Rush 72 Backpack

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As solid goes, 5.11 Tactical is about as good as it gets. Tested by Viking Tactics for the manifold stresses of modern warfare (no, not the video game), the RUSH 72 will hold up to just about anything you can throw at it, water included. I wouldn’t submerge it, of course, there are drain points in bottom of the hydration compartment as well as the main compartment, but in rain, there’s very little risk of damage if you’ve closed the zippers fully.

The reason I recommend the 72 variant instead of the 24 is simple: there’s more space if you need it, and if you don’t need it, then you don’t have to use it. The compression straps pull tourniquet-tight in a few seconds, and you can loop them into the attached MOLLE webbing to keep them that way. Though the 72 is a bit wider than its smaller cousin, it’s not nearly as noticeable as it seems in the pictures, even when packed. I use my 72 as a Bug-Out-Bag, with the two side pockets functioning as compartments for items that might draw a few questions if packed in more accessible areas. And despite the considerable amount of gear I’ve managed to fit, it’s still about the same as my old SwissGear pack. That is to say, fairly mid-sized, as backpacks go.

The 72 is also perfect because it’s multipurpose, and fulfills various roles without needing any pouches tacked on (although I did find a MOLLE-compatible organizer for pens, an external hard drive, and other such tools; see the previously reviewed Pocket Field Organizer). It has sternum straps and hip pads that take the load significantly off your shoulders, and also features an aluminum hard-plate in the back both for support and so any pointy items in the pack won’t dig into your spine. A recent design update now features underside attachment points, so a rolled sleeping bag or tent can be carried under the pack with the aid of a bit of twine or paracord. Of course, you could also just stuff it into the compression pocket.

Oh. And did I mention pockets? Because there are a lot of those. It doesn’t look like it from the picture above, but there are tons of pockets: a sunglasses pocket, an organizer pocket, a main compartment, a water bladder compartment, two side compartments, and additional mesh and closed-nylon pockets within nearly every one of those. If you’re not the kind of person to use a hydration bladder, you can consider using the hydration pocket as laptop storage. It fits my 15″ Macbook Pro just fine with space to spare, so if you’ve got something like a gaming computer, then it will probably fit. The aluminum hard-plate doubles as extra protection.

I won’t lie, it’s pretty expensive as everyday packs go, especially if you aren’t used to paying for them. I was lucky enough to receive mine as a gift from those who knew which pack I wanted, so I was ecstatic. But every other pack I’ve owned (a lot of SwissGear, some generic brands) has suffered from ripped handles, zippers that catch and come apart, torn outer shells, and other flaws which significantly reduced the quality of the product. The 72 has every indication of being as battle-ready as Viking Tactics claims, and even with the heavy loads I’ve carried on and off for about three months, it has held up superbly and shows no sign of wear.

-- Nathaniel Gage  

RUSH 72 Backpack
$160 (price and stock fluctuates)

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by 511 Tactical



Kryptonite Evolution U-Lock

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I live in Baltimore, a city that still struggles with crime. As such, I take the security of my belongings seriously, and no place is this more evident than with the thing I most often leave in public: my bike.

In the past, and in safer cities, I have used steel cable locks without any problems. However, while locking my bike up around Baltimore I would frequently see the cut remains of thick steel cable locks. My dismay was reinforced when I saw a video of the time (mere seconds) it took to cut through even a thick steel cable lock with a pair of bolt cutters. Disconcerted, I asked my bike-savvy friends for a better solution. The universal answer was a Kryptonite U-lock coupled with a steel cable used to lock both your front and rear wheel to the bike frame and an immovable object.

I have a mixed history with Kryptonite. Eight years ago I owned and used an early version of their U-lock. Its size, weight, and ungainliness left much to be desired. In addition the model I owned had an embarrassing reputation for being picked by nothing more than a simple Bic pen. So I was wary when everybody and anybody with any knowledge about urban bike riding told me to use a Kryptonite lock.

After a few months with the new U-lock it is clear that eight years of substantial design changes have made a difference. Not only have they fixed almost every issue I had with my old U-lock, but they have made it smaller, lighter, and more secure.

Favored by bike couriers, the U-Lock is designed to couple the front wheel to the frame of the bike while locking to an external post, stop sign, or other immovable object. What Kryptonite has done to make this more usable is by shrinking the width and length of the U-lock so that it fits snugly into most back pockets (while the shorter length means it doesn’t fall out while riding). This subtle change makes it far easier to carry the lock thereby avoiding the need for a bag, or even for attaching it to the frame of the bike through a plastic connector (which are, at best, unreliable and prone to breaking).

In shrinking the lock for portability Kryptonite has also made it more difficult for bike thieves to steal the bike by preventing them from fitting a car jack between the lock and the steel bar (the main technique used to bust larger U-locks).

The one downside to Krytponite’s U-lock will always be its significant heft. The lock is predominantly made up of a solid chunk of hardened steel, and as such it weighs a considerable amount. But the knowledge that my bike is safer is much less of a burden than the few ounces of steel.

-- Oliver Hulland  

[For those interested in something even more secure and don't mind the extra heft, Kryptonite makes an overbuilt U-lock that is a bit more expensive available at Amazon.--OH]

Kryptonite Evo Bike Lock and Steel Cable
$49

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Kryptonite



Fiskars Cuts+More

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I use shears and scissors constantly while building projects from leather and fabric and other materials. I have tried other types, from kitchen shears to more expensive models, but I have found this model from Fiskars to be the absolute best. In my toolbox, they are indispensable.

The shears are made out of titanium which decreases the need for frequent sharpening. However, the included protective case doubles as a sharpener for when the need arises. They are a true multipurpose tool with a wire cutter, twine cutter, light rope cutter, and even an awl tip for making holes. In terms of use, I have cut leather, fabric, even sheet vinyl with equal ease. They cut cleanly every time, on every material.

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They even come apart for cleaning or whatnot. Too cool! Fiskars is a brand I trust, and these shears confirm that fact once again. I believe these handy shears are a great addition to any toolbox.

-- Stephen Young  

Fiskars Cuts+More
9″ shears
$10

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Fiskars



Beginning Sous Vide

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There’s a new way of cooking. When food is simmered in a sealed pouch at low temperatures for long periods of time the food flavors are surprisingly enhanced. Meats in particular benefit from this type of preparation, called sous vide in French. I found fish and veggies made by this method to be amazingly tasty, with a unique texture and bursting with savories. Meats are stunningly moist without being overdone or underdone. This method is neither roasting, stewing, or searing. It’s a whole new method of cooking that brings a new set of flavors, textures, and treats.

But lower cooking temperatures require more exactitude, and the food pouches need to have their air removed to ensure even cooking, so the equipment to cook this way has been expensive and confined to fancy restaurants. Naturally, amateurs quickly figured out home versions, while appliance makers started selling cheaper residential gadgets.

But know-how was still in short supply. I found this cookbook the best one to start out with. Low temperature or sous vide cooking requires a whole new set of recipes. Cooking times are so different you need charts to determine duration and temperature, which this book provides. This guide explains the principles extremely well and they assume you’ll be using homemade or home grade equipment. Basically what you need is a water bath that can maintain its temperature to within a few degrees over several hours or more. Dedicated units have bubblers and thermostats to keep very even water temperatures. And an ordinary FoodSaver freezer vacuum unit will produce airless watertight pouches of food.

However there is an extremely easy and cheap way to try out sous vide cooking for the first time without buying any equipment at all. You are limited in what you can do, but you’ll get an idea of what the process can do. All you need is a cooler, a kitchen thermometer, and a vacuum packed hunk of food from the grocery store.
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As as example, we took some frozen vacuum packed fish from Trader Joes. First you defrost it.
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Then you fill up the cooler halfway or so with water heated on the stove to the appropriate low temperature (found in the book or online). In the case of fish it’s probably not much above the maximum temperature coming out of your water heater. Let the food steep in the water for the required time. (It can be up to hours for meat.) You may need to add some hot water if your thermometer shows the water cooling. Unwrap the finished fish and add sauce.

If you like the results you can build your own bath, or purchase a home unit, and use this book to guide your exploration.

-- KK  

Beginning Sous Vide
Jason Logsdon
2010, 201 pages
$23

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Sample excerpts:

The basic concept of sous vide cooking is that food should be cooked at the temperature it will be served at. For instance, if you are cooking a steak to medium rare, you want to serve it at 131°F.

With traditional cooking methods you would normally cook it on a hot grill or oven at around 400°F-500°F and pull it off at the right moment when the middle has reached 131°F. This results in a bulls eye effect of burnt meat on the outside turning to medium rare in the middle. This steak cooked sous vide would be cooked at 131°F for several hours. This will result in the entire piece of meat being a perfectly cooked medium rare. The steak would then usually be quickly seared at a high heat to add the flavorful, browned crust to it.

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A great low-cost method of sealing your food is food-grade ziploc bags. They have a few drawbacks but work great for short cooked foods, especially if you are just getting started with sous vide cooking and do not want to spend any up-front money. In most cases sealing your foods with ziploc bags is also a lot easier than using a vacuum sealer.

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Many home cooks prefer a standard home vacuum sealer like a FoodSaver. These vacuum sealers work by inserting the opening of the sous vide food pouch into a small depression in the machine. The sealer then sucks the air out of the pouch and seals it using a heating element. They are the most cost effective method of vacuum sealing your food.

*

The main advantage is price. If you already have a cooler and ziploc bags then it is basically free to try.

Another advantage is that the water coming out of many home faucets is around 131°F-139°F, meaning it is the perfect temperature to cook steak in. If your faucet is in that range it just means you rink up the tap water, fill the cooler, and throw int he steak. It can be very simple.

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Some of the most impressive results of sous vide are created with tough cuts of beef. Sous vide allows you to do things that traditional methods are unable to accomplish, such as cooking short ribs medium-rare but still tenderizing them, or creating fall-apart medium-rare roasts.

This is accomplished because cooking tough cuts of beef with sous vide allows you to break down and tenderize the meat without cooking it above medium-rare and drying it out. Once temperatures in beef go above 140°F the meat begins to dry out and become more bland. However, they also start to tenderize more quickly above this temperature which is why tough roasts and braises are done for hour at high temperatures. Using sous vide, you can hold the meat below 140°F for a long enough time for the tenderizing process to run its course.

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Most tough cuts of beef are cooked sous vide for between 1 and 2 days. However, for some more tender beef roasts shorter cooking times of 4 to 8 hours will be enough time to tenderize the meat fully.

*

If adding a sauce or marinade make sure your vacuum sealer does not suck it out, you can normally seal it before all the air is out to prevent this just fine. Also, we do not recommend using fresh garlic, onions, or ginnier, as they can begin to take on a bad flavor over the long cooking times.




New Trent External USB Batteries

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I have used a New Trent IMP500 external USB battery for the last two years, mostly in the backcountry, to keep multiple devices charged (you need to make sure you have adapter tips or a short cable for each type of device) and am impressed with its capacity and durability. These batteries work when you need them to work.

New Trent has consistently made the most powerful and reliable external USB batteries for USB-devices like the iPhone. Look at the New Trent website to decide which product is right for you, then look at the reviews on Amazon for confirmation of my first sentence.

The newest battery, IMP1000, has 11,000 mAH capacity, about 5-6 recharges for an iPhone 4. Before I bought my IMP500 I researched extensively before buying. Since then I have used this battery under extreme conditions for the last two years, and am more than satisfied.

-- Kim  

New Trent IMP1000
1100 mAh
$70

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by New Trent



Patagonia Houdini Jacket

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The Patagonia Houdini jacket has become an essential piece of kit that I take with me nearly any time I leave the house. Its main function is as a windbreaker, but the DWR-treated nylon fabric works well in light rain. With that being said, in a downpour the jacket will wet out. But because its so thin and light it dries astonishingly fast, especially when compared to my bigger, heavier, rain jacket that feel wet for hours.

The jacket weighs around 3-ounces, and packs into its own chest pocket forming a baseball-sized bag that takes up minimal room. The fabric, despite being ultralight, is tough enough to survive most branches and scrapes seen while hiking, and it has found a permanent place in my pack while camping.

Above all else, it is the versatility of the Houdini that really sings. In the spring, I only need a light base layer and the Houdini when I go out. If I get chilled I toss it on to cut the wind and stay warm. Alternately, it works beautifully in the summer after a hot day when the temp starts dropping, or when I need a bit of lightweight sun and wind protection at the beach.

There are no doubt cheaper wind breakers out there, but for my money the Patagonia Houdini provides an incredible bang for the buck. Not only does it work just as well in the spring as it does in the summer, but its so light I know I’ll actually have it with me when I need it.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Patagonia Houdini Jacket
$99

Available in men’s and women’s from Patagonia.



Petapixel

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This blog focuses on photography rather than just cameras. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the camera. It’s about the eyes, about seeing, about technical compentance, about tricks, techniques, creativity, and what you do with all the images you make or take. It’s about having fun with photography, as well as making money with it. There’s also a lot about the rights of photographers and the complex issues of copyright and “borrowing” from other photographers. There’s plenty about low tech pinhole cameras, and point and shoots, and phone camera photography. And yes, there’s bits about the newest cameras, but that part is not overwhelming. I’ve been reading it daily (about 3 or 4 short posts per day) for the past 18 months and it is continually helpful. The site is brisk, surprising, informative, current, and is not trying to sell gear. It’s one of the better blogs for enthusiasts of any stripe that I’ve seen. Almost anyone taking pictures will find it useful.

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

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San Diego-based wedding photographer Aaron Willcox won 1st place in an engagement photo contest with this shot showing a feat of incredible strength. No Photoshop trickery or invisible wires were used in making this image (nor does the guy have Superman-esque strength)




Altec Lansing Orbit

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I’ve used this ultra-portable mono speaker for nearly two years, and can’t recommend it enough. Even though it is “mono”, it is “very good mono”, and part of the reason I chose mono is because of the sound limitations of small stereo speakers, best illustrated by Christopher Locke’s comments regarding KK’s review of the iPal.

This little thing easily fits in your backpack, briefcase, purse, or even clipped to your belt for mobile tunes. And the sound is really, really good. Many would call it amazing. Can I compare it to others? I’d rather not get into a holy war. The Orbit, in my mind, is a cool tool for being excellent at what it does for about $20.

I think it is pretty safe to say, that for the intended purpose, it seems to be among the top, if not the top, rated portable speakers for listening to your iPhone, iPad, mp3 player, etc.

I went looking for something like this when I realized that I had a great little MP3 player that was about the size of a matchbox, but unfortunately could only listen to through headphones. There were so many times when we’d go to the park and have a picnic or something and we’d like to have some tunes, but didn’t want to lug yet another thing the size of a boombox. It’s enough to have the ice chest, the bbq, the basket/box of food, etc.

This little hockey puck (well, only slightly thicker, at about 2″) does the trick. We use it often around the house to plug into the laptop when we want to have some tunes but not through the tinny laptop speakers. It comes with a nice little case, a carabiner clip, runs on 3 AAA batteries and just seems to go and go.

There are some minor complaints among detractors, most commonly by people expecting the unreasonable; that a 2 to 3-inch speaker should be able to bring you to your knees with your hands over your ears. It’s not going to be your solution if you want to blast dance band volumes out of your pocket, but it certainly is just the ticket to have on the table with you on the back porch, or beef up the sound out of your laptop.

It is one of my most successful purchases, with great bang for the buck.

-- Jeff Jewell  

Altec Lansing Orbit Portable Speaker
$70

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Altec Lansing



Over-Sized Post-Its

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As a long-time aficionado of office supplies, I feel qualified to review this wonderful new (to me, at least) product. These über-Post-its measure 4″ x 4″ and are a different kettle of fish entirely from others I’ve used. Namely their Lilliputian 1.5″ x 2″, 2″ x 3″, and 3″ x 3″ brethren. These have an entirely different heft and presence under your pencil or pen or Sharpie.

And I like that these notes are lined, because I’m now using them as an aide-mémoire regarding what’s upcoming each day on my blog Book Of Joe. There are just enough lines on them for my eight daily posts and their working titles.

Finally, by combining them with an ultra-fine point retractable Sharpie, I’ve found note-taking heaven on Earth.

-- Joe Stirt  

[For those who prefer naked Post-Its, you can get lineless 4"x6" ones from Amazon.]

Post-It Super Sticky Notes
4″x4″
$12 for six pads

Manufactured by Post-It



 

AskCT Contest Winners

Congratulations to Ethan Fardoux and Christopher Wanko, winners of the Ask Cool Tools Contest. Ethan’s request for the best everyday backpack was the most popular question garnering nearly 2,000 views and an astonishing 23 answers, while Christopher’s recommended use of colored rubber bands was voted the best solution for managing disorganized electronics cables.

Given the success of this contest we will definitely be holding something like this again in the near future. But for now, can you answer any of these questions?

What is the best way to fix a broken zipper?

What are the best remote classes for developing graphic design skills?

What is a good resource for historical stock price data?

What’s a good supplementary power source for an iPhone?

What’s the best backpacking compass? Orienteering how-to?