Wednesday 29 June 2011

Lightweight Backpacking is unsafe!.......... ????

Have we got away from the idea that lightweight backpacking is unsafe?

Back in 2009, when I did my first TGO Challenge I used an Akto.

This year I used a Trailstar.

In the final report for the 2009 TGO Challenge there was the comment:

 " This was not a Challenge for the ultra-lightweight brigade; May in Scotland is now very unpredictable and you do need really good gear to help you through as well as a strong mental attitude."

There are some ultra-lightweight tents around, but, I believe that this was a comment on the use of tarps or other lightweight single skin shelters rather than the use of tents per se. The comments that I make are about the use of lightweight tarps and other single skin shelters, and, whether or not they are a wise choice for backpacking in Scotland.

In the final report for the 2011 TGO Challenge there was the comment:

"It's 2019 and a hardened Challenge veteran is sitting in a bothy with two first timers, who are commenting on a heavy shower passing by outside. ' This is nothing ' says the old hand, ' you should have been on the 2011 Challenge - that was real weather! ' "

The 2009 report prompted considerable debate and among many blogs an excellent piece by Andy Howell "The State of Lightweight Backpacking in the UK."

"Challenges pass into folklore for various reasons. This year it will undoubtedly be because of the severe conditions that many of you were faced with.     .......... We are interested to find out how your equipment coped........" 2011 Final Report.

I hope enough people do complete and return the gear survey.

I want to be warm, dry and comfortable when I camp for the night

In 2009 my pack weighed in at around 10k with 3 days food.

This year it weighed in at around 8.5k with 3 days food.

This year, everthing I carried I used - except some of the first aid kit.

At the last minute I choose to take a heavier pack - an Osprey Talon 44 at 1.1k. This was mainly to allow me to roll my cut-down Ridgerest inside and to bring a pair of Crocs. Otherwise I would have used my OMM Classic 32 pack, but with bits hanging off of it - not very tidy! But, less weight.

So, this year I carried 1.5k less weight in all.

I havn't totally embraced trail shoes as my Terrocs are just not that comfortable. I have'nt totally embraced the ultra-light waterproof ethos. My PHD Alpamayo  smock weighs in at 435 grms, but, it is a full 4 season waterproof. My trousers are a pair of TNF Apex lites which are so comfortable that they are being worn out very quickly - over 6 years!.

I could probably go lighter with some of my other gear.

But, my main aim was to use what was comfortable and safe.

I can honestly say that with the exception of my second night of this year's Challenge I felt totally comforable and safe. That night my discomfort was through lack of any sleep. I was pitched on waterlogged ground high above Glen Etive in the middle of a storm! There was no discomfort from my gear being wet inside the Trailstar. Everything was dry and I was warm and comfortable. My discomfort was soley because I was fearful of the stakes coming out - even though I had triple stakes on three of the main anchor points! The stakes were too short and too thin. (I have now got MSR Groundhogs  - for the five main anchor points - which are longer and stronger).

There were a number of further nights of pitching in rain and strong winds and on waterlogged ground, but nothing to match that second night. Every one of those nights I was dry, warm and comfortable.

What about safety?

Even at the bealach below Stob Coir' an Albannaich I never felt unsafe.

I had, however, experienced waking up to find I had no cover from my Trailstar! One of the stakes had come out ....... at the low level campsite in Edale (Poor soil + Ti-nails and pins + high winds - no where near like at the bealach!). I thought I had covered this problem by getting some 6" "X" section stakes in addition to the Ti nails and pins.

The stakes held at the bealach. As well as me, the Trailstar stayed up.
I also thought ..... what would have happened had one stake come out?

The worst case scenario was of having no shelter - if one stake coming out led to all 9 of the  remaining anchor points coming out.

Then I thought well, no, highly unlikely. Last time (in Edale!) - only one stake came out, so, that the Trailstar was flattened to produce less wind drag on the other stakes.

The most realistic possibility, if a stake came out, was that the Trailstar would be flattened but would be held by the remaining staking points. My gear would then be exposed to the rain and wind. I prepared for this by making sure nothing light was going to be blown away. Most gear was stuffed inside the pack. My bivvy bag covered my down sleeping bag and would have kept most of the rain off until I got my gear protected. I even decided, at around 0330, to put my sleeping bag away and lie in my bivvy bag with my (dry) waterproofs on! This way I could quickly get out to deal with the ................ whatever happened. And if I couldn't anchor down the Trailstar normally, with the pole in the centre, I could use it without the pole to provide shelter until it became light enough to make a safe descent from the bealach. I can't remember, but it did get light very early.

Of course, had I decided to pitch in a less exposed place - it was, after all very stormy that night - I would have had no worries about the Trailstar coping with the storm.

Is Lightweight Backpacking unsafe?

There were a number of fellow Challengers who commented on the Trailstar and I know I was not the only one to be using a  Trailstar or other tarp.

Most of the comments were along the lines:

+ that tarps were inherently unsafe in Scotland.
+ tarps were uncomfortable.
+ they were draughty,
+ they had no groundsheet and therefore gear would be soaked on the ground.
+ you would get eaten alive by midges (there were none - but I have a midge net on my bivvy bag)
+ you would be attacked by ticks (still my worst fear.... but, I've yet to meet one!)
+ you are best off in a tent - full stop.

After the exceptional weather that marked the 2011 Challenge, there was not the assumption that lightweight gear was automatically a bad choice for the conditions - as in 2009 .

I hope that the gear survey - please do complete it if you were on this years Challenge - will show a complete variety of shelters and gear were used.

I know that I used lighter gear than a lot of people.
I arrived at using lighter gear by using heavier gear.
It was an evolutionary process.

This year instead of using my Akto, I decided to use the Trailstar: because it was light, easy to put up, spacious, able to cope with any conditions that prevailed on the Challenge (or so I believed from a number of excellent reviews) . It also had to ensure that I slept warm, dry, and comfortable - it did....... (my fault choosing thin stakes on that first Saturday -  but I was still reasonably comfortable,warm and dry).

So, Lightweight backpacking can not only be safe but, can be comfortable. My choice of gear is determined by these requirements. I enjoy backpacking with a tarp in comfort and safety. Others who also want comfort and safety use tents and equally enjoy their gear. Whatever, people use comfort and safety should be paramount. What suits one person may not suit another. I was perfectly happy carrying a synthetic sleeping bag, a 2.2k tent and necessary gear in a heavy pack when doing LEJOG in 2004. If I did LEJOG now..........

I hope the days of automatically labeling lightweight backpacking unsafe are past.

Equally, I hope that lightweight gear users don't make questioning comments about other tarp or tent users - there are some very lightweight tents on the market and there are tarps which weigh more than tents!

The gear is only a means to an end - enjoying backpacking.

BTW on 23 May this year I spent my second night in Glen Clova Hotel. There was no way you would have got me out that day!


  1. I agree Gordon, gear is very personal, in fact intensly so. It's quite refreshing that you're not so evangelical as some lightweighters, but I also think that those of us that haven't yet evolved shouldn't be so critical without having first hand experience. A backpacker should use what they feel comfortable and safe with and accept that others are doing the same for themselves. There is a difference between a lightweight backpacker and a completely ill-equiped numpty!

  2. Ticks must be scared of me as I to had no issues. Strangely enough I used a Trailstar and was dry and warm. No bugs got me and I was snug and warm. Lots warm down stayed lofted and kept me warm all night.

    Tarps can have draw backs and I have wrote a lot about that in the past. But they do work fine in the UK. Heck I was Mr no to them. But I sold my Scarp as the Trailstar is my no one with a Solomid to come as my other option.

    One point on ground sheets and wet gear. No issues there either. I do trail shoes and I do light clothing. Again all was well. Me and Phil Turner raised a few eyebrows with the clothing we took. Again warm and dry all the way. I got a fleece on the way as It was on sale and good kit. So I got it but would have been fine without it.

    On pack weight. It is not the goal to have the lightest pack. The goal is the lightest kit needed for the trip you are going to do that meets your needs and functions as you want it to. I reckon you got it spot on. As for the monday storm. I went for a walk. Bit breezy I must admit.

  3. Hi Gordon,
    I enjoyed reading your account of the 2010 crossing, but I must admit that I was glad i wasn't there. Each night when the BBC Scotland weather forecast came on, my slight feelings of "wished I had entered" were quickly washed away. I can appreciate that those who did participate will have tales to tell for years to come.
    I also liked your piece on the Lightweight Backpacking red herring. Funnily enough, my base weight has increased slightly over the last few years, gradually adjusting to an acceptable comfort/weight balance.
    But there is absolutely no reason why an experienced hill goer using something like a Trailstar or other tarp would be any less safe than a similarly experienced hill goer using heavier gear. As long as the experience is gained on the hill and not on an internet forum or from a book, then lightweight gear should not be a safety issue.
    Some people swear by tarps, others by tunnel tents, others by a Brand A or by a Brand B, etc, etc, but if their choices work for them, then who is to say they are wrong? We are all individuals after all.
    I must say that I wasn't surprised that you didn't take the Classic 32 on the Challenge. I am happy to use mine for weekenders, but for longer trips, I prefer more room. But I have no doubts that 32L will be plenty of room for some Challengers.
    I won't be doing much hillwalking until the colder weather kicks in again, but maybe we will bump into one another again up Glen Affric way.

  4. The old "safety" chestnut keeps coming up, doesn't it? It's mostly cobblers, but, as in most scare stories, there is a grain of truth.

    You arrived at your present set of gear by "an evolutionary process" - i.e by experience and informed advice. More and more frequently I meet newcomers to outdoors pursuits who are not themselves neccessarily in the first flush of youth, but , being older and affluent are at least fairly flush.

    And therein lies the problem.

    The inexperienced gear obsessive, whose knowledge is culled from magazines and the internet. He (or she) has the latest, the sexiest gadgets, stoves, shelters etc etc, and hardly a clue as to what to do with any of it when things get nasty. Mind you, they can quote you every last gramme!

    It'll get worse before it gets better.

    Education these days is so risk averse that even DOE groups seem to have minders hovering nearby, ready to intervene.

  5. For me lightening my pack has been a slow evolutionary process. I am taking my first steps into using a single skin shelter with the trailstar, should be with me by the end of August. Look forward to seeing how I get on with it. At the end of the day its taking the appropriate kit for the trip and knowing how to use it. I still do like a good solid tent though.......

  6. Gordon, I have just come across your blog via James Boulter. I like your most recent post. Have come a long way since synthetic bags and 2 kg tents. I keeping trying to reduce my weight like my 2 skin 1 kg tent and have not gone for the Trailstar yet. A matter of preference, but UL is not dangerous - certainly less dangerous to your back and knees !! I have put your blog on my blog roll and added your blog into my Google Reader so I can read further posts by you.

  7. ............. I'm currently reading Hamish's Mountain Walk. He too had no sleep on a stormy night's camp, so there was nothing new about my sleepless night.

    There is also nothing new about lightweight backpacking. In the 60's and 70's lightweight gear was being used. It's just a matter of degree, technology and design.

    The Trailstar is getting quite a reputation in the UK. Even die hard tentists have been converted! It is the best shelter I've ever had.

    My Blogging started by "accident" and Phil converted that on to Doodlecat. But, I enjoy being a part of the outdoor Blogging community. And it is good to come across Blogs that I had not noticed before. The wealth of knowledge and experience that's around is amazing.

    My Granddaughter is about to do her DOE, so I will get to hear how the current line is with safety in the hills for DOE participants.

    I've seen many DOE groups struggling around with massive packs ..... they are constrained by what they can cobble together in the way of gear. My knees could not take the loads that they have to carry.

    My comfort will be put to the test at the end of this month when I go to Scotland. It can be too warm and I've yet to find an ultralight flamethrower to deal with the flying vampires.
    But, I'll struggle through........

  8. hi gordon,i came to see your trailstar in langdale but now have my own :)

  9. Hi Peter,
    Welcome to the Trailstar fraternity! I noticed on the OM forum that you got two Trailstars, one in good time for the Cumbrian Way.

    I hope you enjoy the shelter and the trip.