The big expedition gear review: sleeping, carrying and cooking

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.

Sleeping


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.

Carrying


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.

2 Responses

  1. Matt

    Some great kit tips here Jols, and given your propensity for adventure, anything that comes with the Braime seal of approval must have been put through its paces.

    When it comes to tents, I’d put in a good word for my Wild Country Zephyros – I’ve actually got the two-man version, which H and I can squeeze into when needed, but works well as a solo backpacker. They’ve just released a new version with two doors, which appeals greatly, so perhaps it’s time for an upgrade. The best thing is that the porch is just about big enough to cook in, and being ensconced in my bag, with the tent flap open and a brew on, is probably the thing I look forward to most about a night under canvas (read: rip-stop nylon). It’s substantially heavier than your MSR Hubba though at about 1.6kg. I’ve trimmed a bit of weight by swapping the nylon guys for Dyneema.

    Sleep-wise, I’ve got a Multimat Superlite Air, which has a tiny pack size and inflates to an impressive 7cm. It is a bit like sleeping on a lilo, but I get a better night’s kip than I used to on my old Thermarest (I’m a side sleeper, and used to wake up every couple of hours with a sore hip). I do worry about how long it’ll last though…

    I got a new rucksack for my recent Cape Wrath trip – a Jack Wolfskin EDS Dynamic Pro 48 – but not sure I’d recommend it. Some great features, including a waterproof compartment that obviates the need for a drybag or rucksack liner, but it all seems a bit over-engineered and the dynamic fit system adds unnecessary weight (although it does mean you can get a really good fit, particularly if you’ve got a long torso. At 6′ 4″ I do struggle to find a decent fitting pack that remains comfortable after three or four days out on the trail). I find 48l big enough for most trips, but then I’m normally away for a week or two at most, and I haven’t roamed across the Swedish wilderness for months at a time…

    That little stove looks great. I’d definitely take something that can burn liquid fuel in Scandinavia – spirits of all different hues seem to be ubiquitous, but in my experience gas canisters can be a pig to find.

    My vote for cookware goes to Alpkit for their Ti range – It’s great cooking kit, lightweight and reasonably priced. I don’t have the non-stick versions but it seems like they might be a good option? Anything that saves crouching next to a loch scouring pans is surely a winner.

    The Aquaguard filter sounds good too – thanks for the tip. Does it fit all Platypus systems? I’ve used MSR’s dromedary and Autoflow microfilter, which has performed well up to now, but it would be good to have something to fit to a hydration system.

    Anyway, that’s all suitably nerdy so I’ll sign off there – look forward to the clothing write-up!

    1. indyjols

      Good tip about the Zephyros – it looks great, and I’ve been thinking about a new two-man tent for me and E (ours is a cheapie that I bought a few years back – fine for fields but I’m not certain about mountains). Of course since being in Sweden I have been dreaming of a nice Hilleberg, but I think I need to hit some sort of jackpot before I can justify that one. A porch is a big draw, and it’s one of the few things that the MSR lacks. It’s got one, but while it’s big enough to store gear in, I definitely wouldn’t cook in it.

      For shorter expedition packs, I’ve been using a Vaude Brenta 50 lately, and it’s pretty good. Nice adjustable back system and a bit lighter than your Jack Wolfskin, though it falls down on the waist belt, which is a bit of a shame. There’s just not enough padding on it, so it cuts your hips open after a day or two. I keep meaning to cut a strip off an old Karrimat or something to try and solve the problem.

      As for the Aquagard, I presume it fits anything with a hose (though you do have to cut the hose, hence why I quite like using the Hoser system because replacement bits are cheap), though like I said, I had a better experience with the Pure Hydration one. I like an inline filter – it just means you can more or less forget about getting a dodgy tummy (from the water at least). I know you don’t generally need to worry about it in Scandinavia anyway, but I met a German bloke in a rotten state at one of the huts on the Nordkalottleden, and since his food had come out of packets for the previous week, it seems like a bit of mouse shit in the water or similar was the most likely cause of his woes.

      I always wonder about those air mattresses, so it’s really interesting to read that you rate them. I’ve always just been a bit too nervy about the durability (though to be fair I sleep pretty soundly on a Therm-a-rest so it’s never been at the top of the list).

      I’ll have the next gear blog up soonish, but obviously I spent a large portion of my trip thinking about how I could be carrying a lighter pack (as everyone does), and I’m not sure I came up with a clear answer. There were a few things that I could definitely have shaved down a bit, but I sort of came to the conclusion that my biggest savings could have been made by better food planning. Anyway, cheers for taking the time to give me some thoughts, am highly interested to hear your opinions on the clothing when I post it!

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