It was a jokey jibe, and one that I had no comeback for… We were walking along the road having spent a fun few hours watching some inspirational films at the Kendal Mountain Festival. Chat moved onto gear (proof for the marketeers that it is worth sponsoring these kind of events), and I listed off a few bits and pieces that I would ideally like for the Highland Trail. They were items that I even admitted probably weren’t even necessary… Often a true word is said in jest, and it is an accusation that I wouldn’t even dream of countering.
I like kit. From clothing, to bike parts, to bags, to sleeping gear, to cooking gear, to any other accessory that is designed to make life in the outdoors that little bit more comfortable/enjoyable. I like to be able to deliberate over what to wear, use and carry to best meet the conditions and my own goals for the trip – even if that means that I choose to leave the kit at home and travel as light as possible.
An inevitable consequence of enjoying a number of different pass times, is that they all “need” their own specific gear, designed to be optimally functional for the given pursuit. This is, of course, bollocks. The base layer I wear running is equally functional when riding a road bike. My lycra bib-shorts are equally comfortable on road or mtb. My current favourite waterproof jacket has been worn (a little too often recently) while riding mountain bikes, walking to the pub, running in the mountains; all in the last month. There are some areas that don’t cross over though. I don’t really like a hooded jacket when riding on the road. My racy cross country mtb shoes are not that great for hike-a-bike adventures. My lightweight running rucksack doesn’t have enough pockets or compression to work well as a riding pack. My Kinesis FF29, when in singlespeed mode will happily pootle away on the road, but it isn’t the best tool for that job (some may say that singlespeeding isn’t the best tool for any job, but I digress).
My gear freakery goes beyond function however. I like there to be form as well. If I am to spend £100s (and it so often is in the hundreds) of my money on an item, I want it to look good as well as work. I want it to be flattering, to fit me well… I want to feel good when I wear it. And within this lies a conundrum… I do not go into the outdoors to be part of a fashion show, indeed many of my reasons for doing what I do is to escape the day-to-day. A great trail is still a great trail whether I am wearing a green jacket or a black one. I can run as fast in trainers with bright flashes on as I can in some that are all-grey.
But, given a certain level of functionality, then why not have something that looks good too? I may not be faster, but I feel faster as my multi-coloured shoes dance through the undergrowth. My bright green hooded midlayer makes me feel brighter and lighter. The Garage Bikes orange kit stands out. It still feels special when I pull it on.
Other than the more personal choice around colour, form and function seem to be improving in leaps and bounds in the outdoor clothing market. There seems to be a greater willingness to try something new. Maybe this is a result of more people venturing into the outdoors (or wanting to look like they do?) creating a bigger potential market to be tapped into. Stretch panels, thumb loops, water resistance, breathability, warmth, weight (or lack of)… technology moves on. As importantly, manufacturers are using more complicated cuts to get a better fit. Finally companies seem to be making athletic clothing in an athletic fit. So many times I have tried on “perfect” piece of clothing only for it to be hampered by a boxy fit, even in a small size (with corresponding lack of sleeve length). Here form and function meet – better fitting clothing performs better. No drafty gaps, or tight spots hampering movement.
None of these developments come for free though. Outdoors clothing is often painfully expensive. There are cheap basic alternatives out there, and sometimes with minimal difference in performance. But, as with many things in life, it is that extra 10%… in price and performance that turns “functional” into “exceptional”. And, for the most part, I will suck it up, and buy the best gear I can afford. I try to buy gear that I think will cover more than one base… that I can wear mountain biking, road biking, running, to the pub. I will shop around and look for deals and discounts, but I prioritise spending on my hobbies over almost anything else (one look at my car confirms this. I own several bikes that are worth more than it, never mind one).
I try to carefully choose the best possible kit for my money, through a balance of experience, other peoples view and instinct… although I am as susceptible to the lure of a “bargain” as anyone else, and my cupboards pay testament to the gear that seemed perfect at the time, but is not quite right – either functionally or aesthetically. There are some items that are just right though – that do everything that I want them to, work and haven’t fallen apart yet.
Here is my current list of favourites:
–Finisterre Etobicoke Primaloft jacket… one of those sale bargains that really was a bargain. It is warm, packs down small, is fairly light, keeps it’s warmth when damp, and has a nice classic look to it. I’d love it to have a hood, but other than that, I think it is close to perfect
-Mountain Equipment Eclipse Hoody… a new purchase and only used outside once, but it is a perfect winter midlayer. A really nice high neck that can be snugged up, and a tight fitting balaclava-esque hood. Perfect for bivvies and bothies, and wearing under a waterproof when things get truly horrible. The waffle style fabric traps heat, without adding any bulk. Ace.
-Aldi (or was it Lidl?) running tights. Actually a bit short, but other than that, a really nice fit, and I just roll them up and turn them into 3/4s. Wear at least once a week between late autumn and spring, and they’ve kept on going for a few years now.
–Rapha long sleeve merino base layer. Has withstood being worn for a few too many days in a row, thrown in the washing machine, then worn again. Beginning to show signs of neglect, but after two years of solid use.
-Jetboil stove. Another relatively new addition. It shouldn’t be so good. It is relatively heavy and bulky – there are far lighter and smaller alternatives. But, it is the fuss-free nature of cooking with the Jetboil which makes it so good. I like that a small gas canister packs away into the cup for transporting. I like how quickly it’ll boil water. I like the ignition which means I don’t need to worry about forgetting the matches.
-Shimano SPD pedals. I’ve got a few different types, from XT (not that I am adverse to trying out some XTR ones… there are some limitations to my budget though) down to the entry level ones. Some with a “trail” platform, some without. All work flawlessly, and durably – which is more than can be said for my experiences with Crank Brothers.
And what were the bits and pieces I would still like to buy?
-A super light hooded insulation layer, which doesn’t mind getting damp. One of the new generation of hydrophobic down jackets, or (more likely) a light Primaloft jacket. It might have stretch sides, it will have a hood. It will be used for activities before I’ve warmed up – pre-dawn post-bivvy riding, it will be a mid-layer on cold and damp days when I am not moving at hyper-speed, it will be an emergency layer that spends entire trips in a dry bag. It will be more durable than my existing down jackets, and less prone to losing insulating properties when it gets wet.
-A dynamo hub and compatible light set up. Primarily for the Highland Trail, to allow me the freedom to ride when I want, without any worries about battery life. However, I can see it being great for winter commuting, and a useful way of keeping other electrical items, like a GPS charged at other times. USE Exposure looks like the place to go, and I’m more than happy with that, as I’ve happily used their lights – courtesy of Garage Bikes for many, many miles.
-A close fitting, lightweight, zipped base layer. Synthetic please – merino is brilliant for a lot of uses, but for intense exercise I end up overwhelming it. Preferably with thumb loops.