Review of Burton's Ballast Shell Snowboarding Pant, for Use in Mountaineering
and workplace Covid safety (for example, creating more physical space between employees on the production line). On the demand side, people who wouldn’t normally be spending a lot of time outdoors are now doing so because their usual means of entertainment or physical exercise have become unavailable during the Pandemic. No sporting events, movie theaters, bars, gyms, yoga classes, etc. So: people are buying more outdoor gear and emptying the shelves. Adding insult to injury, the increase in demand and the increase in manufacturing costs have caused the price of gear to rise.
Shakespeare famously said “misery makes strange bedfellows” and such has been the case in the world of outdoor gear during the Pandemic. People have been gear-hacking (using ordinary items as substitutes for specialty outdoor gear), cruising the used gear market with unusual zeal, borrowing gear, renting gear, wearing their gear threadbare, and (to get closer to the point) looking outside of the normal gear market of their particular outdoor sport.
Gaining weight has also been a side effect of the Pandemic, adding more woe to those who have outgrown and need to replace hiking clothing. My size medium Marmot mountaineering pants, which had fit me just right in 2018 and 2019 (without a lot of room to spare, unfortunately) had become unpleasantly tight around the waist. Since I was planning a lot of serious winter mountain hiking (including an overnight trip to Baxter State Park) I needed a new pair of shell pants. Trouble was, almost every brand was sold out of my size—Patagonia, North Face, Marmot, Black Diamond, etc. (Arc'teryx was still in stock—but I’m not a Rockefeller). So I started looking further afield, at gear built for sports that are similar to mountaineering. And I landed on the website of Burton—famous for their snowboards and snowboarding gear. I have never snowboarded and wasn’t familiar with Burton, but I could see that they were building some sturdy, waterproof, snow-proof shell pants that probably could double as mountaineering pants in a pinch.
Burton offers about a dozen different shell pant models with a range of prices comparable to good quality respected-brand mountaineering pants. Their pants come in a variety of fits (“regular” and “baggy”), lengths— and color choices. And they were NOT out of stock. After some waffling, I settled on a Burton’s Ballast Pant in a nice “true penny” coppery-ginger (a hue I particularly like) for a reasonable $209. The pants have features desirable for mountaineering: zippered heat vents, Gore Tex breathable fabric, soft waist band, roomy zippered cargo pockets for snacks and small gear items, built-in boot gaiter with clips, and sturdy fabric that won’t tear on branches. They also have a little pull cord behind each ankle, to cinch up the rear of the pant cuff and keep it from dragging under the boot during intense activity—a feature you won’t see on mountaineering pants (which may not have much utility outside of snowboarding).
Above, showing zippered cargo pockets, heat vents, zippered cuff and gaiter, and velcro waist adjustment (click to expand).
I took them for a shorter test-run hike, then the real test—four days at Baxter State Park—long miles, skiing, unbroken trails, deep snow-- (to use snowboarder parlance, why not) “gnarly” conditions.
I found my Burton pants warm, comfortable, and tough. We broke a lot of trail through deep snow during the trip, and on the way out of the park it rained on us—but the pants remained dry throughout. I used the pants during vigorous skiing and snowshoeing outings. At temperatures above 15°f with light wind I found that I was comfortable wearing just a pair of short underwear beneath, zipping the heat vents open or closed as needed. They vented well, and I stayed warm and dry the entire day. For lower temperatures, a pair of long midweight underwear beneath was sufficient to keep me warm. I suspect that above 30°f on a sunny day with no wind could make the pants too hot—but I have yet to test them under those conditions (and might not wear a mountaineering shell under those conditions anyway). The large zippered cargo pockets were ideal for keeping a robust cache of warm snacks, a trail map, phone, spare glove liners, and a headlamp—and they kept out the snow and rain. Although the pants have an inner Velcro waist band adjustment, I found that I also needed a belt to keep them snug at my hips—but this may have to do with the fact that I had bought a pair near the outer range of my hip-size.
There were just two minor drawbacks: I noticed a little tightness in the thighs when lifting my legs up high to overcome snow drifts on the uphill, but it wasn’t enough to cause me any noticeable fatigue over the course of a long day of hiking. And the built-in gaiter was a little loose around the ankles—probably because it was built for burly snowboard boots, not hiking boots. It did keep snow out of my boots most of the time, but I had to supplement with my Outdoor Research gaiters to remain completely snow-tight during extended trail breaking through deep snow. But I normally wear my gaiters with shell pants anyway, so no big deal. The pants would be an even better product with full-length leg zips but few manufacturers are making mountaineering pant models with that feature.
Overall, the Burton Ballast Pant proved to be a great find and a valuable addition to my winter hiking wardrobe.
Baxter State Park photo credits: Doug Settele
“Slog” is a very apt term for what is a sadistic exercise in mental endurance—especially at the end-of-day whilst physically exhausted, when distance-marking visual cues have evaporated in dusk. For those "slogged" When will it end? isn’t an uncommon fixation. Beyond the madness-inducing tedium, the slogs can also be physically painful. I have a longstanding knee injury; hiking flat terrain for a long stretch is harder on my knee than ups or downs because I’m locking my knee in a relatively rigid position and inviting repetitive-use fatigue instead of flexing out the kinks as would naturally happen on irregular mountain terrain. Doing this in snowshoes or boots over hardpan monorail can be even more grueling. Although my handicap isn’t universal, I’ve spoken to more than a few people, both knee and hip-impaired, who have the same issue with the slogs.
. . .and yes, it counts towards your winter list dibs. As long as snow conditions are favorable, you can shave off a little time, a lot of fatigue, and add a little extra fun into your adventure. I use this method almost exclusively for the long flat winter approaches, and I weep with pity as I pass those poor wretches limping out in snowshoes.
How it helps:
What approaches it's good for: Out-and-back hikes with long, relatively mild terrain: Lincoln Woods Trail, Zealand Road, Sawyer River Road, Gale River Road, etc. In Maine, it can be used to get to some of the “Sixpack” Hundred Highest Peaks, Mount Abraham via the snowed-in Firewarden’s Road, and to the base of Katahdin or the Brothers in Baxter State Park (lugging a sled into the park behind your skis, which is surprisingly easy). If you’re a fair skier you can even get a little further up some of the milder but narrower trail sections beyond the roads mentioned above, and if you’re a skilled skier you can throw in some steeper trails and open woods glade runs if conditions are right.
When to do it: When the snow is good—deep enough to cover hard obstacles and exposed drainage channels. Ideally, the snow is broken out and not too icy or crusty; temperatures are below freezing. If snow is deep and unbroken, and you have company, you can take turns breaking it out with about the same effort or less as you’d expend with snowshoes, creating nice runs for yourself on your return trip. It is easier to ski out on a once-broken ski trail than it is to snowshoe out on a once-broken snowshoe track because the track of skis is continuous, flat, and uninterrupted, not choppy like snowshoes tracks. Avoid icy conditions and unbroken snow with thick crusts. Avoid trails with frequent or long steeps (unless you are a good skier), lots of narrow twists and ledge-hops, and open water crossings.
Gear you’ll need:
Skis: Your best bet are medium to wide Nordic skis--many recent models are “shaped” (the width of the skis changes from the front to the ski to the middle, and again to the rear of the ski) which offers more turning capacity; look for outer measurements in the high 60cm range to the 112cm range. Generally speaking: the wider the ski, the more floatation, stability, and turning ability. You can use narrower Nordic skis with equal success if the terrain is milder, groomed, or fairly beaten out by other skiers (Lincoln Woods Trail and Zealand Road are often well broken out by skiers) or if you’re a good skier. The length of your ski will depend upon the characteristics of your ski brand and style vs. your weight— check the manufacturer’s guidelines.
Other ski characteristics: you’ll want a steel edge to cut through rougher snow patches, and a climbing pattern on the bottom of the ski for ascending (which saves you the curse of wax-on, wax-off, repeat--visualize the Karate Kid--with different kinds of waxes for different temperatures and conditions).
Boots: First and foremost, make sure that your boots are compatible with your bindings! The hardware on ski boots is engineered to only work with a specific kind of binding. Second, you’ll want something light and fairly flexible for the long slogs; go with synthetic fabric or leather (not hard plastic). Third, make sure that you buy boots that have adequate winter insulation. Although you can hike in Nordic boots, you may not find them quite as comfortable on steep mountain terrain as hiking boots, but you can experiment—if you don’t mind hiking in them, you can save yourself some weight by not carrying hiking boots on your trip. The ducktail toe on 3-Pin boots might interfere with snowshoe and traction bindings, however.
Poles: Ski poles or adjustable trekking poles with a snow basket attachment will both work fine. A wider basket is preferable for deeper, unbroken or minimally broken snow but a small trekking basket may work just as well on packed or groomed surfaces. I keep a wide basket on my poles all winter long.
Gear you might want: Climbing skins (a fabric that is stretched across the bottom of the ski for extra traction) can be useful in places where the terrain is rolling with frequent short steep sections, and the snow is firm and slick. You can use the skins to help you climb and to slow your descent. A small plastic ski scraper can come in handy if you happen to slush your skis through running water on colder days. Several ski gear manufacturers make lightweight packable models (ex. Swix and Dakine); while most are intended to scrape wax off skis, they will work well for ice, too (if you have a climbing traction pattern on your skis, be sure to scrape front to back). If you plan on carrying your gear over some steep terrain for moderate stretches, take along a ski strap so that you can tie your skis together and throw them over your shoulder. Most skis come with a ski strap when you purchase them.
Gear you probably won’t need: Unless a lot of your travel is going to be downhill on long steeps, avoid gear that is intended specifically for downhill. Traditional downhill (lift-service) alpine skiing gear is useless on the slogs. "Backcountry" alpine gear (AT bindings, NTN bindings, 75mm 3-pin bindings with fixed, non-removable cables, etc.) is intended primarily for climbing up then skiing down. Although you can manage flat terrain with them, they won’t offer you the speed and ease of use on long slogs that Nordic gear provides. If you’re inclined to do a lot of “hike-up, ski down” activity (for example the Moosilauke Carriage Road and the Hale Firewarden’s Trail) these are probably the kind of setups you’ll want to look at. But that kind backcountry skiing takes skill and practice and is beyond the scope of this article.
Another type of ski that probably won’t net you much in the way of energy savings on the slogs are short, “hybrid” skis" (ex. Altai Hoks or Black Diamond Glidite) that strap to hiking boots. These skis can be great fun for narrow and/or steeper downhill terrain, particularly in powdery snow and/or on bushwhacks and narrow, winding paths, and for climbing moderately steep irregular terrain. On the long flats and mild rolling terrain, they will perform more like snowshoes than skis on average (better than snowshoes on moderate downhills).
That’s all folks—this article is intended as a primer; there’s more you can learn about skis and skiing. Hope to see you cheerfully beating the slogs in skis!
This article was inspired by a recent conversation on the Random Group of Hikers FB page.
Chocolate isn’t perishable and (unlike some brands of energy bar) won’t become an inedible chunk of concrete in freezing weather, but weather extremes can drastically affect chocolate, including its packability and taste.
The typical chocolate bar is a mixture of cocoa solids and cocoa butter (both products of the tropical cacao plant) and some amount of sugar; other ingredients may include vegetable oils and milk solids. Chocolate bars also may contain other ingredients within or dressing the chocolate (nuts, dried fruit, encapsulated soft fillings like peanut butter, etc.). Dark chocolate contains a higher proportion of cocoa solids and a lower proportion of other ingredients; manufacturers of higher quality chocolate typically advertise the percentage of raw cocoa in their dark chocolate bars. The darker the chocolate, the more bitter the taste and the more caffeine per ounce. It’s the cocoa solids that contain the caffeine, and darker chocolates typically contain more cocoa solids and less cocoa butter. In milk chocolate, some cocoa is replaced with milk solids for a smoother taste and texture, and a lighter color. Other nut oils and pastes are sometimes used to smooth the texture of chocolate, creating a chocolate truffle-like texture (true chocolate truffle is a perishable food made with butter fats). White chocolate contains cocoa butter but no cocoa solids and it lacks the characteristic earthy taste and color typically associated with chocolate. Many cheap brands of chocolate—often the only kind you can purchase at convenience stores—contain a high amount of sugar and/or contain corn syrup derived sugars.
Chocolate in Summer
All chocolate will melt if exposed to enough heat (body heat, atmospheric heat, solar radiation, etc.). The melting point of a chocolate bar will vary (between 75°f and 90°f). Cocoa butter, vegetable oils, and milk lower the melting point of chocolate. Candy coating on chocolate may provide a little extra protection from melting (M&Ms etc.—but keep in mind that the typical M&M contains poorer quality milk chocolate, which melts at a lower temperature than dark chocolate). That being the case, darker chocolates and coated chocolates are a better choice in warmer weather, but even the darkest chocolate will melt on a hot summer day. To avoid the truly evil fate of a melted chocolate bar (“may the goo of a thousand chocolate bars stain your fleece!” is one of the vilest hiker curses ever uttered) it is wise to secure your chocolate in a zip-loc bag and then insulate it. You can insulate it by wrapping it in a jacket or sleeping bag and banishing it to the darkest recess of your pack where it may stay solid for a surprisingly long time (invariably, the idea of a sleeping bag or cold weather clothing insulating food from melting isn’t intuitive to some people—rest assured, as long as you are not wearing it, it’s insulating against heat gain and functioning no differently than a Styrofoam cooler—in a future article I’ll tell you how to pack a half gallon of ice cream up a trail in the summer using a sleeping bag).
Let’s say your chocolate does melt and you’re jonesing for fix? If you secured it in a zip-loc (otherwise the only option is to lick it off your gear) and better yet have removed the paper and foil wrapper beforehand, you can harden it by submerging the bag in a running stream for maybe ten minutes or so—just don’t let the current carry the bag away!
What about winter?
While all chocolate bars pack well in winter, some people find that dark chocolate is less palatable when subject to freezing temperatures. The colder the temperature, the more the taste is dulled and the longer it takes for the chocolate to melt in your mouth. The effect can render the texture and flavor to something akin to confection-grade wax as the cocoa butter and cocoa solids become separated in your mouth instead of your gut. This blight is sometimes accompanied by the cocoa solids sticking unpleasantly to the roof of one’s mouth for an extended period. I’m not sure of the mechanism at play—it may have to do with the chemistry of cocoa. Other factors may include the proportion of cocoa butter (which melts) to cocoa solids (which don’t), the effect of a frozen chocolate bar on taste buds and the digestive enzymes in saliva, individual physiology and sense of taste, and (on particularly cold days) chill air being inhaled through the mouth as one eats. To avoid this fate, bring along milk chocolate, which is mostly immune to the winter curse, or pre-heat your dark chocolate by placing it in a warm pocket for a half-hour before you consume any of it.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that chocolate containing nuts can add a little bit of nutritional balance and slow burn to what is otherwise a short term energy fix. Even better are foods containing bits of chocolate instead of the other way around. Eating too much sugary chocolate (or other sugars) can make you boink suddenly as the sugars are exhausted and your calorie load collapses. The caffeine in chocolate can also give you an artificial high—it may help with motivation but it isn’t a substitute for calories.
So don’t be a boinker.
While perusing Amazon.com a few months ago, I noticed a bargain offer for a 6-pack of Darn Tough men’s wool running socks. Most of you are probably familiar with Darn Tough—a Vermont industry that revolutionized the durability of the outdoor-play sock by tightening the weave and thread count and simultaneously offering an unconditional lifetime guarantee—if you are unhappy with them, for any reason, at any point in the life of the sock, they replace it. The socks are produced by parent company Cabot Hosiery of Northfield, Vermont and are made exclusively in the USA.
Before Cabot Hosiery invented the Darn Tough line, they were losing business to overseas sock makers and were in decline. Instead of fading away (as so many clothing mills in New England have) they adapted and innovated, coming up with a “darn tough” sock that “wouldn’t wear out” and successfully marketed it to those who would appreciate it most—the outdoor gear consumer (and later the U.S. military). The socks are made of fine Merino wool and are manufactured to the highest of standards. They will wear out eventually of course (nothing lasts forever, not even the mountains) but they do hold up a lot longer than any other brand on the market without any sacrifice in comfort.
I was able to return the fakes to Amazon at no cost but my trouble (Darn Tough, being the stand-up company they are, even offered to replace the counterfeits at no charge if I did not get satisfaction from Amazon) and I followed up by buying several pairs directly from Darn Tough (which made me feel better about my purchase for a number of other reasons, too).
Although I spend a lot of time in the woods I’m not so reclusive that I don’t follow the news—I was aware, albeit peripherally, that there exists a lucrative global counterfeit industry (a multi -billion or trillion dollar criminal industry according to the U.S. Department of Commerce). But I had mistakenly assumed that most of those rip-offs target big, universally recognizable brands: Nike, Adidas and the like. Apparently that isn’t the case—and clothing, when you come to think about it, isn’t hard to rip off—sweatshops in foreign countries already routinely churn out genuine product blessed and outsourced by our well-loved major brands; there is no reason they can’t churn out fakes just as easily.
So, how does one avoid getting ripped off? Here are some take-homes distilled from my experience: