Tuesday, June 23, 2009

who's your daddy??

Denise and I are very much alike in our cheapitude...which is to say, I'd rather buy something at a thrift store or dig it out of my poppins-esque closets and make it work than go nuts spending money on gear when I could be spending that money on food, plane tickets, and my house. For quite some time, I went for the $4 Wallyworld volleyball kneepad specials...and for just as long I complained about pain behind my knees where the pads always pinched. Then there were the perma-bruises and inevitable aches and pains after every trip, ensuring my absolutely stunning attractiveness in a swimsuit.

That is, until I met the Crawldaddies found at Inner Mountain Outfitters. Holy molé batman, worth every hard-earned penny and then some.

Finally a pad that stays put! Made from tough ballistic nylon, Crawldaddies are designed to withstand the harshest cave environments while staying exactly where they belong. The Gravel Guard keeps those pesky pebbles from creeping in the top, while a breathable neoprene backing and inner padding also insulate and provide flotation in stream crawls.

The comfort factor took about 3 trips to break in the knee-pads and then I was good as gold. The crawl-daddies are great for long and short crawls, vertical caving, banging into rocks as I boulder and climb breakdown piles, and anything else I've encountered underground. I'm extremely klutzy, and they hold up well to the many bangs and bashes I give my body. They stay in place, and I no longer feel that unfortunate pinching behind my knees. Plus, they have lots of surface area for those times you need extra friction on your side.

They work so well that I've seriously considered using them in my daily life (I often walk better on uneven ground than even, so you can imagine my typical day :-) Tell Nina at IMO that I sent you...you'll be so happy you upgraded!

PS. They also carry LongDaddies for those who want even more coverage!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Capilene 3 Baselayer.... It's not just for winter anymore...

From the first moment I wore my Patagonia Capilene 3 long underwear, I knew they were the most wonderful thing to ever happen to winter. This was in the heart of my incurable backpacking addiction, the fall/winter (November 2007-February 2008) where I slept in my backpacking tent more often than my bed. It was my first true winter trip, and I had made the splurge of all splurges by buying these for $44.00 per piece ($88.00 total). I justified this by telling myself REI's generous return policy would come into play if I didn't love them on our November trip to the Shining Rock Wilderness that weekend.

Their first test was the infamous 15 degree backpacking trip. The night the water in our Nalgenes froze solid even right next to the fire, the night more than one couple attempted to turn a one person sleeping bag into a two person sleeping bag...That was cold. When we got to camp, my hands were too frozen to help put up the tent. Considering the circulation problems in my fingers and toes, I can't say why winter backpacking became my sport of choice...it did, nonetheless. I gathered firewood obligingly and moved my fingers as much as possible until my tent was up, then went in to change into the baselayer that, at the time, I thought should have been made of gold for the price.

No one believes the next part of this story, but I will swear on it until my dying day. I put the Capilene 3's on my legs and my arms got warmer. Nowhere to lie. I felt almost instantly better. I was still cold outside of the tent. I mean, the water was freezing next to the fire. I gave away my wine because I didn't want to have to pull down my pants to pee. It was THAT cold. But the Capilene 3 baselayer made it bearable. At times, I could even feel my fingers and toes. For some, that was the last trip of the winter. For me, the first of four out of five consecutive weekends (it would have been five out of five but the other weekend was spent canoeing the Santa Fe River in Florida) of backpacking. Thank you, Patagonia! Best $88.00 I ever spent.

One would think though, that something that warm and delightful would not be useful in June, on a 100+ degree week, in the Southeast. That person would be wrong, folks!

Perhaps some of you have heard about the Nantahala River. The dam-released water is notorious for its coldness, staying at about 40 degrees F all the damn time. And the water is wild in a kayak, with its almost endless Class II wave trains. It is impossible to be on this river for five minutes without soaking your upper torso with water that would be bone-chillingly cold without a wetsuit. We had wetsuits, but the top of the wetsuit I was using was sleeveless. As an unusually cold person, I decided to wear my Capilene 3 top under the wetsuit.

While I did not flip on this run, the wave trains soaked my upper torso immediately. Each time I was immersed, I would be cold for all of five seconds. Why? Because Capilene 3 is awesome. The water soaked the baselayer but it refused to stay cold. Never during the entire 8 miles on the river was I given the opportunity to be uncomfortable. Yes, folks, it's that good.

As a final (unintentional) test of its fortitude, I stood by the highway in only my bathing suit and the Capilene 3 top in the cold, pouring rain for a solid 20 minutes. (As demonstrated last summer, yes, folks, hypothermia in June in North Carolina is possible in such rain.) Drowned rat I may have been, but cold? Hardly. Again, thank you, Patagonia. Yes, your prices are sometimes startingly high, but the quality of your products makes me think twice before throwing away your catalogs.

Final Rating: A resounding A+ on two of my favorite activities. These will definitely be seeing the inside of a wet cave in the future for their final test.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

head and shoulders, knees and TOES

I decided to treat myself to a new pair of sandals this year. After wearing cheapie flip-flops for years, I wanted something more substantial that I couldn't rip the thong out of. With the arrival of my REI dividend, I ventured out to my local toy store to take a look at my options.

My mom has already been a fan of the Chaco brand for years, so they were top of my list to explore. I settled on the Chaco Zong for the backless entry (in my mind, that was going to be easy like my clogs) and the minimal style. I already have a pair of Keen watershoes, so I was not concerned about keeping them on my feet on any rafting expeditions. The "shoe guy" at REI told me they had a high arch (BONUS) so I was pretty sold.

In all fairness, my shoe guy did warn me about their tendency to clamp down on your big toe like a vice grip after a few hours of walking. Boy howdy, he wasn't kidding. They clamp down in the first 20 minutes, actually. You see, the straps on the Chacos (at least this style) are actually one big strap that weaves in and out of the footbed to let you adjust your sandals for perfection. I'm constantly re-adjusting them on one foot to give my big toe its circulation back, while amazingly the other foot stays pretty steady with the pressure distribution.

That said, I'm still on the fence about whether or not I'll take advantage of REI's generous return policy...they're easily my favourite sandals now, though I think my next Chaco purchase will be a pair that doesn't wrap around the big toe. That seems to be the only sticking point on them, as otherwise I totally love them for daily use.

Overall: I am happy with the arch support, not so happy with the tendency of the straps to move after I've tweaked them to perfection. I give the a B- ... Extra points for having a totally weird name!

PS. Not so easy in the slip-em-on category...the straps sort of prevent that. Oh well!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Whitewater helmets - Because the mind is a terrible thing to waste...or splatter on a rock in a rapid...Part 1: What NOT to wear.

As most of my friends are aware, I have recently developed a mild obsession with whitewater kayaking...and by mild I mean I went on a 3 day trip and about a week later dropped $500.00 on a used Wavesport Diesel 65. This is no small thing for one who will often live on Ramen noodles and canned tuna for a month just to afford the next trip to Central America while still making timely payments on the student loans...If anyone wonders what has put that new twinkle in my eye and bounce in my step, it's the Diesel, folks...

At any rate, as stated above, I have student loans. I have invested well over $100,000.00 cramming knowledge into my brain, most of it legal knowledge. I am not about to let that investment leak into the river because I flip my boat and my skull becomes intimate with some rocks on a Class III rapid.

As for most of my kayak gear, I am still in the borrowing stage, so I have more insight on what not to use than what to use. My friends and I learned a valuable lesson while paddling the Cartecay on Memorial Day - bicycle helmets are a big FAIL in whitewater. It is not my own experience I speak from, as I was lazily sitting in a beached boat watching the boys surf a rapid (or attempt to surf a rapid, depending on how you choose to look at it), when one of them flipped HARD into the rapid. He stood up, disoriented, and watched the others retrieve his boat for about a minute before the dazed look left his eyes. As for the helmet? Destroyed. Shredded on the outside and the inside didn't fare all that much better. Apparently, bike helmets are designed for single impact. Whitewater kayaking is not a single impact sport. You still have to make it to the takeout.

Now, I have been borrowing a whitewater helmet for a few weeks, but I know that I have to get my own. Some options I have been looking at are the bargain version at REI, the Pro-Tec Ace, which provides pretty comprehensive head coverage for a whopping $45.00, and the WRSI Current. The current is a very well-acclaimed helmet because it was designed to offer maximum protection at cost so as to promote safety for as many people as possible, in honor of a young man who died in a whitewater accident. The Current is an $80.00 helmet. See the history of this helmet here. Oh yeah, and it's also significantly cuter than the Pro-Tec, if that's a factor.

Now, what have we learned here, folks?

1. Never paddle without a helmet, unless you want grey matter from your own head leaking onto a rock. It might not happen, but it COULD. Hell, I almost hit my head falling into a Class I on the Hiwassee, where I was foolish enough on the first day (not the second day) not to wear a helmet at all.
2. A bike helmet is not a suitable replacement for a whitewater helmet. I have watched this in action, folks. Not a good thing.
3. We haven't seen a mishap with the caving and rock climbing helmets yet, but I am still wary. They just don't protect quite enough of the head to make me feel comfortable with my "investment".

Check back often for updates on what to wear. I will probably be trying out the WRSI in the near future, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

i've got insteps higher than the st. louis arch...no, really!

I have pretty high arches that have this annoying tendency to collapse on me at inopportune times (is there ever an opportune time?)…like in Paris, after a night of clubbing, on our way back to the hotel. Or, on our week-long trek in Yosemite and the High Sierras last fall. It's fairly well crippling, actually. And when your feet are your transportation…well, you get the picture!

When I set out to buy new hiking boots last summer, I told the guys at REI that I have high arches. They put me in the Montrail Blue Ridge boots, with the advice to sub out the inserts with SuperFeet Greens, and sent me on my way. I broke them in as much as I could before our trek out West, and figured they were holding up pretty well, so off I went.

After a few days of trekking with a full pack, with full days of climbing up and down that wonderfully rugged landscape, my arches started to rebel and crash like an unstable operating system. Not really a good thing when you've got many more miles to go, but not a whole lot you can do about it in the backcountry.

Fast forward to training for my first half marathon, and I found myself getting properly fitted for running shoes at Big Peach. You see, they have this nifty device you step on that *shows* you your arch profile. As I suspected, my arches are pretty darned high. So high that the left one doesn't touch the ground. At all.

Shortly thereafter I had an a-ha! moment and asked Big Peach if they had anything better than the Greens, since they'd fairly well failed my delicate feet so far. They recommended the Lynco L400 Sports Orthotic - Neutral Heel, Aetrex Insoles for being higher, stable, and super wonderful. Boy were they right.

I popped those suckers into my Montrails and *immediately* felt the difference in the support. I mean, clichéd night and day difference! Yowzas. The Amazon description sure isn't kidding:

Designed to provide maximum foot comfort and protection…cushions the foot and absorbs shock forces…anti-odor and anti-bacterial to help keep your feet in a healthy, clean environment. Lynco casual orthotics are light-weight, resilient and provide unmatched support and stability. These unique orthotics cushion the foot, absorb shock and fit comfortably in most footwear styles.

So guys and gals, if you likewise have high arches, I suggest these as a nice alternative to the costly option of custom orthotics. There are exercises I continue to do to strengthen my arches, but in the meantime I'm pretty pleased with my Lyncos.

...what's that smell?

While odors are pretty unpleasant (ok, stinky!) to think about, they nonetheless happen to trail-tested clothing (read: multi days in one shirt). Unless you're one of those rare ladies who perspire instead of sweat...but we all know real women sweat :-) Especially when we're doing cool stuff out in the woods.

Some folks may be wealthy enough to wear a new shirt every time they go outdoors, but I'm not one of them! That said, here's a simple trick to remove unpleasant odors from well-worn articles of clothing: Vinegar. Yup: straight-up, ordinary white vinegar. You can get 2 gallons for less than $4 at Sam's Club.

Vinegar is eco-friendly, time-tested, inexpensive, and easy. Simply add a cup of it to your pre-wash/soak cycle, then wash with your favourite detergent as you normally do. The smellier the stuff, the longer you need to let it soak. If your delicate nose is sensitive, play with the vinegar-to-water ratio until you find what works for you. Or, go for a soak cycle with the detergent after you're done with round 1.

Voila! Your gramma will be proud!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The quest for a blister-free existence. Part 2: The perfect sock.

If you've read Part 1, you know the horrors my feet experienced at the hands of REI socks and liners. There is a light at the end of this tunnel (though harder to find when REI stops carrying a product).

I bought my Dahlgren Alpaca Light Hiking Socks on clearance for $4, which is almost miraculous since they retail for closer to $20. This was around the time I discovered a new love: running.

The decision to train for a half marathon was very spur of the moment for me. I hadn't run in about 4-5 years, and I had no desire to start doing so anytime soon. However, my friends were going to Nashville to run a half marathon. I had never been to Nashville, and wanted to go. I was going to be their cheerleader. Then, one random Wednesday in January 2008, it occurred to me: I could actually run the half! What a novel concept! I ran 1.5 miles in my first attempt, and by the end of the week I was running 5, the equivalent of the longest I had ever run. I am now training for my second marathon and have never looked back.

What on earth does all this have to do with hiking socks? Well, I was blistering on my long runs while training for the half, until I started to wear the Dahlgren socks. They became the only thing I would wear on a run of over 7 miles. I wore them in all my Half Marathons and 10ks until I discovered the wonderful technical socks they sell at race expos (hell, I just didn't do laundry often enough to keep wearing my one pair of Dahlgren socks every time I did a 7+ run once I was training for a full marathon in the fall). Once I had found suitable running socks, the Dahlgrens became my perfect hiking sock.

I have purchased several pairs of hiking socks since then. I get them in kids' sizes now, since REI doesn't sell adult socks small enough to be tight on my feet in-store. (Note: Even if you are not someone who can successfully wear smaller boots to prevent blistering because your feet swell when you hike long distances, I still stand vehemently behind my position on wearing tight socks. The less your socks rub, the less you will blister.) I have not found this perfection with any other sock, and am devastated if I forget to wash my single pair of Dahlgrens before a trip. I say single pair because these exact socks are almost impossible to find in a XS/S.

The moral of this story is not only to buy these magnificent socks if you see them, but to tell me where they are selling! I just can't find anything else that quite compares. These socks are an A+.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The quest for a blister-free existence. Part 1: Boots.

Flashback to Easter weekend, 2008, Cumberland Island, Georgia. I am wearing my trusty Timberland boots and REI wool socks with REI sock liners. I have been wearing Timberlands since I started hiking again in the Fall of 2005. This is my second pair, and they are perhaps not quite as snug as the previous pair. At this point I think blisters are part of life. I have survived many long and excruciating hiking and backpacking trips with at least 1-2 blisters. In the months prior to March I had been backpacking between 2 and 4 weekends each month. Typically, blisters were involved, but nothing horrifying. Until Cumberland Island.

Now, don't get me wrong, it was a beautiful and glorious 50-ish miles in 4 days over completely flat, sandy terrain (my body and feet are used to mountains, this was actually hell)... Nevermind the gnats that were so thick in the air I could not eat my meal without swallowing about 100 of them... or the bug bites that formed a belt around my waist where my backpack strap sits... this is about feet...

Day 1 was about a 14-15 mile hike to camp. My feet were torn but it wasn't the worst they have experienced. Day 2 is when it got nasty. About 2-3 miles in to our 16 mile hike I had to stop and cover my feet with a layer of gauze and duct tape. Nowhere to lie, there was nothing that was going to work at this point short of duct tape. Imagine the shape of an Ace Bandage over each foot, only completely made of duct tape. This was me. I was holding on my toenails with the stuff.

The next 3 days my feet felt like they were walking on razorblades every time I took a step. I could hear voices in my head from people telling me over the last couple months that sock liners would solve all my problems. I wanted to spit on them. I used all the gauze and duct tape in about three people's first aid kits trying to make my feet suitable to walk on. When we returned from the trip, I had to wear my Merrell clogs to work for a week because my feet were too swollen for shoes.

The post-traumatic stress had a significant effect on my hiking life. I didn't backpack for two months, and when I started back up, I would only wear running shoes, which offered limited ankle support. I immediately gave my hiking boots to my mother so I would never have to look at them again (original, snugger pair of Timberland boots was graduated to caving boots, which are still in use). I didn't even think to put boots on my feet again until around September, when I was starting to put together gear for my November trek in the Andes.

It was on a chance trip to REI to pick up something or other that I had ordered for the Andes trip that I happened to venture into footwear and see some Keens (Women's Targhee) on sale for $70. I tried them on in 6.5 and 7.0 (Note: everyone SAYS to buy hiking boots in a larger size than your normal shoes. I think this was my fatal mistake. Now I buy my hiking boots 1/2 size BELOW my normal size to prevent friction). I opted for the smaller size. They are Gore-Tex, they are cute, and they are literally the most wonderful thing I have ever put on my feet for hiking. I have done hikes ranging from 3-17 miles in these things with nary a blister, aside from the occasional tiny one on the toe that has no real effect on my hiking or running ability.

Lessons learned:

1. Sock liners suck for blistering. Two pairs of socks just means more friction. Wear one pair that is wool or Smartwool and as tight as humanly possible. I buy kids' socks now. I do not buy REI socks anymore. I love you REI, but I hate your socks with a passion that engulfs my soul.
2. Wear EVERYTHING a little tight, but not so tight it makes you lose a toenail. Small socks, in my case children's sized or extra small. (My normal shoe size is a 7 but hiking socks that say they are for 7 are usually too big.) About 1/2 size smaller on shoes/boots. Tight = Less Friction = NO BLISTERS!!!!
3. If my formula doesn't work for you, you'll just have to figure it out on your own. I took advice from EVERYONE before just deciding not to listen to anyone. If you buy shoes from REI, you can return them if you blister like a madwoman (or madman).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

hello, old friend

I was going to write a bonafide love sonnet to my Kelty, but Keats and Shakespeare were not around to edit my clumsiness so I thought it best to stick with prose. That said…

I learned to backpack at NOLS with a Kelty external frame pack for a number of reasons. As they will tell you, it is "the perfect transitional pack when junior sizes are too small and adult sizes are still too large" (read: I'm kinda petite). Plus internal frame packs were still heavier than the traditional externals, and I needed all of the weight help I could get!

I trekked with that thing for weeks, averaging 10-15 miles per day up and down rocky, Southwestern terrain. I was new to all of it, so I learned to hold the weight steady and rock scramble in a very quick timeframe. When I left NOLS I sadly turned the pack in and went for an internal frame pack, perceiving them as better "because everyone else had one." Durrrr…I've had smarter moments :-)


Last Fall, a friend of mine moved to Tucson and wanted to give me some of her camping equipment that had gathered dust. In the pile was a Kelty Yukon, which even happened to be blue (just as my original pack). I was ecstatic!! I felt like I'd been re-united with my first love, and indeed I had. Spend that much time with a pack and you'd be misty eyed too :-) These days I've got a fantastic internal frame pack, so I've designated my "new" Kelty to cart caving gear to the various pits that we drop.

However, I am seriously considering using it on "regular" backpacking trips too. It sits so beautifully on my hips, and the weight balances really nicely on a woman if you know how to pack it. Externals are said to pose problems for balance if you are rock scrambling, but I managed scree slopes and tough terrain with no issues in the Gila and Galiuros.

Bonus points:
  • My back is nicely ventilated
  • They are often much cheaper to purchase new
  • The frame can be stripped in times of emergency to haul someone out of the backcountry. Not that we ever want to use our Woofer training, but it does happen.

For those of us with weight considerations, take a look at the Kelty Yukon. There are internal frame packs that weigh less now that the technology has improved, but I still stand by Ol' Blue [Eyes] as a nice option not to be sneered at. Read more about external vs internal packs here.

Because at some point you realize you want to look cute even while hiking...

I think anyone can tell you I am not particularly girly. In fact, the last time I went into a cave, one of the first things I did was paint my face in mud, and later I rolled around in a mud puddle, all just for the sake of being dirty. However, I am still a girl, one who likes boys, and more particularly, one who likes boys who hike. So why, then, did I continue to wear ugly, non-form-fitting hiking pants from the sale rack at REI? This is the exact question I asked myself last summer...

The solution was not the cheapest, but after trying on every single pair of pants in the entire Atlanta REI store, I had found my solution: the North Face Paramount Pant. Full price these are $65, and they are cute enough to be worth it. I currently own them in 2 colors, and would buy about 5 more.

As for durability, I give them an A-. One of my pairs currently has a tear in the knee, but it's a small one. Considering I tripped on a rock and somersaulted about three times before landing on my knee while hiking downhill on the AT Approach trail, I don't think I will blame that one on the pants...

So, in short, while I would still rather paint my face in mud than Maybelline, I have surrendered to the outdoor fashion gods on this one, and I'm not looking back...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In pursuit of great caving shoes, Part 2

J and I were en route from Indianapolis and thought we'd try our luck at the outlet mall for trail shoes or caving boots. We hit the jackpot! At the Columbia outlet they happened to have a new batch of Montrail Torre boots on the table. I'm already familiar with the brand as I wear the Blue Ridge line for my backpacking. I quickly googled the Torre to find reviews for its performance with wet rock, and was happy to find corroborating reviews for Montrail's claims that they are perfect for "challenging terrain [and] trekking across snow fields."

Snow fields and mud in caves often demand the same kind of performance, so that was good enough for us. Montrail also says:
  • Non-loading lugged Vibram Super Trek rubber outsole for great traction and durability.
  • Rubber reinforced heel and toe for exceptional durability.
  • Premium leather upper with suspended tongue construction and bootie lining keeps feet dry and comfortable in a variety of conditions.
  • Injected lasting board with steel shank provides great support and comfortable flex while carrying heavy loads.

All that tells me they will hold up through many caves without shredding on the exterior, while protecting my feet in tough conditions. I am happy to report that I wore my new Torres in Cemetery Pit last weekend and they delivered as promised. I did not slip, I was comfortable all day, and I felt very much in control of what my feet were doing. I will follow up with a second review after I've gotten some good use out of them to see if the initial assessment holds. In the meantime…Yessssss!

Pros: Cheap at the outlet; Great for wet, icky conditions; durable to withstand lots of abuse

Cons: Expensive if not found on super sale

Score: A-

Knee pads are a caver-girl's best friend...except when they're not...

I must admit, I am a budget caver. I wear a $30 rock climbing helmet with two $10 headlamps from Walmart and Target. I carry a Target bookbag as my gear bag and wear either worn out hiking pants or, at times, jeans, to explore a cave. After all, you're just going to destroy it all with mud, right?

[Caveat: vertical gear. If that is budget, I might fall into a 100'+ pit. Kind of a no-brainer.]

Then there's knee pads. After about 30-60 minutes worth of straight up crawling in Howard's Waterfall cave on Sunday afternoon, I must say I am about ready to retire the $5 Wilson volleyball knee pads and upgrade to some real caving pads. The reason for this decision (which will be postponed until I have recovered from the colossal expenses of purchasing a kayak and hiking in Germany) is threefold:

1. They bunch. They bunch bad. And it makes you sore in the back of the knee if you don't adjust them every 5 minutes while caving.

2. They offer no shin protection. After dropping and climbing out of a 90' pit in Alabama last fall, I ran into the wall so many times my shins looked like a leopard print. A week later I had to attend a wedding, in a knee-length dress. It was NOT pretty.

3. KNEE BLISTERS! I didn't know this could even happen before Howard's Waterfall. I got a giant blister on my left knee, which conveniently popped during work. I bled all over the knee of my $90 dress pants. Think of all the money I will be saving on dry-cleaning if I just buy the expensive pads!!!

As for gear recommendations, stay tuned!