Friday, August 6, 2010

Gear Notes - Hiking Shoes, CamelBaks, Lizard Skins Tube Insulator, capCAP, Maratac AA Flashlight, Light My Fire Titanium Spork

For a while now, I've intended to put up some thoughts on a variety of products for the trail. While more extensive reviews may be forthcoming, below are some initial impressions about the items. Each thumbnail image, when clicked, leads to an enlarged photo.

A Tale of Two Hiking Shoes

This past spring, I picked up a pair of Keen Siskiyou hiking shoes. I always have to debate 12's and 13's when I shop for footwear, and the size-13 Keens slipped horribly even when cinched tight around thick hiking socks. As a result, I wound up purchasing the 12's which I thought to be fine because of the wide toe bed particular to Keens. Unlike a lot of 12's, these shoes did not pinch my toes. I'd read good reviews regarding the comfort of Keens, and in the store, the shoes felt great. Indeed, for about a month thereafter, they worked out well in a casual, everyday capacity. But on May 20, I hiked Ganier Ridge with my son and found the shoes to be unfit for the trail. Best I can tell, the problem stems from two factors. First, the top lace holders (nylon loops instead of eyelets) sit far enough south that my foot can shift forward before the laces catch. Second, because I bought the 12's instead of the 13's, I have less toe space to spare. The on-trail result was/is painful, stubbed toes. Coming down from Ganier Ridge, no matter how tightly I laced, every step resulted in slippage and toes bumping the end of the shoe. The lessons here? (1) Test all hiking shoes using an incline before purchasing, and (2) if a purchase is at all questionable, "keep it in the co-op." This last bit roughly translates as: buy from REI where 100% satisfaction is standard policy. Since I couldn't return the Keens, I still have them, but they've been relegated to sidewalk duty.

After purchasing the Keens, I donated my faithful old North Face hiking shoes (which had served me well in five different countries) to Goodwill. So... after the Ganier Ridge & Keen fiasco, I had no hiking shoes that I would actually use on trails. For a while, I tried to spot a good shoe deal online, but I finally settled on a pair at my local REI brick and mortar, which offered 20% off one item as well as a sale on Superfeet insoles. The shoes, Merrell Moab Gore-Tex XCR's, possess several features I like. For instance, they have Vibram outsoles, which are the equivalent of Michelin tires when it comes to hiking shoes/boots. Vibrams offer fantastic wear resistance and good traction at the same time. In addition, though the Merrells do utilize lace loops, the top two lace holders are eyelets which allow me to tighten the fit more than with the Keens. Finally, the Merrells offer a waterproof GoreTex upper. Already, I've taken these shoes into spots with high, wet grass, and they worked as advertised—keeping my feet dry and comfortable.

The Camel's Two Humps

Early in the life of this blog, I posted a review of the CamelBak Blowfish. Since then, I've added two more CamelBak packs to my stable. Both are 2009 models which, in CamelBak terms, means that colors and styling may have changed. It also means that I was able to get the packs at discount prices rather than retail. The packs have been "upgraded" with a CamelBak Big Bite Valve Cover and a Lizard Skins tube insulator (see next entry). Both feature OMEGA reservoirs with CamelBak's lifetime warranty as well as sternum straps and air mesh back panels.

The first is the Cloud Walker, which comes with a 70-ounce (2.1 liter) reservoir, a spacious main compartment, and a smaller organization space. The reservoir loads into a separately zippered, insulated section on the back of the pack. Overall cargo capacity is 1340 cubic inches, which makes the Cloud Walker a good choice for a day pack. I recently used the pack while helping the Nashville Meetup group clean the Volunteer Trail at Long Hunter State Park. The pack comfortably carried in everything I needed, and the 2L of water gave some respite from the oppressively humid heat.

The second pack is the Fairfax, which is billed as a low-profile training option for running and mountain biking. Mr. C and I found this version at REI while looking for a hydration pack that would fit his frame. CamelBak does offer kids models like the Skeeter and the Mini M.U.L.E. However, we found that the Fairfax fit well with the shoulder straps cinched tight, and an advantage of the pack is that he can let out the straps as he grows. However, the price tag, at nearly $50, was a deal breaker. Google Shopping came through for me though, and I found the pack on closeout at one retailer for just $20. At that price, I went ahead and bought a Fairfax for each of us. The pack features a 50-ounce (1.5 liter) reservoir, and 130 cubic inches of storage for things like keys, wallet, bike tool, energy bars, etc. Like the Cloud Walker above, the Fairfax has an insulated reservoir compartment that helps keep water cool. Already, I've used mine on a day hike around Couchville Lake as well as on some runs around my neighborhood.

Lizard Skins Tube Insulator

In a past post, I briefly mentioned the Lizard Skins tube insulator in conjunction with my first CamelBak pack. It is simply a neoprene sleeve that fits over the reservoir's drinking tube. If you've ever used a CamelBak on hot days, you will understand the beneficial utility of this device. Without any insulation, water inside the tubing warms up after a short while because of exposure to outside heat. As a result, the first drink of water can be uncomfortably hot, and my protocol in such an instance is: sip, spit, sip, drink. The Lizard Skins tube insulator, however, prevents the hot gulp and saves water in the process. This product works well enough that I invested in three more—one for C's pack and two for my packs mentioned above.

capCAP Nalgene Accessory

Humangear's capCAP is simply a lid with a lid. It's the sort of thing you wish you'd patented before the other guy thought of it. The top lid covers a drinking spout that turns any wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle into a more ergonomic vessel. The capCAP also works with similarly threaded water bottles like the CamelBak Better series. The spout prevents sloshes while walking and drinking, and it makes pouring more exact. The question that arises, of course, is: why not just get a water bottle with a built-in straw or spout? And the answer is that the wider opening still has utility. Wide-mouthed Nalgenes couple perfectly with water filters like my MSR Miniworks EX—a feature that makes water filtration much easier.

Maratac AA LED Flashlight

For some time now, I've enjoyed owning and using the smaller AAA (battery size) version of this light. Both the AAA and the AA lights are offered exclusively by—an outfit that specializes in all manner of gadgets and gizmos handy for outdoor use. What attracted me to the Maratac AA flashlight is the longer burn time and greater output. In addition, the AA version uses the same batteries as my Garmin GPS unit, so I have one less battery type to worry about when I go afield. The flashlight features a Cree Q5 emitter with a life span up to 50,000 hours, and it offers three light settings. On low, the light emits 1.5 lumens for 100 hours. On medium, it puts out 18 lumens for 70 hours. And on high, it reaches 85 blinding lumens for two hours. Think spotlight in a very small package. One other feature I like is that the pocket clip can be reversed to turn the Maratac AA into a cap light for hands-free use.

Light My Fire Titanium Spork

What can I say? It's a spork. It's titanium. For some, it's a symbol of modern civilization and engineering. Ooookay... maybe. However, it's not exactly an Apollo spacecraft. The first spork I remember was the plastic KFC version that never quite allowed you to get all the mashed potatoes out of that styrofoam cup. Since then, sporks have come a long way in terms of design and materials. This titanium Light My Fire version is modeled on a successful polymer design, and its stand-out feature is that, unlike many popular models that combine the spoon and fork in hybrid fashion, you get a more true-to-life, separate spoon and fork. One edge of the fork features serrations, and while I doubt I'd want to tackle a T-bone with this so-called "knife," it looks useful for smaller items. Coming in at only 17 grams, which is comparable to my Snowpeak Ti spork, this tool should serve me well as a lightweight utensil for backpacking.


Jimmy said...

I would like to second your positive review of the Camelbak Cloud Walker and mention another characteristic. It fits a Yorkie-Opossum quite well in the back when they are too tired to continue hiking:

Also, Wal-Mart sells an alternative to the Spork that deserves mention here, the "Hobo tool." Though I am not sure of the weight for backpacking, these are easily disposed of when they get gunked up by freeze-dried lasagna.

JL said...

Jimmy, the disposable Hobo Tool deserves its own post.

Ella said...


JL said...

Jimmy, because we're still remodeling the kitchen, I recently ate some Mountain House freeze dried lasagna for dinner at home. I now entirely understand your comment about gunk. The cheese in that stuff is like adhesive caulk, and it takes substantial effort to get it off a utensil. The lasagna was actually decent, but I wouldn't want to try and clean it off a spork with a limited water supply.