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Winter Weather Forecasting in Mountainous Terrain

If you’re going to hiking or backpack in mountainous terrain in winter, you should learn about the prevailing weather patterns and forecasting tools that are are available for planning hikes and other backcountry tours. The weather in valleys seldom matches the weather at higher elevations, especially in terms of temperature and wind. These factors can have a big impact on the gear required for a hike, your comfort and enjoyment, and risk, since search and rescue times are much slower in poor winter weather. Mountain weather is sufficiently dynamic that you can’t simply plan a hike months or weeks in advance and expect the weather to cooperate. I have cancelled many hikes due to sketchy weather and advocate you take a similarly conservative approach. The mountains will be there another day.

Weather Related Hazards

The main weather-related hazards in mountainous terrain are wind, cold temperatures, snow conditions, and water crossings.

  • High wind can make walking difficult. It can accelerate heat loss from exposed areas of skin, resulting in frostbite and or create missiles, such as flying branches, chunks of ice, or tree blowdowns that can injure you.
  • Cold temperatures cause ice which can make walking difficult or dangerous depending on your location. They can also accelerate hypothermia and frostbite when coupled with wind.
  • Deep snow can be difficult to walk through, resulting in higher energy expenditure if you need to break out a trail with snowshoes or end up postholing because you do not have proper flotation. Blowing snow can obscure your vision in the form of whiteouts and cause navigational problems. In certain areas, snow accumulation can also produce avalanche conditions.
  • Unbridged water crossings become much more risky, since getting wet can quickly lead to frostbite or hypothermia in freezing weather. River rocks that are dry during three season weather may be covered with snow or ice, making crossings far more hazardous.

Mountain Weather Concepts

Mountain weather results from the interplay between topography, wind, and moisture. Being able to read and interpret the elevation changes shown on topographic maps becomes much more important in winter when deciding on routes to take and whether to hike or not on any given day.

Mountains Create Their Own Weather

When the wind hits the mountains, it speeds up as it flows over mountain tops. This can create numerous microclimates, depending on the geography of the terrain, which can have very different weather despite being relatively close together. For example, if the wind hits a mountain’s east side, it’s not unusual for the valley on its west side to receive substantial snowfall. Moisture carried by the wind hits the mountain and cools as it’s deflected upwards. This results in snowfall on the opposite side and potential avalanche conditions, if the valley’s sides have a slope angle between 30 and 45 degrees.

High Elevations are Colder

For every thousand feet of elevation you climb, the temperature drops 3 to 5 degrees. Called the atmospheric lapse effect, this not only has temperature consequences, but can also explain why the weather on top of mountains differs from valleys and lower elevations. It also explains why the risk of frostbite and exposure increases at higher elevations when coupled with increasing wind speeds.

Colliding Fronts Bring Bad Weather
Colliding Fronts Bring Bad Weather

Prevailing Winds

The wind blows across most mountain ranges in a consistent direction: for example, from west to east or east to west.  Significant changes in wind direction are often an indication of a significant change in the weather pattern. In winter, this can often mean increased precipitation if the wind passes over a major body of water, or extreme cold, if it comes from the north.

Fronts Bring Bad Weather

Fronts – both cold fronts and warm fronts – define the dividing line between two air masses, one of which pushes the other out so its way. When fronts collide there is a change in the weather pattern, usually with bad weather, high winds, and a change in weather direction. Here’s what the interaction between these two types of fronts looks like on the ground.

The Effect of a warm front on a cold front
The effect of a warm front on a cold front
The Effect of a cold front on a warm front
The effect of a cold front on a warm front

Warm fronts, associated with areas of high pressure, affect local conditions gradually and often provide observable clues, such as wispy clouds, 24 hours before their arrival. Cold fronts associated with areas of low pressure move in much more rapidly, as fast as 35 mph, and causes rapid dramatic storms, followed by cooler and clearer weather. Knowing which is headed your way and when they will arrive can help you decide where you want to be when they make their influence on the weather felt.

Forecasting

There are a lot of information sources you can tap into for weather information and forecasts, but nothing trumps local knowledge of a mountain region’s weather patterns. That’s why it always makes sense to hike with a guide or experienced local who is familiar with the local weather patterns and can double-check your assumptions. Many mountain areas also have local weather and avalanche forecasters that can help you determine what conditions will be like in the mountains and wilderness areas. It’s important to find out about these and track them for a few weeks before any major expedition, so you can anticipate bad weather patterns ahead of time and change your plans to avoid them. Observing weather trends is the most important part of good forecasting, because it lets you observe the formation and development of bad weather systems as they develop and provides a context to assess the conditions that will be present during your trip.

If you hike in the United States, NOAA (weather.gov) publishes detailed forecasts and instrument readings for free, along with several very useful graphical tools for displaying the information. This same information reformatted and dumbed down by many commercial websites, which is why I prefer to get it directly from NOAA instead.

The two NOAA tools that I use the most are the point forecast, which lets you position a cursor on the your region of interest and surrounding areas to get an idea of local weather patterns. This tool is quite precise, so you can drill down to the summit of a mountain if you want to discern weather differences on the basis of elevation or terrain. The point forecast tool is locate don the bottom right, below. It’s also quite accurate within a 12 hour window, in my experience.

Guyot-Bonds Forecast
Guyot-Bonds Forecast

The 48 hour Key Metric Forecast is also very useful for trend analysis. This is a sub-report in the lower right hand corner of NOAA’s 7 day forecast report and one of the most useful forecasts you can find for predicting key weather metrics 48 hours into the future. The report is based on the location of the current point forecast and let’s you browse multiple variables including wind speed, gust speed, temperature, dewpoint, sky cover, thunder, and precipitation forecasts. I have found this report useful for forecasting when winds will increase or decrease above-treeline.

48 Hour Key Metric Forecast
48 Hour Key Metric Forecast

Other Resources

That’s a brief introduction to winter weather forecasting for winter hiking, mountaineering, backcountry skiing and other winter pursuits. The best way to learn how to forecast local winter weather patterns is to find a friend who knows how to do it and can show you the ropes. It is an important skill for winter recreation, especially if you’re after Type II routes that require a greater deal of self-sufficiency.

See Also

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Outdoor Research HighCamp Gloves Review

Outdoor Research HighCamp Gloves are insulated waterproof winter gloves with soft goat leather palms and touchscreen compatible liner gloves rated down to -15 F / -26 C. They’re best used in cold and exposed mountain terrain when you need to balance the competing demands of insulation and dexterity. For example, if you need to grip an ice axe in the ready position or tighten your backpack’s hip belt, you need the dexterity of a glove. Mittens won’t cut it.

The HighCamps’s outer glove is waterproof, insulated with Primaloft synthetic insulation, and has an additional sewn-in 100 weight fleece liner. In addition, the HighCamps come with a separate pair of fleece liner gloves, which you can use by themselves, as liners inside the HighCamp gloves, or any other shell glove or mitten you own. The outer HighCamp gloves also have gauntlets that can be tightened or loosened with one hand, ladder locks on the back, idiot cords to prevent them from blowing away, and pull loops to help you pull them on. The fingers are pre-curved and also have finger loops so you can clip them to a climbing harness.

Most of the time I just use the HighCamp gloves without the separate liners, since they’re already quite warm, and I use the liners by themselves when I just need a lightweight glove to keep my hands warm on brisk mornings. The liners have a silicone imprinted grip and touchscreen compatible forefinger and thumb. These liners are nice to have if you use a phone for navigation or reference, as many of us increasingly do.

The Radiant Fleece Liners are touchscreen compatible and have a silicone imprint that provides excellent grip.
The Radiant Fleece Liners are touchscreen compatible and have a silicone imprint that provides excellent grip.

The nice thing about this multi-part glove system is that you can mix and match the layers depending on your needs. For example, you could wear the liners by themselves when you’re skinning up a hill and then switch to the dry and insulated outer glove when you ski back down it and want a waterproof glove for the descent. The HighCamp is really like owning two gloves in one.

While the leather palms on the outer glove are water resistant, they do absorb water if soaked and it can take a while for then to dry.  These gloves are also not warm enough for very cold temperatures below 0 degrees despite their -15 F rating by OR. Still, they’re excellent gloves for cold weather use, both with and without the touch compatible liners.

I’ve found that the OR HighCamp Gloves run about a half-size small, so size up.

Compare 7 Prices

Last updated: 2018-10-18 16:28:27

Disclosure: The author purchased these gloves with his own funds.

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Red Rock Cliff Loop: Great Hikes in the White Mountains

The Red Rock Trail is in the northeastern corner of the White Mountain National Forest, in Maine. It’s a ridgeline trail that begins at Speckled Mountain and runs east over several lesser peaks named Butters Mountain and Red Rock Mountain, all the way to Miles Notch. It provides access to an outstanding cliff-top view of the hills and lakes east of Evans Notch, in an area where few White Mountain Hikers venture.

The viewpoint is nearly opposite the summit of Red Rock Mountain and down a short spur path. The best way to access it is to hike a 10 mile loop up to the Red Rock Trail up the Miles Notch Trail and down the Great Brook Trail. This is a moderately strenuous hike with 2800′ of elevation gain and roughly the equivalent of climbing a 4000 footer.

You can also backpack this loop if you feel like a short overnight trip, camping along Great Brook (the stream) after its descent from the ridge. There aren’t any designated campsites in the woods, but White Mountain National Forest Backcountry Camping Regulations permit low impact camping here.

Red Rock Cliff Loop Map

Trail Sequence

  1. Miles Notch Trail – 3.2 miles
  2. Red Rock Trail – 3.4 miles
  3. Great Brook Trail – 3.7 miles

Directions

  • Miles Notch Trailhead: From ME Rt. 5 in N. Lovell, follow West Stoneham Rd. for 1.8 miles. Turn right onto Hut Rd. and continue 1.5 miles to southern trailhead.
  • Great Brook Trailhead: It is 100 yds. beyond the Miles Notch Trailhead on Hut Rd.

The Miles Notch Trail climbs 1800′ up to the junction along through open forest and along old logging roads. A Notch in White Mountain’s parlance is a mountain pass, or a low point along a ridge, separating one watershed from another. Many of the more famous notches in the White Mountains like Franconia Notch or Crawford Notch have roads going through them, but you can find dozens of wild ones, with and without trails, by looking at a good map of the region.

Climbing up the Miles Notch Trail
Climbing up the Miles Notch Trail

The Miles Notch Trail enters the woods immediately across from the trailhead parking lot and begins climbing through open woods. The bottom part of the trail is blazed in yellow, but the blazes become less prevalent farther on and care much be taken to follow the trail, particularly in autumn when leaves can obscure it. This entire area of the White Mountains, which includes the Caribou-Speckled Wilderness area is less travelled than other areas in the Whites, so you do need to put on your navigation cap at times to avoid following animal paths that look like they’re part of the main trail.

The trail starts climbing as soon as you leave the trailhead, moderating and dropping at points, but climbing relentlessly 1800′ through open forest up to the Red Rock Trail.  As you approach Miles Notch, you’ll begin to see impressive rock cliffs through the trees on your left (west). You’ll come to the Red Rock Trail junction shortly after passing the boundary sign for the Caribou-Speckled Wilderness.

Enter the Caribou-Speckled Wilderness Area
Enter the Caribou-Speckled Wilderness Area

Turn left (west) here onto the Red Rock Trail and begin climbing again, up another 300′, to follow the ridgeline trail. After 1.2 miles, you’ll reach the summit of Red Rock Mountain 2141′). There is a partially obscured, south-facing viewpoint shortly before the Red Rock summit, as well as an obscure side path a few yards east of it, leading to an open cliff. Descend this side path to reach a prow-like cliff with wide open views of Kezar Lake, Miles Knob, and the Great Brook drainage. The view here is particularly spectacular in autumn, when the surrounding hills are ablaze in color. The cliff face is quite high however, so be sure to keep pets and children away from the edge, because a fall would be lethal.

The ledge below the Red Rock summit is quite large
The ledge below the Red Rock summit is quite large.

Return to the Red Rock Trail and continue west climbing Butters Mountains, before turning on Great Brook Trail. The trail sign looks like its being eaten by the tree that it’s nailed to. There is a stream about 100 yards below the trail junction that’s a good place to filer more water if you need it. After that, the trail drops very steeply over the next mile, paralleling the Great Brook stream for most of its length.

Great Brook Tail Junction - Tree Eating Sign
Great Brook Tail Junction – Tree Eating Sign

The bottom of the half of the trail follows old logging roads, but is lightly blazed. In the absence of blazes or the occasional wooden arrow nailed to a tree, if you hike within earshot of the stream, you’ll find the gate leading back to Hut Road. Carrying a GPS or phone app such as Gaia GPS can also be reassuring, provided you’ve downloaded maps in advance for offline use, since this area does not have cell phone network access.

Gate at end of Logging Road
Gate at end of Logging Road

When you reach the gate at the end of the trail, continue following the gravel road for 0.8 miles back to the Miles Notch Trailhead.

About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide (1440 miles). He’s also finished hiking many of the region’s peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

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Trail Runners or Hiking Boots for Autumn Weather: When to Switch?

When should you switch from trail runners back to waterproof or insulated hiking boots when the temperatures drop in autumn? I get asked this question frequently and it’s something I wrestle with myself every autumn. The easy answer, is when temperatures drop below freezing (32 degrees) during the day or night. But there are a lot of mitigating factors and transition strategies that you can employ to defer switching from trail runners to boots. Some are more comfortable than others, some less so.

Day Hiking in Autumn

For example, if you’re day hiking, you can usually wear trail runners down to freezing, provided:

  • You can keep your shoes and socks dry.
  • There’s no wind.
  • You don’t stop for breaks often or stand around on cold rock.
  • You hike at a fast pace and generate a lot of body heat.
  • You eat snacks and stay hydrated.
  • You don’t have to wear metallic traction aids like microspikes.

Unless you know your intended route and hiking partners well, it can be difficult to predict these factors. For example, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of water that fallen leaves can hold in autumn, even if it’s not raining, or the increased wind exposure you’ll experience when hiking through forest after the leaves have dropped. The same holds for morning frost or dew which can make your shoes and socks wet, or the cold that radiates up through your trail runners if you have to wear a metallic traction aid to hike over slick and icy rock.

You can mitigate all of these conditions by wearing a waterproof insulated sock from SealSkinz or a Hanz Chillblocker Waterproof (Hanz is a subsidiary of SealSkinz). The added insulation, wind protection, and waterproofing will keep you reasonably comfortable in your trail runners down to freezing or lower. Another alternative is to wear oven bags over or under wool socks, which is less expensive, but also less insulating.

Regular hiking or insulated winter boots are usually much warmer than trail runners in borderline weather, because they don’t have mesh sides and they have much thicker soles. This results in much greater wind resistance and more foot and sole insulation. Personally, I switch from trail runners to lightly insulated winter boots (200 g of insulation) without ever wearing regular hiking boots, because I don’t own any. “Waterproof” winter boots with synthetic insulation will also stay warmer if you get them soaked, while the same can’t be said of uninsulated or leather hiking boots.

Hanz ChillBlocker Waterproof Socks (right) are insulated with Polartec Fleece for warmth, but still fit in regularly sized shoes for hiking in wet weather
Hanz ChillBlocker Waterproof Socks (right) are insulated with Polartec Fleece for warmth, but still fit in regularly sized shoes for hiking in wet weather.

Backpacking in Autumn

Backpackers have to consider the same factors that day hikers do, plus nighttime temperatures, and the weather over the course of several days. It’s one thing if your shoes get wet on a day hike, because you can go home and dry them out by the wood stove. But if you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip, wet trail runners are likely to freeze at night if temperatures drop below 32 degrees. There’s also less of a chance to recover from wet shoes during a multi-day trip in freezing weather, unless you can hit town and dry your footwear out completely.

There are several ways to mitigate the risk of frozen trail runners. One way is to sleep with them and prevent them from freezing with your body heat. This can be uncomfortable as hell, but it does work. Another way is to rewarm your shoes in the morning by putting a hot water bottle or heat pack in them to melt any ice that’s formed overnight. But they’ll likely to still be cold when you put them on and your feet will struggle to warm them up.

Surrender to the Inevitable: Boots

If none of these mitigating strategies sound very appealing, it’s because they’re not. If you hike in the colder and wetter weather that often accompanies autumn, you will want to switch to boots if temperatures consistently drop below freezing. While boots aren’t as lightweight or comfortable as trail runners, it is what it is. Look at the bright side. You’re still hiking and spring will get here eventually.

See Also:

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10 Best Winter Backpacking Packs

Winter backpacking backpacks are more specialized than regular three season backpacks, with a stronger emphasis on heavier weight loads, external attachment points, and durability for carrying bulky gear with sharp points like snowshoes, skis, ice axes, and crampons. They also favor more pockets and the ability to access and put away gear quickly, so you can avoid standing around between gear transitions and getting cold. Pack volumes can vary anywhere from a minimum of 50L to 100L, with 70L usually being the sweet spot for a comfortable weekend length trip.

Here are our picks for the top 10 best winter backpacking packs:

1. The North Face Cobra 60 L

The North Face Cobra 60 is a modular winter pack ideal for winter backpacking and mountaineering. It has a reinforced front stuff pocket that can be used to store crampons or layers, a floating lid, hip belt gear, rope carry, wand pockets, and a dual ice axe carry system. Weighing 57 oz, the pack can be stripped to bring the weight down to 30 oz for short trips or summit attempts. The Cobra is also a available in a lower volume 52L size.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Moosejaw | Amazon

2. Cold Cold World Chaos 66 L

Chances are you’ve never heard of Cold Cold World Backpacks before, but their packs are famous in the mountaineering and search and rescue communities. The Choas is a frameless, top-loading backpack with a floating top lid, front crampon pocket, ski loops, gear loops on the hip belt, dual ice axe loops w/ shaft holders, and multiple daisy chains so you can lash gear to the outside of the pack.  It has an internal sleeping pad pocket so you can use a foam pad as a frame. Custom fabrics and colors are also available on request. A stock Chaos weighs in at just 3 lbs 12 oz, which is quite respectable for a pack that’s this technical and durable.

Check for the latest price at:
Cold Cold World

3. Gregory Denali 75 L

Gregory Denali 75

The Gregory Denali 75 has a top loading design with side zipper access. Daisy chains and expandable side pockets make it easy to carry bulky gear, while the hip belt has tubular gear loops, ice clipper slots, and sled pull loops. Strippable aluminum stays, a bivy pad, floating lid, and hip belt padding can all be removed. The fit is excellent and highly adjustable with an auto-cant hip belt. Weighing 6 lbs, the Denali 75 is a beefy winter pack, but provides a lot more comfort and adjustability. You might be surprised at the difference. A larger Denali 100 L is also available for expedition use.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Moosejaw | Amazon

4. Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4400 Ice Pack (70 L)

HMG 4400 Ice Pack

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4400 Ice Pack is a winter backpacking and mountaineering pack made with ultralight Dyneema DCF fabric, which doesn’t absorb water and is very durable. It gracefully combines a minimalist sensibility with a roll top and has an integrated crampon pocket, hip belt gear loops, numerous external attachment points,  and daisy chains. A reinforced back panel is provided to haul heavier loads. A ski mod option is also available. HMG also sells this pack in 3400 (55L) and 2400 (40L) volumes.

Check for the latest price at:
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 

5. Mountain Hardwear SouthCol OutDry 70 L

Mountain Hardwear South Col 70 Outdry

The Mountain Hardwear South Dry Col 70 OutDry is a waterproof backpack that’s loaded with features including a crampon pocket, wand pocket, ice tool holders, reversible compression straps and ski loops. Many of its components are strippable including the floating lid, hip belt (with gear loops) and even the aluminum stays. Due to its waterproof construction, the pack does not have hydration ports, something to consider if you want to use the pack in warmer weather.

Check for the latest price at:
Mountain Hardwear | Moosejaw | Amazon

6. Osprey Mutant 52 L

Osprey Mutant 52 Backpack

The Osprey Mutant 52 packs a wealth of great features into a smaller volume winter and climbing backpack. It has a floating lid, wand and picket pockets, a ski haul system, hip belt with gear loops, daisy chains, ice tool and shaft holders, and a helmet attachment option. The top lid and hip belt are also completely removable to save weight or for use with a climbing harness. Priced at $200, the 55 oz Osprey Mutant 52 is a great winter backpack for fast-and-light or hut-to-hut trips where you can streamline your gear list.

Check for the latest price at:
Moosejaw | Amazon

7. The North Face Phantom 50 L

The North Face Phantom 50 is an ultralight, alpine-style backpack weighing 40 oz (max) that can be configured for different types of trips ranging from winter backpacking to ski mountaineering or alpine climbing. It has a removable floating lid, ice tool holders, ski loops, hip belt loops, and numerous gear loops if you want to rig up your own attachment points. The pack can also be stripped of components including the lid, hip belt padding or framesheet bringing its weight down to 22.4 oz. That’s light for a winter pack!

Check for the latest price at:
Moosejaw

8. Black Diamond Mission 75 L

Black Diamond Mission 75L

The Back Diamond Mission is a top loading, four season backpack with a floating lid, front crampon pocket, hip belt loops, and a full length side zipper for easy gear access. It features a reactive suspension system with shoulder straps and a hip belt that move with your torso to keep your load stable. The Mission 75 is also fully strippable with a removable waist belt, lid, and framesheet. A lower volume Mission 55 Backpack is also available.

Check for the latest price at:
Black Diamond | Amazon

9. Exped Lightning 60 L

The Exped Lightning 60 is a streamlined, roll top backpack with an adjustable torso length than be used year-round. The elaborate strap and compression system can be configured many different way to secure gear to the outside of the pack from snowshoes and ice axes to skis and sleeping pads. The side pockets are large enough to hold insulated Nalgene bottles, while a map pocket in the pack bag can hold valuables and navigation instruments. A women’s version of the Lightning 60 is also available.

Check for the latest price at:
Moosejaw | Amazon

10. Alpine Luddites Alpine Machine 70 L

Alpine Luddites Alpine Machine 70

Alpine Luddite is a small pack manufacturer that has been making a big name for itself making its own designs and custom-made reproductions of classic backpacks. The Alpine Machine is a 70 liter pack with a removable floating lid pocket and hip belt, a rope strap, wand pockets, daisy chains, hip belt loops, ice axe loops, and haul loops. A 60 liter version is also available. The pack is made with ultralight and ultra durable Dimension Polyant DX 40 fabric which is combination of Dyneema, polyester, and X-Pac. Custom modifications and sizes are also available for an additional fee.  

Check for the latest price at:
Alpine Luddites

HOW TO CHOOSE A WINTER BACKPACK

Backpacks tailored for winter use have a different feature set than most 3 season packs. What follows are the features that I’ve found most useful for overnight and multi-day winter trips in mountainous terrain. While I think these translate fairly broadly across winter locales, you need to be the judge on the features you believe are most relevant for your needs.

Volume and Weight

If you mostly plan on doing overnight or weekend-length winter backpacking trips, you’ll probably want a pack that has 65-85 liters of internal capacity. The sweet spot is about 70 liters, but you might be able to shave that down as low as 50-55 liters if you carry less gear or need less insulation. Try to get a pack that has adequate compression so you can shrink its volume if not needed, while keeping the weight of an empty pack under 5 pounds. Pack and gear weight are even more important in winter than the rest of the year, because you’ll be wearing and carrying a lot more of it.

External Attachment Points

Winter packs need to have a multitude of external attachment points to carry sharp, pointy, or bulky gear that won’t fit inside the main storage areas of a backpack. The most useful external attachment points include compression straps, daisy chains, hip belt webbing or gear loops, and ice axe loops with shaft holders.

Compression Straps

Compression straps serve two purposes: to help compress a puffy load and bring the weight closer to your core muscles where it can be carried more easily; and to attach sleeping pads, snowshoes, avalanche shovels, or skis to the sides of your pack instead of the front, so that the load doesn’t pull you backwards and off-balance.

When choosing a backpack, try to find ones that have two or three tiers of compression straps that run horizontally across the sides of the packs. The compression straps should be adjustable and easy to undo while wearing gloves so you can slide snowshoes under them. Avoid packs that have compression straps that zig zag back and forth on the backpack using one strap to save weight. These are very difficult to use.

Daisy Chains

Daisy chains are often sewn onto winter packs and can be used to lash extra gear to the back or sides of the pack using canvas or velcro straps. They usually have many loops sewn into them that run the length of your pack from top to bottom.

Ice Axe Loops

There are two kinds of ice axes in this world – straight walking axes and curved climbing axes. If you need to carry a walking axe, look for a pack that has at least one ice axe loop at the base of the pack and a shaft holder, both off-center along the back of the pack. The shaft holder can be a simple cord lock like those found on many Osprey packs, or a more robust buckle. If you plan on carrying two climbing axes, look for packs with two ice axe loops and shaft keepers.

Hip Belt Webbing and Gear Loops

Some climbing oriented packs have canvas or plastic gear loops on the outside of the hip belt to clip climbing carabiners to. While not a substitute for a proper sit harness, these loops can be quite convenient to rack gear. Alternatively,  you can clip insulated water bottle holders to them so you can drink when you are on the move and don’t want to stop.  Extra hip belt webbing serves the same purpose and is often better than having belt pockets that are too small for winter use.

Crampon Pockets

Crampon pockets are a very convenient and safe place to store crampons when you’re not wearing them. Located on the side of the pack farthest away from you, they keep the crampon points away from your arms and legs, your head, and your gear where they can do real damage.

Floating Lids

It can be very helpful in winter to have a backpack that can expand in volume to carry more gear. One way to do this is to buy a pack with a floating lid, usually a top pocket that can detach from the main body of the pack but is still held down by 4 straps. Extra gear, say a coil of rope, can be sandwiched between the pocket and the top of your pack in this manner.

Backpack Pockets

Backpack pockets can be a two-way street in winter. While they can be useful for organization, they can also add a lot of unnecessary weight to a backpack. For example, having a backpack with a separate sleeping bag pocket is pretty useless, because your sleeping bag can just as easily be stored in one large main compartment without needing the extra fabric weight and zipper required for the additional pocket.

Accessory Pockets

Most of the hip belt pockets provided by manufacturers are simply too small to be of much use in winter, and there aren’t enough of them to carry everything you might need for a winter hike, such as a camera, sun tan lotion, lip balm, headlamp, compass, map, altimeter, and a pencil or pen. Many hikers add accessory pockets to their packs to provide more external storage or they wear an additional fanny pack backwards to provide another pocket that can store spare gloves, hats, and food.

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Tent Repair, Maintenance, and Cleaning Guide

Buying a backpacking or camping tent is a big investment, but you can extend your tent’s lifetime and get many years of use from it by spending a little time on tent maintenance, repair, and cleaning. While there are many types and styles of tents, the techniques and tools required to keep them in top shape are basically the same.

Here are the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years to prolong the useful lifetime of a backpacking tent, tarps, tents, and bivy sacks. I’ve also included links to companies that sell replacement tent poles, parts, and repair products that I’ve found helpful to maintain, repair, and clean my tents, tarps, and other backpacking and camping shelters.

Tent Cleaning and Maintenance

1. How to clean and dry a tent

The best time to start caring for a tent is immediately after a trip, by drying and cleaning it before packing it away for storage. Separate the components and hang them up to dry out completely. It can take several days for all the cords and threads in your tent to dry completely, so be patient.

a. Rain fly and inner tent

Hang tents indoors or in total shade, since the UV radiation in direct sunlight will degrade the fabric if left out for a sustained period of time. Don’t try to wash a tent in a washing machine or dry them in a clothes drier….or they’re likely to be shredded or melt.

Once dry, clean out any debris, such as sand or leaves from the inner tent where they have a tendency to collect. A simple shake is sometimes all it takes, although a portable hand-vacuum can also be quite convenient to use.

b. Tent poles

Inspect your tent poles, especially the ends called ferrules, which hold the pole segments together, for any cracks, and then air-dry the poles. Cracks form when you let the end of the poles snap together and occur quite commonly, especially on ultralight tents that have thin poles. The only long-term way to fix them is to replace the ferrule, cracked pole segment, or the entire pole.

If you do find a crack or chip in a ferrule, it’s a good idea to order a replacement segment so that the pole does not fail on your next trip. Fibraplex and Tentpole Technologies stocks fiberglass, aluminum, and carbon fiber tent poles and segments for many popular tents and are good suppliers of replacement parts. You can also contact your tent’s manufacturers to inquire about their cost for parts or replacement poles.

c. Tent stakes (pegs)

Count your tent stakes to make sure you have the same number you left on your trip with, and replace any that are missing or bent beyond recognition. (You never want to step on a stake with your foot to drive it into the ground, that’s why they bend. Instead pound them into the ground with a rock or simply push them in with your hands.) Remove any dirt that’s accumulated in the stakes’ grooves or adhered to them, to prevent abrasion of the bag or sack you carry them in.

d. Zippers

Zippers are probably the most fragile piece of a tent and the hardest to replace if you don’t have sewing skills. The best way to avoid replacing one is to keep the ones on your tent clean and free of dust and grit. To do this, wipe your tent zippers down with a dry cloth after each trip. If your zipper still looks dirty or contains grit, gently brush it with a dry toothbrush to dislodge any remaining foreign matter.

If your zipper is totally busted, you can buy a replacement kit and try to repair it that way, although it will require sewing skills. Most tent manufacturers will repair tents for a fee or refer you to Rainy Pass Repairs, which is an excellent gear repair shop.

2. How to wash a tent

If your tent is muddy or dirty, you should start by trying to gently scrubbing it with water and a soft sponge, but no soap. This is usually sufficient. Avoid scouring brushes which can remove the waterproof coatings on the outside of the tent.

If your tent is stained or smells bad, wash it gently in a tub of water with a mild detergent like unscented Woolite and then rinse it throughly, before air drying. For stubborn stains, use a synthetic wash cloth to gently scrub the tent material. Avoid harsher detergents or more abrasive sponges because they can strip the protective coatings off your tent.

Black Mildew Spots on a Bivy Sack
Black Mildew Spots

3. How to remove mildew from a tent

Mildew looks like white, green, or black dots on the surface of the tent fabric and may also have a musty odor. The best way to get rid of it is to gently wash your tent in a tub of water with Gear-Aid Mirazyme.  If you do nothing to treat mildew, it will eventually digest the fabric it’s growing on and ruin it. As mildew spreads, it can also leave a stain which can be difficult to remove.

4. How to store a tent

When you tent is clean and dry, fold it up and store it in a cool dry place to prevent any mildew from forming on it. Pack all the components together to make it them easy to find for your next trip.

Don’t store your tent set up or in direct sunlight because the tent poles can also lose their tension (if curved), if they’re left set up for a long period of time.  UV damage from direct sunlight can also weaken the tent’s fabric and coating and make it more prone to tears.

Tent Repairs

1. How to repair a rip or hole in a tent floor or wall

The easiest way to repair a rip or hole in a tent floor or wall is to repair it using Tenacious Tape, a super sticky tape with a fabric side that is great for repairing tents, rain jackets, inflatable sleeping pads and other outdoor fabrics. It is available in pre-cut patches or in larger rolls that you can cut to suit your needs. I’ve used it to repair quite large rips in tent walls and ceilings and it’s never leaked, no matter how many times the tent is folded or stuffed afterwards.

To use it, clean the area surrounding the hole or rip with water or rubbing alcohol to remove any dirt or oils. Next, bring the fabric edges together and apply a Tenacious Tape patch to the hole, extending 1″ or 2″ beyond its edge. If you cut a piece of tape from a larger roll, round the edges with a scissor to help prevent catching a corner. Then apply pressure to the tape with the heel of your hand, warming the glue with your body heat. For big rips or ones in high tension areas like corners, you might want to apply a second patch on the opposite side of the hole for reinforcement.

I use Tenacious Tape for more repairs than any other product.
I use Tenacious Tape for more repairs than any other product.

Many tent manufacturers also include fabric swatches with their tents, that you can sew over holes or rips, and then seam seal the edges to make a waterproof patch. This requires sewing skills and drying time however, which is why I recommend Tenacious Tape instead. It has the same effect, but only takes a few seconds to apply, and basically lasts forever.

2. How to repair ripped insect netting

If you find holes or rips in the insect netting, you can repair them with MSR adhesive insect netting patches. These patches have an adhesive which sticks well to nylon or polyester mesh. I’ve tried other mesh repair kits and like these the best because they’re very sticky. The mesh is also small enough to repel no-seeums, as well as mosquitos.

3. How to repair leaking tent seams

Most backpacking and camping tents are now factory seam-taped to make them waterproof. This tape can break down with use and begin to leak or flake off from age. The best way to patch or prevent a leak is to remove or trim away the failed piece of tape and to seam seal the seam. You need to use the right product for your tent type however, depending on the fabric its made with.

Seam Sealing a Tent or Tarp
Seam Sealing a Tent (photo courtesy Martin Rye)

Most tents (made with PU covered fabrics) should be seam-sealed with Gear Aid Seam Grip + WP, while ultralight silnylon tents should be seam-sealed with Gear Aid Seam Grip + Sil.

I’ve been very unimpressed with water-based seams sealers and avoid them.

4. How to repair flaking polyurethane tent flies and floors

If you own a polyurethane tent and notice that your tent fly is leaking, or your tent floor is flaking or tacky to the touch, you need to apply a new polyurethane coating with Gear Aid Seam Grip TF Tent Fabric Sealant. This can be done on the specific area that’s leaking or the entire side of a tent, although it’s easier to do smaller sections.

First, you need to remove the old coating, by scrubbing it away with a brush and some rubbing alcohol. Then you simply paint on the seam sealant and let it dry to restore your tent’s waterproofing.  Alternatively, some tent manufacturers will sell replacement rain flies or inner tents.

5, How to repair a broken tent pole or ferrule

Most tents come with a short 6″ metal sleeve (also sold separately) that you can slide over a broken segment of tent pole and tape in place as a temporary patch. You can also tape a tent stake or wooden stick to a broken pole. Longer term, you will want to replace the pole or the broken segment.

See Also:

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NEMO Switchback Foam Sleeping Pad Review

The NEMO Switchback is a accordion-style closed-cell foam sleeping pad that can be used as an ultralight pad by itself or to augment the warmth of a second sleeping pad, when sleeping outdoors in colder weather. It’s quite similar to the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol sleeping pad, but made with modern materials and precisely molded. Like the Z Lite Sol, one side of the pad is coated with aluminum to reflect your body heat back at you and keep you warmer.

Specs at a Glance

  • Type: Closed-Cell Foam
  • R-Value: Not Available from manufacturer (estimated at 2)
  • Manufacturer Temperature Rating: 20 F / -7 C
  • Thickness: 0.9 in / 2.3 cm
  • Weight: 14.5 oz / 415 g
  • Length x width: 72 x 20 in / 183 cm x 51 cm
  • Packed Size: 5 x 5.5 x 20 in / 13 x 14 x 51 cm
  • Color: Pumpkin

If you’ve never owned an accordion-style foam pad, they’re a useful piece of backpack gear to have around because they can serve so many purposes. I’ve used them as virtual frames in frameless backpacks, extra insulation under an inflatable sleeping pad, sit pads to keep my bum warm and dry, hammock insulation, winter stove insulation, hot water bottle insulation, insulated seats for pack rafts, even as shims to keep air conditioners from falling out of windows. You just need a sharp pair of scissors and your imagination to figure out ways to use them.

The Switchback (right) folds up more compactly than a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite even though they both have 14 panels and are 72" long.
The Switchback (right) folds up more compactly than a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite (left) even though they both have 14 panels and are 72″ long.

What makes the Switchback Different?

The Switchback’s main competitor is the legendary Therm-a-Rest Z Lite sleeping pad. That accordion-style foam sleeping pad has been around for as long as I can remember. The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol is coated on one side with an aluminum film like the Switchback.

The Switchback takes everything that’s good about that pad and makes it better. Well, almost everything. The Switchback is a bit thicker, for instance, measuring 0.9 inches thick compared to the Z Lite Sol’s 0.75 inch thickness. It also weighs about a half ounce more at 14.5 oz, compared to the Z Lite Sol, which weighs 14 oz. Despite that, the Switchback folds up more compactly because the raised portions of the pad slot in better with the recessed areas. This makes it easier to strap to the side of your backpack or under a floating lid.

The Switchback is also a good deal more comfortable than a Z Lite Sol, perhaps enough to convince you to switch from an inflatable pad to a foam pad again. NEMO uses two types of foam in the Switchback, a softer foam that comes in contact with your body and a more durable foam that reduces pad compression over time, while Therm-a-Rest uses just one type of foam in the Z Lite Sol. Both pads are also comparable in price: a 72″ NEMO Switchback retails for $50, while the regular length Z Lite Sol costs $45, and is available in a variety of lengths.

The Switchback (bottom) has a very different pattern of peaks and valleys than the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol
The Switchback (bottom) has a very different pattern of peaks and valleys than the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top).

Temperature Ratings vs R-values

The biggest difference between the NEMO Switchback and the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol pads is in how they’re rated in term of insulation value. Therm-a-Rest rates their sleeping pads using R-values which are well understood by backpackers. For example, an R-value of 2-3 is good for 3 season use, while an R-value of 5-6 is good for sleeping on snow. Sleeping pad R-values are also additive, so you can stack two sleeping pads to create enough insulation to sleep on snow in winter.

While the method used to measure R-values varies somewhat between manufacturers and testing labs, a new outdoor industry standard is likely due out in 2020 (according to my well-informed sources) that will standardize the testing process and it make it possible for consumers to compare sleeping pad R-values across manufacturers. It will also force manufacturers to re-rate or redesign their products so they match their marketing claims, much like the process that occurred when standard sleeping bag temperature ratings were introduced.

Both the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top) and the Switchback (bottom) have an aluminum coating that reflect your body heat back at you.
Both the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top) and the Switchback (bottom) have an aluminum coating that reflect your body heat back at you.

NEMO doesn’t use R-values to rate their sleeping pads, including the Switchback. Instead, they assign the Switchback a 20 degree temperature rating, which makes it quite difficult to compare it with other sleeping pads that are rated using R-values. It also raises a number of questions about how the temperature rating should be interpreted.

For example:

  • Is the 20 degree temperature rating a measure of air temperature or ground temperature? There’s a big difference.
  • Is the 20 degree rating the same for men and women, who are known to sleep colder than men?
  • Are sleeping pad temperature ratings additive, like R-values? For example, will two sleeping pads rated for 20 degree temperatures provide sufficient insulation to sleep in minus 20 below zero (F) weather?
  • What kind of guidance does a temperature rating provide you if you want to combine the Switchback with an inflatable sleeping pad for cold weather use that has an R-value, but not a temperature rating?
  • How is the 20 degree rating calculated? Is it based on a automated testing procedure or by human observation in a cold room, where individual differences in sex or physique could skew the results.

In the absence of an R-value for the Switchback, it’s difficult to assess NEMO’s claim that it is the warmest closed-cell foam sleeping pad made. If you do buy the Switchback, my conservative guess is that it has an R-value in the range of 2-2.5, which is pretty standard for closed-cell foam pads.

The Switchback is only available in a pumpkin-like color. Too bad. It would have been even more useful in blaze orange.
The Switchback is only available in a pumpkin-like color. Too bad. It would have been even more useful in blaze orange.

Recommendation

The NEMO Switchback is actually a well-engineered and very comfortable closed-cell foam sleeping pad, despite its lack of an R-value rating. While it’s not as comfortable as an inflatable sleeping pad, it is definitely a step up from a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol in terms of design, manufacturing, and materials. It’s really about time that someone went head-to-head with Therm-a-Rest when it comes to closed-cell foam sleeping pads. While the NEMO Switchback is in many respects a knock-off of the Z Lite Sol, it is a better knock-off, which is a pretty impressive feat, if you think about the engineering and design that goes into making high quality foam products on an industrial scale.

Disclosure: NEMO provided the author with a sleeping pad for this review.

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Last updated: 2018-10-11 11:45:35

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Backpacking a Gentian Pond Loop

Gentian Pond in Autumn

Gentian Pond is in the Mahoosuc Range, one of the hardest sections of the Appalachian Trail. I hiked a one night loop up to the AT shelter there, visiting two big waterfalls called Giant Falls and Dryad Falls on the way. My friend Ken and I had stopped by this shelter when we hiked this section in August, but the shelter and campsite had been full, so we’d skipped past it and camped a few miles south at Dream Lake.

This was a combination mental health and redline hike. It being Columbus Day week, the White Mountain National Forest is overrun with tour buses and cars with out-of-state license plates. It’s not so much their presence which bothers me, but the mile-long traffic jams, in a place where there are seldom more than a few cars stopped at a red light. So, I did what I do when confronted by crowds. I headed north to the less-visited wilderness areas in the northeast corner of the WMNF.

Redlining, for the uninitiated, is when you hike all of the trails in the AMC’s White Mountain Guide. There are 640 trails in the current 30th edition. It took me 10 years to hike all of the trails in the 29th edition (I finished last year) and I’m now working thru the 30th edition, revisiting all of the old trails that I’ve forgotten and the 12 or so new trails that have since been added to the redlining spreadsheet. Each one of those 640 trails is akin to a meal on a menu at a really good restaurant so it’s easy to get motivated to hike them all.

Being a solo hike, I mapped out a loop that would bring me back to my starting point. The trails I hiked are largely maintained by the Shelburne Trails Club, a small but quite skilled trail club that maintains a nice trail network off North Road, near Philbrook Farm, just south of the Mahoosuc Trail. There are many delightful destinations along these trails, which are easy enough for younger children, although there is still plenty of hard stuff to gnaw on if you want it.

Gentian Pond Loop

Here’s the route I took:

  • Austin Brook Trail (from North Rd) – 0.4 miles
  • Yellow Trail – 1.1 miles
  • Gates Brook Trail – 0.5 miles
  • Middle Mountain Trail – 2.1 miles
  • Peabody Brook Trail – 2.3 miles
  • Giant Falls Spur – 0.6 miles
  • Bald Ledge Spur Trail 1.0 mile
  • Dryad Trail – 1.5 miles
  • Austin Brook Trail (up to shelter, then back to North Rd the next morning) 4.7 miles

Besides Gentian Pond, there are two large waterfalls on this route: Giants Falls, off the Peabody Brook Trail and Dryad Falls off the Dryad Trail. Mount Crag, Middle Mountain, and the Bald Ledge Spur Trail also have good summit views of the Androscoggin River Valley, and Dream Lake is always nice to visit at the junction of the Peabody Brook Trail and the Mahoosuc Trail (A.T.).

Wooden Turnstile at the Austin Brook Trailhead
Wooden Turnstile at the Austin Brook Trailhead

I started my hike at the Austin Brook Trail Head on North Road with its quirky gate, a wooden turnstile, which I’ve always viewed as a local joke. The trail is an old logging road for most of its length. Down at the bottom, it’s gravel covered with a soft bed of spruce needles that makes for pleasant walking. I walked down that for 0.4 of a mile before turning onto the Yellow Trail which climbs Mt Crag on a well-blazed trail.

The views at the summit of Crag were fogged in, so I kept going past the summit toward the Gates Brook Trail, descending steeply. I turned right onto the Gates Brook Trail, passing a wooden foot bridge on the left and continuing straight. Don’t cross that bridge. There are yellow blazes marking the trail you want straight ahead, but they’re hidden from view when you turn onto the Gates Brook Trail.

Don't cross this bridge. It's not on the Gates Brook Trail.
Don’t cross this bridge. It’s not on the Gates Brook Trail.

The vegetation closes in as you approach a junction with the Middle Mountain Trail. The junction is well signed although it is always helpful to carry a map for quick reference. There are a lot of short interconnected trails in Shelburne and it pays to check your position every time you come to a landmark or trail junction.

I climbed up the Middle Mountain Trail and walked right past a turn, where the trail makes a hard right. The turn is signed and flagged with orange plastic tape, but I kept on going straight, following pink tape, which is commonly used to mark trails in the Whites. It took me a while to notice that I was on the wrong trail because it was blazed in orange. I think it is a trail to First Mountain and its ledges, which were also socked in by fog. I figured out my mistake when I started losing altitude in a place where I didn’t expect to lose it. So I backtracked and found the junction that I’d accidentally walked past. Doh!

Back on the correct trail, I climbed to the open summit ledges of Middle Mountain, which are capped with a large rock that someone has helpfully spray-painted with the word “TOP”. It’s still a pretty sight. From the summit you can see the summit ledges on Bald Cap Peak. I’d stand on those same ledges later in the day and look down at the big rock on the Middle Mountain summit, which is clearly visible from them. The fog had also started to lift, so I had clearer skies the remainder of the day.

Big rock on Middle Mountain
Big rock on Middle Mountain summit

The Middle Mountain Trail continues past the summit to join the Peabody Brook Trail. The trail passes through pleasant open woods before following a narrow logging road to the trail junction. This being October and moose mating season, I half expected a bull moose to pop out of the bushes on the side of the trail and challenge me. So I sang out “Mr Moosie? Where are you?” every fifty feet or so, to alert them to my presence.

When I arrived at the Peabody Brook Trail junction, I turned right onto the trail which follows another old logging road, before narrowing to a regular hiking trail. In 0.4 miles, I came to the Giant Falls Spur, which leads to the base of Giant Falls, a huge 100+ foot waterfall which was cranking when I visited. We’d just had an inch of rain and the falls were going full blast, flooding the narrow gorge below them.

Giant Falls after a heavy autumn rain.
Giant Falls after a heavy autumn rain.

Next, I backtracked to the Peabody Brook Trail and continued climbing toward the Mahoosuc ridgeline, heading north. The trail gets much wilder past the falls, with over-reaching shrubbery (something called hobblebush) that’s so dense, you can barely see the trail at your feet. It was still wet from the rain, so my pants were quickly soaked.

The upper part of the Peabody Trail has always been wet, muddy, and half under water for as long as I can remember, so none of this really surprised me. Nine years had passed since I last hiked this trail in its entirety and it hadn’t really changed a bit. Maybe that’s a good thing.

The new Bald Ledge Spur Trail Junction
The new Bald Ledge Spur Trail Junction

One thing has certainly changed though and that was a new trail junction to the new Bald Ledge Spur Trail. This trail passes through a giant fern meadow, probably the result of a logging cut, to south-facing rock ledges. It’s a very new trail maintained by John Compton aka 1HappyHiker, who’s a renowned bushwhacker in the Whites. It was also mostly underwater when I hiked it, the cold rain water soaking my socks and shoes.

Views of the Androscoggin River Vqlley from the ledges
Views of the Androscoggin River Vqlley from the ledges

The ledge views were worth it though, as long as you descend all the way down to the “edge” overlooking Middle Mountain and the Androscoggin River Valley. A ledge in White Mountains parlance is usually a horizontal rock face with open views, like the top of a cliff. Hikers are drawn to them like flies.

I backtracked to the Peabody Trail and followed it past the Dryad Trail Junction to Dream Lake and its junction with the Mahoosuc Trail. I resupplied my water there, at a stream that Ken and I had used when we’d camped there in August. Then it was back to the Dryad Trail Junction, where I started hiking down the very wet Dryad Trail. I’d snowshoed this trail fairly recently with my friend Josh, when we’d also visited Gentian Pond. The trail had been under snow then, so this was the first time I’d see it in non-winter conditions.

Top of Dryad Falls
Top of Dryad Falls

I hiked down the trail, which is also an old logging road, to the Dryad Falls Spur Trail. The trail leads very close to the top of the falls, which drop 300 feet below. It’s a pretty spectacular view, but you can’t see the bottom. My pictures don’t do it justice.

Trail to Gentian Pond
Trail to Gentian Pond

I hiked back to the main trail and followed it down to the Austin Brook Trail junction. From here it was a 1 mile hike and climb to Gentian Pond, the lean-to-and campsite. I had two hours before sunset and wanted to get my hammock squared away, resupply my water, and cook a hearty dinner. I was tired.

Hammocking at the Gentian Shelter and Campsite
Hammocking at the Gentian Shelter and Campsite

The next morning I packed up and hiked out the Austin Brook Trail back to North Road. It’s generally a pretty trail, but parts of it pass forest openings that have been logged. It wasn’t really guidebook material for that reason (not pretty enough), although small stream fly fisherman will definitely be interested in the stream access it provides. Austin Brook has small native trout in it, I checked. 🙂

Austin Brook
Austin Brook

All in all, a nice and quick 1 day backpacking trip, although you could certainly hike the complete loop in one day if you had more daylight.

Total distance: 16 miles with 4300 feet of elevation gain.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide (1440 miles). He’s also finished hiking many of the region’s peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.

 

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Outdoor Research Baja Down Pullover

The Outdoor Research Baja Down Pullover is a sweater-weight down pullover (with a hood) that’s ideal for wearing around camp or paired with a backpacking quilt when you want a little extra warmth. It’s insulated with 800 fill power untreated goose down, with a nylon 10d shell and 20d lining. While the Baja Pullover is a stylish garment that looks good at the pub or cafe, it’s not just for show. An adjustable hood, 1/4 length front zipper, and a lined kangaroo pocket make it a serious contender for alpine tours and backcountry backpacking trips.

Specs at a Glance

  • Weight: 11.1 oz in men’s XL
  • Gender: Men’s, Women’s version also available
  • Zipper: 1/4 length
  • Hood: Adjustable
  • Insulation: 800 fill power responsibly sourced untreated goose down
  • Material: 10d nylon shell; 20d nylon lining

When would you use the Baja Down Pullover and where does it fit in a layering system? That will depend on your climate and the type of activities you pursue. I use the Baja as a down puffy on backpacking trips when I’m cooking meals in cool spring or autumn weather instead of carrying a heavier hooded down jacket. Once I stop hiking and generating lots of body heat, I get really cold and need to wear extra insulation. I also wear a puffy like the Baja if I’m sleeping with a quilt in cold or damp weather as an extra thermal layer for my shoulders, neck, and head. Sometimes, I just wrap it loose around my neck and shoulders, or use it as a pillow.

However, the Baja pullover is too warm for me to wear when I’m hiking with a pack on my back and generating massive amount of body heat. I usually strip down to a baselayer or a light mid-layer when I’m backpacking in the mountains. Even then, I have to be stopped before I put on a down garment because I just get too hot and sweaty if I’m moving.

Adjustable Hood

If you’re buying a hooded down jacket or pullover for warmth, make sure you get one that has an adjustable hood that you can cinch tight to seal in the heat. Non-adjustable hoods are basically worthless, but a surprising number of manufacturers sell garments with them. At a minimum, you want neck toggles so you can adjust the size of the face opening. I prefer hoods that have a rear volume adjuster as well, especially ones that are labelled ‘helmet compatible’ and sized for Godzilla.

The Baja Down Pullover has neck toggles to seal the edges of the jacket around your face. It doesn’t have a rear volume adjuster unfortunately, but the neck toggles are easy to use and sufficient to seal out the cold.

The Baja has neck toggles to seal in the heat
The Baja has neck toggles to seal in the heat.

1/4 Length Front Zipper

The Baja has a 1/4 length zipper so you can vent it if you find yourself overheating or sweating. Again, it’s a common sense feature to look for when purchasing any kind of mid or outer layer technical garment. Active temperature regulation is the name of the game when skiing or hiking in cold weather and having zippers you can open to avoid perspiring is key.

Pockets

Instead of side pockets, the Baja has a front, fleece lined pouch that you can stick you hands in to warm up. The pouch is pass through, so both your hands can touch each other. The sides of the pocket close with snaps instead of zippers, making the pouch a secure place to store a hat or light gloves. It also has a large interior shoulder pocket with a zipper that can be used to store electronics and that you can stuff the jacket into for packing.

Elastic Cuffs

There are elastic cuffs over the wrists to help retain heat and prevent cold air from blowing up your arms. The cuffs are a little loose for my tastes, but they should block drafts if you wear the Baja with a fleece glove or gloves with gauntlets that overlap the elastic.

Side Zipper

The Baja Pullover also has a zipper on the left hand side of the jacket, that makes it easier to put on and take off. You can also use it to vent your torso if you get to0 warm, although I think the zipper is more of a style statement than a functional must-have.

The elastic cuffs are a little loose but the openings will seal up if you wear the Baja with gloves
The elastic cuffs are a little loose but the openings will seal up if you wear the Baja with gloves

Under a shell

The inside and outer fabrics are DWR coated to repel moisture, but that will wear off with use. Regardless, I don’t recommend the Baja as an outer layer if its raining or in wet snow. I also wouldn’t use it under a shell if you’re active (standing at a bus stop doesn’t count) because the weight of a shell will compromise the down loft and you’ll sweat heavily, potentially enough to wet the down through the nylon shell. A lightweight fleece or wool sweater, or pullover insulated with synthetic insulation, are far better layer active layers under a shell because they’ll stay warm when damp and won’t compress as much.

Comparable Lightweight Mid-layer Sweaters and Jackets

Here’s a list of comparable lightweight sweaters and jackets, with and without adjustable hoods. The weights listed are provided by manufacturers are directional, since most manufacturers don’t list the size jacket that they correspond to.

The Baja Pullover is sized to accommodate other insulation layers
The Baja Pullover is sized to accommodate other insulation layers.

Recommendation

The Outdoor Research Baja Down Pullover is a stylish hooded down garment that has some serious technical chops. I prefer wearing it in camp when I’m cooking dinner or to augment a quilt since it has an insulated and adjustable hood. It has a standard fit, but is sized wide in the shoulders so you can pile more layers under it too. While it’s not as warm as the down parka I pack for real winter trips, I’ve taken the Baja down to freezing with just a baselayer and remained toasty warm. It’s great to wear around town too.

While the Baja’s kangaroo pocket is cool and the pullover itself is very warm, the most important technical feature on this garment is having an adjustable hood. Don’t leave home without it!

All of the usual warnings about 10 denier shell fabrics apply. If you wear the Baja a lot, you eventually wear through the fabric, most likely around the wrists, and it will be prone to holing from sharp-pointed objects. Sparks from the campfire will also burn holes in it, so you might want to pack a little pre-emptive Tenacious tape to keep the down fill in the coat if you melt or tear it. The same holds for fly fishing hooks. Ask me how I know.

A women’s version of the Baja Down Pullover is also available.

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Last updated: 2018-10-09 04:32:06

Disclosure: Outdoor Research provided the author with a garment for this review.

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Montbell Versalite Pants Review – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

Montbell’s Versalite Pants are 2-layer ultralight waterproof/breathable pants that weigh just 3.7 oz (in a men’s XL.) They can be used as rain pants or wind pants or when you want light layer to keep your legs warmer in camp. Montbell’s Versalite Pants have been available for many years, but the company recently switched from an in-house waterproof/breathable membrane to Gore Windstopper, resulting in a big improvement in their water resistance and breathability (more below). That, coupled with their extremely light weight and minimal features, make the Versalite Pants an attractive option for anyone wanting to reduce their gear weight.

Specs at a Glance

  • Gender: Men’s and Women’s models available
  • Weight: 3.7 oz (men’s XL)
  • Sizing: 4 sizes available
  • Water Pressure Resistance: 30,000 mm
  • Breathability: 43,000 g/m²/ 24 hrs
  • 2 layer Gore Windstopper with DWR
  • 10 denier ballistic rip-stop nylon
  • Price: $139

Fabric upgrade

The previous generation of Versalite pants was a 15d rip-stop nylon, 2.5 layer pant that used Montbell’s proprietary waterproof layer called Super Hydro Breeze (Water resistance : 20,000 mm / Breathability : 15,000 g/m²/ 24 hrs). The new Versalite Pants, reviewed here, is a 10d ripstop nylon, 2-layer pant made with a Gore Windstopper waterproof layer (Water resistance : 30,000 mm / Breathability : 43,000 g/m²/ 24 hrs). The waterproofing and breathability performance of the new pants is considerably better.

Design and construction

The Versailte Pants are black and with a grey coating on the inside to protect the waterproof/breathable membrane from oils, suntan lotion, and dirt. The interior of the pants does not feel clammy, even when worn over shorts and directly against the skin. However, the grey coating is easily scratched off, particularly near the ankles if you put the pants on while wearing shoes or boots. Gravel stuck in the shoe sole scrapes against the grey coating and scratches it off.

The pants are cut from a single piece of fabric, which reduces the number of seams that have to be taped in their manufacture. This reduces the chance of water leakage and helps reduce gear weight. The pants do have one taped seam down the centerline, running down the crotch and up the backside.

I added a cord lock to make it easier to close the pants
I added a cord lock to make it easier to close the pants

The fit is relaxed but not baggy in the legs. The rain pants do run a bit long though, maybe an inch. They come in one length: 31.9″. The pants don’t have any pockets and there are no zippers, including ankle zippers.

There is an elastic waistband, augmented by a drawstring. The drawstring does not run all the way through the waistband and is sewn in near the front, which limits your ability to tighten the waist. The drawstring itself doesn’t come with a cordlock to hold any tension, so I added one to keep them snugged tight.

Sewn-in drawstrings are also a common point of failure in pants because they tear out easily and it is quite difficult to sew them back in unless you’re skilled in sewing repairs.  While the sewn-in drawstring on the Versalite Pants has resisted my tugs, and endured field use, I’ve had such bad experiences with pants (from other brands, too numerous to list) that use this type of drawstring anchor that I avoid it whenever possible.

I mainly wear rain pants to keep my legs warm in cool weather.
I mainly wear rain pants to keep my legs warm in cool weather.

Field performance

Montbell’s Versalite Pants are a dream to use in wind, rain, and cool weather to retain warmth in camp. The factory DWR sheds rain very well and they breath well when worn over shorts and lightweight long pants. The legs are also wide enough that I can put them on and take them off easily without removing my shoes (size 10.5 men’s trail runners), with some room to spare.

Elastic cords at the base of the legs help seal the bottom of the leg and prvent it from dragging on the ground
Elastic cords at the base of the legs help seal the bottom of the leg and prevent it from dragging on the ground. I never wear gaiters, so I appreciate this feature.

While the legs are a little bit longer than I prefer, the elastic cords at the bottom of each leg can be used to hold them at ankle height, preventing the hems from dragging on the ground, while sealing out drafts and splash-back. You simply pull on the exposed portion of the cord, twist it once, and pull it over your shoe so it rests around your ankle. The elastic cord doesn’t restrict blood flow and is hardly noticeable. Montbell calls it the Samue Leg Closure System and it harkens back to the technique used by the Zen monks of Japan to adjust traditional work clothing using ties sewn inside clothing instead of elastic cord.

However, the Versalite Pants are easy to tear and my pair already sport tenacious tape patches on the lower legs. I wouldn’t recommend them off-trail or wearing them on trail if you had to walk through waist high vegetation. The 10 denier fabric is simply too thin to rebuff contact with the point objects you find in forests.

Fit is relaxed but not baggy in the legs
Fit is relaxed but not baggy in the legs

Comparable Rain Pants

Recommendation

Montbell’s Versalite Pants are ultralight waterproof/breathable rain pants that weight less than 4 0z and are made with a thin 10 denier ripstop nylon. They’re very basic with a drawstring waist, but no pockets or ankle zippers in keeping with their minimalist vibe. While pants like this are great to wear in rain or as a lightweight warmth layer, they are fragile and easily torn. If the cost of occasional replacement isn’t a barrier, the weight alone is the main reason I’d buy them. The fact that they have superb water resistance and breathability rating is just icing on the cake.

Disclosure: Montbell provided the author with pair of pants for this review.

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