Gear Review: GI Leather Trigger Finger Mittens

gi leather trigger finger mittens wool

My first inaugural gear review ended up being more of a eulogy to the greatest pair of shoes I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I’m really going to miss those Rockports. My next pair has some big shoes to fill.

Today I’m moving on to another essential piece of clothing that has already had a big impact on me in the year we’ve been together. At the start of last winter I purchased some GI Leather Trigger Finger Mittens on Amazon for twenty bucks. I’ve gone through a dozen or so pairs of gloves and mittens over the past ten years, hiking, camping, and biking through the Minnesota and Nebraska winters, and these are hands-down my favorite.

In Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire, an arrogant Klondike explorer nearly freezes to death, alone in the woods, when his fingers ice over so fast in the open air that they wont flex or bend to pick up a match. In a revised version of the story [spoiler alert] only the explorer’s dog, warm and secure in its natural covering, survives without the revitalizing warmth of a fire.

With stiff fingers which he could not bend, he got out a bunch of matches, but found it impossible to separate them. He sat down and awkwardly shuffled the bunch about on his knees, until he got it resting on his palm with the sulphur ends projecting… But his fingers stood straight out. They could not clutch…

The frost had beaten him. His hands were worthless.
To Build a Fire, by Jack London

I think the original is better than London’s second, less juvenile version of the story. But the second version does highlight nicely the strengths and frailties of being human, in contrast to those of being canine. In most cases, human strength dominates. But at sixty below zero, the scale is tipped against us, and our dexterity, which depends on warm blood flow, isn’t effective enough to sustain itself.

Side note: I just learned that our brains are only 2% of our body weight, but use 20% of our oxygen supply and 20% of our blood flow. Wow!

Finger coordination in cold weather is an example of a key tradeoff in evolving from something primitive, like a dog, to having specialized skills, like dexterity and rational thought. Specialized skills make us more reliant on specialized circumstances. As a result, we are less tolerant of adverse conditions. Just as our fingers can now only operate above a certain temperature, our complex economy and way of life can only operate with a certain amount of electricity and fossil fuel. Someday, we might evolve ourselves into a corner where our skills don’t match the conditions.

It is a rule in paleontology that ornamentation and complication precede extinction. And our mutation, of which the assembly line, the collective farm, the mechanized army, and the mass production of food are evidences or even symptoms, might well correspond to the thickening armor of the great reptiles — a tendency that can end only in extinction. If this should happen to be true, nothing stemming from thought can interfere with it or bend it.
John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

The solution, as always, is getting back to basics and spending more time outdoors. But I’m getting carried away. Back to mittens.

after the snow campout

I’ve noticed that cold hands are the leading cause of not playing outside in the winter months, second only to cold toes. This is especially true for kids, who have no idea how to keep themselves warm, and whose boots and gloves seem never to fit right. Cold digits, sad kids.

Cold hands have been a problem for me too, especially when camping and biking. My previous mittens were the typical black nylon over some insulation with a thin layer of plastic and a fleece liner. This standard construction works fine for normal winter use, skiing, sledding, and snowball fighting, but it’s not durable or versatile enough for serious cold-weather activities.

torn mittens

The key to long-lasting winter warmth is layers. You need a strong mitten shell with removable fleece or wool liners. The GI mittens are an affordable, no-nonsense solution. They’ll keep you outside longer, while also demonstrating your disregard for the fancy new-age glove technology and whatnot. Leather palms and drab nylon-something on the outside, with wool inserts, and giant wrist covers.

Some parting remarks. These mittens have no insulation, aside from the wool liner, so you’ll have to supplement them in some way when it gets Klondike cold. I have fleece liners from another pair of mittens that I wear under the wool insert. My bike commute ranges from 45 to 60 minutes and sometimes gets below 20°F, but the frost hasn’t been a problem yet.

gi leather trigger finger mittens

gi leather trigger finger mittens instructions

gi leather trigger finger mittens instructions

My First Gear Review: Anonymous Rockport Hiking Shoes

rockport hiking shoe review

I started this blog about five years ago, with the goal of encouraging people to make babies and take them camping. My family and the earth are two of my favorite things, along with raindrops on roses and cream colored ponies. I also love good gear. However, I enjoy spending money on gear, or on anything, about as much as I enjoy a bee sting or a dog bite. My frugality has lead to a blog about family matters and the outdoors that is devoid of gear reviews.

People who buy things are suckers.
Ron Swanson, after forging a wedding band from a sconce

I’ve always been uncomfortable spending money, even in insignificant amounts. I especially dislike spending money on complex, state-of-the-art technology that’s intended to help me connect with a simple, natural world. Good gear is basic and essential. It’s a means to an end. It’s not flashy or distracting, or the reason you go outside. In the end, good gear isn’t purchased often.

Thoreau warned in Walden, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. Along these lines, I would add, beware of all gear that you didn’t know you needed until you saw it.

That said, an enterprise can’t happen without reliable footwear. When a person isn’t wearing shoes, you know they aren’t going on any serious outdoor adventure.

Two standing orders in this platoon. One, take good care of your feet. Two, try not to do anything stupid, like gettin’ yourself killed.
Lieutenant Dan, shirtless but not shoeless, to Forrest and Bubba

About ten years ago, while browsing the clearance section at a store called Ross in northern California, I found some hiking shoes that would become my feet’s most loyal friend: the Anonymous Rockports. They’re anonymous because I’ve never known their given name, and I’ve never been able to find another pair like them. All I know is that they’re Rockports, with Vibram soles, and the tag claimed that they were waterproof.

rockports at work

Since that fateful day ten years ago, these shoes have taken a beating across all types of terrain, in sunny and severe, dry, wet, and freezing conditions, without complaint. For most of their life, they were fully weatherproof, four-season hiking shoes. They were also light, flexible, and surprisingly breathable given their thick skin. Overall, my feet have been happy.

rockport hiking shoe review sole

rockport hiking shoe review front

Now, my feet are sad, as winter is here and my Rockports have finally succumbed. The toe has torn open, rendering them useless for anything involving even a small amount of moisture. RIP, Anonymous Rockports.

Scoring Gear and Other Deals on Craigslist

craigslist rss smallWhether you need the services of a Jedi master or you’re looking to rent igloo space, be the first to know when the posting hits Craig’s list with an RSS feed. RSS makes it easier to skip past the wire transfer scammers, people selling things like gently used cloth diapers, or people whose stuff is “reel cheep,” and get to the quality bargains.

Once you’re happy with your search terms, e.g., “Kelty kid carrier,” zoom down to the lower right corner of the page to get the feed link. To subscribe manually, copy the link and take it to your RSS reading software, e.g., Thunderbird or Google Reader. Or click it, for instructions on subscribing from your browser.

You’re reader will grab any posting that matches your search terms as soon as it’s created.

craigslist rss

More info on RSS from craigslist, and Wikipedia.

Bike Trailer Buyer’s Guide

Our Schwinn bike trailer, in stroller mode

Bike trailers are essential to the happiness and unity of the urban/suburban outdoor family. But, as with most gear, they vary widely in price and quality. This post includes all of my trailer research and recommendations, with a summary of the more popular makes/models.

Recommended Options

  1. Max capacity – The single-passenger trailers weigh less and are more aerodynamic but are less practical, as you can’t pick up hitchhikers. There’s no limit to the things you can tote – groceries, picnic supplies, library books, pets and other wildlife, camping gear, furniture, and, of course, kids – with a two seater you can carry twice as much.
  2. Strollability – Avoid trailers that can’t be converted to strollers – they’re like multitools with only one tool, an icepick, of limited use. Stroller kits are usually sold separately, with detachable handles. A jogging kit is best, with a 20 inch front wheel and a bommer handle that bolts to the frame – these are the two things I’m looking for in our next ride (more below).
  3. Foldability – Just about every trailer can be collapsed and packed down into the trunk of a car, some easier and more quickly than others. Exceptions include the tot-tote and the ones people handcraft out of old wagons and go-cart frames (see your local craigslist posting).

Optional

  1. Terrain – The high-end trailers have cross-country ski, off-road, and other add-on packages, maximizing versatility and price. Someday they’ll have a rock climbing kit with a pulley system and maybe a watercraft kit with a tow rope and scuba option.
  2. Wheel type – The low-end trailers come with plastic rear and/or front (stroller) wheels that will get thrashed when you hit a jump or go off-road. Inflatable tires and metal spokes let you boonie crash and Tokyo drift with peace of mind.
  3. Material – Most trailers consist of some kind of nylon/vinyl stretched across a aluminum, steel, or alloy frame. The only exception, to my knowledge, is the Burley Cub, with a plastic basin for a base. Aluminum will lower the weight and boost the price, as will waterproof fabrics, tinted windows, and 5-point padded harnesses.

Makes and Models

The three prominent bike trailer manufacturers, in order from least to most serious, are Schwinn/InSTEP, Burley, and Chariot. The chart below (updated June, 2011) gives an idea of price per tier. Prices are either MSRP or averaged from what I found through Google shopping searches, and dashes mean I couldn’t find the info.

Bike Trailer Comparison Chart
Make Model Price Capacity Weight Frame Harness Kits
Schwinn/InStep Spirit $129 2 None
Trailblazer $199 2 24 lbs Steel
Joyride $399 2 43 lbs Jog
Take 2 $ 99 2 25 lbs Steel
Quick N EZ $124 2 33 lbs Steel Stroll
Rocket $229 2 Alum Stroll
Burley Bee $249 2 18 lbs Alum 5-point None
Encore $399 2 24 lbs Alum 5-point All 3
D’Lite $579 2 28 lbs Alum 5-point All 3
Solo $529 1 21 lbs Alum 5-point All 3
Cub $589 2 34 lbs Alum 5-point All 3
Chariot Cheetah $465 1 or 2 21 lbs Alum 5-point All 5
CX $950 1 or 2 31 lbs 5-point All 5
Cabriolet $425 2 24 lbs Alum No Ski
Cougar $620 1 or 2 28 lbs All 5
Side Carrier $525 1 18 lbs Alum Bike

If you’re looking for affordable but functional, and you only anticipate occasional, maybe monthly use, make sure it can at least accommodate a jogging package – this indicates the trailer isn’t fooling around. Remember – you’re going to hitch this to the back of your bike and drag your kids around town in it, maybe even hit up a slalom course or bmx track. A bommer trailer is worth an extra $50 to $100.

If you’re a weekend warrior and you hope to keep your trailer for 10 years or more, using it with multiple cohorts of kids of various ages, consider the Burley and Chariot lines. Both are dedicated solely to making cycle-pulled kid containers.

Burley has been around the block and costs substantially less ($300 to $600), but they offer fewer features by default and fewer add-ons. The three conversion kits are stroller ($65), 2-wheel stroller ($89), and jogger ($140). All are all sold separately.

Chariot makes the ultimate sport utility trailers – for a hefty sum ($500 to $1000) you’re kids will tow in comfort and style, with cup holders and adjustable suspension (not a joke), from garage to summit. Kits include 2-wheel stroller ($75), jogger ($100), hiker ($110), and skier ($250). Prices vary by trailer model and most are also sold separately.

Conclusion

Our first and current bike trailer, a Schwinn, cost $140 and has taken a beating, over street and dirt, hiking and biking, for about 3 years. But, it doesn’t accommodate a front jogging wheel and the handle has too much play, as it clamps, rather than bolts, to the frame (see photo above). Excessive wheeliing (think bike-trailer X-games) and frequent strollering over rocks and tree roots have worn out the handle connections and destroyed the plastic front wheel. So I’m on the lookout for another trailer, probably a used Chariot Cougar or Burley D’Lite.

Happy towing!

Kids’ Camping Gear List

Most kid camping gear lists, including my first draft, seem to focus on what the parents should bring for their kids. Instead, here are seven basic items that every camping kid can learn to pack and utilize, on their own. They’re based entirely on the two principles of camping enjoyment.

Download the checklist: pdf

Personal Effects

  1. Gear bag – Kids need their own personal pack, whether a grocery sack or an old Jansport. Even when car camping, they can learn to manage their own stuff. Start small (clothes) and increase the load (sleeping bag, food, etc.) as they grow. My son, who’s 5, carries his own clothes and water. My daughter, who’s 3, carries all the snacks and treats.
  2. First aid – In addition to the comprehensive kit for the group, kids can carry their own personal items. Again, start small, with things they might occasionally use, like band-aids, lip balm, and a sphygmomanometer. Build the kit together ahead of time and discuss the importance of each item.
  3. Extra Clothing – For the cold, precipitation, or to replace an outfit once it’s covered in mud. This is partly for your own sanity, as kids tend to enjoy getting wet and filthy. Inclement weather can spoil a campout if you’re not prepared for it. A rain poncho is a step in the right direction – youth sizes are easy to find, but for young kids a garbage bag is perfect. [Our winter camping adventures]
  4. Sustenance – Kids can learn to be responsible for their own nutrition. A disposable water bottle, cheap and light, may suffice for H2O. On long hikes, teach about bringing the right amount of water – not too much, as it’s heavy (8.35 lbs/gal, 2.20 lbs/L) – and making it last. Plan meals together and let them carry their own snacks.
  5. Flashlight – Young kids rarely get to explore the outdoors in the dark, which may be one of the reasons they’re afraid of it, and one of the reasons camping is such a unique activity. Nighttime is more fun, and safer, with some lighting. The cheap or free keychain type is prefect, though maybe not very luminous.
  6. Sleeping gear – Good sleeping bags for young kids are hard to come by, as most are designed for youth and often weigh as much as the adult counterparts. Tailoring your own bags is feasible and fun. Liners add versatility. Around 40° and below my kids use closed-cell foam pads, which can be obtained for under $7 and cut down to child-size to make them more portable.
  7. Mess kit – This last personal item is perfect for teaching a kid to take care of their gear since losing it or failing to wash it can have an immediate consequence, i.e., hunger. [More on mess kits for kids]

Camping is also a great opportunity to teach about service, teamwork, and group responsibility. In addition to personal items there are many things to be shared – food, shelter, toilet paper, whatnot. Here are a few simple things that kids can oversee.

Items to Share

  1. Marshmallows – The true essence of the marshmallow is its cookability over a fire. It can be replaced with anything which burns or heats and is afterwords still nearly edible, but s’mores make for a nice camping tradition, and mallows are the critical ingredient. They’re cheap, light, and indestructible – perfect for a kid’s pack.
  2. Topicals – Sunscreen and bug spray. These are also items a kid can share and learn to apply themselves, with some supervision. [Beware of ticks]
  3. Activities – Last but not least are camping games and activities. As far as preparation and responsibility go, we should always include the kids in our campout planning. Discuss what they’d like to see and do, and what they’ll need to make it happen. Talk about costs, feasibility, and required equipment. Examine the trail map or research the destination online together.

Please share your comments and suggestions!