Monday, December 29, 2014

Superstition Wilderness: Terrapin Pass Overnighter

Sarah and Bianca
 Backpacking during the holidays is great because everyone is at home. My Uncle Steve and I used to backpack every 4th of July. We relished the solitude and chance to have the wilderness to ourselves. So it was in the Superstitions last week. Although the Peralta Trailhead was jampacked with vehicles, we encountered only one other group of backpackers in an area that is usually extremely popular.
Rocco lapping up water
The trick with the desert, and indeed the Superstitions, is the lack of water. Due to the recent rains however there was plenty along the trail. It was great for Rocco who had lots to drink and plenty of chances to cool off. Water also gives the backpacker peace of mind. Up in the Pacific Northwest I always took water for granted. Down here in the desert it's a luxury. To have available water is a big confidence booster when backpacking in the desert.

The Superstitions
Our original plan was to connect several trails to make a clockwise loop from Peralta Trailhead and overnight at LaBarge Spring. We arrived at the trailhead much later than expected however and had to change the plan. After a relatively easy jaunt through thick desert scrub we arrived at Terrapin Pass near the base of the famous Weaver Needle. The pass offered amazing views of the desert mountains so we decided to make camp. The only drawback was that there was very limited space for pitching tents and no cover from the wind. So, I pitched the tent (for the girls) and my tarp nearly right on top of each other on the only relatively flat spot in the area. 

Sea-to-Summit Escapist Tarp
Terrapin Pass camp. Weaver Needle in the background.
Lying under my tarp with Rocco that night I felt him shivering like crazy. I felt bad for him so I unzipped my sleeping bag and let him crawl in as much as he could. It didn't work. He was still shivering. I couldn't figure out why he was so cold because his body felt warm and was radiating tons of heat. Eventually he crawled into the tent with Sarah and Bianca. I'm sure it was cramped quarters in the tiny 2-man tent, but it was the only thing we could do to keep the dog warm. At about 3am the wind picked up intensity. I had to get out and tighten the guylines to prevent the tarp from flapping so much, The wind was blowing really hard up on that pass. I'm guessing 40 mph or more. When I awoke around 6am, I saw that my tarp had partially collapsed. I also saw that the wind was hitting the tent at a direct broadside, which bowed it nearly in half. Normally when I anticipate heavy wind like that I would pitch the tent with the most aerodynamic end facing into the wind. but the area we were camping prevented me from doing that this time.

Sarah, Bianca and Rocco on Terrapin Pass.
Despite a freezing dog, a partially collapsed tarp, and a beat-up tent, we still had a great time. The temps were perfect and the scenery was amazing. If you've been wanting to get into the Superstitions, this is a perfect time. The recent rains have filled the springs and sprinkled the lowlands with pools of water. If I can find the time, I will return as soon as I can.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Gear Review: Red Fox Odyssey 80

Redfox Odyssey 80
On the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

I read somewhere that Red Fox was The North Face of Russia. It's so popular that even Vladimir Putin wears it. I don't know if that is true, and frankly it doesn't really matter. Brand popularity doesn't interest me, good gear interests me, and the Red Fox Odyssey 80 backpack is definitely good gear.

The first thing I did when it arrived was fit the pack. With a fully adjustable torso I had it dialed in pretty quick. I loaded it with 30 pounds and paced around the house. It felt too good to be true. I had to see more. An hour later I was on top of a mountain. The pack had preformed beyond my expectations and had comfortably hauled my haphazardly packed load with ease.

A few days later I was standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The Odyssey 80 was brimming with backpacking gear, 5 days of food, and nearly 2 gallons of water. Even with a successful test-run, I wasn't looking forward to carrying that weight over the next 34 miles.

If there ever were an ultimate proving ground for gear, it’s the Grand Canyon. The place is extreme, and in all my adventures over the years I've never encountered anything like it. The rocky terrain, unrelenting sun and insurmountable giant-cliffs everywhere will test the mettle of any backpacker, especially if you veer far from the popular corridor trails like we did. Needless to say, the Odyssey 80 took a beating: It broke my fall after I slipped on loose rocks, and was repeatedly dropped and manhandled. It was forcibly squeezed through narrow openings in-and-between rocks, and was lowered by rope down a twenty-foot cliff… All that, all the time. The rocks tore holes in other packs from my group, but the Odyssey 80 still looks brand new. That’s what I love about it. It’s a beast!
Lowering the Odyssey 80 down a cliff.
This beast isn't just durable, it’s huge… and hungry. With a massive 80 liter volume the Odyssey will swallow just about anything you stick down its gaping maw, and with multiple pockets and compartments, organization is easy. A variety of lashing points on the outside gave me options for securing my trekking poles when I needed my hands, and the zippered side pockets were long enough to fully secure Smartwater bottles with an attached Sawyer Mini. The storage options are many, but with all that stuff comes weight. The Odyssey’s aluminum frame carried the near 40 pound-load admirably, while the heavily-padded hip-belt was a welcome change from the ultralight backpack I normally use.

All these amenities make for a very technical trekking load-hauler, but all the floppy straps dangling from my pack was annoying. Regrettably, the backpack doesn't have any lashing options on the lid where I really needed them for fixing my solar panels to keep the GoPro charged.
Adjustable torso is easy, but slips.
The only real problem I had with the Odyssey was that the adjustable torso, which is essentially a strap, slowly slipped throughout the day. Whereas I would set my torso length at “medium” in the morning, by late afternoon it had slipped a quarter of the way to “small”. It wasn't a huge slip, but it was certainly enough to feel it in my shoulders. Eventually I got in the habit of checking the torso length every time I took the pack off. 

Despite a couple hiccups the Odyssey 80 is a nice backpack capable of hauling heavy loads over rough terrain. It’s large enough to accommodate any gear requirements with a variety of storage options, and will stand-up to even the worst abuse. Anyone looking to take their adventuring to the extreme should definitely give it a look.
Packs on the trip from Osprey, Deuter, REI, and Red Fox.
Check out the website for Red Fox North America

For the entire catalog, check out the Russian language page. I believe most of this gear will eventually be available through Red Fox North America.

Disclosure: I was given the Red Fox Odyssey 80 by Red Fox at no cost of my own for the purpose of a product review. The opinions expressed in the review about the product are my own.

Update: 2/11/15

Recently I lent this pack to a friend to use. He pointed out that he could not adjust the torso length past medium, and that one of the aluminum stays was tearing from the backpack. At first I thought he must be mistaken, but after he returned the pack I inspected and confirmed his observations. As you can see from this photo, one stay has ripped through the fabric, and the other appears well on its way. I don't know whether this is a design flaw or simply a defect. I did not spot this problem earlier because I never attempted to adjust the pack past medium, and the stays cannot be reached without removing the back panel. Although it is entirely possible that the slipping torso length that I experienced in the Grand Canyon was a result of this. Consequently. I cannot recommend this backpack due to the failure of the suspension and torso adjustment systems so soon. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Top 10 Christmas Gifts for the Outdoor Lover: Under $50

Have an outdoor lover in your life? Not sure what to get them for Christmas? Check out this list of really cool yet affordable gear that is sure to satisfy adventurers of any level. These prices reflect the current regular price at REI.

                                                       Black Diamond Ion $24.95

This 80 lumen headlamp is one of the lightest and smallest on the market, and It only takes 2 AAA batteries (instead of the industry standard 3). But the coolest thing about it is the "power slide" function which allows you to control the settings without any buttons. Great for running because of the size and weight. It's still fairly new to the market so not a lot of people have them.

Buck 110 Classic $44.95

The Buck 110 Classic is a beautiful knife with a design that has stood the test of time. This is the knife your grandpa used to own and is sure to score big time for nostalgia and aesthetics. Made in the USA with 420HC stainless steel, it also comes with a black leather case that will attach to the belt.

ChicoBag Bottle Sling $9.95
Some hikers just hate to carry a backpack. If you know someone like that then buy them a ChicoBag. It hangs over your shoulder like a satchel, and will fit most water bottles. In Phoenix they're a real hit with seniors, who come in REI frequently asking for them.

                                                                                       Sawyer Mini $24.99

More of a specialty item but one that anyone will appreciate. The Sawyer Mini water filter will enable anyone to safely drink from water sources found in the woods. It is light, small, easy to use and guaranteed to 100,000 gallons. It's great for hunters and backpackers, and would make a good gift for any prepper in the family too.

                            Hydro Flask $24.95

The undisputed king of water bottles, a Hydro Flask will keep liquid hot for 12 hours and cold for 24. Great for morning coffee, hiking, camping, hunting, and just about any other activity you can think of. Owners are like a cult, and will swear by the Hydro Flask over any other piece of kit. Come in a variety of colors and sizes.    

                                                                            Brunton Torpedo 2600 $39.95   

Don't let the looks fool you, this is actually a sweet little gadget. Almost everyone carries electronics into the woods these days. With the Brunton Torpedo, you can keep your devices charged and not worry about battery life so much. The best part is you can charge it in your car on the way to the trailhead. This would be a good gift for anyone who uses a GPS or an MP3 player on the trail.

A best seller and winner of Backpacker Magazine gear awards, the Flash 18 offers mobility and versatility. Great for travel, it packs down very small and can easily fit into any carry-on luggage. Could also be great for bike commuting.

                                                                          Darn Tough Socks $19.00

You've never truly lived until you have worn merino wool socks. These from Darn Tough are made in Vermont, and are widely considered the best socks money can buy. Any outdoor lover would appreciate them, and they last forever.

                                                       Nathan Trail Mix $45.00

Runners come into REI all the time looking for hydration belts because so many of them hate carrying backpacks. This one from Nathan securely holds 2 10 oz. bottles and has a nice sized pocket for your giant cell phone, wallet and keys. Also nice for hikers who go light.

Maybe my favorite item on the list, this cooler is great for easily carrying cold drinks. You can use it for fishing, picnicking, concert going, or hiking into your favorite swimming hole. It will hold about a 6-pack, and features a variety of pockets for stashing other gear. Also works great on road-trips.

Disclosure: I work at REI, but I created this blog post separately and independently of REI. These reflect the top 10 items that, based off my own opinion and experience, would make great gifts.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Top 10 Desert Hiking Tips.

Sarah in the Superstitions

Hiking in 100 degree heat with the sun pounding on you is hard, and everything you do in that heat is harder than normal. You have to be prepared for those extreme conditions, because extreme conditions can produce extreme consequences. Here are my top 10 tips to ensure your desert hiking will be as safe and fun as possible. 

1) Acclimatize - The more you hike in the desert, the better you handle the heat. My first couple desert hikes left me feeling sick and demoralized. If you plan on backpacking in the desert or doing any serious day-hiking (like hiking to the Colorado River and back in one day in the Grand Canyon) I would recommend plenty of desert day-hiking beforehand. Start small. 

2) Temper Your Ambitions - Like I mentioned above, everything is harder in the heat. Expect routine distances and climbs to push your limits. What you can easily accomplish physically in milder climates will be a challenge in the desert. You'll need to be in better shape than what you're used to.

3) Carry a Backpack - One of the strangest sights I see in the desert are people without backpacks... And I see it all the time. If you're not carrying a backpack then you are not carrying the essential supplies needed to safely traverse the desert. The problem is that nobody thinks anything bad will happen to them, but bad happens all the time. You gamble with your life every time you go out without gear. Around the United States, unprepared hikers are constantly being rescued from avoidable survival scenarios that are usually preventable by bringing some common-sense items. You need a backpack to carry those items! You need a backpack to carry water, which is muy importante in the desert. Check out The Mountaineers list of 10 Essentials for what else to carry in your backpack.

4) Bring More Water - Unless you've hiked in the desert in summer, it may be hard to imagine just how much you can sweat, and how thirsty you constantly feel. I've found that bringing double the water I normally bring is just enough. Last Saturday I finished 4 liters on a 7 mile hike. Trust me, you'll need to drink much more water than normal. In the Grand Canyon we started off 3 out of 5 days with 2 gallons of water each, and we drank it all by the end of those 10 mile days. Also, keep in mind that water is really going to dictate where and how far you hike. If you bring 4 liters and notice that you've finished 2 already, then its time to turn around and head back to the car. The bottom line is that venturing out into the desert with an inadequate water supply can easily lead to an evac by search & rescue, and even death. Be prepared.

5) Wear Proper Footwear - Hiking in the desert isn't a walk in the park. The ground can be jagged rocks for miles on-end. Or it can be loose rock and sand that can slip tread and sprain ankles. Furthermore, any variety of cacti will poke the hell out of you at every opportunity. Wearing sandals in the desert is inviting pain and courting death. Wear shoes that will protect your feet from the flora and won't disintegrate from the sharp rocks. If you wear running shoes, consider gaiters to prevent debris from getting into the shoe. Finally, if you're going on a long trip, make sure your shoes are up to the task. The last thing you want is for your shoe to fall apart in the middle of the desert, I've seen it happen.

6) Seek Shade - Heat stroke is a serious risk, and keeping your body from overheating is going to take effort on your part. If you come across shade, take your pack off and sit in it for a few minutes. Drink some water. Let your heart slow down. Let your body cool a little bit. I usually plan my breaks around shade instead of distances. I'll say to myself, "The next shade I come to, I'll take a short break". Trust me, it really helps taking a break in shade versus taking a break in the sun, which can be totally miserable and can sap your energy even further.

7) Sun Protection - This one seems like a no-brainer. Keep sunscreen in your pack. Wear a hat to keep the sun off your face. Wear a wide-brimmed hat or drape a bandanna from the back of your hat to protect your neck. A buff works great at protecting the back of the neck and your ears. Another good idea is sun protective clothing. The Columbia Silver Ridge or REI Sahara line of hiking clothing offer sun protecting, moisture wicking clothing that are great for the desert. Wear polarized sunglasses. I have forgotten sun screen multiple times, and got burned for my stupidity. Now I keep a tube in my day-pack at all times. 

8) Keep Track of the Forecast -. I like to use 100 degrees as a good mark of when to start and when to stop. If it's 100 in the morning when I plan to start then I stay home, because it will only get hotter. If it's 100 in late afternoon when I plan to start, then I'll go, because it will only get cooler. Hiking in 110-120 degree weather is too dangerous, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but 100 is doable as long as it's the peak temperature. You can beat the hottest times of the day by hiking near dusk and dawn. Just remember, your tolerance for the heat will be different than mine, so knowing what temperatures you are comfortable with will be key for planning trips.

9) Electrolyte Replacement - I learned this lesson the hard way. For most climates, eating salty snacks like trail-mix and GORP is enough to replenish electrolytes lost during the physical activity of hiking. Since the amount you sweat significantly increases in the desert, supplementing your snacks with an electrolyte replacement can be vital, especially on rigorous days. Besides a whole mess of symptoms ranging from vomiting and dizziness to diarrhea and muscle cramping, electrolyte imbalance can lead to death. Check out brands like Nuun and Hammer that make tablets that easily dissolve in water.

10) Respect and Common Sense - Nothing is a substitute for common sense. Remember that playing in extreme environments can produce extreme consequences. Trust your gut and respect the land. You can't beat the desert, but you can travel through it by foot safely and comfortably if you use your brain. If you're out of water and come across a puddle: better fill up. If you are confused about the best way forward: turn around. If you start feeling weak or dizzy: take a break in some shade and drink water. If you see a sign at the trailhead warning you not to do something: don't do it. You aren't Cody Lundine and this isn't a movie. If you don't respect the desert it will punish you unmercifully. 

 *This post was adapted from a post I did last year called Desert Walker.