Monday, September 28, 2015

My Top 5 Favorite Newer Pieces of Gear: Follow-up Reviews and Reflections

Usual disclaimer: I am still not sponsored or get free gear.  Just some gear I love that I bought myself.

Another high season of wilderness backpacking is coming to a close for me.  Sure I get out every month of the year, if anything on day trips and the occasional overnighter, but I tend to get out more from generally May to September.  This time of year is also when I tend to take my longer section hikes.  Not that I don't like getting out during those other months!  A lot of it has to do with convenient vacation periods over the summer, and I find it's also easier to take last minute type trips when the weather is warmer.  

Give me about 10 minutes to change into my hiking outfit and throw my gear into my pack, and I can be ready to hit the trail on a sunny summer weekend.  Speaking of sunny, here's a few random pictures from my most recent section hike, which was last week.

This past high season I got to put several pieces of new or new-ish gear to good use, so I figured I should write up some follow up reviews on my top five favorite items.  I'll review them in order of oldest to newest of the bunch.  

And in case you don't recognize them in the pictures above, the five pieces of gear in question will be: 

the Borah Gear down vest

a Zpacks Cuben fiber 6 x 9 flat tarp (in the gray stuff sack)

the SOL Escape Lite Bivvy 

the Zpacks Ventum Wind Shell Jacket 

the Mountain Laurel Designs solo Serenity Bug Shelter (in the red stuff sack).  

I love each one of these pieces of gear, and if I had to replace them for whatever reason, I'd likely do so with an identical, current version of each.

1. The Borah Gear Down Vest

Back in January of 2014 I got the very first down vest ever produced by Borah Gear.  You can read my first impressions review of it here.  Here are some basic specs:

Weight - 105g
Size - Large
Shell fabric - Argon
Fill - 850 down 
Pockets - None
Waist draw string - Yes

The piece of gear I've had the longest of these stand out items, it really deserves to have a follow up to my initial review.  It has become one of my all time favorite articles of backpacking clothing.  It gives me a great amount of warmth at an incredibly light weight, so it comes with me on most of my trips.  Unless the low temps are below -4C/25F, it is a part of my layering system for roughly mid-spring to late fall.  It takes care of the times when I am colder around camp most of the time rather than a layer I wear for extended periods, like say hiking.  However if there is a cold snap or one of those mornings where the chill just takes longer to go away, then it's great to wear under a good shell while hiking.

It still looks pretty much as it did when I got it, and it has seen a year a half of regular use--I'd estimate around 25-30 nights out and it has probably traveled over 1,000km of trail.  It compresses down to about the size of a large orange, but I've never kept it fully compressed to help protect its loft.  It typically gets tossed into my medium-ish sized clothing bag along with my base layers (which I normally wear as pajamas or during cold snaps), beanie, sleep socks, pillow, and a few other bits of clothing depending on the season.  

It still feels silky smooth, it has had hardly any down leak out, and the zipper works just fine still.  I am not changing into this piece of clothing all that often on the trail, so I don't mind that it is a pullover top rather than one with a full zipper.  Even if I don't end up wearing it during warmer temperatures, it still gets good use inside of my deluxe UL pillow (which is a DIY fleece stuff sack plus a small inflatable pillow inside).

I find it difficult to say anything critical about it, really.  Down haters might point out, as they often like to do, that if it gets wet it's worthless or whatever.  True story: I've never had it get soaked or even anything other than slightly damp yet.  And it rains quite a bit over here, just take a look at my trail guides and you'll find plenty of rainy day hike pictures.  That's because if it's raining I am either wearing it in my shelter, or on rare occasions while hiking it's under both my wind jacket and a rain poncho.

Speaking of rain...

2. Zpacks Cuben fiber 6 x 9 flat tarp

After using a pyramid shelter for a few years (Zpacks Hexamid tarp), I decided I wanted to go back to a flat tarp for a more versatile modular shelter system.  After much thought on the whole Cuben vs. silnylon debate, back this past winter I finally decided on an alternative that few UL backpackers choose: 1.0 Cuben.  I've already spoken at length on all this in a video if you are interested.  

Its weight with guy lines and stuff sack is 245g/8.6oz.

I've taken this tarp with me on various trips since last winter--around 7-8 I think--and it's always a pleasure for me to set it up once I find a good spot.  As I have emphasized on various occasions, experience plays a big role in pitching tarps however.  So if you are new to pitching flat tarps make sure to get some practice in before you use it out in the field.  Think of it as you would tying a shoe.  Children learning to tie their shoes have a learning curve, but once they figure it out, it's no big deal.  And with time you can hold a conversation while you tie your shoe and not even think about what you're doing all that much.  I feel the same about pitching my tarp.

After pairing this tarp along with my MLD inner net tent (which I will soon discuss), I hardly ever drool over other UL shelters while skimming forums and blogs and such online.  They just don't catch my eye as much as they used to, because now that I have a go-to shelter that I am so happy with, I just don't care as much.  I don't really consider what shelter I will buy next for solo backpacking, and the rare times that I do it's purely hypothetical (like if I were move to a place where there are little/no forests around, which I have no intentions of doing).  If you are interested in a full breakdown/review/comparison of all four of my solo UL backpacking shelters, which includes several videos and pictures, you can do so here.

Not only does it work great pitched as a shelter (for me A-frame is nearly always the pitch of choice), it also works great as a front door of a trail shelter, or on the roof of a leaky trail shelter.  Its size is something I also put a lot of thought into, having used a lot of flat tarps in my day.  And for me a 6ft x 9ft rectangle gives me plenty of space, plus in a pinch I could fit another person under it too.  It doesn't sag after getting a nice tight pitch, and packs down nicely into a small plus sized stuff sack.  If you look at the packed up tarp next to the inner net in the picture above, I can fit both of them next to each other in my pack so that they occupy one "level" of my pack.

Yeah, Cuben ain't exactly cheap.  But I say if you go out regularly, and use a modular shelter system, splurge on the tarp and skimp on the bivy or net tent that you will use under it.  One of the few down sides of Cuben fiber in use is abrasion anyhow, and a tarp is not likely to come into much contact with anything, so go for silnylon or even Tyvek for under the tarp, which are cheaper and better at dealing with abrasion.

3. SOL Escape Lite Bivvy

I bought this on a whim back in early summer to try and have it fill in gaps in my sleeping systems, having low expectations of it.  But it's fairly inexpensive and figured I could always give it to a friend if it doesn't work out for me.  It worked out much better than I thought it would, and liked it so much I eventually bought another one for my wife.  And at only 148g/5.2g, it changed the way I deal with temperatures that push the limits of a given sleep system.  

You can read all about my complete sleep systems here, from low temps of roughly 20C to -16C / 68F to 3F.  I've used this bivy together with one of my sleeping bags about 7-8 times on various trips when it looked like cooler temps were expected.  Seeing as it weighs less than even my silk base layers or most other UL clothing layers, this is one of the best ways gram-for-gram to keep you warmer sleeping at night--and it also has the added benefit of keeping down bags drier, or for quilt users (which I am not) keep drafts out.

The short of it is that they finally invented a breathable space blanket, and also made it more durable too.  It's pretty damn nifty.  I've never had any condensation in it.  There is a good amount of space for me inside of it along with my sleeping bag of choice, though I have not tried it out in the field yet with my Zpacks 20 bag, but this will happen soon enough now that the temps are dropping and winter is around the corner.  It is not loud like a space blanket, but soft, and its bright orange color could be used for signaling in the rare event of an emergency--which is nice for, if anything, peace of mind.  It has no zipper and no hood and I like it that way.

This could be a great frugal way to put together a good yet cheap sleep system for summer use that isn't all that heavy either.  Combine the SOL Escape Bivy Lite plus a synthetic fleece blanket (like from IKEA) to use inside of it, and a foam roll under it, you're looking at a full sleep system for total 800-900g/28-32oz and about 60-80 USD.

4. Zpacks Ventum Wind Shell Jacket

Crazy light at a mere 60g for my size large, and exceptional at blocking wind and giving a good bump in warmth, this jacket is awesome.  I ordered one early this summer, and used it on each and every trip since I got it (at least 10 nights out and 300+km), this wispy shell really gets the job done.  Combined with an insulation layer, like a nice down vest, the warm air it traps becomes all the more apparent.  It's also silky smooth, and I've worn it to bed many times because it's also very comfortable and nice on the skin.  Plus it also folds up into its own pocket, and it's made in the USA.

This thing gets lots and lots of use by me on trips to fine tune my comfort.  Temperature drops, wind, and bugs have me taking this jacket on and off frequently throughout the day.  As those that follow my blog know, I do a fair amount of bushwhacking/off-trail hiking, and have worn this jacket while doing this on various occasions.  On at least two occasions I can remember, I felt a snag on a branch while moving through some brush, and said to myself, "Damn, this is it--first hole in my new jacket!"  It's only 10D nylon, after all.  Only to my surprise no hole.  It looks as good as the day it came in the mail.  The slipperiness of certain nylons works great against abrasion.  Or maybe I got lucky.

Okay, yes, it's pricey.  So this is not for the casual backpacker or the frugal backpacker.  But if you are a regular backpacker that has considered going UL or you're at "lightweight" base weights, this is a great choice for a wind jacket.  And if you're a gram geek, only a handful of jackets can compete with this one.  Having previously used a Montbell wind jacket for a few years, I can say that the Zpacks wind jacket out performs it (especially the feel of fabric on skin), plus is 15g lighter.  I also really like that it has a full zipper, since I am taking it on and off often.  But I will give the Montbell wind jacket this: it did have a slightly better hood.

This jacket plus my Borah down vest make for my dream team shell and insulation layer.  Throw my Golite poncho over them, and put a good merino wool t-shirt under them, sprinkle with a few nice accessories (baseball cap, merino buff, arm warmers, rain mitts), and I can take on just about anything Sweden can throw at me from late spring to early fall.  Oh yeah, and pants.  Must not forget to wear pants while hiking.

5. Mountain Laurel Designs solo Serenity Bug Shelter (silnylon)

Somewhat recently I did a first impressions video with the Zpacks tarp plus my new MLD inner tent.  I had not yet slept in it out in the field, but as of now I've used it four times overnight out in the woods.  And I just love both this inner tent and the combo together.  Easy to set up, as all you have to do is stake it out and then clip each end to the ridge line of the tarp.  I am pretty sure I could set it up in 2 minutes or less by now.  Plus it's pretty light at only 345g/12.2oz including guy lines and stuff sack.  

It has plenty of space for me with one exception, which is height.  And honestly, I don't think it's a big deal.  I have enough space to change, stash a lot of gear, and of course sleep comfortably without touching the head or foot end of the tent and plenty of space above me.  And I can sit up after all, as you can see in the video I did, but yeah it's a bit cramped.  If I need more space, like say for packing or cooking, I can always just get out of the net tent and do what I have to do.  If it's raining all I need to do is take down the net tent while getting out and just sit on top of it or pack it up altogether if I need more space.  If it is raining there won't be as many bugs out anyhow if it's bug season, and I can always wear my head net while outside of the tent anyhow.

I've also on one occasion used the net tent in "bivy mode," where I didn't stake it out and only hung up the head end to keep the net off my face.  It worked great for this too, so I can use this for cowboy camping under the stars or inside trail shelters.  I've also not had any condensation inside of it, which is no surprise considering how much netting there is.

*Update 18/10/2015: Just got back from a weekend section hike where I was able to set up my Serenity inside of a trail shelter quite nicely.  There were a few cracks in the logs inside the trail shelter where I was able to jam a few sticks into and then use them as anchor points for each end of the tent.  Which was nice considering I saw several spiders inside the shelter, plus there is the often present wood mouse around (though didn't see any on this trip) that is always on my mind when sleeping in trail shelters.  So a great piece of mind, but it also provides a nice albeit minor barrier from wind and/or rain or snow spray.  Anyhow, here's how it looked and it worked out great:

I don't mind crawling in or out of this net tent because of how it pairs with my tarp.  I don't really have to worry about getting in or out that wet or dirty, like say while it's raining, because I can always change into my dry base layers and other clothing from under the tarp before I set up the net tent.  The same is not true of tents that have a front entrance, so for tents I prefer side entrances unless the tent has a good sized vestibule.

What perhaps impressed me the most is that after about 20 years of backpacking, I can't recall being this excited or satisfied about any of my past go-to shelter systems.  When I daydream about future trips, the grand majority of the time I have my Zpacks tarp and MLD net tent in mind.  I just found something that works excellently for me, and can't wait to keeping putting this combo to good use.
That about wraps up this big follow up set of reviews.  As always, feel free to ask questions and give feedback, and hope this was helpful and/or enjoyable to read. 

Edit 29/09/2015: Fixed up some typos and formatting as usual.
Edit 18/10/2015: Added additional info and another picture.