gear analyses

Miscellaneous Snowbank Lake Gear Notes

A little late, but I have a few left-over gear, ongoing-use notes that don't yet qualify for full review status...


Kooka Bay air pillow
I ordered a custom sized pillow from Kooka Bay. It's the first time I've used an air pillow - previously I used my clothes bag, but when carrying fewer clothes the bag started to get a little uncomfortable. I sleep on my side, and like a large, comfy pillow, so i hoped that the Kooka Bay would suit me.

I feel a little underwhelmed by it, to be honest. It is light - 63g - slightly les than the Exped pillow (85g), but the nylon material is quite slippery, and I never got entirely comfortable on it. Half inflated, my head lolled around, and even with silicone spots glued underneath it still slid around on the Ether Elite.

One of the other hikers had an Exped pillow, and the surface on that was quite soft in comparison - it has a coating which just feels nicer against the skin. The shape - a crescent - is more suited to side-sleepers also, and the internal supports are vertical rather than horizontal, which I believe would limit that lolling around feeling I got with the Kooka Bay.

I have to say I'm still on the fence about pillows; I'm wondering if they are really worth their weight.

Golite UltraLite 3 Season Quilt - Long
Golite's recent trend of going-slightly-heavier continued when they re-released the Golite Ultra 20 with a little more down and a more water-resistant material on the footbox and shoulder, and called it the Golite UltraLite 3 Season. Mine weighs in at 837g, which isn't bad, but there are much lighter quilts out there.

I've slept in it now about 10 nights, and really enjoyed the freedom of movement a quilt provides. It's plenty warm enough for spring and autumn, but a little too warm for summer (at least in Minnesota).

The waterproof breathable Pertex Shield foot and shoulder material sheds condensation from the tarp inner very well, and inside a bivy it's very cosy. I could prabably get away without the bivy under the DuoMid.

I have the long version, and there was plenty of length for me to pull over my head and snuggle down underneath. In theory it could be used in moderate winter conditions, but I prefer a full sleeping bag to keep out the chills.

POE Ether Elite 6
I found this pad to be comfortable and warm enough without an under pad - although the conditions were not cold enough to need that anyway. I definitely felt less likely to roll off the pad, compared to the NeoAir.

I added some silicon drops to the base of the pad to stop it sliding around in the bivy, but they didn't adhere properly to the pad material. I'll try pasting some on the bivy next time. I managed to improvise a solution tying the UltraLite's webbing around the pad and through the loops on the bivy floor. It worked well enough.

Out of NeoAir habit, I under-inflated the pad, and by morning found I had a numb arm. Next time I'll try a full inflation.

On the whole, I was satisfied, and at 396g for a long it's a good weight - but POE have already discontinued it, and released an improved version with a NeoAir-style reflective insulation.  I look forward to reading more about that when some reviews come in.

Sawyer Water Filter
Once again, where other people's SteriPens failed, the trusty Sawyer continued to filter water at a rapid pace. It is infinitely better than my old MSR pump filter - one of my hiking companions was using the Hyperflow and faced the same efficiency meltdown that I did last year up in the Boundary Waters. But the Sawyer just keeps on flowing. No technology to go wrong. No batteries needed. It just works. 71g of worry-free water, at about 1 liter a minute.

But... I managed to break off the outlet nipple while trying to remove the tubing. Fortunately, duct tape solved the problem, at least for the duration of the trip.

BushBuddy Ultra
It might take a little longer than firing up a gas stove, but the BushBuddy just gives me wood-fuelled joy every time I use it. It's fun to gather fuel from the trail and around camp, and relaxing to feed the flames and watch the pot boil.

Inov-8 Terroc 295
These were great to walk in. I loved the grip, and the protection around the toes and sides kept sharp rocks and sticks away from my feet. The mesh ventilated well, and dried very quickly. I didn't have to make many river crossings, but I did give them a good soaking in a lake just to test how they (and I) coped with wet feet, and how long it took them to dry while walking. Walking was fine when wet, and they were dry in 1-2 hours.

The shoes are deliriously light compared to anything else I own - even sandals - and although I didn't spend a long time wearing them in, I had no discomfort during the hike.

About a week after the trip, a horrible pain flared up in my foot. I don't know what it was because as usual I couldn't be bothered to go to the doctor, but it felt and looked like tendonitis, and lasted about a week. Whether this was a result of the Inov-8s I do not know, but I suspect it might have been the result of not being used to non-supportive shoes and using them on a long distance hike.

But I'm wearing them still and feeling fine, so maybe it was something else.

MLD Burn
The Burn was packed just about to it's limit. I don't know why, but I seemed to be carrying more weight than I should, even after paring the pack list down. But for most of the hike the Burn handled it comfortably and without any trouble.

The mesh pockets do require some care, and there were a couple of occasions when a branch snagged the pack and I was worried that it might have ripped the mesh - but no. It held up well to some pretty hard trail conditions.

The pack is very slim, but there's plenty of room for all the accoutrements of UL hiking, and the roominess of the mesh pockets is great. The front pocket fits a DuoMid with ease.

The top of the front mesh pocket was the only problem - the elastic tensioner at the top of the pocket kept disappearing into the Dyneema sleeve. It definitely needs a couple of plastic toggles to prevent this. A modification is in order!

The hip belt, under a full load, sits just a touch above my hips, but as it's not really supposed to be a load-bearing hip belt, that's not a huge deal. However, after three days, I did find my shoulders were aching, which leads me to believe that the Burn is really best suited to very minimal summer trips.

At 414g, it's super-light, too.

MLD Duomid
The Duomid was almost perfect. With all the talk about Trailstars recently I began to wonder whether I'd picked the right shelter. What I like about the Duomid is that I can leave the doors open if I choose, creating a kind of three-sided lean-to. It's extremely simple to pitch, and easy to tweak into storm-worthy mode.

Nitpicks? The need to clip-up the bottom when zipping or unzipping, maybe, to ease tension off the zipper - that's a bit fiddly. It also takes up a fair amount of space - which makes it a little tricky in forested spaces - and needs a relatively flat spot to pitch it well. To achieve a vertical pitch on a slope you end up with the head end low the the ground and the foot end pretty high. Last, it's a little heavy (614g, guys and stuffsack included). It seems ridiculous to say that, but the SpinnTwinn feels lighter than air at 305g.

My main preference over what I've seen of the Trailstar so far is that I don't have to crawl to get in it, although I'm told that it's entrance is about the same height as the SpinnTwinn.

Haglöfs Trail Pants
I've had these for some years now, and they no longer have the product name  visible anywhere, but they are my go-to hiking trousers for cooler temperatures. They are water-resistant, quick-drying, and very sturdy. They have reinforced, crampon-proof material on the bottom, breath well, and have a flexible material on the knees. They're not really UL (544g), but for clothing that I know I won't need to carry at any point, I don't really care. I have never been in a situation where I found myself saying "Damn, I wish my trousers were a bit lighter."

Apps for the Wild at Heart

I know. The last thing you want to be bothered by in the wilderness is your mobile phone, right? Until recently I would have agreed completely. I'd take it with me for emergencies, but it would stay safely tucked away and forgotten in my pack. But these days, a phone is so much more than a phone, and I've found I want to use mine - an iPhone 4 - more often.

I don't mean I want to update twitter every kilometer, or check my facebook status - most areas I go have very sporadic reception so, thankfully, that is out of the question. But surely a phone with a gyroscope, GPS, digital compass, and camera has a place in the outdoors?

Here is a selection of a few apps I've found worthwhile while out in the wilds.

Weather

Of course, you should research weather conditions before you leave, but realistically weather forecasts are only accurate to any degree for about three days, and many only give a general indication of what to expect.

My three main weather apps are:

Accuweather

- gives a pretty good 15 day and hourly forecast, but its radar map sucks.

Weather Bug

- on the other hand has a great radar and satellite map, but its forecasting sucks.

NOAA Forecast

- gives you a forecast for a very precise location. Tap your destination (i.e. your campsite for the night) and get a forecast for that precise spot. Very useful, but I suspect US only.

GPS

I usually carry a Garmin Dakota 20 (review forthcoming) to track my hikes and provide occasional "position confirmation". Is GPS necessary? Of course not, with good skills. But there have been times when I've found it very useful, notably in the Badlands and areas where the landscape beyond your immediate proximity is hard to identify.

The battery life of the iPhone is not sufficient to rely on its GPS functionality for tracking, but for emergency geo locating it is a great backup, with very fast acquisition of signal.

I've tried a lot of GPS apps, but the ones I come back to are:

Trails

- a nice, simple app for tracking a route, getting elevation data etc. The only downside is the battery drain, making it next to useless for multi-day hikes. Has a good altitude profile, not that I need that much here in Minnesota.

Walkmeter

- similar functionality to trails, perhaps a little nicer implementation. Again, limited by the iPhone battery life.

MotionX GPS -

By far the best GPS app in the App Store, MotionX GPS is a fully featured GPS device, on a par with the best from Garmin or Magellan. It does everything a dedicated GPS unit does, and makes an excellent

backup

GPS system. You can track, get your position, take bearings, use a built in compass. It's very well designed and packed full of features - far too many to go into detail here.

One very important feature is the ability to download and save maps for the area you will be visiting. Many GPS apps forego this feature and rely on the data network for transmission of map data. Most places I've been have no reception at all, let alone 3G, so this is one area in which MotionX excels.

Elevation Pro -

GPS apps often give slightly inaccurate elevation readings. I often need a more accurate reading to set my Suunto Core (review also forthcoming) to the correct reference altitude so I get good barometric measurements. Elevation Pro locates your position on a USGS map, and also gives you the GPS elevation. Of course you can check a map yourself, but I often use it when I'm out and about without a map.  It really doesn't do much else. Unfortunately US only.

General Outdoorsy Apps

First up, knots. I was never in the scouts, and never had any knots drummed into me. I still cheat at tying my shoelaces, I'm that bad. When I made the transition to tarps and bivy bags, I had to jump on the learning curve, and found a few apps to teach me the essentials. I found each app had its good and bad sides, and each one seemed to call the same knot by different names, which was a little confusing. I've found these knot-tying apps very useful tutorials and aide-memoire. Frankly, they all do the same thing, so it's your choice as to which you prefer. Here, I show the different ways they illustrate the clove knot.

Grog Knots

- animated step-by-step photos. Tons of them.

Knot Guide

- also animated guides. Also tons.

ProKnot

- Step-by-step illustrations. Not so many knots, but simple clear instructions.

Spyglass

 - Something different. SpyGlass combines a milspec compass, tracker, inclinometer, sextant and a bunch of other stuff. You can determine the approximate distance to visible objects, the height of peaks or landmarks, and program in a course to a destination and see it using augmented reality. It looks like a sniper scope, and will make you feel like Jason Bourne (but not James Bond).

Here, the superimposed bearing

indicates the location of my house

In this, it is possible to determine the distance

and elevation of the radio mast,

if you read the instructions, which I haven't.

pUniverse

- One of the nicest reasons to carry an iPhone into the wilderness, pUniverse uses augmented reality to locate the stars, constellations, planets, and distant galaxies. Just point the phone at the heavens and it reveals what you are looking at. In these screenshots, I'm doing it in daylight, but it shows where things are nonetheless.

SAS Survival

- lots of tips for using that condom you always carry with you (you do, right?) in your survival kit. Always useful for those situations when you find yourself lost in the wilderness with no food, shelter, navigational aids, and you need to catch and eat that squirrel using a... oh shit, the iPhone battery died.

Photography

I always carry a decent camera, but there are some great apps that use the iPhone creatively. The lens is not great, but if it's all you have...

Hipstamatic

 - great implementation of multiple lenses and films to achieve old-school style effects.

Plastic Bullet

- creates random variations on a photograph with usually interesting results.

ShakeItPhoto

- Pretty good Polaroid imitation.

Other photo apps

I use a lot, so rather than give example of all of them, here's a summary:

Pano

- seamless and simple panoramas

iTimeLapse

- creates short time lapse video files

Autostitch

- creates hiqh-quality panoramas from previous shot images

FocalLab

- allows you to add a depth of field

TiltShiftGen

- creates a 5x4 focal plane effect

MillColour

- excellent colour processor

Photogene

- good basic Photoshop-style post processing

These are the apps I use most when out and about. I'm sure there are plenty more good ones that others use, so if you know of any, please let me know in the comments!

Afton Quickie

I did a quick overnighter at Afton State Park again last night to test out some new gear before heading up next week to Snowbank Lake for a few days. Over the last few weeks I've been selling old gear and buying replacements, so I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to encounter anything unexpected.

Here are some notes:

MLD Burn

The Burn impressed me. Although it's slim, you can pack a lot in. I didn't bother compressing my down sweater or other clothes, but I think I'll do that for the longer trip. My load was about 5kg including food for the night, and the pack was pretty full. With a little more compacting and careful packing, I have no doubt that I can get 3 to 5 days out of it.

In my first impressions entry, Mac E asked about the mesh pockets. Having now briefly used them, I can say that they are strong - however, the widely-spaced mesh did catch on my platypus bottle. The collapsible bottle had quite sharp 90 degree corners at the base, which help it to stand upright. These snagged the mesh, making it difficult to get in the side pockets when filled with water. I initially thought I'd have to use a plastic spring water bottle instead, but then I realised I could just cut the sharp corners into a curve with the scissors on my Leatherman Micra. Hey presto - no snagging. Simple.

The hair clips I used to keep the hip pockets in place didn't work so well. The pockets kept detaching themselves. I had another idea when walking out: I'm going to try a paper clip. It'll be more secure, and even lighter!

The paradox of lightweight backpacking hit me as I strolled up the hill to the campsite. The lighter backpack you have, and the slighter the hip belt, the more the weight is transferred to your shoulders, thus negating the effects of the light backpack. I did notice that, although the pack felt light, my shoulders were bearing the weight. This didn't affect me much on this short hike, but I have a feeling that after hiking 14 miles per day next week, I'll be feeling it more.

I didn't find the hip belt uncomfortable, but it doesn't really serve much purpose apart from steadying the pack. The webbing of the belt was right over my hips, so the fit is quite perfect.

I'm happy with it so far, but next week's trip will test it more.

Sunrise over DuoMid

MLD DuoMid

This was the first time I slept in the DuoMid. As in my garden test, it was a cinch to pitch, and, as others have noted, I did appreciate its sunny disposition in the morning.

Naturally, for a single-walled shelter, it got covered in condensation, both in and out, but the design ensures that the water beads and runs down to the ground.

I fixed the iffy clasp on the zipper (it wasn't latching together properly, and was liable to work itself loose) by submerging it in boiling water and bending the tooth out with a screwdriver. Seemed to work.

The Easton 9" stakes I used are great - very sturdy and light.

The DuoMid is often described as palatial for one - it is exactly that. The space is luxurious. And it really is the ideal shelter for one man (or woman) and his (or her) dog.

I'm still not sure which shelter to take up north with me - the DuoMid or the SpinnTwinn. Both require staking out, and often the campsites up there are quite rocky. There should be enough trees to tie guys to, but for that I suspect the SpinnTwinn might offer me more flexibility. It'll certainly test my knot tying abilities (which are slowly but surely coming along).

Now for a triumvirate of new sleeping gear.

Katabatic Bristlecone Bivy

Katabatic

are pretty new on the scene, and not so well known yet, but I think that is going to change fast. The Bristlecone is very well made, with lots of thoughtful touches. Side entry. A half-mesh hood with the tie out loop in the right place and the loop made of elastic. Corner stake out points - which I didn't use, and places inside to tie their down quilt to.

I have a feeling those tie out points inside the bivy might also be in about the right place for the GoLite Ultralight quilt, and could also be used to secure a sleeping pad.

I had a few problems tying the hood up, but this was entirely my fault - I was trying to use shock cord, and couldn't tie an appropriate knot in it. Also, as I didn't stake down the bivy, the hood was pulled out of shape by the tie out.

In the end I left the hood open - there were hardly any bugs, apart from a couple of inquisitive spiders, and one mosquito that died for its sins. I almost didn't need the bivy at all, but it came in handy protecting the quilt from condensation.

I got the 6'6" version, which in theory should just fit my long Ether Elite. In fact, there was still plenty of room, and I experienced the same thing

Martin Rye at Summit and Valley

did - that the sleeping pad slides around quite a lot. I'll try painting a couple of SilNet "X's" on the inner floor of the bivy to reduce that.

I still need to get the hang of this bivy business, so I'm going to experiment in the garden a bit over the next week.

POE Ether Elite 6

I was worried that, as a side sleeper, I might not get on with this sleeping pad, but in fact it was fine. I slept pretty well. As I mentioned above, it does slide around a bit, and this is accentuated by even the gentlest slope. Nevertheless, it's very comfortable, and noticeably warmer then the NeoAir, especially in the torso area.

In the end, I'm glad I got the long, as I like to stretch out my feet and lie full length on my front sometimes. The long version allowed me to do this without dangling my feet off the bottom.

I did notice my arms getting colder when they slipped off the edge, so I'll need to bear that in mind when it gets colder.

I noticed my breath had condensed into moisture inside the pad in the morning. The material is light and thin, so you can see inside a bit. I'm not sure if that is going to be a mould problem over time. I've inflated it again and left it open to see if it dries out. This probably happened with the NeoAir also, but you can't see inside that.

Kooka Bay Pillow (Jolly Green Giant large size)

As I'm taking less clothes with me now, my stuffsack pillow was getting a little thin. I thought I'd try an air pillow, and hunted around for one of the Exped ones, but they are all sold out. On Backpacking Light I saw one of the MYOG guys had set up

Kooka Bay

to make UL pads and pillows, and ordered one of his super-light nylon inflatables. I asked him to make a larger one than his standard offering, because I have such a big head.

Again, it served its purpose well. I under inflated it, and it was comfortable, if slightly odd feeling (to me). It also slipped around on the sleeping pad, so more SilNet is needed I think.

My "gear of the trip" award goes to my new Kuksa. Hardly used, it still imbues everything with a salty tang, but it just feels right.

That's just about it for my Afton Quickie. Now I just need to make a few refinements and I should be all set for Snowbank.

Afton Shakedown - What went right... and what went wrong.

If I learned one thing from my one-night stand at Afton State Park, it's this: it's always important to test your gear before heading out with it on a longer trip.

My aim with this overnighter was to test out some of the new gear I'd accumulated but not had a chance to use yet. I wanted to get a sense of how it all worked together to be better acquainted with the skills I'd need on a more demanding trip.

This was a very simple overnighter to what the park service calls a 'remote' camp site, almost a whole mile away from the car park. At the weekend the camp sites are overrun with people dragging giant coolers up the steep path, but during the week it is pleasantly empty, and in many ways is an ideal place to test out gear. If everything goes to pot, you can easily bail out.

So, let's take a look at what I was trying out, and see how I fared.

Temperatures on this trip were in around 30C in the evening, dropping to a cooler 15C around 3am. There was no rain, but humidity was very high at 90%.

Clothing

I got a Haglöfs Intense synthetic tee for my birthday, and I felt obliged to try it out instead of taking my usual merino tee. Big mistake. The material didn't seem to be particularly breathable, nor very good at wicking. A cold sweat made my back feel clammy for hours until I eventually decided to take the shirt off and risk the wrath of the mosquitoes. After that, my back dried off nicely. I don't really know what climate or activity this shirt was designed for, but "intense" would appear to me something of a misnomer. I won't be using it for hiking again.

On the positive side...

My inov-8 Roclite 295s were fantastic. I felt like I was walking on air! These are very light shoes, and extremely comfortable. I went for a walk around one of the trails to give them more of a test, and found that most of the time I wasn't even aware that I was wearing shoes. I still need to get them wet and see how I cope in those circumstances, but for grip, comfort and weight I've never been happier.

My Montane wind shirt saw some brief use in the morning, fending off a slight chill and mist. I didn't use my Montbell ExLight down jacket, however it didn't really significantly impact my pack weight, and I'd rather carry it just in case than not at all.

What did impact my pack weight was the 5 liters of water I had to carry because the pump on the prairie was broken, and there was no other water supply conveniently near. Fortunately I knew about this in advance and too a MSR UL Dromedary with me.

Another pointlessly carried item was my book (Margaret Atwood - The Year of the Flood, for those interested!) which, of course, I never read. I should know by now that I never read when backpacking. There is always something to do around camp, or somewhere to explore, or something to think about or look at.

Shelter

I took my SpinnTwinn with me to see how I managed with it. I could have taken my DuoMid, but to be honest it was so hot and humid, I really appreciated the openness of the tarp. The DuoMid gets incredibly hot inside in the sun, and my chosen site didn't have much shade. That was intentional on my part though - I wanted views across the prairie.

I used my GG LT4 poles to put the SpinnTwinn up, having marked the correct height on one pole earlier. The rear pole, when collapsed, is 1cm over the recommended height, so I just added 1cm to the recommended height of the front pole.

The LT4s are very nice poles. They are so light when walking you hardly notice them. They obviously gave my upper body a nice workout though, judging by the aches I had yesterday.

I noticed that the extended front pole didn't lock fully under the pressure of the tarp. I had to tighten the lock several times to get a secure lock. Because the carbon fiber poles are so lightweight I was worried that over-tightening might crack them. To get a truly secure lock I had to tighten them a lot, and even then they still slipped a few millimeters.

For stake out points I used Vargo Ti Stakes. These were fine for the corner and side wall guys, but for the front and rear poles I swapped them out for a couple of Easton 9" Alu round stakes, which were much more secure.

My plan was to stake out the corner guys, and then adjust them using the linelocs to get a nice taut pitch. I found that whenever I tightened one corner -- FTWANG -- the opposite corner would slip in the lineloc. Quite annoying after the fifth time. I put this down to the width of the guy cord. I was using the cord provided with the tarp by Gossamer Gear. It seems a little too narrow to fully lock in the linelocs.

 In the end this wasn't a problem as I just used them at full length, which might well be the thing to do in the future anyway. You can still re-pitch it close to the ground if necessary. The other alternative is to use thicker, heavier cord. Still, I was happy with the pitch.

Sleeping under the SpinnTwinn is a very special experience. It was very nice to look out from under it and see all around. Fireflies were buzzing around, the stars were out, and in the morning a little mist rose off the dew-covered grass.

The tarp was covered in condensation both inside and out, but in humid conditions like that, that's to be expected.

Sleeping

It was so hot I only needed my GoLite Ultralite Three-Season around 3am, and I found it quite ideal. I still need to test it in more demanding conditions to get a full sense sleeping under it.

As for the TiGoat Ptarmigan bivy... well. That wasn't so successful. To start with the positive notes, it was very breathable, and I slept most of the night using only that as a cover and bug protection.

I took a NeoAir Small pad with me, and this was where the problems began. Although it fits inside, the bivy seems to be designed mainly for closed cell foam pads. The height of the air mattress pushed me too close to the top of the bag, limiting my movement. As a frenetic side sleeper, this was annoying. I just couldn't get comfortable. I tried moving the pad under the bivy, but then it just slid around all over the place.

I didn't find the short length of the pad too annoying, but I did notice my back ached the next day.

It seems that, for me at least, I need a full length pad that fits inside a bivy which has enough of a "bucket-floor" to accommodate the pad and quilt, and still allow some extra space above my head when the hood is lifted.

The issue was exacerbated when I added my pillow, raising my head even further.

And then things got really bad.

Yep. The sodding bug netting tore.

The Ptarmigan Bivy is, in other respects, very well made. If you are using a CCF mat, are not too tall, sleep on your back, and don't move around much, it's pretty nice - and a bargain price. However... the way the tie-out loop is attached to the fragile bug netting is really weak.

To give TiGoat credit, they have agreed to repair it free of charge, but in my opinion, this is a design flaw.

I've been looking at the MLD Superlight bivy as a replacement, and from what I can see, the tie-out loop on that is attached to a stronger material crossing the width of the hood - a much more sensible design. The thing I like about the Ptarmigan bivy is that you can roll back the waterproof hood allowing you to choose, according to conditions,  on either a fully waterproof hood,  a full bug netting hood, or half and half. With the MLD Superlight it seems to be wither a full netting hood, or a small "half-moon" netting window. I like the visibility provided by a full-net hood, but I'd also like the flexibility of a waterproof hood should I need it. Maybe some MLD Superlight users could give some commentary on this, I'd also like to know how much room it has with a air pad inside.

Misc

I used an emergency blanket as a ground sheet. It worked well. The bivy slid around on it a little, but I was glad I had it - the ground got very damp overnight.

My Bushbuddy Ultra was, as expected, wonderful. It tool a little longer to boil water as the wood was quite damp, but I'm really enjoying the silence of cooking with wood. Smoke has the additional benefit of discouraging mosquitoes.

Conclusion

Its always worthwhile testing your gear before heading out on a longer trip. I would have been seriously annoyed to be out in the woods with torn bug netting. Of course, you can try fixing it (I did try, by the way, but as I left my duct tape behind accidentally, I had to use first-aid plasters which didn't work for long. I resorted to stuffing my hat in the hole, which worked but it fell outside all the time), and on a longer trip I'd have some kind of repair kit with me.

In the end, I didn't sleep at all that night, which made the drive home on the freeway at rush hour most interesting. And yet, I still had a good time.

Thoughts on Sleep Systems

This week I'm going on a gear shakedown. I won't have time to go on any longer trips for a while, so instead I'm going to do a couple of overnights in nearby state parks to get used to some of the new kit I've been accumulating and try out some new techniques. It's quite refreshing to do this - to not have to think about how far I'm hiking. Just get out and enjoy some time outside.

It's also funny to look at weather forecasts to deliberately choose days when it will be wet.

One thing I've been trying to do recently is lighten up my sleeping system. In the past I've been stuck with some old, heavy-ish gear, and I wanted to shift to a more UL but flexible approach.

I think there is little point in getting obsessed with having the lightest gear unless you are still able to retain flexibility with that gear. Whatever kit you have, you should be able to adapt it to different conditions, circumstances and environments.

For me, my sleep system is probably the most important combination of gear. I want to be kept warm (but not too warm), dry, free from bugs, and, ideally cushioned like a baby. Above all, I want a good night's sleep.  I know I tend to roll and toss around at night, which makes achieving that more complicated.

With that in mind, let's look at my current sleeping gear, looking at the pros and cons of each element: bivy, pad and quilt.

As I now use either a SpinnTwinn or Duomid, I have a TiGoat Ptarmigan Bivy to protect me from any over-zealous rain or snow. It adds a couple of degrees warmth to the quilt or bag by protecting from wind, and the full-netting hood gives me secondary protection in the DuoMid, and will save my life from the blood-sucking bastards under the SpinnTwinn.

One problem, concerning compatibility with the rest of the gear, is that the large NeoAir doesn't fit inside. I originally bought the large version because, well, I'm large, and as I mentioned I roll around a lot, especially when I'm hot. Putting the bivy on the NeoAir seems like a bad idea to me - it would either slip off or get stuck on the sticky surface while I twist and turn.

So, I ordered a NeoAir short, which I know will fit inside, but a lot of tall people have pointed out recently that your knees hang off the 2.5 inch edge, which can lead to back ache.

The point of a short pad is obviously to cut down on weight. The idea is to place other things -- i.e.  a backpack -- under your legs to provide insulation. However, one problem with this and UL backpacking: the lighter you go, the more insubstantial your backpack becomes, and so the less insulation and support it provides. This applies also to your pillow - the less additional clothing you have, the smaller your pillow, which then increases the need for an inflatable pillow. So in getting lighter, you might in fact need to take more, which seems to me a little contradictory (at least until you start weighing everything).

There has been a lot of anti NeoAir sentiment recently, especially since the arrival of a new contender to the inflatable throne - the POE Ether Elite 6 (which Chris Townsend is testing, and both Robin and Martin have recently acquired). I've always found my large NeoAir very comfortable, but it is a little heavy (540g), especially compared to the short (260g). The Ether Elite 6 seems to have found a nice spot in the middle, at 390g. I tried out a similar pad, and the vertical baffles center you on the pad. On the Neo Air I tend to find my way off it. I'm wondering if it might be better for a side sleeper, such as myself. Laying on your back, your arms tend to fall off the sides, but for a side sleeper (such as myself) I'm wondering if it might be a better choice. The tapered ends would also fit nicely into my bivy.

This is a clear example of the importance of finding the right piece of gear for your personal needs. Sometimes the lightest isn't necessarily the best. I'm going to give the NeoAir Short a try this week, but if it doesn't suit me, I might sell it - maybe both of them - and get an Ether.

Regarding the bag itself, I'd been trying to choose between a Western Mountaineering Summerlite or Megalite for a while, having jumped off the quilt bandwagon. It seemed to me that there was no point in getting a lightweight quilt that weighed more than a full sleeping bag. You can use the sleeping bag as a quilt anyway, just unzip it.

After trying a Summerlite and Megalite and thrashing around in the shop, I decided that the Megalite's wider girth was more suitable for my night-time acrobatics. I was all set to splash out the $370 needed. And then the July 4th sales started, and I found a GoLite Ultralite 3-Season (the new version of the Ultra 20) for $215. It weighs 1 ounce more than the Megalite. Much as I love WM bags, I couldn't justify the price difference.

I hope that a quilt will suit me more than a bag - at least for spring-summer-autumn use. We shall see this week when I try it for the first time - although with 30C temps, and 89% humidity, I doubt I'll need it much.

I'll report on how everything goes later in the week!

Gear Analysis - Porcupine Mountains

On the Porcupine Mountains trip I got the chance to test out some new gear and lighter-weight approaches to hiking. Rather than write a bunch of different reviews of equipment, I'm going to give some brief thoughts in one post, and write a couple of separate reviews of the Marmot Super Mica and Sawyer water filter.

 

The conditions on the trip were mixed - sudden showers on day one, humid on day two, and torrential storms and strong winds on day three. I'm going to take a ground up, body out approach - starting with...

 

Shoes & Socks

I used a pair of Teva trail running shoes I picked up dirt cheap in an REI closeout sale, and they were pretty comfortable. It was nice to not have to lift a kilo on each foot with every step. The mesh provided excellent ventilation - but I noticed after only a day on the trail a couple of holes had appeared near the seams.

 

When the rain came, however, I was a little disappointed. I knew the mesh wouldn't keep the water out, but I didn't expect the insoles to absorb water so much. It was unpleasantly like walking on a sponge. They are taking a surprisingly long time to dry too, although placement by a fire might remedy this (providing you are somewhere you can make a fire, of course). Thankfully, I was wearing REI merino socks that keep my wet feet warm.

 

Next time I'm going to follow the advice of Hendrik and Joe, and try a trail running show / merino sock / waterproof camp sock combo, and just allow my feet to get soaked from fording streams and rain. I lie the idea of not having to worry about keeping my feet dry on the trail, and not having to take my shoes off for fording. Why fight the rain and wet when you can embrace it? I'm looking at a pair of Inov-8s - either the Roclite 295 or Terroc 330 probably, but they are a little hard to find in Minneapolis.

 

Rain Pants

My Marmot Precip rain pants did a pretty good job. Not super-lightweight, but they kept me mostly dry. I wore them over a pair of convertible hiking shorts/trousers, and I noticed the butt area had become wet after stopping. I suspect this was more a problem of the rain jacket slipping up and channeling water into the rim.

 

Base Layer

Again, merino is king. I wore an Icebreaker Merino Tee for the whole trip, and after three days it was as fresh-smelling as day one. Fantastic. I'm a total convert to merino base layers.

 

The only problem was that the short sleeves gave the mosquitoes plenty of juicy flesh to attack. But my All Terrain Herbal Armor eco-friendly bug repellant dealt with that problem, although repeated application was neccessary.

 

MontBell Ex Light

Super. Super light at only 6oz (170g), and super warm on a chilly morning. It also doubles as a rather comfy pillow. I also carried a Marmot wind shirt, but probably didn't need them both. In general, I used the wind shirt around camp, but at such a light weight I'm happy to carry both, just in case.

 

Granite Gear Vapor Trail

The Vapor Trail might not be the lightest lightweight pack in the world at 1kg (2lb 5oz), but it served its purpose very well on this trip. Rain beaded off the material keeping everything dry inside. The comfy hip belt eased the load, and the super-stretchy side pockets have room for bottles and rain gear.

The roll-top enclosure is a little odd and a touch excessive - it's very long; almost the length of the bag again. it does tend to collect water, although happily it doesn't soak into the pack.

I found that to achieve a really comfortable fit over distance you need to load it thin and tall so you can make use of the load lifters. Without them, the pack tends to dump on your shoulders a little too much. This is probably largely dependent on the weight of your load. I would say it is really ideal for slightly heavier loads, and a little overkill for true UL use.

While I like the bag - and it is definitely an improvement over my old Halti - I would like to have an additional mesh pocket on the rear of the pack for stashing a tarp and other bits and pieces. The straps it has are suitable for, say, a rolled up sleeping mat, but at the moment I'd really like to get my hands on the Laufbursche HuckePACK which seems to have everything in the right place, and far less weight. I hope the guy making them is able to go into production soon, otherwise I might have to settle for the similar MLD Burn. I like the simple lid on the HuckePACK though.

 

Weight

I didn't have scales before this trip, but I can see that as I was able to cheat and leave the tent behind, my 'big three' weight was reduced to a 'big two' of 2.421kg. Quite respectable, although it is cheating a little! I would estimate with everything else the base weight was in the region of 5kg, plus about the same in consumables (I carried the food for humans and dogs). Better than previously, but I have a way to go yet.

In Other News
My DuoMid arrived yesterday! Very excited!