This will be my first extended backpacking trip, so I thought it worthy of a discussion on the kit I will be taking with me. I’m leaving for the Affric Kintail Way (AKW) in just two weeks and I will be using that 3-4 day walk to test some of the new kit I’ve purchased recently and my approach in general. This list is therefore, subject to slight changes based on that experience.
I’ve had a long and difficult relationship with boots over the past few years. I love the comfort and fit of Salomon boots, which I keep returning to, even though the waterproofing inevitably fails and I end up walking in wet socks, inside boots that now weigh three times as much as they should. This can lead to blisters, although I have to admit to having very few blisters in my walking career, but those I’ve had were due to walking long distances in wet boots.
So this year, I’m going back to Trail Shoes. I’ve found a pair that don’t disintegrate after a few dozen miles, like the Inov-8 shoes I’ve used in the past and I’m looking forward to the comfort and weight of shoes again. With shoes, I also don’t mind getting my feet wet, which means I can splash through streams and bogs without worrying and although your feet don’t actually dry out, they don’t suffer from blisters either. I’ll be using Salomon X-Ultra 2 shoes, which weigh 944g for the pair.
I’m still undecided on socks. I normally use Bridgedale liner socks inside a regular M&S trainer sock. The dual sock system reduces blisters and has worked well for me in the past, but I’ve found that the M&S sock loses its shape after a couple of days and can bunch up in the toe of the shoe. So I’m looking for a sock that keeps its shape and fit better. Current suggested options are X-Socks and Gococo. I may see how the current system works on the AKW and then decide.
I don’t expect to use anything different from my usual backpacking trips, or indeed my other long distance walks. I’ve found a comfortable balance of weight, warmth, protection and flexibility using a small selection of gear, so I’ll be using that on this trip too.
My trusty Paramo Velez Adventure Light Smock will be Nikwax Tech-washed and reproofed before I leave and this serves as both waterproof shell and warm outer layer for when the wind is blowing and temperature drops. Despite its description, it’s not exactly light at 693g, but it serves dual purposes and it’s never let me down, so until I find something better (and I’ve been looking) it goes in the pack.
For a mid-layer I have a very battered, faded and much-used Regatta Nitrus Smock. I got this a few years ago, free, for a review and I absolutely love it. It’s another item that I just can’t find a suitable replacement for. When the weather isn’t too cold it’s worn as my outer layer, and I find it much more versatile than a fleece; it packs down nicely and it only weighs 373g. It’s not waterproof, but it does manage OK in a light shower and it dries quickly.
I’ll carry two base-layers, one long-sleeve and one short-sleeve. Depending on how warm/cold the day is I can switch as needed. If things get really cold, I can wear both. The short-sleeve is a Smartwool Microweight Tee, this is a pure Merino shirt and it’s warm and light (179g) and doesn’t smell, even after a few days. The long-sleeve is a Rab MeCo 165 shirt. The heavier material (my XXL weighs 289g) makes it a great winter base-layer and when used in conjunction with the Regatta smock and the Paramo jacket, I’ve been comfortable into temperatures well below zero.
On my first few long-distance walks, I suffered badly from chafing at the top of my thighs and I solved this by using thigh-length compression underwear. I use Sub Dual Compression Baselayer Shorts (122g), but there are plenty of others, like Under Armour or Skins. These are absolutely fantastic, they keep me secure, chafe-free and are quick drying if they do get wet, although not Merino, they still don’t smell, even after many days use.
I’m not a fan of expensive trousers; I tend to wear the crotch out of pants quite quickly, so it’s cheap and cheerful for me usually. I’m using Craghopper Basecamp trousers at the moment and they seem comfortable enough and fairly light too (345g), if I end up carrying them on wet days (see below). They have plenty of pockets including cargo pockets on the thighs which are particularly useful.
If the day starts out wet, or looks like being a wet one, I tend to wear my Rab Bergen Overtrousers (eVent membrane – 362g), over no trousers. This sounds awful, but is surprisingly comfortable and if these had pockets, I’d probably wear them much more. They can be vented if the day warms up and at a push I can swap them out for the Craghoppers.
Sleeping & Shelter
I’ve only ever had one tent and it’s proved to be an absolute bargain. I bought it before I knew anything about backpacking really, but it’s served me well, despite being a bit flappy and a little awkward to pitch well. It’s huge inside, pitches in one, has a massive porch and still weighs less than 2Kg (1,830g with poles and pegs). I’ve looked at alternatives in the past couple of years, but they’re either too expensive (Scarp) or I don’t fit in them (Hexpeak). At 6’4″ I found that the inner tent was flapping in my face, or my feet were pushing the inner against the fly, when I tested the Hexpeak. I also struggled to sit up inside the Scarp I tried – not great for a long winter night in the tent.
I tend to sleep cold, so I need a slightly overweight sleeping bag compared to most folk. Again, my height ruled out so many options until I eventually found the Criterion range of bags (previously branded as Cumulus) and I use a Criterion Prime 400 down bag (400g of 870FP, -7 Comfort), which is just about long enough for me. It’s a great 3-season bag, weighs 942g and packs down nicely into an Exped dry-bag.
Even more so than boots, sleeping mats have been the bane of my backpacking life. I’ve had several different mats and without exception, they’ve all sprung a leak at some point, usually after only a couple of uses. On a recent trip I burst two mats on consecutive nights. I reckon a lot of this is down to my weight; I’m a big bloke, weighing anything from 17-19 stones during the prime walking season and this must put too much strain on the poor mats – who all die steadily through the night. I love the comfort of an inflatable mat though, so I’m not prepared to abandon them completely, but at the same time I can’t rely on them solely. This year I’m going to try a hybrid approach. I found a lightweight inflatable mat that professes to be extra-durable; a Multimat Superlite Air with an MoD spec, which makes it 20% heavier than usual, but more robust. It weighs 365g, but more importantly was only £25 (new) on eBay, so if it too dies I won’t have lost much. Beneath the air mattress I’m going to use a closed cell foam mat, so worst case, I still have something between me and the ground. I went for a Thermarest Z-lite Sol (Regular, 183cm x 51cm – 394g) which folds easily and will hang from the bottom of my pack I hope. The hybrid system isn’t light by any means, but at best it should be very comfortable and at worst it should be OK.
As an additional layer of warmth and to keep my sleeping bag clean, I tend to wear a base layer vest (Smartwool Microweight Long-Sleeve – 208g) and long-johns (Rab MeCo 165 Leggings – 217g) at night. If it gets really cold I can add my down jacket too (Rab Microlight – 432g). In the winter I carry a sleeping bag liner (Sea to Summit Thormolite Reactor Extreme – 374g), and although I may end up needing this for the AKW, I don’t plan to take it on the CWT.
Tech & Power
I’m expecting to be on the Cape Wrath Trail for up to 9 days. The nights are likely to be in the tent, or in bothies along the route. The northern section isn’t well supported by B&Bs and Hotels and besides, we’re not looking for that sort of holiday. One of the biggest problems this is likely to cause is the inability to charge my devices each night. I think there’s one bothy with electric, but other than that I need to support a number of devices for the full period of the walk. We may be able to leech the odd hour of charge here and there in pubs or hotels, but there’s no guarantee of that.
My key items of tech are my phone (Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – 168g), my GPS data logger (BluMax 4044 – 59g) and my camera (Panasonic Lumix TZ27 – 205g). All are charged via their own USB ports, unfortunately, all have different types of USB port, so I need to carry a different cable for each device. The phone has a microUSB port, the GPS has a miniUSB and the camera has a Panasonic proprietary port. On the upside, they also all have swappable batteries, again all different, but I have spares for them. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough spares to see me through the whole journey and even if I did, I think the weight penalty would be too much.
The answer is an external USB battery pack, which can be used to recharge the other devices. The one I have is the Anker Astro E5 (309g) which is reported to store 16,000 mAh (although testing shows me it’s closer to 14,000). This can charge two devices at once, using 3A sources, so it will charge the latest powerful phones and it even has a little LED flashlight on it, which may be useful. Using this and a couple of spare batteries for the phone, I think I should be good for the whole route.
My testing shows that I can do an almost full charge (from 20% to 100%) on my Note 3, six times. If I’m really cautious on my power usage, I can normally make one phone charge last 36-48 hours. Neither my GPS data logger, or my camera are actually essential, so these will get by with the bare minimum, after the phone, which I use for navigation and everything else!
UPDATE: I’ve noticed on Amazon today that there’s an updated version of this power pack, which offers 20,000mAh of storage for only an extra 10g or so. Have a look at the Anker PowerCore 20100 – for around £25 this seems excellent value.
I’ll be packing all my gear into my Gossamer Gear Mariposa Robic (XL, with hip belt – 894g), an awesome pack which I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog (see here).
I’ve been using the same gas stove since I started backpacking, almost 10 years ago, and although it’s OK, it was an easy item to improve on, both in terms of weight and performance. I liked the look of the Optimus Crux Stove (87g) which folds down and sits in the cavity at the bottom of a gas canister. It seems OK, without actually having tested it in the wild, but that will be addressed on the AKW and I can go back to my old faithful if I need to. I know there’s more weight to be saved by moving to an alcohol stove, but I love the simplicity and cleanliness of gas too much. All I use the stove for is to boil water, which then goes into hot drinks, or dehydrated meals and a gas stove is pretty efficient at doing this, especially when I use my aluminium heat reflector/wind-shield thingy.
I’ve faffed about with tent lighting for a year or two now, trying various different methods to illuminate my shelter during the night. The most successful experiment was the fairy lights I’ve been using for my last several trips out. A short string of 10 LED bulbs, powered by a pair of AA batteries, but they are fiddly to put up (I twist them around the washing line that runs down the centre of my inner) and the heavy battery end often drops on me in the night. So I’m going to try a little lantern, bought from Tread Lite Gear on eBay. It weighs an incredible 16g and seems to work pretty well, albeit tested under the duvet rather than in the hills.
Another recent weight-saving purchase has been the Sawyer SP128 mini filter (38g). This will replace my Aquapure Traveller filter squeeze bottle, saving me around 80g and being slightly more flexible too, when used in conjunction with the Platypus 3L reservoir that I carry anyway. The Platypus will now hold ‘dirty’ water, which I will filter into my MSR Titan Kettle (127g) through the Sawyer, rather than filtering water into the Platypus.
I’m also considering the use of poles (note the plural use) for the CWT. I have walked with one pole, off and on for most of the last 10 years and it’s useful in more ways than you’d think (defence against animals, testing bog depth, whacking nettles, pushing kissing gates open, etc.). I have dabbled with two poles and I even bought a pair of Pacer Poles a couple of years ago, but I’ve not been able to get the hang of them, but now I think I will try properly and ditch the single pole in favour of the Pacers. Watch this space.
This has been a long post, so apologies for that and I’m not going to extend it by talking about food; I’ll cover that in a separate post.