TGO Challenge: Filling Up the Corners
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?):