John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Camping equipment

Last weekend I went down to Bristol to buy a tent. I went cycle camping in France in 2010, which I enjoyed. I stayed in B&Bs/hostels during my LEJOG attempt last year, but I'm planning a short camping holiday in June: I'll cycle down to Portsmouth, go round the Isle of Wight, then come home via Southampton.

I've been doing some research online over the past few months, and Hilleberg have a very good reputation. They're expensive, but I'm willing to pay extra for something that will last, and several people have been using the same tent for 20-30 years. (Taunton Leisure describe these tents as an investment.) Also, these tents are made in Europe (Estonia) rather than being outsourced to somewhere like China; I see this being a bit like "FairTrade", i.e. the tents have to cost more in order for the company to pay the staff a fair wage. I'm not planning to go on an Arctic expedition any time soon, but I'd rather have a strong tent in mild weather than a weak tent in severe weather. Dave's Wild Camping tested a Hilleberg Akto in 80mph wind, which is quite impressive, and that was in the UK (Cumbria). I was out cycling last Tuesday (15th May), and I was pummelled by hailstones 3 times, so even in the British summer I may have to deal with unexpectedly bad weather.

My main concern about the tent purchase was my height. I'm 1.86m tall (somewhere between 6'1" and 6'2"), and I like being taller than average. However, it does have a few drawbacks, e.g. I sometimes wind up with my knees wedged against the seat in front when I go to the theatre. Tent manufacturers always list their dimensions, but those can be misleading. For instance, I used a Quechua T3 in Breton, which was supposedly 2.15m long, but I was pretty much jammed in there. So, I wanted to try some tents out before I bought one, i.e. actually lie down inside them. There were a couple of camping shows in London earlier this year, e.g. The Motorhome, Caravan & Camping Show at the Excel Centre. Unfortunately, they didn't include any Hilleberg tents there. Taunton Leisure have stores in south-west England, and they're happy to put up tents within the shop; the trade-off is that it's a long way to go. Since they offer free delivery, I considered buying a tent online and then swapping it if necessary (to save money on train tickets), but in the end I decided that it would be better to see the tents in person.

Looking at the various tents, there were two figures that particularly interested me: the length and height of the sleeping area. (I'm less bothered about the width.) I don't want to touch the sides of the tent while I sleep, and I'd also like to be able to sit up in it. It's a bit tricky to measure myself, but when I sat down against the wall it looked as if my "bum to top of head" distance is about 97cm. So, 1m internal height would be fine, but 95cm would be slightly too small. Most people probably wouldn't notice that small difference, but I need to pay attention to this. It's similar to when I specced out my touring bike: looking at the seatposts, one of them had a weight limit of 91kg. Lighter cyclists can choose any seatpost without even thinking about this, but heavier cyclists need to be more careful.

I basically narrowed it down to a choice of 3 tents: the Akto (£395), the Nallo 2 GT (£645), and the Kaitum 2 GT (£795). The Akto is a 1-man tent, while the Nallo 2 and Kaitum 2 are both 2-man tents; GT means that there's a bigger vestibule outside the sleeping area.

I've looked at various reviews, but they seem to be inconsistent. For instance, the Akto is a 1-man tent: that means that there's enough space for one person to sleep inside, but all your luggage would have to go outside (e.g. in the vestibule area). One blog commenter said: "It has also enough space for a tall bloke like me (192cm/6'3?) with size 11 feet to lie down and not touch the inside of the tent." Similarly, someone at the Bushcraft UK forum said: "I'm 6' 2" and there's plenty of room for me inside it. That said, if I ever had to replace it I'd consider going for a Nallo 2, or Nallo 2 GT for the extra luxury / option to take a friend..." Then at the forum, someone said: "I'm 6'4" and can easily sit up in my Nallo 3 (42") and my friend's Nallo 2. The Akto is 36" high and I can't sit up in it."

So, that all implies that I'd fit into an Akto but I'd have more space in a Nallo. Looking at Nallo reviews, TravellingTwo said: "Too short for tall people – If you're over 6 feet tall, you'll struggle to stretch out fully in this tent. Andrew is 5'11″ and his feet nearly touch the end." Similarly, at the CTC forum, someone said: "For me an important downside worth mentioning is that it is less than ideal for taller people. I have to make sure my feet don't touch the inner, and I am only 177cm." That applied to the Nammatj 3 GT, which is a heavy duty version of the Nallo, so I'd expect the same restriction to apply to both. (They're both 220cm long in the sleeping area.) By contrast, going back to the Bushcraft UK forum, someone said: "I have used my Nallo 2 with my son. I am 6'1" and he is 6'4" tall and, even with our gear, there was enough space on a number of backpacking trips that we have done together."

So, that's a bit odd; how does a taller person have more room than a shorter person? Over at Trailspace, someone said that Hilleberg use Rolph Hilleberg as the "model", and he's 6'4": this implies that if he can fit into all their tents then I should be fine. Someone else suggested an alternate theory: "For those that sleep on their backs, your toes are going to touch the inner fabric. In that case, get a model that has vertical entrances and exits." That sounds plausible, particularly if some people sleep curled up on their side in the foetal position. Still, it's encouraging that 2 people can share the 2-man tent, by putting all their luggage in the vestibule (still inside the outer tent). For now I'll be camping alone, but it's good to have the option of sharing a tent with someone else later. In fact, someone at the CTC forum said: "I lashed out on a Hilleberg Nallo 2 GT. It is probably way over the top for one person but I like the big space in the porch which is large enough to safely cook in when it is wet and big enough to put the bike in if you take the wheels off." So, that's why I've been looking at the GT versions of the tents, although I'm not convinced that it's a good idea to cook inside one.

This brings me to the Kaitum. (According to Petra Hilleberg in the pitching instructions video, the tent's name is pronounced "kite-mmm".) The main difference between this tent and the others is that it has vertical walls. You can see proper pictures of all the tents on the Hilleberg website, but here's my (badly drawn) summary of each tent's sleeping section:

Akto Nallo Kaitum

Taking an exaggerated version of the slope, you can visualise a typical tent (e.g. the Nallo) as a triangle:
Tent triangle
If you're lying down with your feet in the air, how high are your toes off the ground? You also need to allow for the thickness of your sleeping bag and sleeping mat (if you use one). That cuts off the "nose" of the triangle (to use a cheese term). If you know that height and the angle then you can use trigonometry to work out how long the unusable area is, and subtract it from the published length to get the usable length. Without those figures, it's just guesswork. By contrast, when the Kaitum says that it's 220cm long, you can actually use that entire length. Quoting from the Hilleberg website:
"And taller users will find the Kaitum's plentiful floor space, vertical entrances, and vertical walls a roomy pleasure."
"They are also the best of our Kerlon 1200 tents for tall users."

There are several satisfied users on the internet. E.g. Woollypigs said: ""We realised that having straight walls at both top and bottom of the inner section was important to us, so we quickly discounted the popular Nallo GT models which are very commonly used by cycle tourists." Here are a couple of comments from Backpacking Light:
"I had the Nallo GT 2, but sold it since my feet touched the inner. And I am 188 cm tall."
"I have the Hilleberg Kaitum 2 (not the GT version). What makes this tent ideal for tall people is the fact that both vestibules are at the head and toe ends of the tent, not on the side. This way the inner tent has perfect vertical walls near head and toes. Even if you would end up pushing against the end of the inner tent, there is still a vestibule behind it instead of the outer fly as would be the case with the Hilleberg Nallo or similar designs."

And someone from Trailspace: "I'm 6'4", and this tent is like a palace for me."

There are some photos of someone (5'11") sitting inside a Kaitum 2 GT at Moontrail. I looked at the 4th photo and thought "That doesn't look very big" then I realised that he was sitting in the vestibule and hadn't gone into the main sleeping area!

I think a lot of people are put off camping by the (perceived) hardship. That's basically why I chose to stay indoors during my LEJOG attempt last year: if I was going to be cycling long distances every day then I wanted to sleep in a proper bed each night. I don't really see the point of "glamping" (e.g. having 4-poster beds inside huge marquee tents), but if I'm going to live inside a tent for a while then I want it to be comfortable. Hiring a pitch for a night is always going to be cheaper than staying at a B&B (even when you add on the cost of breakfast), so in the long term the tent should pay for itself.

Here's a summary of the 3 tents I considered buying, compared to the tent I used in Breton:

NameDimensions (length x width x height, cm)Mass (kg)
Akto220 x 90 x 901.6
Nallo 2 GT220 x 130 x 1002.7
Kaitum 2 GT220 x 140 x 1003.5
T3215 x 160 x 1003.5

Armed with this information, I went down to Bristol. I went there on foot, but the store page says "We are also cycle friendly, you can bring your bike inside". On my way to the shop, I saw a signpost with one arrow pointing towards Bath and another arrow pointing towards Wells. This immediately made me think of Blackadder; specifically, "the baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells". Logically, I suppose it makes sense that the places would be close together, but it's always an odd feeling when fiction intrudes into reality.

Anyway, I reached the shop, and explained what I was looking for. I think they have different staff specialising in different areas, e.g. one person might be an expert on hiking boots but not know much about stoves. I dealt with Will, who was very friendly and knew a lot about tents. All 3 of the Hilleberg tents I was considering are made out of "Kerlon 1200" fabric. Hilleberg have some advice about this: Kerlon 1200 or 1800? Will said that they had a piece of Kerlon 1200 fabric in the shop for a while, as part of a Hilleberg promotion. It had already been partly cut, and people were challenged to tear it: if they could, they'd get a free tent, but nobody managed it. So, I think that the 1200 will be fine for my purposes. Also, if I wanted the 1800 version of the Kaitum tent (the Keron), that doesn't come in a 2-man version; the Keron 3 GT is 4.8kg, so it would be significantly heavier, and I don't need that extra width.

When I held each tent (bagged up), I could immediately feel the weight difference between them, and the Kaitum was clearly heaviest. However, it's the same weight as the T3 that I carried around in France, so that's not a deal-breaker.

We started out by pitching the Nallo. All the tents felt a bit slippery on the outside: this is deliberate, so that water (or snow) will slide off more easily. The Nallo uses 3 poles, and they're colour coded so that you know which pole goes into each hole (based on a red stripe). Normally you'd use tent pegs to keep the guy ropes stretched out, but that's not practical on carpet. Instead, they had some velcro pads that looked a bit like giant keyrings. Each pad stuck to the carpet, then the ring clipped around the guy rope, and we put gas cylinders on top to weigh them down. I thought that was quite clever. When I lay down inside the Nallo, I found that my head was touching one wall (the door to the vestibule) while my toes were touching the opposite wall (at the sloping end). I also found that I had to duck my head when I knelt down. That was without a sleeping bag/mat, so I think it would be too small for me.

Next, we pitched the Kaitum. This really is a big tent: the GT version (4 poles) is about 5 metres long! Because of that, it didn't quite fit into their room, so the guy ropes were a little bit slack. However, I was able to lie down inside with plenty of room at the head/feet end. When I knelt down, my head was brushing against the ceiling but I could comfortably keep my back straight. As Will pointed out, this is the other advantage of vertical walls: the ceiling is pretty much a constant height, rather than only being tall at one end and sloping down. If the tent was fully under tension then I think the ceiling might go up by 1-2 cm, since it wouldn't be drooping in the middle.

Finally, I looked at the Akto (1 pole). There was another customer who wanted to look at that too, so I didn't feel too bad about putting the staff through all this work just on my account. Surprisingly, I actually had plenty of space to lie down in this too: my head/feet didn't touch either end. I think the key point is that there are short sections of vertical walls before it slopes inwards. However, height was a bit more of a problem, and it did feel a bit like lying in a coffin. I think that tent is more suited to backpackers than cyclists.

My main concern about the Kaitum was the length; would it be too big to fit into a single pitch at a campsite? Will said that it's unlikely to be a problem. Apparently the common restriction is height rather than length, because some campsites don't like big family tents. Thinking back to Breton, we got two tents and two bikes into a single pitch, so there should be enough space for one of these.

All things considered, I decided to buy the Kaitum 2 GT. I was leaning towards it anyway, but I'm glad that I tried it out first, if only to put my mind at rest. (This way I can justify spending the extra money.) Taunton Leisure currently have a promotion where you get a free "footprint" with each Hilleberg tent you buy; this is a bit like a groundsheet, i.e. it goes down first to protect the tent, and it covers the ground in the outer vestibule. The Kaitum 2 GT footprint would cost £95 if I bought it separately, so that's worth having. When I went to pay, Will encouraged me to sign up for a Privilege card. This isn't a credit card; it's more like a loyalty card at a supermarket, and it gives a 10% discount if you buy in store. The discount I got from that was more than the cost of my train journey down there, which was a nice surprise. So, I think that my trip was time and money well spent.

While I was down there, I decided to look for a few extra items. One issue is lighting. I have a big torch (4 D batteries) that I took to France, and that certainly does the job. I could carry it around outside, or prop it up in the corner of the tent. The downside is that it's a bit heavy (1.1kg). Alternately, I have a pen light that I keep in my first aid kit. This is only 34g, but I have to squeeze it to shine a light so it's not very convenient for reading. The Taunton website mentions tent lights (e.g. this Outwell model), but they're intended for big family tents. Instead, Will recommended a head torch, specifically the Petzl Tikka XP. I've seen one of my climbing friends use a headtorch, and it looks quite practical because it leaves my hands free. (Actually, I can think of situations where this would be useful at work.) So, I bought that, along with the core battery: this charges through a USB socket, so it's better than replacing the 3 AAA batteries. It took me a while to figure out how to install the core battery, since the instructions are a bit cryptic, but this video helped. The torch and battery combined are 83g, which is reasonable. The battery went from flat to fully charged within 5½ hours. Here's how my torches compare in size:


As a related issue, I've been thinking about electricity. The campsites in France had a blue "commando" socket on each pitch (presumably 16A), and I saw people plugging in their motorhomes. However, you can't plug a normal appliance into one of those. Instead, you need a "mains hook up" (see Electrics and Tents for a good overview). Taunton sell one of these (a Sunncamp model), but Will advised against buying one because it would be too heavy/bulky for me to carry around. Instead, he recommended that I ask nicely to borrow a plug socket when I go to a pub/restaurant and then plug in my netbook while I'm eating.

Speaking of food, I carried around a stove in France but I never used it. I did use the knife and plate a few times, when I bought bread and cheese, but I mainly ate out. When I was in the Scouts, we had a Calor gas stove but that was basically considered cheating so we only had a small amount of gas and we cooked most of our food over a campfire. I've been looking into a few options, and I quite like the look of the Honey Stove. However, I think I'll leave that for now, and just ease into this gradually. I'll already be carrying extra weight on this trip (tent and sleeping bag), and there's not much point having a stove unless I also carry food to cook on it. As for crockery/cutlery, opinions seem to be divided between enamel (the traditional material which I used as a kid) and melamine (modern plastic). Melamine is lighter, but it scratches, and some people claim that it affects the taste of the food. Enamel can chip, but it won't break; it also tends to get quite hot. I may get a spork though: partly because I think it's a funny name, and partly because I can then buy some (cold) food from a shop.

That just leaves two issues: a mat and a pillow. Looking back to the Scouts again, most people didn't bother with a camping mat at all; they'd just put the sleeping bag straight onto the tent floor. I took a mat on summer camp, but I didn't bother during weekend camps. The only mats I saw anyone use were the basic blue foam versions (like this), and I used something similar in France. This meant that we had a thin layer between us and the ground, so we had to position ourselves around the lumps in the surface. This led to the scoutmaster's famous joke, which he'd repeat each year:
"If you sleep on your side, you need a hip pit.
If you sleep on your back, you need a bum pit.
And if you sleep on your front, you need a cockpit!"

Looking around now, most camping mats are inflatable. (By contrast, the traditional type is made of "closed cell foam".) I have an air bed that I bought from Argos, and I've used that when I've slept on a friend's floor, but I've never been very fond of it. However much I pump it up, it tends to give under my weight, e.g. if I roll onto my side then my elbow is effectively touching the floor. Also, it's quite noisy, so I feel guilty for disturbing someone else if I shift around and that means that I tend to lie in one position until I get so uncomfortable that I have to move. In fairness, though, the air bed and battery pump cost me £13 combined in 2003, so neither of them were exactly top of the range. The battery pump died fairly quickly, so I replaced it with a foot pump, but I wouldn't want to carry that around with me on the bike.

Part of me thinks that using any kind of camping mat is a bit soft/weedy, so I ought to just use my sleeping bag alone. However, I had some back problems last year (which led me to replace my mattress), and I'd prefer not to repeat that, particularly if the ground is cold.

There were several mats in the shop. I asked about length, but Will said that they're all the same. There were two that he specifically mentioned, and I opted for the one with a smaller pack size: the Thermarest Trail Pro. Actually, there was a mix-up at first, and he gave me the Thermarest Women's Trail Pro by mistake. Fortunately I noticed the label while I was paying, and there's no difference in price so he swapped them over. The only difference is that the women's version is shorter: 168cm.

On my way home, I had another look at the one I bought, and I realised that I had a new problem: my mat was 183cm long, so it's still too short for me. I think this demonstrates the problem with impulse purchases. I researched the tents carefully in advance, so I knew exactly what to look for, and I could hold up my end of the conversation. With the mat, I just picked one and said "that will do". It's not a disaster, because I haven't opened it yet so I can return it. The only reason I haven't done that already is that I'm trying to decide whether I want to get a straight refund or exchange it for one of their other mats.

I initially planned to go for the basic (solid) mat, but that's only 180cm long. I have a yoga mat at home that's the same length, which I use for press-ups (more comfortable than a wooden floor), and I wouldn't really want to sleep on it. I haven't found any mats like that online which are long enough for me.

Looking at the Thermarest website, they have an L version of this mat, which is 196cm long. That would suit me nicely, but unfortunately Taunton don't stock that version. So, I think Will was correct when he said that all their mats are the same length, but I didn't realise that there are longer mats elsewhere. So, I could simply get a refund from Taunton, then buy the L version from a different company (e.g. The Outdoor Shop).

Alternately, I could go for a different brand. Digging around online, a few people have talked about "upgrading" from Thermarest to Exped mats, e.g. this HUBB discussion. The Exped website has a list of their mats, along with minimum temperature:

ModelTemperature (°C)
DownMat 7 [UL]-24
DownMat 9 [UL]-38
MegaMat 10 LXW-48
SynMat 7-17
SynMat 9-25
SynMat 7 UL-4
SynMat Basic-11
AirMat Basic [UL] 7.511
Sim Comfort 7.5-28
Sim Comfort 10-48

NB The AirMat range is the only one with a positive temperature. I think it's plausible that I'd be camping when the outdoor temperature is below 11°C, but if it actually hits freezing point then I'll go indoors. So, the SynMat 7 UL should be suitable for me. Also, getting a down-filled mat is a bit iffy from a vegetarian point of view. The number after each name is the thickness in cm, e.g. the SynMat 7 is 7cm thick and the SynMat 9 is 9cm thick. UL means UltraLight: they pack smaller than the non-UL equivalent mat. There are also different sizes available for length/width. These seem to be standard across almost all the mats:
* S = 163 x 52 cm.
* M = 183 x 52 cm.
* LW = 197 x 65 cm.
According to Facewest: "The Long Wide mat was previously named the DLX mat. Other than the name there is no change, it is possible that you may receive a mat marked DLX rather than LW."

Taunton only sell 1 Exped mat in LW: the Synmat 9. Comparing the size/mass of different mats:

NamePacked size (cm)Mass (g)
Thermarest TrailPro R (183cm)28 x 15910
Thermarest TrailPro L (196cm)33 x 181250
Exped SynMat 7 UL LW (197cm)27 x 11590
Exped SynMat 7 LW (197cm)27 x 151100
Exped SynMat 9 LW (197cm)27 x 161170

Looking at that, I don't think it makes sense to get the TrailPro L, because it's significantly bigger/heavier than any of the other mats.

Exped advise you not to inflate their mats by blowing into them, because you'd get moisture inside. (That's more of an issue for down mats.) The non-UL SynMat has an integrated pump, so you push the mat down to inflate it, a bit like doing CPR (demo video). The UL version doesn't have that, so you need an external pump. However, that may actually be an advantage. It takes about 2 minutes of pumping to inflate a mat, and it's much quicker with an external shrink bag and Schnozzel (video); it only needed about 1½ bags worth of air. In February, someone from blogbackpackinglight said that they had to import the bag/Schnozzel from Germany. However, in April Alan Rayner found that a new product (pump bag) is available in the UK. This is apparently a fast moving industry! The pump bag is 70g, and its packed size is 22 x 5cm. So, the UL mat and the pump bag combined would still weigh less than the non-UL mat. I could get both from Facewest (£22.50 for pump bag, £90 for Synmat 7 UL LW).

So, I think I have a few options:

  1. Argos air bed.

  2. Yoga mat.

  3. Thermarest Trail Pro (the one I just bought).

  4. Exped SynMat 7 UL LW + pump bag.

  5. Exped SynMat 9 LW (if I don't go UL, I may as well get the extra thickness.)

I'd welcome advice from anyone else who's been camping recently.

As for a pillow, here's what I said about Breton: "I didn't take a pillow with me, and that's probably the thing I missed most during the week. I used a pile of clothes as a substitute, which worked well on the first night, but then I left my jeans with my travelling bag (on purpose) so the pile was a bit smaller for the rest of the week; also, I gradually ran out of clean clothes!" There are inflatable pillows, and some of these double up as pumps (to inflate the mat). Will recommended a down jacket with a "stuff sack". That way I could use it as a pillow at night and wear the jacket when I'm sitting around the campsite in the evening. I wouldn't want to wear one while cycling, because I'd roast, but I will get colder when I'm not moving. As with the mat, I'd prefer synthetic over down, but presumably the same principle applies. Anyway, I've left that for now.

All in all, I still have some preparation to do, but I think I'm making progress.
Tags: camping

  • CRU duties

    As I've mentioned before, I do volunteer work for St John Ambulance, including the Cycle Response Unit. We have a Twitter account; unlike this blog…

  • 2013/2014 in review

    I didn't get round to doing a review post last year, so here's a bumper double-edition. (Hey, if it's good enough for TV guides then it's good enough…

  • Verdict from the Court

    Another month, another LARP event at CP. This time it was The Court of Crimson and Gold, and it was certainly a busy weekend. The good news is that…

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded