Sunday, 7 March 2021

Landscape, nature, and outdoor activities

Forest regeneration, Ryvoan Pass, Cairngorms

Recently Alex Roddie posted an excellent thought-provoking piece on the TGO website titled Has outdoor culture become too detached from nature?  I’ve been thinking about the relationship between outdoor activities like hillwalking and nature activities like bird watching on and off for many years and this piece stimulated such thoughts. I agree with Alex that detachment from nature is a problem, but I don’t think it’s a recent problem and I think there are signs that it’s decreasing. There’s also the question of defining mountain culture. I don’t think it’s just one thing. I’m not going into that here, however. Maybe in another post.

In his excellent book Our Place (my review here) Mark Cocker writes about the ‘Great Divide’ between landscape protection and nature conservation that began many decades ago. National Parks were seen as being about the first (which may partly explain why biodiversity is poor in many of them) while nature reserves were about the second (though many of these seem more concerned with maintenance of an already depleted environment rather than restoration). This split seems to be echoed by some outdoors people and organisations. Many years ago, I remember a response to a piece I wrote about forest restoration from a walker who said he didn’t want trees because they spoiled the views. And way back in the late 1970s I remember talking to a rock climber who said he didn’t like having to walk to a crag because it was boring, and the ideal climb would start at the roadside so the belayer could sit in the car. He had no interest in nature.

Whilst there were always some mountaineers, walkers and climbers who didn’t think there was a divide between nature and landscape and outdoor activities going right back to John Muir and earlier I think there are more now. Mountaineering, backpacking, and walking books and articles now often include an appreciation of nature as a given. Not that many did in the past. Concern for biodiversity, climate change, and the environment in general has grown throughout my lifetime. Partly this is due to more and more easily accessed information, partly it’s due, sadly, to ongoing degradation and destruction – there’s nothing like seeing a favourite place wrecked by a bulldozed road, windfarm, plantation, or ski resort to make you think about conservation. Guidebooks contain more information on nature than they used to and there are books like the SMC’s Hostile Habitats specifically about nature in the mountains.

I’ve never understood this divide myself, maybe because I started out on the nature side. My first walks in flat coastal Lancashire were to watch birds, look at plants, collect seashells and more. My first outdoor books were not backpacking guides or mountaineering accounts but field guides to birds, animals, and plants. The first piece of outdoor gear I ever owned was a pair of binoculars, which I treasured. When I discovered mountains and hills I didn’t forget the birds and plants, I just had a new world in which to see them.

Reading a natural history guide to the Sierra Nevada on a road walking stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982

I’ve always liked knowing what things are called and how they relate to each other, how nature and a landscape works. On walks in unfamiliar places a natural history guide was more likely to have a place in my pack than a route guide. Now I don’t think being able to give it a name is needed to appreciate a bird or a tree. Enjoyment and connection can be felt without doing so. I do find being able to do heightens my appreciation and understanding. In the same way I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ way to enjoy the hills or wild places. Walking slowly is not better or worse than walking fast. You can ignore or appreciate nature at any speed and while doing any human-powered activity.

In his piece Alex Roddie writes “One of the most damaging ideas in history is that humans are above nature. But we aren’t. The natural world is more than just a playground or a gym; it’s a home for countless other creatures, and it’s under threat as never before. That includes our mountains.”  I agree. I wrote something similar in my first book, forty-five years ago: “our modern detachment from nature, from the force of which we are a part, our futile attempt to prove ourselves separate from and superior to the ecological system that allows us to live, our view of the world as an enemy to be conquered, and a bottomless treasure chest to be exploited, are the very escapist and selfish attitudes that have led us to the brink of the abyss of annihilation on which we are poised. Re-establishing our place in the natural scheme of evolution and the real world is essential if we are to have a future”.

I feel sad that after all these years my words still apply and that the need to do something about this has grown more urgent. I do hope that we are at a turning point though. Pieces like Alex Roddie’s help and are needed.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Muirburn Is Back: The Environmental Cost

Muirburn, Cromdale Hills, February 25

Just a few days after the thaw clouds of smoke on the Cromdale Hills showed that muirburn - the burning of heather to improve habitat for red grouse so there are more of them to shoot - has started again. Banned during the first lockdown because of the danger to fire crews and others if a fire got out of control it wasn't banned during the current one. In my opinion it should be banned full stop.

Muirburn damages deep peat, a carbon dioxide store, and thus contributes to climate change when it occurs on peat moorlands. Revive: the Coalition for Grouse Moor Reform (a group well worth supporting) says "independent research commissioned by Revive has shown that 4% of Scotland's landmass is regularly burned on for grouse moor management while around 40% of land used for burning overlies deep peat". Revive quotes Richard Dixon, Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, as saying "the Scottish Government is spending millions to restore damaged peatlands in some parts of Scotland so it is clearly ridiculous to allow muirburn to threaten the peat stored on grouse moors.  Muirburn is a nineteenth century practice that has no place in the twenty-first century.”

Muirburn is also bad for biodiversity. Apart from the creatures and plants that die in the fires the resulting habitat is impoverished. Muirburn is intended to benefit just one plant - heather - and one bird - red grouse. And just so people can enjoy killing the latter. 

Peat damage and poor biodiversity are both important reasons to oppose muirburn. I think appearance matters too. The pattern of burnt strips on grouse moors is ugly and shows that this is an unnatural environment. Let's do away with heavily managed grouse moors and let nature take over, protecting deep peat, increasing biodiversity, and restoring beauty. It's time for a change.

Monday, 1 March 2021

Farewell to February: A Month of Two Halves in Pictures

Dusk, February 1

February began with snow, continuing the conditions that had held since Christmas, the longest period with snow at this level for ten years. As the Covid-19 lockdown continued all my outdoor trips were from the front door. The furthest I travelled by car was the five miles into Grantown-on-Spey for food and, once, to get my first Covid jag.

As the snow deepened snowshoes or skis became the easiest ways to move about and utilised both. I do love being able to put them on at the front door and set off into the snowy wilds. 

Snowshoes, February 4

Here are photos from the first two weeks of the month. 

View to the Cromdale Hills, February 4





 

Snowing, February 4

Snow cloud, February 7

A cold wind, February 7

Rest stop, February 7

The Cromdale Hills, February 8

Ski tracks, February 8

Ski tracks, February 11

Bynack More and the Cairngorms, February 11

Snow and sun, February 12

The weekend of the 13th and 14th the weather began to change. Winds shifted to the south, temperatures rose and the snow began to thaw. In less than a week most of it had gone. Some days you could almost see it disappearing. Rain fell, hastening the melt. The world changed. On a trip into Grantown I went down to the River Spey to watch the snow rushing away to the sea.

The last snowfall, February 13


Here are some images of the last two weeks of the month.

Track to the house, February 15

Track to the house, February 16

Rainbow, February 16

Rain, February 17

Shrinking snowfields, February 18

The high Cairngorms are still white, February 21

The River Spey takes away the snow, February 24

The woods are waiting for spring, February 25




Sunday, 28 February 2021

The Great Outdoors April issue

The Aprill issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. Yes, I know it's not quite March but there's a Spring issue to be squeezed between April and May.

In this issue I review three pairs of dark glasses and goggles, the Inov-8 Roclite Pro G400 shoes, and the Land Rover Explore R phone, and have a first look at the new Jetboil Stash stove system. 

In the first piece of a guide to backpacking tents sponsored by Hilleberg I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different types of tents. Sponsered by Hilleberg? That's the way magazine advertising is going at present and it's advertising that keeps magazines alive. I think it's okay as long as it's clearly labelled, as this piece is, and as long as the editorial section is independent, which mine is. 

Also in the gear pages Lucy Wallace reviews nine head torches. 

Away from gear there's a glorious opening spread of Tryfan and the Ogwen Valley by Alan Novelli.  Hannah Lindon describes the Dubhs scramble in the Cuillin, a route recently descended by Danny MacAskill on a mountain bike, which is astounding. Hannah Lindon also asks virologist Muge Cevik about the risks of Covid-19 transmission in the outdoors. The answers are very reassuring. TGO Challenge co-ordinators Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden look at the magic of winter camping, something I'm really missing at the moment. Jim Perrin is captivated by Caer Caradoc in Shropshire.

In longer features Quintin Lake describes the three inland diversions to the highest summits of England, Wales and Scotland that he made during his five year walk round the coast of mainland Britain, Jessie Leong describes how she became a Mountain Leader, David Lintern takes on the scrambly south ridge of Ben More Assynt, and Kristen Thue takes on a much bigger scramble, Corsica's GR20.






































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Friday, 26 February 2021

Live Stream Interview with The Outdoors Station

  
Camp on the Pacific Northwest Trail

Next Wednesday, March 2, I'm doing a live stream interview with The Outdoors Station. I'll be talking about my outdoor life, long walks, gear, wilderness, writing, and probably lots more. Listeners will be able to ask questions too.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Navigation and Mapping Apps Review

 

With the current interest in the future of ViewRanger and much discussion on social media about mapping and navigation apps I thought I'd post an edited review of some apps that I wrote for The Great Outdoors last year. I've left the ViewRanger review as I wrote it though it's no longer open for new subscriptions. I left out my review of MemoryMap as it's been significantly revised and I haven't tried the latest version. I've also omitted mentions of apps only available for Apple operating systems as I can't actually test these and apps that don't offer UK mapping. I've removed the prices too as these may have changed.

Mapping and route apps have proliferated in recent years with the rise in popularity of smartphones. With mapping apps, you can find your position via GPS and plan and record routes. Some apps allow you to identify features or watch 3D flyovers as well. Here I’m looking at apps designed for smartphones. There are of course standalone GPS units from the likes of SatMap and Garmin that offer the same mapping and features.

Apps that run on desktop and laptop computers are excellent for planning and you can print sheets for specific routes. I’ve been doing the latter for many years, especially on long walks like the TGO Challenge where it saves weight. On one Challenge my printouts of OS Landranger maps weighed 111 grams. The six full maps covering the route weighed 498 grams. Of course, the printouts covered much smaller areas than the full maps. However, I had full coverage on my smartphone to use if I wandered off the printed map.

One advantage of digital maps, both on desktop and smartphone, is being able to zoom in and out, for more detail or for an overview of an area. When planning routes I often do this frequently.

Route apps offer pre-planned routes to follow and often have the option of adding your own. Some are also proper mapping maps as well with OS maps, but many only have basic maps and should be used in conjunction with other mapping. For outdoor use the mapping needs to be OS or Harvey, the same as the printed ones. Street maps, Google maps and the like are not adequate.

Many apps also offer mapping for other countries. I’ve used app maps for long walks in various parts of the USA and in the Alps. Again, these need to be large scale topographic maps.

There are apps for Windows, Android, iOS and macOS. Many have versions for all four, but some are specific to particular operating systems.

As seems the case with all digital stuff (my camera has more options than I know what to do with, never mind my smartphone) these apps are complex with a plethora of features. Time is needed to learn what they can do, and which features are most useful. There isn’t the space here to cover all the aspects of each product so I’ve concentrated on those I think are of most use to hillwalkers, that is position location, recording routes, plotting routes, route information, printing maps, and share options (so you can share your location). If you use a GPS unit some apps will allow you to import and export GPX files.

Most apps are free but only come with basic mapping, if any. Pricing for maps is complicated as most companies offer many options. Subscriptions are the best value for money and a way to ensure your maps are regularly updated. Buying just the maps you want outright may be initially cheaper, but you don’t get updates and it can get expensive if you need many maps.

It is often argued that smartphones aren’t suitable for use in the hills, that they can fail, that batteries run out, or that they may not be able to get a signal. The latter is based on a misconception. If you’ve downloaded the maps to your phone a phone connection isn’t needed. GPS will show your location. Indeed, it’s best to turn the phone signal off to save battery power.

I’ve been using a smartphone for navigation for over a decade and have yet to have a serious problem. I carry a battery charger, so I don’t run out of power. I used to keep my smartphone in a protective case but last year I replaced with a waterproof rugged one that doesn't need protecting (see this review). Of course, if you only have one navigation option and it has problems there can be difficulties. That applies to printed maps and physical compasses too. Maps can blow away; compasses can break or fail. Whether you prefer to use a printed map and compass or a smartphone it’s wise to carry the other as a backup. I always do. Mapping apps usually have a digital compass. Whilst this is good for general directions it doesn’t replace a physical compass.

Most of the apps offer free trials so you can try them out and see which one best suits your needs.

 Reviews

Note: How well apps run depends in part on the hardware. I tried the Windows and Android apps on a Windows 10 PC and a Samsung Galaxy S7 Android smartphone. Both are quite old and not that powerful. The apps ran fast enough for me though.

 


Anquet  Outdoor Map Navigator      ****1/2   Best Buy overall     www.anquet.com          

Likes                 fast, print option, offline desktop app

Dislikes            only UK maps

Platforms         Windows, iOS, Android, MacOS

Maps                OS Landranger & Explorer, Harvey Superwalker, Harvey British Mountain

Features           track recording, offline desktop maps (Premium Plus), GPX compatible

Offline             yes

Launched back in 2001 offering maps on CD Anquet was one of the first companies selling digital mapping. Since it began it has moved with the technology and now offers subscriptions for downloads to smartphones and computers, providing a service rather than a one-off sale.

When I last tried Anquet ten years ago one-off downloads had just begun and CD mapping was still available. It worked well then and it still does. Downloading the app to both PC and smartphone was fast.  The maps downloaded and opened quickly on the latter but were slow on my ageing PC.

An excellent feature with the OS Premium Plus subscription is the option of downloading the app and maps to your desktop computer for planning routes and printing. I find this more versatile and faster than using a web browser.  It’s much easier to plot a route on a large screen than a small one so this is a very useful feature. Routes can then be synchronised with your smartphone or printed out.

There’s no 3D or augmented reality feature. Anquet says it is concentrating on ‘getting more done with simpler interfaces’ and a third version of OMN will be launched later this year, available to current subscribers. I don’t miss 3D, but I do fine augmented reality useful for identifying distant features. It’s not essential though. You can record tracks and waypoints and sync them on the desktop.

I found Anquet OMN easy to learn and powerful. As a combined smartphone and desktop app it’s excellent.

 


RouteBuddy     https://routebuddy.com/                        Best for Desktop   ****1/2

Likes               route planning, printing, merging OS and Harvey maps

Dislikes          no android version

Platforms       Windows, macOS, iOS

Maps              OS Explorer & Landranger, Harvey Superwalker, British Mountain & Summit, USA,

                       France, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand maps

 Features        route planning, map stitching, printing, track planning and recording

Offline           yes

The RouteBuddy app comes in two forms -RouteBuddy Desktop Map Software for Windows and macOS and RouteBuddy Atlas for iPhones. Sadly, there is no android version. This is a shame as RouteBuddy is one of the best desktop mapping programmes I’ve used. It’s powerful and fairly complex but quite easy to learn. Maps can be downloaded to your desktop for studying and planning and drawing routes. This gives you far more options than web mapping.

Plotting routes, even long ones, is easy. I’ve planned several TGO Challenges on RouteBuddy, printing out A4 route maps to carry with me. You can also drag and drop route files from a GPS, from friends or from websites. Routes you plot or record give elevation, ascent, descent and more (useful for the TGO Challenge route form – no need to count grid squares or contour lines).

RouteBuddy has a unique feature that I love. It can seamlessly stitch together OS 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 maps and both OS scales and Harvey maps. I’ve used both OS scales and Harvey maps for TGO Challenge routes. RouteBuddy connects them so well that the scale becomes the same, but you have all the extra details when it’s the 1:25,000 map and all the features when it’s a Harvey map. Satellite and road maps can be layered too.

I only have one problem with RouteBuddy. There’s no app for Android so I can’t have it on my smartphone. Otherwise my only minor complaint is that it’s easy to lose many hours planning routes and enjoying the maps.

 

ViewRanger  (now OutdoorActive)   *****  Best for smartphone     www.viewranger.com 

Likes               easy to use, Skyline augmented reality, BuddyBeacon, worldwide maps

Dislikes          BuddyBeacon requires a data connection, no print option

Platforms       iOS, Android

Maps              OS Explorer & Landranger, Harvey Superwalker & British Mountain

Offline           Yes

Features         Skyline augmented reality, track recording and sharing, 3D Flyovers,

                       BuddyBeacon, compass

ViewRanger is a well-established mapping app for smartphones and one that I know well, having been using it for over ten years, both in the UK and in the USA and the Alps. Mostly I’ve used it to find my location and for navigation. You can’t download maps to a laptop or desktop computer, but it is easy to plan routes on the ViewRanger website and then download them to your smartphone. You can also see and download routes created by others for any area by entering a location or postcode. I did this for the GR5 through the Alps. There are thousands of routes on the website. You can’t print from the web maps though.

A good extra feature of ViewRanger is the BuddyBeacon, which allows you to share your real-time location with friends and family. It’s pin protected so only those you choose can see the information. However, you do require a data connection so it’s not usable everywhere.

ViewRanger also has an augmented reality tool called Skyline. With this you can use your phone’s camera to identify peaks, lakes and more. ViewRanger says it knows the location of more than 9 million points on 80% of the Earth except the polar regions. This is a fascinating and useful feature, naming features in the landscape. You can even use it to guide you along a route. And of course, you can take a photo with the features named on it. Another fun feature to play with is Flyover in 3D which allows you to pan and zoom around routes.

ViewRanger is well-designed and easy to use, both on and offline. It’s an essential part of my outdoor kit.

 


OS Maps Premium   ****1/2   Recommended      www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk

Likes                 easy to use, Augmented Reality Viewer, print option, use codes from paper maps

Dislikes            only OS maps

Platforms         Windows, iOS, Android

Maps                OS Explorer, OS Landranger

Features           track recording, augmented reality, aerial 3D

Offline              yes

On a smartphone the OS Maps app works just the same as ViewRanger. Download the maps and use GPS to find your location. You can record routes on a smartphone and plan routes on all platforms or else find pre-planned routes. The last two are best and most easily done on a large computer screen. There’s an augmented reality option, AR Viewer, that allows you to identify features in the landscape for the smartphone app and an aerial 3D option on the website.

From a PC  you can print map sheets as long as you have an internet connection. If you have a big enough printer you can print to A3 size.

For UK only use with OS maps this app is fine, especially if you want to print maps as well as have them on your smartphone. There are no other map options though so if you go abroad you’ll need another app. You can’t buy individual maps either. However, if you buy a paper map it comes with a code so you can download a digital map. This is a one-off and you don’t get other features.

 


OS Locate      https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/os-locate     *****   Recommended

Platforms      iOS, Android

Maps             no

Features       grid reference, digital  compass, share button

Offline          yes

Costs             free

OS Locate is a simple free app that gives you a grid reference and a compass bearing. You can link it to downloaded OS maps but as your position is shown on those anyway I don’t see much point. However, it’s an excellent app to use with paper maps. If you’re not sure where you are click and there’s a grid reference. This used to be all GPS units did before they gained mapping and lots of bells and whistles. There’s a digital Silva compass too, which you can use to take bearings, using two fingers to turn the bezel, though it’s easier with the real thing. If you have a phone connection your position can be shared via email or social media.

I think this is an excellent app and worth having even if you only use printed maps and compass for navigation, especially as it’s free.


 

Komoot    www.komoot.com     ***

Likes                planning

Dislikes           maps not OS/Harvey standard

Platforms        Android, iOS

Maps               basic

Features          routes

Offline            yes

Komoot is a planning tool for cycling and walking. It’s packed with masses of routes that can be downloaded and then followed on the map on your phone. The maps are fine for road cycling and just about ok for off-road walking. For hillwalking where navigation is crucial Komoot is better thought of as a digital guidebook rather than digital mapping and just as with most printed guidebooks you need a detailed map to go with it. When you zoom in on a map more detail does appear, including contour lines, but it’s still not OS standard. The maps are inexpensive though.

There are masses of routes and you can enter  your activity – hiking, mountaineering, various types of cycling, your fitness from couch potato to Pro. Put in start and finish points and Komoot will come up with a route. I looked for one from Glenmore to Ben Macdui and back and Komoot came up with a sensible option and said  it was an “Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Sure-footedness, sturdy shoes and alpine experience required”, which sounds reasonable. It also gave a very precise time – 9:21 – a distance of 17.5 miles and an ascent of 3700 feet. Routes are customisable and you can enter in options you’d like to see on the map – everything from restaurants to mountain passes.  

Komoot also has turn-by-turn voice navigation. I think this would drive me crazy! However, it does seem more designed for cyclists and runner than walkers as on the website it says “when you’re hurtling downhill you don’t want to fumble for your phone to know where to go”.

If you like footpath guidebooks, then Komoot may well suit you.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

ViewRanger: thoughts, memories, the future

On the GR5 Through the Alps, 2018

ViewRanger, the navigation and mapping app, is changing. In fact eventually the name will disappear as it's integrated into another app, Outdooractive. Recently I asked ViewRanger about the changes and wrote a piece on this for The Great Outdoors online. This elicited a large response. Many people obviously like ViewRanger and don't like the idea of it changing. 

On the Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010

Thinking about ViewRanger I realised that the app has accompanied me on every walk, long or short, for over a decade. No piece of physical equipment has done that. ViewRanger has been on several different phones in that time and has helped me navigate on the Pacific Northwest Trail and the GR5 Through the Alps, and in the High Sierra, Death Valley and, every month, the Scottish Highlands. Sometimes it's made navigation far easier than it would have been with just map and compass. Finding the hidden start of a faint trail in dense forest on the Pacific Northwest Trail, keeping me on the right ridge during a long descent through another forest into Death Valley, crossing the Cairngorm Plateau in a white-out.

ViewRanger in 2009

Having tried ViewRanger for the first time in 2009 I was impressed enough to use it on the Pacific Northwest Trail the next year. Indeed, I bought my first smartphone in order that I could do so. (I was loaned the one for the 2009 trial). After that smartphones came and went but ViewRanger remained. It did just what I wanted it to and it did it reliably.

Death Valley, 2016

Will Outdooractive be as useful and reliable? I hope so but I don't know yet. It's a much bigger app with far more features, most of which I probably won't want. As long as I can ignore them I won't mind that, just as I don't mind the ones that have been added to ViewRanger and which I've never used. My ideal navigation app has good mapping (OS/Harveys in the UK, equivalents elsewhere), gives your position fast and accurately, and can record or follow routes. That's it.

The ViewRanger app will be around for at least a year but it will disappear. I'll be sorry to see it go. It's been part of my outdoor life.