Thursday, June 27, 2013

Firstlight vs. Seedhouse: Best Tent for Summer Backpacking

Me pitching the Seedhouse on a cold, windy day in late summer

The The Black Diamond Firstlight and the Big Agnes Seedhouse are two of the best tents on the market.  They are both are super lightweight, burly, three season tents.

We own both tents because they each have areas where they outshine the other.  The Seedhouse is awesome anytime you might want a breeze or end up in a downpour, the Firstlight is amazing for truly alpine sites.

Neither are roomy tents for lounging, but both tents have a low profile and small footprint that makes it easier to find a good place to pitch them in rough terrain and high wind.

My dilemma: which tent should we take on our five day backcountry trip next week?

The Firstlight

The Firstlight is the first birthday gift Ryan ever gave me (is it a wonder that I married a man with such good taste?).  I was enamored of the tent after selling lots of tents and other gear for a couple seasons at the top-notch Second Ascent in Seattle.  Its simple, tough construction is ideal for alpine conditions.

Pitching the Firstlight from the inside is a one person job

We have tested the Firstlight in many conditions: gusting winds, driving rain, below zero with deep snow as well as blazing hot with little wind.

One of the best features is that the Firstlight is free standing and you can pitch it from the inside.  This feature makes it much easier to pitch in the wind because your body weight keeps the tent in place while you are putting it up.  Pitching the tent from the inside is a bit of a mixed blessing when it is raining hard because I need to take more care to keep my wet clothes from getting the inside of the tent wet.

The Firstlight on our first sub zero (F) trip....we did experience some frozen condensation

The Firstlight excels in windy alpine conditions, especially in cool weather.  The single wall construction keeps off the rain, and can also double as a makeshift bivy sack for two if need be.  It has the smaller footprint of the two tents, making it easier to find a place to pitch in a rock field or on a steep slope.  This tent also has a taller ceiling and steeper walls, so both Ryan and I can sit up inside the tent.

We escaped to the Firstlight after being followed for hours by a bloodthirsty swarm of mosquitos

The Firstlight is not at its best in humid conditions.  The downside of the single wall construction and limited mesh is that condensation forms easily and does not evaporate quickly.  You can't get a breeze unless the mesh door is pointed in exactly the right direction.

Also, the tent gets a bit wet in the driving rain.  The walls don't leak when left alone, but if you or your sleeping bag touch the sides moisture will come through.  This is a bigger issue if you are tall.  Ryan is 5'10" and was ok if a bit cramped.  We took this tent on a very stormy trip to the Enchantments a couple years ago and stayed cozy enough.

This is the tent I would take for dryish, cool to cold conditions when I will be camping on a ridge or other exposed site where I could get a breeze. The extra head room, lighter weight, smaller footprint and windproof walls make it ideal for camping above tree line.  Black Diamond is now selling a newer, lighter version of the Firstlight.

The Seedhouse

The Seedhouse in late summer up Chaffin Creek

I want to describe the Seedhouse in the way that fashion magazines describe a dress: a confection of mesh with fabric in all the right places and none where it doesn't belong.

Big Agnes designed this tent with an entirely mesh body, and still managed to keep the weight down to under three pounds.  We got this tent for summer camping when you need lots of mesh for a cross breeze and mosquito protection.  However, we have tested the Seedhouse in more trying conditions than balmy summer days including high wind and storms.

The sturdy little tent performs admirably in adverse conditions.  It seems delicate but still looks new after all that we have thrown at it.

The vestibule gives it an edge over the Firstlight in terms of overall comfort, and the rain fly keeps out all the rain when pitched correctly.  I also love sleeping in it with the fly off because the mesh keeps out the bugs while I get to stargaze.

This tent could be used as a three season tent, however, because the body is all mesh, more heat escapes from the sleeping space even with the rainfly on and it gets colder faster than other tents I have slept in.  Also, if the wind is really gusting it more easily drafts up from under the rainfly.  This tent is tapered: it is taller by the head than the foot.  Ryan can sit up inside, but only in the middle and it really doesn't work for both of us to sit up inside at the same time.

The Seedhouse is the best tent for camping trips so hot we want to spend most of the time in the water
The Seedhouse wins if we'll spend lots of time below treeline, camping by lakes, on hot days or when it is humid.  Big Agnes has released a new lighter two person mesh body tent, the Fly Creek.

Conditions Dictate the Choice

The Firstlight and the Seedhouse are each clearly best suited for particular conditions.

Our clothing and sleeping bags also modify the conditions for us.  Warmer, slightly heavier gear will extend the Seedhouse comfort range.  If I bring less and lighter gear, the Firstlight will be better - but not much fun if we end up on a warm night by a lake.

......Just checked the weather one last time and there is a hazardous weather warning for very hot weather.  This time we'll take the Seedhouse.


Have you decided to purchase a tent?  Support Hillmap by clicking through to a merchant site below.

The awesome Black Diamond Firstlight

The amazing Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How to Fix the Latitude/Longitude Bug in Hillmap

When I searched for the location for Tin Cup Lake, Hillmap put the dot at the wrong place

One of our users sent in an important bug report: when you search for a location by its latitude and longitude, hillmap sometimes puts the location dot at the wrong point.

A big thank you to the user who sent in this bug!

The Hillmap location lookup service is powered by Google Maps.  The error originates with the way the new Google Maps works: when you search for coordinates, it returns the results of the nearest address.  This doesn't work well in the mountains!

We are thinking of ways to change this to make the search box more useful for backcountry users.

In the meantime, you can get around this error by prefacing your search with "loc:"

When I searched for the location, using "loc:", for Tin Cup lake Hillmap took me to the right spot

For example, when I search for Tin Cup Lake by its coordinates and enter 45.9407, -114.4003 in the Hillmap search window, it returns a location at the end of Trapper Creek Road.

When I enter "loc: 45.9407, -114.4003" in the search window, Hillmap puts the dot at the correct location in Tin Cup Lake.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Best Sunblock for Alpine Pursuits

Snow is the ultimate sun amplifier

Summer officially begins tomorrow and I am already feeling sun baked.  After reading up on sunscreen, I have a renewed commitment to wearing protective clothing when I am out in the sun for long periods of time.

That said, I feel that wearing sunscreen when I'm up high in the mountains is an essential part of taking care of myself for the short and long term.  While there is recent debate as to what extent sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer versus the chemicals in it contributing to that and other conditions, it certainly prevents burns and protects my skin.

My favorite sunscreens

There are options that are less toxic to people and the environment.  The EWG has compiled a list of 184 sunscreens that are better for you than the rest.  Below is my top five list of best sunscreens based on their ingredients and personal use:

1) All Terrain AquaSport Lotion: This sunscreen is the most protective I have ever used: it stands up to sweat and long days in the mountains.  It is always best to reapply often, but I'm still pretty protected even on days when I forget.  Best thing is the active ingredient is zinc oxide, one of the safer sunblock ingredients.  Only downside to the All Terrain is that it is very thick, and I don't like wearing it every day.  Ryan just purchased the largest tube they sell so that we won't run out too quickly.

2) Episencial Sunny Sunscreen: This sunscreen is also a zinc oxide based cream, formulated for babies so it is great for people with sensitive skin.  It is not quite as durable as the All Terrain line, but it goes on more smoothly and feels lighter on the skin.

3) Badger Sunscreens:  The Badger line wins out for best ingredients, and they have many options that are zinc oxide based, unlike other brands.  I have not yet tried most of their sunscreens (although badger balm is excellent for repairing skin after climbing), but after reading up on them I am interested to try the Badger Sport Sunscreen.  The last tube of Badger we used was an ointment and too greasy to wear while climbing (it is hard to remember not to rub my arms, etc. all day).  Because of the natural ingredients and preservatives, it is best to store this product in a cooler place; it didn't do so well spending a summer in our hot car.

4) Alba Botanica Very Emollient Facial:  I have to say that this sunscreen feels better on my skin than any others and is less likely to cause break outs, however, it doesn't make top grade for ingredients.  Just because it has some organic ingredients doesn't mean that it is really good for you.  Its main sunblock ingredients, homosalate and octocrylene, are less toxic than sunscreens that contain parabens or oxybenzone.  I will probably buy this product again if I can't find a zinc oxide based sunscreen that feels good enough for light use days.  I am excited to try Alba's zinc oxide based Very Emollient sunscreen.

5) No-Ad:  I love No-Ad's commitment to no advertising gimmicks. It is cheap, comes in large bottles (has anyone ever gone through an entire bottle of No-Ad?), works pretty well, and feels good on the skin.  The ingredients are not great, and do include oxybenzone.  Its other active ingredients include avobenzone and homosalate.  This is what I take on road trips when I will be slathering my body all day everyday, but I don't usually use it other times.

Ryan in his Patagonia Sun Hoody and super cool hat

Better sun solutions

Even better than sunscreens is limiting sun exposure.  Yes, this is nearly impossible during long days outside and we are constantly trying to figure out better solutions.  A super cool hat with a wide brim helps.  And when your buddies (or sweetheart) tease you for wearing a goofy hat, you can know deep down inside that your awesome sense of style is only amplified by your hat's sun blocking properties.

Ryan loves his Patagonia Sun Hoody and wears it most days we spend in the mountains.  The hood is great for protecting head and neck and the fabric is UPF 35.  I am not a huge fan of smooth-faced layers (including silk weight long underwear styles) because they hamper air movement a bit, but Ryan says that if there is a breeze, which there almost always is up high, then the sun hoody is amazingly comfortable even on hot days.  I might give one a try this summer.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Almost Perfect Swimming Hole

I came across this magical swimming hole while hunting for morels.  Looks to be as deep as my shoulders, sandy bottom, wide and slow.  No trail within sight or sound.

A bit shady for my taste, but when the temperature climbs above 90 it maybe be the perfect place to go.  Hooray for summer!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Using maps to find Morels, Part 2

I began this series with a question: can I use maps to help predict where morels will grow?  After some investigation, my initial answer is yes - and no.

Morels & Fire

Morels, especially black morels, often grow in areas recently burned by forest fires.  They can be one of the first species to return to a burned area and begin to transform the burned terrain into habitat for the next wave of fungi and plants.  Birds and other critters are attracted to the morels (yes, you have competition from many) and leave seed-rich droppings to restore the forest.

This area burned in a forest fire in 2011

If you know what conditions morels like, then it is much easier to make a solid guess as to where they might grow. Morels like disturbed earth, and also show up in areas that flooded, or near trails or campsites. Here's an interesting write up of a study in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado on morels after a forest fire by Holly Miller at the

Where to find fire data

My best source of fire location data is InciWeb, the Incident Information System, a government interagency incident information management system.  They especially focus on wild fires and will publish locations and maps of current fires.  You can also find maps of fires that happened in the last few years.

One of the many maps of the Mustang Complex fire available at inciweb

InciWeb maps are an incredible resource, both for looking at past fires, and for fires that are currently in progress. I used this site to plan trips last year during the height of fire season to avoid trails and regions closed due to fire danger.  However, the maps on the internet are scans that get blurry when you zoom in enough to read location names.

When I look at inciweb, I pull up the corresponding area on hillmap, and use what markers I can see on the inciweb map to pinpoint areas on hillmap - then I plan my trip using the higher resolution hillmap.

For example, I see that the Mustang Complex fire is bordered on the East by Highway 93 and gets close to the highway at North Fork, Idaho.

I can zoom in on the hillmap to see roads, trailheads and other important info for trip logistics.

I also use newspaper and google searches to figure out where fires burned in the last two years.

Indicator species

I only found two small morels on my first trip using fire data to find them.  But I did find a plethora of Black Cup mushrooms, a species related to morels.  Black cups also thrive in recently burned areas.  (I am not 100% sure that these are black cups, the mushroom guide book says that cup mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify, however, they look like black cups and they are growing in similar conditions).

The black cups gave me hope that I was in the right kind of place but possibly at the wrong time.  The next location I tried yielded a modest bounty - enough for a tasty dinner of morels & pasta in cream sauce.  A couple weeks later I revisited both spots: at the first spot I found zero morels and the second spot was thick with them.

Elevation, Aspect, Temperature and Precipitation

Like finding your true love, the key to finding morels is being at the right place at the right time in the right frame of mind.  A potentially daunting, but thrilling, experience.

Too late!  These morels would have been prime a week or so ago

The largest morel I've found this year, surprisingly close to cedar trees

I took the two photos above on the same day, on opposite sides of a creek.  The dried out mushrooms in the top photo were on a bench 30 or 40 feet above the creek.  The huge, fresh morel in the bottom photo was in a protected spot at a slightly lower elevation.

Morels need the right amount of moisture, as well as the correct soil temperature, to thrive.  Elevation, aspect, slope and precipitation are key variables in their growth.  My next post on using maps to find morels will take a look at how to be at the right place at the right time - but I need to do some more delicious research before publishing my observations.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Skiing St. Mary's in June

St. Mary's is one of the most recognizable peaks on the Bitterroot skyline.  I've been staring up at it all winter, watching the snowfields grow and shrink.  Ryan and I finally skied out one glorious ridge of corn snow this weekend.

The very long and windy road to the trailhead at almost 7,000' was dry, as was the beginning of the hike.  It was one of those spectacular days when the sky is clear enough to see the Bitterroot Mountains stretching out to the horizon.  Just a bit of brown haze in the distance, probably due to smoke from prescribed burns.

After the first mile we encountered patches of snow on the trail ranging from a couple feet wide to almost long enough to tempt us to put on skis and skins, but the top was mostly bare scree. 

The fire lookout near the summit is still closed up for the season, but provided an excellent wind break for our lunch stop.

We shared the summit with a multitude of ladybugs swarming in crevices in the rocks.  Do you think these same ladybugs will visit my garden later in the season or are these of a heartier alpine stock?

We traversed out the Southeast ridge to ski an unbroken field of snow that we scouted from the summit.  The Northish facing slopes still hold enough snow to make it worth the trouble of lugging skis and boots up the scree. The photo at the top of this post shows a couple of descent options.

We skied about 800 feet down to a beautiful alpine lake that is seen by many on the trail to St. Mary's, but I bet it is rarely visited due to bushwhacky forest and steep rock.  I was glad to be able to skin back up a snowfield rather than bushwhack with skis.

The snow was good corn, fast and sticky.  

The map below shows our approximate path.

More photos from this and a trip to baker lake the day before can be found on flickr.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Introducing the new Hillmap is getting a major facelift and update, our goal is to roll out the update by the end of June.  We will be replacing the current site with the hillmap beta site.  Take a moment to look around the new site, and let us know what you think!

New Features and Functionality

  • The new site is designed to be mobile device friendly.  When using a small screen on a tablet, phone or other mobile device, the top bar shrinks to a menu button that includes all the original options.
  • It is much faster!
  • Much of the user interface has been simplified to try to make it easier to use without making it less powerful.
  • We have included additional resources and some explanations to help you learn about and navigate all of the different tools available on the website.  Look in the new "Tour" tab to find these resources. 
  • The print screen has been updated to give you more support and options as you print your free custom topo map.
  • Ryan has fixed many bugs from the original site - and we're hunting down more (please contact us if you find a bug!

Testing, Testing

Hillmap is a work of love for us.  Ryan started building the site one winter weekend after he sprained an ankle and couldn't go out skiing.  He wanted to spend time exploring the mountains even when he couldn't go outside, and was frustrated by the lack of avalanche safety planning tools available for topo maps.  Hillmap was born during this week on the couch, and continues to grow in the time we can snatch between other parts of our full lives.  There is no full time programmer supporting hillmap. 

We count on you to let us know if you find bugs or if some part of the website doesn't make sense or work for you.  We love to hear from you!  Get in touch at; or

We also enjoy hearing about the many varied ways people use the website.  We've heard of uses of everything from astrology to ski trip planning to real estate hunting.  How do you use it?