On ordering a pack, also REI

The universe does not intend for fat people to do much backpacking, as it turns out. As far as I can tell, the largest backpack hip belt you can buy, anywhere, is XL (waist size 38-42). Someday, after losing about 50 lbs, I’ll probably be down to size 40 jeans again and my hip belt will fit.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. When I started looking into backpacking, I had the goal of getting top-end gear that will last forever. I wanted the most technologically advanced gear, because basically, I can more or less afford it. I knew absolutely nothing. I thought backpacks were still like we had in Boy Scouts – a square metal frame that you strap your sleeping bag and pad onto. Nowadays, backpacks are just glorified cloth tubes into which you stuff everything. Who knew?

The first place I ended up was Out-n-Back. I talked with one of the salesmen there for about an hour about packing a backpack, some of the features and differences between various models, etc. Some of the things I learned really surprised me. For example, you don’t roll up your sleeping back and tent anymore. You shove them as tightly into the bottom of the pack as you can, and either stick the tent poles in somewhere or strap them to the outside.

When I started trying on packs, I ran into the same problem that I have with shoes – the cheaper they are, the better they fit. That may have just been because no one had hipbelts in my size except for the cheap packs that had ‘one size fits all’ belts. I probably tried on 15 backpacks over several weeks. After a bit of research on the internet, I decided that I wanted the Granite Gear Blaze AC 60, but no one stocked it. The few retailers who did stock it never had the XL belt, even to order. One did have the belt, but not the right color or pack size.

One quick sidenote: I made the wise decision to actually measure my torso, and discovered that I needed an M sized pack, not an L. An L pack might have been just a little too big, and I’m definitely done growing. Even though I’m 6′ even, I guess I have long legs or something. Get measured before you order a backpack.

I eventually settled on the Osprey Aether 85. Everyone I talked to loved the Aether series, and their All Mighty Guarantee can’t be beat. One guy told me about how he accidentally rolled his backpack down a mountain and tore it, and it was replaced. I don’t plan to need it, but that’s quite a guarantee. I went with the 85 liter one because it’s only 1oz more, and I might end up needing the extra space for things like my huge sleeping bag.

Even after finally settling on the Aether, it was kind of a bitch to actually order one. I gave it a good effort several times, though. There was a retailer in Logan, UT who said they’d hold one until Saturday for me. Right color and belt and everything! Only problem is that when I got to the storefront, they were closed. As in, the store had closed down and was operating from their warehouse now (and not open on Saturdays). So much for that. I tried to get one at Out-n-Back, but they said it’d take two weeks to get in, and I was hoping to use it sooner than that. I tried to order in on moosejaw.com, despite not being sure how I feel about them, but they had literally 0 XL belts, and it could take up to three weeks to get one.

I finally found myself in REI for the umpteenth time. They didn’t have the right color, but they had the packs for me to examine, and they had a spare hipbelt. I tried on the belt and it fit, which was a relief. The guy checked with his manager and said that if I ordered one, they’d swap the belt out for free. He said I should wait for a week or so, though, because there was a 20% off coupon coming out soon for members. Since my pack was going to be $289, I decided to wait.

When the coupon came, I tried to order the pack online from rei.com, but they wouldn’t swap the belt. They had the belts if I wanted to order one separately, but apparently their warehouse guys aren’t qualified to use velcro? I dunno. Morons. I went back into the store to order it there, and they told me that I’d have to pay an extra $40 to order the XL belt separately, and they’d give me a credit once I returned the M one that comes with it. This was retarded because if they had what I wanted in the store, I wouldn’t be charged extra. We discussed this for a bit, and it wasn’t gonna happen. However, when I mentioned that I was told before they’d swap it for free, the manager just gave up and comped me the XL belt if I’d order the backpack. I did so.

I now have, at this time, the XL belt sitting on my kitchen table. My Osprey Aether 85 M backpack should be at the store on Saturday, if all goes well. I sort of wonder if they want my M belt back. I’m going to try to give it back to them, regardless.

I’m not sure I really understand REI. They have a membership that costs a one-time fee of $20, which entitles you to various benefits, like the 20% off coupon I used. However, it also gives you a 10% rebate at the end of the year on all non-sale purchases from REI. That sounds to me like everything in the store is marked up 10% to begin with, and they hold on to your money for up to a year for you, interest free, and then give you a coupon they hope you never use. It sounds FREAKIN FISHY to me. But after doing a lot of price-matching, it turns out that their prices are the same as everywhere else. Lots of this backpacking gear is the same price virtually everywhere, but with REI, if you pay full price, you get a rebate. Several months later, that is.

The other thing is that despite being tied to a large corporation whose policies they must uphold, everyone I ran into really seemed to like working there. I get nothing but helpful and smiles every time I go in there. More surprising, even though they work at a huge chain, they all seem to actually know what they’re talking about. Miracles never cease.

They’re a big corporation in direct competition in a small market with small local businesses. Their employees have to uphold policy instead of common sense. They charge full price for everything and then give you a rebate coupon several months later. I want to hate them, but I just can’t. I just can’t. They’re so nice! Also, the corporation is involved with environmental issues and preservation in all kinds of admirable ways. Just look at all the crap they’re up to! On top of all that, I saved like $60 on my backpack. That’s a whole video game.

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Review: Big Agnes Whiskey Park Sleeping Bag

When I started looking into camping gear, sleeping bags were a big concern of mine.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a finicky sleeper, and I certainly don’t fit well into a normal sleeping bag.  I look rather like a burrito when I try to squeeze into one, to be honest.  Fortunately, I found out about Big Agnes sleeping bags before I bought anything else.

Big Agnes does something I’m not willing to do without.  They don’t have any padding on the bottom; rather, they have a pocket for the  air pad to slide in.  This anchors the bag to the pad and makes it so you can move around and it stays put.  This ensures that my sleep, haunted as it is by the ghosts of my enemies, isn’t interrupted by the pressing need to unravel my sleeping arrangements.  I was concerned about how it narrows at the top (see pic) because I thought it would be restrictive, but it turns out that’s a good thing.  More on that later.

I first had my sights set on the Encampment model, because it was light and rated for 15°, but no one carried it.  Everyone had Big Agnes bags, but no one carried the Encampment.  I went to about six different stores trying to buy it before I found out I was wrong about which one I wanted.

One of the guys who works at Out-n-Back is a tall, scary, man with, as I recall, a pretty good goatee.  He’s like 6’8″ or something, and also very sneaky.  He cheerfully pointed out that I might be interested in the Park series, as he picked his teeth with the bones of a small child.  He said that it’s the best bag for a big guy and that he has plenty of room in his.  Not wanting to break the pattern, they informed me they didn’t have it in stock, but I could order one which would arrive in like 2 weeks.  Nah.  Sweet tip, though.

After checking the same 6 stores for the Park series and not finding them, I settled on the Whiskey Park and ordered it online.  I chose it because I wanted one that would work all winter for me, and it’s rated at 0°.  I also picked the synthetic over the down because going from 6 lbs 1 oz (which is admittedly pretty heavy) to 4 lbs 1 oz wasn’t worth $150 to me at this point.  I’m not doing any through hiking any time soon, and I weighed 308 lbs this morning.  I can spare a little extra effort to save $150.

I used the online retailer www.moosejaw.com to buy the bag. Ordering things on that site is great.  Actually receiving them on time, not so much.  I ordered on Monday and selected 3-5 day shipping, which should have given me a 2/3 chance of getting it in time to go camping on Friday, but it got there midway through the next week.  By my count, it was actually 8 day shipping.  Also, on a side note.  Moosejaw policy humiliates their staff and I find the company unpleasant to work with.  I’d rather work with people who have dignity than people who are forced by fate to answer the phone, “MooooOOOOOoooosejaw!  How can I help you?”  They do this in emails and online chats as well.  My reply? “By pointing me in the direction of a company that doesn’t try to impress me with “flair“.

I went camping with a friend the weekend after the bag arrived.  We found ourselves a nice little campground west of Bear Lake, but we pulled in after dark, so I didn’t get a chance to check the scenery.  That morning, though, this was the view out my tent:

That's me in blue, btw

Even though the bag I was in was rated for 0° temperatures, I spent the first two hours or so pretty damn cold.  It was cold enough to see our breath, and there was plenty of frost on the windshield the next morning, so it got around freezing.  Turns out that the pad you use needs to be rated for the temperature you’re sleeping in, too, because the bottom of the bag isn’t insulated.  Who knew?  The top half of my body would be plenty warm, and the bottom part would be cold and stiff.  I rolled over every ten minutes or so before I think I heated up the ground beneath me.  It sucked, honestly.  Lesson learned.  Don’t expect to use the Clearview Air Pad in the fall or winter.  Get an insulated pad.

The cold weather is why I’m glad it narrows at the top.   It helps keep the air out and the heat in.  I didn’t sleep like this, though:

I slept more like this:  

My coccoon was lovely once I heated up the ground.  They oughta just let you zip it all the way shut and use a snorkel.

Big Agnes pads also come with a pouch for a pillow, but I’m not sure yet how to use it in a way that pleases me.  I got the Clearview Air Pillow and it sucked.  Maybe I just have broad shoulders, but it didn’t offer much support.  Don’t get this unless you borrow one and like it.  I don’t have any other recommendations yet.

Aside from the pillow and no insulation because I got the cheap air pad, I loved it.  It was plenty roomy.  I actually put my cellphone and my keys with my light on em in the bag because I could spare the room.  I might sew a little pouch in there at some point, because why the hell not.  It’s longer than I need, but they don’t sell a shorter one that’s as wide, and I do need the width.

As always, comments and recommendations are welcome.

Review: Big Agnes Clearview air pad

Big Agnes gear comes highly recommended from the helpful staff at Out-n-Back, and I see it all over the place, so when I learned that they have the biggest packpacking sleeping bag, and have some unique features that you do, indeed, want, my decision was made. Because the store was out of the size and model of sleeping bag I wanted, I ordered the sleeping bag and pad from two different online retailers. I ordered the pad from www.campsaver.com and the sleeping bag from www.moosejaw.com. For the pad, I chose the Big Agnes Clearview Air Pad, entirely because it was the cheapest one that fit into the sleeping bag I want.

Moosejaw.com usefully decided that their 3-5 day shipping can take 8 days, so I don’t have the sleeping bag yet, and I couldn’t use it on my camping trip last weekend, so I don’t have anything to say about it yet. It’s supposed to arrive tomorrow, so wait for me to sleep in it once or twice before I review it.

Yep, it's an air pad

The pad, though. I slept on the pad. I’m an incredibly finnicky sleeper. It’s one of my numerous charming faults. When I don’t sleep well, I tend to become a terrible, cranky person, so being reasonably comfortable while sleeping on the trail is of primary importance to me. My big concern with the pad was that it would suck and be useless, but I’m pleased to report that such was not the case.

Firstly, the actual experience of laying on the thing is really not bad. It won’t keep your hip or tailbone off of the ground, especially if you weigh as much as I do, but it does support everything else, which made it so I didn’t feel like I was laying on bare ground. My back wasn’t stiff in the slightest the next morning, I’m pleased to report.

My second concern was that I would pop it. I thought that I might have to leave it slightly underinflated or something, but I was wrong. The plastic, despite being suprisingly light and thin, is very, very durable. After a while, I was confident that I could roll over, sit up, lean on an elbow, etc, without doing any damage to the pad. That was quite a relief, because I got the thing on sale for $60, and that’s a lot of money for something that you have to replace every trip.

Your mouth goes on this

It has a clever mechanism for inflation.  The thing unscrews a bit and you blow into the screw to inflate it. Then, when it’s as full as it gets, you spin it to close. It didn’t deflate at all when I closed it. Also, that rounded bit immediately inside the pad? It holds the plastic apart right there so that it deflats properly. I had a little trouble getting it deflated, but that was because then it’s folded, the air chambers can block themselves off. I still haven’t mastered the art of deflating the thing, but that’s my only complaint.

I haven’t slept on any other brand of pad. I picked this one solely because it was Big Agnes branded and designed to fit into the sleeping bag I ordered. However, after sleeping on it once, I don’t think I’ll have a need any time soon to branch out to any other equipment in this area. It does exactly what I wanted it to: let a fat person sleep comfortably while backpacking. What more can you ask?

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Aroma Fine Indian Cuisine, Draper, UT

Sometimes, when the hankerin for the delicious dishes of far-away and exotic India strikes, it cannot be denied.  Those are times responsible in no small part to my waistline.

Today the urge was indulged at Aroma Fine Indian Cuisine in Draper, UT.  I called in to find out the hours and headed in for the lunch buffet at around 1:45.  The restaurant took some finding, since it’s located in a desolate mini-mall behind an out-of-business restaurant called, amusingly, Nacho Mama’s Place.  I can only assume that they went out of business because one member of the family was implicitly uninvited.

From the outside, it looks like one of the cookie-cutter Indian-themed diners that seem to be popping up all over.  You know, the ones that sport such delights as Bollywood music videos on all screens at full volume and a menu of overcooked Indian food complemented by American delicacies such as microwaved chicken nuggets.  The inside was entirely incongruous with the facade, fortunately.  The decor was dark, tasteful, involved, and welcoming.  Shady browns, oranges, and tans gave the place a real sense of atmosphere.  Draped cloths interspersed with ornately-framed large mirrors decorated the walls, and the tables and chairs were glass over a plain tablecloth.  There was a small sitting area with the sort of furniture that people sit on in Indian paintings at the front, where one waits for a table when the place is full, and it actually looked pretty comfortable.  The total effect was both classy and expensive, which matched the food perfectly.

The most charming thing about Aroma was the so-far anonymous greeter/waiter/etc.  He had no name tag, so I’m going to randomly call him Dipesh.  If you visit Aroma, and you should, please don’t call him that.  Dipesh was refreshingly warm and friendly.  He immediately came over to tell me about the buffet as soon as it was my turn to be helped.  He pointed out several of his favorite dishes without my needing to ask, and good service is always welcome.

I piled my plate high with a generous sampling of each of the vegetarian dishes, which outnumbered the non-vegetarian offerings, and sat at the back so I could study my EA catechism in peace.  Under the dim, low-hanging incandescent bulb a few feet above my table, the rich, colorful food took on a deliciously romantic sheen.  The restaurant’s decor colors and the lighting really brought out the best appearance of the food, and I was surprised to see myself looking at what would make a fantastic stock photo.  I ate slowly, savoring the real freshness and variation in the dishes.  Often, Indian buffet food seems to be based entirely on garam masala, with variations from there consisting of changes in the meat, vegetables, or other spices.  Not so here.  Each dish was clearly cooked independently and based on distinct recipes.

One thing you might want to know–the food was very oily (not greasy).  The oils were used abundantly in everything from the Basmati rice to the naan bread.  Heavy cream made repeated appearances as well.  Have no illusions that this food will do anything other than make you fat, although I prefer the term “enriched.”  I was thoroughly enriched.

When I went to pay, I learned that the lunch buffet was $11, not including the drink or tip, which I consider to be high.  I’ll definitely be going back, but I’ll have to limit my visits before I eat myself back into poverty.

While I was paying, I suddenly found myself in a long conversation with Dipesh, during which I learned that plastic bags are bad for vegetables, meat should be well done so you don’t get blood diseases, Applebees serves sub-par steak, and pizza can give you colon cancer.  He also told me that they cook the vegetarian dishes separately, and that no utensil that touched meat is used in the preparation.  I thought that was considerate of them.  He also told me that he has a university degree in cooking of some kind and that the food was at Aroma was better for it.  No argument there.  In conclusion to our conversation, he informed me that they’ll be serving all my favorite dishes for lunch tomorrow.  Like I said, I like the guy.  He just needs to grow a rad mustache and he’ll be set.

Aroma is atmospheric, tasty, friendly, and expensive.  I highly recommend it.

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