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Western Pack Hiking Backpack

On a whim, I picked up the Wester Pack Hiking Backpack. I first saw it on eBay, but made my purchase on Amazon where it is now sold out. For nearly $40, I expected the pack to be of relatively low quality. I bought the pack with the intention of using it as an emergency bug out bag (BoB). After looking the pack over, I decide to put the pack right to use.

As seen in the attached photo, I loaded the pack down and took it to Mexico. In addition to cramming the pack full, I attached my extra bags, including my laptop bag, to the Western Pack. I was pushing the pack to see if would fail. The pack held strong aside from one seam that gave a few stiches when I attempted to lift the entire overloaded by a tightening strap. I would provide a photo, but the seam doesn’t appear damaged enough to show up in a picture!

While the pack may not be as comfortable as my trusted Osprey, I had no complaints after days of heavy travel. If you’re looking for a spare pack or just to save money on your backpack purchase, I highly recommend this product…. that is, if you can find it. I have seen some outlets raise the price as high as $50, but generally it runs for around $40.

Multipurpose Items Are the Key to Lightweight Backpacking

Are you trying to figure out how to cram everything into your pack without making it so heavy that you can’t walk more than a few steps? Check out these tips from Mark Crews, the co-owner of Apex Outdoor Gear in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was recently featured in an article in the Outdoors section of the Grand Rapids Press. I think even seasoned, veteran backpackers will find some helpful ideas here.

As you can probably tell from this blog, I tend to be swayed by high-tech, newfangled, lightweight gadgets with some hefty price tags. Mark points out that the most lightweight items aren’t necessarily the most expensive ones – valuable advice that I need to keep in mind. Even those trusty Nalgene water bottles that I throw into my pack without questioning could be replaced with a lighter and virtually no-cost soda bottle.

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I’m not quite ready to take all the advice that he’s doling out (Using a bandana as toilet paper? No thank you!), but his remarks on compression backpacks, stuffsacks, and knives are words of wisdom.

He also takes a balanced approach and recognizes that backpacking is supposed to be fun, and hence it makes sense to bring along a few luxury items, such as chocolate and beef jerky, even if they do add a few ounces to the weight of your pack.

And the one gem of the article? Crew says that when your trek ends, you should “divide items systematically into three categories: always used, never used and sometimes used.” That makes a lot of sense to me, since you can use this info to pack more quickly and easily for your next trip.

How Lightweight Can a Sandal Be?

When I go hiking or backpacking in the fall or early spring, my trusty hiking boots are all the footwear I need. But as the warmer summer months approach, I’ve started to think about taking a pair of lightweight sandals along. I want a good water sandal that will let me splash in the streams without cutting my feet on the rocks, and also something that will be comfortable enough to walk around camp in the evening without having to trudge around in heavy boots.

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Most of the water-sport sandals I’ve looked at are too heavy to pass the test when I’m trying to figure out which items deserve a space in my already-overloaded pack. Then I found the Aruba sandal made by Waldies. It has a funky design and is available in twelve different colors. But the best part is that they’re super light, weighing in at only 7.1 ounces for the pair. They’ve got good traction on the bottom and some nubby little pieces on the sole of the food for a gentle massage and stimulation for your circulation. Not bad for $34.95 plus shipping.

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The only downside is that they don’t have a strap around the back of the ankle, so I don’t know how well they’ll stay put if I use them for crossing a stream. But the fit is pretty snug, so as long as I stay away from fast-moving waters, they’ll probably work out pretty well.

And for those urbanpackers out there… this could be a handy alternative for flip-flops when you’re sharing showers at low-budget hostals. A must-have for anyone who’s squeamish about foot fungi.

The Joys of Shared Bathrooms in Hostels

Whenever budget-minded travelers get together, the conversation inevitably turns to hostels and the desperate measures we’ll take to save a few bucks on our travel accommodations. Hostels are great for the pocketbook, but not so wonderful in some other respects.

You know what I’m talking about. You want to save money, so you opt for a hostel that has a shared bathroom, even though the lack of privacy makes you a bit squeamish. When it’s time to take a shower, you have two choices. You can try to get dressed inside the shower stall, even though the clothes always get wet no matter how carefully you shower, either from splashing water or because other lodgers have already soaked every possible surface. The other option is to wrap yourself in a ridiculously small, threadbare towel and run through the hall back to your little room, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the other guests who are smirking at you.

Of course, there is a better way – use a bathrobe. But a terrycloth bathroom is a bulky, heavy luxury when you’re trying to live out of a single backpack for several weeks or months, so I’ve always done without – until now. I recently found this lightweight travel robe that’s full size, but weighs only one pound and packs down pretty small, perfect for urbanpacking. And it’s made of micro-fleece, so it will keep you cozy, warm, and wrinkle-free.

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And if my testimonial isn’t enough to convince you, note that the Wall Street Journal called it “Best Overall.” Granted, the Wall Street Journal writers are probably using it in the comfort of a private hotel suite instead of a hostel full of peering strangers, but it’s nice to know that they like it nevertheless.

I’m not sure the $69.95 price tag is entirely justified, but I guess it all comes down to just how much you hate getting dressed in shared hostel bathrooms. As for me, I think it’s worth it.

Binoculars That Are Worth a Second Look

I’ve been looking for the perfect pair of binoculars. You know, the perfect pair that will let me zoom in on a fast-moving bird, take in panoramic landscapes, and not weigh a ton. Turns out, there’s no such thing as the perfect pair of binoculars. As with everything else in life, choosing binoculars is an exercise in trade-offs, balancing quality, size, price, and durability. I haven’t made a final decision yet, but here are the ones that have really captured my attention so far.

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This Pentax 8×21 UCF R is a standard, inexpensive pocket binocular that should meet most needs. And at only 7.1 ounzes, it will certainly be easy to carry around.
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Here’s another pair of compact binoculars that would be good for carrying into the great outdoors: the Tasco Essentials 8×21 Binocular. It’s even a little more lightweight than the first one, weighing in at just 6.5 ounces.

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If you’re looking for the ultimate option in terms of portability, the Sun Company 5 in 1 Pocket Binocular is great, because it folds down flat and weighs just 2.3 ounces. In addition to being a pair of binoculars, it is also has an LED light, a magnifying glass, a luminous compass, and a mirror. But with all that multi-tasking, I have to wonder whether it will really perform as well as more traditional binoculars.

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If size, weight, and price were no obstacle, then I’d jump at the chance to buy the ATN Phantom IR Thermal Vision Binocular Thermal Vision Binocular. Of course, at more than $20,000, this is a bit beyond my budget. But just think of all the things you could see and do with this kind of night-vision capability!

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And here’s another one that caught my eye: the ATN Night Shadow-3 Gen 3 5x Magnification, Night Vision Binocular. At “only” $3,000, it seems like a bargain compared to the last one, and it has a cool proximity sensor that turns the night vision on automatically.

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Last but not least, check out the Brunton Echo Pocket Scope Monocular. This is a great tool for espionage, just 3.25″ x 1.25″ and 1.8 ounces.

Nothing’s Worse than Wearing Wet Socks…

When backpacking, the weight of my pack is inversely correlated to my enjoyment of the trip. The heavier my pack is, the more tired and grouchy I become, complaining to my companions about my aching shoulders and quivering knees. So I’m always on the lookout for ways to lighten my load.

Of course, some things are simply necessities, either because we cannot survive without them (e.g., water and food), or because we make a conscious decision that we absolutely must have them. For me and many others, it boils down to having clean underwear and socks – one pair for each day we’ll be gone. That’s fine for a quick overnight trip, but if you’re planning a longer adventure, those extra undergarments can add a lot of bulk and weight to an already bulging pack.

Washing clothes along the trail or in a hostel bathroom is an obvious solution, but it doesn’t work so well in wetter climates. In humid, rainy areas, it’s virtually impossible to get those undergarments (and especially heavy socks) to dry overnight. And few things invite discomfort and blisters more than the squishy feeling of wearing wet socks inside your hiking boots, whether you’re enjoying the great outdoors or pounding the pavement in a foreign city.

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Fortunately, new, quick-drying synthetic fabrics are a vast improvement over cotton and wool. The latest fabrics are easy to wash and dry in just a few hours, even when it’s cold and damp outside. And although I normally prefer good old-fashioned cotton for my tidy-whities, I must admit that the new lines of quick-dry undergarments are surprising comfortable. They never itch, snag, or tear – and these are all critically important if you’re bringing only one or two pairs for a long trip.

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I haven’t tested all the products that are out there, but ExOfficio basics seem to be a great product line. They are a bit pricy, but you can save some money by taking advantage of sales (this one, 25% off, ends on March 31, 2009) or visiting the clearance section on the manufacturer’s website. You can also find a lot of quick-drying undergarments at bricks-and-mortar sporting goods stores.

A Tent, Jacket, and a Bag All in One

If you’ve ever marveled at how snails, turtles, and various marine species carry their homes on their back in a compact shell, then you’ll definitely appreciate this latest invention in self-sufficiency.

 

A young designer named Justin Gargasz recently unveiled the Vessel, which is a beautiful, creative, and innovative tent, jacket, and bag all in one.

 

First and foremost, the Vessel serves as a medium-weight jacket to protect you from the elements on a cool or wet day. The jacket is reversible, so you instantly have a jacket in two colors for those who are more fashion-conscious in their outdoor adventures. As the weather heats up, you can easily convert the jacket into a sling bag where the arms tie around your body so that you can keep your hands free.

 

But the coolest part of the Vessel is that when you’re ready to retire for the evening, the jacket magically transforms into a cocoon tent just large enough for one person. The body of the tent is mostly opaque, meaning that you can perceive light and hear and smell the great outdoors from within the confines of your cocoon. The door also has a one-inch mesh strip, letting you see what’s happening in the outside world.

 

Naturally, a tent that can be worn as a jacket will never really compete with a full-sized tent that you can carry on the bottom of your pack, but the designer has something else in mind. Although the tent could be used for camping, Justin recommends using it “whenever one feels the need to escape interactions in their present environment.”

 

He continues, “Individuals feel the need to escape interactions in their environment every day. Whether it be interactions with excessive technology or other people, this psychological and physical need to get away is where I began my investigation.”

 

In other words, if you’re traveling through downtown New York and begin to feel overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds, just take off your jacket, convert it into a tent, and you’ll have instant peace and solitude – just kidding, we don’t think that’s really the best use for the Vessel. But we do think you’ll enjoy owning one, considering all the benefits it has to offer for your next backpacking or urbanpacking adventure.

 

Pants or Shorts? Why Choose?

On these unpredictable spring days, when cloudy skies can just as easily turn into warm weather as torrential downpours, sometimes it’s difficult to know what to wear for outdoor activities. Pants can become uncomfortably warm if the weather heats up, but shorts can leave you shivering if those clouds don’t burn off.

 

A good pair of zip-off cargo pants are the ultimate solution, especially when they’re made from a durable, water-resistant fabric. From a distance, they look like regular pants, usually in a beige, khaki, or green color. But look a little closer, and you’ll see a covered horizontal zipper that goes all the way around the thigh. With one quick zip, the leg of the pants separates, leaving you in a fine-looking pair of shorts. And, if the shorts have cargo pockets, the pant legs can be folded up and stored in there if you don’t have room in your pack.

 

Even later in the summer, when the weather is more predictable and you plan to wear shorts, zip-off cargo pants can be a lifesaver if you find yourself traipsing through fields of poison oak or scratchy blackberry vines. Just zip the pant legs back on and protect your skin until it’s safe to zip them back off again.

 

Zip-off cargo pants pack down better than jeans, and they can be much more comfortable. They’re not quite as warm as jeans, but that can be one of their greatest advantages during the hot summer months. This piece of clothing has become a hot commodity in recent years and you can find it in almost all outdoor stores and sporting-goods retailers, as well as traditional department stores and even Wal-Mart.

 

I recommend the Helly Hansen Cargo Zip-Off Pant, because it’s made from a comfortable, breatable, water-repellent fabric and comes in a variety of colors. You can find a great deal on them here.

A Sunny Day for iPhones

How many times have you been at a coffee shop, in the airport, on a plane, or just walking around when your iPhone or iTouch starts flashing a “low battery” warning and there’s no electrical outlet in sight? It happens to me all the time, and since I’m pretty much addicted to the devices, it’s a major problem.

Fortunately, SolLight has come out with a simple and relatively inexpensive solution – solar charging. Now we can harness the power of the sun to make sure that we always have access to the information and entertainment we crave. Plus, the energy is absolutely free and leaves no carbon footprint whatsoever.

The SOLiCharger is a “solar-powered backup/emergency iPod charger.” It’s small and light at just 1.4 ounces, so it’s easy to take wherever you go. Unfortunately, it’s not very fast and needs up to 16 hours (!) of exposure to the sun to reach its maximum charge. That’s enough to charge the iPhone only halfway, but that’s sure better than nothing when your alternative is a dead battery. A 50% charge should last for at least a few hours, and of course you can always charge it again as long as there’s some sunshine to be found. Plus, you can charge your iPhone while you’re using it.

The really nice thing about the SOLiCharger is that it plugs directly into the iPhone or iTouch, so you don’t have to worry about losing or forgetting cables. And it comes in either black or white, so you can get the one that matches your other gadgets.

If you live in a place without much sunshine, or if you need extra battery power at night, you can charge the SOLiCharger from your laptop or desktop computer and use it like a back-up battery, but obviously the main idea is to charge it with sunlight. Fortunately, charging it through an Apple USB cable is faster and takes just under two hours.

Check out the online slideshow for more information and then decide whether you’d like to buy it. SolLight is currently sold out of the $39.95 device, but you can use the company’s website to find retailers near you.

Mountain Biking with the Mountain Monk

I love mountain biking. It’s such a great way to combine nature, adventure, and adrenaline all at the same time. But to be honest, I should admit that I really only enjoy half of the experience – the downhill half. Biking up steep inclines is a major pain in the you-know-what that leaves me winded and exhausted. I’d much rather hike up. The promise of a wind-in-your-hair, full-speed downhill descent is usually worth the effort to bring the bike uphill, but even with that in mind, sometimes I can’t make it all the way without stopping to walk alongside my bike or awkwardly hoisting it into the air as I stumble over rocks and tree branches.

Fortunately, a nifty new contraption called the Bergmönch, or “Mountain Monk” in German, is the perfect solution for mountain bikers who are only interested in the downhill part of the journey. It’s a bicycle (actually more like a scooter) that’s made just for going downhill. True, there aren’t any pedals or gears, but who needs them if you’re flying down a hill at full speed? (Don’t worry, there are brakes!)

The major downside is that, because there aren’t any pedals, the Bergmönch can be used only for going downhill. If you run into even the slightest incline, you’ll need to step off the bike and walk back up until you can cruise downhill again. Nevertheless, on the right mountain terrain, this could be a fantastic piece of equipment.

The Bergmönch and its fully integrated helmet fold up into a handy backpack, leaving space for food, equipment, and everything else you want to pack. At just under 21 pounds, it’s pretty easy to sling it over your shoulders for an uphill hike. Then, once you reach the top, you can unfold and reassemble the bike, take a deep breath, and let the fun begin!

Check out the video where the Moutain Monk himself takes the Bergmönch for a spin, or learn more about it here. Yes, the site’s in German, but the pictures are worth a thousand words.

A word of warning: when you start using your new Bergmönch, you’ll probably get some strange comments from other hikers who are intrigued by your odd-looking backpack, but just treat it as an opportunity to tell them about the joys of hiking uphill and biking downhill. Chances are, they’ll groan with envy and ask to take it for a spin themselves!