Nomad Sandals

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I picked up a pair of these sandals in Hawaii many years back principally because they looked both good and tough. The latter came in handy over the many years I walked the beaches and drift timber along BC’s west coast, picking out the salvageable logs. As a bonus, they provided the best traction on wet, beachsmooth logs of any footwear I have ever used.

Compared with the previously reviewed Chaco sandals, these have no arch support and they can hang on to moisture for a while, but holding them by the heel and whacking the toe on a solid surface will go a long way toward getting moisture, dirt and sand out. The longitudinal run of the rope and its texture give a nice friction bond with the sole of the feet, so my feet don’t slide around in them even when they get wet. I keep a couple of pairs on the go and could have probably sold a van-load over the years to folks stopping me to ask where they could be purchased.

-- John Marian  

Nomadic State of Mind Traditional JC Sandal
$27

Manufactured by and available from Nomadic State of Mind



Monarch Butterfly Chair

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This chair caught my eye immediately because it looked like a clever solution to a problem I’ve wrestled with for a long time — how to carry comfortable seating that takes up minimal weight and space. As a motorcycle rider, meeting friends for “car camping” means I’m much more limited than they are in the luxuries I can bring along.

One way this chair saves weight is by eliminating the two front legs; you lean back in it as you would when tipping a chair back on its hind legs, using your own legs for control and balance. At first I thought this would be tiring, but it really isn’t. Nearly all of my weight rests comfortably in the seat, with the kind of lumbar support I need. When collapsed, the Monarch fits into not much more space than a water bottle, and it weighs only 18 oz. At least as importantly, it’s simple to set up and it seems very solidly constructed.

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I’ve had problems with foam seats such as the Crazy Creek chairs because the stress points don’t hold up well to repeated use. And another chair I’ve used, the GCI Trail-Sling (no longer made, though still available through some online stores) is a light, comfortable chair, but it can be a little tricky to set up and doesn’t seem likely to hold up to too much wear and tear. I still have a couple Trail-Slings, but I believe they’ll get left behind in favor of the Monarch going forward.

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The Monarch’s legs are sturdy milled aluminum poles, connected with shock cords like tent poles, and seem designed for years of use. Similarly, the seat appears thoughtfully shaped to minimize possible points of failure, and the pockets into which the poles fit are thick and reinforced beyond what I’ve come to expect from most consumer outdoor gear. Really, the whole chair has a feeling of quality and craftsmanship. It’s not inexpensive at $60, but I find it’s worth it.

-- Bill Emmack  

Alite Monarch Butterfly Chair
$60

Available from REI Manufactured by Alite Designs

[Chair setup video here. --es]



HelmetSecure

For the longest time I was one of those motorcyclists you see walking along the street carrying his helmet everywhere he goes. I didn’t trust the flimsy D-ring lock that came with my motorcycle: it wasn’t strong enough, and it left my helmet strap vulnerable to being cut. I wasn’t interested in carrying a cable lock in my pocket, in case I crashed and landed right on it.

The solution I found, and have been using for seven months now, is the HelmetSecure. It attaches to my handlebars, and stays there, using hidden bolts that are only accessible if you have the key. I arrive at my destination, loop the 15in.-long integral steel cable through the face of my helmet (and the D-ring of a second helmet too, if I have a passenger) and leave it behind.

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And the lock looks great. It’s show-quality chrome, and I get plenty of questions about it. It fits the round handlebars on my Ducati, but it also comes with rubber spacers to fit Harleys and a range of different handlebars.

-- Michael Schatzl  

HelmetSecure Integrated Motorcycle Helmet Lock
$60

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Helmetsecure



COOL TOOLS UNTRIED

Cool Tools Untried look cool, but — buyer beware — may seem cooler than they actually are. We are not featuring these items based on experience or endorsing them. If you have used any of these and can report positively or negatively — or if you have a similar item you love — please let us know. Until then, here’s some intriguing stuff.

– Steven Leckart

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Garden/carpentry pads on wheels
Knee Blades

Available from Knee Blades

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Tabulates cooking temp
Grill Right Wireless Talking BBQ/Oven Thermometer

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Available from Oregon Scientific and Amazon

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DSLR steady cam
Redrock Hybrid Cinema Rig

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Available from Redrock
(via Gizmodo via Dvice)

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12-volt, 2-speed hauling up to 200 lbs.
Neuton Battery-Powered Garden Cart

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Available from DR Power and Amazon
(thanks David McKenzie!)

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Transforms pics to miniature models
TiltShiftMaker

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Available from TiltShift Maker

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Grocery bag cart
Hook and Go

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Available from Hook and Go
(thanks Bobby Winston!)

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Snake-Away Repellent
Deters legless reptiles

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Available from Ben Meadows

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Humminbird Rod Mount Sonar
Built-in fish finder

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Available from Cabela’s

 



Vibram FiveFingers

These shoes allow you to walk with a barefoot gait, without a bare foot, avoiding the injuries that could sideline you. Rocks piercing the foot or breaking a toe on a curb is the end of a barefoot experiment, so I’m looking at this as an urban stepping stone to barefoot hiking when I’m better conditioned and more aware.

The flexible but rugged soles force you to adopt a more natural bio-mechanical stride. Rather than landing on your heel, as we’re accustomed to doing with cushioned soles, you land on the mid-foot or ball of the foot. This gait is less stressful on your knees and forces you to place the “strikepoint” of your foot beneath your hips, which also means you initiate forward movement with a lean instead of leg drive. The shoes’ toe channels don’t cause any discomfort, though I have found the five-channeled Injinji brand socks somewhat uncomfortable to wear beneath them, as the stitching pulls into the webbing between the toes.

The added articulation of the Vibram FiveFingers strengthens your metatarsal ligaments and muscles, which is noticeable in general balance and, oddly enough, upper body pressing strength. Since wearing these shoes every other day (every day can create arch and heel soreness) for two weeks — which took some adjustment in my walking style — I have almost eliminated lower back pain that started several years ago. I attribute this to the lack of elevated heel, which projects your knees forward and affects posture, often encouraging lordosis.

Within minutes of wearing these shoes there is a surprising new awareness of the ground, and a sense of tactile awakening. After all, when is the last time you walked on grass or any surface barefoot for more than a few minutes? I’m rediscovering the most natural means of bipedal movement in the world, which — in a concrete jungle — is a forgotten skill, and a forgotten joy.

-- Tim Ferriss  

Vibram FiveFingers
$60+
Available from Kayak Shed

Manufactured by Vibram



Home Exchanges

In the past seven years I’ve had 10 occasions to exchange my home with others. Home exchanges, in my opinion, are the logical extension of the “sharing is better than owning” philosophy. I’ve gotten to use 10 neat homes around the world and pay not a penny for the privilege of living there. And 10 counterparts have gotten the same deal in my home. Exchanging houses is indeed “better than owning.”

I live in California’s wine country, 65 miles from San Francisco. I’ve exchanged with families in Seattle; New York City (twice); upstate New York; France (Paris, Avignon, the Loire and the Pyrenees) and so on. I’ve just concluded arrangements for a July exchange in Copenhagen and hope to arrange two more exchanges for 2009. My experiences have been uniformly good.

The way I analyze it, house exchanges typically save money four ways:

1. House exchange = no hotel or rental cost;
2. Car exchange (common) = no rental car fees;
3. Access to a full kitchen = less need to rely on restaurants;
4. Cellphone exchange = no hassles with establishing a new phone or expensive overseas roaming charges.

House exchanges reduce the cost of vacations to essentially the transportation cost to get to the destination and admissions fees to museums, parks, etc.

I’ve found my exchange partners (or they’ve found me) because we jointly belong to one or more of the many exchange databases that have blossomed on the Internet. I’ve successfully used two of them, Intervac and HomeLink. There are many others — homeexchange.com, homeforhome.com, sabbaticalhomes.com — but I’ve not found an occasion to use them.*

The various services have different strengths. Each claims, one way or another, to be the biggest and the best, but it’s hard to find numbers to corroborate the claims. Arthur Frommer says HomeLink is the largest, followed by Intervac. Homeexchange.com claims 26,000 listings, but it seems thinner to me than either HomeLink or Intervac. Homeforhome has 500 listings in Spain, about 500 in other countries. The database engines vary enormously in their ease of use. Intervac seems to have about 1/3 of its members in the U.S., 1/3 in France, where I visit often, and 1/3 elsewhere. HomeLink seems to have more U.S. users (it claims the opposite) and more of them retired, like me, and hence more available to go during non-holiday periods.

Intervac and HomeLink work similarly (they began as one in 1953): you pay roughly $95-$120 annually to list your home and its attributes in the database (print catalogs are available, but cost extra). In turn you get to see and search others’ listings. Non-members can typically preview the database or a subset of it, but don’t get exchangers’ contact information. All show multiple pictures, if available. I pay careful attention to the interior photos, for they offer important information. My first exchange, for example, had horrible, uncomfortable furniture. Had I really paid attention to the photos I would have noticed that.

After joining members contact others directly via phone, mail or email. I’m an aggressive marketer: I’ll contact 15-20 members at a time, sometimes more if time is short. The services aren’t brokers, merely information providers. There is no additional fee paid to the service and most typically no money changes hands between exchangers.

Exchange arrangements can be whatever both parties agree to: a simultaneous exchange, or non-simultaneous, even a three-way exchange. I’m doing a non-simultaneous exchange in June, using a North Shore Chicago townhouse while the owners are at their vacation home. They’ll use my home in October when I’ll be on a road trip.

Exchangers typically prepare a book or document that lists important phone numbers, who to contact, what food and wine to eat, what not to use and so on. It’s important to have a local person who can check in your exchangers and act in your stead should a problem come up. All the services have suggestions and guidelines for first-time exchangers. The one at homeexchange.com is both typical and pretty good.

Obviously, it’s easiest to exchange if you live in a popular spot and have a beautiful well-furnished home or apartment. But there are all kinds of listings. The important thing, in my opinion, is to pay close attention to the photos and text and try to exchange like-for-like. I don’t try to exchange my home for a French chateau (though I did get a 16th-century farmhouse); and I am no longer enchanted by tiny run-down apartments in out-of-the-way locales.

In my experience, most people are fascinated with the notion of home exchanges and say they want to join in. But few end up doing so, even though willing exchange partners are plentiful. The problem seems to be a psychological hurdle: trusting strangers to take care of one’s home and belongings. This certainly does require a certain leap of faith, and it’s probably not for the anal and those not used to adaptation, but it’s worked for me.

-- Roger Karraker  

Sample Excerpts:
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*Note: if you have used any of these or any other house exchange web sites and can report positively or negatively, please let us know in the comments below the review or via the submit page. — Steven Leckart




Kahtoola Microspikes

When I met up with my normal winter hiking crew this season, everybody but me had Microspikes. After I fell twice on the icey trail (and I’m an agile hiker!), I came out of it with three gouges on my left hand. So I went ahead and got a pair. The next weekend we did an 8.5 mile hike on trails that were 30 percent ice. I wore my Microspikes, as did all but one of the other ten hikers. We saw only one other person farther up the mountain — a thin, gray-haired trailrunner with headphones on. As he zoomed past with a nod and a smile, I saw he was also wearing Microspikes. The first time I was able to run down a completely ice-covered hiking trail and feel secure, I said, “That alone was worth it right there!”

Prior to purchasing the Microspikes, I vetted them against other products in the same category, including the previously-reviewed Yaktrax or STABILicers. At $60 retail (I found mine for $44), Microspikes are expensive, but for anyone out on real trails, they’re the best. Yaktrax are the low-end, low-durability cheap version. STABILicers’s cleats are OK (and fine for walkways and everday use, as the previous reviewer says), but for more rugged terrain, the Microspikes are preferable. Easy to put on, they’re much lighter than STABILicers (14.4 oz vs. 28.5 oz for a comparable size — almost a full pound lighter!). They also grip ice much better. I’m not speaking from direct experience; just echoing the voice of experience I discovered from my research. BackpackGearTest’s reports alone were particularly convincing. I’ve actually run and tried my best to slide with them on, but just cannot at all. Still, they are low profile enough that you can wear them on all trail conditions aside from persistent rock/pavement.

Of course, none of these products are intended to compete with crampons, which excel in exceptionally-high vertical grades and when ice is very hard. They do not have the flexibility in range of use that Microspikes do, however, and are much heavier. Microspikes are not ghetto crampons either; they’re the best of a set of products that fill a different, more diverse niche.

While Microspikes are tough, they’re not without their flaws: they can gather snow under some conditions, do not provide any additional edging and some people report rubber grommet failures/tears over time. In the case of the latter, Kahtoola will ship a replacement pair to you — and if you’ve sent in the undamaged one with the damaged one, they will even send the good one back to you so you’ll have a spare.

Honestly, I was hoping to find a better-competing product to the Microspikes. It’s unusual to find such a monopoly in hiking/backpacking stuff. But I believe they have risen to prominence for a reason.

-- Adam Skinner  

Kahtoola Microspikes
$50

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Kahtoola



UNTRIED

Cool Tools Untried look cool, but — buyer beware — may seem cooler than they actually are. Neither I nor any of our reviewers has actually used the items below, so we can’t endorse them or speak from experience. If you have used any of these and can report (positively or negatively) — or if you have a similar item you love — please let us know in the comments below or via our submit page. Until then, here’s some intriguing stuff — Steven Leckart

Bioline
Available from Go Fast and Light

Biodegradable fishing line that functions like typical fishing line, but supposedly breaks up fully after five years (and even sooner, it wears down enough that a trapped fish can break free — again, that’s the claim). The company also manufactures dissolving medical sutures.

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(Thanks Padraig!)

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Presto Planter
Available from Clean Air Gardening

Auger attachment for power drill to help prep soil for seeds and bulbs.

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EcoBee Smart Thermostat
Available from EcoBee

Programmable home climate control with a slick touchscreen interface.

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Lifesaver Water Bottle
Available from LIFESAVER

H20 bottle with an integrated, replaceable carbon filter and pump.

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(Thanks Rob!)

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1-Step Metric Conversion Calculator
Available from Amazon

Enables quick metric conversions, when you’re on site and/or offline.

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Peltor Ear Muffs for Hard Hats
Available from Ear Plug Store

Helmet-ready ear protection.

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ULINE Scooter Cart
Available from ULINE

A worker’s comp disaster in the making? Maybe. No doubt a fun way to speed up the stock room, though.

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USB Cell
Available from USB Cell

AA Batteries that recharge via USB.

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Jonard Electrician Scissors

When I used to work on cabling (fiber optic and copper) in the field, I found the most frequent tool I reached for was my electrician’s scissors. Over the years, there have been a few “improved” versions, but nothing is nearly as comfortable and useful as the old, all-metal kind. Heavy, thick and blunt, these can take a lot of abuse and can do a lot more than cut. They have two notches for stripping small cables jackets. The edges on the backs of the blades are great for filing and scraping.

Since they are very rounded and short you can carry them in your pocket easily, but they’re still big enough to hold comfortably. A shortcoming of Leatherman-like tools is that getting out the scissors can be a pain. When you need scissors, usually you only have a single free hand. These fix that problem. I always have a pair on me. I now mostly use them for clipping cable ties, cutting lengths of string and rope, opening boxes, trimming plants around the house, and especially opening blister-packs. For my work, they were perfect for lacing down structured cabling and dressing cables into a computer or telco rack. We have to scrape paint from the racks to get to bare metal in order to fasten grounding cables, so the filing part of the scissor is a real help. Almost nothing does as good as a job at quick paint-scraping for small areas — and I’ve tried everything from 5-1 tools to a Dremel.

There are a variety of brands that still manufacture old-fashioned electrician scissors. Klein’s are easy to find in Home Depot, etc. The Jonard’s aren’t as common, but they’re a bit beefier, have a blunted point that won’t snap off, and a real nice edge on the back side.

– Andrew Metcalf

Jonard Electrician Scissors
$11
Available from Grainger

Previously available from Amazon

Manufactured by Jonard Industries Corp.

 



 

COOL TOOLS UNTRIED

Cool Tools Untried look cool, but — buyer beware — may seem cooler than they actually are. Neither I nor any of our reviewers have actually used the items below, so we can’t endorse them or speak from experience. If you have used any of these and can report (positively or negatively) — or if you have a similar item you love — please let us know. Until then, here’s some intriguing stuff.

– Steven Leckart

Optx 20/20 Soft Reading Lenses
Reusable stick-on bi-focals

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Available from Optx 20/20 and Amazon

(thanks Dean!)

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Digital Nutrition Scale
Precision dieting

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Available from EatSmart and Amazon

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Glo Glov
Safety reflective gloves

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Available from Glo Glov

(via Bike Hugger)

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Dexpan
Controlled, non-explosive demolition agent

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Available from Archer Company and Amazon

(thanks David!)

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The Solar Food Dryer
DIY sun-powered grub dehydration

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Available from Amazon

(via Mother Earth News)

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Cost Controller Power Strip
Digitally displays power consumption in kilowatt hours

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Available from Computer Gear

(via EcoGeek)

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Knot Tying Cards
Key-ring size knot instructions

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Available from Brigade Quartermasters

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World Pro Instant Air
Portable pneumatic system

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Available from World Tools and Amazon

See here for a video demo

(thanks Drew!)

Related items previously reviewed on Cool Tools:

COOL TOOLS UNTRIED – 2003

COOL TOOLS UNTRIED – 2004

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FuBar Demolition Tool

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Smart Power Strip