Category Archives: Reviews

Adventure Travel – National Geographic Adventure Blog

While I was in the field the abridged version of my Backcountry Boiler review was featured on the National Geographic Adventure Blog, check it out:

Adventure Travel – National Geographic Adventure Blog.

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Filed under backcountry, backpacking, DIY, equipment, Fabrication, gear, lightweight, MYOG, Outdoors, Reviews, ultralight, wilderness

Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, a somewhat biased review

Get the book, go lighter.

I know Mike Clelland, he’s a friend, a mentor, and a pal.  We’ve hiked together and collaborated quiet a bit on various lightweight projects over the last six or seven years.  So here’s the deal.  Mike sent me a copy of this book.  Now, you might think that I would give him a swell review just because he hooked me up, but the truth is Mike’s got it right. You see, Mike see’s things differently than most folks.

Mike Brews up an a quick trip into the mountains in Alaska

This should be apparent from the awesome illustrations he draws that accurately depict technical details with humor and levity.  It goes beyond that though.  It goes beyond drawing a happy hiker with some neat trick of ultralight backpacking and some little boing marks.  Mike gets it.  He draws stuff he knows, whether climbing, skiing, mountaineering or ultralight backpacking.  And he’s always trying to understand it all better.  I have met few in the ultralight game who have put as much thought and trial into their system as Mike.  When it comes to influencing the hiking world to go lighter, it is easily argued that Mike C! has had as large an impact as anyone. Mike has taken the admittedly geeky world of lightweight and made it accessible to the common (wo)man.

His lightweight illustrations, first in Lighten Up! and now in his own book Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips have been a gateway to lightweight backpacking for the masses, he also scouted, proposed and championed the lightweight backpacking program at NOLS and has taught lightweight courses for NOLS and Backpacking Light.

He has inspired me to go lighter, and along the way I have been able to help him in small ways, like our common interest in the coffee system (tip #129 – we spent a fun afternoon weighing various coffee devices and brew methods).  My lightest trip ever has been with Mike, our packs both weighed in at 7.98 lbs for an overnight trip with stove, shelter, and two cooked meals.  It is Mikes desire to share what he has learned that makes his book so effective.  He uses his amazing talent for illustration to remind us that this backpacking stuff is supposed to be fun.

That’s the biggest selling point of this book.  It’s downright fun to read.  This makes the wackier of ideas (like #54 Make your own toothpaste dots, which work really well and are a great way to bring just enough paste.) easier to buy into and try out.  You can laugh at the cute drawing, and ponder the wisdom behind the tip.  With the tip format, Mike has allowed the reader to try different techniques on different trips with no need to do everything at once, fully engaging in my favorite tip, #6 Try something new every time you go camping.  A great model for learning by doing.

Whether your a pro lightweight explorer or just getting into the game, this book is bound to give you some new ideas to get out and try on your next trip.  It is a beautiful call to action to get out, travel lighter and learn by doing.

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First impressions – Hyperlite Mountain Gear

One of the best parts of working in the outdoors (other than the obvious joy of working in the outdoors) is the people that you meet.  I described my somewhat random meeting with Mike from Hyperlite Mountain Gear  in a previous post.  He recently sent me their flagship Windrider pack to test, and while it came at the end of the Wyoming hiking season, I have taken it out skiing a couple days to get a feel for it while I try to find some time to get down to the canyons or someplace a tad warmer than the Winds are right now.  This will be a long term test, so here are my initial impressions.

Windrider Pack:

The pack is definitely light. The websight has a claimed weight of 1.6lbs (25.5 oz.) and on my scale I found the actual weight of my size large pack to be only one pound, over a half pound lighter than claimed.  This is pretty remarkable, considering most manufactures understate the weight of their gear!

Brilliant white and really light. Photo courtesy of HMG.

The pack is a brilliant white and pretty loud out of the box and really loud when cold!  I’m not sure if the Cuben/nylon hybrid fabric softens up and will get quieter over time, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The fabric is Cuben fiber laminated to a light nylon and feels very durable.  Shoulder straps and waist belt are built from Dyneema X or a similar spectra grid rip stop fabric with relatively thin spacer mesh at all contact points.    The exterior has  super spacious mesh pockets and hip pockets on the waist belt. An emergency whistle is integrated into the sternum strap.

The top compression system looks to also double as load lifters and this is actually really slick, most ultralight packs forgo load lifters, which severely compromises their ability to carry heavier loads at the beginning of a trip.  In addition to the load lifters, the pack has a foam frame sheet and actual aluminum stays that run vertically along the inside.  The stays are removable (awesome to shave even more weight – 2 oz. on my scale!), though the foam frame sheet isn’t, which I don’t think matters at all.

The pack has a velcro and roll top closure, providing excellent water resistance.  The roll top clips into vertical compression straps that pull the load down and towards the hips to further stabilize the load.  There are two additional compression straps made from lighter grosgrain webbing that lift the lower load into the small of the back.  Finally, there is the top compression strap which runs as a “V” or a “Y” (depending on how loaded the pack is) from the shoulder straps to just above the rear mesh pocket.  A neat feature of this strap system is that it has an adjustable side release buckle both at the base of the “Y” and at the top of one arm of the “Y”.  This allows easy acces to whatever you have lashed down on the top of your pack.  I can see this being very useful for those hiking in bear country with a bear canister, or for securing a packraft.

Keep an eye out for the long term review of this pack!

My solo shelter set up at a great friends wedding in Aspen, Co.

The shelter I’ve been playing around with is the Echo 1 system, a super (dare I say Hyper?) light tarp with slick modularity.  It is comprised of the Echo 1 tarp, an optional bug shelter/bathtub floor and the optional “beak” vestibule. One of the striking things about this shelter is the unique use of different materials.  The trap and beak are made from a lighter cuben fiber with reinforcements in appropriate places, while the bug shelter/bathtub floor uses a combo of lighter cuben on the sidewalls, and a more durable, but slightly heavier Cuban fiber on the floor with really light mesh for bug protection.  The bathtub floor is clipped to the tarp using shock cord, which allows the user to drop the bug net into the floor when bugs are not an issue, while retaining a full bathtub floor with high sidewalls.

The Echo 1 shelter is a solo system and as such is a tight fit.  I’m 6′ and fit perfectly but taller users may find it somewhat coffin like.  There is ample overhang on both ends of the tarp to provide weather protection, and the foot box of the bug insert is all cuben to prevent rain from wetting out your down quilt down there.  For more protection from the elements, you can quickly attach the beak, providing an extremely storm worthy shelter.

The Shelter sets up using trekking poles, it seems most ultralight backpackers really like trekking poles, so this makes sense for most users, I however have found that with such a light pack trekking poles are an extraneous addition to my system and I choose not to carry them.   This is a chronic problem for me with ultralight shelters, as most are designed with trekking poles in

The fly alone, note the modified trekking pole used for set up.

mind.  I’ve been building my own shelter support poles out of various broken and discarded poles at work, and this worked well for the Echo as well.  To save even more weight, you could pretty easily use a stick, flyrod case (though mine is made from a fluorescent tube protector and probably isn’t rigid enough – mental note to self, test this out!) or lengths of a four piece paddle.

I recommend that folks set up any new shelter at home prior to going into the field.  This helps you find the tricks to a proper pitch that is taunt and secure.  The Ehco is no different, and for folks more familiar with more traditional backpacking tents will be critical to field success. For me, I found it to be finicky on my first set up, the second time went smoother, and the third was easy and effective, now I can pitch the entire system in a few minutes.  The small foot print of the shelter will allow the ultralight backpacker to hide off trail and find optimal camping even in tight trees or high winds. Almost any tree or decent sized boulder will provide additional shelter from gale force winds in that unexpected mountain storm with this shelters foot print.

Integrated tensioners that are reachable from inside the shelter allow quick adjustment.

I’ve used the word slick a couple times in describing the Hyperlite gear, and this carries over for the shelter too.  The Echo uses slick tensioners in place of hitches, and unlike some of the plastic line locks found on other shelters, these are integrated into the shelter and work really well!  They are easily adjusted from inside the shelter, which means that you don’t have to brave the cold wet world outside if you need to adjust the tension in the middle of the night.

Stay tuned for long term reviews of both of these pieces, as I get more time in the field with them.

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Random Encounters

The mountains can bring people together, you learn to watch out for each other, to share and learn from your companions and to be friendly and welcoming to those you meet along the way.

Lower Jean Lake, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

Two years ago a sales rep friend of a my buddy Kevin McGowan, the long time Outfitting Manager at NOLS Rocky Mountain dropped off a fancy new ultralight shelter off for us to look at from a start up company from Maine called Hyperlite Mountain Gear.  I have been coordinating the Lightweight program at NOLS for about six years now, so Kev handed me the shelter and asked me to test it out and tell him what I thought.  Due to a busy summer schedule, I “pawned” the testing off on another lightweight fanatic who was able to get out a bit sooner that I was.  I’ll post on my initial impressions on the shelter, but that’s not so much the story of the mountains and people that I want to share.

This summer I was cruising around the Wind River Range of Wyoming, what I consider my back yard, with an amazing group of people on a NOLS lightweight backpacking course.  Our community of folks was really tight and we had traveled the length of the Southern Winds through perhaps the most spectacular route you can do.  As we continued North, two of our hiking groups had a chance encounter with these nice fellas from Maine with some fancy ultralite packs.  They wanted to know if we were sponsored by Golite because so many of us had the Jam pack.  My wife Janeen, who was working the course with me and another Ryan explained the volume of Jam packs and that we were with NOLS.  She asked about their packs and this guy named Mike explained that he owned this ultralight gear company called Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and had built these packs.

The day they met. Photo Credit: Janeen Hutchins http://www.janeenhutchinsphotography.com

As Janeen and Mike carried on about the benefits of lightweight backpacking, it came out that I had a role in the NOLS lightweight program and that it would be great if Mike and his hiking buddy/sponsored athlete “Bama” swung by our house for a post course barbeque after they finished their trip.  Janeen offered some information on the cool places to go in the winds after they explained that they were coming from the summer Outdoor Retailer Show and a friend and colleague there had said they should hike in the winds before heading home.  They were headed the way we had come, and Janeen, being a savvy back-country woman, could describe the route blow by blow.

The scenic route.

There are a lot of ways to travel through the Winds, and that day my group took the scenic route.  We never saw Mike and Bama. I was excited that the students had been able to talk to them, see the gear they were making and hear about other ways of applying lightweight skills.  I wondered if they would actually give a call and swing by at our post course celebration.

Sure enough, the evening we rolled out of the field Mike gave a ring and we guided him into our house where we were hosting the course for our graduation.  We grilled up some grub and had an ultralight stove building clinic, I spent a bunch of time talking to Mike and Bama about the gear they build and the adventures they had been on, where they were from and what Mike hoped to do with Hyperlite.

This is the part I find so fascinating.  Here are these guys, Bama an accomplished thru-hiker, and Mike with a remarkable story of changing careers from the New York world of culinary arts to being the owner and designer of ultralight gear built in the USA, eating BBQ at my place in the small town of Lander Wyoming, after a chance encounter in the mountains.  The people we meet, the stories we share.  These are some of the things that are the most remarkable about the outdoors.

To hear the story of Hyperlite in Mikes words, check out this video.

I’ll also be publishing my initial impressions of two flagship pieces from Hyperlite very soon, stay tuned!

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Fire in the mountains

The Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler Review

As a tinkerer of gear, I really get excited when someone else goes for it and decides to build something they want that doesn’t exist.  In the case of Devin Montgomery that something was a wood fired boiler small and light enough to take backpacking in an ultralight style.  The entire story and evolution, from brainstorming and crowdsourcing design, to prototyping and ultimately production can be found at Devin’s excellent blog The Boilerwerks which describes the trials and tribulations and success of developing this unique device.

The Backcountry Boiler uses the chimney effect to quickly boil water.

One of the things that I like the most is that this was truly a project based on learning by doing.  Almost every step of the process was a new adventure for Devin.  In the end he produces a unique, high quality, functional and simple piece of equipment that works well.

The Backcountry Boiler is elegant in design and function.  It allows a backpacker to go with out fuel by burning found fuels along one’s route. The system consists of two basic parts needed to function and three light accessories; the boiler proper and the support or burner base, a heat resistant sleeve that allows the user to pick the boiler directly off the flame with bare hands, a small silicone stopper and a simple sil-nylon stuff sack that it can store in.

Weighing in at 8.8 oz complete on my scale, the boiler is heavier than some alcohol stoves but in the same weight class as many other wood burners.  Here’s where it makes up for the couple extra ounces over other systems: no need to carry fuel.  In addition, the boiler itself can be used as a water bottle with the included stopper!  By paring the kit down, the weight of the stove can be reduced even further.  Leave behind the stuff sack and you come in at 7.9 oz, the stopper and you are at 7.3, and just the boiler and the fire pan leave you with a svelte 7 oz. system.

The Boiler is made from spun, hard anodized aluminum, providing a more rigid construction when compared to titanium sheet.  This material also allows for good heat transfer and an acceptable weight in the ultralight stove category.

Wind makes the boiler burn hotter, and can be controlled by simply turning the intake in the base into or out of the breeze.

In field use, the Boiler proves to be surprisingly fast.  Boiling two cups (16oz./500ml) of water multiple times per day over six days on a NOLS Lightweight Backpacking Course, I consistently had boil times of 5 minutes or less at altitudes between 8000-10,000 feet, often using frigid water.  This volume of water is ideal for “boil in a bag” type meals, and is my preferred volume for hot drinks as well.  It’s important to note that the boiler doesn’t actually boil your food in the boiler its self, but boils the water to be added to your dehydrated meal in either a bag designed for this, or another container, perhaps your titanium mug.

This may be the only drawback to the boiler.  People who cook, rather than rehydrate meals will find the boiler unsuitable.

How it works

The boiler functions on the simple chimney effect.  A small fire is built in the burner base using tinder with the boiler already in place, though in practice I found it easier to light the fire and then place the boiler on the base.  Be sure that the stopper is not plugging the water fill hole, or the vessel could explode.

unburned fuel after a double boil

Once the fire is going and your filled boiler is on the base, turn the hole in the base into the wind, or if a really calm day you may need to blow into the hole.  Feed the boiler through the chimney in the top, I found that using sticks no bigger around than my somewhat meaty pinky or ideally about pencil diameter worked well.

The sticks should also be broken to a length no longer than the top of the burner to reduce flame height which results in wasting fuel.  On average, I could boil my two cups using just one handful of sticks.  For reference, when I hold my finger tips together in a circle, the diameter is about an inch and a half, but I have big hands.

The boiler burns very hot, so with small sticks as fuel there is very little ash, and once cold to the touch, the ash can easily be scattered to the wind.  Any partially burned sticks will be so small they will disappear in the environment, just be sure they are fully extinguished.

One of the great things about the boiler is that it can burn all most any type of combustible solid.  I even burned a piece of dried cow patty one night with no problems at all.  Grass, sticks, paper, cardboard, basically anything that can burn.  Devin even ships the Boiler in burnable packaging along with a tea bag and an instant coffee so you can try it right away, pretty cool.  There is also a wick system available to burn denatured alcohol, which would be useful above tree line or in areas that have mixed fire regulations like canyons.

For people cooking one pot, just add water meals, or “boil in a bag” food, the ability to travel without fuel is an unquestionable advantage in the field.  The Backcountry Boiler is an efficient, Eco-friendly (burns renewable fuels!) stove system that evolves the lightweight kit to the next level.

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