Thursday 3 May 2018

40 Years On: Gear for Long-Distance Walks Then & Now

On May 3rd, 1978, I walked over the Severn Bridge and followed the Offa's Dyke Path to Chepstow, completing 323 miles of my Land's End to John O'Groats walk. It was my 18th day out and it was already the longest walk I'd done and there was still nearly 1000 miles to go. I wrote about this walk last month in a post on the fortieth anniversary of setting off. I also wrote the following feature on the gear I used back then and what I'd use now for the Spring issue of The Great Outdoors, whose fortieth anniversary is also this year. I wasn't a photographer back then, something I now regret. It's the only long-distance walk  for which I don't have pictures.

On April 16, 1978, I shouldered my pack and headed away from Land’s End on the South West Coast Path.  1255 miles and 71 days later I reached John O’Groats and my first long distance walk was over. I began the walk feeling nervous and agitated. It seemed an enormous undertaking. The distance was incomprehensible. At the finish I felt content and also sad. I didn’t want the journey to end. I knew then that I would do many more long walks. I had found something I loved, something that was deeply satisfying. I’d also learnt that reaching the end wasn’t what the journey was about. It was about what happened along the way, about the landscape, the wildlife, the walking every day, the camping out, the immersion in nature. The whole experience in fact. I’d found too that what I really relished were the wilder places. This was the walk on which I fell in love with the Scottish Highlands.

I planned the walk with Ordnance Survey maps and a few walking guidebooks – there weren’t many in those days. There were no guides at all to an End-to-End walk and no internet for seeking advice. There were some long distance paths but nothing like the number there are now. Along with half of the South West Way I walked half of the Offa’s Dyke Path, the Pennine Way as far as Hadrian’s Wall, and the then brand new West Highland Way (it wasn’t officially opened until two years later). Away from those trails I linked footpaths, tracks, and minor roads with occasional bits of cross-country. Sometimes I trespassed when paths on maps weren’t there on the ground, more often when I nipped over hedges or into copses for a hidden camp. Having hardly done any wild camping in Scotland and having heard stories of gamekeepers with guns throwing people off the land I was more concerned about there than England. The access legislation that is such a boon now was a quarter of a century away. In fact I although I wild camped almost every night, even in lowland England, I never had any problems though I did always try and camp out of sight of roads and buildings.

At the time of the walk I was working in an outdoor shop in Manchester – the now long-gone YHA Adventure Centre – and so could choose gear for the walk from a wide selection. Looking back there are a few changes I could have made but overall the gear was good and performed well. The main difference with today was that it was mostly much heavier. In some cases it was less durable too despite the weight.

My pack was a capacious 80 litre Berghaus Cyclops Serac made from tough thick Cordura. This had two huge side pockets, a single main compartment and an internal frame. The last had only been around in Britain for a few years. Just two years previously I’d been using an external frame pack (and one of these features on the front cover of the first issue of The Great Outdoors). I thought the internal frame would be more comfortable and stable and so it proved. The Serac easily held all my gear plus a week’s food at times and never gave me sore hips or shoulders. I liked it so much that four years later I set off on the Pacific Crest Trail with a pack with the same back system, the even bigger 100-litre Cyclops Scorpion.

The Ultimate Tramp at a snowy camp in Snowdonia the winter after the Walk

My tent was an Ultimate Tramp, a tapered ridge tent with an A-pole at the front. This was roomy and easy and quick to pitch. Hoop pole tents were just coming in at the time but the lightest backpacking tents were still ridge designs with rigid poles. Within a decade the Tramp would look old-fashioned but after three decades it would look up-to-date again as using trekking poles for tents meant ridges designs came back. I liked the Tramp very much and it stood up to some wild weather. It didn’t last for long after the walk though – the polyurethane coated flysheets of the day were not very durable.

My sleeping bag was not a good choice. Concerned by stories about down bags not lasting on long trips and how any dampness would ruin them I took a bag from Ultimate filled with a synthetic called P3. It was a mummy bag with a short top zip and designed for summer use. It wasn’t very warm to begin with and by the finish it was as flat as a pancake. It was light and did pack small but I spent too many nights sleeping in my clothes. I’ve taken a down bag on every long walk since.

Bright yellow closed cell foam Karrimats were the standard mats in the 1970s. They insulated well but weren’t very comfortable and also very bulky. The latter meant I strapped mine outside the pack. At the time there was no other choice – the first Therm-A-Rest inflatable mat had appeared in the USA but not yet crossed the Atlantic. 

The Trangia I used on the walk
Stove choice was determined by fuel. Finding gas canisters everywhere was unlikely and I didn’t want the mess of paraffin or the volatility of petrol so that left meths and the Trangia system. This was quite heavy and bulky but it did work well and finding fuel wasn’t a problem. Durability was superb. Indeed I still have the stove and it’s still in good condition. 

Heavy boots were standard wear for backpacking in the 1970s and I hadn’t yet discovered the relief of lightweight footwear so I wore Scarpa Bronzos, hefty semi-stiff one piece leather boots with a three-quarter length shank and a Vibram sole. They easily lasted the walk but did give me sore feet and the occasional blister, especially in hot weather and when road walking. I’d only wear such boots on snowy mountains now.

Berghaus Mistral Jacket - image courtesy of Berghaus

My waterproof jacket was made from a new seemingly magical material called Gore-Tex. The Berghaus Mistral jacket had welded seams and patch pockets. It was longer than most modern waterproofs, which was an advantage. This was the first version of Gore-Tex, which was very breathable but also eventually leaked when contaminated with body oils. My jacket lasted the walk but failed the following autumn. I was still impressed though. Early on in the walk I wore it over my wet polycotton jacket and was astonished when I took the Mistral off to find that this had dried out through the Gore-Tex.

The Rohan Pampas Jacket & Strider Breeches in use after the walk

The jacket I wore most on the walk was a Rohan Pampas double-layer windproof one made from polycotton. Rohan and polycotton were both very new then and many people thought such fabric was too light for serious use. They were wrong. The jacket lasted the trip and is still going.
Rohan also provided my legwear in the form of breeches called Striders made from stretch nylon. They’d be called softshell now but that name hadn’t been invented then.

Fleece and lightweight synthetic fills were still many years away so to keep warm I took a thick wool shirt and a Helly-Hansen fibre-pile jacket. My base layer was a synthetic Damart vest.

Whilst state-of-the-art at the time this gear was heavy and bulky compared to todays. My basic pack weight without food and fuel was around 30lbs/14kg. Silnylon, Dyneema, titanium, fleece, Pertex and other ultralight materials that we take for granted today didn’t exist back then. Today my pack would weigh less than half that. Here’s what I’d choose for the same walk now. Most of these items were used on my last two long-distance walks (some on my last three).


ULA Catalyst

Gear is not only lighter than 40 years ago but also more compact so I wouldn’t need as big a pack. My choice would be the ULA Catalyst, which I used on my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk and found excellent. It weighs 1.4kg, well under half the weight of the Serac, which weighed over 2kg. The Catalyst has an internal frame, a padded back, a wide padded hipbelt and big mesh pockets. On paper its 75 litre capacity doesn’t look much smaller than the Serac’s 80 litres. However the main compartment is only 42 litres, the rest of the capacity being in the pockets, while the Serac’s main compartment was about 80 litres. I’ve also found ULA’s litres on the small side compared to other makers. I’d say 60 litres was a more accurate capacity for the Catalyst.



Instead of a tent I’d take a shaped tarp – the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar. This can pitched with trekking poles and is very roomy for one. It’s also very stable. I used it on my Scottish Watershed walk and it coped with some severe storms. It only weighs 482 grams without pegs, a groundsheet or mesh inner. For April and May I’d just take a Luxe Tyvek groundsheet weighing 142 grams, making a total weight with pegs of 801 grams. For June I’d add a mesh inner in case of midges for a total of 1.15kg, which is still very light. The Ultimate Tramp weighed 2kg.

Sleeping bag

PHD Sleep System

Rather than a single sleeping bag I’d use the down filled PHD Sleep System that I took on the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk as this would cover the wide temperature variations likely between April and June. The lightest sleep system consisting of the Ultra K sleeping bag, Ultra K filler bag, Wafer jacket, Wafer K trousers and Wafer K socks weighs 1.015kg. I’d start out with the complete set but would send home the filler bag, trousers and socks as the nights became warmer, finishing with a weight of just 524 grams. I used this system on the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk and it coped easily with temperatures down to -7.5C. 

Sleeping mat

For much greater comfort and much lower bulk and weight than a closed cell foam mat I’d take the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite S airbed. I used this on the Scottish Watershed and Yosemite-Death Valley walks and found it comfortable.

Stove & pots

Trail Designs Ti-Tri

On my last three long-distance walks I’ve used the Trail Designs Classic Ti-Tri stove and my now 27 year old Evernew and MSR 0.9 and 0.7 litre titanium pots and that’s what I’d take on a Land’s End to John O’Groats walk. Together this unit weighs 476 grams, and that includes two spoons. The Trangia 27 weighed 795 grams. Like the Trangia the Ti-Tri runs on meths (it can also be used with solid fuel tablets and wood) and has an effective windshield/pot support. The burner, made from old drinks cans, is ultralight.


Altra Lone Peak 3.5

I can’t imagine wearing heavy boots like the 2.25kg Scarpa Bronzos on a walk like this now. Indeed I wouldn’t wear boots at all. Instead I’d opt for trail shoes and, for warmer weather, sandals. Currently the shoes would be the Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Mesh, which weigh 622 grams, and sandals the Teva Terra-Float Universal, which weigh 462 grams and which I wore for most of the Yosemite to Death Valley walk, giving a total weight of 1.08 kg, just under half the weight of the Bronzos. My feet would be much more comfortable!


Jottnar Hymir

There are many good waterproofs today that weigh considerably less than the 570 gram Mistral, not that that was particularly heavy. My choice would be the 350 gram Jottnar Hymir, made from very breathable Polartec Neoshell. I like the smock design and the fabric feels durable, which is needed on a three month walk where there could be a great deal of rain.


Montane Lite-speed

As on other walks I’d expect a windproof top to be my most worn garment. The double-layer Rohan Pampas jacket I wore in 1978 weighs 750 grams, which seems extraordinarily heavy now. Today I’d go for the Montane Lite-speed, made from Pertex Quantum, which weighs 156 grams, and which I used on the Scottish Watershed walk. The Lite-speed has pockets and a hood and rolls up into a tiny bundle.


Berghaus VapourLight HyperTherm Hoody
The down-filled Wafer jacket from the PHD Sleep System would be my main warmwear in camp. For walking in chilly weather I’d take the Berghaus VapourLight HyperTherm Hoody, which only weighs 224 grams yet is as warm as a much heavier fleece. I used these two jackets on the Yosemite-Death Valley walk and the combination was excellent.

Trekking poles

Dual-Lock Pacerpoles

Back in 1978 trekking poles didn’t exist. I can’t imagine doing a long walk without them now. As on all my long walks for many years these would be Pacerpoles, now the new Dual-Lock model, which weighs 590 grams. 


In 1978 there really wasn’t any choice – it was OS maps and a compass. GPS wasn’t even dreamt of. I’d still take map and compass today but I’d also have OS mapping on my smartphone with the ViewRanger app, which I’ve used on my last three long-distance walks.


  1. Hi Chris. Another great article. A couple of comments on your current choice of gear. Firstly the Luxe Tyvek groundsheet. Do you find it waterproof enough? I have one and damp often seeps through once my (significant!) weight is on it. Secondly, your meths burner and ti tri. I find the Starlite Zelph burner far better than the supplied coke can burner as its lid and internal wadding allows some meths to be retained in it after cooking and is also lower to the ground so you do not need to use the ti tri's two skewer stakes to support the pot at the advised height in the cone (although I notice you aren't using these in the photo). Sorry if this is telling a far more experienced grandmother how to suck eggs!

    1. Thanks. So far I've found the Tyvek groundsheet waterproof enough but I'm aware Tyvek isn't fully waterproof. Damp under my sleep may be moisture coming through or may be condensation - I've had that with heavier definitely waterproof groundsheets. There are a couple of holes in my Tyvek groundsheet but these are easy to patch - any sticky tape will do. I haven't used the Zelph burner but I have very recently been trying the Trail Designs Kojin burner which sounds similar and which is preferable to the drinks can burner because you can save fuel in it. I found with the skewers that they were good for simmering and good for use with pots that don't fit the cone but not really necessary for bringing water to the boil - and not using them makes the cone more wind resistant.

  2. Hi, Chris. How would you pitch the Trailstar if you broke a pole? Some years ago, I snapped a pole and couldn't fix it even back home. A field repair, had it been possible, is unlikely to have supported the Trailstar. The Trailstar's hanging loop would be an option near trees but the Northern Highlands are a little deficient when it comes to timber. The pole issue is one of the reasons why I bought Fellbound's Duomid.

    1. I've never broken a pole yet so I haven't had to deal with this problem. I guess with one broken pole I'd use the complete pole in the centre and part of the broken pole to hold up the doorway. If both poles broke I'd have to look for a strong stick or somewhere to hang the Trailstar, which would probably involve changing route. I have broken curved poles on tents and failed to repair them adequatelty, involving route changes, makeshift repairs that were okay as long as there was no wind, and waiting for new poles to arrive. Of course you could buy a tent pole such as the one for the Nigor Wickiup 3 and use that with the Trailstar. I've used the latter with various versions of the Duomid as I felt it was less stable with a trekking pole than the Trailstar due to the height.

    2. Good to hear you haven't broken a pole because I felt really stupid when I broke mine. Avoidable and expensive. Nowadays, I don't pole near rocks and clip my Makalus together for use as a staff in stream crossings and for contouring.

      Trekking poles seem OK with the MLD extender for the Duomid but I haven't had it in a serious wind yet.

  3. Sorry. I had forgotten the answer to my question on YouTube.

    I also should have seconded David on his praise for your article. It was good to be reminded of the first decent gear I owned. But the weight didn't guarantee endurance. My Bronzos didn't last long on the Munros.

  4. Do you know if Jottnar are still trading? I was looking at them recently to find an alternative replacement for my Rab Myriad, but nowhere has them in stock. The prices on their own website are insane.

    1. Yes, Jottnar are still trading. Last update on their website was eight hours ago. I think they mostly sell direct. The prices are high but comparable to Arc'teryx, Haglofs and other top end companies which is where they're pitching themselves.