Monday, July 27, 2015

Newsflash: Spending Time in Nature Is Good for You

A new study confirms what has long been apparent to all us lovers of the great outdoors: Spending time in natural environments reduces stress.

To gauge this effect, including specific measurements of how time in nature affects brain activity, researchers at Stanford University recruited 38 participants. Half of them were sent on a short 90-minute walk through a leafy, natural setting on campus, the other half on a 90-minute stroll alongside a busy highway. Before and after their walks, participants underwent a brain scan and completed a questionnaire.

No morbid rumination here! Photo: AESanfacon/Flickr
The results? Based on the before and after questionnaire, folks who spent time in the natural setting showed measurable improvements in their mental health and overall happiness. Folks alongside the highway, not so much.

The researchers also specifically evaluated the effects these walks had on participants' "morbid rumination" or brooding—thinking unproductive and negative thoughts about one's life, past mistakes, and so forth. This sort of fretting is associated with increased activity in a part of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex. (Hence the study's rather abstruse title: Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.)

Based on the brain scans, the nature walkers showed decreased levels of activity in their subgenual prefrontal cortices while the highway walkers showed essentially no change. 

The upshot? The study provides supporting evidence that spending time in nature can actually alter your brain for the better.

But you already knew that, didn't you?

For more, check out the recent New York Times article on the study, How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain.

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Best Bicycle Helmets? Consumer Reports Weighs In

Shortly after I wrote a recent column on bicycle helmets (Safety on the Brain: How to Choose a Bicycle Helmet), Consumer Reports released its latest study on this year's crop of helmets (subscription required). The results are insightful—and affirming—of the recommendations I outlined in my article.

In  particular, every one of the 22 helmets tested by Consumer Reports (CR) for impact absorption—from the $15 Schwinn Merge to the $220 Smith Forefront—met the standard required by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (here's the complete 37-page CPSC document if you're really interested). So, yes, safety comes standard on any bike helmet, regardless of its price.
For $15 or less, the Schwinn Merge provides as much
protection as helmets many times more expensive.

That being said, the CR ratings do appear to indicate some variation in how effectively different helmets absorb impact forces. Roughly a third of helmets received an "excellent" rating in the "impact absorption" category, while the other two-thirds instead received only a "very good" rating.

To meet the CPSC standard, adult helmets must reduce the impact forces on the head to less than 300 G's under standard testing protocols, which Consumer Reports closely replicates (see video below). Given that all the helmets tested met this threshold, do the different ratings indicate that some lower the resulting G forces more than others? That seems likely, though this aspect of the ratings is not fully explained on the Consumer Reports site.

The Scott Arx Plus ($150) was the highest-rated helmet.
This matters because the CPSC standard is designed to prevent catastrophic brain injuries, but does not eliminate the risk of concussions, which occur with impact forces well below 300 G's. Presumably the more a helmet reduces G-forces on the brain, the better protection it will offer in the event of a serious accident. So all other things being equal, I would certainly lean toward helmets that received an "excellent" rating if possible.

So which helmets earned an "excellent" in impact resistance? The Scott Arx Plus ($150, overall top-rated helmet), Bontrager Circuit ($100), Lazer Cyclone ($45), POC Trabec ($150), Louis Garneau Sharp ($95), and Giro Reverb ($60).

Keep in mind that Consumer Reports only tested 23 helmets, a small fraction of the total styles available. But as the results indicate, regardless of which helmet you ultimately select, you're essentially ensured that the helmet will offer impact protection at least as good as the CPSC standard.

Also remember that a good fit and proper adjustment are crucial components of helmet safety. To help illustrate the key aspects of fit and adjustment, Consumer Reports also features this excellent video, which both outlines the testing methods they use for evaluating helmets as well as a clear and useful explanation for properly fitting a helmet:

Ride safe!

Additional resources from Consumer Reports:
Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ultralight Wood-Burning Backpacking Stoves

The advantages of a wood-burning stove are obvious. The fuel is free. It's readily available just about anywhere you hike. You save money and weight every time you backpack. Plus you need relatively little wood—just a small collection of twigs, really—to boil water or cook food, minimizing your impact on the land. And a range of lightweight and proven wood-burning stove designs are available—I've highlighted three of the most popular below.

But with these advantages come some significant drawbacks. The stove and pots—plus anything they touch in your pack—become blackened and sooty. You'll spend time (and must have the skills) to find sufficiently dry fuel and get a fire going, even in damp, wet, or windy conditions. And wood collection may be banned (or severely frowned upon) where you're headed, especially in high-use areas.

Still intrigued? Check out these three options:

Solo Stove
This is the leader of the wood-burning pack, with an excellent and compelling website to match.

Per the product description, "the Solo Stove is a natural convection inverted downgas gasifer stove." What this teched-out description (gasifer?) means, it seems, is that the stove features two points—at the bottom and top of the burn chamber—where oxygen enters to help ensure a more complete combustion with minimal smoke. (Here's a nifty diagram that shows it in action.) Made of built-to-last stainless steel, it weighs 9 ounces and retails for $69.99.

Sierra Zip Stove
This stove's distinguishing feature is a small battery-powered fan that feeds oxygen into the fire and whips the flames into a cooking tornado.

As campy looking as it is effective, the Zip Stove has been around for many years. What's new, however, is a titanium version ($129) that weighs in at a much lighter 10 ounces compared to its stainless steel forbear ($57).

Emberlit FireAnt Multifuel Stove 
Relatively new to the wood-burning space is this titanium featherweight, which weighs in at a mere 2.8 ounces. The simple design collapses down for easy storage and is also compatible with Trangia and Esbit burners and solid fuel tabs. $69.99.

For more on the pros, cons, and many other varieties of wood-burning stoves, check out this great resource at

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, July 6, 2015

No Flame, No Problem? A Review of the Barocook Flameless Cook System

The small packet reacted ferociously within seconds of adding water, an entertaining display of chemistry that soon began pumping out enough heat to cook a simple meal.

As my test of the Barocook flameless cooking system revealed, this novel addition to the pantheon of backcountry cooking options does work, but at a cost of both money and weight. Overall, it's more of a novelty than a go-to cook system, though it does have potential value for inside-the-tent use during severe weather, especially in winter conditions.

The Barocook system features an outer plastic container and inner cookpot that nest together. Photo: Matt Heid
Here's how it works. The cook system consists of four components: an outer plastic container, an inner stainless steel pot that nests closely inside, a plastic lid that clamps down over the top, and a chemical packet.

To operate the system, you remove the chemical packet from its wrapper and place it flat in the bottom of the outer container. You then pour a small amount of water over the packet (the empty wrapper serves as a measuring device for how much to add, including a fill line). Now quickly place the cook pot inside the container, seal the lid, and sit back and watch chemistry in action.

A tight-fitting plastic lid clamps to the sides of the cook system to effectively trap heat. Photo: Matt Heid
The packet quickly heats the water in the outer container to boiling, which creates steam that soon begins shooting out from under the edges of the lid. This sufficiently heats the overlying pot and its contents to near-boiling temperatures. The reaction lasts for roughly 10 minutes, by which point nearly all of the water in outer container has boiled away. Residual heat in the now swollen packet continues to produce warmth for several minutes longer.

Hot water is useful in and of itself for reconstituting dehydrated meals or making hot drinks, but I also tested the system's cooking ability with some quick-cooking macaroni pasta. You want to avoid removing the lid while heating is underway to trap maximal warmth, so I added the pasta to the cold water beforehand. Sure enough, the Barocook was able to adequately heat the water for long enough to cook the pasta.

Barocook systems comes in a range of different sizes and shapes (most are rectangular rather than round). I tested the BC-010 model; its 1-liter cookpot is one of their larger offerings. 

Success aside, there are some significant drawbacks to Barocook that make it more of a novelty than a practical everyday solution on the trail. It's heavy—the model I tested weighs in at well over a pound (21 ounces). The cook system is relatively inexpensive (around $40) but you need a collection of expensive single-use chemical packets to use it, which run roughly $3 each (like this 5-pack on Amazon).

And then there are a few quirky issues. First, there's not a lot of space between the outer plastic container and inner cookpot. If you add even a little too much water to the outer container, boiling water will start squirting out from underneath the lid as the reaction unfolds—not particularly safe. Second, once all the water in the outer container has boiled away, the chemical packet still puts out substantial heat, which can actually deform the plastic container—you need to remember to take it within 20 minutes of cooking, an important task easily forgotten. (You can read more about the Barocook system on this FAQ page.)

Overall, the only potential applications I could think of where a Barocook might outperform a traditional cooker would be situations where you absolutely had to cook inside your tent due to extreme conditions (caught in a winter storm, say), when a Barocook would be a safer option than an open flame; or in very windy conditions that would make lighting or heating with a flame difficult to impossible. (Though even in both these cases, a self-contained cook system like those from JetBoil can be used with reasonable safety and success.) 

Barocook is a Japanese product (with sometimes clunky English translation on its website) that can be found with some online searching in the U.S. Some Barocook products may become available in U.S. stores later this year.

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, June 29, 2015

It's a Plate. It's a Bowl. It's a Cutting Board. No, It's a Frisbee.

Add this to your list of camping hacks. Sure, there are a zillion different solutions for backcountry plates and bowls. You can choose from a massive selection made from plastic, titanium, stainless steel, or even collapsible silicone. Or perhaps you prefer a lightweight plastic food container. Or maybe you just eat straight out of the pot and don't carry any plate or bowl at all.

But one of my favorite solutions is a lightweight Frisbee, such as the Wham-O! Pro-Classic. Why? It's like an oversized plate and bowl in one. As a big guy and big eater, I love its larger size. When I eat sloshy meals, the Frisbee's upturned, vertical edges helps keep it contained. The larger size and shallow depth also helps boiling-hot food cool down quicker for more rapid consumption. Its diameter is big enough to rest on your lap for use as a cutting board. It slides easily into your pack for easy stowing. And, of course, you can actually use it to play Frisbee with your friends.

Sure, it's not the lightest option out there (the Pro-Classic weighs in at 4.5 ounces), but it is without doubt one of the most fun solutions you can find for your dining needs.

Disc on!

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

How to Protect Your Food from Bears: A Review of the Backcountry Options

The black bear population is exploding in New England, particularly in Vermont and Massachusetts.

As a recent article in the Boston Globe recounts, the number of bears in Vermont has doubled over the past two decades, to an estimated 6,000. In Massachusetts, the population is nine times larger today than 30 years ago (an estimated 4,500 bruins now roam the Bay State). And while the rate of population growth is less in New Hampshire, there are still at least 1,000 more black bears today (approximately 5,700) than a decade ago.

Maine has more black bears (approximately 30,000) than the rest of New England combined, including this one near St. Croix Junction. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr
As the bear population increases, the odds of an encounter in the backcountry rise as well—especially the chance of an encounter between a bear and your food. To keep your food safe (and to help prevent bears from developing an association between hikers and food), here are the options.

Hang It
To be bear-proof, food must be suspended at least 10 feet off the ground and 8 feet from the trunk. To accomplish this, you'll need to carry 50 to 100 feet of thin cord and two stuff sacks.
  1. Look for a load-bearing branch 20 to 25 feet overhead that extends far enough from the trunk. 
  2. Tie a rock or other heavy object to one end of the cord and toss it over the branch. Before doing so, make sure the cord is fully uncoiled and not a snarled mass. Step on the opposite end of the line so it doesn’t get pulled out of reach in the tossing process. 
  3. Divide your food into two stuff sacks. 
  4. Attach one to the cord and pull it up to the branch. 
  5. Attach the other sack to the cord as high up as you can reach. A small carabiner makes this easier; tie a figure-eight on a bight overhead and then clip the sack to it. 
  6. Place the remaining cord inside the sack so it doesn’t dangle. 
  7. Push up the second stuff sack using a trekking pole or long stick until it is at the same level as the first. 
  8. Sleep well!
Can It
A bear canister is a heavy-duty container that is impenetrable to even the wiliest bruin. They're heavy, bulky, and require some practice to pack well, but are the ultimate no-fail defense. A range of options are available, including:
  • The classic black Garcia Backpackers Cache ($75, capacity: 615 cubic inches). It's heavy (2 pounds, 12 ounces) but indestructible; buy one and you're set for the rest of your life. The lid locking mechanism requires either a coin or flathead screwdriver (like the one on many pocket knives and multi-tools)—keeping one handy in your pocket makes life much more convenient.
  • The BearVault, which is available in two sizes. The larger Model BV500 ($80) is 3 ounces lighter than the Garcia, and features a wider opening and additional capacity (70 cubic inches). In using these, however, I've found the screw-top lid-locking mechanism to be frustrating to deal with, especially in wet conditions.
  • Other options include the mega-beefy Counter Assault Bear Keg ($80, 3.5 pounds, capacity: 716 cubic inches) and the Bearikade, which comes in several sizes. Bearikades are the lightest weight and most expensive canister options available (the Weekender version weighs in at 31 ounces with a capacity of 650 cubic inches but runs a whopping $288).
Sack It
Over the years I've hung my food many times and lugged a bear canister on dozens of trips (mostly in Alaska). I've also oft lamented the hassle of hanging and the headache of heavy canisters. Which is why I've long been intrigued by the Ursack, an indestructible stuff sack made from Spectra fabric.

The Ursack S29 Allwhite ($69) weighs in at a mere 7.8 ounces, has a capacity of 650 cubic inches, and was certified as an effective bear-resistant product by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in 2014. (If you prefer that your food doesn't get crushed by a bear attempting to get inside, you can add a 10.8-ounce aluminum liner for an extra $21.50). To keep bears from running off with it, you'll need to tie its unbreakable drawcord to a tree or other immovable object.

The Ursack has some entertaining videos of bears attempting (and failing) to get into an Ursack. This one is pretty good:

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sleeping Bag Hints, From Dusk Until Dawn

  1. Unstuff your sleeping bag well before bedtime, letting it fully regain its loft and warmth.
  2. If it’s chilly out, place a chemical heat warmer or hot water bottle in your sleeping bag about an hour before bedtime to kickstart warmth.
  3. Eating a dinner high in fat on cold nights generates longer-lasting heat than a carb-heavy meal.
  4. Wearing a liner balaclava while you sleep provides head and neck coverage. Bonus: It doesn’t shift around or fall off when you toss and turn.
  5. Don’t breathe into your hood. The moisture will collect in the insulation and slowly compromise warmth, especially in down sleeping bags.
  6. In the morning, stuff your sleeping bag tail-first to prevent the footbox from ballooning. Turn the bag inside out if it has a wind-resistant shell.
  7. Invest in a compression stuff sack. This will reduce the size of your stuffed bag by a third or more.
  8. At home, never store your sleeping bag compressed in its stuff sack. Doing so will permanently crush the insulation and reduce the bag’s warmth.
This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of AMC Outdoors, alongside the column "Choosing the Right Three-Season Sleeping Bag."

Photo by Baciu/Shutterstock