Fjallraven Keb Eco-Shell
Keb Eco-shell jacket, Fjallraven, £400. (Men's and women's versions available.)
The Swedish outdoor brand launched this jacket in autumn 2015, and we reviewed it in early 2016. It features a new fabric that – unlike many rain-jackets – does not use toxic flourocarbons to achieve water repellency.
Aside from ecological benefits, the quality and practicality of the jacket make it stand out. Soft, breathable, durable and, yes, highly waterproof, it’s also well designed and beautifully made.
The hood fits very well and shields your eyes effectively. Two outer chest pockets are large enough for OS maps, and there are no hip pockets, which takes a bit of getting used to and in winter requires you to wear gloves more often than you might otherwise, but the decently sized vents are positioned to allow you access to the hip pockets in a midlayer, if you choose to wear one. The result is a fairly close fit over the hips and stomach.
There are discreet but well considered design touches: small netting inner pockets for phones or keys; a gap to allow your headphone cord to pass from chest pocket to hood; leather tabs for the zippers.
The stiff price tag puts it in the same bracket as Rab’s Latok jacket (£325) and Arc’Teryx’s Alpha AR (£460) – these products are aimed at outdoor folk who value good design and technical performance very highly and are prepared to pay the extra for top quality. But whereas the main market for those jackets is climbers – with a short, harness-compatible cut – the Keb is aimed at hikers; hence a low hem, well below the waist. All in all, an excellent investment for outdoor addicts with some spare cash.
Note – men’s and women’s versions are available.
2 Run in comfort
Challenger ATR 2 running shoes, Hoka One One, £100 (men’s and women’s sizes available).
My new year’s resolution for 2016 was to start running again – and these excellent shoes made that a pleasure.
Startling looks mark these all-terrain shoes out as different: the thick soles contain at least twice as much cushioning underfoot as conventional running shoes. That naturally delivers a comfortable ride on long, hard trails or country lanes: but raises an obvious question – don't they feel sluggish and clumsy on your feet?
Emphatically, the answer is no. Before you’ve set off anywhere, you’ll notice the light weight, at just 270g each shoe. And once on the trail, they feel – if not quite nimble – beautifully stable and smooth to run in. That’s thanks in part to the rounded ‘Metarocker’ outsole and some effective 4mm lugs that keep them grippy on slippery surfaces. Particularly good on steep downhill stretches, these are also make comfortable walking shoes – though not everyone will take to the bright colour schemes (and the lack of a waterproof membrane makes them best suited to summer walking).
After heavy use, the soles were sound but the uppers were looking tatty by September – and other Hoka One One users also report that the uppers are not especially durable. But they are so comfortable I bought a second pair anyway.
3 Ultimate midlayer
Xenon X Jacket, Rab, £160. (Men’s and women’s versions available.)
I wore this almost daily from the moment it arrived in autumn, through mild days and chilly ones.
Soft and light (343g), the Xenon X has a slim fit – yet envelopes you in warmth. There are no cold spots and the close-fitting hood is cosy. Elasticated wrists and an adjustable hem cord keep out draughts. The insulation is efficient and breathable, allowing moisture through it, so you don’t feel clammy. This makes it the most adaptable insulated jacket I’ve ever tried – comfortable across a range of temperatures from the merely cool to the especially chilly. It makes a compact bundle when stuffed into its own breast pocket.
Versatility and compactness are great, but the inevitable flipside is a loss of insulating power, which means that on freezing days it’s best to think of the Xenon X as a midlayer, and combine with a thermal base layer, perhaps a micro-fleece, and a rain-jacket.
Light, soft and highly versatile – wear with comfort in a wide range of weather conditions and activities.
4 For summer adventures
Freelite 2 Backpacking Tent, MSR, £369.99.
Our second tent in the selection, tested by my colleague Carys, and a wonderfully light, compact and functional thing it is. At just 1.36kg, it is a delight for adventures from spring to autumn.
The 127cm wide sleeping area is roomy enough for two. Two large doors and a pair of good-sized porches (tapering from a maximum 76cm) for packs and boots also make sharing practical. Ventilation is excellent for summer use, but you’ll need to wrap up warm on cool spring or autumn days. Headroom is good, the domed ceiling peaking at around 90cm. Packed size is a compact 46cm x 15cm.
Out of the bag and up within minutes; pitch inner tent first. MSR bill the tent as ‘semi-freestanding’, but it must be pitched using pegs to keep the fly in place; guy ropes are recommended.
5 Sensational stove
MiniMo Cooking System, Jetboil, £130.
Everywhere I took this state-of-the-art stove – whether a festival or a wild camp – it attracted attention.
It really comes into its own on lightweight backpacking trips, when it's excellent for one or two people.
All parts fit neatly into one small sealed unit weighing just 450g. They unpack satisfyingly to provide a one-litre cook pot. A collar around the flame protects from wind and helps retain heat, making it highly fuel-efficient. It also burns intensely, brings water to the boil rapidly. Eat or drink straight from the cook pot.
For winter use it performs much better than many rivals – where freezing temperatures tend to make other stoves cough and splutter, this one will burn brightly all year round.
Many similar stoves are scarcely adjustable and can only really be used for boiling water or heating beans. The MiniMo allows you to control temperature, so you can simmer pasta, for example.
It only really works with its own pot; or with specially designed frying pan and other accessories (prices are stiff, though).
Great for 1-2 person camping trips, or sling in your pack to brew up a fresh cuppa when you are hiking on the hills.
6 Brilliant baselayer
Warm Freeze Half-zip Base Layer, Helly Hansen, £70. (Men’s and women’s versions available.)
This top has been around a few years, but was new to me in 2016. I loved wearing this on winter trail runs. It’s also a superb, warm layer for cold weather walks and other high-energy activities.
Most base layers are either made of merino wool or synthetic fabrics – and each of these has its pros and cons. The Warm Freeze top aims for the best of both worlds.
It’s made of two fabrics – a merino wool outer, bonded to a synthetic lining. The Lifa fiber next to your skin keeps you comfortable by soaking up moisture, while the wool outer does a fine job of insulating you. Worn beneath a rain jacket and/or midlayer, that makes it well adapted to high-energy, stop-go activities – such as hill walking. Worn on its own, it’s excellent for running or cycling.
A high neck feels snug around the collar when you need it, while the half zip helps you control your temperature when you overheat.
7 Sweet dreams
Evolite mattress, £100, Therm-a-Rest.
Small and light, this matt inflates with a few breaths, and brought some welcome comfort to nights on the trail last summer.
Chris Townsend reviewed it for us, writing: ‘Combining the properties of self-inflating foam mats and air beds, this mattress is very comfortable for the 520g weight (regular size) and packs away into a small bundle for carrying. It has a soft, non-slip polyester outer and is 5cm thick when fully inflated.’ I couldn;t agree more.
8 Light fantastic
Velez jacket, Paramo, £275.
This versatile rainjacket, which arrived in the shops in autumn, is designed for active outdoors people who like to move swiftly through the countryside – including trail runners, backpackers, hill walkers and cyclists.
The slim-fit shape means the jacket clings to you comfortably on a run, and there’s less loose fabric to flap in strong winds when you reach the summit. A scooped rear hem protects your lower back when you are cycling.
The orange colour is practical when you need to be seen (though more muted colours are available). Every time I pull it on, I feel ready for action…
A few practicalities. The jacket fits closely, and while there may be room for a thin midlayer like the Rab Xenon X jacket beneath when it gets cold, you won’t fit anything much bulkier underneath. That is deliberate – as Paramo, unconventional as ever, recommend that when you need to layer up, you pull their insulating Torres Alturo jacket on top of the Velez; if you are worried that commits you to another £160 spend, a similar, water-resistant insulating layer, if you have one, would do the trick, too.
Paramo jackets are probably the most reliably waterproof around, but have a reputation for feeling warm when the temperature rises. There’s a good reason for this – Paramo’s Nikwax Analogy waterproofing system uses two fabrics sandwiched together, one of which is effectively a microfleece. The result is very breathable, and directional (drawing moisture away from the body), but does have insulating properties.
The Velez tackles this by scaling back to a lightweight version of the fabric in its lower third, and providing discreet vents to let in cool air on chest and arms. It will be interesting to see how it performs once the temperature rises in spring, but Paramo are adamant that the jacket will perform well all year round.
Meantime, though, I’m thoroughly enjoying that soft, comfortable, close fit, and excellent waterproofing, and all-round feeling that adventures will happen once I’ve pulled it on…
9 Shelter from the storm
Southern Cross 2 tent, Terra Nova, £530.
I reviewed the solo Southern Cross 1 early in 2016 – then saw this larger version at the Outdoor Trade Show in September. Size is definitely an advantage in this case. At 2.29kg this excellent backpacking tent is not ultralight, but is still light enough for solo use. Its two porches and two entrances obviously benefit two users, but they are also handy if you are using the tent alone – there's somewhere to stow your pack, and a second space to cook in.
But the real point of this tent is its strength. The combined fly sheet and inner tent are suspended beneath two crossed external poles, making a stable and robust structure even in really harsh winter weather. It’s also genuinely freestanding, which tends to reduce the amount of guys and pegs you’ll need, unless it’s blowing a complete hooley. The sleeping area has decent headroom at 102cm, and at 120cm wide will neatly fit two sleeping mats.
Pitching is easy – clip the two poles in to form arches, then clip the combined inner and fly to the poles.
Finally, the price is substantial, but shop around and you may find it on sale for less than £450.
A reliable option for adventurous types who want to camp in all weathers, without getting blown away in the wind.
10 Cosy nights
Fuse -12 sleeping bag, Vango, £200.
Those hardy readers who love camping on chilly nights will no doubt be well aware of the pros and cons of down sleeping bags. They are light and compact in your pack and seriously cosy when dry – but not so warm when damp. Many types of synthetic insulation work well in moist conditions, on the other hand, but tend to be relatively bulky and heavy.
For some years outdoor clothing makers have used a mixture of down and synthetic fill in insulated jackets, in an attempt to achieve the best qualities of each. Vango applied these lessons to a winter sleeping bag launched in January 2016.
Actually, Vango offers three Fuse bags*, each with a different warmth rating: the Fuse -12 is the warmest, keeping you comfortable in temperatures down to -5˚C. It may also be used (in diminishing comfort) down to a suggested minimum temperature of -12˚C.
The innovative part is that the bags are stuffed with ‘Insulite Fusion’, which comprises 70% down (treated to repel moisture), held in a lattice of man-made insulation. The latter is the real point of mixing down and manmade fibres: it is designed to hold the down in place even when damp, so it doesn’t bunch up and leave unprotected patches. A tough nylon fabric cover is also treated for water repellency. Overall the bag weighs a fairly modest 1.5kg and squashes down into a compact waterproof stuff sack (35cm x 21cm). The drawstring shoulder baffle and hood work well to keep out cold (but are not for the claustrophobic). The result is a deliciously warm and comfortable bag that should cope better with condensation and damp than traditional down bags.
*Vango says the Fuse 2˚ is comfortable down to a minimum 7˚C and costs £130; the Fuse -6˚, delivers comfort down to freezing point and costs £170.
BBC Countryfile Magazine kit editor Joe Pontin chooses his outstanding clothing and other gear for outdoor lovers, from the dozens of items tried in 12 months from January 2016
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