2010 – A Scottish Odyssey: Part 1 – The Kit and Kaboodle

Good Decisions, Bad Decisions

I’m writing this entry on the train, returning from 5 days in the highlands of Scotland, walking and hiking.  It’s good I think that working in the IT industry, that we occasionally get ourselves away from the hustle and bustle and do something completely different.  I thought I’d share my thoughts on observations on my trip which overall I’d class as a success.  You may note a slight caveat in my tone there.   I believe all endeavours are a culmination of good decisions and bad decisions and they can be deemed successful if the good outweighs the bad.  In this case, good certainly outweighed the bad, but at one point it looked as if the entire trip might have to be abandoned almost as soon as it had started, due to a bad decision on my behalf, as you shall see later.

The Therapy of Hiking

For those of you who have never been hiking in the hills I can recommend no better medicine to cure you of the modern ills of working stress, trying to meet all the demands upon yourself and on others to deliver your goods or services.  It provides a reality check on our perception of our place on this planet, on the realisation that that which we all proudly call ‘modern civilisation’ is in reality, a very thin veneer over the fact that the world can be a harsh place. Beautiful but harsh. 

Preparation is The Key

To go walking in the Scottish Mountains in April, you have to be prepared for pretty much anything they can throw at you.  In the far north of Scotland winter drags on beyond the end of March and snow lingers on all slopes well into May.  The weather can be sunny and hot, rainy, freezing, blustery, snowy: and that is just before

Map picture

lunch.  I was heading for Wester Ross, the map shows you where that is.  You may spot some essential facts about the area from a simple glance. It’s remote.  Very remote.  Few roads, fewer trains, scattered hamlets and villages and therefore, few people.  Goody.  But few houses means you have to be prepared to protect yourself from the elements for hours at a time, probably even overnight.  Therein begins the first of many sets of decisions you have to make.  What should I carry?  Too little and you risk suffering from the cold or hunger.  Too much and you may waste valuable energy hauling around clothing and equipment you end up never using.  There is no silver bullet on this one I’m afraid, it depends upon your route.  That’s where I’d always start from.  Plan the route first.  This determines the mileage, height gained and lost, facilities available and so forth.  So I had decided with some urging from Sandra to opt for the Wester Ross area and I decided to traverse an arc from Strathcarron through Torridon, Kinlochewe, Dundonnell, Braemore and Aultguish.    These stops allowed me to stay in a Hotel at Strathcarron, a Youth Hostel at Torridon, a Hotel Bunkhouse at Kinlochewe, a Bothy (Mountain Hut) near Dundonnell, a Bed & Breakfast at Braemore and  Hotel at Aultguish.  Youth Hostel and Bothy mean self-catering, all the others meant I could get an evening meal from either the hotel or somewhere else local.  I ended up calculating I would need to self-cater 2 evening meals and 2 breakfasts.  First Bad decision, but offset by a good decision on places to stay.  More on this.


How to make the meals?  More decisions.  I opted for two packs of vacuum sealed meals from Sainsbury’s by Alyson Taylor.  Good decision.  Really tasty and simple to cook.  I also included two packs of pasta mixed with a bit of salt for cooking (For those of you obsessed with reducing salt, trust me, you need  the salt in the mountains, whether it’s hot or cold, the effort you put in means you sweat, believe you me, and you have to replace that salt or you will cramp up big time!).  Breakfast is easy.  Porridge oats mixed with sugar and powdered milk.  Just add water and you’ve a power-pack of a meal for the day.  For lunches I added in nuts, mini-mars bars, flapjacks a rolos. Mars and Rolos are good for quick energy boosts (use with care!) and flapjacks and nuts & raisons for longer term energy. 


Now for a killer decision.  Drinks.  First off, easy decision, avoid power drinks.  You need water in the mountains as water is a key ingredient in ensuring that you maintain your energy output.  You need to stay hydrated and to do so you need to drink about 2 litres of water a day normally.  Add in the strenuous exercise and you loose fluids way faster so you need more than 2 litres of water a day.  This is now a really tricky decision.  Why?  Try carrying around a 2 litre bottle of water for an hour.  You will notice that it is bloody heavy.  For me the solution was easy.  I chose to carry a 1 litre water bottle.  I knew I could get drinks most evenings and mornings and also that one commodity that North West Scotland has in abundance is water.  It pours off the hills in rivers and streams and in April with the snow melt still under way I knew the rivers would be full.  If you’re squeamish about drinking river water, don’t be.  Scottish streams have eminently drinkable water, even if it does look a bit brown in places, that’s just the minerals.  I could easily refill my bottle.  Good decision?  Well, I could have carried a 2 litre water pouch with drinking tube which makes drinking on the go much easier.  I wouldn’t have to stop to refill so much, or stop to get the bottle out of the pack, but I decided not to go for this option.  I’m not against water pouches, I think they’re great especially for cycling and distance running.  But for long distance walking with a pack I’m not a fan for the following reasons:  Firstly, it’s easy to keep supping away at a pouch, not realising how much you have drunk.  Secondly the impulse can be to keep going, treating the whole thing as a race.  Thirdly, having a water bottle forces you to stop to take a drink, allowing you to relieve your back of the weight of the pack, and also you can judge how much water is in your bottle and ration yourself accordingly.  Although water is plentiful in Scotland, much of it can be in standing pools, do not drink from these! You need to get it from running streams and there may not be too many on your route. Finally pouches are not as easy to refill from a stream as a bottle is. That’s just my opinion.  If you like pouches, use them.


Jeans are Evil!
For God’s sake never, and I mean never, repeat after me NEVER, wear jeans in the mountains, they are not windproof, they soak up water like a sponge and they are freezing cold while they take their own sweet time to dry out which may be never … They are a recipe for Hyperthermia!

We’re spoilt for choice these days for mountaineering clothing. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just go through what I took on this trip and which has served me well on all non-winter expeditions. Footwear was easy. I took boots, sturdy walking boots with a full shank, what you might call two or three season boots suitable for all but deep winter work. I took a pair of thin ankle-less sports socks over which I wore long Nora Batty thigh length woolly socks. If in doubt wear wool. It’s warm even when wet. Finally for the feet, I took a pair of waterproof gaiters. Trust me, you need gaiters, forget making a fashion statement.  Trousers were also easy, I took the tough Rohan style trousers (not jeans – see side-panel on Jeans are Evil) , loads of pockets but most important they dry out in no time at all. I didn’t take water-proof trousers.  Some people may not agree with me on that, but I’ve never needed them in non-winter conditions, thanks to the quick-drying Rohans. I took a thermal top, again quick drying, a Norwegian style army shirt, quick drying, with a strange ability to be cool when it’s warm and warm when it’s cool, and a Goretex shell jacket; windproof and waterproof.  For headwear I took a fleecy balaclava which doubles as a hat and scarf.  For my hands I had tight-woven woolly mittens.  Mittens are better than gloves unless you’re doing technical stuff with ropes and things, they keep your hands much warmer. Wool because … wool is warm, wet or dry.  For spare clothing, I took one pair of underwear, a spare pair of the long woollen socks and a micro-fleece which is light and warm.  How do you judge what spares to take? Experience. It allows you to make good decisions.  Usually though to get experience means you have to deal with some bad decisions. My overriding concern was to carry the least possible amount of equipment which was commensurate with safety.  Weight means effort, effort means sweat, sweat means thirst, thirst means drink and drink means water, water means weight which you have to carry …  it’s a vicious cycle.

Other Kit

Walking in the mountains means doing your own navigation which means being able to read and navigate by a map and compass.  I pride myself that I’m pretty good at this and so of course I took a good compass and a couple of maps of the area.  Here’s a tip.  The Ordnance Survey Web Site allows you to build your own maps.  They cost a little more, but it worked out cheaper to order two bespoke maps rather than buy the 5 standard maps I would have needed, plus the faffing around joining them altogether.  I took a single walking pole. Good decision. A better decision would have been to take 2 walking poles.  Walking poles look like ski poles but are telescopic.  For people like myself, the superior side of 45, the knees and ankles take a real pounding coming down the hills. Poles help to relieve this pressure and also can help you cross annoying obstacles like sticky peat runs much more easily.  I’ll be taking 2 from now on.  I took an ice-axe.   Good decision.  Not for ice climbing and purists would baulk at my use of it on this trip, but in my humble opinion it saved my backside on day one.  I also invested in a pair of lightweight crampons which had a rubber frame and slipped over my boots neatly and easily.  I never really nee ded them, but I did use them.  Very impressed.

I took a stripped down Trangia Stove for cooking out at the Bothy.  Good decision.  I’ve had this stove for years.  It runs off of methelayted spirits, is small, not trangiapressurised and comes with a package of tins which makes it easy to store your food and fuel and cooking and eating implements in one neat, tidy space efficient bundle.  The only downside is you need to carry the meths. This burns really hotly and boils water quickly, I’d forgotten how quickly until I was reminded on this trip,but the meths can evaporate seemingly instantaneously  if care is not taken to keep lids and so-forth screwed on tightly.

Sleeping bag.  I chose not to take one, instead I took a Gore-Tex Bivvy bag and a fleece sleeping bag liner. Bad decision.  Should have stuck with a sleeping bag.  I was worrying too much about getting stranded outside and not wanting to get a wet sleeping bag.   The Bivvy bag/fleece liner combination would work in real summer, but in April it was still too cold and damp and I was never warm at night, but luckily that was only two nights, so no great problem.  Naturally I took a sleeping mat, but trimmed down to my body length and width so that it fitted inside my rucksack.  I dislike lots of things hanging off of my backpack, especially if I find myself on narrow ridges or in confined gullies.

For that midnight wee when it’s pitch black outside or inside the bothy a head torch is important.  I’ve taken to having a wind-up one. It’s a bit noisy when you wind it  up, but it saves having to rely on batteries, again more weight.

I took a small roll of duck-tape (bodge-tape/elephant tape) which can be used to fix just about anything in an emergency. Best decision I ever made on the whole trip.

I have a kit for first aid, washing and cleaning which rolls up into a neat pack.  I have a minimal set of medication, Ibroprufon, Paracetemal, Anti-Hystermines and plasters.  (If you’re squeamish, skip the next section). An absolute necessity is Zinc-Oxide tape which I use to tape up my feet to prevent blisters.  A lot of people swear by Compeeds which are great, but I find I get blisters at the very end of my toes which Compeeds are not good for.  I also take anti-pile cream (trust me – at my age I need it!) and baby powder which is a must for feet and them bits which tend to chaff (you know what I mean chaps!) as it helps absorb sweat.  Lastly I take a small tube of Savlon which I think is the nearest thing to a cure for cancer that we currently have. Well, it treats just about any skin infection/complaint I know of.

I took my mobile phone which served as camera and alarm clock as well as a communication device (sort of). Coverage in the Highlands is patchy, check with your service provider as they say!

So that was me kitted out ready to go.  In Part 2 we’ll take a look at getting there and on the first two days.


Dave Mc


About davemcmahon81
Software Developer & Architect, User Group Leader, Speaker, Writer, Blogger, Occasional Guitarist, Man-made Global Warming Sceptic, Climate Change Believer, General Optimist but most of all proud Husband and Dad ...

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