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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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