Tuesday 31 May 2016

The Great Outdoors June issue - making plans, three-season sleeping bags, Wickiup 3 test

The June issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. I've written about the pleasures of planning long walks for my backpacking column and reviewed a dozen three-season sleeping bags plus the Nigor Wickiup 3 pyramid tent.

This issue has a theme of long trips with Ronald Turnbull visiting remoter YHA hostels in the Lake District on a five day walk; Ian Finch spending eleven days traversing the Outer Hebrides; and Mary-Ann Ochota trekking with camels for forty-three days across Australia's Simpson Desert. On somewhat shorter though no less interesting trips Will Renwick visits a cave with a political history in the hills above Merthyr Tydfil and Andrew Galloway spends the longest day of the year crossing the Carneddau in Snowdonia.

In his Mountain Magic column Carey Davies praises the Isle of Arran while in his Environment column Roger Smith looks at the problem of funding conservation projects. In the Hillwalkers' Library Jim Perrin describes a fascinating-sounding book that I must admit I'd never heard of before - Vivienne De Watteville's Speak to the Earth: Wanderings and Reflections among Elephants and Mountains. Great title!

The Hill Skills pages are all about navigation while in the gear pages as well as my reviews Judy Armstrong tries six women's lightweight base layers.

Monday 30 May 2016

Keen Versatrail trail shoes reviewed for The Great Outdoors

Just before heading off on the TGO Challenge I reviewed the new Keen Versatrail shoes in my column on the TGO website. You can read my review here.

Saturday 28 May 2016

TGO Challenge completed

After twelve days and some two hundred miles I arrived in Montrose and my sixteenth TGO Challenge was over. Now I'm thinking back over the journey - the places, the people, the wild camps, the wildlife. It always takes time to absorb a long trip and I know that memories will come and go over the weeks and months ahead.

The weather dominated the walk from Spean Bridge as the calm and quiet changed to dramatic and unpredictable. The wind strengthened and became cold and northerly, bringing heavy showers, sometimes of hail. The rivers were roaring and waterfalls spectacular. I walked into Braemar in heavy rain and over Jocks Road in shifting mists with the ground sodden. The path down into Glen Doll was running with water. My camp in that glen above the forest was the most spectacular of the walk as the rocky hills rose into dark clouds and water crashed down every ravine and cliff. The last two days were dry but the wind was bitterly cold and very strong. I hadn't expected to be walking in hat, gloves, insulated jacket in late May. My last camp was on a tiny shelf just below the tops, partly sheltered but still blustery. 

Then it was the final road to Montrose and the Park Hotel and two days of old friends and new, a sharing of experiences and love of backpacking and wild places that is one of the things that makes the Challenge so special. I'll be back. 

There'll be a further report with more photos once I'm home and have downloaded them from my cameras. The pictures posted so far are from my phone.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

TGO Challenge 2016 So Far

In Spean Bridge in the rain after four days from Morar. Beautiful sunshine along Loch Morar and a fine camp. Then cloudier weather across the hills to here. Forecast for stormy weather to come - just when I should be crossing the Cairngorms. Whatever the weather it's good to be out for an extended trip again.

Friday 13 May 2016

The Munros & Tops Twentieth Anniversary

Two decades ago I was preparing for one of the toughest long-distance walks I've ever done, a round of the Munros and their subsidiary Tops. I'd been inspired to start Munro bagging by Hamish Brown's account of the first ever continuous walk over all the Munros, Hamish's Mountain Walk, and had completed my first round in a series of backpacking trips. It was years later though before I felt confident enough to attempt the Munros in one walk and when I did I decided to add the Tops as well to make it a little more interesting and challenging. At the time no-one else had done this.

Linking 517 summits made for a route that looked like a jumble of string on the maps. On the ground it meant I couldn't take low level routes in bad weather. This wasn't a walk from A to B. I had to join those 517 dots. That made for some strenuous and exciting days.

Looking back now the first memories that come to mind are of the many wild camps - above a cloud inversion on Glas Maol, watching a brillian red sunset from the slopes of Seana Bhraigh - , of days of sunshine on the Grey Corries, Mamores and Ben Nevis, and days of storm on Bidean nam Bian, the Cairngorms and the Blackmount. Mostly though I remember the joy of being out in the hills for months on end.

In the twenty years that have passed since that walk I've never tired of the Scottish hills or long-distance walks. Indeed, I'm about to head off on the TGO Challenge and cross the Highlands from coast to coast. I'll be climbing some Munros along the way.

The Munros and Tops, my illustrated book on the walk, published by Mainstream, is still available if anyone is interested in reading some more about my trip.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Berghaus's enviromentally friendly clothing

Berghaus has expanded its range of environmentally friendly clothing (I tried one of the shirts last year). I've written about it on the TGO website here.

A Talk on Out There at the St Andrews Nature Weekend on May 28

On May 28 I'm giving a talk based on my book Out There at Waterstone's in St Andrews as part of the St Andrews Nature Weekend. More details here.

Saturday 7 May 2016

Choosing A Wild Camp Site

Where possible choose a site with a view

Having seen a number of comments and queries about wild camp sites in various places on the web I thought I'd post this piece, which first appeared in The Great Outdoors a couple of years ago.

Faced with a mass of boggy tussocks on a steep hillside or mounds of bushes on a forest floor it can be hard to find somewhere comfortable to camp. Where is that nice patch of short grass you need? At the end of a long day when your feet need a rest and the pack seems to have doubled in weight it can be tempting to just stop and pitch the tent anywhere. The result though is often disturbed sleep as you twist and turn trying to get comfortable on bumpy ground. Yet good sites can be found in most terrain if you look carefully. Of course the first thing many people think of for a wild site is a great view. However comfort and, in stormy weather, shelter should come first in my opinion. That beautiful vista won’t looks so good if you’ve slept badly or spent half the night hoping the tent wouldn’t blow down. Here are some tips for finding a good site.

There was no flat ground round this loch but by searching I found a flat dry area on a terrace well above the water
1.    Take your time. If a smooth perfect pitch appears at your feet fine. That’s rare though. Scouting round an area can often come up with a good site. To make this easier take off your pack so you’re not thinking more about getting the load off your shoulders than finding a site. 

2.      Survey the area from above if possible. Before you descend into a valley or hollow stop and scan it for possible sites. Often patches of paler vegetation can mark grass rather than heather or peat bog. If you have binoculars use these to look more closely at possible sites.

3.      Check the flatness of a potential site. If it’s dry lie down and see how it feels. If wet, walk round it and view it from every side. A slight slope is bearable – most people prefer their head on the uphill side. You only need a flat enough area to sleep on, bumps and dips elsewhere don’t matter. You do need to ensure the tent is pitched just right when there’s only a small flat area though.

Amongst some very boggy terrain the driest ground was on this small island.
4.      Make sure the site is fairly well-drained. Does the ground squelch and ooze water when you press your foot on it? If so I’d look for somewhere drier. A slight slope is better than sleeping in a bog that could overflow into your tent if it rains. Camping on damp ground also leads to more condensation inside the tent.

Camping above this lochan-filled hollow was warmer than camping in it.

 5.      Hollows can provide good shelter but may also trap water. They also act as cold sinks. A flat terrace a little way up the sides can be drier and warmer than a camp in the bottom of a hollow. The same applies to narrow stream valleys.

6.      In really wet weather when all flat ground is saturated the tops of little knolls can provide reasonably dry sites. Prospect a few to see if there’s room for your tent.

7.      If there’s a wind pitch the tent so that the door is away from the wind.

On a very windy day a little searching found this flat site sheletred by trees and banks of heather and blaeberry
8.      In strong winds look for shelter for a quieter and more secure camp. Grassy banks and little crags can keep off most of the wind. If there’s a forest in sight that can provide a really calm camp. I’d rather walk a bit further for a sheltered site than stop and have a disturbed night.

9.      If midges rather than wind is the problem go uphill and look for a breezy site to keep them off.

This bank was high enough above the stream to ensure there was no danger of flooding
10.  Camping by water is convenient but check there’s no chance of a rising stream flooding your camp. If you have ample water containers you have more flexibility in where you camp. Often the best and most scenic camps are away from water. Sometimes steep or boggy banks may mean there are no sites anywhere near a lake or stream anyway.

A sheltered forest site
11.  In forests look up to see if there are any dead branches above a prospective site. Check there are no dead trees leaning towards you too. A strong wind could bring them down.

Avoiding camping on snow
12.  If there are still snow patches on the hills it’s always warmer and drier to avoid them and camp on dry ground.

Talk at Dunblane Library

Next Tuesday, May 10th, I'm giving an illustrated talk about my book Out There at Dunblane Library as part of the Off The Page Book Festival. More details here.

I'll be showing photos from some of the trips described in the book and talking about those adventures, the people and books who inspired me, and the importance of wild places.

Friday 6 May 2016

Latest reviews of Out There.

I'm delighted with two more positive reviews of my latest book.

In Geographical magazine Laura Cole writes:

'a thoughtful, challenging and vital experience of being outside'

'a singular celebration of wild spaces.'

While in Outdoor Enthusiast (page 54) David Lintern says:

'the tone here is enthusiastic yet calm and clear-sighted, conversational but never cold'.

'the voice of experience, and it's one we should listen to.'

Thursday 5 May 2016

Harvey Ultramaps reviewed for TGO

Harvey has launched a new series of mini maps called Ultramap. I've been looking at the Cairn Gorm one and have reviewed it for my column on the TGO website. You can read my thoughts here.

Twenty-Five Years of The Backpacker's Handbook

Somewhat to my surprise I've realised that this year is the 25th anniversary of the first edition of The Backpacker's Handbook. Perhaps even more surprising it's still in print. First published by long gone Oxford Illustrated Press it was quickly taken up by Ragged Mountain Press, a new imprint of McGraw-Hill. The current edition is the fourth published by McGraw-Hill. There's also been a Chinese edition, making six in all.

Looking through that first edition I see I was already in favour of trail shoes but not as convinced they were suitable for most conditions as I am now. I recommended using a staff but said that this was not an item most backpackers would consider using - trekking poles didn't appear until the second edition in 1997. For packs I suggested ones in the 90-115 litre size range that all weighed 2.5 to 3.5kg. I'd only use a pack like that for heavy winter loads now. I thought a solo tent shouldn't weigh more than 2kg - silnylon hadn't yet appeared and cuben fibre was in the distant future. The total weight of a summer load including footwear, clothing and maps I said would be around 12kg.

The gear may have changed over the years but the essential message of the book, the how and why of backpacking, hasn't. When it comes down to it the gear doesn't matter as long as it does its job. What matters is being out there, in the wild, under the stars, on the trail. My intention was to help people to do that enjoyably and with the least hassle not to tell them what tent to use or pack to carry. That the book is still available means, I hope, that I have succeeded at least to some extent.

Monday 2 May 2016

Walking Man: the biography of Colin Fletcher

Robert Wehrman's long awaited biography of my favourite outdoor writer Colin Fletcher is to be published very soon, probably late June/early July. Robert has sent me the cover - I'm honoured to be quoted on it. This is one book I'm really looking forward to reading.

For those wondering who Colin Fletcher is I wrote about him here.