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Alaska tests new outdoor gear, and fuels the hype machine

Craig Medred

Oh boy, Outside magazine just popped up online with a scoop: "Alaska Tested: New Gear From Helly Hansen, MSR, Boreas."

According to the magazine, it sent some dude north with "Hayter PR to test select gear slated for a spring 2013 release .… For five days, we camped, fished, sailed, hiked, ice climbed and watched bears gobble salmon out of Alaskan streams. We took stoves, bags and apparel into the elements and put them through their paces."

Five days? He camped, fished, sailed, hiked, ice climbed and watched bears for five days in Alaska and still found time to test gear? The results?

Surprise, surprise, surprise. The tester thought all of the gear was nifty. Hayter PR (you gotta love that name) must be happy as wolf pack that stumbled onto a crippled moose. The company found someone naive enough to test gear in Alaska for five days.

Most of everything out there is good for five days. It's on the sixth day that the waterproof/breathable jacket ceases to be waterproof or breathable, or either. Or the ultralight sleeping bag temperature-rated to 20 degrees finally sees 20 degrees and you freeze your ass off.

So what exactly did this sterling, five-day test generate? A bunch of damn hype, that's what:

"Helly (Hansen) builds all of their technical gear to handle Perfect Storm-like conditions, whether you're on the side of the mountain or at sea. So even though it's light and very breathable, there is no compromise in this jacket's waterproofness."

Yeah right. This is the sort of nonsense that gets written by someone who has never been in “Perfect Storm-like conditions.” Nothing works in Perfect Storm-like conditions, including Helly's old, well-established, as-waterproof-as-it-can-get, trusted-by-Alaska-fishermen-of-every-stripe, vinyl-coated nylon rain gear. Heavy though that gear might be, it can't beat the Perfect Storm, which drives water into your hood, down your neck, up your sleeve, and through any and all sorts of storm flaps.

Trust me, I've been there. The only thing that comes close to "Perfect Storm" wear is a Kokotat dry suit with feet and waterproof gaskets at the neck and wrists. These drysuits are designed for swimming whitewater rivers. Been there, done that, too. The Perfect Storm is a lot like swimming a whitewater river -- unless it comes in winter or high on Mount McKinley, and then it's like the Perfect Storm from Frozen Hell, which is even worse than a Perfect Storm.

But enough on that, Helly's $460 "Guiding Light" jacket looks good as far as waterproof/breathables go. But $460? Good God. Pricewise, that's Pat-a-Gucci country.

So let's just move on to the some of the rest of this "Alaska Tested" gear. There's a backpack/duffle. Great for travel, I'm sure, if you're crossing America by commercial jet. But I'll take a real pack of some sort for Alaska. There are now a lot of good options, but my years-old Golite Trek is doing fine. It's a sack big enough, yet not too big; it doesn't weigh much and has held up pretty well to a lot of abuse for an ultralight pack. But then, if I'm going to do something really abusive like pack big loads of wild meat (Oh lordy! People still do that in Alaska?) I use an old Camp Trails frame pack.

Enough said. I'm biased. I've found most gear compromises to be just that -- compromises. Mate a backpack and a duffle, and you're sure to get something that will work as both and do neither job well.

Let's just skip ahead to the "Thermarest Antares 20 F,” in which to save weight and bulk, Thermarest “moved the down ... into the spots where you really need it: the top, sides and hood. The bottom of the Antares 20 F has no insulation, just fabric and external stretchy straps that securely attach the bag to a NeoAir sleeping pad or other 25-inch-wide camping mattress without being restrictive."

It looks like a decent sleeping bag that depends totally on a Thermarest pad for ground insulation. I wouldn't touch it with a stick. My experiences with Thermarest pads have been nothing but bad. There have been too many nights on which they went flat, and it's so much fun to wake up at 2 a.m. shivering because your Thermarest has gone flat, leaving you on the cold, hard ground sans insulation. I've spent too many nights puffing the pads back up. And finding a slow leak in a Thermarest is usually a nightmare.

Sorry, not going there again. I now avoid Thermarest products in general.

All of which brings me to my favorite in this so-called "test,” a hanging kit for MSR's iso-propane canister stove. Here's what Outside says: "When MSR's Reactor debuted in 2010, we told you that the 'completely enclosed and integrated pot-and-burner' Reactor Stove is 'astonishingly fast', as well as "incredibly fuel-efficient, boiling a liter of water in as fast three minutes. This coming spring, MSR not only adds new pot sizes to the Reactor family, but accessories that make this great stove even more versatile and functional."

Here's what Craig says: "I almost froze my conjones off trying to warm up an iso-propane canister to get a cartridge stove to boil water on a 20-degree morning deep in the Kenai lowlands." These stoves are fine at high altitude where air pressure is low. And because of some improvements in fuel and the addition of pressure regulators, they're better now at low altitudes in the cold than they used to be.

"The Reactor’s cold-weather performance, the bane of canister stoves, was also standard-setting," RockandIce.com claimed in a real review. "Typically, below-freezing temps cause canister fuel’s vapor pressure to drop and burner output to plummet, often to the point where the stove will no longer function. At 9 degrees F, however, the Reactor’s pressure regulator let it boil a quart of water in 5:25 -- a time that bests some canister stoves’ warm-weather performances."

Fine, my homemade, pop-can alcohol stove with a fitted wind screen takes only a little longer to boil a quart, and it cost almost nothing to make. If you want to build your own, here are some instructions for a new, improved model. I admit I stole the alcohol stove idea from Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers, who all went to alcohol stoves years ago because they are quick and simple to use in the cold. Or you could spend $160 on the MSR Reactor, and another $30 on the hanging kit, and then get the opportunity to pack those empty canisters around the Alaska wilderness with you after use up all the fuel in them.

The alcohol can be carried in a plastic bottle that you can use to start a campfire after it's empty. A campfire is something that involves a pile of wood (preferably driftwood on a sandbar where water will wash away and sign of your passing) set aflame. It's how real Alaskans cook and boil water, not the posers who come north for five days to "Alaska Test" outdoor gear.

Five days? Five days? I do better testing in my back yard, but then I'm out there almost every day with the grizzly bears and wolves and Dall sheep and moose and Perfect Storms, my God, now that I think about it, all the "danger” of Alaska.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.