Thursday 31 December 2020

Favourite New Outdoor Gear of 2020

Klattermusen Vanadis 2.0 jacket, Merrell Thermo Rogue boots, Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro, plus some old favourites - Lightwave Fastpack 50, Pacerpoles, & Grivel Helix ice axe.

Here are my favourite items of gear for 2020 after another year testing gear for The Great Outdoors. As in previous years they don't necessarily replace old favourites and they're in no particular order. More detailed reviews of some of the items can be found in my column on the TGO website, along with other reviews. (Note my column was suspended in March due to the pandemic so there are no reviews since then. It will return in the New Year). 


Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro 

My first new smartphone in over four years and the first one I've had that's waterproof and rugged and has a changeable battery. I reviewed it on this blog back in October and wrote "It's an excellent phone for the outdoors. I love not needing a case, not needing to treat it as fragile, and knowing I can swap the battery over if it runs out of power." Two months later and I'm still delighted with it. 









Rab Microlight Alpine

The latest version of Rab's excellent Microlight Alpine down jacket has a shell made from recycled fabric and, a first, a recycled down fill. It weighs 465 grams and is warm and comfortable.







Patagonia R1 Air Hoody

This is the best fleece I've tried for many years. Made from hollow core recycled polyester it has a unique zigzag pattern. It's very breathable, very warm for the weight (366 grams), and very comfortable. 

Merrell Thermo Rogue

These unusual boots have become my favourites for when there's snow on the hills. They're made from a ballistic textile with a neoprene bootie inside, and have a BOA side adjustment - a very thin lace attached to a tightening dial - plus a strap and clip buckle round the ankle. There's a Gore-Tex membrane and 200 grams of Primaloft Gold inside. The boots are very warm and very light at 1130 grams. I find them comfortable and supportive.


Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro

Ratchet buckle bindings make these one of the easiest crampons to fit I've tried. With ten points that are a little shorter than on other crampons they're great for hill walking and a good compromise between micro spikes and full spec crampons. They're made of steel and weigh 700 grams.

(Pictured here and above with the Merrell Thermo Rogue boots, a great combination).


Klättermusen Liv

This luxurious down jacket is very warm and comfortable and only weighs 470 grams. It has a silky-feeling recycled shell, 800 fill power down, box wall construction, and a snug high collar.

Gregory Zulu 30

The Zulu 30 is a comfortable daypack that's easy to fit as it comes in two back lengths and has an adjustable back. There's a sprung frame and breathability is good. I really like the long curved zip for access.


Sierra Designs Cloud 800

Instead of a zip this sleeping bag has a wrap-around comforter that opens and closes easily, giving a great feeling of freedom. Underneath there's an uninsulated sleeping mat sleeve running about a third of the length. I don't usually like this design but with the Cloud 800 I just didn't insert my mat and still stayed warm. The Cloud 800 has a comfort rating of -3C and a lower comfort limit of -10C. It has 800 fill power down and weighs 875 grams.


Patagonia Ascensionist 

The Ascensionist is made from recycled nylon Gore-Tex Active and is comfortable and breathable. There are plenty of pockets and a good hood. It copes with severe weather but only weighs 385 grams.

Black Diamond Neve Pro

These lightweight (600 grams) aluminium crampons are designed for ski touring boots and fit my Nordic ones really well. With a front bail and an adjustable heel lever they are easy to fit securely. 








 Inov8 Roclite Pro 400 Gore-Tex 

Durability is the drawback with lightweight footwear. It shouldn't be with these 800 gram boots from Inov8 though as they have a graphene enhanced rubber outsole and a Schoeller ceramic-coated fabric upper for "unprecedented strength and durability". I've worn them a fair bit so far and they show little sign of wear. They're comfortable and the grip is excellent. 


Klättermusen Vanadis 2.0 

The Vanadis is made from a comfortable abrasion-resistant softeshell fabric. It's quite wind-resistant though not fully windproof and very breathable. It has a good hood and big chest pockets. It's not that light - 535 grams - but it is very comfortable. I've worn it more than expected after first trying it.


Patagonia Nano Puff

The long-established Nano Puff jacket is now more environmentally friendly with a 100% recycled polyester shell and a 100% recycled PrimaLoft fill. The design is still the same and the jacket is warm for the weight (375 grams), windproof, and breathable.



Tuesday 29 December 2020

Last Hill of the Year: Superb Conditions on Meall a'Bhuachaille


Meall a’Bhuachaille was a last-minute decision for my final hill walk of the year. Snowy and icy roads in Aviemore persuaded me that driving down Glen Feshie, as I’d intended, might be difficult. I wanted to stay up high for the sunset. The thought of having to drive down a narrow icy road in the dark wasn’t appealing. So Meall a’Bhuachaille it was. 

The forest, quiet and still. Although the air was freezing, I didn’t need a jacket or a hat. That would change. An Lochan Uaine in Ryvoan Pass was calm and full of reflections. Not frozen though, just a thin skim of cracked ice in places. 

The path up Meall a’Bhuachaille was icy in places. A few people descending found themselves abruptly sitting down. Others took to the deep heather, sending up clouds of snow as they plunged down. Higher up the path eases and the snow was a little deeper, making walking easier.Across Glenmore the higher Cairngorms shone in the sunshine.

On the summit a dozen or more people – the most I’ve ever seen here – were gazing at the vast view, white hills spreading all around. The air was freezing but windless. Down in Glenmore clouds had formed, drifting over Loch Morlich. 

Just below the summit someone was setting up a paraglider. I watched as they took off and sailed serenely above the cloudy, hazy forest towards Loch Morlich. After posting the pictures on Facebook I discovered that the paraglider was Luke Welch, an adventure photographer from Aviemore. He has some great photos on his website.

The paraglider having faded from view people began drifting away from the summit. I lingered, not wanting to descend into the mist until the sun had set. A flask of hot ginger cordial and a piece of my partner’s delicious Christmas cake provided welcome refreshment.

As the sun neared the horizon I set off down the ridge. The path was icy. I wished I’d brought micro spikes, which I’d seen a few people wearing. I had crampons but I felt these would be awkward in the thin snow and ice, though I had seen others with them. I wasn’t hurrying anyway, pausing frequently to watch the light as the sun set and the mist in the glen turned pink. This wasn’t a day to rush. 

Back down in the dark forest I wandered along the tracks to the car. At the end of a strange and difficult 2020 this had been a superb last hill of the year.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Wild Camps of 2020, A Strange Year

On the Cairngorm Plateau, October 17

It's the longest night after what, at times, has seemed the longest year. Soon 2020 will be over. I am very aware that living in the Highlands has meant I have amd have had more freedom than many. Even during the four months of lockdown with walks only from home I could step out of my door and explore forests and fields and moorland hills. Without that I am not sure how I would have coped.

Strath Nethy, Cairngorms, March 3

Unsurprisingly this year I had fewer wild camps than any year I can remember. I hadn't planned any long walks overseas and I feel deeply for those who had to cancel theirs. So much goes into the preparation, mentally as well as practically, that abandoning dreams must be really hard. I had intended on two long walks in the spring in the Highlands but I hadn't done much planning as these are home hills. With three of the best hill months for long walks in the lockdown period - April, May, and June - these walks were abandoned. I hope to undertake them next year. 

Glen Feshie, Cairngorms, February 2

As it was, in the eight months I could travel I rarely ventured beyond the Cairngorms and never left the Highlands. Somehow familiar places felt reassuring, a fixed reality that was tangible in an uncertain and fluid world. 

Cairngorm Plateau with David Lintern, November 6

I did camp during the lockdown months - in the garden. And in the remaining eight months I did have many fine camps in the woods and hills. There were frosts and sunshine and rain and wind and brilliant starry nights - I especially remember those.

Glen Feshie, Cairngorms, February 1

Strath Nethy, Cairngorms, with Alex Roddie, March 3

Garden camp, June 23

First camp after lockdown, by the River Eidart, Cairngorms, July 18

Lochan Coire na Poite, Beinn Bhan, Applecross, August 10

Below An Ruadh-stac, NW Highlands, August 24

Glen Feshie, Cairngorms, with Carey Davies, September 9

Cairngorm Plateau, October 16

Cairngorm Plateau with David Lintern, November 7

Coire Garbhlach, Glen Feshie, Cairngorms, December 15

Saturday 19 December 2020

John D Burns podcast on outdoor books of the year with me, Alex Roddie, and Jon Barton

John D Burns latest Outside In podcast is about outdoor books of the year. I've picked four books, and there are also choices from writer Alex Roddie and Vertebrate publisher Jon Barton. I've added a few books from their selections to my reading list.

Selecting four books was difficult and on another day I might have chosen different ones. Before the end of the year I'll post about all the outdoor and nature books I've enjoyed this year, including some 'golden oldies'.

Friday 18 December 2020

Dealing with the weather on a testing short trip


Sometimes stormy weather gives a salutary lesson, a reminder that life in the wilds, especially when camping, is not always easy and that it’s useful to have to put hard earned skills into practice now and again.

With no long walks this year I haven’t had to deal with bad weather when camping as I’ve only gone out overnight when the forecast has been good. Being self-employed and able to work whenever I like (as long  as deadlines are met) I can usually head out of the door quickly when the weather is fine. My last trip was not like that though. The forecast was for a sunny afternoon and evening but also strong winds overnight and rain the next day so I’d planned accordingly  - head up high, descend to a low camp, then walk out along the glen in the morning. 

At the car park the wind was already quite gusty and the tops were in thick cloud, not clear as forecast. I adjusted my plans. An out and back low level route now sounded attractive. The wind was chilly and I set off in a light insulated jacket and a lined windproof cap plus dark glasses as every so often the low sun broke through the clouds and I was walking directly into it.

The previous few days had seen a thaw of snow below the summits and heavy rain. The main river was in spate and the side streams were full and roaring. The first one I crossed on big stones just below the surface, getting the outside of my boots wet but keeping my feet dry. The next stream was much bigger and looked more challenging. Fording it would not be dangerous but my boots and feet would be soaked even if I put gaiters on. On a day walk with dry shoes and socks back in the car I’d have waded across without a thought. I did have dry socks to wear in the tent but my boots would be sodden the next morning. As I wasn’t going anywhere in particular there was no need for that. Changing plans again I decided to head up beside the stream rather than cross.

An old narrow, overgrown path led through the heather. The going was rough. Bursts of sunshine lit patches of woodland and hillside but never lasted long. In the mouth of the steep-sided, twisting corrie down which the stream poured I pitched my tent on some bumpy, grassy ground. Just a touch higher than the surrounding damp area it was well-drained. The wind sweeping down the corrie was gusty but not strong enough to do more than gently shake my tent. 

I filled my water bottles from the stream then settled in for the long hours of darkness – nearly seventeen of them at this time of year. If the skies cleared I would go out and look at the stars. Otherwise I’d stay inside. I’d brought a fairly large tent so I’d have room to stretch out and sit up, without pushing against the walks or feeling constricted. There was room for all my gear too and the porch was big enough for safe cooking even with the walls moving in and out in the wind. I had a library on my e-reader and my journal to write so the time would pass quickly enough.

I had just settled into what I hoped would be a pleasant restful evening when the wind picked up suddenly, turning from a strong breeze into a roaring crashing banshee that screamed down the corrie and smashed into the tent, shaking it violently. With the wind came torrential rain, hammering and rattling on the flysheet. The noise was deafening, drowning out the nearby stream. The time was just six pm. If this kept up I doubted I could sleep. I could be back at the car in a few hours and home before midnight. I was tempted even though the walk out in the dark and the wind and the rain would not be pleasant. I’d give it two hours I decided. After an hour and a half the wind eased and the rain ceased. I would stay. 

I was asleep before ten o’clock. I was awake at midnight as another violent squall hit the tent. Half past one it faded away and I did too. Three o’clock and I was awake again, all too aware it was still five and a half hours before dawn. That squall died away too. Seven o’clock and wind and rain again woke me. This time I would not go back to sleep. The fierce wind was really shaking the tent. By the light of my headlamp I started the stove, glad I had so much porch space as the walls were really billowing in and out now, and made a mug of coffee. I was not cold, I’d brought a winter sleeping bag and the temperature had only fallen to 2.5°C overnight. Now it was 4°. The hot coffee was very welcome though. Breakfast was a bowl of muesli. Often in winter I heat this and make porridge but not this morning. It wasn’t cold enough. As I ate I started packing up, glad again that there was room to stand my pack up while I did so. Outside the wind and rain raged on.

All my gear in the pack and wearing waterproof jacket and trousers I finally put my boots on and exited the thrashing nylon. A blast of wind almost knocked me over as I stood up. I lowered the pole that held up the tent, then went round removing the pegs, careful to keep tight hold of the fabric and gather it in bunches, so it didn’t get ripped out of my hands and blown away. Once down I stuffed the sodden tent into a large mesh pocket on the outside of the pack. That way it wouldn’t dampen other gear and could start to drain and dry if the rain stopped. 

After checking for any overlooked items and picking up a tent peg I’d missed I grabbed my trekking poles and set off. The wind was behind me but the walking was still tough. I was almost blown over several times. Many new pools and little streams had formed and I soon had sodden feet. I might as well have forded the stream the day before. The wind and rain kept up all the way back. My camera stayed firmly in its case. I took just one photo with my phone (this is waterproof, my camera isn’t) – a selfie to show how wet it was.

By lunchtime I was in a café warming up, dry shoes and socks on my feet. I’d been out less than twenty-four hours and I’d only walked around twelve kilometres. It had been an intense trip though, a reminder of what the weather can be like. Enjoyable is the wrong word. Worthwhile is a better one.

Thursday 10 December 2020

Winter Is Here. Deep Snow In The Cairngorms.


Two days ago in the garden we had heavy rain and floods, water pouring down the path past the front door, little springs bubbling up in the trees, pools around the bird table. In thirty years I’ve never seen so much water here. Higher up – the house is at 300 metres – that rain would be falling as snow. The hills, hidden in the clouds, would be white. As soon as the weather calmed a little I set out to see what they were like.

In the Coire Cas car park bulldozers were clearing the snow into great piles. The ski area is closed at present, but a few skiers and snowboarders were heading up the runs. I’d brought snowshoes rather than skis – I find them easier to manage in deep soft snow, which is what I was expecting. A chill wind swept the car park and looking up I could see clouds swirling round the tops. A white-out up there probably, and even stronger winds. I decided to stay lower and head into the Northern Corries.

A deep trench beaten into the snow by many boots led out of the car park. Most people hadn’t gone very far though and the track soon narrowed. I followed it up towards Coire an t-Sneachda. Two walkers descending stopped to chat. Then another pair. Both said they’d come to climb on the cliffs in the corrie, but the conditions had put them off. “Waist deep in places higher up”, they said, admiring my snowshoes. 

My track was a light impression on the snow, the boot track was knee deep in places. The snow was wet and heavy, the wind having no effect on it. I was glad I had snowshoes not skis. I hate skiing in snow like this, fearing twisting a knee or ankle if a ski suddenly sinks and comes to an abrupt stop. Snowshoes are much slower and safer.

With the sun almost breaking through the clouds it had been bright at the start but as I climbed into the corrie the mist began to flow around me. I wiped moisture off my sunglasses and realised the mist was wet and I was getting damp and starting to feel chilly. A brief stop and tinted ski goggles replaced the sunglasses, and my waterproof jacket was on, hood up.

The snow grew deeper and I went in knee deep a few times. Some of the boot prints were much deeper. Visibility shrank, just a few rocks giving an idea of the terrain. The goggles helped but even with them I occasionally found the ground sloping more than I expected. On the edge of the upper corrie, with no view of the cliffs I knew were not far away, I turned and contoured round the foot of the ridge separating Corrie an t-Sneachda from Coire an Lochain. A set off tracks led up the ridge towards the Cairngorm Plateau, an exciting ascent in these conditions. There were no other signs of people as I curved round into Coire an Lochain. Again, there were no views and I turned away and descended to the line of the path back to the car park. A few walkers had made it this far, ploughing another deep trench.

As I dropped out of the mist I could see pale yellow sky far to the east. Clouds turned and twisted over the hills, strands of mist drifting past below me.

After four hours I was back at the car. I’d barely paused due to the wind, preferring to keep moving, yet I’d only travelled 6.5km. The effort I’d expended made it feel much more, even with the snowshoes.  

On my last walk in the Cairngorms, six days earlier, I’d felt that each day out was feeling a little wintrier. There was no question about it now. Winter was here.