Sunday, 15 January 2017

Animal tracks on a wet day: always something interesting in nature

In the mist and drizzle

Thawing snow, wet mist, drizzle, +5C. A dreich day. Chilly and damp. Even the nearby hills were hidden, the woods were hazy and dark. Two buzzards flapped slowly over the snow, silhouetted against the white ground. Rabbits skipped out of sight.
Rabbit food

Even on a day like this there is something to see, something of interest. With no views I looked down. Here were signs of the wildlife I was unlikely to see in the poor visibility. Tracks laced the ground  showing where rabbbits had searched for places they could scrape through the snow and find food.

Rabbit tracks

At the edge of the woods roe deer tracks appeared. None ventured out into the fields, where I often see them - no point when the grass is snow-covered.

Roe deer track

A fox had been out in the fields though, the straight line of its tracks cutting across the tangle of twisting and turning rabbit ones. I followed the tracks for a while but lost them in a snowfree area so whether it caught a rabbit or a mouse or maybe a pheasant - I saw tracks of several - I didn't find out..


An unpromising day then but still much of interest to see, as there always is in the natural world.

For identification of tracks and signs for over decades I've used Animals Tracks, Trails & Signs by R.W.Brown, M.J.Lawrence & J. Pope. There is much excellent information online now of course, including by Paul Kirtley on his blog.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Thoughts on Snow Trips Past & Future

Time for snowshoes

Today the snow was deep enough for me to try out some new snowshoes. I've been waiting quite a while to do this. Previous snowfalls haven't been deep enough but the recent snowfall is four or five inches deep everywhere and much deeper in many places where it has drifted.

Wandering the fields and woods in the snow I thought about future wintry trips and remembered previous ones. Next week I'll be heading into the Cairngorms for two nights with Peter Elliott of PHD to try out a winter version of the Sleep System I tried with him last summer (see this post) and then used with great success on my Yosemite to Death Valley walk last autumn. I'm hoping for really cold temperatures!

2016's Glen Affric igloo

Next month I'm planning an igloo trip with members of the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club. We did this last year above Glen Affric and had a comfortable night in an igloo in stormy weather. I wrote about the trip on this blog here and for The Great Outdoors. The latter piece has just been posted on the magazine's website.

Today the high Cairngorms were hidden in cloud. I hope to be up there in the snow soon and to have trips as memorable as this one last February. But for now the snow has made the fields and woods in the glens wilder and more exciting and tramping round them on snowshoes feels like a real winter adventure.

An elongated winter shadow        

View across Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Lightweight Backpacking Collection

In the High Sierra last autumn

Over the years I've posted a few articles on lightweight backpacking. As these are scattered throughout this blog I thought I'd gather together the links so they can be easily accessed.

How New Is Lightweight Backpacking?

Backpacking: How Light Is Safe?

Ultralight, Lightweight, Traditional .... Or Maybe Just Backpacking?

Ultralight Backpacking? Some Thoughts

Thoughts On Lightening A Backpacking Load

Performance, Durability & Lightweight Gear 

Wild camp on the TGO Challenge

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Great Outdoors February Issue: mid-size packs, Yeti gaiters,Summiteer sleeping bag & winter skills

In the February issue of The Great Outdoors I review eleven 30-40 litre packs and the Summiteer Glow Worm 600 sleeping bag and write about Berghaus Yeti gaiters in the Classic gear section, for which I dug out my old very faded pair. Also in the gear pages is a discussion of socks by Outdoor Gear Coach.

Accompanying the magazine is a supplement on winter skills to which I've contributed my thoughts on what to wear and carry plus what to look for in ice axes and crampons. Also in the supplement Carey Davies goes on a winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge while Lodge instructors Giles Trussell, Jon Jones and Alan Halewood give advice on safe movement in the winter hills, ice axe and crampon use, and avalanche safety. There's also a cautionary tale of a stormy winter's day on the Black Mount by David Lintern and advice from Paul Besley, who suffered a serious accident when winter hillwalking in the Lake District.

David Lintern also has a piece in the magazine, an account of an Alpine mountaineering introductory course in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, and a fine and atmospheric photo taken on the snow-covered summit of Bynack More that shows the Cairngorms at their most wild and glorious. There are also equally fine wintry photo spreads of a rainbow over the Langdale Pikes from Blea Tarn by Dave Fieldhouse and Loch Achtriochtan in Glencoe by Graham Bradshaw. Elsewhere in the magazine there's an account of an icy round of the Snowdon Horseshoe by Dan Aspel; an exciting snowshoe and bothy trip over Carn Dearg and Sgor Gaibhre from Corrour station by Alex Roddie; a wander round a snowy High Cup Nick by Mark Sutcliffe; and a consideration of the Great Langdale hills in winter by Ronald Turnbull. All these articles are illustrated with wonderful mouth-watering photos.

Away from the snow and ice Ed Byrne canoes down the River Spey, an entertaining article containing the wonderfully understated 'our third capsize was more annoying'. Carey Davies enjoys woods rather than hills in his column; Roger Smith looks at the campaign to save the Scottish wildcat; and Jim Perrin describes Sherpa: The Memoir of Ang Tharkay.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Outdoor & Nature Books Review 2016

Here are brief reviews of the outdoor and nature books I enjoyed last year. I'm happy to recommend all of them.

Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher by Robert Wehrman

A book I'd been looking forward to for several years Walking Man is a fascinating biography of my favourite writer on backpacking and hiking. See my full review here.

Inglorious: Conflict In The Uplands by Mark Avery

A very readable damning indictment of the driven grouse industry Inglorious is packed with information and detail. An important book.

The Wood For The Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood by Richard Fortey

Fortey is one of my favourite popular science writers (Earth: An Intimate History and Life: An Unauthorised Biography are both superb). In this intriguing book he describes nature and the British landscape from the perspective of one small wood in the Chiltern Hills.

Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide To The British Landscape by Mary-Ann Ochota

The opposite of The Wood For The Trees this book is a guide to understanding the British Landscape and is packed full of useful information. A reference book for long term use.

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard

An updated and expanded edition of Chouinards story of Patagonia and how he sees the company as a means for promoting environmental campaigns and ethical business.

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf

Excellent biography of a neglected but important figure.

A Mountain Before Breakfast by Alan Rowan

The first of two somewhat exhausting books on the Corbetts. Not exhausting for any negative reasons but for how they left me feeling! In this case the round involves many night walks, as you'd expect from the author of Moonwalker, and many long drives plus masses of excitement and entertaining events.

The Corbett Round; A unique continuous traverse of 219 Scottish mountains by Manny Gorman

In 2009 Gorman ran round all the Corbetts in a record 70 days. Reading the exciting story involving wild weather, injuries really brings home just how astonishing an achievement it was.

The Rainforests of Britain and Ireland: A Traveller's Guide by Clifton Bain

A useful reference guide to every remnant bit of rainforest left in Britain and Ireland.

Mountains and Rivers: Dee Valley Poems from Source to Sea by Brian Lawrie

A lovely little volume of hill and river poems.

The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland: A Companion Guide by Clifton Bain

A pocket size compact version of the excellent The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland for field use.

Wild America: A personal celebration of the National Parks by David Muench & Roly Smith

Last year was the centenary of the US National Park Service. Packed with wonderful photographs and tempting descriptions this book shows just why the national parks are so valuable.

The Range of Light: Night & Day On The John Muir Trail by Nick Foster and Scott Lange

Spectacular and dramatic photos by two astrophotographers from their hike along the John Muir Trail.                                                                                                                                                      

A Belated Happy New Year!

Happy New Year Everyone! Belatedly!

A bad cold has rather delayed the feeling of a new year beginning. I was visting friends and family in Edinburgh but spent New Year's Eve and New Year's Day coughing and spluttering in an armchair rather than being sociable. Only now, a week into 2017, is my head and chest clearing and thoughts of the outdoors seeming a little more real. I have a number of plans for this year, including long walks in the Highlands and Scandinavia, of which more soon.

In the meantime I'm hoping for snow - the hills are pretty bare at present - and trips like the one in the photo, which was on the Moine Mhor in the Cairngorms last February.

May everyone have an exciting, adventurous and safe 2017.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Favourite New Outdoor Gear 2016

Keeping warm in the Rab Neutrino 800

After another year testing outdoor gear for The GreatOutdoors magazine here are the items that impressed me most. As always they don’t replace old favourites. So in no particular order…..

Wearing warm clothing in a sleeping bag to save weight and bulk makes sense but I’d never found a combination that was really comfortable until I tried PHD’s Sleep System this year. After a trial run in the Cairngorms I took the lightest version on my Yosemite to Death Valley walk in the autumn and found it superb. With a total weight of 1015 grams it consisted of the 328 gram Ultra K sleeping bag, the 240 gram K Filler bag, the 246 gram Wafer jacket with hood, the 151 gram Wafer K trousers and the 50 gram Wafer K socks, all filled with 1000 fill power down.

Most footwear is too narrow for me so this year I was very pleased to find three different pairs that actually fitted. The first were the Altra Lone Peak 2.0 trail shoes. These are lightweight at 702 grams for size 9s and have a breathable fast drying mesh upper and a thick cushioning midsole plus a zero drop sole. I wore them on the TGO Challenge in May and they were very comfortable for the 300 kilometres of mixed terrain, some of it very rough and steep.

Even lighter than the Lone Peak shoes at 628 grams the wide-fitting Mega Wave trail shoes proved equally comfortable. I took them on the Yosemite to Death Valley walk and used them on the roughest and steepest terrain – the ascents and descents of Mount Whitney and Telescope Peak – and they performed well.

With a similar sole shape to the Mega Wave shoes the Treksta Guide X5 boots also fit me well. They’re leather boots with a Gore-Tex lining. I’ve been wearing them in cold weather this autumn/early winter and found them comfortable with good grip and good shock absorption. They’re not that light at 1.34kg (size 9) but for winter walking I think they’re excellent.

A new style of map doesn’t seem likely but Harveys have managed it with the Ultramap. This is a miniature 1:40,000 map with a clever double-sided concertina design that means you can just flip it over without having to refold it. Of the sixteen Ultramaps available I’ve been using the XT40 covering Cairn Gorm and Ben Avon. Folded it measures just 15 x 7.25 cms and so will fit in just about any pocket. Weight is a negligible 24 grams.

On long trips a small pack is very useful for side trips and resupply stops as well as for travel to and from the walk via plane, train and bus. Carrying a pack just for this adds extra weight and bulk though so I don’t actually do it, usually relying on stuffsacks and plastic bags. Until this year that is when I tried the Freerain 24 pack which weighs just 149 grams and fold down into a tiny bundle. It’s made from silicone Cordura and has a big zipped front pocket and mesh side pockets. There’s a roll top and taped seams so it’s waterproof. On the Yosemite-Death Valley walk I used it as the stuffsack for the PHD Sleep System – it easily held the lot – as well as a day and travel pack.

Generally I don’t like underarm zips as I find them awkward to use and not very effective. Those on the Firewall are very different however – they’re huge, stretching from the armpits almost to the wrists so you can actually put your arms through them for real cooling. The Firewall is also longer than most waterproof jackets and has roomy pockets and a wired hood. It’s made from Pertex Shield +, which breathes quite well, and weighs 511 grams.

The Wickiup 3 pyramid tent was one of my choices of gear last year. It only came as a unit with a full-size inner however and I felt that for most uses just the outer was best. This year Nigor has made the outer available separately and also offered a half-size inner that’s ideal for solo use. This weighs 540 grams, giving a total weight of 1625 grams.

My favourite footwear of the year these sandals are very light (462 grams for a pair of size 9s), very comfortable and, astonishingly (well it astonished me), very durable. I was impressed with the low weight and the comfort, especially the excellent cushioning, on first wearing them but I did think they wouldn’t last as long as heavier sandals. Expecting that cool weather would mean I’d probably mostly walk in trails shoes but that it would be good to have sandals for hot days and camp wear I took them on the Yosemite to Death Valley trip. The weather was warmer than expected even in the mountains and I ended up wearing them most of the time. They’re still in fine condition.

On the coldest night I camped last winter the temperature dropped to -12.6°C. Clad only in thin base layers and wool socks I was perfectly warm in the Neutrino 800, so warm in fact that I debated taking off the socks as my feet were a little hot. At 1293 grams the Neutrino 800 is light for such a warm bag. It’s filled with 800 fill power hydrophobic down and packs down quite small. For sub zero nights it’s superb.

Knowing that most days would be sunny I took this 4000 mAh power pack and solar panel on the Yosemite to Death Valley walk. It surpassed my expectations, charging not only my smartphone just about every day but also at times my altimeter watch, Kindle e-reader and camera batteries. It was well worth the 600 grams weight.

Needing a new groundsheet for the Yosemite to Death Valley walk, my old silnylon ones being somewhat worn, I found the Luxe Tyvek one on At 142 grams for the double size – I wanted space for gear as well as myself – it’s lightweight and unlike silnylon it’s not slippery. Being white it does show the dirt but otherwise it’s excellent.

When there’s snow on the hills I’m usually on skis or snowshoes so my ice axe spends much of the time on my pack. For several years I’ve carried the CAMP Corsa aluminium axe, which is okay as long you don’t use it much. Aluminium is quite soft and blunts easily though. It tends to bounce off really hard snow and ice too. Last winter I tried the Nanotech version, which is also aluminium but with a steel pick that makes it much more functional. With a weight of just 280 grams in the 60cm length it’s ideal for backpacking, ski touring and snowshoeing.

Bristling with teeth and looking somewhat aggressive these pegs are very versatile and are designed for every type of ground, including sand and snow. Once embedded whether vertically or horizontally they feel really solid – on frozen ground I needed an ice axe to prise them out. Great pegs for difficult terrain.

For outdoor use rechargers need to be tough and easy to use. The Venture 30 is both. It’s shockproof and weatherproof and has a cable that fits into the sides so there’s no separate cables to get lost, broken or tangled. It weighs 255 grams.

This wasn’t a test item and I’ve used few smartphones – this is my third - so I can’t compare it with alternatives. It’s proven excellent however. The screen is large enough to use for typing – I sent back reports to The Great Outdoors and updated my blog on it during the Yosemite to Death Valley walk. The 12mp camera is good as long as there isn’t too much contrast – photos taken with it appeared on my blog and the TGO website during my long walk. At 154 grams it’s not heavy, given the size.

I’ve used Sony CSC cameras for quite a few years now, mainly the excellent NEX 7. That camera is rather battered now and I wasn’t sure it would survive the Yosemite to Death Valley trip (it did and is still fine). I wanted a second camera anyway so as the price had come right down due to the a6300 being launched, with no advantages for me that I could see, I bought an a6000, which has a 24mp sensor just like the NEX 7. On the walk I used it with the Sony 16-50 zoom lens and once I was used to the controls, which are a little different to the NEX 7, I liked it very much. With the lens, battery and strap it weighs 490 grams.