Friday, 14 December 2012

Sidetracked Guide to Camping Wild

Over the last few months I have been working a great deal on content for Sidetracked. It's been an exiting time with interviews of Seven Rivers' Mark Kalch and Polar Explorer Alex Hibbert, among some other really enthralling content. I really hope you've been enjoying it. It goes some way to explaining why things have been a little quite here lately - more to come on the Journeyman Traveller very soon indeed though.

However, the most exciting project has been the Sidetracked Guide to Camping Wild. Not just aimed at hikers, it covers general principles as well as specific advice for hikers, adventure travellers, adventure cyclists and packrafters. We've asked some excellent contributors to give the benefit of their experience too.

In Part One, I look at why camping wild is such a great way to connect with the landscape you're exploring as well as how, and where, to select a camp site. Haute Route Pyrenees thru-hiker David Lintern offers his tips based on his experience of long distance trails and Janapar creator Tom Allen inspires through creative pitch selection.

In Part Two, I look at kit selection and what essentials you should think about taking. I also look at how to adapt to your environment and Mark Roberts from Backpacking North gives us a distilled version of his Ultralight Redux - lose some weight and go further and faster.

And in Part Three, I look at camping wild whilst Adventure Cycling and Packrafting - or rather I introduce two experts in the field - Shane Little, fresh from cycling across, and camping wild in, Africa; and Steve Behaeghel, who has packrafting and hiked in more places than I care to name.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Arc'teryx Spear 20

I mentioned to my contact at Arc'teryx that I'd be cycling to work and was on the lookout for a new rucksack to fit a few small items into - laptop, kindle, notebook, shirt and sundry other bits. She asked me to use the Arc'teryx Spear 20 and see what I thought. I agreed.

When the Spear 20 arrived, it initially took me rather by surprise. I confess to hating the peat colour, but colour has never really mattered to me. So, to the pack. I have used it every day on my cycle to and from work for the last month. I do 11km in c.25mins, each way, and so I am riding at a reasonable pace given traffic lights/junctions. The pack remains in position, does not move around and has been comfortable throughout. Wet weather has not seen seepage into the pack and, although it is not waterproof, the fewer zips for water to get in, the better. Nothing within has been even damp after rainfall. For cycling it is actually very well designed as it keeps its shape and it reasonably aerodynamic.

It has a unique Rolltop opening that I've not seen anywhere except on a drybag - certainly not on a rucksack. I immediately loved this and I have not changed my opinion. On my old North Face Recon pack, I was forever fuming with frustration at the zip opening not having enough tension without two hands and always getting caught on the storm flap. This system - roll the top twice and pull two webbing straps to tighten - is really easy. Also, it means the opening is wide but not obtrusive. So far, this has worked well for me and I applaud Arc'teryx for this little innovation. 

The backsystem is very specifically moulded, curving away from the the back and the shoulders at each end, and into the back in the middle. I confess to being somewhat sceptical about this, not at all sure whether it would be comfortable or whether it was a gimmick. My experience of Arc'teryx is that innovation is their watchword and nothing is included that does not have a well-considered purpose so I reserved judgment. After a month, I have found that if I do not overtighten the shoulder straps, the curved bottom of the pack sits perfectly in the small of my back. If you start with getting the curve in the small of your back, and then adjust the shoulder straps and then move the sternum strap so that's comfortable, I'll wager you'll get a perfect fit. Again, this is a nice touch which moulds the pack nicely to the curve of your spine.

The pack is advertised at 1kg and that's almost exactly what mine weighs. The pack outer material is manufactured in two separate 420D weaves - a plain weave (back and sides) and a basket weave (top) and is therefore tremendously rugged. There is a limited padded Spacermesh airflow back with the Arc'teryx logo stitched into the middle - I sweat when I am cycling (wind and hills, bad combination) so the middle part of the back is always wet. It dries quickly enough so I don't really care much. There is a top pocket with a key clip and an Arc'teryx closed zip to keep water out (although these are not the Watertight Zips Arc'teryx invented). I keep my phone and wallet in here - no problems so far even in the wet. The zip pulls all have a nice, long toggle. The shoulder straps are anatomically shaped with padded Spacermesh and a 410D top fabric with formed edges. They also have load level adjusters, a small hoop, and the sternum strap is adjustable in the same way as the new Kata series - unclip it and move it down a notch rather than struggling to slide it up and down as you would with other packs. The outside has daisy chain webbing and an outer pocket which is slim but runs the length of the pack. The hipbelt is a simple webbing belt but I cannot see that you would need more - again, this is a 20 litre pack and so heavy loads are not likely.

There is also a grab handle - a long, black padded strip, which is also useful for using as a point to hold whilst tightening the rolltop closure. There is also another, smaller, grab/hang loop under the rolltop. There is a hydration pouch with hanging clip which will accommodate a MacBook Air 13" or an iPad. The bottom tapers to a narrow point, as I have said, which does rather mean that the pack falls over when stood up against anything. A small irritant but I usually just lay it flat.

I am not convinced that, with the weights this diminutive pack will be carrying, load-level adjusters are necessary nor do I foresee using the daisy chain webbing much. However, given the added weight for these two minimal additions, and the fact they might well be useful for some unknown eventuality, I don't see the hardship in having them. This is a reasonably minimalist pack but it is not meant to be UL - it is meant to stand the rigours of everyday use over a variety of mediums. You could quite easily use this every day on your bike, as I do, or the train/bus and then grab it for a short day hike. It will take a battering. However, I wish it were lighter - for a pack of this type, I wonder whether Arc'teryx should introduce a lighter version, with exactly the same profile, with 210D material and no superfluous load adjusting straps/webbing and a single skin rather than two layer interior and exterior fabric? The shoulder straps could be lighter as well. I think a lighter version would be very popular. For me, however, this is still a superb pack and I will continue to use it for cycling and the odd fast day hike.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ortlieb Aquazoom - A Review by Jaakko Heikka

There are many blogs I enjoy but, thus far, I have avoided guest posts even though I have a good relationship with many of the authors of those blogs, and respect their writing, photography and expertise. However, this is changing as my view of the importance of community online takes on a greater significance. Following on from my post recently about the way in which I carry my own camera when mountaineering and backpacking, Jaakko Heikka in the first of several guest posts over the coming months, tells us about another option and one which saw some discussion recently among outdoor enthusiasts - the Ortlieb Aquazoom.

Jaakko's blog, Korpijaakko, is as he describes it his personal views on all walks of outdoor life. I was drawn to it as a consequence of his arctic experiences - in particular his Ultima Thule 2011 unsupported 3 week skiing expedition to Svalbard - and his excellent photography. The Aquazoom is great piece of kit and getting some rave reviews, but have a look at what Jaakko has to say about it before you decide.

Ortlieb Aquazoom Waterproof Camera Bag

When spending a lot of time outdoors you end up occasionally getting wet and so does your gear. This doesn’t kill you but there are some pieces of gear we’d like to keep dry at all costs. One of those things is a non-waterproof camera.

I’ve found the Ortlieb Aqua-Zoom camera bag to be nearly perfect solution for my needs. It’s a simple waterproof camera bag that fits a DSLR body with one lens attached. The bag delivers what I need as it: 

  • is completely waterproof, 
  • is easy to use, and 
  • provides some impact protection. 

Technical background

Behind the simple product are high tech materials and manufacturing techniques and Ortlieb’s 30+ years of experience.

Ortlieb uses only materials specially made for their specifications. The Aqua-Zoom is made of PU coated cordura variant called PS36C. It is waterproof up to 100 000 mm watercolum (yes, one hundred thousand millimeters), uses special PU-coating which is fold resistant up to 100 000 folds, weights about 360 gramm/sqm and is tear resistant to around 1800 Newtons (i.e. plenty).

The Quickseal Closure used on Aqua-Zoom is technically a beefed up version of ziplock bag closure with a slider. It provides easy and quick access and 100% dust protection but it’s not strictly speaking waterproof but only splash proof meeting the IP64 requirements.

The inside is lined with 7 mm thick cell foam padding to provide impact protection for the contents. The front and back foam panels are welded into place but the U-shaped side panel is removable. In addition there is some soft Velcro attached on the front and back panel for cell foam spacer (included).

The Aqua-Zoom is made in Germany using laser cutting and high-frequency 3-D-welding with about 10 mm overlapping seams. This makes the structure nearly indestructible and Ortlieb gives it a five-year guarantee.


For me Ortlieb stands for durable state-of-the-art waterproof gear and the Aqua-Zoom is no exception. The textured cordura outer feels very robust as does the coating on the inside and the workmanship is top notch.

The inner dimensions of the padded part are roughly 24 cm high, 15 cm wide and 12 cm deep on the top tapering quite strongly towards the bottom. There is also some additional space above the padding. The Aqua-Zoom is marketed to weight 340 grams but on my scale the bare bag clocks only 202 grams.

The sizing means the Aqua-Zoom can take any normal DLSR body without a battery grip. It’s a tight fit with the big full sensor bodies like Canon 5D series or Nikon DX00 series but they should still fit. A lens up to the size of Canon EF 70-200 4 L IS or similar fits in but bigger lenses are starting to be a struggle because of the tapered bottom part. In addition to a body and there’s room for some small items on the bottom or top or on the sides of the lens but this is not very convenient.

The volume is enough for most but for the rare trip with combination of very wet and very cold conditions it would be nice to have a bigger model that could accommodate a DSLR with a battery grip attached.

The bag has four welded plastic D-rings (two on each side) for attaching shoulder strap, accessory harness system or similar means of carry. The bag comes with a quite nice adjustable webbing shoulder strap with snap-hooks and removable padding but I haven’t used it much.

In addition to the D-rings there are two four-way loops (with 40 mm vertical and 25 mm horizontal slots) on the back side for attaching a belt or other means of carrying. I use a simple webbing belt made of 40 mm webbing, a triglide and a buckle. It works well enough but it is not the perfect solution.

The Aqua-Zoom uses the aforementioned ziplock style Quickseal Closure which is quick and easy to use but only guaranteed to be splash proof and not really waterproof (meeting the IP64 criteria). I’d like to see a more robust and secure closing mechanism but it shouldn’t hinder the ease of use and quick accessibility.

The tech specs on Ortlieb website warn that ”temperatures below -5°C/23°F may affect the function of the sealing lip”. I’ve broken one Aquazoom and one Protect bag with similar system when using them in temps below -30°C. The plastic on the sealing lips freezes and breaks when used in this cold. They aren’t really meant to be used in arctic winter temperatures anyway.

In Use

I’ve used different Ortlieb products for about five years and even the oldest are still in great shape. The Aqua-Zoom bags I’ve used for over two years and they’ve seen a lot of use in variety of conditions. Except breaking the closure in too cold temperatures they’ve worked flawlessly.

The Aqua-Zoom has even survived a user-error case of a long stretch of rocky class II white water swimming under a packraft and even though the closure mechanism is not specked up to that it kept my camera completely dry. I’ve also used it in below -20°C temperatures in Iceland without problems but generally I wouldn’t recommend operating the closure mechanism below freezing.

Most of the use has been hiking and I’ve carried the bag on my waist with the simple belt described above. This has led to some wear on the belt loops (after about 18 months of use) and I think the belt loops will be the first part to eventually fail, though it will probably take another two years of use. A better carrying system would increase the durability of the loops and as Ortlieb doesn’t offer one I should probably make one myself.


In my opinion the Ortlieb Aqua-Zoom is a superb camera bag for carrying a DSLR in dusty or wet conditions. It’s simple and light enough for hiking and provides easy access but still provides enough protection for most conditions imaginable and in real life use it even exceeds the promised levels of protection. There aren’t many bells and whistles and if you need, for example, several extra pockets then this is not the camera bag you are looking for. For me, it’s all I need.

Words and photos by Jaakko Heikka

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Carrying your Camera up a Mountain

What do you take into the hills and how do you carry it?

I recently read Alexandre Buisse's Remote Exposure for a second time having received it for Christmas. Buisse and I have corresponded quite a bit this year and I have learned a lot from him. His career goes from strength to strength and there is no doubt that he is a world-class mountain photographer. I read carefully the advice in his book and, applying it to my own situation, I bought the Think Tank Thin Skin belt and Chimp Cage for my Canon 60D and 17-40mm f/4L lens. I took it up to the Yorkshire Dales and onto the Besseggen Ridge in the Jotunheimen National Park. In total, I walked with that setup in anger for around 5 days. I also took it to my usual testing group - the Surrey Hills. On each occasion, it was decidedly uncomfortable. Sometimes, we take the advice of others and find that, in fact, it does not suit us. Sadly, we'll never know until we try and so I have to find another way to lump my camera and equipment up the side of a mountain.

I think I will still, if I need to travel really fast and light, take my Panasonic Lumix TZ10 as it still takes very solid images and I can play around a little with Aperture, Shutter Speed and Exposure Compensation. However, as professional photography begins to take more of a hold in my work life, I will be finding that each time I don't have my DSLR with me when travelling or in the hills, I'll regret it.

So in terms of carrying my DSLR, the Think Tank equipment I have seen, I ought to say, is really very good indeed. It's all high quality, well made and well thought out. I was seduced by taking the format I deployed on previous trips of having my camera on my rucksack hip belt straps in a weatherproof pouch - it was accessible and protected. I liked that setup and I thought that the Think Tank Thin Skin belt would achieve the same end on a larger scale. Sadly, having two belts - a camera webbing belt such as the Thin Skin belt and a rucksack hip belt - is simply not comfortable for me. I even toyed with using the Thin Skin as a hip belt on my GG Gorilla, but that was never going to be comfortable either. And If I attach the Chimp Cage to the hipbelt of a rucksack, the hip belt starts to loosen given the weight bouncing up and down on it. This I learned in Jotunheimen. So I need something new.

Additionally, I've sold the 60D and bought a full-frame 21mp Canon 5D Mark II. I have added to my lens collection the Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS USM. That takes my collection of Canon L-series lenses to 3 (with the Canon 24-105 f/4L as well) covering a wide variety of scenarios. Although the 5D Mark II is heavier than the 60D, it's not by much and certainly worth the extra weight. I have decided my photography is going to take a front seat in my outdoor and adventure travel trips from now on and whilst the rest of my kit might be ultralight, I cannot lie and say my photographic kit will be. Perhaps that means I need to be even more rigorous with my kit selection now?

Whatever the weight of my kit, it still needs to be protected and accessible - so whilst it is clear the Think Tank setup does not do what I want it to do, I need to find one that does. For now, I think I have found the solution. I have often transported my 5D Mk II and whatever lens is attached (albeit not the 70-200mm) in a Lowepro Toploader Zoom pouch. It's light (300g) and tough (210D). It protects in a way the Chimp Cage does not. It's an easily used zip opening whereas I found the Chimp Cage's opening a real hassle. It has a water resistant cover which I may try and treat to make it more waterproof. I normally use an Optech Classic Strap which I have found to be so comfortable, because it stretches, and cheap as well. For mountain use, I detach this from my 5D Mk II and attach it to the Toploader Zoom through the strap loops. I then put it over my shoulder, diagonally, so the pouch sits on my torso with the strap going over my right shoulder and crossing at my left hip. This keeps it secure, allows me to move it behind me when ascending/scrambling, or to swing to the front to get quick access to the camera.

To the camera I attach a short 10mm (3/8") webbing sling with triglides which is looped onto a carabiner clipped to the Toploader. I can also wrap it around my wrist. If I drop it, it won't go far as the sling is only c.40cm once wrapped around my wrist. In the pic below, I would have twice as much free webbing after the triglide than pictured.

There is another option which I have asked Jaako Heikka to talk a little about. I have not, in the past, wanted to have guest posts on my blog but there are some talented people out there whom I have approached to write for the Journeyman Traveller. Two are writing as we speak but Jaako has already completed his post on the Ortlieb Aquazoom pouch. That will come next as will my views of Jaako and his excellent blog...

Monday, 8 October 2012

Arctic Training with ATE and Nordic Life

As I said recently, I have also been invited to winter Norway in January next year to take part in an Arctic Training Course run by Arctic Training and Expeditions (ATE) of Norway. The people behind ATE are Norwegians with considerable polar heritage. Their experience comes from generations of conquered frigid environments all over the world.

It's a four day course, aimed at beginners with little or no experience, looking to extend their skillset. Places are still open for this excellent course - contact Rhodri Lewis at Nordic Life for more information. Currently, Nordic Life customers are being offered a 20% discount!

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Sidetracked Edition 7 is out!

With enthralling and inspirational stories ranging from Jose Mijares and his 67 day 1,200km arctic Lapland traverse to Stage 2 of Tim Pickering's G4 Challenge, Sidetracked Edition 7 has something for adventure travellers of all disciplines. Russ Malkin, TV Producer and Director, describes his experiences filming The Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in Mongolia. David Hine goes packrafting in Scotland and Gunter Desmedt takes on remote bikepacking in the High Atlas. There's climbing in frigid Iraqi mountains (and some trouble with the locals) and the Longhope in Orkney; and Remote River Man Kevin Casey is adrift in Guyana. And that's just to pick out some highlights.

In Sidetracked: Behind the Scenes, the first two Sidetracked Guides are launched - Adventure Photography Part 1, by Jamie Maddison and Planning a Long Distance Trek Part 1 by me. There's more to come too - but you'll have to wait for that. The compelling Sidetracked Guide series will grow over time to cover every aspect of expedition and adventure travel - written by Jamie Maddison and myself, with some guest expert contributors and breathtaking photography, we hope the SG series will eventually become one of your first ports of call for advice, specialist knowledge and the latest thoughts on adventure travel.

Sidetracked goes from strength to strength and the line-up for Edition 8 is already being determined alongside Part 2 of Adventure Photography and Part 2 of Planning a Long Distance Trek Behind the Scenes. I can't say much of course but I can tell you that some epic bikepacking odysseys will feature. I'm also about to complete an Alpine Hut to Hut Sidetracked Guide which you'll be able to read shortly. There'll be some Inspirational destinations featuring imminently as well as some irresistible interviews with people you'll recognise very well. 

Jamie Maddison heads off to Mongolia tomorrow with Matt Traver for 5 weeks preparing for his 6 month Eurasian expedition, One Steppe Ahead, taking with him some interesting gear you'll be hearing all about on his return, including some night-vision kit from National Geographic!

We hope you love reading Sidetracked as much as we love preparing it for you. If you do, please subscribe - you'll receive each Edition direct to your inbox, as well as regular newsletters updating you about the newest additions to Sidetracked: Behind the Scenes, news of competitions and upcoming features. There's no reason not to!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Jamie Maddison - One Steppe Ahead

Jamie Maddison is a reporter, photographer and aspirant explorer. He is also joint editor with myself and John Summerton for the new-look SidetrackedHis lust for the written word has taken him all around the world: from the cold steppes of Armenia, to wild valleys in Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan mountains and the warm sun-kissed stones of South Africa’s Cedarberg wilderness. He cut his teeth in the big wild world of journalism working for the British rock-climbing magazine Climber. He studied journalism at Cardiff University before taking the NCTJ qualification for news reporting and he now has a full working knowledge of shorthand, media law and sub-editing. He is, in every sense, the consummate pro. As the editors of Sidetracked, and writers of a good deal of the content on Sidetracked: Behind the Scenes, we compliment each other's skills and experience. It's a good relationship and I respect Jamie a great deal for the way he approaches outdoor and expedition journalism. To him, an expedition must have a purpose - a real world benefit to others - and for that, he is to be admired.

Since Climber what he describes as the "...enticing lure of expedition life..." has taken hold, and he now spends most of his days organising adventures and writing about all aspects of expedition life. He has written for the likes of Geographical and Hidden Europe and his photography was recently shortlisted as a Finalist in the Travel Photographer of the Year Awards

For the past two years Jamie has been planning an epic 30,000km expedition - involving 2000km of unsupported horse-riding - across the Eurasian steppe. More information is available at:, but in short it celebrates an usual expedition undertaken by an unusual man, Charles Howard-Bury.

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury (15 August 1881 - 20 September 1963) was originally a British soldier, who later became a noted explorer, botanist, philanthropist and Conservative politician. He is most well-known for leading the first reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest in 1921. However, he also completed a number of trips within the Eurasian continent during the early 20th Century, his most notable being his journey through the Tien Shan mountains.

This is how Jamie sets his objectives:
  • Recreating Charles Howard-Bury’s inspiring 30,000km journey around Central Asia and the Eurasian Continent in the manner that he travelled exactly one century on.
  • Turning the game hunting aspect of Charles’ original journey on its head by making the prime focus of our expedition the conservation of the Argali sheep that he once hunted. The Argali sheep, noted by their large curled horns, are largest wild sheep in the world. For me about Argali conservation have a look at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
  • Documenting, along the way, the vast cultural, economic and environmental change that has transformed Central Asia over the course of the last century.

Additionally, Jamie hopes to highlight the impressive accomplishments of the great early 20th Century explorers, such as Charles, and to exemplify the importance of the spirit of adventure and exploration in the modern age. By recreating the entire expedition in all its original logistical complexities, he hopes to show how truly committing and immersive past exploration used to be and to highlight how the virtues of such slow travel can still be discovered and enjoyed in the present day.

Also, OSA is an opportunity for the wider public to learn about Central Asia and to be inspired through gaining valuable knowledge and education from the expedition’s objectives relating to the conservation, cultural and geopolitical focus of OSA. And if that weren’t enough, he plans exploration and first ascents of unclimbed peaks in the Jungar Alatau of eastern Kazakhstan!

The specific conservation objectives of One Steppe Ahead are:

  • To explore the Jungar Alatau mountain range of eastern Kazakhstan for evidence and sighting of the Argali sheep to research the estimated population and distribution of the sheep within the region.
  • To back up the sightings with precise GPS coordinates and provide other data for the benefit of conservation organisations and scientific research.
  • To compare the findings of their Argali sheep research with the historical accounts written by Charles Howard-Bury in order to assess how the population size and threats they face may have changed over the last century.

He leaves for Mongolia shortly in order to get acclimatised and to train for the 6 month expedition. He takes some kit with him too - Arc'teryx have sent him at my request an Alpha SV to test and he has several Brynje base layers as well. 5 weeks in Mongolia should put Brynje kit through a different kind of test and Jamie has promised to be honest - he finds it a little on the curious side too but by all accounts, he is excited to be trying it out on an expedition.

He'll do a guest post for me on Mongolia when he returns as well as some kit reviews. Should be exciting stuff. More importantly, look out for his multi-part Sidetracked Guide: Introductory Expedition Planning - to hit Sidetracked: Behind the Scenes shortly.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Sidetracked has a New Editorial Team

A few weeks ago, John Summerton and I had a conversation about the future. For me, the future of my writing and photography. For him, the future of Sidetracked, his superb online narrative magazine about inspirational challenging adventure travel. It had become swiftly clear to us that our interests coincided and our passions for writing about independent adventure travel and inspiring others were becoming more and more important in our lives.

And within that conversation we agreed that Sidetracked would take on a couple of new editors - myself and Jamie Maddison. More on Jamie in another post. It's a wonderful opportunity for myself and for John to engage in passions we both share and to make Sidetracked into something that doesn't really exist at the moment - a genuine online magazine and resource centre for adventure travel that bridges the gap between Lonely Planet/Wanderlust and elite adventurers undertaking sponsored expeditions (although Sidetracked will cover some of those too).

So, from now on, one of my major roles will be as the Joint Editor of Sidetracked and Sidetracked: Behind the Scenes with Jamie Maddison. Sidetracked itself will go from strength to strength with the quality of contributor features getting better and better. We will be planning each issue months in advance to ensure the quality continues. 

However, from now on, an incredible new site - Sidetracked: Behind the Scenes - will include articles covering advice from the contributors of the main features themselves, as well as the Sidetracked Guide series of advice guides. These will cover topics as diverse as Expedition Planning, Long Distance Trek Planning, Alpine Hut to Hut trekking, Packrafting, Bikepacking, Adventure and Expedition Photography and Travel Writing. There will be kit reviews focused on adventure travel, including hiking, as well as interviews with elite adventurers, professional travel photographers and film-makers, expedition leaders, alpine guides - everything the adventure travel world needs! We'll include news items, historical pieces and the site will be multimedia - video and audio, not just stunning photography and dramatic prose. And we'll be looking at undiscovered places to seek adventure, as well as giving readers short break ideas.

Sidetracked is our way of changing the way online adventure travel content is consumed, taking the best of the print media world and the online communities that love adventure and challenging lives, and combining it in a way which focuses the experience on the reader.

We think you'll love it and we'll love providing it for you.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

A Very Norwegian Affair - Brynje, Real Turmat and some Arctic Expedition Training

In a recent post, I outlined my objectives for 2012, particularly in relation to kit. At that time, I was in discussions with Brynje about testing kit for this excellent Norwegian manufacturer who have only just begun to carve a presence in the United Kingdom. And, following some very useful, informative and enlightening conversations with each of them, over the course of the next year, this is precisely what I'll be doing.

In so far as Brynje is concerned, I'll be working with them and with their UK distributor, Nordic Life. Brynje have a strong arctic pedigree with their kit being designed for use across a variety of spectrums but traditionally in high intensity, cold weather environments. That has changed over the years with the introduction of a broad range of layers for wide-ranging conditions. I will test the whole gamut of base and mid-layers, with a view to feeding back to Brynje how that kit performs in UK and alpine conditions, when compared to the traditional environments they have been hitherto used in. Additionally, I'll be using them in other theatres too - sailing and biking, in particular. This is an incredibly exciting opportunity to be working with a manufacturer with a limited presence currently in the UK, experimenting and experiencing new approaches to kit, and helping to introduce that kit to UK hillwalking and outdoor enthusiasts. But it's not just their base layers I'll be testing - for reasons which will become clear over time, I can't reveal too much but I'll be working with them on some other unique and innovative stuff too.

As the bulk package arrives, it is the mesh that attracts me. This unique, intriguing and innovative layering system grabs my attention like the distant roll of thunder. Like something from a 70's porn film, I am unlikely to permit my partner to see me in this in anything other than comedic, tongue-in-cheek circumstances. Yet the theory is clear - nothing insulates better than air (it says so on the box, look). I am keen to try this gear as soon as possible in all manner of environments and see where I end up. I've been chastised for my love of merino - so I am eager to bring on sopping wet weather and try my best to persuade it to turn into the "soggy mess" I've been hearing so much about. I like to try everything, so here goes nothing.

I've been provided with several different base layers, mid layers and shell layer to test:

Classic Wool Mesh T-Shirt - merino wool/synthetic mesh base layer 
Super Thermo T-shirt - synthetic mesh base layer
Super Micro T-Shirt - finer weave synthetic mesh base layer
Classic Wool Zip Polo and T-Shirt
Classic Wool mesh boxers
Arctic Double Zip Top
Arctic Double Hat
Skald Jacket (I'll be spending quite a bit of time discussing this shortly)

I've been using the Super Micro as my cycling base layer, underneath a Montane Lite Speed windshirt, doing 22km a day for an hour in total (11km, 30mins each way). I've been washing it once a week and found it to be superb. A more detailed review in time. Also pictured below are the Classic Wool Mesh t-shirt and the Classic Wool Zip Polo. Again, reviews in time as I use them.

Real Turmat Dried Food
The next Norwegian manufacturer I have been invited to get involved with is Real Turmat - again through Nordic Life, I am trialling some Real Turmat food. I am a fan of Fuizion Food and Mountain House, so trying a well known and highly regarded European brand, with a view to comparing it with what is available to the UK market at the moment, is another fine opportunity. Food places a distant second to 'real' kit except when it comes to those who know how important it is to settle down in a warm down bag with a steaming hot beef stew that hasn't required a hernia operation to get it up a hill.

Arctic Training with ATE
I have also been invited to boreal winter Norway in January next year to take part in an Arctic Training Course run by Arctic Training and Expeditions (ATE) of NorwayThe people behind ATE are Norwegians with considerable polar heritage. Their experience comes from generations of conquered frigid environments all over the world. 

The course will teach me what it means to be comfortable in the extreme cold, learning the mentality and attitude required of a polar explorer, what kit to take, survival skills, skiing and pulk-handling proficiency as well as fundamentals of polar navigation. I'm there to write about, and photographs of, the course and to help promote it. Again, a great experience and something I am sure you'll all find interesting, useful and engaging.

Finally, there are more Norwegian and Swedish links to come over the course of the next 12 months - research for a guidebook, some more wild camping trips, plenty more photography and at least one more kit manufacturer waiting in the wings. It's an exciting year, especially as my new business Facebook page has finally gone live and my Google+ page will take on a new focus too. I hope you enjoy it and you continue to make your opinions known.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Arc'teryx Venta Pant Initial Analysis

Jackets, smocks, gilets, insulating layers, base layers, mid-layers - the list goes on but they all have one significant feature in common: they all tend to deal with the upper part of the body - the torso, chest, neck and head. They're the high-profile superstars where kit is concerned. So little attention is paid to the bottom half of the body except our feet (for perhaps obvious reasons). Boxers, pants, trousers, even shorts - they all seem to be the poorer cousins when it comes to kit reviews and choices. Perhaps it's because we don't lose anywhere near as much heat from our legs as we do our upper body, or because wet legs don't feel anything like as uncomfortable as a wet torso, shoulders, back or head. Either way,  when Arc'teryx offered me the opportunity to test some new kit, I investigated their trousers/pants. 

When hiking in the UK in relatively warm weather, I tend to use Montane Terra pants. At 320g, they are lightweight, articulated and weather resistant - even when wet, I have found them to shrug off heavy wind and they dry very quickly indeed. For high-level alpine pursuits, I found the Mountain Equipment Liskamm pants to be superb. In fact, for the first time in a long time, I started to see the benefits to the new breed of soft-shell Schoeller fabrics. Not, however, in the wet. Get the Liskamm pant wet and they take a while to dry. I needed a pant that would cover me in lots of conditions and be comfortable in camp.

Browsing the Arc'teryx website, I liked the look of the Venta pant and Arc'teryx were keen for me to test some of their new range of products, so the choice was an easy one. The Venta is a lightweight, very breathable alpine mountaineering pant in a weather resistant DWR N72s Windstopper 3L soft-shell fabric which is 62% nylon, 37% polyester, 2% spandex comfort stretch, a 3-layer plain weave nylon face Windstopper textile with a micro check backer. It also has a DWR finish. They are billed as 'shedding snow', so Besseggen in June would be a good test for them.

In summary, they take the best elements of a soft-shell - the wind resistance, some of the stretch and all the comfort but are light enough to compare with the Terra pants (at 383g) and are quick drying too. Thoughtfully featured with some astute innovations, they sit well in the Arc'teryx range filling a gap between a lightweight summer pant and a heavy-duty mountain pant. Also, like most Arc'teryx products, they are perhaps most importantly, very, very comfortable.

Made from a lightweight, breathable, weather resistant and snow-shedding Windstopper fabric, the Venta's principle facet is its simplicity. Each and every feature of this alpine pant is carefully reasoned and nothing unnecessary has been retained. There is no thigh pockets as you'll find on the Gamma LT pant, nor is the articulation so pronounced - they are articulated to aid mobility, the crotch area is gusseted (i.e. a small diamond is added to the crotch area) and the seat and knees are articulated - all to permit full range of movement. However, unlike the Gamma LT, they are not just for walking but climbing and alpine pursuits and the design takes this intended use forward. I find this balanced articulation essential in a mountain pant (rather than simply a walking pant), especially if I am going to be scrambling on occasion as sometimes planes of movement are called for that aren't quite the same as one foot in front of the other, or simply climbing over a stile. I don't have the time, or the will, to be worried about whether my pants will allow me to put my foot, or knee, where I want to put it. 

All of the zippers are Watertight zippers. A note on this: anyone familiar with any medium to high-end outdoor kit will have seen watertight zippers by now - almost every product we use where wind or water is to be shut out these zippers are ubiquitous. Well, Arc'teryx developed the laminated, watertight zipper. Micro-taped seams - Arc'teryx. Laser-cut fabrics - them too. And, since 2004, their highly acclaimed LEAF program has provided kit for those most likely to need it functioning perfectly - Law Enforcement and Armed Forces. They continue to innovate to this day and this is precisely the reason I am enjoying working with them. 

Back to the Venta. The interior fabric of the pant is a soft, smooth almost velvet texture. It's frankly luxurious. Unlike other soft-shells, this is the sort of thing you expect on expensive nightwear with a four figure price tag. It's a guilty pleasure this, and I love it. In the photograph below, the seam-sealing is evident. The Venta is halfway between a waterproof shell layer and a complete soft-shell combining some of the best elements of both but in a 380g package rather than a 500 or 600g package. Balancing is what this pant is all about, but, surprisingly, not compromise.

The simplicity continues: posterior zipped vents don't have fussy webbing or mesh behind them - they vent the skin of your legs directly into the air. The vents are long and easily reached. As we've seen, the inside seams throughout are sealed using Arc'teryx finishing tape which aids both wind resistance and snow shedding.  The hems have both a small gaiter clip to attach to the laces of your boots or shoes as well as shock-cord adjustment. This is intended to ensure wind resistance even when climbing in the pant, as well as preventing riding up in snow. I'd probably still add a small mid-gaiter like the Rab Latok Mid in snow, but this a great idea for those using this pant in the snow. There are two good sized hand-pockets with zips. The waist is comfortable unlike the Montane Terra pants which I find can drift down under the belt during periods of activity and be uncomfortable unless your base layer is tucked in. Not the same here, nor with the similarly constructed Palisade pant.

Nuts and bolts - machine wash without fabric softener. What a great thing - not to have to worry about nikwax each and every time you wash although I would probably consider doing it once every so often. In terms of sizing - I am a 34" waist, and 6ft with a 40" chest and 21" torso. My inside leg is 33". I went for a large and it is just about right, perhaps a tiny bit too big. However, the leg is slightly shorter than I would want (probably 32"). Arc'teryx don't do separate leg lengths in the one waist size - this is a flaw in my view and Arc'teryx should perhaps consider their policy on this but bear that in mind when looking at these pants. It's a trim fit which means, even with my large thighs there is a little play around the buttock and thigh area - perhaps a few inches.

The Venta pant is not likely to be as warm as the Liskamm pant, as the fabric is significantly thinner but I do think that if you are looking at a general walking pant where weight and weather resistance are crucial, these fit the bill as much as the Montane Terra with the added advantage of better water resistance/snow shedding, better wind resistance and a more comfortable fit and interior fabric. I think the Terra is quicker drying but the Venta is going to dry sufficiently quickly for almost anyone's needs.

In Jotunheimen, the snow-shedding DWR was good enough to bead moisture in the rain and it did indeed shed snow as we sometime went knee deep in the drifts on the ridge. The wind resistance is excellent and the smooth inner fabric does not feel cool even when the outer is exposed to severe convective heat loss. The vents were good when ascending - a quick zip down and I was able to expose a great deal of skin to the open air allowing me to vent effectively. I was a little frustrated by the length on occasion but not enough to shelve the pants - they'll be my first choice mountain pant from now on. Comfort, performance and weight - all in one package. I'll update as I use them.