Category: Outdoor gear

Video footage from within an avalanche

This video has amazing footage from inside an avalanche, and shows how an airbag and avalung can save lives. It also shows to not underestimate the power of avalanches…

Avalanche, from Different Perspectives from William Finnoff on Vimeo.

How skiing was born

The Man and the Mammoth. Awesome story on how skiing was born!

Nordic skates

These skates are the cat’s meow for going out onto natural ice. They consists of a skate blade with a skate-ski binding. Click in your skate-ski or classic ski boots and off you go. These are bar-none the most comfortable skates I have ever used, because the boots are so comfy, and provide lots of support. The blades are curved up at the front so they handle bumpy ice and snow better than regular speedskates. You can supposedly skate through several inches of snow.

For added speed and stability, add some nordic skate poles. And best of all, you can put on the boots in the comfort of your home, and just clip on the blades once you get to the ice. If you are skating in Holland, they are also great for klûnen. Once you have tried a pair of these, you’ll never go back to regular speedskates again. There is an importer in Vermont,, who sells all the equipment, or if you are in the Canadian Rockies, Wild Mountain in Jasper sells them as well!

How accurate is a Garmin GPS?

I spend a lot of time out on the trails in Jasper National Park with a GPS these days, so I want to know how accurate my unit is. My Garmin Vista HCx displays an accuracy number (EPE, or Estimated Position Error), typically ranging from +-3m to +-10m. One would think that this means that I am within 4-10m of my true location. However, this is not the case. An EPE of 4m actually means that there is a 50% chance that you are within 4m, but also a 50% chance that you are further off! However, there is a 95% chance that you are within 10m, and a 98.9% chance that you are within 10.2m. See the bottom of this article on GPS accuracy for more information.

Worse, one cannot easily compare the EPE among different GPSs, even units made by Garmin. This is because the EPE is a number that Garmin arrives at through a proprietary formula. Different manufacturers arrive at their EPE differently, and even among models made by the same company, the calculations may vary. So EPE is merely a qualitative measure of accuracy.

Interestingly, older Garmin units, like the 12 series, used to display DOP (Dilution of Position). This measurement is calculated according to a standard formula, so it can be used to compare accuracy of a location among different units. Yet it was dropped from more recent models, presumably because it is just a number (a DOP of 3 is better than a 4), so it doesn’t mean much to the average user.

Once you have recorded a trail, there is no way to compare its relative accuracy to other GPS recordings of the same trail because none of the accuracy information is stored with the waypoint or track data. For more details on all this, read this forum thread on GPS accuracy.

What does this mean for the average user?

1. After you turn on your GPS, allow it to record its position in one spot for a while before taking a waypoint. Accuracy tends to increase once a GPS has been on for a few minutes.

2. Keep an eye on the accuracy numbers. If they go up to for example 15m, then your track may be off by as much as 50 m. Normally this is not a big deal, but it could mean that a trail running close to a creek may appear to be on the other side of the creek. Keep a close eye on the map, and know how to read it. I always carry paper maps as backup.

3. If you use your GPS to record trails, get one of the more advanced units, like the GPSMAP 62s. They have more sensitive antennas, which work well even within buildings or under tree cover. My Vista HCx also performs well in the forest.

But most importantly, get out there, and have fun!

More on Nalgene bottles

Earlier, I reported on the issues surrounding water bottles made of polycarbonate. Here is a more recent post with additional information. Time to start retiring my #7 bottles, I guess.

Second Galileo satellite launched

The EU finally launched its second Galileo test satellite. Why is this significant? Because the much-delayed project will eventually (currently by 2013) provide an alternative to the American GPS system. It is supposed to be more accurate, and complementary to GPS, which will mean more satellites to receive signals from.

Outdoor Research Gear

I am a self-confessed outdoor gear addict. I believe in having few but high-quality pieces of gear. But because their are several seasons and sports to cover, that still means that I have many containers of it.

Crocs gaitersOne of my favourite brands has to be Seattle-based Outdoor Research. They have always made a range of great accessories. But nowadays they don’t only make accessories, but also jackets, shelters and sleeping mats. My favourites:

  • Crocodile gaiters. Simply the best gaiters I have had. My last pair lived twenty years. Virtually indesructible, heavy duty, and very waterproof.
  • Exos Gaiters. These are a luxury winter gaiter. Made of soft shell Schoeller fabric, they are great for snowshoeing or skiing. Your feet/legs will stay toasty warm in these.
  • Omni glove linersOmni glove liners. Most importantly for me, I can operate my camera with them, and they are more water-resistant than other liners, They have a grip patern on the palms, which is made of a cool glow-in-the-dark material.
  • Their lightweight Goretex PacLite Celestial jacket is indeed ultralight, and features innovative sidezips that make it easier to wear with a pack on.
  • The Seattle Sombrero is supposed to be one of the best rain hats out there. I am waiting for a solid spring rainstorm to test mine out.
  • Check out their exped downmats. Instead of open foam, they have a down filling, whcih has a much higher insulation value than a standard Thermarest. Very cool idea.

Exped downmatOne of Outdoor Research’s best selling points: their unconditional lifelong guarantee. When my crocodile gaiters wore out after just twenty years, they replaced them with new ones, no questions asked. To me that’s worth spending a few extra dollars on!

Maps for Garmin GPS

Garmin eTrex Vista HCXGPS has come a long way since I first saw someone use a unit in 1992 on the crater rim of the Mt. Bromo volcano in Java, Indonesia. By 1995, we had a Garmin 45 while exploring a previously unvisited alpine valley near Koropun, New Guinea. At the time, the average error was still 30-100m, and the unit took a long time to lock onto 8 satellites simultaneously. But it worked, and showed us exactly how far we were from a friend’s house with cold beer.

I recently retired my trusted Garmin 12, which took me on an epic drive through the southeastern Gobi desert of Mongolia. It was a great unit, but lacked built-in maps. As a result I always knew where I was, but it was hard to pinpoint the location on a map. For the Gobi trip, I hooked up the unit to a laptop running scanned 1:100,000 Russian maps on OziExplorer. That worked very well, and allowed us to navigate through one of the most deserted parts of the Gobi without trouble (other than many flat tires!). The unit worked well, except in the forest. Not exactly a problem in the Gobi, but certainly an issue when trying to map hiking trails in the dense forests of Bhutan.

I now have a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx, which has mapping abilities. It allows you to upload any vector-based maps. The Garmin Mapsource 1:50,000 maps for Canada work well, but don’t have everything one wants on them. Bring in CGPSMapper, software that allows users to create their own Garmin maps from any vector-based data. It includes a map database, where users have uploaded their maps. Cool.

I find that even with a mapping GPS you need paper maps to get an overview, but you should have a map (and a compass!) with you anytime anyway in case the GPS dies on you.

One huge advantage of the new crop of GPSs is that they are much more sensitive, so they even pick up signals inside a house, or better yet, in the forest.

I don’t see detailed maps of Mongolia yet, though, so next time I drive through the Gobi (I’d love to visit the far southwest next time!), I’ll go the laptop route again. Still unbeatable compared to anything else out there.

Alternatives to Nalgene bottles

Nalgene PC bottleNow that MEC has pulled all their polycarbonate bottles (including most of the famous Nalgene bottles, right) off the shelf, due to fears over health risks of these bottles, it is time to look for alternatives.But first, how do you know if your favourite bottle is polycarbonate? Just look on the bottom for a #7 recycling logo, often accompanied by PC.

It turns out that #7 types of plastic are the hardest to recycle. HDPE, which is used in the original Nalgene bottles (picture below), is a #2 type plastic, and much easier to recycle. Another good reason to not to buy bottles made from #7 plastics.
Alternatives to polycarbonate bottles

Nalgene HDPE bottleSigg offers stainless steel bottles. Their latest line looks like the Swatch of waterbottles. Create your own favourite design.

(from Ben Miller, on Gravsports) :

1. Guyot Designs Stainless steal bottles. Classy, indestructable, and the only thing better to store liquids in than stainless steel is glass or titanium. [BluePeak: only problem is that they are about twice the weight of a plastic bottle… ]

2. Camelbak just came out with some new Bisephenol-A free bottles. [BluePeak: they are CamelBak Performance bottles, made of a #5 polypropylene]

From Marsha on Besthike:

Swellz offers an interesting alternative – based on the European wine bags. [BluePeak: Although by the looks of it, they’d be hard to clean.]

Guess it is time for an expedition to MEC or REI for some new containers!

MEC pulls Nalgene bottles off shelves

Nalgene PC bottleAccording to an article in the Globe and Mail, MEC has supposedly just pulled all their polycarbonate bottles (including most of the famous Nalgene bottles) off the shelf, due to fears over health risks of these bottles. They are said to leak Bisphenol A into the contents.

But do also read this entry on the Besthike blog and especially the comments. This is a heated debate, with no clear answer either way. Will Gadd offers a good opinion as well. I agree with him: there are good alternatives, so no need to take too much of a risk with PC bottles.

How do you know if your favourite bottle is polycarbonate? See my next posting on alternatives to Nalgene bottles.