Friday, 23 April 2010

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

A thread about car-sharing on the LFTO forum got me thinking about the various ways I travel to Scotland. It's six hundred miles from Sussex, and I have three options: the plane, the train, and the automobile. (There's also the coach, but a never-to-be-repeated 24h from Melbourne to Brisbane cured me of that mode of transport.)

The Plane
The cheapest option (from £26 each way, or free with Airmiles!), and, on paper, the quickest (1.5) - but let's not forget all that mucking about at the airport. In addition, Gatwick is one of the most inhuman places on the planet, and when I last flew in after a week on the hills I felt like a rabbit in the headlights. In reality, it takes about 6.5 hours, and involves an appalling assault on the soul. Flying is not for me, even if the take-off is fun.

The Train
Following a 1976 ride on the Motorail (the most civilised form of transport ever invented), I developed a bit of a taste for overnight rail-travel. The Caledonian sleeper takes 7-9 hours from Euston, depending on which train I catch, and gets me to within a few miles of my destination by breakfast time. The hours travelling are spent being rocked in sleep, rather than staring at six lanes of traffic or a departures board. It's not the cheapest option (£60 for my last berth - though bargains are available); but it's my favourite.

The Automobile
The most expensive (£100, one way), but obviously the best in terms of door-to-door convenience. However, it is also the most irksome is some ways - including the fact that I pay two hundred quid, and have to drive the damn thing too. On the plus side, I get to breathe only my own germs, the kids have no rampaging opportunities, I can take any amount of stuff important equipment, and I already have transport when I'm there.

How do you get to where you want to be? Do you have options, or are you stuck with a single form of transport?

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Fit For Purpose

People often say when they see the children, "I bet they keep you fit..."

Oh, sure, I'm in reasonable nick: I'm used to lifting a 16kg weight, and carrying the same down the lane to school every day, but when I get tired, I put her down and she walks for herself. I also run up and down the stairs a fair bit, but I'd have to climb them forty times to match a 1,000' ascent - and there are no slippery rocks in my house, or scree.

During my July and October trips last year I spent the first three days feeling stiff and achy, and was only able to 'go for it' on the last few of days of each visit (two of which were written off by bad weather). This year, I had determined to get properly fit before I go.

Now that my ankle sprain is healing nicely... I'm stretching, swimming, doing step exercises and press-ups, etc., but my main technique is to carry an increasing collection of house bricks around with me... 8kg so far ...on the school-run, round Tescos, on strolls with the kids. My reckoning is that the best way to get fit for walking with a heavy pack is to walk with a heavy pack.

I've also joined a local walking group - previously anathema to me - which is now forcing me out onto my local hills (the South Downs) at least once a week. I take the bricks too - for the entertainment of my fellow walkers if nothing else.

How do you get/keep fit for the hills?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Petzl Tikka Plus 2

A lightweight (83g), 50-lumen, 35m, 140h, water-resistant, multi-mode headtorch with a 4* listing in the 2010 Trail Gear Guide. I've not yet tested it in the field, but I've made several trips to the pub! (The manufacturer's spec is here.)

General Use
The lower continuous-white-light setting is totally sufficient for walking at a good pace. The higher setting is great for a look-around, but I felt no need to use it all the time (on a reasonable path).

Red Light
The red light is a very useful feature if, like me, you like to keep your night vision sometimes. It's bright enough to walk by on a good path with care. It's absolutely fine for proximity lighting.

In rain/snow/dust
The lower continuous-white-light setting gives a mini strobe effect, caused by the power cycling on and off to achieve the lower output (this is the same for any single-LED). In rain/dust/snow, you get an effect of glitter in front of your face. It's pretty, but distracting, and a bit irritating after a while. It doesn't occur on the max-white or red-light settings.

The general distribution means I can see the inside rim of my hood, and the end of my nose. Coupled with the glitter effect this made for a lot of unwanted local-illumination under these conditions.

Water Resistance
I couldn't quite get to the bottom of its water resistance: its specified rating of IP X4 (thanks to Nick for some clarification here - see comments) might or might not equate to IP65 - which means you're fine as long as you don't drop it in a loch and leave it there. I understand that, although the battery compartment can theoretically be flooded, the PCB is protected by rubber seals. Basically, I've used it in heavy rain and no water got in.

Tilt Angle
The unit can be tilted to five different angles, but I found the whole unit set just a bit too low: on the highest tilt I still had to tip my head back, or lean backwards, to lift the light up enough to use its full 35m beam - not what I want to do while wearing a full pack! The lowest angle illuminated my boots (with my head vertical), which I don't need. Personally, I'd prefer the whole unit to be set one notch more upright, so I can use the top notch for distance and the next one/two for walking.

I wrote to Petzl about this, but was not impressed with their response: they seemed more concerned with lights not shining in other people's eyes, rather than practicalities for the user...

I can't see myself using all five tilt settings, and would rather the whole thing were angled up a notch.

Battery Life
I've used the torch for two hours so far, and have not noticed any drop in performance. It has Duracells in it at the moment, but I'll replace them with Uniross rechargeables. I'll update this post when I know more about battery life and performance.

If you can live with the niggles, it's a good useable torch, at a great weight, and for a great price.

Good Features
5 modes (white: max, min, strobe; red: steady, flashing)
Lightweight: only 83g including batteries
Useful (35m) range & distribution of light
Battery-life of 140h (on economy)
Battery indicator
Waterproof seals (water resistant)
Easy access to batteries (see photo)
Good price (I paid £37.50 from Cotswolds)

Poor Features
Glitter effect in rain/snow/dust
Low angle of illumination

Any questions/comments? Please post via the comments link below.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Don't Let your Ankles be your Downfall

Last July I sat in Glenmore Lodge, being mocked by a fit twenty-something for my fear of 'turning an ankle' in the hills, and the consequential survival-gear I carry. "Ever broken anything?" I asked. "Or even twisted anything?" He didn't answer.

Having once sprained my ankle (while getting up to answer the phone), I knew how easy, and how debilitating this injury can be. It sounds so common-place, doesn't it? But the pain isn't...

Then, on the five weeks ago, I did it again. It was a stupid, easy, slip that in the hills might have jeopardised my life. In my garden, only ten yards from the phone, it did no more than jeopardise my ready-booked trip to Scotland, and was a timely reminder of the care I need to take - as though I don't take enough care already.

I have my physiotherapist and his advice to thank for a miraculous recovery (from still-on-crutches to ten-mile hike with 6kg tester, in three weeks). I mentioned on my other blog that I'd rued not seeking physio the last time I did it. Now, having had the care that only private medical treatment can provide (without a 12-week wait), I've learned that I don't, actually, have to resign myself to a 'weak ankle' for life - which is what I was beginning to think (having once broken it too) - and that I don't have to take pain, ibuprofen, and apprehension with me into the hills next month - or worse, cancel the trip.

Exercise, that's all it takes: we pay huge attention to our quads/gluteals/deltoids, and whatever else takes our fancy, but what about the peroneus longus? Anyone? I have a blue stretchy-thing now, attached to the leg of my dining-room table (see picture, below), and every time I sit with a cup of tea, I stick my foot in the loop and do 30-this-way and 30-that-way. I'm not only rebuilding the strength I've lost, but I feel I'm guarding against future injury too.

It sounds naff, but I didn't expect to be hiking over the downs with a half-laden pack by now - and well on my way back to the Cairngorms. It's worth all the naffness, a thousand times over.

Blue stretchy-thing for ankle exercises, keeping the lower leg completely still. (Click for a larger image.)

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Terra Nova Solar Competition

(Click to enlarge images, opens new window).
I bought this tent to replace my ancient Saunders Satellite, which was no more than a glorified bivvy, though a techno-marvel in its day. At ~1.2kg, the Solar Comp is a great option for those who don't want to lug unnecessary weight around, and want more stability than a tunnel can offer. Stretched out fully inside, with my hands raised above my head, I can just touch the ends of the inner; plenty of space for me (5' 6") and my 48-litre pack. The porch is plenty big enough for poles, boots, stove, and my half-empty pack (minus tent/sleeping bag/mat), but not a jumbo rucksack, and you wouldn't want to cook in it with the door closed. Pitching is easy, even in a wind (which was still blowing some when I took these photos), and takes less than five minutes. The full technical spec for this tent is here.

Pack Size & Weight
Sold as 1055g, the pack was 1100g on my scales, including the repair kit. Decent pegs (no spares) brought the weight up to 1160g. Total weight including the footprint, decent pegs (+ two spares), and pole repair sleeve (but without fabric squares) was 1318g.

In the bag (left), and optional extras: guys, footprint and sturdier pegs (right)

The Solar Comp has three pitching configurations: inner + outer, inner only, or outer + footprint. The two front poles and the ridge come as one, and the tail-end triangle as another. The pole ends clip into eyelets on tags at the corners of the inner (which also has pegging points), the inner clips to to poles, and the fly goes over. Fantastically quick to pitch. The fly is attached by eyelets too, and has four pegging points. There also are five guy-points, but only three guys supplied, and there aren't enough pegs to go round if you've pegged down the inner - which you need to do in a wind. Nominally, the inner is pitched first, but if you use a footprint, you can pitch the flysheet first (though you might want to rearrange the eyelets - which is hard on cold hands).

Inner only (left), outer + footprint only (right)

The supplied pegs are the 2g titanium needles (see "in the bag" photo above), with yellow tops so you can lose them amongst the grass/lichen/bracken. Five of the seven fly/guy pegs came out at some time or another during the night, despite being pitched on grass (though admittedly the three windward pegs popped when a garden chair blew into the tent). They're okay for pegging down the inner while pitching, but not much else. I'm not the first to change them (below left).

Supplied pegs, bottom; replacements for the fly/guys, middle/top (left), Velcro pole tabs inside (right)

Outer Door
The door has plenty of ventilation options, including a clip/strap setup (see ventilation photos, below), but the clip is on the outside (to avoid run-off into the inner), making it awkward to reach, and it's hard to operate with cold hands. I'd have liked to see a clip on the inside too. There is another clip at the bottom to secure the zip when closed - and this can be used to peg the fly closer to the ground (see ventilation photos, below). The zip comes under some tension at the corner while opening/closing, but has a storm flap, and is double ended. Don't reply on being able to make an awning with a hiking pole. The door opens tailward and, assuming you've pitched tail into wind, it would only offer protection in rain with no wind. There is only one toggle tie, meaning that the top of the door hangs/flaps when it's tied back.

Outside door clip, difficult for cold hands (left), and how to get drips on your sleeping bag (right)

The Porch
The porch is very small, but I found the space useful. I could stow my 48-litre pack, boots, stove and poles (below left). While you wouldn't want to cook, as is, with the outer door closed, it's simple to unhook and fold back the end of the inner to make more space (below right). The flysheet door zip is double ended for ventilation.

Places to store a 48-litre pack (left), and extra space made by unclipping & folding back the inner (right)

Inner Door
The inner door is all mesh (below left), so you don't feel too enclosed, but it was draughty in the strong wind of the first night. If you pull the wall down only an inch, you have a direct sight-line out from the sleeping position, and the wind has a direct line in (below right). With a lighter wind on the second night, I didn't notice a draught at all.

All mesh inner door (left), and don't let your sleeping mat pull the side wall down (right)

The inner tent is yellow, which gives a nice colour inside, and is easy on the eye. There is space for me (5' 6") to stretch my arms above my head and only just be able to touch the end with my toes touching the other end. There is ample headroom too. There is plenty of space for my 48-litre pack to lie sideays at the head end, with room to spare

Inside views (left), and the head end (right)

The fly sits quite high, meaning that there is a fair draught underneath in a strong wind (see inner door photos, above). This is great for ventilation, but draughty with the full-mesh inner door. (It is possible to peg the fly lower down/closer in (below left), but this reduces the size of the porch.) There are mesh panels at the top of each end of the inner (inside photos, above). The outer door has a double-ended zip, and a buckle for clipping it partly open at the bottom (below, right). Ventilation just wasn't a problem, even on my second night when the wind had dropped there was only the slightest dampness on the inside of the flysheet. On a hotter, dryer, night, you could simply remove the flysheet, as the inner can stand alone if necessary.

Using the clip at the bottom of the zip to peg the fly to the ground (left), and ventilation options (right)

There are two footprints available for this tent: 130g (standard weight) for £40, or 60g (fastpack) for £120. Both are made of material "the same as the flysheet," (rather oddly, they won't let on the weave size), so I'm not quite sure where the different weight/price comes in. I ordered the 130g version. It attaches to the poles with the same tab/eyelet system, and I was expecting it to fit tightly, but in fact it's oversize and flaps about a bit. The bag it comes in is unnecessarily tight (the words condom and flaccid will give you an idea) so I'll be keeping the footprint in the main sack, and using its bag for pegs/guys, etc. (the peg pocket in the pole bag is too small for my extras).

The footprint, and optional extra (left), and the fly and footprint only (right)

As with any tent, it's worth knowing if the wind is expected to veer or back during the night, and pitch accordingly, but the SC handled a side wind perfectly. In addition, a garden chair blew into a tail-end corner during the night, shifting the poles and popping out three pegs. I woke up to find the door side of the tent in my face (in a gale); but with the aid of a handy hiking-stick (to push the pole back into place), I could re-peg without getting out of bed. Chairs notwithstanding, I found the structure totally stable. I wasn't aware of anything other than the gentlest flapping during the strongest gusts (30mph+).

I had both torrential rain and 4mm hailstones during the first night and, apart from a very small amount of rain blowing under the flysheet and into the porch, everything stayed dry. (Gear stored in the porch will likely get a dusting on a wet and windy night.) As I had little/no condensation, even the fly blowing against the inner during the chair incident (see Stability) caused no problem.

Good Features:
1055g on the box, 1100g on my scales, 1150-1200g with decent pegs.
very quick to pitch (<5mins)
super quick to re-pitch (<30secs)
5000mm groundsheet, 3000mm fly
yellow inner - easy on the eyes!
small pack size (can be packed horizontally)
stable: survived 30mph+ gusts with no flapping to speak of.
waterproof: survived torrential rain & hail with no effect
3 pitch configurations: inner + outer, inner only, outer + footprint (not included)
stand alone (inner as is, or outer + footprint + dead guys).
ceiling loop and pocket inside (see inside photos)
Virtually no condensation (*see also poor features)

Neutral Features (depending on your point of view)
Small porch: less weight, but less space.
The whole tent is small - but this is perfect for folk who don't want extra space/weight.
Full mesh inner door is draughty in windy conditions, but great for ventilation and a feeling of space.

Poor Features
Pegs don't hold in the wind, even in my garden.
(I've bought some 11g v-section pegs instead - see also right-hand photo under Pegs)
5 guying points, only 3 guys supplied...WTF?
14 pegging points, only 9 pegs supplied...ditto.
Care is needed when opening the outer door in the wet, so water doesn't trickle on/in to the inner.
Elastic on the door ties are too long, so they don't hold very well.
Only one toggle tie per door, so the fabric hangs down when tied back.
Door clip is outside, and too small/stiff for cold fingers.
*A bit draughty in strong wind - though this can be minimised with careful pitching.

I'm actually really pleased with the Solar Comp. My gripes are only minor and/or easily rectified, so I wholeheartedly recommend this tent.

Please leave feedback/questions about this tent/review via the comments' link, just below. Thanks!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The First Steps

I first visited Scotland when I was six. My first mountain had more feet to its height than I had days to my age, but I was instantly ensnared by the lure of heather and rock-clad hills. The Cairngorms, which were visible from that first summit, held a particular fascination for me, but - despite many other hills - it was a long time before I trod on my first bit of red granite; and even then I was limited.

For seven years I climbed Cairngorm, or walked its northern corries, with various of my children either still inside, in a front carrier, in a back carrier, and/or in a buggy. I loved these walks - they made a change from mother & baby coffee mornings, for sure - but I confess to yearning for the chance to walk alone, with a tent on my back instead of a toddler. I wanted to go into the hills, not just look at them from yet another visit to the weather station.

Last July I finally got that chance, and again in August and October. I have further trips planned for this year, and plan to use this blog to share pictures, routes, experiences, and gear reviews (as I upgrade my 25-year-old kit). I would love to hear back from you. The comments box is open.