Window? Assessing our rather bleak options above Chur with Tobias (Team Italy 2) during the 2019 Red Bull X-Alps. Photo Vitek Ludvik
As 2019 comes to a close I’m trying to wrap up some loose ends. One of them is to fulfill a request from many of our podcast listeners to review and talk about the flying gear I use and why. For transparency, I’m sponsored by many of the companies I’m going to mention and obviously I can’t possibly personally fly everything on the market. I choose the gear I fly firstly because it’s the gear I’d choose anyway and I can hand on my heart promise my opinions are not being altered because of the sponsorship relationship. These are my truthful opinions. My flying is mainly focused on three different forms of XC- Race to Goal competitions (World Cups, etc.), hike and fly races (Red Bull X-Alps), and vol biv expeditions (Rockies Traverse, North of Known, 500 Miles to Nowhere, etc.). The gear for each of these forms of aviation doesn’t always cross over very well so I’ll cover the gear I use for each.
Let’s talk the small stuff first as that’s the gear I get the most questions about:
Instruments (Vario, GPS, Satellite tracking, etc.):
For hike and fly I only carry three electronic devices: My iPhone, XCTracer Mini II GPS (the Mini III is now out and I look forward to the upgrade!), and the Garmin InReach Mini. Of those three, the Garmin InReach is of course the most important for safety and is beyond the scope of this article as to the why as I’ve gone over this countless times in the podcast and in other blog posts. GET ONE! If you don’t have an InReach you’re putting your family and flying community at massive unnecessary risk.
The XCTracer mini II (and the new mini III) has a solar cell (and is now available with FLARM), pretty much never needs to be charged unless you’re using it for 12 days straight in the X-Alps and using it as a back up tracker for when you are walking and is just an incredible audio vario in a tiny, light package. More than 50% of the X-Alps pilots used the XCTracer in the race in 2019. The XCTracer seamlessly connects to your phone, is loud enough to hear in any condition, totally customizable and just an awesome piece of kit (and paired with your phone makes uploading igc files a breeze). The new XCTracer Maxx (out in Feb 2020) has a readable B&W lcd (perfectly readable in bright sunlight), has Flarm integrated, lasts 60h on a single battery charge, weighs only 120g and has all the features the solar powered XC Tracers have.
The new XCTracer Maxx, out in Feb, 2020. Order now!
For the Iphone I run the FlySkyHy app (similar to XCSoar and XCtrack on Android), which is a super powerful flight computer that integrates airspace, waypoint files, offline maps, has totally customizable screens that allow you easily see whatever data you want (map view, side view, etc.), makes entering tasks a breeze when racing AND a lot more. The app still lacks some handy things in a dedicated race instrument like the Oudie (for example an audible alarm when you can go on glide to goal given current conditions rather than just relying on L/D) but Rene (the app developer) is fantastic to work with and he’s constantly making updates. Running FlySkyHy in the X-Alps easily saved me from hitting air space several times when other pilots flew right in and got huge penalties.
For Race to Goal competitions and when I don’t care about weight I add the FlyTec 6030, which is a pretty old flight computer now but just still very hard to beat. Bombproof, reliable, easy to use for those like me who are technologically challenged and has awesome tone settings for coring thermals. All the comp pilots I know who use an Oudie or similar all fly with two, which to me means they don’t trust having just one (but for any comp flying you ALWAYS want a backup, in which case when flying with the XCTracer you’ve already got one)…
I never go anywhere without my Anker 10,000 mAh external battery which is the lightest there is with so much punch and plenty of power for long flights so my phone doesn’t die when flying or during retrieve.
Yeasu FT-60 with the Thermal Tracker PTT (best there is in my opinion). I don’t carry a radio in the X-Alps, but a radio is a critical piece of gear, right up there with the InReach, especially when something goes wrong. Should be part of your pre-flight checks the day before- batteries charged, ready to go.
Helmet I use the Sup’Air Pilot helmet. It’s the only super-light (360 grams) helmet that has the EN-966 certification, which is required for the X-Alps but is also super comfy and the one I use for all flying. I prefer flying this helmet with Smith skiing goggles with chroma-pop lenses instead of sun glasses (eyes don’t water). If I flew more comps and didn’t care about the weight, the Charly Loop would be my choice as I don’t like full face helmets (and would eliminate a ton of wind noise that you get with the light-weight helmets).
Mind and Body
Wait a minute, this is supposed to be a “Gear” post you say? Taking care of the mind and body IS GEAR in my world. We can’t fly well (and certainly not safely) if we aren’t physically and mentally tuned. My trainer Ben Abruzzo and I did a TON of research and work on diet and supplements that I have written about extensively in previous blog posts and articles but for a quick review I had a ton of problems with inflammation in the 2015 race which we solved in 2017 by optimizing fat metabolism (OFM). This wasn’t full-on Ketosis, just a diet heavy on fats and protein (especially organ meats and meat on the bone) and light on carbs, and a major restriction of sugar. Here’s my basic recipe:
For training days and going hard (ie HR is generally going to be high and you can’t digest well and can expect stomach issues if you eat too much), when I need fast recovery and need to keep my brain sharp I use Vespa as a catalyst to access my body fat. I use it at least once a day and for hard days as many as three times a day (ie during the X-Alps). This applies to just flying a big day as well and during regular race-to-goal competition as the brain burns A TON of energy and flying is massively taxing on the mind. Bonking in flight is not something you want to happen, and neither is bombing out on a big day. Follow this link and use the code “2020” to get 10% off for Cloudbase Mayhem listeners!
I also ALWAYS have within reach when I’m training and flying (when flying I drink at the top of every thermal and eat at least one time per hour) a few ONNIT supplements:
- Daily I take Total Human. Read the ingredients and you’ll see why. Essential minerals, amino acids, vitamins and herbs to keep the colds at bay. This stuff is amazing and keeps your immune system strong, which can take a beating in the winter, traveling or when training hard.
- Also daily I take Alpha Brain. Alpha Brain is like “another gear for your brain”. It’s a Nootropic that supports memory, focus and mental speed (things that are pretty important in flying!) and it’s made from Earth-grown ingredients. Awesome stuff.
- I add Mineral electrolytes during any physical exercise or long flights.
- Onnit’s Protein bites are RIDICULOUS and BY FAR and away the best protein bars out there. Believe me, I’ve tried them all. Again- look at the ingredients. I’ll eat one of these every hour in flight.
- Other things in the Onnit line up I use heavily during hard training loads: Joint Oil, Elk Bars, Warrior Bars, LOVE their Powerfood Active, and I’ll go pretty hard on Glutamine when I’m doing a lot of miles and Creatine when I’m in the gym a lot and in the “bulk” phase of my training.
And maybe the most important and most-used piece of gear I never go anywhere without is my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar GPS watch. When I’m training I add the chest HR monitor for precise heart rate data but the metrics tracking with the Garmin Fenix 6X (and the solar version means you almost never need to charge it) is unsurpassed. Coupled with their Garmin Connect App and the MANY sports you can track (you name it- backcountry skiing, swimming, hiking, running, and yes- paragliding!) Ben can easily and instantly see exactly where I am, how much recovery I need, and where we need to focus when I’m in training. Physical fitness is one of the most important things to not only flying well, but making your body durable…which comes in awfully handy when you land a little hard!
Camera and Fun
The Garmin Virb Ultra 30 is my go-to action cam. WAY better mounts and camera than GoPro and WAY more user-friendly. Just not in the same category. And for the ultimate thrill the VIRB 360 is pretty fun if you want to really impress!
Salewa makes killer shoes that are light and work great in a pod harness/pressing bar and for grinding out hard miles on the trail. For road use I need shoes with a bit more cushion (my goto are Brooks). I used Salewa’s Ultra Flex Mid Goretex training shoe for the wet stuff in the Alps during the race (which work great with micro spikes if you’re in hard snow); the ultra train 2 for nearly all trail running or just normal flying or anytime you need a comfy, light shoe that has support; the lite train when I want super light; and the Speed Beat GTX when I want support and goretex (ie it’s going to be wet).
COMPS: With the caveat that I have not flown the Genie or the Exoceat, the Kortel Kanibal Race 2 is in a league of its own for racing, or flying big distance if you can drive or gondola to launch (like all comp harnesses- it’s heavy!). It is the only harness with a super user-friendly “dynamic stabilization” system that makes glides more efficient (the Woody Valley XR-7 tried to copy the Kanibal but I didn’t feel it was very safe to use, especially in combat situations as you have to take your hands off the brakes to engage/disengage). The Kanibal Race 2 is like flying a Cadillac. Two reserves, awesome removable flight deck, super comfy and supportive seat, great 3 step speed bar, and all of the little things you want and need in the perfect place: ballast dump, inReach or audio vario mount on the shoulder, hydration passage for your camelback, SUPER protection, most aerodynamic of all the race harnesses with a huge fairing (best polar and makes twisting up less likely after a collapse), drag chute pockets both sides, radio pocket…this harness has it all!
Vol Biv: For vol biv the magic balance is light but durable and enough storage for all the necessary gear- bivvy or tent, stove, hiking poles, sleeping bag, food and water, camera, safety kit, pot/stove, etc. See my complete vol biv kit gear list if you want a checklist! The Kortel Kolibri is absolutely the MONEY for vol biv. It’s the harness Antoine Girard has been using on his big high-altitude nutters and it’s the harness I wish I would have had for the Alaska Traverse and the Rockies Traverse (and all my Vol Biv expeditions). At 2 kg in the Large size it’s barely (300-400 grams) heavier than an X-Alps harness, has plenty of storage for bivvy kit, has awesome protection and yet somehow they have also made it much more durable than what you would expect in a harness this light. The construction looks like Kortel has some folks from NASA on the team- it’s just brilliant. A warning: light gear is all the rage these days but please understand the compromise of flying light gear. It’s expensive, it’s fragile, you’re usually giving up a seat board (hammock harnesses make wing handling a lot less precise, although exclusive to Kortel their split-leg design compensates for this to an extent), and you’re giving up a LOT of passive safety. My buddy Ben broke his back flying the Strike, if he’d had more cushion under his butt he likely would have walked away. Listen to the “Ask Me Anything” podcast with Max Jeanpierre from Kortel for more details on harness design and compromises with light harnesses.
Interested in Kortel and live in North America? I am a dealer and will happily get you set up!
Hike and Fly / racing: I have have flown a lot of the “uber light” harnesses on the market. In the 2015 and 2017 X-Alps I flew the Sup’Air Strike (the 2017 Sup’Air harness was awful and in my opinion unusable), and in the 2019 race I flew the SkyWalk Range X-Alps after deciding the new Ozone F-Race wasn’t ready and still needed some refining. I flew the retail version of the Range, but SkyWalk also made a specific X-Alps version that was about 300 grams less (which they didn’t offer to me)- but also a LOT more fragile. The Range is a terrific harness and the “permair” system is fantastic for packing as the harness gets really small when you deflate and provides very nice protection, but I refuse to fly SkyWalk because their customer service is…lacking. I did some moderate damage to my Range in the race (which I purchased, something quite unheard of for X-Alps athletes), sent it to them to repair, they kept it for 3 weeks and then instead of repairing it suggested I just buy a new one and said it was “unrepairable.” I had them send me the harness back, did the repairs myself in under an hour and it is now in the hands of a friend who loves it. Not cool Skywalk! Kortel has a “Kolibri Pro” that isn’t available for retail, but for my future hike and fly races this will be my harness. Like the Kolibri- brilliant, comfortable but ridiculously light.
COMPS: For racing and when I’m going for big distance, I’m LOVING the Niviuk IcePeak EVOX (their CCC glider). Niviuk struggled after the game-changing IcePeak 6 to keep up with Ozone and to some extent Gin and didn’t have a competitive CCC glider from 2016 through 2018. I flew the Ozone Enzo 3 most of the 2017 competition season and it’s an awesome wing. Stable, fast, predictable- there’s a reason so many comp pilots are on the Enzo 3. The EVOX has the same glide speed as the Enzo 3 but I feel like it climbs better and it’s definitely more “searchy” in light air. It’s less stiff, maybe a touch harder to keep open but I love the increased feel that is so typical to Niviuk wings. If I wasn’t sponsored by Niviuk, it would still be the comp wing I’d choose. There will be a new IcePeak EVOX released for the Superfinal in March 2020, and the prototypes that were flown in the PWC in Argentina by Tim Rochas and Louis Goutagny in November looked like they were really, really sweet.
BIG DISTANCE XC: The Niviuk Peak 5 was just released (January 10th, 2020). I haven’t flown it, but Olivier promised me it wouldn’t be released unless it had better performance than the Zeno. A tall order, and from my talks with their test pilots- they pulled it off. They took the plan form of the EVOX and just scaled it back a bit to provide a proper BIG XC machine that will undoubtedly be my choice for when I’m just going out flying and trying to send it big. Have a look at their website- this is an awesome looking wing.
VOL BIV, HIKE AND FLY: I was not in love with the Niviuk Klimber at first, but it has really grown on me, especially for bivvy as it’s super light, easy to pack, and really manageable on the ground. But when I don’t care too much about weight, I opt for a light version of the Peak 4. This isn’t really fair, as this isn’t available to purchase, but I prefer 2 liners and I just really prefer Niviuk wings and they were kind enough to make me a few of these (a light version of the Peak 4 for the Alaska Traverse and the 2017 X-Alps). I’m super excited about the Klimber 2, which will hopefully be released this spring and the Peak 5 which will be a bit of a game changer in the EN/D arena.
Gavin McClurg (USA 1) seen during the Red Bull X-Alps, Day 10, France
Have a great 2020 everyone and if I’ve missed anything let me know.