Roads Rivers and Trails

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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Gear Review: Rab Alpha Direct

image000000No matter what winter outdoor activity you participate in, the main challenges are always to stay warm and dry.  It can be quite the struggle to achieve this equilibrium given the environmental conditions that are thrown at you on the mountain, the slopes, or even the trails at the Nature Center.  Everyone wants to be warm and toasty when they hike in winter, but if you become too warm, your body needs to start sweating in order to keep cool.  Of course, the first instinct is to shed a layer which helps if you’re slogging up the relentless uphill pitch of your favorite mountain or large hill. In other situations though, you just start to get doggone chilly! I have definitely been “that guy” on many a winter hike or snowshoe trip that has to stop every 5 minutes to keep putting on the layer I just took off the last time I stopped.  Ever since I was a young lad working on the potato farm on the Emerald Isle, I have long dreamed of a jacket that would be both breathable enough to expel the heat created while working hard and insulating enough that I would not freeze my fanny off when I stop to take a break.  Well, my fine feathered friends, do I have good news for you: I finally was able to experience such a magical coat this winter!  It’s the Alpha Direct Jacket from our good friends over at Rab.

The jacket gets its name from the Polartec Alpha insulation.  This is a synthetic insulation that is highly compressible, made of highly lofted knit fibers (almost feels like high pile fleece on the inside) that keeps moisture vapor moving freely throughout that increases overall air exchange and speeds up drying time.  This allows the insulation to keep from over saturating and turning into a sponge which I have experienced while using traditional synthetic insulation material.  It is definitely the most water repellent of any insulation material I have ever used.

Jacket at First Glance

-Maybe the best fit I’ve ever found in a synthetic insulated jacket. I’m 5’8”, 170 pounds with an athletic build and the medium fit me like a glove.  It is trim enough that it layers easily underneath a hard shell when needed, but not tight to the point that I can’t wear it out in public.

-One chest pocket on the16178743_10158003463420005_8905867791651398461_o outside with two hand-warmer pockets high enough to be used when wearing a backpack hip belt or a climbing harness.

-Insulated under the helmet hood. Great because over-the-helmet hoods look huge and barely stay on your head when not wearing a helmet (plus not everyone wears a helmet when doing winter activities!)

-Rab chose to forego an inside liner for this jacket. At first I was skeptical, but then quickly changed my mind after I noticed how soft and warm the Polartec Alpha material feels directly on the skin.  I think this helps expedite drying time and moisture release even more so!

-It may have the best length sleeve with thumb loops I have come across.  The thumb loops are fleece lined and great when putting sleeves through another layer or for extra hand warmth, but are still a good length that the sleeves don’t bunch up when you’re not using the loops.

-May seem silly, but I like the two tone blue that my jacket came in.  I really like blue and this made it seem less in your face

The Alpha Direct out in the “Field

I first used this jacket back in December on a three mile run on a windy day with temperature in the teens.  Beneath it I wore a short sleeve Ibex wool base layer that was all! When I first stepped out of the car I immediately feel the teeth chattering kind of cold creep into my shoes.  If only they made Polartec Alpha socks! (Heath, if that catches on, I’d like 1% of all sales worldwide.)  Anyway, despite not advertising any wind resistance, I found the Pertex Microlight outer fabric does a fine job with this.  I honestly finished the run sweat-free despite running at a good pace for all three miles.  A couple times I had unzipped the front of the jacket about halfway to let some heat escape, but overall I was very comfortable the entire run.

Over the course of December and January, I wore this for a good number of shorter day hikes, ranging from 3-6 miles depending on the day and what I had time for.  Most da16299599_10158003585010005_6874443317420259073_oys, when the weather was in the 20’s and 30’s, I was totally fine wearing just my short sleeve base layer underneath.  I prescribe to the hiking style of finding a sustainable pace that I can maintain with ease in an effort to just keep moving and to minimize breaks.  So when I would stop, it would only be for a minute or two, but even when on these short rest breaks, I never noticed any drop in core body temperature like you can find when taking a hike stop without adding any additional layers. Again, still amazed at how dry I would be when finishing up these short hikes. Even when hiking near zero degrees my body still finds a way to sweat if I work hard enough.  I would sweat some while wearing the jacket, but the moisture was always able to escape through the jacket and keep me from soaking through my base layer(s).

Now for the real reason I got this jacket: my winter trip to summit Mt. Washington with the University of Cincinnati Mountaineering Club! The three previous times I have summited this mamma jamma, by the time I reached the top, my base layers were either soaked, near soaked, or down right icy which is terribly dangerous in that type of winter alpine environment.  This time however, I was actually dry when I reached the summit! Like they always say, fourth time is the charm… I’m sure someone has said that.  I started my hike with my Ibex merino wool short sleeve base layer and a Rab long-sleeved Merino/polyester blend (MeCo) hooded base layer because I know that I needed to start cold to keep off sweating as long as possible.  When starting a winter activity in which you know your body will warm up after some from exertion, don’t be afraid to start a little chilly. You will warm right up.  Eventually, I needed a little more warmth, so I threw on the Alpha Direct Jacket and chose not to zip it up seeing as we were still hiking uphill.  Once we reached tree line, we met some icy winds so I threw on my Gore-Tex shell jacket and that layering combo kept me warm enough without overheating all the way to the summit! (If you are more interested in Mt. Washington during winter, I wrote a blog about it this time last year! It will be in the blog archives from February 2016.)

Since then, I keep wearing it on my little winter sojourns to commune with the trees and listen to the babble of the brooks in my free time.  Whether it’s near zero and I wear it with a hard shell, or it’s in the upper 40’s and I can get away with just a t-shirt underneath, there is such a wide range of conditions and acti16300059_10158005272260005_1705066003377294848_ovities for which I can wear the Alpha Direct jacket.  I plan on definitely continuing to use it as my go-to winter mid-layer and looking forward to chilly spring and fall days where I can use it as a standalone jacket.  This summer I am taking a 4 week road trip out west and I plan on bringing it as my “just in case” jacket if we run into any 40 degree or lower nights while in the mountains or on the chilly Pacific Coast.  The versatility of this jacket is what makes it worth its weight in gold (which is actually only about 17 oz.!) Given the right conditions, I think I will end up using this bad boy for about 8 months out of the year.  That’s pretty darn worth it in my mind, especially if the trend of having warmer winters continues and you find yourself reaching for that giant puffy less and less.



Musings on Wilderness

WILDERNESS: a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings (2) :  an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community.

-Merriam Webster

I am romantically, spiritually and functionally attracted to wilderness areas. It’s the humbling, realize-your-insignificance sensation, as well as the unspeakable beauty that one experiences in nature that draws me. I often need it to reset and destress from daily life. As a child, I always ran away to blanket forts as my refuge. As I grew, I started climbing trees in order to hide. I found secret hiding places in nature for my solace and peace. Backpacking awakened my true love for wilderness areas and the desire to not see other people or any human development for days at a time. The more I went into the wilderness, the more it became a crucial component to my happiness and has shaped my life plans, friends, and aspirations. It is very important to me and something I will defend and protect.

The ironic thing is that by definition, wilderness does not involve humans. Therefore, as a human enjoying wilderness, I am changing the definition of the place with my presence. I passionately feel the need to protect these places from human intervention, yet I also want the privilege of experiencing them. It’s a sensation of wanting to keep these places an inclusive secret, my own personal refuge. I am worried that other people will tarnish them, overcrowd them. I worry they won’t appreciate them like I do. In reality, I cannot judge how other people experience wilderness or assume that anyone’s experience is less authentic than my own. There are infinite ways to experience wilderness, and one can have a wilderness experience in any place, whether it’s the untouched woods of Alaska or your own backyard.

I have been reading about the explosion of tourism in Iceland and how American tourists outnumbered the amount of Icelandic residents last year (read here). I worry about the effect on the wild and untouched regions of the country. Having visited Iceland this past June, I feel like a hypocrite. I am reluctant to promote a trip to the country for fear of saturating it with tourists, but I can’t help but get excited 13450045_10206763709716302_6848553557237607422_nwhen I talk about it. I had wonderful experiences there and I want others to have the same. The major pull of a destination like Iceland is the untouched, wild, natural beauty of the country. But does this place cease to be wild when saturated with voyeurs? Shouldn’t the beauty of these wild lands be shared and experienced?

Brendan, the author of the blog “semi-rad”, states in his blog, “Hate Crowds? You are Crowds”, that : “We can argue all day about what causes crowds, or how it should be harder to get to certain wild places, but I think it’s worth pointing out that if you’re complaining about a crowd when you’re in one, you’re part of the crowd.” (read here)

Brendan makes his point quite clearly: if you hate people being in wilderness places, don’t go there. I have begun to avoid most National Parks and over-developed areas in order to avoid crowds. I am not suggesting that these are bad places, but they do not appeal to me. For example, when I went to the Grand Canyon, I felt a deep sadness for how overdeveloped and crowded the place was to a point where I had regretted my visit. I had seen canyons of comparable beauty that I had hiked many miles to see with a small group and that experience was more remarkable to me. But if you went to the Grand Canyon and were blown away by its beauty, that’s excellent. Keep visiting these places. It’s all about finding your own wilderness experience. As long as you find that solace and refuge, or whatever you seek, then that’s all that matters.

The great thing is that, especially in the United States, there are still vast expanses of relatively wild areas to explore. In fact, the US h479104_10150770257047238_1906390155_oas more than 106 million acres of federal public lands legally set aside under the Wilderness Act.

The Wilderness Act, signed into law in 1964, created the National Wilderness Preservation System and recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Act further defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” (read here)

So while I may feel sad when I think about the popularization of places like Iceland and the Grand Canyon, I take solace in knowing that there are many, many unexplored places for me to find refuge. I find comfort knowing that these beautiful places are being experienced by people.

For me, I’ll keep reading and idolizing Muir and Abbey and hide away in my multi-acre wilderness expanses. I’ll work on my pretensions and I won’t keep every place a secret. Just a couple of places.

– Kayla McKinney