Backpacking Kit Test

Peter MacfarlaneMost of my reviews on Walkhighlands have been a grouptest – a selection of similar or related items that I use and compare over time. This month is a little different with reviews of either a pair of test samples or just single items.

I wanted to do backpacking test, but half a dozen tents, half a dozen sleeping bags and so on would take me months to cover so I looked at the press releases as they came in last year, looked at what was new and thought about what I would chose for myself if I was going shopping.

In the past few years I’ve tested more than a hundred tents, stoves and sleeping bags. Far from this month’s review being an easy option to make sure I had a comfy time out in the hills, I’m looking for the specifications I’ve seen on paper to match my expectations, my needs and my experience which as anyone who has spent a lot of money on kit will tell you is a very hard goal to achieve.

The weights were all taken by me.
BP Extras (4)

Terra Nova PolesTerra Nova Speed Hike Poles

£45.00 a pair
476g a pair

I almost always carry poles, great for getting into a rhythm on a long walk and knee savers on big descents. I like simple and light as I’m looking for stability and a wee bit of propulsion and I don’t like anti-shock, you don’t really need it and it adds weight as well as being just something else to go wrong. The new Speed Hikes looked about right, although not the lightest out there they feel light in my hands, and aren’t a burden strapped to my pack. Although on smaller packs the long 82cm retracted length catches on every tree branch and fence I go near. It’s the trade-off for their simplicity, the poles are just alloy two-section with a lever lock to snap your length adjustment into pace. The adjusters feel a bit slight but have been reliable and slip free.

The handle show the Speed Hike’s Nordic walking inspiration with plain handles and a adjustable hand yoke that fastens with Velcro around your wrist meaning you swing the poles at your side as you walk without having to grip the handles. In general it’s a good technique to use with better posture and it keeps those lungs open – leaning forward onto a pole like a crutch is never the best plan.

I like the Speed Hikes, the length is fine once out of the trees and they’re useful for pitching a tarp or making an awning out of a tent door which some of my other lighter poles fail spectacularly at. Great price which includes the baskets shown and a pair of removable rubber feet.

Montane BagMontane Prism

1360g including stuffsack as pictured

I keep trying synthetic sleeping bags in the hope that we’ll eventually get close to down levels of performance and weight, but in a package that I can get snow on or spill soup onto and not get overly concerned. In the tiny tents I usually end up in, keeping down bags dry becomes something you have to take into consideration, snow, rain and condensation always conspire to ruin your night with soggy down letting the heat ebb away. Once you get into the mindset to deal with it, you just get on with it, but sometimes it would be nice not to have to bother. The problem is synthetic bags usually have huge pack sizes to give you the temperature rating you want. And who really wants to carry something the size of a basketball to camp all the time?

The Prism tackles the issues with varying degrees of success with a warm, very compressible Primaloft synthetic fill with a comfort limit of 0°C which is fine for most spring to autumn mountain trips. It’s a nicely shaped bag, mummy style tapering but not too much so there’s room to breathe and fidget.

The Pertex outer fabric is excellent, the hood shape suits me well, the zip doesn’t snag too badly and there’s even a handy printed pattern on the bottom to try and keep you from slipping off your mat in the night. The inner neck baffle is massive, it works well but it almost feels like an over inflated bike tyre. Trim it down and the whole bag would pack smaller.

Things are going the right way for synthetic sleeping, a few quirks but a very useable bag.

Terra Nova BagTerra Nova Elite 550

1170g including compression sack as pictured

The Montane bag above shows the benefits of having synthetic insulation while the Elite 550 shows why down fill is still ahead in performance with its lower weight and -3°C comfort limit.

The Elite is neater cut though, with a less protective hood but it has a very well-shaped foot box and has reflective piping running down the side with the zip. This looks unnecessary until you crawl into your tent after a quick post-midnight nip outside to answer nature’s call and can instantly find your way into the tangled mess of fabric. Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference.

The outer fabric is tough with a very good water resistance, they could have made the shell lighter, but resisting that temptation makes for a more durable bag with better protection for the down fill which not a bad thing. A no frills, decent down bag at a good price.

Sleeping Bags

Jetboil Joule

1190g including gas as pictured and stuffsack (gas is 372g)
One of the issues that regular wild campers who prefer the quick simplicity of gas canister stoves have to work around is poor low temperature performance, the other can be food, or should I say that lack of real food. The Joule looked to address both of these issues with a clever design that allows the gas can to be fitted upside down and the liquid gas to be preheated by the burner where it flashes into vapour to be burned. It makes for great heating performance and does make the most of your gas can. It tackles the food angle by being huge, the 2.5L pot is big enough to cook your dinner from raw ingredients and the wide base gives great stability so mixing and stirring is not a precarious endeavour at all when tent porch cooking.

It all fits together very well, although you have to disconnect the gas can to put the stove back inside the pot for carrying as the control handle doesn’t fold in far enough with the can in place. The pot is insulated, has a plastic coated nicely long handle and heat exchanger base to extract as much heat from the flame as possible. The piezo ignition is reliable and doesn’t look as vulnerable to damage as many I’ve used.

The size makes the Joule an unlikely companion on my usual short lightly packed trips, but for pair on a backpack, especially in winter where the features excel, it’s worth a look.

MSR Windboiler

468g including canister stand but excluding gas canister
MSR Stove
I’ve long been a fan of the original Jetboil, the go-to all in one system might add a little weight to your pack compared to putting together your own cook set but the quick access to a hot cuppa after pitching the tent makes the format a winner and it’s no wonder that all the stove manufacturers have evolved the design. The Windboiler sticks to a compact format that is just as good on a day walk as it is on a solo backpack.

The pot is 1 litre and insulated with a stiffened handle which lifts the pot easily off the stove without it sticking, something that I find a common issue with integrated designs. The burner is MSR’s Reactor system which resembles an old gas mantle with its heated mesh dome which throws out an even heat across the base of your pot which is maximised with a heat exchanger on the pot.

As the name suggests it is pretty impervious to wind and the gas is regulated for a more consistent performance through the life of the canister. There’s a handy measuring/drinking cup which protects the base when packed and the whole thing slips into a corner of your rucksack.

The Windboiler is at its best when you’re looking for a sub 3-minute boil for water to make drinks or pour into a dehydrated meal bag, the format has never been so good for simmering. You’ll need your own ignition source as MSR have played safe and not fitted one.

The Windboiler is a fine quick source of hot water at camp, its height is stabilised by the included pot stand and I’ve had no problem using it in a tent porch or on rough ground behind a rock in high winds.

MSR TentMSR Hubba NX

1345g packed weight

The Hubba is a design I’m familiar with having tested four different models over the past few years. It’s a good format with great internal space for you as well as your kit. Good headroom too, I’m a whisper under six feet and I can sit upright in the centre on a fat sleep mat and not touch the roof.

This version is new for this year and features a European-friendly dark green flysheet, basically so you can’t be seen so easily when wild camping. I like bright tents so I can find them again after wandering around the tops at night but the white mesh inner means the tent doesn’t feel too dark when you’re inside so I was still happy enough. Also inside you’ve got one mesh pocket and handy loop sewn into the roof to fit a gear loft or attach cord to hang a torch from, which is what I do.

Pitching is inner first which is never ideal in rain or snow but the single pole assembly with hubbed joints is quick to fit and the colour coded clip-on flysheet also goes on easy so, after a couple of tries, the Hubba does pitch quick. I’ve done it in wind driven snow more than once and had no problems.

The porch is a good size for a pack and cooking space and the current outer door format gives you an entrance and exit clear of your kit or boiling stove. The inner is half-mesh which can be cool in winter but the ventilation is excellent.

It’s surprisingly stable in the wind given the scarcity of guy points on the flysheet and although it’s not the lightest, it does pack small and knowing just how comfy a night in it is I find myself choosing the Hubba over other options.
MSR Tent 2

Terra Nova TentTerra Nova Solar Ultra 2

794g packed weight

The weight of the Solar Ultra 2 looks wrong for a two person tent, surely they’ve cut back on space, left out a pole, not included a flysheet or something, but no, it’s right. The Solar is indeed a decent size for two people, tapered to the foot but room enough at the door end so you don’t feel crowded by your partner and you each get a mesh corner pocket for nik naks.

The inner is made in UK cold-weather friendly fabric but there is ventilation at the foot and the door is mesh. The porch is a decent size, tight for two people’s kit and cooking but it can be done. Headroom is okay inside, I can sit up cross-legged happily enough but you’ll have to take turns at it or you and your friend will be nose to nose.

The Solar pitches inner first but it pitches fast so it’s not too vulnerable in poor weather, the single Y-pole fits quickly and the fly attaches with slightly-faffy-with-cold-hands Velcro and pegs out with webbing and bungee loops.

When pitched well it’s quite stable in the wind, the large side panels do catch the wind but the guys points are well placed here and the Solar stays well grounded.

The flysheet fabric is Terra Nova’s super light and almost transparent Ultra which cuts a huge amount of weight from the tent as well as having an interesting effect of your camping experience as it lets so much light through. Personally I find it a very pleasant fabric to sleep under. The floor is also Ultra fabric which from long experience using it I’ve found it’s tougher than it looks when in contact with the ground, but careful pitching is still a very good idea, sharp edged rocks or heather roots are to be avoided. The construction methods used with the Ultra fabric have improved as the joins and seams are now bonded rather than sewn which will aid durability over the long term.

The Solar is light enough to carry for luxury solo trips, indeed it’s lighter than most one person tents and it doesn’t cut corners. The pegs are the titanium skewers which are useable on good ground, the guys are good and it will prove tougher than the weigh suggest if used carefully.

Of course though, there’s the price. The price is what it is, it is a very good tent, if you’re a brand sponsored adventure racer someone else is probably picking up the tab and you get all the joy without paying the price. For most of us though, it’s probably out of reach, which having used it, is a bit of a shame.
Terra Nova Tent 2

Seal LineSealLine Cirrus Dry Sacks

£25 for 30L at 80g
£12 for 2.5L at 30g

Waterproof stuffsacks are vital backpacking kit. I finally wore through my last set after many years of constant use and took these SealLine Cirrus sacks on test last year. They’ve been in my pack on pretty much every trip near and far for around six months and have been faultless. The big red one I use as part pack liner and although the Cirrus range is the lightweight range the fabric is a tough grade of nylon so I’ve seen no wear yet and they are definitely waterproof. The blue one hides my wallet, phone, keys and the like and stays in my pack lid pocket where it gets wet as well as getting poked by my keys all the time, again no wear evident as yet.

Good fabric, nice roll top closures and they’re doing the job. Not exciting kit maybe, but it’s this stuff like this that can save our ruin your day.

PegGuyVargo Titanium Nails

£4.00 each
8g and 14g

Camcleats Alloy Y Peg

£6.12 for a pack of six
16g each

Mini Line-Lok and 2mm Dyneema guy line

£5.00 for a two guy line starter pack
2g as seen in the photo

I feel a wee bit like I’m letting you see my secret weapon here. Almost all of the manufacturers try to save a little bit of money and weight in areas where they think they’ll get away with it. A favourite area is pegs and guylines.

After countless trips with bent or lost pegs, stretching guylines that let the tent flap and getting torn fingers from pulling out sharp-edged pegs stuck in the ground I knew there had a to be a better way.

What I have now is little bag with a mix of what you see in the photo and that bag almost replaces or at least compliments whatever the manufacturer includes with their tent. The Vargo nails come in two weights, the lighter ones are good for soft ground but the heavier ones can be hammered into hard ground or into a crack in a boulder with a rock without complaint. I’ve never broken one of these heavier versions despite regularly harsh treatment.

The Y pegs are softer but are extremely secure with a large contact surface, I use these in snow and rarely have one slip or move.

All of these pegs have cord loops which can be used to pull them out of the ground or frozen snow with an ice axe or a trekking pole tip. A couple of trips doing it that way and you’ll never want to touch a cordless peg again.

Some guylines are great out of the box, but I’ve also seen £500 tents with guy lines that looking like parcel string. The Line-Lok/Dyneema combo is an excellent replacement or upgrade. The adjusters are secure and easy to use, the 2mm line has almost no stretch even from new and makes a reliable pitch first time. I’ve never had one snap, even when a tent has shredded around me, these guylines live on to see the next tent on the next trip.

BP Extras (2)

Last Word

So were my expectations met? I’d say largely yes, but to be honest I didn’t get too excited about anything, everything just did its job which has brought a question to mind about replacing kit. Are we replacing kit because the new model is better or because our old model is broken?

Upgrading is fun, it can improve our experience, make life easier but looking at the prices, maybe buying the best you can and then looking after it seems to be the best plan.

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