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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 looks at hiking boots: the development of walking shoes, different types of hiking boots and some tips on how to clean your walking boots.
There was a time when it was reckoned a good pair of hiking boots cost a month’s income. These days, modern developments have put a stop to that, but it goes to show how valuable mountain footwear should be regarded. It’s important to cover our feet from the worst of the elements and from environmental impediments that would otherwise prevent us from going on a nice hike.
Once, Hiking Boots Were All Leather..
Once, hiking boots were all leather, stiff, and had little tricorns of metal banged into them. Since the 1950s the Vibram sole has revolutionised the production of hiking shoes and the company still probably make the best sole units. The real revolution has been the variety of materials now used for walking boots and the different shapes, colours, levels of stiffness and cushioning. Horses for courses...
Choose Your Walking Gear Wisely
So what boots you wear depends upon what kind of hike you do:
· Boots with stiff soles, perhaps with insulation, for winter Alpine climbing,
· Boots with hardly any sole flex if you need to take a crampon,
· Semi-stiff leather or fabric boots for comfortable walking on rough surfaces,
· Cushioned mid-soles for long distance walking,
· Hiking boots with Gore-Tex linings for improved waterproofing, and
· Meshed boots for hot environments or when drainage is important.
The list is endless!
Generally there has been a move away from leather boots to modern fabrics and a fashion for minimalism, both on cost grounds and for lightness. The trick with a lot of fabric hiking boots is that they can get smelly after a time and they are generally not as durable. Gore-Tex linings in wet conditions are great. If you are generally walking in the dry though, your feet may become sweaty and you can end up with damp boot material that takes a long time to dry.
If you can find a brand that fits you well, a full grain leather boot is probably the best for general mountain hiking wear. High enough to protect ankles, stiff enough so you don't feel rocks through the sole, perhaps even with a cushioned sole. It’s good to note that when hiking softer sole materials tend to get chewed up by stones pretty quickly. Well-made leather boots, from manufacturers such as Scarpa and Meindel, breathe naturally.
How to Clean Your Hiking Boots
All hiking boots need occasional cleaning and reproofing and especially with leather, if you neglect this it may lead to it drying and cracking. If your walking boots are muddy, soft brush them when dry, or damp-sponge clean them immediately and then apply sprays or waxes. Never force drying your boots (avoid hairdryers and fires at all time!). Do stuff your shoes with newspaper immediately when you come back from your day’s hike and maybe keep them in a warm place like your hotel room.
Personal Favourite Boots
So what do I use myself on my walks and hikes in Europe? Well, there are the leather Scarpa Mantas used for cramponing up volcano glaciers (and in the Ruwenzoris in Uganda). Then there is a synthetic Gore-Tex lined Asolo boot I use for general trekking holidays, such as the Coast to Coast in the UK, Dolomites in Italy, Tour du Mont Blanc etc. For just about everything else I use trail and fell running shoes. Salomon make ones with very bright colours, and for me brands like Inov, Keen, Adidas and North Face are good as well.
Well ahead of your walking holiday, decide what you want to use a type of footwear for and then visit a good retailer like Cotswold for a hiking boot fitting and selection. They can help you get booted ready for the great outdoors. For advice on the terrain you’ll be walking on, do get in touch with our team of experts in the London office.
At last, after many years of prevaricating, I’m off to do the TMB in France, Italy and Switzerland. I don’t know why I hadn’t been before, maybe because I perceived it to be too famous, but an opportunity arose to do one of Sherpa Expeditions bestselling trips and one of Europe’s most beloved long distance walks: Le Tour du Mont Blanc with my first ascent from Les Houches.
It’s day 2 on the Tour du Mont Blanc and after the usual continental breakfast, with benefits such as yoghurts and pastries, it is time to take off for my first real ascent. Stocked up with baguette, pain-au-chocolat and a handy thermos full of coffee, I’m on my way!
I walk down past the Bellevue gondola, which can be taken to reduce the altitude gain by 800m. Most people starting their Mont Blanc circuit, at least today, seem to be taking it. However I decide to walk up the steep trail. It is quiet – there’s no one around. Pastures are brightly verdant with summer flowers and herbs. The sheep will be happy! Reaching Bellevue a couple of hours later, it is time to slip out the thermos flask and enjoy my coffee.
So after this refreshment the trail descends rockily and early in the season it can still be slippery. The trail drops to a bridge over the torrent from the Bionnassay Glacier. Weird? On the Mont Blanc map I have, the glacier appears to descend all the way to the bridge, but nowadays it is about a mile up the valley. Global warming is alive and kicking. A steep ascent follows up to the Col de Tricot (2120m). There are ruins of what once was some sort of French farm, which now act as a windbreak. The local sheep resting here with me are adamant to discover if there are any snacks to be had…
From here I move on to a 600 metre descent into the charming Miage Valley. I thread through the chalets and avoid the temptation to get a drink in the refuge, because it is already full with walkers and it would take too long today for me to get served.
There is then a steep 200 metre ascent to a high wild farm at Chalets du Truc. I would love to stop, but everyone has gone to ground and I am getting tired and want to keep going. Today’s final 700 metres descent is into the town of Les Contamines and I am feeling as if I’ve worked up an appetite. I visit the local supermarket before heading off to the Hotel La Chemenaz. It’s probably the finest lodging on this Sherpa Expeditions Tour du Mont Blanc walking route and, joy of joys, the room had a hot bath so I could try to steam out the tiredness! At the mountain hotel I enjoy a great dinner and then have an early night.
Today's first real ascent on the Tour du Mont Blanc certainly got my legs and heart working! Tomorrow evening I sleep in a traditional mountain guesthouse..
>> Keep an eye on this page for further posts on the 14 day Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) with Sherpa Expeditions!
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 we have a look at global positioning systems (GPS) which are becoming increasingly popular with walkers and cyclists for following existing routes or creating new tracks. They can normally locate your global position to 100 metres or less and are a system in use by many walkers and cyclists.
Gear matters: GPS in Your System
GPS originated as a military system controlled by the US, although other countries such as China have their own military versions, it has now been in the consumer domain since the early 1990s. The units have decreased in price and become much more efficient over that time. The devices track satellites and normally four of those are needed to provide a global location. It usually takes a unit less than 5 minutes to locate itself assuming there are only minor obstructions to the sky.
As well as the traditional GPS handhelds such as Magellan, Garmin and Satnav, which are walker and cyclist friendly, you can also get software for your Android, Windows or iPhones. These do pretty much the same job. Both are different to the car navigation versions though, they don't shout at you in a voice of your choosing from a list including Darth Vader!
The walking or cycling GPS models change every couple of years, and the best way to get a feel of the differences is to read online reviews on the devices or in walking or cycling magazines, such as Walk. We would recommend GPS devices with larger screens in terms of using them with maps. The budget models may only give you a Grid Reference and show you a route line or gradient graph without showing you where you are. In those cases you may want to transcribe this information to a map. Do make sure that you have your GPS device set up for the relevant map, e.g. 'OS British Grid' or 'IGN France'.
More expensive units generally have water resistant casings, SD card slots for expanded route memory and pre manipulated maps on memory cards available detailing popular routes such as the Coast to Coast or Tour du Mont Blanc. With these you can walk more or less exactly along the route. The map systems are also very detailed, at least in countries where the mapping is already good, in others you may be presented with a very generalised representation.
You can also download GPS coordinates from different sites such as the LDWA Long Distance Walkers Association website in the UK or from the various long distance path sites. You can also laboriously preload a route by working out the grid references manually by using a map and typing them in to your GPS handheld. Once you have walked your route, recording it on the GPS, you can download the results on programmes such as 'Memory Map' to generate statistics and route graphs. It's amazing to see your trip represented like this!
Interested in more? Read our 5 points to Keep in Mind When Using GPS article, or for more information on using GPS devices on your walking on cylcing holiday with Sherpa Expeditions, please contact our team of experts in our London office.
Do you love being surrounded by flowers in bloom? If you are thinking of a spring getaway to the English countryside, the next few months may well be the best time to travel for you! This is when the bluebell woods (forests with the floor covered in purple bluebells) pop up all over the UK.
Bluebell: England's Favourite Flower
The bluebell has been voted as England’s favourite flower and it appears in many British organisations, such as the logo of the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland, hospitals, tea & bakery shops, accommodation providers, a brewery, kitchen company and even a vintage train company!
It is estimated that 25-50% of the world’s common bluebells are found in the UK, so what better place to appreciate this charming lavender-coloured flower than in Sherpa Expedition’s homeland!
To best enjoy these quintessentially English carpets of blue, you travel to the Cotswolds. The landscape features a range of gentle hills extending northeast of the city of Bath through Cheltenham to Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. The region is dotted with unspoilt woodland, National Trust gardens and picturesque villages lined with stone-built houses – and of course bluebells!
On one of our self guided cycling holidays, you start in elegant Cheltenham, with its Regency buildings and beautifully landscaped gardens, to explore the Cotswolds along your choice of routes. Let the day’s bike ride depend on how energetic you feel. >> view trip
From only GBP 360 per person, you can witness the blue flower in a five day self guided walking holiday to the Cotswolds. This trip departs daily in April and May and there is an 8-day version of this walking holiday available for those with ample time. >> view trip
Dramatically reduced over thousands of years, many parts of Yorkshire once were covered in woodland. However, do not worry as today the preservation work of organisations like wildlife trusts and the UK National Trust help keep ancient, mixed forests thrive today. On the Coast to Coast walking trail for example, when you're coming down from Reeth and walk into Richmond, you will find woodland that is covered with bluebells in the spring months. For other areas in Yorkshire to see bluebell flowers, please contact our team of travel experts.
Go walking in Cornwall in the spring months of March, April and May, and you will come across tiny pockets of woodlands with bluebell carpets. Also along the cliff tops and in trees and gardens, you will notice the purple layer covering plots of land. As the weather is excellent in this southern part of England, you can already enjoy the popular flower from late March onward. Check out this overview of all walking and cycling holidays in Cornwall.
South Downs Way
At other times of the year the woodlands around Cocking may be dark and sometimes muddy, travel in the spring season though, and you will find a carpet of bluebell flowers. On both the 8-days South Downs Way walking holiday or the 10-day version of this long distance trail, you will pass through Cocking and find several other patches of wood that are home to bluebells in the spring months.
For more information on where to see the bluebells bloom this spring, or for holiday bookings to the Cotswolds, please contact our team of experts.
Global positioning systems (GPS) are becoming increasingly popular with walkers and cyclists alike. They can be real life savers because they can normally locate your global position up to 100 metres or less! We advise to combine using your GPS device while walking or cycling with our route notes. Here are some five reasons why!
Referencing to your GPS system and its maps can, especially in cold weather, drain power from your GPS device. The life of lithium batteries has improved to around 10 hours of use; nevertheless it is essential to make sure your unit is powered up each night. Perhaps a device such as a Power-monkey, which is a larger lithium reserve battery that can be used on the go in an emergency, is also worth carrying.
The base maps available on memory cards vary in quality. With OS in the United Kingdom or IGN in France, the GPS versions are excellent. Unlike big traditional maps that you can fold out, the electronic maps are shown on a relatively small LCD panel. For an overview of your route including details, a combination with a traditional paper map can be convenient. Here you can easily follow or plot routes from point A to B.
Luckily with the advanced, modern GPS devices, signal loss is usually temporary. The handhelds have become more powerful and trees don't provide the problems they used to! However cliffs, gorges and proximity to mountainsides can affect reception, or bounce signals giving spurious readings.
Following your GPS device usually gets you where you want to go, but not always by the best route. There are often many nuances to any walking trail, and these can best be appreciated by looking at the larger printed maps. In low visibility your signal might be 100 metres out and you will have to be careful on the ground making micro navigational decisions in areas of steep ground or cliffs. Last year, Coniston Mountain Rescue in the English Lake District reported a surge of assistance that had to be given to people who just carried a GPS into the mountains without a map.
Oops, Wrong Turn
Using GPS systems solely, can restrict a user’s relationship and understanding of the landscape. Using a good map makes you mentally interpret features, appreciate distances and look and wonder at place names. Sometimes the path on the ground may not exactly match the preloaded GPS route and there maybe variations to the original route set up. Carrying a route map will quickly help you solve these issues.
At Sherpa Expeditions we suggest using GPS devices in combination with the maps and route notes we provide make for your most enjoyable walking or cycling experience. For information on the GPS systems available around Europe and using GPS on your Sherpa Expeditions holiday, please get in touch with our team of active holiday experts.
Images courtesy of ©Richard Dorrell
At last, after many years of prevaricating, I’m off to do the TMB in France, Italy and Switzerland. I don’t know why I hadn’t been before, maybe because I perceived it to be too famous, but an opportunity arose to do one of Sherpa Expeditions bestselling trips and one of Europe’s most beloved long distance walks: Le Tour du Mont Blanc starting in Les Houches.
Mont Blanc is a huge adventure playground, a mountain theme park. You realise this when you witness the full range of people active on the massif: TMB walkers in groups coming one way, other groups the other, individual backpackers carrying huge loads staying in the huts and others intent on climbing the multifarious mountains and walls in the massif. There are mountain bikers, marathon runners with poles, paragliders, Scouts, multi-stage dog walkers whose pets carry tins of food in panniers and groups travelling the route with ponies carrying all their gear. Groups sleeping high and groups sleeping low.
Having said this, there are also long sections where you might not see anyone at all. People tend to concentrate around or just beyond passes catching their breath. Doing the route I realised that there are several TMBs. The maps show various Variants
from the ‘established’ route, which can make the route longer, shorter or more or less adventurous. But basically the TMB is around 170km with 10,000m of positive altitude change.
Those with too little time to walk the whole tour around western Europe’s highest mountain in two weeks can take part in the annual TMB sky race, that starts in Chamonix - about 8km distance from Les Houches. Winners can expect to do it in 21 hours, more mortal runners will be expected to make it in 45.
Now, let's move on to my 14 days of walking the Tour du Mont Blanc organised by Sherpa Expeditions.
Day 1: Geneva to Les Houches
Early morning I take a flight from the UK to Geneva in Switzerland where I meet my friend at a tea shop. At the Geneva Airport we very conveniently check into the Chamexpress
desk for the near-hourly transfer to Les Houches in France. This is the village at the start of the walking holiday and where we meet our ground support representative. The transfer to Les Houches is very convenient, only taking an hour and a half. I was kind of expecting the minibus to be there outside at Arrivals, but we walk with our baggage out of the airport, into a lift and into a car park. The hardest work of day 1 of my trip.
When we arrive at Les Houches, we are welcomed to a charming main street with a few shops and restaurants. At the hotel, which is in typical mountain chalet style and conveniently located, we try to have a bit of a siesta before walking around the village. There are great views to rocky spires and walls below Aiguille du Gouter, Mont Corbeau and Aiguille du Midi. You will notice a lot of ‘Aiguilles’ on the walking map provided and once you see one in the flesh, or rather the rock, you will realise that ‘needle’ is quite a good description.
On the way back to the hotel from dinner there is some beautiful choral singing in Les Houches church, delightful and a bit of a send off for bed.
Tomorrow will have a steady climb for us on offer!
>> Keep an eye on this page for further posts on the 14 day Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) with Sherpa Expeditions!
The Fjordland in Norway is a fantastic area to visit in the summer months of July-September. The area is dotted with traditional villages, glaciers, some fantastic peaks up to 1900m, and of course the fjords with dramatic views that Norway is so well-known for. But summer in this Scandinavian country can also look very different...! Here's some stunning images of some of the sights you'll pass on our walking trip in Norway.
>> Handsome town houses of the prosperous Norwegian old village of Aurland. Lovely and quiet to wonder through on a summer’s afternoon. The town honours
deer by a statue in the town's centre, there is a small museum and of course cafes with freshly brewed coffee to start your day's walk.
>> At the end of the cruise from Flam to Gudvangen you spill out the boat to an area where local Vikings are doing carvings in wood.
>> Approaching Aurland by the ferry, the Sognefjord stretches out in glassy beauty to a bend where it meets a back wall of huge mountains. We normally stay in a nice and friendly hotel just a street back from the waterfront.
>> The Sognefjord has lots of boat sheds from where the locals can go out fishing.
>> Nesbo is a tiny hamlet on the Aurland gorge walk between Østerbø and Vassbygdi. Crossing a tiny bridge, one walks into the farm which is suspended from the side of the gorge. It is the ideal time for sandwiches.
>> Geilojordet is a street of traditional and old housing from around the area. Most of these old Norwegian houses that were saved, were moved and reassembled piece by piece in this street - usually because new developments threatened them. Some date from the 1600s. The villagers sometimes hold cultural events on the grass in front of the houses.
>> Hardangervidda Plateau. It is summer, but the plateau is still covered with snow and of course glaciers. This is close to the town of Finse and the big boulders have been brought down by glaciers from somewhere else. Notice the little green tent in between the boulders? When researching our self-guided walking trip the hotel was closed, so we had to overnight in this tent. Although somewhat cold at the time, it was beautiful waking up to peaceful Norway in the morning!
>> A footpath sign directing you up through the ‘Priest hole.’ This walk is perhaps the best walk you can do in the Geilo area on a clear day and gives you the opportunity to climb the Prestholskarvet (1863m). A climb of some six hundred metres on at times steep and loose terrain, up to the great Hallingskarvet plateau with some truly fantastic views.
>> I am not sure of the origin of these boulders on a farm at Skjerdal. Are they prehistoric siting stones? It is likely they were placed there by man in antiquity, but it is not so many thousand years ago that the Ice Age bit deep into the landscape of Norway.
>> Early summer landscape from the peak of Sankt Paul (1694m), although located in the heart of Norway, it's mischievously named after the London cathedral. In all honesty we think it doesn’t look anything like it, but the views with the clouds bellowing over the snow are dramatic.
>> Seagull eye view of Aurland from the ferry that goes from Flam in the Sognefjord. One of the World’s most dramatic locations?
If you like to experience the summer in Norway as well and want to see the spectacular landscapes, glaciers and charming Norwegian towns for yourself, our 8-day self-guided walking holiday to the Fjordland departs daily from mid-July until the end of September. For more information you can download the trip notes or get in touch with our team of experts.
Few places in Europe welcome spring in such a colourful way as Madeira…
Taking place in spring every year (2017 from 4-21 May), the island’s dazzling annual Flower Festival features beautiful displays of tropical flowers. Over the years it has become known for its Sunday parade, when hundreds of dancers accompanied by huge floral floats march through the main streets of capital Funchal.
Madeira enjoys an impressive year-round flowering season thanks to its subtropical climate and rich volcanic soil – you can even find a dedicated Orchid Garden with more than 7,500 species! But this is not the only reason why we are such a big fan of Portugal's Madeira island. The mild year-round climate and a 1,350-mile network of levadas together with the impressive scenery form the base for an 8-day self guided walking trip that will immerse you in the island's lush nature.
Flowers in Bloom
© Allie Caulfield
Spring is the perfect time to visit the Portuguese island when a myriad of colourful flowers and trees are in bloom – jasmine, begonias, freesias, magnolia and camellias form just a part of the spectacular flora.
Volcanic in origin, Madeira’s rugged interior rises abruptly to over 1,800 metres (approx. 6,000 feet) with forests of pine and laurel flanking its jagged peaks.
16th Century Aqueducts
© D Stanley
Follow levadas through a peaceful pastoral countryside or traverse terraced hillsides; dating back to the 16th century, these irrigation channels or aqueducts are specific to Madeira, originally built to carry water to the agricultural regions.
Climb up to Pico Ruivo, the island’s highest peak; many of the levadas can be followed on foot, which together with a network of local trails make even the most remote parts of the island, such as this peak, accessible.
© Artur Malinowski
Spend time in the bustling little capital of Funchal – visit a Madeira wine lodge, explore colourful food and flower markets and enjoy superb fish restaurants.
On our self-guided walking tour of Madeira island, you will walk 4-7 hours per day. The trip departs year round. For more information you can download the trip notes or get in touch with our team of experts in London.
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 first post, he looks at walking poles and how to use this equipment - or not!
Gear Matters: Poles apart
There was a time when the Brits would joke about German groups of walkers “Look here come the 6 Germans with the 12 Poles!” we would chuckle. That was the 1980's and early 1990's, now most people seem to use poles. The advent of the collapsible walking pole in all its manifest forms has been a great coup for gear manufacturers. Research has shown that they help with propulsion, save knees from shock and can help the upper body to get stronger if used in a certain way. Other research has shown that you may loose some of your sense of natural balance if you rely on them too much.
For group walking there are some pointers that need to be addressed, especially for beginners. So many people come on a guided walk and use poles for the first time, quite often resulting in tripping themselves up, or doing the classic pole plant into someone else’s boot. It can be worse of course; some people do the classic ‘follow through’ where the pole is propelled too enthusiastically behind them resulting in someone being impaled. Then there is the case of dangerous dangling poles when people are scrambling over rocky sections. Walking with groups I try to get them to attach their poles to their bags when it is rocky and try to point out that they are not in a fencing competition when they do the follow through swing. This usually makes them think. For first timers: it's a good idea to practice using your poles before your group trip, and while on your walking holiday, remember to be aware of other people’s space compared to walking on your own.
There is an antidote to the ubiquitous Leki Pole: Check out the wonderful British-built Pacerpole. Their form and function are based on applying anatomical and biomechanical research analysis to the transmission of effective upper body power to improve overall walking performance - which is why I believe the left and right contoured handle shape puts these walking poles into a category of their own.
If you like to know more about the walking gear we recommend for your holiday please get in touch with our enthusiastic team in London, or read on if you are interested in our walking holidays.
To mark the centenary of the beloved James Herriot’s birth, in 2016 we launch a new trip in the Yorkshire Dales: a six-day version of the James Herriot Way. This walking route is considered by many as ‘the best short long-distance walk in the UK’.
The 50-mile circular walk is designed to take in some of the countryside that James Alfred Wight, the vet who wrote about his experiences in the Yorkshire Dales under pseudonym James Herriot, was so fond of. Born in Sunderland in 1916, his books featured stories about animals and their owners and became extremely popular in the 1970s-80s. Even spawning a film adaptation and a long-running television series, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’*.
James Herriot Way NEW FOR 2016
6 days, daily self-guided departures from April to October
This active holiday is an introduction to long-distance walking in Britain. You walk through the Yorkshire Dales, which have often been coined as ‘God’s Own Country’. Here are some reasons why we believe this trail makes for such a special walking holiday:
- A beautiful 50-mile circular walk threading its way around the emerald valleys of Wensleydale, Swaledale and Apedale and over the mountains and moorlands in between
- A bountiful landscape, encompassing sleepy rivers punctuated by jolly cascades and limestone escarpments, fields stocked with sheep and cows
- Take in classic English countryside, with high moors that bristle with heather, sedge, bracken and bilberry
- Discover attractive local villages (small but not sleepy!), bustling with farm and estate workers, tradesmen and walkers
- Stop at the green edged village of Reeth, whose tea shops and pubs reflect the times when lead mining was the key economic drive to the area
- Easily followed paths, often along parts of the longer ‘Pennine Way’ and ‘Coast to Coast’ trails
- Cosy accommodation throughout, including B&Bs, traditional inns, rural guesthouses and small hotels
View the new James Herriot Way trip here for more information and the exact travel period.
*The TV series All Creatures Great and Small is said to be getting a remake by HBO.
Photo of James Herriot, copyright by his son Jim Wight via The Telegraph.