Saturday, 23 July 2011

On GPS Part III: Update on the Garmin Foretrex 401, Garmin Basecamp and Anquet Maps

I have had some time to fool around with the Foretrex 401, Basecamp and Anquet and been quietly pleased with the results. As I have said, it is important to set the elevation before you start walking. If this is done, the information displayed in the Foretrex will be accurate. That said, I wanted to know whether it was possible to export the 'track' saved in the Foretrex to Garmin Basecamp and then onto Anquet where the mapping is more detailed. It is.

Basecamp is a useful basic tool from which to garner a wealth of information. It also retrieves easily, from the Foretrex, the stored track information. Once this is done, it is possible, within Anquet, to import that track. Within Basecamp, the track can be exported as a .gpx file - go to the File Menu, and select Export (the track name will be contained in "quotation marks") and where to export it to. In Anquet, under the File menu, Open Database and select the .gpx file containing the track. It automatically appears, in exactly the right place with all the waypoints and route information intact. It seems to be automatically saved as an .adf file - an Anquet Database File.

Below is a screen shot of my Anquet with the data. One thing to note is that the map provides the actual trip data, it would appear, rather then the GPS (as with Basecamp). Elevation, route, distance and so on come from the interpretation of the placement of the track on the map conducted by Anquet. Consequently, the time estimate is somewhat inaccurate as it is an estimate given Naismith's Rule, not what actually occurred on the ground. That is stored within the Foretrex (and Basecamp). In one sense, if your calibration of the Foretrex has been inaccurate at any stage, this process will then provide a more accurate result in terms of distance and ascent/descent.

Below is a screen shot of Garmin Basecamp's information screen. Note the ascent and descent is different. This, I am guessing, is down to the fact I did not set the elevation correctly at the beginning of the track and re-set it after about fifteen minutes and 1km. I am not quite sure how that disparity of 400m has occurred, as there was only a 150m disparity to be re-set, but I will investigate as I use the Foretrex. If I re-plot the route on Anquet from scratch it matches more closely to the information seen above rather than that on the Basecamp track information. I like the Leg Length/Time and Speed information. You can tell the flat parts and the climbing parts easily!

One thing that worked really well was the selection of Geographic Co-ordinate System (for an explanation of all this, see my post On GPS Part I: General Principles). I was able to select the OSGB36 option and navigate via the OS Grid System rather than longitude and latitude. I did this deliberately as I wanted to see how easy it was to use that rather than WGS84. It was easily interpreted and fully functional.

I am really pleased with the Foretrex. Attached to my sternum strap, it's easy to access and I looked at it frequently. As we moved, I was able to discern quickly if we were still on course and, if not, by how much we were off course and what heading we would need to take in order to correct this. The route to be taken is shown as a thick black line and it's easy to read after a short period of use. It was rugged enough to withstand some rocky scrambling and the rain. Battery life, with the compass turned ON, is not bad. 7-8hrs or so of continuous use (I include a couple of 30 minute runs in that time frame too) drain around 35-40% of the battery. Without the compass turned on - and I am not sure I need it, so this will be turned off - that will be improved. I'll continue to use it, get to know it and report back again.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Nantlle Ridge and Cwm Pennant: In the Vale of Ghosts

Sometimes Life conspires against you. It is said that no plan survives contact with the enemy. I would respectfully venture to suggest no plan survives contact with Real Life. An overnighter reduced to a sprint finish and a long, swift drive back home like thieves in the night. If no plan survives contact with the enemy, the only way to beat your enemy is to adapt. This we did.

It seems to have become a feature of hillwalking this summer that the sun is bereft of the will to push through the clouds and bestow its radiance on the mountains it gazes down upon. Thick, ominous cloud carrying with it sapping, chilling spray of fine rain covered the Snowdonia national  park this week. As we barrelled to Rhyd Ddu to get ready and begin, it seemed to grow darker and wetter with each passing moment. At that moment, we knew time was against us - hastening ahead without remorse or a glance over its shoulder. We packed - might as well take all of it we reasoned - after all, this was training for something larger and harder. And if we got stuck, we half-hoped we would, we'd have everything we needed. Besides, I said, it's already packed.

Y Garn is a great hulking crag of a hill with angry, sable rock on its east face. The mindless toil necessary to ascend its grassy southern slope is neither life-affirming nor thrilling - it is, however, essential. From 191m we laboured to the wet, slippery bouldery chaos of the apex to be greeted by the most unexpected of gifts - the coast bathed in sunshine, a pastel Renaissance fresco framed by inky cloud. Yet, Y Garn was not why we had come and our course lay to the west. Mynydd Drws-y-coed. On a good day, a guileful and exposed scramble. The wind, rain and fog conspiring to drape a veil of adversity across the ridgeline, we gazed at the first part of the Nantlle Ridge with something approaching trepidation. Buffeted by the gale, we laughed in the way of someone seeking reassurance from another. We pressed on.

Initially, Mynydd Drws-y-coed looks almost unpassable - an indomitable, gnarly monster; a misshapen, warped, malformed gargoyle of a mountain ridge. As you approach, taking each step at a time, a line appears. Several, in fact, some more insane than others, all the while a sheer drop falling away either side hundreds of metres. Eventually, grass gives way to greasy, oily rock. We grab and hold, testing each step, making completely sure of each movement, slowly ascending - crawling, slithering, clambering. There are exposed steps, places where perhaps a jump seems possible - beguiling and bewitching yet obviously just out of reach - onwards and upwards across the sharp, angled rock is the only way.

Eventually, impossibly slowly, we summit, 695m of vicious, jagged nightmare. The wind breaches our confidence to remain for long and we descend to the relative safety of the steep, wet grassy verge rounding the southern apex of Clogwyn Marchnad and turning east to pick up the path to Mynydd tal-y-Midnedd and the imposing, seemingly out-of-place stone obelisk on its summit. From here, we can see down to the Beddgelert Forest, scarred by deforestation and deep tracks criss-crossing like spider's web. Beyond, are Moel Lefn and the cave peak of Owain Glyndower's at Moel yr Ogof. Behind, hidden like a prowling beast is Moel Hebog. We look on all of them with sadness - tomorrow's feast to be saved for another day.

We are in the lee of the ridge now and the wind is beaten away. Peacefulness surrounds us and we slowly pick our way along the sheep trail to the top of the ridgeline again and Trum y Ddysgl. The ascent to  Mynydd tal-y-Midnedd is sumptuously easy. A steep, grassy path that virtually carries us to the huge, slate obelisk standing alone on the summit. Again we drink in the beauty of the soft-hued coastline and then move on. Our ever-present slavedriver, old Master Time, is ahead of us still and we rush to catch up, knowing we have a way to go. The sky darkens and I hear twice the distant rumble of thunder. We save Carig Cwn Silyn for another day - secretly I wondered what the rock would be like in the wet, windy vitriol of the day, but we descended to Bwlch Dros-bern and, using the wall next Ceunant yr Allt as a handrail, we headed for the old quarry mine path.

It is a feature of any OS map that the equivocal scribblings that make up some of the icons on the face of the page are little genuine indication of the wonder to be found on the ground. In a sense, the Nantlle Ridge is a testament to that, but if there were to be a better example, we stumbled across it that evening.

The Prince of Wales Quarry, part of the slate mining industry of Wales, opened in 1873. Failing almost immediately, it closed in 1886. Buildings around the north end of Cwm Pennant, along with the path of the old tramway, sit like otherworldly shadows, hurriedly abandoned. It is as if a plague swept through the cwm a century before taking all with it and leaving only ghosts. It is an eerie, lonely place - desolate, windswept and overgrown. The path, a remnant of the old tramway, begins south of Cwn Dwyfor and purports to bridge the torrential rivers cascading into Cwm Pennant - it does not, and fording these rivers is necessary. The path becomes so overgrown in places that the only symbol of its existence are the bleak, forsaken shells of buildings en route.  

From the craggy exhilaration of the ridge, this is a more mysterious, almost supernatural, intrigue. It is at times as if we segue into a century before - hard men in thick leather boots, trousers with braces and flannel shirts toil at the face of the quarry, desperate to earn enough to feed their families. The wind relenting, you can almost here the tap, tap, tap of tools of slate. The creaking whine of metal wheeled carts carrying the slate away. The path carries on to Beddgelert forest, curling round the hillside - yet more buildings and trappings of the quarry. It is almost spiritual.

The ground is wet underfoot - sodden and deep trenches within which pools chill water. Our final descent into the unearthly, spectral realm is complete once we enter the desolate Beddgelert Forest. It is as if a maelstrom has torn through parts of the forest, wreaking havoc and tearing asunder the very roots from the trees. As night began to fall, and we quickened our pace, this felt anywhere other than northern Wales - perhaps the Swedish forest of Glaskogen or Rogens, but not Wales. Eventually, we escaped the midges and reached the car. It had been a long day - only 16km and around 1000m of ascent, of nearly 7hrs as the conditions underfoot had been difficult. We were tired but elated. Now, all we faced was the drive home.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

On GPS Part II: Garmin Foretrex 401 Initial Analysis

So, for reasons I have already discussed, I wanted a lightweight, basic, easily accessible GPS system. BPL forums again assisted in this regard and after some surfing and comparison I whittled the nominees down until the winner was decided upon - the Garmin Foretrex 401. At 87g with wrist-strap and two NiMH rechargeable AAA batteries, it is on the face of it exactly what I was looking for. The fact the batteries are AAA, the same as those used in my XP2 headtorch, makes perfect sense and was a feature in my decision - it means I can take 4-6 replacement batteries (12g each) on a long trip and multi-task them. As I did recently with my Suunto Vector, I can secure the 401 to it the sternum strap of the Gorilla/Villain an have ready access to it.

So, what do I think of it? First off, I am pleased with the feel of the unit. It is durable, waterproof to IPX7 (meaning it is protected against water immersion - Immersion for 30 minutes at a depth of 1 meterand compact. The buttons are easily accessible and the screen is easy to read. It is simple and functional. The wrist-strap is a rugged velcro attachment which is perhaps a bit more rugged than it needs to be and could be a little slimmer, but I think my view on that is more as a consequence of where I intend to attach the Foretrex 401 to my person rather than any real criticism. I have strapped it to my wrist and it sits snugly and securely and, relatively, comfortably. This is no Patek Phillipe timepiece to adorn your wrist, however, and it feels a touch bulky and cumbersome there so I am content to attach it it to the sternum strap of my rucksack. Remember, though, this is a feature-rich GPS given its size so place this criticism into context.

What can it do? The Owners Manual can be found here and I suggest you have a read of it along with this Initial Analysis to see exactly what the 401 can do. It's simple enough, direct and mercifully short. In summary, the 401 has in-built altimeter, barometer, electronic compass and timer along with the standard GPS functionality. Calibration is much the same as most of these devices - calibrating the compass requires holding the 401 level and turning on the spot very slowly (it tells you if you are going at the right speed) for two full turns - the compass is then calibrated. As I said, this is much the same as the Suunto Vector's compass. There is wireless transfer to other devices capable of the same, as well as the potential for a USB hook-up to a Mac or (heaven forbid) PC.

Acquiring GPS satellites, outdoors on a clear day, took just short of 4 seconds. Now, I can tell you - that is pretty damned fast. In the real world, I doubt that is going to be beaten or, if it is, it really won't matter. I know the exact elevation of my back patio and top level of my garden - 120m - and the 401 resolved that without calibration, but you can manually enter elevation if you know it. I often do this with the Suunto Vector if I am at a point where the elevation is beyond doubt as it improves accuracy. 

All of the information needed to operate the Foretrex is found on the five main pages: the map page, the compass page, the elevation page, the trip computer page, and the main menu. Jumping from page to page is done by using the (shock, horror) 'page' button. Scrolling up and down within in each page is done using the up and down arrows and selecting an individual item is done using the 'enter' button. This is not a system intended for nuclear physicists. Pressing the 'page' button quickly will ignite the orange backlight. Doing so again will turn it off.

The Map Page displays the distance to your next waypoint as well as bearing - this is the primary navigation page of the unit. The Compass Page is obviously self-explanatory but also displays distance to final destination and speed. The elevation page, apart from showing current elevation, shows a graphical representation of the route profile with the distance covered, or time spent, beneath it. I deal with the Trip Computer page below. The Main Menu controls your waypoints, tracks, routes, unit setup, connectivity and GPS settings.

The Trip Computer is the reason I bought this system. I don't need the mapping - if I did I would have looked at the Montana - but I do want to be able to program waypoints/routes and have a log of distance, speed, ascent and descent as well as being able to plot my travelled route on a map at a later date, at home, over a cup of tea and a hot, buttered scone. The 401 can do all of this as through its trip computer. In fact, the list of Data Field Options is comprehensive - listing them all here would be tantamount to a cure for insomnia (read pages 15 to 19 of the manual if you really cannot sleep tonight) but the highlights include Ambient Pressure/Barometer, Average Ascent/Descent, Total Ascent/Descent, Max Ascent/Descent, Max Elevation, Bearing/Course, Distance to Final Destination, Final ETA, Sunrise/Sunset, Speed, Odometer and Off Course (which measures how far off course you are). There are more but those are the ones grabbing my attention at present. Sadly though, and this is the only flaw I can see so far, you can only display five at any one time - the unit can be set to change those five, but that's a bit time-consuming - it would be easier to have more than those five easily accessible. As can be observed in the image above, the USB connection is USB 2.0 to USB Micro-B as on most standard USB mobile devices. The cable comes with it, but anyone with a BlackBerry or digital camera will recognise this connection. So you can connect the 401 to your Mac/PC and add waypoints, tracks and routes through .gpx files.

I downloaded Garmin Basecamp to permit me to export Anquet .gpx files to the 401. It is relatively straightforward - open Basecamp and select IMPORT from the File Menu. Find your Anquet saved Database and select it. Basecamp imports it. Then you can connect your 401, and click the icon SEND LIST TO DEVICE. It will ask what you want to send it as - a route, track or waypoint and there you go - it will appear in the ROUTES folder, or whichever folder you have selected. It's that easy. I can then import a track, which is a record of where I have actually walked with the device on, and it will tell me all sorts of interesting information such as distance, speed, elevation, ascent/descent and so on. I like it.

I will add on a later Debrief post (probably when we do the Nantlle Ridge in later this month) how the 401 does, but specifically, what the battery life is like. However, I reproduce this part of the manual for your ease of reference as this is likely to be crucial for those buying the 401 - their reasons for buying a unit like this will almost certainly include extending battery life beyond that of other units and over the iPhone and other mobile telecommunications devices with GPS included. On battery life, I will conclude with these points from the manual - good unit this and I am looking forward to using it.

"Optimizing Battery Life

Use premium batteries for optimal performance and maximum battery life. Consider the following suggestions to maximize battery life:

Excessive use of the backlight will significantly decrease battery life.
Select a shorter backlight timeout (page 3 of Manual).
Turn tones off if not needed. From the main menu, select SETUP; SYSTEM; BEEPER; OFF.
Turn off the compass when it is not being used (Foretrex 401 only). Select SETUP; HEADING; COMPASS; OFF."

An Update
I just went for a 6km run this morning (16/7/11) with the 401. It was cloudy and it took 28 seconds to acquire a GPS signal. Compare this to 4 seconds on a sunny, clear day. A point to make is that if the unit does not get the elevation right initially, your data will be inaccurate throughout as it changes the elevation. Try to calibrate it before you move off if this is important to you (as it is to me). Further, downloading the 'Track' to Basecamp might mean that it becomes saved as two Tracks or 'Active Logs'. You can select both and join them together via EDIT; JOIN TRACKS. It will ask which you want first and then you simply select OK. Other than that, you'll have a raft of useful data, including distance, area, elapsed time, ascent, descent and average speed, with which to spend countless evenings indoors, while the rain batters your windows, comforted by a mug of steaming tea and the Euclidean formulae to be constructed from it. It will also plot the Track on a map with co-ordinates so you can see where you have been. I don't have a electronic map of my home, so I cannot tell you if I can import this into Anquet or whether I'll have to manually plot each waypoint but I'll know better when I get back from the Nantlle Ridge on Wednesday because that I do have electronically. Either way, if you have gone off course, for example, finding out how would be easy. In terms of physical operation, the wind and rain battered it, but it was easy to read on the move, easy to adjust and easy to operate. It's simple, effective and functional. Good stuff, Garmin.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

On GPS Part I: General Principles

RIPLEY: Can't be. That's inside the room!
HUDSON: It's readin' right, man.  Look!
HICKS: Well, you're not reading it right!
                                              Aliens (1986)

The community of outdoor bloggers, particularly in the UK, Europe and in the US, have posted at length on the use of GPS systems within mobile telecommunications devices as well as handheld GPS-specific units and, in particular, the use of those systems with mapping software provided by a host of companies. Each of these GPS systems, whether they be dedicated GPS or as part of a mobile telecommunications device, and each of these mapping software systems have advantages and disadvantages and the primary conclusion I have come to is that there is no best option for either the device or the mapping system. I myself use Anquet, more because at the time it was just available for the Mac, was highly rated and seemed to cover exactly what I wanted - at the time, I was not interested in a GPS device on which I could place OS mapping software - I simply wanted a GPS device from which I could discern longitude and latitude and a map which I could manipulate in terms of size, area covered and print out.

This year I will undertake the
Classic Haute Route - a high altitude, alpine traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt crossing numerous high-level cols, glaciers and climbing at least 3 peaks above 3,000m. During the Tour du Mont Blanc last year, Eli had a GPS system (a weighty monster of a thing which I am convinced could, if necessary, launch ICBMs from Trident submarines based anywhere in the world). He used that GPS system, loaded as it was with mapping of the Mont Blanc massif, to chart his route and to work out various intriguing bits of data such as distance covered, speed and ascent/descent for the day. I rather liked this and he emailed me the maps, complete with the route covered, and data extracted, for each day. I used it to construct the posts I wrote for the TMB and from time to time, I reminisce by looking at the maps and deconstructing our route. It's a geeky kind of fun and I am unapologetic about it. So, during and after the CHR, I would like to be able to do the same. I am not particularly fussed, even now, about securing a device which permits me to examine mapping on the device - that seems unnecessary and, for battery reasons, a smaller device is more suited for longer trips in areas where a recharge is impossible. I'll come back to that.

Next year I am planning to spend a week in the Sarek National Park in Swedish Lapland. Although this trip is a year away, I am planning some of it now - a vague, notional groundwork process rather than anything more detailed or specific - intelligence gathering if you like. Sarek is, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency seem desperate to point out, a dangerous place not for the inexperienced. There is a lengthy treatise from them seemingly intent on dissuading people from coming. There are no trails in Sarek and therefore navigation becomes all the more important. As Steven Horner observed in a very good post of his, not everyone is happy using GPS - a fact which I personally find difficult to understand, except in the context of those who do not have the time or inclination to learn a new skill. I begin with this premise - GPS does not replace maps, even when there is mapping software available on the unit being used. I would always take a map of the area alongside any GPS unit with a good compass. However, to not take advantage of perhaps the most comprehensive and effective navigation aid since contour lines seems rather pointless to me. In Sarek, where navigation will be critical, I wanted a unit that had two features: replaceable batteries, and lightweight. I'll go through the Garmin Foretrex 401 in due course but what I want to do now is to highlight basic areas of a GPS unit and the use of such a unit before applying that, in a second post, to the Foretrex 401. Most of the posts within the outdoor blogging community seem to focus on the principle that everyone knows how to use GPS and what it offers - this post is designed to assist those learning this new skill for the first time as I begin to refresh my memory having not used GPS regularly for years.

GPS uses one derivation of a Geographic Coordinate System - longitude, latitude and, sometimes, elevation. On a map, latitude lines, also known as 'parallels' since they are parallel and an equal distance apart, run horizontally. Each degree of latitude is approximately 69 miles (111 km). There is, however, a disparity due to the fact that the earth is an imperfect sphere (it is, in fact, a biaxial ellipsoid, i.e. slightly egg-shaped). Zero degrees is the equator, 90° north is the North Pole and 90° south is the South Pole.

The vertical longitude lines are also known as 'meridians'. They converge at the poles and are widest at the equator (also about 69 miles or 111 km apart) - therefore they are not parallel. Zero degrees longitude is located at Greenwich, London (in the United Kingdom) and is designated 0°. The degrees continue 180° east and 180° west where they meet and form the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean. If it is of interest to you, Greenwich, the site of the British Royal Greenwich Observatory, was established as the site of the prime meridian by an international conference in 1884.

For greater accuracy, Ptolemy (around 150AD) divided longitude and latitude degrees into minutes (') and seconds ("). There are 60 minutes in each degree. Each minute is divided into 60 seconds. Seconds can be further divided into tenths, hundredths, or even thousandths.

Of course, life is never simple. Besides using the degree-minute-second (d-m-s) notation, a decimal notation (and even a combination of both) is used across the world. Decimal notation still uses degrees, but converts the minutes and seconds to a decimal number.
 This system largely came into effect as the d-m-s system proved cumbersome, particularly for computerised devices, so the decimal system is used, for example, by many Geographic Information Systems (GIS). However, it's easy to convert from a decimal back to the sexagesimal system:

The whole units of degrees remain the same (Becs des Bosson in Vissoie sits at 46.16806° lattitude, so start with 46°).
Multiply the decimal by 60 (0.16806 * 60 = 10.0836).
The whole number becomes the minutes (10').
Take the remaining decimal and multiply by 60 (0.0836 * 60 = 5.016).
The resulting number becomes the seconds (5'). Thus Bec des Bossons sits at 46
°10'5" which is correct.

Also bear in mind that longitude and latitude can be based on several different geodetic systems or datums, the most common being WGS 84 (World Geodetic System 1984), a global datum used by all GPS equipment and NAD83 (North American Datum 1983). Other datums are significant, chosen as they were by regional national cartographical organisations as the best method for representing their particular region, and these are the datums used on printed maps for those regions. Using the latitude and longitude found on a map may not give the same reference as on a GPS unit unless you change the datum on the unit.

On the Swisstopo Vissoie (1307) 1:25,000 map, 2006 Edition, the Datum is WGS 84 - the information is to be found at the bottom of the map. The same cannot be said of the Fjällkarten Sareks National Park (BD10) 1:100,000 map, February 2009 Edition, which uses SWEREF 99 TM. However, this is considered to be almost identical to WGS 84 and the map itself suggests it is consistent with WGS 84 within 1 metre. Either way, once you know what datum is used, you can set your GPS Unit to that datum. My unit, the Garmin Foretrex 401, and indeed Garmin Basecamp, does not have SWEREF 99 TM but the map anticipates this and informs us that the datum used is identical to the European ETRS 89 which both do list.

There are other Geographic Coordinate Systems - OS maps used the Terrestrial Reference Frame OSGB36 (i.e. a grid system based on land navigation and physical observation rather than satellite navigation), but since GPS does not generally involve itself in these systems, I am not going to go into them in any detail. There is however a PDF document which OS publish which is outstandingly comprehensive and interesting read for map geeks like me.

What can a GPS Unit do?
Basic principles for a GPS Unit are simple. Comprised of 24 to 32 satellites in space, orbiting the earth, the GPS (Global Positioning System) is a GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). A very comprehensive but really quite interesting article in Wikipedia explains the history and the current composition of the GPS GNSS. Essentially, GPS will locate the position of the unit anywhere in the world and relay that information through whatever interface the unit is using but most regularly, and simply, through longitude and latitude co-ordinates. Often elevation is also recorded. Many units will also make reference to local, national grid systems (such as OSGB36) but not all.

That is not the only function of a GPS unit of course but every ancillary function stems from this basic premise. Speed (and ascent and descent) requires the plotting of two, or more, points and then a mathematical calculation based on that information referenced to time travelled as well. Positioning on a map is even more simple as that mapping software is overlaid with longitude and latitude co-ordinates. It may even be overlaid with altitude/elevation information but the GPS Unit can provide that information without mapping software. 

Most Units will also include 'waypoint' functions and the ability to input 'pre-prepared routes'. I'll come back to this but I want to say this now - GPS is not a substitute for a map and a compass. In my view, you need those skills to fully benefit from GPS and in case it fails. You cannot, and must not, rely completely on GPS for navigation.

Waypoints and Routes
A waypoint is essentially a point or location, loaded onto the GPS Unit by the user, which is intended to be either the final destination or point through which the user will travel in order to reach his final destination. Clearly, since travelling in a straight line outdoors is impossible, any route will necessarily involved many twists and turns, each of which could be inputted into a GPS unit as a waypoint. Waypoints essentially correspond to 'legs' in traditional navigation theory. The number of waypoints (or legs), and consequently the level of detail required and the frequency with which the user would have to have reference to the unit is entirely personal choice. Those confident with their navigation skills might only have a handful of waypoints - others may have perhaps more than 20 or 30. A waypoint is a point to aim for which the user knows is on his route and is not too far from his current location making navigation easier. The GPS assists navigation in addition to a manual compass in that it constantly adjusts according to the user current location, so if forced off course by the terrain the GPS will constantly adjust the bearing you need to take to reach your target. 'Pre-loaded routes' are essentially a series of waypoints which can be loaded onto the unit and are either manufactured by the user prior to the hike or manufactured by a host of other organisations either free of charge or for a cost. A good GPS unit will also be able to give and estimated time of arrival at a waypoint, and/or final destination, as well as current ground speed, assisting navigation.

In conclusion, GPS is in my view an essential tool in modern navigation and to ignore it is unnecessarily restrictive. Whilst being able to navigate by map alone (with reference to the shape or relief of the landscape) and with compass in the inevitable hill fog that ensues in the UK, is utterly fundamental to time spent outdoors, to avoid learning to use GPS makes little sense to me. I accept that reliance on technology should only be learned in the context of a comprehensive skillset should that technology fail, but if it's there - use it.

I'll deal with my newly purchased unit, the Garmin Foretrex 401 in another follow-up post, which will detail how GPS can be used to secure all manner of information and data.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

MYOG Cosy Pouch

As I said in my analysis of the kit I used recently in the Black Mountain, Brecon Beacons National Park, although I like Fuizion Food meals, the 10-12 minute rehydration process leaves the food less than piping hot. Still warm enough, of course, and very pleasant but I want hot food when I'm cold and ravenous. So I had a thought - what about a slant on the pot cosy principle - a food pouch? I am not the first to think of this - Robin Evans has also done it (as, I am sure, have many others).

So I duly went along to B&Q having done a little bit of surfing research and come up with this - 4mm multi-purpose aluminium thermal foil with an R-Value of 1.46. Just short of £12 for a 7.5m roll (600mm wide). That's a lot of cosy pouches! I cut off around 430mm and cut that 600mm wide piece into two 430 x 300mm pieces. The judicious application of some snips here and there to allow a rectangular base to accommodate the base of the Fuizion Food pack when full of water (and create stability) and duck tape to join everything together and hey presto - a 19g cosy pouch. Forgive the workmanship - with more time, the folds could've been neater and the tape cleaner but you get the general idea.

The logistical benefits are simple - continued cooking due to the heat retained in the pouch saves fuel and thermal insulation properties keep the food warmer for longer. It's simple but, I hope, effective. It's certainly cheap and light. And I now have enough foil for around 28 more pouches or a few winter sleeping mat groundsheets...

Saturday, 2 July 2011

New Stove System III (3 Season): The Trail Designs Ti-Tri Sidewinder

It needs no introduction. So many bloggers have taken to this promiscuous little performer that it hardly seems appropriate to review it, yet the stove system forms such an integral part of any wild camp methodology that it seems equally wrong not to address my own reasons for choosing it and my initial impressions of it.

Promiscuous? Really? Well, it could hardly have escaped your notice that the Sidewinder cuddles up to almost any pot - whether it be its first love - the MSR Titan Kettle - or the perennial staple diet of Evernew Ultralight pots, the Sidewinder seems not to discriminate. There is a Ti-Tri Sidewinder for whichever pot you could possibly want to boil your water or stir your porridge in. Perhaps this is one of its true strengths - that it will fit into your existing system unless you are extremely unlucky. Me - I only want to boil water and, in the morning, warm some porridge so a simple 600ml pot is all I need. Trail Designs even make a Sidewinder system for a pot that small. Having realised my old system was not working for me, I started looking for a replacement. So, I ditched my Titan Kettle and Evernew DX system and contacted Trail Designs - that exemplary experience is scribed elsewhere.

Once I removed the Sidewinder from its packaging, I had some decisions to make. With an Evernew Ultralight 600ml, the 12-10 alcohol stove will not fit inside at the same time as the cone and inferno systems. It comes with a small ziplock tub which weighs about 8g. Given I can keep some Hammaro tinder card in there (and dry) along with it, and it protects the stove, I am content to keep it. Also with the Sidewinder is the Trail Designs 150ml meths bottle. Again, it does a perfect job, and weighs the same as any other option, so I am keeping it. Everything else fits comfortably in the Evernew pot, including the inferno titanium mat. In all, with the meths and the tinder card on board, the whole lot amounts to 341g. Given my analysis previously that is perfectly acceptable to me for stove system, pot and fuel. That's the same as the Gosystem Fly (Ti), 600ml pot and a 100ml gas canister and this system is far more versatile. I don't need the two tent pegs for the inferno mode as my Vargo titanium pegs will ft that role and I am sure for a short recess the Fly Creek will stay stable without a couple of pegs...

So what's all the fuss about? The primary failing of the Evernew DX system was the windshield (or lack thereof, regardless of the suggestion the DX tower itself was a windshield). The stove flame was not protected and neither was the pan or pot. Protecting the pan/pot is actually very important as cold air hitting the pan/pot will make heating the water inside take that much longer given the conductivity of titanium. The Caldera Cone system resolves that problem. It is also far more stable in what is usually a windswept and weather-beaten environment that UK hillwalkers find themselves in. I am a huge fan of titanium - it cools so quickly and conducts heat so well that it is an astute choice for an ultralight cooking system. After a few moments both the cone and the stove are cool to the touch - hence my warning above about wind. That it is also strong and light makes it perfect. But of course, you pay for these attributes and many will say aluminium has its place. Trail Designs would disagree I'm sure and, on this, I'm with the Yosemite boys.

Cooking tests are  essential with any stove system analysis and I have had the Sidewinder in alcohol and wood-burning modes. I am unlikely to use the esbit gram-cracker much but I'll look at that as and when I need to.

Alcohol Mode
Were this an academic article, the abstract would read thus: 8mins to a rolling boil for 500ml of cold water in a 10C ambient temperature. Not scintillating performance but the water was cold and it was not exactly warm outside. There was, however, no wind. This matters little to me as the fundamental strength is that this rolling boil, which continued for another 2mins, was achieved on only 20ml of meths. That to me is far more important than the time it took. If I take 150ml of meths on an overnight trip for the two of us, I know that will cover us easily for as many brews as we want, a Fuizion Food feast and a brew and some porridge in the morning. The Evernew DX could not guarantee 60ml would get me a rolling boil at all in bad weather. The 10-12 does not need priming according to Trail Designs, but has a small priming pan anyway and in colder weather, I would advise you use it to avoid wasting meths.

When I took the Sidewinder to the Brecons on a cold, wet wild camp in June, it performed almost exactly as it did in my garden at home. Frugal with meths and the wind whipping through our camp did little to dampen performance. The titanium cooled so quickly that when I tried to boil another 200ml of water having used 20ml to boil 400ml and had some left over, when I ran out, I put the pan to one side and within a few seconds, the alcohol stove was cool enough to refuel and get the water boiling. I loved it.

Woodburning Mode
I make no reference to timing - it simply doesn't matter. This is not a method of cooking for those in a rush - it is a sensual, gratifying and bewitching application of time and effort which repays dividends far beyond those of the simple heating of sustenance. It is an engendered sense of belonging - using the very stuff of the wilderness around you to connect to the adventure of being outdoors. Perhaps it sounds trite and self-satisfied hogwash but wood-burning has its followers for good reason. 

There are many wood-burning stoves which have found favour for precisely these reasons - the Bushbuddy Ultra and its BPL/Ryan Jordan pedigree, the Honey Stove, the Four Dog Stoves Bushcooker and even the Titanium Goat F-Keg (which is, like the ti-Tri, a modular design). All are very similar and have devoted followings, inspiring in their owners exactly the feelings I have described.

The versatility of the Sidewinder attracts me but the fact that both modes are so effective makes it almost perfect. The inferno insert makes all the difference to wood-burning and frankly not to have it makes little sense to me. The weight penalty is negligible (please, let's be real here) and it improves the efficiency of the woodburning stove exponentially. There sits in the bottom of the inferno a small circular grate which itself sits on a tiny stand which is created by folding a metal grid into a ring. The inferno then sits inside the caldera cone in the opposite direction - the caldera cone tapers at the top so that the base is wider than the rim - the inferno is the converse being narrower at the base. Thread two tent pegs through the holes to suspend your pot and the system awaits some tinder, kindling and wood fuel.

Lighting, even in the wind and rain, is something that takes a little bit of time but is relatively easy. I use a Hammaro tinder card, ripped and feathered, beneath a small pile of dry twigs and, even when slightly wet because of the rain, it lit and began to burn well. The wetter your fuel, the more Hammaro tinder you'll need to use. I used 1 and a half pieces of card (3cm x 3cm) for some quite damp fuel in the rain on my first test of the Sidewinder in wood-burning mode. The fire will keep going as long as you add fuel but you will need to feed it a few times throughout to get a rolling boil for 500ml.

Remember that the flames will lick the sides of your pot so keep the handles away from the dipped opening - this also permits a gap to blow into to get the fire going.

Finding fuel is only a problem if you make it so. There will always be something you can use but you may need to collect it en route during the day rather than waiting until the end of your walk. But there is something rather pleasurable about the prospect of having a fire like this, self-contained though it is, during a long, lazy summer evening.

Unlike Dave Lintern, I don't have a problem with the lack of a caddy - part of the reason I was attracted to the Sidewinder rather than the Ti-Tri proper was the fact it would fit inside the Evernew 600. Also, I suspect that reasonable handling of the tyvek sheath with keep it functioning for some time - that said, some judicious recycling of the odd tyvek envelope here and there and I'll make a few new sheaths just in case, but Dave is right - the thinness of the titanium of pretty much every part of the Sidewinder means it's a keen-edged razor in the wrong hands.

Coiling the sidewinder and the inferno is easily done if it is then tightened from the inside by easing the interior coil tighter with one finger and simultaneously squeezing the whole coil tighter from the outside. Then slipping into the tyvek sheath is much easier. Do the Caldera Cone first then the inferno and make sure both are even along the edges - they'll fit snugly in the 600ml pot. If you have the inferno titanium floor as I do, that will fit in too.

This is simply wonderful piece of kit - versatile, light and effective. In each of its applications there are stoves that may well do a better job and a canister system will likely do that job more quickly but frankly, to have this versatility coupled with almost complete effectiveness is exactly what I am looking for. It is justly popular and I look forward to hill-time with it.