Last summer I bought my first piece of Cuben Fiber, a ZPacks Blast Food Bag. Having never owned any Cuben Fiber gear, I just wanted to see what the stuff was like in person, rather than reading about it online. My end goal was to see if I wanted to try a shelter or tarp made of Cuben Fiber, which I’d been hoping to try for quite some time. My only real reservations were durability, since I’ve never met anyone with the lightest fabric for tents, and cost, since Cuben tents and tarps can be extremely pricey. The food bag from ZPacks is less than $30, so that seemed like a good investment. Judging by how many ZPacks Blast Food Bags I saw on the Appalachian Trail last month, it seems like almost every other hiker out there went this route as well.

This summer, a friend ordered some discounted Cuben Fiber from eBay and built a tarp for me to test out on the trail (named The Lupus, after his dog). That gave me even more time to observe the material in action, and I must say I’m nicely impressed with it.

The Lupus Tarp at work in the field.

The Lupus Tarp at work in the field.

First, the reasons I wanted to switch from a silnylon shelter (which I’ve been using for the past 8 years) to a Cuben Fiber shelter. Weight is actually not a part of the equation for me. Let me say that again, though, just to get that straight: even though a tarp with the same construction as my silnylon one would weigh about half as much in Cuben, that’s not at all why I wanted to upgrade.

Here are the reasons:
No Seam Sealing: Cuben Fiber sheets are glued together with an ultra-strong tape/glue rather than sewn. Sewn seams on silnylon leak over time, and silicone seam sealers break down over time. This was a problem for me on the Pacific Crest Trail, and has started to be a problem with my silnylon tarp. I’d rather never deal with seam sealing.
No Stretch: Silnylon is a stretchy material, which is actually kind of nice when trying to pitch the tarp very tightly. But the problem is that when the material gets cold, it stretches on its own, which means the nice, tight tent you pitched in the evening turns into a sagging, flapping mess when the temperature drops at night and the rain starts. Cuben Fiber has no stretch whatsoever, so the tight pitch stays tight.
Newer Construction: Okay, this isn’t actually a feature of Cuben Fiber, but I’ve been looking to get a new shelter to replace my trusty old tarp because I wanted newer features like Linelocks for better adjustments of guylines, a shaped tarp for more efficient set up, and catenary ridge line for a tighter pitch. I figured if I was going to get a new shelter, I might as well go with all the features I wanted.

ZPacks food bag, the most common piece of Cuben Fiber on the AT.

ZPacks food bag, the most common piece of Cuben Fiber on the AT.

The issue of durability, which is the major concern for most people, should be entirely laid to rest. The Blast Food Bag uses a very thick grade of Cuben (1.4 ounce/square yard) for maximum durability, and since the small bag doesn’t need to be incredibly light. The Lupus uses the lightest grade (0.5 oz/yd), the same that ZPacks uses for their shelters. The Lupus stood up to heavy winds without any issues with damage. I’m sure if a tree fell on it, there might be some issues, but then again I can think of more problems than the tent getting damaged in that case. After 8 years of using my silnylon tarp, there is no damage to that tarp, either, and the 0.5 ounce Cuben feels just as durable as the silnylon. If that doesn’t convince you, I’m a big fan of this video by Joe of ZPacks, demonstrating the puncture and tear resistance of silnylon and Cuben.

Note the lack of thread and stitching. Everything is glued, so there are no seams.

Note the lack of thread and stitching. Everything is glued, so there are no seams.

The Lupus, since it was Steve’s first attempt at making anything out of Cuben, isn’t a perfect shelter (I ended up reinforcing the tie-out loops by sewing them, which negates some of the benefit of the glued seams, but the major seams are still only glued), but it has been a wonderful experiment. It saved me almost $200 (the price of a similarly sized tarp from ZPacks) and has given me plenty of food for thought. In the future, I may pony up the high price of a professionally made Cuben shelter, either a larger tarp from Gossamer Gear, a tarp-tent like the Hexamid from ZPacks, or a Duomid from Mountain Laurel Designs. For now, though, I’m pretty happy with my Lupus tarp, which is likely to replace my old Silnylon Scout for general 3-season use.

Inside the Lupus.

Inside the Lupus.

Last month on the Appalachian Trail, I started using Gossamer Gear’s Airbeam Sleeper sleeping pad to give myself a little more cushion in camp. I’ve used thin foam pads for many years, and have always been happy with them, but I just wanted to see if this new sleeping pad could convert me back to the world of inflatables. For the most part, I’m very happy with the Airbeam.

A well-loved shortie sleeping pad.

A well-loved shortie sleeping pad.

The Airbeam Sleeper is an uninsulated inflatable pad with vertical tubes and a tapered design. It comes in three standard sizes (36″, 48″, and 56″), and one large/wide size. Each of the pads uses a tapered design to give you more cushioning at your shoulders. I found this design to be very comfortable– I used the 36″ long pad, which was a full 21″ wide and 2.5″ thick at the shoulder, and 14″ wide and 1.5″ thick at my hip. I noticed the tapered width right away, but the tapered thickness was harder to notice, since the pad feels nicely cushioned all the way around.

Since the pad is uninsulated, it packs very small. And since it’s not terribly large, it inflates very quickly. These were both important factors for me. I own a Thermarest NeoAir for very cold backpacking trips, but the medium size NeoAir takes about twenty lungfuls to inflate, which is exhausting at the end of a long day of hiking. On the other hand, the small Airbeam takes between three and four breaths to inflate. It’s not the most important factor in owning the sleeping pad, but it’s a nice touch.

Side by side comparison of the 56" NeoAir and the 36" Airbeam.

Side by side comparison of the 56″ NeoAir and the 36″ Airbeam.

Compared with the NeoAir XLite, the Airbeam has several pluses and a few minuses. The first I want to address is the width of the sleeping pads– Thermarest’s specs show the NeoAir to be 20″ wide, which is a bit misleading. That width is measured when the pad is deflated. At full inflation, the top of the sleeping pad is only about 18″ wide. I sleep on my side, so the width is fine for me, but others have complained that when sleeping on their backs their arms hang off the sides of the NeoAir. On the other hand, the Airbeam’s width is measured when inflated, so the 21″ width is fully usable. The pad feels very wide. I found it to be pretty plush. The 1.5″ height of the Airbeam also allows you to use a normal sized pillow on the ground rather than on the sleeping pad, giving you more usable space on the sleeping pad for your body. NeoAirs, with their 2.5″ thickness, generally require that you keep your pillow on the pad, which takes away a fair amount of the pad’s length from your body.

Kacey seems to prefer the NeoAir, probably because she has a very dainty butt and wants all the cushioning and insulation she can find.

Kacey seems to prefer the NeoAir, probably because she has a very dainty butt and wants all the cushioning and insulation she can find.

In other areas, the NeoAir XLite and Airbeam are more comparable. I’ll use the Medium Airbeam and Small XLite for comparison, since they’re both about 48″ long. The XLite is slightly lighter (8 oz vs 9 oz), and much better insulated for cold sleepers (R-value 3.2 vs none). The Airbeam is much less expensive ($88 vs $130) and feels more durable. The Airbeam’s side tubes are slightly larger than the middle ones to act as a sort of railing to keep you on the pad, while the NeoAir drops off at the edges. For those of you who complain about the NeoAir being too crinkly and loud, the Airbeam has none of that.

I own a NeoAir XTherm, the winter version of the Thermarest with a very high R-value and more durable bottom, so for me the choice is easy– NeoAir in very cold conditions, and Airbeam in warmer conditions. If you had to choose just one, though, it’s a toss-up. I’d recommend the medium Airbeam over the small, since the small is much shorter than most people will be used to. I also like the benefits of the Airbeam over the XLite in terms of cost, durability, comfort, and lack of insulation (yes, I like the lack of insulation– in summer I don’t want any insulation between me and the ground). Either way, I think my days of thin foam sleeping pads may be numbered.

Disclosure: Gossamer Gear provided an Airbeam Sleeper for me to review. My observations on the pricing of the Airbeam vs the XLite, as such, are probably skewed. As for other comparisons, the price of the Airbeam hasn’t affected my opinions.

LT4 on Mount Isolation, New Hampshire.

LT4 on Mount Isolation, New Hampshire.

In 2009 I retired my Leki Super Makalu poles that had served me through the entire Appalachian Trail and two-thirds of the New England Trail, and replaced them with Gossamer Gear’s Lightrek 4 carbon fiber trekking poles. I was sick of the shock absorber spring in the Lekis breaking, the locking mechanisms in the pole sections failing, and the bent pole sections getting stuck when trying to collapse them. I finally gave in and upgraded to the LT4, and I’ve never looked back. Since 2009, I’ve put the LT4s through over 5000 miles of backpacking, with 200 miles of the New England Trail, more than 273 miles of the Long Trail, 2650 miles of Pacific Crest Trail, and 2000 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

LT4s on a typical, eroded White Mountains National Forest trail.

LT4s on a typical, eroded White Mountains National Forest trail.

The Basics
The LT4 is the lightest trekking pole on the market, at 8.0 ounces per pair, but that’s not why they’re so great. The reasons for their greatness are mainly their simple functionality and their lack of stupid gimmicks.

The handles are large (about seven inches long) and soft to the touch, which allows you to shift your grip on them in several ways if you need to shorten or lengthen them quickly as your footing changes. For real variability in the pole lengths, the twist locking system is simple and easy to use.

Leki has mostly done away with the faulty twist locks in their poles because they have been nothing but trouble for everyone who used them, but Gossamer Gear’s twist locks have had almost no failures since the beginning. The only issues I’ve had with the twist lock is that they fit so snugly into the top section of the poles that they can sometimes stick a little too well– sometimes when I unscrew the lower section, I have to pop it into the ground a few times to loosen it so I can then telescope the poles. Also, if I loosen the expander too much, it might not have enough grip to re-tighten, so I’ll need to pull the pole apart and set the expander back to “almost tightened” so it has a purchase on the inside of the upper pole. This takes no more than a few seconds at most.

My LT4's holding up to a raging creek crossing on the John Muir Trail.

LT4′s holding up to a raging creek crossing on the John Muir Trail.

Care and Feeding of the LT4
The second thing most people say when they feel how light the poles are is, “I’d break these in no time.” That may be true, but in my experience, user error is by far the primary cause of pole breakage. In my 5000 miles of backpacking with the LT4s, I’ve broken two sections (one of those was not really while hiking, but while doing something really dumb in camp). Compare that to the six times I bent, broke, or otherwise mangled my Lekis in 2500 miles of backpacking– The LT4 gets the edge for durability there. In the Sierra Nevada on the Pacific Crest Trail, they survived as I crossed raging creeks, and postholed through dozens of miles of deep snow. In New England, they’ve survived the most treacherous and body-breaking miles of rocks and slides on the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail, plus several more river fords.

There are two tricks I’ve found to increasing the longevity of the poles (which work for any trekking pole, not just the LT4). The first is simply to not treat the poles like they’re a solid piece of the mountain, and to realize that they’re just a stick in your hand. Everyone who worries about breaking their poles puts their full weight on them, expecting them to hold as steady as a boulder or a tree. You need to remember that a pole is a great aid for balancing and shock absorption, but it’s not actually an extra leg. Your legs are the muscles you need to rely on for moving. Arms, with or without poles to extend them, are nothing more than twigs in comparison.

The second trick is to stop using wrist straps. LT4s have the option of coming without straps, which is the option I always use. Leki product representatives insist that you will damage your wrist joints if you don’t use the straps, but I’ll point to my 5000 miles of strap-free pole use with no wrist problems as evidence against that. Straps have some minor benefits, but they artificially lock the poles to your hands and limit your flexibility. Without straps, you can easily let go of the poles when you need to (like when you trip and fall), and you can quickly stow them when you’re in a situation where they’d just get in the way (like when climbing a ladder or boulder).

A final note about maintenance for the LT4s is that since the carbide tips are glued to the base of the pole, I send my poles back to Gossamer Gear when I need them to be replaced. Gossamer Gear replaces the tips at no extra charge (usually around $15 for the tips themselves), and you don’t have to worry about breaking the pole when you hammer away at it while trying to remove the tip. This hasn’t been an issue in the long run, since I’ve only needed to replace the tips on the poles 4 times, which means the tips have lasted an average of 1250 miles per set. With the Lekis, I had to replace the tips 4 times, also, but I got only half as many miles out of their tips on average.

A good pole is handy for creek crossings in the White Mountains.

A good pole is handy for creek crossings in the White Mountains.

The last thing I love about the LT4 is just that it’s made by a very small company. That doesn’t make the poles better than any others, but it means their customer service is stellar. In fact, that is one of the things that initially appealed to me— if I have a choice between two great products, I’m more than happy to go with the one made by a small company made up of people I can get to know and have a lasting relationship with. Gossamer Gear is just that kind of company.

Disclosure: I paid full price for my first set of LT4s and both sections I purchased to replace broken pieces. Over the years, Gossamer Gear has sent me a new pair of poles to replace the older versions I’d originally used, and given me discounts on replacement parts. That may have affected my views on their customer service, but not my opinion of the poles’ performance, which I was convinced of long before they gave me any discounts or deals.

Since April I’ve been testing out a new GPS unit from a small company called Bad Elf, their Pro GPS, which has given me great hope for the future of GPS units. My Garmin eTrex has been trusty and reliable for years, but Garmin’s customer service is crap, and their GPS units aren’t nearly as fun to use as the Bad Elf. The Bad Elf isn’t quite perfect yet, I expect that in a year or two I’ll be able to retire my Garmin and never look back.

Bad Elf PRO in the palm of the hand.

Bad Elf PRO in the palm of the hand.

The Pro is very different from Bad Elf’s original GPS unit, which plugged into your iPhone or Android device. The Pro doesn’t plug into your phone, but can connect with it through Bluetooth. This allows you to use the Pro for two different primary functions– either you can keep it the unit connected to your device by Bluetooth while using a GPS app, or you can use the unit as a standalone GPS track logger.

When using the Pro connected with your phone or tablet, you can leave your phone in Airplane Mode with Bluetooth on, which overrides a major failing of the iPhone, in that the iPhone can’t run its GPS without also trying to get a cell signal. The iPhone GPS will function without a cell signal, but it will eat the battery of your phone much faster, and its GPS is less accurate than it is with the aid of cell-tower-triangulation. Using the iPhone in Airplane Mode, connected to the Bad Elf Pro by Bluetooth, you can use apps like Gaia GPS or my own guides without draining the iPhone battery nearly as quickly as you would using its internal GPS.

I’ve been using the Pro as a standalone GPS for the most part, and comparing it to my Garmin eTrex for use in mapping for my apps. Here are the primary areas that I use to compare it.

Size comparison with the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx

Size comparison with the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx

Weight (draw)

The Bad Elf Pro weighs 3.2 ounces. The Garmin eTrex Vista HCx with lithium AA batteries weighs 5.0 ounces. That’s not the full story, though. The Bad Elf’s USB cord weighs 1 ounce, and a standard block charger is about 0.8 ounce. An Anker Astro 6000 mAh battery (which can charge the phone and the Bad Elf) with its USB cord weighs 5.3 ounces. A pair of Lithium AA batteries (for the Garmin) weighs 1.0 ounce. You can do the math yourself, but I’ve found that the weight is very much a function of how often you need to use the GPS, and how often you’ll be near a wall outlet.

Longevity (draw)

I’ve used the Garmin for several  years with the lithium batteries, mainly just as a track logger. I don’t have WAAS enabled, and I’ve regularly had 30 to 40 hours of run time before the batteries die. With the Bad Elf, the only difference in use is that I keep WAAS enabled, and I’ve also had 30 to 40 hours of run time from its internal battery. The Garmin’s battery monitor does seem a little more accurate, though, which gives it a slight edge.

Waterproofing (Garmin wins)

The Garmin is fully waterproof, and I’ve submerged it several times while in use. I’ve walked days in heavy rain with no problems. The Bad Elf claims IPx4 water resistance, but I haven’t had much luck with it in the rain, which gets behind the screen and causes errors with the buttons. Keeping the GPS somewhere waterproof takes care of the problem, though.

Accuracy (Garmin wins mostly)

The most important comparison, of course, is GPS accuracy. With the Garmin and the Bad Elf side by side in the top pocket of my backpack last month, the two produced almost exactly the same tracks about 90% of the time. At some sharp turns and in many deep valleys, the Bad Elf lost the track for short lengths and read about 100 feet off. I check the tracks against National Park Service records for the AT, so I can see that the Garmin’s track is about 99.5% accurate. The Bad Elf loses in this case, but for most people, it’s accurate enough.

Much better track accuracy when the Bad Elf is on top of the pack (blue is Bad Elf, red is official NPS track)

Nearly perfect track accuracy when the Bad Elf is on top of the pack (blue is Bad Elf, red is official NPS track)

A bigger problem arises with the Bad Elf when I put it on the side of my pack, either in my shoulder pockets or in any of the side pockets. I don’t know why this should be a problem, but the GPS track is inaccurate about 40% of the time, with variation of up to half a mile. This is unacceptable for me as far as using the GPS for work, but since keeping the unit in the top of my pack seems to work well, I’ll just leave it in the top of my pack for general use.

A typical track error when the Pro was on the side of the pack.

A typical track error when the Pro was on the side of the pack.

User Friendliness (Bad Elf wins)

Garmin’s GPS has many, many features, but after three years of using it I still haven’t bothered with most of them. The instruction manual for it is almost useless, but trying to figure out how to use the GPS without instruction is impossible. Thank goodness for the Internet. The Bad Elf Pro, on the other hand, has an incredibly simple user interface, and is basically invisible if you use it in conjunction with a GPS app on your phone. If you just want to get track data from the Pro, you just download a free app from Bad Elf that allows you to change the GPS’s settings, download the GPS’s data to your phone with a few simple (and well-labeled) button clicks. Once the data is in your phone, you can upload it to Dropbox, send it by email, open it in Gaia GPS, or use it in any other GPS app. Not only is it simpler to use than the Garmin, but you can back up your tracks to the web, send them to friends, and look at them on any kind of map you like.

Conclusion: Garmin for now, Bad Elf for the future

The Garmin wins in terms of two important distinctions, accuracy and water resistance, but I’m willing to give Bad Elf the edge for now. In my dealings with Garmin over the last few years, I’ve found their customer service to be some of the worst I’ve experienced– it seems they are focusing more on their car navigation GPS units than their handheld units. Bad Elf, a tiny company of less than a dozen people, is innovative and young, which gives me hope that the quality of their GPS units will surpass Garmin’s in no time. In the meantime, I’ll just hope my eTrex holds together as it ages.

Disclosure: Bad Elf gave me a discount on the Pro GPS unit as an app developer, but didn’t solicit this review. Garmin gave me no incentives to write this review.

The Crowds!

My hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia from May 13 to June 16 was only the second time I’ve been right in the middle of the hiker bubble in the South, so it was a jarring experience for me. After last spring and summer on the AT, where I spent the same amount of time on the trail and saw a grand total of less than 10 through-hikers (in one notable section, I went four days and saw fewer than 10 people of any stripe), this was totally shocking. The trail in Virginia was crowded. There is no other way to describe it.

At times I hated it. Other times I really enjoyed the company. It all depended on who I was hiking with. There were plenty of genuinely nice people, enjoying life on the trail and being thankful for their good fortune. Unfortunately, there were too many people– I won’t say “hikers”, because their primary goal wasn’t to be on the trail, but to live a perpetual party– who treated the generosity of others along the trail like their birthright, complaining whenever they didn’t get all they wanted. I was pretty sick of the attitude by the end of the hike, and it took about a week after returning home before my memory of the hike reverted to mostly good times with good company.

Too Much Food

In about 350 miles of the Appalachian Trail, I passed more than a dozen coolers left by road crossings, and more than 7 hiker feeds (350 miles because none of this was happening in Shenandoah). In most cases, the hiker feeds weren’t over-the-top extravaganzas, but the coolers and food left by roads were generally trash-filled and poorly maintained. I’ll admit I took sodas at most coolers, but that doesn’t change my opinion of them. Forest Service officials I spoke with confirmed that they’ve monitored some of these caches and found that they do get raided by animals often enough to be a problem, though the people who put them there claim otherwise.

What really bothered me, though, was the disconnect between feeding hikers and caring for the trail. Only one through-hiker that I met on this trip was a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (or any other trail club), and none had worked on trail maintenance. Many complained about trail conditions, shelter conditions, campsite crowding, and full outhouses. They often talked about plans to give free food to hikers next year, but none said anything about volunteering to work on the trail. The reasons for the disconnect? My guess is that feeding hikers is easier, and that trail work is anonymous.

Giving food to a hiker generates instant gratitude from the hiker, and that gratitude is specifically associated with the person giving the food. Trail work doesn’t generate the same mutual glee– trail maintainers enjoy trail work, but most hikers only notice trail work when it is lacking. Either way, trail maintainers don’t get the same appreciation from hikers as the people providing food, because trail work is anonymous– you do your work, and then thousands of hikers walk over your work without ever knowing that you did it. So rather than many people choosing to make a lasting beneficial impact to the trail, they choose to bring food to hikers and get the instant gratification that comes from happy, soda-filled bellies.

The Music Never Stopped

Last year, I noticed a lot of through-hikers walking along oblivious to their surroundings because they were listening to their earbuds. I got kind of annoyed by this because if I tried to pass someone, I couldn’t get their attention with a normal “excuse me” or “can I get by?” Instead, I would wave my trekking pole’s handle (the soft part) over their shoulder or tap them on the back of the leg with it. That usually startled the shit out of them, but at least it got their attention.

This year, I saw fewer oblivious hikers with earbuds in, but I saw a lot more hikers with portable speakers instead. I find this to be very obnoxious. I’ll accept crowded trails and excessive hiker feeds as inevitable, but can we at least agree that walking through the woods and hearing someone else’s music blaring is not what anyone wants? Stick your earbuds back in, please, or go back home where you can make all the noise you want.

Conclusion: I’m an Elitist

Okay, I know all of the previous observations make me sound like a pessimistic elitist, which is partly true. I think the hiking community can hold itself to a higher standard, but I’m not pessimistic about that. I’m certain the trail community can police itself very well– the problems I see tend to be caused by a minority that only looks like the majority because they’re loud and obnoxious. If more people would speak out against behavior that is distasteful, or educate those who don’t know differently, problems would be fixed more quickly. I saw this happen a few times, but not enough. It can always be better.

Gear Observations:

Where Have All The Light Hikers Gone?

Here’s a more benign observation from the hike: I saw exactly one ultralight backpack other than my own and Joe’s. There were a few packs that would definitely be considered “lightweight”, though. In conversation with a past PCT hiker, it sounded like all of the ultralight backpackers were far, far ahead on the AT, which makes sense. I finished this trip at Harper’s Ferry (mile 1018, approx) on June 16. Seven years ago, in 2007, on June 16 I was over 1100 miles further north on the trail.

What was just as interesting to me was the lack of cottage industry packs. Almost every pack I saw was an Osprey (as it has been since 2008 or 2009). I attribute this to the fact that Osprey is pushed very hard at REI, EMS, LL Bean, and pretty much every other major outdoor retailer. I saw 1 Gossamer Gear pack, 1 ZPacks pack, three ULA packs, and no Mountain Laurel Designs or Six Moon Designs packs. That was startling to me, since lightweight cottage industries have seemingly become more mainstream in the past few years. I guess not mainstream enough.

I did notice three or four Hyperlight Mountain Gear packs, each of which was packed so tight it looked like the seams might burst. Hyperlight seems to have done a very good job marketing in the past few years, but that’s all the commentary I’ll make about them for now.

Sawyer Owns the Water

The other major trend I noticed was that the Sawyer Mini has completely taken over the world (at least on the AT). Two years ago was the first I’d heard of the Sawyer Squeeze, from an AT hiker while I was on the Long Trail. A lot of AT hikers had the Squeeze then. I didn’t notice the hikers last year, but this year, I’d guess that roughly 80% of hikers were using the Mini. There were significant issues with clogging of the filters in Virginia, since the streams we filtered from were often thick with particulate matter, but many hikers carried the backflushing syringes with them. We had quite a few backflushing parties, including one point where I got a 2-gallon bucket of water from a restaurant in Buena Vista and proceeded to clean out half a dozen of the damn things.

I’m still super happy with my Mini, and my Squeeze, after this trip. I had no issues, other than decreased flow after a few weeks due to clogging of the filter. But it was easy enough to clean the filter. A through-hiker even showed me a nifty trick to clean them better– if you bang the filter on a hard surface a few times between each blast with the syringe, a lot of the gunk inside gets dislodged, and a lot more nasty stuff comes out with each backflush. Try it out– it’s pretty amazing how brown the water coming out of the rear end of the filters was.