Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Cold At Last!

If I were to describe my current situation to you – sitting here in the bitter cold, swathed in several layers of clothing, cupping a steaming mug of hot soup and dreaming of a long bath and a warm fire later on – you may be forgiven for thinking I’m out on some post-Christmas walk, huddling behind a handy dry-stone wall to keep warm, taking advantage of some new bit of electronic wizardry to post this article and contemplating smugly the near-future reward for my efforts.

Well, you’d be wrong; I’m at home. And the reason I’m sitting here shivering my cods off is because the blessed boiler has packed up! Not just broken down, but completely kaput. No heating and no hot water for at least two days until a new one can be found and installed. A Merry Christmas to you, too, Mr. Bosch!

But – and here’s the really crap bit – it not only means no heating and no hot water for a couple of days, but, in all probability, no new jacket and no exotic foreign holidays for the foreseeable future, either.

What a bummer!

In the way of optimists the world over, though, look hard enough and you’ll find the silver lining to any particular cloud. There is, believe it or not, a slight upside to this situation (other than the imminent re-establishment of heating and hot water!). The redoubtable Missyg has given me permission to purchase the new GPS unit we have had our eye on since the last one gave up the ghost back in October – a shiny new Garmin Etrex 30. There’s nothing like a new bit of kit to cheer up flagging spirits, and a quick Internet search has revealed a local-ish store offering it at a good price as well. So, come this time tomorrow, we will at least be able to get a grid reference for the heat-sink-of-the-Universe that is our house.

The keen-eyed amongst you will notice it’s only a few days since I was pondering the whereabouts of winter in the flatlands this year, and bemoaning the fact we were yet to have any real snow or even any frost worth a mention. I’m rather glad now we haven’t.

However we have finally got some cold conditions to contend with, although not quite in the way I had imagined. It just goes to show the adage is true: be careful what you wish for!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Looking Back; Looking Forward

I came across this quote today: “A dismal world of snow and vanishing hopes”. Not, as you may be forgiven for thinking, a comment on the state of Britain at the fag end of 2011, but a line from George Mallory’s last letter to his wife before he and Sandy Irvine set off on their fateful 1924 Everest summit bid and became climbing’s greatest and most enduring mystery.

Conditions facing the pair we difficult: the weather was bad, morale was low and their bodies had taken a beating. Mallory even likened their plight to his war experiences. Even so, they were prepared to give it one last go, in the face of adversity, to claim the “third pole” for Britain. Sadly it was not to be, or so it seems.

Of course challenges come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and not all are of the magnitude of an Everest attempt. Whilst there will always be a stream of people wishing to pit themselves against such extreme objectives, one of the beauties of walking is that it allows each and every one of us to set and achieve our own goals, whatever they are and however mundane they may be.

Don’t get me wrong – there are still plenty of worthy targets in the walker’s panoply, even in Britain. An end-to-end, for example, requires fortitude both in the planning and the execution, and bagging a full set of Munros is no easy feat, either. But there are also far simpler challenges to be had, each of which can be tailored to suit a particular interest – your first LDP; a favourite peak; the local park in winter.

Our modest goal has been to set and achieve an annual mileage target. A couple of weeks ago, we passed our previous best, and now we have topped 700 miles for this year – that is 700 miles of boots-on, purely recreational walking. As I say, a modest target by most measures, but we were quite pleased to reach it nonetheless.

Passing this mark was in many ways an unremarkable event – a gloomy lunchtime on an unprepossessing local road, with the drizzle only just keeping off – but we will be able to remember it each time we pass that way, as we do with some frequency.

Just as the approach of Christmas is an opportunity to reflect back on the year, so the New Year provides the inspiration to look ahead, plan new adventures and set new goals. It already looks as though we might struggle to achieve the 700 again, but whatever happens we will do our best. If we get there great; if not, great as well. After all, it’s the quality, not the quantity that counts in the end, so if we have a bit less time to go out, we will have to make the best use of it we can and plan a few more exciting trips to compensate. I’m sure, come this time next year, we will be looking back with just as much affection as now.

Anyway, after today there will be a short intermission while Christmas and New Year happens. We will be walking when we can, and have already made plans in mitigation against the forthcoming overindulgences, but this is likely to be my last post of 2011.

So, to round off this year, thanks to every one who popped by and read the blog, and an even bigger thank you to those who found the time to leave a comment – I do read them all, and your participation is much valued. I’ve enjoyed the experience immensely, and hope you have got a little pleasure from it too.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and see you again in 2012.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Winter Wonderwhen?



A quick tour of the blogosphere this morning revealed a plethora of posts on the subject of winter in all its diversity, plus one (Northernpies) on planning walks for next summer. Trust MK to be with the zeitgeist. ;-)

There are enough pictures of snowy Peak District landscapes and tales of wintry Pennine tribulations around to set the pulse racing. But, down here in the flatlands, winter seems to have barely begun. This morning’s feeble, sleety snow is the first of the year, and has already disappeared only two coffees into the day. We’ve only really had one frost worth a mention, too.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of other areas that haven’t been affected yet. And I’m equally sure there will be much more winter to come – we won’t miss out/get away with it*, that’s for certain (* delete as applicable). In fact, tempting providence like this is almost bound to guarantee a complete sod of a winter when it does finally arrive.

But I don’t mind that. True, it can make getting around a bit of a challenge, but there is nothing like a proper winter to fire the imagination when it comes to the great outdoors. In the last couple of years we seem to have been “blessed” with an abundance of winter; snows, even at these low altitudes, having first fallen weeks earlier. At least, if it stays like this, getting around over Christmas will be a bit easier.

Like I said before, I’m sure winter proper will arrive in the fullness of time. But, by way of guaranteeing a bit of snowy fun, we have made arrangements for a short break to a place where the amount of snow should be the least of our worries, unless we are incredibly unlucky, that is – which is a possibility! More on this nearer the time.

Interminable grey, rainy days – like this one here today – drain motivation and sap the spirit. Give me a bright, wintry day, with blue skies and crystal clear air above a brilliant white blanket, like the one above, any day. Like a kid who can’t wait for Christmas day, I want to wake up one morning, feel that excitement, sense the magical expectancy in the air and pull back the curtain to reveal ……

Winter!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Great Debate: Waterproof vs Breathable (Wintertime)

It’s funny how coincidences happen. I’d been thinking about posting something on this subject for a week or two, but clearly failed to get round to it. Then, a few days ago, the subject came up in a big way on a couple of other outdoor blogs.

Alan Sloman brought the topic to the fore in his blog “On Being Warm & Dry” where he discusses the merits of Paramo gear and keeping the weather at bay on even the most horrendous of days, such as we have seen recently here. Many outdoor enthusiasts had recently experienced a particularly rough weekend in the Yorkshire Dales, so it was fairly a topical discussion, too. Needless to say, the post elicited a huge mailbag of comments on the subject.

Another commentator, Alan Rayner (of A Blog On The Landscape), put his own thoughts down on the issue in his post “Waterproof Hiking Coat” (here) where he discusses the contradiction in searching for a garment that is both 100% waterproof and 100% breathable. Both articles are well worth a read.

So, ever keen (and unashamed!) to jump on a bandwagon, here are a few of my own thoughts.

Layering & Breathability

Based upon a couple of comments in earlier threads, I had already put the feelers out for a bit of feedback on one of the walking forums (here) to get some idea of the opinions and experiences of regular walkers of all types, but coming at it from a slightly different angle – that of layering.

I was beginning to wonder whether there may be a little confusion developing between the terms layering and breathability and the part each might play in the ability to control our temperature and wear climate in strenuous conditions.

In simple terms, Layering describes the use of various clothing layers to perform different functions in regulating your temperature and protecting you from the elements. Typically, this takes the form of a wicking base layer to move sweat away from the skin, a mid layer (or layers) for insulation purposes and an outer layer for protection against the elements. Breathability describes the layers’ subsequent ability to deal with the build up of that sweat.

Having said that, breathability alone will not compensate for wearing too many layers – often, layers have to added or subtracted to get the right combination for the prevailing conditions.

In Winter Conditions

It may at first seem counterintuitive, but winter is often the most testing time for gear – not just in terms of keeping the elements out, but also in respect of being able to moderate one’s temperature and, in particular, maintain breathability.

Even in wintertime you can get hot as you walk, and your body’s natural reaction to this overheating is to produce perspiration. In warm climates, this cools on the skin to help regulate body temperature. The trouble is this also happens when you work hard in cold conditions too, so sweat needs to be shifted away from the skin (to prevent over-cooling) in a process known as wicking. Wicking fabrics are always recommended for next-to-the-skin use as non-wicking materials (such as cotton) simply hold the moisture next to the skin, again resulting in over-cooling.

Next, sweat is moved through a (usually relatively) porous but insulating mid layer, such as fleece, to reach the outer protective layer and thence be transferred to the outside. However, this is where it hits a problem – the outer layer is supposed to keep the rain out from the other side! So how can a fabric let sweat out from the inside, but not let rain in from the outside? This is where a careful balancing is needed, and where the “Waterproof vs Breathable” debate really gets going.

Waterproof Fabrics

Broadly speaking there are two types of waterproof*, breathable fabric systems. First is what I will refer to as the Paramo-type of directional clothing system** (as they refer to it themselves) that claims to mimic animal fur and makes use of Nikwax Analogy technology. The second is the waterproof membrane type system exemplified by Gore-tex fabrics.

*The term waterproof suggests an absolute ie: it keeps water out full stop. While this seems a reasonable assumption on the part of  the consumer (up to a point), from the manufacturers perspective it means something different, and the term as far as they are concerned more accurately covers a span of “water resistance” determined by the ability of water to penetrate the fabric under pressure.

This is usually referred to as the hydrostatic head – and classified by how many millimetres high a column of water needs to be to force it’s way through the fabric. My understanding is that a hydrostatic head of 10,000mm is the benchmark for waterproof fabrics suitable for reliable waterproof performance in outdoor clothing.

So, as you can see, this is not an absolute. It could be improved, say to 20,000mm or more, but often criteria such as weight and/or cost and/or breathability, etc, outweigh the benefit of extra waterproofing. Well, mostly, that is.

**If what I have read is true, Paramo Nikwax Analogy fabric does not meet that 10,000mm hydrostatic head benchmark, however the technology has been lab tested and shown to repel heavy rain for several hours.

I am using “Paramo” and “Gore-tex” as generic terms for now, as there are many other “own brand” fabrics available that are as good, if not better, than the two brands mentioned above. For example, other Paramo-type systems are supplied by the likes of Furtech and Cioch whilst Gore-tex-type waterproof membranes include such fabrics as eVent, Berghaus AQ2, Aquadry, Marmot Membrane and Haglofs Proof, to name but a few. All of these have their own unique features and performance characteristics, but work in a broadly similar fashion.

Of course, each technology has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. In general terms these are perceived to be:

Paramo-type:

Pros: Quiet, comfortable, soft fabrics; good breathability; shouldn’t leak badly if pierced; robust.

Cons: Often quite heavy; can be over-warm, especially outside winter; need washing/treating regularly; can fail catastrophically, especially if the fabric is contaminated; pressure (eg: sitting down) can force water through the fabric.

Gore-tex-type:

Pros: Lighter weight; require less washing/reproofing; can be robust; several different versions – should be one to suit.

Cons: Noisy and rustly fabric; often only partially breathable; moisture can build internally; can leak; can tear.

Of course, this is not a complete list, and there are some sweeping generalisations in there (not least because there are several type of Gore-tex branded membrane fabrics alone, each with differing characteristics and pitched at differing price points).

Technology

There is quite a bit of science involved across the various technologies, brands and qualities. For the sake of simplicity, I want to steer clear of that as much as possible. However, for the scientists amongst you, most manufacturers’ websites go into some detail about the technical characteristics of their fabrics if you wish to delve further into that aspect.

But essentially it boils down to this: in both cases the base and/or mid layers move perspiration away from the skin towards the outer layer where it is dealt with by the shell.

In the case of Paramo-type products, the shell takes the form of a bi-laminate breathable fabric that is not completely waterproof, but whose waterproof qualities are enhanced by a proofing application to repel the rain such as Nikwax. Sweat is driven out through the semi-porous fabric whilst a combination of the fabric and the added proofing agent keeps any rain out. The proofing agent prevents the outer part of the laminate from wetting out so that the “pump action” of the inner part of the laminate is maintained. Remember, this is the simple version!

In the case of membrane technology, shell fabrics usually incorporate a microporous membrane sandwiched between an inner laminate and a robust outer face fabric that is often treated with a DWR coating. Warm perspiration vapour can pass through the tiny pores, but raindrops are too large to pass the other way. Coupled with the DWR coating, this is what keeps the rain at bay. However, it does also mean that liquid perspiration cannot pass through the microporous membrane, which is why such fabrics are considered less breathable than a Paramo-type fabric.

The Problem In Winter

The crux of the problem, though, is this. Both versions work best to remove perspiration build-up when the outer is dry. The trouble is, you tend to need your waterproof outer shell when it is raining.

If the rain is quite light and the duration short, it usually presents no problem. But in prolonged, heavy rain, the outer can become waterlogged (a condition referred to as “wetting out”) and sweat dispersal from inside is then seriously compromised. Once the outer is overwhelmed, it results in an accumulation of moisture on the inside of the jacket, causing the base and mid layers to wet out and produce the over-cooling effect we are trying so desperately to avoid.

This is exactly the type of situation faced in winter – rain, snow and cold work against your jacket’s ability to breathe!

Another factor that can affect the situation is this. The outer water repellent application will cause rain to bead and run off quite well at first, preventing wetting out from occurring. But, as the jacket is used, water repellence is gradually reduced as the coating is worn away through continual folding of the fabric or by abrasion, for example through contact with rucksack straps and hip-belts. Reproofing will correct this, at least for a while.

And The Winner Is ….. ?

So, is there a clear winner between these two systems?

Well, no, not really. The Paramo-type system is generally regarded as better for breathability, and when working well probably deals with sweat better than a membrane can, keeping the wearer warm and dry. The combination of outer fabric and Nikwax proofer can effectively keep rain out too.

But regular users tell me there are problems associated with this type of system.

First, under pressure – for example when sitting down, leaning on an elbow, under waterlogged rucksack straps, or in heavy rain driven by high winds – water can be forced through the fabric. The water pressure overwhelms the fabric’s ability to pump water out from inside.

Second, contamination of the fabric (say from a detergent cleaner – remember this for later!) can lead to the Nikwax not taking properly, and when this happens the proofing fails and water pours in – your protection, particularly when the water is pressurised, is effectively totally lost.

Which is a problem. Although the fabric also has some windproof properties, getting wet and cold can lead to a crucial loss of energy and, in severe cases, the onset of hypothermia.

The general guidance for cleaning this type of garment is:

1. Run the washing machine with just water to clean out any remaining detergent from the system, especially in the powder drawer.

2. Repeat if you are not sure.

3. Having ensured the machine is scrupulously clean, wash the garment in a recommended cleaner such as Nikwax Tech Wash or pure soap flakes.

4. Run the machine yet again to wash the garment in Nikwax reproofer (eg: TX Direct).

5. Tumble dry on a low heat to activate the water repellence.

6. Do this around 4 – 6 times a year.

7. As a precursor to all of this, some users (not Paramo themselves, as I understand it – do not take this as a recommendation!) wash their Paramo in detergent (remember, a suggested contaminant to be avoided!) to completely remove all traces of old proofer first, then start at point 1.

What a faff!

In the opposite corner, the Gore-tex-type membranes are generally regarded as less breathable – less able to handle the build-up of perspiration, and consequently can feel clammy against the skin – noisier and less flexible (so less comfortable to wear, according to some). They can also tear and, in extreme situations, they can leak too. And, if they do lose proofing and wet out on the outside, the already lower breathability will be reduced further, worsening the wear climate.

On the plus side, they require much less in the way of reproofing, are more easily cleaned, and often produce lighter weight, less over-warm garments. The DWR treatment generally lasts a lot longer before reproofing is needed, and the fabrics are (in most cases) more inherently water resistant if the DWR wears off.

As mentioned earlier, there are lots of different membrane fabrics, including the newer generation of more breathable, stretch waterproof fabrics, so the points I am making about them are somewhat general. However, fabrics such as eVent are regarded as being amongst the most breathable of membranes available, combating one of the main downsides of this type of technology.

It Looks Like A Tie: What Happens Next?

So, what is the solution? Well, I’m sure you’ll all be surprised to hear, there isn’t a definitive answer! In this situation, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all.

Bearing in mind we are considering specifically winter conditions, it is important to try to get that perfect blend of weatherproof and breathable – or at least to achieve the most acceptable balance between the two and which is most suited to one’s individual needs.

My Preference

For me (and this is my own, personal view – nothing else) I feel I would not want to run the risk of a complete waterproofing failure at a crucial time. Also, I am not inclined to spend a lot of time over the care/aftercare of the garment – Life’s too short, as they say – and, if you get a leak mid trip, having to reproof along the way is quite inconvenient, if not impossible.

So I have always gone down the membrane route.

I prefer a pretty “bombproof” garment too, and am happy to choose something a little heavier if I see it being tough, warm and proof against the elements – without being melodramatic, one day your life may depend on it. I also like to know, in the case of “failure”, that the membrane will keep the rain out to an extent even if it is not working properly or is compromised in some way. I can’t handle being soaked through, but I can manage being a bit damp!

Having forked out for a garment, I want it to last well, too - I am looking for a 5 to 10 year life expectancy, even under occasionally tough conditions and fairly heavy wear. In this respect I am also slightly mistrustful of the current crop of seemingly flimsy, lightweight offerings that may do what they say well enough for now, but what about long-term performance?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who questions whether we have reached the workable limits of the lightweight concept without compromising performance?

For information, I own a Rab Bergen jacket – by all accounts, and in my own experience so far, a fine jacket which I like a lot. It is quite lightweight (in grams) but it also seems possibly a bit lightweight in protection. Time will tell. I am happy to use it in the shoulder seasons, even if the forecast is not great.

But would I put my faith in it, knowing I was going to experience some unpleasant winter conditions? Not without leaning more about its capabilities in poor weather first, that’s for sure. I consider protection to be more important than sheer weight in such circumstances, and my current winter jacket of choice is an old Lowe Alpine Gore-tex model (whose name I can’t remember!) – a bit of a beast, but which has never let me down.

Conclusions

Of course, as always, it is a matter of personal opinion. What works for one, won’t necessarily work for someone else. We all have different opinions of what is acceptable in terms of the amount of care/aftercare needed, how breathable we really need a garment to be, how uncomfortable we can cope with, how hot we run, how wet or cold we will accept being, our own experiences and those of others we know.

Also, we all have different perspectives. Daywalker, LDPer, backpacker, mountaineer, fell-runner, lowland walker – all will have a slightly different view as to what constitutes the perfect jacket, depending on what best suits their needs.

Without trying to sound too yucky, I consider that I run quite hot and perspire a fair bit when walking. This does sometime lead to a build-up of moisture inside the jacket but, with a good wicking base layer, I find I don’t get cold, and have no problem in accepting a bit of a warm fug inside my clothing – the discomfort, for me, is not too great. I just want to keep the weather out.

Thinking back, when I was young we either had the choice of an old-fashioned anorak that soaked up the rain, or a racy new cagoul in which we slowly poached. Pleasant it was not. Having said that, in days of yore, walkers and mountaineers went out in tweed, wool and cotton – all sorts of unmentionable clothes that we wouldn’t be seen dead in these days (possibly literally!). Compared to those days, what I grew up with was luxury, and nowadays a little discomfort seems a small price to pay for the much-improved protection on offer.

Others, of course, may not find this state of affairs quite as acceptable, and demand more of their clothing.

My own view is that expecting to keep completely dry both from the outside and the inside when working hard (particularly in winter) is essentially unachievable, since the two problems are diametrically opposed – breathability requires the shell to be permeable in some way, whilst waterproofing prefers the shell to be more impermeable. The two attributes are working against each other – can anything breathable be FULLY waterproof, or vice versa?

I can’t say I know the answer, or even if there is an answer at all. But I do know that there is no miracle solution, and whatever you choose there is bound to be an element of compromise – the skill is finding the best blend of attributes for you.

And I also know, whatever the conclusion is, it’s fun considering it!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Hill Of The Winds: A Draughty Dales Diversion

Rather unexpectedly, and at short notice, we were once again able to spend a little time in the Yorkshire Dales. It’d been almost two months since our last trip to these parts, and after such a gap we were definitely up for another chance to walk the hills and dales of one of our favourite areas.

In fact we had been wondering when our next opportunity to head north might come about when this opportunity landed in our lap. So, not wishing to look a gift-horse in the mouth, we made a few quick phone calls, packed our gear into the car and chose to ignore the Elephant in the room - the horrendous weather forecast. After all, we were hardy souls who scoffed in the face of wind and rain, right?


It all started quite well. Our mid-morning arrival coincided with a bit of a weather window, so we opted for a quick walk round Barbon – just enough to blow the cobwebs away and work up a bit of a thirst – before by popping in to the Barbon Inn to support the local economy. So far, so determined.


Stepping outside again afterwards, the rain had returned and we proceeded to get wet on the outside, too. So we hatched a plan to drive up to Sedbergh while the skies cleared, then take an easy walk along the river. But by the time we got there the rain was falling in thick sheets, blown horizontally by the wind. The prospect of a severe drenching was unappealing, and our resolve crumbled. “Tomorrow”, we said, “We’ll do the tough stuff tomorrow”.

What remained of the day was spent ambling round the shops. Since most of these supplied outdoor gear, books or tea and cakes, it wasn’t all bad. As the last remaining light faded away, we drove out through Dentdale (taking care to avoid some large patches of standing water) and checked into our B&B. We were relieved to be inside at last, looking forward to a convivial evening with our hosts. Later still, sitting in front of an open fire with a large glass of red wine to hand, I could hear the rain lashing against the window, glad of a solid roof over our heads.

Next morning we woke to clearer skies. There was still some rain about, but of a more showery kind than before, with broken cloud instead of the dark grey sheet of yesterday. Today was to be a notable day. One of the statistics we have kept about our walking for a number of years is an annual total – how far we have walked together each year in a boots-and-rucksacks-on basis. Usually that would be around 650 miles, with our best year being 670 miles in 2009.


Today would be the day we surpassed that total, and we wanted to do something a bit special to mark the occasion. So a quick circuit over Pen-y-Ghent – out by the Three Peaks route and back by the Pennine Way – seemed to fit the bill perfectly, with a few summit photos to serve as a reminder of the occasion.


Of course, things didn’t quite go according to plan. Once more ignoring the omens – after all, one interpretation of the name Pen-y-Ghent is “Hill of the Winds” – we parked up in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, booted up, and set off along the lane towards Brackenbottom Farm, from where a direct route follows the line of a dry-stone wall all the way to the ridge.


As we began the climb, wind-driven rain slewed across the dale from behind us, and we hastily battened down the hatches. It soon cleared a little, though, and we could begin to appreciate the surrounding views.


By the time we reached the ridge and joined the Pennine Way route we were experiencing strong winds. Forecasts had indicated gusts of up to 50 mph, and it felt like every bit of that as we were buffeted to and fro. A few metres short of the summit we paused to consider our situation – the path was narrow with a steep drop to the side, and the strength of the wind was knocking us from side to side. Just as we did so, I was knocked off my feet by a strong gust and ended up in a heap on the ground, a couple of feet from the edge. Decision made – if the wind could knock my 14st plus over, Missyg was in some real danger of being blown away altogether! It was time to go back down.



We retraced our steps past other walkers doggedly making their way up, hoping they would be OK. We took our souvenir photos by the Pennine Way fingerpost – one each, there was no one else around – then retreated to a more sheltered spot for a drink and a snack.


Back in the village, the bright sunshine and clear skies appeared so benign it was hard to imagine the buffeting we had just taken, and we began to wonder whether we had backed off too soon. But no, we had felt uncomfortable – and in any case, the hill will be there next time.


Low level walking might seem to be a far more down-to-earth pastime – in more ways than one, perhaps – but discretion is the better part of valour. So we headed back over the watershed into Dentdale for an amble along the upper reaches of valley, a gentle stroll to round off an excellent weekend.


So, mission accomplished. We passed our milestone, beat our personal best and had our own little victory. And we had done so in a memorable way. We had our photos and we had our story to tell, and we had had a great time doing so.

Just not quite the way we had planned.

Jack Wolfskin Atmosphere Softshell £75 - 15/4/11

The Jack Wolfskin Atmosphere Softshell jacket is a slightly unusual offering from an outdoor brand many will have heard of, but few may have used. Despite the English-sounding name they are, in fact, a German-based supplier, offering a wide range of products from clothing to rucksacks, tents to sleeping bags, and boots to baselayers. Their catalogue is a work of beauty: shot in the most stunning of locations, it contains gear-porn suitable for only the highest of top shelves.


Unsurprisingly given their location, much of the gear has a distinctly Alpine slant, covering expedition ski touring and mountaineering, as well as hiking and trekking in colder conditions. Because of that it’s often intended to be quite warm kit, and is not always ever so lightweight, but the range has distinct summer and winter collections, and there are definitely occasions when they have something more suited to the typical UK climate, particularly amongst the summer offering.

The Atmosphere Softshell is part of a growing lightweight collection that JW are now developing. Of course, the term “softshell” means different things to different people, including manufacturers, so any definition is likely to be rather vague. However, broadly speaking, it describes a garment occupying the middle ground between a fleece and a waterproof jacket – more weatherproof than the former yet more breathable than the latter, and with a degree of windproofing and/or stretch, too. The confusion comes in trying to work out where inside that particular square a product is positioned. The one thing they are not, though, is a substitute for a proper waterproof hardshell.


Another cause for confusion is the complexity of fabrics available, most of which are some type of laminated hybrid (with fabrics of differing attributes bonded together) with products often utilising two or more different fabrics in any one garment. Nowadays it is possible to buy anything from what is effectively a waterproof-treated fleece to a stretchy hardshell, and anything in between. And, as different activities call for different characteristics and features, the range of options is bewildering. Consequently, prices range between about £25 and £250! Somewhere out there will be a product with precisely the right characteristics for you. Finding it, however, may be far from easy!

But back to the Atmosphere Softshell. For some time, I had been on the lookout for a garment to do a specific job: a thin, lightweight layer, suitable for wearing over a wicking T-shirt or baselayer, for use on generally warm days if the temperature dropped a fraction. It’s surprising (to me at least) just how often such conditions can occur – early or late in the day, hitting a cool breeze on a ridge, finding the shady side of the hill, or it simply clouding over. A fleece, even a light 100gsm weight version, can still be a bit too warm in such circumstances, whilst a Microgrid top (much as I love ‘em) does not quite have the same venting options. So, when I first saw this product advertised, I was intrigued. Was this the very garment I’d been looking for?

Tracking one down proved a bit elusive – stockists are few and far between – but eventually I found one, and a couple of days later it arrived at my front door. Here are a few basic details:

· 290g, so lightweight and packable

· Full length 2-way offset main zip

· 2 Raised pockets with mesh lining

· Breathable stretch fabric (Flex Shield X-Lite DWR)

· Articulated sleeves

· Elasticated cuffs and hem drawcord

At 290g (as claimed in the technical spec and verified by my electronic scales) the Atmosphere Softshell certainly ticks the box for lightweight. OK, there are lighter garments – a gossamer-thin windproof layer for ultra-runners might now tip the scales at under 100g – but this is a perfectly respectable weight for a jersey-type material, especially considering the full length main zip and two pocket zips.

The fabric itself – JW’s own Flex Shield X-Lite DWR – is a highly breathable, stretchy 100% Polyester fabric with wind resistant properties and a DWR water repellent finish, all of which are ideal characteristics for a typical softshell fabric.


The main zip, a standard 2-way affair, is offset, supposedly to avoid bunching at the neck in a layering system. I’m not sure if that is a real problem that has been solved, but, although it feels slightly odd at first, I’ve not found anything detrimental about it yet. It works smoothly and can easily be adjusted to permit the correct airflow.


The two raised chest pockets are simple enough, and are positioned high enough so as not to be fouled by a rucksack hip-belt. The pockets are lined with mesh, so they can be left open as additional venting if required, and both are plenty big enough to take an OS map.


In use, the jacket is pretty comfortable, albeit quite close-fitting in the body, with a hem drawcord for adjustment.


Ventilation, a key requirement in my choice, is good, either by rolling up the sleeves, using the main, 2-way zip or opening the two mesh-lined pockets – I find I use these quite a lot to vent excess body heat away. There is even a mesh lining to the collar to aid venting as well.


Elsewhere, to keep the weight down, the jacket is unlined, has minimal features and uses as few seams as possible.


This is the point where I try to describe where in the square of wind resistance, water repellence, breathability and comfort this particular softshell sits. Although moisture can build up when walking hard, the fabric handles this quite well, and breathability is generally very good. It resists light drizzle for a few minutes, drying off quickly afterwards, but wouldn’t be proof against anything heavier or more prolonged, and there are no storm flaps to protect the zips. Wind resistance is quite good – it will keep a cool breeze at bay but won’t keep a gale out.

So, as part of a layering system in warmer weather, it slots in very neatly – as an outer layer in slightly cool conditions or a mid layer if it gets colder, windier or wetter, when a waterproof hard shell can be added. In short, slotting nicely between a base layer and a mid layer in weight, pretty much what I was hoping for.

If I had one slight criticism it would be it isn’t perhaps the most stylish of garments. It’s quite an odd garment, too – neither fish nor fowl, you might say – being quite good at several things without being very good at any of them. However, that may be the lot of the softshell – to forever be a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none. Whatever, it certainly makes for a versatile product.

The acid test, though, is this: can it stand up to the rigours of a trekking trip? I must admit I had my doubts if it would be tough enough, given the low weight. But I needn’t have worried – a weeks’ trekking in Corsica provided a real test, which it came through fine. The zips are very solid, as is the stitching at the seams – something to be aware of when carrying a 9kg pack for a week – the only discernable damage being a little bit of pilling under the rucksack hip-belt buckle.

In summary, I think this is a decent bit of kit, although it probably won’t be to everyone’s taste and seems to be a very niche-market product. Having said that, I think it definitely has a place in a warm weather layering system and, as it packs down so small, it is no bother to have on hand just in case. As it is quite small, light and versatile it is a good option for a multi-day trip. Long-term durability may yet be an issue, though, and I wouldn’t recommend it for a longer backpacking tour if it were to be worn all day, every day under a sizeable pack.

Pros: Low weight, packable, build quality, elasticated cuff adjustment, venting pockets, breathability, all day comfort, versatility.

Cons: Not very stylish colour, offset front zip, not as water repellent or wind resistant as some (heavier) jackets, long-term durability question, jack-of-all-trades.

Comfort: 7/10
Performance: 7/10
Value: 7/10

Overall: 21/30

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Review: Rab Bergen Hardshell Jacket £125 – 22/6/11



As we all know, the British weather can be a contrary thing; fine and sunny one moment, pouring with rain the next, and with the ability to flip flop from one to the other at barely a moments’ notice. “Four seasons in one day” may be an overused epithet the world over, but here in good old Blighty, three in a day is both a frequent and not unexpected occurrence.

I found this out for myself on a two-day outing in the Peak District one wet weekend in June. A late check of the forecast before setting out had encouraged me to take both my summer and winter waterproofs, which may have added a bit of extra weight to my pack but also added to my options. Good job too, as over the next two days the skies subjected me to almost every conceivable type of weather possible, including warm sun, heavy rain and even stormy sleet! (See here & here).

What I learned from this was two things: one, be prepared, and two, have the right gear. My summer waterproof might be cool and light, but it didn’t keep out prolonged heavy rain (not that I expected it to), whereas my winter waterproof might keep the weather at bay no problem, but it’s really a bit too warm and bulky for summer use. What I really needed was something in between.

Ideally, that would be a jacket that covered the middle ground; light enough for use in warm, rainy conditions but robust and waterproof enough for keeping worse weather out too, should it happen along. Also, it would need to be comfortable worn over a wicking T-shirt in warm weather yet roomy enough to accommodate a mid layer or fleece when the mercury dropped.

I did as much research as I could (see here) tried on various options and arrived at my choice: a Rab Bergen. Since it’s delivery in early July, it has already been quite a few miles with me. But, thanks to a largely dry summer and autumn, for most of them it’s been in my pack – an observation, not a complaint! However, there have been occasions when it has been pressed into service, particularly in the last couple of weeks, so it is only now that I feel I can justifiably offer my initial review.

Rab describe the Bergen as a waterproof and breathable hill and mountain walking jacket, a stalwart of their range for several years that should offer all-year-round protection. They also claim that in it’s latest incarnation it has been cut slightly longer and been beefed up round the arms and shoulders for extra durability – more of which later. These are the specifications for the Bergen according to the Rab website:

· Constructed from midweight eVent® 3 layer fabric in the torso
· Heavyweight eVent® 3 layer fabric in arms and shoulders
· Articulated elbows
· Protective hood with volume adjustment cords, wired peak and roll down tab
· 2 A-line chest pockets with water resistant zips
· Pocket rain drain points
· Internal zipped mesh pocket
· 2-way YKK front zip with double storm flap and rain drain
· Easy open velcro fastened external front zip storm flap
· Laminated velcro cuff tabs, and adjustable waist and hem drawcords
· Long cut
· 610g so still lightweight and packable

As mentioned at the outset, I have had little chance to test the jacket in really bad weather. Having said that, when I have had to resort to it, it has kept the rain out fine. It’s certainly lightweight: as measured on my electronic scales at home it came in at only 532g – interestingly considerably under what is claimed on the Rab website.

The reason for this – I think – is that I have the previous incarnation of the Bergen, which I have seen credited with a similar weight. Where I think the weight has been “saved” is that this version does not perhaps benefit from the extra length and beefed-up fabric around the arms and shoulders mentioned above, although I stand to be corrected on that!


Anyhow, it was bought in the sale, and I have no quibbles about what I bought and the price I paid for it having tried it on first. I mention it simply to warn others to check thoroughly what they are buying especially in sales and doubly so if you are buying mail order and not seeing the garment first – the lesson being that although the name may stay pretty much the same from season to season, the specification might well alter!

Having said that, this lighter version actually suits me better as it is closer to what I was looking for. It does pack down quite small, but the well-stiffened peak means it’s not quite as compressible as it might otherwise be.


The hood is pretty good. The wired peak helps keep rain off the face (really handy if you wear glasses) and there are drawcord adjustments at the rear and at the chin to help achieve a neat fit. When fully done up, the chin guard comes up to around the mouth and, as it isn’t fleece-lined, it doesn’t snag on your stubble/beard (this is the men’s version – I can’t speak for the ladies!). But best of all it hasn’t been designed to fit over a climbing helmet like most modern technical jackets (hurrah!) so it’s not way too big, and when cinched to you’re are not left peering out of a pokey little hole.


The pockets seem very good, too. The inner, zipped mesh pocket is a fairly standard affair, suitable – I would say – for keys or a cereal bar but not for electrical items that might be sensitive to moisture as it could easily wet-out from the inside if you are working hard. The two A-line pockets are plenty large enough for a map or guidebook and are sited at chest height – high enough that they remain unobstructed by a rucksack hip-belt. Both have water resistant zips backed by a small storm flap and with a guard at the top, and these have not let any rain in so far.


The main zip, in contrast, is a standard 2-way YYK zip but with a double storm flap to prevent water ingress – around 4cm wide for the outer one and 5cm for the internal one. It may well be that this is necessary to keep driving rain out – I don’t know, I haven’t tried it in a hooley yet – but it seems a bit over the top. I reckon it could be narrower, because, on the downside, it makes the main zip a bit of a fiddle to operate, and if you are wearing it with the hood down and the zip open for ventilation there is quite a bit of fabric to flap about (added to because the chin guard is quite high, too).


There is also a popper at the top and bottom of the storm flap, plus no less than five strips of Velcro to hold it down. It might all be necessary to keep water out, but again it seems a tad over-elaborate – and, as anyone who has struggled with it in a gale knows, Velcro is both a blessing and a curse!


The cuffs are very neat with good adjustment. This is one of those occasions where Velcro really does seem to help get a good fit – especially considering the wide variation in thickness of wrist, number of layers worn, and watch size. The flexibility of the e-Vent fabric certainly helps in getting a neat fit with no uncomfortable bunching.


Regardless of which version I actually have, the e-Vent fabric used has a lovely, maleable feel which, whilst seeming fairly thin, feels pretty robust, too, with the high wear areas additionally strengthened. This is, in part, because of the high build-quality – nothing less than expected with a high-end brand like Rab – but the two features together certainly bring dividends. The inner layer is smooth, so that it’s comfortable to wear and slips on and off easily as well, whilst articulated sleeves mean that movement is not restricted at all.


In terms of breathability, the jacket seems fine. Although I have yet to really put it to the test, for instance by climbing a steep hill in the pouring rain, it seems to handle the build up of internal moisture pretty well. But whether it does it better than an equivalent Gore-tex product, I couldn’t yet say. It’s also quite windproof, and I have no qualms about using it for that purpose, even if it’s not raining – I quite like a shell I can wear all day whether wet or dry.

Overall I think this is a good jacket, but one that could be made better with a few of the wrinkles ironed out. Most of the niggles are very minor, and might not bother other users at all. However, I think it only fair to point them out – they may just as easily be annoying to other wearers. For me, the added reinforcement and length of the latest version is no real benefit, although it may be if you expect to use it more for winter walking or under a heavy backpack. It will be interesting to see how the fabric stands the test of time coping with prolonged, heavy use, as it does seem quite thin. Time will tell.

In summary, I think for £125 it is a good jacket. Whether I would feel the same if I’d paid the full whack of £200 for it, I don’t know.

Pros: Low weight, packable, decent hood, flexible fabric, neat cuff adjustment, pockets, well made, easy on and off, comfortable enough to walk in all day.

Cons: Too much Velcro, main zip tricky to operate, too much fabric in the storm flap and around the chin and hood when the hood is down.

Comfort: 7/10
Performance: 8/10
Value: 8/10 (at the price paid).

Overall: 23/30

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Long Mynd & Golden Valley From Bridges – approx 9.25 miles

Sunday 13th November 2011

The Long Mynd & Golden Valley From Bridges – approx 9.25 miles

Map:

Ordnance Survey Explorer OL217 – The Long Mynd & Wenlock Edge

Route Summary:

Bridges – Coates Farm – Medlicott – Medlicott Cottage – Pole Bank – Shooting Box – Shropshire Way – Ford – The Port Way – Betchcott Hill – Golden Valley – Lower Darnford – Ratlinghope – Bridges

Services:

Bridges: Pub, Accommodation

Weather:

Fine and sunny, warm but hazy and a cool breeze on the tops.

Route:

After yesterday’s Bah! Humbuggery, today was the day when we were to get our proper reward for running the Christmas shopping gauntlet – a super walk in great countryside with a bit of peace and quiet thrown in for good measure.

The forecast was good and we had decided we wanted to explore the Long Mynd again, but this time from the quieter western side. We left the car at Bridges, following the lane southwards towards Coates Farm and slowly climbing the valley side. Before long we could see back over the village.


From here, we could have taken the Shropshire Way over Adstone Hill – something we might do next time we do this circuit – but today we opted for the simpler route and kept following the lane, which is, in itself, a pleasant walk because the countryside is so fantastic.


Although it seems churlish to say so – it is November after all – the only drawback was that we were walking southwards, and the bright sun washed out the distant views to the Kerry Ridgeway beyond. From Medlicott, a hamlet consisting of barely more than a farm and a house or two, the route began to steepen as we made a more direct assault on the hillside.
 
 
Beyond Medlicott Cottage the track became rougher but the gradient relented a little and the summit ridge was within striking distance.
 
 
We were now getting more expansive views, but conditions were hazy especially to the south and west – Corndon Hill was barely more than an outline and even the nearby Stiperstones were all shape and no detail.
 

Last time we had walked this way, over this year’s Easter weekend, we did so in the opposite direction – nearing the end of day two of a 3-day route (described here). It’s surprising how different it felt this time – approaching from a different direction, at a different time of day and in a different season – although on both occasions it was unusually warm and sunny for the time of year.

On reaching the main ridge we took a slight detour to Pole Bank, the high point of the Long Mynd. We stopped for a coffee break and something to eat, watching as a steady stream of walkers and cyclists passed us by. I mentioned earlier about the west side being the quiet side of the Long Mynd (and will do so again later!) but it really is true, access and infrastructure from the Stretton side being so much more comprehensive.

But despite the relative crowds, a walk along the top is worth it because the views are superb. Even though it was hazy, the sight of rank upon rank of Housman’s “blue remembered hills” is more than enough to draw a wistful gaze.


Leaving Pole Bank, we walked north along the ridge picking up the line of an ancient prehistoric route, the Port Way. Like others in the area, it is referred to as a ridgeway and keeps to the high ground – in Neolithic times, when the surrounding countryside was more heavily wooded, these high trade routes were safer and avoided multiple river crossings. Later, many became used as drove roads.


Beyond the turn for Carding Mill Valley, things began to quieten down again. We continued to follow the Port Way, which now forms part of the well-marked Shropshire Way, turning northwest towards Betchcott Hill and suddenly leaving the moor for more agricultural land. Once again, we were on our own.


A low bank made the ideal place for another stop, so we did – eating the rest of our lunch and lingering over our coffee. In the distance we could see the northernmost tail of the Stretton Hills and the flat plain beyond. In better light, we may have been able to see the high ground of the Peak District.


Closer at hand was the valley of Darnford Brook, our next objective, surrounded by some of Shropshire’s most iconic hills.


Moving on again, we passed over the top of Betchcott Hill then – keeping to the Shropshire Way – left the Port Way, and dropped down, steeply at first, into Golden Valley.


By now, early afternoon, the sun was surprisingly warm, and the drop into the shelter of the valley had us rapidly shedding layers. In the glorious autumn light the valley looked more like the lower sections of a Pennine clough than of the Marches.


The path followed Darnford Brook, keeping a line a little way up the valley side. The going was easy, and gradually we descended to the wooded riverbank.


Before long, we had reached the lane and wandered the final few yards, past the Youth Hostel, back into Bridges. I said I’d do this, so here goes: this really is the quiet side of the Mynd. Between leaving the moorland and reaching Bridges we didn’t see a soul. But don’t go telling anyone about it, will you? Otherwise I might just have to kill you.

Now for the final part of our reward: the pub in Bridges has had a chequered recent history. At one time it was a well-loved venue, then it became subject to intermittent opening hours and an unusual concept of customer service that resulted in it closing down two or three years back. The good news is it is now open again, restored to it’s former glory; the better news is that it has been done by the Three Tuns Brewery and serves their superb range of beers.

To be able to sit outside after a wonderful walk in the sunshine, supping a fine pint of Ale in November – rewards don’t get much better than that! I might even be able to face up to more Christmas sho …….

Oh, no;  hang on a sec. Let’s not get carried away, eh?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Harley’s Mountain From Lingen – approx 5.25 miles

Saturday 12th November 2011

Harley’s Mountain From Lingen – approx 5.25 miles

Map:

Ordnance Survey Explorer OL201 – Knighton & Presteigne

Route Summary:

Lingen – Herefordshire Trail – Mynde Farm – Mountain Buildings – Harley’s Mountain – The Ashes – Upper House – Lane – Lingen

Services:

Lingen: Pub

Weather:

Overcast with occasional sunny patches.

Route:

Christmas – don’t you just love it? No, me neither. But every year there it is, staring you in the face as if daring you to dislike it. And every year, I do – dislike it, that is. As autumn fades and the days get shorter and shorter, it can signal only one thing – the annual ritual that is Buying Presents.

Nowadays, Buying Presents is somewhat easier than it used to be. Thanks to the Internet, it is possible to divorce the “experience” from the “shopping experience”, at least for some of the time, avoiding almost all human (?) contact and thus preserving dangerously depleted levels of sanity and/or patience. But even those who refuse to sacrifice an entire income on the altar of Christmas avarice have, sooner or later, to face the prospect of Going To The Shops.

I know, I know; you’re not the only one – my knees are trembling, too. Saturdays at the shopping centre is my idea of hell on Earth. And queuing to get into the shops: what’s that all about? Waiting in line for half an hour only to find that instead of an exciting visit to the Outdoor Mountain Discount Megastore, you are, in fact, about to enter New Look.

So it was that a couple of years ago we came up with a rather wizard wheeze. Pick a town – any town – with some nice shops (not just the type filled with the usual overpriced, gimmicky tat) that is, crucially, near to some good walking country.

Now I’ll hazard a guess that you know where this is going already but, if not, here’s the plan. Choose your town, book the Saturday night away, do your Christmas shopping first then reward yourself with a nice walk when it’s all done! Somewhere like Bakewell or Ambleside or Settle, for example, would do just nicely. Or, in this instance: Ludlow.


OK, so we didn’t have much time left on the Saturday after completing the shopping, but there was still a couple of hours daylight to work with as we pulled into a parking space in the small village of Lingen.


As this was a relatively unfamiliar area, I’d worked out a little circuit taking in part of the Herefordshire Trail – a 150+ mile waymarked circuit round the county – over the intriguingly named Harley’s Mountain (apparently named after a local family who also give their name to Harley Street) returning via quiet lanes.


Setting out we first crossed a couple of fields and a muddy track before starting to climb out of the valley, pausing briefly for a coffee stop whilst perched on the treads of a very new stile.


Continuing, we soon passed Mynde Farm where we were greeted by a quartet of noisy, excited dogs, one of which had one brown eye and one blue eye and proved quite friendly.


The somewhat taciturn farmer, however, neither spoke nor returned our wave, simply choosing to glare at us instead. Miserable bastard.


Still climbing, albeit gently, we crossed a couple of fields and passed a run-down farmstead marked on the map as Mountain Buildings. Further fields followed. Most were sparsely grassed with new growth, with little sign of human passage: this may be a well-marked trail but appears, at least in this part, lightly walked.


With a tall hedge to our left, we followed a clearer track along the field head and gradually reached the brow of the hill. To our right stood the trig point, off the path and not obviously on Access Land. So we bypassed it, choosing instead to look at the hills to the north and west illuminated by patchy sunlight and intermittent blue skies.


Before long, we reached a sunken track and followed it as it dropped gently towards a narrow lane. Here we left the Herefordshire Trail, and wandered slightly uphill to a crossroads where we turned left by a dilapidated chapel. The next farm held something of a surprise: even without the instruction to “Read” painted on the side of the building, the message was obvious.


With a thumbs-up, and an “Aye to that”, we carried on down the lane, bearing right at Upper House. A grassy stripe in the centre of the road clearly indicated how infrequently it was used.


A steady descent followed, and before long we were approaching Lingen once more. It’d been an easy walk but one that had proved a good introduction to an area that seems to hold much for those seeking a quieter walk. Bordering both Offa’s Dyke and Glyndwr’s Way country, this area appears to have as much to offer, but without the crowds.

A real antidote to the Christmas rush, if ever there was one.