- A 3kg maximum weight for shelter, sleep system and rucksack;
- UK, particularly Scottish, mountains camping at a height of between 600-1100m;
- Expected temperatures of up to -10C; and
- Expected winds of up to 30-40mph.
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 Amazon.com 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.