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THE PULSE - Your source for survival, skills, and more from Rocky Mountain Editor Steve Howe

Some of My Favorite Things

In which I answer a reader question from last week's survey

Campfire map scribbling. October in the Absarokas. Pic:

Last week I asked readers what they’d like to see in this blog. I’ll try and address those responses one at a time, in between some other subjects.

First up: “I like the occasional updates on gear you're testing but how about something on the old reliable type of items you just can't do without? --Chris”

Well, for the most part I don’t have a lot of “old reliable” items, except for boots that  fit my weird feet, because most older gear isn’t as good as the new stuff. Never was; never will be. When you test a ton of gear, in direct comparisons, you realize that often the "old favorite" you were in love with is just nostalgia, the "golden sieve of memory," and the fact that you haven't sampled much of the market. But I’m not big on the latest and greatest either, because I’ve been testing gear for 20 years, and I’m seriously jaded.

That said, here’s what I’m currently in love with, and will probably stand the test of time:

Black Diamond Soloist Gloves

I’ve got wimpy fingers that get cold at the slightest breeze, so in real winter conditions, I’m usually a mitten guy. But clipping carabiners, shooting cameras, and shifting gears while winter biking (my new hip-friendly exercise regime) means mittens are out. These gloves are a huge fave because they’re warm (Primaloft and Polartec), tough, and durable. The liners are removable so you can dry them out overnight in your bag if needed (hallelujah), and yet they’re warm enough even for winter cycling, which is the acid test. Grippy palms don’t hurt either. $100; 9.2 oz/pr. (my scale weight);

North Face Nova Sleeping Bag

I’m also a cold sleeper. In winter I use bag that’s -20F or thicker. I’ll only use a 20F or warmer bag for summer and desert use.  For high-mountain three-season use, I use  0F bags. I’ve got quite a few bags in the gear garage, but the one I’m in most often is the TNF Nova, a 0F, 800-fill-power down bag with a lightweight WP/B  shell  for water/condensation/frost resistance.  The rating lets me sleep toasty even on ridgetops, and while there are lighter bags out there, I prefer this one because of its slightly roomier 62-inch chest girth, and a series of synthetic pads on the bottom that offer a bit more under-the-butt warmth. The cover fabric is tough and windproof for open bivvys.  Not a fancy/sexy/uberlight boutique bag, but for me, the weight trade-offs are worth it. $439; 3 lbs. 5 oz.;

Big Agnes Dual Core Pad

This is an unusually tough, 2.5-inch thick air mattress insulated with Primaloft Eco and a thin layer of high density foam. Way toasty in cold weather and plenty cush, it’s also compact and apparently reliable, since I haven’t punctured it in 60 to 70  days of careless use. There are lighter pads out there, and for Sunday-go-to-meeting UL duties I’ll swear by the EC-winning Thermarest NeoAir (14 oz.),  but it’s not quite warm enough for winter, for colder weather Dual Cores rock, and for high mileage duties I sleep better for lack of puncture angst.  Interestingly, catalog specs say the Dual Core weighs 2 lbs. 4 oz., but my digital scale say 1 lb. 13 oz. with bag and patch kit. Whatever. $100.

Hilleberg Nallo 2 Tent

On my last Denali climb, Sibu Vilane and I used a Nammatj 3GT from Hilleberg, and it was awwww-some.  After the climb I sent it back like a good little tester (waaah). So for last summer’s month in Alaska, I checked into the Hilleberg Nallo 2, a two-pole tunnel tent with a front entrance and sloped vestibule that has excellent room for two people and gear. (See it in action.) Two things stand out:  First, its classic “Euro-pitch.” Just slide the poles into the pole sleeves (located in the fly, not on the inner canopy), shove them snug, tighten the friction buckles, and both the inner and fly are pitched in one operation. Because of this, you can also use it fly-only by un-toggling the inner tent, and fit 3-4 people inside. Second, it’s seriously weather and wind-resistant. While hunkering from epic weather on the Chitistone Goat Trail, Jen and I had it pitched on the open knoll of Wolverine airstrip, getting pummeled by 40mph gusts and rain hammering from every direction. No worries, thanks to the tough, elastic Keron fabric, which you can easily get taught and wrinkle-free. No, it’s not ultralight (in part due to the nylon, rather than mesh, inner canopy) and it’s not cheap. But when you’re facing real weather, it’s a real tent, not just an excuse for one, and the weight’s still reasonable. $550; 4 lbs. 3 oz.;

Gregory  Z 55 Pack

Really, there are a ton of nice packs out there, and I’ve tried most of them. But the ones I grab most often come from the Gregory Z series. The 55-liter model seems perfectly sized for my normal gear on a three-day trek or a weeklong ultralight. (I wear the short torso, which means I’ve actually got 50 liters/3,050 at 3 lbs. 8 oz.)  Load transfer, back ventilation and overall comfort are great. It’s stable enough for skiing or scrambling if needed, and has the features I like, ala a simple pack bag, versatile pockets (including dual hipbelt pockets), and just enough strappage and doodads to carry climbing gear if I want. If it had D-rings on the shoulder harness for attaching a camera chest pack, it’d be perfect. Until then, it’s close enough. Note: The model I’m most psyched about is their 2010 version, with a new backpanel and improved hipbelt support.  $200;

Evernew Titanium Alcohol Stove

OK, novella time here. Normally, I’m not an alcohol stove fan simply because many designs are fragile, measuring the fuel is fussy,  you get one temperature only, and on trips longer than four days, the lower btu output of alcohol means your fuel weight overwhelms the supposedly ultralight properties of the stove itself. Where I live, denatured alcohol is hard to find, while Yellow HEET brand gasoline additive gets expensive, even though it’s easy to find for AT thru-hikers.

For butane/propane use, I love the Brunton Flex folding canister stove, because it's small, has a broad burner for even heat, pumps out a nuclear 12,000 btus if you crank it, and is stable enough to hold big pots even though it weighs a mere 3.4 oz. It also costs $112. Damn, guess the price climbed since I got it four years ago.

But despite the manifesto above, I’m currently  psyched about this new alcohol stove from Evernew, called the EBY 255 stove set. It’s tough as nails. The burner, windscreen, and a 500ml covered cookpot/cup weigh 5.7 oz total, and nest into an armored cylinder 3.5 by 3.75 inches.  Perfect for solo travelers who like simplicity, durability, and feather weight. Stand and stove: $87.27.  Mug/Pot: $20.20. Ouch! Too expensive? Save $46 by inserting your own 2.5-inch diameter alcohol burner.  Whew, that’s better.

O.K. All for now. Got your own favorite ‘old reliables’? You know where to boast 'em up. – Steve Howe


Brad David Orndorff
Jan 27, 2010

Think color pollution. Please try to purchase backpacking products that are earth-tone in color. With downturning economy comes upgroath in backpacking,I saw it in the late 70`s-80`s. Some areas look like a carnival, but colors that blend in do help lessen the visual impact. Thank you

Jan 15, 2010

pwpwian alsohol way to go very light unless in group in cold weather the gasoline powered might be worthwhile

Jan 14, 2010

soda pop alcohol stoves w/ aluminum foil wind screens can be constructed using plans available on line. they cost nothing and work flawlessly.

Robert Johnson, Sr.
Jan 14, 2010

Deux Wheels
Jan 14, 2010

It looks to me like back-packing is going the way of motorcycling; no one is able to afford it except the rich and famous.

Jan 14, 2010

Why do people still play with stoves ?
SVEA's were brilliant and never surpassed !
Too heavy ?
Eat less Twinkiez !

Jan 13, 2010

Lots of options with alcohol stoves. I like how they are quiet. Don't like the lack of burner control. I used the aluminum White Box stove on the JMT last year. Very rugged and indestructable, comes with a wind screen, puts out the heat and for the frugally minded it's cheap at $20 and weighs 1 oz.. Only issue is its stability is a little questionable but I didn't lose any meals with it. I'll talk about it more soon in my blog I'm starting about my JMT adventures at

Peter Rives
Jan 11, 2010

Alright now, MAJOR omission. I kept reading to see where you were going to list your indisputable favorite: The MSR MugMate (
I can attest from many a trip that Mr. Howe is NEVER without it and its never far from reach.


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