Sunday 19 November 2023

Wet & Windy In The Cairngorms: A Trip In October 2022 And A Look At Key Items Of Gear

View across the Lairig Ghru to Cairn Toul & Braeriach

Last year I had a three-night late October trip in the Cairngorms with Tony Hobbs and his dog lassie. Whilst it wasn’t as wet and windy as this October’s trip it was still fairly stormy. This is a piece about the trip and some key items of gear. It first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine. I have done some minor editing.

Tony & Lassie heading into the Lairig Ghru

The first day we just wandered a short way up the Lairig Ghru path in Rothiemurchus Forest amongst spectacular autumn colours and then had a peaceful camp in the trees. A tougher day followed as we left the woods for the rough stony path through the Lairig on a cloudy day with light rain, low clouds and a breeze. After much recent rain streams were high and the ground was saturated. Places I’d camped before were too sodden to consider and we went further than I’d planned down the far side of the pass before finding some dryish pitches beside the river. The night was wet and windy and dawn came with layers of clouds draping the mountainsides.

Camp 2, by the river Dee in the Lairig Ghru

From camp we decided on a direct route to the Cairngorm Plateau up a spur beside the Allt a’Choire Mhoir. There’s no path but the terrain isn’t too rough and the route-finding is easy – head straight up! We were soon in the mist, which was damp and chilly, but emerged onto the Plateau in a brief burst of sunshine with glorious views over a cloud filled Lairig Ghru to Cairn Toul and Braeriach. However Ben Macdui just a kilometre or so to the south was shrouded in mist that was rolling towards us. Forgoing the summit we turned north. We’d not gone far before the mist was upon us and there was a cold breeze. Huddled in our insulated jackets (Rab Generator in my case) we stopped for a snack before continuing over the shoulder of Cairn Lochan.

Tony & Lassie heading into the mist on the climb to the Cairngorm Plateau

I’d thought of camping on Miadan Creag an Leth-choin below Cairn Lochan but it was windswept and damp and as there were several hours of daylight left we continued over rocky Creag an Leth-choin to the Chalamain Gap path, with a greasy boulder field to descend after the path ran out. I was glad to be through that in daylight. The flat area between the Chalamain Gap and the descent to the Lairig Ghru had been my next proposed camp site but the ground was saturated, we were still in the mist, and there was a strong wind so we kept going down an old path and across the Lairig Ghru to pitch above the Allt Druidh. The mist had followed us down and there were no views, making the camp seem isolated and mysterious even though we were close to a popular path.

Trailstars in the mist at camp 3

There remained just a final day back down through the forest. Tony stayed one more night at our first site. It had been an adventurous trip with some fine camps and views despite the misty and damp weather.

Preparation & Planning

The forecast was for wet and windy weather with low clouds. Tony wanted to climb Ben Macdui if possible but a high-level camp and an approach over the Cairngorm Plateau from Cairn Gorm seemed unwise. I decided on a side approach, through the Lairig Ghru on our first full day, when the stormiest weather was forecast, and then up steeply to the Plateau the next day. We would then return north over the Plateau and drop back to the Lairig Ghru with a third camp somewhere along the way.

Clouds on the flanks of Ben Macdui during the climb to the Cairngorm Plateau

Autumn in the Highlands can be an awkward time for gear selection. It might be very wintry. There might be no snow at all. As none of the latter was forecast I didn’t plan on taking ice axe or crampons, though they were in the car in case the weather changed at the last minute, but I did take clothing suitable for winter conditions as it could still be very wet and cold.

Looking back down into the Lairig Ghru before entering the mist

I knew the terrain was rough in places and likely very wet as there had been heavy rain recently. Not really trail shoe conditions as it was also likely to be chilly but not winter boot conditions either so I chose lightweight boots (Inov8 Roclite Pro G 400 GTX) that would keep my feet warm and maybe dry (they did the first but not the second).

As strong winds were forecast I chose the Trailstar as a shelter as I knew it was excellent in storms. It also had plenty of room for the already fairly long nights.


Granite Gear Crown 3 60 pack         1.285kg            £230      ****1/2    Recommended

Likes                        comfort, adjustable hipbelt, pockets, lightweight

Dislikes                    a little awkward to get into when lid is used.
Capacity                   60 litres
Materials                  Robic High-tenacity nylon (100D and 210D)
Closure                     removable lid, roll-top 
Back System            moulded polyethylene framesheet, moulded foam back panel
Hipbelt                     dual density foam, adjustable  
Pockets                    zipped lid, stretch mesh front, two lower side, two zipped hipbelt
Features                   side and front compression straps, ice axe/trekking pole loops, bottom loops for cord/strap, lid converts to a lumbar pack or chest pack 
Sizes                        3                

This was my first trip with the latest version of the lightweight Crown 60 pack and it performed very well. Granite Gear gives a maximum load for comfort of 15kg. I carried 16kg and it was fine. The hipbelt can be adjusted for a precise fit and once I’d done this it was very comfortable and supported the weight well.

The pack hugs the back and is very stable, which was useful when negotiating boulder fields, especially on the descent from Creag an Leth-choin.

The main compartment is quite tall and narrow and can only be accessed from the top so retrieving items deep inside isn’t easy. However there are plenty of roomy pockets for items needed during the day. The front mesh pocket is huge. The two side pockets are big too and are made of solid fabric rather than mesh and so shouldn’t tear. They have drawcord closures to keep the contents secure. The pack lid is detachable and there’s a buckled roll top as well so it isn’t essential. As I like to have a top pocket for small items I kept it in place. It does make accessing the main compartment a bit less easy though as you have to undo both the lid and the roll top.

Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar     482 grams   $230 (c.£170)   *****    Best Buy


Likes                    very roomy, stable, ultralight

Dislikes                nothing 
Design                 pyramid shaped tarp
Material                silnylon
Groundsheet         n/a
Dimensions           6+ sq. metres, high point 115-130cm, depending on pole height

Now ten years old my Trailstar has been used on hundreds of nights and is still in good condition. It’s lightweight and the inner space is vast for one, which makes it great on trips like this where nights are long and wet and windy weather means time in camp is spent under cover. Pitched with trekking poles as a pyramid it can be raised or lowered depending on wind speed and is very reliable in storms. On this trip I had a high pitch the first night with the edges well above the ground for good ventilation as the site was sheltered and then a lower pitch the next two nights with the edges down to the ground to keep out wind and rain. Sitting inside warm and cosy listening to the rain spattering on the nylon while the stove brought water to the boil for a hot drink was a joy, as always.

Gruezi Biopod DownWool Subzero 185 sleeping bag    1.185g   £340   ****1/2  Recommended

Likes                          lightweight, comfort, down/wool insulation, curved zip

Dislikes                      quite expensive
Fill                              410 g 70% 650 fill power down and 30% wool
Shell                           polyamide with PFC-free DWR
Construction                box wall
Zip                              ¾
Sizes                          3
Rating                         comfort 2°C, comfort limit -4°C

This was my first use of this unusual sleeping bag from German company Gruezi that’s just become available in the UK. It’s filled with a mixture of down and wool, a new combination to me. Gruezi says the wool absorbs any moisture, allowing the down to loft fully, and is also temperature regulating. How well this works I can’t yet say but this was certainly a humid trip. I camped on sodden ground and it rained on two nights, and the last night was also in a damp mist. The sleeping bag kept its loft and I stayed warm.

Despite the Subzero name it’s a 3-season bag. I took it on this trip as I wasn’t expecting frosty nights. In fact the overnight temperatures only dropped to 7°C so it wasn’t a severe test. I was able to test the unusual zip though. This curves across the bag near the base so you can stick your feet out if they’re hot. One night mine were and I did. The bag is a mummy shape with enough room to move inside and I found it very comfortable.

Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite NXT      390g (Reg) £210     ****1/2    Best Buy

Pros                lightweight, very compact, very comfortable
Cons               expensive
Type                air bed
Materials         nylon with reflective inner coating
Dimensions     183 x 51cms
Thickness        7.6 cms
R-Value           4.5
Weight             355 grams

This was my second outing with this new crackle free version of the XLite mat. It really is much quieter than the original due to the use of different materials. The new fabric is less slippery too and doesn’t shoot across the groundsheet when you sit up. Although no heavier the XLite NXT is meant to be warmer than the earlier model. I’ve not been able to test this as the nights on this and the previous trip weren’t cold enough. I’ve found the first version warm enough in lower temperatures on other trips. With an R-Value of 4.5 the XLite NXT should be warm in temperatures below zero.

The comfort is excellent, it’s lightweight, and it packs up small. It has Therm-A-Rest’s WingLock Valve so you can stop blowing it up if necessary without it deflating. This valve also makes it very quick and easy to deflate.


Trail Designs Classic Ti-Tri    156 grams       £66        *****    Best Buy


Likes:                    ultralight, windproof, simple         

 Dislikes:               minimal flame control
Cone material:        titanium  
Burner                   aluminium with inner batting and screw-top lids  
Fuels                     meths, alcohol

This has been my first-choice stove system for long walks for over a decade now. It’s simple and lightweight. A titanium cone forms the windscreen and pot support. A small burner sits inside. There are two options for the latter, the 12-10, a tiny aluminium stove with an open well, and the even smaller Kojin, a screw-top tin full of batting that absorbs the fuel. With liquid methylated spirits the latter is my favourite burner. On this trip I brought both as I was using gel fuel for the first time. I quickly found that this works far better with the 12-10 burner. With the Kojin it just sits on top of the batting and not much can be used or it oozes over the sides.

The Ti-Tri is slow at boiling water compared with a gas canister stove. On this trip that was no problem as I had many hours in camp.

The pot that fits this Ti-Tri is my Evernew 0.9 litre titanium one, which I’ve had well over twenty years, and which is still in good condition.

FireDragon Gel Fuel       200ml      £5.99                  *****      Best buy

A bottle of this bio-ethanol gel has been sitting on a shelf for the last couple of years. Having finally decided to try it I wish I’d done so sooner as it’s excellent. I found it much easier to light than methylated spirits using a fire steel. It also doesn’t spill. It’s made from natural ingredients including UK grown grain stocks. FireDragon says it burns hotter than meths and so boils water more quickly. I haven’t yet done a direct comparison but I certainly found it efficient. It burns clean too and doesn’t leave residue on pots. It’ll be my first choice for my Ti-Tri and Trangia stoves from now on.



SAXX Roast Master Mid-Weight base layer top   245g      £65        *****     Best Buy

Likes           fast wicking, soft fabric, environmentally friendly materials
Dislikes       none
Fabric:         87% recycled polyester (89%), 9% Lyocell, 4% Elastane.
Sizes:         S-XXL

Men’s underwear maker Saxx has branched out into base layers and I took the Roast Master midweight top and bottoms on this trip. I didn’t wear the latter (same fabric and price) as it wasn’t cold enough. The top I wore every day and found it fast wicking and comfortable. The soft fabric has a textured knit and feels pleasant feel against the skin. It’s mostly made of recycled polyester with a little elastane to give stretch and 9% Lyocell, a semi-synthetic sustainable material made from wood. Lyocell is very soft, very absorbent, breathable, and anti-bacterial. The latter works well in this garment as after four days often tough and strenuous walking it didn’t smell. It also still felt soft and still removed moisture fast. The top didn’t absorb much moisture either and dried fast when damp. Warmth is about what I expect from a midweight base layer. Great in cool weather, probably too warm in summer. The length is good as well, so it doesn’t easily pull out of your trousers. It’s one of the best synthetic base layers I’ve used in many years.


Helly Hansen Odin 1 World Infinity Shell Jacket   455g (L)      £460    ****1/2   Recommended

Likes                           lightweight, pockets, environmentally friendly fabrics

Dislikes                       expensive
Materials                     PFC-free recycled polyamide/ polypropylene membrane
Hood                           front drawcord, rear volume adjuster, stiff peak, helmet compatible
Front Closure               water-resistant zip, inner flap
Pockets                      two zipped handwarmer, 1 zipped chest
Hem                           drawcord
Cuffs                           Velcro
Features                      side ventilation zips, Recco transponder, emergency whistle in chest pocket
Sizes                          men S-XXL, women XS-XXL   
As it’s designed for serious mountaineering this was a good jacket to bring with stormy weather forecast. I wanted a shell I felt would cope if the weather turned really nasty up on the Cairngorm Plateau. This didn’t happen but conditions were wet and windy enough that I was glad I had a tough waterproof with me. The jacket has an excellent protective hood and big pockets. It worked well in rain, mist, and wind. Comfort was good as the fabric isn’t as stiff or noisy as some heavy-duty ones.

Breathability was good, with the inside only getting a little damp with condensation. The zipped side vents helped here as did the wide cuffs, which allow ventilation to the sleeves.

Worn over just a light mid layer (Alpkit Woodsmoke shirt) and a base layer the fit was quite loose, which was fine for freedom of movement and also meant I could have worn it over much thicker garments if it had been colder.

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