Tarp camping – appraising the benefits as an alternative shelter for wild walking.

I am very fortunate to have been able to successfully make the move from regular employment to self employment. One of the designed and positive outcomes of this change is a shorter working week yielding more time to enjoy family time & hobbies. Thus this little project, which seeks to address the questions:

  • Is tarp camping enjoyable or is it all just hype?

  • Can I find ways to make it comfortable and practical vs. my standards

Whilst I thought this could be a fun experiment (and it has very much been this thus far) until recently I was far from sure there really was any benefit to a tarp over a lightweight tent.

Tarp Benefits – Perceived or Real?

As with many niche hobbies, once people have invested their cash and reputation into them, they can often be far more evangelical about them than is actually justifiable. Cognitive dissonance? These are my thoughts thus far:

Perceived benefits – exploding the myths

Tarps are ultralight?  This is a myth, at least today it is. Whilst the tarp itself may be very lightweight, to this you have to add a ground sheet, something to protect you from insects and often some secondary weather protection.

3 x 5m tarp (350 g) + ultralight bivvy (480 g) + groundsheet (200 g) + pegs (80 g) = 1110 g

Which compared to some of today’s solo tents isn’t at all impressive…

  • Terra Nova – Laser 1 – 1050 g
  • Lanshan 1 Pro – 690 g
  • Nordisk – Lofoten 1 – 565 g
  • Terra Nova – Laser Pulse 1 – 550 g

Even when compared to my robust and comfortable Hilleberg Enan (1200 g) the weight saving could be far more easily gained by a healthy diet than a tarp!

Tarps are quick and easy to pitch?  From my own experience and from YouTube video’s I’ve seen, pitching a tarp normally involves pitching then fettling. Today’s single pole tunnel tents can be erected in around three minutes and don’t need any fettling because their design is fixed and not flexible like a tarp.  The Enan goes up all in one too.  My tarp, for example, has eight guys and then needs any inner shelter setting up afterwards – however fast I get, I don’t think I’ll ever get it down to three minutes. On the plus side however, though they do pitch ‘outer first’ which is great news in wet weather. They could also form a lunchtime shelter if required.

Tarps take up less space in your pack? In truth this depends on the tent you compare them against. My experimental set up is significantly lower in volume than my solo tent, but it is only about the same as one of the Terra Nova ‘Compact’ models or a Norkdisk Lofoten

Tarps can be pitched in a variety of ways / shapes?  This is correct, but it’s a bit of a false positive. It is true that you can change the design of your pitch depending on the weather conditions, but this is because the different pitches are essential to make them work in that weather, it is not an added bonus. Whilst a tent usually has a preferred orientation vs. the wind direction, most will cope acceptably with a 90 degree swing in with direction. Should this happen with a tarp, you may need to re-pitch it in the night.

Real benefits – making the most of the upsides

Tarps can be pitched more easily in wooded areas / on a smaller footprint : Flexibility of pitching options does mean that you could string up some para-cord between two trees over root filled ground which is not happy to accept pegs. Also if you can only find just enough flat space to lie down, you can pitch a tarp over this and don’t have to worry about rocks or tree stumps also being under the flysheet. I can see how they could work very well on the wooded long distance trails of the USA.

And saving the best ’til last…

Tarps give you a better connection to the countryside around you : And here at last you find the reason why I plan to pursue tarp camping for a few test walks. If you are able to pitch your tarp ‘high’ you get open views all around you. You can stare up at the stars, or out at the views around you unhindered by where the tent door needs to be. The first night I spent under my pre-loved tarp was in our back garden during the UK’s July Heatwave. Having a roof over me made me feel secure, but feeling the breeze blow over me was invigorating. I could see the stars and watch the bats flitting overhead.

That first night told me that whilst a tarp is not a mountain shelter, in the right place and at the right time of year it opens you up to an outdoors experience quite different from a regular tent and one that, at least initially, has been refreshing and enjoyable.

My Tarp set-up

I shook Ebay and this is what fell out…

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It is a Hilleberg Tarp 5, which weighs in at 320 g inc. guy lines but excluding pegs. It is made from their tough but lightweight SiNylon flysheet material and is an elongated pentagon shape. The extra triangular sections at the front and sides appear to have been added to allow for greater headroom at the entrance. As it is not rectangular, the number of pitching options is less numerous. Those I’ve found practical are in the slideshow below.

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The quoted dimensions of this tarp are slightly misleading, and the effective protected length is really around 2.3 m (6’ 7”) rather than 3.15 m (10’ 4”). However the longest inner dimension of most modern lightweight tents is usually around 2.2 m. The received wisdom is that if you are new to tarp camping you are best to start with something larger, progressing to something smaller (and thus lighter) once you have gained some experience. I pitched mine in the back garden and assessed what area remained dry in the rain and then sought to apply some lateral thinking. For an excellent review of the Tarp 5 head over to sectionhiker.com.

This is the set up I plan to take away on my first two night wild walking test:

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For me; for most people; protection from insects is essential. There is a Hilleberg mesh shelter designed to work with the Tarp 5, but even if I was willing to spend the £220 on one of these, there are none available at present. My solution has been to dig out an old tent footprint (2.2 x 1.2 m) and find, after a lot of searching, mosquito net – Sea To Summit Mosquito Pyramid Net – which is designed to be hung from 1/3 along it’s length, thus lending extra headroom and fitting with the sloping pitch of my tarp. By tying a length of 1 mm cord between the two walking poles I can can hang and peg the netting to this.

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The end result is not so different from the Hilleberg version apart from it’s lack of a zipped entrance door – oh and the £200 difference in price tag.  It is true that my groundsheet is not of a bath-tub design, but careful choice of site should mitigate against this limitation. By tying a generous loop of climbing cord to one of the front pegging points of the net I have an easy and visible handle to allow me to lift the front to get in and out.

I really like the Sea to Summit Netting, it being made of narrow threads and being black in colour renders it all but invisible from the inside and thus retains my connection to my surroundings – which for me is THE predominant benefit of tarp camping. Time will be the judge of it’s longevity, but at £20 it doesn’t need to last ten years.

The addition which I hope will make all the difference is this end panel

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A friend of mine is skilled with a sewing machine made me a waterproof end panel to my own specification. When the bivvy is pitched in ‘storm mode’ this will fit the triangular gap at the foot end of the tarp. Not only will this reduce the amount of overhang I need to allow for rain protection at the foot end (meaning I can shift down and increase the overhang at the head end), it should also allow me to pitch the tarp like a tent, foot into the wind. The received wisdom is to pitch a tarp ‘side to the wind’ for rain protection, but this is far from ideal wrt to the wind itself. With the narrow low end of the tarp into the wind it will offer a much more streamlined profile to the elements. Also it will give me a sheltered cooking area at the head end. All this fine theory now needs to be tested out however, to check its validity.

When do I plan to use this new set up?

My view is that tarp camping is best done in moderate weather between late Spring and early Autumn. Whilst some people pitch tarps on fell tops, at least initially I plan to use mine at lower elevations and taking advantage of natural shelter where it is available.

My plan is to go away for a three day wild walk following a local section of the Lancashire Way. By staying local I can pick a good weather window. Given the low weight and volume of my tarp system I hope to be able to carry all my gear in a 35 L day pack and thus either cover greater distances or incorporate more pub stops into each day. I can actually walk from home to join a section of the Lancashire Way which also has its appeal.

Other set ups – trials and errors on the journey towards my ideal

My initial idea was that my tarp would be something I would use to add extra protection and comfort to the use of a lightweight bivvy bag. Because some kind of insect protection was essential for me this meant looking at the premium end of the bivvy range. A good shake of Ebay didn’t reveal anything at a good price so I did initially bite the bullet and buy a new Outdoor Research Helium Bivvy.

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Half a night in this told me that I really didn’t like it, so this went back for a refund. Putting the lack of practicality of the confined space to one side, even with just the mesh door in place it significantly reduced my ‘connection experience’. My initial thoughts of the OR Helium were that it was very well made and just long enough for me at 5’ 11”. It is a very sexy toy, but not one for me.

I tried an evening without a bug net, but as soon as I turned my head-torch on my face was crawling with insects – I quickly concluded that some form of bug netting was essential! A further shake of the internet brought up a number of bug net options, but all of them had some kind of draw back. Many were too long for the Tarp 5 (and I do wonder if this is a cunning marketing ploy by Hilleberg to encourage you to buy their 210 cm long bug net?). Others were top entry, still others had solid ends – which is very practical, but once again breaks that visual connection to your surroundings. Had there been one with just a solid foot end that would have been ideal for my needs.

All this research led to my home made end panel, which also gained inspiration from the end removable end panels fitted to the mesh ends of my Hilleberg Enan which work really well despite not hermetically sealing the gap they cover either.  I can always throw my jacket over my feet for extra protection, something I often do anyway to keep them warm.

Buttermere to Styhead – a two day reunion walk

Once a year I meet up with a good friend from university days for a walking weekend. In 2021 he said he wanted to try a wild walk* and we spent two days circumnavigating Kinder Scout and the Edale Valley. This year he was keen to do something similar, so we headed to Buttermere in the Lake District. Our plan was to walk to Seathwaite Fell where another friend had recommended a great camping spot which we would be likely to get to ourselves. The planned route is shown below.

Day 1 – Buttermere to Styhead Tarn – 9 miles / 1200 m height gain

It was a two hour drive to get to the start so we only started walking at 1100. Most of our itinerary coincided with a route I walked in the winter of 2020. The cloud occasionally obscured the view, but lifted often and long enough to make it a very enjoyable day

When I first walked the route from Red Pike to Hay Stacks I put my slow speed down to the slippery snow on the descents, but in summer conditions we were not that much faster. The loose scree descents on the descents held me back as much as the snow had in the winter. This made me feel a little better about having cut my winter walk short. Towards the end of the day the cloud lowered and would clearly have obscured our planned camping spot, so with this and the late start we opted to finish the day at Styhead Tarn and stay below the cloud.

t was great to catch up with Alastair and good too to see what he thought of the Rogen, a tent new to me earlier in the summer bought for two person adventures such as this and when I go out with Junior. He agreed with me that it is more practical than the tunnel tent it replaced. I am now firmly of the view that having the door/s on your tent on the long axis is the better option. I could sing the praises of the Rogen still further, but let’s just say I that I think it excels in almost all areas.

Day 2 – Return to Buttermere via Littledale Edge – 9 miles / 700 m

The cloud was a little higher than the previous night, but sadly Littledale Edge remained shrouded in clag. Such a shame, as I repeated this section because it gave the occasional glimpse of good views last time and I hoped to see more on this occasion.

I can recommend the bacon butties at the Honister Mine cafe, but you need a lot of patience because the service is so slow as to be measured on the geological timescale. Oh and when we asked to top up our water bladders, we were told that due to H&S concerns they could not supply water for this. Explaining that we had filters to remove any bugs didn’t aid our case! It was Leo Tolstoy who said “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” From which I conclude that whilst the service was slow, the mental acumen of the staff was beyond question.

After climbing back into the cloud on Dalehead, that was the end of the views for this trip. However the primary aim was quality time with a good friend and that objective was wholly met.

What I need to do now is to devise a better route to Seathwaite Fell which whilst providing a satisfying day of walking, covers easier terrain – for walking with full kit – by being less hampered by scree. I wonder if the following idea has merit, any suggests or feedback would be most welcome.

*Wild walk – a multi-day walk made possible by use of wild camping, the objective being the walk and the ability to get away from ‘civilisation’ or to stay at altitude to increase the pleasure and / or the remoteness of the route.

Hilleberg Soulo – long term review.

If you’ve watched any wild camping video’s on YouTube you will be familiar with the Hilleberg Soulo, as alongside the Tarptent Scarp 1 it is one of the two most popular solo tent designs which feature. I’ve now used mine through two winter seasons.

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Why did I buy one?

I returned to backpacking in 2017 after a 25 year gap and was drawn back by Alastair Humphreys descriptions of micro-adventures and by wanting to explore the Forest of Bowland after seeing an enticing track wiggle up into the hills. After a couple of years of weekend walking / wild camping adventures from Spring to Autumn, I decided I wanted to expand my rediscovered hobby into winter and to be able to camp on fell tops in the coldest or wildest of weathers.

Space (4/5)

There is a good area of excellent headroom in the tent thanks to it’s semi-geodesic design, I am 5’ 11” and am very comfortable. The length of the inner leaves space for your next days clothes at your feet and the steep side walls means that when you are sleeping there is plenty of space above your head even at the end of the tent. In strong winds my preference is to sleep with my head at the leeward end where the slope of my pitch allows this.  The pentagonal footprint leaves good space next to the middle of your sleeping pad for a book, map, torch, water etc. There is a single pocket for watch, phone, matches and the like. The porch is just about big enough for all my wet gear and cooking stuff.  For me the ideal porch space is 0.7 m2 per person and the Soulo offers 0.6 m2. The steep walls of the fly do mean you can make the most of this space and the other features of the tent make this sacrifice acceptable.

I would not want to spend more than a week in a tent of this size, but I doubt I’d ever go on a solo walk of longer than four days in conditions that justified such a design. For base camp use, I would choose something larger.

Ease of pitching (4/5)

The Soulo is easy to pitch, but having three poles means it it takes 10-15 min to get set up, 15-20 min if it’s really blowing a hoolie.  The poles are attached to the fly with clips with a short sleeve at the base of each pole.  This design aids pitching in strong winds as you can firmly fix the base then gradually pitch the fly higher up each pole in turn. One very big plus is that it goes up ‘all in one’ which means once the fly is pitched, the job is complete. Having a fly first, or ‘all in one’ pitch design seems essential (to me) if you are planning to use your tent in extreme weather. In today’s market place the large majority of tents pitch inner first which is not want you want in a tent for the 4th season.

One thing I learnt on my first ‘foul conditions’ trial was to double peg the first two peg placements – for more info click here. You don’t actually need extra pegs for this, as once you have the geminal points pinned down and a couple of guys in place you have spread the load over 8 pegs and can remove the ‘doubles’ for use on the remaining guy lines. If you are planning on pitching at above Force 6 having a few extra pegs is wise anyway.

Another thing I learned was to mark up the windward end pegging points with some bright cord so it’s easy to know which end is which in wild pitching conditions. The porch has a fixed and an opening section and in bad weather you’ll want the fixed section at the windward end.

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All the guys out and double pegged – High winds on the Howgills

The Soulo comes with 12 guy lines, six sets of two. However it is only supplied with enough pegs to mean that by design you peg each pair of guys to one peg. The weak point of a guy is usually the peg placement and unless you are willing to carry the extra pegs you might as well remove some of the lower guy lines in my view. I have removed four (to save weight and to simplify) as for single night use in even poor conditions I can only see the point of having double guys at the windward end. I carry extra pegs so I have one per guy.

Weather worthiness (5/5)

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Trusty Soulo after a cold night

This is where the Soulo is in a league of it’s own. So far I’ve used use it in very strong winds, heavy rain, driving horizontal rain, low temperatures (down to -6 C) and on very poor ground. I’ve spent a relaxed, warm, dry and secure night in each case. The only ‘4th season’ condition I’ve not tested it in is heavy snow fall. The covered high level vent keeps out spindrift and the heaviest of rain, so long as that rain isn’t horizontal. The semi-geodesic design should be easily strong enough for a high snow load.  When I did have horizontal rain and had to close the vent, the wind coming under the (down to the ground) fly was enough to prevent any condensation.

Ventilation / Condensation (3 / 5)

This is the one weakness of the Soulo. In colder weather, unless you have a moderate wind ( > ca. 15 mph)  wind you will suffer moderate levels of condensation on the fly. In sub zero conditions I’ve had small amounts of ice on the inner tent too. For me this has never been more than an inconvenience and extra weight to carry the next day. However, for some users condensation is a real issue, to the point of their sleeping bag getting wet. Perhaps I respire less water overnight than average, or maybe I have less of an issue because I never pitch my Soulo in a sheltered position on a cold night?  One of the inner doors can be zipped open to reveal a mesh panel to aid ventilation of the inner, I always have this partly open.

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If you want a tent which will keep out wind blown snow you will have to have a flysheet that comes down to the ground, in the past snow skirts were also used. This is almost certain to lead to condensation in a (low volume) solo tent. I know I see more condensation in the Soulo than my two man four season tent under comparable conditions, presumably because of the lower volume per person and thus ease of reaching the dew point. Also, two man four season tents tend to have two doors and thus a cross venting option.

My conclusions are these:

  • The Soulo is a tent for the 4th season and is not ideal to use all year round in the UK.
  • I get a 5-6 C temperature differential in the Soulo in winter, higher than the 2 C differential of my Enan – this is welcome when it is below zero outside.
  • You are best not to pitch the Soulo in a sheltered position, make use of the breeze to reduce condensation.

If you only feel comfortable pitching in a sheltered position and don’t want heavy condensation then a 3 season tent is probably the best choice for you. It will vent better, be lighter and usually cost less to buy. A good 3 season tent will cope with most UK conditions all year round. Only if you are fool enough to want to pitch your tent on a fell top in a gale or somewhere with heavy snow fall then the Soulo would be something to seriously consider. These are the reasons I have one and I’m when I do use it I am delighted to have it.

Footprint (Score 5 / 5)

As a solo tent which is just the right size, the footprint is small and I’ve been able to pitch the tent small spaces. Given my renewed love of wild camping this is an excellent characteristic. Also, because it is free-standing you can pitch it well on ground which is far from ideal – say on top of heather, or even somewhere you cannot use all / any of your pegs. I once used a mountain bike as my tent anchor when I pitched on volcanic ash which would simply not hold a peg securely.

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Weight vs. Robustness (Score 4/5)

The Soulo is unarguably robust. In terms of design, geodesic tents are the strongest, if you push down on the roof and feel it spring back you get a good sense of this.  The materials are very strong and the construction excellent. I have the Red Label version – for an explanation of the colour system click here. A Black Label – even stronger – version is now also available. However, from my experience the only place I feel this would add value would be for group use / commercial / hire situations.

At 2.4 kg it cannot be considered a lightweight tent by today’s standards. I have carried it for 2-4 day walks, but would not want to carry it for a week. If the weather is simply cold (below -3 C is cold in my books) but not wild I’m better to carry a warmer sleep system and a three season tent as I did here. However if I am expecting strong winds for an elevated camp I am delighted to use the Soulo. It was ideal on my recent winter traverse of the Dales Highway with high elevation pitches on Ingleborough and the Howgills

Summary

If you want a totally reliable 4th season solo tent, and you are happy to own another tent for milder conditions, the Soulo should certainly be on your shortlist.  For such a need I would always choose a geodesic / semi-geodesic / dome design – to understand why read this article. It’s not a good idea to choose a tent from it’s statistics alone, I’d always draw up a shortlist on paper then go and see these options pitched at a local stockist and have a good poke around. If I had the chance of a month’s trial ( If you are listening Terra Nova! ) with other models in place of my Soulo those I would seriously considered would be:

  • Terra Nova Southern Cross 1 – total weight 1.7 kg (£600)
  • Tarptent Scarpa 1 with the extra cross poles – total weight 1.9 kg (approx £620 inc. tax & duty)

I bought my first Hilleberg Tent in 2001 for a cycle tour of Iceland and was blown away by it’s quality, easy of pitching and well thought out design. They were rare in the UK back then. My original Hilleberg is still in great condition and used to this day, albeit infrequently because Mrs W is now rather less keen on camping.  In the last 20 years I’ve tried models from a number of other European makers but when it came to choosing a tent for wild walking I returned again to Hilleberg.  Whilst they are expensive (Soulo RRP is £895 at time of writing), if you plan to use your tent both frequently and to it’s limits of it’s capability I would contend that they offer excellent value.  The Soulo is not a tent for the occasional weekend on a campsite, but if you need true 4th season performance, my experience is that it does not let you down.

I’d summarise my comments by saying that the Soulo is a tent for niche applications, but within that niche it excels.

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After my ‘foul conditions’ test night – Storm Bella (Force 8 gusts) on top of a local fell.

If you have found this review helpful, you might also find value in reading my other tent reviews:

Wild Boar Fell & Mallerstang – a two day Wild Walk

I’ve pondered over maps many times to try and plan a really good circular two day route to take me over Wild Boar Fell. Initially I wanted to use a high level route over the Howgill Fells as my return path but I could find an agreeable way across the valleys at either end. East Baugh Fell would be an option in the summer but is reported to be very boggy in the wetter months. When I walked along the North side of this fell as part of the Pennine Journey and this was both ‘moist’ and thigh high in reeds. Whilst I’ve had reports that it is better (and reed free) on the South side, you still have the valley crossing at the North end of the walk to consider and there is no way to avoid a fair amount of road walking. Whilst I accept the necessity of a little road walking on a longer trip, I seek to avoid it for a weekend outing.

The route I walked is shown below and I think it can be said to have been 85% successful. On the day I was returning from Great Shunner Fell to Garsdale I found Cotterdale to be significantly under par as I shall expand on below.

Wildboar Route on Map for blog

But let’s start with the good stuff. To have a high camping spot at my half way point, and somewhere sensible to park the car I decided to start from Garsdale Railway Station. The omens for the walk were all positive with me spotting a red squirrel and three donkeys before I even left the car park.

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Day 1 12.8 miles / 900 m height gain (approx)

The walk-in was OK and did afford me excellent views of two viaducts

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Whilst there is no formal footpath up Swarth Fell / Wild Boar Fell this is open access land and there is a well defined path on the ground. Interestingly this seems to follow the county boundary between Cumbria and North Yorkshire. The character of these hills is very much like the Howgills but with some limestone crags to be enjoyed on the Steilhang slopes.

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My walk was some weeks into a very dry spell so it was interesting to observe which pools and gills were still filled. Since I was harvesting water as I went (to reduce weight carried) it was more than just a casual interest. The pools which are noted only on the 1:25k map were all dried up, those large enough to be on the 1:50k map, such as the larger one which is on the coll between Swarth Fell and Wild Boar Fell, were well filled and looked likely to remain so all year around. A point to note if you, like me, plan a variant of this walk in the future.

The cairns on top of Wild Boar Fell were fun.

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Why so many?

The weather was pleasantly warm – this was the weekend before the ‘Red Alert’ heat wave of July ‘22 – and after lunching at the top of Wild Boar Fell (WBF) I allowed myself a 30 min snooze. Whilst the crags of WBF were best enjoyed from the other side of the valley, I did get a taste from my lunch spot.

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The route down then along the River Eden whilst not stunning, was pleasant and the route up out of Outhgill easy to find. It was at this point I was reminded of a pre-trip conversation with Mrs W. Be sure to look for water sooner (lower down the hill) than normal we agreed – and this was a sound conclusion with the higher gills being dry.

I’ve found it great to harvest water ‘as I go’ but it does need a little more thinking about. However it drops over a kilo of my pack weight so it’s worth that extra mental effort, and anyway for me the planning and anticipation is part of the fun.

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A view towards Mallerstang Edge from under the railway

The final push up to Mallerstang Edge was hot and hard work because of it being so steep, but I took in in 50 m elevation chunks and was soon on the ridge. The first top of High Seat was to be my last of the day. At 709 m it took me by surprise to find that it is taller than both Pen-Y-Ghent (694 m) and Buckden Pike (702 m). Just beyond the summit I found a flat spot with a great view of Wild Boar Fell and Hangingstone Scar.

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Day 2 – 13.0 miles / 330 m height gain

An unpredicted rain shower woke me at 0500, but it soon lulled me back to sleep. The showers stopped as a breakfasted and I was on my way at 0820 with the fell tops to myself. I didn’t see anyone until I started to descend the Pennine Way from Great Shunner Fell at 1100. When I thought of the rammed car parks in Horton and Ribblehead I was pleased with my choice of route.

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Once I had walked 30 min down the Pennine Way, I struck off right on a bearing heading for the isolated end of a Bridlepath which would take me down through the forestry plantation into Cotterdale. Don’t go to Cotterdale! On the day I was there is was alive with flies and afforded footpaths which had last been walked by the person who put the signs up! They were thigh deep in grass, had not been walked for years, and lacked any positive virtue.

Once out of Cotterdale my path was a pleasant walk out back to the Railway Station.

Epilogue.

Should you plan to walk a route similar to mine I would suggest it would be best after a good dry spell as the ground between Hugh Seat and Great Shunner Fell (GSF) is clearly a bog with the all the fun that would involve had it been saturated with rain. I was very pleased with my wild camping spot and would have been equally happy with the top of Wild Boar Fell and its views of Mallerstang.

Sitting here reflecting on my route afterwards I wonder what I might do differently should I walk a similar route again. The majority of my route was very enjoyable and I was pleased to have both climbed and seen (from across the valley) the mighty Wild Boar Fell. Whilst the plain between Hugh Seat at Great Shunner Fell (GSF) is not ‘amazing’ I think taking in GSF – for which I have a fondness – then backtracking to Hugh Seat and then following the Lunds Fell Ridge down would be a choice worth exploring. Another option could be a linear walk from Dent Railway Station via Great Knoutberry Hill (the name appeals to me) over WBF then down into Kirby Stephen. Then you could return by train. I’m no rail enthusiast, but it must be a most picturesque route which would allow you to relive you memories of your outward journey.

Overspecified but not Overheated – Hilleberg Rogen in a Heatwave

Whilst it is true that many countries see summer temperatures well in excess of that seen this July in the UK – having night time temperatures above 22 C here in Lancashire was less than fun*. Daytime temperatures of 33-34 C turned the walls of our house into a massive storage radiator too. One benefit of being a keen backpacker / wild walker is that I have a couple of tents I can opt to liberate from our hobbies cupboard. Since it has two doors and is new to me I opted to pitch my Hilleberg Rogen and sleep in the garden.

The big benefit with the Rogen is the both side of both doors / porches can be rolled back. With the mesh doors you can get then get a through draught to help to keep you cool

I bought my Rogen second hand and it came also with a ‘pole holder’ kit which allows to pitch the inner tent alone. However it was too hot to pitch, detach, then re-pitch the tent. I can see now why folks in the US prefer inner pitch tents for nights like this. However since I normally wild walk on the fells I am very happy to have an outer pitch / all in one design for most circumstances.

Of course, had I been more versatile I could have just slept under the hedge!


*We have two challenges with high temperatures in the UK.

  1. Our weather is very variable so our bodies never get time to adjust to large swings in temperature.  This variability (along with the very British desire never to talk discuss our feelings) is why the weather is a common topic of conversation.
  2. Our built environment has not been designed for relative ‘extremes’ of temperature.

Hilleberg Rogen – a review

This is my initial review of the Hilleberg Rogen, a two (and a half) pole dome tent, designed for three season use by two adults. I’ve had searches set on several second had sale sites for over 18 months and finally I bagged a pre-loved Rogen which had (it was claimed) only been used once.

User Requirements Specification (URS)

No tent is perfect for all conditions and all duties, that is why there are so many designs out there. My requirement was for a light weight, yet robust, two man tent to use for mini adventures with my son (8 yrs) or when I go wild walking with a friend. It needed to be capable of handling being pitched on an exposed fell top and have enough porch space for the wet gear and rucksacks from two adults.

My personal preference (based on too many years experience) was for tent where the door was on the long side and not the short side / end as this enables you to sit up in your sleeping bag and cook. Also when you have two people it’s easier for both to sit in the doorway to admire the view. Porch space is very important to me and experience suggests to me that around 0.7 m2 per person is ideal.

So how is it shaping up against my requirements?

Space (Score 5 /5)

The Rogen feels like a Tardis. Being a dome it has an excellent area of good headroom. The long sides of the inner are vertical because of the two porches and each porch is a generous 1.0 m2. On a recent trip we comfortably sat three people for evening drinks, there would have been room for a couple more too. There is space for a 55 L rucksack, boots, waterproofs and cooking gear in each porch. With cooking gear put to one side each of you can enter through your own door so you can get in quickly should it be cold or raining. I’m 5’11” (180 cm) and there is 30-40 cm spare at my feet (or head) to store clothes overnight. There is a good sized pocket on each side too for phone, GPS, matches etc.

The roof pole helps to make the best use of the internal space. It gives rise to eaves on each porch which help protect from rain when you have the outer door/s open.

When I was last out in it there were periodic short showers and I was sat in the porch cooking and kept completely dry despite the door being open. Further, the eaves give rise to a steeper door angle which means you can maximise the usefulness of the massive porches. (I could sit wholly in the porch and cook with two further people in the inner tent, not bad for a 2.1 kg structure.)

Ease of pitching. (Score 4/5)

The first point to note is that the Rogen pitches fly first or all in one. I find this the most practical option for British weather. Sometimes outer first tents have a rather loose, flacid inner, but not so in this case because it is a dome structure. This is the first tent I’ve had with ‘roof pole’ and so far I’ve found this OK to insert but challenging to remove when striking the tent. I’m hoping I’ll get used to this with time. The single ended pole sleeves make putting the two main poles in a breeze and the tent can be pitched by just one person, even in a moderate wind. Striking it is far easier with two if it’s windy, but then it is a two man tent.

Weather worthiness (Too early to rate)

So far I’ve only spent three nights in the Rogen. I can say that it stood up very well to 30 mph winds in an exposed position. In such winds it makes sense to make use of the extra guy points on the porch and it’s a shame it doesn’t come with spare guys for this purpose. My other Hilleberg tents with Kerlon 1000 fabric have never let in a drop of rain. The Rogen has more seams than many tents and the potential for water to pool on the top leaward end of the tent so time will tell. The design is very similar and fabrics identical to the Niak which this tent replaces and I owned for several years. I was dry and secure in both very wet and very windy  weather without the Niak missing a beat, so this bodes well. The Rogen also boasts waterproof zips on the doors.

Ventilation / Condensation ( 4 / 5 so far…)

If people have cause to complain about Hilleberg tents it’s normally about condensation. Let’s first consider the fly; The Rogen flysheet does not come down to the ground but instead has a catenary cut design – the bottom of the fly curves up between the pole ends.

As noted above, I bought the Rogen to gain more porch space on my old Niak which has the same catenary fly design. I found the Niak to perform excellently wrt condensation over a range of conditions and an improvement on my previous Terra Nova Solar 2 and my current Soulo. I’ve only used the Rogen for three nights so far and so long as the wind was not totally absent I’ve not experienced any condensation at all. That said, no tent will be condensation free in all conditions. Because the design has two doors this allows for a cross breeze to be set up. To aid this I would recommend carrying two clothes pegs so that when you open the zip at the top of each door you can force the gap to be wider.

 

Internally each door is 100% mesh which allows for excellent inner tent ventilation. The steep walls should also reduce your breath condensing on the inner on cold nights. Finally the DWR finish on the inner means that should you re-pitch it damp, on day n+1 of your walk, it will dry out* in around 20 minutes.

*The higher the contact angle of a material, the faster it will dry.

Pitch Flexibility (Score 5 / 5)

The design is asymmetric. Whilst this does not make the tent very photogenic it does impart significant practicality. The flysheet door is divided into a wide and narrow section and you can choose which is the fixed section and which becomes the opening ‘door’ depending on the conditions. Combine this with the dual entrances and you can always have a leeward entrance / protected outside cooking area. It is easy to swap the pegging point for each door so if the conditions change you can change the set up in seconds. Ideally you would pitch with one of the narrow ends into the wind, but given the size of the porches, if the wind moves around in the night there is plenty of space between inner and fly on the long side to handle this. I will be adding an extra guy (or two) to my kit to tie out the windward porch. Two tie on points are there for this purpose.

Weight vs. Robustness (Score 5/5)

The Rogen weighs 2.10 kg. This is not the lightest two man, dual entrance tent on the market but neither is it the heaviest:

  • MSR Hubba Hubba – 1.72 kg

  • Vango F10 Krypton UL 2 – 2.01 kg

  • Nordisk Telemark 2.2 – 2.2 kg

  • Terra Nova Pioneer 2 – 2.15 kg

  • Terra Nova Southern Cross 2 – 2.29 kg

If your URS is the same as mine then the MSR Hubba Hubba is certainly something to consider. The Rogen has a 50 Denier groundsheet and the MSR is 30 Denier so you should probably consider the weight of a footprint if you plan to wild camp with the latter which adds another 220 g. MSR tents tend to be like Marmite – some people love them, others criticise the robustness of the materials they choose to keep their weight / cost down. I’m keeping out of that debate.

I’ve long felt that Hilleberg’s yellow label (lightest weight) range gets the balance between weight and robustness just right if you are a regular / frequent wild camper. I’ve used by Enan for over 40 nights in the last two years and before that my Niak in some tough conditions, never suffered any damage and always sleep securely because of the confidence in my shelter.

Summary

I look forward to being able to write a long term review in 12-18 months time because I am really keen to use this tent for two person adventures. It remind me of a modern version of my Phazor Dome – for those old enough to remember this design – however because of the Kerlon fabric you have all the space of a base camp tent in one easily light enough to carry. I do find the roof pole hard to get out when it’s windy, but hopefully that is something I will get the knack of with time. My biggest complaint would be the price, currently £1030. When you can buy a Hubba Hubba for £440 or a Telemark 2.2 LW for £540 it’s hard to justify the additional cost unless you are a heavy user or have deep pockets. I was pleased to buy mine second hand, but I had to wait for 18 months for one to come up for sale – either because people love them too much to want to sell on, or more likely because of the price when new.

I’ve been fortunate to try many tent designs over the past 35 years, many of which I got to borrow rather than buy and have a strong preference for the dome design for three season use. The Rogen is an extremely well designed and manufactured example of this construction which thus far seems even better in use than it appeared on paper.

 

If you have found this review helpful, you might also find value in reading my other tent reviews:

Crossing the Caingorms – a seven day (90 mile) wild walk

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For one week a year I am allowed to take a solo holiday. This opens up the possibility of something more adventurous or demanding than would be appreciated by the whole family. Whilst weighing up options for a long distance walk I stumbled on a walk report on Walk Highlands whose photographs enchanted me. Once I’d turned the route into digital form and poured over the maps it looked a fully practical option. An eight day route crossing the Cairngorms with good wild-camping options for all the nights but one. That one night being roughly in the middle and offering a campsite thus the chance for a shower / beer / place to receive a restocking parcel.

Here is the route I planned:

Planned Route image

During the walk itself I opted to make some changes to the original route. Such is the beauty of a wild walk, not bound by fixed campsites. The gpx files for the original route and also for the actual route can be downloaded from the links.

Preparation

This was to be the longest solo wild walk I’d ever taken on, and in an area more remote / lacking mobile phone coverage more often than I’d covered before. For my safety and the peace of mind of Mrs W I bought a Garmin inReach unit. These allow you to be transmit GPS tracking data and to send / receive text messages via the Iridium satellite network, so from anywhere in the world with sight of the sky. I wrote a review of the inReach here.

My view of backpacking is to strike a good balance between comfort and minimising the weight carried. It should also be born in mind that I was expecting snow above 700 m and nights where the temperature would drop below zero. Ideally I’d have done this walk a month later, but the school holidays dictate my schedule. May would have been a good deal warmer yet still free of the dreaded midge.

When I weighed my kit, inc. food and water, it was 15.8 kg. But I did have an ice axe and micro-spikes with me, both of which I needed to use. I was very pleased with this weight for an unsupported walk. One secret was posting a re-supply parcel to my midpoint campsite in Braemar with food, fresh clothing, maps, batteries etc.

The walk

Day 1 – Blair Atholl to head of Glen Tilt (12 miles / 250 m)

An easy day to start with, alongside the very attractive River Tilt

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I had a super pitch at the end of the day, right next to the river. Had I walked on a further ¼ mile I could have been next to the Falls of Tarf. Might this have been better still? Perhaps, but I’d enjoyed my day and was more than happy.

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Day 2 – Glen Tilt to Gleann Taitneach (9 miles / 650 m)

The only uninspiring day of the walk. It should have ended well as the plan was to Climb Carn Bhinnein and walk across to Carn nan Sac to camp at 3000’. However the wind was very strong and a message from home base told me to expect 40 mph winds at 3000′ and I could already see the cloud base dropping. Surprising for a walk of this length (90 miles) in Scotland, this short high level section was the only part which was due to be pathless. I opted to camp in the valley.

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The highlight of the day was eating lunch next to Loch nan Eun. Whilst the wind was strong I found a sheltered spot totally out of the wind. The quality of the shelter only became fully evident as I set off after lunch to find the outflow waterfall flowing upwards!

Day 3 Gleann Taitneach to Knaps of Fafernie [Jock’s Road] (10 miles / 480 m)

When I woke in the morning the cloud was at 700 m, and as I muted earlier the next section was due to be pathless, and now also clearly viewless too. Thus I opted to divert my route down the glen.

Detour Day 2

No buses serve the A93 to Glen Shee so I hoped to be able to hitch a lift from the Spittle to Cairnwell Pass. I struck lucky with a great pair of Polish guys across for their holidays. My spirits were really raised by not having to walk along the road for two hours. That said the views from the road were still rather fine. As I headed up Glas Maol from the pass I hit my first snow. Occasionally I could now see summits, but by the time I reached 900 m I was in a white out – snow on the ground and cloud all around. Very careful navigation was the order of the day, even with a mapping GPS. It was a great path though, even though I didn’t get any views until I was pitching the tent at the end of the day.

The Knaps of Fafernie did not show the greatest potential for a camping pitch. The ground was either boggy or stony. In the end I trampled a patch of snow so it was firm and level and pitched on that.

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Day 4 Knaps of Fafernie to Callater Lodge (7 miles / 120 m)

The cloud was low again in the morning and according to the MWIS was not due to lift. I decided to read for a couple of hours in the hope that the cloud would lift late morning. The idea was to leave my overnight gear in the tent and just take lunch and water with me on a there-and-back to Lochnagar. 40 mins walk got me to the summit of Fafernie but the cloud remained thick, low and unbroken so I claimed the top (a new Munro for me) and headed back to the tent for my lunch.

Thankfully the day was saved by my decent down Jock’s Road into Glen Callater. Beautiful.

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That said, I can see why ‘Jock’ never got the same recognition from the civil engineering community as McAdam. His ‘road’ was undiscernable until I reached the base of the valley! However the views of the corries below Tolmount and Fafernie were breathtaking. It was wonderful to be greeted by such amazing scenery as soon as I descended below the cloud. (which didn’t lift from the tops until just before sunset).

My pitch was probably the finest wild camping spot I have ever enjoyed.

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Day 5 – Callater Lodge to Braemar (9 miles / 510 m)

In most long distant walks there is a ‘joining one nice section to another’ day. This was mine. It was also a demi-rest day. However I did enjoy the Callater Burn which was flowing well because of the snow melt. To add interest to the day I walked over Morrone on my way to my campsite and demi-rest day.

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I enjoyed the views of the bigger hills I was due to tackle next, then headed to the campsite. As seems to be common on all my long wild walks, any campsite proves a great disappointment compared to your other pitches. However my restocking parcel was waiting for me and I enjoyed a shower before heading into town seeking some decent beer. There was only one cask ale option in town, thankfully it was good. Braemar Brewing Co. had just opened in the town, they had one from them and three others from the Cairngorm Brewery (Aviemore) at the Invercauld Mews Bar. If you want a decent pint, it’s the place to go.

Braemar Bar

Three of the beers were traditional, but Cairngorm’s Tradewinds was slightly left field and very nice. Made with Perle hops and elderberries. Perle is a hop I love (paired with Citra gives you tangerine flavours) and the combination worked really well. I just had to have another one because my phone hadn’t yet fully charged 😉

Day 6 – Braemar to Loch Etchachan (16 miles / 800 m)

Once I got the initial road section behind me, this was the one of the best days walking I’ve ever known. Ever. The trees and the mountain-scapes around Glen Lui and Glen Derry are breathtaking.

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I’m glad I walked down the glen, it was such a good day and the final ascent of 300 m at the end of the day didn’t seem at all challenging. It was fun to start the climb in a T-shirt and end up next to a frozen loch surrounded by snow. What a location, which I think it is probably the highest (proper) loch in Scotland at 3041 feet. I’d love to come back in the summer too.

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Day 7 Loch Etchachan to Aviemore (15 miles / 400 m)

Loch Etchachan sits in a bowl and ascending out of this on frozen snow meant finally using the axe and micro-spikes I’d be carrying all week. Sadly the cloud base was just below 3000’ but the MWIS suggested it would lift by late morning. There were still no views at the top of Ben Macdui so I sat in the shelter of the rocks around the trig point and pondered my options. It was late morning now and there had not been the slightest hint of the cloud cover thinning or lifting. I made a decision to alter my route and descend to the Rothiemurchus Forest by the most attractive direct route. With the benefit of hindsight this was a poor judgement call, because the cloud did lift at 1pm. However when walking solo I feel I should put safety higher up my priority list. On the positive side, my route down was mostly extremely attractive. At 1pm, as I was approaching Cairn Lochan, the cloud lifted but so did the force of the wind. I was now in two minds about my choice, but figured that given the nature of the Cairngorms, the chance of getting a sheltered tent pitch at 4000’ was not likely. My original plan had been to camp at the Wells of Dee, the highest source of a major river in the UK. I would have beaten my PB of highest wild camp from the night before too.

One cannot live ones life regretting our choices, so I sought to see the positive of my situation and opted to bag another Munro on my way down. Cread an Leth-choin, or in English, Lurcher’s Crag. The wind on the top was brutal, but the views spectacular.

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Lurcher’s Crag – the view from between the ears

After lunch sheltering just below the summit the map showed me a path down that looked good. How wrong was that! Should you ever seek to descend from this Munro into Lairig Ghru do not take the ‘path’ to the NW. Instead follow the shoulder down to the more major path running from Lairig Ghru past the foot of Creag a Chalamain. My route took me down the most challenging scramble I’ve ever attempted, the challenge coming from the unstable rock. Every third hand hold simply broke away. It is not a safe route to take. The longer route down the shoulder would not only be safer but much faster. It took me the thick end of an hour to descend 300 m.

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Then to try and continue to seek the gains from my loss of ascending the Devils Point, Cairn Toul, Braeriach et al I route marched the 7 miles down the tourist track, through the forest into Aviemore seeking to catch the last train South.

Roch Forest

After the first two miles the rocky path becomes much more pleasant to walk on and with tired feet I arrived at Aviemore Station at 8pm. My dinner was a cold feast from Tesco which I ate on the platform then took the train back to our van parked at Blair Atholl station. I was very glad to only have another 20 feet to walk from the train to my bed.

Conclusions

I’d say the walk was a mixture of amazing and disappointing – but the disappointment came solely from the periods of low cloud. I’d be very keen to go back and repeat the section from Braemar to Aviemore in more reliable weather. The heart of the high Cairngorms is like nowhere else in Scotland, wild and stunning.

Garmin inReach Mini 2 – a real world review

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The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is a satellite facilitated tracking and text message communication device. It is small and light and designed to be used in combination with a Bluetooth enabled smartphone to act as remote keyboard and larger viewing screen. As the name suggests it is the second incarnation of this device. I bought one of these earlier in the year to give my family peace of mind when I was on an eight day solo wild walk across the Cairngorms.

Executive Summary

I found the unit easy to use and my family found messaging me and following my location using the tracking page straight forwards when I was in the field. The battery life was excellent, it would have lasted 12 days between charges using the configuration I chose. The reassurance of having a ‘Daddy Tracker’ was highly appreciated by the family and I benefited from getting messages and MWIS summaries sent from home. It gets a thumbs up from me.

What does it do / why might you want one?

By linking to both the US GPS, international GNSS and Iridium satellite networks it can pinpoint your location anywhere in the world where you have sight of the sky. Then by using its connection to the Iridium network (which is what powers satellite phones) it can broadcast your position back to your support team / loved ones via a Garmin hosted webpage. It does this at a frequency anywhere from once every two hours to as often every two minutes.

Using the Iridium network it allows the transmission and receipt of 160 character text messages. These can be sent to a mobile phone, received as an SMS message, or sent to an email account. A link within outgoing messages allows recipients (e.g. home base) to reply to the inReach via a web based messaging portal or via SMS to a dedicated pseudo mobile phone account at Garmin.

Finally the unit has an SOS button which will transmit an emergency call and your location to the local emergency services and also your chosen two primary contacts. Thankfully I’ve not tested this, but once in contact with the emergency services you can share text messages to fill them in with your status, nature of your emergency/injury etc.

I got one so that my family could be assured that I was OK and we could keep in touch with each other for the long periods I was without mobile phone network coverage (in my case for 5 ½ of the 8 days of my trip).  I was walking alone.

How easy is it to use?

DSC_2647After a couple of short test walks I was able to consistently and easily use the unit. Whilst it can be used on it’s own, if you want to send bespoke rather than just preset messages this is MUCH easier when you link it (via Bluetooth) to your phone. The unit itself has only four buttons, so typing on it would be a very slow process. However, you can read even long messages on the unit itself with ease.  The screen looks like that on a Kindle. Linking to the dedicated app on your phone is quick and easy. Reviews I read ahead of buying it all suggest that the Mini 2 user interface is much more intuitive than the original Mini 1. I have a 10 year old Garmin GPS Map and know that I can attest that the Mini 2 much easier and more intuitive vs. the older style of Garmin interface.

When I used the manual on / off tracking mode I found I could easily turn off the tracking by mistake. I never did work out what I was doing wrong. My solution was to set it to auto-tracking which meant I never accidentally turned off the tracking. This worked flawlessly.

Sometimes in deep valleys, or where there was tree cover it flagged a ‘poor satellite connection’ and asked if I would like to delay sending my message until it was guaranteed to sent without any errors. I opted for the ‘wait’ option and found that it never needed to wait more than 30 seconds before sending my message – a delay of no relevance as far as I was concerned. In the manual it suggested that messages may take up to 20 min to arrive with the end recipient (or get from them to me). On two occasions I had a back and forth text conversation with no perceivable delay.

Battery life?

There is always a difference between the optimal values quoted by manufacturers and real world performance. In the case of the Mini 2 your battery life will depend primarily on four main factors:

  • The frequency you opt to send your location back to your Garmin web page
  • How many messages you send / receive in the day
  • Whether you leave the Bluetooth link on all the time or actuate it ‘as needed’
  • Terrain / tree cover impacting satellite coverage.

In my case these factors were as follows

  • My location was set to ping once every 30 minutes
  • I sent around 10 messages per day and received 2-4
  • I only turned on the Bluetooth when I wanted to send a bespoke message
  • I was only rarely in deep narrow valleys or under trees
  • I had the unit switched on for around 8 hours per day

Picture showing how I carried the inReach Mini 2

inReach Mini 2 – clipped and strapped to my shoulder strap for good reception and easy of use

With the above settings / conditions I consistently used 8% of the battery life per day over my seven full days of use. Thus I could have got just over 12 days of use from a single charge of the internal Li ion cell. This seems excellent to me and all most people would every need. The unit is charged using a standard USB / phone charger (USB C) and thus can be topped up in the field using a power bank. The internal battery is 1250 mAh, so around 40% of a modern smart phone for comparison.

How the messaging works

The message payment model works as follows:

Preset messages

You can set three ‘preset messages’ via your Garmin Explorer web portal. These are fixed messages each sent to a (potentially different) fixed group of recipients. All and any aspects of these messages can only be altered via the web portal. Once set on the web you sync to your device either via USB or via the app on your phone / Bluetooth. You can send as many of these preset messages as you like at no extra charge. You can choose to include a location link within them.

Bespoke messages

Each message is up to 160 characters. These can be composed on the unit if you really have to and have a lot of patience (it has only four buttons) or are more readily composed on your phone then relayed via Bluetooth to the inReach and then up into the deep dark reaches of space. You can choose to include a location link with your message if you wish.

The cost of bespoke messages and location pings depends on the level of subscription you decide to pay for. Each subscription package includes some complimentary messages / pings and then you pay per message / ping after that. Since these costs will likely change with time best that you look here on the Garmin site for more information. This third party video is good too.

Both outgoing and incoming messages count towards your quota and will cost you once this quota has been exceeded. (Currently £0.50 / message).

Once you message someone, they can message you back.

Weather information

You can pay to have a weather forecast sent to you, it is multi-day forecast and can be standard or premium. I didn’t use these services so cannot comment. I arranged for Mrs W to send me a summary of the MWIS mountain forecast every other day. This service proved excellent!

Web portal configuration

This is very important as the settings on the portal will determine what your audience will see and what functions they will have available to them. You share a URL with them of the form https://share.garmin.com/xxxxxx. You can password protect the page if you wish and choose whether you want it to be possible for friends to message you from here. But note that you pay for incoming messages too.

On the portal you input your emergency contact information (two people). Via the app, you can populate a contacts list with their mobile / email details, these can be easily imported from your phone’s address book.

Costs

Again, look at the Garmin site for up-to-date costs, but their model has three levels of package further split into whether you opt for a monthly or an annual plan, so six options in total. There is an annual subscription fee too which is lower for an annual plan than a monthly plan. One thing that was not clear on their website is that if you buy a month’s usage this appears not to be 30 days, or from the Xth to the Xth of the month, but is instead for the calendar month. Worth noting if you plan to use it in the early part of the month, don’t subscribe until the 1st of the month at the earliest

I would suggest however that you would want to be able to familiarise yourself with the unit and check you can configured the settings on the web portal correctly before you head off into the wild and allow 2-3 days for this before you first use such a device.

Final thoughts

I’ve written this review after my first use of such a device, but it was a very comprehensive eight day trial – it was used ‘in anger’ so to speak. I could not fault it for either ease of use, robustness or battery life. From what I’ve read the Mini 2 has an easier interface and slightly longer battery life than the Mini 1. Mrs W was greatly reassured to be able to track me and get “I’m OK” messages at the start / end of the day and at each rest stop. This was the longest and most remote wild walk I’ve done so far and I was concerned I’d start to feel lonely after 4-5 days, but thanks to knowing I could communicate from absolutely anywhere (and you can send / receive messages from inside a tent without an issue) was probably a major reason behind this not being the case.

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The subscription is relatively expensive at £35 pa plus £35 per month used (middle level plan) but if it facilitates an adventure, as it did for me, it feels well worth the cost. My original plan was to sell the unit straight after my trip (cheaper than rental according to my sums) but rental is an option. However Mrs W has asked me to keep hold of it, so there’s a commendation right there.

Dales Superhighway – a four day wild walk

Whilst out on a family amble I discovered that our route formed part of the Dales Highway. The section we were walking from Stainforth to Faizor was very attractive, so I looked into details for the whole route. It runs for 90 miles from Saltaire to Appleby-in-Westmoorland. The low level section at the Southern end was not of interest to me, but the route it took through the Yorkshire Dales and over the Howgills looked inspired so I planned a four day section from Settle to Appleby which had the practical benefit of a train station at both ends making this a logistically easy linear walk. Having completed this I would suggest that if you are interested in the ‘hill section’ as I was then a better option still would be to terminate your walk at Newbiggin-on-Lune where you can get a regular bus to the train station at Kirby Lonsdale and from there, the train back to Settle. Read on to find out why…

Day 1 – Settle to Simon Fell (12.2 miles, 740 m)

One reason why I prefer the Dales for my winter walks is that the underlying geology means it is mostly free of much mud underfoot irrespective of recent rainfall. The first section along the Ribble was an exception to this. It seems to be a very popular route for local dog walkers. However I was soon at Stainforth Force and I was blessed with sunshine, the prospect of a dry path and excellent views just minutes ahead of me.

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I love the limestone formations of Smearsett and Pot Scar which you see on the path to Faizor.

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I ate my lunch overlooking Austwick Brook Dub, a pool in the brook which used to be used to wash sheep free of parasites in Spring and Autumn. Those farmers wresting sheep in chest deep cold water must have been hardy men indeed!

After lunch I came to another lovely section walking next to limestone pavement with Pen-Y-Ghent as the backdrop.

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I enjoyed the solitude whilst I could as 90 minutes later I was on the eroded motorway which is the ‘Three Peaks’ route up to Ingleborough. Whilst I find this the least attractive approach to this hill, it was a price worth paying for the route thus far, and the prospect of camping on Simon Fell, a satellite peak to Ingleborough itself. The cloud started to close in as I approached the top and whist I enjoyed views on arrival, I was enrobed in cloud by the time I got the tent pitched so have no pictures of the pitch on night one. Had it been the summer I would have headed to Park Fell to be undisturbed.

Day 2 – Simon Fell to Dent (12.9 miles, 500 m)

Whilst I awoke in the cloud, after striking camp I did not have to descend too far to be free of the cloud and to find that it was Ingleborough alone in wearing a flat cap of cumulous. The rest of the area was in bright sunshine. This afforded a wonderful view of Whernside.

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The official route does not take you over the top, but it was too good a day to skip the summit. At the top the remnants of the previous week’s snow where still in evidence.  It was very windy on high ground so I simply kept walking on and skipped lunch. The route through the Whernside Tarns was attractive but then it was  a slog along the stony track that leads down into Dent Dale. However, the walk along the river into the village was very pleasant once again. I arrived unfashionably early so opted for shelter, warmth and a liquid lunch in my favourite of Dent’s two pubs.

The morning had been a mixture of bright sun and total cloud cover, but the late afternoon was wholly warm and glorious when out of the wind. I pitched myself in the campsite (hands up! I didn’t wild camp every night) and enjoyed my book until an hour before dinner when I once again retreated to the Sun Inn. They had Tiffin Gold from Kirkby Stephen brewery which was tasty, moorish and nicely session-able at 3.6% ABV. I was back in the tent and asleep by just after 8pm, such is winter backpacking. Today had really felt like a holiday.

It was too!

Day 3 – Dent to West Fell : Howgills (12.6 miles, 740 m)

This was to be the best day. I started walking at 0830 and was greeted by warm sunshine.

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My route would take me via Sedbergh. You might imagine that the path would follow the same route as The Pennine Journey, which I completed in 2019, but this is not the case. I was soon walking new ground with the Highway living up to it’s name and leaving the river earlier and heading over the ridge between Dentdale and Garsdale at a higher point. I loved leaving tarmac and rocky tracks behind and also the early panorama of the Howgills.

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One major highlight over my overall route was that I would be crossing the whole of the Howgill ‘range’ from South to North and seeing them set out before me whetted my appetite.

DSC_2557I had thought that the climb up to Calders would be hard work, but in my minds eye the peak seemed far closer to Sedbergh that it is in truth. The reality is that it is a steady walk which is not over steep. There was not a cloud in the sky which was wonderful, but don’t be mistaken into thinking it was warm.  The wind was a steady 30-35 mph and finding any shelter for lunch was a challenge. Thankfully, just before the final climb to Calders I was able to sit in the lea of a small hummock to eat my lunch. I rued the lack of drystone walls which are myriad in the Dales. Once fed I needed to press on to keep warm given the windchill. My route took me over the Calf, shortly after which I was able to collect water, but I had to break the ice at the edge of the tarn to access it.

The hills of the Howgills are not dramatic like those of Western Cumbria, nor do they have the limestone features of the Dales but something about them appeals to me, perhaps it is simply because they are different. One thing for sure is that they offer very little by way of shelter from the wind.

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The Calf (676 m)

After passing the Calf I had the fells to myself and I enjoyed romping along and drinking in the views as I headed for the most northerly top, called West Fell, which my research suggested would be a good place to camp. The wind remained strong and steady, the forecast told me it was not expected to rise overnight and it was evidently free of gusts. I know from my first test camp in the Soulo  that it was easily capable of handling this wind speed (Force 7) , but I was glad of the quality of the mountain forecast which I reviewed before choosing which tent to bring. When I got to my planned pitching point the ground was level but once again there was no hint of shelter. Looking further down the path towards Bowderdale suggested the ground was mostly soft and uneven for the next section. Soft ground is no good if you want your pegs to hold. (I found out the next day that my judgement was sound, there were no good camping spots further down on West Fell.)

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All the guys out and double pegged – Hilleberg Soulo

It was a really lovely evening if you discount the wind. Using what I had learned over the past four years of wild camping made what could have been a difficult tent pitch something controlled and reasonable. My top tip is to always double peg / back stake your first two peg placements. I had a great view over the smaller North Eastern Howgills but was not blessed with an ‘Instagram Ready’ sunset on this occasion. I knew I had to be setting off at 0730 the following morning so after dinner and finishing my book it was soon time for sleep. The buffeting of the wind must have been what woke me every two hours, but in between I slept soundly enjoying the juxtaposition of the strength of the wind and the warmth and security of my shelter.

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Day 4 – West Fell to Great Asby (11 miles, 140 m)

Whilst it proved a wet day, the intensity and frequency of the showers were far lighter than the forecast suggested. Sunbiggin Tarn is beautiful in the sunshine, less so in the clag. Day four was a massive anticlimax after days 1-3. Should you be following in my footsteps I would suggest finishing this route at Newbiggin and on a high. There is a regular bus from there to the train at Kirby Stephen.

But I don’t want to end this report on a low point…

Final thoughts.

The route which the Dales Highway takes through the Dales and the Howgills is really attractive and I enjoyed these days immensely. I’ve wanted the opportunity to camp on Simon or Park Fell for a couple of years, and starting from Settle makes either of these an ideal endpoint. Water can be gathered high up on the route to this ridge meaning you don’t have to carry it very far. I didn’t get a prolonged view but it was super whilst it lasted. It was fun to put my five season tent to good use and take advantage of elevated camp spots, especial night three in the Howgills. Having the map open whilst I write this has given me ideas to enhance this route still further for those who are happy to wild camp to take advantage of route options unfettered by having to reach fixed accommodation. I now have in mind an amended route, a ‘Superhighway’ if you like.  Once it’s complete I’ll publish here for comment.

Inversion – a two wild walk via the summit of Fountains Fell

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I was beginning to feel the winter blues drift into my airspace so Mrs W suggested it would be good for me to get out for a wild walking weekend. It has been a while since I was last out.  The first thing to check was the mountain weather forecast; this showed something rather unusual. A cloud inversion was expected in the Yorkshire Dales for the whole weekend. Foggy in the valleys but clear blue skies were to be expected on higher ground. Another impact of this is that the usual reduction in temperature with altitude scenario is reversed, with it warmer on the tops of the peaks than down in the valley. The dichotomy of sitting indoors looking out at the fog vs. walking on fell tops bathed in sunshine was enough to rouse my lacklustre enthusiasm. The route I chose is shown below:

Fountains Fell Route - Dec-21

The elevated moorland between Ribblesdale and Airedale only rises to 400-550 metres, but this was enough. As soon as I reached 360 m, I punched through the cloud into warm sunshine. Whilst it makes meteorological sense, it is still an odd feeling to walk out of the top of a cloud and suddenly feel a whole lot warmer. The precise height of the top of the cloud had not been forecast, it was just said to be ‘well below 700 m’ so there was a chance that I may not have been clear of the cloud until I was on my way up Fountains Fell. Walking up into the sunshine really lifted my spirits. I’d walked this section of path before and remembered the impressive limestone crags to the North of the path and was jubilant to see them again in glorious sunshine.

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My route took me to Malham Tarn and joining the Pennine Way around the Tarn before starting the gentle climb to the top of Fountains Fell.

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You have to divert off of the footpath to get to the actual summit which is about 700m SW of the highpoint of the footpath – unsurprisingly many had made this diversion before me. I knew from a review of Geograph photos that some flat level ground lay just to the West of the summit. Here I would like to plug Geograph to anyone planning a camping enhanced wild walk. Details on a 1:25k OS map are really helpful in shortlisting good spots to camp, but the pictures, they speak louder still.

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To my delight there was a nice level rock free spot right next to the summit cairn which allowed me to orientate my tent to have a view of both Pen-Y-Ghent and the possibility of a sunset over the top of the cloud inversion which was filling Ribblesdale (Yorkshire), the Ribble Valley (Lancashire) and its tributaries.

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After harvesting water from a small rivulet near the summit, it was time to get my legs into my sleeping bag and split my time between reading my book and drinking in the view. Because I’d started at sunrise and managed a fine pace I was fully set up a good 45 minutes before sunset. The sun was setting behind the cloud inversion thus it was not possible to take any pictures until it was kissing the horizon. After that words fail me, so I’ll leave it to a slideshow of how the colours changed over the next hour.

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My bladder woke me at 0230 but I opened my sleepy eyes to an unexpectedly bright light. I wondered if it was a torch but no, it was an extremely bright full moon! At 0630 it was time to make a brew and get packed up for a rather longer second day. I figured I’d rather walk the final stretch to the car (day 2) in the dark than pitch a tent in the dark in an unfamiliar location (day 1) so I started my walk from Langcliffe rather than Stainforth. In the summer I’d start from Stainforth to even the distance to 14 miles each day. I left my summit camp just as the sun bobbed above the Eastern horizon. First stop was Pen-Y-Ghent.

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From there I headed to the Western Side of the Horton Road (B6479). The limestone scars between Horton and Wharf looked inviting on the map. Here I have to confess to a navigational inexactitude. I kept following a well trodden path that stopped being the true footpath. I only noticed this as it faded out one kilometre into my error. The valley into which I should have headed to was filled with cloud / fog and I was already a long way off of my route so I thought I’d continue around the edge of the scar tops, enjoy the fine view and then hope to find a gentle slope down to the Wharf road.

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The map suggested to me that SD790, 700 looked a promising point to lose height, and indeed it was. I would not, however, recommend this to others due to a lack of convenient gates in the drystone walls that I needed to cross. The path free route I took across the tops was not arduous (deep heather often is, but this was not deep nor the ground uneven), was very attractive and legal as open access land. Had time been on my side, it would have been better to continue to Moughton Nab (SD798, 697) and pick up the footpath down to the road.

After this, the rest of the day is what I’d class as a ‘walk out’ – something to be done quickly to finish the day. I’d really enjoyed climbing Pen-Y-Ghent and seeing all the limestone formations. It was time for a swift pint then to drive home. Here I should give a shout out to the landlord of the Craven Heifer at Stainforth who keeps his beers extremely well and who poured me as good an example of Thwaites IPA as I’ve ever had. It’s not a modern style IPA, but still the hop oils shone through very nicely.