Hilleberg Soulo – long term review.

If you’ve watched any wild camping video’s on YouTube you will be familiar with the Hilleberg Soulo, as alongside the Tarptent Scarp 1 it is one of the two most popular solo tent designs which feature. I’ve now used mine through two winter seasons.

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Why did I buy one?

I returned to backpacking in 2017 after a 25 year gap and was drawn back by Alastair Humphreys descriptions of micro-adventures and by wanting to explore the Forest of Bowland after seeing an enticing track wiggle up into the hills. After a couple of years of weekend walking / wild camping adventures from Spring to Autumn, I decided I wanted to expand my rediscovered hobby into winter and to be able to camp on fell tops in the coldest or wildest of weathers.

Space (4/5)

There is a good area of excellent headroom in the tent thanks to it’s semi-geodesic design, I am 5’ 11” and am very comfortable. The length of the inner leaves space for your next days clothes at your feet and the steep side walls means that when you are sleeping there is plenty of space above your head even at the end of the tent. In strong winds my preference is to sleep with my head at the leeward end where the slope of my pitch allows this.  The pentagonal footprint leaves good space next to the middle of your sleeping pad for a book, map, torch, water etc. There is a single pocket for watch, phone, matches and the like. The porch is just about big enough for all my wet gear and cooking stuff.  For me the ideal porch space is 0.7 m2 per person and the Soulo offers 0.6 m2. The steep walls of the fly do mean you can make the most of this space and the other features of the tent make this sacrifice acceptable.

I would not want to spend more than a week in a tent of this size, but I doubt I’d ever go on a solo walk of longer than four days in conditions that justified such a design. For base camp use, I would choose something larger.

Ease of pitching (4/5)

The Soulo is easy to pitch, but having three poles means it it takes 10-15 min to get set up, 15-20 min if it’s really blowing a hoolie.  The poles are attached to the fly with clips with a short sleeve at the base of each pole.  This design aids pitching in strong winds as you can firmly fix the base then gradually pitch the fly higher up each pole in turn. One very big plus is that it goes up ‘all in one’ which means once the fly is pitched, the job is complete. Having a fly first, or ‘all in one’ pitch design seems essential (to me) if you are planning to use your tent in extreme weather. In today’s market place the large majority of tents pitch inner first which is not want you want in a tent for the 4th season.

One thing I learnt on my first ‘foul conditions’ trial was to double peg the first two peg placements – for more info click here. You don’t actually need extra pegs for this, as once you have the geminal points pinned down and a couple of guys in place you have spread the load over 8 pegs and can remove the ‘doubles’ for use on the remaining guy lines. If you are planning on pitching at above Force 6 having a few extra pegs is wise anyway.

Another thing I learned was to mark up the windward end pegging points with some bright cord so it’s easy to know which end is which in wild pitching conditions. The porch has a fixed and an opening section and in bad weather you’ll want the fixed section at the windward end.

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All the guys out and double pegged – High winds on the Howgills

The Soulo comes with 12 guy lines, six sets of two. However it is only supplied with enough pegs to mean that by design you peg each pair of guys to one peg. The weak point of a guy is usually the peg placement and unless you are willing to carry the extra pegs you might as well remove some of the lower guy lines in my view. I have removed four (to save weight and to simplify) as for single night use in even poor conditions I can only see the point of having double guys at the windward end. I carry extra pegs so I have one per guy.

Weather worthiness (5/5)

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Trusty Soulo after a cold night

This is where the Soulo is in a league of it’s own. So far I’ve used use it in very strong winds, heavy rain, driving horizontal rain, low temperatures (down to -6 C) and on very poor ground. I’ve spent a relaxed, warm, dry and secure night in each case. The only ‘4th season’ condition I’ve not tested it in is heavy snow fall. The covered high level vent keeps out spindrift and the heaviest of rain, so long as that rain isn’t horizontal. The semi-geodesic design should be easily strong enough for a high snow load.  When I did have horizontal rain and had to close the vent, the wind coming under the (down to the ground) fly was enough to prevent any condensation.

Ventilation / Condensation (3 / 5)

This is the one weakness of the Soulo. In colder weather, unless you have a moderate wind ( > ca. 15 mph)  wind you will suffer moderate levels of condensation on the fly. In sub zero conditions I’ve had small amounts of ice on the inner tent too. For me this has never been more than an inconvenience and extra weight to carry the next day. However, for some users condensation is a real issue, to the point of their sleeping bag getting wet. Perhaps I respire less water overnight than average, or maybe I have less of an issue because I never pitch my Soulo in a sheltered position on a cold night?  One of the inner doors can be zipped open to reveal a mesh panel to aid ventilation of the inner, I always have this partly open.

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If you want a tent which will keep out wind blown snow you will have to have a flysheet that comes down to the ground, in the past snow skirts were also used. This is almost certain to lead to condensation in a (low volume) solo tent. I know I see more condensation in the Soulo than my two man four season tent under comparable conditions, presumably because of the lower volume per person and thus ease of reaching the dew point. Also, two man four season tents tend to have two doors and thus a cross venting option.

My conclusions are these:

  • The Soulo is a tent for the 4th season and is not ideal to use all year round in the UK.
  • I get a 5-6 C temperature differential in the Soulo in winter, higher than the 2 C differential of my Enan – this is welcome when it is below zero outside.
  • You are best not to pitch the Soulo in a sheltered position, make use of the breeze to reduce condensation.

If you only feel comfortable pitching in a sheltered position and don’t want heavy condensation then a 3 season tent is probably the best choice for you. It will vent better, be lighter and usually cost less to buy. A good 3 season tent will cope with most UK conditions all year round. Only if you are fool enough to want to pitch your tent on a fell top in a gale or somewhere with heavy snow fall then the Soulo would be something to seriously consider. These are the reasons I have one and I’m when I do use it I am delighted to have it.

Footprint (Score 5 / 5)

As a solo tent which is just the right size, the footprint is small and I’ve been able to pitch the tent small spaces. Given my renewed love of wild camping this is an excellent characteristic. Also, because it is free-standing you can pitch it well on ground which is far from ideal – say on top of heather, or even somewhere you cannot use all / any of your pegs. I once used a mountain bike as my tent anchor when I pitched on volcanic ash which would simply not hold a peg securely.

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Weight vs. Robustness (Score 4/5)

The Soulo is unarguably robust. In terms of design, geodesic tents are the strongest, if you push down on the roof and feel it spring back you get a good sense of this.  The materials are very strong and the construction excellent. I have the Red Label version – for an explanation of the colour system click here. A Black Label – even stronger – version is now also available. However, from my experience the only place I feel this would add value would be for group use / commercial / hire situations.

At 2.4 kg it cannot be considered a lightweight tent by today’s standards. I have carried it for 2-4 day walks, but would not want to carry it for a week. If the weather is simply cold (below -3 C is cold in my books) but not wild I’m better to carry a warmer sleep system and a three season tent as I did here. However if I am expecting strong winds for an elevated camp I am delighted to use the Soulo. It was ideal on my recent winter traverse of the Dales Highway with high elevation pitches on Ingleborough and the Howgills

Summary

If you want a totally reliable 4th season solo tent, and you are happy to own another tent for milder conditions, the Soulo should certainly be on your shortlist.  For such a need I would always choose a geodesic / semi-geodesic / dome design – to understand why read this article. It’s not a good idea to choose a tent from it’s statistics alone, I’d always draw up a shortlist on paper then go and see these options pitched at a local stockist and have a good poke around. If I had the chance of a month’s trial ( If you are listening Terra Nova! ) with other models in place of my Soulo those I would seriously considered would be:

  • Terra Nova Southern Cross 1 – total weight 1.7 kg (£600)
  • Tarptent Scarpa 1 with the extra cross poles – total weight 1.9 kg (approx £620 inc. tax & duty)

I bought my first Hilleberg Tent in 2001 for a cycle tour of Iceland and was blown away by it’s quality, easy of pitching and well thought out design. They were rare in the UK back then. My original Hilleberg is still in great condition and used to this day, albeit infrequently because Mrs W is now rather less keen on camping.  In the last 20 years I’ve tried models from a number of other European makers but when it came to choosing a tent for wild walking I returned again to Hilleberg.  Whilst they are expensive (Soulo RRP is £895 at time of writing), if you plan to use your tent both frequently and to it’s limits of it’s capability I would contend that they offer excellent value.  The Soulo is not a tent for the occasional weekend on a campsite, but if you need true 4th season performance, my experience is that it does not let you down.

I’d summarise my comments by saying that the Soulo is a tent for niche applications, but within that niche it excels.

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After my ‘foul conditions’ test night – Storm Bella (Force 8 gusts) on top of a local fell.

If you have found this review helpful, you might also find value in reading my other tent reviews:

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.

New Season, New Saison

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The unpleasant combination of cold and wet weather this winter and the lack of motivation, endemic because of the pandemic, has kept me out of my brew shed since mid December. Now that the sun is showing its face more often and the Spring bulbs have lifted my spirits I decided it was time for a big clean down and to start a couple of brewing projects.

Orkney Gold Clone

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A friend introduced me to the beer of the Swanney Brewery on Orkney. His fiancee is from this island group and he brought me a couple of bottles after a visit in 2019. Early in 2020 I came across a special batch they had made for one of our local beer festivals. I was out with our brewing team seeking inspiration for a flavoursome beer, but without strong citrus notes, as the basis for a VE Day beer. Well COVID-19 put pay to scaling-up that recipe, so I decided to start my 2021 brewing year with this. I reckoned that I make too many pale beers, so I altered the malt bill to aim at amber. Tasting the green beer I’m not confident that 3% Black malt was the best way to achieving this, perhaps I would have been better to use a larger percentage of chocolate malt for the colour?  However, the conditioning (secondary fermentation) stage is great for smoothing out flavours, with strong flavours knocked back, and subtle flavours allowed to shine through, so the true test can only be made in 4-10 days time. I can always try this hop bill with a different malt bill if it isn’t quite what I had in mind, or just aim for gold as per the original.

Subtle Saison

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I’ve come to learn that it’s best to run two brewing projects at the same time, interleaved so I can be working on one, whilst the other has time to condition and also to give me space to think about the outcome of the initial project and not rush into changes. My second project is what I’ve titled ‘A Subtle Saison.’ I really like the flavours which come from Saison yeast as well as the mouthfeel. I had some early successes with strong flavour partners – raspberries in one example and Sorachi Ace hops for the other. The raspberry version was very crushable, but the Sorachi Ace Saison, whilst top notch, was something I loved to drink by the half pint of with meal, but no more – it was not a session ale.

Something inspired me to think that if the spicy notes from the Saison yeast could be partnered with the herbal / floral flavours of a noble hop. I feel that at the right relative levels that this could be a very refreshing session beer sitting on the subtle / interesting boundary. Like lager but with a bit more going on. I’m part of a local home brew club and one of the guys has a lot of yeast knowledge and let me try two of his Saisons from two different yeast strains. I thought the Wyeast 3711 derived brew was very close to what I was looking for. [As an aside, if you want an interesting beer, head to his exciting new shop / bar – Corto – here in Clitheroe.] Before trying this yeast, I knew that I had a few packs of Fermentis BE-134 in the fridge which either needed to be used or sold on. When used at the top of its temperature range, the esters profile from BE-134 was clearly too bold for what I had in mind. But before ordering any 3711 I thought it would be really interesting to see if the BE-134 could give subtle flavours if held at 18 C rather that being allowed to rise to 24 C. One big benefit of my fermenter is that it does allow for careful temperature control and I don’t risk it stalling because it becomes too cold or taking off either. It is ironic that the pilot brew kit that I have at home is rather better than that which we have at work. I guess mine was bought to a design specification rather than to a budget. If you are reading this before the 30th March, you could follow this Saison fermentation in real time thanks to my Tilt.

I’ll report back on the results in a couple of weeks, subscribe if you’d like to be notified of the update…

Thermarest ProLite Apex – a review

Executive Summary : 4/5 – very comfortable and certainly works well at -7 C* and probably good to -12 C. *Updated after my first night away post lockdown 3.0!

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Detailed Review

Comfort : At 5 cm thick and with a foam core the ProLite Apex is supremely comfortable.  I like to sleep on my side for some of the night and find it excellent for this with no hint of my hip or shoulder grounding out.  The wide end it is exactly the same width as my current regular ProLite pad.

Warmth : Sad to say I had to camp in the garden to test out my new pad, otherwise with the current lockdown limitations I’d not have had chance to try it out ‘in winter’ for another10 months.  I spent a night at – 3 C and another at – 1 C and found the pad clearly kept me warmer than my regular ProLite pad (R 2.4).  My best comparison is far from perfect, but I know that on my old pad at -5 C I needed the hood and shoulder baffle of my sleeping bag tightly cinched to keep me comfortably warm.  On the new pad at – 3 C I only needed the only the shoulder baffle and opened up the hood in the wee hours to cool down. i.e. the difference in insulation is very obvious in practice, not just on paper.

Practicality : The Apex pad does not self inflate as well as the ProLite 3.  It needed 8-10 breaths in the former after allowing it 20 min to self inflate and only 2-3 in the latter.  However in comparison to having to carry and mess with an inflation sack or pump this is still an easier and more convenient task.

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The Apex is fitted with the new ‘Wing valve’ which is an improvement on the original valve design.  The incorporation of a one way valve option makes inflation simpler and the larger diameter makes deflation and rolling up much easier than my equal thickness (old valve type) Basecamp pad.  Only time will demonstrate the longevity of the valve, but it is backed with a lifetime guarantee from a company whose customer service is excellent in my experience.

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The only major downside for me was the stuff sack which was provided.  This is no longer a simple drawstring bag but incorporates two compression straps.  Why?  I don’t see how you can compress further something which you have squeezed flat with all your weight!  Thermarest seem to have dropped the ball here.  The extra weight of the oversized, overcomplicated bag is simply unnecessary. Not only do the straps add weight without adding value, they also catch on other items in my pack when getting in and out.  Thankfully I reasoned that since the bag for my original 1987 pad was slightly larger than my 2007 ProLite 3 bag and might be the right size.  It was!

Conclusion : So far, so very good.  The Apex pad meets my requirements for warmth, size, comfort and practicality.  Air inflated (i.e. NeoAir) pads can be lighter and warmer, but I cannot imagine improving on the comfort of the Apex and it has proven to provide a good level of insulation for a British winter and should in theory work well down to – 12 C.  For me it’s a superior solution to a NeoAir pad at slightly under half the price.  What’s not to like, apart from the stuff sack that is…

History : I bought my first Thermarest back in 1987 when they only had one product and your only choice was the colour.  That pad is still working well, albeit with a patch on it after an ill advised pitch too close to a gorse bush.  Roll forwards some 20 years and when it came to buying a pad for Mrs W what reason did I have to look beyond Thermarest’s latest lightweight offering at that time?  After all, the first one had performed well for over 20 years. We bought what was called a ProLite 3 at the time, now simply called the ProLite.  Roll forward another 10 years and now Mrs W prefers our camper van to a tent, so when I go solo backpacking I pinch her pad because it’s lighter than my original and just as comfortable.

Until December 2020 I’d never done any winter backpacking / wild camping but my time on furlough led me to expand my envelope, and heading off to the Dales to camp on top of Buckden Pike in the snow and experiencing night time temperatures of minus five Celsius.  I was confident in my winter sleeping bag (which had only been used for base camp use until then) as it has a comfort rating of – 15 C.  I was surprised though that whilst warm enough, that I seemed close to the limit of the bag.  Until this point I’d never given any thought to the insulation characteristics of my sleeping pad because I’d never challenged them.  All that mattered to me was that the pad was comfortable and folded down small for packing in a rucksack, or more critically a bike pannier. I could feel the cold of the ground through the pad the following morning and had melted a pad shaped patch of snow.

Sunrise

Sunrise from summit of Buckden Pike

Winter sunrises won me round to all year backpacking and I looked to find a winter sleeping pad which could match the performance of my winter sleeping bag and tent.  When you go shopping for a pad today they come with R values quoted, a measure of the resistance to the flow of heat.  With R values, bigger means better insulated.  Manufacturers of top end sleeping pads suggest that for winter that an R value of 5 or above is required, however they don’t specify whose winter this refers to – UK, Spain, Canada, Arctic etc.  In other places, the following table is commonly referred to:

R value vs temp chart

Here in the UK it seems reasonable to think that I am unlikely to have winter overnight temperatures below -10 C.  Looked at another way, matching my pad to my sleeping bag’s rating of -15 C seems logical and thus an R value of around 4.0-4.6 for a British winter seems justifiable.  When I consider my experiences in a 1 C rated bag on an R 2.4 pad and now a -15 C bag on a R 4.0 pad the data in the table seems to be valid in my experience.  To get R values of > 5 you are looking at manually inflated rather than self inflated pads.  I love the simplicity of a self inflating pad and have bad memories of lilo’s and indoor air mattresses.  I can never get the air pressure right for a comfortable nights sleep.  Combine this with a £200 price tag for a NeoAir pad and it was not something I was keen on trying.  The warmest self inflating pad on the market is the Apex, the subject of this review.  This has an R value of 4.0* so seemed likely to meet my requirements for comfort, simplicity and warmth.  Even if I had access to a shop to see one in person I could not have tested it overnight, less still tested it at – 10 C for it’s insulation properties.  Since everything seemed right on paper, and what I was looking at was simply an upgrade of a technology already proven in my experience, I decided to buy and try one, knowing I could always return it if it did not meet its promised performance.

So here I find myself, some 34 years on from my initial Thermarest purchase happy with their latest incarnation of self inflating pad.  It is so comfortable it may be difficult to transition back to the thinner ProLite when the summer comes.

Double Pegging

Double pegging / back staking

I am indebted to Shamus McCaffery for reminding me of a technique I used when staking out the summer fete marquee’s when I was a Scout some 30+ years ago.  That is to ‘back stake’ a peg with a second peg.  He nicely demonstrated that it more the doubles the force required to pull a peg out from the ground by a simulated guy line.  A quick shake of the internet suggests that whilst this method is still common with marquee pitching it is not commonly spoken about within the backpacking community.   It’s a cheap, simple and effective solution as you just need a couple of extra generic V pegs.

It works most easily if you have a cord loop on your pegs, if you don’t then most pegs made in the last five years can have cord added.

The one thing I’d add is from recent experience is that this method isn’t just good for guys, it is also ideal for your first two peg placements when you are pitching solo in a strong wind.  Even if you don’t carry spare pegs, at this point you will have plenty.  Then, once you have most of your pegs in place the load will be shared across them and, if necessary, the initial back stakes can be removed and used elsewhere.  I wish I’d thought of this ahead of my Storm Bella test pitch, but both you (dear reader) and I will know for next time.

Soulo

Trusty Soulo at the top of Buckden Pike

A final taste of freedom – A two day wild walk via Buckden Pike.

Rumours abounded that Lancashire was going to become yet further restricted and trips outside the county were not just ‘advised against’ but actually illegal. I’ve no moral qualms going for a wild walk against ‘advice’ a little away from home… …because by design I keep within the spirit of the (wise) guidance as I’m well away from other people – the idea is to be not just ‘socially’ but splendidly isolated!  However I’m no law breaker so I wanted to grab the last chance for a micro-adventure before COVID Tier 4 / 5 came into force.

The air was clear, the amount of sunshine exceeded the forecast and there was a good amount of snow above 300 m so I’ll keep my words brief and allow the pictures to tell the story of the glory of the Yorkshire Dales on a clear winters day.

My Route

My route, starting / ending at Kettlewell

Day 1 (Kettlewell to Buckden Pike)

Day 2 (Buckden Pike to Kettlewell)

  • Soulo
  • Sunrise
  • Fire & Ice
  • Wharfdale & Old Cote Moor

Lessons Learnt

  • My Grivel Spider micro-spikes were excellent for these conditions – full review here.
  • My water reservoir didn’t freeze but the filter did.  Must prepare enough water for the following morning next time
  • I should upgrade my Thermorest for a thicker model for next time My Prolite 3 is good down to single digit temperatures, but if I’m to get the best from my -15 C bag I need a mat to match it.
  • Grabbing opportunities like this one is well worth the effort.

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.