Gear Review

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BackCountry Emergency Assistance from Spot

Spot has released and been gracious enough to send me a unit to test that will communicate to your friends and family from the backcountry permitting you to check in and indicate that you are either alright or that you need help to drag yourself out of the bush. If your friends will not suffice and you are faced with a serious emergency the Spot call center will also alert emergency services that you need assistance and provide emergency services with your location.

The advantage of Spot is that it sends messages to satellites which are then relayed to the Spot Center or your contacts via email or text message. By using satellites to communicate you are able to keep in contact in locations where there is no cellular signal. In Alberta, this includes almost every location in which you want to hike.

I have been testing Spot for a few weeks now and so far I am pretty impressed. The Spot has four functions. Spot will allow you to:

1) Send a emergency 911 message to Spot which will result in the notification of all of your contacts and emergency services of your location.
2) Send a message that you have preprogrammed into the Spot site requesting help from your contacts when you press the help button.
3) Send a message of your choice indicating that you are okay to alleviate worrying spouses that otherwise may not let you venture into the backcountry either alone or with what they view as your untrustworthy friends.
4) Allow your contacts to track in real time your progress on your hike. Again I can see this being advantageous to help alleviate worrying but would also be convenient to coordinate pick ups on a long hike. If you have ever spent three or four hours waiting in a parking lot either for a pickup or to pickup some friends after a excursion into the bush you can understand the benefit of this feature.

I have not finished my review of Spot yet and I will update this post when I am finished. I am still playing with the tracking feature and the feature that permits you to create a shared web page that lets people see your messages anytime by viewing a web page as opposed to following a link to google maps via email or text message.

Over the weekend I saw a couple of trail runners a few kilometers into the backcountry. They had no gear other than a water bottle and a small fanny pack. In the summer I have come across other trail runners and hikers with no emergency equipment. Coming across these trail runners I thought that Spot is the perfect product for them. I would not and I expect that Spot would not encourage you to think that their product is a substitute for proper planning and equipment. After all, if the weather or conditions are poor your would be rescuers may not be able to get to you, but should you sprain your ankle, blow a knee or startle an angry bear, it might be nice to get a message out. As spring approaches, consider whether Spot might be a product that will give you some peace of mind and added security.

For more information or to purchase Spot check out the Spot site. The price is $169 for the unit, $99 per year for emergency service, and the OK and help features. In order to use the tracking feature the cost is an additional $69 per year. Chances are if you use it once, you will think the cost is well worth it.

Spot Backcountry Emergency Satellite Locator

Geotagging Photos with Photolinker

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Hawaii. As I planned for the trip I decided that one of the things I wanted to do was geotag my photos. Several weeks before I left ATP indicated that they would send me a ATP Photofinder to review. The weeks went buy a couple of emails were exchanged but no test unit arrived. After giving up on ATP I went to a local store and attempted to order a unit but was told that there would be a six week delay for delivery. I am not sure where the unit was being shipped from but the last time I waited 6 weeks for delivery of any product was the mid-80s. Eventually I resolved myself to the fact that I would have to mark the locations on my Garmin unit as waypoints and manually enter the coordinates. Not a lot of fun.

A week or two after I returned home, the endurance junky sent me a link to the GPS Photolinker. According to the site the

GPSPhotoLinker can be used to save location and GPS position data to a photo. The latitude and longitude recorded by your GPS unit while you were taking photos can be linked, and saved, to the photos. GPSPhotoLinker automatically enters the city, state, and country annotations into the metadata.

I was able to load my GPS tracks, including waypoints and scroll through each picture manually adding the latitude and longitude to the EXIF metadata. I was able to geotag almost 200 photos in 15 minutes which would have taken hours manually. When the photos are uploaded to sites like flickr and Everytrail, the photos automatically appear in their proper location. While the level of detail in parts of Alberta is poor on Google Earth, it is fantastic in Hawaii. Below is a screenshot of some photos from a hike on the Pololu Valley Trail in Hawaii. The waves breaking on the beach are visible, in other photos you can see the waterfalls.

Pololu Valley Trail Hawaii

The Photolinker also allows the automatic batch geotagging of photos by comparing the time on the active GPS track to the time recorded by your camera. To simplify the process, set the time on your camera and computer to match the time on your GPS. To test the Batch tag, I went for a walk through Bowness Park snapped some photos, used the Photolinker and uploaded the results to Everytrail. Drag your mouse across the track to see the uploaded photos.

Each photo, in only seconds, was accurately geotagged. The downside, Photolinker is designed for the Mac. I have not found a similar program that works with the PC. Bottom line, if you have a Mac, a camera, and a GPS device already you do not need a device similar to the ATP Photofinder. Remember, devices like that from ATP and Sony will not help you find your way out of the bush.

The Photolinker is currently under development and free to download (but donations are appreciated and recommended). The only issue that I had using the program was that sometimes I had to drag and drop the photos and track as using the upload buttons sometimes caused the program to shut down, but it is after all under development. If you are looking for more information on geotagging, see my post Automatically Geotag Photos.

Canadian Rockies Trail Guide

A couple of months ago I received an email from Summerthought Publishing asking if I would be interested in reviewing the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. The book arrived before my pilgrimage to Jasper so I took it along on several hikes in this national park and I have used it around Calgary. When I sat down to do a review I realized that it is comical that I am doing a book review. The truth is I hate reading. If I make it through a single book a year it is an accomplishment. I really have no idea what makes a good book. While I do not read (except when forced through work), I do hike a fair bit. In 2007 I hiked about 50 different trails (some on more than one occasion) of varying length and difficulty in Alberta. As a result I have a fairly decent stack of hiking guides and trail maps. When Summerthought offered to send me the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide I looked forward to adding another to my collection.

Published in April 2007 the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson is the 8th edition. The first edition was published in 1971 and to date in excess of 230,000 copies of the various editions have been sold. That means the authors have over 35 years of experience hiking and publishing hiking guides. These guys even pre-date Gortex (patented in 1976). As indicated on the Summerthought website the 8th edition retails for $24.95 and covers more than 3,400 km (2100 miles) of trails in Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay and Waterton Lakes National Parks, plus the provincial parks of Mt. Assinboine, Mt. Robson, Akamina-Kishinena, Peter Lougheed, and Elk Lakes and includes:

  • Descriptions of 231 hikes and routes plus dozens of side trips
  • More than 150 photographs
  • 40 maps
  • Trail logs measured by "trail wheel"
  • Sources for information, maps, backcountry lodging, and transportation

The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide provides fantastic detailed trail descriptions. This is the real reason for buying a hiking guide. No point wasting your day questioning whether you are on the right path when you would prefer to enjoy the scenery. Especially in K-country I find that the trail maps posted along the trails are sometimes not very accurate and difficult to interpret. The trail to Mount Indefatigable is one such example. The Guide provides very detailed almost kilometer by kilometer logs of the trail which help you determine if you are on the correct route as well as the distance, duration, maximum elevation, total distance and in most instances the Guide details some of the history of the area.

For the areas that are covered in this book, I could not think of any trails that should have been included that were not included. This will not be the last hiking guide that you will buy but it should be one of the first.

Canadian Rockies Trail Guide Book Review
Canadian Rockies Trail Guide

Kahtoola Microspikes

I saw an advertisement for the Kahtoola Microspikes in Explore magazine. From the photo I was skeptical that they would stay on your feet because there was no strap crossing over the foot. I used Google to search for a local shop selling the microspikes and did not find one but I saw that MEC sold the Crampons, another product from Kahtoola. From the picture on the MEC site the crampons looked to be a quality product.

I sent an email to Kahtoola and asked if they would send me a set of microspikes to review and within a week or so I had a set in my mailbox. According to the sell sheet they retail for $59 a pair. I tested the microspikes on Prairie Mountain and then wore them for a weekend hiking in Jasper. The microspikes are like Yaktrax on steroids. I have worn out about 5 sets of Yaktrax so far when the rocks cut the flimsy rubber that the steal springs are wrapped around. The microspikes are snow chains for shoes. There is no chance that a sharp rock will cut the chain. In combination with the chain there are three sets of spikes on the toe, ball, and heal that help provide traction.

Kahtoola Microspikes Snow Traction

The microspikes did not fall off or need readjustment and were comfortable. As far as traction, this is the best product I have used. The icy stairs that were part of the Old Fort Trail in Jasper were no problem even with my dog trying to kill me as it rapidly descended.

I also used the microspikes on the frozen river in Maligne Canyon. Again great traction.

The other thing that I like is that the microspikes can be slipped onto your shoes in only a couple of seconds. I find them to be much easier to put on than either the Yaktrax or Stabilicers.

The only problem with the microspikes is that in sections where the trail was covered with unpacked moist snow the chains caused the snow to ball up under your feet. It was a bit annoying but could be kicked off. Where the trail was packed the balling was not a problem. The spikes worked well on the ice in Maligne Canyon. If there is a suggestion that could be made to improve the microspikes it would be the use of carbide steel for the spikes to better grip on cold hard ice. On a warm day the steel being used is more than adequate. Overall, the microspikes are worth every penny and are the best product I have used for improved traction.

Kahtoola Microspikes

Muttluks: Foot Protection for Dogs

Now that the snow is starting to leave the passes the hikes are starting to get longer and more and more scrambling is involved. Imagine trying to hike 15 or 20 kilometers in your bare feet. To be more accurate, image that you never wear shoes so your feet are somewhat conditioned and then you hike for a day across rock spree slopes. You might expect some lesions. For dogs a ripped pad like the one in the photo below are painful and may mean that you have to carry your dog back to the car.

Hiking Hydration: Source C-2 Hydration System Review

With the arrival of summer and the warm weather I though I would do a review on my MEC H2Flo Hydration Pack and Source C-2 Hydration System. I have been using it since Christmas. There are several different brands of these hydration systems on the market.

Garmin etrex Legend Cx Review

I purchased the Garmin etrex Legend Cx about 4 months ago. Interesting experience from the cost comparison point of view. I went first to M.E.C. where the price was $365 but they did not have any in stock. Across the street at Coast Mountain the price was $395. Coast gave me the M.E.C. price and referred me to MapTown to pick up the Garmin Mapsource Topographical Maps. When I get to MapTown I see the same unit I bought the night before for $250. My jaw nearly hit the floor. For some reason I never bother price comparing anything I plan to buy at M.E.C.. Lesson learned. Coast Mountain was good and refunded me the difference. The result is that the unit cost me $250 but last time I was at MapTown it was selling for $280.

Using and Sharing GPS Data: Active vs. Saved Tracks

I received an email the other day from an avid hiker who had been using his GPS to record his routes only to discover that the data seemed to be unusable. When I first bought my unit I went out and did a couple of hikes and found myself facing the same frustration. The problem is that there is a difference between active tracks and saved tracks that are created when using the Garmin products.

Cool Pooch Hydration System

I made my first venture to R.E.I. today. I was impressed with the variety of equipment at this store. One of the things I would like to start with this site is equipment reviews by people that actually use the gear for an extended period. So if you have some gear that you want to comment on, positive or negative, please comment on it in the Forum. I picked up a few items which I will do a post for once I have used the items for more than a single hike or two. The one thing that R.E.I. had that M.E.C. lacks was a wall full of equipment for dogs including the widest selection of backpacks for dogs that I have come across. I want to do a couple of fast packs with my dog this year and you better believe the dog will be carrying her own gear. No freeloaders allowed. I also saw some sleeping pads for dogs which I did not know you could buy.

This picture below was the most bizarre item I have seen in some time. Manufactured by Cool Pooch it is advertised as “The Original Sport Water Bottle for the Dog & Owner on the Go.”

Stabalicer vs. Yaktrax

Given the recent snow and ice in Kananaskis I thought it was a good idea to do this review. I picked up a pair of Stabilicers Sport and Yaktrax Extreme and have been using them for several weeks. The Yaktrax look like a web of flexible rubber, which is wrapped on the sole area with coils. They stretch around the shoe and have a strap that goes over the front of the shoe. The Stabilicers are molded rubber, which pull over the toe and heel of the shoe. There is a strap that holds the heel portion onto the shoe. A series of removable studs on the toe and heel provide traction. When I first examined both of these products I was skeptical about how they would hold up. The Yaktrax because they are made of the relatively thin rubber and the Stabilicers because that the spot at which the Velcro strap goes through the heel is thin and I expected it would break. Because I bought them at MEC I figured that I could return either if I did have a problem because MEC is usually good at taking stuff back, no questions asked.