For those who don’t follow on Facebook, I have been without internet in my house for 2.5 months and it will be another 20 days. When I finally do get it back I will have several New posts for you including what I got for my birthday (which is today) this year!
For now though I wanted to talk about expectations in ultralight backpacking, specifically of the cottage gear companies that supply so much of what we tend to carry. There have been more people than ever ordering from these companies and many of them are first time small company purchasers or new ultralighters and even a few traditional backpackers just trying to lighten some weight. This is great news for these gear makers, but it can also cause some issues. These issues have come to light as of late for a few people and it has caused some unhappy customers. I’ve heard a few of the complaints and sadly, some of them have happened from a lack of understanding in how cottage companies work. Some have been genuine issues as well of course and there are growing pains that do occur. Any time a company has more work than their workers can handle, it can mean things fall through the cracks. It is unfortunate, but a reality of business and is something that customers need to have some grace for. Not that we should settle for bad service, but maybe just have a softer heart and a little understanding that we are working with people, not robots.
The thing that has bothered me the most, is unrealistic expectations from a small business. As someone who works for a family member’s small business I am aware of the issues from the business side of things and as a customer of many of my local businesses and online gear shops, I am also familiar with what it is like to have these issues as a customer. The thing to remember is, these are people at the other end of the phone, keyboard or what have you. These are people with a passion and desire to make a great product. As a customer, it is important to remember that and in a world where faceless corporate conglomerates have taken over much of the market, many people do not understand or recognize what it is to be a small business anymore. People have forgotten that a tent that is a bit late for a business owner is a 12 hour work day trying to fill an order that he just ran out of time to make instead of going to the movies with their spouse or seeing their kid’s ball game on a Saturday. There is a real person there and they have a life outside of your order. These are not machines that pump out hundreds of products a day. You need to treat them as such.
So I have some guidelines I’ve adopted when working with these small companies that helps my transaction go smoothly and my expectations as realistic as possible. It also helps the company to fully understand what I expect.
1. Order Early – I try to add at least a month, sometimes more, than the wait time listed on their website. These wait times are subject to change and are dependent on how many orders they have in. They can (and probably do) get 15 or 20 more orders than they expect in any given day. This can change wait times drastically, so I always try to order early and never order something you can’t live without so that it will get there a week or two before your hike. Always make sure you give it at least a month or more.
2. Expect a Longer Wait in Spring – Folks this is Thru Hiker season and everyone is trying to get their gear and get on trail. There are going to be long wait times and hundreds of emails and requests. You are not their only customer or even the only one who may need a rush on something at this time of year, so have some grace and don’t put your order in too late. This ties into the first point as well as the next point which is…
3. For a Major Hike During a Major Hiking Season, Always Order 6 Months in Advance – I was wanting my tarp last year for a September hike. Not a giant season like April or May is, but pretty big around here so I made certain my order was in April and I was prepared for a long wait. It took a while, but I got my tarp and despite the wait, I wasn’t unhappy because I knew to expect it.
4. Stay In Contact – If you are looking for something vital to your hike, or something you asked to be rushed, don’t be afraid to check in after you place the request and if you don’t get confirmation of shipment the day you requested, email them back. These are busy people. Some of them even have regular 9 to 5 jobs on top of what you’ve asked for and things get lost or forgotten. An email once or twice in the middle of the process (not 15) only takes 5 minutes and can be a good way to make sure your expectations are fully communicated and not being misunderstood. This can give a company the chance to fix something before it becomes an actual problem.
5. Finally, Have Some Grace – Again, these are people, not robots. Even if they do mess it up and your plans are not what you hoped, remember they didn’t do it to you on purpose or to make you upset. Things happen and no one is perfect.
I’ve found if I keep these 5 things in mind when placing orders with a cottage gear maker, I have better success, better expectations, and less frustration during my gear buying process!
It’s always disappointing when a hike doesn’t go as planned. It’s worse when you have to come off trail early because of injury, but that is what happened to me this week. We got a late start in Tuolumne Meadows on Saturday. About halfway down the trail, while I was working through Lyell Canyon, I was noticing that my hip was feeling a bit sore. It was feeling great by the time I turned in that night. I thought it would be okay, but in the morning the pain was back and I knew there was no getting up Donahue Pass. By the time I was back at the halfway point through the canyon and headed back to the ranger’s station, I knew I had made the right choice in heading back. It’s never fun or what you hope for when you start down a trail, but knowing when to call a trip is an essential tool to safety when backpacking and a lesson I got a stark reminder of this time. The only thing to do is get healed up and try for better luck next time, which hopefully will be in October, though not on the JMT.
So I only got two days hiking in the Sierras, but they were two amazing days! Sadly, my camera got some moisture in it and so the pictures are a bit fuzzy, but still gorgeous. I woke up on Saturday, ready to go and excited. My partner took a bit longer to get ready, so we ended up with a later start than I wanted. We started just outside the Tuolumne Wilderness Permit Station and headed towards Lyell Canyon. The weather was perfect and the trail was beautiful. The trail follows the river upstream and there are plenty of places to get water. Most of them are also pretty awesome places to dip your feet in. It looked like this for about 8 or so miles and was mostly flat hiking, but if you think you have to climb to see amazing sights, you don’t in Yosemite! The views were gorgeous and the trail even varied a bit from open fields to wooded forests and babbling streams throughout it all. The trail itself was not as perfect. Years of overuse has turned the delicate topsoil of the Sierras into sand. It’s not uncommon for trails in the Sierra Nevada to turn sandy like that and it can be hard to walk quickly through. The Sierras and especially Yosemite, is covered in granite so there was a lot of lose rocks and stones in the trail that also can make walking at a quick pace challenging. It has occurred to me that the sandy trail may have in fact caused or contributed to my hip pain.
We started thinking about finding a camp spot around 4 in the afternoon and pulled out the maps and guide that my partner brought. There are 3-4 places to camp along this section before heading up the pass. The first two are pretty nice, especially if you have bigger groups. We didn’t stop because we were hoping to get as much out of the day as we could with our late start, but the third camp spot we found was at the beginning of the hike up to the base of Donahue Pass. It was barely 100 ft from the water and kind of in a gully. Well, we took one look at that and checked our maps for something that sounded less damp and cold. The last camp hit the spot, but required a 1,000 ft climb to get to. The climb was worth it since it got us to a spot that was much warmer and drier, but still quite close to a good water source. There was even several great flat tent spots. We set up camp, boiled water, re hydrated food, put the bear can in a small field close by, and sunk into bed. The next morning was when I realized my hip was hurting too much to go over a pass like Donahue, so I told my partner who was fine going solo and I cleaned up camp and was on my way back out by 8 am. Thankfully all that up we had done was now down and the flat meadow was a lot easier than anything else would have been. All the same, I could tell by noon that turning around was the right choice. My normal 2-3 mile an hour flat speed had been reduced to 1-1.5 mph and I was hurting. The whole way out, I was so grateful for my ultralight obsession. I really think I would have had to get someone to have a ranger come and get me if my pack had been heavier. I got to the Tuolumne Lodge in time for the hiker bus to Yosemite Valley and then the Yarts bus to Merced. Unfortunately, being Labor Day weekend, the bus couldn’t get through the traffic fast enough to get me on the train in Merced so I I had to stay the night there. A woman and her son who had been backpacking the White Wolf area was kind enough to give me a ride to a hotel and I got a taxi to the station in the morning and headed home. The time on trail was amazing and I saw more wildlife in 2 days in Yosemite, than the last 6 months at home. We saw mule deer, stellar jays, prairie dogs, chipmunks, squirrels, even a coyote in broad daylight! I did not see any bears while hiking, but I saw one on the way up to the park and three on the way home. It was really a magical time in the most magical place I’ve ever been.
I love my Montbell Alpine Light Jacket. It’s everything I could possibly want for a cold weather camp jacket. I love that it has pockets and a full zipper. For winter, its features are worth the extra weight. I also love my REI Fleece. It has kept me cozy and warm in some pretty wet weather. It has thumb loops that help keep my wrists warm and works great while hiking those snowy winter hikes. But neither of these jackets work best for those dry fall nights or early spring mornings that we get out here and neither were what I wanted for my upcoming JMT hike. I knew I wanted something akin to the Montbell UL Down Jacket, but I really didn’t want the extra weight of pockets that I just don’t use unless it’s really cold. I thought the Montbell Ex Light Down Jacket might be the jacket for me then, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn’t really excited about the full zipper because I keep my jackets zipped the whole time and I wasn’t sure about spending so much on a jacket that wasn’t 100% everything I wanted. Then I found out that Montbell was coming out with a down pullover with a hood. I wasn’t really excited about the hood because hoods just do not stay up on my head. No matter what I do they always fall off my head unless I’m just looking forward, so I prefer my head gear to be seperate from my coat. Still is was the closest I had found to what I wanted and I was happy to take an extra ounce or so of the hood to get everything else I wanted. I emailed Montbell’s customer service to ask when exactly the new pullover was coming out and they said it would be sometime after September, too late for my JMT hike. I accepted that it was not meant to be and I would just have to pick something from the options I already had which would leave me for certain over a 10 lb base weight. The JMT is known to get snow very early, as early as the first week of September and that meant I would have to take my Alpine Light jacket, despite it being too warm for the trip.
Then I saw a post on Facebook saying that Borah Gear was adding a jacket to their line, the Ultralight Down Jacket. I checked it out and it had no pockets, no hood and it was a pullover. It had all the features I was looking for and nothing I wasn’t and the price tag, $165 shipping included, made this the solution to a 2 year search. There was only one problem, they didn’t make it in a woman’s size, but John was happy to make a custom size for me and it turned out great! I gave John my measurements so he could get the sizing right, but I did have a couple of options as well. I could have him shorten the length to fit my small torso a bit better, but I decided to have him go with the longest size instead so that it covers all the way down to where my legs start for maximum warmth. I also had him go with the shortest sleeves to accommodate my short arms. When it got here, I was very happy with how it turned out and I think it will be my favorite new insulation piece.
1. Quality – It was clear from the minute that I took my jacket out of the box that it was well made and with quality materials. The seams were all even, tight, and no down was poking through. The work was neat inside and out, and there was no sign of visual blemish. The down was evenly distributed and fluffed up nicely despite days of being stuffed in a box. The outer and lining fabric was spotless and felt soft but sturdy, especially for its weight. This jacket looks and feels like I could have bought it off the rack at an REI.
2. Sizing – Of course this was one of the most important things to have right since I ordered a custom sizing that was supposed to fit me perfectly so you can imagine I was checking the size with a very critical eye. I am happy to report that I am very pleased with every aspect of the sizing. It is not too big and does not feel like I’m swimming in fabric and fits well underneath my Montbell Alpine Light Jacket. It also did not feel especially tight when I tried it on with two long sleeve shirts and my fleece and vest on under it. Of course with all my layers on, it was more snug than with only one layer on, but it didn’t feel like bending over was going to put undue strain on the seams either. The sleeves are long enough to just cover the tips of my fingers and the length was enough to cover all the way down to my legs. Both of these are features I really like having in a jacket I’m probably only going to wear in camp, as it helps keep me cozy when just hanging out.
3. Warmth – Right now I can only say that I believe this will keep me warm in the spring and fall. As it is still summer here in Arizona (meaning it is over 90 most days and hasn’t dropped below 60 in three or four months) I can’t really test it to its fullest, but every time it has gotten the littlest bit chilly, I’ve thrown in on and headed outside and sat for at least 30 minutes. The coldest so far has been about 55 with a breeze and I was radiating heat with just a tank top on underneath. Based on that, I’m confident that I will be able to stay warm close to 50-45, maybe even lower, with just a thermal top and this jacket.
Cons (sort of)
1. Design – There are two design elements that could be cons, depending on the features you do or do not like. The zipper does not go all the way to the top. It stops short of the top. Now, I’m a bit claustrophobic when it comes to things around my neck so, this something that I preferred, but it could be a real deal breaker for someone else.
2. The second design element that is very different and may keep someone from buying this coat was the cuff on the sleeves. There is no elastic. It’s just a cuff like you’d have on a shirt. This may be an issue for you and honestly it may be something I end up not being happy about either, but I’m going to give it a try before I consider taking my own sewing skills to this and adding elastic cuffs. Right now, the thing I’m liking about this is that I can push the sleeves up my arms and out of my way during camp chores that I may not want my sleeves getting in the way of. The jury is definitely still out as a whole.
Edit: I almost forgot to add that the bottom hem has a cord for cinching up around your waist, which of course, I love!
My birthday was in April and I usually do a birthday post since I almost always get backpacking gear, but this year it’s a little late with a good reason. On my birthday my wonderful husband came to me and said I could put in the order for my custom cuben fiber tarp that I’ve been planning and thinking about for over a year now. So the order was placed with Joe of Zpacks and I waited, but our missions trip to Kenya happened a day before the post office could get the order to me. I spend the entire month and a half knowing I had this big and wonderful Zpacks order just sitting at home, waiting for me. It was killing me! Finally several months after putting in the order, I had my brand new tarp in my hand and now (after weeks of playing with it) I’m sharing it with you!
It is a single panel of cuben fiber fabric and it is 51″ x 96″ (4.25′ x 8′) and I had Joe put 8 tie outs on it so I could do fun pitches like this pyramid pitch. The weight for the tarp came to 3.2 ounces, making this not just a great 3 season tarp, but also a really sweet SUL/XUL shelter! I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am with how this tarp turned out. I have been worrying over the size for over a year now because it was a real gamble. For my 5′ 3″ size it works really well though and I’m happy I went with the 8′ instead of 9′. I went with 8′ based on the fact that most people out there using 9′ or 10′ long tarps are typically 6′ or taller and since I’m barely 5′, I figured I could cut a foot off without too much change in function. I was right. This is not a great picture because I was trying to take it by myself with the camera’s timer (it’s hard to get the camera set up and get into a shelter in the 10 seconds that my camera’s timer allows), but you can see that if I had scooted up a bit more it would be a perfect fit. As it is, my shoes are touching the side, not my feet at all. This combined with my natural sleeping style which has me on my side and slightly curled up, it’s a rather roomy fit for me. Unfortunately, while we were in Africa, our yard was taken over by a few plants that are releasing their seeds right now and the seed pods (as with most things in Arizona) are more like stickers that are very sharp and can punch through even the thickest materials. So this is one of only two pitches I’ve gotten to try in an effort to preserve my beautiful new tarp. I’m hoping to take it out on an overnight shakedown run somewhere north of here where the environment will be much more like what I’m going to experience on the JMT and the other areas I tend to hike in.
To this, I added 10 6.5″ Titanium stakes and a stake bag (I spent my birthday money from my mom for these). I have MSR Groundhog stakes that I love, but they do not work in the hard, packed soil that we have here. The long and skinny shaft of the Zpacks stakes work much better! I am still debating as to whether I’m going to take all 10 or leave two at home for the JMT trip. I’m thinking my standard trips will have me bringing just the base 8 but on a longer trip like the JMT, I don’t want my whole trip derailed because I lost one stake. I am also pairing this with a Mountain Laurel Designs UL Ground Cloth that I cut down for my ground sheet. I’m hoping to exchange this out for a Zpacks Groundsheet Poncho in the future for summer/SUL/XUL trips.
My weights for a typical trip:
- Tarp – 3.2 oz
- Zpacks Zline Guylines – .7 oz
- 8 6.5″ Titanium Stakes – 2.16 oz
- Stuff Sacks – .2 oz
- Cut Down MLD Ground Sheet – 1.6 oz
Total Shelter Weight – 7.86 oz