What I’ve loved this season | Autumn 2020

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

Autumn in the Cairngorms is absolutely sensational. The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Birch and bracken glow gold against the dark of the pines, and the woodlands blaze with reds and oranges. 

Autumn in the Cairngorms, on a woodland walk near Keiloch.

I had a little holiday around the area with friends that came to visit, staying in a holiday cabin on the other side of Braemar from where I live, and taking a campervan tour of the eastern Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire. I also arranged a couple of wildlife watching trips, going on a beaver watching trip in Perthshire (great success), and visiting Spey Bay to search for dolphins (no luck, though there was some great birdwatching at the river mouth).

Bow Fiddle Rock on the north Aberdeenshire coast.

My 40th birthday in September was a small family affair, the only opportunity for us to get together this year before Scotland’s COVID guidelines limited the size of groups we were able gather in. It was a joint celebration with my Dad and nephew Joe who had their birthdays in August, when the City of Aberdeen was in local lockdown and they were unable to have any visitors themselves. We had a BBQ in my parent’s garden to give enough space for physical distance between households, and fortunately the sun shone, and the windbreak I spent most of the morning constructing held up.

The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Linn of Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow behind tussucks on the plateau, sheltering from the low autumn sun.

The Glas Allt Mór waterfall below Clach a’ Cleirich.
Granite tors on the Sneck, the narrow neck of land between the massifs of Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird.

My seasonal job with the Cairngorms National Park Authority came to an end at the beginning of November, which left me with some free time of my hands. I’ve been out exploring more of the areas that lie on the periphery of my usual patrol routes, making the most of the fair weather and trying to keep up with the amount of walking I was doing during the summer, usually between 10 and 15km per day. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge with the lure of the indoors in wet and wild weather.

I’ve always found it a bit harder to do things at this time of year, with the combination of short daylengths and wilder weather making me feel like curling up in bed and hibernating for the rest of the season. I’ve got a natural daylight lamp for the time I spend indoors on the computer, and I’ve been making the effort to spend at least some time outdoors every day this month, as I know how much benefit it brings me. I’m aiming keep it up all through the winter.

A few minutes on the beach at Benholm watching the surf at the turn of the tide.

My Autumn Love List

Books: This season, I’ve dived deep into history, reading up to improve my knowledge of things that happened locally, across the country, and how they interconnect with things happening further afield. My recent reads have been The Cairngorms: A Secret History by Patrick Baker, Scotland: A History from Earliest Times by Alastair Moffat, and Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga.

My other interesting reads from this season can be seen here.

Podcast: January this year marked the 200th anniversary of the first sightings of Antarctica, and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust had planned a programme of events to celebrate the occasion. Due to the pandemic, those which could go ahead were shifted online and a new podcast, A Voyage to Antarctica, was created, with contributions from filmmaker Ruth Peacey, writer Sara Wheeler, and UKAHT’s CEO Camilla Nicol.

Clothing: In anticipation of winter, I’ve splashed out on a pair of the toastiest wool slippers from Glerups. After a day out walking in the hills, they’re a delight to slip my feet into to pad around the house in the evenings.

Self-care: I’ve picked up a lipsalve from Burt’s Bees to last through into the winter. It’s a lovely, tingly peppermint flavour.

A few of my favourite things from autumn 2020, preparing for a cosy winter.

Equipment: I started using a natural daylight lamp, the Lumie Vitamin L lightbox, in early October to help with seasonal affective disorder. I put it on for half an hour or so after my alarm sounds in the morning, and read a few pages of my book soaking in the light before getting up. And now I’m not going out to work everyday, I’ll put it on for an hour or so in the afternoon while I work on the computer.

Treat: It’s got to be mince pies. As they appear in the shops in late September, usually the week after my birthday, I try to get a selection of the different supermarket varieties for  a taste test, to work out my preferred brand for the rest of the season. Currently in the lead position are the ones from the Co-op, although the proximity of the shop has also had a big influence. The ideal accompaniment, for a wintery weekend afternoon, is an amaretto-laced coffee, with my favourite Bird & Wild blend.

What’s Next?

My plans to visit the New Forest and the Isle of Wight in November, then catch up with friends around the south of England have been put on hold again with the COVID lockdown in England. I’ll keep my fingers crossed things might improve by the New Year to allow me to reschedule.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for a bit of work in January, joining the refit of one of the boats I’ve worked on previously. And hopefully that will also bring the opportunity for a short holiday afterwards, though again that all depends on open travel corridors from the UK to Portugal.

In the meantime, I’ve thrown myself into planning a few long walks in my local area and further afield, completing a few online courses, and appreciating winter comforts close to home.

What have you been up to over the last season? How are you affected by the current COVID guidelines where you are?
Remember I’m always here if you need a friendly ear to listen; I’d really love to hear from you.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you.  These help me continue to run the site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

How to go to the toilet in the great outdoors | A guide for hikers & campers

Everybody poops. It’s just a fact of life.

As someone who loves hiking and camping, and has been doing it since I was a child, of course I’ve had a poop in the great outdoors. But set all squeamish sniggering at this statement aside, this is an essential declaration. We can’t ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t happen when we’re outdoors for extended periods.

As a ranger in the Cairngorms National Park through the summer of 2020, I’ve unfortunately seen the impact of irresponsible hikers and wild campers at some of the most beautiful places in the country. Quite frankly, it’s disgusting, it spoils the outdoor experience of everyone else visiting the area, and I’m fed up of having to clean up toilet paper and baby wipes. I just don’t want to see it anymore*.

*And for chat with my ranger colleagues to revolve around more than the biggest jobbies we’ve seen this week.

Dealing with human waste in a hygienic, environmentally sensitive way is a vital outdoor skill, and not just for expert or elite-level outdoors folk. Anyone spending a long time out hiking, or camping overnight will have to face up to the inevitable. And as most of us are accustomed to flushing toilets, it’s a skill that needs to be learned like any other.

Talking about how to pee and poop properly in the outdoors raises awareness of the issue of environmental contamination from human waste, and hopefully will spread understanding of the most responsible way to manage our bodily functions while hiking or wild camping.

Also, I hope it will also go some way to resolving any fears or discomfort some may feel about going to the toilet away from the usual facilities, fears that may stop them from trying longer trips. I’ve shared a few of my toilet tips about how and where to go when hiking or wild camping to ease your worries and help you prepare for your next outdoor experience.

It might look like a beautiful camping spot for the night, but think about where you might be able to go to the toilet safely and hygenically.

So here’s my guide on how to go to the toilet outdoors, to help you plan for your next hiking or camping trip. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below. I’m here to help.

Continue reading “How to go to the toilet in the great outdoors | A guide for hikers & campers”

Gear Review | Rab Firewall Waterproof Trousers

If you’re serious about spending any length of time outdoors, then it’s essential to be prepared for wet weather. Even in the height of the summer season showers and persistent rain can be forecast (there’s a reason our countryside is so green and lush in the UK), and quickly turn a fine day out in the hills into a miserable slog if you haven’t packed your waterproofs.

While a waterproof jacket is probably the most important piece of your kit, you’ll be thankful of a good pair of waterproof trousers to give additional protection from the elements and keep you comfortable for longer.

So what do I want from a pair of waterproof trousers? Obviously they need to keep the wind and rain out, but in most cases they’d stay tucked up in my pack in hopes of fine weather, so need to be lightweight and packable. Once the heavens open, they need to be simple and quick to pull on, so long zips are important, and other features I’d look for in my waterproof trousers would be POCKETS! and vents or two-way zips.

How I tested the Rab Firewall Pants

I think I gave Rab’s Firewall Pants an extremely thorough testing, well beyond the usual realms of outdoor equipment testing. I rocked a pair of these waterproof trousers during the 19/20 season at Port Lockroy, Antarctica, and thoroughly put them through their paces, wearing them daily for around 12 hours at a time over the four months of our season.

In general, the conditions I experienced were relatively mild, given our extreme location; temperatures ranged between -7°C and + 15°C, though winds reached in excess of 40 knots on occasion, and we experienced days of persistant heavy rain and occasional blizzard conditions. 

Our daily routine mixed high levels of physical activity, changing through the season from shovelling snow and cutting paths and steps, to scrubbing guano and sluicing rocks with buckets of water hauled up from the shore, with time engaging with visitors to Base A, the first permanent British base on the Antarctic Peninsula, now operating as a living museum. 

As the wildlife monitor I also had the additional task of counting penguin nests, which involved lots of bending and kneeling, avoiding pecks and pokes from curious penguins, and occasionally crawling into guano-filled spaces under buildings.

Product description

The Women’s Firewall Pants are waterproof trousers with a degree of stretch, made using Pertex Shield® 3-layer fabric. Rab claims this makes them ideal for use in alpine or winter conditions where freedom of movement is essential.

The Firewall Pants are designed for active use in mixed environments, with 3/4 length fully waterproof YKK® AquaGuard® 3-way side zips to allow for high levels of breathability. The trousers have a part elasticated gripped waistband and knee articulations for comfortable movement.

The trousers are compatible with winter boots with under-boot cord attachment loops, and a regular fit allows for a baselayer to be comfortably worn underneath. They weigh 296g (10oz).

The Firewall Waterproof Pants are also available in a men’s fit.

Field Results

Though the pants are lightweight, I found that the fabric was hardwearing and durable, and the regular fit gave plenty of room for additional layers worn underneath without being too flappy around my legs on windy days. I’d usually wear them over a pair of midweight softshell pants, with an extra pair of merino leggings on particularly cold days, though occasionally conditions were warm enough for shorts or lightweight leggings underneath during physical activity. 

The articulated knees, slight stretchiness in the fabric, and elasticated waistband meant I had little restriction of movement, which was exactly what I needed for my work, especially the penguin monitoring. The gripper strips in the waistband helped to stop the pants from slipping down as I moved around.

The long three-way zips on the outside of the leg made it easy to pull them on or off over my boots, and to vent at any position (the ideal position being just above the top of a long rubber boot, but not so low down that a penguin could nip the back of my knees).

The ankles have a shockcord to cinch the hem, and a loop to connect to bootlaces, so that they would remain secure while hiking, though I always wore rubber boots and didn’t make use of this feature.

With a limited supply of freshwater on the island, I could only keep them clean with seawater.  Though it was far from the ideal way to care for my kit, I had no problems with the taped zips seizing up with salt. Even with this abuse, they remained fully waterproof for the duration of the season.

Worth the money?

The Firewall Waterproof pants cost £135, putting them at the more expensive end of the range of products on offer. On a tight budget, you can find decent waterproof trousers for around £50, though you would compromise on features like breathability, venting, and ease of donning. However, the performance and durability of the Firewall pants make it a worthwhile investment.

Conclusion

I wasn’t too familiar with Rab products, previously only owning a pair of Gore-Tex gaiters, but the Firewall Waterproof Pants were well designed and comfortable, with several little touches that gave a very good performance in tough conditions. I wore my Antarctic pair to the absolute limit through the four month season, and will definitely be replacing like for like now I’ve returned to the UK.

Disclaimer: Rab provided the outdoor clothing that formed part of the uniform for UK Antarctic Heritage staff based in Antarctica for the 2019/20 season. This is my honest review after months of use.

If you’ve got any questions about finding the right waterproof trousers, leave a message in the comments below.
Why not pin this to your hiking and camping boards for later?

8 Activities for Adventurers Staying at Home

A list of indoor activities and things to do around the home for outdoor and adventure lovers.

Though we’re encouraged to think of our current situation with the coronavirus lockdown as being safe while we’re at home, there’s no denying if you’re an outdoor type, you’ll inevitably find yourself feeling stuck at home. Denied that usual dose of adventure, there’s a serious risk of an outbreak of cabin fever.

So, given that there’s unlikely to be an immediate cure to our condition, I’ve compiled a list of activities that can bring the outdoors indoors, and help stave off longing aches for the hills, rivers, forests, and beaches for a while longer. They’ll help you stay mentally resilient, and get you prepared to get back out there when the time comes. They’re fun, and virtually all free, or at least affordable, so give them a go!

If you’ve got any of your own tips to share, let me know in the comments below!

Continue reading “8 Activities for Adventurers Staying at Home”

How to make a travel repair kit

A travel repair kit has the things you need to deal with whatever the road throws at you.

A repair kit is an essential for extended trips into wild and remote areas.  A good repair kit will help you take the results of everyday wear and tear in your stride, like a small rip in your trousers, and can make you feel more confident handling the unexpected disasters, like a broken backpack or wind-shredded tent.

Carrying a few simple tools and materials will let you carry out necessary repairs in the field, and could make the difference between completing your adventure and turning back early due to gear failure.  Or enjoying your weekend citybreak without stress.

repair_kit_1_sm

Continue reading “How to make a travel repair kit”

What I’ve loved this season | Autumn 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

I finished working on Irene in early September, after a beautiful few days sailing around Falmouth, visiting Charlestown, St. Mawes and the Helford River, and headed up to Cambridge for a week of training with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.  It was an intense week, with a lot of information to take in, but an exhilarating experience as we covered a lot of the practical and theoretical stuff necessary for living and working in Antarctica.

helford_sunrise_1_sm
A sunrise start on the Helford River near Falmouth in Cornwall.

The training week was followed up by a lot of online courses and independent research.  I’ll write more about the training and preparation I’ve undertaken for my role at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy soon, but I think nothing will actually come close to the experience of arriving and setting foot on the island for the first time.

corset_capers_17_sm
Windswept and interesting! With Wendy Searle, Lucy Hawthorne, Lauren Own and Jo Symonowski on Pen y Fan.

At the end of September I  headed to the Brecon Beacons, to meet a group of fantastic women and do something a bit unusual; hike up Pen y Fan wearing a corset, bloomers and full tweed skirts.  You can read more about our Great Corset Caper here, and the good cause that inspired us, My Great Escape here.

tanar_bridge_1_sm
Autumn in Glen Tanar on Royal Deeside.
tanar_view_1_sm
The view towards Mount Keen and the mounth from Glen Tanar.
tanar_leaf_1_sm
Autumn leaves about to fall on a frost nipped morning.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Autumn 2019”

Gear Review | Jetboil Flash 2.0 Cooking System

There’s few things more welcome than a hearty meal after a long day of walking, or a morning coffee before you hit the trail. I really enjoy cooking outdoors. I gained my Advanced Camper and Outdoor Cook badges as a Guide, preparing meals over an open fire, and have an excellent repertoire as a BBQ cook. Food just tastes better with a side serving of the great outdoors.

While sitting by a roaring campfire with a steaming mug of cocoa has a certain romanticism, it’s never the practical option for cooking and very rarely a responsible choice, especially in remote areas. Even when staying on a campsite, a lightweight backpacking stove is far more safe and efficient, especially when you’re on the move again every day.

What am I looking for in a cooking system for backpacking? Something simple to use, that will get the job done quickly at the end of a long day, especially when the weather is rubbish. It should be lightweight and dependable, easy to pack away after use and clean at the end of a trip.

How I tested the Jetboil Flash 2.0

I took the Jetboil Flash with me on the TGO Challenge, a self-sufficient coast to coast crossing of Scotland in May 2019. I took 11 days to make the crossing, with one scheduled rest and resupply day around the halfway point, walking between 25 and 30km a day and carrying all my gear.

For the most part of the trip I wild camped overnight, usually in locations remote from a local shop, café or pub, so had to be able to make food to ensure I could recover from the day and was properly fuelled for the following day. I took a selection of dehydrated and boil in the bag meals, a homemade mixture of instant porridge, muesli and trail mix for breakfasts, tea bags and ground coffee.

It was pretty important to me to get a coffee in the morning, to help me prepare for walking, to spend a few moments going over my route for the day, and just appreciate the place I’d stopped in for the night before packing up my gear to get on the way.

Though May is the springtime and days are long, there’s still potential for cold nights, and I woke to frost on the outside of the tent on a couple of occasions. Then after a week of fine weather, conditions changed to days of relentless rain and a cold that seeped into my bones. The ability to make hot food and drinks was as much about keeping up morale as fuelling my body.

Product Description

The Jetboil Flash 2.0 is an integrated canister stove system that gives a super fast boiling time, claiming to boil 500ml of water in 100 seconds, thanks to the FluxRing heat exchanger on the base of the pot.

It is claimed that the heat exchanger, and the secure connection between the stove and the cooking pot, keeps it fuel efficient in all but the worst weather conditions, with half the fuel consumption of a traditional stove.

It has a 1 litre cooking pot, a convenient push-button piezo-electric ignition, and an insulated neoprene cozy with a colour-changing water temperature indicator. The system weighs in at a shade under 400g without the gas

Field Results

The claim for taking 100 seconds to boil exactly 500ml of water stood up in the sheltered conditions of my garden, and though it takes a little longer to boil a full pot of water in wet and windy conditions, it’s still no time at all compared to other camping stoves I’ve used.

You can’t quite make use of the full 1 litre capacity of the pot without risking it boiling over and splashing hot water around, but limiting the fill to something between 500-750ml still provides enough hot water for a dehydrated meal and a mug of tea, or an instant porridge and large coffee, with enough left over to have a quick body and face wash.

The Jetboil is really simple to set up. Everything, including a small (100g) gas cannister, fits into the pot, making it easy to pack and just as easy to find when you need it. The cooking pot clicks securely into the burner, which screws into the gas cannister, which in turn fits onto a folding stand to keep the whole set up stable.

The piezo-electric ignition means you don’t have to fumble around looking for matches or a lighter. The large flame logo on the insulated neoprene cosy is a colour-changing water temperature indicator, turning orange as the water approaches boiling. I really liked this feature as it means you can prevent the pot from boiling over, and think it helped conserve my fuel supply.

The handy cosy means you can pick up the pot once it’s boiled, keeping your hands protected, so it can be used as a mug for a brew, and there’s a hole in the in the lid that forms a pouring spout to safely add hot water to food pouches. Over time I think the cosy will start to sag, but should be inexpensive to replace.

It’s worth noting that while the boiling time is lightning fast, that’s all the Flash will really do well. This isn’t a system that gives plenty of options for cooking. While it includes a pot support that attaches securely to the burner to use with other pots and pans, the adjustable intensity of the flame isn’t enough to allow you to simmer gently. I tested it out by frying bacon and an egg while sitting out in my garden, and found that it worked fine, but I think re-heating tinned food or trying to cook rice or pasta would end up with it burning in the bottom of the pot.

Worth the money?

The Jetboil Flash 2.0 costs around £90 – £100, depending on the outlet where you find it. It’s not the only option out there, and if you’re on a tighter budget the Alpkit Brukit has the same built-in heat exchanger system for around half of the price. The higher price of the Flash buys you less weight, around 150g less than the Brukit, which is a significant if you’re a lightweight camper.

Other Jetboil systems, like the MiniMo or MicroMo, include a simmer control for more cooking options, but boil slower and are more pricy.

Otherwise a you can find lightweight stoves that screw into a gas canister, like the MSR Pocket Rocket or Alpkit Kraku, for somewhere between £30 and £60. While the Flash takes up more room in your pack, and isn’t ultralight by backpacking standards, most other stoves require you carrying a separate pot or mug, which adds a few more grams to the overall weight even for the thinnest titanium models.

Conclusion

I’m completely convinced that the Jetboil Flash is exactly the right cooking system for me. It’s an excellent bit of kit for backpacking trips, as long as you’re prepared to subsist mainly on dehydrated food pouches, instant porridge, and supernoodles. It’s simple to use, compact and lightweight, and boils water so quickly that there’s almost no waiting to have a hot drink to warm up on a cold day.

It’s very easy to underestimate the volume of tea that a ranger needs to drink to fulfil their working day satisfactorily, so currently I keep my Jetboil stowed away in the back of my vehicle with a bottle of water and a brew kit to make myself a cuppa in between patrols. It beats the alternative of tea from a flask hands down.

With a few more long-distance backpacking trips planned, I know I’m going to get plenty of use from it for years to come, making it well worth the initial investment.

Disclaimer: I bought the Jetboil Flash 2.0 with the money I had left over after all my bills were paid. This is my honest review after several months of use.

If you’ve got any questions about finding the right camping stove system, leave a message in the comments below.
Why not pin this to your hiking and camping boards for later?

What to Pack for Day Hikes in the UK

This list includes everything I take on my day hikes in the UK (in summer conditions), plus a few extras for when I’m in different situations and have different purposes for my hikes.  It’s taken me a while to get my kit together, but it’s been worth getting a few items to ensure I’m safe and warm, and can do everything I want to do.

The biggest element of planning a hike in the UK is our predictably unpredictable weather.  Just because a day starts in sunshine, there’s no guarantee that it will end that way, and if you’re hiking hills, mountains, or munros on a drizzly day, there’s every chance you might emerge through the cloud layer into the dazzling sun on the tops.

 

vic_schiehallion_small

I’ll often go hiking solo, so I’m solely responsible for taking everything I might need. I also lead small groups and hike with friends, but still take the same amount of kit.  I want to be responsible for my own welfare, and able to help out anyone else that might be having an issue.  I might also bring a few extra items if there’s more than just me, in the hope that others will share their sweets in return.

Continue reading “What to Pack for Day Hikes in the UK”

8 Great Day Hikes in Scotland (but not the Ben)

Few countries can match Scotland for a landscape so wildly beautiful and dramatic; sweeping glens, rugged peaks, historic castles, and ancient forests make it an irresistible draw for hikers.  And even the notoriously fickle Scottish weather can’t detract from the hauntingly bleak splendour of the landscape.

The most mountainous terrain in the British and Irish Isles, Scotland has 282 Munros, mountains over the magic 914 metres (3000′), named for Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the first list, inspiring many hikers to “bag” the full set.  The best rank among some of the best mountains in the world.  The highest is Ben Nevis at 1345 metres (4412′).

But it isn’t essential to claim the highest summit to reap the rewards of hiking in Scotland.  With thousands of kilometres of coastline, hundreds of islands, lochs, and hills only lesser in height, not character or challenge.  Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places.

And the best part is that this is so very accessible here in Scotland, and less than a couple of hours from the biggest cities and towns, it’s possible to feel a sense of remote wilderness.  So get your boots ready for these eight great day hikes, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting.  Or include them in your plans for a Scottish road trip.

arthurs_seat
Photo Credit: colinemcbride Flickr on cc
Continue reading “8 Great Day Hikes in Scotland (but not the Ben)”

What I loved this season | Autumn 2018

A round-up of everything I’ve been up to and the things I’ve enjoyed over the last season.
blue_clipper_1_small
Making repairs to the mainsail on Blue Clipper  while alongside in Molde, Norway

Where I’ve been:

I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.

blue_clipper_2_small
Preparing to leave Ålesund, Norway, as dusk falls

Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund.  I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavn for a week longer than expected.

Continue reading “What I loved this season | Autumn 2018”