Category Archives: Gear

Get Rid of Your Mummy Bag on the Appalachian Trail in 2017

“Every ounce of sleeping bag crushed flat under us as we sleep is an ounce of sleeping bag we’re carrying around every day for no reason.”

Scrolling through my phone yesterday, Google recommended an Appalachian Trail Thru Hiker data article put together by Appalachian Trials (now “The Trek“). Of course this sort of thru-hiker survey data is of the utmost interest to me so I naturally began to peruse the data to see what hikers are doing these days and some of the results really did surprise me.

Okay, to be fair I almost anticipated the data to reflect more silly things than I ultimately found but (both fortunately and unfortunately) I found that thru hikers in 2016 seem to be making some seemingly dumb mistakes in ways I didn’t quite anticipate.

Why You Should Get Rid of Your Mummy Bag:

appalachian-trail-thru-hiker-sleeping-bag-mistakes

Here’s some of the data from this year’s thru hiker survey on the Appalachian Trail according to TheTrek.co.

Surprisingly enough, it shows that 25.2% of hikers are now using backpacking quilts for sleeping in tents and tarps. In hammock sleep systems, about 33% of hikers are using top-quilts for insulation.

It’s crazy to me that a full 66% of hammock campers are making the mistake of carrying extra weight and taking up extra room in the pack by choosing to use a sleeping bag instead of the much more efficient top-quilt system (in this case combined with an under quilt for hammock use).

The problem with mummy bags

So what, exactly, is the mistake here? Well, let’s start by exploring how insulation works and how sleeping bags and quilts keep us warm.

At its most basic level, the majority of insulation operates by creating “dead air space” or a pocket of air which is unable to move. This immobile air is then brought up  to body temperature since it sits close to the body. Since the air can’t move, it’s then quite efficient at helping to regulate body temperature.

For notation’s sake, it’s worth mentioning that this is only one type of insulation. See this Dr Energy Saver article for a good overall primer on how insulation works and some common problems with insulation.

Some challenges of insulation on the trail are wind, water, and compression. If your insulation gets wet it will lose a large amount of its ability to insulate. If wind is allowed to blow through your insulation it will replace all that warm air with cool (or cold) atmospheric temperature air. If your insulation gets compressed, or smashed, for any reason it will then also lose its ability to trap and retain warm body temperature air.

Wind and water are obvious, but can you think of an instance on the trail when you might accidentally compress your insulation?

Maybe you fold up that puffy jacket and sit on it for an improvised sit-pad. You might notice that it doesn’t do much to keep the bum warm. That’s because you compressed it – it’s no longer able to trap air because you crushed it flat with your body weight.

On the inefficiency of sleeping bags:

Since compressed insulation does little or nothing at all to help insulate us from cold temperatures, it follows that we should aim to avoid compressing any insulation we’re using. Right?

Backpacking Quilt vs Sleeping Bag

Quilt (left) vs Mummy Bag (right)

Traditional sleeping bags surround the body like a cocoon on all sides to keep us warm while we sleep. Unfortunately, a large portion of that insulation is crushed flat every night as we sleep. If we’re side sleepers we may crush less of that insulation than back sleepers.

Every ounce of sleeping bag crushed flat under us as we sleep is an ounce of sleeping bag we’re carrying around every day for no reason.

Because that insulation doesn’t actually help keep us warm, why bother carrying it at all? How do we solve this inefficiency?

Backpacking quilts are the answer! Backpacking quilts are simply mummy bags with open backs. There is no material on the underside of a quilt – the quilt simply drapes over you and, in some cases, snaps on to your sleeping pad to surround you without placing any material underneath you. This completely removes the material that would otherwise be crushed when sleeping in a traditional bag.

why The continued use of mummy bags surprises me:

When I first started using backpacking hammocks as a shelter back in 2011 (found Hennessey Hammocks at Trail Days in Damascus, VA) it seemed that only a select few backpackers knew about hammock camping at all. Those who did, seemed to fully understand the niche pros and cons of the shelter.

Though there seems to be little objective data available, my empirical experience is that camping hammocks have gained popularity like wildfire over the last 6 years. With them has come the rise of backpacking quilts.

UGQ Zeppelin Under Quilt

Hammock under quilt by Under Ground Quilts – my favorite manufacturer.

Quilts seem to have sprouted largely from the hammock camping community where “under quilts” are used for insulation and comfort. I only became aware of the use of backpacking quilts as a result of getting to know cottage industry manufacturers in the hammock camping industry and ultralight backpacking world.

These days it’s much more common to hear people recommend the use of backpacking quilts on forums or by word of mouth. Apparently 25% of people are now using them and their use has grown 147% YoY (year over year).

Despite their weight savings when compared to same-temperature mummy bags and the fact that high quality quilts can be custom ordered to your exact specifications for less money than many name brand mummy bags at the local outfitter, mummy bags still own the majority of the market share. Why?

Better yet – according to the survey – why are 66% of hammock users still sleeping in mummy bags? This tells me that the hammock camping fad has become so popular so quickly that people are now hammock camping while thru hiking without even using properly researched equipment… By and large hammock campers rely on under quilts for insulation, they should really know better than to be sleeping in a mummy bag.

Why are mummy bags still so popular?

Mummy bags have been around for a long time and most big-name brands are making mummy bags and have models which have been popular for decades. Chances are your grandfather had a mummy bag and your dad did, too. It’s just the “thing” you “do” when you go camping.

By and large I believe the majority of hikers, backpackers, and campers in general don’t take the time to think or research their gear in great depth. Many people aren’t even aware that there are alternatives to mummy bags.

If you’ve bought all your gear at REI, then you’re probably not even aware that backpacking quilts exist or that you can order them to literally any temperature rating you would like. You may not be aware that they’re lighter than mummy bags, built by hikers for hikers, and more compressible than any other options on the market today.

I think mummy bags are still popular because the market is so saturated with them already. Most retail stores and manufacturers aren’t really looking out for consumers best interests. After all, backpacking quilts are superior to mummy bags in every way so why does the inferior product continue to exist? Most people expect to see mummy bags when they walk into an outfitter store and that’s what the box stores are happy to sell them.

Where to buy great backpacking quilts:

I’ll recommend one backpacking quilt maker above all others because I feel their balance of price to finished product weight and attention to customer needs is superior to all others. I have exclusively used Underground Quilts owned and operated by Paul McWalters for my quilts and tarps for years.

Paul makes my gear to my exact specifications every time, even when I ask for a snap or button to be left off to save weight. His company really goes the extra mile to make some great gear and I know him personally. Check out this great interview with Paul about his quilts!

I have meticulously researched and compared quilts made by other manufacturers and none of them have the price, weight, service, and product quality that I know I can expect from UGQ and Paul. Some very few may be lighter by fractional ounces, but the difference in price does not justify the weight savings in my opinion.

I have not and do not receive compensation for my opinions nor do I make money from sales of any manufacturer’s gear. They just make great quilts.

Other Quilt Manufacturers:

If you’re looking to compare quilts then check out these other makers:

Conclusion

I really can’t think of a great reason to keep mummy bags around except, perhaps, in the most harsh and extreme of cold environments such as arctic exploration. For any Appalachian Trail hike, a quilt is just fine even in winter.

With that said, it is my opinion that quilts should replace mummy bags and I sincerely hope to see 75% or more of hikers carrying quilts – not the other way around as the data currently reflects. They’re lighter and more compressible saving you energy, space, and potential injury on the trail.

Go chat with my buddy Paul at Underground Quilts and get yourself hooked up with a great new piece of gear – you’ll be glad you made the change.

Do you feel that mummy bags still have a place on the trail for most people? Leave me a comment and let’s keep the discussion going!

Happy Trails, people!

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How to Get Outdoor Pro Deals

Wouldn’t it be sick to have access to brands like GoPro, K2, Patagonia, Outdoor Research, and Kelty for a steady 60% off?

That’s called a pro-deal, my friends. A lot of you reading my blog are outdoor pros or looking to become instructors, guides, naturalists and so on. Guess what!?! You can snag easy pro deals up to 60% off these brands. Wish someone had told me this when I was a county park ranger….

How to Register for Outdoor Pro Deals

There is an easy way to do this and a hard way to do this…. let’s start with easy:

Experticity.com

Sign up for hundreds of outdoor pro deals in one registration with experticity.com

Get some sick outdoor pro deals with Experticity.

Get some sick outdoor pro deals with Experticity.

This one used to be known as Promotive but I guess they’ve recently overhauled themselves. Maybe it was a merger, I’m not really hip on the happenings behind the scene. It doesn’t really matter, just go get your sick gear for dope discounts.

You can register on your own and hope for acceptance or, if your employer is cool, they’re already registered. It’s better to connect with an employer because brands usually offer deeper discounts through employers.

If your employer has an Experticity hub, simply make an account, search for your employer, link your profile to them (you may have to provide proof of employment) and BAM! Discounts.

If you’ve ever been on a NOLS course, you’re already eligible! All NOLS alum can connect with the NOLS hub on Experticity and get stick gear deals.

Get creative, ask friends, ask old employers, it’s not difficult to find a way to legitimately qualify for these badass outdoor gear deals.

Individual Brands

Many outdoor gear brands offer pro deals on a case-by-case basis. Don’t see a brand on Experticity that you want a deal with? Try checking out that company’s corporate website. Often you’ll find pro deal programs through the brand its self.

Here’s an easy example:

Patagonia’s pro deal corner of their site can be found here.

How do you become a Patagonia pro deal member? Here’s a direct quote from Patagonia’s pro deal FAQ:

The Patagonia Pro Program is a membership program for qualified pros and influencers specific to our brand. Membership is by application only and all members need to reapply/requalify annually to continue membership and access. Membership is not guaranteed and can be revoked at any time. If you are interested in applying, please visit our Apply for Membershipsection and follow the instructions.

Patagonia offers an individual pro deal!

Patagonia offers an individual pro deal!

So even if you can’t get ahold of the deals through Experticity – just go hook yourself up by convincing the brands that you’ll be a great ambassador for their gear in one way or another. Just get creative and be honest.

Here’s Mountain Hardwear’s Pro Deal page.

Maybe you need some Columbia gear on the cheap – here’s the pro deal page. Columbia has always been one of my favorite brands and snagging the gear a bit cheaper would be sick!

Outlet Stores

This one is often overlooked.

This is how I picked up a great  new pair of skiing pants, a jacket, and brand new pair of Mountain Hardwear gloves for well under $100.

Check your local shopping centers for outdoor gear outlet stores. The savvy gear shopper can snag sick gear on the cheap here.

My all time favorite? (No surprise here) The Columbia Outlet Store in Kimball Junction, Utah.

Conclusion

Hey, why pay full price when all these brands want you to rep their gear on the cheap!?

If you’re an outdoor pro, educator, guide, instructor, or anything else (media, blogger, etc) which qualifies you through these great outdoor pro deal programs – take advantage of them yesterday!

Cheers, friends and happy trails!

Best Men’s Patagonia Ski Gear 2017

Let me preface by saying that, as a reader of my blog, you know I don’t bullshit around here. If I’m calling something the “best” then it’s a piece of gear I use, trust, and rely on. As a full time ski instructor at Deer Valley Resort, I spend more than 100 days on skis every year and my cold weather gear either keeps up with me or gets donated to the second hand store.

This isn’t another Amazon affiliate review from Joe Schmoe’s website – this is the real deal. Real advice from a backpacking guide and ski instructor you can count on to cut to the chase. So let’s get to it:

Patagonia Men’s R1 Fleece Pullover

Made from polyester, this excellent winter insulation layer is perfect for several reasons.

Patagonia's R1 Pullover

Patagonia’s R1 Pullover

First, Patagonia was one of the earliest makers of “waffle” pattern polyester insulation layers in this fashion. The inner fabric of the R1 fleece line is made of raised square grids which significantly improve the insulative value of the garment.

Second, Patagonia’s style fits my slender, longer frame quite well so it’s great for any of you “athletic” fit people out there.

After years of owning and using the R1 pullover, I have yet to see any wear or degrading of materials. I’ve taken this thing on so many trips I can’t even count and I’m not sure if it’s 4 or 7 years old at this point… I do know it’s still kicking strong and I doubt I’ll need to replace it any time soon.

To top this all off, they offer it in several variations and, while I own the R1 Pullover, if I could go back and buy the “right one” I would have gone with the R1 Fleece Hoody.

Patagonia Men’s Nano Puff Jacket

This one is offered in two different flavors – synthetic or down (the down version is called a Down Sweater).

In case you’re not already aware of the difference here are the major points:

DOWN

  • More Expensive
  • Most compressible
  • Higher insulation value
  • Loses almost all insulation value when wet

SYNTHETIC

  • Less expensive
  • Slightly less compressible
  • Slightly lower insulation value
  • Loses less insulation value when wet

For mid-winter skiing there’s nothing wrong with down… I just opted for synthetic at the time because I wanted to save money and have more flexibility in using it for backpacking in the cold rainy off seasons.

Nano Puff Jacket

Nano Puff Jacket

I LOVE the Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket for its absurd warmth. The jacket is comfy, highly durable, and warmer than it should be. This jacket lets absolutely no wind through (due to nylon outer and inner shells). Paired with a moderate helping of synthetic insulation this jacket will keep you roasting!

If money weren’t an obstacle and I could snag another jacket, I would grab the Patagonia Men’s Down Sweater Jacket and give it a try. Though I must say, the Patagonia Men’s Nano Puff Hoody would be great for the added hood option.

Final Notes

If I had unlimited cash, I would most definitely try many other Patagonia ski apparel products. Even with access to great industry deals, I have to choose when and where to buy their often pricey gear.

At the right price, and after carefully considering what apparel I need, however, Patagonia gear has never let me down.

Maybe some day I’ll get the chance to test some of their other awesome looking goodies!

I usually use the R1 and Nano Puff with a hard shell jacket (I own several from various brands) as my full layering system for mid winter personal skiing and have never had a problem with this set up. It’s versatile, usually way too warm, and highly adaptable.

Interview With UGQ Outdoor Equipment’s Paul McWalters

Readers, I always try to bring forth information about the outdoor industry that most of us just don’t get insight on regularly. Today I have an enormous treat for you. The following is a Q&A session with Paul McWalters, owner of UGQ Outdoor Equipment, maker of lightweight down filled backpacking quilts.

When I asked Paul if he would answer some of my questions centered around the “cottage”  industry, his products, and what it’s like to start your own outdoor gear company, he graciously acquiesced.  In the following lines you will find out about ultralight backpacking technology, cottage manufacturer insight, and a plethora of topics that I’ve just been dying to pick Paul’s brain on.

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UGQ Outdoor Equipment (UGQ)

If you’ve ever been interested in making your own gear (MYOG), running a small backpacking gear company, or what it’s like on the other side of the “order” button when you purchase gear, this Q&A will certainly prove insightful.

Not every day I get to find out what it’s like to start a gear manufacturing company!


 

Q: (me) When did you know you wanted to start your own gear company and how did you decide on what products you would offer?

A: (Paul) I didn’t plan on starting UGQ at first, making my own gear was out of necessity due to lack of funds available for purchasing from the already established companies and the limited number of companies offering the gear I needed. My job at the time had seen some pretty major income reductions resulting in no “play fund” so I would DIY what I needed. Ordered some fabric and down, borrowed a sewing machine, which I proceeded to break in five minutes, and got busy.

Next thing you know friends were asking me to make quilts or tarps for them, so they’d buy double the materials on their dime which gave me extra materials to continue making revised gear for myself. Pretty soon I had email inquiries and decided a small website would get the ball rolling, giving me some extra funds to enjoy some backpacking trips and gear purchases…. Boy, I wasn’t ready for what happened next, 25+ orders my first month, apparently there is a demand for this stuff. It hasn’t slowed down any since and we keep growing month after month, year after year.

Products offered again were a result of what I personally needed at the time and my preference for down gear. I could have gone the synthetic route but after 2 decades backpacking with down I knew what to expect from the products in terms of benefits and risk.

Q: What process did you use in determining the pricing of your products and sourcing the suppliers of your materials?

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UGQ Outdoor Equipment’s 40º Flight Jacket quilt

A: Lets talk about sourcing first as that is the biggest hurdle. Finding a reliable and stable supply chain is quite the process and we still run into supplier delays these days. But working with the same suppliers helps build relationships. They get to know your business and can help out with improved material offerings. By having a stable relationship you can secure better prices and service. We work with some of the biggest material suppliers in the world, knowing the BIG BOYS also using them instills a confidence in our materials and our end products. It not just about the lowest price available, it also about the quality and assurance of that quality that is important in finding suppliers. All our major materials are tested to make sure we are receiving the best we can.

To make a competitive product you need to secure wholesale pricing which mean buying materials in large amounts. Back when I started it wasn’t the easiest thing to do as cash flow was not there. I’d buy in bulk for fabrics but in small lots of 25-50 yards or so and I’d buy down 8-10# at a time. While both of those helped with pricing buying in much larger amounts secures much better pricing. We now have a commitment contract with our down supplier for a certain poundage annually. This provides for a locked in price to avoid market fluctuations. We order fabric direct from the mill in the 1000’s of meter per order which again provides for much better pricing.

All of these savings are passed to our customers, we have a material cost for each of our products and a labor cost that is used to determine pricing.

Q: How many iterations of your current Flight Jacket Top Quilt have you created since the very first “draft”?

A: Not as many as one may think, the Flight Jacket is a great top quilt and will always have a place in our product line. The general construction has not changed much and is pretty much industry standard for a top quilt. We have made many little improvements over time that get integrated into the Flight Jacket without much hoopla. We did have one major revision to the entire construction of the quilt roughly 18 months ago and that is the product we currently ship today.

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UGQ Outdoor Equipment’s Renegade quilt (Available Jan 2015)

The fun part of our business is new product development, for the past 8 months we have been working on a new radically designed TQ. The RENEGADE will be release Jan 1, 2015 for purchase and is a completely different approach to top quilt design and construction. Featuring a more thermally efficient chamber design and a contoured shape overall the RENEGADE is built to provide maximum performance and comfort. No other quilt on the market that we are aware of combines the construction methods employed on the RENEGADE making it the most advanced quilt soon to be available.

Q: What are the greatest design improvements you’ve made to the Flight Jacket Top Quilts since your first draft and how do you believe they benefit the users of your products?

A: Our major redesign 18 months ago was a pretty big change. Up until then we had pretty much the same quilt as everyone else. They all had a few issues with down shifting and movement from chamber to chamber. The construction was known as open baffle meaning the ends of each chamber were open to the ends of the neighboring chamber. Marketed as letting you move down where you need it sure sounded good but I never have moved down from one chamber to another in a quilt or sleeping bag in over 20 years on the trails.

So we first redesigned the construction of the chamber to close them off, isolate them, keeping the right amount of down in each chamber. Then we narrowed the chambers from the industry standard of 5-8” to 4” maximum field chamber size. Both of these changes resulted in a much tighter and consistent down density which in the end keeps the user warmer.

We also switched to a 15d fabric at roughly the same time, a true garment-class fabric intended for down filled gear. After reviewing literally hundreds of samples we went with the 15 denier for its weight to performance ratio. It weighs .92oz per SY (square yard), independently tested to 850+ fill power down and has a DWR, durable water repellant, finish. At the time it was the best fabric available for our quilts. Just recently we have added a 10 denier .66 oz per SY fabric for the inner shells of our quilt. This provides for even more weight saving [versus] the 15 denier. We’ve opted to continue using the 15d for our outer shells for durability and it’s excellent DWR finish [which helps] keep both you and your down dry.

The inclusion of DWR treated downs has also been a major change. We were one of the first US based companies to start offering products filled with DWR treated downs. Our current offering that is standard in all our quilt is called HyperDRY and is about as close to water proof as it gets. Independent lab testing shows it outperforms virtually every synthetic fiber available today in terms of water repellency. This finish is applied at the nano level and designed to last for the life of the product. It also has been verified safe for the consumer and the environment which is of great importance to us and our customers.

Q: What advice would you give to DIY hikers who are looking to create the lightest and most individually tailored gear for their packs?

A: Understanding there are limits and understanding those limits is the key to making a durable and lightweight piece of gear whether it’s a quilt, tarp, or backpack. For example we now have access to 5d fabric. “D” stands for denier, the diameter of the thread used to weave the fabric. A 5d fabric is extremely light, .54oz SY, but can it survive the harsh environment of our packs as well as a 15d fabric? So when making one’s own personal gear the choice of hyper-light will result in the loss of some durability and only you can make that decision.

On a weekender or even a weeklong trip a piece of gear failing may be frustrating but will not trash the trip. On a thru hike it could certainly be a huge problem if you tear a tarp or lose half the down out of a quilt due to a poor fabric selection. So, weigh your choices carefully and choose wisely.

Q: Does UGQ ever plan to create synthetic fill quilts?

A: With the advances in DWR down and the more affordable duck downs on the market we do not see UGQ venturing into the synthetic fiber market in the near future. When, and I say when, there is a man-made fiber that equals all the properties of high fill-power downs we will certainly be the first in line. It will happen but it is hard to beat the quality of down that Mother Nature has provided us with.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge of operating a small business in the outdoor gear retail world?

A: Balancing work and personal life will always be a challenge for me. I take my commitment to [my] customers seriously; they have made a contract with us. They have provided funds and we have agreed to provide them (our customers) with a quality piece of gear made to their specifications. Sometimes I let this driving commitment occupy my life 24/7 and we all need proper balance in our lives. I’m committed to finding better balance as we grow, having staff takes some of the pressure off and I need to RELAX!!!! We are only human and we need family, friends and time off just like everyone else. Being a small business owner, burnout is always just around the corner, so care must be taken to take care of oneself as well as the customers.

Q: What advice would you offer to someone interested in starting their own backpacking gear company?

A: Be sure it is done from the heart in the pursuit of your dreams. Be sure to set reasonable expectations of yourself and be sure your commitment to others are reachable. We hate to say “no” to any request but if we can’t provide the requested service we will shoot straight and get it out front.

Be sure to be adding something of value that is missing in the market. For us it was the high quality and attention to customer service, we saw both lacking from most vendors at the time when UGQ was started. Funny, it seems to have turned around as customers are now expecting the same level of quality and service that we deliver from all vendors.

Q: Have you found help, advice, and acceptance from other cottage manufacturers or has it been more tense and competitive in this rather niche market?

A: We’ve had the chance to meet many of the other vendors and I think for the most part everyone is pretty respectful of others. I’ve had many a conversation with some of them regarding work and life, pitfalls to avoid, things that do work and things that don’t. The Jacks at Jacks Are Better have lent their 12+ years of wisdom in business to us and I am grateful to them for their sharing of this knowledge.

When I started we were the small fish in the pond, folks were pretty welcoming but in the end we are all in business in similar markets and as you grow you start to represent more of a threat. We’ve bumped heads with some other vendors recently on issues. I always try to resolve them with both respect and honesty as I believe that is the best approach. Sometimes there will be no resolution but at least you remained respectful and can sleep at night on a clean conscience.

Q: What piece(s) of gear is on the Christmas list for the man who makes his own gear?

A: Oh Boy!!! I recently have gotten into moto camping and the new bike is in need of some pannier boxes to haul the gear. I have big dreams of cruising the world on my bike at some point in life but I need to work on this whole relaxing thing a bit more. Apart from that I’m pretty content with belongings, in my youth it was must have have have… now with the wisdom of age it comes down to how you use what you have and not what you have. Friends are also more important than any material item, memories are created with friends and family hold them tight cause in the end those memories are all you will have left in life.

Q: Where do you think the biggest growth is in the outdoor gear industry? What growth trends would you expect to see in the next ten years across the industry?

A: I think we will see more sustainable materials and supply chains, you are already seeing it from major companies. TNF and our down supplier launched a Responsible Down Standard that is being adopted by many outdoor manufacturers. It’s a program that tracks the down used in down filled products from hatchling to the end consumer product. There will be a number on the down filled gear and a website where you can track the down. All certified by a third party to the ethical treatment of the animals. That’s pretty cool thinking and I think we will see more of that in the future.

Advancements in down are still coming, there are lots of new products coming to market, thermal downs, biotech downs, blended downs and more. These will only make gear lighter and warmer. We see test reports on our HyperDRY 850+ well above 900FP on a regular basis and this is a direct result of the HyperDRY treatment. Maybe someday we will see a standard fill power in the 1000+ range, it wasn’t long ago that 650+ was considered King of the Hill….

Regardless of what the future brings I’m sure I’ll be carrying that pack for many years to come into the mountains, reconnecting with nature, old friends, and my inner being….


I know Paul personally and own products directly from UGQ. This is not only a company I would recommend without reservation to any reader, its also a company and a product which I often recommend by word of mouth. I make the recommendations (and write this article) without any kind of compensation from Paul or UGQ. I make recommendations because I value the service and product.

Why? Because Paul (and UGQ) are friendly, cooperative, helpful, and insightful. They create top of the line lightweight products with cutting edge technology and Paul is always happy to make a piece of gear exactly to my specifications.

I hope you’ve gained some insight into what it’s like to create a lightweight backpacking gear manufacturing company. I hope that Paul will continue to let me pick his brain about the industry as I am always hungry to learn as I’m sure you readers are as well.

Please, drop us a line in the comments if you have any questions for Paul. If you’ve got burning questions you’d like answered by insightful industry leaders leave us a comment or send me an email and I’ll get that question answered!

Find UGQ Outdoor Equipment on Facebook or their website.

Thanks, Paul and UGQ Outdoor Equipment!

12 Steps to a Lighter Pack (eBook) Review

Having a bit of down time in the early ski season has given me plenty of time to do things. Like run, read, write and procrastinate. This little review is focused on the reading part.

“12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” is written by Steven Lowe who is an “avid outdoorsman” and has “been camping singe he was a child”. It’s a very quick read, I spent less than 45 minutes on it without feeling rushed.

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The book herein reviewed.

First off, let me say that my overall impression of the eBook was generally positive. He’s got some good tips in “12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” and clearly spends time analyzing his gear. This is good.

Steven’s occasional attempts at humor seem to fall short of my expectations but perhaps we just don’t mesh comically.

some of My largest complaints stem from his unequal comparisons of gear.

The whole premise of the book is centered around reducing weight and he offers many perfectly fine suggestions to this end. However, he uses some self-confirming comparisons.

In section 5 on shelter he makes a comparison between his sub-four-pound hammock setup and his 8+ pound Kelty tent setup. This is laughably skewed to confirm his opinion (which I don’t necessarily entirely disagree with) with silly methods.

You can’t compare a 9 pound solo Kelty tent to a sub 4 pound hammock setup without first leveling the playing field of gear specifications (which may be inherently impossible as I’ll explain).

It’s important to compare the lightest available options in each category.

I could go to Wal-Mart and buy a 10 pound solo tent with 2 pound air mattress and then compare it to a Dream Hammock Darien UL with a cuben fiber A-Sym tarp and an 850-fill down UQ.

Of course the hammock set up is going to be lighter, I bought the top of the line lightest available equipment in the category!

Now, if we were comparing the lightest available cuben fiber solo tent and ground pad to the lightest available hammock setup (including tarp and under quilt) then we might be getting close to apples-to-apples.

Now we have the problem of deciding how to quantify and compare qualitative preferences and personal choice.

Do we compare the hammock set up to the lightest ground setup? In that case we’re comparing to the lightest functional ground pad (a 3/4 length 1/2″ CCF pad for most seasons) which is nowhere near the same level of comfort as the equivalent hammock set up.

Starting to see the problems with these types of gear comparisons?

Did Steven Lowe even try to prepare to write this eBook?

Now, I know I only paid ¢99 for this eBook but the number of times he admits to not having a certain item on hand lends a sense that he wrote the book in a single sitting one evening and simply wasn’t prepared but published it anyways.

At one point he admits that he lost his two-piece travel toothbrush since his last trip so he cuts a full length toothbrush in half instead to gather data for the book. I don’t know about you all, but if I was publishing and charging people to read a book with my name on it, I would prefer to be slightly more prepared.

There are multiple mentions of “my scale couldn’t read the numbers accurately enough so I rounded” in a book which is highly focused on number crunching by a self-purported “gram weenie”.

Now, let me stand accused. I have a food scale from Wal-Mart (I’d go get one from Whole Foods if I could afford it) which is not always as accurate as I’d like it to be. Furthermore, I have personally encountered the same problem when weighing items in my pack: my scale wasn’t sensitive enough to accurately read them.

Here’s the difference… I’m not selling my advice and number crunching to other people!

Were I weighing my pack items and putting it in a book that I planned to charge people for, you can bet I’d get a scale accurate enough to remove guesswork from said book.

Here’s a couple sections of the book I found alien but won’t dock the author too many points for because some of it just comes down to personal preference.

The author rambles for a page and half about his adventures with coffee cups. You can read it for yourself but let me just say this: can’t you coffee drinkers just drink coffee out of your cooking pot (before or after you make whatever you need for breakfast)?

Near the end of the book we find out that Steven does indeed carry a cook pot so I am left assuming that he either hasn’t thought about making coffee in his cook pot, or has decided against it for some god-forsaken reason.

For all you coffee drinking gram weenies out there, I’d propose my own ultralight solution. Don’t drink coffee. I don’t mean to be a jack-ass but it’s just a suggestion.

Right after the coffee pot conundrum the author launches into a section about a “fire kit”. I don’t know about all of you, but I use a stove on the trail of some sort (recently alcohol, soon to be Esbit).

These stoves (with the exception of Piezo equipped devices) require a lighter. Making a fire requires a lighter. Do we really need a “kit” for making fire? I think not. Even the Piezo IsoButane stoves themselves can be used to light a fire.

Later, the author misspells what I assume to be Katadyn (as in water filter) as Katelyn (damn auto-correct) when comparing filters in the purification section.

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Katelyn is that you?

Again I run into an author who counts the grams but still carries a wallet. When will people just start using rubber bands as I have mentioned a million times??? They weigh practically nothing and cost nothing.

Steven suggests using tent stakes as trowels which, I’m all but certain, will eventually leave him in the field with a badly bent stake. Not the end of the world, but it seems a poor choice of multi-use item. Personal preference, I suppose.

Steven also carries paracord with him. Someone should tell him about DynaGlide (pre-stretched dyneema fibers in a rope weighing less than a gram per foot) the stuff is super lightweight, highly versatile, and can support a smart-car hanging from a tree.

Eventually the reader runs into what I believe to be the most painful line in the book:

Steven Lowe graces us with the line “…the lightest way to make your water drinkable is to boil it. Period.”

Well Steven, let me make you aware that boiling (assuming you’re using fuel from your stove and not a campfire) is not as light weight of a purification method as it might seem.

The only scenario in which the above statement by the author is true would be if you’re boiling your water using a campfire and natural materials found on your hike. This is impractical since no one has time to build a campfire every time they need to refill a bottle. Not to mention it would be highly impactful to the landscape to build a fire every time one needs to purify water.

I drink multiple liters of water per day and can purify weeks worth of water with an ounce of bleach in my dropper bottle which takes up a space of roughly 2″ x 1″.

Let’s say you drink 4L of water a day and boil all of it. Each liter of water will take a certain amount of fuel from your stove to boil. Multiply that by 5 days of drinking water and you’re lugging around several extra canisters of IsoButane fuel to boil your drinking water, each of which is several times larger and heavier than the equivalent purification power of bleach.

Let me take a moment to be fair to the author.

Much of “12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” is filled with generally good advice. In this article I have taken time to outline what I believe could be improved in this eBook.

Steven’s three-step method of analyzing gear (whether self generated or borrowed from others) I have seen used in many forms over the years for analyzing pack belongings. It’s an effective and useful tool which the author is smart to include.

My conclusion is this:

The eBook “12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” is generally pointed in the right direction. If the bulls-eye of lightweight backpacking books were down range, the author would at least glance off the target if not stick the arrow in the white.

Sadly, however, I paid ¢99 for “12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” and, in my opinion, the author didn’t get close enough to that bullseye to make it really stand out as anything I’d recommend.

I would not buy this book again.

Appalachian Trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail Review

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Kindle Edition

Over the last two evenings I have sat down and done a little reading on my fancy new Kindle Paperwhite.

Okay, it’s not that new but I don’t always use it regularly. I’m actually becoming more and more convinced that it’s worth its weight in my pack. Perhaps I’ll try taking it out soon?

So I’ve stumbled across the website “Appalachian Trials” a few times over the years and this book is plastered all over it. Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis. Supposedly a book about how to deal with the mental challenges of a thru hike, written by (you guessed it) another through hiker.

Within the first few pages is another surprise (kidding), it’s based on the journey of yet another zero-experience backpacker who sets out to hike the AT and pulls it off. Let me just say right here that no matter who you are, finishing the AT is awesome, so congrats to Zach.

What drew me to the book is that it’s the only real source on the mental and spiritual challenges of the AT. There is plenty of scattered info out there about overcoming the internal struggles of long distance hiking, but nothing that really drives at the point. That is, other than “Appalachian Trials”.

The second thing I noticed is that the book (at least the Kindle version) is littered with small but annoying gramatical and spelling errors. I myself make plenty of these errors in my posts but, granted, I’m not selling these posts to anyone and I most certainly don’t do multiple proofreads.

What I’m getting at is this: I paid $8 for this (rather short) book. I expect a higher level of editing for $8. I mean I picked up David Miller’s “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” for $3, less than half the cost.

Just judging by the customer reviews (168 of them on Amazon) this dude has generated at the very least $1344 and I’d be surprised if that estimate covered even a quarter of his true revenue from the book.

If I was getting paid $1344, I’d sure as hell get those grammar and spelling errors out!

Alright, now, harshness aside, I think the book was (largely) worth my time to read. His insights on how to mentally prepare and maintain healthy mental hygiene while hiking were at least mildly valuable. Being a long time backpacker and thru-hike attempter though, most of what was covered was at least unsurprising.

To an aspiring hiker with little or no experience of what to expect on a trip of this magnitude, however, his insight and advice would be eye-opening.

Gear Advice

As I reached the end of the book I really looked forward to the section on gear written by Zach’s friend Ian Mangiardi. Being a long time gear junkie myself, I was at least curious to see what was in store from (as Zach had made it sound) this mythical guru of inexhaustible gear knowledge.

I was sorely disappointed. Let me give a few examples:

The section on stoves has this direct quote: “The best stove for me will always be a screw-on IsoButane stove. These will always be the lightest weight…”. I was slightly stunned by this comment. For those of you who are not aware, canister stoves are not the lightest weight stoves (alcohol stoves far surpass IsoButane as the lightest stoves).

Off hand his low-end canister stove weight figure was 2oz, my alcohol stove weighs .6oz. Misleading information at best, poor research or blatant disregard for facts at worst. Perhaps the section on stoves was meant to be abridged and intentionally left out any mention of lighter weight options with misleading preference given to canister stoves?

Ian Mangiardi makes a pass at the “too-good-to-be-true NeoAir”. The NeoAir pad (I can only assume he means the xLite as I believe it was the only model available at the publishing of this book) is indeed less durable than many other pads on the market. I can take a closed cell foam pad and sleep on broken glass, the pad will still function in the morning. That’s not the point, however. If you’re repeatedly breaking your NeoAir, you’re using it wrong.

I’ve used my own xLite for multiple seasons now and I have yet to have a puncture. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s been slept on for a total of ~90 nights. It was my sole sleeping pad while leading trips on the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and is still my all-time favorite. I also snagged it brand new for somewhere in the $90 range off eBay.

What many fail to recognize is that as gear gets lighter and more purpose-built, it becomes increasingly imperative to use it properly. Yes, it’s true, if you sleep on a bed of dry pine needles, you’ll pop your NeoAir. If you pitch your cuben fiber tarp next to a broken jagged branch and it gets pushed into your tarp by wind, it’s going to puncture. This is not a failure of the gear, but an oversight of the operator.

In the shelter section, Ian mentions that NEMO Equipment “will always be [his] go-to brand for quality, lightweight tents”. There’s a pretty good chance that this is because he’s sponsored by NEMO (see photo) which he fails to mention in the book.

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Ian talks up his sponsors.

Perhaps, however, Ian genuinely loves NEMO and always has. Thus he became sponsored by them. It’s equally likely, however, that his sponsorship by them resulted in this shameless plug. We’ll never know (unless Ian comments or emails me).

What we do know, for sure, is that NEMO most certainly ranks very low on my list of recommended brands. I’ve never seen any products by them that are worthy of being included in my pack, let alone a section of gear-advice consumed by hundreds of will-be hikers.

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Lightheart Gear’s “Lightheart Solo – Standard”

Let’s take one example, the NEMO Veda 1-P. It’s a “trekking pole tent” weighing in at 33oz retailing for $350. It has an integrated bug net and bathtub style sil-nylon floor. Now we’ll put it up against the Lightheart GearLightheart Solo – Standard” weighing in at 29oz with the same features and a $245 price tag.

That’s a $105 less for (in my opinion) a superior, lighter weight, product from a cottage manufacturer.

I have personally met the owners of Lightheart Gear and spoken to them at length about their products and their construction. I trust their gear more than I trust NEMO because I know if anything (even the smallest error) goes wrong with a Lightheart tent, they will repair or replace their work without question. Cottage industry manufacturers rock. Period.

What’s clear is that this book was not written primarily to give gear advice and Zach would have been much further ahead to leave the section out as it seems to heavily work against the reputation of his book.

Read Zach’s book “Appalachian Trials” if you can borrow it from a friend, get it on the cheap, or find it in a book stash at the back of a shelter but do everyone a favor and tear out the gear section. The book’s primary purpose and best assets lie in the mental preparation of an Appalachian Trail hike. If you can look past the poor editing, I think you’ll find content thats worth your while and valuable to an aspiring thru hiker (or avid long distance hiker).

NOTE: I did not get compensated in any way for this review by any person or company mentioned (or anyone not mentioned, for that matter).

Bleach as Backpacking Water Purifcation

You’ve probably got a jug of bleach next to the washer. Next time you’re packing for a trip, don’t forget to toss it in.

Okay, well, maybe not the whole thing.

Turns out, ~5 drops of non-fragrant all purpose bleach can purify a liter of water.

I heard rumors floating around on several internet forums of bleach being used as a cheap chemical water purifier. My first impression, as might be yours, was less than optimistic.

After some research (look for yourself) I found several reputable sources indicating that bleach is indeed a safe chemical purifier. Used in the proper ratios it’s absolutely acceptable.

I use an old saline eye dropper bottle (about an ounce) from which I have removed the label and written “Bleach” in large block letters. I keep it in a homemade shoulder strap pouch for super quick access.

Let’s talk about when bleach won’t work.

Bleach won’t work effectively if there is sedimentation in your water. Microbes can hide in the microscopic cracks in the debris suspended in the water, making it less likely that bleach will effectively neutralize the harmful little bugs. Filter visibly dirty water first, then use your bleach (I’d use an extra drop or two per liter to increase the likelihood of thorough purification).

Bleach will not filter out chemical contaminants. If you’re filling up from the cooling pond of a nuclear reactor, bleach won’t help you. If you’re filling up down stream of an industrial plant that is leeching chemicals into the ground water, bleach won’t help you.

Bleach is an awesome option if you’re currently using AquaMira. I have always been a huge proponent of AquaMira, and they make an excellent product. In lieu of this most recent discovery, however, I must say that my current recommendation for any backpacker purifying non-stagnant and non-sedimented water sources is bleach.

I used bleach for a month of Appalachian Trail hiking this summer and never had a single issue with it. Personally, I don’t even hardly notice the taste.

Be safe out there!