Backpack around Anglesey: kit review.

Euroschirm Pro Trek Umbrella.  As I wrote in my previous post, I experienced really heavy rain on the first day and hot, bright sun the rest of the time. The brolly performed faultlessly throughout. It acted as a wonderfully ventilated sunshade and kept the rain off me. However, when the wind got up a lot I had to put the brolly away which is why I did get a little damp on the first day and sunburnt on the third. Overall, well worth carrying for the shelter it offered.

Gatewood Cape and Nest. There is an in-depth review of both in my blog but, as ever, it performed perfectly as a shelter. In hindsight, I didn’t need bug netting as the island seems to be midge-free. I could have got away with using a polycro groundsheet. A bit of extra weight carried! 

I didn’t use the cape as a shelter because the brolly performed well enough in conjunction with a light rain jacket.

Paramo Bora Fleece  I used this as my insulation. In conjunction with a Montane Pertex windshirt it worked well as a waterproof too. I did get a little damp where the pack straps pressed on my shoulders but, oddly, the water stayed on the outside of the fleece. Overall, I’m very pleased with it as a multifunctional top. Possibly if I had used the proper Paramo windshirt I would have remained completely dry. A test for another day! 

I think it’s a very useful solution to combine warmth and waterproofness in one package. However, I can see it being too warm on hot, rainy days. Then again, the ventilation zips on the chest/abdomen area work well and it’s very breathable. It’s fairly heavy but it’s possible to save the weight of a proper waterproof shell which mitigates the weight. In common with most Paramo garments I find the sleeves to be a little long for me. My conclusion is that I like it and it performs well in the circumstances I used it in.

Integral Design eVent Short gaiters. Kept the rain out the top of my train shoes and stones too. Useful and light piece of kit, very small pack size.

Mountain Laurel Chaps. At 47g, possibly the best waterproof leggings around. No condensation, no wind got through nor any rain.  The only problem was my Montane windshirt wasn’t quite long enough to cover the crotch area fully so I did get damp there. Not a fault of the Chaps though.

Golite Jam 50l pack  Quite an old pack nowadays but still one of the best packs in its capacity range. Carried all my gear comfortably. The hipbelt pockets are large and really useful to carry food, camera, compass and what have you in. Did get a bad thorn-induced gash which I repaired with Tenacious  Tape.

Enlighten Equipment Prodigy Quilt  I’ve got the 40F (10C) version and temperatures at night got down to about 9C. I was warm and comfortable sleeping with it just as a quilt and never needed to cinch up the footbox. Performed to specification, can’t fault it. Because it’s synthetic the volume is 8 litres which took up a fair amount of space in the pack but that’s the nature of the beast. I’m with Ray Jardine about the use of synthetics in a potentially damp climate. 

Thermarest NeoAir.  Mine is the full-length one and I’ve had it about five years. Durable, warm and blissfully comfortable. Wouldn’t be without it. Pack size is about the same as a litre bottle.

Montane Featherlite Pertex Windsmock  Light, very packable. Kept the wind off and light rain too. Worked pretty well with the Paramo Bora. Too short to use with Chaps. To my mind, an indespensable piece of kit.

Outdoor Research Baseball Cap/Kepi  Very light and versatile. I hit my neck sunburnt when it was too windy to use the brolly and I’d forgotten to clip the Kepi bit on. My fault and not the cap’s. Visor is very useful in bright sun and the Kepi really does work.

Overall I’m very pleased with the performance of my backpacking gear now. I don’t think I can get it much lighter without compromising on performance to a level I don’t want to experience.

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A backpack around the Anglesey Coastal Path(ish)

Every year a friend and I have a week-long backpacking holiday. This year we decided to do the Anglesey Coastal Path which is, depending on which source you believe, either 120 miles or 123 or 125 miles in length.

I travelled up to Nottingham to meet my friend and we caught the train to Bangor as we had planned to stay there overnight before starting the hike for real. Over the years we’ve learnt to be flexible so, after learning that we were in easy bus ride reach of Llanfair PG we thought we’d divert just to say that we’d been in the longest place name in the British Isles. Here’s a picture of the train station.

After taking a few photos and having a coffee at a cafe we set off for the coastal path. Almost immediately it started raining hard and didn’t let up all day. We had planned to camp at Malltreath but, after covering around 15 miles, we were soaked and the campsite resembled a mini lake. Being resourceful and flexible we thought “Bugger it, let’s  find a B&B and dry out” only Malltreath had none to offer us. We decided to press on to Rhosneigr which was some 12 miles away and the only place of a size large enough to have a B&B. Luckily, we caught the last bus which took us about six miles. The rest of the distance was made up of yomping in the deluge and hitchhiking.

Luckily, there was room at the inn in Rhosneigr so we booked in, started drying out our kit and went for a beer and food. Sometime during the evening we became embroiled with members of a christening party and had a great evening with a crowd of extremely drunken Welsh people. Lord knows, how they managed to get to work in the morning!

We had our own conumdrum to solve as we were now effectively a day ahead of our planned itinerary. A quick look at the map showed there were no places to wild camp between Rhosneigr and Holyhead and we knew there were no campsites either. We had planned to B&B in Holyhead after camping for two nights but that had gone out the window. After a bit of discussion we decided to B&B for two nights in Holyhead and vary our route in; the next day to be spent doing another part of the coastal path but without our backpacks.

As we wandered up the coastal path to Holyhead the sun came out with a vengeance. Absolutely perfect conditions for enjoying the sights and an incredible change from the previous day as the pictures show.

After a tedious walk over the Four Mile bridge we arrived in Holyhead and found the B&B, dumped off the packs and went out to explore. It has to be said that the town isn’t especially pretty as its a functioning port. It is also a desert if you like real ale.

After breakfast the following morning we set out to explore the North and South Stacks. Again, the day was superb. I ended up with a bit of sunburn on my neck but the views were worth it. Apparently Holyhead has the largest breakwater in the world apart from one in San Dieago and its huge!

The next day we left Holyhead to follow the coastal path to Caemas; this time equipped with much needed suntan cream. It was a beautiful walk to do but it made quite a long day. Our campsite was about a mile out of Caemas and it was very, very quiet. We share our pitch with a trio of very tame, friendly ducks. The night skies looked spectacular as the sky was clear but my phone camera couldn’t do them justice. 

The following day we should have followed the coastal path to Moelfre but we’d heard of an old copper mine that was worth seeing so we modified our route to take it in. The copper mine was basically an excavated mountain. It was sad to see the damage done to the land but it was a magnificent sight in a way. Here’s some photos of the copper mine and the view from the campsite at Moelfre.

Moelfre is a pretty, small town and we had a pleasant night there. The morning sun reflecting from the sea woke me in the morning but it soon became overcast and our final day was a mixture of hot sun and drizzle. Our plan was to walk the coastal path as far as we could then catch a bus to Bangor for our final night. That is pretty much what we did! Here’s a view of the sea from Bangor and some shots  taken on the way to it.

So, ok we didn’t do all the path due to bad weather and wanting to see other things we’d heard about. We only camped twice instead of four times.  But we really enjoyed the trip and that, not sticking slavishly to a route, is the important thing. We’d been drenched, sunburnt, scratched by thorns, ate too much, drank too much, had lots of laughs and added an extra bond to our lifelong friendship. I’ll take that!

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A brief backpacking escape

It was the early part of the merry month of May when I took the opportunity to escape to do some backpacking. My dad had been killed in a road traffic collision a couple of weeks before And I really felt the need to escape from the bureaucracy of death for a short time. I figured some time away from it all would give me a chance to get myself sorted out a bit. A normal death is bad enough but when there are coroners arguing over jurisdiction and police doing forensic investigations……well, it becomes manic.
As I travelled by train to Matlock I reflected on how different it was from last month when there was snow on the ground at Whatstandwell and everywhere was extremely muddy. “Not this time” I thought as the sun shone and lambs frolicked in the fields as the train sped by. At Matlock I then caught a bus to Bakewell. I was feeling a bit pushed for time so I caught a local bus to Monsal Head. 
Monsal Head is high up and looks over the Wye Valley. The views are tremendous. At Monsal I met up with some fellow members of the Backpackers Club. After pitching, a friend and I wandered up to the head of the Wye Valley to enjoy a beautiful sunset before joining the others in a local hostelry. A convivial evening was enjoyed by all on a balmy (not barmy) night.

The Tuesday morning dawned dull and overcast. As we departed our separate ways to the pitch at Winster it started to rain. And rain it did non-stop all day! So much for my hopes on the train travelling up. As the group I walked with sploshed along we decided to truncate the walk by catching a bus from Bakewell to Stanton so that we could pitch earlier than intended and get out the rain. The walk over Stanton Moor took us past the Nine Ladies stone circle which was very interesting. 
I was very pleased with my strategy to keep dry. I used my trusty Euroschirm umbrella and wore a Pertex windshirt (made by Montane), some softshell shorts and Integral Design eVent ankle gaiters. Despite the torrential rain I kept dry and well ventilated while others suffered leaking waterproofs or built up their own, damp, internal atmosphere. A brolly is the way to go! 
Eventually we made the Miner’s Standard on to find that, despite me checking beforehand, the kitchen was not open. Cue dejected faces. Luckily, a takeaway in Matlock delivered pizza to the 5 surviving members on the meet and another member of the club who had just happened to pitch there that evening. Again a pleasant evening was spent talking and drinking while sitting next to a warm fire. When I left the pub the rain had stopped and had been replaced by a very thick mist. So thick that I couldn’t see any tents in the field and found my way by memory. Back at the tent the pub was impossible to see. After getting inside my Gatewood Cape it started raining again. Heavy rain fell all through the night. As usual, the Gatewood Cape kept me sheltered from the elements.
Come morning the rain stopped long enough to get packed away but the forecast was awful for the next few days with persistent, heavy rain and high winds predicted. Discretion being the greater part of valour I made the decision to wander down to the village to catch a bus to take me on to Matlock and the train. A pity as I’d hoped to spend longer out, and do some wild camping, but there’s always the next time.
And, yes, the short time away really did help me to get my head around the loss of my dad. Fresh air, exercise, beautiful scenery and the company of fellow backpackers gave me some sorely needed respite and time to think.

The view from Monsal Head looking over the Wye

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Gatewood Cape revisited

A few weeks back I posted a long-term review of the Gatewood Cape on my blog. I found a picture of it not long after pitching when I was visiting the Well Dressings in Tissington, Derbyshire a couple of years ago. In the light of the photographic evidence I have to confess that I am not the most tidy backpacker! On a nice day stuff gets strewn around all over the place! 

The shot captures me hunting for food hidden in an orange plastic bag. I find putting related items in different coloured bags/stuff sacks helps with packing and finding things easily. However, it doesn’t help when you realise you’ve already taken something out the bag – hence my quizzical look at the debris on the ground!
However, the pic does show a good view of the Cape and Serenity NetTent.

Photo by Geoff Gadsby

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Wake up and smell the coffee!

I love backpacking and I love real, freshly made coffee. However, the two don’t mix very well. A hiker who wants to have a lightweight, never mind ultralight, pack weight can’t carry a percolator or Mokka pot. There are add-ons to various cooking systems than convert your cooking pot into a cafetière or some kind of filter coffee system but they are a faff to use and add weight. Once the coffee is brewed the problem of what to do with the coffee grounds arises. Also, out on the trail it is difficult to clean most of these backpacking coffee makers.

So I thought I was doomed to drink instant coffee while hiking. Not the worst horror in life I know but I did miss my “proper” coffee. Especially the first cup in the morning.

A few months ago I was wandering around a supermarket and saw an intriguing product – coffee bags! I had to try them and I was very pleased with the results. Essentially, they are large teabags but filled with coffee. You dunk them in a mug of hot water and let it steep until you get your desired strength, take the bag out and drink. Easy peasey and no mess. Even better, you can squeeze the excess water out of the bag and carry the bag(s) out of camp to be disposed of properly. Both the coffee and the bag are OK to put in a compost pile so there is minimal impact on the environment.

The coffee bags come in boxes of eighteen bags and each bag is individually sealed in a waterproof bag (also recyclable). So the backpacker can take as many, or as few, as they want for a trip and be certain that there will be no spillage and the coffee will remain dry whatever the weather.

The coffee bags I’ve bought are produced by Lyons and they taste good. I’ve managed to track down two varieties. The first one I tried is called the Everyday Blend and it is quite smooth and not especially strong but has a decent coffee taste. The second is called the Number 3 blend and is much darker, richer and stronger tasting; I’d describe it as a breakfast or after dinner coffee.

I’ve no affiliation with Lyons but I think they deserve a pat on the back for making coffee bags. At long last backpackers with coffee addiction can get their fix using a simple, reliable and lightweight option that is unaffected by bad weather, fits with the leave no-trace ideal and everything is recyclable or compostable. Did I mention the coffee is very drinkable too?

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Six Moons Designs Gatewood Cape: Long Term review

I’ve owned a Gatewood Cape and Serenity inner for three years or so now. Like most backpackers I suffer from shelter lust but the Cape is the shelter I keep returning to. I’ve done many trips using it be they two/three dayers or week-long so I thought it was time to give a review. Before doing so it is worth pointing out the Six Moons have recently upgraded the Serenity to give a bit more headroom and deeper bathtub sides which look to be an improvement but have increased the weight a little.

To business. The Cape is a multifunction piece of kit that acts as rain gear, pack over and shelter for the solo hiker thus offering the prospect of real weight savings to the hiker/backpacker. It is made from Silnylon. Annoyingly, it is not seamsealed unless the buyer pays a small fee for Six Moons to do it. I took that option and I’m glad that I did as they did a far neater job than I could do. Mine was flawless in terms of sewing and construction and, after three years, looks like new.

Worn as a cape the Gatewood is large enough to cover the whole body down to mid-thigh length and easily wide enough to cover the wearer and a pack of about 65 litres. The hood is a simple design with a draw cord closure but it works well enough. I usual wear a baseball cap with it to stiffen up the visor. Being made from silnylon means that it is completely wind and water proof. Like all capes and ponchos it is prone to flap in winds so a simple belt made from shockcord is advisable. As silnylon doesn’t breathe I was worried that condensation from perspiration would be a problem but, in practice it isn’t. There is enough ventilation from underneath and the sides to reduce condensation to a minimum. The cape can be warm though. However, the door zip is cleverly positioned to become a chest-zip which can be used to give extra ventilation and cooling.

The guy lines for use in shelter mode can be annoying but I solve the problem by fastening them to the fitted buckles that are inside the Cape. To keep my lower legs dry I use some MLD Chaps but, as with all ponchos and capes, your arms will get wet as they are normally outside the material. I either just allow my bare arms to get wet or use a light windshirt to protect my arms. As protection from bad weather the Cape functions perfectly but it has to be said that it is not an elegant, fashionable look.
Turning the Gatewood into a shelter is easy. Simply take it out the stuffpocket, or take it off, and open it out. Position the rear into the wind and peg down the guylines at the rear, insert a trekking pole into the holder, guy that out, guy the front two corners and it’s done. There are three things to note.

  •  Firstly, the shelter can be pitched at the end of the fixed length guylines to give extra ventilation or in “storm mode” meaning the guyline attachment points are used as pegging points. Storm mode does mean a couple of inches of headroom are lost but I’m still able to sit up in comfort. I’m 5’10” and I think a six-footer would be able to do the same with ease.
  • Secondly, the attachment for the trekking pole is a detachable grommet mounted in a colour coded housing. It’s easy to remove when using it as a Cape but I leave mine clipped in and have noticed no discomfort.
  • Thirdly, I use trekking poles but Six Moons do offer a 50g pole for hikers who prefer not to use trekking poles.

As a shelter it offers fully enclosed protection with entrance/exit via a zipped door over half the front area. It’s one of the easiest shelters to get in and out of that I know of. The front always has an airgap as silnylon is non-breathable and further ventilation can be obtained by opening the hood up. As well as supplying fresh air to the hiker the airflow means condensation is fairly minimal and easily wiped off with a jay cloth or buff. Even in high humidity I’ve never experienced bad condensation and what there is usually vanishes once the door is opened. There is a large pocket on the non-opening front side which also doubles as pocket when used as a cape and as a stuffsack when the Gatewood isn’t being used.

Without the Serenity in place, the shelter offers loads of room for one hiker and could probably take two in an emergency. The first two times I used mine the weather was horrendous; very high winds and torrential rain going on for twelve hours or so. The Gatewood didn’t even blink and shrugged the bad weather off with ease. I have complete confidence in it as a three season shelter. Silnylon tends to sag a little after thirty minutes or so of being under tension but retensioning is easy-simply undo the trekking pole and adjust the height by a little and retighten. No need to leave the shelter.

Using the Serentity NetTent is easy too. Clip it to the apex of the shelter and attach it’s corners to the appropriate external guylines or, if you prefer, peg then down from within the shelter. I use some tiny titanium nail pegs for this- weight cost is under 10g. The Serentity is completely bugproof and has a waterproof floor plus bathtub sides. It works very well. Inside the Serentity there is enough room for a full length sleeping mat plus pillow with about 6-7 inches to spare. There is an internal pocket for head torch or wherever and ample side room for clothes and other stuff. There is sufficient head room for me to sit up while sitting on a fully inflated NeoAir. The vestibule has enough room to stow a large pack, boots, cooking gear and still have unimpeded entry and exit.

Together, the Cape and Serentity come to just over 600 grams. Add in a pair of Chaps and pegs of your choice and you get a sub-700g package that offers compete wind and rain protection while hiking and a very stable, weatherproof and bugproof shelter while camped. This is why I always come back to using the Gatewood; in my opinion it is simply unbeatable for hikers who want to lighten their load and become ultralight/ultralite.

Here is a photo of the Gatewood pitched and zippered up. All the gear visible is under cover. You can see the pocket on the left front and the hood is partially open.


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Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar: a few thoughts.

I’ve owned a MLD TrailStar, and nest, for about two years now and it’s a shelter I have mixed feelings about. For those that haven’t heard of a TrailStar it’s a shaped-tarp in the form of a pentagon and pitches with a hiking pole in the centre so it becomes, effectively, a pyramid shape.

On the positive side:

  1. It is very well made with all seams and guy tensioners still working perfectly after two years.
  2. It’s very tough and can take a lot of abuse.
  3. It offers a good space to weight ratio. Without a nest it is possible to sleep two hikers plus kit in comfort and three if necessary.
  4. It can handle high winds, torrential rain and snow with ease once it has been seam-sealed. Why, oh why, don’t all tent makers seam seal as part of the manufacturing process? Nobody would buy a car and expect to fit the engine themselves!
  5. There is superb ventilation and it is rare to see even the slightest bit of condensation. As the shelter is so large there is zero chance of touching the sides (apart from entering or leaving the TrailStar) so condensation problems just don’t exist.
  6. It is easy to pitch.
  7. The nest has a tough floor and it is totally bugproof.
  8. It is possible to cook inside a TrailStar although for safety reasons I wouldn’t advise it.
  9. If you are a cycle-camper it’s possible to get your bike under cover. A folding bike fits in with ease, a “proper” bike does take up a lot of space but it can be done.

These are all desirable things to have in a shelter and it is easy to see why the TrailStar gets many rave reviews. It really is a top shelter and will perfectly fit the needs of many backpackers. However, nothing is perfection so here are some of the things that I consider to be disadvantages to the TrailStar:

  1. It is impossible to stop draughts coming into the tent. While very good for ventilation this does make for a cold shelter. This can be a real problem in the cooler times of the year.
  2. The entry point is just part of the shelter lifted up by another trekking pole. No matter how the TrailStar is pitched, entry and exit are achieved on hands and knees. On dry ground this is fine but when it’s muddy both hands and knees get filthy. I can live with dirty knees but it’s a real drag to keep my hands clean so I can prepare food and eat it.
  3. The TrailStar has to be oriented “back to the wind”. As there is no door it is quite possible to have no privacy when on a commercial campsite. Apart from personal modesty, all your possessions and kit are visible to anyone passing by.
  4. If the wind turns by 180 degrees after pitching the TrailStar becomes a rather effective wind tunnel. Yes, you can repitch it fairly easily but who wants to do that in high winds in the dark?
  5. Two trekking poles are needed to pitch the TrailStar. Not a problem to me as I always use two trekking poles anyway but some hikers might find it a problem.
  6. A large area is needed to pitch the shelter. It is possible to pitch over logs and other obstructions but this is not a shelter that can be squeezed into a small space.

I now wish that I had purchased the inner with solid walls rather than bugnetting to help keep the draughts at bay despite the extra weight penalty. To deal with the problems caused by there being no door I have made myself something that functions as a privacy screen and wind blocker from silnylon. However the “dirty knees” syndrome really does annoy me; a piece of polycro or similar helps but that soon gets muddy and I’m back to square one.

So, I have mixed feelings about the TrailStar. It is a great shelter in terms of keeping the elements at bay; I would describe it as bombproof. I can’t think of another backpacking shelter that shrugs off high winds, rain and snow while dealing with condensation so well – it really is top class.  On the other hand the difficulties posed by the size, height, length and openness of the entry/exit point irritate me intensely.

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    After the Big Three: what next?

    So, you’ve  got your sleep system and shelter sorted out and you’ve got a pack to carry them in. Ready to go then? Sorry but no, there’s a few more things you need. I’ve blogged about a few of the items in the list below, the rest I will do soon.

    1. Hiking boots or shoes? Sore feet are sheer purgatory, can ruin a hike or finish it. It’s vital that your feet are kept comfortable and well-supported in footwear that doesn’t cause blisters. I’ve not blogged about this topic but my preference is for trail shoes. Lighter and more comfortable by far than boots.
    2. Clothes. These divide into two basic groups; what you wear to hike in and what you wear around camp. I normally just wear a pair of shorts and a synthetic tee shirt when walking, often supplemented by a pertex windshirt. If it’s cold I put on a light fleece. 99% of the time that’s good enough. For breaks and around camp I have a down sweater for extra insulation, dry base layers to change into and a pair of trousers. If it’s really cold I sleep in my clothes but usually I sleep in a tee shirt and boxers. Light layers of clothes are much warmer than big jackets so my clothing is selected on its weight and thermal properties. Avoid cotton at all costs- it absorbs water and makes you cold, takes ages to dry – potentially life threatening. A hat is very useful to keep off the sun and rain or your head warm at night.
    3. Waterproofs. Sadly, it will rain. I’ve blogged about different waterproofs earlier. My preference is for a poncho and leggings in heavy rain, pertex windshirt and a hiking umbrella the rest of the time.
    4. Cooking: I wrote a big piece in my blog about different stoves. Backpackers can get obsessive about stoves so all I will say is that it boils down to weight and what you want to cook. My cooking is mainly boiling water so my preferences are hexamine or meths (denatured alcohol) stoves. Esbit and the Caldera Cone being my favourites- these benefit from using a pot cosy. I rarely use gas but when I do I like the Jetboil Zip. Don’t forget you’ll need something to boil/cook in, maybe a cup of some sort and a Spork to eat with.
    5. Food. Everyone has different tastes, allergies and so forth. I prefer dehydrated food (weight), porridge, energy bars, GORP and so on. Plus lots of coffee! Whatever your choice, look for the best calories per gram. Hikers use up a lot of calories.
    6. First aid kit. The extra weight you carry and are glad if it’s never used. As a minimum, carry some plasters, steristrips, antiseptic, blister pads and a bandage. Aspirin or paracetamol plus antihistamine is good too. So is a tick remover. After that the contents depend on where you’re hiking. Sunscreen is usually needed.
    7. Water purifier. I use a Saywer Mini Filter which kills most nasties found in water. It allows me to carry less water (saves weight) and top up as needed. The Sawyer does not kill viruses however. Mercifully, these are rare in water but if you’re in a place where it’s likely to have virus-infected water use something like AquaMira tablets along with the filter.
    8. Knife. Backpackers don’t need huge Bowie knives or axes. They need something to open packets of food, cut guy lines and nails, slice cheese and so on. I swear by a LeatherMan Micra. I be reviewed this earlier in my blog but, for 1 oz, it has a good knife, scissors, nail file, tweezers and screwdrivers useful for fixing spectacles, etc.
    9. Navigation. GPS is superb, no doubt about it. Until you can’t get a fix, the unit breaks or the batteries die. Always, always, always carry a map and compass. Know how to use them for fixing your location and walking on a bearing.
    10. Torch. Essential around camp or if you get out of tent in the dark. LED headlamps are long lasting and lightweight. I always carry an emergency back up in case the main one fails. Petzl make a great emergency headlamp-the batteries can stay in the lamp for up to ten years, it’s very light and small, emits enough light to get safely off a hill at night.
    11. Hygiene. People vary in how much they can tolerate being unwashed and smelly but having clean hands to prepare food and eat it is a necessity. So is looking after your teeth. As bare minimum, carry antibacterial gel for your hands and a toothbrush and paste for your teeth. You’ll also need to carry some toilet paper and a trowel. Dr Bronners liquid soap is good for washing, shampoo, toothpaste and for dish washing but a word of warning about this- the teatree oil variety makes truly vile toothpaste. Peppermint is much better.

    There are no rules or best kit. Select the kit you carry on what works for you while keeping you warm and dry. It’s possible to go out for an overnighter carrying a couple of pounds weight in gear while for a week (or longer) most people would carry more clothes and food. In winter, warmer (heavier) gear has to be carried. My preference is to carry the least weight possible provided I will be kept warm, dry, hydrated, fed properly and have a good night’s sleep for the duration of my trip. If my base weight is 4lbs for a summertime overnighter that’s good, if it’s 20lb for a winter hike then it’s also good.

    Happy hiking!

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    Choosing a sleep system – part three of the Big Three

    Notice the word “system”. No matter what insulation is above you, what you lay on is integral to both warmth and comfort.

    Sleeping pads: the aim is to insulate you from the ground. We lose approximately five times more heat to the ground than we do to the air so it is imperative that the sleeping pad is fit for the conditions. It’s also imperative that the sleeping pad is comfortable for you because a bad night’s sleep does not a happy camper make.

    The types of sleeping pad boil down to:

    1. A foam mat. Cheap, waterproof, durable, good insulation, not especially comfortable, bulky but light. Multimat make a good range for different temperatures. The ones with a silver foil coating are especially warm.
    2. Self inflating mats. Can be heavy depending  on make, good for three season camping, pack fairly small, comfortable. Vaude and many other makers produce good self inflating mats. Good for three season use.
    3. Inflating mats: need to be inflated, lightest sleeping pads available, expensive, very comfortable. As with the self inflating pads there is a risk of puncture. The Thermrest NeoAir is perhaps the best known example of this type. Great for three seasons use. Exped make a down filled mat- depending on the spec they can handle serious low temperatures but are expensive, heavier and bulky. If you are a back sleeper, Klimit make an interesting mat that gets good reviews. I tried one in a shop and found it very comfortable when on my back but not comfortable on my side. The main attraction of the Klimit is the low weight as its a tubular construction with lots of holes with air acting as the insulator.

    My preference is for a NeoAir as its both warm and comfortable. In very cold weather I boost it by using a foam mat underneath. There is a low temperature version of the NeoAir but I haven’t used one so can’t comment. The standard NeoAir is good to just below freezing in my experience.

    Turning to insulation there are two types; synthetic and down. Synthetic is good when damp, cheaper but heavier than down. It’s bulkier too. Down is my choice of insulation unless I am bivvying or expect prolonged damp conditions because of its warmth to weight ratio and general comfort. Recently, companies have started making hydrophobic down which means the down is treated with a coating (NikWax?) to repellent water. I have no experience of hydrophobic down so can’t comment on it. I do know that wet “normal” down is useless though. That’s why I believe that synthetic insulation still has a role in damp conditions to play despite its extra weight and bulk.

    Synthetic or down, a lot of backpackers use a mummy sleeping bag because the cut minimises weight. They work very well, especially if you’re a back sleeper but they can very annoying to get in/out of  and they can feel constrictive. I have camped very comfortably in different sleeping bags  and can recommend Snugpak for synthetic and Mammut for down.

    However, I have moved to using quilts (synthetic or down) because of their versaltilty. They offer a weight reduction and more flexible temperature control as well as more comfort. Elsewhere in my blog you’ll find a more detailed discussion of quilts but, for me, they are they best option. I use Enlightened Equipment (down and synthetic) as well as a Golite synthetic. I’m a side sleeper and quilts are great for side sleepers, they’re so much easier to get into and out of, pack smaller and are lighter.

    To summarise: consider how your top insulation works with your sleeping pad. Synthetic insulation is the best choice for wet or prolonged damp conditions but down is much lighter and has a smaller pack size. Quilts offer more flexibility and less weight for the same temperature ranges than traditional sleeping bags. Whether you go for synthetic or down, foam pad or a neoair, quilt or bag the most important things are warmth and comfort; nobody enjoys a shivering (or sweltering) night on an uncomfortable base. After many years of experimenting I’ve settled on using a quilt with a NeoAir pad in a tent while for bivvying I always use synthetic insulation (because it handles the condensation better) coupled with a self inflating mat ( because they tend to have a lower height) so the bivvy is less cramped.

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    Choosing a shelter: the second of the Big Three

    Backpackers need certain things from a shelter. Regardless of design or complexity a shelter has to have the following attributes:

    1. To be a waterproof sanctuary,
    2. A place to escape the wind
    3. The ability to withstand high winds and foul weather
    4. Enough space for the backpacker to cook, eat, sleep and store the kit out of the rain
    5. Be as light as possible.
    6. Easy to erect
    7. Have a small pack volume.
    8. Be bug proof.

    So what are the alternatives?

     The first is the humble tarp. With a modicum of practice it is possible to make a very secure, stable, weatherproof shelter. Tarps are usually lightweight for the area of shelter they provide and can be highly adaptable to different conditions. For example, the standard “lean-to” is great for nice days, the “A-frame”shape is good at keeping rain away while the “Flying Diamond” shape provides extremely good protection from foul weather. All of these shapes allow the backpacker to have good views of the area and allow a much more connected “feel” with the environment. It’s also very easy, and safe, to cook under a tarp. The weak points of tarps are: a) they aren’t bugproof, b) they can be draughty, and c) there’s not much privacy. Many people use a light Bivi bag with a tarp to overcome the first two drawbacks and to ward off any dew, or drips, from condensing water. However, a Bivi bag does add weight. As does some sort of inner sanctum that keeps out midges and other biting insects. Most backpackers tend to use their trekking poles as tarp poles so there is a weight saving there.

    I’ve made quite a few posts about tarps which you can find elsewhere in my blog. Look under the category “Backpacking”. I’m especially fond of poncho tarps because for the same weight you get a shelter and rainwear. My favourite is the Six Moons Design Gatewood Cape along with the matching Serenity net tent. It’s absolutely first class and very light at 500g for the whole kit. Also good are the Golite Poncho and the MLD poncho. The Golite Cave 1 is a top class shelter too.

    Some people favour using a totally weatherproof Bivi bag in conjunction with a micro tarp. The advantage of this system is that you can sleep anywhere where there is room to lay down. But it’s a real pain in rain to do things like getting changed or cooking. For me, it’s  a good option when the weather is behaving itself.

    Moving up a gear, we come to tarptents. These are fully enclosed shelters and are also lightweight. Typical examples are Henry Shires’ products like the Contrail (now improved and called the ProTrail) which features a bathtub floor and is bug proof. They are lightweight too – the Contrail is about 0.78 of a kilo and offers great weather protection and room. The old Golite Shangri La 1 and 2 are also good examples as are a new company called TrekkerTent. These tents pitch quickly and usually trekking poles are used as supports. A special mention should be made of the MLD TrailStar. This is basically a pentagon shaped “mid” design and is exceptionally good at dealing with high winds and snow loading. A lot of these tarptents can be fitted with an inner to ensure a bug free shelter. As such they are almost “proper” tents.

    Proper tents tend to be heavier because they have a two wall construction i.e. an inner as well as a flysheet. They also use tent poles for the support. Typical backpacking tents include the Terra Nova Laser Competition and the Hilleberg Akto amongst many others. All of them offer good protection and space. One that I am fond of is the Luxe Hex Peak. Weighing 1.25kg it is a “mid” tent that offers a huge amount of space, a draught-free inner that is very roomy and an escape from midges. Unusually it can be pitched with a trekking pole in place of the dedicated pole.

    At the top end of the scale there are proper expedition tents. Backpackers tend not to use them because they are overkill in terms of strength and weight. However, if you are planning a trip to the Artic or Everest they are the tent for the job.

    Most shelters nowadays are made from Silnylon or similar materials. Silnylon is waterproof and very light. It is also pretty strong and (relatively) cheap. It does tend to sag after pitching because it stretches so the shelter guys will have to be adjusted after about 30 minutes. After that it’s fine. Be warned that Silnylon is not breathable so you must leave airgaps. It is also flammable unless treated so be careful cooking in vestibules.

    The other material of choice is Cuben Fibre. Designed originally to make sails for yachts, it is very light and incredibly strong. It doesn’t sag either. It’s disadvantages are a) it’s fairly see through, b) unforgiving when pitching and c) very expensive.

    To conclude. Tarps and Bivi bags are a great, lightweight solution but not much good on a proper campsite as there is little or no privacy. Bugs are a problem too. The poncho tarp offers great weight savings as its dual use and they are probably the cheapest form of shelter on the market if you buy something like a MilTec army poncho (check the weight). TarpTents are the halfway house as they handle bad weather well and offer good space within the shelter. Dual-skin tents are usually heavier but can handle bad weather extremely well and, because of the inner, tend to be warmer too. Unless you’re an avid gram counter, or rich, Silnylon is the best option.

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