Thursday, 30 January 2014

Tent review - Exped Venus II Ultralight

You've probably made it this far in life without the need for luminous zippers on your tent but then again, perhaps it's just what you've been waiting for all these years. It's one of the features on the Exped Venus II Ultralight tent that Bart and I put the test over new year. Its first outing saw grey, grim and gusty weather so apologies for the lack of glossy, magazine-esque photos.

The Venus II is a spacious two-person, three season backpacking or cycle touring tent. The first thing we absolutely loved about the tent was the space inside -with our sleeping mats laid out side-by-side there was still lots of space either side for the bits and bobs we brought indoors. The overall feel of the tent was very roomy, especially for the size of the folded package and the weight of 2.1kg. Bart could comfortably sit upright inside and he is of course much taller than me. The second thing we loved were the two doors and porches which I think is a huge advantage in a two-person tent - it means you can each have your own porch space for organising your belongings and bags. It also means you can get out during the night for a pee without clambering over the other person. The porches are both large with plenty of room for backpacks or panniers. They provide good shelter for cooking in wind and rain - we certainly tested that in the few days we were away.

The outer and inner are attached and pitch together, though it looks like they can be easily separated by undoing simple toggle attachments. There is excellent separation between the two. The tent has three poles and the ends of the sleeves are colour-coordintaed, as are the luminous zippers. The longitudinal pole extends for several inches over the doors at each end and this is what gives the tent its two large porches. It's pretty straight forward and quick to erect although there are a lot of pegging points and guylines ... and I mean a lot! On the plus side that all adds to strength and stability in high winds. The guylines are luminous and have small mesh pockets attached to them. These pockets are a clever wee place to wrap the guylines away when you're folding the tent up so they don't get tangled but also act like little flags so you don't trip over your lines because you've not seen them. How many times have we all done that! 

The materials of the outer and the inner are the superlightweight fabrics that we are used to finding on lightweight tents these days. The groundsheet is a bathtub shape and the flysheet extends fully to the ground, making this tent excellent for bad weather camping. Despite strong, cold winds at new year, it felt snug and not at all drafty. The inner doors are partly mesh which is fine enough to keep out the midges in summer. There's a handy paracord line along the inner roof for hanging up torches, wet things and smelly socks. Actually there are lots of little loops all over the inner so you can get very creative about what you hang there. One thing to say about the tent is that it has a surprisingly big footprint. You'll love the internal space and the huge porches of this tent but you're going to need a reasonable sized pitch to put it up on.

It's marketed in the UK as a three season tent, although on some online forums it's described as four season. We only had the tent out for a few nights but we had a lot of wind-driven rain over the few days which didn't cause the tent any problems and there always remained good separation between outer and inner. We also had some pretty high winds with some severe gusts during the night. Again it performed well and remained solid and strong. It's currently retailing on Ultralight Outdoor Gear for £450. We are really delighted with its design and function, and can't wait to get away on a longer trip with it.

One word of caution about this tent. Don't go camping in it with any friends of a nervous disposition ... when you wake up in the middle of the night, those luminous zippers look just like a pair of scary, beastly eyes!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Another gear review - the Macpac Microlight tent

Back by popular demand (OK … one person asked!) is the outdoor diaries gear review. This time I’m reviewing a one-person winter tent, the Macpac Microlight.

10 or 15 years ago the Microlight was very fashionable, being one of the smallest and lightest one-person tents available at that time. It was the first solo tent that I bought and my first one gave me many years of solid service. These days it doesn’t really live up to its “microlight” name as it’s been usurped by many much lighter shelters that are now widely available. But when I needed a new one-person tent for this winter, I found myself still attracted to the Microlight and the sale price of £175 that I found online. Here’s why.

Let’s face it, the Scottish winter can be cold, grey, grim and very wet or exceedingly snowy. In foul conditions I don’t want to head out into the mountains in a flimsy, featherweight shelter. I want to feel that I’m trusting my wellbeing to something pretty strong and sturdy. The Microlight has that reassuringly robust feel although you pay for it in its 1.6kg of weight. The groundsheet is much thicker than you will find, for example on the Terra Nova Laser, my summer tent. So you feel quite confident about pitching it on rough or wet terrain. The groundsheet has quite a deep “bathtub” shape which I think is really important when you’re camping on sodden ground, slush or deep snow. It’s happened in the Laser that wind-driven rain has come over the top of the groundsheet and inside the inner. But that doesn’t happen with the bathtub groundsheet of the Microlight. Extra protection is also provided by the flysheet extending fully to the ground right around the bottom.

The tent has a single pole that runs length ways and when pitched the tent has a “limpet” shape which is quite appropriate as it seems to cling to the mountain like a limpet to a rock. I’ve not had the new one out yet in bad conditions but my older version stood up to some severe weather and high winds. Even in these conditions it remained reassuringly solid and strong. However I did have the idea on one mildly windy night that the new version was a bit more “flappy” than the original. The limpet shape is also excellent at shedding rain and snow simply slides off.

I don’t think I’ve owned any other tent that pitches as quickly as the Microlight. With the flysheet and inner going up together and the single pole, it can be up in just a couple of minutes. It’s easy then to quickly peg out the six main anchor points and this can be done with a minimal of faffing. With some tents I feel have to go round the pegging points a couple of times making adjustments to get things right but the Microlight always seems to pitch perfectly and easily first time. I think that’s really important in a winter tent – you want to get it up quickly if conditions are bad or your hands are getting cold. Once the main points are pegged, you can then peg out the four guylines for extra stability.

The footprint of the inner tent is big and there’s even room for two at a push if you should unexpectedly meet the man or woman of your dreams out in the hills. The floor is wider at one end, creating lots of space for any kit you want to bring indoors. The porch is huge, big enough to hold my folding bicycle. The groundsheet can be rolled back at the wide end to make the porch even bigger. But one of the downsides of the tent is the living space. Because the pole runs the length of the tent and not along the width like the Laser or Akto, the internal space is narrow and the inner tends to hang loosely inwards. This doesn’t bother me as I am so tiny and I also spend most of my time in the tent with the inner door open and in doing so, extend my living space into the porch. But I think that bigger or bulkier bodies would not like the inner space. My other minor grumble is that I felt I couldn’t make tight enough the tension straps that attach the inner to the outer at the bottom – perhaps this explains the slight “flappiness”.

The inner door is made with half mesh which can be zipped closed on chillier nights. Probably my favourite feature of this tent is the outer door. It can be half-opened to give good protection for cooking in wind and rain but both the inner and outer can be fully peeled back as well so that the front of the tent is completely open, allowing you to enjoy the outdoor space and gaze wistfully, mug in hand, across open mountain vistas. I really like this as I feel I’m sitting outdoors but still benefitting from a bit of wind protection on colder days.

I should say that the classification of “winter” tent is mine and I’m not aware that it’s actively marketed as a four season tent. But, based on my experience of the tent and the original one I used for many years, I think that classification is justified. It really is strong, perfectly sheds snow and that bathtub groundsheet is just what’s needed in wet winter conditions. The tent comes with a nice stuffsac with two integrated compression straps, repair patches, seam sealant and a small stuffsac containing pegs and a pole repair sleeve.

In summary, the Microlight is not in the featherweight category of one-person shelters but I think its design and robustness are ideally suited to the Scottish winter. With a regular price tag of £200-220, I think it’s also excellent value for money. You can get all the technical specs here.

If you do meet the person of your dreams out in the hills, you'll quite quickly want to upsize to the more salubrious accommodations provided by a two-man tent. So keep reading for the next blog when I'll review a two-person Exped mountain tent.   

Addendum - January 14
Used the Microlight with a friend who had a Terra Nova Laser. A damp night with light wind. The Laser had gathered quite a lot of condensation by the morning whereas the Microlight was perfectly dry.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Corrour - The auld and the new

Do you have a special place that you return to time and again? A place where the landscape, the elements and the atmosphere merge to create magic and move you deep inside? My special place is an old ruin high on Rannoch Moor and it was there that I welcomed in the new year.

Bart and I had spent Christmas in the campervan, parked up near Blair Atholl. The weather was cold and grey with a ceiling of low cloud that the sun failed to penetrate. We wandered the winter woods of Glen Tilt and walked high above the village into a black and white landscape of bare trees and scattered flocks. We cooked a Christmas dinner in the campervan of venison followed by Christmas pudding. And in the evenings we walked through the dark woods into the village for a tipple at the hotel in front of the roaring peat fire. When I'm in Blair Atholl at this time, I love stopping by the village Christmas tree. A long string of multi coloured globes is wrapped round one of the big conifers on the village green and when you walk out of the mountains on a night of inky blackness, they emanate charm and a cosy glow. 

We spent the days following Christmas battling Arctic conditions on the mountains in storms and gales and turned back from an attempt to climb Bynack More when we couldn’t stand up in the winds that battered its upper reaches. 

But our efforts were rewarded when one day we enjoyed spectacular picture postcard scenes on the tops above Newtonmore. Although we set out in low cloud and mist, by the time we were on our second Munro the sun broke through, its low winter light picking out every detail and contour and making the surface of the snow sparkle like diamonds. The walk was hard work in snow that was deep and soft in places so we really enjoyed our hot tea and Christmas cake when we got back to the van. We have a favourite spot for parking up the van near Newtonmore. You might know the place at the road end in Glen Banchor.

It was Bart’s idea to head to the ruin on Rannoch Moor to see in the new year. Since meeting me, he’d heard me talk so much about the place. Of course, when you show somebody a place that you love there is always the danger that another person sees it differently and might be disappointed by the reality of it. Nonetheless, in early morning darkness we jumped on the first southbound train at Tulloch. The train found its way in the half light through deep gorges and snow-covered mountains before trundling alongside Loch Treig and climbing up to the remote station at Corrour on Rannoch Moor. We stepped off into a freezing, grey morning as the place was battered by another storm front. We searched for a spot for our base camp and set up the tent in sheltered pines on the shores of Loch Ossian at a spot that enjoyed views up the loch to the snow-covered peak of Leum Uilleim. Bart has lived for many years in the Canary Islands and his tradition there was to see in the new year down on the beach. Our base camp did have its own small, sandy beach but as it was battered by wind, waves, rain and sleet, it seemed unlikely that we would be sipping champagne there at the bells.

During the days at Corrour we climbed up the mountain above the loch in a blinding blizzard that drove stinging spindrift into our faces and plastered snow onto the windward side of our clothes and rucsacks. We turned back just before the top and left the place to the mountain hares and ptarmigan, creatures more suited to the Arctic conditions. We wandered through Strath Ossian, crossing banks of snow that every now and then swallowed us up to our thighs, and enjoyed brief moments between weather fronts when we gleaned a hint of the grandeur of this snowy, rocky place in winter. 

And on the afternoon of Hogmanay we walked to the old ruin high on Rannoch Moor. The little track meandered across the moor, at times passing over little streams and, at other moments, under drifts of snow. It skirted the partially frozen waters of Loch na Sgeallaig before turning west below the slopes of Leum Uilleim to head for the dark outline of the ruin. As we approached, the gunmetal grey clouds that filled the big skies broke apart and shafts of cold winter sun burst through, illuminating the old stone walls of the house.  Bart has a real inquisitive mind and busied himself checking out the ruin, how it was built, what was left and pondering what it might once have looked like. I stood, quiet and still, soaking up the scene and choking back some tears. I don’t know why I felt so emotional. It’s just that this old place with its homely atmosphere, its sense of space and its corral of dramatic, encompassing mountains pulls at my heart strings and moves me deeply inside. 

We walked back to the tent in the last light of the day and as the sun set on the year, a group of stags gathered on a knoll above the trail. For several quiet minutes, we watched them and they watched us, then Bart and I turned our backs on the stags and the auld year, and walked on into the new.

For all the photos click here or on the Flickr logo to the right.