Adventure: Wye not forage for dinner?

As I stood where the path should be looking up at the stinging nettles above me, I started to question my navigational choices. We were on this path because the path we wanted to take was hidden under an impassible jungle of Brambles, nettles and other spiky vegetation. Batting Triffid like nettles out the way with my poles as I walked, I wasn’t sure this path was any better.

The path I was on is somewhere in east Kent, and unusually for my trips, I’d managed to persuade 3 others to join me for this hike. Ahead disappearing into the undergrowth were Jesper, Jim and Jules. But this was a hike with extra purpose, this time, we hiked for science.

A Hypothesis.

Every year someone (usually a young bloke in their late teens) asks on one of the Bushcraft forums that we all use a question along the lines of:

My mates and I want to do a hike, foraging and living off the land as we go, can anyone give us suggestions on where to go and what to forage for?

And every year the regulars on the forum give patient well worded replies along the lines of:

You can hike, or you can forage, but not both

It’s a simple enough equation. The adult human needs 2000-2500 kcalories a day to cover their needs, more if they are expending any great effort. Whilst the modern human has access to refined sugar, copious mass produced carbs and endless fats, in nature it’s not so easy. If you grab a book on wild food, you’ll find a whole catalogue of things you can eat without killing you, but to cover your 2000 calories, how many of these would you need? Unfortunately the standard indexes of calories in foods don’t tend to include things like Goosegrass, Bog Myrtle, or Nettles. But looking at the crop wild relatives of some foods that calorie numbers are available for, you can get a rough idea. Assuming that cabbage and sea kale leaves aren’t too dissimilar, how much would you need to eat in a day to cover your 2000kcal? Roll some dice, crunch some numbers, and you get a figure around 6kg. Yes, SIX kilograms of sea kale. I’ll buy a pint for anyone who can prove they’ve eaten that in a single day… Not exactly ideal. What about apples? An apple is about 50 kcalories. So you’re looking at 80 apples. So the numbers are pretty damning. You’re not going to be able to forage for enough food to meet your energy requirements let alone hike any distance at the same time. But this is just a theory, it’s just numbers. What we really needed to do, was put this to the test.

Method

Our basic plan was 4 people with varying levels of knowledge of wild food, and varying fitness would meet up somewhere in Kent, and do a 2 day hike with an overnight bivvi, trying to forage for our dinner as we went. So as to not try to bite off more than we could chew, the route we settled on was a simple 25km loop starting and finishing at Wye station. This would take in varying habitats including woodland, hedgerows, field margins, access land, and a section of the North Downs Way. Giving a good representation for a hike in Southern Britain.

UK law would limit our foraging to the four F’s – Fungi, Foliage, Fruit and Flowers. This gives us a vegetarian diet, but in theory should give us access to all sorts of interesting food stuffs. Assuming we could find them, identify them with certainty, and in some cases reach them.

We left the station in good spirits. Jules, Jesper and myself. Jim would join us a bit later. We decided we’d let ourselves get out of the village before we started to forage, other wise we could easily end up getting nowhere. We made it 100 yards up the North Downs Way towards the Wye Crown before coming across a really good patch of black berries that were too good to miss. We foraged for 5 mins, trying to find as many as we could in that time – a few handfuls. We could have spent an hour there and picked the area clean. But if we did that, our average speed would make the whole trip untenable. But it was a start, we had something, even if it wasn’t much. A bit further a long I spotted a squashed plumb on the floor. I’ve long realised that often the easiest way to find fruit trees is to look on the ground for their windfalls. We now knew there was a plum somewhere near by, we just had to find it. A search of the nearby hedgerow located the tree, as well as it’s crop of a plum. One solitary plum, about 8 feet off the ground. Just out of reach. Bah. Ah well. Onwards.

We progressed up the hill to the Wye crown were we stopped to drink in the view, and drink some of our water. It was blowing quite a hooley up there. As we crossed the ridge we wandered along the edge of a recently harvested wheat field. In various places unharvested seed heads lay on the ground and in a few places stalks that the combine had missed stood dancing in the wind. We grabbed a few handfuls, it wouldn’t be enough to bake a loaf, but it would be a welcome addition to what ever stew we could come up with for dinner.

With the strong wind we were grateful to drop down the other side of the ridge into a valley, where we passed along well maintained (read threshed to bits) beech hedging. A linear monoculture. Beech leaves are technically edible, I used to infuriate my Arboriculture lecturer in ID classes by eating the samples to tell the difference between beech, hornbeam, elm and birch leaves (apparently this isn’t the approved method…), but this late in the season (late August) they don’t taste very good, nowhere near as tasty as first thing in the spring. There may have been a few edible weeds around the base of the hedge, but there were prime dog pee height and none of us wanted to spend much time checking them.

Continuing on we entered woodland. I stopped to look at the map, checking were were going the right way when I heard.

“Is that a chicken?”

“Where?”

“There.” I looked up from the map to see where Jules was pointing. Yep, that was chicken of the woods(Laetiporus sulphureus). Five metres up in the crotch of a mature oak was a large chicken of the woods mushroom. We stood staring, trying to work out if there was anyway we could reach it. None of us had brought any climbing equipment, nor ropes, and the 3m or so to the lowest branch didn’t seem like something we could safely reach. Tauntingly, we left it behind us and continued on. As we walked we found a fallen ash tree that provided some cramp balls (Daldinia concentrica), and fallen birch tree yielded copious quantities of bark. We could at least forage forage for our fire lighting materials if nothing else.

Lots of flowers, some of them are edible. But which?

Exiting the woodland we found ourselves on a hillside that had been seeded with wild flowers as food for pheasants and other wild birds. We tried to identify various edibles among the grass, but none of us could be certain about a lot of them.

We decided that it was a good time to start thinking about coffee. Crundale church was a couple of kilometres away and the bench there would make a great place to have a break. I had a small wood gas stove in my pack that I picked up on ebay. In theory it would burn twigs very efficiently and save us the need to carry fuel. But this meant we now needed to add fire wood to our foraging. We walked, eyes everywhere trying to spot things that might be edible, as well as any dead standing twigs that would burn.

Arriving at Crundale church we set out our harvest so far. Blackberries, Hazel nuts, wheat, some leaves, a couple of cramp balls, birch bark and some twigs. Not exactly inspiring.

Located on top of a ridge just outside of the village of it gets it’s name from, Crundale Church affords a beautiful view that  more than made up for our poor harvest. As we admitted that our hypothesis was looking proven, we dug into the emergency backup Mars bar supply. The downside of being on the ridge was the wind. Trying to light the stove by the bench wasn’t going to be an option, so we sheltered behind a yew tree, adding out backpacks and bodies as extra protection. Thus followed an hour of trying to get the stove to boil a pot of water. The wind provided cooling to the pot, as well as made keeping the fire going really hard. Feed it too fast and it would choke and go out, Feed too slow, and it would starve. Eventually we decided that this was never going to boil and transferred the water to a gas stove and had coffee ready a couple of minutes later. With impeccable timing this was the point Jim turned up. Drinking the coffee we winnowed the wheat we’d found, here the wind was useful.

Fed and watered, we set off down the road. After our game of “how many bushcrafters does it take to boil the kettle.” We now began a game of “how many bushcrafters does it take to find the right path”. Eventually we found the path we wanted and headed towards Eggringe wood. We had some fun navigating the forest tracks and pathways, but as we were approaching the way out of the woods we hit pay dirt. Burdocks! (Arctium lappa). Using a potty trowel, and a hastily carved digging stick, Jim and Jules dug around the base of a large plant to extract the root. After much digging they proudly raised their treasure for all to behold. Six inches long and barely thicker than a thumb, we had a dock root. We had starch. We discussed the merits of our new bounty. Given the effort of digging it up, we concluded that it wasn’t exactly an efficient use of energy or time. Growing nearby we found some mint plants and raided a few sprigs that we could perhaps use to make mint tea with.

Continuing on towards Chilham Down Jules introduced us to the culinary hit of the trip. Nettle seeds. Available in large quantities, and tasty, they provided a food we could graze as we wandered, as long as you were ok to put up with the occasional sting.

The path from Down wood to Chilham down proved to be interesting, with nettles and brambles towering over our heads. Several times I questioned which idiot had chosen this route (that would be me). Finding one route over grown we opted to detour down towards the cycle route at the bottom of the hill, this was hardly any better, but eventually it did end and we found ourselves on the cycle route next to a railway line and the A28.

Map check revealed we were nearly a kilometre further south than intended. This did present us a new option tho. At the cost of a short section of road walk, we could cross the river and continue on the other side which should be prettier. We also concluded that having largely failed to find enough food to feed 4 people, it might be best if we diverted to Chilham to take on fuel at the pub.

It was a good theory, and having navigated the most optimistic kissing gate design I’ve ever seen (none of us fit through and had to climb over), we wandered along the edge of a field by the river. Alas the route marked on the map seemed to disappear into the under growth and provide no useful way forward. We ended up skirting all the way round the edge of the field before eventually finding a gap in the hedge that allowed us out onto Mountain Street half a km south of where we intended.

With the gravitational pull of a pub exerting it’s influence upon us, we picked up the speed along the road to the Woolpack inn for a well earned dinner.

After dinner Jesper had to head off, leaving Jim, Jules and myself to continue on in search of somewhere to sleep.

Our camp…(What is the collective noun for tarp shelters?)

Exhausted and in the dark the three of us hunted out a suitable spot to sleep in nearby woods. Tarps up, bivvi bags deployed, we hit the hay for a well earned sleep.

Morning revealed that perhaps our choice of bivvi spot wasn’t as good as we had thought in the dark the previous night. Out attempt to get out of site of 2 paths had put us in rather obvious view of another. Fortunately noone seemed to have noticed us (or been bothered enough to react to us at least). We broke camp and back tracked to the North Downs Way which we would now follow all the way back to Wye.

In light of our poor foraging yield the day before we decided that we would be better off seeking out a pub lunch in Wye, leaving us more time to concentrate on the scenery and just walking.

Leaving the Kings wood we descended into a landscape of golden fields in various states of harvest. Down hollow ways and field edges we arrived at Boughton Lees. This is where the North Downs Way splits on it’s route towards the sea, with one route going via Canterbury and one route via Wye.

In one of the hedge rows we found a tree from the Prunus family with plump fruit. We couldn’t work out if it was a large slow, or damson, or a bullace, or diminutive plum. Jules seemed to find them tasty enough tho.

Prunus of some kind…

A group of three? or a trio of solo hikers in loose formation?

Crossing the A28 we found ourselves at Perry Court Farm. Here we found the important trio of clean loos, tea, and cake. The idea of which was too much, and so 1km earlier than planned, we decided to stop for lunch here. Jim got a call from his other half who was in the area and wondered if we wanted a lift. With sore feet and having achieved what we set out to, we decided to accept the lift and end the hike here.

Results

So what of our experiment?

Despite being one of the more bountiful times of year, we hadn’t been able to find enough wild food to feed the 4 of us, and in trying we’d ended up hiking well beyond dark, pitching camp at gone 2300. We discussed the experiment over tea and concluded that had we gone to one location, set up camp, and then done forage parties round that area we probably could have foraged enough to make meals that didn’t leave us too hungry. Tho still short on energy requirements for the day. If we could add fish or fowl, then hitting it becomes more achievable. We also felt that you need a much greater knowledge of wild edibles than collectively we had. If we had carried a few staples like rice, flour, instant mash, and some stock cubes. Then we could easily have added foraged ingredients to liven up what could be otherwise bland fare.

Our harvest.

Conclusion

In conclusion, our hypothesis seems to be about right. You can walk or you can forage. You can’t reasonably expect to do both to any substantial degree. This shouldn’t preclude the inclusion of foraged ingredients in ones diet when travelling, but perhaps to supplement ones dehydrated meals. Maybe a dessert of blackberries, or a wild leaves salad starter. Rather than the core of your diet.

A Brompton’s winter boots.

Winter seems to be well on it’s way, the hard frosts are predicted, and the gritters are heading out onto the roads in a bid to keep them ice free.

Just the thought of falling over on an icy bend is enough to drive most cyclists towards taking the bus to work until conditions improve. But it doesn’t have to be the case. For years Schwalbe (and others, notably Nokian), have produced studded winter tyres in various sizes that allow you to keep cycling throughout the winter months. But there has always been a gap in their range at the smaller size bracket. After all, what sort of crazy idiot would want to put studded tyres on a bike with 16″ wheels. Hello.

For the first 7 years of Brompton ownership, when ever I spoke to someone at Brompton, be it a designer, sales rep, or even the CEO (via twitter), I would mention that it would be great if there were studded tyres for the Brompton. Finally after all that nagging, Schwalbe announced a couple of years ago they would make 30×349 (that’s 16″ x 1.2″ in old money) studded tyres that would fit the Brompton. WOO!

November 2015 with a need to get to college what ever the weather, I bit the bullet and invested in a pair of Schwalbe Winter tyres.

Spiked tyre

Fitting these tyres to the Brompton is not the easiest task, they come somewhere between a Marathon and a Marathon Plus in terms of difficulty, but nothing that a bead jack doesn’t solve. You just have to be aware that they fight back more than non studded tyres and fitting them can require a blood sacrifice…

The main gotcha to be aware of is that because of the way the Brompton folds, the studs will chip the paintwork on the frame when the bike is folded. Wanting to protect the paintwork as much as possible, I fashioned a couple of leather guards that I laced onto the frame. They are 2.6mm leather held on with bungee cord.

Leather frame protectors.

Leather frame protectors

They win no awards for their beauty, they were a proof of concept that I made from scraps of leather I had laying around. Now I’ve proved the concept works, I’m pondering a mark 2 version that looks a bit better.

Once you’ve got the tyres fitted along with the optional frame protection, you need to run the tyres in on normal roads before you set off on the ice. The recommendation from Schwalbe is 40km without heavy braking or acceleration. You only need to do this the first time you fit them, in future years they should be good to go on the ice straight away.

The tyres have two recommended operating pressures, ~7 bar for roads that are mostly clear or fully clear of ice, and if you are expecting lots of ice, deflate them down to ~4.5bar. This lead to an interesting question about what pressure you should run them in at. I opted for 4.5bar. I’m not sure what pressure Schwalbe recommend. (note you can pump these right upto 8bar, but at that point the ride becomes rather painful)

Running them for the first time what becomes immediately apparent is the noise. Ye gods these things are noisy. On normal tarmac they make a hell of a racket. This can be a good thing, pedestrians certainly hear you coming. I tend to listen to music or podcasts when cycling which certainly helps cover the clatter.

Once you get used to the clatter, and the slight increase in rolling resistance compared to say Marathons, then they feel just like any normal tyre.

The tyres feel grippy in all the conditions that I’ve used them in. (Un)fortunately fitting studded tyres to a bike seems to act to ward off the snow/ice, and winter 2015/2016 was pretty mild so I didn’t get to test these to their fullest, I’m kinda hoping that 2016 brings proper snow and ice so I can get some sub zero miles in.

Over time the studs can and do fall out, over something like 600+km I lost 3 studs (2 from 1 tyre, 1 from the other). Schwalbe have anticipated this and produce a pack of 50 studs and the tool necessary to fit them. I got this for just over a tenner on amazon. They also sell a pack of 50 studs without the tool.

Tool, Studs and tyre. The shiny stud has just been installed, the other one has seen a season's use.

Tool, Studs and tyre. The shiny stud has just been installed, the other one has seen a season’s use.

In terms of puncture protection, the tyres come with Schwalbe’s “K-guard”. This provides some protection, but nowhere near as good as on Marathon or Marathon Plus. I had 2 punctures over the winter, both in the same tyre (rear). Fixing a puncture when it’s 0°C is a bit of an interesting experience, balancing dexterity with keeping your hands warm, so this is something to bear in mind. (For larger bikes, the Marathon Winter has better puncture protection and more spikes, but only goes down to 42×406).

All in all with affordable Spiked tyres and appropriate clothing, there’s very little excuse not to keep riding through the winter, even on a Brompton.

Post script: When cycling across ice it’s easy to forget that it’s slippery, and the moment you stop and put your foot down, you fall over. The solution to this is studs for your shoes. I have a pair of Kahtoola nanospikes for slippery pavements which work well for this.

 

ADVENTURE: Bordering on Insanity – A Brompton Adventure

Belgium. Brunt of jokes on radio 4 comedy programs, Brewer of brilliant beer, and maker of fine chocolates. It’s often grouped in with The Netherlands and Luxembourg as the low countries. It’s easy to think of Belgium as a polder landscape punctuated with abbeys awash with beer. Tell someone you’re setting out to cycle to the highest point of the country, it doesn’t immediately come across as a particularly big challenge. Point out that the highest point is 694m above sea level, and you start to get some amusing reactions.

In summer 2015 I set out on my Brompton to cycle from Wiltz (Lu) to Aachen(De) via the highest point of all three of the low countries, Kneiff (559.8m), Signal de Botrange (694 m), and Vaalserberg (322.7 m). I made it to the top of Knieff, before aborting due to the heat. I wasn’t happy about aborting, tho I know in my heart that it was the right decision. As soon as I got home I started planning a second attempt. I’d done Knieff, so there was no point trying that bit again. I opened the map of the Hoge Venen, the area in which Signal de Botrange is found, and started to plan.

The borders of Belgium allow for some creative cartography. Exclave and counter exclave in the area of Baarle-Hertog provides an interesting diversion. But as I stared at the map, what caught my eye was a strange border marking through the middle of Germany. I switched from the paper map to opencyclemap. What was marked as a border on my paper map, showed up as a cycle path on OCM. I googled the cycle path.

Opened in 1885, the Vennbahn railway ran from Aachen to Trois-Ponts. In 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the line was given to Belgium. Creating in the process, exclaves of German territory within Belgium. With the closure of the railway, this line was turned into a cycle route. A cycle route that ran from Aachen to just south of Signal de Botrange, and did so with a maximum gradient of 2%. A plan formed. I could ride from Aachen along the vennrad to Sour Brot, where I could hang a right for the final ascent up to Botrange, then it’s just a simple down hill all the way to the Netherlands, via a bit of Germany and Belgium, and maybe the curiosity that is Moresnet.

And so on a somewhat grey but cool day in October I set of from a youth hostel next to Aachen Hauptbahnhof, and followed my GPS through the city streets of in search of a strip of Belgium.

The first few kilometres of the ride took me through rather unscenic suburbs of Aachen, before eventually I left the industry and houses behind and entered farmland.

The day had started quite chilly, and I had worn both my wind proof and fleece to begin with, but as I got into the groove, I shed the windproof. My body was warm, but my summer shoes with their ample ventilation were making my toes cold.

I pressed onwards and upwards.

I had been led to believe from my research that the railway line had been removed along all of it’s length apart from a short part now used for rail biking. So I was a bit surprised when track started to appear next to the path. I was even more surprised when the cycle route deviated slightly from the railway and when I rejoined it a number of wagons and a loco were parked on the rails.

I pedalled on towards Belgium proper. I knew from my map that the route crossed into Belgium near Botz, before doing a large loop back on itself to exit Belgium, yet remain Belgium surrounded by Germany. Before the turn a disused triebwagen lay in a siding disconnected from the railway, covered in graffiti.

As I pedalled on my feet got colder. By the time I rounded the turn and headed back west towards Belgium-Surrounded-by-Germany, my toes were starting to feel numb.

When I packed for this trip 2 weeks previous (I had tacked it onto the return of a week in Eastern Germany), the forecast had been for relatively warm weather, with night temps of 9°C, and day temps of nearly 20°C. Just days before I was due to start riding the weather had swung towards cold. As my toes got colder, I started to worry that I had the wrong sleeping bag. I’d packed my summer bag hoping for temps in the 7-10°C mark. Much colder than that and night time could be rather miserable.

The kilometres ticked by. As I approached Roetgen my feet had gone from comfortably numb, to painfully so, everything forward of the metatarsels was in numb pain. Reflecting that it was somewhat ironic that on a trip that gave me issues due to excess heat the first time, would cause me issues with cold on the second attempt. I considered my options and decided that I would hang a left into Roetgen in hope of finding a cafe or coffee shop where I could warm up, and as it was around midday, maybe find some lunch.

A speedy descent into Roetgen following the signs for zentrum brought me to a main road, where I saw a bakery and cafe. I screeched to a halt and carefully wheeled my bike in, resting it just behind the door. The staff at the counter looked up, but didn’t say anything about the bike in the building.

“Sprechen sie Englisch?”

“Nein”

Ok, this should be fun, time to see if the previous 260 days of Duo lingo had been of any use.

With much pointing, poor German, smiling, and a lot of hope, I managed to order a hot pizza and a bottle of coke. I plonked down in a comfortable chair, ate my lunch and with each heart beat felt the feeling slowly return to my poor feet. I spent nearly 90 minutes warming up and sampling the German cakes. The time to leave approached, I considered the options for my feet. I didn’t have any over shoes to keep the wind off, nor did I have any plastic bags that might work. I did have a thick pair of wool socks. Would adding those to the socks I already wore provide enough warmth, keep the wind out enough, and above all, fit inside my shoes? I tried the left (and bigger) foot first. It fit. Snug, but it fit. I put the other sock on, and prepared to go out again.

The descent into Roetgen had been fast and fun. But this meant that to get back to the Vennrad would mean going up. Fortunately not too much, and I ground my way up in bottom gear. The relative flatness once I rejoined the route of the railway was most welcome. The double sock solution seemed to be working, not too warm, nor too cold, pretty much just right. Temperature sorted, I started to pay more attention to my surroundings.

Coniferous forest flanked me on either side for several kilometres. Here and there I could see beyond the bracken into the understory, passing dozens of spots that would make great wild camp locations. This filled me with hope for later when I would need to find somewhere to bivvi down. The rough plan in my head being find somewhere just before Kalterherberg, before the route left Germany behind.

Along the route were regular signs with a map of the Vennrad, a blurb about the history of the route, a useful “you are here”, and an even more useful elevation graph.

The elevation graph told me that at Lammersdorf things levelled out a bit and may even descend. This would be most welcome, tho every metre of descent would have to later be paid for with more ascent. But for now I welcomed the ability to coast for a bit.

At Lammersdorf I also found a sign telling me about the locals.

There's Beavers in them thar hills!

There’s Beavers in them thar hills!

In the lead up to this trip I had joked with friends that if I had an accident on this trip I could have the accident in Belgium, land in Germany, and it would be a nightmare on the insurance form. This had also got me thinking about how one might call in such an event. How would they know where I am? As it turns out, every 500m along the route signs gave details of who to call, and where you were. A bit like hecto-metre posts on motorways.

I cycled onwards towards my intended overnight camp. The kilometres went by, the terrain changed subtly. Forest  became higher, and the gradients either side became steeper.

Just beyond the turning for Monschau something in the distance caught my eye. I pulled out my camera and looked through the zoom lens. Yep, it was. Far off in the distance, near the edge of the field, a deer grazed.

I spent a few minutes just watching the deer. I was far enough away that it either couldn’t see me, or didn’t consider me a threat. It was the only mammalian wildlife I’d see other than a couple of red squirrels near Aachen.

A few kilometres further on I passed 50km distance for the day, and started to think about where to stop for the night. Around this point the terrain either side of the track tool a turn for the unhelpful. Large rocky outcrops towered on my right, whilst a steep ravine fell away to my left. This would certainly make finding a spot to camp harder.

I crossed a viaduct over a valley, hoping that the woods I could see on the other side would yield a potential camp spot. No such luck, ravines and boulders. Even if there was a flat spot big enough for my bivvi bag there, I wouldn’t get to it with the bike.

A few hundred metres further on there was a small car park, and a path heading up into the woods. The gradient had lessened. This had potential.

I left the Vennrad behind and pushed the bike along the footpath. I had tried to ride it, but the mud was a bit much for the Brompton, so I pushed. There was a barrier across the path, and to the right there was an area of wood which was flat, if a bit exposed. It would do if I could’t find somewhere better. I followed the path for another couple of hundred metres, There were a few spots that looked plausible, but they were rather exposed, and not really flat enough. I found one spot, at the base of a fir tree, nice clear area, flat, and not obvious from the path. Alas I was not the first to have found the spot and several small piles of decomposing bog roll littered the area round the tree. The same was found near another promising tree. Bah. Why couldn’t they have burned/buried it?

I returned to the path and concluded that I’d have to go with the fall back option. I returned to the first spot, and lent the bike against a tree. I wandered in an increasing circle to find the flattest spot. My circle brought me back to the path. Looking down the other side of the path, I saw a spot that looked ideal. Sure it was several metres down a 45° slope, but it was flat, not a toilet, and concealed from obvious view.

I slid down the forest floor with my Brompton in a controlled descent mostly on 2 feet. Up close the spot was perfect. A slight depression only a few inches deep would conceal my sleeping mat (bright yellow :() from prying eyes on the cycle path, there were no dead branches above to worry about. Yes, this would be perfect.

I sat under a tree and while dinner cooked, sent a friend a message on my inReach asking if they could work out what country I was in. I only had a 1:50k map, and the borders here are somewhat blurry, so wanted someone with zoom on their map to take a closer look. The message came back. Germany. Belgium’s just up by the treeline. Dinner cooked, I rolled out the bivvi bag, and crawled into my sleeping bag. I was still nervous about how cold it would be, some forecasts said 1°C, some 7°C, if the former, there was no way my bag would be upto it, if the later, I may just be ok.

The previous night I had stayed at a youth hostel, which meant that I had with me in my bag my Towel. In true hitchhiker’s fashion, I deployed this as an extra blanket inside my sleeping bag, along with my fleece and a hot water bottle.

It wasn’t enough.

Within an hour of laying there, the cold had seeped in and I conceded that I needed something more. I dug into my bag for my space blanket. The last time I had needed to use it, I had put it between bivvi bag and sleeping bag, and it had caused a lot of condensation problems. As I had another night after this, I didn’t want a soaking wet sleeping bag, so decided this time to try it inside the sleeping bag, between it and the silk liner. This and my base layers should at least dry pretty quickly.

With the space blanket and towel wrapped round me, cocooned in my sleeping bag, I wrapped my feet round the hot water bottle, and drifted off to sleep.

I slept beautifully.

My alarm woke me to a dark 0600. I lay in my bivvi bag comfortably warm, well rested, and surrounded by dark trees. Dawn was the best part of an hour away, so I hit snooze and lay back to enjoy my surroundings. As I lay there, the first drops of rain could be heard on my bivvi bag. I sinched the entrance down tight, leaving just enough space for my mouth and nose, and then rolled onto my side hoping that it wouldn’t start to rain properly if for no other reason than so I didn’t have to pack away wet gear.

Dawn broke, and the rain stopped.

The view from my bivvi bag.

I broke camp and repacked everything onto the bike. Now I  had a decision. Climb up the hill with everything to the path, or slide down the hill to the cycle track. I considered my options, and decided to give down a go.

It wasn’t the right decision.

I slid down the hill on my arse, with the Brompton across my lap side on, landing in a ditch (thankfully not full of water) next to the cycle track. Now I just had to limb the 1.5m up out of the ditch… Eventually I made it, with little dignity, and a very wet arse. I didn’t care, it was a beautiful morning.

Damp, misty, and beautiful.

I detoured into Kalterherberg for a hot chocolate and some breakfast, before leaving Germany and entering Belgium for the last of the Vennrad to Sour Brot.

The terrain started to open out again and at 500m above sea level, took on the appearance characteristic of the High Fenn.

A few kilometres down the line I left the Vennrad for the last time at Sour Brot, and headed North towards the whole purpose of this trip. Signal de Botrange.

Up until now I had had at most a 2% gradient on the vennrad, with occasional steeper bits when I’d left the route in search of food, but here things started to get steeper. Even with the extra low gear I’d added to the Brompton since the last attempt, I still found myself pushing the bike.

The final 200m of ascent over a distance of 2km was largely walked with occasional riding for short bursts before getting off and walking again.

As I neared the peak, the road started to level out and the amount of riding increased,  still interspersed with pushing.

Eventually, just before midday, I arrived at the top of Belgium. Where I found a cafe.

Not exactly the most intrepid of peaks. But they didn’t complain when I wheeled the Brompton inside and collapse into a chair. I’d done it! And in time for lunch. It’s at this point that I discovered the waiter was in fact the only monolingual Belgian, and didn’t understand English, Dutch or German. Eventually, with the help of google, and some pointing, I ordered a steak, followed by ice cream. It was delicious. Made even better by the ride here to get it.

At 694m above sea level, Signal de Botrange is actually little more than the highest point of a large bump, standing in the carpark it would be hard to spot the exact point that’s highest. Fortunately the Belgians have built a 6m tall tower on the highest point, giving you a nice round 700m height. Alas as it was so cloudy and raining, I didn’t bother climbing the tower, just to see a cloud, I could see the same cloud from ground level…

From here on, it should be down hill. All the way to the Netherlands. I put on both jackets, 2 pairs of gloves, and my buff. This descent would be cold.

I eased the Brompton out of the carpark onto the road, and started to pedal down. It was a slow start, the wind wasn’t helping, but eventually gravity kicked in, pulling me down towards the Netherlands. At 50kph, the windchill is substantial and I was rather glad of the extra layers. At 50kph, I descended rather quickly and with every 100m of altitude drop, things got warmer. By the time I turned off the N68 onto the country lanes, things had warmed up enough that I stopped to take some layers off.

The next 20k was largely uneventful, through sleepy Belgian villages. Despite .nl being down hill, it seems my route crossed a couple of valleys, giving me a couple more hills to push the bike up.

A couple of kilometres from Vaalserberg I crossed the border back into Germany into the village of Wald. I hung a left off the main road and started to go Up. I had another 100m to climb in the next k. Bah. Not good. I left wald and crossed back into Belgium and into woods. Here I ground to a halt in a clearing at the base of a 40° incline. I’d already done over 50km today, and energy levels were low. Common sense says I should have sat down, had a mars bar, had a drink, then continued. Alas, common sense isn’t all that common, and with much swearing, I slowly climbed the hill.

As I paused for breath on the climb, two birds of prey caught my eye. They circled the clearing a few times, as I watched, before disappearing into the canopy. The pause gave me enough energy to get to the top of the incline, where things levelled out a bit into a slope which had an element of down to it. Unfortunately the descent was perpendicular to the direction of travel, which made cycling along it slightly more interesting. Fortunately this was short lived, and at node marker 5, I really did reach the top of the final ascent, that allowed me to coast down to the Vaalserberg.

Goal achieved.

Front wheel in Germany, rear wheel in Belgium, bottom bracket in The Netherlands. An international bike.

Front wheel in Germany, rear wheel in Belgium, bottom bracket in The Netherlands. An international bike.

I had originally planned to bivvi somewhere in the woods on the Belgian side, but it was still only 1700, my legs felt good, and Heerlen station was only 22km away. So I decided rather than risk a cold night out, I’d make a break for Heerlen and a train home. It took me a bit over an hour to do, but just after 1830, I arrived at Heerlen station. On the first day I did 50km through 2 countries.  Today I’d ridden 80km, through 3 countries and reaching 694m above sea level. My longest Brompton ride yet, my second longest ride on any bike, and my highest Climb. The total for the trip was 130km.

It had taken two attempts, but I’d finally done it. The High points of the low countries on my Brompton.

KIT: What’s in the backpack?

I’ve had a number of people asking me if I really fit everything for a weekend hike in my 30L pack. So I thought I’d right a post with a details what’s in the pack for a typical summer weekend hike. The photo was taken at the end of a trip so there’s no food in the pack.

Pack contents

Pack contents

  • A – Sea-to-Summit Outhouse & Coughlans trowel
  • B – Clothing – a few pairs of underwear, spare socks, spare baselayer (Rab MeCo 120 SS)
  • C – RAB Siltarp 1 + 6 x Alpkit Y beam pegs in Treadlightly bag
  • D – Evernew 1.5L water pouch
  • E – Mountain Equipment Lamina 35 sleeping bag
  • F – Osprey Tempest 30 Backpack
  • G – Exped Synmat 7 UL, Schnozzel pump bag, Exped Pillow UL, RAB silk sleeping bag liner, Mossie headnet
  • H – Alpkit Hunka XL bivvi bag.
  • I – Sawyer Mini, 2L bag, gravity conversion kit.
  • J – Powertraveller powermonkey Extreme + cable
  • K – Evernew Appalachian set + Evernew 400ml mug
  • L – Paramo Bentu fleece
  • M – Svord Peasant Mini + EDC Fire Kit (both in right pocket)
  • N – Meths
  • O – Paramo Fuera Ascent Jacket
  • P – Brewkit.

Not labelled is the silver foil coated bubble wrap insulation that I use as a ground pad under the Exped Synmat.

Brewkit contents

Brewkit contents

In the brew kit I have teabags, hot chocolate, soup, knife, fork, spoon, salt, pepper, oil, pot gripper, and the BPL universal trivet. The tub doesn’t weigh much more than a similar size stuff sack, and protects the contents.

When packing I try to make sure everything goes into the pack in the reverse order that I need it, so the sleeping bag goes in the bottom, then the bivvi bag, then sleep mat, then tarp etc…

The powermonkey pack goes in the zip pocket on the underside of the lid, the sawyer goes in the stash pocket on the front of the pack, the trowel and fuel in a side pocket, and the water pouch in the other side pocket.

Contents of the pack pockets

Contents of the pack pockets

In the hip pockets I have a few odds and sods, the first aid kit (large dressing, pouch of plasters, tube of pills) goes in the left pocket, the right pocket has sunblock, insect repellent, small saw, and the Zelph Starlyte stove. I keep my inReach Explorer on my left shoulder strap, and my Petzl Zipka 2+ on the right strap, so I don’t have to rummage about in a pack to try and find it in the dark.

With everything in the pack there is room for food on the top, and in the stash pocket. The lid pocket is also empty and I usually fill it with food. Dry weight, it’s 6.6kg.

Packed and ready to go

Packed and ready to go

Everything I need for a few nights hiking, all carried in a 30L pack, with room for food.

ADVENTURE: A Good Friday for a walk (North Downs Way Section hike)

That rare confluence of a British bank holiday and a good weather forecast offered an opportunity that seemed to be too good to miss. In particular the forecast showed a promise of a relatively warm night time temperatures (over 5°C). This seemed like a good chance to put the winter sleeping bag away, break out the summer kit and hit the trail.

The North Downs way looked like the obvious choice. At this point I had a couple of gaps on the route at the Eastern end. One from the Battle of Britain Monument to Postling (courtesy of my first aborted attempt), and one from Dover to Canterbury. My GPX of the route showed that Dover to Canterbury was 30km, with a nice break in the middle around Shepherdswell. I threw some kit into my pack, opting at the last minute to add my Páramo Torres jacket in case it was slightly colder than planned, and headed for the station.

Disembarking at Dover I bimbled towards the sea front to find the official start/end point of the North Downs Way. Being a national trail, I expected there to be some sort of obvious sign on the front. I stood in the sunshine looking around for any indication of a sign. With nothing obvious showing up, I sat down on an uncomfortable seat and googled the start of the North Downs way. I had hoped to find coordinates or a grid reference. Ah, such naivety. Eventually I found a picture that suggested that the start finish post is actually a line on the ground. With this info I soon found the start of the trail. I was glad I hadn’t just walked here from Farnham to find it…

The Start/Finish of the North Downs Way (the shiny line in the middle of the picture).

For anyone else hoping to find such a point I saved a waypoint into my GPS – 51.122521°N 1.315339°E (or TR 32098 41142 in OS Grid).

Having found the trail I followed the first NDW sign through an underpass into the bustling heart of Dover’s high street. Here I promptly lost the signs again, and with not enough detail on my 1:40k map, I wandered round to Pencester Road, where I finally picked up the trail again. Here the sign was more obvious showing where I should have gone.

I followed the signs through the wide streets of Dover, the route showing a gentle incline. Here and there signs of spring poked through. Daffodils, Blackthorn blossom, Hazel catkins.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) blossom at Connaught Park

I left the streets on Connaught road and followed a sunken path through a grave yard to join the old Roman Road, that climbs the hill out of the Valley and left Dover proper.

By now the sun had come out and the it was warming up into a pleasant spring day. Alas there was a slight chilly breeze so I wasn’t able to lose my windproof. The first part of the path towards the A2 has recently been resurfaced and was rather pleasant to walk along with fields on each side. Like much of the North Downs Way you can’t get far from the sound of traffic and as I headed north the sound of the A2 got louder.

On the OS map the North Downs Way is shown as crossing the A2 directly near what is now a slip road, but the Harveys Map and the sign posts show a detour to cross the A2 at a bridge.

Crossing the bridge I found the green lane that the NDW follows at this point with a large concrete block in the middle of it. I didn’t think much of this, and continued on. From here, with the A2 just metres away on my left, looking north I could see all the way to Ramsgate, and the Thanet wind farm in the distance. Shame that the foreground seemed to involve someones dump…

Ramsgate and the Isle of Thanet in the distance.

The path was heavily rutted, boggy in places, and made for interesting travel. At one point I had to inch along the side hanging off the branches of the hawthorn bushes to avoid the bog the path had become. When I got to the end of the rutted section I found another large concrete block and a sign. Apparently this section has been closed for 6 months so that they can fix the damaged surface. Alas the sign saying this seems to have gone missing from the other end. I took the opportunity of a seat (the concrete block) to have a snack and a drink. I then filtered some water from a nearby cattle trough before continuing on.

Rutted green lane

The path opened out onto open farmland, you could see from the terrain that this section used to be an trackway used for carts, but hasn’t seen such traffic in years. The fields were lush with green growth. Because of the noise of the traffic on the earlier section, I was walking along listening to podcasts on my headphones. This meant I didn’t hear when the dry bag with my loo roll in it fell off the outside of my pack where I had tied it on earlier. I only realised this as I was approaching the A256. I wasn’t prepared to backtrack to find it, so pressed on.

Many shades of green, the lush growth of spring.

In need of the loo and to refill my water bottles, I diverted just past the A256 to the Cider Works. It’s marked as a pub on the Harveys Map, but it’s actually a licensed cafe with slightly odd opening hours. I arrived just before the shut at 4pm, bought a slice of cake and an apple juice. They kindly refilled my water bottles. Restocked and rested, I once again moved on.

Rejoining the NDW, the landscape changes once again. I crossed through a church yard into pasture, through a small copse and into the lands of a country estate. I wanderd past giant mature trees, timeless pasture, and a country pile the size of which I had not expected.

An unexpected Mansion.

Leaving the pastoral land I crossed into a wheat field that filled a whole valley. I ascended the other side into a small woodland, then back into farmland for the last couple of kilometres to Shepherdswell.

The staff at the Cider works had said that one of the pubs in Shepherswell had recently closed, but they couldn’t remember which one it was. Fortunately the one that is still open is the one nearest the NDW, and I exited the path next to the church yard and into the pub.

The Bell Inn, Shepherdswell – A welcome sight.

The pub had a small crowd round the main bar area, and the conversation seemed to reduce somewhat as I came in. I walked past them all with my large pack, a couple of them making comments. I collapsed onto a sofa and ordered a pint.

I knew I had only a kilometre or so until my planned bivvi location and I had a couple of hours until sunset. Not wanting to make camp until the sun was down, it seemed the logical choice was to stay in the pub until dark… It’s a hard life sometimes…

Three pints of courage and a delicious fish ‘n’ chips later, I left the pub into the star light. I wandered through the horse pastures of Shepherdswell onto where the NDW joins a country lane heading north. Away from much of the light pollution I had a clear view of the stars, and with Orion on my left, and Cassiopeia on my right, I headed north.

Somewhere north of Shepherdswell I left the NDW and found a spot to bivvi in an area of coppiced broadleaf trees. It wasn’t the best spot, but it was away from the trail, had some shelter from an earth bank, and it wasn’t under a Yew tree. Between the exhaustion of the hike, the 3 pints of beer and the cold, I didn’t linger long. I put up my tarp, rolled out the bivvi bag, and crawled in, still fully dressed. It was cold so I wore my Torres jacket inside the sleeping bag.

I lay there listening to the local wildlife, something rustled in the leaf litter, and in the distance an owl called. But as I lay there I realised that I was shivering. Actual body shaking shivers. This was not good. I was in a 5°C sleeping bag, inside a heat reflecting bivvi bag, with an insulating jacket inside that. I rooted about in my pack to find the space blanket that was inevitably at the bottom. I unfolded it and put it between the bivvi bag and the sleeping bag. With this in place, I curled up tight and drifted off to sleep.

I woke just after first light, I might have started the night shivering cold but I was now comfortably warm. I ventured a hand out of the warmth to check the outside of my sleeping bag. As I had feared the non breathable space blanket had lead to lots of condensation on the outside of my sleeping bag. I crawled out into the woodland and stretched, before wandering off a short way to irrigate a tree. As I returned to my camp I realised just how badly I had made camp the night before. Certainly not my finest camp…

Not my best tarp pitching…

I stretched my sleeping bag out so that it could dry. The DWR coating on the bag had done it’s job and the moisture had pooled on the outside of the bag. It dried quite quickly, and just 45 minutes after I had crawled out of my bivvi bag, I stepped back out onto the trail.

Whilst Friday had been warm with beautiful spring sunshine, Saturday was an altogether chillier and greyer affair.

Grey skies looking towards Thanet.

From here onwards the NDW passes along side large open fields. The hedgerows of the previous day were gone, and with them their shelter from the wind. Where the path came close to a road edge, some scrote had fly tipped their rubbish.

I trudged northwards. Whilst on Friday I had covered 21.8km and didn’t feel too bad, just 5km into Saturdays hike and my feet were starting to ache. My old injury back with vengeance. I continued on, the pain increasing with every passing kilometre.

At Barham Downs I found the field the NDW passes through being ploughed by a couple of very large tractors, taking with it the obvious route through the field. I skirted along the edge where there was another path. On reaching the end of the field I had a small navigational hickup, and stopped to double check using viewranger. Position checked, I found the path a few metres beyond where I had thought it would be, and continued on.

Freshly ploughed path…

Once again the NDW joins a large road, this time following along the A2 for a short section near Bridge. The pain in my feet was getting considerable, and I decided that it would be best if I diverted to Bekesbourne station and the train back to Canterbury.

Bekesbourne only has one train an hour in each direction, and not wanting to have to wait 58 minutes on a platform with no seat or shelter having watched a train depart, I pressed onwards. I passed through the pretty village of Patrixbourne, before turning off the North Downs Way into Bekesbourne.

As I hobbled along Station Approach, I heard the sound of the approaching train, and with the last drops of will power, broke into a run. The train pulled into the station when I was about 50 yards from the platform. The Guard stepped onto the platform as a handful of passengers got off. The guard saw me and I waved, calling out “please wait!”. The kind guard held the train for me blowing his whistle and closing the door behind me as I stepped onto the train. I collapsed into a seat for the short trip to Canterbury. I’d managed just over 10km today, crossing off most of the NDW between Dover and Canterbury. I’ll have to come back for the final 3.5km.

Skills: Campfire bread

I wanted to have a go at baking bread over an open fire (ideally without resorting to very heavy Dutch ovens). After much research it seemed that dry baking was the way to go.

Dry baking is basically sticking one pot inside another with the item you’re baking inside the inner pot. The inner pot is kept from the outer pot by some sort of separator. You can buy dry baking kits designed for hiking, but being on a budget and with most of these being US in origin, I decided to have a go at using stuff I already had.

Equipment wise I used two Tatonka stainless steel kettles, the 1.6L and the 1.0L.

The recipe was for a simple white loaf.

  • 500g Strong white flour
  • 1 Sachet bread yeast
  • Salt
  • Slug of olive oil
  • Warm water

I mixed the ingredients together in the 1.6L pot. In hindsight I put a bit too much water in, which made a very damp mix. Fortunately the friend I was camping with had some spare flour, unfortunately it was self raising flour. After a bit of kneeding the dough was left in the covered pot by the fire for it’s first rise. I was making this outdoors in April so needed the warmth of the fire to get a rise within a reasonable time frame.

First rise of the bread next to the fire

First rise of the bread next to the fire

First rise went pretty well, but it became apparent that 500g of flour makes a lot of bread, I split the dough roughly in half, one half for my experiment and the other half I gave to my camp mate for her to experiment with. Knocked back and with a brief kneed, I left the dough in the lid of the 1.0L pot with a loose covering of foil to keep it from drying out. The dough spent about half an hour next to the fire rising.

Bread dough rising

Second rise after knocking back.

While the dough had it’s second rise I built up the fire. It had been burning since breakfast that morning, but I turned the Just A Pile Of Sticks™ fire lay into a log cabin fire lay. The fire wood was seasoned hornbeam approximately wrist thick. The aim was to get a good hot bed of embers.

I dropped the dough in it’s lid into the 1.6L pot, with a layer of aluminium foil in the bottom crumpled slightly to provide a gap between the outer pot and the inner pot. Then it was just a case of putting the pot on the fire, and hoping…

While the bread cooked, I carved a butter knife out of a piece of green hornbeam.

Pot over the fire.

Bread in “the oven”.

After about 40 minutes I took the lid off the outer pot to take a look. It looked like the dough was cooking nicely on the underside, but not fully cooked on the top. I gave it a bit longer while I had a think, before deciding to turn the bread over. I had oiled the lid before I put the dough in, but hadn’t managed to fully coat the rim and the bread was stuck. Eventually with some levering and poking with sticks, I got it separated.

Inverted, the dough got another 20 minutes or so. I then just had the slight issue of how to get the bread out the pot without burning myself. After inverting the bread into the lid of the 1.6L pot, then turning that back out onto the ground. The result? One good looking loaf of bread, with a nice hollow sound when tapped.

Bread

Bread fresh out the oven – Good crust.

Slicing the bread through the middle, it was cooked through. Just perfect. The crust was not brilliant, I’d forgotten to score the top of the loaf before cooking. But inside the crumb was lovely. I might not win any prizes on bake off, but for a loaf of bread cooked over an open fire in the middle of the woods. I am pleased.

White bread.

Good crumb!

Of course the proof of the loaf is in the eating. Served up with some salted butter, spread with a simple hand carved butter knife, the loaf didn’t last long, disappearing in about 10 minutes. The taste wasn’t the best I’ve ever made, I think it could have done with a bit more salt. But it was certainly tasty enough that it all got eaten. In future I think I’ll use about half the flour and increase the salt. I’m guessing 200-250g of flour is about right for this size pot setup.

All in all, tasty fresh bread baked on an open fire, using no specialised equipment, just the stuff I have in my pack, I’m pleased with that.

Next time I may have to see if I can bake a cake…

Bread and butter.

Bread and Butter. Butter knife carved while the bread cooked.

 

REVIEW: AMK SOL Escape Bivvi Bag.

AMK SOL Escape Bivvi in use in December 2015.

On paper it looks too good to be true. An 8.6oz (243g) breathable bivvi bag that also reflects back your own body heat. The name, Adventure Medical Kits Survive Outdoors Longer Escape Bivvi is quite a mouthful. When I first came across it on the AMK website I thought it had to be worth testing out. If the claims are true here’s a 250g piece of kit that can replace my bivvi bag and sleeping bag in the warmer months of the year. A massive saving on weight.

AMK make the Escape bivvi both in ORANGE and in an Olive drab. Unfortunately the UK importer only imports the ORANGE version and not the green. Fortunately the green version can be had on Amazon.com, including delivery to the UK. Even better it worked out half the price of buying the orange version in the UK. Win.

AMK SOL Escape Bivvi with 1L Nalgene bottle for scale

As it comes the bivvi bag is packed into it’s stuff sack, which is made out of the same fabric as the bivvi bag itself. When it arrives is the only time it will ever be that size, after using and repacking it a few times it sort of settles at about the size of a Nalgene bottle. Not quite as small as originally packaged.

The fabric is sold as breathable and heat reflective bivvi bag that can even replace a sleeping bag down to 50°F. Pah! No chance.

The bag reflects back most of your body heat, which is great, but because it’s next to your body it’s not able to prevent conductive and convection loses. I’ve tried various permutations of fully clothed, just a base layer, with a sleeping bag liner. Even testing it inside when the temperature was about 18°C, it just wasn’t warm enough to use on it’s own.

So what about with a sleeping bag? This is where you come up against the other major issue with the bag, the size. In order to keep the weight down they have made the bag quite small. Whilst I fit in it length wise, it’s a tight fit round the torso. I can fit in with my summer sleeping bag, but with my winter bag it compresses the insulation so much that you don’t get the benefit and end up with cold spots. With a summer sleeping bag inside, this bag does provide extra warmth and can give a few extra degrees performance from your sleeping bag. But, if it’s too warm, and you start to sweat, you hit the next issue.

Breath-ability. This is an interesting one. AMK claim that the bag is breathable. And I’m sure it is, to a point. AMK do not list a Moisture Vapour Transmission Rate, the measure by of how well a fabric breathes. So whilst I’m sure that some moisture escapes, it certainly doesn’t seem to be all of it. I have had a few dry nights sleep with the Escape Bivvi, these have been nights where the ambient temp has balanced well with the combo of sleeping bag and bivvi bag. In summer where I’ve ended up slightly too warm and thus sweated, you get a damp bag.

So it’s not particularly warm, and it doesn’t seem too great at letting the water out. Does it at least not let the water in? In a word: No. If used under a tarp, or on a dry night, it’ll keep the dew off your sleeping bag, and it’ll be OK with the odd spray that may come in the side of the tarp. But used in a rain storm, you’re gonna get wet.

So is it all bad news? Not entirely. As an emergency survival bag it’s light enough to drop in your pack and should keep you alive until Mountain Rescue can find you, and on nights where you want to keep the dew off your sleeping bag and the temperature is just right, it does work. If AMK made a slightly larger version so you could get a winter sleeping bag to fully loft inside, the extra warmth the reflective fabric gives would be useful. But for a bag that has so much promise, so much potential, AMK seem to have ended up well short of the mark.

REVIEW: Exped Lightning 60 & Flash Pocket

For a while now I’ve been wanting a new pack for winter use as well as for longer multi day trips where I need to carry more than 2-3 days food. My Osprey Tempest 30 is a great pack, but it’s 30L capacity becomes a limit when I want to use my big bulky synthetic winter sleeping bag.

After much deliberation I narrowed my Choices down to 4 packs. Osprey Exos 58(1.37kg), Z-Packs Arc Blast 60(601g), Gossamer gear Mariposa(825g (medium)), and the Exped Lightning 60(1120g). Despite being heavier than both the Arc Blast and the Mariposa, I decided on the Exped. Whilst my kit is lightweight, and getting lighter, I still have heavy synthetic sleeping bags, as well as wanting a pack for use when I need to carry several days worth of food. Working on an assumption of 800-1000g per day for food, a weeks food is 7kg. Given the Arc Blast and the Mariposa seem to top out capacity wise at around 35lb, the 24kg (note unit change) capacity of the Exped leaves me with plenty of comfortable range. Sure I don’t want to carry a 20kg pack any great distance, but knowing that my pack isn’t going to be massively uncomfortable after resupply is nice.

Main Pack

Backpack hanging in tree.

The pack in use with Flash pocket on the outside.

Enough of why I bought it, onto what I bought. The pack is pretty much as basic a pack as you could want. In terms of construction it’s effectively a dry bag style main compartment, with a couple of stretch side pockets, a compression system, all attached to a back system. Exped list the weight as 1120g, my pack comes in at 1070g on my scales.

The bag has a closure system similar to a dry bag, but the seams are not sealed so it shouldn’t be submersed or treated like a dry bag. It’s made from a Dyneema grid stop fabric which doesn’t seem to be that crisp packetty like Cuban fibre and Sil Nylon can be, but not quite as quiet as canvas. The fabric is 210 denier thick, 160gsm nylon with Dyneema reinforcing, all with a waterproof PU coating with a 15000mm hydrostatic head. Or put simply: a durable ripstop fabric. I went for the black pack as it was the colour least likely to stick out when walking in the wilderness. I don’t like bright colours in the outdoors and prefer if I can blend in with my surroundings, rather than being visual pollution.

Next to where the T bar of the back system attaches to the pack there is a waterproof zip that gives access to a pocket. On my first trip out I accidentally left this zip open by a couple of millimetres and it made the contents rather damp. This  pocket is effectively a free floating flap inside the pack, I find it helps when closing the pack to lay it across the top of the contents so you can access it easier from outside. On the inside of the pack the pocket has a separate zipped mesh compartment. Other than that the inside of the pack is just one big compartment, no dividers, no zips, just a simple bag of holding.

On the each side of the pack there is a stretch pocket, these are plenty big enough for a 1L Nalgene bottle, I tend to carry a 1.5L Evernew water pouch in the right hand pocket which fits nicely. When this pack was first released, the side compression strap went over the top of the side pockets greatly reducing their utility. Exped have since released a new version (the 2014 version I have), which routes the strap through the pocket, so that it doesn’t interrupt it’s use. If you want you can still rethread the compression strap over the top of the pocket.

The rest of the pack is criss crossed with a selection of compression straps. These are made of a lightweight webbing tape which isn’t the most stable of straps. If you pull it too tight it tends to curl into a cylinder rather than remaining flat. In practice this hasn’t been an issue to me. The straps are long enough that I can fit a CCF roll mat on the side of the pack. To avoid having excess flapping about in the wind each strap has a velcro wrapping so you can roll up the excess, it’s a nice touch.

Along with the compression straps there is space for a couple of ice axes or similar, plus a few extra loops you could thread with bungee cord if you wanted to add a roll mat to the bottom, or carry something else on the outside.

All in all the storage section of the pack is basic and to the point. In the trips I’ve used it I’ve not found any real issues with the compression straps, or lack of compartments. Exped seem to have got a really good balance of features vs simplicity.

Back System

The back system of the pack.

The back system of the pack.

If you judged this pack my it’s storage compartment alone then it would be nothing special, just a simple back pack. Where Exped’s ingenuity has shone through however is in the back system.

The core of the back system is a central corrugated aluminium stay. This slots into a slot at the top of the pack where it interacts with a cross piece and into a slot in the hip belt at the bottom. The hip belt is made up of 3 large foam sections, one fits into the lumber part of your back, and then the two sides wrap round your waist (this is clearer if you look at the photo above). The shoulder harness has a yoke shape which is free to slide up and down on the aluminium stay, but held at their upper reach by a webbing strap marked with S M L (small medium Large), that fits to a tri-glide attached to the hip belt. There are a pair of load lifters that come from the T bar and attach to the shoulder yoke. A grab handle also connects to the T bar.

This arrangement of straps, metal and foam allows for a back system that transfers the load onto the hips like no other pack I’ve tried (I’ve tried too many…). Fully loaded with 10kg of kit, with the waist belt cinched into place, the load is transferred onto the hip belt so effectively that I can loosen off the shoulder straps, and the pack just stays in place. You only really need the shoulder straps to stop the pack from tilting backwards.

Dialling in the back system is not the simplest task, but Exped has released a pair of videos, one on course tuning of the back system, and one on fine tuning it. I spent about 15 mins getting the back system tuned perfectly for me (shoulder yoke all the way down, and the Ali stay bent slightly to match my spine). Having done so I don’t expect to have to adjust it again.

The hip belt has a zipped stretch side pocket on each side. This pocket is large enough for my first aid kit to fit in the left one, and for snacks or a compact camera to fit in the other.

The pack comes in both men’s and women’s fit. Alas Exped have fallen into the trap of assuming women want bright colours and only do the women’s version in Terracotta (a red) and Deep Sea Blue. Neither colour seemed to be ideal for not standing out. On the men’s range it comes in Black or Lichen Green. The green is a bit too light and bright for my tastes. Hence going for the black. One of my few complaints is the choices of colours. I got the men’s pack in black and even with my ample chest it seems to work OK.

One modification I’ve done is to attach a small loop of bungee to the webbing on each shoulder strap, This gives me a horizontal point to attach my DeLorme inReach Explorer on the left strap, and my Petzl Zipka 2+ on the right strap. It’s a simple mod that adds a couple of grams.

Flash Pocket

To go with the Lightning range of packs Exped have released the Flash Pocket. Weighing 80g, this is a large dump pocket that attaches to the front of the pack. One side of the pocket is solid fabric, and one is mesh, depending on which way round you attach it allows you to either have some weather protection to it’s contents, or an airy breath-ability. I find the flash pocket useful for things like a damp tarp, water proof jacket, and the days food. As well as things I’ve forgotten to put into the pack before I closed it up. At about £8 quid it’s a nice extra to have.

The design of the pocket, whilst intended for the Lightning range of packs, is not limited to them, and could be used with other packs.

Summary

In summary this pack might not be the lightest on the market, but whereas many packs have the sole selling point of their weight, this pack’s ability to carry load more comfortably than any other pack I’ve come across sets it apart, and even justifies the few extra grams.

Light weight, yet able to take those heavier loads when necessary. I can’t recommend this pack highly enough. When I have the money I hope to get the 45L version for when the 60L is overkill.

The only area the pack is let down is in the available colours. If it came in a nice dark green, it would be perfect.

I bought my pack from Backpackinglight.co.uk and the flash pocket from Ultralight Outdoor Gear.

ADVENTURE: January Bushcraft Microadventure.

After several weeks stuck indoors due to incessant rain. I was looking for any chance to get out for a night in the woods. This weekend showed a clear window where not only should it not rain, but it may even drop below 0°C. It seemed a perfect chance to get out and test my winter kit.

I was joined on this trip by my friend Lyn, and we headed to a bit of woodland somewhere in east Kent.

The woodland is made up over overstood hornbeam(Carpinus betulus) coppice with a smattering of Silver Birch(Betula pendula) and Chestnut(Castanea sativa).

It was a 10 minute walk from the car to our chosen camp site. When we got there Lyn pitched her tent and I started gathering fire wood. I was planning to just use my bivvi bag with no tarp, so would leave the pitching of my camp (if you can call unrolling a bivvi bag and inflating a sleep mat pitching), until I was ready for bed, that way my kit shouldn’t get damp from any dew. I hung my pack off a tree by my selected camp spot, and cleared the larger logs and anything that might dig in out the way.

Wood gathered, I set a small cooking fire and sat back to drink tea in the woodland surroundings.

Pot over camp fire

Boiling the Kettle

As it started to get dark, I preped dinner while I still had some light. Lyn started her dinner on the grill over the fire, while I stuck a jacket potato and my char cloth tin in the embers underneath.

Cooking dinner over the fire

Cooking dinner over the fire

While dinner cooked I played around with my fire lighting kit I had brought with me. I tried lighting a bit of char cloth with a flint and steel. The char cloth wasn’t very good, it was from a batch that hadn’t charred all the way through, so I didn’t hold out much hope. I was just doing it to pass the time. Thus I was rather surprised when the char cloth caught a spark on the second strike. Normally it takes a few strikes to get a spark to land on the cloth. Not wanting to use up all my char cloth I put the fire kit away and warmed my feed by the fire while dinner cooked.

Socked feed warming by a camp fire

Warming my feet by the fire

Dinner eaten we sat watching the fire, enjoying the surroundings until it was time for bed.

Glowing embers.The fire started to die back to embers, the sky clouding over, it was time to turn in. I pitched my camp under the hornbeam tree, and crawled into my bivvi bag to watch the clouds slowly drifting across the sky.

Woods at night

View from my bivvi bag.

Despite my efforts to warm my feet by the fire both big toes were slightly chilled in my sleeping bag and as I lay there they got colder, so do did my legs. After about half hour of hoping they would warm up, I admitted defeat and commenced the solo wrestling match that is trying to put a pair of trousers on inside a sleeping bag liner inside a sleeping bag inside a bivvi bag when the sleeping bag is a tight fit anyway… I also tried to warm my toes with my hands. Not wanting to risk being too cold I took the opportunity to put on my Páramo Torres insulated Jacket.

Fully dressed I lay down in my sleeping bag feeling hopeful of a warm nights sleep.

A few restless hours sleep later I woke with a full bladder and very numb toes. Returning from the bushes I gave my toes a longer session in my hands to coax some warmth into them. This seemed to do the trick, and as the sky started to show some signs of lightening up, I snuggled down into my sleeping bag for a few more hours sleep.

I was woken in day light to a snow flake landing on my nose. I wasn’t expecting precipitation so hadn’t used a tarp. Looking out from my bivvi bag it didn’t look like this was a concerted effort at snow fall, and opted for cinching my bivvi bag down to a hole just large enough to breath through, rolled onto my side and went back to sleep.

Eventually the prospect of bacon was enough to lure me from my cocoon, and I grudgingly left the warm to investigate breakfast.

Bivvi bag under a tree.

My camp for the night.

Lyn lit the fire and I cooked a couple of rounds of bacon rolls along with some coffee as we both woke up properly, trying to put off the inevitable.

Fed and watered and with the first spits of rain, we broke camp and returned to the outside world, refreshed by a very pleasant night in the woods.

SKILLS: Small cooking fire

When out and about I often find huge fire scars from where people have lit large camp fires and always despair at the damage and the wastefulness of such a large fire.

So I thought while I was out in the woods, I’d take some pictures of a simple camp fire that’s big enough to cook over without needing to deforest half of Kent.

In order to give a sense of size I’ve put 4 pegs in marking a the corners of a square one Bahco Laplander(folded) by one Bahco Laplander(folded) each side. Or if you prefer 235mm x 235mm (approx 9¼” x 9¼” in old money). That’s an area of 0.0552m² (or 0.594ft²).

I started off by laying a raft of small logs, these are roughly an inch or so in width.

Then I prepared a 4 piles of wood. The first is wood less than a pencil’s width in thickness, then we have finger thickness, then thumb thickness, than a few pieces that were slightly larger.

Materials prepared and ready to go, I arranged a small pile on the raft. This consisted of a couple of pieces of birch bark I found on fallen tree, and some wood shavings, with a handful of the thinnest wood on top of that.

With everything prepared, I lit a tinderquik fire tab with a spark from my sparklite. This was then placed into the centre of the wood shavings and birch bark.

It didn’t take long for the bark to catch the small kindling.

With the fire well lit I fed it with material from the piles, working up in size as each pile was exhausted. I also put a Tatonka 1L billy can over the fire with the 0.5L of water needed to make a mug of tea.

In some respects this fire was a little over kill for the size of the pot I was boiling, but I wanted the ember bed for use later to cook a jacket potato.

But it didn’t take long for the pot to come to the boil.

With the tea stewing, the fire starts to die down a bit. At this point if I was cooking something abit more substantial I could feed some more into to keep it going. But if not, just leaving it to burn down at this point, before dowsing it in water when ready to move away would work.

How much fuel did this small fire use? Not much. I used all of the pencil thin pile, half of the finger pile, and a few pieces from the bigger pile.

Tea drunk, we built the fire up a bit in order to cook 2 meals. The same basic size was maintained, but we added a larger log on each side to give it some structure, and piled a few of the thicker logs on. The log on the right of the picture is let over from a previous fire on this site.

All in all this 0.0552m² fire was used to cook a pot of baked beans, a pair of lamb burgers, a jacket potatoe and 1L of chicken stew. As well as a couple of mugs of tea, and a tin of charcloth. It then provided us with a fire to sit by on the chilly (0°C) evening as we enjoyed the woods.

Some times a big fire is the right thing to do. But most of the time a small fire is just the trick. It even comes with the added advantage that you don’t need to collect as much firewood. The only tool I used for the processing of wood on this fire was the Bahco Laplander.