Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Outdoor Products 30L Shasta Weather Defense Backpack

The kind folks at Outdoor Products recently reached out to me to review their 30L Shasta Weather Defense Backpack ($72/ 2 lbs 3 oz (much lighter if the waist belt and back panel are removed)).  My initial reaction was that a backpack of this type, and one not commonly associated with the lightweight backpacking cottage community, was likely not in my own interests or that of my readers.  However, the more I thought about it, and reflecting on the tangible stagnation within the lightweight community over the last few years, I decided to put my biases aside and give it a shot to see where it may fit in to my gear closet.

Outdoor Products is best known to me as a Walmart staple in their sporting goods section.  Like Coleman goods, Outdoor Products is widely accepted as a brand for the budget-conscious outdoor sports participant.  They offer a fairly broad range of products including backpacks, hydration sleeves, waist packs, luggage, duffle bags, outdoor kitchen gear (bowls, plates, utensils), trekking poles, carabineers, tarps, containers, etc.

In the nearly 15-years I’ve been associated with lightweight and ultralight backpacking, I can honestly say that it has drawn more of my paycheck than I ever could have imagined.  The reason is because I spent wildly on expensive gear long before I had sufficiently developed my preferences and skills.  The mailman and I were on a first name basis for many of those years and my wife will (un)happily recall many conversations where I defensively articulated that I had returned a box that had just appeared on our doorstep as not to worry her about my growing obsession.  Of course, she was smart enough to ask whether return shipping or a restocking fee was included and that’s when I knew I’d be busy during the weekends ahead with my growing honey-do list.
With this in mind, I try my best to give thoughtful responses when asked about what gear to purchase by those thinking about getting into lightweight backpacking.  The answer is usually fairly straight-forward for novices – go to Walmart.  Purchases of top-end expensive tarps, sleeping bags, backpacks, and stoves can be a significant investment, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly and may not even be necessary for the casual weekend warrior.  The dirty little secret in the lightweight backpacking community isn’t always the gear; it’s the knowledge to fully appreciate what is truly necessary, to be a thoughtful planner, and to exercise reasonable discretion.   It is with this in mind that I consider Outdoor Products . 

The Shasta Weather Defense Backpack is largely marketed as a day pack.  Made of 420 denier fabric with TPU coating, the pack is advertised as “water-resistant” and not “water-proof”.  It has a roll-top closure with haul loop, welded seams, articulated padded shoulder straps with sternum strap, a large front pocket and even a trekking pole holder.  The padded back panel is fastened by Velcro and the waist strap can be removed.  Dimensionally, the pack is 20.5”x 10”x 10” which is identified as 1,654 cu/in.  And for those insisting on making a fashion statement in the great outdoors, it comes in risqué red or sophisticated black – with reflective accents.
At 1,654 cu/in, the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack is very close to the 1,700 cu/in size of my Gossamer Gear Murmur which is nearly double the price and doesn’t quite the water-resistance.  Arguably, the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack  is far more durable and offers better protection in the rain too.  For those of you thinking this may be too small of a backpack to carry as anything other than a day pack, I’d personally disagree having used a pack of this size exclusively during summer months on many outings.  At 6’5”, most of my gear is larger than the average person, so take this to mean that this little pack is big enough even for big boy stuff – if you pack only what you need and you’re conscious of size restrictions.
In the interests of transparency, I’ve got a wall full of backpacks.  So why should I (you) care?  Well, aside from being an excellent option for someone looking for an affordable pack, the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack offers far greater weather-protection and durability than other more expensive light(er) weight backpacks.  This versatility allows me to be less concerned about keeping the contents dry and also makes it my go-to pack for any activities associated with water.  My sons and I spend a lot of time in our trusty canoe and having the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack as a resource gives me great peace of mind.  While engrained in me over the years to take care of my gear, I also like the fact that I can head off trail with the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack as I don’t need to be overly concerned with every twig in the forest.

The roll-top closure is perfect for those of us who understand the value of being able to adjust the length of the “throat” of the main compartment as needed.  Simply put, it’s the best no-frills design and what I’d design personally if I were to make my own pack.  The external pocket comes with a waterproof zipper and the pocket itself is larger than most top pockets and is easier to access.

Other than use the pack while backpacking and canoeing, I felt the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack shined in two other situations.  First I’ve been long trying to find comfort in a hammock.  It’s a love-hate relationship because I really enjoy everything about it, but I just have trouble falling asleep.  For those of you who use hammocks, you’ll know that you need to make a decision on what to do with your pack.  Do you lay it on the ground for it to get dirty and possibly infested with bugs or animals?  Do you hang it from a tree and allow it to be exposed to the weather.  To you bring it into your sleeping area and allow it to take over your personal space?  Do you hang it from your suspension, ridge line or bear bag and hope for the best?  For me, I’ve always hung mine on a tree.  Well, because the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack has a roll-top and deals well with weather conditions, I don’t need to worry either about the weather impacting it or the abrasion from the tree.  Secondly, I’ve been experimenting with various Bushcraft techniques for the last 3 years or so.  For those of you who walk in that world, you likely carry a legit knife, saw and maybe even an axe (*gasp lightweight backpackers*), and if you hunt or trap, you likely have various metal objects that wouldn’t hold up well in a pack lacking robust construction.  As the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack is built for durability, it has held up well for these exercises too.

While most of this review seems pretty standard, I somewhat unexpectedly identified an additional value of this pack.  Because the back panel and waist belt are removable, it allows the pack to sufficiently fit anyone in my family.  To be fair, I need to remove the waist belt from most non-custom packs anyway as it’s rare for an off-the-shelf design to allow for a 24” spine length.  What I didn’t expect was being able to cinch/adjust all the bells and whistles to make it a pack appropriate for my sons and my 5’6” wife.   Not wanting to spend the money on packs for family members who are either growing or don’t head to the words frequently enough to justify their own personal pack, the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack is a great option.  I can think of few things in life which can fit a 6’5” man, a 7-year old boy, and everyone in between.  As a father of two growing kids who will be educated on all things outdoors whether they want to or not, having the flexibility of this piece of gear in my gear closet is remarkable.  For those of you with children, I enjoyed watching my son’s face light up when he realized he’d be wearing my pack and that it fit him too despite our obvious size difference.
So is the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack the perfect backpack?  No.  With that said though, I’ve probably used or tried over 20 backpacks in the last decade and I’d argue that none are perfect.  Most things in our society are designed for the average person.  Unless the average person is built like an offensive lineman, I’m not the average person.  As such, my areas of concern likely may not be shared.

First, the shoulder strap buckle hit me just above my armpit.  This is because the shoulder straps are not long enough, at least for someone my side.  This created a degree of discomfort in that area over longer hauls, but oddly enough it’s something my body is somewhat familiar with because this is a very common theme for me with most backpacks.  If the straps were made any longer, however, they’d lose some of the fit versatility.

Second, since I remove the waist belt for the pack to fit me, the fabric puckers at the lower part of the shoulder straps which connect to the pack and rubs on my sides and back.  While this settled down the more I used the pack, I view this as a design issue which can be remedied by relocating the termination point of the shoulder straps.

Bottom line, I felt the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack was affordable, durable, exceptionally versatile and great for family fun.  Course I’d be remised if I didn’t recommend the manufacturer offer green as a color option.  As the “Jolly GREEN Giant”, this isn’t the first time I’ve made this suggestion and it won’t be the last.  Blending into the woods is GOOD!  I’ve also heard that red attracts bears, so it’s a color I generally avoid on the outside of my pack or clothing.  Course, red is a great dual-use signal color too.  Either way, give the Shasta Weather Defense Backpack a look.

(Disclaimer:  This product was provided to me by the manufacturer free-of-charge for the purposes of this review; however the information contained herein is offered without bias.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


As announced several weeks ago, Paleo Meals To Go ( offered one of my readers with the opportunity to try one of their great products via a random giveaway.  The offer was for one (1) Nomad Bundle (3-meals valued at $36!).

The winner is:  JOHN!  (Since we had two entires from people named John, the winner is the candidate with the very first comment in my previous review with no last name whom I have already contacted).

I'd like to thank Paleo Meals To Go for their generosity and encourage my readers to give them a try.

Thanks and happy holidays. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Emberlit FireAnt Three-Fuel Folding Titanium Stove (2.8oz)

In July 2014 I wrote about the Emberlit (Original) titanium 3-fuel folding stove.  After mentioning it was $85/5.7oz, I received some comments that it just wasn’t light enough for the ultralight backpacking crowd.   

Almost immediately after my review in July, Emberlit introduced the FireAnt, a smaller version of their original stove which was $69/2.8oz.  Yes lightweight backpackers, you have another potential stove purchase in your future.  

Somewhat accidentally I was able to pick up one of these stoves and test it for several months before it was widely available.  Like the original, the FireAnt is solidly constructed, well-conceived, and fun to use. 

I’ve included some pictures below for comparison purposes.  While the FireAnt is fine, of no surprise the original is more efficient primarily because more (and larger) fuel can be used and there is greater air movement.  Either way, both stoves are a lot of fun and quite packable.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

JetBoil MiniMo

I wanted to write a quick blog about the JetBoil MiniMo ($129/14.6oz) primarily because I haven’t seen a ton of reviews on it.  I’m guessing this could be because it isn’t very well known as it is being exclusively sold through REI, at least for now.

I have a love/hate relationship with JetBoil.  While I marvel and acknowledge the performance and engineering behind their stoves, I had a very bad experience with their Sol Ti.  In short, after just 4 uses, the fins burned and fell off the bottom while I was backpacking.  There is nothing more sickening than watching your new $150 stove rendered useless, through no fault of your own, knowing full well you had a lot of miles ahead.  From there, I argued with JetBoil for over two months trying to get them to honor their warranty.  They claimed I cooked in it, which I had not.  I simply used it to boil water, but it took entirely too much interacting with them to get them to show they were a stand-up company and to back their product.  In the end, I got a new cup, but by then I was done with the Sol Ti which was only further enforced after reading several reviews from others who had similar experiences.  I also understand the SolTi is unlikely to be manufactured in the future due to so many consumer issues with it.  With this in mind, I sold the Sol Ti and used the proceeds to purchase a JetBoil MiniMo.

My personal lightweight stove preference is Esbit.  It’s more expensive as a whole, but it’s nominal for someone who is more of a weekend warrior versus a thru hiker.  The difference in size and weight to most any other stove option is phenomenal as Esbit stoves are tiny and nearly weightless.  My second choice is a cone-style stove which affords the use of natural resources (wood, duff, etc.).  When compared to compressed gas or similar canister stoves, a major difference is really time and convenience.  Gas/Canister stoves cook more quickly and can be less fussy.  Being able to boil a cup of water using a JetBoil in just shy of 3 minutes is such a mental and physical pick-me-up versus waiting for 8-10 minutes using an alternative.  With that said, you can assume that I use gas/canister stoves primarily when I just don’t want to deal with the fussy nature of other stoves, if the weather is very poor, or if I just don’t mind carrying the extra weight.

There are several things I really like about the JetBoil MiniMo.  First, it is short and squat which improves the angle of eating from it and it works more like a bowl.  Being squat and made from aluminum also makes cooking a little more flexible.  While other stoves may claim broader cooking capabilities, unless the pot is as wide as the JetBoil MiniMo, there will be a certain degree of inconvenience as food much be chopped into small pieces just to get it to fit.  The real gain of the JetBoil MiniMo is the ability to fully control the flame making simmering and low-temperature cooking a real possibility.

A small canister and stove (and spoon for that matter) can conveniently fit in the cup of a JetBoil MiniMo.  Support legs for the canister fit nicely in the lid.

Unlike other JetBoil products, the JetBoil MiniMo cup has robust handles which just makes the experience a little more pleasurable.

But, there are some things I don't like.  The little plastic cup at the bottom, while useful in theory, continues to be cheaply made.  I've already broken a corner off mine.  The overall stability, especially while trying to remove the main cooking pot from the stove, and then the stove from the canister, always leaves me expecting to get burned or dump my food.  Components like the lid are over heavy and so are the handles.  The neoprene sleeve, while useful to help hold warmth, could use a cut-out for lips and it would be nice if it were easier to remove for cleaning.  I'd also really like JetBoil to come up with some kind of attachment, like it offered for the Sol Ti, which would allow a pot to be set on top of the burner (like a skillet or a cup without fins).

Bottom line, while I wouldn’t take it on every trip, it’s nice and convenient, performs well, and while perhaps a little bulky, overall it is a non-issue.  When I want something that makes my life easier, I use the JetBoil MiniMo.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Paleo Meals To Go and GIVEAWAY!!

If you’ve ever backpacked with me, you know I claim I’m “food stupid” and generally refer to may backpacking meals as “warm slop”.  I don’t have the trail-cooking stamina to actually put together a decent meal and I’m more often than not unwilling to pack heavier foods that I’d probably like better. 

Funny enough, what I look forward to most on the trail is fresh fruit, if I’m willing to lug it along, or some kind of cured meat (summer sausage and some pepperoni) with cheese wrapped up in a tortilla and slathered with a packet of mayonnaise.  But when the weather turns colder, the miles longer, and those inner chills of exhaustion won’t go away, I look for a quick solution that will fill me up and keep me warm. 

The act of selecting pre-packaged trail food is often an exercise in picking the best of the worst.  Whether you hit the name brands at your favorite outdoor store or venture to one of the handful of online cottage companies, what you get is usually a blob of bland carbs with a handful of dried seasoning elements.  While some are better than others, as a whole, I’m not terribly impressed.  There is a reason why backpackers stuff their faces with anything they can get their hands on when in trail towns.  Caloric intake is one answer, but I’m guessing the promise of something other than warm slop is equally or more desirable.

Several weeks ago Paleo Meals To Go ( from Denver, CO reached out to me and offered me the opportunity to try two of their food offerings – a breakfast and a lunch/dinner.  Where Paleo Meals To Go differs from other trail food companies is that their meals are entirely Paleo (Paleolithic).
The Paleo Diet, also referred to as the Caveman Diet, is reminiscent of the Stone Age diet of hunter-gatherers and is intended to emulate a diet of plants and meat eaten by humans during the Paleolithic era.  In addition to avoiding heavily processed foods, this diet does not include modern-day carbohydrates, dairy products, grains, legumes, processed oils, and refined sugar.  Proponents of the Paleo Diet claim that human metabolism has been unable to adapt fast enough to handle many of the foods that have become available since the advent of agriculture.

So why should I care about the Paleo Diet?  Well, like many American’s (regrettably), I’m fat, fluffy, overweight, over-nourished, manly voluptuous, robust, big-boned, and/or strain the limits of my wardrobe.  I’ve struggled with maintaining a reasonable weight most of my life unless I quite literally worked out daily for 3 hours per day (which I did for many years).  I am also diabetic and am treated for high-blood pressure, high-cholesterol, and a metabolism that is about as slow as an iceberg.  Bottom line, I’m the poster child for the Paleo Diet and moreso, I simply have no choice but to be exceptionally careful about what I stuff in my face especially while doing something high-energy like backpacking.  This also means my options are limited.

My first impression of Paleo Meals To Go is friendly people with a clean website and a simple and straight-forward product offering.  Upon receipt of their “Savory Chicken & Vegetables” and “Coconut Berry Breakfast”, I found myself appreciating the packaging and marketing.  Unlike others, the meal was presented in a paper-package lined inside with plastic which allows hot water to be poured into the bag to cook the meal.  I like this much better than the shiny, plastic, NASA-inspired packaging from others.  The outside packaging had a nice picture of the meal with clear nutritional information.  There was also a depiction of a caveman which changed on each meal (i.e chasing chicken for the chicken meal).  Additionally provided was a packet of honey crystals and Celtic sea salt for use as desired.  Unlike others similar packaged backpacking foods, at least in my experience, was a welcoming smell of freshness once opened.  It wasn’t something I planned on noticing but did after the difference smacked me in the face.  I also enjoyed the moment when looking down in the bag and seeing what I defined as real food and not a soon-to-be watered down bag of carbs.

I wanted to offer a fair and impartial evaluation of the food provided by Paleo Meals To Go, so I decided outdoor conditions and cooking with backpacking stoves was most appropriate.  I see plenty of people offer their evaluation of trail food, but it’s often done while standing over their kitchen stove and munching down over their kitchen table which didn’t seem fair.

I prepared the Savory Chicken & Vegetables while hiking during the polar vortex that recently hit Virginia.  It was 26 degrees, the sun was nearly set, and I was fairly tried and cold.  I prepared the Coconut Berry Breakfast while hiking on a Saturday morning when it was about 40 degrees.  For the Chicken, I cooked it in a pot, and for the Breakfast, I cooked it in the pouch (as intended).

My impressions of both meals was very positive.  First, “freshness” was the standout feature and it smelled and looked like I was eating real food.  Second, it was wonderful not having a blob of carbs to choke down.  The meal size was appropriate, not too much and not too little which I have yet to find anywhere else.  Despite being a big eater, with other trail food, I often find that I have some food left over (either that, or I just got sick enough of the slop).  The proportions of each separate food item, for example, broccoli to chicken, were very promising.  All too often the stuff I want to eat out of these kinds of meals are overburdened with, of no surprise, carbs.  When carbs aren’t on the menu, it means more of the good stuff and who is going to complain about more chicken and vegetables if they are health-minded?  Most importantly, it was refreshing to feel like what I was eating was healthy and that it actually tasted like food worth eating.  While the meals tasted just fine as-is, and have been the best dehydrated trail foods I’ve had to date, I found the addition of some powdered cheese make it a really welcoming meal.
I read a review about Paleo Meals To Go which said their food was a little pricey ($12.99/meal).  While I’m sensitive to the cost of most things, I don’t find these meals to be overpriced for what you get.  First, this is about as close to fresh food as you’re going to get.  Second, a bag full of desirable and healthy food, versus a bag of sloppy carbs, really goes a long way.  For me this is really where the decision to put a premium on my health comes into play.  Bottom line, would you rather fill your belly with power foods that help you press on and keep you genuinely healthy or something that just fills your gut, makes you feel terrible, and offers little health benefits? 

My vote is simple if you can afford it – buy from Paleo Meals To Go.  And there is no better time than right now to buy with a 20% off deal for Black Friday.  Use the code BLACK20 at checkout.

Paleo Meals To Go has generously offered one (1) Nomad Bundle (3-meals valued at $36!) to a winner of one of our random drawings.  This is one of the best giveaway’s we’ve had, so it is worth your time to enter.  To be eligible, simply leave a comment below explaining why you’d like to try one of these fantastic meals.  A winner will be selected at random in the near future.  Please note the winner must have a shipping address in the USA.