Friday, 31 December 2010

2010: A Gear Odyssey - Six of the Best

odyssey |ˈɒdɪsi|noun ( pl. -seys)a long and eventful or adventurous journey figurative :his odyssey from military man to politician.

Despite the rather unappealing eponymous bon mot of a title, 2010 was indeed rather an odyssey for me in relation both to equipment and to my future outdoors. A complete reassessment of my lightweight philosophy into the realms of ultralightweight and the opportunity to redesign the kit I use completely. Some successes and some failures - I am ever open to experimentation. The most notable chagrin for me was the Vaude Power Lizard UL. It did not meet my expectations and some elements of the tent were both ill-conceived and poorly constructed. There are many positive facets to this very robust and light 1-2 man tent but it was simply not good enough for me. It does, however, occupy a hallowed place in the go-to list of my hillwalking companion. The Evernew DX system was another source of regret for me - it plainly does not function effectively enough in a UK hill environment for me. Some were not so much failures as incontrovertibly not what I was looking for - the Thermarest NeoAir is a singularly remarkable enigma. It is a genre-defining epiphany which is propitious but not quite perfect (or perhaps I need to assess my use of it). It is not a piece I will shelve or discard, but nor am I overly enamoured with it either.

However, there have been some rather spectacular coups too and here is my pithy, concise précis of what they are, why they flourished and the prognosis for 2011.

Gossamer Gear Gorilla rucksack
There can be no doubt that this should be the first of my six to grace this enumeration. It has been an intimate soulmate this year. On each hike or trek it has excelled itself in comfort and functional efficacy. It has, in and of itself, reduced my base weight by 400g (from the base weight when using my modified OMM Villain). It has also made my life easier with its cavernous mesh front pocket swallowing everything I need to have to hand, and everything that gets wet. The Y-shape top-loop is secure and easy to use. The SitLight pad prevents conductive heat loss when I sit on cold ground to eat and provides a stable base for my drybag pillow at night. It is genius.

iPhone 3GS
Is there nothing the iPhone cannot do? There have been myriad posts from various bloggers on the relative merits of applications for the iPhone but I find the following elements of particular use: 

the phone and SMS system;
Email and Safari internet browser;
the GPS, compass and Motion X application;
Google Maps;
the iPod for music and video on inclement nights and long train journeys;
Weather prognostication applications - Met Office, WindGuru and Fourth Day;
Hill Lists;
SAS Survival Guide and St Johns Ambulance First Aid;
Awesome Note; and
the Good Pub Guide.

At 134g, it must have the most serious efficacy-to-weight ratio of any piece of kit I own. Add another 41g for my Sennheiser CX-870 earphones and the package is one of sheer, invaluable proficiency.

Montane Bionic Short Sleeved Base Layer
This really thrived on the Tour du Mont Blanc. As a merino wool and polyester blend, I feel it marries the best of both. It is comfortable to wear, stretchy, dries quickly, does not reek after two or three days of constant, unstintingly arduous employment and breathes exceptionally. I have worn it alone in some utterly rotten weather, tugging on the Montane Lite Speed to close out the wind and first spots of rain. I have worn it as a base layer beneath the Montane Prism 2.0 when temperatures dipped and the cold began to bite, and I have laudered it in an ice-cold, frigid Alpine hut shower and set it to work again the next day. It feels resilient, lightweight and the cut is snugly athletic enough for me. It is the perfect 3-season base layer. I cannot fault it.

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 tent
Setting aside testing for the sake of testing, I have been through four one-person, lightweight tents in the last four years. The Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 is the last of those and, without prevarication, I take the view the best single person tent on the market for my purposes. It does not shock me that I like the layout of the shelter - the head and porch located in the same place, the angle of the door permits star-gazing, copious clearance above the head when lying down, and the shape of the groundsheet means equipment is not kept at the foot-end and all your gear is within easy reach in the darkness of night. It is ultralight - 970g - and that still bestows a good deal of space. It is solid in all manner of conditions - pitch the sharp, rear-end into the wind and you have aerodynamic perfection. Sure, it has a hydrostatic head of 1200mm and that means that extended use, both in the short-term and long-term, may call into question the waterproofing. The Laser Competition is better in this respect. So be it - I'll cross that bridge IF it ever presents itself and I am by no means convinced it ever will. This is not to say I shall not experiment with tarps, bivvy's and quilts next year, but when it comes to a single-man shelter for 3-4 season use (I think the Fly Creek UL1 could well creep into some of winter) - there can be no better choice for me.

Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag
A full-zip, water-resistant, high-quality down bag, rated down to 0 deg C and weighing 580g in its stuff sack? Those figures make impressive and compelling reading. The construction is peerless, the cut, shape and feel of the bag when snug inside are faultless for most people (there are other WM bags for the sturdier fellow) and it is an impeccable all-year bag for me. I say 'all-year' on the basis that, down to around the -10C mark, with a Sea to Summit Reactor and a down jacket, I am confident that the Summerlite will keep me safe and cosy.

Scarpa ZG-40 GTX boots
Each of the foregoing are new purchases this year. My Scarpa ZG-40 GTX boots are not. They are old friends, constant companions who never desert me and perform with uncomplicated consistency. My feet remain perpetually dry, blister free and the grip they permit me is nothing short of limpet-like. They are robust and indomitable - every stitch, eye, rand, loop and fabric remains perfect and functional. For boots of this quality they are also surprisingly lightweight. Of course, I could stray into the debate surrounding trail shoes and I almost certainly will in 2011 - I adore my Innov-8 Terroc 330's - but each and every time I encase my feet in the ZG-40 boots, I feel like Legolas in Tony Stark's Iron Man suit - every step is sure-footed poise.

Rather than a tawdry headline, I think this year has been a gear Odyssey for me - an adventure with failures and successes - but each failure has been infinitely more valuable to me than each success. Sadly, some of the most intriguing materiél will only be tested in January and February 2011 so will have to wait until this time next year - Páramo, perhaps most notably, but also Scarpa Manta boots adorned with Grivel G12 crampons spring to mind given the affection with which I pull on my ZG-40 boots. Also, the PHD Yukon and the Primus Express Spider are high-profile acquisitions and come with hefty reputations - they have the most to lose. A more recent purchase - a winter base layer and 3-season mid-layer which is almost certain to be trying to book a place in the Alps in August 2011 is my newly purchased Patagonia R1 Regulator Hoody. Another legendary piece, I expect great things. I look forward to 2011 as it is the next step in my outdoors development.

MYOG: Crampons and Ice-Axes are expensive? Not to some...

There is no doubting that outdoor kit is expensive. Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands and, short of robbing bank (which is apparently illegal - go figure) you'll need to engage in some MYOG jigger-pokery. I saw some modfications of interest to crampons, involving the impromtu installation of unlikely anti-balling plates and to a Black Diamond Raven Pro ice-axe in Dave Lintern's blog, Self-Powered, recently and loved it. I hope you do too.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

The Little Man's First Winter Wonderland Trail

Christmas is largely celebrated on the 24th across Scandinavia, and much of Western Europe, so the 25th is a quiet day of introspection, recovery and repose. To achieve our own state of tranquility, the Little Man and I took our first proper walk together in the forests north of Copenhagen, spending the festive season in Denmark as we are. With temperatures at -7C we both wrapped up warm, paying our respects to a diligent layering system, and set off into the profuse, abundant snow. The paths through the forest were well worn - skiers and walkers alike blazing a trail through the half-metre deep drifts of pure, white powder. We strolled slowly, cautiously, blissfully, devouring the enchanting domain encircling us and exalting in each other's company. The Little Man variously slept, gurgled and stared, revelling in (as babies do) the light around him - so easy for his eyes to pick out the dark, silhouetted arboreal spectres against the pearly-white background. We stooped to capture for Mrs M the beauty and majesty of the towering, spidery giants garbed in white and to sit and watch nature in its own serenity. I can think of no better way to celebrate Christmas than this, followed by a hearty lunch with family and a warming hot chocolate.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

2010 - Sunset Reflection on a Halfway Juxtaposition

As the sun sets on 2010, and I begin to reflect, I do not think I can recall a year which has been such a contrast of personal fortunes and experiences, the bifurcus of which can be observed through the auspices of an explicit and conspicuous inception which, in and of itself, had no discernible catalyst - a simultaneous fork in the road of each of my lives with neither explanation nor symmetry except that each divarication seemingly occurred in concert. Prior to June 2010, my professional life in disarray, marred by unconscionable stress and misery; my personal life somewhat without direction, with the exception of my indomitable guardian angel, Mrs. M, I was a maelstrom of conflicting emotion.

Yet, as the year grew older, and the summer began its ingress into the chill of the spring, several seemingly unconnected things changed all at once. My professional life re-invented with a new posting - not a complete reprieve from the rigours and stresses of the previous 18 months, but a new regime in place to make the management of that stress easier. My personal life grew fuller as we anticipated the impending arrival of the Little Man in a way possessed of greater understanding and a gradual edification. And of course, I began to realise a long-held ambition - I started a journal.

I have long loved writing and, upon discovering the blogs of Robin Evans and Martin Rye, it seemed a natural way to indulge my desire to chronicle for myself and my family my various experiences, and to write. Over the coming months, more and more people began to comment and follow or subscribe to my journal and I began to realise the other immutable joy of blogging - connection with like-minded people. On the whole, there are myriad modern-day philosophers with whom I have conversed at some length and with whom I hope to meet and walk hills. In relation to this, may I take the time to thank each and every person who has spent their precious time reading what I write and commenting on it. It would be a grave fallacy to suggest that writers and journalists do not appreciate those who take the time inject their own conceptions into their oeuvres - it is the greatest compliment.

My own understanding of the principles of lightweight and ultralightweight backpacking matured through the patronage of those very same bloggers who persuaded me to begin my journal in the first place. There are some many of them, I would not seek to detract from my enjoyment of them by naming some and potentially missing others. They know who they are - I comment on those blogs I enjoy - and I thank all of you warmly. If we meet in 2011, I should find that very agreeable indeed. The understanding and application of those UL principles permitted me a freedom of the outdoors, and a level of enjoyment, that was a progression of the deepest significance for me - a cathartic catalyst for a redefining of how I viewed my place in the world and, more importantly, how I viewed the path I would take over the coming years.

We are created, over the course of our lives, by our experiences and it seems to me it is only death - our passing on to another place - that ends that creation. We are never finished - we continue to learn and to develop and mature. Each an every experience adds to that creation and the latter half of 2010 was a far more positive contribution to that development than the first half. The Tour du Mont Blanc, largely as a consequence of the people I met and trekked with, but also as an introduction to Alpine walking, sparked in me a desire to add another dimension to my hillwalking and trekking. It stimulated an excited anticipation of a fresh genre which, in fact, was not at all new but had always been there.

And the latter half of 2010 brought to myself and Mrs M the most cataclysmic shift in our lives - our Little Man - which opened our eyes to what life could really mean. The most stressful, thrilling, lovely and beautiful gift is your own baby's smile. What more can I say?

My fondest and warmest wishes to each and every one of you for 2011. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Rab Infinity Jacket Initial Analysis

Rab have been producing superlative outdoor equipment for decades. However, in the last year someone appears to have slipped something into their macchiatos. With the Demand Pull-On, the Xenon Jacket, Exodus Jacket and the Infinity, to name but a few, they have stepped up their quality and design innovation to an utterly unprecedented level. Taking advantage of their long-term relationship with Pertex, and the introduction of the new Pertex Quantum fabric, GL, their clothing is now shrouded in one of the most effective symbioses of ultralight, windproofness, durability and water resistance. Detailed, comprehensive reviews of the Demand by Hendrik Morkel, the Infinity and Exodus by Terry and the Xenon by Joe Newton demonstrate Rab's commitment to producing supremely crafted kit. 

I recently considered purchasing either the Infinity or the Yukon and, on balance, the Yukon was my final choice. I have already penned my initial thoughts on the Yukon. My usual hillwalking and mountaineering companion opted, largely to test them in parallel, for the Infinity. We'll each of us use both of them and effect a direct comparison.

My initial impressions of the Infinity are hugely favourable. I have always been a devotee of Pertex in its various guises and Quantum GL sits comfortably within the range with its own unique functionality, just as do Microlight, Endurance and Equilibrium. It has a silky consistency and is extremely comfortable to wear. It has a judicious measure of water resistance which, for a winter jacket, is utterly essential. Clearly, no sane person will be relying on a down jacket in the rain but winter conditions in the UK entails unavoidable precipitation in some form. Conversely, the Drishell fabric of the Yukon feels more robust and less liable to degradation due to abrasion. Note what Pertex themselves say about Quantum: 

"We strongly believe that less weight shouldn’t mean ‘please be careful’. Pertex Quantum stands its ground and shows the best strength to weight ratio. Tear strength and seam strength are good for its weight and it can easily be used in shell jackets and withstands the abuse of hardcore use. The abrasion resistance however is not comparable with standard weight 44 decitex fabrics."

In reality, both will be deployed in situations where durability is less key than weight and warmth so the significance of this variance may be limited. When subjected to even a significant amount of water, beading and roll-off occurs without compunction. The Pertex Quantum GL fabric appears to be on both the shell and the interior of the Infinity.

 The Infinity, at a superb 458g for a large (Rab seem to be doing themselves a disservice saying 510g), and a 9g stuffsack, comes with a tiny interior pocket to store the stuffsack (and perhaps other small items), which is crafted in an ultralight nylon blend, and two waist pockets. They don't go all the way through like the Yukon & I must confess to preferring this format. It is a jacket rather than a Pull-On, but this difference is a matter of personal choice and convenience. It accounts for some of the disparity in weight, of course.

The Infinity is filled with 210g of 850 goose down - extremy high quality but not quite that of the Yukon, perhaps accounting for the purportedly greater operating temperature of the Yukon for less weight. The Yukon certain feels like it is blessed with more loft when the two are laid on a flat surface together.

 The cuffs on the Infinity are, like the Yukon, not adjustable. As I said in relation to the Yukon, I prefer this although it will not be to everyone's taste as some of the comments on my Initial Analysis indicated. Unlike the Yukon, however, they are tighter and encased in Pertex Quantum (the Yukon is simple lycra) - this notwithstanding, PHD assure me they will be assessing this consideration in the Yukon. The sleeve length on the size large Infinity is very good indeed - slightly longer than the Yukon and equally unlikely to cause riding-up when rooting around on your knees inside a tent or tarp.

The hood, less conical in appearance than the Yukon, and far more liable to attract members of the opposite sex, has a square, cubic character. Secured identically by a circumference of elastic, it is a warm, comfortable shroud of lofty down. There is also an area of fleecy beardguard around the front chin area. It does not extend all the way round like the Yukon. The waist is adjusted by two, one-handed cord-locks which are the norm in this sort of kit. They work smoothly and effectively as do the YKK zips with 'glove-grip' tabs, pleasingly embossed with the Rab logo.

It is completely reasonable, in my view, to compare the Yukon and the Infinity - they fall into the same weight category, occupy almost identical space when packed and cost a similar amount - accepting of course that the Yukon is around 25% more expensive but also purportedly warmer. So far, there is little to choose between them - one has advantages as does the other. Well - we'll see about warmth, the primary issue, in the Lake District in January...

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Smartwool Hiking Medium Crew - or ARE they...?

My all time personal favourite sock for all year hillwalking is the Smartwool Hiking Medium Crew. A blend of 74% merino wool, 25% nylon and 1% elastane, they are the one-time winner of the Backpacker Editor's Choice award. TGO regulars, Chris Townsend and Cameron McNeish have applauded them and I adore them. They breathe well, feel extremely comfortable and keep my feet warm in even the coldest conditions. In winter, I add a Bridgedale Coolmax liner to the mix. Sad thing is, they cost between £12 and £13 each.

However this morning, in Costco, I saw these - Kirkland Signature Outdoor Trail Sock, Merino Wool Blend. 71% merino wool, 21% nylon, 7% polyester and 1% elastane, they are almost identical in manufacture, fit, shape and colour to the Smartwool Hiking Medium Crew. Put the two socks together and the only difference is the Smartwool moniker on the instep. They are identical in terms of cushion and thickness and have the same elastane arch brace the Smartwool sock does. Turn them inside out and the weave is identical as is the colour of the wool. Apart from the addition of polyester, which is unlikely to make them less breathable or dry any slower (my only qualm with the Smartwool sock), the only difference is the price: £8.79 for four. I've yet to wear them in anger, but they are certainly worth testing.

Scratching your chin? I didn't for long...

Update as of 18th December 2010 - I have been wearing the same pair of the Kirkland merino socks now for 5 days solid - walking to and from work (3km each way), during work, in and out of snow (in Innov-8 Terroc 330's) and in the house. Two things to report - they are still supremely comfortable and they do not smell at all. These are a true bargain.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Loneliness and Responsibility

I am alone. I lie here, listening to the whistling of the wind, hardly daring to move. Listening for the sound of the approaching storm I know is coming. I am alone and no one is here to save me when the inevitable maelstrom surrounds me and threatens to engulf me. I shove a forkful of last night's pasta in my mouth, mindful that my night could well be about to get much worse. Its bitter taste does nothing to sooth my concern. I shiver - is it the cold or the thought of my impending trauma? It could be either. Such responsibility on my young shoulders. It is the sternest test of my skills. I have thought long and hard about the gear I would need for tonight's examination and settled on the mainstream - no risks to be taken - lightweight is, tonight, not an option. I am all-in for belt-and-braces.

Tommee Tippee Sterilser - about a kilo
Tommee Tippee bottles and slow-release teats - 55g each - I have four, just enough to see me through the night
Tommee Tippee bottle warmer - essential kit - warm food in 5mins - better than any canister stove
Tommee Tippee Orthodotic pacifer - a last resort - 22g
Several muslins - breathable mouth cleaning, there can be no other choice
Moses Basket - Mamas and Papas - good down to -10C if it's in a warm room
Several babygrows by TU (Sainsbury's) and Mothercare - cotton, not Gore-Tex
Merino Wool (just kidding, normal wool) blanket - by ... Mrs M's knitting needles

Yes, the storm is coming and I am alone. For the first time I have no one next to me, and a small tornado lies currently dormant upstairs, ready to awaken at any moment. I know not, right now, if the kit I have chosen is up to the task...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

PHD Yukon Pullover Initial Analysis

This is nice. Everything about the Yukon suggests assiduous, careful hand-crafted to order workmanship. Not a stitch out of place. Each zip runs smoothly. Each press-stud locks firmly into its socket. The Drishell outer feels unexpectedly and gratifyingly durable for a UL fabric. The loft is serious and effective. Everything about the Yukon suggests a step up in standard. It is meant for severe winter weather and no mistakes have been made here. It sits at the top end of my insulation layer range, filling a severe cold lacuna that the Nano Puff and Prism 2.0 do not.

PHD suggest the theatre of operations for the Yukon Pullover is -15C but that some adventure racers use it at much lower temperatures. In the -4C chill of the snow covered Surrey Hills last night, -15C did not seem unrealistic. At 445g (470g in its stuffsack), the Yukon is definitively light for the warmth and protection it provides. By comparison, the Rab Infinity is billed as 510g, although some suggest it is lighter for the smaller sizes and more in keeping with the Yukon. With a box-wall construction (to eliminate 'lines of cold' found in stitched through construction) and filled with exceptional 900 fill power down, the Yukon ought to be warm and light. Manufactured with a Drishell exterior and an MX downproof inner, it ought to be protective. Drishell, a superlight windproof and water resistant ripstop nylon, seem tougher to the touch than the satiny Pertex Quantum on the Rab Infinity, for example, and is certainly very water resistant - in fact, as the most water resistant fabric in the PHD range, it is more water resistant that the Ultra which is in MX fabric and which Will Rietveld rated, in his BPL article of 2010 as still significantly water resistant for the weight. The main zip, also YKK, segues into an area of smooth, soft beardguard around the chin which is agreeably snug and comfortable, and runs all the way round the insulated collar.

The zips, high-quality YKK examples, have long cords with thick grips for gloved hands. The pockets are in fact a single pocket going all the way through across the stomach area with an area of down insulation on top of them. I am not as impressed by the MX inner being the only thing between your hands and your body - some insulation there would have been welcome. The fit, despite the enormous loft of the pullover, is snug. Like James Boulter, I opted for a large, after speaking to PHD direct - and very helpful they were too. For your assistance, I am a 39-40" chest, 21" arms, 33-34" waist and 20-21" torso. PHD suggested a large to ensure the pullover did not ride up when bending down and moving around in camp which makes very good practical sense. It is a nice length - unlike the Rab Infinity which I found to be too short on my back - the Yukon, instead, comes down a few inches further. I prefer this, but that is my personal choice.

The hood, attached by a series of press-studs, is also insulated and has an elasticated rim. It feels snug but not over-tight and very comfortable. The fact the hood is removable, rather than part of the jacket/pullover, as with the Rab Infinity, does not affect its performance - no wind sneaks in, uninvited. It does, however, increase the pullover's versatility. There may be few occasions when, if anticipating weather which caused the selection of the Yukon, you'd be using it without the hood, but at least there is the option. I like versatility. The cuffs are the same elasticated rim as the hood and, again, comfortable. They are not adjustable in any way, but I like that - why waste weight on a pointless feature? In an environment where the Yukon would be required, you'll want your cuffs tight against your wrists - adjustability is a pointless feature. I would prefer them to be a little tighter, in fact, and I'll contact PHD about that.

The hem is drawcord-adjustable through two cord-locks either side at the hips. They are easy to operate with a gloved hand and smooth-running. It comes with its own stuffsack which, although PHD suggest it does not pack down very tight, I found to be tight enough and the Yukon does in fact pack down quite small. Nevertheless, I will probably ditch the stuff sack and put it in one of my 13 litre drybags along with other stuff I'll need around camp. Down should be protected at all costs in severely cold weather.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Pacific Outdoor Equipment Peak Elite AC Initial Analysis

I recently received a pre-production sample of Pacific Outdoor Equipment's new 3-season sleeping pad, the Peak Elite AC - the replacement for the immensely popular Ether Elite 6. This arose out of a conversation I had with Aaron James, the Director of US Sales at POE, after he commented on my choice of winter pad - the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core (IAC). He clearly knows his stuff and it was an illuminating edification on sleeping pad technology. I'm grateful to him for taking the time. The Peak Elite AC will be generally available in January 2011. When I go to the Lake District in January, I'll test both mats, one each night, to give a true comparison. Phil Turner, in his excellent blog, has also filmed a rather fantastic video review.

Onto the Peak Elite AC. Immediately, in 'stretch limo' black, it looks sleek and impressive. It is well over 100g lighter than the Big Agnes IAC at 420g in its stuffsack (on my scales - advertised weight is 396g) for the 183cm version. Recall the IAC 152cm version weighed 540g. Like the catalyst for the Peak Elite AC, the Ether Elite 6, it is a mummy mat with precisely the same dimensions - it simply has RHR radiant heat reflecting aluminised coating within the entirety of the mat to increase warmth, as well as a proprietary synthetic insulation adhered to the top of the mat
rather than underneath as with the IAC; it is black for precisely the same reason - theoretically enhancing heat retention. Also like the Ether Elite, it is bio-mapped meaning the insulation is greater (R-rating 4.4) around the torso, with less insulation around the legs (R-rating 2.5).

Aaron tells me the Peak Elite AC is therefore warmer than the Ether Elite and will pack smaller than the BA IAC, but would caution it is not as durable nor insulates as effectively in the legs due to the bio-mapped insulation. It certainly packs more narrowly than the IAC but is in fact slightly longer. I've had the chance to take the Peak Elite AC in my hands and play around - I agree that it seems less robust than the IAC but not to the point where I would place it in the same category as the diaphanous Neo Air. It is certainly, on an initial analysis, tough enough for UL use constructed in 33D Diamond Ripstop nylon fabric. In contrast, the 20" IAC pads have 50D Diamond Ripstop nylon fabric. Aaron further told me "...our pads ritually are 10 to 20% warmer than comparable products in the market. You will see that sometimes our product might weigh slightly more when looking at a similar style, and this because we keep to strict rules when it comes to building a pad with more than adequate insulation for the environment it is meant to be used in." The Peak Elite AC is designed for 3-season camping rather than winter.

The fabric is finished in DWR which is a sensible touch - especially for a genuine 3-season mat. In terms of comfort, the Peak Elite AC feels very much like the Ether Elite 6 and users of that mat will be comfortably content with the Peak Elite - the 2.5" thick rounded tubes feel reasonably supportive - although I would say that I found the IAC more supportive. Its place in the POE range is as a warmer replacement for the Ether Elite 6 with virtually no weight gain. It is very well made, but the weight saving innovations are evident - alongside the slightly lighter fabric, the valve is not brass unlike the IAC, but in reality I don't know how much difference this will make - it is instead a "superlight", hard-anodised recycled composite - light as plastic but as durable as brass, say POE. It is surprisingly easier to inflate the Peak Elite than the IAC, despite the size disparity. POE suggest the Peak Elite to be warm enough down to -10C air temperature and 0C ground temperature, largely because of the lack of insulation on the legs. My own view is that with something else under the mat where legs are, it's range would be extended. I'm unlikely to be sleeping in my Páramo Aspira Salopettes so they are a prime candidate.

Aaron also makes a very interesting general point about winter mats - "we recommend that a pad must have an R-Value of at least 3 in the torso in order to qualify for 3 season camping, and an R-Value of 5, in the torso, for 4 season camping. You are pushing the limits of the product design, and [in using a mat with a 4.1 or 4.4 rating during winter] choosing to use a lower R-value than what we would recommend." It is symptomatic of UL trekking & hillwalking that we push the limits of product design and when reviewing products we must remember, and be fair to, their manufacturer's intended application.

I like the Peak Elite AC but the real test will be in January at 800m in the Lake District for 3 days when we can swap between the Peak Elite and the IAC.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Liner (+8C/15F) Initial Analysis

Sleeping bags vex me. The lack of certainty in assessing their true performance offends my vaguely obsessive-compulsive sensibilities. Yet, nothing in life is certain - apart of course from death and taxes - and the purportedly flawed EN13537 rating system is as good as any in giving some assessment of performance. That a company I trust and admire - Alpkit - have not put their bags through that test due to cost speaks as to one of major flaws with that system. That said, no other more effective system has yet been postulated so it provides some uniformity at least.

None of this is news, but for the assistance of those who do not know, EN 13537 testing starts from the premise that women sleep colder than men given identical conditions. Consequently, sleeping bags are rated thus:

EN 'Comfort' Rating (for Women): The lowest outside air temperature at which a 'standard' woman can sleep comfortably.
EN 'Lower Limit' or 'Transition' Rating (for Men): The lowest outside air temperature at which a 'standard' man can sleep comfortably.

EN ratings analysis is based on the user wearing a base layer and a hat, and using an insulating sleeping pad under the bag, which is appropriate to the conditions.

An EN 'Extreme' or 'Survival' rating describes the temperature at which a 'standard' female user would be kept alive. I would ignore this rating lest you be lulled into a false sense of security.

Sleepings bags vex me too because they are expensive. I am fortunate in that hillwalking and mountaineering, and independent travel, are my only vices, if a deep love of the outdoors can be categorised in such a pejorative way. I am therefore in a position to afford to spend what I would want to on kit. That said, were I to supplement my collection with a true All-Season bag, the PHD Hispar 400 (-9C, 770g, £368) or the 500 (-15C, 890g, £408) would be my choices. I toyed with the Western Mountaineering Ultralite (-7C, 820g, £315) but the PHD bags look better on paper. Either way, this analysis provides me with one inexorable conclusion -  in order to bed myself down in deeply sub-zero conditions, I would need to spend £315-408 on a bag I might use twice a year. 

My Western Mountaineering Summerlite is rated down to 0C and weighs 575g. I have used it repeatedly around that temperature and in base layer/longjohns only, I am fine. Camped at Angle Tarn, at 2C, I used the Nano-Puff (60g Primaloft One fill insulation) in the middle of the night but only for comfort rather than necessity. Thus, I am of the view that for temperatures down to a maximum of -5C, with a decent insulating layer, hat, long-johns and a winter mat such as the BA IAC, the Summerlite will do. I suspect I'll be a bit cold, but I'll be reasonably happy. Of course, I bear in mind that the loft of both the bag and the PHD Yukon I am awaiting will likely be less than the sum of both separately as they will be both be slightly compressed by the other.

So it was that I stumbled, as I so often do with these things, on the Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Liner. There are three in the range - Reactor, Reactor Plus and Reactor Extreme. All are made from ADVANSA Thermolite, created by Dupont, which is a hollow-core fibre with insulating and wicking properties. It feels rather like thin merino wool, akin to something like a merino wool base layer, which is very pleasant - although it is a polyester weave. It is breathable (it is virtually see-through, it's so thin) which has its advantages as a layer for a sleeping bag. It is machine washable too. It costs around £35.

Sea to Summit claim that there are temperature gains to be had to increase the range of your sleeping bag for what is a lightweight liner. Summarised thus: Reactor (+8C/15F, 243g), Reactor Plus (+11C/20F, 263g)  and Reactor Extreme (+14C/25F, 399g). The former made with 80g/m2 Thermolite, the latter two are made with a heavier 110g/m Thermolite either in some areas of the liner (Plus) or the entirety of the liner (Extreme). All of the temperature gains are a maximum and many people may well experience, say Sea to Summit, less. Mine, I should say, weighs 259g in the stuffsack (rather than 243g) - always important when assessing the overall efficacy of a product to ascertain if a manufacturer is prone to hyperbole. The liner measures 210cm x 90cm and is too roomy for me. It could've been smaller, easily - it has seams rather than one piece so Mrs M may well butcher this for me to a smaller size. Packed in its silnylon stuffsack, it measures 9cm by 15cm (which is larger than the 7.62cm by 12.5cm as advertised - remember: hyperbole).

If those claims are correct, for £35, my Summerlite would be rated to -8C (I consider more like -4 or -5C, to be on the safe side, if the claim is believed at all) for an additional 259g (a total of 834g, although some judicious ditching of labels and stuff sacks saves around 20g and I imagine if Mrs M gets the sewing kit out, another few grams would be shaved). Additionally, I'd have to wash my bag less which is a good thing with a down bag. Looking at the WM Ultralite (-7C, 820g) and PHD Hispar 400 (-9C, 770g). The Hispar is, if PHD are accurate, the more effective regime but at £408, it's a Scots Bonnet of a purchase. Also, on a longer trek, with varying temperatures, the Reactor may well prove more versatile than two bags or a bag that is too warm - if it simply enhances the range of a single bag then it is a worthwhile consideration.

I am sceptical about the Reactor. Reviews of its performance are wildly divergent (have a look at BPL here and here and Outdoors Magic here). This is to be expected as sleeping is a strikingly personal thing (a fact demonstrated by someone in 2005 and then again in 2010 still willing to write at length about the assertion it does not work). A 0C rated bag might well be warm enough at 1-3C for one person, but not for another. If you get into a bag cold, you'll likely stay cold. If you've exercised or eaten before getting into a bag, then you'll be warmer. If your mat is poorly chosen, either because of its thermal insulating properties or it's too short and a part of your body is in contact with the ground, then few bags will assist and you'll still be conducting your heat into the ground which is a far bigger, and colder, surface area than you are. You'll be cold.

So, most people would suggest that +8C/15F is unlikely. To be fair to Sea to Summit, even in an email to me about the fabric and the tests they've conducted, they do say that. They are even considering spending money of having it EN13537 rated but as yet they have not. Their tests are of the field-report type but they did not elaborate on what they were. Clearly, the fabric will have some insulating properties but I doubt very much if it is as effective as suggested. Having sat in it in a cool room with nothing but boxers on (how very scientific) it feels warmer than not having it. I would conclude it is likely to add something to your bag but, as I said at the start - there is no adequate way to test this and people are very different.  We'll see, in -5C to -8C conditions, where it should, if their claim is accurate, keep me comfortable in the Summerlite, how it performs. I'll always have the Yukon if it does not...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

My First Aid Kit

I've not really seen much in the way of discussion on First Aid, and Survival, kits on the blogs I tend to frequent. We all carry them, I am sure, but I have no real concept of what others carry. Consequently, I thought a quick post, and some commentary from 'the regulars' and we might all learn something we didn't know about our kits. They tend to stay packed away at the bottom of our sacks - never forgotten but rarely used - and we probably don't give them much thought.

I am a registered First Aider (one of the perks of my government employer) so took some time to learn about First Aid. I'd be interested to see what others think of my kit and what they'd add to it. Clearly some items are peculiar to me (contact lenses and earplugs, for example) whilst others would be essential in any kit. Ultralight is a compromise but how far we compromise in this area is debatable. That said, most items in a medical kit are already small and lightweight, so I don't feel the compromise is so very harsh.

My Kit, in a red Alpkit Apollo stuffsack, and always placed within a drybag containing my other 'keep-dry' essentials, weighs 96g and contains the following:

Painkillers - aspirin, paracetomol and ibruprofen
Imodium tablet
Anti-hystamine tablet
Savlon antiseptic alcohol wipes
1 set of thin plastic gloves
Steristrips - various sizes
Robust, waterproof plasters
3 sterile dressings (various sizes)
Safety pin
Insect bite cream
Contact lenses
Spare shoe lace
Micropore tape
Isostar tablets 

Signal whistle
Water purification tablets (for emergencies rather than general use)
Swiss Army Knife - “Ranger”

There are various items I do not carry as, in an emergency, other items will fulfil the role - the prime example is a triangular bandage as I can use my MSR Pack Towel to do that. I do not carry a bothy-bag or a survival bag as I have both a shelter and a sleeping bag and mat. I used to carry antiseptic lotion but found alcohol wipes to do a better job outdoors as the skin dries quickly so a dressing can be applied more easily. I don't carry syringes as I do not have the experience to use them, nor is there anything I can inject. I do not carry a snare wire or fishing line, for example, as I might do in the wilderness as it really does not fit my requirements. Finally, my iPhone has John 'Lofty' Wiseman's SAS Survival Guide and the St Johns Ambulance First Aid applications. They are useful additions if you have an iPhone.

It would be intriguing to see what others carry...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Mountain Equipment Windchill Grip Gloves Review

One of the most pivotal, yet oft neglected, items in our arsenal is the humble glove. Frequently occupying a lesser position when compared to more stimulating and appealing artifacts such as our UL shelter systems and pertex-shrouded insulation layers and sleeping arrangements, there can be fewer more crucial selections than the glove. Functioning hands are critical and keeping them protected is the fulcrum of safety in the hills.

So it was that I spent some time, as I do with most of my kit selections, weighing the various advantages and disadvantages of lightweight gloves. I wanted something that would keep out the wind, and much of the rain, and which would warm my hands when I pulled on gloves, as is so often the case, when they were already cold. They needed to be minimalist not only in terms of weight but so I could use my hands without encumbrance.

Initially, I looked at Extremities Velo gloves. I liked the weight (78g for size large), the close fit and the windstopper. I had queries about the ability to warm my hands if they were already cold, but I thought they fitted the bill well. I could not order them for a while as they seemed out of stock perpetually. It was an idle Tuesday afternoon when I found myself in Ellis Brigham in Covent Garden, browsing whilst waiting for a meeting. I stopped at the glove rack and happened upon the Mountain Equipment Windchill Grip. 

The Windchill Grip is a fleece glove, with Gore Glacier windstopper fabric, a box-finger construction and silicone ME symbol palm for impressive grip. The cuff is extended so it will cover, or sneak under, a sleeve and the elasticated wrist is just about the perfect stretch. As a fleece windstopper fabric glove, it would fulfil the two major criteria I had - warmth when my hands were already cold and wind-resistance. Fleece would also dry quickly so if it got wet in the rain, I was not too fussed. I have always found fleece to be reasonably warm when wet and it shrugs of rain well for quite some time. The palm, festooned with innumerate tiny ME symbols in silicone to provide an almost mucilaginous surface, looks a little like something Batman might find solace in. I've had these sorts of surfaces on gloves before and they often peel off, but there seems little sign of that so far and the tiny sigils are welded onto the fleece fabric unyieldingly. 

At around £28, and satisfactorily light - a minimalist design (no clips, drawstrings or other burdensome contrivances) means they in fact weigh 66g for the pair. The glove is machine washable at 30C - very useful as they tend to get dirty easily.

I turned to them habitually on the TMB and found them to be admirable and unfailing - on the Col de la Seigne, when I was far too cold, far too quickly, I pulled them on before wrestling myself into the Montane Prism. My hands were warm within seconds of caressing that fleecy snugness. I've used them going to work recently in the sub-zero temperatures of the early morning commute and they have yet to falter. They've been washed several times and dry within moments. There are far more complicated, technical gloves to be had, but I'd doubt they're as effective, or as light.

Strange how you sometimes stumble across an unassuming champion, among a plethora of supposed superiority.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

New Stove System II (Winter): The Primus Express Spider

Some time ago, I considered my cooking system largely after problems I experienced with the Evernew DX System. I went through various issues in that post and one of them was to look at canister stoves in general when compared, utilising a variety of criteria, with other cooking system such as alcohol, esbit and wood-burning stoves. I still, for 3-Season use, would like an alcohol/wood-burning stove but for winter use, I do not want to use that system. I have in mind a system for 3-Season use, but that is a different post for 2011.

I recently purchased the Primus Express Spider for several reasons - largely based around the fact that it is a far more suitable stove for winter use:

  1. it has a pre-heat tube meaning that, at cold temperatures, the butane in canisters will still become vaporised and therefore continue to fuel the stove;
  2. it is a tube-fed stove which has two benefits - the canister can be inverted to assist vaporisation and the stove is more stable which permits use within the porch of a shelter in inclement weather;
  3. it is lightweight, packable and comes with several decent reviews under its belt which indicate that it is likely to be an effective winter cooking system.

On opening the box, you can immediately descry a superbly manufactured stove. Once the various, annoyingly obstreperous, tags are removed, the stove can be played with. At 193g, alongside a stuffsack which weighs an additional 12g and with which I shall dispense, placing instead the Spider inside my Titan Kettle, it is sufficiently lightweight. A canister top stove (the Gosystem Fly-Ti or Monatauk Gnat, for example) would be lighter but for the reasons I have espoused previously when considering my winter overnight system, it is impractical for cooking inside a tent and it does not have pre-heat advantages. There is also a small, flat, circular disc of metal which is a heat shield. This is a superfluous bit of gimmickry as far as I can see and my intention is to shelve it until I see the need for it. 

Boil time is billed at 4.5mins for 1 litre of water going from 20C to 100C and power output is 2000W/7150 BTU/h. Dimensions are 105 x 85 x 55 mm. I did not do my own tests as this will change in real-world conditions anyway which are impossible to recreate at home.

The stove has three legs, with broad, teethy grips, which unfurl reassuringly smoothly into solid stantion points and provide a very stable tripod base. They do not clip into place, they simply slide in, but the whole system is still very well-balanced. The pre-heat tube, fashioned in an agreeable and efficacious brass, curves around the perimeter of the stoves fire-pit flame system. The tube from the gas canister to the stove itself is a woven, steel mesh measuring 28cm and culminating in a solid and elementary flow-adjustment system to be screwed into a canister.

Initially, I was quite concerned about stability - because the hose of the system is so robustly substantial, as is the gas-inflow tube (also crafted from brass) the stove lists backwards if there is nothing on it. This did not seem particularly stable to me, but the simple weight of the empty box placed on the legs (perhaps as little as 50g) was enough to stabilise it. A Titan Kettle with 500ml (600g or so) will keep it stable. The footprint of the stove, when unfurled, is sufficiently diminutive to permit cooking within the porch of the Akto - perhaps (heaven forbid) the Fly Creek UL1...

The Spider does not have a Peizo ignitor which features on most canister stoves. The attractions of this simpler setup however are both a consequential weight saving and improved reliability (there are fewer complicated parts to malfunction in wintry freezing conditions). Most of us carry a lighter or matches anyway, so why have an piezo? It becomes redundant.

I am looking forward to testing this stove on a 3-day trip in Snowdonia, or the Lakes (destination to be determined) in January 2011 when the temperatures will likely be very low indeed. I have some confidence it will perform admirably on the evidence so far.