Sunday 30 March 2014

Snow & Sunshine: Springtime on the Cairngorm Plateau

View across the Cairngorm Plateau to Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine & Braeriach

A few days ago I wandered up onto the Cairngorm Plateau on a day of sunshine and drifting clouds. The blue of the sky and the brightness of the high sun told of the changing seasons. Out of the cool easterly wind the air was warm. Round the edges of the Plateau the snow was thawing and the streams were full with the melt. Previous mild days had stripped the snow from many of the summits and exposed ridges but the heart of the Plateau was still white, a whiteness that shimmered and flashed in the sunlight. This was because the snow, as I quickly found, was very icy, requiring crampons for security. Although there were still big deep drifts in the hollows and corries much of the snow was also very thin with rocks poking through. Much more warm weather and it will be gone. Huge cornices hung over steep edges, looking ready to collapse.

Cornices on Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

Pairs of ptarmigan, some half white, half grey as they began the change into their summer plumage, scuttled across the rocks. A large flock of snow buntings fluttered low over the snow. Down in the corries there was a hint of green. There was a feeling of change, of anticipation. Distant views faded away into haze, the sharp clarity of clear winter days gone. The hard snow crunched under my crampons, the only sound. Looking south from Ben Macdui white hills faded into the distance.

Ben Macdui

As the sun sank towards the mountains I returned across the Plateau and cut below the great north face of Cairn Lochan. Here in the area of the corrie wall known as the Great Slab the deep snow had cracked and sagged, leaving crevasse - like splits. Earlier in the year scientists from Dundee University said the Cairngorms could have had glaciers as late as the 1700s and that Coire an Lochain was a likely place for the last one. Looking into the corrie I could believe the glacier had returned.

Cairn Lochan & Coire an Lochain

Having lingered to watch the last sunlight on the summits I made my way down to the car park as the clouds turned red and orange and the sky darkened to black. 

After sunset

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Nordisk Telemark 2 ULW Tent Review

Camp in the Lairig Ghru

My review of the ultralight Nordisk Telemark 2 ULW tent, which featured in my recent post Linking the Lairigs, is now online on The Great Outdoors website here.

The weather was somewhat harsher than expected on the Lairigs trip so the tent was really tested. The flash photo below was taken at 5.30 a.m. on the second morning after I'd decided to pack up early due to the strong winds, which were gusting to 50mph. Note the rain on the lens.This is the only photo I took of that camp!

Saturday 22 March 2014

Hard Lessons & Inspiration: Learning Backpacking

Camping in the High Sierra on the Pacific Crest Trail

Writing my Pacific Crest Trail book has led me to think about the early days of my backpacking life so I've pulled another piece out of my archives that might be of interest:

Thinking back to some of the mistakes I made as a novice backpacker makes me shudder. Did I really suffer that much? Yes I did! With no instruction or mentors I learnt initially by trial and error, mostly the latter. Sleeping out in the rain in a feather and down sleeping bag in a plastic survival bag and discovering the joys of condensation and a wet bag; trying to sleep on frozen ground with no insulating mat and discovering why these pieces of expensive foam were needed; buying a piece of open cell foam from a market because it was cheaper than a real camping mat and finding out just how much water it absorbed when sleeping in a single-skin tent with no vents in the rain – result: a sodden sleeping bag again. Then there was humping an external frame pack round the English Lake District with no hipbelt (these were “optional extras” in Britain in the early 1970s). A shocked American hiker had me try on his pack with hipbelt – I’ve been in loved with hipbelts ever since! I also had the experience of realising that one of those compass things might be a good idea after getting lost on the featureless moorland of Kinder Scout in a November storm and descending in the dark, cold and wet. I also realised a torch would be a good idea as I stumbled into bogs and fell over rocks. Then, just a week later, I realised that spare batteries were a good idea as my new torch failed as it had accidentally switched on in the pack and I was again slipping and sliding down in the darkness. I was cold and wet too as my cheap thin nylon cagoule leaked through the seams. I solved the last by going to the other extreme with a bulky, heavy 8oz neoprene coated cagoule with taped seams. The condensation was horrendous (this was long before Gore-Tex) but it never let in a drop of rain.

Those episodes and more taught me a great deal, as they would anyone who survived them. I don’t recommend following my example though. Far better to learn from those with more experience, whether in the wilds or from books, blogs and articles. Back in my early days the Internet didn’t exist so I couldn’t just pull up advice and gear reviews in an instant. Instead, when I realised that I would like to be safer and more comfortable, I read backpacking manuals and joined The Backpackers Club, a new organisation in Britain at the time. Those books – Peter Lumley’s Teach Yourself Backpacking and Derrick Booth’s The Backpacker’s Handbook (whose title I pinched for my own how-to book a few decades later) – were invaluable. I still have them and when I glance through them now, although the gear seems old-fashioned the advice is sound. I also went on Backpacker’s Club meets and learnt much by talking to experienced backpackers as well as hiking with them and observing the techniques they used.

As well as instructional books I read books about long-distance hikes and soon aspired to undertake similar walks. My first really long walk was inspired by John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain, the story of a backpacking trip from the farthest apart points on the British mainland, Land’s End and John O’Groats. Hiking 1250 miles that spring long ago was a revelation. Two weeks and 270 miles was my previous longest walk. This one was long enough to become what I did, my way of life for the 3 months it took. This, I realised, was really living, this was what I wanted to do. Also on that walk I discovered my love for real wildness as I crossed the Scottish Highlands and revelled in the remoteness and vastness compared with the English countryside. I still didn’t know what real wilderness was though. And I didn’t know I didn’t know either.

After Hillaby came Hamish Brown and his wonderful Hamish’s Mountain Walk, the story of the first ever walk over all the Munros in Scotland and still one of the best long distance hiking books I’ve ever read. Inspired by Hamish and my walk through the Highlands on the Land’s End to John O’Groats trip I set out to climb all the Munros on backpacking trips. It took me 4 years, during which I undertook two 500 mile hikes and several shorter ones (including the first TGO Challenge), and I learnt much in the stormy Highlands where camps are often exposed and subject to high winds and heavy rain. I think that if you learn backpacking skills there you can easily adapt them to anywhere else. (Many years later I spent 41/2 months on a continuous walk over all the Munros plus the subsidiary Tops during a wet summer that really tested my skills and my perseverance).

Whilst bagging the Munros I was lent a book an acquaintance had picked up in the USA, a book that would
change my life even more than Hillaby’s and Brown’s had done. It was The Thousand-Mile Summer by Colin Fletcher. Reading Fletcher’s wonderful prose about backpacking in big wilderness in California inspired me to think about hiking overseas. A little research (again, without the Internet – I can’t imagine now how I did it!) turned up the Pacific Crest Trail. I knew the moment I read about it that I wanted to hike it. The year after completing the Munros I took my first very nervous steps north from the Mexican border. Although early April it was hot and the desert landscape was completely alien to me. I had much to learn again. My first lesson was that a half litre water bottle is nowhere near adequate in dry places. In Scotland I barely ever carried any water – there were always plenty of streams and pools. The idea of no water for tens of miles was inconceivable (again, the information now available on the PCT wasn’t around back then). Once I’d added some soda bottles to my load so I could carry enough water all was well though and I began to enjoy and appreciate the strange landscape.

The next challenge came as I approached the High Sierra. Late snow meant it was completely snowbound. I bought some snowshoes and crampons and teamed up with three other hikers. Together we made it through the snow, taking three weeks on the longest section. My pack was so heavy at the start that I couldn’t actually lift it. I had to sit down, put it on then gingerly stand up. Every hour or so I had to rest as my shoulders and hips were going numb. However I can’t now remember the weight or the pain it engendered but I can remember the joy of spending so many days without leaving the wilderness. The weight was ridiculous and I’ve never carried such a stupid load since but the rewards made the effort worthwhile.

For much of the PCT the beauty and wildness of the landscape had me floating along on a high. I was astounded and overjoyed to discover such wilderness. The whole trail was an inspiration. It remains the one walk that stands out in my memory; the one where I discovered real wilderness and the great pleasure of hiking and living in it. Since the PCT I’ve done many other long walks, most recently the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Scottish Watershed, and all have been great experiences. None has quite the magic or power of the PCT though. That was my first wilderness walk and as such remains special.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Scottish Watershed Gear Report

In the Fannichs

With people planning long walks for the coming spring and summer I thought it might be useful to post this piece on how the gear performed that I took on my 700 mile Scottish Watershed Walk last year. It first appeared in The Great Outdoors last autumn. 
A long walk is always a good way to see how gear performs and how well it lasts. My Scottish Watershed walk last summer took 55 days and involved a huge variety of terrain – grassy hills, dense forests, heather moorland, muddy fields, rocky ridges and masses and masses of bogs. There’s no path most of the way so the going was often quite arduous. The weather was varied too. Overnight temperatures ranged from 2º to 15ºC. Only 13 nights were above 10ºC though. The driest, sunniest weather was near the start and at the end. Mostly it was cloudy and windy with rain on twenty days. The fine weather enjoyed by most of Britain didn’t often reach the Watershed.

I walked 1200 kilometres. Map kilometres that is. Because of the lack of paths and the very rough nature of the terrain I reckon I probably actually walked half as much again.

Overall my gear performed well and there’s not much I’d have changed. The weight of my load varied depending on how many days’ supplies I was carrying. I set off with a week’s supplies several times and once with ten days worth. Some items weren’t carried for the whole trip. It mostly weighed between 12 and 18kg.


I’ve liked Inov-8 Terroc trail shoes for many years and I’d worn them on other long distance walks so they were my choice. Inov-8 changed them this year though and I was interested to see if the new design would perform as well as the original one. If they didn’t I’d have had problems so I was relieved they turned out to be just as good. The latest version has solid rather than mesh uppers and is a little higher at the rear. The tongue is slightly wider and a little more padded too. The fit is the same – just wide enough for me at the forefoot while snug at the heel. The wind can’t blow through the uppers as it did in the mesh ones so the new style Terrocs are a bit warmer, which is good in cool weather but means they are hotter in the heat. They take slightly longer to dry as well. Durability is much better however. At the end of the walk the uppers were still in good condition – the mesh ones usually sprang holes after a few hundred miles. The sole has begun to wear down but there’s still some tread left.

Sandals & Shorts in the Southern Uplands

I hiked around 1000 kilometres in the Terrocs, wearing Hi-Tec Owaka sandals the rest of the time. These lightweight sandals were well worn when I began the walk and some of the straps had pulled away from the soles and the tread was almost flat by the time I finished. They were still wearable though. As well as on warm days I wore the sandals around camp and on rest days.

My socks were Teko merino wool Minicrew ones that I wore most of the time and which had holes in by the end and Light Hiking ones that were kept for camp wear. The Minicrews could be worn for a week at a time whilst remaining comfortable even when soaked, as they often were.


The Lightwave Ultrahike 60 pack was excellent. It always felt comfortable and I never had sore hips or shoulders. It was also stable, which was important when I was lurching about in bogs and dense tussocks or scrambling down steep, greasy slopes. It easily held all my gear. I added a length of shockcord to the front and used this to hold my thin foam pad. My water bottle and map went in the mesh side pockets. Everything else went inside except when my shelter was really wet, in which case I strapped it to the side of the pack.

The Ultrahike is almost waterproof. However the seams attaching the back panel aren’t sealed and I did have some leakage here, though far less than in most packs. I still kept water sensitive gear in waterproof bags. Rather than a single pack liner I used several Exped Fold Drybags for sleeping bag and clothing plus Aquapac and Aloksak bags for items like maps, notebook and smartphone.


My shelter had to cope with some very stormy weather and some awkward bumpy pitches. The Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar did this very well. I love the versatile design which means it can be pitched just about anywhere. I pitched it high with masses of headroom when the wind wasn’t too strong and low with a ground-hugging profile in big storms. Just once I moved it during the night when a ferocious wind kept shaking it and I realised I wouldn’t get much sleep. Moving it just fifty metres downhill made all the difference. As it was midnight and the rain was hammering down I was glad I could pitch it very quickly.

Sheltered forest camp in the Southern Uplands

The Trailstar does not come with a groundsheet or inner so I also took an Oookworks Trailstar Nest, which is a mesh inner tent with sewn-in groundsheet, to keep off the inevitable midges. The Nest was a little fiddly to pitch until I realised I could tie the shockcords to the Trailstar and pitch the two together as a unit. There was enough room for me to sit up in the Nest and store some gear. The complete weight of the Trailstar and Nest and pegs was 1157 grams. Both items showed little signs of wear at the end of the walk.

I used my Carbon Fibre Pacerpoles as poles for the Trailstar. These were the same ones I’d used on the Pacific Northwest Trail when they also acted as tent poles. They are still in good condition.

Sleeping Bag & Mat

I’m a warm sleeper so I reckoned the 650 gram Rab Infinity 300 sleeping bag, which has a comfort rating of +3ºC, would be more than adequate. And so it proved with the bag keeping me very warm on the coldest +2ºC nights. It was also very comfortable. Once the temperature was much above +10ºC it was a little too warm however and I slept with the half length zip undone and the bag draped over me.

Airing the sleeping bag

For insulation and comfort I took a NeoAir XLite Small airbed, which weighs 230 grams and packs up really small. It lasted the whole trip okay and was quite comfortable as long as I didn’t inflate it too hard. It was just big enough for me – any narrower and it would have been uncomfortable. I also carried a thin foam OMM Duomat. This 135 gram mat was used under my feet when sleeping and as a sitmat during the day and in the Trailstar. It was well worth the weight.


Stove choice was partly determined by the likelihood of finding fuel supplies along the way. I was tempted by the simplicity and speed of a gas stove but thought I might not find cartridges everywhere, as turned out to be the case. I didn’t find cartridges anywhere in the Central Belt, not even in Cumbernauld, the only town on the Watershed. I did find meths everywhere, which justified my choice of the 225 gram Caldera Ti-Tri Inferno. This stove works really well in windy weather and is quite fuel efficient. I carried the Inferno insert so I could also burn wood in it but in fact I only did this twice due to the stormy weather and, in many places, lack of fuel. In case I couldn’t find meths I also carried the tiny 3 gram Gram Cracker stand for solid fuel tablets and half a dozen of the latter. I eventually used these during the last 11 day section of the walk when I ran low on meths. The Ti-Tri was the same one I’d used on the Pacific Northwest Trail so I knew it worked well and was durable.

Stove & pots (with coffee & muesli)

My pots were the oldest items I had on the walk. My Evernew 0.9 litre Titanium one is 22 years old and a veteran of many long walks. The MSR 0.6 litre Titanium pot that nests inside it and doubles as a mug is quite young by comparison at just 12 years. Both pots are still in excellent condition.

Other kitchen stuff consisted of a Sea to Summit alloy spoon and an Outdoors Grub Long Strong Spoon. I like two spoons as they are easily lost, bent or broken. For water I had 1.5 and 2 litre Platypus bottles and a 700 ml hard-sided GoLite bottle, which was used to carry water during the day.


In the rain, which was more prevalent than I’d have liked, I wore a 430 gram Rab Myriad Neoshell jacket, which performed really well and was less clammy and more comfortable than many waterproofs though I did get a little damp in it at times. But then conditions were sometimes such – heavy rain, wet cloud, strong winds – that I doubt I could have stayed dry in anything. I often didn’t bother with overtrousers as my walking trousers were reasonably warm when wet and dried quickly. When I did need them I wore an old pair of GoLite Shadow Pants, made from Gore-tex Paclite and weighing 222 grams, which had zips just long enough that I could pull them on over my shoes. These overtrousers worked okay and I never had much condensation in them.

In full waterproofs in wet mist & drizzle on day one

Any fully waterproof fabric restricts breathability to some extent, even Neoshell. In dry windy weather I find a simple windproof top more comfortable so I took the 170 gram Montane Lite-Speed jacket, which is made from Pertex Microlight and which has a hood and a mapsize chest pocket. The Lite-Speed repelled light showers and was comfortable worn under the Myriad jacket.

For warmth I took my old well-used Jack Wolfskin Gecko microfleece top, which weighs 215 grams and has been on many walks over the years. It’s a little thinner than when new but still provides all the warmth I need most of the time in the summer. I wore it in camp every day but only occasionally while walking. With a forecast for unseasonal cold weather at the start of the walk I decided to take another warm garment for at least the first few weeks. Which one was decided a few days before I set off when a new ultralight down top arrived for test from PHD. The Wafer Jacket weighs just 189 grams and compresses into a tiny bundle. It was delightful to wear in camp on chilly evenings and made a reasonable pillow. I ended up carrying it the whole way, though I didn’t wear it much during the last month.

On my legs I mostly wore Paramo Merapi Active Trousers, which are soft, comfortable and windproof. They worked well and stood up surprisingly well to some rough treatment, especially in dense forests. In hot weather I wore an old pair of GoLite shorts, which had an inner brief and so doubled as underwear. On my torso I used the same garments that had performed well on the Pacific Northwest Trail – a Paramo Katmai Light shirt most of the time and an Icebreaker merino wool T-shirt in the coolest, wettest weather.

I didn’t bother with gloves but I did have a Smartwool Beanie for cool weather, and was glad of it. For the sun I started out with a Tilley Hat but accidentally left this behind in Moffat (I got it back eventually). I replaced it with a cotton cap that cost me £5 in Tesco’s in Cumbernauld and which proved surprisingly comfortable and hard wearing.


For navigating, which was difficult in places as the Watershed is not always clear, I had 1:50,000 OS maps with the Watershed marked on them, a Silva Type 3 compass and an HTC Desire S smartphone and Nexus 7 tablet, which both have GPS. I had ViewRanger software and OS maps on both devices. As on previous trips I found the easiest way to navigate in poor visibility was to locate my position on the GPS map and then use my compass and paper map. I didn’t need both phone and tablet for navigating of course but  each had other functions as well. I carried spare batteries for the phone plus a charger for phone and tablet that I used at town stops.

In case of emergency and to keep people informed as to my progress I carried a SPOT GPS Messenger for the first time. I sent back location messages most days and everyone got through so I am quite happy with the device.


Other items consisted of a Petzl XP headlamp, small first aid/repair kit, basic wash kit, Kindle e-reader, notebook and pens, dark glasses, reading glasses, mini binoculars, cotton bandanna, watch, Swiss Army Knife and a Kestrel 4500 Weather Station.


My camera gear consisted of Sony NEX 7 and NEX 6 cameras with Sony E 16-50 and 10-18mm lenses, carried in Lowe Pro and CCS padded cases, plus spare batteries and memory cards and a Velbon V-Pod ultralight tripod.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Linking the Lairigs: A Walk In The Cairngorms

Camp in the Lairig Ghru

Finally. High pressure. After a winter of storm following storm the air stilled and the sun shone. The storms have been both positive and negative for mountain lovers. Positive in that masses of snow has been dumped on the Scottish mountains, far more than in other winters, but negative in that high winds and low cloud have made it both difficult and hazardous to actually enjoy the snow. Now that seemed possible so I decided on the first real backpacking trip of the year - by which I mean a trip on which I moved on each day rather than setting up a base camp for a few nights.

Not having been right through the Lairig Ghru pass that splits the heart of the Cairngorms for some time and knowing that it is particularly magnificent when under snow I decided to go that way and then curve round the high mountains and return via the more easterly pass of the Lairig an Laoigh. I set out one afternoon, in good spirits after a fruitful morning meeting, to cross below the great snow-covered Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm, which shone in the bright sunshine, and cut through the rocky snow-stuffed notch of the Chalamain Gap to the Lairig Ghru. The air was hot and still. Sunscreen was important and I rolled up the sleeves of my thin shirt and wore a sunhat.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda & Cairn Lochain in the Northern Corries

As I climbed slowly into the long heart of the Lairig Ghru the sun dropped behind a ridge and I was in shadow. The effort of the ascent kept me warm. Snow patches appeared, soft and treacherous, collapsing under my boots. Gradually the snow grew more extensive and harder and soon I was walking on a firm, crunchy surface that filled the cleft of the pass. To the east the walls were rocky with only a few snow patches. Here the sun had done its work. Indeed, the rocks still glowed with its light. To the east there was much more snow and the shadowed rocks were grey and cold. Several avalanches had crashed down from the cornices high above, some almost reaching the bottom of the pass. Around them dozens of dark rocks lay embedded in the snow, missiles hurled down from above. I kept well to the eastern side. Who knew where the next avalanche would stop?

Avalanche in the Lairig Ghru

Two skiers climbed towards me, their skis over their shoulders. On reaching flat snow they changed from awkward lumbering walkers to graceful skiers and sped away over the pass. They were the second skiers I'd seen. The first were also carrying their skis. I'd considered bringing mine. I was glad I hadn't. I'd have spent too much time carrying them. And the snow was mostly fine for walking.

Skier in the Lairig Ghru

Once through the highest part of pass I could see the peaks to the south, their summits still catching the sun. I descended until below the snowline then found a dryish, reasonably flat pitch for the tent. A bright nearly-full moon rose over the shoulder of Ben Macdui, its pale radiance sweeping the ground and making the snow high above glow with a faint and eerie light. A frost quickly coated the tent. Stars appeared. There was not a breath of wind. A perfect night in the mountains.

Orion hangs above Bod an Deamhain (The Devil's Point)

It was not to last. I fell asleep with the doors open, still staring at the sky and the snow and the mountains. The temperature was -2ºC. A cool wind on my face woke me. The tent was flapping lightly. I looked at my watch. 2 a.m. I zipped the tent shut. An hour later I woke again, feeling hot. The temperature was +6ºC. I looked out. The frost was gone. So were the stars and the tops of the mountains. Grey cloud covered the sky.

A Starry Sky above the Lairig Ghru

The following day the clouds remained, mostly. Occasionally the sun almost broke through. Occasionally the clouds faded and scattered, revealing patches of blue sky. But the greyness always swept back in. This meant a day for other joys than mountain watching and revelling in big landscapes. The air was warm and the lower snow thawing which made for many attractive streams and rivulets speeding down rocky chasms and spilling over onto the grass. In Glen Luibeg and Glen Derry I admired the ancient and magnificent Caledonian Pines and was heartened by the extent of regeneration with young little trees everywhere. As I neared the end of the trees in Glen Derry a blackcock with its distinctive black and white plumage sailed in front of me and perched right on the top of one of the bigger pines, the tip of the tree swaying under its weight. Then it was off again, flying low and fast down the glen. 

At times the clouds almost cleared

Later in the day as I was passing the still mostly-frozen Dubh Lochan pools a large dark bird flew towards me. A golden eagle! It flapped past, seemingly ponderous as it made its way low along the hillside against the wind. Then it reached a broad snowfield that stretched from the glen right to the top of the hill. Here the eagle began to spiral upwards, slow and graceful. Each turn seemed to gain little height yet gradually it rose, soon reaching the edge of the mountain. On into continued high into the sky, way above the snow, still turning and turning, with barely a flap of its wings. I felt as though I could still see the track of its flight stretching out below it. Then when it was as high above the mountain as the mountain was above the glen it made a final turn and flew fast and straight into the dark clouds away to the west. Eventually I could see it no more and it was time to move again and continue what seemed my even more slow and clumsy progress through the bogs and snowfields. What must it be like to soar like that, in control of the wind and the sky, to cover in minutes what would take me hours and seemingly without effort.

Despite the snow, the sodden muddy ground and various stream fords I'd managed to keep my feet dry until I came to the Glas Allt Mor, a raging snow-melt torrent. This time I could see no boulders to use as stepping stones, not even ones just below the water. Finding a wide section that didn't look too fierce I waded. The water was knee-deep and cold. Striding uphill afterwards soon warmed up my feet. I hadn't even thought about this stream. My concern was with the River Avon, which I wanted to ford but which I knew might be in spate and too dangerous to cross. That would mean a long walk upstream and along Loch Avon and then fords of the feeder streams of the latter. However when I reached the Fords of Avon the river was still mostly snow-covered, though there were several holes where the river rushed into caverns under the snow and the snowfields were cracked and sagging. I picked a spot in the middle of a long snow bridge and crossed gingerly, trying to put as little weight on each step as possible whilst still moving fast. The snow held. Unless there is a freeze soon the river will become impassable for a while though.

The River Avon, My Tracks on the Left

A few kilometres beyond the Avon I stopped to camp as it was dusk and a climb came next. The top of a low knoll provided a dry spot. There was no wind. I was asleep early, which was good as again the weather changed abruptly overnight. Rain spattering on the tent woke me at 2 a.m. Then at 4 a.m. great rushing gusts of wind shook the tent. I soon realised I would get no more sleep so I dressed, managed to carefully make a hot drink, ate an energy bar and packed up. Often when exiting a tent the weather outside doesn't seem quite so bad. Not this time. I climbed out into a big storm with lashing rain and a wind that nearly knocked me over. The wind continued all day. (An 111mph gust was recorded by the Cairngorm Weather Station). I set off in the dark, my headlamp picking out the rough path. Crossing the shoulder of Bynack More at 800 metres I was twice blown uphill whilst traversing snowfields. Without my trekking poles I'd have been blown over several times. Starting the descent was a relief, as was reaching the first trees and the shelter of Glenmore Forest, though even here the wind was strong and raucous. The walk finished at 9 a.m., a little earlier than intended, by which time I'd walked 10 miles. My car, in a wooded car park, was rocking in the wind. The change in the weather had made the trip more strenuous and more of an adventure than I'd expected. But it had been deeply enjoyable and there is much I'll remember for a long, long time.

Camp in the Lairig Ghru

Tuesday 11 March 2014

In Praise of Bothies

Culra Bothy & Ben Alder

Following the sad news that the excellent Culra Bothy in the Ben Alder region, where I have stayed several times, has been closed* here is a piece in praise of bothies that first appeared in The Great Outdoors a few years ago. 

*Due to asbestos sheeting in the construction. The bothy will probably be pulled down and may be replaced. See news report from the Mountain Bothies Association.

I love sleeping under the stars with nothing between me and the universe. A roof cuts you off from the world. However in the UK the weather too often makes sleeping out rather uncomfortable so a tarp or tent is usually a necessity. And on those trips where the rain beats down day after day and the wind thrashes your tent every night lying in a cramped and increasingly damp piece of nylon can eventually become unattractive too. That’s when bothies come in. These simple unlocked shelters have two big advantages over a tent in stormy weather. Firstly they don’t shake noisily in the wind and flick condensation at you. Secondly they have space in which you can stand and move around without having to don all your clothes and venture out into the wind and rain. Bothies only have basic facilities, sometimes being no more than one room with a wooden floor. Many have several rooms though plus wooden sleeping platforms, old chairs and tables and a fireplace or stove. There often isn’t any fallen wood nearby however so fuel may need to be carried in if you want a fire.

A welcome sight on a stormy day

My first introduction to bothies was during a Pennine Way walk one April long ago. Coming off Cross Fell in dense wet mist I found little Greg’s Hut and spent a warm night there after drying out damp gear in front of a fire. Since then I have spent many nights in bothies and have grown to love the individual quirks and designs of the many different buildings that have been pressed into service as shelters for outdoors people. Bothies are particularly welcome on winter trips, especially when the weather is stormy, as spending long hours cooped up in a small tent can become wearisome. I was reminded of this one February when I hiked the Southern Upland Way, a 13 day trip on which the weather was mostly wet and windy. My second day was spent in wind, rain and low cloud and by the time I reached the little wooden Beehive bothy amongst the dripping trees in Galloway Forest Park I was very glad of its shelter as I had a damp tent from the night before and the wet mist meant that any camp would be very soggy indeed. The next day the weather was worse, starting out with drizzle and finishing with several hours of heavy rain. And throughout I was in thick damp mist. Rather than camp I decided to press on to the next bothy, White Laggan, which I reached long after dark, having been out for 11 hours during which I sloshed some 42 kilometres. The bothy had a good store of wood and a stove so I was soon sitting in the warm cooking my late supper feeling amazingly relieved just to be there. The next morning I stuck my head outside just as the first light was creeping over the land. My journal entry tells the story – “mist blasting past the bothy in wet waves. Very windy. No visibility”. I was glad I hadn’t spent the night in my damp tent.

Warming up in the Beehive bothy on the Southern Upland Way
Bothies are also a place to meet other outdoors people and share experiences. I have had many interesting conversations with walkers and climbers over a hot brew and a bothy fire. Of course sometimes bothies can be crowded – after an experience many years ago when fifteen of us crammed into little Corrour bothy in the Cairngorms, which was really only big enough for half that number, I have always carried a tent or tarp and been prepared to camp out if a bothy is full. The only exception was when I planned a TGO Challenge Route using bothies plus a few B&Bs the whole way across, including one high level rickety wooden hut that was blown down by the wind a few years later. On this trip I found another disadvantage of not carrying a tent – you have to reach the bothy regardless of conditions. Overall it was a difficult crossing – the hardest of the 14 Challenges I have done. There was still deep snow on the hills and the weather was windy and frosty. An ice axe was essential and our route was changed a few times to deal with the conditions (we were blown back from an attempt on Ben Nevis). On reaching the Cairngorms we stayed in Ruigh Aiteachain bothy in Glen Feshie before crossing the Moine Mhor to Corrour bothy. The going was hard work due to the deep soft snow and it was late when we arrived on the rim of Coire Odhar high above the bothy. However the snow on the steep upper slopes of the corrie was hard and icy and, having no crampons, we had to cut steps with our ice axes, slowly zigzagging back and forth across the slope until we reached easier ground. All the time we could see tents outside the bothy so we had the added worry that it might be full. In fact to our great relief it was empty. If we’d had tents we’d have camped on the tops or found an easier way down.

Another attraction of bothies is the bothy book where visitors can record their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Here you can learn about suggested routes in the area, weather conditions at different times of year, problems with river crossings and see how many people use the bothy and at what times of year. (There is one bothy in the Eastern Cairngorms – the Shielin’ of Mark – that has a sudden spike in visitors in the middle of May when TGO Challengers pass by and hardly any visitors at any other time.)

Bothies require maintenance if they are to remain safe and watertight of course. A wonderful volunteer organisation, the Mountain Bothies Association, does the work and deserves the support of everyone who ever uses a bothy. I joined it after my stay in Greg’s Hut and have been a member ever since. The MBA has an excellent website where the Bothy Code – sensible guidelines for using bothies – can be found.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Fleece or Soft Shell?

In the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail.

This piece was written as the introduction for a review of fleece and soft shell jackets in The Great Outdoors several years ago. I was asked recently why I still wore fleece. I think this answers that question. 

Just about every outdoor clothing company makes a range of bright coloured fleece and soft shell clothing and racks of the stuff can be found in every outdoor shop. Look beyond the colours and brand names though and most garments are surprisingly similar with designs dominated by zip-fronted jackets with two lower pockets. This simple design is okay for casual use but not the best for hill walking and backpacking, especially for soft shell. In this feature I’m going to consider the most functional designs and materials for both fleece and soft shell and look at which is best for the hill rather than the high street.


Whilst some fabrics are clearly fleece and some clearly soft shell others are a mix of both so there is no absolute distinction. At what point does a windproof soft shell become a windproof fleece? What about garments with a brushed fleece inner and a smooth soft shell outer?

The basic difference is that fleece is designed to provide warmth not weather protection while soft shell is designed to provide weather protection before warmth. Fleece is only wind or water resistant if a second material – an inner membrane or outer tightly woven shell – is added. Soft shell is wind and water resistant by design. With both fabrics insulation is determined by thickness. Generally fleece is lighter in weight for the same warmth. The warmest soft shells usually have fleece inners, which makes for a fairly heavy and bulky combination. Fleece is very much a mid layer, designed to be worn under wind and waterproof shells while soft shell, as the name suggests, is designed to cope with at least some wind and rain on its own. Fleece comes in different weights (thicknesses). The basic ones are often labelled 100, 200 and 300 after a system devised by Polartec. I think 100 weight fleece, which is the thinnest and lightest, is the most versatile for hill walking as it can be used year round. In summer I carry it as my main warmwear. In winter I often wear it while walking and carry a second warm layer. The heavier fleeces tend to be too warm in summer though people who feel the cold often like them for autumn to spring wear. However 200 and 300 weight fleece and similar are quite bulky and heavy. I’d rather carry two 100 weight fleeces.

Because fleece isn’t windproof it’s very breathable. Condensation inside a fleece is very unusual. Combined with the softness of the fabric this makes fleece very comfortable to wear. However in anything but a light breeze a windproof shell garment is needed. Lightweight windproofs are ideal for this, except in heavy rain, as they are also very breathable. The combination of a light windproof and a light fleece is more breathable than windproof fleece, which is made of two layers of fleece with a windproof membrane sandwiched between them, and usually lighter in weight as well. I think windproof fleece is great for casual use but isn’t versatile or breathable enough for the hills. I can get sweaty very quickly inside a windproof fleece. You can’t separate the layers and just wear one of them as with a fleece and windproof combination either.

Whilst the definition of soft shell is debatable most companies now use it to mean a stretchy fabric that is wind and water resistant and that’s how I’ve used it here. Soft shell garments can be worn as the outer layer much of the time, if the design allows. The last is an important point as many soft shells don’t have the features needed for an outer garment, particularly a hood. Soft shells that rely on a tightly woven structure to repel the weather are not as wind or water resistant as ones with a membrane. Such woven soft shells are quite breathable but also much heavier than fleece for the same warmth whilst still needing a shell in strong winds and rain. They are also slow drying and bulky to pack. I don’t really see the point of these fabrics for jackets (trousers are a different matter) as the performance doesn’t compare with a fleece and windproof shell combination. Soft shell with a membrane is better as it will cope with all but the heaviest rain and strongest winds, meaning that only a very light waterproof need be carried. Even so the weight and bulk of soft shell and the lack of versatility over separate fleece and windproof garments means I only use soft shell jackets on day walks or overnight trips. Of the different soft shells with membranes I’ve found Polartec Power Shield the most breathable as well as being windproof and almost waterproof. The better breathability than other membranes is due to the membrane which is 98% not 100% windproof. Polartec says the remaining 2% allows air to circulate, increasing breathability. It’s not perfect of course and I have got quite sweaty in a Power Shield jacket during long climbs.

Fleece top for warmth in a bothy.


As I’ve indicated most soft shell jackets have poor designs for outdoor use. Makers seem to have forgotten the word “shell” in “soft shell” and gone for standard fleece jacket designs. Few soft shell garments have hoods, which are essential in my view, or front zips and pockets designed to resist rain. If you need to wear a wind or waterproof shell on top of a soft shell in anything more than light rain or a breeze then you’d be better off with a fleece. To be suitable for the hills a soft shell should have an adjustable hood, large pockets accessible when wearing a hipbelt and water resistant closures.

The best designs for fleece are the opposite. In storms fleece is worn under shell garments so big pockets and water resistant zips are unnecessary. A hood can be useful, and can replace a warm hat, but isn’t essential. In fact my favourite fleece is a pullover design with no pockets and only a short zip. It’s very light though and performs perfectly as warmwear, which is all I want.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Achieving the Heights in the Monadh Liath

My trip in the Monadh Liath hills described in my post two days ago required a fair amount of effort and difficult walking. Below the snowline the ground was sodden, the 'paths' ribbons of mud and water. I squelched through the mud, stumbled over wet tussocks and slipped on wet rocks. Only the sight of the snow far above and the blue sky and sunshine kept me going. Despite wearing gaiters my feet were soon wet as my boots, old but comfortable, didn't stay waterproof for long despite being recently treated with wax.

Reaching the first snow didn't make the going any easier. In fact it became harder as the wet sugary snow collapsed under my steps, leaving me floundering knee deep and having to lift each leg high for the next plunge. My thigh muscles felt that the next day. Occasionally I hit rocks too, jarring my back and knees. At this point I wished I'd brought snowshoes or even lugged up my skis, which were now far below in my car.

Finally I reached the high snowfields and firm terrain across which I could stride out. Suddenly the effort of reaching here was forgotten.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Latest edition of The Great Outdoors - Backpacking in the Lakes with Terry Abraham and lots of gear reviews

Terry Abraham filming the Scafells

The April issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. I've contributed a piece on my backpacking and filming trip in the Lake District with Terry Abraham plus a selection of individual lightweight gear reviews including the latest version of GoLite's Jam 50 pack and Primus's new Eta Lite stove.

Also in the gear pages Daniel Neilson selects some interesting new gear from the recent ISPO show in Munich and reviews eight pairs of ultralight trail shoes while John Manning looks at seven lightweight waterproofs. Away from new gear there's an interesting feature on what happens to items donated to Gift Your Gear.

As usual these days the issue starts with some dramatic double-page landscape pictures, of which I particularly like Dougie Cunningham's dawn shot of Trotternish on Skye. This dramatic area is covered again later in the magazine in a feature by Hanna Linden. Further south in the Lake District Vivienne Crow describes remnants of the area's industrial past still to be found in the fells. Away north, far far north, Cat Scully visits the spectacular Lofoten and Vesteralen in Arctic Norway. Also looking far away is Jim Perrin, who praises Ed Douglas's excellent Chomolumgma Sings The Blues in his Hillwalkers' Library column.

Back in Britain Daniel Neilson visits the Ordnance Survey and discusses the appeal of maps in a fascinating article, Alec Forss describes a five-day backpacking trip in the Cambrian Mountains in the heart of Wales, Carey Davies looks at threats to the human heritage of our National Parks and Roger Smith is concerned about the role of government conservation bodies.

The Hill Skills pages look at caring for sleeping bags, terrain traps and avalanche danger (the huge amount of snow in the Scottish hills, which could last for a few more months, means this 'winter' advice is still relevant), dog walking in lambing season, keeping safe near water, the various 'norths' used in navigation and spotting planets.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

The Shining Monadh Liath

A Blue & White World

The Monadh Liath - the grey hills - are often regarded as rather bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the Cairngorms (original name Am Monadh Ruadh - the red hills) just across Strathspey.  However the rolling hills of the Monadh Liath have attractions of their own, especially for those who love feelings of space and vastness. Here the horizons are distant and the high country rolls on seemingly forever beneath huge skies. Under snow the Monadh Liath can be especially magical as I found today on my first winter venture into these hills for several years.

I'd gone to the Monadh Liath as the forecast suggested the summits might be clear and there could even be some sunshine whilst the Cairngorms to the east remained in thick fog. The forecasters were correct. All day a dark boiling mass of cloud covered the Cairngorms while in the Monadh Liath the sun shone and the sky was a deep blue with only occasional squalls darkening the air. 


I climbed two of the four highest summits - A'Chailleach and Carn Sgulain - but the Monadh Liath are not really about peaks (the second of these two is just a gentle rise above the surrounding moorland) but about the whole high level area. Low down I ploughed through sodden heather and grass on slippery, muddy paths. Then came the first snow, soft, deep and unsupportive. Gaining height was hard work. But once I reached the higher snowfields the world changed. Here the snow was firm, crunching under my boots. Firm and smooth. Instead of the wind-blasted rutted snow-ice and deep drifts I've grown used to in the Cairngorms this winter here was a soft blanket spread evenly over the land in gentle folds and drapes. The only marks were the long tracks of mountain hares (I saw several) and the occasional tuft of grass or tip of a boulder.

Clouds building over A'Chailleach

Then there was the light. And what light! The sun shining through the clouds lit up the shape and texture of the snow. The land was white and blue, shining and shadowed, reflecting the blue sky and the bright sunshine and dancing with cloud patterns. The white world stretched out to infinity. There was nothing but snow and sky, forever and forever. Or so it seemed.

Coming down to the dark glen and the bogs and mud my head was still full of the shining world high above. The Monadh Liath had given me the best day of the winter so far.

Saturday 1 March 2014

How Outdoor Gear Has Changed Since 1978

High Sierra camp, Pacific Crest Trail, 1982. My gear bottom left - Wintergear Eyrie Gore-Tex tent, Mountain Equipment Lightline sleeping bag, Therm-A-Rest, Berghaus Cyclops Scorpion pack, Sherpa Sno-Claw snowshoes, Simond Couguar ice axe
Back in 1999 The Great Outdoors magazine celebrated it's 21st birthday. For the anniversary issue I wrote a feature about changes in gear during those years. I came across this piece recently and, with some updates to take account of another 15 years, here it is.

Aah, the good old days! Gear was gear then, none of this soft fluffy stuff. And it was lighter, and tougher. So goes the ageing walker, sitting in the corner of the bar smelling slightly of dead sheep and mildewed cotton. But what gear were walkers using in 1978?  And was it as good as the stuff we use now? A quick flip through the pages of the first issue of The Great Outdoors reveals advertisements for leather boots with stitched soles, non-breathable cagoules (lots of those), fibre-pile jackets, external frame packs, ridge tents, tartan wool shirts and cotton windproofs. There are ads for Gore-Tex and internal frame packs but fleece, lightweight boots, trail shoes, dome and tunnel tents, trekking poles, GPS and much more are strangely absent. I'm surprised though at how many of the brand names are familiar - Vango, Mountain Equipment, Rohan, Karrimor, Berghaus, Field & Trek, Primus, Optimus, Camping Gaz, Nikwax, Gore-Tex, Zamberlan, Sprayway - but who now remembers Pointfive, Boylans, Daimor, Bukta, Camp Trails, Hawkins, Munari, Ultimate?  

Gear was a major feature of the first issue of The Great Outdoors with seven pages devoted to a review of the 1977 Camping Trades Association Exhibition (CTA is now the Outdoors Industry Association), a page of test reports (a waterproof cagoule from Clarks (!) and a polyester filled proofed cotton jacket from Tenson), two pages of thoughts on lightweight camping by Robin Adshead (showing the lightweight approach was in The Great Outdoors from the start), another two pages on choosing backpacking gear at the age of fifty by Andrew Harper and a Meet the Retailer page on The Great Outdoors (of course!), in Yeadon. That's 13 pages in all, a significant chunk of a magazine with just 32 pages of editorial.

Here I've taken a dash through the past; seeking out those items that have lasted and looking at the changes that have taken place.


What we put on our feet has changed amazingly. In 1978 the "lightweight revolution", as it was called, was still a few years away and boots were generally fairly stiff and heavy and always made from leather. I walked from Land's End to John O'Groats in the spring of 1978 wearing 5 lb leather boots with metal shanks in the soles, something I shudder at now. The first signs of change came in 1980 with the launch of Karrimor's K-SBs (then made by Asolo) with fabric/suede uppers and a lightweight flexible synthetic midsole instead of a stiff leather one. TGO editor Roger Smith wrote in his review of the 1980 COLA Show that "1981 could be the year when the lightweight walking boot really makes the breakthrough".  He was right and this was reinforced the next year, 1982, with the launch of the first Brasher Boot and the Scarpa Bionic range. In that year I became committed to the new footwear after starting my 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail walk in 5 lb stiff leather monsters and finishing in 1.5 lb fabric Asolo approach shoes, the forerunners of today's trail shoes. Then as now some people felt lightweight footwear was unsuitable for serious use. In a feature in the February 1993 TGO I wrote "after 1200 miles, with a 60-70 lb pack, I beg to differ". After many, many more miles with many more loads I still do. 

On the Continental Dvide Trail, 1985. New Balance shoes, Karrimor Condor pack, Rohan clothing, Camera Care Systems camera cases

Although improvements continue modern walking boots and shoes are still based on the designs launched in the early 1980s. The only really new development in the 1990s has been sports sandals, which first appeared in Britain at the 1992 COLA Show and which were first reviewed, very positively, in the September 1993 issue by Cameron McNeish.

However the 1990s did see an important breakthrough in the boot fitting system developed by Phil Oren and the use of Superfeet and similar supportive footbeds.

Rohan clothing, Karrimor Condor pack. Continental Divide Trail, 1985

If there is one product that symbolises the difference between 1978 and now it is Gore-Tex. Waterproofs then were made from non-breathable neoprene or polyurethane coated nylon. After a day wearing one of these the inside would be running with condensation. When The Great Outdoors was brand new so was Gore-Tex. In the first issue Robin Adshead (a leading backpacking writer at the time and author of Backpacking In Britain, which I still have) reported on the 1977 COLA Show at which Gore-Tex was launched with garments from Berghaus and Mountain Equipment. Robin wrote that Gore-Tex "works well on some people in some weather conditions " (with which many would still agree) and said of the Mountain Equipment Cascade jacket that it was "not cheap at £38.50 but if Gore-Tex works, it is well worth the money". By the June issue he was "totally satisfied that Gore-Tex has great advantages over less porous waterproof materials". I was convinced too, having worn a Berghaus Mistral Gore-Tex jacket on my Land's End to John O'Groats walk and been amazed at how dry I stayed inside it.

Gore-Tex didn't sweep non-breathables away immediately though. There were durability problems with first generation Gore-Tex and it was expensive (second generation was much longer lasting but less breathable and no less expensive). Slowly though the idea that wearing waterproofs didn't have to mean soaking in your own sweat became accepted. Competition is always a sign of success and in 1983 the first alternative to Gore-Tex, Entrant, was launched. This was soon followed by others, including Sympatex (called Syntatex in TGO!) in 1986 and Paramo in 1989, and by the end of the decade waterproof/breathable fabrics were the norm.

The other great change was the rise of fleece, a name unheard of in 1978 other than on the backs of sheep, which is ironic in that fleece just about saw the demise of wool shirts and sweaters for most walkers. The change began in 1982 with the launch of Mountain Equipment's Thermofleece, followed soon afterwards by Ultimate Equipment's Polapelt. Ultrafleece, still in my opinion one of the best fleece fabrics, appeared in 1984 as did Patagonia's Bunting, which turned into Synchilla a year later. (To be accurate Patagonia had started the fleece revolution some years earlier in the USA but hadn't been available here before). Then 1986 saw the first Malden Mills Polarplus (now Polartec) garments from Berghaus and The North Face and the place of fleece in outdoor wardrobes was assured.

Before fleece there was fibre-pile, a somewhat shaggy, scruffy fabric, though with a better warmth to weight ratio, and after fleece there is still fibre-pile. Indeed the latest fluffy fleeces look more like pile, as it became shortened to, than previous fleece fabrics. Some people never abandoned pile however and paralleling the rise of fleece was the rise of Buffalo with its Pertex/pile garments which were first launched in 1986 and which is still going. The man behind Buffalo, Hamish Hamilton, was also the discoverer of the properties of Pertex (and before that the designer of the original cotton Force Ten tents for Vango).

Chris Ainsworth on a ski tour in the Alps, 1983. Rohan Super Strider breeches and Rohan shirt. This photo was used in a Rohan catalogue.

As well as wool shirts and sweaters and clammy non-breathable waterproofs the walker of the 1970s wore thick baggy tweed or corduroy breeches or trousers. Then along came Paul and Sarah Howcroft and a company called Rohan, just starting out when TGO was launched. Firstly Rohan replaced itchy, heavy wool legwear with stretchy brushed nylon Super Striders, at the time the best cold weather legwear available and the first softshell garments (though the name wasn't used back then). Then for summer came lightweight polycotton trousers and breeches, derided by many (including some who were to make their own versions a few years later) as far too light and flimsy for serious use. They were wrong. My first ever gear review, in the April '79 The Great Outdoors, was of Rohan Summer Striders. I concluded that these polycotton breeches were ideal for summer and went on to wear the trouser length versions, the now-famous Bags, for Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail through-hikes.

Polycotton dominated lightweight clothing in the 1980s but in 1989 the first synthetic microfibre nylon and polyester clothing was launched and this has taken over, though polycotton is still around. 

On the Continental Divide Trail, 1985, Rohan Moving On windshirt and Bags trousers.


Small rucksacks were much simpler affairs back in 1978. Most were just simple nylon or canvas bags with shoulder straps. A few had padded backs but it was to be another ten years before these were standard whilst internal stiffening, zip round openings, sternum straps and waist straps were all well in the future. Even further away was the rebellion against complex and heavy packs with ultralightweight ones that went back to 1970s designs but using much lighter fabrics.

Towering rigid pack frames were still popular for backpacking in 1978 - there's one on the cover of the first The Great Outdoors - though Berghaus were making some inroads into the belief that such frames were needed for heavy load carrying with their internal framed Cyclops rucksacks, a range that, with modifications, is still available today. Karrimor had launched the first Jaguar packs in 1976 but their top-of-the range models were still external frame models as can be seen by their two full-page advertisements in the first The Great Outdoors. By 1983 these external frames had vanished and the first Condor packs had arrived. The company that launched the first internal frame packs, Lowe Alpine, first appeared in Britain in 1978. By the mid -1980s the pack frame had just about vanished in Britain though there were still plenty about in the USA and Scandinavia. And by the late '80s the first packs designed specifically for women were available, Jenny Roberts giving the Berghaus Lady Pulsar 65 a positive review in the December 1988 The Great Outdoors.

Dave Rhebehn with external frame pack in the High Sierra on the Pacific Crest Trail, 1982

Some things don't change though. "There seems, however, to be some discrepancy in the methods used by rival makers to find the capacity of their bags," complained Robin Adshead in the first issue of The Great Outdoors. There still is.


Phoenix Phreeranger tent, Therm-A-Rest, Rohan clothing on my length of the Canadian Rockies walk, 1988

Along with the demise of the pack frame backpackers also saw the demise of the ridge tent, the standard in 1978. When I wrote the piece in 1991 ridge tents and pyramid tents were rare and seemed very old-fashioned, though they have now returned with the use of trekking poles as tent poles. The big names in lightweight tents in 1978 were Saunders and Ultimate with Vango Force Tens on the heavyweight side. In the May '78 The Great Outdoors Robin Adshead praised the Ultimate Tramp, a sloping ridge model with an A pole at the front, as a "first-rate shelter". I agreed, using one on my Land's End to John O'Groats walk. Flexible poles were coming though and in June 1980 Robin Adshead was reviewing the VE24, a geodesic dome from The North Face. At the same time new companies started to make the running with tunnel tents on offer from Phoenix and Wintergear. Even Rohan got in on the act with a geodesic dome called Xanadu though it never reached the shops. Reviewing the new designs in February 1981 Cameron McNeish wrote presciently that "hoop tents and domes will, I suspect, proliferate in the next few years". Of the many designs, some quite weird and wonderful, that appeared in the early 1980s two were especially significant and haven't been bettered since. Single hoop tents, typified by the Phoenix Phreerunner (1982) and Saunders Spacepacker (1983), gave the most space for weight of any design for solo and lightweight backpackers while the stretched geodesic dome shape of the Wintergear Sapphire has become the standard for lightweight mountain tents. The last name probably isn't familiar but all will be clear when I say that the Sapphire was renamed the Quasar a few years later.

Phoenix Phreerunner Gore-Tex single hoop tent, Karrimor Condor pack, Rohan clothing. Pyrenees, 1987

Sleeping Bags/Mats

Compared with tents and packs developments in sleeping bags have been less dramatic. Down is still the lightest, warmest, most durable filling though synthetics have improved enormously since Holofill was launched in the autumn of 1977. The mummy shape, only found on top-of -the-range bags in 1978, is now found even on budget bags.

In my view the major development was in sleeping mats rather than bags with the arrival in Britain in 1978 of the first Therm-A-Rest self-inflating mats. Using one of these left Robin Adshead so carried away that he quoted Shakespeare: "For this relief, much thanks" (The Great Outdoors September 1978). Having used a Therm-A-Rest on many long distance walks since 1981 I can only agree.


In 1978 we cooked on ALP and Camping Gaz butane stoves, Optimus paraffin stoves, Svea 123 petrol stoves and Trangia meths stoves. All bar the first are still available. The two big changes have been the replacement of pure butane in cartridges with butane/propane mixes, which work better in cold weather, and the introduction in 1979 of the first MSR stove, the GK, with its unique use of the fuel bottle as the fuel tank. Now this design is standard with models available from Coleman, Primus and Optimus.


Two accessories undreamt of in 1978 typified the walker of the 1990s, though their use was still controversial. The first and most visual was trekking poles, which rose in popularity extremely quickly. The first feature on these appeared in February 1992 and it reflected the fact that the writer (myself) only used a single pole at the time. However by December 1994 editor Cameron McNeish was appearing on the cover using a pair of poles, a picture that, along with other covers, provoked one anti-pole reader to accuse the magazine of promoting their use (which of course we were, along with that of walking footwear, rucksacks and other items).

The other and even more controversial item was the GPS receiver, a development first commented on in the September 1992 issue when Roger Smith, reviewing the £679 Trimble Ensign, wrote that it was "a development we shall watch with great interest, but for the time being, don't throw your maps and compasses away". The advice is still valid.


This rather breathtaking rush through many years of gear leaves me with two thoughts. The first is that I believe that some (note that some!) gear really has improved. I wouldn't like to go back to wearing itchy wool breeches, sweaty non-breathable waterproofs and heavy, stiff, tiring clodhopper boots. I'd also rather carry a stable internal frame pack than a swaying top heavy external frame.

But my final thoughts are that gear doesn't really matter. It's only a tool, a means to an end. The wild places, the glorious hills and awe inspiring forests through which our narrow trails wind, are still out there, still the reason we carry packs and camp wild. When it comes down to it which rucksack, which footwear and which shelter we use really don't matter. Being out there. That's what it's all about.