Friday 30 June 2023

A Two-Night Summer Trip In The Cairngorms With A Look At The Gear I Used

This piece covers a trip I did in June last year. It first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine. I've edited it a little and updated prices and gear info. It's part of a series of articles in which I describe a trip and the key items of gear I used.

Last year the weather was mostly cloudy and windy in early summer in the Cairngorms. There were sunny spells though and I did seize one for a couple of wild camps and a wander in the Cairngorms without the risk of being blown over while navigating in the mist.

On a fine warm evening I crossed boggy Strath Nethy and climbed onto the flat mountainside to camp below Bynack More, a black wedge against the darkening sky. Later in the evening I wandered outside, lured from my sleeping bag by the searing red after-sunset sky on the northern horizon. A crescent moon hung in the sky. At 11pm it wasn’t fully dark and I had no need of a headtorch. The long days of summer in the Highlands. I never tire of them. Every year it’s magical.

The night was chilly with a frost and a cool breeze blowing through the rather too well-ventilated tent. The cold and the wind woke me often and I was up early, climbing Bynack More to gaze at the Cairngorms coming to life in the sunshine while I waited for the tent, soaked with dew and condensation, to dry. Once it had and was packed away I crossed the rounded mossy bump of A’ Choinneach and descended its rockier south-west ridge, which gives superb views along Loch Avon to the great cliffs at its head, to The Saddle, the col between Strath Nethy and Loch Avon. Descending to the loch I followed the path along the north side, a path that always seems rougher, rockier, and muddier than I remember. The magnificent cliffs rising ahead pulled me on. I was tired though, the broken sleep of the previous night along with the hot sun having a lethargic effect, and one brief rest became an hour’s snoozing in the heather.

Finding the area beyond the head of the loch deserted – surprising given the superb weather – I decided to camp. This is one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms, the rough meadows surrounded by a wild mix of great granite rock walls and tumbling streams. Passing by was not to be considered, especially in such glorious weather (and admittedly by how tired I felt).

The next day the rising sun woke me, shining straight down the glen and into the tent. The huge cliffs of Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone Crag rising high above were magnificently golden. A dawn of brilliance and intensity.

I lingered long watching the mountains and the roaring white waters of the streams crashing down broken slabs and rocks from the Cairngorm Plateau high above. Finally, I left on the path up to Loch Etchachan and on to Ben Macdui. Buttercups lined the many streams and springs, glowing yellow.

Higher up the ground was stony and pale with the almost desert-like look the Cairngorm Plateau has under a hot summer sun. Coarse granite gravel rolled under my trail shoes. A few people were about. I had expected far more. Ben Macdui came and went, the views across the Lairig Ghru as splendid as ever, and then it was across the Plateau to Cairn Gorm. The shallow corries above the hidden Loch Avon basin were alive with countless shimmering streams.

A long descent down Coire na Ciste and I was back at the car. The weather had been wonderful, the trip had been wonderful. Familiar hills, familiar places, but always different, always with something to offer.

Planning & Preparation

With a prediction of dry sunny weather and gentle breezes gear to cope with the heat seemed more important than gear for storms, though I never go without lightweight waterproofs whatever the forecast. Weather can change very fast in the Highlands. Shorts, trekking shirt, sunhat, breathable (non-waterproof) trail shoes and sunscreen were all I expected to need during the day and so it turned out.  Nights were meant to be quite warm too but I still took a light insulated jacket – I never go without one or else a fleece.

Summer does have one major hazard though – midges. With those little beasties in mind I packed insect repellent, mosquito coils, and a head net. I hoped that camping high up where there was a breeze would mean I wouldn’t need these, and I didn’t, but there was no way I was venturing out without them.

I kept my camping gear as light as possible to keep the weight of my load down. Walking in the heat is arduous enough without a heavy weight on the back. I still had gear I felt would cope with a summer storm if necessary though. As it was the first night was windier and colder than expected and I didn’t have the most comfortable night.  



Atom Packs Mo EP50             925g       £265             *****     Best Buy          

Likes                          lightweight, pockets, tough fabrics

Dislikes                      nothing
Capacity                    main body 45 litres, side pockets 2 x 2.5 litres, front pocket 5 litres
Materials                    EPX200 recycled 200 denier fabric body and base, 210d Robic Extreema side
                                 pockets, shoulder straps, hipbelt, Dyneema front and bottom pockets, 500 D
                                 textured nylon backpanel
Top Closure                roll top with stud closure and three buckles and straps
Back System             plastic frame with removable alloy stay, 8mm closed cell foam padded back panel
Back Sizes                S-XL
Hipbelt                       shaped, padded, five sizes – XS - XL
Pockets                     stretch mesh front pouch, 2 open side, 2 mesh shoulder strap, stretch base,
                                 optional hipbelt
Features                    side and front compression/attachment stretch cords, ice axe loops
Load capacity            19kg

When I gave this UK-made lightweight pack an initial review in 2021 I was impressed. However I had only used it on a couple of short easy overnight winter trips and as a daypack. This trip was a much more severe test as the terrain was much steeper and rougher and I was out for much longer each day. I’m still impressed. The pack was superb. My load weighed a touch over 14kg – as well as three days food I had extra camera gear – and the pack was very comfortable and stable, the back system transferring the weight well to the hipbelt. My back did get a little damp in the heat as the pack is body-hugging but then the rest of me was pretty sweaty as well.

All my gear went inside or into the pockets except for my bulky foam pad, which I attached with the shockcord on the back. The pack was full though and I think for trips where I’d be carrying more than three days supplies I’d prefer the 60-litre model (which I have since used and which is reviewed in a trip report in the July 2023 print issue of The Great Outdoors).



MSR Freelite 1                               860g               £470     ***1/2

Likes                               low weight, large porch
Dislikes                           cutaway flysheet, low hydrostatic head on groundsheet
Flysheet                          15D ripstop nylon silicone/PU, 1200mm HH
Inner                               10D polyester micro-mesh
Groundsheet                    15D ripstop nylon PU, 1200mm HH
Poles                               DAC NFL 8.7mm
Pegs                                8 x 16cm square
Porches                           1, 66cm deep
Inner Dimensions              221cm x 84cm, 100cm high point

When I reviewed the Freelite 1 in the Solo Tents feature for the May 2022 issue of The Great Outdoors I said that, due to the mesh inner and cutaway flysheet, “I don’t think the design is the best for the UK except in dry summer weather”. I would now modify that to dry calm summer weather. This is a draughty tent. The first night the breeze was strong enough to blow under the flysheet and through the inner tent, waking me at times and leaving me feeling a bit chilly. The second night there was no wind and I slept fine. 

I do like the low weight and the space – there’s ample room to sit up and a porch big enough for gear storage and cooking - but for breezy weather it does need a down to the ground flysheet.  And even though the design is airy, when the wind dropped copious condensation formed on the big solid panel on the inner where the flysheet is extremely cutaway.

Sleeping Bag


Robens Couloir 250      630g            £210    *****   Best Buy
Likes                           lightweight, centre zip, cost
Dislikes                       only one length
Fill                               250g 700FP hydrophobic down
Shell                            Toray 20D nylon taffeta
Construction                 sewn-through
Zip                               almost full-length, centre
Length                         190cm
Rating                          Comfort +8°C, Limit +3°C
Although this bag only has a lower comfort rating of +3°C I’d used it previously in temperatures down to zero and stayed warm so I reckoned it would be fine for this trip. In fact it wasn’t quite warm enough the first night but fine the second even though the overnight temperatures inside the tent were the same, just above zero. The difference was the wind. Whistling through the tent it took away enough heat the first night that I needed to wear my insulated jacket and long underwear in the bag to keep warm.

I like the Couloir because it has a centre zip, making it easy to sit up in the bag and use your arms. The rest of the design is good too and I find the bag very comfortable. The hood fits snugly and there’s enough room to move inside the bag. The zip is two-way so you can vent it from the bottom without opening the whole bag.

However, the Couloir 250 has been discontinued. There is a Couloir 350 with the same design. It weighs a bit more but is still very light at 795grams and has a lower comfort rating of -4°C.  It costs £255.


For comfort I like an air bed. However, these can spring a leak and need careful use so I also carry a closed cell foam mat as I can chuck this on the ground and sit on it outside without fear of puncture. It also adds extra warmth under the air bed and would provide insulation if the latter deflated. The combined weight was only 421 grams, which is less than many single mats.

Therm-A-Rest NeoAir UberLite Regular    250g      £235    ****1/2   Recommended

Likes                    ultralight, warmth, tiny packed size              
Dislikes                expensive               
Type                     airbed               
Materials              15D nylon                 
Dimensions          183 x 51cm               
Thickness             6.4cm                 
Rating                  R-value 2.3               

This mat is astonishingly light and packs astonishingly small. Inflated it’s quite thick and very comfortable. I find that not blowing it up really hard is best. A little give means I’m less likely to roll off. Whilst not insulated the UberLite has an internal construction of stacked triangular baffles that reduce heat loss which is why it has a high R-value for such a light mat. It should be adequate down to freezing on its own. Combined with a closed cell mat it definitely is, as I found on this trip.  

To keep the weight down the fabric is quite thin. I managed to cut my first UberLite so I know it provides no insulation or comfort when it goes flat on hard, cold ground. It does need care. 

The current UberLite has the fairly new WingLock Valve which makes it faster and easier to inflate as it’s a one-way valve with a larger opening. Deflation is quicker too.


Multimat Superlite 8    171g           £27.50        ****1/2   Recommended

Likes                        ultralight, inexpensive, durable, warm
Dislikes                    very bulky, not very soft
Type                         closed cell foam
Materials                  cross-linked Plastazote polyolefin foam
Dimensions              180 x 50cm
Thickness                 8mm
Rating                      -70°C

The Superlite 8 is a conventional closed cell foam pad made of high-tech foam so it’s ultralight. I’ve been using it for several years and it’s proved durable. The edges are a little ragged in places but it hasn’t lost any thickness. It is very bulky, so it goes outside the pack. That’s convenient anyway if I want to use it during the day, as I did on this trip when I had the snooze by Loch Avon.

The mat insulates well, though I haven’t tried it below -10°C, let alone anywhere near the -70°C Multimat claim. Like all closed cell foam mats It’s not very soft or comfortable and doesn’t even out bumps and lumps like an inflatable mat.  It works though and goes on working however roughly it’s treated.


Merrell Moab Speed trail shoes
               624g (size 9)    £110  *****    Best Buy 

Likes              lightweight, good grip, durable
Dislikes          nothing
Uppers           mesh & TPU
Sole               Vibram Ecostep
Sizes             men 6.5-14, women 3.5-8.5

For the first time since the previous summer the weather seemed right for breathable non-waterproof trail shoes. The Moab Speed shoes had been worn for many trips but were still in good condition, though looking a little battered and discoloured. The fit is exactly right for my feet – wide at the forefoot, narrow at the heel - and I find them very comfortable. They’re also very breathable. They’re not waterproof – the uppers are mainly mesh - but they do dry very fast. On this trip they got soaked and then dried out three times.  Worn with thin wool mix socks they never felt too hot – unlike the rest of me! Indeed, each soaking helped keep my feet cool. The unusually patterned sole – a mix of oval and wedge-shaped lugs – has hardly worn down at all so the grip was good on a variety of surfaces including wet bog, steep heather, stones, and even a few last snow patches. It doesn’t matter for the performance but I also like the recycled content - 100% recycled laces, 100% recycled mesh lining, 50% recycled insole top sheet, and 30% recycled rubber sole.



Berghaus Senke Shorts             192g (size L)  £50    

Likes             comfortable, breathable

Dislikes         nothing
Fabric            bluesign approved 95% polyamide/5% elastane with non-PFC DWR finish
Waist            stretch drawcord, brushed lining
Pockets         2 open front, 1 zipped front, 1 zipped rear

Shorts are hardly technical clothing, but I know from sad experience that a poor fit or rough fabric can lead to rubbing and soreness so just any old pair won’t do. I am pleased to say that no soreness occurred with these new Berghaus shorts which were on their first outing (I did have light trousers as backup). The fabric is soft and comfortable against the skin and very breathable. It doesn’t stick to you when damp with sweat, unlike some fabrics. The slight stretch means it doesn’t bind either. Berghaus says the fabric is wind and water-resistant, which I don’t think is important for shorts, and protects from the sun, which is important.  The waist band is lined with soft brushed fleece that is comfortable even when soaked with sweat, as was inevitable under my pack hipbelt. I like the hand pockets, which I used for items like a bandanna (used for wiping my brow to stop sweat dripping in my eyes!). There’s a zipped security pocket inside the left hand one. I didn’t use this in the hills but it was useful for cards and cash back in Aviemore.

The Senke Shorts are quite light and reasonably priced and I think they should last a long time.


Rohan Upland Shirt        360g (size M)              *****    Best Buy (except you can’t)

Likes           comfort, press studs, big pockets, tough
Dislikes       nothing
Fabric          polyamide
Pockets       2 press stud-fastened bellows chest, 1 zipped inner
Front           press studs
Cuffs:          press studs
This shirt is one of the best trekking shirts I’ve ever worn. It’s long been discontinued, however. I’ve included it here as an example of how good quality gear can last a long time. It’s at least 20 years old (I can’t remember exactly) and is still in good condition despite having been worn a great deal for general wear as well as in the hills. The design is excellent. It has press studs on all fastenings that are much faster and easier to use than buttons. The big pockets are very roomy. The fabric is wind-resistant, breathable, fast drying and comfortable. The sleeves have tabs inside with press studs to keep them in place when rolled up. On this trip the shirt performed as well as ever – it’s great in the heat.

Looking at the current Rohan range the nearest equivalent is the Pioneer Long Sleeved Hiking Shirt which weighs 385 grams and costs £90. The pockets look roomy and the fabric sounds good but it has buttons rather than press studs.


Other Clothing

I also had with me Mammut Runbold Pants, Smartwool T-shirt, SubZero wool long underwear, Smartwool beanie and Outdoor Research VerticalX SuperStrand LT Hoody, which were all worn in camp, and a Patagonia Houdini windproof jacket, which I wore on the early morning walk up Bynack More, plus an old baseball cap I wore in the sun. My lightweight waterproofs never left the bottom of the pack.



OPPO Find X5 Pro smartphone            223g                   £799

Likes                                   camera quality, 5-axis image stabilisation, waterproof, dustproof
Dislikes                               slippery back, expensive
Size                                    162 x 74
Operating system                 Android 12
Memory                               256 GB
Battery                                5000 mAh
Cameras                              rear: 50mp f1.7 main, 50mp f2.2 ultra-wide angle, 13mp f2.4 telephoto           
                                           front: 32mp f2.4

This smartphone was supplied for test on the basis that it has 5-axis stabilisation for shooting steady video and still photographs rather than as an actual phone. OPPO says this is “the industry's first mobile device with SLR Level stabilisation”. How it compares with other top smartphones I can’t say but it’s certainly far more stable than the mid-range phones I’m familiar with. On this trip I took a handheld early morning 360° video round my second camp and it’s smooth enough to post online. Photos taken with the main lens, the only one stabilised, are good too. Overall the photos are better quality than ones from the mid-range phone cameras I’ve tried.

In other respects the Find XF Pro is good for outdoor use, with one proviso. It has a long-lasting big battery and it’s waterproof and dustproof. The screen is made from tough Gorilla Glass. The ceramic back is scratch-resistant and twice as hard as glass. However, the back is also extremely slippery. It’s not too bad when held firmly but placed on anything that’s not absolutely flat and it slides off, or in the case of a tent groundsheet slides all over the place to inevitably end up under the sleeping mat.

My detailed review of this phone can be found here. As a successor, the X6 Pro, has appeared the X5 Pro is currently available at a good price.

Other Equipment


For cooking I had the Jetboil Stash stove system, which had been on every camp for over a year.  Pacerpoles were used all the time when walking. They proved particularly useful for probing boggy areas in Strath Nethy. The clear weather and the familiar terrain meant I didn’t need to do any navigating but I did have the OS app on the smartphone and a map and compass. For safety and communicating with home I had the Garmin InReach Mini 2, which lived in a shoulder strap mesh pocket. A Black Diamond Spot R 400 headlamp was used in the middle of the night for finding and donning clothing when I was bit chilly. It was just dark enough in the tent to need it.