Puffy Jackets

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is to never go into the wilderness without a puffy jacket. Puffy jackets keep you warm when you’re at a cold belay, they help you survive an unplanned night out, they stave off cold when you’re at the end of a long hard mountain day. Putting on a puffy jacket provides you with a big morale boost when you’re cold and things are sketchy.

I have accumulated a large number of puffy jackets, for all seasons and activities. Most are down filled, but some have synthetic insulation. Some are heavy and some are light.

My rule of thumb when deciding which puffy jacket to bring is to choose one based on a scenario where I am spending an unplanned night out. I want a puffy jacket that, when worn over my other clothing, will keep me alive for an unplanned bivi at the coldest temperatures I could reasonably expect. I don’t expect it to keep me comfortable, but I want it to be warm enough that I don’t have to worry about hypothermia, even if I’m tired and low on energy.

Although puffy jackets are available in hood-less styles, all of my puffy jackets have hoods. I’ve found that a hood adds a significant amount of warmth for a modest weight penalty vs a non-hooded jacket. Also, if it’s snowing (or worse, raining) a hood provides some protection from precipitation. Because of this efficiency, I don’t use anything without a hood.

Here is a review of the various puffy jackets I own and what uses they are best suited for:

Ultralight Puffy Jackets (About a pound or less.)

Montbell Mirage Parka: 14.7 ounces

Montbell Mirage Parka

The Montbell Mirage Parka is incredibly warm for its weight. It’s a fully baffled puffy jacket, filled with 900 fill power down, at less than a pound. When you put it on, it feels almost weightless, but it has sufficient loft to really add significant warmth to your clothing system. It’s probably the most versatile jacket I own, and is suitable for most 3 season activities. I’ve used it for multi-day spring ski tours, summer and fall alpine rock climbing, and backpacking in colder weather. It’s the perfect jacket for spring and fall conditions in the backcountry.

It’s made of extremely light weight materials, and I’ve managed to poke a few holes in it over the years, but they were easy to repair with tenacious tape. If you’re climbing in this jacket, you can expect to tear it up on rough rock. The hood is large enough to easily fit over a climbing helmet, but it does not have a two way zipper that you can unzip from the bottom, so it’s function as a belay jacket is somewhat impaired

A couple of handwarmer pockets and two large internal pockets for storing gloves and the like round out the features. Out of all my puffy jackets, I probably use this one the most. For moderate conditions, it’s a perfect, lightweight answer.

Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down jacket: 8.8 ounces

Mtn. Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Hoodie

The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Hoodie is the lightest of all my puffy jackets. Some years ago, I did a stand alone review of this jacket, which can be found, HERE. This jacket is a great puffy for summer backpacking in the mountains, fall and spring in the desert, and long multi-pitch rock climbs in cool temperatures. It weighs so little and packs down so small that it’s easy to take with me. If it’s summer time and I’m in the backcountry, chances are good that I’ve got this in my pack.

Montbell Thermawrap Parka 1 pound, 0.4 ounces

Montbell Thermawrap Parka

This jacket provides warmth similar to the Ghost Whisperer Down Hoody, but is significantly more bulky and heavy due to the fact that it is filled with synthetic insulation, not down. Because synthetic insulation is more resistant to water and dries more quickly, this jacket has become my go-to puffy for backcountry fly fishing. I’m kind of clumsy, and have dunked myself in a creek more than once while fly fishing, and so I like to have a jacket that will provide some warmth even when wet. The Thermawrap is light and compact enough to fit in my fishing pack, and provide me with some warmth in the event of changing weather conditions.

Puffy Belay Jackets for Cold Conditions

All of these jackets are belay jackets. They are designed for keeping you warm when you are belaying or when you are otherwise immobile during ice climbing or cold alpine climbing. They will keep you alive during an unplanned bivi when the sun goes down and the temperature starts to plummet. A good belay jacket is your insurance policy, increasing your chances of survival if things go wrong.

Good belay jackets share some common features: They are sized generously enough to put on over your other clothing, with sleeves that are voluminous enough that you can put the belay jacket on and take it off without removing bulky gloves or mittens. A good belay jacket has a couple of large interior pockets for storing your spare gloves, to allow your body heat to help dry them out. The hood of a good belay jacket has enough volume that it will fit over a climbing helmet, and the hood needs to be able to snug down without a lot of messing around with complicated snaps or velcro. You need to be able to batten down the jacket easily while wearing big gloves with minimal dexterity.

A good belay jacket needs a two way zipper that you can unzip from the bottom. This feature allows you to access your belay device without having to hike your jacket up around your waist. Ideally, you want to be able to belay, while the jacket covers your butt and hips.

Outdoor Research Perch 1 pound, 15.3 ounces

Outdoor Research Perch Belay Parka

Truth be told, I bought this jacket primarily because of its color. The bright neon orange is good for cold weather hunting trips in states that require hunters to wear orange clothing. I’ve used it on mountain hunts in November, and it has kept me warm while I’ve been sitting in the snow and glassing the hillsides for elk.

The Perch is insulated with synthetic “Primaloft Gold” insulation, and has a highly water resistant Pertex shell, so it does well in wet conditions. I’ve used it as a belay jacket for wet, sloppy ice climbs, where I’ve been showered by water at the belay, and it’s kept me warm and dry. It’s moderately warm and I’ve found that it will keep me comfortable down to about 5-10 degrees F when worn over my climbing clothing (generally a base layer and a Patagonia Nano Air Lite hoodie. The outer fabric is pretty durable, and I haven’t managed to poke any holes in it yet. The cut is full enough for easy layering over other clothing.

The hood of the Perch is large enough to fit over a climbing helmet, and the two-way zipper makes it easy to unzip it from the bottom and access your belay device. There are two chest-high outside pockets, two really big interior pockets for storing gloves, and a rear interior pocket across the back at waist level that doubles as a stuff sack. You can stuff the jacket into this waist pocket and then clip it to your harness for transport if you aren’t carrying the parka in a backpack.

Although I originally purchased this jacket for hunting, I’ve found that I use it for ice climbing too. It’s an excellent, well thought out belay parka, and if I’m out for a day of ice climbing, it’s usually in my pack. Were it not for my experience with the Arcteryx Dually, I’d say it was my favorite belay parka.

Arcteryx Dually 1 pound, 12.3 ounces

Arcteryx Dually Belay Parka

The Arcteryx Dually Parka is the finest belay parka I’ve ever used. Why? Because it’s really warm and almost completely impervious to water. The Dually is significantly warmer than the OR Perch, in spite of being about the same weight. The Dually doesn’t have the neat integral stuff sack pocket of the OR Perch, but it does have a good, helmet compatible hood, a two way zipper, handwarmer pockets, and a couple of big interior pockets for gloves.

It’s stripped down to the essentials. The cut is comfortable and made for layering over other clothing. The warmth of this jacket is fantastic. It’s made for really cold conditions and I’ve been fine in this jacket (layered over my climbing clothing) down below zero.

The Dually is an alpine security blanket. No matter what the weather is doing, when you put this on, it provides warmth and comfort. It’s overkill for ice climbing day trips in moderate temperatures, but it’s my go-to alpine climbing belay jacket when I’m in the mountains in shoulder seasons and subject to changing weather conditions. If I could only own a single belay jacket, it would be the Dually.

There is a very in-depth and comprehensive review of the Dually HERE. The reviewer does a better review than I could ever hope to do, so I will just encourage you to follow the link.

Patagonia Fitzroy 1 pound, 4.8 ounces

Patagonia Fitzroy Parka

The Patagonia Fitzroy Parka is the only cold weather belay parka I own that is made from regular down (the Encapsil Parka is silicone treated hydrophobic down.) It’s significantly lighter and packs much more compactly than the OR Perch or Arcteryx Dually. The fabric is also much lighter weight than the Perch or Dually as well. As with the Perch, I bought the Fitzroy because its orange color makes it suitable for hunting. Also similar to the Perch, I’ve found other, non-hunting uses for it as well.

I don’t use it for ice cragging. The Perch does a better job of this because of its water resistance and greater durability, and the weight and bulk advantage of the Fitzroy doesn’t matter much for day trips. Where I use the Fitzroy is for situations where I need to go light, but want something a bit warmer than the Montbell Mirage. It’s a great jacket for fall alpine climbs, mid winter ski trips, and any time I need a light, compressible jacket that’s truly warm. In warmth, it’s comparable to the OR Perch, and a bit less warm than the Dually.

Patagonia Encapsil Parka 1 pound, 4.7 ounces

Patagonia Encapsil Parka

This jacket was accompanied by a lot of hype when it was released in 2013. Patagonia called it “the best down jacket ever,” and released videos touting its groundbreaking performance. The reason for all this hype was the encapsil treatment of the down. Patagonia used a proprietary process to infuse the down clusters with silicone, which made the down resistant to water and also increased the fill power of the down to about 1000FP (typical high-end down is 850 fill power.)

The careful, fully baffled construction also contributed to the jacket’s warmth and comfort. The parkas went on sale and promptly sold out in less than 24 hours. They cost $600, which was a very high price for a down jacket in 2013. Only 1000 of them were manufactured, and I counted myself lucky that I managed to get one.

An interesting perk of owning this jacket is that it included professional cleaning for life. If the jacket needed cleaning, you just called up Patagonia customer service and they sent you a pre-paid shipping label for the jacket. You sent it to Patagonia, and a couple of weeks later, the jacket was returned, all clean and fresh.

I fully bought in to the hype surrounding this jacket and figured it was going to be the last belay parka I would ever need. The promise of light weight coupled with water resistance and the warmth of 1000 fill power down seemed like a great combination.

After using the jacket a bit, I began to be a bit disillusioned with it. For one thing, it did not have a two way zipper, which is a strange oversight for a belay jacket. Getting access to your belay device required hitching up the jacket around your stomach. More serious, however, were the rumors on the various climbing forums of significant clumping of the down. I ultimately experienced this myself on a trip to Alaska. After a week of wearing the parka, the down fill was clumping very badly, leaving cold spots all over the jacket. Holding the jacket up to the light, you could see the down all clumped together in the baffles, leaving most of the baffle devoid of down insulation. That Alaska trip was the last time I used the Encapsil parka.

After the trip, I sent it back to Patagonia for cleaning, and then sold it. Luckily, there is a very healthy market in Asia for vintage and collectible Patagonia clothing, and I was able to sell it to a store in Korea for $1000, four hundred dollars more than I paid for it back in 2013. It’s telling that Patagonia never produced any more encapsil down products. I guess the clumping issues were insurmountable.

Puffy Jacket for Unreasonably Cold Conditions

Valandre Immelmann 2 pounds, 7.4 ounces

Valandre Immelmann Jacket

This jacket is a bit on the crazy side. It’s easily the warmest jacket I’ve ever encountered. It’s fully baffled, and with almost a pound (14.8 ounces) of down, it has more insulation than many sleeping bags. The baffles are seriously overstuffed with down, making this jacket incredibly puffy and thick.

In spite of its insane puffiness, the Immelmann is extremely comfortable to wear. The cut and fit of the jacket are contoured to the body, and freedom of movement is great. Valandre claims that their patterning and construction of the baffles gives the jacket more freedom of movement, and I have to agree that this is not just marketing hype. Wearing it feels like wearing a much lighter jacket. The Immelmann has a more “athletic” cut than most of the other cold weather jackets, and I had to size up all the way to a XXL to allow for comfortable layering over other clothing. The fit is less baggy than the other jackets, and it is tucked in at the waist and hips, which makes it easy to see your feet.

Like the OR Perch, the Immelmann has two interior glove pockets (zippered on the Immelmann) and a rear interior waist pocket that converts into an integral stuff sack. Unlike the Perch, the Immelmann’s integral stuff sack isn’t all that well suited for clipping to your harness. The stuff sack material is a soft fabric designed to be comfortable when used as a pillow, and it absorbs water quickly. If you clipped it to your harness, the jacket would be soaked with water and snow before long.

The interior pockets on the Immelmann
Immelmann Jacket in “pillow mode” Stuffed into its integral stuff sack

The Immelmann has a very nice zipper backing that makes it almost impossible to snag the main zipper. It has a European left hand zip, which takes some getting used to, but works fine.

The Immelman has a stiff sewn fabric piece that follows the zipper, eliminating zipper snags .

The hood is extremely comfortable and warm, but is a bit snug when worn over larger higher volume climbing helmets like the original Petzl Sirocco. I wish the hood had a bit more volume. The hood is removable and zips on and off easily. In contrast to other removable hood designs I’ve encountered, it doesn’t require any velcro or snaps to snug it down. All you have to do is zip up the jacket’s main zipper, and the hood closes nicely over your head.

The jacket has an integral belt, which I think is superfluous, as the cut of the jacket is plenty snug without it.

This jacket is not applicable to a broad range of activities. It’s quite a bit bigger and heavier than the other jackets I own, so it’s got to be really cold for it to be worth the extra weight and bulk. It’s really built for the coldest of conditions; high alpine peaks in winter, ice climbing in Canada during a polar vortex, and anything else where you’re likely to encounter prolonged sub zero (F) temperatures. It would be a great jacket for Denali, or Mount Rainier in winter, or an open bivi on the Grande Jorasses in December. For these conditions, the Immelmann excels, as it’s almost inconceivable that anyone could be cold while wearing this jacket.

Conclusions

It should be clear by now that I have way too many puffy jackets. Nobody needs all of the jackets I own, especially since their purposes and features overlap quite a bit. At some point, I’m going to have to check myself in to a 12 step program for puffy jacket hoarders.

If I had to choose only 2 jackets, I’d take the Montbell Mirage and the Arcteryx Dually. The Mirage is unmatched for efficiency and warmth/weight ratio. It’s the perfect jacket for going light and fast. The Dually is the best protection from truly horrific weather, and with adequate layering underneath could be used in very cold conditions.

Long Term Update: Salewa Quick Screw ice screws and Climbing Technology Alpine Up belay device

Several years back, I did an initial review of the Salewa Quick Screw ice screw and the Climbing Technology Alpine Up belay device.

The initial review for the Alpine Up can be found HERE

The initial review for the Salewa Quick Screw can be found HERE

This is a long term review update, detailing my experiences with these climbing implements. 

Alpine Up

The Alpine Up has become my go-to belay device for every type of climbing. I use it for top roping on rock, lead climbing on ice, alpine climbing, trad rock, and everything else. It does everything so well that I find that I’m not interested in using any other device.

I generally belay a leader in the assisted brake “click up” mode. The brake assist gives me extra confidence that I will be able to arrest a lead fall, even if my technique is less than perfect, I’m taken by surprise, or I get conked on the head by a falling rock and knocked unconscious. Paying out slack is at least as easy as any other device I’ve used, and better than many.

When belaying someone on a top rope from below, I typically use the dynamic mode. It allows for smooth belaying and easy transitions to lowering down from the route.

Belaying a second up a pitch in “guide mode” is very easy. Of all the autoblocking guide mode devices I’ve used, only the Kong Gi Gi or Plaquette has less friction in guide mode (and these devices aren’t great at anything other than guide mode.)

Rappelling can be done in autoblock or dynamic mode. If I’m going down first, I typically rappel in autoblock mode. This allows me to go hands free and untangle ropes etc. It also provides self-locking safety, and if I’m injured or otherwise take my hands off of the device, I stop.

If I’m rapping down second, I will generally rap down in dynamic mode, as it’s a bit faster and smoother, and if I’m going down second, I’m not worried about being able to stop and go hands free.

Well used Alpine Up

The down sides of the Alpine Up are that it’s a bit bulky, and it only works well with specific shaped carabiners. I’ve become used to the bulk, and I have purchased a couple of Climbing Technology locking biners of the same shape to use with the Alpine Up in case I lose the original biner. I just carry these on my rack for rigging anchors and other standard locking carabiner uses.

This device is so versatile, and does everything so well, I just don’t see any reason to use anything else at this point.

Salewa Quick Screw

Racking Salewa Quick Screws

The Salewa Quick Screw has become my go-to ice screw for waterfall ice climbing. (I use aluminum screws for alpine ice climbing because of the significant weight savings.) I have a full rack of nine Quick Screws now and the more I use them, the more I like them.

Being able to rack screws on my harness is great. The color coded biners make it easy to grab the right length of screw without faffing around with ice clippers. The teeth bite the ice as well as any other screw I’ve used, and I like the compact head design, which fits nicely in my palm and makes it very ergonomic when getting the screw started. The attached quick draw makes clipping very fast once you get the screw in.

When I’m climbing ice, I want the process of placing a screw to be a quick and simple as possible, and the Quick Screw lives up to its name. I can get the screw in and clipped into the rope faster than with any other style of screw.

Here is a short video of placing and removing a Quick Screw one handed:

SALEWA QUICK SCREW

Leki Trekking Poles: Leki Micro Vario Carbon Pole – Black Series; and Leki Carbon Titanium

For several years now, my go-to trekking poles have been the Leki Carbon Titanium poles. They’ve been with me on hundreds of miles of hiking trails, and I’ve put ski baskets on them and used them as my for winter backcountry skiing too. (Leki’s Big Mountain Binding Basket is a great basket for both skiing and for making on-the fly adjustments to your touring bindings.) They’ve served as a makeshift bipod to support my rifle on hunting trips. I’ve used them as tent poles for my ultralight tents. They’ve got me up and down talus fields, and have saved me from many a fall on slippery or uneven ground.

I love the Carbon Titanium poles. They’re strong, durable, easy to adjust in length, the flick lock adjustment mechanism doesn’t slip. The handles and wrist straps are comfortable, and there is a foam grip that extends below the handle which allows you to grab it lower on the pole when necessary.

Leki poles with this grip style also have a mono-pod accessory available that allows you to mount a (lightweight) camera onto the top of the handle for taking photos with the support of the trekking pole. This handy accessory is called the Aergon Photo Adapter, and it’s useful for steadying your camera for low-light shots.

The Aergon Photo Adapter turns your trekking pole into a camera monopod.

So, with all this good experience with my current Leki poles, why should I get something else? The main issue is the size of the poles when collapsed. There are situations where I want to collapse the poles and put them in my backpack. Typically, this is an issue when I’m climbing. I like poles for the approach and descent, but I don’t like them sticking out of my pack (or strapped to the side) when I’m climbing.

After a bit of research on trekking poles that collapse into a compact size, I purchased the Leki Micro Vario Carbon Black Series trekking poles. There are other ultralight poles out there that weigh less, and collapse down smaller, however I wanted poles with some adjustability, a foam lower grip, and good durability. The Leki Micro Vario line has these features. There is a new variation, the Micro Vario Black Series, which is different from the Micro Vario in that the locking mechanism that keeps the pole sections connected is internal, and doesn’t rely on an external button. (It has the same lever lock mechanism as the Carbon Titanium poles to adjust the length.)

The weight of the MV Carbon Black poles is 7.4 ounces per pole. This is virtually identical to the weight of my Carbon Titanium poles at 7.6 ounces per pole.

The MV Carbon Black also share the Aergon grip with the Carbon Titanium poles, which means that I can utilize the Aergon Photo Adapter with these new poles.

Aergon Photo Adapter fits perfectly on the Multi Vario Carbon Black Poles

The most noticeable difference between the new MV Carbon Black poles and my old Carbon Titanium poles is the length when fully collapsed. The MV Carbon Blacks collapse down to 15.5 inches, while the Carbon Titanium poles only collapse to 26.25 inches.

Significant difference in the size of the poles when fully collapsed

This difference in collapsed size means that the MV Carbon Black poles will fit nicely into my climbing pack.

One area where the MV Carbon Black is at a big disadvantage is the range of adjustability. Only the top section of the MV Carbon Black adjusts, while each of the 3 sections of the Leki Carbon Titanium is fully adjustable. This won’t make much of a difference for hiking, but it does make the MV Carbon Black less versatile when using it as a tent pole for ultralight tents that use trekking poles for support. For me, that won’t be a major issue, however, because I seldom use trekking pole tents on climbing trips.

So far, I’ve used the new MV Carbon Black poles on a few day hikes. Swing weight and comfort are good, and they perform pretty much like my tried and true Carbon Titanium poles.

It’s too early to have an opinion on the durability of these new MV Carbon Black poles, but given my experience with my other Leki poles, I’m optimistic that they will hold up well.

They are going to be my new pole for any time where I might want to carry my trekking poles in my pack. They seem like the perfect poles for climbers.

Compact Cameras for the Backcountry: Panasonic LX100, Ricoh GR 3, Sigma DP1 Merrill and DP2 Merrill

I own a pretty extensive array of Micro 4/3 lenses and an Olympus OMD E-M1 Micro 4/3 camera body. This interchangeable lens system provides a lot of flexibility in my photography. However, even though the Micro 4/3 format allows for much smaller cameras and lenses than other interchangeable lens systems, I find that I seldom take my Micro 4/3 gear with me into the backcountry.

Most trips, I take a compact, fixed lens camera (or sometimes two of them.) The weight and bulk advantages of a fixed lens compact camera are just too great when I’m climbing or travelling long distances in the backcountry.

Compact Camerass: Top to Bottom, DP1 Merrill; DP2 Merrill; Ricoh GR; Ricoh GR III; Samsung Galaxy
Top view, showing lens length.

What makes a good backcountry camera?

#1 Image quality. I am a stickler for good image quality. If I didn’t care a lot about image quality, I would just use the camera on my phone. However, I want my photos to capture the grandeur and beauty and intensity of the places I visit, and even the best phone camera comes up short when it comes to detail, colors, and sharpness. An excellent lens, a good sensor, and the ability to shoot RAW files are all must haves.

#2 Compact size. I need a camera that doesn’t weigh a lot and doesn’t take up a lot of space.

#3 Fits well in a good, padded case. I need to be able to carry the camera in a very accessible spot; close at hand while climbing, hiking, or skiing. If I have to keep my camera in my backpack, it won’t get used much and is just dead weight and wasted space. I need a case I can attach to either my climbing harness, on my pack shoulder strap or pack hip belt. The case needs to protect the camera from the inevitable bumps and shocks of outdoor activities, and also protect it from snow and light rain. (For heavy rain, I can just put the camera deep in my pack, as I won’t be taking photos if it’s raining hard.)

#4 Controls that I can work with gloves. I spend a lot of time wearing gloves. The main buttons and dials for exposure control need to be simple enough that I can work them with gloves on. A camera that can only be adjusted through complicated menus or with a touch screen doesn’t work well when wearing gloves.

Things that are nice to have, but not mandatory:

Waterproofing. I don’t need a camera to be waterproof. It would be great if one were, but, at least today, nobody makes a waterproof camera with the image quality I demand. Maybe that will change in the future. Certainly, Olympus or Panasonic have the capability to put a large sensor and high-end lens into one of their weatherproof bodies. Until then, I will just take care to keep my cameras dry.

Zoom lenses. While zoom lenses are convenient, they require compromises in image quality, especially in smaller sizes. Also, a zoom lens is inherently heavier and more bulky than a fixed, prime lens. A good, fixed focal length prime lens will almost always be better than a zoom of the same size and weight.

Video quality. I don’t shoot much video in the backcountry, and when I do, it tends to be simple stuff. I don’t have aspirations to produce breathtaking documentary video footage.

GPS, Bluetooth, In-camera editing, etc. For me, these features are not even “nice to haves” because I don’t need my camera to communicate with satellites, or bluetooth devices. I don’t need to do in-camera editing because I do all of my processing at home on my computer.

The Compact Backcountry Cameras with the Highest Image Quality: Sigma DP1 Merrill and DP2 Merrill.

The DP1 and DP2 Merrill:

These cameras came out in 2012. Sigma ceased production of the DP Merrill line just a couple of years later. These two cameras are almost identical, with the only significant difference being the focal length of their fixed lenses. The DP1 has a 19mm lens (28mm full frame equivalent) the DP2 has a 30mm lens (46 mm full frame equivalent.)

The DP Merrill series never really had a chance with the general public, and most reviewers panned the cameras for poor performance at high ISO settings, very long write times, extremely short battery life, terrible video quality, autofocus that has a difficult time tracking fast moving objects, no image stabilization, mediocre out of camera JPEGS, and no RAW support from Adobe Photoshop or other popular photography programs. (You have to use Sigma’s clunky Photo Pro software to process the RAW files.)

All of these criticisms are pretty much true, but none of these limitations have ever gotten in the way of my taking a lot of very pleasing pictures in the backcountry. The reason I put up with and work around these limitations is the amazing Foveon sensors and very high quality lenses.

The DP Merrill cameras have stacked, 3 layer Foveon sensors that are unique in the digital camera world. There’s been a lot of arguments over whether this sensor is a 46 megapixel sensor as claimed by Sigma (adding up the pixels of all three layers,) or a 15.4 megapixel sensor (the pixels in one layer of the array.) I don’t really know or care enough about the engineering to argue about number of mega pixels. What I do know is that this camera is capable of truly exceptional image quality. The very high quality lenses, coupled with the Foveon sensor make the DP Merrill cameras able to compete (on pure image quality) with much more modern, more expensive, much bigger, and much heavier cameras.

To provide some examples of the sort of detail, color rendition, and image quality the DP Merrill cameras are capable of, I have set out below some photos taken, with links to the full high-resolution files. (Some of these are stitched panoramas.) These are really big files and might take a long time to download, even on high speed internet. From looking at the original high-res files, it is apparent that these little cameras are capable of taking very high quality images.

http://larsonweb.com/Sigma/BigBugPano.tif
http://larsonweb.com/Sigma/SDIM0594.tif
http://larsonweb.com/Sigma/SDIM0639.tif
http://larsonweb.com/Sigma/wholeroute.tif

Size and Weight: The DP1 and DP2 are virtually identical in size and weight, with the DP1 weighing 14.1 ounces and the DP2 at 13.9 ounces. These cameras are on the large size of “pocketable,” but are definitely more compact than most other cameras with similar image quality output.

Camera Cases for the DP Merrill Cameras: There are some very good camera cases available for the DP1 and DP2 Merrill Cameras. The Lowe Pro Dashpoint 20 fits either the DP1 or DP2 camera quite well (albeit snugly.) This case has loops that allow you to clip the case to a harness with carabiners, and also both horizontal and vertical velcro straps that allow for attachment to either shoulder straps or the hip belt of a pack.

The Mountainsmith Zoom S case (out of production, but you may find one if you search hard enough.) will fit both the DP1 and DP2 together, and is a nice, compact way to carry both cameras if you wish.

The DP1 and DP2 both have relatively large knobs and buttons that can be easily manipulated, even with gloves on. With practice, I can even do most adjustments one handed. The biggest ergonomic issue is that they both have removeable lens caps which you have to manually take on and off. This is not nearly as convenient as automatically retractable lens covers.

DP Merrill Conclusions: As one reviewer put it, the DP Merrill is like a medium format camera you can put in your pocket. It’s amazing to have such a capable photographic tool in such a small, compact package. When choosing between the DP1 (28mm equivalent) and DP2 (46mm equivalent,) I will usually take the DP2. I find the extra magnification useful, and if I really need a wider angle, I tend to take multiple shots and stitch them into a panorama with my editing software. If I am going somewhere with truly spectacular scenery, the DP Merrills are my cameras of choice.

Compact Camera Cases (Blue is Lowe Pro, Black and Grey are Mountainsmith)

The Tiny Pocket Sized Overachiever: Ricoh GR III

I have been using Ricoh GR cameras for a long time. My first GR was the original 35mm film version, the legendary GR1. Later, when digital photography began to eclipse film cameras, I bought the GR Digital II, which was a bit of a disappointment. The next generation digital Ricoh GR was a much better camera, with decent image quality. I didn’t bother to buy the Ricoh GR II, as it wasn’t significantly different than the GR, but now, I’ve upgraded to the new Ricoh GR III.

What’s great about the Ricoh GR cameras? Mostly the size. These cameras are really really small. The 8.9 ounce GR III is the smallest GR yet, even smaller than the GR and GRII predecessors.

In spite of the small size, they have very good image quality, aided by their uniformly excellent lenses. All of the GR series cameras have 28mm full frame equivalent lenses, which, for the GR III is a 18.3mm lens. The 28 mm format is ideal for wide angle scenic shots and close up shots of people. The lens on the GR III also has a decent macro mode, so taking pictures of small subjects is easy.

The Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case fits nicely on a climbing harness

The GR III’s 24 megapixel APS-C sensor allows for good image quality. I haven’t used this camera as extensively as the others in this review, but the images have certainly been good enough for displaying on web pages. So far, I have not taken any shots that merited turning into a large print, but hopefully I will get that chance.

The GR III is the first camera in the GR line to incorporate image stabilization. It’s also a bit smaller than previous GR cameras. The trade-off is that there is no built in flash. I think that this was a good trade, as I almost never used the built in flash, but I often want to shoot at lower shutter speeds.

The Compact Point and Shoot: Panasonic LX100

Panasonic LX100   14.2 ounces  

The Panasonic LX100 is a camera that ticks a lot of boxes.  It has a good 12 MP sensor, a sharp 24-75mm (full frame equivalent) zoom lens with a relatively large maximum f-stop of 1.7-2.8 for excellent light gathering capabilities.  It incorporates image stabilization to combat shaky hands.  Controls and ergonomics are excellent, with dials that control aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation.  These dial controls are very intuitive and easy to operate even when wearing gloves. (In general, I find dials easier to manipulate with gloves compared with buttons.)

One feature that the LX100 has, which is relatively unusual for pocket cameras, is a built-in viewfinder.  While the back screen is adequate in most cases, I’ve found that having a viewfinder can sometimes be very useful in composition, and is particularly useful in high-glare situations such as snowfields etc.

Autofocus is very accurate, and I’ve had very few out of focus shots.  In full automatic mode, the camera really is a point and shoot, and you can take pictures with a minimum of messing with the controls.  This is good when you’re trying to snap pictures quickly while climbing or belaying.

The LX100 comes standard with a regular, removable lens cap.  However, there is also an optional automatic petal cap that is very convenient, as it obviates the need to remove and replace the lens cap.  Just turn the camera on, and the lens pops out.  A couple of caveats about this nifty lens cap:  It can fall off.  It attaches with a twist but will unattach itself without much effort. The first time I used this cap while climbing, the cap came off and fell down the route.  Luckily, I was able to retrieve it.  To prevent further losses, I used a small drop of super glue to secure the cap to the camera a bit more permanently.  It’s worked well since then.

The other caveat when using this automatic cap is that not all lens filters are compatible with this cap.  Most lens caps are too thick and will interfere with the cap’s operation.  However, the ultra thin  Cokin 49mm Pure Harmonie Ultra Slim UV-MC Round Screw-On Filter works perfectly, so there is a good filter option available.

LX100 and DP Merrill Cameras and cases compared
Both DP Merrills Cameras stowed in the Mountainsmith Zoom S case, and the LX100 in the Lowe Pro Dashpoint 20 case
Size and shape of the LX100 (far left) and the DP Merrills are very close

The LX100 shoots 4k video, which is higher resolution than any of the other cameras in this review. I don’t shoot much video in the backcountry, but if I’m doing something that I want to take video of, the LX100 is the obvious answer.

Conclusion: Which Camera is the Best?

The obvious answer is that none of these is “the best” at everything. Each of these cameras is best suited for particular jobs. The camera I take with me the most often is the Ricoh GR III. It’s light and compact and easy to carry. It’s simple to use. Its image quality is very good. It’s my default camera for day trips, when I want to be prepared for whatever photographic opportunity might present itself.

The LX100 is often my camera of choice if I’m with a group of people and I have the option to dedicate time and energy to photography. In situations like this, I can often get some separation from the group to look for interesting angles, and the optical zoom makes getting the right framing and perspective easier. The LX100 is also my choice for video, as it is the only one of the bunch that shoots video in 4k.

However, the cameras that I love the most are the Sigma DP1 and DP2 Merrill. In spite of their quirks and failings, my favorite photographs have been taken with these cameras, and that is, ultimately, what cameras are for. For big trips in beautiful alpine settings, they give me the best shot at capturing the beauty of my surroundings.

SCOTT PATROL E1 40 BACKPACK (Avalanche Airbag Pack)

Scott Patrol E1 40 pack in the Alta backcountry

I was an early adopter of avalanche airbag packs. I’ve been using them for over a decade, and have owned and used models by Snowpulse/Mammut ABS, and Dakine. My packs have all used compressed gas (either oxygen or nitrogen) to inflate the airbags. My first airbag pack was an ABS model, which uses nitrogen charged canisters. Nitrogen canisters are relatively compact and lightweight, but not approved for air travel, however. In anticipation of a heli-skiing trip to Alaska, I purchased a couple of Snowpulse/Mammut packs, which use compressed air canisters that can be refilled at dive shops or ski shops with compressed air tanks.

Airbag pack technology has improved in the past few years, with perhaps the biggest change being the introduction of electric fans as a replacement for compressed gas canisters. Electric fans have the advantages of not requiring canister refills if you deploy the airbag, either for testing or in response to an avalanche. Unlike compressed gas (air especially) they are not as affected by cold temperatures. (Compressed gases become less pressurized the colder they get.)

I held off buying a fan airbag pack for several years. They were too heavy, and the lithium/ion rechargeable batteries are considered hazardous, which makes taking them on airplanes problematic.

Recently, a new generation of electric fan powered airbag packs have become available. These use a supercapacitor instead of a battery to charge the fan. I don’t know much about supercapacitors other than that they are good at very quick energy discharge, they are lighter than comparable batteries; they are not as affected by temperature fluctuations as batteries, and they are not considered hazardous for airplane travel. Currently, the leader in supercapacitor airbag systems is a company called Alpride, a Swiss company that has licensed their “E1” supercapacitor airbag technology to a number of different outdoor companies.

The Alpride E1 system charges with a USB cable. In addition to the on-board supercapacitor charge, it has 2 auxiliary AA size batteries (either alkaline or lithium) that keep the supercapacitor at full charge and also allow for an additional charge while in the field (takes up to 1.5 hours) if the airbag is deployed.

When you turn on the system, it runs a self-diagnostic, and an LED blinks (visible from outside the pack) to show you that it is turned on and working. I typically turn the system on when I am packing for my trip, and turn it off when I unpack. (It’s hard to turn it on and off when you’re at the trailhead because the on/off switch is deep in the main compartment of the pack.) With two fresh AA batteries installed, the system is good for 2-3 months. Generally, I just plug the pack in to a USB port for a couple of hours every time I return from a tour to keep the batteries from being used to charge the capacitor.

There are a few different options on the market today that incorporate Alpride’s E1 supercapacitor system. I considered the Osprey Soelden Pro 32 liter pack; the Ferrino Full Safe 30+5 pack; the Black Diamond Jetforce Tour 26L; and the Scott Patrol E1 40.

In choosing between these options, one of my main considerations was load capacity. I tend to carry quite a bit of gear, even or short day trips, and I wanted a pack that could accommodate this gear, and also have room for longer, multi-day hut trips. Of the Alpride E1 packs I looked at, the Scott Patrol has a 40 liter capacity, with the Ferrino at 35 liters and the Soelden Pro at 32 liters. At 26 liters, the Black Diamond Jetforce Tour was just too small for my needs.

My typical touring load out.

The Ferrino Full Safe has a unique feature in that it also incorporates an “avalung” type device that allows a buried person to breathe under the snow, provided you have the mouthpiece in your mouth when you are buried. Years ago, I had a custom pack made that incorporated an avalung and airbag (description HERE,) however, I found that I didn’t really use the avalung feature that much. It interfered with my skiing and added weight and complexity to the pack. The Ferrino Full Safe is the heaviest of the packs I considered, (over 7 pounds) and I figured I would seldom use the avalung feature.

Ultimately, my choice came down to the Osprey Soelden Pro 32 and the Scott Patrol 40. They are very similar in weight and capacity, and what reviews I could find online all seemed pretty positive. Ultimately, I found the Scott on sale with a 15% discount, so that proved to be the deciding factor. I purchased the Scott.

After having used the Scott for about 10 touring days, I am very happy with it.

Scott’s website claims the pack weighs approximately 2830 grams or 6.24 pounds. On my scales, my pack weighs 6.3 pounds, which is pretty close to the claimed weight. The pack is constructed with thinner straps, lighter zippers and doesn’t have a lot of useless features, which is a good design direction for a piece of gear that most folks will use going uphill more than down.

I think that the claimed 40 liter volume includes the space taken up by the capacitor, so the actual usable volume is probably closer to 38 liters.

Main Compartment with capacitor in the zippered compartment

Even with the capacitor taking up some space, there is plenty of room for my typical day trip or hut tour kit, and I don’t have to spend a lot of energy cramming stuff into a space that’s too small.

Packed and ready to ski

As with most avy packs, the Scott Patrol has two compartments; a smaller top compartment and the main compartment. Both of these are accessed with clamshell zippers. The top compartment has dividers to organize your snow safety equipment, with places to put your probe, shovel blade, and shovel handle. I can also easily fit my snow saw and ECT cord into this compartment. This top compartment also has a zippered pouch which is handy for keeping quick access items like snacks, a spare Buff, and sunglasses.

The main compartment houses the supercapacitor and has room for spare clothing, an emergency shelter, first aid kit, thermos, and all the rest of the gear I take with me. It has a zippered pocket that is handy for storing easy to lose items like my multi-tool.

Hip belt pocket

There is also a small hip belt pocket. It’s not very big, but it fits smaller items like sun screen, lip balm, a lens wipe for my goggles, and my reading glasses. I wish that this hip pocket were a little bit bigger. It’s not quite big enough to hold my inclinometer or a soft flask. I would also welcome a matching pocket on the other side. I find easily accessible pockets to be very useful when I’m on the move, as I can access things without having to stop.

A common feature that this pack does not have is a dedicated goggle pocket. I like the soft goggle pocket on my Dakine ABS pack, and I miss it on this pack.

The helmet holder works well, and has stowed my helmet securely without issues. I was originally worried that the clips that hold it on would come off (the upper clips fit to the daisy chain and are held there by tension) but so far, that has not been an issue, either when holding the helmet or when empty.

Skis can be carried either diagonally or in A-Frame mode. The diagonal carry set up has a very fast dedicated system of a top buckled strap and a bottom cut-resistant plastic wrapped wire. For A-Frame, you just use the dual compression straps on either side of the pack. I’ve mounted skis up for carry testing, but have not carried my skis more than a few yards in either configuration. Both configurations seemed to work well enough.

Lightly padded foam frame

Fit and comfort of the pack is excellent. I have a pretty long back, and I was worried that the pack would not fit me well. In use, it fits very well, and I am able to transfer the load to my hips without having to crank the hipbelt down too much. The airbag activation trigger is adjustable in height, so I was able to move it down lower on the shoulder strap to accommodate my longer torso. Apparently, it’s possible to transfer the trigger to the opposite (right) side as well, but I am right handed, so I haven’t done that. I’ve heard it’s possible to run a hydration tube through the shoulder strap sleeve, but I haven’t done that either(water tubes always seem to freeze.)

The pack has a lightly padded frame that is comfortable and keeps objects in the pack from poking your back.

In use, I have found that I don’t think about the pack very much, either on the uphill or when skiing downhill. This is the best indicator of a comfortable pack. It doesn’t throw me off balance, and stays snugged down without having to over-tighten the straps.

I’ve only used this pack for less than one season, but I really really like it. A lot of thought has gone into the design of this pack and it serves its intended function very well. I’m certain that supercapacitor airbag systems will continue to improve, getting smaller and lighter as the technology advances. However, until that happens, I think that this is one of the best airbag pack options there is, and likely the best choice for my needs.

Hydration Part 1: Insulated Water Bottles

Insulated Water Bottles Left to Right:
Outdoor Research; Forty Below; Takeya; Hydro Flask; Primus; Thermos Titanium

An insulated water bottle can be a great piece of equipment for winter outdoor activities. Depending on temperatures and what sort of bottle you’ve got, you can keep your water from freezing or enjoy a hot drink.

I will usually take an insulated bottle with me when I’m backcountry skiing or ice climbing. Sipping hot cider or hot cocoa at lunch time provides a great feeling of well being and helps warm me up when it’s cold.

This is a review of the insulated bottles I own.

Forty Below Bottle Boot $24.95 The Forty Below Bottle Boot is made from neoprene. It’s sized to fit a 1 liter bottle. It works with a standard Nalgene bottle or, a Hunersdorf bottle. The Hunersdorf bottle is lighter than a Nalgene and has a cap design that doesn’t freeze up in cold temperatures.

The Hunersdorf bottle is also known as a Relags Bottle.

The Bottle Boot isn’t terribly effective, but it is low profile and doesn’t add much bulk to your water bottle. It’s not great for keeping hot drinks hot, but does provide enough insulation to help keep your water bottle from freezing solid. If light weight and low bulk are your priority, then this could be a good choice.

Outdoor Research SG Water Bottle Parka $70 This is a foam insulated bottle wrap. OR claims it “makes any bottle a thermos.” That’s not really true as the tests below clearly show. It is a hair lighter than the Forty Below Bottle Boot, and provides more insulation, but is also a bit more bulky. If I was just worried about keeping my water from freezing and wasn’t concerned with keeping a hot drink hot, this would be my choice.

Takeya Actives Insulated Bottle with Spout Lid $23.00 This is a basic, stainless steel vacuum insulated bottle. It comes in various sizes. The spout lid is convenient for drinking out of or pouring, but it is not insulated. I believe that the uninsulated lid is responsible in large part for this bottle’s poor performance in the testing described below. It’s not very expensive, and its performance is fine for shorter days in mild cold.

Hydro Flask 40 ounce Wide Mouth Bottle $49.95 This bottle comes in a variety of sizes. The only one I have used is the larger, 40 ounce capacity version. This bottle is well made, easy to drink or pour from, and performed very well in the insulation test. One of the best I have used, and my go-to for a larger capacity vacuum bottle.

Primus Vacuum Bottle $39.95 Note that the version I own is an older model than the one in the link. I have not used the new “Trailbreak” model. This is a nice, traditional vacuum bottle. It has a vacuum insulated double wall design, and has two caps, an inner, insulated cap, and a cover that can be used as a cup for sipping your hot drinks. It performs well at keeping drinks hot and doesn’t take up much space in your pack. I have owned two of these, and with both of them, the cup lid broke. The glue that holds the outer steel portion of the cup to the inner plastic cup failed and the two pieces came apart. It was easily fixed with a bit of JB weld, however.

Broken Primus Cup

Thermos Titanium Vacuum Bottle I can’t remember what I paid for this. I remember it being pretty expensive, I believe about $150. These bottles are pretty hard to find. They show up occasionally on ebay, but prices can be nuts (saw one sell for over $200.) This is a beautifully constructed bottle. Titanium makes it light, and it was the best performer in the insulation test. For those who simply must have a high quality titanium vacuum bottle, if you can’t find a Thermos Titanium, Snowpeak makes a smaller and lighter version, the Titanium 350ml Kanpai Bottle ($159.95) I have never used this Snowpeak bottle, but my experience with other Snowpeak gear makes me believe it is likely very high quality.

The Test

I tested the insulating qualities of each of these bottles.

All of the bottles were filled with boiling water. Then, they were left outside in the cold for 6 hours. Outside temperatures were just below freezing. After 6 hours, the water temperature in the bottles was measured.

Note that the larger containers have an advantage when it comes to heat loss, as larger regularly shaped objects generally have less surface area in relation to their volume. Having less surface area in relation to volume means that an object will radiate relatively less heat. It is likely that smaller models of these bottles would perform slightly less well. Also, all of the bottles were filled to capacity. Experience has shown that when you drink some of the liquid in a bottle, leaving empty air space, the remaining liquid tends to cool more rapidly.

Here are the results:

Conclusions:

The two bottle wraps (Forty Below and Outdoor Research) clearly do not perform as well as the better (and heavier) vacuum bottles. They are good for keeping your water from freezing, but not really great for keeping your hot chocolate hot. The Outdoor research Bottle Parka is the winner in this category, with better insulating performance, lower weight, and just a bit more bulk.

The Takeya vacuum bottle was a bit of a disappointment. It has poor insulating performance (likely due to the non-insulating lid.) I would not choose this bottle, and would instead opt for a Hydroflask.

The Primus, while a good performer for a small bottle, was eclipsed by the outstanding performance (and lighter weight) of the Thermos Titanium bottle. The Thermos Titanium is my favorite. It is just the right size for a day trip in cold weather, it’s pretty light, and it keeps liquids hot for a long time. Unfortunately, the Thermos Titanium is very difficult (maybe impossible) to acquire.

“a perfect gear for real mountaineers”

So, the real-world winner of this insulated bottle showdown for those who can’t locate the Thermos Titanium Unicorn is the Hydro Flask. It’s easy to find, has very good insulating performance, is relatively inexpensive, and its weight is competitive with the other (non-titanium) vacuum bottles. If anyone wants a good solid vacuum bottle for keeping their drinks hot in the cold of winter, I could highly recommend the Hydro Flask.

Hunt Gear Checklist Part 3: Rifle and Shooting Gear

Rifle and accessories

Christensen Arms Summit Ti/Th  6.5 Creedmoor rifle with thumbhole stock for deer
For elk, I use a slightly heavier, RBros Rifles LW Hunter  300 Win Mag rifle
Both of these rifles are top quality.  At 100 yards, they will consistently shoot groups of 1/2 inch or less.

Christensen Arms Rifle is 99.4 ounces; Scope 33.6 ounces; Bipod 4.2 ounces; Sling 6.2 ounces; Talley Rings 5.7 ounces

R Bros Rifle is 105.5 ounces; Scope 33.6 ounces; Bipod 4.2 ounces; Sling 6.2 ounces; Rings 8.1 ounces

Rubber gun sling (Specialty Outdoors)   or Slogan Outdoors   These rubber slings are terrific.  They keep the rifle secure when over your shoulder.  They provide excellent support when the sling is used to steady the rifle for shooting, and they can be looped, backpack style over both shoulders for secure carrying over rough terrain.

Here is a VIDEO that shows the basics of a rubber sling.

Neopod ultralight bipod  This rifle bipod weighs next to nothing.  Bipod and all the hardware for attaching it to the rifle weighs a total of 4.2 ounces.

Kahles K 624i rifle scope  with AMR reticle and left side windage adjustment.    34mm tube, 6-24x magnification 56mm objective lens.  With Vortex flip up lens caps.   This scope is one of the lighter weight scopes with a large 34mm tube and relatively high (24x) magnification.  Optical quality is excellent.  I’ve found it to be durable, and consistent with its elevation adjustments.  The reticle design works well for holding for wind and elevation when you don’t want to dial your turrets.  Center illumination is good for low light.

Kahles AMR Reticle

Kahles AMR Reticle  I typically dial the scope for elevation, but hold for wind.  This Christmas Tree design makes wind holds easy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soundgear Earplugs with extra batteries  These are electronic hearing protection that fits in your ear as opposed to ear muffs that go over your ear.  They weigh next to nothing, and provide decent sound protection coupled with adequate hearing.

Maxpedition D-Bag pouch (mounted on gun sling)  I keep some Zeiss lens wipes, the wrench for my scope, and some Traditions Muzzleloading rain Gear  muzzle protectors in this little pouch.

R Bros 300 Win Mag

R Bros 300 Win Mag  (I don’t use the cheek pad any more.  Found it wasn’t needed.)

Christensen Arms Summit TI/TH rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor

Christensen Arms Summit TI/TH rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor  Maxpedition pouch on the sling.

Leki Carbon Ti Trikking poles, (15 ounces) which I use for walking and supporting my tent, also make decent shooting sticks, for supporting the rifle when I’m not prone or shooting using my backpack as a support.

I have been using the Sig Sauer Kilo 2400 ABS Laser Rangefinder for the past 5 months.  I have bee very impressed with this piece of gear.  Range finding is fast, accurate, and consistent out to at least 1400 yards, even on minimally reflective targets.  The built in ballistics software is easy to use, interfaces with my smartphone for easy input of custom ballistics data, and provides very accurate firing solutions.  It’s small and lightweight (8.1 ounces).  It’s the perfect rangefinder for hunting.  It was expensive, but worth the money.  I carry it in a FHF rangefinder pouch attached to my bino harness.

 

Hunt Gear Checklist Part 1: Introduction and Clothing

Hunting Gear and Clothing:  Intro and Context

This is part 1 of my post on hunting gear and clothing.  A few notes about this list to provide some context:

I hunt deer and elk.  My hunts are all self guided.  I tend to backpack hunt, generally 3-8 miles from my vehicle.  I don’t have pack animals.  Everywhere I go, I walk.

I hunt public lands in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Colorado.  (Thinking of hunting Montana in the future.)  Because I only started hunting a few years ago, I have not accumulated significant preference points in any state.  My hunts are generally over the counter, general season tags, or easy to draw limited entry units.  I try to hike in to places that other hunters don’t go.  Terrain is usually high country; either heavily timbered, or more sparsely covered high mountain terrain.  Temps can range from hot (Utah early season) or cold and snowy (Colorado 3rd rifle season.)

I’m a meat hunter.  I don’t have any place in my house to hang a taxidermy head.  I will keep antlers, but have no real use for a big mounted trophy.  Because of this, I don’t really care about an animal’s “score.”  Given two healthy, legal targets, I will opt for the smaller, younger one, on the assumption that the meat will be better.  (I prefer females to males for the same reason.)   You will see this preference reflected in some of my equipment decisions.  For example, I don’t need a giant spotting scope to count antler tines, so I generally bring a smaller lightweight spotting scope.

Most of my hunting is solo.  (Another reason I prefer to harvest a smaller animal.)  I generally plan on spending 5 or 6 nights on a given hunt.  I’m getting older (in my 50’s) so I try to keep my pack weigh down as much as possible.

A final note about my hunting gear.  I’ve tried not to make any compromises with my gear.  With very few exceptions, if I’ve chosen to take a particular item of clothing or equipment on a hunt, it’s because I believe that it is the absolute best piece of clothing or equipment for the purpose.  After a few years of hunting, I have refined and honed my hunting clothing and equipment over and over again.  I have finally got the list to a pretty stable state.  Stuff that doesn’t work or is not needed has been trimmed from the list, and many items have been changed out for things that work better.

My "trophy" Elk tenderloin medallions.

My “trophy”
Elk tenderloin medallions.

Clothing:

Hunter Orange.

Idaho and Arizona do not require hunter orange.  Colorado and Utah do.  Because of this, when I’m hunting in Utah or Colorado, I don’t bother with camo on my upper body.  I just wear orange clothing.   Most folks wear camo and an orange vest.  I opt for just wearing orange clothing and not bothering with a vest.  I’m not convinced that camo clothing makes a huge difference in how easily elk or deer can spot me, particularly at rifle hunting distances.  Furthermore, the orange vests that I have tested with a UV light have glowed like crazy, indicating they have heavy optical brighteners in their dyes.  My orange clothing doesn’t glow under a UV light.  (Deer and elk are sensitive to the UV spectrum, so generally, UV optical brighteners are bad because they make you more visible to your prey.)

Camo clothing for an Idaho Deer Hunt

Above:  Camo clothing.  Below, orange clothing.

Hunter Orange Clothing

Hunter Orange Clothing for Colorado and Utah

Hands.  

DeFeet Duraglove ET Wool   These are great lightweight gloves made from a blend of synthetic and merino wool.  Good dexterity for fine tasks (including shooting.)  Compatible with phone touch screen.  Good grip.  Durable.

Dachstein boiled wool fingerless, mittens, with fold-over cap.  These are my go-to cold weather hand gear.  They are warm, windproof, water resistant, and easy to convert from fingerless to mitten configuration (just fold over the finger cap.)  These mittens provide warmth for my hands, while the fingerless feature makes them easy to shoot with without removing them.

Simms Freestone fingerless, fold over mittens  This is my warmer weather version of the Dachstein mittens.  Same features in a lighter weight fleece version.

REI Minimalist Rain Mittens.    Waterproof, seam taped rain gear for your hands.  Ultralight fabric is not very durable, but I only wear them if it’s raining, and it doesn’t rain much where I hunt, so it’s not a big problem.

Head

Golightly cashmere Expedition Weight Hat  (Replace with orange Golightly cashmere watch cap for Hunter Orange states.)   These hats are warm and super comfortable.  I wear them in cold conditions and for sleeping.  They are ridiculously expensive, but buying them is a fiscally irresponsible decision I have never regretted.

Golightly Expedition Hat

Golightly Expedition Hat

 

Buff headband/neck gaiter  (orange for Hunter Orange states, camo pattern for Idaho)  This is an indispensable piece of clothing.  It’s a sweat band in hot weather, a neck gaiter, and an ear band in cold weather (Sometimes a warm hat is too much, and all I really want is something to keep my ears warm.)

Outdoor Research Sunrunner cap  (I tie-died this cap to give it a more camouflaged look.)  Replace with LL Bean mesh and cool-max hunting cap for Hunter Orange states. (The Bean cap is discontinued, but Headsweats makes a similar cap.)  Keeps the sun out of my eyes, and absorbs sweat.

Julbo Venturi sunglasses with Zebra Light lenses.  These sunglasses are made for trail runners, and they vent well and resist fogging.  The photochromatic “Zebra Light” lenses adjust to allow for good vision in shadows and bright sun and glare.  Comfortable, and durable.

Base layers

Smartwool boxer briefs   Merino wool underwear is low stink and comfortable.  I generally will bring a spare pair on a multi day trip.  (This and my socks are my only spares)

Kuiu Peloton 200 Zip-Off  long john bottoms  These long johns are genius because they have full length zippers that allow you to take them off and put them on without removing your boots.  This is a common feature for raingear, but Kuiu is the only company I know of that does this with base layers.

Ibex merino t-shirt  (orange for Hunter Orange states.)  Low stink.  Comfortable.  Doesn’t dry as quickly as synthetic, but more comfortable.  Not durable.  Knit wool fabric won’t stand up to bushwhacking very well.

Primary Layer; Pants  

FirstLite Obsidian Pants  These pants made from woven, ripstop merino wool are my choice for early season hunts and any time when I’m not expecting snow or wet conditions.  I don’t like belts, and these work well with suspenders.  They have a high waist that fits well and is comfortable under a backpack hip belt.  They are a replacement for the Kenab pants, and have better pockets, and a more durable fabric.  Not at all water resistant.  Not great for snow or wet conditions.  They will get wet and don’t dry as fast as some other pants.

Sitka Timberline Pants.      These are my pants of choice for wet and/or snowy conditions.  They have some water resistance and dry quickly.  The seat and knees are waterproof, so you can sit or kneel on snow and not get your butt or knees wet.  Good suspenders.  Comfortable under a pack hip belt.  Knees have removable knee pads which are flexible and comfortable.  High waist and suspenders.

 Primary Layer; Torso

Voormi Blur Jacket   This is my camo layer for Idaho or Arizona, when I’m not worrying about hunter orange requirements.  It’s a nice, hooded softshell jacket, made of a merino wool blend.  It is weather resistant, and will shrug off light rain or snow.  It has a wide temperature comfort range.  Two chest pockets and two handwarmer pockets provide ample storage.  The Blur Jacket is one of several similar hunting oriented tops in Voormi’s clothing line up.  There is a similar top with many of the same features in a pullover version, the Voormi Two Pocket Hoodie.  All of Voormi’s clothing is made in the USA from American sourced materials.

Voormi Blur Jacket, Firstlite Obsidian Pants

Voormi Blur Jacket, Firstlite Obsidian Pants and Firstlite Brambler Gaiters

For hunter orange states, the Voormi Blur jacket gets replaced with an orange Patagonia Nano Air Light hoodie.  This is a lightly insulated softshell with excellent breathability and good stretch.  Not as warm or wind resistant as the Voormi Blur, but lighter and better for high exertion activities.

Rain Gear

I don’t hunt in any states where it typically rains a lot.  My primary concern with rain gear is that it is light weight.  I don’t really care if it’s durable, as I don’t really plan on wearing it all that often.

Kuiu Teton Rain Jacket   (Replace with Patagonia M10 Anorak for Hunter Orange states)  These are some of the lightest rain jackets available.

Kuiu Teton Rain Pants  Light weight.  Full side zips make them easy on and off without removing boots.

REI Minimalist Rain Mittens.    Waterproof, seam taped rain gear for your hands.  Ultralight fabric is not very durable.

Kuiu Teton Rain Suit

Kuiu Teton Rain Suit

 

Puffy Jacket  I always carry a puffy jacket.  I want insulation that I can layer on top of my other clothing for times when I am stationary and not generating heat.  Hooded jackets are warmer than non-hooded versions.

FirstLite Uncompahgre Puffy Insulated Jacket This is a nice insulated jacket.  It pairs well with my Voormi Blur softshell, and keeps me warm and toasty when glassing and hanging around camp.

For hunter orange states, I use the Patagonia Fitzroy hooded down parka.  This is a very warm, very light down filled puffy that is great for really cold conditions.

Glassing in my Uncompahgre Jacket

Glassing in my Uncompahgre Jacket

Feet

Gaiters keep rocks and sticks and moisture out of your boots.  I wear the FirstLite Brambler Hunting Gaiter,  except in early season, when I prefer a shorter, more breathable gaiter.  For early season, where snow isn’t an issue, and I’m pretty much just keeping rocks and sticks out of my boots, I opt for the Kennetrek Hiking Gaiter.  They are light, stretchy, and breathable.

When I’m backpacking and hiking (not hunting) I seldom wear boots.  I pretty much just wear lightweight trail running shoes.  However, after trying to wear trail running shoes while hunting, I’ve found that I prefer more substantial footwear.  When I’m hunting, I tend to travel off trail most of the time.  Boots provide more protection and comfort off trail.  The loads I’m carrying (especially if I’m packing out meat) also tend to be heavier than typical backpacking loads, and I find that I want a bit more support than trail running shoes provide.

My primary boot of choice is the Zamberlan Lynx.   These are high quality, Italian boots that are waterproof, comfortable, and great for cool to cold weather.  One thing I really appreciate about these boots is that they come in both regular and wide widths.  I have a somewhat wide foot, and the wide width fits me perfectly.  They are very nimble, with a grippy sole for scrambling over rocks.  Their mid-height construction doesn’t bind or constrict.  These are great boots, and I use them for everything except hot, early season conditions.

Zamberlan Lynx

Zamberlan Lynx

The Keene Liberty Ridge hiking boots are my choice for early season warmer conditions.  They are a bit lighter than the Zamberlans, but still provide good support.  They are water proof.  They don’t come in different widths, but they have a relatively wide fore foot, so they fit my feet well.  As a bonus, they are made in the United States.

As with my merino boxer briefs, I generally bring a spare pair of socks.  I wear merino blend socks pretty much exclusively.  Nothing surpasses wool for sock material.

With my Keen boots, I wear Lorpen Merino hiking socks.  These socks are comfortable, durable, and maintain their shape well.

With the Zamberlan boots, I wear Patagonia Expedition weight merino hiking socks.  I don’t think that these socks are still made by Patagonia, which is too bad, as they are great socks, with good cushioning and excellent warmth.  A good warm, thick sock like these allows my feet to stay warm and comfortable in cold temperatures.  I find that even in more mild conditions, the thick terry-looped merino interior absorbs any sweat from my feet and my feet stay comfortable and don’t feel too hot.

Item weights:

Clothing:
Julbo Venturi sunglasses with Zebra light lenses and cloth bag 1.4
Smartwool Merino boxer briefs (2 pair) 2.6 ounces each 5.6
Sitka Timberline Pants 32.7
First Lite Obsidian Pants 22.6
Kuiu Peloton 200 zip-off bottoms 8.5
Merino t-shirt 5.5
Voormi Blur Jacket 26.3
Orange Patagonia Nano Air light hoodie 11.8
Expedition weight Cashmere Hat (Golightly Cashmere) 5.3
Orange Cashmere Watch Hat (Golightly Cashmere) 3.1
Orange Buff 1.3
Outdoor Research Sunrunner Hat 2.9
Orange Cap (LL Bean Technical Upland Cap) 2.2
Keene Liberty Ridge Mid height Hunting Boots 51.4
Zamberlan Lynx Gtx Mid height Hunting Boots 64.4
Lorpen mid weight wool hiking socks x2 (2.8 ounces per pair) 5.6
Patagonia Expedition wool socks x2 (7 ounces per pair) 14
DeFeet ET Dura glove 2.2
Dachstein fingerless mittens with fold over cap 5.3
REI eVent rain mitts 1.6
First Lite Brambler gaiters 11
Kennetrek Hiking gaiters 5.5
Patagonia Fitzroy Down Parka (Orange) 21.1
First Lite Umcompagre puffy jacket with hood 22
Orange Patagonia M10 Anorak 8
Kuiu Teton Rain Jacket 9.6
Kuiu Teton Rain Pants 6.9

Optics for Backpack Hunting in the Western Mountains

Glassing for Javelina in Arizona's high desert

Glassing for Javelina in Arizona’s high desert

I hunt public lands in the Western states.  I’m not a particularly skilled hunter, so I look for an edge by using my legs to travel far enough from roads and access points that I can minimize competition from other, more experienced hunters.  Because I’m usually backpacking, carrying all of my gear for multiple nights out, I tend to obsess over my equipment choices, and they tend to get refined each season as I gain more experience.

Good quality optics are key to hunting the mountain country in the West.  Being able to glass over long distances allows you to scout terrain and locate animals at the speed of light rather than the speed of your legs.

Based on the recommendations of pretty much every hunter I knew, I started out with a set of Swarovski binoculars.  The general consensus is that Swaros are “the best” binoculars.  I picked a 10×50 EL model, which is generally considered to be one of the finest binoculars available.  I was not disappointed.  These were excellent binoculars.

After a while, I moved to the Leica Geovid HD-B rangefinding binoculars, also 10 power (10×42.)  The Leica has optical performance comparable with the Swaro, and had the advantage of integrated rangefinding and ballistics (when it worked.)  My review of the Geovid is here.

I didn’t carry a spotting scope.  I’m not counting tines on antlers, (I’m pretty much a meat hunter, not a trophy hunter,) so I figured I wouldn’t need one.  The 10 power binos were my all-in-one optics solution.  However, on a couple of hunts, I glassed animals from far enough away that I needed a higher power optic to determine if I wanted to shoot them or not.  In one instance, I was looking at a deer, and I couldn’t make out if it was male or female, as I couldn’t even tell if it had antlers.  A higher magnification spotting scope would have made identification easier.

I lost my Leica Geovid binoculars on a hunt.  This gave me the excuse to revisit my hunting optics.  I decided to go with a lighter weight binocular combined with a lightweight spotting scope.

After a fair amount of online research and some in-person testing of various binoculars and spotting scopes, I ended up with a pair of  Zeiss Victory 8×32 T* FL binoculars and a Kowa Prominar TSN 554 Kowa 15-45x55mm spotting scope.   This combination, combined with a Sig Kilo 2400 rangefinder is working out well for me, and I think that I may have found my perfect optics kit for the kind of high-mileage high altitude hunting that I do.

Kowa 554 Scope; Granite Peak Tripod; Zeiss 8x32; Sig Kilo 2400

My backpack optics kit:  Kowa 554 Scope; Granite Peak Tripod; Zeiss 8×32; Sig Kilo 2400

Zeiss Victory 8×32 T* FL Binoculars   (21.8 ounces)

The Zeiss brand is not as popular with hunters as the ubiquitous Swarovski, but they are also top tier binoculars.  These 8×32 have a wide angle of view (64 degrees,) combined with excellent optical quality.  The image from the fluorite lenses is sharp and clear, and I don’t notice any flare or chromatic aberration or other optical flaws.

The 32mm objective gives up some brightness compared with the larger 42mm objective, but in actual practice  I have found the the dawn and dusk performance difference to be negligible.  However, the difference in weight and size is significant and  very noticable.  Weight on these is 21.8 ounces, compared with 37.5 ounces for the Leica Geovid 10×42 and 29.7 ounces for the Zeiss 8×42.

Eye relief is good, and I can pretty much just put them up to my eyes and see, rather than worrying about finding an eye relief sweet spot.  Ergonomics are excellent, both bare handed and wearing gloves.  Focusing is smooth and consistent.  The best feature is that these binos are really small and compact (5 inches long by 5 inches wide.)  I can wear them all day long, and never really notice them.  I can glass with them for long periods with no fatigue.

I’ve been happy with the switch to the 8×32.  I’m not sure I would use these for mountain hunting without the addition of a higher magnification spotting scope, but as the binoculars in a bino-spotting scope combination, they are perfect.

Kowa Prominar TSN 554  15-45 x55mm Spotting Scope  (29.1 ounces)

This is a relatively new spotting scope, introduced in the summer of 2017.  I used mine for deer and elk hunts in fall of 2017, and a spring javelina hunt in 2018.  Based on this, plus lots of use birding, I believe that this may be the perfect lightweight spotting scope.

It has a 55mm objective lens, which is small by spotting scope standards.  The 554 uses polycarbonate plastic construction to cut down on weight, but it doesn’t feel cheap or “plasticy” at all.  It has a substantial, quality feel.  Optical quality is terrific.  I’ve peered through other compact 60mm class scopes, and the Kowa is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve seen.  I think that most smaller objective scopes tend to be lower quality entry-level optics.  The Kowa, in contrast, utilizes their top of the line fluorite crystal for the objective lens and ultra low dispersion glass for the rest of it.  It’s the most expensive compact scope I know of, and it’s clear that the money has gone into the lenses, as the view through the scope is great.

Ergonomics are excellent as well.  I particularly like the Kowa focusing system.  The dual focusing knobs (one for quick and the other for fine focus) work very well.  The scope is so small and light, I’ve even used it occasionally without a tripod, resting it on a rock, tree limb, or backpack.

Maximum magnification is 45x, which is significantly less than a full size scope (My 88mm Kowa has 60x magnification.)  In practice, however, I’ve found 45x magnification to be more than adequate.  Most of the time, I’m glassing at no more than 25x.

Using premium glass in a lightweight and compact design is unique.  I’m glad that Kowa took the step to pioneer this market segment, as the 554 scope is now a regular addition to my hunting optics load out.

As of this time, Kowa does not sell a fitted case for the 550 series scopes.  However, I found an Op/Tech neoprene spotting scope pouch that works reasonably well.  Supposedly, Kowa will be coming out with a fitted case for the 554 some time in 2018.

I use the Kowa 554 spotting scope with a light weight tripod.  (Tripods reviewed HERE) The beauty of the lightweight spotting scope, is that its light weight means that I can use a lighter tripod as well, compounding the weight savings.

Bino Harness

A good bino harness is essential for holding your binoculars; keeping them close to hand, but also controlling them and preventing them from bouncing around.

I have owned and used a number of different bino harnesses.  My first was the S4 Lockdown X, which was somewhat minimalist.  I moved to a FHF Bino Harness because I wanted better pockets and more modularity.   Eventually, I got an Alaska Guide Creations bino harness because the fully enclosed design provided better protection from dust and debris.  I liked the pockets as well.

Alaska Guide Creations does not make a bino pouch that is sized to fit my smaller 8×32 binoculars.  After some research, I opted for the Outdoor Vision bino harness.    It has become my favorite of all that I have owned.   I like the top closure.  It folds out, away from your body, so the lid stays open and out of the way when you are using the binos.  The magnetic closure is quiet and secure.  It is rather slim and compact, but still manages to include a couple of pockets for a Wind checker powder bottle (Windicator)  and some emergency items (Spyderco Manbug G10 knife   Spark Lite Firestarter kit)  I keep these in my bottom pocket  (which also holds a rain cover for the case.)   This, coupled with a FHF pouch for my rangefinder, is my standard rig now.

optics-4

Outdoor Vision Bino Harness with FHF rangefinder pouch

Outdoor Vision Bino Harness with FHF rangefinder pouch.  (I have found that the bino harness is the best place to hang my sheath knife.  No interference with pack belt.)

Other (Heavier) Optics

Although the 8×32 binos and the Kowa 554 spotting scope are my standard hunting optics, there are times when I use heavier, full size binoculars, and a full size spotting scope.   I use the Kowa Genesis 10.5×44 binos, and the Kowa TSN 883 spotting scope.  With the TE-11WZ wide zoom eyepiece,  the 883 spotting scope provides a 25-60x magnification range.   Objective size is 88mm.  Weight of the 883 spotter is 75 ounces.  Weight of the 10.5×44 binos is 34 ounces.

Zeiss 8x32 and Kowa 10.5x44 binos side by side

Zeiss 8×32 and Kowa 10.5×44 binos side by side

Optical quality of these Kowa binos and scope are outstanding.  To my eyes, they are every bit as good as the comparable Swarovski offerings I’ve used.

They are big and heavy, but when I’m hunting from the car, just carrying a day pack, sometimes I will lug them along.  Kowa is a lesser known brand compared with the Big Three of Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski, but I think if they had better marketing, hunters would be flocking to Kowa in droves for the excellent optics and reasonable pricing.

Kowa 554 and Kowa 883

Kowa 554 and Kowa 883

Conclusions: 

It’s taken me a fair amount of trial and error to get to this point in my optical kit.  However, after using various premium optics, my current combo of the Kowa 554 lightweight spotter coupled with the lightweight Zeiss 8×32 binos really seems to cover all my bases.  The binos are light and great for glassing large areas.  The 554 spotting scope is light as well, and allows me to zoom in on animals or areas of interest.  It saves pounds of weight compared with a traditional, full size bino and spotter combination.

Lightweight Tripods for Backpack Hunting

Choosing equipment for backpack hunting is difficult.  Hunting is a gear-intensive activity, but carrying all of that gear into the mountains can be way too strenuous, so it is important to assess the weight of every piece of gear you carry.

Hunting optics are one of the heavier categories of hunting equipment.  I have tried to keep my optics as light weight as possible, while still maintaining the ability to see long distances.  I have recently begun using a lightweight spotting scope.  (the Kowa TSN 554 reviewed here)  in conjunction with a pair of 8×32 binoculars.  This combination saves weight over full size binoculars and spotting scope, but still allows me to pick out animals several miles away.

However, using a spotting scope effectively requires a tripod.  Without a tripod, the image is too shaky to see clearly.  Unfortunately, even most “lightweight” tripods are pretty heavy, with most of them weighing as much (or more than) my tent.

In an attempt to shave some weight off of my pack, I have been trying out three of the lightest tripod solutions I know of:  The Trailpix tripod adapter; the Granite Peak tripod, and the Sirui T-024x.  After the fall deer and elk season, and a spring hunt for javelina, here are my thoughts on these systems.

Top to bottom: Trail Pix; Granite Peak; Sirui

Top to bottom: Trail Pix; Granite Peak; Sirui

Weights for the three tripods:

Granite Peak Tripod and ball head   9.7 ounces

TrailPix trekking pole tripod adapter with ball head   5.2 ounces
Fizan trekking pole for Trailpix   5 ounces

Sirui T-024X Traveler Light Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10S Ball Head    33.7 ounces

Hunting Use

When using a tripod for photography, most of the time, I am standing up.  However, when using a tripod for mounting a spotting scope for hunting, the majority of the time I am using it while sitting on the ground.  So, it’s important that the tripod supports the scope well while relatively low to the ground.  Often, I’m using the tripod with my legs under the tripod legs.

When glassing a mountainside, the tripod needs to be able to adjust up and down easily.  That is because when you are glassing a steep mountain, you need to be able to raise and lower the tripod so that you can glass with minimal strain on your neck.  (Adjust the tripod, not your neck and back.)

It’s also important that the tripod is able to be deployed quickly.  Although most of the time, I’m not in a huge hurry, if the tripod takes too long to get set up, then I’m less likely to use it.

Sirui T-024X Traveler Light Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10S Ball Head

Sirui Website

The Sirui T-024X can handle a full size spotting scope

The Sirui T-024X can handle a full size spotting scope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sirui is a traditional tripod design, but made from lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber to cut weight.  It has 3 section extendable legs, and an extendable center column.  It comes with a nicely made ball head that is smooth and secure.  My only complaint about the ball head is that the detachable plate secures to the scope with a bolt that doesn’t have a D-ring, so to secure it to the scope, you needed to use a screw driver.  I replaced it with an aftermarket D-ring model I bought from Amazon for $4, and it is now much easier to secure by hand.

D-ring on screw makes it much easier to secure by hand

Aftermarket D-ring screw makes it much easier to secure by hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In use, the Sirui tripod was very user friendly.  It works well for sitting on the ground or sitting on a log, and is quite easy to deploy.   Vertical adjustments are simple, as it has a locking center column that provides lots of vertical adjustment.  A quick twist of the center column locking collar, move the column up or down, then a quick twist to re-lock.

This tripod handles larger, heavier spotting scopes too, and easily worked with my full size 88mm spotter with no problems.    Overall, this is a versatile and easy to use tripod, and a good choice for folks who want to carry a heavier spotter and/or want the full features of a traditional tripod design.

Trailpix Tripod Adapter

Trailpix Website

Trailpix Tripod

Trailpix Tripod

The Trailpix adapter is made to be used with your trekking poles.  It’s a plate with a ball head that attaches to the tips of your trekking poles to turn them into a tripod.  You just insert your pole tips into the adapter plate, then secure them with some thumb screws.  It is surprisingly stable.

One obvious issue is that most people only carry 2 trekking poles, so a 3rd pole is required to complete the system.  Trailpix provides a shockcorded aluminum pole for use as the 3rd pole, but I found this to be not very practical, as it was too tall to use comfortably when sitting, and there was not easy way to change the height.  Instead, I just carry a third trekking pole.  I stripped the handle off of it to reduce weight.  (Marmots had already chewed much of the handle off anyway, so I wasn’t too worried about ruining the pole for other uses.)

The Trailpix system is quite clever, and makes use of trekking poles that I already carry with me.  In use, it is very sturdy, and had no issues supporting my lightweight spotting scope.  The ballhead is decent, and was easy enough to adjust and secure.  while not as smooth as the Sirui, it was adequate.

The Trailpix system has a few limitations for hunting.  The first is that it takes a bit longer to set up.  Inserting your trekking poles into the adapter and adjusting them to the right height takes longer than the other lightweight options reviewed here.  The biggest problem, however, is that the Trailpix system is not really designed for use while sitting on the ground.  The angle of the poles is fixed and there is no adjustment.  This means that when the poles are adjusted very low, the angle isn’t wide enough for maximum stability.  You can make it work, but it’s not ideal.

Once set up, vertical adjustment can typically be done by simply adjusting the height of a single pole, which is not too bad.

The genius of the Trailpix system is that it utilizes the trekking poles that you are carrying with you anyway.  However, this is also a possible negative, as I also tend to use trekking poles for supporting my tarp, and also use them as shooting sticks for resting my gun on while shooting (when I’m not shooting prone.)

Overall, the Trailpix is a decent system, but if they made a version of the plate with a wider pole angle (for lower to the ground deployment) it would be much better.

Granite Peak Tripod

Granite Peak Website

The Granite Peak Tripod is made in Montana by the folks at Kramer Designs.  They are a hunting focused company best known for their lightweight rifle bipod, the Snipepod.

Kramer Designs Granite Peak Tripod

Kramer Designs Granite Peak Tripod

 

The Granite Peak is a shockcorded aluminum pole system with an ultralight custom made ball head mounted to it.  The poles are pretty much similar to aluminum tent poles.  The poles attach to the ball head with sockets that are infinitely adjustable in angle, so you can spread the legs in any direction you want, from flat to vertical, front to back.  It looks pretty flimsy, but in practice, it supports my lightweight spotting scope adequately.  (There is an optional string attachment for suspending a water bottle or other weight in the center of the tripod to add stability, but I haven’t found it to be necessary in most conditions, and it tends to get in the way of my legs when I’m sitting with the tripod legs deployed over me.)

Infinitely adjustable ball/socket joints

Infinitely adjustable ball/socket joints

The Granite Peak tripod comes in different sizes.  I originally ordered the 33 inch legs, but after some use, went to the 42 inch legs, as I found that when sitting on a steep slope, I wanted the extra leg length for the downhill leg.  It’s pretty simple to reduce the leg length, as you can just fold up a couple of the leg segments and then secure them with the velcro tab that is permanently attached to each of the legs.

In use, the Granite Peak works pretty well.  The infinitely adjustable legs in their sockets makes the tripod very easy to set up on uneven ground, and also makes it easy to adjust while in use.  (Just grab a leg, and push it back or pull it forward to decrease/increase height.)  Stability is adequate, but the legs have some flex in them.  In windy conditions or at higher magnifications, I have found that a hand on the tripod to steady it is often helpful.

The ball head is an ultralight custom machined item that works adequately.  It is a little bit fiddly when compared with a regular ball head, but gets the job done.  With most other ball heads, it’s not too hard to find a sweet spot of adjustment that allows you to maneuver the optic while providing just enough friction to prevent the optic from flopping about.  The Granite Peak ball head goes from locked to floppy very quickly, and finding the correct friction setting for scanning and panning takes a bit more effort.

Overall, the Granite Peak system is very well thought out, and extremely versatile for varied terrain and body positions, provided you are using a lightweight optic.

Summary

I have summarized my findings in the table below.  The scoring for the Stability, Ball head, adjustment and deployment is on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the top score.

Weights:

Granite Peak Tripod and ball head   9.7 ounces

TrailPix trekking pole tripod adapter with ball head   5.2 ounces
Fizan trekking pole for Trailpix   5 ounces

Sirui T-024X Traveler Light Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10S Ball Head    33.7 ounces

Stability Ball Head Function Ease of Adjustment Ease of Deployment
Trailpix 3.5 3.5 3 2.5
Granite Peak 2.5 2.5 5 4
Sirui 4.5 4.5 4 4

Conclusion

So, after a long season of use, scouting and hunting, which of these would I recommend?   For backpack hunting use with a lightweight spotter, my favorite is the Granite Peak tripod.  The ball head is somewhat compromised due to it’s extreme light weight, but it is adequate, and the overall design of the tripod is extremely versatile.  I can live with the decreased stability in return for the other advantages.  Weight is less than 1/3 of the Sirui, which is one of the lightest traditional tripods on the market.

For day trips, when I’m not carrying much weight, I tend to go with the Sirui, because it can handle my big spotting scope, which I don’t mind carrying if I’ve only got a day pack’s load of gear.  If I was going to spend most of my time glassing with my spotting scope instead of my binos, I would opt for the Sirui.  However, I tend to glass at least 80% of the time with binos, and only use the spotter for checking out specific locations of interest, so the Granite Peak is adequate for my typical use.

If they came out with a Trailpix with a wider stance (making it more useful for sitting) it would be a contender because of its stability and heavier weight bearing ability, but right now, it’s surpassed by the Granite Peak.