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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinder Circuit Map

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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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

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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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