Sunday 31 October 2021

Hats & Gloves Time

Warm hats, gloves and mitts are back in my pack now and will stay there until next summer. I expect to wear them just about every day. Here’s an extended version of a piece about them I wrote for The Great Outdoors a few years ago.

As winter sets in warm hats and gloves or mitts become important items in your kit. A cold head and cold hands are painful and unpleasant and can be dangerous. A warm hat makes a dramatic difference as much heat can be lost through an uncovered head. Cold hands can make opening and closing packs and garments and handling map and compass difficult or even impossible.


The big choice in hats is between windproof and non-windproof ones. The former mean you need to put up your jacket hood less often and they are usually warmer for the weight. The latter are often softer and more comfortable though. I carry one of each. I like a non-windproof one on days with little wind and in my tent when camping. Having two hats also means I have a spare if one gets soaked or even blows away. To prevent the latter neck cords are useful. Windproof hats often have them, non-windproof ones rarely. 

For windproof hats I find cap styles with a peak and ear flaps best. These have a weatherproof shell and a fleece or softshell inner. I don’t like windproof fleece hats as these aren’t as breathable. For non-windproof hats I have half a dozen wool or fleece beanies to choose from, some thicker and warmer than others. Double-layer ones are warmest but which one I wear depends on which I lay my hands on first. An old hat I’m very fond of – it’s been on many trips – is a WindPro fleece one with a wicking lining. This has earflaps and a neck cord and resists moderate winds. I haven’t seen anything like it for a while. With beanies I like ones big enough to pull down over my ears if needed. 

Gloves & Mitts

With gloves and mitts I carry three pairs – thin, thick, and shell – sized to go over each other so I can wear them all in the worst weather. I also carry a fourth pair – usually midweight – as a spare. Mitts are warmer than gloves as they keep your fingers together, but they also limit dexterity much more. Simple shell mitts are good for pulling on over gloves for protection against wind, rain, and snow – they are pretty waterproof if the seams are taped. The thinnest gloves, often called liner gloves, allow you to use your hands easily but aren’t as warm as thicker ones. Thick gloves or mitts give less dexterity but are much warmer. Often these have a waterproof membrane in them. I’ve never found them totally waterproof though.

For use with trekking poles and ice axes gloves or mitts with reinforced fingers and palms last longest. Soft fabrics without this can wear through very quickly.

Gloves with an inner layer only sewn on at the wrist, a feature of many ski gloves, can be very difficult to get on when your hands are cold or wet as you try and push the inner fingers into the outer ones. I’d avoid them.

To prevent heat loss and rain or snow entering gloves and mitts should work with your jacket cuffs so there’s no gap here. Thin gloves usually fit inside even the tightest jacket cuff. Thicker ones may not do so. Gauntlet type mitts and gloves should fit over any cuffs. Some gloves have zips at the wrist so they can be tightened to fit under cuffs or opened to go over them.

In recent years my most worn gloves have been thin synthetic insulated ones with windproof shells. These are surprisingly warm for the weight and allow good dexterity. They’re not waterproof but do dry quickly. In blizzards I wear shell mitts over them. For maximum warmth I carry gloves or mitts with thick synthetic insulation. These are great for warming up my hands if they get cold. I often put them on after lunch and photography stops when I only wear liner gloves so I can use my hands, which then get cold. After an hour or two walking my hands get hot and I take the very warm ones off. On milder days I may not wear them at all. I never leave them at home though.

When you need to use your fingers thick gloves and mitts usually have to come off. To stop them blowing away and to keep them warm it’s best to stuff them inside your clothing, preferably in a pocket. Putting them on the ground is a good way for a gust of wind to send them soaring away into the distance. Wrist loops are useful when you’re only removing your gloves or mitts for a short while.

Thursday 28 October 2021

Book Review: Wanderlust Alps by Alex Roddie


This big book arrived a couple of weeks ago and I've been browsing through it on and off ever since. It's a companion volume to Wanderlust Europe, which I reviewed last year, and has the same format. That book covers the whole of Europe, this one just the Alps, if you could use the word 'just' about Europe's main mountain range. 

Divided into five sections - Western Alps, Swiss Alps, Eastern Alps, Italian Alps, and Slovenian Alps - the book describes walks of all lengths, from multi-week treks like the 608km GR5 Alpine Traverse to half-day strolls like the 8.9km Val Gardena's Ridgeline. There's an enticing description of each walk then a useful information page or two. The latter includes information on seasons, accommodation, what to bring, flora and fauna, and more but not the maps and guidebooks needed. You'll have to find these for yourself. There's no general introduction and the introductions to the different sections are no more than a couple of sentences. 

The book is written by Alex Roddie but the only mention of this is on a page of publishing infomation at the back of the book, where it says 'Text by Alex Roddie'. He's not mentioned on the cover, the spine, or the frontispiece. I think he should be. Without his words there'd be no book. As a fellow author I protest on his behalf!

The book is profusely illustrated by colour photographs, many spectacular and mouth-watering, by twenty-plus photographers including Alex Roddie and with two from myself. 

This is a book to dream over and I've been doing just that, though a little more seriously than I might have done a few years ago. After my GR5 Through the Alps trip in 2018 I became interested in more long walks in the Alps, walks I could reach by train, as I did that walk, rather than by flying, and so reduce my carbon emissions. Wanderlust Alps has given me many ideas.


Saturday 23 October 2021

Autumn colours and a pine marten alarm clock: a camp in Glen Feshie

Autumn in Glen Feshie

A loud guttural hissing, growling sound, rising and falling, moved somewhere above me. Waking groggily, I checked the time. 5.45 a.m. Outside it was very dark, the sky overcast, I looked up into the silhouette of the huge ancient pine that towered over my little tent. Unsurprisingly, I could see nothing moving. The sound moved away. Wondering what it was I fell back asleep. Almost two hours later the sound woke me again, this time even closer. I again looked up into the twisted branches of the old pint, this time shining my headlamp. A face appeared about five metres away, a sleek bright brown face above a creamy throat, a pine marten. For a few seconds we stared at each other, then the marten darted higher up the tree, turned for another look at this bright apparition that had appeared below, then slid away into the branches.

That wildlife encounter alone would have made the trip memorable and magical. But I was already entranced as I was in Glen Feshie, one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms and indeed the Scottish Highlands. I always venture into the glen sometime in the autumn, as the colours then can be spectacular, and usually several other times during the year. This was my first visit of 2021, which surprised me. Indeed, it was over a year since I’d last visited the upper glen. Where had the time gone? Lockdowns, work that took me elsewhere, other events – none seemed enough but the time had disappeared whatever the reasons.

Camp at dusk           

For a few weeks I’d been looking for a weather window for a trip to the glen. At the end of a week of storms that brought the first significant snowfall to the summits there looked to be a brief lull of maybe twenty-four hours, one afternoon and one morning. Just right for an overnight camp.

Walking down the glen I was enthralled, as always, by all the young trees springing up – pine, birch, rowan, alder and more. Their numbers seemed to have grown since I was last here. This forest restoration, courtesy of the landowners, Wildland Ltd, gives hope for the future. This is what a Highland glen should be like. And if this glen, why not others, many others? 

The Allt Garblach

There are three stream fords on the walk down the glen, the burns tumbling down from the Moine Mhor – the Great Moss – high above to the east. In spate, after heavy rain or snowmelt, these can be difficult to cross, especially the middle one, the Allt Garbhlach, which half a dozen years ago roared down from the Coire Garbhlach and ripped out the high banks either side, destroying the path, and leaving a wide rubble-filled flood plain. Descending some 600 metres in around five kilometres these burns rise and fall very quickly. I had wondered if recent rains would render the fords tricky but in fact I was able to cross all of them dry-shod by careful selection of rocks to balance on.

Creag nan Caillich

The autumn colours were reaching their peak, with birches glowing yellow and gold in the weak cloud-filtered evening sunlight. Down the glen shafts of late sunshine touched the slopes of Creag nan Caillich. One tall birch shone out like a beacon amongst the dark pines, a glorious sight. 

A perfect camp site

I camped under the spreading boughs of an old pine. Young pines grew all around. The evening was calm and peaceful. A hazy moon rose. I fell asleep watching the dark sky and the darker trees. Then came the pine marten. Was it chattering at me, at my tent, or was it nothing to do with me at all and it was talking to other martens? Maybe I’d heard more than one. It didn’t matter. Seeing and hearing this one was wonderful and yet another reason for camping in wild places.

Autumn colours in the old woods above and the new woods below

With dawn came the wind, strong and gusty. Clouds raced over the sky. The weather was changing sooner than forecast. Rain was coming. I packed and returned down the glen, the autumn colours holding my attention. This is such a beautiful place. I will be back.

Friday 15 October 2021

A Look At Insulated Clothing

A light down jacket worn over an ultralight synthetic jacket at a cold camp in the Cairngorms

From now until sometime next May an insulated jacket will be in my pack on every hill walk. It’ll be thick enough to keep me warm when stationary in freezing stormy weather. I may also be wearing a thinner insulated jacket when walking too. On every camping trip and in the coldest weather on day walks I’ll carry insulated trousers too. Such garments are great for comfort and also good for safety. I’ve written many reviews of insulated garments over the years, You can read some of them, such as this one, on The Great Outdoors website. Here is an edited piece I wrote for the magazine about insulated garments in general.

The basic choice in insulated clothing is between down and synthetic fills. The latter have improved noticeably in recent years but despite this down is still warmer for the weight and more compact when packed. Down is longer lasting too, though the latest synthetics are pretty durable, and also soft and very comfortable, moulding to the body for near instant warmth.

A light synthetic jacket worn on a damp stormy day

The big plus point of synthetics is resistance to moisture. They soak up less water and dry much quicker than standard down. Hydrophobic down, which has a water repellent treatment, is more resistant to moisture but still not as good as synthetics. Nothing is very comfortable when sodden though. In rain down clothing is generally too warm to wear while moving anyway and you probably won’t need it at rest stops – if you do getting it on and then pulling a waterproof over the top can be done quickly (if you plan on doing this make sure your waterproof jacket is big enough). Also, down clothing usually has a DWR treatment that keeps rain out for short periods. Whilst getting down clothing soaked is best avoided a little dampness isn’t a problem. I’ve used down garments for two-week trips in very humid conditions with wet snow or rain most days and they’ve stayed dry and kept me warm as they were never directly exposed to the weather for very long.

New types of synthetic insulation have made it more comparable with down. Some of these new insulation materials are made up of loose fibres rather than matts and can be blown into compartments like down. Garments with these can often be recognised by the typical stitch lines between compartments, making them look just like down ones. Synthetic insulation is made from oil. To reduce the environmental impact of using this some companies have started making insulation from recycled materials.


Down jacket on the summit of Ben Macdui

Down comes from geese and ducks bred for food. Until a decade or so ago there was little concern about the conditions in which these birds were kept or how they were treated. However, investigations by environmental and animal rights organisations showed that some were force-fed for foie gras while others were live-plucked, and many were kept in poor conditions. This resulted in many companies setting standards for down supply.

Garments fall into two categories. Thick, warm ones designed to be worn at rest stops and in camp, but which are too warm for walking except in extreme cold and lighter, thinner ones that can be worn all day in cold weather. The latter are replacements for a thick fleece or softshell. They can be worn on their own – most are windproof and water-resistant – or under a shell. Because synthetic insulation works okay when damp garments can be pulled on over wet waterproofs, so you don’t lose any heat removing the latter.


A lightweight down jacket


Down and synthetic fills both have advantages and disadvantages. Down is lighter and more compact for the warmth and lasts longer if cared for properly. Synthetic insulation performs better when wet and dries more quickly. Each type comes in different forms.

There are now quite a few synthetic fills, many of them companies own (these may be the same under different names). PrimaLoft is the leading brand and there are now several varieties of this fill alone.

Down quality is measure by fill power, which is how much a given amount of down will rise or loft when uncompressed. The higher the fill power the more loft the down has, making high fill power down warmer for the weight.

Some down garments have synthetic insulation at key points for moisture resistance.

Hydrophobic down resists moisture far better than standard down. It’s still wise to avoid getting it wet though.

A light synthetic insulation jacket

Shell Fabrics

Shells are usually made from tightly woven nylon or polyester fabrics as these are windproof, breathable and downproof. They dry fast too and can be quite water-resistant if they have a good DWR treatment. Pertex is the leading brand but there are similar fabrics. They are all usually quite thin and so don’t have the tear or abrasion resistance needed for scrambling or bushwhacking. However, they are mostly quite smooth, so a shell can be worn over them without it binding and restricting movement.

Waterproof/breathable shells are found on some insulated garments. They do make them waterproof but also a little bulkier and more expensive.


Insulated hand warmer pockets are very useful in a warm garment. Jacket pockets that can be accessed while wearing a pack hipbelt are the best if you plan on walking in a garment. Roomy pockets into which you can stuff hats and gloves when you’re not wearing them for short periods are worth having too – ones inside the garment are especially useful for this as hats and gloves will stay warm.


Whilst not essential a warm hood can be very welcome on a stormy day and replaces the need for a separate hat. Adjustable hoods are best as these can be tightened to stop them blowing off in strong winds.


Down jacket, synthetic insulated trousers & bootees at a very cold Caingorms camp


Full-length leg zips are useful on insulated trousers so you can easily pull them on over footwear. However if you carry them for sleeping ones without zips are the most comfortable.

Weight & bulk

Down garments are very light for the warmth provided. The heavier ones are suitable for temperatures well below freezing, the lightest can be carried in summer for cool evenings and combined with other warm garments in sub-zero temperatures. Synthetic insulated garments are generally heavier  and bulkier for similar warmth. The thinnest synthetic insulated garments are equivalent in warmth to heavyweight fleece and can be used as midlayers.


Having the same size label doesn’t mean that garments are actually the same size as each other. Some garments are sized to fit closely so if you want to wear them over a fleece or softshell a size larger than normal is needed. Other garments are sized to fit over several layers and feel baggy worn over just a base layer. Sizing isn’t consistent between companies either. I’m a Large in some garments, a Medium in others.

Monday 11 October 2021

A Look At The November Issue Of The Great Outdoors

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. I have a feature describing the gear I used on my trip to An Teallach that I wrote about on this blog here (with more photos). I also review the Motorola Defy smartphone, the Columbia OutDry Extreme Nanolite waterproof jacket, and the Fjallraven Greenland Jacket. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong tests five gas stoves.

In the main features James Roddie shares his experience of chasing cloud inversions (spectacular photographs!), Roger Butler has a thrilling encounter with a Pine Marten in the Lake District, Alec Forss shares his passion for Sweden's forests (again with splendid photos), James Forrest describes his record-breaking walk over the national Three Peaks, and Hanna Lindon writes about unsung alpinist Lucy Walker who climbed the Matterhorn just six years after Edward Whymper's first ascent.

Also in this issue is a mouth-watering opening spread of a dawn view from Aonach Beag in the Scottish Highlands by editor Carey Davies, Hanna Lindon on ten walks for making the most of autumn, Alex Roddie describing the Fairfield Horseshoe and reviewing Polly Pullar's new book A Scurry of Squirrels, Roger Butler reviewing Jim Crumley's latest book Lakeland Wild, and Jim Perrin on the magnificent mountain Ladhar Bheinn. In the Wild Walks section Vivienne Crow does a circular walk from Lochinver in Assynt, Keith Fergus climbs the Munros Cruach Ardrain and Beinn Tulaichean in the Southern Highlands, Roger Butler visits the Howgill Fells, Steve Eddy walks over Waun Fach and Pen y Gadair Fawr in the Black Mountains, and Fiona Barltrop walks to Cheesefoot Head in the South Downs.

Finally there's a readers survey so you can give your views on the magazine. This can also be completed online at

Sunday 3 October 2021

Winter Is Coming: Time To Prepare

Ben Macdui, October 16, 2020

The first dustings of snow in the hills have appeared recently. Winds and cold icy rain have swept the slopes. Winter arrives much earlier on the tops than in the glens. The air may be mild in the woods but bitter high up. I've already added hats, gloves, and an insulated jacket to my pack, They'll stay there until late spring. Once ice axe, crampons and maybe snow shovel are needed I'll go to a bigger pack too. When there's snow on the hills the light mesh trail shoes are changed for light waterproof boots. I love trail shoes but I hate freezing feet. 

Sleet on Meall a'Bhuachaille, October 9, 2020

I do love this time of year. I love the anticipation. Waiting to see what the winter will bring. I look forward to the first frosty camp, the first crisp black starry sky surounded by mountain silhouettes, the first unbroken snow in a landscape reborn. If you're well prepared winter can be the best time of year in the mountains.

A frosty camp in the Cairngorms, October 17, 2020

 Two years ago I made a little video about my winter kit. Here it is.


This winter I'm planning on making a video about camping.

I've also written many pieces about the joys of winter and the skills and gear needed. There are links in this post.

Storm in the Cairngorms, October 9, 2020