Special to The Charlotte Observer, September 10, 2006
By Randy Johnson
Everybody say, “Ahhhhhhh.” The sticky slog through summer is almost over.
A few hours west on the East’s highest mountains, the first twinges of color are just days away. Luckily, the best season lingers longer here in the South than anywhere. When the mountains lose their leaves in late October, color is still flaming away in the Uwharrie National Forest, at Crowders and Morrow Mountain. And it lasts through late-November. More than two months from now, it’ll still be the perfect time to crunch through leaves and camp at those best-kept-secret state park backpack campsites.
Best of all, the newest outdoor gear is so lightweight, high tech—and warm—that now is THE time to re-outfit yourself for fall.
Having just spent a year updating my popular book Hiking North Carolina (out in spring 2007), I’ve crawled through the woods all over the state testing the latest gear and garb. Here’s my head to toe take on what to try—
Hats—Tempted to reach for a hat or a headband while puffing up the trail? Reach for a Buff instead. This year-round, uv protecting, moisture wicking, wind stopping accessory has to be seen to be believed. Click the video on www.buffusa.com for how to use it.
Shades—Be flexible, whatever color the leaves are. Smith’s Interchangeable series shades come with three different, polarized lens tints. One is the new photochromic lens that adjusts to varying light conditions (about $139). Or try the Native Dash XP polarized and vented glasses ($115).
Undies—Haven’t tried the travel product end of the shopping spectrum? Now’s the time. Pick up Ex Officio's Boxer Brief Underwear, for men, or men’s and women’s styles from a catalogue like Magellan’s ($15-$20). New, sink-washable fabrics keep you dry and deter odor.
Base Layer—High-tech is everywhere in new outdoor wear. The North Face Vortex Tee is great for hot hikes or as a warm base layer ($35). Some TNF T-shirts boast body mapping—varying fabric thicknesses in various places to retain or dissipate heat and wick perspiration—and antimicrobial properties that fight odor. Other companies have similar versions.
For a warmer first layer—try the Patagonia Capilene 2 Crew Long Sleeve Zip T ($43). And wool is back—in soft, moisture wicking high tech garments like SmartWool’s long-sleeve, stylish M Bent Crew (about $70).
Mid-layer—Down is back for the best in vests. Go for the REI Generator vest ($79). Or try high-tech, superlight insulations. Mountain Hardwear’s Windstopper blocks any breeze ($95) and turns a shell into a warm jacket.
Shell—You’ll be wearing and carrying clothes—so go-light, high-tech gear is key. Base layers that wick sweat and dry easily are great. So are pants that convert from long pants to shorts. Take a fleece vest or sweatshirt and you’re ready for anything—as long as you have great shell wear. Today, it’s “look ma, no stitches.” One Star Trek looking rain shell, the North Face Diad jacket ($200), has welded (no thread) seams and is 100% waterproof—at just 7 ounces! Add a similar rain pant and comfort, much less survival, is assured. For spring and fall—light gloves and a hat are smart, too.
Pants—Fall temp fluctuations are perfect for outdoorsy zip-off leg trail pants. Choose by features—the best include big cargo pockets and are water repellant, fast-drying, and uv protective. Many companies have ‘em. Consider REI’s Sahara convertible ($55) andthe Paramount pant ($65) from The North Face.
Socks—Wool’s back on foot, too. Teko’s EcoMerino Wool hiking sock, and a light version, feature the soft, long-fibered wool of Tasmania’s premium sheep. Also look for SmartWool.
High tech helps Thorlo’s thick, multi-paneled trekking socks ($15.99) absorb pressure and wick moisture (to properly fit new hiking boots, wear these while buying). Their lighter socks also range through levels of shock absorption.
Shoes—Take to the woods in running shoes if you’re hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway’s “leg-stretcher” trails.
If not, you still don’t need heavy hiking boots . Today’s mantra is strong, light, breathable, and modestly priced.
Merrel makes various light shoe/boots that you’ll wear year-round. The Paddage Ventilator Mid will coolly carry you through summer too ($110). Even lower cut is the Merrell Chameleon II GTX XCR. And the Scarpa Enigma is in the same class ($130).
Backpacking with the kitchen sink? Try the Lowa Biomex Tectrek GTX. Awesomely engineered, with a plastic cuff, to resist turned ankles, but light ($270).
Where to buy? There’s a local outdoor shop near you, and all that gear in one place makes it easy to ask questions. But don’t forget the Web. All manufacturers have Web sites that sell gear or refer to retailers.
Sidebar—Go Light Overnight
Today’s news in camping gear isn’t evolution—it’s revolution. Overnight pack loads have slipped well below 20 pounds.
Sleep—You needed a Jeep to transport the 1960s Army “pup” tent—then came nylon and tents dropped to eight pounds.
Now they’re three. Or less if you just pitch the waterproof fly and poles over the “footprint” floor.
The roomy Big Agnes Seedhouse SL (Super Light) is only 3 pounds 3 ounces ($300). And the Mountain Hardware Waypoint 2 ($250) weighs an ounce less.
Don’t even think about how much air mattresses used to weigh. Today’s Therm-A-Rest Prolite 3 weighs just 20 ounces ($79). Add a few ounces for the seat adapter and have a backcountry easy chair.
Sleeping bags are insanely light. In the 30-degree range, Sierra Designs Wicked Fast and The North Face Beeline weigh about a pound ($200-$250).
Packs— The Gregory G “Anti-gravity Series” pack ($140) is fine for a weekend and weighs just 2 pounds 9 ounces. The North Face Skareb 40 or 55 are also multi-faceted featherweights.
Food and Drink—Companies like MSR are taking Space Age to the trails. MSR’s Pocket Rocket ($39) stove weighs 3 ounces. The Titan Mini titanium cookset ($90) weighs 9 ounces. Titanium spoons, forks, and knives float in your hand. The company’s MIOX water purifier ($130) is just 3.5 ounces!
Remember the freeze-dried Turkey Tettrazini that people called “turkey tetrachloride?”
Now you just pour boiling water into resealable pouches from Backpacker’s Pantry for gourmet (and organic) ethnic dishes like chicken Saigon noodles and Cajun salmon inferno.
Or hit the grocery store—for lightweight sealed pouches of mesquite grilled tuna fillets and even crab. Add your favorite pasta—and be sure to bring some new cardboard-boxed Chardonnay and a Lexan wine glass!
Trekking poles—Baby boomers note: these things take ten years off knees and ankles. Try Leki’s Ultralite Ti Cor-Tec Trekking Poles. Length adjusts with an easy twist and they absorb shock ($100). Add a cane-style handle and they’re awesome on the downhill and for travel (they fit in a rollaboard).