Tuesday 14 March 2017

Then & Now: Comparing Gear For Long Distance Walks

In the Tombstone Mountains on the Yukon walk

In 1990 I walked 1000 miles/1600km through the Yukon Territory from south to north. In 2013 I walked 700 miles/1200km along the Scottish Watershed. Both walks were in rough often boggy, often rocky country with few paths. In the Yukon my pack weight averaged 22-28kg, on the Scottish Watershed it was  12-18kg. Here I’ve looked at the gear I used for each walk and how it has changed.

In the Fannichs on the Scottish Watershed


Yukon: Vasque Summit leather boots weighing 3.5lbs/1.6kg that easily lasted the whole walk. I chose these boots because although I had already done much walking in trail shoes I wasn’t sure they’d stand up to the rugged terrain.

Watershed: Inov8 Terroc trail shoes weighing 1.5lbs/698 grams, less than half the weight of the Yukon boots. At the end of the walk the sole was quite worn down but the uppers were still in good condition. The Terrocs were far more comfortable than the boots. I wouldn’t go back to the latter.

Yukon walk gear


Yukon: Phoenix Phreeranger single-hoop solo tent with a PU coated outer weighing 4lbs/1.8kg. The tent coped well with strong winds, heavy rain and snow.

Watershed: Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, a shaped tarp, with an OookWorks mesh inner for a total weight of 1.16kg/2.5lbs. The Trailstar pitches with trekking poles, saving some weight, and is made from silnylon. The Trailstar is much roomier than the Phreeranger and very stable in strong winds.

Scottish Watershed gear


Yukon: Gregory Cassin 125 litre pack weighing 6.5lbs/2.9kg. Comfortable, huge and very heavy.

Watershed: Lightwave Ultrahike 60 litre pack weighing 2/7lbs/1.23kg. Comfortable, half the size, light.

Sleeping Bag:

Yukon: Mountain Equipment Lightline down bag weighing 2lbs 2.5oz/978 grams that kept me warm in temperatures down to -6°C

Watershed: Rab Infinity 300 down bag weighing 1lb 7oz/650 grams that kept me very warm down to +2°C.

Insulating Mat:

Yukon: Therm-A-Rest Ultra-Lite self-inflating mat weighing 17 ounces/482 grams. This kept me warm and lasted the whole trip.

Watershed: Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite Small airbed, weighing 8oz/230 grams. Not as warm as the Ultra-Lite but I wasn’t expecting sub zero temperatures.

Lunch stop on the Yukon walk


Yukon: MSR Whisperlite Internationale multi-fuel stove weighing 12oz/340 grams which I ran on Coleman Fuel and similar. I had two stainless pots also weighing 12oz/340 grams.

Watershed: Caldera Ti-Tri Inferno meths/solid fuel/wood stove weighing 8oz/225 grams which I mostly ran on meths. I had two titanium pots weighing 7.8oz/221 grams

Undercover kitchen on the Scottish Watershed

Trekking Poles/Staff:

Yukon: Tracks Chief of Staffs single aluminium staff weighing 1lb/454 grams.

Watershed: Pacerpole Carbon 3- section poles weighing 1lb 3oz/535 grams that doubled as poles for my shelter.

Waterproof Jacket:

Yukon: Craghoppers Cloudbreaker with polycotton outer and Sympatex lining weighing 1lb 9oz/709 grams.

Watershed: Rab Myriad Neoshell jacket weighing 15oz/430 grams. Both jackets provided the same protection and lasted the length of the walks.

In the Richardson Mountains on the Yukon walk

Comparing these major items from walks 23 years apart it’s noticeable that in all but one case the later items are lighter in weight. Why is this so? We didn’t try to carry heavy packs all those years ago! One of the major factors lies in materials development. Many lightweight materials that are now standard including silnylon and titanium either didn’t exist or were just appearing in 1990. Synthetic fabrics in general have become much lighter whilst maintaining their durability which has meant lighter clothing, lighter sleeping bag shells and, significantly, much lighter pack fabrics.

At the same time as materials were changing the ‘ultralight’ revolution started and with it the rise of small innovative cottage designers and manufacturers who experimented with new designs and materials to produce much lighter gear. This coincided with the rise of the Internet, which enabled these new companies to reach a large worldwide audience.

A wet start to the Scottish Watershed walk

Changes in hiking styles have also had an effect, in particular the growth in popularity of trekking poles. In 1990 using one staff was unusual. By 2000 many walkers were using pairs of trekking poles. And trekking poles meant that shelters with upright poles – ridge tents, pyramid tents, tarps – had a new lease of life having just about disappeared by 1990 after a decade of curved pole tents.

Lighter weight gear also means lower bulk gear and that in turn means packs can be smaller and lighter. On both the Yukon and Watershed walks I carried ten days food at times and had room in my packs. Everything I took on the Watershed walk would have performed well in the Yukon – indeed some of it would have performed better despite being lighter weight.

Comparing the items from these walks makes me very glad we have the gear of today, gear that is lighter yet just as functional as the gear from a quarter of a century ago.

This piece first appeared, in a slightly different version, in The Great Outdoors Summer Gear Guide last year.


  1. That first photo pack is like a fridge!

  2. Latest gear can be amazingly good for it's weight, but I'm wondering about the relative cost. Was it cheaper back then (allowing for inflation etc.)?

    1. I'm not sure if camera gear was cheaper back then - there's always been a huge range of prices - but day to day expenses are definitely cheaper. No buying film or paying for processing.

  3. Really interesting to see the difference in weight. I am an Officer in the British Army and we have seen equipment improve vastly over the past 10 years. But with that improvement in kit, we have sen the overall weight a soldier is expected to carry increase ten fold. One of the reasons for this is the increased protection that is required and the reduced level of risk that is accepted. Another reason is as kit gets lighter, it is tempting for people to carry more which defeats the point of having light weight equipment.

    I like the fact you double the use of your walking poles with the support for your shelter. Great idea.

    Carrying 10 days of rations is impressive. From the look of your photos, it looks like you live fairly comfortably on the road without carrying excess equipment.

  4. An informative and interesting comparison. I cut my hiking teeth well before the ultra-light movement (in the 70's) and to this day, remain a fan of the external frame backpack. My last long trek was the PCT in 2002, during which I used a homemade sleeping quilt (which worked well) & New Balance 804 trail runners (2 pair, but probably should have had 3).

    When I read new ultra-light gear reviews, I get excited about my next long (but lighter) trek!