Equipment and Reviews

(Almost) Everything you need for a Rainforest Expedition

Note (If you want detailed analysis of lenses and cameras go to Luminous-landscapes or dpreview. I offer my experience in the field and general impressions without an exhaustive review which doesn’t necessarily translate into the field.)

Sundry

1) Umbrella

Lots of people find it amusing for me to travel with an umbrella, they think that I’m the picture of the English gentleman in the tropics, but this multipurpose tool is fantastic and I wouldn’t be without it. I can’t count the number of times that it has saved my ass when a sudden rainstorm hit and I and my cameras took refuge. It is small and compact no more than the size of a water bottle. Buy this beforehand and make sure that it is good quality. On my last trip to Madagascar I forgot my umbrella and instead had to subject myself to the poor Chinese imports. I went through 4 umbrellas and nearly poked my eye out more times than I can count. Invest in good quality and you’ll be happy you did. Totes or Eddie Bauer both make excellent quality.

Uses

-Keep yourself dry, obviously! This is what the locals use. You will see locals with umbrellas and you will see the foolish foreigners with their rainjackets. In a rainjacket you will sweat, be uncomfortable and end up wet anyways. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

-You can leave your backpack and set up your umbrella over top of it if you need to go away for a while to ensure that your things are dry.

-Can be used as a parasol for the sun

-Spray paint the inside white or better yet buy a photography umbrella, this can be used to bounce the flash and create beautifully illuminated subjects free from glare and hotspots which plague flash photography.

-If you’ve got a long handled umbrella, you can use this as a walking stick, although beware of cheap ones that will break under the pressure.

-Long handled umbrellas can be used to stabilize your camera by holding both it and the camera with one hand (bean pole method).

-Cut a hole inside the size of your lens and use it to get close to snakes which will strike the umbrella surface and not you.

-Larger animals are intimidated by size, so if you are confronted with a hostile animal, open your umbrella in a threat display to increase your size and shoot your flash through it, this will give the impression of size and will shock and awe them.

Clothing

1) People often wonder what clothing you should where in the jungle. I typically wear:

-Mosquitos are attracted to dark colours, however insects are more aware of white and lighter colours, how do you accommodate these opposing tactics? White long sleeved shirt of polyester or fast drying material over a black t-shirt. The long sleeved shirt covers your back and for the shot, you can roll up the sleeves. However, the frontal perspective which is the greatest surface area viewed by the insect will be dark and less likely to attract attention.

-Pants I usually wear are Rock climbing capris. These have double joined knees and a double stitched crotch. They are very hardy, meant for scraping on the rocks and won’t tear like most light weight, easy dry, zip off pants. Brand that I have are VERVE bought from Mountain Equipment Co-op, and I really like them. I scraped my way, straddling along trees while crossing creeks and the pants held up. They also dry relatively quickly being made of ? The button isn’t sewn on, which is a real pet peeve of my mine because the thing inevitably is torn off. Rather, it is bolted through the fabric and feels very secure. Importantly, the two front pockets are zippered so that when you are leaning at odd angles nothing will fall out of your pockets. The material is thick enough that mosquitos can’t bite through. It is positively buoyant and won’t sink when washing clothes in the river. Knees are usually the first to go, but the double overlapping design helps to prevent this. Only annoyance is that they aren’t full length but come up to your calves. Best that I have found so far. Price ~$50. Recommended.

2) Military anti-fungal socks

After catching ringworm, a fungal infection from being too long in my damp, wet boots, I decided to invest in socks which have silver yarn weaved into the soles. This kills bacteria and fungi, helps reduce odour and pathogens. Time will tell whether it is effective or not, however I quite like the idea. They are knee socks and unlike other types that I have used in the past these are very comfortable and compress well against the calf so that they don’t slip down like 99% of other socks. They come in jungle green or black. These were bought on Ebay, 12pairs/$30 which is a pretty awesome deal. Strongly Recommended.

Electronics

1) Fenix L2D/LD20 flashlight

This is one piece of gear that I am more or less inseparable with. I love it, and I recommend it to everyone I come across! It is thin and pretty inconspicuous, though it is stylish. It has a flattened bottom and so it can stand upright. It is a pushcap at the back making it super simple to both adjust the light levels (of which there are 3) and turning the flashlight on and off. A turn of the bezel will bring the light to maximum power or strobe function (with an additional half press of tailcap). The body is made of aircraft grade anodized aluminium. I have dropped this from 10 feet onto concrete and it was still fully functional with no problems. It is waterproof, I have often dropped it into puddles or under several feet of water with no problems. And it takes 2AA batteries, the most universal battery type there is, so there will never be a problem finding them like there are with cr123A batteries. The light is powerful, I can see quite a distance in the night. Unlike some other high powered flashlights, the body doesn’t grow hot and uncomfortable from the light produced. The batteries are relatively long lasting, about 4hrs for the highest setting, 8hrs for the next and 16hrs or so for the low. Price ~$60 on ebay. Strongly Recommended.

Uses

-To light the way (obviously)

-Focusing aid for MPE/low light macro

-Strobe mode can be used to blind aggressive animals/assailants

-Good for backlighting a subject for creative photographic effects

-Can use in turbo mode through umbrella to create a nice soft light for subject

-Good as a lantern in the tent by hanging by the lanyard

2) GoalO Sherpa elite 120W Li-ion battery

A little divided as to how to rate this battery. For jungle use the constant humidity seems to fry the electronics. One such unit was disabled by rains and humidity. However I think that under other weather conditions such a battery would hold up quite well. Their customer service was exemplary, when I contacted them they sent over another unit, all the way to Guyana expedited shipping, and asked only to receive the damaged unit whenever I found it convenient to ship it. Such service was much appreciated! It is pretty rugged and survived being at the bottom, crushed under 70lbs of weight in my backpack hiking for several days. When using it in dry conditions it is a very good unit. They have recently come out with a silicone skin which I will try and see if it mitigates the humidity problems. It can be charged by a 12V DC source such as a cigarette lighter or solar panel but also has a wall socket for fast charging. With the Brunton solaris 26W panel it charges under full sun in about 3-4 hours. Under shadier conditions it may not even charge fully in several days. Price is expensive at $399, but similar units are all within the same price range. http://store.goal0.com/index.php?p=product&id=99. Recently they added a silicone sleeve which I will purchase to see if this addresses the humidity problems. Good Product. (I would like to try the Brunton Impel to compare since it is designed to better withstand humidity).

UPDATE : 18/03/2012

After seeing so few actual reviews of this on the web I thought I’d expand on this item.

I have now had 3 unit failures. 1 from humidity problems, 1 from having a screw loose (possibly crush damage) and one unknown. For rugged traveling in the Amazon and rainforest I can’t recommend this product. Again my customer service experiences have been excellent, but traveling to remote places which IS the purpose of this equipment and to have it fail can be catastrophic. It is ruggedly designed and advertised as being able to weather the ends of the world. However, I haven’t had a unit live beyond 2 months. If/When it fails it also becomes dead weight. Carrying around a 1kg battery isn’t fun even when it does work, and downright aggravating when it doesn’t. Solar panels and batteries are still the lightest solution in portable power if you’re going for extended treks (>7 days), but one should consider other alternatives for shorter trips (<7 days). Additional accessories will also weigh you down. Consider the male-female adapter between the battery and the inverter, the cord leading from panels/power source to the battery and a switch mode power supply (if charging from wall socket).

While the construction of the Aluminum body, strong PVC ends and metal handles feels like it could withstand quite a lot, one needs to pamper the unit a lot more than one would think. Keep it near the top of the pack without too much weight on it. Don’t expose it to ANY water, especially if it’s without the silicone sleeve. And be very careful when plugging in and pulling out power cords as the pins can become bent and short the internal components.

On my most recent trip to Madagascar I had a silicone sleeve which fitted nicely over the sherpa battery. It has plugs which fit nicely into the input/output holes. I was more careful with the weather this time round, but the times that it did get slightly wet from rain or indirect exposure from dew and humidity, it didn’t seem to be a problem. Therefore if you are planning on buying a sherpa battery, I think the silicone skin is pretty essential. Nevertheless the unit still failed part way through the trip forcing me to carry the dead battery and solar panels without benefit.

I believe in giving products and companies a fair chance and so I’m trying one last time. If this doesn’t work out I will be switching over to Brunton. Currently though it is NOT RECOMMENDED

Nb. The Sherpa series are currently unavailable from GoalO since they are upgrading the design (I have emailed the company and they should get back to me re. the upgrade design features). New models are slated for release in May for Sherpa 50 and Fall for Sherpa 120. Old models should still be available from third parties. Apparently they’re on sale now for $319.99 (Sherpa 120), probably to move old inventory.

UPDATE: 29/03/2012

Apparently GoalO has halted production on the sherpa 120. From now on there will be the Sherpa 50 and 100. They are now integrating the inverter into the battery and are no longer sold separately. Prices will probably be the same. Only other design change is that some issues with overcharging have been corrected.

3) GoalO Sherpa universal AC/DC inverter

This unit too succumbed to the rain and humidity but was replaced in the same quick manner as the GoalO battery. It has a selection of 110-220V and a red light which is illuminated when current is passing. It has an inbuilt fan to cool the unit as current is running through it. It has a selection of all the most used pin sizes to accommodate appliances. It is pretty rugged and survived being at the bottom, crushed under 70lbs of weight in my backpack hiking for several days. Price is ~$80.http://store.goal0.com/index.php?p=product&id=43. Good product.

UPDATE : 18/03/2012

Another glitch in my replacement prevent the flipping of the on/off switch. Considering that this is the second unit failure, the durability of the internal components is pretty lamentable, despite the rugged shell. The rubber feet on the bottom should be bolted on, instead they are glued on. After several weeks in the tropical rainforests, the feet unpeel. For a simple inverter, it is quite heavy and with the battery + solar panels, it stretches the limits of portable power for the individual trekker. NOT RECOMMENDED.

4) Brunton solaris 26W solar panels

Taken in low light level rainforest, Guyana.

Website info:

Utilizes the most efficient flexible, thin-film solar technology and compact two-panel design for maximum performance and portability. Ideal for variable conditions, especially low-light wooded and cloudy coastal situations.

The unit is compact, weighing about 1 pound and folding up into a rectangle the size of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and 21.5 x 41 when it is unfolded. The panel is water resistant (I tested this by having it out during heavy rainstorms and it did indeed hold up well) and can even be submerged (though this is not recommended).  It is fairly scratch resistant though I am unsure whether this damages or decreases the efficiency of individual cells. It also comes with clamps to start a car and a flimsy 4 head multi-prong adapter. The adapter should be used with caution as pushing in and pulling out quickly loosens the metal joint from the plastic so that you may be left with your expensive solar panel and no means to connect it! It’s recommended that you substitute the adapter with something more solid.

My pleasure with these units is entirely weather dependent. If I get sunshine they are great, they are able to charge 24AA’s, and 2 Li-ion canon batteries (LP-E6) in 8 hours which is pretty remarkable. However anything less than full sunshine and they rapidly become burdensome. Fortunately the units can be daisy chained together to provide more power but pinning your hopes to this unit in less than sunny conditions would probably be a mistake. However a) I haven’t had any experience with other solar panels so I can’t judge if they are any better or any worse and b) It is still the most lightweight and overall portable solution out there. The multi-prong adapter fell apart after the first couple months which required me to splice wires together in the field in a wet and humid environment which is obviously less than ideal!

–>UPDATE 18/02/2012

I will try getting a higher wattage unit or daisy chaining two units together and report back whether this makes a significant difference.–> Just got back from Madagascar where I linked two 26W panels together. Despite the advertised ability of these units to charge batteries in overcast conditions I found that even with 2 panels I was getting perhaps only 1.5X the charge of a single panel which was disappointing. The panel doesn’t come with a 12v to 12v adapter to daisy two units, and so you will either need to purchase one, or else splice two 12v lines together.

Prices range wildly with some companies asking up to $600 ($648 on Brunton website), but a quick search will find you prices under half that. I got mine from an online vendor on Ebay for $285. Average product.

5) Duracell/Enercell 15 minutes AA quick charger

This charging system is bulkier and more expensive than the alternatives but it is awesome! The instructions say that the unit doesn’t take third party batteries but this is more of a liability issue and in fact they do, though at times the light indicating whether the batteries have charged might not be as reliable an indicator (though this has no impact on the actual charging of the batteries). I have used this unit successfully with all the battery types mentioned below. The unit takes about 18 minutes to fully charge 4AA batteries from being completely empty and less time if they retain a partial charge. This unit is essential under many circumstances but a couple are a) if working in remote areas where a generator or solar is the main source of power and is only active several hours a day b) If you use a lot of batteries.  On a heavy shooting day I will use 4AA regular flashlight, 2AA UV flashlight, 16AA flashes for a total of 22AA/day. Using conventional chargers this would take 12hrs of charging.With the quick charger it takes about 1.5hrs. Contending chargers usually require a minimum of 2hrs for 4 batteries. In that time you can recharge several sets. I have seen some complaints about the wear and tear that a fast charger can have on batteries but frankly in the Amazon waiting for hours on end for your batteries to recharge is not an option. Besides, if you allow your batteries to completely drain before recycling them you will have longer battery life. I take along 24 AA batteries on my trips to power 1) 2 flash units 2) Flashlight 3) P & S camera 4) GPS and sundry electronics. Price is ~$40, less on ebay. Strongly Recommended.

6) Maha Powerex MH-c801d 8 bay AA/AAA charger

The Maha Powerex does away with the aforementioned quandary by offering two modes: 1) Soft charging which recharges 8 batteries/2hrs and is well suited for prolonging battery life and 2) Fast charging which halves the charging time to 8 batteries/1hr when speed is of the essence. Unlike many battery chargers on the market which require brand fidelity (for liability issues they discourage the use of off brand batteries used in their charger), the Powerex is advertised as a truly universal charger. I found this claim to be upheld by successfully charging 8 different brands of AA concurrently (An attempt to do the same with the Duracell quick charger yielded an error preventing charging). On a final note, most chargers on the market give no indication of charge status. The Powerex is a welcome exception having an LCD display indicating the status of each battery in 33% increments. However, these features come at a cost at a MRSP of $89.95. Strongly Recommended.

7) AA batteries

Just a brief mention. All AA’s aren’t created equal. Several of the brands that I’ve used in descending order of quality: Sanyo eneloop (best), Duracell, Energizer, Pure energy (Awful).

Though you might not find them at the local store, it is well worth going out of your way to find the Eneloop brand, as most customers who have tried them can attest to. Eneloops have an extremely low self-discharge rate and retain 70% of their charge after 1 year’s storage, 75-80% capacity after 1 year, and are capable of 1800 (500 for the XX model) discharge/recharge cycles. It is a testament to their quality and durability that I am still using them 5 years after initial purchase and they still outperform the competition. They can be readily found online or try special ordering from your local electronics store. A 4-pack will cost about $15.

Tip: AA/AAA are the most universal battery (80% of all batteries sold worldwide). So when purchasing flashlights, GPS, flashes and other battery operated devices, try to move towards standardization so that not only can you easily replace your batteries should they become lost/stolen/damaged (it is very difficult to find CR123A batteries abroad), but you can also interchange them between your various devices when they are running low on juice.

16 Eneloops for ~$40 on Ebay. Eneloops are Strongly Recommended.

8) Portable hard drives – 1) Western digital 2) Silicon Power A80

I have not yet had lots of experience with these drives and so I will update at 6 month/1 year interval. So far they offer a decent capacity of 1tb and 750gb respectively. These drives are ideal for traveling due to their minute size. For longer term storage files should probably be moved to a more reliable system like Cloud, or else a mirrored raid setup with a reliable HDD like Caldigit or G-tech.

1) WD drive has received good reviews from buyers on Amazon/NewEgg and some PC reviews. I chose it based primarily my on size and weight restrictions, price point and a fairly trustworthy brand with good customer support. The drive needs to be formatted before use, but afterwards it’s compatible with Mac and PC. So far with USB 2.0 interface file transfer is pretty quick and I haven’t had any issues. I will be leaving this drive in a protected environment though since it seems to be susceptible to damage from the elements and its casing looks quite fragile. Price is ~$100 on Ebay. Highly recommended.

–>UPDATE 18/02/2012

Used this drive for about 5 months and despite the slower transfer rates than the Silicon power it still functions well. I babied this drive and kept it in a safe place at all times so I can’t attest to its durability under harsh weather; however, it is smaller and of a larger capacity than the Silicon power HDDs and its plug and play setup makes it extremely user friendly.

2) Just purchased 3 of these drives for my trip to Madagascar. A bit low on the capacity end of things but I am excited by the small size and above all the military specs that accompany this drive. It is advertised as being able to be dropped 122cm onto a concret floor, IPX7 waterproof standard (30min under water at 1M), dust and shock proof. As you can probably imagine, this suits my lifestyle very well and will be great for jungle travel and being shoved to the bottom of your pack without having to worry about drive failure. All the reviews I have read so far are very positive as well but I will update with real world experience. I bought these drives over Ebay for about $100/each with shipping.

From SP website:

Weight: 270g

Dimensions: 139 x 94 x 18.1 mm

Data Transfer Rates:Max. 5 Gb/s (USB 3.0 Mode)
Max. 480 Mb/s (USB 2.0 Mode)

–>UPDATE

Just got back from 4 months in Madagascar and these drives function as advertised. I kept them at the bottom of my pack where they were subject to roughly 30kg of force day in, day out. They were occasionally dropped and very often were exposed not only to high humidity but also to rain. I only ever had one slight problem where I could not add files to the HDD. However after reformatting the drive it functioned as new. Never keep just one HDD. Despite the durability of these drives, disasters still happen and you could lose all your info. There’s a reason I brought 4 HDDs! Price is ~$100/unit on Ebay. Highly recommended.

9) Lacie D2 Quadra External HDD

I’d heard such wonderful reviews of this harddrive. I bought one and brought it down to Ecuador to transfer my files. All good. Got back and after no more than 20 read/write cycles it suffered catastrophic failure and I lost 750Gb, pretty much my entire Ecuador trip. I haven’t had the courage to bring in the drive for data recovery at a cost of $300-1600 yet. This might be a good drive and I could have simply gotten a dud, but I am not happy at all with this HDD. Not Recommended

Camping gear

1) Hennesy Jungle Hammock

For those considering camping in the jungle, a hammock is really the only way to go. The problems with a tent are that they are on the ground and so often have plants poking up through the floor, even after the area has been cleared. They typically leak in heavy rainstorms. They are heavy, and require additional materials to make them comfortable, like thermarest pads. Ground dwelling Insects are more likely to enter, like ants. Where the ground is wet there is no place to set up camp. Along sandy banks, sand usually enters the tent and is very irritating to remove, etc… The hammock is lighter and more convenient in all these aspects. The hennessy jungle hammock is at the top of the pyramid in that it has an incorporated mosquito net closed by a zipper, pockets inside the hammock for odds and ends, has a double bottom to prevent mosquito bites. It is also made of a strong and durable material that dries fairly quickly. Setup and take down is very easy and even for those unfamiliar with hammocks it is learned very quickly, taking no more than 3-4 minutes, definitely a bonus if it starts to rain. This unit comes with a heat insulating pad that I find quite necessary since otherwise you lose too much heat from the bottom of the hammock. I was actually cold at about -5 degrees in Canada without the pad in a -30 sleeping bag, so the pad, though bulky is important. Definitely a worthwhile buy despite the rather steep price tag of ~$270. As a stand in for a tent, it pretty comparable in price though.

–>UPDATE

After sleeping 4 months+ in my hammock in Madagascar, during the rainy season I should add that you should consider buying an XL tarp to go over the hammock. Otherwise the tarp provided just barely covers the edges of the hammock and strong winds and rains can wet the sides. Always set up the hammock with rainfly in the jungle! Several times I was lazy and didn’t spend the extra couple minutes, or else I left it off because it heats you up by several degrees. I inevitably regretted this decision when it began to rain. (http://hennessyhammock.com/catalogue.html). Strongly Recommended.

2) Siltarp II by Integral designs

This is a very nice, versatile tarp. It is made of nylon impregnated with silicone. It is large at 2.4 x 3m and is very light at only 410g. It makes for a nice temporary shelter to set up if the rains get to be too much. Packing it away is super easy as the sheets just seem to glide past one another and one can simply stuff it in the sack rather than folding it. Most importantly, is it waterproof? If it is setup properly, then yes. It strongly repels water forcing it to bead off the tarp, however if you setup the tarp improperly such that you have a large accumulation of water in the middle, then it will not hold the water to the same extent as a polyurethane tarp. That said, the leak is very slow and barely noticeable. Not an essential item, but definitely makes life easier. Consider this a worthwhile investment at ~$125 from MEC and cheaper elsewhere. Recommended.

Uses

-Protection from the elements

-Water collection

-cover for backpack/other sensitive equipment

-Bag liner to keep it waterproof

-Many others

3) Thermarest Alpine down blanket

Last few trips to Guyana and Ecuador I have been using a simple emergency blanket (the kind that you find for $2.99 at your local hiking store). These actually work remarkably well to conserve heat. They are extremely light, take up no space and are multifunctional since they can be used to signal in emergencies, or used around a campfire to re-radiate heat. However they do tear easily, are sometimes inadequate in colder environments (cloud forest) and make a deafening sound with the least amount of movement. I have used some travel blankets, quick dry towels but none have really been satisfactory. So I took the plunge and bought the Thermarest alpine blanket. At $230 it is not a cheap blanket! However it combines lightness, compressability and warmth into a single package that offered something the competition didn’t. It can either click into other thermarest products thanks to buttons along the sides or it can button together in on itself to form a sleeping bag. There is a mummy style head cover with drawstring as well. So far I am very pleased with this, $230 from MEC. Recommended.

UPDATE 18/02/2012

I used this blanket in the cloud rainforest in Madagascar and it provided just the right amount of warmth. Any less and I would have been cold, and at times I had to pull the blanket over my head; however, I was able to remain warm throughout the night. It was good down to about 5 degrees C when I wore it with warm pyjamas. The size is perfect for me (5’5) as it covers me from head to foot and allows me a little bit of extra space to double wrap my feet. I was afraid that in the humidity the down would get wet and become ineffective. Fortunately my fears were laid to rest and the blanket remained warm even in wet, stormy conditions. Several times it did get directly wet due to rain, fortunately I had no problems when I dried it in the shade by ambient heat (Nb. you shouldn’t dry it in direct sunlight as it may overheat the bag).

4) Gregory Baltosoro 70L backpack

I got this from MEC and thank God for their return policy. The material appears fairly flimsy and very thin. Useful if you’re not camping in the bush with twigs and branches poking and probing like inquisitive aliens, but otherwise a real drawback. Straight out of the airport I saw a big gash in the front pocket that nearly lost some of my gear. Backpack was further mangled when I put it in transport vehicles or passed through the bush. The bag was big enough, seeming to exceed even some 80L bags in its capacity which is extensible through an inner lining with drawcord. A nice function is the ability to access all items in the bag from a vertical zipper which extends down all the way. Generous side pockets are helpful but again prone to ripping. This model appears no longer to be sold at MEC, but I will steer clear of Gregory in the future. Much sturdier though slightly heavier are the MEC brand bags. I got this item on sale for roughly $225. Not Recommended.

5) MEC Ibex 80L backpack

Unlike a lot of the other competitors this backpack sacrifices more weight for a sturdier construction. Took this one to Ecuador and it held up remarkably well, suffering only a small tear. The 630 denier superpack nylon was sturdy enough that it can be sewn back up with a sewing awl. Tears also don’t enlarge at the same rate as with other lighter fabrics. One drawback is that it can get heavy when soaked with water, unlike other bags that are made of moisture wicking fabrics. The corollary is that it can take a long time to dry when wet. However, one might try applying a scotch guard coating. Another option is to simply put a rain cover over top (This can be a form fitted backpack cover or else the siltarp held with bungees). Price is ~ $170 from MECRecommended. Additional water resistant bag cover ~$20 from MEC.

6) Primus Himalaya Omnifuel stove

Official description:

The Ergo pump has a flip-over, turn-off feature that runs air through the fuel line during shut-down to minimize carbon build-up. A secondary needle valve provides excellent simmering and adjustability without compromising the final heat output, and is accessible for cleaning.

  • Made of brass, stainless steel, and aluminum.
  • In temperate conditions 10,500 BTU output will boil one litre of water in 3.5 minutes with LPG and white gas. Kerosene takes 4.5 minutes.
  • Roarer-style burner.
  • Serrated pot supports provide slip-free operation even on surfaces tilted to 20 degrees.
  • Comes with pump and threaded valve head for use with the either the pump and bottle combination or Primus canisters.
  • Deluxe carrying bag and maintenance multi-tool included

—————————————————————————————————-

The Primus stove can accommodate most fuel types from the recommended white gas (Coleman fuel) to diesel, automobile gasoline, jet fuel, Kerosene and others. The unit comes with 3 different jet nozzles for each fuel type. It also comes with a multitool to disassemble the stove and a needle to clean the jet, an aluminum wind/reflector shield, and a fuel pump. It does not however come with the fuel bottles which are an additional $20 each for a 1L.

The stove itself is small and very portable at 464 grams. The three feet that splay outwards to support the stove fold inwards, making it very compact. The feet are rigid however and cannot be locked into place, making it good for level ground but less ideal where the ground is uneven.

I used the unit exclusively with auto gas with no problems. The boil time was longer than what the official description says though, more like 6 minutes. At times the flame can go out for no apparent reason, so it is best to monitor the stove. When you have used it for a while though you learn its idiosyncrasies. Always keep the wind shield up as a slight gust will put out the flame. Make sure that you pump before every ignition. Make sure the jet is clean of debris, etc…

At first I was a little skeptical of this stove. It took a while to light and was very finicky, but this was simply because I had never used camping stoves before and was not familiar with how to operate them. After 2+ months of using it nearly every day for at least 2 meals I can say that this is a great unit! It lights fairly easily, maintenance is pretty low even using dirty fuels like gasoline. The warnings in the manual are overkill, such as not lighting a hot stove lest a fireball ignite. One has simply to behave with common sense. Stove cost $160 at MEC.CA but can probably be found for cheaper online. Strongly Recommended.

–>UPDATE 18/02/2012

The Omnifuel is an excellent stove, however if you have the option you should steer clear of the Himalaya model. While I was in Madagascar, the fuel line where it joins with the pump to the bottle sprung an irreparable leak. When I spoke with customer service they said that this was a problem that was common to this particular model.

7) Katadyn pocket water filter

Official description:

This workhorse filter for extended travel or expedition use (proven over decades) is now improved with a round pump handle with a shock absorber for easier and more comfortable pumping, and a screw-on outlet hose which makes directing filtered water into bottles and bags much easier. Silver impregnation minimizes internal bacterial growth.

  • Filters up to 1L / minute.
  • The 0.2 micron ceramic filter is effective against all protozoa, and most bacteria (including smaller ones such as Campylobacter).
  • Nominal filter element life of 50,000L.

—————————————————————————————————-

Relatively heavy as far as pumps go at 550 grams. The advantage is that it is extremely simple to use and is machined of the best parts, construction really is stellar. For me the greatest advantage of a pump is that you get cool water and it is available immediately. When you are thirsty you don’t want to have to wait for purification tablets or worse yet, for the water to boil. Just make sure that you need it. My unit is great. I used it when our minibus failed on the clay highway in the jungle. The sun was beating down on us, everyone was getting thirsty. I pulled out the pump put one end in a puddle beside the road and the output hose in my cup and pumped the water. It was clean and cool and I could drink almost as fast as I pumped. The pump has a lifetime warranty with the manufacturers so any problems should be able to be resolved. Great product, of which I got Average use. This is an expensive unit at a cost of $300 new at MEC.CA.


Photography Equipment

1) Canon 5D mark ii

I enjoy almost everything about this camera. The super ISO sensitivity, the full frame sensor, the great resolution of 21.1 MP. A bonus is that I only need one charger between this and my 7D. It handles very well, I actually have very few concerns. However, one major pitfall is the lack of weather sealing. Its resistance to the elements is just abysmal! 3 times I have had my camera crap out on me due to humidity, rain or general exposure to moisture which is pretty inevitable in the rainforest. This unfortunately is a deal breaker for me since the price point is great for what it delivers, especially considering the similarity in features to the 1Ds mark III and is ~3X the price. These can now be found for $2500 body only or for used models as low as $1900 on photography forums. The price  should also come down soon with the introduction of the 5D III. Strongly Recommended for ‘dry’ photography. Rainforest photography it is only moderately recommended.

Update 18/03/2012

Once again I had problems with humidity during my Madagascar trip. Fortunately exposure to strong sun was able to get it up and fully functioning each time. Some worrying symptoms with exposure to moisture are 1) LCD dysfunctional – The top panel lcd displaying camera settings, as well as the ETTL metering shows up fine, however playback and menu functions are disabled. 2) Various keys lose functionality like Q button 3) The on/off switch is permanently switched to on 4) unit won’t power on 5) Camera is stuck on settings or confuses settings eg. Switch is set to Manual mode and instead Tv mode is on.

The introduction of the 5D mark III at the end of March 2012 has been met with mixed feelings by consumers. Some feel that the changes aren’t significant enough to the 5D II, especially when comparing it to the Nikon D800. However I see it as an opportunity to get an upgraded 5D II WITH greater weather sealing. Aside from the other features (expanded low noise high ISO, frame rate, megapixel and AF tracking) it is really the weather sealing (equivalent to the 7D) which has me excited. Now instead of shelling out $4000 for a USED 1Ds III, I can get a newly released 5D III for $3500.

Now is a good time for people interested in buying a 5D II as prices for a used model can probably be found for as low as $1500 and new for $1700.

If your heart is set on bringing  your 5D II into the rainforest you should take extreme caution and consider getting a flexible camera housing. Next trip I plan on putting my 5D II in a waterproof bag (Dicapac). I will update this review after I have had a chance to put the bag through its paces.

2) Canon 7D

It’s great not having to choose between a full frame and APS-c or crop framed sensor. Having both really opens up the possibilities of your lenses. If you want to get that extra little distance out of your 100mm to make it a 160mm, or add a bit of magnification to your mpe, this is a great way to do it. Though admittedly the higher resolution of the 5d II will allow you to crop to the level of the 7D with similar quality results.

The 7D has the advantage in frame rate over the 5D II, but frankly in Macro I don’t find this to be a function that I tend to use too much. What I value most is the superior weather sealing. I have not yet had a problem with this camera in the rain/rainforests much to the camera’s credit, despite it actually being submersed for a second. The price point is also very reasonable. I found a used one for $1200 and new go for about $1500. Strongly recommended.

UPDATE 18/02/2012

As my quality and standards become higher, I am finding that the 7D is inadequate for my style of photography. I generally shoot without a tripod in the shady understory of the rainforest. Whenever I can I prefer natural light over flash, handheld and with relatively quick shutter speed and small apertures. This combination requires higher ISOs which is a problem for the 7D.  I begin to have quality issues at anything over ISO 400 depending on the shutter speed. This contrasts markedly with the 5D II which gives me workable results even at ISO 1000. I also had my 7D fail on me this trip when I left it in a wet bag overnight. The humidity crept into the camera and despite its above average weather sealing (compared to 5D II) several functions were disabled until I was able to dry it out in the sun. I was once happy with the APS-c sensor; however I now prefer the extra coverage of a full frame. This is especially true when speaking of the mpe-65mm. Already the coverage of the mpe is small, with large insects sometimes failing to fit in the full frame. Therefore when the 1.6X crop is applied then the selection of insects to be photographed with this lens is even fewer. Average recommendation for natural light, rainforest macro photography.

3) Canon f/2.8 100mm macro

Very happy with this lens. Compared to the so-called high end lenses from Zeiss and Leica, this one performs almost as well. It is said that the bokeh isn’t as smooth, in practice you really won’t notice this in the vast majority of your shots. The sharpness is excellent.

Sometimes I even find it preferable to the manual focus lenses since you can use autofocus and automatic aperture. Autofocus is especially important in night photography because it liberates the hands to be able to hold the flashlight and a leaf or stem. (See my blurb in tips about the undervalued autofocus function in macrophotography) Also the field of view doesn’t become increasingly dark as you stop down, a major problem with the manual lenses. With the Zeiss, if I stop down to f/11 I can’t see worth a damn unless I’m shooting into the light. With the canon I can see as well under f/2.8 as I can under f/11. One disadvantage is the electronic contacts. If these are damaged in any way then the lens will remain fixed on the largest aperture. Fixing this can be extremely costly, perhaps even the price of a new lens.

One can be had for as little as $400. Though new they sell for almost $700. Is it worth the upgrade to the weather sealed 100mm L. Frankly I don’t think so. At twice the price, with no additional image quality gain the only benefit is a more solid construction. Having said that, I have gotten my lens wet on numerous occasions and simply drying it in the sun the following day it was fine. Strongly Recommended.

UPDATE 18/03/2012

I have sold this lens and will be upgrading to the Canon f/2.8 100mm IS L. The reason is the weather sealing. When coupled to the 5D II which lets in the humidity, I need to make sure that the lens is not going to be letting humidity into the camera body (something I can’t guarantee with the non-weather sealed body). The IS (image stabilization) function which gains 2 stops will hopefully also be useful when coupled with the 7D to permit me to lower the ISO. I will update this and provide example shots when I have purchased and tested this lens.

4) Canon mpe 65 mm

This lens never leaves my camera. Once you get used to the awkward handling it is extremely simple to use compared to bellows. It is much more flexible than reversing your lens, using extension tubes or an enlarger lens/filter. It offers 1-5X magnification. The drawback is that sometimes you will not be able to get the entire subject in focus. I have seen some people use a teleconverter for this purpose; coupled with the lens you can actually achieve infinity focus with decent resolution. I choose to carry around a second camera with my 100mm lens attached to circumvent this problem. The working distance is also quite small, only a couple inches at the lowest mag, and maybe 10mm at the highest mag. However as you get used to this lens you will learn to cherish it. Another option however, and one that is much cheaper is to buy a helicoid and a macro lens like a luminar/photar/leitz/mikrotar/macro-nikkor/etc…This can achieve results just as impressive as the mpe at roughly half the cost. A new mpe-65  will set you back about $1200, however used ones which are just as good can be had for as low as $700. Despite the manual focus, the aperture is controlled electronically. In my first mpe the contacts came off and the company charged with fixing it took it apart and couldn’t put it back together. When I sent the lens back to Canon, they told me that to fix it would cost more than a brand new lens. Check Ebay regularly. Strongly recommended.

5) Canon MT-24EX twin flash

I don’t have a lot of experience with other macro flash units like the ring flash. The only other option I have used is a 580 EX flash mounted on a flexible arm and directed over the lens. In comparison I greatly appreciate the ease of use of the twin flash with the adjustable heads. A bonus is that it takes 4AA batteries, unlike the nikon R1C1 (CR123), though I do wish the flash heads were cordless so as to be able to tripod mount them for greater flexibility. The cords limit the range of creative lighting for pretty much all but macro work. The light is also quite harsh without any kind of diffusion giving strong specular highlights. There is no real commercial solution to this problem, the stofens do little to diffuse the light. Most options yielding the best light involve a light tent. Basically a couple pieces of vellum or arts and crafts paper that is doubled over and protrudes over the lens. This may appear bulky, and it is, but it seems to offer the nicest diffusion. John Kimbler (Dalantech), a successful macrophotographer also discusses his diffusion techniques HERE. At ~$500 used and ~$900 new, these units aren’t cheap. Two 580 EX II units at roughly the same price would provide greater flexibility despite increased weight and bulk. Slightly above average.

UPDATE 18/02/2012

I have 2 of these units and both have shown cracking along the base of the unit at the ‘neck’, where the flash joins the hotshoe. When it begins as a small fissure you should immediately superglue it. Otherwise it will continue to enlarge and break along the sides until it exposes the internal circuitboards and ultimately ceases to fire. This weakness is perhaps a design flaw of the flash, though it might also be from the knocks it takes while maneuvering through the bush.

UPDATE 18/03/2012

6) Zeiss Luminar 16mm

Unfortunately despite its hallowed reputation I have not found the 16mm to live up to its accolades in terms of resolution, a charge which others in the macro community have also levelled at it. Despite the aperture control, realistically one cannot close the aperture to a significant degree within the magnification range (10-40X) without significantly compromising the image quality. If you want a high magnification lens which extends into the microscopic, then the Mitutoyo 10x M or BD plan Apo objectives are far superior in resolution (though you will need to either purchase a separate external aperture or else exclusively focus stack). Although its altogether possible that I simply received a lemon, others have shown that the Mitutoyo consistently outperforms the Zeiss Luminar. Where the latter is useful is in its small size (4x lighter and 2x smaller than the Mitutoyo) and ease of handling. NOT RECOMMENDED.

UPDATED 16/03/2013

Novoflex flexible arm  

Expensive, heavy and ineffective. I have actually grown to hate this flexible arm. The all metal arm isn’t as flexible as the name would suggest. It can form about a 90 degree angle  but anything more than that and it will snap back to the 90 degree max. There are 1/4″ screw fittings at either end with an additional 1/4″- 3/4″ bushing that comes with it. At the  end is a small ballhead with hot shoe mount. The hot shoe is a friction fit and doesn’t have a lock, therefore one must be careful that whatever is mounted does not slip out. Nevertheless the ballhead is of a solid construction. The Novoflex arm is screwed into the camera or a bracket by rotating clockwise. However, if one attempts to adjust the angle of the flexible arm then the arm becomes unscrewed where it connects with the bracket/camera, regardless of how tightly it was screwed in in the first place. Finally, the arm cannot even support a 580 EX or similarly sized flash. If such a flash is mounted, the arm will unscrew and flop over to one side. NOT RECOMMENDED.

UPDATE 18/03/2012

Lumiquest Softbox III

Of all the commercial diffusion systems that I have used, this is the one that I have found to be the most effective. I have used stofens, and garyfong puffers to little effect; however, the large size (8″ x 9″) of the diffuser and the material (1.25 stops loss) that they use is excellent for reducing specular highlights. Recently, after my 580 EX II broke, I modded this softbox to fit the MT-24 EX twin flash heads. I tried to follow the general design of how it fitted larger flash heads but ran out of diffusion material. If I were to repeat this experiment I would probably purchase the Lumiquest Big bounce diffuser to take advantage of more diffusion material. My modified diffusers involved cutting 4 four pieces, black on the outside and white on the inside. I then sewed the top and sides together, while leaving the base loose. The bottom piece had a hole cut to fit the cold shoe. I then added the diffusion material, sewing it to the top piece, and holding it to the sides via thin strips of velcro. This is my preferred solution because it folds up very compactly, is made of a very durable plastic, can weather the weather and provides good diffusion. Drawbacks are expense, the  bulk and inadequate diffusion for highly reflective subjects. Costs ~$40 or Lumiquest site Ebay and up to ~$70 in store, therefore this solution is really only suitable for a minority of people.

Modded softbox photos to come

Gear transport

Kata holster bag PL-16

F-Stop gear mountain series – Loka backpack

My favourite bag that I have tested so far. This has partly to do with the aesthetics, the bags are undoubtedly superbly designed but what clinches it for me is that they don’t necessarily look like camera bags. While traveling to developing countries where tourists are always targets and those with ostensible valuables even more so, this is a distinct advantage. Lowepro/Kata bags in my experience typically have a squarish design that screams camera bag. On the other hand the f-stop Loka and other mountain series bags are much more streamlined and though the base is a little squarish to accomodate the internal camera unit (ICU), a protective case with dividers, the bag can still easily be taken for a regular sports bag. Large, strong zippers won’t fall apart on you without some serious use and abuse. The seams are waterproof and yet don’t require an endless tug of war to open and close them.

Despite the weather resistant materials, the waterproof zippers and seals I still wouldn’t trust this bag in a heavy rainstorm. I’ve had too much experience with soaked bags and driving rain getting through raincovers. For additional protection I would recommend spraying the bag with a scotchguard type spray which endows it with durable water repellency (DWR), essentially the same stuff that they spray GORE-TEX coats with. Even after this treatment I would still always be sure to have a raincover and even consider something like a silponcho tucked away in the base of the bag. There are a couple of drainage holes in the bag in case it does get dunked or otherwise thoroughly wet, but despite their downward orientation, these can potentially serve as a point of ingress if the bag is lying flat or upside down. Inside there is a clear plastic pouch that forms part of the  back of the pack. This zippered pouch is big enough for a phone, memory cards and some money or passport.

The sides have nice large expandable mesh pockets for water bottles or they can be combined with the side straps to hold a tripod. Molle straps adorn each side for lots of flexibility of attachments as well.

Due to the square base, the bag can easily be stood on end while getting your equipment out, and since the base is made from a material called Hypalon or chlorosulfonated polyethylene (a material used in the construction of rubber boats and kayaks), it is extremely durable and resistant to scratches and chemicals and perfect for plunking down in the mud. There is a zippered, water-resistance flap on the bottom through with you can access either an optional raincover, or else whatever else you may choose to put in the pocket.

Another well thought out point is the back-access, which is to say that the bag has a couple zippers on the circumference of a slightly hardened shell that rides on your back and provides direct access to the contents of the entire bag. This can prevent pickpockets from accessing your bag while on the bus or when your attention is diverted.

Other relevant features include tube linings for addition of a hydration system.

For more info check out the F-stop gear website http://fstopgear.com/product/mountain/loka

UPDATED 16/03/2013

More in depth reviews coming

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Garmin GPS 60CSx

Zeiss 21mm distagon- can this be used for wide angle macro…?

Gitzo 2541 6X Moutaineering tripod

Canon 1.4X, 2X extenders

Olympus 65-116mm Telescopic extension tube

Canon 580 EX Flash vs. 580 EX II

9 Responses to Equipment and Reviews

  1. Simon says:

    Hi Paul
    What kind of shoes would you recommend to bring? I am going to British Guyana for a month up the Rewa river. Do you have any suggestions?

    Regarding the solar panel. Did you connect the panel directly to the charger or charge the battery pack first, then use the battery pack to charge your equipment?

    I love your pictures and thank you for your list. It will certainly help me!

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Simon,

      I found rubber boots to be the most suitable option. They are cheap, keep your feet dry, provide some protection against snake bites, and dry out pretty quick. On the beaches/river banks there are occasionally sand fleas, especially around human habitation, so sandals or shoes that can possibly let the sand in aren’t ideal though it’s what you’ll see the locals wearing. In the jungle you also want something with a little bit of ankle support and grip. The ground is usually laden with leaves, but underneath it is a laterite clay soil which gets super slick when wet and depending on what time of the year you go it can rain quite a lot. When I went the main road up to Lethem was actually washed out for several days. With the humidity fabric runners will get wet and can get mouldy, and infiltrated with fungus. This will begin to break down the fabric and will also cause it to smell. Although I didn’t find thieving to be a problem while I was there, good high end hiking boots always make one a target, whereas rubber boots are pretty ubiquitous and don’t attract attention.

      I connected the solar panel to the battery and used that to charge my equipment, simply because I was usually out using my cameras at the time. The panels also don’t come with more than one cord to charge more than one thing at a time though you may be able to buy a splitter. However with the battery and inverter it is simple to charge several devices at once. You also want to be as efficient as possible, therefore if you trickle charge your equipment via the panel directly and it is fully charged, then any additional energy isn’t being used or stored. With the battery the energy is available anytime as well, and so you can charge at night while you sleep rather than having the camera equipment tethered to the solar panel all day. Battery is definitely a worthwhile investment, though the goal0 brand is lacking in quality.

      Hope this helps,
      Paul

  2. hello there, in some cases when I first go to this website I get automatically redirected to a different page which would seem very odd. You may want to examine at why this is occurring! Regards

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Marcie,

      Thanks for letting me know. I’m not quite sure what you mean since I have no problems accessing the pages and am not redirected. Do you mean clicking from an external link or navigating from within the blog? Perhaps if you could clarify then I could troubleshoot what exactly is going on.

      Best wishes,
      Paul

  3. Simon says:

    Hi Paul
    I just returned from my trip to Guyana. It was really amazing. We saw so many different wildlife. We got very lucky and even saw and photographed anaconda, harpy eagle, puma, jaguar and ocelot. Currently I’m processing my photos, which I will publish on my website. The solar panel I bought worked really well, also the jungle boots I used were very useful.

  4. Simon says:

    The link to the posting about the Swiss solar panel I used got removed. Hope you don’t mind for double posting.

  5. pbertner says:

    No worries Simon. Sounds like you were amazingly lucky! In my over 2 years experience of trekking the Amazon, para-Amazon regions I still have not come across either a puma or ocelot. I’m looking forward to whatever your next batch of photos will provide. I’d also be interested in what your travel kit looks like and how it differs in mine, as I’m always on the lookout for products that can shave ounces or pounds or something that makes my life much easier. I’ve never heard of SIStech and if there low-cost approach is the company line, then it would be interesting to do a comparison with Brunton. I wish they had a model with more juice to invite a direct comparison with my 26w version, hopefully the’ll come out with one soon. Which jungle boots did you finally decide on? I’m glad that some of my advice was useful and congratulations on what sounds like an excellent trip.

    Cheers,
    Paul

  6. Simon says:

    I decided on the OTB JungleLite Boots because they are very light, comfortable and dry quickly, but still seem to provide reasonable protection.

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