Friday 7 November 2014

Synthetic Insulated Jacket: Jack Wolfskin Thermosphere

At a time where I thought I had my gear pretty much sorted and I’d come to terms with my view on down versus synthetic, I was contacted by OutdoorWorldDirect to see if I wanted to test the Thermosphere Jacket by Jack Wolfskin. At the time I had my doubts as to how and where this would have relevance to my kit.

First things first lets tackle the difficult issue of weight. The jacket in medium weighs 447g on my trusty scales. Not bad for a jacket not claiming to use superlight materials and with a hood. Up against my Western Mountaineering down jacket it will lose every time but for the money its certainly not ridiculous. JW have kept the weight down through minimal insulation, fairly light fabric and simple features – all outlined below.

The jacket retails at £120 but can be found online for £100. This isn’t cheap as such but the item is well made and feels like a well-designed and made piece of kit.

The jacket could be described as part or semi-insulated and this is because it has stretch, articulating panels around the elbow area of the arms. This fabric is a fairly thick, stretchy material and in contrasting blue in my jacket which gives it a technical look and feel. 

There is a very basic insulated hood but this can’t be adjusted. It has some volume and I suspect it would fit a climbing helmet under it but I’m not convinced it is designed for this.

There are two large, fleecy lined pockets that will hold a folded map and other assorted items but I found them to be shallow to the extent that things do fall out if you open the zip all the way down. Once you know it isn’t a problem but it’s something I immediately noticed.

There is only one type of adjustment on the jacket and this is at the hem in the form of the classic pull-cord elastic adjustment. As is fairly standard nowadays this is the type that is anchored and can be done with one hand whilst wearing gloves. There are no other adjustments on the cuffs or hood and as mentioned this is probably about weight and simplicity as well as the potential market this is aimed at. Having said that the cuffs are terminated in  nice discreet elastic piping and there are thumb-loops using the same material as under the arms. This is nice and stops the arms from riding up if using as a belay piece. I’m still undecided on whether thumb-loops are for me so I was happy to see that if you choose not to park your thumbs like this then the jacket doesn’t bunch or look odd – it just works either way.

Without even looking for the Jack Wolfskin marketing blurb, its clear this is designed around alpine pursuits and by nature means that movement and fit are really nicely dialled in. I’m usually a small in European outdoor clothing but this medium fits just right whilst allowing room for a base layer and or mid layer underneath.

The stretch panels on the arms are a nice touch and add to the natural and unhindered fit you feel while wearing it – so much so you can easily forget you have it on and of course this is the idea! It seems all too often that you are either in a strait jacket or in a fabric box with insulating pieces so for me the fit is the stand out success of this item.

I received this item in January this year (sorry for the extended review period David!) and have used it extensively and surprisingly this has been off and on the hill. The first trip was a slight cop-out as the jacket arrived in time for our yearly trip to the cabin in Wales where there’s lots of day walks directly from the door. I married the Thermosphere with a simple merino base layer and it worked perfectly. I was initially a bit paranoid at getting it wet and pulled on a waterproof when the heavens really opened. It took me a few downpours to get out of my down jacket mentality before allowing it to get wet and I’m glad I did. This is after all the jewel in the crown of synthetic insulation. I wouldn’t say it was just as warm when wet but when paired with a merino base layer and as long as you’re still moving about getting it wet isn’t the disaster I was expecting. Drying time is pretty good too and this is best done whilst still wearing it so your body heat helps it along a bit. I’ve not yet got it wet whilst having to dry it out under a tarp but as most of you will know this is isn’t really going to happen.

I used the jacket in ‘proper’ conditions in April on a one nighter in Wales. I was in two minds whether it would make my final kit choice depending on the temperatures. As the day loomed closer the forecast was for slightly warmer conditions but would be wet – perfect! Not wanting to chance being cold I brought along the trusty Montane Volt to layer underneath – just in case! In a slightly underwhelming scenario it just worked. The only time I wanted a bit more heat was whilst I was setting up the Trailstar in quite an exposed spot. The temperature got down to 6 degrees which I think was possibly the limit of use for me. 

One bad point did emerge, which I’d started to notice during the first windy outing in January, and that is the stretch arm panels. There being no insulation here and the nature of the material means you do feel a noticeable difference in temperature around the panels and particularly in a chilly wind. There’s nothing you can do about it and I really only noticed it whilst still but when pitching a tent or tarp in cold, windy conditions the body tends to cool quite quickly.

The only other point to note is the bulk of the jacket when packed down. If you’re used to a down based insulation piece then the size when packed of the Thermosphere will disappoint. It only really bothered because I’m anal about packing my gear in the Gorilla pack and everything has a place. 

I didn’t really expect much from this jacket and had no prior experience of Jack Wolfskin before this. Having said that it has exceeded my expectations and I’d consider bringing it out on trips that I knew were going to be predominantly wet but not so cold. The fact is its my go-to jacket for walking the dog in a whole range of conditions and makes for a simple layering piece for longer day walks where 1 jacket is all you need.

The fit is excellent and the simple features work for me too. The stretch panels around the arms won’t suit everybody and neither will the bulk when packed down but when all is said and done the Thermosphere is warmer when wet making it a bit more flexible and it makes a better pillow than a superlight down jacket!

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!