Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 3

Day 5

It was cold last night…the wind was quite bitter and even in the car it was cold. But I got what I needed and that was a restful and half-decent night’s sleep despite the mattress in the car being a little too hard. 

The nice thing about staying in the car was that I didn’t have to wake up in the cold (or as cold as a tent) and didn’t have a condendsation-covered tent to pack away. The midges were out in force though. After a quick trip to the bathroom I had to don my headnet as I went through my remaining food and left most of it in the car…it just wasn’t needed. It made my pack pretty light even with two liters of water.

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I was feeling good and strong despite not having eaten anything for breakfast; I still didn’t have much of an appetite. We headed out along the old military road at 8:30am and followed the track out of the trees and across creeks for many miles. We passed numerous waterfalls but I didn’t take pictures of every one…just the prettiest of the ones I saw.

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The hiking was easy as we climbed further into the Scottish highlands, and wide gravel tracks made that possible. We ducked under the railway and the busy A road before climbing a steep hill where Cody got stuck going over a stile…they aren’t easy for dogs, especially those with packs…and there was no way around.

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The old military road hugged the hillside which was peppered with sheep. The dogs behaved themselves and kept to the trail…they were interested of course. We had to contend with a second style but it was managed with a couple of amused on-lookers who were taking a snack break.

Suddenly we were at Creag an Taghein and the turn off to Crianlarich. It was the quickest 6 miles I think I’ve ever done…it went by in a blur. I was feeling pretty good and was sipping water frequently again vs chugging it occasionally like I normally do. I was probably not intaking enough water but it was better to be a little dehydrated that way than to be disgorging it all in excess.

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The sunny weather promised by the weather forecast didn’t materialize but the cloud cover made for a good hiking temperature.

As soon as we turned away from the turn-off to Crianlarich the climbing started and it was fairly consistently up for a mile or so, with a few downs. A slightly-creepy looking hiker was at the top of the first hill and I wondered if he belonged to the tent/camp that gave me the heebie-jeebies on night one.

At the apex of the climb the wind really picked up, but it wasn’t consistent. While it kept the midges away it also meant I couldn’t find the right clothing combination to stay at an appropriate temperature yet again. It seems to be the norm for Scotland.

With many ups and downs (mostly downs now) we finally descended back to the main road. A lone wild-camper was below the trail, and ahead of us we were rewarded with the sight of a very interesting arched stone bridge.

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We had to make a mad dash across the road from the bridge as the road was BUSY! but at least there were warnings to the drivers…which I didn’t trust at all. The trail then curved in a loop through several sheep and highland cattle farms, and where St Fillian’s Priory had once stood as well as an old graveyard.

The ruins of the Augustinian Prior date back to the 13th century and was endowed by Robert the Bruce in 1317. The graveyard itself dates back to the beginnings of the early Celtic church in the 8th century.

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I leashed the dogs through a field with lambs close to the trail but that didn’t last long. Despite how well behaved my dogs are, when we are close to farms I try to respect the farmer’s nerves and leash the dogs even if I don’t deem it necessary. It’s what I would hope others would do. We also got our first views of highland cattle…always cool.

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We headed back towards the road and thankfully didn’t have to cross it again. We passed by the location of the Battle of Dalrigh. This was the location where Robert the Bruce was ambushed by Clan MacDougall in the summer of 1306; caught by surprise the battle was a short, frantic engagement and Robert’s remaining horsemen were killed and several of his key allies were injured. Bruce went into hiding and two years later he went on to defeat the MacDougalls at the Battle of the Pass of Brander.

From the site of the Battle of Dalrigh we passed the Lochan of the Lost Sword where legend has it that Bruce and his army threw their weapons into the small lochan.

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A short meander took us from there through Tyndrum Community Woods and it was here that I started having some serious pain my left foot again.

It was not the same pain I had coming out of Balmaha and loosening my shoe laces didn’t help this time. It was tough to walk on and I hoped it was only temporary and something a night of rest would help. If Gastroenteritis didn’t stop me, a little pain in my foot certainly wouldn’t.

With a little limping we arrived at Tyndrum By The Way…the only overnight cabin stop I had booked and non-tent night I had planned for. So far I has spent more nights not in my tent than in my tent and I was a little disappointed as that had not been my intention for the trip at all.

I picked up my resupply box with shampoo and soap and a razor, and the dogs’ food as well as some extra food for me (which I didn’t really need). A shower and laundry were called for and I got both done quickly (they rent towels which was great, and provide laundry soap in the cost of the washer). It was nice to be clean, with clean clothes.

A walk with the dogs was brief for them to relieve themselves and I headed into Tyndrum to find something palatable to eat. I had barely eaten all day (a Belvita snack and some naan bread) and I ordered a burger. It was a safe choice but I only managed half, and barely touched the sweet potato fries that I had paid extra for. With 96 miles of trail, and 55 hiked so far, I was starting to worry about my calorie needs with lack of food intake over the past three days…I’m already a pretty skinny person.

A warm night was spent reading in my little camping cabin as I checked out the map for the following day. The weather forecast looked decent and I was ready to see the remoteness of Rannoch Moor.

Day 6

Despite having a mattress to sleep on and a warm, dry space to stay at Tyndrum By The Way I only got a half-decent night of sleep and was awake before 7am. Cody hadn’t settled well and his constant movement awoke me several times in the night.

I enjoyed the three diet Pepsi cans I had stashed in my resupply box and took my time packing my gear away. Baggage Freedom had agreed to pick up my box for me again as I wouldn’t need everything in it…I had paid for the full baggage delivery service even though I wasn’t actually using it.

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It was a slow start out of the campground but we were finally hiking around 9am and the weather wasn’t nearly as nice as I had hope it would be. Rain was drizzle (or what I like to call “air rain” and intermittent, and then windy but not really cold, which made it very hard to decide on clothing.

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The trail followed the old military road from Tyndrum to the Bridge of Orchy, crossing under the road and rail line a couple of times. We were basically following the same line as the modern contraptions but over different routes.

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A truck honked as we climbed away from Tyndrum and I waved. I heard him honk again for the two groups of hikers ahead of me. I’m guessing this was a friendly gesture.

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As we climbed and descended, mostly gently, the views gradually expanded. The peaks appeared and reappeared as clouds flowed like water over their lofty heights. Rain came and went but never for long and never in more than drizzling form. And despite the rain and the biting wind it felt like a good day.

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Quickly the miles passed as we walked by black-faced ewes and their lambs and herds of multi-shaded red highland cattle. Slugs were once again in abundance but the only wildlife we really saw or heard were the song birds. The sun might not have been out but the vivid yellow of the gorse flowers almost made it feel like it was.

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We descended into the Bridge of Orchy and stopped for lunch at the bar. Dogs were once again permitted and we hid ourselves in the perfect corner. I had a scrumptious brie and onion panini (could have done with some chicken but still good) that hit the spot and enjoyed a local beer…my first one on the trail since I got sick. It seemed to go down well.

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Another hiker from Germany I had connected with south of Tyndrum joined me and we chatted for a while as we ate. She had been someone I had run into yesterday and she had been struggling mentally with the trail…so I commiserated with her and told her my gruesome tale (before she ate!!!).

An hour of warmth and recuperation made it easier to find the motivation to get moving despite the beer telling us to take a nap. I bid the other hiker farewell and headed out to cover another two miles to the Inveroran Hotel.

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A steep climb was followed by open views at the top. I paused often to capture the moment, both in my memory and in my camera. But now, up high and out of the trees the wind just got worse and I was constantly fighting to stay straight as I walked. I wasn’t feeling hopeful about camping on Rannoch Moor.

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A quick stop at the hotel for an apple juice (my beer-filled gut being restricted by my pack belt was not liking the carbonation of the beer and was protesting) and to fill up with water for camping took us until 3pm. I wanted to do another few miles and my aim was for Ba Bridge.

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The wind was still kicking butt when we left but we were soon a little sheltered by the trees and I removed some clothing layers…I didn’t want to be sweating out there. We were now following one of Talbot’s Roads that led from Inveroran up to Glen Coe.

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I was feeling good, despite the extra weight of water in my pack, and poured out a few tunes as we hiked. We passed the creepy guy again. He turned and looked at us once as we approached then kept his back turned…barely grunted a “hello” when I said hi. Weird. We also passed the noisy group of German’s we had passed earlier in the had who had been playing music on an external speaker…how rude.

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Another mile down the trail and sadly my GE infection apparently wasn’t completely over. I had the sudden urgent need to find a secluded spot and dig a hole. I found a place but it also looked like everyone else had used the whole area as their toilet with no thought of packing out or burying anything. I have sadly seen a LOT of the dreaded charmin blooms on this trail…I think there needs to be a public awareness campaign about TP and burying waste. No one wants to see hundreds of charmin blooms on a wilderness hike.

Back to me. The urge happened several times over the next few hours and I had to deal with it as it happened. I was just hoping I wouldn’t tun out of toilet paper. Finally I remembered to take some Imodium…dumb broad. At least this time I was able to keep it down. (Oh and I did bury everything I used, or produced).

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So despite the intestinal problems I was thoroughly loving gentle walk across Rannoch Moor. The views were stunning and the weather was constantly changing from sun to clouds to rain and back again. I reached Ba Bridge and wasn’t feeling inspired; the wind was still strong and a particularly heavy band of rain came through. It was also still fairly early. I decided to hike on and to aim for Kingshouse. I felt like it was a safer bet than risking the weather.

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Of course with this decision in mind I dumped half of my water so I didn’t have to carry it as it was certainly heavy. And then, a little over half a mile further north I came across the most perfect campsite. It was sheltered, below an old stone bridge, and next to a creek. I climbed down to see if it was sheltered enough and immediately decided to stay.

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You couldn’t beat the views from the campsite…backed by Black Mount and other peaks to the west, and looking out over the moorland and winding waterways to the east…it was perfect. Occasionally the sun would come out for a moment and turn select areas to gold, or highlightied the last remnants of snow in hidden fissures.

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The ground was wet but that was to be expected and I was glad to have a DCF tent floor…anything else would likely have soaked through in time if no ground sheet was used. The creek beside the tent was beautiful and ran through short cleft in the rocks before diving into a deep pool…a place that looked refreshing for a hot day.

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It had still been early when we had arrived…about 5:30pm…so I took a short walk to take some pictures and then read in the tent for a while to stay warm. Finally it got too cold to do even that and we made final preparations for bed in the still-daylight of 9:20pm.

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Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 2

Day 3

Well I thought I had a goodnight of sleep but I was definitely feeling drained and on the lethargic side. I attributed it to being day 3 and lack of caffeine (normal on day 3) but I struggled to cover the 7 rough miles to Inversnaid.

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At the edge of the trail by the Rowardennan Youth Hostel, and looking out over the loch we passed the Loch Lomond National Park Memorial Sculpture. The park is dedicated to those who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars and was created out of the former Rowardennan Estate with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

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The trail was undulating and not particularly easy under foot, reminding me more of trails I had done in the US than those of the earlier part of the trail, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t hiked before with relative ease.

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It took me 5 hours to do 7 miles (very unusual for me). The highlight of the entire day were the hillsides that were absolutely carpeted in bluebells…they looked almost other-worldly.

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The trail was beautiful but it was already starting to get a little old to be following the same body of water. I was yearning for good trails and differeing views, not to mention I was desperate for some solitude. This was the first day I was noticing the popularity of the West Highland Way and I was craving the wilderness and solitude I was familiar with on other backpacking trips I had done.

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I was finally glad to take a break at the hotel and grab a diet coke. I also got a piece of lemon drizzle cake but within the first bite I knew I couldn’t stomach it. I forced down two more bites before accepting how nauseous it was make me.

I chatted with my campsite mate (Bronwyn from Germany) from the first night and said hello to the American ladies from the second night at the Rowardennan Hotel) before setting off on the trail again. I wasn’t feeling much better although the caffeine did help my headache some, and the further I walked the worse I felt despite the waterfalls and the unique tables and chairs.

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I was struggling and with just a mile under my feet it hit me with violent abandon and up came everything I had eaten and drank since the morning. And it kept coming. When it was over I stood there with legs like jelly but I initially felt a little better and thought that was going to be it and that it would be okay to continue. Then the other end hit me…several times and I had to scramble up steep hillsides to find a rock or tree to hide behind. I was not doing good but I thought I could make it to Inverarnan.

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Another mile down the trail and I took some Imodium but within another 15 minutes of hiking I was nauseous again and back up the Imodium came along with, well, I’m not sure what as I could have sworn it all came up the during the first wave.

A group from Germany came up behind me and asked if I was okay. I wasn’t sure at all and again my legs were violently shaking to the point I could barely stand. They offered to walk with me to my now-planned campsite below Creag a’ Mhadaigh and I was appreciative of their kind offer. I have never felt so death-like.

At camp I laid down for a while and then got my tent up to take a nap. Thrice more I had to escape my tent in a hurry and I finally called for emergency help. I was in a bad way and was concerned about my hydration levels as I couldn’t keep even water down. I was feeling dizzy and slightly delirious and I knew, even without much of a rational thought in my head, that it would be dangerous to stay where I was.

I had some cell service so didn’t use my SOS device, but of course that meant not being able to provide GPS co-ordinates to my location. Thankfully I knew where I was on the map (despite my brain malfunctioning) and while I butchered the names I was able to explain where I was.

Eight burly mountain rescue men showed up in the rescue boat to help, packed up my gear and helped me into the boat. I was so dizzy and light-headed by that point I could barely move on my own. They took care of the dogs and we took a 15 minute boat ride back down Loch Lomond (which of course Cody HATED) to a waiting ambulance. I was given some fluids and anti-nausea medication before being taken to the hospital south of Glasgow where I ended up feeling like a pincushion.

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What I had was acute gastroenteritis and they pumped more fluids in me, made me rest and brought my temperature down. And because I didn’t have any other place to stay other than my car the Dr kept me in overnight (albeit woken very early) so I could at least get a little sleep.

Day 4

One of the guys with the mountain rescue crew had kindly taken the dogs home with him so they were well loved and taken care of overnight. As soon as I got back to my car (an early-morning bus and two trains later) I went to pick the dogs up and headed for Inverarnen with the idea of doing some light hiking back to the spot I had been picked up the previous night; I wanted to check I was okay to continue and a short day with a day pack would do just that for me as I certainly wasn’t feeling 100%.

I paid for a campsite and pitched the tent, just to get it to dry out in the sun and breeze, and it dried quickly. I packed it away again and updated my family with everything that had happened, my plan for the day and hopefully the rest of the trail.

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A fairly moderate climb took us through more bluebell woods, shaded with the multi-faceted leaves that were highlighted perfectly in the sunshine…and that was why I didn’t want to waste the day. It was the first real day of sun we had seen.

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Feral goats were eating just below the path and of course Kye and Cody were pretty interested in them, but I convinced them we couldn’t stay and so on we went towards Dubh Lochan.

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The climb took us up by Cnap Mor and past the circular lochan before dropping us back down to one of the most amazing campsites I have ever seen…it was perfect and flat, with a nice fire pit and right on the edge of the loch with some pretty awesome views. We once again bumped into the American ladies and I told them what had happened the previous day as I had mentioned that I wasn’t feeling great when I saw them at the Inversnaid Hotel.

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We marched onwards, taking our time as I didn’t want to push myself. I felt the occasional cramp in my stomach or minor wave of nausea but it didn’t last and eventually those feelings because less frequent. I drank sparingly, taking small sips more often rather than chugging it as I usually do. I think it helped.

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We climbed again, past Doune Bothy and an old farm house that had seen better days. The sun was a pleasure to walk in for a change but the wind was sharp and I was constantly removing or adding a layer. A small saddle took us east of Craeg a’ Mhadaidh and the path led us through the trees and over numerous small creeks. And after 3 miles we finally came out to the clearing I had pitched my tent the precious evening and then rescued by the wonderful boat crew.

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I did a quick camp check to see if anything had been left behind or forgotten (other than most of my insides). There was nothing, not even a scrap of paper or tent peg (they did a great job packing up fast even if the result wasn’t pretty).

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I rested a while but was glad to be feeling decent and after 15 minutes we headed back to Inverarnen. The whole route of 6 miles had taken about 4 hours…not my normal speed but I also hadn’t been trying to maintain my normal pace either. I was just happy to be walking on the trail.

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On the way back I was lucky enough to come across a slow worm (a legless lizard, so neither a worm nor a snake even though it looks like one) basking in the sun on the trail, and a toad, and a very tiny spider hanging out in the mouth of a bluebell…sometimes it’s the little things. Of course I took the opportunity to take a couple of pictures before encouraging them off the trail so they didn’t get stepped on by the group behind me as the blended so well.

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Back at the campsite I read the WHW guide that I’d been missing and tried to gauge mileage and potential campsites ahead. Unfortunately Thursday night put me right in the middle of Rannoch Moor…not a good place to be if the weather turned…so I was hoping the weather forecast would stay positive through Friday.

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With the dogs fed I decided it was time to try and eat something more substantial than the handful of shortbread cookies I’d had earlier and headed to the bar/restaurant with the pups. The lightest, easiest thing on the menu seemed to be a veggie dish/starter (vegetable pakora) so I opted for that and some naan bread. I ate most of it but didn’t want to push the limits of what my stomach could take and saved the rest of the naan bread for later.

The lovely American laides found me sitting outside in the sun, in my winter jacket, braving the chill wind. They were staying at a B&B across the river but the food at Beinglass Farm was much better (apparently) than the Drover’s Inn. So they ate and we chatted for a while before heading our separate ways. I hoped to see them in Tyndrum, but this was the last night we would see each other.

With the chill in the wind I was a little glad to be sleeping in my car and hoped I would get a good night of sleep…I desperately needed it.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 1

Day 1

Lots of traffic out of the south-east at rush hour made for a longer-than-anticipated drive to Birmingham where I spent the night in a lovely fellow Adventure Queen’s driveway (you’ll have to Google who the Adventure Queens are) who had offered me a place to park as a stop over on Friday night. However not only did I park for the night but I also enjoyed a couple of hours of great conversation and a glass of wine.

Sleep evaded me most of the night, and what sleep I did get was fitfull and restless. I was up with the birds and heading north a few minutes after 5am. It had rained during the night and rained off and on during the 5 hours drive to Glasgow until finally settling in 30 miles south of the city. I wasn’t feeling good about the impending hike in rain.

I dropped off a resupply box with my return shuttle driver and found a parking space at the train station…the place most recommended by, well, everyone.

With the drizzly rain still lingering I knew I’d have to suck it up so I started getting ready and a little before noon we were standing at the obelisk at the official start of the West Highland Way. It felt a little surreal to be standing there, having seen this icon in so many pictures and videos of people who had done the trail before me….similar to the what I assume it must be like for those at the southern (or northern) monument of the PCT.

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We followed the signs and were quickly away from the town center and walking well-gravelled paths alongside the creek. I had worn my full rain suit but was soon dying of heat despite the coolness of the day and the rain. I switched out to my poncho and was quickly feeling better. 

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The drizzle continued for a couple of hours and obscured the views that should have been stunning. It was hard to look around much when I had my head down most of the time trying to stay dry. The dog’s raincoats were doing their job for the most part but I quickly realized that my measuring had been sub-par and they were too short for their bodies.

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We meandered mostly through farmland and crossed a few roads, finally enjoying some rain-free hiking tine during the afternoon which held until camp.

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The miles flew by under our feet as the trail was mostly a wide travel track with little elevation variation and easy to walk on. Livestock surrounded on either side and despite the lack of views I stopped to appreciate the little things, like the stunning pink flowers alongside the path, or the first views over Loch Lommond framed by shrouded peaks and vivid yellow gorse.

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As we hiked up the road towards we encountered this cool-looking bridge but it was only when I got closer to it and peered intently at the gaping black maw that I saw how cool it actually was.

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I had encountered a few backpackers and a handful of hut-to-hut (or B&B/hotal to hotel) hikers, and many backpackers peeled off at Dryman Camping, a mile or so before the town. But it was way to early to stop…not to mention I find it silly to pay for camping when there’s so much of it available for free in Scotland.

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So on I went. I had intended to blip into Drymen for water but a convenient creek at the turn off saved me the extra mile. It was quite chilly and my hands weren’t happy with dealing with cold water and the breeze. I filtered 3 liters as I knew we’d be dry camping…and dang was my pack suddenly very heavy, which wasn’t helped by having to leash the dogs through a sheep field and then on a short road walk.

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Finally we were in an area where we could camp and I started looking for a good, sheltered spot. The first one was promising but the neighboring tent just looked a little sketchy and didn’t give me positive feelings…it wasn’t a backpacking tent and I didn’t fell comfortable with staying there.

So on I went for another half mile before settling on another sheltered spot in a large stand of pine trees. Two other tents occupied a couple of spots but there was plenty of room. I struggled to get my tent up as it is difficult to figure out the correct orientation for it, especially in a tight spot, but I got it done.

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One of my neighbors came over to chat as I was making dinner and the midges just swarmed us. I doused myself in Smidge (something that was SWORN to work, so I didn’t bring a headnet) but it was useless so I quickly ate, and walked (to keep from being eaten myself) as I chatted and then be both headed for the safety of our tents to get away from the flying evil midges. I was really glad to have brought my Kindle but was kicking myself for not having brought the West Highland Way guidebook.

Day 2

I slept fairly decent last night…once I actually got to sleep. Initially I was lulled into relaxation by the gentle sounds of light rain tapping on the tent. It was quickly followed by the sounds of loud voices, distant fireworks and neighboring campers making constant bird calls (obviously fake). I awoke to the dawn chorus again but covered my head with my coat and fell asleep again until 7am when the light sound rain was enough to break my slumber.

I packed as much away as I could inside the tent before emerging just as the rain was tapering off. The tent was soaked and cold to pack away but the midges were already out so I quickly packed it away without even bothering to dry toweling it off a little. I was missing having even a little breeze to keep the buggers at bay. I didn’t realize how much water was held by the tent until I put it up again…no wonder my pack felt so heavy.

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We followed the forest road north once again and said “good morning” to a few groups of other backpackers. We then had to turn west and take the road alternate as it was still May and Conic Hill was closed to those with dogs through April and May for lambing. And while it was a bit of a wrench not to do the whole route, doing the rest of it with Kye and Cody more than made up for it…not to mention that it was a steep climb and was socked in by clouds so there would have been no good views from the top.

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We took the road walk to Balmaha which thankfully had a sidewalk all the way and wandered into the town a little footsore after pounding tarmac for two miles. I ate a quick snack, said a quick “hello” to other WHW hikers I passed at the cafe and got some water and then we pressed on. We paused at the Tom Weir statue in the park to read about the iconic local hiking legend and mountain man who had been instrumental in protecting some of Scotland’s most scenic areas.

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Blamaha sits on the edge of Loch Lomond at the south end and it felt a little surreal that we would be walking by this body of water for the better part of two days.

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We hit our first moderate climb out of the trail (since we didn’t do Conic Hill) and was surrounded by bluebells…the smell of them was all-encompassing in the much-appreciated sunshine that was now gracing us. At the top of the hill it was finally time to remove my waterproof pants and it was such a relief to be rid of them.

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The scenery didn’t change much and we paused only briefly at Cashel to eat lunch and grab a midge net for my head…I didn’t want to suffer through another night again. I was really glad that most places seem to carry these things, even if they are at slightly inflated prices.

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Trees surrounded us, bluebells carpeted the floor and the lake guided us onwards constantly to our left. It didn’t change much. It was also around this time that I started to get some sharp stabbing pains on the inside of my left foot. I had not stepped badly or anything I could recall but it got worse with each step until it felt like my foot was on fire. I paused and it went away but as soon as I started walking again the cycle of pain started over again.

With a brief thought I questioned my shoes and paused, while fighting off midges, to loosen my left shoe. Neither was over-tight (had numbness issues with that before) but apparently the laces were pressing on something just right to cause pain and as soon as they were looser the pain ceased. Crisis averted. 

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At the top of a steep climb and a hundred or more steps, and as I paused for a bite and a drink of water, another hiker passed us. I hadn’t seen too many hikers up to this point and we chatted for a bit…this was his first long-distance trail and he was struggling a little, but enjoying it anyway.

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We came across some permitted campsites at Sallochy and I had to double check the name of the place we had a permit for. We were way too far south to be stopping already and the map confirmed we still had a couple of miles to go.

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At about 2pm we reached the campsite I had booked for the night. Loch Lomond is one of the few places in Scotland that restricts dispersed camping due to the area’s popularity and a permit is required to camp in one of a handful of locations along the loch . It was very early but it gave me a good chance to get the tent set up and to let it dry out, and just as it was up a very considerate breeze picked up to help.

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With now 6 hours to kill until bed time I put my water bottles in my pack and headed a half mile up the trail to the Rowardennan Hotel. I grabbed a bite to eat and drank a couple of good beers while chatting with some other WHW hikers, including two lovely American women from Arizona (whose names I forgot) and before too long it was 6pm and I headed back to camp to cook dinner and read a book.

Rangers showed up around 7pm to check my permit, and other campers came in about 8 although I was well ensconced in my tent by that time and didn’t even poke my head out until I had to take the dogs out at 9:30pm.

Three Days in the Brecon Beacons, April 2019

Day 1

A 5:45am start was not an ideal time to start a long day but with a 180 mile drive to the start of the trail I didn’t have much of a choice.

I had packed everything the night before, including my food bag which meant I ended up forgetting the cheese I bought for lunches. I only realized this half way to Wales and had to make a slight detour to pick some up or I wouldn’t have had enough food.

After a little bit of driving around the tiny village of Llangynidyr I finally found the parking lot I had been told about and met up with Nigel, one of two people who were joining me on the hike.

Within 20 minutes Rikka arrived off the bus. She wasn’t feeling great after a late night bus ride from London so wasn’t hopeful about the trip.

With bags on our backs we followed the road a short way and finally turned onto a track that led up through farm land towards Tor Y Foel. We made the decision to climb over the peak rather than skirting, a decision I was regretting about half way up.

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The sun was brutally beating down on us and we were all worried about our water supplies. The views from the top made the climb worth it and we took a break for lunch while absorving the wide panorama of peaks and valleys.

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We poured over the map for a while before deciding to do our route backwards. It was a better choice for water and for camping options.

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We descended Tor Y Foel and followed a track around peaks and above the reservoir before turning into a deep notch carved between two points. Sheep surrounded us and wild ponies chomped grass as we passed by, barely casting us a glance, and two lizards seemed to be in a weird battle of teeth.

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At a trail junction we turned right and headed across the wide open moorland where the camping would have been perfect…if there had been water. It was here that Rikka decided that she wanted to do her own thing and she stayed behind as we continhed across the heathland and down into the valley towards the reservoir.

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Nigel and I chatted as we left Rikka alone, a little worried as she didn’t have a map or know the area. She knew the way back though. (She was fine and met up with Nigel for another hike on the Monday I believe).

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As we neared the lake, with the sun sparkling off it like a thousand diamonds, we passed a cafe and stopped for an ice cream and a coffee…one of the joys of hiking in the UK…and we made a rough plan for the rest if the day.

The trail paralleled a narro-guage track used by the Brecon Beacons Railway, a tourist-type steam locomotive that provides scenic tours. They were done for the day but we had heard the whistle earlier as we hiked.

The trail widened to a gravel path and and it was moderately busy, and as I usually do I tried to be polite and step off the trail with the dogs. All went well until the dirt collapsed underneath my foot and I was knee deep in a hole. Graceful it wasn’t. Thankfully it wasn’t muddy or any deeper, no did it tear my pants or get me too dirty…just wounded my pride a little, but at those times you just have to laugh.

A brief stop for a pint in Ponsticil, where I chatted with a couple of other backpackers, killed some time as we waited for the day to wane a little and then we backtracked slightly, climbing high above the manicured fields to find a campsite for the night.

An old, grass-covered quarry that was hidden from sight made a promising camp location and we found nothing more suitable after a quick look around. Pitches were flat but the ground beneath the grass was nothing but rocks which made pitching the tents difficult…tougher for me than for Nigel as his tent was freestanding where as mine needs good stake points to stay up.

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We both finally got out tents up after I suffered a minor tent stake injury that had blood gushing from a sliced fibger wound. Oops. It is has never taken me so long to get a tent up but this one was also fairly new to me and I’d only put it up a couple of times in the park.

With tents up we got dinner going and I fed the dogs just as a sheep was peering curiously over the edge of the quarry. Several more joined it and just as the sky was getting dark a very vocal ram stood on the edge and yelled at us for 10 minutes…I swear he was rally the troops for a night raid on the camp. None of the sheep looked impressed that we were there. (You can just see one on the cliff edge).

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We chatted for a while but it was getting chilly with the wind, despite our sheltered spot, and with the light leaking from the sky it was time to retire to the cozy confines of our tents to hopefully get some sleep. Planes, sheep and a lone owl seranaded us as we closed our eyes for sleep.

Day 2

I’m not sure I’ve ever slept so badly on the first night of a trip. I rarely sleep well but never badly. I was still up early as hawks screamed overhead disrupting our sleep. I dozed a little longer until the hawks returned and continued their incessant screeching.

We got packed and headed back down the mountain, stopping to get some water downstream from the waste water treatment facility…not the best location in my opinion, but we needed water and there wasn’t much choice other than the creek.

Of course as we climbed away from the valley we came across a free-running small creek. We dumped our water and re-filled even though it was probably completely unnecessary…it was all psycological.

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We followed a gravel track through the pines for a while; dense, moss-shrouded pines that were reminiscent of Mirkwood…full of magic and mystery.

We turned left up a track…the one we thought we were supposed to take but the fence-crossing was terrible and we were soon in some very wet and boggy terrain. Eventually we found the path we should have been on by a bridge…we had just left the road too early and missed a small waterfall at the same time.

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A long gradual climb…and I mean an all day climb…took us towards Corn Du and Pen Y Fan. It was a little used way to get to the top of the highest point in southern Wales but it was definitely more gradual and less populated than the main route.

A quick lunch break in the rapidly-disappearing shade provided us with some sustenance for the climb ahead as we trudged ever-upward in the broiling sun. We were starting to feel like a baked cake in the oven.

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When we finally hit the trig point and the edge of the escarpment we were rewarded with a breeze and stunning views of Pen Y Fan and Corn Du. And of course there were now 100s of people.

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The slog continued upwards and we walked slowly, trying to keep ourselves from over-doing it in the heat. Many comments were overheard about the dogs’ packs…all of them positive and most of them amused or impressed.

Nigel took a break for lunch where the trails converged with the main trail up to the peaks from the road below. The hilltops looked like swarming anthills with as many people were around the tops of each apex, and yet more kept coming.

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We had initially planned to camp at the lake below Corn Du and summit the mountains the next day but ut was still early so we braved the crowds and climbed to the top of Pen Y Fan…it felt like Disneyland and there were even lines of people waiting to take their picture at the sign at the top. I didn’t bother…I’d been there and done it and that was all that mattered.

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A steep incline led us down the other side of Pen Y Fan and the trail, despite so-called “improvements” was an absolute nightmare to walk on. As we were no longer camping at the lake we were heading for an empty reservoir area another couple of miles along the trail where we could find water. A few puddles along the path seemed to provide a nursery for hundreds of tadpoles…I’m not sure how long they can survive in puddles like that without rain but there were a few seep-springs that kept the puddles topped up.

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With a few cows barring our path we turned down towards the abandoned reservoir basin and checked out numerous possible campsites before settling on one beside the creek. Kye found a new obsession as we discovered the dozens of frogs in the creek, many of them involved in orgy-balls and other mating rituals…it all looked very bizarre to see large clumps of frogs all entwined.

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We were still early to camp so got set up early (not always ideal in the UK but we took a risk). Our lovely camp area soon became everyone-else’s go to camping location and another four groups set-up in the area although not close to us.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening working on a crossword, cooking dinner and playing in the creek with the dogs, all below the looming presence of Pen Y Fan and above the medieval-looking dam wall.

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Day 3

I slept much better last night. It was colder but being snuggled down in my 10* quilt I didn’t notice it. What I did notice was the heavy dew/condensation that completely covered the tent, inside and out. Even the inner part of my tent had some condensation…and having a double wall tent makes it that much more difficult to wipe down the inside of the fly.

I was up quickly to find a semi-secluded spot for morning needs and the sun followed me back to camp. It warmed quickly and I was soon out of my fleece base layer. With a quick wipe down the tent dried fairly quickly and we were soon packed up.

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We first had to climb out of the reservoir on a very rough trail that had seen some serious abuse under the feet of cattle. It was rough going and boggy in places, and I was thankful to reach the old roman road that climbed more gently upwards to the point we had left it yesterday.

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Another steep climb took us behind Fan Y Big and back onto the Beacons Way. The views were spectacular behind us and while I kept stopping to give my sore legs a break it was great opportunity to appreciate the beauty we were surrounded by.

People were few and far between now we were away from the main attractions of Pen Y Fan and Corn Du. We weren’t on the Beacons Way for long as we followed the edge of the steep cliffs around in a horse-shoe, stopping briefly for a water break.

The trail undulated for a while which made the hiking enjoyable and the views easy to look at and take in while we walked.

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We reach a monument at Waun Rydd that had been cobbled back together in a haphazard way after it had been damaged by weather or vanadalism. It left one wondering why someone bothered if they weren’t going to do it right.

With all the climbing behind us it was now time to brave the steep descent on a horrendous path towards the end of Talybont Reservoir and the dam. After yesterday’s descent from Pen Y Fan my legs were already struggling and I was in misery trying to moderate the speed at which I was hiking down, and the roughness of the washed-out trail didn’t help.

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It was a grueling hour or so that we spent coming off the mountain and I was glad to see the dam and some flat ground. I chugged the rest of my water as I was still dealing with a headache I had from the time I woken up, and with a half hour of walking left it wasn’t doing me any good in my pack.

I was glad to arrive at Nigel’s house where a cold glass of orange juice tasted heavenly and helped to cool my core temperature down a little. The sun had no abated all morning and without clouds or a minimal breeze the hiking had been hard on the system.

Nigel was kind enough to drop me back at my car with the dogs. We said our farewells and I headed home. Thankfully the traffic was good and we were walking in the door by 6pm, just in time to enjoy dinner and a glass of wine before jumping in a much-needed shower.

Gear Review: Tarptent Stratospire Li First Impressions

I bought the Tarptent Stratospire Li the day it was first released and I was so excited that there was now a true DCF double wall tent that would hold up to wind a little better than my Duplex. I have loved my Duplex for 2 years and it served me well but I wanted something a little more wind and rain worthy with my move to the UK pending. I love DCF for its waterproofness and being incredibly light.

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First Impressions

I had ordered the solid inner so had to wait a little longer for it to arrive, but arrive it did. I watched the set-up video several times and read over the instructions carefully. It looked fairly simple. However actually putting the tent up was a completely different matter. I couldn’t get anything tight and it was saggy along the ridgeline. I tried again; it certainly isn’t the most intuitive tent to put up and I’m used to having to finesse a DCF trekking pole tent. I was still not getting the taught pitch I was seeing in the pictures. I emailed Tarptent and got some advice. My third pitch was better but still not perfect.

Two things I noticed in regards to quality control:

  1. The stitching from on one strap from the inner to outer tent had already come apart. I was immediately sent a new one to replace it as it was an easy fix.
  2. The velcro on one of the storm flaps was barely attached. I was pressed for time and rather than sending it back to be fixed I sewed it myself.

I packed the tent away for my move to England and didn’t get the chance to try putting it up again until my weekend in the New Forest.

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Again I fought with the tent to get it right, forgetting to leave the pitchloc ends for last. Eventually I got a moderately-tight pitch. The biggest issue I had was the sag in the inner tent. The elastic from the inner to the outer was positioned very low and was thus not in a position to lift the fabric. This, in turn, created a serious loss of space in an otherwise spacious tent. It feels massive without the inner tent attached, but with the sag leaving 6-8″ between the walls on the non-pitchloc corners it felt small and cramped.

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I emailed Tarptent again with some questions about the reasons for the sag and if there was anything that could be done to improve the way the fabric hung. I got some advice back and within a few days I took it back out for some more testing. I tried slightly longer poles and shortened the size of the loops the inner was attached to.

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Lastly, while the little magnets that hold the doors back seem like a great idea I found that if I even brushed against them lightly they would come loose. I think part of this is the angle of the door…it can’t be rolled back in a straight line and has some tension pulling down on it from the pitchloc corner; this is turn means that it doesn’t take much pressure to nudge it loose. I prefer the toggle and loop closure on the Duplex for security but the magnets are a great idea for convenience and I’m just going to have to be cognizant of the issue.

First Time Out:

I took the SS Li on it’s first backpacking trip out in the Brecon Beacons in April and we were out for two nights. Despite the less-than-ideal ground (old quarry) I managed to get a pretty decent pitch.  Having modified the pitchloc ends to have Linelocs and cord made the difference on having a taught tent in a place that was very difficult to get stakes in the ground.

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There was zero condensation on either the fly or the the inner tent and I had left no doors or vents open, bar the peak vents. Despite the wind (which woke me up a lot) during the night and the less-than-secure pitch the tent stayed solid. The wind in the morning made it more difficult to pack away with the required “rolling around the struts” but I got it done. 

Pitch on the second night was quick and easy and very solid. Without any breeze the condensation in the morning was awful. I attribute that to our proximity to water, being at the low point of a valley and how cold the night got. Any tent would have had to deal with the same level of condensation (a friend’s Nemo had the same problem).

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The double wall design makes it much tougher to wipe down the interior of the fly, but that is not a Li issue, and because the inner is removable I was able to let that dry and then remove it to wipe down the outer. The inner tent isn’t super easy to remove as the clips are fiddly and trying to unhook (or re-hook) them to the small loops of elastic was a pain. When I got home I attached some tiny rings to those elastic loops in order to make the inner easier to remove. I do prefer a toggle and ring approach (like Hilleburg uses) to connect inner to outer for simplicity.

Final Thoughts

Overall I do like the tent. Tarptent were great with customer service with the few issues that I found. Tarptent do extra QC checks on tents that are shipped internationally but since they didn’t know mine was coming to the UK with me I missed out on that…checks that would have caught the minor stitching issues. They did offer to have it fixed here in the UK but since I had already fixed all but one thing it didn’t seem worth it.

The pitch is not intuitive so it’s worth taking time to do it a few times at home before heading out to camp with it. Once you get the hang of it the tent can be up within 5 minutes.

 

A Weekend in the New Forest, March 2019: Day 2

The sun was below the horizon when I woke up. The neighbors at the camground had been pretty noisy until about 11pm so I was glad to have made the decision to sleep in the car as it really deadened the sound of voices. I slept decent until about 3am when the lack of hydration caught up to me and I slept terribly for the remainder of the night with a dull headache that really tried to kick my ass.

I finally crept out of the sleeping bag at about 7 (which I thought was 8am as I was a day early on the time change) and drowsily got dressed. It was cold and there was a layer of ice covering the car…another reason I was glad to have slept in the car). I packed up as quickly as I could, let the dogs play and filled water (the one benefit of a campground). My tent was frozen as I packed it away and drenched with condensation and dew, even on the inside.

Making use of the Red Shoot pub’s wifi I located the start of the next hike I was planning to do and drove the 7 miles NW, through the early-morning mist to Fordingbridge where I paid £5 to park for the whole day. Ponies stood in the road without care in the world, blocking my way and refused to move even when I pulled up inches from them (hoping that would encourage them to move) but ended up backing up and going round them.

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It was a short drive and we got to Fordingbridge a little earlier than I wanted to start. I took some time to let my phone charge and ate breakfast, and as I let the day warm up a little I made my lunch. Of course, as always, I managed to confuse myself and had set my clocks ahead a day early…having an extra day off work for a long weekend definitely threw me. I spent the best part of 20 minutes trying to figure out why my phone wasn’t updating to the correct time.

Finally about 10am (or 9am in non-DST) we followed the printed directions past Tesco and the post office and out of Fordingbridge. It was a very different start to a 10 mile hike than the one we had done yesterday.

We wound through streets, passed road construction and finally turned off on a more secluded path that went past a local school as well as a very loud building sight. At a T-junction we turned right along the single track towards the main road where we passed what used to be the Tudor Rose Inn (on the written instructions) but is now a daycare center and crossed the very busy A road in front of the Sun Valley restaurant.

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A gravel driveway led us past farm buildings and farmers (and dogs) working with their livestock in the cool morning. We crossed an iron bridge over the river Avon, passed through a gate and the trail opened up into a cow field. No worries…I have cow dogs.

As someone who has been around cattle most of my life I have a healthy respect for cows and we gave the cattle a wide berth even though it meant getting our feet wet. These cows didn’t seem worried by dogs but they were certainly intrigued and I didn’t fancy getting charged or trampled by a particularly obnoxious cow. It had my heart racing a little as the cattle watched us just a little too closely, and moved just a little too much, for my liking. Thankfully there were no calves so the cows weren’t in crazy, momma-cow protective mode.

The next mile was gravel road that divided farm land and we were watched intently from either side by either cattle or the copious amount of swans that seemed to make the floodplains of the Avon their home, or at least their nesting site. And when I say copious amounts of swans I think I counted at least 30 pairs.

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Soon we were out of farmland and following a road beneath the trees. A trail paralleled the road which meant I could leave the dogs off leash. The bane of this trail so far was the short but consistent road walks which meant constantly having to leash and then unleash the dogs…it was a little infuriating and time-consuming.

At the apex of the road trail we were rewarded with views  at the Castle Hill view point. We said hello to another gentleman who appeared to be meditating and took a seat at one of the three benches to enjoy the view and a soda, and give the dogs some water and a break.

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From the wonderful views over the river Avon and the adjoining farm land we descended into the town of Woodgreen where we got to socialize with a bunch of wild donkeys aka Burros (what we call them in the US). We dumped a little bit of garbage at the local store before returning to the turn-off by the Horse and Groom pub and climbed up the road to the common. The instructions were a little ambiguous here and I was questioning whether we were in the right place.

Ponies were abundant on the common but we turned left along the Avon River Trail and disappeared between dwellings on a gravel road, and away from the wide expanse of green that reminded me very much of something out of a typical Hobbit village. We wound between picturesque houses and gardens before crossing a couple of stiles and fields.

It should be said that the dogs had been doing amazingly well with the countless kissing gates and troublesome stiles. Some were hard to navigate for them and provided little space for them to pass through while others gave plenty of room for them to go under the wooden panels or barbed wire, or room enough to duck under the low planks of the stile itself. On one rare occasion they had to climb up and over which was an acrobatic act worthy of medals with a weighted pack.

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Once we hit the road we followed the river Avon for a quarter mile before turning right and climbing a steep incline towards St. Mary’s Church and Hale House. The graveyard attached to the church was brimming with wildflowers and had great views of the blossoming trees and manor house as we stopped to eat lunch.

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Before too long our quota of lunch-time sun had been absorbed and we hiked past the massive house and onwards past horse pastures, paralleling the driveway of Hale House with its carpet of daffodils.

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This was the image I always conjured in my head of manor houses and 19th century lords and ladies…sadly the cars in the driveway weren’t as resplendent as the carriages and horses of old, or even of the classically beautiful cars of the 20s and 30s.

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We turned right towards Hale and down the road before quickly turning left down a dead-end road which forked in three ways at it’s end. Our directions took us right and we passed the sprawling estate that was Hemmick Court…it looked amazing but huge bushes and imposing fences blocked our view and prohibited me in indulging my curiosity and being noisy.

Another muddy stream crossed our path and we were quickly surrounded by budding Rhododendron bushes. A very friendly couple with two small dogs were uphill from us as I put Kye and Cody into the normal down-stay position. Unlike most dog owners on the trail these people were incredibly considerate and asked if I wanted to have them put their dogs on a leash. I explained my habits with my dogs and they picked up their “too friendly” dog as they passed us; I definitely appreciate people like this…so a shout out to whoever you were.

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A right turn onto a bridleway kept us beneath the Rhododendron bushes and kept the sun off us. The cooling and damp undergrowth made a huge difference to the air temperature and gave us all the chance to cool off. I was amazed at how overgrown the path was, especially being a horse-specific pathway. The best part about the walk through the overgrown shrubs was how magical and Middle Earth-like it felt…it was remote, raw and real…and I loved it despite the copious amounts of mud.

All too soon we left the protective shroud of the waxy-leaved bushes and crossed a horse pasture with at least 6 pairs of eyes watching us dubiously from a distance. It was short-lived and we were quickly back beneath the trees and on a path then a track beside log-style lodgings that rival anything seen on Doomsday Preppers.

At the first paved road we’d seen in a while we turned left for a short distance where we were stopped by people looking for directions. Sadly I was unable to help them as the area (and England in general) was not familiar to me.

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Again the directions got confusing as we passed a vehicle-blocking barrier. We were supposed to turn right opposite a house, according to the instructions, but the directions (and vague map) also directed us downhill. It was slightly confusing. I went with the map and the “downhill” directive and found the bridge we were supposed to cross. Sometimes you have to use a little bit of initiative and common sense.

As we followed the dry and exposed hill top (before dropping down to the bridge) a tiny lizard darted across our path and paused beneath a small branch. He was kind enough to pose for a couple of pictures before making another run for it and disappeared into the heather and the gorse.

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The direction sheet now told us to climb upwards and follow the road to the little village of Godshill (where I stopped for a pint yesterday). However I don’t like walking on roads, especially with the dogs, and I opted to follow faint tracks across country towards a stand of trees. I highly recommend this change of route as when you reach the line of trees, and about half way between the road and the creek) you will find a gate. This is another trail that leads you straight to the town of Godshill and deposits you out on the road at The Fighting Cocks pub…much better than walking beside any road with traffic rushing by.

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Another enjoyable pint of Hop House was had as well as treats for the dogs and we basked in the golden sunshine. The same gorgeous ponies passed by in a parade as we spent a glorious hour enjoying some people and pony watching.

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The pint ended and we set off west towards Sandy Balls (yes, you read that right) caravan park and another 2 miles towards Fordingbridge and the car. Half a mile was on small dirt paths but the majority was on the side of the main road which made for a disappointing end to an otherwise-lovely hike.

Back at the car we dropped our gear and walked through town to enjoy a pint of Guinness at The George alongside the River Avon while watching the ducks and some massive fish just below the surface…I’m still not sure what they were. It was a good end to an amazing couple of days. People chatted to us as they loved on the dogs who were certainly not too tired to enjoy the attention…dogs definitely bring people together.

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As evening drew in we headed back to the car, drove out of Fordingbridge and spent a couple of tedious hours driving home. Somehow the journey to get to a destination is always shorter than the drive home, maybe because the journey there is part of the adventure.

If you are interested in this walk you can find it here: Fordingbridge – Woodgreen – Hale – Godshill round

 

 

A Weekend in the New Forest, March 2019: Day 1

I think I groaned loudly when my alarm went off at 6am. It was the beginning of a 3 day weekend as I had taken a day off work but I was still getting up early. The reason for this was an almost-two hour drive to the New Forest on Hampshire’s south coast.

Despite my habit of being insanely organized when it comes to packing this was the first trip I hadn’t been and stuff was still in piles to get moved into the car. I hadn’t even figured out which part of the New Forest we were heading for yet.

We pulled away from the house, after spending 30 minutes getting the car loaded, about 8:15 in order to avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic. I had finally decided on my destination and plotted into Google Maps. Thankfully we didn’t get caught in any traffic hold ups and we arrived at the parking lot at 10am..not bad going for British roads. It was still a little chilly and we briefly chatted with a van-dweller parked next to us before I loaded the packs on the dogs and we headed down into the valley. With 9 miles ahead of us I was making use of the two days to get us in a little better shape for the West Highland Way backpacking trip we had planned for May.

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With the sun shining down on us and a decent breeze blowing we climbed up a gravel cycle path to the top of Hampton Ridge which provided some gorgeous 360* views of the surrounding moorlands. Sadly it was too early for the heather to be in its full purple bloom but the bright golden yellow of the gorse more than made up for it.

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We also bypassed many New Forest ponies as we climbed skyward, most of them ignoring us as they munched on the short-cropped grass. With 3000 ponies living in the National Park I was surprised at how minimal the grass was, even in early spring.

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We followed the track for a while longer along the ridge before the track split and we turned left. This is where the instructions got a little hazy as we were required to turn left again but this time on a “lesser path” with gorse on the left side. Apparently the one we took wasn’t the path we were supposed to be on as when we reached another gravel track there was no path continuing into the woods. Of course if we hadn’t taken this path I wouldn’t have been rewarded by the sight of the native deer (unfortunately I can’t be sure which kind they were).

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However, I was 99.9% sure this was the gravel road we WERE supposed to cross and so I turned right and in search of the where the trail DID cross the track.

We took a quick rest break for a soda and some water for the dogs, and watched a couple of ladies pass by us on horses and they looked like they were having a lovely time. Soon I heard more voices coming up from behind us and I quickly hefted my pack and set on up the road before they caught up to us. I like the solitude of hiking…it’s why I get out there.

Within half a mile we found the track we needed although it was missing the “Information Stone” the directions had mentioned which seemed like it should have been a good landmark to watch out for.

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We crossed a small creek and climbed up the hill, through the trees until we were pushed out into open moorland once again. A straight gravel track led across the expanse of Little Cockley Plain. A large stand of trees stood to our left and beyond that the road hummed with traffic. The proximity of the cars was a little disheartening but they were only a visual disturbance and the peace and quiet was only disturbed by the occasional buzzing bee, whinny of a pony or an early songbird.

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With views stretching out over the heather and gorse we paused for lunch in a sheltered spot. We waited for a horse rider to go by before we pressed on, with more people behind us feeling like a cracking whip pushing us on. Soon though they were left behind as we passed more ponies and cut 90* around a lone birch tree and turned back westwards for the return leg of the hike.

As we turned onto the bridleway we heard a horse sounding very distressed and hollering constantly. Stepping off the track we went to investigate but found nothing. As I sat down to dump yet more dirt out of my shoe (I was really missing my gaiters) a young horse galloped down the hill and through the bog that bordered the stream, and disappeared into the trees…still neighing loudly. At least we knew it wasn’t a horse in trouble at that point.

With my curiosity getting the best of me we crossed the small bridge and went in search of the young horse, and found her with a small group of others. She was still hollering and as she looked young I assumed she had recently been booted from her family. We re-traced our steps and found a very cool looking tree with half of its body laying on the ground as though it were resting from the grueling struggle of growing upwards.

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The horse we had followed earlier came trotting down the hill, and to my surprise made use of the little footbridge we had just recently used. I think these ponies, with their familiarity with people, vehicles, bridges, stream crossings etc would make pretty bombproof riding horses. She took off again in the direction we were going but soon came back and took a giant leap across the chasm where the creek was buried. That was the last we saw of her.

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With that distraction out of the way we got back on the main track. The road was no longer visible and we had the whole plain to ourselves. It was beautiful, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect as the warm sun beat gently down on us and I spotted so many places to wild camp in the area (despite it technically being illegal, but it is everywhere in England).

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With a couple of miles behind us we came across an old bomb blast shelter and took a few minutes to read the information board. We had been traversing what used to be the Ashley Walk Bombing Range although nothing but the shelter was left as evidence of that era.

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From the bomb blast shelter we were finally back beneath trees again which was a welcome respite from the sun. I love the warmth but it’s nice to cool off occasionally, especially for the dogs.

A brief downhill section beneath not-yet-leafing trees in the Amberwood Enclosure was lovely and we bypassed a tree vibrating with life. Upon investigation I discovered the humming was the result of hordes of bees disappearing and reappearing out of a hole in a tree. They looked busy and while I watched for a couple of minutes from a distance I didn’t want to push my luck too much and we headed off.

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We crossed a turned onto another gravel track/bike path before coming to a crossroads where a grassy path crossed our gravel track. While the left turn we had taken earlier was indistinct now the instructions were inaccurate as they said to turn right and go down to the bridge, a gate and creek crossing. However, the bridge and creek (and the gate, and actually going downhill) were on our left. We went left.

The dogs played in the water for a brief time before we went through yet another gate (so many gates and stiles in England) and turned right along a ride between two enclosures. It was muddy in places and we had to pick our way carefully through. A dirt road crossed our path and we turned left before coming to another T-junction and turned us back out into the moorland.

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Now the sun was getting pretty intense and we were starting to feel the miles we had done already. The track was bright white and was hard on the eyes so it was a good feeling to skirt the Hasley Enclosure in the shade of tall trees. It was a sandy track which made the walking even more tiring and left my socks full of dust and grit.

I’m not sure if I made a mistake at this point as the instructions were a little vague but we could see the green open meadow that was mentioned and followed the track downwards (I think we split off a little early, according to the map). Dozens of ponies were grazing or dozing and we dodged each of them like a game of pinball, moving from one empty gap to the next. There were definitely some cool coat colors in among the herd.

We reached the footbridge that crossed the large creek and again I let the dogs play in the water for a few minutes to cool off. They loved it, and the streams were the perfect depth with gravel underneath so they didn’t get muddy. A short upward climb took us back to the car where the dogs, and I, were all glad to be rid of our packs.

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A short drive to The Fighting Cocks pub in Godshill provided a lovely amber refreshment in the form of a Hop House lager while the dogs dozed in the shade. The flowers were out in force on the patio and the short ponies were almost too friendly…but their interest certainly sparked the interest of the dogs and they all sniffed each other.

The hunt for a campground was a long one and I finally located one 15 minutes south. The Red Shoot Camping Park seemed to be the only place in the vicinity that was open, and while it had vacancies it was also very busy and very expensive. The one saving grace…it had a pub attached.

I got the tent up with a lot of cussing and frustration (this was only the second time I’d put this tent up as it was new to me in September) and then went for a meal and a beer with the dogs. A giant horse-dog welcomed us (a gorgeous harlequin Great Dane that rivaled some of the New Forest ponies) and of course all the dogs had to make their own introductions. A good meal was had before I took the dogs out for one final walk, enjoyed one more beer (that took me forever to drink) and headed back to camp. The tent was already covered in very heavy condensation (and the neighbors were still noisy) so I made the decision to sleep in the car.

For the walk I did you can find the description and directions here: Frogham/Abbots Well Walk

 

Moving the Dogs to England

With all my backpacking trips behind me it was time to focus on the last things I needed to get done to make my move to England; this pretty much focused on everything to do with the dogs and the animal entry requirements to the UK. England is one of the strictest countries to move animals to, and rightly so since they are one of the only rabies-free countries in the world.

The official sites are helpful but I found few accounts of personal experiences with moving a dog (or more than one) from the US to the UK…so I thought I’d write out how things worked out for me. Please bear in mind that any information contained herein is only from my personal experience and should not be construed as legal advice or importation recommendations/regulations; refer ONLY to the two websites listed below for exact and current legal requirements.

Gov.uk “Taking Your Pet Abroad”

USDA.gov “Taking Your Pet from US to Another Country”


Rabies Vaccinations

While this is standard in the US there are a few more hoops to jump through when going to the UK: This includes any rabies vaccination prior to being micro-chipped and the vaccination recorded with the microchip number being classed as invalid by the UK. However, getting Cody and Kye micro-chipped and then vaccinated was a standard and painless process and no different from any other vet appointment for their regular vaccinations, albeit a year early. I was able to use my normal vet for this as there are no special USDA requirements for giving the rabies vaccination. You will need to ask for all the extra information regarding the specific rabies vaccine the vet uses as this is required to be included on the health certificate. I had booked this appointment for September 4th so that I had a good buffer for the 21 day minimum wait time before flying to the UK in October.

Health Certificate for the UK/EU

Due to being in a different town for my last month in the US I brought Kye and Cody’s entire vet records with me. Health certificates for international travel can only be issued by a USDA Accredited Veterinarian. Not all vet clinics will have this so you have to call around and ask. I only had to make a couple of phone calls to find a clinic close enough that had an accredited veterinarian on staff. Health certificates have to be issued no more than 10 days prior to arrival in the UK or they will be invalid.

I booked my health certificate appointment well in advance for the sake of caution; I tried to make sure all my T’s were crossed and my I’s were dotted immaculately…I didn’t want a single issue at the other end. When I called and asked the animal hospital said they had issued them before. However, when I got to the clinic no one really knew what they were doing and I was glad I had done my research as no one, including me, was sure which health certificate was needed.

After several phone calls to the USDA APHIS office in Idaho we finally found the right form and got it filled out correctly but the clinic’s computers weren’t behaving. For some reason none of the information would fit in the boxes, including from drop down menus built in to the form on USDA website. With the vet having checked out the dogs she approved them to travel and signed the health certificate. Thankfully the one page she had to endorse was not one of the pages that was having issues. I ended up returning home in order to redo the form which I then printed out at the library.

With the forms now looking better and fully complete I headed for the UPS store to overnight the health certificate and rabies vaccination certificates to Idaho. (Each region or state has a specific APHIS endorsement office so it isn’t Idaho for everyone). A return label is also required to be preppaid and sent with the health certificate and the website specifically states that your address has be both sender and receiver on the return label or it may be rejected. It was received in Idaho on time the following day and was back with me in under 48 hours of the moment I sent it out. I had two copies of the health certificate, just in case one got lost…never can be too careful. I also asked for a copy to be made after the APHIS endorsement. I was carrying a lot of paperwork.

Tapeworm Treatment

For travel to the UK Cody and Kye were required to have treatment for Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm that include praziquantel or an equivalent. This had to be done 5 days or less before ARRIVAL in the UK and must be done by the vet and recorded on the health certificate. The tapeworm treatment is the only part of the UK entry requirements that can be done after the health certificate has been endorsed by APHIS.

I booked the dogs in for the tapeworm treatment on Monday as our flight was scheduled to depart on Wednesday. It was a pretty painless appointment except that the vet wasn’t really sure how to fill out the health certificate properly. We got it done though and I filed away both the health certificate, the rabies vaccination certificates and a copy of the de-wormer packaging that was used; the vet’s writing wasn’t the most legible.

And that was the last of the required legal and medical preparation that was needed to move the dogs to the UK


Beyond the legal stuff that is required to enter the UK there are so many other things to plan for and around.

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I already owned a medium (400 series) Grreat Choice dog crate from Petsmart; it was what I bought Cody to use as a kennel in Arizona so both Kye and Cody were used to having free access to it, and I knew Cody liked having the hidey space. However, with there being specific travel requirements for dog crates in regards to size I made the decision to size up for Cody. There was a possibility that the medium-size would have been fine but I wasn’t willing to take a risk on it not being appropriate. In Bend I bought a large crate (500 series) that actually seemed too big for him. Once I was back in Washington I made sure that both dogs got used to sleeping in their crates; Cody took to his immediately (no surprise there) but Kye took a couple of days to be comfortable in using that as her bed consistently.

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Taking time to let dogs get used to their travel crates is imperative. International travel is stressful enough on both you and your critters, and them knowing and feeling that their crate is their safe space goes a long way in reducing an animal’s stress level.

I bought beds specific to the crate size, added the non-slip memory foam bath mats they had used in the RV and added an extra blanket. They slept every night in the crates any time we were in a residential setting where I could set them up; no matter where we were they knew them as home and always went in and settled down. This was a good routine to get into, and the last month of our time in the US they were used exclusively as we no longer traveled.

Despite my own self-reassurance I kept questioning whether Kye’s crate was going to be classed as too small when I arrived at the cargo depot. It would have been a disaster to have them deny to ship her because of a crate that was deemed too small. She was at the maximum measurements for a crate of that size but could stand, sit and lay down naturally (ie not forced to curl up) which is what the specifications required…but I was still concerned. I measured and re-measured and emailed and sent pictures to as many people as I could at both ends of the shipping line…I got mixed responses but nothing concrete about whether it was suitable.

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With a quote for only $200 more for two crates of the size Cody was using I decided to just do it…the worry wasn’t worth the stress and a slightly larger crate would likely make Kye’s travel more comfortable. So out I went again to buy a new crate for Kye and ended up donating the smaller crate to the local border collie rescue group.

Travel requirements also specify that bowls for food and water must be provided and attached in such a way that they can be reached from the outside of the crate. Most pet stores and Walmart sell suitable bowls that can be clamped to the wire door. This was when I was glad to have bought the larger crate for Cody as the bowls cannot take up much floor space so that a dog may lie down, stretched out (if they choose).

While the dogs were both micro-chipped and would be traveling in secure crates I like to doubly-cover my bases and bought a couple of key tags. On them I wrote their names and my mom’s UK cell number and added them to their collars alongside the tags that already had my US phone number on them. You can never be too careful when it comes to your pets.

Food was another issue I was facing; there are few dog food companies that sell their food in both the US and UK. Sure, IAMS and Science Diet are both available but I refuse to feed that junk to my dogs. The only brand of suitable quality I could find available in both countries was Taste of the Wild…my normal brand wasn’t available in the UK…but my mom couldn’t easily get a hold of it. I did some research and talked to some friends and family in the UK who owned pets and got their recommendations. This is where it is helpful to have my mom helping me out as I could have her look for what I needed and pick up what was necessary.

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Planning for a Solo Backpacking Trip

I am a member of several trail and backpacking groups on Facebook and I was answering a question from an older female about how safe it was to hike solo in our local mountains. Someone in my local area who knows how much I blog about my trips recommended my blog as a good resource for the trails in the Bighorn Mountains (my back yard). However, despite my many trip reports there is very little on my blog that covers what I do to plan a solo hike, which is what I tend to do 90% of the time. This guide does NOT include planning for gear.

So I began thinking about what I take into consideration as a solo hiker in regards to my safety and trail planning. I wouldn’t say this is a comprehensive list but I think it’s a good place to get started:

Buy a map of the area and study it: Study the terrain, mileage, water sources and know your limitations. While I am ABLE to hike upwards of 15 miles a day I find it tough to do in mountainous terrain and I certainly don’t enjoy it; 15 miles on the flat is a different beast. I plan my daily miles in the mountains to be in the 10-12 mile region…if I do more, that’s great but I don’t plan on it. Water is heavy but knowing your water sources and carrying a good filter means you can carry less water. Lots of climbs and descents are going to slow you down; don’t over underestimate how much a 2500ft climb can take out of you and how much it will impact your mileage.

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Plan your route: Start by knowing how many days you have and then multiply that by how many miles YOU can hike in a day safely. Once you know this you can work out a route that fits your hiking level and the time you have…it is better to be done a little early than be pushed for time and make a mistake, and I always find it nice to be done early and then have time for some relaxation and a beer. When you have a rough idea of the route and which trails you might want to take go check out CalTopo.com. CalTopo is a great tool for mapping out your specific trail if you don’t have a good map of the area; it is fairly intuitive and you can print out your own maps, and files can be exported to GPS. I use CalTopo when a good Trails Illustrated map isn’t available for the area I plan on hiking or when I don’t want to spend the money for a map on a lone trip to a single area.

A second layer of planning a route is to talk to locals; learn from others’ experiences what trail conditions will be like, how easy it is to navigate, whether there are any tough areas of particular concern. Almost every national forest, wilderness area or state or national park has a locals-run Facebook group dedicated to the trails in the area. The local Ranger District Office is often a pretty decent resource for this too.

Safety Net: I do not have anyone at home to expect me back at a certain time so I work around that safety aspect in several ways. I carry a DeLorme InReach device so that I have SOS connective capabilities in the event of an emergency. However, there is always the possibility that in a fall I may lose consciousness or the device gets broken. I have a back up for this and leave my planned route (including the direction I plan on hiking) plus the CalTopo map file with three or more friends who I check in with twice daily. If I miss two or more check-ins they call out the cavalry. I make this easy by providing them with the Ranger District of the National Forest or BLM area I will be hiking on WITH their phone number AND the contact information for the Sheriff’s Office of the counties I will be hiking through. I chose to go with two missed check-ins and to check-in twice daily as that gives me a maximum of 24 hours before someone will be aware that something is wrong, but also because I may inadvertently miss one check-in or temporarily may not be able to get a signal out due to tree coverage etc. For those that DO have someone at home; always leave them a copy of your route and a time to expect you back…Aron Ralston learned the hard way of the consequences of not doing this.

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Know Your Gear: While I don’t intend to cover gear choices here an important aspect of staying safe, especially when solo, is carrying decent gear and knowing how to use it and what its limits are. No matter the length or duration of my hike (whether day hike or week-long trip) I ALWAYS carry a water filter, food, shelter and a way to keep warm as well as my InReach. These things are non-negotiable. Appropriate clothing and footwear for the season and terrain should never be overlooked or assumed; no matter what anyone says a bikini and flip flops are never suitable for any excursion into the back country even if it is “just a mile”. But more than knowing your gear, having some knowledge in your head weighs nothing and can save your life, so if you can learn from others before you go, do so.

 

Gear I Use And Why

After covering the big items I use in separate reviews I won’t list them here, but there countless other things I use on every trip that I wouldn’t be without. I have my gear dialed in pretty well after several years and my gear choices don’t change from trip to trip, except for my choice of quilt depending on the trip’s predicted temperatures (10* EE Convert OR 30* EE Revelation).

So this is a list of the rest of the gear I use, why I chose it, why I like it and any pros or cons I have found.

CLOTHING

Columbia Omni-Shield Down Puffy Jacket: I mostly chose this puffy as I found it on sale and it fit well. The silver dots (the omni-shield) compliments the down and helps to reflect the heat back towards the body. It is light-weight and moderately warm but does leak feathers. The sleeves have a synthetic lycra cuff vs elastic in the ends of the sleeves themselves and I really like that aspect. Overall this jacket has only been good into the 50s, for a skinny girl like me, with a t-shirt and my fleece base-layer.

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LL Bean Ultralight 850 Down Jacket with hood in Mulberry: With my Columbia jacket only being good down into the 50s I was in the market for something warmer but still light that could take me into the 30s or at a pinch, high 20s for early alpine mornings and cold evenings. With a little research I decided on the LL Bean Ultralight as being the best puffy for my needs. I had looked at the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer but it was more comparable to my Columbia jacket in weight and warmth. After a couple of trips with this jacket it held up to the reviews and has been extremely warm and comfortable. The fit is perfect and I love the mulberry color. Don’t be afraid to look outside the standard down-gear providers to find a product that works for you. I have found no negatives with this puffy except that being warmer it is heavier.

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Salomon Speedcross 3 or 4 Trail Runners: After one day hike in LE duty boots I was convinced to move to trail runners. My first choice had been the Salomon XD trail runners but they slipped in the heel and I ended up with tendinitis in my left Achilles tendon. I replaced the XDs with the Speedcross 3s, and then this year with a pair of the 4s. What I like about these trail runners is the superior grip of the lugs on the soles, although they don’t walk very well on pavement.  I really like the speed lacing and find that the kevlar laces stay secure and don’t slip. Others may not like the brighter colors of the Speedcross but my hiking clothes tend to be bright and vivid for safety reasons but they do come in more muted colors for those who prefer. The updated model 4 has better designed lugs and uses a slightly tougher, stiffer rubber for the outsole. They are a narrow shoe which works great for me as I have narrow feet but won’t be comfortable for those with wider feet. They run small; I usually wear a 6 1/2 -7 but wear a 7 1/2 in these.

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Dirty Girl Gaiters: For those not familiar with Dirty Girl Gaiters they are a light-weight lycra gaiter used to keep debris out of trail runners. They are not water proof. I chose DG gaiters after reading many, many recommendations and sung praises from people who use them. They come in dozens of patterns to choose from to suit any taste and several sizes to fit the smallest to largest feet. I have found them easy to keep clean and they have been great to keep the debris out of my shoes…when I have gone without them I have definitely noticed a difference and have had to stop repeatedly to empty out rocks and sticks and leaves. No cons; I am still on the first pair I bought 3 years ago.

Darn Tough Socks: Made in Vermont, USA and come in a variety of shoe sizes, not just “Fits Size 4-12”. Because of the more exact sizing they don’t bunch and fit perfectly which means less or no blisters. They are extremely comfortable and durable and come with Darn Tough’s Lifetime Warranty.

Ibex Women’s Bikini Brief: Made of wool so wick moisture and wool has some antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that limit the stink. Comfortable and fit like my regular everyday Hanes cotton underwear. I have no issues with riding up while hiking. The two issues with these are the cost and the sizing; they are very pricey so I reserve them only for backpacking, and they are sized extremely small. I wear a small (5) in Hanes but in these I have to wear a Large which makes no sense.

Other Hiking Clothes: Cheap Walmart fleece base layers for top and bottom. Cheap Danksin capri leggings from Walmart…I have fallen and put holes in the knees a few times so don’t like to spend too much money on them. Cheap Danskin sports bra from Walmart. Cheap Danskin fleece sweat shirt from Walmart. Walmart gloves and beanie. Buff-brand neck wrap.

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OTHER GEAR

Black Diamond Ergo Cork Hiking Poles: I started out hiking with Cascade Mountain Tech hiking poles which were a good, inexpensive pair of poles that I went with because of this review done by Andrew Skurka. However I decided to upgrade to the BD Ergo Cork poles in 2018 and have found them to be a good pole. They are aluminum vs carbon fiber which means that carrying them is a little chillier on the hands when not using them for actual hiking. I like the ergonomic design of the hand grips at a slight angle and they feel comfortable in my very small hands. The angle didn’t seem to be a problem for putting up my Duplex. The wrist straps were also soft and comfortable but I did find that they slipped more than they should and became loose so I was often re-tightening them.

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Two things I don’t like about these poles: 1) The paint: Being aluminum they are painted/powder coated which will chip and scratch easily and being that they are black it shows very quickly. Also, if the poles are not dried properly you will lose the the length markings as if they are being dissolved by the water. I learned this the hard way and was informed by another hiker about the reason to keep the poles dry. 2) The adjustment mechanism: It is a screw and not a nut you can tighten with your hand fingers like on the Cascade Mountain Tech poles which means that if you need to tighten them up you need to carry something to do it with. Thankfully my cat hole trowel and my Ti spoon can both do the job just fine. The adjustment is also tricky as too tight and you won’t be able to close the flick lock (especially with cold fingers), and even a little too loose and the poles will collapse (it happened to me). I did not have this problem with the Cascade Mountain Tech poles.

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Snow Peak Ti 900ml Pot: Fits a 220ml canister and half of a quick dry Sea to Summit small towel. I did not like the frying pan lid and now use the lid from my heavier Solo Stove. Fits inside homemade reflectix pot cozy. I wish the handles were a little longer as they get very hot when heating anything.

Snow Peak Giga and mini Bic lighter: Along with my Ti spoon the Snow Peak Giga is the only piece of original gear I have and I use it often. It is simple, packs small and unlike most other backpacking stoves it has four arms to hold the pot vs three which makes it more stable when heating. A mini Bic lighter fits perfectly in the plastic case with it so I don’t lose it and is pretty much infallible for a lighter.

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Ti Long-handled Spoon: One of the few pieces of original backpacking gear I was given that first got me interested in this hobby. I still love it and find the long-handled, medium head invaluable to any trip. One of the best pieces of gear I have been given.

Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter and Evernew 2L Soft Bottle: The Sawyer Squeeze is fast, reliable and convenient. I purchased the couplers so it can be attached directly to a Smart Water bottle to make it even easier. It can’t be allowed to freeze so if low temperatures are expected it should be kept in your sleeping bag with you (in a Ziploc of course). The bags it comes with don’t last and are pretty useless (I blew one by back-flushing) which is why I bought the Evernew bag which last better but certainly aren’t perfect. The first Evernew I had developed a leak at the neck due to user error (not holding the neck while tightening the filter or the cap) and the second developed a small hole in the bottom of the bottle due to material fatigue. I still think they are worth the money and are far better than other choices. The cap is not leak-proof so I replaced it with a Smart Water bottle cap.

QiWiz Big Dig Shovel: Small, light, does a great job of digging cat holes. Doesn’t bend or break under pressure. Cuts through roots very well. The handle is a little sharp on the hands if much pressure is needed to dig a hole. You can find them here: QiWiz

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MSR Groundhog Mini tent stakes: Light, solid and grip well. I prefer these over the longer stakes as you are less likely to run into buried rocks with a shorter stake. Even when I have hit rocks and put all my weight on the stake it has not bent or broken. They have remained in the ground and kept guylines tight even in high winds and unexpected crazy wind gusts during thunderstorms. In boggier or softer ground (such as the Scottish Highlands) I would choose to carry and use the longer full-length MSR Groundhog stakes but the Minis do great for most alpine and rocky conditions.

Thermarest Compressible Pillow: Doesn’t compress anywhere as small as a down pillow but has much more support. Doesn’t squeeze or crinkle like an air pillow. Generally comfortable if a little too supportive at times but wouldn’t trade for the world when it comes down to being comfortable to sleep and getting a good night of rest.

Other Gear: Trash compactor bag for pack liner, mini GorillaPod tripod, Sony DSC HX80 camera, minimal FA kit (band aids, ibuprofen, Imodium, alcohol wipes, tent repair kit, extra Bic lighter, chapstick and knowledge), TP and 1/2oz liquid soap or sanitizer, lightweight folding knife.


Separate review of the DeLorme InReach coming soon. (Older model)