Monday, June 25, 2012

Alpkit in operation - kayak touring in Southern Finland

I haven't been blogging much recently, but when writing up my last post noticed I had uploaded a bunch of photos last summer from a kayaking trip, saved them as a draft, and then had forgotten about them. I've also been meaning to write a review of some Alpkit gear I've been using for some time now so, and as all my Alpkit gear got taken on that trip, I figure I can get two birds with one stone - although not literally as obviously that would a) be cruel and b) I'm not that good a shot.

Unpacking for night one of 3 day/2 night trip
It is almost boring to say nice things about Alpkit because, like motherhood and apple pie, everyone seems to like them and this post isn't going to be much difference. With a direct to the public, internet-only business model, the folks at Alpkit have realised that they need to make customer service an absolute priority and this they do exceedingly well. They must be a pretty busy and fair sized business by now, but still you always feel that it's a personal service and it doesn't matter if you are spending a few quid or many hundreds, your order seems to matter to them. About the worse I can say is that their chosen courier service was a bit hopeless on the last order I made when back in the UK. I nearly didn't get my parcel before coming back to Finland, but Alpkit did what they could do from their end and it turned up just in time.

Two airlock dry bags and the Gourdon dry-rucksack
If there is one problem with Alpkit it's that they are a victim of their own success and have problem keeping their products in stock. Over the years I've on a number of occasions wanted to buy something only to find that they don't have any in stock and aren't expecting more for some time. I presume it is a constant battle for a business that gets its products made in the far east to have enough to meet demand, but to not end up with tonnes of unwanted stuff on their shelves. Nevertheless Alpkit is simply so competitive on price, that as consumer I really don't want to buy, say, a drybag from anywhere else as all other brands seem so expensive. So it's particularly annoying when they don't have what you want in stock as it makes you feel like you are being 'forced' to spend more on an alternative. The fact that they leave the product pages up, but just with a little "out of stock" note when you go to click to buy, amplifies this.

But, moving on to the actual kit I have bought. First, a Gourdon 25 - a drybag masquerading as a rucksack, or vice versa if you prefer. My 25 litre one is small, lightish (and light if you pull the back-pad out), waterproof, has a couple of handy pockets on the outside and best of all is bright orange. Actually, if I'm honest, the best of all thing is that it cost 22 quid. Can't say fairer than that. It works perfectly as a drybag in a kayak, and is fine as a little rucksack (stable enough for mountain biking and even running if there's not too much weight in there).

Midnight on Hiidenvesi
Next, tent pegs. Yeah - I know tent pegs aren't very exciting but short of buying some hugely expensive brand name ones from a camping shop when you need them, its hard to find cheaper but non-trashy or super heavy ones than Alpkit's. I originally bought some of their titanium v-pegs when I bought a tarp, figuring if you had a tarp you should really have Ti pegs to round out your ultralight image. They don't pull out and are light but they can be hard on guylines due to their shape - they have cut the soft nylon guylines I put on my tarp a couple of time. Also, don't try to push them in by foot if you are wearing Crocs. A hole in your Croc (and possibly your foot) will be the result. I subsequently got some of their jolly red aluminium ones; these weight a little more but are more user friendly and are cheaper so you won't get as upset when you inevitably lose one.

Kayak touring is just super-civilised, the marginal cost of a bit more weight is minimal so beer becomes a 'necessity'!
Referring back to my earlier point about stock availability, the next item I'll mention is the Alpkit Numo air mattress. These don't seem to be on Alpkit's site anymore, so it may be that they don't plan to reintroduce them, perhaps connected to the issue of them being very similar to a model made for the American outdoor equipment firm POE by the same factory in China. If this is the case, it's a shame because having slept on the Numo a good few nights now, it is by far the most comfy mattress I've used for camping. I've not used a non-self inflating mattress since family camping as kid (and those ones always leaked!) and its a step up in comfort from even a thicker thermarest style. It also packs down pretty small, is light and, of course being Alpkit, was far from expensive. I used it camping in Glen Nevis last September and it was there that I noticed what others say about this style of mat not offering the same insulation value as Thermarests; it seems that you get convective air currents within the tubes and this takes heat away from your body. The Numo has some insulation the torso area but I found this effect surprisingly noticeable around my feet. So comfy, yes, but perhaps a three season mat at most.

Gamma headtorch in operation
The Gamma head torch is pretty famous now, they are just so ridiculously good value - money for candlepower, nothing comes close. I've had mine three or more years now. It used to spend most of the winter, minus its elastics, attached semi-permanently to my bike helmet. Commuting in winter in Helsinki is pretty dark affair and I like the high position of lights (it has a red blinker on the battery pack at the back as well) on my helmet, in addition to numerous bike-mounted lights. If there is anything wrong with it, I would prefer that the small red LED would come on first out of the secondary front lights. Red doesn't take away your night vision when, for example, reading a map, so it would make sense if you didn't need to cycle through the white and green, to get to the red. The Gamma might not be the best head torch in the world, but at 15 quid nothing else comes close.

Leaving camp for day 2
If drybags work, there's not much more to say about them - Alpkit ones do work, and they cost very little. I have an older one of the simple dry-bags (now I think they are in a lighter material than mine) and one of the slighty more techy ones. These have lashing points that make them great for bikepacking for example. They work, they're tough, they're cheap - not much more to say really.

South to Lohjanjärvi
Finally, I want to give a shout out to Alpkit's little zip pouches. They call them their "Mission packet" which sounds very cool, but actually they are little zip bags, going up in size. I bought them thinking they looked cute but wondering whether I'd ever use them. Of course it turns out that I use them constantly. Particularly the little ring attached to them means you can clip them to something like the key clip inside the lid pocket of a big pack ensuring your wallet and car keys never get misplaced. The biggest one will just fit my MacBook in it, and the mid sizes can stop a paperback getting squashed, make a decent wash kit bag, keep your matches and penknife handy, etc. etc. etc.

Is there anywhere in Finland where the dubious 'delights' of ABC's monopoly of mediocrity doesn't reach?

Portages don't come much easier.

Fantastic weather on Lohjanjärvi.

Breakfast and packing up on day 3

Your - slightly piratical - correspondent, somewhere in a big Finnish lake. 

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