Friday, 14 February 2014

Gear Review: Vango Venom 300 Sleeping Bag


I was contacted by Silverfox Travel and Outdoors in August last year (I'm hoping the silver fox reference is purely coincidence), interested in a product review, who sent through the Vango Venom 300 Down Sleeping Bag.

When I was just getting starting in all this, I once considered the Vango as my way into a lightweight, down sleeping bag. What put me off back then was the negative reviews of people claiming the temperature rating was ludicrous and the basic build of the bag just wasn't suitable or 3 season camping.

I opted to take the bag and test it, more out of curiosity than necessity, and decided I'd take the bag on  wild camp with Paul in September and decide for myself. My thinking was that Charlotte might be able to use it if she fancied a summer wild camp or, more likely, I could and she could use my Cumulus bag.

The bag arrived and I set about my usual obsessive ritual of weighing it and taking some photos. The bag retails at around £100-120, described as a 3 season down bag and it weighs in at 828g on the alittlebitaboutnotalot digital scales.


I wasn't expecting much from this bag but have to say its pretty good on features at this price range and weight. There are shoulder baffles and a zip baffle for the 3/4 zip. I don't think the baffles are down filled as the fill feels too fluffy and synthetic but I'd be prepared to accept if I'm wrong here. As you might expect at this price level, the bag is simply constructed in a box wall fashion, no trapezoidal filled cavities here, and the first thing I noticed is how little the down seems to loft. This is generally a characteristic of cheaper down and will of course mean the bag isn't as light or warm as the more expensive bags in this weight range. It's no surprise then that, in my opinion, this bag wouldn't be suitable for 3 season high camping.

A minor niggle was the loose threads and wonky stitching which serves to make this feel cheaper than it need be. In every other respect its of a fairly decent quality.




Rubbish stitching
Paul and I headed for the Lakes in September and at the last minute I decided I'd bring it on account of the forecast temperatures and the fact I was using the Trailstar and would therefore have my Borah Gear bivy bag to top things up.


The weather was overcast but fairly warm for the first night and although to cleared to leave us with a beautiful full moon, I was a little too warm when zipped inside my bivy. I'd guess the temperature was around 13-15 degrees that night so it was never going to be a problem for this bag, bivy or not. In a way its a shame the temperature was a bit lower or closer to the limit so I could make an assessment on what the real useable temperature (for me) would be.


The second evening, the weather was atrocious and luckily, owing to a slightly later then planned departure from the Newfield Inn, a our plans changed at the very last minute and we abandoned our planned evening at Blind Tarn. That night the temperatures were only slightly lower but the wind and low cloud made everything wet and neither of us were that excited about pissing around finding two pitches in the fog, wind and rain - I think we might be gong soft!

Picture courtesy of Paul Beeby
Nevertheless, since this trip, Paul has found an incredible lady-friend and one which seems to happily head to hills with him for a wild camp! We agreed that she could take the Vango on their first wild-camping trip as she didn't have a down bag she could use. Sensibly, given that they ventured up there in November, she also took a spare synthetic bag which she then put over the top of the Vango. For us lightweight types this defeats the object but, I guess this situation probably optimises the potential use of this bag for most people: Its great as a starter bag thats light, packs small and is relatively cheap. It would work really well during the late spring and summer months, potentially stretching to autumn depending on the conditions and temperatures up top. Personally I find my Cumulus Quantum 350 a little warm for summer so it would service a purpose here and would make a good spare bag for occasional visits from non-wild-camping mates/lady-friends! Kudos to Paul for this.

I think if you can find this bag for around £100, its certainly good as a light, packable bag for travelling, festival use and the occasional stopover where you wouldn't drag out your best Alpkit, Cumulus or Mountain Equipment bag.


Now, if I could just get Charlotte to read this review, nurture the inter-girlfriend rivalry mechanism and get her to come wild-camping with me - this review could have much more far reaching implications than I ever imagined!

P.S. As soon as I get my act together I'll post a couple of trip reports - one of which was absolutely stunning!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Gear Review: Merrell Chameleon 5 GTX

Merrell Chameleon 5-5

Many moons ago, when I young, naive and inexperienced, I started my life in the hills with some expensive, heavy and blister-inducing walking boots. Some of that is documented here and makes for some funny reading now! Luckily, I lived and learned a lot in short time (and spent a lot of money too) and I discovered trail shoes through the Merrell Chameleon Wrap Slam GTX. At the time these were an absolute revelation and I was over-whelmed by the lack of blisters, comfort and general feeling of freedom! Over time, as with most things, I started to notice some of the pitfalls and couldn’t get over the issues I had with grip over wet terrain. Back then I was gutted since I’d loved those damn shoes but our relationship reached its natural end when I got bored of picking myself up having slipped on wet rock! I since went on, as you all know, to Inov-8 un-lined trail shoes and have never really looked back - save for considering going back to a lined shoe for winter purposes.

So….when Merrell contacted me to see if I wanted to try out the latest improved version of their Chameleon trail shoe, the Chameleon 5 GTX, I felt it only right, no – a duty, to try them out!

It’s no secret that Merrell make a notoriously comfortable shoe in the Chameleon but I wanted to see how this new version stood up on the grip front….

Merrell Chameleon 5-1

Fit is as is always was and perfect for me in 7.5. The shoe’s appearance has clearly changed in that the toe area isn’t as rounded and goofy-looking as I used to find it in the old version. There’s also the addition of a beefier reinforced toe section that can only offer better protection and durability.

On visual inspection I found that the Vibram sole has a slightly more aggressive pattern than the round bubble-shaped extrusions of old that would struggle on a damp man-hole cover – let alone wet terrain!

Merrell Chameleon 5-3

Merrell could only send my size in the tan colour, whereas I would have preferred black. For those who like to introduce colour into their footwear – there’s also a dark brown version.

So, onto real world testing….

I have had little opportunity to really abuse these shoes but in many ways this isn’t important. I’ve worn them over enough miles in my summer socks to know they are comfortable, waterproof (if not a little warm due to the Goretex lining) and durable. The shoe is available in an unlined version which will most likely offer better ventilation, is slightly cheaper and lighter.

I found the shock absorption to be nothing short of amazing and such that there’s almost a slight spring that you often get from brand new trainers! This may well diminish as the insole sees more use but its a noticeable difference from my Innov-8 shoes which are built for speed and weight, rather than all-out comfort.

Merrell Chameleon 5-4

Anyway, what I was really interested in was whether the sole compound and grip pattern offered any improvement over my previous, beloved Wrap Slam’s! I decided to head out on a wet Sunday morning with Lolli to find out and donned the new Chameleon’s - expecting the worst. In the dry the grip is excellent, as you’d expect, but in the wet this sole seems far more capable than the last and there’s a definite improvement. I still need to do some real tests on the the rocks one only finds in deep, dark Cumbria (the ones that harvest moss and lichen and are akin to an ice rink) but I was impressed from the off. Lolli, being a bonkers Springer Spaniel, loves to pull on her lead like she’s Rudolph trying to get a sleigh airborne on Christmas eve! This can be tricky over rough, slippery terrain so I was pleased to find that I could anchor myself when needed. This could be down to a better pattern, better compound or a combo of both. Merrell say the sole is made up of TC5+ rubber and whatever this is, its a welcome improvement over the previous sole – to the point that its completely different in use.

Merrell Chameleon 5-2

Whilst all of this is good, I’m still mindful of weight. I intend on using these more in the colder/wetter months when I just want convenience over my un-lined trail shoes, so weight isn’t a massive concern. However, there are lighter, Goretex lined trail shoes out there and my size 7.5s weigh in at 922g per pair.

To my mind this shoe wins on durability and comfort, if not on weight and breathability. With the improved lug depth and pattern of the sole, along with stickier rubber, those wanting a durable, comfortable trail shoe could do a lot worse.

Click here to find out more.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Gear Review: Berghaus Freeflow 20

berghaus_freeflow-7

I have to admit, when Berghaus first invited me to test some of their gear, I wasn’t immediately convinced there would be much on offer of interest to me.  After a few emails we agreed that the updated Freeflow 20 Rucksack might be most relevant and the instruction was to use it and give an honest review based on my experiences. So here we are!

Straight out of the packaging its hard not to notice its quite……red! I have an old Freeflow backpack that I picked up on eBay many years ago but the colour was a rather dull shade of blue and didn’t really stand out. After the initial retina burn had subsided I began to quite like the colour!

berghaus_freeflow-5 

After an initial inspection of the bag the immediate response was that the bag was actually quite light considering it has the Freeflow frame supports to add bulk and a bit of weight. The material is very sturdy, and like my much used, 3rd hand Freeflow I can see this standing up to a lot a of abuse. For me, I’m not sure I need fabric this tough and with my weight-saving head on I was immediately thinking that a significant weight saving could be had by using a slightly less thick denier fabric – which would make a considerable dent in 874g on my scales. Still its not marketed at us ultra-light crowd so I vowed to use it commuting on my bike instead.

Now, its been quiet on here for a while and that is mainly as I’ve been spending quite a lot of time on my road bike – I’ve been training for my first long distance sportive so I’ve been out in all weathers and on a daily basis. I usually use my Innov-8 Race Pro pack for cycling as it is light, has hip-belt pockets and sits quite nicely in terms of how ‘aero’ it is. I thought a good test of the Berghaus pack would be to see how easily it could replace the Innov-8…

berghaus_freeflow-1

In terms of sizing this pack is described as having 20 litres, 5 smaller than my Race Pro. The most significant difference over my previous bag is the frame, which holds a taught layer of breathable plastic mesh, keeping a ventilation space between your sweaty back and the bag. This also adds structure so that on days when I’m carrying virtually nothing to work, it doesn’t flop about in the annoying way that the Race Pro does. It will stand up nicely against a wall without effort whereas the Race Po looks like a sack of spuds clad in black/green rip stop nylon!

berghaus_freeflow-2

The first few days I used it I hardly noticed I was wearing it. It held my trousers and shirts in a decent crease-proof condition and its red colouring added to my visibility on the road. There is plenty of adjustment so you can easily get a good fit for cycling and walking though, at first, it often felt as though is was sitting a little high. In reality it isn’t and I’ve narrowed it down to hip-belt positioning.

berghaus_freeflow-4

It’s the practicality tick box that remains empty for this pack – particularly was using it for commuting. That ventilation space is brill, and it works, but its means that the main compartment has a rather inflexible arch to the back panel meaning that anything other than soft items are a struggle to fit in. The most obvious example is my MacBook. I can slide it down inside but it isn’t the most natural feeling and means that use of the space at the bottom and top of the arc is then very limited. In reality, I only bring my laptop to work a couple of times a week but it does mean that you might want the Freeflow 25 if you intend to use this for anything other than a minimal day pack.

berghaus_freeflow-6

There are two mesh side pockets that hold a 500ml water bottle, a Montane Featherlite Velo or waterproof etc. There is an outer pocket running down the centre of the rear of the pack. It has a water-resistant zip but this puzzles me a little as the useable space in here is tiny and gets worse if you are close to capacity in the main compartment - which sits directly behind it. I’ve not used this pocket at all and mainly as it’s a narrow space and the zip positioning means that any items you managed to squeeze in here would most likely fall straight out once the zip was opened! In other news the pack is hydration compatible with an internal sleeve and storm resistant flap for the tube. There are pole loops (fairly standard) and the usual grab handle.

berghaus_freeflow-3

Now, the Berghaus pack has no hip-belt pockets. This, in my opinion, is the biggest oversight in the design. To me its kind of irrelevant what activity you’re using an ‘outdoorsy’ rucksack for, in general hip-belt pockets are a minimum expectation. This means there is no handy access to my keys, phone or wallet without taking the bag off and is probably the most disappointing thing about the bag itself.

However, the good news is the bag is quite weather-resistant and has been tested through a VERY wet summer. Whilst it isn’t waterproof, it kept my nicely folded shirt and trousers dry on very wet commutes (of around 20 minutes) on more occasions than I can remember.

Overall I liked the updated version of the bag and the Freeflow frame with highly breathable foam shoulder straps work really well. For me, the pack is suited more to fast paced walking where it can be used as a day pack, rather than a cycling/commuting pack though it doesn’t really fail at anything in particular – you just have to consider exactly how you want to use it. The breathable foam padding in key areas really helps when I’m training after work and riding hard, where it doesn’t leave me feeling sweaty like the Race Pro. If Berghaus added weather-resistant zipped hip-belt pockets it would be a great all rounder – though I’d probably recommend the Freeflow 25 just to give a little more flexibility.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Trip Report – 24 Hours: Rydal Ridge & Stone Arthur

Friday 10th- Saturday 11th July 2011

 Nab_Scar

Thursday had been one heck of a day in the office and so much so that I decided enough was enough. Only one thing could right this mess, redress the balance as it were and that was a night on a hill somewhere. I set the out of office auto-reply and headed home…

I had no particular venue for this night on the hill I’d suddenly decided upon, but I liked the idea that it was completely up to me when and where and I pondered as I packed my bag ready for the early start in the morning.

Unusually for me, there was a bit of a faff around how I was going to carry my new camera and lightweight tripod. How would I keep it dry and what lens should I bring? Owing to the fact that the weather didn’t look great anywhere, I chose to head to the Lakes with a view to making a bit of a video about getting out over 24 hours. Camera and tripod sorted, I fell asleep in bed visualising what scenes I would shoot whilst clutching a map!

I decided on a slightly later start to try and avoid the worst of the M6 traffic so didn’t rush about as I normally would. This was a wise move as by the time I hit the usual busy spots most of the chaff had cleared.

The weather wasn’t great but it wasn’t raining as I pulled up alongside the church close to Rydal Hall. There were a few cars around but it looked quiet in all other respects so I had little reservation about leaving the car overnight.

I shouldered my pack and set up the tripod for a scene of me, locking up and walking away up the road to meet the track. Instead as I mounted the camera on the tripod head the heavens opened and I chucked everything back in the car until it passed over. Not the greatest of starts! Undeterred, I realised that through the magic of video I could film the scene tomorrow before I headed home and so stowed the camera gear and headed off up the track to Nab Scar. As there was no one around I decided to do a shaky piece-to-camera to use as part of the film. I didn’t feel comfortable doing this and constantly checked around for other walkers who might listen in and wonder what the hell I was banging on about! If I’d have seen me panting and talking gibberish whilst holding an SLR at arms length I’d have wanted to get as far away as possible and reported it to the local asylum. It felt as though the sky was about to open up at any minute but instead I was treated to short bursts of large heavy droplets of water at irregular intervals, usually just as I was setting up a shot!

One thing is for sure the joys of walking don’t exactly tie-in nicely with amateur film-making (for me) and this I concluded after many failed attempts at setting up shot only to play it back to find the exposure was wrong or the composition distinctly ugly. I was quickly realising that more planning was required with more experience and definitely more patience.

Grasmere_from_Great_Rigg

I captured a few scenes as I slowly trundled along the track. The ridge between Heron Pike and Great Rigg is quite pleasant with decent views on both sides. It was easy work and before I knew it I’d reached Fairfield far sooner than planned. It was still raining on and off so I decided I’d stop and have a tea, see what the clouds fancied doing to me and make a decision on my route afterwards because no serious decisions should ever be made without tea – fact.

windermere_from_Heron Pike

Finally I was enjoying the relative calmness of the whole affair. I wasn’t racing against anything and I had nowhere I wanted or had to be. Cut back to 24 hours earlier and I was enduring a pretty stressful afternoon in the office with still a few more hours of it to come! Today however, I just had to contend with wet skin, milk in small pouches and getting to grips with my new programmable timer release!

hikers

As always, I’d taken it out of its packaging, discarded the instructions, with the rest of the card and plastic, and was now finding that I had no clue how to operate it - character building I say! Now, sat on Fairfield with a brooding sky and a gap in the weather, I was fumbling with buttons and settings like Ayumu the chimp genius on his touch screen. Only difference was I was getting it all wrong. Eventually I got the damn thing set as I’d like and went about my time-lapse business, recording of the clouds forming and rolling away below me in Deepdale. I hoped it would make a nice scene for use in the film but wasn’t expecting much when I had to cut it short as the wind kept upsetting the superlight (and supershizer) tripod.

Deepdale

I was now a little damp and having stopped for the 25 minutes or so for the time-lapse had made me cold. I pulled the map out to decide on my next move.

Grisdale Tarn was just below me and I wondered if there would be a decent pitch down there out of the wind. It didn’t seem overly flat or enticing in terms of views for the evening (or the morning) so with my videographer's head on I headed back south along the ridge to check out the shoulder of Stone Arthur. I’d passed by earlier and noticed it had a superb view of Grasmere and the surrounding hills and if I could find a pitch it would make a nice place to stay the night.

Cairn_Heron_Pike 

It rained a little as I bumbled along the track and passed by a couple who seemed intent on ignoring each other as they moved along at a pace. I was quite entertained by this and couldn’t help but wonder if they might be best off enjoying some time alone – like me.

Before too long I was turning off and heading down the arm of the ridge toward Stone Arthur. This was until I suddenly realised I was out of water and felt a bit of panic as I started to wonder where I’d last seen any streams or water sources - other than back up at Grisdale. The fact was that I hadn’t and so once again the map came out and I prayed. My luck was in and the Gods on my side (for once) as Greenhead Gill seemed to kick off somewhere on the steep hillside to my left. I dropped my bag, grabbed the empty platypus and headed down a steep and slippery gradient. It took me a few moments to find it but it was there bubbling away with fresh, cold and perfectly clear water. My filter wouldn’t be making an appearance tonight!

As soon as I stowed the heavy pouch of water and re-shouldered the pack it started to rain again. My dreams of a beautiful short film were fading fast and I started to accept that I would have to put this down to experience. It was a little miserable wondering down the increasingly muddy slope but it wasn’t an issue for long as I had ‘pitch finding mode’ fully engaged. I was on the hunt for a spot with a view east over Grasmere. Shelter wasn’t really an issue but if I could get it I’d take it. I went down as far as Stone Arthur and the rocky outcrops. This would undoubtedly make a nice place to stop and watch the sunset with a beer or whisky but it wasn’t really up to pitching a tent. For one, like me, it was a little short on height so I retraced my steps back up a little and then off the the northern side of the shoulder. Here I found a little spot that I liked and looked as though it would take Big Agi so I mentally marked it and carried on looking.

20 minutes later I returned to the spot, damp but keen to get on with a potential time-lapse - if the sun made an appearance. It was still early but I was off the track and I doubted this would be a busy route up onto the ridge. I was wrong about this as two lads made their ascent to my left as I pitched the tent in silence. It was a good spot as even though they came within 15 metres of my position they didn’t spot me.

It was spitting as I tightened the guy lines but I wasn’t happy with the tautness of the fly and the uneven pitch was making this even more difficult. Big Agi looks great when she’s pitched correctly but tonight she would just have to look a bit……..rough!

I climbed into the tent and set about inflating the Neoair and lofting the sleeping bag. Big Agi is massive for one and if she was a bit lighter I’d happily take her out more often. She’s a heavy girl although perfectly proportioned! I sat on my mat, feet sticking out into the porch as the rain rolled in heavier than before. I decided that tea would probably help the situation enormously and so I fired up the Caldera cone for another brew. Dinner tonight was Kung Po Chicken by Fuizion and although I was hungry I wanted to wait and eat outside and enjoy the view, which, at this point was me being rather optimistic.

Brew

I shot some more footage of the stove in action and drank my tea listening to rain. It’s never a chore sitting in a tent when its raining – the sound is calming and hypnotic – sometimes even sleep inducing for me. I organised my gear and got things ready for dinner whilst confined to the inner. In the distance it was brighter than before and I hoped it was coming my way. 20 mins later and it was almost like magic. The last of the grey, wispy clouds dispersed above and the sun came through like someone had flipped a switch. It was frickin brill!

grasmere_common 

IMG_0844

I jumped out with my pouch of food in one hand and the platy in the other and got a boil going for dinner. I sheepishly set up the camera on the tripod and filmed myself carrying on about camp - feeling like a prize twerp! I knew that some scenes were quite frankly poo but I was, by now, resigned to this just being a play around with the camera – a learning curve if you will.

I filmed some scenes as I ate and it was amazing to be sat in the evening sun, despite the stiff breeze and the dropping temperature. I was finally settling down into my surroundings and soaking it all up. I ventured over to the east of the ridge to find the low sun casting a beautiful glow with ever increasing shadows. Time-lapse time!

sunset_ponder

I sat for an age just drinking whisky from my flask and listening to the rhythmic click of the shutter firing every few seconds. I started to think “I could get used to this”.

Stone_arthur_timelapse

I was soon starting to get cold again and I’d only brought along my PHD Minim Vest for insulation – seeing as it was supposed to be July after all. There wasn’t a part of me that wasn’t enjoying just being sat out with my camera and a whisky in the setting sun. Being able to sit above Grasmere and look out across the other small villages and adjacent hills was nothing short of a privilege.

Time-lapse 

I was soon sitting with my calculator working out how many shutter actuations I needed for a few seconds of footage and worked out that I had enough for around 6 seconds! I made a mental note to look up the magic calculation of how many shots are required for a desired length at a particular frame-rate over any given duration. Magic.

sheep_god

sunset_pitch 

The evening was shaping up to be a pleasant one and the memories of rain and wind of a few hours earlier were already beginning to fade. I decided I’d make the most of it and spend a bit more time out of the tent and capturing another time-lapse – the moon was out and begging to be photographed so it was just a shame I got cold before any decent amount of time had passed!

sunset

I retired to the tent to settle down with the rest of my flask and the warm incredibleness of my sleeping bag. I left the door open a while to watch the hills across the valley lit by the bright moon. It had been a good day, stress-free and completely unplanned. A day ‘stolen’ from the machine of working life and I was all the better for it. Despite the fact that its easy to feel so tied down in the working week, this one day had been just the trip I needed to wind down and simplify things a little. Better still, tomorrow it would start again, to an extent, since I had no need to rush back and could choose my route and timing depending on the weather or frame of mind. It really did feel liberating and worth the effort. I popped my earphones in and drifted off to thoughts of other ‘24 hour’ jaunts I could just pack and set off on…..

Tent_moon

For those that are interested or missed it the first time I inflicted it on the world, here is the video I stuck together from the footage on this trip. Sorry in advance!

https://vimeo.com/41253582

Monday, 16 July 2012

Sleeping Bag Ponderings: Tundra Pure Sleeping Bag

pure_1

Whilst seemingly on another attempt to consume the internet in just one short evening, I came across the Tundra Pure range of bags from Warmth Unlimited on the OutdoorGB site. These bags caught my eye immediately as I’d never heard of the brand before and on paper they stood out in terms of the claims about quality, performance and ethical credentials. I’m seriously interested in these and wonder if anyone knows of them or has experience with one of the bags? They also seem to do a Pure and Dry range but there is very little around about these too.

For a while I’ve promised bring my Nephew out for a night in the hills and for even longer I’ve been trying to get Charl out sleep out high above the city lights too. The one thing that has ultimately put pay to my attempts so far (over and above Charl’s avoidance tactics and my own time constraints) has been the absence of a serious sleeping bag for my would-be guests.

I’ve kept my eye out for the odd used bargain on eBay but I’m not really sure I’m comfortable spending a decent chunk of my cashola on down that I have no idea about how it may have been used and abused. I”m a bit picky about this and not sure its worth the risk.

The company appear to be Polish and are completely new to me. The English website is far from finished and so the information I can go on is the product info from OutdoorGB and the odd mention on Outdoors Magic and LFTO forums. Tiso are listed as a distributor on the manufacturer’s site but they list the bags as discontinued.

The prices seem reasonable for the spec with the Pure –5 coming in at 214 earth pounds:

  • Temperature rating –5
  • Waterproofed foot box and hood
  • Differential fill for foot and chest area
  • Full length zip and baffle
  • Fill power 860+
  • Fill weight: 400g
  • Weight: 850g

There is little on the net about the fabric (aside from a claimed weight of 30g sq meter) but it certainly looks to have some potential.

The Alpkit Pipedream 400 that is currently top of my list of options and is both cheaper and lighter. It does however use a lower fill power and is only rated to –3 but, as we all know, this is the stuff of great debate!

The question is whether the Tundra bag is worth the additional cost for the higher fill power, waterproofing and ethical production. I do wonder how it would compare to my Cumulus Quantum 350, rated to -6, given that it has a higher fill power and fill weight and yet the rating seems more conservative for the Tundra bag.

Actually, whilst sat here typing this post I’ve just had a eureka moment: There is always the option to upgrade my own bag (I’m tempted by the Western Mountaineering Ultralight) and let my guests hang out in the Cumulus – now there’s an idea….

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Borah Gear – Side Zip Bivy – First Use

Borah_gear_stuffed

Following on from this post I’ve received a number of emails requesting additional information about the Borah Gear bivy and the answers to which may be useful to others so this is an update to that original post.

I managed to get out and give the bivy a trial last weekend on a trip to Wales. The weekend was forecast to be wet, windy and fairly cool to boot and this prophesy turned out to be all too accurate on the day! A trip report will follow but in the meantime here are my experiences and a couple of answers to those questions.

We arrived fairly late and as a consequence we ended up pitching quite low down off the main ridge. This was wise as the wind up there was fairly strong and the rain with it would have made for a miserable pitch considering our short time out there.

Trailstar_borah_gear_bivy

I set up the Neoair and my sleeping bag in the bivy and with the side zip this was real simple to do. No faffing, just open up and slide it all in. I hooked the tie out on the mesh panel to one of the hooks on the Trailstar and this worked well, except for the fact that it highlighted just how much material there is!

Unsurprisingly then there is ample room inside this version (size is Regular length, wide girth for the Neoair) and once inside I found that there was plenty of space for me to sleep on my side, store things inside with me and comfortably move about – as I do! On reflection I wouldn’t remove any fabric from this version as I think this affords more options in use and the weight is low enough for this to make an insignificant difference.

I zipped myself in to the bivy on this first night as there were quite few bugs about and I also wanted to experience what it would be like to be within its confines! In use it was fine and I drifted off without issue. What I did notice after a time was that I was slipping down inside the bag whilst the bag inselft was also slipping! The solution would be simple: to add tie outs to the top corners of the bivy and some silicone spots on the base of the sil-nylon or my Neoair. My advice then is to opt for John to sew in some tie outs for you when ordering –this is an option and you just need to ask for it.

By morning I woke with my body lower down inside the bivy than expected and on opening the zip to sit up and take in the view I found that there was a dampness between the momentum fabric and my sleeping bag. It soon dried once I’d opened the bivy but I can’t help but think that the damp, warm conditions, along with our sheltered pitch and water vapour in my breath had created ideal conditions for condensation. I’m not worried about this at all and in fact I think that with my modifications above I’ll not introduce so much warm moist air in the future and any ‘natural’ condensation is acceptable. Som have seam sealed their bivy’s and for a fully waterproof bag this would be advisable. However with this type of lightweight bivy seam sealing would simply further reduce breathability and isn’t required.

Overall I really enjoyed using it and the weight is seriously impressive for the price. The service and ability to modify to your own design is another endorsement in favour of low volume, cottage manufacturers. This brings me nicely on to the last query I received regarding my modifications, which were quite simple. I asked John to replace the full net hood with a rectangular strip running horizontally across the hood at about face height and add a pull-out to the mesh. Picture below to illustrate (apologies for the thoughtless framing – I was in a rush!)

borah_gear_bivy_hood

So then, after first use I’m still happy and very confident this will suit my needs perfectly. My advice, in summary, is to opt for the tie outs in the corners and drop a few spots of silicone onto the inside of the sil-nylon base to reduce slippage. Amen and happy bivvying!*

 

*spelling?

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Gear Review – Montane Volt Fleece Jacket

Montane Volt-2-2
Back in Norway in September things got pretty cold and so did I. Owing to the length of the trip and having to carry everything for 7 days I tried to balance an appropriate amount of clothing with a reasonable weight. On that score I failed slightly by being a little cold at times. Insulation was a Rab Micro Pull-on fleece and a Western Mountaineering Flash Jacket which I had hoped would be enough for most scenarios when worn with a merino base-layer. Sadly this wasn’t always the case and I started to take a look at my insulation more closely when I returned home and conceded that I probably needed more. It was research time!

I knew I wanted something that would be slightly warmer than a 100 weight micro-fleece but also something that wouldn’t add too much bulk. The Rab fleece weighs in at 274g for a medium so I wanted something that was warmer but not too heavy. I looked at a number of options, but settled on 3 that seemed to be pretty much in the ball-park: The Mountain Equipment Touchstone, the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man and the Montane Volt.

As you will have guessed (you intelligent people you) in the end I settled on the Volt. This was for a number of reasons but also owing to a bargain ‘price match’ deal I managed to haggle from a large outdoor retailer!

Montane say the Volt was designed with the full year in mind, as opposed to simply designing a summer or winter weight fleece. They claim that that the mixed use of Polartec Thermal Pro Honeycomb and Polertec Classic Micro make the jacket comfortable in a number of scenarios and climates. Polartec claim that the Thermal Pro Honeycomb “creates air pockets, trapping, retaining body heat and endowing the Volt with outstanding warmth without weight”.

This all sounds nice and fluffy but in all honesty it was none of this technical or marketing blurb that caught my eye initially – it was simply how incredible it looks! Without further ‘a-do’ here’s my thoughts (for what they’re worth) on this turbo-charged fleece:

What’s it got?
Well, it doesn’t have a hood (which I didn’t need or want) but does have a full zip, two large hand-warmer pockets (one which will handily hold a map) and a discrete chest pocket for smaller bits and bobs. The zips are all YKK and good quality and the pulls are very simple nylon with a small Montane motif – nice touch! All seams are sewn flat so no rubbing chaffing on harnesses or shoulder straps. Overall its simple but very well designed and technical enough to get most people excited.


Montane Volt-1
What’s it weigh?
I couldn’t help but worry that all of this would add unnecessary weight. Montane claim a medium weighs in at 470g and my size small weighs in at exactly 410g on my scales. This makes the Volt 140g heavier than my simple Rab fleece but would this equate to better warmth or just more technical faff – I was eager to find out.

How does it look?
Incredible.
It takes the humble fleece to a whole new level of style and fit. It’s nothing like any of my other fleeces with a truly tailored look and beautiful contoured panels that follow the line of the body. Not just that but it feels as good to wear as it looks and Montane has successfully challenged the ‘boxyness’ of the traditional fleece to great effect.


Montane Volt-2 
The flip side, of course, is that this extreme athletic cut won’t flatter everyone and could be quite unforgiving on anything other than an athletic shape. If you’re sleek then its fine but if, like me, you have a little paunch from too much cheese and wine…….and beer…..oh and curry then, like me, you’ll have to do a little breathing in when showing it off to all your mates and loved ones. Having said that (Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 7) the material has a nice stretch to it to ensure it doesn’t feel uncomfortably tight which,importantly, also allows perfect freedom of movement.


Montane Volt-3
Like most of Montane’s clothing, the quality of the finish and features are all very good. It looks extremely well made and the fabric seems of the type that will take a bit of wear – perhaps more so than a normal fleece which, for me at least, tends to go a bit ‘bobbley’ after a handful of washes.
The cuffs are simply finished in a non-adjustable elasticated band.  All of my current fleeces tend to terminate cuff and waist hems in just the fleece itself. The waist is finished in a similar way which tends to be a bit tighter than the cuffs and should keep out any unwanted drafts up the back – or the front for that matter, provided your tum isn’t too big!

Montane Volt-4
How does it perform then?

I wore this bad boy out on the hills in a cold and snowy February in Buttermere for the first time. It was an extremely hostile day up on Fleetwith Pike, with strong icy winds and driving snow creating white-out conditions at times. I wore this over a merino base layer and under my Marmot Mica. Despite moving slowly (with inexperienced friends) I never felt cold and it was reassuring to feel that I could come to a stop and not feel that familiar chill begin to take hold the moment I stopped.


Fleetwith Pike whiteout Feb 2012
Unusually I’ve been using it when I take Lolli out for walks in terrible weather and even when moving fast there are lots of options for venting if necessary but the fabric is permeable enough that a stiff breeze will get through without a wind barrier.
I thought about removing this paragraph from the review but what the heck: I actually think that this looks and feels so nice that its in real danger of being worn quite a lot out of an outdoors scenario. I should point out that this is not something I would normally endorse  nor even see myself doing!

I plan to continue to wear this under a shell or wind proof  for walking in the hills and expect that it will be perfect for autumn, winter and early spring with the layering approach.
I have to admit I was reluctant to have to change my proven layering system and even perhaps to concede that I do sometimes need more warmth than I have prepared myself for. With this in mind I’m pretty happy that this serve me across a number of seasons and give me more flexibility in colder conditions. If nothing else it will simply mean I can spend a bit more time drinking whisky and watching the sun go down whilst not being confined to my sleeping bag!
I’ll post back on how it performs during the course of the year and feedback any further findings.

Conclusion
Historically the humble fleece has really been that interesting to me, but the Montane Volt has probably just changed the ball game somewhat and hopefully it will be a winner from the off with no chance of going to penalties…..