I was finally able to find an empty day in my schedule where I could make the nearly six hour drive down to Damascus, Virginia, to visit with the two outfitters down there. I had been to Mt Rogers Outfitters during Trail Days but the building was bulging at the seams with hikers – people who actually needed something RIGHT THEN – so I did not stay real long or take up too much of the staff’s time. This time was much different…
Oh, for anyone who has only ever been to Damascus during Trail Days, I implore you to visit during a non-T.D. weekend. It is a MUCH different experience! During Trail Days, the whole town seemed like a giant carnival, with wildly dressed (or undressed) people around every corner. Driving into town now showed a nice and quiet mountain community, with lots of bicyclists and people just strolling through town. There was a beautiful house for sale just down the street from one of the outfitters, and if I had the $500k for it, I would have considered moving there!
When I got into town, I stopped first at Sundog Outfitters, mostly because I had not been there before. Inside, it became clear that bikers and tourists were more of their target client, with a minimal backpacking stock. Lots of beautiful new and rental bikes lined the floor. And truly, that is not being fair – there was a nice side room full of tents, sleeping bags and backpacks, with a decent selection and variety. But upon waking in, it was obvious bikes were the priority – probably because most of the northbound hikers have been through and the bike tourism sector seemed to be blooming.
I cannot say the trip was worthless, though. While walking around, I found a shelf of Black Diamond Spot headlamps on sale for $20. It is not the headlamp I had been looking for, but at half price, I could not pass it up. I may or may not use it on my hike, but for now, that is one less thing I need to worry about.
After Sundog, I headed over to the ever popular Mt Rogers Outfitters. I browsed the shelves for a while, making mental wish lists and reminding myself I am on a budget, and headed to the backpack section to check them out. One of their employees – “Bill…Just Bill” – came to help me out. This man was AH-MAZE-ING. He was a walking breathing backpacker gear guide! We started by looking at the pack my dad loaned me. He loaded it up with sandbags until it totaled 35 pounds, and showed me a few ways to adjust it. His advice was simple – the pack could be made to work, but ultimately, it did not truly fit my back, I could feel a few pressure points, and it was on the higher weight side of the lot. Ironically, it was almost too large, even though when sized, I am a large for most manufacturers.
Then Just Bill loaded up the same sandbags into five other packs (and two of them, twice…) to show me some options. The first pack was the Osprey Aether 70. I have tried this on before, and I know it fits comfortably, but I am also afraid of the over-five pound weight.
Then I tried the Osprey Atmos 65. Immediately, I liked this pack. I had tried it before and now wonder if I had tried a different size, because this pack felt like a different pack altogether. When cinched down, it felt like the back was hugging my body, making it extremely comfortable.
Next up was the ULA Catalyst. Again, this pack was comfortable, but in a different way than the Atmos. While the Atmos hugged me, this pack felt as if a round duffle bag was strapped to my back. It felt different, but it was a comfortable pack. The padding and straps were minimal, but were more than adequate. I liked the simplistic nature of the design, and the material seemed a bit better than the Osprey. Strong contender.
For comparison, Just Bill weighted up a Deuter Act Zero 45+15 SL. Immediately, I did not like this pack. While the construction was top-notch, and some of the little features were better than the others, the pack made me feel like the Hunchback of Notre Dame more than my old external frame pack ever did. And while I was intrigued by the concept of the padding, which allows a space, and therefore airflow, along your spine, it just did not feel comfortable on my back. If it was uncomfortable in ten minutes in the shop, I cannot imagine wearing it for six months.
Ultimately, I asked Bill to reload the Atmos and the ULA again, for a better comparison, and after that, decided the Osprey was for me. I liked the back-hugging feel of it, and just felt more at ease with it than the ULA. Bonus – it was on sale! That said, if the Osprey does not hold up, the ULA will be my next pack!
After that, Just Bill discussed a lot of other things with me. We talked about winter weight vs summer weight, and he showed me one of last year’s packs, the smaller Osprey Exos 46, which he said a lot of hikers “downsize” to when they drop their winter gear. I tried it on, and know what size I need if I decide to go this route mid-hike.
Explaining my footwear issue, Bill took me over to the wall-o-shoes. He explained that they only carry a select few brands but have had no complaints. He pulled one low-rise boot (shoe?) down for me, the Oboz Sawtooth, and had me try it on. Wow, I know why nobody complains. I barely noticed it was on my foot, and walking up and down the mini-hill in the shop proved that the shoe had griping power! These were hands-down the most comfortable hiking boots I have ever tried. One of Bill’s coworkers walked by and mentioned he had three pairs, one of which has over 1,500 miles on it, and is still going strong. I brought up my fear over not having ankle support, and Bill confirmed what I have read elsewhere – your ankles will strengthen on the train and it will not be an issue. Just take it easy at first and you will love the low rise shoes. Sold.
Bill then led me around the shop, showing me some rain coats, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, and other items. I was up front with him about my budget for this trip, and he informed me it was not about the sale, but about the information. He has my complete respect. He showed me a few sleeping bags, gave me his recommendation for pads and rain coats, but never once pushed me to buy anything. Bill, I will be back.
After a quick lunch at the Blue Blaze Café, I stopped by the town park to snap a few pics, and then headed home. The trip was definitely a productive and worthwhile trip, but it sure made for a long day of driving! I want to thank Just Bill for all his time and patience, and the overall knowledge he shared with me. He even asked his boss if he could have the afternoon off to do some day hiking with me – unfortunately, he was denied. Next time, Bill.
Next up for the gear research is sleeping bags and sleeping pads, I think. There is SOOO much out there to look at, I am a little overwhelmed. While I technically have both of these, my thoughts on weight were confirmed – I can cut over a full pound of weight if I buy newer, lighter gear. Things to ponder. If you have any advice on bags and pads, or have any general comments, advice, or topic suggestions, please use the comment box below or use the Contact Me page up top.
Until next time, remember to “Spin the Compass.”