Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Another lesson learned - This time its walking boots!

The (very) few people reading this blog may recall my excitement (and nervousness) in previous posts, in relation to a new pair of Brasher walking boots. Prior to the Black Mountains wild camp, I'd walked under ten miles on easy terrain but things felt good inside those boots. This was until the Gods turned on me, of course, and decided to teach me a valuable lesson about buying and wearing walking boots!

As I had commented on in the not-so-live posts during the trip, the Brasher's had began giving me blisters in the backs of my feet within hours setting off. My problems started only when we began on the ascents but the damage was done and the stage was set for a painful 2 days of walking.

My lack of experience with walking boots meant that my feet (despite my futile attempts at clamping them in) were slipping out of the heel area of the boot. I added socks, I took them away, I packed a sock under the heel end of the foot bed but nothing I could do on the hill would stop the slipping. I did what I could to try and alleviate the pain but I just didn't enjoy the walking on this trip at all.

Now, I need to be clear here, because the problems I experienced above were purely as a result of my inexperience and lack of research. I know, would you believe it?! (Mike from Brasher, if you're reading this I'm sorry I ruined what could have been a nice review for the Brasher blog!)

On a serious note though, I thought that others might benefit from yet another one of my idiotic mistakes, so I'm going to highlight the catalog of errors leading up to the two painful days in the Black Mountains:

I didn't entirely just get of my sofa and head out to get some boots. The Buttermere trip had revealed that my (still respected) Hi-tech V-lites weren't up to the mountain terrain and load bearing I had put them through. It was time to look for some new boots. I read a bit and Paul shared some knowledge but as always I wanted to do this on a budget. I had set myself a budget and for that I needed a leather walking boot that would be waterproof, breathable and suitable for a wide variety of terrain. My budget needless to say was £60 - What? A lighter pack and tent were high on the list at the time!

Most things I came across on the net pointed out the importance of trying a variety of brands and boots before settling on the right pair. I didn't really take any notice of this and just assumed I could rock on up at my local outdoorsy shop, pick a style I liked the look of in my size and price range, bound around the store in them for a few seconds (doing that thing where you walk lop-sided trying to check out how you look from the side) before buying them and not looking back for the next 10 years. Oh how the Gods must have laughed as they planned my post purchase dissonance. In fairness to me (and I do like to fair) I had the full intention of sitting with a sales assistant and listening to their advice but I'd chosen the wrong day as it was rammed and the glee at buying something new got the better of me! Subsequently the sales folk pointed me in the right direction and left me to it.

I have now come to realise that the purchase of walking boots comes down to a number of variables including your budget, the brands available to you and your feet. On Sunday I plucked up the courage and went back to the shop where I bought the Trailmasters weeks before. They had no smaller sizes in stock and having tried a plethora of volume adjusters, foot beds, additional socks and even lacing techniques, they concluded the Brashers weren't suitable in this instance. They honoured the 'comfort guarantee' and I proceeded to try an eternity of boots from 5 different brands. After nearly two hours of walking boot mayhem, we found that my feet varied in sizes across manufacturers, I suited a narrower boot, and particularly one which had a well defined heel profile. The issue each time was heel slippage (mainly in my smaller right foot) and I finally settled on the a boot that seems to fit this criteria. The Raichle MT Trail XT GTX - below.

Now, I'm not that naive to think this is the end to all of blister troubles ever but the facts are that according to the methodology, these boots stand a good chance of reducing blisters caused by heel slippage. Time will tell of course and the only happy ending to this long winded (possibly quite boring) story is that I need to get outside to find out! Sugar loaf (Pen y Fal) this weekend will be the first short test.....

Monday, 19 May 2008

Review of the Alpkit Gamma

Having bought the Gamma head torch from Alpkit days before the Black Mountains trip, I was eager to see how it would perform against its budget price tag of £12.50. I wanted a lightweight but powerful and reliable head torch that would stand up to a bit of night walking but would also make an economical and versatile buy. I looked at the obvious offering from Petzel but I just wasn't happy with the prices of the Tikka XP or Tikka Plus. Having compared the specs (I'm a little sad like that) I couldn't believe the value vs features of the Gamma sold by Alpkit in the UK.

I'm not going to list all the specs because I would guess that if you're reading this you already know about the Gamma, but in short it has:

1x1W led
3 5mm led (white, red, green)
Small red strip light on rear of battery pack.

My first impressions of the Gamma were pretty nondescript. The unit is a simple design, its looks OK and build quality was slightly better than expected at this price range. Not much to write home about then but its the features that made this stand out for me.

All lighting modes but the rear light are controlled by the orange button at the top of the unit and its a real charm to use. Alpkit have kept the operation as simple as possible whilst allowing access to 6 different modes:
Press once: Full 1w led mode
Press twice (in succession): Half 1w mode
Press three times (in succession): Off
Press and hold: Toggles from 1w led to 5mm mode (or vice versa), allowing individual access to the three other 5mm leds
Press once: White 5mm led
Press twice: Green 5mm led
Press three times: Red 5mm led
Press 4 times: Red 5mm flashing mode.

The best part is that the button is timed so you don't have to toggle through the various other modes to turn any lighting mode off. Once you're in a lighting mode and you have a minimum of a few seconds of use n that particular mode, pressing the orange button is an instant off. I like that!
Now the important bit - POWER! The 1w led mode is sufficiently powered and focused that it gives a considerably bright beam, more than sufficient to walk at night. The first time I turned it on I gave my retinas a fright! Note to self - don't look directly at the bulb when turning on! On a serious note, on testing this on top of Bal Bach a a few weeks ago I found the 1w light to be faultless for night walking. The half 1w mode was more than enough for general pottering around the camp in complete darkness and in fact I resorted to the 5mm white led in the end because this proved a really usable level of light (and I didn't want to risk giving our position away to the folks in the valley below).

I didn't really use the green or red modes much other than to test them out but I can see that they would be useful for map reading at night and the red flashing mode is good as a beacon.
The rear light is accessed on the battery holder itself and whilst it isn't very bright, its enough for someone several metres behind to easily track. Just a nice additional feature more than ground breaking functionality.

At 118g with batteries, this unit isn't as light as the Petzel Tikka (98g) but (and wait for the gasps from the gram counters at the back of the room) I think can live with the additional 20g for the £17.50 saving!

I can confirm that the Gamma deals with heavy rain - despite the fact I didn't want to test this feature! Paul and I were enjoying cider and idle chat when a thunderstorm kicked off a few miles south of our camp. Ten minutes later - despite the constant warnings, we found ourselves running for our waterproofs. We remained outside to watch the lighting and the Gamma got a bit of a soaking - it didn't seem to mind.

The unit fitted my weird shaped head nicely after initial adjustment and I found the unit to be comfortable, and really well balanced. I removed the top strap because I found it parted my hair in a funny way, making me look like a twerp - much to Paul's amusement! I'd like to say it was to shave off a few grams or something, to impress the lightweight folk, but it was pure vanity.
My verdict is pretty much that of what you will read in other reviews. Its an excellent performer and a bargain to boot. I can't see a reason why you wouldn't just buy one - even as a backup (if you've already wasted your money on a Petzel!).

Its clear to me that the Gamma performs well as a head torch but I also liked the additional bits that perhaps don't seem a big deal on paper but really make the difference. For example the service from Alpkit was faultless and I received the item next day! The unit comes with Duracell batteries, (come on, admit it - that is a nice touch) and I just don't think you will get a powerful head torch with these features at this price.

Monday, 12 May 2008

A view to heal the soul...shame about my hips and feet!

Lord Hereford's Knob, and what a knob it is! At this stage in the game it was warm and arduous ascent but what i great reward. The day started off overcast but has turned out to be stunning. This really is a beautiful place. One point to note must go light. The pleasure and lack of pain will far outway the cost. You cant put a price on feet hips or spines can you?!

A welcome end to a long day.

Not sure if this will get through as we rarely have a signal.
I found today quite hard what with the heat and the new boots. The good news is they're worn in the bad news is i have two very large blisters! We've set up camp and we've eaten our food which was more than welcome! I'm going to sleep well tonight i can tell you! Long day tomorrow but thats hours away! Few ciders and then retirement to my sleeping bag.

A view from Offa's Dyke Path.

The weather is good now, warm with a breeze with a fair amount of sun. We've made a detour off path because we're low on water but we'll just have wait til we descend a little later on. Really nice ridge walk with great views. Boots not fairing well on ascents which is rather unfortunate! Still a long way to go but should make our pitch in good time.

What, no posts?

Well, I'm back and only just starting to regain the use of my aching limbs! I logged on to the blog this morning to find that only one of my 'live' messages made it onto the blog - a real annoyance. I sent them again this morning but they don't seem to appear. I can only apologise for this guys and and to prove that I had been more disciplined this time and took time to post from my mobile, I'll try and email from my phone them instead of using MMS and hope this works.
My broadband provider is still to reinstate my service at home but I shall post a full detailed summary of the trip over the next day or so. In the meantime I'll try and get the posts from Friday and Sat up from my mobile just to wet the appetite.

Friday, 9 May 2008

And I would walk 29 miles...

Left coventry at 7.30 as planned and encountered a fair bit of traffic on the way. Stopped off in hay on wye for quick drink and we're on our way. Weather is dry but a bit too humid to be nice. Boots felt good to put on and i've got high hopes! Path up to hay bluff is gradual at the minute but will have to steepen soon. Good to be out here again and i'll check back when we stop for lunch

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Trip Preparations for the Black Mountains

I decided a few days ago that I would pack in advance of the night before the trip - unlike before. My packing procedure for Buttermere had some striking similarities to Chaos Theory and having learned my lesson last time, I knew it would take longer than I ever allow.

I gathered the last minute items and began packing things bit by bit. I got to the stage where I now had the core items in (tent, sleeping bag, roll mat etc) and I did a test lift. WHAT! - how can it be so heavy? It felt almost as heavy as it did on that Friday morning in Buttermere, and I had yet to pack food, water, and spare clothes! Luckily, I was so confused by the shear weight at this early stage in the packing that I just had to unpack it, then there it was - A 2.5KG barbell weight I had stuck in the bottom weeks ago trying to simulate different weight conditions! Little twerp!

I picked myself up off the floor from laughter and got on with the job in hand - trying to rescue any semblance of packing professionalism! Needless to say my decision to bring two cans of strong Merrydown Cider is being tabled (in my head) because the extra weight is noticeable. Whats more, I'm a little disappointed that my pack doesn't feel that much lighter than before - at least not as much as I imagined. I guess I'm in denial and I'm fast regretting not shelling out for that Golite Quest pack and Alpkit sleeping bag but it just wasn't an option this time around.

in between my main meal of Beanfeast (I had a little change of plan on my food situation since the last trip, where I pigged out on snickers bars and flapjacksSpag bol flavour). I'm not going into the Beanfeast thing right now but all I can ask is that you reserve judgement until I can argue my case!

On this trip 'm trying:

Snacks - Homeade chocolate chip flapjacks.
Lunch Day 1 - Noodles.
Main Mean Day 1 - Fresh filled pasta shells with sun dried tomatoes and grated Parmesan for the topping.
Breakfast Day 2 - Quick oats, where I've combined two packets to make a larger portion and added milk powder and muscavado sugar to the dry mix, ready for re-hydrating with boiling water. I've tried it at home and its not bad.
Lunch Day 2 - Pot mash (I know, I'm going to regret this decision).
Main Meal Day 2 - Pub grub and a pint!

All of these should be easy to prepare on the hill and in fact all of the hot meals merely require a small amount of hot water for success. Paul and I will be trialing our Orikaso dinner sets on this trip so no doubt I'll have a thing or two to say about those when we get back.

I'm a little nervous about my new Brasher boots on this trip. I've walked around 8 miles in them so far and they have been comfy but very warm - The Goretex lining is seeing to that. I'm hoping my extortionately expensive walking socks will put pay to any blisters but Paul has promised to bring the magic plasters just in case!

As before, I'll be posting (hopefully more regularly than last trip) on the blog from my mobile phone. I'm not bringing my DSLR so it will be the trusty Casio Exilim again for pics and video. I'm aiming for some video this time so maybe I'll have a few clips on the post trip report - who knows? After the trip I shall be reviewing the ALPKIT Gamma head torch, the Orikaso Solo Dinner Set, Brasher Trailmaster GTX boots and the Minibulldesign Blackfly 3 alcohol stove.

Check back tomorrow for some live trip updates.....or choose life and don't!

"To the hills....."

Friday, 2 May 2008

Got to love those hills

This picture was taken whilst Charl and I panted our way up to Red Pike in February this year. As seen in an earlier post we were greeted with a glorious cloud inversion and a truly stunning day. Its images like this that make me crave the outdoors.
Well its just under a week until Paul and I embark upon our second hike and wild camp, this time in the Black Mountains. I'm just itching to get out there right now and the bank holiday shall mean a just a 3 day week to get through - good times.
Yesterday, Paul's self inflating mat (Airic) arrived from ALPKIT - in a gopping lime green! Since I had to place the order for him I was going to order the worst colour I could get but as it turned out Paul actually requested lime green. I think this has shelved any doubt in my mind that he is some sort of pervert. At £25 these lightweight mats look really well made and aside from a lack of anti slip backing on the underside is almost identical to my Robens Lite mat.
Whilst I ordered the mat I also ordered a Gamma head torch too because I was after a model with a 'scorch my retinas' kind of brightness whilst being lighter than the one I already have. The obvious choice is the Petzl Tikka Plus but these things seem grossly over-priced to me. The Gamma from ALPKIT uses 3 AAA batteries (provided and Duracell too) and has a plethora of lighting modes that even a wedding DJ would be proud of. I temporarily blinded myself when I first turned it on so thought it only fair to ensure that the same fate was dealt out to Paul when I showed him this morning! I've yet to test this on a trip so I will be posting a review with detailed pictures when I get back from the trip to Wales. Some night walking will be in order to really see how good this thing is for £12.50.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Lightweight Alcohol Stoves - Review of the Blackfly 3

Cooking at the end of a long days hiking is all part of the ritual of setting up camp and bedding in for a night on the hill. I suppose it's a little bit about making a space for yourself in the wild environment - harps back to our caveman days I suppose!

As described in one of my earlier posts, I came across alcohol stoves by accident and aside from legitimising fire making in the home, these things work extremely well as part of a lightweight hiking base load. I think that perhaps there is renewed interest in alcohol stoves made from recycled aluminium as a departure from the classic Triangia stoves and kits. My interest was heightened when I noticed these things come in all shapes and sizes, weigh next to nothing and are really efficient to boot. I've made a few of my own and just bought my third from the legend that is Tinny from minibulldesign.

This latest stove is the Blackfly 3 (pictures to follow) and to all intents and purposes is the second generation stove derived from the Blackfly 2.

I bought the Blackfly 3 to replace my Isofly stove. The two common features that these stoves share are the very features that make them completely different! Both stoves use the wicks to provide a variable flame and water bath surrounding the fuel chamber to keep things cool and under control. However, the Blackfly 3 now employs silicone (or at least I think it is) wick holders as opposed to the metal ones found on the Isofly. This acts as a kind of thermal block so that less heat is transferred through the wicks into the stoves. This (in most cases) removes the need to fill the surrounding water bath to keep things cool, but the feature is still there if you want it.

There are now just two thick wick ends, as opposed to having two loops of thin wick on the Isofly, and these are adjustable for a fast boil right down to simmer. This element of heat control on an alcohol stove is really useful for different types of cooking, especially for rice and pasta.

I've not had chance to test this during a wild camp as yet but tests in my kitchen show that this stove isn't really much quicker to boil water than the Isofly. I'm not sure if this is down to me getting used to it or just the fact that its not really meant to be any quicker. I can bring 400ml of cold water to a lively boil in 10 minutes and 50 seconds using methylated spirits. Its not the fastest stove then, but if you haven't got 10 mins to spare on the hill then you're doing something wrong!

Like most alcohol stoves, there is a compromise of one feature for another and so this stove won't suit those who simply want fast boil times but it will suit most of the people, most of the time. Because this stove isn't pressurised its easy on fuel, its not a gamble when using it in a tent and there is far more control over the heat output.

Once I've had a chance to test it on the hill (in little over a weeks time) I'll perhaps do an update on this post if anything new comes up.

The key benefits over the Isofly are:
- Fits inside the Heineken cooking pot - this is just more convenient and space saving
- The non-sealed removable fuel chamber makes life easier during filling, emptying, replacing wicks and allows cleaning.
- Runs cooler (meaning even easier to use inside a tent) and the fuel chamber can be removed from the outer stand and used separately saving even more weight and bulk (of more interest to the gram counters than me personally!)
- Easier to monitor fuel quantities
- The open wick design seems to be more 'wick friendly', so less need for replacement.

Here's a video from Tinny explaining the key features of this stove.