Misc Hiking / Backpacking stuff


The most important feature of a boot is that it fits. As I get older, my feet seem to be getting wider. Unfortunately, decent wide boots are hard to come by. The second most important feature of a boot is the materials and workmanship. The less seams the exterior of the boot has, the less points of failure it will have and the less it will leak. This is why serious leather mountaineering boots just have one seam, in the Achilles heel region. Really serious mountaineering boots, are one piece plastic, but that isn't ideal for general hiking.

A long time ago, I used Raichle boots. They were pretty good all around. For some reason, REI stopped carrying them, which really sucks. I switched to Garmont boots. They were pretty decent, but the newer models are not as wide as the older models. I was never able to wear thick socks with any Garmont boots. Unlike Raichle boots which come in wide, no Garmont comes in wide. I switched over to Keen boots. Unlike Raichle and Garmont, Keen doesn't seem to use Vibram soles. Over the years I have learned a few things about soles. Black rubber is good, and anything else is bad. Black rubber is almost always carbon black rubber, which can be very grippy and durable. This is why car tires are black. The other thing I learned is that Vibram makes really good rubber. The Keen sole has significant parts of which are gray and is not made by Vibram. It has decent traction while dry, but when it is wet, the traction is really poor. I heard the US military spent a ton of money to get decent not-black soles for desert use, and finally succeeded. For everyone else, if you care about durability and traction, buy Vibram.

Cascade Design - Therm-A-Rest, Ridge Rest Sleeping Pads and more

Cascade Designs is a company that owns MSR (which makes stoves, water filters, climbing gear and more), Therm-A-Rest (which makes sleeping pads), Tracks (walking sticks), Platypus (water holders), SealLine (waterproof bags).

I own two SealLine drybags, the SEE 10 and SEE 20. They work fine. The only problem I had was when I found some utensils and put them in the bag. Forks and knives don't do well in drybags. I patched the bag, and it is as waterproof as ever.

I own one or two Tracks walking sticks. They are not ultra-light, but they are much more robust than the ultra-light walking sticks. I have had no problems with them.

I own several Platypus water containers. Two of them from the mid-90's leaked, and I got them replaced. The replacement ones have had no issues.

I have some MSR stoves. I don't use them much, but they work when I do use them. No problems.

I have a Ridge Rest, which is pretty foolproof. It is light, and warm. It doesn't compress much, so I strap it outside my pack when I use it. I have three Therm-A-Rests, a CampRest, a standard one, and an ultralight. The average age of these pads is roughly 20 years. I store them unrolled so the foam stays expanded. I had the ultralight in my garage, and I had a rat problem in the garage. In addition to food, the rats gnawed several square inches of the ultralight pad. I was sad, because it looked unrepairable. I emailed a picture to Cascade Designs and they said it was most likely something they could not repair. I sent it in anyway, explaining it was not defective in any way, but caused by my neglect and rats. They removed the few square inches of eaten material (it was at an edge) and sealed the opening. I was impressed that they could salvage the pad.

Discount Zone aka Discount Direct - a lying retailer

Well, after some years my Suunto Core watch failed. Suunto was unable to fix it, so I decided to buy a new one. I ordered one from Discount Direct. Seems a decent place. The first odd thing was they only accepted PayPal. The watch was $89.99, with no tax and free shipping. The first strange thing was that I was charged $103.48. There was no explanation about the difference between $89.99 and $103.48. The second odd thing was the seller had a Chinese name. The third odd thing was that there was no tracking information.

Well, the watch never arrived. I contacted the seller using the email address from paypal, but I never heard back. I contacted PayPal, and they investigated and came up with a tracking number saying a package had been delivered to my city a few days late. I never got the package. PayPal determined that I would not get a refund. They also had no explanation why I was charged more than $89.99. So I contacted my credit card company. They did some investigation, and gave me a full refund. I contacted the shipped associated with the tracking number, and they told me that some package was delivered in my city, but not to my street. The street it was delivered to was nothing like the street name I live on. So there are two problems. The worst is that thought Discount Direct seems like a legitimate retailer, they are not. No communication is unacceptable. No tracking number is quite odd, as all the carriers provide tracking numbers. It is always possible to ship something to the wrong address, but the retailer should deal with the issue. The second issue is PayPal are at best idiots. They could have asked the shipper where the package went, as I did, and they would have found out it was delivered to an address unrelated to mine. They could have believed me when I said it never arrived, but they didn't. At least my credit card company did a decent job. I would recommend avoiding PayPal if at all possible, and if not possible, to pay they with a credit card from a reputable company. Today, PayPal sent me an email saying that since I disputed the charge with my credit card company, they could do nothing. I replied telling they that they were incompetent, because they could have checked that the tracking number didn't go to my address, and they should have believed me when I said I never got the item.

Patching a Therm-A-Rest

Well, it turned out the rats damaged my CampRest (a thick Therm-A-Rest). I decided to patch it myself. I had a patch kit that came with the CampRest, when I bought about 20 years ago. I learned a few things. The first is that 20 year old Therm-A-Rest glue that has been opened will solidify (which wasn't a big surprise). The second thing was the adhesive on the 20 year old patches doesn't work so well either. Therm-A-Rest has a new way to do patches. They have some adhesive which needs to be heated in boiling water, and then applied to their patches. I still had plenty of old style patches, so I went out and bought some Loctite Vinyl, Fabric & Plastic flexible adhesive ($3 for 30ml). Using that, along with the old style patches works pretty well. The only problem is keeping the patches from rolling up at the edges. If you put something over the patch to help hold it down (which is tough when the hole is near the edge of a inflated Therm-A-Rest), it will either stick to the patch and glue, or it will melt. It does make applying the patches a bit tricky. The other thing I learned was to use patches that are roughly 15mm bigger in all directions than the hole. For pinholes, a dab of the Loctite glue is all that is needed, which solved 2 of my holes. For the other holes, I cut the roughly 2 inch diameter Therm-A-Rest patch in quarters, and glued them down. If you need to hold the patch down near the edge of the Therm-A-Rest, use some of those black metal paper clips that have a triangular cross section. Works great to hold patches while they are drying. I used two tiny ones to hold the edge down, and a really big one to go over the tiny ones to hold down the rest of the patch. You need to deflate the pad to make it reasonably flat.

The easiest way to find holes is to fully inflate the pad, and then stick it in a bathtub with water. Look for bubbles. If you don't have a bathtub, you will have to listen for the leak, or feel the air leaking out which is much harder. When I found a hole, I would dry the area, and then mark it with a sharpie. Needless to say, there is now a lot of sharpie marks on my pad. I have also learned that surface preparation is very important. If there dirt or old adhesive, the patch won't stick reliably. I have found that rubbing alcohol is good to clean the surface before gluing, but doesn't work to remove old adhesive. Neither does acetone. The only thing I have found that works is gasoline. Be sure to wear your gloves, and use it outdoors. Don't drink it either. I don't accept any responsibility if you get injured as a result of using gasoline. I also use the edge of an X-acto knife to help scrape the old goop off.

Well, I have had many of my patches fail. I now think that the Loctite Vinyl adhesive isn't the ideal adhesive. It is ok for pinholes, and it will work on patches under ideal conditions; but for me it only worked about 30% of the time. I did some research, and found McNett Seam Grip which I had already used for repairing holes in my packs. It is a urethane based adhesive, which I think superior compared to common vinyl adhesives. It is reasonably priced, and quite versatile for repairing fabric rips. I cleaned my failed patch area, and use the Seam Grip. It is thicker than the Loctite adhesive, and seems to evaporate less. It worked great.

Another problem I had was a rip that was L shaped. The corner of the L rolled backwards, and prevented the patch from lying flat. After some thought, I got some fine nylon thread, and sewed the corner of the L to the rest of the pad. The knot of the thread is a whole lot smaller than the rolled back corner of the L, and it also closed the gap in the rip. I suspect any fine thread would do.

Therm-A-Rest Neo Air

I bought a ThermaRest NeoAir mattress. It is 19 ounces and about the size of a one liter bottle. ThermaRest says the R value is 2.5. It sure is comfortable. There are several newer ones, some lighter, some with a higher R value.

It is far lighter than any of my other ThermaRest pads, including my old, purple UltraLite pad. It is quite comfortable. However, I took it camping recently, and it had a few leaks and deflated after an hour or two. The modern sleeping pads are much lighter than the old pads. They can offer quite a bit more insulation as well. Unfortunately, being much lighter, means the fabric is less robust than the older, heavier pads. I have found two holes so far. One was on the bottom, in the center of one of the humps. Clearly something on the ground did not agree with the pad. The other one is near the edge, and it seems to me that that spot would not be touching the ground. It was a smaller hole than the other one. I have no idea how it got there. To find the holes, I inflated the pad, and put it in a bathtub. When compressing the pad, I was able to find a trail of bubbles. Straightforward to patch. My issue is it would be very difficult to find these small holes in the field. I suppose with a lot of water and some soap it would be possible, but very time consuming. If I was going on a multi-day hike, I would likely carry a foam pad to put under any inflatable pad.

The Fisher Space-Pen

I have several Fisher bullet space pens. When closed, they look sorta like a 4 inch long 'bullet', and the pen tip is concealed. When open, they look like a normal pen. The space pen will write upside down, underwater, and in temperature extremes that would kill a person (-50F to +400F). It will also write on surfaces that a normal pen won't. Very robust. One could easily drive a car over it. The optional clip can come off by accident.

Their triple action pen, with two colors of pens and one mechanical pencil is very nice. The body is metal, but the grip is plastic, which is the weak point of the pen. It is not strong enough for rough handling. $13 on up.

The Pentel Sharp Kerry P1035 Mechanical Pencil

I have found exactly one mechanical pencil robust enough for backcountry use. It is a Pentel plastic pencil. It has an aluminum cap which when closed, covers the tip. This way, no holes are poked in the pack, and the tip isn't destroyed. About $20 (ouch). I have a different Pentel Pencil. It has a retractable tip and an aluminum body. Works fine, except the pocket clip has broken off.

Kenyon Klear Tape for repairs

TNF Polar_Top

I bought this tape to repair a rip in a pack I had. The fabric of the pack is called 'spectrum', which is a ripstop nylon fabric with spectra thread reinforcing it. Very little sticks to spectra, as it is ultra high molecular weight polyethylene. I used the patch on the rip, and it worked great. It has not peeled, and has proves to be very durable. I had a rip in another pack, on some silicon-nylon fabric. I called Kenyon, and they were uncertain their tape would stick to the silicon-nylon fabric, as it is quite slippery.

Clear McNett Tenacious Tape for repairs

extension rip

I had a rip roughly 4.5 inches long on some silicon-nylon. McNett has a patch kit for silicon nylon. I asked them if their patch kit was big enough to handle the rip. They told me no, but to use their Tenacious Tape. I was somewhat skeptical, as I had tried using scotch tape on the inside of the fabric, planning on sealing the outside with seam grip after taping the rip together. The scotch tape didn't stick at all. The Tenacious tape costs roughly $4.50, vs the Kenyon Klear tape which costs $3.00. I decided it was worth a try. The McNett tape is thicker than the Kenyon tape. It stuck quite well to the silicon-nylon fabric. I was quite impressed. It comes in a nice clear plastic tube, making it easy to carry in a pack. It is easier to apply clear tape than the colored nylon fabric tape, as you can see the rip you are trying to fix. See the above picture for to see the tape. The rip is very hard to see now. Highly recommended.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 Digital Camera

The FZ7 was a breakthrough digital camera, one of the first of the 'super-zoom' cameras. I bought it in 2006. This camera is so old that it accepts SD cards, but not SDHC cards. It is reasonably robust. Once, while sitting on my desk, a large dog decided it was a good toy. Taking the camera in his mouth, he tool it outside to partially bury it. When I found it, with the lens cover off, I feared for the worst. I carefully cleaned the dirt off of it, and took great care to clean the lens. Despite the tooth marks on the camera, it still worked. The only issue was the lens cover needed a lot of attention due to all the dirt in it. There are some tooth marks on it, from being carried outside in my dog's mouth. Well, after about 8000 pictures, the flash failed. Everything else still works. It isn't clear how much it would cost to fix the flash, but technology has moved on.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 Digital Camera

I decided to buy the FZ200, Panasonic's best 'super-zoom' camera. It works great, and I have taken a few pictures. The lens is a constant f2.8, which means it is very fast. In other words, you rarely need the flash in low light settings. It also takes pictures quite rapidly. In order not to confuse the file names with the pictures of the FZ7, I decided to see if I could make the camera make different file names. The files are named P[3 digit folder number][4 digit file number]. Reading the manual, it says 'A folder number between 100 and 999 can be assigned.' It isn't clear how this is done. After fiddling around for awhile, I called tech support. They suggested a number of things, none of which worked. They gave me a case number and said someone would contact me within 48 hours. That was in December. I have yet to be contacted by Panasonic. I decided to search the internet. I found Changing the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZx Picture Counter It is quite a clumsy procedure, and I really doubt that it is what Panasonic had in mind based on their manual, but it does work. It would be nice if the manual described some reasonable way of changing file names, and it would also be nice if they every contacted me, as they promised to do.

REI Polycarbonate double wall mug and customer service

mug_1 mug_2

I have been a member of REI for a long time. The first two digits of my REI membership is 01. I went to a REI store this week to get a replacement for a double walled clear polycarbonate REI drinking cup (which is no longer made). It has a large REI logo painted on the side, that is about 2 by 3 inches. It has suffered a fall, and has significant structural cracks. I took it to customer service, and showed it to them. They asked me if I had a receipt (how likely is that?). I said I didn't. They tried to look it up in my purchases, and couldn't find it. They decided I must have bought it 5-10 years ago, and that it had exceeded its useful lifetime. They suggested that I may have bought it used, and then it wouldn't have a REI warranty. I told them that I was not satisfied, and that an outdoor cup should be more robust. I asked to speak to a manager. They said the same thing. I pointed out that Nalgene polycarbonate bottles have a lifetime warranty. One sales person said that nalgene bottles don't have a lifetime warranty. They used to, but not anymore. He said he dropped his backpack on one and it broke. (Well he is wrong. According to Nalgene all Nalgene products are guaranteed for life). I left quite upset.

I then called the REI company (technically a co-op). I gave them my membership number, and they quickly found the purchase, which was in 2010. I offered to send them a photo of the broken cup. They said they had no way to get pictures, but they believed me. They said they would send me a replacement. I suggested their REI Recycled Camp Mug - 12 fl. oz. It isn't clear, and it isn't double walled, but they stopped making the one that broke. I asked why the store couldn't find my purchase. The company person suggested they may have better search tools than the store.

This shows several problems. First, the store couldn't find my purchase. I cannot imagine why they couldn't when the company could. Second, does it really matter when I purchased it? It was clearly an REI product. I was clearly a REI member. The mug was clearly broken. The only question is, is it reasonable for the mug to break? Clearly you cannot make an indestructible mug. Enough heat will melt even a titanium mug. Enough force, such as a wild elephant will likely break any mug you are likely to carry. However, normal usage involves people standing, and dropping things to the ground. I don't expect a mug made by an outdoor company, designed to be used in the outdoors to break under normal outdoor usage. Also, I don't expect them to lie about other companies lack of warranties, as the sales person lied about the Nalgene warranty.

I have an Avocet watch that has an altimeter and is designed for outdoor usage. When I took it to Fairbanks AK, at -20F or -25F, the watch band nylon clasp broke into many pieces. I called Avocet, and they sent me a new band right away. They did ask that I mail back the broken band parts. They didn't ask me for a receipt. They didn't ask when I bought it. They didn't say that I had abused their watch. When I got home there was a replacement watch band from Avocet waiting for me.

REI has a great reputation. REI has never let me down before. I am dismayed that both the customer service person and the manager were unreasonable. I didn't mention to them that years before I had given two lectures at that particular REI store. I am much less likely to give any more lectures at that store in the future.

Plastic / Nylon Strap Hardware

There is a huge variety of plastic hardware that attaches to straps. Some people call it Nylon, but it is really Polyacetal aka (POM). It is often black, though it can come in a bunch of colors including orange, and glow in the dark. I have bought quite a lot of this stuff. You can get individual pieces from retailers, but that is pretty expensive. The best stuff is made by ITW / Nexus. If they make it, it will work perfectly. Recently I bought a bunch of sternum strap buckles with a built in whistle. It isn't a great whistle, but it isn't bad either. I bought some orange ones and some glow in the dark ones. One minor issue is if you buy a side release buckle, you need to replace both sides. I have yet to find one that interchanges with an existing buckle. I have had good luck with everything I have purchased. Until I bought some 1.5" side release buckles on ebay from the seller plumpy_panda. Though they look fine, one of the five units I purchased come apart under minor tension. I have not measured the tension, but I would guess it is around 5 pounds or less. This makes it useless for waist belts. I tried to get them replaced or my money back, but like a fool, I waited a about 8 months to ask for an exchange. Ebay doesn't have protection against bad items for that long. I really should sent them back right away. In any event, plumpy_panda says there is no problem, and they work file. They are wrong. Clearly there is some kind of quality control issue. I recommend avoiding this seller. Of course if there is a problem, let the seller know right away...I ended up ordering 20 from amazon for about $13, which is a great price. I got the amazon buckles (which shopped from China). The picture showed a single adjustable buckle. The description said it was double adjustable. Single adjustable buckles require a slider (or sweing the webbing closed) to keep the strap from sliding through the buckle. This adds extra hardware. Fortunately, I acted quickly and amazon is great with returns. I got my money back as the item did not match the description. All the buckles I tested worked fine, which is what is expected.

REI Glacier Glasses

About 20 years ago, I tried on a friend's REI glacier glasses. They were very comfortable. I decided to get my prescription eyeglasses made inside REI glacier glasses frames. The frames are black nylon. The part that goes around the ear is curved plastic (also known as cable temples) that instantly adjusts to the shape of the ear. The temples are very comfortable. They also do a great job of keeping the glasses from falling off. The part that touches the nose is a built into the frame and is non-adjustable. It happens to fit my nose very well and very nicely distributes the weight of the glasses. The frames are not as aesthetically appealing as some other frames. The temples have a tendency to break at the hinge. Since just the frames are cheap (20 years ago they were $10, and more recently they went up to $16) it isn't a problem. Then REI stopped selling the frames. Many have asked them to make the frame again, but the demand has gone unheeded. In reading about nylon frames I found that they dry out and get brittle with age. Soaking them in warm water every month is supposed to keep the frames strong. I am down to my last 5 frames. I do have more of the central part (where the glass goes). They even have removable side shields which keep stuff like light, snow, sand, dust, and the like from getting in your eyes.

Bolle Crevasse (8161) Glassier Glasses

Since REI glacier glasses were unobtainable, I decided to find other glacier glasses. The Bolle Crevasse frames are sold by L.L. Bean, and look pretty similar to the REI frames. It turns out they are pretty similar, but there are a few differences. The side shields have a plastic piece rather than a steel wire frame, and they are harder to put on and off of the frames. The temples (the part after the hinge) are hollow, and you can attach two different types of earpieces, either the cable temples (which have a U shape that wraps around your ear), or conventional temples that are roughly J shaped. In addition, the length of the temples are adjustable, because there are several small holes in the part of the temple that is attached to the hinge, and a raised bump on the removable part of the temples. This is really clever, as it will better fit different shaped faces. The cable temples are a bit stiffer than the REI frames, and not quite as comfortable, though they are quite serviceable. I bought 5 pairs of these frames, so I will have a good supply of glacier glass frames.

Julbo Drus Glacier Glasses

Since REI glacier glasses were unobtainable, I decided to find other glacier glasses. I decided to get metal frames in a quest for durability. The Julbo Drus had cable temples, and a one piece nose support, so I bought them. The side shields are also removable. The frames were about $60, which is much more than the REI glacier glasses, but cheaper than most prescription frames. The cable temples have what seems like a metal core and is not nearly as comfortable as the REI glacier glasses, but they are much more comfortable to me than conventional temples. The one piece nose support is designed for someone with a broader nose than mine. I was able to heat it up and bend it a bit which helped. I had to add some nose pads in order to keep the sharp top part from digging into my nose. I called Julbo and told them they should sell several different width nose-pieces. They took it under advisement. There is a black plastic and rubber part in the middle of the frames that isn't the most aesthetically appealing. Other Julbo models have adjustable nose pieces, but none have the support of the REI glacier glasses nose support.

Stephenson Warmlite quality control introduction

Jack has some unusual ideas about quality control and customer service. Here are some letters between him and me, that should be read before anyone considers buying his products.

I have had a few conversations with Jack Stephenson, owner of Warmlite. He seems to feel that his equipment is flawless, and that I am an idiot. So I decided to list all the problems that I have had with his gear.

Warmlite Tents

I have 2 of his tents. See here for a full review. The first one had a pocket that failed. I repaired it. The second one had the pole sleeve fail the first time I used it in the field. I sent it back for repair, and they said that looked like I abused it, because there were abrasion marks. Now, the tent cost me $565, so you might imagine that I would try not to abuse it. I didn't really examine the area of failure carefully before it failed, so I suppose it is possible that it was scraped for a minute or so, before it failed. I do know I was setting it up for the first time outside.

As for the pocket failure, it is the first time I have had a tent pocket fail. I have had 9 tents over a 16 year period, and I have loaned many of my tents to others. The only other problems I have had with tents are some slightly bent poles, and one broken pole on my Sierra Design Super-Bivy. So 9 tents, 3 failures, 2 of which are on my 2 Stephenson tents. Do the math.

Warmlite Socks

I also bought a pair of vapor-barrier socks. Vapor barrier socks are a very good thing indeed, and I highly recommend using some kind of vapor barrier socks when its cold (like when I spent 2 weeks in Fairbanks, Alaska with an average temperature of -20F).

The first pair I bought delaminated the first time I used them. They are made of a proprietary material, which seems to be a film laminated on both sides to some nylon like mesh. I was told that it was only a cosmetic problem, and the vapor barrier would still be fine. Nonetheless, they replaced them. As I recall, the second pair went 2 wearings before failing the same way. They sent me a third pair, and said to be sure to wear liner socks inside the VBL socks. This pair has worked fine.

I also have a vapor barrier shirt. It is very handy, since it is very thin, light, and keeps me quite warm. I used it during my Alaska trip with great success. There is a piece of Velcro used as a cuff for the end of the sleeve. It broke, and I had to sew it back on.

Warmlite Sleeping Bag

See here for a full review. My sleeping bag has had a few problems. When it first arrived, it was not completely sewn together. There was one area that was held together by a sewing pin. I sent it back, and they finished sewing it together.

Next, the Velcro used to hold the top of the down collar to the bottom of the down broke. I sent it back, and they fixed it again.

After speaking with Jack, I sent the bag in to be repaired for this problem around 1995. The bag was returned unrepaired. Now that the company is on the Internet, I decided to try again. I have been exchanging email with Jack, and he seems to misunderstand at least half of what I am saying, and calls me an idiot. See here for all the details. He maintains that I have abused the bag, and he will patch it up, without really repairing the failed Vap-R-Soft fabric, charging me money, and making my bag heavier. Now I'm not rich, and the bag cost me $685. Some people that know me think that I am in fact overprotective of my gear. For example, I don't like my tents to be out in the sun, because it weakens them. I have gone out of my way to treat my expensive gear very carefully (except for my McHale pack which is built like a brick outhouse). Perhaps I will include the letters that Jack and I have exchanged, but he won't admit the possibility that the bag may have been defective.

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