As I’ve got a busy few days ahead, today was packing day and here it is, pretty much packed for the adventure, with only last minute things to do on Wednesday when I get on the plane.

Of course there was last minute agonising over what lens to take, whether to take a flash or not and discovering my external hard drive was nearly out of space, which required a quick dash to the shops for a spanking new 1TB drive.

In the end I’ve opted for my Canon 6D with a 17-40mm and 100-400mm lens as the primary system plus flash; a back up system of the Fuji XE-1 with a 18-55mm and a 55-200mm lens; the Fuji X-100 in a dry bag to play with when in the kayak and the GoPro to take video with. Regarding the latter I’m still trying to decide whether to use a head mount or a chest harness, but will play it by ear and see what comes up trumps. The new Really Right Stuff tripod and ball head are coming too and should help with getting sharp photos and panoramas.

Now all that’s left is getting on all the various planes that are going to take me to Longyearbyen. Showtime!

78 degrees north

In two weeks’ time I will be getting on a plane to fly to Longyearbyen, a small town in the archipelago of Svalbard, which occasionally gets in the news when yet another tourist is mauled by a polar bear. I will be joining an expedition cruise there, which for me is the adventure of a lifetime, one I’ve long dreamed of. The cruise will go along the coast of Svalbard, then cross to Greenland, move into Scoresby Sund and finish in Iceland. It holds the promise of seeing whales, polar bears, arctic terns, foxes, possibly some reindeer and much more wildlife that would turn into a long list if I listed them all. To make it even more exciting I have booked the kayaking activity, which means I will be going out in a small group in double kayaks with a chance to observe wildlife even closer. My spare room is filling up with cold weather gear and my biggest dilemmas at the moment are hitting the right weather to do more kayaking training down the coast and deciding between what lenses and camera bodies to take. Do I take the flash or not? Do I take this zoom lens or that one? Choices, choices. I’ve been asking some advice from friends who have done this trip before and who always have sound advice. They suggested I focus on opting for redundancies rather than more lenses and I think that’s spot on. Once I’ve made my choices I know I will be fine and constraints usually focus you more on your photography than having too many options to choose from. Apart from that it will be wonderful to be on a ship with no city noise to distract. No cars, no horns, no buses, no trucks, no deafening car stereos. And once in the kayaks, just the splash of paddles on the water. I have loaded up the kindle with books by Barry Lopez. Of course I have read his Arctic Dreams, for the fourth time at last count. I first discovered it many years ago and see it pop up in every book written about the Arctic. His writing is erudite and poetic, so it’s no surprise that it has become such a reference work. I’ve downloaded a number of his other books and look forward to some quiet moments reading those. The blog has been very quiet for a while and that has mainly been because there has been no travel, but the next few months I will make up for that. This is the first of a few upcoming trips, with a trip to the Antarctic scheduled for November, in between some shorter tropical trips. I aim to write one or two more posts before starting this trip. During the trip it will be difficult to post, due to the lack of communications, but I will write them while cruising and once I’m on terra firma again, I will upload at the first opportunity. And finally, I figured it was time for a fresh look of the blog. I may make a few more tweaks in the next two weeks, but I think it’s already looking better than it was before.

Aarn Featherlite Freedom review

Back in October 2012 I blogged that I had bought the Aarn Featherlite Freedom backpack, but until November 2013 I didn’t really have an opportunity to take it out into the field. A good friend of mine emailed me today asking whether I had used the new pack on my Patagonia trip and that made me realise that whilst I had written about the walks themselves, I had not specifically written about the pack, so I thought I’d do that in a post now.

Previously I’ve always used my very trusty Macpac Torre pack on overnight and multiple day hikes. I bought that years ago and it seems to be indestructible. But it is also heavy and I’ve been looking for ways to lighten the load I carry and for how I carry it. The Aarn Featherlite Freedom seemed to be the answer and so in November last year the first thing was figuring out how to pack it with everything that I was going to need for the trip.

When you pack at home for a trip, you think you’ve got the configuration worked out on how everything goes into the pack, but then you get to the location, buy your gas canisters, your food and bingo, you have a new equation to work with. With the Torre I had so much space that I never really needed to give too much serious thought on what to take and often ended up bringing too much. No such luxury with the Aarn. The volume is significantly less than what I had with the Torre, so it takes thought and planning on what to take and how to pack it. Add to that adapting to new locations for water bottles, camera, snacks, sunscreen and sunglasses and it takes a few goes before you have it right. So it was good that I started out hiking in Los Glaciares on my own, which gave me the opportunity to get the hang of the pack, find the best places for all the equipment and the perfect configuration of everything.

I used two one-litre water bladders that slide neatly in the mesh pockets of the front pockets and are very easy to get out and back in. Most of the food went into the right front pocket, with first aid and camera going into the left front pocket. I particularly loved having the camera so easily accessible and not bothering me around my waist as previously. It also helped that I ditched the DSLR and opted for a Fuji X-E1. At about half the weight it was a joy to carry around and I found myself using it much more than I would have an DSLR. I found that having the drinking bladders and snacks in the front made stops really easy. Often I wouldn’t even take the pack off.

One other thing that I had to adjust to a little was the easiest way to put the pack on. There are a lot of straps and buckles and you have to find your own way around those. I would put the pack on while putting my arms through the straps, but then tuck the forearms back underneath the front pockets to secure the hip buckle, then take them out i front of the pockets to click them into place. Sounds complicated, but it wasn’t once I figured out my sequence.

After Los Glaciares I joined the group around Torres del Paine and that is when I had to figure out how to accommodate more food, given that we all had to carry substantial amounts for the 9-day trek. I solved that by putting the heavier food in the front pockets and the lighter stuff in the main compartment in the back. That initially left no space for my tent, but I had brought a dry bag for that purpose and slid the tent in there and clipped it to the top of the pack. Once we started getting through the food supplies, the tent could go back into the backpack. So that all worked fine too.

The pack stood up well in the weather conditions and everything stayed beautifully dry in it. Although I carried the same quantity of things as my fellow hikers, my pack looked smaller and felt lighter (also because a lot of my equipment is super lightweight). It also moves with the body much better and I was pleased to see that not once I did a ‘upside turtle’, which I have been known to do with the Macpac. I was also much more sure footed, which made river crossings so much easier that I was usually the first or second one across (do I hear gasps of surprise from my usual bushwalking buddies?!).

I did get a few funny looks and comments, but once people tried the pack on or saw me walk completely upright with it, they were quickly intrigued by it and asking where it was from, who manufactured it.

So to wrap this up: for me the pack receives a big tick of approval and I would only really use the Macpac again if I had to take much more than what would reasonably fit into the Aarn. I probably would try to avoid that at any cost. I better start planning another trip…