Footwear

I’ve left it late, as I invariably do, but I’m in the early stages of breaking in a new pair of boots, which will take a while. I don’t much like boots, only wear them when really necessary – snow (which is sadly rare) and deep mud or boggy ground (somewhat less rare); but the sole on my old Hi-Tec Ascents is separating from the upper in a way that no amount of wax or dubbin is going to fix. I’ll hopefully see out the winter with them and, in the meantime,  gradually ease in the new pair with shorter walks on mostly level ground. Coincidentally, I’m not the only one breaking in new boots… see Alan Sloman’s blog.

I’m much more interested in the experimental pair of ‘trail’ shoes I’m trying out, and encouraged by first impressions. Having had mixed experiences with both Inov8 and Brasher (one good, one not so good in each case) I decided to go down the route of looking around for a pair of cross-country running shoes in a wide fitting and came across the New Balance 610 Version 4 at what seemed like an astonishingly good price. The price led me to suspect that a model change was imminent, which turned out to be true; the restyled but apparently similar under the skin V5 is now on sale, retailing at between £70 and £80.

Width fitting is an issue with me, particularly for my seemingly ever-spreading left foot and the discomfort it suffers from a too tight toe-box. Specifying ‘wide fit’ in an online search reduces the available options considerably; the 610s are a 4e width fitting and comfortable from first time on. Specifying cross-country was simply in the hope of finding something with improved grip – primarily for mud and wet rock, rather than snow and ice – although the lug pattern on the NB’s isn’t what I would describe as overly aggressive.

dscn1165First impressions are so far so good: the shoes have felt comfortable from the outset, grip is certainly good on muddy trails; as for durability only time will tell. The 4e width is a real blessing for me as I don’t have to go a half or even a full size bigger just to get a bit more room in the toe-box. The only real drawback is that the shoes have a Gore-tex liner, which I would happily have done without, but it doesn’t appear to add too much to the weight. Mostly I prefer unlined shoes because I find membranes can make my feet a bit too warm at times. On the plus side, they do mostly fall within my preferred colour range of very dark grey to black.

 

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Gear test -B&Q Plastic Car Boot Liner

I’m generally reluctant to recommend items of equipment and for a number of reasons: our personal requirements and preferences are many and varied; unless I’ve used something over an extended period I’m hesitant to endorse it, and by then it might no longer be available (this can be particularly the case with footwear); a lot of decent outdoor gear isn’t exactly cheap and peoples’ money is usually hard-earned. Professional testers – the likes of Chris Townsend – obviously become more adept at making quick, informed assessments; something which only comes with experience and keeping abreast of developments, so I mostly leave it to them.

However, in this case, it should be non-controversial as the item in question only costs two quid and is unlikely to be overtaken by technological advances.

We love to walk, get out for the day, just generally escape; but there’s no denying we also love just as much to find a quiet spot to sit, eat and drink. Finding the quiet spot isn’t usually too difficult, it’s something at which we’ve become pretty adept; finding somewhere both quiet and dry can be a bit more problematic. For a sizeable chunk of the year vegetation, fallen trees, rocks, even benches, can usually be relied on to be wet; admittedly you can put down a waterproof, but that does invite damage and, anyway, you might want to wear it as an extra layer.
bq-boot-linerI’d been looking around for something light, cheap and disposable to just throw down  – and then my son came home with a plastic boot liner, purchased from B&Q for £2. That’s it pictured left and admittedly it doesn’t exactly sell itself but to me it just oozes understated chic.

Opened out, there is enough room for a couple of people, sandwich boxes, cups, flask, etc., and you can keep things like binoculars and cameras from lying on the wet ground. When used for its intended purpose the sides and ends fold up to form a kind of tray, but these can be folded under when it’s being deployed as a groundsheet. Committed ultralighters could cut them off and probably save… actually, does anybody care?

The item can be viewed on B&Q’s own product page here…

Technical summary:

Weight: not very much

Made of: plastic

Colour: black

Overall impression:  unexciting, admittedly, but useful. Keeps your bum/sarnies/flapjacks/energy bars out of the mud and sheep deposits.

Price: Two quid (£1.80 if you’re in possession of one of B&Q’s Twirly* discount cards and can contain your excitement until Wednesday)

* So called, if the legend is to be believed, because the cards are mostly in the hands of a demographic who turn up before the store is open (even though it opens at 7:00 am on Wednesdays), stare through the glass at the night crew, point to their watches and say “Are we twirly?”.

Pictures taken with a smartphone

I might be about to buy a new compact camera: I have a venerable but ageing Panasonic Lumix – an item seemingly so bombproof it will probably outlive me. But, like many things of a certain age, its performance is limited and – powered, as it is, by AA batteries – prone to running out of steam just when you might need it. It strikes me that, apart from the battery-powered bit, I could just as easily be describing bits of my anatomy here.

Because of a preference for binoculars slung around my neck, as opposed to a camera, I’m often caught napping when an opportunity – particularly for a wildlife shot – presents itself. The Panasonic dates back to long before the days of superzoom compacts, and the bridge camera, which I also sometimes carry, is invariably in the rucksack. Birds and other animals will rarely sit patiently while you take off a pack, retrieve a camera, zoom, focus, generally faff… Although, strangely, it seems they will often hang around until you’re nearly ready before making off.

So, a pocket-sized camera seems like the answer. My son has a fairly recent Panasonic compact, with a 30X zoom, and gets some very good results; although he has to keep it very steady when shooting at anything over 20X.

In the interim, I’ve been trying to take the occasional shot with a camera phone, just by way of experimentation and in the knowledge that the camera on the phone I have is generally described as “disappointing” by reviewers. Some of the results are below and I was surprised at how atmospheric some of them seemed to have turned out. However – atmospheric or otherwise – the one thing they all have in common is that the colours and lighting bear little resemblance to what they were actually like on the day.

The pictures below, mostly give the impression of gathering gloom and fading light: in fact they were all taken at just gone 1 pm on a fairly bright winter’s day, with broken cloud and sunshine. Even the lightest of them – the bottom one – significantly understates how light it was in reality. The camera might not lie, but it can be pretty economical with the truth…   dsc_0043  dsc_0041  dsc_0038  dsc_0036

All pictures were taken from the eastern side of Kinver Edge, Staffordshire, looking          roughly due east. The higher ground in the distance is the Clent Hills, Worcestershire.

The phone is (according to the box) a Sony Xperia M4 Aqua and the camera sensor is 13 megapixels – more pixels than the one on my too-heavy-to-take-on-a-walk Sony DSLR, although that doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger sensor, apparently. It’s produced some quite nice pictures – just not quite the ones I thought I was taking.

dhb merino wool baselayers (31/10/2014)

I came late to Merino. That sounds like the opening line from a romantic novella: “I came late to Merino; Daphne and the children had travelled ahead, along with matron…”

Anyway, nothing so exotic: this is about warm, practical, sensible undergarments. Incidentally, the absence of capitals in the title is deliberate – that’s the preferred style of dhb. The company (dhb) is Hampshire based although, as is often the case these days, manufacture of the garments is outsourced to the far east and elsewhere. dhb clothing seems to be sold almost exclusively as an in-house brand for a company called Wiggle (http://www.wiggle.co.uk/), although the odd item can be found elsewhere on the webnet. Wiggle’s (stop it!) primary target market seems to be cycling, but there is enough crossover for some of their range to be of interest to anyone interested in walking, running and other active pursuits.

My reticence in respect of merino was largely down to a wool-next-to-the-skin aversion; it seemed a bit like wearing your jumper under your shirt. In the context of all of the available expert reviews – many of them extolling the comfort characteristics of merino – this was both illogical and irrational.

Another stumbling block for me was the wide variation in prices between seemingly similar items. This is obviously the case with many items of outdoor clothing and equipment, where slight variations in features and particularly brand premiums can be reflected in all manner of price disparities. Nonetheless,  at times I was struggling to spot any significant difference between items £40 or £50 apart in price.

So I soldiered on with mostly polyester, which isn’t entirely without discomfort as a base-layer, until one day a cycling acquaintance mentioned this range of merino bases at reasonable prices, primarily aimed at cyclists but perfectly functional for other activities. The one caveat was that cycling gear is apparently sometimes cut a little longer, to compensate for the ‘lean forward’ position when riding; I haven’t found this to be particularly noticeable in the dhb products I’ve used. And, speaking of the products, I’ve so far tried a couple and been more than happy with the comfort and performance.

Merino (M 200) zip-neck base layer

When the time came to finally take the plunge, this was the chosen item. Quarter zips have long been a favourite design of mine, particularly for light and mid-weight fleece garments, and that definitely influenced the choice. Having grown up in an era when sizing options were restricted to small, medium and large, and having generally been a solid, unflinching, medium, I find the modern proliferation into XS, even XXS at one end of the sizing scale and any number of Xs plus an ‘L’ at the other, to be incomprehensible. On top of which, it all seems to have conspired to leave me trapped in some netherworld between medium and large.

Thankfully, Wiggle incorporate a pretty reliable sizing chart into their website and this, together with the comments of reviewers – “err on the side of caution and size up”, seemed to be the consensus – persuaded me to go for the large. This turned out to be a sound choice – the fit is comfortable but still quite snug, which is probably the nature of the material more than the size of the garment.

I’ve used the long-sleeve, quarter-zip, as a base under a light or medium weight fleece, windproof or waterproof outer and, on those occasions when it’s down around or below freezing, both fleece and windproof/waterproof. One observation is that it tends to be warm from the outset, in a way that, say, a polyester base sometimes isn’t; merino base plus midweight fleece plus lightweight outer is the most I ever usually need for even the coldest of days, although I tend to run quite hot when on the move. For winter runs (and I’m no speed merchant!) I’ve found the base layer plus a Montane Featherlite smock to be all that’s required.

A couple of times – days when it’s turned out to be unseasonably warm – I’ve ended up, by default, just wearing the merino base as a single layer after stripping off windproof or fleece to prevent overheating. It’s seemed to have pretty good retention of body warmth when time came for a rest stop, although I’d eventually have to slip an outer layer back over it.

dhb M200 zip-neck base layer (Picture from http://www.wiggle.co.uk)

The picture opposite is taken from Wiggle’s own website. Only two colours are presently available – blue, as in the picture, and a very dark grey which is almost black.

The design is plain, with no pockets; the zip runs freely and seems to be of good quality. The garment has kept its shape well after frequent wearing; I’ve machine washed it at 30º using liquid soap flakes and avoided tumble drying. The drying instruction is to lay flat, but I’ve found that hanging, smoothing back into shape and allowing to dry naturally has worked equally well.
Overall, I’ve been more than pleased and subsequently ordered a second of these. My view is that it would not be suitable for warmer days, where you would be likely to be walking in just a single layer; for those days, a looser fit, polyester tee shirt would be a better option.
Merino (M 200) short sleeve base layer

dhb M200 crew neck base layer (Picture from http://www.wiggle.co.uk)

Encouraged by my experiences with the long-sleeved base, I subsequently added a short-sleeved crew neck (no zip) version. This has seen service when a bit of body warmth was required, but without the need for longer sleeves. Again, this item has been used as both a running and walking base layer and shares many of the characteristics of the long-sleeved garment – snug fit, general upper-body warmth (particularly welcome across the shoulders on colder days) and good retention of its shape after washing.

The picture opposite is also taken from the Wiggle website.

Modifying gear…

A few months back, I picked up an injury. It was in the right achilles tendon – more irritating than debilitating, but annoyingly persistent. I’d guessed the cause as being forced to run on paved surfaces during the extended wet spell in mid/late winter and that was probably partly the case. What I eventually noticed was that the problem seemed to be more acute after wearing a pair of fairly new trail shoes.

The shoes in question were Brasher Tetons – fairly light, unlined, nothing exotic. I’d chosen them as a replacement for a pair of Argons; chosen them on the basis that in every major aspect – construction, upper, mid and outer soles – they seemed to be almost the identical shoe. I’d had good experiences with the Argons but they had been discontinued; I assumed the Teton to be just a renamed, repackaged Argon. Also, like the Argons, they were a dull, conservative, grey – totally lacking any suggestion of flamboyance… perfect!

What I found, on examining the finer detail, was that the heel cuff of the new shoe was slightly more substantial – not by much, just a little extra bulk. The effect of this was to cause the cuff to grip the tendon more tightly than the older Argons, which I still, fortunately, had available for comparison. So, I decided to make a modification…

I know that modifying gear is almost second nature to some walkers, but it’s something I rarely do. I had to overcome an innate reluctance to take a stanley knife to a fairly recent purchase, knowing that the consequences would be irreversible. It was an act of will for me to cut an approximately 1″ cube from the fabric and foam at the apex of the heel cuff; the end product could hardly be described as aesthetically pleasing!

Nevertheless, I’m pleased to be able to say that the modification seems to have done the trick and I didn’t end up ruining a pair of shoes for no reason.

This experience should probably have given me the confidence to hack away at all manner of items of kit which fall short of perfection. On balance, I’ll probably be resisting that temptation.

Imagine slicing a chunk out of anything from Arc’teryx… the off-cut would be worth more than most of my stuff!

[Above] One heavily mutilated, but now more comfortable,  Brasher Teton.

The idiot’s approach to choosing a new camera

This is intended to be part public service announcement, part cautionary tale. It can be viewed as a plea not to try this at home or, if you must, at least adopt a different approach.

I finally bought a new camera; it’s only taken 15 months. And there’s the first obvious flaw in the process: many of the cameras which were around 15 months back have already been consigned to the dustbin of history. The clue is in the title of the post.

By the way, this isn’t a camera review; I’ve barely got the thing out of the box and there are plenty of tested to destruction accounts by expert scrutinisers to be found elsewhere. There are people out there who actually know what all of the knobs (and symbols) on a modern camera do (and mean). They’re the ones to consult. I’m just here trying to save you from yourselves.

I had, still have, two functioning cameras – a Sony DSLR and an ageing Panasonic Lumix compact. The DSLR is heavy, bulky and invariably has the wrong lens attached when the time comes for a wildlife shot; it’s fine for a day on a preserved railway, or a couple of hours parked in a hide with sandwiches and flask, but on the move it quickly becomes cumbersome and irritating.

The old Panasonic compact has been a faithful and indestructible companion. It has a bombproof quality reminiscent of (for those old enough to remember) Volkswagen’s Mark 2 Golf, fits easily into the thigh pocket of walking trousers, or those on the hipbelt of the Golite Peak rucksack. Always available, hardly noticed, no lens switching needed. The only real downsides have been the camera’s relatively short zoom range and the absence of a viewfinder; the latter being something I’ve never quite got used to.

All of this information was available to me 15 months back; in other words I had everything I needed to make a reasonably informed choice – not too heavy, not too bulky, a decent zoom and a viewfinder. Should have been a piece of cake; all I needed was to find a few cameras meeting all of those requirements, make a shortlist, then a choice. This is where the process begins to disintegrate.

Firstly, there was no single camera meeting all of my preferences; apparently I’m not a sufficiently important customer for electronics giants to produce a bespoke product tailored to my whims. There are compacts with long zooms but no viewfinder; compacts with viewfinders but only short zooms; none with both, unless I’ve missed one. I needed to compromise on something, so I reluctantly started to look at the rather larger ‘bridge’ cameras, thereby rendering all of the foregoing research pretty much redundant.

I quickly compiled a shortlist of 14, mortified myself with the size of the task at hand and drifted into a period of inaction and apathy. Eventually, energised again, I picked up the threads of the search and found that some of the manufacturers had helped me out by discontinuing several of the cameras on the list, thereby reducing it to 9. This was a bonus and I rewarded myself with some more of that inaction and apathy stuff.

From there it gets a little easier: some of the bridge cameras with viewfinders are pretty bulky and heavy themselves, so they were eliminated. Others were simply beyond the outer limits of my price range and were also discarded. I know; if they were too expensive, why were they on the list in the first place? The clue is in the title of the post.

I did eventually make a choice – it’s a Nikon P510. The manual is formidable; I’ll report back – hopefully with pictures!

From the vaults: The journey from want to need (21/11/2011)

imagesActually, that should be “Need”, the inverted commas being of greater significance than the word itself.

Generally, I’d consider myself to be of a not particularly materialistic disposition: home cinema systems, giant plasmas, cars, smartphones, designer clothes*… all leave me pretty cold. My wife would concur: she often tells me my preferences are immaterial.
 
There is , however, an area of exploitable weakness: gear and gadgets which could generically be grouped as ‘outdoor-related’. And I am at my most vulnerable in the area of cameras and binoculars.
 
Of course, there’s a ritual dance I have to perform, purely for my own benefit – hence the title. Typically I’ll have had my pair of Opticron 8x42s hanging around my neck for a few hours, started to feel the weight and begun to reflect on the fact that there are lighter binoculars out there. There are also of course Leica binoculars out there but, in deference to domestic harmony and dull old economic reality, they’ll have to remain ‘out there’ from my point of view. Pity.
 
All the same, I could justify a new pair of Opticron 8x32s, shed a bit of weight without sacrificing much in the way of image quality and, to be fair, I have had the old ones a few years and they don’t owe me anything. And that’s it in a nutshell: once you’re at the point of using phrases like “They don’t owe me anything” resistance is pretty much over.
 
But danger lurks just about everywhere for the willing victim. Chris Townsend’s blog is a mere mouse click away, camera reviews waiting like baited traps. A DSLR plus lenses is too heavy for the hills (especially when I’m already burdened with those binoculars – see how easy it is to warm to this task?). He does seem to really like that Sony NEX-5 he’s been using for the last 12 months and he obviously knows what he’s talking about. And if Chris can go to the trouble of carrying out an intensive 12-month road test, the least I can do is listen to the advice; it’s only polite. My old Lumix compact has served me faithfully but – and I’m trying to be objective here – I have had it a few years and it doesn’t owe me anything.
 
So I’m nearly there: just need to rehearse the rationalisation a few more times to get the wording absolutely right, repeat it to myself a couple of times for effect and I’ll be home and dry. Then it’s simply a question of consulting the shortlist of items I don’t really need and making a selection.
 
* Why, as a contender for the title of ‘Scruffiest bugger in the country’, I found it necessary to include designer clothes in that list, frankly escapes me.