Equipment choices

Gear choices make a big difference to comfort, safety and general happiness, and striking a balance between utility and weight is tricky. Earlier walks in the Pyrenees and Corsica have been really helpful in finding out what works well and how much to bring along. I'm no gear nut, but I do like stuff that's light and effective.

This won't be a wilderness walk, though the weather will be very variable, from -10C to +35C, and I'm choosing things based on my strengths and weaknesses. For example, I'm pretty good at keeping going, and quite quick, but also not very strong and rather frail, so I've revised all my gear in an effort to keep weight down. I keep warm while moving, but get cold afterwards, so I'm bringing along down and Primaloft tops. I'm comfortable with technology, so my camera is quite complicated, but prefer to play it safe with key items, so I have conventional waterproofs, rather than a cape.

As this is a walk in aid of a charity, and with sponsors, some extra gear is needed to send back information regularly. Also I need to collect notes and photos for handbooks after the walk.

Camera

Tannheimer mountains

There is a bewildering choice of camera gear out there so much choice: film/digital, SLR/compact, interchangeable/fixed lenses, prime/zoom lenses etc.

For me, the choice simply comes down to how wide angle you want to go. If 28mm (35mm equivalent) is enough, then you can choose a compact, or an SLR with a single zoom lens. Not having to remove a lens is a 'good thing' with digital cameras as there is less chance of dust settling on the sensor and affecting all your subsequent pictures.

However, I really miss a 24mm lens, and my ideal camera would be a compact digital with 24-140mm zoom (in 35mm terms), but this isn't made it's only possible with two lenses. The lightest robust solution seems to be a Canon A620 with a 24mm wide converter and extension tube. Going to 24mm adds an extra 300g but worthwhile, I think. An SLR based solution would weigh 900+g though. Fortunately the A620 is a fine little camera that does most things well, so I'm taking one along. The A620 has now been superseded by the A640 which is a bit better all round. Top

Clothes

In warm weather, I'm using a Berghaus X-Static Tee, which fits well, and keeps me cool enough. I've added side vents and opened up the neck. The X-Static formulation keeps me fresher than anything else I've tried. There's probably a case for wearing a long sleeved shirt instead to protect against sunburn. I keep my hair shoulder-length to protect my neck from the sun.

For colder weather, I'm a firm believer in pile/Pertex clothing. These wick and breathe very well, and are proof against moderate rain and most winds, so they work over a wide variety of conditions. I use a RAB Vapour-rise Trail jacket, and value its nice design features. It has a versatile hood that can be set up loosely for ventilation when there isn't much wind, or shut right down in the rough stuff. A double zip means that if I need to go hard uphill, I can open it a long way while remaining decent, and the sleeves can be rolled up for extra cooling if needed.

My third top is a light Primaloft jacket with highly breathable outer shell (Integral Designs PLQ). This can be thrown on top of a wet shirt for example and will dry it out, and supplements the warmth of a thin sleeping bag. If I'm wandering around camp on a cold and windy day, a windproof can be added on top to keep me warmer.

For winter use, I'm bringing a Nunatak Skaha Plus goose down jacket which gives me 10cm of loft. I always cool right down when I stop, and this will keep me warm.

I use lightweight zip off trousers just one pair. My favourites are an old pair of Tensons in lightweight polyester. Not sure the Tensons will last another 3,000 miles, and as I can't seem to find another pair that fits as well and is as light and breathable, I may end up making a replacement pair from ripstop Pertex using the Tensons as a template. When the Tensons need a wash, I wear waterproof over trousers instead.

I may use a pair of Primaloft trousers on very cold windy days, though I've managed with my waterproof trousers at -20C so long as I don't stop.Top

Electrical stuff

As this is a long trip, I'm taking a mobile phone. What? Escape into the mountains, and bring a mobile?? It's so I can send regular texts to reassure the folks back home - and no, you won't find me on a peak somewhere ignoring the views and frantically thumbing texts at people (seen one Summer in Corsica ...) Mine is a cheap Alcatel model.

I would like to send back trip notes, which could be done with pen and paper. However, I have handwritten notes from previous trips that I still can't read, so this time I'll bring a Pocketmail that gives a proper screen and keyboard and can send email using any payphone. I'm also taking an Olympus WS-300M dictaphone to record fun things, impromptu Tyrolean singing, the roar of a waterfall, stags baying and so on, and to record notes as I go along. A simple LED torch (Petzl Tactikka) is coming along too. I chose this model as its high setting is bright enough to follow a trail in the dark, while its low setting for use in my tent lasts a very long time. It also has a flip-down red screen so I can check my map without losing much night vision.

One final thing is a flexible and very lightweight solar panel from Silicon Solar to try and keep a set of rechargeable batteries going. Top

First aid

Surely an area where one can bring too much. I bring things for several purposes:

Protective good hygiene: what I use regularly to stop things going wrong

That means a nail brush for cleaning lacerations, fingernails and general cleanliness, and small scissors and a nail file to keep nails under control. This helps to prevent pimples, infections and blisters. I also take a tiny scalpel blade to remove any patches of hard skin from my feet. Open shoes such as flip flops help feet to dry at the end of the day.

A proper toothbrush used twice a day with bicarbonate of soda as a dentifrice works for me (Bicarbonate of soda is baking powder, and is lighter than toothpaste).

Things to keep me going if something minor happens

Small precision metal tweezers for splinter removal, soft plastic tweezers for tick removal, a few lyophilic dressings for blisters, paracetamol/decongestant tablets, painkiller tablets for muscular strains and tooth/headaches and anti-diarrhoea pills. I take a piece of cling film to protect burns, and a lipstick sized chap stick to guard against cracked lips and sores from cold wind.

What to do if something disabling or serious happens

Alpine scenery

If I fall and crack a rib, it should be possible to keep going Steve Perry did. If I break a collar bone or finger or arm, I would try to fashion a support or splint and attempt to walk out to get help. Even a full 26lb pack can be slung on one shoulder for a bit.

If one leg can't be used, I would try and splint it with a sleeping roll and compression straps from the pack, and try and walk out with walking poles, otherwise call or wait for help. Clearly it's best not to fall in the first place, so I use footwear with good treads and walking poles to help balance, and try and stay properly fed and hydrated, so my judgement isn't impaired. To reduce the likelihood of a fall causing a fracture, my preparation includes quite a bit of running to increase my bone density.Top

Food

Some people seem able to walk huge distances on Mars Bars and fizzy drinks! Not me. When walking long distance, I need an intake of around 5-6,000 Calories per day to maintain weight. I like to eat grains, pasta, bread for carbohydrates, with dried meats, tinned fish, nuts or cheese for protein, together with olive oil for healthy fats. It's hard to get sufficient fresh fruit and veg though, so I look for a salad or extra vegs when passing through villages, or buy tomatoes, peppers or an apple to eat. I'll also try and walk more slowly to fuel more of my effort from body fat rather than carbohydrates.

I also take a multi-vitamin tablet every day, to try and replace trace elements and Vitamins. I've tried taking glucosamine to protect my joints and may do the same, if I can work out how to do mail drops. Top

Footwear

Much of my walking so far has been in Scarpa SL M3s 4 season boots (2300g/pr.) that I fondly describe as nuclear explosion proof. They protect my feet really well, but there has to be a lighter choice. In the USA, and increasingly in Europe, trail shoes are widely used that weigh 500-800g/pair, which is really tempting, given the saying that a pound saved on your feet is like 5 pounds saved from your back. I've been trialling two such pairs since the Summer, and while they are comfortable and quick, they are both falling apart after just a few hundred miles.

From running days, my instinct is to be conservative with footwear. It would be silly to go too light and risk the whole project by needlessly injuring a foot, so I've chosen some Aku Icaro boots, which I'm thrilled with. They have good tread, a semi-stiff sole, good toe protection, and some ankle support.

I'm using Montrail CTX thermo-moulding insoles that are very comfortable because the insole moulds to the shape of my foot. All told a pair weighs 1370g. Looks like three pairs will be needed. I'll have a go at trail shoes for another trip or perhaps later on this trip if it feels right. I have always used 1000 mile double layer socks, that are comfortable in hot and cold weather and find that I never have blisters.Top

Gear weights

  • Backpack & enclosures: 560g
  • Backpack 460g
  • Stuff sacks 100g
  • Shelter and sleeping:1505g
  • Tent (complete) 535g
  • Groundsheet, mattress, over bag 495g
  • Duvet 560g
  • Eating and drinking: 478g
  • Stove, stand, windshield 60g
  • Cooking pan, lid & implements 165g
  • Fuel bottle, lighter 40g
  • 2 Water containers complete 115g
  • Electrical: 1189g
  • Camera 300g
  • Torch 79g
  • Feeding the website: 765g
  • Wide angle lens 300g
  • Dictaphone 50g
  • Pocketmail 235g
  • Mobile phone 70g
  • Solar charger 30g
  • GPS data logger 80g
  • Spare clothes 1630g
  • Waterproof jacket, trousers, gaiters 540g
  • Warm shirt, jacket 700g
  • Gloves, hats 280g
  • Pair of socks 50g
  • Indoor shoes 60g
  • Hygiene & Health: 342g
  • Toothbrush, paste, soap, loo roll 200g
  • Pills, scrubbing brush, water drops, zinc tape 142g
  • Admin: 336g
  • Pen, maps, passport, money, compass 236g
  • Sunglasses 40g
  • Spares 60g
  • Summer weight (on my back, excluding water and food) 6kg (13lb 3oz)
  • Clothes worn: 2.53kg (5lb 8oz)
  • Hat, shirt, zip off trousers, socks 685g
  • Altimeter & glasses 100g
  • Walking poles 376g
  • Walking boots & insoles 1368g
  • Extra Winter gear: 2230g
  • Down jacket, Ice axe, crampons, snowshoes
  • Winter weight (on my back, excluding water and food) 7.13kg (15lb 11oz)

Weights are measured using a digital scale calibrated with metal weights. They differ from manufacturers weights where I've trimmed garments or removed features. It's worth noting that with less communication gear, and with a smaller camera, you could save 765g, giving a Summer dry weight of 5.23kg (11lb 8oz). Top

Gloves and hats

I'm taking 3 pairs of gloves, as my hands always get cold. My main pair are pile and Pertex Buffalo Mitts which are warm, dry quickly, and are largely waterproof. For colder weather, I layer these over a pair of powerstretch liner gloves. If it is very cold or in strong wind, then a pair of Trekmates Paclite mitts go on top. In rain, when it is hard to dry my gloves, I can alternate between the Buffalos and the liner gloves with mitts on top.

Three separate layers makes the gloves quicker to dry than a single bulky glove. Also I can tune the amount of insulation to reduce perspiration, and if I lose a glove, I have a spare. The liner gloves are thin enough that I can adjust shoelaces and attend to other details while wearing them.

My summer hat is a light nylon wide-brimmed model from The North Face with a draw cord to stop it blowing away. I've inserted a mesh band above the brim to improve ventilation. The hat is a light colour so it doesn't heat up in strong sun.

For colder conditions, I have a Lowe Alpine Trail Cap. This is breathable, insulated, has ear covers (important as I can get bad earache), and an adjustable wired brim, with a draw cord It's excellent. An Integral Designs Primalid goes over the top of this if I still feel cold. It has a thin layer of Primaloft to give warmth, while still venting perspiration. A primalid is lighter, and packs smaller than a fleece or woollen hat of the same warmth. My RAB Trail jacket has a pile/pertex hood, and my Montane Quick-Fire jacket has an eVENT waterproof hood.Top

Maps & guidebooks

An interesting problem with this walk. The only guidebooks specifically for the Via Alpina are in German and cover Southern Germany and sections close to Monaco. Also the trail sometimes coincides with another trail for which there is a guide (the Swiss passes route for example, and parts of the French GR5 and Italian GTA). This took me by surprise, and during 2008, I intend to publish a lightweight, modular series of guidebooks for the many sections of the Via Alpina I am walking.

Alpine lake

There is also no dedicated map base. The Via Alpina web site shows 'maplets' for each stage, that on close inspection can be inconsistent with detailed maps for that stage. I would have big reservations navigating in poor weather with just the maps from the VA web site.

I've bought a range of paper and digital maps and after careful review I am digitising and normalising all the paper maps, and printing sections in stripes (rather like Harveys maps) on both sides of lightweight paper. I am also adding route profiles, and information on supplies and huts as overprints. In this way, the entire route condenses to 72 sheets of A4 (200 strips), and reduces from about 10kg to 270g. This is a huge job.

Moreover, as the cost of reproduction of the maps is fairly low, copies can be posted to various points along the route, knowing there is no big financial penalty if I miss a postal drop. My experience of through walking and hoping the maps you need are available when you get there is that they generally aren't. I shouldn't need to carry more than 80g of maps at any time. I'll scribble notes and corrections on the maps as I go, and post them back to form the basis for the guide books. Top

Rucksack

As my rucksack need never carry more than 26lbs (winter equipment, inc. food and water), it needn't be heavily built. I'm quite careful with rucksacks and feel that many are overbuilt, over complex and over heavy. I do need comfortable shoulder straps, compression straps, load lifter straps, a properly padded hip belt (quite bony there) and some means of transferring the pack weight to my hips.

The body of the pack needs to be self-supporting so that I can slacken the shoulder straps and air my back when climbing quickly. Zipped pockets or hydration sleeves are unnecessary, but belt pockets are handy, as are large mesh side pockets for a map and food. A Floating top pocket (ideally detachable to use as a bum bag) is nice too.

I've tried 5 different sacks, and to my surprise, most fitted badly (strap width, angle and location on my body) and positioned my load too far back. The exception was a Gossamer Gear Mariposa that uses a sleeping pad as back padding, and weighs about 460g (plus sleeping pad), and that's what I'll use. Top

Shelter

My shelter must keep me dry and cope with a fair amount of wind (35mph gusts). It's not essential (though handy) that it be storm proof, as I can usually descend or look for a natural windbreak if there is bad weather. Nor does it have to be insect proof; I'm happy to choose my camp-site in the wind, and away from lakes and streams to avoid bugs. That means a single-skin tent can be ok, if my sleeping bag is covered with something to keep drips off.

There needs to be enough space to change my clothes under cover, and enough ventilation to minimise condensation. Cooking under cover will happen rarely, as the stove can stay outside in most winds with a windshield. The shelter and groundsheet need to be as light as possible, but also durable enough to last 160 pitches. I'm generally ok continuing to a spot where there is grass, so don't need a self-supporting tent with a small footprint, such as a geodesic tent.

My Hilleberg Akto works well and certainly resists Force 8 gales, but it could be lighter (1.6kg in double skin). I've got to work and cut its weight by lightening fittings, poles and pegs and got the weight down to 830g (no groundsheet or inner tent). In the UK, a single-skin Akto gets a fair amount of condensation, however I find less problem with condensation in the mountains because the air is often drier at altitude and there is more wind.

I'm also trialling a Gossamer Gear Spinnshelter, which uses trekking poles for supports. This is a tarp tent with end closures so that it can be made weatherproof in heavy rain, or can be pitched with the sides lifted for ventilation. This weighs 340g (inc. lines, pegs, no groundsheet). I need to be sure this will not rip, flap or distort in at least a 25mph wind (Force 5).

I am part way through building a tent that is the same shape and size as a Hilleberg Akto and is built from Spinnaker fabric, carbon fibre poles and rods with spectra guy lines. It has detachable internal cross-guys to constrain the carbon fibre pole in crosswinds, and increased ventilation. The all-up weight for this tent is 535g (inc. lines, pegs, no groundsheet).

Which tent to take will be determined after trials in the Alps this winter. Top

Sleeping mat

An inflatable mattress is comfortable and packs away fairly small, but is quite heavy, and has relatively poor thermal insulation for its weight. I find a cut down closed cell foam mat is ok on grass or grit certainly lighter, if less comfortable and taking more space. I'm using a Gossamer Gear Nightlight foam mattress, cut in sections, and doubled under my torso. This is lighter than a typical foam pad, and insulates better. Doubled, this gives enough insulation to sleep on snow. Top

Sleeping system

I need some way to keep warm at night in a wide variety of settings: from around -10C to +15C, with and without wind. Moreover, bedding needs to be light, and to pack away small, and to function well even if I'm wet, or if it's raining or humid. In particular, it should be possible to go to sleep wearing damp clothes, and use my body heat to dry out overnight.

The insulation of a down bag degrades from condensation, and when it's below zero in the shelter, condensation can freeze in any insulation. This can be prevented with an impervious Vapour Barrier Membrane (VBM) between me and the insulation. I'll use a layered sleeping system, with my Integral Designs PLQ Primaloft jacket, which works well when damp, inside an Integral Designs VBM I then sleep under a down quilt to keep me warm. My quilt is a handmade one, remodelled from an Alpkit Pipedream down bag. I've modified it because much of a sleeping bags insulation under ones body is ineffective as the down is crushed by body weight.

Damp socks and other small items can be dried while sleeping by placing them in mesh pockets sewn inside my PLQ jacket. Damp mostly migrates out to the VBM, which can be shaken dry in the morning, the down remaining dry throughout. In warmer weather, I can dispense with the VBM and rely on warmth to keep the down quilt dry. I seem to sleep cold even after eating lots of food, and am a bit rubbish at suffering cold nights.

An Akto inner tent is an excellent, roomy design but I'm replacing mine with a Bozeman Quantum bivvy bag, which is a quarter of the weight. This marries a waterproof base to protect my sleeping quilt from ground water and spindrift, with a highly breathable, and water resistant Pertex top. To prevent condensation drips from the tent pooling on the bivvy bag, I've added a centre line suspended from the tent outer, and any drips roll or bounce off. To ease entry and exit from the bivvy bag, and to extend its utility to warmer weather, I've added an opening on one side which can be closed with Velcro. Top

Spares

I'm taking as little as possible, chosen to be of most use for the weight carried, to include: needle and thread to sew up any rips, Duct tape to mend and patch anything waterproof, some long nyloc straps which have 1001 uses for tying things together permanently, a short length of Spectra cord, half a metre of polyester strapping, and a few nuts and bolts for my snowshoes. Also a spare snow roundel in case I lose one. Top

Stove

Hopefully in the early months, melt water and water from streams can be found, however my stove will have to melt snow sometimes. It's ok if this takes a while, but as this does burn a lot of fuel, I might run with a gas cartridge stove for the first month. My preference is for an alcohol based cooking system (stand, stove, windshield) because there is nothing to go wrong. I will be trialling both types in snow before setting off.

In Summer I'll use a Caldera Cone alcohol stove, chosen because it uses fuel very economically - 3 days fuel weighs only 90g. A complete stove, windscreen, Vargo 900ml titanium pan, lid and empty fuel bottle weighs 200g. There are smaller and lighter pans, but I need one of this size for a meal, and the slightly thicker titanium and non-stick surface minimise burning. Pans are fairly easily cleaned with snow or grass. Frying deposits come off without scouring if you boil afterwards in the same pan. Strangely, you can grow to like hot chocolate with floating cheese! Top

Walking Poles

Walking poles are very useful. They add assurance and balance on tricky ground, help cross boggy sections, streams and rivers, help climb hills, and speed my descent. I can also prod at boggy ground and doubtful snow bridges and deter excited dogs! They can even be used as tent poles, and can help in case of injury. It takes more energy to use poles, but for me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The lightest ones are 120g per pair, but I find these too flimsy and will be using Alpkit carbonlite carbon poles, that are strong and reliable.Top

Washing

I don't take a towel, relying on body heat to dry me if it's too cold, I don't wash (yuck!), or just put my clothes back on and let them and exertion dry me. A pure block soap lasts longer and is lighter than a liquid soap, and cleans hair and clothes adequately. An effective and lightweight deodorant is solid 'Pierre d'Alun'. Top

Water

I use 2L and 4L Platypus bags. I drink from one bag while another is treating water. 6L is enough to take away from a watercourse to wash my hair, or for an overnight camp. Splitting water between two bags means you know when you are half-empty, and are protected in case of bag failure if you are crossing a long section of dry ground. When water is clean and plentiful, I just scoop and drink and carry a reserve 250ml just in case. While I rarely carry more than 2L of water, there are some stretches of porous limestone where there are no streams, where I may carry 4-6 litres.

My Platypus hose has been replaced with a section of flexelene inhibited hose that prevents mould growth - this makes a good product even better.

For purification, I have used Aquamira Chlorine dioxide drops. This kills virtually everything, and leaves no chlorine after taste. Depending on testing, I may take a Seychelle inline water filter instead. This is cheaper to operate and less bother than a chemical treatment method, and lasts longer before running out.Top

Waterproofs

My Marmot Precip jacket has given good service. Its single layer design means it packs small and weighs very little. It's also quick to dry and its durability has been great several thousand miles with no evident wear. I like the core vents and armpit zips that give great ventilation even in rain. However it's a little too easy to swamp the Precip material when working hard (though you dry quickly with the core vents and armpit zips). Also, I prefer a double front zip and a wired hood. My ideal would be a jacket with these design features and e-vent fabric. The closest I've found is a Montane Quick-Fire eVENT jacket, that has everything on my list except pit zips, and I really love this jacket.

To keep warm in cold rain, I use waterproof trousers. As waterproof trousers are also windproof, I should need no warm trousers in Winter. I will be taking Berghaus Paclite trousers, as the sides have long double-ended zips, so they can be put on without removing boots, and one can open up the top or bottom of the side zips to cool down, if say, the sun comes out between showers.

Hopefully it will be possible to ride on top of most Spring snow with snowshoes, rather than 'post-holing', so knee length gaiters will be unnecessary. Instead I'm bringing Integral Designs eVENT ankle gaiters with me, expecting to replace the cord under my feet occasionally. Gaiters are also useful in dry, dusty conditions to keep dust, leaves and twigs out of my boots. If the gaiters are ankle length and breathable, my legs stay cool.Top

Winter kit

I plan to set off as soon as Winter conditions moderate, the snow compacts, and snowfall reduces.

I looked at taking cross country skis with skins. One can cover ground faster in these, but my skiing skills are not good enough, so instead, I'll take a pair of Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoes. These are quite narrow, which will make traversing more manageable than with my wider TSL snowshoes. They also pack nice and flat against my rucksack.

Where there is ice, and on steeper sections, I'll be using crampons. I hate steel crampons, as they are so heavy that they destroy any agility or speed. After much thought, I've chosen Camp XLC 490 alloy full-length crampons. I expect these will be durable enough if I am careful near rocks. Even if I break or bend some points, the design lends itself for conversion to half crampons.

My Aku boots are not warranted as crampon-compatible, but as the Camps are flexible, they should be ok. For those situations where a fall could become a slide, I'm bringing a Grivel Nepal Light alloy ice axe to self-arrest and for occasional step cutting. Other winter kit includes a pair of over mitts, and perhaps a SnowClaw snow shovel. As the weather moderates, this gear will be sent to friends for me to collect on my way through in the Autumn.

I'm also bringing wider pole roundels for use in snow.Top