Four essential purchases for day hiking

A while ago I did a post about how to ensure you have all the essential hiking gear to be safe on your trips. That list is about planning your loadout assuming you already have a well-stocked kit locker, or enough money to go shopping and not worry too much about the cost. This list is about the day hiking essentials.

Think: what if you’re going on one of your first day hikes,, or venturing somewhere a little bit more adventurous than normal, and you don’t already have all the kit you need. I’m a big believer that it’s much better to build a kit-locker slowly, over multiple trips, working from experience and occasionally using less-than-perfect kit when it’s not absolutely safety-critical. Working on that basis, and assuming that going out and spending thousands of pounds isn’t an option, here are the first five essential items for hiking I reckon you should pay attention to:

Good hiking boots or shoes

It’s a truism of hiking, and the military and outdoors activities in general – take care of your feet and they will take care of you. Nothing will ruin your hike faster than sore feet and blisters, not to mention the risk of slipping if you wear completely inappropriate footwear. So take the time to buy some decent hiking boots or shoes. Personally I’d probably recommend shoes for the majority of day hikes but that’s another post for another day. Go with what you’re comfortable with, but take the time to research what you need, try on several pairs, and make an informed decision.

And if this seems like stating the obvious, I was pretty surprised/dismayed by the number of people climbing Snowdon in trainers, deck shoes, plimsolls, tennis shoes, and other assorted inappropriate footwear. Like I’ve said, there are certain types of kit where you can get away with a “this is all I’ve got so it’ll do” kind of attitude, but your footwear is not one of them. They don’t have to be expensive, they just have to be right.

A really good waterproof jacket

I’d go for investing in waterproofness before warmth, for a few reasons. Firstly, you almost certainly have some decent warm kit around already. It might not be this season, it might not be made from modern technical materials, it might not even really be designed for hiking, but I bet almost everyone reading this has a few old fleeces tucked away in a drawer, a puffer jacket in a cupboard, an old ski jacket somewhere. They might not be ideal but they will do for emergency warmth. After all, the first people to climb Everest did it in jumpers and tweed jackets. The point is, I’m less sure that you have a really good waterproof anywhere. Sure, you might have an old mac or something, but how waterproof is it really? Does it have the kind of hydrostatic head rating needed to keep of driving rain in a strong wind? When was the DWR treatment last updated, if ever? If you rely on your ‘back of the cupboard mac’ for a day hike in Wales there’s a decent chance you’re going to end up a lot wetter than you expected, and being wet on a hike is really miserable, maybe even worse than being cold.

In brief – you can still stay pretty warm with ‘bad’ layers. A ‘bad’ raincoat might not keep you dry.

The other thing, though, is that once you buy a really waterproof jacket, you’ll probably find you get loads of use out of it for day-to-day wear, more so than you would with a technical down jacket or midlayer, I’d guess. So from that point of view it’s also a better investment.

An active layer

Following on from the above, your ’emergency’ warmth doesn’t necessarily need to be technical. A ski jacket or old fleece or even a woolly jumper can be chucked in your pack as backup if the temperature drops or you get stranded and, since you probably won’t ever wear it, the worst you can say is that it’ll be quite a lot bulkier and heavier than taking a modern down jacket.

The same can’t be said of your main layer, the one you actually expect to wear most of the day. Wearing a woollen jumper or non-breathable jacket while actually hiking will quickly start to cause you problems as you sweat and overheat.

That’s why the next thing worth buying is almost certainly your most lightweight layer, as that is the one you will be wearing the most often, and closest to the skin. Investing in a decent, active, breathable and wicking jacket will be money well spent and make your hike considerably more comfortable.

A decent daysack/backpack

You can probably do quite a lot of hiking without a particularly good backpack, and it might not seem like something that’s really worth investing in until you have everything else sorted. Here are a few reasons, though, why I think it’s more important than you might assume.

Firstly, with the possible exception of your shoes, your backpack will make more difference to your comfort than any other piece of kit. You might think that for a day hike where all you are carrying is a bit of water and some layers, you can chuck them into any old backpack and you’ll be fine, and that is true to an extent. However, for a hike of any length, or with even a few kilos of kit, you’re going to start wishing you had a pack with ventilated back panels, decent padded shoulder straps, load lifter straps, compatibility with a CamelBak or other hydration system and, above all, proper hip support. Features like that make an enormous difference over the course of a day if you are carrying any weight at all.

The other thing is that having a proper day sack of the correct size will help you to pack correctly, giving you enough space that you don’t end up leaving out potentially critical kit just because there isn’t space, but also not giving you so much space that you end up filling it with unnecessary crap. A full-size camping rucksack isn’t ideal for day hiking, but nor is a tiny little tourist backpack. I use a 35L pack for day hiking, which gives me plenty of space for food, a stove and spare kit. I’d say that is about right to give you flexibility, and it could also be used for shorter multi-day trips. For very bare-bones day hiking, or shorter hikes in mild conditions, 25L would probably be sufficient but I would suggest that if you are going much lower than that, you might be missing out one or more of the ten essentials.

While you’re here, feel free to check this list of hillwalking essentials.

Making time

man running in field

When I was young, I was too busy, now I am old, I am too tired.

I had that quote written down in my notebook for ages. It’s from the film The Way, which I wrote a little about here, and it obviously had enough of an impact that I wrote it down when I was watching the film. It’s spoken, if I recall correctly, by the owner of one of the hostels along the Camino, explaining why he has never travelled the Camino himself.

It struck a particular chord with me because it seemed like such a sad statement about opportunity lost, and priorities misaligned until it is too late. One of my greatest fears is having regrets – a difficult fear to manage since a) it’s inevitable that you won’t do everything you might want to do, there simply isn’t enough time and b) it can be hard to predict what I might, once I am tired, regret not doing while I was too busy.

Continue reading “Making time”

Ice climbing

Last week I finally had a go at something I’ve been interested in for a while – Ice Climbing. If ice climbing seems relatively inaccessible, particularly in the UK, that’s generally true but surprisingly few people seem to know that there is in fact an indoor ice climbing wall at the Ellis Brigham store in Covent Garden, and apparently another in Manchester. So, rather than going to Norway, I booked there. Apologies there are no pictures of it – I didn’t manage to get any of myself, and I can’t find any online that have a noncommercial reuse license. Just Google ‘Vertical Chill’ though and there are a tonne.

Ice climbing is one of those things that I’m peripherally aware of as it is constantly mentioned in the books about mountaineering I like to read. It seems an integral part of serious mountain climbing for many people, but it’s totally alien to me. To put it another way, climbing Everest, for example, is more or less just a progression of the kind of skills required to do winter mountaineering in Scotland, say, which are themselves just a progression of the kind of skills required to do summer hiking in Wales. Ice climbing the Eiger, on the other hand, is something completely new and bonkers-sounding, so I had to get a taste of it.

For those that don’t have a clue what I’m on about, and haven’t worked it out from the pictures, ice climbing is the practice of ascending more or less sheer (or even overhanging) ice walls using ice axes in each hand, and crampons on your feet. Unlike rock climbing where you look for foot and handholds, in ice climbing you make your own, kicking your feet into the ice so the crampons dig in firmly, and swinging the ice axes so they bite into the ice and you can hang off them. If you are doing a real ascent, and not training somewhere with top-ropes already set up, you will also screw ice screws into the wall at various intervals to clip your rope into, giving you some degree of safety if you fall. Although you will still fall twice the distance from you to the last screw you dug in, plus all the slack and stretch in the rope, and that’s assuming the screw holds, so it’s not exactly going to be comfortable.

Anyway, the idea sounded simple enough. Like I say, you’re making your own holds so surely it would be a load easier than rock climbing, which I’ve done a fair bit of. Right? Well no, absolutely and totally not. Even allowing for the fact I was a little under the weather, ice climbing was one of the most surprisingly exhausting things I have ever done. I went up the first, simple face ok, trying to master the technique of digging the feet in, then pushing up with the legs, and using the hands for support but not to pull up. Once I’d done that, I had a go at the second face, with a sizeable bulge to get round a couple of metres up. After what must have been ten or fifteen minutes of flailing around; kicking, swinging, falling off, swearing a fair bit, and finally getting round the bulge I found myself clinging to the ice, utterly spent. I was panting as if I’d just run a marathon (and I should know) and my hands and wrists were so tired from what should have been the fairly easy movement of swinging the axe into the ice that I simple could no longer hit it hard enough to get the point to bite in. At that point, to my considerable embarrassment, I had to ask to be lowered down for a breather.

Learning new skills and realising that ‘fitness’ is relative, and sport-specific, is good, I think. It’s humbling to be reminded that no matter how good a runner I might be (and I’m not that good, but I can run a long way without giving up, which is a start) trying a new sport utterly destroyed me in less than half an hour.

If this sounds off-putting, though, it shouldn’t. Getting to the top of the first wall was incredibly satisfying, and when it is going well and you are in a rhythm of swing, swing, kick, kick, push, swing, swing, kick, kick push it is immensely enjoyable and rewarding. I highly recommend it to everyone, and apparently if you really get into it and want to have a go at doing it properly outdoors, Norway is the place to go. I’m not sure if I’m going to be doing that any time soon, but I will be going back to Vertical Chill if only to get round that fucking bulge and still have enough left in me to get to the top of the wall…

Three long-distance trail movies that’ll make you dig out your backpack and hiking boots

Here are three films about people hiking three of the world’s great long distance trails. While some of the films are better than others, you’d have to be made of stone for them not to make your heart beat a little faster at the thought of packing your backpack and hitting the open road for a few months…

The Way (2011)

I found this quiet, understated movie surprisingly compelling and moving. The story is a classic; uptight, selfish character suffers loss, sets out to find himself, faces challenges, meets diverse and quirky band of companions, and changes for the better. However, Martin Sheen plays the aforementioned uptight dentist with a low-key dignity that makes the clichés believable and engaging character quirks. Similarly, the other characters are engaging and funny, particularly the ebullient Dutchman. Of course, the real main character is the route itself, and The Way, unlike other similar films that treat the route simply as a pretty backdrop, does a beautiful job of capturing what it really means for the Pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago. More than perhaps any other film in this list, this made me want to have the same experience, and walk the Camino.

Wild (2014)

This film about The Pacific Crest Trail, one of the two epic hiking trails in North America is really about a flawed character who suffers loss, sets out to find herself, faces challenges, meets various strange characters along the way, and is changed for the better.

Hmmm.

In all seriousness, though, it’s a very different film to The Way. To a large extent it is held together by the performance of Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, who is alone for large chunks of the film. Fortunately, she’s incredibly engaging and plays this troubled but resilient and complex character perfectly. It has some of the standard tropes of the ‘inexperienced hiker goes hiking’ theme; overly heavy pack, difficulty putting up tents or using equipment, but also does a good job of showing off the beauty of the PCT and the joy and fear of being alone in the wilderness.

A Walk in the Woods (2015)

This is a film about the other epic hiking trail in North America, the Appalachian Trail. In all honesty this is my least favourite of the films featured here. It’s a shame as I loved the book, but sadly the film fails to capture the humour of Bill Bryson’s wry but informative commentary, while also struggling desperately (and largely failing) to make a compelling narrative out of what is basically just a story about two middle aged men who walk some, but not all, of the Appalachian Trail. Robert Redford’s slightly too elderly Bryson is, while almost absurdly likeable, also very bland, and the film never really managed to capture his complex relationship with Stephen Kurtz. It does show some spectacular scenery, but still doesn’t really manage to get across the sense of what it might be like to hike the Appalachian Trail in the way that either The Way or Wild do.

However, it’s certainly watchable enough, and enjoyable in a very gentle, very mildly funny kind of way.

Sussex Border Path trail run: 15 miles of bliss

Yesterday, as it was beautiful and sunny and it’s a while since I’ve done a big run, I did a 15 mile trail run in the South Downs. A big part of planning a trail run is figuring out a route that runs between two train stations, but is still attractive and interesting to run along. I’ve been a fan of the Ridgeway for that, but it’s sort of the wrong side of London for me, whereas most of the train stations in the South Downs are an easy direct train from Clapham Junction, my nearest big station. Although I’d hoped to run some of the South Downs way, I just couldn’t work out a run of the right length that would enable me to start and end from a convenient train station, so I’m going to leave that to another day when I’ll camp out for one or two nights. Instead, I decided on the Sussex Border Path trail run, a route across a less well known but still extremely pretty route which skirts more round the edge of the national park and which conveniently almost links up Haslemere and Petersfield, two well-connected medium-sized stations.

Jake on the Sussex Border Path trail run
Me, just after setting off on the Sussex Border Path trail run. Notice I’m not sweating yet.

The trail is largely well sign-posted, but nevertheless there are several points where it’s almost impossible to find the next section without a map. The Sussex Border Path website conveniently provides the relevant sections of the OS map on A4 PDFs so I just printed out the bits I needed and used that. Even then, getting onto it from Haslemere was a struggle – at one point you get to a row of houses and have to get behind them into the woods, there is infact a public footpath but it’s un-signposted and hard to differentiate from the very non-public footpaths that lead into people’s gardens. Aside from that and a few other points where the path diverged and no signpost was to be seen, it’s a lovely route to run; largely quite close to civilisation (which is good if you need to re-stock water or have to abort for any reason) but avoiding too much time spent on roads and generally very quiet and picturesque. The majority of it (or at least the section I ran, which is only a small part of the total path, of course) is in woodland so there aren’t a huge number of sweeping vistas, but I did stumble on one, albeit only by slightly losing my way, and it was the kind of perfect solitary spot with an uplifting view that made the whole effort of 2hrs round trip on the train worthwhile.

forest in sussex
The Border Path trail offers stunning views into the green heart of Sussex.

The run itself was just what I needed training-wise; hilly, with some steep sections, but nothing too ridiculous, and plenty of uneven ground. I didn’t take it overly quickly, but managed to maintain a decent trail pace of 9:44 over 15 miles, which is fine for this sort of thing. All in all, a good day out – the next step is to run more of the path, with more weight, and camp out overnight.

end of the sussex border path trail run - some parts of the route have a primal feel about them.
The end of my trail run beckons. Thanks Sussex, I’ll be back on the Border Path soon.

If you’re looking for a more rugged route that you can run or hike, then check out write up of the north to south route across Dartmoor.