Wednesday 28 April 2021

Exciting New Outdoor & Nature Books


Some excellent outdoor and nature books have been published recently and I have this collection to read. The difficulty is knowing where to start. I've dipped into all of them and then decided that trying to read all five at once would be too confusing so I've settled on The Earth Beneath My Feet as that's one I've been waiting to read since the author told me about it when I met him in Colorado back in 2019. I haven't got very far yet but the start is exciting and gripping.

I'll post reviews of each one in time.

Monday 26 April 2021

A Look At The May Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The May issue of The Great Outdoors has a wild camping theme. I review eleven two-person tents in the gear section and consider tent weight in the latest Hilleberg sponsored better backpacking guide. Alex Roddie tries three backpacking meals and Plas Y Brenin instructor Iona Pawson has a general look at food for the mountains. For those beginning James Forrest answers common questions on wild camping.

To whet your appetite Helen Iles goes comet-spotting on a camp in the Rhinogydd mountains while Andrew Terrill describes an ascent and camp in Italy during his 7000 mile walk through Europe in an excerpt from the first of his two books on the walk, The Earth Beneath My Feet. Both features are illustrated with stunning photos by the authors.

There's further superb photography in a piece by Alex Nail on the Fisherfield Forest area of the Northwest Highlands. And the opening spread in this issue is a wonderful photo of dawn on the Cuillin ridge by James Roddie.

Also in this issue TGO contributors, including myself, talk about their plans for the mountains post-lockdown, Hanna Lindon talks to female walkers about how safe they feel in the outdoors, Jim Perrin describes his affection for little Win Hill in the Peak District, and Roger Smith calls for positive action on the management of the countryside as it opens up after lockdown. Roger also reviews Cameron McNeish's latest book, Come by the Hills.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Book Review: Wild Winter by John D. Burns

For his fourth book John D. Burns returns to non-fiction. The themes however are those of his third book, the novel Sky Dance, and this is a book more about nature than the mountaineering  and bothies of his first two books, though both those do appear. 

This is a book of discovery, both of nature and, I think, of the author himself. Over the winter of 2019-20 Burns sets out to see wildlife in the Scottish Highlands and to learn about the place of nature in the landscape and our place too. As the winter wears on an ominous shadow begins to grow, the Covid-19 pandemic. Burns captures well the way a vague rumour becomes a realisation that lockdown is coming.

As the author travels Scotland in search of whales and pine martens, beavers and mountain hares, he also describes how impoverished the land has become and how everything in nature is interdependent. Amongst the burnt grouse moors and overgrazed hillsides he also finds regenerating forests, reintroduced wildlife and hope for thr future. "A rural economy funded more by the binoculars of wildlife tourists than the guns of blood sports enthusiasts".

Wild Winter is contemplative and profound but it's not a heavy read. Burns has a lightness of touch and a feeling for words that makes for easy reading even when the subject matter is serious. There's humour too, especially in the adventures involving his long-time friend Martin, firmly stuck in the 1970s with his woollen trousers, tartan shirt, balaclava, and giant ice axe.

The mix of adventure, wildlife, comic incidents, intriguing characters, and thoughts about the future of the land make this an entertaining and thought-provoking book. I've enjoyed every one of Burn's books. I think this is his best yet.

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Quiet Camp, Quiet Hills

A few days ago I walked up a long curving corrie and pitched my tent below long curving ridges. A burn rattled past over water-smoothed stones. Otherwise all was quiet and still. It was my second camp of the year and the first since the beginning of January, the day before the latest pandemic lockdown began. Oh, how I've missed the simple pleasures of camping in a wild place, cooking over a little stove, sleeping in a tent, waking to look out at stars, sitting watching the dawn bring the world back to the light. 

For this first backpacking trip in over three months I decided it was wise not to be too ambitious. I knew I'd lost some fitness and wasn't sure how my body would react to carrying a big pack. There was snow on the hills too, soft deep snow. I wanted to break myself back in with an easy trip. A short walk, a pleasant camp, a walk up some lower hills. I picked two Grahams - hills between 2000 and 2500 feet (610 and 762 metres) - that I hadn't been up before. Carn |Breac and Beinn na Feusaige lie on the edge of the Torridon hills and reputedly had great views whilst not themselves being at all distinctive. On the map the walking looked easy on wide slopes with no obstacles. On the map ......

The first morning came with a hard frost and clouds quickly obscuring the sun. The terrain was boggy and tussocky, making climbing up to the broad ridge above camp quite hard work. As I gained height more and more snow patches appeared, far more than I'd expected at this elevation. Similar hills back home in the Cairngorms were mostly snow free. High up the snow patches were soft and deep and often unavoidable. Not that the bogs between them made for much easier walking. On these little-frequented hills - unsurprisingly I saw no-one all trip - there were no paths and I weaved about trying to find the easiest line between soft snow and squelchy ground. The views however were, as promised, superb, especially those of Liathach and Beinn Eighe, white and alpine.

Peat hags made the going even worse as I approached the second summit. A herd of deer watched me and then wandered off, probably thinking that such a clumsy, lumbering thing couldn't be a threat. I love seeing deer but I was well aware that these hills shouldn't be as bare as they are and that over-grazing was the reason for that. The slopes below would be wooded with fewer deer.

A very steep descent down heather thick slopes brought me back to the corrie floor. At the tent I slumped with relief and revived myself with hot chocolate and then minestrone soup. I was asleep early. Another frosty starry night ensued but the next morning I was woken by the sun shining on my face from a cloudless sky. I lingered over a breakfast of muesli and coffee, just listening to the stream rippling and watching the hills glowing, before packing up and heading back down to the car. A tougher trip than expected but a good one. They all are.

There will be a full report on this trip including a look at the gear I used in the May issue of The Great Outdoors magazine.

Tuesday 6 April 2021

Dealing With The Challenges Of Long-Distance Walking


With lockdown ending and warmer weather and longer days arriving many people are thinking about long-distance walks – I certainly am. I’ve had a few queries about this recently so I thought I’d post an expanded version of this piece I wrote for the BMC several years ago.

Good luck to everyone setting off on a long walk this year.

The whole point of long-distance walking is enjoyment. Overcoming the challenges involved is part of that enjoyment, or at least it should be. This said, during a walk of many weeks or months there will be times when the mental or physical challenge can seem overwhelming and you feel like giving up. For newcomers to long-distance walking here are some suggestions for dealing with this and its various causes.  

  • Don’t let feeling tired the first few days get you down. You will get fitter as the walk progresses. It’s best to plan for a lower daily distance at the start than you hope to average throughout. By the end of the walk you’ll be doing more than that average without any appreciable extra effort. I reckon on a week to ten days to really get going so I plan a lower mileage for that time.
  •  Familiarise yourself with your gear before the walk. After you’ve set out is not the time to discover your tent is awkward to pitch or your pack uncomfortable. A shakedown trip or two is a good way to check this and to see what daily mileage feels comfortable.
  • When selecting gear think of the weight. Extra bells and whistles may seem attractive but are they worth extra weight? 

On a 500 mile walk in the Colorado Rockies          

  • Sleeping well is very important for morale and your physical condition. If you’re not sleeping well because your mat is too hard or your sleeping bag too cold or too hot make changes when you can, even if it means buying new gear. Don’t suffer unnecessarily.
  • Take care of your feet. Blisters and sore feet are probably the main cause of unhappiness and distress for long-distance walkers and the main reason people give up. Having good, properly fitting footwear at the start is of course important. However, days and weeks of constant use can change footwear internally. If you start getting blisters or your feet start to ache badly think of changing your footwear. I like to have two pairs – trail shoes and sandals – with me and sometimes swap them over during the day. If you don’t want to carry a second pair you can have one sent ahead in supply boxes. If blisters and hot spots do occur treat them straight away. Ignoring them only makes them worse and longer lasting.

  • The length of a walk can seem daunting if you view it as a whole. A finish that is hundreds or thousands of miles away can seem an impossible goal, especially when just reaching the next camp site feels like a challenge. To overcome this feeling break the walk into sections and just think about the next stage. All long walks have resupply points. These can be used as the start and end points so that the walk becomes a series of shorter walks.

Wet misty weather at the start of the Scottish Watershed

  • At times during any long walk various factors – the weather (there’s nothing like day after day of stormy weather to discourage you), sore feet, a headache, tedious terrain, a stretch of road walking – can make you feel like giving up. This is when you need to be psychologically strong and tell yourself that this will pass and the best way to get through it is to keep walking.
  •  Physical exhaustion can be a problem if you insist on doing high mileages every day. Unless you’re out to break a record, in which case you need superb mental strength, plan to have some easier days and some rest days when you don’t walk at all. At times you may feel as though you’re running down, with less energy each day. This usually happens to me after 10-14 days. Then it’s definitely time to take a break.

  • Listen to your body and your mind. If you feel lazy in the morning (my usual state!) don’t feel you have to rush breakfast and dash off down the trail. Have another brew, relax and set off when you feel like it. Similarly, if you feel like stopping early do so. There’ll be other days when you’ll feel like walking into the night. If your legs ache have an easy day.

On a 500-mile walk in the High Sierra, California

  • Develop a schedule that suits you. Some people like to walk the same miles each day, some like to have a short break every hour, some like to walk a few hours before breakfast, some to have dinner on the trail and then walk on for a few hours before camping. I do none of these. My daily mileage varies depending on my mood, the terrain, the weather (and good weather doesn’t mean I go further – it can mean I stop to enjoy the view more often) and the landscape. If I have, say, 100 miles between supply points and I allow six days for this I may walk 10 miles one day, 25 another. As long as I complete the section before I run out of food the daily mileage doesn’t matter. As for breaks, I take them when I feel like it, sometimes walking for hours without a break, sometimes stopping frequently. And meals are almost always eaten in camp. This works for me. To get the most from a long walk you need to find what works for you.
  • Treat yourself at resupply points, especially with food. Chances are you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in. Eating plenty in restaurants helps restore your body for the next stage. And remember the long-distance hiker’s rule – never pass by a cafĂ© or restaurant! 
At the finish of the Pacific Northwest Trail
  •   Finally, remember, you’re doing this to enjoy yourself!

Friday 2 April 2021

Return to the Hills Again: Meall a'Bhuachaille Again


Today the second pandemic lockdown was eased, the 'stay at home' message changed to 'stay local', which means in your local authority region. As mine is Highland masses of hills are now within reach. As I said in my Lockdown In The Snow post in January I decided that as I could walk from home in woods and fields and on lower hills I couldn't justify going afield. In the last three months only twice have I walked from the car, once beside the River Spey on a shopping trip to Grantown-on-Spey and on the hills above Aviemore on a similar trip.

With the change in the regulations I decided to end my absence from bigger hills on Meall a'Bhuachaille, just as I had when the first lockdown ended last July. I celebrated this in a post called A Glorious Return To The Hills On Meall a'Bhuachaille, as the weather was superb. The forecast was for clear and sunny skies this time as well. It wasn't to be. The sky stayed resolutely cloudy. Above the trees the east wind was cold. The high Cairngorms came and went in the cloud. My stay on the summit was brief - a quick snack, some hot ginger cordial, and it was time to descend back into the forest. 

Rather than take the usual path I descended directly down towards Glenmore. Soon the first little pines appeared, the regenerating forest climbing back up the hills, then I was amongst the bigger trees, ancient sentinels standing guard over their your offspring. Seeing this is always invigorating and inspiring, whatever the weather. New trees, new life. A whirring of wings and a capercaillie sailed low through the trees, big and bulbous. This world was still glorious, sun or no sun.

Photographic note: the light being flat and the weather dull I never got out my camera. The images here were all taken with my phone.