TGO Challenge: Synthetic Easy-Care Clothes Maketh the Man
Onwards, then, from the “big three” items of gear to a quick review of what I was wearing. In general gear lists tend to separate clothes into “Clothes Carried” and “Clothes Worn” which I have simplified slightly by basically wearing everything.
Páramo 3rd Element: The much lamented, yet sadly poorly selling, 3rd Element was one of the more unusual offerings from Páramo, a company known for its very unconventional clothes. Part of the Nikwax Analogy range of waterproof coats the 3rd Element sported the peculiar feature of having a removable top section (the sleeves, hood and yoke came off as one) partly covering a separate gilet. The result: extra padding and waterproofing on the shoulders, a full function waterproof jacket and a cooler sleeveless section for when more ventilation was required. Admittedly I only used the gilet alone on a couple of occasions this year, but the major objection to Páramo waterproofs is that they are warmer than some membrane-based jackets, precluding their use in more Summery weather. It’s an objection with which I can only partly sympathise, since I find Gore-Tex and the like horribly sweaty and uncomfortable on the whole, whereas Páramo is particularly good at handling liquid water (i.e. sweat) and feels better to me even if I am overheating, but each to his own and being able to remove the sleeves certainly adds versatility to the setup. The material is soft and comfortable (on cooler nights I slept in the jacket, otherwise it was rolled up to make a pillow) and can be endlessly reproofed, giving it a life well beyond most waterproofs: my Páramo Scala jacket is about twelve years old and shows no drop in performance that an occasional wash and reproof does not fix and only my old Ventile smock (worn on the 2009 Challenge) has shown similar longevity. Shortcomings are few: a proper map pocket would have been appreciated (since I use a pack with no belt I was able to stick my maps into the rear horizontal pocket designed to hold the sleeves when they are removed, which solved the problem for me) and I prefer a waist cord rather than one at the hem, but these are niggles. It took very little time for this wonderful jacket to become a second skin, one that wasn’t too niffy even after a fortnight of wear. It handled the powerfully driven rain and hail with aplomb. At least half a dozen Challengers that I know of wore the 3rd Element this year, yet Páramo have been unable, despite several attempts, to find a place for it in the market. The public, it seems, think it’s too weird. That probably wasn’t helped by Páramo’s insistence that you can wear just the sleeves if you like… 856g but don’t dismiss it simply because that weight looks high. As part of a well considered clothing system the 3rd Element is superb. The main problem is getting hold of one now that production has ceased. Páramo themselves have two eBay shops, one selling seconds items and the other dealing with surplus and discontinued stock, so if you’re lucky then, like me, you might still be able to pick one up at a bargain price. It feels a bit odd not be wearing it at the moment.
Inov-8 Flyroc 310 shoes: An expensive pair of trainers, really. I bought a pair of Flyrocs for the 2009 Challenge and they worked so well that I picked up a new pair in a clearance sale (they’ve changed the colour scheme, apparently: mine are a rather natty blue and green) for this year. Little underfoot padding, acres of quick-drying mesh on the uppers, a lacing system that cradles your foot like an amorous octopus and more grip than an arm-wrestling gorilla, the Flyrocs laughed in the face of mud, tarmac and wet grass. Stream crossing consisted of walking through the streams, no changing footwear and getting the towel out, and I never found them to be uncomfortable even when wet. The only problem I ever had was inside the heel cup, where the lining fabric rapidly wore through. In 2009 this caused blisters before I realised that there was a problem, so I stuck some moleskin and duct tape over the damage and they’ve been fine ever since. This year I pre-empted any problem by sticking a piece of duct tape inside the shoes. Other Inov-8 wearers, I discovered, do the same. 822g for a pair in my clod-hopping size.
Patagonia Nano Puff: Many years ago I lived near to a Patagonia Outlet Store in the United States. They were happy, carefree days, filled with laughter and reasonably priced high quality outdoor clothing. Then I moved and was faced with the real world, where Patagonia clothes are apparantly priced using a different monetary system to the one I know and the costs are stupidly high. I stopped buying Patagonia. Enter the Internet, where I managed to chance upon a clearance sale for the Nano Puff, a lightly insulated smock top, offering it for half price if I could fit into a size Large (I could) and didn’t mind wearing something called Gecko Green (I’d have preferred not to, but needs must). At half price the Nano Puff is expensive, but worth it if you can spare the cash; at full price it is obscenely expensive and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. My main insulating garment, if you can call it that, was actually the Sierra Sniveller quilt. Being filled with down (and looking absolutely bonkers) was potentially a limitation, though, so with the chance of a damp ol’ time in bonny Scotland ahead of me I bought the Nano Puff as a security piece, a synthetic insulation top which would be less affected if I was careless enough to get soaked through. In the end I slept in it on more than half of the nights, wore it whenever I wasn’t hiking and found that it was so good that I only rarely needed to don the Sniveller for extra warmth. When stopping to do laundry, which happened every four days or so, my approach of carrying few extra clothes raised a potential problem, so generally the Nano Puff was worn next to the skin on those occasions with no discomfort at all. Versatile, comfortable, warm and, despite the colour, not a bad looking item either; other Challengers seemed to endorse my opinion, although I couldn’t help noticing that nobody else had chosen the green. 300g. Returning home I was pleased to discover that I’d lost enough weight to fit into my old Patagonia Stand Up Pants, good news both because they are old favourites and because I still find the name amusing.
The other stuff: I’m not going to review everything in any depth – you can read the kit list spreadsheet if you want to see it all anyway – so here’s a quick run through the rest. The possum fur / merino wool double-layer beanie hat from Chocolate Fish was excellent, worn around camp and for sleeping (since there’s no hood on my quilt), it also served an additional function as the pot cosy for my kitchen setup. Pour boiling water into dehydrated meal, stir, pop the hat over the bag for ten minutes and there you go, a hot meal and a warm hat. Trousers were my old Eco-Mesh Pants from RailRiders, bought over ten years ago and going strong despite having split dramatically at the crotch in 2009. A bit of repair, subsequent reinforcement and modification to add a central rear belt loop (what a stupid omission that is. Without it the waistband slips uncomfortably under the belt. I made one from a swatch of flysheet material included in an old Hilleberg tent catalogue…) and they still work well. Zips down the outside seam open up mesh vents, or close to keep the bugs at bay, and the windproof Supplex fabric dries so quickly that I only bother with waterproofs in seriously prolonged rain. Fit is rather basic, however, so don’t expect to look especially dashing in them, and I suspect that there have been some design and possibly material changes since I bought mine. Undies were merino wool trunks from Chocolate Fish, a huge step forward in comfort from the synthetic shorts I used to wear. The rather hopeless waistband rolled over instantly but at least it wasn’t uncomfortable; in all other respects they were superb. 1000 Mile Wool Ultra Performance Trail socks were light and warm on my feet, along with Injinji liners which I’ll cover in detail later on. I rarely go anywhere without a Tilley Hat and have been wearing them for about twenty years, initially won over because they actually make hats in my size. This time I left my old favourite at home and took a lighter synthetic model, a good choice as it turned out, since it dried very quickly. Likewise, the ubiquitous Buff, a simple synthetic tube worn as scarf or hat, was always in use, often under the Tilley to keep my ears warm. Another oddly-coloured bargain buy from eBay (mango, I believe they said it was) was my long-sleeved Montane Bionic top, a wool and synthetic mix, very comfortable indeed and better than pure synthetics at keeping the odours down, important in a garment I wore for days at a time. A pair of Mont-Bell gaiters, simple stretch material and not waterproof, kept the crud out of my shoes and performed far better than the feeble Raidlight ones I used last time. The elastic under-foot cord abraded badly on the Mont-Bells but is easily and cheaply replaced. Instead of spare shoes I carried a pair of “clean room” style Tyvek overboots, pretty much large plastic socks really, to wear over my sleeping socks in camp and to put over muddy shoes when heading into a pub. They worked well, but next time I’ll probably use a pair of Crocs or similar simply because they would be more convenient around town. The Challenge is not just a wilderness event and sometimes the lightest option can be a compromise too far.
That’s most of the kit I was wearing at one time or another. I mentioned the Injinji liner socks which began the Challenge as favourites, but I’ll discuss them in more depth after the other reviews because they failed so badly and had to be replaced. On the whole my gear worked and lasted well, with only a few disappointments. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the eccentrically dressed Challenger was wearing in the Highlands this May.
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