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!