Monday, October 20, 2014

Rechargeable Headlamps: Plug In, Light Up

As daylight fades into the long nights of fall and winter, any overnight adventure necessitates prolonged use of a headlamp. These days, however, it's easier than ever to keep your headlamp running on rechargeable power, sparing you the need to purchase, use, and (properly) dispose of regular batteries.

Here's a quick look at the primary rechargeable options from two major headlamp manufacturers.

The Tikka RXP from Petzl
The Tikka R+ and Tikka RXP both offer some of Petzl's latest technology, including "reactive lighting," which automatically adjusts the brightness based on ambient conditions. The RXP is slightly brighter (up to 215 lumens) and more expensive ($89) than the R+ (170 lumens, $79).

Both recharge via a short USB cable; a full charge takes 4.5 hours, per the Petzl specs. Burn time on a full charge ranges from 2.5 hours to 12 hours, depending on the brightness and settings -- comparable to their non-rechargeable equivalents. (It's worth noting that the classic Petzl Tikka provides more than 120 hours of light, albeit less bright, on a single set of batteries) 

Drawbacks include the fact that the R+ and RXP are about an ounce heavier than their non-rechargeable counterparts, and -- more annoyingly -- require that you purchase a separate accessory ($10) if you want to use them with AAA batteries instead (a likely scenario on longer multi-day trips).

Black Diamond
The Black Diamond ReVolt
Black Diamond offers the ReVolt, a simpler and less expensive take on the rechargeable concept. Like the Petzl models, it recharges via a USB cable. But instead of recharging a uniquely designed battery, it simply utilizes three rechargeable AAA batteries (included). This approach also means that you can just swap in standard disposable batteries if your rechargeable power runs out.

It lacks the automatic lighting adjustments and is less bright (130 lumens) than the Petzl models, but lasts a lot longer on a single charge (80 - 190 hours, depending on brightness) and costs less to boot ($59).

The bright choice is up to you.

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Nearly Every USGS Topo Map Ever Made. For Free.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been producing detailed topographic maps for more than 125 years. Today they are nearly all digitized and free to download through the USGS Map Store, an incredible treasure trove for both map junkies and casual hikers alike.

A section of an 1893 USGS topo map for Mount Washington, downloaded for free from the USGS Map Store

Locating your desired map is straightforward with the USGS Map Locator and Downloader, which allows you to zoom in or search for your area of interest. It then gets mildly confusing (though easy once you figure it out) to download the actual map.

To do so, find your desired location and select the type of map you wish to download (usually the 7.5-minute versions, which provide the most detail). An overlay grid appears, with each box labeled with the specific name of each map.

Next mark a point within your desired map by first selecting the button next to "Mark Points" and then clicking anywhere within the area of interest. This adds a reddish 'paddle' to the map. (If you searched by name, a paddle will automatically appear over the location.) Clicking on it then brings up a list of all the maps available for download for this location, from most recent to historic.

Screenshot showing available topo maps for Mount Washington, New Hampshire, including historical maps dating back to the 1890s.
One important thing to note is that, in general, the most recent topo maps listed are markedly different from their predecessors. Part of the new US Topo Series, these maps have been created as PDFs with geospatial extensions (GeoPDF), which gives you the ability to turn on and off different layers (contour lines, place names, water features, etc.) for viewing, depending on what information you are interested in. Unfortunately, however, trails are not currently included as one of these layers—a significant drawback for hiking.

Lastly, and one of the single-most useful online tools I've discovered in recent years, is the ability to overlay every USGS topo map on top of Google Earth, another free (and extremely powerful) tool to add to your trip planning quiver.

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why Do Leaves Turn Different Colors? Abscission Reveals Flavonoids, Carotenoids, and Anthocyanins

I've written a fair bit about fall foliage, including the best resources for finding peak foliage; how to take great foliage photos, especially with a polarizing filter; and how to find better foliage using a geologic map.

Over the course of researching these articles, I often got distracted deep into the underlying science of what causes leaves to start changing in the first place, and why different colors appear when they do. So here are my two favorite tidbits of the science behind this colorful season.

Photo: LongitudeLatitude/Flickr
Abscission: No More Nutrients for You, Leaf
At a certain point in the fall, the cells at the base of a tree's leaf stems start dividing rapidly. Interestingly, as the number of cells starts proliferating, the growing collection of cells does not expand or take up any more space. That is, they divide into an increasingly dense layer of ever-smaller cells.

This process, known as abscission, soon reaches a point where the cell layer effectively blocks the passage of nutrients from the tree to its leaves. (It also creates a thick layer of cells that seal the site of the leaf stem once the leaf drops.)

Once abscission is complete and the leaves are deprived of sustenance, they begin a steady transformation lasting approximately two weeks that culminates when they fall from the tree.

The Chemistry Behind the Colors
Following abscission, the chlorophyll that gives leaves their green color soon begins to break down. As it fades away, other compounds in the leaf make a brief appearance. As the graphic below explains in chemical detail, the primary ones are flavonoids (yellow), carotenoids (yellow, orange, and red), and anthocyanins (red).

Different trees and plants have different combinations of these chemicals, which results in the varying color palettes of different species.

Now's the time to see them all in full glory, as the most recent foliage report shows. Happy fall!

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Insect Energy Bars: Cricket Power on the Go

Two companies now offer energy bars that feature a chirpy and unusual ingredient: crickets. Two small start-ups—Utah-based Chapul and Brooklyn-based Exo—both seek to capitalize on the health and environmental benefits of cricket power.

Specifically, crickets (and insects in general) are an exceptionally rich source of protein. Per the Exo web site, dried crickets are 69 percent protein, compared to 29 and 31 percent for chicken and beef respectively. Cricket flour is also rich in iron and vitamin B12 and low in cholesterols and fat.

Crickets also represent a much more efficient means to produce protein. Unlike livestock, crickets require minimal land, water, and other resources and produce far fewer global warming emissions than other sources of protein (especially beef, by far the worst climate-offender in agriculture).

And don't worry. Eating these new energy bars doesn't require you to floss antennae stuck between your teeth. The crickets are ground up to create a "slightly nutty tasting" flour, which is then added to the bars. (Crickets are not the primary ingredient, accounting for roughly six percent of an Exo bar—about 40 crickets per bar.)

A spoonful of crickets awaits. Photo from Exo Kickstarter page
Exo bars come in four flavors—apple cinnamon, blueberry vanilla, cacao nut, and PB&J—and run $36 for a 12-pack. Chapul offers more exotic combinations, including an Aztec bar made with dark chocolate, coffee, and cayenne; and a Thai bar with coconut, ginger, and lime ($32 for a 12-pack).

For reviews and more, check out some of the extensive media coverage, including articles in The New York Times, Forbes, and National Geographic.

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The 10 Essentials Revisited: A new way of looking at a classic list

The 10 essentials are more than just a list. They are the basics of survival. Carry them and you will always be equipped for the unexpected. 

First developed in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based nonprofit, the original 10 Essentials consisted of a list of specific items—knife, map, compass, matches, etc. Today, several different lists and approaches are in use. 

In the Northeast, one of the most commonly recommended comes from hikeSafe, a safety and education program developed and endorsed by the White Mountain National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game. It includes: 1) map 2) compass 3) warm clothing 4) extra food and water 5) flashlight or headlamp 6) matches/firestarters 7) first-aid kit/repair kit 8) whistle 9) rain/wind jacket and pants and 10) pocket knife. 

An alternative approach—and one that I personally use— features a broader and less prescriptive set of categories, each one of which can be met in slightly different ways with different gear

This column originally appeared in the July/August edition of AMC Outdoors. You can read the full story here.

Photo by Ryan Smith.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Two Fun Facts about the Fall Equinox

The autumnal equinox occurs tonight, September 22, at precisely 10:29 PM Eastern time. It's a milestone celestial event, one that marks the official end of summer and start of fall. It's also got a few other fun and useful implications.

First some quick background. The equinox is defined as the precise moment when the sun is directly above the Equator. That is, if you were standing on the Equator on the equinox, the sun would be directly overhead (90 degrees up in the sky) when it reaches its highest point.

For the six months preceding the fall equinox, the sun has been shining directly overhead at locations in the northern hemisphere. Beginning at the spring equinox in March, the point where this occurs moves gradually northward from the Equator until the summer solstice, when the sun shines directly overhead along the Tropic of Cancer (latitude 23° 26' N). It then moves south again to recross the Equator at the fall equinox. This pattern is caused by the tilt of Earth's axis from the sun, which is (not coincidentally) tilted 23° 26' from vertical.

Fun Fact #1: On the fall (and spring) equinox, the sun rises due east and sets due west everywhere on Earth.
It's the only time of year this occurs, and a useful tidbit of information if you're navigating by the sun. At other times of year, the relative position of sunrise and sunset vary depending on your latitude.

Fun Fact #2: There is still more daylight than darkness on the equinox.
A common misconception is that the equinox marks the time when there are equal amounts of day (when the sun is up) and night (sun is down). This isn't actually true, as you can readily see by looking at sunrise and sunset times (on today's equinox, for example, sunrise in Boston is at 6:31 AM and sunset at 6:41 PM).

The reason? Sunrise is defined as when the top of the sun's disc first rises above the horizon, and sunset when the final sliver disappears below the horizon. That means that even though the center of the sun is up for exactly 12 hours on the solstice, the upper portion of the sun is actually up for longer, hence the time difference. (Day and night become equally roughly four days after equinox.)

Happy fall!

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Take Great Foliage Photos

How to Take Great Foliage Photos

Leaf-peep your brains out this fall. Then bring home some photographic memories that actually replicate the brain-popping colors you just witnessed. Here's how:

  • Motivate on wet mornings after a rain; bright foliage often awaits.
  • Use a polarizing filter, which enhances foliage color by eliminating reflected glare from leaf surfaces. 
  • Adjust the white balance setting on your camera appropriately to ensure your shot has sufficiently “warm” colors (reds, oranges).
  • Auto-white balance settings for “shade” and “direct sun” will add the greatest warming effects to your shots. 
  • Watch for overcast days and cloudy moments to provide even lighting, especially in forest settings.
  • Avoid taking pictures in glaring midday sun, which creates both harsh contrast and diminished colors. Seek morning and evening shots for the best lighting.

This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMCOutdoors along with the column "Tough Shots: Rugged cameras for the backcountry."

(Photograph by iStock.)