Archive for the ‘ZPacks’ Category

This sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby!

June 4, 2013 2 comments
This is, in fact, my bag.

This is, in fact, my bag.

The rucksack hasn’t changed since my 2011 TGO Challenge, a semi-custom ZPacks Zero constructed from Cuben Fiber, and it’s still going strong. Such a light bag requires some thought across your entire range of kit, since you can’t overload it and expect it to be comfortable, nor does it take kindly to being loaded with gear any old how. For my needs it once again proved to be superbly comfortable with the fairly light load I was carrying and is showing very little sign of wear and tear, a popped stitch on the haul loop being about the extent of it so far. Were I to add a few more pounds or take bulkier equipment then this would not be the right pack for the job.

The brolly you can see furled and stowed in the picture was a silvered version of the Swing LiteFlex Trekking model I’ve used previously, but unfortunately this didn’t fare so well. I recall Colin Ibbotson, I believe, mentioning some failures he’d had with this brand and sadly a rogue gust snapped a stretcher on mine, causing it to tear through the canopy. A repair left it able to fulfil some duties as long as there was no chance of much wind, but I’ve had to bin it now. Excellent as a cooling sunshade, a very convenient tarp porch cover and an essential shelter on rainy breaks, I’m still a great fan of the umbrella when hiking, but these particular models are just a little too light, too weak.

On previous Challenges (and indeed most of the time when I step outside, for the past twenty years) I wore a Tilley Hat. I have rather too many of these, if I’m honest, despite not having bought a new one for several years; looking at the range now it all seems a bit cluttered and fancy, somewhat removed from the solid outdoors credentials of the originals, but a few of the venerable models are still there including the classic T3. This time I took the plunge and made a change, a peaked cap from Marks & Spencer costing an impressive £2 from the sale bin. These were most likely poor sellers due to being labelled as size XL but actually being big enough to fit me, which makes it more like an XXXL (the availability of a size 8 is one of the reasons I discovered Tilley Hats in the first place, the world being unfairly biased towards people with tiny heads). My thinking here was that I could wear the cap more easily under the hood of my windshirt or waterproof, which certainly worked. I wore the thing practically non-stop for the fortnight and it even stayed neatly on my head without a chin cord, only once blowing off… when I returned to Manchester. Naturally, it landed straight in a fountain. Despite a foldaway neck cape I did get a little too much sun on my ears, so I expect I’ll go back to full brim hats most of the time.

The Prat in the Hat.

The Prat in the Hat.

A large number, perhaps even a majority, of Challengers can be seen to use Crocs, particularly the classic enclosed sandal style, because they are very often hanging from their rucksacks. They may not pack neatly away, and they are certainly astonishingly ugly lumps of plastic, but they are quite light (around 300g for a large size men’s pair), easy to clean and very comfortable. Boot wearers switch to them in camp and also when fording streams, whereas those who opt for trail shoes generally walk straight through the water regardless and wear the same shoes in camp as when hiking. Sometimes it’s nice to have a change, though, and since Crocs were too bulky and a bit heavier than I’d like I made a pair of flip-flops:

Is there no beginning to my talents?

Is there no beginning to my talents?

A couple of bits of spare foam from my sleeping mat and a few strips of duct tape. 23 grammes for the pair. Absolutely perfect for using in campsite showers and pottering around a bunkhouse. They made it through the fortnight intact, albeit with little cushioning left under the heel.

After the 2011 Challenge I was largely happy with my cooking system, but having seen a Trail Designs Caldera Cone in action I thought it might fix the one weak point, namely the inadequate foil windscreen I was using. Last year I bought a Caldera Cone but otherwise kept the same Esbit burner and titanium pot (the one minor annoyance with the Cone is that it has to be bought to fit specific cooking pots, as it can’t be adjusted). Cooking performance and convenience was vastly improved and I also saved on quite a bit of fuel, as I could generally manage both the main meal and a hot drink on a single tablet. I ate well and it never seemed like a chore to set up the stove.

Mm... Christmas pudding and custard.

Mm… Christmas pudding and custard.

Most of the other kit performed well and much of it had been in the bag for the 2011 Challenge. A pair of Jacks ‘R’ Better Down Sleeves made my old PHD Minimus Down Vest much more versatile, giving me increased flexibility for sitting around camp and to boost my down quilt quite a bit on a couple of chilly nights. I only had one night when I woke up cold, which was fixed by reaching for extra clothes; in the morning the spare water bag was frozen and I draped the quilt around me as I left the tent. My Mountain King walking poles are still going, giving me occasional concern as they flexed alarmingly when used as tent supports on windier nights, and I wore the same pair of Inov-8 Flyroc shoes that I used on the 2011 Challenge, although they certainly won’t manage a third.

Instead of my old GoLite Cave tarp I tried a Gossamer Gear SpinnShelter. Slightly longer and considerably lighter with useful doors at each end, it’s also less versatile than the Cave as it can only really be successfully pitched in one basic configuration. The tent is not currently in production as the fabric used is now virtually impossible to obtain, but it certainly deserves to reappear if an alternative material can be found. The classic sloping shape only allows you to sit up at one end, but it kept the weather out successfully and was fairly straightforward to pitch tautly. An inner from BearPaw Wilderness Designs, the Minimalist 1, kept the ticks and midges out and as I specified a silnylon area at the foot end it meant that I could keep the doors of the Spinnshelter open, reducing condensation without risking wet feet from the rain. I originally bought the inner for my Cave, but it fit the SpinnShelter quite well.

Please excuse the clutter.

Please excuse the clutter.

Trousers were a pair of stretch Sprayway Compass Pants, very comfortable and surprisingly weather resistant with well designed zipped pockets, and a Rab Meco 165 shirt (bought, like the trousers, in a clearance sale) worked splendidly to keep me comfortable in challenging conditions. Instead of the Paramo 3rd Element jacket I wore in 2011 or the Snowsled Ventile smock from 2009 I decided to take a Marmot Essence waterproof jacket (which I normally pack for cycling use, hence the eye-watering shade of orange) and a Rab Cirrus hooded windshirt. The Cirrus was fantastic, good for all but heavy rain and one of the few windshirts around at the moment with big useful pockets. The Essence was okay and worked well, but for the very typical May Scottish weather of the TGO I think I’ll go back to the Paramo in future. Less faffing around as conditions change, which they do quickly and often, and supremely comfortable in cold wet weather.

Would I take the same on a future, hypothetical Challenge? Some of it. I might go back to a thicker mattress (my foam MultiMat is rather flattened with use and age now, for one thing), tweak a few things here and there, but very little genuinely needs to be changed. It doesn’t take a huge amount of gear to be comfortable on the Challenge, with the caveat that I choose my route accordingly: I wouldn’t think of deliberately camping high or in very exposed locations with this exact kit. I carried about 4lbs more this time than in 2011, extra weight accumulating from more and heavier warm clothes, the tent inner, sturdier tent pegs and numerous other odds and ends, which I don’t regret at all. The compromise between weight and comfort is always there and I managed to be comfortable due both to a fairly light pack and a very adequate range of camping gear. I don’t have any set ideology here, though, and you’re just as likely to meet me on a hill wearing leather boots as trail shoes. Horses for courses, as they say.

Ooh, a packhorse… maybe I could take a packhorse…


TGO Challenge: Filling Up the Corners

May 30, 2011 6 comments

I actually lost weight eating this stuff. Hiking rocks.

Steaming towards the home straight of our little TGO gear roundup, let’s give the crowd a cheeky smile and throw down a few heaps of related kit. Weights for these items, and others I’ll probably skip, can be found on the gear spreadsheet mentioned in an earlier entry.

The kitchen: For the 2009 Challenge I carried the excellent Bushbuddy wood-burning stove, stowed inside a Snow Peak titanium pot. The pot was fine (its frying pan lid was hopeless, mind) and the stove encouraged a thoughtful, relaxed style of cooking, from gathering fuel to tending the flames as the water came to a boil. True, I came home smelling like a kipper with a forty-a-day habit, but even in the wet the Bushbuddy is a perfectly viable choice. This year, partly to save weight and partly to just do something different, I used an Esbit stove with a smaller pot (more of a large mug, indeed) and a few scraps of tinfoil. The lid of the Tibetan Titanium 550 pot seemed a poor fit and heavier than it needed to be, so I left it behind and trimmed a circle of foil to take its place, along with a piece to sit under the stove and a longer strip to function as a wind shield. Esbit is nasty, smelly stuff, but remarkably convenient and very easy to use. Light the little block, wait for water to boil (roughly ten minutes, give or take), blow the flame out if there’s much of the block left or else let it burn down to a small residue. In practice the foil wind shield was adequate but nothing more: better protection would have made for faster boiling times and required less fuel. One thing that people don’t always realise is that a tarp is essentially a very large tent porch, so cooking under it is safe and easy, well ventilated and with plenty of room to spread out. That made it less of a chore to cook when the wind was being a little frisky (which was much of the time on this Challenge). Food was a combination of commercially packaged dehydrated meals and some things I dehydrated at home (along with treats such as Christmas pudding, instant custard and a jar of peanut butter) using the “freezer bag cooking” method of boiling water, adding it to the meal and eating out of the bag. No mess, no washing up. Fine for a short trip but in the long run a bit wasteful of packaging. Since eating from a bag requires a degree of additional reach I used a long-handled titanium spoon, quite silly but strong enough to double as an emergency tent peg and convenient should I ever choose to sup with the Devil. For the record, Reiter dried meals were quite tasty (if a little heavy on salt), particularly the Sicilian Pasta and the spectacularly indulgent chocolate mousse, and I quite enjoyed a fish and rice dish picked up at Decathlon. Macaroni and cheese (Kraft Dinners, to my Canadian audience) required more faff and some advance prep in order to make everything work, on top of which I was carrying a bottle of olive oil and some Tabasco to improve the final product; after a good start I found myself less able to face the resulting orange glop and probably shan’t bother carrying mac and cheese in the future, which is a pity as I bought a case of twelve packets… For water I once again carried the AquaGear filter bottle (replaced by a slightly larger and clearly improved version these days) which allowed me to drink directly from a wider selection of sources than normal, not that fresh water was exactly at a premium on this walk. Additional water storage at camp was provided by a very versatile Pour & Store bag, nothing fancy (available by the box from supermarkets in various sizes) but quite strong and effective as well as being less than half the weight of a Platypus.

The bedroom: In an ideal world one might simple throw down the quilt and snuggle in for a confortable night, but ours is a world of wet ground, giant slugs, awkwardly-placed rocks and, inevitably, ticks. I saw three ticks on this Challenge, which was a pretty low score but one of them was drilling into my shoulder as I sat having a pint in the Fife Arms so I do not dismiss the threat by any means. Ray Jardine’s latest book, The Ray-Way Tarp Book Essential, devotes a surprising amount of space to avoiding ticks, which is understandable once you learn that Mr Jardine was rushed to hospital due to the consequences of a tick bite while hiking. Some might regard his level of concern as paranoia, but personally I’m with him all the way on this point. My main defence against ticks was site selection, avoiding anywhere obviously used by deer or matching textbook tick habitat, and checking myself and my gear for the nasty little arachnids. Of course that is not sufficient; and anyway, I’m not woodsman enough to get it right every time. I also carried a Titanium Gear Ptarmigan Bivy, a sleeping bag cover with zipped entry and a large expanse of bug netting for protection and ventilation. The bottom of the bivy is waterproof, the upper section a lightweight breathable fabric treated to fend off dew and rain splashes. Lovely idea, hopeless in execution. I see that on their website Titanium Goat mention that the 2011 model has a new fabric for the top, which is all well and good but sadly I have the 2010 model which is nowhere near breathable enough. On two occasions I woke with the feeling of water against my arms, vapour condensing and running down the inside of the bivy, which is a pretty poor when you consider just how much of the bivy is made of insect netting. In less threatening environments I took to using the bivy as a groundsheet and for the last week, where tick numbers seemed to be much reduced, it stayed in the bag. The design has excellent points, such as the way the netting or a solid hood can be used and a loop to let you hook the netting away from your face while sleeping, but overall this item was a major disappointment. Underneath me at night was a simple foam MultiMat, the lightest and smallest they make, trimmed down even further to cover only the important shoulders to bum area. My sit mat, a thin piece of orange foam given away free with a walking magazine many moons ago, provided extra padding under the hip if I slept on my side or else a bit of warm cushioning under my feet. Sounds very spartan, I know, but on grass or forest litter nothing more is needed. The mat also functioned as a sort of frame for the ZPack rucksack, dropped into the pack as a vertical cylinder and allowed to unroll, giving it some structure and extra padding for me. Only on one occasion did the foam mat offer inadequate comfort and that was on the concrete floor of the Stables of Lee. Remarkably, Mick and Gayle™ were camping outside and offered the use of their spare Therm-a-Rest NeoAir mattress… Putting aside why anyone would need to carry a spare mattress on a hiking trip I accepted the offer. A nice piece of kit overall, even though it’s little more than an overpriced lilo, but despite the comfort I woke with an aching back. The NeoAir is also so thick that I had trouble making a pillow big enough to sufficiently raise my head, eventually resorting to piling up my remaining food packets and topping them with my rolled-up Páramo jacket. Despite the raised eyebrow regarding a spare mattress I did actually carry, in effect, a spare groundsheet, used for most of the last week. The ULA Rain Wrap was actually the lower half of my waterproof clothing, but it also doubles up nicely as a groundsheet where it certainly looks less eccentric than when I wear it.

The ditty bag: Lots of little oddments here, from a Rite-in-the-Rain waterproof notebook (and accompanying IKEA pencil… naughty, I know, but I couldn’t find the one I pinched twenty years ago from Putt-Putt Golf & Games) to the splendid Petzl e+LITE head torch. My rather small washkit was in there too, including a couple of plastic clothes pegs for laundry days, earplugs (don’t travel without them, seriously) the wonderfully multi-purpose Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap and the soothing, protective Gehwol Extra foot cream, decanted into an old 35mm film canister; and whatever will we do when the world supply of those little plastic tubs dries up? The Gehwol cream was a good choice, not only because it felt great at the end of a long walk and seemed to help my wet feet but also because the simple ritual of using it encouraged me to take better care of my feet every single day, sitting down to clean and dry them off, massage the cream into them and put on my cosy sleeping socks. My blister-prone plates handled the Challenge in considerably better shape this year, not least because of this attention. My towel this time, rather than the elderly “Wonder Towel” I used to use which is now a patchy and gossamer-thin shadow of its former self, was a Lightload Towel. These are handkerchief-sized absorbent squares made from wood pulp. After a fortnight it had pretty much approached its limit but it worked well enough along the way and dried quickly, with no apparent bad odours. Fairly cheap, but even so I wouldn’t especially endorse the Lightload, as a cotton bandanna or cheap viscose cloth is more durable and just as good without being disposable.

Since Challenge Control requires walkers to check-in frequently, and with working ‘phone boxes becoming an increasing rarity, I carried a mobile ‘phone with me along with a spare battery and charger. Heavy, but it did also function as a radio (useful for weather forecasts, apart from the traumatic time when the only programme I could pick up was the Céilidh Hour) and the GPS meant that I could get it to display my OS grid reference if ever I happened to get lost (or “confused” as Daniel Boone put it). I suppose that I could have used it more often as a Walkman as well, but I actually only listened to music on the ‘phone on one occasion, in camp. Generally speaking, the musical accompaniment to this walk was me loudly singing various Warren Zevon songs as I tramped through the heather, so if you found yourself assailed by a spiritedly tuneless rendition of Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner at any point then I can only apologise.

Rain gear has been largely covered, since it primarily consisted of the superb Páramo 3rd Element jacket. In moderate rain I didn’t bother with the hood and simply wore my Tilley Hat. Likewise, the Eco-Mesh trousers dried so quickly that I only supplemented them in severe conditions, but when the wind picked up and the rain worsened, as it did almost daily, I donned the ULA Rain Wrap, a simple rectangle of SilNyon fastened with Velcro and a hook and loop on the hem. Waterproof trousers and I are not great chums and I much prefer the superior ventilation of something like the rain skirt (and don’t fool yourself, you can refer to it as a kilt or a wrap all you like but it’s a skirt, matey, and not a particularly stylish one at that) which worked very well for me. Don’t try it on the tops, of course, where swirling gales and battering rain would quickly get around it. Like most things, the rain skirt has its place and you should consider carefully whether it will do the job you ask of it. Sewing one yourself would be very easy, probably with some improvements such as a simple pleat to allow more movement, but I didn’t have access to a sewing machine at the time and bought the commercial version. Stretch fleece gloves generally worked for me, except for when the rain was particularly heavy and the cold wind started to bite through the fabric. When that happened I slipped on the MLD eVENT waterproof mitts, a reassuringly simple and practical design. They worked well and took up little space in the side pocket of my pack when I was carrying them. Lastly, the umbrella. I’ve long been a fan of the humble brolly for hiking, going back to the hazel-shafted walking stick model I bought from James Smith & Sons (where you should, if you are ever even remotely close, visit and be amazed), later set temporarily aside for the original GoLite umbrella, considerably lighter but with the tiny drawback of not actually being waterproof… These days I use hiking poles rather than the walking stick, so the Smith brolly is a bit heavy to mostly carry in the rucksack, although come to think of it that doesn’t seem to bother Nicholas Crane. I picked up a Swing Liteflex umbrella, lighter than even the old GoLite and seemingly much more robust and waterproof. The company appear to be making brollies for others, so you may find them under different names. Splendid for wandering around town and walking on calm days, an umbrella is of course quite useless on a big hill in vile, blowy weather, but such is not my main use. At night it formed a handy “door” to the tarp, blocking swirling rain and offering additional privacy on commercial campsites. I sat under it at rest stops, used it as an additional windbreak while cooking, deployed it as a privacy screen when attending to those matters common to both hikers and bears. Embrace the eccentricity, try hiking with a brolly yourself.

That’s largely all that needs talking about for the rest of the gear. The (probably) last post on this topic will cover a couple of failures – the bivy could have gone there but seemed a more natural fit in the context of the sleeping system – and thoughts on changes I may make for the future, after which you can breathe a sigh of relief and return to your regularly scheduled lives.

Some of the websites mentioned, if the Super Secret Clicky Links aren’t working for you (Have you checked your Secret Decoder Ring?):

TGO Challenge: Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax

May 29, 2011 3 comments

I'm usually far more organised than this, I do assure you

… or possibly not. Well, I may mention shoes at a later date.

The 2011 TGO Challenge is behind me, clothes have been washed and the house is festooned with gear like a street party colliding with a mountain marathon. The familiar, heady aroma of laundry-shy synthetics has cleared at last. Mostly.

An exhaustive discussion and review of everything I carried and used on the walk is considerably beyond what is really required or helpful, so I shall instead make a few remarks about particular items, how they worked and how well they fitted with the rest of the kit to form a functional “system” of gear, and sweep the rest into an easily dismissed corner.

The Big Boys: Big in terms of bulk, weight or simply how important they are to the whole. Let’s dive in with the ZPacks Zero Cuben Fiber rucksack, mentioned in an earlier post, which was a real success. The material gradually softened yet remained very water resistant (the only water in my pack came from throwing wet gear into it on a couple of hurried mornings) and the closure, nothing more than a drawcord and toggle, proved considerably more effective than my dubious first assessment. The big outside pocket was perfect for holding a soaking wet tarp (which it was on all but one or two mornings, thank you very much Scottish weather) while the side pockets held water bottle and raingear on the one side, brolly (retained by the elastic side straps I requested), sit-mat and toilet stuff on the other. I never missed a waistbelt, not that I expected to since my other rucksack is a GoLite Breeze and that doesn’t have one either, nor did I have occasion to use the loops I’d asked for to attach an elastic shock-cord (The Memmsy Cord, about which more later) as a sort of stabilising waistbelt in the event of needing to do a bit of scrambling. Considering that the ZPacks Zero is a semi-custom item it would have been largely my fault if the options I requested didn’t suit, but I was tremendously impressed with the comfort, capacity and utility of this simple, functional bag. On the hills it always felt at home, around town I just slung it over one shoulder and strolled along like everyone else. Well, like everyone else carrying something that looked like a pedal-bin liner anyway. Size medium, giving me about 34 litres plus the pockets, which was more than enough space. 146g you say? Sold!

Titanium Goat UL Sierra Sniveller Special: Quite possibly the longest name ever conceived for what is, at heart, a blanket. It deserves the distinction though. This was my sleeping bag, replacing the heavy and disappointing Mountain Equipment bag I’ve had for years which performed poorly on the 2009 Challenge. The Sierra Sniveller is a quilt, manufactured in this version for Titanium Goat by the American company Jacks ‘R’ Better. Unlike many ultralight backpacking quilts the Sniveller opens completely flat, very handy when I stopped at Tarfside and was able to deploy it as a bedspread or simply for airing it out in the very unlikely event that the air it Scotland may turn a little damp *cough*. The tapered “foot end” fastens together with Velcro-like Omni Tape and a drawcord snugs in the end to create a cosy foot pocket; a second drawcord at the opposite end allows the quilt to be shaped around the neck and shoulders, brilliantly simple and tremendously effective. On one cold and windy night I used the cords and loops fitted down the sides to pull the quilt more closely around me for warmth, while warmer nights were much more comfortable than in an enclosed bag due to the easy venting options afforded by the quilt. Not enough, you say? Well Sir, you can wear it! An Omni-Taped opening in the middle allows the adventurous and sartorially oblivious to don the quilt as an insulated serape, as illustrated by the brave, brave fellows over on the Jacks ‘R’ Better website. At least as cosy as the typical backpacking down jacket, although I can’t say I’d head to the pub whilst wearing it. Brilliant around camp, however. All in all a thoroughly successful choice and something I expect to be using for a long time to come, well made and very versatile for its 594g weight.

GoLite Cave 1 Tarp: No longer manufactured due to the well-publicised disagreement many years ago between GoLite and Ray Jardine, who designed it and several other items made by GoLite in their early days. A real pity that, since this deceptively simple shelter continues to impress a decade after I bought it. The Cave is a simple flat tarp made of a fairly heavy grade of SilNylon, enhanced (transformed, almost) by the addition of triangular “variable geometry beaks” at each end. Essentially the beaks provide extra protection from the weather and close the ends of the tarp off if you have to pitch it very low in a storm. It also has “lifters” on the sides, extra guys that pull the main panels out to give more headroom. To be honest I have only ever used these occasionally as the Cave has tons of room under it anyway. Remarkably, I was told more than once that I must have had an awful time during the Challenge because I was camping under a tarp… Funnily enough it must have been so traumatic that I have blanked the horror from my mind and replaced it with memories of being warm, dry and comfortable in some lovely camping spots, just as in 2009. Only on two occasions did I have trouble due to using a tarp: one spot looked perfect, but after pitching I realised that it was alive with ticks and I quickly zipped myself into my bivvy bag to avoid them and the midges, which made for a dull evening; and at the Stables of Lee, a spot on my Foul Weather Alternative route where I had not been planning to camp, the high winds, waterlogged ground and lack of shelter made pitching the Cave impossible, or at least beyond my abilities, so I slept in the stable instead. Other than that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything on this trip; and the “failures” were as much down to me as to the tarp. Looking at the tents used by other Challengers I did consider replacing the tarp on a future Challenge so that I could try more adventurous routes with more limited camping options, but now that I’m home and have been looking into it further I’m less convinced… Tarp camping is very much to my taste. The limitations are few, far fewer than you probably think if you’ve not tried it, and the advantages many. At least one Challenger lost his tent poles and another had a pole fail dramatically, rendering the tents almost useless… with a tarp you just find a tree or pick up a stick. They’re not as flimsy as they look, these things, and I believe that my ability to choose a good camping spot has improved because I use one, helping me to get away from the habit of simply plonking the tent down anywhere, however uncomfortable, because of a belief that the tent can handle it. Anyway, we’re moving into camping philosophy here. At least I’m not wholly alone in my love of tarps and this design in particular: Geoff Gafford was on the Challenge in his Cave of similar vintage and I suspect he was equally happy in his choice. If you fancy trying a Cave for yourself then you could haunt eBay for one, but prices are high and they appear only occasionally. Far better to wander over to the site of the man who designed the thing, Ray Jardine, and order one of his kits for sewing a tarp yourself. The current version is also lighter than my Cave, although I have added different guys and adjusters (largely to stop people from falling over the damn things on campsites). 432g plus the weight of a dozen pegs.

Shelter, sleeping bag and rucksack. All solid successes, I’d say, and a good place to pause before part two..

Site addresses, in case you can’t get the clever clicky things to work:

TGO Challenge: Notorious Lightweight

Because nothing spoils your holiday like meeting an ill-dressed grinning loon on the beach...

Somewhere in Montrose the Fat Lady has sung.

That’s a little harsh, actually, as most of those singing at the Challenge dinner on Thursday night were looking positively trim, if not slightly underfed, but in essence the TGO Challenge of 2011 is now over. Three hundred weary, cheery souls have quietly scattered across the country (and indeed the world) to their homes, returning to families and colleagues and trying very hard not to look as though they are mentally planning next year’s route.

By many accounts this was a particularly tough Challenge, considered perhaps the worst ever in terms of continual rain, and it was more luck than good management that saw me keeping just a step or two ahead of the harshest storms. Even so, like many Challengers I chose to opt for my Foul Weather route when the forecast for the higher hills started to reach Plague of Egypt proportions and ended up in St. Cyrus rather than my originally planned terminus at Lunan Bay. Regardless of changes, challenges and the weather, I had an absolutely wonderful, wonderful time, in no small part due to the many splendid people I met along the way.

Unfortunately, carrying anything “unconventional” (i.e. not made by Páramo, Osprey or Montane) on the Challenge does attract a degree of attention; and as much as I try to avoid being noticed in any situation it was clear that my pack in particular was the subject of considerable discussion. When someone approaches you at the end of the walk and asks, in hushed tones, whether they can touch your rucksack, you know that you’ve created a monster. Or perhaps encountered a pervert. Admittedly, my own paranoia about theft, leading to my habit of never leaving my bag anywhere, doesn’t help: apologies to anyone forced to share space with me in locations where a normal person would have simply dropped their pack outside. I’m not even terribly comfortable with being termed an “ultralight” hiker, although the designation is inevitable. Yes, I try to travel with a light load, not least because working in an office has left me with an increasingly painful bad back, but it’s not a religion with me. I’m the man who packed a Christmas pudding and brandy sauce among his essential supplies, for heaven’s sake, and any real “gram weenie” could have slashed quite a bit of weight from my pack.

My own approach to gear and techniques is not exactly methodical, but I do admit to a tendency to carefully compare and consider everything before making my choices, albeit in a haphazard way. With that in mind I shall probably give in to the requests I have had to post my gear list and comment on how individual items performed in the very wet and windy conditions of Scotland this May. Don’t expect in-depth reviews or observations worthy of Chris Townsend or Clive Tully, but a few remarks may help others to throw large piles of cash at small piles of equipment. Reviews to follow, once I’ve caught up on all those things that seem to need attention when you disappear off the radar for a fortnight.

TGO Challenge: Zero Hour

The Emperor's New Rucksack

The days grow lighter and so does my rucksack.

The TGO Challenge kicks off later this week, a fortnight of hiking, camping, making new friends and meeting old ones, floundering through bogs and wondering why, why, why people do this sort of thing for a holiday. It’ll be glorious.

The Lovely Emma has wavered between gentle mockery and slight concern when it comes to the kit I’ll be carrying for the walk, reassured perhaps by the knowledge that I do actually have some experience in this sort of thing and am not the sort of person to take risks anyway. Even so, eyebrows were raised when a very, very small envelope arrived yesterday morning, containing a rucksack. New equipment this close to the start is a bit of a risk, with very little time to test anything, but I’m prepared to make an exception to my usual rule of sticking to the tried and trusted, just this once.

Lurking inside the envelope was a crinkly plastic bag, far from inspiring, yet it quickly unfolded from this pupal state to reveal itself as a ZPacks Zero backpack, all the way from ZPacks in Florida. ZPacks (“zeepacks” I presume, although forever pronounced “zedpacks” in my head) is a small company, part of the oft-mentioned “cottage industry” of the ultralight backpacking world, started by Joe Valesko and his wife and, according to their website, now grown to include additional staff. Like many of these small manufacturers there is a lengthy and variable waiting list for orders with occasional periods when no new orders are taken, because either the company is working to full capacity, or else everyone has gone off hiking for a few months. I can’t fault that attitude.

In my case I’d mentioned to Joe that I would need the pack for early May and he assured me that there’d be no problem. I sent an email recently to check on the order (it can be a bit unnerving to order something and then have to wait for months) and Joe bumped it up the list. A week later it was at my door.

It’s worth noting that this is not precisely an off-the-shelf design. The basic ZPacks Zero rucksack (prices $45 and up at the time of writing, with very reasonable international postage charges) is little more than a simple bag with shoulder straps with a wide range of options available, from the fabric used to extra pockets, straps, bungee cords and so on. Joe points out on his site that there is a tipping point where customising the Zero is no longer cost-effective, suggesting that the more fully featured Blast pack is then the one to go for. In my case I went for extra pockets and a couple of small bungees to hold such hiking essentials as my umbrella (*ahem*), but the main decision was to have it made from Cuben Fiber. What a very strange material this is. Created for racing yachts as a sail fabric, Cuben Fiber consists of non-woven Spectra fibres laminated between mylar sheets… all very fascinating, I’m sure, but in essence it looks like a carrier bag, is remarkably hard to tear and has all the weight of a pixie’s fart. My other rucksack, a comparitively elderly GoLite Breeze, weighs 406g and even today is considered radically light by many: the Zero weighs 146g.

As with the Breeze my Zero has no waistbelt, but at my request Joe very obligingly added two small fabric loops. A piece of elastic shock-cord recycled from an old fleece (one of Emma’s, actually, which unfortunately means that it’s a quite fetching shade of lilac) and a couple of plastic hooks forms a light belt if needed by clipping onto the loops, just something to add a bit of stability if I find myself needing to scramble at any point. The shock-cord also works to hold up my insect netting under the tarp.

So how good is it? No idea… I’ll let you know after I’ve thrown Scotland at it for a fortnight. It certainly looks to be considerably more water-resistant than the Breeze and doesn’t have the acres of snag-happy mesh all over it that the GoLite pack does. The “lid” is quite brilliant, really, simply the excess fabric at the top of the pack folded over and hooked to a loop near the base of the pack. Because Cuben Fiber is quite stiff it’s easy to shape this into a rain-shedding cover. Fingers crossed, eh?

I’m bracing myself for endless comments about the semi-invisible bag (it is a bit odd being able to see inside it, but my sleeping mat obscures most of the contents), but for now I’m impressed and confident that it will do the job. Probably.