Thursday, 28 March 2013

It Doesn't Need to be Expensive - a Look at Regatta

Not so very long ago, Alan Sloman and I had a twitter conversation about writing a feature for a well known magazine highlighting good kit but which was accessible and inexpensive. For too long, many of us have coveted expensive, top-end kit with each and every feature, new fabric and technical innovation known to exist. To some, it has almost become a heady game of one-upmanship and brinksmanship. Ultralight kit has often been ultra-expensive. I want to turn that on its head a little and look at getting new people into hiking without persuading them they have to spend a fortune. I would venture to suggest that kit falls into one of these categories - light, strong and expensive; light, weak and cheap; or heavy; strong and cheap. You don't tend to get light, strong and cheap in one package unless it's stolen or you are a sponsored athlete!

So, following on from that, I wanted to look at an inexpensive brand which is known for decent kit, but which is relatively inexpensive: Outdoor Clothing at

To start with, to get into the hills, you need boots/trainers, trousers, socks, base layer, mid layer, shell layer and a rucksack. I won't go into tent and so on just yet, I am just looking at getting people into the hills for a daywalk inexpensively. I am not reviewing any of these - I have not used them - I am just looking at what's out there using a fairly well known but inexpensive brand.

What do Regatta offer then?

The Crossland Low Boot and the Crossland Mid boot fit whichever category you fall into  - trainer or boot. They are £60 and £70 respectively. Not bad, given that trainers run to £100 or more if made by any of the more 'prestigious' brands and boots even more than that. Both have water resistant and breathable uppers and steel shank, EVA shock pads, rubberised heel and sole - the basics of decent walking footwear are covered. They will do the job. Socks start at £3!

Base layers
Perhaps this is where the principle contrast occurs - next to skin base layers need to be good but, again, we don't necessarily need to go for Accapi. What about the Kona T-Shirt? Quick-drying and good wicking performance for £10 at the moment. Perhaps better than the £40-50 we are used to paying.

The easiest place to save money, in my view as the main issue with this layer is weight. If you don't care about that, a good fleece is every bit as warm as a lightweight down/primaloft jacket - just heavier. The £30 Ballen Microfleece is one option or the £25 Hedman if things get colder. On a sunny day, you might even want to think about the Reflexion soft-shell at £45.

At 65/35 polyester/cotton, the Crossfell trousers resemble most hiking pants and at £25, they good value. They have a DWR finish so will shed water to begin with - wash them regularly and they'll probably provide a good service.

Shell Layer
Regatta have their own proprietary waterproof fabric ISOTEX. The Calderdale jacket, at £65, features ISOTEX 5000 and has pretty much all the features you might expect. Or if you want packable, how about the still breathable and waterproof Magnitude III at £45? If you want top-end, stretch waterproofing which is breathable and athletic cut but don't want to pay £200+ for Neoshell or Demizax - try the Volan at £110.

Move light and fast - the 35L Cyborg may be enough at £28. Need a little more space? Try the 45L Survivor at £50.

The issue with all of this is performance - I am sure that anyone looking to get into the hills cheaply will find more than adequate performance from Regatta kit. However, if you are looking for top level performance in the worst conditions, regularly, then you get what you pay for. That said, getting into the hills is what we are here for and not everyone can afford that. Maybe Outdoor Clothing at Regatta is nice place to start your hillwalking career...

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

On Brynje

There is no doubt that UK hillwalkers have responded with some scepticism to Brynje mesh base layers. When I was asked to test Brynje products, many months ago now, I was sceptical too. In an alpine setting, where I would often be staying in huts, wandering around in a mesh base layer would inevitably draw either disapproving, or even perhaps more disturbingly approving, looks from the other hut users. Of course, another layer resolves this problem. Yet, in any other wilderness outdoors setting, Brynje could compete with any other base layer - looks are simply irrelevant.

I also knew that, with the birth of my second child, I would not have a great deal of time until the end of the year and the start of 2013 to use it for anything other than cycling, running and the odd walk in the Surrey Hills - not exactly the sternest test. So I sent it up to Jamie Maddison who I knew was going to be expeditioning in Mongolia for 6 weeks. His thoughts are on Sidetracked but the short answer is, he was impressed.

Chris Townsend posted this comment when I got back from Norway having used Brynje for just under a week with ATE of Norway in -20˚C temperatures: "Brynje net underwear certainly works in Scottish winters too. I've worn it the last two winters. When I was leading ski tours in Norway back in the 90s I mostly wore Powerstretch tops next to the skin and found these very good. On the last few trips to places like Yellowstone (where we had temperatures down to -35C) I wore merino wool tops and these were fine. I will wear Brynje mesh wool under a merino wool zip T on the next trip."

Petter Thorsen and Bengt Rotmo of ATE of Norway - professional polar guides - also do not use anything other than Brynje mesh as their base layers. 

So why Brynje? Why mesh? Why do I like it so much? To explain, let's go back to basics. Base layers are all about thermoregulation. When outdoors, we are concerned with both comfort and safety. We regulate our temperatures both for our own comfort and to keep our bodies within our operating parameters. Human enzymes work best at 37˚C. We want to avoid over-heating or being too cold. And at the extreme ends of these scales we are concerned with dehydration as the body sweats to cool down, heat exhaustion and, worse, heat stroke as well as, at the other end, hypothermia. Both ends of the scale, if untreated, can result in serious consequences. So thermoregulation, for both comfort and safety, is perhaps the base aim of any clothing system.

For some years, a layering system has emerged as the best way to control temperature. It is the most versatile for people spending time outdoors as it tends to allow different layers to be used for different purposes. Those layers tend to be lighter, easier to pack and easier to deploy in a wider variety of circumstances than a single layer. I have, for some time, and will, for the foreseeable future operate with reference to what have become popularly known as "ultralight" principles. The fad is over and the bandwagon junkies have moved on to something else but, to me, the weight of individual pieces, a dual-use philosophy and selecting only those items I actually need to keep my pack weight to a minimum, will always be at the forefront of my mind.

So, when layering, we want a base layer, a mid- or insulating layer and a shell or windproof layer. That's layering at it's most basic. We can either add more layers if we need to - a gilet is a good example of this theory at work - or select layers more suited to our environment. Winter base layers are thicker than summer ones, for example and the insulating layer for -20˚C will be very different than that for 0˚C. The shell layer will very likely also be different.

The base layer is a crucial element in regulating our body temperatures. Put simply, we need to allow sweat to escape for perspiration to be effective at regulating our temperatures. We want, and need, to remain dry as much as possible otherwise we'll cool down too much - heat is transferred by evaporation. This all keep us comfortable both in terms of temperature and the feeling of our clothes against the skin. Thus, a base layer needs to "breathe" and needs to be able to dry quickly. What makes mesh so effective is that there is far less fabric to dry, making it dry much more quickly, and more of that fabric is in contact with air which means more efficient "breathing" and quicker drying. It's also lighter. Additionally, similar in principle to neoprene wetsuits, air is trapped against the skin between the mesh and the next later (when an insulating layer is used on top) in 'pockets'. The skin heats the air and, as a consequence the air remains the same temperature as that which it is in contact with (your skin) and thus we are kept warm more easily than if we need to heat the fabric itself. Of course the next layer will detract slightly from this effect as it will no doubt be itself a little colder, but that effect will be minimal if the next layer is a mid-layer and beneath a shell, for example. That's the theory.

The effectiveness of mesh has not yet been subjected to scientific scrutiny but the anecdotal evidence is significant. Polar adventurers, and people who operate in extreme cold, speak highly of Brynje mesh. Alan Hinkes has spoken positively of it, as has Ed Douglas, regular outdoor and mountaineering columnist for the Guardian. Sadly, much of the rest of its proponents are Europeans which potentially speaks more of our conservatism. Or does it? Part of the walking lives of many UK hillwalkers is spending time, after the walk, in a pub with friends or in a youth hostel en route. Not all are wild campers where looks matter little. Enjoyment is the principle aim for most hillwalkers and if a top doesn't tick every box then it fails to meet a need - if one of those boxes is 'looks', for whatever reason, then Brynje mesh is not for you. If however you want an efficient thermoregulation tool for serious use then you should try Brynje.

The mesh comes in different flavours too - a merino and synthetic blend; synthetic only; normal mesh, fine mesh and very fine mesh. They also do more traditional merino (the "Classic Wool" range) and synthetic (the "sprint" range) base layers. Each of the mesh has an interesting name and I'll briefly list the main players below for your ease of reference:

Classic Wool Mesh - merino/synthetic blend (80/20) mesh
Super Thermo - synthetic mesh
Super Micro - fine synthetic mesh
Classic Wool Micro - very fine merino/synthetic blend (80/20) mesh
Arctic Double - merino with mesh inner layer

The picture above has a Classic Wool Mesh (the black top) and a Super Micro (the white top - despite the label). Above that, the Red top is the Classic Wool Micro.

And there are rucksack-friendly shoulder-lined versions too as well as versions which provide windproofing protection for the male genital area, the thighs, the chest and so on. They do fleeces, softshell layers and hats as well. The principal retailer/distributor in the UK for Brynje is Rhodri Lewis at Nordic Life. He's a knowledgable guy, friendly and approachable. Call him and ask.

Sizing is problematic. There's no getting around it. I am a 34" waist, 6' (183cm), 13 stone (80kg), inside leg 33" and torso 21". I am, in most things, a medium or a large and, usually, the large is slightly too big. In Brynje, I find a large often too small, especially, as a cyclist, my posterior is a little on the muscly side (sorry). My suggestion, in all mesh layers, go up AT LEAST one size. Possibly two. It does not need to be skin-tight to work. As always, I'd suggest talking to Rhodri.

I like Brynje. It's now my base layer of choice in all but alpine conditions. In the Alps, I'll use a 125 or 150 merino top as I am too shy to wander round an alpine hut in mesh. But when wild camping, it's a perfect base layer. In really cold weather, I think the Arctic Double is better than the Icebreaker Quantum - it's gets the sweat away from my body better and dries more quickly. For athletic activity, the Super Micro does a great job below a windproof shell, but I'll deal with that in a specific post anon. Brynje requires some thinking out of the box, and perhaps a little bravery, but it opens up a world where the base layer is lighter, dries quicker and is more effective than ever before. It's worth trying the mesh.