Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nepal gear round-up

I wanted to post a wrap-up of some of the gear I used during the 220 kilometers of Racing the Planet Nepal, and my thoughts on why it worked (or didn't work.) It's not comprehensive and, as with all gear "reviews" should be taken for the highly subjective and personal opinions they are.

RaidLight Runner R-Light Backpack; holds 30 liters, weighs 690 grams: Raidlight designed this backpack specifically for adventure and long-distance endurance racing, and Racing the Planet sells it directly from its Web site. So it's become the prominent pack at many RTP events, for good reason. It's light, it's decently robust, it has space for lots of stuff, and it has strategic pockets that allow the wearer to access water bottles, food, drugs, and cameras without having to wrestle with the pack. It definitely passed my "Jill-proof" test, meaning I overstuffed it often and hiked and ran many miles with it in Europe, California and Nepal, and nothing broke (and believe me, I am not gentle nor do I have a good track record with longevity in my gear.) It doesn't have a frame, which I prefer for any sort of running. I also own a similarly sized Osprey Stratos backpack that does have a frame. I have taken the Stratos on a couple of fastpacking trips in which I ran for only a few miles, and still ended up with painful sores on my shoulders and hips. With the Raidlight, I tightened the hip and breast straps and let the pack hang loosely off my shoulders, the way I often do with my packs when cycling. Experienced packers may question this strategy but it worked great for me. Even packed with up to 27 pounds of gear, water and food, the Raidlight remained comfortable and didn't cause any chaffing in an entire week. (I did have to tighten the shoulder straps to prevent bouncing whenever I was running 5 mph or faster.) I would definitely use it again on a multi-night fastpacking trip. I already know I can hold seven days worth of food, clothing, rain gear, sleeping gear, and other supplies with this pack. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to add a nine-ounce bivy or lightweight shelter. (I already know I won't be adding a stove. I'll explain why later in this post.)

Black Diamond Ultra-Distance Z-Poles: length 120 centimeters, weigh 9.5 ounces. I love these poles. Seriously. Beat and I purchased them on a whim while browsing the Anchorage REI mere hours before the 2011 Susitna 100, because we were worried about the slog factor caused by all the new snow the region had received that day. Those poles all but carried me the last 50 miles of the Su100, and continued to provide ample balance and knee support on many good hikes afterward. When they disappeared high on Testa Grigia in Italy, I nearly cried. But then Beat bought me a new pair for ... Halloween (awesome guy that he is, no special occasion needed) ... and I had the privilege of using them in Nepal. These carbon poles are both light and strong, with a simple but robust inner-cord support system that allow them to collapse small enough to fit inside the Raidlight without falling apart. They also feature comfy foam grips, hand straps and all-around awesomeness. I really am a fan. 

Brooks Cascadia shoes: These were another remnant of my early days of running, in that they were my main training shoe for the fall and winter of 2010-2011, and were a close second to the Hokas during spring and summer. Yes, they were the same pair of shoes and yes, they had a ton of miles on them (I don't keep track, but the soles were almost worn clean through.) I realize that using such a worn pair of shoes in a long endurance race was a gamble, but they had been so comfortable and provided such great traction on loose and muddy terrain, that I was willing to take the risk. (I was also aware that a lot of the miles in RTP Nepal would be spent hiking, even if I remained healthy, which I didn't.) Great shoes. I finally tossed them out in Kathmandu but recently purchased a new pair (the latest version is signal green color, which I dislike, but what can you do? They hook you first and then they the foist bad colors on you.)

Ridge Rest So-lite; length 72 inches, weighs 14 ounces: I chose the Ridge Rest over my inflatable Thermarest because of the higher R-Value, or insulation factor, and the fact that closed-cell foam can't burst and leave you really miserable at night. Also, I am usually a stomach sleeper, so the softness of the pad isn't as important to me as long as I have a good pillow for neck and shoulder support (I made one out of coats and a stuff sack.) The main thing I seek in a sleeping pad is insulation from the cold ground, which a full-length Ridge Rest provides in all conditions. The So-lite had an added benefit of an aluminum surface that reflects body heat. Whether or not this makes a difference, I don't know. But I have slept on a Ridge Rest comfortably when temperatures reached 35 below, and it is now and probably will forever be my go-to backpacking pad as long as space allows.

RAB Quantum Endurance 400 sleeping bag; length 6 feet 6 inches, weighs 2 pounds 1 ounce: These 850-fill down bags are rated to 25 degrees, so we remained warm and comfy during those long, sick nights in camp. We also were grateful for the weather-proof exterior. Every night, the cheap Coleman tents collected so much condensation on the poorly ventilated walls and roof that it would literally rain inside the tent during the early hours of the morning. We were able to just shake all the droplets off our bags in the morning, while our poor tentmates had to pack up their own soaked bags and hope they reached the next camp in time to dry them out in the sun. Despite the relatively high humidity and keeping it packed in a water-proof stuff sack, my bag was always dry when I unpacked it in the evening. Which was a good thing, because I only once made it to camp before the sun sank behind the mountains.

DriDucks Duralight Rainsuit; weighs 11 ounces. Cheap, ultralight, waterproof, breathable. To those descriptors, you can also add ugly and easily torn, but my pair held up just fine. They're constructed with triple-layer, porous polypro fabric. Thanks to the perfect weather, we mainly used these rainsuits to stay warm in camp, where temperatures dropped as low as 33 degrees, and also for warmth while hiking in the morning and after dark during the long stage. It's actually one of the most breathable yet warm raincoats I've ever worn. And although we didn't test them in wet conditions, the coat has received mostly good reviews for its waterproof capabilities. At $45 for the pair, that's hard to beat. Basically a reusable disposable rainsuit.

Expedition food; 800 calories, weighs 6.2 ounces. Anyone who read my novel of a race report knows that my food was a huge FAIL for me. I carried several pounds of these expensive meals that I never ate. I still believe this largely had to do with my illness and unintentional cleansing of my already oversensitive digestive system. But I also think it carries an important lesson about finding the foods that specifically work for you, and not just doing what everyone else does. I am not a good eater; under endurance duress, I literally cannot eat high-fat or high-protein foods (unless those fats are accompanied by a large volume of sugar ala peanut butter cups. Go figure.) If I do force them down, I often have to endure digestive discomfort and even outright rejection of the food. I haven't made these types of foods work for me yet. I either need to accept that my body seems unable to process larger percentages of proteins and fats even in slower, longer endurance situations, and carry mainly carbohydrates, or I need to spend a lot more time getting my body used to processing fats on the go. Beyond this, there is the smaller issue that I really do think most backpacking-friendly camp food is gross. I am not a "hot food in camp" kind of a person, and yes I realize this puts me in an extreme minority. On my next fastpacking trip, I will bring bagels. I will make the space. It's better to eat something, anything, than nothing at all. Trust me.