Three days at the Outdoor Show is draining – hundreds of stands; thousands of people; having to be nice to folk all day ... not to mention the beer and the heat.
By about lunchtime the allure of shiny gear has begun to tarnish and you find yourself craving a lie down in a small dark space far from the madding crowd. Luckily there's an aircraft hanger full of tents to have a sneaky 40 winks in – enough to equip a good sized refugee camp (hint to manufacturers; why not?). Here follows a few good'uns:
I'll forgive them the self-aggrandising name because Mountain Hardwear's latest offering for weight conscious backpackers really is an ultralight wonder, a double walled tent that's genuinely big enough for two normal sized adults weighing in at less than 1kg (MH quote 975g - I've not weighed it, they don't let you do that at trade shows). Lighter tents often achieve weight savings by reducing the number of poles, but in many cases this means they end up relying on being pegged out securely in order to remain upright – not always easily achieved on stony ground. But the Supermega UL is a free-standing design, its crossed DAC Featherlight poles giving it a rigid structure and generous internal dimensions (216cm in length, with 91cm of headroom). The roof pole extends out over the door to make a reasonably spacious triangular porch, big enough to cook in (though perhaps a little tight for two people's wet gear); and it's only this that requires a peg. Despite its lightweight construction the Supermega UL2 looks pretty weatherproof, and if asked to guess then for UK hill use I'd rate it at three seasons. It boasts a welded zipper flap, which is lighter than a sewn flap; fully taped seams; welded corners and welded guy clip anchors. To increase the life of the groundsheet a separate 'footprint' is available at £45 (any old tarp would be a cheaper option of course).
2-person model £390, 3P £420
Slightly different is the Marmot Astral, an unusual squared-off box of a tent that comes in either a 2-person or 3-person size. This achieves the sort of all-directional stability found with a more conventional geodesic dome while maximising headroom thanks to its steep walled shape. Despite its siliconised fly and other reasonably lightweight materials Marmot have made a tradeoff on ultra-lightness in favour of both living space and weather resistance. There's a door at each side, and a wee window in the fly so you can check what the sky's doing without having to get out of your sleeping bag. An exhibition hall is not the ideal place to put tents through their paces, but guy out all four corners and I'd be willing to bet that the Astral will stand up to some pretty blustery conditions. Again I'd call it a three season tent, but rather sturdier than the Supermega UL2, and with quite a bit more usable internal room. It comes at a price though: the two-person version is 2450g, while the 3-person model is a hefty 2840g. Best for car camping, or for sharing the weight between a couple of backpacks.
Of course a tent's not a lot of use without stuff to put in it, and I'm impressed by some of the latest sleeping mats from Swiss company Exped.
£140 for size Regular
This is along the same general lines as the original Downmat, reviewed on UKC here, and does what it says on the tin in the sense that it's a lilo-syled ridged inflatable mat stuffed with down insulation. But while the older model was a fairly hefty 878g in the regular size (small and large sizes also available) the new slimmed down version weighs in at a rather more respectable 580g. Though it's lost about a third of its weight the Downmat UL is rated to the same temperature as its chunkier stablemate, an impressively low -24C. I'm not sure there can be many inflatable mats of a similar weight that are that well insulated, and compared to the current price of the original (£125) it's got to be worth the modest extra £15.
The problem with down of course is that moisture compromises its insulating ability, so the standard blowing-through-a-valve method of inflating a mat simply won't do. The original Downmat had an integrated pump but the slimmed-down version has shed this, which accounts for at least some of that weight loss. Instead it is inflated via a 'Schnozzle' (forgive them, they're Swiss), a separate stuff sack with a small valve. Wave it through the air and quickly seal the neck and this becomes an air bladder; connect it to the mat's valve and you've got a simple pump. Two sackfulls will fill the mat. The Schnozzle is too big to store the mat in but it is very light, and perfect as a stuff sack for spare undies and socks (if you bother with such luxuries).
Camping is not always a solitary affair, and if you are particularly good friends with your tent mate or you've struck lucky for the night you may be looking for a way to capitalise on that. Traditional sleeping bags put pesky zips in the way of any shenanigans, but with Exped's Dreamwalker Duo two become one with zero faff and no danger that anything will get caught in a zipper. A stretchy fitted sheet arrangement turns two camping mats, even of a slightly mismatched shape and size, into a double mattress. Into this you popper a light down quilt, a major weight saving between two people compared to each bringing your own separate sleeping bag. I assume that shared body heat should mean greater warmth for weight too. There's a little zipped opening in the middle of the quilt; I didn't want to ask what that's for so let's assume it's ventilation. The inflatable pillows that strap in place around the mattress are an optional extra, though if you're car camping then why not? I've only got one gripe, which is that Exped are not planning to make this available in the UK - I hope they reconsider.
Finally, top marks to JetBoil for a bit of environmentally conscious understatement. As you'd expect they're offering lots of excitingly powerful stoves that'll practically whoosh you into orbit, but sometimes it's the little things that stick in one's mind. The Crunchit is certainly that, and indeed it's probably one of the least high-tech cleverly simple gadgets to come out of OutDoor 2011. Looking a bit like a beer bottle opener (and you probably could), it's a device to help you safely recycle all-but-spent camping gas canisters, of which I personally always seem to have a number. A little release valve screws into the cylinder valve to ensure it's completely empty, then a hole punching tooth makes double sure you've finished the job. That's it, nothing fancy. Why had nobody thought of it before?