RED January to beat the blues

Every year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem, but still it’s often considered taboo when it comes to talking about it, and those that do often feel side-lined and stigmatised.

What is RED January?

RED January is a community initiative encouraging people to support their mental health by undertaking something physically active every day in January.  This can mean running every day, swimming, cycling, walking to work or any other activity you like to get your heart pumping and endorphins flowing.

After last year’s RED January, 87% of participants said they felt significant improvement in both their mental and physical health afterwards.  It is free to take part, and you can sign up here.

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Why is this important to me?

I’ve lived with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager.  I’ve experienced the inexplicable, irrational thoughts and crippling self-doubt that these bring.  I’ve felt the need to retreat, hide, build walls around myself when things hit hard.  When just getting out of bed for the day seems as big a challenge as scaling the Eiger.

I know, from my job as a ranger out walking on the coast of the Solent, that getting outdoors and doing something active can make a significant improvement in how I feel, especially at this time of year.

What am I going to do about it?

Every day throughout January I’m challenging myself to take part in physical activity outdoors.  I’m aiming to spend at least 15 minutes outdoors every day, running, hiking*, taking part in parkruns, and even outdoor swimming.  There may be some days where that all seems a bit too much, but then I plan on taking my yoga mat outside.

*Training for the TGO challenge in May, the biggest challenge I’ve got planned for 2019… so far

Getting outdoors for me is just as important as getting physically active.  A winter boost of vitamin D from natural light, and  a blast of fresh air to blow away negative thoughts.  A connection with nature, whether its just hearing the gulls cry from the rooftop, hearing the windblown waves hit the harbour wall over the road, or catching the scent of gorse flowers (which bloom all year round along the shore; when the gorse is in bloom, kissing’s in fashion).

I’ll be raising funds for Mind through the month.  Every year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem, but still it’s often considered a taboo subject when it comes to talking about it. Mind believe no-one should have to face the challenge of a mental health issue alone, and provide a range of resources and support to help.

A donation of £15 can fund someone in crisis to take part in a group talking therapy session.

My fundraising target is small, only £150, but that could help 10 people.  Like me.  Maybe like you too, or a close friend or family member, or work colleague.

My Just Giving page is here.  Please consider making a donation, no matter how much you can spare, it all helps provide a vital service.

I’ll be sharing stories from my activities through the month on instagram, so you can keep track of how I’ve been getting on.

Thank you for your help.

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10 Things to Get Through Winter

At this time of year, with the winter solstice just past, and New Year not too far ahead, I usually find myself in a reflective mood, thinking about all the things that have happened through the year, and what might be to come in the year ahead.

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Getting outside in winter has huge benefits for physical and mental health, but can be a real challenge.

I find this time of year quite challenging; living with depression sometimes I’m so lacking in energy and motivation through these months that just getting out of bed feels like swimming through treacle. I’m no fan of the resolutions that January brings, usually involving the denial of alcohol, caffeine and sugar; things that make the dark winter months that bit more enjoyable.

In my opinion, such extreme measures and deprivation are unlikely to do any favours in the long term. I think a more workable way to make lifestyle changes, and to manage the challenges of winter, is to introduce small, enjoyable, things that upgrade my everyday, and contribute to success without excluding anything.

So this a list of 10 small things I’m aiming to do through winter, to keep my body and mind fresh and focused, and work towards a healthy, happy, year ahead.

  • Drink more water (but ditch single-use plastic bottles). Hydration is important, but the health of the planet is even more vital. Investing in a reusable water bottle saved me money in the long run, and cut my plastic footprint from the start. It takes a bit more organisation, but so many places now give refills that it’s easy on the go. I have a Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle that keeps water chilled for hours, or lets me take a warm drink out for a winter hike.
  • Pick an audiobook or podcast. I love listening to the radio as I do things; driving, cooking, writing, and so on. But rather than listening passively to whatever plays, I’ve decided to be more pro-active in my choices. Plus, having tales of travel and adventure read aloud to me in the bath is the height of luxury. Try some of my favourites and see if you agree.
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A flask of hot blueberry drink and the best snacks for a long winter walk
  • Set aside a weekly life admin hour. Rather than letting stuff build up, which can pile on anxiety, designating a regular session for sorting paperwork, paying bills, and all the other dull stuff helps me manage stresses. I write down ideas and reminders through the week on a running to do list to make sure that I don’t miss anything important. It’s part of my strategy to turn down the volume on noise.
  • Get outside every day. Getting out in the fresh air and sunlight is vital for my mental health, especially in winter, event though the weather isn’t always as welcoming as I’d hope for. Good wind and waterproof outdoor gear makes it so much easier, so it’s worth spending on quality items that make the difference between getting out and about or moping under a duvet. These are my cold weather essentials for heading out.
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    Quick cook dinners for winter evenings, or a warm lunch outdoors on a cold
  • Learn three 15 minute recipes. Arriving home from work in the dark, after a long day, I know that I need to eat a meal within half an hour or I’ll be scoffing snacks all evening. It’s too easy to throw a plastic pot of something into the microwave, so my aim is to master three quick recipes and try to always have the ingredients at hand. My current favourites are gnocchi with pancetta, mushrooms and parmesan, spicy pepper and halloumi wraps, and a soy chili chicken rice bowl topped with a fried egg.
  • Plan regular digital admin dates. I rely on my laptop, phone and camera for work, blogging, and other projects, and it’s too easy to have hundreds of notes, photos and documents filling up the memory on my devices. So I’ve started a monthly habit to download, delete, file and back-up my files. It does sound incredibly tedious, but it’s also the chance to chill on the sofa for a few hours, listen to music or a podcast, perhaps with a glass or two of something.
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I set aside a regular hour or two on a Sunday morning or a weekday evening to organise various to do lists, download and back up files.
  • Master a mini-workout with three exercises to do anywhere. My fitness routine, well, just isn’t routine. With travelling, sailing, and unpredictable work hours, I can find it hard to fit in the gym or swim sessions and fitness classes that I know help my physical and mental health. So with three simple exercises I can do anywhere (squats, lunges and tricep dips), I have a basic workout to build on wherever I am.
  • Schedule some diary dates with friends. It can be too easy to put off catching-up with a coffee or glass of wine when the weather and darkness make heading home to hibernate such a nice idea. By making a loose arrangement to meet friends weekly at parkrun or yoga class, or for a monthly pub quiz or craft session draws us together without the extra effort of planning an event and rounding up the troops.
  • Take on a course to learn new skills, expand my knowledge, or revive an old passion. Over the past few years I’ve done an introduction to yoga, a printmaking class, and taken an adult improvers swimming course. I’ve also used online study to improve my Norwegian language skills and to spark an interest in maritime archaeology, using the Future Learn platform. In winter is seems to be a bit easier to allocate an evening a week to a new activity, which has the benefit of extending my social circle (virtually and in real life), and keeping my brain active.
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The TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland on foot, will be my biggest adventure in the spring of 2019.
  • Map travels for the New Year. Recently my travels have been quite spontaneous, taking advantage of the opportunities that cropped up through the year. But with a switch to a full-time freelance status I need to do some serious planning to balance income generating activity with income depleting activity. Plus, I love the process of planning out travels and fixing some dates and destinations for the year ahead.
Do you have any tips for making winter work for you?
How do you intend to relax and recharge yourself for the New Year?
Leave a message in the comments below to let me know.

My Cold Weather Essentials

first_foot_at_compton_smallAs a wildlife ranger I’d spend the vast majority of my working time outside, all year-round, whatever the weather. As autumn heads into winter, there’s a few additional things I rely on to make it easier to get out and do my job, and to make the most of adventures on beautifully crisp winter days.

A buff

I have several of these stretchy fabric tubes, and they’re some of the most useful things I own. For keeping my ears warm when it’s just not quite a hat day; stopping cold wind creeping down my neck; covering my face as I watch birds through my binoculars on a frosty morning; making sure my windswept hair under stays under control; or just wiping damp camera or phone lenses.

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Warming up from the inside with a Thermos food flask

A food flask

After a long day outside in low temperatures, there’s nothing better than a hot, home-cooked meal. Well, perhaps something warm to eat to keep you going during the day, or as you sit out to watch the winter sun go down. I have a wide-mouthed Thermos food flask, which comes with a folding spoon and a large lid. Perfect for soup, stew or a curry.

A portable battery pack

It seems like the cold drains the life from my phone at a ridiculous rate. It’s part of my lone working policy to have a working phone to check-in through the day, and I’d never want to be caught out at the end of the day without a way to call for help if I get into trouble. Plus, I use the camera all the time, and wouldn’t want to miss a beautiful sunset sky.

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A winter midlayer from Houdini Sportswear

Insulated Jacket

I love my Houdini Sportswear insulated jacket, with primaloft insulation. It’s a perfect mid-layer between my branded ranger polo shirt and outer two-part coat (softshell inner and waterproof outer) for early mornings and late evenings when temperatures drops, and tucks away in its own pocket to stuff in my bag while I don’t need it.

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Keeping warm with a Buff, Finisterre wrist warmers and Rab knit gloves

Merino wrist warmers and gloves

I need to keep my hands warm while I’m using my binoculars or telescope to watch birds, but also be able to do little fiddly jobs like fastening zips or adjusting focus on my camera easily. So I layer my Rab knit gloves over a pair of merino wrist warmers from Finisterre.  Both are fine enough that I could wear under my ski gloves if temperatures really drop, and the wrist warmers keep me warm and let me pick up shells and other strandline treasures from the beach without getting my gloves covered with sand.

Softshell trousers

In winter I upgrade my usual hiking trousers for a pair of softshell trousers, currently a pair of Craghoppers Kiwi Pro Stretch pants. The water resistant, windproof finish of the fabric makes a huge difference when you spend most of the day out on the coast, with the chance of drizzle, windblown sand, and low temperatures.

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What kit can’t you do without when the weather starts to turn wintry?
Share your tips in the comments below.

What to Pack for a Tall Ship Voyage

You’ve booked a once-in-a-lifetime voyage on a beautiful sailing ship, and started dreaming about life during the golden age of sail or even rounding the Horn in a force nine.  But as your date of departure cruises closer, what do you actually need to pack?

I’ve sailed on a few tall ships; short voyages around western Europe, island hopping in the Pacific, on long ocean crossing passages, and in the Tall Ships races, so from my experience, here are some recommendations to add to your packing list.

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Crossing the Arctic Circle under sail along the coast of Norway

How to pack

Space on a sailing ship is limited, so think carefully about what you bring, and how you bring it.  Forget stuffing things into a hard-shelled rolling suitcase, there’s usually nowhere to stow it onboard.  Instead, pack a collapsible holdall or duffle bag, which can be rolled up when not in use.  Waterproof bags aren’t usually necessary, but it might be worth investing in one if you sail on smaller vessels too.  I love my Helly Hansen 90L duffel bag.  It’s big enough for everything I need, plus things I pick up on the voyage, and being orange, I always find it on the luggage carousel at the airport.

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At 90L capacity this bag was big enough to pack everything I needed for six months of sailing voyages, hiking trips, and travelling without going home.

Packing cubes or small lightweight drybags help keep things organised inside your main bag.  I have a variety of sizes and colours; it’s not the most coordinated look, but I can easily grab what I need.

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Compression drybags aren’t usually essential on most larger vessels, but will help keep gear organised in small cabins and shared spaces.

What you might need

Each ship is different, and it’s important to keep in touch with the organisation after booking to get the best understanding of the set-up on board.  They should all be able to provide you with a kit list to help you prepare.

Some ships provide hammocks for sleeping while others have bunks; most will provide you with the bedding you’ll need, although some smaller boats may ask you to bring a sleeping bag.  Most training ships will also have sets of foul weather gear and waterproof boots for you to borrow for your time on board.

All the safety gear essential for your voyage will be provided by the ship.

My essentials

There’s several things that I always take on my sailing adventures, but things to keep me warm, dry, and comfortable are the first to go in my bag.

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Keeping warm and dry should be your priority for clothing; most sailing organisations will have some foul weather gear you can borrow for your voyage.
  • Foul weather gear.  I have a Helly Hansen sailing  jacket and salopettes.  Fisherman-style oilskins are great for keeping you dry, but lack the insulation of sailing gear, so you’ll need additional warm layers underneath.
  • Waterproof boots.  Dry, warm feet make life better, without question.  Most ships also insist on closed-toe shoes on deck, and sturdy soles are better for climbing in the rigging, so I usually pack a pair of trail shoes too.
  • Windproof jacket.  It’s always a bit cooler at sea, and a lightweight windproof jacket will make watches more comfortable when there’s not quite the need for full foul weather gear.
  • Hat, scarf, and gloves. Night watches get chilly, especially when you’re not moving around much.  A hat and scarf or buff keep out the cold, and are easy to take off again when the sun comes up.  I don’t like wearing sailing gloves to handle ropes, but warm gloves make steering more comfortable when its windy.
  • Sunglasses and sunblock.  Sunlight still passes through cloud cover, and it gets reflected back off the water, so you get a much higher exposure than usual.  I use factor 30 sunblock minimum, more usually factor 50 (I’m very pale and Scottish), and wear sunglasses most of the time.  I also take a stick that I can slip in my pocket to reapply regularly to my lips, nose and ears while I work on deck.  Use a cord to secure your glasses, especially if you’re keen to climb in the rigging.
  • Towel.  For shore leave on a deserted island or drying off after a mind-blowing swim hundreds of miles from land.  It’s best to leave the fluffy towels at home and find one that’s quick drying and/or lightweight, like my hammam towel.
  • Headtorch.  An important item for moving around the ship on night watches.  One with a red light is recommended to preserve night vision.
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Think about the things you’ll need onboard to live around the clock, and how you’ll deal with the local climate and different weather conditions.

The comforts

There’s also a few additional things that can make life on board more comfortable.

  • Refillable water bottle.  The combination of sunlight, wind and salt air is really dehydrating.  While at sea you get an idea of the scale of the plastic problem in the world’s oceans, so taking a refillable bottle is just a small step you can make to help.
  • Sleep mask and earplugs.  Sleep is so important, especially if you’re waking up for the midnight to 4am watch.  I find that silicon earplugs are more effective than synthetic, blocking out more of the surrounding sound, and a buff does a great job doubling as an eye mask.
  • Power bank.  Not all ships have a 24-hour power supply for charging devices, so a power bank will provide the juice needed to keep your phone, camera, kindle, e-cigarette and so on from running out just when you need them most.  An international adapter is essential if the ship’s home port is in a different zone to where you purchased your electronics.
  • Something to read.  A kindle, tablet, or a real book; something to get lost in between the busy periods on board.  A book has the added benefit that you can swap it with others in the crew once you finish.  Try one of these suggestions.
  • A journal.  I always keep a travel journal, and it’s a wonderful way to record and reflect on your experiences.  Write, sketch, and note information from the ships’ log to add to your own memories of the voyage.
  • Travel insurance.  Look for one that specifically covers tall ship or offshore sailing.
  • A knife.  Sailors should always carry a knife (according to a colleague, a sailor without a knife is just a spectator).  Just be sure to leave it out of your hand luggage if you have to take a flight to meet your ship.
  • Things you enjoy. Knitting needles and yarn, a sketchbook, twine for practicing knots, playing cards, binoculars and a wildlife guide.  Something to do in your downtime.
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As a keen birdwatcher, my binoculars and favourite wildlife guides are always in my pack.

Toiletries

For many voyages it’s not a problem to pick things up locally in ports on the way, letting you cut down to just a few essentials in your backpack.  On longer passages you may be at sea for a considerable length of time between ports, with little chance to pick up things you might forget, so products need careful consideration.

All but the smallest of ships have showers on board, however the availability of water may be limited on longer voyages by the size of water tanks or the capacity of the water maker.  I pack a reusable cleansing cloth and bar soap with my usual toiletries to keep fresh, rather than single-use wipes that result in more waste.

Although washing water can be restricted seawater is abundant, and I love to swim, so a leave-in conditioner spray keeps my hair manageable between washes, protecting it from the salt and sun.

When it comes to sanitary items, it’s important to think carefully about the products you bring.  Waste management is an important matter onboard a ship, and nothing should be flushed in the toilets (sanitary waste really should not be flushed at home either).  If you use applicator tampons, then they should have non-plastic applicators, which are easier to dispose of, and don’t contribute to plastic waste generated every day.

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My packing list includes shorts, long trousers, t-shirts, bikinis, thermal tights, long-sleeved tops, knitwear, warm socks and a softshell jacket.

Clothing

Comfort moving around the ship is your main priority, so take things you feel good in.  It’s always more exposed out at sea, so ensure you pack long-sleeved shirts or sweaters and long trousers, even if you’re heading for a sunshine destination to meet the ship.

Take a set of thermal tights and a long-sleeved top for blue water passages and colder climes.  Even in the height of summer it can be chilly around the British and Irish Isles.

Flip flops or sliders are great for below decks, going back and forth between showers and bunks, chilling out in the saloon or bar, and shore visits to the beach.  I usually live in my flip flops, but many ships discourage open shoes and bare feet on deck.

If you’re going to be working on the ship, helping out with the repairs and maintenance that keep the vessel going, be sure to pack clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.  There’s always a good chance that a job might involve paint, rust treatment, tar or grease.  Some ships may also ask you to bring your own safety footwear for this kind of work.

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Blue and/or striped clothing and nautical motifs aren’t essential, but sometimes you just can’t help it.
This is what I can’t do without, but is there anything you think I’ve missed?
What do you consider essential for a sailing trip?
Let me know in the comments below.