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.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Northwest by Alex Nail: A Magnificent Book

The Northwest Highlands is one of my favourite regions. And if it wasn't it would be after seeing this wonderful book of spectacular, beautiful and mouth-watering photographs.

This isn't an objective review as I wrote the Foreword to the book, something I feel really honoured Alex Nail asked me to do, so I do have an interest in seeing it praised. I'd seen some of the text and many of the pictures before publication and knew it was going to be a great book. Even so I was still very impressed, not to say, stunned, when my complimentary copy arrived. Everything about the book is magnificent. The photo reproduction is tremendous and the whole book is beautifully produced. Deisgned and printed in the UK it's bound in premium cotton bookcloth.

Of course the heart of the book lies in the photographs and these are superb, by far the best collection of images of the Northwest Highlands I've ever seen. They cover the area from Loch Carron to Kylesku. They're not roadside or just fair weather images. Alex Nail ventured up the hills in all conditions at all times of the year, often camping on summits. Many of the pictures could only be taken by a mountaineer and backpacker.

In the Introduction Alex outlines his photographic philosophy. We'd discussed this in emails after he asked me to write the foreword and I'd found we had much in common. Last year I was sent two very different Scottish photography books to review. After perusing them I decided I wouldn't review either. I don't like giving other writers and photographers poor reviews and there were aspects of the books I really didn't like. One, consisting mostly of roadside shots (nothing wrong with that in itself though you can only touch on what an area's like) had barely a picture without a clear blue sky. Scotland is not like this! The other showed just where to plant your tripod to get the same picture. As well as stifling creativity (take your own pictures, not someone else's!) this can lead to over-use and all the problems that come with that. Alex's photography is not like that. There's only general information as to where the images were taken and every type of weather is shown. There are few clear blue skies. This is what the Northwest Highlands are really like.

Whilst the photographs make up the bulk of the book Alex also tells some of the stories behind taking them, showing just how challenging some of his days out. There's a particularly gripping one about a storm on a wintry An Teallach that had me tensing in my chair as I read it.

If you love top quality photography, mountains, and backpacking this book is highly recommended. Even more so, if you also love the NW Highlands. It's available direct from Alex Nail here.

Sunday 25 November 2018

Drifting mists & an insubstantial beauty

Some days at this time of year I look out of the window at grey skies and a dark landscape and wonder if it's worth going for a walk. It always is. There's always something to see and feel, even if it's just a skin numbing wind and sheets of rain and sleet. Sometimes it's more than that, much more. A recent day was like that. Unpromisingly dull and flat, it seemed. But as I wandered the fields and woods the mists hanging in the valley started to rise and fall, drifting amongst the trees. The world became magical. In the distance I caught glimpses of snow-spattered mountains, freed for brief seconds from their blanket of clouds.

Trees appeared and disappeared, sometimes seeming to float in the air, ethereal and unreal. The land was quiet. A flock of rooks sailed silently overhead. Rabbits raced for their burrows. The air was cold, damp, sharp, scraping the skin. But it was peaceful watching the mist, watching the world changing constantly. A quiet insubstantial beauty.

Wandering home I felt reluctant to go back inside and took a meandering route, seeking out pockets of mist. I was glad I'd gone outside. I always am.

Saturday 24 November 2018

Favourite Books?

A few weeks ago Robert Davidson of Sandstone Press (publishers of my last four books) took up a challenge to post the cover of a favourite book each day for a week without any comments and challenged me to do the same. I accepted though it took me nine days due to attending the Kendal Mountain Festival where the time just vanished.

Choosing the books was an interesting process. The first three that came into my head were all non-fiction so I decided to stick to that. But a work of fiction kept nagging at me and wouldn't go away so it appeared as the last one. I posted them in the order they came to me and that's how they are here.

I decided on only one book per author. In a longer list there'd be several by Colin Fletcher, Edward Abbey, Hamish Brown, Arthur Ransome and Richard Dawkins. All these books have had a big influence on my life at various times. I love them all.

Friday 23 November 2018

Classic Gear: Nikwax

Next in the Classic Gear series that first appeared in The Great Outdoors last year: boot wax!

Forty years ago a young hillwalker from Kent changed the way we treat walking boots forever. Until then the products available were designed to soften as well as waterproof leather. This was fine for heavy stiff mountaineering boots but made lighter walking boots too soft so they no longer supported the feet. Unhappy with this and being the inventive type Nick Brown came up with his own far superior product, the first non-softening waterproofing wax for leather boots. Others were soon interested and Nick began producing his wax commercially. Nick’s wax became Nikwax. Back then in 1977 there was no factory or production unit. The first Nikwax was made in a flat using a tea urn, Primus stove and materials from a hardware store. There was no sales team or marketing department either. Nick sold his wax directly, driving round Britain in a van and then round Europe via Inter Rail. 

The wax was poured into tins with lids silkscreened by Nick. To persuade retailers to stock this new wax he offered to put the shops name on the tin. Back then I was working in the YHA Adventure shop in Manchester and I remember those tins with YHA in big letters on the front. Whilst Nikwax in tins was around for decades this began to change in 2001 when Nick Brown developed a sponge applicator that fitted on the end of a tube. This meant Nikwax in a cream form could be applied from a tube, which was less messy and more efficient. Soon this was became the norm and the tins disappeared. No more rubbing the wax in with your fingers – the sponge did that for you.

Nick Brown with the first sponge applicator in 2001

Nikwax quickly became a big international success and Nick Brown turned his attention to outdoor clothing. Concerned about ozone depletion and aerosol use he wanted to find an environmentally-friendly way to make garments waterproof rather than spraying them with environmentally-damaging chemicals. Nikwax has maintained this green approach ever since, never using aerosols or PFCs, and has always campaigned for others to do the same. What Nick came up with was another first, a water-based product with no harmful solvents called Texnik. With this clothing could be reproofed in a washing machine. Teknik became TX.10 then TX.Direct and a whole range of wash-in products for different types of clothing. There was a spin-off too, called Paramo, but that’s another story.

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Today there is a wide range of Nikwax products, all based on the original wax and on Texnik. The company has won many awards over the years, becoming, in 2014, the first and so far only outdoor company to win the Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development. Nikwax received a Special TGO Award for Sustainability in the 2016 TGO Awards. 

Forty years on from Nick Brown mixing wax in his flat Nikwax is still helping walkers keep dry, prolonging the life of their footwear and clothing, and working to protect the environment.