Thursday, October 31, 2013

Camping gear

Update 07-2014: Camping gear what did and what didn't work

Now that we've come to a new continent, it's perhaps time to do a write-up of our experiences so far. What worked and what didn't work and why, so to speak. I write it like I see it, no holds barred. Do remember though that we've used everything continuously for 18 months and often not under the easiest circumstances. Actually, what we are doing is testing our gear to destruction! The question is not if it will fail, but when. Using the same gear on annual 3 weeks holidays should give this kind of wear after 25 years!  

The Thermarest Basecamp self inflatable mattresses keep amazing me. Yes we have the widest and most comfortable version but it's still just a 5cm thick inflatable mattress. Looking at it in the shop I couldn't help but wonder how on earth something so thin can be comfortable? Not only has it proven to be more comfortable than quite a few 'normal' mattresses I've slept on, they are an absolute perfect piece of kit too. Camping isn't always on level ground and yet these even work when sleeping on rocky terrain. The self inflatable part works, expelling air out of it is easy, rolling up is easy. I actually prefer sleeping on these over anything else I've used over the years. Is there anything they could improve on them? Well, they could make them self-cleanable, but that's about it.

Hilleberg Keron 4GT:
Over the past 18 months we have used the Keron everyday. We don't sleep in motels, hotels or hostels. We don't like being boxed in, the idea is to go out there and explore the world. If I want to stay inside I might as well stay home. So we camp. It also saves us a fair amount of money of course. So the Keron 4GT has literally been our home for 18 months... It withstood torrential rains, heavy storms and camping on the most bizarre surfaces. We've used it in conditions ranging from permafrost to blistering heat. For a long time we thought nothing could beat this tent… but we hadn't taken into account simple sunlight… We had noticed that the outer tent had faded from dark to light green, what we hadn't realised is that the UV radiation had seriously deteriorated the fabric. Upon pitching the tent Honduras it suddenly tore open at the top. The RIP stop should have prevented tearing but the RIP stop fibres had deteriorated due to UV as well. I wasn't impressed… until I realised we had used it everyday for 18 months (or 25 years(!) in normal camping terms) and for two months continuously it had been in open sun in Mexico in one spot. With the benefit of hindsight we should have protected it better from UV. As I wanted to put it in perspective, I have asked several tent manufacturers how long they expected their tent to last when used every day. None of the top quality hiking tent brands even bothered to reply… I also asked two top quality lightweight canvas tent manufacturers, for a comparison between cotton and 'plastic'. They did reply and estimated their tents should last between 35 to 50 weeks. The Hilleberg had been used for 76 weeks.

The zippers on the inner tent have a hard life. They are YKK brand but there is a lot of tension on them. The inner tent is hanging from the outer with elastic strips and there is quite a bit of tension there. Dust hasn't been a problem as we kept the zippers clean, it's the tension on them that resulted in accelerated wear. The problem starts to manifest itself with the zipper opening again behind the runner or slider. Squeeze the sliders a bit and you'll be good for a couple more weeks. The next phase is when wear starts to show itself on the back of the zipper teeth. This will eventually lead to teeth falling out of the zipper. 

Reading the above you might think we don't like the Keron much. You'd be wrong: We do like it! It's a great tent which is strong and extremely light weight. It's easy to pitch and huge on the inside. The square inner tent is great as it give you flexibility. The above is just an honest report on how long a Hilleberg lasts under conditions like these. Like I wrote above what we are doing is testing our gear to destruction, in the case of Hilleberg that means 18 months when exposed to sunlight every day. In fact we like it so much that we simply went for new fabric and zippers!

Hilleberg Staika
Mike has a Hilleberg Staika and simply loves it. It's a 2 person tent but a proper 2 person tent, actually 2 persons and camping gear. It's easy to pitch and self-standing. It has the same features as the Keron with inner tent attached to the outer for simultaneous pitching. He doesn't have any zipper issues as there isn't any tension on them and they operate in a straight line. The ventilation options are simply super as you can see in the photo. The Staika was a replacement for his failing Vango and a good choice. The only 'maintenance' we had to do on the Staika is patch the groundsheet when ants had eaten a hole into it! 

The Hilleberg Keron wasn't the only one with zipper issues. Actually absolutely every zipper we had that was not opening and closing in a straight line failed in the end. Mind you some of the zippers in our gear have had an extremely hard life. The zippers in our Ventura bags for instance, outside all day, in the sun all day, covered in muck for weeks (as it simply kept raining in Canada), and plastered in dust on the many gravel roads we took. Yes they did fail, but it took a very long time. When they did, the sliders were just completely worn out with most of the metal worn away. The Held tankbags had similar use and lasted long as well (unknown brand zipper). When they did start to fail it was, again, at the corner sections. Having said that, the zippers in the Held tankbags only needed a gentle nip-up after 18 months and worked perfectly again. The uncovered zippers in our jackets failed too (YBS brand) as did the covered zippers of our Rossi boots (YKK). I can see a pattern here… unknown brands zippers lasting longer than YKK…?

Sleeping bags
Nothing much to report apart from our old sleeping bags still going well. Despite being a 'homebrand' of Bever Zwerfsport (an outdoor and camping shop), they perform well. We bought them in 1998! Our last report on Mike's sleeping bag was about loose stitches etc. That has stopped for some reason, meaning the bag is now working fine.

Coleman fuel stove
Extremely reliable, burns on just regular petrol and is safe to use. The downside is that it isn't very controllable, it's either on or off and when it's on it's very hot! Another downside is the weight and bulkiness. Coleman used to make a smaller version too but that has disappeared from the market. I've looked at an MSR but don't like the plastic pump and vulnerable fuel hose, so for the moment we stick with the Coleman.

The missing bit
Our camping kit is mostly complete. There is one thing though that we've been trying to find and that is good lightweight foldable chairs. Yes I know you can buy the $6,- ones everywhere, but they are way too bulky and don't last al that long. We don't want to leave a whole trail of broken camp chairs behind us. 

First post: October 2013

Right from the beginning we decided to camp as much as we can, and if possible, everywhere. We've never been hotel/motel people but prefer the simple camping way over 4 walls and satellite TV. Camping puts you more in nature, in the landscape you are travelling in. Cooking on a simple stove and sleeping in your own bed are just some of the simple pleasures. It's also a big cost saving in most countries, which makes longer travel possible.
On trips like we were about to start good gear pays for itself. It's ok to buy a cheap tent for a week or two, but if it's a trip of 75 weeks or more then K-Mart cheapies don't cut it. But even for short trips I prefer good gear, simply as I don't like to be part of the throw-away society.

There are many gas operated stoves available, most are relatively cheap and easy to come by. We've used a few in the past and found they have a few problems. The first one is that you'll have to be able to find the right gas bottle for it and always carry a spare. Going to another continent or even overseas often means the brand you have is not available and the connectors will be different. Gas stoves are hard to operate in lower temperatures as the canisters tends to freeze up before they're empty and they are expensive too.
We've found over the years that the Coleman fuel stove is a better solution. We've never used Coleman fuel but simple unleaded petrol, the same as we use in the motorcycles. We carry a aluminium 1ltr fuel bottle and fill it up when we fill up the bikes. A litre will cost you a dollar here in the US and lasts a long time, longer than a gas canister.
The stove itself produces more heat than a gas stove as well, great if you're trying to heat up water for a cuppa. For frying it's actually bit too hot and even though Coleman claims you can temper it, you can't. The stove needs the heat it produces to create a clear blue flame, temper it and it begins to protest and eventually stops.
Still, we had the first Coleman for 20+ years and as it's been so problem free, we bought a new one when the pump finally failed on the old one. The pump was available as a spare part but as a new stove was only marginally more we bought a new one and kept the old one for spares.
There are other brands available too. MSR for instance. It is a lot smaller than the Coleman but the Coleman has it's own built-in tank of 0.5 ltr. To have the same amount of fuel with the MSR you'll need a second fuel can, making it just as big as the Coleman.

Tents come in many different shapes and sizes. Some wonderful, others clever but unfortunately most of them are just daft and poorly made. When we were about to go to New Zealand, some 15 years ago, we needed a lighter tent. Up until then we had a cotton tent from the well known Dutch tentmaker De Waard. Very good quality tents that will last a lifetime, outlast virtually any storm and are easy to pitch. Why? Because they are made by people who know how to make a tent and camp themselves. Unfortunately they are also very heavy! We needed something lighter to take with us on the plane.
Most lightweight tents are very poorly designed, anything that requires the inner tent to be pitched first and then covered with a fly is useless as you can't pitch it in the rain. Quite a few lightweight tents are also flimsy made, blow away in the first real storm and can take just a little bit of rain before they become soaking wet inside and out.

It was on a holiday to Norway that we went looking for a proper lightweight tent for our upcoming trip to New Zealand. We basically looked at people pitching their tent. I didn't like any of them. Separate pitching inner and outer, complicated, terrible colours, extremely small, weird form over function contraptions, you name it we saw it. A motorcyclist from Germany had something different. He was a couple of hundred metres away from me and I couldn't really see what he was doing as it all lay flat on the ground. I looked up for a second as someone backed his caravan into a car, looked back at the motorcyclist and… his tent was up! A big tunnel tent that was up in seconds. It turned out to be a Hilleberg from Sweden. He demonstrated how it works and that was it. I had never seen such a good design. What I didn't know at the time was that Hilleberg is a tent used on polar expeditions, used by the Swedish army and has been around since the 70s. It's a great family company and it's story is well worth reading on their website.
Packing up turned out to be just as easy and so we just bought one. Well… just? They are expensive. Expensive because they are extremely tough and use expensive lightweight materials. 

Hilleberg Keron 4GT
We bought the Keron 4GT, the biggest one they make. We used it in New Zealand for 3 months and in Europe on regular holidays. A year later we went away for a year and it came with us again. It took all the storms in it's stride, gave us plenty of room and was dead-easy to set up. Emigration came along, we bought a campervan and didn't think we'd need it anymore. We sold it for 100 dollars less the we paid for it!

When this trip came along there was only one tent for me. A Hilleberg. I did look at alternatives but nothing comes close to their quality and ease of pitching. Don't get me wrong, there are a couple of good looking tents available today but if you want something similar to the Hilleberg Keron then the competition offers very little.

One exception is the German Tatonka. They have shamelessly copied the Hilleberg design. To me that's theft and therefore alone will never buy them. They sell them below Hilleberg prices of course as they use cheaper materials. Terrible people...
I ordered another Hilleberg Keron 4GT and haven't regretted it for a minute. We have had all sorts of conditions on this trip, have seen tents blown away, damaged beyond repair and worn out tents that haven't had to endure half of what our Keron had to deal with. It's simply brilliant. From it's square 2.10x2.10 mtr inner tent to it's vestibule area back and front and dual entry (which is very good for ventilation too). It's easy to set-up and pack-up and pitching or packing on the rain is no problem.
Is there nothing I'd like to change? Yes, there is. For me the only thing to improve on the Keron GT is the entry; if that was the same at the front as the back than it would be even easier to live with. 
In difficult conditions you really appreciate good quality gear and the Hilleberg shines when it gets hard. Like arriving at night in the pouring rain after a 20hr day of nothing but misery and still be able to pitch the tent in minutes with my eyes half closed. Still not a drop of water on the inside and be able to just fall asleep knowing the tent can take whatever nature decides to drop in rain on you. Or hearing a storm picking up and just be able to fall asleep as well as you know it will hold it.

Thermarest sleeping mats
The first Thermarest self inflatable mat we bought gave us sterling service for 15 years. It never leaked, was comfortable and we never needed a pump ever again! Then it suddenly must have split internally and developed a big bulge in the middle. I could have taken it back for warranty, as it's guaranteed for life, but felt that after 15 years I didn't mind buying a new one. We also decided, as we are not getting any younger, that we would like to 'upgrade' to the wider base camp mat of 61cm wide and 6cm thick comfort. We haven't regretted it. They are, like the Hilleberg, things that are so good that you take them for granted. Comfortable, easy and good quality. If you want a good night sleep then there is only one option: Thermarest! Rest is vital and Thermarest offers it. While in Alaska we were told by a ranger, who gave a talk on living in Alaska, that the most common problem with cyclists and motorcyclist camping in Alaska is hypothermia, caused by unsuitable clothing and poor quality sleeping mats… The Thermarest even kept our backs warm while camping on permafrost.

We've tried several types of travel pillows. Self inflatable, collapsible and compressible. They don't work. Inflatable ones are too hard, even at low air pressure, collapsible and compressible ones loose there flex over time. Yet you need a good pillow for a proper nights rest. In the end we bought hard pillows at Wall-Mart, cut them in half to save some space, stitched them back together again and haven't looked back. For just 8 dollars a piece we've had a good nights sleep for months.

Sleeping bags
I honestly can't say anything much about them for one simple reason. 15 Years ago we bought duck-feather filled sleeping bags from Bever Zwerfsport, which we still have today and love them. Is the rest just as good? No idea, we never had anything else, well, apart from the army dump ones we had before that for many years. They still keep us warm, even when camping on Permafrost in Alaska (the thick Thermarest helped as well). Very good sleeping mats, sleeping bags and pillows are vital for any long trip. I seriously can't understand anyone who thinks a cheapy or thin foam roll will do. Don't kid yourself, a good night sleep is not a luxury; it's a necessity. You need to be fully awake to appreciate where you are and what you see, but more importantly it's for your own safety and that of others that you are awake. 
The mummy type bags are of course the warmest, while the standard ones are the easiest to pack and, so far, have been good enough for me. Mike is different, he can't stand the cold. He has a jumbo mummy bag that should keep him warm at the north-pole (but he still moans about cold nights...)