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.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Backpacking North

Every so often I read a post on a blog I am following that reminds me of something I've done myself or that I really enjoy. In the case of Mark Roberts' blog, Backpacking North and his post on his Vaattunkilampi Overnighter both apply. This wonderful bit of writing, with some evocative photography, reminds me of my Glaskogen trip when we stayed in almost identical shelters to the laavu Mark used.

It's a post worth reading.

Monday, 8 November 2010

On Hydrostatic Head

Hydrostatic Head is a term used to describe the waterproofness of a particular fabric. For any fabric to be considered fully waterproof it must be able to withstand the pressure of a column of water 1000mm high without leaking. This is quantified as a hydrostatic head rating of 1000. The Ministry of Defence definition of a waterproof fabric is that it must resist a column of water at least eight hundred millimetres high - that is to say a hydrostatic head rating of 800. Most tents have a minimum hydrostatic head rating of 1500 and European weather, it is widely thought, will be repelled by a tent with a hydrostatic head of around 2000mm.

The optimum position for a shelter is that the groundsheet has at least the same, it not higher, a rating than the fly as the serious pressure will come from the knees/feet/backside pushing the groundsheet against the wet ground rather than rainfall. Indeed, the higher the rating, the longer it retains it waterproofness over the short term (during a specific trip) as well as the longer it retains it waterproofness over the long term (during its lifetime).

Hydrostatic Head is not the only issue in shelter design of course - shape plays a part too and this will have an impact on how much of the shelter is actually exposed to wetness. Condensation will also play a part - so ventilation is also key.

Some Examples
My Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 has a HH rating of 1200mm on all the fabrics used - fly and groundsheet specifically - which means it is technically "waterproof" but is right at the bottom of the range - it is a 3-season shelter at best. Conversely, the Vaude Power Lizard UL has a HH rating of 10,000mm on the groundsheet which means it will likely be waterproof longer in both senses of that analysis.

The Hilleberg Akto - considered to be one of the better All-Season solo tents in existence - has a fly with an HH rating of 2000mm and a groundsheet with an HH rating of 5000mm. This is a true All-Season tent in terms of its ratings (but remember: waterproofness is not the only issue).

The TN Laser Competition has a fly with an HH rating of 3000mm and a groundsheet with an HH rating of 5000mm. It is perhaps the perfect balance of lightweight and waterproofness.

What does all this mean? At the very least, you'll have an idea how waterproof your fabric is. Thus, when pressing a knee into a groundsheet on very wet ground, you might, after a lengthy period of use, experience water ingress on a lower HH fabric. After some years of use, this may also be the case. Some users have reported water ingress on the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 after weeks of trekking and serious rainfall. That may be so, but there is always a compromise to be made between fabric and weight. Durability and waterproofness are always going to be issues in UL fabrics until technology advances. Being fully informed is one thing but being paranoid about kit is another.

In the end, backpacking, hillwalking and mountaineering is all about compromises and sacrifices. Know your limits and your destination and pack accordingly. Opinions will differ, of course, especially in this area as we can all survive with differing levels of comfort and we're seeking different theatres in which to spend our time.

For as illuminating a discussion on Hydrostatic Head as you will ever see, have a look at this thread on the BPL forum.

Jim Woods' superb, comprehensive and analytical article on Silnylon can be found here and is just about the clearest rendition of the limits of Silnylon as I've seen.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Winter Overnight System - An Analysis

As winter approaches, I am ruminating on my current overnight sleep system and re-evaluating it with freezing conditions, and snow, in mind. The parameters of my analysis are as follows:
  1. A 3kg maximum weight for shelter, sleep system and rucksack;
  2. UK, particularly Scottish, mountains camping at a height of between 600-1100m;
  3. Expected temperatures of up to -10C; and
  4. Expected winds of up to 30-40mph.
I am aware, of course, that I'll usually be able to find more sheltered areas so wind will play a less significant role than the suggested 30-40mph, and it may not be as cold as -10C, but that framework means I will assemble a far more robust and secure sleeping system than otherwise would be the case. Further, I don't want to plan on a less harsh environment and then find I need to buy more kit, and get used to it, for environments other than the UK and the Alps, unless I have to. My 3-season set-up is Gossamer Gear Gorilla (690g), NeoAir short (260g), WM Summerlite (580g) and Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 (970g).

Osprey Mutant vs OMM Villain MSC
Osprey Mutant for my winter 'sack - that decision has already been made, hasn't it? Seemingly not. There is always room for re-consideration (a Norman Lamont U-Turn) and a quick look at various facets and criteria this morning set me pondering. My analysis comes to this: I need a 45-50 litre pack, that carries as well over long distances as it does over short, vertical ones, for several days at a time and which is around 1kg. The Mutant, great pack that it seems, is slightly heavier than I would like (even with the bivy pad removed) and is only 41 litres for a large - probably big enough, but probably only just. It is also, in reality, a dedicated climbing pack but, as Osprey have always carried perfectly for me in the past, I felt it was a good option. Then, searching for something unimportant in my gear cupboard today, I glanced at my soon-to-be-ebay-bound OMM Villain. 

I love my Villain - the only reason it was retired in favour of my paramour, the Gorilla, was weight. That said, it is a bombproof, slim-built character, which carries very well indeed and has its origins in  Alpinism and winter sports. It is 45 litres, and weighs, after I butchered straps and unnecessary bits, around 1050g. PTC put me on to it in the first place and he explains it on his legendary blog, alongside designer Mike Parsons, both in terms of the wonderfully told history of the pack and the new 2009 design. It was redesigned again in 2010, but my 2008 version remains almost identical. So, the Mutant remains on a retail outlet shelf for now and my old companion the Villain finds himself in a new playground. The ice-axe bungee loops are a nightmare so I'll find some new bungee cord and cord-locks that are smoother and easier to use with gloves on. Other than that, it'll be worth a season - maybe more.

On the basis that my Villain, and a rain cover, amount to 1100g, that leaves me 1900g for sleep system and shelter. Given I have just purchased a Hilleberg Akto, which is about 1500g, that leaves me 400g for my sleep system - never going to happen. So I have failed in my 3kg task already! What has this taught me? Why have I failed? Numerous reasons it seems to me - largely, winter is not a simple undertaking to prepare for, especially when your kit is going to be used in multifarious theatres. Versatility and familiarity are key.

The Hilleberg Akto
I am an old sentimentalist at heart - sometimes exemplar is better than innovation. I don't want to use the Fly Creek UL1 in torrid, wintry conditions, at 1000m or more - I would prefer a 4-5 season shelter. Alan Rayner and I had a very illuminating chat about Hydrostatic Head recently and it was that which started me re-thinking the place my winter shelter would occupy in my life. Hydrostatic Head, however, is but one aspect of this analysis. Wind and cold, the ability to cook in the porch, the storing of more kit than usually used in the summer and universal durability all feature prominently. My shortlist was narrowed very quickly to the Akto and the Scarp 1. For years I have admired the Akto from afar - it is an indomitable shelter, well tested in harsh conditions. It has been copied repeatedly and remains a timeless classic. For some reason, I had a look on eBay and, 2hrs later, I was the proud owner of a second hand, nearly-new Akto for £235. Admittedly, it's substantial at 1500g, but I can diminish that weight and I will always know that even a hurricane will struggle to pull it down and snow will not collapse it. I love those simple, reassuring facts. 

Basic technical specifications are as follows but a fuller review will follow:

Design: single hoop
Flysheet: Kerlon 1200 silicone-coated nylon, HH: 2000mm
Inner: 30D, 42g/m high tenacity ripstop nylon
Groundsheet: 70D, 90g/m 
high tenacity ripstop nylon, HH: 5000mm
Pole: DAC Featherlite NSL
Porches: one (220 x 75cm at deepest point)
Pitching: as unit or fly first
Dimensions (L x W x H): 220cm x 90cm x 90cm

Pack Size: 17cm x 50cm
Manufacturer’s weight: 1500g

Total packed weight on my scales: 1546g with extra pegs - but see my Initial Analysis Post.

Western Mountaineering Summerlite
This is my 3-season bag. It is rated down to 0C. I have used it down to about 3C and I was wearing only a base layer and boxers. Supplemented by an insulating layer such as the Patagonia Nano Puff or the PHD Ultra, some more sensible legwear, a hat and gloves and it will be suitable for much colder temperatures. I may even throw in my Jagbags Silk Liner. Either way, down to something like -5C, with judicious use of supplementary, dual-use kit and a better sleeping mat, which I discuss below, I am confident that the Summerlite will keep me warm. However, down to -10C is another matter and I have in mind, for that eventuality, one bag only: the PHD Hispar 400 (-9C, 770g). Eye-wateringly expensive, it is however exactly what is necessary in every way. I don't need it right now, but I may if I intend to spend a lot of time at temperatures below -5C.

Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Mummy Short - 152cm
I took some time over this area. The insulation provided by a sleeping mat is often overlooked in favour of a warmer sleeping bag which is a poor strategy. In my view, the conductive heat loss from the ground is far more serious a proposition than the heat loss from directly inside a bag and shelter. There is a balancing exercise to be undertaken between weight/packability and R-rating. Clearly, therefore, the NeoAir is not warm enough, with an R-rating of 2.5, for winter wild camping. I need something closer to 4 or even 5 for wild camping in freezing conditions, especially if I am intending to use my Western Mountaineering Summerlite. The gold standard is the Exped Downmat 7 - with an R-rating of 5.9 it is perfect for camping on snow. A great review can be found here on Steve Walton's blog. However, it weighs 620g for the 120cm version. That's too heavy for such a short mattress.

That analysis leaves me with a number of choices - Pacific Outdoor Equipment have receives much in the way of positive press for their Ether Elite but it is unlikely to be warm enough. The other option is the Ether Thermo 6 but at an R-rating of 3-4, and weighing 416g for 122cm length, I am not convinced by it. Thus, being a fan of Big Agnes, I chanced upon the IAC Mummy short. There is a comprehensive review by Ray Estrella which was very positive. It is allegedly 510g for R-rating 4.1 and 152cm. That will support my knees, putting less of my body in contact with the ground (or my rucksack) and therefore less potential for conductive heat loss, as well as greater comfort.  It will be inexorably less warm than the Exped Downmat 7 but it's worth trying out given the symmetry of length, warmth and weight. Life is about compromise.

When the mat arrived, from in the US, it arrived speedily but expensively. That said, were I to buy it in the UK, it would have cost more as US kit inevitably does, so I am not too fussed. First, weight - 524g without stuff sack, 546g with stuff sack, which has neat pocket for the enclosed repair kit. Nice touch BA. Not so nice that the 18oz (510g) weight is incorrectly stated. US manufacturers seem to do this a lot - Western Mountaineering have done it too. That said, the mat itself is superb. At 152cm for a mummy mat, it virtually guarantees almost every part of my body is in contact with the mat as I sleep slightly curled up and with a pillow off the end of the mat. The build quality, as I have come to expect from BA, is exceptional. 

A neat dark-purple colour on top, with a diamond rip-stop weave and reinforced baffle-separating lines, the mat itself is a world of difference from the NeoAir in terms of durability and touch. The NeoAir is 250g lighter, of course, but the difference is more than that - it has an unquantifiable feel of quality. The mummy shape is something I applaud and it may be that a POE Ether Elite will become my summer mat. The IAC takes a lot of puff to inflate and using the EZ Inflate system is not that easy - it takes a moment's practice to get it right and get air going into the mat - do not inflate it for the first time on a hill, in the cold. Get it right in the warm instead of experimenting in the cold. The valve is brass and looks extremely well made - it also looks less prone to damage than the NeoAir valve. 

All in all, this mat looks good and, if it's as warm as its rating, it will be fine for the winter for a reasonable weight penalty.

Cooking - the Primus Express Spider
Mark introduced me to the Spider through his detailed reviews on the topic. I looked also at Chris Townsend's review in TGO and had a quick scour of other magazines and internet articles. Winter cooking has its own peculiar issues. Many UL backpackers reject alcohol stoves in the winter as they are hard to get going and perhaps too slow to melt snow. Further, cooking with an alcohol stove in the porch of a shelter is more tricky a proposition than a canister stove. The major problem with canister stoves is that 'top' gas stove (a stove attached to the top of a canister) burns vapour, which has boiled off from the liquid in the canister below. This performs optimally when the liquid is above boiling point. The energy for the boiling comes initially from the liquid gas, which promptly cools down as the energy is extracted (see my article on thermodynamics in 'The Human Machine'). Thus, if you run a normal 'canister-top' gas stove for any length of time in the snow, the liquid in the canister will cool down hugely, evaporation will decrease, eventually below the boiling point of the butane and you'll be left with a half full canister of liquid which does not vaporise. This is precisely why we used propane in the 'Van as the freezing point is -40C. Winter stoves, to resolve this issue, feed the fuel through a pre-heat tube which is often assisted in its role by a piezo-ignition lighter which produces a spark, lighting the fuel sufficiently to heat the pre-heat tube and, thus causing the vaporisation needed. This can be done using liquid butane (which vaporises in the pre-heat tube) and propane. In order to get the liquid into the pre-heat tube, you can invert the canister. Further, you would do well to keep a canister warm if at all possible, prior to using it - perhaps inside an insulation layer in your pack, or in your sleeping bag as it lofts when you unpack it. Clearly, inverting cannot be accomplished with a canister-top stove. With a tube-fed stove like the Primus Express Spider, it can. BPL has a number of articles dealing with this and how to MYOG kit to hold your canister whilst it's inverted.

The Primus Express Spider is not only tube fed, it also has a pre-heat tube. Further, it's extremely well manufactured and very light indeed (193g). I doubt I'd use a stuff sack as I'll store it in a ziplok bag inside my MSR Titan Kettle. As it is not mounted on top of a canister, its centre of gravity is lower, and it is more stable. Consequently, it is a safer system for use inside the porch of a shelter. Whilst I might not want to use the Primus in 3-season conditions (see here for my reasons why), it certainly has a place in winter. I don't intend to do boil-time tests as 3mins or 5mins has never really been an issue for me, as long as I get a rolling boil going. Officially, the Spider boils 1 litre of water in 4.5mins. I tend to boil 500ml at a time so it'll be even quicker for me.

Sadly, as a consequence of poor service by the outdoor supplier I purchased my example from, I have yet to receive it so no playful photography to bestow upon you just yet - I'll do a fuller Initial Analysis when I receive it. For now, content yourselves with Primus' Scott Kaier demonstrating the Primus Express Spider at the Outdoor Retailers  Market, 2009 - courtesy of You Tube.

The Hilleberg Akto - Initial Analysis and Review

The Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 is the perfect 3 Season tent for me. It's likely I'll experiment with tarps and bivys next year but I am also looking at doing some high level winter camping over the coming years. I am not convinced that the Fly Creek is suitable for the sort of conditions I would expect to experience as I detailed in an earlier post on my Winter Overnight System. Looking at All-Season solo tents, the Hilleberg Akto has a reputation as an indomitable character and a timeless classic. It has been updated several times in its lifetime and is due another one but still remains a proven All-Season shelter. Several other shelters compete with it, but I see problems with all of them, and consequently I was persuaded by the Akto. I purchased this one on eBay for £235. It arrived in very good condition indeed and I pitched in the garden as soon as I had the chance.

  • Weight of fly and inner (in stuffsack): 1196g
  • Flysheet: Kerlon 1200 silicone-coated nylon, HH: 2000mm
  • Inner: 30D, 42g/m high tenacity ripstop nylon
  • Groundsheet: 70D, 90g/m high tenacity ripstop nylon, HH: 5000mm
  • Pole: DAC Featherlite NSL
  • Poleset (including stuffsack): 216g
  • 10 Vargo Titanium Pegs (in poleset stuffsack): 50g
  • Total: 1462g
  • Floor space of inner: 220cm x 90cm/60cm, 1.70sqm
  • Floor space of porch: 220cm x 75cm, 0.83sqm

Fabric information can be found here. I didn't like the Vaude Power Lizard so, the Akto being the forerunner of this now much-plagiarised blueprint, it might seem odd that I would consider it. My reasons are simple - I wanted a tested, formidable, winter shelter. That is, without doubt, the Hilleberg Akto. Consequently, I thought I would give the single-hoop format another chance if, as I suspected, the other shortcomings of the Power Lizard were absent in the Akto. Manufacturing is clearly superb - there is not a stitch out of place and everything about the Akto screams quality and design intelligence. On initial scrutiny, it deserved its awesome reputation. It's only after using it in anger that the shortcomings become all too apparent.

Pitching is elementary and I achieved a relatively taut pitch in about 5-10 minutes of experimenting. The unique guyline systems are what really provide this shelter with both an uncomplicated and strong frame. Concluding adjustments and fine-tuning are also relatively painless. I may well replace the guylines, with a thinner, stronger, 1.5mm dyneema (1.3g/m) or 2mm dyneema (3g/m) which would extend the weight-loss from first mod I have made (and make to all my tents - Vargo titanium pegs with stronger V-pegs for pivotal guys if necessary - which will probably be the case in winter conditions) as well as making the guys stronger than the guys provided. The dyneema will also not soak up water as the current guys will. I might have a chat to Hilleberg about this first to see what they think but it seems feasible and effective.

The pole - the ubiquitous DAC 9mm - inserts into the pole-sleeve at the porch side and ends its journey in a convenient, durable cordura/kevlar pocket. The porch end is then placed into a plastic cup and then adjusted tight via a brass double tension lock. This is simple effortlessness and far more straightforward a set-up to manage alone in high wind. It's a very neat and effective innovation.

The guylines, 8 at either end joined together to be grounded via only 4 pegs (another clever design), are all separately adjustable through line-loks which I prefer to traditional tent guylines. This makes the Akto taut and, I would imagine both from looking at it, and from reviews, very robust in strong wind. The bottom corners of the fly also peg out, increasing the tautness of the overall pitch and security. They are not necessary, according to Hilleberg, but I would almost certainly use them.

There is a vent hood above the porch with a malleable wire strip (think hood peak on a jacket) to adjust the angle of the cover. If the weather is poor, the fly can therefore be vented without water ingress. Another great idea - we'll see how well it works in strong wind and spindrift. The clasps to hold the fly back, and the inner for that matter, are small pieces of elastic shock-cord which loop over a small hook. They are far easier to use than the loop-and-toggle system I've seen on the Fly Creek UL1, the Seedhouse SL1 and the Power Lizard UL but probably less likely to withstand inclement weather - this is not so much of a concern for me as I won't have the porch/inner open in inclement weather. Again, points to Hilleberg.

The size of the porch is also a genuinely positive feature of the Akto. I could cook in the porch in complete safety, such is the angle at which the fly heads upwards, as well as the space, which would be crucial to me. It means I do not need a windshield for my Primus Express Spider. More weight saved and less fuel used. The fly does seem slightly loose along the bottom and I have seen this moves in high wind - I can always put a boot there when cooking.

Rather like the Power Lizard, the Akto's inner is attached to the fly but, unlike the Power Lizard (one of the reasons I did not get on with it) a taut pitch on the fly achieves a taut pitch on the inner. The inner follows, on the side away from the porch, the line of the fly giving a small, alcove area within the inner within which to stash extra kit - not that there is any worry about space - I am 6' tall and there is no chance of my head or feet ever touching the ends of this 220cm long inner and width is no issue. The primary reason to choose the Power Lizard was the palatial space it offered for such a low pack weight - the Akto really does not feel that much smaller until you are in a storm when the movement of the fly and the inner mean the sides end up shifting noticeably. This has a knock-on effect in terms of the inner above my head coming constrictively close to my face during the night - a significant problem for me in the TN Laser Competition and also in the Akto. On that note, much has been said about the head-height in the Akto being marginally on the dwarfish side - the Laser Competition is without doubt blessed with slightly more head-room (5cm to be precise) but at 6' tall, I did not find the Akto to be too low. I can sit, in fine weather, with my head brushing the inner, and do porch chores without irritation. However, atop a mat, with a storm raging outside, things are different.

The inner and fly ends are held high and taut by small rods - I could replace these with carbon-fibre but the weight saved would not be justified in terms of potential strength reduction. The bathtub groundsheet - 90g/msq, 70 Denier, 5000mm Hydrostatic Head ripstop nylon does not need a footprint in my view. Compared to the Fly Creek (I don't use a footprint for that either) - it's concrete. Sympathetic pitching is all that is required.

Condensation is, depending on which review one reads, either a wicked problem or not much of an irritation at all. To minimise condensation, the Akto has various vents and the inner fabric is 'breathable'. One vent, on the fly above the porch, I have alluded to, but it also corresponds to an area of mesh on the inner which can also be covered if desirable. The other vents are at the foot and head end of the fly and are unzipped when outside. They cannot be accessed from inside without in-porch contortionist behaviour. I know of a mod done by Geoff at v-g where he replaced the nylon with mesh at the corresponding ends of the inner to assist ventilation. It's a nice idea but I'll see how the Akto handles winter first. There is a small pocket in the inner by the door as well. Probably big enough to take my specs, my Vector (which I take off so I can check ambient temperature) and my iPhone - maybe even my e+Lite too. There are small loops at the top of the inner to which a gear loft could be fastened - that's seriously optimistic, Hilleberg.

The Akto was intended to be my winter shelter - it needed to be able to cope with high wind, serious rainfall, snow and other violently inclement weather. I needed to be able to cook in the porch and store more kit than I would in 3-season shelters. It needed to shut out the cold as much as possible. It needed to pitch in a way which was quick, kept the inner dry and meant I was out of bad weather as soon as possible. It also needed to be durable. For all of those successes, the Akto was, on the face of it, perfect and I am willing to put up with its weight - that said, a few mods and it's not quite the porker it seems...

Looks can be deceiving. Reviews are not always what they seem. Reputation is not necessarily deserved. The Akto simply does not do what I had hoped it would do and legend does not always mean best.

It is heavy - 1.5kg for a solo shelter is serious weight. The proprietary fabrics Hilleberg have used are superb in terms of waterproofness and durability - about that there can be no doubt - and it is a solid shelter in a storm. However, even when venting, the condensation build up on the interior of the fly, and the exterior of the inner, is incredible. In fact, so much so, that it dripped constantly onto the exterior of my WM Summerlite. The inner itself is so cramped for a 6ft person that, particularly in wind, the inner is prone to rub against a bag and that itself, given the condensation, causes serious problems for a down bag.

I found the height to be a problem when using a winter mat which is, inevitably, thicker than summer mats. I had to stoop even in the middle of the shelter where the apex is located.

I sold the Akto after three nights in it. Condensation is a major issue. Inner space is not enough, in my view. It's too heavy. In short - there are better options in winter. I'll let you know when I've tested them all...