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6 Things I Learnt About Gear Over 1000km

Over 50 days of hiking through wind and rain over the mountains of Ireland will teach you a thing or two...

This summer I climbed all 273 mountains over 600m in Ireland in 56 days – the fastest ever time. I walked 1,129km, ascended the height of Everest every week for eight weeks in a row, and wild camped under the stars over 20 times. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I set a peak-bagging record and indulged in my love for the mountains for a joyous two months.

But I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet. I’m not some sort of super-human, all-action adventurer. I made a series of calamitous errors during my expedition (think going on a five-day wild camping trip without any means of lighting your stove). I got lost; I broke equipment; I fell over (repeatedly); I injured myself; I was invariably a mixture of cold, wet and miserable; and I struggled both mentally and physically. It was tough.

The good news? The tougher things got, the more I learnt – about the mountains, about myself, about my outdoor gear. And it is the latter I will be focusing on in this article. No self-indulgent, overly-sentimental waffle about personal epiphanies here. Just the top 6 things I learnt about hiking and wild camping kit during my epic Irish peak-bagging trip.

My mission to climb the so-called ‘Vandeleur-Lynams’ – a list of 273 peaks in Ireland and Northern Ireland with a height of at least 600m and a drop on all sides of at least 15m – was a brutal test for my gear. It answered so many questions. Would sturdy walking boots or my Salomon XA Pro 3D GTX trainers be better for blister prevention? Would my ultra-lightweight Kraku stove from Alpkit be annoyingly slow? And how would my Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 tent fare in the rain?

But, more useful than reviews of specific items of gear, my challenge taught me broader lessons about outdoor kit. What’s the best way to stave off blisters? Can you navigate exclusively using a GPS app or do you need to buy paper maps too? Does going ultra-lightweight inevitably lead to compromises in quality and comfort? It may have taken me 1,000km and 273 mountains, but I now know the answers – and I’m really happy to share my tips below.

Lesson 1: Want To Avoid Blisters? It’s Easy – Constantly Rotate Your Boots

Blisters can be a debilitating condition for the long-distance walker, progressing rapidly from a minor inconvenience to a painful thru-hike-ending disability.

I’ve come across a myriad of blister prevention tactics used by hiking friends, ranging from well-known solutions to bizarre old wives’ tales: sock liners, zinc oxide tape, Compeed plasters, lathering your toes in oceans of Vaseline and even soaking your feet in tea to toughen them up. But, after suffering from blisters in my first week exploring the Wicklow mountains south of Dublin, I found that the best tactic was simply to rotate my boots regularly.

Switching between three different pairs seemed to effectively alter the pressure points, giving any sore spots time to recover, while the softer, less rigid feel of my Salomon XA Pro 3D GTX trainers proved a welcome break from my sturdier, stiffer Mammut Ayako High GTX scrambling boots.

I quickly learnt the importance of quality socks too. After only a few outings, I unceremoniously binned all of my poorer pairs, exchanging them instead for Stance’s Nepal Trek socks. The zonal padding and breathable properties easily out-performed my older pairs in terms of blister prevention.

Lesson 2. It’s Worth Spending On Quality When It Comes To A Tent

In 2017 I climbed all 446 mountains over 2,000ft in England and Wales in just six months – and, somehow, I did it carrying a Vango Banshee 200 tent weighing 2.4kg. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Banshee – it was excellent value at just £99, performed well in most weather, and was quick to erect. But it was simply too heavy, contributing to chronic back ache during multi-day hikes, and I struggled at times with condensation as well as stability in high winds.

“There’s no substitute for getting out there and learning what works for you…”

For my 2018 Ireland adventures I wanted to go for a higher quality, ultra-lightweight tent. I opted for the three-season rated, double-skin Terra Nova Laser Competion 1 tent – and, despite the hefty £425 RRP leaving me reeling, it didn’t disappoint. At just under 1kg, it saved a whopping 1.4kg from my pack weight. And I didn’t notice any compromises in performance for the reduced weight. The low profile was excellent in strong winds, the inner was spacious and well ventilated, and it stood up to the harshest of rain storms Mother Nature threw at it on the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland.

I loved my Terra Nova tent and it taught me that it really is worth splashing out on quality when it comes to your mountain home from home, especially if you’re hiking long distances over a long time period.

Credit: James Forrest

Lesson 3. With The Right Approach, It’s Possible To Navigate With Your Phone

This one might be controversial and I hope I don’t get lynched for it by the old school fraternity, but my experience is that you can safely navigate around the mountains with just your phone. I climbed all 273 mountains in Ireland over two months using just my phone – and it worked flawlessly. But I did it in a sensible and considered way that mitigated risks, maximised safety and answered all of the concerns hikers often have about relying on technology.

Let me explain. No mobile reception? You don’t need it – I had all of the OS 1:50,000 maps of Ireland and Northern Ireland downloaded onto the ViewRanger app, meaning the maps loaded without 3G or 4G. Worried about battery life? I carried a Poweradd Pilot X7 20,000mAh power pack capable of charging my phone up to five times, as well as a backup Anker 5,200mAh power pack. Concerned your phone might break? As a safety net, I carried my old phone with me, plus I always packed a compass and a 1:50,000 print out of my route. And it was easy to keep my gear dry inside an Aquapac waterproof phone case.

For me, therefore, exclusively using my phone for navigation was a brilliant approach. I could create routes, record routes, pinpoint my location, and – best of all – it came at a fraction of the cost of buying the hard-copy maps.

Lesson 4: Invest In Ultra-lightweight Gear To Avoid Backache

Backache is another problem that plagues long-distance hikers. I’ve suffered from it on numerous occasions – and it always reminds me of that hilarious scene in Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, when Katz, at the end of his tether, begins angrily removing items from his ludicrously overweight backpack and throwing them out over the Appalachian Trail. So, desperate to avoid the dreaded back pain on my Ireland expedition, I invested in a range of ultra-lightweight gear to drastically reduce the base weight of my backpack.

The biggest weight savers were my Alpkit Kraku stove (45g), which is marketed as “possibly the world’s lightest commercially available micro camping stove”; my Klymit Inertia X-Lite sleeping mat (175g); my Alpkit Pipedream 200 sleeping bag (545g), and, as mentioned above, my Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 (970g). Of course there were minor compromises. The stove was slower to heat water than my Jetboil and struggled in strong winds; the mat took a bit of getting used to; and I wished, on occasion, that my sleeping bag was warmer (my Rab Silk Mummy Liner helped to maximise the warmth). But overall the sacrifices were worth it.

The strategy really paid off and, coupled with the excellent hip belt and mesh system of my Osprey Atmos AG 65, I barely suffered any back pain in Ireland. Result.

Lesson 5. Poles Are Essential Not Optional

I used to think walking poles were for anorak-wearing rambling geeks. But now, after my 273-mountain Ireland challenge, I swear by them. I never go out into the hills without hiking poles – they are my new essential, not optional, accessory. Why? Well, firstly, they saved a huge amount of strain from the knees. Without them, I found myself getting pangs of pain and an aching sensation in both knees while descending. But, once I’d bought a pair of Alpkit Carbonlite Twins, I found the anchor points provided more stability and balance during descents and seemed to cushion each step enough to end all of the knee pains and aches.

Related: Advice For Camping in the Rain

Related: How To Stay Safe In Winter Mountains

The benefits of using poles weren’t just for my dodgy joints though. They were useful for river crossings, they enabled me to dig in and power uphill more efficiently and rhythmically, and they stabilised me on rough and uneven terrain. Oh, and they served as the base for my makeshift washing line while trying (and mostly failing) to dry out kit on my wild camping adventures. So, in conclusion, I don’t care if they make me look like an anorak-wearing rambling geek: walking poles are my new indispensable piece of hiking equipment.

Lesson 6: Develop Your Own Little Strategies That Make Life Easier On The Trail

The more time you spend on the trail, the more you’ll develop your own little habits, strategies and tricks for making life easier and more comfortable on the trail. There’s no substitute for getting out there and learning what works for you. But, if it helps, here are a few of the best tricks and tips I developed along the way in Ireland: ball up your spare clothes in a dry sack for the perfect wild camping pillow; take an ultra-lightweight spare torch, like the Petzl e-Lite (26g), rather than spare batteries – it’s far easier to grab and use when your main head torch runs out of juice; and decant cheap noodles into an empty expedition meal pouch, the insulated interior will boil up your meal and is far less bulky than a pot.

During my 273-mountain challenge, I also quickly learnt which gear and clothing performed well, saved me time and made my life simpler. The in-built filter of my Water To Go bottle, for example, was a far more efficient way to access clean water than any tablets or drops. My stash of Summit To Eat expedition meals were a godsend too: super-quick to make (simply add boiling water), nutritious and, joyously, created no washing up at the end. And my synthetic jacket – a Salomon Drifter Mid Hoodie M – retained its warmth even when wet, an ideal alternative to my down jackets.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab your boots and your tent, hit the trail, and begin learning your own lessons about outdoor gear.

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