Garmin inReach Mini 2 – a real world review

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The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is a satellite facilitated tracking and text message communication device. It is small and light and designed to be used in combination with a Bluetooth enabled smartphone to act as remote keyboard and larger viewing screen. As the name suggests it is the second incarnation of this device. I bought one of these earlier in the year to give my family peace of mind when I was on an eight day solo wild walk across the Cairngorms.

Executive Summary

I found the unit easy to use and my family found messaging me and following my location using the tracking page straight forwards when I was in the field. The battery life was excellent, it would have lasted 12 days between charges using the configuration I chose. The reassurance of having a ‘Daddy Tracker’ was highly appreciated by the family and I benefited from getting messages and MWIS summaries sent from home. It gets a thumbs up from me.

What does it do / why might you want one?

By linking to both the US GPS, international GNSS and Iridium satellite networks it can pinpoint your location anywhere in the world where you have sight of the sky. Then by using its connection to the Iridium network (which is what powers satellite phones) it can broadcast your position back to your support team / loved ones via a Garmin hosted webpage. It does this at a frequency anywhere from once every two hours to as often every two minutes.

Using the Iridium network it allows the transmission and receipt of 160 character text messages. These can be sent to a mobile phone, received as an SMS message, or sent to an email account. A link within outgoing messages allows recipients (e.g. home base) to reply to the inReach via a web based messaging portal or via SMS to a dedicated pseudo mobile phone account at Garmin.

Finally the unit has an SOS button which will transmit an emergency call and your location to the local emergency services and also your chosen two primary contacts. Thankfully I’ve not tested this, but once in contact with the emergency services you can share text messages to fill them in with your status, nature of your emergency/injury etc.

I got one so that my family could be assured that I was OK and we could keep in touch with each other for the long periods I was without mobile phone network coverage (in my case for 5 ½ of the 8 days of my trip).  I was walking alone.

How easy is it to use?

DSC_2647After a couple of short test walks I was able to consistently and easily use the unit. Whilst it can be used on it’s own, if you want to send bespoke rather than just preset messages this is MUCH easier when you link it (via Bluetooth) to your phone. The unit itself has only four buttons, so typing on it would be a very slow process. However, you can read even long messages on the unit itself with ease.  The screen looks like that on a Kindle. Linking to the dedicated app on your phone is quick and easy. Reviews I read ahead of buying it all suggest that the Mini 2 user interface is much more intuitive than the original Mini 1. I have a 10 year old Garmin GPS Map and know that I can attest that the Mini 2 much easier and more intuitive vs. the older style of Garmin interface.

When I used the manual on / off tracking mode I found I could easily turn off the tracking by mistake. I never did work out what I was doing wrong. My solution was to set it to auto-tracking which meant I never accidentally turned off the tracking. This worked flawlessly.

Sometimes in deep valleys, or where there was tree cover it flagged a ‘poor satellite connection’ and asked if I would like to delay sending my message until it was guaranteed to sent without any errors. I opted for the ‘wait’ option and found that it never needed to wait more than 30 seconds before sending my message – a delay of no relevance as far as I was concerned. In the manual it suggested that messages may take up to 20 min to arrive with the end recipient (or get from them to me). On two occasions I had a back and forth text conversation with no perceivable delay.

Battery life?

There is always a difference between the optimal values quoted by manufacturers and real world performance. In the case of the Mini 2 your battery life will depend primarily on four main factors:

  • The frequency you opt to send your location back to your Garmin web page
  • How many messages you send / receive in the day
  • Whether you leave the Bluetooth link on all the time or actuate it ‘as needed’
  • Terrain / tree cover impacting satellite coverage.

In my case these factors were as follows

  • My location was set to ping once every 30 minutes
  • I sent around 10 messages per day and received 2-4
  • I only turned on the Bluetooth when I wanted to send a bespoke message
  • I was only rarely in deep narrow valleys or under trees
  • I had the unit switched on for around 8 hours per day
Picture showing how I carried the inReach Mini 2

inReach Mini 2 – clipped and strapped to my shoulder strap for good reception and easy of use

With the above settings / conditions I consistently used 8% of the battery life per day over my seven full days of use. Thus I could have got just over 12 days of use from a single charge of the internal Li ion cell. This seems excellent to me and all most people would every need. The unit is charged using a standard USB / phone charger (USB C) and thus can be topped up in the field using a power bank. The internal battery is 1250 mAh, so around 40% of a modern smart phone for comparison.

How the messaging works

The message payment model works as follows:

Preset messages

You can set three ‘preset messages’ via your Garmin Explorer web portal. These are fixed messages each sent to a (potentially different) fixed group of recipients. All and any aspects of these messages can only be altered via the web portal. Once set on the web you sync to your device either via USB or via the app on your phone / Bluetooth. You can send as many of these preset messages as you like at no extra charge. You can choose to include a location link within them.

Bespoke messages

Each message is up to 160 characters. These can be composed on the unit if you really have to and have a lot of patience (it has only four buttons) or are more readily composed on your phone then relayed via Bluetooth to the inReach and then up into the deep dark reaches of space. You can choose to include a location link with your message if you wish.

The cost of bespoke messages and location pings depends on the level of subscription you decide to pay for. Each subscription package includes some complimentary messages / pings and then you pay per message / ping after that. Since these costs will likely change with time best that you look here on the Garmin site for more information. This third party video is good too.

Both outgoing and incoming messages count towards your quota and will cost you once this quota has been exceeded. (Currently £0.50 / message).

Once you message someone, they can message you back.

Weather information

You can pay to have a weather forecast sent to you, it is multi-day forecast and can be standard or premium. I didn’t use these services so cannot comment. I arranged for Mrs W to send me a summary of the MWIS mountain forecast every other day. This service proved excellent!

Web portal configuration

This is very important as the settings on the portal will determine what your audience will see and what functions they will have available to them. You share a URL with them of the form https://share.garmin.com/xxxxxx. You can password protect the page if you wish and choose whether you want it to be possible for friends to message you from here. But note that you pay for incoming messages too.

On the portal you input your emergency contact information (two people). Via the app, you can populate a contacts list with their mobile / email details, these can be easily imported from your phone’s address book.

Costs

Again, look at the Garmin site for up-to-date costs, but their model has three levels of package further split into whether you opt for a monthly or an annual plan, so six options in total. There is an annual subscription fee too which is lower for an annual plan than a monthly plan. One thing that was not clear on their website is that if you buy a month’s usage this appears not to be 30 days, or from the Xth to the Xth of the month, but is instead for the calendar month. Worth noting if you plan to use it in the early part of the month, don’t subscribe until the 1st of the month at the earliest

I would suggest however that you would want to be able to familiarise yourself with the unit and check you can configured the settings on the web portal correctly before you head off into the wild and allow 2-3 days for this before you first use such a device.

Final thoughts

I’ve written this review after my first use of such a device, but it was a very comprehensive eight day trial – it was used ‘in anger’ so to speak. I could not fault it for either ease of use, robustness or battery life. From what I’ve read the Mini 2 has an easier interface and slightly longer battery life than the Mini 1. Mrs W was greatly reassured to be able to track me and get “I’m OK” messages at the start / end of the day and at each rest stop. This was the longest and most remote wild walk I’ve done so far and I was concerned I’d start to feel lonely after 4-5 days, but thanks to knowing I could communicate from absolutely anywhere (and you can send / receive messages from inside a tent without an issue) was probably a major reason behind this not being the case.

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The subscription is relatively expensive at £35 pa plus £35 per month used (middle level plan) but if it facilitates an adventure, as it did for me, it feels well worth the cost. My original plan was to sell the unit straight after my trip (cheaper than rental according to my sums) but rental is an option. However Mrs W has asked me to keep hold of it, so there’s a commendation right there.

Dales Superhighway – a four day wild walk

Whilst out on a family amble I discovered that our route formed part of the Dales Highway. The section we were walking from Stainforth to Faizor was very attractive, so I looked into details for the whole route. It runs for 90 miles from Saltaire to Appleby-in-Westmoorland. The low level section at the Southern end was not of interest to me, but the route it took through the Yorkshire Dales and over the Howgills looked inspired so I planned a four day section from Settle to Appleby which had the practical benefit of a train station at both ends making this a logistically easy linear walk. Having completed this I would suggest that if you are interested in the ‘hill section’ as I was then a better option still would be to terminate your walk at Newbiggin-on-Lune where you can get a regular bus to the train station at Kirby Lonsdale and from there, the train back to Settle. Read on to find out why…

Day 1 – Settle to Simon Fell (12.2 miles, 740 m)

One reason why I prefer the Dales for my winter walks is that the underlying geology means it is mostly free of much mud underfoot irrespective of recent rainfall. The first section along the Ribble was an exception to this. It seems to be a very popular route for local dog walkers. However I was soon at Stainforth Force and I was blessed with sunshine, the prospect of a dry path and excellent views just minutes ahead of me.

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I love the limestone formations of Smearsett and Pot Scar which you see on the path to Faizor.

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I ate my lunch overlooking Austwick Brook Dub, a pool in the brook which used to be used to wash sheep free of parasites in Spring and Autumn. Those farmers wresting sheep in chest deep cold water must have been hardy men indeed!

After lunch I came to another lovely section walking next to limestone pavement with Pen-Y-Ghent as the backdrop.

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I enjoyed the solitude whilst I could as 90 minutes later I was on the eroded motorway which is the ‘Three Peaks’ route up to Ingleborough. Whilst I find this the least attractive approach to this hill, it was a price worth paying for the route thus far, and the prospect of camping on Simon Fell, a satellite peak to Ingleborough itself. The cloud started to close in as I approached the top and whist I enjoyed views on arrival, I was enrobed in cloud by the time I got the tent pitched so have no pictures of the pitch on night one. Had it been the summer I would have headed to Park Fell to be undisturbed.

Day 2 – Simon Fell to Dent (12.9 miles, 500 m)

Whilst I awoke in the cloud, after striking camp I did not have to descend too far to be free of the cloud and to find that it was Ingleborough alone in wearing a flat cap of cumulous. The rest of the area was in bright sunshine. This afforded a wonderful view of Whernside.

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The official route does not take you over the top, but it was too good a day to skip the summit. At the top the remnants of the previous week’s snow where still in evidence.  It was very windy on high ground so I simply kept walking on and skipped lunch. The route through the Whernside Tarns was attractive but then it was  a slog along the stony track that leads down into Dent Dale. However, the walk along the river into the village was very pleasant once again. I arrived unfashionably early so opted for shelter, warmth and a liquid lunch in my favourite of Dent’s two pubs.

The morning had been a mixture of bright sun and total cloud cover, but the late afternoon was wholly warm and glorious when out of the wind. I pitched myself in the campsite (hands up! I didn’t wild camp every night) and enjoyed my book until an hour before dinner when I once again retreated to the Sun Inn. They had Tiffin Gold from Kirkby Stephen brewery which was tasty, moorish and nicely session-able at 3.6% ABV. I was back in the tent and asleep by just after 8pm, such is winter backpacking. Today had really felt like a holiday.

It was too!

Day 3 – Dent to West Fell : Howgills (12.6 miles, 740 m)

This was to be the best day. I started walking at 0830 and was greeted by warm sunshine.

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My route would take me via Sedbergh. You might imagine that the path would follow the same route as The Pennine Journey, which I completed in 2019, but this is not the case. I was soon walking new ground with the Highway living up to it’s name and leaving the river earlier and heading over the ridge between Dentdale and Garsdale at a higher point. I loved leaving tarmac and rocky tracks behind and also the early panorama of the Howgills.

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One major highlight over my overall route was that I would be crossing the whole of the Howgill ‘range’ from South to North and seeing them set out before me whetted my appetite.

DSC_2557I had thought that the climb up to Calders would be hard work, but in my minds eye the peak seemed far closer to Sedbergh that it is in truth. The reality is that it is a steady walk which is not over steep. There was not a cloud in the sky which was wonderful, but don’t be mistaken into thinking it was warm.  The wind was a steady 30-35 mph and finding any shelter for lunch was a challenge. Thankfully, just before the final climb to Calders I was able to sit in the lea of a small hummock to eat my lunch. I rued the lack of drystone walls which are myriad in the Dales. Once fed I needed to press on to keep warm given the windchill. My route took me over the Calf, shortly after which I was able to collect water, but I had to break the ice at the edge of the tarn to access it.

The hills of the Howgills are not dramatic like those of Western Cumbria, nor do they have the limestone features of the Dales but something about them appeals to me, perhaps it is simply because they are different. One thing for sure is that they offer very little by way of shelter from the wind.

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The Calf (676 m)

After passing the Calf I had the fells to myself and I enjoyed romping along and drinking in the views as I headed for the most northerly top, called West Fell, which my research suggested would be a good place to camp. The wind remained strong and steady, the forecast told me it was not expected to rise overnight and it was evidently free of gusts. I know from my first test camp in the Soulo  that it was easily capable of handling this wind speed (Force 7) , but I was glad of the quality of the mountain forecast which I reviewed before choosing which tent to bring. When I got to my planned pitching point the ground was level but once again there was no hint of shelter. Looking further down the path towards Bowderdale suggested the ground was mostly soft and uneven for the next section. Soft ground is no good if you want your pegs to hold. (I found out the next day that my judgement was sound, there were no good camping spots further down on West Fell.)

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All the guys out and double pegged – Hilleberg Soulo

It was a really lovely evening if you discount the wind. Using what I had learned over the past four years of wild camping made what could have been a difficult tent pitch something controlled and reasonable. My top tip is to always double peg / back stake your first two peg placements. I had a great view over the smaller North Eastern Howgills but was not blessed with an ‘Instagram Ready’ sunset on this occasion. I knew I had to be setting off at 0730 the following morning so after dinner and finishing my book it was soon time for sleep. The buffeting of the wind must have been what woke me every two hours, but in between I slept soundly enjoying the juxtaposition of the strength of the wind and the warmth and security of my shelter.

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Day 4 – West Fell to Great Asby (11 miles, 140 m)

Whilst it proved a wet day, the intensity and frequency of the showers were far lighter than the forecast suggested. Sunbiggin Tarn is beautiful in the sunshine, less so in the clag. Day four was a massive anticlimax after days 1-3. Should you be following in my footsteps I would suggest finishing this route at Newbiggin and on a high. There is a regular bus from there to the train at Kirby Stephen.

But I don’t want to end this report on a low point…

Final thoughts.

The route which the Dales Highway takes through the Dales and the Howgills is really attractive and I enjoyed these days immensely. I’ve wanted the opportunity to camp on Simon or Park Fell for a couple of years, and starting from Settle makes either of these an ideal endpoint. Water can be gathered high up on the route to this ridge meaning you don’t have to carry it very far. I didn’t get a prolonged view but it was super whilst it lasted. It was fun to put my five season tent to good use and take advantage of elevated camp spots, especial night three in the Howgills. Having the map open whilst I write this has given me ideas to enhance this route still further for those who are happy to wild camp to take advantage of route options unfettered by having to reach fixed accommodation. I now have in mind an amended route, a ‘Superhighway’ if you like.  Once it’s complete I’ll publish here for comment.

Inversion – a two wild walk via the summit of Fountains Fell

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I was beginning to feel the winter blues drift into my airspace so Mrs W suggested it would be good for me to get out for a wild walking weekend. It has been a while since I was last out.  The first thing to check was the mountain weather forecast; this showed something rather unusual. A cloud inversion was expected in the Yorkshire Dales for the whole weekend. Foggy in the valleys but clear blue skies were to be expected on higher ground. Another impact of this is that the usual reduction in temperature with altitude scenario is reversed, with it warmer on the tops of the peaks than down in the valley. The dichotomy of sitting indoors looking out at the fog vs. walking on fell tops bathed in sunshine was enough to rouse my lacklustre enthusiasm. The route I chose is shown below:

Fountains Fell Route - Dec-21

The elevated moorland between Ribblesdale and Airedale only rises to 400-550 metres, but this was enough. As soon as I reached 360 m, I punched through the cloud into warm sunshine. Whilst it makes meteorological sense, it is still an odd feeling to walk out of the top of a cloud and suddenly feel a whole lot warmer. The precise height of the top of the cloud had not been forecast, it was just said to be ‘well below 700 m’ so there was a chance that I may not have been clear of the cloud until I was on my way up Fountains Fell. Walking up into the sunshine really lifted my spirits. I’d walked this section of path before and remembered the impressive limestone crags to the North of the path and was jubilant to see them again in glorious sunshine.

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My route took me to Malham Tarn and joining the Pennine Way around the Tarn before starting the gentle climb to the top of Fountains Fell.

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You have to divert off of the footpath to get to the actual summit which is about 700m SW of the highpoint of the footpath – unsurprisingly many had made this diversion before me. I knew from a review of Geograph photos that some flat level ground lay just to the West of the summit. Here I would like to plug Geograph to anyone planning a camping enhanced wild walk. Details on a 1:25k OS map are really helpful in shortlisting good spots to camp, but the pictures, they speak louder still.

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To my delight there was a nice level rock free spot right next to the summit cairn which allowed me to orientate my tent to have a view of both Pen-Y-Ghent and the possibility of a sunset over the top of the cloud inversion which was filling Ribblesdale (Yorkshire), the Ribble Valley (Lancashire) and its tributaries.

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After harvesting water from a small rivulet near the summit, it was time to get my legs into my sleeping bag and split my time between reading my book and drinking in the view. Because I’d started at sunrise and managed a fine pace I was fully set up a good 45 minutes before sunset. The sun was setting behind the cloud inversion thus it was not possible to take any pictures until it was kissing the horizon. After that words fail me, so I’ll leave it to a slideshow of how the colours changed over the next hour.

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My bladder woke me at 0230 but I opened my sleepy eyes to an unexpectedly bright light. I wondered if it was a torch but no, it was an extremely bright full moon! At 0630 it was time to make a brew and get packed up for a rather longer second day. I figured I’d rather walk the final stretch to the car (day 2) in the dark than pitch a tent in the dark in an unfamiliar location (day 1) so I started my walk from Langcliffe rather than Stainforth. In the summer I’d start from Stainforth to even the distance to 14 miles each day. I left my summit camp just as the sun bobbed above the Eastern horizon. First stop was Pen-Y-Ghent.

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From there I headed to the Western Side of the Horton Road (B6479). The limestone scars between Horton and Wharf looked inviting on the map. Here I have to confess to a navigational inexactitude. I kept following a well trodden path that stopped being the true footpath. I only noticed this as it faded out one kilometre into my error. The valley into which I should have headed to was filled with cloud / fog and I was already a long way off of my route so I thought I’d continue around the edge of the scar tops, enjoy the fine view and then hope to find a gentle slope down to the Wharf road.

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The map suggested to me that SD790, 700 looked a promising point to lose height, and indeed it was. I would not, however, recommend this to others due to a lack of convenient gates in the drystone walls that I needed to cross. The path free route I took across the tops was not arduous (deep heather often is, but this was not deep nor the ground uneven), was very attractive and legal as open access land. Had time been on my side, it would have been better to continue to Moughton Nab (SD798, 697) and pick up the footpath down to the road.

After this, the rest of the day is what I’d class as a ‘walk out’ – something to be done quickly to finish the day. I’d really enjoyed climbing Pen-Y-Ghent and seeing all the limestone formations. It was time for a swift pint then to drive home. Here I should give a shout out to the landlord of the Craven Heifer at Stainforth who keeps his beers extremely well and who poured me as good an example of Thwaites IPA as I’ve ever had. It’s not a modern style IPA, but still the hop oils shone through very nicely.

Kinder – Bueno! (A two day circumnavigation of Kinder Scout and the Edale Valley)

Once a year, global pandemics allowing (:-o), a university friend and I get together for a walking weekend. Ahead of us getting to meet up this autumn he commented on my wild walking posts and how this year he’s like to join me on one of these rather than our normal pair of day hikes. I’ve had an augmented version of the circumnavigation of Kinder Scout on my to-do list for some time. The forecast for the Saturday looked ideal, the Sunday less so, but we packed our waterproofs and headed to Derbyshire to see what we would find.

Kinder Circuit Map

Finding an overnight parking spot in Edale is a challenge, but my research suggested that Barber Booth should work out. We could and should have arrived earlier than we did, but were lucky and found a space under the railway bridge. From here we set off towards Edale with the intention of heading up to Grindslow Knoll as our ascent onto the Kinder Plateau. We were talking too much and were in Edale before we knew it, so instead we followed the overly popular path alongside Grinds Brook to the top. Wow was this busy – a far from wild beginning to this wild walk.

Spoiler alert – I loved this walk and plan to do it again out-of-season so need to be more alert next time and even consider following the path up Crowden Brook instead to avoid the crowds and to enjoy more ‘edge’ and less valley. The first of the iconic rock formations soon greeted us

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We continued around the edge of the plateau in an anticlockwise direction as this aim was to get the distance just right to finish the day on “The Edge” above Black Ashop Moor – SK08,89. We had glorious sunshine affording beautiful views of the various edges and down into the respective valleys which envelop Kinder. As I had hoped, and researched, the Edge-Path remained dry and firm underfoot for the whole day, a great contrast to the boggy peat interior of Kinder.

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We harvested our water for the evening at Fair Brook but didn’t hang around because of the midges. A significant plus point with the Sawyer Squeeze filter is that as well as removing harmful bacteria etc it also strips the peat taste from water such as that which runs off of Kinder. The original idea was to camp on “The Edge” but I reaped the benefit of my walking partner being a geologist who reviewed the map and said that the ground would be expected to be soft and wet there (and what do you know, when we got there the following morning he was absolutely right!) so we looked for a spot on Fairbrook Naze instead and found a great pitch. After dinner we were also blessed with a huge Harvest Moon. My photo doesn’t do it justice.

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After a mild night we woke to low cloud, however this had lifted above the plateau by the time we set off at 0800. The weather forecast suggested a high likelihood of moderate rain. In practice we got around 40 min of light rain, after which the sun broke through and gave us a day considerably ahead of expectations. The sunshine gave us great views around the horseshoe and down into the Edale valley itself.

Whilst having out lunch on the far side of Lords Seat, Mam Tor looked less like the piece of anatomy after which it is named and more like a hedgehog with people making up the spines. So whilst the original plan was to finish on Back Tor we chose not to queue again and headed back to the car. By the time we got there was have covered a very respectable 12.6 miles and enjoyed a most excellent weekend of walking, talking and splendid views. This is a walk I would certainly hope to repeat this coming winter, hopefully when there is snow on the ground.

Kinder Circuit Map

Three Days along the Northumberland Coast Path

When it came to the most recent half term holiday both Mrs W and I were ready for a total rest, thus we split the childcare duties between us so each could have some solo time. I took Junior on a canoeing adventure for three days, pictures of which will soon be available here. After this was my solo time and I had two walks planned and used my proven approach of making the choice based on the weather forecast the day before setting off. This time the choice was between a stretch of the Dales Highway or a section of the Northumbria Coast Path.

With low cloud due in the Dales throughout the allotted time slot I had an early start to get me the three hours to Alnmouth (pronounced Alan-Mouth) for the start of my coastal walk.

Day 1 – Alnmouth to Low Newton-by-the-sea : 12 miles (*no sig. height gain)

This proved the least inspiring section of the walk, but it was good to be out and in fine weather.

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The afternoon proved better than the morning with Dunstanburgh Castle a highlight.

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The coast became more pleasant after this, albeit far from spectacular. What it did do was to lead to The Ship Inn at Low Newton. Here they have a micro-brewery in house and brew all their own ale. Their Red Ale was true to style and pleasant enough. Their Pale Ale “Sandcastles at Dawn” had interesting hop flavours but was oddly sweet. Sadly their approach to managing COVID control was to not allow anyone inside the building. Thus there was no opportunity to ask for a tour of their brew kit and ask for any advice on starting as a brew pub.

The best part of the day was the pitch I found my tent that evening.

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Gorgeous.

Day 2 – Low Newton to Belford / Beal – 18 miles*

The day started well with a pleasant route from my camping spot on the Snook Headland to Seahouses. When I’d planned my route I’d noted the possibility of an early lunch in Seahouses to take advantage of a fine Fish and Chip shop which I’d visited before when cycling the Coast and Castles Sustrans route. My extra early start however meant I arrived far too early for such a repast so I settled for a bacon roll and a rest. The next section of the path taught be two useful lessons. (1) Whilst the coastal path was pleasant, any diversion inland (in this case from Seahouses to Bamburgh) yielded landscape, and thus walking, of little or no interest. (2) If it looks like the alternative to an inland route is a busy road, consider also whether the state of the tide would allow a diversion onto the beach. This is exactly what I should have done, and would recommend, between Seahouses and Bamburgh.

Lunch at the North end of beach at Bamburgh went a long way towards making up for the mundane nature of the second half the morning.

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It also inspired me to look a little deeper at the inland section which the official route was due to take me on the following day. This didn’t look like much fun, so I shook the internet to find some bus timetables and was pleased by what fell out. If I was able to stretch my day to take me as far as Belford I could get a bus which would by-pass the rest of the route planned for day three and to within a mile of the campsite planned for the end of that day at Beal.

After I passed the end of the headland at Budle Point I took advantage of the low tide and headed down onto the beach. The map suggested it might be muddy / silt but a wide band of sand hugged the coastline. It proved a great perspective on the coast and gentle on the feet.

As I passed what should have been my campsite for that evening I saw both how large and packed it was and I was very glad to be walking on rather than stopping. Just before Waren Mill I could hop up onto the road and within 1 km I was back on the official route. Here the gentle rolling hills made for nice views and I enjoyed walking through a large grain storage co-op. Next I came to the East Coast Mainline and a first – the requirement to ring the signalman before crossing the line. I was soon in Belford. The pubs didn’t look the best, fortunately the beer selection in the Co-op was rather good and I set up my own beer garden in the afternoon sunshine whilst I waited for the next bus.

The campsite at ‘The Barn at Beal’ was a much smaller affair and had a fine view of Lindisfarne. I was rather tired after an 18 mile day but very pleased with the modification I’d made to my route.

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Day 3 Beal to Berwick-upon-Tweed – 11 miles*

This was to be the best day of my walk. Where I to walk this stretch of coast again I might well start at Beal and then get the chance to explore the taller cliffs and more dramatic coastline which I now know exists North of Berwick and into Scotland. I had a maximum of four days available to me and would have needed a further three days to get from Berwick to the next transport hub at Dunbar. From photo’s I’ve seen since, this would be a very tempting option for another time. Since I’ve come back I’ve talked with friends who have visited this section of coast who describe it as ‘Like dramatic Cornwall but without the people.’

But back to my walk rather than my day-dreaming. The first section of today’s route was both different and interesting as it was salt marsh. There were dykes and sheep a plenty for the first hour.

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After that the route followed a stony vehicle track for a while so once again I headed to the beach.

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On my route I fell upon a fascinating chap who was kayaking up the coast aiming for Berwick. He was camped on the beach having a rest day and hoping not to be moved on by pedantic twitchers. I enjoyed a chat and encouraged him that he was doing no harm.

I came within site of Berwick at around lunchtime but I decided to press on to get to the railway station to maximise my chance of a train back to Alnmouth.

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Here my relaxed attitude to rail travel let me down. When I’m using the train on such a walk as this I don’t check the timetable as I’ve found that a late running earlier train can often get me to where I want ahead of the one I might have planned to catch. Next time I’ll be more methodical as I found that Alnmouth is considered a very minor station and it would be three hours before the next stopping train was due. Fortunately I’d noted that the bus I’d used on my detour was going from Berwick to Newcastle and I knew it went via Alnwick. After lunch with a lovely view over the River Tweed I got a bus back to Alnmouth via Alnwick.

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It got be there before the train would even have set off, at a fraction of the cost and with a much shorter walk to my car at the far end.

Conclusions

It was good to have a few days away, but I cannot say that I’d recommend this section of coastal path. It lacks the drama an interest of Pembrokeshire or the South West Peninsula. Back in 2012 we cycled up this stretch of coast and this, I would suggest, is the ideal pace at which to see Northumbria. If you cover 50 miles in a day then the thinly distributed nature of points of interest is no longer a problem. Where you wishing to take advantage of the drier weather of the East Coast and wanting to walk, you would be well advised to look into walking the section from Beal (or Berwick) north to Dunbar.

Panhandle Perambulation – A two day Wild Walk in the NW Dales

Our family day walks in the Yorkshire Dales are unusually restricted to the Southern areas as the journey time to somewhere such as Dentdale is deemed too far.  So with Mrs W heading away with Junior to see her brother for the weekend, I poured over a map and came up with a two day route with a fell top overnight stop.

Barbon Fell Route Map

The Opensource map suggested there was a path, unmarked on the OS Map, from a parking spot just outside of Leck up to the shoulder of Gragareth and indeed it was there complete with gates and stiles.  I didn’t get to see the notable ‘Three Men’ until my return on day two however.

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The (former) highest point in Lancashire – Gragareth

Once up onto the ridge the path was much smoother and well walked and afforded great views over Kingsdale towards Ingleborough and Whernside.  Ironically my route all but coincided with my winter weekend walk of 2018 which also took me to Great Coum.  I was simply the other side of the wall, which marks the former boundary between Lancashire and Westmorland.

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I had lunch in the shelter of a peat hag with a fine view of Morecambe Bay.  After ascending Great Coum the descent to Bullpot Farm was gentle.  Bull Pot is one of the entrances to the UK’s largest cave system which stretches some 70 km in total, dendron like, length.  Ultimately I dropped down to Barbon Beck and the foot of my second ridge of the weekend.

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When I plan a route like this I look at the overall structure of the ridges and places I will be able to source water but don’t often focus on all the other details.  Thus the ascent up to Castle Knott was a good deal steeper than in my minds eye.  Just the time to add two litres of water to my pack weight!  I reviewed the water options on the fell top and the two tarns looked very small, and the past few weeks had been very dry so I carried my beck water up with me. (I found the tarns to be stagnant and alive with fly lava, so a sound decision despite my water filter.)

I was very hot by the time I got to the my new ridge-line, but from here it was just less than a kilometre to the top of Castle Knott.  My original plan was to camp on the col just beyond this top but the wind was light and the views from the top inspiring.  Walking NW along the shoulder that extends away from the main ridge yielded a flat spot large enough for a solo tent with views over Morecambe Bay, the Kent Estuary and the Southern Fells of Cumbria – perfect!

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On the menu in the evening was a freeze dried meal from a company I’d not tried before, Lyo of Poland.  I was attracted by their use of all natural (and low FODMAP) ingredients and enjoyed my Five Spice Chicken very much.  In the UK they can be bought from Basecamp Foods – I suspect that I will be going back for more.

Overnight the cloud dropped and when the sun woke me at 0400 I was surrounded by cloud.  I had hoped that the breeze would keep my tent dry, but thankfully the pan-handle shape of this week yielded an extra bonus… …after getting a few more hours shut-eye.  I had brought a bum bag with me for essentials and although I packed up all the rest of my gear, I left it in the tent with the hope that tent would be dry for my return there-and-back walk to the end of the ridge.  Despite a lazy start, I was walking away by 0830 and by this point the cloud had lifted above 3000′ yielding panoramic views.  The ridge from Castle Knott to Great Maws was really like the Howgill’s in its shape and nature.  An hour later I was sat at the end of the ridge enjoying a fabulous view the Howgill’s themselves and also down into Dentdale.  I love this part of the world, and whilst the cloud cover meant it wasn’t a great day for photographs, I’ll let them tell the rest of the story.

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The return walk yielded fresh views and lost nothing for having been walked before.  The tent was dry upon my return so I struck camp and dropped back down to Barbon Beck for lunch.  I suspected that the rest of the walk would simply by a necessary ‘walk out’ but was delighted by the beauty, and ultimately the narrowness of Ease Gill. It is dry rivers such as this which point to the possibility of cave systems underneath – the water needs to be flowing somewhere…

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Another path which was only to be found on the Opensource map led me straight back to the car.  It had been a very enjoyable and empowering weekend and an other example of how it can be good to walk lesser know fells between the bigger peaks.  You get to see the spender of the larger peaks but without both the the full height gain and the heavy traffic they attract. The day had been getting warmer by the hour, and now I was down at valley level I experienced the full power of the sun.  Fortunately I was able to drop the roof on the car and drive home topless!

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A Little of what You Fancy – Walking and Wild Camping around the Llyn Peninsula

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I owe a big debt of gratitude to the Scouting movement. Back in the 1980’s I joined a Scout Troop and this not only gave me a life long love for the outdoors, but the mindset and skillset to be able to enjoy it to the full. I’ll admit that back in my teens I did a few backpacking trips which I only actually enjoyed in retrospect, mostly down to being very unfit and because of the pain of carrying an external frame rucksack. The first multi-day walk I enjoyed rather than endured was a section of the Dorset / SW Peninsula Coast Path. By this point I was fitter and had a better rucksack. From this has stemmed a love which has lasted the thick end of 40 years, coastal walking.

I think long distance walking is a little like music or beer. There are a whole range of styles of both which have merit, not everyone likes every style, but most people enjoy a range even if there are one or two they would rather avoid. Sour Beers, Dance Music and the Pennine Way in my case! Whilst today I mostly walk in hill country, there will always be a special place in my heart for coastal walking.

One secret to thriving through this pandemic has been to be flexible and to grab opportunities when they arise. The 5-9th May was my chance as whilst it was sad that a planned event for Mrs W and I had fallen through, it gave me the chance to disappear for a full five days, my first proper holiday in twelve months. One of the massive benefits of solo backpacking is that there is usually no need to book anything in advance. This leads to my next secret to success; planning two walks in different parts of the country. I then choose which to do based on a last minute look at the weather forecast. As I said, whilst I love the hills, I had a deep desire for some coastal walking and had two options set before me, the Northumbria Coast Path or a section of the Wales Coast Path around the Llyn Peninsula. As you’ll now know, this time it was the West which one.

My Route

I’m not a ‘complete the set’ / ‘tick all the boxes’ person, but instead I often like to cherry pick sections of great walks. This time I reckoned that the approx. 50 miles from Nefyn to Abersoch represented the most attractive part of the Llyn Peninsula. If you go further East from Nefyn there are big stretches next to A-roads and if you continue beyond Llanbedrog / Abersoch the geography becomes rather flat, low and – to my taste – uninspiring.

Llyn Coast Path Route Picture

I’ll say now that I loved this walk, but were I to do it again, I’d walk it in reverse as the best part of the section out of Nefyn was the view of Snowdonia which which always over my shoulder. The walk and scenery was extremely good, but this would have been better still. Also at this point it is worth noting that this walk would be a great introduction to coastal walking because the amount of height gain (i.e. cumulative height of hills climbed) is very modest in comparison to either Pembrokeshire or the SW Peninsula Coast Path. This is likely to be the route I use to introduce my son to backpacking in a couple of years time – it offers a really good pleasure / effort ratio.

Day 1 – Nefyn to Nr Porth Colmon – Highlights

14 miles / < 100 m Height Gain

I’ll allow a slide-show of pictures to tell most of the story.

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At the time I did this walk, it was legal to use campsites but not any of their ‘facilities’. Paying £10 to have access to a water tap made the cost of water higher than a Craft Keg Ale so I’d decided to wild camp where possible. On Day One I had hoped to stop just before Penllech Beach on the cliff top, but the ground was either too sloped for a tent, or where it was flat enough it was all used for grazing livestock and was always within view of farmhouses. A challenge of the narrowness of the peninsula. Therefore I walked on and found a good spot just beyond Porth Colmon, looking down on Porth Wen Bach.

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Day 2 – Porth Wen Bach to Pen-y-Cil – Highlights

12 miles / 350 m Height Gain

Another day of gorgeous sunshine, and whilst Day One was very pleasant, today the scenery became more dramatic, the headlands forming the tip of the peninsula being a major highlight.

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Nearing the end of the day I came across a spring on one of the steep slopes between Mynydd Mawr and Pen-y-Cil. Not St Mary’s Well, not marked on my 1:50k map but very welcome. Here I gathered some water, but needed much patience to get a whole litre. I thus opted to seek out an easier source for the final 500 ml which I needed. I didn’t find another source and was about to give up and walk to a farm when a great and friendly couple, whom I’d met earlier in the day, caught up with me again and gave me their left over water as they were just about to finish their day walk and head home. I found a fabulous pitch that night, right next to the cliff with views of islands in both directions.

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Day 3 Pen-y-Cil to Hells Mouth Beach (NE end)

14 miles / 180 m Height Gain

This was by far the warmest and sunniest day, with the sun beaming down even as I had my breakfast (in bed naturally!) After freshening up in Aberdaron and restocking with fruit I was set for the day ahead. Again I’ll allow the pictures to tell the story.

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I was planning on camping with the Dunes at far end of Hells Mouth Beach. The official path heads inland some distance from the beach, but looking at the tide timetable told me that I could walk along the beach if I wished. It being just 12 days to my 50th Birthday I thought I’d set myself the challenge of yomping across the beach as fast as I could and use my GPS to see if I could achieve anything like the speed I was capable over a measured mile when I was 18. Given that I had an 11 kg pack on my back I was delighted to be just 0.1 mph slower than 32 years prior. I thus arrived at my proposed camping spot rather too early to pitch! So I walked the 1 km inland to the Sun Inn at Llanengan. A couple of pints of Dizzy Blonde and a few chapters of my book proved an excellent entrée to my evening meal.

The forecast expected the weather to change dramatically overnight with heavy rain and winds gusting to 41 mph predicted. It’s odd to rig a tent for a storm on a warm sunny evening. It was my first chance to use my (mini) delta ground anchors in anger. My impression of them in the garden at home was that they were no more difficult to pull from the ground than a regular Y peg, but they did hold a lot better in sand than regular pegs. I double pegged (or pegged and anchored) all the main guys and headed to bed.

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Day 4 Hells Mouth Beach to Abersoch

9 miles / 180 m Height Gain (in an afternoon)

The weather arrived at 0300 as per the forecast and I was very happy to be in a Hilleberg. The forecast suggested that the rain would change from very heavy (2-3mm/hr) to light (0.6 mm/hr) at 1100 so I enjoyed a morning of reading my novel and then packed by bag and was ready to emerge and strike camp at 1100 on the dot. In reality, at 1050 the rain stopped and didn’t come back for the rest of the day. I felt very blessed. Further, in the time it took me to dig and backfill my latrine hole (!) the strong wind had blown the tent all but dry.

I walked up into the cloud and there I remained for around 90 min, when it miraculously started to lift and the sun burnt through. Thus I did have views of the cliffs for the second half of my walk to Abersoch.

Originally I had the option of continuing on to Llanbedrog but this would not have allowed me to catch the last bus, so Abersoch was my final destination. I had the bus back to Nefyn to myself so the driver kindly asked me where in town I wanted to be dropped. I explained where the car was and he dropped me at the end of the road. Now that’s service!

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So an excellent four days, a super holiday, and probably the ideal introduction to backpacking for Junior in a couple of years time.

Gear Appraisal – what did I learn about my kit?

Sleeping Pad – Thermorest Prolite Apex

Looking at the weather forecast before I set off suggested one night that would drop to 1 Celcius and other nights between 4-7 C. My sleeping bag is ‘comfort rated’ to 4C but I know that with the aid of a jacket over my feet I’ve taken a similarly rated bag down to -1C. The solution I opted for this time was to take my winter sleeping pad, a Thermarest ProLite Apex and my two season sleeping bag. This worked really well as is an approach I’ll note for the future. ProLite Apex + 2 Season Bag = 1200 g. ProLite 3 + 4 Season Bag = 1600 g.

With the Apex only weighing 110g more than the ProLite 3 I’m tempted to use it year round because it is just so luxuriously comfortable.

Tent – Hilleberg Enan

I remain really impressed with this tent. As long as you have a light breeze it remains condensation free. Even when the wind is whistling between the inner and the fly, the all-mesh door seems to keep out the breeze from the inner. The space in this tent is optimal for someone who is 5’11”: Generous in length; sufficient in headroom; good sized porch for wet gear, rucksack and cooking gear*; good in wind speeds of up to 45 mph and thoroughly capable of handling a torrential downpour as long as you close the vent at the windward end.

*I am not recommending cooking in the vestibule with the door closed (although there would be enough room should you choose to take this risk).

Titan Ground Anchors

I remain highly sceptical about these being able to live up to their claims for holding power. I’ve not done pull tests with a spring balance, but ‘by feel’ they held no better in our back lawn than a regular Hilleberg Y peg (akin to MSR Mini Groundhogs). However, they do work a lot better in sand and probably offer a good compromise between regular and sand stakes given that they are only 1/3 the size and half the weight of a sand stake. I should get myself a spring balance because my feeling is that (in regular soil) double pegging with standard Y or V pegs offers a much stronger solution at lower weight.

Renewed Freedom in Ribblesdale – a two day wild walk.

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Freedom!       Finally we are allowed out overnight, so long as we stay in self contained accommodation. I figured you don’t get a much lower chance of social mixing than in a solo tent onto top of a remote fell, so I took advantage of being on a three day week and headed for Ribblesdale. My objective was to spend a night on the apparently unremarkable fell of Cosh Knott. Whilst it seems to offer little as a fell in itself, its magic is in the views that it affords. It is somewhere I’ve visited once before but I did not manage to capture any photographs due to a fully drained camera battery. Whilst the sunset and rise was not spectacular this time, my recollection of this location will ever be in my memory for seeing the sun setting over Ingleborough and then the magic of a cloud inversion the following morning.

This time my idea was to take a more interesting ‘route in’. Unless many popular YouTuber’s, my wild-camping is facilitates a better, wilder, walk and is the cherry atop the cake; It is not the cake in itself.  Last time I followed the Horse Head Ridge around from Arncliffe, this time I walked up Ribblesdale from Stainforth. My inspiration was a stretch of the Dales Highway and it didn’t disappoint. A middle ground walk, not across the tops, yet not along the river. If you are on a multi-day walk in the Dales I find this works very well and is exactly the approach which Wainwright took with his Pennine Journey. I’ll allow some photo’s of the majestic limestone formations to tell the story…

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After a late lunch next to the Ribble the next section was a mundane, yet necessary, link between areas of virtue. I upped the pace to get to an enjoyable short section of The Pennine Way and then up the rough grassland to Cosh Knott. The ground was rough but not boggy. One of the practical beauties of this spot is the spring at SD 832,778. I filled my bottles and headed up to the trig point.

I got my tent pitched just ahead of a flurry of hail and headed inside for a brew. Sadly the clouds spoilt the sunset, but not the splendour of isolation and the views I was blessed with the following morning. It proved a cold night at -6 C but I was delighted with the performance of my winter rated Thermorest which allowed my sleeping bag to fully live up to it’s specification (-15 C).

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The flip-side of the cold night was clear skies and great views the following morning. Reputed as the best view of the Three Peaks in the Dales, I was delighted to agree.

My route on Day 2 was to take my up Plover Fell and onto Pen-Y-Ghent. Last time I did this in sub-zero conditions I struggled with the verglas on the rock steps at the top of the popular footpath section to Plover Fell. This time I was equipped with my micro-spikes but found that the weather afforded me dry rock with good grip despite the cold night. I didn’t hang around on the summit of Pen-Y-Ghent because it was humming with ‘Three Peakers’ but instead struck back onto the Pennine Way and headed for Fountains Fell. The view of the lesser seen East side of Pen-Y-Ghent was beautiful and the frost on Fountains Fell beautified its normally mundane appearance. This was to be my first time up Fountains Fell on a clear day and from this direction. Lunch on the summit was very satisfying. Again, what it lacks in inherent splendour is made up for by the views it affords.

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Now it was time to head back to the car but unlike the farmland on the second half of day 1, the high pasture between Malham Tarn and Stainforth is really pleasant. Wide, firm, grassy bridleways with lovely crags initially then views of Pen-Y-Ghent and Whernside once I’d passed back over the shoulder of Fountains Fell. What a great two days I’d had and it was almost legal 😉  It is a walk I’d repeat and has wetted my appetite for walking a longer section of the Dales Highway in the years to come. Ahead of that I already have my next long walk planned, I am really looking forward to some coastal walking. The freedom of taking a tent means I have two routes planned, one on the West Coast and one on the East and I’ll make my choice depending on weather in early May….

…so on that cliff hanger, and until next time, thank you for reading.

Backpacking Tents – A Comprehensive Design Review

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I searched on-line book sellers and shook the internet to find a truly comprehensive summary of lightweight tent designs and was left wanting. Thus I thought I’d pull together my 35 years of camping and backpacking experience, add some up-to-the-moment literature research and write my own. A major driver to my inspiration has been Shamus McCaffery’s YouTube channel “Outdoor Inspiration” where he takes an experienced, evidence centric and practical look at various pieces of backpacking equipment.

Tents are like most sporting equipment – no one design is ideal for all applications. I would not want to race ride the Tour de France on a mountain bike, nor would I take a carbon road bike to the skate park. I could, but neither would allow me to enjoy each activity at it’s best. So it is with tents which you plan to carry or use as the base camp for weekend adventures. So let’s look at all of the designs which are out there, their design principles and their pro’s and cons. My aim is to cover what always used to be called ‘Hike Tents’ not the fabric versions of the Albert Hall used for family holidays, though to a point the same principles apply.  Whilst I will make reference to specific manufacturers, this is just to give real world examples and should not be taken as a recommendation of the maker.  The aim of this article is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each design type to aid you in producing an evidence based shortlist suitable for what you plan to do, where you plan to pitch and in which season.

The Ridge Tent

Vango Force 10

Probably the earliest example of a ‘light-weight’ tent is the ridge tent. Epitomised for me by the Vango Force 10 (above). This design is supported at each end either by a single pole or an inverted V. Variants exist with and without ridge poles, the latter being lighter but normally less strong.

Vertical upright, ridge pole designs, unless made from very strong (and thus often heavy) materials are generally, in my experience, only suitable for summer use. Since they rely on the rigidity of the poles, these tend to be heavy and thus the overall weight of a strong structure is high. They require pegs & guys to keep them upright and thus need to be pegged securely to handle strong winds.

ridge tent

Where this design works well is with the Vango Force 10 (top), which has inverted V uprights which gives an almost free-standing design of considerable strength. However, that strength comes at the expense of weight. Even a Force 10 with a coated polyester fly weighed in at 7.0 kg. The original cotton version weighed 8.3 kg. (3 man)

Another version of the ridge tent which can work well is where there is no ridge pole – what I will refer to as the soft-ridge – sometimes walking poles are used for the uprights. If you are already walking with poles, then the weight of the tent components you need to add becomes very low. Examples of this design would be the the Trekkertent Stealth or the Tarptent Notch.

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The Stealth is very similar to Saunders Jetpacker which was my first ever backspacing tent which I used from 1987-1997. Lightweight for its time, but far from comfortable. Transverse soft-ridge (twin apex) designs tend to offer more space and headroom

Pro’s : Simple; Trekking pole designs can be very light but are only designed for 2-3 season use; V pole designs are very strong but heavy.

Con’s : Very limited area with good headroom, usually cannot sit two people at the entrance (transverse ridge designs are better); Usually heavy; Lightweight versions can be ultralight but are mostly very small inside; Not free-standing.

Teepee / Pyramid Tent

Pyramid

This is another very old design into which new fabrics have breathed fresh life. This design uses one central pole and then relies on pegs / guys to form it’s shape and structure. These have gained popularity amongst the ultralight backpacking / through-hiking community. They are simple and potentially as light at 460 grams for just a single skin shelter. Add another 600 g if you want an insect proof inner / groundsheet. Because of their symmetry they handle wind from any direction. To maximise the area of reasonable headroom the designs tend to slope gently which means a relatively large footprint, compared to say a tunnel or geodesic design. If you want the lightest rain shelter you can buy and insects are not an issue to you this is where this design could win out. You must be able to peg it out for it to stand, so not ideal for kayak tourers who often need to pitch on rock slabs.

Pro’s : Simple; Potentially ultralight; Quick to pitch; Plenty of ventilation

Con’s : No lighter than more refined designs if you add an inner tent / groundsheet; Large footprint; Not free-standing; Plenty of ventilation!

Tunnel tents

tunnel wild country

The tunnel tent was first commercialised by Helsport in 1971. However, the design did not become common in the UK until a lot later. A tunnel tent is commonly formed from two / three semicircular poles which provide structure to a fabric tunnel which is tensioned at each end. The big advantage of this design is the space / weight ratio. Because the walls are steep this provides a very large area of good headroom, so ideal for multi-person occupancy. It is a design found in the catalogue of nearly all tent manufacturers today from budget models to top end high-priced versions. Because it relies on fabric tension to retain it’s shape the quality of the flysheet fabric will determine how well this design will stand up against the wind. Three pole high end designs have proved themselves in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. That said they do tend to flap in the wind which is enough to keep some people awake, so they are not ideal for light sleepers.

A more recent variant on the tunnel tent is the single hoop design. This design lends itself to a lightweight three season shelter. Whilst the lightest tents on the market are commonly of soft ridge and pyramid designs, once you have added an inner tent they weigh the same as many lightweight single hoop designs. These come in both longitudinal and traverse arrangements, the latter being by far the most common today. Perhaps the most beloved longitudinal design was the Phoenix Phreeranger. Whilst Pheonix is no longer in business you can still buy something very similar to the Phreeranger from Trekkertents.

Tarptent Rainbow

Tarptent Rainbow – another example of a longitudinal single hoop tent

There are too many examples of the transverse design to list here. The main differentiator is where the pole is placed along the length – centrally or bias to the head end. Head end pole designs give a large entrance door but only a small protected porch. They open up most of the inner to rain on entry / exit.  They are nearly always lighter though so popular for competition use.

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Single hoop – off centre design from Terra Nova

Mid pole designs give an adequate entrance but a larger protected porch area.  I now use a centre pole design for solo backpacking. I had been sceptical about the wind-worthiness of tunnel tents for many years but seeing the reviews of Hilleberg tunnel tents being used in extreme conditions made me think again. My single hoop tent has been used in an exposed position with 35-40 mph winds and performed well, but for me that probably represented the ‘comfort’ limit of its performance.

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Hilleberg Enan – plenty of protected porch from centre hoop design.

Good tunnel tents are trivial to erect even if you have to do it alone. Also their porches remain structurally strong with the door open.  This is true for both side and end opening designs. This is great for cooking in windy weather. Good multi-pole designs will handle snow, single hoop designs are not designed to do so.

Pro’s : Best amount of headroom of any design  (2-3 hoops versions); Excellent space / weight ratio; Very easy to pitch; Single hoop designs are the lightest two skin tents currently available; 2-3 pole designs can have two entrances; 3 pole designs handle snow well.

Con’s : Can be noisy in strong winds; Not free-standing; Rely on the strength of their fabric, so wind-worthy-ones are expensive.

Dome Tents

Dome tents have two or three poles which cross at a central point. They have relatively steep walls so can offer almost as much usable headroom as a tunnel tent. They are free-standing and the fabric is held taut between the poles irrespective of how you well you are able to guy them out. They are strong against the wind and quiet. My first base-camp tent was an Ultimate Designs Phazor Dome. It stood up to conditions which broke and collapsed other tents. Three pole designs tend to have larger porches – but the third pole in modern designs may be a shorter ‘roof pole’ as used in the Hilleberg Rogen or MSR Zoic.

Hilleberg Rogen

Hilleberg Rogen with a short ‘roof pole’ extending the size of the porch

Unlike my Phazor Dome, today’s dome tents tend to to be elongated rather than centrosymmetric and thus have a preferred direction to be pitched into the wind. Dome tents are my favourite design, offering a good compromise between space:weight ratio and quiet weatherproofness. The strong roof structure can support snow with the cut of the bottom of the flysheet determining if they are 3 or 4 season tents. Picking a design where the pole is tensioned after it has been inserted rather than as part of the original insertion makes them far easier to pitch. Pitching my Phasor Dome was a test of upper body strength, not true for most of today’s designs. They tend to take slightly longer to pitch than a tunnel tent, but not as long as a geodesic design.

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Pro’s : Good area of headroom (but not quite as good as a tunnel design); Strong; Quiet in the wind; Free-standing. Many handle snow; Three pole designs have large porches; A great compromise between strength, weight and space; Usually erect outer first.

Con’s : Intermediate space : weight ratio; Two pole designs tend to have small porches.

Y-Hub Tents

In 2004 MSR came up the first truly ‘new’ class of tents since the introduction of geodesic tents in 1975, the Y-Hub tent. Hubs were part of early family frame tents, but it using them in a lightweight tent in combination with flexible poles which is novel.  To enhance the space still further both MSR and Big Agnes use a roof pole to a give larger, steeper walled porch like the Rogen or Phreeranger.

The hub allows for a Y shape pole arrangement at each end, flexible poles mean that tension is introduced via the poles yielding a stronger, light, free-standing and spacious design. If MSR Y-Hub tents didn’t go up inner first (see section below) then I would be very tempted.

The Y-Hub design is an enhancement on the longitudinal hoop design as it offers a slightly greater area of good headroom and a free-standing structure. This is the one tent design I’ve not had personal experience of so I spoke with people who own both the MSR and Terra Nova versions of this design.  This guided me to understand where the two designs sit relative to other constructions.  The MSR can be viewed as an enhanced longitudinal hoop design, with a better area of headroom and stronger if pitched ‘Y into the wind’ (and the wind doesn’t swing around in the night).  The Terra Nova Southern Cross should be viewed as an enhanced two pole dome offering a greater area of headroom and better wind stability than either a dome or the MSR variant as it does not just have a roof pole but a full second hoop.  This is well illustrated by looking at the inner area : weight ratio (m2 / kg) of these four designs (all based on the two man versions):

Y Hub data table as pic

Pitching inner first and being made from lighter weight fabrics the Hubba design is firmly in the three season camp, the Terra Nova just crosses the boundary to be four season, with it’s strength midway between dome and a geodesic structures.  Both the MSR Hubba and the Terra Nova Southern Cross tents comes in solo and two man versions. A key difference with the Southern Cross is that it pitches outer first / all in one.

TN - Southern Cross 2

TN Southern Cross 2 (Four Season Y-Hub  tent)

It will be very interesting to see what other manufacturers make using this concept.  The Big Agnes Copper Spur range used to use this pole design, but the latest versions are now two pole domes.  It would be interesting to know why Big Agnes moved away from the Y-Hub design.

Pro’s : Excellent area of good headroom; Good size : weight ratio; Free-standing; Terra Nova version erects outer first. Southern Cross pitches outer first;  Two entrances on both 2 man versions.

Con’s: MSR is reported to be a little noisy in the wind like a tunnel tent.

Geodesic Tents

Terra Nova Quasar

The Iconic TB Quasar, in it’s element on top of Blencathra

A geodesic tent is one where the poles cross each other more than twice. To be strict, if the poles cross a total of five times (or more) the tent is geodesic, if they cross three or four times this is classed as semi-geodesic. There is no stronger tent design, if you are heading high in the Himalayas or want to do a winter wild-camp on top of Cairngorm then you want to be in a geodesic tent. Most geodesic tents have four or more poles so they tend to be relatively heavy, but like a tunnel tent they have steep walls and thus offer a big area of excellent headroom. They are quiet in the wind and can stand a good dump of snow. The classic tent design of the 1980’s was surely the Terra Nova Quasar, a geodesic design. They are fully free-standing and only need pegs to stop them blowing away, not to hold them up / in shape. I’ve pitched one on volcanic ash in Iceland, a material so lacking in cohesion that it is worse than dry sand. We tied ours to our mountain bikes and to rocks for security since the ground had all the holding capacity of candyfloss.

Hilleberg Tara pitched on volcanic ash in Iceland

Hilleberg Tara pitched on volcanic ash in Iceland

You would not choose to carry a geodesic tent in your pack unless you really had to (TN Quasar weighs 3.5 kg, Hilleberg Tarra weighs 4.3 kg) but carrying a semi-geodesic tent for a winter wild-camp is a practical option.  For example, the TN Voyager weighs in at 2.2 kg. But if you want a base-camp tent which you know will stand up to anything, a geodesic tent would be an excellent investment. Most have two entrances, meaning either two of you can get out of the weather at the same time, or at other times you can opt to enter / exit / cook at the leeward end with your wet gear / boots all stored in the other porch.

TN Voyager

TN Voyager, a classic semi-geodesic design

Pro’s : The strongest tent design yet made; Geodesic tents offer offer as large an area of excellent headroom as tunnel tents. Semi geodesic designs have a lower area of good headroom; Quiet in the wind; Handle snow very well; Free-standing; Most geodesics have two entrances; Full five season capability.

Con’s : Heavy (semi geodesics less so); Expensive.  Slower to pitch compared to other designs.

Pitching Method – inner or outer first?

Of almost as much importance as the design / structural shape of a tent is whether it pitches inner or outer first. Depending on your preference you can find most of the above design types available in either form simply by choosing a manufacturer with that bias. For use in the UK I  actively favour an ‘outer first’ pitch system.  Trying to pitch an ‘inner first’ tent in heavy rain either means a wet inner or feeding in the poles blind with the fly resting over the top of what you are trying to erect. There is a reason why key hole surgery is a specialist field!  Additionally most outer first systems offer the option to pitch all in one which is very fast.  All this said, when it comes to striking camp is is likely that you will have some condensation on the fly which will transfer to the inner if you drop both skins together.  There is no reason why you should not drop the inner separately to the fly if you see this as a problem.  My experience is that the condensation that soaks into the inner tent dries out in 30 min post re-pitch.  That will be aided by the water repellent finish on my inner tent which is not something used by all tent manufacturers.

In warmer drier countries I can see that being able to readily pitch just the inner as insect protection might be just what you need. Living and travelling in Europe and having owned both styles, today I would always opt for outer first. However, if you review the market you will find that the majority of tents pitch inner first, and I guess this comes down to cost. Adding strong clips or water tight pole sleeves to a flysheet is more expensive than sewing mesh sleeves to an inner tent. Most Scandinavian tents pitch outer first or all in one, but for one of these you will need deeper pockets.

Single or double skin?

With the advent of breathable waterproof membranes came the availability of robust single skin tents. For me this seems to be a concept whose time window has passed. Now that materials technology has brought us two skin tents which are lighter than single skin models and designs which allow two skin tents to be pitched all-in-one I cannot help but feel that breathable membrane tents have been superseded.  Ultralight ‘fly only’ tents need to let the wind pass through them if heavy condensation is to be avoided and as such are really more of modified tarp than a tent.  They certainly have their place but it is more niche than mainstream.

Other things to consider

Once you have decided which design type looks like working best for you there is no substitute to seeing a tent ‘in the flesh’ before you make a purchase.  Good retailers will have space to pitch the tents inside the shop for you to take a good look at.  As well as assessing for size look also for the build quality especially the stitching.  Consider also the position of the guys and how they are anchored to the tent.  The attachment points should be strengthened and most of them should be attached to a seam as the ideal arrangement of the main guys of any tent should be running out in line with the flysheet seams.  If there is a big area of fabric between the poles on the rear of the tent it’s can be good to have a guy in the middle of the face of the fabric at this point, but the vast majority of the guys should be on the seams.  Some five 4 / 5 season tents allow the guying points to be wrapped around the poles for greater strength still, thus spreading the load still further.

Ventilation is important too.  Except for winter use it is best there is a gap between the fly and the ground and the ability to vent at a high point on the tent too – this allows convection to draw air through the gap between the fly and the inner and keep any condensation to the minimum.  Look at the design of the high vent on the tent, good designs allow for the high vent/s to be left open even in the rain.

Conclusions

To cover the topic of tent fabrics will take a lot of research so I’ve not included that within this initial article.  Once I’ve done the necessary research I plan to publish an article on fabrics here.  In this article I aimed my focus was to pull together was a comprehensive guide to the different structural designs available. I hope now that you can see that no one tent design is ideal for all uses. It’s up to the user to decide which features they value the most for the locations and seasons they plan to camp. But whilst each design has it’s strengths, the advent of the flexible aluminium pole has largely resigned ridge and pyramid tents to history unless you are an ultralight tarp camper. Tents that rely on the strength of their fabric more than that of their poles will be more expensive than a like for like pole-centric design.  But they can be excellent if your budget can stretch that far.

If I could choose only one tent what would it be?  It would certainly need to pitch outer first.  As for the structure I think it would be a dome tent like the Hilleberg Rogen or possibly a Y-Hub Terra Nova Southern Cross 2. These two designs offer a good compromise of strength vs. weight vs. headroom.  As it is I am fortunate to own more than one tent.  I have chosen a single hoop tunnel for the better months and a semi-geodesic for wilder or winter conditions.

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I’d love to hear about your favourite tents (be that current or historical) in the comments section below.  Also any additional pros and cons for the Y-Hub design, the one type for which I don’t have personal experience.  Is there a design class I have missed?  If so tell me about it so I can add it to the second edition!

Grivel Spiders – a review

This is a review* of the Grivel Spider, a flexible, lightweight set of microspikes whose aim is to act rather like ‘junior’ crampons and can fit to almost any shoe or boot.

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If you are winter climbing in Scotland, sometimes you can have the good fortune to be climbing up the frozen crust of a 50 cm depth of snow which is not quite steep enough to require you to cut steps. This is where a pair of crampons is a great aid. However is is far more normal in a British winter that you’ll find yourself alternately walking on 1-2 cm of frozen compacted snow, soft powder then frozen turf. Under these more common conditions, what can you use to prevent you from over use of that noted climbing manoeuvre, the flying buttocks arrest?

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As I get older I find myself becoming increasingly cautious on slippery descents. I guess I now have the wisdom to know that I am not indestructible! I love walking in the snow, but this winter I have often found myself on sections of path which have been well walked, and thus compacted, by others. This can make descents frustratingly slow as I found on my ‘pre-tier-three’ trip to Buttermere a few weeks ago.

DSC_1793Enter the Grivel Spider. I bought a pair of these over a year ago to aid me on the most treacherous terrain I have ever tackled in UK, the pavement between home and work! These simple light weight spikes fit the instep of anything from trainers to full blown winter boots. On a more recent walk I remembered I had the ‘Spiders’ and took them with me just in case. Advantage One : They allow for this as they are small and light. As I got higher on my climb I found myself on a path covered with the aforementioned thin layer of compacted snow so I stopped and pulled on the Spiders. Now I found I could walk onwards with complete confidence. It was indeed just like having a set of junior crampons.

A big plus for me was being able to walk at my normal pace without fear of slipping or falling over. Advantage 2 : They stopped me falling on my arse.  Once I was up on the ridge I found no hindrance in continuing to wear them as I walked through the powder, nothing clumped on them. Then they really came into their own as I descended – again I could walk at a good pace a free of fear of slipping. Now to look at a downside: The flexible plastic plate becomes a lot more rigid in the cold and I found it hard to get the fit truly tight when fitting them in the field. Twice in six miles one of the spiders fell off – so I found I did need to do a visual check every few minutes to prevent a long walk back to find the errant item. What I did find is that they got easier to tighten with time, not because the plastic became permanently more flexible, I think it just warmed up through flexing. Thus the next day I chose to stop and re-tighten the straps after 15 then 30 min of use, after which they were then secure enough not to need checking for the rest of the day.

How do they compare to the competition? In comparison with a range of shoe grips on the market they are more robust that many.  Advantage 3 : You can keep them on ‘til you are fully clear of the ice and snow, knowing that walking over (snow free) rocky ground will not harm them. This sets them apart from those based on elastomer skeletons like those from Petzl or Yaktrax. I cannot give you a side by side comparison to alternative options but I’d love to try either a pair of Grivel Ran’s or Hillsound’s Trail Crampon, should either company like to lend me a pair to review 😉

DSC_1790Finally, Advantage 4 : One size can fit to any shoe or boot, so I can swap the same pair of grips between my boots and my run-commute trainers, so that’s less clobber in my cupboard and more cash left in my wallet. I’d hesitate to make a full blown recommendation of the Spiders until I could compare them against some Grivel Ran’s but I do know they make the tricky, trivial and have facilitated a few really great walks on my my local fells without once needing to employ a flying buttocks arrest.

*This review is not sponsored, I bought the kit and now I’ve shared my views. All I hope to gain from this exercise is to help other hillwalkers.