Monday, May 18, 2015

Best Backpack Ever Made? The Whipsnake 37 Trillion

Four years ago, two innovative gear pioneers created a backpack unlike any other. It is without doubt the most mesmerizing and creative backpack I have ever seen. But is it the right pack for you?

No other pack in the world is as intimidating as the Whipsnake 37 Trillion. 
Consider these key questions:

Do you prefer to carry your 15-foot-long tent poles snapped together for convenience, so you don't have to waste 10 seconds putting them together and then disassembling them every time you set up and break camp? 

Do you ever need to carry an extreme amount of gear, but can't find a pack tall enough to handle it all?

Would you prefer to have a pack with an internal capacity closer to 37,000,000,000,000 cubic inches than any other (spoiler alert: actual capacity is slightly less than advertised).

Do you hike in environments with lots of wide open spaces—such as desert and tundra—where potentially inconvenient branches don't grow overhead? (I regret this pack may not be ideally suited for most Northeast trails....)

Do you want to experience the proprietary space-age responso-flex construction developed by NASA scientists exclusively for this pack?  

Have you always admired, even idolized, the mythical super-hiker Steve Climber, a.k.a. the "outdoor's ultimate enthusiast"?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, the Whipsnake 37 Trillion may be just what you need.

But don't take my word for it. See it in action below and decide for yourself.

Now the bad news. Despite creating this magnificent pack four years ago, the comedy duo Rhodes and Roads still have yet to announce when it will become widely available for purchase, or at what price.

Until then you'll just have to intimidate your surroundings the old-fashioned way.

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

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How to Choose the Right Three-Season Sleeping Bag

If you’re cold at night, life is rough. Your sleep suffers, your mood blackens, and the fun factor of camping plummets. The good news? It’s easy to avoid this dark and chilly fate. All you need is the right sleeping bag.

People vary significantly in their midnight metabolisms. Do you sometimes wake up cold? Or are you more likely to wake up boiling? To help you match your personal thermometer to the right sleeping bag, most bags are rated according to the European Norm (EN) system.

This independent testing standard, which has been adopted by most major sleeping bag manufacturers, identifies two key benchmarks. A “comfort” number indicates the coldest outside temperature in which an average woman can sleep comfortably; the “lower limit” indicates the same for an average man. (Studies have shown that women, on average, run colder at night than men.) EN ratings assume you are wearing a long-underwear layer and hat while sleeping.

The EN rating is a useful guideline for choosing a sleeping bag, but keep in mind your personal assessment of how warm or cold you sleep at night. If you fall on the colder end of the spectrum, you should add anywhere from 5 to 15 degrees to your EN rating.

Down weighs less than synthetic insulation, compresses to teeny-tiny proportions, and lasts for many years without losing any significant warmth. Synthetic-fill bags are more affordable and manage moisture well but are heavier, bulkier to stuff, and lose some of their loft (and warmth) after a season or two of regular use.

Down is pricier than synthetic alternatives and has gotten markedly more so in recent years as demand has soared. Down also rapidly loses its insulating value as it gets wet, although new water-resistant down has become increasingly common. Some bags even feature a water-resistant shell fabric, which offers additional protection. High-fill-power down, a measure of how puffy and warm the down is per ounce, saves a minor amount of weight for a major increase in price—primarily an option for big-spending ounce-counters.

A properly fitting sleeping bag will wrap around you as snugly as possible—but not so tightly it’s uncomfortable to sleep in. For an optimal fit, most sleeping bags feature a tapered “mummy” design. There are two important size dimensions to consider with this style: length and shoulder girth. When it comes to length, opt for the shortest possible, minimizing unneeded space and weight, and maximizing warmth. The key test is this: When you get inside the sleeping bag and pull the hood snug around your head, do your feet push against the end of the bag and compress the insulation? If so, the bag is too short.

Next in importance is shoulder girth: the circumference of the sleeping bag around the shoulders. Most men’s sleeping bags feature a shoulder girth between 60 and 64 inches, though some ultralight bags run narrower. Women’s sleeping bags are usually slightly slimmer around the shoulders, generally ranging from 56 to 60 inches. The easiest way to determine your preferred shoulder girth is to get inside several sleeping bags of different dimensions.

Finally, consider the hood. A properly fitting hood will wrap comfortably and naturally around your noggin. Once cinched up, the hood should move with your head as you roll from side to side.
Sleep tight!
This column originally appeared in the May/June issue of AMC Outdoors
Photograph by Jens Ottoson/Shutterstock.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Aw, Nuts. Mega-Calorie Trail Food Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be.

Think you know which foods give you the most calories per ounce? So did I. Turns out I was wrong. Sort of.

Nearly a quarter of the calories in almonds go unused by your body. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I'm talking about nuts, which provide an exceptional number of calories per ounce. As I've written about before, pecans and macadamia nuts contain the most energy per ounce (200 calories), followed by Brazil nuts and walnuts (190), hazelnuts (180), peanuts and almonds (170), and cashews and pistachios (160).

All of that is true, which is why for years I've preached nuts as gospel for maximizing hiking power while minimizing weight. And that's why I was somewhat dismayed to read this recent article in the New York Times: On Food Labels, Calorie Miscounts.

The key detail? Nuts are hard to digest, which means that your body isn't able to utilize all those calories. In fact, as much of 25 percent of the calories in nuts go essentially unused. (The same is generally true of other foods high in fiber and protein, though not nearly to the extent of nuts.)

Interestingly, the amount of calorie "loss" appears to vary by nut. An in-depth study of almonds and pistachios found that 1 ounce of almonds actually only provides the body an estimated 129 calories out of a total possible 168 calories—a difference of more than 20 percent. In contrast, there was only a 5 percent loss with pistachios. 

So what's the upshot? Nuts are still a powerhouse food. Even with a reduced caloric uptake, they still provide more energy per ounce than just about any other trail snack. Plus they have been shown repeatedly to provide substantial health benefits. They are, and will continue to be, a staple of my trail (and home) diet.

So keep going nuts with 'em!

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

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Coffee in the Backcountry

Coffee is good. Brain-splitting headaches are bad. If you're a backpacking caffeine addict like me—or you simply enjoy the occasional backcountry brew—you'll need the tools to produce a cup or three of this headache-staving, performance-enhancing, deliciously stimulating beverage. Here are your options, rated for weight, quality of brew, and convenience.

Instant opportunities 
It's hard to beat the weight and simplicity of instant coffee; simply mix it with hot water and voila, you're done. Problem is that most instant coffees generally taste like the dirt in your hiking boots. Enter Starbucks Via, which offers a much more palatable alternative—for a price. Each individual packet weighs a fraction of an ounce and produces a quality cup of coffee, but costs roughly $1 per—a pricey option for multi-day hikes and multi-cup drinkers.

Hot off the press 
A French press system allows you to create a powerful and delicious brew using your ground coffee of choice. Multiple options feature a lightweight press integrated into the lid of an insulated mug; similar lid set-ups are available for canister stove systems produced by MSR and Jetboil (my coffee maker of choice), among others.

If you're already carrying a mug or compatible stove system, the addition of a French press accessory adds minimal weight for maximal flavor and potency. Drawbacks include the fact that you must carry sufficient ground coffee for your needs, and that a few grounds will inevitably escape the press into your drink, adding a little grit to your grin. (A coarser grind minimizes this effect; it also helps prevent the press basket from getting clogged.)

Drip, drip, drip… 
You can brew like Mr. Coffee using a cone filter system. Several lightweight and inexpensive options are available, including the recommended Hario V60 Plastic Dripper (3 ounces, $7) and Melitta Ready Set Jet Cone (2 ounces, $5). Advantages are similar to a French press: you can brew to desired strength using your coffee of choice, with the added bonus of avoiding gritty floaters in your cup. However, the process of pouring hot water into the filter—and waiting for it to drip through—is time-consuming compared to other methods, plus you'll need to find, purchase, and dispose of the necessary paper filters and grounds.

Similar options in this genre include the 1-ounce MSR MugMate (1 ounce, $17), which brews coffee (or tea) by steeping rather than filtering; and self-contained brewing systems such as those offered by Grower's Cup, which feature pricey specialty coffees in a disposable single-use (i.e. trash-generating) pouch ($3 to $4 each).

Espresso up 
Serious aficionados and caffeine junkies have the option of brewing powerfully delicious shots of espresso in the backcountry. It will cost you in terms of weight, but the potent payoff can be tempting. Options include the stovetop GSI Expresso (7 ounces, $25) and the modified French press design of the Aerobie AeroPress (8 ounces, $30), both of which brew an excellent, brain-tingling cup of caffeinated power.

No coffee maker? No problem. 
It's an essential life skill: Knowing how to brew coffee with nothing but grounds and a pot. To cook up a round of "cowboy coffee," add ground coffee to hot water, stir it up, and then let it sit long enough for the grounds to settle. A few techniques can accelerate the settling process, such as adding a splash of cold water or rapping the pot sharply a few times, though patience is mostly what's required. Once the grounds have settled, scoop or gently pour off the brew, taking care to minimize grounds in your cup.

Here's my preferred method for making cowboy coffee:

Matt Heid writes about gear for AMC Outdoors and AMC Outdoors Online. You can read more here.

Photograph: Shutterstock.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Drool-Worthy Ultralight Sleeping Bags

For ounce-counting fanatics, a range of ultralight sleeping bags are available that tip the scales at barely more than a pound. Here are four of the best.

Before we get there, though, it's worth reviewing a few key points.

First, sleeping bags in this weight range are designed only for mild to moderate overnight temperatures (down to around 40 degrees), though you can push their limits by dressing warmly inside the bag at night.

And second, in order to get maximum warmth per ounce, these sleeping bags all feature high-end, high fill-power down, which is pricey stuff that has gotten even more expensive over the past few years (hence the very high price points for all of these).

That being said, each of these bags should last you many years, if not decades, if properly cared for.

MontBell Down Hugger 900 #5
The unique design of this ultralight option features MontBell's "super spiral stretch system"—the fabric's thread pattern is oriented at 45 degrees to most major seams, plus elasticized threads are added in the stitching. This gives the bag more stretch when you shift around inside it, and also hugs it closer to your body when you're still. Stuffed with 900 fill-power down, it also weighs in at an ultralight 16 to 18 ounces, depending on length ($419 to $439).   

Marmot Plasma 40
This bag's vertical baffle system helps prevent the down from settling to the sides of the bag, a plus when you're dealing with limited and precious amounts of 875 fill-power down. It's a full-featured bag that includes a much better hood than most ultralight bags, a full-length zipper with insulated draft tube, and a much roomier footbox than other styles. 20 to 21 ounces, depending on length ($479 to $499). Marmot also offers drool-worthy (and even pricier) Plasma versions rated to 30 degrees and 15 degrees

Feathered Friends Flicker 40 UL Quilt Bag
This new design from Feathered Friends is a hybrid between a down quilt and sleeping bag. With the full-length zipper open, it functions as a roomy one-person down quilt. Zipped closed, with the footbox sealed by a draw cord, it works as a warmer, cozier sleeping bag (though without a hood). A neat option at a reasonable price point in the ultralight genre. 20 to 21 ounces, depending on length ($329 to $344).

Western Mountaineering HighLite
This 850-plus fill-power down bag is a classic that hovers right at the 1-pound barrier. A half-length zipper and relatively narrow cut keep the weight to a minimum (59 inch to 60 inch shoulder girth, depending on length). Available in short (to 5 feet 6 inches, 15 ounces, $330), regular (6 feet 0 inches, 16 ounces, $340), and long (6 feet 6 inches, 17 ounces, $350). Made in the USA.

Learn more:

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

Monday, April 27, 2015

Like to Kill Ticks? Put Them in the Dryer.

It's that time again. Ticks are back, ready to creepy-crawly their way to a blood meal from your succulent flesh. If you're like me, however, you probably prefer to keep your blood to yourself -- and to avoid potential exposure to Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

And there's one sure-fire way to kill any ticks that might have hitched a ride on your clothing. Throw any potential tick-bearing clothes in the dryer and run it on high heat for 10 minutes.

Deer ticks. Get them before they get you. Photo: Mislav Marohnić/Flickr
It's not the heat that kills them. It's the dryness. Ticks require moisture to survive and will rapidly desiccate and die in dry conditions—and a quick spin in the dryer is all that's needed to crisp 'em to death. (Ticks can actually survive a hot-water run through the washing machine.)

So anytime you're out in tick country—hiking, gardening, or being otherwise active in known tick areas—consider stripping down as soon as you get back inside, firing up a tick dryer death cycle, and thoroughly checking yourself in the process.

Of course, there are many other ways to defend against ticks, including treating your clothes with permethrin, tucking pant legs into your socks, wearing light-colored clothing to make tick-spotting easier, and performing constant and regular checks of yourself, your kids, and your dog. A dryer spin is just yet another effective technique to add to your arsenal.

For more on these and other techniques, as well as everything you ever wanted to know about ticks, definitely visit the TickEncounter Resource Center.

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Goose Down vs. Duck Down: Which Is Superior?

The price of goose down has soared over the past few years, a trend clearly evident in the world of sleeping bags and puffy jackets.

And, while exact numbers are hard to come by, I've noticed that many gear manufacturers have begun to use duck down instead of goose down in some of their sleeping bags and jackets. It's a trend driven by the basics of supply and demand.

Duck or goose, it doesn't really matter. Photo: Kelly Long/Flickr

First, some quick background. Down is a byproduct of the meat industry, harvested from the birds when they are killed for food (primarily in China, where goose and duck are more commonly eaten). In recent years, demand for geese has declined even while demand for goose down has continued to rise. The result, of course, is that the price of goose down goes up in response to reduced supply and increased demand.

The growing cost of goose down led outdoor gear manufacturers to seek lower-cost alternatives to keep gear prices down, including synthetic-down hybrid insulations and a shift to more widely available duck down (not surprisingly, duck is more widely eaten worldwide than goose.)

So is there a meaningful difference between goose down and duck down?

The short answer: No.

Both types of down insulate equally well, and share essentially the same structure that makes down such an astonishingly good insulator. Both types maintain their loft and warmth for many years, if not decades, when properly cared for. So basically, don't worry about which bird contributed to the puff of your outdoor gear.

The long answer: There are slight differences between the two types of down, but none that will meaningfully affect your experience.

The biggest difference between goose down and duck down only comes into play when you start looking at fill power, the measure of how puffy (and thus warm) a given amount of down is. (More specifically, fill power is the number of cubic inches an ounce of down occupies under standard laboratory conditions.)

To get down with a high fill power (roughly 750 and up) requires a higher percentage of large plumules, the wispy spherical structures of down that provide exceptional loft and warmth. And geese, being larger than ducks, are the only birds that produce sufficiently large plumules for high-end down.

The upshot being that high-end down products remain essentially dependent on goose down, and all of the pricing implications that come with it.

The other slight difference between the two types of down is odor. Because ducks are slung lower than geese, their bellies and chests (where down comes from) tend to acquire more odor from contact with the ground. While the down cleaning and treatment process removes the vast majority of this odor, some people with a particularly acute olfactory sense may be able to detect a difference. For most of us, however, this is a non-issue.   

Stay puffed!

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