Equipment WIN/FAIL

I was assisted before setting off for the West Highland Way by Trail Magazine’s snappily-titled Slash Pack Weight feature last month. With a strapline of Climb More Hills, this enthusiastically presented feature provided a good mixture of entertainment and sound advice for myself and Mark while we planned our trip and invested in items that may assist with future expeditions.

I love walking magazines. I love the zealous approach to walking experiences, the genuinely interesting articles, the routes provided, and the gear/equipment geekery. Walking magazines are a good route (no pun intended) into the world of recreational walking and provide many good pointers for people like me who need a little guidance. In my youthful days of hitch-hiking, tree-dwelling etc. I carried a massive, ill-fitting rucksack stuffed with wet sachets of Beanfeast, hippy accoutrements, essential oils, random packets of homemade incense, and large, shapeless, unisex hempen garments. My tent was usually carried separately if at all and my flute plus whatever music books I had deemed essential for any trip weighed me down in a way that was manageable while hitch-hiking, but which would make long-distance walking unbearable. Looking back I realise that I actually carried crystals – in other words actual STONES – in that badly fitting rucksack and I don’t recall a single photograph of myself from between the ages of 17 and 23 where I appear to be appropriately garbed for the Irish/Welsh/Cumbrian climates in which I was carousing. Since this is the last era of my life in which I spent a considerable amount of time outdoors or camping, it is fair to say that I need some pointers for this new, more sensible era.

At the end of the Slash Pack Weight article there was a handy suggested exercise, in which you unpack your rucsac, organising everything you used into two piles; the pile of stuff you would take again, and the pile of stuff that you wouldn’t. I hereby present my two piles of equipment, categorically divided into WIN and FAIL piles for ease of comprehension.

Food WIN pile:

Pimped-up ready-brek. In a ziplock bag I organised the inner bag of a packet of ready-brek, plus a smaller ziplock bag filled with a mix of salt, sugar, dessicated coconut, peanuts, raisins etc. I also took a small plastic bottle filled with dried, skimmed milk. With these items we prepared amazing porridge each morning in not very much time, saving on cooking gas. WIN.

Dried joy goodness. I also took a small ziplock bag of dried goods with which to improve and fortify other foodstuffs; this was also a light, delicious, life-improving food WIN.

Food FAIL pile:

Sourdough camping bread kit. Although the idea of creating fresh bread chappattis each day while camping is in principal quite appealing, the realities of lugging starter plus flour plus proving container plus seasonings proved to be rather too heavy and this ‘essential’ item was abandoned before we even left the house. The breads we made with the starter on our return were amazing, but would not have turned out so well had we been trying to make them in the mostly wet conditions of our holiday. Food FAIL.

Fresh Miso. I always knew that once opened, this sachet of wet sauce inside my tightly-packed rucsac would pose a considerable spillage-threat to my clothes etc., but even the ziplock bag that I folded it into was only just able to contain the sticky brown overflow when the pressure hit. Food FAIL.

Clothes WIN pile:

Hopscotch socks. Each night, after walking for miles, I slid off the amazing 1000 mile socks (see next WIN), laid them out to dry at the bottom of the tent and donned the blissfully soft, tasty lusciousness of these handknit socks. They kept my feet dry, toast and comforted every night. Clothes WIN.

1000 mile socks. I have practically no blisters after wearing these socks on the 20km+ days of our walk. Clothes WIN.

The Rowan River Stole. Anytime I was cold I could either tie this around my midriff or wrap it around my neck for instant warmth. It folds up into an impossibly tiny little bundle and weighs very little. Clothes WIN.

Howard Moon pants. For the reference, check out this youtube clip of the Mighty Boosh and check out the part where Howard Moon explains that his naff tweed suit zips down to swimming trunks. My Howard Moon pants (purchased at the Army Surplus Store) zip down into shorts, dry swiftly, are light and durable, and have an incredible quantity of pockets. They cost 25 of my fyne Englishe pounds, which is much less than their pricey counterparts in the outdoor wear stores. Clothes WIN.

Clothes FAIL pile:

The amazing hourglass sweater just didn’t do it for me this time. It was too heavy while wet, too hot while walking, too difficult to dry out and too bulky for my streamlined packing job. Clothes FAIL.

Expensive kit WIN pile:

Thermarest prolite small sleeping mat. Although this was pricey, it offered a fantastic sleeping surface each night and weighed not very much. Expensive kit WIN.

Bush Cooker. Although the performance of this item was greatly hindered by a lack of good tinder (my bad) and quite a lot of rain (nobody’s fault) it is very light to carry, fits inside my camping pot perfectly and provides free, practically carbon-neutral cooking in any camping situation. It also endows all camping experiences with the joy of a fire, without the dangers of scorching the earth or burning down the tent. Expensive kit WIN.

Bargain WIN pile:

We found bargainous, lightweight sleeping bags at Blacks outdoor store in the sale and were delighted with the results. I enhanced the heat-keeping activity of my lightweight sleeping bag by wearing thermal underwear whilst inside it and this kept me super cosy. In fact I had to take all the thermals off at one stage because the sleeping bag was warm enough for me by itself. I am the first to freeze on any trip, so this was total bargain WIN.

Hygiene WIN pile:

LUSH solid deodorant. This was awesome. I cut a lump off this and wrapped it in foil for lightweight deodorant action. It smelled good, didn’t work against my body, and didn’t weigh me down. Hygiene WIN.

That is it for now but a much abbreviated version of these lists goes like this:

Clothes: Don’t take cotton clothes if rain is expected. They never dry, dampen everything in your bag and smell rank. Wet cotton clothes also get very heavy and weigh you down. Lightweight woollen items are excellent but may be bulky. Waterproof trousers with loads of pockets are a must and don’t skimp on socks. Also, a waterproof jacket is essential as are – naturally – decent walking boots. I lived in a base layer that I bought in January (sadly synthetic) and some Army Surplus trousers that zip down to become shorts. I find many pockets to be a necessary aspect of camping/walking trousers, along with the ability to dry at lightning speed following rain.

Packing: It isn’t necessary to buy loads of expensive dry sacks or even a rucksack cover. Ziploc bags keep everything dry and allow you both to see what is in each one and to compartmentalise, so that you can put different things in different sections of your bag. It is totally worth investing in some very small tupperware containers and small plastic bottles so that you can repackage things you will use in small quantities. In this way you carry only what you need and aren’t lugging full bottles of suncream or washing up liquid around with you.

Sleeping: It is totally worth making sure you have enough comfort at night. A decent sleeping mat will ensure good rest after long walking days and as such, is an invaluable investment. I decided I didn’t need a full length one and when I wanted my feet up, I rested them on my rucsac. Taking thermal underwear instead of pyjamas is a way of doubling up on functionality. Thermal longjohns and a long-sleeved thermal vest can double up as layers under other clothes on cold days as well as being snug at night.

Feet: Good boots and good socks are not worth skimping on as you only have one pair of feet and they will do a lot of work on a long-distance walking holiday. Compeed blister plasters are, in my experience, rubbish. It’s better just to not get the blisters in the first place and the 1000 mile socks are really worth getting for this reason alone.

Rain: Ziploc bags protecting all your clothes plus a couple of bin liners for bigger items are good for keeping the gear dry. A good waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers also help, as does keeping tea and sugary treats handy.

Snacks: Check out your local Asia Market for such treats as individually wrapped pickled mango slices, dried sweet potato and roast chestnuts. Add chocolate, fudge, raisins, dried apricots etc. and stuff into a good tupperware container for constant spirit-lifting injections of much-needed nutrition!

Food: Take anything dried that you like but avoid tins like the plague. They are messy, difficult to dispose of and weigh a ton. It is also unnecessary to faff about with fresh milk when you can take dried. I personally like the Bush Stove for pottering evenings when there is time to gather firewood etc. but when you are in a hurry, an amazing, light gas stove plus a small cannister (like this) does an excellent job. We took Primus Litech kettles which doubled up as bowls, cups (the lids) and pans, weighed very little, and carried our respective stoves inside themselves.

If you have any tips on lightweight packing, equipment WIN or FAIL scenarios from your camping holidays, please share them here!

7 Responses to Equipment WIN/FAIL

  1. Kate says:

    This is very interesting.

    my essentials/ wins are:
    thermarest (a must), platypus, ultra-lightweight waterproof jacket (like those by montane or haglofs), a wee lightweight stove, wee camera and, a pair of gloves a hat, and mini shortwave radio.

    My fails are: waterproof pants of any description. I wear shorts when walking and in my view, the skin below my knees is waterproof enough without the further encumbrance of sweaty damp flapping waterproof pant nonsense. This is just a personal view, though.
    I second what you say about cotton. My rule is (on top of the underwear) to take just one of everything (one sleeveless vest, one lightweight top with sleeves, one light-but-cosy sweater, one scarf /wrap thingy, one lightweight waterproof shell) and to layer the whole lot up the chillier it gets. If these things are made of wool (like the stuff icebreaker does) they don’t reek, even after constant wearing of a week or more. Well, I can’t smell meself anyway.

  2. Kate says:

    “actual stones”
    ye gods!

  3. Felix says:

    Very interesting to read your WINS/FAILS.

    I agree 1000% on the Platypus. It is an absolutely essential item. Also on the essential waterproof, lightweight jacket. I have a Tog24 jacket which I LOVE. My Edirol comes in place of shortwave radio. Hats and gloves would have gotten me too hot on this holiday but in Winter I’d agree with you.

    I am almost with you on the pants. The ability to strip off the flapping wetness at any point due to Howard Moon zipability perhaps enamoured me more to my semi-waterproof pants. I did not use the 100% waterproof pants at all on this holiday; they feel disgusting to me!

    I love the one of everything rule. I took an extra top; didn’t use it once. One of everything rocks.

    I will investigate 100% wool garments for future expeditions. Naturally, the ultimate aim is to invent the walking/hiking wardrobe myself… (can you imagine a double-skin hand-knitted sock? I think it would work just as well if it was mostly the sole/heel/toes that was double-skinned) …but this may take some years and in the meantime I am keen to investigate more of the hiking/walking garments on offer as I am convinced it will perform better than any of the other textiles.

    HOWEVER. Have you noticed that everything available in sport shops is 100% merino? I am keen to invest in one of the fine-weave shirts they sell at the Welsh Wool Museum as I feel this would make an excellent base-layer. In the meantime, I am going to keep my eyes peeled for walking wear in UK yarns/fibres! Can you imagine the joy of walking the WHW in an Icebreaker/Smartwool baselayer knit in the softest fibres from the Scottish Blackfaced Sheep that graze thereon??!!

    PS “actual stones” – I know. FFS.

  4. jane says:

    I fully agree with you that handknit socks at the end of the day are a win! And the pimped up ready brek sounds like a very good idea. *makes mental note*

    My win pile would include:
    -an aeropress or vietnamese coffee filter (ca-phe brand) plus *real ground coffee* for morning caffeination, if you’re a real-coffee-addict like me and can’t be doing with nescafe even in the middle of nowhere!
    – Italian sachets of risotto mix. I buy mine from one of the Italian delis in Soho (Lina stores, usually) – these are amazing – so light to carry, and taste very authentic and creamy and delicious even when cooked on a trangia!
    – expensive merino base layers. Definitely worth the investment. But oh, what an investment – eeek!
    – a women-specific rucksack. I bought mine at Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC, a true haven of joy, and a national institution) in Canada, but I’m sure such things are available here, for those whom they would suit. I am on the smaller side, and I had always previously thought that rucksacks just *were* cumbersome and awkward. Now I have my new one, I realise that this is not true at all! It actually fits across my shoulders rather than being that bit too wide the whole time, has chest straps and shoulder in sensible places and just *fits*. Bliss!
    – a pack of cards.

    My lose pile would include:
    – pesto. Yes, I know, why on earth would I ever have thought a glass jar of pungent oily stuff would be a good camping companion?! It leaked (of course). Sob! The memories!
    – proper trousers. I do not like having things around my ankles either. It irks me. But this is personal. Shorts or cropped yoga/running-type trousers do it for me, especially ones which are made from fast-dry fabric, which a lot of them are.

    Oh, your trip looks so lovely, I’m really glad you had such fun!

    P.S. Your article in the new Twist collective is brilliant – congratulations!!

  5. Anna says:

    I really enjoyed reading this – and the previous post on the WHW.

    Wins, for me: Platypus, lush deod (definately), woolen headband to keep messy/dirty hair away (saves on a million bobbles/kirbies, keeps my ears warm and can also be used as a scarf – prob one of my favourite walking items) but also long trousers. Think its prob most to do with bad allergic reactions to bites/stings etc – if I didn’t, I’d be shorts all the way. Also, some sturdy handknitted bobbin socks – never had walking socks more comfy, and with all the advantages of being pure wool.

    Fails for me – inevitably, the extra top I take “just in case”, then curse every minute I’m away. I never learn!

  6. lara says:

    I loved the article – this is going to be essential for holiday packing as I always take too much. I also secretly love walking kit recommendations – I have often been very disappointed with the sweaty effects of waterproof trousers so will perverse with shorts.

  7. Knit Nurse says:

    As an optimist I would have to add swimming costume and lightweight towel (or you could swim in undies/skinny dip if you are going somewhere remote of course). My recently-completed Lucetta jumper in Rowan Kidsilk Haze is a masterful combination of warmth and packability – it too scrunches up to almost nothing.

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