Brunton Ember Solar Charger Review

I don’t get a lot of tech gear in to review, for one I don’t really like using it in the outdoors, I don’t feel the need to programme anything to enhance my mountain experience and to be honest I don’t like reading instructions that are more than a couple of paragraphs. So when the Brunton Ember appeared I went “Ah…” I read the simple instructions and went “Ahhhh….”
It’s been in my pack or in the car since, here’s why.

90g for the charger and 14g for the wee cable, not a helluva lot and it all packs away no problem with dimensions at a little over 2″ x 3″ and around the thickness of a slice of bread. It’s a tough wee bugger too, metal (stainless steel I think?) chassis and so far scratchproof plastic faces. It’s also rated as being water resistant, but I will not be risking a test of that.,
On one side we have the solar panel, rated at 100mA and on the the other side is a button and some indicator lights.
The little red light comes on when it’s charging with the four blue lights showing you where the battery charge is at, either by a short press of the button or when you switch it on with a long press where the “on” icon to the right lights green when you’re charging your device. Simple. Thank you.

The supplied cable fits both my iPod and my Sony Xperia phone and will also fit anything with that big Apple connector and mini and micro UBS connections. The cable has a neat pull and flip 3-in-1 connector on one end and a regular USB on the other. The Ember has two connectors on its base, one for when it’s charging your device, and one for when the USB end is plugged into something else (me it’s the laptop or the lighter socket in the car) and you’re quick-charging the Ember for a trip. I like the flexibility and again the simplicity, I took to this wee thing right away.

Now as much as I say I don’t like tech kit on trips, that’s just outdoor tech, for entertainment I say yes. My iPod is a long time saver of my sanity and my smartphone has become vital since I got it last November. I take a lot of photies on it and staying in comms with home is more important than ever these days with Joycee and I being away from home so much the past few months and me wanting to keep up with regular stuff like reading Holly a bedtime story. On a battery-eating smartphone that stuff leaves you flashing empty, but the Ember has been saving the day.

I’ve found it can save the day from a full charge around twice, and I’m going to be very unscientific about this whole area as monitoring just how fast the Ember charges from solar input alone has too many variables and how quickly it charges my devices is even harder to monitor. You can see the percentage points on your devoice battery clicking up when you’re using the Ember to charge it and I can charge a low powered phone from a full Ember battery twice, exact figures? No thanks, I’m looking at the view or the map. But, I feel I can rely on it and not worry about keeping the Ember full, which is partly why I don’t mind carrying it: useful but not intrusive.
In good sunlight the Ember does charge quickly, in low light it simmers away, the wee red lights lets you know when it’s working. Magic.

The battery storage is 2800mA which is plenty for me, way more than my phone battery and because the Ember’s not a finite resource, you can top it up on the move, you can have almost constant power replenishment as long as your not tweeting a photo of yourself every ten paces. Which no outdoor folk do of course.

It’s actually hard to review the Ember as its all so simple, it does what it’s supposed to, it’s light and I like it as it fits in perfectly with what I need right now. The cable will need looking after, moving parts etc, but pack it well and it’s all good. Definitely recommended.
It’ll be interesting to see how it fares in winter, so I’ll come back to it then after a year of charging and discharging, see how it does in a sub zero tent.

Mammut Jura Sleeping Bag and Air Pillow Review

Top end kit maker Mammut have been making some exclusives for GoOutdoors. I’ve got the Jura Sleeping Bag and Air Pillow on test and they’ve been out about the past couple of months, here’s some thoughts on them.

Some years ago Mammut bought Ajungilak who made excellent sleeping bags and these new bags still bear that brand name. Ajungilak synthetic bags served me well over the years and I was pleased to see that quality and functionality remaining in the design of the Jura.
The way the Jura is put together is spot on, the construction is very neat and tidy. The format is a slim mummy shape, in fact I found it very slim indeed around the chest and shoulders. Length is good, plus-six footers will get in here just fine, but better if they’re triathletes than pie eaters or weight lifters.
The hood is excellent, roomy and deep with an external drawcord which is easy enough to adjust and keeps clear of your face. The hood cinches in well, I can get my winter friendly porthole above my head if needs be.

At the other end the footbox is excellent, roomy, well-shaped and fat with insulation. The insulation is own-brand MTI 13, a polyester fill which is double layered here to give the Jura a rating of -5DegC comfort which seems about right to me, I’ve been properly warm in the Jura around zero with just boxers on. The fill is soft and pleasant to sleep in, regular down users shouldn’t feel like they’re roughing it here at all.
The shell fabrics are Silky TX inside, a soft-feel nylon and Performance TX outside, a heavier grade nylon with a decent water, or I should say coffee and soup, repellence. It’s a good fabric for condensation prone tents, I’ve had the foot end pretty damp and it dries off quickly and of course the fill is synthetic, so there were no worries about getting damp anyway.

The main zip is okay, an anti-snag strip does its best and it runs as smooth as you’d expect, another inch of width on the shoulders and I’d have been in and out the Jura like a, er, rat out of an aquaduct? It’s late, I may change that analogy later. The zip is double ended and I have had me feet cooled by opening up the bottom while I was cozy at the other end.

The Jura’s a nice bag, I’ve enjoyed using it, but whether or not it’s the bag for you will come down to two things, price and weight and plotting those two variable on the graph of personal outdoor joy. GoOutdoors have this selling at £140/£125-with the fan club card which all seems ever more sensible as down prices continue to rise hysterically, but the Jura is 1765g, 90g of which is stuffsack and that’s a presence in your rucksack that’s hard to ignore. It compresses down a bit, but synthetic insulation is what it is, you can’t have it all -cheap/durable/light – pick two.
The Jura was perfect for a base camping trip where I left the gear at 500m and headed off to the peaks next day, the materials make for a worry free night in the rain and the construction is excellent. A wee bit wider at the shoulders and I’d be completely happy, but you’re not me so it’s got to be worth a look.

I like pillows at camp, a stuffsack full of clothes just isn’t the same, but it’s got to be light so the Mammut Air Pillow has been been my new best friend.

The outdoor trade is depressing devoid of humour and levity and Mammut buck that trend here. The Jura bag above has “Sleep Well/Sov Godt” on the easy to grip zip tag (Hmm, probably should have mentioned that in the review) which is nice as it’s an unnecessary embellishment, as is the text on the Air Pillow above “Warning; This product may cause drowsiness”. Magic.
That text is on the valve through which a couple of big lungfuls give you a nice soft pillow for the night. To deflate you flip open the cap and stick a finger into the little flap inside to open it and squeeze the air out. Simple.
It’s light, 39g apparently, could be right, you can barely feel it in your hand, so there’s no need to weigh it. It’s small too, which is a good thing because it fits neatly inside sleeping bag hoods, as long as they have good hoods. I’ve had the pillow in three or four different bags now and it’s been great, it stays put and the curved bottom edge fits into your neck just nice.

I was talking recently about camp comfort and little things that make your night better can’t be overestimated, be it a book, music, chocolate or a pillow. This is a great wee thing, a tenner with your GoOutdoors fan club card or £15 without. Here’s something you don’t hear me say often, if this one bursts, I’ll buy another.

 

Keen Footwear Review, Alamosa and Revel

Keen footwear has been a constant for me for many years once I discovered the light weight and wide toe box and I’ve also tested a bunch of models on here over the years. For last winter I was sent the new (for last winter) Revel boot and Holly finally grew into her test pair of Alamosa’s this spring which are now getting plenty outings.

This photie below says a few things about Keen, Holly wears her Alamosa’s without complaint, Joycee wears her (TK Maxx sourced) big boots because she likes the look and the sole unit is an outdoor one and I’ve got on test shoes I’ve had for years. Not everything new is better. In saying that though, the Revels weren’t just making up the numbers on the shoe shelf last winter.

I’ve tested new model Keen winter boots for the past few years and they’ve always been in the right performance area for me, light, flexible, waterproof with an ankle cuff that flexes. The outsoles have always been just grippy enough, but grip is probably Keen’s greatest weakness and it’s something that user’s in the UK’s wet hills are happy enough to compromise on for the benefits elsewhere.
But the Revel’s seem to bite harder into the snow and the mud, don’t know why, the design seems to be little different to the worn soles units of recentt winter models. Whatever, I found a little extra confidence on these soles, maybe the upper is playing a part there? The sole is supposed to firm up in low temperatures, the rubber reacts, maybe it’s working better here. All good news whatever.

The upper is lightly insulated and waterproof. The synthetic insulation must work to some extent as I tend to wear lighter socks in Keen winter boots and the waterproof membrane also lasts well, the Revel’s were still keeping me dry until a couple of weeks ago. I’ve seen other membrane’s let go after half a dozen wears.
The upper is a mostly nubuck leather with a lot of paneling and stitching which always worries me as it’s potentially vulnerable to abrasion, but the stitching is tight and despite cutting through neve and heather for months, there’ no fraying and the uppers look solid.
The paneling probably aids the flexibility which is always a revelation in a winter boot, warmer and comfier feet at the cost of a little extra thought in route choice on snow by the wearer to compensate for the lack of a rigid sole. I’ve used these with steel and aluminium Kahtoola crampons and with Hillsound spikes and they’ve been fine with all three, flexy boots do not limit your winter horizons.

The ankle cuff is high enough to mate with softshell trouser inner gaiters and regular gaiters to keep the crap out and there’s a metal D-ring at the bottom of the laces to attach a gaiter. The insoles are those mental woolly things Keen use which are comfy and warm, carpet in your boots. Genius.
1200g for a pair and absolutely fit for purpose. Nice bit of kit, just needs some brighter colours to make my winter day complete.

You can’t fool kids, if they don’t like it they won’t do it, eat it or wear it. Holly loves outdoor kit, she know her stuff and the Alamosa’s were go-to shoes as soon as she knew they fitted.
The design is pure Keen, big toe bumper with room for toes to spread inside and an upper spliced together in the familar way from suede and synthetic.
There’s a waterproof lining which is great as Holly’s always testing puddles for depth and the sole is cleated enough for a mix of grip on the dirt and not so much resistance on tarmac.
The Alamosa’s don’t hinder the tester, she went straight up to full speed and never looked back, as unnerving as it was for me to watch. She’s been in the park on the grass and the equipment, up the Kilpatricks, on the trails in the Trossachs, round and round the garden and more and she’s been sure footed at every turn.
She mentioned the heel at her achilles area at first, “Eh, dad…” as she pulled at it, but there was no rubbing and any initial stiffness in the heel area must have worn away pretty quickly which is good news.
The velcro fastening is good for little hands and parents alike, quick and easy with no trailing lace hazards as you child fires around like a rocket with a broken guidance system.
Great kit, kids don’t know how good they’ve got it these days.

New Alpkit Glowe and Manta Lighting Review

Got some new lighting in from Alpkit to test recently, here’s a wee look at it.

LED lights have made nights in the hills much better, especially with brightness and battery power seemingly rising together every new new batch of lights. But, there’s an awful lot of mock-earnest po-facedness about it as well, something that afflicts the whole outdoor trade to varying degrees. So here’s Alpkit to lighten the mood. And your way. And camp.

The Manta above is a 100 lumen headtorch powered by 3 AAA batteries which are housed at the front in a pivoting case which looks a little bulky in your hand, but is fine when you’re wearing it.. There’s a comfy 30mm adjustable band and a variety of lighting options.
The single big LED can be switched on and off, be dimmed or made to flash using one button and the other button is just for giggles. Sort of.
Red LED’s are great for camp, you can see perfectly well and you maintain your night vision, I’ve walked many times using a red setting and it’s something that’s a really useful addition to an outdoor torch, so I’m glad there’s one on the Manta.
Then there’s the blue and green LED’s. Useful? The blue one is great for playing daleks, the green one makes any tent spookier than it was just a minute ago, I know it’s supposed to be for map reading, but what the hell, it’s fun. Colour samples below.
The main beam has a lens which operates via the little lever you can see sticking up, it goives you a beam or a pool and is delightfully simple, in fact just like my old Petzl Zoom from 20 years ago.
Beam length is good, certainly enough to confidently navigate by and burn time is said to be 7hrs at max and 150hrs on dim which I can neither confirm nor deny as I’m not sitting watching it with a stopwatch and a calendar.
It’s IPX4 so water resistant rather than waterproof, weight is 116g with batteries and money is £15.


Carrying on the theme of practical wackiness is the Glowe camping lantern. While maybe not a backcountry backpacking essential, the Glowe is a very useful bit of kit for camp living. If I’m base-camping or having a rare trip to a campsite I’ll often take a lamp like this for convenience and to save the batteries in my headtorch. The Glowe does all you need as a tent light, it’s bright, or dim if you require and has a flashing mode. It’s got a hanging loop and wee retractable feet so it can stand alone. All good stuff, but it’s also a torch with a decent beam as seen below. Adjustment between the two settings is easy, with the body retracted you’ve got a torch, extended you’ve got a tent lamp. Perfect for trips to the toilet block at campsites or for dazzling nosy wildlife outside the tent. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t put that in print?
The button is a big easy to find rubbery thing on the base and the three AAA batteries go into an escape pod thing inside, it’s a wee housing that comes out to access the batteries, I probably should have taken a photie of that. Ah well.
The Glowe is IPX5 water resistant, which is better than the Manta. Burn time is listed as 2hrs at max, 65hrs at min, weight with the batteries is 122g and money is £12.50.

Both nice wee bits of kit that have been working well on the hill and at camp, and although I tend never to mention prices, here you can’t ignore the cheapness to fun ratio.

Manta colours below.

(The straight to DVD sequel of…) Kit that broke, kit that didnae, and other stuff before I forget.

Been a while since I’ve done one of these posts and I’ve had too much new gear on the go to backtrack, so I’m going to start up my regular gear posts again with some new kit from the Coigach trip.

The Force10 Helium Carbon 100 is the big news for me and it was interesting in many ways, although visually it’s in the area of a Terra Nova Laser, in reality it’s completely different.
This was the first I’d pitched the Helium and a hungry man at dusk at the controls without instructions is always the best test of how easy something is to pitch. It went well I thought, I wrestled with the main pole a little, but I’d missed an adjuster which means that next time will be fine. The end poles are great, they slip in and out without stressing any seams and the pegging points are numerous and well placed.
The inner has good space, this is way better than the old Helium with only one end pole. My feet can miss one end and at the same time leave storage space above my head at the other end which is the way a tent should be: usable. The inner was a little loose and hangy at my head end, something that I think should improve as I’ve adjusted the fly/inner attachments since I’ve been back. I got a shower of ice from the inner as well, it was catching and holding a lot of condensation, but I’m not judging it on that, it happens in any tent given the right conditions and with a tighter inner it’ll be better next time as well.
The TBS system was fine, only once did I stick an arm through the gap between cord and inner. I’m learning. The inner door is fine, a little smaller than a Laser door so I can catch a hip on it crawling in and out, but it’s better when you’re boiling the stove in the porch (which is a good size) as you’ve got more protection from the weather. The outer door has Velcro tabs, a two-way zip and a buckle at the bottom, all good stuff.
It’s early days and I haven’t even weighed it yet, I’ve ditched the skinny pegs that come with it and I’m using my own titanium nails/Y peg combo, but it does feel kinda right and I hope on the next few trips we’ll get to know each other much better.

Also in for test from Vango/F10 are the new version of a long standing favourite, the Ultralight Gas Stove and their wacky Windshield (see photie below). The stove update sees the loss of titanium adding so few grams I can’t tell the difference holding one in each hand but keeping the same brilliant performance. This big wide burner is magic, I’ve used it on half a dozen different stoves and it’s got to be the best out there, the folding legs work well and it’s compact enough to fold into my smallest EverNew pot.
The windshield might look a little gimmicky, but I instantly took to it. It folds up smaller that my old crinkled aluminium shield and is very stable, especially with the two integral pegs and a couple of spare tent pegs which I usually use with shields. When the wind catches it, the aluminium panels pivot silently where the roll-up type rattles around.  It gets warm, which should have been obvious… it’s easy to clean and it’s now standard kit, which I will weigh later when I report back on it. If it falls apart at the hinges I will be upset.

The Osprey Talon 44 was out and was stuffed on the walk in. It carries well when loaded, but it’s very busy and there’s a few niggles for me because of that which I’ll have to get past so I use it more to get a proper handle on it, because like I say, it takes a load very well.
I slept warmly on a Thermarest Neoair and OMM Duomat in a Hagöfs Goga 3S down bag. I wore Chocolate Fish Taranaki merino top and bottom, Fjallraven trousers and the fantastic Montane Slipstream GL windshirt. Camp wear was PHD down gear from head to, literally, toe. I was supposed to be on the summit, at 300m this stuff was pure luxury.
I wore Garmont suede and fabric boots with Brasher socks inside, Kahtoola aluminium crampons and was glad of both a CAMP Corsa Nanotech axe and Mountain King Harlequin Trail Blaze poles to keep upright. I ate Mountain House lasagne, Adamsons oatcakes and Kenco coffee all lit to perfection by Petzl.

Ah, there’s more, but we’ll get to that next time.

Montane Slipstream GL Review: The Windshirt of Justice

90g for a hooded windshirt with a big zipped pocket in size XL. Yes please.

I saw the Slipstream at the Montane showroom and was rather taken by it. The word is that’s store buyers had been less than enthusiastic about it because it looks like a gimp suit or a bin bag. Well, I’m happy to report that by using those two points of reference I’ve been overjoyed being dressed like a dirty deviant, this is the best wind shirt I’ve ever used.

This is an XL, but it wears and measures up as a Large compared to other Montane kit, so labelling rather than design going awry? Once over the shock of wearing an XL what I found was a neat fitting smock, good arm length and a good length at the tail. I’ve found that the tail stays down too, I haven’t been yanking it out of a bundle at the small of back, a combination of the smooth fabric and fit I’d say. The arms are neat enough with elastic ends, the elastic hidden inside Pertex cuffs, but I can get them over my elbows, just, so ventilation is fine. The long length means no gaps in the cold on foot or on a bike, even when stretching up on a scramble, the arm articulation is brilliant. The hem on the body has the same covered elastic as the cuffs, you get a neat fit but it’s still plenty stretchy enough, you don’t feel it’s there.

And now to the genius parts. There’s a chest pouch pocket which isn’t a kick in the arse away from A4 paper size and its mesh inner bag has some slack sewn into it so you can get a bunch of kit in there. The pocket is sewn in, it doesn’t hang like most smocks, this I like, less faff and more stable.
The reversed zip matches the main one which is a good length, getting as close to the pocket as it dares without making a weak spot in the construction. It’s a two-way zip, you can hide your chin from the wind while you open the bottom to let out steam or fumble in your undergarments. It’s backed by a stiff-ish tape anti-snag/wind baffle which is neatly sewn over at the top as a chin/nose guard. It all works perfectly

The hood is simple, or so it would seem. You’ve got a close fitting skull-cap affair with a soft lycra lining around the face hole. This gives a good fit without pressure on your skin, even with my melon head. The construction is also very clever, the neck has a little extra width to it meaning you can zip the Slipstream right up to your nose over other light layers with high collars without discomfort and it also means you can turn your head like an owl and your face stays aligned with it’s designated window of opportunity. Too flowery that bit maybe? What the hell.
You can also pull the hood up and down while its fully zipped, which is brilliant, the other day in Coigach I was doing just that every couple of minutes as I went from warm sun to icy blast as I wandered the ridge and plateau of Ben More.
I was worried that the small-ish lock-down style zip pulls would be too hard to work with gloves on, but they’re fine, and this type doesn’t flick up at your nose every time the breeze lifts, it was a good call.

The Pertex Quantum GL fabric is a 25gm² nylon joy. It looks crinkly, but it’s actually very soft and smooth with a fine ripstop grid to it. It hisses more that it rustles when you handle it. It holds the wind out as well as you’d expect, the layers you wear under it will decide how far you want to take it temperature wise, stick a base and a light mid in there and you’re good for some winter  fun. In the photies here all I’ve got under the Slipstream is 190 weight merino and that was good for hovering above and below 0°C, I was nicely comfy.
Breathability is excellent, especially over just a base layer, it’s a recipe for being dry. If the fabric does get wet, it dries fast and it’ll also repel a surprising amount of rain or snow before it wets out.
Durability is largely up to you and how you treat the fabric, I’ve found abrasion resistance is great, tear resistance not so much, but then is it expecting to be pulled over a barbed wire fence? Get a rucksack that fits and don’t leave it crunched into a corner of that same rucksack and you could be long term windproof friends.
Construction is good, the minimal seams are all very well finished internally to hide the stitching and prevent snagging and pulls. There’s night time friendly reflective detailing here and there, there’s a hang loop at the collar and it comes in a little bag with a hang loop and cinch cord so that every time you use it it feels like you’re opening a present.

The Slipstream GL is a brilliant bit of kit. Run, bike, walk, backpack, it’s fit for purpose. It weighs F/A, it’s comfortable to wear, the fabric is excellent and it’s been designed for humans to be active in. Something that’s not always guaranteed.
The Windshirt of Justice. Indeed.

Vango

There hasn’t been too much Vango or Force10 on here over the years, which is perhaps a little strange given that I can see their offices from my window. However, that’s now sorted, I was over at their place today to say hello, look at some kit and bring back some samples to review.

I was nearly away with Force10 Argon 200 above, but I’m needing a 1-person for the next couple of trips so I’ve got a Force10 Helium Carbon 100 instead. It’s a tent that ticks many boxes looking at it, so I’m optimistic that it’s a step forward from the older Helium. We’ll see shortly, I’m packing for Assynt tomorrow. 
I’ll come back to the Argon in a wee while, it looks good. Light fabrics, a strong, hubbed 3-pole design and lots of room inside with a porch to match it.

There’s a whole bunch of varied stuff on the way, both Vango and F10 seem to be picking up the pace which is nice to see. Another thing that caught my eye were the new dry packs which come in various sizes with the Dry 20 is below. It’s a neat design, looks about perfect for commuters as well as outdoor folks who want dry kit at the end of the day. Ice axes and poles are welcome here and the harness is properly done, no tokenistic affair.

More to come as I use it, as well as the Helium I’ve got a pack and some other bits and pieces to get to grips with. And a lot of it is bright orange. Alright!

The North Face Thermoball Hoodie – New Primaloft Sythetic Down Technology for Winter 2013

I was down at The North Face this week to have a look at some of the new kit which I’ll talk about soon, but first here’s a wee look at something especially interesting.

Thermoball insulation is a new development from synthetic kings Primaloft along with The North Face and the brand will have exclusive use of the technology for the next three years. The short version is that that they’ve tried to create a synthetic down of sorts, and as you can see from the clump of synthetic fibre clusters I’m holding above it’s certainly looking more like down clusters than the blanket of fine fibres we’re used to seeing, or feeling I should say, in our jackets.
The aim is to try and bridge the gap between the compressibility and warmth of down and the weather resistance and quick drying of synthetic, which is pretty much the holy grail of insulation.  A clump of the stuff in your hand feels warm and I could compress it flat, I asked about durability from frequent compression and they word is that life expectancy is the same as regular Primaloft, which means it can be up to you how long it lasts; storage, packing and use being the deciding factors there. The insulation quality is rated as the same as 600-fill goose down.

There’s been some trials and experiments with how to best use the Thermoball,  such as different fill weights and baffle designs which will continue, but for the moment micro baffling like we’ve been used to seeing on lightweight down gear in recent years is giving the best results.
The Thermoball Hoodie will be out this autumn and there’s a hoodless jacket and matching woman’s equivalents. The design is simple, a nonadjustable close fitting hood, two handwarmer pockets (one with a double zip that the whole jacket folds into), lycra cuffs and an adjustable hem with the cord ends in the pockets. The cut is neat but not tight, the arms are a good length and tail has a very slight scoop.
The fabric is The North Face’s own recycled 20D lightweight nylon which has a nice feel to it and certainly helps with reducing packed bulk.

The size medium below comes in at 364g for this preproduction sample and I’ll be testing it over the next few months to see what the story is with Powerball. I’ve used Primaloft and micro-baffled down enough over the years to know what to expect, or do I? This might be something different altogether, time will tell.
The insulation value of the hoodie is better suited for spring to autumn, which is why the hoodie isn’t part of the range-topping Summit series, but the neat cut means it’ll work well with a down vest worn over it on colder camps, something that’s always been a favourite for me.
Nice to have something properly new to talk about. More later.

In saying that, I’ve had Polartec’s new Alpha technology on test for the past few months as well, more on that soon too.

Icebreaker Beast Review

I picked this bright pair for test at a trade do last year and since then the Icebreaker Beast range has disappeared. The boxers have an identical equivalent in the Anatomica Boxers, but you can take your pick of equivalent t-shirts, just look for the Bodyfit tag with 150 weight fabric.

The Beast range was more fancy underwear than baselayer, but that was maybe as much down to the packaging than any design elements. Basically, we’ve just got a t-shirt and boxers made from a very light 150gsm merino fabric.
The fabric is very nice to wear, soft and very stretchy indeed, these sample large’s could have done with being a medium. The lightness means less insulation and quicker drying which is great for warmer weather, but less merino superpowers when it comes to long-term stink destruction.
The fit of the t-shirt is square, casual style as fits its job description, which is probably right as I’ve torn the fabric a couple of times when it’s caught on a buckle or trouser popper when I’ve been stretching. It is a little fragile for regular outdoor use.
The styling is nice, I like the contrast stitching on the flatlock seams, some seams are regular-style, but they’re all equally soft and there’s no rub points that I’ve found. The boxers have some nice touches, the elastic waistband is wide and comfortable and the front has a little pouch for your kit to fit into, and it’s also biased to the left which may or may not suit you.
The legs are a little short for me for outdoor use, but have been great under jeans and the like.

The Beasts are comfortable to wear and nicely put together, the fabric is lovely against the skin and performs well, but the fragility of it and the styling do make these a better choice for casual and travel use.

The North Face Meru Jacket Review

Seen on here on test over the last few months and long due a review is the Meru Jacket from The North Face’s Summit Series.
The Meru is part of the kit that Conrad Anker’s team used on their epic trip to the mountain of that same name and its design comes from the needs of the users on that climb, but does that mean that we can’t make good use of it?

464g for a size large fully featured mountain jacket sounds good to me. The weight is largely down to the fabric which is Gore’s Active Shell. I think it’s a great fabric, about as good a moisture management performance as you’re likely to get in a membrane based waterproof fabric, soft and comfortable to wear as well as small packing. Hide your belt buckle under your midlayer and wear a rucksack that fits you rather that bouncing all over your shoulders and Active lasts well, then you’ve got a chance of getting your money’s worth, treat it like an everyday jacket and there’ll be no use in complaining that you’ve put a hole in it. In saying that, The North face have taken a look at the vulnerability of the fabric in hard use and have strengthened the Meru a little.

The layout says climber, the pockets are all arranged to be accessible from a central point when hanging from a wall in a harness. This fine unless you want to put your hands in your pockets a lot. The external pockets have  water resistant zipped entries and are big, pretty much the whole chest are is pocket for a huge amount of storage. The pockets are mesh-backed though, so no double Active fabric to compromise breathability. The mesh is double layered though, giving two extra stuff pockets on the inside, these are big two and the jacket is cut a little larger both for comfort and to allow for all the storage.

The main zip matches the pocket zips but in a slightly heavier grade and has a full length baffle with a nice fuzzy section on the inside at the top to rub your nose on when it’s dripping or you need a bit of luxury while facing icy summit horror/the wait for the bus.

The cuffs are nice, there’s a regular velcro adjustable tab, but the shaping is good, it curves down around your knuckles. The cuffs are wide too, you can pull the sleeves up to your elbow should the need arise.

The hood is big enough for a helmet but fits my bare or be-hatted head fine with its decent range of adjustment. The face adjusters are nicely done, little loops to tighten on the outside with hidden cordlocks inside the layers of fabric. Nice and neat, and okay to operate with gloves, certainly no faffier than all-exposed adjustment.
The adjuster at the crown that deals with overall hood volume works well, it pulls the hood in and locks onto your head with compromising vision, but it has that odd cordlock hidden behind a flap thing that The North Face are so fond of. It’s easy to tighten but difficult to loosen in general, and with gloves on it’s impossible. Surely I’m not the only one who’s said anything about this?!
The peak is right, stiffened and a good size giving protection and clear visibility.

The shoulders and hips have some printed rubbery feeling dots to address the vulnerability of the Active fabric in sustained hard use. They’re well spaced and I haven’t suddenly found myself with wet shoulders due to a lack of breathability, so it’s a good move probably, making Active shell better for general use has to be a good thing.

The cut is excellent, full freedom of movement with good length on the body and the arms. Don’t let the association with the Meru trip and all the superhuman feats put you off, the Meru Jacket is still basically just a well designed and functional mountain jacket and I’ve been pulling it on when the sky gets annoyed at me for months now, and quite happily too, despite that daft volume adjuster.

Aquapac Micro Whanganui for iPhone Review

Ages back I got the Aquapac iPod Protectatron in for test, it’s still going strong in regular use and is still 100% waterproof. Last year Joycee got the new Aquapac Micro Whanganui in to test for her iPhone as I didn’t have a smartphone at the time. Humph.
Joycee spends all her time outdoors, working in woodlands, digging, cutting, carving, making fires, installing artworks or in school grounds building willow domes or painting murals while trying to keep kids minds off the horrors of the urban environment outside the gates. The Micro Whanganui was an instant hit and has seen some tough times over the past few months, her phone is her office while she’s standing in the rain and I’m glad she never had to said “Well, you told me my phone would be okay”. Apple updates are the biggest enemy of her phone, not moisture.
The Micro Whanganui is different to my old model, a different material, tackier and so less likely to be dropped which I quite like. The lever locking system is the same, a simple 90deg movement of each lever and you’re done. But, what do I know, Joycee says…

“The Aquapac is a great bit of phone protection kit, and has saved my mobile from destruction from rain, paint, mud, soup, snow and children. It’s easy to use, sensitive for the touchscreen even with thin gloves on, light, small, packable and easy to keep in your pocket. The only 2 drawbacks are that the camera can’t be used clearly, and the plastic material sticks to my iphone protector cover.”
 
The sticking issue is a known one it turns out, there’s even a video on the official site (link at the top) to show you how to avoid it. Me, I’d try and find a way to solve the issue as a technical problem at source rather than just work around it. It also comes with an adjustable lanyard which joycee ditched as it was catching on stuff, handy to have though, I still use mine.
All in all, good wee bits of kit that really do last well, and having lost a phone to a wet weekend in the hills there’s nothing wrong with taking precautions with expensive to replace pieces of electronica.

Páramo Grid Technic Baselayer Review

We got a bunch of Páramo kit in for test and Joycee and I have split duties on it. Joycee has been thrashing hers in woodland projects and regular outdoor stuff and I’ve been trying out an Alta II jacket, more of which later, and the Grid Technic Baselayer which is up for review just now.

Páramo have an odd sense of what a baselayer is, the Grid is a midlayer, it’s not close cut enough to be a baselayer, so after trying this next-to-skin once and getting bare skin against rucksack, it was confirmed as a midlayer. If I’d taken a size up, I’ve got a medium, it might have helped but it would have been a baggy horror. But, as it happens, I reckon it was born to be a midlayer.
The medium is a good cut on me, kinda like a lot of other brands large to be honest, neat and tidy with not much extra fabric wrinkling up around me. The length is pretty good as well and the Grid isn’t riding up which means the articulation around the arms is good enough as well as the torso being a neat fit around me.
The arms are a good length with wide cuffs which also have thumbloops. There’s two separate things going on here though, Páramo are always thinking about ventilation so the cuffs are wide, as are the forearms, all good for rolling up. But with the thumbloops it means there’s a whole lot of extra fabric around your wrist and it doesn’t layer as well as it might and I think it compromised dexterity compared to other thumbloop designs. There’s plenty of stretch in the fabric to cut the sleeves closer without restricting the ability to pull them up, it would be a good fix and feel less like a compromise as it does now.

It’s a nice clean shirt with just a few features. The collar is medium-to-tall height and seals your neck up well. The main zip has a nice zipper garage so tere’s no danger of nipping or catching and the zip also has a wide baffle behind it with an anti-snag strip which works perfectly well.
The zip is quite short, but there’s a great reason for this, a central chest pocket accessed by a horizontal zip. This pocket is perfectly placed for me, it’s not overly large, but it’s just so damned handy and reminded me why I always loved smocks.

The gridded fabric is the “other way round” from many gridded fabrics you see where the squares on the inside wicking away moisture to a the flat outer drying surface. But whatever, with its squares on the outside this fabric is excellent. I’ve worn this over long and short sleeved merino and long sleeved polypropylene and it just sucks sweat away from you, and I dunno, erases it is the best word I can find to describe it. It’s damned fast at it’s job, which extends to layering under non-Páramo outerlayers which I’ve been mostly doing. This dryness is great for camp too, no extra dampness to add to the steamy atmosphere in a tiny tent here.
It’s a generally nice fabric to wear, soft and stretchy and light with it, the Grid comes in at 246g.

The Páramo Grid Technic Baselayer is a great midlayer, but it needs tweaking. The thumbloop cuffs could be seen as a token gesture as they are, but with a little work they could be spot on. The chest pocket is already genius, but if it was a little bigger with a wider zip it would be even better, and both the pocket and neck zip need easier-to-grip zip pulls, these tiny flatlocking things are just a pain.
Páramo isn’t what I remeber it as and a damned good thing too. More coming up.

Princeton Tec Byte Review

I don’t carry spare torch batteries on overnighters, in fact in recent months there’s been no point as I’d need my laptop to bring life back into my main torch (more later). What I’ve done for years now is carry a big torch and a wee torch, which is often lighter and also means I can light the tent up and still see where I’m going with my tripod in the dark.
My wee torch for the past year or so has been the Princeton Tec Byte which I got in for test and has now lived a very full life having been everywhere from mountain tops to ships engine rooms.

The Byte is a simple thing, 2 inches by 1 inch and weighs F/A, this is now a standard measurement on here, anything under 100g doesn’t need to be any more accurate. The headband is 3/4 inch and is comfortable with a good range of adjustment from bare head to over a thick hat.
It takes two AAA batteries, including lithium flavoured, which last very well if you pack it carefully. A couple of times I’ve had the button pressed and drained it, but I now swivel the light when I pack it away to keep the button out of harms way.
The button is also one of the best things about the Byte, the dotted black patch on the top you can see below, as it’s easy to use with gloves. The logo and labelling on the Byte tell you that the button is on the top, but flip the torch upside down and the button is now even easier to use with your thumb and the beam positioning isn’t compromised as it would be on most torches, the swivel mechanism giving you the same range of movement whatever way you wear the Byte. Once I tried this I decided that all headtorches shoiuld have their bottons on the bottom, much more natural to use.

The light itself is a good one and it’s camp-friendly too. One press brings on a lower output red LED which is great for camp, you can see what you’re doing and ypur nigt vision is maintained. The next press brings up a low white light and one more press gives you full power which is a very impressive focussed beam rated at 50 lumens which is enough to navigate rough terrain in total darkness, although it will eat your batteries in a couple of hours. It’s quite enough of a torch for main use and as a backup I feel like I’ve got a  Colt .45 strapped to each thigh.

Some folk will want a flashing setting, some folk will want longer buring time at full power, and at IPX4 it’s less waterproof than some, but you can get all that stuff elsewhere. If you want an emergency rocket in your pocket, the Byte’s ready to burn.

The Forth Face Alpine Project Windstopper Soft Shell Jacket Review

One of my regular bits of kit over the past few months has been the Alpine Project Windstopper Jacket from The North Face. I got in in for test late last year and although its fabric weight suggested it might be a autumn/spring jacket, it became a winter favourite. But…

 The jacket is 518g for my sample medium which is great for the features and protection you get and it also packs down surprisingly well as the fabric is light. That fabric is Gore Windstopper, a name that used to strike dread into my heart and sweat onto my back, but times have changed.
This light weight Windstopper is indeed totally windproof and has good water resistance, snow and light rain being bearable for as long as your nerve holds or the shower stops. It has four way stretch for comfort, free movement and it allows for a close fit which also means that the fabric works better, for me a lot better. I’ve worn this jacket on cold days and warmer days when working hard over merino and synthetic baselayers and under insulation and waterproof shell and this Windstopper is surprisingly breathable. No soaking baselayers here, the brushed inner scrim wicks away sweat and the fabric is handling the moisture transfer to the outside as well as the best non-membrane fabrics I’ve used.
The fabric is very wearable and very usuable, that’s the best way I can think to put it. But if it’s been sewn into a straight jacket, it’s not much use so what else have we got?

The Alpine Project is a slim fit hoody. The medium is nice close fit on me and the stretch in the fabric combines with the excellent cut to give me complete freedom of movement, the shoulder are very well done and the hem stays put.
The slim fit applies to the arms as well which means they work great with gloves and layer under waterproofs and insulation very well but there’s a section of lighter softshell fabric in the forearms (the black section you can see above) which means you can slide up the sleeves a little for some cooling which is handy. I can’t get them up as far as my elbows, but it’s a good compromise for me.
The cuffs are laminated for a low profile finish and a smooth feel. There’s lamination elsewhere, on the hood and the chest pocket and the hem which is also adjustable through cord ends hidden in the side pockets.

The pockets are well placed, the side pockets are just above your pack hipbelt but not too high to bury your hands inside for a wee heat. They’re big too, plenty of storage and they’re mesh backed for extra breathability and ventilation when you leave the zips open. The mesh extends all the way up to the shoulder seams and I think they’ve missed a trick here, there could have been two inner stash pockets in the top half of the mesh with a little bit of lycra at the top or the side by the main zip.
The outer pocket is handy and the softer fabric it’s made from lets you overstuff it too. All the pocket zips, the main zip too for that matter, are reversed for a smooth abrasion-free outer surface. The zippers all have nice easy to find cord zip pulls. The main zip has a wide baffle behind it too.

Weatherproof jackets probably should have a hood and the Alpine Project has one. It’s a good size and has a peak that is stiffened and shaped to offer protection but still fit under a waterproof without any discomfort, they got that bit just right I think. There’s a volume adjuster at the back which pulls the hood into your head and locks there and then there’s the bit around your chin and cheeks. Ach.
The chin comes up to a good height, it’s enough to shut the wind out from your neck if you dig your chin in, but there’s no way to adjust it or the face hole itself and the hood just sits open at the sides letting the wind and cold in. It can be very annoying at times, especially as the rest of the jacket is pretty much right on the money.
I don’t know if it needs an adjuster, maybe just some elastic at the sides to give it some tension, the hood’s not big enough to be pulled over your face , so it wouldn’t compromise it, just improve it.

But. As much as the hood needs work, I’ve been pulling out this jacket to wear all the time, even as the weather’s been getting warmer. It’s protective enough in winter, but light enough for warmer weather, can’t argue with that adaptability.
The features are all right, the pockets are well placed and well sized. The cut is excellent, making the jacket very wearable and absolutely fit for its purpose, and the fabric has performed so much better that I’d expected, I mean, Windstopper that kept me dry?

The Alpine Project is a great jacket, fix that hood and it’s just a kick on the arse away from being perfect.

 

Julbo Dust Review

A pair of Julbo Dust shades came in for review a wee while back and they seem to have been something of a good omen as they brought along some perfect weather for testing them.

The Dusts are designed for adventure racers so they’ve got big lenses for protection on a mountain bike and all round unobstructed vision for moving fast on the trail, which is very nice but it also means that they make great all-round mountain shades as well. The big lenses mean I can pack goggles less in winter as the area of coverage is nicely protective and in the glorious sunshine you can see on the page here it’s just fantastic to be wandering around without being constantly aware of the edges of the lenses.

The lenses are Zebra photochromic’s which go from catagory 2 which is good for anything including mist and snowfall to a nicely dark catagory 4 which makes walking in sunshine on snow a blink-free joy. They react fast as well, there’s no waiting for the lens to catch up when you move from shade to bright.
I’m optimistic that longevity is good, my Julbo Contest review pair are now very well used indeed having been on most trips until this year and the lenses are still in good condition despite same very careless treatment and stowing.
Although the lenses are big, there’s still good ventilation to keep fogging at bay. I’ve found that even just at regular walking pace there’s enough airflow to keep the lenses clear, I know this is happening because when I stop to catch my breath I can see the waves of mist trying to form on the inside of the lenses.

The frames grip the top of the lenses and extend around your head in a nice easy curve. The legs are flat and and the last two thirds are split between the dark plastic and a lighter more flexible material which along with it’s grippy properties gives me a rub-free and pressure-free secure fit. The same white material forms the nose grip and again, it’s been staying in place on my sweaty nose and is a delight to wear next to the  rubbish nose grips on my regular glasses.

To sum up the performance, the Dust’s are excellent, the lenses are fantastic and the frames fit me perfectly and don’t slip or rub, they just sit there and do their job. You get a clear view and as they’re photochromic, they’re useful across a wide range of conditions.
The big lenses and shape add bulk of course, and while the Dust’s are essentially weightless, no way I’m putting these on the scales, they do take up space in your pack or pocket. Mine came in a nice little plastic pod which protects them very well, and I’ve also been sticking them in rucksack and trouser pockets and there’s not a mark on the lenses so far. For the performance, I’m happy to leave that extra bar of chocolate at home if I’m that stuck for space.

Brilliant bit of kit. And, Made in France too.

Endura Endura Baa Baa Merino Long Sleeve Review

Prologue.
 Tredz who have two bikes shops in Wales got in touch with me last year with a view to doing some reviewing for them and far from being patronising, asking me to sign a contract or giving me a humorous budget to work to as many of us will be familiar with when dealing with shop reviews, they were instantly easy to get on with and have been great to deal with. I wanted to go for crossover kit that could be used for various things and the Endura base layers came up, its something I’ve looked at in the past but never used and that’s what we went for.
So, good folks, kit from a different brand and my first ever review for a shop. Which is coincidental, what follows is the same nonsense as usual.

I’ve been finding that synthetic  is no longer the 80’s throwback to merino’s 21st Century Schitzoid Man and more often that not, I’ve been in polypropylene in recent times, so the when the Endura Baa Baa Merino Long Sleeve came in for test it was a perfect timing to give me a nudge to update on a long term favourite fabric.
The fabric is a nice weight, exactly what that is I can’t tell you, all I’ve got is “pure merino” and “100% pure merino wool”. No fine/superfine/gsm or indication or its origin, so I’m going purely on feel and perfomance here, which maybe isn’t a bad thing. Although, it is 200gsm or probably less comparing it to other merino.

Silky smooth straight out of the box, this is a lovely shirt to pull on. Next to skin comfort is instant and lasting even after many washes. The fabric also has a good amount of stretch to it, which is almost entirely two-way, ie it stretches easily one way but not some much at right angles to that. Sewn together properly, which this is, it means great free movement and good shape retention as well. Merino does slacken off in use, a thing I always take into account with sizing a top, but here on the Baa Baa a large stays a large, so I haven’t sized down.
Moisture handling is good here, I can’t base this on anything other than observation and a hunch, but the Baa Baa seems to dry quicker than I’m used to with merino. It still has all the regular qualities that you expect from merino, warm when damp, the power to vanquish smells, but the drying time does seem good. It could be the fabric weave (knit?), that can make a big difference, but I’m happy whatever.

The fit is slim, or athletic if you write official descriptions and sits well on me, comfort but close as a baselayer should be. Body length is good, but not great. It stays tucked in most of the time and does have a slight scoop to the tail to help, but I would have expected longer on what is designed as a bike shirt. The arms too are just okay, another inch would have been better, but at least I don’t have to fish a around trying to find my watch, it’s right there at the edge of the cuff.
The cuffs are wide and low profile, good forlayering and wearing with gloves. The hem and neck are well finished too, the neck with a slight bias for the riding position as you’d expect, so a little lower at the back of your neck that you might be used to.
The seams are all soft flatlocked and the washing instructions are printed on to give a chafe free insides. Apart from the unusable small hangloop at the back of the neck. It’s what scissors were made for.

It’s a great top is the Baa Baa. It’s bike specific, but when you sit on a bike you don’t change into a mutant, so really it’s person specific, the only real difference to an outdoor top is the slight change in the neckline. The fit is excellent, the seams are well placed to allow the fabric to stretch the right way such as the under arm panels meaning its a joy to wear when you’re active.
All the powers of merino are here, warmth and cooling when you need it, stink defiance and what I think is an excellent drying time.

All over the world outdoor folks are outdoor folks while here we’re hillwalkers, climbers, mountain bikers, backpackers etc. I’ve been/am all of those and more besides, so outdoor kit is outdoor kit, the brand name doesn’t limit it to a single discipline.
The Endura Baa Baa is an excellent top, it’s aging well and has to be worth a look.

EDZ Merino Boxers Review

I had good results with EDZ’s merino zip neck and a unseen constant the past few months have been their Merino Boxer Shorts that were sent in for test.
EDZ have a different feel about them, they’re not selling dreams of alpine adventure on their website, just listing practical kit for anything you want to use it for. I kinda like that, I’m immune to advertising and press releases now and just like to cut to the chase. Which we’ll now do.

The boxers have an interesting fit to them. They’re cut quite low-waisted which is fine by me and the waistband is wide elastic which stays put and is comfortable against the skin. The fit is slim too, always good in a baselayer, especially in merino where you’ll get a some stretch in use. The slim fit works well under trousers, no snagging at all so easy movement and of course the fabric being close to the skin means better moisture management.
Initially I thought I was in trouble when these came in as there’s no real 3D shaping in the construction at the front, but the fly allows you some room to relax and the overlap of fabric at the opening is enough that you won’t get exposed skin or fall out of the front. I’ve found the merino does take your shape through wear and wash cycles and the boxers are now supremely comfortable.

shorts2Shape stays good in general, the leg openings have hems that gently hug your legs and don’t loosen off even after a few days wear and the stitching is minimal and also flatlocked. The legs are a decent length too, and they stay down on me which is great. Boxers with legs that ride up do my head in.

The merino is 200 weight which is in the cool to do-it-all bracket and I’ve been wearing it under everything from jeans, work pants, softshell, trekking pants to bike shorts. Moisture management is fine, merino sucks the sweat away and the close fit lets your body dry it as quickly as it can. Smell control is the usual merino goodness just where you need it.

But, I made a judgement call on this next part, and I think I did the right thing. After the first wash around half an inch (in metric that’s le half an inch) of fabric pulled out of the stitching at the front. I went “Ach”, dried them and made a mental note to send them back next day, but I changed my mind that next day for various reasons.
Nothing is perfect, things are made by people aftre all, and what if this was just a little wobble by a machine operator? On the other hand they could just be shoddily made and sending them back meant I wasn’t going to learn anything about that.
So, I stitched them up, and stitched them well too, I’ve done this stuff before. The fabric took the stitches very well, the overlap on the seam matched what it should have been originally and I put the boxers on and went out.
That was months ago, the boxers have been worn and washed countless times since then and not only has the repair held, I was only reminded about it when I took a close up shot for the review. The fabric is reassuringly strong.

There are a great pair of boxers, the fit suits me fine, others will no doubt seek a high-waisted design, but the slim low profile cut of the EDZ’s are perfect for layering under techy trousers and great for free movement.
The fabric performs well, moisture management and drying time is fine and the stink repellancy is a joy as always. The repair? I took a chance and I’ve  just come away reassured by it, the fabric is strong, stronger I think that bigger brand merino that I’ve stuck thumbs through trying to wriggle out of my boxers at camp. I have to call it as I find it.

Recommended, its just a shame that there’s only grey on the website now, there used to be blue and olive. Still what does it matter, who sees your boxers in the snow?

Edit: The colours are indeed still available right here at Thermalshop.co.uk. Alright!