Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I'm not one to post many reviews of stuff I DON'T like, but in the interest of saving people from certain distress I feel I must post this.

My fiancé is quite the coffee addict, springing for a cup first thing in the morning every day he can manage to get it. I go in cycles of addiction to caffeine, where I am hooked for awhile then I break the habit in favour of things like peppermint tea and lemon water...then I'm right back on the crack again.

Needless to say, we've done a little experimentation in the field when it comes to feeding the addiction.

J has used Java Juice for a few trips now, and likes to say he's a fan. He adds cold water and sucks it down like it's any regular cup of coffee. I ran out of my (preferred) PG Tips on a recent trip of ours, so I thought I'd try this "magic" stuff.

HOLY MOLY. I couldn't do it. I could not even fake it in the name of addiction. I know I've had more bitter liquids in my mouth, but the only thing springing to mind is a bitter liqueur I once tried in San Francisco…and I will still say the Fernet tasted better.

For the record, I tried the "French Vanilla" flavoured juice, and did not have the luxury of creamer. Maybe if I dosed it with a lot of milk product it would begin to taste more palatable to me? Not sure I'm willing to try…Folgers makes some instant coffee singles that I've heard are pretty good. In the meantime, I'll better plan my tea rations!

Please note: I do like coffee, just not this stuff!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

hello, autumn!

We're now officially into Fall, which puts us into my favourite time of year to be backpacking. There's something so magical about the amalgam of colours, temperature and smells of this time of year; I can't wait to get out there on the trail.

There are many pieces of gear you will find yourself with on any trek, but most will agree there are some basics you don't really want to go without. My sleeping bag is definitely one of those basics. I'll go tent-less before I'll go bag-less, for sure!

That said, I love my Big Agnes Crater bag and pad system. They don't appear to be *making* this particular bag anymore, so this is a more general review of the bag and its sleeping pad system; as you see I've linked to the google shopping options (outlet and others seem to still have it).

The Crater is a 15 degree, down-filled mummy bag—I've found that for most cases 15 is perfect in the Southeast. When it's hot outside, I simply leave it unzipped. When it's cold, I cinch it tight and happily roast the night away; I haven't found any drafts or leaky spots after a year of using it. When I'm traveling with my fiancĂ©, we zip our bags together and I leech off of his heat. This bag is a win-win on the temperature for me.

As far as the pad is concerned, the Big Agnes is different from all of the other sleep systems I've owned. Namely, it doesn't have a bottom! You must purchase a separate pad that you inflate then slide into the underside sleeve of the bag. I've heard this isn't quite the best for *super* cold conditions, but I've yet to find myself winter mountaineering. (When I do, I'll consider my options.)

The pros for this bag and sleeping pad system are simple:
  • You save on weight in the pad by having an inflatable pad.

  • The inflatable pad is way more comfortable, to me, than my other sleeping pads.

  • You save on weight in the bag by basically having half a bag (the upper portion).

  • You potentially save on space with the option to keep the pad inside your bag when you pack it up for the day, plus bag and pad compress nicely.

  • Best of all, you don't roll off of your pad in the middle of the night!

The cons:
  • When I've been hiking all day, sometimes I really, really don't feel like blowing up my sleeping pad.

  • You can't get too close to the fire. Not that I make a habit of sleeping close to fires, but some folks take these pads and insert them into fancy contraptions to make chairs out of them. Pop! goes a little piece of spark and pop! goes your sleeping pad.

  • See aforementioned cold weather conditions (sleeping on snow) that I've heard about but not experienced with this bag/pad.

There are other sleep systems I look forward to trying, but for now I'm hanging on tight to my Crater bag.

Monday, September 21, 2009

rain, rain go away

In light of the recent downpour the Atlanta area has been receiving, I thought it fitting to review my new favourite anorak by Turfer.

I found this beauty on Amazon.com just before a backpacking trip up to Grandfather Mountain and figured I'd give it a shot because, frankly, it is so cheap.

I wanted something that was breathable, budget-conscious, wind and water resistant, and (I'll be honest) a fun colour. I read a few of the reviews and felt it might very well fit the bill; I have not been disappointed.

--> It doesn't have fancy Gore-tex claims to fame, nor did I bother spraying it down with waterproofing stuff. I figure there's a point where you're just gonna be wet if you're in a downpour in the woods, at which point you need to embrace the wet or climb in a shelter. Up to that point, this jacket has done a great job in light drizzle and when I need a layer of protection from the wind. It breathes, too, so I don't end up suffocating in *ahem* perspiration.

--> It is compact, and if you're easily amused like me you'll love that it folds up into itself (the front pocket doubles as a pouch). It is lightweight, and not something I'm going to think twice about shoving into my pack at the last minute. I have a fancy Helly Hansen rain jacket, but I actually prefer this anorak for its compact size/weight.

--> It is cheap. I had a friend who recently needed to ramp up on gear for hiking in the Adirondacks but was dealing with that whole "money is finite, yay budgets" thing. She was pleased with the price and ultimately with its performance on her trip.

There are fancier rain jackets on the market, and better wind jackets I'm sure, but for $20 this will get you covered quickly and lightly.

Be warned, the amazon reviews are correct: it is quite largely sized so you might order on the smaller side.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Oooo, shiny! - Aesthetic Beauty and Functionality

I have decided, that if I were loaded (that’s rich-loaded, not drunk-loaded) I could easily become a gram weenie and let fractions of an ounce hold great power over me in my traipses across backpackerdom.

I have also decided that I’m just not a spork kind of girl. When I want a fork, I want something I can spear things with; when I want a spoon, I don’t want mini-tines poking me in the lip or causing soup to dribble onto my fleece.

My husband once bought me this plastic, all-in-one, knife-fork-spoon contraption, and in my quest to pack more efficiently I tried in vain to like it. But it was not to be. The spoon was both too shallow and too wide for my mouth; I kept slicing the corners of my mouth with the serrated ‘knife’ they slapped onto the outer edges of one of the tines of the fork, seemingly as an afterthought. I don’t care how light it is, or how many pretty colors it comes in - It stays home in a drawer now.

In a moment of splurging during a seasonal sale with a dividend check burning a hole in my pocket (cuz let’s face it, who’s gonna pay twenty bucks for weekend silverware, really?) I treated myself to a set of Brunton My-Ti silverware.

Yeah, yeah. I know it’s kinda pricey if you don’t get it on sale. And there are similar slightly less-expensive products on the market made of aluminum alloy, but I like it. For some reason, to me, silverware is as much about aesthetic beauty as functionality, hence the twelve bazillion patterns of Oneida gracing the shelves of Tarzhay. And with this set, I am in love with its form as well as its function.

I love that it is slightly smaller than similar products on the market and fits nicely into my petite hands. Though the handles are textured, the business-ends of each utensil have been polished to a smooth, stainless-esque finish. Unlike my horrible spork, there are no sharp edges on the fork or spoon with which to unexpectedly injure myself in some tragic mastication accident - yet, the knife's serrations are toothy enough to slice even the stubbornest of camp food.

Coming in at a mere 1.7 ounces (48.2 grams, hehe) Brunton’s My-Ti is built of durable titanium that supposedly, under normal conditions, will not rust or melt (not that I’ve left it in the rain or the campfire to test either claim). The three-piece set stacks and packs nicely and is joined together by a locking miniature carabiner.

I’ve found it both durable and pleasantly lightweight. It’s comfortable in my hands and easy to clean. Depending on what I’ve packed to eat, if I don’t need all three pieces, I’m free to leave those deemed unnecessary at home.

Grade: A+

Friday, September 11, 2009

no priming necessary

I learned to backpack with the WhisperLite International, and while it's generally recognized as a stellar backpacking stove for a variety of reasons...simply put, I hated that thing.

You had to prime it just right, the wind screen was a pain, it liked to clog up, and the whole thing was fairly daunting for a newbie backpacker. I recognize that there are many reasons one would want one of these, but when I went to buy my own stove many years later I looked at other options.

I went with the Primus Classic Trail stove and have been quite pleased. I realize there are other stoves that are lighter, better, or as fast as a jet engine (*cough*)—I still love and recommend my stove for several reasons:

  • It's cheaper than the competition. At roughly $25 it's a veritable bargain. The pocket rocket weighs 5 oz less but is $15 more and is one of the "next cheapest" options. For someone trying to build a kit from zero gear that $15 can make a difference. Or you can jump up to $60 for a 2oz stove but then you're paying more than double and for a beginner that can be tough to swallow.

  • It's so darned easy to use. Seriously, screw it onto the fuel canister, turn the fuel on, light it and go. No priming and no fooling around to figure out how to put it together.

  • It's super stable. You simply screw it onto the top of your fuel canister and you've got a nice platform for your pot, assuming you haven't placed it teeter-tottering on a wonky surface. I usually dig it into the dirt just a little or find a nice flat rock as a platform. Sometimes I have wide pots with me and I've never worried about them tipping off (or worse, setting myself/others on fire as any klutz will tell you is easier than it sounds! :)

  • It has a lot of power if you want it, and has a great way to control the temperature if you don't. We made pizza on the trail last year and were able to turn the temperature way down so that we could avoid burning the bottom in the initial heat-up stage.

I have not used it in extreme conditions (yet), such as extreme cold or extreme wind, but that's not the kind of backpacking we're typically doing in the Southeast on a casual weekend. I love my stove and I'll continue to point folks to it as budget-conscious, easy to use, and reliable.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Speaking of chocolate fixes...

Many people who are shorter distance runners would not even think of snacking on the run, but longer distance runners know that without the calories you get from your crackers, gel, etc., it is simply not a pleasant experience to try and complete a 12+ mile long run. When your muscles run out of fuel, they weaken, and every stride becomes labored. This is when you need to figure out what you can eat without upsetting your stomach so you can make it through those 20 mile training runs for the upcoming marathon...

There are a few tried and true running snacks I will bring on a marathon training run, such as fruit snacks, Jelly Belly Sport Beans, Clif Shot Blocks, Sharkies and Power Bar gels... A lot of the other running snacks I train with are samples I picked up at races and race expos. I had attempted to eat an Apple Pie Clif Gel on a long run a few weeks ago, and found it to be too heavy and very sticky. I would have given up on Clif Gels, but I am glad I didn't.

I am a big eater, as many people could tell you. I have been known to eat an entire grocery store pizza on the morning of a 14 mile afternoon long run. On my 18 mile marathon training run, I consumed a total of 4 snacks, about 1 per hour on average. I was approaching mile 15 and my last snack of the run, and my muscles were done. Not to mention the pain... (I later remarked to my friends that if a mountain lion had emerged from the woods to chase me at that moment, I would have let it eat me...) I was expecting the last snack to help me stay moving, but I was not expecting the sheer joy I experienced when the Chocolate Clif Shot Gel entered my mouth... It was the flavor and texture of hot fudge! And at about 100 calories of organic ingredients, you really cannot go wrong on this one.

(Side note: Dusty and I discovered on a trek in Argentina last year, when served pastries in a mountain hut with no icing or sauce, that Chocolate Outrage flavored Gu gels serve as an ideal icing for a bare pastry. Based on my experience with the Gu, I would expect that this Clif Gel would also serve as the perfect highlight for your backpacking dessert!)

Gels are my number one energy booster for the final miles of a long run, hands down. The fast energy they deliver is without compare, and they are so easy to eat that you barely have to slow down. Now that I have an option that has the added bonus of tasting like hot fudge, I think I am set!

Grade: A+

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Man's Best Friend Needs Protective Footwear, Too

My dog and I are definitely cut from the same cloth. She likes to play, and she likes to play hard. If left to her own devices, she’ll run till she’s foamy-mouthed and heaving, barely able to walk. She plays so hard that when we board her at her favorite kennel, where she gets to run amok and rip and snort with a huge pack all day, she comes home and has to sleep it off and tiptoe around gingerly for a few days.

Is it any wonder I love that dog?

Since I have so much trouble with my own feet, I recently bought Sillah her own hiking boots. Ruff Wear advertises their new Grip Trex series as being all-terrain, all weather, and so far, I have to agree. They’re built of a breathable mesh upper and have a grippy Vibram sole that rivals the treads on my own boots. She’s able to barrel through streams in true waterdog style and rock hop back up the bank like nobody’s business. We can hike farther now together, and I no longer have to worry about her picking up shards of glass or thorns between her pads. I can slip them on her whenever we're in the city in a sea of hot pavement, or whenever we visit someone with shiny, easily scratchable hardwood floors. And though we haven't tried out their cold-weather functionality yet, I can see where they're going to make next winter much more pleasant for her.

The first time I put them on her, she did a little get-these-flippin’-things-offa-me dance and tried to remove them herself with her mouth, until I distracted her with a game of fetch with her favorite plushy. But these days, when she sees me break them out of the gear closet, she just does a happy-dance because she knows she’s going with me somewhere cool.

I would not recommend having your dog wear them on the trail right away; take them to the dog park and let them run around for a few days first to see if they’re going to be prone to developing any chafing or hotspots.

Like any new human footwear, they require a break-in period, and you should be careful to buy the correct size to ensure a proper fit. (They have detailed instructions and a sizing chart on their website, but I opted to take my dog to my local outfitter and try them on.)

The boots are held in place with cinch-style Velcro straps, which allows for a great fit, but also can lead to chafing around the ‘ankle’. To combat this issue, the good folks at Ruff Wear have designed liners which reduce the chafing issue around the ankle and also help cushion your dog’s nails so they don't press up against the toe of the boot. (Anyone who’s ever had a black toenail knows how painful that can be!) I highly recommend purchasing the optional liners, and I highly recommend keeping your dog’s nails closely trimmed (whether you ‘boot’ them or not) and also that you stop every little while on the trail and make sure no debris has found its way into the boots. Your dog will thank you!

I do like that the boots and liners are machine washable, and I really like that after a day on a muddy trail, I can slip them off – ta daaa! – before allowing my dog into my vehicle, thereby greatly reducing the amount of mud that makes its way onto my upholstery. I also like that you can purchase replacement boots in singles! (I know a kayaker or two that might wish some human shoe companies would adopt the same policy, hehe.)

It remains to be seen as to how durable those mesh uppers are going to be (I have my doubts) but so far, with the moderate mileage Sillah and I’ve logged, we’re both pretty happy with them.

Grade: B+

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Budget caving for beginners - Headlamps!

Sometimes a hobby becomes a way of life, like when running a couple miles a week turns into training for marathons. Then, you want top of the line gear.

Other times, a hobby is just a hobby. That is how I feel about caving. Don't get me wrong, crawling through dark holes and rolling in mud are wonderful and fill my soul with joy. And, as noted in an earlier post, I would never skimp on my vertical gear, which holds my life in its hands when I dangle, petrified, over a 150' pit. I would also not cave in a bike helmet, similar to my earlier kayaking story. However, when it comes to issues that don't affect my safety and comfort...well, let's just say I am not going to be buying a $100.00 headlamp anytime soon.

For all you novice cavers out there who are not planning to head underground every weekend, there is an easy solution to your gear woes. Walmart and Target both sell LED headlamps in the $10.00-$20.00 range. I have spent a combined total of $25.00 on two of these budget headlamps. For camping I use one, rather than rely on the light of the moon to stumble to the nearest bathroom or hole in the ground, and for caving I use two and carry a hand flashlight as my backup light source.

Another bonus to the cheap headlamp option is batteries. They take AA or AAA, depending which you get, while I had a recent experience where we had to search more than one store in a rural area to find the less common batteries required for a friend's headlamp.

All in all, I have been caving up to 4-5 times a year with one to two (two is recommended) budget headlamps since 2006, and I really can't think of anything bad to say about them. While your local grotto members may all be wearing their $60.00+ Petzl and Black Diamond headlamps with batteries that cannot be purchased at your local gas station on the way to the cave, you will not be catching me in one anytime soon...

Grade: A (note: this is with two. Depending on which lamp you purchase, having only one may limit how far you can see ahead of you, in which case I downgrade to B-).

Note: There are budget versions of the name brands at REI as well, if you want to sport the lifetime guarantee on your headlamp...