|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 Backpackinglight.co.uk. 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.