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Jesse Carnes has spent a lot of miles on the trails, both on foot and bike. He is currently training for his first 100 mile footrace, IMTUF. You can read more about Jesse’s exploits here

Let me start by saying, like many people who enjoy rambling around in the woods, I really like maps. Perusing over a good map gives a sense of excitement and possibility. There’s nothing quite like spreading out a map on the living room floor and plotting out possible excursions. Do you think we can traverse that ridgeline? I wonder if we can get down to that lake without getting cliffed out? That trail connects there?! No way! We can make a great loop out of that.

I got my start reading maps by reading USGS quad maps on family backpacking trips. These set a high bar for technical accuracy, but a very low bar for graphic appeal. During the summers when I was in college, I worked for the Forest Service and continued reading those same quad maps, while also occasionally using the National Forest map for the area. The difference was striking. The forest map was substantially easier to look at, but was occasionally lacking in technical accuracy or detail. These differences can be found on all sorts of maps, and they are worth paying attention to.

In the last few years, the maps produced by Cairn Cartographics have become by far my favorite maps to use in the state of Montana. Generally, in my product reviews, I like to point out the things I do and don’t like about the product in question, but the only negative thing I can say about the Cairn maps is that I wish there were more of them. As a result, I am just going to tell you why they are the best maps of the area.

Visual Presentation
When I compare these maps to the majority of other maps of the region, one of the first things I notice is how easy it is to interpret the landscape. A big reason for this is an effective use of shading in addition to topo lines, allowing you to not only read the slope based on density of lines, but to get an immediate overall sense of the landscape, as if you were actually looking at it from above.

In addition, it is important to note that the text is chosen very deliberately, so as not to get in the way if it’s not what you’re looking for, but to be easy to read if it is. I have used countless maps through the years that have text all over the place, which interferes with one’s ability to get the aforementioned lay of the land.

Lastly, the key is fairly intuitive. The delineation of trails for different user groups is easy to figure out, and the land ownership classifications are, for the most part, pretty clear. As you can see above, there are also different colors used for forested areas and those either above tree-line or otherwise unforested. This has proved very useful when determining whether a proposed ridge route is going to involve a lot of bushwhacking or not.

Accuracy/Detail
One might think, in this day and age of easy-to-use GPS devices, that the accuracy of maps can be taken without question. In general, it is true that most are pretty darn good, but I still run into the occasional situation where the map says there is a trail that doesn’t actually exist, or the trail goes off in a different direction, or the lake that allegedly exists is only there part of the year. Likely because of their specific focus on places that are close to their own backyard, Cairn Cartographics seems to catch most of this stuff. It is worth noting that over time, new trails, closures, and general changes in landscape will yield some inaccuracies, but at the time of production, my impression is that these maps are extremely accurate.

Materials
Printed on a tear-resistant plastic, these maps are extremely durable and waterproof. As much as I appreciate the nostalgia of a quad map folded up in a ziploc bag, with the area you need to see facing up, it sure it nice to have something you can open up in the rain without ruining it. Every map should be waterproof, but not every map is.

Also worth noting is the size of the maps. The total size is 25″ x 39″, which is fairly manageable. While I do love laying out a good 36″ x 48″ forest map in the house, those get pretty unwieldy in the backcountry.

They’re local!
Cairn maps are made by a local couple in Missoula, Amelia Hagen-Dillon and Jamie Robertson. They have been producing them since 2010 and are an integral part of the local outdoor scene. Additionally, Amelia is one of the new Runners Edge ambassadors, so watch for some of her product reviews coming out soon!

As I mentioned, my biggest complaint about Cairn Cartographics is that I wish there were more maps! Eventually, I would really like to see a map of the Great Burn/Stateline trail area, as well as a detailed map of the three mountain biking areas close to Missoula (Blue Mountain, Pattee Canyon, Rattlesnake). While poking around on their website, I was excited to learn that they have a Public Lands of Montana wall map, which is definitely now on my list to get when I get the chance.

Check ’em out, and start planning your next adventure!

Jesse Carnes has spent a lot of miles on the trails, both on foot and bike. He is currently training for his first 100 mile footrace, IMTUF. You can read more about Jesse’s exploits here

It was one of those endless August evenings. You know the kind, where the sunlight tricks you into thinking it’s 4 o’clock when in reality it is closer to 7, and you’re out on the trail and there is really no reason to go home and eat dinner at a reasonable hour. That can wait. There is singletrack to attend to. And there we were, out on a run in our local recreation area, fully appreciating the long, winding descent we had earned after a tough uphill effort.

Here’s the thing about those winding descents: you can’t see all that far in front of you. You turn a corner and before you know it, you’re face to face with an angry mama bear. Well it just so happens that on this particular evening, that is exactly what was waiting for us around one of those corners, several feet off the trail, with two cubs close by.

I have never made a habit of carrying bear spray when I am going on short runs or rides close to town for a couple reasons. For one, there is usually a fairly steady stream of people, so generally the bears will be somewhat desensitized to human presence. In addition, the bears you might run into close to town are almost exclusively black bears, which are very rarely aggressive.

Mostly, though, I just don’t really like carrying bear spray, so in my mind I will justify not taking it however I can. I’d rather not carry anything in my hand when I’m running, and I’ll certainly avoid putting on a vest if I can get away with it. So what is to be done? That’s the problem the Scat Belt set out to solve.

Basically, this a belt that holds your bear spray so you don’t have to carry it. Simple enough. Of course, they do have two versions of the belt. The Griz (pictured above) includes a phone holster and a small accessory pocket. The Cub is the bare bones version that is designed to only carry bear spray.

In terms of overall comfort, this belt is not bad. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I stopped noticing that I was wearing it, but it doesn’t bounce and the straps are effectively contoured and cushioned to avoid any discomfort. The ease of access is awesome. I like the idea of having my bear spray attached to my waist without having to worry about it jostling around. Pulling the canister out quickly, which I was a little worried about when I first saw the velcro strap design, turned out to be very easy.

I’m not sure about the phone holster design. It uses an elastic velcro strap, and if you have a phone that is particularly tall, you have to pull the strap very tight to secure it. Under that pressure, I am skeptical about the durability of both the elastic and the velcro. With smaller phones (under 5 inches), this will not be an issue. Still, I would be interested to see a system that places the phone horizontally, opposite the bear spray, instead of vertically next to it.

At first, I was interested in the prospect of using this belt while backpacking. In the past, I have always let my bear spray dangle from my hip belt. If I could have my phone handy for photos and my bear spray secured but easily accessible, that would be great. The Scat Belt is advertised as “fitting comfortably under any backpack,” but unfortunately, there is no way I could get it to work with mine, as my hip belt very much gets in the way. Alas, it looks like I will have to stick with my current system (although maybe this is just the excuse I need to upgrade my embarrassingly old, heavy backpack).

Where I see myself using the Scat Belt a lot is for longer backcountry run/hike days, in combination with a vest or hydration pack. Since it can carry my bear spray and phone, it frees up two vest pockets for more nutrition and hydration, and it is by far the most comfortable way I have found to carry bear spray while still keeping it accessible. In my preparations for the IMTUF 100 in September, I see myself doing a lot of those types of days this summer.

Fortunately, we didn’t end up needing the bear spray that we weren’t carrying on that beautiful August evening. By the time the mama bear crashed out onto the trail to give us a good talkin’ to, we had already passed her by. She stood up for a moment, but then glared disapprovingly at us and ambled back into the bushes. Perhaps, though, I will try to make a habit of bringing my bear spray along more often, at least when I am running alone.

Jesse Carnes has spent a lot of miles on the trails, both on foot and bike. He is currently training for his first 100 mile footrace, IMTUF. You can read more about Jesse’s exploits here

Until recently, I have to admit I have never thought too much about the features of my running shorts. Basically, if they don’t fall down, chafe, or flop around heavily when I am trying to run, I’m generally good to go. As my runs have gotten longer, though, I have started paying a little more attention. In training for trail ultramarathons, things like carrying nutrition, adapting to varying weather conditions, and just being comfortable in general become very important. When you’re 15 miles out on some ridgeline, you can’t just stop in to the gas station to grab a snack and cool off/warm up.

When it comes to general comfort, your first consideration is clothing. I recently tested out the Sugoi Titan running shorts to see how they stacked up, and I found some positives and some negatives as compared to other shorts I have tried.

The first thing I will mention is that the material of these shorts feels very light. While they fit a bit looser than I generally prefer, I didn’t notice any excess bulk. They felt surprisingly airy and, when I wore them to the local Tuesday night track workout with the intention of getting an idea how they feel while running fast, I completely forgot to pay attention after about two laps. That’s usually a good sign.

One of the features that is touted by Sugoi in these shorts is their “Icefil” technology. As much as I wanted this to just be little pockets that you fill with ice when you get too hot (brilliant marketing idea), it turns out that’s not what it is. Icefil is a specific type of fabric that is used on the inside layer at the front of the short. Anyone who has experienced chafing in that area on a hot day is aware of the importance of a particularly effective moisture-wicking material, and additionally, Icefil supposedly reacts with body heat to cool your skin temperature, leading to less sweat to begin with. I wish I could say I got a chance to put this feature to the test, but it turns out heat management hasn’t been much of an issue in the last few weeks in western Montana. I do look forward to trying it out in the summer, and I definitely plan on using these shorts when I pace the Missoula Marathon in July. If your goal is 3:20, follow me and I’ll get you to the Higgins bridge right on time!

Okay, so we’ve got general feel covered; now let’s talk storage. For running around in the mountains, vests and hydration packs are cool and all, but sometimes you just want to carry a handheld water bottle, a couple gels, and some Shot Blocks. For those days, shorts pockets are extremely important. Pocket configurations vary greatly from one to the next. Most shorts these days have a zipper pocket in the back, where it is least likely to feel off balance or bounce. Some also have small hip pockets, which I have grown very fond of for storing gels or other small, light foodstuffs. The small inside front pocket that used to be the standard on running shorts seems to have essentially gone extinct, for better or for worse.

The Titan shorts have only one pocket, and that is the rear zipper pocket. The most notable thing about this pocket is its size. By running short pocket standards, it is rather massive. Just for fun, I tried putting my Samsung Galaxy S8 in it, and I could still fit a pair of gloves and a couple gels. For the gloves and the gels, this pocket is great, but for me, the cell phone was too heavy for a pair of shorts this light and loose-fitting. I tried running a few strides, and the bouncing annoyed me right away. However, I will say if I were going for a short hike on a hot day, I would have no problem with it. In the spring weather, I have made good use of the pocket, storing a buff, gloves, etc. as the weather changes during a run.

Features are great, but when it comes down to it, the true test of a good pair of running shorts is whether you notice them when you are running. If not, it’s probably a well-designed pair of shorts. So far, the Sugoi Titan 5″ shorts certainly pass that test.

Trail Shoe Review: Asics Gecko XT

Jesse Carnes has spent a lot of miles on the trails, both on foot and bike. He is currently training for his first 100 mile footrace, IMTUF. You can read more about Jesse’s exploits here

If you know me very well, you know that one of my favorite races every year is The Rut Mountain Runs at Big Sky Resort. And if you have ever participated in The Rut, you probably have an idea why I like it so much. The descents are steep, the climbs are steeper, and the course is littered with rocks, rocks, and more rocks. I have seen more than one pair of shoes left in tatters after a trip up and down Headwaters Ridge and Lone Peak.

As a result, one of my main questions I ask myself when trying out a new pair of shoes is: How would this do on The Rut course? After some testing on varied terrain, I can say with confidence that the Asics Gecko XT passes the test and more.

To start, let’s discuss the main feature that defines the Gecko. As you might have guessed from the name, the sole is inordinately grippy.

The aggressive lugs in the middle of the sole work to reduce any slippage that you might encounter when the climbing gets steep, and the compound they use seems to pretty much stick to anything. Probably the most impressive performance is on wet rock. Where many other shoes would slip, this one stays surprisingly grounded. This is useful for pushing off when climbing and for cornering on rocky descents.

Some trail shoes do a very good job of seamlessly moving between trail and road, and can fairly comfortably be used for both. This is not one of them. It makes a horrendous racket on the road and doesn’t feel remotely smooth. Luckily, that’s okay because it’s not what the shoe is made for, but be forewarned in case you find yourself running some road miles to get to the trail. Once there, though, it is immediately at home on technical terrain.

The Gecko is pretty average among trail shoes as far as weight is concerned (the advertised weight for the men’s shoe is 10.2 ounces). For those looking for a particularly light weight shoe, that does seem to be a bit on the heavy side, but if the extra grip means less slippage and resulting lost potential when climbing, the weight penalty may be worth it, particularly when you take into account that it provides substantial stability and security when descending.

I will also say that this shoe has an extremely effective rock plate. I got a chance to do some hard descending on sufficiently rocky desert trails, and either I made zero mistakes (not likely) or the shoes have a superb ability to soak up any blows from sharp rocks.

The durability, while yet to be determined definitively, is looking promising. In my experience, good grip often comes from soft lugs, and soft lugs can get ripped up quite easily. After the aforementioned rocky trails, I took the photo of the sole of the shoe above. The lugs appear to be holding up quite nicely. Time will tell, and if you are curious about this shoe, feel free to ask me about it in a month or two, because chances are I will find more opportunities to beat it up in that time.

The final takeaway: if you like technical, rocky trails, this shoe is definitely worth a try. If you run a lot of roads and hit the occasional flowy singletrack, you might look elsewhere.