This is the gear which worked for me (or not) on my first big trip to the Scottish highlands in summer. There’s plenty more chat about gear and tips on the Alpacka forum, among other places.
Backpack – TNF Terra 60
I bought this last year for Coast to Coast when my packframe and dry bag idea proved dumb, and then realised it’s the first new backpack I’d bought since the 1970s – a Karrimor Annapurna I recall. They’ve got a lot better since then and although parts of the Terra’s shell seem as thin as tights, it has all the features you want: adjustable strap height, shoulder pull and chest straps, fat padding, attaching loops and buckles for lashing on the boat wrapped in the pfd, and a lower access zip to save tipping it all out. The back ‘verti-cool’ panel is of course bogus, you’re going to sweat carrying this thing, but even at 2.3kg I couldn’t have expected better from the Terra for what it carried.
This year the colour has of course changed and the size has gone up to 65 litres or more. Mine cost around £70 in a sale, but for what I used it for it was only just big enough. PFD, boat, paddles and dry suit all had to go on the outside.
In late 2011 I bought myself a 65+10-litre Berghaus C71 (right). It had many of the handy features of the Terra: what they call wand (mesh) pockets where the paddle blades can slot and sit under the side compression straps, an elastic on the back to stuff the rolled up packraft under, as well as a pair of straps along the bottom to take a rolled-up drysuit and to stop the mounted packraft slipping down. Well that’s the way I visualised it while staring at the internet. Oh, and like the Terra last year, it was reduced drastically from £140 to 80 quid. More news in Gear when I’ve got something to say about it.
Shoes – Keen Arroyo II
After years with Tevas, a few months ago I figured I’d try something that held the foot securely with more than Velcro and which had a better sole. The Arroyos turned up at half price – about what they’re worth – and have been OK for what they are. For some reason the sides carry the boast ‘waterproof’, but so what if it pours in and out of the holes?
I like the wide fit very much, the quick synching lace system is… quick; if you need more security you just tie a knot or convert to regular laces. My only complaint is that I doubt they’ll last long, especially tramping cross-country under a load, though to be fair they weren’t built for that and anyway, what gear does last these days?
Problem is, your shoes and socks will be soaked at the end of the day. Sure I had a spare pair of wool socks, but put those in the wet shoes and they get wet too. What is needed are knee-high Seal Skinz and around the bothy a light pair of ‘hut slippers’ or even just slip-ons to stop bare wool socks or Seal Skins wearing through. Some sort of roll up, unlined, no sole, Moccasin slip-on. Something like the hut socks on the top right, in fact.
When the Arroyos fall apart I have an OK pair of Karrimor trail shoes. They claim to be Goretex which is actually a pain for quicker drying, but I can tell you now I spent a lot of time last year looking for wide, non-Goretex trail shoes (for an annual desert camel trek that I lead) and gave up. As the Karrimor’s were cheap (and I have Meindls for proper walks), I think I’ll convert them to quick-draining river and trail duties by poking holes through each side, just above the sole. In Seal Skinz my feet will be dry anyway and the holes will mean I’m not walking around with an unnecessarily heavy shoes full of water. There’s more on that and packrafting shoes here.
Dry suit – Crewsaver Hyperdry Pro
I sold my nice yellow Kokatat Tropos Semi Dry suit the day before I decided to buy a packraft. That was a pretty good suit on the Spey one autumn, and the Crewsaver Hyperdry pro I picked up for £180 (rrp £300) looks as good, if not a bit better. It fits me great and like the Kokatat, has integral rubber feet – an essential feature IMO – as well as braces.
First thing I did was get it sent direct to a repairers to get a relief zip installed (£50-70). With a stiff back zip it can be hard enough to put on and take off; when tired you could wet yourself before that can be accomplished. Male or female (using a SheWee), you won’t regret a relief zip in your dry suit.
I knew if before I went, but what this suit also needs are some exterior draining pockets on the arms and legs for GPS, cameras and so on. It has a tiny key pocket on the left upper arm; can’t see much use for that. My Yak pfd has no useful exterior pockets and on my Kokatat pfd they’re a bit too small to be jamming in a camera while lining up quick for a rapid.
I found it a bit sweaty across Loch Morar, when I wore full-length under clothes and was paddling a bit too energetically. Next time, a couple of days later just in shorts and T-shirt on the Lochy it was just right, but they say far from a shore or bank in cold seasons some sort of thick underfleece is essential once you fall in, otherwise you get hypothermic almost as fast as without a suit. I’ve since given the Crewsaver a few immersion tests by wearing it for an hour or two in the water, practising rolls with a mate in a SinK. No leakage at all which may be to be expected but is still pretty amazing.
Packrafts and IKs are a bit different to SinKs in that a drysuit is handy against splash, even if you’re not falling in. And with the legs exposed and lacking a deck a quick draining pocket on the thigh, for a GPS for example, would be handy. If I get round to this I think I’ll get some velcro sewn onto the thigh front and the left forearm, so that any pocket construction is less critical. For the moment I’ve made an arm/leg strap-on pocket out of a spare Aqua Pack, some glue and a bit of the ballistic nylon left over from the floor. And I’ve now got a waterproof camera.
Paddle as Packstaff
My 4-piece Aqua Bound Manta Ray is OK as far as rigidity goes, but of course is very handy for travelling. I knew I’d need something like trekking poles with the heavy loads and terrain I’d be crossing, but of course didn’t want to take trekking poles just for that. In the end an old Lendal paddle sacrificed itself to make a 6-inch ‘nib’ to slot into the end of the Manta’s shaft, making a shoulder-high staff. While using it for what turned out to be a 3-day walk in winter, the fibreglass nib wore down, so needs some kind of metal over-nib.
As mentioned in the text, this proved to be a great aid on the gnarly crossing to Loch Arkaig and all the better for not having a trekking pole’s handle or loop. It’s just the right thickness all along of course, so you can vary your hand height, probe the ground, rely less on balance (so saving energy), use it to vault over ditches and streams and lean on it hard as you step around an outcrop above a mire. Plus you can lean on it when drinking by hand from a stream with a pack still on – very handy. I couldn’t see a £90 Leki pole taking such weight, let alone the cheapies I use which fell out of a cereal packet. Cross country in Scotland with a load, you need a packstaff or something similar.
Camera – GoPro mini camera
Short version, as these are well-known to kayakers and hair-boaters. They use two buttons but the menu is easy to learn. I set mine on SD (‘1’) but ran out of card in 2 days, long before the battery went flat. Looking at all the mounts which came with it, I settled on the headband which did most things for me. For back shots in the boat it tucked under the pack lines. With the cam on your head (make sure it’s not set too high), after recording in very still conditions you can hear the blood moving in your brain on playback; weird!
The 5mp stills are not as good as my heavier and bulkier LumixTZ6 (12mp), but for a fixed-focus, wide-angle, the video, even at SD, is OK. The only flaw is that it tends to underexpose (too dark) and the audio dies inside the waterproof housing when it’s not on your head. On your head your skull is a kind of amplifier when you talk, but you won’t hear what other people say. I may have the exposure set wrong but I’m sure it’s on auto. I expected this duff audio and removed it mostly when on dry land to do talking, or lately have got into taking and using the better Lumix for talking when not in rough water – but that means 2 cameras. If you’re talking to the Go Pro in the housing, get close or shout.
The best thing is the GoPro is so light and has a good series of mounts there’s plenty of scope to shoot good action creatively. But for £300 it’s too much for what it is and after a year or two I sold it. Check out this videos. Instead I use my waterproof Panasonic Lumix FT2 as a day camera and for paddling: better stills, better video exposure, easier to use, better sound and sells for a fraction of the price used. The GoPro is everywhere these days and lately improved, but to me is over-rated for the price.
Tent – Black Diamond Lighthouse
I see packrafters talking about rigging their boats as shelters or setting up a simple tarp with string and using the paddles as tent poles. The way I see it, either you can sleep out in the open on your part-deflated raft or you need a tent for shelter from rain, insects or wind. In Scotland you need a tent for all three.
I don’t begrudge the 1.5kg of tent, poles and 4 pegs of my BD lighthouse. It uses a single skin of ‘breathable’ Epic fabric which in my experience breathes better some nights than others. Unless it’s freezing (and I’ve had minus 6°C inside) I very rarely sleep with all the flaps zipped up, but condensation seems to have a mind of its own, whether it rains overnight or not. No complaints about waterproofing (that failed later despite reproofing so I sold it). Like a packraft itself, it’s so small and light you don’t think twice about taking it and using it. They make it anymore as the fabric wasn’t fireproof (legal) in some US states. I bought it in Colorado in 2007 for about £200 – in the UK it was nearly double at the time. I since replaced with conventional REI Half Dome (left) that can be pitched inner- or outer only. More on packboating tents here.
Sleeping bag – Mountain Equipment Sleep Walker U/L
Sometimes I look at this thing and think surely the Polar Loft fill has collapsed over the years when I compare it to my recently re-fluffed Yeti down bag which just makes you want to get in and hibernate. But at just under a kilo, it’s an ideal summer bag that works fine with a tent and a good sleeping mat plus a hat if necessary. It can feel sweaty and doesn’t feel half as nice as a down bag, but for watery activities with a risk of getting wet, synthetic does the job. If it’s too warm it zips right out into a blanket. It’s good to have a cheap bag for rough trips and save the down Yeti for when it’s needed.
They don’t make it anymore – or they probably do but it’s got a different colour and name. It cost me about £50 in a sale in 2005. Since replaced with a lovely down Marmot Arroyo Long.
Sleeping mat/raft floor – Thermarest ultralight
I slept on one of these for years before I moved up to an Exped Syn Air DLX after a period of back pain. Now the ¾ length Thermarest (118cm x 50cm, 535 grams) doubles up as a handy floor for the raft, something light to sit on and an OK overnight pad when lengthened with a pfd. I suppose the current version is the ProLite which is as wide and thick, but full length and 100 grams lighter. Since replaced with an Exped UL.
I got some imperfect Seal Line Baja bags years ago in Seattle that still have several more years left in them. On the Scotland trip I realised they also make a handy bucket (left) to save trips to the stream or lake.
The giant Mil-com bag (right) cost just £15 off ebay and make a great dry bag for my backpack. Alpacka advise that a simple, light inner dry bag will do inside the pack – let your pack take the hits. To me it seems obvious an exterior bag that keeps the whole pack dry up to a point is the way to go. It also makes a good sitting mat or door mat to the tent. The closure has no stiffener so isn’t as secure at a Seal Line or others, but it keeps the splash off and slows ingress if you capsize.
I’ve found a Decathlon compressor bag seals better than the fancy Exped ones I also have, most obviously because the smooth plastic rolling portion seals better than nylon fabric. The idea of a purge valve at the other end is definitely the way to go. Stuff the bag in there, roll it up and clip shut then sit on it to purge the air and plug the plug. A great space saver that’ll keep a bag dry underwater too, I’d hope. It only costs a tenner.
A mate put me onto Tatonka 500ml mug. With graduated lines inside showing the volume, it works fine as a cooking pot and drinking mug. One thing I’d do for next time is make an aluminium windshield to wrap around the mug and hang from the handles down over the burner. Speeds up cooking and so saves gas.
They’re a bit hard to find in the UK. Amazon sell them for £12, though they’re listed as €10 from Tatonka.com.
No-name butane burner
It’s like the MSR Pocket Rocket but at £14, it was half the price and better still comes with a piezo igniter so no lighter needed (though I carry one just in case). A great little cooking gadget.
Pack & Go meals
The last time I ate a freeze-dried meal was some awful stuff by Raven about 30 years ago. Never again, and since then I convinced myself that this sort of stuff was just more overpriced camping gimmickry; you can buy the same or better in Tescos.
But I’m not sure I’ve ever walked alone for over three nights between re-supply points until this trip. I saw a good review of Pack & Go meals and bought a few day menus. Breakfast is ready brek with raisins, plus an oatmeal bar, rehydration powder (left at home, used lighter/litre Zero tablets instead, below right), a chocolate drink, an evening meal and a pudding. All up £10 and less than a kilo per day, but as you’ll have read, I got pretty hungry by day three as no lunch is included. For that I had cuppa soups and tea.
In Fort William I bought a similar Mountain something meal, tasty salmon and potato but I realised what makes the P&Gs so user-friendly: you pull apart the base to make it stable, rip off the top, open out and pour in the given amount. This is often stated as too much and does not match the three suggested boiling water level lines marked inside – use those not that stated quantity. Then you zip it up, put on the water for the desert (variations on choc or custard or rice pud and fruit) and 6 minutes later dinner’s ready while pudding warms up.
As you’d expect, some meals taste better or are more satisfying than others. Boil-in-a-bag options may be tastier, but are twice as heavy and will use several minutes of gas for boiling. With plenty of water around, stew-in-a-bag saves gas and means no washing up.
I wouldn’t want to live off this stuff for days and days and I found the daily quantities not quite adequate for what I was doing. However, preparing for another Scottish packrafting trip in late November (when I imagine I’ll need more fuel to keep warm), I now see they offer two sizes: 125g at ~400 calories, and 180g with around 700 calories for ‘big eaters’. That’ll be me then.
Gear summary: what worked well in Scotland
- Pakstaff – a great idea
- Mini carabiners, great for lashing and attaching
- TNF backpack (comfort, not capacity)
- Mil-com dry bag (failing a submersion)
- GoPro camera, all things considered
- Garmin 76 CSX with OpenStreet mapping
- No name Goretex light cag
- And of course, the Alpackerai!
and what didn’t
- Keen Arroyo II shoes
- Sock/hut shoe strategy
What I could have left
- Head torch (as usual)
- Water bladder (water everywhere)
What I should have taken
- Ally wind shield for stove
- Lid for the cup
- Hut shoes or slippers for when day shoes and socks are soaked
- A lighter that doesn’t fall apart
- Another SD card
- A brolly to try out as a sail. More on sailing here