Quality . . .

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It’s no secret that I’m a believer in high-quality gear, whether it’s the vehicle, accessories, tools, camping equipment, or personal accoutrements. I also try to buy American-made products when possible (and when they meet my standards, which is not always the case). 


But for certain products there simply is no longer a U.S.-made (or even North American-made) choice.


Recently I was in the market for a new Gore-Tex parka, and turned to Arc’Teryx, a company I can modestly claim to have helped publicize in their early days, when I reviewed gear for Outside magazine. I was impressed with the quality of Arc-Teryx’s products—even among a suite of superb contemporaries such as Marmot—and at the time they were making their clothing in Canada.


Sadly, that no longer seems to be the case. The Beta AR jacket I bought was made in, of all places, Myanmar (Burma to many of us). 

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But my initital disappointment more or less evaporated when I examined the jacket closely. Try as I might, I could find not a single flaw in its construction—indeed, the closer I looked the more impeccable were the details and stitching. In the end I had to admit it was fully the equal of any of the company’s early efforts.


That doesn’t mean I’m happy that the manufacturing of so many thousands of products has shifted overseas to save labor costs here—and, make no mistake, that is the sole reason to do so—but it did serve as a reminder to me that quality is not intrinsic to any geographic locale. So perhaps it’s now more important than ever for consumers to actually pay attention to what they buy, and evaluate it on its merits rather than any arbitrary prejudice. 

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The new ARB Elements fridge/freezer

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The call came from our commercial mail service. “Hi Jonathan. You have a really big box here, and it’s heavy!” I knew it could only be one thing: the new ARB Elements fridge I’d been assigned to review for OutdoorX4 magazine. 

Even back home and excised from its substantial packing, the Elements fridge is an impressive piece of equipment at 70 pounds, 32 inches long, 19 inches wide, and 17 high. It’s strikingly handsome as well in its cladding of 304 stainless steel and black trim. You might or might not go for the huge embossed ARB logo on each side, but the formed panel increases rigidity so it’s not purely cosmetic.

More important is the substantial redesign—a complete re-envisioning, actually—that ARB undertook three years ago when conceptual work reportedly started on this fridge. In an increasingly crowded and sophisticated market, a simple tweaking of the previous model, introduced in 2008, wasn’t going to cut it. So the Elements (available for now only in a large 60-liter version) incorporates a bunch of innovative features.

First, as the name implies, is the weatherproofing. You can leave this fridge strapped down in the bed of your pickup all year (preferably using the available tamperproof bolts). Precipitation won’t hurt it, and the black ASA (acrylic-styrene-acrylonitrile) trim is similar in strength to ABS resin but significantly more resistant to UV degradation. The hinges are stainless-steel castings; the twin aluminum latches are a huge improvement over the previous generation’s single plastic catch, which always felt fragile. (However, one disadvantage compared to the old fridge is that there is no easy way to quickly strap this one down without purchasing the optional tie-down kit or mounting base. The carry handles are comfortable but provide no way to loop anything over them.)

The three icon buttons lower left control the electronic combination lock

The three icon buttons lower left control the electronic combination lock

There’s a slot to secure a padlock, but a far more stylish way to prevent your friends pilfering your Samuel Smith’s ale is the electronic lock incorporated into the (weatherproof) control panel.  Program in your own code using the three icon buttons, or leave it disabled as you wish. With the lid locked closed, the recessed temperature buttons cannot be accessed, so your stymied and jealous friends can’t secretly warm up the beer. The lock projects a pin into a fitting in the lid, and would clearly not withstand a crowbar, so if serious antitheft capability is needed (i.e. steaks, lobster, Veuve Clicquot, etc.) I’d default to a shackled lock.

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Open the lid and the first thing you’ll notice is the clever single hydraulic strut, which magically holds the lid open at any position you wish. An LED lights up the all-white interior, which is massive if you’re used to the standard 40-liter-size fridge. There’s a big bottom compartment and a high shelf, which can be blocked off as a produce shelf by turning the basket around so its high side is toward the shelf. Turned the other way, the basket allows long items to be laid horizontally. One feature that might be an issue for some vehicles: There is no way to convert the lid to side-opening.

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Mechanically, the Elements uses an industry-standard Nidec/Secop (formerly Danfoss) BD35F compressor, with a three-stage low-voltage cutoff. Of the two standard 12V fridge compressors—this and the Sawafuji swing-motor compressor—the Secop tends to run more quietly at the expense of a more complex mechanism. The Secop can also be run at different speeds to optimize power use. Both compressors have proven reliable over the years, and both will operate at significant angles, unlike the cheap absorption-type fridges still found in some RVs and campers. ARB enhanced the performance and efficiency of the Elements by incorporating a full-height evaporator; this should keep temperatures more uniform throughout the fridge. Those temperatures can be dialed down to 0º Fahrenheit (-18ºC) if you choose, even in 90º (35ºC) weather. The walls on the Elements are noticeably thicker than those on my old ARB fridge, which will also help keep power consumption down.

Options for the Elements include a remote temperature monitor, various bases, and a tie-down kit. If you buy the latter, a word of caution: The slots on the metal buckles of mine were razor sharp and would have severed a strap in short order; I had to file them smooth.

I was a bit surprised that ARB’s initial release of the Elements was in the larger, 60-liter model rather than the more common 40-45-liter size, but perhaps the decision was driven by their own sales figures of the previous version. I’m certain other sizes will follow, and I’m curious if the company will eventually add a model with separate fridge and freezer compartments. 

Overall, I think ARB has built a fridge that is several genuine steps forward and will carry on the sterling reputation of the company.

Measure first! The Elements barely fit in the back of my FJ40

Measure first! The Elements barely fit in the back of my FJ40

ARB USA is here. Retail on the Elements fridge, for some strange reason known only to the marketing department, is $1444.49

So, you think your Zarges cases are stylish?

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How about an aluminum-clad explorer’s trunk from Louis Vuitton?

Apparently only a few of these trunks were produced in 1892, and of that few only two known examples survive. This one was recently auctioned by Christie’s for the astounding figure of £160,000 ($206,000). For that price you could buy 412 similarly sized Zarges cases.

But they wouldn’t say Luis Vuitton on the label.

Apparently this one spent much of its life in the UK basement of a family who had no idea of its value.

More here.

New MAXTRAX Xtreme

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It’s well-known that I’m a fan of the original MaxTrax, and have defended them against cut-price copies. I’ve also noted that I refuse to use the company’s all-caps MAXTRAX spelling, which as a grammarian I find wincingly annoying (I compromise with MaxTrax). Now . . . sigh . . . the company is torturing me again with their new product, named the Xtreme. Ugh.

I grit my teeth and continue, because the new product, a prototype of which I received recently, looks to be a significant leap in the technology of composite recovery mats. Why? Because the teeth, or studs, of the new mat are made from hard-coated aluminum rather than molded-in nylon. And . . . they are user-replaceable.

As anyone who has used them knows, the salient disadvantage of composite recovery mats is that, if you allow too much wheel spin while attempting to climb onto them, the studs can melt, significantly and permanently reducing the effectiveness of the product. Recent mats using harder plastic studs helped but did not cure the issue. The Xtreme might just do so.

The composite base of the new mat is the same reinforced nylon material as the original MaxTrax, which I and many other testers have found to be superior to the polyethylene used by some lower-priced competitors. There is also extra reinforcement in the bottom webbing. Combining that with the aluminum studs should provide vastly improved durability.

As you might expect, the Xtreme is a bit heavier than the standard MaxTrax—8.9 versus 7.4 pounds each. But at 18 pounds per pair that’s still lighter than even perforated aluminum sand mats.

They are not, however, cheaper. Retail on the Xtreme will be $449 a pair. I remember being scandalized at the idea of the original $300 MaxTrax—until I used them. I suspect our perspectives will continue to evolve as long as such price increases are backed up by such meaningful improvements.

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More on the new Land Rover Defender.

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No, we don’t know what it looks like yet, aside from the heavily camouflaged mule pictured here (ignore the various Photoshopped images of the long-condemned DC100 still floating around).

There were rumors the unveiling would happen before the New Year, but it was not to be.

However, we are learning more about the vehicle, in particular its potential as the “most capable Land Rover ever made for off-road driving,” as the factory is claiming. Note the image above, from the excellent Alloy and Grit magazine (a much-welcome successor to the creepy Land Rover Lifestyle publication of a few years ago).

If the mule’s dimensions are more or less production-ready and the magazine’s measurements are correct, the new Defender will have impressive approach and departure angles. Those shown here, on what appears to be the long-wheelbase version (still to be called the One Ten, I understand), compare very favorably with the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, at 44º and 40º.

Another tidbit concerns the possible inclusion of a central tire inflation system, which would be a hugely significant feature. Note the intriguing functions indicated here, such as Puncture Assist Mode and, interestingly, Recovery Mode.

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I note that the Recovery Mode only appears to go down to 1.2 bar, or 17.5 psi. That’s low enough for much off-pavement work, but not low enough for soft sand, where 1 bar or below is frequently needed. Still, it would be an extremely useful feature if it shows up even as an option.

These tidbits definitely seem to indicate that Land Rover is indeed intent on making the new Defender very capable. But that capability will inevitably be technology-based, with sophisticated traction-control systems managing power to the all-independent suspension under a unibody platform shared with the current Discovery. We need to keep in mind that the new Defender will be an entirely different vehicle than its predecessor.

A better Hi-Lift base plate.

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Let’s be honest: You can make a perfectly functional base plate for a Hi-Lift jack by gluing together a couple of foot-square pieces of 3/4-inch plywood. If you want to get fancy you can add a third layer of 1/2-inch plywood with a cutout for the jack’s foot, to help stabilize it. This is exactly what I used for years. 

However, the plywood got chewed up pretty quickly, and once I used it in mud it started delaminating. So I switched to one of the ubiquitous red plastic bases. It was (and is) an excellent product, and mine has held up through not only personal use but numerous training classes as well.

My only real issue with the red base is its bulk, which is significant if you’re storing it in the back of an FJ40. It takes up an inordinate amount of volume for a single-function implement.

While shopping for some items we needed for Expo East this November at one of the Tractor Supply Company (TSC) stores, I chanced upon a solution in the form of the Reese Farm Jack Foot Plate. Constructed of thick polypropylene, it’s far more compact than the red base, yet boasts a 7,000-pound capacity. I put it to an unusual but effective trial at the show: Our 20-foot cargo trailer, which hauls all the Expo equipment and grosses about 10,000 pounds, had to be parked where the tongue jack would be in very soft mud. So I placed the Reese plate under the tongue’s foot, lowered probably 2,500-pounds plus onto it—and left it there for the duration of the show. It emerged unscathed and unwarped.

The Reese plate is one-third the height of the red base but seemes even thinner, it’s so easy to stash. And I like the low-profile black color, too. This is my new standard-equipment Hi-Lift base plate. About $25 from TSC or Amazon.

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The only three knots you need for paracord lashing

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In my opinion nothing beats a ratchet strap for securing cargo. Cheaper cinch straps—even the superior style with the roller buckle—just can’t be cinched tight enough to reliably secure heavier and potentially dangerous items. 

But it’s not always possible to use ratchet straps. Often you’ll simply run out of your supply, or the hooks won’t fit where you need to secure a load. Sometimes with a bulky roof-rack load you might need to run your lashing back and forth a dozen times to prevent flapping.

Time for the paracord.

Parachute cord has come a long way since its original application. Now you can find it everywhere from those ubiquitous “survival” bracelets and wrapped “tactical” knife handles to—ready?—the Hubble Space Telescope, where astronauts from the space shuttle Discovery used 35 feet of it to resecure loose thermal blankets protecting the instrument. 

That ubiquity has spawned a lot of substandard variations of the authentic product. Genuine mil-spec nylon paracord will advertise its conformity to military standard C-540H Type III (“550” paracord, indicating its rated breaking strength in pounds), or C-540H Type IV (“750” paracord, again indicating breaking strength). If you pull apart the end of a length of paracord you can confirm authenticity by counting the individual cords within the kernmantle sheath. Genuine mil-spec paracord will have between seven and 11 of them, and each cord will comprise three twisted strands (cheaper paracord might have fewer cords made from only two strands). On genuine mil-spec paracord one of the inner cords will be a contrasting color; this is a marker for the manufacturer.

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Even genuine mil-spec paracord is inexpensive enough that keeping a couple hundred feet in the vehicle for odd jobs is affordable. Of course, you can opt for larger and more expensive kernantle cordage, even Kevlar if you want the ultimate in strength. But 550 or 750 paracord is pretty stout, as long as you keep in mind that a knot—any knot, to a greater or lesser degree—will reduce its strength by up to 25 percent. 

Once you’ve determined the need for a fabbed up lashing and have cut the length you need, don’t neglect to fuse the end, otherwise the interior cords can protrude and snarl and your work will look decidedly less than pro. I work the kernmantle sheath over the end, so when I apply a flame it (usually) melts nicely and encapsulates the cords. Just make sure you have a solid, tight blob. I find that putting the flame next to but not right on the end helps melt the cord neatly.

Now you need to secure that cargo securely. Paracord has two characteristics that can work with and against you. It’s a bit stretchy, which makes it easier to tell when you’ve pulled it tight enough but can let the load shift if you haven’t. And it’s fairly slippery, which makes it easier to pull tight across duffels and other luggage, but which also means knots can come loose if not chosen correctly and tied properly.

To ensure that, you need know only three: a bowline, a trucker’s hitch, and a sheetbend.

The bowline is the best way to make a secure loop, to tie the first end of your paracord to the roof rack or cargo eyelet. (I’ve blatantly lifted the still images here from the excellent site netknots.com, because I urge you to go there and watch the easy-to-follow animations of these knots, and dozens more.) The bowline is strong, it weakens the rope less than some other knots, yet it is easy to undo.

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At the other end, you want to pull that cord as tight as possible and secure it so it won’t loosen. The trucker’s hitch actually functions as a jive pulley to multiply the force you’re pulling with, and when tied off properly will not slip.

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When using paracord I suggest augmenting the netknots instructions. In part three, they finish off the knot with a single loop (basically a half hitch). However, paracord can slip if secured thusly. I strongly suggest looping the end of the cord through twice, then looping it the opposite direction below, so you in effect add a tautline hitch, like this:

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Do this finishing knot right up against the “pulley” loop. Just as with the bowline, the trucker’s hitch unties easily, and in fact the slippery half hitch you tied to use as the “pulley” will pop loose simply by pulling on either end of the cord.

The last knot you’ll use if you need to join two cords that are each too short: the sheet bend. It’s an incredibly simple knot, almost a square knot except the free end of the second (blue here) cord tucks under as shown.

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For extra security you can double the knot as in the diagram. The brilliant thing about the sheet bend is that it will effectively join two cords or ropes of different diameter. Just remember to use the smaller line for the second (blue) part of the knot.

And the brilliant thing about all these knots is that they’re useful in hundreds of other situations. So cut yourself a three-foot piece of mil-spec paracord and practice them until they’re second nature. They’ll serve you well.