As I have become more active with hiking, I have gradually acquired more gear to make my hikes more comfortable. Here are my thoughts on some of the gear that I use.
Salomon X Ultra GTX shoes
We got started with our hiking during the summer, when lightweight clothing was particularly advantageous. I decided that a pair of lightweight hiking shoes would be a better option than heavy boots. With so many available options, I turned to the online Outdoor Gear Lab review site to compare their reviews.
In Outdoor Gear Lab’s ‘Best Hiking Shoes for 2020’ comparison, the Salomon X Ultra GTX won the Top Pick for Aggressive Hiking Award. The shoe gained high marks for traction, versatility, waterproofing and weight (less than 2lbs) and received good scores for comfort and support. The reviewers highlighted two potential issues – a narrow toe-box on the standard-width model and a ‘love it or hate it’ Quicklace system.
The local Decathlon store had the Salomons in stock, so I went there and tried them on. Whilst I found a size that fit me (lengthwise), there wasn’t much wiggle room around my toes. Decathlon didn’t stock the wider model, so I ordered a pair online. The wide version solved the issue regarding the narrow toe box.
The shoes were immediately comfortable, straight out of the box. I appreciated their comfort and light weight on those hot and sweaty summer hikes. I wasn’t sure whether I would like the Quicklace system, as I generally like to have laces looser around the top of my foot, and a bit tighter closer to the ankle. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to maintain a comfortable fit with the Quicklace, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Comfort hasn’t been an issue and, if I have to stop at the side of the trail to get a small stone out of my shoe, it is a quick and easy process.
I’ve worn these shoes on a variety of surfaces. They have maintained good traction and stability on hills and over rocky terrain. Unfortunately, they get a failing grade with respect to wet, smooth surfaces, where the grip is very poor and slippery. I’ve slipped and fallen onto my butt on one occasion and have had several other slips on smooth wet rock, so I’m wary of such surfaces when wearing these shoes. But for dry summer conditions, they’re great!
Bestard Phantom hiking boots
Whilst the above mentioned Salomon shoes work well in many environments, I decided to also get a pair of hiking boots for trails that are particularly challenging – and for wet conditions (where the shoes are unsuitable).
Until I visited the Camping Shop in Porto, I had never heard of the Bestard brand of hiking gear, yet they have been in operation since 1940. I tried on several different brands and styles of boots at the shop, but after walking back and forth, and up and down stairs, the Bestard Phantom seemed to be the best fit.
The Phantom is a semi-rigid leather boot with an all-around rubber rand for added protection. It is touted as a practically indestructible four seasons all-terrain boot for advanced trekking as well as glacier crossing and moderate level alpine climbing. It also claims to be ‘surprisingly light, comfy and technical’. The one-piece upper is GORE-TEX lined and also has a ventilation system. It has a Vibram Foura +EVA +TPU sole that is reputed to be long-lasting and to provide excellent grip on various surfaces. It has an easy-running lacing system that incorporates a quick-lock on the fifth pair of eyelets (from the toe).
The initial impressions, and the manufacturer’s specifications, were very positive but I discovered a significant comfort issue on my first hike wearing the boots. I wore them for a technical 16km hike up the Marao mountain, where they provided excellent grip on some steep climbs up very rocky trails. But part way through the hike, I began to feel an irritation on the bottom of both heels. I tightened up the laces to prevent any movement of my heels within the boots but, when I got home, I found that I had developed a small blister under each of my heels. I’m not prone to getting blisters whilst walking, so this problem was specific to the boots. The next time out with the boots, I wore two pairs of socks as a means of preventing blisters whilst also tightening the laces to prevent any foot movement within the boot. Despite these measures, I still developed blisters in the same place on my heels.
It’s possible that my heels were still moving slightly within the boots, with the resulting friction causing the blisters. Or perhaps there was an issue with the insole itself. I decided to upgrade the insole and bought a pair of Sidas Outdoor 3D insoles along with some anti-friction cream to rub onto my heels and feet. The Sidas insoles feature a cushioned heel and have better anatomical heel support than the insoles that came with the boots. I trimmed the Sidas insoles to the correct size and replaced the stock insoles with them. The combination of the Sidas insoles and the anti-friction cream did the trick. On my next hike with the boots, there was no irritation in my heels and no blisters.
Whilst the blistering issue had been resolved, I was still experiencing some discomfort with the boots. Because I was cinching up the laces so tightly to avoid foot movement and blisters, the tightness of the boots was causing pain on the tops of my feet, after walking for several kilometres. So, the next time out, I made some adjustments to the lacing technique. For the front section of the laces – the four sets of eyelets between the toe and the quick-lock eyelets – I loosened up the laces so that there was a small amount of slack in the laces. I locked-in that level of forefoot tightness at the quick-lock eyelets and then tightened up the rest of the boot around the ankle. This served to leave some room for movement at the forefoot whilst restricting movement at the heel and ankle. Once I had made this adjustment, I was able to use the boots without experiencing any pain, discomfort or blisters for the first time. I was relieved, as I had begun to wonder whether I would have to replace these boots with a different brand to achieve some comfort.
I’ve recently worn the boots for a challenging 22km hike in the Peneda-Gerês National Park that took seven hours to complete. Throughout that hike I did not experience any of the blistering or forefoot pain that had plagued me on the first few occasions wearing the boots. I’m confident that the Sidas insoles were the primary solution to the blistering. I put the more comfortable experience down to a combination of factors: the way that I now tighten the laces does not place undue pressure on my forefoot; I rub anti-friction cream onto my heels and feet before I head out to hike; I wear a pair of Lurbel liner socks underneath a pair of Uyn merino wool trekking socks to help reduce friction; and I suspect that the boots are also getting broken in by now.
Further, during the last two hikes, I’ve walked through some very wet conditions and the waterproofing of the boots has been outstanding. Despite standing in a couple of inches of water, no water penetrated the boots. I therefore give them top marks for waterproofing.
So, whilst I had some initial concerns about these boots, they are now comfortable to wear and do their job well. I’m hoping that they become even more comfortable as they break-in further, the more that I wear them.
Patagonia Black Hole 5-litre waist pack
For carrying water and some lunch during the hot summer months, I opted for the Patagonia Black Hole waist pack. Its 5-litre capacity is sufficient to carry a sandwich and some sun-screen, whilst its two stretchy side pockets can easily handle 500ml plastic water bottles, or even squeeze in my 0.8 litre re-usable bottles. The snug fit on the bottles prevents them from falling out whilst walking.
For short distance summer hikes, the waist pack was all I needed, avoiding the need to carry a backpack. The belt on the pack ensures a comfortable fit with no movement whilst walking.
Osprey Talon 22-litre backpack
The Patagonia waist pack worked well in the summer months, but as the weather began to turn cooler, I needed to be able to carry extra layers of clothing to cope with changing temperatures throughout our hikes. Once again, I turned to the Outdoor Gear Lab site for backpack reviews.
The Osprey Talon 22-litre pack was the Editor’s Choice and the best overall day-pack in Gear Labs review of day-packs for 2020. They said “After another year of tough competition, it again emerges as the best daypack for light and fast adventures. Due to exceptional ventilation and the ability to easily adjust the fit, the Talon is one of the most comfortable packs we tested.” Elsewhere online, there are several glowing reviews of the Osprey Talon.
Since buying the Osprey Talon, I have been very happy with it. The wide waistband ensures that most of the weight of the pack is carried on the hips. In fact, the shoulder straps are somewhat loose when the waistband is secured. They keep the pack in place but don’t bear the weight of it. I really appreciate this feature, as there is little weight borne by the shoulders, so no associated aches or strains on the shoulders and back. The design also provides space between the pack and my back, allowing good airflow and reducing any perspiration on my back. As noted in the review, the fit of the pack is easy to adjust at the waist and the sternum whilst on the move.
I appreciate the water-carrying options that the Talon provides. Its two side pockets allow me to carry two 0.8 litre plastic water bottles. Alternately, the special sleeve pocket accepts my HydraPak Shape-Shift 3-litre hydration reservoir and an elasticated band on the shoulder strap holds the reservoir bite-valve in an easily accessible location. When I’m using the Hydra-Pack reservoir, I use the side pockets to carry other equipment for easy access – such as my GorillaPod and sunglasses.
Each arm of the waistbelt has a zipped pocket that are large enough to accept an iPhone. These pockets are easily accessible whilst still wearing the pack. I keep a portable powerbank in one of them, so that I can easily recharge my phone whilst on the move – I usually use my phone to follow trails using the Wikiloc app, so the battery runs down over the course of a multi-hour trek.
The pack has an assortment of pockets that are very useful. An interior mesh pocket is a good location for holding keys and some sunscreen. A rear pocket keeps snacks in an easy to reach location, and a zipped upper compartment is a nice place to keep gloves and a wooly hat for easy access should things cool down a bit. The main compartment can hold my lunch and my down jacket (inside its stuff sack), as well as my walking poles if I am not using them.
The Talon has lived up to its reputation as a great day-pack and I’ve been very happy with it.
HydraPak Shape-Shift 3-litre hydration reservoir
This reservoir scored a ‘Top Pick’ for lightweight reservoirs by Outdoor Gear Labs, who said “it is one of the lightest bladder and hose setups that we’ve tested thus far, and in its lightweight class, it’s definitely our favorite. We’ve used it while crushing ultradistance races of 50+ miles and ski touring in cold weather. It offers a faster rate of flow through the newly designed mouthpiece.”
The reservoir has a wide top opening that makes it easy to fill. Whilst it is capable of holding three litres, it has an internal baffle that holds the two sides close together, thereby preventing it from bulging in the centre. With the baffle connected, the capacity is reduced to about 2.5 litres. That reduced capacity has proven to be sufficient for me, so far. There is also a smaller 2-litre size that carries 1.5 litres when the baffle is locked.
It’s the first water reservoir that I’ve used, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I’ve found it easy to use and I appreciate that it fits inside the sleeve of my backpack without taking up any of the normal stowage space.
Rab Nucleus Hoody
Rab describes the Nucleus Hoody as a mid-weight fleece with stretch, offering all round insulation for walking, scrambling, and climbing in cold conditions. The hoody is high-wicking and is made with Thermic™, providing insulation properties.
Rab calls it a “perfect midlayer” and I have to agree. Weighing in at only 14.6 ounces/415 grams, it is in a different class to traditional, bulky hoodies. It is extremely comfortable and its lack of bulk means it doesn’t interfere with freedom of movement. Yet it keeps me warm on cold mornings. And when there is a cold wind blowing, the hood provides some extra warmth.
This hoody has quickly become one of my favourite things to wear and it has gone with me on every hike since the weather has cooled down. With just a t-shirt underneath, it can keep me warm whilst trekking in temperatures as low as 5C.
Trangoworld Leoz pants
The Leoz hiking pants by Trangoworld have an elasticated waist, shaped knees, slim fit and are made from a stretchy material, so they facilitate freedom of movement really well. They are extremely comfortable whilst hiking and scrambling over rocks. They are also waterproof. They have two side pockets, a vertical pocket on the left thigh and a single back pocket. All pockets have zips, so nothing will fall out whilst walking.
These pants were an instant hit with me. I just love the comfort and free movement that they provide. The only criticism I might give is that the belt loops are quite small. The pants do come with a nylon-type belt that fits the belt loops, and that belt has served me well so far. But it does have a tendency of loosening up whilst walking. If I wanted to replace the belt with something stronger and more secure, either leather or webbing, I would be limited in choice due to the narrow belt loops.
Despite the light weight and flexibility of the material, the pants have proven effective at staving off the cold. On a recent hike, I experienced a biting, cold wind at the top of a peak where there was ice and frost on the ground. I didn’t feel cold on my legs whilst wearing these pants.
Rab Microlight Alpine jacket
When winter approached and the temperatures started to fall lower, I began to think about buying a down jacket. Having fallen in love with my Rab Nucleus Hoody, I turned to Rab to see what they had to offer. I really liked an orange Rab Infinity Light jacket that was in stock at the local Camping Shop. Treated with Gore-Tex Infinium, it had the added benefit of being waterproof. I tried it on a couple of times in the shop and was very tempted. But I couldn’t justify to myself spending €400 on a hiking jacket.
Whilst comparing the jackets in the Outdoor Gear Labs 2020 review, I saw that the Rab Microlight Alpine had a more appealing price and received a Top Pick as the best down jacket for weather resistance (their comparison review did not include the Rab Infinity). Their review said “If you commonly experience wet weather on your adventures but aren’t willing to part with all the advantages of down — like its low weight, long life, and great packability — then look no further than the Rab Microlight Alpine. This hoody combines a super tightly woven “downproof” Pertex Quantum face fabric with a superb DWR coating and recycled hydrophobic 700-fill power down. The hood is an excellent size and has a brim to help keep light rain out of your face. While this jacket isn’t waterproof, it is exceptionally water-resistant and accomplishes this while remaining comfortable, lightweight, and compressible. We love the advantages of down and appreciate that Rab has made a down hoody that can hold up its nemesis — water.”
Another visit to my local camping shop allowed me to directly compare the two Rab jackets – Infinity Light and Microlight Alpine – as well as a couple of other brands. After trying on four jackets, the choice came down to the two by Rab. As much as I liked the waterproof Infinity Light, I couldn’t ignore the cheaper price tag on the Microlight Alpine, so that is where my money went.
I’ve worn the jacket on a handful of hikes so far, but usually it has only stayed on for the first thirty minutes, or so (at temperatures around 7 or 8 degrees C). By then, my body is warmed up from the hiking and I need to shed the outer layer. But down jackets like this shine, even when they are not being worn. That’s because they are lightweight and stuff down into a very small space. Once the jacket comes off, I cram it down into its stuff-sack and pop it into my backpack. Weighing around 16 ounces, it doesn’t become a burden when loaded into the pack.
The ability to pack the jacket into a small place allows it to be carried in the backpack for when it might be needed. On my most recent hike, the temperature was only 5C when I started. After 50 minutes, I had warmed up and the jacket was stuffed and placed in my backpack. But a couple of hours later I found myself being buffeted by a freezing wind that was lowering my core temperature. I soon had the jacket back on and wore it for the rest of the hike. Non-down jackets can’t compete with the packability and the lightweight. This Rab Microlight Alpine has proven to be another excellent purchase.
Leki Micro Vario Carbon trekking poles
Wherever possible, I prefer to hike without poles. When I’m walking, I am frequently pulling out my camera to take photos, or checking the app on my phone to ensure that we are on the correct trail, so I like to have my hands free. And when climbing or descending inclines, I like to be able to grab hold of tree branches or rocks along the way. At times like those, poles can sometimes just get in the way. Having said that, I realise that poles can be advantageous on particularly technical trails and on long, steep ascents. For such occasions, I decided to get a pair of them.
I knew that there would be times that I’d be carrying the poles in my backpack, so I wanted a pair that were lightweight. As I often ride my motorcycle to hiking locations, I also wanted a pair that pack down to a small size, so that they can fit into my bike’s saddlebags. The Leki Micro Vario Carbon poles pack down to only 15.5 inches (39cm), so will easily fit inside my bike’s luggage and my backpack. Whilst not the lightest of poles on the market, they are light enough for my purposes at 16.4 ounces (468 grams). They are also rated as the Best Overall Trekking Pole for Men by Outdoor Gear Labs (only the Leki Womens Micro Vario Carbon scored more points in the comparison review).
When reviewing these poles, Outdoor Gear Lab said they are “top performers in a very crowded field. The grip is extremely comfortable, and the pole packs small, locks securely, and the length is adjustable. Its carbon construction helps absorb shock, but the pole is also remarkably strong and durable. From day hikes on the local trails to long treks high mountain ranges, this pole can handle it. Besides the high price tag, the only other downside is that these poles are slightly heavier than some other options on the market. Elite mountain runners and alpine climbers should look elsewhere to shave grams off their kit. But for the majority of users, this pole is fantastic.”
When I did a 17km hike up the Serra do Marão, the sixth highest mountain in mainland Portugal, there was a 921 metres elevation gain, up some long, steep and rocky trails. The Leki poles were a big assistance in maintaining a strong pace up the hills, whilst also helping to provide balance on steep downhill sections. When I hiked in the Peneda-Gerês National Park for 22km, the poles were essential to maintaining stability and balance whilst crossing rivers and they also helped me to maintain a faster pace on the hills. I’ve also found them helpful when the ground is wet and slippery. So, whilst I don’t like to use poles for easy and moderate hikes, when hikes are rated as difficult I’ve found the poles to be useful – and sometimes essential.
So, those are my experiences with my hiking gear to date. I hope that this information is helpful to others who might be considering buying some of this kit.