Footwear is so important to people who spend a lot of time outdoors that over the years they accumulate dozens of different types. My own garage is gradually filling up with skis and various kinds of boots, and soon there will hardly be enough space for the car.
Considerable experience is needed to know exacdy which pair of boots is right for a projected walk, but we can discount shoes from the outset. People do walk along paths, and even run over rugged mountains, in trainers, but there are so many disadvantages, not least of which are wet feet and sprained ankles, that I unreservedly recommend boots for most walking in Britain. In places like the alpine valley around Chamonix in France, for example, when you know that the weather is set fair, that you will be following good paths all day, that you will be among lots of other people and that there are plenty of escape routes by cable cars and so on, it would be unnecessary to burden yourself with heavy boots. Trainers and a very light rucksack would be the order of the day, giving you the freedom to roam to the next restaurant.
Unless you wish to restrict your walking to the gentlest of waymarked footpaths, however, it is best to avoid cheaper boots. Modern lightweight boots are suitable for any country less rugged than open hills and mountains, but only in reasonable weather conditions. For valley walks, boggy meadows and seashores, stout, well-ribbed Wellington boots are as good as anything.
A good general walking boot has uppers that are of waterproofed leather with a sewn-in bellows tongue, so that your socks will stay reasonably dry with an occasional immersion into about 8cm (3in) of puddle or bog. Colourful boots are available, and these can be robust enough to withstand a fair amount of abrasion from rocky tracks and hillsides, but beware of ‘fancy’ boots with cut-away heels and other sales gimmicks, such as ‘ecological’ soles for protecting the environment. I shall have more to say on this subject later. Some boots have built-in, breathable, waterproof membranes, which I am told are very satisfactory.
Ultra-lightweight boots are almost as useless as shoes for providing support for your ankles. Sprained ankles are by far the most common walking injury, and a badly sprained ankle can debar you from serious walking for about six weeks. The boot should have padding around the malleoli (bony protuberances of the tibia and fibula at both sides of the ankle joint), and the top lip should curve down a little at the back so that it does not bear too heavily against the Achilles’ tendon. Too tight lacing can cause problems, so it is sometimes necessary to adjust the tightness and compromise, as long as there is still enough support. If necessary, the top lace hooks should not be used.
The boot must have longitudinal rigidity – that is, the toe should not bend up and look at you when you are scrambling up rocks or climbing over a fence or stile. Equally important is the twisting stiffness. Before you buy, grab a boot by the toe and heel and give it a really good twist and a bend. It should only move about 1cm (½ in) each way. Larger sizes bend more easily, of course, so they should have stronger in-built rigidity; modem stiffeners are carefully designed and usually made of plastic, which has superseded the old steel shanks and half shanks.
The soles and heels should be the hard-wearing moulded Vibram type, which grip well on most surfaces except slimy moss and clear water ice. The edges of the mouldings should be sharp when new, but after a lot of wear they become rounded, which can be hazardous, and when this happens the boots should be resoled or relegated to gardening wear. The edges should not protrude too far at the toes and sides of the boots, or they will either trip you up or sprain your ankles from too much bending movement. The old-fashioned, welted boots were very bad for this. Avoid like the plague the spongy, smooth, ‘health’ soles; they are really lethal.
The fitting of the boot is vital. There must be adequate space for enough stocking thickness, or thicknesses, for thermal insulation, yet not enough to cause floppiness. Boots that are too tight are a real pain, especially when you are descending steep slopes. Try on lots of pairs to make sure you get it right, and try on both boots fully laced with the correct socks, to make sure there are no inconsistencies in the boot shape or your foot shape; most people’s feet are not exactly the same size. If the boots stretch a bit after a lot of wear, you can use rubbery inner soles, which you cut down to the correct size. They are excellent and provide further insulation and cushioning. Shop assistants get a bit bored if you keep asking whether or not the boots fit you (How can they tell?), although they can help with the measuring and advice about socks.
I usually wear wool/synthetic mixture loop-stitch stockings, but breathable, allegedly waterproof stockings are available if you care to pay the price, and there have been some good reports of them. As spares I carry wholly synthetic fibre pile socks, but rarely have to wear them.
Fewer people seem to suffer from blisters nowadays so perhaps the boot manufacturers have learned something. They have certainly learned about the dangers of cut-away boot heels, or what I call chamfered heels. Grip is gained when your boots bite into the surface, whatever it is, or the surface, rock perhaps, bites into your moulded heels. ‘Ecologically acceptable’ boots, which are said to cause less path erosion, do not bite into the turf, so you fall off and break your neck. For a few years the gimmicky boots were all the rage, probably contributing to a lot of accidents, and boots with ‘proper’ heels all but disappeared from the shops. Now, the chamfered heels are tending to be less numerous.
Gaiters go with boots and are made of hard-wearing, waterproof or breathable fabrics – sometimes they have all three properties. They help to keep your feet dry, which can be important in winter, and at least they keep small stones out of your boots, and mud, heather and burrs out of your socks. Berghaus Yeti gaiters are almost leak-free, but the rubber rands, which go under the boot insteps to secure the gaiters, soon wear away or get cut by walking across scree. Whenever I buy new gaiters, which are expensive, I secure them permanently to my boots with impact adhesive, but usually I wear those boots only in winter. Do not tuck your waterproof overtrousers inside your gaiters, or your boots will fill up with water. Remember the overlapping slates on the roof principle.
Clothing and waterproofs
I’ve read books on country rambles and footpath walking that insist that no special clothing is necessary. True, but how much more comfortable you feel when you are wearing the right gear. I’ve gone so far the other way that I find I rarely wear anything that is unsuitable for walking or climbing. When the wind is gusting from 80 to 160kph (50-100mph) and when the temperature is just above freezing, with persistent heavy rain, I rely on my three-year-old jacket, which has already had about 450 days of service, always under a fairly heavy rucksack, which might be expected to wear it away. It still does the job, which says a lot for the name on the label and for the manufacturer of the breathable membrane. This is about the length of useful life one should expect, although manufacturers of other membranes and wax systems may claim better. I suspect that makers of colourful, stylish jackets are selling more to the fashion trade than to regular outdoor users.
So, what should we expect from an anorak? Sir Ranulph Fiennes wore a 100 per cent cotton Ventile sledge jacket to pull a load of more than 180kg (4001b) across Antarctica. If I had worn that on Mullach nan Coirean (Mamore Forest) in Scotland in the weather I described in die last paragraph, I would have been very wet and probably very cold. An outer garment (this includes overtrousers or salopettes) needs to be more waterproof, though not necessarily quite as breathable, for the British winter hills than it does for Antarctica. In a neoprene, 100 per cent waterproof outfit, I would have been soaked with condensation, and so would Sir Ranulph with his much heavier workload.
The anorak hood should be permanendy attached, as you cannot afford, for safety, to have it blown away. Check the drawstring to make sure you are not blinded by the hood when it is pulled tight. Some hoods have adjustments at the back to allow for this. The front zip fastening must be very robust, preferably of nylon, with a very strong and foolproof connector. The zip may be covered with a flap held by Velcro patches or press-studs. There should be a large zipped map pocket and two other pockets with zips, possibly also with hand-warmer pockets. Other details are less important but desirable: drawstrings at the waist and at the bottom hem (about mid-thigh length), and Velcro wrist closures.
Make sure that your outer clothing is not too tight fitting. The overtrousers should have zips down the side seams, preferably full length with flaps. Without zips you may have to take your boots off to get the trousers on.
Mitts and balaclava helmets are vital, but what about the other clothing? Let us consider the worst conditions. Directly under his Ventile Sir Ranulph wore only thin wicking underwear. In Scotland recently I wore a wicking polypropylene/nylon 90:10 ratio vest, a polyester/cotton 65:35 long-sleeved shirt (never consider short sleeves; in summer the sleeves protect from sun and midges, and you can always roll them up), polyester/cotton 65:35 trousers with lots of zip pockets (they are remarkably windproof and dry out quickly). Over the shirt I wore a fleece jacket with hood and full-length zip, which is handy for temperature control, and between that and my anorak I wore a very lightweight, windproof Pertex jacket, again with hood and full length zip. (Pertex is a close-mesh, synthetic fabric, which is fairly windproof but not very waterproof.) So, yes, I had three hoods altogether, with all of them drawn up tight. One can lose a lot of heat through the head and the hands! I did not wear my fleece balaclava, but I considered it.
The problem in violent winds is that one usually needs to get the gear on before they happen. My mitts were of fibre pile (100 per cent polyamid nylon or 100 per cent polyester fibre pile) with a windproof covering; they were continuously soaked, but I wrang them out often and only my current ice-axe hand got cold. We should not have persisted for so long in such weather, being blown about like shuttlecocks as we were, but at least we roped up and retreated 80m (260ft) below the summit, so we did not stick our necks out too far.
It is possible that the percentage of cotton in my shirt destroyed some of the wickability by absorbing some perspiration. The principle is that sweat is ‘wicked’ all the way through the fabric by capillary action so that it evaporates outside the outer garment, leaving the body warm and dry.
Few people seem to wear thick breeches these days. Wicking long Johns are a good bet, very light and easily dried. They are hard wearing too, but make sure you get them with no-chafe seams or you will get a very sore backside.
Salopettes (underwear, middle wear or outer garments) go from the ankles to the armpits; this is very cosy indeed but with obvious problems. I have seen thick, thermal, under-salopettes with a sort of kangaroo pouch at the back, if you can imagine it. The elasticated pouch probably makes the salopettes much more convenient to wear.
Probably the very worst trousers to wear in wind and rain are cotton denim jeans. Their insulation value when wet is negligible, and they take a lot of heat away from the body by convection and condensation. Even if you get soaked to the skin it is vital to get your waterproofs on; they will not get you dry, but they may keep you alive.
You may have noticed that I hardly mention natural fibres at all, and they seem to have become very old hat. Some people swear by woollen sweaters, but they take an age to dry out. I think I wear some wool in my mixture socks, and a bit of cotton in mixture shirts. Even my balaclava helmets are synthetic fleece, and I hate woollen gloves. Dachstein mitts of shrunken wool keep the hands warm when they get coated with ice on the outside, but otherwise they are not windproof, so I prefer fibre pile mitts with a windproof outer covering.
I have recently seen demonstrations of thick, wicking, fleece undergarments, but I have not tried them yet. I watched as water was poured on the inside, and it was possible to see it wicking away to a large damp patch on the outer surface, leaving the inside dryish.
I doubt if anyone has invented a waterproof rucksack yet, so, if you are planning to camp en route, it is essential to use polythene bag liners if you want to have a dry sleeping bag and a change of clothing in the evening. I want to consider the size and type of rucksack you will need.
One safety rule says that if you carry too much equipment your pace will be slowed to such an extent that it will be a hazard in itself. I tend to go to the other extreme: I am addicted to having all I need for a three- or four-day stay in the hills, even if I intend to return the same day. It is all a matter of compromise, because I cannot recall when I last had an enforced night out, but it just might happen, and I dread the thought of being caught out without that one vital bit of gear, especially a torch or a couple of chocolate bars. When you read the checklists, remember my philosophy of preferring to err on the side of safety, and adapt them to your own needs and preferences. It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back, so you may decide, for example, you will not need a bivvy (bivouac) bag.
Modern rucksacks are so well designed, apart from waterproofing, with excellent adjustments for your own body size and shape, with padded waist and chest belts, that you hardly feel you are wearing them at first. The choice is endless, so you will have a great time reading all the brochures and shopping around until you get exactly what you want. The rucksack itself has to be light, of course, which is why the designers need to be so clever, but I suggest something rather larger than you may have considered, with an in-built, and therefore concealed, stiffening frame. Essentials for me are rows of compression straps down each side of the sack, so that if your load is less than the capacity you can bring the size of the sack down after you have packed it.
What I hate to see are objects dangling on the outsides of rucksacks: tents, bed rolls, mugs, stoves and so on. It is permissible to carry a wet tent in the compression straps, if you make sure you are not going to lose the poles, but the only other things I carry outside are ice-axes and skis, which are difficult to get inside.
The lids of a lot of rucksacks do not seem to be big enough to cover the aperture adequately. A clever New Zealand design, which I have not tested personally, has a very large lid with a zipped pocket. The lid detaehes completely to be used as an outsize bum-bag for short expeditions away from your tent or hostel. I used to own a rucksack with detachable, large, side pockets, the two side pockets joining together with straps to form a day-bag, but although they are very popular, I do not generally recommend side pockets at all – they are too untidy. Neither do I recommend compartmented main sacks. To sum up, I like a large but compressible sack, with a limited, corded, extension neck, and a large lid with a zipped pocket. The usual carrying and securing straps and gadgets should be of very high quality.
Whatever torch you carry it must be infallible, because benight-ment in rough country without a light is unthinkable. If the switch is not foolproof it is bound to get switched on during the day inside your rucksack. Then, when it gets dark and you rummage for your torch you will find the batteries are exhausted.
To guard against accidentally switching on your torch, you might carry the batteries separately (you should carry spare batteries anyway). Murphy’s law states you will need your torch quickest when you are tangled in a barbed wire fence, so it is as well not to have to delve for batteries as well as your torch. Simply remove one battery and reverse it, so that the two positive terminals abut. If you do this, no leakage of current can occur even with the switch on.
As with the rest of your gear, torches should be lightweight. Large, heavy, rubberized torches may be suitable for the boot of a car, but when you are walking the weight of everything becomes important. Even so, I always carry two torches, with spare batteries and bulbs. I have a thing about them.
Head-torches are light in weight and are very convenient for night navigation when map and compass must be handled together. Try lying in a tent in the dark, stirring porridge with one hand and holding the pan handle with the other, and you will realize the value of a head-torch. They are the only torches that can be considered for serious walkers. Head torches are secured to the forehead by adjustable elastic straps around and across the head. They can be worn with or without a helmet. The 4.5 volt type gives a good light, especially with a halogen bulb, but consult your supplier about burning time, as the halogen bulb exhausts a lot of batteries. Alkaline batteries are the only ones worth carrying; cheaper ones and rechargeable batteries do not last long and are unreliable. A converter is available so that three alkaline batteries (AA size) can be used rather than the 4.5 volt flat battery with blade-type brass terminals. The weight with three batteries is about 250gm (8oz). I carry one with new batteries as an emergency spare. Switching and beam spreading is achieved by rotating the lamp cover. It is unlikely to be switched on accidentally if screwed down tight. The old model also had a ‘click off incorporated, which was satisfying, but my new type switch has been reliable.
The 3 volt head-torch is ultra lightweight, just over half the weight of the 4.5 volt type. I use one regularly, as only two batteries are needed and it gives plenty of light in a tent, the whole works being very compact and less likely to get tangled in tent canopies. Using the standard bulb (2.5 volt, which gives an endurance of five hours at 20°C/68°F) the light is barely adequate for walking in pitch darkness, but it is good enough for map-reading when there is enough clouded moonlight to walk by. For short spells of very bright light, if you have plenty of spare batteries, use a 2.8 volt halogen bulb, which lasts for 26 minutes.
If your walk involves overnight camping, you will need a tent. From choice, because I like plenty of space, I rarely share my tent, and as an instructor it is probably more professional to be entirely independent of the group – so I am unable to share the carrying of it either, which is a pity. My last tent lasted for nine years, and was used on at least 50 nights each year, before the synthetic flysheet started splitting, probably suffering from actinic degradation through exposure to ultraviolet light. Over this period, my accommodation had cost remarkably little each night, which I thought very reasonable, as it was so much warmer in winter than sleeping in a bothy, much more private, and it could be made entirely midge proof which is very important in summer.
The old tent had one A-frame end, which was meant to face downwind, and fairly heavy poles, which were quite robust. I had four valances sewn to the bottom of the flysheet, on which rocks or snow could be piled to increase security in strong winds. There was a wide gap between the flysheet and the inner tent, except when very strong winds blew them together; so it only leaked a bit in such winds when the rain was especially heavy. The bucket-type ground sheet was part of the inner tent, and it was surprisingly watertight for its light weight and apparent fragility; it never gave any trouble.
I always sleep better in a tent than anywhere, lulled by the sound of running streams, coastal breakers or the wind. The moment of truth comes when one has to go outside in the middle of the night or finally strike the tent in a blizzard next day. The time of absolute bliss is when the waterproofs and boots have been stripped off in the evening and one is thawing hands out round the first cup of coffee.
I have slept in, and backpacked, practically every type of tent, so when I had to choose a replacement I had plenty of experience to draw on. I chose the three-hoop tent, and I can only blame myself for its one inadequacy: it is fiddly to pitch and to get the thin poles securely stressed inside their sleeves. During a calm it is self-supporting with 11 pegs and no guylines, but I would only trust it like that at a site in the middle of a thick forest. Elsewhere, being something of a pessimist, or perhaps experienced, I use all 10 guylines. It has never blown down yet, but sometimes the hoop poles contort alarmingly into question mark shapes.
Because there are no valances, which few modern flysheets have, pegs are all important, and they must be inserted at right angles to the pull. Pegs hold very poorly in boggy ground unless they get frozen in. Angle pegs are used in sandy ground and skewer pegs for shingly sites.
For years I had a theory that, since I could not walk around in a sleeping bag in an emergency, I would reduce my carrying load if I used a very lightweight bag and wore a spare polar suit made of fibre pile inside it. Now I use a very good quality goosedown bag (three season rating), and I carry the lightweight bag to go inside if I know it will be very cold. I love the comfort of it. The trouble with down is that it has to be kept bone dry, so your rucksack packing has to be perfect. I always use the bag inside a breathable bivvy (bivouac) bag anyway, which is very useful for leaky tents and draughty bothies, but I have rarely used it for its main purpose of a tentless bivouac, except in perfect weather.
A lot of people recommend good quality, synthetic sleeping bags. They are cheaper than down, and they work a bit better than down if they get damp, but they are somewhat heavier and a bit bulkier for the same insulation rating.
My old method of the fibre pile suit was on the same lines as a widely publicized bag made of fibre pile, which out-performs down in the wet. The idea is to use various thicknesses and numbers of bags, one inside the other, inside a choice of outer wind-proof bags so that you can design a system for any climate. You pay your money and you make your choice, but the range from which you can choose is bewildering, and despite 56 years’ experience I have not tried them all. One thing is for sure; you will learn from your experience, and I hope it will be as good as mine has been.
Closed cell foam mats provide insulation and a measure of comfort between the groundsheet and the sleeping bag, or you can experiment with them under the groundsheet if you like, particularly if you think that flinty ground, thorns and so on are going to penetrate the groundsheet. Closed cell mats just need a shake to dry if they get wet, but make sure that the mat you buy is closed cell and not sponge. It is your choice how much area of mat you need, but they are very bulky. You can carry enough mat to cover the whole tent floor, by rolling it into a large, untidy cylinder, carried on top of your rucksack where it will catch in every overhanging branch and every fence wire you try to duck under. A much smaller mat may suffice; mine measures 70 x 40cm (28 x 16in), and it is quite adequate to soften the weighted area under the hip. The smaller the mat you use the more likely you are to get it out for extra comfort at lunch breaks. I carry mine folded, inside the part of the rucksack next to my back.
Apart from insulating casualties after accidents, sleeping mats can be used to improvise satisfactory splints for fractured limbs when nothing else is available. With some ingenuity, and practice beforehand they can be cut, folded and tied to make better neck collars than most of the proprietary items.
One piece of equipment that I possess but rarely use is supposed to be a thermally-lined self-inflating air bed. I bought it because I thought it would be good for sleeping in snow caves. The principle is that once you open the valve, it inflates slowly; you close the valve and it forms a comfortable cushion. Mine inflates at any time with the valve closed, then deflates when I sit on it; in other words it leaks, but I cannot find the leak even in a bath of water. The gadgets are supposed to be guaranteed for life, but I do not want a replacement. When I squeeze all the air out of it and quickly pack my rucksack, it inflates until everything is squashed tight inside. My experience is, I must add, not typical, and there are some reliable self-inflating mattresses on the market.