The gear that 'Saved our lives' in Patagonia Race

By JASON MAGNESS

The Patagonian Expedition Race, held in southern Chile each February, has been dubbed “the last wild race.” It is one of the world’s most death-defying organized sporting events, a 10-day wilderness immersion where teams go far off-grid and do battle with deep forests, mountain passes, fjords, rivers, and swamps. This is all in the name of finding checkpoints on a map and, eventually, after hundreds of miles, the finish line.

Our team, GearJunkie/YogaSlackers, has raced in Patagonia for the last four years. We finished the 2013 race in 3rd place, and the course proved as tough as ever.

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GearJunkie/YogaSlackers in the thick of it, deep in the wilds of Patagonia; photo by Justin Lotak

The race destroys gear as well as bodies. This year, we decided to go as fast and light as possible to gain some speed. We picked a bad year for this strategy — Patagonia showed its fury last month, with some of the harshest weather we’ve ever seen. It was 10 straight days of rain and snow, high temps in the mid-30s (F), and winds up to 100mph.

This is not to mention the cold waters we paddled and swam in, and the immersive, day-long bushwhacks where you’re soaked head to toe and poked endlessly by sticks and thorns. . . ah, all good fun!

In the end, our gear saved our lives. Not to be overdramatic, but in truth our shell jackets, wool base layers, sleeping bags, tent — not to mention packs, shoes, crampons, pack rafts, and food — were key to us making it through the near-impossible course. Here are a few pieces of gear that stood out. —Jason Magness

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Trekking through swamps is a big part of the race; photo by Justin Lotak

Pack Rafts — Our Alpacka rafts pack small and inflate to vessels that can float in class IV whitewater or traverse a frozen fjord. We traveled the wilderness with the 3 pound, 3 ounce Scout model ($525) in our packs. We trusted them enough to cross 6KM of open fjord once with no life jackets or drysuits. (Not recommended!) If they pop, we could die. Enough said.

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Lightweight Shell Jackets — Niche outerwear brand Montane is known for its ultralight equipment. We picked the zipper-less Spektr Smock jacket (£220, www.montane.co.uk), which employs a thin eVent shell fabric that’s waterproof and breathable. The jackets are extra light at around 9 ounces but serve as a true survivalist piece. In our race, the shells served as a crucial buffer between us and Patagonia’s wind, rain, and hypothermia-inducing conditions. Bonus: The fabric durability was amazing. After 10 days of racing and bush-bashing in Patagonia (which equates to several seasons of normal wear) my jacket is still water tight.

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Liquid Food — TailWind Nutrition is hardly the first brand to make “drinkable calories.” But we found this concoction (www.tailwindnutrition.com) restored our faith in powdered drink mixes for serious endurance events. In fact, about 30% of our calories for the entire race came from this stuff! By the end of the race, half crazed, I was so hooked that I was taking shots of the powder straight.

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Sleeping Bag — It compresses crazy small (think grapefruit-size) and weighs just 1.25 pounds. But the Lafuma Active 45 sleeping bag kept us warm enough at night — just barely. It was below freezing some nights, but with all our layers on we were able to survive with this ultralight bag. A synthetic insulation fill kept working even when damp. It’s a steal, too, at just $80. Soon to be available from Lafuma and on Amazon here.

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Sleeping Pad — For the past three years in Patagonia we’ve used this pad, the NeoAir XLite from Therm-a-Rest. The inflatable pad packs super small and weighs just 8oz. But in wet conditions it keeps us off the ground. In our floor-less tent this is crucial. Bonus: In dire conditions, you can use this blow-up pad as an ad hoc raft to traverse lakes and rivers. Not recommended by the company, we might add.

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Sport Glasses — Clear vision can save your life out there. We wear Wenger Sport Glasses ($250, www.wengerna.com), which have switchable lenses for adapting to different light. Changing lenses was easy even in inclement conditions with gloves on. Changing light conditions, especially on the Patagonian glaciers, necessitated several lens swaps a day.

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Base Layers — Our “second skin” on the racecourse is Ibex merino wool. The thin shirts and leggings truly become a part of you after multiple days of wear. They adapt across a range of temps and regulate the body from hot to cold, wet to dry. Crucial out there!

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In addition to the wool, this year we wore 2XU’s Thermal 3/4 Compression Tights ($119, www.2xu.com). They gave compression and some warmth on the move. Fit well and didn’t chafe at all even after countless miles and days on our bodies. They dried fast, the tights kept us regulated (well, at least non-hypothermic) even during multiple river crossings and pack-raft paddles where we were soaked and frozen.

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Satellite Device — The Delorme InReach ($249, www.delorme.com) kept us in contact with the outside world. This little satellite device is remarkable — it can pair with an iPhone or Android phone, allowing a user to send and receive text messages anywhere on the planet. In Patagonia, we left our phones behind but communicated during the 10 days with short messages and GPS tracking of our route. It was a safety backup, too, in case of a real emergency out there in the wilds.

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We used the InReach once in the race when a checkpoint was misplaced. We texted the race staff from the deep wilderness in the middle of the night. Minutes later they confirmed that we could proceed, having seen the exact location of the text via GPS.

Macadamia Nuts — Calories give energy to the body. They also give heat, keeping your core temp up as you eat. Macadamia nuts saved us out there. The YogaSlackers yoga team recently started working with Royal Hawaiian Orchards, so the brand shipped us a box of nuts for Patagonia. A 5oz. bag has 1000 calories, giving macadamia nuts one of the most amazing calorie-to-weight ratios we’ve ever seen. The nuts literally pulled us away from the edge of hypothermia nearly every day of the race.

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‘Front-Pack’ Pouch — The Inov-8 Race Pac 2 ($35, www.inov-8.com) is a weird but crucial product that clips onto the straps of a backpack. It sits on your chest and offers an easy-to-access pouch where food, meds, sunscreen, and other essentials can be accessed in an instant. It also has an open sleeve in the center that conveniently holds a water bottle, hat, and whatever else you can stuff in for quick access on the move.

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Gloves — Bike gloves rarely come in the “save your life” category. But usable hands are crucial to doing anything in the wilds, and to get our fingers moving in Patagonia we wore Specialized’s Deflect Gloves ($40, www.specialized.com) for much of the race. These cold-weather biking gloves are tough, comfortable, and warm enough even in snow.

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Deflect Gloves from Specialized

Tent — Shelter from the storm came from Mountain Hardwear and its Hoopla 4 tent. Using a single pole that clicks together to make a hoop, this floorless, teepee-type shelter has room for four people inside. Best part, the tent weighs under 2 lbs (hoop included) packed up.

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Hoopla 4 tent sets up with single trekking poke. Shown here with a floor. For the race, we left the floor behind to save weight

Insulated Jacket — Body heat preservation came from synthetic fill and “puffy” jackets, including the Rab Xenon. The Pertex fabric coat is stuffed with PrimaLoft, a synthetic down that keeps us warm even when wet. These jackets are serious life savers out there. Do not leave home without ‘em!

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Headwear — Waterproof ballcaps from Outdoor Research, the Prismatic model with Gore-Tex fabric, kept the rain off. They fit nicely under the hood of our Montane jackets and helped increase our field of vision even in a heavy downpour. Bomber stuff — they never soaked through after a week+ of hard use. We used Buffs as balaclavas when it got really cold.

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Footwear — Lightweight trail shoes keep us fast. We wear Inov-8’s X-Talon 212 model, a fell running shoe with big lugs and sub-7 ounce weight. We pair the shoes with Outdoor Research’s Flex Tec gaiters to seal off the feet and keep out the debris.

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Sport Watch — Time is of the essence in any race. But we also need to know altitude and other metrics out there, as well as have an alarm for waking the crew up after short sleeps. Suunto’s Core and X6HR models (www.suunto.com) adorned our wrists this year and during all Patagonia races for the past four years. Bomber products. The alarm is loud enough to wake at least one member of the team despite all of us being dead to the world when we do get a chance to sleep.

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Lights — The Fenix HP11 headlamp ($64, www.fenixtactical.com) let us see far and move through difficult terrain at night with its powerful 277-lumen spot beam. It played a big part in keeping us on track (and safe) in the vast Patagonian wilderness at night.

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—Jason Magness is a contributing editor and captain of Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers.

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Third place for Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers in the 2013 event. (Photo by Justin Lotak.) See you next year!

Posted by Tomer Ullmann - 03/15/2013 10:41 AM

Did the gear work well for everybody ?

Posted by Jason - 03/15/2013 01:37 PM

The gear was not always perfect for sure, but we are not expecting to be comfortable. Few further notes for those interested:

Montane Jackets – they run SMALL, so size up one or two sizes. The zipperless closure is hard to get used too, and awkward with cold and swollen fingers. If they redesigned it with a 1/4 zipper and added .5 oz I would not complain. Super burly though!

Lafuma Sleeping bags – these were on the edge. But again, we survived and actually slept for some of the time each night. We’d often wake with a shiver, eat some Mac nuts, and then go back to sleep. Even when everything was soaked they worked. But you gotta fully embrace the minimalist idea if you are gonna use these bags in an expedition like this!

Alpacka – we actually train to fit two of us in each boat, and have fully trusted our lives to this brand more times than I care to count. I have full belief that this brand deserves huge recognition for changing the face of self-supported backcountry exploration.

In-Reach Communicator – I love the guys over at SPOT, but In-Reach is so so so so much more functional. It is essentially an affordable combination of SPOT (but on the better Iridium network), and a send/receive texting device. With continued development coming (I am excited about the prototypes I have seen!) Delorme seems committed to keeping us safe and communicating (think FB update from ANYWHERE) from wherever we are exploring!

Flex Tek Gaiters – best short running gaiters we’ve yet found, but they have yet to survive an entire expedition race. Buckles and sewn strap attachment could use a redesign or reinforcement.

Food – we totally gambled with our food plan, but unanimously were THRILLED with Tailwind and the Macadamia nuts. Our food weight was super light compared to most teams! We had some bars, gels, chews as well, but probably 1/3 of what we took last year!

Posted by Glyn Rose - 03/15/2013 05:24 PM

Hi
First of congrats on finishing the Patagonian Expedition Race, second, thanks for writing such an honest gear review. It make interesting reading, especial as some of the gear used is british. I love the “inreach” GPS devise, if only it was availabe here. Im currently training for an event called the Spine challenge, next Jan so will share you review with my team mates as some of this gear may transistion over. Check us out at, share your thoughts at http://ultramadness.wordpress.com/

cheers
glyn

Posted by fuddam - 03/16/2013 12:15 PM

Good stuff, though I have a question: how did you keep your feet warm enough with those shoes in those conditions? Getting wet is inevitable, I know, but surely you weren’t simply wearing running socks? My toes would FREEZE, esp on the bike.

Posted by Kevin - 03/16/2013 12:41 PM

Thanks for the write up! Going to try the Tailwind powder as soon as they deliver it!

With all that water, your feet must have been continuously soaked with the inov-8s. Did you avoid gore tex/waterproof shoes for a reason?

Posted by Jason - 03/16/2013 12:49 PM

Glyn, good luck on your race. Will check it out. Love the british companies, specially the small niche ones that innovate with passion.

Fuddam – we wore drymax trail running socks, and i wore Toesox liners when my feet got all blistered. The trick to staying warm for us was just high output. Even when we were walking…it was a continuous output feel, and constant food. Much of the time on foot we are looking for cold water to walk through to take swelling down, and ease blisters and hotspots that come from days on end of trekking. Paul wore neoprene bike shoe covers, but no one else did. When we are on the bike, we are pushing like mad…so happy to be able to go fast and not bushwhack. Cole cores is what worries us…..

We each took a super thin pair of low cut dry socks in a drybag for emergency, so if we had to stop and wait rescue and survive in the tent/sleeping bag we could. But remember, we were not counting on comfort, and just needed to know as a team that if things got too serious we had enough to stop, set up and survive…

Posted by Jason - 03/16/2013 12:58 PM

Kevin, in a place like Patagonia, your feet are going to get wet. They are going to get wet a lot. Goretex is great for splashing around in puddles, but a goretex shoe that has filled with water (like it will in the hundreds of river, stream, turbal crossings) becomes a squishy bathtub that holds water in, and takes forever to even drain the water and start to dry. Hence, few if any of the experienced expedition racers out there use goretex footwear for racing. There is nothing worse than a teammate that gets to a knee deep river and decides they want to keep their feet dry and takes off shoes….because inevitably, minutes later, they’ll misstep somewhere else and get soaked shoes….we saw this happen to a team this on day one, at the first serious river crossing. They made a 15 minute production of keeping things dry, we walked up, crossed and carried on. They stayed dry, but realized the futility as they crested the next ridge and saw at least half a dozen more crossings in the next mile.

Posted by maurik - 03/16/2013 06:00 PM

Nice to see you wearing the same jackets I als have, Montane Smock. Kind of wonder what trousers you wore?

Maurik
All the best from the Netherlands.

Posted by wayne - 03/16/2013 07:52 PM

was there a reason why you went for an event shell when you had used neoshell on a previous year? or wasnt there that much difference between the perormance of the shells for you to pick one shell technology above the other?

Posted by Alex Flamm - 03/16/2013 09:41 PM

Great write up and congrats again on the race. Look forward to following you on your next adventure.
Cheers

Posted by H - 03/16/2013 11:53 PM

In regard to being cold in the sleeping bag, can you approximate what temperatures you encountered? Also, how did the upper on that shoe hold up over the 10 days?

Posted by Brad - 03/18/2013 07:59 PM

What kind of packs did the men use? Looks like Chelsea had a different pack, but I would assume that was a size issue?

Still can’t imagine what that would be like to go through that for ten days. Hats off to the four of you!

Posted by Michi Yamakita - 03/19/2013 05:01 PM

Congratulations and great writing up.

Very impressed that you used the small boat to cross the lake. Does this worked well? We selected the materials just like you guys, but used down rather than the synthetic.

East Wind is looking foward to took part in the race next year.

Posted by Tim - 03/24/2013 05:41 PM

So many great items available at great prices, including Headlamps and a bunch of other survival items at Outdoorshopping.com

Posted by John - 04/16/2013 11:01 AM

Jason – congrats to team Gearjunkie/Yogaslackers. Can you say what pants you wore and what size/brand pack you carried?

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