Over the past couple of years I seem to have spent a fair amount of time and money on outdoor gear, and I’ve been thinking that it might be worth reviewing the stuff I took with me on my Green Ribbon this summer. On an extended trip you have to live with your kit decisions for a long while, and there are times when they can make life a good deal easier or harder. While I was reasonably happy with my packing, there are still some things I’d do differently in retrospect.
I’m also quite interested to see what my readers have to say on the subject. Much of it is down to personal preference, but I’ve had a lot of good advice over the years and I’m always open to other points of view. I travel reasonably light for an Englishman (apart from anything else my back isn’t all that strong), though equally I’m no ultra-lighter. Anyway, please do use the comments if you fancy.
It’s going to take me a few blogs to get through the contents of my backpack, so I’ll begin with sleeping, carrying and cooking. Subsequent blogs will deal with clothing and then a navigation/miscellaneous mop-up.
Tent – MSR Hubba NX Solo. I have a love/hate relationship with this one. It’s very light and easy to pitch, fits into the tiniest of spaces, and despite my mate Dave nicknaming it ‘the coffin’, it’s surprisingly roomy and comfortable inside. But the metal inserts that connect the sections of pole together are simply not sturdy enough to support the design, meaning that both this summer and last summer the ridge pole snapped in the night. It’s an easy on-trail repair, so it’s not the end of the world, but I just think they’ve sacrificed too much strength in the pursuit of weight savings. Such a pity, because otherwise it would be the perfect one-man expedition tent. I should also add that Cascade Designs, the company who make MSR, Platypus, Thermarest and some other stuff, have an impressive attitude to their customer service. Both times I’ve emailed them to complain about the broken poles, they’ve apologised without reserve and sent me out replacement parts promptly and free of charge. Can’t say fairer than that.
Sleeping bag – North Face Blue Kazoo. I’ve been using this for years and it’s a fine three-season bag for a fellow who sleeps a bit cold. I got it professionally reconditioned by a down cleaning specialist before I went, and the improvement in loft was noticeable (as was the improvement in odour, for that matter). As an aside, I’ve also learned never to keep my sleeping bag at the very bottom of my rucksack. In heavy rain, water always seems to pool there, and somehow the water has a knack of penetrating supposedly impermeable dry-bags. Wet down is not much fun.
Sleeping mat – Thermarest Prolite. Not as light as the Neo Air, but much tougher, and still very lightweight. No complaints here.
Rucksack – Montane Grand Tour 70L. In many ways my star purchase. It’s a full 5 kilos lighter than my usual expedition pack, and while I wondered if the 70-litre capacity would be sufficient, it still ended up being big enough to carry all the gear and supplies I needed. It’s sturdy (I often worry about the durability of these ultra-lightweight packs) and comfortable, with lots of useful access zips, straps and compartments. Its only flaws are where they’ve tried to be a bit too clever with the design. The top pocket has been rebranded a ‘buddy pocket’ with the zip facing away from the wearer (not much use if you don’t have a buddy, and have to take the pack off instead of just reaching over your shoulder), while the quick-release chest strap rather negates its advantages by being so fiddly to do up. But really these are very minor niggles.
Assorted dry bags and Eagle Creek silnylon Pack-It cubes to keep everything organised.
Cooking and eating
Stove – Trail Designs Ti Tri. Cracking little lightweight titanium stove from a lesser-known US manufacturer. The Pepsi-can spirit burner it came with seemed to me like it might be a smidge on the flimsy side, so I switched it out for an old-school Trangia burner (more or less indestructible, and the simmer ring means you can really eke out your fuel). The ability to burn wood on it with the Inferno insert was a real bonus – whole weeks went by where I didn’t use any meths at all, and the smoke kept the mosquitoes away too. It was tremendously economical (in 56 days I used a little under 3 litres of fuel) and the relative popularity of spirit stoves in Scandinavia meant that there was often leftover meths in the cupboards at hostels and mountain stations, though I did occasionally wonder whether the relative speed and weight saving of taking a gas stove might have paid off. A full fuel bottle weighs significantly over a kilo, compared to a couple of hundred grams for a gas canister, and gas stoves these days are much more efficient than they used to be. Even with a spare gas cylinder you’re looking at less than half the weight.
Fuel bottle – Trangia 1L. Because meths leaking into your bag is horrid.
Pan – Evernew ECA252R titanium pot. Very light and compatible with the Ti Tri. I saved weight as usual by making my pan double as my bowl.
Titanium spork and enamel mug. I suppose I should get a lighter mug, but mine has ‘Terra Nova Expedition’ stamped on it with a picture of a penguin and it makes me feel intrepid.
Flask – Thermos Light and Compact Flask 0.35L. I didn’t actually bring one of these, but Gustav did, and it was an excellent idea. Heat extra water whenever you’ve got the stove going, and it means you can have a warm drink later or hot porridge the next day. There were several mornings (one of them very rainy) where I found my tent opened by a generous Swede bearing hot water for coffee. After his accident, I bought my own flask at the first opportunity.
Lighter – Primus Power Lighter. It’s worth knowing that airlines can be nervy about these. I got my previous one confiscated when I flew back from New Zealand, as apparently lighters with a blue flame are not allowed on planes. On the other hand, lighters without a blue flame are not much use on a damp and windy mountainside, so I guess you just have to take your chances.
Firesteel and striker – Light My Fire firesteel. Sparks hot enough to light meths. I carried it partly to conserve the fuel in the lighter, and also in case of emergency.
Hydration system – Platypus Hoser 2L with Aquaguard Micro in-line filter. You don’t need to filter water in the mountains, but I was nervy about the potential water quality during some of the more low-lying stretches, so I used a little canister that clips into the drinking hose from your water carrier. To be honest the Aquaguard wasn’t as good as the Pure Hydration one I used in Norway last year. The ‘quick-fit’ attachments, marketed as 100% watertight, leaked pretty badly (any manufacturer who supplies a roll of plumber’s tape with their product is obviously not all that confident in the design of their joints), though the screw-in ones were much better. Otherwise it worked just fine. Interestingly, many Swedes (and even more Norwegians) don’t carry water at all, simply drinking straight from streams with a little plastic cup that they clip to the outside of their rucksack. [Edit August 2016: I’ve found the best water filter yet – the Sawyer Mini-Filter. Not so good if you need to carry loads of water, but perfect for damp Scandi places].
Teatowel – Sea to Summit Pocket Towel. Also useful for wiping down the floor of the tent if it got wet in transit. These little towels are great but you need to rinse them more or less whenever you get the chance, then hang them from your rucksack to dry.
Next up: clothing.