The cheque is in the post. So is the application form.
It’s TGO Challenge time again, or at least the time when several hundred of us scramble to submit our applications for the draw and hopefully avoid the dreaded waiting list: the Challenge itself kicks off next May. For some this is an annual event, some will be entering for the first time and others will be back after a break of a few years. I’ve been lucky enough to join and complete the Challenge twice now, in 2009 and 2011, and it looks as though every other year is probably the very most I can manage, always assuming I get on of course. Thoughts now turn to route planning, getting some more local walking done (or at least fairly local, since I’m stuck in a city these days) and, that evergreen favourite, gear.
Discussions of hiking kit are both engaging and exasperating. Gear is very easy to talk about. Something new comes out, it’s announced with great fanfare by those who make a living from selling it, discussion forums clamour for details and pick them apart, arguments and comparisons abound. I read this stuff too (and occasionally get involved in the conversations, although rarely too deeply) and I certainly spend a more than reasonable amount of time looking at clothing and equipment, but when you get down to it much of the gear on the market is quite superfluous for the typical camper. Still, it’s not the creep of comfort and technology that feeds all this gear talk – people would probably be arguing over colour schemes in the absence of anything else – and I’m certainly not going to claim that I prefer my old Peter Storm cagoule to my Paramo 3rd Element.
My cupboards will tell the truth even if I try to fib about it: I’m not immune to this. I’ve bought things I didn’t need and plenty more I thought I needed, but could have done without. Perhaps luckily I don’t have a lot of cash to throw around, which does at least minimise the occasions when I succumb to temptation.
With the Challenge back on the cards I’ve been looking through my hiking equipment and seeing what needs to change, as well as what might be interesting to change. Despite being tarred with the “ultralight” brush I don’t think of myself as an ultralight hiker. I do try to carry as little as possible, yes, but the whole idea of arbitrary weight categories and the like is such nonsense it almost embarrasses me to find myself associated with it. It’s nearly fifteen years since Ray Jardine’s interview in Backpacker magazine, the first time I and the majority of other hikers came across his lightweight system. Any number of new and established companies have jumped into the lightweight paddling pool and we’ve seen gear go to flimsy, wispy extremes and then start to settle into a slightly more stable and usable norm. Isn’t it about time that “ultralight” hikers were simply regarded as hikers? It’s not a competition. Well, for me it’s not; some people do seem to compete to have the lightest possible pack regardless of practicality, but their sort have been around since recreational camping began, and even before that:
”We all know the type. He professes an inordinate scorn for comfort of all sorts. If you are out with him you soon discover that he has a vast pride in being able to sleep on cobblestones… In a cold climate he brings a single thin blanket. His slogan seems to be: ‘This is good enough for me!’ with the unspoken conclusion, ‘if it isn’t good enough for you fellows, you’re pretty soft.’ The queer part of it is he usually manages to bully sensible men into his point of view… ‘Bootleg is good enough for me!’ he cries; and every one marvels at his woodsmanship.“
– Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1906
So, on that slightly defensive note, I have to admit that I weigh every single piece of gear I might take on a trip. I began trying to carry less weight (and also less actual stuff) in the mid to late nineties when I found myself suffering from ankle and hip problems when hiking. Unfortunately I went about it in entirely the wrong way, trimming ounces and keeping pounds, and it was a few years before I had anything approaching a sensible system of gear, with minimal redundancy and everything chosen to work together as well as possible. Camping suddenly became much more enjoyable. The little digital scales I now use (under a fiver from eBay and an absolute bargain at that) mean that I can compare items in my notebook or on a computer spreadsheet and use weight to help me decide which of two similar things might be better for the task required, but weight is always only a part of it. Scotland in particular can be a harsh place for someone hoping to use kit intended for American long-distance trails, a wholly different environment.
This time there’s every chance that my rucksack will weigh a little bit more than it did in 2011. That year saw some pretty rough weather – high winds, in particular – and apparently the most recent Challenge was the wettest on record, so I see no reason to skimp on comfort and protection. The lightest item that properly does the job is what I aim to take. Considering the bag weight was not far over eight and a half pounds last time, not including food and water, I can easily add in some waterproof overtrousers and an insulated down vest without fear of my knees buckling. Since I already own some it means I don’t have to reach for my wallet, either.
The tarp, though… Ah, the tarp. I was not the only tarp camper in either 2009 or 2011, but we were certainly rare; it’s easy to see why. Many people simply dislike the idea of sleeping under an open-ended sheet of nylon. Others like to take higher routes where tarp use becomes questionable, or at best somewhat limiting. Personally, I love camping with a tarp (have done ever since a school trip where we camped with them, although they were universally known as bashas then) and don’t mind choosing my route to accommodate that choice. I aim to have plenty of more sheltered options when it comes time to set camp, although in a pinch the tarp can be more storm-worthy than many expect. Having used mine for over ten years I’m familiar with its quirks and limitations, one of which is that it’s only seven feet long. As I’m six feet tall that doesn’t leave a lot of extra cover when the weather turns wild. So, a different tarp may be on the cards. There are several options – fewer than I expected, to be honest, as most manufacturers seem to be aiming for very light tents these days – almost all of which are hampered by being sold only in the USA. Import charges would inevitably make for an expensive purchase, so I need to weigh the choices. Whichever I opt for, though, I probably shan’t get into an argument about it:
”On a campaign you may attack a man’s courage, the flag he serves, the newspaper for which he works, his intelligence, or his camp manners, and he will ignore you, but if you criticize his patent water-bottle he will fall upon you with both fists.“
– Richard Harding Davis, 1917
A quick “hello” (“hullo”, or “halloo”, according to your taste; I’ll even venture an “ahoy-hoy” if you must) to everyone who is dropping by as a result of the feature on the TGO Challenge in the autumn edition of TGO Magazine, in which I briefly feature. After recovering from being referred to as “weight-obsessed” (which may have a grain of truth when seen from some angles) I was horrified to see that this proud Staffordshire man has been labelled in the article as a Mancunian . I would immediately march on TGO HQ and demand that such an insult be rectified at once, but it’s an awfully long way to go so I’ll probably opt for popping the kettle on and quietly fuming over a cuppa. Ooh, cake.
There are a number of posts here covering the TGO Challenge and the gear I used, so do please have a wander round if you think they may be of interest. A quick glance at the dates of individual posts will highlight that this is only an occasional, sporadic blog rather than the more frequently updated and focussed ones linked to over on the right (do try them: they’re well worth visiting and there’s a satisfying *click* from the mouse when you do); and indeed when I do post the topic may well not be particularly related to hiking.
Hello as well to the occasional adventurous soul who clicks on my signature link from the various role-playing game forums, such as RPGnet and RPGMP3, and finds a blog consisting of lots of posts about rucksacks. I’ll be writing more gaming-related things soon. Ish. Probably.
The return from Scotland and the rare luxury of the TGO Challenge (and for me a fortnight of walking and wild camping is, alas, rare indeed) was bound to leave me feeling a little down once the elation had time to fade, but the UK Games Expo was hard enough on its heels to keep my spirits high for a while. With those two big events gone there was just the humdrum workaday business of the humdrum working day to face.
Something I noticed after my last Challenge was what little appetite I had to go walking in the weeks after the TGO. Compared to the self-powered near-wilderness experience offered there any local day walk looked a bit wan and anaemic, hardly worth the effort, so it was probably a very good thing that this time I had a call from my friend and old hiking partner Martin asking me to sort out a short walk suitable for his young son. Ironically I’ve been trying to get Martin back out onto the hills for several years, always scuppered, quite understandably, by the demands of his business and family life, but now that his First Born Son is old enough to manage a few miles without complaint things may gradually change.
By the time I’d settled on a likely route from the Jarrold Pathfinder series (for convenience, as much as anything) word had spread; and as you can see from the photo we were joined by a few additional bodies, including Mr and Mrs Weasel who were with me at the Expo last month. The particular walk – number 4 in the Cheshire guidebook, for those of you following along at home – was around Bollington, picked partly because there was an option to go either the full 3.5 miles including a climb up to Nab Head, or to skip the hill and walk the route as a 2.5 mile circular instead. Exceptionally lovely weather made for a meadow lunch stop looking like something out of a 1970s chocolate selection advert, but it also wilted a couple of our party a little and we took the shorter route. Nice to be able to make the decision mid-walk, rather than having to plan it in advance.
There’s a lot to recommend the area, with its aquaduct, viaduct, canal, industrial heritage sculpture, attractively rugged buildings and glorious countrside, and it certainly made for a delightful walk. Two and a half miles is, of course, pretty much nothing in terms of hiking, nor was the terrain strenuous. Pacing was awkward for me, having to slow down not only because the kids don’t walk very quickly but also because they don’t keep walking, and having to navigate for a group is a strangely uncomfortable thing. On my own I never actually worry about navigation. I’m careful, occasionally methodical when needed, and on the whole it doesn’t bother me if I cock things up now and then and have to put in some extra walking or retrace my steps, yet potentially asking the same of others certainly does bother me. All in all, this should not have been much in the way of an enjoyable day out in regular hiking terms.
And of course it was fine, lovely even, because it was a day out with good friends exploring attractive countryside. There was even a cricket match underway when we returned to Bollington, just in case the complete scene hadn’t seemed quite English enough. Martin must have been overwhelmed by the Englishness, come to think of it, as he took us all home for a cream tea and glasses of Pimm’s. It’s how we won an empire.
It’s all too easy to treat walking as a serious hobby demanding serious preparation and challenges, putting it off until the opportunity arises for a “proper” hike, so this gentle nudge was a huge help for me, a reminder that getting out there and getting on with it is what really matters. Although the Pimm’s certainly didn’t hurt.
The lights are dimmed, the floor is being swept and the last mumbling drunk is being ushered to the door. We’re almost at the end of the kit review. This being a TGO Challenge kit review there are numerous candidates for the role of Last Mumbling Drunk, but let’s sidestep that and get on with tidying up the remaining bits and pieces. These are the underachievers, the overlooked and some thoughts on future changes.
Previously I’ve mentioned one disappointing item, the Titanium Goat Ptarmigan bivy, which failed to perform as expected. It wasn’t a disaster by any means and there are certainly elements of it I like, yet there’s no escaping the fact that poor breathability is crippling to a bivy bag. One of the great benefits of camping under a tarp instead of in a very small tent is how blissfully dry and free of condensation it is under there, so finding yourself under a damp quilt with moisture pooling at your elbows is something of a shock. For the 2009 Challenge I carried an old Rab Survival Zone bivy, bought originally as an emergency item to carry in the hills and pressed into service as a bag cover for adverse conditions. It wasn’t particularly breathable and lacked any sort of bug netting, yet on the whole the Survival Zone, paired with a headnet, performed similarly well to the Ptarmigan (which is to say fine for emergencies but not so outstanding for general camping). The most likely course of action to improve this problem will be for me to get hold of a sewing machine and order one of Ray Jardine’s “Spitfire” net-tent kits, or design something similar myself. The Spitfire is a small “inner tent” designed to clip quickly under the tarp, offering a tick-proof haven with acres of ventilating netting and a water-resistant floor to function as a groundsheet. A fairly large tarp such as the Cave or Jardine’s Ray-Way tarp (the original and also currently available version of the design) makes a water-resistant bivy less essential and the advantages of the net-tent are beginning to stack up in my mind. The few occasions when a full bivy bag has been really handy (and when bug protection was not the main priority) have largely occurred because I made a sloppy job of selecting a camping spot or putting up the tarp, not because the tarp itself was inadequate. In all cases I suspect that a little more skill and care on my part would make the net-tent a superior choice. And anyway, it’s been a while since I tackled a sewing project.
I want your socks: Nothing could be further from the truth actually, but I will say that I don’t want Injinji socks in future. You may recall the stripey “toe socks” so distressingly common in the 1970s. Injinji socks use the same basic design, only without the accompanying long hair and Andy Gibb records. The idea is sound: not only do the liners, made of Coolmax although they offer others, prevent blisters like more conventional liner styles, they also stop the toes rubbing together and forming blisters between them or, more usually for me, letting a toenail cut into a neighbouring little piggy. I wore a pair on two short day walks and was impressed. By the second day of the Challenge this same pair had begun to fail dramatically, particularly under the ball of each foot where holes appeared and hotspots quickly formed. Immediate application of Compeed attended to the potential blisters (and also, as it happens, meant that I could keep using the socks despite the holes) but that was only enough to get me along for a few days until I reached Braemar Mountain Sports and bought replacements. Their selection was rather limited, being more a choice of size than model, so I came away with a pair of Teko wool-mix liners. Despite seeming rather thick and not as low-friction as styles I’ve worn in the past they were exceptionally comfy for the remainder of the trip and show no sign of wear, although the dreaded Compeed residue has marked them for life, I fear. There’s no excuse for the poor showing from the Injinji socks, wearing out after well under 40 miles. They’re expensive and simply not fit for purpose. In recent years I’ve moved away from liners and simply worn one pair of Smartwool hikers: using good liners certainly helped in terms of comfort and foot condition this year, so I shall stick with the Teko socks.
Ordnance Survey maps: No thought of poor perfomance here, as OS maps remain the gold standard for navigation and we should never forget how fortunate we are to have access to such a superb resource in the UK. Years ago there was a range of stationery made from old OS maps, with the printed section appearing on the back. I wrote a letter on some of it to my (then) publisher, a former United States Air Force officer, who brushed aside my enquiry but excitedly replied with questions about the stationery: were these real public maps? and could he get hold of equivalents for the USA? The reason I’m including OS maps in this section of the roundup is because I’m still carrying the old paper versions, or at least heavily trimmed bits of them. My mobile ‘phone allows me to access decent maps if I want to, handy in a pinch but I’d never trust all of my navigation to that tiny, battery-hungry screen. More usefully I have access to Memory-Map, a PC-based mapping software which proved a great boon in the planning stage of my route this year, yet the end result was still me sitting at the desk, copying the route onto paper maps with a highlighter pen. Other, superior mapping software is more easily available, including on-line services such as Grough, and the only reason I’m still using the old-fashioned fold-out maps is because I looked at the cost of getting colour cartridges for a printer I was offered on loan and found that the few maps I didn’t have cost rather less. In future, particularly as my paper maps need updating, I shall switch to printing from the computer. A great many Challengers have already (no pun intended) taken this route (*ahem*) and the advantages were obvious. I could also have posted some of the maps ahead in my two resupply boxes (probably to be reduced to one in future, as I learn to better manage food planning and the like) had I been keen to save a few grammes, but it didn’t seem worth it. The Ortlieb map case looks heavy, I admit. Still, it continues to do the job despite needing a few dabs of seam sealer to fix the Velcro this year and I like having a reliable way of protecting the precious papers.
Mountain King Trail Blaze walking poles: Back for a second Challenge, the Trail Blazes have been surpassed in terms of sheer weight (or lack of it) but still offer a reliably sturdy option for walking and, importantly, as poles to support the tarp where trees are not abundant. If you believe Dr. Johnson there are virtually no trees at all in Scotland. In truth, however, there are loads, though most seem to be in unwelcoming, dark, Mirkwood-like plantations and are not friendly spots for camping, so I usually aim for areas of mixed or broadleaf woodland. It’s usually only on the more open spots or on commercial campsites that no suitable trees are to be found; and for those time trekking poles offer a very handy substitute. The Trail Blaze design is fixed length, collapsing for storage in the manner of a sectional tent pole. Very stable, very sturdy, utterly let down by the stupid, stupid handle design. Stop me when you see the flaw here: the handle is a foam tube wrapped around the smooth aluminium shaft of the pole, held in place with a dab of glue… Sure enough, they are prone to the glue failing and the handle sliding down the pole, usually at the very moment you most need it to stay put, such as when you slip on a wet heathery hillside and lean on the pole for support. That happened in 2009, after which I managed a repair with Tenacious Tape and some glue. Despite adding extra glue to the other pole, it failed this year. Funnily enough I met another Challenger in 2009 who carried the same poles, except his looked a bit different around the handles. Turned out he was an electrician who had repaired them with cable ties when they collapsed. Due to that encounter I was carrying some cable ties in my repair kit this time and had to press them into service, along with glue and duct tape, when the previously solid handle finally gave up the ghost and plummeted earthwards. Such an obvious weakness in the design and so very easy to have avoided, but sadly Mountain King chose to trust in glue instead. When I contacted them after my last Challenge they offered no help beyond saying they hadn’t heard of anyone else having the same problem and suggesting I use some glue. It’s a pity, because in all other respects these are excellent poles and work well with the tarp. If my repairs seem to be failing then I shall most likely join the crowd who use Pacer Poles. Gayle, of Mick and Gayle™, has put thousands of miles on her carbon Pacers and they seem to be holding up well, although I’m less certain of how they might fare as tarp supports (one Challenger had his carbon tent pole fail dramatically, resulting in a hole through his expensive tent), perhaps making the heavier aluminium Pacers a safer bet.
Overall I’m satisfied that in planning the route, choosing my gear and managing my food supplies I did a better job this year than for my first Challenge. That’s not to say that there are no improvements to make: I’ve identified some failures and some minor shortcomings in the kit list; my route planning skills may be improving with practice and familiarity, but I still made a few questionable choices or picked the poorer of two options; and even though the food may have been much more enjoyable and sustaining this time, I still took too much (not a great deal too much, but still unnecessary: this is a trip to Scotland, not an adventure beyond the edge of the wild, after all… they have shops there and everything) and packed a couple of things I might have done well to test in advance. I came home pondering a change of shelter, thinking that a slightly more substantial tent might put me in a better position to try new routes and explore new places. At the moment, though, I’m tending to lean towards keeping the basic tarp and instead making changes to what I use with it – a net-tent instead of a bivy bag, for instance – and putting my efforts into improving my camping skills. I have no doubt at all that the tarp is a suitable shelter for Scottish trips (outside of Winter, at least; and some tarp users may disagree even there) and, for me, a hugely enjoyable way to camp. None of the claustrophobia I’ve sometimes felt in small tents, nor the dripping condensation, nor the struggle to keep out the rain when cooking in the porch. My ability to use the tarp is less than its ability to function, so the thing to do is to raise my level of skill rather than hoping that a different shelter will better mask my deficiencies. It also occurs to me that I didn’t mention 9-Bars, perhaps the most successful addition to my food bag. In general I eat very few “energy bars” or similar, so these delicious snacks were a revelation. Reasonably priced (with free shipping from their website, not to mention availability in some supermarkets) and quite filling, I also never tired of them, even though the different flavours are very much minor variations on a theme, the theme being seeds, carob and plenty of sugar. The wet nights and mornings didn’t make for ideal breakfast conditions, so when cooking porridge or even mixing up a bag of muesli seemed too much I’d shoulder the pack and munch some 9-Bars as I walked, probably getting through a couple, or even as many as four (rarely), each day. Interestingly, had I not bought the Injinji socks I may never have heard of 9-Bars: when I bought the socks from Sandbaggers (an excellent company, even if they do choose to sell some disappointing sock liners) I received a free bar with my order, and again when I later sent for some Micro-Spikes from them. The socks may not be up to much, but every liner has a silver cloud. Or something.
There’s one more small item to discuss, The Memmsy Cord. Named for my better half, since she provided the bulk of the materials from an old jacket of hers, this is simply a length of shock-cord (lilac in this case… the perils of using things you have lying around), a cord-lock and two plastic “mitten hooks” from an old sleeping bag bug-netting cover. With one hook tied to the end of the cord and the other attached in the loop formed by doubling the cord back through the cord-lock the result is an adjustable, stretchy belt for the rucksack, a washing line, a line to lift the bivy netting away from the face, a lashing cord for fastening extra items to the rucksack… whatever springs to mind. Cheap and useful, my favourite combination of properties.
Time for bed, said Zebedee. Hopefully what began as a few notes for my own future reference and has somehow bloated beyond recognition into the main content of my blog has a few nuggets of usefulness tucked inside for others to unearth. There remains an inevitable but still peculiar distrust of anything resembling lightweight hiking and camping gear in Britain, despite the remarkably light kits being created here by pioneers of the pastime a century and more ago. As I once remarked to someone who criticised my choices as reckless and unsuitable, much the same was said about the internal frame rucksack he was carrying back when they were first introduced. And wasn’t that a Gore-Tex jacket he was wearing? How rash, how modern! Where, Sir, is your oilskin, your pantasote coat, your animal furs? It’s not inherently better because it’s old or new, but if you took the time to give it a fair airing you might find it suits you well enough. And if it doesn’t? Well, it suits me; and I hope that we can shake hands on that and be happy with each other’s choices.
A few links for the clicking-averse:
Steaming towards the home straight of our little TGO gear roundup, let’s give the crowd a cheeky smile and throw down a few heaps of related kit. Weights for these items, and others I’ll probably skip, can be found on the gear spreadsheet mentioned in an earlier entry.
The kitchen: For the 2009 Challenge I carried the excellent Bushbuddy wood-burning stove, stowed inside a Snow Peak titanium pot. The pot was fine (its frying pan lid was hopeless, mind) and the stove encouraged a thoughtful, relaxed style of cooking, from gathering fuel to tending the flames as the water came to a boil. True, I came home smelling like a kipper with a forty-a-day habit, but even in the wet the Bushbuddy is a perfectly viable choice. This year, partly to save weight and partly to just do something different, I used an Esbit stove with a smaller pot (more of a large mug, indeed) and a few scraps of tinfoil. The lid of the Tibetan Titanium 550 pot seemed a poor fit and heavier than it needed to be, so I left it behind and trimmed a circle of foil to take its place, along with a piece to sit under the stove and a longer strip to function as a wind shield. Esbit is nasty, smelly stuff, but remarkably convenient and very easy to use. Light the little block, wait for water to boil (roughly ten minutes, give or take), blow the flame out if there’s much of the block left or else let it burn down to a small residue. In practice the foil wind shield was adequate but nothing more: better protection would have made for faster boiling times and required less fuel. One thing that people don’t always realise is that a tarp is essentially a very large tent porch, so cooking under it is safe and easy, well ventilated and with plenty of room to spread out. That made it less of a chore to cook when the wind was being a little frisky (which was much of the time on this Challenge). Food was a combination of commercially packaged dehydrated meals and some things I dehydrated at home (along with treats such as Christmas pudding, instant custard and a jar of peanut butter) using the “freezer bag cooking” method of boiling water, adding it to the meal and eating out of the bag. No mess, no washing up. Fine for a short trip but in the long run a bit wasteful of packaging. Since eating from a bag requires a degree of additional reach I used a long-handled titanium spoon, quite silly but strong enough to double as an emergency tent peg and convenient should I ever choose to sup with the Devil. For the record, Reiter dried meals were quite tasty (if a little heavy on salt), particularly the Sicilian Pasta and the spectacularly indulgent chocolate mousse, and I quite enjoyed a fish and rice dish picked up at Decathlon. Macaroni and cheese (Kraft Dinners, to my Canadian audience) required more faff and some advance prep in order to make everything work, on top of which I was carrying a bottle of olive oil and some Tabasco to improve the final product; after a good start I found myself less able to face the resulting orange glop and probably shan’t bother carrying mac and cheese in the future, which is a pity as I bought a case of twelve packets… For water I once again carried the AquaGear filter bottle (replaced by a slightly larger and clearly improved version these days) which allowed me to drink directly from a wider selection of sources than normal, not that fresh water was exactly at a premium on this walk. Additional water storage at camp was provided by a very versatile Pour & Store bag, nothing fancy (available by the box from supermarkets in various sizes) but quite strong and effective as well as being less than half the weight of a Platypus.
The bedroom: In an ideal world one might simple throw down the quilt and snuggle in for a confortable night, but ours is a world of wet ground, giant slugs, awkwardly-placed rocks and, inevitably, ticks. I saw three ticks on this Challenge, which was a pretty low score but one of them was drilling into my shoulder as I sat having a pint in the Fife Arms so I do not dismiss the threat by any means. Ray Jardine’s latest book, The Ray-Way Tarp Book Essential, devotes a surprising amount of space to avoiding ticks, which is understandable once you learn that Mr Jardine was rushed to hospital due to the consequences of a tick bite while hiking. Some might regard his level of concern as paranoia, but personally I’m with him all the way on this point. My main defence against ticks was site selection, avoiding anywhere obviously used by deer or matching textbook tick habitat, and checking myself and my gear for the nasty little arachnids. Of course that is not sufficient; and anyway, I’m not woodsman enough to get it right every time. I also carried a Titanium Gear Ptarmigan Bivy, a sleeping bag cover with zipped entry and a large expanse of bug netting for protection and ventilation. The bottom of the bivy is waterproof, the upper section a lightweight breathable fabric treated to fend off dew and rain splashes. Lovely idea, hopeless in execution. I see that on their website Titanium Goat mention that the 2011 model has a new fabric for the top, which is all well and good but sadly I have the 2010 model which is nowhere near breathable enough. On two occasions I woke with the feeling of water against my arms, vapour condensing and running down the inside of the bivy, which is a pretty poor when you consider just how much of the bivy is made of insect netting. In less threatening environments I took to using the bivy as a groundsheet and for the last week, where tick numbers seemed to be much reduced, it stayed in the bag. The design has excellent points, such as the way the netting or a solid hood can be used and a loop to let you hook the netting away from your face while sleeping, but overall this item was a major disappointment. Underneath me at night was a simple foam MultiMat, the lightest and smallest they make, trimmed down even further to cover only the important shoulders to bum area. My sit mat, a thin piece of orange foam given away free with a walking magazine many moons ago, provided extra padding under the hip if I slept on my side or else a bit of warm cushioning under my feet. Sounds very spartan, I know, but on grass or forest litter nothing more is needed. The mat also functioned as a sort of frame for the ZPack rucksack, dropped into the pack as a vertical cylinder and allowed to unroll, giving it some structure and extra padding for me. Only on one occasion did the foam mat offer inadequate comfort and that was on the concrete floor of the Stables of Lee. Remarkably, Mick and Gayle™ were camping outside and offered the use of their spare Therm-a-Rest NeoAir mattress… Putting aside why anyone would need to carry a spare mattress on a hiking trip I accepted the offer. A nice piece of kit overall, even though it’s little more than an overpriced lilo, but despite the comfort I woke with an aching back. The NeoAir is also so thick that I had trouble making a pillow big enough to sufficiently raise my head, eventually resorting to piling up my remaining food packets and topping them with my rolled-up Páramo jacket. Despite the raised eyebrow regarding a spare mattress I did actually carry, in effect, a spare groundsheet, used for most of the last week. The ULA Rain Wrap was actually the lower half of my waterproof clothing, but it also doubles up nicely as a groundsheet where it certainly looks less eccentric than when I wear it.
The ditty bag: Lots of little oddments here, from a Rite-in-the-Rain waterproof notebook (and accompanying IKEA pencil… naughty, I know, but I couldn’t find the one I pinched twenty years ago from Putt-Putt Golf & Games) to the splendid Petzl e+LITE head torch. My rather small washkit was in there too, including a couple of plastic clothes pegs for laundry days, earplugs (don’t travel without them, seriously) the wonderfully multi-purpose Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap and the soothing, protective Gehwol Extra foot cream, decanted into an old 35mm film canister; and whatever will we do when the world supply of those little plastic tubs dries up? The Gehwol cream was a good choice, not only because it felt great at the end of a long walk and seemed to help my wet feet but also because the simple ritual of using it encouraged me to take better care of my feet every single day, sitting down to clean and dry them off, massage the cream into them and put on my cosy sleeping socks. My blister-prone plates handled the Challenge in considerably better shape this year, not least because of this attention. My towel this time, rather than the elderly “Wonder Towel” I used to use which is now a patchy and gossamer-thin shadow of its former self, was a Lightload Towel. These are handkerchief-sized absorbent squares made from wood pulp. After a fortnight it had pretty much approached its limit but it worked well enough along the way and dried quickly, with no apparent bad odours. Fairly cheap, but even so I wouldn’t especially endorse the Lightload, as a cotton bandanna or cheap viscose cloth is more durable and just as good without being disposable.
Since Challenge Control requires walkers to check-in frequently, and with working ‘phone boxes becoming an increasing rarity, I carried a mobile ‘phone with me along with a spare battery and charger. Heavy, but it did also function as a radio (useful for weather forecasts, apart from the traumatic time when the only programme I could pick up was the Céilidh Hour) and the GPS meant that I could get it to display my OS grid reference if ever I happened to get lost (or “confused” as Daniel Boone put it). I suppose that I could have used it more often as a Walkman as well, but I actually only listened to music on the ‘phone on one occasion, in camp. Generally speaking, the musical accompaniment to this walk was me loudly singing various Warren Zevon songs as I tramped through the heather, so if you found yourself assailed by a spiritedly tuneless rendition of Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner at any point then I can only apologise.
Rain gear has been largely covered, since it primarily consisted of the superb Páramo 3rd Element jacket. In moderate rain I didn’t bother with the hood and simply wore my Tilley Hat. Likewise, the Eco-Mesh trousers dried so quickly that I only supplemented them in severe conditions, but when the wind picked up and the rain worsened, as it did almost daily, I donned the ULA Rain Wrap, a simple rectangle of SilNyon fastened with Velcro and a hook and loop on the hem. Waterproof trousers and I are not great chums and I much prefer the superior ventilation of something like the rain skirt (and don’t fool yourself, you can refer to it as a kilt or a wrap all you like but it’s a skirt, matey, and not a particularly stylish one at that) which worked very well for me. Don’t try it on the tops, of course, where swirling gales and battering rain would quickly get around it. Like most things, the rain skirt has its place and you should consider carefully whether it will do the job you ask of it. Sewing one yourself would be very easy, probably with some improvements such as a simple pleat to allow more movement, but I didn’t have access to a sewing machine at the time and bought the commercial version. Stretch fleece gloves generally worked for me, except for when the rain was particularly heavy and the cold wind started to bite through the fabric. When that happened I slipped on the MLD eVENT waterproof mitts, a reassuringly simple and practical design. They worked well and took up little space in the side pocket of my pack when I was carrying them. Lastly, the umbrella. I’ve long been a fan of the humble brolly for hiking, going back to the hazel-shafted walking stick model I bought from James Smith & Sons (where you should, if you are ever even remotely close, visit and be amazed), later set temporarily aside for the original GoLite umbrella, considerably lighter but with the tiny drawback of not actually being waterproof… These days I use hiking poles rather than the walking stick, so the Smith brolly is a bit heavy to mostly carry in the rucksack, although come to think of it that doesn’t seem to bother Nicholas Crane. I picked up a Swing Liteflex umbrella, lighter than even the old GoLite and seemingly much more robust and waterproof. The company appear to be making brollies for others, so you may find them under different names. Splendid for wandering around town and walking on calm days, an umbrella is of course quite useless on a big hill in vile, blowy weather, but such is not my main use. At night it formed a handy “door” to the tarp, blocking swirling rain and offering additional privacy on commercial campsites. I sat under it at rest stops, used it as an additional windbreak while cooking, deployed it as a privacy screen when attending to those matters common to both hikers and bears. Embrace the eccentricity, try hiking with a brolly yourself.
That’s largely all that needs talking about for the rest of the gear. The (probably) last post on this topic will cover a couple of failures – the bivy could have gone there but seemed a more natural fit in the context of the sleeping system – and thoughts on changes I may make for the future, after which you can breathe a sigh of relief and return to your regularly scheduled lives.
Some of the websites mentioned, if the Super Secret Clicky Links aren’t working for you (Have you checked your Secret Decoder Ring?):
Onwards, then, from the “big three” items of gear to a quick review of what I was wearing. In general gear lists tend to separate clothes into “Clothes Carried” and “Clothes Worn” which I have simplified slightly by basically wearing everything.
Páramo 3rd Element: The much lamented, yet sadly poorly selling, 3rd Element was one of the more unusual offerings from Páramo, a company known for its very unconventional clothes. Part of the Nikwax Analogy range of waterproof coats the 3rd Element sported the peculiar feature of having a removable top section (the sleeves, hood and yoke came off as one) partly covering a separate gilet. The result: extra padding and waterproofing on the shoulders, a full function waterproof jacket and a cooler sleeveless section for when more ventilation was required. Admittedly I only used the gilet alone on a couple of occasions this year, but the major objection to Páramo waterproofs is that they are warmer than some membrane-based jackets, precluding their use in more Summery weather. It’s an objection with which I can only partly sympathise, since I find Gore-Tex and the like horribly sweaty and uncomfortable on the whole, whereas Páramo is particularly good at handling liquid water (i.e. sweat) and feels better to me even if I am overheating, but each to his own and being able to remove the sleeves certainly adds versatility to the setup. The material is soft and comfortable (on cooler nights I slept in the jacket, otherwise it was rolled up to make a pillow) and can be endlessly reproofed, giving it a life well beyond most waterproofs: my Páramo Scala jacket is about twelve years old and shows no drop in performance that an occasional wash and reproof does not fix and only my old Ventile smock (worn on the 2009 Challenge) has shown similar longevity. Shortcomings are few: a proper map pocket would have been appreciated (since I use a pack with no belt I was able to stick my maps into the rear horizontal pocket designed to hold the sleeves when they are removed, which solved the problem for me) and I prefer a waist cord rather than one at the hem, but these are niggles. It took very little time for this wonderful jacket to become a second skin, one that wasn’t too niffy even after a fortnight of wear. It handled the powerfully driven rain and hail with aplomb. At least half a dozen Challengers that I know of wore the 3rd Element this year, yet Páramo have been unable, despite several attempts, to find a place for it in the market. The public, it seems, think it’s too weird. That probably wasn’t helped by Páramo’s insistence that you can wear just the sleeves if you like… 856g but don’t dismiss it simply because that weight looks high. As part of a well considered clothing system the 3rd Element is superb. The main problem is getting hold of one now that production has ceased. Páramo themselves have two eBay shops, one selling seconds items and the other dealing with surplus and discontinued stock, so if you’re lucky then, like me, you might still be able to pick one up at a bargain price. It feels a bit odd not be wearing it at the moment.
Inov-8 Flyroc 310 shoes: An expensive pair of trainers, really. I bought a pair of Flyrocs for the 2009 Challenge and they worked so well that I picked up a new pair in a clearance sale (they’ve changed the colour scheme, apparently: mine are a rather natty blue and green) for this year. Little underfoot padding, acres of quick-drying mesh on the uppers, a lacing system that cradles your foot like an amorous octopus and more grip than an arm-wrestling gorilla, the Flyrocs laughed in the face of mud, tarmac and wet grass. Stream crossing consisted of walking through the streams, no changing footwear and getting the towel out, and I never found them to be uncomfortable even when wet. The only problem I ever had was inside the heel cup, where the lining fabric rapidly wore through. In 2009 this caused blisters before I realised that there was a problem, so I stuck some moleskin and duct tape over the damage and they’ve been fine ever since. This year I pre-empted any problem by sticking a piece of duct tape inside the shoes. Other Inov-8 wearers, I discovered, do the same. 822g for a pair in my clod-hopping size.
Patagonia Nano Puff: Many years ago I lived near to a Patagonia Outlet Store in the United States. They were happy, carefree days, filled with laughter and reasonably priced high quality outdoor clothing. Then I moved and was faced with the real world, where Patagonia clothes are apparantly priced using a different monetary system to the one I know and the costs are stupidly high. I stopped buying Patagonia. Enter the Internet, where I managed to chance upon a clearance sale for the Nano Puff, a lightly insulated smock top, offering it for half price if I could fit into a size Large (I could) and didn’t mind wearing something called Gecko Green (I’d have preferred not to, but needs must). At half price the Nano Puff is expensive, but worth it if you can spare the cash; at full price it is obscenely expensive and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. My main insulating garment, if you can call it that, was actually the Sierra Sniveller quilt. Being filled with down (and looking absolutely bonkers) was potentially a limitation, though, so with the chance of a damp ol’ time in bonny Scotland ahead of me I bought the Nano Puff as a security piece, a synthetic insulation top which would be less affected if I was careless enough to get soaked through. In the end I slept in it on more than half of the nights, wore it whenever I wasn’t hiking and found that it was so good that I only rarely needed to don the Sniveller for extra warmth. When stopping to do laundry, which happened every four days or so, my approach of carrying few extra clothes raised a potential problem, so generally the Nano Puff was worn next to the skin on those occasions with no discomfort at all. Versatile, comfortable, warm and, despite the colour, not a bad looking item either; other Challengers seemed to endorse my opinion, although I couldn’t help noticing that nobody else had chosen the green. 300g. Returning home I was pleased to discover that I’d lost enough weight to fit into my old Patagonia Stand Up Pants, good news both because they are old favourites and because I still find the name amusing.
The other stuff: I’m not going to review everything in any depth – you can read the kit list spreadsheet if you want to see it all anyway – so here’s a quick run through the rest. The possum fur / merino wool double-layer beanie hat from Chocolate Fish was excellent, worn around camp and for sleeping (since there’s no hood on my quilt), it also served an additional function as the pot cosy for my kitchen setup. Pour boiling water into dehydrated meal, stir, pop the hat over the bag for ten minutes and there you go, a hot meal and a warm hat. Trousers were my old Eco-Mesh Pants from RailRiders, bought over ten years ago and going strong despite having split dramatically at the crotch in 2009. A bit of repair, subsequent reinforcement and modification to add a central rear belt loop (what a stupid omission that is. Without it the waistband slips uncomfortably under the belt. I made one from a swatch of flysheet material included in an old Hilleberg tent catalogue…) and they still work well. Zips down the outside seam open up mesh vents, or close to keep the bugs at bay, and the windproof Supplex fabric dries so quickly that I only bother with waterproofs in seriously prolonged rain. Fit is rather basic, however, so don’t expect to look especially dashing in them, and I suspect that there have been some design and possibly material changes since I bought mine. Undies were merino wool trunks from Chocolate Fish, a huge step forward in comfort from the synthetic shorts I used to wear. The rather hopeless waistband rolled over instantly but at least it wasn’t uncomfortable; in all other respects they were superb. 1000 Mile Wool Ultra Performance Trail socks were light and warm on my feet, along with Injinji liners which I’ll cover in detail later on. I rarely go anywhere without a Tilley Hat and have been wearing them for about twenty years, initially won over because they actually make hats in my size. This time I left my old favourite at home and took a lighter synthetic model, a good choice as it turned out, since it dried very quickly. Likewise, the ubiquitous Buff, a simple synthetic tube worn as scarf or hat, was always in use, often under the Tilley to keep my ears warm. Another oddly-coloured bargain buy from eBay (mango, I believe they said it was) was my long-sleeved Montane Bionic top, a wool and synthetic mix, very comfortable indeed and better than pure synthetics at keeping the odours down, important in a garment I wore for days at a time. A pair of Mont-Bell gaiters, simple stretch material and not waterproof, kept the crud out of my shoes and performed far better than the feeble Raidlight ones I used last time. The elastic under-foot cord abraded badly on the Mont-Bells but is easily and cheaply replaced. Instead of spare shoes I carried a pair of “clean room” style Tyvek overboots, pretty much large plastic socks really, to wear over my sleeping socks in camp and to put over muddy shoes when heading into a pub. They worked well, but next time I’ll probably use a pair of Crocs or similar simply because they would be more convenient around town. The Challenge is not just a wilderness event and sometimes the lightest option can be a compromise too far.
That’s most of the kit I was wearing at one time or another. I mentioned the Injinji liner socks which began the Challenge as favourites, but I’ll discuss them in more depth after the other reviews because they failed so badly and had to be replaced. On the whole my gear worked and lasted well, with only a few disappointments. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the eccentrically dressed Challenger was wearing in the Highlands this May.
Links for the non-linky:
… or possibly not. Well, I may mention shoes at a later date.
The 2011 TGO Challenge is behind me, clothes have been washed and the house is festooned with gear like a street party colliding with a mountain marathon. The familiar, heady aroma of laundry-shy synthetics has cleared at last. Mostly.
An exhaustive discussion and review of everything I carried and used on the walk is considerably beyond what is really required or helpful, so I shall instead make a few remarks about particular items, how they worked and how well they fitted with the rest of the kit to form a functional “system” of gear, and sweep the rest into an easily dismissed corner.
The Big Boys: Big in terms of bulk, weight or simply how important they are to the whole. Let’s dive in with the ZPacks Zero Cuben Fiber rucksack, mentioned in an earlier post, which was a real success. The material gradually softened yet remained very water resistant (the only water in my pack came from throwing wet gear into it on a couple of hurried mornings) and the closure, nothing more than a drawcord and toggle, proved considerably more effective than my dubious first assessment. The big outside pocket was perfect for holding a soaking wet tarp (which it was on all but one or two mornings, thank you very much Scottish weather) while the side pockets held water bottle and raingear on the one side, brolly (retained by the elastic side straps I requested), sit-mat and toilet stuff on the other. I never missed a waistbelt, not that I expected to since my other rucksack is a GoLite Breeze and that doesn’t have one either, nor did I have occasion to use the loops I’d asked for to attach an elastic shock-cord (The Memmsy Cord, about which more later) as a sort of stabilising waistbelt in the event of needing to do a bit of scrambling. Considering that the ZPacks Zero is a semi-custom item it would have been largely my fault if the options I requested didn’t suit, but I was tremendously impressed with the comfort, capacity and utility of this simple, functional bag. On the hills it always felt at home, around town I just slung it over one shoulder and strolled along like everyone else. Well, like everyone else carrying something that looked like a pedal-bin liner anyway. Size medium, giving me about 34 litres plus the pockets, which was more than enough space. 146g you say? Sold!
Titanium Goat UL Sierra Sniveller Special: Quite possibly the longest name ever conceived for what is, at heart, a blanket. It deserves the distinction though. This was my sleeping bag, replacing the heavy and disappointing Mountain Equipment bag I’ve had for years which performed poorly on the 2009 Challenge. The Sierra Sniveller is a quilt, manufactured in this version for Titanium Goat by the American company Jacks ‘R’ Better. Unlike many ultralight backpacking quilts the Sniveller opens completely flat, very handy when I stopped at Tarfside and was able to deploy it as a bedspread or simply for airing it out in the very unlikely event that the air it Scotland may turn a little damp *cough*. The tapered “foot end” fastens together with Velcro-like Omni Tape and a drawcord snugs in the end to create a cosy foot pocket; a second drawcord at the opposite end allows the quilt to be shaped around the neck and shoulders, brilliantly simple and tremendously effective. On one cold and windy night I used the cords and loops fitted down the sides to pull the quilt more closely around me for warmth, while warmer nights were much more comfortable than in an enclosed bag due to the easy venting options afforded by the quilt. Not enough, you say? Well Sir, you can wear it! An Omni-Taped opening in the middle allows the adventurous and sartorially oblivious to don the quilt as an insulated serape, as illustrated by the brave, brave fellows over on the Jacks ‘R’ Better website. At least as cosy as the typical backpacking down jacket, although I can’t say I’d head to the pub whilst wearing it. Brilliant around camp, however. All in all a thoroughly successful choice and something I expect to be using for a long time to come, well made and very versatile for its 594g weight.
GoLite Cave 1 Tarp: No longer manufactured due to the well-publicised disagreement many years ago between GoLite and Ray Jardine, who designed it and several other items made by GoLite in their early days. A real pity that, since this deceptively simple shelter continues to impress a decade after I bought it. The Cave is a simple flat tarp made of a fairly heavy grade of SilNylon, enhanced (transformed, almost) by the addition of triangular “variable geometry beaks” at each end. Essentially the beaks provide extra protection from the weather and close the ends of the tarp off if you have to pitch it very low in a storm. It also has “lifters” on the sides, extra guys that pull the main panels out to give more headroom. To be honest I have only ever used these occasionally as the Cave has tons of room under it anyway. Remarkably, I was told more than once that I must have had an awful time during the Challenge because I was camping under a tarp… Funnily enough it must have been so traumatic that I have blanked the horror from my mind and replaced it with memories of being warm, dry and comfortable in some lovely camping spots, just as in 2009. Only on two occasions did I have trouble due to using a tarp: one spot looked perfect, but after pitching I realised that it was alive with ticks and I quickly zipped myself into my bivvy bag to avoid them and the midges, which made for a dull evening; and at the Stables of Lee, a spot on my Foul Weather Alternative route where I had not been planning to camp, the high winds, waterlogged ground and lack of shelter made pitching the Cave impossible, or at least beyond my abilities, so I slept in the stable instead. Other than that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything on this trip; and the “failures” were as much down to me as to the tarp. Looking at the tents used by other Challengers I did consider replacing the tarp on a future Challenge so that I could try more adventurous routes with more limited camping options, but now that I’m home and have been looking into it further I’m less convinced… Tarp camping is very much to my taste. The limitations are few, far fewer than you probably think if you’ve not tried it, and the advantages many. At least one Challenger lost his tent poles and another had a pole fail dramatically, rendering the tents almost useless… with a tarp you just find a tree or pick up a stick. They’re not as flimsy as they look, these things, and I believe that my ability to choose a good camping spot has improved because I use one, helping me to get away from the habit of simply plonking the tent down anywhere, however uncomfortable, because of a belief that the tent can handle it. Anyway, we’re moving into camping philosophy here. At least I’m not wholly alone in my love of tarps and this design in particular: Geoff Gafford was on the Challenge in his Cave of similar vintage and I suspect he was equally happy in his choice. If you fancy trying a Cave for yourself then you could haunt eBay for one, but prices are high and they appear only occasionally. Far better to wander over to the site of the man who designed the thing, Ray Jardine, and order one of his kits for sewing a tarp yourself. The current version is also lighter than my Cave, although I have added different guys and adjusters (largely to stop people from falling over the damn things on campsites). 432g plus the weight of a dozen pegs.
Shelter, sleeping bag and rucksack. All solid successes, I’d say, and a good place to pause before part two..
Site addresses, in case you can’t get the clever clicky things to work:
Enough people have requested a copy of my gear list that I have decided to bow to public* pressure and just post the thing. Spreadsheets are as natural an environment to me as centre court at Wimbledon is to a herring, so please excuse any oddities of formatting and the like.
Examinations of what worked, what didn’t and why I thought it a good idea to carry the blasted thing in the first place to follow.
*Thanks to both of you
Somewhere in Montrose the Fat Lady has sung.
That’s a little harsh, actually, as most of those singing at the Challenge dinner on Thursday night were looking positively trim, if not slightly underfed, but in essence the TGO Challenge of 2011 is now over. Three hundred weary, cheery souls have quietly scattered across the country (and indeed the world) to their homes, returning to families and colleagues and trying very hard not to look as though they are mentally planning next year’s route.
By many accounts this was a particularly tough Challenge, considered perhaps the worst ever in terms of continual rain, and it was more luck than good management that saw me keeping just a step or two ahead of the harshest storms. Even so, like many Challengers I chose to opt for my Foul Weather route when the forecast for the higher hills started to reach Plague of Egypt proportions and ended up in St. Cyrus rather than my originally planned terminus at Lunan Bay. Regardless of changes, challenges and the weather, I had an absolutely wonderful, wonderful time, in no small part due to the many splendid people I met along the way.
Unfortunately, carrying anything “unconventional” (i.e. not made by Páramo, Osprey or Montane) on the Challenge does attract a degree of attention; and as much as I try to avoid being noticed in any situation it was clear that my pack in particular was the subject of considerable discussion. When someone approaches you at the end of the walk and asks, in hushed tones, whether they can touch your rucksack, you know that you’ve created a monster. Or perhaps encountered a pervert. Admittedly, my own paranoia about theft, leading to my habit of never leaving my bag anywhere, doesn’t help: apologies to anyone forced to share space with me in locations where a normal person would have simply dropped their pack outside. I’m not even terribly comfortable with being termed an “ultralight” hiker, although the designation is inevitable. Yes, I try to travel with a light load, not least because working in an office has left me with an increasingly painful bad back, but it’s not a religion with me. I’m the man who packed a Christmas pudding and brandy sauce among his essential supplies, for heaven’s sake, and any real “gram weenie” could have slashed quite a bit of weight from my pack.
My own approach to gear and techniques is not exactly methodical, but I do admit to a tendency to carefully compare and consider everything before making my choices, albeit in a haphazard way. With that in mind I shall probably give in to the requests I have had to post my gear list and comment on how individual items performed in the very wet and windy conditions of Scotland this May. Don’t expect in-depth reviews or observations worthy of Chris Townsend or Clive Tully, but a few remarks may help others to throw large piles of cash at small piles of equipment. Reviews to follow, once I’ve caught up on all those things that seem to need attention when you disappear off the radar for a fortnight.