
Grey Jay

writer in the wild
Fire making

We awoke to the distant buzzing of snowmobiles at first light. We ignored their obnoxious overtures and began the morning routine. The hike back was much faster because we managed to stay on the trail. I think I'll go back. Not to Todd Lake, but further in, where hopefully I can leave the snow machines and spoiled birds behind. That said, I couldn't have asked for a better time.