Monday, 27 November 2017

Paramo Bentu fleece and windproof combination, review

I've a long history with Paramo stretching back 20 years. In 1998 I tested an Alta jacket and salopettes along with a mountain shirt, having been sent these as part of my research for equipping Kinder Mountain Rescue Team. We subsequently bought Paramo for the whole team and, some years later, replaced the Altas with Aspira jackets having been so pleased with Paramo's performance. It goes without saying that we wore the kit in every condition you can imagine, right up to full white outs and blizzards on the Kinder plateau. Chrissie and I equipped ourselves at our own expense with Paramo too and we've worn various items of their kit in everything from desert conditions in the Grand Canyon, up to proper Scottish winter in the Cairngorms. So, you could say I'm biased towards Paramo, but it's based on lots of experience.

I have a shameful number of Paramo items in my arsenal of outdoor gear at home but, now retired, I'm out every day, albeit sometimes only for a dog walk. So, of late I've found myself revisiting my older jackets and getting good use out of them. I am, however, still susceptible to being drawn to new items of kit, especially where technology has moved on.

Many moons ago Paramo sold the Fuera windproof jacket to be worn with their Taiga fleece. I bought both of them. The Taiga had the same pump lining as their Analogy waterproof jackets and, if used in combination, the Fuera and Taiga formed an equally waterproof jacket, though thicker and warmer than, say, their Alta. Great for a really cold winter day but serious overkill for much of the year.

Recently Paramo have revisited this concept and currently in their range is the Ostro fleece and windproof and the Bentu fleece and windproof. Whilst relaxing for a week with the van in Hawes last month, I tried both of these combos in a local retailer. They were being offered at a discount if you bought both items together. I found the, very light, Ostro a little too lightweight for my taste but was quite taken by the Bentu. I wasn't so keen though on the sage green colour, which was all they had in stock. 

Returning home, I ruminated for a while before giving in and ordering a blue Bentu combo from Gorge Outdoors in Cheddar for £171; a good discount. This was around 3 weeks ago now and whilst not a long time, we've had a wide range of weather conditions and temperatures here in the Peak District and I've worn the combo almost every day in everything from a mild, dry autumn day right up to the overnight backpack I did with Islay just last weekend in full-on wintery weather (read about it here).

Here's the fleece jacket.

My chest measures 40" and this and the windproof are sized large.

In addition to the two zipped side pockets there's a good sized chest pocket.

The sleeves have loose cuffs with no elastic. This makes them very easy to push up your arm for cooling, but they're a little long for me so I'm tending to turn them back.

The zip is backed with a light flap.

The pockets are backed with the latest, lightweight pump liner.

And here's the windproof, which I'm wearing over the fleece for illustration.

It has four zipped pockets, all of a good size.

Like the fleece, it's a shorter jacket but the back is dropped to cover your bum. Good for cycling.
I prefer shorter jackets, just aesthetically. If it's raining I'd always be wearing some form of waterproof legwear.

The hood is roomy enough for hats or a helmet, has volume adjustment and pulls in around the face.
It has a wired peak.

The hood can be stowed using a velcro tab, though I can never quite see the need. I like my hoods to be ready for quick deployment.

The hood and yoke are lined with the light pump liner, giving the windproof alone more potential to keep you dry than previous, completely unlined, Paramo windproofs.

For those of you unfamilar with Paramo, their Analogy garments have what they call a pump liner, which serves to move moisture, mainly sweat, out away from your base layer clothing, through the outer windproof layer to the air outside. In addition, they don't allow outside weather to get in through the two layers. The fabrics are rendered water-resistant by the addition of a water-based wax which is washed into them, which can easily be renewed, and the outer and liner become, effectively, waterproof. Hence Paramo garments can be rejuvenated almost endlessly. This, together with their ethical production facility in Columbia, makes them one of the most ethical manufacturers out there. Read more on Paramo's website if you're interested. With the combo garments, like my Bentu, the fleece functions as the pump liner. Neither the fleece not the windproof would give complete waterproofing but, together, they do. Such is the theory, but what about in practice?

Being a bit of a Paramo nerd enables me to make direct comparisons between the Analogy and combo garments. Chrissie and I have the Velez jackets, one of the lightest full-on Analogy jackets they currently make. We've used this successfully backpacking in Arctic Sweden this year and I'm very familiar with its functionality as the latest in a long line of Paramo Analogy jackets. 

So far, I have only worn the fleece and windproof together, but to be fair, that's probably the best test of its functionality as a waterproof. In milder, autumnal weather, around 11C, I've worn the combo over a thin, technical T shirt (Rab Dryflo 120) and it's been warm enough, though not too warm to cause discomfort. Taking the jackets off after a long walk wearing my day sack, I have found the back of the fleece still damp with sweat but no more than my Analogy Velez would have been.

On dry colder days, which so far have been down to minus 3C ambient, I've removed the jacket to find it virtually dry, my having sweated much less. I had been wearing a Montane Allez microgrid base layer.

On wet days the Bentu combo has functioned every bit as well as my Velez. I have sometimes found the fleece to be quite damp but no more so than the pump liner in my Velez would have been in similar conditions.

I'll digress here momentarily. Back in my MR days, whilst using Paramo we had maybe 2 team members out of around 60 who reckoned the jackets weren't waterproof. There are one or two people I know on social media who think the same. Here are my thoughts. I've worn every type of waterproof from the early days of non-breathable Peter Storm and B&H Cagjacs, where you always got wet through because they weren't breathable, through to the very best of Goretex. In my experience:

1. There are some weather conditions where ambient humidity is so high, no breathable garment will allow moisture to pass out through it, since there needs to be a lower humidity outside than inside for the breathable function to work. I remember one day, over 30 years ago, when, returning from a long day in heavy rain in the Lakes, wearing high quality Mountain Equipment Goretex waterproofs, every piece of clothing I was wearing underneath was completely wet through, so heavy and constant had been the rain and the humidity so high.

2. The transference of moisture from sweat is a constant, ongoing process, so, unless you're not sweating at all, when you remove your waterproof, the inside layer, and maybe your base clothing, may well still be wet with the sweat that has not yet been transferred out through the jacket. It is my opinion that this effect may be mistaken for leakage of the jacket from the outside in.

3. As I understand it, there is potential for rain to occasionally find it's way through the windproof outer of any Paramo. The outer on its own is not totally waterproof.  However, the pump liner will still continue to move any water away from the inside, back out through the outer. It's important to understand that it's the two layers together which provide the waterproof function.

What matters to me is, when wearing a waterproof in rain or snow, how comfortable are you underneath it. Which brings me to my most extreme application of the Bentu combo so far, this past weekend.

I had wondered whether or not to wear the Bentu since I know that, in the cold, when backpacking,  I've often taken off a Paramo Analogy jacket to find it damp on the inside (see point 2 above). Again, in the cold, this often does not dry overnight so you can end up putting a damp jacket on in the morning. But in practice this has never caused a problem since the jacket soon warms and the pump transference begins to do its job again. I could foresee having two wet layers kicking about in my tent overnight. But, I thought, on a short trip I'd give it a go.

I wore a Montane Allez microgrid baselayer again, below the combo. It's fair to say I sweat a lot when working hard, so I was not surprised that I could feel myself sweating on our initial ascent. If I'd taken anything off I'd have been cold. It was cold and snowing. I cooled a little, to the point of being more comfortable, when we hit higher ground and were, in effect, crossing level terrain. We experienced winds up to around 25mph, hail and heavy snow.

After four and a half hours of tramping we hit our camp spot. It took around an hour for me to set up camp, settle my precious pup and make a brew before I considered removing my clothing to, as usual, don clean dry clothes for the evening/night. 

The Bentu windproof was damp under where my rucsac straps had been, where, of course, it couldn't breathe. Otherwise it was dry. The fleece was only slightly damp with some very small patches wetted out. These seemed to be around the front of the yoke, below the level of the pump lining on the windproof. I laid out the fleece over my rucsac, which was lying inside my Terra Nova Southern Cross 2, and spread the windproof over the foot of the water resistant cover of my Rab down sleeping bag. But now the critical bit. Removing my Allez hoodie I found it to be totally dry except for some damp on the hood where it had been exposed to the elements before I'd raised the hood of the Bentu windproof. The Paramo kit had done its job and pushed virtually all my sweat out and not allowed any water from snow in, keeping my base layer, and me, warm and dry. I'd call that a success.

In the morning, unsurprisingly, the fleece and windproof were in the exact same state as the night before. It'd been cold, almost freezing. When I put them on again before decamping they felt fine, since the damp wasn't touching any skin and the Allez didn't transfer it.

Our walk back was in very similar conditions to the day before and, once home, taking the jackets off revealed them to be in pretty much the same state as the day before, with only slight dampness. Once again, my Allez was dry. Excellent.

I'm impressed with this combination and it will take it's place among my armoury of waterproof jackets for all conditions. In particular, I'm hoping it will make a good option for this cycling adventure in France next summer. Once the warmer weather arrives I plan to see how the windproof alone functions, in rain, over different base layers, including the T shirts I plan to cycle in. I'm not expecting total waterproofness, but I'll experiment nevertheless. I will take the fleece on my cycle adventure in any event.

But wait. 
"Is this the perfect jacket for all occasions then, Geoff?" I hear you ask.
Well...maybe not. 
When it gets silly cold I'll still use my trusty Aspira smock. It's, as they say, bombproof. But, I reckon the Bentu combo could probably be used in a very wide range of conditions, especially once you factor in using each garment on its own.

But, I need to add the few negative thoughts I have about the Bentu...and they are only few.

1. I'd prefer a light elastic around the cuffs of the fleece.

2. The lower pocket on both garments are just slightly too low for use with a hipbelt. Though you can just manage to access the top of them in the windproof. Not used the fleece alone yet.

3. The chest pockets on the windproof lack cord pulls on the zips, meaning some difficulty using them with thick gloves (don't get me started on my cold hands). I'm gonna add some this afternoon.

I'm glad I bought this jacket combo and, for clarity, despite my being a Paramo addict, I paid for it with my own brass and have no connection with Paramo (I used to, in my MR days, but that's many moons back).

Make your own mind up. Gear's a very personal thing and we're all different, but I reckon I'd be happy to recommend the Paramo Bentu windproof and fleece.

Smile and, above all, enjoy!

Sunday, 26 November 2017

A cold, snowy wild camp on Bleaklow

Saturday morning in Hayfield. There's a sprinkling of snow in the village. The first this winter. I have an appointment with my friend Chris. Islay's panniers and my rucsac are packed. Sandwiches made, we leave the house late in the morning.

Chris lives 20 minutes walk away in a hamlet close by. Soon, we're climbing onto Middle Moor. The path traversing White Brow has a handful of people on it. The snow is sparse. Climbing William Clough snow begins to fall. We stop for lunch on Mill Hill before striking north east on the Pennine Way over Glead Hill and Featherbed Moss. It's bitterly cold now. The problem with cold fingers, which I always seem to forget until winter weather arrives, hits again. My lined waterproof gloves, damp with sweat from the ascent, now contain cold water and my finger ends are losing feeling. We stop and I swap for dry, warmer gloves. It takes several minutes for me to persuade my damp digits into the warmth of the gloves. Then we're off again. Islay behaves like a pup in the snow. Burrowing through drifts. Lying on her tummy, pulling herself with front legs, delighting in the feel of the snow on her fur. 

Mist clears momentarily to give a view of Kinder's northern edge.

The walk across to Snake Summit feels interminable. There's just enough snow on the slabs of the path to make them slippy. Chris misjudges where the slabs end and plants a foot into knee deep peat. We take turns to slip, catching balance, narrowly avoiding falling.

Finally reaching the Snake road we cross. It's been opened to traffic again but was closed earlier this morning. We trudge on through the snow and, eventually, after around four and a half hour's walking, we arrive at our camp for the night in a secret location, known to a number of backpacking friends. It's a favourite spot of mine but Chris hasn't been here before.

I clip Islay's lead to my rucsac and succeed in pitching our Southern Cross 2 without removing my thick, warm gloves. As I begin filtering water from the stream Islay becomes impatient. She barks at me, annoyed. She's had enough and could easily be cold. I'm as quick as I can be and then my first job is pulling Islay's bed from her panniers and placing it in the usual place in the tent. And after a quick rub with a towel Islay is ensconced in her cosy bed/sleeping bag.

Now we're all cocooned in our tents. Chris calls across to ask how I am. He's forgotten the thermal liner for his synthetic sleeping bag. It's an easy mistake. He's had a stressful week at work and doesn't have the luxury of spending half a day loading a sac, like me. He's fully clothed in his bag. I change into dry base layers, a down vest and my Montane Prism jacket. My down bag completes my comfort. I wrap Islay in her fleece sleeping coat.

I watch a documentary on iPlayer about Sophie Lancaster, murdered around eight years ago by a gang of youths who didn't like her goth clothes and appearance. It's harrowing and leaves me pensive.

Islay devours her dinner with gusto and I dine on an extremely tasty Real Turmat meal of pulled pork and rice. It was a trial sample from the lovely Laura and James at Base Camp Foods. It's truly delicious. Desert's a dense, oaty flapjack and coffee. I read awhile and sip malt whisky. Then it's a quick dash out for doggy toilet duties before we settle for the night.

I enjoy one of the best night's sleep ever in a tent and don't wake fully until 8am. There's a layer of snow on both the windward walls of the tent, pressing the fly onto the inner. A slap on each side sees most of it tumble to the floor.

I hear Chris outside. 
"I'm not gonna do another night," he says. Our plan had been for two nights out; the second being on Kinder's eastern edge.
"Ok, no problem," I reply. "Are you ok?"
Chris has been cold all night. Really not what you want on a winter camp. I sympathise and tell him I'll carry on with Plan A, while he returns via our outbound route.

Each time I've awakened through the night I've checked Islay is warm enough by feeling between her fleece coat and fur. She was always ok but now, I notice, she's shivering.

I take her out for a toilet break. At least four inches more snow has fallen overnight.

Bringing Islay back in quickly I ensure she's wrapped up well in her bag but I'm a little concerned. Taking a dog camping is a little like having a toddler with you. You have to cater for their every need, as well as your own. I wonder whether it's right, bringing her out in the cold like this. I try not to anthropomorphise our dogs, but she does look sad. I give her a cuddle and breakfast. She's reluctant to eat but finally agrees. But she won't drink. Despite several offers she's not had any water since we left home, save for that added to her dinner. Unlike Pebbles, she rarely drinks from streams or puddles. She can be a worry.

I muse over this as I munch breakfast porridge. Eventually I decide I have to put Islay's well being before my own plans and tell Chris I'll return with him.

So, after a couple of warming coffees, I pack. I put Islay's lined, waterproof coat on her in the hope it'll make her feel cosier. Then I make a silly mistake. I take down the tent wearing my fleece gloves. When I've finished, the gloves are soaked and my fingers numb with cold, again. I've years of camping experience. I have waterproof mitts in my sac to team with my fleece gloves. Why do I do such silly things? Now I have two pairs of wet gloves. But the thick ones I wore yesterday afternoon are still dry. I fiddle with getting damp fingers into them...again. And Chris helps me stuff the tent into it's bag and to attach Islay's panniers using the tiny fastex buckles. I'm glad he's here. 

At last we're away. 

As we approach the Pennine Way a figure appears and calls my name. It's Hadrian. We follow each other on Twitter but have never met, until now. Hadrian had spent the night higher up and felt the wind. We both knew that each planned to be on Bleaklow. We walk with him to Snake Summit where his car is, but not before managing to walk in a full circle, Winnie the Pooh like, in a struggle to regain the path once I had led us all off it! Stories like this make for great memories and we laugh it off. Thankfully it took only minutes for us to recognise...and resolve the minor faux pas.

It's pleasant chatting with Hadrian as we walk and always good to meet an online friend, the more so in such circumstances, away in the wild hills.

Bidding farewell to Hadrian we embark, once again, on the tiresome trudge over Featherbed Moss. This time, tactically, we stop for a break and sustenance halfway. 

Then it's a descent of William Clough and making our way back into the village. 

As Chris and I separate, we smile and agree, despite adversities, that it's been fun.
"Maybe we should try doing this in summer, sometime," says Chris as he walks away, grinning.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Next year's cycling adventure

First, by way of an update re the North Sea Cycle Route (see this recent post)...I've come to the conclusion, after lots of consideration, that I ain't really up for it. It's not the physicality, it's the issue of being away from home, Chrissie and the dogs for over three months. I just don't think I can do that.

So that's the negativity out of the way. Now for the positive. I'd got quite excited about the idea of a longer cycle tour, so over the past 10 days or so my research has led to me, just this morning, booking:

1. A rental car to take me and my beautiful Thorn touring bike to Portsmouth on 15th June next year in time for...

2. overnight ferry to St Malo in Brittany and...

3. ...a flight from Nice to Manchester on 20th July to bring me and the bike back home...

...after cycling the 1000 odd miles twixt St Malo and Nice at my typical, relaxed, bimbly pace through the beautiful French countryside in, hopefully, Spring/Summer sunshine.

This book arrived yesterday and their suggested route will form the basis of my journey.

Here's an overview of the route, from the book.

As you can see, it describes a gently curving arc right across France from the English Channel all the way down to the Mediterranean. No prizes for noting it crosses the Massif Central and the Alpes Maritime (otherwise known as hilly bits) before descending to the sea at Nice. Interestingly, a route of this kind was suggested to me as a follow up to my LEJOG back in 2015. It's a similar length, my own LEJOG route being 1100 miles.

As with LEJOG I'll travel unsupported, with all my camping kit on the bike. So, what with the low gearing of my Thorn Sherpa, along with 25kg or so of luggage, I won't be moving fast. However, I will enjoy a lazy journey, allowing a little over a month. Included in that are a projected three night stay in Nice where I can somehow arrange to package my bike and luggage for the flight home. At the moment I'm considering buying a soft bike bag from a bike shop in Nice, but the fall back will simply be to scrounge a cardboard box, of the kind new bikes are delivered in, from a bike shop and pack the bike in that...with copious padding and tape.

In common with my LEJOG I'm aiming to cover an average of about 35 miles each day in the hope of arriving at a campsite mid afternoon for rest and recuperation. To hardened road cyclists that daily distance won't sound much but the strategy worked well on my LEJOG and meant I suffered no aches and pains at all (save chilblains on my toes caused by the cold, Scottish Spring weather that year). I may well do higher mileages some days and that could earn me the occasional day off since the return journey from Nice is now fixed.

I'm gonna try for some accommodation in Nice through Airbnb, which I've never used before, but friends and family seem to have had success with the service.

I've booked a cabin on the Brittany Ferries ship. It leaves Portsmouth at 8:15pm and gets into St Malo at 8am so I can set off, refreshed, on my journey as soon as I touch French soil.

I always have a little trepidation about a long, solo trip but the antidote is the thought of warm Spring/Summer days in tee shirt and shorts (fingers crossed).

I might well try to raise a few coppers for a favourite charity along the way, but for now, I'm amusing myself with thoughts of what to carry and wear as I meander my way through La Belle France. My mouth's already watering at the thought of wines, pastries and cheeses...not to mention freshly baked baguettes.

So, that's that. Booked. No turning back. Let the planning commence!

As ever, any constructive thoughts or comments will be graciously received.