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.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Abroath (part 2)

Loch Ossian Scottish Youth Hostel

Days 1-3 can be found here.

Day 4. After the storm abated, I restaked the tent, and drifted off to sleep. The morning dawned drizzly and overcast, and it matched my mood. I just wasn't feeling it. I continued east, and wondered if I might catch any Challengers at the bothy. It was empty, however, and it did not appear that anyone had been in it the night before. So, my decision to wild camp yesterday evening, instead of pushing to the bothy, was a good one.

I made a cup of coffee, and had a slight fire to warm up. It was now raining, and I was in no hurry to push on. Eventually, I decided to walk to the next bothy, and see how I felt then.

I continued a few miles to Stanoieg bothy, and again paused here a bit to dry off and read.

The rain lightened a bit, and so I continued on the wet trail. I crossed a wooden bridge, and headed past the bottom of a gloomy looking Loch Treig.

near Loch Treig

The rain came on again as I headed south from Loch Treig towards Rannoch. I sheltered underneath a train overpass, and had a good snack. I then opened my umbrella once again, and headed up the track. To pass the time, I listened to The Memory Palace podcast, a narrative history podcast from the U.S.

As the afternoon wore on, I was faced with pitching the tent in the rain. However, I then came up the Loch Ossian youth hostel. At first, I thought it was a boat house, but then I asked a Challenger I'd seen enter it briefly what it was.

A youth hostel! An opportunity to dry out!

Inside, there was a cast iron stove with a fire. There were a pair of friendly hillwalkers, and a young German woman. The warden wasn't in, so I phoned the Scottish Youth Hostels, and was able to book a bunk.

I claimed my space, and set out my sleeping bag to air out.
My bunk

I warmed up with a cup of hot chocolate. The German woman had brought a viola, and played for us while the rain came down outside. I was warm, dry, and perfectly content. It was a nice way to finish a day with such dispiriting start.

Part 3 can be found here.

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Lochailort to Arbroath (Part 1)

View of Loch Beoraid - there is no trail along the loch, despite what is shown on the map

This was my third T.G.O. challenge. As described previously, this is a self-supported walk from the west coast of Scotland to the east. The only real rule is you have to walk, although you can take ferries across lochs if need be.


I was at work for most of the day, and then took the train to Lochailort. On the train I met friendly fellow challengers, and we chatted about routes and, invariably, compared pack weights. We arrived in Lochailort at 11 p.m.. My colleagues were staying at the Inn, but it was full, so I'd planned to wild-camp near the river. I headed down a small road to the river, and found a spot behind a small mound of earth. It was a functional site, given that it was dark, and I was soon in my sleeping bag. A car drove by later, and the headlights illuminated the tent briefly, but, if visible, I was barely so, and it was quiet for the rest of the night. A slight breeze came up, but I was warm and comfortable.

Day 1.

I made some coffee, and then packed up. At the Lochailort Inn, I puttered around a bit until the restaurant opened, and then grabbed a cup of coffee. I signed in for the Challenge (the Inn was one of the official check-in points), and then was on my way.

I walked along the road for a bit, and then ascended to Loch Beoraid. A word of advice for future Challengers: the trail shown on the map along the loch does not exist! Luckily, it had been dry recently, and the bogs underfoot were springy. I made my way along the loch, meet a fit fellow Challenger by the name of Mike. We walked together for a bit, and then he went on to do a Munro. Smoke was visible on the hill, from a fire started by the steam train. I ascended through a steep pass, and then descended to a welcome bothy at Cornhully.

I was tired, and hadn't known about this bothy, but there was only one other person there - a friendly Cape Wrath walker by the name of Roger (or Richard) - so I unrolled my sleeping bag for the night.

Unfortunately, I think I had an out-of-date dehydrated meal for dinner (or something earlier?), and was quite unwell that night.

Day 2.

I packed up, and debated staying put for the day. The planned route would take me up a steep climb, into the next valley, and then up another climb. I was dehydrated, and did not have the strength or the will for this. Having chatted with Mike the day before, I was aware that I could take the ferry to Ft. William, if I could make it to the jetty opposite by 4:30 p.m. In Ft. William I could get something for my stomach and recuperate. I thus opted for a low-level route.

My route took me through Glen Finnan which, despite my physical condition, was enjoyable. I passed under the Glenfinnan viaduct.

I walked along the main road to Ft. William, and chatted with another friendly challenger from Scotland. We parted ways at the A road along the south side of the loch, and I took this another 9 miles or so to the jetty. Rain had threatened all day, and materialized as I reached the small shelter near the jetty. I settled in for a two hour wait, and cooked some ramen-type noodles. The warm, salty broth was welcome.

I messed around with my phone a bit, trying to download a book. The decision not to bring one, on weight grounds, was a mistake. After an hour, Mike, who I'd met the first day, arrived. He'd taken a more ambitious route, and was now headed for Ft. William as well.

Once across, I stopped at the pharmacy for some medicine, and at a charity shop, where I picked up a John Grisham novel for £1.50. I resupplied at Morrison's grocery store, and had a very welcome sports drink.

I settled in at the Backpackers Hostel, managed a fish supper, and chatted with the varied travellers I met there.

Day 3.

The night in the hostel had a slight twist. Each dorm room had 8-10 bunks, and a door that locked when you shut it. At around 2 a.m., I rose for a trip to the loo, but forgot that my key was in the trousers I'd left in the room. My dorm room was locked. I tapped quietly at the door, but everyone was asleep. It was my own fault.

I realised that the guy on the bunk above me was still out at the pub, and should be back soon. I gathered a blanket and pillow from the common living room, and laid down outside our dorm room. At 3 a.m., his friend arrived, but he had forgotten his key as well. A bit later, the other guy came in, a bit worse for wear, but with his key. So, I was reunited with my bunk.

From a walking perspective, this was the best day of the trip. The walk up Glen Nevis was the best I'd yet experienced in the U.K. I arrived at a Yosemite-like valley, in perfect conditions. One of the side benefits of doing the Challenge is finding places you know you will come back to, and this was one.

I pushed on above the Glen, with the vague goal of reaching a bothy and meeting other Challengers. However, as the afternoon slipped by and my fatigue grew, I opted to wild-camp.

I set up my tent, sponged off with water from a nice burn, and cooked dinner. As I did so the clouds above the hills turned as black as I'd ever seen. As the first drops of rain started, I retreated into the tent. A squall struck, and it emerged that my tent was not quite as well staked out as I'd imagined.

I set up camp before the storm hit, just.

Part 2 can be found here.