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.

 

KIT: Stayling Alive Cold Kit

Inspired by Susanne’s Williams thread on making a Staying alive cold kit, I decided to make one of my own. Not wanting to faff about cutting up space blankets, I decided to throw a tiny amount of cash at the problem.

Adventure Medical Kits make a couple of useful items that make a SAC kit really simple. My kit is made up of:

  • AMK Survive Outdoors Longer Survival Poncho
  • AMK SOL Emergency Blanket
  • Storm matches
  • 3 x tea lights
  • NATO Aviators fire kit
  • Alpkit dry bag to store it all.

Staying alive cold kit contents.

I won’t duplicate the content of Suzanne’s thread on how to use a SAC kit, but for those who haven’t read it, the basic idea is something that fits in a pocket when out in winter, whilst providing enough basic shelter and warmth to survive the night. The whole lot was largely used to hit the free postage threshold on amazon.com, and comes in under 20 quid. The only downside, is that the poncho + blanket seem to be of the kind that once unfolded, you will never get them as small and well folded up ever again…

Postscript:

Since I put this kit together I’ve had to use parts of it in anger once. Cycling to the station after college I got too hot, perspired too much, and soaked my base layer. Sitting at the station for 35 minutes in -3°C, I started to chill, so resorted to using the space blanket from my SAC kit to keep myself warm until the train arrived.

ADVENTURE: Getting high in the low countries

There is a sinister Dutchman sitting at this table writing. The pen scratching over the paper as I stare impassively at my phone waiting for twitter to update.

A gust of wind, a thunder clap, the windows shake. We both look up at the windows, rain streaming down them in sheets.

I’m sat in the common room of a Youth Hostel somewhere in the German speaking part of Eastern Belgium. I’m waiting for a friend who’s flying in from Oman to rescue me. I’m not supposed to be here. This isn’t how this adventure was supposed to turn out.

Day 1 – Getting high.

Collectively Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands are known as the low countries. Mention them and people tend to picture the polder landscapes of the west, the beautiful architecture of Ghent, and the strong dark beers of Rochefort. But look at a map, and you notice that it’s not all flat earth. The eastern side of the BeNeLux is marked by an area of hills, The Ardennes. They are predominantly in Belgium and Luxembourg, but stretch into Germany and France. I had to be in Wiltz for the Linux Bier Wanderung, so as I was going to be in the area, decided to turn up a few days early and have a bit of a cycle tour. Looking at the map It occured to me that the highest points of the three countries, Kneiff (560masl), Signal de Botrange (694masl) and Valserberg (322masl) form a neat line 66.4km from north to south. That’s cycling distance. A plan formed.

Starting from where my previous Luxembourg cycle adventure started, in Wiltz, I would cycle north to the three high points of the three BeNeLux countries, then hang a right to Aachen for a train back to Wiltz. I played around with route planners and maps, and eventually I had a rough route plan. 123km total distance, over 3 days with a total ascent of 1719m. This split into 3 sections, Wiltz to Kneiff – 36.6km, Kneiff to Signal de Botrange – 51km, Signal de Botrange to Valserberg – 35.5km. Even better the elevation graph showed that from Signal de Botrange to Valserberg was basically 30km of down hill. I loaded my Brompton with kit for a bivvi, 3 days food, a pile of maps (three for Belgium, 2 for Luxembourg). And left for the Eurostar.

Tuesday was spent travelling via Eurostar and train to Luxembourg city. I spent the evening there, exploring a bit and finding a rather novel cycle path with a spiral stair case on it (I hope sustrans don’t get any ideas…). Then on Wednesday morning I took the train from Luxembourg station North towards Wiltz.

I had tried to find a bike shop in Luxembourg city so I could buy a bike bottle, I’d discovered to my disgust that the bottle I had bought with me had gone a bit manky and wasn’t something I wanted to drink from, even after putting a puritab through it. I texted a friend in Belgium via my inReach asking for UTM coordinates of some bike shops in Luxembourg. Turns out that there are more bike shops in the Canterbury postcode than there are in the whole of Luxembourg… looking at the options it seemed the most accessible would be to get off at Mersch, and do the 5k round trip to the bike shop at Rollingen.

Brief bike shop visit including asking them to pump my tyres up, complete with using fingers to show what pressure, and I returned to the station for the train journey to Wiltz with a nice clean new bottle, as well as a free bottle of water the bike shop insisted on giving me.

Changing trains with a fully loaded Brompton at Kautenbach was a less than pleasant experience. It seems that Luxembourg hasn’t quite realised that the point of a railway platform is to get you upto the height of the train, rather than a small step to get you on the bottom rung of a ladder to climb into the train…

Fully Loaded Brompton

Eventually I arrived in Wiltz, and headed to Camping Kaul where I was staying for the Linux Bier Wanderung, and had arranged to leave the baggage I didn’t need for my cycle trip. I quick bite to eat in their Bistro, and I hit the road.

I needed to pick up some meths for my stove, so I swung by the local supermarket. They sold 1L bottles of the stuff, but were out of stock at the time. I decided I’d try at the next town with a shop… I didn’t realise the that I wouldn’t see another shop until the following day in Sankt Vith.

Leaving the supermarket I headed out of town. It was a beautiful sunny day and Europe basked in a heat wave. I was full of enthusiasm for the ride ahead of me and followed the GPS trace past the local brewery, up the hill.

I knew this hill was here, I was expecting it. It showed as an almost vertical cliff on the elevation graph (due to compression of the X axis). But I wasn’t quite prepared for it. I dropped down the gears to first, and continued to pedal. I managed about 200m of horizontal distance before I had reached the limits of the gearing. I got off and pushed.

Day 1 elevation graph.

Day 1 elevation graph.

One foot in front of the other I plodded up the hill, the sun beating down on me. There was no shade. I stopped after a couple km in the shade of a barn to have a drink and let my temperature drop. I may be cooking, but I was feeling good. Temperature back down to normalish, I continued up the hill to Noertrange. Another water stop in a convenient bus shelter, then back on the bike. The major climb was over and I was on what should be a plateaux. It had taken me 45 minutes to cover just 2.3km. Now I should finally be able to start riding and put distance under my belt.

Leaving Noertrange I entered an area of woodland. The shade was welcome, but the gradient wasn’t. Rather than push, I took a 5 minute break to enjoy the scenery. Before continuing onwards.

Climbing out of Noertrange

Past Derenbach, onwards to Allerborn. In the fields around me various bits of agricultural machinery toiled away reaping the harvest of golden cereal crops that stretched out on all sides. In one field the wind had kicked up the dust and chaff into spinning vortexes.

The route here went down hill slightly, being able to freewheel down the hill was wonderful, but back in my mind I knew that every metre I went down, I would just have to claw back later.

I left the metalled road at Allerborn and followed a track up hill towards Troine Route. On this ascent a ache in my feet progressed into pain and onwards through towards excruciating. I pulled over in the shade of some birch trees at Troine-Route and took my shoes and socks off. There was no obvious signs of what would be causing the pain. Then I touched my feet. Turns out I had just discovered what it feels like to try cooking your own limbs while still attached. Not something I would recommend. I put the socks into my bag, so much for cool in summer…

Letting my feet cool down in the shade of some Birch trees

Cooling down in the shade of the stand of silver birch, I studied the map. Here my planned route was a deviation west towards the Belgian border, before swinging east to Troine. Looking up from the map towards the direction of travel. I looked down on Belgium. Hmmm. I studied the map some more, comparing spot hikes in the area. If I was to stand any chance in this heat I was going to have to adapt. I decided to deviate from my route and head on the main road to Troine. This should cut some ascent as well as maybe shortening my journey by half a k or so.

I didn’t regret the decision, I managed to clear some distance quickly passing Troine I headed North for Belgium.

I crossed the border at about 17km into my trip. 2 hours 42 minutes after I had left Wiltz. There are signs either side of the road marking the border between Luxembourg and Belgium, but you don’t really need them. You can tell that you’ve crossed border by the state of the road. Gone was the beautiful smooth tarmac, replaced by the pot hole slalom towards Buret.

Just over 1km into Belgium I turned right onto a disused railway that has been turned into a cycle path. It’s marked on my map as RAVel. By choosing a disused railway I hoped that it’s relative flatness would allow me to cover some distance. Oh my misguided foolishness.

Yes railways don’t have steep inclines, no they have have long slow laborious gradients. False flat. It looks flat, until you start to ride it. But it was better than the steep hills I had been slogging up so I took the opportunity to get my head down and pedal some. I averaged about 22kph on this section, peaking at over 30kph at one point.

My planned route involved turning off the railway line just outside Limerlé. This is where I found the slight error in my map work. Sure the railway line crossed the road at this point. But not at the same height. This wasn’t a level crossing, this was a bridge. And there was no easy way to get from it to the road. I’d just have to continue on along the railway line until I found a way off. This blunder added about 3km to my journey.

I left the railway and climbed up towards Hautbellair. Somewhere around here I finished the last of the water. It had been over 34°C during the afternoon, and I was starting to get hot. I needed water. A need that was growing in urgency as I went on.

Every field of livestock I passed I looked to see if I could get water from the trough. Not one that I passed had an accessible valve, and quite a few were clearly filled not off a pipe but by the farmer from a bowser. Every stream marked on my map was dried up. The one I did find was next to a field that showed very obvious signs of recently being treated with Glyphosphate.

My map showed a stream in the woods just North of Goedange. Maybe I could fill up from this.

As I headed towards Goedange the climb started, 110m over 2km. The first symptoms of hyperthermia were starting to show. I started to look everywhere for water, eyeing up every puddle, trying to weigh the risk vs reward of trying to filter it.

At the 35k mark my planned route took me off East to join the Vennrad cycle route. But when I got to the turning, it was impassable. I continued North East towards the main road at Knauf. If I didn’t find something to drink soon I was going to be in trouble. In my befuggled mind I tried to run over the options. Could this be grounds to hit the SOS function on my inReach? Was I going to give myself Heat stroke? As I left the woods a few hundred meters before Knauf I saw a building. I would stop there and ask for water, I had to. As I pushed closer the building came into focus. This wasn’t just any building. This was a bar. No wait, a restaurant. WATER!

I pulled up at the restaurant, and hobbled upto the bar a pair of empty water pouches in hand.

“Wasser, Aqua, Water.” Proffering them the pouches to fill. As one bartender filled my pouches I turned to another and asked for a Fanta. He handed me the bottle and the glass. I downed the bottle and asked for another. He gave me a slightly strange look and handed me another bottle. Two full pouches, and a bottle of Fanta in hand, I hobbled over to a table and collapsed into a seat.

Status check. As I sat rehydrating, I ran my mind over my condition. I couldn’t remember the symptoms of hyperthermia, so resorted to googling them. I ran through the symptoms. Heavy sweating. Check. Rapid breathing. Check. Fast weak pulse. I tried to take my radial pulse. Nothing. I switched to the other arm. Nothing. I switched to the carotid. There, something. It’s there. But it’s feint. And it’s fast. I drank some more.

I texted a friend back in the UK updating on my situation. Before I arrived in the bar, I’d drunk over 5L of water. Yet I hadn’t pee’d in over 6 hours. Getting out of the sun and rehydrating, my mind started to clear. I ordered another Fanta and tried to regain my composure. The text exchange with the friend helped me decide that I would rest here until just before sunset (about an hour after arriving), then go find somewhere to bivvi down, then decide on onwards travel in the morning.

Having drunk a over a litre since arriving at the pub, I was finally able visit the loo. This added another confirmation of my dehydration, but reassured me that my body was at least able to process what I was pouring in the top.

Fifteen minutes before sunset and with a 3.8L of water in my pouches/bottles, I hit the bike for the final kilometre to Kneiff.

With the sun below the horizon, in the cool twilight of a summers evening, I arrived at the highest point of Luxembourg. A nondescript concrete marker on the edge of a field. I’d done it. One down two to go. Right, bivvi time.

The plough over Kneiff

I looked around. On one side a field of maize stretched into the distance, next to that an already harvested wheat field. On the other side of the track a large grass pasture and a few hundred yards down the track, woodland.

I cycled over to the woodland hoping it would present a bivvi opportunity. It was a dense plantation of pine trees, hardly ideal bivvi territory. I looked around. On the other side of the grass field there was a small copse. That might do the trick.

I pushed the Brompton across the lush pasture towards the copse. It was a mix of pine and oak 50m from a larger plot of woodland. In it’s lee side there was a slight depression. This would give me shelter from view of anyone on the track. Yes, This is it, this is perfect.

I sat down to drink and listen. As I did I looked up at the sky and watched a light speed across the sky. My first thought was it was the ISS, but that wasn’t right, that wasn’t for another hour. I had printed out the ISS pass times for my trip, and checked them. Yep, an hours time. Wait what time zone are these in. Ah yeah, that was the ISS, these times are UK time, not EU time. Oops. At least I had seen it.

If you look carefully, to the left of centre you can see the trace of a Persied meteor.

I rolled out the bivvi bag, inflated my sleep mat, and lay on top of it staring at the sky. My body temp was normal, my pulse was normal. I was starting to feel good. I nibble on a biscuit. I couldn’t cook the meal I had with me as I hadn’t found any fuel. As I lay there one by one the stars came out. Blazing across the sky the many camp fires of the hunters who go before. As my eyes adjust, more stars become visible. With full darkness I see for the first time with my own naked eye The Milky Way. I let out an audible wow when I realise what it is I am seeing. I then spent the next hour trying to get a photograph of the sky. Not content with the million star view, the persieds joined the party shooting across the sky towards their firey climax in the upper atmosphere. Happy that I had got some shots that almost did justice to the view, I crawled into my bivvi bag and drifted off to sleep watching persieds shooting across the milky way.

The view from my bivvi bag

Day 2 – Bordering on insanity

I woke the next morning hot. Really warm. Too Warm. That wasn’t right. I wasn’t even moving how can this be? I stuck my head out the bivvi bag and was blinded by the sun. Ah, yeah, that would do it. The sun had crested the trees and I was now laying in full sun. I rolled myself and my bed across into the shade of the trees and lay back. The starlit view of the previous night was now a clear blue sky above a lush green pasture flanked by woodland.

The view I woke to.

I spread my bedding out in the sunshine to air, and sat in the shade of a tree eating biscuits and pondering the plan. Yesterday had been just 38km. Todays plan was 51km. Not just further, but also higher. If the heat was the same as yesterday would I be able to do it?

I looked at the map. From here to Sankt Vith is just over 20km, and by the looks of it it should be mostly downhill. I will pay later for each metre of descent. But at least I should be eating up some distance.

I packed the bike, and hit the road. The first couple of km would be descent to join the Vennrad cycle route along a disused railway. Due to particularities of political geography the trackbed of the Vennrad is in Belgium along it’s whole length, but large sections of it run through Germany creating all sorts of exclaves and counter exclaves.

Crossing into Belgium I descended down a long sweeping track, hitting 37kph as I headed for the turn onto the cycle route. The 90° turn. The 90° turn was compounded by a small collection of mamil’s loitering on the corner blocking the only path that would allow any useful speed carry through the corner. I cursed, and hammered the brakes to bring my speed down and coast past the mamils onto the Vennrad with a cheery “Morgan”.

After the open shadeless scenery of the previous day a track through the dappled shade of woodland was a welcome change. The route tended downwards for the first 12km, past idylic farmsteads, pasture and woodland. After a few km I stopped at an information board which had some information of the history of the Venn Bahn. There were some Dutch cyclists there trying to work out where they were and where they were going. They didn’t have a map, so I pulled mine out and helped them work out where they were and where they wanted to go. Between my broken Dutch and their broken English, we chatted about our rides before bidding each other Goede Reis and departing in opposite directions.

The 12km of downhill came to and abrupt end in Germany. Only I didn’t realise it was Germany at first. I stopped in a bus shelter to have a drink and some more biscuits. I was trying to work out where I was when I noticed the design of the postbox opposite. That was most definitely a Deutschepost logo. Quick GPS check, yep I’m in Hemmeres, Germany. Which used to be Belgian before it was returned in 1958.

I crossed back into Belgium and begun the long dragging ascent towards Sankt Vith. Passed beautiful river side meadows, tree covered hillsides and pastures of livestock. Past scout camps, villages and farmsteads. I plodded on. Even in the shade of the trees there was no escaping the heat. It was’t quite as bad as yesterday, but was still enough to leave my body covered in a near constant sheen of sweat. Somewhere short of Sankt Vith I ran out of water again.

Nearing Breitfeld things started to take on a more built up appearance with an elevated motorway. It was near here that I saw a Slow Worm slinking it’s way across the hot tarmac.

Two and a half hours, and 26km after leaving my Bivvi site, I coasted into Sankt Vith. I pulled up at a bar on the site of the old train station. Ordering a brace of drinks and requestion refills of my water pouches, I sat in the shade and pondered my options. It was about 1300, and I was hot and sore. I’d managed about half the days distance, but hadn’t got to the main ascents of the day. Even with every container I had on me I didn’t seem to be able to carry enough water to cycle in this heat, and so far places to refill had been rather few and far between.

I pondered my options. Go on, risk further dehydration and heat exhaustion? If I bailed here what were my options? I pulled out my phone to see where the nearest youth hostel was. Two kilometres away. That sealed it. I booked a bed for the night from my phone, paid my tab, and slowly rode up the hill to the hostel.

Which finds me sat in a Youth hostel, in German speaking Belgium with a Sinister Dutchman scribbling away across the table. I’d set out to cycle 123km, I’d managed 64. I’ve had to bail out due to high temperatures, dehydration and the first stages of Heat Exhaustion. In Belgium. This really is bordering on insanity…