Friday, March 30, 2012

Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration System Review

As I have mentioned numerous times before, for many years now I have been using a MSR Miniworks EX as my water filter when in the woods. It is robust, easy to clean in the field, and filters well. However, it has a large downside, which is its weight. With all of the necessary accessories, it tips the scale at over a pound. I’ve been searching for a lighter option, and I think I have finally stumbled onto a good one.

As the title indicates, the solution I found is the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System.


The filter comes in the box you see above. Inside you have the water filter itself, three water bags, listed as being 2L, 1L, and 0.5L respectively. You also get a large syringe, which is intended to be used for back flushing the filter in the event it gets clogged. The filter itself has a screw on drinking pop-up cap, which can be removed if the filter is used by squeezing or as a gravity filter.


There are several ways to use the filter. You can attach it directly to a water bottle or hydration bladder. It has a standard fitting that will screw onto any standard size bottle opening, including a soda bottle and Platypus bags. You can then use the pop-up drinking spout to drink directly from the bottle. If you remove the drinking spout, you will see a hose attachment point, allowing you to use the filter as an inline gravity filter. Lastly, and the way I use it is as a squeeze filter. Simply fill one of the provided bags (or the platypus bag of your choosing) with dirty water, screw on the filter, and applying slight pressure to the bag, squeeze the water into your bottle.

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In the picture you see the filter being used with the 2L bag. I am applying only very slight pressure. The filter will work well even without any pressure applied.


The Sawyer Water Filter uses a hollow fiber filter, very similar to that used in the MSR Hyperflow Microfilter.

The filter element is not removable, but is rated to one million gallons of water. While I seriously doubt that the filter would last through one million gallons of water, it is stated right on the box, and I certainly do not have the means to test it.

The pore size on the filter is rated as 0.1 microns. In practical terms, this means that it can filter parasites like Cryptosporidium and Giardia, as well as bacteria. This is comparable performance to other backpacking filters such as the MSR Miniworks EX and the Katadyn Hiker Pro. It will not filter viruses as they are too small, but I am not aware of any backpacking filters that do that.

The filter is cleanable. It is the same back flushing process used in other hollow fiber filters. To do this with the Sawyer, you simply place the syringe, full with clean water at the opening where the water usually exits, and you push the water in, in effect back flushing it. 

Sawyer lists the filter as weighing 3 oz. When completely wet, immediately after use, it weighs 3.5 oz. If however you take about 30 seconds to shake it in one direction, you can drive most of the water off, and bring the weight down to 3 oz. That leads me to think that when completely dry (something that is unlikely to happen with a filter without a removable element, the weight might be a slightly under 3 oz.

Component Weight
Filter 3.0 oz
Pop-up Mouthpiece 0.1 oz
Bottle Cap 0.1 oz
Syringe 1.1 oz
2L Bottle/Bag 1.0 oz
1L Bottle/Bag 0.7 oz
0.5L Bottle/Bag 0.5 oz

I remember reading a review a while back, which indicated that the water bags were actually smaller than what was listed in the specification. Sawyer seems to have fixed that, as now each bag is actually slightly larger than what is listed. The 1L bag for example holds as much water as a Nalgele bottle, which is about 1.1L.

The Sawyer Squeeze Filtration System costs about $50.00.

Comparison to Other Filters


In the picture you can see the MSR Miniworks EX (left), the Sawyer Squeeze Filter (middle) and the Aqua Mira Frontier Pro (right).


In terms of size, the Sawyer is much smaller than the MSR Miniworks EX. It is similar size to the Frontier Pro, being a little shorter, but thicker. Obviously both the Sawyer and the Frontier Pro need a separate water bag in order to function, unless you want to drink directly from the water source. That will add some volume, but both will still be much smaller than the MSR Miniworks EX.


For detailed weights of each Sawyer component, see the chart above. For the weight comparison here, I am using each filter with enough components to allow it to fill a water bottle. For the MSR I am using the filter and hose, for the Sawyer I am using the filter (without the cap) and the 1L bag, and for the Frontier Pro I am using the filter (without the hose attachment) and the same 1L bag.

Filter Weight
MSR Miniworks EX 14.8 oz
Sawyer Squeeze Filter 3.7 oz
Aqua Mira Frontier Pro 2.6 oz

It should be noted that as a hollow fiber filter, once you get it wet, it is very hard to get it completely dry. As such, the weight above for the sawyer is probably a bit higher than it would be if the filter was completely dry, but I think it is a more realistic measurement, as you are never likely to have it dry. This is an issue with all hollow fiber filters that do not have a removable element.

Filtering Capacity

In terms of filtering capacity, the competition here is mostly between the MSR Miniworks EX and the Sawyer Squeeze Filter. The MSR has a filter pore size of 0.2 and the Sawyer has a filter pore size of 0.1. Both of them will filter out parasites and bacteria.

The Aqua Mira Frontier Pro on the other hand falls significantly short in this category. I would personally never use it as a filter, and only have it here for comparison purposes. The Frontier Pro has a pore size of 3. That’s right, not 0.3, but 3! This will filter out most parasites and dirt, but will do nothing for smaller contaminants such as bacteria. Seeing how it’s not in the same league as the other two filters, I don’t care much how fast it can filter water.

It should be noted that none of the filters will filter out viruses. For that you need some form of chemical treatment. Viruses are easily killed by just about any chemical method in a very short period of time. Fortunately, viruses are not much of an issue in North America and Europe, so no treatment should be required. If traveling in other countries, a small bottle of chlorine bleach should take care of it.

Filter Pore Size Filter Time for 1L
MSR Miniworks EX 0.2 2 min 5 sec
Sawyer Squeeze Filter 0.1 2 min 24 sec
Frontier Pro 3 n/a

For the speed test I used the Sawyer with the 2L bag so I don’t risk running out of water. This however brings me to another point. The above times reflect only the speed of filtering. Just like any filter system which takes water from a bag in order to filter, the Sawyer requires additional time to fill up that bag. If you have a sufficiently deep water source, this should take no more than a few seconds. However, you might find yourself in a situation where you have to fill up the bag using your cup. That can add quite a bit of time.

Therefore, while the filtering rate of the Sawyer is not that much slower than the MSR Miniworks EX, the overall filtering time might be significantly longer based on conditions.


Field maintenance is an important factor for me when choosing a filter. That has always been the big appeal of the MSR Miniworks EX for me. It can be fully disassembled in the field without tools and the filter element can be removed and field cleaned.

The Aqua Mira Frontier Pro is on the other extreme in that it is not field maintainable at all. It does shave a pre-filter which can be changed, but after 50 gallons (as per specifications) you have to get a new filter.

The Sawyer Squeeze Filtration System falls somewhere in between. The filter element is not removable, but you can clean the filter by back flushing it. The only issue I have with that is the size of the syringe required for the job. I don’t exactly want to carry around a syringe the size of the filter just for cleaning purposes.

Sawyer states that their filter requires much less cleaning than a ceramic filter like the MSR Miniworks EX. In fact, they say that it requires about 20 times less cleaning. That means that for every 20 times you have to clean your MSR filter, you only have to clean the Sawyer once. I have no idea how true that is. It may not mean much if the water you are filtering is very dirty.

The Sawyer Squeeze Filter does not come with a pre-filter. I wish it did. It would make me feel much better about using a hollow fiber filter instead of a ceramic one.

One thing to keep in mind when using the filter, if you get dirty water on the outside of the bag, make sure to wipe it down before you start filtering. You don’t want it to drip down into the bottle.

Since it is hard to get the Sawyer filter completely dry, the instructions recommend that for long term storage, you should put a few drops of chlorine bleach in the water bag and squeeze it along with the water through the filter. That will prevent the growth of any bacteria or mold.

As with all filters (that I know if) you have to be careful to prevent freezing during winter. When the filter is wet and the water freezes, it expands and can damage the filter element. This is true for the Sawyer Squeeze Filter as well as for ceramic filters like the MSR Miniworks EX. An insulative cover can help a lot during winter. 


So far the filter has performed very well for me. It is slower than the MSR, but it is not so slow, as to make it a nuisance when out in the woods.

Operation of the filter is very simple. The biggest issue is filling up the water bag, for which I use my cup. I wipe the cup down afterwards, but if that worries you, bring a different scoop.

I have not had any clogging issues so far. It would be interesting to see how long that lasts, and how effective back flushing would be in restoring the flow rate. In my experience (with the MSR Hyperflow), that was the biggest issue.

I keep the filter in a Ziploc bag to prevent any dripping after it has been used.

I have made a few modification to the filter, including a pre-filter and a back flushing mechanism. Together they bring the field weight of the filter to 4 oz. I hope to be able to go over the modifications in a post on Monday.

Overall, while operation and maintenance of the Sawyer is not as smooth and easy as that of the MSR Miniworks EX, the weight saving are significant. I have been able to cut off about a pound from my pack by making the switch. So far, all of the disadvantages have been minor enough to not be an issue, and have certainly been worth it considering the weight savings.

So far, for me, the Sawyer Squeeze Filter is the way to go. We will see how it holds up after some long term testing.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rasha Yousif: The Vedic School

Rasha Yousif is a photographer from the island nation of Bahrain, and is only the second Middle Eastern participant in my photo expeditions-workshops since I started them 10 years or so ago. She is a portfolio manager, and has a Masters in Finance from DePaul University.

During my The Oracles Of Kerala Photo Expedition-Workshop, Rasha worked on a number of multimedia photo projects and is one of the first to publish her very first attempt at Soundslides with her Five Hundred Years Vedic School.

In most of her projects, Rasha has easily connected with people and used this ability to add personal voice clips to her sound tracks. You'll hear such a clip in her Vedic School project.

She is quite adept in using her iPhone for on-the-fly photography, and to record the progress of her work during the two weeks in Kerala.

Photo © Rasha Yousif- All Rights Reserved

I had arranged for a photo shoot at an ancient Vedic (or training/boarding school very similar to the Buddhist monasteries for novitiates, or a Muslim madrasa in Thrissur, where we were treated to a demonstration of this way of teaching the sacred Vedic scriptures.

Stellar Eazistore Non-Stick Bakeware Set: Review

This is the first time I have seen a nesting bakeware set and my first thoughts were, how clever is that! The Stellar Eazistore Non-Stick Bakeware Set comprises a Roaster, 12 Cup Muffin Pan, Baking Sheet, Baking Tray and Cooling Tray. Each piece is numbered to ensure they are stacked in the correct order, and because they are non-stick, you don't want the underside of one of the tins coming into contact with the non-stick cooking surface.

Here is a set of five everyday baking essentials which nest neatly together and only take up the space of one roaster, leaving more room in our cupboards. They are made from heavy gauged steel and all the edges are rolled. I ran my finger around all the products and there are no sharp edges.

The bakeware cannot be used on the hob and is for oven use up to 240°C. I started my chicken at this temperature to test the roaster and good news, the tray didn't warp. After the chicken and vegetables cooked, none of the baking juices were stuck to the pan, and it is simply a case of letting the tin cool down and washing in hot soapy water. The bakeware set is dishwasher safe but I prefer to handwash mine, and because nothing sticks, it doesn't seem necessary to put them in the dishwasher.

I have only one very small niggle, and that is, the name of the product is embossed centrally on top of the baking sheet and the baking tray, and to make biscuits, scones or similar you have to avoid the central area of the tray, or an alternative is to line the tray.
The muffin tin/muffin cases was an experiment I have carried out before (but not with this cupcake tin). I have had problems with some of my cupcake cases getting crushed in the cupcake tin and thought it was perfect timing to try this experiment again. The brown cupcake cases have been giving me problems and one make of white cupcake cases. Interestingly, none of my cupcake cases crushed and I did notice the cupcakes took slightly less time to cook.

The bakeware set looks good, it is versatile, excellent quality, and exceptional value too. I know I will be using this set time and time again.

The Stellar Eazistore Non-Stick Five Piece Nesting Bakeware Set can be purchased from Amazon and independent cookshops. There is a Stellar lifetime guarantee and a 5 year non-stick guarantee.  Please visit Stellar Cookware to see more products.

Thank you Pam and Stellar Cookware.

Hotel Chocolat - Your Eggsellency Extra Thick Easter Egg

Hotel Chocolat have kindly sent me a beautiful Your Eggsellency Extra Thick Easter Egg. One half of the shell is 40% milk chocolate and the other half is 70% dark chocolate, and the shell is extra thick too, whereas most Easter Eggs have a thin chocolate shell.
The chocolate truffles are all beautifully decorated, with most having a generous dash of alcohol. There are 12 truffles filled with soft cream ganaches with white port, champagne, mojito cocktail, amaretto amour, bison grass vodka and pink champagne. The centres of each of the truffles are smooth and luxurious - I don't have a favourite, I don't even mind not looking at the chocolate menu, I just want to eat these chocolates!

For more Chocolate Easter Egg gift ideas please visit the Hotel Chocolat website.

Hotel Chocolat supplied the Easter Egg for the review.

POV: Is May 10 The Day For Leica?

Photo Courtesy GIZMODO

May 10th.

That's when Leica will announce a "whole range of product launches" in Berlin. Am I waiting with bated breath for these new products? Not at all. But having a M9 and very much aware of its strong points and shortcomings, I'm interested in seeing what will Leica come up with. It's more from a business side than from a photographic one since the German company is under assault from Fuji and others that are treading on its turf.

I was recently sent a heads up by Zeyad Gohary on a new all-white $31,770 M9-P model with a Noctilux f/0.95 50mm lens. Ridiculous of course, but perhaps it will sell well amongst the moneyed elites, celebrities and collectors. I had a chuckle imagining it in my grubby hands had I had one and used it during the recent festivals I was at in India. It would have turned black (with yellow turmeric and red stains) very quickly. Maybe the Kardashian sisters and their ilk would buy it, but Leica must've done its market research and concluded that it'll make money peddling this all-white model.

That said, I wonder what a "whole range of product launches" will mean. It's reported that the Fuji X-100 clobbered Leica's X1 model, and I predict that Fuji X-Pro 1 will become a favored tool for photographers who won't shell out $8000 or so to buy a M9 (or more in case of a successor). Leica is run by hard headed businessmen who look at the bottom line, and hopefully look into the future...and the future is for cameras that look, smell, cost and work like the Fuji X-Pro 1. Leica's investors know the future as well, and making white M9-P is a cute gimmick, but will not bring in the kind of cash inflow that satisfies these investors.

The range of new products may mean a successor to the M9, lenses and -if my gut feel is right- a new line of mirrorless cameras to directly compete with the Japanese products. A new M10 (improved focus, better LCD, better ISO, etc) and/or a new range of EVIL-like cameras.

That's my call.

Update: The Oracles Of Kerala

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
As I always do on completion of a trip, I shall be writing a comprehensive 'post-mortem' on The Oracles of Kerala Photo Expedition/Workshop™...what worked, what didn't, comparing my expectations to what was the reality, etc. in a few days. And for the Leica crowd, whether it was a good idea to take my M9 along with me.

In the meantime, I can very comfortably say that this two weeks expedition was, in many ways, one the best I ever led.

Whilst I generally preferred northern India to its south, this trip changed this view.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

National Geographic’s New Everest Page

Well, the new climbing season is upon us. In honor of the occasion, National Geographic has created a new webpage where they will follow the progress of the current Conrad Anker/Cory Richards team. At the same time, National geographic has provided some great galleries, showing some older photos of climbers. You can see the webpage here.


The photograph above is from the documentary, The Wildest Dream, where Conrad Anker and Leo Holding tested out the gear used by George Mallory and Sandy Irvine on their doomed ascent of Everest in 1924. It is provided in one of the galleries on the page I linked to above.

For those interested, here are some observations made by Anker regarding Mallory’s clothing during the above trip:

What was the highest altitude you wore the authentic 1924 outfits to?

We wore the period clothing to 7,300m (Everest is 8,848m) – it was pretty cold. Initially, in the development stages of the film, it was like, ‘Well we’ll climb right to the summit in it’. But on the mountain it became too challenging to wear it right to the top and we weren’t prepared to risk our lives.

Was it difficult to climb in the hobnail boots?

Yes it was because the hobnails kept falling out. Wearing boot-leather soles on ice was super slick. At one stage, Leo was worried his toes were frozen. It took about an hour to get the circulation going and that was awful. He knew his career would be over if he lost a toe.

How do you think Mallory and Irvine survived so long in this kind of gear?

The fact that they got as high as they did wearing the clothing they did is the most remarkable aspect of their achievement. My theory was, once you get used to the equipment you acclimatize a little to the local temperature. As long as they were moving it was okay, they were able to thermo-regulate, but as soon as they stopped it was too cold. Some of their team did suffer frostbite on their hands and feet.

Check out the National Geographic webpage. It has a lot of interesting content.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Fatimah Of Kodungallur Medresa

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Well, the photo shoot at the Cheraman Juma Masjid was a dud.

I had expectations that the first Muslim mosque in the whole of India, would provide an interesting back drop for great imagery, but I was wrong. The mosque was renovated a few decades back, and its original artefacts "lost". The famed oil lamp supposedly continuously since the building of the mosque by Malik Bin Dinar, who's quite an interesting Islamic personality according to Wikipedia

In any event, having been to the Islamic medresa earlier gave us the opportunity to see Muslim children learning the Qur'anic texts and theology nearby the ancient mosque...probably in the same style as their forefathers/mothers did centuries ago.

One of the loveliest young girls was Fatimah, who was picked up from the school by her father on a scooter, who just loved the iPhone and Instagram.

The Conquest of Everest

This is a movie that came out in 1953, shortly after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to successfully reach the summit of Everest. The film utilizes original footage from the expedition to document the ascent.

It is very interesting to watch, not only because it is a snapshot of history, but it also allows us to see a lot of the equipment, clothing, and techniques in use at the time.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Smoked Haddock and Leek Risotto

I'm not one for take out meals but on occasions I feel lazy, can't be bothered, can't get into the zone and can't even think what to make. On these occasions I always feel guilty, but then I do have a husband to feed! Left to me it would be a plate of leaves and a spray of balsamic vinegar, but then as I said before, I do have a husband to feed, and I don't think he would be very impressed with a plate of leaves.

For all the above occasions risotto saves the day. Risotto fills you up and as long as you have some arborio rice, a glass of white wine and some chicken stock you can make a substantial meal. Hopefully, you will have some Parmesan cheese to grate over the risotto too.

Risotto isn't the prettiest of meals but taste wise it takes some beating. Risotto costs less than a take out, takes less time than if you have to fetch it and won't hurt your wallet either.

I have a clever kitchen gadget which makes mine in 25 minutes from start to finish, a present from my husband, and so on lazy days and can't be bothered days it's risotto for us.

This delicious recipe is from Olive Magazine and can be found on the BBC GoodFood website.

A few more lazy day risotto's:

Lemon Thyme, Prosciutto, Pecorino and Goat's Cheese Risotto
Porcini and Spinach Risotto
Nigel Slater's Leek Risotto with Parmesan Crisps

Final Day: The Oracles Of Kodungallur

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

I must've traveled to India over 20 times since 1998, and criss-crossed in length and breadth reasonably thoroughly. However, I have never seen or attended a religious event of the emotional intensity and visual magnetism as the Bharani festival in Kodungallur.

It is here that once a year the so-called Oracles of Kodungallur meet to celebrate both Kali and Shiva. By the many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, these red-clad oracles arrive in this area of Kerala, and perform self mortification acts by banging on their heads with ceremonial swords repeatedly until blood trickle down their foreheads, and daub the wounds with turmeric. The Bharani festival lasts for three days.

The festival was attended by many thousands, and (in my view) surpassed the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in intensity and religious fervor. We all marveled at how everyone at the festival, most of whom were from small villages of the area, were so welcoming, protective and friendly.

I was perfectly placed near the local royal (or maharaja) who was mobbed by attendees, eager for his blessings. While a couple of policemen protected me from the rush of the mobs, I stayed long enough to get a couple of shots of the royal, and left that area which was becoming very risky.

An incredible close to a thrilling photo workshop.

Tomorrow the group is having a final class in multimedia, with only one photo shoot planned at the Cheraman Juma Masjid; the first Muslim mosque in the whole of India, built in 629 AD. Having experienced a short photo shoot at its medrasa this morning, we are all eager to add an Islamic flavor to our photo expedition.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Judge Jubilee 14cm Milk/Sauce Pot: Review

The Judge Jubilee Milk/Sauce Pot is made from satin stainless steel and can be used on all hobs including induction. It has a polished ovensafe stainless steel handle, there is a clear measuring guide on the inside and it has a capacity of 1.5 litres. The pan is dishwasher safe and comes with a Judge 25 year guarantee.

This pan has the wow factor - it is also well made and has a thermic base which ensures even heat distribution. I put the pan to the test by making a celery and walnut soup. The handle hardly gets warm and it shouldn't get hot, providing you match the size of the pan base to the size of the heating area, you should only need either a moderate or low heat source. The pan looks so good you can take it to the table. My soup poured out cleanly into the bowls. There was too much soup for us and I poured the remainder into soup storage bags and popped them into the freezer for a rainy day.

The pan was large enough to cook enough soup for two, I cooled the soup and poured this directly from the pot into the liquidiser.
It is easy to cook everything in the pan from start to finish.

A great sauce pot to use for custard, sauces, porridge, soup or gravy, the heat transfer is excellent which means the contents heat up in no time at all, and the pan is very sturdy too. Nothing has either burnt or stuck on the base of the pot, cleaning is easy too, all I needed was washing up liquid and a dishcloth.

The packaging is eye catching with a Union Jack adorning one side of the pack.

The Milk Pot is excellent value at £20.00 and for stockist information visit

Thank you Pam and Judge Cookware.

Vacu Vin Double Pestle and Mortar: Review

The Vacu Vin Double Pestle and Mortar is a contemporary classic which will look good in any kitchen setting. The wooden pestle has indentations across the top to make grinding/crushing spices easier and quicker.

This clever kitchen tool has two bowls for grinding herbs and spices. The larger main bowl is 10cm diameter with an inner glazed area of approximately 2cm at the top and the remainder of the bowl is unglazed. Turn it over and there is a small unglazed bowl which measures 5cm in diameter and is perfect for grinding smaller quantities of spice.

I always roast my spices in a pan, you know they are ready when they start jumping around, this method brings out the best flavour and aroma. Ready ground spices go stale very quickly and it is always best to roast and grind your own. I gave this pestle and mortar a few difficult tasks, such as grinding cardamom seeds and it was quick and easy, I think my old pestle and mortar is now destined to stay in the cupboard.....For dust free storage you can turn the pestle onto its widest bowl and place the pestle upright in the small mortar base and it is dishwasher safe too.

Can be purchased from Amazon for £9.95.

Whilst Vacu Vin are well known for their Wine Saver, they make many other innovative products too.

Thank you Pam and Vacu Vin.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Oracles of Kerala Workshop & Ambika Temple

The pressure was on yesterday, as I asked the participants in my The Oracles of Kerala Photo Expedition/Workshop™ to complete a full multimedia project in about 4 hours. While they had worked for many hours on longer photo essays and putting those in a multimedia format, yesterday's exercise was designed to ensure they could complete a simple multimedia project within a time limit.

They were all successful.

From the left (going clockwise) is Charlotte Rush-Bailey (with a visor), Rasha Yousif, Kristine Bailey, Victoria Alexander, Sandy Chandler, John Spillane and Tony Pond.

After the hard work, we attended the rituals at the Ambika Temple. The rituals included the arrival of elephants from the Thirunakkara Festival, the cleansing of the deity after covering it with turmeric, and a dazzling display of oil-lit lamps on the streets of Udala, where these young girls were lined up carrying small trays of flowers and candles.

Bushcraft and Camping Cold Weather Clothing

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the clothing I have been wearing, so I thought I would use this opportunity to go through some of it. In particular, I’ll go over the clothing I was wearing on my 2/18/12 through 2/20/12 trip, since I’ve already described it in a previous post, here. I only call it “cold weather” clothing because I use it during winter in my area. It is certainly not appropriate for all cold weather environments.

I want to once again stress that we are free to chose whatever equipment we want, but we should be honest about the reasons for which we chose it. In that spirit, I want to make it very clear that this is in no way the best clothing out there. I wear what you see in this post because I like the way it looks and I like the way it fits. It performs well enough for the environment in which I camp, but it should in no way be considered the end all and be all of clothing options. On top of that, I picked this clothing because it was very affordable, along with some additional motivations which I will discuss further down.

For an alternative selection of affordable clothing, have a look at this post.

Base Layer

The first part of the base layer is a synthetic (polyester) T-shirt and synthetic underwear. There is nothing special about them. I just picked them up at Target for a few dollars each.

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The second part of the base layer is a US Army surplus synthetic base layer shirt. I bought it as a combination with a pair of base layer underpants. Together they cost about $10. I don’t wear the bottoms because I hate having anything close fitting on my legs, but that is an option as the two come together as a package.


You may ask why I don’t wear Merino wool as a base layer. The answer is simple. It is the same reason why I am not wearing a high end synthetic top like the Arcteryx Phase SV - cost. Something like the SmartWool Midweight Funnel will cost about $75. That would cost more than most of my other clothing combined.

Mid Layer

The first part of the mid layer consists of a shirt and a pair of trousers.

The shirt is a Pendleton wool shirt. I got it on sale for $40. This is the most expensive part of my clothing. The largest problem I have with wool is the cost. For example, when not on sale, this shirt goes for more than $80. This is in the range of high end modern gear like the Patagonia R1 or the RAB Exodus. I am wearing a size M in the picture.


The pants are a pair of M51 US Army surplus wool pants. I got them new for $25. I think they are a great value for the money. They are actually a blend of 80% wool and 20% synthetic material, which gives them good durability. The pants you see in the picture are size S.

The second part of the mid layer is a M51 US Army surplus cold weather wool shirt. It is made from the same blend as the pants, and I got it new for $10.


It is a size S, but fits well over the Pendleton shirt. It is somewhat bulky. It is certainly much larger in volume than a modern alternative like the RAB Xenon or the Patagonia Nano Puff, but you can’t beat that price.

A wool sweater will also do well as this layer. I have not been able to find one at good cost, but it should offer better insulation, even though it will not be as wind resistant.

Shell Layer

The M51 shirt is a fairly tight weave, so I don’t need much additional protection from the wind, but I do need rain protection. The jacket I had on this trip was a simple nylon jacket that I bought many years ago. I think it cost me about $30.


This is not an item I wear much. I mostly pull it out when there is rain. If I am wearing clothing like untreated fleece, I wear it more often if there is wind, but most of the time it stays in my bag. Because of that, I will at some point have to get something smaller and lighter. I’m thinking something like the Marmot Super Mica. I also need a pair of rain pants, but again, they would have to be very light and compact, as they are not something I use much of the time.

Other Items

The belt I am wearing is the same one I have had for many years. It is a thin nylon belt with a very small buckle. I like it precisely because it is no minimal. It does not get in the way when you are wearing a backpack with a hip belt, nor do you have to take it off while sleeping. I have found leather belts and other more robust belts to be extremely uncomfortable in both those situations.

On this trip I also wore a thinsulate cap, a fleece scarf and a pair of US Army surplus fingerless wool liner gloves.


The cap is identical to a wool watch cap, but I find it much more comfortable, especially to sleep in.

I wore the same wool socks that I always wear.


I find the above clothing to be sufficient for temperatures down to 20F while stationary. That of course means that when working and moving, I am not wearing all of the clothing (usually just up to the Pendleton shirt). If your trip just involves moving between different heated shelters, then this clothing can be used effectively at much lower temperatures.


Since I don’t use heated shelters however, the clothing has to be good enough to keep me warm when stationary, especially in the evenings. Because of that, if I expect the temperature to get any lower, I add some other items to the above set up.

The first item is a pair of liners for the M51 pants. They are the standard M51 liners for the pants. They are made of 60% wool/40% cotton batting with a synthetic liner. They cost about $10, and button into the M51 pants. The liners provide excellent insulation. I have never encountered temperatures in my area that have been low enough to make me feel cold with the liners. I have gone down to about 0F with them without feeling cold in any way. I am sure they will go even lower. The downside is the weight and bulk. They are very heavy, and hard to pack if you chose to remove them.


For the upper body I add a synthetic fill jacket. It is nothing special. I got it at Target for $50. It is warm, and more importantly, it packs to a fairly small size.


The last addition, and something I wish I had brought on this trip is a pair of wool mittens that go over the liner gloves.


Evaluation and Other Considerations

First, for those interested, let me give you the weights of each of the items:

ITEM Weights
T-shirt (C9 by Champion) 4.3 oz
Underwear (C9 by Champion) 2.8 oz
Base Layer (Army surplus top) 8.2 oz
Pendleton Wool Shirt 13.8 oz
M1951 Wool Shirt 1 lb 5.5 oz
M1951 Wool Pants 1 lb 12.6 oz
M1951 Pant Liners 1 lb 14.1 oz
Thinsulate Cap 2.3 oz
Fleece Scarf 3.1 oz
Gloves (Army surplus liner gloves) 1.6 oz
Wool Socks 3.4 oz
Belt 3.0 oz
Rain Coat 1 lb 1.1 oz
Wool Mittens 5.6 oz
Jacket (C9 by Champion) 2 lb 11.7 oz

I mentioned earlier that I had some other reasons for choosing this clothing. The reason why I started wearing it is because I used to read on all of the forums that wool is this type of almost magical material that was better than anything else. I figured that I would give it a try and see what all the hype is about. That is why this fall and winter I wore only the above set up. Based on that I have reached a few conclusions.

One of them is that which every reasonable person knows: wool is no magical fabric. Like anything else, it has advantages, and it has flaws.

Some of the advantages are that it provides fairly good insulation, it is breathable, it is flame resistant, and is fairly durable, especially when compared to some of the lighter weight materials. Of course it is not as durable as cordura or cotton. These particular items of clothing also provide good wind protection when compared to basic fleece clothing, eliminating the need for a separate wind shirt.

The disadvantages are that it is heavy, bulky, and it dries very slowly. Many people say that the fact it dries slowly does not matter because the wool will keep you warm when wet, but from my experience, it is absolutely false. If you get wet, you will be cold. There are many other materials on the market like simple fleece, which will keep you just as warm when wet, but will dry out much more quickly.

So, how significant are the disadvantages? Well, they are clearly not bad enough to keep me from wearing the clothing, but they should be a significant consideration for you.

If you are in a wet environment, the ability to dry your clothing will make the difference between being warm and being cold. A fleece heavy set up like the one in the article to which I linked in the beginning of this post will perform somewhat better in a wet environment.

Weight and bulk are also significant factors because this is a layering system designed to allow you to remove clothing. All the items you take off have to be stored somewhere for the remainder of the trip. If they are bulky, you may end up needing a pack twice the volume, just so you can store them. This problem becomes much more pronounced as wool clothing gets thicker. A wool base layer is not significantly bulkier than a synthetic one. However, a wool outer coat may be more than ten times bulkier and heavier than a synthetic fill one.

This bulk issue is why I decided to go with a synthetic shell layer, even in this more “traditional” outfit. You have probably seen many people on forums advocating Ventile, Gaberdine, or some other form of shell layer comprised of tightly woven cotton. If you have ever tried to pack such a coat , you quickly realize that you need a second backpack just to carry it. Considering that this is a shell layer, designed to be removed and stored for most of the trip, this is a huge problem. On top of that of course we have the problem that it is not waterproof, nor was it designed to be waterproof. Remember, this is the exact same material from which Milbank bags are made, and they are designed to filter water. A simple nylon jacket will offer significant advantages in terms of performance, and can be stored in your backpack with ease. I find that the above shirts resist wind well enough to not require a separate dedicated wind shirt, whether it be cotton or anything else. 

I have had some issue with moisture management with this clothing. In particular, when walking through snow or other wet areas, I have gotten the pants wet. Unlike the top layers, it is hard to just remove the top layer of the pants. It is an issue because in my experience, the surest way to be cold at night is to get into the sleeping bag damp or wet. I have been thinking or replacing the liners with a set of fleece pants, which will allow me to remove the outer wool pants when they get wet.

Something else to keep in mind is that not everyone will be comfortable in button down shirts and wool dress pants. I wear similar clothing most other days of the week, so it feels right to me, but most people will probably find it uncomfortable. There are many designs for wool clothing out these days, and you can find something that works for you, but this brings me to the next point:

The only reason why I wear the above outfit is because I was able to find the components for very low cost as they are mostly surplus. If I had to pay market value for new wool items ($100+ per piece of clothing), I would certainly go with the equivalent modern clothing, as it costs about the same and performs better under most conditions in terms of insulation, weight, and compressibility, not to mention rain resistance. 

I consider the above set up similar to the one which I discussed here earlier. While each outfit has advantages and disadvantages, I find that they even out. They are also identical in terms of cost. For cheap clothing, either outfit will work well. You can of course mix and match items based on what you already have at home. Be aware of the limitations of each material and try to compensate for it.

Review: The Hairy Bikers' Big Book of Baking and Scandinavian Tea Ring

Si King and Dave Myers, The Hairy Bikers', have been touring Europe on a bakeation. They went on a four month, 7,000 mile journey to discover European baking. The Hairy Bikers' Big Book of Baking is a wonderful collection of recipes and many are classics of their country.

If you have been watching the TV series to accompany the book you will be inspired to try many of the recipes you have seen the Hairy Bikers' baking.
I made a Scandinavian Tea Ring, and as the Hairy Bikers' say, it tastes as good as it looks. This tea ring is made with a sweet bread dough, rolled out, spread with a cinnamon infused butter containing ground and flaked almonds, glace cherries, candied peel (I used sultanas), rolled up as you would a swiss roll and then baked. After baking, the ring is decorated with glace cherries, flaked almonds and icing - delicious.

The book covers both sweet and savoury baking with recipes from Norway to Spain. There are recipes for biscuits, breads and rolls, cakes, puddings, sweet tarts, savoury bakes, pies, tarts and snacks.

Limoncello Babas from Italy, Hazelnut and Chocolate Vacherin from France, Lazybones Buns from the Low Countries, Black Forest Gateau from Germany and Grandma Bonka's Apple Streudel from Austria are just a few of the recipes which will inspire us to get busy in the kitchen.

This isn't just another baking book, but one which you will turn to time and time again. The book is a source of inspiration for everyday baking and baking to impress friends and family. There are recipes for the beginner through to the more experienced. The recipe is accompanied by a stunning photograph of the finished dish and every chapter has a collage of photographs taken during their tour.

The Hairy Bikers' provide a fascinating insight into some of the beautiful baking across Europe and I will use this book many times. My husband already has his eye on the Black Forest Gateau......

Thank you Waterstones for the review copy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Update: Thirunakkara Festival

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy

Yesterday saw the penultimate day of the Thirunakkara Festival in Kottayam, which was attended by thousands of worshippers, and is known as Pullivetta. It was a spectacular spectacular event with phenomenal pageantry including a parade of caparisoned elephants and the exchange of parasols.

Getting some of us through the throngs of people was made possible by extremely helpful policemen, who wanted us to get to the best vantage points, and as close to the elephants as possible.

The drumming and sound of cymbals were so loud that I risked rupturing my ear-drums!!!

AnySharp Pro Knife Sharpener: Review

If you, like me, struggle to use a steel to sharpen your knives, then this nifty AnySharp Pro Knife Sharpener will be a great alternative. It comes with a chef's presentation ring, a recipe card, full instructions with photographs and a 10 year product lifetime guarantee. This is a well engineered product and should be long lasting, it uses tungsten carbide sharpening technology and is quick and easy to use.

The knife sharpener has a PowerGrip suction pad which securely attaches to the work surface without any potential damage. All you have to do is place the knife sharpener on the work surface, and pull the lever down to secure. During the sharpening process, your fingers do not need to be anywhere near the knife blade. Place the knife into the sharpener, starting near the handle and gently draw the knife back, repeat this several times as required to produce a very sharp edge.

The photograph shows the cutting edge of a gentle scalloped edged bread knife which is severely blunt.

This shows the sharpened edge - when examining a sharpened edge there should be no reflected light. A sharp knife is safer to use because there is less chance the knife will slip whilst you are using it. Of course, the golden rule is to keep all fingers behind the cutting edge and it will be impossible to cut them.

The AnySharp Pro comes in a stainless steel tin, is priced at £29.99 and can be bought direct from where you can see an online demonstration.

Thank you Eleanor and AnySharp Pro for this brilliant kitchen gadget.

Cupcake Recipe File Organiser: Review

Gifts From Handpicked have kindly sent me a gorgeous flip-top Recipe File for review.

This fabulous cupcake organiser is very practical and looks good in the kitchen too. The front cover and stand are wipe clean and water resistant, the file comes with it's own built in stand and folds flat for storage with an elastic closure strip.

The cupcake file is strong, well made and will withstand continued use. This is a great way to store those valuable magazine clippings, printed internet copy and your handwritten notes. I am going to use mine to keep the following weeks planned recipes in a safe place, I have been known to buy ingredients and then can't find the relevant recipe, hopefully I will now be more organised.

Inside the recipe file there are:

50 plastic pockets to hold 100 recipes which can be wiped clean
6 moveable index cards (left blank for your own heading)
10 blank recipe sheets for handwritten recipes
Conversion table
Easy to use strong flip-top binding

The Ktwo Cupcake Recipe File Organiser is £14.95 and can be purchased online. Gifts From Handpicked are an established online retailer with a passion for gorgeous gifts and homewares. They also have a wonderful array of unusual Easter decorations.

Thank you to Gifts From Handpicked and Claire.