Friday, June 10, 2011

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brandon fish.jpg

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ozark Highlands Trail / TLD Bandoleer Review

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the Ozarks on the Ozark Highland Trail with Eugene as well as to trail test the new TrailLite Designs Bandoleer pack. 

The Ozark Highlands Trail is a 165 mile trail that spans through the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas and Missouri. Our plan was to spend three days on the OHT doing an out and back style hike. 

The TrailLite Designs Bandoleer is a small volume pack designed for fast and light style of backpacking. It has one main pocket and three outside pockets as per standard UL packs. However the Bandoleer does vary greatly in that it has only one shoulder strap. It is designed to be worn across the chest messenger bag style. The yoke can be seen in a thread I created on BPL.  

To start off the trip we left Lexington, MO at about noon on Wednesday 3/30. We failed to get good directions to the trail head so after a bit of scouting around we found the park at about 6pm Wednesday night. There was still plenty of daylight, but we obviously weren't going to get in very far before setting up camp for the night.

The park is possibly the nicest park I have ever been to. The facilities were in great condition, the parking was free, there were well marked signs and trails. Everything was neat and clean. I have some thoughts about people in Arkansas and the Ozarks (cue banjo) that I need not mention, but this park defies all of those. 

As we readied ourselves for the trail by loading up our snacks and downing a pint sized can of "buffalo sweat" stout (yeah, i know) I thought I'd get Eugene to snap a pic of the bandoleer all packed up and ready to go. It should be noted that all of the photos here are taken by Eugene as he is an excellent photographer and I am not. 

I used the outside back pocket for my snacks, rainshell, gloves, hat, headlamp, and extra can of said "buffalo sweat". The side pockets held 1L platypus bottles and katadyn tabs just fine. 

We were parked right next to this beauty of a sign, notice the deer and the strange fact that these hikers were apparently hiking in plain white ankle socks. hmmmm.....

Anyhow, it is a nicely done sign that is right in front of the lodge that is the visitor center, complete with conference rooms, binoculars and a gift shop.

This photo is right at the start of our trip. I literally had not walked 100 yards before this photo was taken. Notice the nice sidewalks and landscaping around the visitor center. Also take note of how the pack is slung over my left shoulder. It is quite stable and quite small. As you can see, I was not wearing the hipbelt, and I would say I used it for about 60% of this trip, the pack's unique harness leaves a hipbelt to be a convenience item. It is very rare for me to not use the hipbelt on any other pack.  Just for your reference I am 5'9" and about 165 (cough, cough) pounds. From the front the pack could not be seen, an interesting aspect that I will comment on later.

This little beauty marks the official Western Terminus of the 165 mile Ozark Highlands Trail. The trail is marked exceptionally well, which really worked out to our benefit as our packing and planning was done in a bit of a rush since I had finals a few days before. This rushed aspect caused neither a map or a knife of any kind to be brought along by Eugene or myself.

This is the start of the trail not more than 2 miles in. It was a bit overcast and the temp was in the 50's.

This is a popular destination from the trail head and I think it is about a mile in. It's a cool little waterfall that flows down a few layers of rock. It is not in this photo, but I found it kind of funny that there is a sign pointing directly at it that says "waterfall".  Oh, is that what you call those?

Here is a shot of Lake Fort Smith. The trail hugs the lake for 6-7 miles and we got to see this guy out fishing at dusk.

There are a few remnants from houses of old on the lake's edge. All that's left are the fireplaces and chimneys. We commented on the tough SOB's that came out here with not much more than their knowledge and built homes and lives. It would be very interesting to see a day in the life of the inhabitants of this house.

This is a manmade dam catching water from a small stream. It has a section from the days of the cabin as well as a well cemented section that I am leaning on. You can see the bandoleer now over my other shoulder. It is nice to be able to switch shoulders. I found that it was generally more comfortable on my right shoulder. The actual strap is wide and plenty cushioned. I was concerned that I would miss some sort of 3D spacer mesh on the inside of the strap, but the weather was cool and I wore this shell the entire trip. I found that there is a "sweet spot" in the straps. What worked best for me was to connect one strap, left bottom to right shoulder, and pull it comfortably tight. Then the strap to the right bottom was attached with just enough tension to stabilize the load. Reverse the process for left shoulder.
 Here is a photo of the bandoleer next to Eugene's MLD burn, just for reference. The burn is noticeably bigger. Please note Eugene's hypocrisy of UL packing by the 6oz nalgene!

The following scenic photos from the trail- think of it as sort of a photo essay.

Our morning view of Lake Fort Smith

The trailstar with me still asleep inside. Notice the Caldera Tri-Ti on the right that performed wonderfully as always. (Thanks Rand!)

This is one of my favorites. I was still asleep when this photo was taken. Eugene is such a running nut that he got up as the sun was rising for a short run before our 20+ mile day of hiking. Um...I'll stay here and make sure camp is safe.

My ugly mug at the start of the day. Notice the lack of hipbelt use, for some this is no biggie, but for me it speaks volumes to the stability of the strap system. I almost never leave the hipbelt loose or off on any of my other packs, including my MLD prophet.

As spring is coming, all things are just starting to bloom and it is truly an inspiring time to be able to see.

Ok, so that's about it for photos of the trip. I will focus on a few details now.

The Bandoleer is a good pack. I enjoyed carrying it for 2 days and found the comfort and stability to be better than expected.
The good:
-The cuben was really tough and light, tough enough to stuff some crushed cans down the sides without tearing the cuben. The construction was impeccable. Everything fit right and adjusted well. The closure system and compression system are all one and this may have been my favorite thing about the pack, maybe. But what resulted was a quick pack and one pull to tighten the load and we're off. All packs should be so easy to pack and compress. This is an important factor to me as I like the outside of my pack to be pretty neat and tight. The compression cordage on the Bandoleer worked flawlessly and made it to where I didn't notice or think about the pack during the day. I often think that the best gear is not gear that you think is so wonderful, but gear that you don't really notice. I had to try to pay attention to the pack as I was asked to do a review, after a few miles everything sort of settled in and flowed well. The other thing that I really liked about the pack was the way the harness connected near the sternum. The sternum is a place of low mobility making a good place for buckles, what this allowed was complete freedom of movement. This is my favorite thing about the Bandoleer. I like to move fast and keep moving when on the trail and this pack did not encumber me in any way. A traditional pack pulls back on the shoulders a little, not enough to be a problem, but once its gone it is noticeable. It took me until midway through the second day to really appreciate this fact.

The not so good:
-The single shoulder strap could potentially put some strain on whichever shoulder is being used. The thing about this is switching shoulders often enough to not allow it to become a problem. I switched at the first sign of any discomfort and never felt this to be a problem. The weights that this pack is designed to carry are low enough that this really shouldn't be a problem for most users. I would have never thought of changing the traditional pack design concept until using something different. What I imagine to be the best of both worlds would be some sort of yoke at the top holding two wide shoulder straps that  are shaped to connect at the sternum with the two bottom straps connect just as the Bandoleer. This would give the distribution of a traditional harness with all the benefit of the Bandoleer harness. The only other thing I would comment on under this section is the volume. I am not a meticulous packer, all my stuff just sort of gets thrown into the pack. I use about the same order everytime, but am not into stuff sacks or compressing my gear. This pack is small. It held my gear with room to spare, which I would have used had I not shared the trailstar with Eugene. I think I've gotten used to the volume of my prophet, which I've never filled but am comfortable with. The Bandoleer is narrow so it made it harder to sort through my mess of gear inside. I just dumped the thing out at camp, which made finding the esbit tabs or whatever much easier.

Main pocket-
-Neoair regular - folded and used as "frame"
-JRB hudson river
-Smartwool sleep socks
-Patagonia Nanopuff pullover
-TiGoat Ptarmigan bivy
-Esbit tabs (6)
-UL candle lantern
-Personals (toothbrush, medkit, etc.) all fit into Zpacks smallest stuffsack
-Mountain Hardwear transition tights (worn some)
-3 days of food

Outside pocket-
-OR fleece gloves
-OR ninjaclava (junk btw)
-Snacks for the day
-beer (only day 1)

Side pockets-
-1L platypus in each
-10 katadyn tabs

-Sockguy socks
-NB MT101
-Salomon XT lite shorts (best short ever btw)
-Smartwool micro T
-Marmot Mica
-Merino buff
-Komperdell C2 poles

Our plan was originally to be out for 3 days. We did not have a set turn around point and since it was to be an out and back type of trip we were very open to mileage knowing exactly what we had to cover coming home. About halfway into day two we figured out how far it would be to a really good turn around point so we thought we'd shoot for it. It would mean about 17-18 on thursday and then 20-23 on friday. It had been raining for a solid 4 hours when we decided just to turn around and head back and get an early jump on our trip home. The visibility wasn't great and we had really enjoyed our day so far at that point had gone about 10 miles in. We knew our wives would be happy to see us earlier than planned and that we had met our personal goals of getting out and covering some miles. We turned around and hiked a few more hours in the rain and got back to the car about 5pm.

We only saw one other group of hikers while we were out and they were out for about a week to ten days, if I remember correctly. There were two adults and one child of about 11 or 12. I am sure the child was carrying more weight than I. The adults were easily carrying 50lbs apiece. They were very surprised to see the size of our packs and asked a few times if we had what we needed. I think they were worried. I said at the beginning of this report that I would come back to the fact that my pack could not be seen from the front. After asking Eugene about his pack, they turned to me and said "what about you, where's your pack?" I turned around and said "right here." They were surprised and asked a little about our gear. Being the gearhead that I am it was hard for me not to go into an overwhelming explosion of UL philosophy and gear, but I resisted and they went along happily as did we.

The last thing about the trip I'd like to talk about is sort of a personal thing so bear with me. About a mile from the car on our return we ran into an old guy, probably about 70, who was walking down the trail with a cane. He was moving slowly and carefully as surely was dictated by his age. We were moving along at a good pace, especially knowing we had some Old Rasputin waiting for us in the car, and this guy steps to the side and just says hi and some other short greeting about how wonderful it is out here. I say "yep" and keep moving, taking for granted the beauty around me as I've been hiking in the rain for the last 6-8 hours. What caught my spirit was his look of complete satisfaction. Here's a guy that can barely walk down a well groomed trail probably has all sorts of health issues and very well could be in pain at this very moment. But his eyes showed the look of a boy on his first adventure to the mountains. I cannot remember what color his clothing was or even the sound of his voice, but the look in his eyes is seared in my memory and I hope it stays there for a long time. I'd like to be able to find that kind of enjoyment everytime I go out, and without thinking so much about gear, mileage, the beer in the FJ62, etc. and just be elated with the moment, it passes so quickly.

If you have any thoughts or questions, especially about the pack,  please leave a comment and I will get back with you.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

My Next Thing- maybe

So, as the weather is warming and being outside is a blessing after a cold winter, I am finding myself drawn to flyfishing. I really like the simplified style of Tenkara, which is a traditional japanese style of flyfishing in which a rod is used that does not have a reel. This is a video on that explains what it is all about.

Tenkara fly-fishing from Tenkara USA on Vimeo.

I think I may have a utopia type imagination of a morning of flyfishing on a warm day with a slight breeze that gently cools. I imagine hearing the stream flowing and birds chirping reminding me what a glorious day this is. In my head a deer would come to the water's edge for a drink and then bound off effortlessly into the forest while a butterfly would land on my shoulder. Maybe a fair maiden (that is really a forgotten princess) would be singing to the rabbits and squirrels somewhere off in the distance. Then a cooler with a couple of growlers of High Desert beer would magically appear ....

...with pint glasses in which the beer is slowly poured. Then the moisture would condensate on the outside of the glass and a few drops would get big enough to slowly drip down the side and silently yell "enjoy me to the fullest!" This, of course, would be followed by a lunch of fresh grilled trout...

 ...and fresh fruit and a short nap in the woods, streamside. Now that my disney-esque slash beer-loving fantasy is complete, I must return to reality and admit that I need another hobby about as much as I need another hole in my head.