Bits & Bobs 1: Gear reflections from a 5-week expedition

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Having just returned from a 5-week high-altitude expedition to the Indian Himalayas, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on some new gear purchases.  Some of these items I’ve had in my gear closet for a while and some items were bought especially for the exped – either way, everything here has had some intensive use.

In no particular order…

Camlebak Chute 1L

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As an alternative to the ubiquitous Nalgene (of which I also had a couple on exped) it works well.  It retains the wide-neck opening but with a nice spout for easy of drinking.  Like the Nalgene, the tethered cap can get in the way when drinking (probably more so than the Nalgene as it is a shorter tether) but you quickly adapt and hold the bottle in such a way as to keep it out of your face.

The handle is nice and solid and does allow the cap to snap into it, but it’s a faff to do when you just want a quick drink.  The cap twists off in just over 1/2 a turn (say 5/8ths) so it’s quicker to drink from than a Nalgene and it’s also internally threaded (rather than externally like a Nalgene) so there is less build-up of crud on the cap threads from your lips or mouth which is nice, especially if your using lip-balm (or such) regularly.  The down-side of this is that the inside of the cap contains the matching threaded section, which make this part more difficult to clean.

After 5-weeks, the twisting of the cap has become less smooth than it was when I first bought it so the twisting action tends to bend the tether piece more.  Some people have mention that this eventually causes it to break, but I haven’t had that happen yet.  Overall, it’s lasted well. I also think I prefer the slightly taller, slightly narrower design over the Nalgene dimensions.

 

Therm-a-Rest Neo Air

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This is one of those item that I’ve had for a while.  I bought this back in 2013 and as it’s my only inflatable sleeping pad, it gets a lot of use.  Whilst I was a little concerned about taking an inflatable mattress on expedition, my fears were for nothing.  After almost 40 nights sleep it’s still holding up just as well as it did when I first bought it.  The thickness (6cm) and insulation (R = 5.7) it provides make it supremely comfortable.  The stuff stack doubles as an inflation bag, and although it took me a little while to get the technique nailed, it was very handy at high altitude.  As there is no foam inside (ie. it doesn’t self-inflate) it packs down small.  Because of the reflective foil inside it does tend make a crinkly sound when you move about, but it’s nothing too intrusive compared to a windy night. Would definitely purchase this again.

 

Sea-to-Summit Aeros Pillow Premium

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As with the sleeping mat above, stuff that gets me a good nights sleep is stuff I’m willing to spend money on.  The S2S Aeros Pillow Premium is the larger sized Aeros pillow and undoubtedly the most comfortable inflatable pillow I’ve used to date.  The soft micro-fiber outer makes it feel less like an inflated balloon, and it has a thin synthetic fill on top for added softness.  All was going well, however it seemed to develop a slow leak whilst I was on expedition.  As the internal bladder can’t be accessed, it appears to be almost impossible to patch.  I haven’t yet identified where the leak is, so it could also be the inflation valve, but it meant I wasn’t able to do any field repairs whilst I was away.  The comfort factor of this pillow alone means I would try purchasing another one, but a pillow that doesn’t stay inflated is worthless so the jury is still out on this item.

 

PHD Hispar 500 Down Sleeping Bag

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Having decided I needed a new sleeping bag for this expedition, this was probably the most expensive item I bought before departure.  And I spent a good deal of time agonising over the choices.  After weighing up the pro and cons of the Hispar 400 vs 500 I eventually decided to go for the warmer option.  As with all PHD stuff, there are no gimmicks just quality craft work.  Having previously slept in bags with full zips, or more recently in quilts, sleeping in a bag with a half-zip took a little getting used to (mainly because I typically sleep with my legs quite splayed out), but once I was used to keeping my legs together it provided excellent comfort.  As it’s classed as a ‘Lightweight’ bag, the hood is fairly basic and I found it to be quite shallow.  With the Aeros pillow, it was impossible to pull the hood tight and cocoon yourself, but it would be possible without.  Despite being rated to -15C (5F) I was comfortable in temps below 5C (40F).  We never experienced temps much below -2C (28F) so I can’t attest to it’s low temperature suitability, but as temperature ratings are so subjective, it is only my personal curiosity that I want to satisfy.  Down always wins in terms of weight-to-warmth, and the quality of down in all of PHD’s products is excellent (the loft for such a light-weight bag is unreal!) and the pack size wonderfully small.  Outstanding quality – despite being pricy, I’m very happy with this purchase.

 

Darn Tough Hiking Sock

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Personally I find socks to be very fickle things.  Get sizes and fit right seems almost impossible, and a day of walking with a heavy pack is usually enough to identify any failings in a sock.  Apart from the pleasantly colourful patterns of these socks, this particular light weight version is the best pair of socks I bought in recent years.  The quality is excellent.  Despite wearing relatively stiff B1 boots, i found these socks to be rub free.  The no-strings lifetime guarantee is reassuring and I will definitely be looking at this brand for future sock purchases.

 

Tilly T4 Cotton Duck Hat

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Another pre-existing purchase and something that was worn everyday.  These hats are not particularly light weight, but the wide brim and SPF 50+ rating makes it very practical.  The fact that these are typically 2-3 times the price of competitor options does make me somewhat ambivalent regarding the value of this product, and it was principally sentimental reasons that made me purchases this as a replacement after I left my old one on a boat in Santorini (long story…).  Undoubtedly hard-wearing and with an excellent guarantee that (as far as I’ve heard) is always upheld almost without question.  Having got very grubby during the expedition, it hasn’t washed quite as well as I might have expected.

 

Craghoppers Nosilife Adventure Long-Sleeved Shirt

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With much less atmosphere between you and the sun, I felt that getting a good shirt was really important.  This was one of the few I could find that is specifically SPF50 and is full featured.  Craghoppers have had this shirt around for while, but in this most recent version they seem to have added pen loops (at least I assume that’s what they’re supposed to be) on the left shoulder.  Other details include a double-height collar (this folds down, but due to the way the seam has been sewed it doesn’t really have the stiffness to stand-up by itself) two chest pockets (I would have preferred these to have press-studs rather than small fiddly buttons), one zippered-chest pocket/vent lined with mesh, small pocket on left shoulder (this one has a press-stud), back vents, two drying loops, a micro-fiber glasses wipe sewn into the bottom hem and buttons for tying your sleeves up (again, I would have preferred these to be press-studs as it’s very fiddly trying to tie your sleeves up one-handed when wearing the shirt).  The main buttons are attached using 6mm webbing which are apparently sufficiently hard-wearing that Craghoppers doesn’t provide spares.  One the whole it’s a nice shirt.

 

Columbia Silver Ridge Long-Sleeved Shirt

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For some reason I found myself wearing this shirt more than the Craghopper offering.  Also SPF 50 (NB. the Silver Ridge Lite version is SPF 40) it is less featured than the Craghopper version, but consequently comes across as more casual every-day piece of clothing rather than a hard-core piece of expedition kit.  But that’s not to say that it didn’t perform well.  The fabric is slightly thicker, but it wicks better due (I guess) to the textured inside and so it feels cooler.  Although I could only find a blue version, it comes in a further 7 different colours.  The chest pockets have velcro fastenings which makes them easy to open and they’re slightly wider and more squared-off which makes them slightly more roomy than the Craghopper versions.  It also has a double-height collar (with the same seam issues) but it doesn’t run the full width of the main collar so, frankly, it’s a waste of fabric.  It also has button-up sleeves, but the buttons to hold the sleeves in place are hidden under a patch of fabric, so these are even more awkward to button up.  The back has two vertical vents on either side, but I’m not convinced this orientation is as effective at venting as the horizontal type on the Craghopper shirt.  So, a few niggles, but also equally wearable.

Primus Lunch Jug (0.35L)

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Bought with the intention of providing more lunch options whilst hiking, this lunch mug (jug, whatever…) is a great size to eat and drink from.  Rather than the narrower coffee-mug type affairs, this has a nice wide lid around the size of a pot-noodle lid.  The lid is secure, never leaked and the collars on the top and bottom makes for easier handling when it’s wet or with gloves on more.  It terms of insulating properties, I wasn’t overly impressed.  As with all vacuum flasks, the lid is the weak point, and I guess that having a large lid results in greater cooling.  But as water boils at significantly less that 100C at the altitudes we were at, it’s hard to judge this entirely fairly.  For day-to-day hot drinks, it’s a nice size.

 

Osprey Ultralight Washbag Zip

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This washbag from Osprey was something of an impulse purchase, but one that turned out well.  It’s a well thought out washbag, with nice features such as compartments that can be access from both the outside and inside.  It also has a hook (that can be tucked away) and small mirror and a removable see-through pouch.  It’s made from light-weight material silnylon-like fabric and has a full mesh panel on the front.  Capacity wise, it’s spacious for it’s size as it is very flexable.  It’s just about long enough to fit a long handled spoon/spoork and easily carries the usual essentials.  Zipper pulls are good quality and the zips run nicely, although the thin fabric means it doesn’t give enough resistance to open one handed.  More expensive than a DIY bag version, but many more features means I found this much more useful.  It could double as a small first-aid kit too.

 

Osprey Airporter Large

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Sticking with Osprey, I spent quite a while agonising over what to pack my rucksack into for the flight.  Eventually, weight restrictions meant I had to forgo a duffle bag so I turned to the Airporter as an alternative.  This version (shown folded into it’s top pocket) is the large size and it easily swallowed my 80+L Macpac rucksac, plus poles plus other bits and pieces stuffed down the side.  It has a nice large zip which makes getting packs in easy, and has a ID card holder and a shoulder strap.  Ultimately, in my opinion the most important thing about luggage (especially expedition luggage) is that it needs to be good to carry – typically on your back.  This isn’t.  The single shoulder strap is entirely rubbish. Although it’s adjustable, even at it’s shortest length, the bag hangs too low and bangs your legs, and this is before we even consider the practicality of providing a single strap.  Frankly I should have known better, but carrying a heavy (20+ kg) bag with a strap that is too long is never going to work.  This method might work fine for the smaller sizes, but not for expedition loads.  I’ll stick with a duffle next time.

 

Fujifilm X-T10 Mirrorless Camera

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The decision to go mirrorless was driver primary by past experiences of taking of DSLR and finding it either too heavy/too bulky/too cumbersome to take out of my bag.  The digital view-finder took some convincing  and I had some concerns about battery life, but having taken the plunge I was very happy with this camera.  My worries about battery life were, on the whole, born out.  But batteries (especially non-Fuji branded versions) are not very expensive.  The choice of glass available is also very good and I was very happy with the 10-24mm lense.  Size and weight wise it is a great compromise.  It still gives to easy access to full-manual controls, but in package that works much better for me.  There is enough stuff on the internet for you to draw your own conclusions on this camera, but my experiences with it are very positive.

 

F-Stop Micro Tiny ICU

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To accompany the camera, I needed a new bag.  I wanted something fairly minimal, and whilst I’ve gone for padded dry-bags in the past I decided a zippered bag would be more functional.  The F-Stop ICUs fit that category very well.  There are a good ranged of sizes, and the Micro Tiny size is a great fit for the XT-10, with just enough space to keep the charger, charger cable and spare batteries in it as well.  For those who like to wear their camera bag with on the outside with their rucksack, this wouldn’t work, but for carrying inside a rucksack it works great.

 

3-Legged Thing Keith X0

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Whilst I was sure I wanted to take a tripod, finding one that wasn’t going to be heavy, bulky and take up lots of space seemed like a challenge.  The now discontinued Keith X0, however, seemed to exactly what I was looking for.  The total height (with the central column extended and including the ball-head) is 95cm and being made of carbon-fiber it weighs 1220g.  Again, like a camera, being light and compact makes it more likely to be used, and I never really found the lack of height to be limiting to my photography.  As it’s now discontinued I managed to find this on sale, so I’m very pleased give the price.  The ball-head is OK, but has a few niggley features (mainly with the camera-plate fastening), but the current tripods have an updated version.  Despite being in a very dusty environment, it’s coped OK.  All the joints (except the ball-head) can been fully stripped down and cleaned, which in this case was very handy.

Conclusions

All in all, there is no real dud here, apart from the Osprey Airporter.  As I was writing this, and despite having had some intensive use, I’ve realised that the gear here has really only seen a relatively limited range of environments and my insights into their use is still somewhat limited.  I’ll be interested to see how everything continue to perform over the coming years, so check back in a few years and see what I think then 😉

 

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