TGO Challenge: Pole Position
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: