Articles of faith

TGO Challenge Gear List (not)

Six years ago I crossed the Alps. There I met the ultimate backpacker. He wore isolated shoes, two loose goatskin trouser legs, a hazel-framed backpack, a bow and arrows, a pouch with fire-making tools and a couple of birch bark food canisters. And an axe with a heavy and expensive copper axe-head. His name was Ötzi. 

I asked him why he would take that heavy copper axe-head. In a soft voice he said: “the museum people thought it might have signified riches and leadership, but for myself, well, I just love it, as a tool. I don’t mind the weight penalty, chopping firewood with it is such a pleasure.”

Ötzi. Reconstruction by the Arie & Alfons Kennis in Ötzi’s very own Bolzano museum.

Irrational additions to the backpack have existed for at least 5,000 years. These articles of faith define the walker. Show me yours and I’ll try and read them. But first:

What do I want from a walk, what are my articles of faith?

I want silence. The best thing in the wild is the huge big silence. My current stove, a White Box Stove, is completely silent. Why pick a nice spot for the tent, amidst this silent landscape, and then turn on a roaring jetboil? Calculating the weight penalty? I’ve tried, given up, and settled for it’s 53 gram (including windscreen)

My White Box Stove during a test, 2015.

I want simplicity of movement. I never fail to enjoy the sheer simplicity of walking. There’s many modern day ‘stuff’ that can ruin this simplicity. Think walking poles. They give your brain two extra legs to master (it can’t), they swing in and out of your view. Noise! On pole-people’s gear lists two or often three pairs of gloves turn up, because hands are exposed. While pole users have many a reason to use poles, I have only one counter-argument: poles are simplicity lost. A non negotiable to me.

I want to be immersed in the landscape. If I wouldn’t have any inhibitions, I would walk naked, and sleep on a bed of moss under the starry sky, eating rabbit each night. Until then, I prefer the thinnest barrier between me and the landscape, put up in a minute. And gone in a minute. This lightness is spoilt by having too much stuff inside the tent. Spare stuff annoys me. I don’t bring spare batteries, no pillow, a tiny towel (aaarghhh), less repair stuff, no shampoo, no swiss army knife, no spare socks, no spare shoelaces, no … you name it. This stufflessness is a dogma, and I thought I would suffer the consequences sooner or later, but I never feel something’s missing. Because so much is gained.

I need some comfort. Two items stand out: a book, and a thermos. For as long as I can remember I carry books. Lately, it’s an e-reader. But the purpose is the same: a book keeps me from walking into bad weather, and keeps me from walking at all if that’s what’s called for. 
In a way, the thermos accompanies the alcohol stove. The stove is not lit quickly, and fuel, once poured in, can’t be re-used. So I boil one and a half liter of water two times a day. The thermos contains the surplus. Benefit: hot tea first thing in the morning, without setting up the stove, and a hot drink on the hill. Weight penalty: 189 g (e-reader + cable), 229 g (0,6 L thermos)

Safety. Of course I carry torch, compass and a foil blanket. But I have an irrational fear of high winds. When I was 10 or 11, the family camped on a French campground when one of those mediterranean winds struck our tents at night. Being inside a small tent with that storm hammering it made a lasting impression. My sister and I where ‘evacuated’ into the bigger tent my parents slept in. In Scotland I’ve had many a stormy night in my Phoenix Phreebooter, a bombproof tent. Recently, I bought a Tramplite tent, with a stormproofness that is overkill on most days, but it frees me from fear. 
Weight penalty: about 200 grams (pegs!), compared to my Tarptent Moment.

Ye Olde Phreebooter somewhere behind Liathach, Torridon, 1995

The oddest and oldest relic in my pack is my spoon. Over 30 years old, and with me on all my Scottish walks. Weight penalty? Even calculating it would be heresy!

Edit 24 Jan 2022: the spoon is going to be replaced by a wooden spoon I cut myself from cherry or beech wood (still to be done).

Latest news: yes, I bought a Dyneema Composite Fabric (Cuben Fiber) Fusion Bonded SUL Tent Peg Bag, size XL.
‘What animal’s skin is this made of?’ Ötzi would ask.

The latest addition to my gear list: a girl’s make-up mirror, to catch ticks.

More posts on my preparation for the TGO Challenge here.

One gram at a time

My gear list is perfect … for coming to Scotland in March or April. So when I heard that the start of the TGO Challenge had been postponed till June 18, this kind of threw me off guard. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure. Because June means heat, and worse, The Scottish Midge. The last year I suffered the midge was 1995. My log states “160 bites. On each lower leg”. This is why my walks in the following 25 years were firmly outside the midge season.

Lochailort, 1995. The last time I remember being driven to madness by midges

Some data for the unbelievers: the midge has a wing span of 1.4mm, and there’s 8,000 midges in a gram. Population size is 180 thousand trillion midges in peak season (180,000,000,000,000,000). This makes for 22.5 million ton of midge in the sky. Staggering. Fortunately they come one gram at a time (see photo below). There could be 37 different species in that one gram, but Culicoides Impunctatus accounts for most of the bites. (source:

A quarter gram of midges. The rest of the gram is on the other hand and the lower legs.

To counter the plague, I bought a can of Smidge, and a sun hat with the accompanying midge-proof headnet. And I scrapped the plan to leave the inner tent at home.

My gear list is nothing special. I was about to write that I’m baffled by the neurotic level of detail gear lists have, but mine is pretty bad nowadays. It seems even gloves or pegs have five word names with a lot of ‘exploring’, ‘pure’ and ‘nature’ in them. Going online ensures the ‘do I need this’ question is always answered with a YES. The worst is, where everything is sorted by weight. This conveniently conceals the fact that sorting the shop by weight (low to high) has almost the same result as sorting by price (high to low).

Therefore, we need a good defense against buying expensive lightweight stuff. One trick is to realise walking doesn’t need any gear at all. Just good shoes, decent socks and something to keep the rain out. If that doesn’t help ask yourself this question:

What does hillwalking do for me and how can my gear enhance that?

My answers to this question and my gear list for the TGO Challenge are in the next edition of this blog. One gram at a time!

More posts on my preparation for the TGO Challenge here.

Who selects the camping spot?

TGO Challenge 2021 preparations part 3 [click here for part 2]

Every now and then I read French philosophers. It makes me feel intelligent, after only a single paragraph. Last week I read Roland Barthes. He’s brilliant when talking about signs and language. He said of Jules Verne – the 19th century writer of adventures – that it’s not the adventures that are so appealing to the reader, it’s the compatibility with childhood. Let’s elaborate on that. Verne delights in the finite, on a ship’s deck, aboard a submarine, watching the wild world. I remember treating any piece of wasteland, like a building site in preparation, or the fringes of my granddad’s farm, as a world in itself, however small. My world. Indoors, any child builds huts and tents using chairs and bedlinen. The man-child walking the Highlands likes to hide in a tent, snug inside the sleeping bag while the storm (the infinite) batters the flysheet. From all this, I deduce that the TGO Challenge is not an adventure (almost everything is under control), it is rather a very nice celebration of things boys and girls like.* 

Engraving by Alphonse Neuville, in 20,000 leagues under the sea

Prospect and Refuge
25 years ago I read Yi Fu Tuan (a China-born American geographer) about the experience of landscape. He reduces the experience of landscape to two words: Prospect and Refuge. To rest, to plot the next move, man seeks refuge. To hunt and to conquer, man seeks prospect. You want the hilltop, and for that you go out on a limb, into the open. When tired, you seek the glen or the woods. Every lover of mountains recognises the relief when, coming down from a summit, the tree line is reached. In Scotland, prospect and refuge are conveniently close together.

tent view
Many Challengers and other wild campers take this kind of picture: looking out from the safety of the pod. (Loch Hourn, March 2013)

While summits are precisely located points, known to everyone, the camping spot doesn’t exist, you have to create it. I like that, the strictly private action that is the placement of a tent. On the TGO Challenge Route Sheet you have to fill in camp coordinates. But pinpointing a camping spot is a bridge too far: I need to see for myself where I make my home. I select an area, where I expect to find a good spot. I’m not ashamed to tell you I spend quite some time walking up and down the area, not necessarily because I cannot find a flat spot, but because I have to get used to the place, it has to feel right. Don’t ask me what that is, for who selects the camping spot? The child. Don’t expect it to be a rational thing.

The extremes
Once you recognize what wild camping does for you, you can optimize it. The high camp unites prospect and refuge: safely inside the tent, looking down into the night between the hills, the lights of roads and ships on the horizon. And in the morning, you’re on top of the world right from the start. The low route disappoints: after resting and planning inside the shelter, no prospect is gained, because the safety of the glen is chosen over the ridges. Many Challengers complain of boredom on their low routes. For a reason. The child likes the snug tent, but its snugness is greatly enhanced by venturing out, and returning to it. I’d like to put it stronger: not venturing out eventually kills the tent’s attraction. Feeling vulnerable out on the hill? The lightweight tent is the perfect solution: whenever you feel you’ve had too much openness, you can turn prospect into refuge by just pitching it. Magic.

In Jules Verne’s books, the Ship is also an important, very finite, very enclosed place. I’d say tents are a below deck space turned upside down. Some tents feel and look like sails, coming down from a mast. I guess that’s why single pole shelters are so popular. (Noordduinen, Netherlands, 2020) 
This type of photo is very common with wild campers: frost on the tent to prove that hiding inside a small space was necessary (there was danger outside). In reality, most frost on a tent is the result of camping low, near water and away from wind (some wind would prevent the frosty cover) (Near Loch Gorm, Ben More Assynt in view, april 1996, and yes, the tent’s a Phoenix Phreebooter)
Refuge can be reduced to the bare minimum. A camp is a camp even when it’s hardly a camp. (Bivy on a nine day trek from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, Greenland, 2001)
Badly pitched tent after a one hour search for a camping spot. Low terrain & flat terrain was too wet, high terrain was to windy. (Loch Dubh Mas Holasmul, South Harris, 2018)

*an important condition: free will. There’s many children and adults living in tents involuntarily, in refugee camps or on the run. This kind of tent still provides refuge, but it’s anything but a celebration. Awfully privileged, wild camping in the hills…

The Italian connection

TGO Challenge 2021 preparations part 2 / click here for part one

If an Italian man dresses up to make an impression, he will never let on whether he’s going to a bar or to his mother. I’m sympathetic to this principle. Walking friends have described me as extremely opportunistic, route wise. So, when walking across the Highlands I’d be ready for the high ridges, but when the weather forces me to walk the landrover track down in the glen, I will do so and happily pretend it’s my choice. My TGO route for the coming west to east crossing of the Highlands must accommodate this behaviour. Designing such a route is fun. The only problem is that my imagination runs wild and before I know it I the maps are filled with scribbles and options. I love it, except… 

TGO Challenge 2021 Route design
Marked route on printed sheets and calculations

TGO Challenge Control forces you step up with only one main route, and one Foul Weather Alternative. There’s a route sheet you download and fill in, box by box, in great detail. This makes playing the tourist and following every whim a lot harder. Challenge Control would make an Italian write down which bar he would enter, what lady he would walk up to and what would happen next. Would the Italian ever confess to walking a dull route, on paper? 

TGO Challenge Route Sheet
The freedom to roam the hills is preceded by some bureaucracy

Once described, one sends the route off to Ali & Sue, the gatekeepers at Challenge Control. They are Challenge veterans themselves. They assign you to a vetter, a person that checks your route against rules and safety regulations, Julia in my case. This week, she sent my route back with a list of formal issues. Simply put: I’m not allowed to leave so many options open, and I should write the main route and foul weather alternative sections in the box of the day they are to be walked. This feels like filling in forms for tax return. Thou shalt jump through hoops. On the positive side: the formalities made me cut out bland stuff, and made me commit to my route.

All this goes against my habit to sneak off into a fold in the landscape. My predisposition is to hide, to escape and turn up in unlikely places. But Challenge Control’s responsibility is to find me, so I will have to suppress my urges and be traceable. Let’s find out how much escapism I can fit in there. Supervised escapism, does that count?

Glen Etive lunch stop
Smug opportunist having lunch, Glen Etive, 1999

Update: the minute I published this post, I got a message from Ali & Sue: “Thanks for this which looks good to us.  We will pass it on to Julia for a closer look at the detail”. More on this in a week or two…

Update 26 January: Julia Hume vetted the route, I made two corrections and then it was signed off, ready to be walked!