Monday 31 October 2011

Backpacking: How Light Is Safe?

Here's another piece from the archive. This was written for TGO three years, after some backpackers on the TGO Challenge has been criticised for "going too light".

The picture above was taken on a trek in the Himalayas. I couldn't lift the load on the left! It belonged to a porter working for a local company, not a trekking organisation. Our porters carried much smaller loads. In fact one of our Sherpas tried lifting it with the tumpline in place. His neck muscles bulged as he stood up and he soon put the load down again, saying he wouldn't have dared trying to move while carrying it.


A common criticism of lightweight backpacking is that it isn’t safe. This seems to be based on the assumption that heavy gear is stronger, more protective and more functional, a dubious idea. Although it’s surfaced frequently recently due to the upsurge in lightweight backpacking weight equals safe is in fact an old argument. Over two decades ago I was told I couldn’t take my 1.8kg nylon backpacking tent, veteran of several long backpacking trips in the Scottish Highlands, on a mountain leadership course in Snowdonia because nylon tents were too light and therefore unsafe. Instead I had to carry a cotton tent weighing 3.2 kg. I never finished that course. Today that 1.8kg tent would be the heavy option.

Being safe isn’t about the weight of gear. It’s about having the right gear for the conditions and, crucially, the knowledge of how to use it properly, and the many hill skills that don’t rely on equipment anyway (such as route finding, campsite selection, decision making in stormy weather). Often the weight of gear has no bearing at all on safety regardless of conditions. Take packs for example. A 700 gram pack is just as functional as a 3kg pack as long as it holds all your gear. Stability on rough steep terrain may be important for safety with a pack but here the actual weight is immaterial (other than that good balance is easier with a light load).

On the TGO Challenge with the GoLite Pinnacle pack, which is made from Dyneema and tougher than many much heavier packs.

Are there areas where heavy gear is safer? Not really, at least not for backpacking and hillwalking (please note, I am not talking about technical mountaineering). Certainly if I am planning on a winter camp in the snow on the Cairngorm plateau I would be safer with a geodesic dome than an ultralight solo single hoop tent (though some of the latter will withstand amazingly strong winds). However I would be safer still with a tarp and a snow shovel weighing less than the geodesic dome. Snow shelters can’t blow away. Outside of such extreme situations safe camping means knowing the limitations of your shelter and choosing appropriate camp sites. With experience comes the knowledge of where sites protected from the weather are likely to be found. Last year on the TGO Challenge I headed north, away from the nearest low ground and the nearest roads, during a big storm in the Monadh Liath because the wind was from the south-west and I knew that streams flowing north would probably have some sheltered spots below high banks where I could camp comfortably. Also, it’s always easier and safer to go with the wind than fight against it. As it was I found a good site at 720 metres where I had a comfortable camp before struggling on through the storm the next day.

Restful nights like mine on the Monadh Liath are important for safety. Lack of sleep means muscles won’t be fully restored and judgement may be faulty. To that end I view a sleeping bag that will keep me warm essential. Here again though this doesn’t mean a heavy one. Down bags are much warmer for the weight than synthetic ones. They pack much smaller too, which means a smaller and lighter pack can be carried.

Many people would say that an insulating mat was essential too. I certainly don’t camp without one because I like the comfort but other than on snow they aren’t actually necessary. Back in the 1970s Hamish Brown walked over all the Munros on one walk for the first time, camping most nights. He didn’t bother with a mat, saying that “the rucksack, tent-bag, waterproofs and any spare clothes did just as well”. Hamish’s walk was at a time when much of the lightweight materials we have today – waterproof/breathable fabrics, silicone nylon, fleece – didn’t exist but he still completed it safely using non-breathable waterproofs and wool and cotton clothing and his pack averaged just 10.5kg, which would be quite low even today.

The real answer to how light is safe depends on the time of year, the location, the intended plans and the experience and skill of the backpacker. I can’t emphasise the latter enough. Part of the skill lies in choosing the right equipment for the trip. In summer I usually carry just a lightweight fleece as warm wear, knowing that it will keep me warm in the coldest temperatures likely. I would never go out in winter with just that thin garment, adding to it a thick – but still light - insulated vest or jacket. If you want to camp on a high exposed site then a shelter that will stand up to strong winds is needed. That needn’t mean more weight however. Just look at the GoLite Shangri-La 3 single skin tent reviewed in this issue. It’s very light yet will stand up to strong winds better than many much heavier tents.

A winter camp in the Cairngorms with the Shangri-La 3 tent.

This brings up another point, the question of design and quality. Just assuming extra weight means a safer product is very simplistic. The design of a product, how well it’s made and the materials it’s made from, are often more significant than the weight. Silicone nylon is one of the strongest tent fabrics available and also one of the lightest. Heavier fabrics are more likely to fail in a storm than silicone nylon. A well-designed, well-made lightweight silicone nylon shelter can withstand winds that can flatten a heavy tent. The pyramid design of the Shangri-La 3 is more stable than a far heavier dome tent with three poles that cross at the apex and which will wobble like a jelly in strong winds. New materials mean that lighter weight gear with the strength and performance as heavier gear is appearing all the time. One day silicone nylon may seem heavy.

Often the difference in weight between items is due to added bells and whistles that aren’t actually needed for the item to perform well. How many pockets do you need on a waterproof or fleece jacket? How many straps, buckles and cords do you need on a rucksack? And with many items – stoves, pans, headlamps, base layers and more – the weight is simply irrelevant to safety. A stainless steel pot is no safer than a thin aluminium one, a hefty liquid fuel stove is no safer than an ultralight cartridge stove or tiny meths burner (some would say the opposite!).

Because the answer to how light is safe is a complex one you can’t put a figure on it. You can’t say that a backpacker with a 12kg load will be safe and one with a 6kg load won’t be. It could be the reverse. In either case anyone could buy the gear, sling it in a pack and set off without any idea how to use it properly. And in both cases this would not be safe. How light is safe is what you, with your experience and skill, know will work in the places you walk and the conditions you encounter. If something seems too light for you then it is. Confidence in equipment matters. Most lightweight backpackers reduce the weight of their loads over time as they become more skilled and confident.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Red Squirrels Return

Until six years ago red squirrels used to visit the bird feeders in our garden regularly. So often in fact that we started to take them for granted. Then they suddenly stopped coming. And we missed them. Just once, four years ago, a single squirrel appeared for a few weeks but since then not one has appeared. So it was with great delight and excitement that my partner arrived at my study door to announce that there was a squirrel on a nut feeder. Work abandoned I dashed to a window to see it hanging on the wire of the feeder and nibbling the peanuts. Again I was amazed at the agility and the ability to eat in any position, even stretched out with the head down.

The sky was overcast with a gusty wind and the feeder was swaying to and fro, not ideal for photography. However this being the first squirrel in so many years I took some handheld shots through the window, which I didn't approach too closely for fear of scaring it away - the feeder is only a few feet in front of the house.

For those interested I used my Canon 450D camera with 55-250 zoom lens. The ISO was 1600 and the settings 1/60@f5.6. Raw files processed in Lightroom.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Southern Upland Way Trip Report

Last February I walked the Southern Upland Way in Scotland - see my post for March 7. After the walk I wrote a piece for TGO on the gear I'd used. As we head into colder weather and shorter days I thought I'd post it here for anyone considering undertaking a long distance walk in winter.

All the photos were taken during the walk.

Stretching 212 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea the Southern Upland Way is Scotland’s longest official long distance path and the only one that goes from coast to coast. With sea cliffs at either end and forests, farmland, moors and rolling hills en route the path runs through a wide variety of landscapes. There’s a mixture of walking terrain too – narrow cliff paths, muddy farm tracks, forest roads, hill paths, riverside paths and metalled roads. I walked the route over 13 days last February and early March, which was not the ideal time for enjoying the route (I reckon May would be best) but was good for testing gear. On the highest sections (the high point is over 700 metres) there could have been snow and hard frosts were likely throughout. I went prepared for both but only encountered a smattering of light snow and just three nights when the temperature dropped below freezing, and then only by a couple of degrees. Overall the weather was mild for the time of year with daytime temperatures from +2º to 10ºC and night ones from -2.5º to +6ºC.

At the start the weather was dull with very low, thick clouds and heavy rain on three days. Even when it wasn’t raining I was often walking in wet mist. After four days the weather became drier though mostly still cloudy and with drizzle at times. The sun did appear briefly on some days and shone for quite a few hours on two. Sunshine wasn’t a major feature of the walk though. High humidity was, which made it a tough test for gear. The wet winter and the rain during the trip made much of the terrain wet and muddy. The forests were often dripping with moisture and finding camp sites that didn’t ooze with water was difficult.
I was out for 12 nights, of which 5 were spent in the tent, 4 in bothies and 3 in B&Bs.
I used the walk to test a selection of new gear, some of which is in the shops now, some of which won’t appear until later in the year. Here are my findings.


Terra Nova Laser Ultra 1 £650

I first saw this tent when judging gear for the Outdoor show awards last year and was amazed and excited at the astonishingly low weight. I wanted to test one immediately but had to wait until the autumn for a sample to be available. I used it for some overnight trips before taking it on the Southern Upland Way, where it performed well. Terra Nova gives the weight as 581 grams including bags. I actually carried 788 grams as I ditched the tiny toothpick pegs supplied (some of them pulled out in the first gust of wind when I first pitched the tent) and carried a mix of angle pegs and titanium pins weighing 147 grams. However even without the pegs the test tent with bags weighed 641 grams (tent 494 grams, tent bag 22 grams, pole 120 grams, pole bag 5 grams) so it’s not quite as light as claimed. Even so the weight is still very low.

The main reason for the low weight is the fabric used for the flysheet and groundsheet, which is almost transparent and very thin. Rather than a woven fabric it consists of a solid laminate with reinforcing threads, a type of material called cuben fibre and used for some years now by small “cottage” manufacturers for ultralight shelters and other items.

The Laser Ultra 1 is the same single hoop design as the other solo Laser tents and the same size as the Laser Photon 1, which has a silicone nylon flysheet. There are short poles at each end that add stability and height to the inner. These are in two sections and can be folded in half when the tent is packed. The inner tent is made of thin breathable nylon with mesh panels in the door and at each end for ventilation.
The Ultra 1 can be pitched quickly as a unit. There is a sleeve over the pole that is a little fiddly to attach with cold fingers but which does add stability due to the guylines fastened to it. I’ve pitched the Ultra 1 in cold rain and wind several times and can be inside in a few minutes. It stands up to the wind and rain well too. The flysheet fabric crackles when handled but once the tent is pitched and it’s pulled taut it’s quieter than some nylon tents I’ve used. The fabric doesn’t stretch at all so the pegging points are made of very stretchy shockcord that absorbs some of the force of the wind.

Terra Nova says the Ultra 1 can be used by two people at a squeeze. I’d say you’d have to be both small and very friendly to do so! Of course the inner could be dropped for more room. As it is, with the inner in place I found there was just enough room for me with a bulky winter sleeping bag and a thick mat. With lower bulk gear there would be a little more room. I’m 5’ 8” and I could just sit up in the centre of the tent and lie down without touching the ends. There is good separation between inner and outer and although there was copious condensation on the flysheet most nights I only came into contact with this when moving round in the tent when my head sometimes pushed the inner against the outer.

The porch is small but I still found I could store my quite bulky pack on one side. With the door shut using the stove required care but was possible. To give more room whilst retaining some protection I attached the flysheet door to a trekking pole and pegged it out as an awning. Except in the heaviest rain this worked well. The flysheet door opens on the left side of the tent, which is the wrong side for me as I like to lie on my left side and use the stove and look out while eating. I can’t do this in the Ultra 1. But that’s only a minor, personal complaint.

The semi-transparent fabric lets in more light than other tent materials, which I liked as it made dull February mornings less gloomy. Being able to see grass and stones through the groundsheet was quite entertaining! On a campsite I guess you might feel a little exposed in a see-through tent but I’ve only used it for wild camping when it’s not a problem.

The Ultra 1 works fine as an ultralight backpacking tent. But it is extremely expensive, over twice as much as the Laser Photon 1 and the slightly bigger Laser Competition 1, neither of which weigh that much more. To justify the cost it will need to be very durable, something I can’t assess yet. But Terra Nova does deserve congratulations for producing such a tent and for becoming the first mainstream tent maker to use cuben fibre.


GoLite Terrono 70 Pack £200

GoLite’s latest packs might seen to belie the company name as they are fully featured internal frame packs at weights that look quite high at first glance. However when compared with similar models the Terrono packs are still significantly lighter than average. They’re designed to handle loads up to 28kg. Most packs built for such weights weigh well over 2kg, some over 3kg. The 70 litre Terrono 70 I used on this trip weighs 1.95kg.
Having gear for snow, ice and very cold nights plus a fair bit of camera gear and two GPS units (I needed many photos and a GPS track for a route description) meant a fairly heavy load even though some of my gear was ultralight and most of it lightweight so I needed a pack like the Terrono 70. At one point with several days’ food plus water and a couple of books my pack weighed 24kg.

The Terrono is made from Dyneema Gridstop and ripstop nylon, 50% recycled. The frame consists of a curved rod round the top and sides, a central stay and a reinforced adjustable backpad. This adds up to a rigid structure that supports weight well and helps transfer it to the thick, wide hipbelt. I found the pack comfortable and never had sore shoulders or hips. My only complaint was that the Velcro on the backpad, which is used for adjusting the back length, abrades clothing. It rubbed a hole in my windshirt before I realised what was happening and stuck some tape over it. A simple flap over the Velcro would prevent this.
The pack itself has a floating lid with pocket, two compartments, a large front pocket, open-topped stretch side pockets and side straps. It was easy to organise all my gear and have items I needed during the day quickly accessible.

The Terrono 70 is as comfortable as heavier packs designed for the same weights and a good choice for loads of 18kg and more. For lighter loads I’d go for a lighter pack though.

Waterproof Jacket

Rab Neo Stretch £250

This walk proved an ideal first test for Polartec’s new Neoshell waterproof/breathable fabric, which is claimed to be more breathable than rival materials. The hydrophobic microporous polyurethane Neoshell membrane can be laminated to different face fabrics. For the Neo Stretch jacket Rab has used a fairly tough nylon that should prove durable. It does have a one-way stretch though I can’t say I noticed any advantages of this during the walk. It’s probably more relevant when scrambling or climbing.

The jacket has a good hood with a wired peak that gives excellent protection while allowing side vision. There are two large chest pockets with water-resistant zips that easily take maps and two stretch mesh inner pockets. There’s a hem drawcord I never used and a slightly extended back. The cuffs have Velcro closures. Front closure is via a water-resistant zip with a stiffened flap with rain gutters behind it. I tested the large size, which weighs 554 grams. The design and fabric make this a suitable jacket for year round mountain use.

The Neo Stretch jacket proved waterproof and as breathable as anything else I’ve tried. On the wettest day when it rained non-stop for five hours during which time I was also walking in mist, the jacket was damp inside when I took it off and my inner layers were also damp. I wasn’t that wet though and I think that in other waterproofs, except perhaps an eVent one (or Paramo, but that’s a different system), there would have been much more condensation. On other days the Neo Stretch stayed dry inside. Overall I am quite pleased with the jacket. It now remains to be seen just how durable it is. Given the price, it needs to last.
The Neo Stretch is in Rab’s Winter 2011 range and so won’t be in the shops for a while yet.

Sleeping Mat

Pacific Outdoor Equipment Peak Elite AC £75

Having used a POE Ether Elite air bed on the Pacific Northwest Trail last summer (until it succumbed to a puncture) I have grown to like having the comfort of several inches of bouncy air underneath me when lying in the tent so I was pleased to be offered the replacement for the Ether Elite, the Peak Elite AC, to test. This air bed, or tube pad as POE calls it, has a radiant barrier to reflect heat back to you and a thin layer of synthetic insulation in the torso area. Fully inflated it’s 6.3cms thick. The outer tubes are bigger than the inner ones to help stop you rolling off the pad. The shell material is recycled, abrasion-resistant, ripstop nylon. The Peak Elite AC comes in three sizes – Long, Regular and 2/3. I tried the Regular, which is 183cms long and weighs 396 grams. Rolled up it’s very compact.

POE says this mat is for 3-season use. I found it warm on cold, wet ground, though I didn’t try it on snow or hard frozen ground. It’s very comfortable too. The inflated bulk and the length did mean it was a tight fit in the Laser Ultra tent. In fact I couldn’t inflate it inside the tent but had to do so outside and then slip it into the inner. The thickness cut down on the headroom too. It’s really more suited to a larger shelter.
For maximum comfort at low weight and packed bulk this mat is excellent. Of course it needs care as the comfort vanishes if it’s punctured. The shell fabric looks tougher than that on the Ether Elite. I’m hoping this means it’s more durable.

Sleeping Bag

PHD Hispar 500 £419

In anticipation of some bitterly cold nights I took the thick and warm PHD Hispar 500 sleeping bag, which is rated to -15ºC. With most nights above freezing and -2.5ºC the coldest there was, such a warm bag was overkill. It was nice to have the luxury though and at 948 grams the Hispar 500 is lighter than many thinner bags. It’s filled with 900 fill power down and has a box wall construction. The outer fabric is water-resistant Drishell, which was useful in the very humid conditions. The bag never felt damp inside though the outside of the foot was sometimes damp in the morning due to being pushed against the tent walls. The bag is quite wide and has a short side zip, a neck baffle and an enveloping hood. I found it very comfortable and not too warm, though I never closed the hood or neck baffle. It is expensive but should last a long time and the low weight for the warmth makes it ideal for winter backpacking.

Edelrid Kiro Ti £40

Reckoning I could warm the canister with my hands and sleep with it at night if temperatures were really cold I decided to take an ultralight screw-in gas stove, the 74 gram titanium Edelrid Kiro Ti. As it was, the temperatures were never cold enough to affect the performance and it worked fine at -1ºC without the canister being warmed. This tiny stove has three folding pan supports with fold-out serrated arms and a long, foldaway flame control lever that is far enough from the burner that it doesn’t get hot. The legs don’t lock into position so care needs to be taken to ensure they are in place and the burner produces a rather narrow flame that produces a hot spot on the bottom of the pan, meaning food can burn if not stirred frequently. Fuel efficiency is good as a 250 size canister lasted me five days for boiling around 2 to 2.5 litres of water a day and simmering some meals for ten minutes. Overall this is an okay little stove.

Warm Clothing

Western Mountaineering Flash XR down jacket £250

Again with sub zero temperatures in mind I decided to take a down jacket. This Canadian-made one had just come in for test and weighing a mere 370 grams and with a water resistant outer it seemed ideal. It’s filled with 99 grams of 850+ fill power down contained in small compartments so it can’t migrate and leave cold spots. The stitching is sewn-through, which I think is fine in an ultralight garment. The outer shell is Western Mountaineering’s own Proloft XR, which consists of a thin membrane laminated to nylon. Features are an attached hood with elasticised front so it hugs the face and a rear volume adjuster; zipped insulated handwarmer pockets and elasticised hem and cuffs. The front zip is reversed and has a baffle behind it.

The warmer than expected temperatures meant that the Flash XR was a luxury item I could have managed without. Of course one -5ºC or below night and I’d have been very glad I had it. As it was it was nice to wear when the temperature was around zero or just below and made a very good pillow. The test sample was a Large size and I could wear it over all my other clothing. At the same time the elasticised hem and cuffs meant it didn’t let warm air out when worn just over a base layer. The outer shell kept off drips and the jacket never got more than slightly damp in the humid weather.

For the weight this is a very warm garment. It’s not as warm as heavier down jackets of course but it’s excellent for UK backpacking and can easily be combined with other garments in extreme cold. The price is high but Western Mountaineering’s quality is superb and it should last a very long time – far longer than any synthetic fill garment.

Finisterre Bise Vest £90

In case of really severe temperatures I carried this vest, filled with Primaloft, to wear with the down jacket. In fact it was never cold enough to wear the two together but the vest was useful for pulling on quickly at rest stops. Due to the synthetic fill I could wear it over a wet waterproof and in the rain without affecting the performance. A few times I wore it for walking for an hour or so until I warmed up. It packs fairly small and I stuffed it into the back pocket of the pack so it was quickly accessible. Vests like this are very versatile and useful year round and the Bise is one of the best I’ve tried.

My Bise is the MkII version. The current Mk III one has a ripstop recycled polyester shell rather than a plain one, recycled Primaloft Eco fill rather than Primaloft Sport and an inner zipped pocket. Other features are the same. These are a high fleece lined collar, Lycra bound handwarmer pockets and armholes, a hem drawcord and a chunky Riri main zip with internal flap. My Large size weighs 302 grams. The Bise is made in Portugal.

Rab MeCo 165 Long Sleeve Zip Tee £60

Merino wool has been my choice for base layers for long trips for many years now, as it performs day after day without being washed and doesn’t smell or get sticky and is very comfortable against the skin. For winter 2011 Rab is introducing a new material that’s a blend of 65% merino and 35% Cocona – a recycled fibre containing activated carbon from coconut shells. Cocona is said to be fast drying and wicking and also odour resistant. On this walk I tried a long sleeve zip neck top in this fabric and found it fine. The top has a high warm collar, a long zip for ventilation and flatlock seams. The cuffs are loose enough that I could roll the sleeves up on the few occasions it was warm enough to do so. I wore the top for 13 days without washing it and it was as comfortable at the end as at the start and there was no smell. When damp it dried fairly quickly though no faster than I would expect 100% merino of the same weight (165 grams per square metre) to dry. Indeed, I didn’t notice any difference between this top and a pure merino one. The price is a bit lower than many merino tops though, making this a good buy.



Thinking of cold and snow I decided to do the walk in Inov8 Roclite 390 GTX boots. In case of warmer weather and for camp and town wear at the last minute I packed a pair of Inov8 Roclite 295 shoes. I was very glad I did as the boots turned out to be too warm and very slow drying once wet, which they soon were even though I wore an old pair of Brasher Gore-Tex gaiters with them. After the first two days I changed to the 295 shoes and completed the walk in them, using the boots as camp and town wear. Although the shoes were soaked much of the time my feet, in Merino wool Teko Mid Hiking Socks, were never cold or uncomfortable.

In the shoes I tried some new footbeds from Altberg – the Svarz Ortopedix Stabiliser and Anatomic Absorber. The first is designed to stabilise the foot and hold it in position, the second is designed to cushion the foot. I found both comfortable and the Anatomic Absorber to also provide some stabilisation. Overall I preferred the latter for the long sections of hard tracks and paved roads found on the Southern Upland Way. Both footbeds are quite low in price - £28 for the Ortopedix Stabiliser and £25 for the Anatomic Absorber.


I walked in Montane Terra Pants and Smartwool Microweight Boxer Briefs, which were an excellent combination. I thought the thin Terra Pants might not be warmth enough so I carried a pair of Woolpower Long Johns made from a merino/polyester mix. In fact I only wore these in bothies and camps but I wouldn’t go without long johns or other warm legwear at that time of year. I also had Marmot Essence overtrousers which I wore when it was raining and over the long johns in bothies for extra warmth.
On calm dry days I wore my now very well worn Jack Wolfskin Gecko microfleece top over my base layer. In windy weather I wore an also well worn Montane Litespeed windshirt. I wore either or both of these under my waterproof jacket depending on the temperature and which I was wearing when the rain started.

For my head and hands I carried far more items than I needed though in much colder weather I might have used them all. The only items I wore were an Outdoor Designs Windiush Windpro fleece hat and Extremities Sticky Thicky gloves, made from polyester with very sticky dots on the palm and fingers. The hat has been a favourite for years, the gloves were new and a favourite by the end of the walk as I was impressed with the warmth, dexterity, weather resistance and speed of drying.
Never worn items were a Lowe Alpine Mountain Cap, Original Buff, Extremities Inferno Mitts and Extremities Tuff Bag Mitts.


My pans were my old Evernew 0.9 litre and MSR 0.6 litre titanium ones. The latter usually doubles as a mug but as it was February I also took an Aladdin insulated mug as this keeps drinks hotter for much longer. Eating implements were a Backpacking Light Long Handled Titanium Spoon and an Outdoors Grub Polycarbonate Spoon.

For water I had a litre Nalgene Bottle with an Outdoor Designs Insulated Bottle Cover that I didn’t need as it was never very cold plus 2 2 litre Platypus Bottles, which I had to shake the ice out of just once.
For lighting the stove I took a tiny Spark-Lite Fire Starter and a Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel, both of which worked well even when wet.

Navigation and Route Recording

As a recorded track was essential I took both a Satmap Active 10 GPS and an HTC Desire smartphone with ViewRanger. Both worked well but there was a huge difference in battery life. The proprietary lithium battery in the Active 10 lasted for over 20 hours while the one in the phone barely last 7, even with everything bar the GPS and ViewRanger switched off. I carried spare batteries for both units and also chargers, which I used when staying in B&Bs. I also had paper maps.

Snow and Ice

There are places on the Southern Upland Way where an ice axe and crampons could be needed in wintry conditions. Knowing I wouldn’t need them much of the time and might not need them at all (as turned out to be the case) I carried the ultralight Camp Corsa ice axe and Kahtoola Micro Spikes.


In winter I like to have a bivy bag with me even when I have a tent so I took the very light (204 grams) Terra Nova Moonlite Bag Cover. I never needed this as a bivy bag but it did make a useful groundsheet in bothies to protect my air bed.

Light was provided by the Petzl Tikka XP headlamp, with one set of batteries lasting the whole trip.
My poles were Pacer Pole Carbons, the same ones I used on the Pacific Northwest Trail last summer.
Other items were a Silva 7NL compass, plastic whistle, sunglasses (not needed!), reading glasses, notebook and pens, first aid kit, washkit, Leatherman Style CS multi-tool, TechTrail Alterra altimeter watch and Kestrel 4500 Weather Station.


My main camera was a little Sony NEX 5 with 18-55 zoom lens. For wide angle and telephoto shots I carried a Canon 450D DSLR with 11-18 and 55-250 zoom lenses. In fact I hardly used the wide angle lens and could have managed without it (it was most useful for interior bothy shots) but the telephoto was used daily and so worth the weight. I had spare batteries and smartcards for both cameras. I also carried my ancient Cullman Backpack tripod with its duct tape patches.

Kit List Grams
Pack: GoLite Terrono 70 1950
Tent: Terra Nova Laser Ultra 1 788
Sleeping Bag: PHD Hispar 500 948
Bivy Bag: Terra Nova Moonlite 204
Insulation: POE Peak Elite AC 396
Kitchen : Edelrid Kiro Ti 74
Go System 250 gas cartridge x 2 680
Foil windshield 60
Evernew 0.9 litre titanium pan 139
MSR 0.6 litre titanium pan 82
Aladdin insulated mug 142
Outdoors Grub polycarbonate spoon 15
Backpacking Light Long Titanium spoon 17
Swedish FireSteel 26
Spark-Lite 6
1 litre Nalgene bottle 142
Outdoor Research Bottle Cover 117
2x 2 litre Platypus bottles 74
Footwear: Inov8 Roclite 390 GTX 816
Inov8 295 628
Svartz Anatomic Absorber footbeds 148
Svartz Ortopedix Stabiliser footbeds 78
Clothing: Teko Merino Mid Hiking socks x 2 200
Montane Terra Pants 334
Rab MeCo 165 Long Sleeved Zip Tee 238
Jack Wolfskin Gecko microfleece 225
Montane Litespeed Windproof 166
Finisterre Bise Primaloft Vest 302
Western Mountaineering Flash XR down jacket 370
Rab Stretch Neo Jacket 554
Marmot Essence overtrousers 181
Smartwool boxers 92
Woolpower Long johns 192
Outdoor Designs Windiush fleece hat 70
Lowe Alpine Mountain Cap 85
Buff 38
Cotton Bandanna 28
Extremities Sticky Thickies 42
Extremities Inferno Mitts 160
Extremities Tuff Bags mitts 82
Brasher Gore-Tex Gaiters 206
Accessories: Carbon Pacer Poles 528
POD Ultralite Drysacs 7 litre & 10 litre 75
Lifeventure Dri-Store 15 litre stuffsack 58g
Aloksak bags x 3 46
Exped Cargo Dry Bag Small 150
Petzl Tikka XP headlamp 76
Silva 7NL Compass 24
Fox plastic whistle 14
Sunglasses 70
Notebook, pens 195
Paperback book 200
Satmap Active 10 GPS, USB cable/spare batteries 408
HTC Desire phone & USB cable/spare batteries 316
Travel plug 57
Reading glasses 143
Maps 98
Lifesystems Light & Dry First Aid Kit 121
Repair Kit 85
TechTrail Alterra altimeter watch 74
Kestrel 4500 weather station 109
Sirius 8x25 Mini Binoculars 149
Leatherman Style CS multi-tool 42
Wash kit/loo paper 100
Snow & Ice Camp Corsa ice axe 300
Kahtoola Micro Spikes 354
Photography Canon EOS 450D camera & 55-250 lens & bag 1397
Tamron 11-18 lens & bag 476
Sony NEX 5 camera + 18.55 lens & bag 711
Smartcards, batteries, charger & filters 500
Cullman Backpack tripod 597
Total in pack without food and water 15.233kg
Worn/carried 3.34 kg
Total 18.568kg.

Friday 21 October 2011

Rain, Wind and Mist in the Borders

Down in the Southern Uplands, the border hills between Scotland and England, lies long beautiful Moffat Dale. Rising from forests and farmland to wild moorland this valley runs between steep-sided rolling grass and heather hills. To the north three deep side valleys cut into the slopes. I had previously visited two of these valleys – that of the lovely Grey Mare’s Tail Waterfall and the hanging valley of the Tail Burn and Loch Skeen and that of Carrifran, home to a new wild forest. The third valley, Black Hope, was unknown other than from glimpses from the heights above until last week when I wandered its length and spent two nights camping near its head.

After the long journey down from the Cairngorms I set off up Black Hope at dusk. A brisk wind blew and the tops were covered in cloud. An old track runs up the valley; a track that is slowly fading back into the landscape, especially in its upper reaches, beyond a section washed away by a flooding burn. By the time I reached the end of the track it was dark, with the pale slash of the burn the only distinct feature. I followed a rough path a short distance then found a reasonable camp site on a shelf above the burn. Soon I was out of the wind and warm in the tent with hot soup in my mug and supper cooking on the stove.

The night was warm for mid-October with a low of only 10ºC. I left the tent doors open at first but the gusty wind and then a shower of rain woke me so I zipped myself in. There were no stars or even the silhouette of the hills to watch anyway. Dawn came with a creeping greyness and a reluctant half-light. I had considered camping high on the hills but the wind and low cloud made this unattractive so I decided on a day trip to the summits and a second night in Black Hope. Leaving the tent I set off up the valley and was soon climbing up beside the stream of Cold Grain, which dropped down the hillside in a series of little falls and cascades. Before I reached the gentler slopes above I was in thick, wet mist with visibility reduced to a few yards. Once I emerged on the slopes of Hart Fell at the head of Black Hope I felt the full force of a strong wind. I followed the fence to the summit and then over Falcon Crag and Swatte Fell. Heavy rain began to fall and the ground was soft and sodden. Two figures suddenly appeared in front of me out of the cloud. Hoods up, heads down, they mumbled a greeting as they passed and then vanished in the mist. A third walker a little later was the only other person I met. Given the weather I was surprised to see anyone else at all.

Tempted by the thought of hot drinks in Moffat, which was only five or six miles away, I changed my plans again and instead of descending into the Black Hope valley and back to camp I went down into Moffat Dale where my car was waiting to transport me to the luxury of a café. A few hours later back at the head of Black Hope I had to struggle back into wet waterproofs and head back up to my camp. I considered simply packing it up and heading out but decided to stay in case the weather improved. It didn’t. It worsened. The second night was one of heavy rain and a much stronger gusty wind that shook the tent and woke me several times. The dawn was again grey but the clouds had lifted above the tops and for the first time I could see the upper edge of the valley and the series of crags and stream gullies on its sides. Black Hope is a splendid valley. I’d like to see it in better conditions.


Tuesday 18 October 2011

Latest TGO - Wildlife, Active Shell, Lightening Your Load & Protecting Electronics

The November issue of TGO, in the shops now, has a review by me of protective cases for electronic devices. Having just returned from a very wet trip, of which more in a future post, I can say that such cases are definitely useful! Also in this issue I describe the new Gore-Tex Active Shell fabric and review two of the first jackets using it, from Berghaus and Haglofs, while in the Hill Skills section I give some tips on lightening the weight of your pack. Away from gear and techniques my backpacking column is about encounters with wildlife.

Elsewhere Ed Byrne tries going barefoot, something that I do every so often for short distances; Cameron McNeish looks at the wind power debate and wonders if a reduction in subsidies might make on-short wind farms unnattractive to energy companies (we can hope) and also explores Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms and its surrounding hills; Emily Rodway canoes down the River Spey then walks back along the Speyside Way; Nathan Skinner meets Gavin Pretor-Pinney to discuss cloud-spotting; Ronald Turnbull wanders round the head of Upper Eskdale in the Lake District; Jim Perrin writes about Mark Cocker's book Birders (and persuades me I must read it); Stephen Venables leads a trek along the toughest section of the Great Himalaya Trail; Andrew McCloy looks at the Walkers are Welcome initiative; Kevin Walker gives some useful advice on following compass bearings and John Manning tests some hydration packs.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

London In A Day

The Autumn issue of TGO has a feature entitled Scotland in a Weekend, with suggestions of routes that can be done in the Highlands utilising the sleeper service from down south. For those of us who live in Highlands the trip can be done in reverse of course and even in fact in a day, as I have just done. I caught the day train to London from Aviemore, which takes seven and a half hours, spent five hours in the city and then caught the sleeper back north, alighting from the train back in Strathspey twenty-three hours after setting out. The reason for this rather crazy flying visit to London? My youngest brother's fiftieth birthday, and he lives in London and my other brother, who does something with IT and education in Liverpool, happened to be in London for a conference the same day. So celebrating the birthday with a drink and a meal seemed a good idea. I just had to go to London to do so. And cope with it. I walked from King's Cross to the pub where we were meeting, a fifteen minute walk through crowds, traffic and what seemed confusion. I saw more people in that short walk than I'd seen in total for a couple of months. I felt detached, an observer from another planet, unconnected with any of these hurrying people. Then, watching them, I realised they were all floating along in their own little bubbles too, each regarding the other people as just human shaped objects to be avoided. The only people I saw commincating animatedly were those with phones clamped to their heads. Crowds of people but everyone seemed very isolated. I arrived at the pub. Closed for refurbishment. I stared in disbelief. How had we managed to pick a closed pub in all of London? Eventually my brothers turned up and, it being London, we walked the two minutes to the next pub, The Fitzrovia, which had a good selection of real ale, including strange southern brews I'd never seen before. Then it was an excellent Mexican meal in the Mestizo restaurant before heading for Euston, another pint in a station pub, and the train home. I was leaving before I'd felt I'd really arrived.

Looking out of the train window in the dawn light the swelling hills of the Cairngorms and the sweep of autumn woods and fields welcomed me home. There's nothing like going somewhere that feels alien - and London really did feel like that to me - to really appreciate home and the feelings of security and comfort it engenders. Aviemore, which sometimes seems crowded and noisy, felt positively genteel and sedate after London. I had a meeting later that morning in the town so I had a lengthy breakfast in Cafe Bleu then moved to the Mountain Cafe for coffee and cake and an exciting and interesting meeting with a publisher, of which more anon. Then I drove slowly home, admiring the birches glowing in the sunlight. To fully shake the city away a walk was needed so I spent a few hours in the quiet of the woods and fields, which is when I took the image above, looking across Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills. I was back.

Monday 10 October 2011

Primus OmniLite Ti stove review

Recently I've been testing the new Primus OmniLite Ti multi-fuel stove, a lightweight version of the excellent OmniFuel. My review appears on the TGO website here.

Friday 7 October 2011

Snow on the Cairngorms, Excitement on Facebook

Yesterday I looked out on a grey day, with rain falling and a cold wind. The hills were hidden. Hours later I glanced out of the window to see the cloud had risen slightly and the edges of the Cairngorms could be seen, white with new snow. Grabbing a camera with telephoto lens I had time to take two quick shots through the closed window before the clouds descended again. Thinking someone might be interested I posted the above picture on Facebook. To my surprise 4o people liked it and there were 6 shares and 12 comments - which is far more than my Facebook posts usually receive. Clearly there is great interest in snow and the coming winter!

Book of the Year: MyOutdoors

On the first anniversary of its publication World Mountain Ranges: Scotland has been chosen by, also celebrating its first anniversary, as Book of the Year. I am delighted!

Thursday 6 October 2011

Trekking in Nepal

The trekking season is just beginning in Nepal, where caravans of trekkers, porters and Sherpas will be heading out towards the high peaks. I've been treking in Nepal three times and it is a wonderful experience. Here's a piece I wrote for TGO after my first trek many years ago. The photos were taken on my second trek, which was to Makalu Base Camp.


6.00am.The cheerful voice of the Sherpa wakes you from a drowsy half-sleep. Fumbling with the tent zip in the darkness you eventually manage to pull it open. A shiver of cold air slices in through the slot of the open zip. Outside the sky is clear and black with bright stars and the thin pale crescent of a waning moon. The silhouettes of black jagged mountains line the horizon. Much closer to hand a large mug of sweet tea steams. The bed tea, as it’s called, wakes and warms you. There’s also a bowl of warm water so you can splash the sleep out of your face. Another day on trek has begun.

Half an hour after waking you stumble, swathed in warm clothing to ward off the still freezing air, to the outdoor breakfast table where you join the other trekkers. A flicker of orange marks the rising sun. Soon the bright harsh light reaches the camp but it’s still too early for it to have much warmth. As breakfast is eaten porters and Sherpas bustle about taking down tents and packing gear. Soon a long line of laden porters snakes its way up the trail .Most are carrying dokos - cone-shaped cane baskets -loaded with all sorts of items. A few have unusual loads; a sack of cauliflowers almost as big as the porter, the huge folded canvas of a large tent. All the loads are supported by straps around the porters’ heads.

After breakfast you pack the gear you’ll need during the day into your pack and the rest into your kitbag, which is quickly whisked away by a porter who also dismantles your tent. As the last porters head up the trail you set off after them. At times you walk with other trekkers, at others alone, sometimes with no one else in sight. There’s always a Sherpa at the back of the group in case anyone falls behind though and when any potential difficulty appears – a steep exposed section where the path climbs over a rock spur, a stream that has to be forded – there are Sherpas to provide help if necessary.

After an hour or so some of the porters are passed, resting and having their first foodof the day. A couple of hours more and you see a large groundsheet spread out near the path. Close by the cook crew, who shoot off as soon as they have prepared breakfast each morning, have set up a kitchen from which the wonderful smells of fresh baking are wafting. A porter brings over a jug of hot fruit juice that has a wonderfully restorative effect. The leisurely lunch lasts an hour or more and while you eat, drink and rest the porters pass by and disappear into the distance. High above large birds of prey – eagles? vultures?– circle above the snowy peaks.

After an hour and a half the leisurely lunch is over. You continue along the trail,watching the snow-capped mountains, the streams, the rocks, the clouds, the flowers, the birds and the rest of the wild nature you have come to see and be part of. Occasionally a massive hairy yak lumbers into view, then another and another, each one loaded with goods for these trails are the highways of this country, the trade routes and market roads. The traders and other locals passing between villages are friendly. “Namaste”, they say, bowing slightly with their hands held as in prayer. You return the traditional greeting –“Namaste – Greetings to the God within you”

On passes long thin strands of prayer flags flutter from rock cairns, spreading good wishes on the wind. As you approach a village other signs of the Buddhist beliefs of the local people appear – stone mani (prayer) walls, chortens (stone monuments) and then an ancient gompa (monastery) high on the hillside above the flat-roofed stonehouses of the village. Flocks of sheep and goats graze, guarded by small children. Other children wander around collecting yak dung for fires. The caravan of porters, Sherpas and trekkers winds through the tiny dusty stone-walled fields around the village. On a flat rise beyond the houses the sirdar – the head Sherpa – stops. This is tonight’s campsite. It is seven hours since setting off in the morning. The timing has gone to plan and the porters arrive at the same time as the trekkers and start setting up camp. That’s one reason for the long lunch. It means you don’t have to wait, perhaps in the cold, for the porters, who need more frequent rest stops due to their heavier loads, to catch up. From the moment a porter picks up your kitbag in the morning until he reaches the next camp it’s impossible to get at its contents. All you have is what you are carrying in your pack. It’s wise to keep a warm top in there.

Camp is soon set up and the large cook tent is soon throbbing with the roar of paraffin burners. Those trekkers still with some energy explore round the camp,others lie in their tents and read or doze or gather together and discuss the days trek. Soon the sun has set and the temperature is falling as it grows rapidly dark. The porters light a fire for warmth and the flickering flames throw tree shadows on the rock face behind them. Dinner is called and you gather in the large mess tent for a tasty and filling meal of curry and dhal. As you eat the trek leader and the Sirdar discuss the plans for the next day and go over the experiences so far. Then it’s back to the warmth of tent and sleeping bag,leaving the mess tent for the porters to sleep in, and dreams of the mountains and more days trekking through spectacular landscapes.

Such is a typical day on a trek. It sounds relaxing and it is. But it can also be quite arduous. Most treks climb many thousands of feet to altitudes we aren’t used to, altitudes that slow us down, make our breath come in short pants and our limbs feel heavy. To acclimatise to these altitudes trekkers should climb slowly, no more than 1,000 feet/900 metres a day once above 12 to 14,000feet/3600 to 4200 metres. Paths can be rough and rocky and steep, climbing seemingly endlessly to distant passes. Slowly you put one foot in front of the other, concentrating on the dramatic scenery rather than the effort of walking. At other times you drift along gentle trails beside swirling torrents and through majestic forests. At some camps you stay for two nights allowing time to rest or explore local villages and valleys.

Whatever the nature of a trek it is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the culture and landscape of very different countries. Go with an open mind and respect for the local people and trekking can be an enlightening, inspiring experience.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Pacific Northwest Trail Talk

On October 20th I'm giving an illustrated talk on my Pacific Northwest Trail walk for Tiso's in Inverness. The talk is at the Millburn Academy at 7.30 and tickets are £8. Profits go to local mountain rescue teams. Details here.

The picture was taken in Glacier National Park not far from the start of the trail.

Monday 3 October 2011

A Wild, Wild Camp

Sometimes trusting the weather forecast works, sometimes it doesn’t. Last night it didn’t. Eventually. A window between gales was suggested, clearing evening skies then a starry night before the next storm blew in and the winds began to rise the next day. The forecast was six or seven hours out. Most people wouldn’t have noticed. Most people would have been asleep when the weather changed. As I was. Except that I was also in a tent in the mountains at 700 metres.

The trip had begun as expected. I set off up Glen Feshie in the Northern Cairngorms on a cloudy afternoon. After a short while I left the main path and cut across tussocks and heather to a great cleft in the hillside, the mouth of Coire Garbhlach, a twisting, secretive valley that cuts deep into the Moine Mhor plateau. This is a curious place for the Cairngorms where corries are usually wide open and spacious. As you follow the stream on a series of rough, faint deer tracks there is a feeling of entering another world, a narrow canyon with steep walls and shattered rock towers high on its sides, the sky just a slash of pale light far above. Soon the mouth has vanished and nowhere else seems to exist. Long and thin, the corrie keeps going, the stream crashing down in waterslides, falls and cascades.

Eventually the slopes became steeper and stonier and I realised I was unlikely to find a camp site anywhere ahead. Some slightly sloping tussocks would have to do. As I pitched the tent a gentle breeze wafted up the corrie while high above blue sky appeared and sunlight lit the upper slopes. Leaving camp I clambered up loose scree and greasy vegetation to view the big final waterfall, hidden in a narrow ravine. The light was fading as I descended back to camp, finding the slippery terrain more awkward than in ascent. Stars began to appear in the darkening sky and I sat in the tent door way eating supper and staring out at the wild world. Then I fell asleep gazing out at the Plough hanging above the hillside.

1 a.m. and the world began to change. I was woken by cold air hitting my face and the tent door flapping noisily. I zipped it shut and lay back down, aware that the wind was coming down the corrie in great roaring gusts that I heard seconds before they shook the tent. I slept again though as it was 4 a.m. when I next glanced at my watch and wondered if the tent would hold. Half-waking, half-sleeping I slipped uneasily through the next two hours. Then the wind strengthened and the tent shook more, hitting me in the face. The pole was bending alarmingly. Time to pack up. Not bothering with careful packing I bundled everything into the pack inside the tent so nothing blew away then ventured outside. A rush of wind nearly took my legs from under me. I’d thought maybe a tent peg or two had pulled out but they were all firm. Instead some guylines had slackened off, allowing the fabric to flap wildly. The tent looked solid though. It was my carbon fibre trekking pole holding it up that concerned me. Soon I had the tent down and crammed into the top of the pack. All this was done by headlamp as the night was black and the sky now overcast. With the wind behind me I stumbled and lurched through the rocks and tussocks, down and out of that wild, wild place as the sky slowly lightened, with just an edge of dirty red to some clouds to show the sun was there. Down in the glen the trees were thrashing in the wind. I was back at my car less than seventeen hours after setting off. It felt longer. Soon, though, I was eating breakfast in an Aviemore café, watching the leaves blowing and rattling down the street. A gust of 75mph was recorded on Cairn Gorm, ferries were cancelled and travel disrupted. It was not a day for the hills.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Out Now: The Backpacker's Handbook Fourth Edition

This autumn sees the publication of the fourth edition of The Backpacker’s Handbook. The first edition came out in 1991 so the book, to my surprise, is now twenty years old. I’ve extensively updated it for this new edition with information on new fabrics like cuben fibre and new developments like heat exchanger stoves, wood burning stoves and modern airbeds. The digital revolution is in there too with computer mapping, smartphones, GPS and digital photography plus social networking and blogs, none of which existed twenty years ago, or even, for much of it, six years ago when the third edition came out. When I wrote the first edition much more that we now take for granted didn’t exist either – flipping through it I see there was no merino wool, no Paramo or eVent waterproofs, no Primaloft, no quilts, no titanium gear, no LED lights, no GPS, no digital anything. Silnylon almost creeps in with just one mention of “elastomer silicone-coated” flysheets and Gore-Tex and Therm-A-Rest were well established though.
Of course whilst gear has changed enormously backpacking itself hasn’t. Gear is still the means not the end, or should be. When I think back to backpacking trips it’s not the sleeping bag or stove I used that first comes to mind but the wild land and nature and the pleasure in being out there. The purpose of my book is to enable others to enjoy this by finding equipment and techniques that work well so they can ignore them and get on with enjoying what it’s really about.
The Backpacker’s Handbook is published by Ragged Mountain Press. 

November 1st. The book is out and in the shops now.