Foraging and the Ultralight Hiker

Quite often one of the weights in your pack that can sneak upwards into the ‘ouch’ range of heaviness is your food for a trip. Depending on your personal philosophy and bank balance, you can fight that weight by buying expensive freeze-dried meals, or inventing meals using dried ingredients from your supermarket (dried potato, noodles, dried milk – they all leap to mind!) or even just don’t pack any food (obviously only if you’re confident you can hike the distance planned on no food without ill effect – personally I know I can go ten days without food without a problem but you have to find your own limits here!)

Another way to keep the pack weight down is to forage for food while you travel. Depending on the time of year there’s usually something you can scoff in the hedge or amongst the trees – just this week I’ve been day-hiking on Exmoor with a friend and we’ve been foraging mostly fungi but at this time of year that’s a bonanza crop in the countryside. We’ve had shaggy parasol (needs long gentle cooking), shaggy ink cap, common puffball, field mushrooms and fly agaric (be VERY careful – fly agaric can be a potent hallucinogen so don’t experiment without doing all the research I’ve spent this summer doing on how to eat it safely!!) I’ve also had ceps nearer home in Aberdeenshire recently.

Mushrooms and other fungi are a tricky subject – here in the UK we have some of the world’s most delicious mushrooms growing free all around us, but we don’t know what they look like and we’re all brought up to think wild mushrooms are deadly poisonous so we don’t touch them! It’s true that we also have some of the world’s deadliest species of mushroom in the UK – beautiful but toxic Destroying Angel, for example – and some of them will do very interesting things to your head if you eat them in the wrong way – such as the common ‘magic mushroom’ or indeed fly agaric. There are three golden rules to eating wild mushrooms safely:-

1. Learn to identify mushrooms from an expert – or at the very least, someone who’s regularly eaten them before and is still breathing, so is clearly either competant or extremely lucky! Make your own decision on how much you trust their judgement, of course.

2. Get a good field guide with lots of pictures. When you see what you think is an edible mushroom, note where it grows, what’s around it, take a small specimen and note any changes in its appearance after you’ve picked it. Pack it carefully in a container and take it home to compare against your guide until you’re POSITIVE you know exactly what it is. Take some photos of it growing in its native habitat, they can be a useful reference when you’re trying to remember if it really was that odd shade of lavender when you picked it or not!

3. Once you’ve double-checked and triple-checked your identification of the mushroom in question, cook and eat a VERY small bit to make sure it agrees with you. Don’t eat them raw! Check that the mushroom you just ate doesn’t object violently to alcohol before you crack open the champagne – there are some, such as common inkcap, that are delicious but if you have any alcohol for days either side of eating them, they’ll react with it and you’ll be sick for days! Check for information on cooking methods for that particular species – shaggy ink caps you can toss raw into a salad but fly agaric needs to be parboiled for 20 minutes (and make very sure you throw away the water!) before you can drop it into the hot butter for the evening meal.

As a final caveat, make sure you keep a specimen of what you just ate in the fridge in case your nearest and dearest has to rush you to hospital for acute fungi poisoning – it helps the medics if they know what you actually ate and they have access to experts who can very definitely check what it was under a microscope, which most of us can’t.

On the safer side of life, sorrel and dandelion are still growing fresh and delicious in the hedges as salad greens, too. The whortleberries (bilberries back in Aberdeenshire!) are gone for the year, snapped up by hungry birds and deer, but there are still a few spots where the beechmast is collectible (just peel the prickly outside skin off to reveal the little nuts, then peel each of them again to reveal the tasty oil-rich edible bit) and if you’re lucky you might find hazelnuts the squirrels haven’t got to yet. Hawthorn berries are edible but rather tasteless – make sure you just nibble the soft pith off and spit out the hairy pips as they can irritate the throat and, like all members of the rose family, the pip or stone of the fruit contains cyanide-producing compounds – not enough to kill you instantly but unpleasant if you swallow a lot! The blackberries are thinning out and getting more pips as their season comes to an end, but in September I was getting handfuls of them on Exmoor and they were excellent.

Bittercress is still growing in damp spots so you can pick a few bits to add to your sandwich or shred into your flask of soup – it works particularly well with eggs, cheese and tomato flavours, I find.

Al of these are varieties and species I know very well – well enough to be rock-solid-certain of my safety in eating them! Always choose clean specimens that look healthy to eat – if your food’s unhealthy what chance do you have of staying healthy? – and when trying out something new, eat a small amount and see what happens before guzzling into a pan-full of whatever! If you’re concerned about the effects of a foodstuff on your body, don’t eat it – simple as that!

I’ve eaten a fair bit of roadkill over the years – rabbits and pheasants are very tasty and nutritious so why not? Just make sure the carcase is fresh and relatively undamaged – if you have to scrape it off the carriageway on a hot day, you’re asking for dangerous food-poisoning. If it looks like something you’d find in your local butcher’s shop, though, cook a small amount well and see how it works for you! If you don’t know how to butcher the critter in question properly, get someone to teach you before hacking into a carcase – various bits of the insides of any living thing shouldn’t be allowed to mix with the edible parts. I’ve done a lot of roadside filleting in my time so I just whip out the trusty knife, swiftly extract the tastiest portion of whatever and then tuck the rest of it out of sight under a hedge or behind a tree – the foxes and crows have to eat too and out of sight is out of mind for other people passing by who may be squeamish.

The question of legality also rears its head when you start picking wild plants for food – or even collecting roadkill. Check your national and local laws before setting out on your hike to make sure you know the score – here in the UK, for instance, it’s illegal to pick up roadkill if you’re the one who ran it over but if the car behind or a passing hiker scavenges your pheasant as it stops bouncing, that’s legal! You can’t sell anything you forage without hitting some very stringent regulations. You shouldn’t ever dig up roots, strip a plant to the ground, or take every berry in the patch – that’s as much about moral right as legal wrongs, of course. Take what you need in passing – a handful of blackberries, a couple of leaves of dandelion, two or three mushrooms from a group – but always leave enough for the wildlife, and for the plant to seed itself for the future.

In short, my philosophy here is that I nibble a bit in passing or gather enough for a meal as I travel, but I always leave some for the next person/bird/deer/slug along and until they tell me I can’t, that’s what I’ll do! It fits in with the ‘leave no trace’ ethos of wilderness camping pretty well since I take care to browse lightly over the landscape and it keeps the weight of my pack down!

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Survival Gear

The contents of my survival/first aid kit are very limited. I’m happy to acknowledge that I’d never recommend anyone took as little gear in this category as I do! So you’ve been warned – any attempt to justify your shortcomings based on ‘but Peregrinehiker only carries that!’ are doomed. Remember, survival kit is just that – it enables you to survive the situation and get yourself out of it again. It’s not going to be comfortable but you’re aiming to come out the other end alive.

 I’m going to digress slightly at this point to talk about the philosophy of safety and the Mountain Rescue Service (and other emergency services).

 I believe very strongly that we put far too much emphasis on safety these days. It’s got to the point in the UK where there are so many warnings, restrictions and official recommendations that you can hardly turn around without falling over the wretched things. Seriously, anyone who needs to be warned that yoghurt contains dairy products deserves to suffer a little with their milk allergy, don’t they? Personally I’d be furious to discover the bag of nuts I’ve just purchased doesn’t ‘contain nuts’! Making errors, finding things out the hard way, is the best way we learn and grow. Most people learn far better by doing than by being told, reading a book or watching a public information film! Tell your kids that fire burns, by all means – but if they insist on holding the hot end of the match, let them get a bit of a scorching. They’ll understand then exactly what you meant and believe you next time! I’m not saying you should hand babies a lighted firework, but let people take a few risks, let them stub their toes, skin their knees, bite their tongues and (even) break the odd toe or finger without wrapping them up in cotton wool!

In exactly the same way, I go out on the trail without all the ‘recommended’ kit because I trust myself to deal with the circumstances I’ll meet. Before I leave home I think, plan, work out options, consider likely (and some unlikely!) hazards and figure out how to deal with them if I meet them. Then I pack accordingly. If I’ve done my homework correctly, I’ll have an uneventful trip. If I screw up, then I should accept a bit of pain to make sure I learn not to screw up in future! This is, in my book, accepting the consequences of my actions. It’s something we don’t do nearly enough of these days – which means we don’t act like adults. We’re perpetual whining brats, looking for Mummy to hold our hands and hand out sweeties.

Some people don’t like this philosophy and that’s fine. I will defend your right to believe what you like – provided you acknowledge my right to hold my own opinions. If we all agreed on everything, wouldn’t life be boring?

That brings me to the various emergency services. Here in the UK, we have the paid emergency services – police, fire, coastguard, ambulance – and they do a great job. I don’t grudge a penny of my taxes that goes to support them. I wouldn’t want to live in a society without them! We also have three volunteer, unpaid emergency services – men and women who risk their lives for no financial reward. These are Cave Rescue, Mountain Rescue and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

If I’m out in the hills and I signal for help (or in a cave or at sea) these people will turn out of their homes and search through the foulest weather and the darkest night, scramble helicopters and search dog teams or dig through an entire avalanche until they find and rescue me.

Last year, they were also called out because people had blisters or felt tired after a long walk.

It’s not like they need any practice in search-and-rescue. It’s not as if they have budget surpluses to use up (they’re funded entirely by public donation!) or just happen to have all the gear handy and were passing by. Using up their time and money like this means that, in a real emergency, they might not be able to respond as effectively. People and dogs get tired, equipment needs servicing and fuel needs to be bought. Before you call them out, just take a minute to check that you can’t make it home by yourself, or at least stagger as far as the next phone box and call an ambulance. There is nowhere in the whole of Britain where you’re more than three days’ walk from a habitation of some kind and most places you’re only a few hours from the nearest pub – so keep the emergency calls strictly for the real life-and-death emergencies!

So what do I actually have in my ‘won’t leave home without it!’ survival pack?

  • Whistle
  • Mirror
  • Compass
  • Water filter
  • Fire piston
  • Charcoal cloth
  • Some lolly sticks
  • Knife
  • Steristrips
  • Liquid plaster
  • Lip balm
  • Duct Tape

I can hear you waiting for the rest of the list. Stop waiting, because that is it!

So why these items? What can I do with them? Is it enough?

Whistle – a pealess lightweight metal one, for blowing if I’m desperate to attract attention. The international distress signal on a whistle is six equal blasts within one minute – the response to let the person requiring help know you’ve heard them is three long blasts. Memorise that and never, ever abuse it. Pealess whistles work just as well when they’re wet as dry, mine cost about a pound from an outdoor shop and I carry it on a lanyard attached to my possibles pack, on my belt, so I can’t lose it.

Mirror – also for signalling in distress. Again, the distress signal is six flashes within one minute – in theory you could flash an entire Morse code explanation of your problem but since practically nobody knows Morse these days, why try? Six flashes if you need help, three flashes back to indicate you’ve noted someone else’s signal. Mine is a lightweight nylon version in a thin cloth case to stop it getting scratched, again attached to the possibles pack with a lanyard.

Compass – no surprise with this one, it’s to make sure I  don’t get lost – used in conjunction with a map on the trail and useful for making sure I’m not getting turned around and for identifying landmarks at any time. Again, strung on a lanyard and tied securely to the possibles pack.

Water Filter – this one does surprise people sometimes but I like my little pocket piston filter. It’s the Pre-Mac Pocket Travel Well which is small, simple to use and lightweight. It’s rated for 1,000 litres before the filter’s used up – that’s about 500 days’ drinking water per adult so plenty for even quite a group of hikers over a few weeks! It won’t handle the kind of nasty bugs you’ll encounter in tropical areas but for most UK fresh water, it’s fine. Drinking water fresh off the hill is something I enjoy and in upland UK areas, that’s quite safe. I wouldn’t trust a river in farmland or near any kind of habitation though – filtered through a few hundred feet of peat is pure, running past someone’s fertiliser runoff or sewage outfall, definitely not. In those circumstances, I filter and boil my water before drinking. I carry the filter rolled up, together with its rubber tubes, in a rubber band in my possibles pack. Make sure you know your own tolerance for drinking live wild bugs, though – some people’s intestines aren’t used to hosting healthy raring-to-bite-ya bacteria off the hill and for them, drinking unfiltered water will lead to stomach cramps, diarrhoea and a swift exit from the trip, groaning. In other parts of the world, take local advice.

Fire piston – this is a gadget that I learned about only last year and having acquired one, it took me a bit of fiddling and experimentation to get on terms with it. Basically, it’s a small-bore air-tight tube with a piston. Insert a scrap of tinder in the tip of the piston, ram it in hard and fast, and whip it out again to reveal a glowing coal! It works (now) practically every time for me. The coal won’t blow out like a match and it’s hot enough to light dry grass, a firelighter or charcoal/charcloth – ideal for  lighting fires, can be a good trick to light the alcohol stove from it but with the aid of a bit of charcloth and a wooden spill, not impossible. Again, attached with a lanyard to the possibles pack so I can’t lose it.

Charcloth – the tinder for the fire piston. Charcloth is simply cotton cloth (one of my son’s impossibly elderly tee shirts in this case!) heated to high temperature in the absence of oxygen, so it becomes very thin, finely woven charcoal. It weighs almost nothing and can be created in minutes at home for the cost of a bit of old cloth and a fire, and whether used as tinder in the firepiston or popped into a ball of dry grass to help catch a spark or coal, it’s well worth carrying. I keep it in an old airgun ammo tin in the possibles pack.

Lolly sticks – this one puzzles a lot of people at first! Think about it though – cheap, very dry, well-seasoned pine sticks, in a form you can use whole as kindling or split with your knife to create spills and finer kindling! I carry about an ounce of these in a plastic bag in my possibles pack – and they’re worth their weight in gold.

Knife – invaluable for so many tasks! Mine’s a Finnish sheath knife – the Martiini Silver – which has a short blade (legal to carry in the UK under our draconian laws*) and a good, comfortable handle. It’s single-edged and strong enough to split wood (within reason – I wouldn’t attempt to hack up a whole tree with it!) for firewood, holds an edge well and I keep it sharp enough to slide through a rabbit’s skin easily. It has a sharp tip for skinning/gutting game/rabbits/pheasants to add to my diet (more on that in another post!), a metal tipped handle so I can, within reason, hammer it with a rock or large stick for additional cutting power, I use it for cutting tape and string, splitting wood, eating, whittling useful items (tent pegs, clothes pegs, fish hooks, new stove…) and I also use it for fusing fireworks (though not on the trail). In need I could lash it to a straight stick as a spear for fishing (though I try to keep it dry normally!) or for anything else my imagination was fertile enough to devise. With it, of course, I have a small sharpening stone to keep it touched up.

Steristrips – useful for closing wounds – in fact not much use for anything else. But if I’m ever cut so badly I feel I need to stick the wound together before I bleed to death, I will definitely need these, so even though I have never used them, I still carry them in my possibles pack. For lesser injuries, I carry:-

Liquid plaster – which does exactly what it says. A couple of drops on a smallish cut stops bleeding nicely and provides cover to prevent dirt getting in, so it has a place in the possibles pack. Given the chance I just find the nearest ribwort plantain and squeeze juice on the cut, which works well as a liquid plaster too – unfortunately you can’t always find plantain when you want it.

Lip balm – prevents lips cracking, lubricates the fire piston, keeps rust from forming on the knife if it gets wet, can be smeared on cuts and scabs to keep the skin moist and clean, and I’ve even used it to light a fire before now (it’s petroleum jelly so yes, it’s flammable. Smear thinly on cloth and apply ignition source). Again, lurks in the possibles pack.

Duct Tape – about four yards, cut into various lengths and widths, and carried wrapped around my hiking poles. Invaluable for mending torn tent/bivvy bag, patching rips in trousers, acting as an emergency plaster or for wrapping over a bandage to hold it in place, or for wrapping over your hiking poles around a broken leg as a splint, or practically anything else you can think of.

So what can I do with this little collection? I can signal for help, light a fire, acquire clean drinking water and deal with minor (and some major) first aid situations. Together with the knowledge in my head, I can use this kit to construct shelters, traps, fishing or hunting gear, gather edible vegetation, mend my kit and  that’s all I need to do – because that’s all I need in order to survive.

*A layman’s note on the UK’s laws pertaining to knives: it is illegal to carry an offensive weapon in public in the UK. Technically that could include a kitchen knife you’d just bought and were taking home so the police apply a reasonable amount of common sense to the situation. Wave your kitchen knife in the street, you can be arrested. Put your machete wrapped in old clothes in the bottom of a kitbag and be polite, nobody will mind because they won’t know you’ve got it. (I’m not recommending anyone carries a machete in public, that’s just a very large bladed implement for the purpose of making my point). It’s illegal to carry a knife in public unless the blade is less than 3 inches and the knife is a folding version (not a flick knife, locking knife or gravity knife – just one with a non-locking hinge in the middle that allows the blade to fold safely into the handle.

Apart from this basic provision, it’s legal to carry practically anything provided you can prove ‘good reason’. The law doesn’t distinguish between a penknife, a machete or an felling axe – they’re all bladed implements. If you’re a butcher, you can carry a 9 inch knife to and from work, for example; you’d have to be a professional lumberjack or tree surgeon to prove ‘good reason’ to carry a big axe but a little bushcraft-type axe is a different matter. If your favourite knife turns out to be a little over the legal length or is a fixed blade, don’t worry. Going camping, hiking or practising bushcraft techniques are all considered a ‘good reason’ so provided you’re sensible and reasonably discreet, you’re still within the law. My Martiini fixed blade sheath knife is about 3 inches long in the blade but looks longer when it’s sheathed because the handle’s quite long – nobody has ever challenged or questioned me on it when I’ve been in the countryside. Carry your personal choice of bladed implement sheathed at all times except when in use, put it in your pack out of sight when you’re on public transport or when you aren’t likely to need it immediately, store it at home (if you need to leave it in your car, put it out of sight in the boot or glove pocket – not a door pocket!), don’t threaten anyone or wave it about, and generally, as the drinks industry like to say, enjoy responsibly. If you want more info on this, use Google – there are plenty of good sources on UK knife/axe regulations and law.

As a general point of common sense, any sharp implement should be carried in a secure and safe manner – knives in sheaths, axes in blade guards, needles in a case, etc. When you’re using a sharp implement, keep your first aid kit (however minimal) right at your side in case of accident.

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Fitness and the Ultralight Hiker

The great thing about hiking in general – and ultralight hiking in particular – is that’s a very low-impact sport. You’re not moving fast, you’re not carrying huge weights, you’re just walking. The average hiker will manage to maintain about 2.5 mph over the course of a day – that’s not even a brisk walk to the shops! The way to rack up the distance when hiking isn’t by sprinting as fast as you can, but by keeping up a steady pace for as long as you can. Remember, you’ve got to get up tomorrow and do it all again! Take things easy. The secret of long-distance walking is long hours – get up at or even before dawn, eat on the move, keep going until the sun drops then pitch camp and sleep. Do the maths here and you’ll see that up in the Highlands in June, the day is 18 hours of daylight (plus twilight). At 2.5 miles per hour, that’s potentially 45 miles of walking! Factor in a relaxed lunch pause, a few comfort breaks and maybe some bird-watching, photography or fooling about identifying landmarks on the map, and you’re still able to amble through 30 miles or so in a day.

That’s not to say you don’t require some fitness training before you strike out on a hundred-mile hike. You need to get your feet used to taking the impact for a whole day – break your footware in so you don’t limp within ten minutes with blisters – get used to having your total pack weight on your back so your shoulders and spine are accustomed to it and you don’t pull a muscle on the first hill. If you can walk ten miles, though, you can walk all day. Better yet, as you hike the trail you’re toning up your fitness yet more!

So where do you start? The answer’s easy – start walking. Walk to work, walk to the shops, walk the dog, walk your kids to school – at the weekend, head for the park or the local forest or a handy bit of hill and walk some more! Get used to climbing slopes and covering uneven ground instead of paved roads. Explore your local footpaths with the dog in the evening. Aim to cover a couple of miles a day and increase that over time as you feel able. Your dog will love you, your kids will be healthier, your transport bill will be less and you’ll get fitter.

I also use a gym about 4 times a week – Monday is yoga to keep my joints limber, Tuesday is a weights day, keeping up muscle strength, and then Thursday and Saturday I put in an hour or so on treadmill, treadmaster (a cross between a treadmill and a stair climber) and exercise bike to work on cardiovascular/endurance. I walk a fast (4 mph) mile each morning and evening because I park my car a mile from the office – this means I don’t walk as much as I used to when I didn’t drive to work at all, but then again I don’t have to walk all the way home and then drive right across the city to reach the gym in the evening! Weekends I try to get out and walk – at the moment it’s hard as the city’s under 7 inches of slush and snow with roads into the hills closed intermittently, but I can compromise by Nordic skiing in the nearby park instead – another excellent cardio workout.

As I get closer to a long hike, I switch my training again to suit what I need to do. At the moment I’m gearing up for the West Highland Way and Great Glen Way back-to-back next June – that will require a lot of hill-climbing so I’m pushing on the treadmaster, and exercise bike to work the legs in particular – about February I’ll switch over to the stair climber and really push the thighs hard in preparation for those Munros along the way! In the off season I do more weights to keep the strength and muscle-bulk up – which helps burn off more calories.

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Why Ultralight?

Ultralight Hiking – What? Why? How?

These are the three first questions anyone asks me when I say I’m an ultralight hiker! It’s a rapidly growing trend but there are still plenty of people who’ve never heard of it, so – here’s the answers.

What is Ultralight Hiking?

The ‘hiking’ part is fairly self-evident – going for a long walk off the surfaced roads! Ultralight is a reference to the weight of kit the hiker carries – in this case, as little as possible, while still being comfortable and safe. Some items of kit are non-negotiable – for example, you really do need a compass and map – but an ultralight hiker will choose carefully from the various models of compass to get the lightest one which is still fit for purpose. As an illustration, think through the following options. You’re about to head off on a hike across the Cairngorms, say. You will be carrying an Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map and will need a compass to take with you, for checking bearings and making sure you stay on the unmarked path you’ve chosen to follow. You have a choice of three compasses:

(a)    a 35g Engineer model with mirror and targeting sight for taking extremely accurate bearings;

(b)    a 22g flat transparent plastic compass with the usual scale, ruler, arrows and degree-markings on the bezel; or

(c)     a 3g button compass which tells you which way is north and not a lot else.

Which do you choose?

If you answered (b), you picked the right one. You’re not making a map, just following one, so you don’t need the extreme accuracy of the Engineer – it also doesn’t have the ruler/scale for working out distances on the map. You do need to be able to take bearings, though, so the button compass – despite the stunningly light weight – isn’t up to the job.

Having said that, a committed ultralighter will watch every gram that goes into the pack. I will admit I don’t drill holes in the handle of my toothbrush to avoid carrying the extra weight – but I do use a very small toothbrush. I don’t carry tent poles because I carry hiking poles and can use those to pitch the tent when I’m done walking for the day. If the weather’s good and I’m confident of the forecast, I don’t even take the tent – sleeping under the stars is a beautiful experience.

There are some accepted guidelines for how much weight you can carry and call yourself an ultralighter – usually a pack weight under 20lbs would be lightweight, under 10lbs would be ultralight. There are even those who’ve achieved sub-5lb pack weights! My usual packweight is around 9lbs for a 7 day trip at present but I have a devious plan involving resupplying via Royal Mail for my next long trip that should see me crack 5lbs for a 7 day mountain hike without compromising comfort or safety!

Why take up Ultralight Hiking?

In my case, because I had to! Some years ago I ruptured my spinal ligament in the lumbar region – meaning there was nothing holding my spine in the small of my back in position but some very sore and damaged muscles! –  it took nearly three weeks to be able to walk again and more than three years before I could walk without pain over any distance or on rough ground. To avoid ever experiencing that level of agony again, I started looking for ways to continue enjoying the great outdoors but without carrying a single unnecessary pound on my back. It wasn’t long before I discovered ultralight hiking and revised that plan – I don’t carry a single unnecessary gram on my back! The result is that I can now walk further and in more comfort than ever before – making more use of my regrettably short holiday time from the office and seeing more of this beautiful country I live in.

The most cogent answer to this question, though is – why not? Why carry extra weight, damaging your back, legs and feet? Why wear yourself out? Why limit yourself to places where you can lug a heavy pack, only sleep where there’s room to pitch a big tent?

How do you go Ultralight?

There’s one basic premise – not one unnecessary gram in the pack! – that goes to make an ultralight hiker. It helps if you are also meticulous about detail, patient enough to weigh every bit of kit you own and willing to learn the techniques that enable you not to carry anything if you can find a lighter alternative. For example, if you have a knife, a hiking pole and some tape, you don’t need to carry an inflatable splint. You’ll tape your poles to the offending limb instead to enable you to get off the hill and back to safety. Don’t carry both a phone and a camera – if your phone has a camera, you’re carrying the camera unnecessarily. Of course, if your whole aim in going into the hills is to take stunning photos, you’d leave the phone at home instead! In any case, there’s rarely a good mobile signal in the UK’s hills.

The first and most important point to cover in shedding pack weight is to really take on board that ultralight premise. Not one unnecessary gram in the backpack! If you normally hike with a folding camp stool, for example, leave it at home and learn to sit on your sleeping mat instead. Two-burner camping stove with complete set of cookware? Switch to an alcohol stove and a single titanium billycan. Book to read in the evening? Please. You can do that at home. Look at the scenery, practice bird identification, learn what every plant around you is useful for (you’ll be amazed) and leave that excess weight out of your pack! In any case, with an ultralight load, you won’t feel so tired so you can keep going longer. I’ve walked from before dawn to after sundown and not felt tired before now – and I’m not superfit!

I’ll do more detailed examinations of how to shed weight from your pack in time to come but start with the Big Three –pack, sleeping gear, and shelter system. These three things are the biggest weights you’ll carry, as well as the largest items by volume. Cut them down in weight and volume, you’ll make the biggest difference to your pack weight.  Replace like-for-like with lighter items, or take a really hard look at what you have and what options are available and change what you do altogether – switch a 3lb tent for a 1/2lb tarp, or leave them both at home and sleep in a bivvy bag – the choices are wide and varied, and exploring them to find what suits you best is a major part of the enjoyment of ultralight hiking.

Another way to reduce the weight of your gear is to increase the knowledge in your head – which is weightless as well as priceless. You can lose or break gear on the trail – the contents of your head are neither liable to get left somewhere accidentally nor need replacing along the way! If you gather dry dead leaves into a heap to put under your sleeping bag, for example, you’ll sleep warmer for the insulation – and that means you can replace the heavy 4-season bag with a lighter 3 or 2 season bag. I’ll be talking more about my choices of gear in other posts – but don’t copy me or anyone else! Find your own ‘best fit’ choices for your needs and comfort.

Become more flexible and adaptable – and this carries over into the whole of your life. Can’t find a dry place to pitch a tent? I had this one in a gale on Dartmoor in 2009. There was nowhere for the best part of a mile around that was dry enough to lie down on, let alone guy a tent down as tightly as mine needs to be! Answer? Look around. Spot a big clump of huge gorse bushes. Bushes and trees use their roots to stabilise the ground around them and, especially with gorse, their branches twine together and form a canopy. Result? A dry warm crawlspace under the bushes, just needing a few prickles tidying out of the way. I slept warm and dry under those bushes all night.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there are unexpected benefits to becoming a committed ultralighter. I’d never slept out in the open without a tent before – I found it quite scary at first to just wriggle into a bivvy bag and lie under the stars. It felt exposed, vulnerable. For goodness sake, what is there in the UK that might attack a lone hiker under a hedge? Our biggest predator is the badger! Get a grip. The night sky is gloriously beautiful, full of brilliant stars, meteorites, satellites zipping by, planets and glowing noctilucent clouds. Watching dawn come up while lying in a bivvy bag on a hill without another person for miles, with a hot cup of chocolate freshly brewed on the meths stove, is a beautiful experience. To be roused from sleep by a carolling blackbird eight feet over your head is the best way to wake that I know. I’ve seen the first sunlight strike across a field of dewy grass and turn the whole lot to diamonds – and that’s pure magic. And yes, I’ve met a few badgers and foxes. They were quite startled to find a human sleeping on the ground and ran for their little furry lives!

When you have less to lose, you also have less to worry about. The less I carry, the less I have to make sure I’ve picked up and put back in the pack, the less I need to fret about anyone stealing things, and the more I can enjoy being there, on the trail, in the moment.

The combined result of all this – learning to think through your options, to adapt and innovate, to push your boundaries and face your fears – is that you will become a more confident, competent and relaxed individual.

One place you really do have to think hard, though, is when it comes to safety. I’ll have a good rant about our over-the-top safety-at-all-costs culture some other time but, for me, at least part of the reason I go into the wilds is because it isn’t safe, because it does stretch me, force me to take risks and make judgements. You’ll see the books recommend that you carry practically the entire contents of an Accidental and Emergency Department in your pack – I used to carry a pretty extensive first aid kit, which I never opened from one trip to the next, year after year. I don’t now. I carry an extremely minimal first aid kit and rely on adapting other items, using natural materials and being careful and skilled in the first place. This one’s a judgement call every person will have to make for themselves – how good are your first aid skills? How cleverly can you reassess your pack contents to improvise a splint or a bandage? Can you recognise and use common plants around you to find wound sealants, antiseptics, dressings? I’m making no recommendations on this and I don’t advise anyone to carry as little as I do – but then I know my own limits and abilities. I’ve learned them the hard way, over years of practice and making mistakes – exactly the way I’d advise you find yours! That’s how each of us grows up, learning and taking responsibility for ourselves.

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Why Hike?

It’s something I’m often asked. What makes me want to trudge about the landscape by myself? Let me see…..

Maybe the views?

(Sunrise over Ben Nevis, May 2010)

(View northwest from Bennachie in Aberdeenshire, looking towards Huntly and the Moray Firth)



If it’s not the views, perhaps it’s the chance to get really intimate with the wildlife?

(Dartmoor pony on Dartmoor, March 2010)

Or maybe it’s the dining facilities?

(Dartmoor, March 2009)



…Or maybe not.


The excellent roads, perhaps?

(Bennachie, Aberdeenshire, June 2009)





But it could well be all of the above, plus the chance to be alone, to be part of nature, to get away from the gadgets, gizmos and electronic clutter of modern life and just be human!

I’m gearing up to walk the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way in June 2011, 200 plus miles with Ben Lomond and Ben Nevis thrown in for good measure, back to back, in the space of a week. It’ll be 30-mile days, wildcamping halfway up mountains, all the way from Glasgow to Fort William to Inverness. Can’t wait!

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