What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

In early June, I was part of a team from the Cairngorms Connect project partners that carried 3,000 tiny trees up onto the Cairngorm plateau, to their new home in the Loch Avon basin. The downy willow (Salix lapponum) saplings are rare trees, which can survive in the low temperatures and high winds, and an important species in the montane scrub habitat of the upper slopes of the mountains.

Laden down with willow saplings on the plateau.

Grazing pressure from deer and other animals mean only a few scattered plants remain, often in the most inaccessible locations, and too isolated from each other to guarantee successful reproduction. The idea behind planting the new saplings is to give the species a fighting chance, and attempt to safeguard the future of the montane scrub zone as part of a larger-scale habitat regeneration project. Read more about our day here.

The crags of Hell’s Lum and the Allt Coire Domhain in spate with snowmelt.
Looking back down into the Loch Avon basin at the tiny patch of green of the willows cached for planting the following day.
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Gear Review | Alpkit Numo Sleeping Mat

Whether or not you get a good night of sleep (or even just a series of small naps during the darker hours) on a backpacking trip has a real impact on how much you enjoy the experience. A comfortable sleeping mat helps with rest and recovery at the end of a long day of walking or biking, turning your multi-day expedition into an enjoyable undertaking, letting you push yourself on a personal challenge, rather than make an arduous slog back to civilisation.

So what am I looking for in an inflatable sleeping mat? Mostly I want to be able to have a comfortable night of sleep*, without my hips sinking through to touch the ground. I want to be able to move in my sleep without it rustling like I’m sleeping in an empty crisp packet. And I want it to be lightweight and packable for backpacking and bikepacking trips.

*I’m not expecting it to silence the cuckoo that starts to call from around 3am anywhere in Scotland where you can see a tree during May and June.

How I tested the Alpkit Numo

I tested the Alpkit Numo with a strenuous overnight camp on the living room floor, followed by a few cheeky bivvies in locations I won’t divulge as wild camping was not permitted. After that I took it as part of my kit to complete the TGO Challenge coast to coast crossing of Scotland in May 2019, using it for 10 of the 11 days I took to complete my route.

Testing out the Alpkit Numo sleeping mat in a camp at the end of the garden.

Product description

The Alpkit Numo is a compact and lightweight inflatable sleeping mat. The dimensions are 180cm x 48cm, tapering to 43cm at the foot, and it weighs in at just 375 grams (including the stuffsack and repair kit).

Once inflated it provides 8.5cm of cushioning. The mat is inflated by blowing through a single valve, and it’s claimed just 12 breaths will inflate the chambers sufficiently to give a comfortable fill.

The Numo is constructed from quite rugged-feeling  TPU coated ripstop nylon, with some insulating hollowfill fibre in the upper part of the mat. With no foam inside, the Numo rolls up into a stuffsack giving a compact package 21cm x 8cm diameter (slightly larger than a can of cider, just a little smaller than a bottle of red wine).

Field results

Inflating the mat takes a lot of puff, and left me a little light headed after a long day of walking in the sun across Rannoch Moor, but it was pretty quick to prepare my bed for the night. The fabric and construction feels quite rugged and resistant to abrasion, but as an air mat, would be vulnerable to puncture by a sharp stone or twig.

The six large air chambers run lengthways on the mat, and the outer chambers are slightly larger to keep you quite central. The thickness of the mat means even side sleepers will be comfortable lying on it, and it didn’t rustle or crinkle during the night.

I’m really not so tall, just 1.67 metres (that’s 5’5.5″, and half is very important), so the length of the mat at 1.80 metres was perfect for me to sleep in my usual way like a sprawling starfish or the outline of body at a crime scene. If you’re much taller or broader, you may find it’s a little too short for you.

There’s some hollow fibre insulation in the upper part of the mat, but that’s all the Numo provides. However, I found it was fine during some frosty nights in early spring in Scotland, with the coldest temperatures dropping to around -5°C overnight. Any colder, or in snowy conditions, I’d try it in combination with a closed cell foam mat for additional insulation from the ground.

Two days before the end of the TGO Challenge, my mat developed a slow air leak that left me lying on the ground during the night, but thankfully insulated by the rum consumed in the Mason’s at Tarfside. Once I got home and located the leak, I was able to use the repair kit and a youtube film to patch the puncture, and so far, it’s still holding.

If my repair hadn’t worked, Alpkit offer a 3-year warranty to repair or replace the product, and have a repair station that can attempt a fix outwith that period.

Worth the money?

Absolutely. There’s no similar product available anywhere near as low cost as the Alpkit Numo, so though it’s not perfect, for backpackers on a budget, it’s ideal.

My bothy bed for the night, using the footprint of my tent to protect the sleeping mat from splinters in the table.

Conclusion

While it might be possible to find other inflatable mats that are lighter and warmer, there’s nothing else I’ve seen that matches the size and weight with the low price, making it a great budget option and a gateway into the world of lightweight camping.

The construction of the Numo feels like it would be quite resistant to wear and tear, and last well, but it’s also vulnerable to punctures that would leave you lying on the ground with no insulation. So with the caveat that care needs to be taken when locating your sleeping spot for the night, I would recommend it to backpackers and bikepackers for three seasons of expedition use.

Disclaimer: I bought the Alpkit Numo sleeping mat with my own money after all the bills were paid. This is my honest review after several months of use.

If you’ve got any questions about finding a sleeping mat to suit you, leave a message in the comments below.
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What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

At the end of March I packed up my stuff to move house again, after a winter in Aberdeen, to relocate to Ballater, in the heart of the area I cover as part of my job as a seasonal ranger for the Cairngorms National Park. I’m glad to be back on Deeside, and have some fantastic locations to visit available right from my doorstep.

The weather early in spring was stunning; bright warm afternoons following crisp mornings where the temperatured dropped below freezing overnight. Perfect conditions to get out on some of the walks around Ballater, like the Seven Bridges route along the side of the River Dee.

Stopping by a pool on the riverside in Strathdee, near Braemar, to listen to the frog chorus. It’s hard to make out in the picture, but I counted over one hundred toads in the pool.
A wander up Glen Ey, near Braemar. Despite the low cloud and occasional drizzle, some excellent wildlife sightings from ground-nesting wading birds to soaring raptors overhead.
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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.

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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.
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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!

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What I’ve loved this season | Antarctica 2019-2020

A few of my favourite things from the past season.

I’ve just returned from four months in Antarctica, working for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in the famous Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy through the southern summer season. It’s been an overwhelming couple of weeks, as I reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do little everyday things that were missing from my life over those 110 days.

Like using money and buying things I want from shops and bars, rather than just asking someone to bring things to me. Driving, and even just moving around at a faster pace. The colour green. Or looking out the window and seeing animals that aren’t penguins. I miss those penguins. (Though the odour of penguin guano is still lingering on in the fabric of my outdoor clothing).

Then there was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined I’d have, but waving through the window of houses as I stood outside in the garden, and staccato notes in what’s app chats and skype calls. It’s tough, but I know that I’m not the worst off in this situation, and for that, I’m so very thankful.

These are a few of the things that I loved over my Antarctic season, living in close confines with a small team, on a little island with no escape. There may even be a couple of things you find useful yourself over the next few weeks as we adjust to living in lockdown.

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Things I’ve loved during the southern summer in Antarctica
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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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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.
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What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Through this summer most of my travels have either been onboard Irene, or around the areas where the ship has been based.  After completing the TGO Challenge, and taking part in an interview for a winter job, I returned to Oban to rejoin the ship.  After a quick turn around, we picked up Kag, our kayaking guide, and a bunch of boats, and headed out to explore the islands of the Inner Hebrides.

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Looking back at Oban from the middle of the Sound of Kerrera

Our first stop was the sheltered water of Loch Spelve, on the eastern side of Mull, to wait out high winds and feast on mussels from the local farm and foraged seaweed.  As I was pottering about in the tender I had a phone call.  I was successful at the interview.  I got the job!  Or more accurately, I was going to be part of the team to do the job.  More about that below.

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Deckhand Dan, possibly the least successful fisherman on Irene.

Once storms abated, we headed through the Sound of Mull and round Ardnamurchan Point to the Small Isles, spotting a couple of minke whales on the way.  We dropped anchor off Eigg, under the imposing An Sgurr, for a couple of nights, and I was fortunate to join the group for a paddle along the east side of the island accompanied by singing seals and diving gannets.  Kag also introduced us to the concept of sea diamonds, which made kayaking in a total downpour seem damply magical.

Back in Oban, we had time for a quick crew turn around and a couple of great nights out, before heading out.  This time we turned southwards, heading for Jura, and the sheltered water of Loch Tarbert, and Islay, dropping the kayakers in near Ardbeg for a paddle round to Port Ellen, with as many whisky stops as they could manage.  On the return leg, we called in by the islands of Oronsay and Colonsay, anchoring in beautiful Kiloran Bay for a barbecue on the beach.

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Irene at anchor in Kiloran Bay, Colonsay.  An extremely damp beach recce, but the weather dried up overnight for a beautiful stay.
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