Where there’s hope

Every so often I have a look at Phil Lambert’s excellent Doodlecat site, which provides a sort of Grand Central for TGOC related stuff. A recent blog contribution is from Roger Boston (or at least I assume it’s Roger Boston), who has been suffering from knee problems and has had an operation recently. Rather discouragingly his doctor has advised to “avoid walking on rough ground, going up and down hills”. If you’ve looked at Roger’s excellent accounts of his last three Challenges, you’ll recognise that he’s rather unlikely to take this advice!

While I can’t give Roger direct encouragement about his cartilage problem (I know how bad this can be as my sister has had several operations), I can give some encouragement to others who may have suffered ligament problems. A long time ago, I twisted my knee descending Great Whernside and tweaked a ligament on the outside of my right knee. Fortunately it was at the end of a week’s trek around the Dales and I only had to walk to a road and my friend got his car.

From that day on I suffered from painful knees, especially when carrying a heavy pack and on descents. In the end I gave up backpacking and only did day walks, carrying a light pack. Even so, descent was very painful, although ascent and walking on the level was fine. Then I discovered walking poles. This helped dramatically in descent, although I could still feel some pain. Over the years my knees have gradually improved, to the extent that I now feel no discomfort going downhill, even with a full pack.

So it seems I’ve come full circle, hence over the past few years, I’ve been able to start backpacking again, although I’ve taken it carefully to begin with. I can’t really explain why this has happened. I’ve not followed any specific exercise regime. The only things I can put it down to is time healing and using trekking poles. Even though I don’t need to use them, I still carry poles and use them if descent looks tricky. Hopefully, this will encourage others who suffer from knee problems. It’s not always the end!


Thank you Judy for my boots

If you’ve not already listened to it, can I recommend that you listen to Bob’s interview with Judy Armstrong and her epic walk around the Alps. If you want some details of Judy’s trek you can get them from her web site.

I have to take my hat off to her, she’s a tough cookie. To walk on after some of the injuries she suffered takes a lot of guts, as does getting through some life or death situations like having to spend a night out after finding the door of a refuge frozen shut. I wonder how I would have reacted in those circumstances.

I also have to thank Judy for pointing me in the direction of the best pair of boots that I’ve ever worn: the Aku Icaros. She mentioned these before she started out. At the time I had been road testing a pair of Montrail Stratos XCR boots. They were fabulously comfortable and very breathable, with the Gore-Tex membrane on the outer material of the boot. These were the first pair of membrane boots that I’ve ever felt comfortable in. They were no more sweaty than a pair of light leather boots.

Unfortunately the plastic sole chassis of the boot cracked, making an irritating squeaking sound. While not fatal, I returned the boots to Rock + Run, who very kindly refunded my money (bearing in mind this was three months after I bought them). Apparently this was a well recognised design fault and I wasn’t the first to suffer this fate. I see that Montrail have introduced an updated version called the Cirrus and it looks as though they have addressed the issue.

I bought the Icaros mail order (naughty boy!), although I did check that the sole shape fitted my foot, by printing a life size version of the sole and checking my foot against it. Anyway, it was a bit of a punt, but I needed a pair of lightweight boots for Scotland in May. When they arrived, the fit was almost perfect (phew!). For reference, if you can wear Zamberlan or Montrail shoes/boots, the odds are that Aku will fit you (assuming they use consistent lasts).

In terms of breathability, these boots are a revelation. It’s all down to their Air 8000 technology. The membrane is attached only at a limited number of points rather than glued. Unfortunately their web site doesn’t explain it very well but the breathability is definitely better than I’ve experienced in other boots, even the Montrails. Judy mentions that her feet and socks suffered minimal dampness even in summer temperatures and I can believe her.

I can’t say it was particularly hot in Scotland, but it was wet. The boots kept me dry even though the outers were soaked. I even use them for dog walking now as they are so comfortable. I have suffered minimal sweating in them. My only two criticisms are that the insoles are useless; I replaced them with Superfeet. Also the top three sets of cleats for the laces are a bit sharp. Akus are difficult to get hold of, but they are really worth it.



In praise of buffs

I know this will get me into trouble with you know who, but so what! I like buffs, or neck gaiters as they used to be called, somewhat inelegantly. I hate getting my neck cold. I was reminded of this yesterday when I took the dog out early in the morning when it was still frosty and foggy. I could have taken a scarf, but a buff does it much better.

A (very) long time ago you couldn’t get buffs and I used to use a short woolen scarf. Then Rohan came up with a variation on the scarf theme: a scarf with windproof poly-cotton on one side and a kind of fleece on the other side. It was a bit of a faff to keep in the right place but it was good for keeping the wind and chill away.

Later I spotted a Meraklon neck gaiter from Field & Trek (back in the days when they were a proper outdoors retailer). This was an improvement on a scarf, but could get quite warm. Fast forward to about five years ago when I discovered the micro-fibre buff. This is just right for keeping your neck warm most of the time, with enough wind resistance to take off the chill. The only downside is that they can get a little smelly after a while (why don’t they do an antibacterial one?).

I also have a fleece one, which is great for when it’s cold and excellent for skiing. The windproof one is too warm most of the time, so I’ve hardly used it. I’ve never really worked out how to use them as a hat, though.

ME Ultralite 2

I promised you a review of my solo tents. On reflection, it’s a bit of a waste of time reviewing my Vango TBS Micro 100 as it’s no longer in production. Suffice it to say it is a good, sturdy tent but a bit on the heavy side and quite small. Here’s a picture (it’s the blue one):




To solve both the weight and size issue, I bought a ME Ultralite 2. Originally it was advertised as a 1kg tent. However, it actually weighed 1.3kg. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not very happy with manufacturers who are economical with the truth over weights. Had I known the true weight, the decision to purchase would have been a finer judgement. This is not to say that it is a bad tent by any means. The fact that it uses trekking poles as tent poles is an advantage both from the perspective of saving weight and strength. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Ultralite 2, here’s a link to the ME web page and below are two photos.


So is it any good? Let’s look at the good points first. For the weight it is spacious, with just enough room for two and plenty of room for one (I never share tents!). It has two reasonable sized porches, big enough to cook and to store stuff. Having two is a luxury rather than a necessity, but is handy if it’s wet as you can store wet waterproofs etc in one, while leaving the other free. The vents above the door are flexible and good for ventilation.

Let’s look at the not so good. Starting with some of the small details, the door tiebacks are poor and do not secure the doors well. This applies to both the inner outer doors. I’ve cured this by extending the elastic loop with a short length of cord and then using a cord grip. By securing the cord grip hard against the tent material, you can stop the door material slipping through the securing loop. The door arrangement is also slightly less than ideal as it doesn’t fully open up the side of the tent.

Another irritation is that the gap between the inner and the outer on the long side is not big enough, so if there is a lot of condensation, this can be transferred to the inner. At the foot end, this can mean that your sleeping bag gets damp, because there is limited clearance. The way to overcome this is to detach the inner and outer at this end and to peg out separately. It is also worth adding and extra loop of cord to the outer tent rubber to separate further.

To help stability, instead of using one guy line either side I use two, attaching them to a little karabiner (Alpkit Clipper) and then to the tent. This brings me to a major drawback: it’s very flappy in high winds. While I don’t think it would blow away, it’s not very stable when it’s windy and is very noisy.

This was brought home to me last year when I was camping in the Lakes just below Causey Pike (Stoneycroft Gill, if you’re interested). It was raining and the wind was funnelling down the valley in strong gusts. I’m sure I would have been OK, but after three hours of battering, I packed up at midnight and bailed out. It was so noisy and the tent wall was pushing against my head, there’s no way that I would have got any sleep.

The Ultralite 2 is a spacious one man tent that is suitable for lowland backpacking, with a decent space/weight ratio, but I wouldn’t want to use it in exposed pitches, which is why I bought an Akto to go to Scotland this year (more on that another time). It needs a bit of care pitching to ensure a good gap between the inner and outer.  It does have the advantage of a good amount of space for its weight. I may try just the outer some time as a sort of tent/tarp hybrid. I’ve not weighted the fly alone, but I guess it will be about 600g. Should you buy it? It’s not a bad tent, but I think there are better tents on the market.

More books

My love of books is a gift from my father as is my fascination with history. The easiest thing to do at Christmas is to exchange books. Yesterday, I went into Books etc to look for a Christmas present. I bought him John O’Farrell’s “An Utterly Impartial History of Britain“, which is a wry, humorous book about the panoply of British history (only 479 pages long!). However, it’s not this book I want to write about but a little “extra” book I bought for him.

Entitled “Instructions for British Servicemen in France 1944“, it was written for our troops to acquaint themsleves with France and its people before they liberated France. Flicking through it in the shop, it looked quite amusing. While my father did not fight in the war he was born before the war and many of his childhood memories are of the war.

It’s not very long (55 pages) and is like a small note book. In honesty, I bought it for a bit of a laugh, but reading it made me think again. The whole tone is one of sympathy and respect for the French, exhorting our troops to treat the French with courtesy and honour. It’s wonderful to read. It explains a bit about French history and culture, together with some political background.

It made me rather ashamed of some of the stereotypes that we can have both of foreigners and of our fore-bearers. These were wonderful men who gave their lives so others, including ourselves, could live in freedom. I also want to honour the French, who resisted Hilter, some paying the ultimate price. We must never forget or belittle that generation for what they gave to us. It makes me rather proud to be British.

another backpacking blog