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Gear tester is where I write about interesting bits of hiking, camping, expedition and survival gear I have used.

Saturday
Mar302013

Clark's Commando heaven- Six Moons Gatewood Cape- Poncho/tent

The holy grail of a waterproof that doubles as a real shelter rather than an optimistic picture in the Clarks commando handbook had dogged me ever since reading avidly said handbook aged 6. But raincapes make poor shelters as they are long in the wrong places and short where you need length. Enter the Gatewood Cape, which is a true cape- with no side slits as a poncho has, merely little handholes. This gives it much great integrity as a shelter. It is made of sil-nylon it is ultra-light, maybe 400g or less, and it really does work as a tent. This is no open ended tarp- you have a zipped door and walls that go down to the ground- no groundsheet of course and no anti-mosquito mesh but a very serviceable shelter easily held up by one walking pole or even a stick plucked from the hedge. You tighten the hood and clip a harness into it to hold the pole. There are tent peg loops all round the base. Very simple. Waterproof. I loved it.

And as a raincoat while walking in damp windless forests it was fine too. But then I wore it up Skiddaw in horizontal rain and sleet and wind. Not good. Water got in everywhere. It flapped like a flag in a hurricane. The next day I bought cheapo waterproofs to continue walking without getting wet.

I now think with a bungee cord belt- or maybe two, one around the hips - it might work in serious rain. You would still need to keep your arms inside which would mean no walking with poles unless you want watery ingress down your arms.

I suggest it is the perfect bit of kit for the Pyrenees- where rain isn't too bad (june to sept) and where you don't sleep out every night if you can find a hut. Or great for a patch of sunny weather in the UK. But in the UK mountains, though I'd risk it as a tent, I'd want an extra waterproof too.

Some months later now and I've used the Gatewood as a shelter during cold weather in March. It takes a while to tighten the material out but if you have any experience with tents you'll get it nice and taught. By varying the height of the walking pole you use you can easily increase or decrease the gap around the bottom. This means zero condensation- owing to the breeze- but also a chill wind. You won't get that 5+ degree warming effect you get inside a proper tent or even a net liner. It's certainly waterproof enough, and though you'll probably rub your head on the roof getting up there is enough space- probably for two at a pinch, all gear outside. My only concern is durability. In a howling gale will that zip and fragile looking stitching hold up? With suitable nannying I suspect it might- but in a howling wet gale when you're tired, it's muddy, it's pitch dark, the ground is slippery and covered in thorny branches- I suspect the Gatewood will suffer. If you have to use it night after night in such conditions when you are tired then I think it may not hold up so well. But if you're able to take your time and be a bit canny, looking ahead and not in a galumphing rush it will work. And look at it this way: multimat sleeping pad-150g, Gatewood cape- 400g, ultralight sleeping bag- 550g. That's your entire shelter and rain protection requirements in about a kilogram! Add meths stove (or, better, wood fire) and titanium pot, down or manmade fibre vest, superlight pack and a few other odds and ends and you can be out backpacking with less than 2 kilos on your back. That's amazing.

 

 

 

Friday
Dec282012

review of 'the packa'- rucksack covering raingear

I am constantly in search of the holy grail of rain gear. Long ago I realised that in serious downpours goretex and other 'breathable' gear works at first (long enough for the Great Outdoors review) and then, during eight hour drenchings and muddy use begins to leak and stop breathing. For a long time I went back to wearing outsize police issue raingear- nylon, tough, non-breathable- which matters far less when it is huge and baggy. But add a rucksack and the straps stop circulation and you are back to sweatsville. In a non-windy environment where there isn't much rain- like the Pyrenees- then a poncho works well. But in windy Britain ponchos suck in the high hills.

Enter the Packa. Non-breathable, superlightweight, 100% waterproof- it fits over the rucksack- like a poncho- but that is because it has a rucksack shaped bulge. The rest of it is a normal waterproof with arms (the problem with the poncho is your arms get wet and water leaks in). So, theoretically- a perfect solution.

Well, I've been using one for about three months now. And it is now my only waterproof gear when I walk with a rucksack. There is lots of space inside so even if there is condensation it lodges a distance away without getting me too wet underneath. It's totally waterproof in all conditions so far- which is the whole point of a waterproof after all- and I prefer that anyday to 'breathablity'. It is, in short, a fantastic piece of kit. Check out thepacka.com to find out how to get one.

 

Saturday
Aug182012

berghaus freeflow 30+6 rucksack

I've had this pack about ten months and used it a lot. In fact it's my pack of preference for everything- even though at 36 litres it's pretty small- but I can just about cram everything in if I am using the gateway poncho/tent, cooking on fires and generally cutting everything to the bone. For days out in the woods or hills there is plenty of room for the m-kettle and other odds and ends.

That's the front view- nothing that special- all those mesh pockets are useful, especially for storing picked up stones and litter and carrying rain coats. what's far more interesting is the back view:

 Yes- way more interesting. The way your back is kept well away from the sack is brilliant. Far far reduced sweaty back syndrome. Hardly noticeable in fact. Just like the good old days with a karrimor external frame like the Annapurna I still have but stored elsewhere. Nothing beats an external frame for comfort and strength and lightness- I will go back to one I am sure. But for now the freeflow 30 is the one for me.

It has lots of pockets. Clever side shafts that take water bottles and stuff. A nice rain cover which you can sit on too. Lots of thought by people who actually use rucksacks went into this one. Weight? Not mega light- but still bearable- maybe a kilo. The one let down was a few days ago when a seam started to unravel. I'll fix it but still you'd expect more durability from a £60+ sack. Used my old karrimors to oblivion and back and never had anything unpick on them.

Sweaty back can get nasty when you're hillwalking in winter and well worth avoiding if you can. A nice looking and useful piece of kit you'll find yourself using all the time.

Friday
Aug172012

M-kettle volcano stove

I have a love hate relationship with volcano stoves- particularly kelly kettles and other similar variants. The kelly kettle, for those who don't know, is an aluminium chimney around which is a water jacket. You light a fire using wood, paper or whatever at the base and drop twigs down the chimney to keep it going. the surrounding water heats very quickly. On the face of it a genius idea. In the desert a kelly kettle is great because all day long you find tamarisk and stunted acacia bushes which are really just bundles of small twigs. Between stops you always gather enough for a brew- and a regular kelly kettle is 1.5 litres so you get a good amount of hot water.

Now the bad news. one bit of over heating- you forget to replenish the water and you blow a seam. this leaks and puts out the fire. End of kelly kettle. Or, kelly kettle is put in camel bag on the side of a camel, camel lies down and dents kelly kettle and opens another seam. End of kelly kettle.

Now Kelly have a stainless steel version which is much better - but still a piece of kit you can never lend or let another operate. Too fragile. Great car camping gear though. I've also tried a New Zealand variant made of tin plate- went a tad rusty bit was tougher than an aluminium Kelly. One of these got crushed by a camel though. They do a de-luxe copper one which might be easier to solder and fix at home.

Which brings me to the m-kettle. This is a mini volcano stove with about a pint capacity. It is lightweight (around 350g) better made than a kelly kettle and has a heatproof sleeve to allow you to pick it up without burning your hands. The little fire holder is a bit narrow at the foot but works well.

In fact it all works well. I use it often on dayhikes to places where a camp fire would be de trop or forbidden. Because it combines kettle with stove its really handy. You could even carry the water in the kettle as it has a bung, thus getting rid of needing a water bottle. It's more fun to gather wood and tinder than use a gas or meths stove- and more eco friendly too (when you consider the energy used to make these readymade fuels). Its as quick as a slow gas stove- and quicker in wind, because the fire pot is shielded it can be turned in or out of the wind as you desire.

Being smaller than a kelly its easier to look after. I pad mine out in my sack with a sleeping bag or jersey and generally only use it myself. So far it had been faultless. Obviously it's heavier than a titanium pot and meths stove but I don't have to carry meths, esbit fuel or gas. And as long as pick up dry sticks when you see them rather than when you need them you'll never be short of fuel- it uses so little. I have cooked in a mess tin over the fire pot but it's a bit slow. Could work though. For pot noodlers such as myself it's briliant and pretty much flawless.

Tuesday
Aug162011

Tango Z-Pro 200 review, Sevylor Tahiti and inflatable canoes in general

Inflatables are more fun than other boats. For some reason I can’t quite work out the inflatable seems to capture the imagination quicker and deeper than more conventional craft. Maybe it’s the fact that like some secret agent you can unroll and blow up your boat and then penetrate far up into enemy territory- who knows what subconcious urges the old inflatable services- but it’s there alright. Look at the phenomenal interest shown in Rigid Inflatable Boats. They seem to epitomise excitement far more than the sleek powerboat moored next door- RIBs may not even go as fast, it just seems as if they do.

And so to inflatable canoes. I was much taken and excited by the idea of getting an inflatable canoe to use on the sea and up south coast rivers as well taking it further afield. Which is the unique and singularly brilliant aspect of an inflatable- you can roll it up and stick it in the boot or on a plane. And it’s simple- not like a klepper folding canoe with all its meccano bits- an inflatable is pump and go. And cheaper too.

Be warned though- all inflatables bear a stronger relationship to a rubber raft than they do to the inspirational craft on which they are modelled. They can never be expected to slice through the water. They float, they flubber, they bob- they do not slice.

Kayakers who lampoon the rubber duck are right in this respect- if slicing through water is your thing then the inflatable will disappoint. Which doesn’t mean it won’t be a great craft, it just won’t be a Greenland canoe.

I bought a Z-Pro 200 Tango. Good enough and a little tougher than most with its fabric outer shell and inner bladders. The Z-Pro is imported, costs 350+ quid and is strongly made though finished less well than a Sevylor. There was a nick (very small) in the outer skin when it came. Enough to make me think about returning it. I didn’t and haven’t noticed it since (it didn’t affect the inner bladder so had no effect on the pneumatics). In terms of not leaking and doing what it says on the box the Z-Pro is fine. It has a floor which bulges up into the boat making the experience kind of like a cross between a sit-on –top and a Canadian canoe- but it's still a dry ride and there is plenty enough sidewall to protect you and the gear. I’ve had three people in it- just, and, best of all, taken it in and out of some pretty huge surf. This is where inflatables win hands down. You have few kids and you want to muck around in the surf. Of course you’re going to broach, capsize and bottom out. Get hit by a sea kayak doing all that and you’ll know about it. Get hit by a heavy-ish inflatable and you ‘re still laughing.  Inflatables are more fun. You can also hit rocks. The bumper car aspect of inflatables adds to their down stream appeal, making a whitewater tyro out of even the most meek.

But paddling it feels kind of like paddling a small rubber raft, and it’s about as wide as a small raft too. Most inflatables, including the z-pro 200 and Sevylor Hudson are wider than they need to be. Get the narrowest you can find, other things being equal is my advice (though the width can be put to other uses such as sailing and rowing).The z-pro is nice and long though. Unless you have two kids and want to do a lot with both it’s probably not worth getting the even longer z-pro 300.

I also have a sevylor Tahiti k79- way cheaper at under a 100 quid, lighter, also great fun, a bit narrower and easier for a single child to paddle. A great deal all round- you may be able to get some old style ones which are stronger than the new version if you shop around. Again the Tahiti is a bit raft like- but it isn’t as wide as the z-pro and seems to track better. The fact that it has a single skin doesn’t really matter- though when we started exploring a narrow stream with brambles I saw the advantage of a double skin. Though, having paddled a birchbark canoe 2000 miles through wild terrain keeping the canoe skin intact is more about the awareness of the paddler than the strength of the skin. For most things bar the posing the Tahiti is grand.

You can pile up stuff in both, you can get in from a capsize and the bailing hole empties it out really fast= nothing like the palava of emptying a solid canoe or kayak. More fun.

For even more fun and a better use of the fat shape I am thinking of adding a rowing frame (very basic plywood bar with rowlocks) to the Z-pro. It has enough d-rings and with oars would shoot along. I may also add a sail and a couple of outriggers made of plastic pipes filled with foam.

The final thought on inflatables is why the RIC- rigid inflatable canoe hasn’t appeared. With a v-shaped plywood or plastic bottom and an inflatable side wall you’d have the best of both worlds.

Oh, and a last word on Audrey Sutherland who used an inflatable k-79 Tahiti to explore the Hawaiian and Alaskan coastline. You can see why. No native Inuit or Eskimo ever paddled alone. When explorer Gino Watkins tried it he died when an ice floe tipped his boat up. And if you have a lot of gear rolling may not work as planned. Audrey chose an inflatable because she found she could capsize it full of gear and get back into it and carry on- she did this as a test ten times- in surf- before her first solo trip. And you can get a lot more gear into an inflatable than a sea kayak. So for solo expeditioning where it doesn’t matter that you plod instead of rocket (you can still do 30/40km a day though) then the inflatable canoe wins again.