gear review

Zelph BushBuddy Companion: Fuel for Thought

As regular readers will know, I'm a big fan of the BushBuddy Ultra stove. It's simple to use, light weight, and providing you can find (and are permitted to collect) twigs or other combustible gifts of nature, you don't need to carry any additional fuel.

Except, that is, when you do.

In some locations, wood, brush, or dried moose droppings are hard to find. In such circumstances, a backup stove is a good idea, but what self-respecting, miserly, gram-counting ultralighter wants to carry extra anything? What we BushBuddy lovers need is a some kind of companion.

A trustworthy and reliable companion. The kind that doesn't steal your chocolate.

Enter the Zelph BushBuddy Companion Burner:

Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North
Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North

I've been looking into multi-fuel stoves for a while, and was all set to get a Ti-Tri Sidewinder when I remembered the Zelph Companion. While the Sidewinder burns wood, alcohol, and Esbit tabs and, most importantly is very well designed around a built-in windscreen, the Zelph – which is designed for use with a Bushbuddy, BushCooker, Woodgaz, or other wood burning stoves – costs just $12 compared to the Sidewinder + Inferno's $124.95 (although, to be fair, you do need the BushBuddy at 128 CAD).

So what is it then? Essentially, it's a pimped-up alcohol stove that's been designed to complement the BushBuddy, giving you a alcohol-fuelled backup for those awkward moments when you can't get wood.

There are some very clever –dare I say it? – innovations, with the Companion. As you can see in the image above, the latest design of the stove features a copper pre-heating strip which helps to light the stove quicker in temperatures below freezing.

The stove holds up to 85g / 3 oz. of fuel, and burns up to 35 minutes when full, the main purpose of this (and the copper pre-heater) is to allow the melting of snow in winter. It's a good idea, but to be honest, I probably wouldn't rely upon a wood or alcohol stove in winter; I prefer the speed and power of my Primus Spider or Jetboil SolTi.

One thing I really do appreciate is that when filled with fuel you can turn it upside-down and nothing comes out!  It's like that "indistinguishable from magic" thing.

Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North
Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North

Zelph achieves this through the material inside the stove that soaks up the fuel (one of Zelph's other creation's apparently uses the same material as Swedish marine alcohol stoves). This absorbs the fuel thus preventing spills. It's clever.

The stove weighs 41g / 1.4 oz and is designed to sit on the grate in the BushBuddy. You still use the pot stand which maintains the appropriate distance from stove to pot, maximizing the convection abilities of the BushBuddy.

Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North
Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North

I took the BushBuddy and Companion Burner along for a few day hikes to give it a good testing. It's designed to be used with denatured alcohol, which meant I had to figure out what that was in Finland. Fortunately, there's a helpful website for global fuel types.

I picked up some Marinol, which is recommended for non-pressurised stoves (i.e. Trangia) and is suppsed to burn cleaner.

I found it was adequate for testing, but I was a little disappointed in the results.

Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North
Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North

I filled the pot with 0.6 l / 3 cups water, which is more than I would typically be boiling while hiking (I find 2 to 2.5 cups (400-500ml) to be enough for food and a cuppa), but I wanted to put the stove through it's paces.

For these initial tests I used 1 fl. oz. / 23g) of Marinol, and the stove took around 9m25s to get to a not-quite-rolling boil in calm conditions, using a windscreen, before the fuel expired.

I have to say I wasn't overly happy with this, seeing as it was unusually calm, whereas real conditions in the fells are not likely to be. Admittedly, my windscreen was woefully inadequate, but the fuel seemed to be burning quite yellow, suggesting the possible a presence of sooty compounds (maybe from the red colouring in the fuel). This suspicion was backed up after inspecting the base of the pot after the boil. The sooty deposits led me to believe that Marinol was a dirty fuel. However, as we shall see, this may not have been the case.

Even if the process wasn't perfect, the end result was at least rewarding.

Coffee in Kupilka cup
Coffee in Kupilka cup

Back at home, I decided to conduct more tests using different fuels.

Before continuing, I should point out that these tests are incredibly unscientific. Fuel was measured in a medicine cup. The weather conditions were varied; my balcony is far from a pristine testing environment; I wasn't even wearing a white lab coat.

Nonetheless, the results are interesting (if not exactly ground-breaking or New Scientist-worthy).

For the first tests I attempted to repeat the original attempts on the trail, boiling 0.6l (about 3 cups) using 1 fl. oz (about 23g) of fuel. It was calm weather, the leaves of the birch trees barely moving.

There are three stove fuels (denatured alcohol) available in Finland: Marinol, Sinol, and Hyvä Tuli. It has taken me a great deal of effort to find out what the difference is between the three, so you will enjoy the following breakdown!

Marinol

- Developed mainly for pressurised alcohol burners, it can also be used in non-pressurised stoves. Contents: Ethanol (80-100%), Propane-2 (1-5%), Methyl ethyl ketone (2%), Methyl isobutyl ketone (2%).

Sinol

- The all-rounder general stove fuel, works well in Primus stoves, and can also be used in indoor fireplaces. Burns clean and doorless without producing carbon monoxide. When diluted makes excellent window cleaner(!). Contents: Ethanol (90-100%), Propane-2 (1-5%), Methyl ethyl ketone (2%), Methyl isobutyl ketone (2%).

Hyva Tuli

- a "purer" alcohol intended for use with fondue/raclette sets, also claims to be soot free. Contents: Ethanol (80-100%),  Methyl ethyl ketone (4%), Methyl isobutyl ketone (2%).

Wasn't that edifying? Some comments on forums I had roughly translated by Google seen to favour Marinol, and Hyvä Tuli was rarely mentioned, probably because it's a little more expensive.

Here are the boil times for all three:

  • Marinol (original test): 9:25 for a not-quite rolling boil in exposed conditions. fuel expired before full boil.
  • Hyvä Tuli: 9:30 for a rolling boil, fuel expired around 14:30
  • Sinol: 8:38 for a rolling boil, fuel expired at 12:00

Hyvä Tuli burned the bluest of the three fuels, but all three showed plenty of yellow. In fact the flame was quite beautiful, a yellow pillar wrapped in blue. Hyvä Tuli also had a stronger aroma – a not altogether unpleasant one.

Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North
Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North

The colour of flames is affected by fuel type and oxygen (among other things), but orange flames can are also produced by the presence of soot particles. After examining the base of the pot after each boil, I was surprised to find a fairly consistent sooty residue. So much for soot-free then.

Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North
Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North

I was surprised, and not a little sceptical at Sinol's apparently better performance. It was clear from each test that the stove, even when encased by the BushBuddy, is extremely susceptible to the slightest breeze. I suspected that the Sinol test was just a fluke (even though, at the time, it seemed as if it was windier during the Sinol test), but in any case, a repeat round was needed! Could it really be that Sinol boils faster?

Round 2

It was clear that the BushBuddy and Zelph Companion Burner would benefit from a good windshield, but the BushBuddy is quite tall, and I didn't have anything handy (I've never been very happy with my attempts at a foil windscreen). As the weather was again calm, I decided testing on the balcony would provide enough shielding from any slight breezes.

This time I tried boiling 2 cups of water (0.4 l) using just .5 fl.oz of fuel.

  • Marinol: 6:15 rolling boil - fuel expired around same time
  • Sinol: 6:10 rolling boil - fuel expired around same time
  • Hyva Tuli: 7:30 - did not boil - fuel expired - but an ever so slight breeze might have affected this. It definitely burned bluer - more "pure" perhaps, but not necessarily more efficient

So, although Sinol didn't repeat quite the same benefits, it does seem to be the slightly better option. And the window cleaning ability makes it a multi-use item (for when you're struck by the urge to do a bit of spring cleaning out int he wilderness).

I was still a little perturbed by the sooty residue though, so I decided to conduct a further experiment. How would my MYOG cat food stove fare with the fuels? Would there be any benefit (in speed, fuel use etc.) to using that instead of the Zelph Companion? Let's see...

Cat Food Can Comparison

As the cat can stove burns fuel a little faster, and some is wasted during priming, I filled my it with .75 fl. oz (19g) of Sinol, and added my foil windscreen to help it along.

Fancy feast cat can stove vs Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North
Fancy feast cat can stove vs Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North

The little stove almost brought the two cups to a boil, but crapped out at around 7:36. I probably should have used around 1fl.oz  / 28g of fuel My windscreen was not the most effective, as it benefits from a totally enclosed screen – it is extremely susceptible to the slightest breeze, and pretty much useless without one.

To tell the truth, in the limited experience I have with my cat can, I have yet to actually bring a pot of water to a full boil. Something always causes a problem: a crappy, lightweight windscreen, slightly too little fuel, poor flame dispersion. I find this unpredictability a little annoying. At the end of a long day's hiking I want food, not hassle. Getting a guaranteed boil with one takes a lot of  trial, error, and guesswork. I know a lot of people swear by them, so I'll probably give it a few more goes. I feel like I should  like it –that it's a requirement: I'm not a serious ultralighter if I don't use one. But I'm losing patience, and I'm not yet completely sold on their weight benefits. Look at this exciting table for example:

Don't get me wrong, I'm not coming out against cat can stoves – they clearly have their place and uses on long distance hikes, especially when combined with heating via camp fires. As long as you don't need to carry all the fuel, they remain a very light option. But alcohol isn't weightless. Perhaps most interestingly from the above calculations, is that the JetBoil SolTi starts to look like a very attractive option for up to 10-day hikes.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand...

The cat can stove seemed to be burning cleaner, as evidenced by the mainly blue flames (coronal mass ejections aside) and

total lack of soot on the bottom of the pot after the almost-boil. This was very interesting; but I suspect the reason for is that flames emitted from the cat can stove curl around the bottom rim of the pot, dispersing upwards over the sides.

Final observations

In ideal conditions, .5 fl oz. is barely enough to get bring 2 cups of water to a boil with the Zelph Companion Burner. Probably around .75fl oz / 19g should be the minimum when used in the field to allow for exposed use and higher winds.

A good windscreen is absolutely essential.

Although the stove takes 3fl oz (69g) of fuel which could be good for melting snow, but the amount of fuel you would need to carry still makes a canister stove such as the Spider or Jetboil a superior choice in winter. For example, on a two-day hike, boiling 3 fl. oz. twice a day, means you'd have to carry around 276g of fuel. A Jetboil canister weighs 198g, lasts a lot longer, and boils faster (and with a roar), even when melting snow. I prefer the lion in winter over the companion.

Neverthless, the Companion does make an attractive backup stove for BushBuddy users. By using the BushBuddy primarily with wood, it's possible to just carry a little fuel (I have a small Nalgene bottle with 105g in it - enough for four or five 500ml / 2.5 cup boils) as a contingency plan. It fits perfectly in the BushBuddy, weighs very little, and burns fast and efficiently, especially with a decent windscreen.

All I need now is that decent windscreen!

Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North
Zelph BushBuddy Companion alcohol stove review at Backpacking North

First Impressions: Gossamer Gear Mariposa (2012)

First impressions?!?! I've seen people spit on them! But I – curmudgeonly grumplestiltskin that I am – say

"flöhpetti nonsense!"

As an ultralight backpacker, thirsty for new adventures, I'm sure you want to find out about new gear and get an independent opinion, right? If you stick around waiting for a long-term review to be published, chances are by the time you read it the item reviewed will no longer be available. Look at the Haglöfs Ozo, for example. How I coveted it and lusted after it... and where is it now?

So instead, let's live in the moment and take a look at the new 2012 Gossamer Gear Mariposa. Gossamer Gear were kind enough to rush a new Mariposa size L pack over to me, hot off the production line.  I'll be using this pack next week for a four/five day hike in Käsivarsi wilderness area, and I imagine after that I might have some further observations.

After ripping open the box in a frenzy of girlish excitement, I was immediately impressed by the quality. Seams are very securely stitched, and I like the stylish little V-seams on the lid – yes, it has a lid. Lids are in, don't you know?

Slapping it on the scales reveals it to weigh 725g for the pack and hipbelt, and 53g for the sitpad, which compares favorably to the listed weight of 783g. The volume on Gossamer Gear's site is listed as 4244cu in., or 69.5 liters. So it's a biggy, which is good as I'm planning on using it as my winter bag.

I was planning on taking some photos outside, but it's chucking it down, so that'll have to wait.

The bag has seven pockets – one large one on the left side, two on the right, a big mesh one on the front (or, if you like, back), one in the lid, and two on the hipbelt (which is removable, available in different sizes, and is very comfy). All of them (bar the hipbelt pouches) have a drip hole so water doesn't pool in them.

The mesh used on the front pocket is a fine weave, so shouldn't catch too many snags – a good thing as this is a susceptible area.

Well, that's a fine mesh you've got me into.

The tall left pocket looks very good for a shelter and poles, and might just about fit a tightly-tolled packraft. Alternatively, there is a shock-top system to attach items on top of the lid, but I doubt it would take a packraft very securely. I might be wrong though.

Although it doesn't come with side compression straps, there are numerous webbing loops sewn into the sides (8 per side) for you to attach your own in whatever configuration you want. Gossamer Gear also provide a couple of meters of shock cord and three cord locks fit for the purpose.

Heavens be praised, there are load lifters! On a pack designed for volume, and featuring an aluminium stay, load lifters are, if not absolutely essential, then certainly very much appreciated. (This is something I feel the Porter/Expedition is lacking)

It's great that Gossamer Gear listened to customers' opinions about the magnet closure system they had on earlier version of their new packs (on the internal "neck"). While I liked the idea, I felt it was a bit gimmicky. Others, however, made more salient points that the magnets might interfere with electronics and compasses. Now the magnets are no more, replaced with a simpler (and lighter?) draw cord solution.

Some hardcore ultralighters might say that the built-in, waterproof whistle on the sternum strap buckle is overkill, but I really like having it there. Recently I've been carrying a super-light whistle in my ditty bag, but I prefer it being on the pack itself. If you really have something agains such things, you can easily remove the whistle or sternum strap.

Lastly, the SitLight pad that comes with the pack is nice, but I'm happy to see that the pocket for it also fits a 4-piece Z-Lite even better. Rufus will be happy about that too, as I doubt he'd fit on the SitLight.

So, all in all, at first glance I'm very impressed, and look forward to wearing it in for a few days in what appears to 

rapidly 

be becoming a winter trip.

Kilpisjärvi this week. Brrrr.

There are a couple of things I'll be paying attention to on the trip, though. One is slippage on the seat-belt style webbing used for the straps (shoulder, hip belt, and load lifters). It's quite smooth, and I wonder how it will perform when wet.

The zipper on the oh-so-trendy lid runs vertically, and is not sealed or covered. No doubt I'll keep maps in it in a ziploc, so it's not a big issue, but still, it feels a little like a design decision rather than a practical one. For example, I can just about open the pack lid zipper on my huckePACK and remove the map without taking off the pack. Not so, I fear, with the Mariposa.

The shoulder straps also seem a little snug on my neck. Either that or my neck is more Neanderthal than previously believed. We'll see how this changes when fully loaded.

It will be very interesting to compare the Mariposa to Roger's HMG Porter, which I see as one of the main competitors packs at the moment.  I had a brief look at Jaakko's Porter Expedition and it was a nice pack – but there were some things I really didn't like, most notably the hipbelt which I felt, on such a large pack, was somewhat inadequate, and should have been removable rather than sewn in.  Add to that the lack of load lifters, no front pockets, no hip belt pockets, no side pockets, a hydration bladder pocket with no holes for tubes (odd decision) and I felt it was a little disappointing for what is a very expensive pack. Some of the stitching was already stretching on Jaakko's pack too, compromising it's waterproofness, a fact not aided by untaped seams. To be fair (and contrary to my original understanding) the HMG Porter/Expedition is not described as being 100% waterproof, but the material it is made of is; an important distinction. However, it is described as being 100% rainproof, but those stretched, untaped seams, and from what I've heard, I find that hard to believe. As I've stated elsewhere, my feeling is that if you have to carry a liner bag to protect your gear, then there isn't much point in the bag attempting to be rain- or water-proof. You might as well carry any ultralight pack.

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa, of course, is not a waterproof pack, and I'll therefore be using the cuban fiber pack liner that has served me well in the past. It'll be interesting to see how it settles in to a few days hiking, and how it copes with heavier, packrafting-oriented loads over the coming months.

The Bitter Tears of Arabica: Grower's Cup Specialty Trail Coffee

I was contacted a few weeks ago by Grower’s Cup who were looking for testers for their new backcountry coffee system. I’d already seen a positive review over on Brian’s Backpacking Blog, and being a coffee drinker I was naturally curious, and asked for a few samples.

Now, it should be noted that I am no coffee geek. I do however attempt to make as good a coffee as I can. For a country that drinks as much coffee as it does, Finland is surprisingly dull when it comes to the bitter tears of arabica. I know people who will drive to Sweden to buy their coffee. I like to visit the local coffee store (

Mandragora

) which is run by a very nice Czech woman who knows her stuff.

I recently jumped on the

AeroPress

bandwagon, and haven’t looked back. Now, for the first time, I can actually taste the subtle flavours to be found in a well-brewed cup. Yes, I grind my own. And yes, I invert.

That may sound like coffee snobbery to you, but I know there are ores out there far more dedicated to coffee perfection. I just like to have a damn fine cup of coffee when I wake up.

You can imagine my excitement then at the description of the coffee on the Grower’s Cup packets:

"Coffee from Bolivia is classified among connoisseurs as a "clean cup," making it very delicate to enjoy. The mild, malted and honey-like flavor is balanced with pleasant fruity hints of apple and apricot." - Bolivia, El Alto
"It has a delicious sweet aroma, a taste of mature cherries, and a rich dark aftertaste of chocolate." - Ethiopia, Sidamo-3
"This coffee [...] has a nice, sweet aroma of butterscotch. The taste is bright and lively with fine acidity, but with delicate sweetness which enhances the balance in the cup." - Mexico, Chiapas

Talk about building up expectations! That sounds exactly like the kind of thing I want when I wake up in the wilds. Could this possibly be the ultimate backpacking coffee?

Before I answer at question, I should let you know how I typically take coffee on the trail. I’ve tried cowboy coffee (messed up my nalgene bottle with that), filtering (not bad, but too much hassle), Turkish coffee (delicious, messy), and instant Nescafé (yuk). While in the US, Starbucks released their “Via” sachets, which are pretty good, and I’ve been searching for them in Finland to no avail. I found some Nescafé Espresso sachets which are average - they still have that instant taste, and (obviously) make just a small cup. So, Grower's Cup came just at the right time.

The packets are nothing if not ingenious. The pre-ground coffee is contained in an upper pouch with a built in filter. When  you open the packet, you need to tear out two red strips that seal the pouring spout. Then you simply 0.5l pour hot water into the pouch, seal it up, and wait while it filters through into the receptacle pocket at the bottom. While you wait you can take the time to read that excellent marketing spiel on the back, and get your taste buds truly whetted.

The packaging suggests waiting 5 minutes for mild coffee, and 8 for strong, but in reality it's ready when the water has filtered through. I found that most brews looked a little insipid: light brown, not very strong and a little cloudy.

As for taste... unfortunately I found many of the servings to taste a little stale, dry, cardboardy, and unpleasantly bitter. It tasted a lot like old ground coffee, made with too little grounds. When I made it with a little less water than the recommended 0.5l the results were considerably better.

Of the three favours - Mexican, Bolivian, and Ethiopian - I enjoyed the Ethiopian and Bolivian varieties the most. I offered some to friends and family, and we all agreed: it was “okay” at best.

As an experiment I made coffee using the grains from the Grower's Cup packets in my AeroPress. The results were much better. The AeroPress tends to improve on the taste of most coffees, and it made a significant difference in this case too. I began to taste what the packets promised.

I think part of the problem it that Grower's Cup are overselling the excellence of the coffee with those descriptions about butterscotch, chocolate, mature cherries, and apricot. Believe me, I wanted to taste those flavours, quite desperately. But, when following the intended method of praparation, those flavours were simply not there. Sadly I couldn’t get past a slightly stale taste of wet cardboard. The best I achieved was a subtle taste of burned brownie. I don't know if the packets are to blame, the water temperature, the filtration method, or the coffee. It's possible I had some bad batches I suppose - the seals on some of the packets seemed less secure than others.

There are also a couple of other unfortunate aspects in the design of the Gorwer's Cup system. Bearing in mind that these are being marketed as gourmet coffee for backpackers, as any backpacker - heavyweight or ultralighter alike - will tell you, one of the joys of eating and drinking on the trail is that with every mouthful your pack gets lighter. Unfortunately with Grower's Cup, your pack gets heavier.

Before use, the packets weigh around 45g, which is in itself a bit on the heavy side (although we might overlook that if the coffee was truly excellent). But after you’ve made the coffee, the grounds remain wet, and the packet weight skyrockets to around 100g. Take ten of these on a trip with you (a not unreasonable amount) and by the time you’ve finished them all you’re carrying 1kg of used coffee trash. For me, this is an unacceptable burden.

To highlight this, take, for example, a Via packet. It weighs just a couple of grams when full. When used, its weight is so little my scales are not sensitive enough to measure it. Maybe ten of the empty packets weigh around 1g.

So, 1g or 1kg... Tough call.

The second flaw is that when those wet grounds are squeezed in your pack, you better hope you remembered to put them in a tightly sealed trash ziplock, because all that remnant coffee will be squeezed into your pack.

Sadly, once all aspects have been considered - taste, weight, cost - I’m still going to be hunting for

Starbucks VIA

for my backcountry coffee fix.

I do wonder if the system could be adapted to be reusable - so you don't need to carry so many packets. Maybe there would be a way to re-use one packet and take your own carefully selected, ground, and stored coffee - but then why not just use your bandana as a filter, or just take an actual coffee filter (which would still be lighter)?

In the end, while Grower's Cup have an excellent and innovative idea going for them, the weight penalty for used packets is too high, and the end result - the coffee - just doesn't live up to the promises made on the packaging.

Like they say... them's your beans.

Links

For more about different methods for brewing trail coffees, read

Backpacking Light's excellent coffee throwdown

Garmin Dakota 20 GPS

There has been some discussion on blogs recently about route tracking and logging using various devices - smart phones, GPS units, SPOT systems, and other, simple GPS trackers.

A couple of years ago I bought a Garmin Dakota 20 GPS - a neat, small, lightweight, and low power usage fully-featured GPS unit. Perhaps it's a good time to write a review and compare it to some of the alternatives.

I've been trying out some of the iPhone based GPS systems, because I always carry my phone with me, and if I can carry one device instead of two, I'm a happy man. The iPhone has the advantage of combining GPS, a camera, an HD video camera, a digital compass, and 15,000 apps providing amusing ways to make fart sounds. What more could you need in the wild?

ViewRanger has a very popular GPS app on Android and the iPhone. It's advantage is that it allows you to download maps onto memory, so you can use it effectively outside the cellphone network. The disadvantage is that all this uses a lot of power, and battery capacities are limited.

I can't speak for Android phones, but on the iPhone it maintains a GPS link while running in the background. This drains the battery very quickly, giving only about 4 or 5 hours use. The non-removable batteries of smart phones limit their usefulness on multi-day hikes.  While it's possible to use a solar charger to recharge the iPhone, they are not very effective in poor conditions, and at the nest of times are very slow (Chris Townsend recently wrote that after three days one charger provided enough energy to half charge his phone). So, phone-based solutions are fine if all you want to do is check your location occasionally (as long as you remember to manually force ViewRanger to close to conserve power). But if you want to track your route precisely over multiple days, you need something that you can leave on without worrying, and that you can easily resupply power to.

One solution which has recently become popular is the SPOT II GPS messenger. The Spot can send out a automatic breadcrumb trail of beacons, or manual beacons via satellite, and has an SOS button for emergencies. It can also send messages via twitter and email so you can let friends and family know where you are, and that you are still safe and alive. The only thing I don't like about it is the auto-renewing subscription fee for the satellite service. Joe and Jorgen are using one right now in northern Norway, and you can follow their progress here. The SPOT draws power from 3 AAA batteries, providing up to 3 months of standby, or 7 days tracking - which is very good, and shows what you can achieve when you eliminate a screen from the design. But of course, without a screen, the SPOT cannot help you determine where you are.

Enter the Dakota.

Garmin has a whole range of GPS units, each with a dizzying array of features, aimed at different users. I went with the Dakota 20 primarily because it's small, uses only two AA batteries (which can be rechargeable ones), is lightweight ( 152g including batteries), waterproof, rugged, and simple. Some of their larger units (the Oregon) offer cameras, but I felt that was unnecessary as I always carry a decent one, and the tracking sites and software are intelligent enough these days to automatically geotag photos based on when you took them.

One of the nice things in Garmin GPS units is the LCD touchscreen they use. It's designed to be clearly visible in daylight without a backlight, and this cuts a lot of battery drain. I get about 15 hours of continuous use on a standard set of Duracell batteries. This typically covers about a day and a half of hiking before I need to change batteries.

The software design is very easy to use, and the colour screen, although far, far away from the iPhone's retina screen, is more than adequate. The Dakota 20 comes with a topo map DVD for North America. It's easy to select the area you are hiking in on your Mac or PC using the BaseCamp app, and transfer the top quality maps to the Dakota. You can set waypoints before you leave so you have destinations at the ready.

In the field, the Dakota is a joy to use - it's a very good example of an extremely well thought out user interface. It's easy to use without using the manual (ViewRanger could work on this a little harder). Tracking your route is automatic (unless you select otherwise), so as soon as you turn it on, you're ready to go. After the initial geolocation, it remembers your general position so getting a fix is almost instant when you turn it off at camp, and on again the next morning. Little things like this make dedicated GPS units worth their weight. They do one thing, and do it well. Having said that, the version 1 software on the Dakota did crash, becoming inoperable and losing all my data once on the Sioux Hustler Trail when I would really have needed it. Thankfully a software update fixed this bug, but I no longer have a record of that trail.

Snowbank Lake trail overview

Snowbank Lake trail detail

It's easy to create waypoints and assign them icons, which will all be carried over when uploading the tracks to BaseCamp. Naming waypoints, however, is a bit of a pain. The small screen means that letters are small, and for ham-fisted klutzes, it can get a little frustrating. On the other hand, you could just accept the generic name, and rename it later.

Naturally, the Dakota records all your elevation data, provides an accurate sunset countdown, measures distance hiked, shows your direction using the digital compass, and offers a host of other functionality which you may or may not find useful. I tend to stick to the basics. Geocaching is nice to have, but the implementation on the iPhone is much better.

Elevation data

Trip odometer / data

On a few occasions the Dakota has saved my bacon. In the Badlands and up in the Boundary Waters there have been times when it's proven invaluable. I wouldn't hesitate to take it with me on future trips.

Pros:

The navigation UI is clear, simple, and easy to use.

The screen in sunlight is great.

Waterproofness and ruggedness. Using it in the rain is no problem.

Battery operation time, and the fact it takes standard batteries.

Quick fix on GPS once it has initially located itself.

Lightweight and flexible - it also mounts nicely on my road bike.

Multifunctions - digital compass, geocaching, etc

BaseCamp software is easy to use, updated often, and Mac compatible.

Nice fishing info screen, showing best days and times to catch that 8lb sturgeon.

Cons:

The screen seems sensitive to scuffing. I scratched mine at some point just from having it in my pocket.

Naming waypoints is UPPER CASE ONLY AND A BIT AWKWARD WITB THRE SMHELL BNUBTTOBNS

The touchscreen sometimes feels a little unresponsive.

Gear Talk: A Tale of Two Kuksas

The Kuksa (or Guksi (Sámi), Kåsa (Swedish)) is a traditional wooden cup originally made by the indigenous people of Lapland, the Sámi. It holds a special place in my heart, coming from Lapland, and for me at least, is inextricably linked to the landscape of the Northern Nordic lands. When you happen across a hiker in the hills of Lapland, be it Sweden, Norway, Finland or Russia, chances are high that they will have a kuksa dangling from their pack.

Traditionally, you should either carve your own kuksa, ideally from birch gnarl, or receive it as a gift. I got my first one after moving to Rovaniemi in 2001, and I still have it. If made well they should last a lifetime - but sadly many poor imitations exist, which don't. In kuksas made from cheaper materials and not cured and treated properly, cracks appear over time with the constant variations between hot and cold liquids and temperatures.

My first kuksa is locked somewhere in my storage room, and last year, when I went in search of it, I couldn't find it. I'd heard of a new product - an semi-

artificial

kuksa - which was gaining popularity amongst the secret society of (mostly) ultra-light backpackers. It was, they claimed, light, environmentally friendly, a good size, comfy in the hand.

Pfaf! I exclaimed. What could be better than a real kuksa? What could be more environmentally friendly than the wood of a real kuksa? A curse on the lot of you!

I went in search of this usurper to the throne of kuksa, but dear little Rovaniemi is sometimes a little behind in these things. Instead, I found a replacement kuksa, broke with tradition, and purchased it for myself.

It was nice. It was good. It was actually a little better looking than my original kuksa. But I was still bi-curious about the young upstart. By now I was back in the USA, and far away from a dealer. Blog after blog posted reviews of the new

en vogue

vessel, so I gave in to temptation, and asked the manufacturer,

Kupilka

, to send me a review sample. It arrived a few weeks ago, so it is time for an educational side-by-side comparison of two cups.

A storm is brewing. In the left corner, the pretender to the throne, the Kupilka 21. In the right, the former champion.

I'll be honest. I didn't want to like it. There's nothing wrong with kuksas as they are, why 'improve' on it? A wooden kuksa is recyclable, doesn't need washing (you simply rinse it with cold water), isn't that heavy, and is perfectly natural. Why mess with that?

But when I opened the box containing my

Kupilka 21

, I was rather pleasantly surprised. You see, the thing I like about the kuksa is that it embodies a two way relationship. What you put into it, you get back in another form. The oils present in the birch gnarl lend a subtle resinous quality to drinks. Initially, it will also have a salty taste from the curing. If you christen it with a shot of whisky or brandy (or, even better,

Jaloviina

), you'll often see a thin film of these oils. After that, the brandy imbues it's taste into the wood. Follow with coffee and you get a taste of heaven. Repeat as necessary.

I didn't expect much of an aroma with the Kupilka 21. It is manufactured from a natural fiber composite of 50% pine fiber, 50% plastic. The pine and conifer fiber has a distinct smell which, to me, made it seem more natural - more outdoorsy. It was almost, albeit in a different way, like the smell of a kuksa.

Although Kupilka, through a variation on an old Finnish word, means "little cup", the 21 holds more than my kuksa - which is a good thing. My kuksa needs constant refilling, but I can get a good sized coffee in the Kupilka (officially, it takes 2.1dl).

Kupilka state that natural fiber composites offer "better heat endurance and higher durability", and that compared to wood "it doesn't require maintenance, doesn't absorb smells, and is insensitive to humidity."

I can't speak for the heat endurance claim, but it is certainly durable. I'm certain there will be no issues with cracking as with wood; in fact I couldn't even scratch mine.

The pine fiber gives it a pleasant texture - it doesn't taste at all plasticky to drink from. Although I like the "flavour exchange" of a kuksa, I can see the benefits of using a non-absorbant material. I'm sure the Kupilka range would appeal to Arctic Safari companies wanting to give their paying customers a more atmospheric taste of Lapland. The entire Kupilka range of products can be thrown in the dishwasher, unlike (God forbid) a real kuksa. In fact, Kupilka recommend washing in a dishwasher, especially if you don't like the initial smell. A few cycles should get rid of it.

It's weight is also good. Mine is 83g. My kuksa, which as I mentioned holds far less, is 124g.

But what about a taste comparison?

I filled my kuksa and my Kupilka 21 with my current favourite beverage,

Russian Caravan tea

.

Sipping from the Kupilka first, I could first smell the smoky tea, backed by a hint of the burnt pine aroma of the cup. The cup feels good in the hand - the handle is well designed and allows several holding positions (under the cup, around the handle). At no point did it feel out of balance, which I was worried about at first. It looks the part, and as a weight-saving cup, it does a good job.

On to my old faithful kuksa then. The first thing I smell is the aroma of campfires and birch, which triggers memories of my trip to Finland last year. Then the tea. Again, my kuksa is nicely sculpted, it's somewhat unusual handle easy to grip. The tea tastes good, and I get that little salty kick, followed by a hint of birch.

I paid attention to the heat loss. The Kupilka cup felt warm on the outside, but the tea remained hotter. I felt no heat through the kuksa's wood, but towards the end the tea cools very quickly.

In the end, I find it hard to choose between the two. Each has it's benefits. The original kuksa has more of a mythical connection to the land for me, and my experiences mark it's sides. It evokes memory.

But the Kupilka

is

nice. It's much cheaper than a good kuksa (around €16 compared to €40 upwards), and, I suppose, doesn't use the somewhat harder-to-find material of the birch gnarl, and in that sense could be said to be more ecological. It's lighter, for gram counters, and in  respects is a perfectly good cup.

I read that Kupilka's products can be safely burned in fires should you want to dispose of them, or reground and made into new products. I did consider trying to burn mine just to be a completist, but it has won me over. I want to keep it, and use it again. Who knows, maybe it will even start to collect memories. If it does, my kuksa might start to get worried.

Kupilka maintains an

up-to-date list of dealers

 on their site. It seems that Kupilka products will be available in the US from

Campsaver

in March, which is great news for the Finnish company.

Gear Talk: Lumix GF1 Review

With a background in photography, I spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect camera for backpacking. I'd love to carry my Nikon D300 all the time, but it's just too bulky and heavy. A few years ago I switched to compact, point and shoot cameras. These days you can take pretty good photos with them, but as I photographer I eventually find them somewhat lacking - either in manual controls, accessibility, image quality, depth of field (other than in macro mode) and durability. I used a tiny Samsung NV10 for a while, which took great pictures with nice punchy colours and has the advantage of making me look like a spy, but after a couple of years the automatic lens cover started to malfunction. The tiny lenses on compact cameras easily break when subjected to sand and extended misuse. To counter that I switched ot an Olympus Sylus Tough 6020. Waterproof, shock proof, 14 megapixels, perfect for the outdoors. Jason Klass just got one and seems to like it. I thought it was a piece of shit. It has some nice features but I found the images lack detail, and the colours are somehow flat. The problem with small cameras is that the lenses and sensors are so small the quality of captured data is typically quite low.

Then last year, late to the party as usual, I read about the

Lumix GF 1

. I'd heard about four thirds cameras before, but resisted them as what I really wanted was a full frame, 35mm sensor.

The four thirds system

uses a smaller sensor, but the GF1 allows you to select the ratio of the sensor, between 4:3 ( a nice medium format ratio), 3:2 (35mm), 1:1 (for squares) and 16:9 (widescreen, baby). Although the sensor is far from full frame, it is considerably larger than those used on compact point and shoots.

A larger sensor helps to capture dappled light scenes. 

As it has been out for a while, there are plenty of other, more extensive reviews of the GF1. Here are a few good ones:

Hendrik's field report at Hiking in Finland

hrxxlight

Digital Photography Review

Imaging Resource

I won't write an extensive review and list all the functions as that has already been well-catered for. Instead I'll focus on it's suitability as a mid-sized camera for photographer-backpackers.

For me, the GF1 is the best of both worlds. It's more compact than a dSLR, offers interchangable lenses, has a larger sensor than a compact, it's not too heavy (470g inc. UV filter), and it has a good set of manual controls which are easily accessible - via real buttons!!!

The GF1 seems especially good at capturing fire. Just look at those crisp flames and smoke.

Lovely depth of field too.

It's light sensitivity performance is not on a par with the latest dSLRs, but I've found it to be more than adequate, with an ISO range of 100 to 3200. Naturally, it shoots in RAW as well as the usual array of compressed JPEGs.

I was surprised it captured such a range of light in this cabin shot.

It has a metal body which, while not waterproof, is reassuringly sturdy. The buttons are sensibly arranged, and include my essential requirements: an exposure and focus lock, manual focus, and access to ISO and metering. A dial on the top allows switching between different modes, aperture or shutter priority, manual, and the various other more 'compact-user-friendly' modes. Two custom settings are useful if you want to set up the camera for sepcific uses.

While the GF1 doesn't have a dedicated macro mode, the pancake lens allows

you to focus down to about 15cm.

There are a few things SLR users will miss.

A depth of field preview button would be nice

[edit: I just remembered it

does

have a depth of field preview on the 'Trash' button in camera mode. It also previews shutter speed. Trés neat!], and old fashioned as I am, I curse the day that aperture rings were taken off lenses and put into camera software. While the GF1 makes it easy to switch between shutter and aperture adjustments by alternately pressing the control dial, I'd still prefer dedicated dials for each. It's better than hiding them behind a menu system though (but more on that later).

Personally, in this type of camera, I don't miss the absence of a viewfinder. The LCD is bright, crisp and superbly detailed. Viewfinder fans can get an electronic viewfinder which sits on the hot shoe.

In the original file, the light on the bird's wing is very detailed. Curses on JPEG compression.

The camera also records HD video, and you can record some pretty stylish material using some lovely depth of field effects.

Indeed, depth of field is the main draw of a camera like this for me.  While point and shoot's are undeniably lighter and smaller, they are limited in what they can achieve with such small lenses. While depth of field is achievable in macro modes, at mid ranges the effect is much less than with the GF1 or a dSLR. Sure, you can fiddle in Photoshop later and create the effect you want, but I love using focus in my photography. For many outdoor photographers, the crisp, clarity of an F16 landscape is what they are after, and the GF1 excels in this also. The lens (I have the pancake 1.7/20mm) is absolutely superb. The detail it captures is often stunning. I never notice any chromatic aberration or other visual inconsistencies, and at a fast shutter speed, frozen droplets of water from a dog jumping into a lake are frozen in the air in remarkable clarity.

With a camera this size and weight, with this functionality, I am more than happy to carry a couple of hundred more grams. I keep mine safe in a

Lowepro 60 AW

all weather case, which straps to my belt and has a built in rain cover(!) There's not a lot of room in there for any filters (I usually carry an ND and polarizer), but at least the camera is safe and not too bulky.

I also purchased a Joby Gorillapod for compact cameras, but unfortunately the GF1 is a touch too heavy for it. I really need the SLR version, which is a shame as it is a touch too large for my tastes.

Snow scenes are often hard for cameras to expose correctly.

The GF1 does a remarkably good job.

So, I've been very happy with the GF1. I've had it about a year now, and every time I'm impressed with the quality of pictures it takes. If you are looking for a camera with more than a compact, but less bulk than a dSLR, I recommend it. But there are also many alternatives out there - the Sony NEX-5 has been getting good reviews although some of the photos I've seen taken with it look a touch flat, and occasionally blurry - this could be related to low light performance though.

One thing to note is that the Panasonic Lumix GF2 is out soon - it's smaller, has 1080i video, and a touchscreen interface - but in my opinion they've tkaen a step back towards compact cameras by hiding the controls in the user interface of the screen, rather than having dedicated buttons. On the other hand, you'll find GF1s available at a bargain prices right now. I recommend the pancake lens if you just get one.

A photo of the person making the recommendation of the camera used to take the photo.

Alternatively, if you're looking purely for a compact camera, the

Lumix DS7 / TZ10

produces some very nice results - very close in quality to the GF1. Take a look at

camera-loan-meister Hendrik's review

(how does he do that??). The image quality seems superb, and although the effects of a smaller sensor and lens are present, they are far less noticeable than in most cameras.

As for me, I'm sticking with the GF1. In fact, I think I'll take it out for a few snaps this afternoon!

Great detail. Great Sahti.

Irrelevant and gratuitous shot of secret bushcraft shelter found near Rovaniemi.