Gear Reviews

Good gear isn’t everything, but it can certainly make the difference between a miserable experience and a good one. More, it’s tough to tell in our product-saturated consumer society when it’s worth going ‘premium’, and when ‘budget’ will do just as well at half the price. All of the below are my honest opinions on things I’ve used extensively out in the field. If you’ve got a question about anything here, just drop me a line in the comments — I’m more than happy to provide more information if you’re curious.

Sleeping

Nemo Fillow:

I’m always amazed by how cavalier people are about their choice of camp pillow. Small as it is, it’s the one piece of equipment that can make the difference between a comfortable night’s sleep and an evening of tossing, turning and numb arms. Needless to say, the old ‘balled-up clothes’ method isn’t my thing: no outdoor activity, no matter how gnarly, no matter how gorgeous, is any fun if you haven’t slept a wink or are hobbled by a stiff neck. Thus the Nemo Fillow. Yep, it’s heavy (for a pillow) and only rolls up to about the size of a softball. Still, the combination of inflatability for thickness and a layer of memory foam for comfort makes this easily the nicest of the camp pillows I’ve used. The microsuede-style cover can get a bit sweaty on warm nights, but this is easily remedied by placing a t-shirt over it. All told, a great investment in making sure the waking hours of your adventure aren’t wasted in exhaustion. Save the weight somewhere else.

Tennier Industries Military Gore-Tex Bivy Bag:

Again, at a kilo in weight, you can definitely find lighter bivy bags. But at (currently) $60, you’re unlikely to find one that is both this cheap and this good. Built like a tank and in ever-fashionable woodland camo, it’s dependably waterproof-breathable, and will keep you dry even if the weather turns (though raindrops pattering into the fabric an inch from your face takes some getting used to). If you’ve been using a tent for your excursions in clear weather, consider making the switch to a bivy bag instead – the tent might seem pretty ‘minimal’, but there’s nothing that compares with the feeling of sleeping in the open air and watching the stars wheel overhead as you wake and sleep throughout the night. Setup / takedown are as easy as it gets, and the fabric of the bivy adds a suprising amount of insulating power (and great wind resistance!) as well.

Western Mountaineering Alpinlite Sleeping Bag:

It costs as much as a used car, sure, but the adage that you get what you pay for is sometimes true, and the Western Mountaineering Alpinlite is a frankly fantastic sleeping bag for all that. One of the rare products still made in the US of A, the stitching is impeccable and the shell fabric and super lofty 850+ fill-power down are the best on the market. Rated to 20F / -7C, the bag is, without question, good to at least this temperature, unlike the sometimes spurious Comfort/Lower Limit ratings of other bags. At 880g for the regular length, and comfortably wide for fidgety side-sleepers like myself, it’s also quite light for a 20-degree bag. When temps are above 50F overnight, I’ll pack a different bag to avoid sweating, but for true 3-4 season use, this bag is as good as it gets, and a true lifetime investment.

Thermarest Neo-Air All Season Sleeping Pad:

After dalliances with a K-Mart dual-density foam roll (not recommended) and Kathmandu inflatable mattress (which didn’t insulate and fell apart like most Kathmandu products I’ve experienced tend to), I came to Thermarest’s Neo-Air series. This, the All Season, has a high R-value  (a measure of insulating ability) of 4.9, making it suitable even for winter use. It’s also rectangular instead of tapered, giving more real estate to snooze on. It takes quite a bit of puffing to blow up, but came with a tiny battery-powered pump that, given five minutes while you set up the rest of your gear, will get your pad 90% of the way to full. Over the course of a year I developed a couple of pinhole leaks so tiny I couldn’t even locate them, but the mat would be slumped significantly by morning. Fortunately Thermarest customer service is great and it was repaired inside a week by the company for a nominal cost. It’s comfy in any case, and has kept me warm on freezing ground. It isn’t as tiny as the X-Lite, but for the amount of comfort it affords, I’m totally willing to bear the minor size and weight penalty. No amount of weight savings is worth it if you’ve had a terrible night’s sleep, which is why I don’t skimp on my mat, sleeping bag or pillow.

Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Sleeping Bag Liner:

Sea to Summit claims that this liner ‘increases sleeping bag performance by up to 8C’. This is transparently bullshit. If you think you’re going to take a 3-season bag out in serious cold, use this liner, and suddenly have it function as a 4-season bag, you’re dreaming. What this liner *will* add is a couple of degrees — noticeable, but not huge. It makes the difference between being slightly too cold and being mostly comfortable on a borderline night, however, and it helps keep the interior of your bag clean. Whether it’s worth it depends on your perspective and how much space you have in your bag. On the other hand, it *will* work handily on its own as a hot-weather bag for those few hours before dawn when the temperature drops.

Tarptent Rainbow 1p Tent:

Though I’ve found the freestanding setup of the Rainbow to be less than ideal (it wants the ground to be *truly* flat, or else wants supplemental guying-out to stabilise), in the majority of conditions, the reasons for this ubiquitous shelter’s popularity aren’t hard to see: it’s very light, it’s tough, it’s simple to set up and take down and — importantly — it’s cheap. Camping in 90F/ 32C heat in the Northern Territory of Australia, I did sometimes wish that there was a removeable fly for airflow, but the bathtub floor of the tent can be let down to allow a breeze thru, which helps a bit, and being a single-walled tent obviously saves significant weight. The floor space of this 1p tent is also enormous, making it a good choice for bigger humans or those toting lots of gear.

Nemo Hornet 1p Ultralight Tent:

Among the lightest and smallest of the ultralight hiking tents available on the market, this freestanding number from Nemo sets up quickly with a single hubbed pole and weighs just over 800g in full. As you might have guessed, however, there’s a ‘but’. If you get the associated footprint and are exceedingly careful, you may succeed for a while in not tearing the tissue-paper-thin floor or canopy fabric. If you use the tent, however, in real world circumstances — lumpy ground, rocks, sticks, or just moving around inside the interior space — expect that it’s going to get damaged, and probably sooner rather than later. There’s also the problem of that it’s not fully effective freestanding, as much of the interior space collapses at the foot if you don’t stake out the corners. For real weight weenies, this tent might be a great choice; if you’re hard on gear, however, I’d go a different route.

Cooking

MSR Pocket Rocket Canister Fuel Stove:

Standard isobutane-propane fuel canisters are, where available, about as good as it gets for powering a camp stove. They’re arguably the most efficient form of stove fuel out there – better than Shellite, petrol / diesel, or denatured alcohol by weight – and are reasonably adjustable in terms of not scorching your food to a crisp. If you’re operating in sub-freezing temps they can have issues, but are otherwise pretty robust. The MSR Pocket Rocket, which simply screws into the top of a fuel canister, is cheap, reliable, small and light. You can get smaller, not doubt, than the Pocket Rocket, but returns are pretty marginal, and the price, as they say, is right.

DIY Can Stoves (Alcohol-Burning):

The primary lure of DIY alcohol stoves, which can be made from a host of repurposed metal objects but are generally fashioned out of standard aluminum drink cans, is building them. It’s fun to spend an hour cutting, sanding, stretching, fitting and finishing one of these little creations and then, at the end, actually being able to legitimately cook on it! There are dozens of individual designs, each with differing advantages and disadvantages and levels of technical sophistication required. In the best cases, these designs can be made in the field with nothing more than a can and a pocketknife, meaning you’ve got a fallback stove anywhere in the world you can find alcohol to burn. As far as alcohol goes, it’s less efficient and heavier to carry sufficient volumes of than other forms of fuel, but it *is* cheap, and as the can costs you effectively nothing (and weighs mere grams), it’s a good choice for ultra-minimalists or budget backpackers. On the downside, boil times are generally relatively high, and adjustability is essentially zero – once it’s lit, it’s lit until the fuel burns out, and there isn’t much modulating your flame height or intensity with most designs. Fuel-grade alcohol availability also varies worldwide. Makes a good alternative to hexamine fuel tablets, which tend to leave a residue on pots.

Snow Peak 2-Piece Titanium Cookset:

To be fair, I mostly use the ‘skillet’ as a lid on the main pot to decrease my boil times (especially as the handle of the skillet has a tendency to pop out of slot while you’re using it, causing whatever you’re cooking to flop onto the ground). That said, the main pot is about a litre of functional goodness — light, strong, small and easily scraped clean if you burn the hell out of something in it. Beyond that, it’s a pot, and while there’s very little sexy about cookware, it IS titanium, and titanium as we all know is an inherently sexy material.

MSR Whisperlite International Multifuel Stove:

Jury’s still out on this one. Bought for travel to far-flung areas where canister fuel and even high-proof alcohol availablity will be an issue, the Whisperlite International’s claim to fame is that it will burn things that can be found anywhere — white gas, kerosene, or unleaded petrol. But it’s definitely fiddly compared to a canister fuel stove, and I’m still acclimatising to it. Watch this space for updates.

 Bike

Tubus Logo Rear Rack:

Made of heavy-duty chromoly, Tubus racks are basically the gold standard for touring setups, as they’re far less likely to suffer the problems with metal fatigue and breakage that plague lighter and cheaper aluminum racks in rugged conditions or with heavy loads. The testimony of thousands of happy cycle tourists speaks for itself here, but do be aware that, being steel, the Tubus racks are prone to rust where the top-coat gets rubbed or scraped away. Carry a bit of sandpaper to keep the rust at bay, and a bit of clear nailpolish to seal the spots you’ve sanded clean.

Surly Rear Rack:

The downside of Surly’s flagship rear rack? It weighs a ton. As in, significantly more than Tubus (or more downmarket alternatives), to the point where it’s non-trivial. The upsides: it offers enormous clearances for pretty much any tyre in the world on pretty much any rim and, being heavily built of chromoly, it’s both bombproof and field-repairable in far-flung places (load-bearing racks are, after all, one of the elements of touring setups most prone to failure long-term).

Maxxis Chronicle 29 x 3.0 Tyres:

Awesome mixed bikepacking and touring tyre. I have the 120tpi Tubeless Ready version with the beefed-up EXO sidewall. They set up easily on a WTB Scraper rim with just a floor pump and since then have help up well to some rough rocky trails, lots of packed dirt, a fair amount of serious sand, some mud, and many pavement miles as well. Fast rolling, good grip, durable. Have held a seal in tough conditions. Not a single flat yet! Also *significantly* cheaper than most of the other premium 29+ tyres like the Bontrager Chupacabra. Great value, great performance. You ARE running tubeless, right? If not, you really should be.

Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour 26 x 2.0 Tyres:

Covered in my Surly Disc Trucker Long-Term Review, this tyre is part of the contemporary bike-touring ‘uniform’, virtually ubiquitous for serious tourers, and for good reason. It’s stiff and heavy, true, but it’s also just about the toughest tyre you’ll find, both for puncture resistance (the rubber is thick as hell) and for sidewall durability. I run these on the Surly and have never had a flat, but as a far more powerful endorsement, a friend just rode a pair of these tyres 6000km across Australia. Number of punctures? Zero.

WTB Scraper i45 Rim:

Super-burly 32-hole double-walled 45mm-wide tubeless-ready 29+ rim. Set up easily tubeless with a bit of WTB tubeless tape, some Stans sealant, a floor pump and a set of Maxxis Chronicle tyres. Have taken some big rock hits on rough trails without a complaint, and have held a seal in varied conditions without a problem. Great product, if a bit spendy.

Revelate Harness:

Revelate was one of the first names in the bikepacking luggage game, and though the scene is getting pretty crowded these days, they remain popular for a reason. Nothing flash, their handlebar harness system is well designed and does exactly what it’s supposed to do, keeping a load (in my case my sleeping bag and tent, stacked vertically) securely strapped motionless and tight to the bike just beneath the bars. As noted elsewhere on the interwebs, the harness provides a lot of flexibility (vs a handlebar roll) in terms of what can be carried, but really shines in terms of stacked, vertical loads.

Revelate Pocket (Large):

Secured to the front of my Revelate Harness in front of the main load, the Pocket is a catch-all for assorted stuff that I’d like to have close at hand (without being able to access it on the fly) like maps, snacks, GPS and assorted other cargo overage. Because the Large Pocket offers quite a bit of space, I find that it also comfortably becomes home for things that don’t have a place elsewhere. Water-resistant rather than waterproof, if you have electronics in here they’ll need to be in a dry bag or ziploc, though Revelate *are* apparently coming out with a waterproof version now as well.

Bike Bag Dude Custom Framebag:

Kedan and Kath Griffin are a two-person Aussie cottage industry who make top-quality bespoke bikepacking bags in their workshop just outside of Newcastle, NSW. The custom heavy-duty two-zip framebag they made for my Muru Mungo expedition tourer wasn’t cheap, but you’d be hard pressed to find bike luggage manufactured with more care or to a higher standard. Plus, the fit of ‘custom’ can’t be beat. Super nice people, excellent customer service and total custom colour choice to match your ride.

Alpkit Fuel Pod Top Tube Bag:

Alpkit sells great-value and good-quality outdoor direct to the consumer from their website, keeping costs incredibly low. This size Large top tube bag (it helps that my steerer tube is uncut and boasts a tall stack of spacers to accommodate it) is one of my favourite bits of bikepacking luggage. It holds snacks, tools, gloves, sometimes my phone; and though it can sometimes lean a bit to the side, it’s never flopped off even on the roughest roads. It’s also mega-cheap by bikepacking standards and can be accessed on the fly while riding. Highly recommended.

Blackburn Outpost Cargo Cages:

Salsa’s Anything Cages are of course the industry standard for carrying bulky, lightweight items strapped to your forks legs or downtube. They are, however, also a bit spendy, and when I got a super-cheap deal on Blackburn’s equivalent bit of kit, I decided to try them out. Most of a year later, they’re still doing great — the left one holds my sleeping mat, and the right one holds my camp kitchen (stove, pot, mug and spork, plus my Nemo Fillo). They’ve been flawless over many many miles of rough terrain, and a great value to boot.

Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bags:

A matching pair of these 5L dry bags hold the gear that gets strapped to my cargo cages on the fork legs. Light, robust, abrasion-resistant, keep shit dry. Do their job. And classic black is tough to argue with.

Crosso Twist Large 52L Panniers:

I’m currently in the process of ditching the panniers in my touring setup as a nod to my increasing interest in getting off-tarmac (where panniers tend to jounce around a bit too much for my liking). Still, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Ortleib Backrollers, these make a great choice. They’re significantly cheaper, significantly larger, and – made of heavyweight waterproofed cordura – as if not more durable than the Ortleibs. The simple fold-over closure system is bombproof, and the metal hook attachement system is simple and solid, even if the straps *do* also have a tendency to loosen up a bit over the miles. With their enormous capacity, it’s possible to use the just these panniers and a rear rack as the whole of your luggage, even long-term. And even if pannier setups are losing ground to various bikepacking setups, these will always retain a place for road touring or major trips to the grocery store.

Planet Bike Cascadia ATB Mudguards:

The only thing better than installing a pair of Planet Bike Cascadia mudguards on your bike is removing them. Kidding! Heaps of things are better than installing a pair of these cheapish, plastic, and impossible-to-keep-properly-aligned fenders! In light of that fact, I’d suggest you save yourself the trouble and just not install them in the first place. On a city commuter bike, they might be fine, but take them out into the bush and they’ll end up bent and wonky and constantly in danger of rubbing on your tyres in no time. Worth neither the money they cost nor the frustration involved.

 

Electronics

Fuji X-T1 Mirrorless Camera:

Indispensible and absolutely one of my favourite piece of gear I own. It’s difficult to overstate how compact and manageable a package the X-T1 is compared even to an entry-level DSLR with kit lens, whose image quality and functionality it far outstrips. It’s not a camera that wins on the ‘spec sheet’ and it isn’t full-frame (something that to be honest most of us really don’t need anyways), but it’s a beautifully crafted tool that takes truly gorgeous images and is generally a joy to use. It has limited weather sealing and a line of weather sealed XF lenses (though I *do* worry about that flimsy memory-card door!) and heaps of manual control dials which obviate the need to dive into menus to change settings (though I do constantly inadvertantly bump the ‘drive’ knob).  Most importantly, it’s a camera that’s small enough and light enough that I’m happy to tote it all day, and mostly anywhere. The DSLR always tended to feel like a bit of a chore, and to get pictures this pretty out of something this small is always a wonder to me.

 Fujinon XF 10-24mm F4 lens:

Once you get hooked on shooting wide, it’s difficult to go back to living with a 28mm-equivalent field of view ever again. And though prime purists will opine about how all they need is a single lens (20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, whatever), the fact is that you’re a lot less likely to miss a shot out in the field if you’re packing a good zoom with a decent range instead. The 16-35mm equivalent of this lens ably covers pretty much any landscape or architecture situation, and also does a fine job standing in for portraits or street photography at the long end. True, at a constant F4 aperture you won’t be getting razor-thin depth of field or creamy bokeh, but being image-stabilised you CAN shoot handheld in some seriously low light, making this a quite reasonable choice as your single ‘walkaround’ lens (provided, again, that ultrawide is your thing). Image quality is lovely as with pretty much all Fuji optics. Please do not start talking to me about MFT charts or taking pictures of brick walls to show distortion, which the processor corrects anyways, even in RAW.

Fujinon XF 56mm F1.2 lens:

I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, the image quality from this lens is amazing. It’s razor sharp, it’s punchy, it’s contrasty, and the out-of-focus regions are dreamy. On the other hand, I feel like focal-length-wise, it’s never quite what I really need. In order to fill the frame with my subject (this being, after all, a portrait lens above all other things), I really have to get quite close and put the camera in the subject’s face. On the other hand, for an environmental portrait, I find it’s often not quite wide enough to capture both the subject and the surrounding scene as I’d like. It’s a marvellous tool for the instances that it’s good for, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not as versatile as I want or need for it to be, and that for shallow DOF effects I’d be better off generally with a wider prime.

Fujinon XF 90mm F2 lens:

I eventually replaced the too-short 56 F1.2 with this lens, and am very happy to have made the switch. Punchy, contrasty and razor-sharp with lovely bokeh, this is as good as Fuji glass gets (and Fuji is known for great glass). Find I can get a portrait without having to be within two feet of my subject, and have used this lens as a mid-telephoto for nature photography as well to good effect. Did two weeks cycling around the Northern Territory of Australia with this and the 10-24 F4 and found that the combination was great for most of the situations I encountered. Again, focal length is to a large extent a matter of personal preference, and it’s true that this lens isn’t quite as bright as the  56 F1.2 for low light. Still, prefer the 90 and the image quality absolutely speaks for itself.

Fujinon XF 18mm F2 lens

A cheap pancake-ish 28mm-equivalent lens with decent (if not stellar) optics, I bought this to have a single compact package I could take hiking without having to worry about the lens banging on things. I like the lens, but don’t love it, and its greatest strength is without question its miniscule size, making it perhaps a useful walkaround lens for street shooters who like to shoot wide.

2 thoughts on “Gear Reviews

  1. Pingback: Gear Reviews are now up! | Going Around Places

  2. Pingback: New Gear Reviews | Going Around Places

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