The road to Ben Nevis Nov 2009

The road to Ben Nevis Nov 2009
The road to Ben Nevis Nov 2009

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Saturday, 1 December 2018

Gearing up to the TGOC - an opinionate guide to the essentials for backpacking in Scotland

The TGO Challenge - there's lots of advice out there - so my small contribution may not add much. At least this catharsis will allow me to move on in my reflections - and focus on my new challenge for 2019.

Some may think backpacking is backpacking is backpacking. But Scotland always has rain which makes it different.

Weight

There is a culture around lightweight backpacking. A number of suppliers - like backpackinglight.co.uk - focus on assembling goods from around the world (or indeed making them themselves) to meet the criteria of 'lite' or 'ultralite'.

My pack when loaded for a trip with 4 days of food and a litre of water weighs around 15 kilos. I've looked with envy at those who manage with 12kg or even less. At first, after each trip I made a list of what do to take weight out of my pack.

But finally I have seen the light. Shaving 2kg off my 15kg pack seemed significant - a saving of 15%! But actually I drag between 95 and 100 kilos up the hill and so the 2kg saving makes my total burden only 2% lighter!


How much to carry then? The load must be comfortable on your back: this is the key. A big contributor is the pack design - a wide padded hipbelt with adjusters for the hips and waist is important.

This Osprey pack is a suitable size but the straps and hipbelt are not comfortable over long periods with a 15kg load

This pack from Six Moon Design is based around the heavy duty hipbelt which will comfortably carry any weight the bag can accommodate.
 
And if you want to shave a few kilos off your load consider lightening you calorie intake for a week or so before a trip.

Shelter

What are the key point of a shelter for backpacking in Scotland?

Weight and bulk. The more tent you carry the less you have of something else. I seem to have managed with about 1kg for everything to do with shelter - including groundcover and pegs.

Protection from the elements - particularly wind and rain. A tent can be like a sail; a design that works in strong winds is valuable.

Capability to keep wet and dry gear separated. This requires a certain amount of space.

Condensation management. It can be quite disheartening to find that, although the rain has been kept outside, your down sleeping bag is sodden from condensation on the sides of the tent. This again is a function of space available inside the shelter and if there is an inner shell, the correct separation of the two layers. Ventilation can help too.

I've graduated from a Terra Nova Laser Competition, to a MLD Trailstar, to a custom made tent from Colin at Tramplite.com.
A slackly pitched Laser Competition

The Laser Competition is a standalone tent with an inner shell and poles. It required a few modifications to improve stability in a shifting strong wind, and to increase ventilation. I found it too compact and a bit claustrophobic when zipped in against the elements.
MLD Trailstar with homemade sinylon groundsheet

The MLD Trailstar is a wide tarp-tent. It is very stable and can be adjusted from inside as the wind changes direction. With lots of room arranging the inside has several options - from a simple plastic groundsheet to a zipped mesh 'nest' which shares the single walking pole in the centre for support. It covers a wide area of ground and sometime it is necessary to include a rock or a bit of a stream inside. There's plenty of room for a second person. The one shortcoming is the need to crawl in and out of the entrance. An excellent simple design nevertheless.
The rare Sinylon Tramplite shelter - now only in Cuban

I followed Colin Ibbotson to the Trailstar and when I learned he had his own design on the drawing board I knew it would be based on his long hiking experience. His offering is like a Trailstar cut in half with a well-crafted entrance beak. The great advantage is an open front design which supports a good view of the outside. The main shortcoming is the need to have its back into the wind, coupled with a width similar to the Trailstar which means pitching well on uneven mountain ground is not always easy.

You can see from the website here that the tent now comes only in Cuban / DCF and has continue to evolve as one of the best light weight solo shelters.

Feet

It is hard to have a successful and enjoyable walk with sore feet.

The key to success with feet is:-

i) Do not ask more from them than they are used to. If you usually walk 3 hours and you suddenly  walk 8 or 9 hours, you are asking for protest. If you usually walk with dry feet and you walk all day with wet feet likewise. If you change your shoes expect trouble before your feet are used to them. If you normally walk on the flat, when you move to rough terrain problems loom.

ii) Look after them. You can usually feel and see hotspots before they become an incumberance. Take protective action with plasters of one sort or another.

iii) Socks. Problems often come from the action of socks gripped by the boot / shoe and rubbed against skin. Choose socks with an amount of elastene which helps maintain their shape especially when wet and stops them sagging and rucking against the feet. My current favorites are 'darn tough'.

iv) Shoes. Of course your feet should be familiar with your shoes. Boots, trainers, leather, fabric, gortex or other membrane, with fine and varied footbeds are all possibilities for torture. Remember that feet and ankles may need extra support after 7 or 8 hours on the go, and that walking pathless and traversing steep slopes can add to the strain.

Boots or Trail shoes? Maybe something for river crossings?

It is impossible to walk the width of Scotland with dry feet. If the bog doesn't get you perspiration will! Be prepared to put on cold wet socks in the morning, and then wet shoes or boots and then walk all day.

Plasters do not stick well in these circumstances. Consider Friars Balsam and Leucatape as a basis for make plasters or moleskin stick securely to feet to protect hotspots.

Maps

There's lot of 'official' advice about mapping, all of it good.

My approach has been to plot my route on the Ordinance Survey online UK mapping application. I pay around £20 a year to access this. I then print the route out to PDF files as efficiently as possible. When I am happy with the coverage and scale I transfer the images, double-sided, onto plastic waterproof paper.

You will be told that to rely on a printed map of your route alone is folly, because you are bound to deviate from it. In my experience this is quite true! I take a minimum number of folded maps - I like Harveys 1:40000 scale. They are waterproof, designed for walkers, and cover some of the more interesting mountain areas of Scotland. I try to cover the areas where I most expect to be challenged.
Some of the Harvey Maps are truly pocket-sized!

Food

If you are following a civilized route and perhaps staying in B&Bs this is unlikely to be much of a problem.

On the other hand if you aim to spend most days and nights in the wild you may have some difficulty - like me!

Every night I am happy to have a rehydrated meal, and soup, and tea. I never 'cook' which means my gas stove is used for boiling water only and a Jetboil look-alike does the trick perfectly.

Daytime eating is more difficult. I used to start the day with instant porridge, but this is pretty horrible especially without milk, sugar, fruit, etc. Now I use granola mixed with Nido milk powder to which I add some water. Most Granola is too sweet for me and whichever I choose I soon get tired of it.

What can you eat during the day - day after day, while walking and walking? For some, sweets are the answer, others take to dried fruit and nuts. Me - I use oat biscuits with mild cheese or sausage, and garibaldi type fruit biscuits or cereal bars. Old sandwiches don't seem to work.

It is interesting to note what you gravitate towards when you enter the first shop in 5 days. Will is be fruit? Coke or Cake? A meat pie? A portion of chips?

I find it hard to carry more than 4 days food, and that means resupplying en route. If you pass shops you can flexibly adjust your diet to what is available. The alternative is to send a parcel or two of key supplies for collection from some place on the way. B&Bs, post-offices, campsites - they all seem happy to accomodate this request.

Training

Long walking and backpacking is much more fun if you are fit.

Age is significant here. I remember the days when people on the hill were always soon overtaken and disappearing behind me. Those days are past.

If you study age you will be familiar with the graph which shows capability of some sort (for example cognitive ability) plotted against age. There is a gradual slope downwards from age twenty-something until sixty. Around sixty or so there is a cliff edge where the line descends dramatically as capability drops.
 Decline vs age graph
This doesn't apply to everything - happiness for example, and vocabulary actually improve - but we are talking about fitness and responsiveness to training.

My last TGO was a wake-up call for age-related-fitness-deficit. I had done practice walks, sometimes long - upto 6 or 7 hours, most often much shorter, but always without pain or strain. But for the first time I failed to do any mountain walking. It was hard to arrange trips away from the relatively flat home counties of England, and when I did the weather was so awful that I kept in the valleys.

In the past, without training, I have arrived in the mountains and within a couple of days I have found my pace. But last May was different. My first Munro took some 3 hours to ascends - almost double my planned time. Even on day 8 there were folks with children and dogs passing me uphill never to be seen again.

So my advice is to train doing the type of walking you plan for your trip. If you are doing mountains walk mountains. You will have long days so walk long in training. If you have pathless and wild stretches in your route incorporate some of this in your training. As you age, gaining a high level of fitness is harder and takes longer.

My poor preparation last time resulted in some very long days. This also required some unplanned, poor camping spots. and the disheartening business of revising some key milestones out of my route.

Of course you can do a TGO without being super fit! You are doing the planning so match the route to your capability!










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