Monday, 29 July 2013

A Question of Gear Part 2: Sleeping, cooking, eating, drinking

Poor sleep plus not enough (or not the right stuff) to eat equals pure backpacking misery. So what 'gear solutions' will I employ to avoid this?

I'll be sticking with the sleeping bag I already have. It's an Ajungilak three-season bag that I've had for around 12 years. It's been on a round-the-world trip with me in 2005 as well as countless other backpacking and camping trips. I can't remember how much it cost exactly - 'fairly expensive' is my only recollection. The comfort rating is -5c so it should be more than adequate for mid May to mid June. It doesn't pack down as small as more modern bags of similar rating, but there is no shortage of room in the Berghaus Vulcan II.

What about a mattress? I have a variety of battered old foam mats which I've used for backpacking trips for years. They're the sort of thing that have to be rolled up and fastened to the outside of the pack - not practical if you want to use a waterproof rucksack cover. For the Tay watershed walk I've decided to invest in something more comfortable, lightweight and compact: a NeoAir XLite therm-a-rest. It weighs 350g and packs down to the size of a 1 litre bottle.

NeoAir XLite in its stuffsack next to a 1.5 litre bottle
 Doesn't take too long to inflate - at least I didn't lose consciousness whilst doing so!

It's substantially thick when inflated. It should provide not only warmth and insulation, but also protection from bumps and lumps on the ground in less-than-ideal wild camp sites, of which there will be many on the Tay watershed walk.

My pillow might just be the traditional rolled-up fleece jacket. However we do have some cheap inflatable camping pillows from Decathlon kicking around that were purchased for a family camping trip to Kent last year. Providing that weight and space allow, I may carry one of these.

Earlier this year I purchased a Primus ETA Paclite stove which I used on my overnight trip to climb Meall Horn, Foinaven and Arkle. It performed superbly in horrible conditions of strong winds and rain. With a windshield and pot with heat exchanger, it's fuel efficient, works quickly, and can be set up and used just about anywhere. It also has a plastic bowl which has a secondary function: protecting the inside of the cooking pot from scratches (the stove sits inside the pot when packed away). Rather than sitting on top of the gas canister, the stove attaches via a flexible fuel pipe. This means that stability is not such an issue on uneven ground or in wind. No need for wedging the canister into a boot, between rocks etc.

The plastic bowl may be all I need to eat out of. I certainly got on fine with just this on the Foinaven trip. I'll also carry my penknife, purchased in Ullapool a few years ago prior to a two-day backpacking trip over the Beinn Dearg range and Seana Braigh, and I have a variety of old camping cutlery and a nice lightweight thermos-style mug.

Carbohydrates supposedly give you energy, but experience has taught me that plenty of fat and protein - i.e. the energy-dense stuff that fills you up properly, and preferably the animal variety - is what really keeps you going on an extended load-bearing walking trip. In my very earliest overnight trips into the Cairngorms my rucksack contained such delights as dried macaroni cheese, pot noodles, biscuits, chocolate, oatmeal and bananas. The result was that by the second day I would often feel chronically hungry and weak. More recently I've always ensured I carry a block of cheese, mixed nuts, and some form of meat (smoked sausage is ideal). Cheese and sausage on oatcakes makes a good lunch on the move.

If dried macaroni cheese and the like are out, it's inevitable that I'm going to have to carry some freeze-dried purpose-made expedition food with me for main evening meals. I've tried a few of these in my last few trips and found them tasty, filling, and hassle-free to prepare. They're full of calories and (unless specifically vegetarian) contain plenty of meat, fat and protein. They can be expensive, but you do get what you pay for. Therefore they'll be strictly for the remotest parts of the walk where I'll need to carry several days' worth of food - for example the Cairnwell to Dalwhinnie. The Mountain House brand I've found to be relatively modestly priced but still very good quality.

Where re-stocking is easier and I don't need to carry so much food, I envisage having a few tins in the backpack - meatballs, corned beef, tinned stew and chilli - along with a bag of rice.

On the Foinaven trip I tried muesli, pre-mixed with a generous amount of powdered milk and then mixed with boiling water, for breakfast. This worked well so will probably be my staple breakfast for the walk along with some form of extra protein, maybe a couple of slices of smoked sausage.

 You'll be aware, if you've read stories about the Antarctic exploits of Scott and Shackleton, of a foodstuff called pemmican. Originating amongst native Americans, it's the ultimate fat and protein-based expedition food, made from ground beef and beef tallow. If I could get hold of it I'd take plenty of this stuff with me. Sadly, searches on the internet to source pemmican in the UK have yielded nothing. I have seen recipes for making it but it looks like a lot of work. A high-protein alternative could be beef jerky or 'biltong', seasoned and air-dried strips of beef that have a fairly long shelf life. These would make good snacks along with mixed nuts, dried fruit and chocolate.

Carrying fresh fruit and veg is not an option, at least not in any quantity. I'll aim to get these in during rest days. Perhaps a multivitamin supplement would be worth carrying instead.

Quite simply, water, tea and coffee, and a hip flask of malt whisky for the evenings.

I've never hesitated to drink water straight from mountain streams in the past, and have never bothered with filters or water purification tablets. Recently, though, a friend told me about a family member who had fallen seriously ill and suffered permanent damage to their health after contracting something from a stream in the Lake District. Moreover, much of my route will be through lowland areas. I've decided therefore to invest in a water bottle with built-in filter for the walk. This one, a military-spec product, is what I'm most likely to go for.

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