Monday, 20 February 2012

Less equipment

From this title, you may think that the subject would be lightweight or minimalism. Well, not quite, though in my rambling style it is quite possible this will come up.

It is actually a comment on my expectation, that I would talk about equipment on this blog far more. I think that was the plan originally, to spend time commenting on or reviewing equipment. However, so far, for the most part, posts have been more about experiences.

Interestingly, I think people like to see information about equipment on blogs. I think that is why I started reading blogs. Useful real world insight into what works and what doesn't.

I realise of course that equipment is intrinsically linked to experience with most activities and so I found recently in Dartmoor, where substandard equipment played a large part in that experience. There were a few negatives that lead to an interesting, (not so far as 'bad') time.

And so for want of being less cold and having better nights sleep, I have been looking at updating my 'sleeping system'. And with that, here come some posts on equipment.

First up - Sleeping bag!

I have been surprised by how good my £40 basic synthetic sleeping bag has been, keeping me cosy in some very cold, messy, damp, even sodden circumstances. Particularly being that it is coming up 8 years old, has a comfort rating of 0 degrees is huge in pack size and is 2.3 kilos in weight. It has done me well, but recently it has had it greatest tests, (particularly with the bivi bag), often being wet, and being in minus temperatures many times and a couple of times both wet and minus. I can't begin to complain, seeing that I am still alive and was asking a lot of it. I think the biggest factor even now was that the sleeping mat was sub standard in these conditions. Given a better mat, I am sure that the bag wouldn't have been such a problem.

Still with intended cycle touring coming up, over 2 kilos of bag and a huge pack size, I have convinced myself that it should be retired, or at least put in the reserve team as back up for those occasions, when I might stay at a mates on the floor or something and don't want to take my posh bag, which I really hope to look after.

So, introducing - after way too many hours on the internet for an active outdoors lover - the Cumulus Quantum 350 > left hand zip.
I have to say this was one of the items I have spent most time mulling over in a long history of equipment buying. I think I can even go so far as to say that I don't even think I had this much cognitive dissonance (purchase guilt) after purchasing my £[almost two grand - ouch] road bike. However, when it comes to safety, health, amount of usage, I am likely to get out of it, then it is great value even at the best part of £250 quid.

Down vs synthetic?!! I read one site, where the guy said, don't even consider synthetic. I think this is a foolish comment! If you are expecting your bag to get wet, for much of it's usage, then you'd be foolish not to choose synthetic. Just watch Leo Houlding and Jason Pickles film, 'The Prophet' about their free ascent of  a new line of El Cap if you want to see some truly 'how to make your sleeping bag wet' conditions.

In my case I was very much thinking major damp, bordering on wet would be the case, in that I am using a bivi a lot. However, I came to the conclusion, that I just need to make better choices in pitching and set up and that if the issue remained, I'd consider lightweight tent instead. Yes it would be a bit heavier, but then if you've carried a wet sleeping bag around you'll see how this will negate the issue on a wet trip and I know that piece of mind is worth I think -400 grams anyway! ;-) I am also sure that with the better warmth rating of a new bag, I will be able to vent the bivi better and so avoid the terrible condensation issues I have had before. It is just that foot box that I'd worry about.

Then I also made the choice to spend the extra to also get a water repellent outer, hopefully solving much of the damp/condensation issues. I think you can account for an extra (£60 minimum) to get Pertex (or equivalent) water repellent outer on a down bag, so explaining the price disparity below between something like the Rab and the Alpkit Pipedream.

My thoughts went as below >
- Require a lightweight, synthetic bag > Found PHD or 'PHDesigns Mountain Software' > Zeta synthetic bag. 1200grams (-5) and £210. There are very few other similar options I could find.
- Alternative was to consider mates' suggestion- Rab down bags he'd seen with a water resistant outer. So best option seemed to be the Alpine 400 1010 grams (-5). £240
- Then saw PHDs ultralight down range and amazed how light they could get. E.g. Minim 400 - 670 grams (-5). £265 - Made the Rab, at the same price look obsolete.

-Ahhhhhh too much money- why don't I just get a non water repellent down bag like the Alpkit Pipedream 400 which is almost equivalent in weight and warmth rating, just without repellent outer for £150? Well because it is still £150 and it will probably be getting damp a fair bit so ruined and useless. That's why!
- Last I came across Cumulus and the quantum range. The quantum 350 £240 (-6), with a very similar weight to the PHD Minim, same warmth rating but with the 'Diamond grade' polish goose down with the higher loft rating - widely renowned as the best shit out there! 

It became a straight fight between the Cumulus and the PHD

Quantum 350                                            Minim 400
(-6)                                      vs                     (-5)                            > but a more reserved rating at PHD
870                                     vs                     800 fill power
665-695                              vs                    670 grams
Pertex Quantum          vs                     Drishell (claimed best) outer
239                                      vs                     £265 + (£24 for drishell)

The decider came when I read the comments on the Quantum pack size being super small and the fact that the already more expensive £265 PHD required a premium for the MX outer or £24 more pounds for the desired Drishell outer.

Decision made! Finally!

So adding to the above backwards and forwards, the unsure sense of whether synthetic would be better,  the review finding, the general reading up with regards to loft rating etc and the further technical materials learning i.e Pertex and Drishell + opinions, bag issues, pros and cons, real world trial, even comment on how optimistic different manufacturers were with ratings, sourcing, recycling and delivery consideration and of course over all cost, this must have accounted for a good 15 hours on the web. Gosh, I am so happy that is done and likewise that reliving it in blog form is done also!

Is it worth it?!! HELL YES! Tomorrow morning, I am going to have a 700 ish gram -6 rated water repellent tiny super bag! Sweet! More outdoors and earth and world appreciation to come people!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Beans, Beans, lentils, beans and beans

"About 10 minutes I recon...
"...Though I always say 10 minutes even if it's more. People get really annoyed at me", says Frank with a sly smile as we sip tea at the bottom of the slope leading up to Sittaford Tor. 

Earlier on, we'd trekked through some damp forest, we'd climbed Bellever Tor and then searched unsuccessfully for a Cairn and Cist, the latter of which we were not familiar with.

We'd hiked across to Postbridge, crossed the clapper bridge and then been drawn by the call of Dartmoor's best Jail Ale. 

We couldn't really justify ale from a miles covered point of view, but if you've been fortunate enough to taste Jail Ale before then you'll understand that really you don't need an excuse! If you haven't tasted one yet, then I suggest you try to, even if it means a long journey to Dartmoor. A couple of pints [in the cosy Warren House Inn] later - having found out that a Cist is a burial ground - we made a tipsy exit onto the moor north of the B3212.

We head along the exposed moorland towards our destination atop Sittaford Tor, passing what we assume is a few groups of Duke of Edinburgh school kids. We find the thinnest section of bog to cross, though there are moments of unexpected foot dunking. All in good spirits though, you can't help but laugh, whether looking on or whether you are the unlucky one to have done it. I slip and stack it once following Anthony, both of us experiencing that desperate feeling when your balance goes past the tipping point, at which a heavy rucksack just takes over, assisting your unrelenting progress towards an unstable and wet floor.

Climbing away from the bog we spend what feels like an age on a false flat, heading up to Sittaford Tor. With the darkness coming in, we are eager to set up camp and get some beans, beans, lentils, beans and beans on the stove. Once the tent is set up, I do the classic and sit in the entrance putting our veggie concoction together and manage to get some lovely if slightly blurred shots of the moon through the mist. It was superbly bright!

Despite being at 538 metres, I have to say Sittaford is one of the least inspiring areas of high exposed rock on Dartmoor to be given the 'Tor' title - yet for the Tors' own lack of beauty, it remains a fantastic place to enjoy the surrounding views, particularly on a crisp February morning in the half light, when the stone walls and less exposed features of the baron moor are highlighted by a light dusting of snow.

'I've seen the moor as normal and seen it fully snow covered," Frank says as he looks around, "but never like this! It's a whole different place".

We are in that unfortunate position where we want to enjoy the views, but having just got out of the tents we are required to pack up quick sharp and get moving for the sakes of our own health and well being. The temperature is definitely in the minus' and having camped the previous night as well and having waded through the bogs yesterday, there are many clothing items on the wrong side of damp.

I decide to take an alternative route this morning, following the ridge slightly South West of the tor, before swinging East back towards the main trail, crossing the low ground/valley floor/bog and ending up east of the river, to then continue directly south, back into Postbridge and then on to Bellever. 

Back to the car and back to London. Shame! An awesome weekend. Next time, we all intend to cover more miles, but there is plenty of time for that. I definately know that after two very cold nights, I am going to be sorting myself out with a new sleeping bag and mat for the next trip. Not very nice being cold is it?! 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


After talking to my friend Cat about starting climbing, she sent me a video about something I had not seen before. Slacklining!

All it took was for my brother to tell me out of the blue that he had a random opportunity to try slack lining, to see 3 mins later, by chance that Cat and her boyfriend had just done their first session on a slack line in a london park and I have convinced myself that slacklining is for me.

Time for a new activity!