Christmas in July: Gear Review

One of the lesser, but enjoyable, benefits of being a fan of outdoor pursuits is the wide and ever-evolving range of gear to try out.  Here in our household, it’s a pretty good bet that on Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, and Mother’s/Father’s Day there is going to be at least one gift that inspires us to get outside.   For instance, a few years ago Ruth and I gave each other kayaks as an anniversary present — one of the best gift ideas ever!

We’ve already broken out our Christmas loot on hikes in the winter and spring, but gifts from later in the year have been laying dormant, waiting for a good opportunity to try them out.  Opportunity came knocking in the form of a few hours free on a Sunday afternoon, so we tossed our gifts into the car and made a quick dash out to the Roy B. Whitaker Preserve just east of Gurley, Alabama. The Whitaker Preserve is a 323-acre wildlife preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by the Land Trust of North Alabama. It’s a hidden gem — a former farm reclaimed by nature as a floodplain grassland and forest. It’s just barely in Jackson County. From Huntsville, head east on U.S. Highway 72, cross the Madison/Jackson county line, and pass Alabama Highway 65 on your left. The entrance to the preserve is on your left, but you’ll need to pass it and turn around at the next cutover. You’ll cross the railroad tracks and find a small gravel parking lot with a barn.

We’ve been to the Whitaker a few times. It’s one of Ruth’s favorite local places for a nature fix. The Nature Conservancy protects four parcels in north Alabama, but their resources are a bit thin on the ground. As a result, they made a financial arrangement with the Land Trust to help maintain some of their properties.  Since then, there have been noticeable improvements to their Whitaker and Keel Mountain Preserve, such as better trail maintenance (we take a modest bow for working on a couple of those projects), new trail development, and new kiosks. We had heard that the Land Trust has replaced a flood-damaged bridge that was preventing easy access to one of the trails, so we were particularly interested in checking it out.

07path_toward_junctionAs is often the case, we were the only people on the preserve when we arrived. We checked out the kiosk and its trail map (and avoided the wasp nest inside the compartment where brochures are stored), and set out along the mown path. The Whitaker has two “formal” trails marked on the kiosk map, but we have it on good authority that the plan is to mark four trails. Along our hike we saw holes bored for the placement of posts and additional trail markers, and we also hear from a reliable source that updated trail maps are available on the website (and I can confirm this). We plan to revisit the Whitaker when the trails are marked and to blog about it, so for now let’s just say we took the Whitaker Loop trail south to its junction with the Paint Rock Bottoms trail, then headed east to its junction with the Cole Spring trail.

The Cole Spring trail crosses Cole Spring Branch at the new bridge. 08new_bridgeCheck out this beauty! What an improvement over the former bridge, which was prone to destruction whenever the creek flooded.   I’m disappointed that I can’t lay my hands on my photos of its two predecessors – one a dilapidated wreck of planks sticking up like the prow of a sinking ship, and the other basically a pile of boards intermeshed with ropes and tree trunks.

We took the Cole Spring trail north along the raised bank of a slough.  The going was a little rougher than expected, as this stretch could do with some chainsaw and lopping work.  The Cole Spring trail ends in a loop, so we headed to the left and walked until we spotted a nice flat glade that would be a good place to try our new gear.

And finally, that brings us to the gear review.  Ruth had brought along the OneLink hammock shelter system from Eagle’s Nest Outfitters (ENO).  She’s a big fan of hammocks in general, and has been keen to try out a hammock shelter ever since our daughter bought one years ago.  I brought along a more prosaic piece of gear — the GCI Outdoor PackSeat.

Let’s start with the hammock.  16onelink_unbaggedThe OneLink shelter system is a package of ENO products consisting of a hammock, a hammock suspension system, a rain fly, stakes, and a bug net, all packaged in a single stuff sack.  The system comes in different configurations, depending on which hammock and rain fly you select.  In our case, we had selected the DoubleNest hammock, which theoretically has the space to support two sleepers.  The other separate components were the Atlas suspension straps, ProFly rain fly, and Guardian bug net.

This particular configuration tipped the scales at 4 lb, 10 oz., not bad for a tent, and a considerable improvement over our decade-old two-person backpacking tent.  The individual pieces weigh in at 19 oz. for the hammock alone, 11 oz. for the suspension system, 22 oz. for the rain fly, 2 oz. total for the four aluminum stakes, and 15 oz. for the bug net (the bags must account for the other 5 ounces).  15onelink_bagThough the OneLink comes in a single stuff sack, inside that single bag are smaller bags containing each of the five components.  The hammock and bug net are actually attached to their bags, which is convenient.

The OneLink shelter system came with a one-page instruction sheet that described how to deploy the suspension system, hammock, bug net, and rain tarp, devoting a simple diagram and 4-5 sentences to each task.  We found the instructions easy to follow, and literally had the suspension system and hammock hanging between a couple of trees in about one minute.

The Atlas suspension system consists of two poly-filament webbings, with a single loop on one end and a series of “attachment whorls” (as ENO calls them) on the other end.  It’s the work of a few seconds to wrap a strap around a tree and to pass the multiple-loop end through the single loop and pull it tight.  Each Atlas strap can support up to 200 pounds, so the pair of them can hold up to 400 pounds. 18ruth_seated Connecting the hammock to the straps is also absurdly easy — just clip the carabiner on each end of the hammock to an attachment loop, adjusting as necessary to account for the distance between the attachment points.  We did make the rookie mistake of hanging the straps at about eye level, which meant the hammock didn’t clear the ground by more than a foot once it was occupied.  But it was a good opportunity to see how easy it was to loosen the straps around the trees and move them up a couple of feet.  In under two minutes, we had a hammock ready to go.

We decided to try all the components, so the next step was to add the bug net.  23ruth_bug_netThis required stringing the supplied ridgeline cord over the hammock, and securing it to the hammock straps.  After disconnecting one end of the hammock, it was relatively easy to thread the bug net over the hammock like a sleeve.  We cinched the ends of the bug net up tight, and clipped the top of the net to the ridgeline cord (so that the net isn’t just lying on top of you while you’re in the hammock). 24bugnet_installedA zipper in the front of the bug net provides access into the hammock.  After we bug-proofed the hammock, Ruth popped in to make sure it was bug-free.

The last task was to set up the rain fly, which was similarly easy to deploy.  It has its own ridgeline cord attached to the ends of the fly, which is tied to the same attachment points used by the hammock.  25rainflyWe draped it over the same ridgeline cord as the bug net, and after centering the tarp over the hammock, we pushed in the four bright blue aluminum stakes, then threaded the guy lines through holes in the stakes and tightened them up.  Again, the setup was quick and easy.  We had the suspension straps, hammock, bug net, and rain fly set up in around 15 minutes on our first try.  With practice, we could probably get the setup down to  5-10 minutes.

This can’t be a thorough review of the OneLink system since we didn’t try it overnight, or see how it would hold up in a rainstorm (which have been in very short supply around here lately).  Ruth pronounced the hammock comfortable.  It can support up to 4oo pounds, which we partially tested by both of us climbing in.  Naturally, I can’t give specifics on our respective weights, but combined we weigh less than the rated weight of the hammock and the straps and the hammock felt secure.  The DoubleNest is supposed to be roomy enough for two people, but we found it to be a bit of a tight fit for the two of us.  It would be quite roomy for one person, though, even in a sleeping bag.  The rain fly is a ripstop coated nylon with stitched and taped seams, measuring 10’6″ by 6’4″.  It’s relatively large, which would give some room for dry storage under the hammock.

Disassembly and storage of the system was also quick and simple.  We were able to get the rain fly rolled and back into its stuff sack on our first try, and the hammock and bug net easily were stuffed into their attached sacks.  The straps also were quickly disconnected once the hammock was detached, and we had everything bagged up and back in the big stuff sack in around 10 minutes.  It’s worth noting that the stuff sack doesn’t have any straps or attachment points, so it’s probably something you would carry inside your pack.  Some of the individual components, like the hammock, have straps on their stuff sacks so you could clip or lash them to the outside of a pack.

ENO is a popular brand, and its products are found in most retail outlets.  We purchased our OneLink system from REI for around $220.  Buying the entire set as a “system” is a money saver, as the individual components would add up to around $250 at REI.  You can also buy the system directly from ENO’s website at the same price and get more color options on the hammock.

14stool_on_camera_bagNow that we had a place to lounge rain- and bug-free, it was time to set up our other option for taking a load off in camp.   I can’t count the number of times I’ve been on the trail and wanted to pause for a snack, but couldn’t find a convenient log or rock to perch on.  The GCI PackSeat weighs in at 24 oz in its carrying case, which has straps on the top and along the long edge of its carrying case.  I clipped it into the tripod straps on my camera backpack, but the product literature points out you can clip it to a belt loop with a carabiner through the top strap.  That is, if you want to look like a dork walking around with a stool strapped to you.  I don’t like having things flapping about on my person when I’m out for a walk, but to each his own, I suppose.

The seat pretty much comes as assembled.  27packseat_unbaggedTechnically, it’s a stool — it doesn’t have a back or armrests.  It has three powder-coated aluminum legs that have shock cords running through them, so that they fold up for storage.  To set it up, we pulled it out of the bag and the shock cords pulled the legs into position.  It has a triangular “anti-splay reinforcement panel” — that is, a tough piece of fabric — that keeps the legs in alignment when you spread them to widen the base of the stool.

28packseat_assembledThe triangular nylon seat top was large enough to support me, though the seat isn’t padded.  The stool supports up to 250 pounds, and felt study on level ground.  The seat height is 20 inches, which keeps you off the ground though it’s lower than most camp chairs.  Stowing the stool literally took seconds, as I pulled the three legs pulled apart easily in their respective centers and folded them over before stuffing the collapsed stool into its carrying case.  It’s simple to use and is reasonably light, so I can see this stool being worth the weight for relatively short dayhikes.

After a short break to enjoy resting on our new gear, we packed it up and headed back on the trail, continuing on a loop (not sure we were on an official trail at this point) until we reached the Paint Rock Bottoms trail and continued past a connector over to the Cole Spring trail.  We looped on around to pass the Cole Spring trailhead and retraced our steps back to the parking lot.

Though we went to the Whitaker to test some gear and ogle a bridge, as usual we enjoyed the birdsong (the Whitaker is on the North Alabama Birding Trail) and spotted some nice wildflowers (blue vervain, the spectacular Carolina spider lily, and passionflower).

We also avoided the Whitaker prickly trifecta (blackberry briars, trifoliate orange, and honey locust).  The Land Trust has been working on getting these cut back away from the trails, so though they look scary you’re unlikely to get tangled up in them unless you venture off-trail.

As I said above, we’ll be revisiting the Whitaker in the fall and will give it a more detailed description when the trail marking is done.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if that visit included at least a little bit of hanging around between a couple of trees.  The Whitaker never disappoints.

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