The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Nature

Are Apples A Health Risk?

Your fruit isn’t so fresh. Take the apple. That one on your desk has likely been sitting in storage for months (tasty). So, to keep it looking fresh, it’s been treated with diphenylamine (DPA), a pesticide that doesn’t kill insects or fungal growths, but is designed to prevent fruit from developing brown or black patches.

This past March, the European Union issued what seemed, to many unaware of its proactive stance, like a very surprising statement. It would ban the importation of all apples containing the chemical, costing U.S apple growers $20 million in annual export sales. If Europe’s so worried, why aren’t we?

Introduced in 1962, DPA has been evaluated for safety several times, and subsequently deemed “unlikely to present a public health concern” by the World Health Organization. It does, however, have the potential to break down into carcinogenic nitrosamine after sitting on shelved apples for months post-harvest, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group. (Since the 1970s, the government has regulated products to prevent human exposure to nitrosamines.)

In a study by the pesticide’s manufacturers, researchers found three unknown chemicals on apples treated with DPA, but couldn’t determine whether any were nitrosamines. This unanswered question drove the European Commission to first ban DPA use on fruit grown within its own 28 member nations—and now to outlaw the import of any apples and pears containing more than 0.1 parts per million of DPA.

“Nobody has been able to identify any real risk from DPA, but Europe is trying to be on the prudent side,” says pesticide expert Carl Winter, a food toxicologist at the University of California–Davis. The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, green-lights DPA residue of up to ten parts per million—a hundred times the new European standard.

But while Europe changed its stance, the Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues, and international regulatory group, hasn’t altered its regulations either, also setting them at ten parts per million. 

Both the EPA and Codex—depending on who you ask—have consistently set careful standards for the safety of chemicals. And what we end up eating often contains much lower concentrations than the standards allow. A 2011 study by Winter’s team found that our typical exposure to DPA is 208 times lower than the established acceptable level.

Of course, there’s a catch: the EPA can license a chemical that hasn’t met all the requirements—such as those for comprehensive disease-testing—on the condition that the manufacturer follows up on its data after approval. But two separate studies from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Government Accountability Office found that the EPA uses this conditional registration process more often than necessary, and doesn’t always review the follow-up data, which means pesticides have been approved without confirming that they pose no real risk.

And there are factors that the EPA overlooks. It doesn’t require testing against many of the more subtle and sensitive diseases, like hormone disruption and learning disabilities (many of which have been linked to pesticide exposure). It doesn’t account for exposure to multiple pesticides at once (such as in air and water). And it often doesn’t change regulations to reflect new studies——until that ten-year review date comes up, says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the NRDC.

To ever call pesticides safe is likely a misnomer. “Pesticides are literally designed to kill organisms,” Sass points out. “What the EPA regulates is safety when used according to the label, not safety against all human diseases and effects.”

Unfortunately for consumers, while there’s a handful of studies suggesting that pesticide exposure can increase the risk of birth defects, respiratory illnesses, and cancer, there are far fewer studies analyzing the effect of merely eating chemical-covered produce.

A 2011 British meta-analysis did find that organic produce has slightly more vitamins and antioxidants than chemical-covered versions (though some studies have shown otherwise), and a 2013 study in PLoS ONE revealed that fruit flies live longer when fed extracts from organic, rather than conventional, produce. But, explains Sass, exposure levels are too low, and people too diverse, for us to really test the health effects of eating organic fruit and vegetables alone.

Back to the big question: should the U.S. follow in the EU’s footsteps? Possibly. Many Americans—including the EWG—believe Europe’s decision should prompt the EPA to revisit the pesticide’s safety. But, as Winter explains, since all growers outside Europe follow the international standard of ten parts per million, doing so would have a huge impact on international trade.

Regardless of the U.S.’s actions, do keep eating those apples. “The health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables far outweigh any potential risks from these chemicals,” says Ruth MacDonald, a registered dietitian who chairs the Food Science and Human Nutrition department at Iowa State University. If you have the financial means and the drive to buy organic, go for it—but don’t stop eating apples just because they have pesticides on them.

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The Road Less Sprinted: The Rise of Fastest Known Time

A growing number of trail runners are finding a new way to test themselves, and it doesn’t involve race fees, bibs, or finish line chutes.

Instead, they’re enlisting their own stopwatch, navigational prowess, and determination to set trail Fastest Known Times, or FKTs. They pick a route, decide whether they’ll receive any outside help in the form of food or aid along the way, and try to cover the distance as fast as possible.

“FKTs allow for a lot more individual creativity than official races,” said ultrarunner Anton Krupicka.

In recent years, the FKT phenomenon has become increasingly visible. A web site—Fastest Known Time—now exists dedicated to record keeping, enabling runners to look up existing records and post their own. The site has several hundred threads dedicated to FKT attempts.

“I think there has been an increased interest in FKTs,” said Peter Bakwin, who runs the Fastest Known Time site. “There are a lot of really cool areas that will never have races on them. Wherever you live, you can find a route.” 

Some of the recent attention to FKTs emerged because elite trail runners have tackled major efforts. Whereas elites used to prioritize races over FKTs, Bakwin said, some are now making speed attempts the centerpiece of their season, due to both personal preference and growing support from the companies that back them. 

Kilian Jornet, a Spanish mountaineer and ultrarunner who many consider the best in the sport, has built his career around setting speed records on mountain routes. 

Sponsors, in turn, have followed suit in embracing FKT efforts. The North Face sponsored Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe when they set a speed record on the John Muir Trail last year. Rob Krar, who set the record last year on the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim route, believes his effort on the iconic route—along with a couple of top race performances—helped land him a sponsorship with The North Face.

Public awareness of trail speed attempts has increased as sponsors produce videos and blogs highlighting FKT records. Jornet’s sponsor, Salomon, helps create online videos about his efforts, leading to global recognition of Jornet’s pursuits. New Balance sent a film crew to Colorado last summer to track Anton Krupicka’s attempt to set a speed record on a route up and over a series of 14,000-foot peaks. And Patagonia made web video of the record-setting-run Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson set on the Trans-Zion trail. Moehl, who also set the women’s speed record on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail last year with Darcy Africa, said Patagonia prefers that she attempt FKTs and trail adventures rather than just stick to traditional races.

“Patagonia likes the storyline that goes along with it,” Moehl said.

Both elite and amateur runners who attempt FKTs say they’re drawn to the grassroots element of the endeavor. Rather than traipsing through the woods with hundreds of other race competitors, they’re on their own in nature. For trail running enthusiasts, that’s often what drew them to the sport in the first place.

“For me, it’s returning to the roots of why I love mountain running,” Wolfe said. “The joy and freedom of moving through the mountains in a minimalist style.” 

FKTs also enable runners to tackle routes in which races will never take place. Permits will likely never be issued for races in wilderness areas or National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim trail, or Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. 

With speed efforts, runners can pick their run day based on personal health, fitness, weather, or convenience, and not have to worry about a designated race day. FKTs also provide a compelling challenge for athletes who want their adventure to include navigation and strategic planning

“Races are an adventure, but one where you can blow up and get a car ride back home,” said Matt Hart, who set the Zion Traverse record in 2010 and tries to go after a new FKT each year. “There is more adventure, more risk in trying for a FKT. You have to estimate your abilities and go for it.”

But even the most ardent supporters of FKTs acknowledge that there can be downsides. Some runners simply prefer the support and comfort of directional race flagging and aid stations, and don’t want to navigate a wilderness area on their own. Krar said that some athletes might end up in trouble because they chose a route above their ability level.

Criticism also can arise if too many runners are attempting to cover a trail as fast as possible on their own terms. Bakwin and Krar noted problems with large volumes of runners in the Grand Canyon trails in recent years. The runners can overwhelm toilet facilities at the bottom of the canyon and sometimes blow past mule trains and walkers. Of course, very few of these runners are actually attempting FKTs, but observers can easily lump solo or two-person competitive runners into the category as huge groups of runners.

“I’ve heard a lot of reports of runners not obeying common courtesy because they’re on the clock,” Bakwin said. 

For these runners, time—and making records of it—means everything. The history of FKTs likely dates way back, but long-term record keeping is tough to uncover. That’s why Bakwin started the Fastest Known Time web site roughly 10 years ago. He and friend Buzz Burrell made sure to dub the records on the site Fastest Known Times, as there can always be existing speed records that no one knows about. The site encourages runners to use GPS, photos, and other methods to verify their times.

“If you want to go out there with no GPS track and no witnesses, that’s great, but then don’t publicize it and ask sponsors for support,” Burrell said. “If you’re going to publicize yourself, then document yourself. It’s a package deal.”

In addition to keeping records, Bakwin wants the site to tell stories of both trail triumphs and failures. He’s more interested in someone’s trail experience than the end time result.

“I wanted to have a place those stories could be saved,” Bakwin said. 

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Accidental Activists

In his one-room cabin in the hills of southern Humboldt County, Utpara Deva is giving a slideshow on his computer. A former photographer, Deva moved to this rural area in 1996 to get away from the hustle of city life in San Francisco. He peers over his reading glasses, scanning through the photos from last summer. These aren’t like the epic black-and-white landscapes he once printed as an assistant for Ansel Adams. The subject here is more urgent.

“This is in late July, and the creek is still running,” he says. “So pay attention to what it looks like.” The photo shows the glistening surface of nearby Mattole Canyon Creek, filled with thousands of tiny steelhead. Some are the size of sardines; others are bigger, up to eight inches long.

“Uh-oh,” he says, clicking to the next photo. In it, a one-inch black PVC pipe snakes out of a gas-powered water pump and into the creek. Increasingly, Deva says, marijuana farms are diverting water in the summer to irrigate their crops, wrecking habitats and killing the fish. The creek pictured here feeds into the Mattole River, home to some of California’s last steelhead and cohos.

“Fish and Wildlife had a tip about the pump for more than a month—it makes you crazy,” he says. To try and save the fish from the rapidly shrinking creek, he and several neighbors began scooping up steelhead in five-gallon buckets and carrying them to the river below. Over time, the creek turned to pools, then eventually dried up completely. Deva and his neighbors were able to save a few hundred fish out of the thousands that wound up either being eaten by raccoons and kingfishers or starving to death.

For years, the water used by thousands of marijuana farms has been creating a problem for California’s endangered cohos and threatened steelhead. Now, with the worst drought in the state’s history, pot farms are poised to push these species over the edge. During the summer of 2013, two dozen fish-bearing streams in the area dried up. There were reports of people stealing water from fire hydrants and filling up water trucks right out of the rivers. In July, at the peak of summer, 10,000 gallons of water were stolen from a school cistern in the small town of Weott, just off Highway 101. Any hope for California’s salmon and steelhead was quickly disappearing—and, suddenly, residents, marine biologists, and marijuana growers found their worlds colliding. 

Highway 101 winds north from Deva’s cabin, past California’s untouched Lost Coast, through ancient redwood groves until, 70 miles later, it reaches Eureka. Here, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s local office is filled with hunting licenses, tide table books, and fishing guides.

Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist with the agency, is at his desk. Forty-one years old, he has close-cropped hair and a graying goatee. Nearby are two clear plastic containers the size of 35mm film canisters. Inside both are a few tiny cohos and steelhead in formaldehyde, bent in half like pickled vegetables in a too-small jar. He found them at a stream where water diversions were so bad the fish starved to death in the warm, stagnant pools. Bauer’s work focuses on salmon recovery projects—but, these days, his nickname is “the marijuana man,” a title that makes him wince. Pot farms have been exploding here in recent years, and marijuana issues now take up nearly all his time.

{%{"quote":"It’s impossible to know how much water is drawn from streams for marijuana farms. But with farms increasing at unprecedented rates, many residents believe marijuana is the biggest factor threatening Humboldt’s watersheds."}%}

“I knew people grew dope, but it wasn’t talked about,” Bauer says, recalling when he started with Fish and Wildlife in 2005. A few years later, while flying over Humboldt in a small plane, he saw the countless greenhouses and gardens carved into the mountainsides. The scale of growing sank in, he says. Since then, the farms have only gotten bigger. According to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, there are approximately 4,100 outdoor marijuana farms in the county. And these are the obvious ones, the ones visible from above. The undetectable indoor operations remain uncounted.

“It’s like that moment when you look at one of those computer pictures, crossing your eyes—and suddenly everything shows up,” Bauer says. “You start looking around, and that’s all you see.”

In the summertime, he gets frequent calls from landowners about the streams on their property drying up. He works with legislators in Sacramento about the issue, and he accompanies the Humboldt County Drug Task Force on private-land busts. Because it’s his job to make people keep water in the streams, he says he’s not welcome in many of the small communities where marijuana farming is a way of life—the same places he needs to have the most impact.

“You can’t have fish without water,” he says.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is spending $12 million annually on fish-habitat restoration in Northern California, and that money is disappearing as quickly as the state’s water. But if these creeks dry up for three or four years in a row, it will all be for nothing. There will be no generations of fish to return; the runs will be dead.

Simultaneously, Humboldt County is ground zero for marijuana farming, California’s biggest cash crop, but not because of good soil or the right amount of rain. The real reasons that make Humboldt so good for growing pot, according to Deva, are bad roads, rugged terrain, and a poor county with underfunded law enforcement. “Humboldt County was made for black-market growing,” he says.

In 2010, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that as much as 79 percent of the nation’s marijuana comes from California; that number includes both illegal operations and licensed medical ones. The handful of game wardens and sheriffs in Humboldt County currently busts less than one percent of the illegal growing operations in the hills. With legalization likely in the next few years and little threat of arrest, marijuana farmers have been scaling up while the price is still high, putting more and more pressure on rural watersheds.

Bauer witnessed what happened at Mattole Canyon Creek, near Deva’s cabin. The grower who was eventually arrested had 877 small plants. This, Deva says, is on the smaller side for many farms. But there were numerous other growers upstream, all taking water from the same place. As Mattole Canyon Creek was drained into puddles, juvenile steelhead were sucked into the uncovered pipe as it carried water into the woods.

“We don’t care what you’re growing,” Bauer says, “We could give a hoot. We care about the critters in the streams.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how much water is being drawn from streams for marijuana farms because, by its very nature, the industry is unregulated. Estimates for how much a plant consumes in a day vary from three to six gallons, depending on size, how they’re grown, and whether you ask Fish and Wildlife or a grower. But with farms increasing at unprecedented rates in past years, many residents believe marijuana is the biggest factor threatening Humboldt’s watersheds. If Fish and Wildlife’s estimates are accurate, there are 30,000 marijuana plants in each of four Humboldt and neighboring Mendocino watersheds known for their prolific number of grows. Multiply that by the high end of the watering scale—six gallons a day—and, as noted by Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat, that’s “altogether more than 160 Olympic-size swimming pools over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants.”

According to data from the National Weather Service, during the past three years, Humboldt had basically average rainfall. But residents say that, even during those years, the creeks started drying up, which suggests that California’s drought is not the main factor.

{%{"quote":"This isn’t a cannabis issue, it’s an issue that’s being exacerbated by cannabis."}%}

“It’s as if everybody around here lived in spotted owl habitat, or marbled murrelet habitat,” says Dana Stolzman, executive director of Southern Humboldt’s Salmonid Restoration Federation. She explains that the availability of salmon at the local grocery store makes it hard for people to accept that they’re endangered in places like this. “Everybody here lives in endangered coho habitat.”

Unlike most people, the majority of rural residents in southern Humboldt County get their water from springs—groundwater that wells up and flows to the surface; the same water that combines to form the area’s streams. Except in a few small towns, there’s no city water system. Wells are rare because they can draw unwanted permitting attention. So whether they’re doing laundry or growing a thousand marijuana plants, both the original homesteaders and the new “pot miner” generation, which came largely to grow marijuana, are fully responsible for obtaining their own water.

The fact that growers aren’t the only ones using the water is something Kristin Nevedal is quick to point out. “This isn’t a cannabis issue, it’s an issue that’s being exacerbated by cannabis,” she says, using the plant’s scientific name. Nevedal is the executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, a policy group that advocates for marijuana legalization and medical use. And she has a point. No matter what people are using water for, there are more residents here than there used to be. Marijuana farmers, she says, are easy targets. Some families in Humboldt are now in their third generation of pot growing. For many, it’s a stable income in a beautiful setting. For some, it’s the only way they know to make a living. The question has become one of whether growers are willing to put the survival of steelhead and cohos before their own livelihood.

Leaving his cabin, Deva climbs into his truck, puts it in four-wheel drive, and heads down a rutted-dirt road. At the crest of a hill, he comes to a stop. There, in a clearing of madrones, is a silver silo. Its walls and roof are of corrugated steel, and it stands about 35 feet wide. The cone-shaped top is open, to collect rainwater.

“This is basically a model grow site,” Deva says. The structure is a 47,000-gallon rain-harvesting tank. One of his neighbors, a grower, is in the process of building it. From there, he scrambles down the hillside, and through a carpet of oak leaves, to another curiosity: what look like two giant, sand-colored water beds. They’re military surplus, he says, explaining that they would have been used for storing liquids like jet fuel in Afghanistan. But here, they hold 20,000 gallons of water each, pumped in during the winter, when streams are usually running high. Deva explains that this growing operation, which gets a hundred percent of its water from rain during wet winters, has “zero impact on the fish.”

He continues down the hill to a meadow that overlooks the sweeping mountains of the King Range. Before him are three long, raised garden beds that together contain about a hundred marijuana plants. The buds were recently harvested, so all that’s left are yellowing, four-foot-high stalks. This operation produces about 50 pounds of marijuana, which, Deva says, translate to around $60,000 a year. But environmentally minded growers like these ones, who make every effort to minimize their footprint in this fragile ecosystem by using water storage, installing elaborate drip systems, and taking water only during the winter, remain under the radar due to fears of getting caught out by the law.

In the watersheds of southern Humboldt County, where unregulated agriculture and, now, drought are threatening a species on their way to extinction, the future is hard to predict. It won’t take much for the coho to go the way of California’s grizzly bear, a relic of the past, and the steelhead aren’t far behind. According to Fish and Wildlife’s Scott Bauer, three cohos were counted in the Mattole River last year. “That is essentially extirpated—extinct,” he says, going on to speculate that, if every resident and grower started storing water, it might be enough to save these watersheds and their fish.

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Is Consumerism The Climate's Enemy?

Recently, the National Climate Assessment revealed myriad ways climate change is already altering our daily lives. And more recently, a NASA study revealed that a significant chunk of the Antarctic is in "irreversible retreat" and that the resulting sea-level rise during this century will force the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to revise upward its already daunting prediction of one to three feet. What do we do? Once we pick our jaws off the floor, most of us have little choice but to continue on with our day. Oh, and of course drive less, buy organic, and eschew plastic bags. If that hardly seems like it's enough, you're right. It's not.

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In his new book, The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, Andrew Winston—author of the 2009 bestseller Green to Gold, and an expert on green business strategy—argues that environmental changes are forcing companies that make our cars, our food, our plastic bags, and everything else we choose to buy or not buy, to sink or swim. Consumers play a major role in their fates.

We talked to Winston about what consumers really care about, how environmentalism is like the gay rights movement, and whether it's okay for clothier Patagonia to cash in on its good intensions. 

OUTSIDE: You write in your book about how our increasingly connected world is forcing businesses to be "radically" transparent about the types of ingredients and manufacturing processes they use. Yet, when I go shopping I see a lot of overworked, harried people who seem to want to fill their carts and get on with their day.
WINSTON: We've had 44 years of Earth Day, and the percentage of people who really changed what they buy, how they live, in a way that is really deeply based on the environment is very low. That said, studies show things are changing. One study found that 40 percent of consumers will buy better, lower-footprint products when given the choice.

For years people did not buy energy-efficient light bulbs because they cost more upfront. But, over the years, as Walmart, Home Depot, and others started really pushing compact florescent bulbs, people started buying them. Now they're selling LED blubs. They also cost more upfront, but over time people started to understand the larger picture: that if they use this more expensive bulb over a number of years it's actually not more expensive (thanks to energy savings).

Still, we have not seen a giant movement in American consumers. I think, to be kind, it's because we are busy and we can't know everything about every purchase we make. For some categories we pay attention, personal care products and food—things we put on our bodies and in our bodies. There is more attention paid to those products than, say, asking where the wood in our bookcase came from.

So, what are the roles for consumers, versus government and business, in righting the ship?
To deal with something as serious as climate change and to address resource scarcity, all three (consumers, government, and business) need to shift the way we live. Consider a region dealing with drought: everyone has to act and sometimes you hear about people reporting on their neighbors who wash their cars (in violation of water restrictions). You have to have a sense of the common good.

Unfortunately, I think we're in the midst of a pretty big pendulum swing away from common good, thanks to political partisanship and Libertarian every-man-for-himself ideology. I get that, but as much as you want to say every man is an island, it's just not true. You have to think about how you affect other people. I don’t think that's so radical. 

These pivot points in society happen seemingly fast. Look at the gay rights movement. That happened seemingly very quickly in this country, but it was actually after decades of work. There is always a lead-up for many years and then some things (like discriminating based on sexual preference) become socially unacceptable. For another example, look at what happened with Clippers owner Don Sterling (and his remarks about African Americans). I think there is going to be a time when it's unacceptable to be a profligate user of natural resources or to be unaware of your impact or to habitually waste a lot of food. There will be increasing peer pressure not to do those things.

But I don’t rely on consumers to lead the charge. I think business and government need to work together to change the way we make energy, how we make products. That said, it would be a heck of a lot easier to get business and government to change if people made more noise and showed a clear preference in the things that they bought. Retailers care, but not as much as they would if consumers were walking in and clearly picking the greener stuff.

Patagonia, through its Worn Wear program and Eileen Fisher, through its Green Eileen stores, are buying clothes back from consumers and then reselling them. That really starts to subvert the retail paradigm. But in the end, consumers who sell their clothes back to those retailers get store credit… with which they have no choice but to buy more stuff. So at the end of the day, can retailers—even if they're super green standouts like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia—actually not be about consumerism?
It's a profound question. I think a company can grow and sell more stuff if it is taking (market) share—if it is selling more at the expense of other companies that are making less sustainable stuff.

So if the Patagonias of the world are selling something that lasts longer, that is made of recycled content, can be recycled, and so on, you want them to grow. Yet the total pie of resource use has to be in control.

Another way to look at this is through the work of Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart and the Cradle to Cradle movement. If things can be made in such a way that they can be cycled, almost endlessly, while using renewable energy, then consumption is less and less the problem. If a company, by its existence, makes things better, then you want more of them. It's a [positive] abundance thing, rather than saying, 'Oh, population is a problem, every new person and every new product is a problem.' But obviously we're still a long, long way from that.

It is a fair question to ask can public companies lead this charge? By their nature they need to keep shoveling growth and that is a problem. The math does not work to grow forever. But I think a (private) company like Patagonia, they are a $600 million company. They could still grow a lot and be selling more and more stuff, because theirs' are better products that last longer (than their competition). That is not different than the way businesses have always worked. The best ones survive and the worst don't.

We're going to be 9 billion people (by 2050), we're going to need things—but clearly they need to be made differently. The power that we use to make them needs to be renewable. We need fundamental changes. 

In the book I use the example of Kingfisher, a European home-improvement store, which has a goal of being net positive—they want to help people build homes that generate more energy than they use. Let's say you built a home and all the materials were recycled and/or local, and then home made more energy than it needed so that over time I actually netted out the energy it took to make. Don't you want more of those homes?

Climate is a big problem. Resources are a big problem. There isn’t an easy answer. People should take a hard look at their consumption habits, absolutely, but we still need things. No one is going to do well by telling everyone to just sit in a dark cave. But if, through our choices, things get better, then consumption isn't necessarily the problem.

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