What I loved this season | Summer 2020

Where I’ve been

After returning to the UK from Antarctica, I spent most of the previous season in COVID lockdown at my parent’s place on the coast of Aberdeenshire.  I haven’t travelled much further afield this season either, just relocating to the other side of the county to start working for the Cairngorms National Park Authority as a Seasonal Ranger.

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Looking up Strathdee on a moody afternoon, towards my home for the summer at Mar Lodge, near Braemar, Aberdeenshire.

It’s been really exciting to get out and explore Royal Deeside, visiting sites that I’ve known since as a child, and discovering new places I’d never been to before. I’d been really worried about finding work this summer, with the sectors I usually work in completely closed down and existing staff finding themselves furloughed or even facing redundancy. So I feel extremely grateful to have this opportunity, especially when I thought working in the berry fields might have been the only option for the summer.

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Views of Lochnagar and the White Mounth Munros from the Forest of Ballochbuie. The view of there from here.
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Views across the glen to Ballochbuie from the hills between The Stuic and the side of Lochnagar. The view of here from over there.

My only trip away from the area was a very personal one to spend a few days in Caithness, meeting up with family and friends to visit old haunts and remember times past. Despite the emotional circumstances of the visit, it was good to see the sea and sky in a different place for a short while.

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Hanging out on the pier in Thurso, watching dolphins swim in the bay.
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Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland Britain, from Old Castlehill
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Watching the wind in the summer barley

What I’ve done

My current base in the Cairngorms, near Braemar, has been fantastic for getting out into the hills for hikes, and on most of my non-working days, I’ve been able to spend most of the time outdoors. I also stay very close to a couple of mountain rivers with excellent swimming pools, and have tried to fit in a dip at least a couple of times a week.

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The Punchbowl on the River Quoich.
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The mysterious entrance to Burn o’Vat

I’ve not actually done any overnight camps on my recent hiking trips, wimping out after seeing the midges that have been plaguing the campers I speak to on my ranger patrols. Although there are a few places that are always midge hotspots, it just seems like this is an especially prolific summer for the midges. I think I’ll wait for the end of the season before I venture out with my tent for a few nights.

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Forest walks on old trails near the village of Dinnet.
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Big skies over the Muir of Dinnet.

I had the good fortune to meet the local ghillie fishing his beat while I was out on patrol one day, and managed to arrange a fly fishing lesson. There’s still a long way to go before I master my casting technique, and I’m pretty sure that if a fish ever took the fly it would end up with me screaming and falling overin the river, but it was a really enjoyable morning on the Dee, watching the fish and dragonflies, listening to the birds, learning to read the movement of the water.

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Learning to fly fish on the River Dee.

My Summer Love List

Books: I’ve been getting down to some serious study and preparation for taking a Mountain Leader training course in the Autumn, so my Mountain Leader Handbook and the Navigation in the Mountains textbook have been indispensable.

I’ve also picked up the Cicerone guides Walking the Munros (volumes 1 and 2) to plan a few more hill days and mini-expeditions for my day’s off.

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The things I’ve loved this season.

Podcast: I discovered the Out of Doors podcast from BBC Scotland after they interviewed my colleague Duncan about the work of the Seasonal Rangers in the Cairngorms National Park. I got hooked by the eclectic range of subjects they discuss, and the warm, cosy feel of the show.

Clothing: Despite what you might think, summer weather in Scotland can be pretty warm at times, so a pair of lightweight but hardwearing trousers suitable to wear as part of my Ranger uniform was really important. My Rab Valkyrie trousers have a great fit, excellent quality, and meet my requirement for POCKETS!

Equipment: To go with the new trousers, my most essential piece of equipment this season has been a spray bottle of permethrin treatment which I use on my clothing. I work in areas where ticks, and other biting insects, are prevalent, and it’s really important to be aware of the risk of Lyme disease.

My only real vanity is sunglasses, and I found a great pair from a company called Waterhaul. As well as providing a good level of UV protection and looking good, I chose these as they’re made from recycled plastic fishing nets. The company are a social enterprise, and recover discarded nets from the beaches around Cornwall to turn into the frames. I love them so much.

I picked up a brand spanking new pair of hiking boots too, which I absolutely love. They’re Scarpa Peak GTX boots, and the blue and orange colour matches all the rest of my gear. Including my tartan pyjamas.

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Important pyjama – hiking boot coordination.

Treats: I picked up a bottle of my favourite Rock Rose gin from their gorgeous wee distillery shop, and a small bottle of their sloe gin, perfect for an autumn afternoon warmer when the weather turns a bit colder.

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Bottles of Rock Rose gin on the shelf.

As rangers for the National Park, we get supplied with a few Clif bars to keep us going, so I’ve been testing out a few of the different flavours. My current favourite is Peanut Butter Banana. 10/10 would recommend for your next trip to the hills.

What’s next?

Autumn is my favourite season, and this year I’ve got a bit more to look forward to. It’s my birthday, and this year it’s a big one as I turn 40 in September. I can’t quite believe it.

I’m also in the process of booking a Mountain Leader Training course, to consolidate my skills and move on to the next level. I’m really excited about it, but also a bit nervous.

One of the things I love most about autumn in Scotland is cold, crisp mornings to go walking in the woods. Looking out for fungi and falling leaves, listening to the roar of deer on the hillsides, then finding a cosy spot by a fire to read and watch the weather out the window. I’ve got a few more days in hand this season, and some friends are planning to visit, so I’m really excited to be able to get out and show them around my home.

What have you been up to over the last season?
Have you started to get back to some sense of reality?
Remember I’m always here if you need an ear; 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.

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”

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)”

Taking on the TGO Challenge

In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in an adventurous coast-to-coast trek across Scotland. The TGO Challenge invites participants from across the globe to explore some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

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Looking down into the Great Glen from the Monadhliath.

What is the TGO Challenge?

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual hiking event crossing the Highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east. The essence of the challenge is to experience the remote parts of the country, including many areas which can only be accessed on foot. Wild camping is a big part of that experience, and requires participants to be self-sufficient. Nothing beats unzipping your tent door to a brand-new wild view each morning.

Continue reading “Taking on the TGO Challenge”