Saturday 25 February 2012

And The Winner Is?

It’s around this time of year that all the awards are given out for music, film and TV. A flurry of Oscars, BAFTA’s, Brit Awards and Grammy’s bestowed on the great and the good – or, at least, the usual suspects and the currently in-vogue. Evening after evening of carefully planned surprise reactions, well-rehearsed impromptu speeches and fake tears: with its air of smug self-congratulation and mild sycophancy, I must confess to finding the whole business a little bit distasteful.

But it got me thinking. My faithful winter jacket (which is probably in line for a lifetime achievement award) has finally reached retirement age, and I’m in the process of looking for a suitable replacement. However, the world has moved on somewhat since last time I bought, and there is a long list of contenders for “best newcomer” – Active Shell, NeoShell, Performance Shell and Pro Shell to name but a few.

Besides that, there appears to be a new way of thinking about the various layers used, with several different types of new products available. Whether these have grown at the behest of the user or whether they are clever marketing tools to encourage us to buy more, I have yet to ascertain. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and precisely where seems hard to pin down. But there is a vast array out there: since I last bought a winter jacket a plethora of possibilities has appeared.

There are soft shells – that almost indefinable range of products that inhabit the massive grey area between fleece and hard shell, and which seem to answer to pretty much any description or application – and which come with or without a hood.

Then there are hard shells. Although there are plenty of options that will offer a high degree of waterproofing, many also seem quite thin and provide little insulation. And, now that such store is placed on breathability, some of the hydrostatic head values are not as great as might be assumed – worth checking if you are principally concerned about keeping dry in prolonged heavy rain.

Next, there’s Primaloft – an insulating fibre that maintains it’s thermal properties even when wet. Again a range of products exist, designed either to go under or over your hard shell to add warmth when necessary (although supposedly not as warm as a down jacket). A good idea, perhaps, but are these too warm to walk in?

And I haven’t even gone near the Paramo-type clothing systems. They have their supporters as well as their detractors, but I won’t be taking that route for a number of well-documented reasons. I prefer membrane fabrics.

All in all, there is a bewildering array of options that only adds to the confusion. I’m sure I’ll make some sense of it given a bit of time, and I have investigated the subject of waterproof jackets in a previous post HERE, as some of you may recall. It’s not so much the actual jacket that concerns me, more it’s about getting the best selection of garments to be as flexible as possible whilst avoiding a potentially expensive mistake.

Because there are so many options available, I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on the subject. My main considerations revolve around two main criteria – the need to keep the rain and the need to stay warm – both when walking and at rest. A new, modern waterproof jacket (if chosen well) will keep me dry and deliver a modicum of windproofing as well, but because of the drive towards lighter and more breathable fabrics (beneficial in many ways) it will not necessarily provide the level of insulation that the old one did – although it will no doubt weigh a lot less! So I think I need to reconsider my insulation layer(s) as well as my jacket in order to retain the same overall level of warmth.

I really don’t mind walking in my hard shell – it’s what I’m used to, and I’m not unduly bothered about masses of breathability. In recent years I have used the traditional set up of baselayer, fleece(s) and waterproof jacket to combat any unpleasant weather. I expect to get a bit hot under several layers when walking hard, so a bit of moisture, to me, is to be expected (within reasonable limits) – I’m not being fussy or picky about it. But we do a bit more walking these days and find ourselves facing inclement conditions a bit more frequently, so if I can find additional flexibility and functionality in my gear, then great.

What I’m hoping to hit on is a functional combination of layers that can be applied to all sorts of cooler conditions – wind, rain, snow and cold. Baselayers I have now got covered (see my recent post HERE on Uniqlo Heattech products) but beyond that I am open to suggestions on Microfleece, Fleece, Soft Shell, Hard Shell and Belay Jacket and any combination thereof.

So, with awards season in full swing, my question is this: in your experience, which of the nominations do you think deserves the award for Best Costume Design in a winter setting?

Friday 17 February 2012

Review - Yaktrax Pro Ice Grips £18

As a result of the harsher-than-average winter we experienced last year, there was a bit of a buzz amongst walkers about products such as Yaktrax, aimed at providing additional grip in slippery conditions. A fair bit of the discussion centred around which of the available options worked best and whether any of them were in fact as good as they seemed.

Described as a safety traction device, Yaktrax are designed to be worn over existing boots or shoes and provide additional grip on snowy or icy surfaces. Before I go any further I would like to make it absolutely clear that these are in no way a substitute for proper crampons and should not be considered as such. High mountain environments can be extremely dangerous places, especially in winter, and the correct equipment for the occasion, knowledge of how to use it properly and experience of such conditions are prerequisites.

I decided to choose Yaktrax over other available options since they were inexpensive and easier to handle than crampons or microspikes. Also, compared to other designs for similar products, the effective part (in this case the coils) covered the whole length of the foot, not just under the instep, so providing traction towards the heel and toe as well – much better for maintaining grip throughout the roll of the normal walking motion.

There are two versions of Yaktrax available – the Walker and the Pro. The Walker is aimed predominantly at general round town walking whilst the Pro is more suitable for running, jogging or other outdoor activities. It’s a slightly beefier version than the Walker, with stronger coils and a removable retaining strap that fits over the top of the footwear for extra security, and is ideal on packed snow and ice.

Below is a summary of the main features of the Pro version (taken from their website but edited by me to be more concise):

· Made from an injection moulded thermal plastic elastomer.

· 1.4mm high-strength, abrasion resistant coils

· 70% recycled metal protected against rust.

· 360° traction thanks to the distinct coil pattern.

· Easy on and off.

· Removable retaining strap for extra security.

· Light weight (145g - 155g per pair, depending on size).

· Conforms to your shoe/boot size.

· Every step places hundreds of biting edges in direct contact with the ice.

· Can be worn in temperatures as low as -40°C (-41°F).

Yaktrax are fitted by stretching them over your footwear and fastening the retaining strap. There are instructions on the box and they are conveniently labeled to show which end is for the toe and which for the heel. There are four sizes available to fit a whole range of boot/shoe sizes from UK4 to UK14, so it’s easy to get the right fit. Size medium fits my size 8½ boots nice and snugly.

A week in the Austrian Alps provided the ideal opportunity to trial them in a real-life situation. Conditions were a fair test – snow and ice on the ground and temperatures as low as –13°C. Our walking was mainly on roads and forestry tracks (with occasional stretches of groomed footpaths) generally with relatively gentle gradients.

Fitting the Yaktrax was a simple job, doable in under a minute with a little practice – just hook them over the toe of your boot, stretch them over the heel, adjust the sides and fasten the strap. Removing them was even easier. Because there are no points or sharp edges to contend with there is very little chance of snagging any clothing. They can be thrown in the rucksack without any need for protection and because of their compact size and low weight (mine come in a few grams below the stated weight) they are perfect for carrying “just in case”.

In use, the Yaktrax Pro proved surprisingly effective, ideally suited to the mix of ice and compacted snow we regularly encountered (and which can be seen in the accompanying photographs). They were very comforable to wear, compact, low in weight, and unconstrictive of the foot. Best of all, no adjustment was required to one’s usual gait to avoid damage or tripping – just put them on and walk as normal. The retaining strap definitely added extra security, especially on steeper ground as there was no chance of the foot sliding out under stress.

The coils bit easily into ice and snow giving much more grip than boots alone and providing a lot more security on slippery surfaces. Traction was noticably improved – a great energy saver over several hours of walking and a valuable asset on uphill sections. There was also a benefit on downhill sections too, where they were good at preventing your feet from slipping out from underneath you. A word of warning, though: in areas of clear ground they are better removed to prevent damage to the coils, and they should not be worn indoors.

It’s probably fair to say that snow shoes would be a better option in deeper snow, as would crampons in steeper, icier conditions – they are never going to be a substitute for either of those – and there are certainly times when a product like Kahtoola Microspikes would be a more suitable proposition. And once or twice we encountered patches of very hard, smooth ice to which these more technical solutions would be better suited – a step too far for the Yaktrax.

However, on the type of ground for which they have been designed – perhaps 80% of what we encountered – the Yaktrax Pro proved a valuable addition to our winter kit: effective, compact and easily carried. They are a real boon on a trip such as our Austria jaunt, and can easily be slipped into a rucksack pocket if you think you might encounter the odd snowy patch when out and about.

And, at this price, what’s not to like?

Comfort: 9/10
Performance: 8/10
Value: 10/10

Overall: 27/30

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Uniqlo Heattech Long Sleeve T Shirt & Long Johns £18 (set)

You might not have come across these before, but stick with this review and see what I made of them – you might well be surprised! My set is black, but the images from the Uniqlo website show the items in Dark Grey.

There comes a time in every gear reviewer’s life when he has to broach that most delicate of subjects: undergarments. A sensitive issue, indeed – in more ways than one – and one that stirs up plenty of passion and not a little debate amongst the outdoors fraternity.

Back in the day, such garments went by a variety of names – vest, pants, long johns, combs, to name just a few – but seem now to be categorised under the general heading of baselayers. Although such items can be worn year-round, to me a baselayer is essentially a winter requirement, worn primarily to boost warmth (and with the added advantage of making waterproof trousers more comfortable to wear) and usually consisting of a separate top and leggings.

An imminent trip to the Austrian Alps and the prospect of some serious sub-zero temperatures had me reaching for my old long johns. Besides being well used and very slightly dingy, these are made from less-than-technical materials which, when used for high intensity aerobic activity, tend to hold on to moisture and rapidly develop what is known in the trade as a whiff.

So I set about searching for alternatives. Broadly speaking, there appear to be 4 main fabric types to consider: wool, silk, bamboo and synthetic (or blends/versions thereof). Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn:

Wool: This is usually high quality Merino wool (or sometimes wool blend) famed for its qualities of softness, breathability and temperature regulation. The main features of this natural product are its wicking properties, good insulation, odour resistance and warmth when wet. A typical price range for such products is in the region of £100 to £125 per set. Example brands include Icebreaker, Chocolate Fish and Smartwool.

Silk: A hypoallergenic natural material (so good for sensitive skin) credited with great all-year-round temperature management properties, breathability, low bulk and a nice, smooth feel, that will wick moisture away from the skin. Not as widely used amongst walkers as by climbers and skiers. Price range £60 to £70 per set. Example brand: Patra.

Bamboo: A relatively new natural fabric, bamboo is breathable, hypoallergenic, soft on the skin, anti-static and comfortable to wear, with great wicking and anti-odour properties, temperature management and a silky feel. It also ticks a number of boxes as far as sustainability is concerned, too. Price range £50 to £75 per set. Example brands include Bamboo Clothing, Trekmates.

Synthetic: Made from a range of man-made fibres usually based around synthetic fibres such as Polyester, Polypropylene and Elastane. Characteristics include excellent wicking properties, non-pilling fabrics, good shape retention and easy-wash, rapid drying qualities. Criticism often includes a noticeable build-up of odours, hence the moniker “smelly Helly’s”. Price range £25 to £55 per set. Example brands include Helly Hansen, Quechua and Adidas.

Looking through these options provided much food for thought, so I set about narrowing the field down a bit. Wool I discounted fairly early on – although there are many who rave about the performance of Merino garments (and other natural fibre versions) because of their ability to retain warmth when wet and their inherent anti-odour properties. I am not fond of wool as it has a habit of irritating my skin, and I’m buggered if I’m paying a three-figure sum for a set of undies! Research had shown a broadly favourable opinion of silk and bamboo, and I was interested in exploring this avenue further, although the £60 - £70 price tag was again off-putting. As for synthetic options, I had hoped to avoid these if possible, mostly because of their smelly reputation – not good on a multi-day trek.

As I was pondering these options, Missyg came wandering home with a set she had found in Uniqlo featuring Heattech technology from Japan. Here’s what they said about them:

· Material: 40% Acrylic / 33% Polyester / 21% Viscose / 6% Elastane

· Heat Generation – When Heattech absorbs body moisture the movement of tiny droplets actually helps to generate heat to keep you warm.

· Heat Retention – Air pockets between the fibres retain body warmth and the warmth generated by Heattech’s moisture absorption.

· Anti-odour – Special fabric processing adsorbs and neutralizes the source of odours such as perspiration.

· Odour Control – A special antibacterial agent helps to minimize odours.

· Stretchable Comfort – Heattech stretches to give a perfect fit and maximise comfort.

· Quick Dry – Fabric wicks away and quickly dries moisture, perspiration dries instantly so the fabric remains dry and refreshing.

· Anti-static – Thanks to its moisture retention properties, the fibre reduces discomfort from static electricity especially when putting on or taking off the garment.

· Non-deforming – Highly resilient and durable, Heattech maintains its shape even after repeated washing.

At only £18 the set (reduced from about £25 full price) if they did only a fraction of what was claimed on the packaging they would be fine. If not? Well, it wasn’t too expensive a mistake. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating.

First time on, and they felt good straight away. The fabric is quite thin with a good degree of stretch (thanks to the elastane), but both items felt robust, well made and built to last. The top, a crew neck in this case, is not too tight round the neck (which personally I prefer) whilst a light cuff at the wrist means you can pull the sleeves up if you like safe in the knowledge they will stay put. The long johns have a similar cuff at the ankle, whilst the waistband is both substantial yet comfortable. They also have a fly for ease of use. Size large was perfect for my 35” waist / 42” chest / 5’10” frame.

In use these performed remarkably well, remaining comfortable under waterproof trousers and an assortment of fleeces and a shell jacket. Not once did I experience any discomfort due to rucking, riding up or static. Conditions were cold (down to -13°C at one stage) so plenty of layers were required. Yet prolonged uphill walking produced plenty of perspiration on occasion, which the Heattech baselayers handled effortlessly. Temperature management was excellent, too – never once did I feel any chills due to over-cooling or any overheating when entering a well-warmed room.

To fully test the odour control properties, I decided to wear them on consecutive days until the pong became too much for polite company. Remarkably, given the high intensity and sweaty nature of walking uphill through snow, I was able to wear these for an entire week (walking 5-6 hours every day for 7 days) and they were still reasonably fresh when pulled from the laundry bag on our return – and could even have been worn again in public!

In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet, I am seriously impressed with these and reckon they can give products three or four times the price a good run for their money. They have now been washed – gently, by hand and with no fancy treatments or wash-ins – and still look pretty good. All that remains now is to check this performance doesn’t deteriorate too rapidly. I’ll post an update after giving them a longer-term test, but for now these must rate as one of my best purchases ever. A brilliant bit of kit – I can’t find a single point on which to mark these down!

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

Overall: 30/30

Reading Matters

For those who may be interested, I have been busy updating my reading list.

Alongside the fiction books listed there are a number of other tomes on outdoor-related subjects such as walking, climbing, history, travel and adventure. For each of these I have included a few lines of comment.

Please click on the "books" tab for a closer look.