Monday, April 18, 2016

Snood vs. Snood: I'll Take the Latter

I ran into some puffed-out traffic on my bike commute recently. A tom turkey was owning the bike path, strutting his stuff to woo females in the adjacent woods. Among his assets: a fanned-out tail, a plumped-up chest, and a monstrous snood.

Nice snood, dude. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
For those who don't know, a turkey's snood is that fleshy, dangly bit that hangs down over his beak. It's particularly pronounced—and often brightly colored—on males during the spring mating season. It's also at this time of year that toms are notoriously aggressive and known to attack passersby. All of which is to say that I'm not a big fan of turkey snoods, both as a signifier of potential avian aggression and because, well, they just look a little gross.

Turkey traffic on my bike commute. Such a snood!
I eventually made it past Tom, who just glared at me and held his ground as I anxiously rode by. Inspired by the encounter, I did some digging into all things snood and discovered that there is more to a snood than meets the eye (beak?).

It turns out that a snood also describes a range of head- and neck-wear:
Of all these, I definitely prefer the latter. An oversized, closed-loop scarf is essentially just a neck gaiter, one of the most important and overlooked cold-weather items there is. It's also one that I am constantly recommending.

And it looks a lot better than a big dangly bit over your nose.

Photo: Courtanai on
 “Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Latest Gore-Tex Fabric Has a Revolutionary Premise. Is It for Real?

Waterproof-breathable materials like Gore-Tex sound great in theory. But the marketing hype obscures the damp realities of it all, especially the inevitable loss of a jacket's durable water repellency, or DWR.

DWR is the chemical treatment applied to a fabric that causes water to bead up and roll off. It is essential for maintaining a garment's breathability (i.e., the ability of the fabric to allow your sweat vapors to pass through from the inside out.) But DWR wears off with use, reducing the time it takes for your jacket to become soaked and completely lose its breathability (a condition known as "wetting out").

But what if you eliminated the need for DWR in the first place? What if the material itself caused water to bead up and roll off indefinitely, maintaining the jacket's breathability over the long-term?

That's the premise of Gore-Tex Active, the latest material from W.L. Gore & Associates. While it's hyped (of course) as being the latest, greatest material ever—Lighter! More breathable!—the more intriguing aspect is its "permanent beading surface" that obviates the need for a DWR coating in the first place.

Central to that premise is another unusual aspect of Gore-Tex Active. Unlike other Gore-Tex membranes, which must be protected underneath an outer layer of fabric, the Gore-Tex Active membrane can actually be used directly as the outer, or face, material on the jacket. This saves weight and increases breathability by eliminating a layer of fabric. It also puts the Gore-Tex material directly in contact with the elements.

Here's the kicker. While the exact details are under proprietary wrap, Gore-Tex Active features a permanent beading surface that is somehow intrinsic to the physical and/or chemical construction of the membrane itself. That is, it should (in theory) cause water to bead up and roll off indefinitely without ever needing a DWR treatment.

The North Face Hyperair GTX Jacket
It's a fascinating development. In my own experience, a jacket's DWR lasts for only a few months of regular use before it begins to wear off. And while you can use after-market treatments to reapply DWR, it fades pretty quickly. Given that the fabric in a quality jacket will last for years, the short-lived nature of DWR treatments is a significant drawback.

Gore-Tex Active was released at the end of 2015 and has already begun to appear in a handful of products. One of its more notable uses is in The North Face Hyperair GTX Jacket ($249), an ultralight, 7- to 8-ounce garment that was one of the first Gore-Tex Active products to market.

The initial water repellency of the jacket looks good, judging by this review from the folks at Gear Junkie. But durability appears to be a concern, at least with this jacket, with little tolerance for abrasion before tearing. Time will also tell whether this latest, greatest material actually maintains its water repellency over the months and years to come.

I, for one, will be watching this one closely.

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

Monday, April 4, 2016

Like Powerful Coffee? The Best Backcountry Options

I'm a caffeine-swilling coffee junkie. Coffee in the backcountry is a must. Espresso packs a powerful punch, so I'm intrigued by a new product on the market:

The Wacaco Minipresso is a hand-operated design that can generate average pressure of 116 psi. It has a much more elegant design than the Mini Expresso (see below) and would pack nicely. It's well-reviewed—a best-in-show from Winter Outdoor Retailer 2016—though heavier (12.7 ounces) and more expensive ($59).

The Wacaco Minipresso
I've written about the many backcountry coffee options before.

Current recommendations include:

If you're an ounce-counting hiker, Starbucks Via is hands-down the best and lightest option when weight matters. Twelve instant cups of coffee, individually packaged.

For brewed coffee, my go-to is a JetBoil coffee press, which adds French press-functionality for minimal weight (0.8 ounce) to the overall stove set-up.

If you like espresso while camping—and don't mind some extra weight—the GSI Mini Expresso has been a long-standing go-to. It makes quality shots ($40) and weighs in at 8.2 ounces. Its big drawback is the all-metal body, which heats to hard-to-handle temperatures on the stove.

Stay caffeinated.

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

3 Great Ultralight Backpacks

Your backpack is one of the most important items of gear you own. A quality ultralight pack will not only eliminate several pounds from your back, it will also ensure a comfortable ride for many miles and days.

As we rapidly march into hiking season in the Northeast, here are three styles worth considering for a potential ultralight upgrade.

Osprey Exos 38
Osprey Exos 38
I have the 2013 version of this pack. I love it. It's one of the best packs I've owned, and it's shown little sign of wear from moderate use, mostly longer day hikes with some ultralight overnighters.

The current iteration is more the same than different, with minor changes to the harness system. It remains very lightweight (just a spare ounce or two above two pounds), with a capacity between 36 - 40 liters (2200 - 2450 cubic inches), depending on size. It's a great deal at $160.

Two larger versions, the Osprey 48 ($190) and Osprey 58 ($220), cater to those who desire more capacity.

Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 Ultralight Backpack
Gossamer Gear has long set an industry standard for ultralight gear--and the Mariposa has long been one of its flagship products.

The current version weighs less than two pounds, has a capacity of roughly 3500 cubic inches, and can comfortably carry up to around 35 pounds.

You can configure the sizes of the frame and hip belt to match your dimensions. The extra large version accommodates tall bodies up to 6'7" (a plus in my tall book). It runs $255.

Gossamer Gear also makes other ultralight packs worth considering, including the featherweight G4 54.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest
Another excellent offering from this small Biddeford, Maine-based company. It's pricier ($330), but is built for much more abuse than most ultralight packs. It's also waterproof.

The fabrics used in the pack are tough ('Dyneema® Composite Fabrics'), plus the rugged material used for the storage pocket on the sides and back ensures greater resistance to snags, abrasions, and other off-trail abuse. It weighs right near two pounds even, and has an internal capacity of 3400 cubic inches and external pocket capacity of an additional 600 cubic inches.

If you're looking to abuse your ultralight pack, this would be a good option.

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

3 Life-List Outdoor Destinations in Maine

Planning for summer adventure? Now's the time to locate—and book—your exciting destination of choice. If you're thinking of heading north to Maine, here are my top three recommendations to consider.

Baxter State Park
There is no other mountain like Katahdin in the Northeast. Rising a mile high, this granite monolith features two distinct peaks—Baxter and Pamola—that are joined by the airy Knife Edge, New England's only true mountain arĂȘte. It is tops on my life list of Maine destinations (and New England for that matter).

A range of camping opportunities are available in the park, but the most exceptional (and exceptionally popular) is found at Chimney Pond.

A hiker ascends the Cathedral Trail on the flanks of Katahdin. Chimney Pond is out of sight and below to the right. Photo: Matt Heid
Nestled adjacent to its namesake pond, below the granite cliffs of Katahdin, this backcountry campground features nine lean-tos and a 10-person bunkhouse, and makes a fabulously scenic base camp for tackling Katahdin itself.

Camping reservations at Baxter State Park operate on a four-month rolling schedule; you can start making reservations four months in advance of your camping start date. So, for example, you can start making reservation for August 1 starting April 1 (hint, hint). The time to book is now—late July and August will be opening up for reservations in the coming days and weeks!

Unlike the park's drive-in campgrounds, which can be reserved online, Chimney Pond and other backcountry campsites can only be reserved by phone (207-723-5140), in person, or by mail. The park office opens at 8 a.m. (weekdays only until Memorial Day weekend, then daily until Columbus Day).

When it comes to climbing the mountain, I personally recommend ascending the Cathedral Trail from Chimney Pond, traversing the Knife Edge, and then descending via the Dudley Trail—a triumvirate of unforgettable hiking experiences.

The rockbound hide of Isle Au Haut. Photo: NPS
Isle au Haut
This is the greatest Maine destination I've never been to, and near the top of my personal to-do list for New England adventures.

Located 10 miles from the mainland and accessible only by a small ferry, most of Isle au Haut is actually part of Acadia National Park. A bastion of rockbound serenity, it receives radically fewer visitors (roughly 8,000 a year) than Mount Desert Island and the Bar Harbor area (where more than 3 million visitors descend annually).

Isle au Haut features 2,700 acres of national park land and 18 miles of hiking trails that explore wave-battered cliffs and boulder-strewn beaches. The National Park Service operates tiny Duck Harbor Campground on the island, which offers five lean-tos for a multi-day stay.

Reservations for Duck Harbor Campground can be made by mail only and must be postmarked April 1 or later.

Cutler Coast
You can't get much more Down East than the Cutler Coast. Located at the farthest end of Maine’s coast, it is a very long drive away. It's also often muddy, foggy, and wet. But it offers New England's only opportunity to backpack along the coast and experience a distinctly different slice of the Northeast. A 9.2-mile loop hike tours spongy maritime forest, traverses high above the sloshing sea, and visits three first-come, first-served overnight campsites. 

I will say no more. Indeed, I hesitated to even mention this destination for fear of overwhelming it with additional hikers. But if you're motivated to make the drive to get there someday, it's worth it.

Enjoy the summer!

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

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Best Hiking Pants? Key Features to Look For

Snow-free hiking opportunities are here, which means that it's time once again to dig out your fair-weather gear from winter storage. As I went through this annual ritual over the weekend, I noticed one much-used item that will soon be in need of replacement: my hiking pants. Here's what I'll be looking for.

The GI III hiking pants from Patagonia have it all
Pants not shorts
First of all, I nearly always hike in a pair of lightweight nylon pants rather than shorts. I prefer the protection they offer, from the sun, from biting insects, and from the many branches, shrubs, rocks, and other leg-scrapers out there on the trail. (I don't find these pants overly warm, given their lightweight and breathable material.)

A smooth bunch-free waist
This is crucial. The waist belt on your backpack usually sits over the top of your pants. If the waistline gets bunched up anywhere under a fully-weighted waist belt, it's going to hurt. Not initially, perhaps, but after miles of hiking the discomfort and chafing can become quite irritating and uncomfortable. In particular, watch out for belt loops or any other extra pieces of material around the waist that might dig in as you hike.

Deep pockets
Years ago, I lost a brand new pocket knife when it slipped out of my pants pocket while I was sitting down for lunch. Ever since then, I carefully evaluate pockets to determine if they are sufficiently deep to retain everything in them, even when I'm lounging or sitting down. Pockets that hang freely, rather than are stitched directly into the leg fabric for their full length, usually perform better.

A map pocket
I prefer to hike with a map that I can easily access without having to take off my backpack, which allows me to regularly check my location and progress throughout the hike. A deep cargo pocket on the side of a pant leg works particularly well for this and is highly recommended.

No zip-off legs
In general, I'm not a big fan of so-called convertible pants, which feature zip-on, zip-off lower legs to convert from pants to shorts and back again. In most cases, I find the zipper around the lower thigh to be noticeable when I'm moving and affect how the pant legs hang (or "drape" as the lingo goes) on my body.

Adequate ankle coverage
As a tall person with a 36-inch inseam, it can be challenging to find hiking pants long enough to extend down over the top of my boots and help keep dirt and grit out. For less gangly individuals, this is less of a problem.  

Color conundrum
My current pants are a light beige, which stays cooler in direct sun than darker colors. The lighter color, however, does show dirt and grim much easier than a dark brown or black set of pants. Toss up on this one....

Enjoy the early start to this year's hiking season!

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

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sunglasses vs. Goggles: How to Protect Your Eyes (and Face) from Winter's Glare

Winter likes to throw two things in your face: intense glare from the snow and bitter, frostbite-hastening winds. Factor in open terrain above treeline, and the effect is especially punishing. To defend yourself from winter’s onslaught, goggles or sunglasses are a must. Here are several variables to consider when selecting winter eye protection.

For both goggles and sunglasses, different types of lenses block different amounts of light. This key measurement, the percent of visible light that passes through a lens, is listed either as an exact number or indicated more generally by category. Most lenses fall in category 2 (18 to 43 percent light transmitted) or category 3 (8 to 18 percent light transmitted). For typical bright and sunny winter conditions, look for either a category 3 or a category 2 lens that transmits roughly 25 percent or less of visible light. For extended visits to alpine terrain, especially at higher elevations, ultradark category 4 lenses (a.k.a. glacier glasses) that transmit a mere 3 to 8 percent of light may be worth considering. Some lenses are also polarized, a desirable feature that greatly reduces reflected glare but typically adds $30 to $60 or more to the price tag.

Shades of gray and amber are the most common options for both goggles and sunglasses. Gray lenses provide true color transmission (the world looks like it usually does, albeit darker) but tend to flatten light and reduce depth perception. Amber lenses, which run on a spectrum from brown to orange, transform the colors of the world accordingly but improve contrast and depth perception—a plus in flat-light conditions when it’s difficult to determine undulations in the snow. Other colors, including blue, yellow, and pink, work well in low-light conditions.

Lightweight and compact, sunglasses are a popular and versatile option that can be used in a variety of conditions and seasons. A proper fit is crucial, however, and should provide full coverage above, below, and to the sides of your eyes to fully encompass your field of vision. Pay particular attention to the areas underneath your eyes, ensuring that the lenses block glare reflected up from the snow. Expect to pay anywhere from $80 to $150 and up for a high-quality pair. Even the best sunglasses don’t cover your upper face, exposing portions of your cheeks, temples, and forehead to the elements. In cold, windy conditions or during activities that generate their own wind, such as downhill skiing, this can be unpleasant or downright dangerous. In these situations, goggles are your best bet.

Goggles attach securely to your head, provide full wraparound protection of your vision and upper face, and are easy to position and manipulate with gloves or mittens. A properly fitting pair will sit snugly and comfortably against your skin and provide you with an unobstructed field of vision in all directions. As a general rule, goggles with larger lenses are better for cold-weather use, providing more coverage, a wider field of view, and better airflow to help prevent the lenses from fogging up. Unlike sunglasses, goggles are bulky and inconvenient to carry when not in use. (They seldom fit in a jacket pocket.) They tend to be more affordable than sunglasses, however, with many perfectly adequate options falling in the $40 to $80 range, although you can spend well north of $100 for higher quality lenses.

Photo: Jerry and Marcy Monkman