Gear Reviews

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.

Since April I’ve been a total convert to treating my water with filters while hiking, specifically Sawyer’s Squeeze, which I think is as close to perfect as any backcountry water filter can be. With a relatively light weight, easy filtering, and no moving parts to clog, the Squeeze has totally replaced bleach and Aqua Mira in my pack. And I thought I wouldn’t find anything better. Sawyer has already proved me wrong.

The Squeeze and the Mini, side by side.

The Squeeze and the Mini, side by side.

Late this summer, Sawyer released the Mini Filter, which is almost identical to the Squeeze, just in a smaller package. In fact, in testing the Mini this month, I’ve found that aside from weighing half as much as the Squeeze and having a different mouthpiece, there’s really no difference. The price is another selling point, at just over half of the price of the original Squeeze. The weight of each (dry) on my scale is 3.6 ounces for the Squeeze, and 1.9 ounces for the Mini. Not bad!

I’ve found no difference in flow rates between the two filters (in fact, the Mini seems to be flowing much faster, but that’s probably because the filter is much cleaner at this point than my many-month old Squeeze). Normally, one product that’s so similar to another wouldn’t be of much interest, but since all of the minor changes are improvements, I have no problem recommending the Mini. For the rest of the review, see my review of the Squeeze from earlier this summer.

Works just the same as the older Squeeze.

Works just the same as the older Squeeze.

My only minor complaint with the Mini is that the included dirty-water bag is the half-liter size, where the bag for the standard Squeeze is one-liter. I guess this makes sense, because the Mini is smaller, but the weight savings of an empty bag are negligible and the full liter-sized bag can always be filled halfway if you want less water. I immediately replaced the small bag with a larger one.

A filter with a view.

A filter with a view.

Disclosure: Sawyer provided me with a free Mini Filter for purposes of this review. The prior review of the Squeeze was done with a filter purchased with my own funds, and was in no way influenced by the company.

Since I started down the road of lightweight backpacking six years ago, I’ve used several packs, sleeping bags, tents, sleeping pads, and who knows what other gear. But despite all those new toys, the way I hiked changed very little. My pack grew lighter over time as I found things I could do without, or lighter replacements for some gear, but I always hiked the same. This spring, I finally found a piece of backpacking equipment that has changed how I hike, and made me more efficient as a lightweight backpacker– the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter.

I’ve used chemical water treatment since I first started backpacking. Every experience I had with filters was awful– clogged cartridges, ineffective pumps, a mess of dangling tubes– filters were, at best, a pain in the ass. And they were heavy and bulky. Why would I ever replace my precious Aqua Mira?

At the recommendation of many Appalachian Trail hikers and my buddy Phil, I took the chance with the Sawyer Squeeze. All of my expectations were met, and blown away.

Feed me water!

Getting drunk on H2O

Hydrate Immediately!
Last summer while I was hiking the Long Trail, there was a terrible heat wave and drought. I found myself running out of water as I passed plentiful springs that had gone dry. Once at a running source, I would fill up, treat my water, then move on. This usually led to some frustration, since the best chemical treatments take 15 to 30 minutes to effectively treat the water. All I wanted was to drink right away, but instead I had to watch that delicious water sit in a bottle just a little while longer.

Over the past few months with the Sawyer Squeeze, I’ve gotten in the habit of chugging a liter or more of water when I stop at a stream or spring, then moving on with half a bottle in my pack. I start out hydrated better than before, since I don’t have to wait to drink the water, and it’s much more refreshing to drink icy mountain water before it heats up in the bottle for a while.

Going Heavy to Go Light
One of the reasons I always used chemical treatment is the light weight. A full set of Aqua Mira weighs 3 ounces. Repackaged in smaller bottles, you have a weekend’s supply for less than an ounce. The Sawyer Squeeze claims to weigh 3.5 ounces, but only happens when it’s perfectly dry. Most of the time, it has residual water stuck inside, bringing the weight up to 5 ounces. Add about an ounce and a half for the dirty water bag, and one ounce for a little plastic bottle I use to fill the bag if the water is stagnant, and you’re approaching half a pound.

But consider this– on the Long Trail I left every water source carrying at least two liters of water, which is close to 4.5 pounds (dead weight until half an hour after it was treated). This spring, on the Appalachian Trail, I never carried more than one liter of water. Often, I carried no water at all. Since I could drink immediately at water sources, I could fill up my belly instead of bottles. A few extra ounces of filter translated into an average of two pounds saved on my back.

Fresh, Tasty Water
I’ve used chemical water treatment day after day for months on end, during two summer-long through hikes, and several multi-week trips. I have no doubt that it’s safe to use in the long run. But sometimes I fill a bottle with ice cold, crystal clear mountain spring water, and I cringe at the thought of adding anything to it. I’ve drunk straight out of those springs on occasion, sans treatment, but I’ve seen too many cases of giardia or intestinal bugs to want to take my chances. At some point, I decided I much prefer to remove things from the water than to add to it. Now, I taste the water as it is meant to taste– not even with the very faint taste of Aqua Mira. Just cold, fresh water.

Squeeeeeeeeeze!

Rolling out the water at a lunch break.

Will It Last?
The most common complaint I’ve heard about the Squeeze is the durability of the water bags. So far, I’ve squeezed over 100 liters from the filter (yes, I’ve counted), using only one of the three provided bags, and there is no sign of the seams separating. I’m convinced that the problem can be easily avoided, just like breaking carbon fiber trekking poles. It doesn’t take much effort to get a steady flow of water out of the filter (I timed it at just over one minute to gently squeeze out one liter of water). If you squeeze the bag harder, the water will come out faster. But rushing things like this will cause unnecessary wear and tear. All you need to do is roll the bag from the bottom, and don’t put a lot of pressure on the bag.

There is one other durability flaw with the filter, with an easy fix: the washer that seals the dirty water bag with the filter can deteriorate quickly, allowing dirty water to leak from the seal. Going through Sawyer to get a replacement can be a hassle, but a simple garden hose washer from a hardware store actually fits better than the one that came with the filter, and is much cheaper. Hardware stores to the rescue!

Simple Enough
I’ll probably still use Aqua Mira from time to time, like in late autumn when temperatures get below freezing fairly often (freezing the filter will destroy it), or as backup in case the filter ever goes bad. But so far, I’m totally sold on this tool for backpacking. In wet regions, I now get by only carrying one liter of water, drinking lots whenever I pass a water source, and being able to drink right away when I get to the water source.