By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0After setting up the tent on a recent trip and after a long day, I heard an unwelcome sound the moment I laid my head on the pillow – the sound of air leaking from the previously trusty pillow I’d been packing along on trips for years. Luckily, this trip was quite warm for the mountains – lows in the high 40s plus having a double walled tent along meant I had a down jacket that I wasn’t wearing at night, and could roll up in a stuff sack to get me through the trip. However, for more normal temps when you’re wearing that jacket and any extra clothing in your sleeping bag at night, you'll have slim pickings for a makeshift pillow and a backpacking pillow is (for most of us) needed to get us through the night in comfort. With the pillow I had been using having been discontinued, this opened things up and I decided to give another solution a try as a replacement – the Fillo Elite from NEMO.
The NEMO Fillo Elite is a compact backpacking pillow – measuring 15x11x3 inches and packing to – as described by the manufacturer – the size of a lemon (although in practice, I just throw it in with my sleeping bag). The pillow is listed at 3 ounces, and weighed in at 2.9 ounces on my scale. The pillow features a baffled internal air bladder that you inflate by mouth with a twist lock valve, and then a fabric cover over that with a thin layer of PrimaLoft insulation for comfort and a little warmth. The pillow also packs right into its own stuff sack integrated into the pillow. If you’d like a similar design but with a little more room, the Fillo Elite Luxury Version of this pillow is the same size in width and height but is 21” long compared to the 15” of the normal Elite. You can keep moving up the chain as well if you need to – and if weight is of no concern all the way to the Fillo King Pillow.
Immediately what I liked about the Fillo Elite was its light weight and compactness. What I immediately didn’t like was that there is no way to attach this pillow to your sleeping pad. Although you could use this inside of your sleeping bag hood – I use a hoodless Zpacks Sleeping Bag so this is not possible. With a pillow simply on top of my sleeping pad, I am chasing it around all night and this leads to interrupted sleep no matter how comfortable the pillow itself actually is. Oddly, NEMO includes a sewn-in loop on only one side of the pillow, presumably for hanging the pillow in storage. If a loop on the opposite side was included attaching the pillow would be easy, but no such luck. However, on the side opposite of the sewn in loop is a tag, which is sewn back upon itself to form something I could use – and by attaching a separately sourced small piece of cordage (something like a shoe lace is perfect, cut down), tying this into a small loop, then tucking the knot back into the NEMO label I was able to create loops on both sides. This way, I can attach the pillow to my pad using this system that weighs very little, but works very well.
Filling the pillow is via a twist lock valve: twist to the left, pull outwards, and this opens the valve to inflate or deflate. This is a little tricky, as the valve will immediately release all the air you just blew up the pillow with before you can close it unless you use two hands and twist it closed while inflating. Despite not being a flat valve, it does stay out of the way on your pad and in use. However, I definitely prefer flat valves that are one-way and don’t let air escape as you’re inflating. It makes the inflation process and fine tuning the inflation level much easier. Additionally, I’ve found that many pump sacks like the Exped Schnozzel are cross compatible with other manufacturer’s flat valves, and this is the best way to inflate anything be it a sleeping pad or pillow – so that your warm moisture laden breath isn’t being used to inflate. No such luck with the NEMO, so be sure to leave it unstuffed and with the valve open in storage. That said, even after using the pillow on a 5 day trip I noticed no moisture build up in the inner air chamber and inflation does become easier with practice, however it is definitely an inconvenience when, once the air inside the pillow begins to cool and becomes denser after inflation and you’ve probably already fallen asleep and the pillow needs a top off, that air begins to escape as soon as you open the valve. One way valves make things much easier.
Once inflated however, the NEMO Fillo Elite does offer comfort. As a side sleeper I found the height of the pillow adequate and the normal, non-luxury version seen here to be ample as far as size is concerned. The internal air bladder is baffled, slightly stretchy, and cradles your head to some extent (in fact, I think the smaller pillow will do better here). The cover and the thin insulation layer just add to this and give it more of a pillow feel, and add some warmth against your face. While the comfort wasn’t off the charts – it is sufficient for a good night of sleep and at 2.9 ounces, it’s hard to complain, but if you like a pillow with extra height and don’t have anything to put on top of the NEMO, look elsewhere. Noise can be an issue with the Fillo Elite – when moving around the noise the pillow makes against your ear reminded me being downstairs when someone is walking around on a creaky wood floor upstairs. For some this may be an issue, however in my case it didn’t interfere with getting a good night of rest. When new or after some use, you can remove the inner air chamber and wash the outer cover. Just make sure you do so by pushing the valve in instead of trying to pull the air chamber out.
When it comes to backpacking pillows, there is no magic solution – more comfort simply means carrying more weight. For each one of us it comes down to a balance, and as far as I’m concerned I like to carry the minimum amount of weight (and however much that might be) to get a good night of sleep in the backcountry, but no more than that. The NEMO Fillo Elite strikes a nice balance; at less than 3 ounces I wouldn’t consider it weighing any pack down, and in fact it just may lighten a lot of packs for those who make the switch. The Fillo Elite is definitely not what I’d describe as luxurious, but it’s (much) better than nothing, and better comfort wise than lighter alternatives as well, for a very small weight penalty. If you’re looking for fast and light, but with a little bit of comfort at night, the NEMO Fillo Elite is certainly worth a look.
The NEMO Fillo Elite retails for $45. You can find it here at REI, at Backcountry.com, and here at Amazon.com.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0Although I’ve been a user of an InReach SE for years – which always met or exceeded my battery life expectations in the backcountry, when the InReach Mini was released – and despite its obvious advantages in the weight and size department over previous InReach devices, I had a few reservations in regards to a possible upgrade. While the weight and size factor would be a step up, custom messaging would be a downgrade – the InReach SE’s message composition already reminded me of text messaging on some of the first cell phones, and the Mini just seemed to take that back another level. In addition however, one of my larger concerns was the battery life – not only did some reviews here and there mention subpar battery life, but on paper the InReach Mini’s 1250 mAh battery has about half the capacity of my InReach SE. Would the battery life on the Mini be sufficient? Would I have to carry a power bank in addition to the Mini on backpacking trips, negating the weight savings? Eventually the size and (potential) weight savings of the InReach Mini were hard to overlook and I decided that I’d just have to test it myself.
While our full review of the InReach Mini details additional battery life scenarios where the device is left on and tracking utilized, my usual method of utilizing a satellite communicator when backpacking is to turn the device off during the day and night and send check in messages once a day with a possible quick back and forth custom message or two, and a message check in the morning before leaving camp. Additionally, I’ll probably update the weather forecast offered on InReach devices once or twice during a multiday trip.
My test took place over a 5 day backpacking trip that was equally clear and equally cloudy and rainy (with a little hail thrown in). Due to the more inclement weather combined with several passes that needed to be traversed along the route, I updated the weather forecast on the device several times during the trip, sent a preset check-in message daily, checked messages each morning, and also had a few short custom conversational exchanges (note: Bluetooth was turned off on the device). The result? Extremely surprising – after 5 days of this routine the device had a solid 91% battery life remaining. Additionally I’ve observed a low self-discharge on the device in the range of around 1-2% a week.
Thus, for messaging usage and to have along for SOS functionality I'd describe the battery life of the InReach Mini as excellent and capacity would be sufficient for the longest duration trips that I’d ever head out on before heading back to resupply / recharge. In fact, daily but minimal usage would require even less care in regards to battery life than I utilized and even for long trips. That said, as a “Mini” device the battery is smaller than other InReach devices and if you’ll have tracking on and like to send tracking updates frequently, it may be best to take along a backup power source or go with the larger InReach Explorer+ with its larger battery. Overall however – and for its size and weight – the battery life of the InReach Mini is more than sufficient with relatively minimal usage.
You can take a look at our full InReach Mini review here. Find the Mini here at REI, at Backcountry.com, and at Amazon.com.
By Mark Wetherington in TrailGroove Blog 1As far as hiking gear goes, trekking poles are one of the most utilitarian and least flashy pieces of gear out there. Whereas sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, down jackets, and rain shells all seem to have copious amounts of energy and ink expended in marketing campaigns to promote them, trekking poles seem to have a much lower profile.
There’s just something about these simple pieces of gear that doesn’t really inspire the enthusiasm and consumer-fever that gets people worked up about discussing fill power, hydrostatic head, Dyneema Composite Fabric construction, and the Holy Grail of true waterproof-breathability. Perhaps it is because trekking poles are relatively simple items and a quick substitute for them – a stick lying on the ground in the forest – has existed since humans began walking upright and found themselves needing a temporary extra appendage to add balance in certain situations. Whereas sleeping bags, down jackets, and rain jackets are more cutting-edge and, given the amazing benefits they provide, lead themselves to greater fandom than mere trekking poles. Add in the fact that most of the aforementioned pieces of gear are non-negotiable and absolutely necessary for most three-season backpacking trips, while trekking poles can easily be left behind without ruining a trip (try forgetting a sleeping bag and still having a good trip), and it is no wonder that trekking poles usually fade into the background in discussions and magazine articles about gear.
Regardless of their lack of hype when compared to other items on the outdoor gear market, trekking poles provide significant benefits to hikers, especially those carrying the weight in food and gear needed for multi-day backpacking trips. Benefits range from stability on uneven terrain, reduced strain on knees, balance when crossing streams or when on snow, to somewhat less tangible ones like their ability to help hikers get in a better rhythm when moving on easier terrain to really crank out the miles (although this certainly varies from hiker to hiker, as some simply stow the trekking poles when the terrain mellows out). For backpackers using tarp shelters and certain models of tents, trekking poles serve as the support for the shelter and allow it to be pitched without needing separate poles that only serve one purpose.
Granted, trekking poles aren’t something used by all backpackers or even all avid and experienced backpackers. One hiker I know, who has logged over 30,000 miles during four decades backpacking, doesn’t use trekking poles. Another avid backpacker who has explored the rugged terrain of Montana for over 50 years only uses them when snowshoeing. Some complain about the added piece of gear, that they can get in the way, the straps get tangled up in their hands, and so on and so forth. Others, including this author, couldn’t imagine a backpacking trip without using trekking poles and proselytize to novice hikers about their benefits at every opportunity. To quote the Red River Gorge guidebook author Jerrell Goodpaster, in regard to trekking poles “some swear by them, others swear at them.”
Like all pieces of gear, not all trekking poles are created equal. Different locking mechanisms (the twist locks of the LT5s compared to the lever locks of REI's Flash Carbon Poles), handle materials (cork vs. rubberized vs. foam), collapsibility (three-section, Black Diamond’s z-poles method, etc.) all have certain benefits and drawbacks. Some of this boils down to personal preference, and some to the conditions where you plan to use the poles. For general three-season on-trail and easy cross-country hiking, models such as the Gossamer Gear LT5s – an update to the previous LT4 trekking pole – are popular for their excellent mix of compactness, minimal weight, comfortable handles, and suitability for most non-mountaineering hikes. The Gossamer Gear poles are not cheap – at $195 for the pair there is a lot of other gear that could be purchased – but their performance is commensurate with the price.
The most striking thing about these poles is their minimal weight. At 5.3 ounces each (which includes the strap and mud/snow basket on the bottom; they are a scant 4.6 ounces without these), these poles truly are feather-weight. This low weight made my initial uses of them an exercise in suspension of disbelief, as the ability of such a light pole to fully support my weight with a backpack on rocky terrain and with all my force on one pole was astounding and amusing. It really was almost hard to “trust” these at first, as I was coming from using poles that were more than twice as heavy. After a few hikes and unexpected stumbles in which these poles saved me from a fall, I was totally converted.
The low weight is a result of their carbon fiber construction, resulting in their top-tier price. From bicycle wheels to skis, carbon fiber has led to reduced weights without sacrificing performance in multiple categories of outdoor gear. Although carbon fiber can fail catastrophically and with little signs of warning (like the obvious cracks you would see in a steel bicycle frame when compared to a carbon fiber one), this shouldn’t dissuade you from using carbon fiber poles (the high price would be a more legitimate excuse). There is barely perceptible lateral flex on these poles when under extreme duress, and this seems to be the most likely way that these would fail in the field. The types of forces typically exerted on trekking poles, the consequences of failure (unlike a bike, you probably won’t be going 30+ mph if a trekking pole failed), and the improvements in quality and durability over the years mean you should feel secure in choosing and using carbon fiber poles. No warranty against breakage of the carbon fiber tubing is offered however, so if a section does end up breaking, you’ll need to purchase the fix (replacement sections are available) through Gossamer Gear.
In addition to the minimal weight, the ability of these poles to be compacted to less than two feet (23.5”) when stowing them is a great feature. When needing to stow them to make both hands available when scrambling in Class 3 terrain or when they weren’t needed on easy terrain, it was great to be able to pack these away in those types of situations. And the added weight to my pack was barely over a half-pound. The max length is 51" when fully extended, so if you plan to use these for a shelter you will want to factor that in as well.
Preference for handle material varies from user to user and I found the handles on these poles to be a great material in a variety of conditions. During the few months of testing, I didn’t see any noticeable deterioration in the materials despite exposure to a variety of conditions and lots of sweat. The handle material is preferable over rubberized handles, and these are some of the nicer handles I’ve used with superb handle comfort, one of the most comfortable handles I've ever had on a trekking pole. The strap is functional and not overly burdensome or inconvenient – it simply functions as it should with no remarkable characteristics. The included rubber tips and baskets are helpful for the conditions where they are appropriate and replacements can be easily ordered at a reasonable price from Gossamer Gear when they are worn out or go missing. The tip traction is great on a variety of surfaces and the snowbaskets are easy to add and remove.
Perhaps the most important part of a trekking pole is having an absolutely solid locking mechanism to prevent the poles from unexpected slipping when loaded with weight, which often occurs during a slip or when bracing when climbing up or down something, or crossing a creek. While the vast majority of the time the changes in length of the pole as a result of slippage were microscopic over the course of a moderate backpacking trip, there were a few instances where significant slippage occurred. Both were when crossing creeks that were deep enough to cover the twist-locks and when I had to fully weight the poles to gain enough balance to not slip. The slippage didn’t result in injury, but it also did not inspire confidence in a situation where I needed it most. I will accept some role in perhaps not tightening them down as much as I should have after adjusting them prior to the crossings, but overall I think that this more an issue with the twist-lock mechanism and not solely user error.
While I've been pleased with poles and they've met my expectations, the price tag on them makes it difficult to unequivocally recommend them. Although I would be surprised if anyone purchased them and found them lacking, there are many other more affordable options out there for hikers just needing a pair of poles and not overly concerned about their weight. Aside from some limited slippage of the locking mechanism, there were no major issues of concern that I encountered when using these poles. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I'm hopeful that these poles will be with me for as long as my previous pair of poles, which was nearly a decade.
The Gossamer Gear LT5 Trekking Poles retail for $195. You can find them at here at Gossamer Gear.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0Ever since one of my favorite backpacking meals of all time – the Pad See You noodles from Backpacker’s Pantry was unfortunately discontinued, I’ve been a search for a simple, but good rice noodle dish with an accompanying meat protein. The Pad Thai from Mountain House is a recent meal that ends up being a close contender to my old time favorite, and the latest meal with this theme I’ve tested is the dehydrated Spicy Pork Noodles from Firepot, who makes pre-packaged, just add water dehydrated meals in the United Kingdom.
This meal is based on rice noodles, ground pork, and various vegetables and spices including everything from honey to fish sauce. The meal is not freeze dried – but rather dehydrated, and I assume in order to assist with this process, everything in the bag other than the noodles is of a very finely chopped type consistency. This being the second meal from Firepot that I’ve tried, I was already accustomed to their easy fill process – fold the bag to create a crease at the fill line mentioned in the instructions (the scale is printed on the side of the bag), and then just fill to that line which makes things easy. The meal takes 1.75 cups of boiling water and 15 minutes of rehydration time. The bags are harder to open than most other meals I’ve tried – doable by hand but it may help to have a small pair of scissors or a Swiss Army knife on hand to assist.
After rehydration, the consistency of the meal was perfect, with everything having rehydrated adequately and without any resulting soupiness. Taste wise and as you’d expect from the name of the meal, the spice is definitely there and may even be too high for some palates. However, beyond that I just wasn’t getting a much flavor as I’d hope for at the end of the day. For me adding some Yellowbird Ghost Pepper Sauce solved the issue quickly – although I wouldn’t say the meal necessarily needed the additional heat. Other ways to help would include some extra seasoning such as black pepper, garlic powder, sriracha, or so long as you’re good with adding even more sodium, additional soy sauce from a packet. The ingredients already in the meal are good however, and 770 calories in a compact package is great. So I believe the meal is good – it could use just a little something.
Overall, and while I’m much higher on Firepot’s Chili Con Carne Meal, I think their Spicy Pork Noodles Meal makes more of a good base to improve upon on your own if you’re up for it. If you like spicy Asian cuisine, the meal is workable in whatever way you want to take it from there, and I would suggest packing along a few extra additions to take this particular meal to the next level. This could include your favorite hot sauce or favorite seasonings that you might like to add to similar noodle dishes, and allows you to suit this meal to your own tastes.
You can find the Firepot Spicy Pork Noodles Meal here at REI.
By Susan Dragoo in TrailGroove Blog 0The forested slopes of southeastern Oklahoma’s ironically named Sans Bois Mountains provide the backdrop for much of the excitement in “True Grit,” a novel by Charles Portis and two major motion pictures (1969 and 2010). You wouldn’t know it though, for the mountain peaks shown in the films suggest places farther west. Indeed, the movies were filmed in Colorado and New Mexico, but pursuing outlaws in post-Civil War Indian Territory, as the main characters are portrayed as doing in “True Grit,” was not just one of Hollywood’s fictional creations.
Here in the foothills of the larger Ouachita Mountain range, deep forests and rugged terrain did indeed shelter folks on the wrong side of the law during and after the Civil War. During that conflict, deserters found refuge in these isolated backwoods. And for many years after the war, Indian Territory maintained a reputation for lawlessness. Legend has it that unsavory characters such as Jesse and Frank James, the Doolin Gang, and Henry and Belle Starr hid out in these parts, some even living in sandstone caves in the cliffs of the Fourche Maline River. Whether or not any of these notables ever used it as a hideout, the name “Robbers Cave” seemed apropos for the signature feature of this Oklahoma state park when it was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps along the banks of the Fourche Maline in the 1930s.
As for the decidedly wooded mountain range named Sans Bois, which is French for "without wood,” a creek with very little timber and its source in these mountains is said to have given the range its name. The dense forest is dominated by short-leaf pine and post oak, hickory and cedar, with dogwood and redbud adding color to the landscape.
All of this makes for excellent hiking, with challenging terrain and beautiful scenery, and the cave itself is a must-see, although not a cave in the true sense of the word. Robbers Cave is more a crevice created by the shifting of inclined layers of sedimentary rock. It is easily accessed from a parking lot on the northeast side of the park via a short but steep climb. Whether or not Belle Starr ever set foot in it, climbing up, sitting inside and peering out is a satisfying accomplishment. No less interesting are the rock formations below the cave, which create narrow passageways reminiscent of slot canyons. It’s a worthwhile place to spend some time.
Three main paths – Rough Canyon Trail, Cattail Pond Loop, and Mountain Trail – dominate the Robbers Cave State Park trail system, and the ability to connect them with a multi-use trail and four backcountry camp sites makes it possible to put together an enjoyable backpacking experience.
The Rough Canyon trailhead is adjacent to the cave parking lot, and what hiker could resist a trail called “Rough Canyon”? The first mile lives up to the “rough” appellation with lots of rocky uphill, briefly running along a stream before opening up, then flowing into a dense pine forest. The trail continues uphill then intersects with the Cattail Pond Loop, which incorporates a stream crossing and circles the eponymous body of water, passing a primitive campground before it turns toward lovely Lost Lake. Surrounded by maples and covered with lily pads, this is an intensely beautiful spot in the fall, and its rock dam and attendant stone structure are worth investigating. The trail continues with lots of rocky downhill, returning to the cave parking lot for a total of about four miles. These trails can be mixed and matched for various distances and, on the west, they connect with the park’s 4.8-mile Mountain Trail.
On the park’s southern end, the Deep Ford Campground serves as the primary starting point for the Mountain Trail. This is really the park’s signature trail, tracing the western shores of Lakes Carlton and Wayne Wallace before connecting with the Rough Canyon Trail. Finding your way can be difficult in spots, however. As the trail climbs above Lake Carlton, it is easy to veer off course, confusing the well-worn spur to the bluffs with the main trail. The bluffs must be explored, as the view is breathtaking, but remember that the main trail goes above the bluffs, not below. Other hiking and equestrian trail branches also create confusion along the way and the park maps are not all that helpful. But if you sort it out, you’ll come to the Rocky Top primitive campground on the northern edge of the Mountain trail, near the intersection with the Rough Canyon Trail.
A multi-use trail connects with the Mountain and Rough Canyon trails, allowing creation of an overnight backpacking loop of about 11.5 miles in length. Robbers Cave is also perfect for day hiking, with abundant campgrounds and cabins built in the 1930s in National Park Service rustic style.
In fact, the park is so full of intact historical structures that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After a vigorous hike, take a leisurely walk to explore such structures as the 1936 bathhouse on Lake Carlton, now serving as the park’s nature center. And, with its huge sandstone rock faces, Robbers Cave State Park is a popular destination for rock climbers.
While you’re unlikely to find any outlaws hiding out there these days, hiking at Robbers Cave State Park, near Wilburton, Oklahoma, offers a taste of the backwoods that attracted those renegades 150 years ago and perhaps a glimpse into what life on the run might have looked like in those cliffs above the Fourche Maline.
Information: There is no fee to access the park but a $10 per day parking fee is charged (annual parking passes are also available). Parking is, however, included in fees for cabin/lodge room rental or camping. The park offers ample camping, including 86 primitive tent campsites. Tent camping in backcountry campsites and campgrounds is $16 per night. Make reservations, obtain a parking pass and get complete park information here.
Getting There: Robbers Cave State Park is located five miles north of Wilburton, Oklahoma on State Highway 2. Wilburton is about 160 miles from Oklahoma City, 130 miles from Tulsa, and 75 miles from Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Best Time to Go: Spring and fall are the best times to go thanks to cooler temperatures and more color in the landscape (dogwood and redbud in spring and maples and other hardwoods in fall). Winter is also a very good time to go, as temperatures are usually mild. In the summer, while ticks and poison ivy can be annoying, the trails are generally well groomed and shady, so hiking then can be pleasant as well.
Maps and Books: Oklahoma Hiking Trails by Kent Frates and Larry Floyd, and True Grit by Charles Portis. The Oklahoma Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer can help with getting to and from and exploring the area. The Ouachita Maps web site offers topo maps and detailed hiking directions. Also see the Robbers Cave Historical Walking Tour.