Lighweight In The Hills Wednesday July 13, 2011

In the last five or ten years, there’s been a growing interest in cutting the weight we carry when we hike. Read a book about walking prior to this and it would advise big, heavy, traditional mountain boots. I duly bought a pair of Scarpas which lasted fifteen years before I either resoled them or replaced them. I walked in a lighter pair of boots I’d bought from Oxfam for £3 and found – after some trepidation – they were perfectly adequate. I’d had no accidents, and as I ambled across Saint Sunday Crag enjoying Lake District views I realised I preferred them, in some ways, to my expensive Scarpas. In a magazine famous gear reviewer Chris Townsend recommended a £50 pair of Hi Gear boots which I found wonderful, and then I graduated to sandals. Sandals are my favourite footwear at any time, and that includes hill walking. I started with a pair of Merrells, but they cut into my heels viciously. The last time I wore them was doing the Dale Head horseshoe in the Lake District when I stuffed tissues into them to absorb the blood and cushion the damage. And yet for the first hour or two they were great: light, lithe, agile and cool. I now wear Keen Boulders and have used them twice in the Pyrenees, even across snowfields where others were using heavy boots, crampons, and axes. I admit they were better equipped than I, able to ascend and descend more quickly. But it wasn’t necessary; I had to slow down and have cold feet for a while, but for 90% of the time on my trips it was hot and sandals were ideal. Additionally, my Boulders were comfortable evening wear; I didn’t need a change of footwear and thus carry more weight.

I’ve just bought a new Petzl head torch. I bought my first one about ten years ago from a shop in Keswick and it served me well, for £30. Two years ago I noticed the Petzl e+lite and rather liked it: it’s smaller, lighter, brighter, and has a red light and flash mode. But at £30, I couldn’t justify buying it when my other one was serviceable. Then I saw it for £20 on the internet (lightweight again, a pixel based transaction instead of a heavy shop), and decided the cost/weight ratio was worthwhile. It’s a very neat, natty, clever design which also has a ring clip feature allowing attachment, for example, to a tent interior.

Another aspect of going light is the principle of multi use. My PHD sleeping bag for example is just about right for me at a zero degree rating. On the few times it’s been colder (Lake District February 2010 was memorable, stumbling with my head torch over snowy, icy and humpy ground looking for a pitch) I’ve worn my base layers or fleece on top of my PJs – yes, I like having cotton leggings and top for sleeping. It seems most people sleep unclad but I prefer to protect my expensive down bag, have a little minimal luxury, and an additional insulation layer accounted for in the overall plan – with the further option of an extra emergency layer for the day. I have considered silk leggings for their greater insulation benefits but they’re quite expensive, probably not as durable as cotton, and cotton feels lovely after a hard day on the hills, a cold wash in a tarn, and a quick scramble into down. However – note to self – I read somewhere about a chap who uses ladies tights during winter, which are lighter and less bulky than thermal layers. The only problem is the nylon feels nasty (well yes, ahem, I have on occasion felt it) but thinking about it I have (ahem) occasionally noticed the ladies wearing what appears to be cotton-like tights. I shall investigate henceforth, carrying a suitably masculine air about me of ‘I’m buying these for the girlfriend’. Lady tights would crumple up smaller than my leggings; that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Similarly, two years ago I replaced my budget fleece with another ‘technical’ fleece which was a little more compact when rolled and stuffed. I wouldn’t pay £50 for such marginal benefit, but a sale price of £25 made it worthwhile. Fleece is quite bulky and I investigated a merino wool outer layer which could double as a warm base layer (it was quite comfortable against the skin), but I found wool even bulkier. Two years ago I wanted to buy a Smartwool base layer after trying one in Switzerland; in comparison to Icebreaker I find them more silky and comfortable. You couldn’t get them in the UK at the time but now you can. There’s a new Go Outdoor store in Manchester with quite good prices; that’s where I got mine. I used to wear a synthetic Berghaus top which had good insulation and moisture control properties but it felt nasty: I would never wear polyester for city use, for that reason. Then I tried silk, which is comfortable but not so good at moisture control: you get a cold back at rest stops when you remove your pack and put it on again. The moisture control properties of Smartwool are better than silk, and it’s probably slightly better for insulation. I first used my top in Wales in the hills above Beddgelert, and I’m now a fan.

The issues are weight, bulk, comfort, safety, and cost. Weight and bulk are best kept minimal, though not at the expense of safety and according to comfort preferences. I find my Thermarest Prolite allows me a good sleep in the hills, but I’ve noticed when I slide off it in the night it doesn’t wake me. I surveyed my muscles for stiffness and ache in the morning after lying on the ground and I was still relaxed. So I can probably go a little harder: I considered a Gossamer Gear Night Lite sleep pad which is lighter and it can be strapped on the outside of a rucksack freeing up space. It would be be marginally less comfortable but well within acceptable limits and because I push the capacity of my pack to its limits when I’m in the Pyrenees, I need more space. I’ve considered a larger rucksack but that would mean more expense, marginally more weight, and it would be excessive for my UK trips. However – I’ve just found a bargain price Thermarest Neo air and I’m pleased with the purchase. Its about half the packed size of the Prolite, reports say it’s as comfortable or better than the latter, and it’s about 50 grams less. The Night Lite pad is only another 50 grams less again and the bulk is considerable, making for a convenient but clumsy arrangement if you strap it to your pack.

Heavy gear hurts, tires, and saps joy from the experience of the mountains. Joy is why I do it. Joy is what I want, when I go back to the Pyrenees again in a few weeks. Last year I suffered a great deal from fatigue, with my pack feeling appallingly heavy. So this year I’m buying a few bits and pieces to lighten up – most expensive of all, a ULA CDT rucksack to replace my still serviceable Go Lite Jam. The Jam is itself quite light, a revelation after the equipment from traditional brands like Berghaus. But the CDT is three or four hundred grams lighter and it appears, also, to have a more clever design and more comfortable straps. The CDT is expensive, more so when it’s shipped from the US, such that I wouldn’t buy it for ‘normal’ UK use. But for the Pyrenees, and the investment in time, cost and effort that already involves and the pleasurable ‘return’ I want, I think it’s a good decision.

It’s a remarkable change, how ‘ultralight’ hiking and camping has entered the consciousness and buying habits of walkers. It’s still not fully accepted; the two major UK magazines, Trail and TGO, represent this debate. The latter leads the way, the former runs occasional editorial which mocks and rejects it. But irrespective of that everything has shifted towards greater lightness and at the very least, we now have that option. Ten years ago, ultralight equipment wasn’t being manufactured. What now seems obvious rested on a change of thinking and attitude and a few people leading the way. When I first considered light foot wear it simply ‘felt wrong’. I wanted heavy weight on my feet. Then I read (from Chris Townsend) how much energy and effort it uses, how traditional boots prevent natural foot action, and how this is, literally, a drag on your walking pleasure. I realised light boots ‘feeling wrong’ was questionable, resting on a subjective sense of security I’d ‘learned’ from the traditional walking books. I realised, as I surveyed British hills accordingly, the terrain was not that difficult. A bit rocky, sometimes steep, but even a route like Snowdonia’s Crib Goch is in that respect not so bad. Indeed, the last time I was there a party of young people traversed it in trainers. I’d do so myself; the only reason not to would be in conditions of rain, snow or ice, and if you want your trainers to last.

For cooking, I started with a Gossamer Gear meths stove and inexpensive aluminium pot. I tried gas – a Coleman F1 – but it broke and I don’t like canisters. Chris Townsend once said for longer trips of more than a few days gas is the lightest option. I’m not sure that’s correct. There’s one factor involved when you use gas which I’ve never seen referred to or evaluated. With meths, you see how much fuel you have and weigh it out and carry it accordingly. With gas, it’s weighing a canister in your hand and trying to guess, and you have to make allowances. In 2010 I threw a canister in the bin after my Pyrenean romp which was, I’d estimate, one quarter to one third full. Canisters are bulky, relatively expensive, can’t be carried on flights, you can’t see how much fuel they contain and it feels very wasteful when you dump them, with or without content. They can be difficult to find in shops abroad, more so the UK style screw top version, so you have to plan accordingly. In regard to the Pyrenees that could mean several hours walking around Toulouse, for example, feeling rather anxious because if you can’t find any canisters your holiday plan is scuppered. And most fundamentally, because you have to err on the side of caution, on long trips I think canisters might be heavier than more manageable meths. Other than that, gas is quick and convenient but I think the meths stove experience is more ‘organic’ and peaceful. Gas makes a noise and feels artificial; the flame is fierce and pressurised. The meths flame is more gentle and reminiscent of a campfire, licking rather than jetting mercilessly onto a pot. I’ve thus procured a Caldera Cone at a bargain price of £10 (left over item in a store, without the fuel bottle that usually comes with it), which is the optimum meths system.

You do have to wait longer using meths but weighing up all the various factors – in which weight is paramount – I think it now suits me better. The Cone is very impressive. Its only disadvantage is its delicacy; you have to pack it quite carefully but I’ve decided doing so is well worth it. It’s a great piece of kit. I’ve found cut off sections of plastic bottles, jammed into each other, protect it quite effectively. This takes up space, where I used to use an aluminium wind shield that folded flat, but I can offset that by packing something inside the arrangement; I haven’t yet worked out what that might be.

So this is the process – of continual optimisation, balancing the various factors of weight, size, safety, and expense. The more time you spend in the hills the more important it becomes and it’s always offset by two factors. Firstly, good kit lasts for years so it’s a good investment. And secondly, the walking itself costs nothing and this is one of the peripheral joys of mountain hiking: the only expense is travel, and kit, and a few occasional camp sites.