Monday, November 23, 2015

The Latest, Greatest Snowshoes for Serious Winter Adventure

Tackling the high mountains of the Northeast in winter is serious business. Deep snow, steep terrain, icy conditions... you need to prepare for it all. Given that a good pair of snowshoes is usually an integral part of such adventures, I wanted to highlight several new designs that have caught my attention this season.

My what big teeth you have. The Atlas Endeavor.
First, though, a quick primer on what makes a snowshoe better suited for more serious backcountry use. It basically comes down to two crucial things. The underside of a backcountry snowshoe features more metal teeth, facing more directions, to provide maximum traction over the full spectrum of ice, snow, and terrain conditions. The teeth under the front of your foot also tend to be pointier and longer for better grip on ascents.

Second, the binding system usually provides a much tighter, more secure fit so that your footwear stays securely in place over rugged terrain. They also tend to accommodate a larger sized boot, such as those for snowboarding or mountaineering. 

One other feature that I rank highly for backcountry snowshoes are their "packability," or how easy it is to lash them to the outside of your pack when not in use. Models with binding systems that lay flat are much easier to nest together for more compact packing—a major plus for trips where snowshoes may only be intermittently needed.

Lastly, many backcountry models also feature a heel bar that can be raised for sustained ascents. This reduces the distance your heel drops with each step and helps prevent calf muscle burn, fatigue, and next-day soreness. 
Atlas Endeavor and Aspect

These two models are new to the venerable Atlas line of snowshoes. The Aspect follows a more traditional backcountry design and price point ($289.95), while the Endeavor represents a more innovative—and affordable—option ($219.95). What makes the Endeavor so different is its hybrid pairing of an aluminum tubing frame in the front and a solid PVC (plastic) decking in the back.

Both styles feature extensive traction underfoot, including full-length side rails. They both also feature the Atlas PackFlat binding system, which makes them much easier to lash to your pack.   

MSR Revo Series
I've long been a fan of MSR's plastic decking designs. (I still own, and regularly use, a 20-year-old pair of Denali Classics, which evolved a number of years ago into the EVO line of snowshoes.) Now MSR has taken this approach to an even toothier level with its Revo Ascent Snowshoes ($239.95), which adds full-length side rails that extend around the curve of the snowshoe front, or foredeck, plus two serious metal fangs under the toes. You can also add flotation with a pair of optional Revo Tails ($49.95).

Get a grip. The MSR Revo Ascent 2.

Yukon Charlie's AIRLIFT Emergency Inflatable Snowshoes
Now for something completely different. I'm not quite sure what to make of this radically new take on snowshoe design: a pair of inflatable snowshoes that vaguely resemble puffy red river rafts on your feet ($179.99).

On one hand, I'm intrigued by the fact that they pack down more compactly than any other snowshoe, which makes them much easier to carry for the just-in-case-you-need-snowshoes scenario. On the other hand, I wonder how durable these would be over time, especially if you're dealing with occasional sharp rocks or branches underfoot (as is often the case in the Northeast). Plus, they appear to have minimal traction underfoot and might be challenging to use in steep terrain.

Whatever you think, it's always neat to see companies trying out new approaches and designs. And, hey, they are currently sold out online. Perhaps Yukon Charlie's is on to something here...

A new approach for whatever floats your, er, feet.

Happy (almost) winter!

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Show Me Some Glove. How to Keep Your Fingers Warm in Any Conditions.

Cold fingers are no fun. So I avoid them by wearing the right pair of gloves for the conditions at hand (ha).

Over the years, I've accumulated quite an array of winter hand wear, which I detail below. But before we get there, it's important to keep in mind that proper fit is one of the most important features of gloves and mittens. You can read more in this overview—Hot Hands: Toast Your Fingers with the Right Gloves—but the most crucial points are these.

First, in a properly fitting glove, your fingers should almost, but not quite, touch the ends of the gloves. This maximizes warmth. And second, every manufacturer cuts their gloves slightly differently, though they tend to fit similarly across a company's full product line. So identify which brands fit your hands best and stick with them. For my hand shape (large palm and average-to-long fingers), I find that gloves from Black Diamond, REI, Pearl Izumi, and Swix work best (hence the line-up below).

So here's what I have in my glove locker for the coming season, arranged from left to right for increasingly cold temperatures. Keep in mind that I've had several of these for many years now and that some styles are no longer available--for these, I've tried to highlight the closest current equivalents.

My circle of gloves in all their fuzzy, iPhone-shot glory. Photo: Matt Heid
Black Diamond Midweight Gloves
As I've highlighted before: Best. Liner. Gloves. Ever. I wear these more than any other set of gloves I own. They live in my winter jacket pocket for daily, around-town cold-weather use. I use them on bike rides in temperatures down to the low 40s. I wear them under my extreme-conditions gloves and mittens for extra warmth. They last for several seasons of regular use. And, oh yeah, the Polartec Powerstretch fabric is soft, comfy, and oh-so-warm.

Black Diamond WindWeight Gloves
Unlike the Midweight Gloves, these are completely windproof and offer the next stage of warmth for cooler conditions. They're great for cold-weather activities in breezy conditions and are my go-to glove for cycling or cross-country skiing when temps are in the 30s.  
Swix XC100 Split Mitt
This is the newest addition to my collection, an acquisition I picked up at the end of last winter and have been using for cold-weather cycling when temps dip down around and just below the freezing mark. Part of the genre of gloves known variously as "trigger-finger," "3 and 1," and "split mitt," they separate the index finger from your other three fingers. This provides dexterity (which makes shifting gears on the bike a snap) while increasing the warmth of the other fingers.

Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Softshell Lobster Claw Gloves
These are the warmest cycling gloves I've ever worn and consistently keep my hands warm on cold-weather commutes, even when temps dip down into the low teens. This species of gloves splits your fingers Vulcan-style and allows each pair to snuggle up and warm each other, while still providing sufficient dexterity to change gears and work the brakes. It appears that this year's iteration is the P.R.O. AmFIB Lobster Glove.

REI Switchback Glove
This is what I wear for my coldest-weather adventures. A full-length waterproof glove, they feature an over-the-sleeve gauntlet to seal gaps, a removable fleece liner for adjustable warmth levels, and a delightful fit that provides me with a remarkable amount of dexterity for their size. For the deepest chills, I add my Black Diamond Midweight gloves underneath for exceptional warmth.

Obviously a multitude of gloves exist that could work for you—these are just the ones I've found work best for me. Also keep in mind that this round-up doesn't include mittens, which offer very warm solutions for your hands in exchange for a loss of dexterity. (See Mittens vs. Gloves.)

Keep those fingers happy!

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

Monday, November 9, 2015

Welcome to the Dark Season. It's Time to Be Seen.

The sun sets before 4:30 p.m. in most of New England for the next two months. This means that if you spend any time out and about in the evening—running, biking, walking—you will be enjoying the cloak of early darkness. And if you happen to be active on the weekdays in the hours immediately after sunset, you'll also be contending with heavy traffic on the roadways.

Bright is life. Photo: Sugoi
To stay safe, one of the keys is be as visible as possible to ensure that others can see you, especially drivers. This means lights, reflectors, and high-visibility clothing. As a night-time bike commuter these days, I use them all.

But, it turns out, I'm not maximizing their effectiveness. To do that, you want lights and reflectors that show motion, especially body motion. We're inherently more adept at spotting movement at night than picking out more static light sources or reflections (think bike lights, reflectors on the torso, etc.)
So if you're a cyclist, that means reflective straps or bands on your lower legs. If you're a runner or night walker, light up those shoes, lower legs, or wrists. Consider holding a flashlight in your hand while walking or running.

At a minimum, always check that you have at least one reflective item or light—even the small reflectors on the backs of running shoes are far superior to being a completely dark sojourner through winter's night.

Reflective straps are inexpensive ($5 to $10) and can make good holiday gifts. You should go get some. I am.

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


Monday, November 2, 2015

From Refuse to Rescue: How to Use a Garbage Bag for Survival

One essential item in any backcountry survival kit? A heavy-duty garbage bag, which you can quickly and easily transform into a potentially life-saving shelter. Here’s how:
  • Holding the bag sealed end up, cut a slit no longer than your face along one side seam, starting about 8 inches down from the corner. This allows you to use the corner as a hood, providing warmth for your head and protection from wind and rain.
  • You may or may not want to cut arm holes, which create two additional entry points for heat-stealing moisture and wind. In dire situations when warmth and protection are essential to survival, your best option is to forgo them.
  • Pull the bag over your head, position your face in the hole, and do your best to seal the open bottom beneath you. A sitting position is often most effective. Remember: Comfort is not the goal. Staying alive is.
This column originally appeared in AMC Outdoors. Photo courtesy of

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Personal Locator Beacon

A personal locator beacon could save your life. With current models weighing in around 5 ounces, it's definitely worth considering adding one to your survival equipment.

The ResQLink+ personal locator beacon weighs a mere 5.4 ounces.

I detail the realities of survival situations in the current issue of AMC Outdoors—Are Your Survival Skills Ready for Real Life?—including the essential gear that I recommend carrying to deal with a potential life-or-death scenario in the backcountry. These include a large, heavy-duty garbage bag for making an emergency survival poncho; fire-making equipment, including a fire-starter and tinder; and a means to alert rescuers of your location.

And when it comes to alerting rescuers, few tools are more powerful and effective as a personal locator beacon (PLB). Once activated, a PLB transmits a signal to the COSPAS-SARSAT international satellite system. The distress signal—which includes specific location information for the triggered PLB—is then received by the satellite system's on-the-ground mission control operations, which routes the call to the appropriate search-and-rescue (SAR) group for the area to initiate a response.

Each PLB signal contains a unique identifying number specific to the owner, which further assists SAR groups in their response. (You must register a PLB with NOAA before using; registration is free.) You can learn more about PLBs—and the important differences between PLBs and satellite messengers such as the SPOT—in this helpful primer from REI.

When PLBs first became available for use in the continental U.S. in 2003, they were heavy, bulky, and expensive devices, weighing well over a pound and costing north of $500. (I'm still toting one of these bricks around after purchasing one in 2005 for a long solo trip in Alaska.)  Purchasing one was a significant investment of both money and weight.

These days, however, PLBs have plummeted in weight and size, and prices have dropped by roughly half, making them a much more reasonable option for your survival kit. ACR Electronics makes some of the most widely used and recommended options, including the ResQLink+ (5.4 ounces, $289, $50 mail-in rebate currently available).

Keep in mind that PLBs are meant to be used only in life-or-death, option-of-last-resort scenarios—being prepared and avoiding such situations in the first place is always a better option.

Stay safe out there.

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


Monday, October 26, 2015

Stay Warmer: One Simple Item Can Make a Huge Difference

There are few items of gear as simple, inexpensive, and effective at increasing your warmth and comfort in the cold. What's more, it weighs only a few ounces and fits easily in most jacket pockets. What is this magic piece of cold-weather gear? A neck gaiter.

Chimney effect eliminated. Photo: Turtle Fur
A neck gaiter is essentially just a short tube of fabric that you pull over your head and position around your neck. Once in place, a neck gaiter performs three crucial functions that can markedly increase the amount of body heat you retain in the cold.

First, of course, a neck gaiter insulates your neck, where major blood- and heat-pumping pipes—the carotid arteries and jugular vein—sit close to the surface. If your neck isn't protected, you can lose a substantial amount of heat from these sources.

Second, a neck gaiter can prevent what is known as the "chimney effect." Warm air rises, which means that the precious body heat inside your jacket will escape upward and out through an open jacket collar. A neck gaiter, however, can effectively seal this gap and keep your body heat around your torso where you want it.

Lastly, the top of most neck gaiters can be pulled up to cover your chin, mouth, and nose for extra protection and warmth for your face—a nice feature in very cold and/or windy conditions.

Neck gaiters come in a surprising variety of fabrics and shapes, which makes it a worthwhile exercise to try on a variety of styles. Your neck and face can be some of your most sensitive areas, so choose a gaiter that's comfortable against the skin, and snug but not uncomfortably restrictive. You can get a sense of the options from the Turtle Fur product line, which features several dozen varieties ($10 to $30, depending on style).

Having tried a variety of neck gaiters over the years, my preference (and recommendation) is to keep it soft and simple. Look for plush fleece that feels good against your neck and face, with enough material so that you can pull the top up to your nose without exposing your lower neck in the process. Avoid wind-proof fabrics, which may seem like a good idea but tend to be stiff and much less pleasant to wear. Also stay away from neck gaiters with drawstrings or zippers, which are far more annoying than beneficial; and styles that feature an integrated face mask or balaclava, which get bunchy and uncomfortable around your neck when not in use (as they often are).

Stay warm out there!

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

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dirty Girl Gaiters: 2-Ounce Ankle Protection in Every Color Imaginable

In 2004, ultra-marathoner Xy Weiss produced a pair of custom-made leopard print gaiters to jibe with her leopard print jog bra. And Dirty Girls Gaiters were born.

Weighing less than 2 ounces, the low-cut, made-in-the-USA gaiters are constructed from stretchy spandex. They secure to the back of the shoe with a self-adhesive Velcro strip (instead of using a strap or string underfoot like most gaiters—a common failure point) and retail for $21—a bargain in the world of ultralight gear.

Plus you can order them in more than a hundred different wildly colorful patterns, most of which featured names as entertaining as their designs. Carpe Donut, Urban Revenge, Lime Gaiterade Hurl, Shaggadelic, Better with Bacon, RunTilYouDye... the list goes on and on.  In the often drab color palette of outdoor gear, Dirty Girl Gaiters stand out like a rainbow on your feet. (Solid colors are available for the less fashion-statement inclined.)

Keep in mind that these fall in the genre of 'trail gaiters' and are meant for trail runners and three-season hikers rather than winter adventurers. They are designed to keep dirt, grit, and mud out but are not meant for snow or wet conditions (they will quickly soak through).

The web site of this small Arizona-based company also makes for entertaining reading in its own right—it embraces the full nuances of 'dirty girl' in a way that no large gear company ever would.

Stay dirty my friends.   

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