What I’ve been reading this season | Autumn 2020

Another small collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found over the past few months that I want to share with you. This season, they’ve mainly been inspired by thoughts of Antarctica, the Arctic, and the coming winter.

Heading South

How Prosperity Transformed the Falkland Islands

A masterful travel piece about the Falkland Islands by Larissa MacFarquhar, diving deeply into changes that have occurred over the past 30 years or so. One of the best destination profiles I’ve ever read.

Scenes from Antarctica

A slideshow of photographs from across the Antarctic continent, highlighting the human presence in the region.

What the future of polar travel looks like

A Condé Nast Traveler article from early in the summer looking at the prosepect of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and the knock-on impacts of cancelling a 2020 summer season in the Arctic.

What will happen to the 7th Continent?

The uncertainty of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic may be the necessary pause to spark conversations about the future of the industry. This piece by Bella Lack asks questions about other potential consequences of this season.

200 years ago people discovered Antarctica, and promptly began profiting by slaughtering some of its animals to near extinction

In the two centuries since its discovery, Antarctica has seen a range of commercial, scientific, and diplomatic activity. This blog post from The Conversation journal looks at the ways natural resources have been exploited over time, and the impact of changes.

Blue whale sightings off South Georgia raise hopes of recovery

In positive news, a whale survey expedition recorded 58 sightings of Blue Whales, and numerous accoustic detections, around South Georgia in 2020, where the marine mammals were all but wiped out by the whaling industry.

The Other Polar Place

A mission to unearth the wreck of the Nova Zembla

An account of the expedition to hunt for the wreck of a Dundee whaling ship lost in the Canadian High Arctic by Matthew Ayre, sparked by a simple note in a historic ship’s logbook.

My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor

A longread essay by Andrea Pitzer detailing a research trip in the wake of 16th century polar explorer Willem Barents, and the unexpected wild pleasure of a voyage completely under sail.

Reindeer at the End of the World

A beautifully atmospheric piece by Bathsheba Demuth detailing the collision of Soviet ideology with the nomadic lives of Chukchi reindeer herders, tuned to the natural cycles of the tundra.

Life inside the Arctic

A captivating National Geographic photoessay by Jennifer Kingsley and Eric Guth that travels across the Arctic, meeting people living and working in the far north, and reframing the perception of the Arctic as a remote, isolated and uninhabited region.

Winter is coming

Dreading a dark winter? Think like a Norwegian

An examination of the mindset that helps residents in areas experiencing the polar night get through the darkness of winter by cultivating resilience and inner strength.

The Best Rain in Literature

Who am I kidding? I’m going to be in Scotland this winter, and while there’s a chance of crisp, bright snow days, more than likely it’s going to be driech. So here’s a few beautiful paragraphs from great authors and poets to help me learn to appreciate the rain.

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?

5 Microadventures You Can Make at Home

Five fun microadventures you can make from your own home, suitable for all ages.

Are you familiar with the idea of microadventures? Adventure isn’t all about faraway locations and uncharted territories. Or about being the highest, furthest, fastest at anything.

It’s about the spirit in which you undertake something. It’s being open to new experiences, approaching things with a curious and inquiring mind, and making your own fun and rewarding challenge. And a microadventure is just that, on a simple, local scale.

And while we’re restricted in the things we can do right now, a new activity in a familiar place can be exactly what you need to feel refreshed and excited, and keep your fire for the great outdoors well stoked.

The simplicity of these ideas also make them an ideal way to introduce adventures to your family, even with very young children, and nurture an appreciation for nature and the outdoors to last them a lifetime. And by keeping them close to home, there’s plenty of opportunities to bail out if things don’t go to plan, or to make a spontaneous change to an everyday routine.

So here are five of my favourite microadventures that don’t mean roaming far from home. Continue reading “5 Microadventures You Can Make at Home”

15 interesting facts about Antarctica

A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.

Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map.  The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination.  Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.

I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent.  In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Continue reading “15 interesting facts about Antarctica”

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

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

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

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

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

arthurs_seat
Photo Credit: colinemcbride Flickr on cc

Continue reading “8 Great Day Hikes in Scotland (but not the Ben)”

10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails

You could walk for 500 miles, and then you would walk for 500 more. That’s just how beautiful Scotland is.  Wide-open moors, historic castles, picturesque lochs (what we call lakes) ancient forests, and sweeping mountains are the hauntingly beautiful backdrop for some of the finest long-distance walks in the UK.

But enough havering; Scotland’s long-distance routes are a fantastic way to get outdoors, and explore some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes on foot.  Not only that, you’ll also be treated to close encounters with nature, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being out in wild and remote areas.

Just because these routes take multiple days to complete, don’t be put off by the thought of not having enough time.  The trails don’t have to be completed in one go and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to fit into weekends and single days that are just as enjoyable.

Here are, in my opinion, the greatest of the long-distance trails in Scotland.  The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked cross-country trails like the ever-popular West Highland Way to unofficial, often pathless, challenges aimed at experienced backpackers, like the Cape Wrath Trail.

buchaille_etive_mor
Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive, has one of the most distinctive mountain profiles in Scotland. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

Continue reading “10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails”

My Cold Weather Essentials

A few items to keep you comfortable on outdoor adventures with the changing season.

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 are 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.

Continue reading “My Cold Weather Essentials”

Photo Journal: Stormbound in Skudeneshavn, Norway

The name Norway derives from Nordvegen, the north route, a network of sheltered sounds, straits and fjords along the country’s coast providing a shipping route protected from the wild North and Norwegian Seas.  Karmsund, the narrow channel between the mainland and the island of Karmøy, a Viking stronghold, was the final part of the route we’d follow before emerging into the open water of Boknafjorden, north of Stavanger.

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Gamle Skudeneshavn, the old town, on the island of Karmøy, is considered to be one of the best-preserved historic towns in Norway,

We make our approaches to Haugesund shortly before 4am, following a couple of large supply vessels into the port, and picking up the sector lights of the first of the channel markers.  Unlike previous night’s sailing, this was pilotage, picking out lights marking the edge of the channel and counting off the buoys, and in familiar water (I sailed here on Draken Harald Hårfagre in the summer of 2013).

Continue reading “Photo Journal: Stormbound in Skudeneshavn, Norway”

8 of New Zealand’s Greatest Long Distance Tramping Routes

The most outstanding long-distance tramping routes you’ll find in New Zealand.

I love hiking when I travel. It’s an affordable way to see some of the most magnificent places in a country, and a great way to meet like-minded people when you’re travelling solo. In New Zealand, multi-day hiking is referred to as tramping, and is popular with both Kiwis and visitors from further afield.

From seemingly endless beaches and surf-crashed coastlines, through rolling farmland and forested ranges of hills, to lunar volcanic landscapes, soaring peaks and high mountain passes, the country is spectacularly diverse for such a small area. New Zealand has thousands of kilometres of tramping trails, including ten that are known as the Great Walks and journey through some of the most iconic Kiwi landscapes.

Tramping allows you to get outdoors and explore the country in a way that no other travel experience can match. Not only that, but you’ll also be treated to incredible nature encounters, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being wild and remote. But which route should you choose? I’ve compiled a list of what I think are some of the most outstanding hiking trails in New Zealand, some I’ve walked for myself, and others which remain firmly on my to-do list for when I next return.

nz_tongariro_circuit
New Zealand has some of the best hiking anywhere in the world. Photo Credit: Jose Luiz Gonzalez via cc

The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked hut-to-hut trails like the ever-popular Queen Charlotte Track and Tongariro Northern Circuit to epic challenges aimed at experienced backpackers with plenty of time on their hands, like the Te Araroa Trail.

These routes all take multiple days to complete, and due to the remote nature of the country they cross, there’s usually little opportunity to break them down into single days or weekends trips. Once you start a route, you’re often committed to seeing it through. However, most of the routes have excellent facilities, and there’s plenty of advice and information available from the Department of Conservation (DOC) to help you prepare.

If you aren’t quite ready for the challenge of a multi-day walk, or just fancy a taster of what New Zealand tramping is all about, have a look at my list of the best day hikes for inspiration.

Continue reading “8 of New Zealand’s Greatest Long Distance Tramping Routes”

11 Great Day Hikes in New Zealand

A selection of some of the best one day tramping tracks in New Zealand, plus a couple of options for overnight hikes.

Few places in the world can top New Zealand for stunning, dramatic scenery. A little bit of everything, from rolling hills and lush forests, to majestic rivers, raw volcanic landscapes, sweeping coastlines and soaring mountains tempt hikers from around the world to pull on their boots and explore the great Kiwi outdoors.

Known as tramping by New Zealanders, hiking is the best way to explore the country in a way no other experience can really match, and available whatever your travel budget. Routes are generally well waymarked, the quality of mapping is excellent, and people are welcoming and glad to provide advice. And the best part is that wild land is easily accessible in New Zealand, and it’s possible to feel a sense of remoteness just a couple hours from cities and towns.

Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life outdoors, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places. My experience of hiking in New Zealand is you never quite know exactly what to expect, or where the trail might eventually lead you.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

But which tramping trails are right for you? I’ve compiled a list of what I think are some of the best short hiking trails in New Zealand, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting. Or add them to your plans for an epic New Zealand road trip. Some I’ve walked for myself, and others I’ve added to the list for when I return next. My suggestions for multi-day tramping routes can be found here.

Continue reading “11 Great Day Hikes in New Zealand”