By Johna Till Johnson
You can’t make a trip like the Everglades Challenge without relying heavily on your gear. And the quality of that gear varies. Some poorly-designed products break reliably. We haven’t yet found a “waterproof” headlamp that actually lives up to its name, for instance. And we’ve been through almost half a dozen in the past year. (So we make sure to carry plenty of backups.)
There are also those products that perform as they’re supposed to, day in day out. (Everything Kokatat makes comes to mind.) You rely on these products to do their jobs, and never think further about them.
But there are also are a handful of products that either perform infinitely better than you expect, or fill a need you didn’t realize you had.
For these products, you whisper a silent “thank you” to the manufacturers every time you use them. I’m an engineer, so I never lose sight of the fact that when there’s a product I love, it was conceived, designed, and tested by other engineers. And for the products below, I am devoutly grateful to the humans who created them.
Note: We don’t accept money from manufacturers, either as sponsorships or for advertising, and we’re not planning to in the future. We just think these products are so great that you should know about them (and we’d like to thank their manufacturers for making them).
Product: Watershed drybags
Why it’s great: On every previous camping trip BW (before Watershed) I’d inevitably had the unpleasant experience of leaking drybags. There’s nothing quite like opening up your “dry” clothing to discover that everything’s gotten damp—or worse, sopping wet—during the course of the day. The impact ranges from unpleasant to downright dangerous: If you were relying on your dry clothes to combat hypothermia, you might very well be in trouble.
Now, it’s true that this is likely due to user error: Either I was filling the bags too much, or not flattening the edges properly. Or something. But here’s the thing: A design that lets a user commit such a serious error without any indication isn’t a very good design.
Enter Watershed. The company, based in North Carolina, has come up with a unique design for the closures of its bags, along with several other innovations. Instead of being at the end of the bag, the closure runs the length of the bag—and you can test it after you’ve closed it, by pulling on two tabs. If the bag opens, you need to do redo the closure. If not, you’re good. And I mean really good—I’ve had bags lashed to the deck and washed by the waves, or sitting in a pool of water in the cockpit, with their contents remaining bone-dry.
Another huge advantage of the bags is that the “lengthwise” closure minimizes the chance of scraping your fingers as you reach into the bag. This sounds like a minor thing—but it’s not. One of the really unpleasant parts of a long trip is the accumulation of scrapes and cuts, particularly on your hands. Combine that with sand and salt, and you can end up in pretty severe pain. A drybag design that doesn’t contribute to hand damage is a blessing.
The bags are also made of thick, durable material that looks as though it never wears through. Another problem with other drybags is that they develop invisible holes. Thus far, Watershed bags haven’t.
The company supplies gear to the U.S. military, and the products are all made in the U.S. (To our international readers: We don’t mean to be chauvinistic, but in this era of outsourcing, it’s nice to see when a company keeps its manufacturing at home—regardless of which country is “home”, as you’ll see by reading further.)
Bottom line: I love these bags, and continue to be grateful to Danny at New York Kayak Company for introducing me to them. Vlad took a little longer to warm up to them (they’re expensive, and he has a built-in aversion to anything “fancy”) but by the end of the trip he was also prepared to be a convert.
What could be improved: Okay, this sounds nitpicky, but the colors. The bags come in black and basic strong primary colors (red, yellow, blue). After that your options are fairly limited: Clear, and an icky muddy-brown color that we started calling “Desert rat”.
What about a good fuchsia, lavender, or teal? I get that Watershed’s customers are “manly” sorts, like Navy Seals. But if a Navy Seal can’t stand to carry a fuchsia bag, how manly is he, really?
This is actually a somewhat serious complaint, because I rely on the colors as an organizational mechanism—the cookware is all in the red bag, the backup supplies are all in the black one, etc. The limited color selection limits the number of organizational “buckets” I have available.
But other than that, these bags are darn near perfect. Anyone who does serious kayak expeditions should consider switching to Watershed.
Product: Jetboil water heater
Why it’s great: This is one of the most perfectly-conceived products I’ve ever used. It’s an all-in-one water heater that includes fuel, stand, insulated container, and firestarter all in one ingeniously-designed package.
It serves one purpose, but does that brilliantly: It heats water to a boil quickly. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it enables you to make coffee, tea, and cocoa—not to mention freeze-dried meals. It effectively replaces the stove, particularly since it includes a metal attachment that enables it to work as a stove if you really need one. (We didn’t use that feature in the Everglades Challenge, though we have on more leisurely camping trips—most recently to make fried bacon-and-apples.)
The two most important components are the insulated container and the built-in firestarter: All you have to do is turn on the gas and hit the button. No fiddling around with matches to light it, or messing with tongs to grab hold of the container.
Also—and maybe this is just me—after use it packs back together almost like a Rubrik’s Cube. That is, there are about two ways you can pack everything (including the fuel canister) back into the container—and about eight ways that don’t work. Realistically, that should be considered a bug, not a feature—but I like it. Every time I successfully put it together I experience a small frisson of accomplishment.
What could be improved: Well, it could be more waterproof. After Vlad’s drybag (not a Watershed bag!) let in a lot of water during the race, we are afraid that Vlad’s backup Jetboil may be dead.
Apart from that, pretty much nothing. It’s insanely reliable, wonderfully effective, and perfectly designed. I just love this product (which comes in a rainbow range of pretty colors—mine’s blue, and Vlad’s is silver).
Product: Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake
Pretty much every paddler has his/her favorite source of quick energy—before the Kendal Mint Cake, we tended to favor peanut M&M’s (in the summer) and Snickers bars (in the winter). But after a friend from Britain’s Lake District introduced us to the mint cake, we were converts.
What’s great about it? Well, first, there are the ingredients: a combination of glucose, sucrose, and mint oil. You get an immediate burst of energy without the downstream crash—in fact, we found the mint cake was almost as effective as caffeine tablets, and much kinder to your stomach. Not only does it supply energy and alertness in the middle of the night, but it helps to stave of hypothermia (particularly when combined with hot coffee). And although I’m not usually a fan of mint, I love the taste!
There’s also what we engineers call the “form factor”—despite the name, the consistency isn’t cake-y at all. The cakes are hard rectangles that stay together remarkably well, though they can occasionally break—but the pieces remain perfectly edible. I like to dip them in salt water before eating them (if we’re out in the open ocean). They’re too firm to dissolve quickly, and the salt adds an extra tang to the flavor.
And the packaging is perfect. It’s not perfectly waterproof—you’ll want to keep them in a good drybag, such as a Watershed—but it’s good enough. Plus the bags stay closed until you’re ready to open them, and then open without fuss—there’s a spot where two seams join perpendicularly, and you can just pull them apart. (I know, it sounds like a small thing, but picture yourself in a boat in choppy water in the middle of the night—not having to get out a knife is a big plus! See Tanka Bars below…)
Once again, this is a product that is manufactured in the home country (in this case, Britain). The history is pretty interesting. Romney’s Kendal Mint Cakes were invented—or as the company puts it, “discovered”—in 1869, and, according to the company, they were used during the 1953 expedition to Everest. As the company’s promotional material puts it: “Sir Edmund Hillary and Sirdar Tensing ate this mint cake on top of Everest as they gazed at the countryside down below. Tensing also left some to appease his ‘gods’.”
I’m pretty sure the gods were pleased with their gift—I’d be!
What could be improved: Pretty much nothing. What can you say about a product that takes you from Mt. Everest to the Florida Everglades? The one thing I’d like to see is a U.S. distributor—we bought ours through Amazon, and they’re ridiculously expensive ($12 per cake).
Product: Tanka Bars
Why it’s great: Somewhat counterintuitively, getting enough to eat is often a problem on long trips. After the first day, your appetite pretty much vanishes—and you may also get various forms of indigestion that make eating unpleasant.
This is a problem for two reasons. Short-term, not eating depletes your energy (this is where the Kendal Mint Cakes are so effective—they’re easy to digest, and provide a great burst of energy with no crash.)
But longer-term, your body will begin devouring itself if you’re not taking in enough nutrients. While most of us are delighted to be burning our fat stores, we don’t want to lose the muscle we’ve carefully built up—and the body will burn protein if it has to.
Finding effective, healthy, easy-to-consume protein sources is difficult, though, particularly for warm-water paddling. Cheese melts and nuts are filling but relatively low in protein; sausages and pepperoni are tasty, but often contain too much salt and other chemicals; and while vacuum-packed fish (salmon and tuna) is cheap and tasty, it’s complicated to eat on the water. You need a knife to open it, and a fork to dish it out (unless you’re willing to drench yourself in fishy liquid as you attempt to pour it down your throat).
Enter Tanka Bars: Made from grass-fed bison by native Americans, these bars combine buffalo meat and dried berries without any added gluten or chemicals. They’re a great way to meet your protein requirements—and you’re supporting native Americans and the restoration of American buffalo at the same time. I found out about these tasty, protein-packed snacks from a colleague whose wife is native American—and I’m really, really glad I did.
That said, I have to admit I liked the idea of the Tanka Bars somewhat more than the reality. The real issue, as I’ll describe below, is the packaging—I think the Tanka people can use a little more work there.
Vlad also found the taste someone annoying after a few days—the combination of sweet fruit and dried meat is an acquired taste, for sure. I like the flavor (particularly the spicy version) but found the texture a bit unnerving (the fruit “squishes” a bit).
But these are nits. Without Tanka Bars, we would have been well below our protein quotas. And we were delighted to eat them once we got off the water—not something you can say about most expedition food!
If you’re a fan of grass-fed meat, sustainable production, high-quality protein, and native American enterprises—I heartily recommend Tanka Bars.
What could be improved: The packaging. The packaging was simultaneously too flimsy and too difficult to open. In a couple of cases, the vacuum seal was obviously compromised, with the bars puffing up with gas (we discarded those).
And, with wet hands, we pretty much always had to use a knife to open them. The Tanka Sticks, in particular (which look like Slim Jims) were almost impossible to open—I ended up having to slice down the length of the package, and Vlad almost quit in frustration a couple of times, since his knife lacks a point.
But again, these are quibbles. Every time we opened a new snack bag, we looked to see how many Tanka Bars it contained (some had two, some had three, plus a few Tanka Sticks). And we’ll be buying more Tanka Bars for our time off the water, as well!