Miscellaneous gear reviews

I thought some readers might be interested in a few reviews of gear I have used over the past few years.

BD Spot headlamp: sucks

A headlamp should be bright, long-lasting, comfortable, and easy to operate with gloves. Black Diamond’s Spot headlamp could have been a nice piece of gear: it is small enough to be comfortable, and has “flood” and “spotlight” modes in three different intensities (plus “annoying useless blinker mode”). The obvious controls would be levers or switches for “off/spot/flood” and “low/medium/high/blink.”

Sadly, the folks at Black Diamond blew it: instead of something reasonable, the Spot has a single button (small and rubberized, so it’s almost impossible to use with gloves) that tries to do everything. Push it hard, and it will toggle between off/spot/off/flood. Push it “less hard” (again, hopeless in gloves), and it will cycle through brightness settings. A hard press often starts out at the brightest setting, but sometimes will start out where you left off the last time you had it on. You usually find yourself trying “less-hard” presses until you get to “useless blinker,” then proceeding from there to reach the desired setting. The angle adjustment is a hinge at the bottom, meaning that it presses annoyingly against your forehead when running, and can even slip to a lower angle.

My tiny Petzl e-Lite, while not bright enough for running or cross-country travel, at least has sensible controls, in the form of a little lever that sticks out from the light body and cycles through its many modes. I have not tried brighter Petzl lamps, but they have sensible center pivots, and may even have sane controls. How did the Spot ever make it through product testing? Spend an extra $10-$20 on something useful.

CamelBak Blowfish: rules

It was expensive, but this pack has survived five seasons of vicious use well beyond its design. While it is intended to carry summer stuff plus three liters of water, I have used it to carry gear for long summer days (3,000+ calories plus basics), moderate winter ones (crampons, an ice axe, and snowshoes), and névé/ice solos (two tools plus crampons). In its currently modded state, my Blowfish has two tool loops, but until recently I attached an axe to the reflective thingamajig at the bottom and the thin loop at the top with accessory cord.

It is not without flaws: it distributes weight badly when expanded (it should get wider, not deeper); the water bladder punctures easily (duct tape fixed that) and is hard to re-insert when the pack is full; it lacks front pockets for easily-accessible items; and it doesn’t run particularly well, since the waist strap isn’t substantial enough to hold it in place.

Still, the thing has taken an amazing amount of abuse, with only the outermost zipper and the bottom thingamajig giving out.

Note: For my ice tool mods, I used a #0 grommet kit and some thin accessory cord to add two tool loops to the bottom black material (2 grommets each), and two tool attachments to the top (1 grommet each). I also attach a small camera case to one shoulder strap above the chest strap, and will probably add something to the other to carry food.

$10-$15 sunglasses: rule

If you’re paying more than $15 for your sunglasses, you’re a sucker. I have used cheap K-Mart and gas station sunglasses for the past two summers, and have never suffered snow-blindness.

DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer: rules

National Forest campsite fees are approaching $20 in many places — roughly what you would pay at a KOA, but with no amenities. For that same $20 you can buy a state’s Gazetteer at most gas stations, with detailed road maps leading you to secluded, free camping. Better yet, they are serviceable topos, far cheaper than the relevant 15′ or 7.5′ USGS quads for spread-out states like Colorado and Washington. They are also great map porn, perfect for sitting down in the evening to peruse a state’s unexplored regions. Don’t waste $5 on lousy road maps, or $20 for a picnic table and fire ring.

In particular, the California Gazetteer even includes abandoned Forest Service trails like the Milestone Basin and Marie Lakes spurs, which are missing from some other maps, and indicates areas of forest and talus.

Trails Illustrated maps 205 and 206: rule

For about $25, these two maps cover most of the interesting parts of the Sierra, albeit with a small gap between Bishop and Mammoth. They list many relevant features, have 100′ contours, and are far cheaper than a stack of USGS quads.

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