Friday, 15 October 2021

A Look At Insulated Clothing

A light down jacket worn over an ultralight synthetic jacket at a cold camp in the Cairngorms

From now until sometime next May an insulated jacket will be in my pack on every hill walk. It’ll be thick enough to keep me warm when stationary in freezing stormy weather. I may also be wearing a thinner insulated jacket when walking too. On every camping trip and in the coldest weather on day walks I’ll carry insulated trousers too. Such garments are great for comfort and also good for safety. I’ve written many reviews of insulated garments over the years, You can read some of them, such as this one, on The Great Outdoors website. Here is an edited piece I wrote for the magazine about insulated garments in general.

The basic choice in insulated clothing is between down and synthetic fills. The latter have improved noticeably in recent years but despite this down is still warmer for the weight and more compact when packed. Down is longer lasting too, though the latest synthetics are pretty durable, and also soft and very comfortable, moulding to the body for near instant warmth.

A light synthetic jacket worn on a damp stormy day

The big plus point of synthetics is resistance to moisture. They soak up less water and dry much quicker than standard down. Hydrophobic down, which has a water repellent treatment, is more resistant to moisture but still not as good as synthetics. Nothing is very comfortable when sodden though. In rain down clothing is generally too warm to wear while moving anyway and you probably won’t need it at rest stops – if you do getting it on and then pulling a waterproof over the top can be done quickly (if you plan on doing this make sure your waterproof jacket is big enough). Also, down clothing usually has a DWR treatment that keeps rain out for short periods. Whilst getting down clothing soaked is best avoided a little dampness isn’t a problem. I’ve used down garments for two-week trips in very humid conditions with wet snow or rain most days and they’ve stayed dry and kept me warm as they were never directly exposed to the weather for very long.

New types of synthetic insulation have made it more comparable with down. Some of these new insulation materials are made up of loose fibres rather than matts and can be blown into compartments like down. Garments with these can often be recognised by the typical stitch lines between compartments, making them look just like down ones. Synthetic insulation is made from oil. To reduce the environmental impact of using this some companies have started making insulation from recycled materials.


Down jacket on the summit of Ben Macdui

Down comes from geese and ducks bred for food. Until a decade or so ago there was little concern about the conditions in which these birds were kept or how they were treated. However, investigations by environmental and animal rights organisations showed that some were force-fed for foie gras while others were live-plucked, and many were kept in poor conditions. This resulted in many companies setting standards for down supply.

Garments fall into two categories. Thick, warm ones designed to be worn at rest stops and in camp, but which are too warm for walking except in extreme cold and lighter, thinner ones that can be worn all day in cold weather. The latter are replacements for a thick fleece or softshell. They can be worn on their own – most are windproof and water-resistant – or under a shell. Because synthetic insulation works okay when damp garments can be pulled on over wet waterproofs, so you don’t lose any heat removing the latter.


A lightweight down jacket


Down and synthetic fills both have advantages and disadvantages. Down is lighter and more compact for the warmth and lasts longer if cared for properly. Synthetic insulation performs better when wet and dries more quickly. Each type comes in different forms.

There are now quite a few synthetic fills, many of them companies own (these may be the same under different names). PrimaLoft is the leading brand and there are now several varieties of this fill alone.

Down quality is measure by fill power, which is how much a given amount of down will rise or loft when uncompressed. The higher the fill power the more loft the down has, making high fill power down warmer for the weight.

Some down garments have synthetic insulation at key points for moisture resistance.

Hydrophobic down resists moisture far better than standard down. It’s still wise to avoid getting it wet though.

A light synthetic insulation jacket

Shell Fabrics

Shells are usually made from tightly woven nylon or polyester fabrics as these are windproof, breathable and downproof. They dry fast too and can be quite water-resistant if they have a good DWR treatment. Pertex is the leading brand but there are similar fabrics. They are all usually quite thin and so don’t have the tear or abrasion resistance needed for scrambling or bushwhacking. However, they are mostly quite smooth, so a shell can be worn over them without it binding and restricting movement.

Waterproof/breathable shells are found on some insulated garments. They do make them waterproof but also a little bulkier and more expensive.


Insulated hand warmer pockets are very useful in a warm garment. Jacket pockets that can be accessed while wearing a pack hipbelt are the best if you plan on walking in a garment. Roomy pockets into which you can stuff hats and gloves when you’re not wearing them for short periods are worth having too – ones inside the garment are especially useful for this as hats and gloves will stay warm.


Whilst not essential a warm hood can be very welcome on a stormy day and replaces the need for a separate hat. Adjustable hoods are best as these can be tightened to stop them blowing off in strong winds.


Down jacket, synthetic insulated trousers & bootees at a very cold Caingorms camp


Full-length leg zips are useful on insulated trousers so you can easily pull them on over footwear. However if you carry them for sleeping ones without zips are the most comfortable.

Weight & bulk

Down garments are very light for the warmth provided. The heavier ones are suitable for temperatures well below freezing, the lightest can be carried in summer for cool evenings and combined with other warm garments in sub-zero temperatures. Synthetic insulated garments are generally heavier  and bulkier for similar warmth. The thinnest synthetic insulated garments are equivalent in warmth to heavyweight fleece and can be used as midlayers.


Having the same size label doesn’t mean that garments are actually the same size as each other. Some garments are sized to fit closely so if you want to wear them over a fleece or softshell a size larger than normal is needed. Other garments are sized to fit over several layers and feel baggy worn over just a base layer. Sizing isn’t consistent between companies either. I’m a Large in some garments, a Medium in others.

Monday, 11 October 2021

A Look At The November Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. I have a feature describing the gear I used on my trip to An Teallach that I wrote about on this blog here (with more photos). I also review the Motorola Defy smartphone, the Columbia OutDry Extreme Nanolite waterproof jacket, and the Fjallraven Greenland Jacket. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong tests five gas stoves.

In the main features James Roddie shares his experience of chasing cloud inversions (spectacular photographs!), Roger Butler has a thrilling encounter with a Pine Marten in the Lake District, Alec Forss shares his passion for Sweden's forests (again with splendid photos), James Forrest describes his record-breaking walk over the national Three Peaks, and Hanna Lindon writes about unsung alpinist Lucy Walker who climbed the Matterhorn just six years after Edward Whymper's first ascent.

Also in this issue is a mouth-watering opening spread of a dawn view from Aonach Beag in the Scottish Highlands by editor Carey Davies, Hanna Lindon on ten walks for making the most of autumn, Alex Roddie describing the Fairfield Horseshoe and reviewing Polly Pullar's new book A Scurry of Squirrels, Roger Butler reviewing Jim Crumley's latest book Lakeland Wild, and Jim Perrin on the magnificent mountain Ladhar Bheinn. In the Wild Walks section Vivienne Crow does a circular walk from Lochinver in Assynt, Keith Fergus climbs the Munros Cruach Ardrain and Beinn Tulaichean in the Southern Highlands, Roger Butler visits the Howgill Fells, Steve Eddy walks over Waun Fach and Pen y Gadair Fawr in the Black Mountains, and Fiona Barltrop walks to Cheesefoot Head in the South Downs.

Finally there's a readers survey so you can give your views on the magazine. This can also be completed online at

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Winter Is Coming: Time To Prepare

Ben Macdui, October 16, 2020

The first dustings of snow in the hills have appeared recently. Winds and cold icy rain have swept the slopes. Winter arrives much earlier on the tops than in the glens. The air may be mild in the woods but bitter high up. I've already added hats, gloves, and an insulated jacket to my pack, They'll stay there until late spring. Once ice axe, crampons and maybe snow shovel are needed I'll go to a bigger pack too. When there's snow on the hills the light mesh trail shoes are changed for light waterproof boots. I love trail shoes but I hate freezing feet. 

Sleet on Meall a'Bhuachaille, October 9, 2020

I do love this time of year. I love the anticipation. Waiting to see what the winter will bring. I look forward to the first frosty camp, the first crisp black starry sky surounded by mountain silhouettes, the first unbroken snow in a landscape reborn. If you're well prepared winter can be the best time of year in the mountains.

A frosty camp in the Cairngorms, October 17, 2020

 Two years ago I made a little video about my winter kit. Here it is.


This winter I'm planning on making a video about camping.

I've also written many pieces about the joys of winter and the skills and gear needed. There are links in this post.

Storm in the Cairngorms, October 9, 2020

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Some fine clouds and a chill wind on Meall a'Bhauchaille

Dense clouds over Braeriach

The last week has seen a run of very windy days with cloud down on the tops. A friend up from Glossop for a week was keen on a day or two in the Cairngorms but we kept putting it off due to the forecast until there was only one day left. So we went anyway. Thick clouds swathing the Cairngorm Plateau and a fierce wind at glen level persuaded us that Meall a'Bhuachaille, some 400 metres lower, sounded attractive.

Looking across the Ryvoan Pass to the Cairngorms Plateau

The approach through the always magnificent forest in Ryvoan Pass was sheltered and the air felt quite warm. Once we were climbing above the trees the wind quickly stripped away any heat though. Over the high Cairngorms clouds swirled and twisted, racing across the sky. Shafts of sunlight cut through briefly. Flashes of blue came and went. The air was alive. mobile. 

On the summit

The forecast was for showers and we could see squalls in the distance. None reached us though. On the summit the wind was very strong and very cold. For the first time since spring I donned an insulated jacket. Summer is definitely over. I kept it on for most of the descent and wasn't too hot.

Loch Morlich

We came down looking at shimmering Loch Morlich, its surface rippling in the wind. The first trees gave shelter for a more relaxing stop. As so often it felt a different world down here.

Mark beside a fine old pine tree

Thursday, 23 September 2021

The nights are lengthening - time for headlamps

Winter sunset over Braeriach from the Cairngorm Plateau

Coming down from our walk inthe Fannaichs two weeks ago Alex Roddie and I needed our head lamps for the last few kilometres, the first time I’d used one for walking since early spring. Now the equinox is past the nights are drawing in quickly. Sunset in the Cairngorms is now 7pm. I carry a tiny headlamp right through the summer just in case but very rarely use it. For the next six months I’ll carry a more powerful one and expect to use it quite often (and have a spare in the pack). 

Having a good head lamp gives more freedom as you can start or finish walks in the dark and is also important for safety in case you’re out longer than planned. Every autumn people without head lamps or torches are rescued because they’re caught out in the dark. A good headlamp is the first item I add to my pack as the nights grow longer (soon followed by gloves, hats, and extra warm clothing).

Here’s a revised piece on headlamps I wrote for The Great Outdoors a few years ago:

Head lamps are becoming more powerful every year and that power is often the feature flagged up in promotions. Some models are extremely bright, up to 900 lumens, and can throw a beam 200 metres. But how much power do you actually need? From my testing of quite a few head lamps in recent years I think 300 lumens and a beam that goes 75-100 metres is fine for hillwalking. Indeed, much of the time even that much brightness isn’t needed. To save battery life it’s best not to use full brightness unless absolutely necessary.

Other factors need considering when choosing a head torch, not just power. Battery life, battery type, ease of use, variable lighting, size, and weight are all important.

Battery life depends in part on the type of battery and the weather. Companies, unsurprisingly, give the figures from the longest lasting battery in warm temperatures. Lithium batteries usually last longest, followed by alkalines, and then NIMH rechargeables. Built-in rechargeable batteries tend to have long life but must be recharged from a power bank or the mains. This can take a long time and not something to do when out on a walk, except overnight in camp. Being able to change the batteries is an asset. Even better is to have two head torches so you can just swap them over if one fades. I still carry spare batteries and/or a power bank though.

Head torches should be easy to use. Coming off the hill on a dark night in the rain feeling weary is not the time to try and remember a series of button presses in order to switch from spot to flood or increase or decrease brightness.

Having spot and flood beams does make a difference. The first can be used to light the route far ahead, the second to see what’s around you or light up a tent. I like low-tech mechanical means of varying between the two, just twisting the lamp housing is easier than remembering button presses. The latest technology involves lighting that automatically adjust brightness and beam spread according to where and what you’re looking at. This works well but can be a little startling when you quickly raise and lower your head and the light changes abruptly.





AAA or AA are the most common size batteries for headlamps. Alkaline batteries are standard, and many headlamps come with these. NIMH rechargeable batteries are the most economic and the most environmentally friendly. Lithium batteries last longer, especially in the cold, and weigh less though they are more expensive. However not all headlamps can use these. Check if the manufacturer says they are ok. Some headlamps come with rechargeable batteries. These may be removable so ordinary batteries can be used if necessary or else fixed in place with USB connections for recharging.

Ease of Use

Buttons and switches should be easy to operate when wearing gloves but should not be easy to switch on accidentally. Some headlamps have locking devices to ensure the latter can’t happen. The modes sequence should be easy to remember. Changing batteries in the dark and with cold fingers should be simple to do.


Head straps need to be soft, comfortable, and easily adjustable. They should fit over a hood or hat.

Pivoting Lamp

The lamp housing should pivot easily so the beam can be directed.

Usable Light

LEDs will continue to glow feebly if there’s a smidgeon of energy left in the batteries. This isn’t much use. Companies’ maximum times are often those at which the light is just strong enough to be useful. Changing or charging the batteries before this stage is reached is a good idea.

Light Levels

All bar the simplest headlamps have different light levels so you can have a very bright light for night hiking or identifying distant objects and less bright lights for close-up use and longer battery life.


Beams can be flood or spot. The first is useful for lighting an area such as a campsite or tent, the second is useful for throwing the light the farthest distance and pinpointing a distant object. Many headlamps have both flood and spot beams. The distance a beam shines is determined by the power of the LED and the batteries. With regulated headlamps there is a constant flow of electricity to the LEDs and after an initial decline the light will maintain the same brightness for a set amount of time and then decline again rapidly. With non-regulated headlamps the brightness declines quickly at first and then more slowly throughout the life of the batteries.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

A Look At The October Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The October issue of The Great Outdoors has just come out. My contributions this month are reviews of the Nemo Riff 30 sleeping bag and the Keen Ridge Flex boots.

Also in the gear pages David Lintern and Lucy Wallace review five fleece/midlayers apiece and David also tests three cleaning and waterproofing products. 

As every October this is the TGO Challenge issue and there are stories and pictures from this year's event as well as info for 2022.

In the big features this month Dougie Cunningham traverses the Mamores (beautifully illustrated), Carey Davies goes wild camping on Helvellyn, David Lintern backpacks across Ben Alder, and Emily Woodhouse breaks records in Spain's Sierra Nevada.

The opening spread of this issue is a wonderful photo of Castell y Gwynt in Snowdonia by Alan Novelli. 

The Sky Walks flagged big on the cover are TGO's pick of ten ridge walks in Britain and Ireland. It's a good selection but no Aonach Eagach? Really?

Separate to the picked Sky Walks Alex Roddie describes the Ring of Steall, a superb horseshoe ridge walk in the Mamores. 

On serious issues Hanna Lindon asks some climbers, hillwalkers, and mountaineers about climate change in the run-up to COP26, and Lucy Thraves describes a long walk in response to violence against women. 

In the Hill Skills section Alex Roddie and Plas y Brenin instructor Dave Evans explain how to use pacing and timing in part three of TGO's navigation basics series.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

25 years ago my Munros & Tops walk was complete


Twenty-five years ago I was mentally still coming down from my 118 days walk over all the Munros and Tops, which I finished on September 12. Adjusting took some time. Even after I was home I still woke each morning expecting the walk to continue. It had become a way of life. As I wrote about my feelings on that last summit: "Surely I would go down, find somewhere to camp, then climb more hills the next day? Wouldn't I?".

But no, I wouldn't. The wonderful mountain-packed summer was over. " Now, at the end, it was all important to me, all significant, all worthwhile. Every summit, every camp, every drop of rain, every blast of wind, even, in the euphoria of completion, every midge".

On that last day I was accompanied by Cameron McNeish and the late, sadly missed, Chris Brasher, who on the top produced not just champagne but crystal champagne glasses to drink it from. Cameron took the picture, which is from my book about the walk, The Munros and Tops.