The rucksack hasn’t changed since my 2011 TGO Challenge, a semi-custom ZPacks Zero constructed from Cuben Fiber, and it’s still going strong. Such a light bag requires some thought across your entire range of kit, since you can’t overload it and expect it to be comfortable, nor does it take kindly to being loaded with gear any old how. For my needs it once again proved to be superbly comfortable with the fairly light load I was carrying and is showing very little sign of wear and tear, a popped stitch on the haul loop being about the extent of it so far. Were I to add a few more pounds or take bulkier equipment then this would not be the right pack for the job.
The brolly you can see furled and stowed in the picture was a silvered version of the Swing LiteFlex Trekking model I’ve used previously, but unfortunately this didn’t fare so well. I recall Colin Ibbotson, I believe, mentioning some failures he’d had with this brand and sadly a rogue gust snapped a stretcher on mine, causing it to tear through the canopy. A repair left it able to fulfil some duties as long as there was no chance of much wind, but I’ve had to bin it now. Excellent as a cooling sunshade, a very convenient tarp porch cover and an essential shelter on rainy breaks, I’m still a great fan of the umbrella when hiking, but these particular models are just a little too light, too weak.
On previous Challenges (and indeed most of the time when I step outside, for the past twenty years) I wore a Tilley Hat. I have rather too many of these, if I’m honest, despite not having bought a new one for several years; looking at the range now it all seems a bit cluttered and fancy, somewhat removed from the solid outdoors credentials of the originals, but a few of the venerable models are still there including the classic T3. This time I took the plunge and made a change, a peaked cap from Marks & Spencer costing an impressive £2 from the sale bin. These were most likely poor sellers due to being labelled as size XL but actually being big enough to fit me, which makes it more like an XXXL (the availability of a size 8 is one of the reasons I discovered Tilley Hats in the first place, the world being unfairly biased towards people with tiny heads). My thinking here was that I could wear the cap more easily under the hood of my windshirt or waterproof, which certainly worked. I wore the thing practically non-stop for the fortnight and it even stayed neatly on my head without a chin cord, only once blowing off… when I returned to Manchester. Naturally, it landed straight in a fountain. Despite a foldaway neck cape I did get a little too much sun on my ears, so I expect I’ll go back to full brim hats most of the time.
A large number, perhaps even a majority, of Challengers can be seen to use Crocs, particularly the classic enclosed sandal style, because they are very often hanging from their rucksacks. They may not pack neatly away, and they are certainly astonishingly ugly lumps of plastic, but they are quite light (around 300g for a large size men’s pair), easy to clean and very comfortable. Boot wearers switch to them in camp and also when fording streams, whereas those who opt for trail shoes generally walk straight through the water regardless and wear the same shoes in camp as when hiking. Sometimes it’s nice to have a change, though, and since Crocs were too bulky and a bit heavier than I’d like I made a pair of flip-flops:
A couple of bits of spare foam from my sleeping mat and a few strips of duct tape. 23 grammes for the pair. Absolutely perfect for using in campsite showers and pottering around a bunkhouse. They made it through the fortnight intact, albeit with little cushioning left under the heel.
After the 2011 Challenge I was largely happy with my cooking system, but having seen a Trail Designs Caldera Cone in action I thought it might fix the one weak point, namely the inadequate foil windscreen I was using. Last year I bought a Caldera Cone but otherwise kept the same Esbit burner and titanium pot (the one minor annoyance with the Cone is that it has to be bought to fit specific cooking pots, as it can’t be adjusted). Cooking performance and convenience was vastly improved and I also saved on quite a bit of fuel, as I could generally manage both the main meal and a hot drink on a single tablet. I ate well and it never seemed like a chore to set up the stove.
Most of the other kit performed well and much of it had been in the bag for the 2011 Challenge. A pair of Jacks ‘R’ Better Down Sleeves made my old PHD Minimus Down Vest much more versatile, giving me increased flexibility for sitting around camp and to boost my down quilt quite a bit on a couple of chilly nights. I only had one night when I woke up cold, which was fixed by reaching for extra clothes; in the morning the spare water bag was frozen and I draped the quilt around me as I left the tent. My Mountain King walking poles are still going, giving me occasional concern as they flexed alarmingly when used as tent supports on windier nights, and I wore the same pair of Inov-8 Flyroc shoes that I used on the 2011 Challenge, although they certainly won’t manage a third.
Instead of my old GoLite Cave tarp I tried a Gossamer Gear SpinnShelter. Slightly longer and considerably lighter with useful doors at each end, it’s also less versatile than the Cave as it can only really be successfully pitched in one basic configuration. The tent is not currently in production as the fabric used is now virtually impossible to obtain, but it certainly deserves to reappear if an alternative material can be found. The classic sloping shape only allows you to sit up at one end, but it kept the weather out successfully and was fairly straightforward to pitch tautly. An inner from BearPaw Wilderness Designs, the Minimalist 1, kept the ticks and midges out and as I specified a silnylon area at the foot end it meant that I could keep the doors of the Spinnshelter open, reducing condensation without risking wet feet from the rain. I originally bought the inner for my Cave, but it fit the SpinnShelter quite well.
Trousers were a pair of stretch Sprayway Compass Pants, very comfortable and surprisingly weather resistant with well designed zipped pockets, and a Rab Meco 165 shirt (bought, like the trousers, in a clearance sale) worked splendidly to keep me comfortable in challenging conditions. Instead of the Paramo 3rd Element jacket I wore in 2011 or the Snowsled Ventile smock from 2009 I decided to take a Marmot Essence waterproof jacket (which I normally pack for cycling use, hence the eye-watering shade of orange) and a Rab Cirrus hooded windshirt. The Cirrus was fantastic, good for all but heavy rain and one of the few windshirts around at the moment with big useful pockets. The Essence was okay and worked well, but for the very typical May Scottish weather of the TGO I think I’ll go back to the Paramo in future. Less faffing around as conditions change, which they do quickly and often, and supremely comfortable in cold wet weather.
Would I take the same on a future, hypothetical Challenge? Some of it. I might go back to a thicker mattress (my foam MultiMat is rather flattened with use and age now, for one thing), tweak a few things here and there, but very little genuinely needs to be changed. It doesn’t take a huge amount of gear to be comfortable on the Challenge, with the caveat that I choose my route accordingly: I wouldn’t think of deliberately camping high or in very exposed locations with this exact kit. I carried about 4lbs more this time than in 2011, extra weight accumulating from more and heavier warm clothes, the tent inner, sturdier tent pegs and numerous other odds and ends, which I don’t regret at all. The compromise between weight and comfort is always there and I managed to be comfortable due both to a fairly light pack and a very adequate range of camping gear. I don’t have any set ideology here, though, and you’re just as likely to meet me on a hill wearing leather boots as trail shoes. Horses for courses, as they say.
Ooh, a packhorse… maybe I could take a packhorse…
Continuing my unsystematic method of writing about the 2013 TGO Challenge, a few idle thoughts (of a very idle fellow) concerning the kit I carried. Whether you call it hiking, hill walking, tramping, rambling, backpacking, bimbling or some equivalent in a long dead tongue, the important thing to remember is that it’s about the journey, the experience, the act of being out there and moving at nature’s pace, and it’s certainly not about the gear. Except that’s what everyone talks about, because people are like that. Anyway, if you want trip reports you need to be following people like Philip Werner, who started his TGO piece this week. It contains a couple of pictures of me grinning buffoonishly and Philip is comically generous in his estimation of my tent pitching skill, but don’t let my presence put you off. I kept photobombing the poor chap’s walk.
So, what worked? With some doubts and fears for its safety I decided to take my smartphone, not a cheap item (for me at least, it’s a very rare bit of fairly high-end electronic folderol) and an inherently fragile one. Despite being relatively new to the world of contract ‘phones I upgraded last year to an HTC One X, which has done fantastically well at pretty much everything I’ve used it for. I made a protective case for it using bubble wrap and an aLoksak, essentially a very overpriced sandwich bag, which worked to fend off moisture and minor bumps, although I was under no illusions about it protecting the ‘phone against a fall with my ample bodyweight crushing it against the rocks. A silica gel pouch added a little defence against moisture in the bag, keeping the humidity down but not likely to do much if the seal failed. The resulting package fit nicely in the pocket of my Rab windshirt.
There’s no user-replaceable battery in that particular model, so I also carried a TeckNet battery pack, capable of recharging the ‘phone up to four times before itself needing a charge; my thinking was that I’d rather leave the battery plugged in at a campsite or pub than I would the ‘phone itself. In practice the battery pack proved fickle, apparently very unhappy about the generally low temperatures, and had to keep being prodded in order to continue charging, but it has worked and continues to work perfectly well at home and when travelling. It also behaved itself in the pub, allowing both myself and Philip Werner to simultaneously recharge our ‘phones as we made use of the reasonably priced WiFi at the Fife Arms in Braemar. The result was that I had a way to call and text Challenge Control (on those occasions when I had a signal… not in any way guaranteed and there are many known signal dead zones in the Highlands), an entertainment centre including MP3 player and a Kindle reader app with plenty of books, and a back-up mapping source; in common with many modern ‘phones it could also function as a torch and a radio if needed, too. The HTC One X, pouch, headphones, charging cable etc came to about 250 grammes and the battery pack 200 grammes (roughly a pound in all), so a fairly heavy bit of kit for someone hiking in a relatively lightweight style but I found it to be worth carrying.
While I’m not here to recommend a particular ‘phone or even operating system (The One X uses Android, if you didn’t already know) I will point to an app I sometimes used and have found to be very handy indeed, Arthur Embleton’s Grid Reference. There are likely to be similar apps for other operating systems. Grid Reference does one thing: turn on the ‘phone’s GPS and it displays, big and bold, filling the screen, your UK mapping grid reference. That’s it. A few seconds and there it is, handy confirmation of your position for those occasions when visibility and local conditions make a little reassurance very welcome. I used it in very poor visibility as I approached Jock’s Road and it saved me a bit of floundering through the muck after I reached an area where the path was indistinct. Without a proper map it’s useless but I’ve been very happy to have it on a couple of occasions now and can imagine it having a useful place in rescue situations.
As I don’t own a digital camera the ‘phone was intended to take on that role, but of course there are issues with using a camera on a hiking trip. Water, primarily. Keeping the ‘phone in my pocket meant it was available to use as a camera quite readily (I left in on all of the time in “airplane” – sic – mode and had ample battery life) but naturally exposed it to greater risk than if I’d buried it in the rucksack. In the past I’ve been told that I take too few pictures, which is certainly true, so I took the chance and only kept it in the pack if conditions looked especially dicey.
I’m no Ansel Adams, but looking through a few old boxes of photos this weekend showed me that the features built into a smartphone camera have greatly improved the snaps I’ve taken when compared to my old 35mm compact. For my needs the results are perfectly acceptable, although of course dedicated equipment could do better still and would give far superior results in low light conditions. Still, I’m happy with how the pictures turned out and I’m tempted to trawl eBay for a modern compact, which would allow me to take pictures in those circumstances where I simply did not want to risk the HTC: you’ll notice that I have no pictures taken during storms or when hiking in the rain and snow.
Finally for now, one related item I got absolutely no use from: the Woxom Slingshot. It’s a great idea, a flexible cradle with a standard tripod mount, allowing you to use a smartphone more like a regular camera. It comes with a basic handle/tripod but works very nicely with my old Ultrapod too. Perfect for self-timer images, keeping a better grip on the ‘phone in precarious poses and generally stabilising the platform to produce sharper images. Seemed like a great idea. I didn’t use it once. That’s my fault rather than any problem with the Slingshot, however, and I fully expect to use it in the future, it just didn’t make it out of the pack on the TGO.
Regular readers will be very aware that there is nothing to regularly read here, lately in particular. Faced with the realisation, and accompanying statistics, that by far the most frequently visited post on this blog was me having a royal whinge about a shoddy bike I bought last year I slumped somewhat, unable to summon much enthusiasm for what has always only been an occasional dabbling (unlike the blogs of the two gentlemen above, infinitely more professional efforts and worthy of your time). At home on a cloudy bank holiday, still suffering the effects of suspected food poisoning and with the 2013 TGO Challenge behind me, it seems as good a time as any to jot down a few thoughts on recent weeks and what has been going on.
The TGO Challenge, widely acknowledged to be the most significant outdoor event since Pheidippides announced that he was just nipping outside to stretch his legs, concluded last week for another year. I’ve discussed it before on this blog and others have certainly done so with far greater depth and knowledge, so I shan’t be writing a complete trip report, nor a detailed dissection of the gear I carried this year; I do plan to touch on a few elements here and in later posts, though, which may hopefully be of interest when compared with how I tackled the 2011 crossing.
Plenty of people reported exceptionally bad weather early on, whereas I was lucky to see only a pretty typical mix of rain, snow, hail and sun for the first few days before things mostly improved. The worst weather I faced was probably on the campsite at Braemar, indeed, where I was at least in a good position to ride it out. It was a little disconcerting to return to my tent in the early evening and discover a party of ducks disporting in a newly created pond mere feet away, however.
In the first week I made my way to Drumnadrochit, bordering Loch Ness and consequently the leading location for all manner of tat with Nessie printed on it. The crossing, on a boat full of smiling Challengers helmed by the stalwart Gordon Menzies at the wheel, was delightful, with bright sunshine and scarcely a ripple on the surface of the water, although we were visited by at least one voracious creature. I’m no cryptozoologist or else I might have been able to positively identify it as the lake monster of myth, but perhaps you might do better from the hurried photograph I took as it attempted to swamp the boat.
A few miles inland I met a couple of hikers at a road junction, both with the characteristic bearing of TGO Challengers. We’d never met before, but Martin Rye and Philip Werner were familiar to me through Twitter and their blogs and we soon fell in to chatting as we headed off. The two were hiking together and had crossed Loch Ness the previous evening, full of horror stories about a wild and turbulent crossing, clearly bordering on the epic; my own description of an idyllic putter across in the sunshine did seem to deflate the drama somewhat. One thing I did know about Martin and Philip was that they were travelling in a party of three along with the President of the US. Sorry, that should read, along with the president of the US hiking equipment manufacturer, Gossamer Gear. Grant Sible had unfortunately been forced to withdraw from the Challenge at the very start due to illness, which must have been especially galling given that he had travelled all the way from Texas to participate. That’s the story I was told, at least, and certainly it seemed a little early in the Challenge for a shortage of supplies to have been behind his mysterious disappearance, cannibalism accounting for relatively few non-finishers on the event these days. Anyway, I’d been hoping to meet him (for one thing I was using a Gossamer Gear SpinnShelter on this trip and had a mind to fish for pitching tips), but instead found myself hiking and camping with his team-mates for a couple of days, taking his place as a sort of Stunt Grant, if you will. These were some of the very best days on the Challenge for me, wonderful walking and terrific company.
I expect that I’ll be edited out of the final photos, of course, and replaced with a CGI version of Mr Sible. That’s showbiz.
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 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?):