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…

Guest Post: Westcomb Apoc Review

Westcomb Apoc

This is a guest post by Isaac, our US Correspondent.

Anybody who has even briefly considered buying a rain jacket in the last decade has probably discovered the rabbit hole of competing technologies, hyperbolic claims, and unverifiable, proprietary breathability tests.

If you’re absolutely new to this discussion, I’ll hand you over to a man much more qualified than I am – Andrew Skurka, king of hikers. He doesn’t pull any punches.

The short version – that many of you will have suspected or come to realize on your own after years of owning disappointing rain jackets – is that there really is no perfect solution. No matter what manufacturers claim, no single garment or fabric is going to keep you absolutely dry, whether from the inside or out, in all conditions.

The upshot of this realization is to inspire increasing specialization amongst rain jackets. Someone looking to buy something to keep them dry is now faced with everything from the most hardcore, 3-layer bombproof Gore-Tex piece, such as the Alpha AR from Arc’teryx, through to simple 2-layer shells like the Marmot Precip, as well as the soft-shells popular with more active types, and even the minimalist, DWR-treated Nylon wind jackets like the Patagonia Houdini and Arc’teryx Squamish. You’ll encounter very serious hikers with long distance trails under their (very rugged looking) belts, who advocate nothing but an umbrella – or poncho, or rain kilt, or something else similarly improbable yet oddly beguiling.

I couldn’t possibly help you choose. Or at least, I could, but it would be time consuming and tedious for both of us. Outdoorgearlab.com does an exceptional job of breaking down the many different categories, but ultimately the various compromises you wish to make in comfort, protection, weight, ‘breathability’, design, quality and versatility are all very personal decisions.

Regardless, despite the above caveats and Andrew Skurka’s misgivings, the one item that almost every hiker will end up owning is a hard-shell – by which I usually mean, a jacket that offers excellent, inherent, protection against both wind and rain, bolstered by a DWR coating to stop the fabric wetting out and losing its ability to vent. I am no different – and as a risk averse hiker, even on the most beautiful, unthreatening summer days, you’ll find a hard-shell in my backpack where a DWR-treated wind jacket would suffice 99.5% of the time.

Which hard-shell? I own the Westcomb Apoc (the version prior to the current one, which by all accounts improved on the one I own). Westcomb are a smallish manufacturer based in Canada, who make expensive but exceptional outdoors gear – the prices may be justified to some by the fact that their jackets are made in Canada. Personally I couldn’t have even considered their prices except for a very fortunate sale, but having owned the Apoc I realize it represents terrific value for money.

The jacket, although it is a ‘hard-shell’ lacks many of the characteristics many have come to expect of them – and this is a good thing. The fabric is Polartec’s NeoShell, which is neither crinkly nor rustles when walking – even with the hood up, the ever present swish-swash that accompanied the wet English walks of my childhood is almost completely absent.

There is not a multitude of pockets, just a minimalist selection of well-placed, brilliantly sealed and very trim places to tuck away a phone, map or snack. The drawstring system is simple but effective, both at the waist and on the hood – I’ve never had a jacket before that fits so well, but so comfortably to my face. It doesn’t sag forward over my eyes, or funnel water into them. Instead, the little peak stays firm and keeps slanted rain away, and the sides seal well against my cheeks when adjusted right, stopping any rain from coming in and doing the unpleasant, cold, neck-trickle-down. The armpit vents are always a nice feature – and an acknowledgement that no matter how ‘breathable’ the fabric might be, nothing works as well as simply exposing your hottest, sweatiest areas directly to the elements.

The little touches I’ve come to especially appreciate are the ultra-soft, microfleece areas at the front and back of the neck, where a rougher fabric would rub against beards, cold mouths, and sensitive skin. The little hoods at the top of each zip do a great job of directing water away from running into any open pockets.

It’s been a year now since I bought the Apoc, and I’ve had a chance to take it on a fair number of hikes in varying conditions.  The Polartec Neoshell is not magical – if you do anything strenuous while wearing this shell then you will inevitably get sweaty. Unfortunately, physics reigns supreme over fabric technology. Is it better than alternatives? No doubt. I own a Patagonia Torrentshell (made with their H2NO fabric) that I use in town, and the difference is stark. The Apoc has none of the instant clamminess that comes with other hard-shells – and I notice that Neoshell is used as the main material in several soft-shells now – a testament to its capabilities.

I don’t notice any drop off in wind-stopping capabilities with it, either. Although there surely has to be some compromise somewhere to obtain its well-vented feel, I’ve never felt anything less than absolutely protected on the top of New Hampshire’s mountains in Winter. Perhaps if I were climbing in the Rockies in Winter I might consider a shell more traditionally considered ‘bombproof’ – but I suspect it would be unnecessary.The rain protection is second to none. Out of the box, the protection was excellent – I was looking out for any weak spots but saw nothing. I’ve refreshed the DWR coating just once – after six months and 10 or so rain showers I noticed some wetting out on the shoulders, and threw it in the tumble dryer with some new DWR treatment. Ever since, the rain has quite literally flown off the jacket. Seriously – it’s impossible to get it wet.

In conclusion – a fantastic jacket that stands out in a crowded marketplace full of options ranging from the very bad to the very good. Although its pricey, when it comes to hard-shells it’s actually not even on the highest end. Highly recommended.

Running safety tips

Running is not exactly an extreme sport, but it has its risks nevertheless, and sometimes it’s easy to forget how vulnerable you are running along country lanes, or running alone in potentially risky areas, especially at night. So, here are a few running safety tips, and some products to consider.

Plan your route

This is relevant for both avoiding traffic accidents and for avoiding the (very low, to be fair) risk of being the victim of crime while out running. It’s sort of a shame to have to plan ahead, rather than just run freely, but it’s worth it so that you don’t find yourself blindly running into a more dangerous area. That might be somewhere where you could be seen as a target for crime, or an area that may increase your vulnerability to traffic, such as narrow winding roads with high hedges.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t run in such places, but it’s important to do it knowingly, having considered the risks and mitigated them if you can, rather than unknowingly because you just went for a plod with your headphones in and didn’t think about where you might end up.

Take a phone

I never run without a phone anymore. iPhones have got so big that they no longer fit into my running shorts pocket, but I generally run with an Osprey Duro 1.5 running vest to help carry it, and other kit. A smartphone will help you find your way if you get lost, it’ll allow you to call for help if you get injured, it’ll let you call a friend if you get stuck or have to abandon the run, and it’ll give you a chance of calling the police if you get into real trouble. For the minor inconvenience of having to find a pocket to put it in, it’s crazy not to take a phone. If your running shorts don’t have pockets, I’m a big fan of the Y-Fumble arm pouch, which is simple, lightweight, non-slip and the perfect size for an iPhone. If this doesn’t work for you, though, there are plenty of other options out there.

Light yourself up

Probably the most important running safety tip is to make sure you’re visible to other road or trail users. If you’re running exclusively on the pavement in a well-lit city then you might be alright, but for anywhere else you need to do some extra work to be seen. If I’m running on trails or country roads in the dark, I use a headtorch such as the Petzl Tikka headlamp, mainly to see where I’m going but also of course to make myself visible from the front, as well as a flashing red light clipped to the back of my running shorts or hydration vest. And sometimes, if I’m going somewhere really dark, a yellow reflective belt or even running top. It’s worth having a few bits and bobs like that so that if the only time you have to go running is when it’s dark, there’s never that feeling of “oh, I should go, but I don’t have a torch/red light/reflective top, so it’s better if I don’t”. Having the right kit for any circumstances always makes you more likely to run, and that’s a good thing (I take the same approach for running when it’s very hot or running when it’s very cold, which is why I have a set of yaktrax in my running cupboard…)

Plan for the worst

Especially on long-distance runs, don’t assume that just because you’ve planned a lovely circular route, or a run from one train station to another, or to be met by a friend 20 miles down the road, doesn’t mean that something won’t go wrong. Being stuck with a minor injury a few miles from home can be inconvenient. Being stuck with a twisted ankle ten or fifteen miles from the train station on a freezing cold day could be more than just inconvenient, and actually dangerous. Relying on being able to run home isn’t a good idea; assume you might have to hobble, and plan for what you would do if that happened. If it’s a city run in an area you’re familiar with then it might be enough just taking a mobile phone (see point 2) and perhaps a £5 note so you can buy a drink in a warm pub while you wait for rescue, or get a bus home (or in London, just take your oyster card). On the other hand if it’s a long run in the countryside where phone signal might be ropey then take a warm jacket; a down jacket is extremely warm and light and squashes down to a tiny ball (check out our post on the best down jackets for men). It may even be worth carrying £20 or £30 in case your only option is to call a taxi.

All this might seem unnecessary, but the one time you do end up stuck in the middle of nowhere you’ll be glad you listened to me.

Keep emergency contact an medical details on you

I always used to be a bit paranoid about the idea of being killed or seriously injured out running and no one knowing who I was. It seems a bit morbid to think about too much, but if something does happen, you might want emergency services to be easily able to get in touch with someone, and potentially to be aware of anything that might affect your treatment such as allergies or medications. Some people also like to have their blood type somewhere visible, although in the UK they will never give you blood without checking your type anyway.

There are various options for this sort of thing, whether it is snazzy custom wristbands, old-fashioned military-style dog-tags, or just writing some details on one hand in permanent marker as I used to do.

Six things I learnt wild camping in the Brecon Beacons

Last summer I decided to hike over Pen y Fan with my brother and a friend, starting from the nearby train station in Merthyr Tydfil and ending in Brecon, where there is a bus back to Merthyr Tydfil. Although this is actually a perfectly achievable one-day hike, we wanted to extend it with some other walks and camp for a couple of nights. Wild camping in the Brecon Beacons is possible as long as you behave responsibly and leave no trace, although as we were very much not planning ahead, I was a little anxious about how easy it would be to find a suitable campsite. Well, here’s what I learned.

Also, yes, the Game of Thrones pun is very much intended and I’m quite proud of it.

1. Wild Camping is not that hard

As I mentioned, I was initially nervous about wild camping but there are plenty of woodblocks away from paths where you will be unseen and undisturbed. You simply have to be sensible, avoid leaving any trace of your presence, and be prepared to move on in the very very unlikely event that anyone asks you to. But it’s not like the place is filled with patrols of park wardens.

Wild camping gives you the opportunity to hike and sleep in amazing locations. Be bold, but be respectful of the land and other people’s property, and you’ll be fine.


2. What is wet may never dry

For the first part of our walk it was raining lightly on and off, and the long grass was soaked. I had only brought one pair of trousers, which is more than adequate for a two-day hike given weight constraints (see below) but as it wasn’t very cold and I don’t overly mind getting wet I took a fairly cavalier approach to striding through the wet grass and getting my trousers wet. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but by the time we came to set up camp it was pouring down and there was no way anything was getting dry. I had other dry clothes in canoe bags in my daysack of course, but not a second pair of trousers, so they had to be put back on again wet the following day, which was not a great start to the morning. As my trousers were the ones that zip off into shorts, I’d have been much better off doing that as soon as we got to the long grass, as it’s much easier to quickly get wet skin dry in a cramped tent than wet fabric.

Taking the extra time to stop yourself getting wet in the first place is almost always going to be more effective than trying to get dry once you’re already wet.

3. Dry socks mean morale

Despite the above, I had a pair of socks for every day, secure in a canoe bag. They might not be strictly necessary, but putting damp feet into dry socks into wet boots is a lot easier to cope with than putting damp feet into wet socks into wet boots. Believe me. It’s not just a question of comfort either; if you think you can’t get trench foot on a Welsh hillside, try a few days of wearing wet socks and wet boots all the time, and see what happens.

For short trips, I’d say a pair of socks per day is worth the weight. For longer trips, you can dry out a pair (Royal Marines are taught to tuck them into their armpits and let their body heat dry them as they yomp), but doing so might take all day, so a third pair may still be a good idea. Of course, extra socks is extra weight – but not a lot of extra weight, and for many of us the additional comfort will be well worth it.

4. If you want it, you’re carrying it up the mountain

Being comfortable camping isn’t hard. Large tents, air beds, camp stoves, kettles, lamps, dry clothes, etc all make it as comfortable as you want it to be. But then, you’ve got to carry it all up Pen y Fan. My pack ended up weighing around 17kg including food and water, which was hard to restock once we were in the national park. I could have been more comfortable while camping if I’d had a heavier sleeping bag and more dry clothes to change into, but then again I’d have been more comfortable walking up Pen y Fan if I’d had a lighter pack, so it’s all trade-offs.

Just remember that what seems worth chucking in as a ‘just in case’ item when you’re packing in your living room might seem less worth it when you’re carrying it up the mountain. Almost every trip I’ve been on, I’ve come to the conclusion that I could have ditched a bit of kit, gone lighter, and been no less comfortable. Much of that comes through experience.

(Note from Jake in 2020, re-reading this while re-publishing it on TrekSumo. I think the fact that I am now absolutely horrified by the fact that I ever carried a 17kg pack on a two-day hiking trip just bears out the point I am making above. There is no substitute for experience when it comes to figuring out what you do and don’t need on a hike, where you can tolerate cutting corners to save weight and where you can’t, what ‘ultra-light’ kit works and what is garbage, and so on. My PCT pack was substantially lighter than this, even with food for five days, and next time I do a major hike my pack will be lighter again. That’s the learning process.)

5. Even on simple, well-marked walks, there’s no substitute for a map and compass, and knowing how to use them

Pen y Fan is, by most standards, a simple walk. There are several well-trodden paths up it and, assuming you’re taking one of these routes, no advanced navigation is required. However, when we arrived at the top it was shrouded in fog (check out the picture at the top of this article for just how bad the visibility was) and by the time we had taken some photos, had a look around, and chatted to the only other hiker up there, I wasn’t completely sure which way we had come up, let alone which was the route down (we weren’t going down the same way we’d come up, as we were crossing Pen Y Fan on our way from one town to another, remember). In the absence of a map and compass and the basic skills to use them, this could at best have been a time-consuming problem and, at worst, actually dangerous as some of the drops from the plateau at the top of Pen Y Fan are relatively steep. As it was, I was easily enough able to orientate ourselves and identify the route off the top.

It is easy to set out on well-established day hikes like going up Pen y Fan without basic equipment and most of the time you’d probably be fine, but that one time in ten when it’s dense fog at the top, you’ll be glad you can do some simple navigation.

6. Know when to call it a day

The original plan had called for two nights camping, with a short walk on the first day, the hike over Pen y Fan the second day, and some other undefined short walk on the third day. However, by the end of the second day we had achieved our main goal, the rain showed no signs of letting up, we were weary, none of us had any dry clothes, and one member of the party had realised on the first night that his sleeping system probably wasn’t quite adequate for the cold nights and the ceaseless rain. As the organiser and de facto leader, I suggested at that point that we simply get the bus back to Merthyr Tydfil and head home that evening, instead of having an extra night in the field and morning of walking for the sake of it. The suggestion was seized upon with no argument whatsoever and we headed home, turning what could have been a demoralising slog into a thoroughly enjoyable 36 hour trip that is memorable for all the right reasons.

Having a plan is good, but you have to be ready to adapt it to changing circumstances, and the morale and condition of your party.

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.

Five tips for running in hot weather

Apparently the weekend was especially hot in the UK, and some of you who were racing or running found it a struggle. Meanwhile, where I am, it’s been no less than 35C for months, and frequently as high as 40. That makes running a real challenge, even early in the morning or late in the evening. So, whether you’re struggling in England’s heatwave or trying to train in a hot country, here are some tips:

1. Pick your time and place 

It should go without saying that, on a hot day, you want to avoid running at midday but, with proper planning, you can be even more tactical than that. Mornings are often cooler than evenings, but you can look at the forecast and work out the best time to run based on the balance of temperature and sunlight that you require. It’s also worth thinking about your route, though – a long run across open hills may sound appealing but if there is no shade, nowhere to buy more water, and limited opportunity for rescue if anything goes wrong, it might not be the best idea for the hottest day of the year. Consider where there will be shade, how much water you will need and how you will replenish it, and how you will bail out if you start to struggle.

2. Wear the right kit

Experienced runners already know not to run in cotton shirts, but this is especially important when it’s very hot. Let’s start from basics – sweating cools you down by evaporation. It’s not the fact of having water resting on your body that makes you cool, it’s the process of that water evaporating into the air. It therefore follows that to cool yourself most effectively, you want to sweat profusely while allowing the sweat to evaporate as quickly as possible.

So, the problem with cotton, for those of you who don’t know, is that it is not an effective wicking fabric. In other words, it absorbs moisture rather than moving it rapidly to the outside where it can be dried off by the wind. The result is that a cotton shirt will quickly become drenched by sweat. Once it is drenched, it can no longer absorb more sweat, and the effectiveness of sweating as a cooling mechanism will be massively decreased. In addition, when you stop you will be wearing a wet tshirt which can make you cold surprisingly quickly even on a hot day, as your body naturally cools down after exercise.

The alternative, a ‘technical’ wicking fabric, usually a polyester blend but merino wool also works well, rapidly pulls moisture away from the body and to the edge of the fabric, where it can be dried by the air, thereby allowing your natural sweating mechanism to be as effective as possible. It will also mean the tshirt is relatively dry at the end of your run.

So, wear technical fabrics. But what else? Well, while the temptation is to wear as little as possible, whether that’s going down to a vest or even taking your shirt off altogether, this may not be the best option. A lightweight wicking fabric over your skin can actually cool you more than bare skin, partly for the reasons given above, and partly because it simply keeps the sun off. Burning is a real danger when running, and can contribute to a heat injury, so on the hottest days consider wearing a lightweight but long-sleeved shirt, or a t-shirt and slip-on ‘arm coolers’. Try also to cover up the back of your neck, whether that is with a broad-brimmed hat, or a buff, or anything else. I found when running the Paris marathon on a very hot day a few years ago that wearing a buff round my neck and soaking it with cool water every so often made a huge difference to my comfort and kept me cool very effectively.

Finally, don’t forget sunglasses. Squinting against the sun actually uses up a surprising amount of energy and will exhaust you quicker than you might expect.

3. Hydrate, but don’t only hydrate

Most people can figure out that they need to drink water on hot days. Your body will make that pretty clear to you. However, some people are less aware of the risks of only drinking water. Hyponatremia is a serious medical condition that can and has killed marathon runners on hot summer days in the UK. It’s sometimes misconceived as being a problem caused by too much water, but that’s slightly misleading as what actually kills is a low sodium level. It is, however, true that this is brought about by replacing fluids lost through a high sweat rate only with water. This causes the sodium level in the body to drop, creating symptoms that are unfortunately not dissimilar to dehydration, which can prompt the affected person to drink more water, making things worse.

Fortunately, for those who are aware of the risk, the treatment is not complex; it is simply a case of ensuring that sodium lost through sweating is replaced by an electrolyte drink and/or taking salt tablets at regular intervals. On a hot day, if you know you have been drinking regularly, be aware that dehydration-like symptoms could be hyponatremia and rehydrate with a sports drink containing sodium, or with salt tablets.

This, by the way, is one of the only times I honestly recommend drinking a sports drink. And it should ideally be an electrolyte drink, not an energy drink. That’s just me though – I can’t stand most sports drinks.

In addition to this, think about your food/gel consumption. Hot weather and exercise can suppress the appetite and/or make you feel nauseous so it may be harder to take on foods than usual, and this could have a knock-on effect on your performance. If you have the chance, try something that is less sweet than usual (Gu gels do some salty and even bitter or sour options), or even a salty snack like mini-pretzels if there’s any way to get your hands on them.

Carrying all this water, juice and gels can be a challenge so this is when I really appreciate a good running belt or ultra vest. Read my Osprey Duro 1.5 review if you’re interested in my preferred option for this.

4. Expect to struggle, but expect to acclimatise 

Those of us who come from a reasonably cool/temperate climate like the UK will always struggle if we suddenly end up running on a hot day or in a hot country. Your heart rate and perceived exertion will almost inevitably be higher for a given pace, and that can be frustrating when you find you just can’t run as fast as you are used to, especially if that happens on race day. However that is just physiology and there is no letting it get to you or, worse, assuming that because you can run at a given pace on a 20 degree day you should run at the same pace on a 30 degree day and pushing yourself to do so despite all the warning signs of your body telling you to take it easy. You should expect to find it harder, acknowledge this, and adjust your race or training plan to allow for it.

However, the good news is that you can also expect to acclimatise. The body adapts reasonably well to hot climates in a relatively short space of time. Just a few days of moderate exercise at a given temperature will be enough to undo most of the negative effects mentioned above, and with a couple of weeks of careful build up you can be fully acclimatised and expect to perform as well as you would at your ‘home’ temperature. So if there is the opportunity to acclimatise, whether it be by getting out to the race country early, running in a (properly managed and monitored) heat chamber before hand, or simply spending some time in a sauna in the run-up, don’t assume that you don’t have enough acclimatisation time to make it worthwhile. Every day will benefit you.

5. Recover right

Finally, make sure you do the right things to recover correctly. Rehydrate, with cool water if possible, but take on electrolytes and sodium as well. Make a particular effort to warm down gently, to stretch and to use a foam roller as heat and dehydration makes you more prone to cramps and muscle soreness. Try to get into the cool and shade as soon as possible and let your body temperature gradually return to normal.

Three great trail runs you can do from London

I lived in London for nearly a decade and, in that time, I got pretty used to the easily-accessible running routes around me; whether it’s the perfect circuit for a little five mile jog, or an exactly 20-mile loop for a long run at the weekend. What they all have in common, though, is that almost all are on road and pavement, all are relatively flat, and all are affected by London’s tendency to suffer from unpleasant levels of air pollution in the summer months. Sure, there are some nice runs along the river, and there are some good parks, but finding that beautiful all-day trail run that lifts the spirit and works the calf-muscles is tough for Londoners, and so many of us continue to plod along the embankment or dodge the crowds on our run-commutes, and never venture much further afield.

The good news, though, is that it’s not actually that hard to do great trail runs from London, with all the benefit that entails: a softer running surface, cleaner air, better views, and some uneven ground and hills to strengthen key running muscles. Your best bet, at least initially, is to look for National Trails, all well documented on the National Trail website. They are generally well-maintained, well-marked (important when you want to just run, and not try to navigate as well), and specifically plotted to take you through some of the more beautiful areas of the countryside. Of course there are plenty of other trails that are not National Trails, and these usually also appear on OS maps and are marked with a consistent logo affixed to signposts and fences along the route, but they can sometimes be a little harder to find and to follow.

Either way, many such trails are easily accessible by train from London with stations either directly on or very close to the trail, making it straightforward to take the train out, run for as far as you wanted to go, and then get the train back home. Complex logistics and the need for masses of additional kit is kept to a minimum, as is time taken out of your day – although I do recommend giving a bit of thought to packing for a one-day trail run.

There are some considerations though; being well-prepared when running point-to- point on trails is vital as it can be hard to bail out early if you find you’d misjudged the distance or you pick up an injury. Few trails in the UK are so remote as to be seriously dangerous, but it could certainly be awkward if you twisted an ankle with ten miles to go to the next train station so it is important to at least take a phone, cash and warm kit with you. Being a greater distance from home also means you need to think more about kit and how to stay comfortable in all the various weathers and temperatures you may encounter as you run up and down hills, across 20 miles or more of countryside, over several hours.

Finally, many of the trails don’t offer obvious opportunities to refill water, so some planning ahead is required. Whether you carry enough water to get you through, or look for opportunities to divert and buy a fresh bottle along the way, you need to have thought about it in advance.

If you need some inspiration to get you started, here are a few of my favourite routes on national trails, going to and from accessible train stations (some of which are slightly off route, but no more than a mile):

The Ridgeway – Tring to Princes Risborough – 15 miles

The Ridgeway runs for over 100 miles to the West of London, through Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, ending in Hampshire. It takes in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and stays largely away from roads and towns. This particular route is easily accessible from London with Tring being a 45 minute direct train from London Euston and very close to the trail, and Princes Risborough just a 35 minute direct train back to London Marylebone. The run between the two is nearly bang-on 15 miles, which makes it a perfect mid-long run for someone looking to get started on trails, and it takes in some nice hills without ever being an absolute grind.

More to the point, it is picturesque and varied, with particularly spectacular views available from the top of Coombe Hill.

The North Downs Way – Farnham to Dorking – 23 miles

The North Downs Way runs along the south of London, weaving around towns like Guildford and Sevenoaks and ending up some 160 miles away at Dover. It might seem surprising to have a National Trail running through the less exciting bits of the commuter belt but the trail, although it admittedly takes in a few more roads and villages than the Ridgeway, is actually extremely picturesque and includes the Surrey Hills AONB (and all the cyclists that go with it – try to overtake them on the uphills if you can) and, later, some pretty countryside around Canterbury. It’s easy to jump on and off at various points as it passes so close to commuter stations, but I chose this leg because Farnham is the official start of the trail and because Dorking has such frequent trains back to London. Both stations are accessible from London Waterloo in around an hour and the run between them is scenic and interesting with just one or two serious hills and some bits of great countryside to take your mind off the gradient.

The South Downs Way – Petersfield to Winchester – 28 miles

The South Downs Way runs the entire length of the South Downs, from Eastbourne to Winchester. It’s a little harder to get on and off in between; although there are stations they are often a few miles from the trail itself, so some planning is needed. Petersfield is quite a good bet though, being an easy train ride from London Waterloo and relatively close to the trail. From there, there aren’t many opportunities to get off again so you’re pretty well committed until you arrive at the beautiful town of Winchester nearly 30 miles of glorious countryside and the occasional steep hill later. This isn’t, therefore, a run for the faint-hearted but it is beautiful, incredibly satisfying, and almost entirely remote from any signs of civilisation.

Review: WAA 20l Ultrabag – the perfect Marathon des Sables bag

As promised, here are some more detailed thoughts on the WAA 20l Ultrabag we were all given at the MDS expo on Saturday. I don’t know if it’s fair to really call it a ‘review’ since, while I have run 23 miles with it, I have not yet used it for its intended purpose – a multi-day ultramarathon. But whatever, here are my thoughts.


First up, I have the third edition MDS version. The ‘MDS’ bit just means it is yellow and has Marathon des Sables branding, the ‘third edition’ bit seems to incorporate some subtle changes which I will come onto later. It’s also worth mentioning that the pack has two possible front pouches. The one shown in most of the images is larger, with elastic strapping on the front, and the option for bottle pouches on the sides or strapping a bottle to the top. However, at the expo some people received this and some, me included, got the ‘lighter’ version of the front pouch which is just a small pouch with one holder for a water bottle at the side. In principle, fair enough, but I’m a bit fed up about it as I’m not sure the lighter pouch is going to do the job for me.

The trouble is that at most water stations runners will be given 3l of water, and without the option to strap a 1.5l water bottle to the top of this pouch, I’m not clear what I’m going to do with the water that won’t fit into the two 750ml water bottles on the shoulder straps. I may be able to solve this another way, or I may just have to buy the other, bigger, front pouch.


Anyway – other than that, this is a bag that was specifically designed for the Marathon des Sables, and it shows, with lots of features that feel like someone went “if only my bag had a XYZ”. In most respects that’s a really good thing, resulting in some neat features to make life easier, but the one downside is that it results in a relatively heavy bag. I haven’t weighed it yet but I’m told that with all the attachments it comes in at nearly 1kg, around double the weight of other super-light 20L bags. It’s all a trade-off, though, and I’m prepared to sacrifice a bit of weight for the ease and convenience of managing my kit that the WAA bag provides.

Layout and features

Starting with the main body, the bag has a very rectangular shape which makes it (some people think) a little ugly-looking, but I suspect makes packing a lot easier, especially if you are doing what a lot of ultra-runners do and packaging everything into separate little bundles that stack together ‘like Tetris’ as the man from WAA put it. It is extremely compressible, with elastic straps on both sides that can be used to shove kit into or to squash the bag down from its full 20l capacity to around 4l. The point is that as the week goes on and you eat your food, you still want a bag that keeps everything tight and not rattling around.


Inside the main compartment is an elasticated pouch that you can shove a few small items into to keep them secure, and an unclippable water-resistant zip-up pouch. This is one of those features that adds weight but also convenience, allowing you to put either wet clothes into it to keep the rest of the pack dry, or food into it to keep it sand-free when you are putting other things in and out of the bag.

One of the nice features with the main compartment is that it unzips almost all the way around (270 degrees apparently) so that, if you place the bag flat, you can fold the whole back off and see the entire contents easily. That makes it much easier to grab things from the bottom of the bag, as well as to reassure yourself you haven’t forgotten anything before you set off each day. Once the compartment is closed, two clips also attach the back of the bag to the top of the shoulder straps – these can be tightened or loosened depending on how full the bag is, and the theory is that they bring more of the weight of the bag over the top of the shoulders and not on the back.

In previous versions there was an option to attach a forehead strap to these clips so you could take some of the weight on your forehead like a Sherpa. In theory that is still possible but as far as I could tell the strap itself wasn’t included and it’s not really something I envisage using.

On the back of the main compartment are two little elasticated pouches, four points to attach your race number so it is visible from behind, and a long vertical pouch running down the back. Originally this used to be for the mandatory flare, but many people used it for storing foldable running poles, although apparently it was a bit too narrow to easily fit two poles. Anyway, the flare has been done away with this year as all competitors have emergency GPS beacons, so this pouch has been officially made a running pole pouch and has been made a little larger so that it should fit two properly.

The waist strap I found a little annoying – it is a very simple webbing belt with a buckle and adjustors, but with two padded pouches slipped over the belt providing some hip padding and extra storage. That’s all well and good, but as they aren’t attached to anything they tend to slide around when I’m running which drove me mad on my long run on Sunday. Job one is going to have to be securing them back against the main body of the bag so they are just over the hips and not moving around or getting in the way of my arms.

The chest strap is pretty standard, and like many other ultra-running packs it includes a whistle which presumably eliminates one mandatory item from my list. There are also four more of the race number attachment points here, so you can attach the number over your chest as the rules require.

Finally, on the shoulder straps are the two water bottle pouches and two 750ml water bottles with drinking straws. These aren’t bad, although the lack of an elasticated rim around the pouches makes replacing bottles on the move a bit harder than it might be. I also found the straws a bit rubbish – they have drinking tips that can be opened by pulling away from the straw (that probably makes no sense… but it’s basically the standard open/close sports drinking bottle type arrangement) but there is no positive click and if you pull too much the whole rubber tip comes off very easily. They also seemed rubbish at getting the last inch or so of water in the bottle, but I guess that may be my fault for doing a bad job of cutting the straws down or positioning them. At any rate, Graeme Harvey convinced me that there are much lighter bottles available so I might look for something a bit different over the next few weeks.

Summary


Overall, this is a brilliant bag for the purpose it’s specifically intended – it has a removable pad that makes it pretty comfortable for a lightweight bag, and all the little features make organising your kit easily. There are a few niggles, and I will need to figure out how to best carry and drink my water, as well as experiment more with carrying all my kit and see how it feels at full weight, but as it stands I can’t see myself needing to buy any other bag for the race, and afterwards this should do me very nicely for fastpacking adventures.

Packing for a day trail run | Tips from the Trail

You don’t need much for a one-day run, even a long one, but if you’re doing a trail run out somewhere a bit more ‘wilderness-y’, even if only for a few hours, then there are a few things you’ll need. Here’s what I take.

OMM ultra-15 backpack - perfect for a day trail run
OMM Ultra-15 pack, I love this!
  • Bag: OMM Ultra 15 – a beautifully light bag that’s got plenty of space for a one day run, hooks and channels for a camelbak, and side and belt pouches for easy access to snacks and gadgets. It also has a whistle in the chest strap which isn’t exactly a must-have but probably a worthwhile safety feature when running in a national park.

In a medium-sized drybag:

  • Lightweight rain shell. The one I use is the ‘free’ one that London Marathon handed out a couple of years ago to people who didn’t get in via the lottery. It’s neither as light nor as waterproof as the best ones on the market (Nike, Patagonia, amongst others) but it was free (sort of) and it does the job.
  • Down jacket. Way too hot to run in, but useful for keeping warm on the train home. The one I’ve got is rated down to -5 which is overkill for early autumn in the UK but given I’m trying to keep my pack light, it’s useful having a post-run jacket that, in a pinch, could double as an emergency ‘broke my leg and have to stay the night in the open’ jacket. Check out this resource for some of the down jackets we’ve reviewed.
  • Clean t-shirt. Not vital, but much appreciated on the train home, not least by those who have to sit next to you…

In a small drybag:

  • Phone, keys, wallet etc. also a penknife but only really because I carry one everyday anyone.

To wear:

  • Nike dryfit shorts and tshirt
  • Brooks Ghosts running shoes or Salomon trail shoes, depending on the terrain
  • Asics running cap, one I got from the Marathon de Paris
  • Buff, also from the Marathon de Paris

Nutrition:

  • 1.5 l Camelbak of water
  • A handful of gels
  • In the case of Tuesday’s run, I was trialling dried banana chips and Peperamis, as I’ve heard they can be good for the Marathon des Sables