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.

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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.

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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.

Three Days along the Northumberland Coast Path

When it came to the most recent half term holiday both Mrs W and I were ready for a total rest, thus we split the childcare duties between us so each could have some solo time. I took Junior on a canoeing adventure for three days, pictures of which will soon be available here. After this was my solo time and I had two walks planned and used my proven approach of making the choice based on the weather forecast the day before setting off. This time the choice was between a stretch of the Dales Highway or a section of the Northumbria Coast Path.

With low cloud due in the Dales throughout the allotted time slot I had an early start to get me the three hours to Alnmouth (pronounced Alan-Mouth) for the start of my coastal walk.

Day 1 – Alnmouth to Low Newton-by-the-sea : 12 miles (*no sig. height gain)

This proved the least inspiring section of the walk, but it was good to be out and in fine weather.

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The afternoon proved better than the morning with Dunstanburgh Castle a highlight.

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The coast became more pleasant after this, albeit far from spectacular. What it did do was to lead to The Ship Inn at Low Newton. Here they have a micro-brewery in house and brew all their own ale. Their Red Ale was true to style and pleasant enough. Their Pale Ale “Sandcastles at Dawn” had interesting hop flavours but was oddly sweet. Sadly their approach to managing COVID control was to not allow anyone inside the building. Thus there was no opportunity to ask for a tour of their brew kit and ask for any advice on starting as a brew pub.

The best part of the day was the pitch I found my tent that evening.

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Gorgeous.

Day 2 – Low Newton to Belford / Beal – 18 miles*

The day started well with a pleasant route from my camping spot on the Snook Headland to Seahouses. When I’d planned my route I’d noted the possibility of an early lunch in Seahouses to take advantage of a fine Fish and Chip shop which I’d visited before when cycling the Coast and Castles Sustrans route. My extra early start however meant I arrived far too early for such a repast so I settled for a bacon roll and a rest. The next section of the path taught be two useful lessons. (1) Whilst the coastal path was pleasant, any diversion inland (in this case from Seahouses to Bamburgh) yielded landscape, and thus walking, of little or no interest. (2) If it looks like the alternative to an inland route is a busy road, consider also whether the state of the tide would allow a diversion onto the beach. This is exactly what I should have done, and would recommend, between Seahouses and Bamburgh.

Lunch at the North end of beach at Bamburgh went a long way towards making up for the mundane nature of the second half the morning.

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It also inspired me to look a little deeper at the inland section which the official route was due to take me on the following day. This didn’t look like much fun, so I shook the internet to find some bus timetables and was pleased by what fell out. If I was able to stretch my day to take me as far as Belford I could get a bus which would by-pass the rest of the route planned for day three and to within a mile of the campsite planned for the end of that day at Beal.

After I passed the end of the headland at Budle Point I took advantage of the low tide and headed down onto the beach. The map suggested it might be muddy / silt but a wide band of sand hugged the coastline. It proved a great perspective on the coast and gentle on the feet.

As I passed what should have been my campsite for that evening I saw both how large and packed it was and I was very glad to be walking on rather than stopping. Just before Waren Mill I could hop up onto the road and within 1 km I was back on the official route. Here the gentle rolling hills made for nice views and I enjoyed walking through a large grain storage co-op. Next I came to the East Coast Mainline and a first – the requirement to ring the signalman before crossing the line. I was soon in Belford. The pubs didn’t look the best, fortunately the beer selection in the Co-op was rather good and I set up my own beer garden in the afternoon sunshine whilst I waited for the next bus.

The campsite at ‘The Barn at Beal’ was a much smaller affair and had a fine view of Lindisfarne. I was rather tired after an 18 mile day but very pleased with the modification I’d made to my route.

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Day 3 Beal to Berwick-upon-Tweed – 11 miles*

This was to be the best day of my walk. Where I to walk this stretch of coast again I might well start at Beal and then get the chance to explore the taller cliffs and more dramatic coastline which I now know exists North of Berwick and into Scotland. I had a maximum of four days available to me and would have needed a further three days to get from Berwick to the next transport hub at Dunbar. From photo’s I’ve seen since, this would be a very tempting option for another time. Since I’ve come back I’ve talked with friends who have visited this section of coast who describe it as ‘Like dramatic Cornwall but without the people.’

But back to my walk rather than my day-dreaming. The first section of today’s route was both different and interesting as it was salt marsh. There were dykes and sheep a plenty for the first hour.

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After that the route followed a stony vehicle track for a while so once again I headed to the beach.

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On my route I fell upon a fascinating chap who was kayaking up the coast aiming for Berwick. He was camped on the beach having a rest day and hoping not to be moved on by pedantic twitchers. I enjoyed a chat and encouraged him that he was doing no harm.

I came within site of Berwick at around lunchtime but I decided to press on to get to the railway station to maximise my chance of a train back to Alnmouth.

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Here my relaxed attitude to rail travel let me down. When I’m using the train on such a walk as this I don’t check the timetable as I’ve found that a late running earlier train can often get me to where I want ahead of the one I might have planned to catch. Next time I’ll be more methodical as I found that Alnmouth is considered a very minor station and it would be three hours before the next stopping train was due. Fortunately I’d noted that the bus I’d used on my detour was going from Berwick to Newcastle and I knew it went via Alnwick. After lunch with a lovely view over the River Tweed I got a bus back to Alnmouth via Alnwick.

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It got be there before the train would even have set off, at a fraction of the cost and with a much shorter walk to my car at the far end.

Conclusions

It was good to have a few days away, but I cannot say that I’d recommend this section of coastal path. It lacks the drama an interest of Pembrokeshire or the South West Peninsula. Back in 2012 we cycled up this stretch of coast and this, I would suggest, is the ideal pace at which to see Northumbria. If you cover 50 miles in a day then the thinly distributed nature of points of interest is no longer a problem. Where you wishing to take advantage of the drier weather of the East Coast and wanting to walk, you would be well advised to look into walking the section from Beal (or Berwick) north to Dunbar.

A Little of what You Fancy – Walking and Wild Camping around the Llyn Peninsula

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I owe a big debt of gratitude to the Scouting movement. Back in the 1980’s I joined a Scout Troop and this not only gave me a life long love for the outdoors, but the mindset and skillset to be able to enjoy it to the full. I’ll admit that back in my teens I did a few backpacking trips which I only actually enjoyed in retrospect, mostly down to being very unfit and because of the pain of carrying an external frame rucksack. The first multi-day walk I enjoyed rather than endured was a section of the Dorset / SW Peninsula Coast Path. By this point I was fitter and had a better rucksack. From this has stemmed a love which has lasted the thick end of 40 years, coastal walking.

I think long distance walking is a little like music or beer. There are a whole range of styles of both which have merit, not everyone likes every style, but most people enjoy a range even if there are one or two they would rather avoid. Sour Beers, Dance Music and the Pennine Way in my case! Whilst today I mostly walk in hill country, there will always be a special place in my heart for coastal walking.

One secret to thriving through this pandemic has been to be flexible and to grab opportunities when they arise. The 5-9th May was my chance as whilst it was sad that a planned event for Mrs W and I had fallen through, it gave me the chance to disappear for a full five days, my first proper holiday in twelve months. One of the massive benefits of solo backpacking is that there is usually no need to book anything in advance. This leads to my next secret to success; planning two walks in different parts of the country. I then choose which to do based on a last minute look at the weather forecast. As I said, whilst I love the hills, I had a deep desire for some coastal walking and had two options set before me, the Northumbria Coast Path or a section of the Wales Coast Path around the Llyn Peninsula. As you’ll now know, this time it was the West which one.

My Route

I’m not a ‘complete the set’ / ‘tick all the boxes’ person, but instead I often like to cherry pick sections of great walks. This time I reckoned that the approx. 50 miles from Nefyn to Abersoch represented the most attractive part of the Llyn Peninsula. If you go further East from Nefyn there are big stretches next to A-roads and if you continue beyond Llanbedrog / Abersoch the geography becomes rather flat, low and – to my taste – uninspiring.

Llyn Coast Path Route Picture

I’ll say now that I loved this walk, but were I to do it again, I’d walk it in reverse as the best part of the section out of Nefyn was the view of Snowdonia which which always over my shoulder. The walk and scenery was extremely good, but this would have been better still. Also at this point it is worth noting that this walk would be a great introduction to coastal walking because the amount of height gain (i.e. cumulative height of hills climbed) is very modest in comparison to either Pembrokeshire or the SW Peninsula Coast Path. This is likely to be the route I use to introduce my son to backpacking in a couple of years time – it offers a really good pleasure / effort ratio.

Day 1 – Nefyn to Nr Porth Colmon – Highlights

14 miles / < 100 m Height Gain

I’ll allow a slide-show of pictures to tell most of the story.

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At the time I did this walk, it was legal to use campsites but not any of their ‘facilities’. Paying £10 to have access to a water tap made the cost of water higher than a Craft Keg Ale so I’d decided to wild camp where possible. On Day One I had hoped to stop just before Penllech Beach on the cliff top, but the ground was either too sloped for a tent, or where it was flat enough it was all used for grazing livestock and was always within view of farmhouses. A challenge of the narrowness of the peninsula. Therefore I walked on and found a good spot just beyond Porth Colmon, looking down on Porth Wen Bach.

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Day 2 – Porth Wen Bach to Pen-y-Cil – Highlights

12 miles / 350 m Height Gain

Another day of gorgeous sunshine, and whilst Day One was very pleasant, today the scenery became more dramatic, the headlands forming the tip of the peninsula being a major highlight.

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Nearing the end of the day I came across a spring on one of the steep slopes between Mynydd Mawr and Pen-y-Cil. Not St Mary’s Well, not marked on my 1:50k map but very welcome. Here I gathered some water, but needed much patience to get a whole litre. I thus opted to seek out an easier source for the final 500 ml which I needed. I didn’t find another source and was about to give up and walk to a farm when a great and friendly couple, whom I’d met earlier in the day, caught up with me again and gave me their left over water as they were just about to finish their day walk and head home. I found a fabulous pitch that night, right next to the cliff with views of islands in both directions.

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Day 3 Pen-y-Cil to Hells Mouth Beach (NE end)

14 miles / 180 m Height Gain

This was by far the warmest and sunniest day, with the sun beaming down even as I had my breakfast (in bed naturally!) After freshening up in Aberdaron and restocking with fruit I was set for the day ahead. Again I’ll allow the pictures to tell the story.

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I was planning on camping with the Dunes at far end of Hells Mouth Beach. The official path heads inland some distance from the beach, but looking at the tide timetable told me that I could walk along the beach if I wished. It being just 12 days to my 50th Birthday I thought I’d set myself the challenge of yomping across the beach as fast as I could and use my GPS to see if I could achieve anything like the speed I was capable over a measured mile when I was 18. Given that I had an 11 kg pack on my back I was delighted to be just 0.1 mph slower than 32 years prior. I thus arrived at my proposed camping spot rather too early to pitch! So I walked the 1 km inland to the Sun Inn at Llanengan. A couple of pints of Dizzy Blonde and a few chapters of my book proved an excellent entrée to my evening meal.

The forecast expected the weather to change dramatically overnight with heavy rain and winds gusting to 41 mph predicted. It’s odd to rig a tent for a storm on a warm sunny evening. It was my first chance to use my (mini) delta ground anchors in anger. My impression of them in the garden at home was that they were no more difficult to pull from the ground than a regular Y peg, but they did hold a lot better in sand than regular pegs. I double pegged (or pegged and anchored) all the main guys and headed to bed.

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Day 4 Hells Mouth Beach to Abersoch

9 miles / 180 m Height Gain (in an afternoon)

The weather arrived at 0300 as per the forecast and I was very happy to be in a Hilleberg. The forecast suggested that the rain would change from very heavy (2-3mm/hr) to light (0.6 mm/hr) at 1100 so I enjoyed a morning of reading my novel and then packed by bag and was ready to emerge and strike camp at 1100 on the dot. In reality, at 1050 the rain stopped and didn’t come back for the rest of the day. I felt very blessed. Further, in the time it took me to dig and backfill my latrine hole (!) the strong wind had blown the tent all but dry.

I walked up into the cloud and there I remained for around 90 min, when it miraculously started to lift and the sun burnt through. Thus I did have views of the cliffs for the second half of my walk to Abersoch.

Originally I had the option of continuing on to Llanbedrog but this would not have allowed me to catch the last bus, so Abersoch was my final destination. I had the bus back to Nefyn to myself so the driver kindly asked me where in town I wanted to be dropped. I explained where the car was and he dropped me at the end of the road. Now that’s service!

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So an excellent four days, a super holiday, and probably the ideal introduction to backpacking for Junior in a couple of years time.

Gear Appraisal – what did I learn about my kit?

Sleeping Pad – Thermorest Prolite Apex

Looking at the weather forecast before I set off suggested one night that would drop to 1 Celcius and other nights between 4-7 C. My sleeping bag is ‘comfort rated’ to 4C but I know that with the aid of a jacket over my feet I’ve taken a similarly rated bag down to -1C. The solution I opted for this time was to take my winter sleeping pad, a Thermarest ProLite Apex and my two season sleeping bag. This worked really well as is an approach I’ll note for the future. ProLite Apex + 2 Season Bag = 1200 g. ProLite 3 + 4 Season Bag = 1600 g.

With the Apex only weighing 110g more than the ProLite 3 I’m tempted to use it year round because it is just so luxuriously comfortable.

Tent – Hilleberg Enan

I remain really impressed with this tent. As long as you have a light breeze it remains condensation free. Even when the wind is whistling between the inner and the fly, the all-mesh door seems to keep out the breeze from the inner. The space in this tent is optimal for someone who is 5’11”: Generous in length; sufficient in headroom; good sized porch for wet gear, rucksack and cooking gear*; good in wind speeds of up to 45 mph and thoroughly capable of handling a torrential downpour as long as you close the vent at the windward end.

*I am not recommending cooking in the vestibule with the door closed (although there would be enough room should you choose to take this risk).

Titan Ground Anchors

I remain highly sceptical about these being able to live up to their claims for holding power. I’ve not done pull tests with a spring balance, but ‘by feel’ they held no better in our back lawn than a regular Hilleberg Y peg (akin to MSR Mini Groundhogs). However, they do work a lot better in sand and probably offer a good compromise between regular and sand stakes given that they are only 1/3 the size and half the weight of a sand stake. I should get myself a spring balance because my feeling is that (in regular soil) double pegging with standard Y or V pegs offers a much stronger solution at lower weight.

Hilleberg Enan – long term review

I’ve now owned my Enan for just over a year. It was bought originally just ahead of the initial lockdown relaxations in the summer of 2020. Now 16 months on I’ve used it for 20 nights in a wide range of weather conditions and temperatures. Now I think I have the evidence and experience to give it a proper review.

User Requirements Specification

No tent is perfect for all conditions and all duties, that is why there are so many designs out there. I bought the Enan as a lightweight, three season backpacking / wild-camping tent which would shelter me against anything other than snow and storm force winds, I have a Soulo for that duty. So how has it shaped up against my requirements?

Space (Score 4½ /5)

I am 5’ 11” and the length and height of the inner works very well for me. In terms of height, there is just enough for me. If you were above 6’1” you might find the headroom too limited, but for me it’s just fine even when sat on my new 50 mm thick Thermarest. The length for sleeping is generous and allows me to sleep with my feet at one extreme end and still have around 300 mm of length above my head. This allows me to have my face at a point where the ceiling is higher meaning no issues with claustrophobia. In wild weather I put my jacket around the foot of my sleeping bag as a guard against any condensation transfer, but I’ve not yet seen more than a few drops on my jacket but I’ll keep doing this as a great protection against cold feet.

Pitched behind The Crown in Shap on the Coast to Coast

The porch space is generous allowing me to put my boots and 55 L pack and any wet waterproofs in the ‘closed’ half leaving space for all my food, water bottles and cooking gear in the ‘open’ half. Having a porch to allow this is important to me and one reason I moved on from my previous Niak to the Enan. I could not commend cooking with the door closed, but should you choose to do so, you would find you have plenty of room to make a cup of tea from bed.

Ease of pitching (Score 5/5)

I’ve been a life long sceptic concerning tunnel tents, I’ve never liked that they rely on their pegs for structural stability. But that is a theoretical concern and not something I’ve found to be a problem in the reality of actual use. And if I need extra assurance, I double peg (details here) my longitudinal guy lines. The big pro with the tunnel design is that pitching is both fast and trivially easy. This is of especial importance in a solo tent and one I wish to pitch on fell tops in the wind. The fact that the inner and outer go up together speeds the process up yet further. When it comes to striking camp, Hilleberg’s practice of slightly over-sizing their tent bags makes it trivial to pack away even when wet.

Weather worthiness (Score 5 / 5)

So far I’ve had this tent out in 40 mph winds on an exposed fell top, in heavy rain on the North Yorkshire Moors, in calm warm weather all around NW England, during hot summer nights in the Lake District and even in winter temperatures down to -7C. The ventilation on this tent comes from two mesh ‘ends’ not by passing underneath the fly. These mesh ends are inclined steeper than vertical so no rain run off ever enters them.

These can be covered in the event of really foul weather, but so far I’ve only needed to use these covers once. I cannot speak of how it holds out in torrential rain but I found my Niak to be faultless in the foulest weather possible and this used the same fabrics and same seam construction technique. Remember that this is a three season tent, and I’d consider it fully capable of anything within that weather envelope. I’d not want to pitch it in an exposed position in 60 mph winds as has just one pole, but if I were to encounter such weather I’d seek an sheltered position, as indeed I did when I walked the Cleveland Way last autumn.

It is important to pitch it correctly vs. the wind direction, both for strength and ventilation. If the wind moves around during the night the rain will still be kept safely outside, it’s just that you will see more condensation on the inner of the fly on a cold night. And on that topic…

Ventilation / Condensation ( 3 ½ / 5)

If people have cause to complain about Hilleberg tents it’s normally either about condensation or the price! With the Enan the amount of condensation depends strongly on the conditions and I can only compare against other tents in Spring / Summer conditions as up until recently I’ve not camped frequently through the winter months, well not since the 1980’s!

With night time temperatures in the 10-14 C range I’ve experienced either extremely little or no condensation with wind speed determining the difference. When the temperature drops to 5-10 C and the wind is light then a modest level of condensation formed, even with the top of the door open as well as the end vents. Comparable with Terra Nova and Vango tents which I’ve owned. When I do see heavy condensation is at sub zero temperatures when I seem always to get a good skin of ice on the inside of the fly, even with a 20 mph wind. At -7 C I got the most modest amount of condensation (ice) on the inner directly above my head, the immediate condensation of my breath; the only time I’ve seen condensation on the inner itself.  The inner door is 100% mesh, but because that mesh is perpendicular to the airflow through the tent it doesn’t less in excessive drafts and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the tent is in winter temperatures even with a good wind blowing.

Moon rising over the Calder valley

Moon rising over the Enan

From this I conclude that the condensation issues often talked about in connection with the Akto have been largely – but not totally – solved by the end vents of the Enan. What could make it even better would have been if Hilleberg had included the same design of vent cover at the top of the door so that this could be opened more widely (The Akto has two zips at the top so you can open a segment not strip a narrow strip). This should encourage a chimney effect. I have adopted a low tech clothes peg solution! (see RHS). But is this condensation actually a problem? It is modest enough to mean you never get anywhere even close to it dripping on you. Also the DWR finish on the inner means that when you re-pitch it damp, on day n+1 of your walk that it dries out* in around 20 minutes. I guess the aspect you might choose to take issue with is the additional weight of that water which you are lugging with you after a cold night. I imagine it could easily be in the 100-200 g range. I know I observed much less condensation in the Niak at similar temperatures but this might simply be down the higher volume. My summary would be that it was not a problem, and is probably no worse than any other tent of the same size.

Footprint (Score 5 / 5)

As a solo tent which is not oversized, the footprint is small and I’ve been able to pitch the tent in the tightest of spots. Given my newfound love of wild camping this is an excellent characteristic.

Weight vs. Robustness (Score 4/5)

The Enan weighs 1.2 kg. For those of us who can remember carrying half of a 7 kg Vango Force 10 that’s amazing! There are lighter tents out there, but they either compromise on robustness or space. If you were to consider the Robustness : Weight ratio I’d say the Enan was at the top of its class. I could have a TN Laser at 1.0 kg but would have less ventilation and a pole sleeve cover to faff about with. I could have a Nordisk at 700 g and not be able to sit up, or I could have a Cuben Fibre tent which I might have to accept needing to repair once or twice a year. I think the only design out there which would give me the space, strength (when new) and stability would be the MSR Hubba NX but I bet I’d not get 10 years of hard use out of an MSR tent. If anyone would like to lend me one to try and review then I’d give it a go and let you know how it compares!

Summary

I love my Enan. It’s got nicely more than the bare minimum amount of space and is comfortable for solo touring for a week. It is both trivially easy and quick to pitch and strike. It stands up to the wind better than I imagined (sound at 40 mph, probably not good at >50 mph), better still if you add two additional guys to the ready-for-use guying points on the windward end. It comes with good pegs that stay where you place them. You can sleep soundly with the assurance that it will definitely keep the weather out, even if that’s wind driven heavy rain. If no snow is forecast it’s comfortable in sub zero winter conditions. It’s not the lightest solo tent on the market, but I think Hilleberg have got the robustness : weight ratio spot on. If I wanted to loose 400 g from my pack weight that would be better lost from the pack animal than the tent! I think it’s only weakness is the lack of a hood / cover over the top of the door to improve the weatherproof venting a little further.

Overall score comes in 27/30 – making me a happy wild camper!

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

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

Sawyer Squeeze – an early review

The Sawyer Squeeze is an ultra filter designed to filter sediment and pathogens from ‘wild’ water making it both safe and pleasant to drink. Bacteria and parasites generally fall into the size range of 0.3-10 microns and this filter has a 0.1 micron absolute filtration capability.  With filters the word absolute is key, as when used in the context of a filter it means that absolutely all particles above the limit will be held back. And when it comes to removing pathogens you really do want to remove all of them rather than just most.  This filter than can achieve this with just the differential pressure you can produce by sucking, which ranges from 2-6 psi depending on the person.  Given that in my days as a Tech Support chemist (2001-14), we used to need to use a 60 psi pump to filter through a 1 micron absolute filter, this makes this an impressive filter medium.

The use of a filter sees me seeking to move away from the use of iodate tablets as a way of making ‘wild’ water safe. The aims of making this change were as follows:

  • Better tasting water
  • Carrying just one litre of water (rather than two) and topping up from en route ‘wild’ sources thus saving 1100g in initial pack weight.
  • Instant access to clean water rather than having to wait for the 35 min it takes of iodate to act and then the excess be destroyed with sodium metabisulphate.
  • Ability to use water from less ideal sources.

So now that I’ve taken it away on it’s first outing, a four day walk along the Cleveland Way, how did it perform vs. my list of requirements?

I was really impressed how it was able to take the ‘peaty’ taste away from moorland water.  As you can see my water source started looking like a single malt.  The filtered water was still ‘straw yellow’ but was totally free of any unpleasant taste.  A big test was using it to make a cup of Lady Grey tea – I found that it allowed me to enjoy all the subtle flavours within my tea, so that’s a big tick against criterion one.  I didn’t draw water from any sources which I would not normally use, other than that I can say it met all my desired requirements.  But I also benefits from an unplanned bonus.  This being that I was able to use the filter in-line between my dirty water pouch and a drink tube clipped to my shoulder strap.  I’ve never felt the desire to use a ‘hydration bladder’ before.  When I walk with someone else we are able to pass each other water without need to remove our packs.  This is not possible when you are walking solo, something I’ve done a lot of in 2020 and expect to continue with a few times a year.  On this first outing I was struggling with a neck muscle strain so hefting my ‘sack on and off less was much appreciated facet.

Two outlet connections, a straight 6mm / 1/4″ and a 28 mm screw thread (fits most common soft drinks bottles.)
Platypus drinking tube with stop and bite valves

Ahead of my walk I shook the internet looking for reviewing on drinking tubes and the best liked was that from Platypus (right).  I found it good too, but four days of use is far from a true test.  One thing I would saw is not to rely on connecting the hose to the 1/4″ connection built into the Sawyer filter outlet.  This is really only there to allow back-flushing and with it not being barbed I found my hose coming off a few times.  Since then I’ve paid the outrageous price for the in-line adapter kit which is a much better option. (If you are buying a filter I’d recommend getting the SP131 kit which comes with the adapters included)

900 ml Sawyer Bag (Left), 2000 ml CNOC Vecto Bag (Right) – the filter can screw directly to the CNOC bag.

On the negative side, most of the accessories supplied with the filter seem of very poor quality.  The squeeze bags have bad reviews a plenty, so since I would be totally relying on my feed / dirty water bag I sourced a well regarded one from CNOC.  The only place I could find with stock in the UK was Peak and Valley.  At £20 it’s a very expensive plastic extrusion, but is of considerably higher quality that the Sawyer bags.  I plan to use my Sawyer bag as a clean water reservoir as this will not have pressure applied to it in use.  As I suspected, having a clean water bag or bottle was useful on my trip.  I could use this when I was taking water from a potable source or as ready prepared water during the cooking of dinner.

What about the weight? The ‘dirty water’ bag and tube all add to the mass and totalled 215 g vs. 300 g for two 1 litre Sigg bottles which I would normally carry.  So you get all the above benefits with no weight penalty. 

Final thoughts

For me the primary aim was better tasting water, available more quickly.  This the Sawyer certainly achieved with ease on its first outing.  I am happy that on many occasions I’ll be able to ‘safely’ carry 1 kg less water, but with my CNOC bag I can carry two litres should I wish.  How it performs over time and how it copes with high levels of suspended solids in the water will take time to assess.  Other peoples reviews suggest I should be optimistic (which is why I bought the Sawyer Squeeze rather than an alternative or a Mini).  My plan would be to post a ‘long term use’ review after another year, so watch this space.

Four days along the Cleveland Way.

Family Weston had planned a week on the Llyn Peninsula during this autumn half term. Walking some of the coast path, building sandcastles on the beaches, enjoying fish and chips with rolling accommodation provided by our wee camper-van. We were all looking forward to this when the Welsh Assembly decided to ‘circuit break’ and repel all boarders. Additionally Lancashire gained Tier 3 COVID status which encouraged us to stay within the county.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in Lancashire with nothing to do!

We decided to divide and conquer the problem. Mrs W and Junior would do fun day trips from home and I would be allowed to run away with my lightweight backpacking gear to a beautiful yet isolated location. Yes it was to be outside the county, but I was still complying with the spirit of the restrictions, I would be isolated. During the original period of ‘house arrest’ in the Spring I’d spent a several days planning some multi-day walking routes as a way to dream of good times post COVID. I must now have enough routes scoped out to last me 3-4 years. Looking at my options and cross checking them with the weather forecast led me to choose to walk the inland section of the Cleveland Way, which runs along a Scarp Edge from Sutton Bank then tracking North and North East to Guisborough. After a link to the coast it follows the sea South again, but my walk was to terminate at Saltburn-by-the-Sea.

Day 1 – Sutton Bank to Osmotherley : 13.5 miles / negligible height gain.

I drove across to the NE on the morning of day one, knowing that I should not start walking too late if I wanted to finish the day before I ran out of daylight at around 1700. I found what seemed to (and proved to) be a safe parking spot near the top of Sutton Bank which saved me walking up from Cold Kirby (Plan A) so I was able to make a flying start to the day. It was a little hazy and overcast but the views were still good.

I’d love to go back on a sunny day. I think I will take Junior when I do as this section of the Cleveland Way would make an excellent father and son walk in a year or two’s time. The route traced the edge of the bank making for easily walking but with the benefit of elevated views over the Vale of York. The colour of the autumn trees was a delight.

It had been touch and go as to whether I would be able to do this walk because I had badly strained my neck doing some ‘extreme decorating’ a few days earlier. Prayer and a cocktail of strong painkillers kept me going however. I was most grateful for this outcome. Because of the uncertainty of how I would manage backpacking I opted to end day one in a campsite in Osmotherley, rather than my initial planned stop above the village on Beacon Hill (as an aside, there were at least three good wild camping spots near the top of the hill, albeit that you’d have to carry all your water up with you). To complete this pampered experience I’d booked into the Golden Lion for dinner that night. Both the food and the beer was excellent. Hobgoblin Gold is a surprisingly good and interesting ale to come from a subsidiary of the Marston’s mega-scale brewing group. It uses the NZ hop Nelson Sauvin at a level where it’s flavour is unmistakeable. Very nice, as was the food. I commend this hostelry to my readership!

Day 2 – Osmotherley to Bloworth Crossing : 15 miles / approx 600 m height gain.

I got started at 0800, knowing it would be a challenge to get to my end point (high on the moors) before I lost daylight. It was dry until 0900, but at least I’d topped the climb back to the top of the ‘bank’ before I had to deploy my Goretex. The threatened rain didn’t amount to much but did hide me in cloud from late morning to early afternoon. The heaviest rain was due for lunchtime but I had heard of a cafe at Lord’s Stones designed for walkers along the route. I nipped into this and avoided the only downpour of the day. It was very windy by this point and thus it was good to be indoors for my lunch-stop for once.

Mid-afternoon brought me to the Wainstones…

Then it was on to Clay Bank where the CW coincides with AW’s Coast to Coast. I have fond memories of camping on Clay Bank back in, ahem, 1993 and marvelling at the juxtaposition of views. Moorland heather in one direction, and the Middlesborough petrochemical works in the other. Time was marching on and I hoped I would find water at the pass between Clay Bank and Greenhow Moor. As I write this I’ve checked again, and there is a stream shown on the map just below the tourist view point. Had I been able to find this (I could not) there was a beautiful flat patch of grass within the viewpoint car park which would have made a perfect tent pitch with a grand view. However since I could not find the stream, I reviewing the map again and figured my best option was to walk on to my originally planned end point at Bloworth Crossing. There was now just 15 minutes before sunset (1630) and 7 km / 200 m height gain still to be tackled.

I was glad to be walking solo, so no one could complain that I should have picked up more water at the cafe! Thankfully the path was wide and clear to follow, and for reasons I could not understand it never actually became pitch black. This despite walking in cloud, with no sight of stars or moon.  My research had shown me I’d get a good pitch at Bloworth Crossing and that water was available there. As I walked in the increasing darkness I started to enjoy the pleasure of a night hike and noticed my hearing becoming more acute. I didn’t need my head-torch because the track was pale, heather borders dark and the residual light was still oddly present. I kept hearing the burbling of water, and when I knew I was within 30 min of my proposed end point I investigated each embryonic stream with torchlight. Then I found gold, well more like clear whisky coloured water, right next to the path. It was Bloworth Slack.

For this trip I’d bought myself a Sawyer ultra-filter with the hope of a range of benefits. I’ve covered this in another post, but suffice to say I was really pleased at how it took out the peaty taste which is ubiquitous to such streams. I was soon at the crossing and found my patch of grass (not so common on heather moorland) and started looking for the best spot on which to pitch. Part of my method was to judge the volume of squelch I heard when I stepped on the area in question. I was tired and this was a guessed method but turned out to be inspired. In the morning the ‘slightly squelchy’ areas I had located had morphed into a stream.

The potential for this would have been obvious in daylight, but that was a luxury I didn’t have. In the end my pitch was more level and less muddy than the pukka campsite of night one.

Day 3 – Bloworth Crossing to Highcliffe Nab : 12 miles / approx 400 m height gain

Although I was only at 390 m, I awoke amidst the cloud. My day started, however, with the delight of being able to taste the subtle flavour of bergamot in my tea unalloyed by the taste of the water.

It’s not a single malt, honest!

People who haven’t seen or used 21st century backpacking gear think I’m having a rough hard existence when I go on walks like this. Little could be further from the truth when I can make a brew without leaving my down sleeping bag, comfortable on a self inflating Thermorest, , sheltering within a 1.2 kg highly robust Swedish tent having sated my previous days appetite with excellent food (my favourites thus far being from Mountain Trails or Activeat ) which is light and just needs re-hydrating, creating no washing up.

But back to the story. I was on the trail by 0800 and soon the combination of a subtle drop in altitude and a raising cloud base meant I was again afforded excellent views.

I opted to simply enjoy the view I had of Roseberry Topping and not climb it this time with the aim to having a day guaranteed to end with daylight to spare. My weather app warned me to expect the wind to gust to 50-60 mph by the early hours of the next day. I needed to be sure to find a good sheltered spot. My planned stopping point next to a crag face sounded promising so I yomped on. Highcliffe Nab is both in itself very attractive and affords fabulous views all along the coast from Sunderland to Staithes.

Rather than pitch for the view, I used the hollow at the West end of the crag which would protect me from the forthcoming southerly winds and any variation in their direction +/- 45 degree’s that might occur. It was a great wild camping spot which I’d recommend outside of peak summer when the popularity of the spot with local youth might detract from the experience as they may then yield the wrong kind of wildness!

Day 3 – Highcliffe Nab to Saltburn-by-the-Sea : 12 miles / approx. 100 m heigh gain.

The morning did yield the promised high winds, but I was my sheltered spot was scarcely affected. I had been asleep by 8pm the night before, so rose early and was on the trail again by 0730. The woods above Guisborough were a riot of colour.

The section from the A171 to Skelton was mundane and muddy, and I prayed that the day would end well so as not to make this as the lasting memory of the day. It did! Once out of Skelton the path enters a linear park running the full length of Saltburn and only disgorging you in the town some 200 m from the sea.

It was a delight to see the sea, a fitting end to many a walking or cycling tour and the promise of excellent fish and chips to celebrate. Reviews suggested that the Seaview Restaurant served the best in town, and having now been there I have no reason to disagree. The only rain of the day came as I was having my early lunch with a beautiful view of the sea and the cliffs of the second, coastal, half of the Cleveland Way.  This would be a walk for another day. It had been a superb four days, with only half a day of light rain to contend with. The cloud hid some of the views, but not enough to spoil the walk. It proved an example of a walk at height with very little actual height gain, so I hope to come again for an adventure with the rest of the family when Junior is a little older.  It has a high reward to effort ratio which I know should work well for them.

Rab Neutrino 200 (ultralight sleeping bag) – a review

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Recently I was seeking to reduce the weight of my backpacking / wild-camping gear by a kilogram. I knew it was possible to get a tent 1000 g lighter than my current two man Niak, but the compromises on robustness were too much for my liking. Then the idea came to me that perhaps I could lose 500 g from the tent and 500 g from another / other items. This seemed an excellent solution as it meant I could choose a tent made from fabrics I knew I could trust and yet still lose the weight. To cut a long story short, I sought a new sleeping bag and this review covers that bag.

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Pitched behind The Crown in Shap on the Coast to Coast

The Rab Neutrino 200 not only comes in at only 579g but has proved to me that their reputation of excellence in down bags is well deserved. I have been very pleased with the Mountain Hardware synthetic bag I have been using for the past ca. 10 years, but the Rab bag is just a whole level above, thanks to subtle but superb features of its design. I have now spent six nights out in this three season bag in temperatures between 6-12 C, typical temperatures for it’s expected use. Thus far I am absolutely delighted.

Temperature Rating

It is rated to -1 C “limit of comfort” exactly as the bag it replaced and a “comfort” limit of 4 C. Everyone’s personal rating varies, especially between genders, but my experience at 6 C is that the 4 C limit seems about right for me wearing just boxers and a T-Shirt. That’s perfect for UK three season use.

Packed volume

This bag is so easy to pack and comes supplied with it’s own roll top dry bag, a nice touch. A quick squeeze gets the bag to the same volume as my compressed synthetic bag. I have no need to compress further, so there is (if you seek it) another weight saving, no need for compression ends. It’s worth noting that the weight is the same as similarly rated ‘down quilts’ which seem the trendy ultra-lightweight option at the moment – that with more comfort and less hassle.

Comfort

Here comes the unexpected plus point. The bag feels like sleeping in a cushion of weightless warm air. Another simple but wonderful thing is how the zip is integrated into the bag. Not once has it snagged the lining when I’ve zipped it closed. Also, unusual for a bag of this rating, it has a shoulder baffle. Rab’s design is such that this works without having to velcro tabs together to complete the baffle integrity. I don’t know how they’ve done this, but it’s great and means none of the typical fight-to-get-out-of-the-bag in the morning, or more importantly in the middle of the night when you are dozy but need to get up for a pee.

Practicality

The Pertex Quantum outer appears to be 100% down-proof and the down itself has been treated to be hydrophobic – this for me was the clincher to take the risk with a down bag that might see some rain or condensation fall on it within a wild-camping setting in a very small tent. To reduce weight, the zip on the side only covers the top half of the bag. This has not been a problem, wrt access and egress, and since it is two-way, I could still effectively vent the bag on warmer nights. In fact venting the middle of the bag seems both more effective than at the foot and also more convenient. Finally there is the price, mine cost me £200 from Open Air in Cambridge significantly less than the £300 for the Mountain Hardware or Mountain Equipment equivalents.

Overview

This bag is fabulous in every possible aspect and seems correctly rated at 4 C / 3 season. If I was giving a star rating out of five, I’d say this is a six star sleeping bag.

Hilleberg Enan – a review

After 7 trips and a total of 12 nights of wild-camping in the hills I concluded that this twist to my love of hill walking was not just a passing phase and I could justify getting some lighter kit to enhance the experience still further. Swapping out my petrol stove for a lightweight gas stove last year was a good move and inexpensive. A lighter tent which would meet all my requirements was to be a more significant investment.

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These are my initial thoughts on the Hilleberg Enan, something which I see as a ‘Mark 2’ to the popular Akto. For those wanting to skip to the executive summary – after two ‘test nights’ it seems to be great tent for my needs:

  • Lightweight (albeit not ultralight) – 1200 g
  • Robust
  • Weatherproof
  • Flysheet first pitching
  • Good size inside, and it has just enough headroom
  • Really quick and easy to pitch on your own (kind of important for a solo tent!) even in strong winds.

Update : One year and 14 nights on, I’ve now written a more detailed assessment, I’m pleased to say it simply adds to and does not disagree with my initial thoughts.

What is the space like inside?

Perfect for my needs. I am 5’ 11” and find the length of the inner tent around 6” longer than my absolute needs. If I have my feet all the way to one end, then the height over the inner tent above my face when sleeping is not claustrophobic. If you are much above 6’ that might be different. I can sit up at the highest point of the tent with about 1” above my head in my normal posture. If I sit bolt upright my head brushes the inner. The Terra Nova Laser is 2 cm taller.

There is space for a set of clothes, book, torch etc in the vertex next to the middle of my sleeping mat. Plenty for 1-2 night stop. The porch is excellent with plenty of room for my 55 L pack, boots and waterproofs in the fixed fly half and enough space to cook within the openable section. One great addition would be if I could figure a way to attach the door corner to a walking pole to stretch it out like a tarp. This is a nice feature of some Nordisk tents. I suspect something could be fashioned from a short length of climbing cord.

How does it handle the wind?

The Enan coped well with winds up to 40 mph in an exposed position. I have added two extra guys to the windward end for which there are fittings for this purpose. This helped make the fly tighter and provided reassurance for this life long tunnel tent sceptic. The tent flapped a bit, but the flysheet material does not ‘crinkle’ like a crisp packet. The benefits of silicone over PU I guess. I think this was probably the strongest winds to which I’d be keen to expose the tent. On reflection I do need to be aware that I’m used to using bombproof geodesic tents. That this single pole tunnel tent would best be pitched in the lea of a wall or a bank is the price to pay for the reduced weight. I reckon that’s fair enough.

How does it handle condensation?

Most Hilleberg tents are designed to be able to be used in snow with their flysheets coming right down to the ground. This reduces the ventilation between the fly and the inner tent and seems to lead to significant condensation for many people. So significant as to be ‘unworkable’ in a number of reported cases.  So, for me at least, it was time to think about the science. According to a variety of sources, and depending on body weight and environmental factors, people respire between 300 – 500 ml of water over an eight hour period of sleep. If little or none of that water escapes the tent then that could become a lot of condensation. Also as the temperature drops overnight so will the dew point of the water laden air within the tent. Thus I reasoned, if you choose to sleep in a tent whose volume is very small, you are likely to end up with a condensation problem whatever the make / shape of the tent.

So, was the Enan likely to reduce this issue to an acceptable level? On paper Hilleberg looked likely to have resolved the issue and asking around proved that it was people with problems who had published their thoughts, a good number of long-term Akto users were quietly very happy with their tents. The secret to reducing condensation is to have a good number of air changes within the space. Good air circulation is promoted by having a cross flow of air, ideally from bottom to top rather than just from left to right. This is how sash windows are designed to work.  Here Hilleberg have come up with an unusual but effective solution by including a mesh panel at both ends of the tent, the ends which should be aligned with the direction of the wind. [Also true of the Terra Nova Laser.]

Cunningly, these are steeper than vertical. Thus water from the fly will not run down them, nothing can pool on them either. Whilst wind blown rain will pass through them it is slowed down enough so that (in my experience) >>99% drops to the ground before it hits the inner tent. In my first pitch in an elevated exposed position, with winds of 40-50 mph and heavy rain I counted three drops of water on the inner tent behind the windward vent in the morning. No water actually came into the inner tent itself. There are rain covers you can put across the vents if the weather is really foul and thus is best done from outside the tent ahead of need, it’s very fiddly to do from inside the tent in the middle of the night.

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On my first test night I had both vents open until around 0500 when I shut the windward one. Things were getting a little wild outside! In the morning the inside of the fly was completely dry. However the overnight temperature was a very mild 14 C. On my second test night I shut the windward vent from the outset and devised an effective and lightweight way to keep the top of the door open despite it’s design.

This is where Hilleberg may have missed a trick. The Akto has a small rain hood over the top of the door and a second zip allowing you to have a segment of the door open, not just a slit which is practice is pretty much held closed by the tension of the flysheet. But if a 10 g clothes peg can reduce the condensation I have to carry in a damp tent by 100’s grams it’s an excellent investment. After the second night which consisted of heavy rain, 20-30 mph winds and a minimum overnight temperature of 10 C I had just the lightest layer of condensation on the flysheet, an amount that anyone would consider acceptable.

What next?

With pubs and campsites to open from 4th July, I think I have the ideal tent to walk a five day section of Wainright’s Coast to Coast. Thanks to the Enan and an upgraded sleeping bag, my kit will be down by a whole kilo on what I’ve had until now, and at 10 kg (excluding food and water) this is around half the weight which I used to carry 30 years ago.

Update : If you want to know what I think a busy year into it’s use then see my long term review here.