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.

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.

Top toilet tips for the outdoors

Plan your day around facilities

As your mam always told you before a long car journey, it’s best to go before you go. And she wasn’t wrong. Proper planning is key to find available facilities before you head out on a hike, and a little bit of research will let you know if there’s a public toilet at or near the start of your hiking trail, or the possibility to stop on the route. An OS Map will show these marked with a PC symbol, for public convenience.

Walking routes in more populated areas may have the option to visit a public toilet on the way, or to call in by a pub or café for drinks, snacks, and access to the facilities. Knowing the route you intend to take ahead of arrival (and your Plan B) will let you plan the length of time you’ll be out hiking and the time between potential toilet stops. But what if you’re in a more remote area, or planning to stay out for a longer hike or camping trip?

Know where to go outdoors

Get off the trail. It’s really, really unpleasant to encounter human waste on or near a path. It may not always be possible to get off the trail in all places along your route, so check the map for suitable spots and don’t leave it to the last moment. Ideally, you should be around 50m from any paths, buildings or shelters, which is a bit further than everyone thinks (approximately 45-60 seconds walk, or a 10-second dash if things are getting desperate), and 30m from any burns or streams.

Where should you not go to the toilet?

Near a water source. A loch, lake, or stream could be the water supply for a remote settlement, farm or house, or maybe just an ideal spot for people to swim or paddle. You should try to be at least 30m from any water sources when you go to the toilet.

Shelters, shielings, crags and caves. At some point these interesting features to explore can all become really useful spots to escape from wind and weather. Think about finding a curious cave to investigate, or a big stone to shelter from the wind while you scoff your lunch. Then the prospect of seeing, smelling or stepping in something you really didn’t want to.

Ready to pee free?

So, if you’ve never tried it before, you really want to take into account the terrain and the wind when you go for a pee. Try to face downhill as much as possible, but also aim away from the wind to avoid accidental wet feet. Hiking poles can help you maintain balance if you squat down.

Take off a heavy backpack before you squat, to avoid tipping off balance at a critical moment and make it easier to get back up again. Just remember to leave your pack above you if you’re on a slope, but close enough to reach your toilet paper stash.

Devices like a SheWee or a GoGirl, essentially shaped funnels for urination, can make it much easier and discrete to pee outdoors. I would definitely use one for the peak of midge season in Scotland, when the thought of exposing any more skin than is absolutely essential makes me shudder. They’re the sort of thing that benefit from practice at home before venturing out into the world.

Have a bit of toilet paper or pack of tissues handy to dry off, but toilet paper doesn’t magically vanish overnight if it’s left on the ground. If you use it, take it away with you, just like any other rubbish you might create on your hiking trip. A sealable bag in a pocket of your pack is the best place to store used paper until you can dispose of it properly in a bin.

Remember, leave no trace.

Dealing with a solid problem

Going for a poop outdoors needs a bit more forward planning. There’s basically only two options available to you as a responsible hiker and wild camper: bury it on site, or bag it and take it out.

Burial

You’ll need a bit of equipment to do things properly. You can find a small trowel or folding shovel in your local garden centre, hardware store or online, and compostable dog poo bags or food waste bags are easily picked up when you do a supermarket shop.

Find a suitable spot, at least 30m from watercourses, shelters and paths, and use your trowel to dig a hole about as deep as your hand (15cm / 6″ is ideal, the length of a mobile phone… Don’t drop it!). Best to make it a bit wider than you think you might need to. Do your poop.

Any toilet paper or wet wipes you use should be placed into one of the bags you brought, and binned later. Fill in the hole with the soil you’ve dug out, completely covering the new contents. Don’t forget to wash your hands or use sanitiser. If you’re in a rocky spot, try resist the urge to build a little cairn over your poo, in tribute to your special moment. This is the sort of place where your should really consider using a bag to remove all trace of your waste.

If you’re caught out walking without your toilet kit, scrape out a depression in the ground with the heel of your boot or the end of a walking pole. Do the deed, and cover it up as best you can with the material at hand. Soft moss and gravel can top up the material you’ve scraped away.

In a real emergency, spongy soft sphagnum moss can be used instead of toilet paper. However, this is destructive to the ecosystem and doesn’t fit with a leave no trace philosophy, so should be the last resort option.

Bag it and bin it

In the UK we don’t really have a tradition of bagging and binning our own waste, but it can be an essential requirement when hiking in other locations around the world, especially in remote areas or in mountain or desert environments where natural composting wouldn’t occur. With the extremely high pressure on some honeypot sites, it might be something that land managers and recreation groups promote more in future. Be ahead of the curve!

Take a supply of compostable dog poo or food waste bags to collect that thing you need to do. Seal up the bag, then place it inside another sealable bag or container to hold it until you find a bin or return home. A plastic tupperware-style box** is easily cleaned and disinfected at the end of your trip, or dog owners might be familiar with dicky bag type containers, which can clip onto the outside of your backpack, and work just as well for other species’ faeces.

**It’s best to label it for exclusive use to avoid putting your sandwiches in at a later date.

A simple toilet kit to make sure you’re prepared for every occasion when you go camping or on a longer hiking trip.

Additional Hazards

Take a good look at your chosen spot before you squat. Brambles, thistles, gorse and especially nettles don’t make for a comfortable jobby option (I’m sure many of us have at one time or another managed to use our bare bum to locate stinging nettles in the dark… Ouch!).

Also, be aware that bracken, heather and long grass can all potentially be harbouring ticks, especially if there’s a lot of sheep or deer in the area. It’s good practice to do a body check for ticks at the end of your day’s hike, and carry a specialist tick tool and small travel mirror if you’re in a high-risk area. Read more about risks associated with ticks here.

Menstruation in the Outdoors

While we’re talking about what happens in the toilet, let’s tackle menstruation too. It’s a subject that can often be taboo, whether through stigma or shame, but something like 25% of the global population experience menstruation, with around 20% of them on their period right now. And while it can leave you feeling sore, irritable, and lacking in energy, it shouldn’t be a factor to stop you getting outdoors to do the things you enjoy.

However, menstruation in different environments brings up the issue of waste, especially in more remote locations where there is limited, or no, disposal facilities. As with everything else, the message is leave no trace! You really shouldn’t leave any sanitary products behind. Many contain plastic, and even a natural cotton tampon will take up to six months to compost in optimum conditions. In a mountain or moorland environment that will be considerably longer.

Used sanitary towel and tampons, and any tissues and wipes you use, can be stored hygienically in a compostable dog poo or food waste bag, and disposed of properly when you return home. An additional ziplock bag or tupperware container to hold filled waste bags will protect against any potential leakages or broken bags inside your backpack.

In a move to cut down on the amount of waste created during my period I started using a reusable menstrual cup a couple of years ago. It’s ideal for long day hikes, or overnight camping trips, as you can wear it for up to 12 hours, though I’d definitely recommend getting used to it at home first.

For longer trips, it would need a bit of additional planning to ensure you can clean your hands properly before and after fitting it, empty it safely and cleanly, and rinse it out between uses, particularly in a challenging setting. Do you want to be faffing about with one when faced with a lack of privacy, heavy rain, low temperatures, or an abundance of midges? It may not be the most practical solution in some circumstances, but will reduce the amount of sanitary protection you will need to carry in your pack.

Essential kit to go when you’re outdoors

  • A small trowel or folding shovel
  • Hand sanitiser, for before and after
  • Toilet paper or tissues, in a sealable waterproof bag. I get my toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap?
  • Compostable food waste bags or dog poo bags
  • A sealable waterproof (ziplock) bag or small sealable container to contain all used waste bags
A camping toilet kit is simple to put together, and doesn’t take up much room in your pack. You don’t need to take a whole loo roll, just as much as you think you’ll need, plus a little extra to make sure you’re not caught short, in a sealable bag to keep it dry.

I tend not to use wet wipes unless I’m going on a longer trip and they’ll be a substitute for showering. Most contain some form of plastics, and can take an incredibly long time to break down after disposal, so choose a brand that is biodegradable and made of natural fibres.

Putting together an outdoor toilet kit for your camping and hiking adventures means that you’re prepared for whenever nature calls, and you can enjoy yourself without worry. Remember to leave no trace, and help keep the outdoors safe and beautiful.

I hope this blog post has given you a few guidelines on how to go to the toilet outdoors comfortably and confidently, and without leaving a big impact behind you.

How are you feeling about your first wild poop? If you’ve got any more questions please ask in the comments below.
Useful information? Pin it to your hiking and camping boards.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Autumn in Glen Tanar on Royal Deeside.
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The view towards Mount Keen and the mounth from Glen Tanar.
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Autumn leaves about to fall on a frost nipped morning.

Working remotely gave me the chance to take a few weeks up in Scotland, and catch up with friends and family in October.  I had a couple of days in Newtonmore, for a reunion with TGO Challengers and some walks around the central Cairngorms, before heading over to the Aberdeenshire coast.  Between researching and writing, I’ve also been for walks along the coast, on Deeside and through the Angus Glens.  I also squeezed in a weekend break in Dundee with my sister and cousin.

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Looking down towards Ryvoan bothy and over towards Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms.
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By the dark waters of Loch Garten in Abernethy Forest, listening to the belling

Autumn is my favourite time of year, and when I think Scotland looks at its best.  Trees put on a show with golden, copper and scarlet leaves, against the dark pines and yellow bracken.  On a damp day in Abernethy, red pine needles on the forest floor glow and blaeberry leaves sparkle, fungi tucked underneath like pale wax candles.  By the pewter sea streaked with white, I watched lapwings wheeling over the shore and eider ducks riding the swell.  Every morning, as the sun rose later and later, started with the sound of skeins of wintering geese overhead.

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The South Aberdeenshire coastal path approaching the Haughs of Benholm.  Watch out for hares in the long grass just after crossing the bridge.
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A wild and windy day on the North Sea coast.

I was very excited to spot a goshawk perching on a fence post not far from home; an identification that was made so much easier as a buzzard (the usual occupant of local fences) was sat a few posts down on the opposite side of the road.  It was heartening to see, as raptors have been persecuted badly in the region in the recent past.

This season’s update was written a little earlier than it’s been posted here, as November sees me travelling south.  I’ll fly from London to Buenos Aires, then onward to Ushuaia, where I’ll join a cruise ship for a lift into Port Lockroy.  All things going well, which means with fine weather and good sea ice conditions, our team will be settled on the island by the middle of the month, with the Penguin Post Office open for business.

My Autumn love list

Books: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an account of observing emperor penguins and recovering the first eggs for scientific study on the Terra Nova expedition.  The team faced temperatures of -40C (-40F) and day-round darkness, returning to their base at Cape Evans barely alive.  Cherry’s two colleagues, Dr Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers, would later perish on the return from the pole on Scott’s ill-fated expedition. Buy it here.

Films: Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about the people working in Antarctica by Werner Herzog.  Though he states this isn’t a film about “fluffy penguins”, there’s an especially heart-wrenching moment with an Adelie penguin, which friends who have seen it made sure to remind me of.  They also made sure that I’d seen The Thing.

They’re the kind of friends you need.

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Clothing:  My current favourite thing is a grey merino wool sweater by Sherpa, lightweight enough for layering or wearing alone on warmer autumn days.  It will be a useful midlayer to take to Antarctica with me.

I’ve been issued with several items of branded kit by UKAHT supplied by Rab, including the microlight Alpine down jacket.  I’ve tested it out in the bracing wind blowing off the North Sea around my folk’s house, and on frosty morning walks in the Cairngorms.  I’m quite confident that it will serve me well down south.

Equipment:  While I was home my dad gave me a solid fuel handwarmer that he used to take out fishing, which used to belong to my granda.  It’s going straight into my kit bag to come with me to Antarctica. You can find Hot Hands instant handwarmers here.

And after a couple of weeks of consideration, I also picked up new sunglasses, a pair of Cebe Summits.  The category 4 level UV protection will be essential with light reflecting off snow and water in Antarctica, though it makes them too dark for use at the moment. Check them out here.

Food:  As I’ve been back home in Aberdeenshire for a few weeks, I’ve been stuffing myself with butteries for breakfast.  Also known as rowies if you’re from the city rather than the shire, these are flattened, crusty bread rolls traditionally made for fisherman to take to sea.  Ideally, they should be served warm, spread with butter and jam on the flat side.  Rhubarb and ginger jam is my favourite.

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The Nissen hut at Port Lockroy, my home for the next four months. Photo credit: UKAHT.

What’s Next?

Thanks for following along with my journey on These Vagabond Shoes.

I’m about to disappear off the virtual world for a few months, to live at the end of the real world in Antarctica.  While I won’t be able to keep you up to date with my adventures in real-time, there are a few things I’ve scheduled on Twitter and Facebook.  and in the blog to fill in the time until I return.  Looking forward to seeing you on the other side (with an unbelievable number of penguin pictures)!

Read about my summer adventures here.
I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to this autumn, or any plans you have for the winter ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to running this 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.

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.

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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.

Which pack to pack?

Backpack

You’ll need something big enough to hold everything you need, but avoid the temptation to take something overly large.  If you’re like me you’ll just keep filling it up with things that aren’t really necessary and weighing yourself down.  I’d recommend something with a 20 to 25 litres capacity, like my Deuter ACT Trail backpack (24 litres).

It’s worth spending a bit of time and money to find a backpack that fits you well, as a poorly-fitted pack isn’t just uncomfortable, it can strain your back.  I like a chest strap to keep the fit close to my back, and make steep ascents and descents more comfortable.

Dry Bags

I think small compression drybags in a range of sizes and colours are some of the most useful kit you can have.  They’ll keep my things dry, organised, and easy to find.  Ziploc bags are really useful too, for keeping phones, cameras and son on protected from the elements, and for a stash of dry toilet paper*

*Never leave used toilet paper out on a trail; it spoils the place for the others that follow.  Take an additional sealing bag to put it in until you get to somewhere you can dispose of it properly.

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A selection of different coloured dry bags lets you organise kit and find things quickly.

The Essentials

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.  So get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little. 

Billy Connolly

Waterproof jacket

Even on the warmest day, I’ll pack a waterproof jacket.  This is a kit list for hiking in the UK, and there’s a reason why regions like Snowdonia, the Lake District, and Lochaber are so green.  Plus, with the drop in temperature you can feel higher up, it’s always good to have an additional layer.

Waterproof trousers

If you just can’t walk without the sound of swishing, these will be your jam.  And also they’ll keep you dry in the rain, break the wind to keep you warmer, and be an excellent sit mat to keep your bum dry when you stop for sit down to eat your picnic lunch.

Waterbottle

The amount of water you should carry depends on the length of your walk, the weather conditions (remember the heatwaves of summer?), and whether you’ll have access to refills on the way.  I’d usually take around 2 litres of water for a day out, in a couple of refillable bottles, and think it’s always better to carry more than start to get dehydrated.

In some areas you may be able to refill from streams.  I’ve been pretty happy to take untreated water from moving streams in upland areas around my part of the world in northern Scotland** (and in Norway and Iceland).  I’d filter, purify or boil water in lowland areas, and in Wales, the Lakes, and so on, as there’s likely to be more livestock in the area.

**After doing the “dead sheep check” of course.

Map and Compass / GPS

Unless I’m following a short trail in an area I’m familiar with, I’ll take navigation stuff with me.  Even then, I’ll often use the ViewRanger app on my phone to record the route I’ve followed.

Although I like technology, I am a bigger fan of using a traditional map and compass to navigate.  Being able to find your way with a compass is an essential skill for undertaking hikes in more challenging landscapes, and like all skills needs practising.

I also like taking a map so I can look at a larger area than is displayed on a screen, letting you read the wider landscape, find interesting landmarks and scenic picnic spots, and plan any detours around eroded footpaths, broken bridges, and flooded fields.

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Some of the essential kit from my backpack for day hikes in the UK.

Safety Stuff

Phone

Disconnecting from technology on a hike lets you get closer to the wild feelings of physical activity out in a natural setting.  But a fully charged mobile phone is a useful bit of kit in case of emergency.  The emergency numbers in the UK are 999 and 112; both are equally effective.

More remote parts of the UK may only have weak or intermittent mobile coverage, or none at all, but you can register with emergencySMS, a system developed for the deaf or non-verbal, to send a text message to the police to raise a mountain rescue team.

Whistle

I’ve got a whistle attached to my bag, for drawing attention to myself if I ever need to be found.  It’s a worst-case scenario, but it happens in that people get lost in poor visibility, stuck on a trail that’s hard to follow, or become injured and unable to walk.

Headtorch

This isn’t always needed, but in late autumn and winter daylight hours are short, and any delays or detours in a hike could mean returning in the dark.  I sometimes like to start hikes early and/or finish late, to watch the sunrise or set from a hilltop, and a headtorch helps prevent sprained ankles, or worse.

Knife or Multitool

I take my multitool on all my hiking trips.  It’s a Leatherman Sidekick and it’s so useful.

String

I always take a length of string with me (perhaps as 15 metres of green paracord was drummed into me as a kit list essential from my time in the TA).  It can replace a broken shoelace and make ] a temporary repair for all kinds of gear. On longer hikes, it’s even a useful drying line for airing out clothes.

Personal Welfare

Food

Depending on the length of your hike, think about whether you need just a few snacks or a packed lunch.  I’d usually take sandwiches or a sausage roll, some fruit, a couple of chocolate bars, and maybe a piece of cake*.  I’ll aim to take things with minimal packaging, and make sure that I take everything back home with me**.

Even on shorter hikes, I’ll stick a couple of snacks in my bag.  A pack of trail mix, maybe some chocolate, and a piece of fruit.  And Haribo, always Haribo.

*almost always Soreen malt loaf.  British hiking staple.

** I mean everything.  I can’t stand that people think it’s ok to throw fruit peel, bread crusts and so on because “it’s biodegradable”.  Banana skins have no place in the mountains; please take them home and dispose of them properly in a bin or the compost.

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Kvikk lunsj and Tunnocks caramel wafers: two of my favourite hiking snacks.  They don’t usually last for long.

Flask with a hot drink

A friend and I always say that we’re packing a flask of weak lemon drink to go hiking. I now have no idea where the reference comes from, but it’s stuck indelibly in our outdoor routine.  A hot drink on a long day, especially when you’ve been out in the wind and cold, feels marvellous.  My Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle can keep drinks hot for up to 20 hours, but it’s either blueberry juice or black coffee inside.

Extra warm, dry clothes

The British weather is notoriously fickle, and it’s not unheard of to experience all four seasons in one day.  On top of that, the temperature drops between 1°C and 3°C for every 300 metres (1000′) of height gained, so the top of Ben Nevis can be around 10°C colder than Fort William.  I’ll pack a warm hat, gloves, and a fleece or insulated jacket in a dry bag inside my daysack, and usually at least one spare pair of socks (which can double up as emergency gloves if needed).  I also add a few extra things to my kit list in autumn and winter.

Sunblock and sunglasses

The sun does shine, even in Scotland, y’ know.  Clouds aren’t as effective at blocking the sun as they might appear, and in the hills there’s often little shelter to get out of the sun.

First aid kit

My first aid kit is a work in progress, as I continually find new things that work for me.  I pack plasters and small dressings, compression bandages and a triangular bandage, ibuprofen and paracetamol; things to treat cuts and grazes, sprains and strains, and other minor injuries.  My most valuable recent addition is a special tool for removing ticks safely, something that’s been essential this summer.

Blister kit

I have had the worst blisters ever; taking part in an endurance hike a few years ago, both my heels, little toes, and the pads of my feet melted and tried to escape from my shoes.  So if I’m anticipating hard going or start to feel a hotspot, I’ll use moleskin or smooth zinc oxide tape to protect my feet.  I also take small scissors, alcohol wipes, and padded dressings.

The Extras

Some hikes may need a few extra items, such as:

Bothy bag or bivvy bag

If I’m heading out into a more remote area, then I’ll probably pack my Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag as an emergency shelter to get out of the wind and rain for a short while.  If I’m taking others with me, then the Rab bothy bag I have is big enough for five of us (more if we get super cosy) to squeeze into for respite from the rain.

Sit mat

I have a perfectly bum-sized foam mat that came included with my super cute Fjällräven Kånken backpack.  Ideal for a nice cup of tea and a sit-down.

Stove

I love tea, but flask tea never tastes quite right*.  So I’m a huge fan of taking the time to make a fresh brew, especially if you’ve got a lovely view to enjoy it with (a sit mat to keep your bum dry).  I love my Jetboil.

*Possibly because of the weak lemon drink** previously in the flask?

**Was it Dwayne Dibley that had it?

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Perfect time for a cuppa.

Trekking poles

Hikers are often split about whether or not to use poles, but I have a shady knee from an old injury and find that they’re quite useful for descents, reducing the impact on my knee and giving me some additional stability.  (I’ll also use them as Nordic poles for long-distance running and trekking).

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Trekking poles have many benefits, including helping take the impact off knees, ankles and feet.

Camera and tripod

Photos, or it didn’t happen.

Do you hike regularly in the UK?  Is there anything you think I’ve missed? 
Let me know what you can’t hike without in the comments below.

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this 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.

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.

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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.
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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.

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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”