Thursday, 13 June 2019

Contrasts on the TGO Challenge

Day 3. On Gulvain. Hot and dry.

Day 9. On Leathad an Taobhain. Brief clearance. Cold, wet and misty.

On every long walk there are contrasts in the weather, the landscape, the terrain underfoot, the campsites and more. This is one of the joys. Nothing stays the same. Every day is different. Often the changes occur gradually, a merging that can be almost unoticeable until you realise how different the world has become. On this year's TGO Challenge crossing of the Scottish Highlands it was the opposite. Changes in weather, underfoot terrain, and water were abrupt.

Day 6. A shrunken Loch Treig

At the end of the first week I walked into Dalwhinnie in hot dry weather, as it had been every previous day. At 9pm that evening the rain started. It rained all the next day, and frequently for the four after that. The first week I had dry feet every day, walking across crunchy dried-out bogs glad I'd chosen cool mesh trail shoes. The second week I had sodden feet every day and on two of them I wore waterproof socks to keep my feet warm. The first week burns were dry high up and trickles lower down. Reservoirs like Loch Ericht and Loch Treig showed huge waterless expanses. The second week I forded knee deep torrents and wondered at some camps whether the nearvy river would burst its banks.

Day 11. Glen Callater.

The change in the weather shows up in the number of photos I took - 325 in the first seven days, 100 in the last five. It also shows in the distance I walked, 138km to Dalwhinnie - 19.7km a day - and 169km from Dalwhinnie - 33.8km a day. Cold wet weather keeps you moving! There were times in the first week when I just sat on the hillside and watched the world, sometimes for half an hour or more. I never did that the second week. Stops then were just long enough to munch a snack and gulp some water.

Day 3. Gulvain. A hot thirsty climb.

The second week wasn't just slogging head down through the rain seeing little though. Stormy weather has rewards - dramatic cloudscapes, rainbows, waterfalls, mysterious mists. Contrast is good. It all adds to the pleasure of walking.

Day 12. Rainbow over the east coast.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

TGO Challenge 2019: The Gear

Every year I’m asked for advice on gear for the TGO Challenge and on what weather to expect. Both are impossible questions to answer. May is an awkward month in the Scottish Highlands. It might be hot and sunny, it might be cold and wet. There might be deep snow, there might be frosty nights, there might be big storms. It might stay calm. I don’t make a final decision until the day before I leave. This year I had an ice axe on my tentative list (in my head, nothing written down) until a few days before setting out as there was still much snow in the hills. Then the weather changed to hot and sunny and the ice axe was replaced by sunglasses and sunhat.

For the first week it stayed hot and dry. Most of my clothing stayed in the pack. Then the weather changed again and I had six days of rain and cold. 

My gear this year was a mix of well-used favourite items (too well-used in some cases as they barely lasted the trip), newer maybe-to-become-favourite items, and some new never-used items. The total weight FSO (from the skin out) was about 12.5 kg. Around 4.5kg was usually not in the pack (shoes, clothes, poles, cameras) so my basic pack weight was about 8kg. 

Here’s a brief rundown of the gear. All the photos were taken on the walk.


The Gossamer Gear Mariposa had proved comfortable on the GR5 in the Alps last autumn and I really like the design and the light weight, just 945 grams, so it was my choice for the Challenge. It was fine again until a few days from the end when one of the top tension straps ripped out. The pack still carried okay but with rather more weight on my shoulders than I like. I’ll send it to Scottish Mountain Gear for repair. 

I knew from thunderstorms in the Alps that the Mariposa isn’t at all waterproof so sensitive items were packed in Lifesystems and Exped dry bags. Everything stayed dry.


The Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar has been my favourite shelter for many years now. It’s been on several multi-week walks, previous Challenges, and many shorter trips. I’ve slept in it on over 150 nights and it’s still in good condition. On this Challenge I was pleased that there was no leakage in heavy rain, showing that my seam sealing when it was new is still fine.

For a groundsheet I used the Luxe Tyvek Ultralight Footprint I’d used on my Yosemite to Death Valley and GR5 Alps walks. By the end of the walk when I was pitching on very wet ground it was leaking a little. It also stinks again, the smell it had after the GR5 having been removed by hanging it on the washing line for several weeks. I won’t use it again but for the weight and cost it’s been pretty good.

The combined weight of Trailstar, groundsheet, pegs and stuffsack was 767 grams. They lived in a side pocket of the Mariposa so I could pitch the shelter in the rain without opening the pack and pack everything up and close the pack under cover if it was still raining the next morning.

Sleeping Bag & Mat

With reviews of summer sleeping bags and mats coming up for The Great Outdoors I decided to take two test items that looked good. The sleeping bag was a Robens Couloir 250. This has 700 fill power down insulation and weighs 610 grams. And it has a centre zip, which I like. The men’s comfort rating is +3°C.  For me this is fairly accurate. I had two frosty nights when I needed to wear extra clothing but otherwise I was warm in just boxer shorts and t-shirt. Mostly nights were in the +5 to +8 range.

I liked the sleeping bag. I really loved the mat. This was a Sea to Summit Etherlight Xt Insulated mat and it’s amazingly comfortable. Once fully inflated it’s 10cm thick. Inside there’s a layer that reflects radiant heat and some Thermolite insulation. The weight is just 400 grams with another 54 grams for the pump stuffsack. 

Cooking & Water

Having used a Trail Designs meths/alcohol stove on every long trip for the last decade I thought I’d have a change and use a canister stove so I took the tiny 73 gram MSR Pocket Rocket 2. This boiled water fast and simmered well. I used it with a Jetboil Jetpower four-season mix 230-gram canister and the combination surprised me by lasting the whole trip. In the past a week is the most I’ve squeezed out of a canister this size. On frosty morning the stove worked well too, even though the canister had been left standing on the ground overnight. This applied even on the last morning when the canister was almost empty.

The rest of my cooking gear consisted of my very well-worn Evernew and MSR titanium pots, two spoons (alloy and titanium), a dishcloth, a Light My Fire FireSteel and a butane lighter (one I bought in Yosemite Valley at the start of my Yosemite to Death Valley walk – it did the GR5 too and still has a little gas left). With the pots the total weight was 320 grams.

For water I had an old GoLite 700ml wide-mouthed bottle, which was all I ever used during the day, and two 2-litre Platypus bottles for camp. Total weight 166 grams.


The Altra Lone Peak 4.0 Low Mesh shoes had proved superbly comfortable on the GR5 Alps walk so I took them on the Challenge even though they were quite worn. By the end the tread was pretty well gone and the cushioning midsole was collapsing. They just made it but wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t also brought a pair of Teva Terra Fi Lite sandals which I walked in on two of the hottest days and the last day, which was all on the road. The shoes weigh 682 grams, the sandals 584 grams.

In the shoes I mostly wore Darn Tough ¼ Cushion socks. These were comfortable but wearing very thin in places by the end of the walk. I also had a pair of Darn Tough Light Hiking socks (62 grams), which I only wore for sleeping on the coldest night, and Bridgedale StormSocks (136 grams), which I wore on the wettest, coldest day near the end of the walk to keep my feet warm in sodden shoes and also slipped on with the sandals around camp when the ground was wet. 


Every day I wore Mammut Runbold trousers (310 grams), the same ones I’d worn on the GR5, and a Paramo Katmai Light shirt (207 grams), a new version as my very old and well-worn one only just survived the GR5. Both trousers and shirts were fine. My underwear was a test pair of Saxx Boxer Briefs

On the colder second half of the walk I wore a new Smartwool Merino 150 Graphic Tee (97 grams) under the Katmai shirt, a combination that worked well. I also wore the merino t-shirt for sleeping in on cold nights along with a pair of SubZero Merino Base Layer Leggings. If the weather had been any colder I’d have worn the latter under the trousers when walking. 

My windshirt was the same Patagonia Houdini (102 grams) one I’d worn in the Alps. It didn’t get as much use on the Challenge as the weather was either too warm or too wet but I was glad I had it with me.

For warmwear I had the Berghaus Vapourlight Hypertherm Hoody (224g), a favourite insulated top that was with me on the Yosemite-Death Valley and GR5 walks.  I wasn’t sure it would be quite warm enough if the weather was really cold so I also took the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody (260 grams), which weighs a bit more but which is much warmer. The Micro Puff Hoody became a favourite over last winter. As there was no really cold weather I didn’t really need it but it was nice to wear on cooler mornings and evenings. Mostly I just used it as a pillow.

For the first week I didn’t even see my waterproofs as they sank down into the depths of my pack. Then the rain came down and I was wearing them often, twice from dawn until dusk, during the last week. My jacket was a Columbia OutDry Ex Featherweight (235 grams), an unusual garment that worked well though the hood could be better. I’ve reviewed it for The Great Outdoors here. My overtrousers were the ultralight Montane Minimus (147 grams), made from Pertex Shield, which also worked fine.

I don’t often wear gloves in May but just in case my hands got cold I took the Rab Xenon gloves (52 grams) I’d found excellent over the winter. I did need them on the coldest wettest day. They kept my hands warm but I did discover they were awkward to pull on when sodden as the lining stuck to my hands.

I ended up taking three hats, too many really, especially as I had four jackets with hoods! My head was not going to get cold. The hat I wore most though was for the heat rather than the cold, the Tilley Hiker Hat (119 grams) I’d worn on the GR5. It’s excellent. For warmth I had a Buff (34 grams) that was specially made for the 35th Challenge in 2014 which I wore as a hat under my waterproof hood and a Smartwool Beanie (56 grams) that’s now over a decade old and which has been on many long walks.

Trekking Poles

As always, I took Pacerpoles, the Dual Lock ones (590 grams) I’d used on the GR5. As usual they were excellent, both for walking and acting as poles for the Trailstar.

Everything Else

For light I took Petzl Actik and e+Lite headlamps, which I used occasionally in the evenings in camp. They weighed 119 grams.

My printer packing in a few days before the trip I ended up taking all the 1:50,000 OS maps for the route, a weight of 500 grams. I should have checked the printer earlier! Much lighter was my Silva Ranger compass at 34 grams. I also had all the OS maps on ViewRanger on my Samsung Galaxy S7 phone. With a case it weighed 195 grams.

A test item was a Spot X 2-Way Satellite Messenger (190 grams). This turned up late, having arrived from Ireland via the Swedish Security Services in Stockholm, and meant I lost a day from my Challenge schedule and had some long days to catch up. I had mixed success with the Spot X. There’ll be a report soon.

For an account of the trip I took one of my usual Alwych All Weather notebooks plus two pens with waterproof ink. Total weight with an Aloksak bag was 175 grams. My two pairs of reading glasses weighed more at 195 grams. 

For entertainment in camp and on dull road walks I had a Kindle Paperwhite – 292 grams with padded case. I read several books during the walk but the one that stayed in my mind is Robert Macfarlane’s superb Underland

Other items were Kestrel 4500 Weather Station, Fox 40 Classic Whistle, Leatherman Micro tool, LifeSystems Light & Dry Pro First Aid Kit, repair kit, Matrix X watch, sunscreen, wash kit, toilet paper, and Salomon Fury dark glasses. Combined these weighed 835 grams.

As I’d agreed to take part in a survey of tech on the Challenge for Northumbria University I also had a Xiaomi MiBand 3 fitness tracker which I wore day and night the whole walk. I have no idea what the data it recorded will say! 


My camera gear consisted of the Sony a6000 and NEX 7 cameras with Sony E 10-18mm and 18-135mm lenses in Billingham 72 and ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 10 padded bags, plus my now rather battered Velbon V-Pod tripod. The total weight, with a few memory cards and spare batteries, was 2.5kg.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

GR5 Through the Alps Photo Gallery

Dents Blanche

On my GR5 walk through the Alps on last autumn I took over 1500 photos. I've been sorting through them on and off ever since I returned home. Eight of them appear in the current issue of The Great Outdoors along with an account of the walk, as I described in this post. Here are ten that didn't make it into the magazine.

Le Giffre Torrent

Cascade de la Sauffaz

Paraglider in the Chamonix valley

Aiguille Vert

On the descent to Landry

Lac de Grattaleu

Late afternoon sun, Vanoise National Park

Pics del a Font Sancte

Castel Gineste

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Update: Good news - the scheme has been suspended after the outcry. Wild camping by permission of the government?

Wild camp in the Lake District National Park

Update June 6.

The outpouring of opposition to the scheme has led to the organisers suspending it. A rapid triumph! They say 'we are going to suspend our service and have a re-think about how we might revise it. We won’t describe any future version of our service as “wild camping” because for many of you that specifically means free and unplanned camping'. The last comment suggests they still don't grasp what wild camping actually is. The whole statement can be read on It's now the only thing left on the website other than the Countryside Code.

The organisers also say 'we also thought that running a booking scheme for entry-level wild campers, one that would provide them with the security and legitimacy that currently causes them concerns about camping wild, would be understood and welcome by the wider group.'  Firstly there was no mention of 'entry-level wild campers' until now and secondly maybe they should have consulted with 'the wider group' beforehand rather than assuming the scheme would be understood and welcomed.

So the scheme looks like coming back in some form or other, but not called wild camping and hopefully after consultation with actual wild campers and outdoor organisations. 

For more comment and information there are excellent pieces on MyOutdoors, whose investigative work on this is excellent, and by Alex Roddie on

And for beginners interested in wild camping there are plenty of resources already available, including on this website (search for 'wild camping'). Here are some links.

British Mountaineering Council

The Backpackers Club

Lake District National Park

Mountaineering Scotland

Camping on the Cairngorm Plateau

Late May saw the launch of a new government supported wild camping organisation that’s attracted the highest volume of negative comments, ridicule and downright anger from outdoors people on social media that I’ve ever seen. That’s because isn’t really a wild camping organisation at all. Not when it offers exclusive rights to camp in specified spots for a fee (quite a high fee, £20+). Once you pay to camp on a site it’s not wild camping. And when you look at the sites on offer it’s obvious they’re just basic or primitive camp sites. And not always that basic – one offers a toilet, showers, firewood to buy, and ‘a fantastic bar in a yurt for evening entertainment’.  The lead picture for the website shows a camp high in the hills. The four sites so far available are all valley ones close to roads and facilities. 

Calling this wild camping is a nonsense. UKwildcamp is deceptive in other ways too. For a start it should be England/Waleswildcamp as its basic premise, that wild camping is illegal, doesn’t apply in Scotland. UKwildcamp also act as though no-one wild camps in England and Wales and so what it’s doing is needed. This is, of course, rubbish, as the hundreds of people wild camping every week could tell them. But they don’t appear to have asked any real wild campers.  UKwildcamp says the launch at the House of Commons was ‘in the presence of MPS, wild camping enthusiasts and friends’. Who were these ‘wild camping enthusiasts’? No-one I know knew anything about the scheme until it went public. As far as I’m aware no approach was made to the British Mountaineering Council or the Ramblers, the two representative bodies who could have given advice. 

Winter wild camp in the Lake District

While acting as though it’s doing a favour by making wild camping possible UKwildcamp could do the opposite. Landowners are asked to suggest sites and take part of the fee. I suspect many will be only too glad to do so – it costs them nothing – and be happy to create a belief that you can only wild camp in certain spots and after paying a fee. Genuine wild campers might be put off – though I can’t see anything really being done to stop us as that would require wardens and patrols. But the possible precedent is worrying. 

The website says ‘wild camping is camping on the move. It’s the process of carrying what you need to endure a night out in the wild, and no more’. I agree with the first sentence. The second is incoherent  - ‘wild camping’ is a ‘process of carrying’? And suggesting wild camping is something to endure isn’t likely to attract many people. I  don’t ‘endure’ wild camping. I love it and enjoy every night out. Again the whole approach is nonsense and suggests those behind the scheme have no understanding of wild camping. Camping on the move is about freedom, about stopping when you want, camping where you like. Once you have fixed sites it’s not wild camping.

Wild camp in the Snowdonia National Park
UKwildcamp has pages and pages of terms and conditions, enough I’d have thought to put anybody off getting involved. Skimming through these I spotted this: ‘You should be aware that camping sites may be on land accessible by the general public. We cannot guarantee that members of the general public will not enter and cause damage to property and/or engage in criminal activity.’ Dear me! How about members of the general public may come and camp in the same area without paying a fee?

Wild camping is one of my passions and I’m all in favour of encouraging it, as I have through my writing for over forty years. But schemes like this are not the way to do it and are unnecessary as well as potentially damaging to real wild camping. Taking the freedom away, the joy of choosing where you go, where you camp, without any rules or regulations destroys the whole idea. 

I’ve spent hundreds of nights wild camping in England and Wales, including on a walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and have never had problems. It’s not a hard thing to do. Oddly, UKwildcamp has partnered with the Lake District National Park in promoting this scheme. I say oddly because the LDNP knows wild camping already takes place, saying ‘there is a tradition of wild camping in the Lake District’ and in fact has a page of advice on its website. So why support this scheme? Other than to make money – part of the fees go to the park – I have no idea.

Wild camp in the Lake District
The initial scheme is a pilot funded by DEFRA that runs until September and which hopes to attract up to 1000 campers to sites in national parks. I hope it fails and quickly disappears.  

UKwildcamp says ‘now it’s time to rewild our countryside with humans. People like you.’ You’re a bit late folks. We’re already out there. And have been for decades.

Some links. I first came across this invidious scheme in a good piece in The Guardian by Phoebe Smith. MyOutdoors did some investigative work for this useful report.
ild, and no more. Now it’s time to rewild our countryside with humans. People like you.