Trial by Fire
When my house nearly burned during the wildfires of 2015, crisis taught me a lot about the outdoor products I valued most. As the fire approached, my wife and I grabbed our most important mementos, computers, and records. Those vitals secured, we had time to grab other possessions and throw them into cars that could carry them to safe harbor. Down in the basement, I scanned all the hanging packs, drawers of outdoor clothes, racks of raingear, numerous camp stoves, stacks of sleeping pads, and the assemblage of tents I had assembled over a 30-year career as an outdoor writer. If this fire was going to consume my house, why not grab the best of everything before it did? In something of a trance, I started grabbing. Exactly what I grabbed from all the choices illuminated what I most valued. Here’s what my brush with fire revealed:
Packs. If I could have only one pack, it would be the Porter 3400 from Hyperlite Mountain Gear ($350). Made of cuben fiber (now called Dyneema Composite Fabrics), it’s good for all my endeavors (hiking, climbing, backcountry skiing), handles the gear needed for a week-long ski tours or a day of rock climbing, carries 40 pounds of gear just fine, and is light enough (33 ounces) to use as a day pack. It’s also starts out totally waterproof — although frequent use will start giving it some pinholes.
Packs Continued. I can’t lie, I grabbed two of most everything during the crisis because what I want to carry for a day trip or a fair-weather weekend of adventuring is much different than what I need for a week’s trip in remote mountains. In the case of packs, the second pack I most wanted was the REI Flash 22 ($50). It’s minimalist’s sack whether you’re skiing a Forest Service road, hiking to Colchuck Lake, mountain biking over Twin Peaks, or walking around Seattle. Although very lightweight (15 ounces ) the pack’s padded back gives this 22-liter sack enough structure to make it both easy to pack and comfortable to carry.
Boots. Boots are tricky to recommend because so much about them boils down to perfect fit. Of course that is also why I wanted to save boots that fit me perfectly and performed superbly. For
both backcountry skiing and downhill skiing (I use the same gear for both) I grabbed my Scarpa Aliens ($560). These boots weigh in at 2.25 pounds per boot which is only a half-pound per boot more than my cross-country skiing skate boots. Though ridiculously light, the Aliens provide the power I need to pilot all-mountain boards that are 90 mm wide at the waist through all the different snow conditions the local mountains dish out. Young skiers shredding slopes at speed or carving sharp turns through difficult snows will need heavier, stiffer boots but the Aliens are light enough to ski uphill fast, and sturdy enough to ski downhill at intermediate speeds. Meanwhile for general mountaineering I grabbed my La Sportiva Trango Towers ($350) – another lightweight boot that handles the inclined world of mountaineering remarkably well, with or without crampons. Though light on the feet (3 pounds 4 ounces per pair, size 44 European), the boots are stiff and let me edge with confidence when climbing vertical rock faces, kicking steps across firm firn, or scrambling up exposed mountain ridges where a slip would make scrambled eggs of a body.
Light Tents. I love floorless tents. This is hard to explain in a sound bite, so read this article to understand why these are such great structures. The Cadillac of floorless tents is the Ultamid 4 made by Hyperlite Mountain Gear and capable of sleeping 4 people, so of course I grabbed it. A few of the Ultamid’s benefits are its size (sleeps four people), and its ridiculous weight (1 pound 7 ounces), but that’s just the start. The full list of benefits is listed in this review written a few years ago. When it comes to floored tents that completely cocoon you and seal you from the elements, my best lightweight structure for four-season mountain use is Stephenson’s Warmlite 2R ($499). My tent has withstood gale force winds in the high mountains and is roomy for 2 people. Yet with all the paraphernalia
needed to actually pitch it (poles and stakes), it weighs in at 3 pounds, 4 ounces. I don’t know of another tent that’s so light yet so stormproof.
Heavy Tent. For trips where weight is not particularly critical — like car camping and canoe tripping — I also wanted to grab a big, roomy tent. I had 2 tents from Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI) to choose from. First was REI’s 4-person Half Dome ($299, 7 pound 3 ounces); then came the heavier (8 pounds 13 ounces) 4-person Camp Dome ($199). Both are well designed, sturdy when pitched, and completely waterproof. My hand went back and forth between both for about 20 seconds as I tried to decide which one would be The One. I’ve used the lower-profile, slightly smaller Half Dome for canoe camping when our camps might be subjected to strong winds. Meanwhile the Camp Dome has been preferred for car camping where the slightly larger floor area and the head room to actually stand up makes the tent feel luxurious. Eventually my hand grabbed the Half Dome, I shed a tear for the Camp Dome, and moved on.
Winter Storm Shell. There were many to choose from and the first storm shell to come off the racks was the Mentor Jacket made by Outdoor Research (OR). Frankly, part of the reason I grabbed this sucker pertained to its expense ($475). But I would have let it burn if its performance didn’t justify keeping it. I’ve owned few Gore-Tex products that didn’t start leaking if I got them too dirty, washed them too frequently, or abraded them too much). So far the Mentor with its 3-layer Gore- Pro laminate is the best and most stormproof Gore-Tex coat I’ve owned. Its slim fit and minimalistic touches keep the finished coat relatively light (18.5 ounces, size large) for such a stormproof mountain coat. The Mentor also breathes well, and I especially appreciate this for all forms of skiing when breathability is important to keep insulation dry when it’s cold. In winter it’s far easier to keep Gore-Tex clean and I’ve come to believe this is vital if you want your expensive outerwear to last. As so often happens when you find clothing you would willingly buy again, the manufacturer has discontinued it. OR’s Maximus Jacket ($550) is what has replaced the Mentor and it shares the same fabrics and most of the same design features.
Summer Raincoat. For summer outdoor sports I could continue using the Mentor (see above) but I’m a contrarian in this arena and opt for fully waterproof gear. Some of my favorite pieces like Patagonia’s Hypalon-coated thigh-length coat is no longer made but is still suited for working a commercial crabbing boat out on the Bering Sea at half the weight (18 ounces) of the PVC-coated canvas coats commercial crabbers and fishermen commonly use. I still use this Patagonia coat when faced with the potential of really wet days in remote areas – wilderness canoe trips, remote mountaineering traverses. Much more frequently, however, my summer trips are day trips or lightweight weekend trips based around reasonably good weather forecasts. For such fair-weather tripping, I grabbed my super light (5 ounces) non-breathable raincoat manufactured by Go-Lite made of silnylon. I use this coat in combination with a small collapsible umbrella for summer trips because, as long as it’s not windy, there is nothing better in the rain than an umbrella. Really. While others look like waterlogged muskrats hiking in raingear, umbrellas are air-conditioned, comfortable, and liberating. Go-Lite is no longer in business so had this raincoat burned up I would have looked at other non-breathable silnylon raincoats from such manufacturers as LightHeart Gear, Luke’s Ultralite, or AntiGravity Gear.
Rain Pants. Rain pants mainly get carried trip after trip without getting used, but then when you want them, you want them. Again I grabbed two. For serious protection on multi-day trips where I can’t afford to get soaked by either snow or rain, I wanted the OR Foray Pants. With a ¾-length waterproof zipper, these go on and off easily over any sort of boot. For products where all the fabric is positioned vertically, the Paclite Gore-Tex employed in these pants is excellent for shedding water and breathing. For a heavy- duty rain pant the Forays are light (10 ounces, size large) and a fair price ($175). Of course, for lightweight day-tripping and ultralight overnight trips when I’m not expecting terrible weather, a lighter rain pant like the Go-Lite Reed (5 ounces) is adequate protection to get you home if an unexpected storms does materialize. There’s no zipper on these pants so you need to remove shoes to slip these leggings on and off. This is a hassle but, given that rain pants are so rarely used, the weight saving is worth the inconvenience. Go Lite is no longer in the game so OR’s Helium II pant (5.4 ounces, $119) would be my replacement.
Sleeping pads. I grabbed two that cover all my needs. For any activity where I carry the pad on my feeble back (backpacking, multi-day ski tours, mountaineering traverses), I take the NeoAir XTherm ($200) because it’s so well-insulated (R-Value of 5.7), so comfortable, and so light (15 ounces for a full-length pad). All of that translates into the best nighttime dreaming for the least daytime sweating. For car and canoe camping, I grabbed the Exped Synmat 7 ($150). Weighing 31 ounces, it’s a pound heavier than the Xtherm but more durable, a little wider, and so comfortable that I often use it in my basement on hot summer nights when the upstairs of the house is too warm for comfortable sleep.
Sleeping Bags. My favorite (and most versatile) bag of the many I’ve owned is the Feathered Friends Swallow. Weighing in at 33 ounces, this one bag takes care of nearly all my needs. In summer when the bag might be a touch smidgen too warm, I use it like a quilt and on winter trips when it might be a smidgen cold, I sleep in it wearing my down coat. My Swallow ($429) has been in my quiver for 20 years and while it is not the only bag I use, its 900-fill down has maintained excellent loft all the while. Of course, because I have them and because sleeping bags are mighty expensive, I did grab other bags during our moment of crisis. Being ever weaker as I age, paring down the weight of the equipment I carry continues to keep outdoor activities fun. That makes my North Face Superlight 35/2 ($359), weighing 19 ounces and insulated with 800-fill down, ever more important to me. Rated for temperatures down to about freezing, I can use it for late spring ski tours if I sleep in my coat, summer trips most anywhere, and autumn trips when I head into the mountains for larch season. Finally I grabbed a zero-degree bag made by Mountainsmith weighing 49 ounces. This bag is no longer made my wife has an entirely different thermostat than me and a bag of this weight is needed to keep her warm when the temperature is slightly below freezing. This emphasizes the point that we are all different and the temperature ratings of bags are guidelines. Rather than trusting a manufacturer’s ratings (which tend to be optimistic) know whether you run hotter or colder than average and make sure your sleeping bag compensates accordingly.
More to come. In the next installment of Trial by Fire, read about stoves, miscellaneous climbing and skiing hardware, gloves, headlamps, clothing, and more.