What's That Thing On Your Back?

by Ian Wednesday, May 6th 2015

The first hairpin turn on Catalina Highway as the road begins its long climb up to Mt Lemmon. Marshall Gulch trailhead. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Hueco Tanks State Park outside of El Paso. Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City. These places all have something in common: if you visit them enough as an outdoorsperson, you’re likely to see people walking around with a strange, large, mat-looking thing on their backs.

Your author, wearing a crashpad on his back, ready to go bouldering

 In fact, you’re likely to see me with one of those strange things on my back. And, if you’re like most outdoorspeople, you won’t know what it is. It sort of looks like a backpack, but it's an awfully large and strangely shaped backpack. Again, if you’re like most people, you’ll stop me and ask “Say, what's that thing on your back?!”

 I’ve heard some creative ideas about what might be on my back: 

“Are those sleds you’ve got on your backs?”

“What do you have on your backs there, hang-gliders?” 

“Those look like comfortable camping mats on your backs!” 

“Are those massage tables for wilderness massage?”

None of those ideas is correct, unfortunately. What they are are four foot by five foot slabs of 3-6” foam that fold in half and have backpack straps attached for carrying. What they do is soften the ground for the inevitable falls that happen in the sport of bouldering. They are called “crash pads,” “sketch pads,” or, as they say in the UK, “bouldering mats.” 

For whatever reason, the sport of bouldering is still fairly obscure and so needs some introduction. Simply put, it’s a form of rock climbing. But instead of climbing 50-2,000 foot cliffs with safety lines, boulderers climb 8-20+ foot boulders. A particular face on a boulder can have several different routes (or ways of reaching the top, called “boulder problems”) of varying difficulty; those who found the boulder will have named the problems and assigned them difficulty ratings. 

Me about to begin climbing a problem called Hairpin Roof Right at the base of Mt Lemmon. Note the crashpad strategically placed in the “fall zone” behind me.

The ratings go from V0, all the way up to V15 or V16 (there’s currently some contention among the sport’s elite about how hard the world’s hardest boulder problems are). Just about anyone in good physical conditioning (and proper rock climbing shoes) ought to be able to get up a V0 after a few tries. But by the V2 rating, only very practiced rock climbers who have developed specialized strength and coordination will be able to climb the boulder problem. Most recreational boulderers who have been at it for more than a year or two top out at the V6-8 range, while the number of people in the world capable of climbing V15 or V16 is almost certainly less than 20. 

Me in the middle of climbing Hairpin Roof Right 

Like all climbers, boulderers wear specialized shoes, and we keep our hands well-dusted with gymnastic chalk while we climb to prevent slipping from sweat and finger grease. (Climbers’ pants are constantly covered in a fine coat of white chalk dust.)  

Dusting my hands with chalk before beginning a climb.

We carry toothbrushes around that we use to scrub chalk dust and finger grease off of the hand-holds on the boulder problems we are trying (“Why are you guys cleaning the rocks?” is a question I’ve heard more than a few times!) And we might spend weeks trying to climb a single boulder problem — learning the individual hand and foot movements, and doing them in sequence, is a bit like learning a dance or gymnastic routine. 

Modern bouldering’s heritage begins, in large part, with the exploits of the famed American climber John Gill. In the 1950s and 1960s, rock climbing was a very new sport and still rooted in its mountaineering past: the challenges climbers sought were the biggest, most majestic cliffs, and they sought to ascend them using any means necessary (hammering pitons into the rock and pulling up on them). With his gymnastics background, John Gill sought a different challenge: he wanted to see how difficult unassisted movement up rock could be. He was interested in the kinesiology of climbing movement rather than getting to the top of big cliffs. If pure physical difficulty and kinesthetic beauty are the interest, climbing boulders rather than huge cliffs starts to make sense: they’re typically more accessible and offer a relatively safe arena for pushing one’s physical limits.  

Another shot of me on Hairpin Roof Right. Note the size of the handholds — just the tips of my fingers have purchase on the rock. The size of the handholds (and how far apart they’re spaced) is one of the major factors determining the difficulty of a boulder problem. 

The question of safety brings us back to crash pads. For the first 40 years of bouldering’s history, there was no such thing as a crash pad. When you fell, you landed on the ground. I’m sure there were countless sprained and broken ankles, but nobody was dying. But as popularity and difficulty levels rose, the repeated ground falls necessary to learn a boulder problem got old. Someone had the wise idea of throwing a piece of foam on the ground. Then someone else thought to attach backpack straps to make it easier to carry.

Today, many of the world’s major outdoors brands manufacture crash pads with specialized, dual-density foam, and relatively comfortable shoulder harnesses. There are even a few smaller companies whose entire business is crash pads. Bouldering is now an international sport with competitions, professional athletes, and specialized gear. There are even indoor climbing gyms with simulated boulders and manufactured hand and foot holds. Older boulderers feel that what “counts” is what you accomplish outside on real rock, but many kids who grew up climbing only inside don’t draw that distinction — they just like fun climbing movements, whether it’s on manufactured plastic holds or features of real rocks. 

My freestanding bouldering wall for training at home

So now you know: that thing on my back is a crash pad, and it’s there because I’m going bouldering. To end, here’s a little video of me climbing a classic boulder problem on Mt Lemmon called “Jewel Thief.” It’s a pretty tall problem, and it was first done by Bob Murray in the 80s with no crash pads. Before completing this problem, I fell from the last move at the top probably two dozen times. Each time, I was very glad to have four crash pads underneath me.

Editor's Note: Bouldering and rock climbing are both dangerous sports with the potential for life-threatening injury and even death. The Summit Hut encourages our readers to seek out professional instruction if interested in learning more about them.

Adventures with prAna

by Rhonda Monday, August 4th 2014

Editor’s Note: Occasionally Summit Hut Staff Members have the opportunity to share some adventures with the folks behind some of the great brands carried at Summit Hut, gaining hands on experience with products and learning in depth details to help us provide the highest quality of knowledge and service to our customers.  Summit Hut Staff Member Rhonda recently spent some time with the folks from prAna and shared the following about her adventures:

Recently I was given the opportunity to join the folks at prAna and 6 strangers from across the country for a five day adventure in southern California. 

Upon arriving to the beautiful beach house that overlooked the peaceful and majestic Pacific Ocean in Encinitas, the other guests and I were greeted by some of the prAna crew, including trip planners Jessica and Sean. We were then treated to an amazing farm to table dinner by Dave Kennedy and his wife. The evening was full of great food and conversation.

The next morning, we all headed down to Beacon Beach for surf lessons from the guys at Encinitas Surf Lessons– and prAna ambassador Chadd. I quickly discovered that surfing is not as easy as it looks. With several wipe-outs under my belt, I finally managed to get up on my board, and ride the waves into shore. This was an empowering feeling!  Shortly after surfing, we joined prAna ambassador Michael for rooftop yoga, which left everyone feeling revitalized. Paddle boarding in Carlsbad Lagoon was next on the list. Gliding over the water felt great, though heading back proved to be quite the challenge with the wind working against us. The activity packed day was topped off with dinner out for Mexican food and margaritas with some special guests, including Beaver, the owner or prAna, and ambassadors Chris Sharma and Steph Davis to name a few.

The next day we were off to Joshua Tree in the early morning hours for a day of climbing. When we arrived to the strangely beautiful desert, we were given lessons from the experts at Vertical Adventures, and we all had our chance to climb. Another new experience for me, climbing felt counter-intuitive and was very much like solving a puzzle. After getting the hang of the concept and climbing the less intimidating routes, I took on one of tougher ones, and was ecstatic when I reached the top. Afterwards, I had the pleasure of sitting with Steph Davis in the sand and making a design with rocks and sticks as we chatted about the day. It’s no wonder why she’s such a great ambassador for prAna. She shares many of the same beliefs that prAna is centered around, and is truly an amazing and inspiring person.

Our final day began with a coffee presentation with Dave Kennedy and his wife. They also shared some of the ins and outs of prAna. I discovered how much more prAna is than just a clothing brand and how focused they are on respecting the Earth and living for the experience. I also enjoyed some of the best coffee I’ve ever had!  We then were off to prAna headquarters for yoga and a tour given by Beaver. Shortly after the tour, we went Go Kart racing with prAna members, including Beaver, who, as expected, took first place! 

This trip was a one of a kind experience. Not only because I have never surfed, climbed, or been paddle boarding, I had an opportunity to meet and get to know some of the masterminds behind such a great company. This trip echoed prAna's ideals and values.


How To Select The Best Climbing Shoe

by Justin Monday, July 14th 2014

Did you go through a whirlwind of thoughts trying to pick out your first rock climbing shoe?

I know that I did, without a doubt. It took me forever! I would go to the gym, and I’m sorry, but there is only so long you want to use a rental shoe. There’s just something about someone else’s foot that I don’t like, I don’t care who you are.

I would look at the people in the gym and think “Wow, look at those shoes! That guy must be a great climber! He’s got a sweet harness! What the heck kind of belay device does he have? Man, someday I’ll have all that fancy stuff!” (To all you who will pretend this isn’t true, stop lying to yourself)

Why do we think like that?

It’s psychological really, we look at other people and automatically start making judgments about them. In this case that was a big help in finding the perfect climbing shoe. Climbing is a social sport! It is! Ask people how they like their shoes! This is really step one, if you see a shoe you like, or catches your eye, ask! I can almost promise they’ll smile at you and proceed to tell you more details about their shoe than you’d ever care to know.

Step two is pretty important. You must must must decide what kind of climbing you’re going to do. Do you climb at indoor rock gyms exclusively? Or have you vowed to never step foot inside a gym, and only climb outside? Once you have decided this you’re well on your way to something great!

If you’re like myself, all I really wanted was a good shoe! Something all around, something comfortable and that would last me a little while? Is this you?

At this point I had never climbed outside, but would have loved to. I was planning on it. So being the internet guru I am, I started looking, googling, and shopping around. And these steps are the best advice you’ll find on the internet, not to boast here, but they are.

So in quick review, step one was to eyeball other climber’s shoes, see what they’re using, what brands are in the gym? Are a lot of people climbing in one brand? Ask them about it, again, they’ll tell you, I promise. Step two, decide what kind of climbing you’re going to be doing!

Now, step three, try shoes on! Unless you have tried a climbing shoe on, I’d go as far as to say don’t buy iy! There are different styles of shoes for a reason, some have a wider toe for those with a flatter foot, some have larger heel cups, if you have a big foot, it’s great. If you have a narrow foot, they’ll slip at the exact moment you wish they wouldn’t. If you like the look of a shoe, try it on. I promise you’ll be glad you did. After about 4-5 shoes, you’ll start to think, “Man I really liked that 5.10 shoe, or the La Sportiva shoe fit so nice in the toe”… watch, you’ll see.

Step four was a bit of a dilemma for me, I couldn’t decide if it needed to be step three or four. But four is good, you’ll see why. Step four, is deciding what type of shoe you want. They have flatter all around shoes (my first shoe), Moccasin-esque slip on shoes, aggressive downturn shoes (my second shoe), and a less common ankle height shoe. Then you can look at something super simple, do you want laces or Velcro? Some people live and die by laces, love them to death, while personally, I’ve been nothing but pleased with my Velcro. I can take em’ off quickly and put em’ on just as quick. The reason I put this as four, is because if you have tried on a shoe and just fell in love with how it fits and looks, then it doesn’t necessarily matter what style it is. If you just love them, get them.

Step Five is fit. This is perhaps the most important factor in buying your new rock climbing shoe. Seriously, I’ve found that you will rarely wear the same size as your street shoe (yet another reason to try them on), and every brand will fit differently. You want a shoe that fits tightly. My first shoes were an entire size smaller than my street shoe. Sometimes they could be a bit uncomfortable even, but you don’t want them to hurt.  I mean come on, who really wants that?

Depending on what material your new climbing shoe is will determine how much it will stretch. You would be surprised how much these shoes can stretch as they’re used. Synthetic shoes typically stretch less than a leather shoe will. So look at it and ask yourself, “If this shoe stretches a half size will it be too big?”

“Buy smaller than you think you want too” was the best advice I was given when choosing my own shoe.

One minor detail with fit that is all personal preference - socks or no socks. It’s somewhat a riddle of old. If you’re going to wear socks while climbing, try on shoes with socks. If you’re like myself, I choose to not wear socks, I like how the shoe fits better, it hugs my foot and I can use the whole shoe. If you’re like me, try the shoe on without socks.

Notice the curved bottom and aggressive toe 

I just bought a pair of aggressive shoes and climbing in them this last weekend was awesome. The shoes (Evolve Shamans) were amazing. Sticky as all get out, I learned to smear while climbing and it was a total gamechanger! I will admit though, as of right now they are the less comfortable of my two shoes. Is it worth it? Heck yeah! I love climbing in the shoe, so I’m willing to sacrifice a little bit of comfort. Just as a side note, it’s the same brand as my first shoe, yet a size larger. It’s just the shoe, another reason to try shoes on.

My first shoe (Evolve Defy VTR) is still what I refer to as my go-to shoe.

Notice the flat bottom,  and aggressive toe

This could change soon due to my love of my new Shamans, but these are the shoes I can wear all day long and be totally comfortable in them all day. It’s a great all-around shoe for all types of climbing, indoor and out.

So to review:

  1. BE CREEPY, just kidding, But LOOK AT OTHER PEOPLES SHOES, see what people are climbing in
  2. Decide WHAT KIND OF CLIMBING you’re going to use your new shoes for.
  4. After having a good idea of what you like, FIND THE TYPE OF SHOE YOU WANT
  5. MAKE SURE THEY FIT, take stretching and socks/no socks into account and make sure they’re comfortable.

You remember earlier in the post when we mentioned the someone with the sick climbing shoes and gear? You’re that person now! The reason people take pride in their gear is because with this sport, the better your gear, the better you feel, the better you climb. Now, that’s not all it takes to be some sort of prodigy in the climbing world, but if you want be a good climber take a look at good climbers and mimic them, see what they’re using, wearing, climbing on, practicing on. There’s a reason they’re good at this sport, and there’s no reason you can’t be

A wise man told me, “Son, don’t skimp on this gear. Buy the best stuff you can and take care of it” and I’ll give you the same advice.

It’s worth it. Trust me.

Activities | Gear

West Fork Backpacking

by Ian Thursday, June 12th 2014

I sometimes wander back to the maps area at Summit Hut and stare at all the amazing trails around Tucson that I haven't yet explored. For months, I've had my eye on the West Fork trail between Sabino Canyon and Romero Pass. The trail traverses the massive and remote Sabino Basin, flanked by the Catalina foothills on the south and Mt. Lemmon on the north. This segment of the trail is too far into the backcountry for the kind of shorter day hike I like, so it remained inaccessible to me until I could find time for an overnight backpacking trip.


In early April, my girlfriend Murphy and I had two days off in a row together (an unfortunate rarity this past spring). I had been looking for an excuse to try camping with a tarp and Murphy had just gotten a new sleeping bag, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the West Fork Trail with an overnight backpacking trek. We decided to start in Catalina State Park and hike Romero Canyon up to Romero Pass, where the Romero Canyon Trail intersects the West Fork Trail and drops down into Sabino Basin. I had heard rumors of a beautiful backcountry campsite in the Basin below the pass where the Cathedral Rock trail runs into the West Fork Trail. We'd stay the night there and then hike out to the Sabino Canyon Trailhead. The plan was to leave a car in the Sabino Canyon parking lot and have a friend drop us off at Catalina State Park (short backpacking trips in the Catalinas usually involve car shuttling of some sort). 


After coffee and bagels, our friend Elijah dropped us off at the Romero Canyon trailhead at 8:30am (thanks, Elijah!), and we set off. An unfortunate heat wave had struck: highs were predicted in the mid-90s, and it already felt very warm. The first hour or so to Romero pools was hot and the sun was merciless, but we persevered with the promise of a cold dip in the pools.



There was a bit of a crowd when we got to where the trail intersects the pools, but we hiked down the creek for five minutes and found a deep pool where we could skinny dip in solitude (sorry, no photos, this is a family blog!). In spite of the heat, the water was so cold it took our breath away and we could only stand a five minute soak. Feeling refreshed, we had a snack, refilled our water and continued on our hike.


About water: I don't like a heavy pack, so I try to plan trips with only short distances between water sources. We knew that the first day in Romero Canyon, we'd always be within a mile from water, so we never carried more than a liter each at a time through the canyon. The catch was that when we left the canyon bottom to climb up to Romero pass, the water would stop and we would be unlikely to find more until the next day at Hutch's pool. So before leaving the canyon, we would need to fill up enough water to get us through the end of our hike, dinner, breakfast (and coffee!), and the three mile hike from our camp to Hutch's Pool.


But I'm getting ahead of myself. We continued up the canyon, stopping occasionally to refill water and get our heads wet -- it was murderously hot for a couple of fair-skinned redheads. The heat slowed us down and it took us much longer than expected to finally get out of the low desert and into the shady oak and pine forest that I knew awaited at higher elevations in Romero Canyon. At long last, we reached a large scrub oak grove where a nice campsite was tempting. Another rest, some more head soaking, and some lunch brought us back to life.



Tempting as it was to linger in the shade, we needed to press on because I wanted to reach camp before dark, and we still had to climb to Romero Pass. As we hiked, the creek dried up without our noticing. When we realized that we hadn’t seen water for some time, we faced a difficult decision. We had not reached the planned fill-up point where the trail leaves the canyon and climbs up to the pass. Looking at the topo map, it seemed that the trail had momentarily left the main creek and wandered into a side creek that was dry. It looked as though we'd reconnect with the main creek again before beginning the climb to the pass -- but would we find water there? We could either press on and hope to find water again, or backtrack to the last point where the creek flowed. Continuing on was tempting as it's never fun to backtrack, but we risked a much bigger backtrack if the water didn't reappear. So we backtracked around 20 minutes until we reached water, and I filtered 10 liters of water to get us through the night. Our packs felt much heavier after this!


After the nearly hour-long detour, morale was low. But we psyched ourselves up to keep going with the promise of higher elevations and cooler weather. Another 40 minutes brought us to the point where the steep climb to Romero Pass begins. And lo and behold the creek reappeared, right where it was supposed to -- we could have filled up our water there after all. I think our conservative decision to backtrack and fill up was the right one, but sometimes the right decision is the wrong decision! We got a second wind and cruised up the climb to the pass and were treated to high cool winds and stunning views of Sabino basin. From this point on, we really began to enjoy ourselves.




We were excited to see the views, but we were also excited to see the sign marking the junction with the West Fork trail, which meant we were only 30 minutes from camp.



We descended into Sabino Basin in the shade with Cathedral Rock towering above us to the south. About 45 minutes before dark we reached the bottom of Sabino Basin and ran into the intersection with the Cathedral Rock trail, which climbs steeply out of the canyon to Cathedral Rock. As promised, a wonderful campsite awaited us, with a special treat in the fire pit.





I set to work setting up our tarp. After 20 minutes of fiddling, Murphy ordered me to stop so we could start to get dinner together. The tarp went up reasonably well, but it's a pain to plant stakes in our rocky soil. Still, a little extra work with stakes is well worth carrying a one pound tarp instead of a four pound tent (you can get tarps as light as 6 ounces, but I didn't want to spend serious money until I was sure I liked tarping).




Dinner was simple but extremely delicious: instant mashed potatoes with hot Italian sausage. We cooked the sausage the night before at home and brought the potatoes in quart-sized bags that we rehydrated them in and ate out of: no dishes to wash! We went to sleep early and fell asleep quickly to the sounds of the forest.


Murphy slept so well in her new Backcountry Bed sleeping bag from Sierra Designs that I practically had to drag her out the next morning! 



We ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and set off. The day started with the segment of trail I had been dreaming about: through Sabino Basin between the pass and Hutch’s Pool. It was just as neat as I had imagined and felt very remote and wild. Rather than attempt to describe it, here are some pictures that I hope do it justice.







The water we had collected the previous afternoon lasted us well, but we were excited to reach Hutch's pool and fill the tanks again. By this time, it had begun to get hot again, so we punched it into overdrive and finished the hike to Sabino basin quickly and were back at our car by 1:30pm.


In spite of the heat and water uncertainties of the first day, the trip was amazing. The West Fork Trail was everything I had hoped. I would highly recommend this backpacking trip to anyone  looking for a quick overnight trip into some pretty remote Catalina backcountry -- just do it in cooler weather!


As always, if you need help planning or outfitting your trip, stop by Summit Hut! 

Activities | Hiking Report | Trips

The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!