Articles about Gear

Backcountry Navigation: Compass Basics

I grew up in a time before GPS. I learned how to use a compass in Cub Scouts and learned how to navigate with one as I grew older. I think I got my first GPS system sometime in my late 20s and never really used it for much beyond tracking my route, I still always preferred a map and compass. Knowing how to use a compass is one of those things that seem unnecessary and archaic until you find yourself in a situation where your life depends on it. Knowing some compass basics should be a part of everyone’s skill set if you spend any amount of time outdoors, on the trail, on backroads or anyplace where accurate use of a map can mean the difference between making it home and not making it home.

A recent article pointed out that most people are “too reliant on technology, expecting smartphones and satellite navigation systems to do the hard work for us” when it comes to map reading and navigation. It’s true that we rely too heavily on technology. This can be exceptionally dangerous when we put ourselves in risky situations. What happens when that technology doesn’t work? Batteries die? Signal is lost?

Right. So go grab your dad’s old compass, dust that thing off and let’s start developing some of those life skills you’ve been hearing so much about.

Anatomy of a Compass

Before you try using your compass in the field, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with it’s basic anatomy. Read through the instruction book that came with it and identify it’s components. There are a lot of different compass designs out there with different ways to adjust and read them. This old Brunton Elite of my Dad’s is a pretty basic model to learn with.

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360 Degrees

Compass BasicsYou remember basic geometry, right? A full circle is represented by 360 degrees (with Zero and 360 being the same point). The four cardinal directions (North, South, East and West) are located exactly 90 degrees from each other (360 degrees divided by 4) and are read clockwise from North (North is always Zero/360). So when reading a compass we universally recognize North as Zero, East as 90 degrees, South as 180 degrees and West as 270 degrees. Remembering to read clockwise from Zero is probably the most important part of reading a compass (otherwise you’ll end up heading the wrong direction).

From there, further refinement is pretty easy. General directional headings are usually given using a set of 8 (45 degree increment) or sometimes 16 (22.5 degree increment) standard directions. How does this work? If we are told to follow a Northeast heading we are looking for an angle halfway between North (0 degrees) and East (90 degrees) which would be 45 degrees. So what would a Southwest bearing be? Halfway between South (180 degrees) and West (270 degrees) we would have 225 degrees. Easy enough, right? Breaking our directions down even further we can provide more accurate headings. Dividing 45 degrees in half we end up 22.5 degree increments and a set of 16 standard directions. Given a bearing of East-Southeast we would look for the point between due-East (90 degrees) and Southeast (135 degrees) which would be 112.5 degrees on the compass.

Now that we understanding the traditional directions and how they relate to each other (in degrees) we can start navigating.

Getting your Bearings

Navigation is all about getting from point A to point B. Accuracy is important otherwise you will just be getting from point A to somewhere-kinda-near-point B. Taking and following a bearing is a key component of using a compass for navigation. So what is a bearing? A bearing is the directional heading between two points, measured in degrees and using North (0 degrees) as a reference. To take a bearing, hold the compass in front of you with the direction of travel arrow pointing at the object of interest. Hold the compass level and steady, and rotate the housing dial, until the orienting arrow lines up with the red end (north end) of the magnetic needle, all the while keeping the direction of travel arrow pointed at the object. Read the number indicated at the index line, and that is your bearing.

Finding a bearing using a map is not terribly difficult either. First, identify your current location on the map, this will give you your point A. Next, identify your destination on the map (point B). Assuming your path is a straight line between these two points you can line up the edge of your compass so that it passes through each point on the map. Turn the housing dial until the arrow points the same direction as North on the map. Read the number aligned with the directional arrow, that is your bearing. In the example below, I want to get from Columbine Campground (point A) to Webb Peak (point B). I line up the edge of my dad’s old compass with the two points and then turn the orienting arrow until it lines up with the map’s North. This gives me a bearing of 290 degrees (just shy of West-Northwest). See below for adjusting for declination.

compass basics

Following that bearing becomes relatively easy. Set your compass to the bearing of your heading, then, holding the compass level, turn your whole body with the compass until the magnetic needle lines up with the small orienting arrow. Now walk straight forward keeping the arrows aligned and you are following a set bearing. As long as you keep the dial set to your correct bearing and the magnetic needle aligned with the orienting needle, you should travel in a straight line to your destination. But how often can you really travel in a straight line?

compass basics

Using Visual Landmarks

It’s much easier to follow a bearing if you don’t have to keep looking down at the compass and no one walks holding the compass out in front of them as they travel. The easiest thing to do is to identify a landmark along the direction of your heading and walk toward that. Using visual landmarks along your path you can easily travel along a bearing for great distances only having to check your bearing on the compass once you reach each landmark. If visibility is good, you can also take note of a landmark behind you to help insure that you are traveling in a straight line. Using both the forward and rear landmarks you can double check yourself regularly to make sure you haven’t wandered off course. It may also be useful to draw a crude map noting landmarks and bearings as you go, it will help you keep track of your path even if you don’t have a map to reference.

Declination

Magnetic declination is where a lot of people start to get confused about navigating by compass. Declination is only important when using a map to get your bearings.

There is a difference between Magnetic North (where your compass wants to point) and True North (geographical north used on most maps). The difference between magnetic north and geographical north is measured in degrees of correction and is referred to as Magnetic Declination. There are places where the two norths are the same, these places fall on the so-called Agonic Line. In areas to the left of the agonic line the magnetic compass needle points a certain number of degrees to the east of true north, and on the other side of the line the magnetic needle points a certain number of degrees to the west of true north (in other words the magnetic needle points toward the agonic line). We say areas to the left of the line have east declination and those to the right have west declination. It’s important to know which side of the line you’re on.

compass basics - declination 2015

Depending on where in the world you and your compass are determines your declination adjustment. If you use maps often, it’s a good idea to know the declination in your area. Since the Earth’s magnetic field is not constant, declination is not a constant either. Many maps will tell you what the declination is for that area (bottom center of all USGS maps), but older maps could have outdated information. In the US between 2005 and 2015 the Agonic Line (0 declination) has moved from east of New Orleans to West of New Orleans. In 1975, the year I was born, New Orleans was at 4 degrees east. Unless you’re using 20+ year old maps, the information should be “close enough” to get by for backcountry navigation.

The good news is that you don’t have to know anything about declination to adjust for it, you just need to do some simple math. Here in Arizona I know that the eastern part of the state currently has a 10 degree declination and the western part has an 11 degree declination. I also know that I am west of the Agonic Line so I am adjusting to the east. So as long as I know where I am in the state, I can figure out how to adjust my map bearing for magnetic north. Using the example from above, if I wanted to get a true magnetic bearing on Webb Peak I would have to adjust my compass bearing 10 degrees to the east making my revised bearing 280 degrees (east declination subtract, west declination add).

Most compasses you will use for navigating in the backcountry can adjust for declination on the compass itself, allowing you to offset the declination and use the compass without having to do the math in your head for declination. Just make sure it is set properly or you’ll be off in all your bearings.

Compass Dip

We know magnetic needles are affected by the horizontal direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, that’s how we are able to reliably use them for navigation. Knowing this, you might not be surprised to learn that they are also affected by the vertical pull as well. The closer you get to the magnetic north pole, the more the north-seeking end of the needle is pulled downward. Whereas, at the south magnetic pole the north-seeking end of the needle is deflected upward. Only at the equator is the needle unaffected by vertical magnetic forces.

earth-magnetic-field-poles

To overcome magnetic dip manufacturers must design compasses that have the needle balanced for the geographic area in which they will be used. A compass built for use in North America, will not work in South America. The North American compass will have the pivot point the needle rests on slightly into the north half of the needle thus offsetting the downward pull. When the compass is taken to South America, the imbalance will work in the same direction as the vertical pull and the needle could very well rub against the roof of the housing making the compass unusable. In other words you will need a compass manufactured for use in the part of the world you intend to use it. As a result of these magnetic variances, the compass industry has divided the earth into various zones. Make sure your compass is compatible with your area or look for a global compass that can be used internationally.

Clinometer

Some compasses will also be outfitted with a Clinometer. The Clinometer is a simple mechanism for measuring angles and slopes. Using a compass clinometer requires sighting the point you’re measuring down the length of the compass housing which means you can’t read the face while your taking your measurement. You will need a mirror (built into some compasses) or another person to actually see the clinometer reading. The clinometer will tell you the vertical angle, measured in degrees, from your eye to a given target. How is this useful? Well, aside from letting you know how punishing that trail up the mountain might be it can also allow us to measure height or elevation if we also know the distance to the object. It’s handy, but unless you are a surveyor you will probably never really need to use this.

Beware False Readings

Magnetic compasses are influenced by any magnetic fields, not just Earth’s. Local environments may contain magnetic mineral deposits and artificial sources such as MRIs, large iron or steel bodies, electrical engines or strong permanent magnets. Any electrically conductive body produces its own magnetic field when it is carrying an electric current and can easily exceed the Earth’s comparatively weak magnetic force. Keep your compass away from all metal objects since these can result in false readings by deflecting the magnetic needle. Common objects to avoid include wristwatches, keys, tables with metal legs or steel screws, mobile telephones and even heavy framed eyeglasses. Many geological formations, and for that matter, many rocks, are magnetized and can affect compass readings, as can electricity power lines.

Best advice is to check and double check often. Learn to recognize the potential influences and avoid taking bearings when near them (rock outcroppings, vehicles, power lines, etc). Don’t store your compass near computers or speakers at home, keep it away from your phone when traveling with. When using it in the field, be sure you’re clear of any metal or electronics you might be wearing when taking a reading and hold the compass in your hand, don’t set it on large rocks, tables, car hoods or other flat areas you might be using to read your map.

Go Practice!

There’s really no substitute for practice in building your navigation skills and compass basics. Get out to your favorite park or wilderness area with a good map and do some basic orienteering. Follow one of your favorite trails and take bearings at each turn in the trail, find a landmark and see if you can reach it only using a compass bearing, whatever you do have fun with it and practice.

In the next installment of Backcountry Navigation I’ll get into some map reading basics and talk about grid projections and topography…

Thermawool: My Favorite Terramar Layer

I’m picky about fit…

I’m not built like an Abercrombie and Fitch model…far from it. Really, it makes buying clothes pretty difficult. A lot of outdoor wear fits “just OK” at best but if it does it’s job, I can accept it. The Thermawool Half-Zip from Terramar Sports, however, has been an all-around outstanding piece in fit, form and function.

What it is

The Men’s Thermawool 4.0 Half-Zip is a very versatile, mid-weight, superfine Merino Wool blend that has all the cozy, softness of a great fleece. The natural wool material makes it a great insulator in the cold, but also help regulate your body temp in warm weather. The Thermawool 4.0 Half-Zip can be found at various online retailers for around $55. A good price compared to other brands’ Merino Wool tops.

Yoga Camping-1

Thermawool CS 4.0 Long-Sleeve Half-Zip Top Features:

  • Outer layer constructed with 70% Micro Polyester, 30% Merino Wool
  • Inner layer constructed with 100% Micro Polyester
  • ClimaSense (CS) treatment is designed to respond to your body’s changing conditions to keep you comfortable no matter what your activity level
  • The CS system adapts to the skin’s surface temperature, providing a warming effect when you are cold and a cooling effect when you are active, with a dynamic moisture transport system
  • ClimaSense offers advanced odor control and uses bluesign approved, performance based technologies
  • Wicking, fast-drying, breathable, and no itch
  • Retains heat and radiates it back to the body
  • Forward-rolled shoulder keeps seams away from pack straps to eliminate chafing
  • Functional thumbholes
  • Stretch comfort neck tape
  • Smooth, beautiful heathered outer fabric glides into outer shells with ease
  • Flat seam construction
  • 1/2 zip with zipper garage for chin protection
  • UPF rating 50+ to help shield from the sun’s harmful rays
  • Regular fit

Why I like it

I’ve always been a big fan of Merino Wool in a performance layer. It’s soft, breathable, light, naturally anti-microbial, doesn’t lose it’s shape, holds up to a lot of abuse and insulates well even when wet. What’s not to love? Couple that with a great design and cut and you have a very nice piece of clothing. I love the half-zip for adjusting the insulation value, the chest pocket doesn’t get used much but it’s handy at times and the stretch cuffs with the thumb-holes makes it a great layer for under an outer shell. I’m also a big fan of the fact that it’s not an obnoxious color (like a lot of other stuff on the market right now).

The material is incredibly comfortable. I fell in love with this product as soon as I put it on and it won my loyalty more and more with every use. And I DO use it a lot.

Verde Glenn Merelyn-12

It’s style and function make it a hugely versatile piece of clothing and I wear it for active outdoor activities, lounging around the house, work, or going out to dinner. It goes anywhere and looks good doing it. I dread the days it has to sit in the laundry.

It turned out to be the perfect layering solution under my motorcycle jacket for morning cruises through the Arizona mountains and backroads. It works really well to regulate my temperature under the jacket whether it’s early morning cold or afternoon heat.

thermawool

I probably wear it more than I should. But really, when I find something I like wearing I tend to keep it at the top of the rotation and wear it often. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? Right?

Merelyn got the women’s version using the Thermawool technology and really likes it as well. The Women’s Thermawool 2.0 Long-Sleeve Half-Zip has the same great fit and performance as the men’s and comes in an attractive color.

Verde Glenn Dave-20

 

Verde Glenn Dave-26

The Thermawool is great for a hike, a run, the gym or just around the house. It effortlessly makes the transition from rugged outdoors to stylish casual wear. There were a few criticisms about the women’s top: Merelyn found the collar was restrictive when zipped all the way up and it doesn’t have thumb-holes like the men’s. But it did keep her warm on a chilly 20-something-degree run in Idaho and some frosty day hikes. She just REALLY wanted thumb-holes.

Verde Glenn Dave-32

As a brand ambassador for Terramar Sports, I was provided these pieces to test and review as part of the ambassador program. The opinions stated above are my own and are entirely based on my own experience with the product and not influenced in any way by the manufacturer, distributor or their marketing agencies. I have used the product in a variety of conditions and activities and have formed my opinions based on real world performance.

 

Getting to Know Your Gear

How well do you know your gear?

When you get a new piece of gear or equipment, do you take the time to really get to know how it works? How to take it apart? How to put it back together?

Honestly, most of the time it’s really not that complicated and the implications of having to learn in the field are not that severe. Sometimes, though, your life can depend on knowing the inner-workings of your gear and gaining some experience on how to recognize and deal with problems. When I decided to buy the KLR for back road adventures I knew I’d likely be taking myself places where other travelers are few and far between and mechanical problems could put me in a long term recovery situation. I hadn’t owned a motorcycle of any kind in years and even when I had, I didn’t really work on them that much so I needed an education. I asked around about and read some articles to figure out what the most common problems I would face in the field would look like and started trying to address those.

know your gear

When the motorcycle ended up having some real issues I was forced to dig in and really learn how to troubleshoot, break down, and repair the problem. Luckily this happened close to home and I was stranded in the backcountry. For some reason I was really worried about rebuilding the carburetor on the bike. I think I had decided, well before I ever started researching or tooling around, that it was complicated and beyond my skill level. Even after watching a few YouTube videos (great source material there) and reading the manual I was still a bit apprehensive. I took it step by step, followed one of the better videos I found to remove and disassemble the carb, then reassembled it and put it back on the bike. I’ve since removed and reassembled the carb several times and can now complete the whole process pretty quickly. Chasing an issue with the carburetor also allowed me to check the entire fuel system and learn how the entire system functions so I can better troublshoot problems as they come up.

know your gear

know your gear

 

I also spent some time, while the bike was disassembled, learning how the electrical system works on this particular bike. It’s dead simple stuff, but just knowing where the wires run, where the grounds are, where potential failure points exist are all valuable pieces of information when it comes to chasing down an issue. The process of elimination in troubleshooting is much easier when you have a clear understanding of what the picture is supposed to look like and where the potential for problems exists.

Aside from troubleshooting and working on problems I’ve also worked my way through a lot of the basic maintenance: oil change, filter changes and cleaning, new spark plug, carb cleaning, cleaning and charging the battery, checking and cleaning the brakes, adjusting suspension, installed new tail lights, etc. All pretty basic stuff any wrench could do in his sleep, but I had ZERO experience with prior to owning this bike. The only thing I haven’t done on my own yet is a tire change/repair, which is pretty critical on longer rides. Sometime soon I need to run through the process (before I am forced to) so I at least know how to do it.

Luckily, the older model KLR that I have is about as simple of a machine as they get. The learning curve has been very forgiving. But the more knowledge I can acquire about how to deal with problems, the more confidence I will have to take the bike places few people go. And that’s kind of the point.

Later this year I plan on doing a nice long road trip on the KLR in some remote country where help is not readily available. I don’t plan to be alone, but I will need to be prepared. Self-sufficient travel is the key to adventure.

What equipment do YOU rely on when you travel? Are you capable of fixing it yourself on-the-fly?

Terramar Baselayers in Arizona High Country

Arizona Snow

Keeping warm on the go is about layering. Hiking, climbing, snowshoeing, skiing it doesn’t matter, you body temp is going to fluctuate throughout the day as conditions and exertion changes. Throughout even the shortest window I have worked through being completely bundled up down to a t-shirt and back again because of things like my pace, elevation, sun exposure, shade, wind, wet conditions, etc. So for baselayers to make the grade in my book they have to be dead simple, fit well as a layering system, pack away easily and hold up to some abuse.

Terramar Baselayers

The Terramar Climasense layers I got to try out this season as part of the Terramar Tribe fit all the criteria for no-nonsense baselayers. It hasn’t been terribly cold here in Arizona yet this season but we’ve had a few days here and there where it was a little nippy, the light Thermolator 2.0 layer works well under my everyday wear to fend off nighttime lows. When we headed up north recently to let the dogs run around the forest outside Flagstaff we just happened to be up there for the first snow of the year and I got to see how well the multiple layers functioned together. One think I really like, and don’t see enough of, us thumbholes in baselayers. I hate having the sleeves crawl up my arm as I layer up forcing me to dig up my sleeve to find the lower layer. The Terramar Climasense line has thumbholes on each layer so they don’t bunch up on you as they come on and off throughout the day.

Terramar Baselayers

The material for the against-the-skin layer is nice and soft unlike some of the other baselayers I’ve tried. After a full day of wear and movement it was still as comfortable as when I put it on. In general I really found the Terramar Thermolator and Ecolator fleece to work really well for me in the field and comfortable enough for everyday wear. I have actually been wearing the Ecolator Fleece around town quite a bit.

Terramar Sports provided these products to me as part of their Terrmar Tribe ambassador program in exchange for my fair and honest review and product feedback. My opinions are my own and are not influenced by the brand.

 

New Stuff from Solo Stove…

If you guys remember, I reviewed the SoloStove a while back and was pretty impressed with it. It’s a pretty nice, lightweight, found-fuel backpacking stove that works really well. There is a self-reliance side of me that really likes the idea of not having to rely on, or carry, a commercial fuel source for my stove.

Solo Stove System

The SoloStove guys have developed a couple of new stove options since my last review and they have a new Kickstarter campaign to draw funding for production. The new Campfire Solostove is designed for larger-scale cooking for friends or family around camp. The larger size, and weight, makes it more of a basecamp/car camping cook stove but allows for a greater degree of cooking.

Solo Stove Campfire

The new design comes from customer feedback on the original Solo Stove asking for larger capacity cooking ability in the same compact, super-efficient, found-fuel design they appreciated in the original design. If this is something that interests you, check out their Kickstarter campaign and help them get this new design funded. As usual, kickstarter allows you to buy into these new products early at a (usually) reduced price.

If you really want to get set up, they are offering a complete Campfire Cook Set that includes 2 pots with lids, the Campfire Solo Stove and a Tripod for cooking above the fire for under $200. Everything nests together to save space and it’s a pretty nice little set.

Rediscovering Trail Running

The hard part about getting back into running after a long time away is the shortness of the runs.  It usually takes me a mile or so to get into sync and find my rhythm.  Another mile of decent running and I’m starting to feel fatigued and tired enough that I have to really pay attention to form.  These short distances usually mean I’m doing quick, boring loops on the streets or at the park in my neighborhood.  I miss being able to run 6-8 miles on an average run and really get to see some stuff, vary the route, make it interesting.  That’s what I’ve missed about trail running.

It hardly seems worth it to drive out to a trail for a run if I can only pull off a couple of miles.  But I finally started to get some strength back and the knee is holding up really well.  I’ve been (very) slowly adding on distance to my runs and bike rides.  Saturday, I decided I wanted to get a little bit of a longer run in and thought that hitting the trail would be the way to do it.  Getting out on the trail I would have more to look at, a chance to vary the route if I wanted to and I would be away from the familiar “track” I usually run.

Trail Running Trail 100

I drove out Saturday morning and lucked out to find one spot left in the tiny parking lot at the east end of Trail 100 through the Phoenix Mountain Preserve.  As I got my stuff together and got on the trail I was disappointed to realize I forgot my headphones.  Running on pavement I usually have music and had planned listening during my trail run.  As I began running though, I remembered that I gave up music on the trail a long time ago.  Sound is one of the big draws to trail running for me and I almost ruined it for myself out of thoughtlessness.  I really enjoy hearing the crunch of rock under foot, the chirp of birds and insects, the wind blowing through rocks and trees as I run.  Most importantly, I rediscovered, is the importance of hearing the mountain bikers coming up behind me so I can move off trail for them.

I also forgot about how trail running effects pace, especially out here in the rocky, thorny desert trails we have.  Settling in to a slower pace allows me to go further and enjoy the run much more.  Rather than running on a long flat surface where I can get distracted and complacent about my run, the trail is varied and interesting with hills and washes, obstacles and debris, wildlife and scenery.  I can run more naturally without feeling like I am over-thinking the mechanics of running.

A runner friend encouraged me to run by feel, not paying attention to the “data” as I run.  Trail running is where this makes the most sense to me.  I am out for the joy of the run and the beauty of the trail, I should be worried about pace, distance or calories burned.  I wanted to get 4 or more miles in on my run this Saturday but I didn’t want to pay attention to the GPS.  I wanted to just run a comfortable run at an enjoyable pace.  I actually ran a little under 4 miles, so I didn’t hit my goal (unless you include the short warm up walk).  But really, I felt the run was successful and comfortable and it felt great to get back out on the trail.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve Trail 100

My Tips for Enjoying a Trail Run

  • Lose the Tunes – Connect with the outdoors and the trail by losing the music and allowing yourself to experience the sights AND the sounds of the trail.
  • Slow it Down – Be OK with the fact that you probably won’t run the same pace on the trail that you do on pavement.  It’s a very different experience, adjust accordingly.
  • Just Run! – Running on the trail for me is more about the trail and less about the performance.  Get the run in and make it fun without the constant GPS obsession.

 

Trail Shoes

I recently picked up some new shoes for running as most of my other shoes are old and beat up from before my injury.  I had just purchased a new pair of running shoes before I broke my foot, but didn’t like them and gave them away so I was still in need of new shoes.  I picked up some light trail shoes from Columbia to try out in hopes that they would do the job.  I really liked the Conspiracy Outdry trail shoes I got from columbia but they’re a little bulky for running so I ordered the lightweight Conspiracy Vapor.  They are a low profile, lightweight, multi-sport shoe with well thought out reinforcing and a nice low 3mm drop.  I was starting to run in zero drop shoes before my injury and I do like the low angle of the Vapors.

Columbia Conspiracy Vapor Trail Shoes

Like the other Conspiracy shoes I’ve worn, there were pretty comfortable right out of the box, although they don’t have the same awesome shape of the original.  I liked the wide toe box on my original Conspiracy’s and they felt great, the Vapor was narrower through the toe box and took a little time to break in.  The weight is nice and about 9-10 oz. per shoe and the tread has a nice grip to it.

I’m not terribly happy with these shoes when running on pavement.  Unfortunately, I can’t really explain why.  They just seem to be harsh on my feet running on pavement compared to other running shoes (I have been running in my Altra Zero Drop shoes as well).  Once I got the Vapors on the trail, it was a different story.

Columbia Conspiracy Vapor Trail Shoes

On the rocky, dusty desert trails around here the Vapors performed great.  The sole/midsole assembly is rigid enough to protect my feet from the sharp rocks on the trail, but flexible enough to be agile on the technical terrain.  They breathe well and the reinforced outer provides some nice protection.  I was pleasantly surprised at the difference in how these shoes felt on the trail vs. the pavement.  They are a “trail shoe” and not a true running shoe and it shows when I run in them on different surfaces.

I just started using them so we’ll see how they hold up.  If the other Conspiracy shoes are any indicator, they’ll do fine and at $80 they’re cheaper than any running shoes I’ve ever had and most trail shoes I’ve purchased.

SOCKS!

I also wanted to add a note about the socks.  I have been using a variety of socks over the last couple of years to try out new brands, styles, materials and fits in an attempt to find a great sock.  I have a few brands that I really love including Point6, Ausangate and Smartwool.  The first gear review I ever wrote was for the Smartwool PhD hiking socks that I wore for a month on the Colorado river in 2007.  I was really impressed with how the socks held up to daily abuse in and out of water day after day.  Smartwool recently sent me the socks shown above to try out as one of their Fan Field Testers.  They are the NEW and improved ultra-light PhD micro running socks and I love them.  They quickly reminded me of why I was so enamored with Smartwool in the first place.  The socks fit well, hold their shape and take a ton of abuse without the slightest whimper.  The only other socks I have that have held up as well are my Point 6 socks (which I really do love) but the PhDs are much thinner which I really like for running socks.

Review: Pronto Cafe Coffee…

Every once in a while a brand (or rep) will contact me about testing gear.  A lot of times it just doesn’t fit with what I do, sometimes it fits but I’m kinda settled with the gear I have.  Point being, I tend to turn away a fair amount of stuff throughout the year because I don’t feel like I can do it justice.  But when someone offers me coffee, I’m in!

I started working a little with Sport-Hansa after talking to them at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in January.  They’ve been a cool company to work with and represent and distribute several European brands here in the US.  I’ve been experimenting with coffee lately in the field (instant, French Press, Aeropress, Grower’s Cup, etc.) so when Sport-Hansa asked if I wanted to try a new lightweight, portable coffee brewing product I, of course, said “absolutely!”

I first saw Pronto Cafe mentioned at HikinginFinland.com earlier in the year.  Pronto Cafe is a French product with coffee roasted in Italy and packaged in Switzerland.  I didn’t expect to find it in the US, so didn’t give it much thought.  With Sport-Hansa now bringing the product to the US, I was happy to be able to try it.  Each package weighs in at only 8 grams and delivers about 8oz of fresh brewed Arabica coffee.  In the sealed package they are supposed to have at least a 12 month shelf life.  Pronto Cafe seems to be available in a 3 pack sampler (for $3.87) or a 10 pack box (for $12.29) which calcs out to a cup of fresh brewed coffee for about $1.25 each.

Pronto Cafe Field Test…

Pronto Cafe Coffee

Recently I had a chance to do a quick day hike with some awesome Twitter friends in the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix.  It was a cold, rainy weekend perfect for desert hiking and fun (dangerous) creek crossings.  As is my usual custom, I brought a Jetboil with me on this day hike so we could warm ourselves up with a hot beverage when we stopped for lunch.  Among the assorted beverages was the new Pronto Cafe packets.

Pronto Cafe CoffeeWhen we stopped I was able to offer up coffee, tea, hot chocolate and hot apple cider.  We tried several of the options including the coffee from Pronto Cafe.  The packets are pretty simple, a bit of ground coffee in a small brewing pouch with built in support arms on either side to allow it to rest at the rim of your cup while you pour water over the grounds.  The water seeps through, delivering hot fresh brewed coffee.  We set everything up and began to pour the heated water through but it poured through very fast not allowing much of a steep with the grounds.  As expected, this gave us pretty weak coffee and left me wondering if there was something that could be done.

Pronto Cafe CoffeeLater I decided to try it again, but this time I tried to compact the grounds a little in the pouch before pouring the water in.  I also deliberately slowed the rate of pour (previously I simply filled the pouch then let it drain out, filled again etc.).  I also made sure I delivered a measured amount of water so as not to dilute the brew.

This method seemed to deliver a better, richer cup of coffee.  The trick seems to be to create a little more of a condensed layer of grounds, then trickle the water through.  It still filters through quickly, but you do seem to be able to control the strength of the brew in this way.

All in all, not a bad cup of coffee for a single-serve lightweight option.  It certainly is lighter and creates less waste than many other brews I’ve tried for the backcountry.  Outside of bringing your own instant coffee, Pronto Cafe seems to be the most compact, lightweight and low waste product on the market.  Given the luxury of space and weight, I still prefer my french press…but this is a good alternative for those lightweight scenarios.

Gear Review: The Mini Mojo Load Out Bag…

In addition to being a gear guy, I can also be sort of a Tactical Geek.  I like the heavy ruggedness, versatility and modular nature of much of the gear designed for the military.  So when the guys at TopSpecUS.com reached out and asked if I’d like to review one of their utility bags I was more than happy to take a look.

Voodoo Tactical Mini Mojo

I’m a sucker for a good bag.  I especially like duffel bags with a lot of versatility in storage and carry options.  The Voodoo Tactical Mini Mojo Load Out Bag is that bag.  Don’t let the “mini” part fool you, this is a huge bag.  It’s a smaller, more manageable version of the full sized bag which, in my opinion, is too big to be usable for anything but light gear like clothing.  Once you start packing hard gear into a bag, you want a realistic size and the Mini Mojo is just about right.

Mini Mojo Technical Data:

Voodoo Tactical Mini Mojo Load Out Bag 15-9684 Features:

  • Available in black, olive drab or coyote brown
  • Measures 25″L x 15 1⁄2″W x 14″H
  • 11 exterior pockets for storage
  • MOLLE / Universal compatible
  • Plenty of “D” rings for attachments
  • Secure double-zip main compartment
  • Double compression straps on both ends of the bag
  • Removable, padded shoulder harness and backpack straps for comfortable traveling
  • Wrap-around carry handle feature

Mini Mojo Field Use:

I initially wanted to try the Mini Mojo as a range bag, but quickly found that it’s just too big for that.  Loaded with a couple of pistols and a pile of ammo the generous 24″ main compartment still had tons of room left, way more room than necessary for a range bag.  I would want an even smaller version of this bag if I were to use it for the range.

If you live in a place where you’ll pack a bunch of extra light gear to head to the range, especially an outdoor range, then this might suit you well.  The bag is certainly rugged enough to carry a ton of ammo as long as you can hoist it yourself.

Voodoo Tactical Mini MojoOne of the features that I really like about this bag is the removable (and hidden) backpack straps.  This feature alone makes me think this bag would be an excellent 72-Hour Bag (Bail-Out-Bag) to keep around for emergencies.  It has super strong, heavy duty handles and straps to carry a substantial load but with the backpack straps you can manage that load over greater distances in the case of an emergency.  We keep a couple of Bail-Out-Bags around the house and I loaded up the Mini Mojo with the gear we have to see how well it would manage our setup.

Voodoo Tactical Mini MojoI unloaded our existing duffel bag of supplies into the Mojo Mini including spare clothing, canned goods, cook kit, water, toiletries, first aid kit, flashlight, multitool, etc. and despite being smaller than our original duffel everything fit.  Not only did it fit, but I found I had extra room to stuff in 4 or 5 MREs.  With all the outer pockets I was also able to organize the gear better instead of it all just lumped into one compartment.  And I still had extra room.

Altogether the load weighs close to 50 lbs, considering it’s a Bail-Out-Bag, it’s not really tailored to be lightweight.  I really wanted to see how the backpack straps worked out under some weight so I tossed the loaded bag on my back, adjusted the straps and wandered around with it.  I can’t really say it’s the most comfortable backpack I’ve had on my back.  The straps do cut in and the balance of the load isn’t managed the way it would be in a traditional backpack.  Being as it’s NOT a traditional backpack, but the straps are just a carry option I can overlook this.  I’d much rather carry an awkward load on my back than have to carry it like a traditional duffel.

Voodoo Tactical Mini MojoThroughout the use and testing of the Mini Mojo I was continuously struck by just how much crap you could stuff into this bag.  Between the huge main compartment and all the outer pockets, it’s hard to fill this thing up.  I couldn’t imagine trying to load up the larger version.  I really like the pocket configuration on the bag and the MOLLE system on one side for adding your own modular components if necessary.

This is the kind of bag you could load heavy and toss around in rough conditions and not have to worry about the bag getting beat up.  It’s tough, rugged and versatile and would be good for any variety of conditions where you’d wanted a pre-loaded bag ready to grab and go.  The backpack straps are especially handy and I really like that they can be stashed away in a hidden compartment on the bottom of the back when not in use.  This is a fantastic option especially if you’ll be traveling with the bag at all.

You can find the Mini Mojo Load Out Bag for yourself at TopSpecUS.com for about $100.  That’s a pretty fair price when you look at comparable bags on the market.

Easy knots with the LoopAlien…

LoopAlien

A little while back I was contacted by Claire over at Outdoor Trail Gear to take a look at the LoopAlien for creator David Burrell.  David developed these cool lightweight gadgets a while back and I’ve seen them around, but never had the chance to play with them until now.

I am not an Ultralight guy when it comes to hiking and backpacking, but I do like to keep things as light as reasonable.  So lightweight, versatile gadgets like the LoopAlien are interesting to me to see how they fit into my overall kit.  This is especially when the weather permits me to do some hammock camping.  Hammock camping has some unique challenges because most of your setup is suspended (sometimes all of it) and that means a fair amount of rope work, small rope work where knots and adjustments can be challenging.  If you’ve ever tried tying a knot in a 2mm line and then untying it…it’s like trying to untie fishing line.

In my setup I’ve got some Dutchware that I use to fasten line, tie things down and string ridgelines and they’re great but somewhat limiting.  The LoopAlien can do the same thing, with an insignificant weight difference, and much more.  I’ve used them to tighten tie downs, secure loads on the backpack, hang gear, etc.  They’re light enough (at 2.5 g for aluminium and 2.9 g for titanium) that the weight doesn’t even factor in to my overall load.  They’ll work well with the 1.75mm and 2.2mm Dyneema chord but also work easily with paracord.

In a pretty nasty little storm we encountered in Arches National Park, I used the LoopAliens to rig my tent to a tree to reduce the shaking from heavy wind.  In the cold, windy conditions at night the LoopAlien made it easy to secure the improvised tie down line without having to fumble around in the dark and cold with a knot.

I’ve also used it to add secure attachment points in line that’s already tied down.  Pushing a loop of line through the large hole and wrapping it around the outside of one of the smaller holes allows me to secure a tight attachment point for tying off another line or hanging something from a ridgeline.  I’ve only been using these for a little while, but it seems like the potential uses are endless if you work with small line a lot.

David was just successfully funded at his kickstarter for a new LoopAlien design that will prove to be even more versatile that the original.  Check out the design at the kickstarter page to see the new design and info on when they might be available.

LoopAlien from Canny Designs

At only $4 for the Aluminium LoopAlien is pretty affordable to add to any gear set.  The most expensive version (heat anodized Titanium) is $10 and is still not a bad price for something like this if you are going to be using it often.  They’re nice to have around and a set of 3 or 4 of these would be a sweet stocking stuffer for the hammock enthusiast or lightweight backpacker in your family.

Gear Review: Columbia Trail Drier Windbreaker Jacket…

I’m going to keep this one short and sweet – I really dig this jacket!

Trail Drier Windbreaker Jacket from ColumbiaThe Trail Drier Windbreaker Jacket is one of the pieces Columbia Sportwear sent this season’s OmniTen.  I remember when it first showed up I immediately put it on and liked the weight and fit.  It’s perfect for light use like hiking and running and compacts down to nothing making it easy to stow.  It weighs in at about 7 oz and packs into it’s own chest pocket to about the size of a softball.

It doesn’t rain a whole lot here in Arizona, but when it does it’s pretty serious about it.  I’ve been caught in a few rains now where I’ve been able to use the jacket including a monsoon here in Scottsdale, a storm at the Grand Canyon, a rainy afternoon at Mono Lake in California and a monster thunder storm on top of Mount Graham.  In each, it performed well – kept me dry and comfortable without being stuffy.

The Omni-Wick built into the jacket makes it a breathable jacket.  I put it side-by-side against a lightweight packable rain shell from Sierra Designs and it performed WAY better.  The Sierra Designs jacket didn’t really keep me dry and was a sweat box – maybe I’ll use it when I am trying to cut weight.

Trail Drier Windbreaker Jacket from Columbia

All in all, a really successful weindbreaker/rain jacket for hiking and running.  I now pack this thing with me every time I go out if there’s even the slightest chance of rain.  The only thing it needs is a good base layer.  When I’ve worn the jacket in colder rains without anything more than a t-shirt it can get cold real quick.  When the rain gets on the jacket, you feel the cold through the thin material.  But a simple base layer to insulate against that direct skin contact makes a huge difference.  Here in AZ, the rain doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cold out so I like not having an overly warm rain jacket with it’s own insulation.

Trail Drier Windbreaker Jacket from Columbia

At $90 retail, I think it’s a good deal.  I hope the jacket holds up over time.  I haven’t really tested it’s durability in tough terrain so I’ll have to update this review later after I’ve abused it more.

OmniTen…

Check out other OmniTen opinions on this jacket…

Eric seemed to like it, “Columbia claims omnishield keeps out ligbt rain… I can tell you from a serious testing that it keeps out heavy rain as well.”