Hammock Camping 101

Western North Carolina has been ahead of the curve when it comes to hammocks, most likely thanks to ENO’s headquarters being located in Asheville. You’ve probably got friends who leave their hammock up year round on their porch or backyard. You’ve most likely experienced the frustration of loosing out on the last available tree at an open field music festival. If you’re a personal hammock owner, you may have already ditched the tent for a hammock. Lots of people are doing the same thing.

Hammock camping isn’t about roughing it or sacrificing comfort for the sake of a lighter load, though that’s a bonus. It’s about increased comfort, easier setup and takedown, and an enjoyable time. If you haven’t been in a hammock in awhile, you’ll be surprised by how comfortable they are these days. Gone are the pinching cords of rope and uneven hang. Today’s hammocks are made of breathable nylon. ENO’s hammocks also utilize a “tree saver” suspension system (no nails or hooks) so you leave less of a footprint in the great outdoors. Hammocks generally offer all the features of a tent including gear lofts and privacy tarps for changing your clothes while standing (take that, tent!).

ENO hammocks are supported between two trees, posts, or other structures and come in styles for singles or couples. Windpouch hammocks harness the power of the air and fit one comfortable lying down or three to four using it like a couch. Inflatable hammocks come with a stake to prevent any unfortunate loss on a windy day. It’s easy to go into far more detail here, but stopping one of our locations will give you access to experts who can run through all of the features.

Sleeping pads and other camping comforts have come a long way, but can be a pricey investment for a family or someone just getting started. This usually leads to a choice based on budget and a feeling of coming home happy, but exhausted, and saying, “I can’t wait to sleep in my own bed.” When you climb into your hammock after a day in the woods, you’ll find support for your entire body – from head to toe and from side to side. You’ll go to sleep with a smile on your face and wake up feeling recharged and energized. Instead of feeling like you need to get out of your tent as quickly as possible in the morning to experience being outside, you’re already there!

In addition to the added support, you won’t have to worry about a stray rock under your tent or searching for completely level ground. You can camp on a hill or in the rain or snow. Accessories like bug nets and rain tarps are commonplace and take less time to set up than tents. ENO has just released the Nomad hammock stand, a portable shock-cord stand that supports up to 300 lbs.

As with any outdoor gear, it’s all a question of how committed you are to investing in the gear you need to be comfortable. With hammock camping – just like tent camping – it’s easy to get all the basics you need at an affordable price. You can always invest in additional gear and four-season options.

If you find hammock camping isn’t for you, you’ll still have an incredible piece of functional and comfortable gear added to your outdoor arsenal.

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New At DBO: Liquid Logic Kayaks

For years, Liquid Logic has been the name to beat in the whitewater kayaking scene. Their feature innovative designs, and their industry leading “Bad Ass Outfitting” has long been recognized as the most comfortable ride out there. They also are eager to listen to the paddling community and cater to what paddlers really want, earning them a cult following. But what makes this stellar brand truly special is that all of their boats are made right here in WNC, just 7 miles south of our Parkway Center Location. Paddling locally made boats not only allows me to support our local community, but also gives me the advantage of paddling a boat that was crafted for our local waterways.

Diamond Brand Outdoors recently partnered with Liquid Logic to become the exclusive gear shop where you can check out their lineup. In addition to offering boats for purchase, we also have a full demo fleet, perfect for trying before you buy (or just nerding out about new boats).

I recently had the chance to take our shiny new demo fleet for a few test runs to learn the ins and outs of their performance and wanted to share my insights. For comparison, I’m 5’10” and 170lbs. Due to low rainfall, tests were conducted on Section 9 of the French Broad at approximately 1,000 cfs and on the Green River Narrows. To keep this friendly for beginning boaters, I’ve defined a few kayaking terms at the end of my reviews, so feel free to scroll down for help with any unfamiliar lingo.

Remix

Remix

The Remix series is one of Liquid Logic’s most versatile offerings. A semi-plaining hull means it maintains high secondary stability and is fast + great at carving, while still being very forgiving. The wide stern gives this boat exceptional stability when getting surfed, passing over aggressive eddies, or when unintentionally squirted by large holes. This is my personal favorite boat for beginners, and I often use it to teach in. I have found that it excels at river running and big water. I’ve taken it on many high volume rivers including the Grand Canyon and Gauley, but it still feels very comfortable on steep creeks such as the Green River Narrows. Available in 3 different sizes as well as a kid’s size for the little one, anyone can find a fit in this boat and can easily have it take them from the very beginning stages of paddling to the most advanced rivers.

Braaap

Braap

Probably the most talked about new boat design in recent years, the Braaap’s design is based on speedy and maneuverable slalom boats. The main characterization of the Braaap is the full displacement hull with low volume stern that comes to a narrow point.  Often this boat is thought of as the reincarnation of the classic Dagger RPM from the 90’s; it is a splat and squirt machine. While I am sure some design aspects were influenced by the RPM, this boat is not a copy of the famous “Radical Play Machine”, nor was it meant to be. The Braaap is made to handle the most challenging of whitewater, while having the benefit of being able to stern squirt and splat under the right conditions. I found it to be an incredibly fun river runner, able to zip into edies, speed through the rapid, and maintain amazing secondary stability. I did however find the primary stability of the boat to be much lower than the rest of the lineup. This is primarily due to the boat’s narrow width and full displacement hull.

One of the features I was most excited to test was its ability to squirt compared to the Dagger RPM and other classic low volume stern boats. Even though this boat is not designed with that specifically in mind, this ability has been the source of much hype and speculation. The boat was able to squirt and get vertical, but it needed a harder eddie line and a little bit more force to throw it around compared to an RPM.

If buyers are interested in a boat more suited for down river play, Liquid Logic also offers the Party Braaap. It’s the same boat, but has the stern further squished down. Removing 2.5 gallons of volume from the back allows it to get vertical much more easily.

Mullett

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The Mullet is a stern squirter for the bigger paddlers. This river runner lives up to its name by being a party in the back and business up front. The design is very similar to the Braaap, but with more play in mind. The Mullet offers a displacement hull and a couple of extra inches in length, sure to be appreciated by bigger paddlers. During testing, I felt like the mullet had better primary stability than the Braaap while still maintaining plenty of secondary stability. I was able to get it vertical more easily than the Braaap, but still struggled a little in my weight range compared to other boats. For small to medium paddlers looking to play on all the rivers features, I would recommend the Party Braaap for easier squirting and splatting.

Jefe Grande

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The classic Jefe is back by popular demand. This is Liquid Logic’s full on creeking machine.  With large volume, high rocker, and a displacement hull, the Jefe is made to be confidence inspiring for beginning paddlers and is also a good choice for intermediate and advanced boaters pushing their limits. The large rocker allows it to boof over any obstacle, and the large volume lets it plow through everything else, while staying on the surface of the water. The wide width of the boat keeps good primary stability, while the displacement hull keeps you stable and confident when on edge and provides very high secondary stability.

While the Jefe won’t be the speediest of boats and lacks the agility to easily carve and zip into eddies, this is a fantastic boat for paddlers who are looking to be confident and safe on any of their local creek runs and not allow anything to stand in their way.  Available in two different sizes, The Grande for medium to large paddlers or those looking to have the max amount of volume to keep them on the surface, or the chico for older kids or smaller paddlers.

Stomper

Stomper

The Stomper is a perfect hybrid of the Jefe and Remix series of boats. With the Remix’s semi-plaining hull and the Jefe’s large volume, the Stomper is a fast creek boat designed for quickly dialing in your favorite steep creeks with speed and agility. The high rocker allows the boat to boof over any hole and maintain its speed when running up onto rocks during an assisted boof.  The hull provides both good primary and secondary stability, and combines the speed and carving associated with the Remix series with the easy boofing that the Jefe’s high volume allows.

This excellent option provides beginners with a boat that’s forgiving to paddle and makes it easy to practice moves. Intermediate and advanced paddlers will appreciate the speed and carving ability gains over a traditional creeker. This boat is a great option for those looking to progress to creeking and who want to be able to boof everything, while the Remix is a more solid option for river running and big water. The Stomper is available in two sizes to accommodate larger paddlers and those looking to pack in expedition gear.

Wanna test these boats for yourself? They’re all available for demo at our Parkway Center location (1378 Hendersonville Road, Asheville, NC, 28803). Demos allow you to take one of our boats out for 24 hours on the river of your choice and are $25 per boat. If you decide to purchase a boat from us, we’ll subtract the cost of up to four demos + you’ll score 20% off of all accessories

-Jack Schroeder, Diamond Brand Outdoors Paddlesports Specialist

Kayaking Terminology

Boof : A fundamental skill in whitewater, boofing is the act of keeping the bow of your boat from being submerged under water by a hole, wave, pourover, and boil/pillow or keeping your boat horizontal off of a large drop.  Often assisted by running the boat up onto a rock like a ramp.

Edging: Leaning a boat over and maintaining control while making a sharp turn or while surfing.

Bracing: Using your paddle to either keep the boat from capsizing or to maintain the boat on its “edge” in a low brace where the paddlers body is nearly parallel with the water while the boat is leaned over to its tipping point.

Carving: Engaging a boat’s edge to turn the boat by only tilting your hips one way or another.

Down River Play: An intermediate to advanced form of kayaking where the paddler executes tricks through whitewater rapids such as stern or bow squirts, splats onto rocks, flips over drops, and spins on slides and rocks. Often done using boats with a low amount of volume in the stern.

Stern Squirt: Getting a kayak vertical in the water with the bow up in the air and the stern submerged underwater. Often done intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, this is an old school move that has now seen a comeback in modern kayak design. The kayaker uses features on the river such as eddy lines or holes to suck the stern of the kayak down and maintain the boat in a vertical position.

Splat: A form of stern squirting.  A Splat is when the kayaker runs the boat up against a vertical or steep rock, driving the bow of the boat onto the rock and into the air; there a splat may be maintained using balance to keep the kayak vertical up again the rock. This usually requires a boat with a low volume stern.

Rocker: The amount of rise from the bottom of the boat to the tip of the bow.  More rocker aids with boofing over holes and rocks while less rocker improves speed and tracking.

Edge: The side of the boat where the hull meets the deck.  A sharp edge has a sharper angle while a soft edge is rounded.

Primary Vs. Secondary Stability

Kayaks have two types of stability, primary and secondary.  Primary stability is related to when the boat is sitting or being actively paddled in flat water and feels very stable.  It doesn’t feel very tippy and does not require much balance while paddling.  Secondary stability is the boat’s tendency to become more stable as the paddler leans over for a low brace or during a roll. As the boat leans to one side it will resist flipping completely over. 

Plaining Vs. Displacement Hull

Planing hulls are traditionally characterized by a nearly flat bottom with a sharp edge.  This gives the boat a large amount of speed, high primary stability but often lower secondary stability. More advanced paddlers find this to improve the boat’s ability to carve, catch eddies, and surf, while beginner paddles will find the high primary stability comforting at first but more tippy in rapids where they have to lean and engage secondary stability.

Displacement hulls are recognizable by a very rounded hull with very little to no edge.  These boats have lower primary stability and feel more “wobbly” in flat water but have a very high secondary stability.  Beginner boaters will find these to be a little intimidating at first when entering the boat for the first time but when advancing their skills these boats are far more forgiving and assist with bracing, rolling, and landing after drops.

Semi-Planing hulls are a third form of hull design that is a mixture of both planing and displacement hulls. Characterized by a relatively flat bottom with slight edge and rounded sides.  These hulls share characteristics from both main designs in the fact that they hold good primary stability but maintain good secondary stability.  They are also found to still be fast and can carve but are more forgiving that a traditional planing hull.

 

 

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Crew Essentials: Gear for Traveling Smarter

My favorite outdoor memory is a summer camping trip to the Republic of Khakasia on the southwestern edge of Siberia. Traveling to the lake, it was fascinating to watch the landscape transform from dense Siberian forest to vast Central Asian plains peppered with beautiful lakes. The lake we camped on the edge of, Lake Belyo, is a cool saltwater lake full of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. It was a perfect spot for roasting shashlik and midnight swims. The unspoiled beauty was worth every moment of the 60 hour train ride and 6 hour drive it took to get there.

I think travel is one of the most enriching experiences out there, but there can definitely be some misadventures, especially as you gain experience. I’ve found having the right gear and packing light and smart, makes all the difference. Below are a few items that I won’t leave home without.

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Osprey Ozone Convertible 22 

$300 (see store for sale price)

If you’re going to own one piece of luggage, hands down, this is the piece to own. It’s perfectly carry on sized and soft sides maximize space, so you can easily pack everything you need in one space. It easily transforms from a piece of rolling luggage to a backpack, a feature that I love when it comes to riding public transit.

The detachable daypack is a perfect lightweight take along for day hikes and eco tours. I like to combine urban and outdoor exploration on my trips, so I love that I can bring a daypack without it taking up any extra space and still have room for a shoulder bag for the city.

 

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Keen Morrison Mid

$150

I’ve worn Keen Boots for years and found them to be virtually indestructible and both supportive and comfortable for all day wear. I love the Morrison Mid’s relaxed, yet classic, styling. It’s easy to dress up for dinner, but also pairs well with jeans. It’s shorter height also means that it takes up less space in my suitcase. The 59 boot from Keen is a great day to night option for men.

free-fly-pullover

Free Fly Bamboo Fleece Pullover

$70

After a few frigid flights, unseasonable cold snaps, and an unexpected night in a train station (that’s a good story, always double check your tickets), I’ve learned to never travel without a cozy layer, regardless of season. This hoody from Free Fly is exceptionally soft and plush + it has my favorite feature, thumb holes. Bamboo rayon also makes a fantastic fabric for travel, due to its natural moisture wicking and odor management properties. It’s also available in a 1/4 zip for men.

 

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Prana Meme Pants

$85

The perfect travel pant. They’re cute enough for city wear, but they are made out of Prana’s classic Stretch Zion fabric and are tough enough to take on a hike or even rock climbing. They’re Scotch Guard treated to resist stains and dry quickly, should you need to wash them. My favorite feature is the 4-way stretch which makes them comfortable enough for a long layover. My husband also swears by the men’s version.

 

exo-undies

Exofficio Give N Go Sport Mesh Underwear

Hipkini style shown, $24

No suitcase would be complete without a couple pairs of Exo undies. They dry extremely quickly and feature an antimicrobial treatment to fight odors, making them ideal for handwashing on the go. The comfortable weave of the sport mesh fabric makes them so comfortable you might forget you’re wearing them. They’re also available in several cuts and colors for men and women.

 

kavu-eloise

Kavu Eloise

This bag is lightweight, folds flat, and can be worn cross body for security. I like to pack it in my carry on and use it to hold my essentials while exploring the city, it’s surprisingly roomy and perfectly fits a wallet, phone, iPad mini, and a map.

 

New at DBO: Water (and Town) Ready Footwear from Astral

From fantastic paddling to river parks, Asheville has plenty of opportunities to hit the water, and the unseasonably warm forecast this week has us dying to get our toes wet. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve just received a shipment of water ready footwear from Astral. Their designs are awesome for paddling and just general kicking around. And did we mention they’re based out of Asheville? From new styles to old standbys, here are a few of our favorites.

Rosa (Women’s) & Filipe (Men’s)

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We’ve gotta confess, with the abundance of flip-flop choices in the outdoor industry, when we heard Astral was coming out with a flip-flop, we were a bit skeptical. But then we met the Rosa & Filipe and it was love at first wear. These flips are lightweight with plenty of arch support and feature Astral’s signature super sticky G15 rubber and razor siping on the sole. We’d be so bold as to say that they’re the grippiest flip flops on the market. But what really sets these guys apart is the convertible heel strap. It’s a breeze to add and remove and makes it a cinch to take them from flip flop to sandal anytime you need a little extra support.

Lowyak (Men’s & Women’s)

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Low-profile enough to fit in any boat and stylish enough that you’ll want to wear them around town, the Lowyak is the whole package. As if that’s not enough reasons to make them your go-to shoe, their incredibly lightweight construction makes them a fantastic choice for travel or an ultra-lightweight camp shoe.

Brewer (Men’s) & Brewess (Women’s)

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Grippy, water-ready, and supportive, we think the Brewer & Brewess are the ultimate outdoor sneakers. Need to portage your boat, fit in an unexpected hike, tackle a stream crossing, or just kick around downtown? The Brewer & Brewess have your back. With great features like insane grip, quick drainage, and balance-promoting midsoles, these are legit water shoes, but once you try them, they’ll quickly become a part of your everyday wardrobe.

Photos: Spencer Cooke, Effort Inc.Instagram Facebook

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What’s the Deal with Kayak Fishing in Western North Carolina?

In the last decade, cleanup efforts have lead to an explosion in Stand up Paddleboarding, kayaking, and tubing on our mountain rivers and streams. Kayak fishing has taken off in Western North Carolina over the past couple of years as a relaxing and affordable way to get off the bank and access remote waters. Kayaks offer a stealth means of approaching easily spooked fish, but there are a few tips you should know.

Kayak fishing has gained popularity locally due to its broad appeal as an eco-friendly way to have fun and get exercise, as well as its relatively low cost of entry compared to motorized boats. The most popular kayaks for fishing are rotationally molded from polyethylene due to their durability and lower cost. The new generation of catamaran (twinhull) kayaks are stable enough to enable both paddling and fishing in the standing position, offering greater versatility and angling efficiency. This development solves some ergonomic problems that are associated with sitting for long hours without being able to change positions and frees you from the need to sacrifice speed for stability.

The French Broad River, which cuts through the region, offers great kayak fishing for small mouth bass, trout, and musky. The easy portability of a kayak gives access to waters otherwise off-limits to powerboats, which often means a bounty of eager-to-bite fish. A couple of hours of catch-and-release fishing after work or on the weekends provide some great healthy relaxation.

Unlike lake fishing, river fishing can swing pretty heavily with water conditions. When the river is high and currents are swift, it’s not a good time to be on the water – nor is fishing going to be great after a hard rain. Ideal conditions are when the river is slightly gloomy and low. (As an aside, the French Broad River is very clean. It’s rarely clear, but that’s because the banks are eroded, leading to sediment and runoff when it rains. However, it’s a designated drinking water source for more than a million people.)

A great place to put in is just north of Asheville city limits in Woodfin. There are several riverside parks along NC 251 with boat access. Since it’s past the wastewater treatment plant, you’ll find larger fish. There’s a lull in August and September, but it’s not uncommon to see one or two fish around 14-16 inches an hour during the rest of the year.

The latest generation of fishing kayaks can be found for $1,000 to $3,000. Beyond the substantially lower cost upfront cost, kayak anglers spend less on towing fuel costs, insurance, maintenance, and launch fees. If you’ve been debating getting into kayak fishing, there’s never been a better time to start than now.

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Traveling Bug Free

With the start of travel season comes one unfortunate side effect: bug season. While we’re fortunate to live in an area where mosquito bites are typically just an annoyance, ticks are a fairly common problem and the rising prevalence of bug born illnesses has many people rethinking their bug protection routine. Of course, those with international travel plans need to be particularly proactive about bug protection. To help you have a fun and bug free experience on your next adventure, our team of travel experts has put together a list of our most effective bug prevention strategies.

Cover Up

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It may sound simple, but the more covered you keep your skin, the less chance there is that you’ll be bitten. Lightweight long sleeve tops and long pants will keep you protected without overheating. Because sight is one of the senses that mosquitoes use to find their next meal, it’s always a good idea to steer clear of dark clothes, in favor of light, whenever possible. Our favorite options are long sleeve synthetic shirts with mesh panels for airflow, like the Percorsa or Reef Runner shirts from Exofficio.

Choose Your Spray Wisely

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Most heavy duty bug sprays rely on either picaridin or DEET. While both are very effective at repelling mosquitoes and black flies, there are plusses and minuses to both. Think about what kind of bugs may be a problem where you’re heading- DEET is somewhat more effective against ticks, but picaridin does a better job keeping no-see-ums at bay. The effect on your clothing is another factor to keep in mind. DEET can damage synthetics (think every non-wool/bamboo piece of technical clothing you own), so be careful to keep it away from your clothing and other synthetic gear when applying and wash your clothing frequently to get rid of any residue.

Double Up Your Protection

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To keep as protected as possible, we’re huge fans of using bug repellant clothing, in addition to, topical bug protection. Permethrin spray is a bug repellant designed to bond to fabrics. It can be sprayed on your clothing and gear to provide an inexpensive second layer of defense against bugs, with each application lasting up to two weeks. If you’d like longer lasting protection, several brands, including Exofficio, have started making clothing pre-treated with permethrin, that keep their effectiveness for over 70 washings.

Eco note: while permethrin is considered to be extremely safe for humans and warm blooded animals, it has been shown to be very harmful to cold blooded creatures. We don’t recommend using permethrin spray or permethrin treated clothing for water sports and hikers should use caution when crossing streams.

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Festival Essentials

Ahhh festival season, the magical time when your weekends are spent camping, discovering new bands, and enjoying cold brews. Our team is stoked to be kicking off festival season this weekend at LEAF (our sister store, Frugal Backpacker, will be running a pop-up shop, so stop by and say “hi”). As experienced festival goers, we’ve learned that preparation makes all the difference in whether a festival is an awesome experience, or memorable for all the wrong reasons.Over the years, we’ve compiled a list of the things that we don’t hit festivals without, here are a few of our favs.

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A Durable Beverage Holder

Love warm beer? We thought not. On a warm day, drinking a beer out of a disposable plastic cup is pointless (not to mention, terrible for the environment). That’s why we always bring our own cups. One of our favorites is the Sili Pint (shown). This packable silicone pint glass is inexpensive, indestructible, provides just the right amount of insulation, and comes in fun colors. If you want something a little fancier, we’re also huge fans of the Hydroflask True Pint. This double wall stainless cup will keep your beverage frosty and sweat free for hours.

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A Comfy Place to Perch

When you’re in it for the long haul, having a place to chill is essential. We love the ENO Islander Blanket (shown). It’s super lightweight and features a hidden pocket, perfect for keeping keys and cash out of sight. If a real chair is more your style, the Helinox Chair One can’t be beat. This super compact and lightweight chair is easy to set up and take down for easy portability.

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Good Footwear

If you like to get down, you need to keep your feet happy. Supportive (but still breathable) footwear is a must have. While we love Chacos (they are, after all, a festival staple), this season we’ve fallen in love with Keen Uneeks (shown). These funky sandals are super comfortable thanks to their sock-like fit and contoured arch. We dig the fun colors they’re available in and that they offer toe protection.

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Rainwear

Nothing can rain on your parade quite like, well, rain on your festival. Don’t let soggy surroundings ruin your festival experience; it’s so easy to be prepared. A reusable poncho makes for a lightweight and compact emergency cover (we always keep a couple on hand for unprepared friends), but for regular use, we prefer a lightweight rain shell. If you overheat easily or participate in a lot of outdoor activities, you might want to consider a higher end model, like the Arc’teryx Beta LT, but for most users, we think that a classic no-frills version like the Marmot Precip Jacket (shown) works perfectly.

Need inspiration on great festivals to hit in the Blue Ridge? Pick up a copy of this month’s Blue Ridge Outdoors or check out their festival directory here.

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Picking Up Paddling (Without Blowing Your Budget)

As one of America’s best river towns, it’s not surprising that paddlesports are one of the largest growing forms of outdoor recreation in the Asheville area. With new breweries and other hangouts popping up along the riverfront, a relaxing afternoon paddle just keeps getting more appealing. The only downside? Paddling can be a pricey sport to get in to. Thankfully some of our favorite boat and SUP makers have come up with high quality but no-frills options to make paddling accessible for everyone. Whether you’re thinking about getting into paddling or you’re a seasoned expert who wants an inexpensive spare boat or board to take friends out on the water, you’re going to love these frugal options.

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Perception Pescador

The perfect rec boat to get you started. The Pescador is a simple sit-on-top with a comfort molded seat and plenty of storage space. The 10’ is a relatively light 52lbs and is beefy enough to support up to 325lbs. The best part? It retails for a wallet friendly $509.

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Perception Jetty

If you’ve been wanting to try out stand up paddleboarding, but are hesitant to invest, the Perception Jetty package is the perfect starter set. Beginners will appreciate the stability of a 30” wide deck and incredible lightness of this board. Our favorite part? For $499 you get everything you need to get started: paddleboard, leash, and paddle.

Check out these and the rest of our stock of boats and boards (plus save even more) at our upcoming Paddlesports Demo Day, May 1st at Lake Julian.

Women’s Specific Gear Shakedown: Astral PFD’s

Not too long ago women who loved the outdoors had to make do with (often ill-fitting) unisex gear. Now, women’s specific gear is one of the fastest growing segments in the outdoor gear industry. Just about any piece of gear that you can imagine is now available in a women’s specific version. While we’re thrilled with this variety, it raises a common question: does it really matter if my gear is designed specifically for women or not? The answer is far from simple and depends on a variety of factors including your build, personal preferences, and the type of gear. To help you sort through the hype and find the essentials, we’ve tested several of this season’s women’s specific gear offerings. Today’s project: PFDs, specifically the Astral Layla.

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Let me start out by saying that Astral makes some of the best PFDs for women on the market. While many “women’s” gear manufacturers start with a men’s product and take a “pink it and shrink it” approach to women’s design, Astral does just the opposite. All of their PFDs (women’s specific or not) are first built to fit women and then sized for men. This novel approach may seem strange at first but it makes perfect sense. Women tend to have more complex and variable body shapes than men, so this approach leads to a design that fits both men and women beautifully. As a huge fan of Astral’s fit, I was excited about the release of the Layla PFD. I was even more thrilled to find out that it’s actually a redesign of the iconic Lotus Lola, one of the best fitting PFDs for curvy women.

The good:

Just picking it up, I immediately loved the Layla. The colorways are fantastic (feminine without being too girly), the thin foam inserts and princess seams give it a bulk free appearance, and the interior “boob cups” made me optimistic that it would fit beautifully. I also love that it’s rescue belt compatible; it’s always nice to see a piece of women’s specific gear that’s designed with a serious user in mind.

Putting it on, I was impressed with the fit. The foam is distributed over a wide area to provide plenty of buoyancy without feeling constricting in the chest area. The “boob cup” cut outs in the foam panel also worked as advertised. It easily fit a DD cup and would fit well even on much bustier women. I also noticed that the sides of the PFD fit slightly higher than normal, preventing any spilling out on the sides, a very common problem with unisex PFDs. The articulated princess seams made it easier to move in and helped the PFD to taper at the rib cage. Overall, I was very impressed with the fit.

The bad:

My only complaint with the Layla (and it’s a small one) is that the close wrapping that the princess seams allow causes gapping in the front. While the top fit like a glove, even with the PFD adjusted to the smallest setting, I couldn’t eliminate gapping along my ribcage. The PFD still fit snug enough that I didn’t feel I was in danger of the PFD slipping over my head if I swam, but it was slightly annoying. Perhaps it would be fixed if they used a band of mesh trim around the bottom, like they do on many of their PFDs to help them to lay flat. Maybe next season?

The bottom line: If you’re a curvy woman looking for an alternative to boob-crushing unisex PFDs the Layla is the answer. Most women with small to average busts will probably do just as well with any of Astral’s PFDs. Overall the Layla is an exceptionally well designed reinvention of a classic.

Wanna try the Layla out? Stop by our Parkway Center Store or Join us as Lake Julian for Paddlesports Demo Day on May 1st.

NPS 100: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We’re celebrating National Parks Week from April 16-24. The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates an important milestone this year: 100 years of the National Park Service Organic Act. Today, the NPS manages 401 park units and attendance hit a peak last year. While we’ve got easy access to two of the most visited units – the Blue Ridge Parkway (#1) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (#4) – day hikes are only the beginning of adventures that can be had when you venture just beyond our community. Grab the car and the kids and head out for these weekend trips this spring or summer.

There are 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for hiking, including seventy miles of the Appalachian Trail. The only lodging inside the park is LeConte Lodge on top of Mount Le Conte near Sevierville. However, it operates on a lottery system so if you visit in 2016, you’ll most likely use one of the ten pet-friendly family campgrounds.

Stop at Clingmans Dome Observation Tower for a perfect example of American modernist architecture and a stunning 360° view of up to 100 miles in each direction. Spend a night or two camping and exploring at Cades Cove or Smokemont and then take the family to Gatlinburg to satisfy every tourist curiosity you’ve ever had – from the Museum of Salt & Pepper Shakers and indoor skydiving to horseback riding and musical dinner theatre.

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If you’re not quite in the traveling mood or want to try some local hikes before setting out on the trails in Virginia and Tennessee, try portions of these trails to join the NPS Centennial Celebration.

  • The Appalachian Trail at Max Patch
  • The Mountains-to-Sea Trail at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Memminger Trail at Carl Sandburg Home
  • Deep Creek Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee on the Trail of Tears

Half Tank Getaways highlights some of our favorite places just outside of Buncombe County and is powered by our pals at Prestige Subaru.

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