Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ultralight Backpacking Spoon (and it's free)

I knew the sickness had taken hold when a week after ordering an expensive 14 gram titanium spoon, I promptly ordered another singularly because it was only 9 grams.  That's right, an "extra" 5 grams was simply too much for me to lug around a moment longer.

And shortly thereafter following months of evasive therapy, I learned that these kinds of little things didn't really matter, that much, most of the time, to some people.

That was several years ago and I'm feeling better now.

So today I decided to find an alternative to the 9 gram spoon.  A lighter alternative.  Using a readily available plastic bottle, I cut a spoon-pattern incorporating the ridge at the bottom.  The result - a surprisingly functional spoon.

Cost - $0 (not my bottle)

Weight - 0 (or at least it wouldn't register on my scale)

Easy of DIY - plenty easy as long as a pair of scissors are within reach

Functional - To a degree.  Using a bottle with thicker sides actually works nicely to strengthen the handle portion.  By design, the bottom of a bottle is already more dense, so the "spoon" part is plenty.  The spoon part is actually deeper than a standard spoon and works well as a scoop.



 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Inexpensive Lightweight Down Vest

Yesterday it was 67 degrees at my house in central Virginia and later this week the weather is promising more of the same.  This is a bit odd in my neck of the woods for two reasons.  First, the average high in March is in the 50’s.  Secondly, we’ve had two snowstorms in the last two weeks and the lows have dipped into the teens and twenties almost every night.  Fortunately, with March comes the annual push to clear out winter gear for most shops and a chance for those of us in the position to buy to get some inexpensive gear.

 

I travel weekly for the job I’ve held for the last year.  It isn’t ideal, but it’s been paying the bills.  Getting ready for week after week on the road has taught me how to be more efficient with my traveling gear and my lightweight mentality has continued to serve me well to keep weights low.  I was in need of an inexpensive lightweight down vest now that warmer months are ahead.  “Lightweight” down vests are easier now more than ever to find, but “inexpensive” is not.  Down has been steadily increasing in cost for the last several years primarily because of a down shortage.  Bird flu, coupled with Asian countries consuming less down, means feathers are more costly nowadays.  Secondly, the rise of hydrophobic (waterproof) down has higher manufacturing costs.  While treating down isn’t “the norm” just yet, it is becoming more common as there hasn’t been sufficient long-term studies to enable anyone to claim whether the treatment will compromise the down after a period of time and “waterproof down” sure seems enticing.

 

Bottom line, I checked all the usual suspects for down vests and decided prices were too high.  My next stop was eBAY where I sourced a new down vest for $18 which included shipping.  The size was XXL, in loden color and was just slightly above 7 oz.  I would imagine a medium would be closer to 5 ounces.  While I do not know the amount of fill, I do know that 550 fill-power was used.  For those that don’t understand the concept of fill-power, the lower the number the more resilient the down and also less expensive.  It also means more is required to achieve the same warmth than if higher fill-power is used.  High fill-power is fluffier, thereby it takes less quantity, resulting in less weight, to achieve the same warmth.  But, high fill-power is more costly and harder to source.  Most budget-conscious down products are made from 550-750 fill-power and these items are usually heavier.  The manufacturer was Hawke and Co., whom I had no previous knowledge, but I believe they have fashion affiliation with companies like Macy’s.  Similar to more expensive apparel, seams are neat and straight and the ankle and waist cuffs are elasticized.  Two zippered hand-warmer pockets are plenty useful and there is an interior stuff pocket to enable the vest to be stuffed into its own pouch.  Even the tags are printed to the fabric versus the annoying dangling tags that seem to always tickle and (gasp!) are unnecessary extra weight.  The fabric is nylon of some kind.  The use of YKK zippers is very welcomed.

 

I compared this vest to my Stoic vest which I referenced HERE.  The weight and features are very similar, but there are some compromises.  On my Hawke and Co, there are no waist or neck cinches and arguably the cut is more boxy than the Stoic.  While the Stoic has no hand-warmer pockets, it is made of Pertex and is slightly longer with a bit of a drop tail.  While it was tough to tell if either had more fill, I’d give the edge to the Stoic.

 

Bottom line, if you’re looking for a good-enough inexpensive lightweight down vest, take a look at eBAY for Hawke and Co., search by price, and you can take home a purchase that may also work for your needs.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Gossamer Gear Q-Twinn Tarp and Ultralight Storage Bag


Gossamer Gear was one of the first cottage manufacturers to bring lightweight backpacking gear to the masses.  At the time, they embraced silnylon and spinnaker fabric.  In the following years, while quantities often ran small, what stayed consistent were thoughtful and functional designs and well made products.

 
Gossamer Gear continues to press into the cuben fiber market, or by the industry name, Cubic Tech CTK non-woven laminate that is exceptionally waterproof and lightweight, with the offering of two new products made from their headquarters in Austin, TX.

 
The Q-Twinn Tarp (7oz / $315) is an ultralight catenary cut tarp made for two people.  Seams and tieouts are fully bonded, meaning there isn’t a single stitch so you can avoid seam sealing.  The color is a translucent black.  At 7oz, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a lighter and more sizeable alternative.

  
The Ultralight Storage Q-Series ditty bags (2-6g/$15-$16) are two products that I think the industry has been missing.  Both are made from cuben fiber.  One is a zippered ditty bag (6.5” x 5”) which comes with a small loop of lashing which means it can be fastened to the outside of a pack, branch, shower head, or ridgeline without a fuss.  This is great for anyone who doesn't want to deal with a draw string and wants a shallower and wider option to more easily see the contents of the bag.  The second is a 10” x 3.3” stake bag.  Having a place to store dirty shelter stakes without using a plastic bag or other option which does nothing but puncture or spread soil around is a great help.  At 2-6 grams, they are unnoticeable, and at $15-$16, they are quite affordable.

 
Happy trails.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper


In the not too distant past, I raved about a very small cottage manufacturer of sleeping pads.  I won’t mention the company here, because unfortunately the owner/operator fell behind on his work and his solution was to keep taking orders (customer money) without providing a product.  His business is now defunct.




One of the products he offered was something that the industry hadn’t seen – an inflatable sleeping pad that tapered both vertically and in width and length.  It meant you could get a ton of cushioning and girth around your torso and have it taper down at the knees where padding, width and extra weight simply isn’t necessary.  By the time his business closed, he was adding synthetic insulation to it which made the pad into a 4-season option.  I had one of his prototypes and the valve simply never worked.  Other than the valve though, it was beautiful and was hands-down my favorite pad.  I returned it to him for a new valve and never saw the pad again.


Several years passed since then and I’m pleased to announce that Gossamer Gear has partnered with Klymit to offer the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper.  Like the prototype I miss so dearly, the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper also tapers both vertically and in width and length.  It comes in 4 sizes and ranges from 7.2oz to 13.80oz.  Pricing is $82 to $99.

 

·         XLARGE - 28" Wide tapering to 19"  X   56" Long  X  2.5" tapering to 1.5" in height

·         LARGE - 21" Wide tapering to 14.5"  X  56" Long  X  2.5" tapering to 1.5" in height

·         MEDIUM - 21" Wide tapering to 14.5"  X  48" Long  X  2.5" tapering to 1.5" in height

·         SMALL - 21" Wide tapering to 14.5"  X  36"  Long  X  2.5" tapering to 1.5" in height


While the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper is not insulated, it works just fine for 2-3 season use as-is, or a simple foam pad can be added for increased warmth.


Gossamer Gear includes a patch kit and extra valve with purchase.


One thing I really like about the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper is that it has tabs on the side for quilt users to be able to secure their quilt to the pad - a great feature for those of us in the lightweight backpacking community.

I like the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper quite a bit, but there are some drawbacks.  First, I’m not aware of a creative solution to blow it up without using my mouth which means it gains condensation fairly quickly.  Second, while it is refreshing that different sizes are offered, I’d like to see one that was considerably wider.  At 6’5” and 280 pounds, I wear a 54 wide jacket which means I’m very broad shouldered.  I figured the 28” wide XLARGE would suit me just fine, but it isn’t quite big enough as the pad loses measurable width when inflated.


Regardless, Gossamer Gear has introduced another great product and I truly hope it evolves into a padded and wider product that will stay on the market.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BIO EARTH RUNNERS SANDAL


Michael Dally with Earth Runners was kind enough to send me sample of their new Bio Earth Runners Sandal which is currently associated with a Kickstarter campaign.  If you choose to contribute, sandals start at $60 (or 20% off).  Orders will be taken throughout December and dispatched in January.  After January, they will be available on the Earth Runner website (www.earthrunners.com).

 

The footwear industry over the last several years has been pressing consumers to try footwear with less padding ultimately mimicking a barefoot walking style.  There are many clever names for this movement, but the concept remains the same.  The spirit of this movement is the belief that by walking closer to the ground and having less robust footwear, the foot is strengthened and walking consciousness and body mechanics are improved.

 

What put Earth Runners on the map is that they uniquely focused their initial product offerings on being connected to the Earth’s electrical potential by strategically placing copper insets throughout a self-molding conductive sandal sole.  The copper insets curve at the toe base in the shape of the geometric concept called “Golden Mean”.  This shape, coupled with the copper insets, allowed for pressure to be placed on areas of the foot sole believed to offer self-healing effects similar to those achieved by acupuncture.  While wearing a pair of Earth Runners associated with this technology, Voltmeter tests confirmed the charge of the human body is negligible while wearing grounded footwear on the Earth’s naturally conductive surface – the same electrical potential as the Earth.

 

The Bio Earth Runners Sandal is the next iteration of minimalist footwear inspired by long distance runner.   With a custom molded sole and “zero drop” from heel to toe, the experience is similar to going barefoot while maintaining safety in varied terrains.  The foundation provided is stable.  Copper impregnated conductive laces attach to a copper plug on the bottom of the sandal allowing similar attributes to the conductive sandal soles as described above.   The Tactile Mitosis tread is made of moldable EVA (6mm) and the BioTac bedding is made of recycled car tires.

 

One of the unique features of the Bio Earth Runners Sandal is the lacing system.  Nylon webbing is routed through the sandal bed, around the big toe and ankle and is ultimately secured with a locking buckle.  It is entirely adjustable, although it is likely they will fit just fine out of the box.

 

While not necessary, Earth Runners offer Injinji socks whether to improve comfort or to keep feet warmer during cooler temperatures.

 

In the last two years, I’ve been asked to review three different sandals which were very similar to the Bio Earth Runners Sandal.  After receiving and fiddling with each, I decided to return them as I didn’t feel my finicky feet justified an extended trial and quite honestly – I didn’t find them comfortable.  Largely, I have fairly wimpy feet and prefer more coverage and greater padding in most circumstances.  I was pleasantly surprised when I tried the Bio Earth Runners Sandal.

 

As advertised, the Bio Earth Runners Sandal both immediately contoured to my foot and I didn’t need to adjust anything.  I elected to use Injinji socks initially due to my lack of foot machismo, but found them comfortable with or without.  They were quite stable in all environments and the traction, something that lacked in every other sandal I’ve tried, was significant.  I found myself thinking about other things rather than worrying about whether my foot was comfortable or if I’d slip.  Essentially, my experience was walking as if I was barefoot without the fuss of being concerned about stepping on something undesirable or the sandal slipping out from under me.  I hope this is interpreted as a high complement to be able to rely on a piece of gear without giving thought to its failure. 

 

This was also my first use of Injinji socks which I assumed wouldn’t be comfortable because I figured my toe shape wouldn’t be conducive to the unique “finger” design.  I was equally surprised that they proved to be out-of-sight and out-of-mind once properly snugged over each toe.  Pairing them with a sandal is very appropriate in my opinion, although vocal fashionistas may disagree.

 

 
In the lightweight backpacking world, I can perceive quite a few applications for the Bio Earth Runners Sandal.  First, there are plenty who would enjoy the simplicity and near weightlessness.  Others would take pride in being able to walk through varied terrain, including forging waterways, without stopping to swap-out or dry-out footwear.  Some would likely enjoy the fact that their feet wouldn’t be as susceptible to sweating and resulting blisters or the dinginess that sticks with more conventional footwear.  Finally, others would likely enjoy simple and lightweight footwear to do double-duty as camp-footwear or for water crossings.  Bottom line – this is a useful product for lightweight backpackers and my only suggestion for improvement is for a slightly longer webbing tag to allow for finite adjustments as desired.

 

By supporting the Kickstarter campaign, materials and manufacturing costs are kept to a minimum.  You also help towards the down-payment of a new manufacturing facility and legal expenses to get this endeavor off the ground.  Earth Runners offers a 30-day money-back guarantee – so what’s not to like?

 

(Disclosure: This product was provided to me free-of-charge for the purposes of this review and is owned by me.  However, any information contained herein is my personal opinion without bias.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

MLD / Klymit Pillow X (1.9oz/$30)


While I’m not sure the perfect backpacking pillow exists just yet, Mountain Laurel Designs teamed with Klymit to offer a very viable option in the form of MLD’s Pillow X.

 

Pillow X is a 1.9oz/$30 pillow that uniquely has an “X” chamber design which enables the users head to be cradled in a manner standard backpacking pillows simply can’t offer.  It valleys in the middle to also center the head and at 15”x11”x4”, the size isn’t too bad either.  Fabric is 30D on top and 75D on the bottom which offers assurances towards durability and the Klymit valve system is reliable.

 

I found that not blowing it up firm added to the comfort, and like a lot of other pillow options, coupling it with clothing and adding something fuzzy around it (i.e. fleece shirt) increased the comfort level tremendously.  Overall, I wouldn't mind if it were thicker.

 

The only drawback, MLD doesn’t offer a patch kit, although truthfully, it probably isn’t needed and most backpackers likely already carry one for their sleeping pad.




 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System


The folks over at Sawyer were kind enough to let me test drive their new Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System ($18-$25/2oz).  The “mini” was a bit of a surprise to me because Sawyer seemed to already be leading the industry with the Sawyer Squeeze Filter which received quite a bit of press in the last year.  The beauty of both systems is that they are reliable, effective, and flexible enough to offer a variety of configuration preferences (i.e. squeeze, inline, straw).  Both also come with a straw as well as squeeze bottles.  The squeeze bottles have been improved from the first release of the Sawyer Squeeze and both filters continue to fit Evernew bottles and likely other options.

 

While I was already a user of the Sawyer Squeeze Filter, the beauty of the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System is that it is physically smaller, lighter and less expensive – but the effectiveness remains the same.  At 2oz and roughly $20 for a .01 micron absolute filter capable of removing 99.99% of bacteria, protozoa and cysts for up to 100,000 gallons – this is a product that comes with its own cheering section.

 

The filter is essentially a cluster of micro-fibrous tubes.  Water is drawn through the side walls of the tubes into their hollow center and out of the end of the tubes.  Harmful bacteria and protozoa is trapped on the outer walls of the tubes delivering fresh and clean drinking water.

 

Lightweight backpackers, almost by necessity, are fairly meticulous about the gear they carry.  Making decisions based singularly on grams and ounces can quickly yield to a declining fun-factor.  As a result, there is a middle ground between weight and overall comfort.  In my quest for lightweight water treatment, my personal backing history has run the gamut from pumps to chemical treatments.  Looking back, using a pump nowadays is like continuing to carry an Army cot and gas lantern.  They are bulky, expensive, and prone to failure.  Anyone who has had their hand slip off the pumping feature will quickly look for an alternative solution once their hand recovers from being pinched (or worse) and dealing with a clog is an unfriendly nightmare.  UV options are pricey, prone to easy damage and depending on the model, batteries may be hard to locate.  UV options are also only effective in water that is already clear and only for a set volume.  A pre-filter is a good idea, but adds another step and element.  Lastly, UV options may kill water nasties, but it doesn't remove them.  Personally, the knowledge of chugging "dead" nasties doesn't make me overly thrilled.  More often than not I've relied on chemical tablets.  Tablets are effective and lightweight, but gram for gram they are fairly expensive and do nothing to filter out floaties and other nasties.  Usually I use a biodiesel bag or tulle as a prefilter.  Personally, I’m not thrilled about putting chemicals into my body or their cumulative effect.

 

Fortunately with the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System, weight, cost, nor effectiveness are reasons to leave it at home.  It is lightweight, affordable and effective.  I’ve used it repeatedly for the last three weeks in several different environments, temperatures and in conditions of varied turbidity.  Out of the box, my first use was dipping the bottle into a stream.  I turned the bottle over and expected it to take quite a while to prime the filter.  To my surprise, clean water flowed out almost immediately.  A second misconception was put to rest when I noted that I didn’t need to squeeze or suck on the nozzle to get a sufficient water flow.  Basically, it worked like a charm without additional effort.

 

Aside from the fact that is an inexpensive, effective and less bulky option than other physical filters, I like the fact that the drinking nozzle has an effective cap cover.  While this comes into play to keep grit out of the drinking end, I quickly learned that it avoided cross contamination when the bottle and filter fell off a rock into a stream while I was photographing it for this article.  Verifying that the filter wasn’t compromised because of my own carelessness was a nice unexpected benefit.  Having reviewed other water filters on this blog, the protective cap on the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System is a rarity on other filter options as either they are missing entirely or are manufactured without expectation for them to last more than a few uses.

 

The Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System comes with a large syringe to back-flush the system, but it is a little bulky.  Others have found a compatible cap to work with a spare bottle and detailed its use at BackpackingLight

Mini Bull Designs also offers a unique adapter for $10 as well as a screw top for the Sawyer Squeeze for $15 which I prefer and own.

 
I enjoyed the flexibility of using it as a gravity filter or with a straw, but most commonly I simply drank straight from the bottle.

 

Aside from a smaller, lighter and equally functional back-flush option as described above, I would personally like to see see-through bags and bags with a means to hang them upside down (i.e. hung from a tree) or stand-up on their own.

 

When all things are considered, the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System is simply the best overall lightweight filter on the market whether for lightweight backpackers or anyone looking for an inexpensive, lightweight and effective water filter in a very reasonably-sized package.  While there are other more effective filters, they are also more costly, bulky and inconvenient.

 

For general information about water nasties, below is part of an article I previously authored which helps illustrate why a .01 micron absolute filter is critical.

 

PROTOZOAN CYSTS – These are hard shelled, single-cell parasites which include Giardia and Lamblia and range in size from 5 to 15 microns. This also includes Cryptosporidium Parvum which is 2 to 5 microns in size. Giardia occurs in the small intestine where cysts hatch and give you diarrhea, gas, nausea, and/or cramps and symptoms appear within 1 to 2 weeks and can last 4-6 weeks or longer. Those with weakened immune systems could be more heavily impacted. Cryptosporidium can give you similar symptoms and can also include loose stool, cramps, slight fever, and an upset stomach. These systems generally appear in 2 to 10 days and typically last 2 weeks. Animals and humans carry Protozoa.

BACTERIA – Bacteria are smaller organisms which can include E. Coli, Salmonella, Cholera, and Campylobacter Jejuni. They range from .2 to 10 microns and symptoms include diarrhea with appears within 6 hours or 3 to 5 days and last 4 days or longer. Animals and humans carry Bacteria.

VIRUSES – Viruses represent the tiniest of organisms ranging from .004 to .1 microns. They include Hepatitis A, Rotavirus, Norwalk Virus, and even Polio. Although these are the least commonly found pathogens in the wilderness water sources, they represent often the most harmful. If you were wondering, most waterborne viruses which affect humans in the backcountry come from human fecal matter.

CHEMICALS AND RUNOFF – As the name implies, another water-nasty includes agricultural runoff (herbicides, pesticides, etc.) and industrial runoff (metals, mine tailings, etc.).

 


(Disclosure: This product was provided to me free-of-charge for the purposes of this review and is owned by me.  However, any information contained herein is my personal opinion without bias.)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Gossamer Gear Warm Sack


At the recent Jolly Green Giant National Lightweight Backpacking Symposium and Convention, participants reviewed the Gossamer Gear Warm Sack ($14.95/(17g).  All participants, to include me, myself, and I, unanimously agreed by verbal attestation and hand-raised oath, that the Gossamer Gear Warm Sack was deserving of the highly prized Saved A Few Grams Award.

 

The Gossamer Gear Warm Sack is intended to replace heavier “cozy-style” pot/cup warmers while offering a more flexible and dual-purpose option being that it doubles as a bag.  The bag, in unassuming yet enticing black, works well to store cooking items and makes a wonderful CIA-style interrogation head bag when the neighbor’s cat is the only source of entertainment for a long evening and you have a lot of questions on your mind.  The bag has insulation sewn on the inside to ensure your warm slop stays toasty.

 

The Gossamer Gear Warm Sack is ideal for gram weenies and fashionistas alike, but note that it only fits mugs/cups likely 700ml and below with greater comfort between 400-600ml.  I tried it with several options:

 

·         THUMBS DOWN

o   Snow Peak 900

o   Evernew 700

 

·         THUMBS UP:

o   MLD 450ml cup

o   LiteTrail Toak 500ml cup

o   Stoic 700ml cup

 

For me, the Gossamer Gear Warm Sack will replace the absurdly heavy homemade Reflectix option seen here tipping the scales at a gluttonous 24 grams.  The svelte Gossamer Gear Warm Sack comes in at a dainty 17 grams saving me an enormous 7 grams .  This savings offers me the opportunity to carry a couple discarded black jelly beans, perhaps that fancy half toothbrush I had my eye on, or a rubberband so I can say I carried a rubberband.
Vigorous testing proved the Gossamer Gear Warm Sack worked just as well as Reflectix, or more accurately, proved to fall into the "good enough" category.

 

Happy trails.

 

(Disclaimer:  No cats were harmed during the testing of the Gossamer Gear Warm Sack.  The Gossamer Gear Warm Sack is not recommended to be used beyond the limits for which it was intended.)