Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Settling and Nostalgia

I enjoy testing new kit. Over the last few years, I have had access to sundry tents, sleeping bags, rucksacks, stovesets, cookware and clothing from a wide variety of manufacturers and there is no denying the (vaguely geeky) fun to be gained from comparing the relative merits of each against the others. I have been fortunate that a number of manufacturers have sent me odd bits of kit to test and I have been able to develop, between myself and my hillwalking and mountaineering partner, a library of kit that we can use at a moment's notice and also loan to others who join us.

Yet there is a certain security and satisfaction to be found in settling on a system. Whether it be my faintly anal, "on the spectrum" sensibilities that require the comfort of certainty or whether I simply don't have the time to sit and plan every eventuality so a last minute dash to the car does not engender hours of thought on what to take and why, I know not. Lately, I have come to realise there are staples in my kit selection diet that, over the years, have been placed in a cupboard whilst other, newer arrivals took centre stage, only to quietly sneak back into my rucksack with the self-confident ease of an old friend. Additionally, there are those new arrivals that impressed so completely that to leave them behind would be something approaching sacrilege. 

I believe also that as my horizons broaden into slightly different arenas, I am introduced to new kit largely because those theatres require a different approach - the Alps, whatever time of year, require a different kit selection to the UK in winter or summer. A UK winter leads me to Páramo. A UK summer to a marriage, variously, of Patagonia, Smartwool, OMM, Montane, Golite and Rab. Yet, mountaineering is different and 2,000m does not equate to the same approach as 4,000m. Rucksacks also require a different approach - UK winter and Alpinism do share a theme here - heavy metal in the form of ice-axe and crampons take up space and weight.

So, what is this post about? A celebration of the sanctuary to be found in settling on the piece of kit which will, without fail, fulfil its role with aplomb. Like my decision that, even for 11 day treks, the Gossamer Gear Gorilla is nonpareil during the 3-season theatre. Knowing that, unlike others, I need no longer search for something to carry all my kit in. And in winter (or for the Alps), despite an initial dalliance with the Osprey Mutant and the Crux AK47, my OMM Villain MSC - initially eBay-bound - does a superlative job. I've butchered it and this week added some Alpkit zip-pulls to assist cold, gloved hands. Everything on it and in it does what I need it to do and no more. It is an extension of me.

Or my Montane Terra pants - so widely unsung, they are consistent performers in mine, and so many others', kit lists. Yet they are not sexy, nor are they novel. For me, they are, however, without equal. I have tried others and not yet been impressed by anything as comfortable, lightweight, water resistant, wind resistant and durable as these stalwart characters. 

Shelters is perhaps the most verdant area for discussion and diversity. This year, at some point, I will get round to ordering the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar and a couple of Superlight Bivys. I had nights in the Mountain Hardwear PCT 1, the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1, the Vaude Power Lizard UL, the Terra Nova Laser Competition, the Hilleberg Akto and the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1. Each and every occasion has led me back to the Fly Creek with unstinting alacrity. I look forward to each night I spend within the comforting surrounds of that sub-1kg shelter, notwithstanding that the Trailstar and Superlight Bivy combination, shared between two of us, will measure out at half the weight. 500g is a lot when your pack weight is currently sub-5kg. Yet, even as I snooze under the Trailstar's palatial environs, I shall harbour a small pang of guilt for my old friend the Fly Creek. Perhaps its greatest moment was withstanding the wind and rain in winter every bit as well as the Hilleberg Akto.

Or my omnipresent Suunto Vector - never on the hill without it - functional, redoubtable and comforting. A timepiece, compass, barometer/thermometer and altimeter, all of which function sufficiently well to justify an inclusion in a small, neat package on my wrist. Like so many of the others mentioned here, it hardly gets top billing - it just performs quietly and without ostentatiousness.

And I remain ever faithful to Smartwool 200 weight merino wool. Sure, it takes a little longer to dry but it's so comfortable, so eminently layerable, so easy to wear in Alpine towns before and after a trek without looking like some bionic 2000AD military castoff and the lack of smell - that alone makes it worth its weight in gold. I have a crew neck and a zip neck - often I'll take both on longer trips as they gift versatility beyond all else. Whilst, in a hot, balmy summer, I love the Montane Bionic, there is a familiar comfort from Smartwool that I get all nostalgic about.

Nostalgia conjures images of fondue, of Betamax, of big hair and of bell-bottom jeans - yet it needn't be viewed that way. After all, a cliché becomes that way for a reason and originality does not necessarily equate to better. This year, there is new kit, and new theatres to use that kit in, and perhaps this time in 2013 I will be writing (affectionately) about some that kit too - but I hope equally that some of the kit I currently hold dear still sits close to my heart even then. I continue to test and, on occasion, continue to be contacted by manufacturers who would like to work with me but there is comfort in familiarity and, on the hill, familiarity certainly does not breed contempt.


  1. "A
    celebration of the sanctuary to be found in settling on the piece of
    kit which will, without fail, fulfil its role with aplomb."

    Hi Maz, I have spent around a year now lurking around a few blogs, gathering info on making the step to lightweight backpacking, and have recently just realized that, like this post, Im at the stage where I am happy now with what I have. (although I could always do with a lighter bivvy bag, and maybe a cuben tarp) :)

    Very well written piece there.


  2. Thanks David. Just got back from an overnighter in the Brecon Beacons where our camp was flooded and the weather was horrendous on the walk out. It was a test of new kit and old. I am glad you identified with what I wrote - I think we all forget our old favourites for a time and then realise how important they are like some sort of epiphany.

  3. Nice post Maz, I agree it's nice for a while to always be trying new stuff but in the end it loses it's appeal to a degree. Nice to be sorted and know exactly what you'll use without having to sort through a load of kit where the differences are so slight as to be irrelevant.
    Interesting that after all the Fly Creek still is the one for you in much the same way that the Phreeranger is for me. Similar situation with packs, I like my ULA Conduit but at times I need a heavier duty pack, in my case the Karrimor Alpiniste 45+10. 

  4. Richard, the Fly Creek turned out to be a real hardnut this week - "only" 1200mm hydrostatic head did not mean that, whilst sleeping in what became overnight a rain-drenched bog where I was, by 3.15am, laying in a small lake under my tent (think water bed and you get the idea) and none of it, despite hours like that with 80+kg on the fabric pushing it into the water, penetrated. I'm impressed. The Villain got a run out too with my mate who'd never been wild camping before. Write up to come soon.