Thursday, January 31, 2013

Browning Merino Boot Sock - Gear Review

The older I get, the less I take certain things for granted. For the better part of 40 years I barely noticed my feet, durable and reliable as a hammer in spite of having more moving parts.  And then one day they had enough of the unsung hero thing. Since then, Dr. Scholl's makes house calls in nearly every pair of my shoes.

Fitting, then, that I close out Gear Review January with the most mundane and under-appreciated of equipment. Rob at said these were the best socks he'd ever worn. If somebody's gushing about socks there must be something to it, so I rolled the dice.

No, I'm not getting compensated by Browning for back-to-back posts about their gear. These and the Hell's Canyon jacket are the only two pieces of their clothing I own, although I did try a pair of their boots once. They pinched my feet like that old aunt used to do your cheeks, and that was back when my feet could take a beating with little more than a "thank you sir, may I have another?"
Browning Merino boot sock

There's only so much you can say about a tube of wool. These have just the right thickness, wick perspiration, keep your feet warm on cold days and aren't unbearable when the temperature rises.  Most importantly they don't bunch, ride, twist, sag or otherwise get all wadded up in your boots.  That doesn't bother some people but it annoys the dookie out of me.  If I can't get my socks tight and right I'll take my boots off and fix them.  And that annoys the dookie out of whoever I'm with.

Maybe the best feature is that they are dirt cheap, around $10 a pair.  Look around and you'll see boot socks going for $30-40 and I'm here to tell you that unless they put themselves on and fart on command they're not any better than these.

Socks that don't have me thinking about my feet are doing their job.

Your money's worth:  At $10 it's hard to go wrong.

Where it comes up short:  Tends to pill a bit when your wife runs them through the dryer instead of hanging them to dry. And they're not waterproof.

Get a pair if: You don't want to notice your socks.

Look around before shelling out the bucks:  Your boots leak and you need Gore-Tex.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Browning Hell's Canyon jacket - Gear Review

Occasionally when I'm not in the market for something but find it on sale I'll find a way to justify the purchase. I say occasionally because the majority of the time I'll make do with what I have, and for the most part I have the gear I need. Until recently, when I needed a windproof jacket I'd grab one of my waterproof shells, which kinda sorta do the trick but usually require an extra layer underneath.  It's gotta be a hell of a breeze to be a problem on a warm day, right?

Browning Hell's Canyon jacket neck
High back neck

A sale ad for a Browning Hell's Canyon windproof jacket caught my frugal eye about this time last year.  I get some of the worst cases of buyer's remorse know to the CDC and I went back and forth on this until I couldn't stand it any more.  They retail between $100-120, I got mine for about $65 and I've seen them as cheap as $50 since then.  You'll have to measure the value by your aversion to wind.

Browning Hell's Canyon jacket wrist
No breeze in here
It's built to be windproof and that is where it excels. Neoprene/velcro wrists do an exceptional job of sealing that area without cutting off circulation or restricting movement. The neck extends an extra inch or so in the back to keep the wind from swirling down your spine, a nice touch that you don't find on many jackets, and the storm flap at the zipper works as well as any I've used. Zero wind gets through here.  I should mention that the zipper is extremely smooth, smooth like it was engineered by Germans.  I'm not sure I've ever used one that moved so effortlessly and didn't catch on the material.

Browning Hell's Canyon jacket zipper
ZIpper genius

Enough of my zipper fetish. The hand pockets on each side are heavy mesh and aid in ventilation if you get too warm.  The mesh might cause a problem carrying certain items, certainly anything with sharp edges (shouldn't carry these in your pockets anyway) or small pieces like loose BBs.  There are vertical- and horizontal-zippered chest pockets on either side that I've never used but also aid in ventilation and would be good for carrying a license, a map, a compass or any other small, flat item.  Bulkiness could interfere with gun mount.

I thought about shooting some video of these features until I found this one on YouTube-

As a single layer, this jacket works fine between 35-55 degrees, wind or no wind.  Below 35, you'll want to start layering depending on your exertion level.  I wore it in 20 degree weather with the wind blowing 25-35 mph with a capilene layer next to my skin, an LL Bean polyester blaze orange shirt on top of that and a Filson tin cloth vest outside the jacket and never got a chill.  The jacket did an extraordinary job of keeping the wind out and never felt restrictive.

Things it's not so good at? Hiding dried blood. Be careful wringing a bird's neck or reaching behind to put a dead one in your vest.

It's a good looking jacket in its own right.  You won't scream hunting dork! wearing it around town although there is a camo pattern available if that's your thing.  I suppose dried blood can have the same effect.

Your money's worth:  It's as windproof a layer as I've ever worn.  Ventilates well if you get too warm, adequate number of pockets, and plenty of room to move around or layer underneath.

Where it comes up short:  It's not completely waterproof and won't double as a rain jacket and the material wouldn't do well in briars.

Get one if:  You need a good windproof layer that doubles as a cool weather shell.

Look around before shelling out the bucks:  You need something that's waterproof (not just water repellent) or you spend a lot of time in thorny areas.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ever seen this photo?

It was hanging in a friend's office when I did a double take.  He won it at a raffle and said there were no credits to the photographer anywhere on it.  I'd love to know who snapped the original.

Bird dog jumping barbed wire

Yep, that top strand is barbed wire.  Still trying to decide if this is incredible athletic ability or yet another bird dog gone mad.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Worksharp Guided Field Sharpener - Gear Review

I win contests about as often as Alabama loses national championship games.  When I was about five I won a Polaroid camera at a restaurant opening, but since I didn't know how to write at that point I'm pretty sure I didn't enter the contest (thanks Mom).  Since then, in spite of entering virtually everything that doesn't ask for my credit card number, I haven't won diddly.

Imagine my surprise when back in December I saw my name on the Outdoor Blogger Network as a lucky recipient of a sharpening tool. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Worksharp Guided Field Sharpener

And it wasn't just that I'd actually won a contest that had me all excited.  For years I had a set of three Arkansas stones, old school stuff, messy with the required honing oil, but they did the job.  They took a while to get it done, too.  These stones mysteriously disappeared a few years ago.  Equally mysterious is that no one in the house claims any knowledge of them ever being here.  Needless to say my knives were getting a bit dull, so this arrived at a very opportune time.

When it's not hunting season I spend some time knocking around in the garage on woodworking projects. Through this I became familiar with a method of sharpening hand plane and chisel blades known as the Scary Sharp (Google it) method.  It incorporates progressively finer grits of sandpaper into a routine that can take 15-20 minutes but produces unbelievably sharp edges.  But this is a whole lot more effort than I care to put into my pocketknives.

Knives sharpened with a Worksharp Field Sharpener
Worksharp's Guided Field Sharpener is a compact little unit that I found put a very sharp edge on a blade in a very short amount of time.  I ran several knives through the routine, a series of 5-10 strokes along a diamond surface followed by 5 strokes along a ceramic honing rod and 5 strokes on a leather strop.  The whole process takes about 2-3 minutes.  One knife, an old, cheap unbranded pocketknife I use as a letter opener, quickly sharpened to a much more usable level.  A 30 year old Buck folding model got similar, but sharper results in the same amount of time.  And my go-to Schrade, a lockback model that I carry in the field, re-gained the edge it had when new.

This tool won't put a razor sharp edge on a blade, at least not quickly.  My razor sharpness test is the hair on the back of my hand and while it clipped a few of them, maybe enough to put it on the level with a two week old razor, Gillette needn't worry.  But it's billed as a field sharpener, and in that role it excels.  It puts a pretty darn sharp edge on just about any blade in a very short amount of time.

Worksharp Guided Field Sharpener uses

I gave it a turn on my wood ax, too, and while it took more than the recommended 5-10 strokes, in less than 5 minutes it did put on a good, sharp edge capable of slicing a sheet of paper.

It sharpens fish hooks, broadheads and scissors, although I didn't try it on any of these.  It handles serrated edges and I did run the serrations on my Schrade down the honing edge. Truthfully I don't use these very often so I have no real gauge to measure any improvement against.

The price on the Worksharp website is $34.95.  I'd say this puts it just above a no-brainer and squarely in the good buy category. And a big thank you to the OBN and Worksharp for ending my 40+ year losing streak.

Your money's worth:  This is a versatile, effective tool for sharpening the variety of edges and points found in an outdoorsman's closet.  It works fast, does a good job, and doesn't take up much space.

Where it comes up short:  Given that it's meant to be a field sharpener, I honestly don't know how they could fit more into or onto this model.  Maybe shave a few ounces of weight off?

Get one if:  You don't enjoy spending long periods of time sharpening your tools but still want a pretty sharp blade.

Look around before shelling out the bucks:  If you demand a razor sharp edge on your tools, this may come up a bit short.  But only a bit.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

SportEar XP3 Plugz - Gear Review

For quite a while I've been researching, shopping, and otherwise pining after just the right kind of hearing protection.  And I'm damn picky in this regard.  Maybe too picky, given how long I've been looking and how little I've managed to find.  The must-have list is:
  • Protects from the noise of a gun blast but otherwise lets (most) normal sounds through.  Virtually any foam earplug will do an acceptable job of protecting your hearing.  Problem is that you can't hear other guys in the field, you can't hear a covey flush, you can't hear your dog in thick cover, you generally can't hear what you need to hear to do what you came to do.
  • Fits inside the ear.  I've used or tried "ear muff" protection in many forms and while all were effective at reducing noise and some were effective at allowing me to hear normal sounds, I just don't like the bulk.  And they're hot as hell in a September dove field.
  • Doesn't break the bank.  There are models on the market that fit every criteria but this one, and if you have the coin you'd be better off with one of them.  I just don't have upwards of $700 to spend on this accessory.
Shortly before the season opened I saw something on the Orvis website that caught my attention.  The Sportear XP3 Plugz were billed as virtually impossible to lose while boasting hearing that "..remains protected without interfering with your ability to hear what's going on around you in the field". The magic behind the curtain is a patented sound valve that allows low-level noises through while filtering anything above 85 dB.

SportEar XP3 Plugz

A while back I tried a set based on this valve principal that were made by a different manufacturer and they felt like sticks in my ears, and as far as I could tell the sticks didn't shut out much noise. They were cheap, less than $5 a pair, and connected with a string that made them annoying to wear. We parted ways pretty quickly.

The SportEar website had a few more details and I figured for $14.99 (w/o shipping) I'd give them a try. And I'm glad I did.

The XP3s fit very comfortably in the ear and the design prevents them from falling out or accidentally getting bumped out, something I've had happen with normal foam plugs, and often by the time you realize one is missing there's not much hope of finding it.  Here's the manufacturer's video (posted on YouTube - great move, guys) showing how they fit and how to wear them.

They got a thorough workout on my trip to South Dakota.  I clearly heard birds flush, dogs working close by, and others in the field.  In the 20-30 mph winds on our last day I could still hear fairly well.

In the dove field I was able to hear the guys around me calling birds, although if someone on the far end of the field was yelling it was difficult to make out exactly what they were saying.  The one time I went deer hunting this fall I wore them and had no trouble hearing two deer (one of which is now in my freezer) walking through the woods as they approached the food plot.

Hunting quail I had similar results and found these a tad more practical than stopping to insert foam plugs when the dog goes on point. Note: If hunting with multiple children under the age of ten, your ability to hear a dog working out in front is greatly compromised.

An added feature is is a fold-over cap that will increase the NRR to 25 dB (valve-open NRR is 19 dB).  I've used this while cutting the grass and blowing leaves and they're so comfortable that leaving them in for hours is not a problem. Is this effective on screaming kids?  Women who snore?  That rambling idiot next to you on the plane?  Haven't tried them on these.  Yet.

As for possible improvements, I wish they came with a carrying case of some sort.  I had to poke around my closets to find something small that I could store them in.  They'll slide unnoticeably into a pocket but most of my pockets also host dust, grass, crumbled leaves and such, none of which play well with ear canals.

Your money's worth: At roughly $18 shipped to your door these are a bargain.  They stay in your ear better than foam, are comfortable, let most normal sounds pass through while shutting out the loud stuff and are inexpensive enough that you won't feel like a schmuck if you lose one.

Where it comes up short:  If they could figure out a way to let a little bit more low-level sound through this would be the ticket, but it would likely put an end to sales of their higher end products.

Get one if: You want inexpensive, comfortable hearing protection that lets a reasonable amount of normal sound level through.

Look around before shelling out the bucks:  If your hearing is already half-gone, you might have trouble hearing low-level sound through these.  Something with electronic amplification would probably be a better, albeit much more expensive, choice.

Update - November 2013: After about a year of use I noticed that the plugs didn't seem to be keeping out the sound like they used to. Not just gunfire, but any noise in general. I emailed Sportear and Ray Bori, VP of Sales, graciously sent me a new pair. When they arrived I didn't break out the micrometer, but the baffles that go into the ear canal on the new pair looked slightly wider than the old pair.  The new pair filtered all sound, normal and gunfire, better than the older pair and I'm not entirely sure that a year of use hadn't compressed the older pair just enough to lose their effectiveness. They're made of a material that's not supposed to lose its shape over time, but I can't find any other explanation.

I still love these plugs, both fit and function, and at this price I can afford to replace them every year if they lose their fit.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Gear Review January

Back in November on the tails of a trip to South Dakota I promised a forthcoming litany of gear reviews.  Between the holidays and a bout with whatever megavirus is making the rounds and (insert other lame excuse here) it didn't quite happen on the timetable intended. Undeterred and still somewhat inspired, I'm devoting this month to getting them finished and posted.  For those of you who prefer tales of the hunt, observations on bird dogs and introspective pieces, well, you'll get 'em when the urge strikes.

On my weekly jaunts to the lower part of the state I often stop to answer nature's call at the Sportsman's Warehouse in Columbia.  It's right on the interstate, the bathrooms are surgical-clean, and it does offer the opportunity to pick up anything I'm short on and generally browse for whatever items I didn't know I needed.  Last week as I wandered the aisles I realized I was wandering very aimlessly, looking for nothing in particular and not heading for any department next.

Call it a brief moment in time, but for once I honestly couldn't think of anything I could use. I'm talking about the stuff in the affordable range, of course, a boat or a pair of $3000 Swarovskis notwithstanding.  Which got me thinking that I must be pretty happy with the gear I own.  In fact, that's the case, and the forthcoming reviews highlight several pieces that I've found to be useful, affordable, and have some staying power.  If you already own any of them, chime in with your thoughts.