This column is part of a series of gear reviews based on tests in the 2011 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race, a weeklong competitive event in southern Chile. The race stretched 300+ miles and included trekking, kayaking, climbing, mountain biking, and wilderness navigation. Team GearJunkie.com took second place.
On most any trip in the outdoors, taking the right gear means increased comfort and joy — and choosing poorly leads only to being a bit more uncomfortable than necessary. But in some instances, gear can stand between success and failure, and occasionally that “failure” means even more than turning back from a summit early or not finishing a competitive event. In the most extreme scenarios, the wrong gear can result in pain, injury, expensive rescue, or even death. The Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race never quite reached that outer limit, but my team did ultimately depend on our gear for survival in one of the harshest and most remote environments in the world. It was a crazy race. Below is a compilation of some of the best and worst equipment we took along for the ride.
Mountain Hardwear UltraLamina 32 Sleeping Bag. Life saver! These synthetic sleeping bags, filled with Mountain Hardwear’s magical Thermic Micro insulation, are rated to 32 degrees F, and they have kept us warm in temps near that. They pack close to the size of a Nalgene water bottle and weigh less than 2 pounds.
During the Wenger Patagonian Race this year, my UltraLamina bag got soaked on a deep river crossing. (User error: The dry bag in my pack was slightly open!) That night I crawled into my soaked UltraLamina bag expecting to freeze. But I was soon very warm! Unlike down, the synthetic insulation works when wet. In the wet bag, which dried some from my body heat overnight, I was clammy but not cold.
GoLite Shangri-La 3 Tent. Tiny packed size. Weight = 1 pound, 13 ounces! Sets up with a single trekking pole. This floor-less tent offered amazing protection with its tepee-style fly to fit our team of four inside for the night. See full Gear Junkie review here: http://gearjunkie.com/golite-shangri-la-3-tent
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir camp pads. These 9-ounce, 3/4-length pads proved essential in more ways than we could have imagined. They look fragile, and I expected to pop one within the first few uses. But they stood up to rocks, thorns, and dense brush. With no tent floor (see above), the pads had to absorb whatever groundcover we decided to sleep on. We relied on them to keep us dry. But they became crucial when we were faced with swimming icy fjords, glacial lakes, and one swift river: We used the NeoAir pads like pool floats. We pushed the utter limits of these “rafts,” once even using them to swim several kilometers of whitewater. Certainly not recommended by the manufacturer, or us. But in the heat of the race, the NeoAir was our best available option. (Note: By the end of the race, two of our four pads were indeed popped and deflated, having succumbed to the Patagonian abuse after a week of unorthodox use.)
KT Tape. Chronic IT band syndrome, common among many endurance athletes, often threatens to cut my races short. KT Tape has been a godsend for me. It allows me to tape up and support or alleviate my syndrome. I use this tape for most every adventure and have found that it does not limit or constrict motion. Bonus: It is waterproof and can stay on for more than a week straight! I started the race with both of my knees taped up, and I forgot about it until the end of the event when the tape came off in my first shower in eight days. Even though I forgot it was on, my knees definitely did not.
Drymax Socks. The whole team wore Drymax socks for most of the race. I used the Lite Hiker V4 model, which are made primarily from the textile yarn olefin. Drymax promises its socks can keep feet dry and blister free. After nearly 200 kilometers of trail-less bush bashing and swamp trudging, my feet were indeed blister free. After years of use, I can give these socks — which are tough and tight-fitting, with unusual dense but thin padding — a lot of credit. Our Inov-8 shoes are the other part of this formula (see below). Foot trauma tends to be one of the leading causes of athletes dropping out during long races. Team GearJunkie.com was essentially immune to foot trouble this year.
Inov-8 Ltd. Shoes. The four members of Team GearJunkie.com were outfitted again in the footwear department this year by Inov-8, a British shoemaker. We credit these shoes as much as the Drymax socks for keeping our feet relatively healthy during the days of continuous abuse. Two team members sported the company’s X-Talon 212 shoes, one wore the Roclite 285 model, and Chelsey, our 5-foot female, wore the kid-size X-Talon 160s. All of these shoes were designed for extreme off-trail travel and share the characteristics of low weight, aggressive tread and near-barefoot flexibility. They are surefooted, and they allowed us to move fast over any type of terrain, including climbing up over technical mountain passes that other teams lacked the confidence to attempt.
Fenix PD31 Flashlight. This indestructible waterproof torch boasts a high beam of over 300 lumens and a burn time of nearly two hours (on a pair of CR123A batteries). The PD31 was critical during the night navigation sections, especially when descending steep mountain passes and canyons. The beam range allowed us to distinguish far-off features and find possible fording points for the many rivers we crossed during the midnight hours. It costs about $75 and is worth every cent.
Ibex Woolies Base Layers + Rab Momentum Jacket. Weather was wet and cool this year in Patagonia, and with several teams succumbing to near-hypothermia, we knew it was imperative that we keep ourselves as warm and dry as possible. The combination of wool base layers from Ibex and burly, three-layer eVent shells from RAB, the Momentum Jacket model, was certainly a winner.
These two pieces of gear were worn almost constantly during the entire race. The shell kept the wool completely dry in rain, and the wool kept our body temperature regulated. In the instance where a river crossing turned into a swim, I was surprised with how well the system still worked. Completely wet, it took less than an hour before I was dry again. Even during the evaporation process, the wool kept me warm.
Continue reading . . . Page 2: “GEAR THAT FAILED THE TEST”