Monday, 10 December 2018

Classic Gear: The MSR XGK Stove

The original MSR Stove as pictured in the 1973 MSR catalogue
Next in the Classic Gear series that first appeared in The Great Outdoors last year: a revolutionary stove design.

The remote burner stove with a fuel tank at the end of a long hose is now a standard design. Every stove company makes at least one and there are models that run on butane/propane canisters as well as liquid fuels like petrol and paraffin. These stoves are efficient and reliable, especially in cold weather.  However back in the 1970s they didn’t exist and burners sat on top of fuel tanks. Such stoves were okay for summer use and with small pots but weren’t that good in sub-zero temperatures or with big pots. 

This was all to change when a new company in Seattle called Mountain Safety Research (MSR) set out to design a more practical and efficient stove, in particular one that could easily melt snow when winter mountaineering. After much testing MSR worked out that a remote, pump pressurised fuel tank was the answer and in 1973 the original remote burner stove was launched, using a fuel bottle as the tank. Originally just called the MSR Stove, soon changed to the MSR Model 9, this stove revolutionised stove design, though it took a while for the idea to spread. The Model 9 ran on white gas such as Coleman Fuel plus unleaded and leaded petrol. Apparently meths could be used too ‘if the air inlets of the burner are mostly closed with foil’. It weighed 340 grams, which was very light for a liquid fuel stove.

The MSR Model G, introduced in 1978
Since 1973 MSR has continued to improve the stove. The Model G and Model GK stoves replaced the Model 9 in 1978 and had field-maintainable fuel-lines, a big breakthrough. The GK version could also burn paraffin, diesel and some aviation fuels as well as petrol. These two models were merged in 1982 as the X-GK.

The MSR XGK II Shaker Jet
The next major improvement was in 1994 when the Shaker Jet was introduced in the X-GK II. This involved putting a weighted needle in the jet that pushed any dirt out of the jet when the stove was shaken or moved but which didn’t interfere with fuel flow when the stove was in use. Before the Shaker Jet a jet pricker had to be used. This was a very fine wire needle on a piece of aluminium that had to be prodded into the jet to dislodge dirt if it became blocked. Jet prickers were awkward to use, especially with cold fingers and by torchlight, and easy to break or lose – I used to carry two or more and once had to resort to using a toothbrush bristle when I mislaid both. Jet prickers also pushed the dirt back into the fuel line from which it could rise up and again block the jet.

Today's MSR XGK EX
From the Model 9 to the X-GKII all the stoves had rigid metal fuel lines. These were tough and easy to clean but rather awkward to pack. In 2005 MSR changed this to a flexible line in a braided metal sheath. This makes packing the stove much easier and is still stiff enough for easy cleaning.
A significant extra advantage of MSR’s design was that because the burner was separate from the fuel tank it could be fully surrounded by a windshield. To this end MSR introduced the now ubiquitous lightweight and compact folding foil windscreen.

The XGK continues as a workhorse stove, ideal for melting masses of snow and boiling big pots of water. I used one regularly when I led ski backpacking trips and cooked for ten or more people at a time. I took one on my length of Scandinavia walk back in 1992 too as I didn’t know what fuel would be available along the way and I wanted a multi-fuel stove that would work with dirty fuels and was easy to clean. I ended up mostly using paraffin and needed to clean the fuel line every so often. The XCK never let me down on any of these trips. 

Whenever you use a remote burner stove remember MSR and the Model 9 and XGK. That’s where it began.

Friday, 7 December 2018

The Great Outdoors January issue

The results of the 2018 Great Outdoors Awards feature in the latest issue. They are split into the Readers' Awards (Campaigner of the Year and much more) and the Gear Awards, which were judged by a panel of five, of which I was one. We had long discussions over this and all the gear was tried out, making for a rigorous process.

To mark 40 years of The Great Outdoors we also selected 40 items for Special Awards to celebrate forty years of innovation. Choosing these made for an interesting and intense discussion.

In the gear pages I review eleven down jackets, the interesting Andrew Skurka designed Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor pack, and two smart watches. The last are part of a joint review with Alex Roddie and Daniel Neilson who also review two watches each.

The issue opens with a splendid Snowdonia sunset by Alex Nail, a picture that combines the warmth of the sun with the chill of a landscape covered in rime ice. There's also a review of Nail's splendid photographic book, Northwest, by David Lintern (you can read my thoughts here).

Away from books to films Alex Roddie reviews Final Ascent, a fascinating-sounding tribute to the great mountaineer, gear innovator, mountain rescue pioneer and author Hamish MacInnes.

On conservation matters Roger Smith looks at six current threats to the outdoors. The final one is about Cairn Gorm and this is covered in depth in an excellent article by Richard Baynes.

Up in the hills Jim Perrin praises Cader Idris, David Lintern celebrates the first snows on an overnight trip to the Beinn Dearg hills in the NW Highlands, Ronald Turnbull has an early start for a round of eight of the smaller hills around Borrowdale, and Roger Butler visits frozen Tryfan and the Glyderau.

There's also a fascinating interview with Hazel Strachan by Alan Rowan who accompanied her on the last summit of her tenth round of the Munros.

Finally, far to the north Phoebe Smith walks the Arctic Trail in Greenland, a route that sounds wonderful.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

If you're looking for an outdoor Christmas present....

My latest book or maybe one of my other books or a DVD.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Winter Returns To The Cairngorms

Cairn Lochan

After several weeks of mild weather that quickly swept away the snow of early November the high Cairngorms are white again and the air is crisp and cold.

With a forecast for calm weather and an upcoming couple of days sitting inside at John Muir Trust meetings I decided to go up to the Cairngorm Plateau and see the new snow for myself - I find a day in the hills immediately before JMT meetings focuses my mind and reminds me why sitting indoors at formal meetings is important. It's to help ensure that the hills and wild places are there in the future.

The sun rising over Cairn Lochan

Walking below the Northern Corries before starting my ascent up the west shoulder of Cairn Lochan I noticed the sun emerging hazily through thin clouds above the top of the Coire Lochain cliffs. It was 11.50 a.m. This was almost as high as the sun would rise. This low light gives a special quality to the mountains in deep winter, a feeling of the far north. It's a constant reminder that daylight is limited and must be cherished.

As I crossed from the brown lands to the white lands the world lightened. Without snow midwinter is a dark time. Looking down from the mouth of Coire Lochain I could see mist filling Strathspey, a grey dullness through which I'd driven earlier. From up here it looked fine.

Crossing the western shoulder of Cairn Lochan I gazed across the Lairig Ghru to Cairn Lochan and Sgor an Lochain Uaine. Clouds just brushed their summits. Braeriach and Ben Macdui were completely shrouded. I had thought of heading for the latter but the cloud dissuaded me. Instead I turned and headed up Cairn Lochan

A party of climbers were just packing up their ropes and other gear as I approached. Cornices overhung the snow-plastered cliffs. Facing north these crags receive no sunshine in winter and snow and ice builds up to great depths. Every year the patterns of snow are different and it's always interesting to see the complex forms they take.

Away from the steep rocks the snow was thin and patchy, blasted by the wind over the cliffs. Only in hollows and areas protected from the wind was there much depth. That made the walking easy across the broad gentle slopes.

On Stob Coire an t-Sneachda climbers were finishing routes, their ropes trailing down the mountainside. There was less snow here, more bare rock. I wandered round to the top of the Fiacaill a'Choire Chais. Looking back the top of Cairn Lochan had vanished into thickening clouds. The chill breeze was strengthening. The weather was changing.

The snow at the top of the descent was hard, packed down by the wind. I kicked the edges of my boots into the crisp surface. One foot slipped slightly. I stopped. Time for the ice axe. With it in hand I felt much more confident and was soon down on gentler slopes with softer snow.

As I reached home rain was starting to fall. The temperature was 2C. It'll be snow higher up. The hills will soon be different again. Winter has so much to offer.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Food on the GR5 trail through the Alps

A mix of food from an organic food store in Mondane

On long-distance walks I like to resupply as I go along. There are many reasons for this. One is that it's the easiest option and doesn't require packing and sending food boxes. Another is that I find it interesting to see what I find and end up eating. It becomes part of the adventure. And if there is something I don't like I just don't buy it again. Buying food as I go along also contributes to the local economy.

On the GR5 I had no idea what food suitable for backpacking I would find along the way. For the first few days I bought food at a supermarket in Geneva before catching the train to the start. The coffee and dried milk I bought then lasted almost the whole walk as small quantities weren't available. The muesli, granola bars, chocolate, trail mix, and pasta meals - my usual trail diet - were gone by day three.

My friend Lionel Morel at the Chalets de Bise

Amongst long-distance hikers in the USA there's a saying that you should never pass a cafe or shop without buying something to eat. That's because these are rare. If I'd done that on the first half of the GR5 I'd have been eating much of the time as I passed several restaurants every day. Earlier in the season that would have applied to the whole walk. Setting off as summer ended I found most of the mountain refuges, which operate as restaurants during the day, and even restaurants and shops in villages closed after mid-September.

Most days during the first two weeks I did stop at a restaurant once or twice, which meant I didn't need to carry much food.. Being vegetarian there were not many options and I mostly ate bread and cheese (and the varieties of the latter were amazing) or omelettes with cheese or mushrooms.

Dried meals commonly found in supermarkets and village stores in the UK and the USA like macaroni cheese or pasta & sauce were absent from most shops along the GR5. All I could find were pot noodles, two of which were needed to make a full meal. Some places I couldn't find even these and ended up with packet soups and bread as my evening meal.

A side trip to Chamonix on day 5 meant I could shop at outdoor stores as well as supermarkets. The former had specialist cook-in-the-pouch meals and small packets of muesli. I was not impressed with the taste of either - nor the high price!

Lac de Cristol

Tortillas and cheese at the Lac de Cristol

One of the joys of the generally good weather on the GR5 was having lunch outdoors with a superb view. Sometimes it was hard to start walking again.

In a few places there were picnic tables. At the one above in the cool of the woods I made a hot drink, nibbled raisins, and wrote my journal.

On day 21 I left Briancon with two to three days food, expecting to find restaurants and shops open in villages over the next week. Four days later I was rationing food as everywhere was closed. Some of the villages felt like ghost towns. Then I came to the tiny hamlet of Foullouise. I was not expecting anything to be open in such a small place and was not surprised when the gite and the bar/restaurant were closed. The guidebook didn't mention a shop so I was delighted when I came upon a little epicerie, especially as it was open.

The epicerie had limited supplies but enough for the next few days. Big packets of soup made two evening meals each with cheese added. Trail mix and chocolate did for lunch. The shop had no plain bread, crackers or biscuits, just a large panettone so that became my breakfast for several days. You have to be adaptable when buying food along the way!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

GR5 Through the Alps: The Gear

Eight days into my walk through the Alps on the GR5 I wrote a piece for The Great Outdoors about the gear I was using. At that time I'd had blazing sunshine, torrential rain, and four thunderstorms but no frosts and not much in the way of winds. In the following twenty-four days I had more storms, rain and sunshine, some frosty nights and some strong winds. In my feature I wrote that the trail was mostly steep and stony with much ascent and descent every day. It remained that way. For a late season walk like this I took a bit more gear than I would at the height of summer. When I wrote the TGO report I hadn't needed it. I soon did.

Here I’ve posted my first report with an update in italics as to how the gear performed for the rest of the trip. Much of the gear was well-used – some of it too much so!


Having been impressed with it on short trips earlier in the year I decided the Gossamer Gear Mariposa would be just right for this trip. It's comfortable with loads up to 15kg, more than I expect to carry, but only weighs 945g. I love the huge front and side pockets which contain everything I might need during the day. So far the pack has been fine, if a bit sweaty on hot days. 

The pack continued to feel fine, even when slightly overloaded with more food than I expected to carry in the second half of the walk. Most shops were closed so when I did find one I bought food for many days. 

Trekking Poles 

As always I'm using Pacerpoles and these have been as useful as ever on steep rough ground and essential for holding up my shelter. For the first time on a long walk I have the DuoLock ones which are much easier to adjust than the twistlocks. They weigh 570g but have only been carried on the pack for very short scrambles where I needed my hands (there are ladders and chains in some sections). 

The Pacerpoles continued to be essential. An item I’d never leave behind.


Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar has been my favourite for many years now and I returned to it for this trip. It's stood up to an hours deafening cloudburst followed by a night of heavy rain so although well-used it's still waterproof. With pegs and Luxe Outdoor Ultralight groundsheet the weight is 767 grams. 
The Trailstar stood up to much more rain plus some strong winds and always felt secure. It’s proved harder-wearing than I expected for such a light shelter. 

The groundsheet kept out water when I camped on very wet ground a few times. By the time I got home it stank, the first time I’ve had this happen. It must have been due to camping on cow pastures on many nights. Hanging it on the washing line for a few weeks removed the stench.


With a good chance of widely varying temperatures as autumn progresses I decided on the same PHD sleep system I used on my Yosemite to Death Valley walk exactly two years ago. This consists of the Minimus Ultra K and Filler K bags (combined weight 610g) and the Wafer K down jacket, trousers and socks (combined weight 447g). So far I've only needed the Ultra K bag as the lowest overnight temperature has only been 8°C.

The last two weeks of the walk overnight temperatures occasionally fell to -2° and were mostly below 7°C so I used either the Filler K bag inside the Ultra K  or the Wafer clothing if I’d been wearing it in camp. I never needed the clothing and both bags.

To sleep on I have the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite Short and an OMM DuoMat (combined weight 365g), also veterans of the Yosemite to Death Valley walk. 

Three days before the end of the walk an internal wall split on the XLite and one end began to swell up, though not so much as to render the mat unusable. This is the second XLite I’ve had where this has happened. I won’t use this mat again as more walls will probably split now. It was a well-used mat but I’m still a little disappointed and probably wouldn’t trust one on a long walk again. The weight is wonderful but I want reliability as well.


As on other long walks the one fuel I'm likely to find everywhere is meths, here called alcool a’bruler, so I'm again using the Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri set up though with the new Kojin burner as fuel can be stored in this and it's more efficient than the original drinks can burner. The total weight is 225g. My pots are my now thirty plus year old Evernew and MSR 0.9 litre and 0.6 litre titanium ones (220g). They refuse to wear out! 

For water I have my usual 2 2litre Platypus bottles (87g) and GoLite 750ml wide-mouth bottle (79g). Having realised how much I needed to drink in the heat and with water sources sometimes a long way apart - some streams are dry - I bought a 500 ml bottle of Evian water to supplement the GoLite. I don't like carrying water far in the Platypus bottles as it sloshes around. 

Knowing there would be cows around I have a Sawyer Mini Filter (47g). I've needed it too. The first four days I was really out of the sound of clanging cow bells. One night I needed earplugs to sleep. 

All my kitchen gear continued to be fine, though the older of my Platypus bottles sprang a leak not long after I returned home. I only used the Mini Filter a few more times.


Having been impressed with three generations of Altra’s Lone Peak trail shoes I'm wearing the 4.0 and they are proving excellent with good grip and cushioning. When wet they've dried fast. In the hottest weather I've worn them without socks. When cooler with Teko Light Cushion Mini Crew socks. For cold weather I have Darn Tough Light Hiking socks, which I haven't needed yet. 

The Lone Peak shoes still have much life in them after the trek. I never had sore feet or blisters. I reckon they’re the best long-distance hiking shoes I’ve ever worn. 

The last two weeks of the walk I wore the Light Hiking socks quite often. They were fine at the end of the walk. The much thinner Mini Crew ones had a few holes.


With temperatures warmer than expected I've mostly been walking in an old pair of Ronhill running shorts (79g) I chucked in at the last minute and the Paramo Katmai Light shirt (207g). The latter is nearly twenty years old and has been on my last three long distance walks. There are a few holes now and I reckon this is its last trip, which is a shame as it’s superb. I love the big pockets with Velcro closures - no fiddly buttons - and the wide easy to roll up sleeves. The silky fabric feels great and dries really fast. Best hiking shirt I've ever used. 

The Ronhill shorts started to rub so I replace them with a cheap pair bought in an end-of-summer sale in Chamonix. These were a bit longer and heavier than I’d have liked but otherwise proved comfortable and tough.

The Katmai shirt just made it to the end of the walk though by then it looked very disreputable with several long tears and split seams. I’m hoping it can be repaired as Paramo don’t make it anymore.

For camp and cooler weather I have Mammut Runbold trousers (310g), which are stretchy and comfortable, and a Patagonia Houdini windproof (111g). So far I've hardly worn them. 

Both of these were worn during the cooler, windier weather of the last three weeks, especially the Houdini, and both proved comfortable and efficient.

I have worn my Berghaus VapourLight HyperTherm Hoody (224g) in camp on cool mornings and evenings and occasionally on breezy cols. It's amazingly warm for the weight. Of course if it gets really cold I have the PHD down clothing as well. 

Later in the walk it was occasionally cold enough to walk in the HyperTherm and I needed the Wafer jacket over it at the coldest camps. The combination works really well.

On the basis that big autumn storms were a possibility I didn't go for the most minimalist waterproofs, just ultralight ones. My jacket is the OMM Aether eVent (235g), my overtrousers the Montane Minimus (153g). They've been worn just once and only for a few hours but as that was during a torrential thunderstorm they were really needed. I'll be happy not to wear them again but if I do I know they'll cope with big storms. 

I did have to wear both again, and for many hours at a time during prolonged rain. Both worked well. On one very cold windy day I wore them over the Houdini shirt and the Runbold trousers for extra wind protection. Breathability of both was excellent.

Other clothing for cool weather consists of my 20 year old merino Smartwool Beanie (56g), which I've worn in camp a few times, plus Sealskinz liner gloves (52g), an ultralight Black Diamond wool/nylon t-shirt (97g), which is on test and won't be available until next spring, and SubZero wool long johns (144g), which I could wear under the Mammut or Montane trousers in cold and stormy weather.

The Smartwool Beanie saw much use during the second half of the walk, while walking as well as in camp. I wore the Black Diamond t-shirt under the Katmai shirt on a few stormy days too. I never wore the gloves or the long johns.

One essential item of clothing is my Tilley Hiker Hat (119g). It keeps the sun off and when soaked in water helps keep me cool. I've worn a Tilley Hat on every little long walk since 1990. I can't imagine being without one. 

The Tilley Hat also kept off rain when it wasn’t very windy later in the walk. In strong winds it wouldn't stay on though.


I have two test devices with me. The Land Rover Explore smartphone (161g) and the Casio Pro Trek watch (79g). The first, as you'd expect, is rugged and tough. There's no need for a case and it has matt ridged edges that make it secure to hold. As a smartphone it's performance is ok and it has a number of extras useful in the outdoors. I'll do a full review after the walk. I'm using it with ViewRanger - I have the route on 1:25,000 maps - and it works well. The Explore comes with an Adventure Pack that attaches by magnets - no cables required. This is a 3620 mAh power pack with GPS booster. I like the magnetic attachment but it weighs 198g, making a 359g unit that is quite bulky and noticeable in a shirt pocket. The power doesn't last that long either, which may be down to the GPS booster. The latter makes no difference as far as I can tell.

The Pro Trek watch has a nice big face that's easy to read. It does all sorts of amazing things but using them means the battery runs down in less than a day. Again there'll be a full review after the walk. 

Both items continued to work fine. I reviewed them for The Great Outdoors – Land Rover Explore here and Casio Pro Trek here.


Other items include the Cicerone GR 5 Trail guidebook (not weighed, not light!), Petzl Actik and e-Lite headlamps, first aid kit, repair kit, notebook, Kestrel Weather Station, Kindle, sunglasses, reading glasses, and other odds and ends totalling around 800g.

Total weight

All this comes to around 10kg, to which must be added another 2kg of camera gear - 2 bodies, 2 lenses, ultralight tripod, camera bags. I reckon with several days of food and a few litres of water my pack weighed 16-17kg at its heaviest.