Back in April, I introduced you to the 12 pieces of high tech hardware I'd be relying on as I walked Camino de Santiago: a 780 kilometre backpacking trek which starts on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains and ends in Santiago Compostela, Spain. Two hospital visits, five pairs of socks and almost 800 km later, I'm back in Canada. After using the hardware for over a month on the road, I've got some very firm opinions on what works and what doesn't.
It’s hard to get lost on the Camino de Santiago: The Way, as anyone who’s walked it will tell you, is well marked. But overachiever that I am, I managed to get myself turned around, confused and off track before the sun had gone down on my first day of walking in the Pyrenees foothills. Fortunately, I’d pre-loaded my Garmin Tactix with GPS tracks for every stage of my trip. An hour and a number of country lanes later, I was back on the Camino. I didn’t need to rely upon the Tactix’s GPS functionality for the rest of the trip, but it still served me well by providing me with sunrise and sunset times, barometric pressure readings so I’d know if a weather change was coming and a vibrating alarm I used each morning. Best of all: I only had to charge it once in the five weeks I spent on the road.
But, there was room for improvement. The Tactix has a built-in thermometer to measure the ambient temperature around it, but its readings are affected by the wearer’s body temperature. Garmin suggests removing the watch and waiting a considerable amount of time to ensure the thermometer reading is accurate. For wrist-worn hardware this is a ridiculous oversight and suggestion. Still, the Tactix is a great piece of gear I continue to wear even now that my adventure is over.
Powertraveller Power Monkey Extreme
Lucky for me, the Power Monkey Extreme proved to be as water resistant as promised. On my first day trekking through the Pyrenees Mountains my hydration bladder started to leak, depositing around a half-litre of water at the bottom of my backpack where, you guessed it, I had stashed the battery and solar panel. Fortunately, I found that everything was still in working order. The battery provided me with multiple charges for my camera, GPS device and iPhone, as well as a bit of juice for some friends I made on the road. During the time I spent in Basque country, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. After lashing it to my backpack, the Power Monkey’s solar panel made short work of topping off the kit’s battery pack.
My only real complaint concerns the Power Monkey Extreme’s weight: 460 grams doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but every extra gram of weight takes its toll on you when you’re humping it cross-country on your back. Unless you truly require the robust water and shock protection afforded by this chunky Monkey’s rubberized exterior and tough zip-up case, a more lightweight option might be better.
Arc‘teryx Altra 65 Backpack
Some hikers I met had lighter backpacks, but I’ll wager not one of them had a more comfortable one than the Altra 65. As promised, the waist belt moved with my hips, even on the steepest uphill inclines that Spain and France had to offer – and let me tell you, there were quite a few. What’s more, as I lost weight over the course of my trip, I was able to adjust the space between the pack’s shoulder straps using Arc’teryx’s GridLock system, keeping me as comfortable and cool as I could be.
But it wasn’t all wine and roses with this thing. As I just mentioned, the Arc’teryx Altra 65's hydration bladder pocket is so poorly designed there was no way to use it. For some reason the bladder pocket is sewn directly into the pack’s main compartment, effectively sandwiching it between the contents of the pack and the wearer’s back.
I’d fill up my water bladder, place it in the pack, add the rest of my gear in the Altra 65 and set out. Within a few hours, without fail, the contents of my pack would be soaked with my drinking water, leaving me to go thirsty until I found a store or drinking font. That’s less than ideal. In Pamplona I replaced my hydration bladder with a new one, but it did nothing to correct the problem. I finally gave up and switched to canteens. A disappointing oversight in an otherwise fabulous piece of gear.
Who would have though that the LuxuryLite Bigstik would prove to be the most valuable piece of equipment I carried with me on my journey?
The lightweight, carbon fibre and aluminum walking stick helped me keep my footing as I descended mountain paths or traversed the Camino’s many steep, rocky hills or stepping-stone foot bridges over streams swollen with the spring melt. On days where the terrain was flat, or at the end of the day, breaking down the BigStik to stow it in my bag and out of the way only took seconds. This ability to stash the stick proved invaluable when hopping planes to Europe or returning home to Canada. Considering all of the stories I’ve heard of other travellers being forced to ship their walking staff or trekking poles home via courier, portability was a great perk.
Iridium Extreme Satellite Phone
As predicted, there were many spots along the Camino where mobile phone service wasn’t available. Thanks to the Iridium Extreme, this was a moot point. During my time on the road, I ended up visiting local health care twice: once for an injured lower back and a second time due to an infection and blisters the likes of which I hope you never experience. These injuries shook my confidence and left me wondering if I’d be able to complete the trek. Knowing that I could call for help from anywhere I might be, should pain or injuries get the best of me, did a lot to rally my nerve enough to finish the hike. And, by the end of the trip – despite having made numerous calls – the handset’s battery still held two-thirds of a charge.
In testing the phone, I made calls from a number of different environments. Calling Canada from the top of a mountain as I crossed over into Spain, sitting among the ancient buildings of the village of Ciraqui or next to the cathedral in Burgos? No problem. But I found that it was difficult or impossible to snag a satellite signal when surrounded by taller buildings in cities like Pamplona or Porto. Call quality was clear enough that I never had to repeat myself, but I found it habitually dropped calls after about four minutes of talking. It was almost as if the satellite it was connected to soared out of range. But then, this isn’t a device designed for idle chit-chat, so it's flaw I can forgive.
Sony Cybershot TX30 Digital Camera
Overall, I was pleased with the quality of photos and video produced by the Sony TX30. Its 18.2 megapixel image sensor captured the gorgeous greens, yellows and blues of the Spanish countryside with all of the detail I could have hoped for. Taking shots of the same scene with the TX30 and my iPhone 5s, I found that while my smartphone’s camera was adequate for preserving a moment in time, it couldn’t do the same justice to a scene the TX30 was capable of. I was also impressed with the camera’s battery life: it allowed me over 250 still images, two HD videos and several reviews of the content I’d captured before needing to be recharged.
However, the camera is almost too compact: On several occasions, I found that my fingers found their way into what could have been great photos. There’s simply no where to place your meathooks on the TX30; it’s smaller than most smartphones. When whipping out your camera to catch a candid shot, the chances that your fingers might photobomb an image are pretty high. And while the TX30 is waterproof, dust-resistant and otherwise ruggedized, I found that even with careful use – keeping it in a pocket without keys, change or other abrasives – the camera’s display became noticeably scratched and scuffed. Lastly, the lack of a viewfinder proved to be frustrating. In bright sunlight (and there’s a lot of that sort of thing in Spain) I often found myself shooting blind, or struggling to make out what I was pointing the camera at by squinting at the TX30’s digital display as I fought to shield it from the light with my free hand and hat.
Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
There wasn’t a single night on my trip where I was in danger of not finding a bed. In the off-season, the hostels and albergues along the Camino de Santiago have more than enough room for everyone. So, in order to test the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy, I decided to voluntarily forego the comfort of a soft bed and a roof over my head just outside of a town called Ponferrada. Setting up the Helium Bivy was just as easy as promised: unroll it, insert a single flexible pole into the a pocket near the bag’s zippered opening and slide in your sleeping mat and bag.
My night under the stars was a clear one, so I wasn’t able to test the Bivy’s waterproof qualities, but I can say that the next morning when I woke, there was no condensation inside. That’s a welcome change from the many mornings of my youth, when I woke up in cheap Canadian Tire tents with everything I owned as damp as it can be without actually being wet.
I slept well, but in order to do so, I had to sleep carefully. The Helium Bivy is a minimalist shelter: it weighs a ridiculously small amount and took up less room in my pack than my change of clothes did. However the weight and space savings you get with a shelter like this leaves a camper with little room to manoeuvre. For a side sleeper like me, that can be a real pain. What I’m saying here is that it’ll keep you warm and it’ll keep you dry, but the Helium Bivy might not keep everyone all that comfortable.
Petzl Tikka R+ Headlamp
If there was one thing I could change about the Tikka R+, it’s the headlamp’s power button. Its placement, and the fact that it’s slightly raised, make it a cinch to landmark and turn on while you’re wearing it. Unfortunately, it is also prone to being accidentally turned on in your pack. I can’t count the number of times I opened the pocket where I kept the Tikka R+ only to find that the light had turned itself on. Despite this, the headlamp’s rechargeable batteries provided me with enough power to make it through the entire trip without having to recharge them, so that’s a win. And its ability to cast a dim red light that was bright enough to allow me to dress and pack in the morning, but not so powerful as to wake up the rest of the folks in the hostel, was a great perk. On the occasions where I started walking before the sun came up, the Tikka R+ cast ample white light to guide me down the trail.
Arc‘teryx Beta LT Jacket and Pants
Everything I’d read while I was preparing for my trip led me to believe that the weather would be lousy for the bulk of my time in Spain. As it turned out, I couldn’t have asked for more beautiful conditions until my last three days on the trail. The weather in Galicia can turn on a dime, going from moody and overcast to a torrential downpour in seconds – and that’s exactly what it did. When the rain started coming down in sheets, I quickly jammed my limbs my Arc’teryx Beta LT jacket and Beta AR Pants and found that both kept me as dry as a bone.
Let’s talk about the jacket first. Over the three days that I wore it almost constantly, it proved to be lightweight and mobile. With my pack on or off, I was able to move my arms without feeling the fabric pinch or strain, and even while reaching my arms above my head it never rode up. Any reservations I had about the Beta LT’s hood – which was designed to be climbing helmet compatible – being too large for my head, were quickly forgotten: it was the most agile and comfortable hood I’ve ever worn. The internal structure of the hood allows it to sit at the top of my skull and move with my head, no matter whether I was wearing it with my bare shaved crown, a ball cap or hooded sweatshirt. I maintained almost my full field of vision with the hood up. More importantly, the coat, as promised, remained water tight. Same goes for any of the bits and pieces I shoved into the jacket’s waterproof pockets. But as breathable as the jacket’s tough GORE-TEX Pro material is, I still managed to work up a sweat. The build up of heat could have been avoided had Arc’teryx opted to include a set of zip-vents, though doing so would likely add some heft to what was designed to be a lightweight waterproof shell.
As for the Beta AR pants, I’ll say this: they were considerably heavier than the majority of rain pants I saw other travellers wearing on the Camino. But given the number of stories I heard about other people’s rain gear failing them after sitting down too quickly, walking too far or simply being poorly made, I understood that sometimes lighter, even at times where every bit of extra weight counts, isn’t always better. The Beta AR pants kept me dry and comfortable in the rain and mud I encountered during the last few days of my trek. When I started to feel warm, zippered slashes along both legs provided me with the ventilation I craved (although opening them did allow the rain to get in). This is an exceptionally rough piece of rain gear that served me well, and likely will for years to come. If given the opportunity, however, I’d want to do something about the belt and buckle built into the Beta AR pants: While I had no troubles with it, they were the only part of the garment I had no faith in, feeling flimsy in comparison to the rest of the pants.
Sierra Designs Backcounty Bed
I mentioned that the weather was amazing for most of the time I spent in Spain; It was warm enough that on most nights, I really didn’t need to use the Backcountry Bed. But on the night I spent outside – and during the week I spent walking through Galicia – I couldn’t have asked for a better sleeping bag.
The Backcountry Bed’s built-in duvet and vented foot box made it easy to regulate my heat. During the night if I got too warm, I just adjusted the duvet, and let my feet to stick my of the bottom. Too cold? Reverse the process and pull the duvet tight. Unlike with a mummy bag I was able to easily move around once inside, and could comfortably sleep in any position I pleased.
It was unusually tight across the knees – a detail I found strange. As a chubby guy, I expected that the sleeping bag would be tight around my upper body, not the knees. Still, if I had to choose a sleeping bag to use for an extended trip, this minor detail wouldn’t stop me from sleeping rough in the Backcountry Bed again.
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