Monday, 16 April 2018

Forty years ago, April 16, 1978, I set out from Land's End to John O'Groats

First pages of my Land's End to John O'Groats journal

On this day forty years ago I set off from Land’s End to John O’Groats, my first long-distance walk. I had no idea of course whether I could do such a walk or, more importantly, whether I’d enjoy it. I knew the answer 1255 miles and 71 days later. Yes, I could do the walk, and yes I really did enjoy it. I could happily have gone on for weeks more.

Even on a walk like this, much of in England, there was a sense of isolation back then. Unlike today with its tracking devices, mobile phones and the internet there was no option but to be out of touch for long periods. Contact was via phone when there was a phone box and, mostly, via the mail. Postcards were my standard means of communication. Only friends, family and work colleagues knew what I was doing and they rarely knew exactly where I was. There was no social media.

My gear was good, as it should have been given that I was working in an outdoor shop at the time and I’d learnt a great deal from a Pennine Way walk two years earlier. I’ve written about the equipment I used and what I’d take today in the latest issue of The Great Outdoors, which also has its fortieth anniversary this year. Long-distance walking and The Great Outdoors were soon to become intertwined in my life.

I hadn’t started writing seriously and it didn’t occur to me that I might want photographs of the walk. I did set off with a cheap compact (film of course, digital was decades away) which duly broke by the time I’d reached Bristol. Where the few photos I took are I have no idea. 

After the walk I wrote my first feature for a magazine, a long-gone publication called Camping World. The editor told me I really needed to supply photos as well as words so I bought a second-hand SLR camera and taught myself, slowly and painfully, how to take publishable pictures. I really wish I’d done so before the walk.

The Great Backpacking Adventure

I did however keep a journal, as I’d been doing for all walks for many years. That was to prove extremely valuable, both personally – I’d have forgotten much without it, and because eight years later I got my first book contract. The Great Backpacking Adventure covered seven backpacking trips, including some 20,000 words on Land’s End to John O’Groats. Without my journals I couldn’t have written the book.

Since then I haven’t written or thought that much about the walk until this year. Digging out my journal – the ink still legible, I must have used a good pen (this was before I discovered Alwych notebooks and space pens which I’ve mostly used since) – I was surprised at some of the stuff in it, especially the lists I kept. Not just the route but where I stopped every night, with the prices for camp sites where I used them (10p for Dale Head Farm in the Yorkshire Dales, a whole pound for the Pine Woods Caravan Site in Tyndrum), and the birds and flowers I saw.

Where I camped
At the end of the walk I wrote ‘now comes the hard part, the return to Manchester. I feel strangely lost. I wandered amongst the people at John O’Groats not quite sure what to do. I feel both glad and sad, that I’ve done it and that it’s over. Tomorrow it will seem real. Tonight in the tent it is just as normal. I like living in the tent.’

I still have those feeling at the end of every long-distance walk but now I know there will be another one. I solved the problem of returning to the world by making the outdoors my world. And whilst the world in general has changed greatly in the last forty years long-distance walking hasn’t. Moving slowly and quietly through the countryside and wild places, watching the clouds, wildlife, trees, rocks and the whole natural world, is still as fulfilling as ever.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Suddenly it feels like spring

The view from Craigellachie

Spring in the Cairngorms has been creeping in slowly this year. East winds and snow have kept a wintry feel to the landscape. Spring birds are arriving – curlews, lapwings, oystercatchers in the meadows – but the buds on the trees are only just showing signs of opening and there are few flowers. The land still has that faded look, shades of fawn, yellow and brown. The greening of spring is still to come.

In the Craigellachie woods
Yesterday though it suddenly felt like spring was here. I went up Craigellachie, that tree clad crag rising above Aviemore, and the air was warm. For the first time since late summer last year a sunhat and sunglasses were more important than warm clothing. I didn’t need even a light jacket let alone hat or gloves. On the summit I sat on a rock warmed by the sun and stared over the landscape. The hills faded into a distant haze. The air felt thick and heavy. The day before with the clouds low and dark and a bitter wind I thought it felt more like November than April. Today it felt more like August.

Craigellachie birch woods

Below the summit the birch woods were beautiful with that purple sheen that comes in late winter as the leaf buds expand and prepare to burst into life. There were no flowers, no fresh green, no bright colours yet but there was an expectancy, a sense that all was about to change. Spring has begun.

Hill fading away

Monday, 9 April 2018

Tents and tarps I've used for long-distance walking over the decades

In the Wintergear Voyager on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985

A few weeks ago I posted about the packs I've used on long-distance walks. As that proved popular here's a round-up of the various shelters I've chosen over the years.

Starting out with ridge tents I then went to domes and hoops as curved poles became standard and then back to ridge tents when designs arrived that could be pitched with trekking poles. Most recently I've abandoned tents altogether and gone for shaped tarps. The tents I used in the early days would still be fine now though. What's changed is the materials. Modern shelters weigh less for the same space whilst being tougher and more durable.

My first backpacking tent was a single-skin ridge tent with no vents and no porch. The condensation was horrendous! I never used it on more than two-night trips. Next came a Saunders Backpacker II sloping ridge tent which was double-skin and had a big porch. I took this on the Pennine Way in 1976. Whilst it performed okay the sides did bellow in and out in strong winds as they were unsupported.

The Ultimate Tramp on a winter camp in Snowdonia

Wanting a more stable tent for my first really long walk, Land's End to John O'Groats in 1978, I chose another sloping ridge tent but one with side guylines and an A-pole at the front, the Ultimate Tramp. This proved excellent. I wasn't a photographer when I did that walk - my cheap compact camera broke in the first few weeks - so I have no pictures of the Tramp from it. I did find the photo above in a box of old prints, taken a year later, by which time I'd acquired another camera.

Both those ridge tents weighed around 1.8kg and had polyurethane coated flysheets that weren't that durable. As I didn't think the Tramp would last another long walk I looked for something else for my next trip. I also admit to being seduced by the new flexible pole hoop and dome tents that arrived around 1980 and which gave more space for the weight and it was one of these that I chose for the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982.

Wintergear Eyrie, Pacific Crest Trail, 1982

The Wintergear Eyrie was a two pole dome tent with a third pole for the porch. It was also single-skin and made of Gore-Tex. In the dry conditions of most of the walk it worked really well but in rainy and snowy weather in the Cascade Mountains near the end of the walk there was rather too much condensation for comfort. It was quite heavy at 2.26kg but very roomy and easy to pitch. The tent didn't last much longer than the walk though as soon afterwards it leaked badly in a Scottish downpour. It was the only time I ever used a single-skin tent on a long walk.

Wintergear Voyager, Continental Divide Trail, 1985

I used another Wintergear tent, the Voyager (still available from Terra Nova), on the Continental Divide Trail. This three-pole semi-geodesic dome was very stable and roomy but also quite heavy at 2.7kg. For the first 500 miles it housed two of us as my friend from the PCT Scott Steiner accompanied me. After that I had to carry it myself. It was the first time I'd used a tent that pitched inner-first, which was useful on nights when I wanted shelter from bugs or a breeze but rain was unlikely. Using just the inner there was never any condensation.

The Phoenix Phreeranger, Canadian Rockies walk, 1988

For my next two long walks, the length of the Candian Rockies and the Yukon Territory south to north, I chose a tent from a new British company, Phoenix Mountaineering, the successor to Ultimate, whose Tramp I'd used a decade earlier. This was the first single hoop tent I'd used and I liked the space, the weight (1.8kg) and the stability, even if the nine guylines could get tangled. The Phreeranger is the only tent I've used on two long-distance walks. I really did like it!

Phoenix Phreeranger and all my gear, Yukon walk, 1990

After four North American walks I returned to Europe for my next one, the Scandinavian mountains from south to north. Appropriately I chose a Scandinavian tent for this, the Nallo 2 from Swedish company Hilleberg. This two-pole tunnel tent weighed 2.2kg and was very roomy and stable. It needed to be the latter as this was by far the stormiest long walk I'd done so far. (It was soon to be surpassed). Like other tunnel tents it was best pitched rear to the wind for stability. There was one night when the wind changed and started pushing the sides of the tent against me and flexing the poles alarmingly. I got out into the black wetness and turned the tent ninety degrees. The shaking stopped and I went back to sleep. The Nallo 2 was the first tent I used with a silicone nylon flysheet rather than a PU coated one. Every shelter I used after the Nallo 2 was made from this light durable material.

Hilleberg Nallo 2, Scandinavian Mountains walk, 1992

I loved the Nallo 2 and I was impressed with the quality but I did wish it weighed less. At the time it was the lightest tent Hilleberg made. However not long after my Scandinavian walk the company introduced a solo tent that has been one of my favourites ever since, the Akto. This single-hoop tent weighed 1.7kg (the current version is made from lighter materials and weighs a little less). I chose it for my walk over the Munros and Tops and really tested it as this was even stormier than the Scandinavian Mountains walk. The Akto came through fine and I've since used it on many Scottish walks, including several TGO Challenge coast-to-coast crossings of the Highlands.

Hilleberg Akto, Munros and Tops walk, 1996

After two wet and windy walks I wanted to go somewhere warm and dry for my next trip. I'd really enjoyed the desert sections on the PCT and CDT so a return to the SouthWest USA seemed a good idea. After the Munros and Tops walk I did a two-week trip in the Grand Canyon with the Akto and realised that excellent though this tent was it wasn't needed for a desert walk where rain was very unlikely and I could sleep under the stars most nights. Also, I was now using trekking poles regularly and wanted to use them as tent poles too to save some weight. Designers hadn't caught up with this idea yet. So when I decided to walk the Arizona Trail I looked for a tarp rather than a tent and ended up with a shaped one called the Kathmandu Trekking Basha-Tent, which could be pitched as a pyramid. With a groundsheet and pegs the weight was 1.2kg, far lighter than any tent I'd used yet it was also far roomier than any of them too. I used it to keep off the wind on quite a few nights, which it did very well, and just once some rain and wet snow.

Kathmandu Trekking Basha-Tent, Arizona Trail, 2000

Having enjoyed using a tarp I took another one on my next walk, a 500 mile circular walk through the High Sierra starting and finishing in Yosemite Valley. I didn't reckon I needed the space or stability of the Basha-Tent so I took an even lighter tarp, the GoLite Cave. The weight with pegs and a groundsheet was 794 grams. Most nights I slept under the stars but I did pitch the Cave a few times when it looked like rain.

GoLite Cave, High Sierra, 2004

Using trekking poles for pitching the tarp was a success so I was determined not to carry tent poles on future long walks. However my next long walk, the Pacific Northwest Trail, went through country where it could be wet and windy and where mosquitoes could be a problem. I wanted something with doors I could close so I went back to a tent, a sloping ridge tent in fact that looked very like the one I'd used on the Pennine Way over thirty years earlier. However because it was made of silnylon and could be pitched with trekking poles the GoLite Shangri-La 1 only weighed 963 grams.

GoLite Shangri-La 1, Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010

The Shangri-La 1 had an inner, the Nest, that could be pitched on its own, which I did at camps where mosquitoes were biting but there was little chance of rain, the first time I'd had a tent that enabled me to do this since the Voyager on the CDT 25 years earlier. As the Nest was made of mesh rather than solid nylon it was even better than the Voyager inner as it meant I could see out whilst safe from the bugs.

GoLite Shangri-La Nest, Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010

I returned home for the next long walk, the Scottish Watershed. This high exposed route could be very wet and windy (it was) so I wanted a shelter that would stand up to big storms. I remembered how good the Basha-Tent had been in strong winds so I looked for something similar and found the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, which is amazingly stormproof yet very light. Knowing midges were likely I paired it with an OookWorks mesh Nest, which could be hung inside. The total weight was 1.16kg and like the Basha-Tent the room was more than I needed. At times the weather was as wild as on any walk I'd done and I was very glad of the Trailstar's wind resistance.

Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, Scottish Watershed, 2013

After the storms of the Watershed I fancied another dry walk so my next one was from Yosemite Valley to Death Valley. I hoped to sleep under the stars most nights and I didn't really need a storm resistant shelter like the Trailstar. I took it anyway as it had become a favourite and it was so light. As I wasn't expecting mosquitoes I dispensed with the mesh inner and just took an ultralight Tyvek groundsheet. The total weight was just 801 grams. I did have some big winds in the desert that made the Trailstar worth carrying but overall I could have managed with an even lighter, smaller tarp like the GoLite Cave.

Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, Yosemite Valley to Death Valley, 2016

My next walk? Probably the Trailstar again.