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Little Big Men

Little-Big Men
by Andy Dappen

In the outdoor world where we often shoulder what we take into the outdoors, the biggest pleasures are sometimes derived from the smallest packages. One of my all-time favorite little-big products has been the Dynafit Tourlite Tech ski binding, weighing 1.5 pounds per pair – less than half the weight of most other alpine touring or telemark bindings. What a wimpy little toy this is to cast eyes upon. Yet it performs so well and, paradoxically, has proven to be nearly twice as durable as bindings weighing twice as much. That’s a big time little-big thing.

Other little products in this genre that have wowed me over the years have been the Black Diamond Ion, a one-ounce Fig-Newton sized headlamp that sheds enough light to easily contend with camp chores when backpacking or to creep down a dark trail on those days when you’re running late), the Platypus water bottle (weighing an ounce, carrying 2 quarts of water, and rolling into a Snicker-sized package when you’re out of water), MicroSpikes (a little ball of cleats and chains transforming your feet to claws on icy trails), SeamGrip (the liquid plastic in a tube that’s as important as duct tape for fixing failing equipment),  and the Helium raincoat (weighing a scant 6.5 ounces yet offering so much warmth and waterproofness that you never hesitate to pack it along).

Here are several more products I’ve tested that, because they’re small in stature but big on benefits, are on my all-star list of little-big men. Note: Leave your suggestions of favorite products in this category as Comments at the bottom of this article.


Photo: Hard and soft Little-Big Men -- a Nano Lite towel and a pruning saw (a winter emergency item).


PackTowl’s Nano Lite (0.9 ounces, $8 to $10)

You might be tempted to disparage this backpacking towel as an 18” x 23” ‘piece of fabric’, but that would be like calling a $10 bill a 3” x 6”slip of paper. This thin piece of fabric is versatile because you can slip it under a billed cap to shade your neck and face on a blistering day, mop up condensation on tent walls and floors during rain storms, hold gauze pads against a wound, pull a hot pot off a stove, or towel yourself down after swimming in an alpine lake. It’s one product that lets throw several other items out of the pack. When used for its main function, it’s by no means the equivalent of a large terry-cloth towel but you can sponge your body down to an acceptable level of dryness with it. Meanwhile, once wet, it dries incredibly fast in the summer sun or in a winter breeze. That’s a lot of whoopees for such a wee little thing. I just wish the manufacture would ditch the little pouch the towel comes in (which I’ve discarded) – it adds needless fat and cost to the meat of this item.

Pruning Saw (3-ounce winter item)

In the Cascades we are usually near or below tree level so fire is a realistic option for warmth, comfort, and survival in the event of a bivouac.  But in winter most of the easily harvested burnable wood is buried under many feet of snow and you need a way to cut the dead wood you can access off of trees. This is why a folding pruning saw with an 8- to 10-inch blade is an important wintertime survival item. You can carry the entire saw but the slimmer, lighter solution is to take a high-quality saw blade, wrap the handle area with some duct tape to create a thin handle, and to make a sheath for the blade from tape as well. This leaves you with a very flat but effective cutting tool that takes up almost no extra pack space and weighs about  3 ounces.  I recommend the razor-tooth blades and saws made by Corona that are available locally at Lowes or Home Depot. Two good options are the  RS 7360 (for a 10-inch pruning saw) and the RS 7255 (for an 8-inch saw)


Glide Glasses Strap (0.01 ounces, 10 cents)

Forget the Croakies as a strap for your glasses or sunglasses. Instead, use an 18- to 20-inch strand of Glide dental floss as your strap. Tie a loop on each end of the floss and attach those loops to the ear bands of your glasses with a ring hitch. Glide dental floss is incredibly strong and long lasting – when actually used as floss, one strand can be re-used for weeks before it wears out. Which highlights the secondary benefit of this strap – it’s the perfect tool for removing annoying slivers of beef jerky that get stuck in your teeth. Yeah, it’s gross to run string that’s been in your hair through your teeth (and vice versa) but this is just your backup floss. With a 20-inch piece of Glide weighing all of a hundredth of an ounce, you can afford to carry a dedicated strand for flossing.


Photo: This isn't actually a Neo mattress but a Prolite mattress (also from Cascade Designs) which is neither as comfortable nor as warm as a Neo.


Cascade Designs’ Neo Air Mattresses ($120 to $170 depending on model)

Insulated air mattresses made by the likes of Exped and Big Agnes have recently set a new standard for sleeping comfort in the wilds. They are warm, and make sleeping on lumpy ground, eroded rocks, and rounded roots as comfortable as your bed back home. Seriously. The problem is that the lighter, full-length, insulated pads, like Exped’s Synmat 7 with an R-value of 4.9, weighs in at about 31 ounces. Enter the Neo air mattresses from Cascade Designs, which are nearly as comfortable as the Exped and much lighter. The regular-sized Neos are the same dimensions as the Exped Synmat 7 (20” x 72”) and get their weight savings through lighter materials and their warmth through heat reflective materials and more air chambers rather than through insulation added to the air chambers. The mummy shaped Neo XLite in a regular size (20” wide  at the shoulders and hips and 72” long) weighs only 12 ounces and has an R-value of 3.2. The rectangular Neo All Season (20” x 72”) has the same R-value as the Exped (4.9) but weighs only 19 ounces. And the soon-to-be released Neo Therm (20” x 72”) delivers a whopping R-value of 5.7 (no problem for severe winter conditions) yet only weighs 15 ounces. I’ve tested the Exped, Neo Xlite, and Neo All Season and all are incredibly comfortable – I’m not going back to any other kind of sleeping pad because I’m a finicky sleeper and a good night makes a huge difference in my energy level the next day. I’ll continue to use the Exped for car camping, canoe trips, and raft trips but, when shouldering my load, I’m now a Neo convert.

There are two issues to be aware of with all models of Neo air pads. First, the fabrics used are light and, because a holey pad delivers less than holy sleep, position them well away from assassins in the pack like crampons and ice axes. Also check the area where you sleep for daggers like sharp rocks, splintered sticks, and thorns. Second, the Neo pads trap air inside an internal network of air chambers made from heat reflective materials that crinkle like candy wrappers as you roll around on the pad. This makes all of the Neo pads noisier to sleep on than other pads. Still, given the combination of dreamy comfort, kindly warmth (even on snow), and friendly weight, I can deal with the noise.


Photo: Arno straps left (as in, never to be left behind), Voile straps right (as in, right on).


Arno Straps (0.5 ounces, $3 to $4 depending on size)

Voile straps rock, but for all-around versatility at half the weight and bulk, Arno straps rule. I keep an arsenal of many 2-foot, several 3-foot, and a couple 4-foot straps around. Here’s a partial list of applications: Strap skis onto packs, hold ski tips together when packing them, strap other extra gear like sleeping pads or crampon to a pack, hold the sole of a delaminating boot together, hold a compress to or a splint around a wounded limb, strap a flashlight to a head or a hand for night walking, strap items to a mountain bike, strap paddles to a car rack (use heavier duty straps to actually secure boats), join hiking poles together to form the center pole of a tent or tarp. You can even use these straps as a tourniquet should you get pinned under a boulder while canyoneering and need to shave off a limb.


Mini Plastic Bottles and Jars (0.25 ounce, free, photo above)

Save the little containers from different over-the-counter medications, creams, and solutions; then match the appropriate-sized container to the amount of ibuprofen, sunscreen, skin lotion, toothpaste, Aquamira, etc. that you need for your trips. Small jars and bottles for all these sundries not only reduce the weight of what you’re carrying, they pare down bulk. Less bulk translates into getting by with a smaller, lighter pack – see the beautiful positive feedback loop you’re setting into motion here? After a trip, refill your jars and bottles with more sunscreen, skin cream, toothpaste, etc.,  and you’re ready to wander some more. 


Outdoor Research’s Express Shorts (4 ounces, $30 - $50) 

These lightweight shorts are made of a thin, four-way stretch polyester that’s extremely comfortable and very tough. I consider these shorts a little-big- man product because, for three-season outdoor use, they serve as my underwear, short pants, and swimsuit all at the same time. Worn under my long pants, they’re hardly bulkier than boxers yet, if the day heats up, off come the long pants and my hiking shorts are already in place. And, if I follow the advice of others when they tell me to jump in the lake, my fast-drying swim suit is also in place. On top of all this my 19-year-old daughter, who is the receptacle for our entire family’s sense of fashion, gives them good style marks whenever I wear them around her – which means these little guys are firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, in the quick way that clothing items tend to come and go quickly, the men’s version of these shorts is no longer listed on Outdoor Research’s website. If you can’t find them locally, they are still available through various online retailers. The women’s version of the short, the Espressa, lives on as a current product.


Granite Gear’s eVent/Sil Drysack (1.5 oz, $26 to $30, photo above)

These superlight dry sacks are an insurance policy that will keep all the clothes and/or the sleeping bag carried in your pack chalky dry -- even if you fall into a river. Stuff items into the sack, roll and snap the waterproof top closure, force excess air out the breathable/waterproof eVent fabric forming the bottom of the bag, and you’re clothes/sleeping bag are simply not going to get wet. It’s genius – especially when these dry sack weighs less than the non-waterproof stuff sacks you would use instead. The small drysack (13 liters, $26) is perfect to carry all extra clothes I need for three-season hiking or mountaineering, it’s also perfect for a 2-pound down sleeping bag. If you perennially pack a more than you usually wear, or if you rely on bulkier insulations like pile or Polarguard (rather than down) you might want to upsize to the medium drysacks (18 liters, $30).


Perfect Camp Cups (0.75 ounces, free, left photo.)

The ultimate backcountry cup should be super light, compact, stable, stackable, small enough to sip wine, big enough for a hearty helping of food, and invisible when it’s time to stuff it in a pack. The best product that accomplishes all this is also free. Just save the polypropylene tubs (No 5 plastic) used to sell 16 ounces of margarine, soft cream cheese, cottage cheese, or frozen strawberries. These tubs are resistant to chemicals and can withstand boiling temperatures without warping. The capacity (2.5 cups if filled to the brim ) is perfect as a bowl or a cup, the shape is stable yet compact,  and even four or five of these used to service a group when stacked together will nestle inside a 1-quart pot or slide over the end of a Jetboil pot. The final benefit: When they get too grungy, recycle rather than wash them.


Leukotape P Sportstape (3.5 ounces per roll, $9, right photo)

If you wanted to leave most of your first-aid kit behind, all you would really need to carry in addition to important medications would be a tiny tube of triple antibiotic cream and a few yards of Leukotape P (roll the desired length of tape over on itself to make a small roll weighing less than an ounce that you’ll carry). The high-use products in a first aid kit are blister prevention items and Band-Aids, and Leukotape P can replace both of these. To treat a hot spot or blister on the foot, make a little cushion slightly bigger than the hotspot out of one piece of tape (the non-sticky side of the tape is positioned against the hot spot). Stick this cushion onto a larger piece of tape that will then go over the problem area like a large Band-Aid. Once rubbed into place, this tape is incredibly tenacious – even in the foam liners of backcountry ski boots where your feet turn into prunes from all the trapped moisture, this tape sticks in place for days at a time. Band-Aids are also easy to fashion from Leukotape P: split a length of tape longitudinally in half, stick a small wad of tissue paper onto the center of your strip, and wrap this makeshift Bandaid around the wound. The tape breathes slightly so your skin doesn’t get soggy. Great stuff.


Photo: Aquamira in 1-ounce bottles and smaller amounts transferred to little bottles for short trips.

Aquamira Water Purifier (2.75 ounces, $12 to $15, left photo)

While there’s no single water-purifier that’s universally best for all occasions, trips, and group sizes, I favor Aquamira (from McNett Corporation) for the vast majority of my outdoor trips. This product scores highest when balancing the variables of efficacy, simplicity, reliability, cost, water flavor, and total weight. Aquamira is a chemical treatment carried in two 1-oz bottles. To purify water, mix seven drops of the water-treatment solution with seven drops of the activating solution in a bottle cap, let the mixture sit several minutes, then add this to a quart of water. The mixture creates chlorine dioxide, which is an oxidizer many municipal plants around the country use to treat water. The oxidizer purifies untreated water in 15 minutes. A two-bottle kit of Aquamira treats 30 gallons of water. The shelf life of the opened bottles is four years, so you can let the stuff roll around in the bottom of a pack for years and fish it out as your water-treatment concerns dictate. Furthermore, and this is a big issue for mountaineers and backcountry skiers, chlorine dioxide purifies the icy waters drawn from mountain streams--just double or triple the normal treatment time before you imbibe.

More Coming

There’s more in the testing mill right now for Little-Big Men 2 -- this includes some other freebies, a GPS unit, instant coffees, toe socks, flashlights, tarp tents, and climbing hardware that all pack big benefits into little packages.