Friday 29 December 2023

Favourite New Gear of 2023

Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL, Atom Packs The Mo 60

Here's my annual favourite gear of the year roundup following another twelve months testing gear for The Great Outdoors. Not all the items were new for this year, just tested by me for the first time. As in previous years they don't necessarily replace ones from previous years or old favourites and they're in no particular order. More detailed reviews of some of the items can be found on the TGO website - I've given links to these reviews. For other items, a few of which I haven't reviewed yet but most of which appeared in the print magazine in trip reports or comparative reviews, the link is to the company page or a UK retailer.


Built to Send X3 

This tough lightweight minimalist pack was the surprise of the year. I didn't expect it to be that good for backpacking but after using it as a daypack in winter and finding it comfortable I took it on a two-week backpacking trip in Knoydart and was impressed with the performance. (The trip is described here and here.)

Designed for mountaineering it's built to be "virtually indestructible". The single piece fabric is almost waterproof, which is great. There's no frame, just padding in the back, and this isn't shaped. There are no top tensions traps either but the shoulder straps and hipbelt are well padded. Despite this basic design it carries as well or better than manypacks with much more complex "technical designs".

It has no external pockets, just webbing straps and shockcord, and no lid, just a foldover top. Once I adapted my packing to this design I found it easy to use.

Alpkit Loki 

I've always liked lightweight simple fleece tops, finding them versatile because they aren't too warm and thus easy to layer with other garments without overheating. The Loki snap-neck pullover is one of the best I've tried in many years. The fleece is soft and comfortable and it has a big kangaroo pocket on the front which I love and which can be used when wearing a hipbelt. My review is scheduled for the March issue of The Great Outdoors.

Inov-8 Rocfly G 390 

Described as hiking boots the Rocfly G are actually more like trail shoes with a high ankle as they're very light and very flexible. The wide fit is just right for my feet and I find them very comfortable. I used them on several trips, including the two-weeks in Knoydart, and they performed perfectly and look as though they should last well. They are well-cushioned and have good grip. 


Rab Vapour-Rise Alpine Light   

As an alternative for a fleece/windproof combination Vapour-Rise is excellent with its wind-resistant outer and wicking inner. The Alpine Light has the thinnest inner of Rab's Vapour-Rise range and so isn't too warm when walking in cool but not freezing weather. I wore it every day on a stormy October trip in the Eastern Cairngorms and it was superb. The jacket is very light and has a good hood and useful pockets. 


Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL

Pitching with a single trekking pole this ultralight pyramid shelter is roomy and easy to pitch. Headroom is great too. There's a mesh inner for bug season but most of the time I've used it with just a groundsheet. 

The SoloMid Xl is made from silpoly rather than silnylon which has the advantage that it doesn't stretch and sag when wet.


Pacerpole Tops

Pacerpoles have been by far and away my favourite trekking poles since I first used a pair many, many years ago. I haven't done a long-distance walk without them since. The key to Pacerpoles is the shaped handle, which I find very comfortable and which make using the poles very efficient. 

Pacerpole Tops are the handles and top sections with cam-based lever locks to attach them to the lower sections from other poles. I've tried them with several different poles and they work really well.

Berghaus MTN Arete LB Synthetic Hoody 

Back in 2016 I reviewed the Berghaus VapourLight HyperTherm Hoody and was very impressed with this ultralight insulated jacket. I wore it on my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk that year and have taken it on every long-distance walk since. It's astonishingly light and compact, very comfortable, wind resistant, and about as warm as a midweight fleece. I love it! Berghaus dropped it several years ago though, something I have bemoaned quite a few times.

Now, though, it's back. The name is different and there's a few design tweaks but essentially the MTN Arete LB is the same as the VapourLight HyperTherm. It's just as comfortable and performs just the same. Thank you Berghaus! 

Keen WK400

It took me a little while to get used to these unusual shoes as they have soles that curve up at the front and the back. This give a rolling feel when walking. On hard fairly smooth surfaces like roads or well-made paths this really does have an effect. On rougher terrain it's less noticeable. 

The shoes have good grip and thick cushioning and are very comfortable. My only gripe is that they don't come in Kenn's trademark wide fit and I had to go up a size and even then can only wear them with thin socks. I'd love a wider pair!

Gruezi Biopod DownWool Subzero 185 Sleeping Bag 

This unusual sleeping bag is filled with a mix of down and wool.Gruezi says the wool absorbs any moisture, allowing the down to loft fully. I can't say just how well it works but I have used it on a succession of very damp nights and it kept me warm. It is adequate to just below zero but it's not a full winter bag.

The bag is comfortable. I like the zip design. It curves over the bag and across  the base so you can stick your feet out if they get too hot.


Atom Packs The Mo 60

This is the larger version of The Mo 50 that I included in my Favourite Gear of 2021 and reviewed here. Whilst I have used the 50 for overnight warm weather trips I prefer 60 litres for longer trips and ones where I need more or bulkier gear. For me it's the ideal size for backpacking. 

The Mo 60 is lightweight and has plenty of pockets. I find it very comfortable and very stable.



Nortent Vern 1 

I hadn't heard of Nortent until Valley and Peak asked if I would like to test the Vern 1. The tent only arrived in the autumn and has not had much use yet. So far I am impressed. It's a solo single hoop tent with a huge porch with doors that open both sides of the pole. The inner is very long and has good headroom in the centre. It's very easy to pitch as a unit. It comes with a second pole that runs the length of the tent for extra stability in strong winds and snowfall. I have't used this yet but will do so soon.



Outdoor Research Helium AscentShell

Lightweight and very breathable this waterproof jacket is ideal for year-round backpacking. I wore it on the wet two-week Knoydart trip mentioned in the Built to Send X3 review above and it was excellent. The membrane inside is Pertex Shield Air. This is slightly air-permeable, which aids breathability, but does mean the jacket isn't 100% windproof. However I've worn it in some very strong cold winds and not noticed this so I don't think it's significant.





Therm-A-Rest Parsec 20F/-6C Sleeping Bag

This is a very comfortable lightweight sleeping bag with an 800 fill power hydrophobic down fill and a recycled nylon shell. There are straps for attaching it to a sleeping mat on the bottom. I haven't used these
as the bag is roomy enough for me to turn over inside it, keeping the base, which has less fill, under me. I've been warm in it with no extra clothing at -5C so I reckon the rating is about right, at least for me (I am a warm sleeper).

Moggans Midweight Merino Crew Socks

Moggans was a new name in socks to me. It means woollen stocking in Scots and the company is Scottish. These socks are made from merino wool, recycled polyamide, and elastane. I find them very comfortable even when soaked. They breathe well and are quite warm.

 Altra Lone Peak 7 Wide 

Altra Lone Peak lightweight and flexible trail shoes have been a favourite for the last seven years and I've worn them on several long-distance walks. This latest version comes in two widths for the first time. Given my foot shape I went for the Wide fit, though I suspect the Original fit would have been fine. Lone Peaks have a wide toebox and a zero drop sole, both of which I like. The grip is excellent and the cushioning good.



Rab Mythic G 

Down jackets are usually very light for the warmth provided. The Mythic G however is not just very light, it's astonishingly light. And very warm. This is due to 1000 fill power down and a reflective lining. The jacket feels instantly warm as soon as you pull it on and is very comfortable. It packs into a tiny bundle too - tiny even for a down jacket. It's designed for mountaineering but I think it's superb for backpacking.

Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60L 

I've been impressed with the Flex Capacitor pack since I tested the original version back in 2018.  I liked it so much that I took it on a 400 mile walk in the Colorado Rockies the next year. The supportive and comfortable back system hasn't changed and the volume can still easily be changed with adjustment straps. However the latest version has big stretch mesh pockets on each side.I think this is an improvement.

Keela Pinnacle

Big burly fully specified waterproof jackets designed for the winter mountains are usually expensive. The Pinnacle is an exception. It has all the features and performance of other jackets at a much lower cost. It has an excellent wired hood, roomy pockets, and underarm zips. Breathability isn't quite up to more expensive fabrics but I haven't notice this make a significant difference.

Saturday 23 December 2023

Happy Midwinter Festivities!

Happy Midwinter Festivities. 

Best wishes to everyone and thanks to all who have supported my work here and in magazines and books. I am truly grateful. May you all have a wonderful 2024.

Tuesday 19 December 2023

Favourite Camps of 2023 in pictures

Long Beach, Inverie, Knoydart. May.

It's time to start looking back on the year that's ending. I think of years mostly in terms of trips and camps. For the fourth year running I didn't venture beyond the Scottish Highlands - there is so much to do here! Indeed, there were few trips outwith the Cairngorms though one was the longest of the year - two weeks in Knoydart.

By the Allt Coire na Cruaiche with Ben Aden in the background, Knoydart. May

My camping trips didn't start until February and were cut short at the end of October due to the need to recuperate from an operation (I don't think I'll be out again this year). I didn't manage a camp in August either but I made the most of the trips in the other eight months.

Dawn, Cairngorms. February

The first trip of the year was at the back of Cairn Gorm on a freezing winter night with lovely dawn and dusk light.

Coire Laogh Mor, Cairngorms. March.

March saw the annual igloo building trip with the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club. Conditions weren't ideal. There wasn't a lot of snow lower down and it was stormy higher up but we did manage to construct three igloos.

Igloo, Coire Laogh Mor, Cairngorms. March

One of the igloos was a solo one. I loved the quiet and solitude.

Glen Affric, April

In April I went to Glen Affric and had a fine camp on a frosty night under a star-filled sky. 

Glen Affric, April

There were still large snow patches on the mountains. The next day found a steep hard patch barring my descent from Mam Sodhail. Without ice axe or crampons I retreated and took a different route.

Glen Affric, April

This was longer and ended in a crossing of awkward boggy ground but it did avoid any snow. The day ended with a pleasant camp amongst some fine old Scots pines.

Glen Pean, Knoydart. May

The Knoydart trip in May started with five days with Tony Hobbs and his dog Lassie.

Loch Morar, Knoydart. May

In mostly wet weather we went through Glen Pean to Loch Morar and then back along the tops to Loch Arkkaig.

Glen Dessary, Knoydart. May

Our last night was spent just above the forest in Glen Dessary and finally the weather was warm and dry enough to sit outside 

Glen Kingie, Knoydart trip. May

After Tony left I spent another eight days walking through Knoydart, still in mostly wet and windy weather with cloud down on the tops. 

Moine Mhor, Cairngorms. June.

June saw me back in the Cairngorms with a fine camp on the Moine Mhor, a favourite place, that gave a great view of Sgor Gaoith above a cloud inversion.I climbed Braeriach from the camp.

Lairig an Laoigh, Cairngorms. July.

In July I camped in the Lairig an Laoigh pass in the Cairngorms and woke to a superb dawn after which I went up Creag Mhor. 

Below Stac na h-Iolaire, Cairngorms. September.

September I went up the long north ridge of Cairn Gorm, though I didn't go all the way to the summit, with a camp below Stac na h-Iolaire. 

Glen Quoich, Cairngorms. October

Tony Hobbs joined me again for a five day trip in early October in the Eastern Cairngorms. The weather was wet and very windy. For two nights we camped in upper Glen Quoich.

Glen Gairn, Cairngorms. October

From Glen Quoich we crossed a low pass into Glen Gairn. Here we camped in a spot that initially seemed reasonably sheltered. The wind soon picked up though, thrashing the tents, so we packed up in the dark and headed down the glen in search of somewhere better, ending up sheltering behind an estate hut. I bivvied out here. Tony managed to erect his tent next.

Deeside, Cairngorms. October

The strong winds continued the next day as we struggled over a high pass and down to Deeside where we camped deep in the woods. 

Glen Feshie, Cairngorms. October

At the end of October I camped amongst the magnificent old pines and the bright autumn colours of the birches not far from the rushing river in Glen Feshie. A fine last camp of the year.

Saturday 16 December 2023

Outdoor Books for Xmas!

If you're still looking for an outdoor book as a present for someone or even yourself I've written a few that might be of interest. 

Whether mine or someone else's I recommend buying books from independent bookshops if possible.
These wonderful places support small publishers and local writers and are great for browing and chatting about books. We have a marvellous one in my local town, Grantown-on-Spey called The Bookmark.

If buying online supports independent book shops. I've used and find it very efficient.

Friday 15 December 2023

Mist & Snow in the Cairngorms

Walker descending towards the mist in Glenmore

There has been much fog this week. In fact there has been much fog this autumn. Even more than usual. Not for the first time I drove cautiously to Aviemore in the dense grey blanket and then on up the ski road to Coire Cas, only coming out of the fog as the I climbed above the forest. Fog is wonderful when you are above it.

Loch Morlich almost appears

The path below the Northern Corries was icy with refrozen show trampled hard by many feet. Only small patches of snow down here. Just once there was a glimpse of Loch Morlich as the fog below me rolled back a little. Ahead the sun was almost rising above Cairn Lochan, its light turning the cloud along the rim of the cliffs a brilliant white. It was midday.

The sun almost makes it above Cairn Lochan

Clouds rolled along the edges of the Cairngorm Plateau, occasionally tumbling over then dissolving in the corries. Where the sky was clear it was a brilliant blue. 

No sign of mist on Cairn Gorm

Across the rolling mass of fog covering Glenmore the summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille occasionally appeared.

Meall a' Bhuachaille pops out of the mist

Once the climb up the long ridge leading to Miadan Creag an Leth-choin began there was complete snow cover, deep and soft in a few places but mostly shallow and crisp enough not to impede walking. Ahead mist brightly lit by the sun rolled along the crest of the hills. A few walkers passed me descending., Ahead a man and a dog were disappearing into the cloud.

Almost sunshine, not quite a white-out

The gentle little plateau of Miadan Creag an Leth-choin was in the cloud when I arrived, the world mysterious and closed-in, visibility limited. I left the path and tramped across the crunchy snow to the little cairn at the high point. I suppose it is a summit though it doesn’t feel like it, just a slight rise on a flat plateau.

Creag an Leth-choin

I was heading for Creag an Leth-choin, which is 30 metres lower but feels like a real mountain with its narrow rocky summit ridge. On the descent to the broad col between the two tops at the head of Lurcher’s Gully I came out of the mist. Creag an Leth-choin was still shrouded but slowly and hazily appeared as I threaded a way up through the rocks. There were cornices on the steep slopes above the Lairig Ghru pass.

The summit of Creag an Leth-choin

The summit was just above the clouds and for a short time I was in sunshine. Mountain hare tracks dotted the snow. There was a cold breeze. Hood up and icicles in my beard I was soon heading down into Lurcher’s Gully.

Skiers on the side of Lurcher's Gully

The snow in the gully was deep and soft and I envied the two skiers I watched traversing the far side. Skies or snowshoes would have been useful here. Forty years ago Creag an Leth-choin was the first hill I ever went up on skis.

After sunset

Most of this day I’d have been carrying skis though and I was soon on the icy path back to Coire Cas. Ahead the sky was turning pink. The sun had set. 

Here's a few more photos from an atmospheric winter day.

Sun-catching mist

The inversion stretching north from Glenmore

Almost out of the mist. Creag an Leth-choin on the left, a distant Meall a'Bhuachaille on the right

Cloud-capped Sgor Gaoith and Sgoran Dubh Mor

A glimpse into the Lairig Ghru