Monday, November 17, 2014

Gear Guide I- What's The Expiration Date On That?


There is nothing like writing a book about camping to force you to take a good look at your own gear. First and foremost, I love my gear. Every piece I have is functional, multi-season, and well tested. A lot of it is also more than ten years old. Wow. I have no idea how that happened. It seems like only a few years ago that I was making fun of my Dad for still using a 30 year old set of fishing poles and a similarly ancient Coleman camp stove. As I recall, his response was along the lines of, who cares? It still works doesn't it?

Which happens to be true. Really good outdoor gear shouldn't have to be replaced but every so often, when your needs change, something tragic and destructive happens, or it just gets so dirty and worn out that you can't handle it anymore. I will be the first to admit that this year, upon inspection, most of my gear is functional, but also well past ratty. There are day packs crusted with fifteen years of dust, sleeping pads with slow leaks, down jackets with broken zippers and unidentifiable stains, and a coffee press I think I have been using since undergrad. I had also heard that there had been some improvements in the ten or so years that I was out of the loop. So I figured that what with the book and all, it was time to spend some time and money testing out some new gear.

Between birthday gifts, a sizable investment in my own updating, and some very generous donations from outdoor companies looking for real-person reviews I finished the summer season with an abundance of shiny new outdoor toys, and a lot of ten year old gear that proved it still has it where it counts.

The very best of what I found has landed in the book, along with interviews with the designers and innovators that created them. You'll have to wait a bit for those, but there were a lot of great products that I didn't have space to highlight in the book but still deserve to be mentioned before everyone starts buying for the holidays.

Part 1: The Clothing

Thirteen years ago I bought my first vest, a rust-red Patagonia fleece with a pink collar and zippered pockets. And I loved it. Today it is still my go-to for all kinds of cold weather, but after years of washing (or not) it has started to lose it's shape and take on dirt that just doesn't come out. It is also an inch or two shorter than it was, which is likely due to my sticking it in the dryer, but still. Maybe time for a replacement. While looking for outerwear I also decided that my puffy coat, a raspberry pink down jacket by REI, while only three years old, was looking a little thin and had picked up some stains as well, and since I wear it all the time, three years seemed like a good time for an update. And lastly, my Helly Hanson rain gear, which I have had since 2007 and love more than any other piece of gear, finally started to deteriorate on me entirely, forming cracks and fissures in the water proofing.

So I went and tried on every fleece vest, puffy coat, and set of rain jackets and pants I could find, including the no-name brands they sell in places like Bi-Mart. Here's what I ended up with (notice I didn't manage to stick to just jackets).

The Vest
My fleece vest got replaced with one from Columbia Sportswear, its a little thinner than what I had, but comes farther down my back while still fitting comfortably around my hips. I the thinner fleece makes it layer a little easier, and I choose a basic black, which can be a hard color to find in outdoor gear, so that I can wear it around town with whatever I have on. It's pockets still zip, it comes with great Columbia manufacturing, and it was about 30% cheaper than other outdoor brands.

The Puffy Coat
Honestly, as long as you are comparing down (or synthetic down) jackets of a similar thickness/heat rating, there really isn't very much difference, even the colors are the same from one company to another. Except in fit, which if you are only planning on wearing it under a snow jacket or rain coat, doesn't really matter. But my problem, and the problem of all the other women I saw trying on these jackets, is that they are universally too tight across the hips, especially if you are wanting to layer. The best fit at the right price, turned out to also be from Columbia,go figure. The other thing I love about their jackets is that they come with thumb hooks and are made out a a fabric that is slightly more water resistant, extra important in the rainy northwest.

The Rain Gear
Honestly, I'm still looking. I have ordered two different versions from Helly Hanson, but neither of them seems to be the deliciously soft fabric that my old gear was. I am beginning to suspect that I am going to have to drop some serious cash (like more than $300) on a set of rain gear, which makes me sad. And wet.

The Socks
So, the last time I remember spending money on actual outdoor socks was sometime in graduate school. Like ten years ago. In their (and my) defense, they are still around and kicking. I bought a few pairs of a couple of kinds of synthetic hiking socks that picked up every piece of dust and hair on every floor I walked across and a few pairs of truly heavy-duty all-wool socks that made my feet itch and break out into a rash. Both kinds kept my feet warm when wet, which was the ultimate goal, and both were generally ill-fitting, sagging at the heels and stretching out after a couple of hours of hiking. I lost a couple of pairs to shrinking as well, because who has the time or energy to sort your socks? I have done a lot of my hiking in sandals the past few years.

So when the really friendly people at Point 6 were kind enough to send me some samples of their products, I was skeptical. I had decided over the years that hiking socks, generally priced well above $10 a pair, were something of a scam. But then the really nice sock people called me, and talked to me about their socks. And dang it, they were pretty convincing. Point 6 uses merino wool blended nylon and a small amount of spandex in those parts of the foot that need a little more stratch, which means that while still keeping your feet warm when wet, they also hold their fit better and stretch right back into shape when you pull them out of the dryer. And really, they are so very very comfortable.

I actually couldn't believe it. Socks were perhaps the last thing I would have expected to see significant improvements over time, but there was an actual notable difference in the comfort of my feet, especially when I first made the transition from hiking sandals to closed-toe shoes, the period in which I am most likely to get hot spots and blisters. The medium weight is a great general socks, though perhaps a little too warm for anything over about 60 degrees and the heavy weight boot socks are thick and warm enough to be worn by themselves inside rain boots and still keep your feet warm in below freezing temperatures. They are not, in general, what I would call “fashion socks”. But of all the gear that I have tested this year, the socks are the only thing I would say are a new essential, especially the Point 6 brand, which are more affordable than most, usually between $8 and 12 dollars a pair.

The Headband(s)
I have super long hair, so you would think that a head band might be overkill, but on windy days outside, nothing can drive you mad faster than the wispy ends of your hair ending up poking you in the eye or getting in your mouth every few minutes. The seemingly simple solution? Wear a headband. Here's the deal though, it is really hard to find a headband that actually stays on your head if you are doing anything more intense than needle point. Or that doesn't look like it's designed for a six year old.

I have tried everything from drug store headbands (Scunci wins there) to sports headbands from brands like Nike and Adidas, to the super wide outdoor headbands and head covers that have become popular over the last few years, I think because of shows like Survivor? The one headband that I found that prevents slipping without using a super tight rubber band that can pull and break hair is Sweaty Bands. They aren't made specifically for the outdoors, but they do have a line that is designed especially for sports. And they work really well. The band at the base of your skull still slips a bit, but that can be fixed with a clip or wearing a low pony or braid. And, they come in tons and tons of designs, so if you're picky, it's a good brand to go to. You can get them online or pretty much anyplace that sells women's clothing, from Target to Nordstrom's for $15.

The Anti-Chafe Solution
Here's a thing that no one ever talks about. Chafing. You hear about it every so often when someone runs a marathon or something, and I have had a couple of run ins with it in very hot and humid environments, but other than that, I never really thought much about it. Then I started talking to other women, and it turns out it can be a real, and constant, problem. And it doesn't just happen to women that are overweight. I've talked to plenty of skinny chicks with sensitive skin or a little extra at the upper thigh that suffer from it as well. So I did a little digging and found this awesome blog post that discusses the topic in detail and reviews every possible solution

Some of the solutions are pretty scary, like non-stick cooking spray and powders that gum up kind of scary. But I suppose it depends on how big of a problem it is for you, for me, it's not something I regularly worry about, so anything chemical was something of a turn off.

Two new products that I did try were Bandelettes and Undersummers. Both of these companies design physical barriers to chafing, really the best solution of all those I encountered. Undersummers are basically slip shorts. They are made of a light weight, breathable slip fabric and are thin enough to wear as shorts under pretty much anything. They were not as comfortable as wearing nothing under my summer dresses, but they were certainly more comfortable than chafing. They also come in a variety of colors and styles, so there might be versions that were more comfortable than what I tried. They did a pretty good job of staying place, not riding or rolling up from the base, but the waist band was a little snugger than I would have liked, but again, that might be personal preference.

Bandelettes are a little different. They are basically the top portion of a pair of thigh-high stockings, snug bands that fit around the widest part of your thigh. They are actually kind of ingenious. And pretty. As long as they fit. I tried a couple of different styles, one of which is unisex, and preferred the lacy version designed for women, but had a couple of friends try them as well with varying degrees of success. Again, I think it has more to do with the balance between the discomfort of chafing and the discomfort of having something around your thighs and for that, either of these products is a simple and easy solution.

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