Gear Review: Montbell Downhugger

MontBell Alpine Downhugger 800 Thermal Sheet

I have had the opportunity to race with the Alpine Downhugger 800 Thermal sheet from MotnBell US for almost 18 months now and I think I have reached the point of use where I can write a review of why I think this is the best off-the-shelf solution for adventure racing as well as a fantastic sleeping bag for your camping, hiking and bike packing trips.

First I want to start with some background. As the team captain for New York Adventure Racing Association I have the opportunity race adventure races all over the world. A requirement from the AR World Series is that in many races we have to carry a sleeping bag with a minimum weight of 400 grams. The MontBell Downhugger thermal sheet fits that category perfectly as it weights in at 427gr. On my kitchen scale the actual weight is often somewhere between 435gr – 445gr depending on how much dirt is in the bag.

As an ultralight bag, one would think this is only something that can be used for adventure racing and ultralight backpacking but I have used it in a number of situations: car-camping the south island of New Zealand, climbing and mountain biking trips in Moab, Utah, a mountain biking hut-trip, and hiking in the Swedish mountains. On top of that it has served me well in adventure races like Primal Quest in Lake Tahoe, GodZone in New Zealand and the Happy Mutant races in Utah and New Mexico.

I have no idea how many “nights” I have spent in the bag – but if you count the 90-180 min sleep you usually take per night in AR as “nights” – it is a lot of them. At least it is too many for me to count.

First – let’s start with the best. If you are reading this you probably already know you want something ultra-light but you don’t want to throw away your money on something that doesn’t help when you are cold. This is the bag for you! The weight speaks for itself but it is filled with 800 fill power goose down. This makes it incredibly warm for the weight. The warmth rating is at 50F/10C, but I would say it is ok at way colder temperatures. As an example I slept in it (granted together with the MontBell Plasma 1000 puffy) at the top of a mesa in Utah in January at 15F/ -10C, with no tent or any other protection from the elements. That is 35F colder than it’s rating! Was this a cozy and warm experience? – no, but it was completely doable. I’m constantly surprised how warm it is for the weight and on many adventures there is just no reason not to bring this little “life-saver”.

While I talk about warmth – I need to point out one thing right away. There is no hood. Would it be possible to construct a warm sleeping bag for $200 that also weights 400gr and has a hood. Probably not – I haven’t seen one. This bag is not meant for situations like winter camping or sleeping out in the open when the temperatures are in the teens (even though I did). If that is what you are looking for – this is not for you. This is the lightest possible bag that will keep you warm overnight and allow you to keep moving light and fast through the environment or towards your objective.

MontBell has a patented spiral stretch system. This gives the bag a little more extra stretch than a “normal” sleeping bag. It is actually a nice feature and somewhat of an extra plus, but for me it’s not the selling point of this bag. If you are having leg cramps during the night it helps slightly, but overall the difference between it and a normal bag is not enough to tip the scale. Again – this bag is unbeatable because the weight and the warmth, not for any special features.

One last thing I want to talk about – it’s durability. This was a non-factor when researching sleeping bags for us. We wanted light and warm. If it broke down on us after a week of use we would have been ok with it, as with most high level racing equipment the focus is going extremely fast and not durability. This is true for your running shoes, bike, Formula-1 car and your adventure racing gear as well. I have now slept in this right on ground in a gravel pit, on a soccer field, beside a forest trail and multiple other places. Somehow it doesn’t show any extreme wear and tear. Anyone who knows me knows that I rely pretty heavily on my equipment, which is basically a nice way of saying that I’m ok with abusing my equipment equally hard as I’m abusing my body during races. Somehow this bag still looks new-ish. I might just be really lucky with this one – but it has definitely been a huge surprise to me. We do take care of the bags immaculately between uses, dry and store in a non-compressed state in a dark place without large temperature swings – but we do this with all our bags. So the fact that this looks like it just came from the store even though it has traveled the US and the world is fantastic and not what I would expect for an ultralight bag.

So, is this bag for you? If you are an adventure racers – YES! It’s basically impossible to find something better unless you have an enormous budget and can put in the time and effort to have custom made bags for you team. If you want to have something that is warm and light, carry your own stuff for long distances or have remote objectives – absolutely. If you need a hood and don’t mind to carry extra weight for some extra comfort – please look somewhere else. This bag is not for everyone or for every occasion (even though I seem to treat it like that sometimes) but it is the best bag in its category.

Olof Hedberg – NYARA Team Captain.

Advertisements

10 Questions with the Jersey Inferno Race Directors

Wejersey_inferno_feature are super excited to have John and Aaron Courain as this year’s Jersey Inferno race directors. We’ve asked them a few questions that we hope will help you plan for race day!

1. This is the Jersey Inferno’s third year, but it’s your first year as race directors. What can we expect to be different from prior years?

This year we are going back to the basics.  We have a lot more room to work with so we plan on keeping you moving forward always, you won’t be retracing steps and you won’t be revisiting a single transition.  Hopefully you’re going to get a great look at a really huge chunk of NJ at the Inferno.

2. NYARA’s course designers all seem to have a signature style — Olof loves hills, Rodney and Amy have lots of tricky navigation. What would you say is your style?

We tried to give navigators lots of route options. Not all of the points are super hard to locate but we definitely didn’t want an obvious loop to present itself in each section. Hopefully on race day we will be very surprised at the way different teams choose to attack this course. Go ahead and be creative navigators!

3. Is there anything special I need to know about this race that will make me more successful on race day?

Definitely be ready for a hot day. Don’t under estimate how much hydrating you’re going to need to do. Also get ready for some PTS (poison ivy/ticks/stickers).

4. Will this race include the normal disciplines: paddling, biking and trekking?

Paddling, biking, and trekking are all present and accounted for. Just add a ropes section and you’ve got the course. Old school, no gimmicks, perfect for the veteran racer and the newcomer.

5. What about swims or rappels?

No need to hold your breath you will only be going underwater if you fall out of your kayak.  The rappel will be professionally situated and perfect for all comfort levels. Don’t forget your gear!

6. Is there water on the course or do I need to plan to carry water for the full race?

There will be some water out there on the course that will need to be purified.  Potable water will not be an easy get, but you do have a chance to stow some water with your paddle gear so take advantage.

7. Is there an oasis box or opportunity to buy food on the course or should I plan to carry enough for the whole race?

Allamuchy is pretty devoid of snacks so make sure you pack for the day… and of course the paddle bag.

8. How tricky will the navigation be?

We’ve worked really hard to make sure these maps are perfect so there wont be a bunch of guesswork. If you can find a bearing and walk straight you should do well.

9. What about after the race — will there be food and awards?

Classic NJ Italian fare will be provided after the race, we’ve got plenty of swag for our finishers as well so be sure to stick around (I hear NAARS is providing some awesome trucker hats).

10. Any last minute tips, tricks or suggestions?

DON’T BE LATE FOR REGISTRATION!!

Thanks John and Aaron! We can’t wait to see what you have in store for us.

NAARS Championship in North Dakota

Team NYARA is at again. This time Olof and Whitney Hedberg along with Eric Caravella and Mikael Mattsson are headed to North Dakota to race. The team is currently pretty spread out — Mikael is in Sweden, Eric is in New Jersey and the Hedbergs are in Breckenridge. Needless to say, there have been nearly endless emails in preparation.

This team is super excited for this race — which features the famous Maah Daah Hey mountain bike trail. We thought it might be fun to take a peak into their preparations…and they seem organized, sort of. 🙂

IMG_0497.JPG
Good luck Team NYARA!!

Solo Racing with Chris Obara

Chris Obara, a longtime Team NYARA member, gives us some insight into solo racing.

20140801-173902.jpg

Traditionally, adventure racing is a team based sport, but borrowing from orienteering, more and more adventure racing organizations are opening up competition to solo racers. As a big fan of racing solo, I’d like to share some tips and observations I’ve made over the years.
First of all, why race solo? While I’ve been accused of being antisocial, I don’t think that’s the case (well not entirely). For me the biggest draw is the sense of accomplishment that I feel after completing a race, especially a long race resulting in a podium or a win. Racking up checkpoints while being completely on your own in the woods with nobody to lean on for hours and hours can be really satisfying.

People usually ask if me racing solo is lonely. I find that in an adventure race, my brain is usually so busy managing nutrition, strategy, navigation and time that this isn’t much of a factor. The paddle sections can get a bit boring though so I usually sing or talk to myself to get through those. You just have to make sure you stop if you see anyone on shore or else they’ll think you’re an escaped mental patient with a spandex fetish.

Another big benefit of racing solo the flexibility that comes with not having to find teammates. Sometimes with a busy schedule you may not be able to make a decision on whether or not to do a race until the last minute. Maybe you’re coming back from an injury and want to take it easy without worrying about slowing anyone down or disappointing someone if you have to stop.

While you’d think there wouldn’t be a team element to racing solo, I’ve found that many times, I would wind up creating makeshift alliances with other racers or teams for sections of a race. If you’re going at the same speed and have similar strategies, you can wind up linking up with other teams during the race. This is especially helpful during nighttime parts of the race where navigation is more difficult. A risk of working with another team is that you can get lulled into slowing your pace if the team is slower that you were originally racing. You have to quickly recognize this and resist the urge to stay with them. On the other hand, connecting with someone who is going faster than you were can make you kick it up a gear if your motivation was waning. Just be careful you don’t motivate another solo racer that is going to be at your heels on the way to the finish line!

From an equipment standpoint, a solo racer has to be completely self-sufficient. You can’t bum a cliff bar or a tire patch off a teammate when you’re a solo racer. This means having enough food and drink, inner tubes, tools, etc. This also means more redundancy. A spare compass is a must and for night races, spare lights and batteries are also a must. If you’re out there bushwhacking alone at night and you lose your light, you’re not going anywhere until sunrise. Some organizations even require solo competitors to carry a GPS tracking device for extra safety. All this extra equipment leads to a slightly heavier pack compared to racing with a team.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges in racing solo is motivation. With adventure racing, different route choices and race strategies sometimes separate teams to the point of not seeing another team or racer for hours at a time. When you’re alone, you really have to keep reminding yourself that you’re in a race and to keep moving as fast as you can the entire time. It’s easy to space out and start going at a relaxed pace if you’re not paying attention. My usual motivation is to picture myself sitting at my desk on Monday morning looking at the race results and seeing myself beaten by two minutes or one checkpoint and thinking why didn’t I just go a tiny bit faster?

As you can see, there are many pros and cons to weigh when deciding whether racing solo is for you. In general there are extra challenges but the sense of accomplishment can make it all worth it.

20140801-174039.jpg

Thanks to Chris for this great write up. What do all you out there think about solo racing? Would you do it?

2nd Race Update for the Jersey Inferno

One Month to go

Hope all you adventure racers are training hard — the summer season is about to get really busy. NYARA has a few great events coming up including the Jersey Inferno — a 10 hour race in Northern New Jersey known for being a challenge. The Race Directors just released the second race update and it is filled with great info, including an overview of the race sections to help you prepare. Check it out! And register for the race!! Also, if you or anyone you know is interested in volunteering please email Denise@nyara.org

Inferno Update 2

Pack Rafting Strategies: Hand Paddle How-to

NYARA will have three teams racing at this year’s Untamed New England 4-day race in Maine. One signature of Untamed is the pack raft section. Most adventure races have trek sections, paddle sections and bike sections. Untamed likes to link up the trekking and paddling into a unique section that involves long distance trekking with strategic waterways/crossings. Alpacka Raft (a race sponsor and general supporter of AR) makes some great boats which have become the gold standard for races that include pack rafting.

The overall goal of the pack rafting section (aside from not popping your boat) is to keep weight down and speed up. Teams have a number of strategies from using four individual boats, to squeezing two people into a one person boat. Some teams use kayak paddles that collapse into four pieces others rely on hand paddles. Here’s a quick how-to that gives you step by step instructions for DIY hand paddles. The big upsides include: huge cost savings (these babies can be made for the price of a 5 gallon bucket), weight savings (they weigh almost nothing) and space savings (they take up almost no room in the pack).

For all you visual learners out there, here is the step by step in photos. For everyone else, we will detail the steps below.

20140425-145105.jpg
This whole process will take under 15 minutes.
1. Get a five gallon bucket
2. Using a hack saw, cut off the thick ring at the top if the bucket
3. Flip onto its side with the newly cut side facing you
4. Lay your hand on the bucket with fingers slightly spread out (like how you would paddle)
5. Trace an arc around your hand
6. Using some heavy duty scissors and/or exacto knife, cut out the shape you traced
7. Place hand on the cutout and mark (about knuckle height) outside your first and third fingers
8. Use a big ol’ nail to punch holes into your two marks
9. Get something stretchy — elastic, an old bike tube, etc.
10. Stick the elastic through the hole on the left, tie a knot on the back side (concave side)
11. Pull the stretchy stuff through the second hole so that it is laying flush on the surface ( you want it to have enough tension to hold onto your fingers) then trim and tie off

20140425-145913.jpg
There you have the finished product — with some action shots. We will keep you posted on how well they work in our tests.