Thursday 29 December 2016

Favourite New Outdoor Gear 2016

Keeping warm in the Rab Neutrino 800

After another year testing outdoor gear for The GreatOutdoors magazine here are the items that impressed me most. As always they don’t replace old favourites. So in no particular order…..

Wearing warm clothing in a sleeping bag to save weight and bulk makes sense but I’d never found a combination that was really comfortable until I tried PHD’s Sleep System this year. After a trial run in the Cairngorms I took the lightest version on my Yosemite to Death Valley walk in the autumn and found it superb. With a total weight of 1015 grams it consisted of the 328 gram Ultra K sleeping bag, the 240 gram K Filler bag, the 246 gram Wafer jacket with hood, the 151 gram Wafer K trousers and the 50 gram Wafer K socks, all filled with 1000 fill power down.

Most footwear is too narrow for me so this year I was very pleased to find three different pairs that actually fitted. The first were the Altra Lone Peak 2.0 trail shoes. These are lightweight at 702 grams for size 9s and have a breathable fast drying mesh upper and a thick cushioning midsole plus a zero drop sole. I wore them on the TGO Challenge in May and they were very comfortable for the 300 kilometres of mixed terrain, some of it very rough and steep.

Even lighter than the Lone Peak shoes at 628 grams the wide-fitting Mega Wave trail shoes proved equally comfortable. I took them on the Yosemite to Death Valley walk and used them on the roughest and steepest terrain – the ascents and descents of Mount Whitney and Telescope Peak – and they performed well.

With a similar sole shape to the Mega Wave shoes the Treksta Guide X5 boots also fit me well. They’re leather boots with a Gore-Tex lining. I’ve been wearing them in cold weather this autumn/early winter and found them comfortable with good grip and good shock absorption. They’re not that light at 1.34kg (size 9) but for winter walking I think they’re excellent.

A new style of map doesn’t seem likely but Harveys have managed it with the Ultramap. This is a miniature 1:40,000 map with a clever double-sided concertina design that means you can just flip it over without having to refold it. Of the sixteen Ultramaps available I’ve been using the XT40 covering Cairn Gorm and Ben Avon. Folded it measures just 15 x 7.25 cms and so will fit in just about any pocket. Weight is a negligible 24 grams.

On long trips a small pack is very useful for side trips and resupply stops as well as for travel to and from the walk via plane, train and bus. Carrying a pack just for this adds extra weight and bulk though so I don’t actually do it, usually relying on stuffsacks and plastic bags. Until this year that is when I tried the Freerain 24 pack which weighs just 149 grams and fold down into a tiny bundle. It’s made from silicone Cordura and has a big zipped front pocket and mesh side pockets. There’s a roll top and taped seams so it’s waterproof. On the Yosemite-Death Valley walk I used it as the stuffsack for the PHD Sleep System – it easily held the lot – as well as a day and travel pack.

Generally I don’t like underarm zips as I find them awkward to use and not very effective. Those on the Firewall are very different however – they’re huge, stretching from the armpits almost to the wrists so you can actually put your arms through them for real cooling. The Firewall is also longer than most waterproof jackets and has roomy pockets and a wired hood. It’s made from Pertex Shield +, which breathes quite well, and weighs 511 grams.

The Wickiup 3 pyramid tent was one of my choices of gear last year. It only came as a unit with a full-size inner however and I felt that for most uses just the outer was best. This year Nigor has made the outer available separately and also offered a half-size inner that’s ideal for solo use. This weighs 540 grams, giving a total weight of 1625 grams.

My favourite footwear of the year these sandals are very light (462 grams for a pair of size 9s), very comfortable and, astonishingly (well it astonished me), very durable. I was impressed with the low weight and the comfort, especially the excellent cushioning, on first wearing them but I did think they wouldn’t last as long as heavier sandals. Expecting that cool weather would mean I’d probably mostly walk in trails shoes but that it would be good to have sandals for hot days and camp wear I took them on the Yosemite to Death Valley trip. The weather was warmer than expected even in the mountains and I ended up wearing them most of the time. They’re still in fine condition.

On the coldest night I camped last winter the temperature dropped to -12.6°C. Clad only in thin base layers and wool socks I was perfectly warm in the Neutrino 800, so warm in fact that I debated taking off the socks as my feet were a little hot. At 1293 grams the Neutrino 800 is light for such a warm bag. It’s filled with 800 fill power hydrophobic down and packs down quite small. For sub zero nights it’s superb.

Knowing that most days would be sunny I took this 4000 mAh power pack and solar panel on the Yosemite to Death Valley walk. It surpassed my expectations, charging not only my smartphone just about every day but also at times my altimeter watch, Kindle e-reader and camera batteries. It was well worth the 600 grams weight.

Needing a new groundsheet for the Yosemite to Death Valley walk, my old silnylon ones being somewhat worn, I found the Luxe Tyvek one on At 142 grams for the double size – I wanted space for gear as well as myself – it’s lightweight and unlike silnylon it’s not slippery. Being white it does show the dirt but otherwise it’s excellent.

When there’s snow on the hills I’m usually on skis or snowshoes so my ice axe spends much of the time on my pack. For several years I’ve carried the CAMP Corsa aluminium axe, which is okay as long you don’t use it much. Aluminium is quite soft and blunts easily though. It tends to bounce off really hard snow and ice too. Last winter I tried the Nanotech version, which is also aluminium but with a steel pick that makes it much more functional. With a weight of just 280 grams in the 60cm length it’s ideal for backpacking, ski touring and snowshoeing.

Bristling with teeth and looking somewhat aggressive these pegs are very versatile and are designed for every type of ground, including sand and snow. Once embedded whether vertically or horizontally they feel really solid – on frozen ground I needed an ice axe to prise them out. Great pegs for difficult terrain.

For outdoor use rechargers need to be tough and easy to use. The Venture 30 is both. It’s shockproof and weatherproof and has a cable that fits into the sides so there’s no separate cables to get lost, broken or tangled. It weighs 255 grams.

This wasn’t a test item and I’ve used few smartphones – this is my third - so I can’t compare it with alternatives. It’s proven excellent however. The screen is large enough to use for typing – I sent back reports to The Great Outdoors and updated my blog on it during the Yosemite to Death Valley walk. The 12mp camera is good as long as there isn’t too much contrast – photos taken with it appeared on my blog and the TGO website during my long walk. At 154 grams it’s not heavy, given the size.

I’ve used Sony CSC cameras for quite a few years now, mainly the excellent NEX 7. That camera is rather battered now and I wasn’t sure it would survive the Yosemite to Death Valley trip (it did and is still fine). I wanted a second camera anyway so as the price had come right down due to the a6300 being launched, with no advantages for me that I could see, I bought an a6000, which has a 24mp sensor just like the NEX 7. On the walk I used it with the Sony 16-50 zoom lens and once I was used to the controls, which are a little different to the NEX 7, I liked it very much. With the lens, battery and strap it weighs 490 grams.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

A Cairngorms Winter Sunset

Venus high in the sky above the Cairngorms after sunset

Small undistinguished hills can be superb viewpoints. Tom Mor is such a one. It lies close to my home, a rounded heathery bump at the end of a broad undulating moorland ridge sporting a communications mast and two large well-built cairns. One of the latter has a tall weathered post sticking out of it. A similar post lies next to the other cairn. I guess they were built to note or celebrate something significant but I have not been able to find out anything about them. Both mark excellent viewpoints for Strathspey and the Cairngorms though and are large enough to shelter behind.

Strathspey and the Cairngorms from Tom Mor

I was glad of the cairns on this cold and frosty late December day as a bitter wind swept the summit, stinging my face and numbing my hands. Down in the glen the air was calm and the ground slushy with thawing snow after several sunny hours. Up here the remaining snow crunched underfoot and the wind ensured the thaw had ceased, even though up here is a mere 484 metres. Tom Mor is only a little hill.

Keeping warm on Tom Mor

I'd climbed to the cairns in the hope of a fine sunset and I was not disappointed. Below me the wide fields and woods stretched out to the Cairngorms, the silver slash of the River Spey pointing to the mountains. As the sun sank into clouds far to the west a golden glow spread over the horizon. The land looked dark and cold, patches of pale snow giving it a chilly feel.

The sun about to set

Hunched behind one of the cairns I kept warm with hot ginger cordial, snatching photos round the corner of the stones and watching the sky darken. I could feel the temperature dropping as the sun lost what little power it has this late in the year. Soon the night cold would grip the land.

Last sunshine, the summits of Sgor Gaoith and Sgoran Dubh Mor on the left horizon

Soon the piercing cold and the darkening sky persuaded me it was time to leave. I plunged down steep heathery slopes towards the frosty calm below. Soon the first bright star shone high above the mountains in the still blue sky - no, not a star, a planet, Venus, known as the star of the evening. I followed it home, shining before me the whole way.

Venus over the Cairngorms

Monday 26 December 2016

A Boxing Day Stroll in the Snow

An exceptionally mild Christmas Day (+12C at 2pm) ended with snow flurries and zero degrees towards midnight, making it a White Christmas, just. Definitely a white Boxing Day though as the snow continued through the night and into the morning, driven across the fields by a very strong wind. In the afternoon the clouds began to break and the snow now came in brief sharp showers that were interspersed with blue skies. The wind remained strong and the air was bitter and stinging. A real winter day.

A stroll round the fields and woods proved invigorating. In places the snow was just deep enough to make walking a touch difficult. The ground underneath was soft though, the snow sinking into mud in the damper spots. Tracks of rabbits and pheasants laced the snow but nothing much moved. Just a flurry of rooks scattering into the air from the hay wagons put out for the cows, which stood around looking mournful. Some had broken through a decripit gate and fence and taken shelter in the wood. I'd have done the same if I hadn't a warm house waiting not far away.

The day wound down with easing winds and a touch of colour before the sun finally disappeared into thick clouds. The forecast is for the winds to return and the last week's stormy rapid freeze/thaw cycle to continue into the New Year. No high hills for a while I think.

Wednesday 21 December 2016

The Winter Solstice brings snow to the Cairngorms

After many days of unseasonally warm weather with grey skies, occasional drizzle and a distinct lack of frost or snow the weather finally turned colder this week and the winter solstice brought snow to the Cairngorms on a fierce south-west wind. Not much snow yet but the mountains look wintry again and more is forecast though the wind speeds also forecast for the next few days don't make heading up high sound very attractive or indeed sensible.

The solstice is always a day for a walk however brief, so I ventured out into the local woods and fields, tempted by some blue sky and shafts of sunlight. It didn't last. As I left the house the first flakes of snow fell. By the time I was a few hundred yards away the sky was full of swirling wet snow, blasted sideways by the wind and stinging my face. A flock of rooks whirled in the wind, black shape-shifting specks against the surging greyness. From the edge of the wood a buzzard took flight, keeping low, just above the grass, to avoid the wind. Turning away from the storm I headed for more sheltered ground. A few cows stood forlornly round a trailer of hay. As I passed a flurry of pheasants shot into the air and shrieked off into the trees.

The intended short walk became even shorter. Sitting by the fire with a hot drink was too enticing for me to stay out long in this weather, bracing and invigorating though it was. A short walk for the shortest day, just six hours and thirty-eight minutes between sunrise and sunset. Tomorrow the day will be a minute longer. By New Year's Eve eight minutes longer. The year has turned.

Review: Eden XP 8x32 Binoculars

Eden 8x30 binoculars

Back in June 2012 I reviewed the Eden 8x42 binoculars. I was impressed with the quality and recommended them. I've used them frequently since then and they're still in fine condition. They do weigh 712 grams with the padded neck strap though and are fairly bulky so I don't take them on backpacking trips of more than one night or on long day walks. However I do like to have binoculars with me  - for bird and animal watching and sometimes rocks and clouds and stars and the moon and even route finding at times - so I was pleased when Eden offered me a pair of the new 8x30 binoculars to test. These weigh 550 grams with the padded neck strap (I wouldn't be without this) and are much more compact than the 8x42s.

Eden 8x42 & 8x32 binoculars

The 8x30s have the same high quality look and feel of the 8x42s and should prove just as durable. The roof prism design is the same with a firm dioptre adjustment that stays in position, adjustable eye cups for use with and without glasses, and indentations for good grip. They're splashproof too.  The field of view at 1000 metres is 131 metres (it's 129 for the 8x42s). They don't let in as much light as the 8x42s as the front diameter is smaller - hence the lower weight and size - but this is really only noticeable in very low light.

The difference in weight and bulk makes the 8x30s a better choice for hillwalking and backpacking. I'm now carrying them on any trip where weight isn't too significant and can certainly recommend them.

The 8x30s cost £200, which I think is very reasonable. More details here.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

In the January issue of The Great Outdoors: Yosemite Valley to Death Valley

There's a big ten page trip account and gear review of my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk in the January issue of The Great Outdoors, which is in the shops now.

Also in this issue I have a new series about Classic Gear, starting with the familiar orange Vango Force Ten, plus a piece on keeping warm in camp in winter and contributions to the coverage of the gear that won this year's The Great Outdoors Awards.

Another first in the gear pages is a piece on why rucksacks aren't waterproof from Outdoor Gear Coach, a project I'm involved in.

Elsewhere in this issue there's a superb piece with mouth-watering pictures by Alex Roddie on the Lochaber Traverse in perfect winter conditions. Dan Aspel also has superb conditions on Blencathra after a night-time start whilst further south in the Lake District Eric Whitehead does the same on Wetherlam. In Snowdonia Roger Butler climbs a wintry Carnedd Llewelyn from the Conwy Valley. In their respective columns Carey Davies ponders finding faith in humanity in the hills, Roger Smith makes some green wishes, and Jim Perrin likes Hunter Davies' A Walk Around The Lakes.

Monday 19 December 2016

Wild Camps of 2016

Beside Loch Morar on the TGO Challenge in May

This year has seen two long backpacking trips - the TGO Challenge in May and Yosemite Valley to Death Valley in September and October - plus many shorter excursions. There were many fine wild camps. Here's a selection of my favourites.

On the Moine Mhor in the Cairngorms in February

In Glen Doll on the TGO Challenge in May

On the Cairngorm Plateau in June

On the Moine Mhor in the Cairngorms with Peter Elliott of PHD

On the Cairngorm Plateau in August

In the High Sierra

In Death Valley

In the Hagg Gill valley in the Lake District in November with Tony Hobbs

Above the Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorms in December

Sunday 18 December 2016

Out There - The Pictures 1: Trekking to Makalu Base Camp

From left: Chamlung, Peak 6 & Makalu

My book Out There: A Voice From The Wild describes many wild places and outdoor adventures in words but has no pictures. For those interested I'll be posting occasional collections of photos from some of the pieces in the book, starting with a selection from the trek to Makalu Base Camp in the Himalayas in Nepal. This trek to the base of the fifth highest mountain in the world is my favourite of the three treks I've done in this part of the world. I've really enjoyed sorting through the pictures I took. I hope you enjoy them too.

The trek was from Tumlingtar to Sherson and back
Crossing the Arun River

Trekking through terraced fields and tropical forest near Sedua

In the tropical forest

Camp at Kauma

Clouds clearing near the Shipton La

On the ridge above Kauma

Porters in the Barun Valley
The excellent cook crew at work

Trekking in the Barun Valley
Dawn light on Chamlung
Camp at Sherson below Chamlung

Guides & trekkers below Makalu

Evening light on Peak 6

Porters crossing the Barun River at Yangri Kharka

Morning at Kauma after overnight snow
Dawn at Kauma

All the photos were taken on a 6 megapixel Canon EOS 300D DSLR with Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens.