Working in the outdoor apparel market, it's not often that I get to see really exciting innovations in fabric technology. Sure there have been some huge leaps since most big brands started refining and designing outdoor gear back in the 70s (think Patagonia's Synchilla Fleece and the whole journey of waterproof, breathable membranes that have given us modern rainwear) but Polartec's Alpha Active Insulation is truly something to write home about. The fabric has been around for a few years now so forgive me if you're already very much on the bandwagon with this one but I'm always reluctant to review something until I've had the chance to test things like durability and performance in a range of conditions which can only really be done over lots of trips and an extended period of time.
So what is it? Polartec Alpha was a fabric initially designed for the special forces in the US to provide a more versatile insulation layer that could perform across a wider range of exertion levels without the wearer needing to constantly shed and/or add layers as they moved from low to high intensity activity and back again. This clever fabric achieves this by being incredibly quick drying; moving moisture away from your body and featuring a high degree of breathability. This means body heat is dispersed efficiently before you start to overheat. Even used alone in a garment without an added outer shell, the fibres effectively trap enough warmth to keep you comfortable at surprisingly low temperatures. Combined with a windproof outer fabric or layered with a shell, I'm yet to wear anything that keeps me as warm for such little weight.
This brings me to the next benefit of Alpha, It's super packable. When I started transitioning from hiking into fast packing and trail running, I found it hard to find a midlayer in my wardrobe that would give me adequate protection but be small and light enough to carry in a hydration vest or small day pack. I was often heading into alpine environments so I needed something with a really high warmth to weight ratio that would perform even when wet. I've found Alpha the best option for this. Paired with a lightweight rain shell and a basic thermal top, I've got a really bomber layering system without feeling like I'm carrying unnecessary weight.
Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, durability is always a key consideration for me with fabric choice. If it's lightweight and breathable but can't put up with a reasonable amount of wear and tear, I don't see it as a great investment. I'm not an elite athlete and I hate the idea of throw away gear so I have pretty high expectations for how long something should last and how much I can abuse it in that time. I've found that Alpha as an insulation has stood up really well which when you first look at and feel the fabric with all of its visible holes is a little hard to get your head around. It doesn't snag, rip or become misshapen after washing and unlike some other fleeces I've worn, it doesn't leave fluff or cause pilling on your base layers underneath.
In the last three years I've been wearing a Macpac Pisa Hooded Jacket as my go to mid layer for tramping and climbing. This is made of Polartec Alpha Insulation with a lightweight DWR treated nylon ripstop outer shell. As a general rule I find it perfect for moderate to high exertion winter activities (tramping, climbing and mountain biking) but actually too warm to trail run in outside of the coldest months in New Zealand. It's the most packable piece I own for the warmth and I only deviate from this now if I'm planning on very low exertion, cold weather trips where a high pile, bulkier fleece is worth taking for the extra warmth (eg camping in winter or if I plan to sleep outside with a more minimal sleeping bag).
The only issue I had with the Pisa Hooded Jacket was that the added shell still made the overall jacket too bulky to go in my trail running pack as I still needed a properly waterproof jacket anyway. Cue the Macpac Nitro Pullover. This is essentially as minimalist as you can go and comprises a single layer of Alpha Insulation in a hooded pullover style for a total garment weight of 140g (Men's Medium). You lose the windproof aspect of the more substantial Pisa but you gain a super packable, lightweight trail running option that paired with a water proof shell should keep you toasty in all sorts of conditions.
The only negative I've found with this fabric over other options is that it lacks any real stretch and as such you'll need a slightly more relaxed fit than with other active mid layers. I haven't found it at all uncomfortable personally but if you have wide shoulders I would take into account alleviating any potentially tightness across your back by buying a piece that fits comfortably through a complete range of motion. The Macpac Pisa for example is designed as part of the New Zealand Alpine Team range and as a result has good reach at the shoulders for climbing.
If you're looking for a midlayer that's going to provide you with more versatility than traditional fleece options but still offer the protection of solid wet and cold weather performance I think you should check out this fabric. I've linked the two Macpac versions we've been using above or check out some great examples from some of my other favourite brands below.
Like many things in life, it's a hard road to finding the perfect walking stick and while the BD Distance FLZs ticked a lot of boxes for me I think I'm still on the search for Mr Right. One of my pet hates is having to collapse all three sections of my traditional poles and then find the right points to extend them to again when I want to use them. It doesn't take forever but when you're trying to move quickly the whole process becomes a bit tiresome and my hands usually end up covered in mud (I know, nature, get it off me!). With this in mind, I was pretty excited about Black Diamond's new Flick Lock Z poles as the deployment system seemed much more seamless whilst still having a small range of length adjustment. Weighing in at between 440 and 470g depending on size, these were also noticeably lighter than the aluminium poles I had been using previously.
I went for the 105-125cm poles (I'm 165cm tall) and I have them adjusted to the shorter of their range but I've found the length comfortable and suits the steep terrain I'm usually using them for. After initially taking them out of their packaging the first problem I encountered was trying to get them fully extended and locked out. This is actually a very straight forward action as the plastic cones help guide each section into the adjacent pole I just wasn't using enough force on the handle section to pull it out and let the metal catch click into place. Now that I've been using them for the better part of a year I never have an issue but I still remember feeling like I might break them to begin with.
Once locked out the top section is still adjustable which helps when moving from walking uphill to downhill again. The wrist straps are also adjustable with a small velcro tab depending on how tight you want them to be. I found the webbing on these a little uncomfortable until it softened with wear although I never had any issues with it rubbing on my skin and doing any damage. The grips on the handles on the other hand are a bit more unforgiving if you have soft hands like my own. While they're comfortable in the beginning and easy to grip even when you get sweaty, I found they were rough enough to start giving me blisters after several hours of use. This is definitely a trade off as after quite a few trips the grips still look almost brand new and have seen no wear and tear the way previous models I've owned have.
In terms of durability I've found the poles (my husband's set included) have performed well. I've taken them on several multi-day hikes, a few mountain climbs and lots of day walks. They've stood up well to river crossings, being used as a shelter support and generally being thrashed about. I have read some reviews where people had issues with the poles coming apart whilst walking but I've never had this happen yet. All in all I think that if you're looking for a lightweight set of poles that are easy to deploy and withstand a not inconsiderable amount of abuse then these are a solid all-round option. They're not going to win any awards for ultra-lightweight and I wouldn't recommend them for any seriously long thru-hiking but they've lasted the longest out of any poles I've owned in the last ten years and I think the flick lock system is pretty neat.
There seems to be a growing movement away from the traditional hydration pack/bladder combination and towards the now well established world of hydration vests. I was at first skeptical that something which hugged my body so closely could possibly be comfortable to walk in let alone to run but I've been pleasantly surprised and don't know if I'll ever be able to go back now! I first started looking for an alternative to my 18L mountain biking pack which has doubled as my adventure racing pack when I started running longer distances and needed to carry some essential survival gear as well as water and nutrition. My 18L was far too big for just running and although comfortable to walk and bike in, had a tendency to bounce around too much when I ran in it. I began looking for a pack that would instead be super comfortable for trail running but still offer me the flexibility to carry enough for day hikes in the mountains.
Enter the Osprey Dyna 1.5. I tried various vests on in the beginning and the reason I went with this option was largely down to the fact that it fit my body the best whilst still giving me all the packing flexibility that I needed. I think that finding the right vest, especially for women, is not dissimilar to bra shopping and not every pack is going to suit every body shape! The other selling points for me were the stretchy side pockets at the back (easy to stuff all sorts of odd shaped items into), the easy adjustability across the chest and the quality of the hydration bladder that comes with it. I've used Hydraulics bladders before and I've found they last well, come apart easily to clean and have generally good quality bite valves.
When I first got it home and loaded it up with gear it felt a bit weird having it sitting so snuggly against my chest and certain objects in the front pockets just didn't work in the general boob area. I later streamlined my kit to fit perfectly in the various front and back pockets but this took a couple of runs to get right. In the end I could fit the bladder with 1.5L of water, an ultralight rain jacket in one back mesh pocket, hat and gloves in the other mesh pocket, first aid supplies and survival blanket in the main back pocket, three gels and a small squeezy flask on one front pocket and another snack bar and my phone in the other. I did manage to squeeze a thin mid layer into the mix when necessary by stuffing the hat and gloves into the main pocket on the back but this was a pretty tight fit.
If you're looking for a serious ultra running vest then I don't think that the Dyna 1.5 has enough storage capacity for all of your compulsory gear plus nutrition. For shorter trail runs and marathons though I found it was just big enough with my ultra light gear. I found that the webbing at the side of the vest under my arm had a sharp edge to it which caused some chaffing on a few of my longer runs. I had to make sure it was tucked completely out of the way after I tightened it but I could still easily cut it or melt the edge smooth if I wanted to. There is also nowhere to stow your trekking poles if you're using these which was a bit of a shame as I would have preferred to have that option on some of my training runs. The mesh on the inside of the vest is really comfortable and felt a million times better than traditional packs I've run in. Overall I would recommend this to anyone who finds the fit suits them and has a small, very packable hard shell already. If your compulsory gear is a bit chunkier, you won't fit it all in this vest unfortunately.
What if I told you that for a little over 300gm you could carry a windproof, waterproof emergency shelter that could be the difference between life and death in the mountains? Well that’s exactly what a bothy bag is and as soon as I first read about the idea of bothy bags I was pretty much sold. These super lightweight shelters will keep you and a mate (or many mates) sheltered from the elements and enjoying your own micro-climate - perfect for emergencies as well as a quick to deploy escape from the rain for that check of the map or bite to eat you have been putting off.
A bothy bag is perfect for a trip where you intend to stay in huts and don’t want to carry a tent but need more than an emergency blanket as back up in case somebody becomes injured, gets too cold or you need to stop unexpectedly for longer periods of time. When out tramping in New Zealand it is imperative to carry some form of emergency shelter in case the proverbial hits the fan as hypothermia is one of the main causes of death here. If you decide that your tent is to heavy but you don't want to risk getting caught out, then reach for the bothy bag.
This little two man version from Terra Nova Equipment set us back $129 and is best suited for either proper emergency shelter (you're not going to sleep comfortably in it unfortunately) or as a planned temporary shelter during a trip in poor weather. The bag works by two people placing it over their heads and then sitting down simultaneously on the waterproof "seat" flaps letting their backs provide the structure for the shelter. Although there is a pole attachment, we found this was awkward to set up in the close confines of the bag and didn't add much in the way of room. When stopping to eat or map check in the pouring rain, the bag worked really well as our own body warmth quickly raised the temperature inside the bag and we were able to stay dry and comfortable while inside it.
If you needed to warm someone up in a hurry who had for example just fallen in a freezing cold river, the bothy bag would be ideal. Similarly, if you're planning a trip in poor weather this is a good way of ensuring you have a means of getting out of the rain and staying warm throughout the day. What it isn't great for is sleeping in and if you think there is a reasonable chance you will need a shelter for the night then I would suggest opting for an actual tarp and ground sheet combination so that you can actually lie down. The bag itself is waterproof and so you could use it as a very small tarp or ground sheet but it's not going to be the best solution for this.
We have used our bothy bag high in the westland ranges as an emergency shelter and it certainly helped save our butt on that occasion. We had run out of daylight whilst crossing an alpine pass and had failed to make it down to the next hut. The fact that we had our bothy bag with us meant we could stop where we were and spend the night safely knowing we could be sheltered from the elements. On this occasion we were lucky enough to have a clear starry sky above us so we slept with it underneath us on the snow but it was reassuring to know that if the weather changed we could still stay dry and relatively comfortable, albeit in a seated position!
I find that the bothy bag has become part of my go-to kit for day trips as it provides a degree of safety should someone become injured or unwell that surpasses a simple emergency blanket which although providing some warmth, does little to keep you protected from rain and wind. This would also be a good addition to your gear if you're heading out with kids and know they're going to need frequent breaks and/or possibly get wet, muddy and cold.
For those adventures well above the snowline in this little country of ours look no further than the Garmont Mountain Guide Pro GTX. This four season, full shank mountaineering boot will keep your toes warm and your feet firmly on terra firma on your next trip.
I purchased a pair of these back in 2015 to use on a technical mountaineering course. Prior to that my mountaineering boots were a pair of La Sportiva Trango S Evos - a significantly lighter but less rigid boot. My Sportivas were nearing the end of their usable life so I decided to upgrade to something a little more capable.
At the time I agonised between buying these or a pair of La Sportiva Nepal Evos (the most popular leather 4 season mountaineering boot in NZ by a country mile). At the time I choose the Garmonts as I managed to get them for a bargain but the La Sportiva is undoubtedly a great boot and excellent choice.
The Garmont Mountain Guide Pro GTX features a full wrap-around 3mm leather construction, a primaloft insulated footbed, B3 crampon compatibility (i.e. can take strap-on, semi-automatic, or fully automatic crampons), and a vibram titus outsole. In practice this means the boot is warm enough for mid winter missions in New Zealand and solid enough to be as at home traversing a glacier as it is on the final pitch of that epic face climb you’ve always dreamed of.
My first outing in these was 10 days of climbing at the top of the Tasman Glacier in November of 2015. During this time my feet were toasty warm and the boots seemed to fit my foot well. After the ten days I didn’t have a single blister or hot spot on my foot - winning.
Since then I have done many climbs in these and have found them to be durable and they certainly seem to be holding up well to the relatively long approaches that are common in NZ. I pair them up with my BD Serac crampons and find the fit to be snug and secure.
Gear Envy. It happens to the best of us - particular if you’re an outdoor gear junkie like myself. That hankering for that new piece of kit that you are sure is going to help you climb that next mountain, or reach that next hut faster and feeling better than ever. I had this feeling for a year before I gave in and purchased a pair of Salewa Rapace GTX boots - I only wish I had caved earlier!
The Rapace is a lightweight 3-4 season boot with a full rubber rand, 1.8mm Nubuck Leather and a Goretex lining. The boot features a Vibram sole and is suitable for use with strap-on and semi-automatic crampons (more on this later). Marketed as a lightweight mountaineering boot, it would be easy to discount the Rapace as a climbers-only boot and miss out on the features that make this boot my pick as the go-to kiwi tramping boot.
First and foremost the Rapace is light. At 1250g for a pair they are easily a good 400-500g lighter than comparable 3-4 season boots that are popular in NZ (e.g. Lowa Tibets, Vasque, Asolo…) and about the same weight as many less-capable 3 season boots. I know what you’re thinking - being lightweight means they won’t last as long right? And the honest answer to this question is yes, they probably won’t survive quite as long as a heavier, equally well-made 3-4 season boot. However when it comes to durability the biggest contributors will be how often you use your boots, and how well you look after them once you get home! Having used my pair often for more than 2 years now, and having cleaned and conditioned them after each decent outing, I can tell you that mine have minimal wear to the sole unit, the rand is still in good condition and hasn’t started to peel away from the leather, and the lace eyelets and hooks are all still in great nick. Apparently earlier versions of this boot (I think my mates were the 2014 model) had issues with the lace hooks bending, but this has since been rectified and hasn’t been an issue.
So now that we have cleared up the durability issue let's get back to that weight thing. It has been said that carrying 1 kilogram on your feet is equivalent to carrying 5 kilograms on your back. Whilst the science behind such a ratio may be a little dubious it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that it is lot easier walking in your running shoes than in your heavy winter boots. Overseas it has become quite common for hikers to shun boots altogether for this reason, with many through-hikers on major routes advocating the use of trail running shoes. I’m not against this, in fact I recently completed the Five Passes trip in my Salewa Speed Ascent (another magic Salewa shoe). But when I’m heading out into the back country outside of the summer months, carting a large pack, or heading to sub-alpine and alpine areas I reach for the security of a warm, sturdy boot. Even still - wouldn’t it be great to have a lighter boot that is capable of handling the tougher trips, yet save energy with every step? The Rapace gives the best of both worlds - a boot that is lightweight enough to take on a fast smash-and-grab type mission through a great walk, but sturdy enough to take on your mid-winter trip into the southern alps.
Having touched on winter let’s talk about those spiky things some people like to stick on their boots in winter. The Rapace is compatible with strap-on and semi-automatic crampons. That said, I find my pair to have a relatively flexible sole unit when compared with a full-shank boot and wouldn’t plan on doing any extended front-pointing in them (unless you have calves of steel). In practice this means the Rapace is perfect for the average kiwi tramper who wants a boot capable of taking a crampon for the occasional jaunt over an ice field or for a snowy Tongariro crossing trip. Don’t be put off by my talk of crampons. If you are the kind of tramper who sees snow and retreats back to the nearest hut this boot may still work well for you. The rigidity of the sole unit that allows the boot to accept a crampon also makes the boot perfect for sidling through scree or climbing steep snow grass - two common kiwi tramping scenarios!
The Rapace has a Goretex liner which will help to keep your feet dry when walking through dewy fields or breaking a trail through soft snow, but invariably when tramping in New Zealand you end up having to cross a stream or river. As with any boot - once the water reaches the top of boot you will get wet. This is a fact. You can ‘improve your range’ so to speak by investing in a decent gaiter which may give you a few more precious seconds before the water begins to flood in, but eventually you’ll be soaked. My pair seem to drain water okay post-crossings and don’t feel like bricks once they have had a good soak (because they were light to start with!).
That’s all good and well but what about the fit? I have a size 44 euro foot (US 10) and wear a full size larger (45 Euro) Rapace. This gives my feet enough room when wearing a thicker hiking sock and allows for the fact that feet tend to swell a bit during the day. I didn’t bother breaking my pair in. I simply shouldered my pack and went on a trip with a group of mates. I didn’t get any blisters on the first day - and still haven’t ever had one from them 2 years later.
It is worth noting I have a narrow width foot. Apparently a lot of kiwis have quite wide feet. Salewa boots do come with a multi-fit foot bed which allows you to change the insole to accommodate different sized feet - this may help those with wider feet. Make sure you have tried the Rapace on (with your usual hiking socks) sufficiently before buying them to be sure the fit is correct.
Last but not least - the price. These boots usually retail for around the $450 mark. This makes them a considerable investment and one of the biggest purchases the average tramper will make. For $450 this represents a whole (lightweight) lot of boot and is a serious step up from the offerings around the $300 mark. I’m always telling people to never skimp on boots, sleeping bags, and tents. I learnt this the hard way when starting out (think zip-ties on boots to hold the sole on mid-hike).
If you are planning on spending extended periods of time above the snowline, fancy yourself a bit of a Thar hunter, or just like heavier boots check out the review on the Garmont Pinnacle GTX.
I've been stomping around in these bad boys for two years now and as with all good boots I'm equal parts emotionally attached to them and repulsed by how bad they smell wet. I've taken them through the jungle in Vietnam, walked on Lake Baikal in Siberia and climbed Vi Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites. Throw in some classic New Zealand scree running and just recently a photo shoot on the Abel Tasman and they've really had to handle a lot of different terrain. From a Kiwi perspective the MTN Trainer Mid's fall into the 3 season category nicely for both warmth and durability. The full rand provides plenty of hard wearing protection for the toes as well as the nubuck suede upper. The rand is definitely my favourite feature as I have a habit of stubbing my toes on all sorts of barely visible sticky outy things and I'm yet to put a hole in it. The 3F lacing system is designed to lock your heel down and prevent the foot slipping forward meaning lots of ankle support as well.
The Gortex lining is still waterproof which I'm impressed with as I haven't looked after the nubuck with a conditioning product - I do clean them with warm water after most trips though. Lastly, the vibram sole has started to wear down in places, especially along the inside edges but there is still visible tread over the whole foot. In terms of what I brought them for (alpine tramping, scree running and rock scrambling) I think the Salewas have performed exceptionally. As they are a bit on the more rugged side for a tramping boot I wouldn't recommend them for anyone sticking to perfectly groomed paths as you don't really need the rand or the heavier sole. The biggest fail was that I went a size too small when purchasing them when I should have known to go a size bigger than I normally wear. I have to tape the tops of my toes when going down steep hills as they just hit the end of the boot. It's turned out to be a frustrating lesson as the boots look like they'll do a couple more years at least and I want to upgrade just to get the fit right.
*I paid $449 in 2013 and since then the colours have been updated and the specs are slightly different. Salewa has changed the overall look and upgraded the sole unit but these still sit in the same category for me and I continue to recommend them for heavy use.
It’s hard to find the perfect woman - or so the Speights ad tells us - but when your wife brings you home a brand spanking pair of tramping boots to try out it’s fair to say she had one very happy husband. Within moments I was stomping my way around our little house planning a mission to try these puppies out. Fast forward half a year and I've had a good chance to get to know these boots on a variety of terrain and to get a good few kilometers under my belt.
The Garmont Pinnacle GTX fits nicely into the kiwi four-season boot category with full 2.8mm suede leather construction and a full rubber rand. The boot is semi-automatic crampon compatible and has a beefy vibram sole. Whilst I have found the boot more than comfortable below the bush line, it really comes into its own in the alpine environment.
My first outing was a day long ridge mission out the back of Hanmer Springs with the dog. Having never worn the boots prior to this I expected to get blisters during the day. A couple of hours in after the first decent downhill of the day I did notice a few hot spots on my foot - after stopping to re-tighten the laces I didn’t have any further issues. The boot is somewhat heavier than my normal tramping boot (Salewa Rapace) and I definitely noticed the extra weight by the end of the day.
The next trip was a jaunt up the Otira slide to Low Peak of Rolleston. The boot gripped well on the scree and offered a good amount of protection from the numerous rocks I bashed my foot on during the day. Here the boot really excelled, making me feel much more comfortable than I would have in a lighter boot. I would definitely be grabbing for this boot over my Salewa’s for any mission involving snow or any significant time spent with a pair of crampons strapped on.
Having had these for a while now I see them as a great option for trampers looking to spend a little more time above the snowline where crampons may be needed. The boot is very warm and would easily cope with wintery New Zealand conditions (though i probably wouldn’t go for them if you are planning to climb your first 3000m peak - see the Garmont Mountain Guide Pro….). Whilst they won’t be your first choice for a light and fast overnighter, these will easily become your favourite do-anything, go-anywhere boot.
When it comes to a big investment such as buying boots we often make compromises as there isn’t really a ‘perfect’ boot for all conditions - that said I think the Garmont comes pretty darn close. Sure it’s a bit heavier than the Salewa Rapace, but this gives it added capability above the snowline and I feel that these will last a little longer as well. You can get lighter crampon compatible boots (e.g. La Sportiva Trango S Evo) but the Garmont is both cheaper (almost half the price!) and also seems to be holding up better than the Sportiva’s did for me.
All-in-all I reckon I will get quite a few years out of these boots.
Like any good gear aficionado most of my purchases are well researched, well thought out choices following hours of online comparison and deliberation over weight, construction and how said investment will look on instagram. But every now and again I fall into the impulse buying trap that is "just browsing" at the outlet stores. The latter resulted in my latest acquisition - the Black DIamond Alpine Start Hoody and I feel like it deserves some print space. BD market this piece as an ultra-light softshell for weight conscious climbers providing light weather resistance in a highly packable bundle of awesome (I may have paraphrased). You can read more about the helmet compatible hood and Nanosphere technology on their website but won't you can't read is how magical this jacket feels on.
The fabric is lightweight but not too delicate and has already stood up well to the customary dog claw abrasion quality control in mandatory field tests. It fared well against a small run in with a Matagouri bush but I managed to snag a thread or two on some rose thorns. Just for the record I had no intention of testing the durability so thoroughly but you're welcome anyway. There is a healthy amount of stretch which allows for a close fit and plenty of movement at the same time. I've been running around the Port HIlls in Christchurch all winter in this hoody (layered over a light thermal) and it's super comfortable through the shoulders which is a bonus. The softshell fabric also has fantastic anti-rustle properties which make it easier to ninja around the place - not something you can do in your traditional rain jacket. This is definitely not a replacement for your waterproof, seam sealed deal when heading into the hills on a multi-day excursion but when you're primary need is wind protection it's a great addition to your kit.
The hood gets in the way a little when I have it partially zipped at the front as there is no way of rolling it away but I like the overall no frills approach to the jacket. I've hiked in it a few times and I like that I can barely feel it under my pack but it really cuts the wind on cooler days. Small, lightweight and breathable are big draw cards for light and fast day missions or climbing on clear but cold days. I'm looking forward to having this come spring when we start rock climbing again as it fits neatly under my harness and still lets me use my arms through their full range of motion without pulling up at the back.
FYI - if you like hand pockets this is not the jacket you are looking for.