Monday, 29 November 2010

Commercial Reviews.

I had an e-mail from Gareth at Webtogs a few weeks ago asking if I'd like to review some kit, my initial reaction was that I was flattered but on thinking about it I wasn't sure if I wanted to go ahead with it. I've purchased a few items from Webtogs in the past and had no reservations about their service but felt that I'd be a bit pushed for time to actually do product reviews. I phoned Gareth to thank him for the offer and had intended to say no but after some discussion he persuaded me to give it a try on the basis that if either of us thought it wasn't working we'd call it quits. Initially it was suggested that I'd recieve an item every month or so but at my request that has been reduced to every 2 months or thereabouts.

In a nutshell they'll try to send something that I'd actually use but I may also be expected to review something that I wouldn't normally choose. The gear will be tested in the field and I'm free to post my opinions on my Blog without any influence.

So you may be wondering whats in it for me, well if it's not an expensive item I get to keep it so I expect I won't have to return a pair of fleece gloves or the like, more expensive kit such as I guess fleeces, shell jackets and so on will need to be returned. To be honest that suits me fine, I'm trying to simplify my gear not add to it.

For the benefit of anyone looking at a review any items that I haven't paid for will be clearly marked as such. To date the only item I recieved for review that I didn't actually buy was the MSR Reactor which Hendrik at Hiking in Finland sent out to a few bloggers as part of a pass-around. I didn't get to keep the Reactor unfortunately but I did eventually buy one.

At this satge I haven't received anything as I need to sign and return the T&C's, basically I don't post reviews on websites of a dubious nature and don't blame Webtogs if I kill myself.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Blades from Norway & Finland

When it comes to cutting tools I normally carry a pocket knife, it used to be a Bundeswehr issue pocket knife by Victorinox, then I changed to a smaller lighter Wenger classic but this week I'd been using a Mauser Officers Knife by Victorinox, basically the same knife as the Bundeswehr pocket knife but with an extra blade. I rarely carry a fixed blade knife but used to use a Frosts Mora utility knife with a carbon steel blade. I've generally preferred carbon steel blades but like the Opinel pocket knives I had over the years I'm not careful enough to keep the blades clean.

I'd bought a few things over the years from a company called Attleborough Accessories and always received a mail order catalogue from but the latest one is the last as the owners are winding up the buisness. I'd looked at their range of traditionally styled knives in the past but always put off buying one, as most of the prices had been reduced it looked like an opportunity to get something. I ended up choosing 2, one on it's appearance, the other due to it being a special edition and the fact that it had a stainless blade.

The special edition is by Brusletto, the Nansen, made to commerate Fridtfof Nansen is a fairly plain design, the handle is birch and the blade stainless carbon steel. The only marking on the blade is the etched signature of Fridtjof Nansen. The sheath is made from cowhide and has a plastic insert and hanging loop and holds the knife very firmly. The Nansen came nicely packaged in a presentation box.

The blade measures 93mm and was razor sharp out of the box, the overall length is 193mm and with sheath the weight is 125g

The other knife is made in Finland, maker unknown but they're available from a variety of bushcraft type suppliers. Unlike the Brusletto the handle is slightly less utilitarian, made mainly from curly birch it has a few constrasting rings and is topped with a piece of Reindeer antler.

The blade is carbon steel and is only polished along the grind, the flat of the blade being black. The sheath is similar in design to the Brusletto but is finished better, rather than a raw edge at the top the leather has been shaved/split and turned down inside the sheath, the leather also feels more pliable. Like the Brusletto there's a plastic insert and hanging loop.

The blade like that of the Nansen is very sharp, it's wider than the Nansen which makes it look much shorter but in fact there's only about 4mm difference. The handle is fuller and slightly longer, overall length being 210mm. The Finnish knife is heavier than the Nansen at just under 210g.

If I was to carry one it'd be in winter when I'm likely to be wearing gloves or when canoeing, I prefer the Finnish made knife but from a practicality standpoint the Nansen with the stainless blade is probably the one I'd take. Obviously there are legal implications as both knives are fixed blade and over 3" so it remains to be seen whether I do end up carrying one, as always common sense needs to be applied

Friday, 26 November 2010

Nova Craft Prospector, 1st Run Out

I've had my canoe for 2 weeks past on Thursday but was without my car last week as it was getting serviced so had no way of transporting the canoe, then I had to work my shift so it wasn't until Wednesday that I managed to eventually get out.

I intended to just take it to the small river that runs past my Mums house so gathered together a few bits and pieces and loaded the canoe onto the car and set off. I had a bit of trouble getting the canoe on the roof rack but managed eventually with a bit of a struggle.

The 1st thing I noticed was that the Prospector has less initial stability than my old plywood canoe but it's been a while since I've used a canoe so part of that might just be unfamiliarity, certainly it felt fine after a few minutes. I didn't go very far to be honest, probably just over 5 miles as I stopped quite a bit. There was still a bit of a flood running and so forward motion didn't take much effort but i did have some difficulty keeping a straight line, with the Prospector on dry land it has quite a bit of rocker and I haven't yet found the best paddling position to keep it trimmed, of course my J Stroke needs a fair bit of work too.

I only went as far as a small fir tree plantation before deciding to stop for something to eat and as I'd taken the MSR Reactor it didn't take long to get something warm. I wore the Paramo VAL which worked well, in fact the VAL was primarily bought for canoe use in preference to a
Pertex/Pile smock.

One thing I need to do when solo paddling is find a way to mount my camera so that I can use it quickly. I had a few good opportunities when water hens and a Heron took off in front of me.

The paddle back took a bit more effort, especially where the water was shallow and faster flowing, I couldn't get the paddle deep enough to get a steering stroke in so it might be an idea to carry a canoe pole.

The next thing is to get the buoyancy fitted, I wanted blocks rather than inflatable bags but in the end bought the bags as they were a fraction of the price. I need to sort out the fittings for that yet. Once that's been sorted I'll arrange to get it out again with a mate to see how it performs 2 up.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Berghaus Pro Trek Shell Jacket

I've been looking for a new shell jacket for quite some time but found it difficult to get something that met the design criteria that I had in mind. To be honest the criteria wasn't anything unusual or at least that's what I thought.

I wanted a decent wired hood that wasn't cut away at the sides, something like my old Phoenix Gore-Tex jacket or the Paramo VAL, I wanted a standard zip and double external stormflap rather than a waterproof zip, I also wanted at least one map sized pocket accessible behind the stormflap or at least accessible without needing to open the main zip, I wanted a waist drawcord and finally I wanted self fabric cuff tabs rather than rubber tabs. I didn't really care whether it was eVent or Gore-Tex as I didn't notice much difference in breathability with my eVent Montane Venture over my Gore-Tex jacket. The Venture isn't a bad jacket but I really disliked the hood to the extent that I've only worn it about half a dozen times.

I've had good results with Mountain Equipment clothing and quite liked the look of the Morpheus although I was doubful about whether I'd like the hood in spite of it being highly rated. I was browsing the Field & Trek website and noticed that the Morpheus was on sale so decided to order one, being unsure of the size I checked Mountain Equipments website and decided on small.

I really liked the Morpheus, the design was clean and the fit was good, it ticked most of the boxes having an external map pocket, a waist drawcord, standard zip and external stormflap and self fabric cuff tabs but unfortunately the hood let it down. I felt that the hood was too small, too cut away at the sides and the collar didn't go up quite high enough. I wondered if a medium would be better but couldn't get a Medium Morpheus in the sale so decided to try the Mountain Equipment Ogre which was reduced. I ordered a medium but it felt too big and the hood still didn't feel right so it went back, it's possible that a Small Ogre might have worked as I think the hood is slightly different to the Morpheus but at £190 I needed to be 100% satisfied so decided not to take a chance.

I looked at as many different brands as I could think of and couldn't find anything so asked on Outdoors Magic for suggestions, eventually someone suggested the Berghaus Pro Trek and for want of any better suggestions I ordered one from Outdoor Action in size medium, price £140.

I'd tried a Berghaus jacket earlier in the year in one of those shops that sells end of line clothing, I think the jacket was the Dunedin and I'd liked the general fit and the style of the hood so I was reasonably confidant that the Pro Trek would be the one. The jacket duly arrived and after trying it with a variety of midlayers I decided to keep it. It doesn't tick all the boxes but I've had to compromise as the hood is right and that's the major thing for me.

Not a Slim Fit Jacket but I can easily get a down jacket underneath.

The Pro Trek is made using 3 layer Gore-Tex Pro Shell and is a bit heavier than my Montane Venture at 600g, it has a standard front zip with an external double stormflap, the flap closes with small velcro strips set at intervals rather than a full length velcro strip on the Morpheus, I think I prefer the small strips as velcro is a bit of a pain generally as it tends to catch up on everything else, to be honest I can't see why they don't just use studs to secure the stormflap. It has 2 handwarmer type pockets which use waterproof type zips but also have a little stormflap, there are 2 chest pockets capable of holding a map, like the other pockets they have waterproof zips/stormflaps. Finally there's a zipped mesh inside pocket.

Mesh Inner Pocket

The hood drawcord is elastic and the ends of the cord are kept out of the way behind the stormflap but the cordlocks are much too small, it's difficult to release them with bare hands and virtually impossible with gloves.

Hood Cordlocks

Hood Drawcords behind Stormflap

Micro Fleece inner collar, studs help keep the hood rolled and secured

I intend to replace them with side release cordlocks from Shelby in Finland which are similar to the ones on a Montane Flux .

The jacket also features pit-zips, how much advantage they'll be I've yet to find out, given a choice I'd probably do without as it's one more thing to go wrong, in any case the zips are the waterproof type and again have a small stormflap.

Pit Zips

Rubber Cuff Tabs, Stiff, Bulky and Prone to Snagging

Old Phoenix Shell Jacket with Self Fabric Cuff Tabs, Low Profile and Perfectly Functional

There isn't a waist drawcord unfortunately but that's one of the compromises I decided to accept to get the type of hood I wanted. The other compromise is the cuff tabs, they're the rubber type and to be honest I just don't see what advantage they offer over self fabric tabs, they're stiff, don't want to lie flat and tend to catch on gloves, pockets and so on, I'm seriously considering cutting them off and sewing on a plain velcro tab. I'd class the cut as full which is exactly what I wanted as it needs to work with a variety of midlayers, I didn't want a slim fit as I already have a close fitting waterproof for using outside of winter.

Ample Protection on the Hill, Less Stylish on the High Street

Volume Adjuster, Studs Secure Rolled Hood

The Hood, well the hood was always going to be the deal breaker, thankfully the hood on the Pro Trek is a full on mountain hood that should protect from wind driven rain/sleet/hail, the drawcord goes all the way around so it actually tightens around my face rather than simply pulling the hood down (or the shoulders up) like my Montane Venture. The peak/visor has a decent wire stiffener and has a volume reducer that is pretty similar to the Mountain Equipment design, and when zipped up the collar comes right up to nose level comfortably.

Hood Rolled and Secured

Micro Fleece inner collar

There's only one aspect of hood that I don't like or at least don't see the benefit of. The hood can be rolled away and secured with plastic press studs but to be honest the wire stiffener makes it a rather stiff and uncomfortable collar, it's much more comfortable to just have the hood hanging loose and in any case you'd need to remove the jacket to roll and secure the hood. To be honest I think it's a case of having an extra feature for it's own sake and like the rubber cuff tabs it adds little if anything to a jacket that would function just the same without it. Ironically the studs used to secure the hood could have been used to secure the stormflap, that in my opinion would have improved the jacket.

Hood Worn Rolled, It's Quite Stiff and Uncomfortable due to the Wire Stiffener

Hood Worn Loose with the Peak/Visor turned down, I find it more comfortable this way

That said I like the jacket and while it's yet to be tried in the conditions it was bought for it should be tested quite soon given the weather reports.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Extremities Tuff Bags, Pack-Lite Mitts

I prefer shell Gloves/Mitts to those that are lined, of the lined gloves I have all get wet through and then take ages to dry and taking them off means you lose all the protection in one go. I have a pair of Marmot shell gloves which are reasonably good but they're a bit too tight with anything more than a basic fleece liner. I bought them last year from ULOG but couldn't get XL as they were in the sale so went for L instead. It seems they aren't made anymore unfortunately.

In my opinion the reason you don't often get breathable shell gloves is the difficulty of taping the seams, most if not all Gore-Tex/eVent gloves are 3 part. there's a plain nylon outer glove, then a liner made from a waterproof breathable fabric which in many cases isn't seam taped and then a thin fleece liner. There are some shell mitts made from waterproof breathable fabric and I'd put that down to it being easier to tape the seams on mitts.

I've looked at both the Extremities Tuff Bags (Gore-Tex) and the MLD eVent mitts. The MLD mitts are incredibly light at 35g/Pair Large but aren't seam sealed, instruction for sealing them youself using silicone sealer are given on the website. The MLD mitts are a very simple design and appear to only have one drawcord at the cuff but as a simple waterproof shell look like they'd work well.

The Extremities mitts aren't quite as basic, they have taped seams, a shockcord and captive cordlock at the cuff and also a webbing strap and buckle at the wrist, they weight 75g size large. In the end though I decided on the Tuff Bags as they were available without needing to wait and Field & Trek had themn reduced to £32.

I ordered the Tuff Bags in Large, having tried them on in the past I knew they'd fit ok. They feel really light but could have been (or could be with a little modification) even lighter. The shockcord used at the cuff is 3mm and has an nice plastic end cap thing but if you were really keen you could replace it with 2mm and use a mini cordlock, in fact it might be worthwhile swapping to a lighter shockcord anyway as the fitted stuff puts quite a bit of stress on the fabric. The cuff strap at 20mm seems overkill for such a light mitt considering it needs a 20mm buckle and combined with the cuff shockcord must make up a fair percentage of the total weight of the actual mitt, again if you were seriously keen to lose a few grams you could remove it completely or cut it off leaveing just enough to stitch on a lighter strap/buckle or shockcord/cordlock.

I don't have a liner sorted yet apart from my normal fleece gloves. I have a pair of Wild Country Extreme mitts from way back, they have a heavy stiff Gore-Tex shell and a removable fleece liner and I considered using the liner with the Tuff Bags but it's a bit too long. I do however have a pair of Wintergear mitts of a similar design, they're made from a lighter coated breathable fabric with a removeable fleece liner. I haven't been able to try them though as they're in my mum's attic. Failing that I may go for a pair of Buffalo Pertex/Pile mitts and only add the Tuff Bags when I really need them.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Vango Halo 200

I was looking for a 2 man tent for base camp use and didn't want a tunnel type preferring a self supporting dome or geodesic but didn't want to spend too much. I wasn't too concerned with weight simply as anything that was 2 man, self supporting and light was outside my budget so decided to look at one of the stalwarts of reasonably priced reasonably tough tents, Vango.

We've had a Vango Equinox 300 for ages and it's been totally reliable so far, it's quite well finished and as with most mid to top end Vango tents is surprisingly well featured. I also had an F10 Nitro 100, recently sold which was a step up again from the top end Vango branded models so I've quite a bit of faith in Vango/F10. Sadly you can't have it all and the downside is that they're heavy. I have to say their website is pretty appalling so I'll apologise in advance for posting a link ;-)

In the end I decided on the Halo 200 which is a 3 pole dome type with twin off-set porches, I think it's a bit similar to the Hilleberg Allak or Staika layout which look very good, if money was no object I'd have had an Allak. I bought the Halo from Outback Trading, price was £85 but unfortunately shipping to N.I. was £20. It's obvious that at £105 it most certainly isn't going to be comparable to a Hilleberg in any way. I also bought my F10 Nitro from Outback Trading and I'd highly recommend them.

The Halo isn't a light tent by any means, the suggested weight is 3.5kg and although I've had it for a week I hadn't weighed it. I had it pitched up since last Friday only taking it down today and although the flysheet isn't completely dry I weighed it anyway and it came in at 3.845kg.

The individual weights less flysheet are;

Inner - 1035g
Poles - 884g
Pole Bag - 12g
Pegs x 14 - 214g
Peg Bag - 10g
Repair kit - 19g
Porch Half Groundsheet - 54g x 2
Stuff Sack - 72g

Total Less Flysheet - 2354g

Flysheet - 1290g

Total 3.610g

The Halo is pretty easy to pitch, it came with inner attached so pitched as one. The poles (9mm T001-T6 Alloy) need to be fed through the pole sleeves which run over the top of the tent and extend about halfway down the sides, the pole ends locate in eyelets and then the fly is clipped to each pole using a plastic clip on a webbing strap. The tent is basically self supporting although the porches need pegged out.

The Guylines are referred to as 'O Ring Guylines' basically a length guyline with a free running plastic ring is attached to the tent in 2 places, at the top it goes through an eyelet fitted to the pole sleeve, at the bottom it's attached to the webbing holding the pole clip. The actual pegging line is attached to a plastic 'O Ring'. I think the idea is that when you tighten the guyline the the 'O' ring helps equalise the tension on the pole. Each pole has one guyline but where 2 of the poles meet at the webbing tape both guylines can be pegged with one peg, this is how I had it pitched.

In addition there's a tension strap at one end of each pole. Another neat little touch is the velcro strap to keep the guylines tidy when packing, it isn't something I'd partcularily need but it's another of those little touches Vango adopt.

The flysheet doors are diagonally opposed which is a good idea as you still have a sheltered area regardless of wind shift, the doors have a J shaped double ended zip and can be rolled back and secured with 2 toggles and loops. Finally there are 2 adjustable vents which can be held open with a stiffened strut or closed down and secured with velcro.

The inner tent is quite spacious, bigger than my Wild Country Quasar, the head room is good both at the center and at the ends and there's plenty of inner/fly separation. The doors on the inner are plain fabric with a mesh section at the top, there's also a plain fabric cover which can be closed with a 2 way zip and when open the panel can be rolled and secured using double loops/toggles.

The doors themselves have a 2 way zip and when open the door simply gets stuffed into a pocket on the inner. There are 2 storage pockets set one above the other at the opposite end from the door pocket, both sides of the inner are laid out the same but diagonally opposed to match the flysheet. The inner also has 2 mesh vents matching the vents on the fly. Finally there's a loop for hanging a torch/light, it should really be a hook rather than a loop as most torches if they have anything have a loop rather than a hook. The porches are quite spacious and even with the supplied half groundsheets fitted leave sufficient room to access the tent and for cooking. The actual groundsheet is of the bathtub design and stands up well, on some tents the bathtub tends to drop downon the longer sides. The groundsheet looks tough enough to not need a footprint but of course a footprint would help keep it clean.

I mentioned there's the weight penalty, everything is just a bit chunkier than you find on more expensive tents, every zip has a loop of the same cord as the guylines and it's about 3-4mm diameter, the shockcord pegging loops on the porches are about 4mm and crimped with a metal crimp and of course the guylines are thicker than I'm used to. The same applies to the inner tent attachment points, the floor level hooks look like you could hang from them and the remaining attachment points use tape, plastic rings and toggles. In the end though it's been designed as suitable for rough handling and split between 2 the weight isn't outrageous, it's DofE approved and I have to say I think it would stand up well.

As I mentioned it had been pitched in ther garden for the past week with no ill effects. The only thing I've changed so far is to fit line locks to the guylines, I may switch to Marlow Excel 2mm line for the guy's and zip pullers but in the end thats more for useability than any attempt at weight saving. I would certainly use it if I was car or canoe camping, shared I'd be happy to backpack it and maybe, just maybe if I was going to pitch up in one place and use it as a base, even a wild camp I'd consider it especially in winter when the extra space would be welcome. I did some checking and I think I can easily get in around 14kg for a winter load even carrying the Halo myself, to put that in perspective I carried about the same last year on my 2nd visit to the Cairngorms but was using a Laser.

That aside the tent gets the thumbs up, it's easy to pitch, pretty stable, appears to be durable, hasn't leaked so far, weighs less than my Quasar and didn't break the bank at £105.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Bit's and Pieces from Decathlon

As I mentioned having bought the canoe I needed some PFD's and had gone to Decathlon to pick some up however I picked up a few other odd's and ends while I was there. Way back in the summer when we'd camped up on the coast I thought it would have been nice to have had a fishing rod to pass the time and just maybe actually catch something. I could have taken a regular rod but obviously something more compact would be preferable so I picked up a small telescopic rod complete with reel for £10. The Caperlan 4x4 180 tele and reel weighs in at 365g complete with 6lb line, extended length is 1800mm and it compacts down to 450mm so it's easy enough to carry just in case.

Another impulse but was a fleece neck gaiter with a drawcord, I like these as you can tighten the drawcord to make them into a hat. The Wed'ze 400 cost £3.99.

I'd normally look at the camping gear but it seemed to have been removed to make room for all the ski gear but I did find some light closed cell foam sleeping mats. Actually that isn't strictly speaking true, what I found were Domyos fitness mats, 1400mm L x 500mm W x 6.5mm and weighing 130g priced at £2.99. I bought 2, one to use as a kneeling mat in the canoe the other I figured might work as a summer sleeping mat or combined with a 3/4 self inflate in winter.

Finally while wandering around the sailing/boating section I found a 20m reel of 3mm braided cord. It's branded as Cousin Trestec and I bought it to use as guyline for a 2 person tent I've just bought but I think it's probably too thick. It's available in 2,3 and 4mm, I should have gone for the 2mm but no doubt I'll find a use for it, price wise it was ok at £7.00.

I had been looking at the mountaineering gear on the Decathlon website some of which looked interesting but none of it is stocked in the Belfast store, I can't imagine why not, surely everyone has heard of the Antrim Alps ;-)

I did find one other item that I'd have bought if they'd had 2 of them. I ws looking at the trekking poles and found a 2 piece telescopic Raid pole, the Diosaz 700. They were quite long when extended and although not as compact as a 3 piece pole they were still packable. They were only 200g each and had nice cork grips but they aren't on the Decathlon website either so I guess they musy be old stock. The had a pair of very similar Nordic walking poles, again 2 piece rather than the usual fixed length. They were 210g each IIRC but had a rubber grip which didn't feel very nice at all, much to grippy IMO.

The Raid section on the Decathlon website has a couple of interesting items, the Diosaz Raid 30l looks like it would make a reasonable weekend pack if you go light, the price is good at £35.00, some of the other more shaped raid packs might make good bike packs. The Diosaz Raid Mini gaiters might be worth a look for anyone using trail running shoes rather than boots. They aren't waterproof according to the information but again at the price might be worth taking a chance on.