Garmin InReach vs Iridium GO! Which is the Best?

Garmin InReach Explorer+
Garmin InReach Explorer+. Used during my ski across Greenland.

The Garmin InReach vs Iridium GO debate has been circling for quite some time now. As satellite communications devices go, they both similar and vastly different. I’ve used both the Iridium GO! and the Garmin InReach Explorer+ on a number of expeditions and hikes ranging from the North Pole to the wilds of the UK’s national parks. Each device has its strengths and weaknesses and its these we’re going to explore today.

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The Best GPS for Hiking (Alternative Devices)

Is there really a best GPS for hiking? I’ve been using handheld GPS units for many years now and would argue that it’s nigh on impossible to choose one device that can be classed as the best. In fact, we should think of a GPS purely as a backup device. With that though in mind I’m going to look at some of the GPS options I’ve used on my travels.

My Choices of Hiking GPS

Microsoft Band 2 (with app) – now discontinued by Microsoft, but available to buy at Amazon, eBay, etc.

etrex 10 – simple and never failed

InReach – awesome, but a little pricey

Take a look around the web and you’ll find countless articles asking about the best GPS for hiking, or hill walking, or some of their physical activity. As some of you know I’m not a massive fan of having GPS purely for the sake of having GPS. I talk about the reasons why in my hillwalking essentials guide. Rather than regurgitate my thoughts you can read that post. For the sake of brevity, I firmly believe GPS should be a backup for outdoor activities. Nothing beats the ability to be able to understand and use a map and compass.

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What’s in my foot-care kit, and why

foot care kit

One of my ‘must-carry’ hiking items that probably owes a lot to my military training is my foot-care kit. Although it could be seen as unnecessary weight, and probably is by many ultra-light hikers, for me it’s a crucial way to make sure I stay reasonably comfortable and healthy for day after day of hiking, potentially in pouring rain or through streams and rivers.

A basic footcare kit really needs just some blister plasters or tape, and some foot powder, but mine is a bit more substantive, and incorporates a few ‘health and wellbeing’ items that aren’t strictly foot-related. Here’s what I include, and why:

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Review: Rab Ascent 700 Sleeping Bag

I’ve now taken my new sleeping bag, the Rab Ascent 700, on a few adventures including several night of wild camping in both Scotland and Washington State, so I thought it’s time to give it a bit of a review.

Overview of the Rab Ascent 700

First off, I think it’s helpful to understand the sleeping bag ‘on paper’ before I launch into my subjective views. I’d recommend having a read of my ultimate guide to the Rab sleeping bag range, which helps to ‘place’ the bag and understand what niche it fills.

So, the Rab Ascent range is, by the admittedly high standards of a serious outdoorsy brand like Rab, somewhat ‘mid-market’. It’s a high-quality down-filled bag made from top-notch materials, but it’s not the warmest or most weather resistant range that Rab makes, nor is it the most ultra-light. It’s absolutely ideal for the kind of ‘semi-serious’ hiking that I do, but if I was to try a thru-hike or heavy mountaineering in sub-zero conditions I’d probably look for something with a slightly better warmth-to-weight ratio.

Construction and Insulation

In terms of materials, the Ascent range has an outer fabric made of Pertex, a breathable fabric favored by Rab and with excellent waterproof qualities depending on the specific fabric from the range. My bag uses Pertex Microlight, one of the lighter options at under 35g/m2, but highly breathable and reasonably windproof. Breathability is essential in a sleeping bag to prevent condensation inside the bag or within the insulation layer, so bags that are highly waterproof on their own are pretty rare and this is no exception. It’s DWR coating will keep off light rain and condensation from within a tent, but it definitely shouldn’t be considered waterproof.

Now, it seems that the new season models of Ascent bags use Pertex Quantum rather than Microlight. On paper this has almost identical qualities: <35g/m2 weight and air permeability of 1.0cc. Presumably the Quantum is better in some respects but I suspect the overall difference is fairly negligible.

Meanwhile, the insulation is unchanged – 700g of 650 fill power down (for those of you who don’t know or care what fill power means, suffice it to say that 650FP is very good, and should be noticeably better than a cheaper bag with the same weight of a lower fill power down.

The main, probably only, difference between the different bags in the Ascent range is the weight of down fill. The Ascent 900 obviously has 900g of down, but is otherwise more or less identical, so much of this review should apply to the range as a whole.

It’s worth noting that the down fill is disproportionally weighted to the top (if you’re lying down). This is a smart choice in many ways – insulation underneath the body is crushed and therefore hugely ineffective, which is why a decent sleeping mat is usually essential. As a result, down placed here is largely wasted weight, and having less down under the body is a sensible way to reduce weight. Generally speaking I think this is the right decision, but it can be irritating if you roll over in the night and end up with the back/bottom of the sleeping bag on top, where the reduced weight of down may be quite noticeable, especially if you are right on the edge of the comfortable temperature limit.

The Ascent 700’s Temperature Ratings

In terms of warmth, Rab describes the Ascent 700 as a 3-season bag and it has European warmth ratings of:

Comfort -2C

Limit -8.5C

Extreme -27C

You can read more about what these limits mean in detail elsewhere, but personally I would take them all with a big pinch of salt. Obviously people vary considerably depending on their size, tolerance for cold, what they are wearing to sleep in, and whether they are in a tent, bivvy bag or neither, but my view is that the Ascent 700 won’t provide a genuinely ‘comfortable’ night’s sleep much below freezing without significant additional insulation in the form of a liner or wearing extra clothes. At temperatures around or a little below freezing, and perhaps wearing a fleece in bed, you’re certainly in no danger of dying but you may wake up chilly.

Rab Ascent 700 Features

Features-wise, the Ascent 700 comes with both a stuff-sack and a big cotton bag so you can store it uncompressed (which is best for the fill). I personally tend to hike with my sleeping bag compressed in a canoe bag, which gives me that added bit of confidence that arguably the most important item in my backpack is dry no matter what, but I realise that’s an approach that not everyone approves of.

The bag has a sizeable hood, with elastic and a toggle so it can be pulled tight. It also has a substantial down-filled baffle just inside the bag at neck height, which can also be pulled tight. This creates a snug seal above the shoulders which does a lot for warmth on a cold night. There’s a similar big baffle running all the way down the zip, preventing the zip from becoming a cold spot.

There is also a small zipped pocket at the top of the bag, which I find really useful for keeping essentials like my phone and a torch close to hand when wild camping. It’s a small detail but definitely a useful touch.

My Seven Carry-on Essentials

At the moment I’m doing a lot of travelling for work and, while I actually enjoy travelling and don’t even hate airports all that much, multiple 10+ hour flights a month takes a toll and requires a finely honed strategy for survival. Moving fast and light is preferrable to lugging huge bags across the airport concourse, and I thought you might like to see my list of the best seven carry-on essentials

Much of my strategy revolves around an expertly-packed carry-on bag to get me through the time at the airport and on the plane.

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Six things I’ve learned after more than a month of wearing the Garmin Vivoactive 3

I’ve been wearing my Garmin Vivoactive 3 for about six weeks now, and I thought I’d summarise a few things I’ve learnt that have taken a bit of time to figure out, and therefore weren’t covered in the initial review. Some are things I’ve learnt about the device, others are things I’ve learnt about myself.

My stress levels are a bit lower at the weekend.

This is probably the least surprising learning on the whole list, but it’s interesting to note that the Garmin’s ‘stress’ detection is at least accurate enough to differentiate between a working day and a weekend.

However…

They are much lower when sleeping in my own bed. In fact, a good night’s sleep has the biggest impact on average stress that day.

This is actually far more noticeable than the weekend thing. I spend a lot of time away from home at the moment, and my average stress levels are far lower when I’m sleeping in my own bed (which is extremely comfortable, the right temperature, and in a quiet room) rather than in an airbnb which may have a fairly uncomfortable bed in a noisy room that is often too cold or too hot.

The thing is (and I think this is perhaps somewhat a flaw, from a certain point of view) the Vivoactive measures ‘stress’ levels while you’re asleep which, don’t get me wrong, is both valid and interesting (as the next point will show, since there is a considerable difference between an un-stressed sleep and a stressed sleep. However, the problem is that since you spend roughly 1/3rd of the day asleep, this has a massive impact on your average stress level for the day, and therefore slightly distorts the figure that you are probably more interested in, which is how stressed were my waking hours. I’d prefer to have the sleep-based stress level kept out of stress as a whole and incorporated into the sleep views, which are in fact not nearly detailed enough about quality of sleep as opposed to quantity.

Anyway, the point is that a really good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed can compensate for a pretty awful day at work, which I suppose is a good insight. Whereas…

I sleep really badly when I’m drunk – and that’s part of the problem.

As you can see from the graph above, it’s really noticeable how ‘stressed’ my sleep is when I go to bed drunk. We all know that, no matter if we fall into a deep drunken sleep for ten hours, we’ll probably wake up feel wretched and be tired all day after a big night, and this partly demonstrates why. I may get eight, nine or even ten hours sleep after a heavy night, but the quality of sleep is awful. I’ve actually found having this presented to me so clearly a little sobering (if you’ll excuse the pun) and it’s definitely made me think twice about how often and how much I drink during the week.

The ‘move’ notification is a bit pointless

Maybe this is just me, but I don’t find the prompt to ‘move’ every hour very useful. The problem is that it takes a lot of movement to clear it – like a 3-4 minute walk, something that is hard to achieve in the office. If I could clear it by getting up and walking to the kitchen, or something, then I would. However I’ve realised I can’t, so I now tend to just ignore it, and let it clear itself a few times a day when I would be walking anyway – out to lunch, or to the train at the end of the day. The result is that it becomes completely pointless. I think one (or both) of the following two changes are needed:

– Make it easier to clear the notification. Getting up every hour and walking to the kitchen would be beneficial, so I feel I should be encouraged to do so, whereas since this isn’t good enough for my Garmin, there’s no motivation to bother.
– Track how much time I spend each day with an ‘uncleared’ move bar. This would be interesting and would motivate me more to try to clear it regularly, even if I didn’t quite manage to do so every hour as the Garmin would like.

Both my Garmin stress score and heart rate are far higher when I’m hungover

 

Yes, a lot of my learnings relate to alcohol. But hey, wearing a watch like this is all about the healthy lifestyle choices. And yes, it’s very noticeable not only how ‘unhealthy’ I feel with a hangover, but how objectively unwell I actually am according to the Garmin stress score. Again, it’s another motivation not to drink so much, when the data is presented so coldly – after all, a resting HR some 10-15bpm higher than normal is pretty striking.

Although I didn’t screenshot the graph, I noticed similar stats for a 48hr period when I was extremely unwell with D&V. What I haven’t yet (fortunately) had, is the kind of slow-onset and slow-recovery illness where having these sort of metrics might be useful for making educated decisions about when to stop training and when to start again.

You need to plan when you charge it.

The vivoactive is at it’s best when you wear it all the time, but of course it still needs to be charged, at least once a week and potentially more frequently if you use it a lot for workouts. Fortunately it charges incredibly quickly – usually from close to 0% up to 100% in under an hour – but you still have to think about when to stick it on charge. Doing it overnight seems obvious but is a waste of all that lovely lovely sleep data, so I tend to put it on charge when I’m in the shower, when I don’t like wearing it (though it is waterproof of course – you can swim in it), and occasionally for an hour when sitting around the flat if it needs more charge. I tend to feel that the loss of that kind of data is pretty irrelevant. That said, I’m often showering after a workout, of course, and so tracking my recovery HR might be useful… but no system is perfect. It’s just something you’ll need to consider.

Interested in buying this watch? Check out it at Amazon, where you’ll find a selection of models to suit your needs.

UK Knife law – a guide for outdoor enthusiasts

A guide to UK knife law wouldn’t be complete without a small comparison between us and our cousins across the Atlantic…

One of the great things about having any hobbies or interests in the internet era is the ability to share views, read information by, and learn from people all over the world. That is especially the case for outdoor enthusiasts like me and, I suspect, many of my readers. To a certain extent the outdoors adventures ‘blogosphere’ is dominated by North Americans which is perhaps not surprising; there are more of them and, let’s face it, they have a bit more wilderness than we do.

All that is fine, and there are plenty of us Brits as well and plenty of British wilderness to be proud of. I raise the point because I think that there are a small number of cases it can be a difficulty and one of those is where local laws are wildly different. Possibly the two main instances where the UK has very different laws to the US, Canada, Australia, much of mainland Europe, and in fact most of the rest of the world are a) wild camping and b) knives. I’m not going to talk about wild camping here because it’s another topic for another day, but the subject of this post is knives. It’s important as a British hiker, hiking in the UK, to understand our local laws and, when reading blog posts and reviews about ‘essential tools’ and ‘everyday carry’ written by non-Brits, to do so with the knowledge that much of it simply can’t be applied here because our laws are so much more restrictive.

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What OutdoorGearLab Doesn’t Understand About the Arc’teryx Atom SuperLight Down Jacket(and Many Other Things)

A Disclaimer

I love OutdoorGearLab. They provide an incredibly valuable service for free – in fact, they are one of only about ten sites which I whitelist from my adblocker… the ultimate internet compliment. Their reviews, when read from a perspective of intermediate understanding and surrounding context, are typically insightful and detailed in a way that few others are. My current bugbear concerns the superlight down jacket category.

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Review: Rab Xiom Jacket

The Rab Xiom Jacket is a couple of years old now and it’s no longer featured on the Rab UK site (though it is on the US one). It looks to me as if it has been replaced by the Firewall jacket which, like the Xiom is a fully-featured, breathable, 3-layer Pertex Shield® jacket with helmet-compatible hood, chest pocket and underarm vents that weighs around 500g (the Xiom actually seems to be a bit lighter than the Firewall, but of course it depends on size as well). However, since the Xiom is still widely available I hope this review will be useful, and even if you aren’t looking at a Xiom, I would guess that a lot of this review will be applicable to the Firewall as well.

The Xiom is considerably heavier than my other shell, the Arc’Teryx Squamish but fulfills a different role, being also much, much more reliably waterproof. Pertex Shield+ is an alternative to GoreTex that is extremely waterproof, at 20,000mm hydrostatic head. That is a test, essentially, of, how much water it can withstand without wetting through, 20,000 is high enough to withstand extremely heavy rain for long periods of time, and is as high as it gets for hiking kit. Though I guess serious sailing gear might go higher, it lacks the lightweight and breathable qualities we need – it’s the 3-layer technology that contributes to this, dispersing condensation in a way that a simple 1-layer fabric, no matter how waterproof, couldn’t.

The point is that this is a relatively ‘bomb-proof’ jacket. It may not be as breathable as the lighter-weight options, but I can be pretty confident that in any conditions I am realistically likely to face, it will keep me dry. That’s a really important confidence and safety issue for hiking in the UK in almost any season and especially in autumn or winter when three days of torrential rain is not uncommon.

In fact, on my summer hike in Brecon a couple of years ago, it poured down for the first day and the Xiom did an amazing job of keeping me dry, without even coming close to wetting out.

The other practical consideration with a raincoat is, once I accept that water won’t go through it, will it go round it. If that sounds like a stupid question, it isn’t – the most waterproof jacket in the world is still a nightmare if water drips into your face, down the back of your neck, off the back and down your trousers, and so on. Well, the good news is that the hood is absolutely brilliant, with a wire-reinforced brim meaning you can keep rain well off your face even in high winds, and plenty of adjustments to make it comfortable. Taped seams, waterproof zips, inbuilt storm shields, a hem drawcord and velcro cuffs also mean there’s not much danger of water getting in anywhere else.

The one issue is that, like most fairly ‘active’ shells, it’s quite short, coming down to only a little below the top of the hips, and very slightly lower at the back. That means that in heavy rain water does tend to pour off it and onto your trousers, but that’s inevitable with any jacket and easily solved by wearing waterproof trousers. I guess if I knew I was going to be in heavy rain for days and days I might consider taking a slightly longer jacket but, like everything, it’s a trade-off with weight, comfort, breathability and so on.

As far as breathability goes, this is hard to measure accurately. It’s not something I’d particularly relish wearing while moving fast up a mountain on a warmish day, but it is about as breathable as you can realistically expect for such a highly waterproof jacket. It does also have long underarm zips to add a bit of extra ventilation, and you can always push the sleeves up to a bit below the elbow and secure them with the velcro cuffs if, like me, you don’t like having warm forearms…

There are lighter-weight (and more breathable) jackets in Rab’s range, and this certainly isn’t really suitable for trail running or fast-packing, but any hiker, especially over here, needs a really serious waterproof jacket and that is exactly what the Xiom is. I would certainly recommend it or, if I’m right that it has been discontinued and replaced by the Firewall then I am sure that is equally excellent.

Review: Arc’Teryx Squamish 

There’s a moment in a lot of hikes and trail runs I’ve been on where you’re moving at a reasonable pace, generating a fair amount of body heat, and your layering system is more or less keeping up warm… except for the nagging icy wind that penetrates to your shoulders and arms especially, chilling you unpleasantly. Just adding a more insulated layer will only cause you to overheat, and may not even cut out the wind particularly effectively if it’s fairly air-permeable, while a waterproof shell will be heavy and insufficiently breathable.

It’s at this moment that you want one of the super-light windroof, water-resistant shells that a lot of manufacturers make. My chosen one is the Arc’Teryx Squamish, an incredibly lightweight (155g) and packable hooded windshell.

Despite being so light as to be almost unnoticeable, both in your bag and on your body, the windproof powers of the jacket are incredible. On my recent Snowdon hike, the wind really picked up as we approached the summit and was starting to bite through my lightweight Rab fleece. As soon as I put the jacket on I had the weird sensation of still being able to feel the pressure of the wind against my arm, but absolutely none of the chill of it getting through. There is no doubt that this jacket does what it says, and blocks even the 35-40mph winds we experienced. With the hood on and the zip done up to the top, I managed to completely shut out the sub-zero winds on the summit.

It’s not designed to be a waterproof jacket, but it does have a DWR coating which, if maintained, will certainly keep you dry in light showers, dense fog/cloud and so on.

To save weight, the jacket is fairly light on features with just a single drawcord at the back of the hood to tighten it, and a soft brim. It also has an adjustable elasticated draw cord at the waist, which is a really nice feature to keep it in place, stop it flapping about, and seal out winds. The sleeves have a simple Velcro fastener which makes it easier to adjust over various garments, or to push up the sleeve which is something I sometimes do when I’m on a run and I’m trying to keep a cold wind off my torso, but want my forearms to be bare.

The jacket is equally good for running – the light weight and breathability making it ideal for trail runs on cold windy days, such as the Pilgrims Challenge run I did around this time last year, on an incredibly windy weekend. Its ‘athletic’ fit and shaped forearms make it comfortable to run in to the point that you barely notice it is there. My one issue when running was that I had the hood down and it kept flapping around in my peripheral vision which was distracting without being a real issue. On future occasions I would just know in advance to bring something along a bit of elastic or even tape or something that I could use to secure it.

Although I don’t have enough experience of other similar products to make a direct comparison (my brother will no doubt at some point provide me with a guest review of his similar jacket from Rab) I can highly recommend this to any hiker or trail runner who wants something light and packable that they can reliably use to keep off the worst winds.