REVIEW: Páramo Bentu update

Just days after I posted the review of the Páramo Bentu windproof and fleece, I noticed that the zip on the windproof had become separated from the body of the jacket about ⅓rd of the way up. I phoned the Wadhurst store at 0900 on Saturday morning, and explained the situation. As the Jacket was so new they agreed to replace it rather than repair. I posted the jacket by Royal Mail secure delivery first thing Monday morning, they received it just after 1000 on Tuesday morning. The brand new replacement arrived by Royal Mail 48 hour delivery this morning (Thursday). I’m guessing Páramo will repair the jacket and it’ll appear in the Páramo seconds shop on ebay in due course

Páramo didn’t quibble, and did a really fast turn around. Great customer service.

REVIEW: Páramo Zonda and Bentu Jackets.

I’ve used my Páramo Quito jacket for all of last autumn, winter and spring as my main jacket, be it cycling to college, hiking the Downs, or just wandering to the shops. It has worked pretty well, breathing better than any membrane based jacket I’ve owned, but like much of the Páramo range, it has one major draw back. It’s warm.

In the middle of winter the fact I can hike in just a jacket and base layer has been useful, I can leave the fleece at home. If I was warm, I could use the pit zips to vent. But as summer approached, no amount of ventilation was able to counter the laws of physics. Páramo is warm.

With this in mind I did some research into alternatives that might be more suitable to summer use, particularly when a cool breeze takes otherwise T-shirt weather, and makes it chilly. My research led me to the Páramo Zonda windproof and fleece combo.

For those not familiar with the way Páramo works, rather than having a moisture permeable membrane (like goretex), they use multiple layers of polyester fabric, treated with wash-in black magic from Nikwax to create a waterproof garment with what Páramo call “directionality”, and what users call “great moisture management”.

This multi layer fabric combo is comprised of a inner most “pump liner” which is a very fine micro fleece, and a water resistant outer which is a tightly woven polyester fabric. With this combination of micro fleece and tightly woven polyester, you can see why Páramo garments are well known for being too warm for summer use. Especially if you’re only after the wind proof feature.

What the Zonda windproof and fleece does, is take these two layers and split them into two garments. A thin lightweight wind proof, and a thin light weight windproof fleece. Wear them together and they perform the same as any other waterproof made from Páramo’s “Analogy Light” fabric. Great, sounds perfect.

I wandered along to the Páramo store in Covent garden with cash in my pocket ready to buy a Zonda windproof and fleece combo.

Which is when things kinda didn’t goto plan…

First thing that struck me was the colour choice, neither the neon blue or the pink clover are particularly muted, they both screamed “GIRLIE!” In a loud way. Maybe the I could live with the blue… it’ll mostly be under a backpack anyway. Let’s try it on…

I picked the largest size off the rack put it on, went to do the zip up, and failed. I could do the first inch or so over my stomach, but as it approached my upper chest there was no chance of being able to zip it closed over my breasts… ladies fit… made for women… women have boobs… well not those Páramo is targeting their women’s range at obviously. I had a lengthy discussion with the very helpful staff and tried on various items from the women’s range. Nothing fitted. I’m not exactly massive, most of my clothes are 16-18 depending on where I buy things1.

There is a men’s version of the Zonda combo, called the Bora, but this is a smock format, not a jacket format, so while I could find something to fit, I really wanted a jacket rather than a smock.

Having been shut out of any of the women’s range due to having breasts, I turned my eye too the men’s range.

Where the ladies range covers various sizes of pixie, the men’s range is much wider, covering sizes large enough I could fit my back pack inside the jacket2. Maybe something here will fit…

Following the same principal of splitting the classic Páramo layers into two garments, there are a few options in the men’s range. As well as the previously mentioned Bora smock, there is the Enduro jacket (ladies version: Ventura) and the Bentu jacket (ladies version: Zefira).  There is also the Fuera ascent jacket, and Fuera smock, tho there two don’t have matching fleeces3 to go with them unlike the Bora, Enduro and Bentu. The fleece that pairs with the Enduro is a smock, not a jacket, so I discounted that. This just left the Bentu windproof jacket and fleece.

The Bentu is available in two colours, a blue, and a green. Tempted tho I was by the green for not standing out when on the hill, the shade of blue used is sufficiently dark as to be acceptable.

The Bentu has two chest pockets, both big enough to take an ordnance survey active map, and two hand warmer pockets. The fleece has two hand warmer pockets and a Napoleon pocket, just the right size for a compass or small wallet. The main zip is two way to aid in ventilation. But unlike the Quito, Enduro or Fuera ascent, it doesn’t have pit zips4.

The windproof has a pump liner layer on the shoulders and hood, which makes it more rain resistant than it would otherwise be. The sleeves are a loose cut with a Velcro adjuster on the cuff, this allows you to roll your sleeves up for venting.

The cut of fleece is quite loose, and it reminds me of a cardigan in it’s fit. There is no hood, and no adjustment on the loose fitting sleeves. Again you can push them up for ventilation, but without the Velcro, there’s nothing to stop them falling down.

But what about the important part, how well does it perform?

Both the windproof and the fleece have proved to be windproof, if it’s not raining, which of the two layers you wear for wind protection comes down to temperature. Warmer, wear the windproof. Cooler, wear the fleece. In a light shower both keep most of the wet out, tho the fleece seems slightly better in drizzle or a short light shower. I had wet forearms wearing just the windproof in the rain, but the rest of me was dry.

The cycle ride to college today was your typical early autumn rain, not hard enough to make you think you need a jacket, but enough to soak you if you didn’t wear one. I wore the Bentu fleece for the ride and arrived at class nice and dry, with lots of droplets of water beading on the outside. A success.

By the time I left college for the ride back to the station, the rain had picked up, so I chose to wear both layers. Alas the fleece hadn’t completely dried during class and the forearms were still a little damp. A good chance to test the moisture management me thinks…

I set off into the Kentish night, hood up against the rain, and peddled my way the half hour to the station. As I rode the warmth of my body drove moisture from the fleece. Even with the additional liquid water falling out the sky. By the time I had spent 20 minutes on the platform waiting for my train, the inside of the sleeves of the fleece were no longer wet, but somewhere between damp and moist. By the time I got home, they were almost dry. The rest of me stayed dry throughout.

I can’t fault the performance, together the fleece and the windproof work just as well as my Quito, yet at the same time providing me greater flexibility for when it’s dry, warm, yet windy. So what are the downsides of this performance? The main down side is the weight. Neither item is particularly light. My size large fleece measures 420g, and the Windproof 458g. By contrast my size Large Quito is 545g, a weight similar to what I would expect a Zonda combo to weigh, if it had fitted me. Other than that the only other niggle is the absence of a hanging loop on the fleece, making it so I can’t hang it up on the hook as easily.

In summary:

Páramo Zonda Windproof and Fleece combo:

  • Pros: Unknown
  • Cons: Women’s XL is too small for me.

Páramo Bentu Windproof and Fleece combo:

  • Pros: Great performance, great breathability
  • Cons: Weight.
  1. I wear a size 16 RAB MeCo Baselayer
  2. S, M, L, XL, XXL in mens, vs XS, S, M, L, XL, in womens. Mens L is larger than Womens’s XL…
  3. The Fuera ascent was designed to go with the Summit hoodie, but this is no longer listed on the Páramo website
  4. Interestingly while the men’s Enduro has pit zips for venting, the ladies Ventura doesn’t… do women not get warm?

KIT: Firecord

I saw Firecord on The Bushcraft Store website and was kinda curious about how good it was. I was ordering from them anyway, so ordered a 25ft hank of it thinking that it might be worth making some zip pulls and the like, so I could carry tinder, and cord, and have an actual useful item.

Normally I’m not one for paracord, I find it too heavy, and too stretchy for most of my uses. My tarps use 2mm Dyneema (more on that in another post at a later date), or 1.12mm micro-paracord on my siltarp 1. But the idea that this had multiple uses piqued my interest.

The stuff arrived in a hank of 25′ (that’s 7.625m in real money). It certainly felt like the genuine quality paracord, unlike a lot of the cheap stuff that is sold as paracord. You can tie knots in it, and play with Macramé1, as you would expect. But that’s not the important bit, that’s not why you buy Firecord.

Paracord is a nylon outer with 7 inner braids, that together gives you a rated strength of 550lb2. Firecord however is slightly different, it has an 8th core. It’s this 8th core that marks Firecord out.

Innards of Firecord.

The innards of firecord

Lop off a short length of Firecord, pull it apart, and you have at your disposal a useful piece of tinder.

While you can light the tinder from inside Firecord with a lighter, to get best performance, you want to attack it with a knife and fluff it up a bit.

Fluffing up the tinder braid of Firecord

Fluffing up the tinder braid of Firecord

Once you’ve fluffed it up with a knife, the Firecord takes a spark with relative ease.

Lighting Firecord with a ferro rod.

Lighting Firecord with a ferro rod.

Lit Firecord

Lit Firecord

Well it works. Now to make it more useful. It’s too heavy to replace all my tarp guys with, also a bit too expensive and gratuitous for that… No needs something smaller… Zip pulls. A Firecord zip pull for my PFD3. Now you can buy ready made Firecord zip pulls, but they don’t really give you much by way of actual cord, and they are rather expensive… There has to be a better way.

Enter the Square Sinnet Knot 4. Using 2 x 600mm lengths of Firecord & a split ring, I put together a chunky Zipper pull, to put on my PFD. Giving me some useful cordage, and some useful tinder if I happen to fall out, and lose my boat. All in a 10.3g package.

Firecord Zipper pull + Leatherman Juice CS4 for scale.

Firecord Zipper Pull – Leatherman Juice CS4 for scale

I posted about this on the BCUK Forum, and one of the questions I got back was how well does it work once it’s wet. Well in theory it works well… But lets try it just to be sure…

Firecord in water.

Soaking the Firecord…

I took the trimmed ends from my Zipper pull, and soaked them in water. Content they were nicely wet, I pulled one out and gutted it.

Gutted soaked Firecord

So now all I have to do is fluff the cord up a bit, and attack it with a ferro rod.

Lighting wet Firecord

Lighting the wet Firecord

It took more effort to light than the unsoaked cord. Tho using a bigger piece might have been easier. But after a few showers of sparks, it lit. It burned just as well as the non soaked bit.

Lit firecord

Lit firecord.

I think it’s fair to say it works. I’m now looking at the rest of my kit and wondering where I could make use of cord with integral tinder…

  1. The fancy name for the stuff people do with paracord when making bracelets and the like
  2. Which is where the name 550 cord comes from
  3. Personal Flotation Device aka life jacket aka buoyancy aid
  4. Ashley Book of Knots # 2912 and # 2915

REVIEW: Silva Expedition Compass

Ok, before you all cry that the Expedition 4 compass has been on the de facto standard compass for every Brit venturing into the outdoors for decades why are you writing a review. Stop. This isn’t a review of the Silva Expedition 4 compass. This is the newer Silva Expedition Compass. Bonus points to Silva for their highly non confusing naming scheme…

Compass on Map

I wanted to get myself a new compass after being fed up with my old cheapy one. I asked around for recommendations and found that pretty much everyone recommends the Expedition 4. Then a Danish friend let me have a play with his Expedition, I preferred it to the Expedition 4. Which is when I discovered an issue. The Expedition 4 is only available in the UK (anyone know why?), and consequently the Expedition is not available in the UK (anyone know why?). Fortunately I found myself in Germany just before Christmas and managed to pick one up. It cost me €42.

Seeing as the Expedition is almost unheard of (and very hard to buy) in the UK, I thought I’d write a brief review.

So what’s the difference between the Expedition 4 and the Expedition? The first thing that stands out is the bezel. This is a bright orange and black affair that is really easy to use with gloves on and without. Compared to the Expedition 4, I prefer it.

Close up of compass

Next up, as you study the inside of the compass you notice there is what looks like another needle in there, the inclinometer. What’s one of those? Well it’s for measuring the angle of incline. Why do you need that? In the UK, that’s a mighty fine question. Generally as you’re standing in the middle of kinder on a summers day you don’t really need to know the incline of the nearest tussock. The manual suggests that the inclinometer is there to measure the angle of slopes for assessing avalanche risks. I’m not experienced in avalanche awareness, so haven’t used this feature this way. But as an Arboriculture student, I’ve found it’s really useful for measuring the height of trees. Hopefully as I venture into the mountains in winter (under the instruction of a guide at first), I will get to use this feature for what it was intended. In the mean time, do you want to know how tall this tree is?

If you look really closely at the bezel you will notice a small brass screw. If you pull the safety lanyard firmly, you’ll find it splits. Inside one of the ends is a screw driver. Turn the brass screw, and you’ll notice the inside of the compass turns. This is so you can adjust magnetic declination for the area you are in. When I first got home, I got out my local map to adjust it, found that my local area is 2° of declination, and didn’t bother. Turns out for every map I own, the declination is next to nothing, so this feature hasn’t been as useful as I had hoped… If I ever get to head up to the north of Sweden to Sarek and the like, then I can use this to adjust the 6°. Or if I get to New Zealand, where the declination can be in excess of 20°.

Beyond this, the compass has the usual romer scales you would hope for – 1:40k 1:25k and 1:50k, As well as mm and inch scales. There is a magnifier for those wanting to do really close in map work, and the usual hole for marking the map. All of which you also find on the Expedition 4.

As you can see this is a compass for those wanting that little bit more. If you are out in avalanche country or plan to visit areas where magnetic declination is a bit more than your usual margin of error, then this compass is a big improvement over the Expedition 4, well worth the effort to either import it (a couple of German shops will ship them to the UK, including via Amazon), or picking one up when abroad. If however you generally hike only in the UK, you’re probably OK with the older Expedition 4. If you’re not in the UK, well you can’t get the expedition 4 anyway, and this is a great compass, even if you might not use all the features on offer.

For those of you who prefer to use mirror compasses, there is a mirror version of the Expedition.

ADVENTURE: Midnight Kayak Camping

Every month, a small band of bushcrafters from the Bushcraft UK Forum meet up in a Kent pub to chat, and plan bushcrafty type things in the Kent area. The pub we meet in is next to a river, and a couple of us thought it might be interesting if rather than heading home after closing, we went for a paddle…

So after 3 pints of Adnams Broadside, we bundled out the pub and into the car park. Despite being decidedly tipsy, it took us only a few minutes to get the Kayaks off the car, load them up with out gear, and slip into the water.

We took the first tentative paddle strokes down river. A couple of drunks heckled us from the Bridge as we paddled under it.

“It’s cold, what happens if you fall in?”

“We get wet”

This rather obvious answer seemed to confuse them so much they didn’t reply and we floated off into the darkness.

We couldn’t have chosen a better night for it. The merest of breezes, and a cloudless sky allowed us to pootle down stream admiring the constellations, and the starlit countryside.

Most of the wildlife was tucked up safely in it’s bed, but as we turned a corner into a large meander, we disturbed a mammal near the bank. The characteristic tail slap on the surface told us all we needed to know. Beaver.

Ninety minutes after we entered the water we beached the kayaks, and climbed out, without falling in this time. Despite being just miles from a city, and in East Kent, we were greeted by an area of piece and tranquillity.

The lack of forecast rain, as well as the absent sky duvet made the use of a tarp redundant, and I rolled out the bivvi bag in the shelter of a Birch tree. I crawled into my bivvi bag and lay there watching the stars. Somewhere off in the distance a Bittern boomed. Perfect.

Scrubland view.

The view from my bivvi bag.

I woke the next morning having slept beautifully. Rested, and in lovely surroundings. I sat on my bed and just drank in the area. The air was full of bird song, with only the occasional toot of a train in the far distance to give any hint that we were anywhere near civilisation.

When I’d rolled out my bivvi bag in the dark the previous night, I’d done it by starlight alone, so it was with surprise that I found next to my bed a tiny Oak seedling. More by luck than judgement, I hadn’t crushed it.

oak seedling

The baby oak I almost camped on top of

Lyn had been kind enough to lend me a Kayak for the trip, so it seemed only polite that I made breakfast.

In my move towards lighter and lighter gear, I’ve been using meths based cooking equipment for the last few years, and my MSR Whisperlite has sat at home in the kit box. With a Kayak to take the weight tho, I had decided to bring it with me on this trip. As I fried the bacon for breakfast, I remembered how much of a joy it was to use this stove. Sure it might be heavy, but it’s a great little stove.

Bivvi site and kayak

My bivvi site, and kayak.

Breakfast over, we spent half hour exploring our surroundings more, despairing at some of the litter and fire scars that others had left in the area. We filled a carrier bag with litter in an effort to make things slightly better.

Alas all good things must end and it wasn’t long before we reloaded the kayaks and slipped back into the water. The river had a different character in daylight to what it had by starlight, but still offered a very pleasant hours paddle up stream back to the pub, to pick up the car and return home.

 

ADVENTURE: Montserrat – A Spanish Microadventure

I had the good fortune of being in Barcelona for work for a couple of weeks, and knowing that I should have a couple of days while I was there to play tourist, I decided this might be a fantastic opportunity for a bit of a Microadventure.

Knowing very little of the area around Barcelona, I sought advice from Mr Microadventure himself (Al Humphreys), who suggested I have a look at Montserrat.

Montserrat, is a small nature park and mountain escarpment located about an hours train ride from Barcelona. It’s home to a monastery and is a popular tourist destination. While it’s approximately 10km x 5km in size, it’s terrain looked on the map at least, to offer an opportunity to get into some wilds and have a bit of an adventure.

The narrow gauge train from Espanya station trundles through the suburbs of Barcelona before entering the countryside, dotted with dormitory towns for the businesses of Barcelona, the valley was also home to numerous olive groves. I hadn’t slept too well the night before, so having got on the train at Espanya, I promptly hugged my backpack, shut my eyes and woke up 50 minutes later in the countryside.

When you buy a ticket to Montserrat in Barcelona you have a choice, you can buy a ticket including a cable car, or including a rack railway. The cable car seemed like a more interesting option of the two, and with no price difference, I opted for that.

Speaking no Spanish what so ever, and not entirely sure what the station was I had to get off at, I watched out the window hoping for some indication of where to get off.

I saw the cables of a cable car, the supporting masts. Was this the right station? I hurriedly grabbed my bag and jumped off the train just as the doors closed.

Right, which way is Montserrat… erm, oh. *DOH*. This is the wrong station. I wanted the next one. The dangle-way infrastructure is just a decoy. Bah.

I spent the 20 minute wait for the next train reconfiguring my bag. I’d borrowed a hat off a friend so that I wouldn’t combust in the Spanish sun. Alas the rim of the hat banged on the lid pocket of my rather full backpack. The floating lid of the Tempest pack proved to be a useful feature, as I fettled the straps to move the lid pocket more round to the front of the pack out the way of my hat.

Back on the train to the correct station, I tried to follow the train line as it entered the map, through tunnels, and cuttings, approaching Montserrat Aeri station. This time it was right. This time there was a big sign saying it was Montserrat, and the even bigger clue of the Monastery being visible perched precariously on the side of the mountain.

The. Mountain.

I craned my neck as I looked up at the imposing cliffs and rounded peaks. What was I letting myself in for?

I presented my ticket to the dangle way ticket office. I must look British, as the guy responded in perfect English. “Two minutes”.

The cable car to the Monastery dates from the 1960’s. Proud photos of it’s early days adorn the walls of the station. A brightly painted gondola sat ready and waiting. The cable car attendant looked slightly bemused at my over filled pack and walking poles, with my camera hanging off my neck. A radio exchange in Spanish followed, before the gondola clanked and ground slowly out of it’s docking cradle.

Each car has a maximium capacity of 35 people. This one carried just me. Unlike many modern transport mechanisms, the gondola had proper opening windows (albeit no air-con), and I amused myself for the 6 minute journey by moving round the gondola shooting the view from various angles, trying to get a nice shot as we moved further up the mountain. Near the top we passed a packed gondola heading down. It was just past 1800, and the day tourists were starting to make their way off the mountain.

Packed Gondola On it's way down

Packed Gondola On it’s way down

View from the cable car

View from the cable car on the way up

The complex that is Montserrat Monastery is a substantial development. Accompanying the various ecclesiastical buildings was the various manifestations of the tourist establishment. Museum, gift shop, toilets, bar, two funicular stations, the rack railway station, and of course the station for the dangle-way. All this clings in a small space between two high peaks. The map shows a stream flowing towards the complex, but it was dry. I had planned to make some use of this infrastructure to bootstrap my hike. The Funicular St Joan, should get me 300m up to what is marked on the map as a “Strolling path”, and the start of my hike proper…

That was the theory. Alas, having used the facilities and filled my water bottles at the fountain. I wandered to the Funicular station. Locked. A sign indicated that the Funicular stopped running at 1810. I looked at the time on my phone. 1820. If only I hadn’t wasted 20 mins by getting off at the wrong stop. ARGH.

I sat down with the map. Adapt and overcome. The clearest looking route was the one up the valley from the Monastery towards the strolling path, and the greater path network of Montserrat. It’s only a couple of kilometres to the path on the map, and what, 300m of ascent. How hard can it be…

Weighed down with 3.5kg of water, on top of my packed bag, I approached the footpath. It started as a few flights of well made stairs, and while I wouldn’t say it was easy, it wasn’t too bad. I plodded up the stairs, and over a bridge, passing various day hikers coming in the opposite direction. At the end of the bridge, it looked like the path started properly and the ascent could begin.

Oh how naive. I turned off the bridge, round the tree and looked at the path.

The stair case is a rather interesting invention. Nothing in our homes causes us more injury. Falling down them, falling up them. The design of a good staircase is a triumph of ergonomics. Too big a rise (the height of each step), and you put too much strain on the legs. Too small and you don’t make sufficient gains in height. Get the going (the horizontal distance of each step) wrong and you break the stride of the user, if you’re not careful you end up with imbalanced loading, with the lifting of your weight always landing on the same leg.

What is marked on the map as a sloping path up the valley turned out to be an erratic collection of unequal randomly sized cast concrete steps. Varying in rise from 100mm to over 300mm, with goings ranging from a couple of hundred millimetres, to over a metre or so. Each carefully and lovingly crafted to be have just the right combination of appalling ergonomics that makes each step a laborious exercise. Onwards and upwards I plodded. Step by step. One foot in front of the other.

Being in a valley, the sun had disappeared beyond the mountain before I had got to the bottom step. I was rather grateful of drop in temperature. Even so, I was soon soaked in sweat.

Weighed down by 10kg of pack, various less encumbered walkers passed me. We all run our own race. I continued up, stopping occasionally to admire the view. It rapidly became apparent that my original target bivvi sites were going to be beyond my reach before night fall, and I started to consider other options. All I needed was a couple of metres of flat ground to lay my bivvi bag, Ideally somewhere with a nice view, and not too close to the path. The terrain wasn’t offering many options. At 856masl, four paths came to a junction off to the left there was a small patch of level ground. The first I’d seen since leaving the Monastery. It was over looked, and somewhat precarious, but I made a note of it as a plausible option none the less. I continued up.

Eighty metres higher up the path, having covered very little horizontal distance, the path levelled out and I crossed the dried up stream bed again. Here the stairs ceased and were replaced by a rocky path with a sensible gentle incline.

The path followed the edge of the dried up stream bed, before reaching some switchbacks of erratically space in-ergonomic stairs. I paused at the base of the stairs, and considered my options.

the path

The path I’d come up.

Next to the path, the stream bed levelled off into a wide flatish area filled with low trees and bushes. Some of it looked flat.

I sat on a rock and watched the path, considering my options. It was the least worst bivvi site that I’d seen since I started the hike. Sure it wasn’t perfect. But it would do. Wouldn’t it?

I watched the site for a few minutes, trying to get a feel for the area. Yes, it’ll have to do. I pushed through the bushes and under branches, looking for somewhere flat enough and big enough for a bivvi bag. The first site I found had obviously been used by a reckless hiker as a loo, they hadn’t bothered to hide the evidence. I explored further, heading up the stream bed into denser growth. I found a spot. This would do.

When bivviing in areas where wildcamping is perhaps not encouraged, my preferred method is to locate the site, and sit and wait till it’s fully dark before making camp properly. I watched as a few hikers plodded on up the hill. Noone seemed to notice I was there. Finally, content that it was dark enough. I started to make camp.

“Ruh ruh ruh ruh ruh ruh ruh!”

It came out of the darkness and the silence. A dog, less than a metre away, and it wasn’t happy. Neither was I. I looked around for an owner. Fifteen metres away on the path, a faint torch glowed. Was that the owner? Yes, yes it was, they were calling out for the dog to come back. I sat stock still, wondering what on earth I would do if the bark turned to bite. After what felt like days, but was probably less than 30 seconds, the dog lost interest, and headed off to find it’s owner. I sat dead still waiting for my heart to stop pounding. Breathe. Immediate threat gone, I reached for my leatherman juice, the only sharp implement I had with me. I found an empty pocket. Where was it? Damn it. I routed around in all the pockets on my pack. It wasn’t there. I took my head torch and went to search the area where I had sat earlier. Nothing. Damn. That was expensive. I returned to camp.

In the shade of the trees, in nestled in the valley, it was surprisingly cool. I was grateful of the warmth of my sleeping bag. I pulled it up round me, snuggled down. Something was digging into my side. What was it, how could something solid be in my bivvi bag. I rooted around in the darkness. My leatherman. No idea how it got there, but there it was. Phew. I put it safely in the pocket on my pack it should have been in, and lay back listening to the sounds of the forest.

I could hear a bird calling, the sounds of bats flying around above my head, somewhere in the distance, an owl called. In the peace of the forest I drifted off to sleep.

Awake. Alert. Why am I awake. What woke me. I lay still and listen. Heavy breathing. Very heavy breathing. What is it? Is that human? Is that a human male breathing heavily? Do they want to attack me? How do I defend myself. My heart raced.
*Grunt*

That wasn’t human.

*SNARF*

Yes, definitely not human. What makes a sound like that?

Boar. Wild Boar. I never knew my heart could race so fast whilst laying still. My mind went to the food in my bag. I wasn’t expecting boar in the area, so had left all my food in my pack, next to my head. Including a mature, aromatic cheese. Could the boar smell it too?

I lay as still and silent as I could. Waiting to hear what the boar would do next.

Slowly the snuffling noise faded off into the distance heading down hill. Phew. I listened to the darkness, wondering if it was coming back. Slowly, I drifted off to sleep.

*GRUNT*

Awake. The boar was back. I knew it was a boar now. My heart didn’t thunder as hard as it had. I listened as it slowly snuffled it’s way up the valley and into the distance, leaving me to return to my slumber.

*GRUNT*

It’s back again. No wait, it’s closer, and getting louder. I lay dead still in my sleeping bag. Unarmed, defenceless, and next to a smelly block of cheese. The boar snuffled closer. It couldn’t me more than a couple of metres away. What do I do. Flight? No, I’m in a bivvi bag with no zip, I’d never get out the bag. Fight? With a leatherman juice? Not an option, it’s in my pack. It snuffled closer. I moved my head to look at where it was coming from.

*SQUEEAL*

I jumped, it jumped. I stared off into the darkness as the patter of trotters heading up stream faded away. It was as scared of me as I was of it. I lay listening for it’s return.

I woke to bird song and day light. That wasn’t right, I had set an alarm for just before dawn. I rooted about for my phone and pressed the button. Nothing. Flat battery. That would explain it. My bivvi bag was toasty & warm, birds sang. I lay there enjoying the surroundings.

Alas it couldn’t last forever, eventually, with reluctance, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and embraced the morning. Well the ten minutes that were left of it…

Breaking camp was quick and simple, within 15 minutes of exiting my sleeping bag, I was stepping out onto the trail.

Cloud covering the tops of the mountains

Cloud covering the tops of the mountains

The morning was grey, with low clouds covering the peaks of the mountains. At least I wouldn’t boil or need the sun cream. I approached the erratic stairs with the vigor of the new day. As I plodded up, a series of runners headed down the opposite way. Eventually I reached the strolling path I had been hoping to take the previous day. The junction contained a post with signs detailing the position (with UTM coordinate), as well as estimated times for to various points. I looked at the 50minutes it reckoned that it would take from the Monastery to this point and despaired. It had taken me over 2 hours to get to this point. Looking at the 40 min estimate to the Funicular station, I wondered how many hours it would take.

After the laborious ascent, the rugged, rocky path was a substantial relief. I deployed the walking poles, and started to eat up the distance. As I walked I pondered over why it had taken so long. Why was it so difficult. I hadn’t gone very far, yet it had taken me hours. I put the thoughts out of my mind and concentrated on the path ahead.

Rugged mountains of Montserrat

Rugged mountains of Montserrat

The strolling path was not quite what I had expected, it was mostly flat, following the contours, but had a camber that ranged all over the place, covered in loose rocks and gravel, it wasn’t what I would consider a stroll…

Pausing for a few photos, I ate up the distance, just under 60 minutes after reaching the junction, I arrived at Funicular St Joan. I’d done it. I’d done a 3rd of the distance I had intended to do, and taken 3 times the length to do it. But I’d done it. A successful Microadventure.

Rugged mountains of Montserrat

Rugged mountains of Montserrat

Postscript

I took the rack railway route back to Barcelona, and spent the journey trying to work out why it had been so hard. I looked at the numbers, the heights, and the distances.

From the Monastery at 718masl, I had walked up the stairs to about 950masl. 232m. That’s pitiful. I’d moved so slowly across the ground that my etrex 10 hadn’t registered any trace of me moving.

Two hundred and thirty two metres.

I needed to put that into perspective. What else is about that height?

Canary Wharf (properly one Canada square). 235m. Fifty stories. I’d climbed stairs equivalent to Canary Wharf, with a 10 kilo pack, in the Spanish heat. Perhaps I wasn’t so useless after all.

Analysing the GPS data, my trip had a height range of 324m. The 87 storey shard is 309.6m tall… The highest point of the Netherlands is 322.7m… Perhaps I wasn’t as useless as I had thought. Put in perspective, the climbing Canary Wharf or the Shard by the stairs, with a 10kg pack. Yeah, that isn’t going to be a quick hike…

Dramatic scenery, inquisitive wildlife, challenging terrain. All in all, a perfect Spanish Microadventure.

Total Distance: 4.84km
Total Ascent: 324m

Peaks of Montserrat

Peaks of Montserrat.

ADVENTURE: Storming the Stour

My friend Lyn invited me to join her for a paddle on the Kentish Stour. “I don’t own a Boat” I said. “Not a problem” she said.

Lyn picked me up in a car with a pair of Kayaks on the roof, and we headed to Grove Ferry. Departure was delayed by half an hour as we waited for a cloud burst to end. But with the cloud cleared, we put in and headed up stream. I have done some Kayaking and Canoing over the years, but consider myself very much a novice. I was feeling a bit unstable as we paddled up the river.

The flow was firmly against us as we went up stream, compounded by a head wind. “Don’t worry, it’ll be easier to come back” Said Lyn as we passed under the Grove Ferry bridge.

The further we went up stream, the darker the sky grew bringing with it rather beautiful clouds.

With darkening skies came the first rumbles of thunder. Rolling low across the land from the distance. We continued to paddle up stream

The skies lit up with giant forks of lightning crashing down on both sides of the river. I briefly pondered what material my paddle was made from, before concluding the trees were taller so I shouldn’t worry too much.

We weren’t far from our planned lunch stop when the rain began. Starting as just a few large drops it rapidly became a full on downpour. Fortunately it was a warm rain, I was wearing clothes that should dry pretty quickly, so we continued through the storm. It didn’t take long until I was soaked through the skin.

A couple of minutes before we reached our planned lunch spot the rain sputtered to a halt and the sun came out.

We came in to the planned landing site, and I ran the kayak up onto the bank. Mostly grounded, I pulled myself up into a squat, then turned round to get the water bottle out of the rear deck hatch, closed the hatch.

“You’re doing well there, I wouldn’t stand up like that”.

All I had to do was turn round to face the front, and get out…

*SPLASH*

My luck ran out as I sat back into the river. The water was surprisingly warm, and I was soaked from the rain anyway. Ah well, I’m in the river now. I pulled the boats round to push them up the bank so Lyn could get out. Lunchtime.

We ate lunch in the sunshine, drying out as much as we could.

Time to head back down stream. By now we were heading against the flow giving us the curious combination of paddling up stream against the flow, and downstream against the flow.

Lyn pulled out an umbrella and used that as a sail. Much to my amusement…

Umbrella sailing in a kayak.

Umbrella sailing a kayak…

I tried the umbrella sailing, and managed to just go backwards, then round in circles, and eventually into the winds. I gave up and went back to the paddle.

One thing that caught my eye as we headed downstream was a tree with curious teeth marks. It looked very similar to the tooth marks I’d seen from a Beaver in the Ardennes.

Beaver teeth marks on a tree

Beaver teeth marks on a tree

The rest of the paddle was pretty uneventful, beyond the ever present opposing current. We returned to Grove Ferry, where I managed to get out without falling out this time.

A successful trip. As we packed the kayaks back on the roofrack plans formed for an over night kayak trip…

KIT: The big three

This post is another in response to a question I’ve had: (Slightly Paraphrased)

“Do you really fit a weekends worth of wild camping gear in 5kg?”

The answer is Yes, I do. But before I go into details of what makes up the bulk of the 5kg, I should qualify things. Firstly, that 5kg is dry weight, so that doesn’t include water, food, or fuel. Secondly, that is the summer bag. In winter I use a heavier sleeping bag and a heavier bivvi bag, making my dry pack weight nearer 6.5kg.

The big three is a term coined by Ray Jardine. They make up the bulk of the weight of your pack. So what are they?

  • Backpack
  • Sleep system
  • Shelter

In non ultra light hiking it’s easy to pile on the pounds with these three items. Before I started aggressively lightening my pack the big three were:

  • Backpack – Berghaus Vulcan + PLCE Side pockets – 3.2kg 110L
  • Sleep system – Snugpak SF 2 sleeping bag + Highlander self inflating sleep matt – 3kg
  • Shelter – Vaude Hogan – 2.9kg

You can see that these three items alone are over 9kg. Having 110L of backpack then encourages you to take more stuff, after all you’ve got the space in your pack… This resulted in my lugging 25-30kg backpacks round Europe on various trips before I decided that there had to be an easier way of doing it.

So what are my current big three?

  • Backpack – Osprey Tempest 30 – 0.85kg
  • Sleep System – Mountain Equipment Lamina 35 sleeping bag (1.02kg), Exped Synmat 7UL (439g) – 1.459kg
  • Shelter – AMK SOL Escape Bivvi (240g), Miltec Flecktarn plane tarp(543g inc pegs + guys) – 0.783kg

Those of you good at mental arithmetic will be able to quickly sum that the total for the big three is 3.092kg. Giving me around 2kg for all the other bits an pieces.

I mentioned before that this is my summer bag. What changes in winter?

  • Sleep system – Mountain Hardware Laminina 20 – 1.55kg
  • Shelter – British Army XL Goretex bivvi bag ~0.9kg

This adds 1.3kg on to the weight of the summer bag. The only reason I change bivvi bag is because the AMK SOL Escape bivvi bag is a bit tight on the hips, causing compression of the loft, resulting in cold spots. I am thinking of getting an Alpkit Hunka XL for next winter, saving me about 400g.

So you can see, a simple yet light big three, with the best part being that the most expensive single item was the sleeping bag (£93 for the Laminina 20, and £85 for the Lamina 35). Going ultra light doesn’t need to be that expensive.

KIT: Taking shelter – Tarps.

I’ve had a question asking me what tarp I use when I’m wild camping with a bivvi bag.

I own three tarps. Which one I take with me for any given trip depends on where I am going.

The first tarp I got is a British Army Basha. It’s 2.5m x 2.2m, made from Silnylon, and weighs in at nearly 1kg with guy lines. It’s a lovely tarp that covers a nice big area, but it is very heavy. If I am car camping and don’t want a tent, then this is the tarp I use.

British Army Basha in the woods – June ’14.

The second tarp I got is a Miltec Flecktarn Plane Tarp. This tarp is 2.6m x 1.7m, weighs in at 450g, and is made from PU coated nylon. This is the tarp I take when wild camping in lowland situations where perhaps wild camping isn’t entirely encouraged. The flecktarn camo pattern blends well with many of the areas I camp in, particularly in winter. This tarp isn’t as big as the Army Basha, but it’s half the weight, and provides enough cover for me in a bivvi bag.

Miltec Flecktarn tarp in the woods – May ’15

The 3rd tarp I own is a RAB Siltarp 1, this tarp is 2.2m x 1.5m, weighs in a 198g without stuff sack, and is made of Silnylon. It’s a beautiful light tarp that I got to use with a bivvi bag when wild camping in locations where stealth isn’t my primary concern. In some respects the lightness of this tarp has given me headaches with other aspects of the tarp setup. Add eight 12g pegs, and you’ve increased the weight by 50%… I use 1.12mm microparacord for the guys on this tarp, it’s under half the weight of the 2mm dyneema I normally use for my other tarps. The total weight of the guys on this tarp is 28.6g. I’m still searching for the best pegs.

If you ask on a bushcraft forum for a tarp recommendation, the DD 3m x 3m tarp will come highly recommended. I decided against it as being too heavy, and also too big. Camping in woodlands, finding space for 9m² of tarp is not always easy. If I was in the market for a new tarp to use when bivving aside from the tarps I own, the other that I would consider near the top of the list is the Alpkit Rig 3.5.

On all my tarps I use glow in the dark line loks on the guy lines. They provide just enough visibility at night to see where I put my guys. I currently have some spares up on ebay if anyone is interested.

Hopefully this post has gone somewhere to answer the question about which tarps I use, and what tarps I would recommend.

ADVENTURE: A January Microadventure

I hit a bit of a low point with venturing out following an assault on the way out to a trip to the woods. It left me a bit shaken and nervous about heading out.

After scratching a couple of planned nights out, either due to the weather, work shifts, or bottling out. Everything lined up and I finally forced myself out the door with the intent of a night in the woods.

The plan was simple, take the train a few stops, cycle up the hill, bivvi in the woods, enjoy the evening, cook breakfast, break camp (making note to fix it later), cycle down the hill, and come home. All pretty simple.

Step one was to load up my bike – a Brompton folding bike, with my camping gear, and as much water as I could sensibly carry. Before I added water, but including food, the whole lot came to about 7kg. To which I added 3.25L of water. 300ml to rehydrate dinner, and just under 3 litres to get me through the night.

Touring Brompton on the way out.

I arrived at my destination station, activated my buddy beacon, saddled up, and headed into the hills…

I had planned it all on the map, I’d even driven up the road a few weeks ago. So how hard could it be to cycle up there…

The honest answer is – very. The Brompton is a lovely bike, I’ve modded it to have 8 gears, and it’s a joy to ride. But it’s not really designed for hills… So I ended up pushing it up about 2km of the hill. To a max height of 190masl.

Elevation profile of my ride.

Having reached the summit, I then cruised down into the woods, past families returning from their afternoon walk. Past dog walkers, and deeper into the trees. Eventually I departed from the path and headed cross country in search of a bivvi site.

I found a spot in the shelter of a large mound, by some trees. I did a scan for widow makers, pulled out my sit mat, and collapsed by a tree. Phew. By now I had about 20 minutes until sunset and the sweat I had produced from the push up the hill was making me cold. Time to make camp.

I had brought with my my flecktarn tarp, along with a 10m ridge line. I tied one end to a tree, and walked over to the other tree I wanted to use for the other end. Stopping at the end of the ridge line about 1m short of the tree. With a James May like exclamation, I retreated to the original tree, and pondered my options. Rummaging in my bag I realised I had a pair of heavy duty bungees that had attached the dry bag to the rear rack, so I put these round both trees, and had enough ridge line to string it up between the two bungees. Phew. Tarp went up in a lean to config with one end pinned down to shelter me from the wind. The weather forecast was for no precipitation, and a light breeze, so the tarp was largely for concealment, as well as from the breeze. Tarp up, I folded the bike up, wrapped it in my old flecktarn poncho, and tried to lock it to the tree. Discovered that my bike lock wasn’t long enough, and sat down to have a cup of tea.

Making a cuppa.

Tea and rethink complete, I locked the bike to the luggage, making it unwieldy and noisy to steal, so that I should at least wake up if someone tried. Wrapped in the poncho, I stuck it in the back of the tarp, and set about making the bed.

At this point I was getting very cold even with all my coats on, the sweat from the hill climb was really chilling me down, and even tho it wasn’t yet 1700, I crawled into my sleeping bag stuck some radio 4 on, and tried to warm up.

My camp from up the hill:

My camp from up the hill

I was laying there listening to the radio when a light flashed across the inside of my tarp. Slightly confused I sat up and looked in the direction of the light. It shone around all over the place, flashing straight in my face again. It belonged to 2 dog walkers, who walked by about 50m from my position. I don’t know if they saw me, or realised what they had shone their light on, they didn’t disturb me. But it did get my heart rate going. The only other people I saw during the night were a couple of mountain bikers who cycled past 100m or so away.

A text from the friend who was monitoring my buddy beacon, informed me that he was in the area, and he would drop by to say hello. This would be a nice test of the buddy beacon technology, could my friend find me in the woods, in the dark, hiding in a DPM bivvi bag, under a flecktarn tarp…

Turns out, yes, tho he did walk past first, and then turned round to spot me… he’d very helpfully brought me a litre of water, and a bar of chocolate as “house warming” gifts. Both were very gratefully received.. We had a chat and warmed up with a hot chocolate. I was still fighting the cold, even in my sleeping bag my toes were numb, but that was nothing compared to the fight I was having with my meths stove.

I’ve only ever used the stove in the summer before, and it’s always worked fine. In the -2°C of the woods. It wasn’t working nicely. After a few minutes with the ferro rod doing nothing, I dug into my Staying Alive Cold kit for my lifeboat matches. This got the stove going and allowed me to make the hot chocolate. But I couldn’t keep doing that, I only had 5 matches in my SAC kit. After messing around trying to warm the meths up with body heat, I eventually had a eureka moment. My SAC kit has a US aircrew fire kit in it, this is a spark thingy like you get on a cigarette lighter, and a load of tinderquik. Using this I was able to get the stove going reliably.

My friend left and I went back to trying to defrost my toes. I nodded off for a bit and woke to a grumbling stomach. Excellent, curry time.

I dug out the curry pouches from my pack, and relit the stove using the tinderquik. It took me 3 fills of the stove to get enough hot water for the pouch of Korma sauce, the rice, and a mug of tea. Until I had the eureka moment, of using the second pot from my firemaple set as a lid. This made an instant improvement on the efficiency of the stove.

Unfortunately it turned out the curry was vile. After a few mouthfuls, I gave up and put it in the rubbish bag. Ew. I fell back on the chocolate my friend had kindly brought along. Very glad for the extra food.

Eventually I managed to get my toes warm, and snuggled down to listen to the owls. I counted 3 different species of Owl calling out.

I had expected that I would be woken by the sunrise, around 8ish. Not as it turns out by a full bladder, at 1030… oops.

It took me quite a while to summon the courage to crawl out of my toasty warm sleeping bag, into the freezing cold morning. Nature called, I returned to the warmth of my bag to plot my exfil. Only to wake up at half 1 and exclaim loudly. I packed up quickly, trying to stay warm. Reloaded the bike, and hit the trail.

The advantage of the 150m hill I climbed to get in, was the 150m hill I got to free wheel down to get home. Hitting in excess of 30mph on the Brompton on the way down, I cruised into the station for a train back to civilisation, and a fry up.

Not everything had gone to plan, I’d had trouble with the stove, had to deal with very cold toes, overslept, and forgot the frying pan to cook breakfast in. But I had managed a night out in the woods, on my own, in the middle of January, with sub zero temperatures. and survived! I’ve proved to myself that I can do it.

Now to unpack the map and plan my next trip…


This post was originally posted on Bushcraft UK forum