When the row over the National Trust for Scotland trademarking the name ‘Glencoe’ erupted last summer, I had never heard of a company called Hilltrek. But for a while then I had been on the look out for some clothes for pottering about the woods with binoculars and a camera during the winter months, and had not seen anything that would be well suited to the (sodden) Scottish conditions. And I liked what I saw at the Hilltrek website.
Hilltrek are a tiny Scottish company offering a range of clothing made from Ventile®. If you, like me, have not heard of Ventile® before, it’s a cotton fabric developed in the 1930s essentially for fire hoses. When subject to water its very dense weave swells so much it prevents water penetration. The swelling is not instantaneous, so a single layer of the material is not enough to keep a wearer completely dry when subject to lot of water, but two layers, so called Double Ventile®, are.
Hilltrek make clothes in three fabric options: Single Ventile®, Double Ventile®, and Cotton Analogy®. The latter is a single layer of Ventile combined with the Nikwax Analogy® lining, also used by the Paramo® range of clothes. It was this that caught my attention, for the Nikwax Analogy® lining is well proven, and while I have never owned any Paramo® clothing (I am more of a Buffalo man myself), I know many who swear by it, and I have seen it perform excellently in some ‘real’ Scottish and Welsh weather. Unlike Paramo®, Cotton Analogy® offers the natural feel of cotton, and the lack of the irritating rustling of nylon — I was sold.
The Conival Trousers
While I was looking for something to wear about the woods, with the Conival Trousers I got more than I bargained for — without exaggeration, these are the best outdoor trousers I have ever owned. Over the last six months I have spent somewhere in the region of thirty five days wearing them, from sodden days in the woods, to numerous big full on days in the hills, including multi-day camping trips in the snow and temperatures dropping below -10C. In all of this they performed impeccably.
The Conivals have a no-nonsense cut, can be customised at the point of ordering, and if you have special requirements, all you need to do is to lift the phone (the great thing about dealing with small companies). There are two zipped pockets on the back, and two front hand pockets; cargo pockets can be ordered as an extra.
Unlike typical waterproof fabrics, the Analogy® lining is pleasant enough to wear next to skin, so these really are trousers rather than over-trousers, and they breathe very well. I tend to sweat fairly heavily, and so I normally avoid wearing waterproofs until it is really raining — these are the first waterproof trousers I have owned that don’t feel like being inside a banya and that I am happy to wear all the time.
The two layer construction is quite warm. I have found them good down to a few degrees C below zero on their own, and with a pair of thin merino long johns in temperatures down to -10C. On the upper end, I find them fine to about 12C, beyond that they are too warm for me (but then I don't usually wear waterproofs in those sort of temperatures anyway, and I am so impressed I am saving up for the Single Ventile® version Hilltrek make).
I have heard it said of Paramo® trousers that if you kneel on wet ground the water gets through. I have knelt in the Conivals in mud and snow on numerous occasions, pitching a tent or resting calves on long steep front pointing stints, and I have not found that to be the case, perhaps it is the benefit of the Ventile® itself being shower proof (or perhaps it was just an evil rumour about Paramo®).
The Ventile® fabric is quite heavy compared to ‘modern’ ‘technical’ kit, but I am really growing sick and tired of this current obsession with weight, which invariably translates into equipment that lasts a season or two. Indeed, the Conivals have shown themselves to be (I admit, surprisingly) hard wearing. I have done a fair bit of sliding about in them, sometimes on quite coarse icy ground, without noticeable surface wear. Some of the stitching around where the front pockets merge the side seam is starting to come undone, but that’s easily fixed.
The main wear-related issue with the Conivals is to do with the Ventile® dye, which does not seem to penetrate deep into the fibre, so where the fabric creases regularly, it starts reverting to the natural colour of cotton, and this happens so easily that somewhat disconcertingly the trouser started showing these whitish marks from the very first short walk in them, and it gets progressively worse, though it does appear purely cosmetic.
The biggest drawback of Ventile® is that, according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, it is supposed to be dry cleaned. For a jacket this might be OK, but for outdoor trousers this is not practical. A closer look at the Ventile® site shows that the fabric can be washed with soap. I have been washing mine in 30C using the Nikwax® Tech wash, and can report no ill effects.
(It's worth noting that as with all waterproof fabrics the special care requirements have naught to do with the fabric per se, but the DWR coating that is applied to it, which has largely worn off before the first wash. I have tried Nikwax® Cotton Proof per the manufacturer recommendation; it does not produce the same sort of beading the original DWR did. It does seem to slow the water absorption a bit, but I am not entirely convinced it merits the expense.)
The Assynt Jacket
The Assynt jacket is billed as ‘ideal for field sports, nature watching and photography’. It has a corresponding cut with a waist level draw cord, two voluminous, low down, front pockets with stud closures, two chest level hand warming pockets, and a 5” high collar, with a stowaway hood.
In terms of size, based on the official size chart I am bang on for S, and indeed, have found the chest size to allow for adequate layering for winter use. But the sleeves are a different story. If anything the nominal size suggests these should be too long for me, but in fact they are well on the short size (1-2” shorter than on any other jacket of a comparable size I own), which becomes very noticeable with more layers underneath.
The snug fitting collar is the jacket’s best feature, keeping the dreich weather a bay. The stowing of the hood works better than is usual with such an arrangement, but unavoidably results in a hood of a low volume. This is the jacket’s main limitation. I have used it on a couple of fairly full on mountain days to see what it would be like, and the hood is not up to the task (this is not the intended use, and there are other jackets in the Hilltrek range that come with big volume, helmet-compatible, hoods).
Other minor drawback is that the hand warming pockets don’t have any closures, and, as they are not Ventile lined, this makes them draughty in moderately strong side-on wind. This feels as a bit of an oversight within the overall well thought out design.
All in all, I have found the jacket to be excellent within the parameters for which it was intended. I do wish the hood was bigger, I find I keep it out most of the time, simply because Scotland, and a bigger, non stowable, hood would make this a much more versatile garment.
None of the Hilltrek clothing is cheap, especially if you decide to do some customisation, but not incomparable to prices of some big brand mass produced outdoor kit. On the other hand, I expect it to last longer. I own a very nice Gore-Tex jacket from a big brand name that cost a similar amount as the Assynt jacket. It’s my ‘special occasions’ jacket, for on past experiences I know that in intensive use it wouldn’t last more than a season. I have no such quibbles with the Hilltrek clothing, there is a sturdy feel to it, and it is obvious that it was not only made in Scotland, but also for Scotland.