GEAR REVIEWS: Update: 26th November 2007
After 10 months of Alpine walking, I've reached the end of my year away. During this time, my plans changed, and instead of long distance backpacking, I usually did long day walks (8 to 14 hours), with as light a load as possible.
Here is how the equipment chosen worked, and with it a confirmation that all the gear mentioned here has been paid for, so my comments can be taken as independent.
The Canon A620 has worked very well, with 5,500 photos taken (a good number are of points of interest for guidebooks). It has survived being thrown onto tarmac, and picked up a good few dents, yet didn't miss a beat. The autofocus is accurate, and the photos are almost all properly exposed, without colour cast. I sometimes tweak them slightly with PaintShop.
The histogram display is useful to ensure that lowlights and highlights are not lost.
In very bright light, it is often hard to see the image on the LCD monitor. Before the trip, I tried two after market anti-reflective screens; neither of which helped, as the problem is not one of LCD reflection, rather screen brightness and contrast. This seems to be common with digital cameras. If the screen is placed against the camera body, its brightness increases (it 'gains up'), which helps. A related problem is that the viewfinder doesn't show the whole picture, still this seems to affect most digitals except for expensive and heavy reflex cameras.
As camera memory is inexpensive, I often took several pictures of an image, with different framing and exposure, and chose the best one later. All pictures were taken at maximum resolution (7 Mpix).
The camera body is quite large, with the battery compartment giving a good hand grip. I found it noticeably easier to take hand-held pictures without blurring than with my older smaller digital camera. With the LCD screen flipped out, it was steady enough that I could dispense completely with a tripod, though the odd picture was taken from a gatepost, or leaning against a pillar in a church. A tripod would have been handy for self-portraits, though this site is about walks, not about me.
I used a Polarising filter sometimes, holding it over the end of the lens. This worked ok, and the polariser didn't scratch, though it could get a bit dirty. The automatic lens cover seems tough and reliable. After the tarmac episode, I added a wrist loop which reduced the cameras tendency to fly.
The camera got damp sometimes from use in the rain, but never stopped working, although the flash failed to charge once when damp. Normally it lived in a nasty padded hip pouch that I made, and I put it in a ziplock freezer bag in rain, which kept it dry so long as I didn't take a photo.
The flip-out LCD screen is a huge plus, when for example taking pictures over peoples heads, or macro shots near the ground, or pictures in rain, when one can lean over the camera to protect it, and tilt the screen to see the image. It could also be handy for candid portraits, as the camera can be angled sideways to look at right angles.
The wide angle lens hasn't been used much as I dislike carrying the extra weight! Those pictures it has taken came out well, without evident linear distortion, vignetting or corner softness.
I used standard speed Sandisk 512Mb and 1Gb cards, and had 2 corrupt pictures in 5,500; no idea why. My preference is for plenty of smaller capacity cards, as a card failure then affects fewer photos, and the cards can also be sent back to the UK to update the web site more often. Using a Sandisk card to transfer pictures to a friends digital photo frame, we needed several goes to compensate for the colour cast of the frame. Eventually, the Sandisk card corrupted, and wouldn't work even after reformatting. I suspect the memory cells in the card directory had failed (flash memory will only work for a limited number of write cycles).
I used Li-Ion rechargeable AA batteries which lasted quite well in the cold of Winter, and bought a fresh set of Energizer 2500mAh Li-Ion batteries in April, and carefully charged and discharged them twice. These seem inexhaustible and are recommended. One battery charges to 98% of the voltage of the others, so I charged it a bit longer and checked the batteries all had the same voltage. They didn't miss a beat in Autumn temperatures down to -16C. I prefer AA cells rather than manufacturer-specific batteries, as their capacity is so big, and one can always buy replacement Alkaline batteries if they go wrong.
Berghaus X-Static Tee shirt
This is excellent. The silver strands really do control smell. Purely in the name of science, you understand, your trusty tester wore it continuously for 4 days and nights, including 36 hours of walking. At the end, though I clearly needed a shower, I wandered around several shops where there was no forced ventilation, and no-one moved away from me. Try this with a 'smelly-helly' or polypropylene clothing and there would be a rush for the door!
The fabric weight is about right for me. I walk briskly and get hot, so was able to wear this in strong wind in February at 2400m while ascending quickly, though I needed extra clothing on the level. In Summer heat with little wind, I still sweat a lot, though with some wind, the shirt is just right. When emerging into a good wind with the fabric soaked with sweat, it doesn't super-cool you, and continues to cool you steadily until dry. In very hot conditions, I sometimes soaked it in a stream and evaporation then kept me cool for at least half an hour. It is not see-through even if soaked.
Mine has been machine washed at 40 deg C perhaps 30 times, and hand washed plenty more. The fabric hasn't felted, and hasn't shrunk, though it is slightly more furry where the rucksack straps touch it. Performance seems the same whether washed in detergent or Nikwax techwash. I don't proof it with water repellent.
The fit is quite long; just right on me, as my back is long, though the neck opening is a little tight. Another time, I would buy a short sleeved shirt with a zip, or for Summer use, a long sleeved shirt with a zip, to increase ventilation in airless conditions.
GoLite C-thru Tee shirt
I have also tried a GoLite C-thru Tee shirt, which has a wider, shorter cut, so unfortunately shows my navel. It is a thinner fabric, which is more readily saturated with sweat, and when emerging into wind, the cooling is too extreme. More importantly, this is the shirt to wear if you want to win a wet T-shirt competition, as it IS see through when wet. Ladies please note ... It smells quickly too. Perhaps more suitable for cyclists?
Paramo in reversible Parameta-S fabric
Another shirt I tried is from Paramo in reversible Parameta-S fabric, to either keep sweat next to your body to evaporate there and cool you, or to wick it away, which keeps you warmer. This should puzzle your fellow walkers when you change! There is some difference between the two, but not enough to make the concept work well enough. Also no smell reduction.
RAB vapour-rise (VR) Trail jacket
Another excellent top. How I wish all this stuff had been available when I started walking. The pile/pertex combination wicks sweat away rapidly in cold conditions, and the pertex evaporates it at the surface of the jacket, away from your skin, without cooling you. Properly proofed, it keeps light rain out, or at least away from your skin, for a days outing. The pile must not be proofed, so the jacket has to be sprayed rather than rinsed in proofer.
I used this when Winter camping, in the Spring in cold wind, and for insulation when bivvying. It has also seen use in Summer when caught in heavy weather at altitude, for example keeping me warm for an hour while waiting out thunder and driving rain at 3,000m (and wearing a waterproof on top). It seems to work equally well worn on top of the X-Static Tee.
The roll-up sleeves, double-ended zip, and adjustable hood and waist mean you can tweak ventilation while on the move to keep comfortable instead of stopping to change clothing. This is a big plus.
Integral Designs PLQ Primaloft jacket
I chucked this on over the RAB jacket when stopping on cold or rainy days, and found it kept me warm while fussing about when camping down to -6C. The insulation doesn't seem affected by damp, and it can be squashed away damp, then shaken out and worn. The black colour helps it dry quicker when the sun comes out. Mine is a bit short in the arm, however my arms are long. I deliberately chose a jacket without a hood, as I have a Primaloft hat. This combination would be useful in damp, cold conditions. I would not need it in the French Alps in Summer. RAB and Montane now have similar Primaloft jackets that might be cheaper, and may have longer arms – moreover unlike Inegral Designs gear, you can find them in shops, so they can be tried on before buying.
Nunatak Skaha Plus down jacket
For deep winter, this jacket offers lots of insulation. It has certainly kept me warm when needed, though the temperature when stationary has never dropped below -17C, so I can't say how low it would go. The fit is good on me (long-backed, long-armed), and the hood can be cinched close to the face in wind. It compresses down very well, and I always double bag it to keep out damp. The pertex outer seems strong enough, though you would hardly go walking through bramble thickets with it. I only need this in Winter.
Tenson zip-off trousers
These lightweight zip-offs were worn in colder weather. They are wearing out, and I dread their failure, as all the other zip-offs I have tried are heavier weight and too warm. This includes Rohan, Montane, Royal Robbins, TNF etc ... come on manufacturers; some of us run hot, and need cooler clothing! To save the Tensons, I tried on pairs of shorts, looking for some that are cut properly; ones that don't pull at the front of my thighs when climbing fast. The best I found was a 'skort' (short with a decorative front skirt panel) made by Fusalp. This has enough flare to be cool enough in hot weather. I've cut off the front panel. It is made of polyamide and despite flat-lock stitching it chafes a bit. Running shorts might be good, but I am too self-conscious to wear such cut away stuff.
Thousand mile socks
I bought a new pair of Thousand mile socks before this trip, and replaced them at 2,300 miles as they were wearing thin. They are double layer socks, the idea being that the inner sock hugs your foot, and any rubbing occurs between the layers, so preventing blisters. I used Thousand mile socks in the Pyrenees and have come to rely on them. Correct sizing is important; too big a pair can crease under your sole. I bought a second pair over the web, and the sizing was a little big, so they have been wearing faster, though still with several hundred miles left after 1,300 miles. In cold weather, I use Bridgedale looped pile socks which are warmer, or sometimes both pairs. No blisters with any of these. I've also noticed double layer socks and looped pile socks in Decathlon and Intersport in France.
My old Silva Alta continues. It shows current altitude, daily ascent, trip ascent, time, date etc. It also shows ascent rate which is too variable to be of use, and has a stopwatch, that isn't needed. The Silva is slightly smaller than most altimeters, so doesn't look as though a flying saucer has landed on your wrist. Please manufacturers, women have smaller wrists and some of us would like altimeters that resemble watches and look elegant! Shop owners tell me that altimeters are this size because of the size of the sensor, which I don't believe, having looked inside when changing the Silvas battery The screen is inset below a metal trim, and hasn't scratched in 5 years use.
Its alarm has stopped working, which is a shame, as I used to be able to sleep deeply knowing the alarm would wake me. It under reads by 4%; after climbing 1000m, it will read 40m too low, and if you then set it correctly and re-descend, it will read 40m too high in the valley. Easy to compensate for once you know. Reviews of other altimeters suggest they all do this.
It uses readily available disc batteries and just needs a small screwdriver to change them. The waterproof gasket has lasted 5 years and several battery changes. Sadly the Alta is no longer made, so mine gets looked after carefully.
At first sight, this looks like a throwback to the 1980s. It is a foldable emailer the same shape and size as an old Nokia clamshell phone, but with an acoustic coupler on the back! With this, you can send and receive emails from any land line, or from your mobile, if you have deep pockets.
Crucially, the screen is big enough, and the keyboard usable enough, so one can compose properly without arcane key combinations and abbreviations. All the progress reports on this site were drafted and sent by Pocket mail. At the end of a tiring day, with stiff fingers, I couldn't conceive of writing them on say a Blackberry.
Anyone used to Windows will instantly be at home with the software, which is simple and reliable. I found only one small bug to do with text selection – the workaround is simple.
For a while, the machine hung up sporadically. Then I realised that some batteries are slightly fatter than others, and would jam in the battery compartment, and not give a reliable supply. Having changed to a different set of batteries, the problem has disappeared.
Transmission is slow but reliable. In a noisy street with motorbikes passing it works fine. I do not think any characters have been garbled.
Batteries last for ages, though I read somewhere that using the back light runs them down quickly.
This is a reliable and effective way of keeping in touch while you are away. You register an email address of the form your email@example.com and either hand this out to friends, or ask a friend to send on relevant emails. Some email accounts allow you to redirect automatically to Pocketmail as well.
The not so good bits:
. It could be lighter; the casing is thick and tough, though perhaps that is a good thing.
. The button to start transmission is on the outside of the case, and you soon learn to remove the batteries before packing if you don't want to hear your pocket mailer vainly trying to send emails from inside your rucksack!
. You cannot send or receive attachments or in-line images
. Message size is limited to 6000 characters, which is large. Ask friends not to reply with the original text
This records voices or music to flash memory, and connects to a computer so you can copy the voice files or listen to them. You can record for between 8 and 68 hours, depending on the recording quality. Sound quality in 8 hour mode is high quality voice, and is easily suitable for stereo podcasts. The device is the size of two boxes of matches. This is mainly used for recording directions and observations for guidebooks. It also includes an MP3 recorder/player with a quality stereo microphone, which I've (cough) used successfully for recording live concerts.
The one snag is wind noise. Podcast Bob very kindly made me up a wind baffle, but this masks too many of the controls, and the 'recording' light. Actually, the dictaphone works pretty well inside a plastic bag, which muffles most wind noise and keeps rain and sweat off it. An external microphone can be connected, though I'm too impatient to bother with fiddly solutions when in the hills.
Cheaper MP3 players with a 'voice record' facility can be found. I tried two of these and sent them back, as the voice quality was faint and muffled. I couldn't find one that was good enough with removable storage, or a USB port.
My ideal would be an Olympus quality machine with removable SD card memory, and the microphone further away from the controls so it could be baffled against the wind. This is the baby of the range with 256Mb of memory; ones with more storage are available.
Petzl Tactikka torch
This has been used quite a few times for early starts and late returns, and I am a convert to LEDs for walking. The brightness levels are sensibly chosen so you can trade brightness for battery life according to the roughness of the terrain, and there is a 'blink' setting, handy for waking up cars when walking roads. The tilt facility is handy, so you can light ground near you or further away as well. The batteries once suddenly gave out when walking in a forest, and I needed my camera flash to see which way round the replacements went. Some sort of tactile clue or luminous dots would make this easier.
I used to have a bigger Petzl Myo XP, but sold it as I don't have the grip strength to open the battery compartment, so it comes as a relief to find that changing batteries on a Tactikka only breaks my thumbnail. LEDs are becoming brighter and brighter, so although the Tactikka gets a 'good' rating, its worth checking the competition.
Given recent publicity about Lithium batteries blowing Petzl LEDs, I might eventually look for a headlight with a current regulator that doesn't represent such a challenge to my hands! I wonder if Petzl employs a female product tester.
Silicon Solar array
In bright sunlight, this worked quite well, slung on top of my rolled up sleep mat with a good view of the sky. It did quite well keeping my phone and camera batteries going until I changed GPS loggers to a model that requires recharging rather than external AA batteries, and then the array didn't supply enough current for everything.
The good bit is that the cells are flexible, almost indestructible and very light, and also reasonably affordable. However a solar cell doesn't spend much of its time looking directly at bright sun. Most of the time, you're in a wood, or there is a cloud in the way, or you are walking towards the sun while the array is on your backpack. For all these reasons, a reliable solution needs to have many more cells with a voltage and current regulator, so it can charge more of the time, but won't overcharge your equipment. This sounds expensive, so sadly, the most practical choice is probably alkaline batteries - and hanging onto them until one finds a shop that can recycle them.
If you are looking for a solar arry, note that the packaged arrays (Silva etc) are quite heavy, so this is one area where you can easily save weight.
To gather GPS tracks for my guidebooks, I looked for a sensitive, reliable GPS logger with low power requirements. I tried a Sony GPS-CS1 which is simple to use, reliable and uses replaceable AA batteries. It works well with a clear sky, but with a restricted view, its position fixes are less good; which you might expect as it uses an older generation receiver. An AA battery lasts around 10 hours. Unfortunately the stylists got at the Sony, and gave it a triangular section so that it won't lie flat, and a carabiner so that you can clip it in a rucksack side pocket. This is a bit daft, as the Sony needs a good sky view on top of your sack given its less sensitive receiver.
Roman (Lighthiker) suggested an O'Hara GPS logger, which uses a SiRFStar III receiver. The design was finalised with a large on-board Li-Ion battery, which lasts for at least 48 hours, longer if configured, as the processor can be made to halt and wake up at a specified interval, just about long enough for a weeks walking unless you walk long days. See his blog for further information.
Cleverly it uses removable SD cards, so you can take as much memory as you need for a long trip. The device charges up through a USB port. The manufacturer now offers a dedicated solar panel charger. Mine is an early version, and not all the options work. Romans logger didn't work and was eventually repaired by the manufacturer. Mine has been dependable, and records good data the way it is configured, logging NMEA sentences.
Scissors, nail file, tweezers have all seen regular use. I've since added steristrips to my First Aid kit – good for holding things together.
I have fallen several times, fortunately not breaking anything so far, but have torn muscles, ligaments, bruised ribs, head and knees, and broken off bits of bone in my shoulder. I have also lacerated bits of me quite badly together with the usual minor scrapes. A good scrub (ouch) has dealt with everything, with gritted teeth instead of painkillers. I needed plasters on my hand to prevent infection, and visits to Hospital to sort out a dog bite and for echo and radiography following falls. My EHIC card (the replacement for the old E111 reciprocal health care form) paid for two thirds of the costs.
I carried Lemsip, anti-diarrhoea and Ibuprofen tablets, and needed all of them (though I had no colds, the paracetamol in the Lemsip was a mild painkiller). Antibiotics were supplied on prescription following the dog bite. Additional Ibuprofen kept me walking through the pain.
A chapstick is important in dry mountain air to stop cuts developing in lips. My nose runs in the cold, and a chapstick prevents sores developing. Tiresome cuts developed at the sides of my nails. At one stage, I had eight. Using a chapstick at night helped there too.
Although I carried only around 3kg of gear including food and water, my walks are long, with lots of ascent (a Ben Nevis a day on average). Perhaps it is my age, but I found a good sleep and a varied diet vital. One crucial advantage of gites or a base is that you can eat enough fruit and vegs, and good protein to rebuild your body and keep your immunity up.
Typically, breakfast was oat-based cereal with milk, tea, fresh apricots, cherries and orange juice. Perhaps a slice of bread and honey. Perhaps hot chocolate; no coffee, which dehydrates me.
Food on the hoof was usually cereal bars. I like LU 'moelleux' bars, and also Snickers: readily available, cheap and a fair amount of protein from peanuts, though less fat would be better. Snickers also taste nice, and don't melt or freeze too much – I remember backpacking in great cold once, and looking forward to a nice lunch, only to find it was a block of ice! Fresh bread and sheep cheese is good too; sheep cheese keeps well, without getting stinky or soggy, and is tangy and salty.
A quick meal as soon as I got back was typically fresh bread with cheese and ham or salmon or tinned mackerel. Hot chocolate too if I was tired or cold. Perhaps a peach and grapes, or raw red pepper. French apples are usually woolly, which is a pity. In the UK, I love the multipacks of little apples for kids lunches, and eat three apples a day.
After a nap, supper was pasta, an omelette or cassoulet or similar with vegetables, and a salad with lettuce, olives, nuts, raisins, tomatoes, peppers, olive oil and garlic. Perhaps a yoghurt or some fruit juice to follow. Sometimes a fresh minced burger was good, or fish if ever I went to a restaurant.
The lightweight revolution seems most active here. I've tried a number of pairs of cross trainers, though I haven't yet found a pair that meets my needs.
I can be out walking for up to 14 hours a day, sometimes for 70 hours a week, quite often with over 2,000m of ascent and descent on stony ground, and my feet are only too ready to point up any deficiency in what I am wearing.
My feet are size 8 in street shoes, narrow, with lowish arches; someone described them once as 'low volume feet' ! My ankles are strong and flexible from running, and do not need support. Some peoples feet grow a size after thousands of miles of walking. Mine haven't so far (thank goodness; 8s are big enough!)
Lafuma twin lace
Lafuma twin lace: these are lightweight trail runners, plenty of ventilation in a mesh upper. The lacing system is good, and restrains my feet without pressure points. The sole is thin, twists readily, and offers little shock absorption. With any insole, my feet have had enough after 8 hours. Rain or snow wets my socks. Cold weather = cold feet. The soles have largely disintegrated now.
Salomon Pantera and Terra Low
Salomon Pantera and Terra Low: these are heavier weight Goretex trainers, that keep my feet dryish and warm in cold weather. The low cuff makes it hard to seal out snow with a gaiter. The soles are thicker, and I can manage 10 hour days. There are too few lacing points, so that pain develops on the top of my feet during long or steep descents. The simple Goretex lining becomes a sweat bath in hot weather; disgusting. I only wear these around town now in cooler weather.
Inov8 315s (I think): These are very lightweight trail runners. They were very comfortable on hard surfaces around London, but the soles started to come off, and I returned them. This may have been a bad batch. I had no opportunity to try them for long days. Friends tell me the sole wears quicker than most trainers.
I think it scandalous that such expensive shoes can be so badly thought out and so poorly put together.
Scarpa SL (old model; leather): Comfortable on any surface, good lacing, not too hot in Summer, warm enough in Winter, good on descents. The main problem is the weight; over 2kg per pair. Actually this isn't a problem on the flat or on slight gradients, with the weight actually helping on the follow-through of the stride, but it isn't fun on steep hills, and the weight conspires against agility. The semi-stiff sole takes some getting used to as well.
Aku Icaro – what I used: These are lightweight boots, with a spot-fixed Goretex liner (Air8000), that is claimed to be much more air-permeable than standard glued Goretex as found on other boots. I seem to remember the membrane is XCR. The lacing system is good, and I have no discomfort even on long sustained descents. Normally, I have the laces fairly loose, so my forefeet can move about a bit, and tighten up the lacing above the ankle for descents. With an appropriate insole, my feet are tired, but not aching after 14 hours walking. In cold weather, my feet remain warm, and in hot weather, they do not overheat. The performance of the Air8000 membrane has impressed me. On several very hot days, my socks are almost completely dry after a days walk, the underside of the sock being just a little damp from contact with the insole. The boot cuff enables me to walk in deep snow with gaiters without snow getting in. The Vibram sole is flexible, but protects my feet enough on rough ground.
The first pair completed over 1,000 miles before the soles were sufficiently worn to need replacing. LSR tell me they can replace the soles, but not with the original Vibram unit. Of greater concern is that the upper started separating from the sole. To their great credit, the UK importer Ardblair Sports, promptly acknowledged the fault, said that it should not have happened, and sent me not one, but two pairs of replacement boots, free of charge, to France! When the second pair failed the same way, a local cobbler glued them back together, though the membrane failed so I kept them for dry weather. The third pair started failing the same way, though the membrane remained intact. I stopped using them when the soles wore down too far, and reserved them for days with easy gradients. The fourth pair are in good shape with perhaps 250 miles left in the soles. It looks as though these boots have a useful life of 1,000 miles in the mountains, perhaps a little more on less stony ground.
The Montrail CTX soles are a clever idea. They are heated briefly, and you then stand on the hot soles. The foam deforms permanently to the shape of your foot, meaning there are no pressure points on the sole of your feet. I found them comfortable, and each pair lasted some 800 miles before my forefoot started aching as the foam had gone solid. They are expensive though (40 pounds), so I have replaced them with Supafeet double strikes, which are half the price, if heavier, and available in Decathlon in France. I know from days in the Pyrenees that these last at least 800 miles. I finished on my sixth pair of insoles.
I have also tried some No-ene 2mm insoles and couldn't detect any benefit from wearing them, and also some cheap lightweight foam insoles that gave no real benefit.
GLOVES AND HATS
The search for the ideal glove continues; perhaps there is no such thing.
The original idea was to decompose the functions of a glove into several layers, to give more flexibility, redundancy, quicker drying and so on, and overall this has worked out.
When scrambling, for example, or fiddling with a camera or shoelaces on a cold day, the Powerstretch gloves are just right; light, warm enough, and a good fit. However, wind rushing through damp gloves cools my hands too much, so I'm looking for a replacement. The Buffalo mitts are warmer and more waterproof, and can be turned inside out when the black pile liner drys quickly in any wind and sun. Layered with Powerstretch gloves, the Buffalos are great, and warm enough on bitter days, though Buffalo sizing is on the small side; try before you buy if possible. My hands get cold quickly in rain, even in warm rain, so the Trekmates Paclite mitts get plenty of use.
It's handy (sorry) to have more than one pair, as I found out when, in a hurry to reach lower ground in a thunderstorm, I left my waterproof gloves near the ridge. The Powerstretch gloves needed wringing out every few minutes, but kept my hands fairly warm until I found enough courage to go up and retrieve the other pair. 3 pairs when packed are much the same volume as my excellent Marmot waterproof insulated gloves, and about the same weight too.
Neither the Trekmates nor the Buffalos are stretchy, so the Buffalos have a Velcro strap across the back of the hand, and the Trekmates a buckle, and an elastic cord at the wrist. Eventually I'll rationalise this, as so many closures are awkward.
The North Face summer hat
I've modified this to expose more of the ventilating mesh around the crown. Its main use is not to keep sun off my face, but to keep my head cool in strong sun. A good discovery has been that a wide-brimmed hat discourages flies from landing on my face – they still buzz around, but knowing they won't land under a brim helps me tolerate them.
When the sun is strong, I dunk the whole hat in any stream, and the evaporating water keeps my head cooler. When the crown dries off, I take the hat off and wring it; this re-wets the crown with water from the brim. I have also put frozen snow in the brim, for the same effect. The chin strap is vital so it doesn't blow away.
Lowe Alpine Trail Cap
This is a veteran from Pyrenees days, and is just the ticket for gnarly weather. I quickly get painful earache in cold wind, and the close fitting ear flaps are effective; also the wired brim helps when looking into windblown hail, sleet and snow. It's a good partial solution to keeping mozzies away from ones ears and neck on still evenings as well.
Integral Designs Primalid
I haven't had much occasion to wear this, as the Trail cap and other headgear is effective. It would certainly be useful in cold weather. It gets worn at night, and I sleep better with draughts kept off my head.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa (not the Mariposa Plus, or Miniposa)
Apart from footwear, a rucksack is perhaps the hardest thing to get right.
First of all, if you are careful with siliconised nyon (SilNylon), it is definitely tough enough for rucksacks; not if you stuff it full of sharp gear, not if you haul it over rocks, not if you go brambling, but otherwise it is fine. My Mariposa has around 1,000 miles on it, and shows no specific wear points.
A few bits and pieces have been added; a Velcro patch to secure a camera pouch, longer waistband padding to go over my hipbone, two hip-band pockets, a sponsor sign, a loop on a shoulder strap to stop a drinking hose from waving around, two loops as equipment clips.
What continues to impress me is that a comfortable pack can be had for around 500g; to think that I crossed the Pyrenees twice with a 2.2kg sack ... also that the carbon fibre stays can be removed and the whole thing slung in a washing machine to tame it.
Gossamer Gear designed the Mariposa to accept a sleeping pad as padding between the pack and your back. This would make me too hot, and would move the whole pack further away from my back, so I use no padding.
The Mariposa has three pockets of varying volumes and sizes, which work well, although my arms are only flexible enough to reach one of them while walking. Gossamer Gear suggests you stick your shelter in the tall pocket, ready use gear in the lower pocket, and backup gear in the intermediate pocket. If you don't use a sleeping pad against your back, a fourth pocket becomes free against the small of your back, and this is a good place to put my map, in a waterproof pouch.The overall idea is that almost everything you could want while walking is on the outside of your pack, with reserve gear, sleeping bag etc. inside. There are a few downsides with this pack:
. I missed load lifter straps, as I like to control the top of my pack to allow plenty of air to my back
. I would have preferred a taller, flatter pack, but never really managed to compress it flat enough. As a consequence, my snowshoes pulled the pack back. Perhaps this is just a consequence of my load
. The take-off angle of the shoulder straps and flat shape is a bit odd (I think not ideal for women), and I needed to use the chest strap, which I dislike, as it makes breathing harder, and is one more thing to (un)do. In contrast, a Crux AK47 has a better shoulder strap design
Deuter 30L airflow
For the Summer, I used a Deuter 30L airflow pack in which I can (just) cram all I need (shelter and bag as well) for 2-3 days in the hills. The big plus is that my back is clear, so I stay cooler, sweat less, drink less etc. It weighs more than I would like, and cannot all be thrown in a washing machine, but its ok. I dislike that it sticks out so far back, as this affects my centre of gravity, and has, I think, contributed to some of my falls. Having looked at over 15 lightweight sacks I know exactly what I need, and am sorely tempted to design and make my own one after all this.
I've used my lightened single skin Akto, and thankfully had the foresight to order an extra carbon fibre pole section from Fibraplex, as a dog threw itself on the tent in a camp site and snapped the pole. Enough has been written elsewhere about Aktos; they are well-thought out, ruggedly made and resist gale force winds. Condensation can happen in the UK or in valleys in still, damp weather, but in the Alps this is rarely an issue. It offers plenty of room, and is one tough tent if sited and guyed well.
I used a Gossamer Gear Nightlight sleeping pad, and in snow, a doubled section under my torso, but have now reverted to a small Thermarest for two reasons. The Nightlight makes a huge roll on top of my pack which catches on branches, and generally just gets in the way, and, unless you tie it up with two cords, a central cord compresses it too much just where you need the support. Sleep is too precious for me, so I'm ok with the extra weight of a T-rest.
A vapour proof membrane (VBM) inside a down bag, inside a pertex bivvy bag, under a single skin tent works well in a variety of conditions, and has a lot to commend it for long trips. Down has the edge over synthetic for insulation and low volume, but its big enemy is damp. Interposing a VBM keeps you warmer, and the bag clean and dry.
It is worth adding loops to the top of your bivvy bag to hang it from the tent outer, so that any drips from the tent outer roll off rather than pooling. A down quilt is more adaptable than a down bag, and is lighter and smaller for the same insulation. If you sweat at night time, and it is damp outside, suspend the neck of the VBM from the tent outer, so your body can air. If it looks like a dry, warm night (warm nights aren't often dry), maybe do without the VBM.
My first quilt was modified by me from an Alpkit Pipedream sleeping bag, and I didn't do a great job. It was a little overstuffed, and heavier and bulkier than needed. For the Summer, I used a Nunatak quilt which is lighter, slightly warmer and packs much smaller. It is fun to see how the design of the two bags is similar, though the construction is light years apart! Wearing everything, I can sleep ok at -8c (with the Alpkit bag). On three or four occasions, I camped below this, including one night at -16c, which was miserable, and gave me two frost nipped toes.
I used some Spectra cord for my gaiters, and some duct tape to cover nicks in the bottom of my bivvy bag.
The Caldera Cone impresses with its exceptional economy, which translates to low fuel weight. There are quicker stoves, though speed of heating is not vital for me. I still use the earlier model of stove support/screen, and the smallest Platypus as a fuel bottle with a push-pull cap, and have had no leakages. One can either refuel using the measuring beaker, or just by eye. To be sure that the burner is central under the pan, check the boil pattern before adding any food; the bubbles should be symmetrical. The burner must also be on flat ground, and not too close to the pan. The absence of a simmer control can be messy if the pan is too full when cooking pasta – I have had to blow on the boiling surface to prevent over boiling; one learns ! Fuel consumption is barely affected by wind and draughts, unlike many alcohol stoves.
The pan support holds the pan very securely. In fact, trying to detach a hot, full pot from its support is not worth it. I usually just eat from the pot on its support, or if making a hot drink, just use the stand to hold the pot and drink from it, as I carry neither mug nor handle.
Packing a caldera is a bit of a pain if you care about the space it takes up.. The burner unit is fine, but the pan support is another matter. If you have a long backed rucksack, then it just about fits in the hydration sleeve. Alternatively, it can be wrapped within a rolled up sleeping mat.
Some may feel that given all the ifs and buts, this stove is too much bother, however if you are passionate about cutting weight, its a serious contender.
My Alpkit carbonlite poles have lasted 4,100 miles, and have seen heavy use in boulder and scree fields, and heavy loads when 'four wheel driving' in deep snow. I was about to congratulate myself on not breaking one, when I snapped a pole tip at around 2,000 miles. Boohoo. I had placed the pole, and then passed a sharp rock which nicked the pole. Still, at 40 pounds a pair, and 10 pounds for replacement pole tips, they remain a terrific bargain.
In use, the poles are light and rigid. They swing easily, and a pair can easily support my whole bodyweight. Using spare Leki aluminium poles until the new pole tips arrive, the extra weight and heavier swing is easily felt.
Fighting my way uphill in deep snow, I tore a snow roundel off. This was the early design of roundel, which I gather has been improved. The carbide tips show no wear. The wedge design of strap tensioner works better than the Lekis as well; less effort needed to tighten, and the straps don't slip. Both foam hand grips came loose, and were glued back on with neoprene contact cement.
After 3,000 miles, things started to wear: the strap tensioners slipped, the collar at the bottom of one of the central pole sections cracked, though this doesn't seem to matter, the carbide end tip on one pole had been loose for ages, and I finally wrenched it off in a boulder field, so I have changed to a new end piece, and the collet on the middle section of a pole locked, and came loose from the pole section. This was fixed by pulling out the mid section, smearing Araldite inside it and replacing the pole section.
I must emphasise that these poles have seen heavy use in hard conditions day in, day out, and have suffered more wear than most poles would in 5 years, so I am not too surprised.
One Platypus bag started leaking near the filler and has been replaced. My old bite valve started dripping, so it was replaced with a 'big bite' one piece valve, which flows more readily, and has fewer places for bugs to collect. I didn't use any water purification; just drinking from streams and refilling from springs, though I was careful once sheep and cattle were in the mountains. The Flexilene tubing remained free of bugs for the whole time. It would be excellent if Platypus offered this as an option. In deep cold, I packed the Platypus deep in my sack with a screw-on lid, and didn't use the drinking tube.
Montane Quick-Fire jacket
I can think of nothing to criticise about my Montane Quick-Fire jacket. The single layer design is light, packs small and doesn't insulate, and it is a good windproof. The long sleeves run down over gloves, and stop them filling with water or snow, the sleeve ends can be turned up to keep rain from running down onto ones hands. The flare in the sleeves enables them to roll up to the elbow if getting too warm. The hood is just right. In heavy rain and no wind, one can release the hood compression tab, so the peak falls forward, and protects ones face and chest opening. In wind-blown rain and hail, the side adjusters can be tightened right up to protect the face. The pockets can be opened for extra airflow (though not in rain), and the hem can be closed up to reduce airflow in cold wind. The drop tail keeps ones backside dry. The drop tail can be arranged to cover a bum bag too, though this looks a bit weird. This is the first jacket that I can wear while climbing uphill without fear of swamping it with sweat. The only wear apparent after all this is the reflective stripes which are a bit chipped. Thanks Montane.
Berghaus Paclite waterproof trousers
Again, excellent gear. Hip length double-ended zips make them easy to put on or take off, and one can dial in just the right ventilation and weather protection by adjusting both ends of the zips. One slight niggle is that the toggle on the waistband sometimes gets in the way of my rucksack hip belt. This could be snipped away and replaced with a knot if I could be bothered. The fit is slim, and (ahem) 'a bit tight over the hips'. The cut is good, and doesn't constrict the legs when climbing, or chafe the thighs.
The material looks a bit fragile, but lasts fine if looked after. It is certainly up to sitting and leaning on rocks, but I doubt if bumping and scraping on them would be wise. Down to -16C, I no longer carry the zipped off section of my walking trousers, relying instead on the Paclites to keep my legs warm.
Integral Designs Shortie gaiters
These are simple e-vent gaiters without a zip, so you take off your boots to put on gaiters. In practice, if there is any damp around, I just 'fit and forget' the gaiters. They are great for keeping trail debris out of boots; no more irritating bits of grit or seed heads grating through socks. In dry weather I leave the top bungee cord loose.
The gaiter is secured by bungee cord under the instep. Integral Designs say it needs occasional replacement, and that on rough ground, the cord should be flicked up behind the heel to prevent rocks from cutting it. I'm lazy and leave it behind the heel, though long grass can dislodge the gaiter and let water in, so I flick the bungee forward then. I replaced the bungees at 3,000 miles as they were wearing thin.
The bungee cord method does not prevent snow from working up inside the gaiter and wetting your socks. In these conditions, I added short lengths of spectra cord and a small cleat over my ankle, which ties the lower hem of the gaiter down securely, and found this keeps snow out ok. On leaving the snow, it is simple to release the spectra and re-secure it loosely behind the heel.
My first pair of Shorties was dark green, and I left one of these behind somewhere, so the replacement pair is in gold!
Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoes
I used Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoes on about 55 days this Spring. They offer excellent flotation, are relatively light, and pack flatter than most snowshoes. The construction is a reinforced flexible membrane surrounded by a tubular aluminium frame, with a flexible hinge, and apparently the same design of straps as found on MSR snowshoes. Andy Skurka told me that he broke a Backcountry when following a trail pockmarked with deep holes left by elk. The bending loads eventually caused frame failure, however in my more normal use they have been fine.
In deep or fresh snow they are excellent, and occasioned much interest from locals using TSL rigid plastic snowshoes, as Backcountries left much shallower depressions (5cm instead of 20cm).
Putting them on and taking them off is a bit tedious, with 6 straps to deal with plus rucksack fixings. In contrast TSLs have 2 straps plus rucksack fixings. And fixing them to your rucksack is tricky too, as they are so long. They don't fit on top of your sack very well either.
Some snow conditions caught out the Backcountries. Lateral grip is relatively poor, and traversing a crusty snow slope is tricky, as the flexible hinge makes it impossible to edge the shoe. In contrast, the rigid plastic frame of TSLs bite into the crust and hold well, and their rigid hinge edges better. Backcountries are inclined to slip backward when climbing snow that is partly or fully compacted, as the length and area make the snowshoe skate off, whereas TSLs can be locked, enabling them to step into the snow.
Backcountry crampons bite quite well, and have anti-bott plates, but sometimes still ball up in wet snow. This can be felt through ones boots, and the ice can be tapped off with the end of a pole.
TSLs are much heavier and bulkier, and their spikes make them awkward to stow on a pack. I guess there is no such thing as a perfect snowshoe, any more than a perfect boot or rucksack!
I initially bought Camp XLC490 crampons with matching anti-bott plates, and didn't bother fitting them until arriving in France, which was an expensive mistake. Firstly, the bott plates, even though clearly marked as suitable for the crampons are a poor and difficult fit, and more importantly, the heel grip of the crampons just doesn't grip a boot or shoe heel! Not just me, I took them to two shops here, both of whom agreed that the crampons would be unsafe on the hill. XLC490s with strap fixings are formally not recommended.
Grivel alloy crampons
Instead I have Grivel alloy crampons with anti-botts, which seemed fine and secure on the few days I've used them, and show no signs of wear as I kept them away from rocks.
I used home made Cue cards to carry reference information (phone numbers, my dog tag, instructions for gear etc). These were very useful, though I should have had them professionally laminated as most of the self-laminating sleeves I used failed.
To phone home I used long distance phonecards, which are much cheaper than a mobile, and local phonecards for calls within the country, to send progress reports by Pocket mail. My mobile was only used to send texts to give my whereabouts and status if there was no land line nearby. I only made or received voice calls by mobile exceptionally, as international mobile calls are so expensive.
I used a small Silva compass with thermometer, attached to my rucksack. Unbelievably, it survived being machine washed with my rucksack. The compass doesn't have degree gradations and can't be laid flat on a map, but walking on a bearing is rarely needed in the Alps, so this worked fine. The thermometer would be more accurate if the baseplate was white, rather than black, so it heated up less in the sun. Also, it uses a red spirit column instead of mercury, and this fragments, which is a nuisance. Please let me know if you find a better designed one!
Out of curiosity, I used Dallas thermochron temperature loggers from Embedded Data Systems, clipped into the bottom of my sack. This gave me accurate temperature readings without much expense for equipment reviews.