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Every month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view. This month he has chosen to give you ten ideas of what to bring on a hiking trip. Especially with mountain trips in mind, but also useful to those that plan to walk outside the mountains, these items to pack on your walking holiday can certainly help you enjoy your holiday in the European outdoors even more.
Bookmark this list of 10 things to pack on your alpine walking holiday with Sherpa Expeditions and keep it handy for your next holiday in Europe.
Wear several layers of thin clothing such as a thin merino top under a shirt and then a thin or thick fleece that can be taken off to adapt to the ambient temperature. Also, have a waterproof coat ready and waiting. Quite a nice item to have if you are prone to feeling the cold, is a down 'gillet' which is like a puff jacket without the arms. These can be packed away easily and can be brought out if you have gotten very cold.
Take comfortable broken in, but not broken-down hiking boots with some cushioning either in the insole, outsole or both! Trail or fell runners maybe used to tackling alpine paths in trail shoes but for travellers on our trips, trainers or running shoes do not give enough support for the rocky, uneven terrain. Hiking boots come in different categories of stiffness (based on the difficulty of the terrain for which the shoes are designed). On particularly stony trails, a pair of short gaiters called ankle gaiters, can be fitted to stop your boots filling up with stones.
>> Bonus: Tips on cleaning your boots
Wear a hat to protect your face from the sun. Some have flaps to protect your ears and neck as well. The best hats are the ones that not only dry fast but retain their shape once you have stuffed them in your bag. Tilley hats for example are expensive, but they are very good.
Take along suitable sunglasses: they should be wrap-round style and rated Category 3. For those of you that plan to go particularly high or into snow then 'Category 4' and, preferably, a pair with side protection is recommended.
Always remember to bring on your active European holiday a rainproof top and trousers. Rain showers are quite regular in the Alps and you do not want to be caught out in the wet. It is amazing how many people return or replace Goretex and other 'breathable' garments because they think that they no longer breathe. It is usually the case however that the garment is fine, but the fabric works on a humidity gradient and sweat will always build up in conditions where you work yourself hard, or there is a high level of ambient humidity. However, make sure that you check the taped seams are in place and wash the piece regularly.
Wear thick socks, preferably loop stitched and seamless ones. This can prevent your feet from getting blisters and adds cushioning to your walk. Tip of the expert: carry a spare pair on you.
Detailed Paper Map & Compass
GPS is generally accurate and reliable, however when it goes wrong it is great to have the back-up of a real map and compass. Although high end GPS and some phones have good mapping features, it is often difficult to view the LCDs in bright sunlight and also to see 'the big picture'. Don't forget a waterproof map case (e.g. Ortlieb) to protect the maps that we prepare for you on your walks and cycling days.
Bring for example a whistle to warn people in the area if you are in trouble. The emergency signal to use if you need help is 6 signals per minute followed by a one-minute break. You should repeat this until help arrives or until you get an answer of 3 signals per minute followed by a one-minute break. In case you don't have a whistle, you can use a torch (flashlight).
Put all these items in a comfortable day pack, there are many makes at so many different prices. You will be generally better off having a bag that is a bit bigger than all that you put into it, to avoid crushing items. So if you know that your 30 litre pack is crammed full, get a 45 or 50 litre one. Bags with a chest harness as well as waist harness give better stability while you are walking or moving downhill. If you like your photography and are used to carrying your camera, then you should have enough room to stow it during bad weather.
Very few makes of rucksack are waterproof and during a big shower some water can penetrate even if you have a raincover. So, a bag for delicate items such as First Aid Kit, camera, passport etc, are really useful.
- First aid kit, including a rescue or Bivouac bag or blanket, in case you have to stop in an emergency.
- Mobile phone with important phone numbers at hand, even though alpine areas may have no mobile coverage, there may be others near you with satellite phones.
- Trekking poles are convenient for both descending and ascending as well they are indispensable on difficult terrain. Poles can be used to preload your weight as you descend and save pressure on the knees. It is likely in the Alps that you will be crossing path sections with scree or even snow patches.
- Sufficient amount of food and drinks: a water bottle with at least 1-liter capacity, normally there are plenty of places to fill up with in the mountains to avoid dehydration. Also bring with you some spare food such as energy bars, nuts, dried fruit etc.
- If you wear shorts, don’t forget to also pack a lightweight pair of long trousers to protect against the sun, cold and insects. Trousers are also useful when walking through thicker vegetation.
Every month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view. This month he has chosen to give you eight very useful travel photography tips. No matter what type of camera you use on your hike or bike ride, these beginner’s tips may help improve the tangible memories of your active Europe holiday.
People these days live through their cameras, mainly for gleaning memories and showing off to friends and families on Facebook or Instagram. However, sometimes the habit of taking a picture makes people forget to actually look at or see much of the subject matter. Nowadays even basic mobile phones have quite good cameras and only the keen photographers would carry with them a big single lens reflex (SLR) camera. In the middle ground, there are plenty of people using compact cameras. Whatever your preference is to travel with, here are a few travel photography tips that will most likely help you take even better travel photos.
1. Change Your Angle
Most people take the same shot from virtually the same angle as everybody else! Try something different, get low, lie on the ground and look up, get high in a building and look down, take the picture at a rakish angle. Once you have your standard shot try something new. Change your perspective, add blur. Change aperture for depth of field effects.
2. Add Some Effect
With SLRs and compact cameras a selection of graduated filters make interesting and easy effects: accentuating colours, darkening clouds etc. Some mobile phone cameras have effect changes that you can do after you have taken the main picture, for example increasing colour saturation, or turning pictures into paintings. Sometimes it is a bit gimmicky but other times these effects can be very effective. You may have noticed how a lot of travel photos these days look, well a bit too bright, a bit too unworldly: places are marketed with really clean looking shots which are not really 'how it looks'. Some extra advice, all JPEG type pictures can be transformed by degrees in Photoshop or Lightroom type software and it all depends upon what you want to achieve and how long you wish to spend doing it.
3. Filter & Zoom
With single lens reflex cameras, we advise to always carry a polarizing filter with you for those blue days of summer where you can get dramatic cloud or water effects. Just don't leave it on all the time. If you have a zoom lens, try a 'Vari zoom' technique, change to a 1:30 shutter speed, and try to zoom in or out with the lens in an even rate. This travel photography tip will help you get an effect of increasing blur towards the edges and more clarity in the middle, like the subject was rushing towards you. Other simple tips include, breathing lightly on the lens and you have a mist or fog effect that gradually clears as you look through the viewfinder.
4. The Golden Hours
Especially for outdoor photographers, weather conditions play an important role. In good weather, depending upon latitude and time of year, there is always that period when the golden light of dusk or dawn creates beautiful natural saturated colours. If you are staying overnight at a place, try to get up early, there will hardly be anyone about and you will be able to see the sites, although not always allowed to enter them, virtually on your own.
5. Tripods at Night
Before and beyond the Golden Hour, try night shots! If we are talking about how to take good travel photos, tiny but sturdy tripods can be really worthwhile packing to capture sharp night shots. Usually shots of illuminated monuments or cityscapes are usually better at dusk or dawn, just as the lights are going on or off, and before it is too dark altogether. There are tripods available even for mobile phones and of course for SLR and compact cameras.
Set your camera for the best resolution possible, memory space is comparatively cheap these days and there is nothing worse than having a superb shot and realizing that you cannot blow it up at all, unless the effect that you want to portray is that of Lego bricks!
7. A Clean Lens
John’s seventh travel photography tip is to keep things clean: carry a lens-cloth and keep your lenses clean. Mobile phone lenses often acquire a film of grime very quickly. SLRs have lens caps so that is easier, compacts often have retracting lenses that can suck dust into them if you are not too careful. Also, the sensor should be kept clean: on SLRs and some compact cameras, hair and dust can get trapped over the image sensor. This means they will appear in virtually every photograph you take in some form. Get your sensor carefully cleaned!
8. The Obvious!
Perhaps an obvious tip, not just for outdoor photographers, but useful at any moment really. How many times are you taking photographs and then at the critical time your battery fails or you run out of memory space? Carry a spare battery, a wireless phone or camera charger and memory card at all times.
Do you like the Gear Matters blog articles written by our resident guide John Millen? There are many more topics besides these outdoor photography tips. Browse to the full overview to find articles for example about how to clean your walking boots, the best water bottles in order to reduce plastic use, and what overshoes to choose to keep your feet dry.
Every month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view. This month he looks at choosing the best cycling sunglasses and what difference a decent pair of eyewear can make to walkers and cyclists alike.
My early days of cycling and mountain walking led me very quickly to realise the value of wearing sunglasses. Cycling fast, I had various run-ins with bees and flies with a combined impact speed probably around 45mph! Then there have been those times on cycling holidays when a series of tiny fly flew into my eyes and started to dissolve leaving me to have to emergency-stop and flush the critter out before I swerved to the wrong side of the road. My early days on walking holidays in the mountains with inadequate sun protection resulted in squinty, tired and gritty feeling eyes. Soon I was investing in decent cycling sunglasses!
One should note at this stage that when we talk of sunglasses, very few brands these days are actually made of glass. Ray Ban, Persol and Vuarnet, for example still make lovely sunglasses from glass, but these may not be always so good for sporting activities; being heavier on the nose bridge than plastics. There is also the slight worry that a glass lens could break or chip in sport and get into the eyes although this is highly unlikely. Most sports sunglasses are a type of plastic such as silicon or Perspex. Generally speaking these are very strong materials, although not necessarily very resistant to scratching. Oakley were one of the companies that pioneered this manufacture and once boasted ‘bullet proof technology lenses at 10 metres’, their advertisement showing the pock marking on their lenses after a shotgun blast impact, rather than a sniper rifle! Oakley make well-loved sports glasses but may not perform or last as well as models made by manufacturers such as Julbo, Enduro, Tifosi and the likes, for a third of the price. So much for bullet proof protection, my beloved Oakleys eventually fell apart!
Nevertheless, it is probably wise not to buy really cheap shades, slight optical imperfections can in the short-term cause headaches and may do lasting damage in the long-term. Also, importantly the lenses should be shown to block harmful UVA and UVB blue light as this has proven to cause cataracts and retinal problems.
You don’t have to buy an expensive pair of glasses for cycling or hiking, as long as perhaps they are from a reliable make, have UV protection and are manufactured for the category of light that you are going to expose yourself to. Reasonable specification glasses will normally be marked on the frames or box with ‘Category’ (or CAT) 0 to 4: indicating the Visible Light Transmission (VLT) of the lenses. So, Category 0 is like a safety glass, or a clear cycling glass for grey weather and have a VLT of 80-100% whereas a CAT 3 pair have a VLT of 8-17%, which is fine for most walkers or cyclists. CAT 4 glasses are designed for long periods on snow and ice or in bright conditions such as a beach and have a VLT at 3-8%. CAT 4 sunglasses are provided by manufacturers such as Julbo and Vuarnet – both with side pieces or wrap rounds and the latter still using some optically correct glass lenses.
Especially for cyclists it is worth considering a pair of polarised sunglasses. Ordinary tinted sunglass lenses only cut down on ambient light that reaches the eye, or VLT. However by their very nature, they cannot block glare. Only polarised lenses can block glare and not having that option could be dangerous if you are riding your bike.
Tests show that the most protective sunglasses are wrap rounds that protect the eyes from incidental ambient light entering from the side. The wrap round can either be a continuation of the lens, or plastic frame or more traditionally, leather side pieces. Quite a number of cycling shades now have some cut-outs of lens material between the frames and the lens, although this may slightly increase incidental light. The real advantage of this for cycling is that it ventilates and defogs the glasses when you are cycling or running which is really useful. Examples include the expensive Oakley Jawbreaker and the much cheaper Endura Mullet.
There is a fashion at the moment for lenses to have a tint that is as reflective as a shaving mirror. However, even on expensive glasses, mirrored tints can easily scratch and even wear off. A lot of manufacturers have their own style of tint, but fundamentally the most common lens colours are brown, then green, then grey. This is because these lenses are 'colour neutral'- they cut down on overall brightness without distorting colours thereby accentuating relief. Quite a few cycling sunglasses have a range of interchangeable lenses with different tints that can be used in different riding conditions. Oakley and Rudy Project do this at the top end and Endura, Maddison, DHB, Tifosi and others do so at the more economical end. Of course it can be a bit fiddly changing lenses, so for some people photo-chromatic lenses maybe a way forward as they darken or lighten depending upon light intensity (for instance: Julbo Aero bike glasses).
No matter how good the lenses are, it won’t help if the frames let you down - they are after all, the support for the structure. Make sure that when you try the glasses that they fit well and you don’t have to keep sliding them up the bridge of your nose like Agnes does with her glasses in Mrs Brown’s Boys. A lot of the sporting shades do have rubberised ear and nose pieces which make them more secure and stop them from bouncing around when you are doing sports. Frames bend out and fatigue; if you keep them on the top of your head when you are not using them, they will tend to overstretch and then they never fit snuggly anymore. Instead, keep them in a case clipped to your rucksack if walking and if you are not using them while cycling, do what the cycle pros do, and insert them upside down- sliding the arms through the helmet ventilation slots. Watch out also for sunglasses with ‘crystal’ frames (clear transparent plastic) as clear frame can cause light refraction at certain angles around the lens creating dazzle in your eyes.
The hinges of sunglasses will normally break under any kind of stress. Metal frames are more durable than plastic ones and some have a spring induction dampener to prevent overstraining.
Cleaning & Caring of Your Sunglasses
Sunglasses need cleaning regularly especially after cycling or walking when they may be covered in sweat-salt, sun cream, sand particles or even the tiny flies I mentioned earlier. Wash them in warm soapy water, then rinse off. Use the manufacturer’s microfibre wipe for gentle wiping off smears and breathe on the lenses and wipe for polishing. Wash the microfibre wipe regularly. Any screws keep tight, but don’t over tighten.
The more expensive glasses can be made to a prescription order at some expense. Of course, some manufacturers still produce clip-on sun lenses to go onto the frame of your standard glasses.
Some More Thoughts
Many people, such as myself, normally carry two pairs of sunglasses, just in case one pair gets sat on, gets blown off my face or has a lens or frame failure. However, I have decided not to have such an expensive pair for outdoor activities having wiped out a few pairs over the years. I just leave a nice pair of glass-lens & folding Ray Bans in my main bag for après action, chilling and sightseeing use. Sometimes walking around with cycling glasses on, just makes you look too much like a space cadet!
Just to point out that the only sunglasses that lasted me more than 10 years have been a solid pair of Ray Ban Wayfarers, with large metal hinges, and a pair of Rudy Project cycling and running glasses. There are also my beloved heavy duty Vuarnet Alpine glasses that have been with me for 15 years and I just can’t quite get rid of, even though I maybe should..!
For more of John’s Gear Matters blog articles on topics like knives & multitools, water bottles, gaiters and much more, have a look at the complete Gear Matters blog articles overview.
If you have any questions on what gear you should bring on your walking or cycling holiday, please do get in touch with John and the rest of the Sherpa team. We are happy to assist you with specific questions.
Every month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view. This month he looks at hiking gaiters and cycling overshoes to keep your feet dry and warm when on your trip.
One particularly wet day crossing the Pennines on the Coast to Coast with Sherpa Expeditions a few years ago was an extreme case in the realisation of how important gaiters can be. There is a section called White Mossy Moor, which, in normal conditions, is a saturated peaty morass. I was wearing Scarpa Yeti gaiters which came up to the knee and had a rubber rand which sealed over the boot. I didn’t get wet feet at all and they were perfect for this walk. This contrasted with the fortunes of a lady in the group who insisted on wearing low cut boots for the wetter sections; they got sucked off by the mud and she was left hopping around in her socks! We had to dig a trench around the boot to liberate it from the bog.
Hiking gaiters have come and gone in different styles and fashions over the years. They originated from the military Puttees, which were woollen or proofed canvas bands wrapped around the top of boot and leg in spirals to stop water, dust and stones entering the boot.
Today, the simplest and cheapest gaiters (such as the Regatta Caymen pictured above) are a tube of canvas or nylon that folds around the top of the boot and either up to the knee, to the mid-calf or just to the top of the ankle (in the case of the ankle gaiters). The two edges of the fabric are usually connected via a zip or Velcro, and there is normally a tie at the top to prevent the gaiter sinking down the leg and sagging around the ankle. Hiking gaiters usually have a hook which you pull to extend the (elasticated) bottom tongue of fabric over the top of the boot which connects to the boot lacing. There is normally also a strap which goes under the sole to help prevent the gaiter riding upwards.
More expensive gaiters such as the Berghaus Yeti (pictured below) have become elaborated with for example Goretex type fabrics to make them more comfortable or rubber rands, for a better waterproof seal and with insulation for high altitude walking.
Some trail runners now use light ankle gaiters to stop stones jump up your ankles such as the Montane Via-Sock It (pictured above).
If anything apart from for high altitude mountaineering, gaiters have gone slightly out of fashion with the range of more lightweight, sporty footwear most people are walking in these days. These are quick to take off and empty out, are freely draining, or have breathable fabrics.
Waterproof trousers have also got better so in the rain, people instead just wear these over the boot. Hiking gaiters can be a bother to put on and zips and Velcros don’t work too well when they are soiled. Besides, under-straps and rands wear out fairly quickly and gaiters are easily snagged by crampon points. However, they will help save you from frost bite in snowy conditions.
For cyclists, the equivalent to a hiking gaiter is an over shoe and these really do aid comfort by reducing the incidence of wet and cold numb feet. They are recommended for touring cyclists as much as for sporting riders as a great aid to all day comfort in poor weather. Overshoes can vary in price depending on the materials used: the cheapest tend to be neoprene and the more expensive elasticated Goretex-type fabrics.
Neoprene overshoes, such as the Seal Skinz (pictured below) are fine but can result in warm sweaty feet in some conditions. This however is better than cold frozen ones.
If you want a minimalist approach to keep your toes warm, there are toe covers to wear over your shoes. These can easily be stowed in your cycling jersey pocket and can be put on quickly when you’re in need to keep toes toasty. An example for this can be the Carnac Toe Cover (pictured above).
It is important to have a good fit for your over shoe. If they are too tight, they are too hard to get on. If they are too loose, the wind can conspire to pull them off or they start to rub annoyingly against cranks or even get snagged in your bike chain.
Overshoes can never be really fully water tight as rain or splash water would potentially run down the cyclist’s leg. Also, the overshoe leaves exposed the underside of the cycle shoe so that cleats can be used in the normal way.
Read more Gear Matters blog articles >>
(Winter) walking in Europe may bring in the occasional rain shower and also when on a cycling holiday in Europe, you may encounter some wet weather. No longer does this lead to your maps and documentation getting soaked or disintegrated. There is a new generation of waterproof map cases and in this post John brings you tips & advice.
It’s not long ago that most people carried just a clear polythene bag to protect their maps and documents from bad weather. Many suffered the fate of their expensive maps dissolving into a blob of papier-mâché; rain water driven by the wind having infiltrated through the opening and small holes in the bag that had not even been noticed. There were some early 'proper map cases,' which claimed to be water resistant. They were essentially a pouch having a fabric back, clear plastic front and a Velcro closure. However, in the rain the water seeped through the hairy Velcro to turn the map once again to papier-mâché, an insidious rising damp. The map cases were normally really tight and if you had to quickly put the map in it, say on the onset of a rain shower, it was easy to tear the seams of the case. The next generation barely fared better: this had a double seal closure actually in the plastic rather like a sandwich bag and would often pop open. Soon the plastic cracked along the seam around the closure rendering in useless.
The last 25 years however, there has been a real breakthrough with plastic design with the manufacture of Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). This is a class of polyurethane plastics with many properties including elasticity, transparency, and resistance to oil, grease and scratches. The resulting map case is truly waterproof - if the closure is properly fixed, and highly durable. It is made from an uncrackable slightly stretchy plastic membrane with welded seams that take a lot of stress. You need to look no further than the Ortlieb range of waterproof map cases, cycling map cases and document wallets for your active holiday.
To seal, you need to make sure the documents are totally in the pouch; then squeeze the case to purge as much air as possible from it; then tightly roll the end and engage the male and female Velcro tabs. Make sure the corners are rolled properly. The bag should now be totally waterproof and you are ready for your walking or cycling holiday.
These present-day waterproof map cases are very good as well for carrying things like tablets and important documentation that could otherwise get wet in your rucksack.
Tips for using waterproof map cases
Fold to fit
Firstly, fold your map as best you can to fit into the waterproof map case. It is usually best to buy a larger map case than the document and then fold the case around the map area. If using a large map like a UK Ordnance Survey, you may want to prise off the cardboard cover so that you can fold it better. Try to fold the map along existing fold-creases if possible. It helps to make visible all the area that you are travelling through on the day, sometimes you can fold the map in a way that you can use it on both sides. Obviously with scales such as 1:25,000 this is hard to do as you can easily walk off your map. For cycling it is generally better to use 1:50,000- 1:100,000 scale maps. The thing you have to try to avoid as much as possible is having to remove the map to refold it which is hard to do in windy conditions and of course you will have to try to avoid doing this in the rain. If you have access to a good photocopier, why not make A4 or A3 panel copies from the map of the route you are taking? They will be the correct size for fitting into the map case neatly and you can always carry the original map in your rucksack as a backup or if you want to see the 'bigger picture.'
Avoid the 'Flap-Case' scenario
Managing your map case is very important. Many beginner walkers can be seen striding across the hills with their map cases flailing about them in the wind, hitting them in the face and threatening to strangle and entangle them. With an ‘Ortlieb’ type case this is quite easy to rectify; either roll or fold the case and map into a smaller area which thus becomes more wind resistant. You could use large elastic bands to keep the map compact. It is quicker and easier navigating working on a smaller area of map, using your finger or thumb to press on and trace the route as you go, so you can quickly resume navigation from feature to feature. At intervals unfold the case to check on-going progress or features to come. If you are cycling, you don't necessarily have to have a purpose built handlebar mount to put your map on, although using it may be easier. Some people like to keep their handlebars uncluttered as much as possible. You can wind a map case around the top tube of the bike frame, hold with bungees and just move it as necessary.
Negative issues of waterproof map cases
Very few! After 8 years of use, though the plastic was still in very good condition, the Velcro seals on my Ortlieb map case eventually separated from the plastic! but these can be refixed using an appropriate bonding glue. Obviously, you need to keep Velcro closures clean. The plastic also yellowed slightly. I bought a second A3-sized Ortlieb, now 4 years old, no issues as yet. I have also bought an A3 map case made by Silva. It is similar to the Ortlieb, but has sandwich bag type seal which is not as strong as a Velcro and roll seal. It can pop open if the air is not purged properly from the case and care is needed to make sure that the map does not overlap with the seal.
The other option: Waterproof maps
So, why not cut out the map case altogether and just use water proof maps? This option is fine, although there are comparatively few maps that are waterproof. Harveys Maps are mostly waterproof: they are a print-coating on a plastic sheet backing. The O.S went down the route of map lamination with their folded series. The drawbacks? After heavy rain the coatings on Harveys maps can wear or scratch off the map easier. The Laminated OS ‘Active’ maps are plastic coated weatherproof versions of paper maps, they are more durable and can still be folded. However, over time the plastic will crack and let in water, they also tend to be a little bit heavy.
Looking for more information or have any questions on waterproof map cases? You can contact John and the other Sherpa Expeditions staffers via our website, email or phone. Find the correct contact details here.
Some waterproof map case producers
- Ortlieb A whole variety of map cases and 'safes' are made for ipads and mobile phones etc.
- Silva the M30 from Silva is a durable and functional map case which protects your map whilst allowing you to navigate even in heavy rain. Its fully transparent design allows you to view your map from both sides of the case while the comfortable enclosed neck strap provides a secure and safe way of keeping your map on your person and ready for action.
- Aquapac see the Stormproof and Waterproof Kaituna Map Case
- Sea to Summit Large Map Case Made from TPU, totally welded construction and a super-strong Ziploc closure to provide fully waterproof and dust-proof performance. Designed with a detachable neck strap and corner anchor points for versatility.
Different countries in Europe are famed for their own style of the camping knife or pocket tool and in this month’s Gear Matters blog article, John takes you on a tour to learn about the various types of blades, potential usage of pocket knives on a cycling or walking trip, EU law, and maintenance.
Some people don't use them, others can't live without them on a walking or trekking holiday. They may be left alone in their pouches for the whole trip or maybe used several times in a single day. A camping knife or pocket tool is available in all sorts of shapes and sizes. With Christmas fast approaching, a new knife or multi-tool could make for a beautiful compact gift. Often you can even have them inscribed for the Ray Mears, Bear Grylls or Mykel Hawke in your life.
Most of us get attached to our knives over time, but the stories of people leaving their forgotten prized piece of cutlery in their hand luggage when taking a flight and losing it going through security are legion. For me especially on camping trips, a good knife or multitool combo is more or less essential.
Knives with a Tang
A good quality knife should have a sharpened edge on one side and be made of high carbon or stainless steel. I think it is best to avoid ceramics, they can shatter and break easily. The finest forged knives (e.g. from Norway or Sweden) have a cutting edge of differing hardened steel which is sandwiched in a layer of softer steel. A good outdoor or bush knife will have a 'tang' (the handle end) that extends into the end of the handle and that can be heavy duty plastic, wood or even horn. This will then be attached via brass rivets which will resist oxidation. Knives like these are superb for cutting and wood carving; the handles offer good grip to be used quite safely for controlled cutting. The Swedish Fällkniven forest knife can even be used for splitting small pieces of wood in lieu of an axe and some have claimed that these are the best bush knives in the world. Similarly, Norwegian Helle knives are great for carving. These can be bought in Flam on Sherpa's Fjordland trip. The camping knives of this brand are great for bush-craft and they make an excellent range including a beautiful model with curly birch, leather and antler handles. Their blades come in different lengths, materials and thicknesses and are handmade.
Folding & Multitools
Then we have the category of folding knives and multitools. These are generally a sandwich of aluminium and steel plates. The main blades are always a bit of a compromise, as they will never be as strong as a full tanged knife. Swiss army knives are rightly very popular; being very compact and having some wonderful useful features. They are ubiquitously available on all of our walking holidays in Switzerland an in every town in various guises. They have been used in the Swiss military since 1897. I have personally possessed three Victorinox Swiss Champ knives in the past 35 years. Two, you've guessed it, lost going through the customs x-ray in hand baggage by accident. I have used every blade for all manner of things including clearing ice from cross country ski binding cleats, to removing ticks, making holes in leather belts, opening cans and bottles, and even filing down bike spoke ends. There is a tiny driver that tightens all those minute screws that people always lose from their glasses and take it or leave it, the standard toothpick! The main blades are 'Inox' steel and very good quality, the scissors are the best of any multitool that I have seen and the can opener works really well. The downside is that with most Swiss army knives (and there are some exceptions) the blades do not lock, so you have to be very careful during any cutting activity that the knife doesn't fold onto the fingers. Also the classic acrylic side panels of the handle engraved with the Swiss flag, can scratch easily, although they are surprisingly durable.
Then there are the multitools based upon pliers, the most famous ones being from manufacturers such as Leatherman and Gerber. These normally have a main plier with the auxiliary blades and tools folding neatly into the handles of the body. The better ones have mostly or all locking blades. These are great, but I have sometimes been a little disappointed with the quality of some models: flimsy knives, scissors with poor action and hard to use tin and bottle openers. The hinges can loosen over time and you may need to remember to take a specialised tool to tighten them.
Simple Folding Knives
Some people are very happy with a simple folding knife on their travels, such as the Victorinox 'Hunter' or even the more basic and popular French made 'Opinel.' These are great for cutting cheese and salami on picnics. The latter one has a nice wooden handle with a simple twist lock that kind of half locks the blade, so some care is needed. Recently, Opinel have jazzed up the camping knife with coloured handles including a built-in whistle and a main blade with an unusual spanner aperture for tightening sail shackle pins of all things!
Some walkers may like to carry a beautiful French handmade knife and on our Way of St James walking holiday in France, you will go very near to where the Laguiole knives are being manufactured. Several village shops in the region will sell this charming model and it makes a great memento of your trip.
Camping Knife Maintenance
All knives and multitools require periodical maintenance: wash and dry them thoroughly and use a light machine oil on hinges and smeared on blades, especially if you will store your knife for some time. Vaseline is also quite useful in this regard. Wooden handles, leather pouches or sleeves should also be waxed occasionally. Follow the manufacturer’s sharpening instructions; knives should be sharp and without burrs.
Knives & EU Law
Most countries in the EU have their own laws on knives. The UK, quite rightly, has enforced laws over carrying knives, although it is pretty vague. The basic rule is that 'you cannot carry a knife in public without good reason, unless it has a folding blade with a cutting edge 3 inches long or less.' If you have a long fixed bladed knife or a multitool with a locking mechanism on the blades (which just about covers all multitools sold from outdoor or tool shop), they 'are not classed as folding knives and are illegal to carry in public without good reason.'
The 'without good reason' part explains it all; it's about perceived intended use. For example, you can buy a 20-inch carving knife from a hardware shop (a public place) and walk with it back home through a high street or mall (another public place). It is unlikely that you will ever be inquisitioned. Although police can be arbitrary at times; it is a question of being sensible if you are on a walking, backpacking or cycling holiday. To make things simpler your camping knife should be sheathed and in your backpack not about your person.
For more advice on the gear to bring on a cycling or walking holiday, contact our team of travel experts.
For more in John’s series of Gear Matters blog posts and tips and advice for cycling and walking gear, see the full overview of outdoor gear articles from the past months.
Leaves are falling from the trees and bonfire nights, Halloween, country walks and hot soup remind us that the cold weather is approaching. Now is the time we start to think about winter clothing, whether or not we are intending to walk into the high mountains or stick to the lower trails along to the country pub.
A Step Back in Time
Thirty years ago, most of us outdoor types wore more simple fibre pile (polyester fibre-hair lined) jackets from Helly Hanson or Berghaus. The large duvet (puffa) jacket was very much the provenance of the mountaineer. Companies such as Mountain Equipment produced amazing down-filled duvets at the higher end with Gore-Tex shells which would keep you warm in Scottish, Alpine or Himalayan conditions. The level of insulation was determined by the quality and weight of the duck or goose down mix. Most of these were way too warm as soon as the temperatures became slightly bearable and all of these winter jackets commanded a high price tag, unless you opted for the Dacron (artificial fibre) filled alternatives which were heavy.
Some common points were that the fibre piles when soaked became a sponge and heavy and had to be carefully rung out. Duvet jackets once wet became like huge tea bags, lost their insulatory value and had to be left to dry and re-lofted.
Down the Line
All these years down the line, technology has meant these things have changed at least to some degree! Fibre pile has largely disappeared being replaced by compact fleece jackets often with stretchy 'Polar tech' fabric, some with hoods, extended thumb loop sleeves and hand warmer pockets. Fleeces are ubiquitous, competitively priced and are usually easy to compare in the shop just by putting on and testing what feels best. They come in many different thicknesses, all the main brands do them and the price is directly proportional to the brand name and the complexity of the product.
Duvet jackets are back in favour with loads of manufacturers offering different takes on design. You can decide whether to look like the ‘Michelin Man’ or maybe something a bit sleeker. We are concerned in this discussion about duvets from outdoor gear manufacturers rather than with those of fashion companies. The mountain duvets are generally lighter and have a better cut to allow movement than they ever used to.
Down vs Fleece Jacket
In making a decision about jackets, you should have a budget in mind and also know how you feel the cold. A duvet jacket can easily cost five times as much as a fleece and If you overheat easily, a duvet may not be for you in most cold conditions; a fleece might be a better option. Good quality duvets are rated by numbers which refer to the amount of down to the volume of the jacket and is quoted 500, 600, 800 etc. These jackets can be extremely compact and light and can be carried in a rucksack in addition to having a fleece if you want to invest in a possibly lifesaving piece of kit or perhaps something for the base camp on a high walking holiday. The Montane Featherlite jacket is very impressive in this category.
New developments to increase the efficiency of down jackets include the use of mixed linings as a compromise between weight price and the thermal range of a jacket such as in the Berghaus Asgard Jacket.
Some jackets now use 'Hydrophobic downs' that are meant to absorb less water, see the Mountain Equipment Dewline range or the Rab Microlight for example. Synthetic duvets have got a lot more compact than they were and of course keep you warmer when soaked than purely down jackets. Examples include the Rab Altus or Montane Prism.
Some things obviously have not changed: fleeces and duvets still succumb eventually to rainfall and will need to be worn under, or in some cases zipped into, good waterproof jackets. This can make duvets impossible to wear if you are doing anything active.
Duvets need quite a bit of care in order to keep them in good condition - don’t wash too regularly, use special down detergent and be careful to fluff out or re-loft after washing and drying so that all the down is not concentrated in a few places.
Also don't store them in their stuff sacs for prolonged periods as this can damage the fill.
For more advice on the gear to bring on a cycling or walking holiday, contact our team of travel experts.
For more in John’s series of Gear Matters blog posts and tips and advice for cycling and walking gear, see the full overview of blog articles from the past months.
With so many trail guides out there providing you with directions on your cycling or walking holiday, which of the walking guide books is best for you? John discusses three.
There is an old English joke: 'What's worse than a guide in your pocket?... A brownie in your underpants!' Let’s face it like this joke, some walking guide books are pretty terrible as it for example can be hard to follow the routes using the book rather than a map. One of the main issues of weakness in regards to interpretation, which is not always understood correctly is distance.
A typical sentence in a trail guide would be 'Turn left at the junction and then turn left at the thatched cottage.' When you are on this walk you turn left at the junction, but how far is it to the thatched cottage? From the description, you might expect it to be shortly after the left turn, but after 15 minutes of walking you still haven't found it, frustration sets in. Another 5 minutes and you do actually reach two thatched cottages, but there is no left turn, so you go on and there is a modern house with a tiled roof by the left turn which may have replaced a thatched cottage that in reality burnt down two years ago…
This example points to two possible flaws; the book was out of date and/or there is no estimation of timing or distance to the turn off. It is a hard thing for authors and publishers to get right, especially with a copy of a guidebook that looks new but is actually a reprint of a book which was written 15 years ago and has not been updated.
There are other details that can lead to confusion, especially if the book has been translated from another language. Typical in these cases, a direction could go something like 'pass by the river', but does this mean literally pass the river or cross it? A typical oddity in some translations done by French publishers into English is 'Follow the bifurcation' - literally the branch.
Different types of guidebooks suit different types of people and a lot also depends upon whether you can read maps and if the walking route described is waymarked or not. If the walk isn't waymarked, there will be much more obvious reliance on books and maps.
Today, I will talk about three types of cycling & walking guide books which are popular, while none of them will appeal to everyone.
National Trail Guides
For many years the National Trail guides have been the benchmark guidebook for the UK long distance trails. The guides are well written books which use detailed OS map panels in the text. The descriptions have masses of historical and anecdotal detail. They also have walking details, which go in a sequence of lettered nodal points that are printed on the maps. The trail guides assume you can read and follow the maps. Although there is hardly any information on shops, B&Bs, pubs and public transport, they are great walking guidebooks for negotiating the 'Nationals' in the UK.
Cicerone Guide Books
Cicerone guide books are the quintessential pocket walking guide books. They have a huge international range and the style of writing varies between authors and some have more detail than others. Their wide-ranging UK walking guides include some publications with supplementary OS map booklets covering the route which is really handy. On these guidebooks, there will be added lateral mapping detail. The books are well laden with photos and have a lot of historical detail as well as practical panels. Useful feature of the Cicerone books are that the information text is either coloured differently to the walking text, or italicized. Some of the publications have a durable plastic cover.
Finally, there is the newer kid on the block, the 'Trailblazer Guide' series. They take the novel approach of completely rearranging cycling and walking maps into a cartoon form that could be interpreted by most map illiterate people. You just follow panel to panel through the book, and timings between points are given on each panel and some GPS coordinates are given at critical junctions. There isn't so much verbal text describing the route, but each stage has an introduction and there are useful pages on things like public transport etc. Another strong point is the town mapping showing the location of some B&Bs, shops and pubs. There is enough historical information in panel form, although this might not be enough for some. They have taken a few ideas from well-known travel guide series by having listings of accommodations and where to eat in each town or village. The Trailblazer books are revised every couple of years and the new edition is clearly marked on the binding.
Some walkers do however find it hard to interpret some of the map panels and if somehow they walk off the panel they can easily get lost. However, but this is the same for other strip maps in guidebooks if auxiliary maps aren’t carried.
Art for Arts’ Sake
Now I come to mention it, if you want something that is less practical to use as a walking guide, but brilliant on artwork and idiosyncratic description, I have something for you. Go no further than viewing Alfred Wainwright's masterpieces which date from the 1950s and were first sold from Patterdale Post Office. If you do a UK walk such as The Pennine Way or The Coast to Coast, you should perhaps reward yourself at the end with one of these classic trail books.
A Waterproof Case
All these guide books have one universal flaw of course, in heavy rain they turn to paper mâché. My advice therefore is, take a waterproof map case like an 'Ortilab' large enough that you can have the guide book open within it as you go along if it rains. Even then you must be careful when you need to turn the pages!
In the future, walking guide books will of course be interactive and use a GPS and downloaded map package on a phone or tablet. These will then enable you to follow the trail while details of shops and B&Bs or places of interest will pop up, much as they do with some of the phone functions at the present. This is a great development, as long as you can see the screen even when the sun is bright and when you can keep your device powered up. But that’s another topic, which you can read up on in one of my previous postings on USB chargers.
Do you have questions on guidebooks for walkers and cyclists? Or do you like to know more about one of the walking routes John mentioned in his blog article, please do get in touch with our team of travel experts.
Every month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view. This month, he looks at the best portable chargers and some points to consider when choosing to buy a power bank for your next cycling or walking holiday.
The following scenario is a possibility on any tour, but more significant when you are walking in the mountains. There is an accident, you reach for your phone to make the emergency call, but, you forgot to recharge it last night and the one bar of power left is already flickering! However, help is at hand: you reach into your backpack and pull out a USB connected portable charger from which the device can feed off and perhaps recharge from fully. It could literally save the day.
I have been carrying one of these chargers on my walking holidays for some time now and had to use it to recharge my phone and camera, especially in remote destinations where there was no power supply.
Size & Capacity
Most portable battery chargers either are lipstick sized or a similar size to a mobile phone containing a lithium battery. Specifications of course vary, but they nearly all have USB couplings to power any kind of device that can be USB recharged. The size of the power bank will of course effect the weight, but also how many times you can do a full recharge. Measured in milliampere hours (mAh), the number of times a unit can recharge your phone or camera depends on its capacity and the capacity of the device itself. In order for your device to get at least one full charge from the charger, make sure the phone’s capacity is no more than 70 percent of the charger’s capacity. Another important consideration is the portable charger's power output. The higher the better, as it means it has the potential for powering up a device more speedily.
Hardware at Low Charges
Nearly all the portable phone chargers are very economically priced. On the small side, but beautifully light at less than 100g, are the little Barrel rechargers for example by Belkin or Anker. They have capacities of around 3000 mAh - enough to recharge a smartphone once or twice. At the other extreme, weighing five times as much, is the Zendure A8 Pro. This one has a capacity of 25,600 mAh and has four USB slots so you can really go to town recharging basically anything. In between these options, you can look at popular and cheap models from places such as Amazon, such as the AmazonBasics Portable External Battery Charger of which you can get models with different power ranges from 2,000 mAh to 16,100 mAh.
Before you head for the hills and set off on your walking holiday with your portable charger, let me supply you with a couple of obvious suggestions:
- make sure that the charger is itself fully charged (this can take hours depending on the capacity) and
- take the correct USB coupling cables for your devices before you leave.
For more advice on the gear to bring on a cycling or walking holiday, contact our team of travel experts.
For more in John’s series of Gear Matters blog posts and tips and advice for cycling and walking gear, see the full overview of blog articles from the past months.
Every month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view. In this post, he takes a closer look at compact binoculars. Get the basics of binos, learn about testing, find out about the difference between Porro and roof prism and much more.
The whole walking experience can be enhanced by bringing with you a decent pair of compact binoculars. Maybe you are walking and you catch a bird flitting about and you would like to identify it; maybe there are two paths some distance ahead and you want to check which is your route; and is that a bull or a horse running across the field to greet you? Nowadays, the best compact binoculars are light and hardly get in the way. You could bring bigger ones on your trip, but they are heavier and if you just carry them in your rucksack, you will never use them! So here we just concentrate on some of the smaller models.
Then comes the question of how to choose binoculars. There is a whole range from ‘el cheapo’ ones with plastic lenses, ones with dodgy hinges that break after a few views, all the way up to compacts with titanium chassis and beautiful optics. From personal experience, I would always aim for a mid-range pair, but it depends on how you want to use them.
Let me first focus on the basics. Binoculars are often referred to by two numbers separated by an "x". For example: 8x25 or 10x42 or 10x50. The first number is the power, or magnification, of the binocular. With a 10x42 model, the object being viewed appears to be ten times closer than you would see it with the unaided eye. The second number is the diameter of the objective or front lens measured in millimetres. The larger the objective lens, the more light enters the binocular and the brighter your image appears. The utility of more expensive pairs such as Leicas, Opticrons or Swarovski are increased because of the quality of their lenses and prisms which allow the binocular to be used in low light situations, observing that owl floating along at dusk for example.
Not all compacts are created equal and there is a difference between ‘Porro prism’ and ‘roof prism’ compact binoculars. Many of the cheaper options are built using 'Porro prisms', in this case the lens and the eyepieces are unaligned. This prism design means that the compacts will be less compact when folded than the roof prism varieties. But the quality can be very good.
A Closer Look
Over to testing and choosing the best compact binoculars for you. Ultimately you have to make a choice in relation to the cost, but if you have a chance to test your binoculars, reject any models whose hinges don’t offer much resistance when you widen them etc. Reject models with extreme chromatic aberration, this is when things you look at may be miscoloured especially along edges. Distortion is another factor, binoculars are sharper in the middle rather than at the edge. The better models of lightweight binoculars have better edge to edge focusing. Reject any that have misaligned barrels – the image is not smooth, for example if you look at a telegraph wire, it is slightly lower from left to the right barrel. It is said that the ultimate test for your binoculars is to take them outside at night and look at a bright star (not the sun!). Then after you have the star centred and brought the binoculars in focus, the star should be a sharp near-point-like image, without any irregular spikes. It should remain a round disk.
Focus on Binocular Brands
Resolving the brands may be useful as well. If you just want a cheap pair then that is fine, but a little bit of investment goes a long way in terms of optics and better hinges. Bushnell makes a very good range of affordable compact binoculars, some claiming to be waterproof such as their H2O models. Have a look at the PowerView 10x42 or NatureView 10x42 models. Pentax, Nikon and Hawke all do varying compact binoculars at this level. A bit higher up the scale look at the Opticron Discovery WP PC 10x50 roof prism binoculars, an exceptional optical quality in an ultra-compact and waterproof design. The Discovery WP PC series are among the smallest waterproof roof prism binoculars available.
Now on to resolving different types of compact binoculars. Canon have gone down a different route with their models using image stabilisation. Their 8x25 model is the smallest in this range. These so called IS binoculars are larger and heavier than other, non-IS binoculars of a similar performance. Although the dimensions of these binoculars aren’t vastly larger in comparison with other Porro prism models (roof prisms are smaller and more compact by design), the weight is more of an issue. The Canon’s are about around 200g heavier than many of their 8x25, however you get a tripod socket, and they are easier for comfortable viewing due to the stabilisation.
A Case for Binoculars
Finally, it makes sense to have your small binoculars in a little pouch that either attaches to your rucksack belt or clips on to a handy strap from where you can access your them very quickly. Bear in mind that if your compact binoculars are not waterproof your pouch should at least be highly water resistant.
If you like more information on choosing the best compact binoculars for you, contact John and our team of travel experts by phone or email.
Interested in learning more about your walking or cycling gear? There is a whole range of Gear Matters blog articles that range from advice on walking poles, water bottles, how to clean hiking boots, and much more. Find them all under the Gear category.