Monday, February 23, 2015

The Grippiest Shoes on Ice? Icebugs.

Sure, you can don any number of winter traction systems, from Yaktrax to crampons, microspikes to Stabilicers. But none of them have the built-in convenience of Icebug footwear.

Sweden-based Icebug produces a line of footwear with steel carbide studs integrated directly into the sole, which provides excellent traction underfoot when walking on ice and snow. If you spend significant time outside in the slip-sliding days of winter, or you're a dedicated runner looking to run year-round, then a pair of Icebugs is worth considering.

For maximum grip, Icebug offers a line of shoes with "BUGrip" technology. 15 to 19 steel studs
are built into the rubber sole and placed strategically to provide grip in key locations underfoot. Unlike most other traction systems, they don't move around when you move your feet aggressively—an advantage for running. The studs are also slightly dynamic, extending outward when pressure is applied to provide additional traction where it's most needed. Plus they are relatively low-profile compared to other traction systems, making them much less noticeable when you're off the ice and walking on hard pavement instead.

Icebug integrates steel studs directly into the sole for always-on traction.
While I've not had the opportunity to test out a pair myself (sizes stop at men's size 13, too small for my size 15 flipper feet), overwhelmingly rave reviews at Amazon speak volumes for their quality and effective grip (nearly every Icebug model earns four stars and above, with most earning 4.5 to five stars).

The Icebug Creek: Midweight winter hiker and urban ice trekker
Prices range from roughly $100 to $200 depending on the style, which includes everything from the Certo BUGrip, a studded trail running shoe (sole pictured above), to the Creek, a warm and beefy urban walker.

There's a tradeoff, of course, to having steel studs on your shoes at all times. Unlike other traction devices, which you can switch among different shoes, the studs stay where they are on a single pair of footwear. Icebugs are also less versatile; once the ice melts for the season, you no longer need (or want) them on your feet. And you certainly don't want to go traipsing indoors over hardwood floors with them on (unless you want to profusely scratch and dent the wood).

But if you're a regular ice-walking (or ice-running) winter warrior, you may want to become an Icebug as well.

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

How to Protect Your Face from Bitter Cold and Wind

Your face is at risk for frostbite in bitter cold and freezing wind, especially in above-treeline winter conditions. To fully protect it, you need two things: a facemask and goggles.
  • A good mask fits snug against your face and nose with no gaps whatsoever; the smallest exposed sliver will rapidly frostbite in severe winter conditions. 
  • Be wary of facemasks integrated with a fleecy neck gaiter or balaclava. They seldom fit well. 
  • Larger goggles offer a better field of view and good ventilation that minimizes fogging; higher-end models feature double lenses that further reduce fogging. 
  • A variety of anti-fogging products are available. They all help, but none work perfectly. 
  • Amber, orange, or yellow lenses enhance contrast; gray lenses provide true color transmission. 
  • In strong winds, placing the goggle strap over your jacket hood helps keep the hood securely in place. 
  • Test your face system before you crest treeline. You will have no time to fiddle with it once you enter the winter alpine zone.
This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMC Outdoors along with the column "Warm Thoughts: Protect your head and neck from the cold."

(Photograph by iStock.)

Monday, February 16, 2015

If Eight Feet of Snow Instantly Melts, How Deep is the Puddle?

Things you think about while shoveling out more than a foot of snow. (Again.) How high can I consistently throw snow while shoveling? Will it clear the summit of Snow Planet, the mountainous pile next to my driveway? And if all this snow around me instantly melted, how much water would I be standing in?

Answers: 8 feet. No. And roughly half a foot.

The Boston region is currently buried under a monumental amount of snow. The snowpack is 3 to 4 feet deep. The sidewalks are like the Himalayas, with snowy shoveled peaks rising above hidden driveway canyons. With nearly 8 feet of snow falling in less than a month, and with little of that melting, there is a lot of frozen water blanketing the landscape.

It's easy to see how much by taking a look at NOAA's current snow water equivalent map, which models the estimated amount of liquid water contained in the snow. For much of eastern Massachusetts, the current map shows roughly half a foot.

NOAA's Snow Water Equivalent Forecast for February 17, 2015

All that got me thinking. My grandfather always told me that the rule of thumb for snow to water was 10 inches of snow per inch of water, which would mean something closer to 9 inches of water given the amount of snow (roughly 90 inches) that has fallen without any significant melting.

Turns out Grandpa was right. And wrong. The snow-water equivalent varies substantially with temperature, as this straightforward chart from NOAA shows.  Yes, if the temperature is around freezing, 10 inches of snow roughly equals an inch of water. But if the temperatures are 15 to 19 degrees, it's double that—1 inch of water generates 20 inches of snow. And so forth.

Given the cold nature of these insane February snows, clearly we've gotten a lot of depth per inch of water. And, oh yeah, 6 inches is still a lot of water. It's going to be a very wet and soggy spring this year. We'll see how long it takes to return Snow Planet to its watery origins.

Snowpack in Boston area: three to four feet. Unreal. 
Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Snow Geeks Unite! 12 Great Maps Highlight Current and Forecast Snow Conditions in the Northeast

It's been snowing a bit in New England lately, a slow-motion avalanche from the sky that has buried the entire region under feet of snow. It's been a remarkable, fascinating, and exhausting spell of weather. So take a break from shoveling out for the umpteenth time and dig instead into a trove of map-based data that quantifies just how much snow is out there.

Each winter, the National Weather Service closely monitors snow conditions throughout New England and New York, including snow depth, snow water equivalent, daily snowfall, and forecast snow melt, among other things. All of this information is then displayed on the Northeast River Forecast Center (NERFC) Snow Information Page in a series of 12 maps, each of which is updated daily to reflect current conditions.

My personal favorite—both for aesthetics and at-a-glance information—is the current snow depth map (pictured below), which is also available as a seven-day archive from the past week.
There's also this clickable map of snow depth, which shows specific snow depth readings by location.
If you're more interested in what's coming than what's on the ground, you can check out the regional snow forecast map.

If you really want to geek out, you can check out interactive maps of snowpack density, snowpack temperature, and snow water equivalent. But perhaps the one thing you really want to know is when all the white stuff is finally going to start melting. The current 48-hour forecast snow melt map (also available in a 24-hour version) tells a bitter truth, however. It ain't going anywhere, anytime soon.
Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Studded Bicycle Tires

Studded bike tires provide remarkable traction on snow and ice, but don’t fully replicate the regular all-rubber grip you experience on dry asphalt. 
  • Think of riding with studs as the biking equivalent of walking on sand-covered ice. You can walk or bike as you normally would, but any abrupt or sharp turn can cause you to slip. 
  • If you lock your studded tires while braking, you’ll slide farther on ice than asphalt. Give yourself more room to maneuver and brake than you would in dry, warm conditions. 
  • Tires vary in the number of embedded studs—from as few as 72 to more than 300—and the more you’ve got, the better traction you’ll get. But studs also significantly increase rolling friction and pedaling effort, making it important to choose the right model for your needs. 
  • For commuting on plowed roads with only occasional patches of smooth ice, fewer studs are necessary for safe riding. If you’re dealing with ice-covered paths, ice ruts, or other bumpy, uneven ice and snow conditions, maximize your stud power.
This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMC Outdoors along with the column "Ride On! How to bike through the winter."

Photograph courtesy of Surly Bikes.

Monday, February 2, 2015

More Wooly Goods from the Northeast: WoolX of Endicott, New York

Part of an ongoing series on Northeast-based gear companies. Turns out there's more than one company in the Northeast specializing in merino wool garments. WoolX joins Minus33 in the cadre of regional merino wool proselytizers. And, after testing out one of their midweight tops, I would say my conversion to wool junkie is well on its way to completion.

Warmth in sheep's clothing. Photo: WoolX
Wool is some fascinating stuff, as I recently detailed in The Science Behind Wool's Powers. And soft, plush merino wool makes for some extremely warm, comfortable, wear-it-all-the-time base layers. It's pricey stuff, but well worth it if you can stomach the cost.

WoolX is based in Endicott, N.Y., and offers a range of base layers and other garments made from Australian merino wool. I spent much of the past week wearing one of their midweight 1/4-zip tops—including a four-hour post-blizzard shoveling marathon—and can confirm that, yes, merino wool is delightful. In particular, I was struck by how well wool managed my shoveling sweat-fest. Unlike the polyester long underwear I often wear, it did not become clammy and damp from body moisture overload—one of the most noticeable drawbacks of heavy exertion in synthetic fabrics.

All that is true for merino wool in general, but what sets the WoolX garment apart is its thickness and heft (260 g/m2, roughly 10 to 20 percent heavier than comparable midweights). It's one of the beefiest midweight base layers I've worn and is noticeably warmer as result. An unusually high neck collar also offers extra protection for the jugular zone.

That being said, it doesn't run as long in the sleeves as other base layers I own—a drawback for gangly-armed 6-foot, 5-inch individuals like myself. And like many other 1/4-zip base layers I've worn, the inner seam on the bottom of the zipper was noticeably scratchy on my chest (which is why I generally prefer zipper-free crew neck styles and use a neck gaiter when necessary).

WoolX offers a range of other garments, including what must be an extremely hefty and toasty heavyweight line of base layers. If you're looking for maximum merino wool warmth, you'll have a hard time topping a WoolX garment ($90 to $150, depending on style and weight).

Support your Northeast gear companies! This post is part of an ongoing (though recently dormant) series on Northeast-based gear companies. Here are the 25 companies I've profiled to date:
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Disclosure: The author received a complimentary garment from WoolX for testing.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Blizzard Is Here! Don't Just Shovel It—Build a Quinzee!

A quinzee is a giant pile of snow that you then hollow out to create a shelter—essentially it's a build-it-yourself snow cave. Knowing how to construct one is a useful winter survival skill, a fun activity to do with kids, and a potential use for the mountains of post-blizzard snow that await much of the Northeast this week.

Can you dig it? Photo: Chewonki Semester School; Flickr

Quinzees are not difficult to construct--they just require the right snow conditions...and a lot of work. First, the snow. The simple test is this: If you try and make a snowball, does the snow stick together or does it crumble apart? If it's the former, you're in business. If it's the latter, well...probably best to wait for next time. (More on this below.)

Next, start shoveling...and shoveling....and shoveling. The goal is to make a pile of snow that's at least five feet high and ideally seven to eight feet high. This is a lot of work (several hours' worth) just to build a snow shelter...but if you're already digging out from a snow storm, you're doing most of the work already. Keep in mind that the pile will radiate out a fair distance from its center as it gets taller—make sure and give yourself ample room in all directions to accommodate it.

Now your giant snow pile needs to set, or sinter. Snowflakes are delicate structures with lots of thin points radiating from a central node. If they are disturbed—shoveled into a giant snow pile, say—the points get broken off and the snowflakes compact together. The energy from this disturbance briefly melts the edges of the squashed flakes, which then freeze together to create a cohesive snow mass. The rate this occurs varies depending on the temperature and moisture content of the snow. Wet snow just below the freezing point bonds quickly; more granular snow in low temperatures takes longer, and may not sinter together at all. (Hence the snowball test, which provides a quick proxy for all this.)

In most conditions, the snow will sufficiently bond together in 60 to 90 minutes—go inside and get yourself some hot chocolate while you wait!

Snow set, it's time to start shoveling into the pile. Start by digging a small entrance at the base—just slightly larger than what you need to crawl in—and then slowly work your way inwards and upwards. (Positioning the entrance on the downwind side will help prevent snow from blowing in.) If you're working with others on this project, take turns digging out the pile while others clear away the snow being pushed out the entrance from inside. A smaller snow shovel or even large trowel is ideal for cutting away the interior walls in an initially cramped space.

As the cave gets larger, take care that you don't excavate all the way through the interior wall and punch a hole in the pile. As a general rule, walls should be at least a foot thick—if you can see light filtering through the wall, it's likely too thin.(Inserting sticks a foot deep from the outside of the pile helps you identify when you reach the proper thickness.)

Once you've got the interior dimensions set, smooth out the walls and set up shop!

Happy shoveling!

Learn more:

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