Monday 29 September 2014

Z Packs Hexamid Duplex

Side view showing the non-zip overlapping doors. A clever idea. Will they be flappy in wind? They appear to be pretty taught when fastened properly. Two vestibules and two entrances, which is a highly desirable design feature.

Yet again this is not a gear review. But yet again I have had a number of queries from people about my latest purchase with requests for photographs.  And for the third yet again I know I've gone mad buying lots of new gear.  But there you go, and I did sell a load of stuff including the Akto, a Rab down sleeping bag and two backpacks to help pay for this stuff. And I am hoping to get a longish foreign trip in next summer, so want to spread the cost of any new gear needed.  Actually, I seem to have bought everything all at once.

First thing to say is I don't usually do radical. I am pretty small 'c' conservative which is why I end up normally only buying gear that is well established and, preferably, that I have seen in use and have first hand recommendations.  However, I am fed up with carrying too heavy a pack - I am just getting to an age where it is unsustainable, as I recently explained .  Also, I am fed up with gear that is not quite right for me, especially backpacks which have too short a back, tents with insufficent length and headroom and so on, all of which make for a less comfortable trip.

Having sold the Akto I needed (well wanted) a replacement shelter as my stock was getting dangerously low ie down to two, a Trail Star and a Tarptent Scarp 1. I love the latter but it is about 1550gr and would be a real squeeze for me and the dog. I wanted 'roomy' to fit my overlong body and to give me the possibility of fitting hyperdog in with me.  And I wanted as light as possible which likely meant Cuben Fibre. Ideally it would also be bomb proof but that wasn't the prime consideration, given my other options still available if the weather was looking iffy before a trip.  I considered things like the Mountain Laurel Duomid and its nest, but the former was just too narrow, and it's an expensive combination. I considered the Six Moons Designs Haven Tarp plus nest but that is also a hefty price and the space in the nest is pretty restricted. So after much agonising, I settled on the Z Packs Hexamid Duplex . I went for this rather than the one person version for the reasons of space as mentioned earlier. So I could have gone lighter. This is not, incidentally, one of their tents with a mesh floor, a design which seems to raise strong feelings. To me it seemed a great combination of weight (the best weight of all actually, bar other tents from the same manufacturer), space and headroom.  It is also a fully enclosed tent, so although it is spendy there was no need to get a nest as well. To put price into perspective it is way cheaper than a new Akto (£490 now folks!), not that I wanted an Akto again,  and a fair bit cheaper than a Cuben Duomid and nest combo.

I had a few non-standard modifications which put the weight and price up marginally.  Firstly, I had the guylines fitted for me and linelocks added at the same time.  Joe charged a tiny amount for that service. Secondly, I had it made up in the heavier 0.74 oz cuben fibre. Joe Valesko believes this isn't necessary, but I suspect it is quite a popular option.  It was $15 and an extra 62 gr for this peace of mind (and a nicer colour!).  The weight now, with all the mods, is 685 gr.  I need to stress that no bug nest is needed and this is a shelter that is big enough for two, so it is pretty much one of the lightest tents out there for the spec.  On top of that it needs 8 pegs. I am using 6 Vargo titanium V pegs and 2 Clam Cleat Tornadoes. With a couple of those tiny orange ended titanium skewer thingies as spares the pegs weigh in at 130 gr. Oh, and it doesn't need seam sealing.  It is all taped or bonded or something technical.

Right that's almost your lot, in that I am not going to comment on the merits of something I haven't tested. I will, however, give some thoughts, or pose questions, about some of the features. There are various reviews out there if you want to look on the Internet. I hope to get mine on a hill very shortly.

So for the rest of the photographs. It is worth saying they were taken on the very first time I put it up. Having practiced a bit since I know I can get it looking better than shown in these.   There is a Youtube video on the Z Packs website where Joe demonstrates how it should really be put up.

The cunning but slightly fiddly door fastening arrangement. The gap between door and ground is higher than in other shelters I own. Good to minimise condensation; how will it be in wind?  @CleverHiker tells me it is good.

Side view, doors rolled and fastened open. Yes, the trekking pole is supposed to be at an angle and not vertical, although it is also a bit off centre here! Two vestibules, two doors, and the two trekking pole set up mean the good headroom is right across the width of the tent. The trekking pole is set to 48 inches (about 120cm).

Very deep cuben fibre bathtub floor and mesh inner doors. Full mesh doors mean draughtier - but less condensation.

More cunningness.  The mesh thingy at the end of the bathtub (1) Obviously there are mesh doors to keep the bugs out. In addition, there is a piece of bug netting attached to the full width of the bathtub and then to  the tent wall to mean that you are entirely enclosed by mesh so it should keep the midges and mozzies at bay.

Designer Joe Valesko is certainly more cunning than Blackadder.  Here is the bathtub 'holder upper', a piece of shock cord and a mitten hook. The gap between bathtub and wall is so that condensation on the walls would run out of the mesh rather than into the bathtub.

Hyperdog Moss cowers at the thought of having to spend a night in the tent with me, whilst at the same time trying to swallow a whole tennis ball. He insisted on me throwing this to play chase througout my attempts to put the tent up, hence some of the wonkiness.

View from inside, again showing the generous bathtub. Should help slightly with draughts?

You can have any combination of the four door sections closed or open depending on the weather

Hey Carl (@Locomountaineer) !  As will be clear from the text of the above I paid for this with my own hard earned pension and I have no relationship with Z Packs other than being a customer.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Shiny New Stuff From Z packs

This post is not a gear review. You can not sensibly review products until you have tested the life out of them, by which time they are often off the market!  However, I have had a number of queries and comments via Twitter about some recent purchases, with some requests for photographs.  Thus, I will call what follows a "first look".  In any case I can't get my head around doing gear reviews. I normally end up being  facetious as in my Pimp my Rucksack blog post.  I'll try to be serious here. The products which I write about are both made by Z Packs in the USA.  As ever, and especially to irritate @Locomountaineer, there must be  a disclaimer.  I bought all this stuff with my own hard earned pension. I have no relationship with the company other than as a customer.

Firstly, about Z Packs. To be frank I had never heard of them until this May. Their founder, Joe Valesko, was on the TGO Challenge, and I heard a few people mention this. On my last day on the Challenge I was on top of the cliffs at St Cyrus and heard Joe shrieking as he waded semi-clothed into the cold North Sea with his two colleagues.  I also shared a bus with these guys to Montrose and was amazed at how small their packs were.  It made me think.  So I checked out their website, and thus began my purchases, funded partly through some active recent selling of a number of pieces of surplus gear on Outdoor Magic and E Bay.

There are four things I want to mention about this company.  Firstly, they make some incredibly lightweight gear, seem to specialise in cuben fibre, and the prices seem to compare well with other firms working in this same expensive material.  Secondly, much of their stuff is customisable, which is really useful if you are very tall/short/fat/thin/blue eyed or whatever. Thirdly, they appear to have an extremely good reputation with US backpackers.  I do a lot of googling before buying and it was hard to find anything negative about them or their products.  Finally, they are very customer focused, with great service and you can easily talk with (well e-mail) Joe himself in advance of your purchases to make sure you get the right product for your needs. I stress I have no personal incentive to be be so positive but they deserve this praise.  I want good companies to prosper so compliments should be given when they are earned.  This company knows how to deal with people, and they know their backpacking.

The Arc Blast Pack

I ordered a 60 litre pack with the following additions: two hip pockets, one shoulder strap pocket, walking pole and ice axe loops, and extra lumbar support.  It is made of cuben fibre but has an outer covering of polyester to add durability (several colours available).  With these additions, and the longer back (see below) mine weighs in at just 590 grams. That weight is pretty incredible.

The pack has a clever frame which you must put under tension before use by pulling tight the cord on 4 linelocks (see third photo below). This creates some air flow between your back and the pack.  When ordering I wanted a longer back than any of the advertised lengths. This was no problem, and was at no extra cost.  For me this was one of the most important reasons I chose this pack. The hip belt  sits properly on my hips.

The Z Packs Arc Blast, 60 litres - the pack closes very neatly and securely - I hadn't fastened it properly when I took this photo. Nor is the pack properly filled - I had just bunged a sleeping bag in it to fill it up a bit.

Rear view showing the added extras of additional lumbar padding, two hip pockets and one shoulder strap pocket

Close up of frame - the idea is you tighten the four line locks. The tension then curves the frame, creating a gap between frame and mesh to allow some airflow to your back

I have only used the pack for a few days, carrying a load of about 10.5kg including food and fuel. It was a very comfortable carry.  I found the system to tension the frame difficult until I realised that this is straightforward if you do it when the pack is empty. When full it is was problematic, needing a lot of effort, and the thin cord cut into my hands. Lesson learnt.  Clearly, I can not comment on durability but reviews from US hikers and comments from long distance backpacker Keith Foskett have not raised any concerns. The mesh outer does not appear that robust to me, but I haven't tested it. I think it will need to be treated with care. The hip pockets are of a good size, as is the shoulder strap pocket.  The two lower open side pockets are reasonable, but I'm not certain I could use these for my shelter - they may be a little narrow.  I would like one to have been wider and deeper. I wonder if that would have been possible if I had asked before purchase? I like the roll top closure.  It's similar to that system on other packs I've had (eg a Golite Pinnacle and ULA Catalyst) but also has a full length velcro fastening which seems to make it easier to close effectively and securely.  As I wrote above, I bought the 60 litres size (they also do a 45 litre and a 52 litre) and it doesn't feel a generous 60 litres, so if you are buying, and in doubt about the volume to choose,  I would size up. The additional weight for the larger size is miniscule.  On a very superficial note I love my choice of colour and the fact that the various add on pockets are also in this rather nice shade of green.

The thing I will come back to again and again, though, is the incredibly light weight for a 60 litre pack with a frame.

The Challenger Jacket

All I had originally intended to purchase from Z packs was a lightweight jacket, promised me by my wife as a birthday present.  Again, I couldn't quite get my head around the advertised weight of the Challenger Jacket which is 180 gr in the XL size.  That's about 350 gr lighter than my Goretex Berghaus Paclite jacket which is the lightest waterproof I had previously owned. You pick this thing up and it almost seems to float off into the heavens.  I quite bored my long suffering wife by handing it to her and saying "here, hold this, isn't it light?"  I had the additional pit zips to improve breathability.

The jacket is made of a hybrid E Vent / cuben fibre material with a thin outer layer of nylon which, the company says, makes it more durable and allows it to be given a solid black colour.  As you would expect from the weight it is minimalist in design.  It has one chest pocket - which is not big enough to take an OS map.  I really like the simple wrist and hem closures which seem very easy and effective to use. There is no storm flap on the zip, which is supposed to be waterproof. The hood is very comfortable, just the right size for me, and it has a slightly stiffened peak.  It can be rolled and fastened away. The whole jacket packs very small.  To my intense annoyance (!!!) it has hardly rained since the jacket has  arrived, so any comments about whether it is fit for its main purpose can not be given now. I have high hopes of it, and if it does breathe as well as claimed it will eliminate the need to carry a separate wind shirt, meaning an even greater weight saving.

The Z packs Challenger Rain Jacket - it is not as shiny as this photo makes it seem

The Challenger Jacket - showing the rather dapper mottled white inner

As one blogger has questioned the hood this photo is to show that it is more than adequate
Finally, one tip if you do order anything from Z Packs.  They sell a whole series of useful accessories, not easily available in the UK eg cuben fibre repair tape and patches, stick on mitten hooks, tiny linelocks etc. These are very cheap and so I got various bits and pieces added to my order as the costs of buying them separately would have been high given the minimum shippng costs.

Afternote (28/09/14): one reader in the comments asked for photos of where the hood volume adjuster is attached. Those that follow are for those who want this sort of detail!

Hood volume adjuster (1)

Hood volume adjuster (2)

Inside fastner for rolling up hood (the strap on the rear fastens into this)

The hood rolled and fastened up - you can roll so it is bunched the other way with the outer black fabric uppermost. Not certain which way is best. Simple, functional and more than adequate if you want to stow the hood away. I rarely bother doing this on my jackets.

Light(e)ning Strikes


I want to lighten the load I carry when I am backpacking.  I don’t actually need to. My pack weight is not normally exceptionally high – I guess, for example, that what I carried on the TGO Challenge would be about the average.  However,  I decided some time ago that it might be possible and would increase my enjoyment, and the reasons for doing so were strengthened by a recent trip that I had to cut short due to the  recurrence of a back problem.  Carrying any pack cannot be good for the spine – disc compression and all that, so a lighter load would be sensible.

One of my problems is that I am both risk and hardship averse!  I have a tendency to put stuff in my pack “just in case”.  Some of this is used and enjoyed eg the camp shoes, the spare shirt, the deodorant  and so on.  So I do not subscribe to the philosophy of going through your kit after a trip and cutting out anything that wasn’t used.  But mostly this extra stuff in there it isn’t actually necessary.

Anyway, there are three things you can do to reduce the weight you carry and so lessen the stresses and strain on your shoulders, back and knees.   Of these, one is free and easy; one is free and difficult; and one is generally pretty expensive and its ease depends upon the size of your bank balance.

So let’s go through these in turn:

1.      Free and easy.  TAKE LESS STUFF.  This doesn’t need much explaining.  There will always be a balance and a judgement between  risk and safety.  A spare bit of clothing so you do not smell bad can be omitted.  Spare clothing in winter conditions should not be.  But I am not convinced by the advice you read such as “always have a spare pair of gloves with you in case you lose a pair”.  Of course it can happen, but in 40 years in the hills I never have lost a pair  – so perhaps it might be best to think that if it were to happen you could in emergency use your spare socks on your hands until you were off the hill. As I wrote, balance and judgement.  One interesting example of such judgement can be seen in American Joe Valesko's kit list. To me this seems amazingly minimalist, not least because this list was for a 120 day trek in New Zealand, where the climate can provide extremes. There is no way I could manage with so little stuff, so each to his own.

2.      Free and difficult.  LOSE SOME BODY WEIGHT.  Again doesn’t need much explaining.  In practice, I do not think that losing a kilogram of fat off your tummy will equate to removing the same weight from your pack, as you are used to lugging your tummy around with you.  However, I am certain that for most it will make you healthier and fitter, and thus is a sensible goal.  Easier said than done, though, for this requires will power that is sometimes beyond many (including myself).  My most successful and most enjoyable weight loss programmes of recent years have involved eating lots of food and drinking lots of Guinness, but only whilst on a longish backpack such as the TGO Challenge where you are burning far more calories than you consume.

3.      Expensive.  CHANGE TO LIGHTER GEAR.  This is what most of the literature talks about and you can see why.  But it can be extremely expensive.  I know of more than one backpacker who has calculated that in the UK it seems to cost about £1 for every gram saved eg spend £20 on lighter dry bags and you will slice about 20 grams off your base weight. 

The logic of the above is that unless money is no object you would do well to focus on one and two before three.  But these two tactics are not much fun! So like very many people, I have tried to adopt them but I also often succumb to my addiction for exciting new stuff, not least over recent weeks.  So in one of my next posts I shall write about some of  my latest shiny purchases…..

Friday 26 September 2014

The Agony and the Ecstasy (with precious little of the latter)

The nearly empty camp site at Barcdy

When I had been packing up on the previous day, ready for my walk, I had a bit of an achy sore back.  I hadn’t thought much of this at the time and it hadn’t troubled me on the walk or in the evening at Barcdy Camp Site. However, during the course of the night it became really painful.  Now I am the world’s greatest expert on bad backs.  In the late 1990s I went through four years of increasingly excruciating pain in my back with accompanying sciatica.  I had lots of visits to the doctor and the physio, all to no avail. My GP eventually explained to me that back pain can be psychosomatic and brought on by stress.  As you can imagine that explanation went down very well with me.  A new GP, and at last an MRI Scan, and I was told I had a tumour growing on my spinal cord, and that if it had gone unchecked for much longer would have left me paralysed.  Not quite all in my mind then?  The subsequent operation was like a miracle cure, though I was left with permanent weakness in one leg. because of nerve damage.  Ten years later, in the mid noughties, and I was suffering again.  My record drug intake was 26 prescription painkillers in a day to try to control the agony.  I was a living zombie for several months (some might ask what’s changed) until another operation sorted me out.  So I am a bit nervous about my back.

Anyways, I slept very badly, and when I came to get up I could barely move.  My back was locked, very painful and I could hardly bend.  My efforts to dress in the Oookstar inside the Trail Star would have been comical to an observer.  After several attempts I sort of managed to lasso my feet with my trousers to get them on to make myself decent.  But I couldn’t reach far enough to get my socks on, or my trail shoes.  Fortunately, I had thrown the Hi Tec Zuuk camp shoes into my backpack when getting ready for the trip.  These are slip ons and with an effort I managed to get my sockless feet into these.  After a miserable half an hour or so I got my gear packed up, but there was no question of making a brew or getting any breakfast. It was clear that my trip was over.  I had a spine jarring walk of a couple of miles in the Zuuks to a railway station and a ticket home.  This was really frustrating as the sun was out, no rain was forecast for days and the best 50 km of my planned walk was coming up.  A week later and my plan to join up with Mad 'n' Bad, Carl and Lynsey in the Yorkshire Dales has also been cancelled.  “C’est la vie”, as an old Frenchman once said, and “ donnez moi des Ibuprofen, s’il vous plait”.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

And now for something completely different

The start of the walk: Pwhelli

My backpacking is almost all done in the hills. However, I recently decided to try something rather different and do a coastal walk.  In 2012 the Welsh Government, local authorities and various other bodies completed the Wales Coastal Path, meaning that Wales is the only country in the world to have a path all around its coastline. Indeed, if you connect it with the Offa’s Dyke National Trail you could circumnavigate the country in about 1650 km of walking.  My plan was rather more modest.  110 km or so southwards from Pwhelli on the Llyn Peninsula to Aberdovey over 5 days. This would not be wild camping territory so it would be public camp sites, mercifully almost empty in mid-September, despite the Indian Summer.

So a new form of walking experience for me.  Less remote, more towns and villages, more touristy, and more chances of coffee and cake en route…...I also wanted to try out some different equipment.  Thus, I took a meths stove instead of my normal gas, a new extremely light weight backpack, the Z Packs Arc Blast, and a new, ultra lightweight waterproof  jacket, also from Z packs. The latter goes by the official name “The Challenger” as it was tested by Z packs founder Joe Valesko on this year’s TGO Challenge. However, I now call it the “Death Jacket”, as one respected outdoor blogger has told me (tongue in cheek I think) that I will die in it because of what he sees as various design flaws. We shall see.  I am going to do a write up of this new stuff for the gear heads in another post.

Anyways, I trains it to Pwhelli for only fourteen pounds by purchasing my ticket in advance, and enjoys very much the slow Cambrian Coast Railway journey, stopping every mile or so on request at the various halts in little Welsh seaside places, following magnificent scenery, right on the coast, but with great views to the hills of Snowdonia. I could also see the Coast Path in many places which looked super.  Apart, that is, from a section I would walk just after Criccieth where it crossed a large open area with lots of cows and calves and the biggest bull you ever did see and I’m scardy cat when it comes to cattle. Cattleophobic me.

I got to Pwhelli and started as I meant to go on ie  by heading into the first café I saw for coffee and cake, before setting off  in the afternoon sunshine passed the marina, along a road for a couple of km and then on to a gloriously long, almost empty beach.  This terminated at a small grassy headland where I had a lengthy stop to empty the sand out of my shoes, remove my shirt, lie back and let my firm, bronzed young body soak up the sun. Fortunately, there was no-one about to complain.
Aberech Beach
14 km of walking and then I pitched for the evening at the pleasant Camping and Caravanning Club site at Llanystumdwy, the village where Lloyd George was born – he knew my father by the way, and my father knew him – and feasted on a very odd dehydrated meal. I think it was from Blah Blah or some such company.
The Trail Star and the Arc Blast
Next morning I bowled along. The Coast Path is very well signed – in theory. However, the rather pretty blue and yellow way pointers must be easily removable from their wooden posts because three quarters of them are missing. I’m not certain if they are falling off or being taken as souvenirs. As a result, I managed to get a bit lost in some fields within 15 minutes of setting off , somewhat inland from the coast, but by following my nose and the smell of seaweed and salt I eventually ended up on the path again heading towards Criccieth. It was here that I saw a monstrosity of a new house that had featured on that Grand Designs programme on the telly just a couple of weeks back. The designers / owners have built something truly out of keeping, but fortunately the cliff it’s on is eroding rapidly and I reckon it will all be in the sea before the mortgage is paid off.
Grand Designs? Hideous design more like
After Criccieth I realised I was approaching that open area with them cows and calves and the bull in that I had seen from the train, and so I was somewhat distracted by this and generally starting to feel anxious for the twenty minutes or so of walking from the town to this place. However, I arrived and it was empty so I started to breathe properly again and walked on, and then around and up this little hillside. At this point I walks around a bend in the path and see a gate and cattle grid on my route just ahead. And standing all round this area were the cows and the little calves. And right in front of the cattle grid eyeing me up was dad.  There was no escaping this other than a very lengthy walk back the way I had come. So I put my heart into my mouth and my head down and walked briskly through them and passed him and over the cattle grid and then I put my heart back in the proper place and, feeling all brave now, there being a gate and a cattle grid between us, I took his photo and had a little chat with him and he was jolly civil about things. Surprisingly when I got home and looked at his photograph he appeared much smaller than he did in real life. But trust me he was monster size.
He was much bigger than in this picture - really
There then followed some fabulous coastal scenery, the lengthy Black Rock Sands, the bays of Morfa Bychan, the harbour at Porthmadog, together with pretty woods and fields near Portmeirion.  I got lost near there, too, and wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes.  My silly fault.  If you have lots of fields to cross it is sensible to have a 1:25k scale map which shows their boundaries and I hadn’t bothered with one, relying on my 1:50k instead.  Oh and there were lots of caravan sites passed as well on this day which were less pretty.
Approaching Porthmadog

My plan of getting to Aberdovey by the Saturday meant that I had in advance planned to cut out a 16km section of the official path which heads inland to Maentwrog, as it is not currently possible to cross the Afon Glaslyn at its estuary, the road bridge having fallen down a couple of years ago. A new one will be open soon, but the rail bridge reopened just a week or so before my trip so I could take a 2 minute rail journey across the estuary from Penryhndeudraeth to Llandecwyn to avoid the Maentwrog diversion and this is what I did before arriving at Barcdy, my next camp site which had rather good facilities and was dirt cheap. Despite the niceness of the site it was a couple of miles from a pub so I had to feast on dehydrated muck again. This time it was a Mountain House Chilli Con Carne. Never again. Never again. But it had still been a very enjoyable day in the sun with lovely scenery for much of the the 26km I had walked. And so to bed, with a slightly longer distance planned for the following day.

Crossing the Cob at Porthmadog