12.07.11

Travel gear reviews: wash me often?

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

I, um, lost my old waterproof, breathable shell. I left it on the back of a chair in a restaurant in Germany and when I returned a few hours later, there was no sign of it and no one had turned it in. It had always worked well, but even if I claim I’m a gear aficionado, I am also a bargain hunter who is often swayed more by how good a deal something is than whether it’s the perfect piece of gear. That last jacket was a two-and-a-half layer (a bit more on that later) waterproof from Mountain Hardware called Conduit. It always worked great, but I had bought the jacket at clearance for half off (remember, waterproof, breathable shells can cost upwards of $300, so half off is a load of money) and it had these weird, narrow, sleeves meant to stay out of the way when climbing. Wear a bulky fleece (or maybe even a primaloft jacket) underneath and you could feel like you couldn’t move your arms. So, actually, finding a new one wasn’t really a bad thing.

Apparently, I haven’t learned my lesson, because the jacket I wound up with was chosen at least as much thanks to its close-out clearance price as it was because it met my criteria. I wanted a tough shell, not too heavy, helmet-sized hood, and pockets above a backpack waste belt. I didn’t want anything else, including all the crazy features and ideas that some pieces of gear which seem to have been designed more by clever marketers than people who actually use the gear.

This jacket’s big change, though, was e-vent waterproof breathable fabric. Start looking for a shell and you’ll quickly see Gore-Tex and then dozens of other materials. Gore-Tex subdivides into a high-end XCR and a less breathable, much lighter Packlite. Most of the rest are so-called 2-layer (or 2 ½ layer) which bond some form of poly-urethane to some nylon. E-vent is a 3-layer material that’s been around for some time (I have a pair of boots from more than five years ago with an e-vent logo on them) but only recently started showing up in shells. They claim it’s so breathable that jackets don’t need pit-zips and it breaths even when completely dry (apparently Gore-Tex isn’t breathable until some of your sweat or the world’s humidity have wetted the fabric).

It rained, either a lot or little, so often in Tierra del Fuego, that I never left the hotel without the jacket on. It got plenty of testing. Short review, I was always dry and remarkably comfortable no matter what. How folks climbed Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy without this stuff I will never know.

The real cool part about this new jacket though, came after I’d returned home. Right on the jacket there is a label that asks “wash me often.” The instructions go on to suggest you iron the jacket (on the lowest steam setting, sure, but that’s scary hot for a nylon jacket, isn’t it?) to restore the water repellent finish. Now that’s just crazy talk. Justified or not, I’ve always been terrified of washing Gore-Tex, let alone ironing it, for fear that it would destroy the water repellency of the garment, or more likely, melt it.

I’ve actually had the jacket a little while and it’s been keeping the water for while, but drops of H-two-O certainly were not beading up and rolling off the surface. I nervously pushed the heat up on the iron until only the barest puffs of steam came out and then, thinking this was going to be a costly experiment, started ironing the jacket. Once done, a quick test under the shower and lo and behold, water off an e-vent wearing duck’s back—it’s good as new! Turns out it wasn’t so bad to lose my old jacket, but I hope the guy in Germany wearing my jacket get’s his arms stuck in the tight sleeves.

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12.06.11

Travel gear reviews: the seventies are back

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

In the 70’s, kids in California would wear these nylon ski-jackets during our ‘freezing’ winters. I mean, hey, there would be frost on the cars and it might even get sort of near freezing sometimes! Those jackets were striped in bold earth-tones and stuffed with primaloft, a synthetic down-like material. They were fine for a sixth grader in southern California, but not usually considered “gear” for the modern hiker.

As most folks with some outdoor experience know, layering is key. You need to be able to adjust what wear based on activity and weather and having a variety of layers makes for an adaptable set of clothes; ready for everything without carrying multiple different jackets. I’ve always gone with the classic: a water proof shell + a fleece mid-layer for warmth. On previous trips, though, I noticed a problem. My fleece just isn’t warm enough. A fleece jacket works great hiking around in the Colorado mountains. It fits under the wind- and water-proof shell, and you can unzip it if things get too warm. Traveling is different than hiking though. More often than not, you’re not in such a rush to get anywhere, maybe even trying to avoid working up a sweat at all (that next shower might not be convenient tonight). Unfortunately, though, all my tried and true hiking gear which has held up to minus 20 grad snowshoeing doesn’t actually keep me warm when all I’m doing is strolling around and taking pictures.

Of course, I could just get a thicker fleece, but now we start to bump into another travel constraint: bulk. On this recent trip to Patagonia, I expected to be cold in the southernmost city on the planet, Ushuaia and hot in late spring Buenos Aires. I’d have to pack that bulky fleece into my tiny backpack for half of the trip. Another alternative is a down jacket. Nothing beats down for warmth and packability, and, in fact, a down sweater would have fit the bill perfectly on this trip, so if you already have one of these, you can quit reading. Probably.

It doesn’t rain much in Colorado and things dryquickly, but one concern I had about in the maritime climate of Ushuaia was that once down gets wet, it doesn’t work at all. If I leave the rain shell in the hotel room and my mid-layer got wet, I’d be out of luck. Primaloft, on the other hand, continues to provide some (clammy) warmth even wet.

I went with a light primaloft nylon jacket not terribly different than the one I had in sixth grade except minus the strips and earth tones, to repkace a bulkier, warmer fleece and I couldn’t be happier. The jacket actually looks pretty good (or at least not like much of anything at all) and packs to almost nothing during the day if you need it only for a chilly evening without stopping back at the hostel. It’s windproof and it still weighs much less than my windstopper fleece. About my only concern was that maybe this jacket, with its lightweight nylon shell, won’t stand up to much abuse. That’s true for your fancy down sweater too, and at least these new primaloft jackets are much cheaper down if you do rip it. The only real problem I had was that, thin, light, and packable as it was, the thing was actually a bit too warm!

On my trip, the threat of rain was always more severe than I predicted, so I never actually left my rain shell back in the room. The shell protects the jacket beneath, but would do the same if it were down. I gave up the absolute best in packability and weight of down, but primaloft has successfully replaced my fleece for travel, and even for cold weather hiking and backpacking. I hope it can stand up to all the extra use it’s going to get.

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12.05.11

Travel gear reviews: smelly parts

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 12:10 by RjZ

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a gear whore. I’m too cheap to constantly buy every new piece of outdoor clothing or backpack, but I do give a lot of thought to the gear I travel with. The trip to Patagonia offered up some new challenges, so I thought I’d provide a review of how well some things worked and others didn’t.

Everyone will have different demands on what they bring with them, and how well something is judged to have performed is obviously dependant on our expectations. For years I’ve aspired to pack very light but these days I’ve added a few more requirements. For example, I’ve decided that just because I am a hostel living traveler doesn’t mean I have to look like a hippie the whole time. No one doubts I’m a tourist (the big camera and ever present book bag are dead giveaways) but, as handy has hiking boots and zip-off pants are, I now try to look like a normal human when visiting a museum or going out for a bite to eat. The goal then, is to travel light, with little extra anything, and somehow actually be able to look half normal sometimes.

Ex-officio makes a line of travel underwear billed as a revolution. They claim 40 countries, one pair of underwear, or something like that. The idea is that these packable, wicking, odor preventing garments are so easy to wash in the sink every night that you go your whole trip with just two pair. I went with three pair. They do pack small, so three wasn’t much more than two of my usual, but fact is, washing and drying clothes isn’t always as convenient as their advertising claims it is. Sometimes you’re on a night train, to a city you stay in for one night with a shared bathroom, and then on another night train to your next hostel. That’s three nights and no convenient place to wash and dry—I don’t care how easy they are to launder, you’re gonna be wearing your clothes longer than you might have hoped or planned.

The ex-officio are very comfortable and they are, indeed, incredibly easy to wash and fast to dry. The problem: um, they stink. And they make you stink. I found myself feeling like a needed a thorough showering of the manly parts even after a few hours of wearing. A whiff of the undergarments after even one day assured me that they would absolutely require washing TONIGHT, and I’d have to switch to a new pair before even going out for an evening meal. Clothes that make you have to shower more often (in places where showering extra may be particularly inconvenient) don’t seem like a good idea to me. Great underwear for home use, but I doubt I’ll be taking them along on another trip.

Stay tuned, I packed a lot of different gear for Patagonia and tried a few new things, several more reviews to come!

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12.03.11

Everybody in Argentina has a dog

Posted in Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

Some countries have stray cats (I called every stray cat in Thailand a Siamese cat; I mean, they are Siamese and they’re cats, aren’t they?) and some have dogs and some even have chickens. It was pretty odd once you noticed it. On the Indonesian island of Java there had been these skinny ‘race’ chickens everywhere. Any where it wasn’t exactly a busy metropolitan street you’d see one of these lithe chickens running across the road (to get the other side, I assume), but take a boat across to Bali and they’re all gone, replaced by plenty of stray, feral dogs. There’s an obvious dietary hypothesis there, but I never really confirmed what it was. Bali’s dogs were not well liked by the populace being aggressively shooed away with curses and sometimes rocks, by the locals, and coming out in greater force at night. Kathmandu, Nepal is often jokingly referred to as Dogmandu from the amount of stray dogs there. They’re not treated much better than Bali’s dogs, but they wander around the temples skimming snacks from religious offerings and barking all too early in the morning.

Argentina has a few cats but plenty of dogs. What distinguishes Argentina from the others is how these stray dogs are treated. Niether Indonesians nor Nepali keep pets much at all. The dogs running around are a nuisance that they haven’t gotten around to getting rid of. Argentines have pet dogs. Buenos Aires’ popular dog walkers can be seen shepherding five or more dogs at a time up and down the sidewalks in neighborhoods from ritzy Palermo to touristy San Telmo. (The poor dogs don’t seem to have much opportunity for grass or nature, but they sure find plenty of opportunity for nature’s call.) Dogs wearing sweaters and other fashions are common enough (even in the building spring heat). But right along side of them are the strays. Wandering along shopping streets in big cities and padding on dusty roads in villages, big and fluff, little and scrawny, the variety of stray dogs is endless. In El Chalten it looks like deciding to have a dog meant tying one of these dogs to rope outside of your shop.

Happy dog

Dogs walk up to diners in cafés and patrons reach down for an affectionate pat. Dogs walk next to pedestrians, following cleverly ahead of them, looking back the whole time as if to say “hey, look, I’ll check if it’s safe for you up here! Hey, you going this way? It’s safe, look! Oh, this way, no problem, let me check that out for you. You know, if you want to tie me to stick in your yard, (and feed me) that’d be pretty cool! I could be your dog, you know!”

Unlike strays in other countries though, Argentine dogs seem pretty happy, dozing most every where, (vigorously!) chasing cars, getting a pet here and stroke there from passing humans. The official pets, those on leashes, trot around a bit more proud and their coats are cleaner, but it’s as if everyone has a few pet dogs. Some people seem to just go the extra distance and buy a leash for theirs, maybe paying a dog walker to take it out of the house now and again.

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12.02.11

Good tour, bad tour (part 2 of 2)

Posted in Travel at 8:00 by RjZ

In spite of the tour, Big Ice was beautiful and amazing, but nothing about it was really anything more than sight-seeing. That’s OK, but not all tours have to be that way. The friendly tourist office in Ushuaia even had a list of all the activities available for tourists. There’s the Navigation around the lighthouse, or a longer one through much of the eastern Beagle Channel. You could trek to see penguins or spend time at an historical estancia (ranch). The list even named many agencies offering the tours and their offices were on the main street or down by the tourist dock.

We picked one at random off the street (and not on the list) to get details and I had a feeling right away that it might be different. Their packages were more expensive than the tourist office had promised, but details, activities, even the discussion of lunch, just sounded like they were offering an experience that sets them apart. Argentines don’t go in for the hard-sell so popular in many travel destinations, so we went off to compare prices elsewhere. Each of the other agencies we visited offered exactly the same tours and prices as those described by the tourist office. Essentially, the agencies were gathering tourists together for other companies to bus and boat them around, what can only be called, a well-trodden path.

A little nervous about spending extra money with no way to know ahead of time what we’d get, we returned to the Canal Tours to make a decision. A lucky break pushed us over the edge: tomorrow’s tour wasn’t full enough, book now and get about 10% off! (We were a few minutes after closing.)

Meals may not sound very important, but they might be a good indicator of whether a tour will delight you or just be average. A excursion I took in Cape Town, South Africa, emphasized the lunch, which was, indeed above average, but the tour was one of my favorite ever, and it wasn’t the lunch that made it so great. In Ushuaia, the booking agent (who worked for the tour company itself) seemed particularly proud of the provided lunch. “Any special requests?” “Well, actually, I don’t normally eat meat….” I answered sheepishly in carne-friendly Argentina. “No problem! And there will be enough of everything! It’s a big trip!” If the tour operators actually care about what you eat on an all day tour, maybe that’s proof that they care about the rest of the experience too.

We were picked up on time by a van with a small group of six Spanish, English and bi-lingual speakers. Valentin, our guide, boarded when we picked up our raft trailer on the eastern edge of town and pointed out sites on our 30 km drive across the bottom tip of Tierra del Fuego. He repeated everything in both English and Spanish, even taking care to translate questions, answers, and jokes told in one language or another.

We climbed into waterproof pants and pulled on life jackets for our rafting with Valentin prodding us to strike aggressive poses with oars over our heads, while his colleague took our pictures with each of our cameras. We paddled on a river that leads out to Beagle Channel with explanations of the history of Harburton estancia, information about the tides, and background about the islands in the channel and the decades long disputes with Chile over these abandoned rocks.

When the river curved close enough to salt water, we stepped out and carried the raft across a small section of land and into the channel itself. We paddled slowly past an island hosting a cormorant rookery, seeing the birds finishing up their nests for the spring hatching. When we were good and tired, we made it to other side of the small bay and to the waiting van where we’d be taken to one of the estancia’s private islands for hiking.

We hiked right over the center of the small island for wonderful views of the channel and that lunch I mentioned, which was, indeed quite impressive. Valentine had given each of us plastic boxes to carry during the hike, but he carried water, soda, wine (El Fin del Mundo, Argentinean Malbec, of course) along with hot water for tea and maté. Quite stuffed, we hiked back, passed beaver paths, beaver lodges, and loads of beaver damaged trees. Beavers aren’t native here and they’ve adapted their usual cutting of thin trees to the local lenga trees, chopping down their great big spreading trunks and then removing the branches from the fallen trees. Fine for the beavers, but a huge problem for the lenga which never adapted to beavers.

Tierra Del Fuego Penguin

I believe I can fly!

We were collected once again by our boat and brought to the very same penguin island that the other tours go to—well, in their case they float passed in a large catamaran. Instead we beached out little craft and were within a pebble’s toss from the curious birds waddling passed us. (Other tours do, indeed, get to “walk with the penguins” but this seemed like a reasonable consolation.)

It was a big day and everyone napped on the ride back to town, but Valentin and his colleagues had no problem when I asked if we could make a photo-stop to see the wind-blown “flag” trees on the way back. We justified booking the tour because it did, indeed, sounds special and because, worse case, we’d still have enough time to do the navigation to the lighthouse before leaving Ushuaia. Now, driving back, we felt like we’d seen so much there was just no need. You’ve seen one lighthouse….

Maybe it was the group, or Valentin’s enthusiasm, maybe it’s because they actually charge enough to make pay their guides well? It’s difficult to know ahead of time whether you’re getting your money’s worth. If your tour seems out of the ordinary and they emphasize all their little perks, though, maybe it really is.

740 Argentine Pesos including lunch.
For more information check out Canal Tours excellent and fun website and have a look at the Gable Island Tour we took.

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12.01.11

Good tour, bad tour (part 1 of 2)

Posted in Travel at 15:38 by RjZ

Even independent travelers find themselves on tours now and again. Some sites are just too difficult to reach with a limited amount of time, and having a good guide can turn a touristy excursion into an adventure experience. I’ve been on quite a few over the years and most have been just fine, some haven’t been worth it, but a few, a few have been outstanding.

The Perito Moreno “Big Ice” glacier trek got raving reviews on-line. Folks who went looked on at the so-called “Mini-Trekking” in disdain, writing that surely those folks had wasted their money on a brief, touristy, walk with camera-toting, just-off-the-bus seniors, while “Big Ice” really got out there on the glacier, like Francisco Moreno himself. Frankly, aside from the extra five and a half hours of walking really fast on the glacier I don’t see what the difference was.

One of the biggest factors separating a good from a bad tour is how many people are there with you. Of course, you have little control, and likely less knowledge, of how many will be joining you when you book, but the fact is, your guides, no matter how interested they are in explaining the details of glacier walking or telling humorous, historically relevant, stories, won’t have enough time if they’re forced to manage twenty would-be adventurers. My Big Ice experience certainly suffered from numbers. We were broken up based on language (Spanish and English speaking) and then further to manageable groups of 15 and 18 people before we set out, but that still meant a long column of people marching along a windy, maybe occasionally dangerous, ice-sheet. It’s difficult for even an attentive guide to say much about it when you’re trying to make sure no one turns an ankle on a crampon or slips into a crevasse.

I could see Mini-Trekking folks as they walked in a circle around ice at the foot of the glacier. To get there, they had to hike a few hundred meters from the boats across Lago Rico. They put on crampons and harnesses and visited little streams, sink holes and other features of the ice. They returned on a short path through the forest to the boats which take them to the other side to view the glacier from balconies at the Parque Nacional Los Glacieres visitor center.

People on Big Ice are no weaklings. Booking agencies will insist you must be physically fit to participate, and will check out your gear before they allow you to come along. They’ll discourage you from selecting Big Ice, warning that it’s difficult and they wouldn’t do it themselves. In Big Ice, we visited the balconies first, to see the foot of the glacier which moves up to 2 m per day, and get a taste of what our adventure would be like. We then take a boat across Lago Rico and the guides will ask if we have proper gear, offering boots are jackets to those that didn’t bring adequate clothes.  (Did you catch that? A couple of folks on our trek had no rain jackets and canvas shoes. So much for checking ahead, but OK, the guides had their back.) We’ll hike not just a few hundred meters, but several hundred, maybe even a kilometer, (passed a waterfall) to a tent where we put on our harnesses and receive our crampons. Then it’s down to the ice where we’ll walk <em>fast</em> for about three kilometers, stepping over little streams, sink holes and other features of the ice and finally stop to have the lunch we packed out there on the ice. In the distance we’ll see < ;a href=seracs and we’ll hear about nunataks. Then we’ll march back 3 more kms to the foot of the glacier (passed those losers on the mini-trekking) and relax, waiting for the boat to take us back while hoping for one more opportunity to see a giant chunk of ice calve off the glacier (no luck).

I don’t know if you noticed the difference between Mini-Trekking and Big Ice; I mentioned it above: about five more kilometers on the glacier and it’ll cost you an extra $80 (USD). The guides did lead us very fast which would make the trek a challenge for a real couch potato, and we did get views of the ice impossible for the mini-trekkers (it’s really big, and mostly white), but essentially, everything you could learn and experience on Big Ice, you could learn and experience with Mini-Trekking. How was our tour less “touristy” I wondered? Wasn’t there also a chatty group of college students, woefully unprepared for the journey and almost equally uninterested? (How a young woman in cotton leggings wasn’t freezing in the wind and rain that morning, I’ll never know.) Our guides, perhaps taking a clue from the group of students, simply marched us out and back, making sure to keep us safe, but saying little and taking little time to point out or explain any features of the ice. They readily answered any question posed to them, if you could catch up with one, but seemed little motivated to offer anything on their own. I had read the Wikipedia page on glaciers the night before, so I had some ideas of what to ask; no one else seemed to. So, on we marched, crunch, crunch, crunch, in a meandering line around the crevasses. And that’s pretty much it.

The tour could have been so much more. Perhaps we could have heard about the challenges of glacier travel. Maybe roped up and experienced a canned version of how to be safe (if this had been a real adventure). Or we could have discovered a few ice phenomena and learned how these formed and why they are important. Little of this was offered, and because, for some reason we had this big distance to cover, we all felt about as rushed as the mini-trekkers must have, with little time even to snap a picture.


That’s 50 m tall!

It’s no surprise everyone loves Big Ice. Perito Moreno Glacier is about as close as we regular humans will ever get to such an enormous, beautiful, amazing phenomenon as this. Big Ice gives you the chance to spend more time than anything else you can book, especially if the only thing you have time for in southern Patagonia is El Calafate, but whether it’s really that much better than the “touristy” Mini-Trekking? I’m not so sure. Maybe it depends on your guides, the weather, who’s on your tour, whatever, but certainly nothing about the actual design of our tour was meant to be anything other than shipping tourists out to the sites. The glacier is amazing though!

770 Argentine Pesos + 100 park entrance fee. Lunch not included.
Hielo y Aventura

On to part 2

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