Monday, August 24, 2015

The Best Mosquito Repellent: Picaridin Today. Kite Patch Tomorrow?

In my mind, it's pretty much settled: Picaridin is superior to DEET. Consumer Reports essentially just confirmed it. But will an entirely new approach to mosquito repellents change the picture?

Repellent of the future?
I've written a fair bit about the picaridin vs. DEET debate. Now the latest entry is from Consumer Reports, which reviewed 15 common repellents earlier this year for their effectiveness against both mosquitoes and ticks. Their top-rated repellent, by far? Picaridin-based Sawyer's Fisherman's Formula (20% picaridin), which currently sells for $14.97 on Amazon. (You can see the complete ratings here; subscription required.)

There are some other interesting findings in the Consumer Reports ratings, including the effectiveness of oil of lemon eucalyptus (Repel Lemon Eucalyptus was the second-highest rated, ahead of a 15% DEET repellent.)  But the main takeaway? If you want the best, look for picaridin.

At the same time, a fledgling company, Kite, has garnered considerable resources and facilities over the past few years, including a mosquito mega-warehouse for product testing and development in Riverside, California.

The company's goal is to develop new, innovative, cost-effective approaches for repelling mosquitoes. It has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and its own crowd-funding efforts (including more than half a million dollars on Indiegogo).

Their signature product--slated for release in 2016--is the Kite Patch, a small adhesive square that repels mosquitoes. Early tests show promise, including this recent glowing testimonial from a New York Times writer. So it seems at least possible that such an approach might work. (The company is largely quiet on the tech behind exactly how it works.)

I am going to hold my judgment until an actual consumer product is released, especially since equivalent approaches to date (repellent bracelets, etc.) are so ineffective as to be all but worthless. That being said, there is a lot that we currently don't understand about what exactly attracts--or repels--mosquitoes. It seems entirely possible that new understanding and breakthroughs will lead to different, more effective ways to repel mosquitoes.

Will the Kite Patch be it? I'll keep you posted.

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Periodic Table of White Mountain 4,000-Footers

They are elements of adventure, the 48 White Mountain peaks that exceed 4,000 feet in elevation. And now key information about each of them is displayed in an entirely new way: a periodic table of White Mountain 4,000-footers.

Created by Steve Bailey, a designer and web developer at With Brio, this innovative approach packs extensive information about each peak into a compact square, including elevation, rank by elevation, summit type (forested, alpine, etc.), difficulty, a unique two-letter "mountain symbol," and more.

Designer Steve Bailey packs extensive information into each square.
Colors indicate where the peaks are located. Symbols in the upper right indicate difficulty.
The table is available as an 18-by-24-inch poster for $20 from the Mountain Wanderer.

To accompany the poster, Bailey also created a White Mountain 4,000-Footers Passport ($20), which devotes a page to each of the 48 peaks in a compact 3.5-by-50-inch booklet. It comes with two peel-off stamps for each summit and a two-page spread of all 48 peaks to help you keep track of your list-building accomplishments.

Of course, anybody heading for the high peaks should also have a copy of AMC's White Mountain Guide ($24.95). It comes with a full set of paper maps for the Whites, or you can buy a separate map set printed on durable, waterproof Tyvek ($29.95; highly recommended). Note that AMC members save 20 percent on book and map orders, including AMC's White Mountain 4,000-Footers Passport, if you're more of a classicist.

For more information on the 4,000-footers, including how you can join the official Four Thousand Footer Club, visit the AMC Four Thousand Footer Club. For more detailed route and historical info, also check out The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains, by Steven D. Smith and Mike Dickerman, a 560-page volume of everything you ever wanted to know about these high peaks. For more 4,000-footer swag, check out the complete collection in AMC's online store.

Hike on!

Equipped is an AMC Outdoors blog written by Matt Heid.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Hike the Whites: Author Picks His Elite Eight

I recently had the unique task of writing all 64 hike descriptions for the Boston Globe's Hike the Whites feature. The winner for best hike in this bracket-style, reader-voted competition? The ascent of Mount Lafayette in Franconia Notch.

Above Carter Notch. The Ramparts--one of my Elite Eight hikes—is the large boulder field in the lower right. Photo: Wesley Carr/Flickr

There's no question that Lafayette is a spectacular alpine summit that should be on every White Mountain hiker's list. But of the 64 hikes in the competition, it wouldn't make my personal cut for the top eight. Why? The crowd factor. On a busy weekend, hikers arrive in astonishing numbers. Even on weekdays, there's no shortage of people on the trails.

And that fact highlights one of the key aspects of any crowd-voted selection process for best hike. Which is this: People vote for hikes they've done and are familiar with, not for less-traveled hikes they've never seen. So, by extension, the most hiked trails are far more likely to garner votes. There's no question that Mount Lafayette and Mount Washington (the two finalists) both offer exceptional hiking opportunities, but it's no coincidence that they are also likely the two most climbed mountains in the Whites.

For me, one of the key factors for selecting hikes is the opportunity for solitude, balanced against the chance to experience dramatic scenery, exceptional trails, and remarkable natural features. And in my personal opinion these eight hikes (several of which failed to make it past the first round of voting) offer an ideal mix of these factors. 

In no particular order, here are the hikes I would have selected for the Elite Eight of this bracket competition, complete with the accompanying Hike the Whites description:

The Ramparts
A rubble field of massive stones lies shattered in the deep cleft of Carter Notch, a rugged and alluring destination for your inner mountain-goat scrambler. The Ramparts are located a stone’s throw from Carter Notch Hut, which is readily accessed via a steady, but generally easy-cruising, 1,700-foot ascent over well-used trail. 7.6 miles round-trip via the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail.

Moosilauke via Beaver Brook Trail
Located a short distance off I-93 in the southern Whites, the trailhead for 4,802-foot Mount Moosilauke is one of the most accessible from points south, making this hulking mountain an excellent option for a day-trip from the Boston area. This strenuous and challenging route to the summit climbs beside a multitude of mesmerizing cascades and up long stretches of wooden steps drilled into bare rocks to reach the superlative summit view. 7.6 miles round-trip.

Mount Whiteface via Blueberry Ledge Trail
Outside of the Presidential Range, few big-mountain ascents are as consistently scenic and strenuous as the climb (and occasional scramble) up view-rich Blueberry Ledge Trail to the summit ledges of 4,020-foot Whiteface, which dishes out expansive views south over New Hampshire's Lakes Region. Located on the southern front of the Whites, it's one of the closest 4,000-footers to points south, yet foot traffic is relatively light compared to other popular peaks. 8.4 miles round-trip.

Mount Isolation
Breaking the 4,000-foot barrier by a scant four feet, the bald hillock summit of Mt. Isolation rises at the northern end of Montalban Ridge and offers outstanding views of Mount Washington, the southern Presidentials, and nearby Boott Spur. Along the way you'll marvel at gigantic Glen Boulder, dropped into a precarious mountainside position by the ice sheet that once smothered this region. 12.0 miles round-trip. 

Author's note: For a longer hike largely devoid of people and replete with outstanding views from Mount Crawford, Stairs Mountain, and Mount Davis, consider hiking the Davis Path point-to-point from Route 302 to Route 16. It's perhaps my favorite two-day hike in the Presidential Range  (17.7 miles one way).

Mount Jefferson 
Despite its lofty height, 5,716-foot Mount Jefferson can be summited via a remarkably direct route; the Caps Ridge Trail begins from a higher elevation (3,008 feet) than any other trail in the White Mountains. What the route lacks in mileage, however, it makes up with steep and challenging ledge scrambles, exposed ridgeline conditions, and long sections of eye-popping scenery, including a summit view that peers into the chasm of the Great Gulf more than 3,000 feet below. 5.0 miles round-trip.

Author's note: For a remote and exhilarating alternative ascent, consider climbing Jefferson from the Great Gulf via the Sphinx Trail. The route is so steep in places that ladders are required. 

Mount Adams
This ├╝ber-strenuous hike provides the most direct route to the rocky pyramid of 5,799-foot Mount Adams, the second-highest peak in New England. Along the way, revel in ridgeline views that peer into the deep gorge of King Ravine before making a final push over a treacherous pile of rocks to reach a head-spinning, 360-degree summit view. 8.6 miles round-trip from Appalachia trailhead via the Air Line.

Big Rock Cave
A rumpus of giant stones, tilted and piled upon each other, create the large, deep crevice known as Big Rock Cave in the southeast corner of the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Despite its deep backcountry setting, the site is easily accessed via a gentle up and down over 2,020-foot Mount Mexico. 4.0 miles round-trip via the Cabin and Big Rock Cave trails.

Author's note: Few people travel the middle section of Sandwich Range Wilderness, including the remote summit of Mount Paugus. If you want solitude, plus the opportunity to sleep overnight in this large cave, add it to your list.

Mount Chocorua
If you've ever driven north on Highway 16 to the Whites, you've likely been tempted by the striking pyramid of Mount Chocorua's 3,500-foot summit. With superlative 360-degree views and the feel of a much higher summit, it's a perfect big mountain hike for young climbers. The Liberty Trail offers the most straightforward ascent, though it's not easy—you'll need to ascend more than 2,500 feet to reach the top. 7.8 miles round-trip via the Liberty and Brook trails. 

Hike on!

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

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 zenstoves.net.

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.