A Brompton’s winter boots.

Winter seems to be well on it’s way, the hard frosts are predicted, and the gritters are heading out onto the roads in a bid to keep them ice free.

Just the thought of falling over on an icy bend is enough to drive most cyclists towards taking the bus to work until conditions improve. But it doesn’t have to be the case. For years Schwalbe (and others, notably Nokian), have produced studded winter tyres in various sizes that allow you to keep cycling throughout the winter months. But there has always been a gap in their range at the smaller size bracket. After all, what sort of crazy idiot would want to put studded tyres on a bike with 16″ wheels. Hello.

For the first 7 years of Brompton ownership, when ever I spoke to someone at Brompton, be it a designer, sales rep, or even the CEO (via twitter), I would mention that it would be great if there were studded tyres for the Brompton. Finally after all that nagging, Schwalbe announced a couple of years ago they would make 30×349 (that’s 16″ x 1.2″ in old money) studded tyres that would fit the Brompton. WOO!

November 2015 with a need to get to college what ever the weather, I bit the bullet and invested in a pair of Schwalbe Winter tyres.

Spiked tyre

Fitting these tyres to the Brompton is not the easiest task, they come somewhere between a Marathon and a Marathon Plus in terms of difficulty, but nothing that a bead jack doesn’t solve. You just have to be aware that they fight back more than non studded tyres and fitting them can require a blood sacrifice…

The main gotcha to be aware of is that because of the way the Brompton folds, the studs will chip the paintwork on the frame when the bike is folded. Wanting to protect the paintwork as much as possible, I fashioned a couple of leather guards that I laced onto the frame. They are 2.6mm leather held on with bungee cord.

Leather frame protectors.

Leather frame protectors

They win no awards for their beauty, they were a proof of concept that I made from scraps of leather I had laying around. Now I’ve proved the concept works, I’m pondering a mark 2 version that looks a bit better.

Once you’ve got the tyres fitted along with the optional frame protection, you need to run the tyres in on normal roads before you set off on the ice. The recommendation from Schwalbe is 40km without heavy braking or acceleration. You only need to do this the first time you fit them, in future years they should be good to go on the ice straight away.

The tyres have two recommended operating pressures, ~7 bar for roads that are mostly clear or fully clear of ice, and if you are expecting lots of ice, deflate them down to ~4.5bar. This lead to an interesting question about what pressure you should run them in at. I opted for 4.5bar. I’m not sure what pressure Schwalbe recommend. (note you can pump these right upto 8bar, but at that point the ride becomes rather painful)

Running them for the first time what becomes immediately apparent is the noise. Ye gods these things are noisy. On normal tarmac they make a hell of a racket. This can be a good thing, pedestrians certainly hear you coming. I tend to listen to music or podcasts when cycling which certainly helps cover the clatter.

Once you get used to the clatter, and the slight increase in rolling resistance compared to say Marathons, then they feel just like any normal tyre.

The tyres feel grippy in all the conditions that I’ve used them in. (Un)fortunately fitting studded tyres to a bike seems to act to ward off the snow/ice, and winter 2015/2016 was pretty mild so I didn’t get to test these to their fullest, I’m kinda hoping that 2016 brings proper snow and ice so I can get some sub zero miles in.

Over time the studs can and do fall out, over something like 600+km I lost 3 studs (2 from 1 tyre, 1 from the other). Schwalbe have anticipated this and produce a pack of 50 studs and the tool necessary to fit them. I got this for just over a tenner on amazon. They also sell a pack of 50 studs without the tool.

Tool, Studs and tyre. The shiny stud has just been installed, the other one has seen a season's use.

Tool, Studs and tyre. The shiny stud has just been installed, the other one has seen a season’s use.

In terms of puncture protection, the tyres come with Schwalbe’s “K-guard”. This provides some protection, but nowhere near as good as on Marathon or Marathon Plus. I had 2 punctures over the winter, both in the same tyre (rear). Fixing a puncture when it’s 0°C is a bit of an interesting experience, balancing dexterity with keeping your hands warm, so this is something to bear in mind. (For larger bikes, the Marathon Winter has better puncture protection and more spikes, but only goes down to 42×406).

All in all with affordable Spiked tyres and appropriate clothing, there’s very little excuse not to keep riding through the winter, even on a Brompton.

Post script: When cycling across ice it’s easy to forget that it’s slippery, and the moment you stop and put your foot down, you fall over. The solution to this is studs for your shoes. I have a pair of Kahtoola nanospikes for slippery pavements which work well for this.

 

REVIEW: AMK SOL Escape Bivvi Bag.

AMK SOL Escape Bivvi in use in December 2015.

On paper it looks too good to be true. An 8.6oz (243g) breathable bivvi bag that also reflects back your own body heat. The name, Adventure Medical Kits Survive Outdoors Longer Escape Bivvi is quite a mouthful. When I first came across it on the AMK website I thought it had to be worth testing out. If the claims are true here’s a 250g piece of kit that can replace my bivvi bag and sleeping bag in the warmer months of the year. A massive saving on weight.

AMK make the Escape bivvi both in ORANGE and in an Olive drab. Unfortunately the UK importer only imports the ORANGE version and not the green. Fortunately the green version can be had on Amazon.com, including delivery to the UK. Even better it worked out half the price of buying the orange version in the UK. Win.

AMK SOL Escape Bivvi with 1L Nalgene bottle for scale

As it comes the bivvi bag is packed into it’s stuff sack, which is made out of the same fabric as the bivvi bag itself. When it arrives is the only time it will ever be that size, after using and repacking it a few times it sort of settles at about the size of a Nalgene bottle. Not quite as small as originally packaged.

The fabric is sold as breathable and heat reflective bivvi bag that can even replace a sleeping bag down to 50°F. Pah! No chance.

The bag reflects back most of your body heat, which is great, but because it’s next to your body it’s not able to prevent conductive and convection loses. I’ve tried various permutations of fully clothed, just a base layer, with a sleeping bag liner. Even testing it inside when the temperature was about 18°C, it just wasn’t warm enough to use on it’s own.

So what about with a sleeping bag? This is where you come up against the other major issue with the bag, the size. In order to keep the weight down they have made the bag quite small. Whilst I fit in it length wise, it’s a tight fit round the torso. I can fit in with my summer sleeping bag, but with my winter bag it compresses the insulation so much that you don’t get the benefit and end up with cold spots. With a summer sleeping bag inside, this bag does provide extra warmth and can give a few extra degrees performance from your sleeping bag. But, if it’s too warm, and you start to sweat, you hit the next issue.

Breath-ability. This is an interesting one. AMK claim that the bag is breathable. And I’m sure it is, to a point. AMK do not list a Moisture Vapour Transmission Rate, the measure by of how well a fabric breathes. So whilst I’m sure that some moisture escapes, it certainly doesn’t seem to be all of it. I have had a few dry nights sleep with the Escape Bivvi, these have been nights where the ambient temp has balanced well with the combo of sleeping bag and bivvi bag. In summer where I’ve ended up slightly too warm and thus sweated, you get a damp bag.

So it’s not particularly warm, and it doesn’t seem too great at letting the water out. Does it at least not let the water in? In a word: No. If used under a tarp, or on a dry night, it’ll keep the dew off your sleeping bag, and it’ll be OK with the odd spray that may come in the side of the tarp. But used in a rain storm, you’re gonna get wet.

So is it all bad news? Not entirely. As an emergency survival bag it’s light enough to drop in your pack and should keep you alive until Mountain Rescue can find you, and on nights where you want to keep the dew off your sleeping bag and the temperature is just right, it does work. If AMK made a slightly larger version so you could get a winter sleeping bag to fully loft inside, the extra warmth the reflective fabric gives would be useful. But for a bag that has so much promise, so much potential, AMK seem to have ended up well short of the mark.

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.

Kit: Everyday fire

I’ve mentioned in a couple of recent posts lighting fires with the stuff I have in my pockets, on one occasion because I hadn’t planned on a fire, and another because I wanted to double check that I could. With this in mind I thought I’d write a short post on what I carry with me so I can produce fire when needed.

EDC Fire kit

EDC Fire kit

The first item I carry with me started life as an Every Day Carry Fire Kit by Polymath Products. The first version of the EDC fire kit came with a little thermometer on the top, I didn’t expect this to be all that useful to me, so I did a special order with a compass instead. In this respect externally it closer resembles their Ultra Compact Survival Kit.

Inside the EDC Fire kit, showing Ferro rod, and Tinder quik tinder.

Inside the EDC Fire kit, showing Ferro rod, and Tinder quik tinder.

Inside the shotgun shell container, there is a ferrocerium rod (aka ferro rod, fire steel etc…), and some tinder. The kit also came with waxed Jute tinder, some pyro powder, and a glow stick. I took these out and replaced them with Tinderquik fire tabs. These are piece of compressed cotton that is treated to make it very flammable, you fluff the end up and they take a spark really easily. I fit 8 of them in the EDC fire kit.

To use the kit you remove the split ring from the hole on the ferro rod, insert the ferro rod into the hole in the shell (the shell then becomes the handle), fluff up a bit of tinder quik, and strike a spark. I really like this kit, the compass has proven very useful even in the urban environment, particularly to orientate myself when exiting tube stations. I’ve even used it to light a BBQ at a friends place.

Contents of the Spark-Lite™ kit

Contents of the Spark-Lite™ kit

Whilst the EDC fire kit lives in my pocket, I also carry in my backpack something called the Spark-Lite™ emergency fire starter. This is a small green box containing 8 tinder quik fire tabs (spotting a theme here?) and a sparker. There exist 2 basic models of the Spark-Lite™, one has a metal sparker and one a plastic. Of each of these there is a Green and an Orange version. I own both the plastic and the metal version. It’s the metal one that lives in my pack. Aside from the material, the main functional difference between the metal and plastic versions is that the metal version comes with an allen key and a spare piece of ferro rod. The allen key undoes the nut that holds the piece of ferro rod in place.

To use the Spark-Lite™ kit you fluff up one end of the tinder-quik, then using the sparker just like you would a cigarette lighter, strike a spark onto the tinder. The first time I used this the tinder-quik lit off the first spark, which took me by surprised and I dropped it. It’s a really effective tool. As with most kit I use, I have modified it. I suspect that the metal will not be nice to touch in very cold conditions, so have put a piece of heatshrink on the handle to protect my hands. I’m really pleased with how well this set works, and considering that it cost me less than a fiver on ebay, it’s hard to go wrong.

EDC Fire kit and Spark-Lite™ Emergency Fire Starter.

EDC Fire kit and Spark-Lite™ Emergency Fire Starter.

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.

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.

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.