Sunday, April 12, 2015

Safety on the Brain: How to Choose a Bicycle Helmet

I like my brain. I would rather not damage it. So I wear a bicycle helmet to protect my skull and its useful contents while riding. Always. You never know when bad luck might send you hurtling head-first into the road, a car, or some other unyielding object. You probably like your brain too. So give it the best protection you can! Here’s what you need to know to select—and properly fit—a bike helmet. 

Protection Comes Standard 
When it comes to safety, every bicycle helmet—from an inexpensive Wal-Mart special to a $200-plus racing design—is the same in one important way. Every helmet sold in the U.S. must meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) safety standard, which sets specific guidelines for how much a helmet must dissipate the forces of impact, how much coverage it must provide, and how strong and stable its strap system must be on your head.

To meet this standard, nearly every bike helmet uses expanded polystyrene foam. In the event of an impact, the foam compresses, cracks, and dissipates the impact force to sub-catastrophic levels. Most helmets also feature a smooth, hard plastic surface, which allows the helmet to slide when it hits the road or other object, further reducing the impact force.

While it’s possible that some helmets absorb more impact force than others, several studies have found there to be no consistent difference among helmets based on price—see here and here, among others. 

What You Get For More Money 
Helmets vary widely in price, from as little as $20 to well over $200. They all essentially provide the same level of protection, so what are you paying for with a high-end model? With more money, you get less weight, more ventilation, improved aerodynamics, and snazzier looks. None of these features are particularly essential for most riders, though serious cyclists who spend a lot of time in the saddle may appreciate them. For casual cyclists, a range of models are available in the $40 to $80 range that meets most people’s style, weight, and ventilation needs.

How to Fit a Helmet 
One helmet feature, however, is vastly more important than any other: a good fit. For a helmet to protect your head, it must be positioned correctly and not shift around in the event of a collision. A properly fitting helmet should be snug against your head; select the size that fits as closely as possible without being uncomfortably tight. The front of the helmet should be roughly one to two finger width above your eyebrows, and the helmet should sit level on your head. The straps should come together under each ear to form a “V” and the buckle should clip under your chin. Lastly, the straps should be tightened so that the helmet pulls down against your head when you open your mouth. Be aware that helmets—and heads—vary in shape. Try on a variety of styles to find one that best fits your cranial dimensions.

Other Features and Considerations 
Some helmets feature a visor on the front—a nice feature that helps keep rain and sun out of your face. If you’ll be riding in the cold, check that the helmet can comfortably accommodate a thin hat underneath; being able to adjust the fit while wearing gloves is nice. Lastly, don’t forget to put it on, no matter how short your ride! The best helmet in the world won’t help you if you neglect to wear it. 

When to Retire a Helmet 
Inspect your helmet periodically for cracks in the foam; these can greatly reduce the helmet’s ability to absorb an impact. If you see any, replace your helmet as soon as possible. Likewise, you should retire your helmet following any crash that involves hitting your head. Helmets are designed for one-time use and even a low-speed impact can compress the foam and render the helmet far less effective in a subsequent crash. Lastly, as a general rule, replace your helmet roughly every five years to ensure maximum safety, especially if you use it regularly.

Read more of Matt Heid's writing about bike gear:

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

Photograph: Shutterstock.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Get Your Boots Ready for the Hiking Season

Around about now, it's time to pull out your hiking boots and get ready for the approaching season of hiking adventure. Do your boots look rough? Give them some TLC now before you abuse them over the coming months.

Time to clean up your act for the coming hiking season. Photo: Andrew Bowden/Flickr

Wash them, scrub them, love them
First objective is to give your boots a thorough washing to remove the dirt and grit that has become embedded in the leather or fabric.

This is especially important if you've been wearing them around town through the winter, when salt on sidewalks and roads is everywhere. Salt crystals are sharp and act like a million microscopic razor blades, damaging leather and fabric in the process. (Tell-tale white streaks and patches are a sure sign that your boots need a good cleaning.)

Give your boots a thorough scrub-down with warm water; don't use any soaps and detergents, which can leave a hydrophilic (water-loving) residue behind. Use a rough sponge and a smaller scrubbing tool (a toothbrush works well) to get out the dirt that gets wedged in tight places. If you're motivated (or your boots are really dirty), you can also invest in a specialized footwear cleaning solution (such as from Nikwax).

And make sure to give your boots some extra love and appreciation as you go. They are one of the most important pieces of gear you own and essential to your hiking happiness.

Condition them
Let your boots air dry and then apply a conditioner to the leather. This will help keep the leather supple and prevent it from drying out and cracking, especially in high-flex areas such as those in the forefoot.

A variety of conditioners are available — Nikwax leather conditioner is a reliable standby — that will help extend the lifespan of your hiking footwear.

Note that it's also possible to increase your boots' water resistance by treating them with a waterproofing products such as Tectron Heavy-Duty Silicone Water Proofer or Granger's Footwear Repel. Such products add durable water repellency (DWR) to your footwear, which causes water to bead up and roll off, but does not make your boots completely waterproof (only an impenetrable barrier like Gore-Tex can accomplish that).

Hike on!

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

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Choosing the Right Rain Gear

It’s simple. Rain gear should keep you dry. The best rain gear keeps water out while allowing moisture on the inside (read: your sweat) to escape. The former is straightforward. The latter is often difficult to nearly impossible, a fact obscured by the marketing hype that surrounds many waterproof-breathable materials. Understanding both features is essential to selecting—and having realistic expectations for—your rain gear

Rain gear must feature a barrier that is impenetrable to liquid water. These barriers come in two primary forms: laminates and coatings. A laminate is a thin sheet of material glued to the inside of the jacket’s outer layer. GORE-TEX and eVent are the best-known examples, though many manufacturers offer other proprietary versions. Durable and effective, laminates easily last for years but are relatively expensive compared to coatings (laminate jackets generally run $200 and up).

A coating is a thin layer that is essentially painted on the inside of the jacket. (Marmot’s PreCip and The North Face’s HyVent are common examples.) Coatings are typically lightweight and more affordable (jackets run roughly $100 to $200), but less durable—they can rub off in high-wear areas with regular use. As a general rule, laminates and coatings are equally waterproof, though they vary in their breathability.

Durable water repellency, or DWR, is a chemical treatment applied to rain gear that causes water to bead up and roll off without penetrating the fabric. Its effectiveness has implications for breathability, but contrary to appearances, DWR does not make rain gear any more or less waterproof. DWR wears off with use; it can be reapplied using after-market products but never regains its original effectiveness.

A lot of rain gear features a waterproof-breathable laminate or coating, which allows water vapor to escape from the inside. Despite the marketing hype, however, even the most breathable materials fail to work well in practice. Why? First, in order for water vapor to exit, the fabric must remain essentially dry (hence the value of an effective DWR coating). No water vapor can pass through saturated fabric, so breathability becomes effectively nil once rain gear is soaked. Second, even under optimum conditions, the most breathable waterproof materials can’t come close to transferring all the sweat you produce during moderate to heavy exertion.

All that being said, waterproof-breathable materials do allow some water vapor to escape, especially in cool to cold conditions when a strong temperature gradient between the inside and outside of your jacket helps drive moisture outward. As a general rule, laminates are more breathable than coatings—and even limited breathability is preferable to none. But ultimately, good venting options offer the most effective ways to stay dry on the inside. Jackets with zippers under the armpits (“pit zips”) provide good ventilation and you can also loosen the waist and open the collar as conditions allow.

For maximum protection and comfort, a good rain jacket should fit easily over multiple layers without constricting motion. The sleeves should not pull away from your wrists when you extend your arms and the cuffs should seal tightly to prevent water from leaking in. The waist should extend below your lower back and the hood should tighten snugly and move with you as you turn your head. For rain pants, the most important feature is the ability to easily slip them on and off while wearing bulky footwear. Stay dry out there!

This column originally appeared in AMC Outdoors. You can read the full story here.

Photograph by Shutterstock.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Bright is Life: The Ultimate Reflective Coating for Your Bike

Part of an ongoing series on Northeast-based gear companies. Hub Powderworks of Boston is now offering the only high-visibility product I've ever truly coveted: An ultra-reflective, ultra-durable coating for your entire bike frame.

Specifically, the coating is retro-reflective, which means that it reflects light directly back at its source regardless of the angle of the incoming light. Put another way, it's reflective from any direction when illuminated by a car's headlights or other source. (Or as the delightful Hub Powderworks web site puts it: "Retro-reflectivity: Magic Disguised as Physics.") Read: Awesome night-time visibility.

Magic disguised as physics. Photo: Hub Powderworks.

The coating is also different—and considerably more durable—than something you simply paint on. Instead it's sprayed on the frame as electrostatically charged powder particles which are then baked into the frame itself in an oven. The result is a very tough and durable coating ("Industrial Strength = Wicked Strong").

Developed by Halo Coatings for highway and mining applications, the coating is currently only licensed for application to bicycles by one vendor: Hub Powderworks. The company has even given it a suitable Boston name—Zakim Gray—in honor of the city's nearby Zakim Bridge.

Drool factor does meet reality check, however. It's an expensive process ($329 local, $419 shipped), requires you (or your bike shop) to disassemble the bike down to its frame, and you have to get it to Hub Powderworks by shipping it or dropping it off directly. It's also no substitute for bike lights, front and back, which are legally required in many areas.

For the serious urban cyclist or bike commuter, however, or for anyone seeking to seriously up their night-time cycling safety (read: me on both counts), it sure is tempting.

For more on this young start-up company, check out this recent Boston Globe article.

Support your Northeast gear companies! This post is part of an ongoing series on Northeast-based gear companies. Here are the 27 companies I've profiled to date:

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

Buy Shoes Online? A 3D Scan Might Make All the Difference.

Problem: You can't try on shoes when you shop online. Solution? Shoefitr of Pittsburgh, Pa., makes a three-dimensional scan of the shoe and produces a color-coded image showing where the shoe runs shorter, longer, wider, narrower, tighter, and/or looser than the shoes you typically wear.

I've fitted hundreds of hiking boots and running shoes over the years and am perpetually amazed at the multitude of foot shapes, sizes, and dimension. And let me tell you: Finding footwear that best fits your own unique foot shape is by far the most important thing to consider. Period.

The best option is always to try shoes on before you buy, but if you can't drag yourself away from the online world, Shoefitr offers some of the best virtual fit information you can get.

Here's an example of the information you get from REI's online store, which added Shoefitr information to most of its footwear selections late last year.

Shoefitr has partnered with dozens of other retailers and brands, and was also recently featured prominently in Backpacker Magazine's 2015 Gear Guide. Its distinctive fit profiles are poised to become a much more common element of your online shopping experience.

Support your Northeast gear companies! This post is part of an ongoing (though recently dormant) series on Northeast-based gear companies. Here are the 26 companies I've profiled to date:
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Forget the Apple Watch. Put a Multi-tool on Your Wrist Instead.

I have long held great respect for Leatherman. The company created the entire genre of multi-tools more than 30 years ago; continues to produce durable, high-quality tools today; and does it all right here in the USA at its factory in Portland, Oregon.

On top of all that, Leatherman continues to innovate in new ways. Their latest creation is the Tread (pictured above), a bracelet composed of interconnected steel links, each one featuring a different set of tools, including multiple screwdrivers, hex wrenches, a small cutting hook, and more. All told, the Tread contains 25 individual tools and weighs in at 5.3 ounces. It can be adjusted in quarter-inch increments to fit your wrist and, unlike other Leatherman multi-tools, the Tread is airplane safe.

Available in both black and stainless steel, the Tread isn't an inexpensive fashion accessory—it runs $150 to $200, depending on style—but it is distinctive and provides an industrial counterpoint to the teched-out smart watches rolling out from Apple and the like.

You can see it in action in the video below:

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

Monday, March 9, 2015

Turn Your Trekking Poles into Snowshoe Poles

There's only one meaningful difference between a trekking pole and a snowshoe pole—and it costs as little as $7 to upgrade your summer poles for snow-tromping fun. The key item you need? A snow basket that prevents your poles from piercing deeply (and uselessly) into the snowpack. 

Time for a winter upgrade. Photo: Jennifer C./Flickr
Most trekking poles come with a small basket just above the tip. While this diminutive accessory is helpful at keeping your poles from sinking into soft dirt, it is close to worthless in all but the most hard-packed snow.

Fortunately, it's easy and inexpensive to replace these standard hiking baskets with a larger snow basket. The only annoyance is that you have to buy a set of snow baskets separately. What's more, every brand uses a different attachment system for baskets, which means you must purchase the ones specific to the brand of poles you own.

Here are the three most common:
Leki Snowflake Basket
I strongly recommend using poles with snow baskets while snowshoeing, especially if you're new to the activity or if you'll be traveling over a mixed snowpack that alternates between harder and softer sections. They greatly aid your balance, plus they make it much easier to right yourself if you take a tumble in soft snow.

Lastly, note that you do occasionally see poles marketed as "snowshoe poles." They come equipped with snow baskets, but many feature only two collapsible sections, which makes them more cumbersome to pack and carry when not in use.

Stomp on!

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