CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
What’s the difference between a good longdistance walk, and a great long-distance walk? Ronald Turnbull has some suggestions…
A walk is a story. And a good one needs as much plotting as an Agatha Christie.
A story needs a climax. Guess what?
The climax should be at the end. This could mean doing Wainwright’s Coast to Coast westwards towards the Lake District, instead of away from it. Almost as important, the anticlimax: the quiet steps to the finish. After two weeks along the Cape Wrath Trail, the easy clifftop day to Cape Wrath is just perfect. After 10 days across the Highlands, the 30 miles of agriculture out to the east coast is less so. Don’t even mention the West Highland Way’s road walk into Fort William…
Jeopardy. Any scriptwriter will tell you it’s essential – whether that’s rattlesnakes, or midges, or map-reading a high moorland. So wander up-river to Loch Avon, sleep at the Shelter Stone, and wonder just which of the 1100m Cairngorm mountains we’re going to get out of here over. It’s a trick that works even better ten days later, when we wander into Loch Coruisk for a necessary exit across the jaggy Cuillin ridge.
Suspense means something you’re not quite sure you can do. The big river at the other edge of Rannoch Moor, or the tidal mudflats to Holy Island on St Cuthbert’s Way, or the 3000m glacier pass high above Zermatt on the Tour of Monte Rosa. Disappointingly, the glacier turned out to be an easy ski piste. But by that time we’d already enjoyed the days of uncertainty leading up to it.
Misery and the possibility of failure: doesn’t every story need a bit of villainy? So plan for that by thinking even more about the fallbacks. Gales kept me off the Cairngorm plateau – for one of the best days ever, below the stormblast in the ancient pines of Rothiemurchus. Dare to dream and get creative. And may your every walk story have a happy ending.
ADVENTURER EXPERT CONTRIBUTORS
Based in Southern Scotland, Ronald Turnbull has a special interest in multi-day backpacking trips over rough country. He has completed 18 different coast-to-coast journeys across various parts of the UK. He likes to sleep out without a tent on UK hilltops, and has achieved comfortable nights on more than 70 in Scotland, Cumbria, Wales and Northern Ireland. ronaldturnbull.co.uk
ALI OGDEN AND SUE OXLEY
Ali Ogden and Sue Oxley are the coordinators of The Great Outdoors Challenge – the annual coast-to-coast backpacking event sponsored by this magazine – and they also own and run Newtonmore Hostel. They have both completed solo walks from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and have walked more than 10 TGO Challenges apiece. tgochallenge.co.uk
Phil Sanderson is an instructor at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s national outdoor training centre. Glenmore Lodge offers courses in all areas of mountain sport, from navigation to mountaineering and climbing, including a two-day wild camping course, covering gear and camping skills. Contact the centre on 01479 861 256 to book or check out glenmorelodge.org.uk.
DESIGNING A WALK 10 TOP TIPS
Every year, 350 keen backpackers plot and walk their own routes across Scotland as part of The Great Outdoors Challenge. We invited the Challenge coordinators, Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden, to share their hard-earned advice for anyone looking to create their own long-distance walk
1. Think what is most important to you on your walk. Hills or valleys? Wild places and/or somewhere to eat and drink regularly? Wild camping or campsites? Occasional B&B/hostel/hotel? Or all the above!
2. Consider a theme – we have had TGO Challenge routes that seek out ancient sites, battle grounds, aircraft wreckages or just places to swim. Other people simply string together a few places they really want to visit.
3. Take inspiration from others. There are plenty of bloggers out there, particularly among the Challenge community (www. tgochallenge.co.uk/challengers-blogs-and-photos/) but remember this is your route, so make it your own.
4. Think about where you will start and finish – are they accessible by public transport? Is there a pub or café to provide a celebratory pint or cream tea when you finish?
5. Let the map talk to you! Physical maps you can spread out have an advantage here over digital ones. Start with a big scale map and mark the places you want to go then swap to a 1:50,000 map to work out the detail. Quite often how you will link them will jump out at you.
6. YOU MIGHT FIND SOME OF YOUR CHOSEN PLACES JUST DON’T FIT – SO SAVE THEM FOR ANOTHER TIME.
7. There’s a good reason why we request Foul Weather Alternatives (FWAs) to Challengers’ high-level walking routes. If you are planning to stick to tops and ridges, what will you do if the weather intervenes? Make sure you have an FWA that you will enjoy – remember it can be a ‘Feeling Weary Alternative‘ too – and don’t be too proud to use it.
8. Don’t over-plan. It is tempting to research every step but you risk losing the sense of adventure. When you turn a corner and find
a stunning waterfall or the perfect pitch, it is all the more special when it is a surprise.
9. Scattering a few easier days in your route allows you time to recuperate and enjoy the delights of a proper bath or shower as well as resupplying.
10. Don’t hurry – enjoy the planning process. A good route takes time to evolve. If you’re not happy with part of it, come back after a few days and look again – you’ll probably see a solution you couldn’t see before. This is what wet winter evenings were made for!
HOW FAR CAN YOU GO?
When it comes to judging your own capabilities, it’s always better to underestimate. And remember that practice makes perfect, say Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden
your abilities – it’s better to be ahead than behind. Difficulties arise if you plan days that are too long, whether due to distance, ascent or difficult terrain.
DISTANCE VS ASCENT
If you have a lot of ascent, keep the distance down. Pathless ground can be surprisingly energy-sapping and slow, especially if you are navigating in poor weather. A 25km day on a good track may be relatively easy, but throw in a couple of hills and some pathless rugged terrain and it becomes a much more daunting prospect.
Road walking looks easy on the map but the hard surface makes your feet suffer so, if you can’t avoid it, allow plenty of time for regular breaks.
The Great Outdoors Challenge takes part in May, when there are over 18 hours of daylight; but in early spring or late summer you need to plan to camp earlier. It can be very tricky trying to find a suitable pitch with your headtorch!
The only way to find out how far you can travel comfortably with a full pack is to try it. Have some practice days carrying all your gear and find out what is comfortable for you, then ideally have a one- or two-night trial trip to test yourself and your gear.
FIVE ADVANTAGES OF SHORT DAYS
• They boost morale. Getting ahead of schedule or finishing a day with energy to spare is invigorating; getting behind is demoralising.
• They allow you to negotiate unexpected obstacles, like missing bridges, rivers in spate, boggy terrain or – as we found out in the Dales recently – a multitude of stiles not designed for walkers with short legs and large packs!
• They give you the chance to take in your surroundings. Don’t just travel through but drink in your environment, be still for a while and you will see so much more wildlife. Have the time to explore the hidden gems you come across.
• They allow some spontaneity. If you fancy an extra hill or a long lunch by a tumbling burn you have the time to do it.
• They let you enjoy the camping experience. There is something special about making a wild place your home for your night, whether it is basking in sunshine or listening to the rain and wind from inside your shelter.
PREPARING FOR EMERGENCIES
“If you are going to be out alone in remote areas for an extended time, it’s worth considering emergency contacts and plans,” says Phil Sanderson. “As well as leaving clear details of where you plan to be, think about how you will call for help if needed. Phones are the first option but they’re limited by battery and coverage. A personal location beacon such as a SPOT Messenger (findmespot. com) could be another option. These can be programmed to send emails to your preselected list detailing where you are, or make an emergency call if needed. They work independent of phone signal and are small and light.”
PLAN YOUR CAMPS
Phil Sanderson from Glenmore Lodge outlines the essential points to consider when choosing sleep spots along your route
First, your campsite needs to have a reliable water supply, dispensing with the need to pack in water. The next thing to consider is how exposed your site is. With early season camps it may be better to camp at lower elevations where the overnight temperatures are warmer. If the weather forecast indicates strong winds, a lee area of the hillside or shelter from trees is useful. During summer months in Scotland and the onset of midges, your site choice could be higher in the mountains, as it will be cooler and windier to reduce the midge effect.
“Most weather forecasting websites like the Mountain Weather Information Service and Met Office provide detailed information for one to three days, with less detailed forecasts beyond that. This will help for the start of your trip but it would be worth checking if you can also get weather updates on the route. This can often take the form of mobile phone apps.”
Phil Sanderson, Glenmore Lodge
We Recommended Five-day weather forecasts for all major mountain summits in the UK, using data from the Met Office and other sources. yr.no
Norwegian site, covering weather virtually all over the world including many mountain areas.
PLANNING YOUR GEAR
Phil Sanderson from Glenmore Lodge talks through his kit bag recommendations
The gear you carry will make a large difference to your trip, from how comfortable it is to walk with your pack to how sheltered, warm and fed you are at your camp.
You are going to carry it all so you need to be selective about what you put in your rucksack. For me, things need to earn their place in my pack. I am not without luxuries like a dram at the end of the day; but other than that, my rucksack contain the things I need and no more.
To start, all the gear you carry on day walks goes in your rucksack: waterproofs, warm layers, hat, gloves, map, compass, first aid kit.
Next would be overnight shelter which could either be a bivvi bag (good if the weather is fine; there’s nothing like sleeping out under the stars) or, if the weather forecast is mixed, then a tent. If you can share with someone in a two-person tent this can be a lighter option; if not, there are a number of lightweight one-person options on the market. Be aware that the lighter the tent set-up, the more affected they are by strong winds. So what you choose will be a balance between cost, weight and performance.
SLEEPING BAG & MAT
Your sleeping bag is next: a good three-season bag is suitable
for camping in UK summers. Synthetic fibre fill bags will do the job but are often bulky and
heavy. Down-filled bags will be lighter with less bulk but come at a cost. Sleeping mats range from a simple expanded foam mat
(warm but bulky and not the most comfortable) to synthetic- or down-filled inflatable mats, which are comfy, small and light.
What to cook on will be next. For shorter trips, gas canister stoves are a good option: simple, compact and light. Latest designs are super-efficient, making it possible to use just one small 100g canister if out for a single night. Longer trips would need more canisters and to pack out the empties. This becomes a bulky set-up so liquid multi-fuel stoves can be a
better option. These can often work on a wide range of fuel types – my MSR Whisperlight ran well on helicopter fuel in India when nothing else was available. Multifuel stoves are often more complex and expensive but with care will last years.
As for mugs, pots and bowls, lots of stoves come with these as part of the set-up (a Jetboil for example). There are also collapsible types on the market to reduce the bulk, and Sea to Summit do some good options.
Phil Sanderson says: “Equipment breakages are few and far between these days, but it’s important to carry a basic repair kit: duct tape, cable ties, a pole repair sleeve for tent poles, needle and thread.”
POLES: repair with sleeve and tape
RIP IN THE FLYSHEET: use needle and thread and tape.
SLEEPING MAT: use the supplied repair kit or duct tape.
STOVE FAULT: more complex stoves come with a spares kit, but as a last resort dehydrated meals still work with cold water.
These are all quick fixes rather than repairs, which allow you get through the night to exit the hills next day.
CHOOSING YOUR KIT TIPS FROM THE TRAILS
1: Make sure footwear is comfortable with a pack on your back. And take care of your feet – rest them (especially when walking on road or hard tracks), clean them and treat hot spots early.
2: Nothing should be new to you. Make sure everything has been tried out even if it is just in your back garden.
3: Lightweight equipment is good but you can still have too much of it! Make sure everything has a use and think what has more than one use.
4: Prioritise being comfortable at night – a good night’s sleep sets you up for the next day so make sure you have a mat you find comfortable and a warm enough sleeping bag.
Keep yourself well-fuelled on the hills and trails
“To fuel yourself you need some good long-chain carbs,” says Glenmore Lodge’s Phill Sanderson. His recommendations are: “porridge in the morning, flapjack, trail mix, filled rolls during the day and more carbs with some protein at the end of your day to help recovery.
“Real food is going to taste the best. Pre-cooked chilli and rice in a sealed bag is a simple option, but the down side to this is weight, bulk and keeping it sealed on your trip.
“Freeze-dried or dehydrated options will be lighter with less volume.
“You’re going to need a good amount of energy for multiple days out, so check the back of the packet as this type of food can vary in how many calories meals contain.
“On long trips, consider planning to resupply with food along your route rather than carrying the whole lot. Local shops may have what you need – so a quick check before you leave is always a good plan.”
Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden share menu-planning tips they’ve picked up on the TGO Challenge
• Hunger makes you tire more easily, impairs your judgement and stops you enjoying yourself. Aim to maintain your weight; if you want to lose weight, do it before or after not during your trip.
• Practise and experiment before you go. Find out what works for you.
• Food is heavy – consider dehydrated foods for breakfast and supper. There are lots of good brands – we love Mountain Trails; but find what you like or try dehydrating your own.
• Think about calorie-dense foods and those that satiate well (fatty and protein-rich foods – this is not the time for low-calorie, fat-free fodder!). But most of all take something you enjoy and want to eat. A good meal can finish off an enjoyable day or rescue one that has been more challenging.
Make sure you have some emergency food but also take some treats – we always have ‘emergency goodies’ for times when morale is down. The world always seems a better place after a square of chocolate and a wee dram!
Gear Editor Chris Townsend has made good use of the recent sunny weather in Scotland
THIS HAS BEEN a good year for testing sandals, with plenty of warm, dry weather. In conditions like this I think sandals are the ideal walking footwear. I’ve worn them on many long-distance treks including my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk and the Southern Upland Way. In sandals my feet stay cool and dry quickly if wet. My feet get tough too, unlike in sweaty socks and damp shoes or boots when they go soft and blister easily.
People often think that sandals are only suitable for smooth, maintained paths. That’s not so. I’ve worn them on steep, rocky terrain with no problems. Of course your feet and (in some sandals) toes are more exposed, though only a little more than in trail shoes. If you’re used to stout boots in which you can kick rocks it may take a little while to adjust to sandals.
For walking on rough terrain, sandals need a sole with a good grip and straps that keep them securely on your feet.
Good cushioning is worth having too, especially for long walks.
Sandals also expose your feet to sunshine and biting insects so sunscreen and repellent will need to be applied.
In prolonged hot dry weather, cracks can appear in your skin – especially round the toes. Sunscreen or a moisturiser can ease these.
Grit and other debris can get trapped under your feet. With open-toed sandals just tapping the toe on the ground is usually enough to shift this, which is why I prefer this style. Closed-toe sandals have to be taken off.
If it’s cold enough to need socks when walking I prefer trail shoes to sandals as socks quickly get dirty and torn in open footwear. It’s much easier to wash and repair your feet! However in camp socks in sandals can be useful on cool evenings.
Sandals are great when you’re fording streams. Just walk through the water; there’s no need to take them off. Wet sandals dry fast.
Synthetic uppers are lightweight and fast-drying but can get smelly. Leather is heavier and slower-drying but smells less.
Straps should hold the feet in place without any rubbing or irritation. At least two adjustable straps are preferable – at the forefoot and the ankle. Three are better. Closed-toe sandals have lacing at the front and fit similarly to trail shoes.
Open toes allow for good ventilation and for kicking out debris easily but offer little protection. A raised lip on the footbed and a curved sole plus a secure fit can help guard the toes against bruising but you have to be aware that your toes are exposed. Closed- toe sandals protect the toes from harm but don’t allow debris to be kicked out.
Footbeds are usually shaped to follow the contours of your feet. Patterned surfaces help stop the feet sliding around. Some footbeds have anti-odour treatment.
The tread on the sole should give good grip; midsole cushioning offers shock absorption.
WOMEN’S GEARS DAY PACKS
Judy Armstrong assesses rucksacks for single-day outings
TO NO-ONE’S SURPRISE, the once-straightforward ‘day packs’ category has split into several sectors. These now include ultra-light body vests for fell running and racing, 5-10 litre hydration packs with pockets for emergency extras, fast-and-lights at around 15-20 litres and the traditional 25-35 litre range. We’re looking at the 25-35 litre category. In general, these are best for day walks when you’re carrying a light to moderate load, scrambling or via ferrata where you need to carry bulkier or heavier kit (harness, helmet, possibly ropes) to your route, and hut-to-hut hiking when you require moderate capacity and load carrying ability. Plus, of course, ski day/short tours or multi-day mountain bike routes, when your gear has to be contained, and balanced, on your back.
As a minimum, a good 25-35 litre pack should be equipped to carry a hydration system – ideally an internal bladder, or side pouches for bottles – and be secure while you move. On the larger packs the hipbelts should have enough rigidity to carry a load up to 6kg without sagging or letting the base of the pack hang over your backside.
Many packs now feature back systems with an air gap. Retailers find these a relatively easy sell based on ventilation, which can reduce the feeling of a sweaty back. But because of the gap these ‘bouncy back’ systems carry the weight away from the body, with the sensation of the pack levering off the base/hips and hanging out at the top. I have never worn one that I liked. I really did try, for this test, but I remain firmly of the opinion that a pack with a gap any bigger than 10mm cannot be comfortably carried with the kind of load that justifies a 25-35 litre pack.
Pack ‘furniture’ – the pockets, loops and buckles inside and out – varies between brands but I look for the means to carry an ice axe, at least one decent-sized external pocket with easy access, side compression to stabilise a load (big or small) and an internal pouch for a water bladder. Testing these packs flagged up the variation in where, and how, shoulder straps attach to the back panel, and how much that affects the
way a load carries; this ties in to top tension strap functionality.
At the end of the day, your pack should be comfortable on your back, and stable when you move in any direction, bearing in mind your chosen sport. I hope one of these works for you; now let’s get out there and enjoy summer.
Check the size before you buy. Many small packs have short backs, so when taller people lengthen the shoulder straps in order to locate the hipbelt or waist strap, the chest strap sits too high and top tensions straps are too low.
Think about water. Some packs are set up to carry bottles, while others have dedicated pouches against the back panel for water bladders. You must be able to suspend a bladder, otherwise it will slump to the base of the pack and form an uncomfortable bulge. You should also be able to secure the tube externally on a shoulder strap.
Check the hipbelt for length (a long belt may not cinch close enough on a slim waist) and ensure that it is shaped/sturdy enough for a load of at least 3kg. Even a minimal weight is uncomfortable if it’s hanging directly off your shoulders.
Shoulder straps should attach to the back panel far enough apart to allow room for your neck and curve to sit comfortably around your bust. Taller people using short packs may find the shoulder straps finish too high, near the armpits. The sternum/chest strap should be able to slide for simple adjustment when the load bulk and weight change the way the pack sits.
5. BACK SYSTEM
All rucksacks make your back sweaty, but solid fabric panels will feel damper than mesh.
Air-gap packs, built on the premise that they are cooler, hold the load away from your back, usually resulting in a feeling of being unbalanced. I am not a fan. A back system that curves with your body, rather than perching on it, will feel more stable at any speed.
6. BACK LENGTH
Back lengths are not an exact science: some brands quote the distance between hipbelt base and where shoulder straps attach to the back panel, others to the top of the back panel or the top tension straps. In reality there is a reasonable margin for fit depending on how tightly you adjust the shoulder and top tension straps, plus some can be adjusted for length using Velcro panels or sliding bars.