Penultimate blog post for 2011 – Rab MeCo, Choc Fish merino, Helly Hansen, Powermonkey Explorer and a Merrell jacket.

The joys of backpacking eh? Not always like this mind.

It’s that time of year when we head out for the end of year sales and pick up bargains or we’ve come into some cash from Christmas and intend to splash out on new gear for the great outdoors.

Well, if you’re interested here’s a list of gear I’ve been using recently or over the past year which I think are worth considering….and unashamedly so. The manufacturers or retailers involved (except one because I actually bought it) have all kindly donated the kit for long term testing. In all honesty, despite some misgivings the kit has performed brilliantly and it’s been hard trying to be critical of them in a fair and objective manner when they’re all really rather good.

Alas, some of you will know what I already think of some products below via my ramblings on Twitter. From time to time I comment on gear I’m using when out in the field so a number of thoughts may not come as any surprise to some of you.

So, to read more of my penultimate blog post of 2011 – clickety click on…..

Nice scenery – shame I spoil the pic

RAB MeCo 165/120 LONG SLEEVE BASELAYER

There’s been quite some hype about this top and justifiably so. It uses a mix of merino wool and Cocona thread (65/35 respectively) with the aim of striking a balance of great wicking properties and warmth at the same time for an average weight of 165g (120g without zip). Does it work? Ignoring all the science behind it for now – yes. You feel the warmth immediately when you put it on. It’s quite a slim fit (as is often the case with such garments) so if you’re like me with a bit of  beer belly then I’d recommend a larger fit. Though to be fair, Rab’s sizing is normally spot on for me – but twice I’ve had to change/exchange the tops due to fitting issues (beware online shoppers!).

I’m quite broad anyway, but on the MeCo tops I’ve had to go up to a size extra large.

The baselayers are quick drying for sure but when damp not as warm as you may hope when compared with the likes of pure merino baselayer tops – you can feel the chill slightly but this doesn’t last too long. On first use I’ve found a slight itching to the garment but over time it disappears. Usually, the itching can occur when merino has had a wash (think all that water and thrashing even on a gentle wash causing a bit of havoc) but in this case I’ve found a delicate session in a washing machine improves how the fabric sits next to your skin. Don’t let that put you off though, it could be my overly sensitive nature (I blame the wife for softening me up over the years).

Out of the other tops here, bobbling occurs sooner rather than later. OK, this aint no drama (though some will perceive this as a sign of rapid wear and tear) but it’s proven to be a right toughie this garment. I’ve snagged it inadvertently on thorns and such like and it’s only caused a slight hole – as opposed to a wonderful long thread gently blowing in the breeze begging you to pull and pull on it.

Given the uniform threading of merino and Cocona (so they say and in reality I doubt you’ll notice) and all the above you can easily wear this top for 3-4 days before feeling (likely nudged and nudged) the requirement to give it a good wash. A gentle roll and squeeze in a mountain beck or limestone river has always sufficed for me, though maybe not the poor fish. Give it a couple of hours in a gentle breeze and you’re back in business.

All in all it’s a top I regularly use which says something. I’ve tried with or without zip collar (this drops deep on your chest) and all have performed brilliantly – another top drawer bit of clothing from Rab.

Comfy in bed with a ChocFish merino top – bliss

CHOCOLATE FISH TeMata LONG SLEEVE BASELAYER

If there’s one top akin to the Rab I use more than any other – it’s this excellent 260g average mid-weight layer from Chocolate Fish. The quality of the thread is apparent on touch never mind when slipping it over your head. It’s a tad warm for regular walking use in the summer months but for autumn and winter it excels over any other baselayer I’ve had the pleasure of using performance wise.

Comfortable from the off it’s warm, regulates your temperature well whatever activity your doing – which is testament to the quality of the merino used. This is the real deal for the uninitiated. No itching like you may get with some baselayers featuring merino.

However, once damp though you’re still warm (think Paramo clothing) it does take longer (despite the science) to dry out than other baselayers. But like I’ve already mentioned, you just don’t feel the chill. Using Chocolate Fish merino is a real eye opener when you’re perhaps used to wearing the likes of Icebreaker, for example. Here you’ve got quality thread and it really is New Zealand merino wool (unlike many other brands who use inferior alternatives from the likes of China to save costs).

You get what you pay for and then some with this baselayer and I absolutely love it. Admittedly I mostly use it at camp nowadays but even so, it takes much longer to pong when compared with the Rab MeCo top or any other brand when used heavily in activity over a few consistent days hiking and I sweat a lot! Alas, that’s one of the benefits of wool in general – even so, it just goes to show that sometimes old school materials/fabrics are still the best.

It’s had numerous washes now and it’s still as new. No signs of wear and tear either – though I’ve obviously taken care of it. It’s loose fitting without being too body hugging and given all the above, it’s just really comfortable and light to wear. I just love the silky smoothness of it all against my skin, even when sodden with sweat along my back. Aye, that sounds gross but I’m just trying to emphasise that it’s comfortable and performs brilliantly.

Think of the TeMata baselayer out of the others mentioned in this post as the tried and trusted workhorse – it may not be fashionable, or the latest bee’s knees super dooper garment. You may not always want to use it, but you’ll be glad when you do.

Just me spoiling the scene again, better than seeing me in
a pair of the Helly pants though, eh?

HELLY HANSEN DRY CHARGER LONG SLEEVE TOP AND WARM PANT

Despite the “smelly Helly” reputation of old, I’m a bit of a fan of this brand when it comes to baselayers – the top and leggings kindly donated to me from Simply Piste are excellent. In active use the leggings are a bit much to wear admittedly but in terms of comfort both garments are up there with the best.

The knit of merino wool (57%) and Helly’s Lifa fabric really works for comfort with regards to the pants. And the stretch is superb on both garments, best of the bunch here in fact.

I have really enjoyed wearing these layers. They quite simply do the job. At times, I’ve found the baselayer top to be slightly warmer than the Rab MeCo. This is likely due to the flecked patches of the fabric scattered all over along with thinner grids to help wick that sweat away. So, you’re getting a good balance of body temperature regulation and relative warmth at the same time despite no presence of wool. A garment for aerobic activities most definitely. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been warm enough when at rest or on leisurely strolls in a cold breeze – but that’s me. This top works best on it’s own in late summer or under a softshell or lightweight waterproof jacket.

The leggings are great for wearing in bed on cold nights out camping (which is when I use them most now). The leggings I’ll often wear with the Chocolate Fish merino top and I’m toasty and warm when snuggled up in my winter down bag.

The baselayer top is kept for hiking then, so what with the weight and small pack size of the above garments you’ll find a good balance struck for backpacking. Quick drying and comfortable, another good buy really for anyone in need. Though it’s worth noting that Helly Hansen’s fitting is on the slim side, so best to err on the side of caution and get a size larger than you’d normally purchase – unless you really are skinny of course.

The comfiest bed and pillow I’ve ever used for backpacking

EXPED SYNMAT UL MATTRESS 

I bought this mat when it was first released back in March. And it’s been absolutely battered.

432g’s (my scales) in weight, 183cm long, 52 wide and 7cm thick with 60g’s of Expeds synthetic fill – laminated foil which in turn is glued to each inflatable tube within.

Granted, due to it’s lightweight nature the warranty only covers you for 1 year (as opposed to Exped’s usual 2) but with care it’ll last the distance. It’s extremely comfortable to sleep on (as is always the case with their mattresses in my opinion) and bloody warm too. It’s not for winter mind – this is really a 3 season mat if you don’t want to lug a foam mat about for extra insulation. Even so, it packs down to the same size as a regular Thermarest NeoAir, is cheaper, thicker, comfier and warmer.

Don’t doubt the R Value on Exped mats. I sleep cold and this and other Exped mats I’ve since (well, and before) used have always kept me warm from the cold ground. Otherwise, spare clothing if I have any gets laid under my sleeping bag or I slip a sheet of slim foil/foam into my pack.

Another thing I adore about this mattress is how quickly you can inflate it with just a few deep breaths or better still with their excellent pump pillow. When it comes to backpacking, we all love gear that can multi-task and the pillow does exactly that. It’s ergonomic, soft to rest your head on (though if you prefer hard then just inflate it more) and acts as a pump for certain Exped mattresses.

No joke, the Synmat UL is up in 60 seconds with the pump pillow – there’s no hanging about or waiting to catch your breath.

My favourite bit of gear for the year. It’s a bit worn and filthy now but like I said earlier, it’s had a proper battering having been used on 90% of my trips out on the hills for days at a time. A cap for deflating the mattress had come loose – but fortunately I was able to push it back into position. Even so, without it the mat still worked.

For me, it’s been the perfect backpacking mattress for multi-day trips. I’m always guaranteed a good nights sleep.

Power to the hiker – well, at least some anyway

POWERMONKEY EXPLORER

Ellis Brigham kindly passed one of these onto me a couple of months back and I’ve used it regularly ever since, proving to be a handy tool for charging my mobile phone(s) when out on my trips. Any good?

Well, it’s small and light enough and given a standard 6.11Wh battery in my Samsung Galaxy S2 and similar in a Sony Ericsson Vivaz and a beaten old Nokia – it charges them full no problem. One full charge of the Powermonkey will keep the Samsung smartphone going twice over, for example.

But the main charger is slow to fuel. So, you may need to sit in the pub a wee while longer before heading on elsewhere on multi-day hikes.

It’s proven to handle a good bashing and shower proof too. As for the solar panel? Well, it works make no bones about it. There’s some slits on the ends of the solar panels where you can strap it to your rucksack. On a clear sunny day it will charge the Powermonkey in just a few hours, but in clag or just a broken cloud day – it takes much longer.

Powermonkey say you can plug the solar panel straight into your device and charge from the sun – aye, you can on crappy old devices that don’t require much power (a la my old Nokia) but it doesn’t do anything on the smartphones.

In truth, despite the pros and likes I have for this product I’m more inclined to think about purchasing a few cheap third-party batteries online. You’ll get more bang for your buck that way but it’s not exactly environmentally friendly, eh?

Solar panel, main charger and necessary wires and plugs (though not one for sticking in a wall by the bar) comes in at 175g.

All said and done, the Powermonkey Explorer is in my pack on every trip now. It’s handy but not something you really ought to rely on. It’s got some impressive technical stats but in the real world I’ve found it to be less impressive in comparison. Essentially, it makes for a great back up tool and it’s ‘green’.

Off the high street and onto the hill – no problemo

MERRELL INTERCEPT JACKET

Now, this trendy and suave looking outdoors jacket has proven to be somewhat of a dark horse for me. Never judge a book by it’s cover so they say. I was sceptical to how well it would perform out on the hill – despite feeling like I’ve just stepped off the high street in it.

Highly water and wind resistant with Merrells own synthetic fill which is reasonably light and compresses really rather well. You end up wearing it more than packing it away mind. There’s no hood but the collar hugs your chin closely when fully closed.

Lycra cuffs keep the breeze out, two handy (no pun intended) pockets are positioned carefully at the sides (though quite deep, they can get trapped by a hip belt on your rucksack). It’s a good jacket for 3 season use. Needless to say it’s not a technical garment per se for winter use, but over the back end of summer and through winter it’s not only kept me warm on the hill (comfortably more so than a fleece to be honest) but helped me not scare folk away when hitting the tarmac in the likes of Buxton or Ambleside.

OK, I’ll have a big pack on my back and maybe it’s my own perception of such things – but it’s been a handy go to outdoors jacket when out and about in town when I’m not out backpacking.

I really like it. It’s quite versatile for what it is – and I’ve not even mentioned you can stuff it into it’s own designated pocket to form an ergonomic camping pillow!

The latter is handy but not something I’ve used a great deal in truth. I like and need a good pilllow when out on the hills and this don’t cut the mustard for me on that front. But for others? So, the Intercept jacket gets a thumbs up for casual and aimable 3 season use from me.

So, there you go – that’s my final contribution or thoughts on some gear for the year of 2011.

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