Category Archives: Gear

Velbon V-Pod Tripod

After reading the review on Hendrik’s blog,  I’ve just got hold of a Velbon V-Pod tripod. It’s incredibly lightweight (< 280g on my scales) yet stable. The only downside I’ve seen (compared to conventional tripods) is that the lack of clamps means that each leg section must be either fully extended or collapsed, so setting it up on uneven ground is not so easy. You just have to put up with it at an odd angle and adjust the ball head to compensate.  Continue reading Velbon V-Pod Tripod

Ordnance Survey HD mapping

When you’re using maps (digital or otherwise) , the quality of the underlying information is all-important. For LandRanger and Explorer digital mapping, the OS has always provided data at a resolution of 254 DPI (Dots Per Inch : with 254 DPI, one ‘dot’ equals 5 metres on the ground). This is fine for most uses, but the shortcomings of this comparatively low resolution are apparent in a number of places. Continue reading Ordnance Survey HD mapping

Mountain King Trail Blaze poles

Mountain King Trail Blaze poles on Dduallt
I haven’t always got on well with trekking poles: not so many years ago I comprehensively sprained my ankle by tripping over one. “Clumsy” would be putting it politely.  My balance and movement skills are rather better these days, but it took me almost a year before I’d trust myself using one again. A couple of years back I switched from a single pole to using two, and found that worked well for me.

I was happy with my old poles, a pair of Leki Makalu carbon ones, but thanks to a bit of grade 1 stupidity I left them in the car park at Dan yr Ogof at the end of a walk. The staff were helpful one the phone, but the poles had long gone. Hopefully someone else is getting some good use out of them now.

The Lekis had let me down once, when an adjuster failed on top of Carnedd Llewellyn – so looking at something else (and something cheaper) seemed a good idea. I’d read Petesy’s review of the Mountain King Trail Blaze poles, but was concerned that even the longer 120cm model wouldn’t suit my lanky 6’3″ frame, but apparently Bob at BackpackingLight uses them and he’s the same height. (There’s now a 130cm model, but that seems too long, even for me.) While the Trail Blaze poles are very light (125g each, if you believe the MK website – mine are a little over 135g), the real benefit is that they shrink down to just 36cm when packed, while conventional poles are typically over 60cm, with four folded sections rather than three telescoping ones. The length means they’re a lot easier to stow on your pack when you don’t need them – either in the wand pockets, under compression straps, or even just velcro’d on to the front of the shoulder straps. (I tried this last briefly, and while it’s possible, any stumble will likely end up with a walking pole in your eye socket). For scrambling you can even stick them inside your pack, which is ideal.

Assembling and dismantling the poles is really straightforward. A shock cord runs the entire length of the pole, and pulling this taut makes the pole sections slot into each other. Then, pull (harder!) until a knot in the cord comes out the top, which slots into a notch on top of the handle to keep the tension. The loose end of the cord can be tied round the pole using the Velcro loop which normally wraps the pole sections together when they’re collapsed.

There are some downsides, of course. You can’t lengthen the poles slightly for descents like a normal pole, and the fixed height means they may not work well as supports for Tarp shelters. And unsurprisingly, they feel a bit flimsier than ‘proper’ poles but despite a few clumsy attempts I haven’t been able to inflict any serious damage on them. And, if you accidentally plunge them deep into typical mid-Wales gloopy  bog, then as you pull to extract them the joints will pull apart a bit as the shock cord stretches, until they finally pop out of the mud and snap loudly back together. At times they feel slightly ‘rattly’, but if that gets noticeably bad, then re-tensioning the shock cord should be straightforward.

I like to keep a length of spare duct tape wrapped around a pole – with the Trail Blaze, this also helps keep the loose end of the shock cord nicely tensioned. Without it the velcro loop can move up and flap around a bit.

 

Maps for Walking

The maps I walk with are usually 1:25000 “Explorer” scale, and you can usually get great deals on these from online from Dash4it.co.uk, but the waterproof “Active” ones will still set you back nearly a tenner. You can get the normal paper ones more cheaply, but without a mapcase they’ll become almost useless in the first bit of rain. And, inside a mapcase, the same will happen when you inevitably need to re-fold them in a downpour. If the mapcase doesn’t strangle you in high winds first.

But… the “Active” maps  are heavy, at over 200 grams each. And more often than not, you’ll need more than one on a walk. Moel Siabod sits across two maps, while the area around Pumlumon really needs three. You’ve now reached the point where your maps can weigh more than your tent.

To get round this, some people cut up the big maps into handy A4 sizes and laminate them. This fixes the weight problem, but the laminated maps don’t last forever (particularly if you fold them) and you can still end up shuffling a deck of them if your route doesn’t fit nicely into the chunks you cut up.

I’ve been using Mapyx Quo digital mapping on my PC for a while, and while it’s an ideal way of planning routes at home, it’s also great for printing customized, lightweight maps to take on the hill. Cheap to get started, too: the software is free and you can download individual 10K x 10K ’tiles’ for £2.25 each, with no minimum order. While that’s expensive compared to a paper map, you only need buy the tiles you need, and you can print from them as often as you need. Most day walks will fit comfortably onto a single A4 sheet at 1:25000 scale.

When printing the maps, there’s a few tips and tricks to be aware of:

  • If you’re using Quo. try the new “Advanced Print” dialog:
  • Adjust the Position and Width & Height to get the best fit to your paper without clipping.
  • Turn Grid on – this ensure you’ve got grid square numbers on the map edges. Reading map references is impossible without this.
  • Set Sharpen to 1 or 2. This radically enhances the visibility of contours and other fine detail.
  • Experiment on normal paper, but use Toughprint Waterproof Paper for the maps you take with you. It’s truly amazing stuff. You can fold it in quarters and stick it in a trouser pocket, and reuse the map over and over without it degrading significantly, even on the creases. Alternatively, an A4 laminator is cheap, but the laminated maps are difficult to fold and can delaminate around the creases.
  • If you need multiple sheets, print your maps double-sided.
  • If your route needs more than a single A4 page, make sure your sheets have a decent amount of overlap.
  • Check the map prints at the right scale, by measuring the gridlines on the paper. If this is wrong, you’ll get inaccurate grid references when using your romer.
  • Make sure your printed area includes any escape routes and enough area outside your intended route. If you wander off route, then you’ll still be somewhere on your map.
  • If there particularly complex areas, or your reading vision is poor, consider printing the map at a larger scale, eg 1:12500
  • Use the best resolution your printer can manage : 600 DPI is ideal for laser printers.
  • Ideally, have a backup map. I’ve dropped maps before now, and a single A4 sheet is noticeably easier to lose than a full-size OS map. I either put a Harvey’s 1:40000 British Mountain Map
    in my pack (light, waterproof and generally great) or have Viewranger 1:50K OS mapping on my mobile.

Sharpening the print makes a huge difference: This image shows scanned prints with and without sharpening, and a scanned OS map and digital ‘screengrab’ as comparison. The resolution of the digital data provided by the OS means you can never print as good a map as they can, but you can certainly make acceptable ones.

You’ll also probably spot that the older 2006 paper map is subtly different from the newer digital data. OS have reduced the darkness of cliff and crags, which makes the contours easier to read, and also added boundary walls and fences which were bizarrely missing. The path up to Y Garn (off to the north) has also been significantly changed. All good reasons to make sure your maps are up to date!

Food for thought


Lunch on working days tends to be a sandwich, or something cold grabbed from the fridge, so the idea of hot lunch on the hill is always appealing. But I hate the usual dehydrated stuff. Yes, it’s lighter, but you’ve got to carry more water, and the end result for me is usually almost – but not quite – totally unlike the picture on the packet. So, I’m a great fan of the Look What We Found! range of packet “ready meals”. Great tasting, great local ingredients, and minimal faff. Better still, for some, they have a wide range of gluten-free meals.

There are a couple of drawbacks, though. If you ‘boil in the bag’, the ink can leach out of the labels making the water less palatable for a brew. They suggest soaking off the labels first, but the idea of unlabelled food packets seems a bit like playing Russian Roulette with unlabelled food tins: “Today’s surprise breakfast is… Whiskas!” (or maybe worse, tinned peaches…)

The other catch is the calorie content. The Rose Veal and Wild Mushroom Stroganoff sounds delicious, but you’ll only pick up 231 Kcals from a 300g pack. My favourite, the Gloucester Old Spot Meatballs are a better bet at 354 Kcals, but with either you’ll really want to pack some more carbs in as well. Wayfarer food (which PTC is a recent convert to) is usually in the high 300s for an identically sized pack. For extra carbs, I find Naan bread is suitably indestructible, but haven’t found a way to easily heat it…

Under the food pack in the photo you can see a corner of a self-heating pack poking out. LWWF used to sell these too, but I’ve just used the last of my batch and can’t find them on their shiny new website. Basically, a plastic bag with a chemical pouch inside: Pop the sealed food pouch in the bag, add a small amount of water, and it sets off a strongly exothermic reaction. Leave it for about 10 mins, then remove and eat hot(-ish) tasty food. For best results wait at least 10 mins, keep the pack well insulated while it’s doing its magic, and give the pouch a quick stir to even out any cold spots. The pack takes a while to cool, so you could also remove the pouch and use as a hand/pocket warmer. While these are fine for hot meals on a day walk, I’d pack a stove for anything longer.

I have a love-hate relationship with sporks. Yes, they’re a design classic, and there are buckets of the blasted things on the counter in every outdoors shop. But… actually, all I want is a spoon: I’ve taken sporks everywhere, and never used the fork/knife end at all (apart from poking holes in things that didn’t need holes poking in them).  And worse, as a spoon, they are just too short to allow you get to the very bottom of a pack without getting tomatoey fingers. It seems there’s a longer one available, so I went to ask the friendly staff in Marches Outdoors if they had one. They didn’t, but L’s eyes lit up on seeing this one in pink. At least it hasn’t got unicorns on it.