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 humble bicycle. My preferred method of travel, my means of commuting and recently, alas, the source of considerable stress and annoyance which I may possibly have already mentioned once or twice. Since this blog is an irregular and eclectic thing, more a bag of Cadbury’s Mis-shapes than Mr Gump’s box of chocolates, there’s far too high a proportion of moaning bike posts in the recent entries, so let’s stop that and have a rather more positive one before moving along to more interesting topics.
After the unmitigated disaster that was the b’twin Riverside 1 bicycle I’ve been relying on a bike loaned to me by the ever generous JJ, who had one day found himself in possession of a neglected machine superfluous to his needs (long story). A quick Internet search revealed it to be a Raleigh model currently selling for nearly £400, so it’s a decent enough bike in its own right, just sadly abused and neglected by the previous owner. As a commuting machine the obvious deficiency was the complete lack of mudguards (a pet peeve of mine, since they ought to be standard for road use outside of specialist racing cycles: try following someone who doesn’t use them in wet weather and you’ll immediately see why, assuming you can see anything at all), so I bought the cheapest possible model to attach to the seatpost. Mudguards of that type are better than nothing, but only by a hair and of course they don’t address the mess and damage caused by spray from the front wheel coating the chain and lower part of the headset (addressed on this rather more authoritative site, if you don’t believe me). Still, tight budget and all that. In use the biggest problem actually turned out to be the dilapidated state of the gears. After an hour or two of tinkering and repair I managed to get them back to almost exactly the state they were in before I started messing around with them, after which I found that the best thing to do was to leave them in the one gear I could find that didn’t slip dramatically. This meant that I was effectively riding a single-speed bike, which is the closest I’m ever likely to get to being a hipster.
Via Twitter my plight came to the attention of Dave, the genial face behind revolveMCR, who suggested that he might be able to put something together for me. Knowing what a fine job he’d made of servicing and repairing my old Pashley in the past I was interested, so we discussed my requirements (which are not especially demanding or specialist) and he came back with some options. You can see the end result in the photo above, a nine-speed bike with suspension forks, full mudguards (FULL MUDGUARDS), pannier rack and slightly bonkers handlebars, all based around a Trek frame. I’d never really looked at these sort of “butterfly” handlebars before, but Dave threw out the suggestion and I decided it was worth a go. They’re great, actually, offering enough variety of positions to avoid stress or numbness on my hands. The odd-looking pole they’re attached to will change, incidentally, as I’m going to raise them up just a little based on having ridden the bike for a few days. One very nice thing with not buying an off-the-shelf design is that it’s possible to leave room for alterations like that. The other interesting point for me was Dave’s initial spreadsheet listing his suggested configuration. I’ve never dealt with a bike as a collection of brand-name components prior to this and it was intriguing to be able to search for reviews and information about the particular frame or forks, rather than just the bike as a whole. Trek, for instance, simply wasn’t a brand I knew anything about (I’ve not exactly been keeping up with the cycling world over the past twenty years) but this appears to be a pretty well regarded frame. At 26″ the wheels seem strangely small to me (which might seem odd coming from a former Brompton rider; it’s probably just the comparison with the Pashley) but I certainly can’t complain about the smooth ride and responsive handling. It does mean that my spare tyre won’t fit, though.
The end result is a compromise of course, a collection of new and secondhand parts due to my very restricted budget, but how nice it was to be able to choose the compromises. Instead of a generally inferior machine I’ve managed to get something with a pretty decent specification but no unnecessary bells and whistles (having said that, I shall be adding an entirely unnecessarily fancy bell very soon) which, so far, rides quite beautifully. It would have been lovely to have had the frame repainted, hub gears and dynamo lighting fitted, but that can come later when I can afford such things. As a working bicycle I couldn’t ask for more on my budget.
Dave’s business is bicycle repair and maintenance, I should point out, and I am not suggesting that he generally offers complete bikes for sale (contact him directly if you want to discuss anything). Delighted that he did this one, though.
The sadly drawn out saga of my bicycle isn’t quite over, but at least things are heading in the right direction.
The Decathlon bike continued its spectacular decline, with new niggling problems arising right up until the moment when the wheel failed again. At that point it was obvious that the bike simply was not fit for purpose; and given that “purpose” in this case was an undemanding ride along a fairly flat tarmac road to work and back that was as good as saying that it was fit for nothing. I wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable argument with the staff at the shop, but it was time to get my money back…
… except there was no argument. Decathlon may have sold me the worst bike I’ve ever ridden, a lump of metal I imagine even Steptoe and Son would have been hesitant to accept, but their returns policy was exceptionally straightforward and handled smoothly by the bored-looking staff at the returns desk. It should have told me something that rather than “Customer Service” the desk was simply signed “Returns”. I walked in, rolling the bike on its front wheel, chain off, split tyre looped over the seat post and the back wheel in my other hand, and said I’d like to return the bicycle. Entirely straight-faced, and with no apparent hint of irony or humour, the chap behind the desk asked if there was anything wrong with it.
Still, a swift refund credited to my bank account and far less fuss than I expected. If you have to return something to a shop it’s great to encounter such a smooth system, although there was no hint of apology over the months of hassle caused by owning the bike and having the temerity to actually ride it. Even so, I’m not sure that it is actually a good thing overall. Yes, they accepted the faulty goods without question and I got my money back, but the attitude towards the product was highlighted to me when I handed over the lights and fittings and they were summarily tossed away into a bin. A fair proportion of these cheap goods – tents, bikes, whatever they happen to be – will be disposed of or replaced by customers who don’t return them. Some will do the job the buyer asks, which is great (there’s a comment on my earlier post about this bike from a happy customer, something I’m delighted to see regardless of the fact that I consider this bike almost dangerously shoddy). Others are returned to the shop for refund or store credit. The half-hearted, inadequate attempts at repair by the Decathlon workshop inspire no confidence in me that they are serious about producing a quality product and keeping it good repair.
My friend JJ loaned me an old bike he’s had hanging around for some time to use until I can buy a better machine. It’s a Raleigh hybrid, nothing special by any means, and despite having sat neglected for a long while, to the point that the tyres were utterly flat, despite being in need of a tune-up to stop the gears from slipping, it’s still streets ahead of that Decathlon bike. The gear ratios, the riding position, everything is better.
Dave at RevolveMCR offered some thoughts on a possible new machine which might be very tempting indeed, so I’m looking into that and shaking the piggy bank to see what I can afford. I shan’t be bothering with anywhere like Decathlon for my transport needs in the future.
A pun-free title and fairly quick return to my rather occasional blog, spurred by a visit to the stats page.
Quite a number of people have come here via a ‘net search for the b’twin Riverside 1 bicycle, made and sold by Decathlon. I’m the unfortunate owner of one these, so perhaps an update is due to give those searchers an idea of how the bike has stood up to a few short months of normal use:
Very poorly indeed.
To put things in context, I use my bike almost exclusively to commute to work along city streets, a round trip of about eleven miles. Hills are few and minor, so the main stresses on the bike are down to the poorly maintained Manchester roads. Naturally I avoid potholes (travelling the same route every day means that I know where they all are) but the tarmac does have a few rough areas. Still, nothing that would trouble a halfway-decent machine. I bought the bike when my Pashley needed a fairly major, urgent overhaul and at a time when the mechanic I trust to do such a job was out of the country for a time (I wouldn’t take it back to the shop from which it was bought, since they have generally caused more problems than they fix). With no time to find a good second-hand bike I read some reviews and was persuaded that a new one from Decathlon would be worth the money.
The first bike I looked at was set up as a city model. Looked pretty decent on the website, with mudguards, pannier rack and lights, all the things needed for a commuting set-up. In the shop I was surprised to find that despite being sold as a bike for adults it was so tiny that my knees rested between the handlebars… which made it impossible to do anything other than trundle in a straight line. So, some time later I settled on the Riverside 1, a men’s bike lacking things such as mudguards (heaven knows why) but seemingly a much better option. The staff cheerfully said that they could fit mudguards, stand etc while we waited.
Three days later the back wheel had developed so much side-to-side play that I began to expect it might pull out and overtake me at any moment. Back to Decathlon, where the mechanic told me it was “perfectly normal” and simply needed some adjustment. After lowering my incredulous eyebrows I let him fix it. By the trip home from work it was as bad as before.
Back to Decathlon and a different mechanic, who admitted that the wheel shouldn’t do that and changed it for a different type. He also changed the mudguards, since the ones installed on purchase were too short. It subsequently became apparent that the new ones, supposedly the correct size, are also too short because Decathlon don’t seem to think that mudguards should actually stop water from spraying up your back. I fixed a piece of plastic to the back and solved the problem. A few days later the back tyre blew out. Ah well, punctures are inevitable in the city… but wait, what’s this? A small puncture, yes, but also a complete failure of the rear tyre itself, which had split along the sidewall. I nursed the bike along to Ken Foster’s Cycle Logic in Chorlton, bought a new tyre and fitted it myself.
Decathlon offer a free service in the first six months. Due to further problems and the sneaking suspicion that the bottom bracket might have gone I took the bike in after about two. They replaced the bottom bracket. They also noticed that the rear axle was bust and so fitted yet another model of wheel, this one seemingly better than the previous two. The brake pads had to be replaced too, as the ones it came with were apparently made of cheese and wore out if subjected to a hard stare. I had to pay for those, Decathlon’s policy being that even though the ones they initially supply are barely fit for the job such things naturally wear out anyway.
Currently I’ve had the bike for about three months. It’s required a number of fixes, most of which entailed getting it over to the shop in Stockport, including two new wheels, a new tyre, replacement brake pads and a new bottom bracket. The right pedal seems to be failing and is making an ominous plasticky cracking sound with each revolution. The gears have begun to slip. Bear in mind that in the short time since I bought it the bike has also received a full service.
If you need a cheap bike try to find something on the second-hand market if you can. It’s worth asking at some small bike shops too, as they might carry reconditioned models or have suggestions for where to get a good one. If you’re considering a b’twin Riverside 1 from Decathlon then I suggest you forget that idea immediately and look elsewhere. Unless you want to buy mine, full service history, serious offers only…
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