Box in the post. There are but a few things finer! Two 1:50000 maps of Rondane (north and south). I've used the Norwegian Turkart Series before. Good maps. Although I'd prefer the detail of 1:25000 for teh trip itself 1:50000 is a good scale for planning. Now I'm looking forward to a couple of evenings pouring over them. Perhaps even with a beer in hand. Electronic mapping is great for planning routes but there's still something special about unfolding a map, spreading it out across the table and pushing your nose into it!


Norway here I come!

I've mentioned the possibility of a trip in a couple of earlier posts. At last things seem to be converging on a concrete plan. I'll be joining three friends on a multi-day trip (five nights) through Rondane National Park in Norway. The only thing that remains undecided is the precise date as the boys continue to juggle priorities and commitments to make a big enough hole in the diaries but it will be one of two weekends in early July. I can't tell you how excited I am (well they don't let me out very often)!

For a while there it looked like my first opportunity for a big outing would be September but the July suggestion came out of the blue. July suddenly seems very close at hand. Between now and then I have a family break on Texel and a business trip to London. Along with the day-in-day-out of work and two kids finding time to make arrangements and prepare kit will be a challenge.

Kit lists and routes will follow soon. I say "kit lists"because there will certainly be more than one. Rondane is for me an unknown (advice is welcome!) and I have a lot of new, untested gear that won't get a real run out before July but which is nevertheless going to be hard to leave behind.


Wrap em up!

We went for a walk on the beach with Emily today. The weather has brought a mix of strong sunshine and cold air of late. Today started wet and cloudy with a sharp wind so the cold air dominated the experience. Emily loves the beach whatever the weather. However, I learned very on in my parenting career that I can only enjoy the outdoors with Emily if I'm sure she's okay. Nothing is more guaranteed to spoil a day out than worrying about Emily. It's important to have peace of mind. The peace of mind that comes from knowing that she's warm and dry. Peace of mind that's also helped along its way by being able to instantly recognise your child at a hundred paces. Today, I was a little too cold in a microfleece but Emily was wrapped up in a thick fleece and her Spotty Otter Splash Suit. It occurred to me as I watched her running back and forth between little piles of wet sand just how great this suit is. She gets on with her thing and we don't have to worry. When wearing it I think she's visible from space. We bought it big! It served us well in the Scottish Highlands last summer (read "Scottish Summer") and will keep her warm and dry for a while yet. Why don't they sell these things in adult sizes?


Lighten the Load

Lightweight and Ultralightweight gear is hard to come by in the Netherlands. Strange that in a land without mountains, traditional, full-on mountaineering gear is so dominant in gear shops. You'd imagine that lightweight philosophy would take hold easily in this part of the world: the hill-fit are hard to find, long car/train/plane journeys are required to get to the hills, crossover gear is more suitable for use between trips and when you make just a handful of trips a year durability isn't top priority. Whilst light isn't right for everybody I'm prepared to bet that it's right for most poeple in this part of the world. So why do the gear shops insist on peddling heavy-weight kit? Why do I see people walking through the tulip fields wearing crampon compatible boots every spring?

Most of my majour purchases in the last couple of years have been made overseas. Some of this has been motivated by advantageous exchange rates, first the dollar and later the pound, but the main reason has been to acquire excellent kit developed and manufactured by small, inovative companies that understand the requirement (my requirement) for no-frills functionality in a lightweight package. I'm more frequently asked to pass on details of suppliers. Manufacturers I've used are already listed. I've added some new links to the small, independent retailers who've done so much to make light and ultralight gear avalable in the UK (long may they flourish!). The list isn't exaustive. It simply reflects the companies I've used and that are familiar to me. I'll continue to update both gear and retailers lists as and when I discover new ones.

Interesting new kit...

Just caught sight of the new Terra Nova Moonlite Bag cover. Interesting. The information given by TN is limited but it appears to be a fully waterproof, breathable bag cover with taped seams that comes in at just over 200g! It's not a full, zipped bivvy but rather a bag-cover with drawstring, similar to the Alpkit Hunka and RAB survival zone. However, TN claim a weight far lower than either the Hunka or the Survival Zone (Moonlite 216g, Hunka variously reported to be around 400g and the Survival zone also around 400g). It seems to be a good option for use with a tarp in wet climes and would save me 160g against my MLD event Alpine bivvy (although the latter is a fully functional stand-alone bivvy). The weight of the MLD bag is so low that it was never worth my while consideing bag covers (no weight advantage and a serious trade-off in functionality). However, the Terra Nova product might shift the balance. I'd like to know some more about construction and materials though. TN aren't very forthcoming.


Self Build Camera Bag: Part 1

My Lowepro Topload Zoom has been with me for a while. It's seen a lot of miles and three different SLR's since its purchase. In many respects it's a great piece of kit. Almost ideal for the purpose. Almost right is, however, basically, wrong. What don't I like about this bag? Well its heavy at 330g. To put that into perspective it represented 25% of the total weight of photographic gear carried when I was using a 20 year old Olympus OM10. Now the numbers look even worse. My Olympus E400 is extremely light for an SLR and the bag I put it in accounts for a third of the weight carried. Most backpackers would, these days, accept that traditional rucksacks are over engineered but my camera bag makes them look featherweight by comparison (on a traditional 15kg load a big pack that clocks up 2.5kg still only accounts for 16% of the total load). However, my gripes extend beyond a backpackers fixation with weight. In addition to being heavy the thing doesn't perform all the functions you would want it to. You would imagine that keeping the contents of a camera bag dry would be high on the list of priorities of any manufacturer of camera bags. Apparently not in this case. My Lowepro is woefully permeable. Another problem is endemic of off-the-peg kit: its not designed around my specific camera and lens collection so nothing fits quite right.

To be fair, a new Lowepro Topload Zoom 2 would, according to the manufacturers data come in at just 260g. Alternatively the smaller Topload 1, which would weigh 60g less would probably be sufficient for my E400 with 14-42mm lens. However, I'm reluctant to make the purchase since I'm not convinced I'll get what I want. For one thing I especially object to buying a bag and then buying another bag to put the first one in in case it rains.

Hours of trawling the web haven't turned up anything more convincing than the Lowepro. It did, however, turn up the details of a home build project that seemed promising enough to be worthy of more attention. The basic concept is quite simple, construct a protective encasement for the camera gear out of foam or some such material, place said construction in a lightweight roll-top dry bag, make a cradle and shoulder strap from webbing and, hey presto, a fully waterproof camera bag. I can see some real advantages: 1) the thing is as waterproof as the bag you put it in and the bag can be changed depending on activity. Choose lightweight dry bag for backpacking and a heavier full-immersion dry bag for canoe touring for instance. 2) the containment can be constructed around your own camera, lenses and accessories. Make multiple variants and you have a bag which exactly fits the gear you chose to carry without redundant volume. 3) It's lightweight! The example on the web weighs around 150g and is good for a Nikon D50 with two lenses. 4) It's simple enough for me to make and, before I even get started, I think I can make some improvements to make it fit my needs better.

I found time this week to knock up a first prototype for the internal encasement. This I made using a cheap and nasty closed-cell foam sleeping mat costing €2.50 from the local D.I.Y store. The first change I made to the design was to dispense with the Duct Tape used in the first example. Duct Tape weighs around 0.15g/cm (I can hardly believe I just typed those words. Looking at it written down it sounds like one of those thoughts that should better be left unsaid!). For the construction I first put to paper this would ammount to 30g of tape to hold 30g of foam together. Seeing an opportunity to halve the weight of the inner I experimented with glue. I know from past experience (don't ask) that anaerobic Cyanoacrylate (super glue to you and I) works well with foam matting. after a little fooling around I found a way of making neat mitred corners by scoring two shallow lines with a sharp craft knife, peeling out the strip of foam between the lines, squeezing a glue line into the groove and folding to form the corner:

Image showing the double scored line (left) and resulting mitred corner after gluing (right).

With three such joints and a butt-joint the construction of a rectangular cross section tube was soon realised:

Three mitred joints and one butt joint make the basic shape of the inner.

One end was then closed off by butting a rectangle against it and placing a smaller, tight fitting rectangle on the inside face of the base to create a double thickness.

The base was butted against the tube and a second layer added on the inside face.

Since I want a top-loader I had then to create some internal structure to support the camera body leaving the lens suspended in the bag. I made two, double layer verticals, beefing up the top edge by wrapping one layer around the other (the picture does the job better than this description honestly):

Supports with a "beefed-up" top edge were made as shown above. The example shown would be glued to the side wall of the tube. The other would be free standing and consequently the spacer layer was extended to the full length of the first to provide greater stiffness.

The verticals were then glued into place in the box. They act as supports and create two separate compartments:

Image showing the two vertical supports glued into place.

I then constructed a tight fitting hinged lid and the resulting encasement ended up as shown in the next image:

The completed closed-cell foam encasement.

On balance I'm pleased with the result. The integrity of the joints is good. The construction feels robust enough for its purpose (it will not carry any load, that's left to the bag and webbing), it's cheap and the whole thing weighs just 30g. Most importantly I can put one together in half an hour. That means I can make several for different gear selections and can tinker with the designs until I find what works best. This first example almost certainly won't be the final design. With my E400, 14-42mm lens, 25mm fixed focus pancake lens and a couple of filters and media cards there's a lot of space over. I'm also not convinced that the lid, in its current form, will work in combination with a roll-top dry bag. I think it may get in the way when trying to access the camera through the open top of the dry bag.

Still, the most efficient way to improve the design will be to live with this one until I've identified all the glitches. Before I can do that I need to source a suitable dry bag and devise the strapping. When I next make any progress, you'll be the first to know.

TGO, better late than never.......

Together with the BBC TGO magazine forms an umbilical link to my home country. The BBC bring things both welcome and unwelcome into my home. A strange mix of the finest documentaries made (think of Yellowstone, and Galapagos) and increasingly shoddy journalism (for example the recent over emphasis of the credit crunch and shiny overpaid breakfast presenters who provide me with unwanted opinions at the time of day when I'm least open to them). TGO on the other hand delivers a monthly dose of what I still consider to be MY Britain. Sketching in pictures and words the places, activities and gear that I would rather be at or doing or using, for a small but significant portion of my time.

Not surprisingly I eagerly await each new issue and when it arrives, read it cover to cover, forwards and backwards, until it's dogeared and coffee-stained. The anticipation is amplified by the fact that my overseas sub is unpredictable. Occasionally I receive my copy just after they appear on the shelves in the UK. At other times the content has been the subject of forum and blog for so long that I've virtually read the issue before it hits my doormat. Its not unusual to get two issues within a week of each other.

The May issue was very late. There's not much point in blogging opinion of much of the content. Others have already done so, and better than I can: Andy Howel has already expressed my sentiments regarding the Jeffrey Archer interview and an inspirational piece by Chris Townsend on his love of backpacking. Although Eddy Meecham's piece explaining is ultralight philosophy and his intention to extend it into his everyday life has also received much attention I would still like to add something here.
I've had mixed feelings about Eddy Meechams writing since he first appeared in TGO. I've always found it entertaining but much of what he presents is so alien to me that I'm unlikey ever to adopt it (water pistols, face masks?). Nevetheless, whatever the content, Eddy's stance challenges me to think about and re-assess my appraoch to backpacking. Eddy isn't the first to do this. TGO has a history of providing me with new motivation. Andrew Terril was single-handedly responsible for my move from traditional to lightweight backpacking and got me back in a bivvy bag (more on that another time). However, Eddy certainly does it in the most radical way.

In his May article, Eddy has provided me with real food for tought (a four course meal, coffee and mints!). He refers to a lively exchange on the TGO forum which centred on the rights and wrongs of going without map and compass. He expresses an opinion that the action of leaving map and compass behind is an embodiment of his ultra-light philosophy since it entails pushing the boundaries of skill and physiology. His comments land close to home. I was personally involved in the debate and expressed a strong belief that navigational aids and the ability to use them effectively are essential for any trip into wild country. They should never be left at home right? But wait a minute is that just what I was taught all those years ago? Perhaps there are circumstances under which it is acceptable to travel without navigational aids?

On balance, after long hours of self-searching, I still insist that it is not sensible to leave map and compass (or GPS/satmap) at home. My personal assessment of the risk associated with wilderness travel dictates that I will always have basic navigational aids to hand. For me it remains non-negotiable. However, the Forum debate and Eddy's article are two fine examples of what I consider to be the best of TGO. The magazine, it's writers and readers continue to challenge me, to make me re-consider opinions long since fossilised and to reassess. In some small way TGO is, perhaps, helping me to be a better person? It is at least, almost certainly, helping me to be a better backpacker.

I wish Eddy all the best in his future life as a 24/7 Ultralighter, long may he inspire thoughtful debate.


I'm a rough, tough mountain man honest....

As I spread the third layer of barbie pink icing on the birthday cake it occurred to me that life has taken me to a different place altogether!


You should be aware that if you click on the adsense links in the sidebar of this blog then I will receive a small payment. Any income I make will go towards the cost of web hosting for this blog and the associated photographic sites. Thankyou!