As readers of this column know, I am a confessed orienteering geek. The Nordic sport, which has seen a rise in popularity in the United States over the past decade, puts runners in the woods in search of hidden control flags. A topo map and a compass are your only guides — GPS is not allowed.
The sport serves for me as an ultimate gear testing venue. If a pair of trail-running shoes or a small running pack can hold up off-trail for hours of bushwhacking in an orienteering event, they can hold up anywhere. An average orienteering race might see competitors running through swamps, leaping streams, climbing hills, “swimming” through thick underbrush, and racing into ravines in search of flags scattered across a vast wilderness.
Clothing has particular trouble in this environment. Aerobic output in an “O” race is at the max for many competitors. As such, you need to wear clothing made for running. But thorns and brush require wearing pants or tights for most events. Sometimes, I wear long-sleeve shirts even in the dead of summer for protection. All of this apparel has to stand up to thorns, sticks, brush, and other bushwhacking abuse unseen in any other sport.
Enter Axis Gear, a Toronto-based maker of tops and tights for orienteering. The small company (www.axisgear.ca) has outfitted Team Canada and Team USA Orienteering. In adventure racing, some name brand squads — Team Merrell, Team GoLite, Team Checkpoint Zero — have donned custom Axis Gear apparel.
For the past year, including more than 20 orienteering and adventure races, I have been testing Axis Gear’s Atak 2 Pant, a pair of tights dubbed “the ultimate orienteering pant.” The tights are made with a rip-stop nylon fabric on the front shins and mesh in areas, including between the legs, to add breathability.
The Atak 2 Pant costs $99. Unlike most tights on the market, it was designed for serious bushwhacking, and the rip-stop nylon has indeed held up in my year-long test. The worst thorns will puncture the Atak 2 Pant’s fabric. But since it is rip-stop, the fabric doesn’t tear.
Nylon protects the legs from cuts and scraps you’d receive if wearing shorts. But thorns can still do damage. On a recent race, the Atak tights held up fine through a section thick with thorny raspberry bushes. But after the event, my legs tingled. Washing off, I noticed red irritated swaths like a poison ivy rash where the small sharp things from the woods had worked through to do ill treatment on my skin.
The front fabric on the tights has held up. But I finally tore a large patch from the butt of these pants. During a six-hour rogaine orienteering race last month, the back pocket snagged as I climbed over a fallen tree. A tearing sound accompanied my exit from the deadfall, and a flap of fabric hung loose where the pocket had formerly been.
For durability, I have been happy with these pants. Despite the pocket incident, they have lived through more abuse than almost anything I have tested.
But from a design and performance standpoint, the Atak 2 Pant have a lot of room to improve. For starters, the integrated belt is difficult to cinch tight. There is not enough play near the buckle on front to easily pull the belt through. But once tightened, the tights stay that way for miles of woods running.
There is only one pocket on the pant. I need at least another pocket, preferably on front. In most O races, I find myself wanting to shove a compass, map, or an energy gel in a pocket at some point. The Atak Pant has only one small pocket on the back.
The design feature that most bothers on these tights is something the company calls the “upper bum panel.” It is a mesh panel around the waist with two elasticized cinched draws. The configuration creates a sensation of your pants always sagging. It is an annoying feeling until you get used to it. At the start of each race, I find myself consistently wanting to tug at the belt, thinking my pants are falling down as I run.
Overall, I do like the Atak 2 Pant. There is room for improvement in a few areas, to be sure. But for a strange sport that combines trail running with serious bushwhacking where other tights will tear, this “ultimate orienteering pant” is the best solution I have found so far.
—Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.