Long-distance trail walking

Rucksack checklist

– Rucksack and plastic liner(s)

– Compass

– Whistle

– Torch and spare batteries

– Sleeping bag, Sleeping mat

– Breathable anorak, Breathable overtrousers

– Emergency clothing

– Mug, fork and spoon (keep a Swiss army knife in your pocket)

– Dish or plate

– Balaclava helmet, Mitts

For each tent group of two or three people you will need:

– Relevant maps

– Outer tent, Inner tent and groundsheet

– Poles and pegs

– Stove and fuel

– Food

– Matches

– Pan scrubs

– First aid kit

– Water bottle

Equipment for the whole group should include:

– Walking rope

– Toilet trowel

Rucksack packing

It is convenient to have frequendy needed items packed near the top.

During the day you must have quick access to items you may need. When you stop at night the first thing you will want to do is to pitch your tent, especially in poor weather, so the outer tent at least should be near the top of the sack, with the poles and pegs easy to get at, but preferably down one side. You will not want to rummage around getting everything soaked before the outer tent is erected.

The rucksack liner, ideally a strong plastic bag, is most important if you are to keep your sleeping bag and spare clothing dry. If everything gets soaked the expedition is likely to become a miserable failure. I always use a breathable bivvy (bivouac) bag outside my sleeping bag, which has paid dividends in leaky tents, and in draughty caves and bothies. I have yet to find a rucksack that is completely waterproof, so I use three separate waterproof bags, which together weigh only about lOOgm (about 4oz). Strong garden refuse bags, which can be bought in rolls in supermarkets, are suitable. Do not use the bags separately, but together, one inside the other.

Pack inside the liners only those things that will not be needed until after your tent is pitched, and pack only the items that you need to keep bone dry. It is almost a point of honour with me never to have to use my real emergency gear – otherwise the walk is something of a failure – but I always carry it. Let us say that we have folded the sleeping mat into the back of the sack. Next put in the three liners. Put your sleeping bag into the inner one, do not roll or fold it first, and push it into as small a space as possible. Next push your spare fleece top and trousers next to the sleeping bag. Take the spare polythene of the inner bag and fold it down between the inner and middle bags. Then push down the spare polythene of the middle bag. You can then put in other items you may want to keep dry – first aid kit, diary and so forth – although I always use separate polythene bags for them, too. Finally, push the spare polythene of the outer bag between it and the rucksack.

I was once very relieved to have packed my rucksack really well. It was November and after a 36-hour electrical storm, which is very rare in the western Highlands, I had been trapped by spate rivers at Sourlies Bothy. I had to get to a telephone because I was expected by the leader of the Glenelg Mountain Rescue Team, and she would have alerted the whole west coast if I had not turned up. The first time I tried to cross the Carnach River I was washed out to sea, with my buoyant rucksack straps lifting under my armpits and keeping me well afloat. The rucksack served a second purpose, acting as a sail, so that the strong southwest wind blew me back on to the shore I had started from.

At the second attempt I managed to get across the Carnach, and quickly walked 11km (7 miles) over the Mam Meadail before I chilled right down in my sodden state. At Inverie Estate Hostel in Knoydart, I unpacked my sleeping bag and dry clothing, which were still under dry.


For long-distance walking I suggest you leave your heavy vacuum flask at home and take a stove instead.

I use a paraffin pressure stove, but they are expensive and are not very good for lunchtime drinks when the wind is strong. They are certainly not ‘student proof, and you really need to be a Primus stove mechanic for a 100 per cent success rate. I buy methylated spirits in bulk and use methylated spirit stoves combined with cooking pots for groups. They are almost foolproof, are much safer than gas or petrol stoves and work well outdoors even when it is windy. Unfortunately the fuel is many times more expensive than petrol or paraffin for the same calorific value.

The flame is not easy to see in strong sunlight, so make sure it is out before trying to refill the burner. Gas stoves are lethal if a supposedly spent cylinder is allowed to leak inside a boat or inside the bucket groundsheet of a tent, filling it with an explosive mixture of gas and air.

Primus stoves operate reasonably well on diesel fuel as well as on paraffin, but if you intend to travel abroad a lot it is best to use a multi-fuel stove. You may have difficulty translating ‘paraffin’ into Greek or Spanish, and it is illegal to transport gas cylinders by air.

On one trip the group I was with made an epic blunder of carrying only folding stoves that burned solid fuel. These made us sick or headachy inside the tents, but the weather was too bad to use them outside. It was almost as bad as when Fiennes and Stroud found their fuel botdes did not fit the cookers. Whatever you use, like breaking in your boots, make sure you have thoroughly tested your stove and fuel before the expedition.

Long-distance path planning

How you plan your walk depends on your motive for doing it. Some people want to break records and complete the routes in incredibly short times – walking the Pennine Way, 400km (250 miles), in three or four days, for example, when it usually takes a couple of weeks. To accomplish that, you would need the support of friends at planned rendezvous points with food, drinks and accommodation (tents or perhaps a caravan). All the arrangements would have to be very flexible, depending on the performance of the participant

– I almost wrote competitor.

If your objective is to get fit or to keep fit and you have no particular interest in natural or local history, there is no need to buy whole sheet maps or books describing the region. Strip maps are available which show just the immediate environs of the path, indicating the usual night stop-overs and usually including details of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, hotels, hostels, bunkhouses and camp sites.

Waymarking is generally very good on British long-distance paths. Wooden posts with thisdes, acorns or other emblems on opposite faces indicate that you keep on in a straight line. Emblems on adjacent faces mean that you turn as indicated. Stiles usually have finger posts and gates have instructions. Signboards with maps and information are provided at strategic points. Bridges are well-built and have hand-rails. Because of all these refinements, route planning as such is not necessary – it has all been done for you, and all you have to do is to decide how far you want to walk each day or how far you are capable of walking and plan your night stops accordingly. I suggest you plan for an enjoyable holiday, allowing adequate time for rest days or occasional wandering off route.

Despite the excellent sign-posting, you should still take all the emergency gear (map, torch, whisde, compass, first aid kit, spare clothing and spare energy food), especially if you are alone, or if the weather is bad. Some of the paths cross very wild, open country, including the Cheviots, most of the Pennines, with Cross Fell, and the full length of Rannoch Muir. Waymarkers and the paths themselves are soon obliterated during heavy snowfalls.

Catering for wilderness walking

Whoever plans expedition menus comes in for a lot of stick. So, if you do not want to be a martyr or to make lifelong enemies, it is best to get somebody else to do it. On one trip we had thousands of triangles of processed cheese that nobody wanted. We all craved accelerated-freeze-dried cod steaks, which we were testing for the first time, but one of the Sherpas was ill, so he was the only person to get any. We had a live sheep and chickens with us, but no one, least of all the Buddhists, would kill them, yet we had to fling yard-long salamis, completely inedible, to the ravens. After that same expedition, although I normally love curry, I did not eat it for two years.

You will need a balanced diet for a long period if your physical condition is not to deteriorate, but you will not be able to carry fresh milk, bread, meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs or canned foods or your rucksack will weigh a ton. Having noted what you can not carry, what can you take? Good things, such as cheese and sweetened condensed milk, seem to come in expensive tubes, but they are good value in terms of their weight/calorie ratio.

You must carry away all the containers with you. I sometimes de-can and de-oil sardines, then carry them, wrapped in polythene bags. Porridge mixes are good for breakfasts. Experiment with quantities beforehand, then bag each breakfast into individual polythene, together with the correct amounts of salt, sugar and dried milk, which will save a lot of trouble in the morning. Such preparations will decrease the expense of buying proprietary meals to about one-eighth, and it will probably be much more palatable. Hot muesli mixes, hot cereal starts and so on are very convenient, but what is the point if you fail to eat them?

On some of our backpacking courses through the Highlands and with the generous co-operation of local people, we make depots of food and fuel so that we never have to carry more than three days’ supply. Even after eating dehydrated meals for only three days we are very glad to get to the caches, which mean that for dinner on the night of our arrival, and for breakfast next morning we can eat canned fish, meats, sausages, vegetables, puddings and fruit. Heavy or bulky items, such as cereals, crisp-breads, fruit juices and long-life milk, are also available.

It is essential to organize rubbish collection facilities so that all the containers and the wrappers from the previous three days can be dumped. Leaving the cache after breakfast, one has to be disciplined enough to leave behind any canned delicacies or fresh foods acquired, and to revert to a strict diet of dehydrated meals, crunchy bars, nuts and raisins, trail mix, oatcakes, biscuits, jams and chocolate bars. Desire for fresh foods is very strong, but rucksacks weigh too much, even without them. Well into the trek again half the conversation is about the weather prospects and the other half is about what we are going to eat at the next depot. Strange cravings develop after a couple of weeks – mine are for fresh white bread and butter with canned tomatoes.

Quick-boiling rice, pasta and dehydrated potato powder are the usual supplements to pre-packed dehydrated meals. The meals are varied vegetarian or meat dishes such as farmhouse stew, chicken supreme, curries and so on, although some of the soya mixes have such indeterminate flavours that many hardened outdoors people get into the habit of carrying their own salt, pepper, curry and chilli powders or even the odd clove of garlic. Plastic film cassette containers, preferably transparent, are ideal for this purpose (and also for carrying and waterproofing matches). Reconstituted dried apple and banana flakes with blancmange or custard powders are acceptable for desserts. I sometimes boil up my rice or pasta with sachets of unwanted sugar and dried milk to make a pudding that I would not eat at home but that is more than acceptable in the field.

To make sure that people drink enough, it is important to have a plentiful supply of beverage sachets such as meat or vegetable soups, hot chocolate, instant tea, coffee, coffee complement, dried milk, sugar and lemonade-type drinks.

Cooking is simple with such fare. There is no frying, baking, roasting or grilling. You just boil water and rehydrate everything, perhaps with about 15 minutes of simmering for meals and pastas, and less for quick porridge. You will find that you are surprisingly satisfied with the meals and pot-washing is also simple; just eat all the food because you are so hungry and lick the pans out – although it pays to carry a pan-scrubber.

Camp hygiene

Except in the height of summer, and not even then if there are midges about, you can forget about daily baths when you are backpacking in temperate regions. Many people like to wash their faces, comb their hair and brush their teeth, but please try and do it below the campsite and try to empty water on to land rather than back into the stream. It is essential to keep your hands clean, with fingernails either short or scrubbed. Your hands stay remarkably clean during rainy weather.

Drinking water is obtained from the stream, which is taboo for other purposes, and from well above the tents. Notice that I have not mentioned towels, soap nor even toilet paper in the essential kit lists. I have mentioned a toilet trowel, often known as a bog digger. We use redundant wooden ice-axes with the picks and points sawn off. For goodness’ sake, do not just lift a stone or go round the back of the bothy. The best idea is to go well downstream, but away from it, make a hole and cover deposit and tissue (sphagnum moss or large leaves of the dock family are ideal) preferably with a light covering of organic matter.

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