Hilleberg Rogen – a review

This is my initial review of the Hilleberg Rogen, a two (and a half) pole dome tent, designed for three season use by two adults. I’ve had searches set on several second had sale sites for over 18 months and finally I bagged a pre-loved Rogen which had (it was claimed) only been used once.

User Requirements Specification (URS)

No tent is perfect for all conditions and all duties, that is why there are so many designs out there. My requirement was for a light weight, yet robust, two man tent to use for mini adventures with my son (8 yrs) or when I go wild walking with a friend. It needed to be capable of handling being pitched on an exposed fell top and have enough porch space for the wet gear and rucksacks from two adults.

My personal preference (based on too many years experience) was for tent where the door was on the long side and not the short side / end as this enables you to sit up in your sleeping bag and cook. Also when you have two people it’s easier for both to sit in the doorway to admire the view. Porch space is very important to me and experience suggests to me that around 0.7 m2 per person is ideal.

So how is it shaping up against my requirements?

Space (Score 5 /5)

The Rogen feels like a Tardis. Being a dome it has an excellent area of good headroom. The long sides of the inner are vertical because of the two porches and each porch is a generous 1.0 m2. On a recent trip we comfortably sat three people for evening drinks, there would have been room for a couple more too. There is space for a 55 L rucksack, boots, waterproofs and cooking gear in each porch. With cooking gear put to one side each of you can enter through your own door so you can get in quickly should it be cold or raining. I’m 5’11” (180 cm) and there is 30-40 cm spare at my feet (or head) to store clothes overnight. There is a good sized pocket on each side too for phone, GPS, matches etc.

The roof pole helps to make the best use of the internal space. It gives rise to eaves on each porch which help protect from rain when you have the outer door/s open.

When I was last out in it there were periodic short showers and I was sat in the porch cooking and kept completely dry despite the door being open. Further, the eaves give rise to a steeper door angle which means you can maximise the usefulness of the massive porches. (I could sit wholly in the porch and cook with two further people in the inner tent, not bad for a 2.1 kg structure.)

Ease of pitching. (Score 4/5)

The first point to note is that the Rogen pitches fly first or all in one. I find this the most practical option for British weather. Sometimes outer first tents have a rather loose, flacid inner, but not so in this case because it is a dome structure. This is the first tent I’ve had with ‘roof pole’ and so far I’ve found this OK to insert but challenging to remove when striking the tent. I’m hoping I’ll get used to this with time. The single ended pole sleeves make putting the two main poles in a breeze and the tent can be pitched by just one person, even in a moderate wind. Striking it is far easier with two if it’s windy, but then it is a two man tent.

Weather worthiness (Too early to rate)

So far I’ve only spent three nights in the Rogen. I can say that it stood up very well to 30 mph winds in an exposed position. In such winds it makes sense to make use of the extra guy points on the porch and it’s a shame it doesn’t come with spare guys for this purpose. My other Hilleberg tents with Kerlon 1000 fabric have never let in a drop of rain. The Rogen has more seams than many tents and the potential for water to pool on the top leaward end of the tent so time will tell. The design is very similar and fabrics identical to the Niak which this tent replaces and I owned for several years. I was dry and secure in both very wet and very windy  weather without the Niak missing a beat, so this bodes well. The Rogen also boasts waterproof zips on the doors.

Ventilation / Condensation ( 4 / 5 so far…)

If people have cause to complain about Hilleberg tents it’s normally about condensation. Let’s first consider the fly; The Rogen flysheet does not come down to the ground but instead has a catenary cut design – the bottom of the fly curves up between the pole ends.

As noted above, I bought the Rogen to gain more porch space on my old Niak which has the same catenary fly design. I found the Niak to perform excellently wrt condensation over a range of conditions and an improvement on my previous Terra Nova Solar 2 and my current Soulo. I’ve only used the Rogen for three nights so far and so long as the wind was not totally absent I’ve not experienced any condensation at all. That said, no tent will be condensation free in all conditions. Because the design has two doors this allows for a cross breeze to be set up. To aid this I would recommend carrying two clothes pegs so that when you open the zip at the top of each door you can force the gap to be wider.

 

Internally each door is 100% mesh which allows for excellent inner tent ventilation. The steep walls should also reduce your breath condensing on the inner on cold nights. Finally the DWR finish on the inner means that should you re-pitch it damp, on day n+1 of your walk, it will dry out* in around 20 minutes.

*The higher the contact angle of a material, the faster it will dry.

Pitch Flexibility (Score 5 / 5)

The design is asymmetric. Whilst this does not make the tent very photogenic it does impart significant practicality. The flysheet door is divided into a wide and narrow section and you can choose which is the fixed section and which becomes the opening ‘door’ depending on the conditions. Combine this with the dual entrances and you can always have a leeward entrance / protected outside cooking area. It is easy to swap the pegging point for each door so if the conditions change you can change the set up in seconds. Ideally you would pitch with one of the narrow ends into the wind, but given the size of the porches, if the wind moves around in the night there is plenty of space between inner and fly on the long side to handle this. I will be adding an extra guy (or two) to my kit to tie out the windward porch. Two tie on points are there for this purpose.

Weight vs. Robustness (Score 5/5)

The Rogen weighs 2.10 kg. This is not the lightest two man, dual entrance tent on the market but neither is it the heaviest:

  • MSR Hubba Hubba – 1.72 kg

  • Vango F10 Krypton UL 2 – 2.01 kg

  • Nordisk Telemark 2.2 – 2.2 kg

  • Terra Nova Pioneer 2 – 2.15 kg

  • Terra Nova Southern Cross 2 – 2.29 kg

If your URS is the same as mine then the MSR Hubba Hubba is certainly something to consider. The Rogen has a 50 Denier groundsheet and the MSR is 30 Denier so you should probably consider the weight of a footprint if you plan to wild camp with the latter which adds another 220 g. MSR tents tend to be like Marmite – some people love them, others criticise the robustness of the materials they choose to keep their weight / cost down. I’m keeping out of that debate.

I’ve long felt that Hilleberg’s yellow label (lightest weight) range gets the balance between weight and robustness just right if you are a regular / frequent wild camper. I’ve used by Enan for over 40 nights in the last two years and before that my Niak in some tough conditions, never suffered any damage and always sleep securely because of the confidence in my shelter.

Summary

I look forward to being able to write a long term review in 12-18 months time because I am really keen to use this tent for two person adventures. It remind me of a modern version of my Phazor Dome – for those old enough to remember this design – however because of the Kerlon fabric you have all the space of a base camp tent in one easily light enough to carry. I do find the roof pole hard to get out when it’s windy, but hopefully that is something I will get the knack of with time. My biggest complaint would be the price, currently £1030. When you can buy a Hubba Hubba for £440 or a Telemark 2.2 LW for £540 it’s hard to justify the additional cost unless you are a heavy user or have deep pockets. I was pleased to buy mine second hand, but I had to wait for 18 months for one to come up for sale – either because people love them too much to want to sell on, or more likely because of the price when new.

I’ve been fortunate to try many tent designs over the past 35 years, many of which I got to borrow rather than buy and have a strong preference for the dome design for three season use. The Rogen is an extremely well designed and manufactured example of this construction which thus far seems even better in use than it appeared on paper.

 

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

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:

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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.

HydraPak Stow – One litre soft bottle / bladder – A review.

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I’ve never liked the idea of all the extra hassle which goes with the use of a water bladder. However when I moved to the use of a water filter rather than iodate tablets I needed a ‘dirty water’ supply container which would collapse as the liquid was removed so that I could use my filter. You’ll find many posts on the use of single use water bottles as the feed reservoir. If you want a source bottle you can squeeze this seems to work for many people. But I figured that if I was going to have a bladder type bottle then I might as well go the whole hog and get one that I could use with a drinking tube. When I walk as a part of a pair, we pass water bottles between each other, but on my solo walks having a drinking tube means I can rehydrate without having to stop / take my pack off.

I started with a CNOC water bag / bladder. This was really easy to fill because you can open the whole base to fill it, then roll and clip to reseal.

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But for my solo walks it was simply too large at two litres. Although it fitted reasonably well to the side of my pack, the water inside this large volume container sloshed around leading to both undesirable noise and an instability to my pack. Thus I shook the internet to see if I could find a one litre option which was well reviewed. The bladder I tried next is the subject of this review, the HydraPak Stow.

The Stow soft-bottle has gone through several iterations. It is important to avoid the first DSC_2229version for two reasons (1) The one I tried leaked badly around the cap seal (2) The neck thread is not the 28mm size which you need to fit directly to Sawyer and similar water filters. Version one is easily identified as the lid is a matching colour to the bottle. Later versions have a grey cap irrespective of the bottle colour. For these reasons it is a version 2 (or later) that you should go for.

I’ve used mine for five multi-day trips so far and I’m very pleased. I don’t have a bladder pocket on my rucksack so I strapped mine to the top of the lid of the pack. I started using a mesh of elastic cords, but I found that once the bottle reduced in volume it became loose and fell off. The sharp whack on the legs took me my surprise a few times. My next (and current) method is putting the bottle into ‘hip belt pocket’ which I strap to the same attachment points on the lid of my pack. Whilst this isn’t perfect it works pretty well. I really recommend the pack makers who made my pocket, Aiguille. They will do bespoke modifications too, so I’m considering sending them a picture of my lid attachments points and getting them to make something with clips in the right places. I have a 10 litre bum bag from the same people and it is excellent.

But back to the bladder / soft bottle. I carry two, and it’s handy that I can roll up the second one until I need to fill it at the end of the day. At this point I make use of its haul loop so I can secure it to the side of my pack with a karabiner. As for the hassle of cleaning, I found that I had a trick up my sleeve in the form of the no-rinse sanitizer that I used when brewing. Once I’ve flushed it out at the end of a trip I put 20-30 ml of this into the bottle, shake and them empty and seal it and this keeps it free of new life forms with reasonable ease. As a commercial brewer I use 100 ppm peracetic acid solution, but the more easily obtained StarSan would be another good option. As a final tip, if you carry two like me, get two different colours so you have a clear distinction between your dirty and clean water container. If you draw some water from a clean source (i.e. a tap) or want to filter some water in advance then this makes for an easily tell which is which. For example, I’ve found that pre-filtering is necessary if you plan to use such a system below ca. -2 C when the filter is prone to freezing. Once filtered you can sleep with the clean water in / close to your sleeping bag so it’s liquid and ready for a brew up in the morning.

Final comments

Whilst the CNOC bottle is easier to fill, I’ve never yet found a water source that I could not harvest with almost the same easy with the HydraPak Stow. The one litre size is really convenient and having two smaller bottles rather than one larger one is working very well for me. I’d happily recommend them as a water reservoir solution to use with a filter like the Sawyer or Katadyne.

*This post is not sponsored.  It was simply written to give back my experiences to the walking / wild walking community.

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.

Hilleberg Enan – long term review

I’ve now owned my Enan for just over a year. It was bought originally just ahead of the initial lockdown relaxations in the summer of 2020. Now 16 months on I’ve used it for 20 nights in a wide range of weather conditions and temperatures. Now I think I have the evidence and experience to give it a proper review.

User Requirements Specification

No tent is perfect for all conditions and all duties, that is why there are so many designs out there. I bought the Enan as a lightweight, three season backpacking / wild-camping tent which would shelter me against anything other than snow and storm force winds, I have a Soulo for that duty. So how has it shaped up against my requirements?

Space (Score 4½ /5)

I am 5’ 11” and the length and height of the inner works very well for me. In terms of height, there is just enough for me. If you were above 6’1” you might find the headroom too limited, but for me it’s just fine even when sat on my new 50 mm thick Thermarest. The length for sleeping is generous and allows me to sleep with my feet at one extreme end and still have around 300 mm of length above my head. This allows me to have my face at a point where the ceiling is higher meaning no issues with claustrophobia. In wild weather I put my jacket around the foot of my sleeping bag as a guard against any condensation transfer, but I’ve not yet seen more than a few drops on my jacket but I’ll keep doing this as a great protection against cold feet.

Pitched behind The Crown in Shap on the Coast to Coast

The porch space is generous allowing me to put my boots and 55 L pack and any wet waterproofs in the ‘closed’ half leaving space for all my food, water bottles and cooking gear in the ‘open’ half. Having a porch to allow this is important to me and one reason I moved on from my previous Niak to the Enan. I could not commend cooking with the door closed, but should you choose to do so, you would find you have plenty of room to make a cup of tea from bed.

Ease of pitching (Score 5/5)

I’ve been a life long sceptic concerning tunnel tents, I’ve never liked that they rely on their pegs for structural stability. But that is a theoretical concern and not something I’ve found to be a problem in the reality of actual use. And if I need extra assurance, I double peg (details here) my longitudinal guy lines. The big pro with the tunnel design is that pitching is both fast and trivially easy. This is of especial importance in a solo tent and one I wish to pitch on fell tops in the wind. The fact that the inner and outer go up together speeds the process up yet further. When it comes to striking camp, Hilleberg’s practice of slightly over-sizing their tent bags makes it trivial to pack away even when wet.

Weather worthiness (Score 5 / 5)

So far I’ve had this tent out in 40 mph winds on an exposed fell top, in heavy rain on the North Yorkshire Moors, in calm warm weather all around NW England, during hot summer nights in the Lake District and even in winter temperatures down to -7C. The ventilation on this tent comes from two mesh ‘ends’ not by passing underneath the fly. These mesh ends are inclined steeper than vertical so no rain run off ever enters them.

These can be covered in the event of really foul weather, but so far I’ve only needed to use these covers once. I cannot speak of how it holds out in torrential rain but I found my Niak to be faultless in the foulest weather possible and this used the same fabrics and same seam construction technique. Remember that this is a three season tent, and I’d consider it fully capable of anything within that weather envelope. I’d not want to pitch it in an exposed position in 60 mph winds as has just one pole, but if I were to encounter such weather I’d seek an sheltered position, as indeed I did when I walked the Cleveland Way last autumn.

It is important to pitch it correctly vs. the wind direction, both for strength and ventilation. If the wind moves around during the night the rain will still be kept safely outside, it’s just that you will see more condensation on the inner of the fly on a cold night. And on that topic…

Ventilation / Condensation ( 3 ½ / 5)

If people have cause to complain about Hilleberg tents it’s normally either about condensation or the price! With the Enan the amount of condensation depends strongly on the conditions and I can only compare against other tents in Spring / Summer conditions as up until recently I’ve not camped frequently through the winter months, well not since the 1980’s!

With night time temperatures in the 10-14 C range I’ve experienced either extremely little or no condensation with wind speed determining the difference. When the temperature drops to 5-10 C and the wind is light then a modest level of condensation formed, even with the top of the door open as well as the end vents. Comparable with Terra Nova and Vango tents which I’ve owned. When I do see heavy condensation is at sub zero temperatures when I seem always to get a good skin of ice on the inside of the fly, even with a 20 mph wind. At -7 C I got the most modest amount of condensation (ice) on the inner directly above my head, the immediate condensation of my breath; the only time I’ve seen condensation on the inner itself.  The inner door is 100% mesh, but because that mesh is perpendicular to the airflow through the tent it doesn’t less in excessive drafts and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the tent is in winter temperatures even with a good wind blowing.

Moon rising over the Calder valley

Moon rising over the Enan

From this I conclude that the condensation issues often talked about in connection with the Akto have been largely – but not totally – solved by the end vents of the Enan. What could make it even better would have been if Hilleberg had included the same design of vent cover at the top of the door so that this could be opened more widely (The Akto has two zips at the top so you can open a segment not strip a narrow strip). This should encourage a chimney effect. I have adopted a low tech clothes peg solution! (see RHS). But is this condensation actually a problem? It is modest enough to mean you never get anywhere even close to it dripping on you. Also the DWR finish on the inner means that when you re-pitch it damp, on day n+1 of your walk that it dries out* in around 20 minutes. I guess the aspect you might choose to take issue with is the additional weight of that water which you are lugging with you after a cold night. I imagine it could easily be in the 100-200 g range. I know I observed much less condensation in the Niak at similar temperatures but this might simply be down the higher volume. My summary would be that it was not a problem, and is probably no worse than any other tent of the same size.

Footprint (Score 5 / 5)

As a solo tent which is not oversized, the footprint is small and I’ve been able to pitch the tent in the tightest of spots. Given my newfound love of wild camping this is an excellent characteristic.

Weight vs. Robustness (Score 4/5)

The Enan weighs 1.2 kg. For those of us who can remember carrying half of a 7 kg Vango Force 10 that’s amazing! There are lighter tents out there, but they either compromise on robustness or space. If you were to consider the Robustness : Weight ratio I’d say the Enan was at the top of its class. I could have a TN Laser at 1.0 kg but would have less ventilation and a pole sleeve cover to faff about with. I could have a Nordisk at 700 g and not be able to sit up, or I could have a Cuben Fibre tent which I might have to accept needing to repair once or twice a year. I think the only design out there which would give me the space, strength (when new) and stability would be the MSR Hubba NX but I bet I’d not get 10 years of hard use out of an MSR tent. If anyone would like to lend me one to try and review then I’d give it a go and let you know how it compares!

Summary

I love my Enan. It’s got nicely more than the bare minimum amount of space and is comfortable for solo touring for a week. It is both trivially easy and quick to pitch and strike. It stands up to the wind better than I imagined (sound at 40 mph, probably not good at >50 mph), better still if you add two additional guys to the ready-for-use guying points on the windward end. It comes with good pegs that stay where you place them. You can sleep soundly with the assurance that it will definitely keep the weather out, even if that’s wind driven heavy rain. If no snow is forecast it’s comfortable in sub zero winter conditions. It’s not the lightest solo tent on the market, but I think Hilleberg have got the robustness : weight ratio spot on. If I wanted to loose 400 g from my pack weight that would be better lost from the pack animal than the tent! I think it’s only weakness is the lack of a hood / cover over the top of the door to improve the weatherproof venting a little further.

Overall score comes in 27/30 – making me a happy wild camper!

*The higher the contact angle of a material, the faster it will dry.

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

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.

Tent Fabrics – an objective summary of the 21st century options

MSR Wet fabric - header

Having written a comprehensive review of tent design, several people asked if I could write something similar about tent fabrics. This was a subject, at the outset, which I knew rather less about. However having spend eight years as a material scientist working with powders I have been pleasantly surprised how this skill set has transferred and been valuable when reading around the topic of tent fabrics. As with my original article my aim is to present the facts objectively and without bias. I am simply a hill walking & backpacking enthusiast of long standing with a background in chemical and material sciences but no professional or financial interest in the tent industry.

Definitions / Glossary

I am going to limit myself to the fabrics used with modern backpacking tents, if you want to know more about cotton canvas, this is not the article for you. Let’s start with some definitions to help you read the tent makers specifications and sift out the facts from the hype.

Denier – This is a comparative measure of the thickness of the fibres from which a fabric is made. It is the mass, in grams, of a 9000 m length of the fibre. The definition stems from the fact the 9000 m of single fibre of silk weighs one gram. If all else is equal, then the higher the denier the stronger the fabric. By definition, higher denier fabrics are heavier. But as we shall come to see, fibres made from different materials have different strengths.

Thread Count – This is the total number of threads (total of vertical and horizontal) within a square inch. Again if all else is equal, the higher the value, the stronger the fabric. Thread count is not universally quoted with tent fabrics.

Tensile strength – the force required to rip a sample when force is applied to opposing ends of the sample. This is a more useful measure than either Denier or Thread Count when comparing tent fabrics.

Specific strength – The tensile strength per unit weight of a material of the same dimensions and critically, thickness.

Ripstop – this is a fabric which periodically has a stronger fibre added into the weave with the aim that any tear be unable to propagate beyond that fibre.

ripstop

HHeadHydrostatic head (HH) – It is measured as a length, representing the maximum height of a vertical column of water that could be placed on top of the fabric before water started seeping through the weave. Whilst a HH of > 3000 mm may seem extreme at the outset, remember that HH is really a measure of pressure and the pressure on a tent fabric can be increased by wind-speed on the fly, or weight applied to the groundsheet.

Coating – a second material applied to the surface of fabric to change its material properties. In the case of tent fabric this is usually something applied to make it waterproof. Whilst historical fabrics such as canvas were intrinsically water resistant, modern fabrics rely on the coatings applied to make them waterproof, both polyester and nylon fabrics are not in themselves waterproof.

Base fabrics

Today’s tents are generally made from one of three fabrics, polyester, nylon or DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric). Each have their good and bad points. If you are looking for a lightweight backpacking tent in 2021 you will find that most are made from nylon with just a few made from DCF.

PolyesterPolyester has a lower specific strength than nylon, so to be of the same strength it needs to be thicker and thus heavier. Whilst it is slowly degraded by UV light it is less susceptible than nylon. It’s highly significant advantage is that it does not stretch (significantly) when wetted. Traditionally cheaper tents has been made from polyester as the fabric itself is cheaper, but this comes at the cost of extra weight. The main reason it is cheaper is the scale on which it is made for other applications.

Because of it’s lower specific strength the lightest polyester fabric readily available is 20 denier. By contrast, 7-10 denier nylon is common.

Screenshot_2021-01-29 Hilleberg tent materialsNylon has a higher specific strength than polyester, is more flexible / pliable and is thus easier to pack down to a small volume. However, it does stretch when wetted (Nylon 6,6 by 2.5%) and holds more water within its structure and thus gains more weight when wet than polyester. It is also slowly degraded by UV light, but in fairness today’s buyer would be more likely to change their tent because of an improvement in design than due to fabric degradation. Where UV damage is more of an issue is at high altitudes, above 5000 m, where UV light is a stronger component of the light spectrum. This can be mitigated by choosing a fabric colour which absorbs less UV light. Apparently green and brown fabrics should be preferred over red or orange.

DCFDCF, Dyneema Composite Fabric or Cuban Fibre is not strictly a fabric because it is not woven. Now I’d headed the etymologists off at the pass let me tell you what it actually is. It is a non-woven mat of UHMWPE (a type of polyethylene) sandwiched between two layers of polyester film. Typical of all composite materials it marries the qualities of two materials , the UHMWPE is a very strong but flexible fibre and the polyester film is both waterproof and water impermeable. A very similar composite material called Ultra is now being used for some tents made by Terra Nova.

The specific strength of DCF / Ultra is far higher than polyester or nylon fabrics. So for comparable strength DCF can be significantly thinner and approx. 35% lighter for the same strength. It does not stretch when wetted as it does not absorb any water at all. Thus it both dries quickly and does not get significantly heavier when wet. It does not stretch under strain either so anchor points have to be stronger as they take all the force, it is not dissipated across the body of the fabric. DCF seams are commonly bonded rather than sewn, eliminating any need for seam sealing.

So is DCF / Ultra the fabric of our dreams? That depends on your application and your budget. It is considerably more expensive that Si-nylon (200-300%) and whilst it has a very high tear strength, because of it’s nature and thickness (or the lack thereof) it is far more easily punctured than the other options. It also has a lower abrasion resistance because it is a film rather than a fabric. It can be very easily field repaired, but that is likely to be required more often than you might hope.

Fabric coating options

Both polyester and nylon need to be coated to make them waterproof, DCF does not. The same coating options exist for both.

Polyurethane (PU) coating

This is usually applied to the inside of the fabric and bonds to it’s surface. A significant benefit is that seam tape can be stuck to the PU and thus the seams can be readily sealed. PU hydrolyses with time (reacts with water to break down) and this will eventually cause it to delaminate and fail. That said my Si coated / PU lined Solar 2 flysheet lasted 15 years before it started to fail.

Silicone coating

Silicone coatings soak into the weave of the fabric and actually increase it’s strength. This is true for both polyester and nylon. They are far more chemically stable than PU and thus have a greater lifetime. The only downside is that because of their ‘slippery’ nature they cannot accept seam tape*. Brush-on seam sealant is available but is usually expected to be applied by the buyer rather than the manufacturer. Some tent manufactures overcome the seam issue by designing the seam positions to reduce the water loading onto the seam. Hilleberg uses specially cooled needles for flysheet seam sewing which leads to holes small enough not to allow water to pass through them.

*Thanks to recent development work at Vaude a way to apply seam tape to Si-Nylon has been developed, but is currently (Feb-20) unique to them.  In parallel with this they have also started offering bonded rather than stitched seams on a couple of their flysheets which they describe as seamless.  A bonded seam does not, in theory require secondary sealing it should be fundamentally water tight.

Silicone coatings are more expensive than PU as you might imagine, and designing out the seam issue comes also at an added cost. However, if your budget allows, silicone is the superior coating because it adds strength, allowing for lighter base fabrics and has a longer service life.

Dual coatings

Some manufacturers apply PU to the inside of the flysheet and silicone to the outside. I’ve read extensively and can see only one reason why this might be considered technically superior. That is that it allows for factory seam taping. I cannot help but think that the primary driver is cost.

Practical considerations

The groundsheet of a tent needs to be more robust that the fly and this is achieved by both higher denier fabric and the application of a greater number of layers of waterproof coating. The groundsheet does not need to have a 5-10 meter hydrostatic head for the purpose of keeping the water out, but this comes as a bonus once you’ve made your floor robust enough for it’s duty.

The inner tent fabric is something that is little discussed, but experience has taught me that it is advantageous for this to have some form of water repellent coating (DWR). A fabric that wets less easily will dry more quickly (because the water transport coefficient of a material is proportional to contact angle since you asked!) and this can be very handy if you have a damp inner tent because you have packed it next to the condensation left on your fly. I favour ‘all in one’ pitching / striking and find it takes ≤ 20 min for my inner tent to become totally dry post a re-pitch. Having reviewed the websites of a wide range of manufacturers I only found one which claims this feature. Others may offer it, but they certainly don’t shout about it. Perhaps spraying your inner tent with Nikwax Direct would be worthy of consideration?

Conclusions

So what is the best flysheet option? That depends on your planned application and your budget. When choosing a tent I would be guided primarily by design, Unless you are buying a ripped off design made in the Far East you should expect a well designed tent to have an appropriately specified materials. A strong fabric with poorly re-enforced guying points which are badly positioned will not make the most of even the best fabric. Once you have chosen the design that fits your application, then your choice of manufacturer is likely to be primarily influenced by your budget and weight target. It is an eternal truth that less is more! Some manufacturers offer different ranges of the same designs with cheaper heavier models and more expensive light-weight versions.

[] If you are fastidiously careful, want to travel very light and have very deep pockets then you might well consider DCF / Ultra as your tent fabric.

[] If you favour peace of mind and longevity then silicone coated nylon is probably for you.

[] I hope that if you are buying on a budget that this article will allow you to see the strengths & weaknesses of cheaper materials and ensure that your chosen supplier has compensated appropriately. 70D polyester in place of 40D nylon for example. Remember that the lower price is a strength if it is what makes your adventure possible.

Finally, the research behind this article suggests that there is a gap in the market for someone to develop a stronger low denier polyester fabric. There are a couple of niche manufacturers who offer 20D Si-polyester based flysheets (TrekkerTent, The Tent Lab) which may offer you the sweet-spot between weight, strength and a nice taut pitch.

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