Monday, 17 January 2011

Getting ready for backpacking

A certain amount of shopping crept into my weekend recently in the Lake District, without much resistance on my part I have to confess. I've been looking for a down sleeping bag for some time and being a goodly portly man and a corpulent, I had my eye upon the Big Agnes Lost Ranger. This could have presented a problem as they have no distributor in Europe, but Keswick outdoors shop, George Fisher carries the brand and had the bag in stock, so I've bought one. Its a backless design, thus depending on your sleeping mat to provide insulation below, but is still fully enclosed, so not draughty. I have read conflicting reviews about how warm it is, but I sleep hot, so I expect it to be near to spec for me, which is about -7C, nominally 15F anyway. I also got the expander panel, or Wedgie, which adds about 7 inches of wiggle room to the bag, which I need. Should I slim down a bit, this insert can be removed and slightly lighten the carrying weight of the bag, (by about 6 ounces actually). Actually I'm glad the bag is roomy, as I don't like all this Mummy bag thing much, even if I understand the notion behind it. Maybe if I became a thin person with less natural insulation I might change my mind on that.

I also need to think about a rucksack as the one I have is heavy and lacks certain essentials, such as lashing for attaching light but bulky items like closed cell foam mats etc. I have a feeling that my self inflating sleep mat will need the support of a foam mat underneath in really cold conditions. But having thought about that, the negligible weight of the closed cell mat makes the combination of the two a good flexible option for summer/winter camping. I tried the Thermarest Neoair when I bought my sleeping bag - the shop assistant in Fishers slotted it into the back of the bag and I was invited to try out the fit there in the shop. I noticed two things - firstly the bulky Thermarest (when inflated) somewhat reduces the roominess of the bag, although I was also fully dressed which will have made a difference, and also I felt a bit uncomfortable on the Neoair, owing to its bounciness and distance from the ground. It was like lying on a beach ball. Maybe there's a happy medium where the thing should be very slightly under inflated - this was like a drum skin!

So, for rucksacks I might look at the Golite Jam or similar, but really there is a bewildering array of possibilities, especially when you consider some of the American products which seldom get here - as was the case with the Big Agnes sleeping bag which I have only seen advertised by Fishers in the UK. If you have deep pockets there seem to be some very exotic fabrics and designs in rucksacks, tents, tarps and the like, notably the Cuben Fibre based products which I have yet to see first hand. I remember going to Springfield oudoors shop in Halifax eager to get my hands on a Terra Nova Laser 35 day pack, but when I got my hands on it, it felt so flimsy I couldn't bring myself to trust it. Even if it weighed less than a chickens egg, (alright, a pretty big chicken!), and I ended up buying a Lowe Alpine Crag Attack 40 which is a bit big for a day sack, but very comfy. I have a similar feeling about the Gossamer Gear Murmur (now discontinued I think) as I did with the Terra Nova day sack - it looks like it might tear against a rock and spill stuff everywhere - I know that's very unfair, not having handled one, but there's a certain doubt creeps in when a whole rucksack weighs about the same as a pint of milk. However, on YouTube, I saw a demo of the strength of Cuben Fibre. A guy has three or four weights of fabric swatches and spears them with a big heavy tent peg and tries to rip through the swatch. the really lightweight ones (I'm talking half an ounce per sq yd) rip fairly easily, but when he gets to the medium weight swatch he can't tear it easily and the heavy weight one (an elephantine ounce and a half per sq yd) he can't tear it at all. It looks like this stuff is really strong, so I'm thinking maybe there is something in it.

All this lightweight argument is a bit frail in my case when I reflect that I could lose a couple of stone in a fortnight if I could be bothered and be lighter carrying all my gear, than I am now carrying nothing as I step out of the shower. I wonder what it would be like ascending the hills if I was only 14st instead of 22st. I think its fairly easy for the body to adapt to that much work in a muscular sense, but I think the joints and tendons might be paying a price I can ill afford later in life. It makes me think I should have as much enthusiasm for weight saving close to home as I do in the gear shops! Something to work on.

Just a note regarding the assistant in Fishers, and in fact all of them in my experience - they are outstanding in both knowledge and the tact with which they approach and attend to customers. As a rule I feel awkward in some of the outdoors shops, but I have had really good experiences in George Fisher and Cotswold Outdoor recently. I could perhaps even extend that to Rathbones too, where I often go to check pricing - they can be amazingly cheap on some mainstream items, especially Berghaus, or supplies like the laughably expensive Nikwax concoctions. I think you get to know shops well over a few visits and grow accustomed to them. If I think of Needle Sports in Keswick, I have felt a bit intimidated going in there, partly because its so small and you therefore tend not to simply browse, but as much because its rather focused on proper climbing, and I felt a bit embarrassed asking such serious guys about walking poles or whatever. Actually, when I did go in with a mission to get a Terra Nova 2 man bothy bag (following my episode stuck on Glaramara at New Year) the guy who helped me was really knowledgeable and interested in my story, recommending the super lightweight bothy on the basis of its weight, but hinting that for the sake of a few ounces more to carry, the standard bothy was more than adequate and much cheaper. The thread that run through all of the good experiences is the impression one gets of a real enthusiasm for what these people are selling, which naturally leads to good product knowledge, and that they want you to enjoy what you've bought and benefit from it. Sadly, some shops seem to approach things like fashion shops who just hope you will be back to get next seasons colour, and I don't think I need to name the chains who are guilty of that. Well, I will be posting details of a trip up Scaffel Pike shortly as I finished this post after the said trip and can reflect with real experience on at least the sleeping bag.

Post Script: I forgot to mention that I have been on the lookout for some new walking poles after slightly bending one of my Trekmates. Those trekmates are OK for a cheap brand, mine being the ones with the lever locks, rather like the Black Diamond style. Anyway, when I bent the pole it would not retract so one pole was permanently extended which is a bit of a nuisance. So on the lookout for new poles I was impressed by some I found in Ambleside. I'd never heard of Fizan before. An Italian company that has been making ski poles for over half a century and I picked up their Compact Ultralight poles for £50 the pair. They weigh only 158 Grammes each which I can tell you feels like nothing in the hand - really pleased wth them. They pitch them as the lightest collapsible poles in the world.

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