Saturday, October 04, 2014

A beginner guide to clothing systems for the British Winter Mountains

This is an article I wrote a few winter ago for UKclimbing but it was never used for some reason. Anyway, it might be of use to someone (and I may even add photos at some point!) so here it is.

Buying clothes to wear for the winter mountains is an investment, winter climbing is not a cheap sport. So let’s start with the good news: modern outdoor clothing is, relatively speaking, cheap. Compared to any normal clothes you buy, the mark-up in the outdoor trade is rather small, and if you find something on a clearance rack at half price, the shop is almost certainly making next to no money on that sale. I bought my first Goretex jacket nearly 20 years ago with my savings from working the school holiday picking fruit on farms. It was about £130 and despite 19 years of inflation you can still buy a Goretex jacket for the same amount and it will work better than my 1990-vintage Phoenix Topaz. Secondly, modern outdoor clothing is really good. If you have the money to buy top of the range from any of the famous brands it is really, really, really good. But a sensibly-designed, own-brand fleece from Millets or Decathlon is going to be as good as the top of the range Berghaus or North Face fleece of twenty years ago whilst being a third of the price not even taking into account inflation. I might not go as far as to say you can’t go wrong, but like having SatNav – it’s getting ever harder to go really wrong.

But good value is the result of competition and this comes from a huge choice. You can hardly moan about this, but of course this does making choosing exactly what you want difficult. This article aims to give some basic information for those who are new to the game, and perhaps a few alternatives thoughts to those who aren’t.

This article, being UK Climbing, is aimed primarily at winter climbers going to Scotland, Snowdonia or the Lakes. Climbers often need a little extra warmth than winter hill walkers due to pitched climbing necessitating standing still and belaying in foul weather, although otherwise the basic philosophy is the same.

Dry and still

Winter clothing keeps you warm by keeping you dry and from stopping the wind. You lose heat in two major ways – conduction and convection (forget radiation – there ain’t much that can be done about that). Conduction is heat energy moving (in this case away from your body) through solids and liquids. Convection is the same but through gas – the air, moving in the form of wind. Keeping dry is about reducing conductive heat loss. You can stand around naked in still air at -10 and if you are dry it is fine for a few minutes, but try getting into a lake where the water is 5 degrees and you’ll know all about it. We do both of these regularly in Finland, often together, so I say this from personal, and normally quite embarrassing, experience. Just to complicate matters, you can get wet in two ways – from the outside (snow, sleet, rain) or from the inside (sweat); your clothes have to stop moisture from either being near your skin. Keeping out the wind is about avoiding heat loss through convection. Anybody who has stood around belaying on a windy day without a windproof jacket will understand exactly how this works.

Inside out

The layering principle is the standard way to dress for the winter mountains. There are clothing systems that claim they aren’t based on the layering principle, but due to basic physics they are really – it’s just a different take on it: normally combining two layers into one. It is best to think of the layering principle from the inside out starting with the clothes against your skin. This is the base layer – although often referred to by your granny as thermal undies. Base layers suck the sweat away from your skin as quickly as possible transporting it outwards to the next layer. This is called “wicking” - probably because “sucking up sweat” is such a horrible image. The quicker your base layer wicks, the dryer you stay – and as we discussed above, the warmer you will be. Next comes the mid layer – normally this means fleece these days. The mid layer is insulation that traps air which insulates you from the colder air outside your clothes. Your insulation mid layer also needs to be able to transport sweat outwards without holding the moisture. This is why it is rare to use a down jacket as a mid-layer, feathers hold moisture so it would get clammy from sweat and stop working well. Finally there is the shell layer. When I started climbing everybody just called these “waterproofs” and were done with it, but this is where things get a bit complicated because you have in effect two types of shell – those designed just to keep the wind out – windproofs – and those that keep both the wind and rain out – waterproofs. If you want to be down with the kids you can call the former softshells and the latter hardshells, but for the moment this unnecessarily complicates matters – so I won’t. Next we will go on to discuss the basic options available for these layers, before heading out to the extremities – hands, feet and head.

Base layers

Until some New Zealand sheep farmers hit on a really great business idea a few years back, base layers meant synthetics – mainly different types of polypro. I have synthetic base layers made by Helly Hansen, Karrimor, Jack Wolfskin, Berghaus, Lowe Alpine and others that I don’t recall. All work – even my 18 year old smelly Helly that I still regularly wear whilst cycle commuting in winter. There is not so much to distinguish them in terms of wicking – get any polypro base layer from a decent manufacturer and you won’t go wrong. Making sure they don’t have seams that rub or labels that itch is probably the most important consideration. One feature they do all share in common though is that if I wear them for more than ten minutes, they stink under the arms (and round your nether regions with the long johns). Different firms have claimed to have solved this issue over the years but none I have tried have succeeded. It seems that most blokes at least will make synthetic base layers stink. This is where we get back to those enterprising antipodeans. I reckon Merino wool is a real revolution in thermal undies. It still wicks to my mind as well as synthetics (others disagree on this but they seem to be a minority) but it is really quite spookily smell resistant. I can wear a cotton t-shirt for a day without it getting whiffy, but after two days it's not so great. I wore my favourite merino baselayer for four days ice climbing last Easter in Norway – and no hint of smell. To me this is amazing and in my experience the only downside to merino is that it tends to cost more and the material is a bit delicate in comparison to synthetics.

Mid Layers

Fleeces are pretty simple things – fluffy polyester knits that trap warm air and thus insulates you – but they come in bewildering range of styles and types. The fluffier or thicker it is, the more insulation that garment will offer. For climbing, simple and fitted is best. As increasingly with modern clothing systems we add insulation to the outer layer – the belay jacket idea (see below) - micro fleeces are amongst the best mid layer garments. They offer a fair amount of warmth but aren’t bulky and as shell layers become ever better cut and fitted, this is important. Hi-loft fleece is the fluffy type that makes you look like a brightly coloured sheep but is superb in cold conditions. They are far, far lighter than old heavy weight fleeces and compress well. They also make ace pillows once you are in the tent at the end of day – but many might find them too warm under a shell if climbing hard or moving fast. If you are sure you are going to be wearing your mid-layer all day, as most people will for winter climbing, consider a pullover rather than a jacket version: lighter, no annoying zip lower down near your harness and, best of all, normally cheaper.

Mid-layer for your legs is more complex because legs generally need less insulation so many find that if their leg wear has some wind resistance to it, it will actually be their outer layer for much of the time. Softshell trousers made out of a stretchy, breathable and wind-resistant material have become the legwear of choice for many winter climbers in recent years, but summer trekking trousers over long johns can also work well. But even the expensive Schoeller materials are not completely windproof (unless they are the expensive and less breathable membrane type) and in cold temps or when static for long periods I’ve found them to be not warm enough. This when you might have add some sort of shell over them, or pick a more specialist pair of trousers that are insulated in some way.

Windproofs

Shell layers are designed to mainly to make your insulation layers below work, not to offer insulation themselves. This is why many windproof smocks now weigh next to nothing. Nevertheless the various windproofs I have are amongst my favourite bits of outdoor gear; used all year round for climbing, ski mountaineering, cross country skiing, cycling and orienteering. By keeping the wind out they make your insulation underneath work, but unlike waterproofs they are (or at least should be) ultra-breathable and hence sweat produced from activity can escape easily. Pertex is the classic material for windproofs and perfect for the job, but any close woven and unproofed nylon will work.

Waterproofs

Making a waterproof jacket is easy – the trick is to make it waterproof in only one direction. As you do any exercise you sweat. If this sweat can’t escape through your waterproof layer, it will wet your mid and base layers just like rain or melted snow from outside would do. Conducted heat loss then begins and you get cold. This is why your waterproof jacket also need to be breathable. Breathable simply means that the jacket material in some way to do with it physical structure or chemical make-up allows moisture vapour (sweat) through from the inside to the outside, but does not let liquid water (rain) in from the outside to inside.

Materials are getting better – the Goretex of today breathes more readily than the Goretex of the jacket I bought in 1990 and there are now many competitor fabrics that seem to work adequately and particularly with eVent there is now a fabric that many believe is better than Goretex. But just as importantly is that designs have improved massively in the last decade. Designers are making jackets that are slimmer fitting, tailored to the needs of climbers or hikers, and use cleverer technologies like thin seam tape or bonding technologies that allow the material to breath better all over. In the early 90s I became a huge fan of Buffalo clothing because it meant I didn’t need my Goretex jacket for winter climbing and that meant getting less clammy and cold from sweat despite not being waterproof. I still won’t wear a Goretex for, say, skinning uphill whilst ski mountaineering, but my Arctryx paclite Goretex I can wear happily when ice climbing on drippy days, or hiking in sleety weather, without getting sweaty inside. It’s just a better designed coat made out of better material than the early 90s shells – and the fabrics of today are further improved than the six year old goretex of my Arctryx.

For the British mountains in winter, what you will want though is a shell jacket with a good hood - the best tend to have a wire in them to create a peak, and the hood needs to be big enough to go over a climbing helmet. Unsurprisingly, British companies (Berghaus, Mountain Equipment, Montane etc.) often have the best hoods for full on conditions – putting more emphasis on protection than peripheral vision. Some US firms have even made jackets designed specifically for the British market including bigger than normal hoods – showing the difference in design philosophy. More and more shells now use waterproof (water resistant some say) zips. These save weight, but some still prefer their winter jacket to have a storm flap that covers the zip for maximum protection.

Booster Layers

Booster layers – often called belay jackets – are insulated coats that you stick on over your shell (windproof or waterproof) when static or just really cold. Traditionally these were down filled, although down doesn’t mix with rain or wet snow well, so increasingly many climbers are going for modern synthetic fills such as primaloft. These keep their insulation value better if getting damp, but down is lighter, packs down smaller and last much longer if well looked after. See my earlier article on belay jackets for much more on this.

Alternative systems

For a long time the most famous ‘alternative systems’ in the UK to the layering principles outlined above were Buffalo and Paramo. You can read much more about both on their websites, but both avoided membrane waterproof fabrics like Goretex. What they lose in waterproofing they gain in breathability. The fans of both systems often have a slightly zealous air to them that come with having ‘seen the light’. I should know: in the mid-90s I was a hardcore Buffalo boy. I was living in Scotland and working in shop that stocked the system felt the urge to try and convert the Goretex clad infidels to the true and righteous (and slightly odd looking) path. I’ve never used Paramo, so their crusaders will have to speak up in its favour but back then Buffalo was without any doubt the best value for money mountain clothing system you could buy. Montane also make pertex and fibre pile products very similar to Buffalo. Pertex and fibre pile is not always perfect, but for serious winter climbing when on a budget it is still well worth looking at. Stephen Reed, owner of Needlesports has an excellent manifesto for the Buffalo system.

Feet, hands and heads

Keeping your extremities warm is one of the hardest parts of choosing your clothing system and my experience is that in particular finding the right glove system is an annoyingly expensive experience of trial and error. Hopefully some of

Feet

What boots you wear is dependent on what you are doing - winter hill walking, mountaineering and easy climbs, mid grade pitched climbing, or hard climbing. For hill walking and easier routes many will wear a B2 (link) rated boot - with a bit of flex to them and not too heavy. These can be super traditional leather walking boots, or more modern styles made with various synthetic materials. Boots for climbing in tend to be rigid - B3 rated for prolonged crampon use and built with warmth in mind. Boots for the hardest climbs are rigid but lighter, possibly sacrificing some warmth and support but anyone interested in those type of boots won't need this article. Opinions vary on what to wear inside. When I started climbing in Scotland in the early 1990s everyone wore plastic boots, and most people seemed to use inside a liner sock under a woolly sock. You didn't need to worry much about cold feet with that combo but it compromised climbing (and walking) performance. With better fitting leather boots wearing one pair of medium to thick socks inside seems to make more sense to make the most of the fit and climbing performance of your boots. Good mountain socks from manufacturers like Extremities, Thorlo, Smartwool, Bridgedale and the like are very nice but do seem horribly expensive for a pair of socks. I found that high wool content socks - normally sold as hiking socks - from even Tesco can do the job fine. My two pairs of Tesco hiking socks cost about seven quid but have kept my feet nice and warm inside my Nepal Extremes even when ice climbing in the bitter cold of the Norwegian arctic. The old Extremities mountain socks I have are a little warmer, but at something like eight times the price!

For UK mountains, I still think that gaiters are pretty vital. If you get water or mud over the top of your boots, you will get cold feet once above the snowline. The gaiters that come attached to many shell trousers might do a good job at keeping snow out of your boots, but not the boot sucking mud of many a British walk-in. Good gaiters are nice, but cheaper ones do the job well enough. Look for a pair with a front zip, these are much less hassle if you need to tighten your laces than the back zip models. Places like Decathlon do some very good value pairs with decent technical designs. Full foot gaiters like Yetis are great for keeping snow out of your boots on prolonged trips where you are camping in deep snow, but in my experience are a bit over-kill for day climbs. They do make boots slightly warmer by keeping snow off your boots and laces - but the majority of heat-loss from the feet is through the soles of your boots, so Yetis aren't the magic bullet to warmer feet that some people expect.

Hands

Glove and mitts are notoriously difficult to get right and, due to the complexity of the stitching and taping, expensive as well. Most winter climbers find a system that works for them after years of trial and error. Mitts are warm and often waterproof but most find them hard to do anything technical in. Softshell gloves are light and dexterous - picking the no. 3 wire of your racking krab is easy enough - but you quickly get cold fingers when belaying and water goes straight through them. Goretex or eVent mountain gloves are somewhere in between - a bit warmer and you can use your belay plate, but you might drop that wire. In my experience you need more dexterous gloves for Scottish climbing, particularly mixed routes where the majority of pro is rock gear. Softshell, or some other thinner types of gloves work well, with mitts for belays and the walk down. For pure icefalls, goretex (or similar) gloves work well - ice screws aren't too fiddly to use with them and they are warmer. Ice climbing in Scandinavia I have often just used my mountain gloves all day, for climbing, belaying and the descent, but for hiking up to Scottish climbs, takes something thin and stretchy for the approach; any old gloves will work fine including woolly ones, keep your main gloves dry and ready for the actual climbing. Finally, take some light, insulated mitts for belays, descents in horrible weather and for simply when your hands get really cold. Buffalo mitts remain a favourite, very light and pretty cheap, but if you think you might be wearing them to belay much get something with reinforcement on the palms. Dachstein mitts deserve a special mention as many and will go on at great (boring?) length about how they are the be all and end all of Scottish winter handwear. I'm unconvinced myself, finding them heavy, stiff and neither particularly grippy or warm - but a thousand happy punters can't be completely wrong so it may be worth trying them out.

Some specific recommendations: my current softshell gloves are by Ortovox - I got them mainly because I couldn't afford the Black Diamond Dry Tool gloves and they were the only other ones my local shop had, but they have turned out to be hard wearing, being three seasons old and surprisingly warm. If the price of softshell gloves puts you off, try Extremities Sticky Thickies over a pair of thinnies (or even cheaper no-brand 'magic' gloves) as a cheaper and surprisingly warm alternative. I used this system for a few seasons of regular Scottish routes and it worked great for me for more technical mixed routes where you are mainly placing nuts and cams. When it comes to a more general, waterproof, mountain glove; for about six years I used a pair of Goretex gauntlet gloves made by Mountain Hardware. These were absolutely superb: the palms and fingers were made with sticky and absolutely bomb-proof rubbery material that no number of abseils could wear out. They had minimal insulation, just a light brushed lining to protect the Goretex, but this meant they were very dextrerous and, for all but the most technical of routes, you could put them on and just keep them on all day. Of course they seem to have stopped making that model now, which all too often happens with a brilliant product! I replaced them last year with Rab Makalus - decent gloves but with some insulation making them less dexterous than the Mountain Hardware ones, and with a less good cuff arrangement. The eVent does seem very good though. If buying waterproof climbing gloves one really important thing is get them to fit your finger length; any floppy bits at the ends of the fingers seems to be magically attractive to the gates of any karabiner you are trying to handle - not what you want whilst desperately trying to get a quickdraw onto your ice screw. For mitts, bargain bins in climbing shops in the summer or somewhere like Decathlon have proven good bets for me in the past - any loose fitting nylon-covered and pile-lined mitts should be pretty warm. My current favourite belay mitts are Extremities and were bought in TKMaxx for about a tenner.

Heads

For ultimate warmth and protection you want a balaclava - I like light and stretchy ones because I tend to carry it much more than I wear it, plus with a black powerstretch balaclava you are also always ready to attend fancy dress parties as a ninja. Back out on the hill, wearing a hat and some sort of fleecy neck tube is far less likely to get you arrested as a bank robber and is more flexible an arrangement. And remember: bobble hats both look ridiculous and don't fit well under climbing helmets, so buy a good looking beanie and you can also use it for bouldering, as long as you remember to take your top of first.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Edelrid Beast Lite Crampon review update

UKclimbing.com have just published a review I have written of the Edelrid Beast Lite crampons. This post is basically an addendum to that noting a problem that has since arisen with the crampons since I filed the review.

I got the crampons unfortunately near to the close of this year's rather truncated Finnish ice climbing season but I still managed to get out and use them on several hundred metres of steep ice divided over lots of pitches and a number of days. It wasn't a whole season of weekend usage, but I still felt pretty confident in my conclusions on the strong and weak points of this rather novel model of crampon. The most noticeable thing about the Beast Lites is (unsurprisingly, considering their name) their low weight, so when I was packing for a ski-mountaineering trip to Norway just before Easter I threw the Beasts into my bag because, despite being a technical climbing crampon by design, they weigh less than even a pair of 10-point walking crampons I own. It was actually on taking them out of my pack to use to scramble up on to the blocky summit of the Senja peak Kvænen where I noticed that plastic heal clip of one of the crampons had cracked through (see the pictures below).





I know that heel bail clips like these don't need to break and that plastic is a very suitable material to make these components from; my Grivel G12s are now well over a decade old and the heel bails are fine. and on my first pair of DMM Terminators it was the metal frame of the crampon that broke after 8 seasons of hard use not the bails. It seems very unlikely that this could be simply bad luck after, relatively speaking, so little use. So I suspect there is a problem either with the type of plastic that Edelrid have used here or the shape and design of the heel clip that led to the breakage. It maybe that in trying to make the crampons so light they simply used too thin plastic here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Marmot Isotherm Hoody/Polartec Alpha Insulation - some thoughts.

The Marmot Isotherm Hoody being used as a mid-layer on a -20 day.
The Isotherm hoody is Marmot's first go at using Polartec's new Alpha insulation, an insulation originally developed by Polartec for US Special Forces. The military wanted a synthetic insulation that while warm was also breathable and could be kept on during periods of activity. With body armour, plus all the equipment carried by modern soldiers on their webbing, donning or taking off layers of clothing below all that is obviously difficult in anything beyond relaxed and safe situations hence the requirement for insulation that breathes well when you are active in it. The Alpha insulation is knitted onto a mesh, allowing 'sheets' of the insulation to made and sewn into garments. The knitted construction is very air-permeable meaning breathability, but also means the insulation is stable and drapes well. This allows for simple garment designs that don't require extensive channels through the construction, as would be necessary to hold a loose insulation like down. The Alpha insulation is though encased in an inner and outer shell. Again because of the stable, knitted structure of the insulation, manufacturers can use as an inner layer a very breathable and light mesh material (again a loose insulation like down would escape through such a material). With the Isotherm Hoody Marmot have used a mesh version of their own dri-clime material for most of the inner liner. 

Graphic from Polartec, click here for more info.
With Polartec Alpha's unique selling point being breathability I feel the choice of outer material to the insulation is vital. Insulation works by holding air still, creating a barrier of stable, warm air between the person inside the clothing and the colder, moving air in the environment beyond – so there needs to be a windproof layer over the insulation to allow for this to happen. This would seem to be where the central dilemma with Polartec Alpha lies – for the material to insulate to its maximum amount you need to use a windproof outer fabric but this may not be particularly breathable, but to get the most out of the insulation's structure which is what Polartec says makes Alpha more breathable than competitor synthetic insulations, you want an outer fabric that is highly breathable, which generally means less windproof. The new buzz-phrase in the industry for this is “air permeability”; for instance the new Goretex Pro is air-permeable as is Polartec NeoShell making both of these fabrics more breathable than other waterproof fabrics, but the other way of putting this is “not as windproof” and that might not sell as well in the 'performance outdoor clothing' market. For the outside of the Isotherm Hoody, Marmot have gone with Pertex Quantum, a light ripstop nylon. There are different types of Pertex and I'm not sure if certain forms are more windproof and less breathable than others – but Quantum is an ultra-fine and smooth weave so I would imagine that it isn't particularly air-permeable, although of course being windproof allows the Alpha insulation below to insulate all the better.
Some slightly freaky google auto-produced multilayer pic of me mountain-biking in the Isotherm.
So that's the physics theory section; but what about in use? Well, in truth it is a bit of a mixed bag. Let's start with the good stuff; the Thermo Hoody is very light (387 grams in medium, about 20 grams less than Marmot claim) and very compressible – it is very easy to stuff into a bag to take along 'just in case'. The hood (a simple under-helmet design) adds instant warmth when used although it isn't designed to zip up and protect your face. Considering how light the materials are too, it seems relatively tough – it survived a day of gritstone cragging when it was far too cold for me to worry much about not scuffing and scraping it. Marmot have used a stretchy light softshell material over the shoulders to make it a bit tougher for use with a rucksack. It's easy to care for too, particularly in comparison to lightweight down tops. If it gets grubby you just chuck it in the machine for a wash. For me the downsides are the fit and the design. I've been a big fan of Marmot for years as their quality seems top-notch and their size medium has always fitted me well, but with the Thermo Hoody the medium is too tight across the shoulders although it's not particularly trim around the waist so its seems a bit oddly proportioned. Perhaps related to this I've also found it doesn't work brilliantly with a harness with a tendency to pull out after some high reaches. A climbing harness covers the hand warmer pockets too, which considering Alpha is all about “active insulation” - so insulation to wear whilst doing stuff, like climbing! - seems a shame. Another minor design flaw is that the lining in the sleeves is too loose so when ever you pull the jacket on the inner fabric pulls out, protruding beyond the cuff. It goes back in easily enough if you hold the cuff and stretch the sleeves a bit, but it's enough of an annoyance to notice.




And finally to the big issue – is it breathable and how much warmth does it offer? Used as an outer layer for things like autumnal mountain biking I found the Isotherm snug, wind resistant and warm but perhaps a bit too warm. Despite not riding particularly hard or doing long climbs, in positive single digit temperatures the inside of the Isotherm was getting rather damp with sweat being worn over just a thin base layer. This would dissipate with time, but then I've found the same true of traditional synthetically insulated pieces like the Marmot Variant. Through the damp cool autumn Alpha didn't strike me as that different and I was left wondering – was it the Pertex Quantum material holding in the sweat or the Alpha insulation itself? For cool weather rock climbing, the jacket was more successful, not getting sweaty inside and keeping me reasonably comfortable while climbing on what was a ridiculously windy day at a rather exposed English gritstone edge. The day was so windy though, that although it wasn't particularly cold (about +5) I still needed to use a duvet over the Isotherm when not climbing – in those gales you notice the air permeability by getting cold! So good for less aerobic activities like rock climbing but I don't think the Isotherm is necessarily the best cragging top for the reasons mentioned earlier; it would need to be longer, have differently positioned pockets and perhaps a slightly heavier, tougher face fabric for that. I have used it as a mid-layer under a Marmot NeoShell jacket in cold and very cold conditions, and here it worked impeccably. This has included Nordic skating at -20 and alpine skiing at just below freezing. But in both these cases I suspect a hi-loft fleece would have also worked as well as a mid-layer.

 
Cragging at the Roaches in the Isotherm Hoody
I'm left wondering rather what “active insulation” pieces like the Isotherm are really best suited for? I think for me, at least, a microfleece (the grid-pattern ones wick and breath very well) and a windshirt will work as well; being more versatile, costing less and not weighing much more. Nevertheless we all experience the outdoor environments differently and for some people I'm sure the Isotherm will be the best midlayer they've ever tried. There is a lot of like about it, a certain silky luxurious snugness in particular! But still – for me – I'm not sure if it does a job better than pre-existing solutions. It will be interesting to see how Polartec Alpha is used in conjunction with different shell materials in the future, because I still don't quite see how to square the circle of having an insulation that is both air permeable itself and is encased in air-permeable fabrics that will still work well in anything other than windless conditions.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Physics you can sleep on; a design weakness in the Alpkit Numo sleeping mat.

Bikepack bivvying - my Alpkit Numo under my tarp
 
Warning: very geeky camping gear post follows; surf away now if you don't care and most well adjusted people probably don't.

A camping mat is pretty fundamental to getting a decent night's sleep when camping – whatever you pick is a compromise; the light ones might not be tough, the tough ones not light, the light, tough ones not cheap etc. In summer you can get away with more (well, actually less); find some softish, non-rocky ground and even the lightest closed cell foam mat can be great, but on hard uneven ground and as winter approaches the mat becomes more important.

Winter bivvy, in a laavu (Finnish lean-to log shelter)
I got an Alpkit Numo a few years back and have like it. It's one of the new generation of air mattresses - you blow into it and it fills up like a balloon - very light and compact. I had always thought that just getting you off the ground, so that heat can not move by conduction away from your body into the ground as you sleep, was central to how sleeping mats of all types worked but using the Numo demonstrates it's more complicated than that. Once inflated the Numo probably is about 10 cms thick – a lot more than most Thermarest style mats (a couple of cms) or closed cell foam mats (>1 cm). This makes it super comfy but also allows for some interesting physics – because the Numo is just air inside (thermarests hold air in a complex lattice of open cell foam that it inside the mat) you get convection currents in it. Because the air can move inside the mat as it cools it will move around - not working well as insulation. Alpkit obviously knew this as in the body section of the mat (about shoulder to bum) they put insulation, this was some sort of synthetic strands stuck to the two inside-sides of the mat. When you blow the mat up this stretches forming a lattice structure and stoping convection in that section of the mat. 

Late summer bivvy.
The difference this insulation made is very noticeable – I first sussed this on a wild autumn night in upper Glen Nevis, near Steall waterfall. It wasn't terribly cold, maybe around 5 degrees and I had a bag plenty warm enough. I slept fine but it was quite noticeable that whilst my body was warm my legs (where there is no insulation in the Numo) were getting cold from below – just like the feeling of trying to sleep on ice with a too thin mat. Hence despite being both really comfy and also light and the most packable of my mats, I decided it was best to use it for 3-season camping only. 

In the pictures above, on the left you can see the insulation still adhering to one side of the mat but on the right you can see where most of the insulation has come detached and collapsed back on itself. 

This is issue is compounded by the design problem with the mats – the insulation comes unstuck from one side of the mat and collapses back against the other side hence doing nothing. When I first noticed this with my first Numo, Alpkit in their normal very customer-first way said “no worries, we'll send you a new one”, but then the same thing happened with our second Numo (my wife had discovered how much comfier my Numo was than her old thermarest), and then more recently with the replacement to the original one. I've come to the conclusion that you can get about two weeks use out a Numo before the insulation peels away. I used one of them in that state on my recent bikepacking trip where it was just below freezing at night and even sleeping on the wooden floor of the laavu, I got cold enough from below to wake me up (the first night in my tent in the car park I had slept perfectly on my much thinner foam Z-rest). So the failure of the insulation really limits the Numos to summer use only.

Slightly grumpy bikepacker in the morning twilight after a long chilly December night on a not warm enough mat.
Alpkit admitted that the problem is that when you breath into the mat blowing it up – they aren't self inflating like Thermarests – the moisture in your breath gets trapped and the sogginess inside makes the glue holding the insulation in place fail. Alpkit have stopped making the Numos and aren't going to do any more – they told me they're redesigning their whole mat range for next summer – so of course that makes this whole post sort of pointless: if you don't have a Numo you can't buy one and if you do have one and it fails in the way mine did, Alpkit can't really do anything about it now. But at least I've proven to my own satisfaction that air alone isn't sufficient insulator for sleeping. I guess it has to be stable air that can't circulate, and the problem also shows how small a sealed space -inside an air mattress- is enough for convection currents to have a significant impact on the insulation quality of that mat.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

An early winter bikepack



It seems that a late November weekend scout camp is now part of my kids's annual schedule, so a couple of Fridays back I found myself back up in the Forssa area, about 100 kms northwest of Helsinki with 36 hours to kill. It was mid-evening, slightly below freezing and very very dark. Last year I had taken my mountain bike and tried bikepacking the hiking route, the Lynx Route/Ilvesreitti, with limited success. The 'trail' was marked by waymarks but not enough people had actually walked it to make much of trail on the ground. I did a lot of pushing and carrying the bike through forest brush. This year I decided to stick to roads and forest tracks, including riding sections of the long distance bike route the Häme OxRoad/Hämeen Härkätie, that goes from Turku to Hämeenlinna, so took my cyclocross bike. A lot of the roads and trails are unsurfaced so the CX was a great choice, I could nip along paved sections at a decent pace, but had plenty of grip on the gravel.





Last year it was grey and just above freezing for the whole trip, and in November in Finland the days are so short and the sun always so low that it brings a whole new drab meaning to “grey”. This year I lucked out and the sky cleared early on Saturday morning and stayed clear until after I was asleep that evening, the temperature never got above 1 degree and was often just below freezing according to the thermometer on my excellent newish bike computer.
Saari Folk Park
The Saari viewing tower
I camped in a carpark in LiesjärviNational Park on Friday night with the luxury of a tent and left the car (and tent) there on Saturday morning. That day I rode a bit over 90 kms; this included some hiking single track in the Saari Folk Park but mostly was on unsurfaced roads and forest tracks. A good day of gravel grinding. It didn't feel that big a day but I ran out of daylight and had to ride the last hour or so with lights on to get to the laavu (lean-to shelter) I had decided to use that night. This was actually the same one as I had camped in last year, but it was much nicer this time with all the stars out above and no wind.

I lit a fire in the fireplace with out much trouble, although it never really got to that pleasantly roaring stage. There was only the dregs of the woodpile left, I guess after a summer of visitors, and although the logs burnt they didn't seem to put out much heat. I made lots of hot drinks to rehydrate – it's easy to not drink enough riding in cold weather – and ate my dubious far-eastern pot noddle thingy for supper, but with an indifferent fire retired to my sleeping bag very early.





Sunday morning, I didn't have much time before needing to go and pick my son up from scout camp so got up early, made some hot drinks with breakfast and packed up. It was still only getting light as I left the laavu and the moon was shining brightly over the lake. I only needed to ride about 20 kms back to my car that morning. It had snowed over nigh; enough to make most of the world white but not enough to bother me in terms of riding. My new tyres seemed to grip through the snow perfectly well and reasonably soon I was back where I had started and putting the bike back on the car.





Overall, the Häme Lake Uplands area is nice region to ride and the available map designed for hikers andother outdoors user is a great resourse. The roads away from a couple of highways, that I only crossed, are almost deserted. I reckon only around a dozen cars went past me all day. At this time of year in particular though, it is rather lonely – even though there are national parks with the related infrastructure you might expect, everything was closed. I found one cafe in the post office in Porras open, where I had a lovely chat with the ladies picking up their parcels and having coffee (I suspect and Englishman on a bike speaking very bad Finnish might have been one of the more novel events of their day), but beyond that I went past no open shop, cafe or similar. Make sure you have enough food with you. There are also large numbers of abandoned and decaying buildings in the area, barns and old farm houses like this are quite normal in rural Finland, but the empty petrol station and shops (see photos above) had an unnerving feeling of looking a bit too much like a scene from "The Walking Dead".

Of course you can camp pretty much anywhere, but I pushed on to get to a laavu I used last year – knowing it was great spot and has a fireplace, wood and a compost loo. But because of the hiking, riding, canoeing and cycling routes around that area there are quite a few similar laavus around.


I had new tyres for the trip, SchwalbeMarathon Plus Tours. I was still using my original Marathon Pluses through this summer on that bike. They came on my last bike and have been absolutely superb. I must have done at least 10,000 kms over five years on them and have never had a puncture but they're showing their age with the sidewalls beginning to crack and the tread must be wearing somewhat even if it doesn't look like it. I've ridden a few cyclocross races this autumn and using my light CX tyres and have had a puncture in one race then a double puncture in the next – all pinch flats from hitting rocks and having the tyres blown up firm doesn't seem to help. Hence deciding to try the Marathon Plus Tours – the same hopefully bombproof construction as the normal Marathon Plus, but with a bit of tread that seemed more suited for gravel roads and forest tracks of Finland. On this trip they were great – the grip felt great, even on Sunday morning riding back on snow. The only downer is that with those very meat tyres plus mudguards on, the bike felt bloody heavy. I'm not sure if serious CXers would want to race on them, although for me if they didn't puncture it would offset any slowness caused by their weight. For touring like this though they seem perfect, hopefully I'll get 10,000 trouble free kilometres out of this pair.





For cold weather bikepacking you need a bit more gear just to keep warm. I used the same set up as in September with my new Alpkit bikepacking bags and lashed-on dry bags but also took a waist pack; just that bit more capacity than I needed in summer. One of those bigger things for winter is the excellent Jöttnar Fjörm down jacket that I'm reviewing for UKClimbing currently. It's very warm and a nice “insurance” layer to have, obviously designed as an belay jacket for ice climbing but works great for any cold weather camping. It was stuffed with my sleeping bag in the dry bag that goes under saddle. This is fine when riding, but I need a number of straps to hold it in place which makes getting things out of the bag a hassle if you're not stopping for long. The obvious if a bit expensive solution to this is to buy one of Alpkit'sKoala seat packs, meaning retrieving a jacket from the seat pack would be easy, but I'm not convinced the Koala packs would fit as much as my current arrangement despite supposedly being the same size as my current dry bag I use there. Nevertheless, I know from winter climbing that your belay jacket HAS to be easy to reach because otherwise there is the temptation not to use it with the inevitable downwards circle into shivering. I guess with cold weather bike touring the situation is not dissimilar so I need to work this one out.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

DMM Renegade 2 harness - a review

Relaxing in the Renegade 2 at the top of the corner of Engelskdiederet, Eidetind.
 I think DMM probably asked me if I wanted to review the new version of the Renegade because I had given the original version a rather glowing review on UKC back in 2008. It became my main harness after that and did sterling weekly service for the next five years. It still looks in pretty good nick now so shall emigrate to England, and my mum and dad's attic, where it will reside with various other bit of older gear as my "UK rack", helping me cut down on how much baggage I take backwards and forwards across Northern Europe.

Simon borrowing the Renegade - fully adjustable to fit different sizes

I stand by my original opinion that the Renegade, before and now in its updated "2" version, is an excellent all-round harness. It's not the lightest, but it is supportive when you need to hang in it for a long time; it has loads of racking possibilities; it is very adjustable allowing you to put it over winter layers or lend it to a differently sized mate; and at least the original one I know was very well made because it lasted so well.

The stuff we lugged up Stetind, plenty of racks are helpful. The Renegade is the red and grey harness as the back.

Some people, for reasons I never got, hated the racks on the Renegade 1. They sloped forward a bit, something that I never really noticed but others clearly did. On the Renegade 2 DMM have done away with the sloping style. They have though kept the same seven loop-layout that I love. There are climbers who I respect who say they've never felt the need for more than four gear loops even for complex trad climbing when you carry lots of stuff, but personally I love the ability to split big racks between the seven loops and know exactly where some bit of kit is going to be. When I went to Norway in August I took with me the Renegade 2 and another very nice Edelrid harness that I was reviewing for UKC. The Edelrid is great, nicely made and super-comfy for long days, but as we racked up for our big day on Stetind I took the Renegade 2 without much thought; I just knew I would want the familiar ability to spread a big rack out over the seven gear loops and find what I wanted quickly. I'm sure I would have done fine with the Edelrid too; but for the me the Renegade works so well for big routes and big racks, it is reassuring.

Me sorting all the gear out on the summit of Stetind after 13 pitches of climbing; photo ©D. Smith
Of course a review isn't a review if you don't try and break the thing, even if just a little. One change DMM made between the 1 and 2 versions is that the tubing to stiffen the gear racks used to be pushed over the sewn on tape that makes up the racking. Now the tubing is pushed into the tubular tape before the racking is attached. This perhaps looks a bit smarter and avoid small krabs getting caught at the top of the plastic tubing on the original harness (cue much patting your bum whilst gibbering "dammit, where's my effing nut key gone!?" when it's not hanging as expected in the middle of the back loop). Nevertheless at some point on Stetind my inelegant chimneying technique, most likely, led to one of the stiffener-tubes pushing through the tubular tape that should have been enclosing it. Needing a field repair the next day and not being able to just push it back into the tape, I trimmed about 5 mms off the plastic tube to allow it to go back in, and then put some finger tape over the damaged bit. This has been fine since. I don't know if I just got really unlucky managing to snag the rack leading to this or whether it's a design weakness and DMM are going to see some returns from other people, but users should perhaps keep an eye on the racks to check it doesn't happen to them.

Where I broke the Renegade.
Nevertheless, overall, the Renegade 2 is great. Everything I liked about the original Renegade: loads of racking; the free floating padding meaning the harness is always straight; supportive and strong; is here and the "2" irons out a few kinds from the original. A total weight-weenie might want something more compact and lighter but if you do a bit of everything the Renegade is still a great choice.


Monday, October 28, 2013

DMM Shadow, DMM Alpha and DMM Aero quickdraws - a review


Simon escapes the dour Australian winter for some sunny Finnish sport climbing: lower bolt clipped with an Aero QD, upper with an Alpha QD
Back in the summer DMM sent me the new version of their Renegade harness to test, which is a good un' but deserves it's own post soon. They they also sent me some of their newest quickdraw models to try out at the same time. This post is going to focus on the quickdraws. Amusingly, considering I'm a pretty lousy sport climber, I got three plain gate models which most people now associate with sport climbing. More and more people use wire gates for trad and I think arguably wire gates make the best all-round krabs if you have only one set to do everything from summer, sunny sport climbing to brutal winter ice or mixed. Nevertheless, wiregates can mix badly with old school bent plate bolt hangers at the top end of quickdraws and some, I think including me, believe that a well designed bentgate is easier to clip in extremis than even the best wiregate krabs. Hence there is still market for plaingate krabs. Personally when there isn't going to be snow and ice around (with the possibility of gates freezing) I also find that plaingate models like those below work great as general trad cragging as well as for sport.


DMM Aero quickdraws


The Aeros are DMM's budget plaingate krabs, they're kinda heavy by modern standards at 47 grams for the bent gate, but they are burly at 9kn gate-open and shop around and you can find them for as little as £12.50 for a full quickdraw. They don't come with the fancy variwidth dogbones that the more expensive quickdraws do, but with plain 16 mm nylon tapes that I find found perfectly comfortable to grab and cheat on! The gate is exactly the same as on the more expensive models and is fantastic - getting the rope in is easy even for a total clipping-klutz like me. So yeah, if you needed to carry a rack of twenty up some enduro-sports-monster pitch they're gonna be a bit heavy on your harness, but still nothing like scared-trad-climber-rack-heavy and you're more likely to be able to afford twenty of these!


DMM Alpha quickdraws

Gio doing a tricky move past the Alpha quickdraw
DMM make two wiregate versions of the Alpha, a little one called the "Light" and a full size one - the "Trad", but I got sent the plaingate quickdraw - the straight-gate is called the "Pro" and bent gate the "Clip" - joined together by a variwidth nylon dogbone like the classic Petzl sports draws. This is DMM's full-on, top of the range sport climbing quickdraw, I felt a bit lame using it on 6as and the odd 6b or whilst trad climbing HVSs, but still I can say they are very easy to clip and reassuringly burly when you are working moves (yes, I work moves on 6bs - the shame...). At 45 grams for the Alpha Clip, they aren't a lot lighter than the aeros, so the technology has all gone into the ergonomics rather than weight saving, but on projects where the quickdraws are in place, that's what you'll be interested in anyway. So overall, super-luxury sport krabs - not very cheap - but you'll probably know whether the step up in price from aeros is worth it for you.


DMM Shadow quickdraws

The Shadow quickdraw (second runner down) on a trad route
I got a bunch of Shadow quickdraws to review for UKClimbing from DMM six years ago. As soon as I got to use them for regular summer cragging, I liked them a lot and my opinion hasn't changed in six years; they remain my favourite all-round rock climbing krabs. Those first six I got all those years back are normally the first six QDs I still use on just about every single-pitch route, be it sport or trad. The updated version of the Shadow hasn't changed hugely, the bent-gate version now shares the same great gate as the Aero and Alpha. They weren't hard to clip before, but I guess it's even a little easier now. The notching has changed very slightly on the straight-gate too; can't say I noticed a difference but DMM are sensible about these things and I'm sure its the result of suggestions from people who know what they are talking about. They now come with the variwidth dogbones, good for the sport climbers, although I've been perfectly happy with the narrower original dyneema tapes: fine to grab when dogging, but perhaps a tad more flexi for trad? It's not a huge issue though. The bent gate version is 43 grams, so the lightest of the three here. Not super-light by any means compared to modern crazy-light krabs; but these are big beefy easy to handle krabs that do everything well. The Shadows cost about halfway between the price of the Aeros and Alphas and I think are great value considering they make such good krabs for both sport and trad and, as my original ones will attest, they last very well too. The new colours look funky as well, although of course we're all too serious to care about such matters aren't we? One odd thing; the Shadows used to be rated at 10 kn for gate-open, now it's 9kn. 9 is plenty but 10 looks reassuring and I'm not sure why it has changed when I don't think the krab itself has changed much.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bikepacking - new bags, new camera.

Autumn is here and the sky is full of skeins of geese
So far all my attempts at bikepacking have been made with gear that on the whole I already had. I did buy a cheap bar bag that worked well but it won't fit the wider bars of my cyclocross bike. I also bought a seatpost rack, but that snapped on my last trip. Mainly I've just lashed dry bags to various parts of the bike. But with the bikepacking idea taking off in the UK as well as elsewhere, the British firm Alpkit (who I've written about in the past) are now offering custom frame-bags and are bringing out additional bikepacking luggage. I invested in the Stingray frame-bag for my CX bike and also bought one of their "beta" Fuel Pods.

Packed up and ready to go
 Last weekend I went for an over-night trip to try the bags out. The morning before the ride had also seen the UPS guy deliver my new camera - a rather fine little Canon - so I was keen to try that out too. The photos in this post and video at the bottom were all taken with it.

Quiet Finnish roads #1
Quiet Finnish roads #2
It's pouring with rain now but last weekend was far closer to the glorious summer Finland has had this year, rather than this newly arrived, business-as-usual autumn. The sun shone until it set and then through the forest canopy I could still see lots of stars. I rode about 85 kms to a little beyond the town of Karkkila, around 100 kms northwest of Helsinki on Friday afternoon. Just west of the town the land becomes more forested and less agricultural, and with lots of lakes. I wanted to camp on a lake edge; for aesthetic reasons and simply as a source of water, and despite there being lots of lakes around those parts, I was quite surprised by how many summer cottages there also are - so it took me a few attempts at following various quiet gravel roads to find some lakeside forest that kept me a respectful distance from people enjoying the last weekend of great weather in their summer places.



I had thought perhaps optimistically that the mosquito season was now over so took a tarp but no mossie net. At first in the evening there were more than enough mossies to be annoying but interestingly later at night they all seemed to dissappear allowing me to sleep with my head out of my sleeping bag comfortably. It was just below 14 degrees when I went to bed (my new cycle computer very handily has a thermometer on it) and just below 12 when I woke up, so I'm now theorising that there must be some magic point between 12 and 14 degrees Celsius where its gets too cold for mosquitoes!

The morning sun starting to burn away the mist
Overnight camp
A bit before midnight I could hear in the distance some interesting howling, that at least to me didn't sound like a dog. Noting this on Twitter as I lay in my sleeping bag, caused some amusement amongst other late evening Twitter perusers around the world, along with some useful research done for me on the most southerly sightings on wolves in Finland, some terribly bad lupine-themed jokes, and even a friendly suggestion from the deputy mayor of Helsinki to make sure my tent zip was done up tight. This of course made the howls feel closer as I lay there under my door-less and indeed side-less tarp!
The only nighttime visitor
Dew droplets on a spider's web
Morning arrived sunny and wolf-free with the forest glistening in its thick coating of dew. I had some breakfast and coffee and made a reasonably quick start as I had promised to be home by lunchtime in order to be ready for the family's annual trip to Linnanmäki, Helsinki's long established amusement park. Overall I was gone for less than 24 hours and rode about 170 kms, probably split evenly between surfaced and unsurfaced roads - the kind of riding that my CX bike is perfect for.

Greeting the morning sun with coffee
Packed and ready to leave where I camped
 There's been some good stuff written, originating in the UK, about "microadventures", whilst from the US there's the idea of "S24O" - or sub-24-overnight bike trips. It's taken off in Helsinki too which is really great. The ideas are simply about encouraging people to get out, see some countryside and sleep under the stars. I think it's a great concept; not everyone has the time, money or family situation that allows them to go off for months to some far-off wilderness, but most of us can nip off for 24 hours, and some exercise plus a night out in the woods listening to the bird calls (and maybe even a wolf howl in the distance) has to be good for your health - physical and mental.
It's probably not funny at all to Finns, but I would love to live in a place called "Ahmoo"
Somewhere in the Finnish countryside
 The Alpkit bags seem great so far. The frame bag takes quite a lot of gear but doesn't bulge enough to rub. I picked the thinnest option, 4cm bulging to 6cm width, as it was for a CX bike. On a MTB you might be able to get away with a slightly wider bag. The 'fuel pod' also worked well, although due to the hydroformed frame shape at the front of the cross-bar on my bike, I could do with the velcro tabs being a little longer, whilst the tab that goes around the stem could be thinner. They only had them in size large when I bought it, so went for that size by default. Nevertheless it's not that big, so I think the smaller option must be tiny with room just for some energy gels or similar. I wasn't sure when I ordered it, but I'm glad I got the bigger size.

The Alpkit "Fuel Pod", size large
Drops bars on a CX bike making attaching luggage to the handle bars trickier. A small-ish dry bag packed no bigger than to fit between the drops works OK, and for this trip I had some much better straps to hold it on. These are from the Aussie firm, Sea-to-Summit, which make some of the most intelligent little bits-and-bobs for camping and outdoor pursuits, as well as some amazing if very pricey serious gear like this very high quality sleeping bag that I reviewed for UKclimbing a couple of winters ago. They were sillily expensive for a couple of nylon straps - about €10 - but the alloy locking buckles on them work very well and didn't loosen despite hours of vibration, particularly riding on gravel road - so as long as I don't lose them they should pay off in the long term!

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