Monday 30 November 2015

Lightweight Gear In Winter

Camp on Mullach Clach a'Bhlair in the Cairngorms

With winter underway here's a piece, slightly edited, that first appeared in The Great Outdoors early last year. Happy winter camping!
Winter hiking means extra clothing plus, if there is snow on the hills, ice axe and crampons. Backpackers also need a warmer sleeping bag and a tent that will stay up in snowstorms. This means a heavier pack both for day walks and overnight trips. However careful selection of equipment can keep the weight down. It's possible to go winter backpacking with less weight than some people carry for a summer trip. What is important is not to cut it too fine. Winter weather is unforgiving and equipment must be adequate. It's wrong though to equate that with heavy gear. Consideration must also be given to where and when equipment is used. Trail shoes and lightweight boots are fine for winter as long as steep snow and ice isn't involved. Waterproof socks and gaiters can be used to keep feet warm and dry in light footwear. And even when winter walking becomes more like mountaineering and more substantial boots are required these don't have to be very heavy. Summer backpacking tents are fine on sheltered sites, as long as heavy snowfall isn't expected.

TarpTent Scarp 1 with crossover poles
For higher camps and snow single pole, single-skin shelters are stable and roomy and far lighter than geodesic domes, the classic design for winter mountains. Single-hoop tents aren’t good in snow but adding poles can make them support a snow load as with the TarpTent Scarp. 

TarpTent Scarp buried in heavy snow

A good sleeping bag rated for winter use will weigh more than a summer one as will a mat warm enough for sleeping on snow and frozen ground. In both cases two lightweight sleeping bags or mats could be used. Down-filled sleeping bags are much lighter than synthetic ones with the same warmth rating and can weigh less than a kilo. Down bags take up much less room than synthetics too so a smaller and lighter pack can be used.
Down is also good for clothing, especially in sub zero temperatures. A light down jacket will be much lighter and less bulky than the pair or more of fleece jackets that provide similar warmth. Water-resistant down makes down clothing much more usable in Britain now. However thin synthetic insulated clothing is warmer than fleece for the weight too and there are now many very light garments.

In winter hot food and drinks provide real boosts to morale. However cooking requires more fuel in winter, especially if snow has to be melted. Fuel weight can be reduced by using a pot cosy so food can continue cooking when off the stove. A heat exchanger pot also means less fuel is needed, though these weigh more than conventional pots so you need to be out for more than a few days before there's a weight advantage. Insulating the stove and fuel container from snow or frozen ground also reduces fuel use.

Kahtoola K10 crampons fitted to lightweight boots
In the hills snow and ice mean ice axe and crampons are needed. Full weight climbing ones aren't required though. Lightweight walking crampons work well except on really steep slopes and weigh far less than mountaineering crampons. The Hillsound Trail Crampons Ultra weigh 426 grams and the Kahtoola K10 crampons 608 grams while the Grivel Air Tech Lights, which are more suitable for steeper slopes, weigh 455 grams. These crampons can also be fitted to bendy boots and even trail shoes. Mountaineering crampons weigh from 700 grams upwards (the popular Grivel G10s weigh 822 grams for example) so a significant amount of weight can be saved here.

CAMP Corsa
Lightweight ice axes designed for walking or glacier travel weigh far less than traditional axes too and are perfectly adequate for hillwalking. For example the 70cm CAMP Corsa ice axe weighs just 282 grams in the 70cm length whereas the 73cm CAMP Neve weighs 584 grams, again a significant weight difference.

Rewilding: Some Thoughts on the Debate

Tree regeneration in Glen Feshie

Since the launch of Rewilding Britain earlier in the year the topic has become quite controversial, especially as the mass media tend to identify it purely with the reintroduction of wolves. As well as criticism of this idea rewilding has been attacked for apparently wanting to drive people out of the hills and replace them with some sort of pristine untouchable wilderness. Now there are some proponents of rewilding who would like some areas to be off-limits to people (or at least only accessible to those who pay for safari-type tours) but this isn’t my vision of rewilding or even in the spirit of rewilding at all. Rewilding should be for the whole of nature, and that includes people. 

There’s also a tendency to see rewilding as only applying to vast areas, as all or nothing. ‘Rewilding isn’t possible’, people say. I don’t think this is correct either. Rewilding is a process. It’s not absolute. It means becoming wilder. And that is happening in many places and has been for many years. In Scotland it can be traced back to the first experiments in forest regeneration on the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve in the 1950s. In recent years forest restoration whether in terms of natural regeneration or by planting has been spreading quite rapidly. This is rewilding. The reintroduction of sea eagles and beavers is rewilding. The spread of ospreys, which returned of their own accord in the 1950s, pine martins and red squirrels is rewilding. It is happening now. 

Young and old Scots Pines, Ryvoan Pass, Cairngorms
Rewilding is tied up of course with land ownership. Big stalking and shooting estates generally want plenty of deer and grouse. Many deer means no tree regeneration, many grouse means heather burning and predator control. Estates want quick access to their prey too, which means building roads into wild places. Not all the private estates are like this – some are a mixture and have some forest regeneration and protect some wildlife, others are run mainly to do this – Glen Feshie and Coignafearn being two examples. Estates owned by conservation bodies like the John Muir Trust, RSPB, Trees for Life and the National Trust for Scotland and government bodies like Scottish Natural Heritage and Forest Enterprise do rewilding work too, though sometimes not as much as they could or should.

What happens to land ownership will be decided by the Scottish Government, which is looking at proposals for reform now. Whatever happens I think estates should be encouraged to work towards rewilding with more forest regeneration and wildlife protection. 

Any proposals to keep nature away from people, or to restrict access to the paying few, are anathema to me. One of the points of rewilding should be to make a better world for all of us. I also think that rewilding on a larger scale will only occur when enough people want it. Turning them away will not achieve that. I don’t seen any contradiction between people living and working in wild places and rewilding either. What matter is not that they are there but what they do. I think any change will be slow but wildlife watching, conservation work, and outdoor pursuits are all growth areas. There will still be estate workers too and livestock farming in the glens. To say it again, rewilding is not all or nothing. I can imagine now empty, treeless glens with forests and houses. They would be wilder and with people. 

Natural forest & rough grazing in Strathspey
The results of rewilding, on whatever scale, will surprise us. Some wildlife will flourish, some will not. Forests will spread in some places, fail in others. Any imagined past won’t be recreated. As I’ve written before we can’t do that and shouldn’t try. Starting rewilding by removing grazing pressure, introducing once native wildlife and, if necessary, planting and fencing trees is the most management that should be done. Once the process is underway, leave it be. 

How far rewilding will spread and how long it will take it’s impossible to say. But every little sign of it should be encouraged. We need nature. Nature needs us.

For a somewhat different take on the current rewilding debate see this excellent piece by Cameron McNeish on the Walk Highlands site.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Book Review: Doubling Back by Linda Cracknell

First published last year, when I somehow managed to miss it, this book appeared in paperback in October. By then I’d read and enjoyed the author’s essays on the Walk Highlands website and was interested in reading it. I wasn’t disappointed. The book describes ten walks undertaken by Linda Cracknell that follow in others footsteps in various ways. It’s a contemplative work that pays careful reading – I read some of the pieces twice and found more in them the second time. 

The walks followed vary widely in place – Scotland, Cornwall, Spain, Kenya, Norway, the Alps all feature – and in tone and style, though all are written with precision and care. Some are solo, though thoughts and memories of others are always there, some are with friends. The author’s relationships with people, landscapes and nature are described subtly. The book has an air of restrained but powerful emotion. There are deep feelings here.

Everyone will find something different in this book, and perhaps something different each time it’s read. For me the essays that stood out were the story of Cracknell’s attempt to follow in her father’s footsteps on a mountaineering trip in the Alps, a trip pieced together from postcards and pictures; a walk through the Norwegian mountains tracing the route a companion’s father took when escaping from the Nazis; and a 200-mile solo trip from her home in Perthshire to the Isle of Skye. These were all tough trips, the difficulties mostly understated, though heavy rucksacks are mentioned occasionally.

The writing is about feelings and people, places and the past. The walking almost takes a back seat but it’s there, holding everything together, including, I suspect, the author at times. This is a lovely book, highly recommended.