Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Starbucks Via

There's been a fair bit of noise about Starbucks Via over on Backpacking Light. People who take their coffee seriously have been very excited by it. I don't take my coffee particularly seriously and generally go camping with instant and powdered coffee whitener, but when I saw that you could get a tester pack for about a quid, I splurged. It is pretty good- it tastes a lot like Starbucks regular coffee. Internet reviews have generally not been super good- Blind taste test to follow...

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Lakes video

I had a bit of spare time and knocked this together. It makes it look warmer than it actually was as evidenced by the big snotter I've got going on in the first section.....

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Old Lakes trip

This report has been hanging around in my documents for ages, half finished. Ironically, it was this trip that prompted me to start my blog but I hadn't got around to getting the writing sorted. The photo at the bottom of the booze article is from this trip and it helped me to get my act together. There's some video which I'll edit and probably post in about 6 months. Here's a reminder of why it's good to make the most of summer...
It’s a fair old slog up to the lakes when you live in the Midlands. It’s worse when you get there to realise that you have to drive another hour round the lakes to get to where you want to get to. Most of my recent trips to this area had focused on the Ennerdale area which does involve that extra hour, so it was that, combined with the fact that we had a total novice with us which led us to look at the High Street area.
Rafa had climbed Ben Nevis once and had done some deer stalking as research for a game he was designing but other than that he had very little to do with the great outdoors. He’s from Brazil and Martyn had suggested he come with us as part of his cultural enrichment. I’m not sure Rafa would describe it as enrichment, but British weather (and we got the full force of it that weekend) certainly is worth experiencing in it’s raw state at least once.
On the journey up we checked through Rafa’s pack. He’d done a pretty good job of not bringing the kitchen sink. I’d supplied a tent (My old Gelert solo), a torch, a spoon and Martyn brought a stove and the waterproofs (vital!). He was a bit embarrassed about his choice of food-Pot Noodles, but bulk aside, the good old Pot Noodle is prime hiking food.
After a stop in Bampton for a pint or two we pulled up at Haweswater. The weather report for the weekend was fairly dire and it was already beginning to spot with rain when we arrived. I’d taken the opportunity presented by Martyn driving the last section of the journey to top up with Guinness and was raring to go by the time we had sorted out the bags. I clipped my photon onto my hat brim and set off at a fair old lick, trying to get to The Rigg before the weather really closed in. I was trying a new pair of shoes- Golite Trail Flys that I’d picked up at TK Maxx pretty cheaply. It was my second try in three years at non waterproof low tops and they were really comfortable. The last time, my ankles had felt really vulnerable, but this time I relished the lack of restriction. Rafa, however was feeling the pressure. By the time we got to The Rigg, he had cramp and was glad of the rest. The weather, had, by now, broken in spectacular fashion and the rain was pouring down. I left Martyn to sort out Rafa’s tent and got on with trying to pitch the Gatewood. The time spent in the pub added to the extra top-up in the car revealed itself to be a pretty poor spot of decision making. What followed had all the elements of a classic comedy sketch with me chasing from one side of the tent to the other as my hiking pole fell down each time I stuck in a peg. When I finally got the inner tent installed I discovered that I had pitched the opening towards the back of the tent. I clambered between the two, into the space at the back of the tent and slipped inside. I had received a fairly lengthy wetting during the process, but again I wasn’t as wet as I had expected.
I slept well, one of the best sleeps I have ever had in a tent and woke fairly early. The rain had pretty much stopped but it was still very windy. I am becoming more confident of the G.C’s ability to shed wind- a lot of the fears I had on my Rhinogs trip were, I think, unfounded. Looking at the three tents, the G.C was flapping around a fair bit less than the other two- it seemed to billow, if that makes sense.
I had a wander round the Rigg, looking at the carnage left by other campers. It’s small wonder that there are prominent signs prohibiting camping- there was everything from cider bottles to used tampons and plenty of fire evidence. I wouldn’t want to camp there in the Summer.
I went back to the tents and roused Martyn and Rafa. Rafa stared incredulous at the floppy mess that had been his shelter for the night. Despite wearing a Sprayway pacamac circa 1992 in the turquoise and purple that characterised that period, he still managed to look stylish in a felt flat cap. It’s funny how people who are not hikers (in fact many hikers too!) still feel the need to look good on a hill- I just stood there in the Gatewood and my cuben fibre rain chaps with a big streamer of snot running down my face…..
It was the first time Martyn had got a good look at the Gatewood in poncho mode. The wind was really kicking up now and there were predictions of 70mph gusts on the tops “Are you sure that’s wind-safe?” he wanted to know. I wasn’t aware that clothing could be judged on whether it was wind-safe! I told him that I was confident it passed EU guidelines and we set off.
The Trail flys were starting to let in a fair bit of water now. Although I was okay with having wet feet and wasn’t bothered about bog hopping to avoid the worst sections, I knew that my feet would be warmer and drier in a pair of lined shoes. Each time there was a new flood of water into the shoe, my feet would feel cold again and the idea that the shoes would dry out quickly because of the breathable nature of the shoe was just not working. October probably wasn’t the best time to try this admittedly but I had decided that unlined trail shoes weren’t for me. Luckily, one of the lace loops had started to pull free (I’d read some dodgy reports on the shoddy construction of Golite shoes previously and they seemed to be true). A trip to TKMaxx customer services was mentally booked, which meant that I had been able to do my trail shoe experiment for free.
It’s a reasonable walk up to Kidsty Howes- steeper than you’d find in the average city and just the thing to warm you up in the morning. Unfortunately we’d got going with no breakfast due to the rain and Rafa was finding it heavy going. We stopped five or six times on the initial slopes where usually me and Martyn may well have got it done in one quick pull. It seemed that the walk we’d planned was going to take a while at this rate. This was no bad thing because it gave us plenty of opportunity to look at the spectacular views up to High street and down to Haweswater. In the end, however, I set off at a quick pace to find water and then stopped to cook up breakfast and wait for the other two. We found a sheltered spot, out of the wind and took advantage of a brief spell of sun to relax.
The final section got even steeper. I prefer to ascend this way, rather than a slow plod. The wind kept getting stronger and stronger. I love this weather-it’s so exhilarating and you can see the showers sweeping down the valley before they hit you. There was a daft grin on my face the whole time despite the fact that the Gatewood cape was, while not ‘wind unsafe’,quite ‘wind annoying’.
There was a conversation at the next rest spot. Martyn was concerned about Rafa and proposed that they returned to the campsite while I continued and met them there. Rafa despite feeling ‘as though he was dying’ decided to stick it out. The gradient eased after that and once he was on a relatively level surface, Rafa felt better.
The Wall across high street was a welcome respite from the wind. I removed the Gatewood and just kept my windshirt on. The showers weren’t bad enough to wet me but it was very cold in the wind. Part of my warmth plan was just to keep moving, but that was hard with all the rests we kept having. If I had been by myself, I would probably have run it, but the camaraderie was good and we were all having a great time.
The rest of the walk went quickly and before we knew it we were at the shelter at Ill Bell. There were still showers on and off and the Gatewood made a good bothy bag. Suddenly the penny dropped for Rafa- ‘hey! You are wearing your tent!’. Seems my big shapeless silnylon bag had just looked like a big shapeless nylon bag after all, when I had been worried it looked like I was wearing a tent!;) We dropped down to Smallwater and as I had got a lead on the others I spent some time sat in the shelters drinking whisky. It was one of those perfect mountain moments, where the level of exertion has been just enough to relax you, the atmosphere is amazing, the taste of the whisky chimes exactly with the smell of the air. Lovely stuff. The last time I had been here, I’d slept in one of the shelters after it had been too windy to pitch the competition. We returned to The Rigg and pitched close to the lake after a quick stop at the car for me to change my shoes. It was so nice to get the Hedgehogs on with some dry socks, but they did feel pretty confining on the ankles after wearing lowtops. A purchase of some lowtop Hedgehogs was decided on.
As night fell, we sat on the beach chatting about gear and trips we planned to one day make. It was a cold but still night- a perfect end to the trip. We all slept a lot better and made it back to the car after following an obviously little used footpath that followed the line of the shore a lot more closely than the main path.
The next day in the shower I was scratching my leg. There was an annoying little scab on my shin. A scab with legs. My first tick. I’d seem one in Sweden crawling up my sock, but that was huge. This one was pretty small and I was not as repulsed as I thought I would be. I was really glad I had a tick-hook though- I’m not sure that it would have been so easy to remove with tweezers. It came out easy enough. I wish I’d taken a picture!

Saturday, 12 June 2010


Back to more adult matters. You may have picked up on the fact that I like the odd drink. Ideally on the hill I would always have a beer. It's a more relaxing drink and you can sip it and look at the view. The cans bust down to nothing and weigh less, so I'll often take a couple for the first night of a camp. They do weigh a lot when they're full though. I remember taking a trip early in my hiking career where I took 12 cans of beer plus all my water for an overnight. I quickly realised that I needed to reduce weight quickly and by the time I came to camp I was in a bit of a state. The clear winner on the weight front is spirits. Whisky is my drink of choice- the taste chimes nicely with the scents and atmosphere of the hills. I've been through a few methods for carrying. Weight wise, a 250ml coke bottle in plastic would win, but it seems like a bit of an insult to carry something so old in something so trashy-it's the same with wine, you don't want to drink a nice wine out of a disposable plastic cup.

I started off with the usual hip flask. This was given to me for my 21st. It's pretty much useless for camping trips. It only carries 75ml and weighs a backbreaking 144 grams. The opening is really small, you have to wait an aeon to get a decent mouthful. I keep it for weddings where carrying any more volume would be lethal.
The Sigg is my emotional favourite. It holds 300ml and only weighs 77 grams. When I bought it and Steph found out I'd spent ten pounds on something 'only to carry whisky!' she was a bit shocked. In actual fact, the quality of the Sigg means I would pay more. The finish is really nice, the mouth feel is good. I like staring into the redness after a few swigs...When I dug it out to weigh it for this post I felt a real nostalgia for it. I stopped carrying it for a few reasons. First off, there is a tendency for the whisky to gather in the grooves in the stopper. As well as the thread, there are a couple of side grooves. As the whisky dried, it left brown gunk that was hard to clean off. Secondly, I began to get concerned about whisky damaging the lining. No reason for this, just me being paranoid but I don't want bits of Sigg lining floating about in my whisky. Thirdly, I got the nalgene.

The Nalgene weighs 55 grams. 20 grams less than the Sigg. Although it is advertised as carrying 300ml, you can squeeze a fair bit more in if you fill it up right to the rim. The shape of it fits into a pack or a pocket better than the Sigg and while it is not as beautiful as the Sigg, it has a nice taper that makes it aesthetically pleasing-you don't feel like you're drinking out of 'just a plastic bottle'. The opening is just right for a good swig and because it's a clear plastic, you can see how much you have left. There are measurements up the sides so you can regulate your intake.

With the flask you also get a protector and a shot glass. I've never used these- The bottle itself seems plenty tough enough for what I put it through and each of my swigs seems to hold about an ounce, so why bother to measure it? More importantly, these additions take the weight up to 123 grams, the same weight as the next flask I got.
The final booze carrier I got was the GSI lexan flask. I think this is the old version, because the images I see on the internet now have a black outer, so they may have changed it now. I got this because I saw it reduced to £4 in a corner of a caravan shop rather than because I needed a new booze container. I did think that on longer trips I may need to carry more whisky, but having said that, I'd probably just buy another nalgene: two combined should carry an entire bottle. It holds 450ml. Overall, it has a feeling of cheapness about it. Edges are unfinished on the cap and the opening, so it's not particularly nice to drink from. The opening is just a little too wide so that you have to sip from it rather than swig. The cap holds an ounce measure, but as I've said, I'm not bothered about that. The actual lexan material is okay visually, but the label states that they can't guarantee to keep the material from tainting the flavour of your drink-the Nalgene claims to be taint free. Finally, because it's the old lexan, I guess it would be packed to the gills with BPA, probably not a good mix with whisky.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Solomon's first trip

The weather was perfect, the auspices were good and so we decided to give it a shot.The next job was to pick a location. I grew up in Blaenavon, near to Abergavenny. My mum used to push me in my buggy up to Keepers pond and Foxhunter’s grave on the Blorenge so there was a nice symmetry in choosing this as a spot. There was a further reason in that there is a carpark and a pretty flat walk of about twenty minutes to get to the summit of the Blorenge and on the map, there was a large flat area on the other side of the mound that forms the summit. There would be views over to the Sugarloaf and everything would be good. My mum would come along with us carrying a frying pan and some sausages and then head off while we bunked down. The best laid plans of mice and men…
We didn’t get going until really late- Solomon’s tea is at five o’clock and I was still finishing packing the bags at four. It’s a twenty minute drive from Newport to Foxhunter’s but that didn’t take account of the terrible traffic around Pontypool. The weather was very hot and Solomon was getting ratty. By the time we arrived at the carpark it was nearly half five. Steph was slightly concerned that the car would get broken into. It was a reasonable concern- the carpark is close to Blaenavon, not exactly a hub of youth entertainment and a natural spot for night time youth drinking. My mum had a good idea- to check for broken glass around the carpark:
‘There’s only one piece and it’s not window glass’
I went over to check. She was right. There was one piece. It was fused to the ground in the centre of the black outline left by a burnt out car. It was twenty to six. I decided not to mention it.
The next problem occurred when we tried to get Solomon moving. Whether it was because he was hungry or whether he was a bit freaked out by the sheer size of the space we were in, never having been on a mountain before, he decided to refuse to move. He just stood still and repeated the word ‘car’ over and over again. He finally consented to nannie carrying him and I put nannie’s pack on my front. By the time we had taken the wrong path for about ten minutes and had to turn back a phrase of Withnail’s was on repeat in my mind- ‘This is a terrible, terrible mistake’.
There had been extensive burning on the Blorenge the previous year. Everywhere was blackened and the scent of charcoal was heavy on the air. Solomon was walking now but very, very slowly. I decided to run ahead to find a camping spot. As I crested the summit I could see that it was going to be a lot harder than I had anticipated. The burnt area stretched in every direction and I wasn’t willing to pit the Hog’s ultralight groundsheet against the heather stumps. I left my pack at the summit and ran ahead. Finally I found a small area out of sight of the summit and passing walkers which would just about go. I ran back and collected the rest of the family. Solomon had found the summit cairn which is pretty big and provided ample rocks for him to climb. He’s really into climbing at the moment and we only managed to persuade him to move by pointing out the big rocks nearer to our campsite.
Finally, at about seven we managed to settle.It had taken us over an hour to cover what would normally take about 15-20 minutes. I fired up the stove and began frying sausages. Although I never went camping with my parents, we occasionally had ‘cooking picnics’ on the mountains. The skylarks were singing, a real sound of my childhood. Finally, I began to relax. The tent went up really easily, a bonus in poor weather but equally welcome now. Solomon’s Readybed also went up quickly. Using the supplied foot pump it took about five minutes. I’d added an extra thin layer from a Poundland sleepmat to combat convection issues and Solomon’s sleeping bag went on top. One thing which I had forgotten about but I found really annoying was the sheer profusion of stuffsacks. It’s all very well organising things into stuffsacks, but how do you organise them when they have served their purpose? Suddenly it occurred to me that another bonus of ultralight is a reduction in the amount of things you have to keep track of. No sleepsocks, no spare clothes, no towels and so-on. I resorted to my old trick of bunging everything into one stuffsack. It might take a while to find things but at least you know where they are. By this point everything was ready. We had sausages, beans and smash and I popped open a Guinness. There was a fantastic view across the valley to the Sugarloaf, the weather was still really warm and Solomon was having a great time.
I cleared up while Steph got Solomon ready for bed. We’d brought a Hi-Gear folding bowl to wash him in but it was virtually useless. The amount of water needed to fill it was huge, and we ended up just washing him using the bottom half of the Brunton cookset. What was really good was the Trekmates micro towel. It dried well, felt nice against the skin and dried in next to no time. While Steph read him a story I walked my mum back to the car.
When I arrived back at the tent, Steph was just finishing up. Apparently, the only thing that had convinced Solomon into bed was the Thomas the tank engine picture- I was very glad to have carried that weight. We sat in silence outside the tent for a while, waiting for him to settle. It was a pretty big test for him, as he’s never slept in a bed before and this was an unfamiliar situation. After a bit of shifting about, he settled and we could relax. I got out my super ultralight playing cards and Steph got into my Minim ultra sleeping bag to keep warm. She was already wearing her Craghoppers down jacket and some merino long-johns but she runs very cold. The sun set was great, the lights of Abergavenny slowly flicked on and everything was right with the world.
I’d like to say we slept well but we didn’t. The pitch was pretty sloping and after trying to sleep with our feet facing down the slope we had to change. Luckily, we are small enough and the Hog big enough to make this possible. I took the bottom spot but that didn’t prevent Steph getting beaten around the head by Solomon flailing in his sleep. The sides of the Readybed aren’t high enough to prevent him flipping out and although it’s not high enough to hurt him, it would be enough to wake him. Steph swapped around and we settled down again. I never sleep too well on the first night of camping anyway, so I spent a lot of the night listening to podcasts and checking Solomon hadn’t fallen out. Still despite our fears and even though he spent half the night half out of his bag, he didn’t wake up and in fact slept extremely well. Steph was warm enough which was a bonus and said she probably would have slept a lot better on a flatter pitch.
We woke about seven. Solomon drank his milk from my swedish folding cup that he'd taken a liking to and then we all ate porridge from a bag.I took Solomon for a climb on the rocks and then we packed up. It took us an hour to walk back even with Solomon on my shoulders for a while. I took his first trig point photo (another reminder of my childhood!) and then we made it back to the car which was still there and untouched.
So was it worth it? Nothing is ever as perfect as it appears in my mind. As a gear shakedown, it worked extremely well and, more importantly, it showed it was possible. Solomon really enjoyed himself for most of it and with better time management, it would have been easy. It shows that with a child that young it pays to take what you think is possible (and in my mind, what I had planned was conservative!) and do a lot less. The ultralight simplicity is really worth it. Would I go again? Defininitely! It pays to take less, and next time, there is less that I would take next time. The bowl will be the first thing to go. Stuff sacks aren’t worth it either- I’ll use less and bigger sacks. Steph does need to see what is worth taking as well, but that is a product of experience. A lot of over-preparation is due to fear of the unknown and the more we do it, the better our routines will be. The Hog was fantastic-stable easy to pitch and absolutely massive. The only thing that needs attention is the zip, which you have to be a bit careful with to avid it catching on the storm flap. With regards to the rest of the equipment, a few things definitely need to change. The Jam was just about big enough and carried the weight, but next time I’ll take my old Karrimor sack to give me more flexibility. If we go a lot , it would be worth investing in a big but light sack. Steph could certainly do with it. The other thing that was useless was the Colemen F1. I’ve had a problem with the plastic components melting before. This time it locked up completely. I also rediscovered why I got so annoyed with gas stoves after it toppled over three times, losing all the water. I was kind of glad when it broke. I’m thinking of getting a remote canister stove, maybe the Edelrid Opilio. The weight’s pretty good and I can use it in really cold conditions when I need to.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


I had a look around for various bodge trolley options on the high street. Nothing really seemed to fit the bill and I wasn't going to get anything proper sorted within the week although PTC's wheely looks promising. On Friday I got Solomon into the carrier and weighed it. It was 17kg. I still hadn't got any water, food or general toddler detritus in either of our packs. There was no way this was going to happen, especially when there was an ominous muscular pain in my shoulder after putting the pack on my back. It was time for a radical re-think. Seeing as how I would only be able to stagger as far as Solomon could walk anyway, Solomon was going to have to walk. Out with the baby carrier and in with the Golite Jam. And everything fitted. I could take more weight in the final carry and my baseweight was down to 6kg. I'd taken the flysheet and inner of the tent, and spare clothes for Solomon and Steph out of Steph's bag and added them to mine. but I hadn't put in nappies, wipes etc to either of our bags. Steph's baseweight was about 7kg, but her pack alone weighs 3kg and there wasn't going to be any consumables added. I could carry the water and food and be just about within a comfortable weight for the Jam.

We were good to go. Until it came to today and the weather gods served us up sluicing rain and chilly temperatures. The weather is supposed to improve later in the week. We'll postpone.