Monday, 21 May 2018

Five lessons from The Great Outdoors Challenge

Camp in Glen Affric on Day 1

Backpacking is a process. On most trips, I learn something about my gear, my lack thereof or how my body responds to varying demands. A winner is a loser who learns the right lessons. Below I've listed a few of the things I learned on my walk across Scotland in this year's T.G.O. Challenge.

I will provide a day-by-day summary in the ensuing posts, but as an overview, I planned a route from Shiel Bridge to Johnshaven. After the relative isolation of last year's trip, I wanted a more social route. Work demands also meant that I had a very short window - ultimately just 10 days - for this walk. So here's what I learned:

1. What makes the Challenge special is the people you meet. It was such a pleasure to meet so many friendly, like-minded people from all over the world. This, I think, is what keeps people coming back year after year.

2. You can walk across Scotland in 10 days... I did it, just.

3. .... but it means long days of walking... All told, I did at least 160 miles, and likely at least 10 or so more with all the walking in towns and around camp. So, broadly, I averaged 16 miles per day.

4. .... and no rest days... I could have used one of these. My legs started to lose their zip. Whereas in previous Challenges I started to feel stronger as the trip progressed, peaking towards the finish, in this trip I dragged to the finish.

5. .... and an increased risk of injury My leg extensor tendonititis started on a long day from Glen Affric to Braemar. My ankle and leg were hurting that night walking in town, and it grew worse the next day. By the final day the pain was significant. I took ibuprofen, and bought a wrap for my leg, and was able to finish. Now, at home, my lower left leg is swollen and sore. Running is out of the question, and walking hurts.


So, the take home advice from all of this is that I would not recommend a short crossing. My hobbies are hill running and marathoning, and my body still could not handle these kind of miles on this time frame.* I was able to enjoy the company of my fellow Challengers, even up to the last morning, though I was not in the full bubble of walkers.

* Admittedly, I have a 52-year-old body.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

A winter camp and run

The view from Carn a' Chlamain

I've set myself the challenge of camping once a month for a year. February is the sixth month of the challenge, but the weekends were filling quickly. My best chance to get out at the very beginning, on February 3rd.

I'm also in the process of training for some races, including the Stirling Marathon and a bigger hill race towards the end of the season. To combine the two, I planned a trip up Glen Tilt, with a wild camp on Saturday night, and a run up a hill Sunday morning.

Getting ready to set out

I set out after lunch on Saturday, and there was snow on the ground when I arrived at the Glen Tilt car park. I packed up, and headed along the River Tilt.

The clear, cold River Tilt

I walked for a few miles along a track, and noted several good places to pitch my tent in the trees. I walked myself out of these, however, as I continued up the Glen. After 4:00, I needed to make a decision on where to camp, and opted to backtrack to one of the sections of woodland along the river. Part of the aim of the outing was to have a good evening in the woods, and I've made the mistake previously of passing up good tent sites in the search for the perfect site, only to be forced to settle for a not-so-good site.

A good pitch site near the River Tilt

I found a flat, clear spot just above the river, in the trees and out of view of the track. Darkness came quickly, and I boiled water for my ramen noodle soup, in which I dipped a small ciabatta loaf. I'd also brought a tin of beer to round out the meal. It was drizzling, and the trees were dripping water, but the tent kept me dry.

The evening wasn't as cold as anticipated, and I was plenty warm in my combination of a summer sleeping bag and a three-season bag. I settled in with The Rosie Project, and read for a bit before drifting off.

Somehow, I ended up sleeping in until 7, and then dressed and found a tree stump to sit on while boiling water for my instant oatmeal and coffee. The moon was out.

As dawn came, I rearranged my gear, changed into running clothes (with the addition of a thin insulation jacket) and headed up the glen.

Snow capped hills in Glen Tilt

I met a fellow walker who was also heading into the hills, and let him look at my map. He didn't have one because he'd planned on walking in the Cairgorms, but couldn't afford the petrol to go all the way up there.

Start of the climb up Carn a' Chlamain

I followed a track up the hill, and the patches of snow increased. Eventually, the ground was covered.

Looking back down the way I'd come

No one had been up the track since the recent snow, except for the snowshoe hares. One dashed away before I could get my camera out.

Snowshoe hare tracks

The hares dig holes in the snow for shelter

I pushed on, and the snow alternated between being windblown and hard-packed, and soft and deep. The summit was reached and I was able to take a more direct line on the descent, running through the snow. It filled my gaiters, which weren't suitable for my running shoes. Eventually I took these off.

I descended out of the snow, down along the river, and back to my tent.

The track through the glen felt like it was from a different age.

Back at the tent

When I arrived at camp, I changed to dry footwear and put on my down jacket. I made a cup of coffee and had a sandwich, and then packed up and walked the few miles back to car.

All in, a nice evening and a glorious day in the hills...

Friday, 22 December 2017

Gear for the T.G.O. Challenge: tents

Tenting in Glen Feshie, on the T.G.O. Challenge

What follows is my opinions on different gear used for The Great Outdoors Challenge - an annual cross-Scotland backpacking event.

A few caveats apply. First, this is just a sampling of the gear that I've used. There are many other options out there, and some I'm sure are equivalent, lighter or better.

Second, my gear is slightly biased towards North American suppliers. In part, this is because I'm from the States (though I've resided in Scotland for awhile now), and travel there regularly.

Third, tent preference is personal. Like many choices in backpacking, there are trade-offs. I'm happy to sacrifice some internal space in exchange for a lighter tent. Others might be happy to pay a slight weight penalty to have more room. It's all good. The goal is to have fun.

Tent #1

Eureka Solitaire (Gossamer)

Eureka Gossamer on the Appalachian Trail

This tent served me well for many years. It's a single person tent, and requires pegging out to stay upright. It features a mesh interior, and over this an attached fly. Inside, I've found, there's plenty of room for my sleeping bag and pad, and I fit my pack either in the front of the tent or inside the front fly.

There are three big advantages to this tent. First, it's light: 1200g or 2 lbs 11 ounces. Second, it's relatively inexpensive (< £100/$100). Third, I found it to be excellent at withstanding the rain, at least for the first several years. It is small. You can't stand up in it, and there isn't a lot of head room. My sister had this tent and didn't like it because she felt it was slightly claustrophobic. So it could be best thought of as a spacious, breathable bivy. On a section hike on the Appalachian Trail, the trail held up wonderfully in a heavy rainstorm. After several years' use, it was slightly less waterproof on a rainy section hike of the West Highland Way. However, I've found generally that tents tend to lose a bit of their water resistance after several years. In short, this tent or its equivalent is lightweight, good value and functional.

Tent #2

Sierra Designs Lightning X2

In the Rothiemurchus Forest

I love this tent. It's a small two-person tent, with a mesh inner and a separate fly. It has this slightly odd pole system where there three main poles are all attached to one another, so it's essentially one pole. It has a front and back door, which is great when there are two of you. I've used this on the T.G.O. challenge (see the top photo on this post), and still use it when camping with my son, who is not quite a teen yet.

Advantages: The tent is bullet proof. If I know there will be heavy rain, this is the tent I will choose. I've been through all night rains and stayed dry. It's a spacious tent for one person, but slightly tight for two. If it's warm and clear, you can shed the fly and just sleep under the stars with the mesh inner - I've done this in the Grand Canyon. The inner is very effective at preventing midges from getting in. Cost-wise, it runs about $230.

There are a few disadvantages. First, there's the weight: 2060g or 4 lbs 8 ounces. Yes, I know. Second, in heavy rain, the water sometimes pools somewhat on the roof. It still doesn't get in, and it is easily shed by pressing up on the roof once.

So, I like this tent a lot, and have used it under lots of different circumstances. My only reservation for a long walk is the weight, if I'm going solo. To address this, I tried the next tent...

Tent #3

Tarptent ProTrail

On the T.G.O. Challenge

I had this tent shipped to me from the States. Essentially, it's a single-walled tent with a bathtub floor and mesh screening. I've used it on two Challenges thusfar.

Advantages: This tent is lightweight(!): 900g or 1 pound 13 ounces. It uses your hiking poles in the front and the back, and this contributes to the weight savings. I was caught in a heavy rainstorm in Glen Nevis on the last T.G.O. challenge, and it withstood the rain admirably. It also packs up quite small. Cost-wise, it was $225, which is good value for such a light weight solution.

There are a few trade-offs on this tent. First, I've found that occasionally the back tent pegs come out of whatever ground I've put them in, and the bottom of the tent collapses. This isn't a problem if you can get good purchase with your pegs. Second, I've had condensation inside the tent on several occasions (in moist conditions). If there's a slight breeze, you can keep the front and rear meshes open, and this solves the problem. I'm not sure any single-walled tent can entirely get around this issue.

So, I like this tent, but I think some attention has to be paid on how you pitch it.

Tent #4

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1

On the Appalachian Trail

This is my newest acquisition, so I can't speak to its T.G.O. performance yet. It a double walled tent, in the sense that there's a mesh inner tent and a separate fly sheet. It also has poles.

My hope is that this tent will strike a balance between Tents #2 and #3 above: light weight (935g or 2 lbs 1 ounce), but with a double skin. The cost was closer to $300/£300, so it's a bit more expensive than the other options I've discussed (and I haven't exactly told my wife about it yet). There's plenty of head room, but the tent is slightly narrow.

The Fly Creek is the tent in the foreground


O.K., these, as I've said, are my opinions. I'd love to hear yours.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Arbroath (part 6)

Arbroath harbour

Part 1 can be found here.

Part 2 can be found here.

Part 3 can be found here.

Part 4 can be found here.

Part 5 can be found here.

Day 11

I woke, packed, and headed to the dining room for scrambled eggs and bacon. It had been a quiet night, but there were other in the breakfast room as well, so the hotel had at least a handful of guests.

I walked through Forfar, and noticed an old sign for McEwans beer on a pub.

A bit early for a beer though

The road heading south of Forfar was slightly busy, and I walked as far on the shoulder as I could. I also waved to drivers so they would see me. Thankfully, my revised route soon had me following a quiet back road. It was sunny, and I put on sunscreen and my hat.

10 miles to go

The road was undulating, and led past farmland. It was quiet, and at one intersection swallows banked and turned overhead. Inviting minor roads were passed, and I kept walking. Usually, I'd rest for 5 minutes after each 55 minute session of walking. I'd take my pack off, sit down, and have a snack and drink. I'd found that regular rests allowed me to stay fresh longer.

About a mile out of Arbroath, the rain returned. I donned my waterproofs once again, and pulled out the umbrella. The harbour, it emerged, was a little way through the town, but was eventually reached. And my coast-to-coast walk was complete.

Nearby was a fish store, and I bought an Arbroath smokie for my wife.

Arbroath smokies - smoked haddock - in the lower left of the window

I bought a snack, and then took the train to Montrose. There I walked to the Challenge Control at the Park Hotel to check out and have a cup of tea. Then it was a train to Stirling, and a drive home.

And now that the fatigue has faded, and my gear is dry and stored, my thoughts are starting to turn towards next year's route...

You can find my other challenge account here: The Great Outdoors Challenge: Shiel Bridge to Stonehaven

Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Arbroath (part 5)

Wild camp in the morning

Part 1 can be found here.

Part 2 can be found here.

Part 3 can be found here.

Part 4 can be found here.

Day 9.

It rained all night. I made breakfast, packed up and headed up the trail. There was an abandoned house near a loch, and the large fir trees in front of it offered protection from the rain, so I paused and made a second cup of coffee.

I reached Kirkmichael at 7:30 a.m. The shop/cafe there didn't open until 8, and so I bided my time walking through the local churchyard and reading the various notices on the shop windows. All the time, I was under my unbrella as a steady rain fell.

When the shop opened, I settled into a corner table, and enjoyed a bacon butty and an americano. I caught up on my e-mails - the first time I'd looked at them this trip - on my phone.

Tim arrived a bit after 9. This was an excuse to put off engaging with the rain, and have another coffee. We were headed in roughly the same direction once again, and eventually tore ourselves away from the cafe at 10. I'd ordered a second bacon roll to take-away for lunch, and also found a nice pain-au-chocolate for breakfast the next day.

We walked together a bit, following a right-of-way toward Lair. Tim, who was powering through a stress fracture, waved me on, and I continued across various stone walls and farm fences. I wasn't paying sufficient attention to my direction, and ended up descending a glen that was clearly incorrect. I took a compass bearing, and headed sharply left, up a hill. Cresting this, I was reunited with Tim, who'd taken the correct route.

We pushed on through a boggy expanse. At one point, my right leg went in to the bog, up to my knee. It didn't really matter - my shoes and socks were already soaked.

Eventually, we found a series of right-of-way posts, and headed in a line towards Lair. On descending to the road, I paused under the shelter of some fir trees to eat my lunch bacon roll. Tim caught up, and we headed up a B road towards the hamlet of Forter. We separated again, with the plan of different stopping points for the night.

I climbed past a loch, and then headed across the high ground on a compass bearing. It was still raining, and my umbrella was still in use.

Eventually, I crossed into a forest. It was 5, and I was wet, tired, and chilled. What I wanted most was to get out of the rain. Next, I wanted to get into my sleeping bag and get warm.

I followed the forestry roads down to a stream, and set up my tent. The rain stopped for a bit, and I cooked dinner and changed into dry clothes for the night.

Day 10.

It stopped raining in the night, but there was frost on the tent. My sleeping bag felt a little cool, and when I looked the bottom bit of my tent had collapsed sometime in the night.

Yesterday, I'd started a bit behind my previous overnight halt (Kirkmichael), and had stopped short of my planned overnight halt (Glen Prosen). However, the weather conditions had improved, so I figured I could knock out yesterday's miles quickly in the morning session of walking, and then dig into today's planned miles.

I headed along forestry roads and farm tracks for a bit, and then came to a sign for Glen Prosen (6 miles!). With what I'd done already, this meant that I had stopped 8 miles short yesterday

I'd put on waterproof socks in the morning, but slipped in a burn, so there was water in these. I switch back to my wool running socks, even though they were wet. There were some nice, flat places for pitching a tent in the forestry, but it would have been quite taxing to add these few miles on at the end of the day yesterday.

I reached Glen Prosen after 10 a.m. I took a right of way along the river, but this was more of a cow path, and it followed the bends of the river. I returned to the road, crossed a bridge, and headed to Glen Prosen village.

There I found a welcome bench, and made a ramen noodle lunch.
Glen Prosen church

Revived by my food, I had a think about my goals for the day. My schedule had me travelling 6 miles over the hills to Glen Clova, and then another 12 miles, again over high ground, to Tarfside. Realistically, I would not reach the comforts of Tarfside until 9 p.m., if that. And I was nearly out of food. Following this, I'd planned a 24-mile day to finish in St. Cyrus. Together, this plan no longer seemed plausible.

I opted instead to forgo the high ground, and start heading directly to the coast. I headed down the road through Glen Prosen, and came to a memorial for Robert Scott and Edward Wilson. It turns out that Wilson worked nearby on a grouse disease survey in between trips with Scott to the Antartic ( both perished there after reaching the South Pole).

Captain Robert Scott and Dr Edward Wilson memorial. My pack and umbrella are visible nearby.

Route of the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole

I passed through a nice wood, and headed for Forfar. A sign indicated that it was 6 miles away, but, frustratingly, I came across another sign indicating it was 6 miles away a half hour later. My suspicion was that it was somehow cheaper to print a few signs with the same number.

Forfar is 6 miles away for a long time.

Eventually, I reached Forfar, and found my way to the Queens Hotel. A room was £44, and there I showered and changed before enjoying a pint and a fish supper. For the day, the distance was about 24 miles, but I was now in striking distance of the coast.

Part 6 can be found here.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Arbroath (part 4)

Cloud inversion over Loch Tummel

Days 1-3 can be found here.

Day 4 can be found here.

Day 5-6 can be found here.

Day 7.

I packed up and headed on the road along Loch Tummel. There was a heavy mist. My route then left the road and followed a right-of-way up through farms and then woods to Loch Bhac. As I ascended, the mist dissipated and it was sunny.

At Loch Bhac there were a group of Challengers who had pitched nearby. I unpacked my tent and sleeping bag, and allowed them to dry in the sun while a cup of coffee was brewed.

Loch Bhac

The Challengers moved on, and I eventually repacked and headed out as well. I crossed a moorland, and then caught three Challengers, John, Jane and Susan, as we descended towards Blair Atholl in the sun.

I like how many Challengers' minds work: as we arrived in Blair Atholl, we did not check in to the campsite or our accommodation, but rather headed straight to "The Bothy" pub for pints and lunch. Eventually, I left and set up camp, showered, and resupplied at the local shop. I returned to the pub in the evening, and had dinner with Challengers there.

Day 8.

I climbed out of Blair Atholl and into the hills.

Cool tree on the roadside above Blair Atholl

I briefly entertained the thought of doing a nearby munro, but stuck to the track. I didn't encounter any Challengers headed across the high ground, and then descending along the brown glen. Here and there were the remains of old buildings, but the land was mostly empty, and again my enthusiasm began to wain.

Eventually, I neared the village of Kirkmichael. I was footsore and weary, and began to look for spots to pitch my tent. I followed a stretch of the Cateran trail, and found a perfect mossy spot to pitch my tent in the woods. It was near the trail, and I chatted with a local guy who walked by with his dog. I retired early, and the rain started at about 7 p.m. However, I was fed, dry, warm and tired. After a few pages of Grisham, sleep found me.

Perhaps my best wild camp site

Part 5 can be found here.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Arbroath (part 3)

The track from Loch Ossian to Loch Rannoch

Days 1-3 can be found here.

Day 4 can be found here.

Day 5

I woke early, and my bunk-neighbor, Mike, was already away on his route over Ben Alder. I had breakfast, and had the fire going fitfully, but was in no rush to head out into the rain. Tim, a Challenger from Wales who'd spent the night near the railway underpass, arrived at the hostel and chatted for a bit before continuing. Eventually, I packed up and headed out. I soon caught a friendly hill walker who'd stayed at the hostel the night before, and we had a good chat while heading along the track. He wanted to do a smaller hill and was going to meet friends later back at the hostel. I continued along the track with the bleak but impressive Rannoch moor to my right.

I was concerned about food. There was enough, just, for the next 24 hours. I listened to podcasts while heading towards the road by Loch Rannoch. There, I had lunch of salmon and tortilla wraps, and the sun emerged.

My route took me along the south shore of the loch, and this was dotted with farms and tidy houses.

A house near Loch Rannoch

I eventually caught up to Tim, who was resting on a bench. He'd had a long day, having started before Loch Ossian, and was beat. I accepted some of his mint cake, and immediately felt my energy returning. We walked together for a bit as the afternoon wore on, and he found an excellent pitch on the loch shore. I wanted to go a bit further and camp in the woods, and so carried on.

Though the terrain was easy, I was a footsore and tired after a long day. After 5:00, I found a flat place to pitch in the Black Wood of Rannoch, and boiled the water for my ramen noodles.

Day 6

It was a bright morning along the shores of Loch Rannoch.

It was a pleasant walk along the road, and I met a fellow Challenger as we approached Kinloch Rannoch. There, I met up again with Tim, who'd had an early start, and we had bacon butties and coffee at the coffee shop. I resupplied at the shop in the village, and then headed out with another Challenger from London, with whom I had a good chat. He headed up to hills eventually, while I turned into the track not far from the head of the loch. Tim mentioned meeting me here, but I didn't see him until later, and it emerged that he'd taken a different turn-off.

Tim and I navigated a bit as we headed towards Tummel Bridge. In the distance, we saw the abandoned, castle-like Dunalastair House. This was build in 1852 and has been empty for 65 years. Prior to this was used as a school for Polish refugees.

Dunalastair House

We walked along the aqueduct, and Tim peeled off to pitch his tent. I continued on to Tummel Bridge, all the while looking for places to camp, and hoping for a pub. There was one associated with a caravan park, but I pushed on, eventually pitching at a fishing site on the shore of Loch Tummel.

Camp on the shore of Loch Tummel

Part 4 can be found here.