Backpacking equipment and other ramblings
Right from my start in 1981, I read everything I could find in books and in specialist magazines on the subject of backpacking, one aim of which, coupled with the experience I was starting to gain, was to refine and upgrade the clothing I wore and the equipment I carried. As examples, a pair of stiff and weighty ex-police wool trousers I had bought were replaced by lightweight, windproof and quick-drying walking trousers, while my smelly and temperamental paraffin stove was replaced by a clean and easy-to-use gas one.
Virtually every single thing I carry has been chosen with light weight in mind. Before you buy some gear you fancy, stop and ask yourself if there is a lighter alternative. For example, plastic flasks, plates and cutlery are lighter than the metal ones which are available, but even the plastic ones vary in weight. Use one of the little bars of soap you find in hotels; look online for tiny tubes of toothpaste. The tiniest penknife will cut open your foil food packs just as well as a big one. I weigh on scales the exact amount of muesli I will need, and I count out the number of spoonfuls of dried milk and energy drink powder to take with me, while I found that some brands of instant soups are a bit lighter than others. Even the sewn-on labels have been removed from my rucksack and the surplus ends of its straps have been shortened. Don’t laugh when you hear tales about backpackers who drill holes in the handles of their spoons; these guys know where it’s at, honestly! Every individual bit of weight saved adds up to a noticeable amount.
Why are tents or other items like stoves listed in stores or featured in magazines without including any weights? This is one of the most important points! Some suppliers that do list the weights do not stock any that I would regard as particularly light, while others claim theirs are light when they are anything but. It suggests to me that they have not seriously considered this side of things or, worse still, that their main interest is taking your money. After all, they will not be the ones carrying it. Do remember that you will be.
Many years ago I used to go fishing, and it was said that a lot of the gadgets on sale in tackle shops were designed to catch anglers, not fish. I don’t think things are quite like that in outdoors equipment stores, but caution has to be applied. Do you really need lightsticks, multi-tools, special bags and wallets? There are sets of cookware, different sized pans that nest together, sold complete with detachable handles and a storage bag. These are fine if you are in a base camp, but they are not for carrying with you. All I need is just one little pot to boil water in! Again, weights vary, with aluminium ones lighter than stainless steel, while titanium is lighter still (but unfortunately rather pricey as well).
The way you pack a rucksack is extremely important. All of your kit must go in the rucksack so that the items that weigh the most are close to your back in the upper part. This is achieved by putting the sleeping bag in first, which will fill the base of the sack, and then keeping the heavier items held in place up the back by stuffing light items such as clothing down the front of the sack. I remove the end poles of my Zephyros tent which I then fold to fit across my rucksack, that distributes its weight evenly; the pole bag goes down one side. Save the heaviest things (food, usually) for last, and keep them close to your upper spine, not either side. The same applies to side pockets if your sack has them; put the heaviest things nearest your back and light things away from you. I know from experience that this really helps to improve load carrying, stability and comfort. Pack your things any old way and you will constantly be aware of your pack pulling away from you while you are walking. Strangely, though, as I use my food up during my trip, my rucksack never gets to feel lighter, which it should do. Finally, don’t let anything rattle or clunk in rhythm with your stride, because it becomes very irritating.
There is no doubt in my mind how much longer things take to do when you are wild camping. Getting dressed or undressed inside a dog kennel-sized tent is a laborious procedure, and you must get your boots on and laced up before you can step outside. At home you stand in your kitchen with worktops, utensils, sink, taps and electric kettle all within easy reach, and in the bathroom too everything is at hand. You do not have to unpack each item ready for use and balance it on uneven ground, before levering your tired body off the floor to clamber down to a stream to fill something with water, afterwards picking bits of grass and little insects out of it before sterilising it. Overall, between getting out of my sleeping bag and setting off with my rucksack each morning, at least two hours passes.
On the other hand, I read of someone whose “backpacking nightmare” is washing up pans and plates. All I can say is, what washing up? I don’t cook a breakfast, while freeze-dried dinner packs can be eaten directly from their foil bags. My total for a day is a mug, teaspoon, dessert spoon and microwave bowl, that’s all, and they need little more than a rinse in warm water after use. Here is my menu, which leaves me wanting for nothing else, except maybe a pint or two of beer!
My meals per day
Breakfast: 1/2 pint isotonic drink (from powder), 3+ oz muesli with mixed in sugar, 1/2 pint milk (from powder), 1/2 pint black coffee with sweetener.
Lunch: Cup-a-Soup, energy bar, 2/3 Yorkie bar.
Dinner: 1/2 pint isotonic drink, freeze-dried dinner pack, energy bar.
Bedtime: remainder of Yorkie bar.
I also drink at least three and a half pints of water in a day.
Over the years I have gradually upgraded my walking clothing from natural fibres such as wool, to the extent that everything is now is of the best quality synthetic materials. I am a fan of the oft-quoted layer system, although with the exercise of walking plus my rucksack keeping my back warm and shielding it from breezes, just my microfleece shirt is sufficient on my top half, and maybe my fleece hat. On the infrequent occasions when I encounter other walkers in the hills, it rather surprises me that the majority of them are wearing heavyweight Gore-Tex jackets however balmy the weather conditions might be. It is only on colder days and when I stop for breaks or camping that I need to add my fleece pull-on and/or insulated jacket. My thermal baselayer is rarely used other than as sleepwear on colder nights, and even then I often start off wearing it but after a while I wake too hot and pull it off. My mittens are the least used item of all.
When backpacking in September, 10 to 11 hours out of every 24 are spent in my sleeping bag. Work it out: dark at 8 pm, read with a lantern till 9, then it’s not light till 7am and sometimes too chilly till 8. In my youth I could “die” for 9 or 10 hours at a time, but over the years I have become a lighter sleeper. In a tiny nylon tent that is usually on uneven or slightly sloping ground, I tend to drift in and out of sleep all night. Any running water, from a nearby trickle to a distant cataract, is plainly audible, you hear the wind in the grass, rain splatters or drums on the flysheet, and aeroplanes drone high overhead. Then there are the noises you cannot define (made by sheep, probably), that leave you laying there with the hairs raised on the back of your neck.
It took me some years to realise that much of my sleeplessness was due to the caffeine in the mug of coffee I used to drink after my dinner. Cutting it out made a big improvement.