Saturday 30 April 2016

The Great Outdoors Spring Issue

The Spring issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. (It sits between the May and June issues). My gear reviews cover 13 windproof tops and 11 pairs of walking trousers plus the Suunto Traverse GPS watch. In my backpacking column I look at when it's best to decide to retreat or take a lower route. And Out There, my latest book, is reviewed by Alex Roddie.

The theme of this issue is wild places and quite a few are covered from Scotland to Russia. Keith Fergus undertakes a high level two-day walk from Speyside to Deeside; Mark Gilligan photographs the Duddon Valley in the Lake District; Paul Beasley goes bog-trotting on Dartmoor; Rob Collister walks the Aran ridge in Snowdonia; Lenny Antonelli explores the Slievetooey coast of Donegal; and, wildest of all, Alec Forss traverses the Ural mountains on foot and packraft.

Also in this issue there's a superb double-page photo of Suilven by Alex Nail; Roger Smith reviews Terry Abraham's new film Life of a Mountain Blencathra; Robald Turnbull comes up with eight bits of the Lake District he likes least; Carey Davies praises paths; Roger Smith calls for joined-up thinking about the countryside; and Jim Perrin reviews The Mountains of Snowdonia in History, The Sciences, Literature and Sport by H.R.C.Carr & G.A.Lister.

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Nigor Wickiup 3 reviewed for The Great Outdoors

The Wickiup 3 in the Cairngorms, February 2016

GoLite's Shangri-La 3 pyramid tent has been a favourite of mine for many years, especially for winter camping. With the demise of GoLite a few years ago it vanished from the shops, a good design seemingly gone. Not for good though as Nigor soon came out with the very, very similar Wickiup 3, which has proved at least as good as the original. I've been using it for quite a while and have now reviewed it in my column on the The Great Outdoors website.

The Shangri-La 3 in the Cairngorms, February 2013

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Winter Returns

Here in Strathspey snow has been falling on and off for two days along with occasional heavy showers of hail. This evening the snow has become heavier and the land is turning white. Winter has returned.

The above photos all taken between 6 and 6.15pm.

Saturday 23 April 2016

Ten Of My Favourite Long Distance Walks In The Guardian


I've described ten favourite long-distance walks for The Guardian. The walks include Makalu Base Camp, the Scottish Watershed, and the GR20 in Corsica. You can read the piece here.

A splendid view on the GR20

View over Rannoch Moor from the Watershed

Friday 22 April 2016

Such a silly thing to do ... and plans change

Strathspey & the Cairngorms, April 21

Crossing a road, thinking of the talk I’m to give that evening, holding sandwiches and newspapers for the train journey to come. Suddenly I’m falling, then landing hard, on hands and knees. In the middle of a highway. With that thought I rise and stagger to safety. There’s a lot of blood I notice. Both hands are bleeding. My pale trousers are stained red. I’m still thinking of continuing my journey, giving my talk. I try and clean up in the station toilet. I fail. Back at my car I’m still wondering how to catch the train without getting too much blood on everything. A woman comes up to me. ‘Are you ok?’. ‘Yes’, I respond automatically. She can see I’m not. ‘You need stitches’, she says, ‘we can take you to the health centre’. I’m about to refuse but the sight of my bleeding hands triggers something in my head and I know she’s right. A man with her comments on the amount of blood. I think they followed the trail of it from the station. A few minutes later I’m in a health centre and being patched up by nurses and a doctor. I do need stitches and lots of bandages on hands and knees. My rescuers have gone. I thanked them but never got their names. They were local, from Forres, and very kind. I’m not sure what I’d have done without them.

How did I fall? I don’t know. Maybe I tripped on something or slipped on an oily patch. I have no memory of starting to fall, only of falling. Such a silly thing to do I thought as I sat in the health centre being repaired. Such a silly thing but it’s changed the next few weeks. Today I was meant to be flying to Colorado for the ski tour with Igloo Ed. That’s not possible now. I couldn’t grip a ski pole let alone shovel snow. My dressings need changing every few days, the stitches need to come out sometime next week. I’m on antibiotics in case of infection. Ten days in the mountains, any mountains, is not an option.

View across Strathspey to the Hills of Cromdale, April 20

Back home I thought about coming to terms with the new situation, about how to deal with it. I can’t change it. I have to accept it. Look forward I think. The ski trip has gone now. A couple of local strolls to look at the signs of spring and the distant snowy mountains and to enjoy the sunshine eases any stress. My partner is wonderful, sympathetic and practical. That helps greatly. The ski tour will be next year now. But the TGO Challenge is in three weeks. That suddenly seems close. I need to have recovered by then.

Thursday 21 April 2016

John Muir Day 'Climb the mountains and get their good tidings'.

John Muir died 102 years ago today. I've written a piece about him and his legacy for The Scotsman.

Two years ago I wrote this for the 100th anniversary.

Here are a few of my favourite quotations from John Muir.

'Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.'

'Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.'

'This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.'

'Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.'

Saturday 16 April 2016

Ski tour & igloos in the Rockies postoned to next year

 Update: I've had to cancel this trip due to some minor injuries sustained when I stumbled and fell over on a road. That'll teach me not to stay in the hills! I hope to be there next winter/spring.

The 'forthcoming venture' I mentioned in my last post is close. Soon I'll be heading for the Colorado Rockies for ski touring and igloo building in the Indian Peaks Wilderness with Igloo Ed.

Although I've walked through this wilderness area on the Continental Divide Trail (many, many years ago) I've never been there when the land is snow-covered. I remember it as a wonderful mountain land of sharp rocky peaks, beautiful lakes and magnificent forests. I'm look forward to seeing it under snow.

I haven't done a multi-day ski tour for several years. I'm excited!
When and if there are connections I'll be posting updates here and on Facebook and Twitter. There might be silence for a while though. The skiing and igloo building will come first.

Thursday 14 April 2016

The Pleasure of Maps

Studying some maps for forthcoming ventures - of which more in a forthcoming post - and feeling excited I remembered this piece which I wrote for The Great Outdoors last year. I love maps!

Backpackers can find many items of gear exciting – tents and packs obviously but sometimes even utilitarian items like socks and base layers. For me though nothing comes close to a map for real exhilaration. Only a map can lead you through endless outdoor adventures both in reality and in your mind as you trace possibilities over the surface – where does this valley go, what’s over that pass, how easy is to climb that mountain? Journeys abound when you study a map. Not just journeys either. I love looking for possible camp sites – by that lake, on that col, maybe in that meadow. Sometimes the journeys and campsites go out into the real world, though many more stay as daydreams. And sometimes I find that going up that brush-choked valley was not a good idea or that the boggy bug-infested shores of a lake don’t make for a good camp site. Maps don’t tell you everything. Which is good. I don’t want my trips to be too predictable. But maps do give ideas and plans and that’s what’s exciting.

For the backpacker and walker the best maps are topographic of course, ones that show the shape of the land with contour lines (for which many thanks to mathematician Charles Hutton who came up with the idea on Schiehallion in 1774). Once you can read contours the landscape can be easily imagined in three dimensions and the shape of the hills and valleys visualised. Routes can be planned taking into account the elevation gain as well as the distance. Topographic maps are often beautiful as well with subtle shading and rich colours. In this respect the old Ordnance Survey 1 inch to the mile Tourist Maps are my favourites. Of modern maps the Harveys Mountain Maps are very aesthetically pleasing.

Walkers often think that there’s only a few map scales of use – 1:25,000, 1:40,000 and 1:25,000 – and when out in the wilds I think this is correct (though I have use 1:250,000 and even 1:600,000  when that’s all that’s been available). However for planning it’s often easier to see the whole of a walk on smaller scale maps. I still use the long-out-of date 1:100,000 Bartholmew maps for planning long walks in Scotland and recently I’ve been looking at some 1:250,000 Tom Harrison Recreation Maps of desert and mountain areas of the western USA for a forthcoming venture. But once outdoors, whether the Scottish Highlands or Death Valley, I want larger scale maps.

Of course these days maps are not just sheets of paper or plastic but also exist in digital form for use on computers whether desktop or phone. Maps in this form are very useful and I use them regularly. Instead of counting kilometre squares and contour lines to find distance and elevation gain I love just being able to draw my route and have the computer calculate these for me. But I still much prefer map sheets for their size. When someone invents a light compact rollout screen as big as an Ordnance Survey map I might change my mind but until then a big sheet easily beats a small screen. With maps spread out on the floor or the ground I can see the whole area and all the options. I find it easier to daydream over a big map sheet too.

Maps aren’t just for future trips either. They can bring back memories. Looking through my map collection for this piece I was distracted by many reminiscences as maps I hadn’t seen for years appeared – a stormy autumn traverse of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, leading a trek to Everest Base Camp, climbing Glittertind in Norway on skis, building igloos in Yellowstone National Park with Igloo Ed. Maps really are wonderful.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Monday 11 April 2016

The Great Outdoors latest issue: going solo, night skies, & waterproof jackets.

The May issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. My backpacking column is about night skies and in the Hill Skills section I've pieces about going solo and camping alone (with suggestions for four solo stoves). In the gear pages I review fourteen waterproof jackets that are new on the market plus the Rab Neutrino 800 sleeping bag.

The theme of this issue is the Lake District and there's a big feature on the 7 Wonders of the Lake District challenge walk by its creator Chris Wearne. Vivienne Crow explores the 'big hills up at the lake' that the children in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons see around Coniston Water. Further north in the Lake District Rich Baldwin takes his five-year old son on his first wild camping trip.

Away from the Lakes Will Renwick interviews Ash Dykes about his traverse of Madagascar; Alistair Young visits magnificent Bla Bheinn on Skye; Ed Byrne tries Nordic walking; Stephen Venables goes far afield to South Georgia; and Carey Davies walks in the Black Mountains of South Wales. In his column Roger Smith considers the crisis in dairy farming and how it could affect the countryside. Jim Perrin, in the Hillwalkers' Library, revisits a mountaineering classic, E.F.Norton's The Fight for Everest 1924, reminding me that I must read it again. 

As well as my pieces the Hill Skill section has advice on going solo, route cards, electronic safety devices, and navigational skills. In the gear section Judy Armstrong reviews six pairs of women's trail shoes.

There's a couple of splendid double-page photographs at the front of the magazine too - an atmospheric image of dawn on Glyder Fach in Snowdonia by Helen Iles and a spectacular photo of the aurora from Beinn Alligin in Torridon by Graham Bradshaw.

Thursday 7 April 2016

Camping In The Rain

Camp on a knoll above boggy ground.

Staying comfortable and dry when camping in the rain isn't actually very difficult but it does require some care and some thought. Site choice, setting up camp and living in camp all need handling differently from when it's dry and sunny.

Site Selection.

A good site should be well-drained and high enough above streams and pools that it won't flood if they rise rapidly. Avoid hollows and gullies. After heavy rain every flat area may be sodden. In that case it's best to camp on a slight slope to avoid water getting into your shelter. The tops of knolls and hillocks are often better drained and drier than surrounding areas.

Camp well above a river.
Setting Up Camp

1: Pitching. The aim here is to keep the inside of your shelter and your gear dry. When taking your shelter out of your pack ensure that other items aren't exposed to the rain and don't fall out onto wet ground. (Ideally your shelter should be packed at the top of the pack where it's easily accessible or else in a pocket or strapped on the outside). With single-skin tents or tarps and double-skin tents that erect as units or flysheet first there isn't a problem in keeping the inside dry. However if the tent pitches inner first you need to do so very quickly and, if possible, throw the flysheet over the top to keep off some of the rain. The last can be ineffective if it’s windy and can make pitching the tent slower and more difficult though.

A wet camp on tussocky ground - the alternative was a bog!
2: Getting under cover. Once the shelter is pitched you need to get inside without dampening the groundsheet or any dry gear. First, though, do any outside chores such as filling your water containers so you don't have to go out again. I then put the pack in the porch and crouch next to it while I strip off my wet waterproofs and any other wet garments - this can involve some contortions in a very small tent but it's worth the brief discomfort. What I never do is get in the inner tent or sit on the groundsheet in wet clothing. Once my waterproofs are off I sit on the groundsheet with my feet in the porch and removed my footwear - and socks if the latter are wet. 

Dry inside, wet gear & kitchen in the porch
3: Sorting gear. Once in the tent and out of wet clothing and footwear it's usually wise to don some warm clothing and get out your sleeping mat to sit on so you don't get cold. I then take other dry items out of the pack and stow them along the sides of the groundsheet. No wet items come inside. They stay in the porch. Wet waterproofs and other damp clothing can be stored on top of the pack with footwear alongside it.

Living In Camp 

Warm & dry inside the tent

1: Condensation. Once inside your shelter condensation is likely to be the main cause of dampness rather than the rain itself. When humidity is high condensation forms on cold surfaces like tent walls. Ventilation helps minimise this. How much ventilation is possible without the rain getting in depends on the design of the shelter. Ideally there should be covered vents high on the canopy that can be left open or flysheet doors with hoods over the top so the zips can be partly undone. Even with good ventilation condensation can still form when it's very damp. To avoid transferring it to your dry clothes and sleeping bag take care not to push against the walls. An absorbent cloth such as a cotton bandanna can be used to wipe away any drips.

2: Cooking. Steam from boiling water quickly condenses on shelter walls. If conditions allow doors should be left undone and stoves positioned so that steam goes outside. Sometimes though it's impossible to have doors open without rain coming in. In that case keeping pans covered and unzipping doors briefly to let steam out can help reduce condensation.

3: Going Outside. If you have to go outside (pee bottles and, for women, Sheewee devices can reduce the need for this) don your wet gear so you don't get anything else wet. If it's a short trip I don't bother with socks, just slipping my feet into my wet footwear. Whilst outside check guylines and pegging points. Nylon stretches and sags when wet (polyester and cuben fibre don't do this) so guylines will probably need tightening. Pegs can start to pull out of soft damp ground too and may need stamping down.

A well-drained forest site.
Packing Up.

If it's still raining in the morning pack everything in your pack inside your shelter so it stays dry. This includes the inner tent if there is one. To avoid a wet shelter dampening the inside of the pack I strap it on the outside or stuff it in an outside pocket. If it has to go inside the pack I ensure that other contents are inside waterproof bags or liners and the shelter is outside them.

This piece first appeared in The Great Outdoors two years ago.