Gear Reviews

This page will get updated from time to time with my own opinions and experiences with various bits of kit – purely subjective and highly individual! Feel free to disagree with all or some of it as your choose – but if anything’s useful, it’d be nice to hear.

The PhDesigns Minim Ultra Sleeping Bag

This is my all-time favourite sleeping bag – not the cheapest around by a very long way, but the lightest, bar none, that I’ve ever seen. It’s a down-filled rock-bottom-basic design from PhDesigns in the UK – no zip, just a mummy-shaped tube, incredibly light at just 350g. I find it quite warm despite the official rated comfort temperature being +5C – I use it with a silk liner, which adds a few degrees to the warmth and also helps keep the bag clean and dry, thus extending its lifetime, and inside a waterproof, windproof bivvy bag, which also helps with insulation and warmth.

Most importantly, it’s feather-light, tiny when packed – a miniscule stuffsack just 13cm by 6cm gives ample room to insert the sleeping bag and it’s not a tight stuff by any means. Pull it out, give it a shake to get some air and ‘loft’ into the down and it’s right back to full size! For storage, PhDesigns include a big mesh bag, more than pillow-sized, which means the down filling doesn’t get compressed during the far-too-long it stays on the shelf and, again, extends the useful working life of the bag.

I first slept in this bag at the foot of Ben Nevis in May 2010 – I had a great night’s rest, dry, very warm and cosy, and in the morning when I woke, the heavy dew had frozen on the grass all around me. That time I was using the bag with a Equinox silk mummy liner, a torso length Gossamer Gear nightlight mat and the Gossamer Gear Spinnshelter tarp/tent for a total sleeping/shelter package which weighed in at just 816g for the lot. What more can you ask? 

Being a down-filled bag rather than a synthetic fill, I do go out of my way to make sure the bag stays dry – wet down becomes sodden and useless as insulation quite quickly. I use the silk liner both to keep the bag clean and to absorb the water vapour that the human body generates at all times, I also use a waterproof bivvy bag to make sure no condensation/rain/dew can get at the bag. For me, the extra consideration for the bag makes sense because this was a pretty major investment at £189 – but the performance has been superb and the weight is unbeatable.

The Gossamer Gear Spinnshelter

 I used to use a Vango two-man tent as my basic tent, on the grounds that I had it around the place anyway. After I hurt my back in 2001 however I soon decided the Vango weighed far too much and was far too bulky and I started looking for an alternative. I ended up with the Gossamer Gear Spinnshelter, a fabulously light single-skin tarp/tent designed for the US deserts and trails. Being a single-skin tent it does suffer from condensation problems if it’s locked down tight to the ground and shut up all round for the night – on the other hand it weighs only 225g with titanium pegs, guy ropes and stuff sack. It stuffs down to the size of a paperback without any trouble and will cram in anywhere – I’ve even used it bungee’d round the outside of my pack as a makeshift pack-cover before now.

 Made of spinnaker fabric, the Spinnshelter is tough, waterproof (even without seam sealing!) and versatile. I’ve pitched it in gales on Dartmoor and heavy dew in the Highlands – and slept warm and dry regardless. The fabric needs a really tight pitch for best results – it rustles in the lightest breeze unless it’s so taut you can play tunes on the guy ropes – but if you get over your fears of ripping it apart and just go for it, it’s strong enough to take any pressure I’ve managed to put on it. I suppose, given it’s designed to haul a yacht through the winds at sea, that’s not surprising!

 I find it quick to pitch – about ten minutes at a leisurely pace or five minutes in a hurry –  using my hiking poles for supports. You can also buy carbon-fibre made-to-measure poles from Gossamer or you can make your own from whatever light tubular struts you fancy. I’ve seen reports quoting aluminium arrow-shafts, even! I rarely pitch it as a tent-shaped tent, preferring more ventilation – a couple of times I have used it that way on campsites for privacy but it does play to the single-skin tendency for condensation. By choice, I pitch it as an open-sided lean-to with its back to the wind – either on a low pitch with the hiking poles at the front corners, or alternatively with the hiking poles in the usual centre position and whatever convenient sticks I can find in the hedges/woods for additional poles at the front corners. A few times I’ve pitched it as a tent but rolled up the flaps at both ends so I’m sleeping in an open-ended tunnel – useful for keeping off driving rain and keeping a low profile without getting condensation dripping on me through the night.

 I also use the bug-net if I’m likely to be troubled with bugs. It’s a light optional extra – but very useful if, like me, you camp in midge-infested spots like the UK’s moors and valleys!

 Another point in the Spinnshelter’s favour is the colour. It’s a neutral green that fades superbly into almost any background without being obtrusive, but without looking like you’re the SAS on special training. A lot of the moors I camp on are also used for military training so it’s good to know you’re discreet but not likely to be disturbed by the troops by accident! If, like me, you also stealth-camp in places where it’s not technically legal to camp without permission (corners of farmers’ fields in England and Wales, for example!) then being discreet is also a wise move unless you want to get rousted out and moved on before you’ve finished your dinner of an evening.

 I highly recommend this tarp-tent for anyone looking for a light, tough and versatile shelter – it’s not ideally suited to the damp British climate but with care and forethought, it’s perfectly useable here.  These days I mostly just doss down in the bivvy bag but that’s a matter of choice – when I want a tent, or a somewhat less claustrophobic and cramped shelter than my trusty Rab survival bivvy, or if I think I’ll need the additional room under waterproof shelter,  the Spinnshelter’s my choice.

Rucksacks

Again, an area where there’s room for a lot of variety. Whatever rucksack anyone recommends, it’s no use to you unless it fits both you and your hiking plans properly!

The more flexible of these two requirements is your hiking plan. If you’re out for a fortnight, you’ll need a bigger ruck than if you’re over-nighting somewhere, for example. I use a Gossamer Gear G4 for long trips – it’s a 55L pack which is very simple but which still has a few really neat features, and it’s light. I find it too big for most of my trips these days, though – so I use a 25L Exped Drypack most of the time.

The G4 is a big, serious ruck. It comes with fully adjustable shoulder straps and waist belt, mesh pockets on both sides and the back for stashing water containers, tent, dirty socks, etc, and it holds a lot. I used it for my Two Moors trek in 2009 and it carried a week’s gear including all food and still managed to look half-empty most of the time. It was my first ultralight ruck, and when I got it I needed a 55L ruck – and for a big ruck, it’s a very light one at just 450g. The option of using dry socks or gloves for padding in the straps is great and there’s a multitude of loops etc for attaching compass, waterbottle tubes and anything else you want to clip or tie to the ruck before you lose it crossing a muddy field. The pocket  which exactly fits my torso night-light sleeping pad and turns it into both support for the pack and padding for my bag is a brilliant bit of design.

These days, though, the G4 doesn’t really get much of a workout. I’ve downscaled both the size of what I carry and the amount of kit I want to take anyway, so now I find the 25L Drypack is sufficient. Again, it’s a ruck with both shoulder and waist straps,  which means you can anchor it securely in the right place on your back for most efficient weight carrying. It’s waterproof, which means perhaps less wrapping of gear in binbags, although a tear or a rip in the field can always change that so I still use waterproof packing around things anyway. It doesn’t have the versatility of loops and pockets the G4 has, just a bungee-cord ladder on the back which is fine for  carrying big things like your sleeping pad but doesn’t work for a water-bag or bottle so well. It’s lighter than the G4 though, because it’s smaller – and also because it’s smaller, it holds my kit more compactly and firmly together so it carries better than flapping about in the too-big G4.

I’ve also used the Onya ruck in the past – parachute silk so very light, folds into a pocket when not in use, fairly tough but not waterproof at all. It only has shoulder straps so it’s not suitable for any kind of weight – then again, an ultralight pack for a couple of days for me can be less than 5lbs weight so it doesn’t have to!

Cooking Systems

 This is a contentious one. A lot depends in this area on personal choice, menu preference and type of terrain you’re in. I have a number of different favourites – each one considered and used according to its own merits and the factors above.

 Like probably most hikers, I started off with camping gas stoves – culminating in a light-weight Primus burner that screws directly to a canister. There’s nothing wrong with this, except the gas canister weighs too much for ultralight camping. If I was heading out for an overnighter, I right well dig it out of the cupboard anyway, and it often still gets included in the car-pack when I’m on a long drive, in case I feel like stopping for a cup of tea along the way. After all, car-packing means I’m not carrying the weight!

 Having been bitten by the ultralight bug, however, I started investigating alternatives and soon found alcohol stoves – or meths stoves, as we should really call them in the UK since the US ‘denatured alcohol’ is the same as our ‘methylated spirits’. Very fast, very simple, very light – no moving parts, meths doesn’t freeze at temperatures likely to be met in the UK so it’s pretty much foolproof in that regard. On the other hand, meths is smelly, as a fluid it’s heavy to carry (although not as heavy as a full metal gas canister!) and if it spills, it’s either a truly revolting flavour in your hot chocolate or it gets onto your clothes/skin/gear and is a fire hazard. I still have a range of meths stoves around, though – simply because they are so good.

 I started out with a White Box stove from the US – fabulously quick, as fast as my electric kettle in kitchen-based tests, boils up a kettle full of water in seven minutes in the wilds ( at this point slower than the electric kettle but then again, I can’t plug the kettle in when I’m in the woods anyway!). It only has one setting – full blast – and you can’t refuel it safely until it cools down after use (which goes for all meths stoves). It’s a pain if you only want to boil a few cupfuls of water rather than a whole pan – guesstimate the amount of meths wrong and it goes out too soon, or doesn’t go out soon enough. If you put it out (turn a non-flammable container upside down to prevent air reaching it to keep the flame going) then it’s very hard to empty the meths out again tidily. Still a useful stove, not much used any more.

 Onwards and upwards – I discovered the Penny Stove. A bit more complicated and a lot more flexible! Suddenly camp cooking wasn’t add-boiling-water-and-stir – Penny Stoves will simmer as well as boil fast, they’re efficient, incredibly light, you can cobble one up with a penknife, a few empty drinks cans and some patience, and they’re very economical on fuel. I reckon I use half the fuel in the penny stove that I do in the White Box and in tests I’ve achieved a good boiling kettle in 4 minutes and simmered the same kettle of water for 57 minutes! In the field, of course, it takes longer to boil and simmers for less time but it’s still amazing. This one is my all-time hero as a pocket-stove and I have several I’ve built around the house.  Downside – a bit fragile, you have to be a little gentle with them in use and a lot gentle in the build, and even if it fits inside the mug for carrying, the flavour of meths will leak out and contaminate your drinks for days  to come! I constructed a lot of miscellaneous additional bits and pieces out of weldmesh, and tinfoil to assist the basic stove – pan stands, wind-screens, etc – and I can safely say that penny stoves have given me a great many hours of fun and experimentation as well as many excellent cups of tea and hot meals.

 Recently I’ve acquired a Caldera stove/cone to fit my MSR kettle – it combines the wind-screen and pot-stand in one and the stove that comes with it is pretty good – my New Year project for 2011 is constructing a penny stove to fit the Caldera, however, so I can get my simmering ability back!

 For group trips, the fun of a campfire or where I think I’ll definitely have enough wood around me, I also have a Volcano kettle. These combine a firepan for solid-fuel with a chimney that contains a water-tank, so they boil water very efficiently of any fuel you care to try and light in them. Allegedly, they’ve been fuelled on seaweed and camel droppings by various people – mine tends to either run on wood or I have been known to stick the meths stove in the firepan  if I need to boil more water than just the MSR kettle-full. At just over half a kilo it’s a lot heavier than the meths stove (the Penny Stove weighs in at just 20g including the accessories!) but I don’t have to lug half a kilo of meths with me, so it’s actually not a bad trade-off – provided I can be sure of acquiring twigs and sticks and some dry grass to light it with on each day’s walk. There are various accessories to turn it into a grill or to add a pan on top of the chimney – all of which are good functional additions and add some versatility.

 A word of warning with volcano stoves, though – never keep one fuelled up and burning with an empty water-jacket – the thin metal will warp and melt through surprisingly quickly without the water to absorb the heat!

 An alternative to the volcano kettle as a wood-burner is the Penny Wood Stove – although I’ll be honest here. I haven’t yet managed to manufacture a satisfactory version of this for myself. The reviews from people who have built them properly, however, keep me working on it – and I will cheer loudly when/if I finally achieve it, as it should then give me a very light wood stove to replace the brilliant but heavy Volcano kettle!

 The ultimate in no-weight cooking systems, in a sense, is the open wood fire – unfortunately it’s become very tricky to find a place in the UK where you can build a campfire and burn whatever’s handy without someone kicking up a fuss. It also leaves much more of a trace than a portable stove, has more potential to cause a serious accidental fire and is a real pain in the neck to organise on a wet evening with the light fading, all the handy sticks soaking wet and the wind blowing the matches out as fast as you can light them.

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11 Responses to Gear Reviews

  1. Elen Sentier says:

    Yup … I must go look into all this. Your reveiews are very helpful.

    • Just checked the maths – 28 ounces is 784g – that’s quite a lot by my standards, although would certainly be ultralight by most definitions! Try and find out what the packed dimensions are, too – if it packs down to something you can stuff in a pocket, excellent. If that big crossing pole turns out to be a monster that needs a big pack to carry, it’s not so good. Email the makers and ask them searching questions – they should be happy to answer in full. It’s a lot of money to spend to find you don’t quite have what you thought you were getting!

  2. Rosa says:

    Just checked the maths – 28 ounces is 784g – that’s quite a lot by my standards, although would certainly be ultralight by most definitions! Try and find out what the packed dimensions are, too – if it packs down to something you can stuff in a pocket, excellent. If that big crossing pole turns out to be a monster that needs a big pack to carry, it’s not so good. Email the makers and ask them searching questions – they should be happy to answer in full. It’s a lot of money to spend to find you don’t quite have what you thought you were getting!
    +1

  3. Σπύρος says:

    Do you know if the wide width version of the PHD MiNIM Ultra is wider in the whole length of the bag (even in the foot area) or just in the shoulders? Thanks.

    • Hi Spyros,

      I would advise an email to PhDesigns for comfirmation but since it’s not a mummy-shaped bag, I’d guess it’ll be wider all the way along. Mine’s not the wide version so I can’t say for sure. Drop a line to the guys at PhDesigns, though – they’re very friendly and helpful and they obviously know best. Hope that helps!

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