Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Recent Reviews on the TGO Website

Packing the Granite Gear Lutsen 45 on the TGO Challenge

The last few weeks have seen the following reviews appear in my Gear Editor's Column on the TGO website.

First look at the ultralight Berghaus Hyper 100 Waterproof Jacket

Test reports:

Lifestraw Steel Personal Water Filter 
Teva Terra-Float Universal Sandals  

 UV Insect Shield Buff 

Granite Gear Lutsen 45 Pack

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

I've joined Instagram!

After wondering bout it on and off for months - did I really want another social media account? - and after suggestions that I should from various people I finally joined Instagram a little while ago. I'm slowly building up a collection of pictures taken with my Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone which you can find here.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Great Outdoors September Issue: Lots of Gear!

In the shops now the September issue of The Great Outdoors has rather a lot of gear pieces by me. There's an account of the lightweight gear I used on the three-day trip in the Cairngorms I wrote about in this post, a look at new gear coming out soon, a review of knives and multi-tools, and a test report on the Keen Versatrail shoes.

Away from gear I've been dreaming about the desert for my backpacking column. Making a dream real is Carey Davies on a visit to the magnificent hills of North-west Scotland. In the Lake District John Fleetwood describes a multi-day route including twenty classic scrambles. Andrew McCloy walks the Pennine Way and ponders the future of this iconic trail. Carey Davies is also in the Pennines, exploring Kinder Scout in his Mountain Magic column. One hundred years of the United States National Park Service is celebrated in a series of spectacular images by Jason Hatfield. (You can see my own gallery of US national park images here). 
Away from the high mountains Roger Butler explores the rolling hills of Radnorshire. The Hill Skills pages move abroad with a useful guide to trekking.

On his Environment page Roger Smith reviews two new books - Fiona Reynold's The Fight for Beauty and Stephen Moss's Wild Kingdom - and looks at the messages they contain and how they could and should influence the new UK Environment Secretary while in his Hillwalkers' LibraryJim Perrin reviews an old favourite, H.W.Tilman's The Seven Mountain Travel Books.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Thoughts on Bivouacking

In the Grand Canyon

My favourite way to spend a night in the wilds is under the stars – no tent, no tarp, and no bivi bag. I’ve been thinking about this following some recent discussions of bivouacking on social media in which the use of a bivi bag was assumed. I wonder why. In any circumstances where a bivouac will be pleasant a bivi bag shouldn’t be needed. And if bivvying won’t be pleasant I’m not going to do it unless there’s no other choice. If rain, snow, strong winds or biting insects are likely then I’ll use a shelter I can actually live in not a bag in which I can do nothing but sleep. That means I rarely bivi in Britain despite my love of it. I am planning on some forest bivis on calm nights this autumn once the midges are gone however. I’ll take a tarp as well though, just in case of rain.

In the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail
Most of the bivouacking I’ve done has been in dry areas where rain was very unlikely. I first learnt how much I enjoyed this on the Pacific Crest Trail when I realised early on that I didn’t need my tent most nights. Only when the mosquitoes came out and in the rain and snow in the North Cascades did I use the tent often. I slept out many times on the Continental Divide Trail too and almost every night on the Arizona Trail and on a month-long walk in the High Sierra. 

In the High Sierra
On these trips I would lay down a groundsheet – over the years these have gone from silver Sportsman’s Blankets to much lighter weight silnylon ones – and then my mat and sleeping bag. My kitchen would be set up next to the groundsheet so I could cook and eat while in or on my sleeping bag. When using a pack with a frame I’d use my trekking poles to prop it up for use as a back rest. (This doesn’t work with frameless packs – at least not for me). With everything I might need to hand – notebook, reading matter, maps, headlamp, clothing – I could then spend a restful evening with the world I’d come to be part of all around me. I’d fall asleep staring up at the stars and the silhouettes of trees or mountains rather than a sheet of nylon.

Larry Lake at a bivouac in the Yosemite backcountry on the Pacific Crest Trail
The key to comfortable bivouacking like this is dryness. Cold doesn’t matter – I’ve had many pleasant bivouacs in sub- zero temperatures. Wind can be a problem but as long as it’s not too strong a tarp or groundsheet can be used as a windbreak.  This blocks off some of the view but still gives more freedom and contact with nature than a shelter with a roof.

Using my groundsheet as a windbreak at a chilly bivouac on the Arizona Trail

On none of these bivouacs did I need a bivi bag. Sometimes my sleeping bag has been dew or frost covered in the morning but this has always quickly dissipated in the sunshine. And on the few occasions when I have packed a slightly damp bag airing it during the day or at the next camp has dried it. 

When I’ve slept in bivi bags to try them out I’ve usually found a little dampness inside (sometimes more than a little). The only times I’ve chosen to use bivi bags have been in dripping bothies and tents (either from rain getting in or copious condensation – which can occur in badly ventilated concrete shelters as well as tents). A few times I’ve used a bivi bag for extra warmth when sleeping out in very cold temperatures in the winter in Norway and Sweden. Each time I’ve woken to a thick layer of frozen condensation inside the bivi bag. I’d have been better off with a warmer sleeping bag or clothing.

Just once I’ve slept in a bivi bag in heavy rain. This was the first night of a walk in the Pyrenees. Tired from the long train journey from the UK my companion and I had decided not to bother with our tents but just collapse into our sleeping bags on the ground. That night for the only time on the two-week trip it poured down. Woken by the first drops we quickly wriggled into our bivi bags, turning them over so the zipped opening were underneath to prevent leakage. We stayed dry but I was very relieved when dawn came with a clearing sky and I could escape from the restrictions of the bivi bag. I wouldn’t do that again by choice.

Almost a bivouac - a tarp pitched to ward off wind and light rain on the Arizona Trail

Rather than gear I expect to use I view a bivi bag as an emergency item, to be used if I get stuck out on a day walk or if my shelter fails in some way. Used like this a bivi bag lasts a very long time!

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Book Review: Walking Man The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher

Colin Fletcher is one of my literary walking heroes. I first discovered him over thirty years ago when a friend who’d been to California loaned me The Thousand-Mile Summer, saying he thought I’d be interested because I liked long-distance walking. How right he was! Reading that book, which tells the story of Fletcher’s walk the length of California in deserts and mountains, inspired me to discover and then hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and to go on and read all of Fletcher’s books. (You can read more of my thoughts on Fletcher here). 

Whilst little-known in Britain, although he came from Wales, Colin Fletcher became well-known in the USA as a writer and long-distance walker and was a key figure – perhaps the key figure – in the rise of backpacking in the 1960s and 70s after the publication of his most successful book The Complete Walker.

Reading his books I quickly became aware that there was much that Fletcher was not saying. There was little about his personal life away from walking other than a love of tennis. Occasional explosions of anger about conservation showed a keen love of wild places but there was nothing to suggest any activism. Fletcher comes across as a loner, a very private man, somewhat curmudgeonly, and careful only to reveal what he wants the reader to know. 

I was intrigued to learn more about him and hoped for many years that someone would write his biography. And now someone has. Robert Wehrman is another Fletcher aficionado but he didn’t wait for someone else to write Fletcher’s story, he did the research (including contacting me – I’m honoured to be quotedin the book) and wrote it himself. This involved masses of work – Fletcher kept just about every bit of paper that came his way including copies of all the letters he wrote. A treasure trove for the biographer but one requiring much time to sift and evaluate. Wehrman has done this admirably, telling Fletcher’s story from his upbringing in Wales and England and his formative years as a Royal Marine in the Second World War through to his fame as an author and his final years (he died in 2007). 

Fletcher’s life is fascinating and Robert Wehrman describes it well in this wonderful book. The stories behind the walks and other adventures, including events during them, are very interesting. There are many surprising revelations too – I’ll leave these for readers to discover. Some of the impressions of Fletcher I’d gained from his books proved correct but there were sides of him I’d never imagined. I’ll be reading his books again with a new outlook.

For anyone interested in the history of backpacking and long-distance walking the story of Colin Fletcher should be essential reading. Robert Wehrman has done the outdoor community a service with Walking Man

Friday, 19 August 2016

Heat & Snow in the Cairngorms

Air shimmering with heat above the pale, stony, desert-like terrain below a deep blue cloudless sky. Intense sunshine. Rocks warm to the touch. Not the usual image of the Cairngorm Plateau but the reality for a few days this August.

I’d climbed up onto the Plateau late one afternoon, winding my way up the steep Goat Track that breaches the great back wall of Coire an t-Sneachda. The air was still hot and the ascent tiring. On reaching the top I looked out on pale gold mountains stretching into the distance. Rarely do the Cairngorms look like this.

Wandering down the boggy upland valley of Coire Domhain I changed my plans. I had intended descending steeply into the deep cleft holding Loch Avon them climbing equally steeply up the far side. In this heat I didn’t feel like another climb. I could see too that the Loch Avon basin was already in shadow. And that would mean midges. Staying high and seeking a camp site somewhere breezy seemed a better idea.

A favourite place lay not far away too – the broad rocky shelf above the steep slabs falling down towards Loch Avon. Split by the rushing waters of the Feith Buidhe, Garbh Uisge Beag and Garbh Uisge Mor the terrain here is wonderfully complex, a tangle of boulders, slabs, pools, and grassy hollows, and has tremendous views of the cliffs round the head of Loch Avon. Much of the ground is too stony for tent pegs but there are good camp sites if you’re prepared to explore. I find a different spot each time I visit. On this occasion I found a breezy site just above the Garbh Uisge Beag with splendid views of the last big snow drifts on steeper slopes not far away and beyond them the crags of Hell’s Lum and Stag Rocks.

A red sky after sunset gave way to the cool light of the rising moon. The sky darkened, stars appeared. The scene was peaceful and magical and I spent hours watching the sky and the mountains.

Dawn came harshly with no colour in the sky, just the sudden heat of a bright sun. The tent was instantly too hot and I was soon outside, breakfasting in the sunshine. 

Reluctant to leave I then wandered over to the snow drifts and explored the gaps between them and the rocks. Here it was cool and damp and dark though I didn’t venture far, being alone and without any gear – shorts and sandals not really being adequate! The snow was deep, well above my head, and the drifts extensive. Some will last into the next winter unless there is much more hot weather.

Finally packing up I followed the Garbh Uisge Beag up onto the open slopes of the Plateau. Despite many previous visits I’d never followed this stream before and I was interested to find it runs for a while in a narrow rocky ravine that’s almost invisible until you’re in it.   

Next came Ben Macdui and then the walk back across the Plateau to Cairn Gorm. The sparse vegetation, gravelly ground and splintered rocks made me think of desert terrain, not a thought I’ve had before up here. Arctic tundra is what usually comes to mind.

Monday, 15 August 2016

After a summer's day

After sunset, the Cairngorms, August 15

Yesterday we returned from an entertaining time in rainy Edinburgh doing various Festival things to clearing skies. Today the sun was hot, the sky blue. A real summer's day. I walked beside the River Spey, its waters golden brown from recent rain, its banks rich with late summer flowers in yellows, purples, blues and whites. Thin clouds drifted across the sky this evening and as the sun dropped below the horizon its last rays turned the sky peach pink. Will it clear for the Perseid meteor shower later?

The River Spey & the Hills of Cromdale
A tangle of flowers and grasses