An introduction to layering

This post was last updated on October 14th, 2020 at 02:43 pm

If you’ve read my various blog posts about hiking, and reviews of kit, you’ll no doubt have heard me talk a lot about layering systems and so on. Likewise, whenever you read any advice about staying warm and having outdoor-appropriate kit, people talk about ‘make sure to wear layers’. At it’s simplest, that makes sense; layers keep you warm by trapping air, and have the advantage that you can adjust for temperature by simply removing a layer.

But there is so much more to it than that. Base layers, mid-layers, shells. Fleece, down, merino, coreloft. What do you need and how do you choose?

Well, here’s your primer: an introduction to layering that will understand the theory and ensure you have the gear you need.

Continue reading “An introduction to layering”

Review: Arc’Teryx Atom LT Midlayer Jacket

Arc-Teryx Atom LT midlayer

This post was last updated on August 7th, 2020 at 05:24 pm

To begin this Arc’Teryx Atom LT review it might help to make some sense of what this jacket is by unpacking where it fits into the Arc’Teryx range. First of all the fact it is an Atom means that it is a synthetically-insulated midlayer, as opposed to the Cerium/Thorium range that are insulated with down. Broadly speaking, all things being equal, down is probably a little warmer for the same weight, while synthetic insulation is better at maintaining its insulating properties when wet. Modern down generally has water-resistant treatments that improve their performance when wet but most still tend to clump and lose loft, so even Arc’Teryx recommends their down jackets for ‘cold, dry’ weather. Coreloft, the synthetic insulation in question, is a significant step up from fleece in terms of insulation but, every decision in hiking being a trade off, a bit less breathable and much less wicking. For more information about the history of synthetic-insulated mid-layers, and a comparison with a similar jacket made using Primaloft instead of Coreloft, read this Patagonia Nano Air review.

Continue reading “Review: Arc’Teryx Atom LT Midlayer Jacket”

Review: Patagonia R1 Full Zip Jacket

This post was last updated on October 14th, 2020 at 02:55 pm

Truly exceptional design often takes such a fundamental foothold in our lives that we lose appreciation for the revolutionary nature of the original product. Edison’s light bulbs, the Boeing 747, Converse sneakers; all now mimicked and genericized to the extent that their impact is diminished. But what have all these go to do with this Patagonia R1 review?

Let’s find out.

Continue reading “Review: Patagonia R1 Full Zip Jacket”

Review: eGlove Sport

This post was last updated on October 14th, 2020 at 03:01 pm

It’s got bloody cold over the last few days and, especially running along the coast where there’s a bit of a breeze, my hands really suffer. Everything else warms up but, on a cold day, it’s hard to keep your hands warm. A good pair of running gloves is vital, but getting the right product is hard. It has to keep the wind at bay, but anything too heavy will quickly become uncomfortable. I always used to run in a pair of lightweight full-finger cycling gloves which were decent enough, although still sometimes a bit too warm. I’ve recently, however, been sent a pair of gloves made by eGlove, a company that makes touchscreen gloves tailored towards a variety of sports. These are the running gloves, a hi-tech, lightweight pair of breathable, close-fitting gloves made mainly from lycra. Like all eGlove products, the index finger and thumb on each hand have touchscreen tips, but they’re durable enough to handle a hard training session with a rucksack.

Continue reading “Review: eGlove Sport”

Presidential Traverse – My kit list

This post was last updated on October 14th, 2020 at 03:15 pm

If you saw Monday’s post you’ll know that over the weekend I did a fairly serious hike in the White Mountains; famously home to the worst weather in the United States.

white mountain national forest sign
Welcome to the White Forest National Park.

I thought I’d share the kit I took with me and some of the thinking behind it. I’m not suggesting that this is either a mandatory kit list, or the perfect kit list for any hike in this location. On the contrary, in winter you would need to take considerably more kit including specialised winter equipment such as snowshoes and crampons. All I’ll say is that in my opinion, the kit I took was sensible and cautious without being excessive for a mid-October hike with good weather forecast and no snow. Ultimately though, it’s going to be up to you to do your research, check the weather, and take the kit you think is appropriate.

Continue reading “Presidential Traverse – My kit list”

Winter Running Kit: Prepare For The Chill

This post was last updated on July 31st, 2020 at 07:21 am

Every time I think it’s going to start getting properly cold, we have another beautiful, mild, day. Winters in Southern England often aren’t all that cold to be honest, and as a runner I find that most of my winter running kit is only needed to get me out of the door and through the first chilly half-mile, and then comes off. However, even if that’s all I use it for it’s still useful, and then occasionally you do want to run on a really freezing day and you’ll need all this kit. Here are a few bits worth investing in so you have them ready for winter:

Yaxtrax

Yaktrax – available at Amazon

These are an amazing bit of kit that basically consist of springs that hook round your boots or trainers, providing masses of extra grip on ice. You can easily run in them, although they take a little bit of getting used to, after a while you won’t even notice. To be honest, I don’t use these all that often – it was a very rare day in London if there was enough ice to make these worthwhile. However, as I now plan to do more running in the South Downs I suspect they will come in more and more handy. More to the point, they mean that I never have an excuse not to run, even if it is incredibly slippery outside.

A Hat

I can’t run in a hat for too long – I overheat quickly. However, on a really cold day there is nothing like a fleecy hat to help you get over the initial “oh my god this is unpleasant why don’t I just go back inside” bit of the run. Even if a few minutes later it comes off and gets tucked in a pocket, it was still worth it.

Iffley Road Beanie

I have a couple, one is a nice construction that is relatively lightweight on top but with more fleece around the brim and ears, which is ideal for runners. The other is a very cool one by Iffley road which is light enough that I do actually sometimes wear it for the whole run, and which I particularly like for long trail runs or in light rain.

Gloves

You can get all sorts of runners gloves – the main thing is you’ll want them to be light, to keep the bite of cold wind at bar but to stop you overheating. Even my hands tend to warm up surprisingly quickly when I’m running, despite the fact I’m barely using them. I like the style with conductive finger tips so you can still use your smartphone while wearing them…

Winter running kit - keeping your fingers toasty.
Trailheads Gore-tex running gloves have a good fit and do a decent job of removing sweat from your hands.

There are lots of options out there so it’s worth thinking about how heavy you want them to be, whether they need to be windproof, waterproof, or just an extra layer. One feature I quite like on the ones above is the absorbent material on the back of the hands to help wipe away sweat. Just means you have to wash them every run of course.

The Trailhead Gore-tex gloves (available at Amazon) have served me pretty well, and James used a similar pair on his journey up Lake Baikal.

Leggings

Love ’em or hate ’em, there are some days where you’ll want ’em. I personally find them pretty uncomfortable so a) I only wear them on the coldest days and b) I think it’s well worth investing in some good ones, designed for running, so they are tailored properly to fit and stretch right while you’re running, and not be any more uncomfortable than they have to be.

Shell

This is an absolute must-have. In fact, in the UK, it’s a must-have pretty much any day of the year if you’re running somewhere where you can’t easily get shelter if it pours down. I take mine on trail runs even in August because you can never guarantee it won’t rain…

The key with a running shell is for it to be as lightweight as possible, and you can get some seriously lightweight ones now, and for it to be as breathable as it can be without compromising on waterproof qualities. Running in something like a Montane Alpine Endurance is hard work!

That’s a tricky trade off and one that different companies solve in different ways. There is some controversy about the environmental impact of both the materials and the waterproofing sprays that are an integral part of the process, and some companies are starting to look at alternatives, such as using recycled plastics. If that matter to you (and to be fair, it probably should) then it’s worth researching that a bit yourself.

My own shell is a fantastic Arc’Teryx Squamish lightweight shell – it’s super light, so you hardly notice you’re wearing it while running, and is highly adjustable for different conditions, which is a plus: in high winds or heavy rain you can seal up the wrists, do the zip up to the top, and pull the hood down over your eyes. If you’re just trying to keep off a bit of light rain but are otherwise quite warm, you can easily loosen off the sleeves and vent the jacket a bit.

Headtorch

As it starts to get dark before you even finish work, the chances of you running in the dark increases. In London or other towns and cities this isn’t much of an issue, I could always run all the way home without needing a headtorch as there’s street lighting the whole way. On the other hand, if your favoured route takes you onto country roads, riverside paths or other areas away from street lighting, you’re going to want a headtorch. These can be very cheap, in fact for years I used a free one I got in my Paris Marathon goodie bag (best goodie bag I’ve ever had at a race, by the way, except maybe London which included a can of beer…) but sometimes it’s worth investing a little bit more for one which is comfortable, light, and adjustable. I now use a petzl headlamp which has various different brightness settings (beneficial for conserving battery if you don’t need full beam on).

Buff

On a really cold day, when elephants lumber across the river Thames, there’s something very comforting about having something round your neck. Scarves are totally impractical for running of course, but a buff is absolutely fantastic. You can buy fleecy ones, but they are probably too warm most of the time, so a standard cotton one will do the job and keep the chill air off the back of your neck without overheating you. The advantage is that if it’s really cold it can be pulled up over the face and ears, or pulled down if it’s warmer. In fact, the burning in your throat you get by breathing cold air as you run can be mitigated by pulling the buff over your mouth like a bank robber. Some might find that a bit claustrophobic, but it might be worth it if you’re suffering.

What’s on your list of winter running kit? Any good ones I’ve missed?

Guest Post: Westcomb Apoc Review

Westcomb Apoc

This post was last updated on July 20th, 2020 at 09:41 am

This is a guest post by Isaac, our US Correspondent.

Anybody who has even briefly considered buying a rain jacket in the last decade has probably discovered the rabbit hole of competing technologies, hyperbolic claims, and unverifiable, proprietary breathability tests.

If you’re absolutely new to this discussion, I’ll hand you over to a man much more qualified than I am – Andrew Skurka, king of hikers. He doesn’t pull any punches.

The short version – that many of you will have suspected or come to realize on your own after years of owning disappointing rain jackets – is that there really is no perfect solution. No matter what manufacturers claim, no single garment or fabric is going to keep you absolutely dry, whether from the inside or out, in all conditions.

The upshot of this realization is to inspire increasing specialization amongst rain jackets. Someone looking to buy something to keep them dry is now faced with everything from the most hardcore, 3-layer bombproof Gore-Tex piece, such as the Alpha AR from Arc’teryx, through to simple 2-layer shells like the Marmot Precip, as well as the soft-shells popular with more active types, and even the minimalist, DWR-treated Nylon wind jackets like the Patagonia Houdini and Arc’teryx Squamish. You’ll encounter very serious hikers with long distance trails under their (very rugged looking) belts, who advocate nothing but an umbrella – or poncho, or rain kilt, or something else similarly improbable yet oddly beguiling.

I couldn’t possibly help you choose. Or at least, I could, but it would be time consuming and tedious for both of us. Outdoorgearlab.com does an exceptional job of breaking down the many different categories, but ultimately the various compromises you wish to make in comfort, protection, weight, ‘breathability’, design, quality and versatility are all very personal decisions.

Regardless, despite the above caveats and Andrew Skurka’s misgivings, the one item that almost every hiker will end up owning is a hard-shell – by which I usually mean, a jacket that offers excellent, inherent, protection against both wind and rain, bolstered by a DWR coating to stop the fabric wetting out and losing its ability to vent. I am no different – and as a risk averse hiker, even on the most beautiful, unthreatening summer days, you’ll find a hard-shell in my backpack where a DWR-treated wind jacket would suffice 99.5% of the time.

Which hard-shell? I own the Westcomb Apoc (the version prior to the current one, which by all accounts improved on the one I own). Westcomb are a smallish manufacturer based in Canada, who make expensive but exceptional outdoors gear – the prices may be justified to some by the fact that their jackets are made in Canada. Personally I couldn’t have even considered their prices except for a very fortunate sale, but having owned the Apoc I realize it represents terrific value for money.

The jacket, although it is a ‘hard-shell’ lacks many of the characteristics many have come to expect of them – and this is a good thing. The fabric is Polartec’s NeoShell, which is neither crinkly nor rustles when walking – even with the hood up, the ever present swish-swash that accompanied the wet English walks of my childhood is almost completely absent.

There is not a multitude of pockets, just a minimalist selection of well-placed, brilliantly sealed and very trim places to tuck away a phone, map or snack. The drawstring system is simple but effective, both at the waist and on the hood – I’ve never had a jacket before that fits so well, but so comfortably to my face. It doesn’t sag forward over my eyes, or funnel water into them. Instead, the little peak stays firm and keeps slanted rain away, and the sides seal well against my cheeks when adjusted right, stopping any rain from coming in and doing the unpleasant, cold, neck-trickle-down. The armpit vents are always a nice feature – and an acknowledgement that no matter how ‘breathable’ the fabric might be, nothing works as well as simply exposing your hottest, sweatiest areas directly to the elements.

The little touches I’ve come to especially appreciate are the ultra-soft, microfleece areas at the front and back of the neck, where a rougher fabric would rub against beards, cold mouths, and sensitive skin. The little hoods at the top of each zip do a great job of directing water away from running into any open pockets.

It’s been a year now since I bought the Apoc, and I’ve had a chance to take it on a fair number of hikes in varying conditions.  The Polartec Neoshell is not magical – if you do anything strenuous while wearing this shell then you will inevitably get sweaty. Unfortunately, physics reigns supreme over fabric technology. Is it better than alternatives? No doubt. I own a Patagonia Torrentshell (made with their H2NO fabric) that I use in town, and the difference is stark. The Apoc has none of the instant clamminess that comes with other hard-shells – and I notice that Neoshell is used as the main material in several soft-shells now – a testament to its capabilities.

I don’t notice any drop off in wind-stopping capabilities with it, either. Although there surely has to be some compromise somewhere to obtain its well-vented feel, I’ve never felt anything less than absolutely protected on the top of New Hampshire’s mountains in Winter. Perhaps if I were climbing in the Rockies in Winter I might consider a shell more traditionally considered ‘bombproof’ – but I suspect it would be unnecessary.The rain protection is second to none. Out of the box, the protection was excellent – I was looking out for any weak spots but saw nothing. I’ve refreshed the DWR coating just once – after six months and 10 or so rain showers I noticed some wetting out on the shoulders, and threw it in the tumble dryer with some new DWR treatment. Ever since, the rain has quite literally flown off the jacket. Seriously – it’s impossible to get it wet.

In conclusion – a fantastic jacket that stands out in a crowded marketplace full of options ranging from the very bad to the very good. Although its pricey, when it comes to hard-shells it’s actually not even on the highest end. Highly recommended.

Review: WAA 20l Ultrabag – the perfect Marathon des Sables bag

This post was last updated on October 15th, 2020 at 12:54 pm

As promised, here are some more detailed thoughts on the WAA 20l Ultrabag we were all given at the MDS expo on Saturday. I don’t know if it’s fair to really call it a ‘review’ since, while I have run 23 miles with it, I have not yet used it for its intended purpose – a multi-day ultramarathon. But whatever, here are my thoughts.


First up, I have the third edition MDS version. The ‘MDS’ bit just means it is yellow and has Marathon des Sables branding, the ‘third edition’ bit seems to incorporate some subtle changes which I will come onto later. It’s also worth mentioning that the pack has two possible front pouches. The one shown in most of the images is larger, with elastic strapping on the front, and the option for bottle pouches on the sides or strapping a bottle to the top. However, at the expo some people received this and some, me included, got the ‘lighter’ version of the front pouch which is just a small pouch with one holder for a water bottle at the side. In principle, fair enough, but I’m a bit fed up about it as I’m not sure the lighter pouch is going to do the job for me.

The trouble is that at most water stations runners will be given 3l of water, and without the option to strap a 1.5l water bottle to the top of this pouch, I’m not clear what I’m going to do with the water that won’t fit into the two 750ml water bottles on the shoulder straps. I may be able to solve this another way, or I may just have to buy the other, bigger, front pouch.


Anyway – other than that, this is a bag that was specifically designed for the Marathon des Sables, and it shows, with lots of features that feel like someone went “if only my bag had a XYZ”. In most respects that’s a really good thing, resulting in some neat features to make life easier, but the one downside is that it results in a relatively heavy bag. I haven’t weighed it yet but I’m told that with all the attachments it comes in at nearly 1kg, around double the weight of other super-light 20L bags. It’s all a trade-off, though, and I’m prepared to sacrifice a bit of weight for the ease and convenience of managing my kit that the WAA bag provides.

Layout and features

Starting with the main body, the bag has a very rectangular shape which makes it (some people think) a little ugly-looking, but I suspect makes packing a lot easier, especially if you are doing what a lot of ultra-runners do and packaging everything into separate little bundles that stack together ‘like Tetris’ as the man from WAA put it. It is extremely compressible, with elastic straps on both sides that can be used to shove kit into or to squash the bag down from its full 20l capacity to around 4l. The point is that as the week goes on and you eat your food, you still want a bag that keeps everything tight and not rattling around.


Inside the main compartment is an elasticated pouch that you can shove a few small items into to keep them secure, and an unclippable water-resistant zip-up pouch. This is one of those features that adds weight but also convenience, allowing you to put either wet clothes into it to keep the rest of the pack dry, or food into it to keep it sand-free when you are putting other things in and out of the bag.

One of the nice features with the main compartment is that it unzips almost all the way around (270 degrees apparently) so that, if you place the bag flat, you can fold the whole back off and see the entire contents easily. That makes it much easier to grab things from the bottom of the bag, as well as to reassure yourself you haven’t forgotten anything before you set off each day. Once the compartment is closed, two clips also attach the back of the bag to the top of the shoulder straps – these can be tightened or loosened depending on how full the bag is, and the theory is that they bring more of the weight of the bag over the top of the shoulders and not on the back.

In previous versions there was an option to attach a forehead strap to these clips so you could take some of the weight on your forehead like a Sherpa. In theory that is still possible but as far as I could tell the strap itself wasn’t included and it’s not really something I envisage using.

On the back of the main compartment are two little elasticated pouches, four points to attach your race number so it is visible from behind, and a long vertical pouch running down the back. Originally this used to be for the mandatory flare, but many people used it for storing foldable running poles, although apparently it was a bit too narrow to easily fit two poles. Anyway, the flare has been done away with this year as all competitors have emergency GPS beacons, so this pouch has been officially made a running pole pouch and has been made a little larger so that it should fit two properly.

The waist strap I found a little annoying – it is a very simple webbing belt with a buckle and adjustors, but with two padded pouches slipped over the belt providing some hip padding and extra storage. That’s all well and good, but as they aren’t attached to anything they tend to slide around when I’m running which drove me mad on my long run on Sunday. Job one is going to have to be securing them back against the main body of the bag so they are just over the hips and not moving around or getting in the way of my arms.

The chest strap is pretty standard, and like many other ultra-running packs it includes a whistle which presumably eliminates one mandatory item from my list. There are also four more of the race number attachment points here, so you can attach the number over your chest as the rules require.

Finally, on the shoulder straps are the two water bottle pouches and two 750ml water bottles with drinking straws. These aren’t bad, although the lack of an elasticated rim around the pouches makes replacing bottles on the move a bit harder than it might be. I also found the straws a bit rubbish – they have drinking tips that can be opened by pulling away from the straw (that probably makes no sense… but it’s basically the standard open/close sports drinking bottle type arrangement) but there is no positive click and if you pull too much the whole rubber tip comes off very easily. They also seemed rubbish at getting the last inch or so of water in the bottle, but I guess that may be my fault for doing a bad job of cutting the straws down or positioning them. At any rate, Graeme Harvey convinced me that there are much lighter bottles available so I might look for something a bit different over the next few weeks.

Summary


Overall, this is a brilliant bag for the purpose it’s specifically intended – it has a removable pad that makes it pretty comfortable for a lightweight bag, and all the little features make organising your kit easily. There are a few niggles, and I will need to figure out how to best carry and drink my water, as well as experiment more with carrying all my kit and see how it feels at full weight, but as it stands I can’t see myself needing to buy any other bag for the race, and afterwards this should do me very nicely for fastpacking adventures.