2010-12-29

Gear Review: Montane Windpants

When I was first lightening up my backpack load I was doing research into various types of gear. At the time the idea of water resistant clothing for rain (rather than water-proof) was pretty hot. I read several articles and decided I'd give it a try.

So, I ordered a wind-shirt from Montane (a European company). It weighed 4 ounces. I quickly discovered that a water-resistant jacket was insufficient for my needs. A couple of years later I was backpacking with my parents in bad black-fly country. I was carrying non-breathable waterproof rain-pants, and wearing shorts. Our legs were literally dripping blood from 50 or so places each due to the black-flies, and I finally gave in and put on my rain-pants as bug protection. That evening I took them off and my whole lower body was soaked from sweat, and I had pretty bad chaffing the rest of the trip. I thought about the windshirt and realized that similar pants might fit the bill perfectly.

CIMG0574
(I'm on the right, in the black wind-pants and black tee-shirt)

Well, I've had the 4 ounce pertex wind-pants for maybe 6 years now. They've seen over 2000 miles of trail, as well as use as x-country ski pants, snowboard pants, rain-pants, anti-bug pants, sun-pants, and laundry-pants. On one trip we bushwhacked through wild roses and blackberries for 4 days. I've also bushwhacked through manzanita and live oak wearing them. I wore them for a couple of years as my only long pants (often over warm tights). I ran to work 2 miles every day (often through the snow) for an entire winter. I used them as my long-pants (wind/rain/warm/etc.) for the whole AT. I've slid down rocks on my butt in them. Basically, it's hard to come up with something I haven't done in them (short of going to a cocktail party).

After all that wear, they still only have one hole. On the AT I knocked over a burning alcohol stove on my leg (spilling burning alcohol all over), and it melted through before I was able to put out the alcohol. This hasn't significantly affected the pants' utility, and I'm still using them.

So, anyone who claims thin Pertex pants aren't sufficiently tough, is going on instinct, and hasn't really tested them. They have a downside of course, they are not waterproof.  Basically, they do everything rain-pants do, and do it better, except for stop water :P.

BTW, to be clear I would not recommend a thin Pertex pant for bushwhacking through thorn-bushes. They'll tend to stop you from getting huge gashes down your legs, but you will get scratched up a bit. Still, for 4 ounces what do you expect? On many trips I wouldn't have carried something else, but I had these because they're so tiny and light.
I also strongly strongly dis-recommend use of these pants for activities like snow-caving. Cross-country skiing is one thing, where you fall in the snow and get back up. For prolonged direct snow contact I've discovered I want something really actually waterproof, or really thick wool. In all my years carrying them, snow-caving is the only time I wished I had waterproof pants instead (though that time was pretty bad).

Long and short of it. These pants are awesome. They are some of the toughest gear I've ever owned despite being 4 ounces (I know, hard to believe right?). They're great unless you really need something waterproof, and in my experience that's relatively rare. Don't ever let someone tell you rain-pants are tougher them wind-pants, pick between the two based on your needs for water-proofness, not durability.

One final note: Going up in the Sierra on edge-seasons and winter has changed my use-case a lot. I just got a pair of water-proof breathable rain-pants. We'll see how that works out - Stay tuned :P.

A tangled tail: Hair care for the trail

To prefix this let me explain to you that I have demon hair. It's fine and thick, down to my butt, and likes nothing so much as to tangle into an impenetrable mat. It's the kind of situation that makes you eye the scissors.

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But I'm a hiker, so for years I just muscled through it. The modus operandi was throw it in a braid, hike, then spend the next week slowly coaxing sticks and knots out of my hair until I had a giant, but clean, frizz-ball. When I decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail* I was pretty sure I'd just have to shave my head at the end.

About a week into the hike I first tried to brush my hair. It was a disaster. Two hours of brushing with my tiny brush left a lot of knots, a sore scalp, and was just discouraging as to the future of my hair. In short it was what I'd experienced coming back from every trip I'd gone on. Shaving loomed. Two weeks later I had another chance to shower and something magical happened. This time I didn't bother with the pre-shower brush-out. Instead I just jumped in and finger-combed out my filthy hair before washing it. It took awhile, but I was able to work out almost all the knots. It only got better from there on out too. In fact, while on the trail, my hair got longer for the first time in years: it was enjoying this neglect!

The difference? My hair was dirty. Filthy even. Impossible you say! That could only make it worse. Not true. If you stop and think about it dirty hair means each strand is coated in oil, which will help keep it separated from its neighbors. The best way I've found to set up this lovely knot-repelling oil-coated situation before getting into the woods is simply to not wash my hair for as long as possible. Of course just ignoring it would cause many of the same problems as starting a backpacking trip with clean hair, so what I do instead is brush my hair out in the shower every day, but skip the washing step. This helps keep the hair separated and distributes the oil evenly throughout. Obviously this oil can pick up dirt and eventually become downright disgusting, but that takes several weeks. While hiking, washing lightly every week or week and a half is enough to keep me out of the disgusting zone without resulting in inhuman attack knots.

Everyone's body chemistry is different, but if you've considered head shaving due to backpacking then washing it a little less often might just be the key.



* Note: I decided I'd do the whole thing. While hiking I decided to only do 1,000 miles (2.5 months) to allow time to try farming that summer as well. I can't wait to do the other half.

2010-12-25

Practicing being a hyperactive child: Parkour

So. Jess and I like to fool around with Parkour occasionally. The name parkour (as most know) is a french martial art. For more on Parkour see the Wikipedia article. Recently it's gotten some play in the media, but it's been around for a while longer. Many have tried hard to keep it from association with gangs (as jams really aren't gangs in any classic sense, and are usually polite, friendly, ad-hoc, and non confrontational), but probably the strongest adopters have been street artist groups.

I've always loved jumping on things. Sometime in college I discovered my friends did too, and we started playing with wall running (running up a vertical wall as far as you can), jumping up and down flights of stairs as far as we could, doing standing jumps from one wall on a walkway to another - etc. Basically, think of anything a hyperactive child that's always covered in bruises would do... we did that.

Not long into that I discovered people who were really good at this stuff called the collection of all of it "Parkour". The flashier forms of it are called "Free Running". Having a name for it meant I could find information about it on the internet, and pretty soon I saw cool things people were doing. Thing is, I still had no idea how to do much of it.

Jess moved to Seattle, and so did a friend of ours Tom. Well, in Seattle they ran into Parkour jams, and thought this was the best idea ever.

The way people practice parkour is pretty different from other sports. The sport itself is very individual, and non-competitive, but to learn new things and work out how to do things (that is, to get "beta" in climbing parlance) it's often practiced in groups. It's also just way more freaking fun with others, and it's good to have someone to call an ambulance when you fuck up. That said it's not exactly an organized sport either. So there's what's called a "Parkour Jam".

So, recently we've been working on several motions. I started playing with wall-running and jumping up and down stairs in college. Tom and Jess learned cat-hangs in Seattle, and through a number of inputs we've learned the basic vaults. Speed vault, lazy vault, and catch vault, and now we've been working on the more advanced monkey vault. My follow-through is still poor and I catch my feet sometimes, but I can vault crossways over a picknick table now.

We've also been working on shoulder rolls, I'm trying to get mine reliable enough to use on pavement. I can now do a dive over a bench or similar and come up well. We've recently been playing a lot with monkey-bars and trying to "run" smoothly with your arms hanging under the bars, without the body swaying backwards and forwards.

Parkour can broadly be broken up into 3 classes of activity. Running, Jumping, Climbing.
- Running is of course, running, except possibly over very uneven surfaces and similar.
- Climbing - This includes quadrapedal motion, balancing, cat hangs, and of course... climbing
- Jumping is the flashy stuff, doing vaults (jumping over things), drops (jumping off things), wall runs (running up things) etc.
For definitions and background the Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkour) is pretty good.

I won't say that I haven't hurt myself. Not long ago I was walking across a train platform and went to vault a railing. I did a catch-vault (where your foot hits the rail). I was wearing very different shoes than usual though, and my foot slipped off backwards. I had forward momentum so was flipped over by the rail. With my head quickly approaching the cement, I threw my arms down as if to drop into a shoulder roll - but, my foot was a bit caught on the rail, and I had a bag on my shoulder so the roll failed, and I didn't flip early enough to land on my shoulder. Instead, after absorbing most of the fall with my arms, my head (a bit backwards from my temple) contacted the cement.

My first thought was "crap, my head hit... this is really bad". I lay on my back flat without moving to see if a headache came. I touched my hand to my forehead, no blood. Okay. My friends said my eyes were dilating, and I pointed out I was looking directly up into a street lamp :P. It turned out I was fine, just a minor impact. I only had a headache for about an hour, but it scared me... a lot - and reminded me to be careful.

Now that I've scared you a bit, here's the thing, most of these activities are not terribly dangerous, it's all about working your way up slowly. What I was doing when I slipped was just jumping a railing, something any teenage kid would do. Having done parkour meant I pulled out of it fine, because I'd practiced rolls. In other words, I wasn't injured because of parkour, as much as I was injured because of parkour.

Be aware and informed of the risks of course. Most importantly don't start by trying to do a monkey vault over a 4 foot high 4 foot wide block of concrete. Instead start by doing a monkey-vault on grass, over nothing. Start with just the dive and absorbing it in your arms. Then do a frog hop until you feel confident and comfortable, etc. The key to not getting badly injured is learning how to work up slowly on any given activity. This is true of ALL sports, and something people who do sports a lot often forget when they switch - but it's doubly true when the consequences of a significant screw-up are your head impacting concrete at high velocity. Once a major screwup is coming in at slightly the wrong angle, or your hand being rotated a few degrees the wrong way - you can make several and still be okay. If that's true at all stages, the activity should be relatively safe (adjust to your own standards of course).

I highly recommend trying it, much of it can be done very safely. Maybe someday you'll find yourself jumping off 2 story buildings, and maybe not - either way doing a shoulder roll on the grass is a lot of fun now :P.