How to Waterproof Your Backpack

If we in the Northeast never hiked in the rain, we wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of hiking would we? It is still possible to have an enjoyable hiking, backpacking, or camping trip in wet weather, but it certainly comes with its challenges. One major challenge is keeping you and your gear from becoming soaking wet, which is not only a safety concern for clothing and sleeping bags, but can also make for a heavy, sloppy, and uncomfortable trip. Rain jackets and pants are easy to think of for traveling in the wet, but when it comes to keeping your pack and its contents waterproof there is more than just one option. 

Option 1: The Pack Cover

So here’s an obvious solution to keeping your pack dry: Wrap it in a waterproof material! Pack covers are a simple and effective way to keep your pack and its contents out of  the elements. 

These covers come in a variety of sizes that approximately match the size of your pack (so you may need one for your backpacking pack and one for your daypack, for example), with a shape not unlike a giant, oblong shower cap. To that effect, what holds the cover onto the pack is the elastic stretched along the edge. Simply stretch it on when it’s raining, and peel it off when it’s time to get into your pack.

The main limitation with rain covers is that you need to take them off to access anything that is inside your backpack or its pockets, exposing everything to the rain or snow when you do. Of course, if you’re slick and organized you can still minimize the time that the cover is off. 

Another consideration when using a rain cover is that although it will keep your backpack dry, it could make you slightly wetter, as the water runs off and onto your shoulders. That in mind, if you have a pack cover on, you’ll likely have a rain jacket on as well. 

Option 2: A Pack Liner

There are certain activities and situations where having a cover on the outside of your backpack is not the best option. This could include trips where wet weather is a possibility but not too certain, and more commonly when you will be carrying things on the outside of your pack, like trekking poles or an ice axe (Sharp items are best kept apart from the waterproof fabrics for best results). 

Enter the pack liner bag. This is essentially the same as the pack cover, besides two things. The first is obviously that these line the inside of your backpack’s main compartment, with all of your things inside of the liner. The second is that these liner bags tend to have more of a closure on them, making them less like shower caps and more like a roll-top dry bag that you’d see on a river trip, only thinner. 

Using a liner means you can use all of your pockets and move axes on and off the pack at will, and while the backpack itself may get wet (and potentially heavy), the important things stay dry on the inside. 

 

Option 3: Dry Bags

Of course there is a great difference between water resistance against rain and complete waterproofing. This is the domain of the dry bag. These are specialized bags and backpacks designed for use in water like in paddling sports, where complete immersion in water must be accounted for. 

Dry bags are typically made from very heavy duty PVC and polyester with a roll-top closure, which create a dependably dry interior for whatever fits inside. While pack covers and liner bags are waterproofing additions to backpacks, a proper dry bag like the NRS Bill’s Bag are more like a waterproof sack with additions to mimic a backpack. 

These are not what you’d carry on a backpacking trip, as they are not made for carrying comfort, but they will keep things dry better than any alternative and are great options for car camping or paddling trips where you want durable waterproofing and won’t be carrying them on your back for extended periods. 


Opinion: How to Handle the Flood of New Backcountry Users

It should come as no surprise that there are more people than ever who are exploring the outdoors and recreating in new places. It has been the work of outdoor companies, guiding outfits, educational programs, and town recreation departments (just to name a few players) to get people outside for decades. The result? More and more people have been encouraged to “escape to the wilderness” and pursue a healthier lifestyle among the trees and mountains. But the fact that this romantic and well-intentioned message has truly taken hold of us inevitably means it’s taken hold of others and we’re all escaping to the same getaways. 

Social media, the Covid-19 pandemic, and unprecedented access to recreational spaces have all converged to push more people outdoors. By now we’ve all noticed how parking lots are full, there are lines for popular climbs, and it might feel harder to be alone outdoors. Not to mention the risk to our “secret spots.” So, what should we do?

But the fact that this romantic and well-intentioned message has truly taken hold of us inevitably means it’s taken hold of others and we’re all escaping to the same getaways. 

Let’s start by talking about what we shouldn’t do. Outdoor activities, especially adventure sports, have a long history and pervasive reputation of elitism, gatekeeping, and hiding a disdain for competition of space behind an open-armed welcome message. Outdoor athletes and recreationists are not bad people, but they understand a notion that was aptly put by rock climbing pioneer Royal Robbins decades ago, “a simple equation exists between freedom and numbers: the more people the less freedom.” 

Isn’t that a big reason why we like going out into the wilder places? I can get a lot more skiing in if I go to a resort, or a lot of climbing in at a gym, so why make the effort to hike for hours for a couple ski runs? Or a few pitches of climbing? There’s a lot to unpack there, but it’s a question to keep in mind as we think about how we might treat the new wave of outdoor users, and the changing landscape of the places we’re used to having to ourselves. 

Let’s all remember when we were first starting out. We were all newbies at one point or another, and everyone needs experience to learn. How do you gain experience? Get out and make mistakes, figure it out, and get some mileage in, maybe with a mentor or a group of peers. With more beginners venturing out of their comfort zones and into the woods than ever, there is no reason for us to make their journey harder by being judgmental, alienating, or protective over places that aren’t ours. It’s not your terrain. 

I’m a New Englander, and recognize my own aversion to sunny, cheerful salutations to everyone I pass, but it’s not hard to be a kind person, or at least to pretend to be one for a moment. Look out for each other! If something is obviously unsafe or needlessly risky, say something. On the other side of the coin, it’s no fun to be patronized. I know that I wouldn’t appreciate a stranger accosting me for not taking the Ten Essentials on a Sherburne lap, or reminding me how “steep the trail is up there.” Somewhere on the spectrum between the crusty curmudgeon and the mansplainer there is a happy space for a real peach of a neighbor. 

The other bird that tends to get the worms is the one that goes someplace else. Meaning having a plan B, C, and D can save the day if you show up to a feeding frenzy.

So what do we do now?

The early bird gets the worm. No matter what “the worm” is to you, you’re more likely to get it if you show up before anyone else. Depending what you’re going for, that might be pretty darn early. The other bird that tends to get the worms is the one that goes someplace else. Meaning having a plan B, C, and D can save the day if you show up to a feeding frenzy. Keep in mind that there has been a documented rise in accidents that seems to stem from this dispersion of users into less familiar and more remote terrain. This is certainly not advice to get in over your head if your favorite local spot is a little busy, so remember your limits, and also remember that the mountains aren’t going anywhere. 

That being said, one thing that won’t be around for long is our pristine wilderness. The great environmental bummer of our time is our impact on the places we love and profess to care about. Far worse than any complaint of having neighbors at the crag is how we are disfiguring and destroying our valuable natural spaces, and at an alarming rate. One thing that we can be sure of is that the number of people getting out into the woods will only increase, and that the variables we can control have nothing to do with who is using the outdoors. Here is an opportunity to remembering share—Leave No Trace principles, to model good stewardship, and to help out our community and conservation programs in maintaining sustainable use of our crags, trails, and parks. Don’t just let someone else take care of it, because if we all assume that someone else will care for the outdoors, then there will be nothing left to enjoy. Donate some cash, volunteer some time, and be a part of the solution. 

Now might be a time to start thinking about where the outdoor recreation world is heading, how it’s evolving, and how our activities might need to evolve as well. We no longer live in a world where “because that’s how it always was” is helpful or meaningful when it comes to our adventure sports. The conversation instead should be open to anyone, constantly in motion, and working towards protecting the land and the communities that we all depend on. 

Credit: Tim Peck

How to Stay Warm While Winter Backpacking

Getting and staying warm is often the crux of a winter backpacking adventure. Do it right and sleeping outside in the off-season can actually be enjoyable: A change of scenery spices up even your most familiar campsites, not to mention you have the option to mix in skiing and other winter sports into your overnight. But do it wrong and you’ll be miserable or unsafe. Keeping comfortable while winter camping is a practiced skill that can take a lot of trial and error, specialized gear, and long-perfected personal techniques, but a couple simple rules and an understanding of how we get cold can go a long way to making your winter excursions memorable (for the right reasons).

What makes you cold?

Understanding how to get and stay warm starts by understanding how we cool, and not all situations are alike. You probably learned a lot of these terms in science class, but how do they apply to adventuring outside?

Radiation: The ongoing transfer of heat from your body to its surroundings. The heat’s got to go somewhere, otherwise we’d cook ourselves! The colder the environment, the more quickly this effect takes place, or so physics would tell us.

Convection: The acceleration of radiation by wind. This is the culprit behind the idea of wind chill, as the moving air is stealing away our heat. The faster the wind, the greater the effect.

Conduction: The loss of heat through direct contact with cold objects. You notice very quickly which things are better conductors of heat when you touch a cold fuel bottle or a foam pad. The more effectively an object conducts heat, the faster it will draw heat from you. 

Evaporation: We see this process everywhere: Things dry, and as they do they become cooler. Again, more physics at work here. This is the reason why we sweat (thermoregulation), and the reason why staying dry in the winter is critical for staying warm. 

These mechanisms are always in motion in our everyday lives, whether we pay attention or not. When we transition to a backpacking environment, we tend to realize in painful clarity how our fur-less, (mostly) blubber-less, soft and delicate bodies are not adapted to living out in the cold and snow. The trick to surviving and enjoying your winter excursions is to get warm and to stay warm.

How to Get Warm

You can’t stay warm if you aren’t warm to begin with, so finding ways to heat yourself up is a critical place to start for winter camping.

Movement

The quickest way to get warm is to get moving. In order to do anything physically, we need to burn calories, and this burning of our body’s fuel can create massive warmth. Use caution though: Working too hard will make you sweaty (read: freezing as soon as you stop) and can exhaust you, which also works against your ability to stay warm.  

Nutrition

The body is an incredible machine that turns food into energy, and subsequently, warmth. We are operating a biological furnace, and in order to keep the fire stoked we need to continually add fuel by consuming calories from food. Getting enough calories in the winter is a full time job, but it means you can eat all the comfort food that you keep yourself from eating the rest of the year (chili mac with a cheese spoon anyone?). There are helpful calculators to help determine how many calories you need to keep going in the winter, like this Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator. You can expect to take in more than twice your normal daily BMR for a successful winter camping mission, depending on how hard you’re working and how cold it is. 

Enter the Macronutrient

The name may not be familiar, but we know these as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, seen in bold print on your nutrition labels. Each are important to a healthy diet, especially for doing something active like backpacking. There is a lot of science behind the roles of these “macros,” but instead of going off the deep end we can over-simplify to focus on creating warmth. Largely speaking, protein doesn’t do a whole lot for warmth, although it plays an important role in muscle recovery. For carbs and fat, it can help to think of building a fire. You start with quick-burning kindling (carbs) to get started, then you can add larger sticks and logs (fat) to keep the fire burning hot.

Hydration

It can be difficult to motivate to drink enough when it’s cold outside, because your water is probably cold too, and it feels counterproductive to ingest more cold stuff. However, proper hydration is almost as important as adequate nutrition for keeping your body producing heat efficiently. 

Artificial Heat

When your puffy jacket and peanut butter can’t get your temperature up, you may need artificial warming, including chemical warmers, your camp stove, and fire. These are indispensable resources for getting warm, especially when you no longer can on your own. Keep a few handwarmers “on-hand” and always bring materials with which you can start a fire in addition to your stove.

How to Stay Warm

Nights spent winter camping are long and cold. Once you’ve spent all day hiking and eating to get warm, holding onto that heat is critical to getting a good night’s sleep and staying comfortably safe as the temps dip even more after dark.

Clothing

The fundamental and often misunderstood role of clothing is not to make you warm, but instead to keep you warm. Clothing itself does nothing to produce heat (except for those fancy modern heated socks and gloves). The reason we can use layers of clothes to stay warm is because they trap warm air and prevent it from escaping, thus insulating us from those mechanisms of heat loss. 

You can’t wear your warmest layers all the time, otherwise you’ll sweat through them and the trip will be over. Knowing how and when to use your layers is its own discussion entirely, but just remember when you’re moving and getting warm, you don’t need as many layers, and when you’re not moving it’s time to put on the layers to trap your heat.

A layering system is only as effective as the materials that make it up. There is no good reason to wear cotton in the winter (cotton kills, as they say), because once it gets wet it loses all insulating qualities, and takes forever to dry out. Be careful, as the same thing is true for down insulation, even though it it the most effective insulator by weight when it is dry. 

A warm puffy jacket is great but you’ll still get cold if there are sneaky exposed areas elsewhere: your head, neck, wrists, and your plumber’s crack will all act as heat loss sinks. Make sure to cover up everything to keep a tight warmth seal, and tuck your shirts into your pants to avoid those nasty gusts.

Footwear

You can have the highest-performing layers money can buy, and still end up cold if your footwear is lacking. Anyone who’s stood in the snow for any length of time will tell you how cold it is, and this is because of how quickly conduction works to move heat from your body into the ground. Using adequate boots, meaning insulated, supportive, water-resistant, and not too tight, is one of the most important practices for having an enjoyable backpacking trip in the winter.

Shelter

Now that you have good winter boots and warm clothing, you will probably need some sort of shelter to keep out of the weather overnight. Having a good shelter is yet another critical piece of the puzzle to staying warm while out for multiple days. 

The ways that shelters help keep you warm are mainly these: They will trap radiative heat and allow the interior air space to stay warmer, and they will block wind and precipitation, keeping you dry and away from convective currents. 

There are certainly many types of shelter out there, from the simple tarp to an expedition tent, bivouac bags to snow quinzhees, there is something for each winter outing. The trick is to learn what each option provides (or doesn’t) and understand what you need it to do for you while you’re out.

How to Sleep Warm

We spend a lot of time sleeping, and rest is important for success in the backcountry. If we can’t sleep well, then it’s hard to do anything. Sleeping warm is crucial for proper recovery, and while you may not sleep through the whole night, here are some tips to help maximize your Z’s:

  • Start warm: As with clothing, a sleeping bag only insulates. When you first get in, do some sit-ups or leg raises to warm it up, and chuck a (tightly sealed) hot water bottle in there as well. 
  • Sleep with snacks: Fats, sugars, easy things that aren’t too messy. Make sure it’s something that won’t freeze solid. I keep a Snickers bar or two in my hat for a midnight pick-me-up.
  • There are few things more pleasant than changing into dry “pajamas” for bedtime, especially the “vampire socks,” so called because they never leave the darkness of the sleeping bag. Bring enough layers to always have something dry to sleep in.
  • As always, staying hydrated is paramount to an efficient metabolism. Keep taking in fluids, especially warm drinks or soup to get nice and toasty. But be mindful of the byproduct.
  • I know it’s cold outside but you’re not going to sleep well if you hold it, I promise. If it’s too rugged outside to consider venturing out, become a pee-bottle practitioner (practice at home before you ruin your sleeping bag). 

How Can RECCO Save Your Life?

RECCO is a type of avalanche rescue technology, originally from Sweden, used by professional rescuers to locate buried avalanche victims. The idea behind RECCO was born after an avalanche accident in Sweden in 1973. Magnus Granhed, its future founder, was one of the rescuers involved in the accident response. He felt limited with the current technology and techniques at their disposal when they were unable to rescue the buried skiers. The avalanche rescue community needed something that could more effectively locate avalanche victims and, since nothing existed, Granhed took the innovation into his own hands with RECCO.

Over the next four and a half decades, there came several iterations of the RECCO detectors that are used today. From the first prototype phase in the late 1970s, to the first commercially available and clothing integrated reflectors in the ‘80s, to handheld tech and helicopter-mounted search capabilities in the 21st Century, RECCO technology has evolved into a valuable asset in search and rescue operations. 

How does it work?

RECCO detectors send out directional radar signals, which are then reflected back to the detector after hitting a special RECCO reflector. The return of the reflected signal cues the operator to close in on where the reflected signal is coming from. These reflectors are made to only be picked up by the detecting instruments, allowing them to be distinguished from other buried debris or objects that aren’t avalanche victims. 

It is important not to confuse a RECCO detector with an avalanche transceiver, or any other frequency device on the market. While the applications and technology are similar, transceivers and RECCO detectors are still very different tools, and should be treated as such. An avalanche transceiver will not locate a RECCO reflector. However, the more modern handheld RECCO detectors will pick up 457 kHz signals (the universal avalanche transceiver frequency) in addition to the normal operative frequencies, which adds another layer of search capabilities for the rescuer.

There are two varieties of RECCO detectors that you may see in use: a handheld device that is operated by a rescuer on the ground, and a larger, helicopter-carried detector for larger-scale search areas. These both work the same way, just on different scales.

Who uses RECCO?

RECCO systems were developed to be used by professional rescuers, primarily search and rescue and ski patrol teams. In fact, it’s impossible to get your hands on these systems unless you are a professional. In a way, anyone wearing a RECCO reflector is a user of the technology, however since the reflectors are passive it is not quite a fair comparison. 

Where we can find it?

We are most likely to encounter RECCO technology in clothing and other gear with sewn in RECCO reflectors. Seeing reflectors in outerwear is becoming more commonplace, although they been found in clothing and ski boots since the 1980s. EMS’s Nor’Easter Ski Jackets (men’s/women’s) and Squall Shell Pants (men’s/women’s) are the latest to include a built-in RECCO reflector. 

There are a couple of search and rescue organizations around New England that have handheld detectors, including Stowe Mountain Rescue, White Mountain National Forest, as well as the Lake Placid Forest Rangers. Mont Tremblant in Quebec also has RECCO search capabilities, but any other detectors in the US are found to the west of the Mississippi. For a full list and map of organizations with RECCO detectors around the world, go here.

Courtesy: RECCO

What can’t it do?

Being a two-part system, the RECCO detectors and reflectors are designed to work together, so without a RECCO reflector, you’ll be nearly impossible to find with the technology. While you will be harder to find, rescuers have noted instances where they have been able to pick up avalanche transceivers, cell phones, and other electronics, albeit with a much weaker signal. 

Whether or not a victim has RECCO reflectors, a detector still has a limits to the range that it can pick up a returning signal. The handheld detectors can pick up reflectors up to 120 meters away above ground, and can be limited to 10 meters through packed snow (Mount Washington averages 7 meters in a whole year), so that is less of a limitation around New England. Helicopter systems have a larger search area; RECCO touts the ability to search one square kilometer in six minutes.

And again, RECCO isn’t a viable solution for most backcountry skiers. It’s much more feasible for everyone in a backcountry group to carry a traditional avalanche transceiver than is it a handheld RECCO receiver. But in-bounds, where carrying an expensive transceiver isn’t typical, cheap RECCO reflectors embedded into jackets, pants, ski boots, helmets and more, can make skiers easy to find in the event of an avalanche.

Courtesy: RECCO

Bottom line.

So what do we know about RECCO? When it’s available, it can be a tremendous asset for rescuers to locate buried avalanche victims, although it cannot be counted on to save lives where detectors are sparse, and is certainly not a replacement for existing best practices in avalanche safety. RECCO is a supplement to current rescue techniques including transceiver searches, probe lines, and trained dog teams, and has been shown to improve victim location times. 

The avalanche community is still experiencing a lot of growth in the rescue tools available to professionals, and as RECCO technology improves with everything else hopefully we may see a shift from what is considered to be a body recovery tool to even more of a live rescue asset. 

It is worth researching where RECCO systems are in use, and maybe more importantly where they are unavailable, before traveling into a certain area. Additionally, with the infusion of clothing and gear with integrated RECCO reflectors into the larger outdoor market we have unprecedented access to cheap and simple tools that may increase our chances of being found if buried under snow.


How to Choose Sleeping Pads

Tents keep you dry. Sleeping bags keep you warm. It’s easy to give the love to other parts of your backcountry sleep system. Sleeping pads, as far as many people believe, just add some comfort. In reality, they’re as critical to keeping you warm and comfortable as your sleeping bag: Without a good sleeping pad, not only could you be kept awake by the rocks and roots underneath you, but you’ll be missing insulation from the ground and getting cold quickly, and likely not getting a good night’s sleep.

But with the number of sleeping pads of different types, sizes, warmths, materials, widths, and more, it can be hard to know where to start in picking the right one.

Knowing how or where you’ll be using your sleeping pad is the first step. For example, a great pad for car camping may not be great for long backpacking trips, and your ultralight air pad may not be enough for winter expeditions. Think about where you’ll be using your pad, as well as what you’ll be doing when you’re there. Keeping these thoughts in mind will not only lead to more effective pad choices, but will also allow you to use your pad to its full potential.

GO: Shop For Sleeping Pads

Credit: Lauren Danilek

What Are Sleeping Pads Made Of?

The first fork in the road to choosing the best pad for you comes with the decision between the two main categories of sleeping pads: foam or inflatable. There are pro’s and con’s to each category, and there is not necessarily one best option, although each has its superior applications.

Foam

Foam pads, generally closed-cell foam (which provides better structure and support than open-cell) are the simplest, least expensive part of a sleep system. They are foolproof to use, naturally lightweight, and practically indestructible, making foam a reliable and time-tested asset to a weary camper. They’re also highly effective insulators from the ground.

These pads are not typically made very thick to save on weight and bulk, and as such do not always provide the “sleeping-on-a-cloud” feeling that one desires after a hard day, but that does not mean that a foam pad is not comfortable, especially when you’re roughing it out in the wilderness. Because they only roll or fold up rather than deflate, they also don’t pack particularly small and are generally kept on the outside of a backpack.

Foam pads are popular in winter settings, doubling up with an air pads, as well as for backpackers or thru-hikers who need the ultimate in durability and reliability, as well as a light weight

Inflatable

The more high-tech alternative to foam pads are the inflatables—light, packable, and increasingly comfortable, these sleeping pads offer a lot to any camper, especially for backpackers and people looking to limit backpack size. A far cry from the air mattress you’d find in a friend’s guest room, modern inflatable pads are getting smaller, lighter, and tougher than ever before. These can actually be broken down into two more categories: self-inflating and air pads.

Self-inflating pads use a clever membrane of open-cell foam inside the pad that will enable it to expand and fill with air all on its own, assuming the valve is open. This generally will get you most of the way, then you may still want to top it off with a couple breaths for more support. The extra foam layer means that these can be slightly warmer than air pads, and they’re obviously easier to set up, but aren’t as packable.

Self-inflating pads are popular for shorter overnights or car camping where size and packability isn’t as much of an issue.

Air pads are essentially just a bag with a valve, and must be inflated by mouth, or increasingly commonly, with a separate inflating bad. These are the lighter option and often more comfortable because of the generally thicker inflated size, and they pack down smaller to boot.

Air pads are the bread and butter of backpackers, packing small and adding exceptional comfort and insulation.

Inflatable sleeping pads of any type can offer exceptional weight savings and surprising comfort, albeit at a higher cost. Of course, the possibility of puncturing an inflatable pad is an important factor as well—they’re much easier to damage than a foam pad. So make sure you know how to field-repair an air pad (it’s not hard).

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Sizing

Most sleeping pads come in a length enough to fit an adult, head to toe, but there may also be options for short or long pads, or even pads in different widths. Look at the size options of that specific pad—they may be different from model to model or brand to brand.

Regardless of your height, there may be cases where using a full-size sleeping pad is not exactly what you’re looking for. Particularly in ultralight applications like thru-hiking and alpinism, where every gram counts and pack space is at a premium, some users find that smaller pads, some creativity, and a little sacrifice of comfort can pay off for performance and weight savings.

Sleeping in the Cold

The winter is objectively the hardest time to camp comfortably. Cold conditions and a frozen sleeping surface make for rapid heat loss. Having an effective sleep system is crucial for winter camping (as well as the chilly shoulder seasons) to not only stay safe, but also to enjoy the experience. As for sleeping pads, the more insulation the better, and that often means bigger, or simply more pads. Sleeping pad insulation can either come inherently from the foam making it up, larger air chambers, or even a layer of synthetic insulation not unlike what you would find in a winter jacket on the inside of the pad.

What buyers need to look for in effective cold-weather pads is the associated R-value of the pad. This is the metric used to measure thermal resistance, in other words how well a material insulates. Read lots more about the R-value here, but remember that higher numbers mean better insulation. R-values are also additive, so you can combine two pads (for example, a foam pad and an air pad) to increase the insulation.

Use this chart to get a general sense of the recommended R-value of the sleeping pad you should use for each season:

  • Summer: 1+
  • 3-Season: 2+
  • Winter: 3+
  • Extreme Cold: 5+

Also keep in mind that sleeping pad temperature ratings assume you’re using a sleeping pad with an R-value of 5.4. If you’re sleeping bag is rated to 30 degrees but your sleeping pad only has an R-value of 3, you’ll likely be colder than you would expect.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Stuff Sacks and Inflators

Today, the stuff sacks of numerous sleeping pads serve double duty as an inflation bad. A single puff into it can be the equivalent of 10 if you were simply blowing into the valve, allowing you to blow up the pad quicker, easier, and without using all your breath. If a sleeping pad doesn’t come with an inflator, they make worthwhile accessories.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Valves

Take a look at the valve on the sleeping pad you’re considering purchasing. Some use a simple twist-closure which allow you to inflate the pad then quickly spin the valve to seal it off. Others use convenient one-way valves which let you blow in and catch your breath without worrying about the air escaping. A secondary opening that bypasses the one-way valve deflates the pad quickly when it’s time to pack up. Pay attention to how easy the pad is to inflate, deflate, and even how easy it is to let out small amounts of air, customizing the firmness when you lay down at night.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Durability

Balancing a sleeping pad’s lightweight and packability, and its durability can be a tough compromise. Pay attention to the denier of the material making up a sleeping pad: Higher numbers mean greater durability. Weigh this against the weight and packed size of the sleeping pads. If you’re someone who cowboy camps a lot, placing your pad directly on the ground, or is generally rougher on your gear, you may want to sacrifice and bring something a little heavier but more durable. If you’re careful with your gear and plan to sleep in a tent, you might be able to get away with something a little lighter but less durable.

Maintaining your sleeping pad is simple and easy most of the time. With regular use, wiping down dirt and letting pads dry out completely after using is almost all that needs to be done.


Is Your Climbing Gear Safe? How To Inspect It And When To Know to Retire It

Inspecting climbing gear is the best way to ensure that it still works properly and is safe to use. Making gear inspection a regular, ongoing part of your routine is important for your safety and that of your climbing partners, as the consequences of gear failing due to inattention to issues can be fatal. You need the utmost trust in your climbing equipment, and it needs to perform every time it’s used. 

Below are some tips on how to inspect common climbing gear, and what to look for when retiring a piece. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out to your local EMS Climbing School.

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

Wires and Cables

Found in protection like nuts, cams, and some hexes. Check the entire length of cable, carefully feeling for frays or damage. Kinks are not necessarily bad, but can interfere with function, making protection harder to place effectively. Check that a kink is not hiding a tear in the cable. Frayed cables indicate a piece ready for retirement, except in very minor cases, but make sure that any tiny frays won’t be hooking on slings or rope. 

Carabiners

Inspect the body of the carabiner, looking and feeling for cracks, burrs, and wear grooves. Check the action of the gate, as well as locking features if your carabiner has any. Any moving parts that become sticky or slow can be cleaned in hot water and lubricated with dry lubricant like what Metolius sells. Once a groove gets deeper than 10 percent of the carabiner’s thickness or develops an edge, it’s time to retire. As for the fabled “microfractures,” extensive break testing has disproved the concept in modern metal pieces, but if you have any doubts, retire the piece. 

Belay Devices

There are so many vastly different belay devices that we will keep it general here. As with carabiners, look over and feel the entire device, and pay special attention to the area(s) of the device that handles the rope. Pay attention to different materials, and actuate any parts that are meant to move. Check with manufacturers’ specifications. If any sharp edges or deep grooves form, then the device should be retired. 

Cams

Check the lobes for cracks or deformation. Inspect the axle(s) and the rest of the cam head, then go down the stem and look for deformation in the plastic casing or in the exposed cables, depending on the device. Check that the trigger still works, and that the trigger wires are intact (slight fraying can be acceptable here) and if not, you can buy replacements for some models. If your cam has a thumb-loop, check the integrity of the casing and shape of the loop. Finally examine the sling for any signs of damage (more on slings below). Actuate the cam plenty of times and observe how each part is working, and look, listen, and feel for anything out of the ordinary. If the action of the cam sticks or feels slow, or if the head is dirty, try cleaning the cam in hot water and lubricating the axles (Metolius lube is best). If cam slings are worn or questionable, you can get them reslung by one of several companies, including Black Diamond, Metolius (both will mend their own cams only), Mountain Tools, and the local Ragged Mountain Equipment (both work on a variety of gear). 

Credit: Sean Coit
Credit: Sean Coit

Rope

Start at one end, and using one hand, pull the rope slowly through a thumb and finger of the other hand (pinched on the rope) to feel for anything out of the ordinary while you are looking for discolored spots, fraying, or the dreaded “core shot.” Feel for lumps, flat spots, and irregular stiffness as you go. If you come across a questionable area, pinch the rope at this point, making a tight bend or bight. A healthy rope when bent will make a tight circular shape, and if you find a sharp bend or pinch, you’ve found a core shot. Core shots generally mean retiring the rope, although if close enough (within a meter or two) to the ends of the rope a core shot can be cut off. If you are cutting your rope remember that any marked midpoint is now inaccurate, and your rope is shorter than you’re used to. Fuzzy ropes are not necessarily done for, but it can be a tricky judgment call to gauge how much fuzz is too much, so pay attention to manufacturers’ lifespan recommendations as well as the performance of the rope. If you are ever unsure about a damage spot or excessive wear, seek qualified opinions as every case is different. 

Slings and Cord

Like the rope inspection, use your fingers to feel as you visually inspect. Check for fraying, tears, melted spots, and discoloration, and feel for stiffness or softness. Be especially wary of certain areas like stitching or bar-tacks where a loop is joined, or sewn ends on a piece of cord, as well as areas that are normally covered or bent in the same place (both are applicable in cams). It is a good idea to untie any knots that you have tied when inspecting softgoods, as melting and wear can occur inside of a knot without being visible. 

Rock Climbing

Helmets

The most important thing to check is the structural integrity of the helmet, by looking and feeling for cracks, dents, or other deformations all over the outside and inside of the protective parts of the helmet. Take any liners out while doing this, and it is worth noting that stickers or decorations on the outside of the helmet can make finding potential issues more difficult. Small dings in the helmet may not be a big deal, but even minor impacts can affect the strength of the helmet over time. Any large deformities or cracks warrant retiring. When checking the harness of the helmet, inspect the webbing as you would any other cord, and test the closure. Check any plastic parts for fatigue or cracks. 

Harness

Inspections for metal and textile parts are the same as above. Check for fraying or blown stitching throughout the harness as well as wear in the tie in points and belay loop. Make sure buckles are free of sharp spots and not deformed. If there is any doubt about the integrity of the harness it should be retired. 

Shoes

Climbing shoes primarily get retired or serviced due to performance concerns, and while not always the case, this  could even affect the safety of the climber. Luckily, you don’t need a new pair of shoes every time one pair is worn out, and can get your shoes resoled for quite a bit less. Once the sole starts to wear through to the rand, it’s time for a resole. If you can see your toe through the rand then you need a new rand as well, but resole shops can mend both the rand and sole. The best local shops are New England reSoul in Newfields, NH and Plattsburgh Shoe Hospital in Peru, NY. 


How to Choose Your Avalanche Safety Kit

There is nothing quite like the feeling of skiing fresh, untracked snow out in the wilderness after hours of hiking and toil, with no crowds or civilization in sight. This is the bliss of backcountry skiing, and while there are countless reasons why it is great, there are also considerations to be made in order to manage the increased risk of travel in potential avalanche terrain. Avalanches are serious hazards, and each year more and more accidents occur as more people venture out away from resorts into uncontrolled terrain.

Anyone who travels in avalanche terrain should consider taking avalanche equipment with them. This is not just limited to skiers and snowboarders, but any sort of users that find themselves in these areas. It is important that you have the proper equipment, not just to manage risk for yourself and your party, but also in case another person or group needs help.

The avalanche safety kit may have many pieces, all of which warrant discussion, but there are a universal three: a transceiver, a shovel, and a probe.

This article is by no means a replacement for instruction or education concerning avalanche rescue. Seek qualified instruction and training! Buying and having this equipment is one thing, but being able to use it correctly and effectively is entirely another.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Transceivers

Your avalanche transceiver (also known as a beacon) is the most complex, varied, and expensive part of your avalanche kit. It is essentially a small two-way radio transmitter that works by generating signal pulses, which can be picked up by other transceivers in a different mode. The beacons have a handful of methods to lead rescuers to a buried victim. Generally, these are slightly smaller than your average PB&J sandwich and are carried either in a harness close to the chest or in specific “beacon pockets” that can be found in some ski and climbing apparel. Transceivers have been around since the 1960s, and decades of research and refinement make us lucky to have these advanced tools at our disposal. All transceivers on the market use a common signal frequency (457kHz), so no matter which model or brand you go with, every device is compatible with every other device.

Almost all avalanche transceivers on the market today (excluding some outliers) are three-antenna transceivers. Historically, transceivers have used two or even one antenna, and these are now defunct. Having two or fewer means that in certain orientations, the signal from a buried person’s beacon would not be intercepted by rescuers. Use caution if buying older transceivers, and make sure to check each unit.

Digital vs. Analog

These days, most transceivers on the market are digital, meaning they use a microprocessor to interpret incoming signals. This means the display is updated more quickly when searching for a signal. Analog transceivers are the original technology, and while the search range can be greater, these are more difficult to use. Some models are able to use both technologies in conjunction depending on the situation. Generally, transceivers in today’s market have quite varied effective ranges, generally between 40 and 70 meters, depending on brand and the technology that they use. The longer a beacon’s range, the further away from a victim you can be before beginning to pick up their signal, making searches faster and easier.

Features

There are many helpful features available on modern avalanche transceivers, without being simply bells and whistles. Most commonly you’ll find directional indicators on an LCD screen on the device, to be used in addition to auditory signals. These displays look different for each transceiver, so take time to find one that makes sense to you and learn how to read it quickly. Generally you will see a combination of directional arrows and distance in meters, both designed to help you narrow in on the buried beacon. Another common feature is a “flagging” feature, which in multiple-burial situations (when you’re looking for more than one person) allows you to intentionally block the signal from a victim that you have already found, to focus your device on the other buried transceiver. Different manufacturers also build in some of their own features to devices, like Bluetooth capabilities.

Pricing

As mentioned above, avalanche transceivers are the most expensive piece of the kit. Prices vary from around $250 to $500, accounting for differences in features and performance. While not every user needs the top of the line beacon, these are one life-saving piece of gear and are always money well spent. Have a good one that you trust with you or a friend’s life.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Shovel

While it may benefit you to shave weight in other places in your kit, your shovel should be able to handle whatever you throw at it without failing. You will be shoveling like a mad person in a rescue, and worrying about your shovel’s durability shouldn’t be on your mind.

Materials

Avalanche shovels can be found using steel, aluminum, and plastic in their construction. In general, the shaft of the shovel will be aluminum, the handle will be plastic, and the blade should be metal. Plastic blades, while being the lightest option and may be good for digging out your car or building a snow fort, is much more likely to break when chopping and moving avalanche debris, and should be avoided in the backcountry.

The size of the blade will also affect how the shovel performs: A larger blade means you can move more snow at one time; However, it will be harder to fit into a backpack. The blades on the market have slightly different shapes to them, and it’s worth investigating what you like.

Handle

There are a variety of shovel handles out there, including D-grip, T-grip, and L-grip. There are pros and cons with each type.

The D-grip is your classic shovel handle like you’d find on a driveway shovel. These give you the best grip and offer the best leverage for using the shovel, especially with big gloves or mittens. However, it is larger, and also possible to break off the handle (being plastic).

The T-grip is very popular as well. It is simple, low profile, and very hard to break, although using it with mittens is trickier.

The L-grip and other special case handles you may find are less popular, but the L-grip will perform similarly to the T-grip, with a little more to hold onto. Try out a couple different types (with gloves/mittens) to see what you like.

Shaft

Shovels these days are pretty similar across the board when it comes to the shaft. In general, you’ll have an aluminum construction, with an extendable, telescoping adjustment. The shape of the shaft (round, rectangular, etc.) is more of a personal preference than anything. You will come across shovels with fixed or removable shafts, meaning you can or cannot separate the blade from the shaft and handle. Fixed construction is stronger, but a separating shovel will fit into a smaller package. Longer shafts will mean more leverage and perhaps increased performance, but it will be harder to fit in your backpack as well.

Features

Some shovels have extra features that can be rather helpful as well, but keep it simple! There are a couple models out that allow you to change the orientation of the shaft and blade from a “shovel” mode into a “hoe” mode, which can be quite helpful when used correctly. Some of these have extra little handles close to the blade for bonus control.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Probe

The avalanche probe is used primarily for finding your buried person once you’ve narrowed in your transceiver search. These are all pretty simple and light, but be careful that yours will hold up to the rigors of use, and practice deploying and using your probe plenty before you need it.

Materials

Probes on the market will almost exclusively be either made of aluminum or carbon fiber, although steel probes can be found as well. The latter tend to only be used by professionals because of how robust steel is. For the layperson, aluminum is the most popular given its balance of weight and durability (and price). Carbon fiber is the lightest, saved for the gram-counting high-end athletes. Carbon fiber can splinter and break so one should use caution if using a carbon probe.

Length

Avalanche probes are available in a plethora of sizes, ranging from 2 to more than 3 meters in length, and tend to be measured in centimeters. Common sizes include 240, 280, and 320cm. The size you want depends on where you are and the size of the snowpack you’re operating in. In the Northeast, you will almost never need a 320cm probe, as this area simply doesn’t get that amount of snow. If you were traveling in the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia, 240cm may not be sufficient, as they have very deep snowpacks. It’s best to study up on where you will be going to educate your decision.

Features

Probes are simple pieces of gear in general, but there are still small differences that can feel important to certain users. Some probes have printed-on graduations, which can be bright and obvious at first, but later may fade or be worn off from use. Other manufacturers have started laser engraving the graduations to eliminate that problem, at a higher cost. The most variable feature of probes on the market will be the lockout mechanism. This can be a mechanical lock, a special tie-off, or some plastic snaps. Find something that couldn’t loosen itself when in use and it easy for you to use.

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Additional Avalanche Gear

While the beacon, shovel, an probe make up the essential triad of avalanche safety and are the three items you should always have when traveling in avalanche terrain, there are other items that can play a key role in snow and avalanche safety that might also be a good idea to think about purchasing and bringing along.

RECCO

This technology works by using a detecting device to send out a concentrated radio signal until a separate reflector bounces the signal back to the detector when hit. These reflectors are woven into various pieces of outerwear and other gear. A rescuer using the detector can locate a buried person wearing RECCO reflectors similarly to a transceiver search. Something to note is that RECCO detectors are large and very expensive, meaning they are almost exclusively used by ski patrollers in resorts, or from helicopters, and therefore should never be relied upon in place of an avalanche transceiver, but can be a nice feature for inbounds skiers.

Airbag

Avalanche airbag systems are a newer player in the game, and have proven to be valuable if you’re caught in a slide. They work by keeping you closer to the surface of an avalanche once inflated, which hopefully means you either get found sooner or are only partially buried. They come with special backpacks or can be attached to specific backpack models. These systems are very expensive, sometimes hard to travel with, and manufacturers are still ironing out all the details.

Courtesy: Backcountry Access
Courtesy: Backcountry Access

Avalung

Another crafty piece of avalanche tech, the Black Diamond Avalung system, has been proven to significantly extend the amount of time you can breathe while buried in snow. It is basically a snorkel that allows you to inhale oxygen from in front of your face and exhale carbon dioxide from your back. The downside is that per manufacturer’s specifications, you should already have it in your mouth when an avalanche occurs (Because you may not be able to find it while being carried, and once the avalanche is over, it’s likely impossible to get it in your mouth), and it can be quite cumbersome.

Communication

In any emergency, it is crucial to have the option of calling for help if you need to. This becomes increasingly difficult in the backcountry, where most avalanches occur, so the communication systems that you use must be an integral part of your rescue kit. While cell phone service may be available in many remote places these days, it cannot be entirely relied upon. This is where special devices such as the Garmin inReach come into play. Radios and satellite phones can also be helpful when used correctly. Do your research on what kind of device fits your needs, and become an adept user before you need to.

Helmet

A large number of avalanche injuries and fatalities, especially in places like the Northeast which has a thinner snowpack, are trauma-based injuries. A simple ski helmet may be one of the biggest life-savers if you’re ever caught in an avalanche.

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