Monday, January 19, 2015

Use Hand Warmers? One Simple Trick Makes Them Last Longer. A Lot Longer.

Most disposable hand warmers provide several hours of quality heat, but what if you only need warmth for a limited time? Don't waste perfectly good heat by throwing out a hand warmer after only a short use! Save it for when you need it with this über-simple technique.
Use the heat when you need it. Photo: Heat Factory

First, some basics. Most disposable hand warmers contain a mix of iron, water, activated carbon, vermiculite, cellulose, and salt. Once exposed to air, the iron oxidizes and releases heat in the process. After all the iron has reacted, the hand warmer is done and ready for the trash.

And therein lies the crucial piece of information. In order for the reaction to occur, the hand warmer needs a supply of oxygen. If you cut off the supply, the chemical reaction ceases. And to cut off the oxygen, all you need to do is put the hand warmer in an air-tight zip-lock bag.

Once the small amount of residual oxygen in the zip-lock is used up, the hand warmer is essentially put on pause until you re-expose it to the air. (To minimize the amount of oxygen in the bag, zip it nearly closed, suck out the remaining air with your mouth, and then quickly seal it shut.)

I recommend using thicker, more durable freezer zip-lock bags for this purpose, especially if you'll be stuffing it in your backpack when not in use. Even a small hole can let in sufficient oxygen to keep the reaction going and render your hand warmer cooked.

Keep in mind that this technique doesn't actually cause the hand warmer to produce more heat—there's a finite and specific amount of potential energy contained in a hand warmer that can't be increased. It just allows you to use a hand warmer over a longer time period rather than in just one continuous use.

Stay warm!

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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Keep Your Hands Warm While Winter Biking: A Review of Bar Mitts

One of the biggest challenges of winter cycling is keeping your fingers from becoming icy popsicles of pain. Over a decade of winter bike commuting, I've tried multiple solutions—a whole universe of gloves, lobster claws, and mittens—and to date the best, warmest option I've found are Bar Mitts.

Bar Mitts are in effect on my January 12 bike commute
Constructed from thick 5.5mm neoprene, Bar Mitts fit over the ends of your handlebars and offer both insulation and protection from the wind and rain. Having used a pair now for two seasons, I can attest that they work exceptionally well and have kept my fingers reliably toasty in temperatures far below freezing.

I was initially concerned about two crucial things for bike safety. First, whether Bar Mitts would allow adequate freedom of motion to operate the brakes and gear shifters. And second, whether it would be easy to get my hands in and out for indicating turn signals while riding.

No problem on either count. Even with my giant, extra-large hands, even when wearing a moderately thick pair of gloves, I have ample room inside the Bar Mitts to work the brakes without hindrance. When it comes to getting my hands in and out, the stiff nature of the neoprene keeps them propped open for easy re-entry.

In terms of warmth, they easily provide adequate insulation down into the single digits, provided I adjust my gloves accordingly. For temperatures close to freezing, I've found a pair of lightweight liner gloves to be sufficient. When temps are closer to 20 degrees, I wear a thicker pair of windproof fleece gloves. And for temps in the teens and below, I've been riding with a pair of midweight lobster-claw gloves. (If it's above freezing, I actually find them nearly too warm to use!)

A few other things to note about Bar Mitts: First, installing them is straightforward, but mildly difficult and time-consuming—it's not something you want to do regularly. (Once I put mine on, they're on for the season.)  Second, I have used Bar Mitts on the straight handlebars of my mountain bike, but have not had the chance to try the version for drop handlebars common to many road bikes so don't have first-hand experience to gauge whether everything I've written above is equally applicable.

Bar Mitts are reasonably priced (around $50 on Amazon, depending on size and style).

Ride on!

Learn more about winter cycling:
Gear Review: Pearl Izumi Lobster Claw Gloves (2014)
Winter Cycling, Broken Wrist, Lesson Learned (2014)
Ride On! How to Bike Through Winter (2009)
Winter Cycling: How to Keep Your Head and Ears Warm (2012)
Best Biking Balaclava? Try the Pearl Izumi Barrier (2013)
The Warmest Winter Cycling Shoes? The Wölvhammer Boot from 45North (2012)
Studded Bike Tires for Winter, Part 1 (2011)
Studded Bike Tires for Winter, Part II (2011)
Winter Cycling: My Clothing System (2010)
Winter Biking: Keeping Your Hands Warm--Are Bike Pogies the Answer? (2009)

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

How to Clean Your Down Jacket and Sleeping Bag

Dirt, sweat, and body grime cause goose down to clump together, reducing the puffiness and warmth of your sleeping bag or jacket. So puff it back up with the following cleaning tips: 
  • Handwash in the bathtub using a mild powdered detergent or down-specific cleaner (available from Nikwax, Granger’s, and others). 
  • Never use a top-loading washing machine. The agitator can damage the delicate internal baffles; agitator-free, front-loading washing machines are safe. 
  • If your gear has a water-resistant outer fabric, turn it inside out to help moisture escape. 
  • After thoroughly rinsing and squeeze-drying, run your gear through a spin cycle in the washing machine to force out maximum moisture. 
  • Dry on low heat in your dryer; add tennis balls to break up the down clumps and speed up the long drying process. Never dry clean down; the chemical process strips it of the oils essential for its puff.
This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMC Outdoors along with the column "Get a Bead On: Restore your gear's water repellency."

Photograph by iStock.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Stay Comfortable on a Winter Hike

A few simple tricks can eliminate many small inconveniences of winter hiking.
  • Designate specific jacket pockets for your hat and gloves so you can easily keep track of them. 
  • Keep an energy bar in a pocket close to your body to avoid breaking your teeth on a frozen, rock-hard snack. 
  • Carry a thermos with a hot beverage inside for stomach-warming pleasure. 
  • Don a neck gaiter or liner balaclava to keep your chin and neck warm. 
  • Wear liner gloves for extra hand warmth and cold-weather tasks that require dexterity. 
  • Attach a keychain thermometer to your pack to keep track of the temperature. 
  • Shop for snowshoes that compactly nest together for packing convenience. 
  • If you’re wearing crampons, choose gaiters with heavy-duty fabric around the ankles to minimize tears and punctures.

This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMC Outdoors along with the column "Cold Shoulders: Choose the right winter backpack."

(Photograph by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.)

Monday, January 5, 2015

What Is the Best Item of Outdoor Gear You Own? Here Are My Top Five Contenders.

I've used an extensive array of outdoor gear over 20 years of hiking, camping, and backpacking. Here are my top five most used, most abused, most durable, and most loved items. Please share yours!

Mountain Hardwear Subzero Parka
I purchased this ultra-warm, super-sized down parka a decade ago—and still revel in its delicious warmth every time I put it on. It's the biggest gun I have in my cold-weather arsenal (I bust it out only when temperatures drop into the 20s and below) and it has held up without issue despite regular use during 10 winter seasons (including three very long and cold Alaska winters).

Looking back, I am very happy that I purchased a parka not a jacket, and that I went with a larger size than I typically wear so that I could readily put it on over all of my layers—a nice convenience on winter hiking and camping trips. Though this particular model is no longer available, plenty of similar Big Puffs are—I would highly recommended investing in one if you haven't already.

REI Half Dome 2 Tent
Simple, durable, roomy, and weather-tight, I purchased this tent shortly after it was released in 2002 and have spent more nights in it than any other tent or shelter I own. Over the years, I've restrung the elastic in the poles three times and patched numerous small holes in the mesh, but overall it's performed flawlessly.

I particularly like the simple two-pole design (easy to fix or replace if needed), avoids the clunkier hub system featured in the Half Dome's current iteration. My only issue these days is the weight (roughly 5 pounds), which is heavy by today's tent standards.

North Face Badlands Pack
If you find a pack that fits you perfectly, never let it go—especially if it's bombproof and virtually indestructible. After nearly 15 years, the mesh side pockets are shredded, the shoulder straps are duct-taped in multiple places, and I've replaced various clips multiple times—and it's still my go-to pack for big hauls and long trips.

Mountainsmith Vision Sleeping Bag
At some point in your life, make the splurge and buy an ultralight down sleeping bag. Though plenty of great options are available, the Mountainsmith Vision is the one that came into my life about eight years ago.

Weighing just under 2 pounds, packing smaller than a volleyball, and sufficiently warm to near the freezing point, it has been my favorite and most used sleeping bag ever since I acquired it. It's like sleeping in a puff of warm air.

Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite
Best. Sleeping. Pad. Ever. Lightweight, indestructible, and instantaneously packed and deployed, this has been my sleeping pad for many, many years. (I did have to replace it at one point, however, as the little egg carton dimples eventually started to flatten out.) It's not the cushiest night's sleep, but if you can handle it, do it.

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

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Brain Freeze: What Causes an Ice Cream Headache?

Ever had a bad case of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, better known as an ice cream headache or “brain freeze”?

This short-lived, painful headache occurs when something cold—ice cream, frigid water, etc.— stimulates the sphenopalatine nerve located above the roof of your mouth and near the surface of your face. In response to this cold stimulus, your brain briefly constricts its blood vessels to reduce blood flow, then abruptly dilates them. The ensuing rush of blood causes the intense pain.
  • To blunt this response, try splashing cold water on your face several times before you paddle, surf, or dive into frigid waters. 
  • Once the pain strikes, push your tongue against the roof of your mouth to rewarm the sphenopalatine nerve and reduce the headache’s duration and intensity. 
  • Or just grin and bear it. Brain freeze usually lasts only a minute or less.

This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMC Outdoors along with the column "In Cold Water: How paddlers brave the icy rush." You can also learn more in my previous post, Cold Water Brain Freeze.

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

Illustration by iStock.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Merino Me! Minus33 of Ashland, New Hampshire

When it comes to my go-to base layer, I'm getting close to becoming a merino wool fanatic. During these cold days of winter, the first item I grab for casual comfort—around the house and in the local dog-walking woods—has become a merino wool long underwear top. It's soft, warm, and the static factor is low, qualities my older polyester base layers struggle to match.

Merino wool is getting bigger all the time, as the Big Merino Sheep of Goulburn, Australia, can attest. Photo: MD111/Flickr

If you've not yet experienced the upsides of soft merino wool against your skin, there's probably a reason—the stuff is expensive; a long underwear top or bottom can easily run you more than $75. (The price certainly kept me away for years.)

So is it worth it? It depends on your base layer budget, outdoor clothing priorities...and whether you can find an option on sale (or perhaps put it on a future gift list). I would definitely recommend giving it a try.

Interested? Supporting a Northeast-based gear company might help you further rationalize it.

Minus33 is based in a historic mill in Ashland, New Hampshire, and specializes in merino wool base layers, hats, gloves, and other accessories. Their base layers are reasonably priced as merino wool goes—and many are named for landmarks in the White Mountains to boot, including the women’s Franconia Midweight Bottom and men’s Chocorua Midweight Crew.

Many styles are available in tall and extended sizes (6XL anyone?), a bonus for size large-tall people like myself, and there is also an online clearance section worth watching.

Other manufactures also offer can't-miss (though pricier) merino options. Smartwool is perhaps the best known (it's what I've been wearing), though Icebreaker, Patagonia, and L.L. Bean offer excellent options as well.

Support your Northeast gear companies! This post is part of an ongoing (though recently dormant) series on Northeast-based gear companies. Here are the 24 companies I've profiled to date:
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.