Welcome!

Welcome! Ultralight backpacking is my passion, and keeping up on new technologies, gear, and techniques relevant to UL backpacking is what floats my boat. I'm always looking for the lightest, most functional gear to improve a lightweight or ultralight backpacking kit, and report my impressions and field testing results here. For hikers wanting to keep up on the latest and greatest ultralight backpacking gear, this is a good place to hang out. Also, there is a lot of information here (and on our informational website Southwest Ultralight Backpacking) on useful techniques and backcountry etiquette -- food for thought for hikers wanting to lighten their load and their impacts.

My goal for Ultralight Insights is to understand, test, and report on new technologies and gear of interest to lightweight and ultralight backpackers. It's a passion after all, so we just plain enjoy talking about it. I hope readers will add their own wisdom and comments, respond to my questions, ask their own questions, and correct me if I get something wrong. Happy hiking! Will

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Marmot Phase 20 Sleeping Bag

By Will Rietveld

There was a time when I recommended: wearing your camp clothing inside a 30F sleeping bag is all the warmth you need for summertime backpacking in the mountains. I was a bit younger then, and I stayed warm using that technique. Now I give the same advice, based on a 20F sleeping bag. I get cold easier as I get older, and I suspect others need extra insulation too, and it probably doesn’t have anything to do with age J.

Whether you need a 30F or a 20F bag, the same question arises: which bag do I recommend that is lightweight and has an honest temperature rating? Marmot has been making ultralight sleeping bags for a long time, and their Phase 20 (and 30) is state-of-the-art. Do I recommend them unconditionally? Not exactly; read on to learn the caveats.

 
Marmot Phase 20 Sleeping Bag in size Regular. (Manufacturer photo.)

Specifications and Features

Manufacturer
Marmot (www.marmot.com)
Model Tested
Phase 20 Regular
Models Available
Men’s Phase 20 Regular and Long, Women’s Phase 20 Regular
Materials
850 fill-power down treated with Down Defender for water-resistance, shell and lining are 10-denier Pertex ripstop Nylon (0.88 oz/sq yd)
Weight
Measured weight 23.85 oz; manufacturer specification 23.3 oz
Features
Anatomic Wrap-Around Toebox provides more insulation and room, Smooth-Curved Baffles reduce down shifting, Nautilus Multi-Baffle hood, full-length locking 2-way #3 YKK zipper with anti-snag slider, EN tested, internal stash pocket, snagless insulated draft tube, hood drawcord, stuff and stash bags included
MSRP
Regular $459, Long $479, Women’s $479

Description

The specifications table lists all of the relevant features of the bag; the following photos provide a good look.

Size Regular fits a person up to 6 feet tall; size Long fits to 6 feet 6 inches. I am 5 feet 11 inches tall and 160 pounds, and normally wear a men’s size Large shirt. Size Regular is sufficiently long for me, so that’s not an issue. However, shoulder girth for size Regular is 60 inches and Size Long has 62 inches, and that's where the issue lies. Remember those numbers.

Marmot Phase 20 zipped. The bag is very anatomically shaped. (Manufacturer photo.)



Note that the Phase 20’s left side zipper has a very distinct curve near the head end that extends to the base of the hood.


The zipper has a zipper garage at the end, a good feature to avoid snagging on the sleeper’s hair, facial or otherwise.




There is a zippered stash pocket inside the topside of the bag.



The hood has a single drawcord adjuster on the outside. There is a baffle around the front of the hood to seal in heat.


Field Testing

I tested the Marmot Phase 20 on four backpacking trips in Utah and New Mexico in fall 2016 and spring 2017. This photo was taken in April 2017, sleeping under the stars in a sandy wash in the backcountry of Canyonlands National ParkUtah. The nighttime low was about 30F.

What I like:
  • All materials are state-of-the-art for an ultralight sleeping bag, as good as it gets.
  • The Phase 20 is EN tested, has excellent loft, and is realistically rated. Having said that, note that most bags are not toasty warm when the air temperature is at the bag temperature rating.
  • Most sleepers will like the full-length zipper (it actually ends about 17 inches from the foot end of the bag), which enables the bag to be used as a blanket on warmer nights.
  • The footbox is roomy and warm.

What I don’t like:
  • The bag’s shoulder girth is simply too tight.
  • Because of the bag’s tightness, the zipper is very hard to close, which is exacerbated by a curve to the base of the hood. It is even more difficult to unzip.
  • The bag is not amenable to wearing camp clothing inside the bag to extend its warmth. It’s simply too tight and I can’t get the zipper closed past my shoulder.

The best way to use the Marmot Phase 20 is to wear a single layer of clothing inside the bag. That keeps the bag clean and roomier.

A snug bag is warmer because there is less air space to warm up.

The locking feature of the zipper is also its nemesis – if there is any sideways tension on the zipper (from the bag’s tight fit), the zipper won’t slide. The best way to operate the zipper is to hold the track straight with one hand and zip with the other.

I struggled with the hood to obtain a breathing hole aligned with my mouth.

On warmer nights, my preferred method to use the bag is as a blanket by unzipping it and wrapping it around me.

Assessment

For a person my size, the Phase 20 in Regular Length is not a good choice. If you are a smaller person, chances are you will get along just fine with the Phase 20. Although I am an “average” sized male, it would appear that I am at the upper limit (or beyond) for the Phase 20 in size Regular. The Long version of this bag would accommodate me much better. In fact, I initially requested the Long, but it was not available at the time. The Long has two more inches of shoulder girth, which should be sufficient.

Speaking from experience, I need 62 inches or more of shoulder girth in a sleeping bag in order to wear my camp clothing inside my bag. That is a weight-efficient technique to extend the warm of a sleeping bag to stay warmer while reducing overall pack weight.

In addition to the bag’s tight shoulder girth, the curved zipper at the head end is another factor to take into account. The zipper can be very hard to close because of the locking feature. Also, because of the lightweight #3 zipper used on the bag, its a recipe for a broken zipper. My advice is to test the bag at an outdoor store to be sure the fit and zipper closure works for you.

Note that the women’s Phase 20 weighs 29 ounces, about 6 ounces more than the men’s Regular, so it obviously contains more down and is warmer. That is the norm nowadays – the women’s version is a bit heavier but warmer. The shoulder girth is 58 inches.

These issues may not affect everyone, and if you are a smaller person than me, the Marmot Phase 20 is a very good choice for an ultralight warm sleeping bag. It’s made of premium lightweight materials, and 23.3 ounces is an excellent weight for an ultralight 20F bag. If you are a bigger person, try out size Long to see how it works for you; I was not able to and wish I did.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Gossamer Gear LT-5 Trekking Poles

By Will Rietveld

I have always loved my Gossamer Gear LT-4 two-piece carbon fiber poles. Combined with an ultralight backpack, they maximize agility in rough terrain. But one drawback is their inconvenient length when collapsed and tied to a pack – they extend higher than the pack and catch on things, which is not nice when I am scrambling.

The new LT-5 trekking pole overcomes that problem because it has three sections and collapses down to 23.5 inches, so it doesn’t extend beyond the top of a backpack. This review reports my experience with the LT-5 Trekking Poles over a two month testing period and 21 days of actual use.

The new Gossamer Gear LT-5 carbon fiber trekking pole has three sections and collapses down to 23.5 inches. (Gossamer Gear photo)

 Specifications and Features

Manufacturer
Gossamer Gear (www.gossamergear.com)
Model
LT-5 Trekking Pole
Sections
3
Materials
Carbon fiber shaft, EVA grip
Weight
5.2 oz/pole with wrist strap and trekking basket; manufacturer specification 5.3 oz/pole
Features
Carbon fiber shaft, EVA "Kork-o-lon" grip, basket mount with trekking basket and carbide tip, nylon wrist strap, rubber tip cover
MSRP
$195/pair

Description

The beauty of the LT-5 (and LT-4) is their lightness. While the LT-4 can be stripped down to a minimum weight of 4.1 ounces/pole, the LT-5 can get down to 4.5 ounces/pole. That’s without the wrist strap, trekking basket, and rubber tip. So, for an additional 0.4 ounce/pole you get a three-section pole, with a good locking mechanism, and it collapses down to a short length for better portability.

The anatomical EVA "Kork-o-lon" grip is made exclusively for Gossamer Gear and has provided excellent performance and durability over the years, while saving weight.


Three carbon fiber sections adjust from 23.5 to 51 inches (60 to 130 cm). The locking mechanism is a twist type with a small profile. Only the center section has length markings.

 
The tip takes Leki type threaded baskets. Also shown in this photo are the included trekking basket, rubber tip, and padded wrist strap that I removed to reduce the weight/pole from 5.2 down to 4.5 ounces.

Field Testing



I tested the LT-5 trekking poles on 13 outings totaling 21 days. Outings included day hiking, car camping, and backpacking in a variety of terrains. This photo was taken in the backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.

The collapsibility of the LT-5 is a big plus for carrying them on a backpack to free my hands. The pack is the Gossamer Gear Murmur; location is remote backcountry of Canyonlands National ParkUtah.


The stiffness of the LT-5 is about the same as the LT-4. The tip section does not have the spiral wrap feature of the LT-4.

It is difficult to assess the LT-5s durability at this stage. They are definitely sturdy. My experience with the LT-4 is they hold up well with normal use, but breakage occurs when I lose my footing and take a fall. I have broken two tips on my LT-4s, and both times involved a fall when the tips were caught between rocks. Some good advice is to carry your poles while walking through sliderock.

I personally don’t like to use baskets, and value lightweight over features. The poles without baskets do not provide much support in soft snow or mud, but trekking baskets do not add much improvement.

I initially tested the poles with the rubber tips provided, and found they slipped more than the bare carbide tips. I was surprised with that finding since I expected them to grip better. So I removed them.

One technical point is adding a basket and rubber tip to a carbon trekking pole makes its swing weight less favorable. Swing weight is how the pole feels in a stride; the more weight on the tip, the more effort it takes to swing it. I would say that the swing weight of the LT-4 is a bit better than the LT-5 because it has two sections and one locking mechanism versus two twist locks on the LT-5, but the difference is not great.

I personally prefer to use trekking poles without straps because that keeps them simple to grab and go, and when I take a fall I want to release the poles so I don’t break them.

The twist-type locking mechanisms work well, but they need to be tightened snugly. During my testing I had 3 occasions when the locks slipped, and it turned out they were not tightened enough. My solution is to tighten each section, then grab the tip and handle and twist the whole pole to make sure it is tight, being careful to avoid overtightening. 

If you are disagreeing with me at this point, I am not surprised. Hikers express a full range of preferences in gear and techniques and I understand that. The nice thing about these trekking poles is they come with the extra features and so you can configure them however you like.

The only potential issue I had with the LT-5 is very fine sand on the lower section makes it difficult to collapse that section. The photo shows some fine scratches in the carbon from sand abrasion. I only had the problem while backpacking in Canyonlands National Park, and I also had to stop frequently and dump the sand out of my shoes. Under those conditions it would be a good idea to wipe the shaft with a cloth before collapsing it.

Assessment

Presumably, the Gossamer Gear LT-5 is the lightest three-section carbon fiber trekking pole to be found. I really like its collapsibility and portability, and the grips are wonderful.

The biggest improvements over the LT-4 are 1) their collapsibility to a shorter length, and 2) a much better locking mechanism. Those improvements come with a small weight penalty, 0.4 ounce/pole compared to the LT-4, but they are worth the weight.

The twist locks on the LT-5 are an older technology, but they are lightweight and work well, at least so far. I like the LT-4 in spite of their finicky locking mechanism, but it is tiresome to have to pull the sections apart and adjust the mechanism before it will lock again.

Those improvements shift my recommendation to the LT-5. It’s more refined while still being very lightweight. It has performed very well so far, but time will ultimately tell us how reliable it is.

The price is another thing; I thought the LT-4 was expensive when it was $150/pair; now they are $206/pair with straps, and the LT-5 is $195/pair. So both are expensive trekking poles.   

Saturday, April 29, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System

By Will Rietveld

This cook kit is made in heaven for backpackers on the lower end of Ultralight, and those who want to break the 5 pound base weight barrier.

Leave it to GVP, aka Glen Van Peski, the UL Master, to come up with the lightest cook kit for one person. The Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System can weigh as little as 3 ounces for a complete cooking kit. That should get your attention.

The Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System is sold as an Esbit fueled cooking system. The specified total weight is 4.2 ounces.

There are zillions of lightweight and ultalight cooking systems out there, available for purchase or hand made, each one with some good testimonials. My review of the Gossamer Gear system will add to that list. This review describes what the Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System is and how it performed for me. I don’t make any attempt to compare it with other systems.

Specifications and Features

Manufacturer
Gossamer Gear (www.gossamergear.com)
Product
GVP Ultralight Stove System
Components
Esbit tablets (3 pack)  45g; aluminum heat reflector  3g; Cuben cozy 15g; Esbit Stand 1g; Silicone band  5g; metal pot lid 4g; plastic lid 4g; 22 oz / 650 ml cook pot  20g; windscreen cone 22g
Weight
Total Kit 4.20 oz/120 g
MSRP
$90

Description

Since I’m a gram pincher, I was originally attracted to the Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System because of its minimal weight. However functionality and durability are equally important. For me, the important elements of an ultralight stove system are:
  • Minimal weight
  • Compact
  • Sized for one person
  • Wind resistant
  • Burns alcohol fuel
  • Fuel efficient
  • Adequately durable
  • Good lifespan
  • Easy to setup and use
  • Compatible with my cooking and eating techniques
 As you can see from the component list, the GVP Ultralight Stove System uses Esbit fuel tabs. The main advantage of Esbit is its more energy dense, so it will boil water about twice as fast as alcohol fuel. The disadvantages are the fuel tabs are somewhat expensive and hard to find, smell terrible while burning, and coat the cook pot with soot.

I personally dislike Esbit and prefer to use alcohol fuel. Why? Because it’s cheap and easy to find, doesn’t smell (much), and is clean burning so no soot. The disadvantage is it’s slower; it takes about 10 minutes to boil a pint of water. That’s not a problem for me because I can do camp setup or takedown while the water is heating.

I wish the Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System were also available in an alcohol version; it would be a simple matter of substituting an alcohol burner and small fuel bottle for the Esbit stand and Esbit tablets. They could even leave out the fuel bottle because the bottle size depends on trip length; I have an assortment of bottle sizes that I use.

When I received the Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System I made a few adjustments to meet my criteria (above list). First, I trimmed a little weight by removing the silicone pot band. Then I substituted a Zelph StarLyte alcohol burner (0.45 ounce with its cap) for the Esbit stand. The remaining components are all functional. Overall, the adjustments were minor to make the stove system meet my needs. The weight of that configuration is 3 ounces.

The Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System as tested weighs just 3 ounces. The components are:
  1. Titanium Caldera Cone – sturdy and durable.
  2. Cook pot – Foster’s beer can cut down to 22 ounces, then rimed and ridged to increase durability. Height is 4.25 inches.
  3. Aluminum pot lid with steam vent and lift tab.
  4. Plastic pot cover – this serves a dual purpose: seal the pot to shake a drink to mix it, or add water and shake the pot to clean it.
  5. Soft aluminum heat reflector – to put under the burner.
  6. Zelph StarLyte alcohol burner – available at www.woodgaz-stove.com for $12 plus $4 shipping. It comes with a plastic lid (not shown). I like this burner because it’s very lightweight (0.45 oz with lid), compact (fits perfectly in the packed kit, fuel efficient, and excess fuel can be stored inside the stove without spilling. The burner is packed with fiberglass, which holds the fuel inside.
  7. Plastic fuel measuring cup – this is simply a medicine cup; it’s useful because I can’t see how much fuel I’m adding to the burner, so it’s best to measure it.
  8. Cuben Fiber cozy – for keeping food hot while it’s hydrating, and warm while eating. It also serves as a carry bag.
The spoon is not included in the cooking system.

Testing

I tested the Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System on two backpacking trips in the remote backcountry of Canyonlands National ParkUtah.

 
I prefer to place the stove on a flat rock to use it, rather than disturbing the ground. As you can see, it’s very compact when set up.

Even though the cook pot is small, you can still cook fish in it, in this case trout cut into chunks. The technique is to put the fish sections into the pot, fill the pot with water up to within about 1 inch of the top, bring the water + fish to boiling, cover and place the pot in the cozy for 10 minutes, then eat.

 I typically only cook at dinnertime. I fill the pot about half full with water, bring it to a boil, dump in my dinner (about 5 ounces dry weight fills the pot when cooked), bring it back to a boil, then put the pot into the cozy to hydrate. I eat directly out of the pot with the short handled spoon shown; no long handled spoon required. For desert I eat a protein bar.

For breakfast I drink a cold mocha consisting of a powdered nutritional shake mix plus a teaspoon of instant coffee, shaken in the cook pot, followed by a cereal or granola concoction hydrated with cold water.

Performance

With the routine described above, I use less than 0.5 ounce of fuel a day, which is a small bottle for a typical trip. For someone who enjoys a hot beverage or two every day, the amount of fuel will double or triple.

I really like the shortened Foster’s can cook pot; it’s easy to reach the bottom with a short handled spoon which also fits neatly into the kit for packing. And it’s easy to clean. A full-height Foster’s can has enough volume to cook for two people, and can be used on the cone provided in this kit, but it requires a long-handled spoon to reach the bottom and is harder to clean. I usually only boil water in it and hydrate in another container.

The titanium caldera cone is also a big plus. It’s strong, durable, and works for a long time. I have tested the aluminum version and find it easily bends out of shape and the connection doesn’t work very well after some use.

The Zelph StarLyte alcohol burner is a good match for this cooking system, but most any small/compact alcohol burner will work.

The Cuben Fiber cozy is very nice; it also serves as a carry sack to contain and protect the kit.

Assessment

In my 17 years of gear testing and reviewing, including several years as Backpacking Light Magazine’s cooking systems editor, I have tested a lot of cooking gear of all types. I can say unequivocally, for a solo cooking system, the Gossamer Gear GVP Ultralight Stove System can’t be beat. After all, it was created by the UL Master himself – Glen Van Peski – so you know it’s very refined and as lightweight as it gets.

Glen prefers Esbit, I prefer alcohol, but that’s a personal preference thing. The system works equally well with either fuel, and it would be nice if Gossamer Gear would offer that choice.

The $90 price tag is a bit steep, but the main components are custom made for Gossamer gear and sold in limited quantities. Once you make the purchase, you will have the lightest, most compact complete solo cook kit currently available. It will last many years with reasonable care. This cook kit is made in heaven for backpackers on the lower end of Ultralight, and those who want to break the 5 pound base weight barrier.


Another reason for getting it is its simply ultralight elegance, a key component in a well thought out ultralight kit, and something that really makes you feel content – like owning a Tesla.

GEAR REVIEW: Topo Terraventure Trail Shoe

By Will Rietveld

Topo has found a way to maximize the performance of the Terraventure with the least amount of weight.

According to one study, taking 1 pound off your feet is equivalent to taking 6 pounds out of your backpack, so lightweight shoes are an important component of an ultralight backpacking kit. But not any lightweight shoe will do for backpacking, especially over rough terrain. My choice for ultralight backpacking footwear is lightweight, supportive, cushioned, grippy trail running shoes. That is the context of this review.

I have wide feet (E width), so my preference is shoes with a wide toebox so my feet can splay out. That feature also helps a lot when my feet swell during long hikes or runs. The toebox area is the only area where I want the extra width; I want the heelcup to be snug.

The Topo Terraventure is designed for running on rough trails, which makes it a good candidate for ultralight backpacking. (Topo Athletic photo)

Topo shoes are one of the few shoe brands offering that combination. Most others are simply “medium width”. I previously tested the Topo Hydroventure, a waterproof-breathable shoe made with eVent DVdry LT membrane and construction, and my feet loved them. Is the Topo Terraventure just as good?

Specifications and Features

Manufacturer
Topo Athletic (www.topoathletic.com)
Model
Terraventure
Weight
10.2 oz/shoe (men’s 9); 11.4 oz/shoe (men’s 12 tested)
Features
No-sew construction, nylon mesh upper with polyurethane overlays, wide toebox, fitted heel cup, gusseted tongue, Ghillie lacing system, 3mm heel to toe drop, flexible forefoot TPU rock plate, high-traction outsole, EVA midsole
MSRP
$110

Description

 
The Terraventure’s upper is nylon mesh with polyurethane overlays, and no-stitch construction.

 
An aggressive outsole lug design provides serious traction.

Soon after the shoes arrived I took them on a 12-day camping and hiking trip in the TucsonArizona area. The rubber outsoles have loads of grip and rarely slipped.

 Testing


Although the Terraventure has a fully gusseted tongue, I prefer to wear short lightweight gaiters over them to keep debris out, especially when hiking off-trail.

Over four months of testing I wore the Terraventure on 44 day hikes and one backpack, for a total of 48 testing days. Trail conditions varied widely: desert granite, hardpacked snow, frozen mud, slickrock, rocky trails, Utah sand, and steep dirt trails. I wore them trail running several days. The backpacking trip in Utah’s Canyonlands country included class 3 scrambling, bashing through brush, and walking sandy washes.

Performance

Fit – I found the fit to be the same as the Hydroventure, a wide toebox and snug heelcup. However, since my measured shoe size is a 12-E, I found the toebox none too wide. I had to wear thin socks in them to avoid scrunching my toes. The wide toebox is a welcome feature, even for h  for hikers with normal feet, because their feet pancake out on prolonged hikes.

Breathability – The mesh nylon upper provided good breathability; only a coarse mesh upper would provide more, but that has its disadvantages -- your toes get very dirty and sand enters easily. I wore the shoes in 89F temperatures in southern Arizona in relative comfort.

Traction – The Terraventure has a 6 mm rubber outsole with a very aggressive tread. Traction is outstanding.

Stability – The forefoot TPU rock plate insulates my feet from sharp rocks, while providing the right amount of stiffness for edging. For downhill hiking I like to tighten the laces over my instep to prevent toe jamming, and the Ghillie lacing system holds firm in that location without slipping.

Comfort – The EVA midsole is 14 mm in the heel and 11 mm at the ball. I found cushioning to be very good, but not as good as some other brands with enhanced cushioning. The Ghillie lacing allowed me to simply tug on the lacing to tighten it over my instep to enhance stability, especially on descents, while remaining looser in the lower section for maximum toebox width.

Durability – The Terraventure is amazingly durable. After 48 days of hiking on rough trails, off-trail bushwhacking, and some trail running, the uppers look like new and the outsoles are only lightly worn. The only evidence of use is some scuffing on the edges of the outsole.

Cleaned after 48 days of use, the only sign of use is some scuffing on the edges of the outsole; the nylon mesh upper looks like new. The outsole is worn some, but there is still a lot of life left in the shoes.


The only issue I had with the Terraventure is fine Utah sand sifts through the nylon upper when hiking in dry washes. In that situation I had to remove the shoes frequently and dump sand out of them.

 Assessment

 My overall evaluation of the Terraventure is very similar to the Hydroventure I previously reviewed: the Topo Terraventure is one of the best hiking shoes I have tested. Their wide toebox is what allows me to wear them in the first place, and all of their features add up to a near perfect shoe for ultralight backpacking and day hiking. For their minimal weight, their fit, comfort, traction, and durability are amazing.

An article I would like to write in the near future is my concept of the perfect shoe for ultralight backpacking. And a perfect example of that shoe is the Topo Terraventure.

I really like no-stitch upper construction. Over the years I have tested and reviewed numerous hiking boots and shoes, and found the nemesis is stitching at the fifth metatarsal head (the widest part of your forefoot on the outside). Hiking off-trail and sliding down scree slopes (scree skiing) puts a lot of wear on that exposed area, which wears the stitching through, and the seam comes apart. With no-stitch construction that problem is eliminated (see photos above).

The Terraventure is the most durable trail running shoe I have tested, and I have tested a lot. I usually end up with holes in the mesh in shoes with mesh uppers, but the Terraventure’s nylon mesh upper is essentially unscathed. It helps a lot to have a good polyurethane rand just above the outsole to protect the upper, and in particular a polyurethane overlay at the fifth metatarsal head, as described above and shown in the photos.

The aggressive traction outsole is another component of this shoe I especially like. It provides phenomenal traction, which is a necessity for hiking. At the end of my testing, there is still plenty of life left in the shoes.

For a shoe designed to provide stability on rough trails, the Terraventure is on the lighter end, which I also appreciate. Topo has found a way to maximize the performance of the Terraventure with the least amount of weight.

Finally, at $110 the Terraventure is a good value compared to stability shoes by other brands that cost $20 to $30 more.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Men’s Performance Underwear for Hiking and Backpacking

By Will Rietveld

What do you wear under your kilt? Well, that’s a pretty personal thing, ranging from au natural to something with pretty good support. I’m sure some advocate the former, and its very convenient for women, but men have a different sort of need...

I don’t find many articles on this subject, but it’s a valid question to bring up. Should you wear your normal everyday cotton undies, or is “performance underwear” that much better? Maybe you haven’t thought about it that much. So let’s get this topic out into the open, so to speak.

 
Men’s performance underwear comes in different styles, from shortest to longest: briefs (not shown), trunks, boxers, and long-leg. Brands tested for this article are MyPakage (left) ExOfficio (center), and Saxx (right). I personally prefer trunks and boxers, but I assume each individual has a personal preference.

Since we pay big bucks for high-tech outerwear – jackets, wind shirts, pants, shells, rainwear – why should underwear be any different? Does it matter that much?

It does matter:
  • Don’t wear something that soaks up moisture and dries slowly, so forget cotton.
  • Stay away from thongs!
  • Synthetics are much better for moisture management and quick drying, just like a baselayer top.
  • Wool is good for the cold months, but it’s slower to dry compared to synthetics.
  • Flat seam construction avoids abrasion.
  • On a multi-day trip, you can wash out synthetic underwear and dry it overnight.
  • They have stretch to conform to the body and provide a snug fit.
  • They prevent your bells from clanging against your thighs, in other words they’re supportive.
  • Many have a wider waistband to distribute pressure (but adds weight).
  • You can actually wear them as a hiking short or swimsuit, which makes them multi-purpose.

Styles
  • Briefs typically have no inseam.
  • Trunks have a 3 to 4-inch inseam.
  • Boxers have a 5 to 6-inch inseam.
  • Long-Leg styles have an 8 to 10-inch inseam.

A lot of garment manufacturers make performance underwear in a wide array of styles and fabrics, and the inseam length within an individual style varies by manufacturer.

Testing

For years I wore cotton briefs before synthetic performance bottoms came out. Then I discovered synthetic briefs by Patagonia and Terramar for backpacking, and found them to be a good improvement. The revelation came for me when I got some Saxx trunks at the Outdoor Retailer trade show to try when the first came out. Their claim is “life changing underwear”. They did, I love them, and have worn them ever since.

Saxx. What is unique about Saxx underwear (and My Pakage below) is they have an engineered pouch at the front that provides excellent support for the male anatomy during active sports, just like a sports bra does for women. Specifically, their BallPark Pouch, Three-D Fit, and Flat Out Seams combine to provide great fit, support, friction prevention. Saxx has numerous fabrics and styles for different seasons and sports, and a range of colors and patterns from mild to wild. I have worn Saxx trunks and boxers and like both of them equally well. In particular, I especially like the Quest 2, which is a lightweight highly breathable summer version. (Saxx photo)


Saxx also has the Kinetic Tight, which is a synthetic calf length tight for active sports in cool weather. They are a combination underwear and tight. I tried these for backcountry skiing on cold days and really like them. I don’t overheat in them as I would wearing wool tights.

MyPakage. This brand came out soon after Saxx, as I recall, and has been well received. Their underwear has a front pouch similar to Saxx that they call “Keyhole Technology”, and their underwear is available in a range of styles, fabrics, and colors, some pretty wild. I have tried MyPakage trunks and boxers in several fabrics, like them just as well as the Saxx bottoms, and favor lightweight breathable synthetics. (MyPakage photo)

ExOfficio. I recently tried ExOfficio Give-n-Go underwear on a 2-week February trip to camp and hike in the southern Arizona Sonoran Desert. ExOfficio does not have the defined pouch technology like Saxx or MyPakage, but they do claim to have “ergonomic support and active fit”. I tested the Sport Mesh version (lightweight and breathable) and Sol Cool version (cooling), both in a boxer style. Although both versions were the same size, the Sport Mesh fit me perfectly and performed well, but the Sol Cool version was too loose and did not perform very well at all. Fit really matters. Interestingly, the packaging does not reveal what the fabric makeup is, but the garment labels reveal the Sport Mesh boxers are 92% nylon and 8% spandex and the Sol Cool boxers are 54% cotton, 42% nylon, and 6% spandex. Overall, the Sport Mesh was a hit and the Sol Cool was a miss.

Saxx and MyPakage offer many versions of their underwear with or without a fly. The flyless version seems to support a little better but the fly version is more convenient. Not a big difference, so personal choice. Both brands perform well for me, and I don’t have any particular preference between the two. The ExOfficio boxers have a fly and don’t have the specific pouch “technology” of the Saxx and MyPakage underwear.

It’s important to size underwear to get a snug-but-not-tight fit, and definitely not loose. Most have a soft stretch to fit a range of shapes and sizes, so most men would wear one size smaller than their regular pant size. I normally wear a size Large in a pant (34-35 waist), but I wear size Medium trunks and boxers.

Assessment

There are loads of options (brands, fabrics, styles) in the performance underwear category, and it is difficult to test all of them. So this article will suffice as an introduction to the topic and a testimonial to my experiences and personal preferences. Perhaps readers would like to add their testimonial on brands and styles they like.

This reminds me of a story in the book “I Hike” by my friend Lawton “Disco” Grinter: he ran into a foreign hiker on the CDT called Speedo who was pleading for water. Speedo was complaining of “schayfing” (chafing) and needed the water to shave his “durf”, a private area which had gotten inflamed from many miles of hiking. He was in serious pain. Chafing can be a serious problem while hiking a long trail. The solution is to avoid the problem by wearing performance underwear of the types described above, and use Bodyglide as needed.

My personal preference is the Saxx and MyPakage underwear, which have a well-designed pouch to support and isolate the male anatomy so it doesn’t jostle or rub, avoiding discomfort and chafing. I have a slight preference for the trunk style because they are a bit lighter and cooler, but boxers work just as well. Both are a bit expensive at about $25/pair, but well worth it.

Bottom line, if your undies are in a bundle, causing discomfort or chafing, consider switching to synthetic trunk or boxer style performance underwear with flat seams. My personal experience and preference is the brands (Saxx and My Pakage) that have a well designed pouch to support and confine the male anatomy, but there are likely other brands and styles that have a strong following. This is a topic for some good discussion; what works best for you?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Patagonia Nano-Air Jacket

The basic issue, for me, is the jacket’s active exertion comfort range, by itself, occurs at colder temperatures than I normally encounter. On many occasions, especially sunny, calm, cool (25-35F) conditions, the jacket simply got too hot so I had to take it off.

By Will Rietveld

The concept started with the introduction of Polartec Alpha – breathable insulation claimed to maintain warmth and comfort while actively exercising. Soon after the introduction many manufacturers offered breathable insulated jackets. Although Patagonia uses their proprietary FullRange Insulation rather than Polartec Alpha in the Nano-Air Jacket, the functionality is basically the same, and Patagonia does a great job with the implementation.

Patagonia men’s Nano-Air Jacket in “Underwater Blue”.


The Nano-Air, and other jackets of this type, are claimed to be a jacket that you never have to repeatedly put on and take off to stay comfortable in varying conditions, and one that permits the user to stay comfortable no matter what level of activity. That’s a “lofty” claim, so I decided to try one out to see how it actually performs. Actually, if the claims are even somewhat real, that would be a good improvement.

Specifications and Features

Manufacturer
Patagonia (www.patagonia.com)
Model
Men’s Nano-Air Jacket
Shell and Lining
Shell is 1.3 oz/sq yd 20-denier nylon ripstop with DWR, lining is 2 oz/sq yd 50-denier plain weave nylon with DWR; both have 2-way stretch
Insulation
60-gram FullRange polyester, 40 CFM
Weight
Measured weight men’s Large 13.2 oz; mfr specification 12.5 oz for size Medium
Features
Full-height front zipper with storm flap behind, 2 zippered handwarmer pockets, 1 zippered chest pocket, elastic cuffs, hem drawcord with 2 adjustors
Fit
Athletic fit with set-in sleeves, “unlimited range of motion”
MSRP
$249

Description

 
Front View. The Nano-Air has an athletic fit, meaning close to body. The sleeves are extra long and trim, and the body extends below the waist. The full-height zipper is not the water-resistant type.

Back View: The jacket is sized so it can be worn over a heavier baselayer or fleece pullover.

Hand Pockets. Two “handwarmer” pockets are actually lined with the shell and lining fabrics. Both are very soft so they feel warm. The pockets are large enough to store gloves.

Chest Pocket and Shell Fabric. The chest pocket is large enough to store a compact camera or cell phone. There is no port to route ear buds. This photo also give a good closeup of the shell fabric, which has a very soft/pleasant feel. It’s ripstop nylon for durability that has been brushed for softness and has a DWR treatment.

Hem Drawcord and Lining Fabric. The hem drawcord has two adjustors (one shown) for sealing the bottom of the jacket. The lining is brushed plain weave nylon with a DRW treatment. Both shell and lining fabrics have two-way stretch.

Underarm. Brick quilting in the side panels, plus articulated patterning and other quilting details improve the jacket’s shape and durability.

 

Testing 


I tested the Patagonia Nano-Air Jacket on a total of 11 trips that included backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snow walking, and two multi-day ski-in trips to a mountain cabin.

Here are my fit/feel/ergonomic observations from testing:
  • The jacket is incredibly soft and supple, and has a stretchy feel.
  • The fit is excellent and true to size.
  • The back covers my butt.
  • There is room inside for some layering if desired.
  • The fit around my neck is loose (see the first photo under Description).
  • It has wonderful articulation and is very comfortable to wear.
  • The hand pockets are located high, above a backpack hipbelt.
  • Love the longer sleeves. 

Both the shell and lining have a good DWR treatment, which causes water to bead up and roll off, and prevent snow from sticking.

The brushed nylon fabric is easy to stain around the collar, but it’s easy to clean just that area.

My observations on temperature regulation and comfort in high-exertion activities are a mixed bag:
  • For me, the jacket performed best over a thin baselayer to get maximum benefit from its breathability.
  • Adjusting ventilation by opening/closing the front zipper, or tightening/loosening the hem drawcord are more effective for temperature regulation than jacket breathable insulation and fabrics.
  • The aforementioned combination of ventilation and breathability factors are sufficiently effective during active exertion only in cold or very cool conditions, specifically below 25F, overcast, and breezy/windy. Some combination of those factors is required for comfort, otherwise the jacket is too hot to wear comfortably.
  • On several cold days (below 15F) the jacket performed wonderfully with the front zipper closed.
  • However, on many occasions (not cool, overcast, or breezy enough), the jacket simply got too hot, even with the front zipper open, and I had to take it off.
  • As claimed, donning a shell over the jacket in really cold/windy conditions adds a lot of warmth.
  • When I stop to rest, the jacket dries out quickly, and I get chilly if I don’t donn a shell over it.

 

Assessment

The basic issue, for me, is the jacket’s active exertion comfort range, by itself, occurs at colder temperatures than I normally encounter. On many occasions, especially sunny, calm, cool (25-35F) conditions, the jacket simply got too hot so I had to take it off.

I do agree that the jacket’s fabrics and insulation help to extend the comfort period, but a larger amount of temperature regulation is accomplished by simply opening or closing the front zipper.  I find the same to be true when I test waterproof/breathable rain shells – fabric breathability helps, but ventilation is the main contributor to comfort.

It appears, for me, that a lighter weight breathable jacket is needed, such as the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket, to accomplish the “keep it on” goal for high exertion sports in cool and cold weather. I can always don a shell over the lighter insulation layer if I get too chilly.

For light or moderate exertion in cool temperatures, like a walking pace on flatter ground, the Nano-Air performs well; it’s a matter of consistent weather conditions and activity level. However, how often does that happen? If the sun comes out, or a hill comes up, or the wind stops, its time to open the front zipper to regulate temperature, the same as any other jacket.


The bottom line from my testing is the Nano-Air Jacket effectively regulates temperature in cold weather active endeavors, but its too much insulation (for me) to wear continuously in active cool weather sports. The latter is more common in my situation, so the Nano-Air Jacket is too much insulation if the goal is to “keep it on”. I believe a more functional and versatile option would be to go with a lighter breathable insulation garment, like the new Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket and don a highly breathable shell over it (such as the new Patagonia Airshed Pullover), as needed to maintain comfort. A combination of those layers, plus the huge ventilation benefits from simply adjusting the zipper(s) should perform well.