Category Archives: Review

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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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.

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.

Photo

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).