Smithsonian visit: "Eskimo" gear

Recently Angie and I were visiting her parent's for Thanksgiving. They live near DC, so we took a day-trip up to the Smithsonians and went to the National Museum of the American Indian.

I really enjoyed the main exhibit about the Inca road. I knew a lot about the Inca, but very little about the cultures in that area after the fall of the Incan Empire.

Anyway, I wanted to share some photos of took of some far north American Indian equipment. Unfortunately, I forget exactly which tribes these specific pieces are from, as the museum had it all mixed together. I apologize for the title of my post... I think at least one of these is Yupik, but I'm not certain, and I don't want to label things incorrectly.


This is a parka made out of duck skin. If you look carefully you'll see the feathers are on the outside. This just blew my mind. Duck skin is thin, so it would be very lightweight. The down is all there to keep you warm, with the layer of original feathers over it to keep you dry as well. Water would just roll off this coat. I'd never even heard of using duck-skin like this before. I wish I knew how it was constructed, if anyone can tell me a *probable* construction based on experience with waterfowl skin I'd be very very interested. I've also no idea how pliable or packable it would be, but it really makes me want to try it.


This is a parka made from seal gut. It had never occurred to me to use gut for jacket, but it makes good waterskins so why not? Again, I've no idea of the construction details, in this case it's not obvious whether the gut had been treated in some way or not. Maybe smoked? I don't know. It just looked incredibly lightweight and practical. I'd expect it to be similar in both weight and durability to modern ultralight raincoats.


These are socks made from grass. This is less mind-bending than the earlier pieces if you're familiar with using straw to keep your boots warm or with say redwood bark being used for clothing. I'd never seen plant material socks though, so still thought this was really cool.


As you can guess by the photo these are definitely not from the frozen north. As it says in the display these are Incan sandals. I just really liked the construction and the soles made from plant fiber. They look like they'd actually wear fairly well. I thought I'd throw it in, just 'cause it's interesting.

There is of course a sober note to a museum of this sort as well. They had a large exhibit on the history of the U.S. treaties with American Indian tribes and a rather sad history it is (to put it mildly). 

For me, seeing these pieces made me realize just how fixated on certain ways of doing things I'd gotten. They also had a fishskin jacket, which I'm more familiar with as an idea, but is still pretty interesting. I really got inspired again to keep experimenting and learning, there are so many ways to do things, and so many materials you can use, it's just amazing. I'm really excited to keep pushing on what I can do with more traditional types of gear.


non-synthetic water bottle + carrier

I posted about making some leather gaskets recently http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/07/non-synthetic-waterbottle-gaskets.htmlThis worked well enough to be tolerable for some uses, but it still leaked making it annoying for others.

Since them I picked up a new water bottle that I thought would be a lot easier to seal using this type of gasket, a 40oz Kleen Kanteen narrow mouth (and metal cap). So I made a new gasket for it:


I used the same technique as my last gasket, where I cut it much smaller than the actual lid. Then I soaked the gasket in water and stretched it until it fit on to the lid. That done I let it dry most of the way while on the lid.

Just using this technique, it still leaked, so I decided to try something else. I repeated the above process, but with a thicker leather, then I made up a fairly strong mixture of wax in turpentine much like I use for treating canvas http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/08/howto-waxing-cotton-2.html. I soaked the gasket in this mixture for a while.


The turpentine smell hasn't fully dissipated, but the end result is good enough I can carry the bottle in a waterproof backpack and find no water in the backpack afterwards, or leave it sitting on it's side on the truck platform next to me while I'm sleeping. I won't argue turpentine is great for you, but it should evaporate and thus not be a problem.

Alright! I finally have a GOOD waterbottle. So, the next step is to figure out how to carry this on my backpack. I've been carrying a bottle on a string slung over my shoulder, and this gets really annoying, especially on rough trails. So, here's what I came up with.


The fabric is from a torn American WWII military tent I picked up... it's a 6 ounce cotton canvas. I sewed a strip of leather in to the top hem to give the lip some stiffness so the waterbottle would slide in easer. Then I sewed a patch of leather to this, with slits cut in it. The stitches across the top were done with a speedy-stitcher, but it was breaking the threads on the canvas, so I switched to using a hand-awl to punch holes and then stitching with a needle and thread for the rest of the patch.

I used the patch to tie the holder to my pack frame. I can push up on the bottom of the bottle, gathering the fabric in my hand to slide the bottle out.


And with a little finagling I can slip it back in by pulling the fabric out just a bit first.


End result: I FINALLY have a way to comfortably carry water comfortably while backpacking without soaking my leg  or using any synethetics! Woot!

Insulated Growlers: not just for beer

After about a year on the road Angie and I decided we really wanted an insulated growler. The original thought was so we could drink cold beer. We wanted something all metal (excepting gasket), and Kleen Kanteen seemed like just about the only option on the market. Finally we bit the bullet and picked this up:


We've had a 1 pint Kleen Kanteen thermos each for some time, and we love them. We use them instead of mugs for drinking tea, and often use them hiking to carry warm drinks. I've found mine to be pretty great for water while skiing as well. We use these every morning (and many other times as well), making them among our most used utensils.

After we got the Growler we suddenly realized we could use it for storing MILK! It will keep something cold for ~48 hours. This means milk will still be tasty for ~72 hours, which is AWESOME. Yes we have tested this, and it works even in warm weather. We both adore milk. If we can find milk in a glass jug it's even better, we can walk out, pour the milk in to the growler, and then return the glass to be refilled. No waste, we get the deposit back, and we get good milk.

Next we realized we could use it for tea. In cold weather it's great to just drink tea all day, but boiling water over and over again gets annoying. Using the big thermos and our small thermoses together we can make 3 liters of tea at a go. Conveniently this is as much water as our largest pot (Angie's cast iron pot) fits anyway. As a bonus the flip-top (in contrast to a screw top) makes it easy to leave tea-bag strings hanging out while the tea is brewing. The silicone gasket still seals plenty well.

Of *course* we've also used it for beer as well :). It keeps the beer good to drink for long enough to drink it the next evening around camp and still enjoy it. Also, it feels good to walk in to a brewery and walk out with beer, and again... no waste.

Overall we feel really silly for not having bought one a year ago. Using it for beer turned out to be a bonus, with milk and tea being by far our favorite and most common uses.

For anyone on the road who loves milk or tea I HIGHLY recommend picking one of these up. In fact, I will probably keep using it instead of a tea-pot for drinking tea when we settle down someday.


Gear Review: Soft-star Runamoc Moccasins

I've been wearing Softstar Runamoc Moccasins as my primary shoes for about five years now. I use them for everything, going to town, visiting friends, hiking, backpacking, trail running, approach shoes while climbing, canoe trips, etc. I'm currently wearing my 4'th or 5'th pair (I lost count).

These are truly a minimalist shoe. They come in a number of versions, but the ones I get are made of vegetable tanned leather, and have 5mm thick rubber soles. On my most recent pair I also requested they leave out the elastic they put in the back of the heal. In the most literal way you can imagine, they are a thin sole glued to a little leather.

They have NO support at all, and that's exactly why I buy them. The sole is completely flat, and as I mentioned only a few mm thick. If you want a shoe with support, of any kind, these are not for you.

A little background on why I like this type of shoe. Here are my reasons for wearing a minimal shoe:
  • I am a little prone to rolling my ankle, but I've found that being close to the ground helps more than ankle support does (I know people who find the opposite).
  • The arch on my right foot goes all of the way across, when I wore supportive shoes my foot wasn't strong enough to support itself on the outside and it hurt, now my feet don't hurt after a 20 mile day.
  • I had knee issues and switched to toe/midfoot strike and found it felt much better for my knees and back. For this style of running cushioning is bad, and zero-drop is good.
  • I find the ability to wrap my foot around a rock, plus the ability to feel the ground, overall more or equally useful than having a "grippy" sole. I slide sometimes, but I know exactly when I'm going to slide. I wore these shoes to climb Long's peak in Colorado, including the upper scramble.
  • I have good circulation, so my feet are rarely cold.
  • I have spent time running and hiking fully barefoot
  • I walk a little hard on one side of my foot. The midsole of a normal shoe collapses rather quickly, causing my shoe to tilt and stressing my knees. As a result I see "cushioning" as a huge downside.
  • I'm used to it. Over the years I've worn Merrill tough gloves, Vibram 5 fingers, the old puma trail racing shoes, and many other minimal shoes. I can't walk in most forests barefoot comfortably, but I've been doing the minimal shoe thing for a long time.
These are one of my 4 pairs of shoes. I also own a pair of huaraches, a pair of winter hiking boots for snowshoeing and the like, and a pair of pack-boots for extreme weather.
Everyone is different, and knowing yourself is a huge part of  deciding what gear is right for you. The more minimal or lightweight the gear, the more this is true. Everyone can slap on a supportive boot and walk 10 miles, making your body do the work instead means letting your body adjust, which takes time. A 25 mile day of rough trail with bad sharp rocks the whole way bruises the heck out of your feet in shoes like this. My feet are used to it, so it hurts, but not overly much. It took time to get there going barefoot and wearing similarly minimal shoes for less intense activities.

The good:
  • All leather: This is huge for me. I've found that seeds in many locations around the U.S. can be seriously problematic for mesh shoes. I gave up on mesh shoes after I bought a pair and completely destroyed them in a single 1 week trip. Leather is also at least a bit water resistant, which is nice. Note that you can get them in vegan materials as well... I just don't.
  • Tough: They seem to last about as long as any other shoe. Angie has a slightly more traditional "minimal" shoe, the New Balance Minimus. These are a typical mesh shoes with a typical sole. We bought shoes at the same time, and they wore out at about the same time. I didn't log my miles, but I expect they last me at least ~600 miles, probably ~800, which is about as long as any shoe lasts.
  • Lightweight: There is nothing in this shoe you don't need. Just enough leather and rubber to get the wear-life I noted above. There's basically nothing else to the shoe.
  • Fit: The lace runs around the heal through the shoe, this tends to slide the foot forward in the shoe. As a result I have never gotten even the slightest chafing/hotspots on my heals. The shoe is wide and gives plenty of space to spread out your toes. 
  • Repairable: Usually the toe blows out for me first, and I just sew it up. This gets me home no problem, and tells me it's time to replace my shoes. My forefoot wearing through the rubber is usually a couple hundred miles behind.
  • Looks: They actually look pretty classy when they are new. Unless someone pays attention the veg-tan leather ones look almost like a dress shoe. I have worn them to job interviews... though I am a software engineer to be fair.
The bad:
  • The hole in the side between the vamp and the quarter goes to the ground. This lets in mud if you step in a mud-hole. It also means any hope of water-resistance or warmth is kind of a joke.
  • The sole wears smooth long before the shoe wears out. This isn't a big problem, but it does mean that you have to get used to mediocre to poor traction in some circumstances. It doesn't bother me, but it could be dangerous on trail for others.
  • Price: You have to get them custom made. Occasionally I've been able to find the right size and features in the returns section of soft-star's website, but usually I have to custom order them. Not a big deal, but it means t
Overall, I love them. I started wearing minimal shoes for running, and it just kept expanding until I couldn't stand to wear anything else even for long backpacking trips. They are not for everyone, but if you've been looking for something that keeps your feet from getting cut, stabbed, and chafed and that's it... this is your shoe.

Grounding: I have a hard time not scoffing at the concept, but someone once asked me if these shoes are "grounded". No, they are not normally "grounded" shoes, but you can pay softstar extra to modify the shoes to comply with the "grounded" idea.

Gear Review: Patagonia stand-up shorts

In my pursuit of non-synthetic clothing, it's been surprisingly hard to find really good robust clothes that fit my needs. For years I've bought various types of synthetic shorts, because they last so long, but I finally found shorts that last a long time without being synthetic.

I'm currently wearing my second pair, which are my town shorts. My first pair are starting to look a little long in the tooth but are still what I wear in warm weather the rest of the time. The core of the fabric is still solid, but the pockets and cuffs are ragged and unraveling.

If you read this blog, you know that I expect a lot from my clothes. I beat them up hard, and own very few pieces.

The good:
  • The advertising is not wrong. These are some of the best wearing shorts I've ever owned, including synthetic. I've been wearing a pair of these as my only shorts (besides while in town) for around a year, and I'd already owned them for some time as a secondary pair. As mentioned above, they look worn, but they are not spent yet.
  • Fit is plenty loose enough for hiking, rock-climbing and other physical outdoor pursuits.
  • While chafing is of course worse than it is in something not made of cotton, it's a lot better than I expected it to be. I've done 18 mile days in these, and it worked well.
  • For those of us with short legs (I wear a ~31x26"), it's nice to have a short that doesn't go over the knee. This length also means less fabric to get soaked in the rain, and have to dry. They are a not short-shorts by any means and look pretty classy when I wear my unstained pair in town.
  • Being 100% cotton they are biodegradable, so when I do wear them out they get to turn back in to plants again someday, rather than ending up as tiny specs of plastic polluting my drinking water.
  • The pockets are deep and well-made. The front pockets have no holes even after all this wear, the rear pockets hold my wallet well and I never worry it will fall out (even after the velcro ripped out of my first pair).
The bad:
  • They are still cotton. This means if you are in an extremely humid climate, doing 20 mile days on a through-hike, you better have tough thighs or you'll probably chafe. Similarly they don't dry very fast.
  • The length can be annoying. For example, they are not ideal for climbing, the legs are short enough that it takes a bit to get the harness up over the legs. For canoing they expose too much of my leg to sunburn.
  • If you want ALL non-sythetic, they do have a little velcro in them. Not a big deal though.
As mentioned, I like them enough that I bought another identical pair. I hope they keep making them so I can keep buying them. 

New tarp poles... cutting poles responsibly

If you recall, a while back I rolled the truck in a blizzard in North Dakota. We got a towtruck to come out in the blizzard and roll it over, and pull it out. I was then rushing around trying to get the stuff on the roof-rack (which had been cracked off) stuffed in to the truck in some manor or other in the dark in temperatures well below zero.

Suffice to say that the wooden poles I'd cut a while back didn't make the cut, and were left on the side of the road.

In the west we didn't miss them much, since it doesn't rain much out west we could use lazier pitches that use fewer poles. We're up in Minnesota now and the rain is picking up. Additionally, the forest around here is heavily logged, and thus there's a lot of "dog-hair". So, it seemed a good time to cut some new poles.

By "dog-hair" I mean extremely dense stands of very young trees. When I went to harvest I poked around looking for the densest stands I could find. Here those dense stands are ash. The stand I took these from had trees ~2 feet apart. Such a stand is *too* dense, and will actually be healthier with a little thinning. The trees cannot grow larger without some being removed. Removing the competition early (rather than letting some die) will reduce competition and let those that survive grow faster and healthier... much like thinning carrots in a garden.

I carefully picked trees that were actively crossing others. The trees I cut were within 6 inches of another tree, and in some cases nearly wrapping around them. The rubbing of the trunk on the other tree will tend to sicken both trees, so these are particularly helpful to remove.

Now... a few of you forestry/environmental/basketry types are waiting for me to address the fact that I said "ash"... yes, I said ash.

Currently we have a serious problem in the U.S. with "Emerald Ash Borer", a beetle who's young burrow through the tree and kill it. For more information look here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerald_ash_borer. It's invasive, so the trees have poor defenses and it's wiping out ash across the U.S. Of course the beetle can fly, but it seems they are often introduced to new areas by humans moving wood around, particularly firewood. I just cut ash, so how am I going to avoid this?

2 things. First, all the ash in the area looked very healthy, I do not believe the ash borer is in the area where I cut. Second, I carefully stripped the bark off each pole, additionally checking for any bug damage anywhere along each pole as I did so, and looking at the bark flakes I removed. The article I linked above notes that they stay in the inner-bark region (phloem, cambium, and outer xylem), so stripping the bark should get rid of them, or at a minimum show their tracks through the wood, even if one did deep-dive for some reason.


non-synthetic mosquito headnet

As part of my non-synthetic backpacking kit I wanted a non-synthetic bug-headnet. Usually I don't need it (in fact, it's pretty rare)... but the Sierra in the wrong season can get pretty bad, as a couple of my friends I took up there one year can attest. Similarly there are spots on the east coast where it's just not optional.

So, I set about it. My first idea was to find a veil, but failing that I picked up some cheese cloth.

I then stitched across the top with cotton button-thread, and then using the thread like a drawcord I cinched the top up. Next I bound around that top bundle with the thread and tied it off.

Lastly I cut off the extra and sewed down the back to close it up so I could slide it over my hat.

It's not going to work for no-seeums, and I don't think it'll even work for black-flies, but for mosquitos it should do the trick. I'll update this post when I find out!

howto: Waxing cotton 2

A while back I wrote this article on waxing cotton:

I'm not actually using that poncho, I decided it was okay, but a little bit heavy. After doing extensive calculations and agonizing about it I've decided on what I think will be the lightest solution.

Instead I'm using:
  1. A cotton canvas overshirt, which I treated with wax as a raincoat
  2. 3x5 800 threadcount sheet, which I've treated with wax as a groundcloth, and to surround my gear when it's tied to my pack, to keep it dry
  3. 5x8 800 threadcount sheet, untreated, as a shelter while sleeping

The reason this works out well is a little complicated. A poncho needs to be worn while hiking, so it cannot double as the waterproof layer for gear while hiking, as a result I would *also* need fabric for that. Additionally it's so large that it's a waste to use it for a groundcloth, so I'd need to have a treated ground-cloth that I also use to keep my pack dry *anyway*. The poncho is so heavy that compared to an untreated tarp of the same size + a treated canvas raincoat is only a bit heavier. But, the treated canvas raincoat is useful as a windbreaker too, where the poncho is not.

Yeah... this is why it took me a long time to figure it out. I had to actually calculate theoretical weights for a number of different gear combinations to decide in the end.

Anyway, end result is that I've treated yet more fabric, and in the process I've figured out a few more things with respect to treating cotton, including a somewhat simpler/faster process.

In making the new tarps I wanted to try turpentine, as mineral spirits is made from petroleum, while turpentine is made from tree sap. This treatment worked extremely well, penetrating the fabric with wax in just one coat, I applied a second coat for good measure. This is a far cry from the last treatment I used that seemed to work well, and I believe the reason is that terpentine seems to dissolve beeswax better than mineral spirits does. Here's the recipe:
  • 1 quart of terpentine
  • 1/2 pound beeswax
  • 1 tablespoon or so pure (dietary suppliment type) linseed oil

Note that I'm using the linseed oil just to help fight mildew, rather than as a major component to help with flexibility as most recipe's do. So far flexibility hasn't proven to be a major issue though, and the smell takes months to fade, so I keep using less each time I treat something.

This worked so well that I re-coated my jacket as well, hoping to get more waterproofness out of it. I'll report back on how well it actually works in the rain, but initial results are that the wax filled the gaps in the fabric well, and don't appear to be sitting on the surface such as to flake off.


DIY: Alpenstock

Recently I've done a lot of research in to mountaineering gear. First I wanted to figure out what modern gear is out there and what is best for what, and second I wanted to understand historical gear as possibly useful information in building a non-synthetic gearset for some basic mountaineering.

Not long ago I posted http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/07/crampons-what-to-buy.html. But, this is only half the story, there's also the modern ice-axe.

Now, if you start reading you'll quickly learn that historically people actually carried 2 different tools: an axe, and an alpenstock. The modern ice-axe is actually a conglomeration of those 2 tools in to one. What people used as an axe varied a lot from what I've seen in photos, but basically it was something like a rock-hammer (often a one-handed sledge-hammer with a spike welded to it), or a literal axe.

Alpenstocks though were pretty consistent, It's really just a good strong pole with a metal spike at the bottom.

Alone the alpenstock could be used for normal walking. On steeper hills you'd plunge the spike in to the icy-snow and use it for stability and self-belay like a modern ice-axe. When things get really ice you could use the metal tip on the alpenstock to slowly chip out steps in the ice... it's slow, but it works (particularly before crampons were popular). The axe was carried for more serious mountaineering as it made this last process a lot faster.

Everyone carried an alpenstock in the mountains in Europe, to the point that I've seen historical jokes about people being unwilling to walk around town without them. Fundamentally they are very very similar to the modern collapsable hiking pole (which you also see people with walking down bike-paths today), but tougher and capable of taking significant side-loads (as in a self-belay).

As a result, when Alpenstocks had the ice-axe head added to them combining the two tools in to one for convenience, at first they were still long enough to use as a normal hiking pole. It wasn't until later when people started mostly storing the ice-axe on their pack, and only taking it out for the mountaineering bits that ice-axes got short. Improvements in crampons and the popularity of ice-climbing also helped drive this change.

All in all the alpenstock is really an in-between. It's better than a modern hiking pole for sketchy mountainsides, but it won't let you self-arrest like a modern ice-axe, only self-belay, and it's far slower for chopping steps. I feel like this makes it ideal for things like thru-hiking where it can be a hard call whether to carry an ice-axe at all or not... So I wanted to make one and give it a try.

Here's my first attempt:

Ideally the wood would probably be a touch hard-to-split hard-wood like hickory, but I really wasn't sure how this would work and wanted to just try something and see how it worked in practice. I forget exactly but I believe this is spruce, which is at least better than normal pine.

Step one was to re-inforce the shaft so it wouldn't split. The whole idea of this tool is to stick in to the ice and pull *sideways*, meaning the torque applied by the spike on the stick will be significant. I didn't have any of my favorite linen twine to spare, so I used some simple cotton button thread instead (we'll see how it holds up). I wrapped the shaft carefully, using a standard whipping tie-off (make a loop of thread, wrap around that towards the loop end of the thread, but leaving it sticking out, when you finished stick the end through the loop, pull the other end of the loop still sticking out the other side and tighten).

Then I drilled a hole as deep as I was able using the bits I had on hand. I used a bit notably smaller, trying to guess what would hold the steel well, but not put too much splitting force on wood shaft.

Next I took a 12" spike (a giant nail) and eyeballed how much I wanted to stick out. I decided on ~5", then added that to the depth of my hole by measuring against the drill. I then cut off the sharp end with a hacksaw.

Next I carefully filed the cut side of the spike rounding it so that it would start to slide in to the spike in to the wood shaft. Then, setting the top of the handle on the ground and against a backstop (so it tilted a bit), I hammered the spike in. This took a bit of effort.

I took a file and took off the flat spot I'd created at the tip of the spike. I didn't sharpen it yet, as for now I'm going to use it for normal hiking and not driving it through my foot if I slip would be nice. I may sharpen it a bit more before trying it on more technical terrain.

Lastly, looking at the thread I realized it would get busted up almost immediately as soon as I hit a rock with the side of the pole. So, I figured I'd try and reinforce this a bit. I took some normal elmers glue (basically hide-glue) and rubbed it in to the threads, let it dry, then repeated this 5 or so times, building up a tough layer over the threads that I hope will protect them.

I'm really not sure how well this will work. I don't usually use hiking poles when I just go hiking, I'd rather work on strengthening my knees and sometimes Angie and I decide to run (as we did off of Mt. Shavana recently); so, this will have to wait until our next backpacking trip to get a proper test. I'll update this post of course with the results.

I recently used this on a 20 mile hike to cross a fairly serious and steep snowfield with no crampons in the Grand Tetons.

It worked, but not ideally. I think I'm going to round the base of the wooden shaft a little bit to help it slide in to the snow more easily, as how well it works in softer snow is decided mostly by how deep it will sink in to the snow.

I used 2 techniques depending on the snow. Sometimes I stuck it in on the downhill side for balance directly in line with gravity, allowing 2 steps before stopping to move the alpenstock. At other times I stuck it in perpendicular to the slope on the uphill side. The second felt more secure, as I could swing it in with both arms and sink it deep in to the hillside, but I could only take one step at a time, as two put me too far off balance backwards, as the shaft was in my way. The second is the technique I would use if I was really nervous, and on a really steep incline, but not slipping is often most useful and the first sometimes felt better for that.

Of course, please do not take this as an endorsement of a safety device, you are responsible for your own safety out there, this is just me experimenting and sharing what I've found. If you make one, and dye using it, that's on you. Be careful out there.

I've used it a couple of other times, but I used this again on this trip http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2018/05/early-spring-in-sierra.html. A 5 day trip involving some pretty intense snow crossings. The wrapping failed entirely and slowly fell off from wet snow, but the tip held up anyway and got me down safely.

There's no question it would be better to cover the entire tip with metal, but despite that this held up well enough and it's only made of douglass fir. I'm toying with making a new one using a denser wood like oak. I haven't yet decided whether I'll re-wrap the tip or not.


plasticless backpack, try 2

This is an update to an older post http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/02/myog-plasticless-backpack.html. In this post I wrote about taking an old kelty frame (with the top part of the bars hacksawed off), and replacing all the plastic components as a way to figure out how to make something without plastic work.

After using this on several backpacking trips I decided, while the shoulder straps had worked okay and held up okay, they weren't robust enough for a longer trip (like a thru-hike). So I decided to follow a friend of mine's suggestion and remake the shoulder straps in a slightly tougher way.

The idea is simple, sew the leather over, cut a notch at the end where it's rolled over, stick a stick through it, and tie a rope to the stick. It's easier to see than it is to explain, notice the stick just poking out on the left side. It's literally just a tree-branch.

Here's the lower part of the strap. Another problem I ran in to was that the thin hemp rope I was using was not tough enough. It was *strong* enough, but it couldn't stand up to the abraision, so I replaced it with some 1/4" cotton rope I got off of amazon; NOT the braided type. This stuff is much stronger. Note the constrictor hitch at the bottom, with an extra hitch to make sure it doesn't walk, and the taughtline hitch I use to make the strap adjustable.

After I did this I was re-tightening the upper back panel of the frame. And *RRRIIIIPPP*... crap...

I actually didn't get back to this for a bit... but recently I tried replacing this back panel with the neck section of a deer hide I brain tanned myself (sorry, I forgot to take photos). Since it's buckskin I skipped making any grommets (saving me a TON of time). I wetted it and tightened the strings in the same manner as the canvas backpannel. I then used this on the last backpacking trip, and while it held up, it kept going slack on me... I'm hoping it will stop stretching eventually, and will hold up better than the canvas (if so I'll replace the lower panel as well, which looks like it might fail in the not too distance future), we'll see.

I also decided on this last trip that I need to add a water-bottle holder. I can hang the waterbottle over my shoulder for short trips, but it gets pretty annoying, particularly on more technical terrain (like snowy passes), so that's been added to the to-do list as well.

And lastly, for your amusment, here's a WWI (according to the label) era pack frame I saw in a store recently. I thought it was neat, but couldn't figure out how you would use it as it's currently set up, clearly something is missing or set up wrong.

Crampons: what to buy

Alright... Let me say at the start of this article, I'm NOT an expert in this field. That being said, when I started researching what crampons to get I got really frustrated. Most of the articles out there are clearly written by people who don't know what they are talking about, AND don't actually know what's available. So I wanted to write something that least talks about ALL of the options, and what they are good for.

A good shoe does a lot... don't neglect this option by any means. Mountaineers did a lot of mountaineering before crampons existed. Look up the "french method" and learn some of the techniques like chopping footsteps using an ice-axe. You should know these methods regardless, as they are still useful with crampons on, and might save your ass if a crampon fails or is lost somehow. You can also kick in steps in a lot of conditions. Now, just because someone experience can do something without crampons doesn't mean you can or should. Play it safe at first. A lot of people do die doing this kind of thing (including a friend of mine a few years ago actually). Judging what is dangerous is not intuitive initially. As you learn more you'll find that when you try and glissade (slide on your butt down) some hills that look terrifying when going up... you won't be able to. Clearly you could've done that hill without crampons.

So, play it safe at first, but keep this option in mind.

Yak-Traks etc.
You never *need* these. If you need something for safety, these won't help much. These are convenience items, mostly useful around town. Some products like "Nanospikes" from Kahtoola are useful for runners who want to run on glare ice. For the rather broad spectrum of products for running on glare ice you'll want to go hunting elsewhere, it's a bit much to cover here and not really in my wheelhouse.

Microspikes (and similar products)

These are right on the line between something just for around town or running on ice, and something that you might use for safety while mountaineering. They are extremely popular with thru-hikers who want to be able to go up/down snowy passes on the PCT/CDT in the early morning when the passes are still frozen over. They are super easy to slip on and off, which can be really nice in edge seasons. Notice that these can be worn on ANY shoe.

The thing to remember about microspikes is that the spikes are in fact quite small as the name implies. This means while they help on ice, they only dig in so far, they won't help at all on slightly soft snow or crumbly ice.

Instep cramponsFrom what I gather, don't buy these. After doing a lot of reading it seems that these have basically been replaced by Microspikes and their brethren.

This is like a partial crampon that goes on the instep of the shoe, the problem is that they are massively uncomfortable (pushing on the arch), make you unstable since you can't use your toes and heals for balance, and usually only have 4 or so smallish points. Overall microspikes give you more points, and better balance, and particularly give you points on the toe and the heal helping immensely while going up-hill and downhill respectively.

SnowshoesModern snowshoes usually have a crampon on the toe with pretty beefy spikes. Many, such as the MSR Lightning series also have some teeth on the bars. These can accomplish much that a crampon does, and often if you have snowshoes you can skip the crampons in moderate conditions. The trick is that while they usually work very well for keeping you from sliding while going up, they typically do a poor job going sideways and often worse than a simple shoe (with which you would post-hole and thus could make a flat platform) when going down. I've "skied" down more than one hill in snowshoes. These can usually be worn with any shoe, but can put uncomfortable pressure on the top of more minimal shoes.

Kahtoola KTS (and similar products)

Kahtoola KTS and a couple of other crampons are really in a class of their own. These are similar to hiking crampons of type 1 (that is, they fit any shoe), with one special caveat. These work on *flexible* soled shoes. They also have a strap system designed for the minimal uppers of running shoes making them a lot more comfortable with minimal shoes.

These are what Angie just purchased actually. For hikers (not mountaineers) who want a "do-everything" crampon that's light-weight, beefy enough for light mountaineering duty, and fit on lightweight shoes (like what thru-hikers wear), these are basically the only option. The tips are large enough to work in a softer conditions (but not super-soft).

This class of crampons can be further divided in to two subtypes, steel and aluminum. Aluminum are lighter, but dull quickly when used on rocks, and tend to have shorter points. This comes up when crossing short bits of rocks between snowy sections, or when rocks get iced over due to freezing rain (not something I personally have experienced yet).

Note that these crampons do not usually have front points. This means you are stuck walking sideways up steep slopes and when the going gets steeper than that, you'll have to turn around. This is particularly an issue on harder ice. As you start to move towards ice-climbing "toe pointing" techniques you are in over your head... time for something beefier (and probably to get a friend who knows how to ice-climb teach you). On the other hand, you can't stab the back of your other leg when you slip, having those front points is a mixed bag. Angie points out that the points are also a bit easier to deal with in or on your pack (I nearly stabbed her a couple times with my hiking crampons tied to my pack on our last trip).

Hiking crampons (types 1-3)

Similarly to the Kahtoola KTS class of crampons hiking crampons can be further divided in to 2 categories... aluminum and steel.

The biggest difference between these and Kahtoola KTS is that the bar between the toe and heal is not flexible, as a result if you wear them with flexible soled shoes that bar can apparently snap in half... This is really not what you want while hanging half-way up an ice-slope that you *needed* your crampons for in the first place.

Hiking Crampons are further divided in to 3 more categories though. Types 1 through 3.

Type 1) crampons fit "any shoe"... by this they mean any stiff soled (not very flexible) shoe with a heavy-weight upper and a sufficiently pointed toe. This means not running shoes, but stiffer hiking boots (not light hikers) will generally work well.

Type 2) fit "type 2" boots, these are boots with a special heal attachment point, but no such special attachment point on the toe. These are more secure and less likely to pop off while doing something more intense.

Type 3) fit "type 3" boots, these are boots with special attachments on both the toe and heal, these are the most secure, and also the fastest to pop on and off (short of microspikes).

For more on difference between types 1-3 see https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/crampons-snow-ice-climbing.html

Note that some of these crampons have front points, and some do not. Particularly down in the type 1 aluminum crampons... basically the ones for the least difficult conditions crampons tend not to have the front points, because they aren't meant for conditions where those are needed anyway.

Front points, as mentioned in above under the KTS crampons, are used for "front pointing". This is a technique used for extremely steep slopes when side-stepping no longer works well, particularly in harder icier conditions. At this point you are basically doing low-angle ice-climbing... so to be useful your crampon had better hold really well to your boot. Also, keep in mind that it's easy to stab your other leg with these front points, so be careful!

Climbing Crampons

If you are reading this article, you don't want these. These are for ice-climbing only, which is something I've never done, and completely outside the scope of this article.
Suffice to say that these usually fit specialized type 3 boots (though the ones above fit type 2 boots apparently), and they come in 2 major flavors, 1 and 2 front-points which I gather are used for different types of ice. Once again, this isn't my wheelhouse, if you are looking for these you hopefully already know what you are doing.

ConclusionThere's a reason for virtually every type of crampon to exist (possibly modulo instep crampons, which seem to just be cheap, and predate microspikes). It's a continuum and in most conditions a range of different options will be a reasonable choice.

No crampon is a substitute for knowing what you are doing. Knowledge will win out over gear virtually every time. But, that said, you have to start somewhere, and you need to buy something to get started. My first pair of crampons were a type 1 cro-moly (cross between steel and aluminum) hiking crampon with front points. Angie's first crampons were Kahtoola KTS... largely due to what I'd learned since I bought my first pair.

As a note, don't forget that you're feet aren't the only part that matters. If you are looking at anything past microspikes, you are probably also looking at hiking ice-axes (rather than technical ice-axes, which would go with climbing crampons). Often you can get away with only an ice-axe *or* crampons, for example.

People who are in these conditions a lot will usually end up owning more than one thing. I also own snowshoes, because they are useful for different conditions, and many people own climbing crampons, type 1 hiking crampons, AND microspikes for different conditions.

Repairing a Tire Valve Stem

We were on our way through Leadville and decided to take a look around town. As we walked away from the car I looked back and realized our right front tire was mostly flat! I'd noticed funny handling on the road, but thought maybe it was my imagination or the rain, or something else. Stupidly, I hadn't stopped.

Anyway, on closer inspection the tip of the valve stem (where the cap screws on) had been crushed and shattered. We decided maybe we should swing by a shop, it was late but *maybe* they'd be open. We pulled in to a shop AS it was closing. The two guys there were really sweet though, and fiddling around managed to put some more air in the tire so we could be on our way.

Next day, first thing after breakfast I took a look. Tire was flatter than I wanted to drive on, and when I poked the stem I realized it wasn't just the tip, the base was cracked and split clean open. Aaaalright then. I quickly swapped to the spare, and we drove in to town.

I've been thinking that I should really try more repairs than I've been attempting, and this was a good opportunity, so we went down to O'Rielly's. After a search on Google I found I needed a "Valve stem puller" tool. I found one in the shop which was also a core removal tool, and tire deflator, great. I asked the clerk how to tell which valve stem to get, she said she didn't know, so I figured I'd just pull it and compare visually.

The plan was to pop the tire inwards off the rim, unseating it on one side, pull the valve, and pop the new one in from the backside, then reseat the tire.

I pulled the stem straight out actually, turns out you can just pull sideways and work at it and it'll come out eventually. There wasn't a lot of thread left, but enough to make that work.

Next we tried to break the bead. First I tried hitting it with a hammer (backside of an axe actually), as suggested on various websites, but that didn't work. I tried combining that with a tire iron (the one on the back-side of the lug-wrench that came with the truck). No luck. A guy stopped and suggested we go across the road to a shop and get them to break the bead, but I wanted to do it myself.

Next I tried a bottle-jack against the bumper, but the jack ran out of length before it popped the bead. Then, Angie suggested (based on an internet search), driving over the tire... It sounded like a good idea.

I threw the truck in 4L and Angie aligned the tire. First attempt I ended up on the rim, but the second try popped the bead right off! Great! Now we could slip the new valve stem in to the hole, screw on the puller, and with a quick pull pop it in to place.

Now comes what is generally considered the hardest part, and the reason you "can't do this at home"... reseating the tire. You have to get the bead close enough to the rim that it'll hold air until the air pressure builds up and pops the bead on. There are a couple of tricks for this, but the best known (explosions), isn't terribly safe. I'd read of a trick a while back where you surround the tire with a ratchet-strap and crank it down. This helps push that bead against the rim... So we gave that a try.

Aaaand, magic, it seated right on! Of course, now there's pressure in the tire, and you have to break the ratchet-strap free...

We ran the pressure up to what our crappy compressor could handle (enough to drive for sure), but the compressor started making kind of awful noises so we finished at a nearby gas station.... and off we went!

Seriously, if you can change a tire, this is only a bit harder. Tools needed (besides the normal tire-change tools):
  • Valve stem puller ($5 from O'rielly's)
  • Spare valve stem ($3 from O'rielly's)
  • 12v air compressor (~$25 from Amazon, but you should have one anyway)
  • Ratchet strap (~$10 from any hardware store, but you probably have one, a rope with creative knot work should work as well)
  • Car that can drive a little (probably using the spare)

Trip Report: 4 Pass Loop

Angie and I have been having a blast in Colorado. We were hanging out near Aspen, just checking out the area, and Angie found this great backpacking route that was supposed to be really pretty called the "4 Pass Loop". The route is variously reported to be 23,25,or 28 miles long, and goes over 4 passes, each at about 12,500 feet.


As it happened we'd peaked 2 14'ers (mountains over 14,000 feet) in the prior week. Both Longs and Mt Elbert, so we weren't worried about the elevation at all. When we talked to the local Forest Rangers though they said there was snow up there, and we'd want *something* for that. Angie didn't have either an Ice-Axe or crampons, so we ran down to the local outfitter and got her some Kahtoola KTS crampons, which are about the burliest crampon you can wear on a running shoe. We also rented a bear canister (BV450 if you're curious) for 3 days.


Well armed, we packed for the trip. We expected it to be sunny, so went somewhat minimal. Angie had just ordered some new waterproof running shoes, as although she loves her waterproof boots they're a bit heavy, and she wanted something good for snowy passes, but we hadn't picked them up yet. So she went with mesh shoes. My normal minimal leather runamocks wore out and we hadn't picked up my new ones yet either, so I wore my vivo-barefoot waterproof hiking boots... which meant I could use my crampons (which are intended for heavy boots).


I've decided I need to make a new shelter and ground-cloth after http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/06/trip-report-zerkel-wilderness.html. I want an untreated shelter, and a treated ground-cloth. So, I decided I'd cheat, and Angie carried her 8x10 silnylon tarp and polycro groundcloth for the two of us. This meant my pack was lighter than it's been in a while. Otherwise I just had my alpaca sleepingbag, wool poncho, wool sweater, treated canvas shirt, hat, water bottle, cookpot/bottle, stove and fuel, spare pair of socks, puttees, ice-axe, crampons, and the normal various and sundry (repair kit, knife, etc.).


On our way up the first pass, called Buckskin Pass.


At the top we saw MOUNTAIN GOATS! There were 2 adults, a juvenile, and a baby, you can see 3 of the 4 here. Amazingly they came within probably 50 feet of us, they just didn't seem to care. This despite that there were two other people on top of the pass with a (very well behavaved) dog. I'd never seen mountain goats in the wild before. The adult and juvenile actually played at butting heads at one point, super cute.


This ground-squirrel really liked my hat. It came up within a few feet of us and kept *licking* it! At first we thought it was going to chew on it, but no, it just licked it. Clearly it was after the salt from my sweat, but we were just dying laughing watching this squirrel lick and lick at my hat.


View from Buckskin Pass.



Panoramic shot of Snowmass lake, a lot of folks camp here before continuing, but we were worried about our 3 day timeline. We weren't sure if we'd get fair weather afternoons to be able to cross 2 passes in the same day, so watching the sky carefully we pushed on.


This is a shot upwards at Trail Rider pass, this was the trickiest pass. Sadly, I didn't get any photos of the tricky bits (it's hard to remember to take photos when you're so focused). Lower down on the pass, just a little above Snowmass lake there was a tricky traverse of a steep snowfield. I used my ice-axe for balance, and self-belay or rescue if needed, but skipped the crampons. Angie not having an ice-axe put her crampons on and used a single hiking pole (set short).

Farther up the pass I did use my crampons though. It wasn't steep, but the crampons made walking in the soft snow a lot easier. Near the top Angie chose to go on the rocks, as her feet were getting cold in her mesh shoes. I decided to try cramponing up the steep snow, since I had all the gear for it, and it was a safe spot, it seemed a good opportunity to practice. It was too soft to toe up, so side-stepped french-style and that worked pretty well.


Shot from the top of the pass, Angie is stretching out her knee on the right of the photo. She has some mild trouble with ITBS, similar to what I had on my AT section hike back on '09... no surprise as I think we'd done ~5000 feet of climbing in one day by this point, and ~2500 of descent.


Dropping over the very very steep switchpacks on the back side it was still gorgeous as ever. We were getting a bit tired though, and it started sprinkling a little. The thunder was threatening so we started hunting for a campsite.


I pointed out a campsite in a small copse of trees. It was near enough to the river to get water, but well away from flood risk. Open enough to discourage mosquitos but still giving a little extra shelter from a storm. Angie noticed a deer at about the same time, which was standing in the middle of it. We decided this must be the spot.

Angie went to get water and I set the tarp, then as we cooked dinner we realized the deer was still hanging around. The whole time we were eating it hung out maybe 30' away. It looked a little gaunt. At first I thought maybe it had chronic wasting, but then I realized it looked really healthy otherwise, and that it was still early spring up at that altitude... It was probably just still fattening up after a long winter. The deer hung out for quite some time, but finally left when a group came down the trail yelling "Heeeeeeyyyyy BEEEaaaaarrr!" over and over again (I guess they were nervous about bears?).

It rained that night, and we got up a bit late, hoping things would clear up. They did for the most part, but the sky stayed grey, and nothing dried out.


Next day we set out over gorgeous fields of wild-flowers


The trail followed a river up the valley, in the middle there's a huge waterfall, the trail goes up the hill via the trees to the right of it.


And upwards in to the pass. The trail actually bounces through 2 passes in quick succession (Frigid Air and West Maroon), with just a couple of miles in between it only drops maybe 800 feet between the two making these very easy to do in the same day.  The shot above is one of the few spots of blue-sky all day. It sprinkled on us on and off, but never badly... In fact, I stayed shirtless for virtually the entire trip.

After crossing the last pass we realized we were only 6 miles from the trailhead! Since it was supposed to keep raining we figured to heck with it, why not finish in 2 days? So off we went. The exit was VERY muddy, and I was really glad to have waterproof boots and sorry for Angie and her mesh shoes, but she was fine. We even had one river crossing everyone was talking about up and down the trial, but with our experience it wasn't bad at all. I did it barefoot actually and we just went together. Angie loaned me her pole to lean on and I took the upstream spot so Angie could walk in my eddy and help hold me up :). We went right across.


This is a shot of Crater lake which we passed on our way out. This is where the loop meets and you hit the ~2 mile long entrance/exit trail out to Maroon lake.

Angie's mesh shoes didn't work out quite as well as we expected, due to being cloudy and rainy, but it wasn't a problem. Her crampons worked great. I only used my sweater in the morning and evening in camp, and wore my treated overshirt for maybe a mile total. Overall we were very comfy, despite carrying way less gear than anyone else we saw (excepting the runners who were doing the loop in one day).

It's a busy trail for sure, that was the only downside, but at least when we were there (early july), not so busy as to be annoying. We still had a very private campsite. The views are absolutely worth it too, on par with the JMT.