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Camping Gear Test: Mountainsmith, Motorola, & SPOT

March 18, 2008
Filed under Bags & Packs, Camping Gear, Generators & Power, Navigation & Communication

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Mountainsmith Tour Recycled lumbar pack
By Mark Evitt
After hiking all morning, you break for lunch and put down your pack. Your shoulders are sore and the back of your shirt is sticky and sweaty. Isn’t there a better way to hike and carry provisions for the day?
Indeed there is. I tested the Mountainsmith Tour Recycled lumbar pack during a three-day trip to the mountains last summer, and then passed along testing duties to my mom, Marie, who’s been using the pack (and loving it) ever since.
The Tour is ideal for day hikes or a quick scamper up the trail before dinner. It has 488 cu.-in. of storage space (a traditional knapsack has more than 1000 cu.-in.), but the pack is designed so well it seems to hold everything you need, with room to spare. In the main compartment there’s plenty of space for lunch, a jacket, and other miscellaneous items. A smaller interior pocket with key clip keeps keys and a cell phone separate and easily accessible. An exterior pocket is perfect for stashing maps and sunscreen. With two compression straps on the bottom of the pack, you can strap on another layer of clothing if the weather looks stormy. Two mesh side pockets can hold water bottles up to 32 ounces – your typical Nalgene size.

The Tour Recycled has its name for a reason. All fabric in the Tour comes from recycled plastic bottles (there are between 13 and 16 bottles in each pack) that are turned into tough 450 d nylon. There’s no discernable difference between this pack and others with nonrecycled nylon.
Where the Tour really shines is on the trail. The air mesh foam back panel provides good support and wicks moisture away. Even though a lot of weight is centered in a fairly small area, the Tour doesn’t jostle around. People accustomed to using knapsacks tend to wear lumbar packs like the Tour too low, and in that case, the pack does sag, especially when weighted down with full water bottles. Simply nestle the pack on top of your hips, however, and soon you’ll think you’re hiking free.

Marie adapted quickly to the Tour. “A backpack always pulls on my shoulders, so I was conscious of it,” she says. “I forget I’m carrying the Tour even when it’s full.”

We’ve all seen giant lumbar packs that look pretty ridiculous. The Mountainsmith Tour is such a great daypack because it balances style and function so well. It’s main compartment holds a lot, yet it doesn’t look out of proportion with the rest of the pack. There’s no need to get a lumbar pack with more cubic inches of storage space. The Tour is your answer to comfortable hiking. $70. Mountainsmith: 800/551-5889; mountainsmith.com

Motorola Talkabout T9580 FRS/GMRS Two-way Radios
By Stuart Bourdon
We got hold of a pair of the new Motorola Talkabout T9580 FRS/GMRS two-way radios and set out to see just what they could do. The lightweight handheld radios (each body is about the size of the palm of my hand) offer 22 communication channels; seven channels are Family Radio Service (FRS), the remaining are General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). FRS channels are low power and best reserved for communication from one end of the campground to the other, or from car to car when traveling in convoy on the highway to your camping destination. GMRS channels offer more power and are better for longer distances. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that all operators using GMRS frequencies obtain a radio license, it’s not a difficult process and information about how to get the license application forms can be found by calling 800/418-3676, or by visiting /fcc.gov/.

This particular model of Motorola two-way radio also offers 121 interference eliminator codes on top of the 22 channels to help minimize signal interference by blocking transmissions from other sources. Eliminator codes 1 to 38 are standard analog codes that appear on some other FRS/GMRS radios, while codes 39 to 121 are digital codes added for increased interference control.

We found a long stretch of California beach the best place to begin our evaluation of the Motorola Talkabout T9580 radios. We ran our test on one of the GMRS channels. No objects interfered with transmission and it was easy to get straight-line communications. We took notes concerning overall clarity and apparent strength of signal at 1, 3 and 5 miles along the coast. The T9580′s reception was clear at all distances on the beach, but the speaker sounded a bit tinny. At 5 miles, voice transmission clarity was still good, but fell off considerably if one of the radios was held behind an obstruction such as a lifeguard tower.

A moderately wooded valley floor was our second test arena, and this most accurately depicted a more likely use scenario. We tested the T9580 in the same GMRS channel as we had on the beach. The voice transmission clarity was good at .5 miles, but dropped dramatically at 1 mile. Transmissions could barely be made out at 2 miles, and past that, were inaudible. Any major obstruction, such as a hill between the two radios, resulted in no service at all once the radios were more than .5 miles apart.

The Talkabout T9580 also includes features such as voice-activated hands-free operation, vibrating alert, noise filtering, transmit confirmation tone, keypad lock, channel scanning, and NOAA weather alerts. The gray-tone display on the face of the radio was large enough to read at a glance, and all buttons and dials were easy to understand and operate. MSRP: $90. Motorola: 800/638-5119; /motorola.com/.

SPOT-Satellite Personal Tracker
By Rich Johnson
Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) are fantastic devices that offer the potential to save your life by transmitting a distress signal and your GPS coordinates to a satellite system that alerts authorities to launch a search and rescue mission. The only drawback is the initial cost (around $650 for most of them) that can discourage some folks from making the purchase.

That’s where the SPOT Messenger device comes in. It functions differently, and is referred to as a Satellite Personal Tracker. Its substantially lower initial cost, compared to most PLBs, is also easier to handle. But that’s not the only advantage. With a typical PLB, the only option you have is to send a distress signal that initiates a full-on search and rescue operation. But what if you just want to let people back home know where you are and that you’re okay? Or what if you are in a troubling situation that is not life threatening, leaving you in need of assistance, but not a fleet of rescue helicopters coming to your aid?

SPOT offers three modes of operation. After turning on the unit, you can press the Check-In button that shows your location and sends a prewritten message that says, “here I am and everything is okay.” A second option is to press the Help button to send a prerecorded message that says, “I need help, but I don’t need search and rescue.” With both messages, your GPS coordinates appear on a Google Map, showing exactly where you are. These messages are sent via e-mail or cell text to family or friends you select. The final option is to press the 911 button, which activates a full-blown search and rescue operation and transmits your GPS coordinates so a rescue team can come to your exact location.

After getting my hands on a SPOT, the first step was to register online and write my check-in and help messages. I entered the e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers of those I wanted to receive my messages. Then I ran an initial test. I pressed the On/Off button and the green LED blinked to let me know the unit was on. To send a check-in message, I pressed the button with the big check mark on it. The second LED blinked in unison with the first, and within four minutes, it stopped blinking and showed a steady light, indicating the message had been sent. Beforehand, I alerted my backup team members I was going to run the test, and asked them to let me know if they received the messages. Very quickly, I received verification that the messages had been delivered successfully.

SPOT works via satellite, so it doesn’t matter if you aren’t within range of a cell tower. All you need is a clear view of the sky. Coverage is worldwide with some gaps-complete for the continental United States and most of Canada, but spotty in Alaska and currently dark in Hawaii. The company’s website offers a coverage map. We think this new technology offers great benefits for the money-the potential to save lives. MSRP: $169, and an annual fee of $99 (additional services also available). SPOT: 866/651-7768; /findmespot.com/.

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