TGO Challenge Planning Guides

I notice from my web stats that people are beginning to plan for next year’s Challenge. By all accounts we have a bumper series of entries this year. It seems a good time to revamp my challenge guide stuff. which is always well read. And so, this year, I have decided to embrace the multimedia revolution and to produce a few video tutorials. In the main, these are aimed at first timers and we’ll be looking at the differing regions of Scotland, start points, planning routes and so on. Mostly, I shall be using computer mapping to explain routes, navigation and so on.

These won’t of up at once though I’m hoping to gt three or four up this week. They will be about ten minutes long.

Anyhow, here is the introduction.

 

The State of the Outdoor Industry — Update

I may not be posting here as often as I used to but I still try and keep up with those in the industry who keep their fingers on the pulse.

Earlier this year I took the decision not to post about gear very often. In all honesty it is hard to keep up. My current collection of gear is both very functional and lightweight and there is no pressing need to replace much of it. Indeed — and this may be sacrilege to some ‚ I’ve noticed that such ultralight gear has reached a natural limit. It is impossible to reduce weight that much and so the focus is more on innovative design and functionality these days. But guess what?  As a result weight is creeping up again!  Still, we rely on our outdoor designers and manufacturers and there is still a lot to think about.

If the last few years for the outdoor industry have been tough — as they have for many — the future looks even more challenging. Continuing austerity means people have less cash inter pockets and now rising inflation is set to eat into living standards both decisively and quickly. As I write I’m listening to a radio report that focuses on what amounts to an almost collapse in consumer spending. And, of course, uncertainty about what Brexit will mean to the sector is a major concern.

Small, niche, retailers are reporting that they are living in increasingly hard times. But it is now just the small operators that face difficulties, small and even large manufacturers are finding things getting harder. In the face of tighter margins the big retail chains are putting the screws on manufactures. I was recently told of a major award-winning outdoors chain (one with a major high street presence) that has written to all suppliers telling them that they will be discounting their invoices by 5%. In other words if the suppliers are given an invoice for X thousands they will be paid X minus 5%.  This kind of tactic is not unknown and has been the backbone of the supermarket world for years.

For us the consumer, this means that we are likely to see even less variety and choice on the high street. And while this is sad in many ways you, like me, might feel that you are honour bound to once nitrate what spending power we have left into the hands of the small online retailers.

Yes sir, of course we have a lot of jackets to look at. But you can only have the jacket this this one company and only in fluorescent blue.

What does the team think?

The Outdoors Station Sets a Stunning New Record

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Bob Cartwright and Honey Stove

I know. This blog is like a bus, you wait ages and then two come together!

Chatting to Bob the other day he decided (not for the first time) to put me right. I hadn’t been following the Outdoors Station properly!  I’d missed his big news.

The Outdoors Station has now hit ten million downloads. Yes, that’s right. Ten million. This is an extraordinary achievement and a reflection both of Bob’s skill and commitment and the continued and growing interest in outdoors activities.

We now live in a multimedia age. Bob and I were chatting about not only  how we rarely watch ‘live’ TV anymore but how much of our viewed content is on YouTube. Bob’s mostly download figures now easily outstrip the monthly circulation figures of the main outdoors magazines. And yet, we still have this feeling that the trade don’t treat this new medium seriously. Our traditional print media is struggling to maintain advertising revenue and, of course, this is vital to the continued health of the sector. But the new media faces even greater indifference from advertising buyers. Of course, any old idiot can create a You Tube video. That poorly produced video might be enough to answer your questions about a piece of gear. fair enough. But surely the sector as a whole benefits from consistently produced, high quality content?

Bob has always tried to operate to high standards and whenever he can to keep his sites free from rampant commercialism. For example, when Google contacted him to tell him that he would benefit from advertising on his You Tube Channel he chose to resist it.

Over the next few weeks Bob will be celebrating the life the Station so far and its clear success. I hope to be back in the studio with him chewing the cud and talking to listeners. I’e bene away too long.

I remain somewhat bemused that commercial backers seem not to properly appreciate what a gem the Outdoors Station has become. Quite frankly, given the size of Bob’s regular audience they are mad not to support it more energetically. We know there is so much more we could do to make the content even more fabulous than it is at present.

Anyhow, many congratulations to Bob and Rose. Keep your ears peeled for podcast news and who knows you might even hear my dulcet tones once again!

The Desecration of the Scottish Hills

Well, it is that time of the year again — the TGO Challenge time. The end of October sees the deadline for TGO Challenge entries and for many the next few months will be spent studying maps, past Challenge route journals, identifying camp sites and booking accommodation. My entry is in and I have too consider whether to simply use last year’s route (as we didn’t get to the event in the end) or to create a new one. Creating a new one might seem a bit of an unnecessary task, but route planing is  great part of the whole experience. And yet, I approach route planning with nowhere near the excitement that I did years ago. 

Cameron McNeish recently bought an article to my attention which pretty much sums up how I feel. The piece was a blog from Parkswatch Scotland:

The Proliferation Of Hill Tracks And How To Stop It – An Example From Drumochter

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This one photo — taken from the article — just sums up everything that feels wrong. And it is now pretty difficult to cross your favourite terrain without experiencing this on one or two occasions.

A few years ago fellow blogger and TGO Challenger Alan Sloman was ranting about the same issue and declared that Scotland was Dead (or something like that). He is prone to this kind of dramatic statement but, of course, he was raising a very important point. If this continues that the Highlands will simply begin to loose its allure for many hill walkers.

These kinds of development have blighted my last two Challenges.

In 2015 Kate and I took the easy route into Glen Mazarin, walking the gentle lanes to approach the Glen rather than approaching from the main boundary ridge which is my favourite route. We passed the works entrance to the Dunmaglas wind farm. As we walked down gentle lanes on a gorgeous, sunny, morning we are constantly shaken by heavy good vehicles. As we took to the hills we climbed and viewed the access road to the construction site. It was a dramatic but ultimately depressing sight.

The problem is not simply one of wind farms. Increasingly, estates are driving new tracks over land that for the estate owners has little utility value. For walkers the tracks not only blight their walk but create navigational hazards. The temptation to follow a new path when you find it — assuming you know where it is going — is great. I wish I had a £10 note for every time I’ve met someone who followed one of the tracks and then regretted it.

In 2016I took the newish hill road from Fort Augustus to Glendoe. This road — it is really more than track — was built to facilitate the construction of the new Reservoir in Glendoe. The road is a mixed blessing. It does get you into the hills pretty quickly and allows you to cover a lot of ground. But it also gives you a horrible insight into how our hills might look in years to come.

I’m not against wind power or hydro power, far from it. But the issue of sensitivity when planning is key. Some like seeing turbines gently rolling in the wind. Some don’t. But for me the turbines are the least of our problems. The access roads cut though the hills to build the farms will last forever. The concrete bases of the turbines will surely I’ve longer than the turbines themselves. These concrete foundations will stand as a latter day henge. In centuries to come will visitors stand and wonder at the these strange standing objects?

A horrible insight into the future is gained at the top of the Glendoe climb.  Here a large works site had been cut. The temporary buildings on the site have now gone but the concrete foundation  to the site remains, like to some oddly abandoned supermarket car park. As you walk on you pass by many remnants of the construction work. Over time the reservoir itself will fill and grow. But there is no obligation to return the ground to its original condition. It doesn’t have to be like this. The estate at Loch Ossian was constructing (last timeI was there) a series of new, small, hydro sites. Display boards explained to us the benefits of the project but also critically assured us that the landscape would be restored when construction had finished. This estate. of course, makes much of its income through tourism. They want their hills to continue look nice!

So, route planning is not quite the exciting experience it was. Now I am studying maps to try and avoid these scars. All of my Challenge crossings have started from Northerly start points; I had been laving the Southern ones until I got older. But many my revised route might look to do something completely different this year and maybe the highest hills might even avoided.

If the hills themselves are loosing some of their charm then the TGO Challenge event itself has much more to offer, the comradeship of walkers and the privilege and waking through an ever-changing landscape.  But I’m not almost of the view that my best trips to the Highlands will be shorter trips simply because they can be planned to avoid these scars.

So, follow campaigners like Cameron and Chris Townsend and follow organisations such as Parkwatch. As a society it is time we became more facilitated. Yes, we can support renewable energy but we can insist that this commitment is not inconsistent with ensuring the landscape is both protected and returned to pre-development conditions whenever possible.

Change in the Air

I love walking at this time of the year; summer is over but autumn has not really kicked in yet. Regular readers will notice that that this site has been quiet recently. I really don’t like writing about the same things over andover again, but this magical and slightly scary time of the year never ceases to engage my emotions and imagination. The changing nature of our seasons are always magical. The spectre of winter just around the corner is never far from the back of the mind.

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So, to walk out in the morning was to enjoy much of what summer has to offer but also being impossible to feel the change. The temperatures are down but the sun shone. The wind blew from the West, not list but not strong. There was ‘nip in the air’ but there was a kind of intent. Just wait a week or two.

Foliage still sits on the trees waiting for the first high winds of the change. The landscape though its changing. The harvest is now coming in and the landscape is shorn. The sunshine illuminates the hills and the field but John Barleycorn is no longer swaying in the wind.

This was quiet walking weather. Showers threatened but while the sun was out we had the hills to ourselves for much of the time. Larks sang puncturing the walk with the most fabulous of concertos. The House Martins were still with us, not yet winging their way to Africa.

Bridges

At this time of the those other famous creatures come out in force. While much of the walk was quite and solitary we were regularly joined by groups of young women taking their Duke of Edinburgh courses. As ever we checked where they were going and inevitably we met them later in the day only to confuse them as we were now coming from the opposite direction to themselves. At the moment their map reading focussed simply on getting to their campsite!

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A flock of D of E youngsters scrambling above the waterfall


We didn’t escape the rain, you really can’t avoid it at this time of year. As I’ve said many times before, if you want a quiet day on the hills then study the weather forecast and be brave. But with waterproofs suitably donned walking in the rain adds variety and in the reasonably mild air this part of the walk was just as interesting.

The sun fought back and as we regained high ground we could see the squalls, blown by the Westerly winds, heading down the valleys. Up high the squalls left us alone.

I shall be up on these hills a lot of the next few weeks, trying to catch the spectacular autumn colours. Last your heavy winds wiped out the autumnal display so perhaps this year I’ll be lucky. And there is still enough light of the day to encourage the last wild camps of the year.

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Review: TentMeals — Vegan Dehydrated Food I

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The summer is now well and truly here and over the next few weeks backpackers everywhere will be setting out for night or two — or even longer — camping out in the wild.

I mentioned a few months ago that I had been sent some of these meals to review. I was very keen to check out this vegan menu and I often have mails from vegans interested in home dehydration.  I hoped to have reviewed these before the TGO Challenge but too much stuff got in the way. However, I have been sampling them whenever I get the chance and I’ll split the reviews up into two.  In this first review I will concentrate on main meals.

Background

Dehydrated meals are good news for the hiker and lightweight backpacker. Not only are the meals light but they are compact, meaning they take up little room in your pack. They are reasonably easy to prepare. And now we have a whole range dedicated to vegans. I should point out I am not a vegan but I eat a great deal of vegetarian food (those usually with dairy products).

What are we looking for?

When hiking hard — and especially over multiple days — we are looking at food that keeps you going. Portions need to generous and the carbs sufficient to ensure you don’t get too deep into negative energy consumption. And we’re looking for something tasty. When you are struggling through dreadful weather for days on end the one thing you have to forward to is your evening meal. (yes, I know it is summer but I’m being realistic here).

I’m also very keen to avoid the taste of additives. Dehydrated food has come a long way in the last decade but I can still taste some of the stuff I used 15 eyes ago! That horrible preservative taste is something that drove me to dehydrate my own food.

So to the food …

 

You can see a main meal here. It comes in a vacuum packed plastic packet. Everything is about as compact as can be, as you can see from the size of my cooking gear.

I was sent three main meals; a Moroccan style main meal; and Italian style main meal and an Almond Jalfrezi main meal

Preparation

This is simple enough though those plastic bags are tough — you will need to use your knife carefully. These meals are designed to be cooked in your cooking pan, there’s no pouring boiling water (300 mil) into plastic bags (thank goodness). I simply added water to my pan, poured in the meal and then cooked on top of a lightweight alcohol stove. The packet said to add to boiling water and wait 7 minutes. I simply brought everything up to the boil and then placed the pan in my pot cozy for 7 minutes or so.  Seven minutes was about right so long as you make sure you mix the ingredients well before heating and again before you place in the cozy.

Portion Size?

The good news is that these are decent portion size, well the 800kcal size is (there is a smaller 500 below). Some of the commercial brands I’ve tasted are not enough. If you have been eating properly through the day (and maybe had a second breakfast) and then had some chocolate or other stuff with you for the evening, this size will be OK.

Taste

The first meal I tried was the Moroccan Main Meal. This is basically couscous with herbs, some finely diced vegetables, dried fruits and almonds.  This rehydrated easily enough and was certainly a good portion. I felt it lacked a bit of punch in the taste. The  dried fruits as herbs were there but very mild.  I may have added just a little too much water. 300 mil is about one backpacking cup of water. It is always easy to over estimate the amount of water you need for rehydration. It was not bad and certainly didn’t taste of preservative.

The Italian Main Meal was not dissimilar. The main ingredient was again couscous  this time with tomatoes, winter veg (carrot) and parmesan (style) shavings — whatever those are. And those almonds were there once more. Again this was a pretty mild taste, It was discernibly different  to the Moroccan but only if you concentrated hard.

To, both were fine but I would have been inclined to take some extra stuff along with me. Dried chilli flakes, some powdered cumin and some dried herbs would have made a big difference I think

If this two were a little underwhelming in the taste department the star of the show was the Almond Jalfrezi. This had a rice base and a nicely flavoured base sauce. Almonds were there in force again but this time accompanied by flakes of coconut flesh. A good dollop of coconut milk also dropped into the pan. Once this was all cooked and broken up it was rather delicious. Jalfrezi is traditionally a hot and spicy curry but don’t worry this is really quite mild. I would add a little more in the way of chilli flakes if it was me. A nice meal though.

Size options

I mentioned above that I tried the 800kcal (200 grams) sized meals. Each of them is available in a smaller combination of 500kcal (100 grams) — £5.50 and £4.50 respectively. On long and harder trips — particularly when the calories are being eaten at a high rate — I would be inclined to be repaired to combine and large and a small packet for one meal. However, for the simple overnights I have used for testing the main portion has been enough.

Conclusion

You can easily create meals that are as good, if not better, yourself. Most us though don’t have the time.

TentMeals are a good vegan or vegetarian alternative. They are seriously addictive free and free from any nasty aftertastes. Portion size is good and they taste nice — though a boost to the herbs and spice would probably work well.

These might also appeal to backpackers flying abroad. In these circumstances I tend to avoid trying to carry dehydrated meat in my pack. Sniffer dogs love it. None vegetarians could easily use these as a base to which they could add other vegetables, cheese or dried meats.

All in all these have been a pretty decent offering so far. So, next I’ll be looking at porridge and breakfast meals.

TentMeals: High Energy Health

Walt Unsworth — Thanks for Everything

I’m a bit slow with this but I’m gradually catching up with the real world after the General Election campaign.

Walt died on the 7th June and all of us who are keen walkers and hillwalkers, here in the UK, owe him something of a debt.

Walt was a prolific writer but it was his creation of Cicerone Press — along with his wife Dorothy — that impacted on most of us. Cicerone not only gave us guide books for the great outdoors near and far, but the company effectively launched and sheltered the careers of many of the guide book writers that many of us still depend on.

Walt retired in 1999 and was determined to ensure — if he could — that Cicerone was passed on to new owners who would love and cherish it. He passed on ownership to Jonathan and Lesley Williams who were then unknown in the outdoors world. Jonathan was working the City down in that London. he was looking for a new challenge. Jonathan once told me that the deal was done very quickly and before he really knew what he was doing he and the family were moving North. I sense that Walt knew  that his baby would be in good hands. Jonathan and Lesley have, of course, taken the company on from strength to strength. Walt’s legacy will live on for many years to come.

Walt was also the Editor of Climber magazine. He saw an opportunity for the development of a new magazine for walkers and walking based mountaineers. He took this idea to his publishers and the The Great Outdoors mag — TGO — was born.

Thanks for everything Walt!

Does Social Media Destroy the Magic and the Mystery?

I can remember the first time I really became aware of the use of social media by hill walkers.

I was on the TGO Challenge and walking for a week or so with Phil Turner, who was a lot younger than me. Phil spent much of his time playing with a very new innovation — Social Hiking — which I don’t think was quite available to the public then. Phil and I were taking a very early stroll through the Balmacaan Forest. There were no tracks here (well not back then, pre wind farm). We bashed on through the heather on a gorgeously clear morning. Phil rushed on ahead. Every now and then I would loose him. I’d stop and look around up above me. There I would find Phil on the highest point he could easily reach, trying to get a signal on his mobile phone.

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Alternative Mapping Systems: Scribble Maps

It is a while since I have written about maps and mapping services. One of my themes over the last few years has been the impact that new technology will have over conventional maps, with the ability to create new maps from satellite information. I’m still convinced this is the future of mapping and that — over time- conventional map mappers are going to have a hard time.

This is the latest serve that I have come across — Scribble Maps.

Scribble allows you to create a variety of different types of maps, including topographical maps. the site now allows you to play around with demo software and to create your own maps. I created a map of the Cairngorms and — in an area like that — it might be ll you need.

we are some way off these becoming a real challenge to the Ordnance Survey and the like, but I suspect the real challenge is not so much technical as finding a business model that works!

There’s not much information about Scribble on their site — if anybody knows about them, get in touch.

 Scribble Maps

The TGO Song

As I’ve posted before,  I shall sadly not be on this year’s event. However, here is my little contribution — The TGO Song.

This is a marching song with a good chorus — perfected by Challengers as we marched through the Fetteresso Forest on our way to ice cream and the coast.  The song namecheck some of our finest comrades!

When I return next year I shall expect to hear it sung with gusto!

The TGO Song  — mp3

Some clever sod asked me whether there is a B side.  There is.

Here is a ballad based on Iain Thompson’s book — Isolation Shepherd — an account of his life as a shepherd on the shores of Loch Monar —a famous TGO landmark.

The Monar Shepherd  — mp3

Of course, you don’t have to be a TGO Challenger to sing the song.  You never know, it might inspire you to tackle the event yourself!