The Durability of Gear II
2012-06-12 15:09:03 GMT
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My recent post — The Durability of Gear? — drawn as it was from a range of articles and conversations, has sparked an interesting debate and has been making me think. It is time for round 2!
It strikes me that there are two very different ways of looking at the durability of gear. The first is objective and, perhaps, scientific. Some items, fabrics and so on, simply have a definable and identifiable life span. But there is a less precise, more subjective and personal side to it all. To be truly able to weigh up whether something will work for us on durability grounds it is best to have a realistic view of our individual hiking habits and to understand how those compare to others.
Horses for Courses
This might some blindingly obvious but it may be that some power users may get try frustrated about an item which might be quite suitable for most of us. Everyday I see evidence of people who are worried (or worse have been wound up) about something that they have read on the web. To look at the implications of this I’m going to concentrate on sleeping mat (very much at the centre of the current debate) and also the durability of one of the most cutting edge and expensive materials being used to day, cuben fibre. But the arguments rehearsed here could be used elsewhere.
Super Humans and Meer Mortals
For me, it is important to get the durability debate in perspective. Some of the most popular internet characters are extreme hikers and characters. People like German Tourist are almost constantly on the trail. My good friend Colin Ibbotson is another extreme example and he too will soon be spending most of his life on the trail: this article is the result of several long conversations with Colin. Fellow blogger Martin Rye is currently planning a major trek in the US this summer. Extreme users like Christine, Colin and Martin will have different demands on gear. Colin, for example, might get quite frustrated about the failure of an item but the timescales involved, and the conditions of use, may simply never be replicated by the rest of us. So, we need to be a little cautious in worrying too much about extreme hikers.
However, with the right kind of insight and processing we can make real use of the intelligence that Colin, Christine and the like can give us. Their experiences can help us not only understand how best to use gear and which gear to chose but can help us plan trips and, importantly with lightweight gear, help us avoid failure in the field through sensible replacement strategies.
I’ll explain what I mean by way of an extended rif on sleeping pads, particularly the Neoair.
Understanding The Full Lifespan of a Product
The Neoair has, one the last three or four years, rightfully become a very popular product. This air bed is very light but has constantly surprised users with its toughness. In use the Neoairhas few peers as ultra hiker Gayle Bird puts it, ” … the Neoair is very forgiving”. By this she means that the Neoairhas a lovely knack of coping brilliantly with uneven ground. Pitch on lumpy or tussocky ground and the Neoair simple deals with the problem!
But this year we have seen a flood of complaints from happy Neoair owners that their mats have failed. What has gone wrong?
A conversation with Colin on the Neoair is very illuminating. A couple of years Colin hiked the Arizona Trail with Kimberley Dame and both of them used Neoairs. They both had Neoair failures. Colin calculated that each mat failed after about 60 days of usage. Interestingly, the problem was not so much the tendency for inflatable mats to bubble up but a gradual build up of a defaulting problem. You’ve probably experienced this yourself with mats, eventually they start to sag during the night and you wake up on an almost flat mat. Colin is able to take things further. Based on these two experiences he reckons that once your mat starts behaving like this you have up to 20 days before it gives in completely.
Before we get too upset about this it is work reflecting that 20 days is quite a long time and for most of us this is more than enough time to replace gear if we have understood the early signs of failure.
I began thinking of the 60 days and of many of the people that I know who have had problems with the Neoair.
I first really became aware of the Neoair about 4 years ago on the TGO Challenge. To be honest they made me laugh. These yellow darlings were very, very expensive — I was then happily using a Gossamar Gear foam pad. However, a bad back on the same event a year later saw more invest in a Neoair, and I have to say I was delighted with it.
An average TGO Challenger will use their mat say between 10 and 12 days on the walk, depending on how often they book into a hotel or B&B and some will use them even less. Of course, many will be backpacking at other times of the year so being generous lets add on another 10 days of use. Of course, while many Challengers are walking at other times of the year often these involve car camping, B&Bs, hostels or hotels. So, it is not unreasonable for many to use their mats for say 15 nights a year.
Thinking about Colin’s 60-80 day time frame it is probably understandable that those who bought their mats 3 or 4 years ago are now finding that they are failing.
I reckon my own mat is now at around, or over, the 60 day mark. Thinking about it my mat is now deflating during the night. I’ve not really worried about this because it has been a common experience with sleeping mats. But, most of my inflatable mats have been replaced before the 60 days. My Torsolite Pad was replaced because it got punctured so many times and the replacement was defective from day 1 and was just binned. A small length Thermorest self-inflating mat is still around somewhere but is now only used for car camping.
What Colin’s information tells me is that it is time for me to think about a replacement mat. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether 60 days usage is good or bad but in reality I am not a power user like Colin, but I can take advantage of his experience to plan my own gear strategy.
See what I’m getting at?
For a power user such as Colin failure on day 60 of a long hike might be damn annoying. But for many of us three or four years of usage is probably OK given the comfort that the mat gives. Of course, you have to make your own mind up about the cost.
But can we extend our intelligence pool to make another very important judgement? How does the Neoair compare to other mats? While we can’t expect Colin, Christine and Martin to act as long term gear testers perhaps we can define this kind of information ourselves.
Let me have a look at my Torsolite mat that was bought from backpackinglight.co.uk but supplied through backpackinglight.com in the USA.
My first Torsolite was used a lot both on the TGO Challenge and on other treks. It was punctured on a number of occasions, once by stones and a couple of times by a badly packed titanium spork! Luckily, the Torsolite was easy to repair and I loved it, but gradually the need to patch on top of patches led me to replace it, after about two years of hard use. The replacement never performed well and deflated quickly and it was replaced with a foam pad after it has been pierced by another stone. Because it had been pierced I didn’t complain but in a chance conversation with Bob Cartwright a few months later I found that he’d had these problems with a whole batch of these pads. It had not been easy to get the supplier to take responsibility for these and bob decided not to stock them. I wish, now I’d told him about my problems or at least written about them here.
Two things. Firstly, I’m not sure the lifespan of the Neoair is that out of kilter with other mats, though you might tell me otherwise. But secondly, I have to ask whether I really understand why my previous mats have failed. I have aways thought that my failures were down to dodgy valves and that was what those on this year’s Challenge thought. But it appears from discussion with others that small micro holes in the fabric might be as much to blame. Colin is quite open about his Neoair failures and is not sure what the problem was — he didn’t have a bath to submerge the mat in while he was hiking in Arizona!
So, might we say the following with some confidence?
The Neoair is great sleeping mat that is tough and very comfortable. it will last you for about 60 nights of hiking before you need to think about replacement.
Certainly I am not too worried about this. My next backpacking trips will be mostly short, two or three days max. If the deflation problem is real I easily have time to replace the mat, indeed I have started thinking about it. I allow for catastrophic failure by carrying a foldable foam mat in my pack as a pack stiffener. But, it seems to me from talking to a number of power users that gradual failure is more likely than catastrophic failure.
Incidentally, to balance things up a bit my Gossamer Gear Nightlite Torso Pad began to loose its rigidity after about 60 days, becoming less cushioned and effectively squashed. Of course, a foam mat is far cheaper than a Neoair.
The Durability of Leading Edge Fabrics
Let me now turn to cuben fibre. This is a fabulously light and tough fabric that sits very much at the expensive end of the market. But just how long lasting is it? I have an interest in this as my main shelter is made of cuben. Cuben is also being used for packs — Martin is carrying one on his USA trek. But is this stuff really robust enough for a pack?
I know few people who have used cuben intensively for a long time. Colin Ibbotson has more experience than most here in the UK as he has made gear out of it. Tellingly, I thought, Colin took a Dyneema cover for his pack to the US last time out rather than use a cuben cover. Colin tells me that eventually cuben begins to de-layer. i.e. the layers begin to come apart. He prompted me to have a good look at my Duomid shelter and I couldn’t see any sign of wear and tear on the shelter. The shelter has been used for about 50 – 60 nights.
Ron Moak at Six Moon Designs is now working extensively with cuben. Yes, he says, it is used in major sailing events like the Admirals cup for sails, but the sails are thrown away at the end of every event.
Z Packs are an innovative producer of cuben packs in the USA. The company addresses durability head on. They reckon that one of their packs will last an entire thru-hike of the PCT trail but this means 6 months or so of constant walking. This might suggest that a cuben pack is more than long lasting enough for most of us. But. how does UV light effect it? And what about terrain?
Colin views on cuben seem to be very realistic and nothing has says changes my mind about using Dyneema as my favourite pack material. Phil Turner used a cuben Z Pack for a while but I notice that in every photo I see now he is using something else. We should get Phil to commentI guess. And later this year Martin will be a good source of intelligence.
The web allows us the opportunity of pulling together experiences about the lifespan and durability of products. I’m not sure how we would do it though. It is perhaps not something a magazine can do easily as they depend on the cooperation of manufacturers for both editorial content and advertising income. But maybe one would be brave enough.
Somehow, it should be possible to distill the intelligence from power users to allow the rest of us to understand how their experiences equate to our own usage.
Lightweight gear usage is all about compromises, balanced choices and judgements. We know our gear will have a limited lifespan but it seems to me we should be able to get a better fix on these issues.
What do you think team?
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