Adventure: Wye not forage for dinner?

As I stood where the path should be looking up at the stinging nettles above me, I started to question my navigational choices. We were on this path because the path we wanted to take was hidden under an impassible jungle of Brambles, nettles and other spiky vegetation. Batting Triffid like nettles out the way with my poles as I walked, I wasn’t sure this path was any better.

The path I was on is somewhere in east Kent, and unusually for my trips, I’d managed to persuade 3 others to join me for this hike. Ahead disappearing into the undergrowth were Jesper, Jim and Jules. But this was a hike with extra purpose, this time, we hiked for science.

A Hypothesis.

Every year someone (usually a young bloke in their late teens) asks on one of the Bushcraft forums that we all use a question along the lines of:

My mates and I want to do a hike, foraging and living off the land as we go, can anyone give us suggestions on where to go and what to forage for?

And every year the regulars on the forum give patient well worded replies along the lines of:

You can hike, or you can forage, but not both

It’s a simple enough equation. The adult human needs 2000-2500 kcalories a day to cover their needs, more if they are expending any great effort. Whilst the modern human has access to refined sugar, copious mass produced carbs and endless fats, in nature it’s not so easy. If you grab a book on wild food, you’ll find a whole catalogue of things you can eat without killing you, but to cover your 2000 calories, how many of these would you need? Unfortunately the standard indexes of calories in foods don’t tend to include things like Goosegrass, Bog Myrtle, or Nettles. But looking at the crop wild relatives of some foods that calorie numbers are available for, you can get a rough idea. Assuming that cabbage and sea kale leaves aren’t too dissimilar, how much would you need to eat in a day to cover your 2000kcal? Roll some dice, crunch some numbers, and you get a figure around 6kg. Yes, SIX kilograms of sea kale. I’ll buy a pint for anyone who can prove they’ve eaten that in a single day… Not exactly ideal. What about apples? An apple is about 50 kcalories. So you’re looking at 80 apples. So the numbers are pretty damning. You’re not going to be able to forage for enough food to meet your energy requirements let alone hike any distance at the same time. But this is just a theory, it’s just numbers. What we really needed to do, was put this to the test.

Method

Our basic plan was 4 people with varying levels of knowledge of wild food, and varying fitness would meet up somewhere in Kent, and do a 2 day hike with an overnight bivvi, trying to forage for our dinner as we went. So as to not try to bite off more than we could chew, the route we settled on was a simple 25km loop starting and finishing at Wye station. This would take in varying habitats including woodland, hedgerows, field margins, access land, and a section of the North Downs Way. Giving a good representation for a hike in Southern Britain.

UK law would limit our foraging to the four F’s – Fungi, Foliage, Fruit and Flowers. This gives us a vegetarian diet, but in theory should give us access to all sorts of interesting food stuffs. Assuming we could find them, identify them with certainty, and in some cases reach them.

We left the station in good spirits. Jules, Jesper and myself. Jim would join us a bit later. We decided we’d let ourselves get out of the village before we started to forage, other wise we could easily end up getting nowhere. We made it 100 yards up the North Downs Way towards the Wye Crown before coming across a really good patch of black berries that were too good to miss. We foraged for 5 mins, trying to find as many as we could in that time – a few handfuls. We could have spent an hour there and picked the area clean. But if we did that, our average speed would make the whole trip untenable. But it was a start, we had something, even if it wasn’t much. A bit further a long I spotted a squashed plumb on the floor. I’ve long realised that often the easiest way to find fruit trees is to look on the ground for their windfalls. We now knew there was a plum somewhere near by, we just had to find it. A search of the nearby hedgerow located the tree, as well as it’s crop of a plum. One solitary plum, about 8 feet off the ground. Just out of reach. Bah. Ah well. Onwards.

We progressed up the hill to the Wye crown were we stopped to drink in the view, and drink some of our water. It was blowing quite a hooley up there. As we crossed the ridge we wandered along the edge of a recently harvested wheat field. In various places unharvested seed heads lay on the ground and in a few places stalks that the combine had missed stood dancing in the wind. We grabbed a few handfuls, it wouldn’t be enough to bake a loaf, but it would be a welcome addition to what ever stew we could come up with for dinner.

With the strong wind we were grateful to drop down the other side of the ridge into a valley, where we passed along well maintained (read threshed to bits) beech hedging. A linear monoculture. Beech leaves are technically edible, I used to infuriate my Arboriculture lecturer in ID classes by eating the samples to tell the difference between beech, hornbeam, elm and birch leaves (apparently this isn’t the approved method…), but this late in the season (late August) they don’t taste very good, nowhere near as tasty as first thing in the spring. There may have been a few edible weeds around the base of the hedge, but there were prime dog pee height and none of us wanted to spend much time checking them.

Continuing on we entered woodland. I stopped to look at the map, checking were were going the right way when I heard.

“Is that a chicken?”

“Where?”

“There.” I looked up from the map to see where Jules was pointing. Yep, that was chicken of the woods(Laetiporus sulphureus). Five metres up in the crotch of a mature oak was a large chicken of the woods mushroom. We stood staring, trying to work out if there was anyway we could reach it. None of us had brought any climbing equipment, nor ropes, and the 3m or so to the lowest branch didn’t seem like something we could safely reach. Tauntingly, we left it behind us and continued on. As we walked we found a fallen ash tree that provided some cramp balls (Daldinia concentrica), and fallen birch tree yielded copious quantities of bark. We could at least forage forage for our fire lighting materials if nothing else.

Lots of flowers, some of them are edible. But which?

Exiting the woodland we found ourselves on a hillside that had been seeded with wild flowers as food for pheasants and other wild birds. We tried to identify various edibles among the grass, but none of us could be certain about a lot of them.

We decided that it was a good time to start thinking about coffee. Crundale church was a couple of kilometres away and the bench there would make a great place to have a break. I had a small wood gas stove in my pack that I picked up on ebay. In theory it would burn twigs very efficiently and save us the need to carry fuel. But this meant we now needed to add fire wood to our foraging. We walked, eyes everywhere trying to spot things that might be edible, as well as any dead standing twigs that would burn.

Arriving at Crundale church we set out our harvest so far. Blackberries, Hazel nuts, wheat, some leaves, a couple of cramp balls, birch bark and some twigs. Not exactly inspiring.

Located on top of a ridge just outside of the village of it gets it’s name from, Crundale Church affords a beautiful view that  more than made up for our poor harvest. As we admitted that our hypothesis was looking proven, we dug into the emergency backup Mars bar supply. The downside of being on the ridge was the wind. Trying to light the stove by the bench wasn’t going to be an option, so we sheltered behind a yew tree, adding out backpacks and bodies as extra protection. Thus followed an hour of trying to get the stove to boil a pot of water. The wind provided cooling to the pot, as well as made keeping the fire going really hard. Feed it too fast and it would choke and go out, Feed too slow, and it would starve. Eventually we decided that this was never going to boil and transferred the water to a gas stove and had coffee ready a couple of minutes later. With impeccable timing this was the point Jim turned up. Drinking the coffee we winnowed the wheat we’d found, here the wind was useful.

Fed and watered, we set off down the road. After our game of “how many bushcrafters does it take to boil the kettle.” We now began a game of “how many bushcrafters does it take to find the right path”. Eventually we found the path we wanted and headed towards Eggringe wood. We had some fun navigating the forest tracks and pathways, but as we were approaching the way out of the woods we hit pay dirt. Burdocks! (Arctium lappa). Using a potty trowel, and a hastily carved digging stick, Jim and Jules dug around the base of a large plant to extract the root. After much digging they proudly raised their treasure for all to behold. Six inches long and barely thicker than a thumb, we had a dock root. We had starch. We discussed the merits of our new bounty. Given the effort of digging it up, we concluded that it wasn’t exactly an efficient use of energy or time. Growing nearby we found some mint plants and raided a few sprigs that we could perhaps use to make mint tea with.

Continuing on towards Chilham Down Jules introduced us to the culinary hit of the trip. Nettle seeds. Available in large quantities, and tasty, they provided a food we could graze as we wandered, as long as you were ok to put up with the occasional sting.

The path from Down wood to Chilham down proved to be interesting, with nettles and brambles towering over our heads. Several times I questioned which idiot had chosen this route (that would be me). Finding one route over grown we opted to detour down towards the cycle route at the bottom of the hill, this was hardly any better, but eventually it did end and we found ourselves on the cycle route next to a railway line and the A28.

Map check revealed we were nearly a kilometre further south than intended. This did present us a new option tho. At the cost of a short section of road walk, we could cross the river and continue on the other side which should be prettier. We also concluded that having largely failed to find enough food to feed 4 people, it might be best if we diverted to Chilham to take on fuel at the pub.

It was a good theory, and having navigated the most optimistic kissing gate design I’ve ever seen (none of us fit through and had to climb over), we wandered along the edge of a field by the river. Alas the route marked on the map seemed to disappear into the under growth and provide no useful way forward. We ended up skirting all the way round the edge of the field before eventually finding a gap in the hedge that allowed us out onto Mountain Street half a km south of where we intended.

With the gravitational pull of a pub exerting it’s influence upon us, we picked up the speed along the road to the Woolpack inn for a well earned dinner.

After dinner Jesper had to head off, leaving Jim, Jules and myself to continue on in search of somewhere to sleep.

Our camp…(What is the collective noun for tarp shelters?)

Exhausted and in the dark the three of us hunted out a suitable spot to sleep in nearby woods. Tarps up, bivvi bags deployed, we hit the hay for a well earned sleep.

Morning revealed that perhaps our choice of bivvi spot wasn’t as good as we had thought in the dark the previous night. Out attempt to get out of site of 2 paths had put us in rather obvious view of another. Fortunately noone seemed to have noticed us (or been bothered enough to react to us at least). We broke camp and back tracked to the North Downs Way which we would now follow all the way back to Wye.

In light of our poor foraging yield the day before we decided that we would be better off seeking out a pub lunch in Wye, leaving us more time to concentrate on the scenery and just walking.

Leaving the Kings wood we descended into a landscape of golden fields in various states of harvest. Down hollow ways and field edges we arrived at Boughton Lees. This is where the North Downs Way splits on it’s route towards the sea, with one route going via Canterbury and one route via Wye.

In one of the hedge rows we found a tree from the Prunus family with plump fruit. We couldn’t work out if it was a large slow, or damson, or a bullace, or diminutive plum. Jules seemed to find them tasty enough tho.

Prunus of some kind…

A group of three? or a trio of solo hikers in loose formation?

Crossing the A28 we found ourselves at Perry Court Farm. Here we found the important trio of clean loos, tea, and cake. The idea of which was too much, and so 1km earlier than planned, we decided to stop for lunch here. Jim got a call from his other half who was in the area and wondered if we wanted a lift. With sore feet and having achieved what we set out to, we decided to accept the lift and end the hike here.

Results

So what of our experiment?

Despite being one of the more bountiful times of year, we hadn’t been able to find enough wild food to feed the 4 of us, and in trying we’d ended up hiking well beyond dark, pitching camp at gone 2300. We discussed the experiment over tea and concluded that had we gone to one location, set up camp, and then done forage parties round that area we probably could have foraged enough to make meals that didn’t leave us too hungry. Tho still short on energy requirements for the day. If we could add fish or fowl, then hitting it becomes more achievable. We also felt that you need a much greater knowledge of wild edibles than collectively we had. If we had carried a few staples like rice, flour, instant mash, and some stock cubes. Then we could easily have added foraged ingredients to liven up what could be otherwise bland fare.

Our harvest.

Conclusion

In conclusion, our hypothesis seems to be about right. You can walk or you can forage. You can’t reasonably expect to do both to any substantial degree. This shouldn’t preclude the inclusion of foraged ingredients in ones diet when travelling, but perhaps to supplement ones dehydrated meals. Maybe a dessert of blackberries, or a wild leaves salad starter. Rather than the core of your diet.

KIT: What’s in the backpack?

I’ve had a number of people asking me if I really fit everything for a weekend hike in my 30L pack. So I thought I’d right a post with a details what’s in the pack for a typical summer weekend hike. The photo was taken at the end of a trip so there’s no food in the pack.

Pack contents

Pack contents

  • A – Sea-to-Summit Outhouse & Coughlans trowel
  • B – Clothing – a few pairs of underwear, spare socks, spare baselayer (Rab MeCo 120 SS)
  • C – RAB Siltarp 1 + 6 x Alpkit Y beam pegs in Treadlightly bag
  • D – Evernew 1.5L water pouch
  • E – Mountain Equipment Lamina 35 sleeping bag
  • F – Osprey Tempest 30 Backpack
  • G – Exped Synmat 7 UL, Schnozzel pump bag, Exped Pillow UL, RAB silk sleeping bag liner, Mossie headnet
  • H – Alpkit Hunka XL bivvi bag.
  • I – Sawyer Mini, 2L bag, gravity conversion kit.
  • J – Powertraveller powermonkey Extreme + cable
  • K – Evernew Appalachian set + Evernew 400ml mug
  • L – Paramo Bentu fleece
  • M – Svord Peasant Mini + EDC Fire Kit (both in right pocket)
  • N – Meths
  • O – Paramo Fuera Ascent Jacket
  • P – Brewkit.

Not labelled is the silver foil coated bubble wrap insulation that I use as a ground pad under the Exped Synmat.

Brewkit contents

Brewkit contents

In the brew kit I have teabags, hot chocolate, soup, knife, fork, spoon, salt, pepper, oil, pot gripper, and the BPL universal trivet. The tub doesn’t weigh much more than a similar size stuff sack, and protects the contents.

When packing I try to make sure everything goes into the pack in the reverse order that I need it, so the sleeping bag goes in the bottom, then the bivvi bag, then sleep mat, then tarp etc…

The powermonkey pack goes in the zip pocket on the underside of the lid, the sawyer goes in the stash pocket on the front of the pack, the trowel and fuel in a side pocket, and the water pouch in the other side pocket.

Contents of the pack pockets

Contents of the pack pockets

In the hip pockets I have a few odds and sods, the first aid kit (large dressing, pouch of plasters, tube of pills) goes in the left pocket, the right pocket has sunblock, insect repellent, small saw, and the Zelph Starlyte stove. I keep my inReach Explorer on my left shoulder strap, and my Petzl Zipka 2+ on the right strap, so I don’t have to rummage about in a pack to try and find it in the dark.

With everything in the pack there is room for food on the top, and in the stash pocket. The lid pocket is also empty and I usually fill it with food. Dry weight, it’s 6.6kg.

Packed and ready to go

Packed and ready to go

Everything I need for a few nights hiking, all carried in a 30L pack, with room for food.

ADVENTURE: A Good Friday for a walk (North Downs Way Section hike)

That rare confluence of a British bank holiday and a good weather forecast offered an opportunity that seemed to be too good to miss. In particular the forecast showed a promise of a relatively warm night time temperatures (over 5°C). This seemed like a good chance to put the winter sleeping bag away, break out the summer kit and hit the trail.

The North Downs way looked like the obvious choice. At this point I had a couple of gaps on the route at the Eastern end. One from the Battle of Britain Monument to Postling (courtesy of my first aborted attempt), and one from Dover to Canterbury. My GPX of the route showed that Dover to Canterbury was 30km, with a nice break in the middle around Shepherdswell. I threw some kit into my pack, opting at the last minute to add my Páramo Torres jacket in case it was slightly colder than planned, and headed for the station.

Disembarking at Dover I bimbled towards the sea front to find the official start/end point of the North Downs Way. Being a national trail, I expected there to be some sort of obvious sign on the front. I stood in the sunshine looking around for any indication of a sign. With nothing obvious showing up, I sat down on an uncomfortable seat and googled the start of the North Downs way. I had hoped to find coordinates or a grid reference. Ah, such naivety. Eventually I found a picture that suggested that the start finish post is actually a line on the ground. With this info I soon found the start of the trail. I was glad I hadn’t just walked here from Farnham to find it…

The Start/Finish of the North Downs Way (the shiny line in the middle of the picture).

For anyone else hoping to find such a point I saved a waypoint into my GPS – 51.122521°N 1.315339°E (or TR 32098 41142 in OS Grid).

Having found the trail I followed the first NDW sign through an underpass into the bustling heart of Dover’s high street. Here I promptly lost the signs again, and with not enough detail on my 1:40k map, I wandered round to Pencester Road, where I finally picked up the trail again. Here the sign was more obvious showing where I should have gone.

I followed the signs through the wide streets of Dover, the route showing a gentle incline. Here and there signs of spring poked through. Daffodils, Blackthorn blossom, Hazel catkins.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) blossom at Connaught Park

I left the streets on Connaught road and followed a sunken path through a grave yard to join the old Roman Road, that climbs the hill out of the Valley and left Dover proper.

By now the sun had come out and the it was warming up into a pleasant spring day. Alas there was a slight chilly breeze so I wasn’t able to lose my windproof. The first part of the path towards the A2 has recently been resurfaced and was rather pleasant to walk along with fields on each side. Like much of the North Downs Way you can’t get far from the sound of traffic and as I headed north the sound of the A2 got louder.

On the OS map the North Downs Way is shown as crossing the A2 directly near what is now a slip road, but the Harveys Map and the sign posts show a detour to cross the A2 at a bridge.

Crossing the bridge I found the green lane that the NDW follows at this point with a large concrete block in the middle of it. I didn’t think much of this, and continued on. From here, with the A2 just metres away on my left, looking north I could see all the way to Ramsgate, and the Thanet wind farm in the distance. Shame that the foreground seemed to involve someones dump…

Ramsgate and the Isle of Thanet in the distance.

The path was heavily rutted, boggy in places, and made for interesting travel. At one point I had to inch along the side hanging off the branches of the hawthorn bushes to avoid the bog the path had become. When I got to the end of the rutted section I found another large concrete block and a sign. Apparently this section has been closed for 6 months so that they can fix the damaged surface. Alas the sign saying this seems to have gone missing from the other end. I took the opportunity of a seat (the concrete block) to have a snack and a drink. I then filtered some water from a nearby cattle trough before continuing on.

Rutted green lane

The path opened out onto open farmland, you could see from the terrain that this section used to be an trackway used for carts, but hasn’t seen such traffic in years. The fields were lush with green growth. Because of the noise of the traffic on the earlier section, I was walking along listening to podcasts on my headphones. This meant I didn’t hear when the dry bag with my loo roll in it fell off the outside of my pack where I had tied it on earlier. I only realised this as I was approaching the A256. I wasn’t prepared to backtrack to find it, so pressed on.

Many shades of green, the lush growth of spring.

In need of the loo and to refill my water bottles, I diverted just past the A256 to the Cider Works. It’s marked as a pub on the Harveys Map, but it’s actually a licensed cafe with slightly odd opening hours. I arrived just before the shut at 4pm, bought a slice of cake and an apple juice. They kindly refilled my water bottles. Restocked and rested, I once again moved on.

Rejoining the NDW, the landscape changes once again. I crossed through a church yard into pasture, through a small copse and into the lands of a country estate. I wanderd past giant mature trees, timeless pasture, and a country pile the size of which I had not expected.

An unexpected Mansion.

Leaving the pastoral land I crossed into a wheat field that filled a whole valley. I ascended the other side into a small woodland, then back into farmland for the last couple of kilometres to Shepherdswell.

The staff at the Cider works had said that one of the pubs in Shepherswell had recently closed, but they couldn’t remember which one it was. Fortunately the one that is still open is the one nearest the NDW, and I exited the path next to the church yard and into the pub.

The Bell Inn, Shepherdswell – A welcome sight.

The pub had a small crowd round the main bar area, and the conversation seemed to reduce somewhat as I came in. I walked past them all with my large pack, a couple of them making comments. I collapsed onto a sofa and ordered a pint.

I knew I had only a kilometre or so until my planned bivvi location and I had a couple of hours until sunset. Not wanting to make camp until the sun was down, it seemed the logical choice was to stay in the pub until dark… It’s a hard life sometimes…

Three pints of courage and a delicious fish ‘n’ chips later, I left the pub into the star light. I wandered through the horse pastures of Shepherdswell onto where the NDW joins a country lane heading north. Away from much of the light pollution I had a clear view of the stars, and with Orion on my left, and Cassiopeia on my right, I headed north.

Somewhere north of Shepherdswell I left the NDW and found a spot to bivvi in an area of coppiced broadleaf trees. It wasn’t the best spot, but it was away from the trail, had some shelter from an earth bank, and it wasn’t under a Yew tree. Between the exhaustion of the hike, the 3 pints of beer and the cold, I didn’t linger long. I put up my tarp, rolled out the bivvi bag, and crawled in, still fully dressed. It was cold so I wore my Torres jacket inside the sleeping bag.

I lay there listening to the local wildlife, something rustled in the leaf litter, and in the distance an owl called. But as I lay there I realised that I was shivering. Actual body shaking shivers. This was not good. I was in a 5°C sleeping bag, inside a heat reflecting bivvi bag, with an insulating jacket inside that. I rooted about in my pack to find the space blanket that was inevitably at the bottom. I unfolded it and put it between the bivvi bag and the sleeping bag. With this in place, I curled up tight and drifted off to sleep.

I woke just after first light, I might have started the night shivering cold but I was now comfortably warm. I ventured a hand out of the warmth to check the outside of my sleeping bag. As I had feared the non breathable space blanket had lead to lots of condensation on the outside of my sleeping bag. I crawled out into the woodland and stretched, before wandering off a short way to irrigate a tree. As I returned to my camp I realised just how badly I had made camp the night before. Certainly not my finest camp…

Not my best tarp pitching…

I stretched my sleeping bag out so that it could dry. The DWR coating on the bag had done it’s job and the moisture had pooled on the outside of the bag. It dried quite quickly, and just 45 minutes after I had crawled out of my bivvi bag, I stepped back out onto the trail.

Whilst Friday had been warm with beautiful spring sunshine, Saturday was an altogether chillier and greyer affair.

Grey skies looking towards Thanet.

From here onwards the NDW passes along side large open fields. The hedgerows of the previous day were gone, and with them their shelter from the wind. Where the path came close to a road edge, some scrote had fly tipped their rubbish.

I trudged northwards. Whilst on Friday I had covered 21.8km and didn’t feel too bad, just 5km into Saturdays hike and my feet were starting to ache. My old injury back with vengeance. I continued on, the pain increasing with every passing kilometre.

At Barham Downs I found the field the NDW passes through being ploughed by a couple of very large tractors, taking with it the obvious route through the field. I skirted along the edge where there was another path. On reaching the end of the field I had a small navigational hickup, and stopped to double check using viewranger. Position checked, I found the path a few metres beyond where I had thought it would be, and continued on.

Freshly ploughed path…

Once again the NDW joins a large road, this time following along the A2 for a short section near Bridge. The pain in my feet was getting considerable, and I decided that it would be best if I diverted to Bekesbourne station and the train back to Canterbury.

Bekesbourne only has one train an hour in each direction, and not wanting to have to wait 58 minutes on a platform with no seat or shelter having watched a train depart, I pressed onwards. I passed through the pretty village of Patrixbourne, before turning off the North Downs Way into Bekesbourne.

As I hobbled along Station Approach, I heard the sound of the approaching train, and with the last drops of will power, broke into a run. The train pulled into the station when I was about 50 yards from the platform. The Guard stepped onto the platform as a handful of passengers got off. The guard saw me and I waved, calling out “please wait!”. The kind guard held the train for me blowing his whistle and closing the door behind me as I stepped onto the train. I collapsed into a seat for the short trip to Canterbury. I’d managed just over 10km today, crossing off most of the NDW between Dover and Canterbury. I’ll have to come back for the final 3.5km.

REVIEW: Exped Lightning 60 & Flash Pocket

For a while now I’ve been wanting a new pack for winter use as well as for longer multi day trips where I need to carry more than 2-3 days food. My Osprey Tempest 30 is a great pack, but it’s 30L capacity becomes a limit when I want to use my big bulky synthetic winter sleeping bag.

After much deliberation I narrowed my Choices down to 4 packs. Osprey Exos 58(1.37kg), Z-Packs Arc Blast 60(601g), Gossamer gear Mariposa(825g (medium)), and the Exped Lightning 60(1120g). Despite being heavier than both the Arc Blast and the Mariposa, I decided on the Exped. Whilst my kit is lightweight, and getting lighter, I still have heavy synthetic sleeping bags, as well as wanting a pack for use when I need to carry several days worth of food. Working on an assumption of 800-1000g per day for food, a weeks food is 7kg. Given the Arc Blast and the Mariposa seem to top out capacity wise at around 35lb, the 24kg (note unit change) capacity of the Exped leaves me with plenty of comfortable range. Sure I don’t want to carry a 20kg pack any great distance, but knowing that my pack isn’t going to be massively uncomfortable after resupply is nice.

Main Pack

Backpack hanging in tree.

The pack in use with Flash pocket on the outside.

Enough of why I bought it, onto what I bought. The pack is pretty much as basic a pack as you could want. In terms of construction it’s effectively a dry bag style main compartment, with a couple of stretch side pockets, a compression system, all attached to a back system. Exped list the weight as 1120g, my pack comes in at 1070g on my scales.

The bag has a closure system similar to a dry bag, but the seams are not sealed so it shouldn’t be submersed or treated like a dry bag. It’s made from a Dyneema grid stop fabric which doesn’t seem to be that crisp packetty like Cuban fibre and Sil Nylon can be, but not quite as quiet as canvas. The fabric is 210 denier thick, 160gsm nylon with Dyneema reinforcing, all with a waterproof PU coating with a 15000mm hydrostatic head. Or put simply: a durable ripstop fabric. I went for the black pack as it was the colour least likely to stick out when walking in the wilderness. I don’t like bright colours in the outdoors and prefer if I can blend in with my surroundings, rather than being visual pollution.

Next to where the T bar of the back system attaches to the pack there is a waterproof zip that gives access to a pocket. On my first trip out I accidentally left this zip open by a couple of millimetres and it made the contents rather damp. This  pocket is effectively a free floating flap inside the pack, I find it helps when closing the pack to lay it across the top of the contents so you can access it easier from outside. On the inside of the pack the pocket has a separate zipped mesh compartment. Other than that the inside of the pack is just one big compartment, no dividers, no zips, just a simple bag of holding.

On the each side of the pack there is a stretch pocket, these are plenty big enough for a 1L Nalgene bottle, I tend to carry a 1.5L Evernew water pouch in the right hand pocket which fits nicely. When this pack was first released, the side compression strap went over the top of the side pockets greatly reducing their utility. Exped have since released a new version (the 2014 version I have), which routes the strap through the pocket, so that it doesn’t interrupt it’s use. If you want you can still rethread the compression strap over the top of the pocket.

The rest of the pack is criss crossed with a selection of compression straps. These are made of a lightweight webbing tape which isn’t the most stable of straps. If you pull it too tight it tends to curl into a cylinder rather than remaining flat. In practice this hasn’t been an issue to me. The straps are long enough that I can fit a CCF roll mat on the side of the pack. To avoid having excess flapping about in the wind each strap has a velcro wrapping so you can roll up the excess, it’s a nice touch.

Along with the compression straps there is space for a couple of ice axes or similar, plus a few extra loops you could thread with bungee cord if you wanted to add a roll mat to the bottom, or carry something else on the outside.

All in all the storage section of the pack is basic and to the point. In the trips I’ve used it I’ve not found any real issues with the compression straps, or lack of compartments. Exped seem to have got a really good balance of features vs simplicity.

Back System

The back system of the pack.

The back system of the pack.

If you judged this pack my it’s storage compartment alone then it would be nothing special, just a simple back pack. Where Exped’s ingenuity has shone through however is in the back system.

The core of the back system is a central corrugated aluminium stay. This slots into a slot at the top of the pack where it interacts with a cross piece and into a slot in the hip belt at the bottom. The hip belt is made up of 3 large foam sections, one fits into the lumber part of your back, and then the two sides wrap round your waist (this is clearer if you look at the photo above). The shoulder harness has a yoke shape which is free to slide up and down on the aluminium stay, but held at their upper reach by a webbing strap marked with S M L (small medium Large), that fits to a tri-glide attached to the hip belt. There are a pair of load lifters that come from the T bar and attach to the shoulder yoke. A grab handle also connects to the T bar.

This arrangement of straps, metal and foam allows for a back system that transfers the load onto the hips like no other pack I’ve tried (I’ve tried too many…). Fully loaded with 10kg of kit, with the waist belt cinched into place, the load is transferred onto the hip belt so effectively that I can loosen off the shoulder straps, and the pack just stays in place. You only really need the shoulder straps to stop the pack from tilting backwards.

Dialling in the back system is not the simplest task, but Exped has released a pair of videos, one on course tuning of the back system, and one on fine tuning it. I spent about 15 mins getting the back system tuned perfectly for me (shoulder yoke all the way down, and the Ali stay bent slightly to match my spine). Having done so I don’t expect to have to adjust it again.

The hip belt has a zipped stretch side pocket on each side. This pocket is large enough for my first aid kit to fit in the left one, and for snacks or a compact camera to fit in the other.

The pack comes in both men’s and women’s fit. Alas Exped have fallen into the trap of assuming women want bright colours and only do the women’s version in Terracotta (a red) and Deep Sea Blue. Neither colour seemed to be ideal for not standing out. On the men’s range it comes in Black or Lichen Green. The green is a bit too light and bright for my tastes. Hence going for the black. One of my few complaints is the choices of colours. I got the men’s pack in black and even with my ample chest it seems to work OK.

One modification I’ve done is to attach a small loop of bungee to the webbing on each shoulder strap, This gives me a horizontal point to attach my DeLorme inReach Explorer on the left strap, and my Petzl Zipka 2+ on the right strap. It’s a simple mod that adds a couple of grams.

Flash Pocket

To go with the Lightning range of packs Exped have released the Flash Pocket. Weighing 80g, this is a large dump pocket that attaches to the front of the pack. One side of the pocket is solid fabric, and one is mesh, depending on which way round you attach it allows you to either have some weather protection to it’s contents, or an airy breath-ability. I find the flash pocket useful for things like a damp tarp, water proof jacket, and the days food. As well as things I’ve forgotten to put into the pack before I closed it up. At about £8 quid it’s a nice extra to have.

The design of the pocket, whilst intended for the Lightning range of packs, is not limited to them, and could be used with other packs.

Summary

In summary this pack might not be the lightest on the market, but whereas many packs have the sole selling point of their weight, this pack’s ability to carry load more comfortably than any other pack I’ve come across sets it apart, and even justifies the few extra grams.

Light weight, yet able to take those heavier loads when necessary. I can’t recommend this pack highly enough. When I have the money I hope to get the 45L version for when the 60L is overkill.

The only area the pack is let down is in the available colours. If it came in a nice dark green, it would be perfect.

I bought my pack from Backpackinglight.co.uk and the flash pocket from Ultralight Outdoor Gear.

ADVENTURE: Yew must be joking, a #Microadventure in this Wind?

December the 5th. December. I looked at the weather forecast for the weekend. 12°C, It seemed to be a mistake. I checked with another source. The Brits and the Norwegians both agreed. I closed the met office app, and stuffed my summer sleeping bag into my pack along with my usual bivvi gear. I pondered what to do. I wanted a trip out, to be among the trees once more. I’d been craving the forest for weeks. Several times I’d almost gone out, but bottled at the last minute. No this time I must go. But where.

My favourite stomping ground for this sort of trip tends to mean a start from either Wye or Chilham station. From here there are various bits of woodland and downland suitable for a microadventure. I looked at the map again. Back in November I had set out on a 3 day trip involving a 23km loop starting at Wye, and going via Chilham and the Kings wood. I’d done the southern half, but aborted at Chilham after the first night. This seemed like a good opportunity to complete the loop. A simple 12km walk from Chilham station up through the Kings wood to Wye station, bivvying down in a quiet stand of trees somewhere along the way.

Bag packed I left the house with the intention of grabbing some food en route to take with me. An indication of how frazzled my brain was, I hadn’t even got out the end of the road when I’d had to return to the flat twice to collect things I’d forgotten, nothing major, just my sleep mat…

Eight minutes on a train left me standing at Chilham station in a dull grey overcast nothingness. No leaves on the trees, no sun in the sky, not even rain in the air. Just wind. Oh what a wind. The met office had reckoned on 40kph winds with gusts upto 71kph. A bit blustery,

I left the station and headed towards the village of Chilham proper. The wind bit, blowing my hair around, thrashing it against my face. Hat, why hadn’t I brought a hat? Oh yes, 12°C. I put my hood up, hoping to contain my hair, and protect my ears from the windchill. As I walked through the village I now started to overheat. Even with both pit zips wide open it was too warm. I admitted defeat and put the hood down. As long as I kept my orientation into the wind it should be mostly ok.

Walkers in Road sign.

Warning to motorists that I was here…

I turned onto the interestingly named Mountain Road. I expected this to be named for a reason, steeply inclined. But no, it was pretty much flat, maybe a gentle undulation. I got 10 yards along the road when the phone rang. This was a surprise, I hadn’t expected to have phone signal here, it’s one of the reasons I got my inReach satellite communicator. It was my dad, who seemed to think I was nuts to be out for a walk in this wind. We chatted as I walked along Mountain Road towards the Kings wood. As I walked I explained how he could login to the delorme website and track where I was, followed by experimenting with the novelty of sending messages to me via a multi billion dollar satellite network…

View across the Stour Valley. A month ago we camped in those woods.

As I reached the edge of the Kings wood, we finished the call. It was close to dusk now, and I had what I thought was another 1-2km to go before my intended camp site. I put my head down and plodded up the hill.

I’d left the tarmac’d road behind and this part of the path was a wide trackway. Rutted down the centre where the water had eroded the chalk surface. A month ago in the wet, both myself and the friend I’d been walking with had had traction issues on such exposed chalk. In the rain the chalk is like polished ice and it’s easy to fall over. Thankfully today the chalk was dry, even so I plodded up the hill carefully.

I’d brought with me a new toy, a wood burning stove. So as I wandered I kept an eye out for wood to burn. I had my usual fire kit with me, but beyond few basic tinder tabs (more on that in future post), I didn’t have anything else suitable for making fire. I would have to put my Bushcraft skills to use if I was going to have a fire tonight. As I walked I looked for some fallen birch, the bark of which makes great tinder. It didn’t take me long to spot a dead fallen Silver Birch (Betula pendula). I cut off a 18″ long length, then tried to work out how best to carry it. Taking my pack off would be a faff and I already had a walking pole in each hand. I settled on holding it under the waist belt of my pack. A few yards further on, I added a second piece of Birch to the belt. This should hopefully be enough to get me sorted. I continued up the hill.

I had brought a map with me, intending to rely on it alone, without resorting to my phone or GPS. I need to improve my navigation skills. But with dark almost complete, I chose discretion as the better part of valour, and pulled out Viewranger on my phone. As I homed in on my intended campsite for the night, I grabbed a couple more bits of dead standing to fuel the fire. Fifty meters short of the camp, I turned right off the path towards a stand of Yew trees. In the dark I discovered that what looked to be a direct walk to the Yews, was interrupted by a three meter wide ditch. The sides where steep. It must have taken me 5 minutes to slowly easy my way down the side of the ditch. Using my poles almost like ice axes. Fortunately the other side of the ditch was easier to climb up. A few more meters and I was there. Camp.

I’d spotted this stand of Yew trees on a walk earlier in the year, and thought they would be a nice spot to bivvi. What I hadn’t quite taken into account was how not flat they were. I put my pack down with my little pile of fire wood, and sat down. Breathe. I needed to find a flat spot big enough to roll out my bivvi bag without any dead branches above it that could fall in the night. I scouted around looking for a perfect spot. I couldn’t spot anything ideal in the near darkness, and I didn’t want to shine my torches main beam around too much. I try not to draw too much attention to myself when in the woods, and was using the red beam on my headlight. I found something that looked pretty flat in the dim light, it didn’t have any over hanging dead branches. It would do. I moved my pack up here along with my firewood bundle.

Before I make camp a habit of mine is to just sit and listen to the woods, get used to the area I’m in. I listened. The woods were a cacophony of noise. Branches banged, trunks squeaked, and it all set on a base line of white noise from the wind. A gust of wind shook the trees, and I felt a footstep. Adrenaline shot through my body. I was on high alert. I turned off my torch and listened. I couldn’t hear anybody to connect with the footstep. Another gust of wind, another footstep. I looked around. Sheer terror the only way to describe it. I didn’t feel alone, something didn’t feel right. I reached out to touch the nearest tree, and on the next gust, I felt the tree trembled, the vibration propagating through the soil. There was noone here, the wind was making the ground shake. Breathe.

As soon as I had my heart rate under control I decided to pitch my tarp, this would give me some shelter from the wind, some visual shelter from anyone mad enough to be walking the woods in these conditions, and would give me some sense of security. Here is where I discovered the slight downside of my chosen pitch. The trees didn’t lend themselves to a proper pitch. I thought about the options, I played them through in my mind, before deciding on pitching my tarp with the ridge along the short axis, in an open sided lean to. There wouldn’t be much room, the gap  between the trees on this axis was barely more than the width of the tarp, but if would do.

I ended up with a ridge line in a triangular config round three trees with the tarp in a sort of open sided lean to arrangement. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do to get me going. I sat under the tarp slightly out of the wind and thought what to do next. Fire.

I took the various bits of dead standing and birch bark I’d collected, and with my little folding saw processed it down until I had a pile of sticks varying in thickness from a couple of millimetres, upto thumb size. I filled the stove with sticks of various sizes, packed in some birch bark and added a lit tinder quik tab. At first I didn’t think it had caught, I was just about to light another when the flames started to grow. Success. I spent the next half hour feeding sticks into the fire, bathing in it’s warmth and glow. Alas when I looked away for a couple of minutes to make a sandwich, it seemed to die down and I needed to start again to get it going. It worked. Twice in one night. I fed twigs into the stove and nibbled on my dinner.

The wind was showing no signs of easing up and the tarp pitched the way it was, wasn’t giving me as much protection as I had hoped. I’d need to reconfigure it. I let the fire die down, and turned my eye to the shelter. In the end I dropped it down into a half open pyramid type lean to type setup. I lay down inside the shelter. The fabric of the tarp was just inches above my face. Hardly optimal. I was exhausted, it would have to do. I rolled out my bivvi bag, inflated my sleep mat, and crawled into my sleeping bag.

Various layers of heavily distilled essence of dinosaur stood between me and the elements. Gust after gust blew through the trees, with each a crescendo of white noise filled the air. Trees groaned, branches squeaked, the ground shook. Every so often the staccato crack of a branch giving way would break through the noise. I lay in my bivvi bag, nose inches from the tarp, my locator beacon clutched to my chest, listening. I have never been more terrified on a night out in the woods. Even when visited by wild boar and strange dogs.

Just as I started to drift off towards sleep, a gust picked up the corner of my tarp and blew it loose of it’s peg. I couldn’t leave it to flap in the wind all night, I’d have to leave the psychological safety of my cocoon. I took the opportunity to re do the pitch of the tarp so that it was slightly further down the ridge line, meaning that I was no longer falling out from the lower edge. I also took the opportunity to rig up a stick to try and lift the tarp off my face a bit. I crawled back into my bivvi bag and tried to sleep.

Not the best pitch I’ve ever done, but it protected me for the night.

I slept the fitful sleep of the hounded, every so often a large gust would shake the whole tarp, waking me up. Throughout the night the wind moved around so occasionally it blew into the front of the shelter, billowing it out like a parachute, at others it blew onto the lower angle, pinning the fabric against my body.

The view from my bivvi bag.

0700 came bringing with it my alarm. It was still dark, the wind still blew. I hit snooze. A grey dawn slowly broke across the forest. I hadn’t exactly slept well, and in my groggy state I hit snooze three more times. By 0900 my bladder was telling me it was time to get up, I was just about to hit snooze one more time when I heard the first drops of rain on the tarp. Sod it, time to move.

Venturing forth from my warm sleeping bag, I stood up and stretched. Looking out through the trees, I could see drizzle being blown by the wind. Sheltered in the stand of Yew trees, I hadn’t noticed this.

Drizzle.

Drizzle

I broke camp in a matter of minutes. Using a 60L pack rather than my usual 30L meant I didn’t need the usual faff of cramming everything into small stuff sacks. It certainly sped up breaking camp. I shouldered my pack looked around to check I hadn’t left anything, then looked out of the trees into a clearing. Everything was blurry. Glasses. I swore. Loudly. My glasses were in the little zip pocket on my sleeping bag… in the bottom of my backpack, underneath everything else. I unpacked, found my glasses bent them back to the shape they should be, and repacked everything. Grrr.

Knowing of the ditch I had traversed in the dark the previous night, I took a slightly different route back to the path, this one was more direct, but steeper. As I did I found a couple of game trails, one of which had a mound covered in deer scat. I continued up the hill past mounds of white chalk. From a distance I wondered what they were, but as I got closer I realised they were the spoils from a badger set. I didn’t see any prints or scats from the badgers, but their excavations were visible throughout the rest of the day.

I rejoined the North Downs way and headed west for Wye. The path here was the best I’ve had on the North Downs Way so far, wide, and of a sort of compacted grit that made relatively easy going. In places the grit gave way to mud, and in this mud the hoof prints of deer stood out beautifully. Nearly every patch of mud I passed had clear deer sign in it.

Deer sign.

I continued on for Wye. At one point I passed a information board and stopped to read it. The board explained that this was the first point on the Pilgrims way where you can see Canterbury Cathedral. Walking in the opposite direction, I never would have thought to look for it.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

At the edge of the Kings wood the North Downs way hangs a left and heads down hill to Boughten-Lees, where it diverges, to either Wye or Farnham (eventually). Alas the sign saying this is missing at this point. I climbed over a stile into a field expecting a path to my left. No path. I pulled the map out and studied it. I’d gone wrong. I climbed back over the stile and retraced my steps 20 yards to a junction. Yep, this is it, or at least this is where the sign should be. I headed downhill.

The wide compacted grit path of the last 4km was replaced by eroded and polished chalk as I descended towards Wye. As I went I started to think about my route. By now my feet were more sore than they should be and I started to wonder if there was a shorter route to Wye. I looked a the map, and there seemed to be a path across fields that came out near the station. Deciding once again that discretion was the way forward. I left the North Downs Way, and headed across the relatively flat farmland. Out of the protection of the woods or hedgerows, here I got the full brunt of the wind and once again pulled my hood up to keep my ears and neck warm.

Crossing the Canterbury Road, I had just 2km to go to get to Wye. Alas the fields here are the flood plane of the River Stour, and the recent rain had water logged the soil. Large areas of the path where nothing more than bog that I gingerly stepped through, thinking carefully before placing each step. Twice the mud tried to steal my shoes. When not outright bog, the path was in places a polished clay that led to slipping and sliding. Fortunately I stayed on my feet.

Eventually with sore feet and aching legs I reached Wye,. I hobbled into the Tickled Trout for a well earned Roast Dinner and a pint of Ale.

Mile stone.

 

REVIEW: DeLorme inReach Explorer

“I’m off for a hike, back at 5”

It’s a phrase I’ve uttered a variant of many times, be it to my house mate, or via text to another friend. Each time it’s a clear message. If you haven’t heard from me by 6, call 999 and ask for search and rescue. I usually accompany it with a brief explanation of my plan “I’m going to walk in the Kings wood” or on bigger walks I may leave a GPX of the route with them.

The reason for this procedure is that often in the areas I hike in, there is no phone signal. Even in somewhere as densely populated as Kent phone signal is not a given. Alas as a procedure, it’s not perfect. If my walk started at noon, and I fell over and broke my leg at 1, it’s going to be 5 hours before the call is made, and another hour or 2 before rescue will get to me. That’s a long time to lay in pain on a hill side. In such situations a broken leg can easily become complicated by things like hypothermia.

I experimented with the Buddy beacon on the Viewranger app, which provided some tracking of my position while hiking, but it was always let down by a poor mobile phone coverage and even poorer battery life. There had to be a better way.

Enter the DeLorme inReach range of devices. These devices work not off the mobile phone network, but off the Iridium satellite network. Iridium was launched in the closing years of the 20th century as a satellite mobile network for global use. The history of the bust and bailout of Iridium could fill an article in it’s own right, so I won’t go into that, you can have a look on wikipedia, it’s an interesting story that’s worth a read.

The original inReach provided SOS and 2-way messaging functions, but relied on pairing with a mobile phone to provide full messaging functionality. But the leap forward comes with the Explorer and the SE devices.

The inReach SE and the inReach Explorer have the same basic form factor, a bit like a ruggedised older style mobile phone, with the antenna sticking up on it. Both devices share the SOS, two way messaging, social media messaging (send only) and position tracking. To this the explorer adds traditional GPSr functionality, with way points, positioning, Barometric altimeter, electronic compass, route management etc… The price difference between the two units is about £50. Or the same as a very low end GPS like the Garmin eTrex 10.

I’ve wanted a device like this since I first followed the launch of Iridium back in the last century, but when I saw the price of both the devices and the connectivity contracts I concluded that it would be forever beyond my reach. Fast forward by 17 years, and things have changed a bit. Iridium devices are still much the same price, and usage is much the same cost. Only inflation means that relatively speaking the price has come down a lot. But along with the improvements in cost effectiveness, so have come improvements in devices that can use the network. I was amazed to discover that you can buy a device like the inReach Explorer for less than the price of a middle of the range smart phone. But more importantly the usage prices have come down dramatically. I’ll go into this in more detail shortly.

In July I treated myself to an inReach Explorer, and signed up to the Recreation plan on a 1 year contract. The device arrived by FEDEX less than 24 hours after I placed the order. It comes in a box with a charger (US socket), USB cable, lanyard, and manual. I also bought the case to go with it. The device itself is waterproof to 1M, but does not float. I want to be able to use it while Kayaking/Canoing and so bought the extra case. In High Visibility Orange, it both floats, and should be pretty obvious if I do drop it in the drink.

When you get the device you first have to charge it up, then activate it. In order to activate it you need to decide what usage plan you want to use. DeLorme offer 4 levels of usage plan for individuals, and you can choose an annual or monthly contract. If you opt for a monthly contract, you can choose to not pay anything for the months of the year you don’t need it. So if you only tend to hike in the summer months, or only want to use the device on certain trips, you only pay for the months you need. Conversely, if you expect to use the device regularly, then the annual contract works out cheaper per month. The four plans range from the “Safety Plan” at $14.95 per month ($11.95 per month if you have an annual contract) to the “Extreme Plan” at $99.95 ($79.95 per month with an annual contract). At $11.95, you get unlimited SOS, 10 text messages, unlimited preset messages, and a minimum tracking interval of 10 minutes. Tracking points and location pings are $0.10 each, and if you go over your 10 messages they are $0.50 each. The next plan up, the “Recreation Plan” is $24.95/$34.95 per month, and perhaps the most useful of the plans. Here you get 40 text messages, unlimited tracking and location pings. Above this plan the price jumps significantly and gives you unlimited messaging. Then for the top level plan, it increase the tracking frequency to 2 minutes.

What are preset messages? These are upto 3 messages you pre-program into the device. You have to decide both the recipient and the message content. I’ve got these programmed to “I’m OK” “Made camp” “Breaking Camp”, and they go to a couple of friends. You can send preset messages either from the preset menu in the device, or by holding down X button until it gives you the menu. Each preset message when it is delivered to the recipient includes your position as both a link to a map with a “they are here” indicator, and as a lat/long position. Being included with all plans these are a really useful way of keeping friends and family up to date with your status.

What are tracking points and location pings? If you go into the tracking menu you can activate the inReach device to relay your position via satellite every x minutes, where x is the interval you choose. This is limited to a max frequency of 10 minutes or 2 minutes depending on plan, but you can also set it to be less frequent, once an hour say. These tracking points are sent to DeLorme and can be shown on the mapshare system. Mapshare is DeLormes platform for sharing your position. You can share this with friends/family so they can track your progress, they can also use this to message/ping you. This is where location pings come in. Someone with access to your Mapshare page can ping your device to see where you are. It’s like a tracking point, but pulled, rather than pushed…

When a message arrives via text, it looks something like this (Note link doesn’t work, and position is made up, just here for example purposes)

“I’m OK. http://dlor.me/ABCDEFGH 51.12345 0.9876”

This allows the recipient to look on the website and see where you are. Those you give Mapshare access to can also send you text messages. The receiving of these messages come out of your allowance, or cost you $0.50 if you have used all your included messages.

The Mapshare interface

The Mapshare interface – Locate (ping the device), Message (send a message to the device), Send (send a position to the device), Centre (centre the map view on the device’s position)

You’ve charged the device, you’ve entered your card details and started the activation process. At some point you’ll be told to go outside and give the inReach a clear view of the sky so that activation messages can be sent. This also gives you an early indication of the limitations of the device. You need a clear view of the sky. You can’t send messages from indoors, and even a thick tree cover can stump it. Vehicle use seems to be variable. In a car I’ve not had issue, but when I’ve tried on a train, it’s been temperamental, that said the message was sent eventually…

Device activated it’s time to use it. If you’re using the tracking functionality or want to be able to receive messages, you need to make sure the device is somewhere it can “see” the satellites. This means not in a trouser pocket… I carry the device on the left shoulder strap of my pack. It comes with a belt clip that allows attachment of the device. This clip has a rather aggressive barb on the end which makes it a pain to get on and off, but at the same time does reassure you that it’s going nowhere. I back up the clip with the lanyard, which I have carabinered to my pack strap as well.

The Delorme Inreach Explorer mounted on the shoulder strap of my backpack.

The DeLorme inReach Explorer mounted on the shoulder strap of my backpack.

The difference between the inReach Explorer and the inReach SE, is that with the explorer you get normal GPSr functionality included. This means that when tracking, as well as just sending your position, it also allows you to log the position locally. This local logging has the advantage that it doesn’t use tracking points (if your plan doesn’t have these for included), and can be done at a higher frequency than you can transmit. If you opt for a logging frequency of higher than once per minute you will get a message telling you that this will result in the GPS receiver being always on and will increase battery usage. For this reason I have my logging interval set to 1 minute, and my tracking interval set to 10 minutes. You can download the GPX trace to your computer when you sync the device (more on that shortly).

This GPSr functionality includes a Barometric altimeter and an electronic compass. Due to the peculiarities of how the GPS system is designed, accuracy of altitude position (z axis) is lower than your position on the x and y axis. This means that you can’t normally rely on having a GPS for altitude positioning. Having an altimeter is a really nice touch to the Explorer, it’s useful when you want to follow a set contour round a hill for example. The electronic compass is not a replacement for a normal compass when used with a map, the shape of the device means you can’t easily use it as a baseplate compass to get a bearing from a map, where it does come in useful is when you know that the next way point is on a bearing of 097°, you can hold the device in front of you and rotate until you are pointing the right way.

In compass mode on a map.

Device in compass mode to align the map.

Messaging on the inReach is it’s key feature, and one it does well. Typing messages is not the easiest interface ever used. Text entry when you don’t have a full keyboard is never going to be great. If you’ve used a normal GPS before you’ll be familiar with the cludgyness of their text input. DeLorme try to simplify this via a predictive text mechanism. This isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing, the main limitation is that the dictionary is American English and perhaps favours words more suited to an American hunter than a British hiker, I’ve also not worked out how to add words to it’s dictionary. There are mechanisms within the device to make things a bit simpler. You can pre program some messages that are common ones to type. “Yes” “No” “I’m running late” “It’s all uphill” “Weathers here, wish you were nice” etc… These don’t count as preset messages so they are charged either out of out allowance or at $0.50, but it does make it a bit easier to type. The other option you have is to pair the device with your phone and use the keyboard functionality that provides to type the messages.

Functions available via the Earthmate app

Functions available via the Earthmate app

Pairing the inReach with the Earthmate app on your phone gives you the ability to use all the inReach’s functions with the additional ability to download maps to your phone and use those with device’s GPSr functionality. I’ve not really used the app much, I tried it on a trip to Monserrat, and upon closing the app, it kept my phone from sleeping, and drained the battery. With the latest version of the firmware for the inReach explorer DeLorme introduced what they call “wireless sync”. This upgrade is advertised as allowing you to use your phone to sync your inReach’s messages and contacts. In the process of writing this review, I synced my inReach via the Earthmate app, and was surprised to find that it had also uploaded the logged track info to the website, meaning I could log in to the DeLorme website, view the detailed trace, and download it. This was a surprise to me, and the first draft of this review had a rant about how you can’t get a GPX out of the device without using the Windows or Mac based sync. Perhaps it would be better instead to grumble about poor communication of the additional features in the upgrade by DeLorme… You still can’t sync the firmware via the Earthmate app, for that you do still need either a Windows PC or a Mac, but seeing as firmware upgrades are something you only have to do rarely, it’s not a show stopper. I have enough friends that do have Windows or Mac laptops that will let me borrow them to update the firmware, that I can manage.

When I read the email announcing that wireless sync was now supported in the Earthmate app, I got my hopes up that perhaps I could download the GPX from the inReach to my phone. Alas, no such luck. It would be nice to be able to download the logged track info out of the device without relying on Internet connectivity to do so. Earthmate might be able to upload the track to DeLorme for you to view via the website, but you can’t just download it to your phone, to back it up. This is a major failing of the app. Given the limited space in the device for logging your track, the ability to download it to your phone periodically would be great a really useful feature.

Earthmate app showing the route trace.

Earthmate app showing the route trace.

The other significant messaging feature of the inReach is under the menu item “Social”. This allows you to post messages via satellite to Facebook, Twitter, and Mapshare. You have to configure access for DeLorme to do this via the same website you configure the rest of the inReach’s functionality and payment info, but once setup, you can use the social menu to post to these Social networks. I don’t have a Facebook account so haven’t tested that, but I’ve used it to tweet frequently. There is something rather amusing about laying in a bivvi bag on a mountain side in Spain and using a multi billion dollar satellite network to tweet about what it is I had for breakfast… One of the settings when you configure social media connectivity is position info. You can set it to include your position info, or a link to your mapshare page in your tweets or facebook posts, the same as it does in your texts. I have this disabled, I don’t want twitter knowing where exactly I am laying in a bivvi bag in the woods.

The final major feature of the inReach Explorer, and perhaps for many the main reason you buy the device, is the SOS functionality. You can activate this three ways, via the Eearthmate app, the SOS menu option, or by sliding the switch on the face of the device then holding the SOS button for 5 seconds. For obvious reasons, I’ve not actually tested this feature, and I hope I never have to. I’m assured by DeLorme, that as long as I slide the switch and press the SOS button for 5 seconds someone will come to help me. Even if I then lose consciousness. I have to go on trust that this will happen. It’s a leap of faith. Press button receive-helicopter. In theory if you are still conscious, having activated the SOS call, you can then communicate with the rescuers with info such as what injuries you have, number of casualties etc… I’ve not tested this… Tho I wouldn’t like to have to type out details of a thoracic spinal injury under stressful conditions using the standard text input mechanism.

One of the questions that I have been asked by a lot of people who have first asked “What’s that device on your shoulder?” is “Who pays for that?”. Again it’s not something I’ve managed to get a clear answer to. In the UK, last I checked a Mountain Rescue callout isn’t followed up by an invoice. Nor do the local HART team request your card before evacuating you to hospital. But this isn’t the case everywhere. For many activities travel insurance covers some of these costs. But if you are at all worried, DeLorme offer a $17.95 a year policy covering you for upto $100000 of SAR costs. I’ve not opted for this while I’m wandering around in western Europe, but if I venture further afield I will seriously consider it.

So far I’ve used the DeLorme inReach Explorer in Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and The Netherlands. It’s worked great for messaging friends, tracking my position, posting to twitter, and GPSr functionality. The $24.95 a month comes out at about £16 with the exchange rate, which is less than many pay on mobile phone coverage. I’ve yet to exceed the 40 messages per month, and have transmitted over 260 tracking points. I love the inReach Explorer and it’s become a permanent fixture to the left shoulder strap of my pack.

Postscript.

If you have found this article of use and are considering buying a DeLorme inReach, be it the Explorer or the SE, please do so by clicking on these links – DeLorme inReach Explorer, DeLorme inReach SE. It helps pay for the running of this site and the adventures that it is based upon.

ADVENTURE: Wye yes! (Section hike the North Downs Way pt 2)

Back in February I started off an attempt to section hike the North Downs Way (NDW). It didn’t go well. I managed less than 10km before the foot injury forced me to accept an offer of rescue from a friend. Since then I’ve had several more appointments with a podiatrist. The product of this was a pain of made to my feet insoles. And they worked, I could walk without the pain.

Thursday night I found myself angry and upset. I needed to get out, I needed to do something to clear my mind. As I crawled into bed an idea formed, if I got up early, I could go for a walk. I set my alarm for 0600 and curled up with a plan forming in my head.

0600 in October is still dark, yet I crawled out of bed with enthusiasm. By 0630 I had packed a minimal day pack – map (OS explorer 137), battery pack for phone, emergency blanket, satellite beacon, and water filter. If I was going to stand a chance of doing this I was going to have to travel light. 1.39kg before I added lunch. Stepping out into the inky dark, I was greeted by I crisp Kent morning. A tiny sliver of moon hung in the sky. This felt good. I nipped to a cafe for a fried breakfast, followed by supermarket to pick up lunch, then headed to the bus station for the 0825 number 17 bus to New Barn Corner.

As I watched the Elham valley slip by the window of the bus I pondered what lay ahead of me – get off bus, walk 500m toward Postling, pick up the NDW, hang a right, follow the signs 15km to Wye, get train home. Nice and simple.

The clear crisp night have given way to a beautiful sunny day. I crossed the road and wander towards the NDW, everything felt great.

Etchinghill Transmitter

Etchinghill Transmitter – The NDW passes this transmitter mast on the way from Dover.

To save weight I’d only brought one of the two maps covering the days walk, the second half. In hindsight I should have brought the other one instead, and at the first NDW sign I made my first mistake. The sign seemed to point along the road, guessing it took the road a couple of hundred meters before it crossed the hedge, I wandered down the road. The NDW actually went the other side of the hedge, along the edge of the field. I followed the road into Postling village, where I took a footpath north to at last join the North Downs Way. I stopped to shed the fleece from under my windproof, it was too warm for that, and paused to take photos every for dozen yards. I made slow progress, but didn’t care, beautiful weather, and beautiful scenery. At some point I dropped my lens cap, and retraced my step a couple of hundred metres to find it. Plodding on I passed from the access land full of cows near Postling to fields. Passing through the kissing gate I looked for a NDW sign. Nothing, there was a footpath sign pointing north, but an obviously well trodden path continuing west. I took the unsigned path, hoping I’d find some indication soon.

View from Postling Downs.

View from Postling Downs

Following the path I eventually picked up signs for the NDW, and crossed Farthing common. Dodging traffic I crossed the main road into a field, I decided it was I good time for a first drink stop, and sat admiring the view while listening to the rattle of small arms fire from the nearby MOD training range. When I first attempted the NDW back in February, something that struck me was how at no point did I get away from the sound of the A20. Yet this leg, despite paralleling the M20 for a good distance, the only time I knew it was there was when I looked hard, and got the occasional flash of sun light reflecting off a lorry.

Ashford in the distance.

Ashford in the distance.

Break over, I continued north, parallel to the road until it turned left in the corner of a field and headed west again. Here the scenery changed from rough pasture and arable fields to a rolling hills of finer pasture, betwixt the quaint villages of middle England. I descended Cob hill to the village of Stowting, where the NDW moved from footpath to country lane. The black top would last a couple of kilometres before picking up a green lane along the top of Braebourne Downs. During this length the distance between NDW signs was greater than previous, just far enough for you to start to wonder if you’ve gone past the turning. On the road I asked a local for directions, who reassured me I was on the right route and to keep going. Alas this didn’t stop me taking a turn slightly too early, and having to back track. This added almost a kilometre to my walk.

The descent of Cob hill

The descent of Cob hill

Eventually I left the black top for the green lane it was approach midday, and I was feeling hungry. The green lane was shrouded by hedgerows that grew over the path creating a living tunnel to walk down. This didn’t provide much by way of places to stop for lunch, so when I came across a small patch of grass in front of a field gate, I took the opportunity to stop. It turns out had I gone another 50 yards I’d haven found a bench to sit on. Ah well.

A field of sheep and cows.

The view from lunch.

Tree lined green lane.

Green tunnel of the NDW near Brabourne

Just as I was packing my bag from lunch a dog walker with a pair of cocker spanials appeared. I ended up walking and chatting with her for the new kilometre or so before our paths diverged and I continued along the NDW.

Leaving the green lane north of Brabourne Downs, my hitherto comfortable shoes started to play up. I stopped in another field gateway to fettle my shoes in the hope of making them more comfortable.

The insoles that the podiatrist had made for me are made of two materials, a relatively firm EVA foam, with a memory poreon coating. It was these two layers that had de-laminated, in so doing the upper poreon layer was bunching up under the heal and causing discomfort. I fettled with the insoles, donned my shoes and continued. From here on the walk turned from a pleasant hike in beautiful scenery, into a slog of ever growing discomfort. The distance I could cover between stops to fettle my insoles decreased as the journey continued.

Whilst stopping to fix my shoes, I also had the opportunity to admire the view of Kent in it’s autumnal splendour.

Wye from Wye Downs.

Wye from Wye Downs.

On top of Wye Downs I filled the pouch of my Sawyer water filter from a cattle trough. This was the first source of water on the walk I had come across, other than the Tiger Inn at Stowting.

Autumn colours.

View from Wye downs, looking East.

As I started the descent from Wye Downs towards Wye, the walk become more of a hobble. Subconsciously in order to reduce the discomfort in my feet I adapted my gait, this compensation would later lead to sore muscles, as those not normally used in walking were called upon.

Once again the NDW changed, from the open land of the Downs it passed along the edge of fields freshly sewn with oil seed rape, past the old buildings of Wye college before passing alongside allotments to the back of Wye church.

The church yard of Wye church has a number of impressive yews. I hobbled on. The streets of Wye marked the final kilometer or so to the station, and the train back to Canterbury.

I’d missed the train I had aimed to get due to hobbling, which gave me a longer wait at Wye station. As I sat there awaiting my train, I checked over the route my GPS had logged. 17.9km. With the couple of kilometres to the bus stop in Canterbury it brought my total for the day to over 20km. In the previous 2 years since my foot injury, the furthest I’d walked in any one day had been just shy of 15km. I’d managed to go 33% further. It made me wonder, if I can get a more durable set of insoles, could this be the start of being able to walk properly again?

With this in mind, I boarded the train back to Canterbury and started to consider the possibilities for my next trip.

Wye Station in the Sunshine

Wye Station in the Sunshine

Postscript

Since doing this walk, the podiatrist has ordered me a new set of insoles which should be more durable, and to avoid the map issue, I’ve treated myself to the Harveys North Downs Way map.

I took a lot more photos on this walk that I could sensibly include in this post, the better shots I have put up on my photo website.

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?

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.