Friday 31 August 2018

Off through the Alps on the GR5 after summer plans go awry

If my plans for the summer had worked out, by now I would be approaching the half way point on the Colorado Trail in the Rocky Mountains. As it is I'm planning on setting out on the GR5 trail through the French Alps next week. Events and circumstances have conspired to make me change my plans. Firstly the dreadful fires in Colorado earlier in the summer, which closed sections of the Colorado Trail, meant I didn't book flights as early as I'd intended as I didn't know if the trail would open again this year (it has). This turned out to be fortuitous for me as some minor ailments meant a round of health appointments, blood tests and X-rays. By the time I had clearance for a long walk it was getting a bit late for the Colorado Trail. A shorter one seemed a good idea. I also thought it wise to go somewhere easier to retreat from, not so expensive to reach, and where I wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't complete the route. Europe rather than North America.

I'd always thought that one day I'd do a long walk in the Alps and this looked like the right opportunity. A two week autumn walk many years ago on the Tour du Queyras is the sum of my Alpine walking experience. A quick bit of research (the web makes this so easy!) and I decided on the GR5. I haven't done much planning yet but it looks the sort of route where this isn't needed. I'll find out! I am planning on camping the whole way (I gather I may have to use a hut for one night in the Vanoise National Park) and treating the walk as I would one in a remoter area.

Connections permitting I'll be posting updates here and on social media and longer pieces once I'm back in early October.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Classic Gear: Therm-A-Rest

Camp on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982, my Therm-A-Rest in the foreground

Fourth in the Classic Gear series that appeared in The Great Outdoors last year. This time, a mattress that revolutionised sleeping comfort.

Back in the 1970s, when I began backpacking, sleeping mats were all closed cell foam. These were bulky and not very comfortable but also nearly indestructible and good insulators. Bright yellow ones – the ubiquitous Karrimat – could be seen strapped on every backpackers pack. However the same decade saw change coming from far away Seattle in the Pacific Northwest, where, in 1971, climber John Burroughs suggested to two mountaineering friends that he’d like a better mat. At the time engineers Jim Lea and Neil Anderson had just been made redundant so they were able and keen to take up this idea.

Therm-A-Rest prototype in sandwich maker

The breakthrough that would lead to the first ever self-inflating mat came when Jim Lea was gardening and noticed that the foam cushion he was kneeling on let air out when he shifted his weight. Seal that foam in an airtight fabric and you’d have a comfortable mat he realised. To make a prototype he and Anderson used a sandwich maker to melt the fabric onto the foam. They then added a valve so the air could be sealed in and squeezed out and their first mini mat was complete. 

First series Therm-A-Rest
Further work improved and refined the design, which was patented in 1972. Two years later production began under the name of their new company, Cascade Designs, founded by Burroughs, Lea and Anderson. 

As with many innovative products in those pre-Internet days knowledge of the Therm-A-Rest mat was slow to spread and it didn’t arrive in the UK until the end of the 1970s. In the 1980s it became popular worldwide however. A manufacturing plant was opened in Ireland in 1984. In the beginning there was just one model, simply called the Therm-A-Rest. It was 47 inches (119cms) long and weighed 1lb 7oz (652 grams). This was considerably heavier than a closed cell foam mat. However the difference in comfort was so great that I took one on my Pacific Crest Trail walk in 1982 and found it excellent. It lasted the whole trip, was very comfortable and kept me warm sleeping on snow in sub-zero temperatures at altitudes above 10,000 feet (3050 metres). I also liked the fact that when compressed it was compact and could be stored inside my pack rather than strapped on the outside. I used one again on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985. 

Early Therm-A-Rest advertisement

That first mat had a solid foam core, a plain nylon shell, a metal valve and a rectangular shape. Today the name Therm-A-Rest covers a whole family of mats in different weights and lengths that have cored foam, curved sides, different fabrics top and bottom, plastic valves, and different models for women and men. The closest to the original mat is probably the Prolite Plus. The 72 inch (183cms) Regular size weighs 592 grams. 

Today there are many companies making self-inflating mats and it’s difficult to realise just how revolutionary the first Therm-A-Rest was. All the current mats derive from that 1972 model though and from the ideas of a climber kneeling on a gardening cushion. Without Therm-A-Rest wild camping would be far less comfortable.

Friday 24 August 2018

Stoves I've used for long-distance walking over the decades - updated June 1, 2020

In the Grand Canyon on the Arizona Trail. Stove: Optimus Nova

Back in the spring I posted pieces about the packs and shelters I’ve used on long-distance walks. I’ve been meaning to follow these with ones on stoves, sleeping bags, footwear and more but it’s taken a while to find the time. Here’s the first of those: stoves.

Unlike with other items choosing a stove for a long-distance walk is partly dependent on an external factor – what fuel can you buy along the way. This has changed over the years but is still an important consideration. When I began backpacking in the 1970s the fuel choices were almost the same as today – cartridges, meths/alcohol, paraffin, and petrol/white gas. The big difference was that cartridges were butane only, which was less efficient, especially in the cold, than today’s butane/propane mixes. Cartridge stoves have another disadvantage, which remains today. Most can’t be easily repaired in the field. Combined with fuel availability that’s the reason I’ve only used cartridge stoves on one long-distance walk. As it is my stove choice has gone full circle from meths/alcohol ones through various petrol/paraffin pressure stoves with one diversion into cartridges and back to meths/alcohol.

My original Trangia
On my first long distance walks, the Pennine Way in 1976 and Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1978 I used a Trangia methylated spirits stove. I couldn’t find out if cartridges were available along the way (this was long before the Internet of course) and anyway didn’t like the cartridge stoves I’d tried. Petrol or paraffin pressure stoves were an option, but I’d never used one of these and was a little nervous of them. As it was, while heavy and bulky, the Trangia worked fine in all conditions. I still have it.

With the Svea123 on the Continental Divide Trail

For the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide walks in 1982 and 1985 I used a Svea 123 white gas stove, as this was the model recommended by Colin Fletcher in his superb The Complete Walker, which I read to learn about backpacking in the Western USA.  Alcohol stoves hadn’t yet caught on in the USA – that was to come two decades later – and general advice was that white gas in various forms – gasoline, Coleman Fuel, generic white gas – was the only fuel I’d find everywhere. The Svea, an upright brass tin can in appearance, worked well, once I’d got used to priming it with liquid fuel and realised I needed a separate windshield for strong winds, though using it with leaded petrol, which I did a few times, was always a little unnerving as it flared badly. 

In the Richardson Mountains in the Yukon Territory with the MSR Whisperlite

I stayed with white gas  but changed stoves for my 1988 Canadian Rockies and Yukon walks. MSR had brought out the Whisperlite Internationale, which was lighter than the Svea and came with an encircling windshield and a separate fuel tank attached by a long hose. Again it worked really well.

In the Jotunheimen on the Scandinavian Mountains Walk with the MSR X-GK

For my Scandinavian Mountains Walk in 1992 I changed to a different MSR stove, the X-GK II, because the only fuel available everywhere was paraffin in various forms and the X-GK ran well on this relatively dirty fuel and was easy to clean. Mostly I used lamp oil, a clean type of paraffin, but I did use some paraffin that smoked badly and clogged up the stove so being able to strip it down and clean it quickly was a boon.

All these stoves were quite heavy and I wanted something lighter for my next walk, the Munros and Tops, as this would involve a great deal of ascent. This was the first walk when I really tried to keep the overall weight down. I reckoned a cartridge stove would be okay in Scotland as it would be easy to replace if it failed and I’d manage for a few days on cold food if I had to. Cartridge stoves were a bit heavier than today back then but still very light compared to the stoves I had been using. I took one of the lightest then available, the Coleman Micro, a simple screw-in burner. The first one of these did fail. The second was fine. 

A chilly camp on the Arizona Trail with the Optimus Nova

I really liked the light weight and ease of use of a cartridge stove but the failure had confirmed my views that relying on one on a remote walk wasn’t a good idea so for the Arizona Trail in 2000 I went back to a pressure stove, the Optimus Nova. This was a bit easier to use than the MSR models, so I used it again on my 500-mile circular walk through the High Sierra two years later.

The Caldera Ti-Tri at a wet camp on the Pacific Northwest Trail

During the 2000s the ultralight backpacking movement took off in the USA and with it came a wealth of alcohol stoves made from drinks cans. People also realised that various forms of alcohol suitable for stove use could be found in hardware stores and gas stations and that this availability made it an excellent fuel for long-distance walks. I tried a few of these little stoves and really liked the Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri, which was like an ultralight version of the Trangia but could also be run on solid fuel tablets or natural fuel.  

In the NW Highlands on the Scottish Watershed with the Ti-Tri
In 2010 I took the Ti-Tri on the Pacific Northwest Trail and was so delighted with it that I used it on my next two long-distance walks, the Scottish Watershed and Yosemite Valley to Death Valley. I’ll almost certainly use it on the next one too, though with the new Kojin burner rather than the 12-10 one as the Kojin is more durable and can retain unused fuel. I think I’ve finally found the ideal stove for long-distance walks. 

Ti-Tri at a desert camp on the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk

Update, June 1, 2020. I did indeed use the Ti-Tri with the Kojin burner on my next long walk, the GR5 Through the Alps in 2018, and it performed really well. I didn't use it on my long walk the year after that though.

The Ti-Tri on the GR5

The summer I walked the GR5 in the Alps I had planned on hiking the Continental Divide Trail in the Southern Colorado Rockies, following the high route I'd been forced to abandon for a lower one due to snow on my CDT thru-hike in 1985. But wildfires meant much of the route was closed early in the summer so I changed plans and went to the Alps instead. Those wildfires also meant that stoves without on/off controls were banned. The Ti-Tri doesn't have an on/off control.

The MSR Pocket Rocket 2 in use in the Colorado Rockies

Last year late snow meant the Colorado Rockies were wet and wildfires were not a threat. However knowing regulations might ban stoves like the Ti-Tri if conditions changed I decided to take a gas canister stove, the little MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Since the only other time I'd used such a stove on a long walk, the Coleman Micro on the Munros and Tops walk in 1996, fuel efficiency had been improved enormously. In the Rockies I got eleven days out of a 250 gram canister. In 1996 it was around five days. The Pocket Rocket was much lighter than the Micro too. It worked really well.

For my next long walk? It depends!