Some gear reviews

I rarely review the gear I use here, but after living with quite a bit of outdoor gear non-stop for two months this winter, I have formed some opinions which I will share here.

Alps Mountaineering Phenom tent

Before this trip, my camping shelters were a one-person tent my parents bought me when I was in elementary school, a $10 painter’s tarp, and an OR bivy bag from an REI garage sale. The bivy bag was sufficient in Peru, but getting dressed on a cold, dark Cordillera morning in a bivy sack was never easy or pleasant. Since I would be living in my shelter for three months on this trip, some of that time in the harsh Puna de Atacama, I wanted something more than a bivy.

I looked at various double-wall mountaineering tents, but the big-name ones were all terrifyingly expensive, and in my limited experience, the lighter ones can be incredibly fragile. Fortunately I stumbled upon this two-person double-walled tent from Alps Mountaineering on sale for $100 including a ground cloth, or about one fourth of what I would have paid for a gold-plated tent. It is a bit heavier than the top-of-the-line stuff, but it has served me well so far in rain, snow, and wind. Since it is often impossible to stake down a tent in the high Andes, I had to upgrade it with more tie-downs, attaching accessory cord to the loops meant to hold back the flaps on the rain fly. These were not meant to be structural, but have held in winds strong enough to bend the poles.

Evernew Titanium cook pot

I don’t know how much it cost, because my advisor gave it to me in 2009, but my Evernew 1-liter titanium pot is still going strong. I have used it not just for camping, but for cooking in the car and in various apartments. After thousands of uses on various heat sources, foods being burned to the bottom and scraped off, and cleanings with everything from dish sponges to metal utensils to sand, the surface appears undamaged. After being crammed in packs and otherwise abused, it remains round. Even the rubber insulation on the handles remains intact, despite being singed a few times.

One liter of oatmeal, polenta, or other nutrient glop is about right for one backpacker. I suspect this will be the last pot I need.

MSR Whisperlite stove

I had never used a liquid fuel stove before this trip, having relied on isopropane canister stoves on my rare attempts at camping, and a Coleman stove while living in my car. It took some time to accept that using your stove was a skill to be learned, and more to learn it, but I am warming to this new piece of gear. First, a liter of white gas (bencina blanca, solvente) last forever, and I can simply unscrew the cap to see how much I have left. Second, I don’t have to throw away mostly-used fuel canisters, doing God-knows-what to landfills.

As for the “skill” part, I am still fine-tuning how best to prime my stove. Possible bad outcomes range from slowly covering the burner in soot, to setting my tent’s vestibule on fire. I have learned to prevent the former, and have fortunately avoided the latter. The key is that you want to make the stove hot enough to vaporize white gas, which burns cleanly (blue flame) as a vapor but dirtily (yellow) as a liquid, while not setting the whole thing on fire. Isopropyl alcohol burns cleanly as a liquid, so the best approach I have found is to put some of that in the priming cup, burn it until it is mostly gone, then open the stove valve. If I’m lucky, I can time it so the stove is hot enough to ignite the vapors; if not, I have to use my cigarette lighter a second time on the eye.

In any case, the Whisperlite is a simple device done well, which rewards those who take the time to learn how to use it.

Petzl Tikkina headlamp

In repacking my stuff for the road, I stupidly left my headlamp at a hostel in Santiago, and had to replace it with whatever was available in Mendoza. That turned out to be either a Petzl Tikkina or “El Cheapo off-brand thing,” so I chose the former. It is dead-simple, offering only low, medium, and high beams, toggled via a single button. It has no lockout, but seems to be designed to make it unlikely to be turned on by accident. If only Black Diamond could think to do this.

HydraPak flexible water containers

Perhaps as part of the more general trend of corporate consolidation, a company called HydraPak makes collapsible water reservoirs for many other companies, including Osprey (packs) and Katahdin (filters). While the plastic itself seems durable, HydraPak’s designs fall short elsewhere. Osprey makes some great hydration packs, but their HydraPak reservoirs seem to have been designed by someone who never used one for longer than a weekend. I have bitten through two bite valves (duh…) so far, each lasting a couple of months. The top closure is also failing, with the stiff plastic cracking from the repeated bending required to fill it. The resulting leaks make the thing somewhere between annoying and useless. On my previous CamelBak packs, the bite valves and closures have lasted for years. Osprey will replace the thing for free, but that’s not possible until I return to the States.

Other than an insignificant pinhole leak which I could tape if I cared, my Katahdin filter has held up well on this trip. However, a friend has had trouble with the flexible part separating from the rigid plastic around the cap, which would be harder to repair.

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