Ben Macdui – the Munro for families


Ben Macdui used to be a hill with a reputation.  Its distance from roads meant that any problems could become serious.  Now, the funicular on Cairngorm and the easy mountain biking approach from the south have opened the summit up to families – three on my visit.  Its not only the hill which has become tamer.  One of the mums chatted to me, which suggests solitary men in their sixties don’t look as scary as they did before their few remaining tufts of hair turned grey.

I had started the day at Bob Scott’s Bothy and finished under my Trailstar in Coire an Lochain.  The formally permanent snow patch has gone but the coire is now home to large numbers of ptarmigan.  Next morning, I hiked down to the ski centre and arrived just in time to use my free bus pass for the ride down to Aviemore.







Comfort under a tarp


One of the myths about ultralight backpacking needs nailing because it is complete twaddle and the myth concerns comfort.  Ultralight backpacking is not inherently uncomfortable.  In fact, it is more comfortable than traditional backpacking approaches.  The third of the day spent moving becomes much more enjoyable with less to carry while the bulk of the day, spent in camp, is at least as comfortable as it would have been with standard kit.

In a tent, I sleep better than in a house.  Many will agree with that but may be surprised to hear that I sleep better under a tarp than is possible for me in a tent.  I suspect this may have something to do with how many chemicals and allergenic particles are in the sleeping environment, but I’m guessing.  What is genuinely remarkable is just how thoroughly refreshed I am after waking from a good kip under a tarp.

Then consider my last two visits to the excellent campsite at Braithwaite.  Their superb toilet block is second only to home as a place to clean up after a demanding few days of backpacking.  (I hope they didn’t suffer too much in the floods.)

Inside my Akto, one New Year, I noticed my breath freezing not only on the flysheet but also inside the inner.  Before going to sleep, I swept every particle of ice out of the tent but that didn’t save me.  For seven hours, as I slept, the ice built back up and then, at 6am, a warm front rolled in.  The temperature changed quickly enough to cause rainfall inside my tent.

Obviously, condensation forms inside a tarp if the dew point is right but I have never seen as much condensation under a tarp as I usually get inside a tent.  (I disagree with Ray Jardine when he says the condensation issue makes tarps warmer than tents.  Zipping up the inner on my old Phoenix Phantom was like putting on a jumper.  Tarp use sometimes calls for more clothing than a tent would have in the same circumstances.)

Back at Braithwaite in the summer, despite drizzle, I pitched my Trailstar in its wide open configuration, with one corner and two sides elevated.  The pointy bit provided such good protection that I was able to sleep in front of the central pole.  This was another of those sensationally good sleeps and it ended when I was ready, rather than when the weather dictated.

So, the two thirds of the day spent in camp is more comfortable under a tarp than in a tent.  Now for the other bit.  In his Mountain Walk book, Hamish Brown titled one section Naked Before the Mountain.  He complained of nappy rash and stripped off to cope.  Sweaty itching is a problem I also used to suffer from with proper hip belts.  Sweat flowed down my back and pooled in the hip belt area.  With traditional backpacking kit, within a couple of summery days I’d be suffering from an itchy rash.  These days, I only do up my rucksack’s hip belt if it contains more than three days worth of food or if I’m scrambling.  No more itching.

Hamish cut the hip belt off his Berghaus Phantom rucksack, which seems a bit drastic, but suggests that he was no fan of heavy packs – a hip belt is useful when carrying too much.  He wrote about fighting every ounce of the way and I’m with him on that.

Other mythical nonsense concerns expense and durability.  I’ve written enough so I’ll refer you to the equipment sections of Beyond Backpacking.  The homemade gear Ray describes is simple, tough and cheap.  Stand by for my next post on ultralight backpacking.  Unlike this one, it will be a little bit controversial!

Not really wild camping

The route goes over the hills and past the houses

Late afternoon view

A backpacker once more!  I didn’t walk far but some of the ground was rough and all of it was stunning.  The Trailstar took a battering during the first night and snow fell on the second but I loved it.  While sudden gusts were slamming into my shelter between one and two thirty in the morning at my first pitch, I thought the only thing which can go wrong now is that pegs might pull.  A peg pulled.  I couldn’t find it so replaced it with the toilet trowel I had made from an MSR snow peg.  Later, I found the missing peg underneath the inner tent three feet from where I had placed it.

My second pitch was in a field, so cannot count as a wild camp, even though it wasn’t your average field.  More than a mile from the nearest dwelling and with its own rocky shore, the field is an oasis in a wilderness of heather and peat.  Last autumn, I saw dotterel and whooper swans here.  I guess they thought it was a nice place to rest for a while during their migration.

Since I confidently asserted that an Oookstar placed to the side of the Trailstar’s centre post would not be wetted by rain, I have twice woken to find large droplets on its cuben lower wall.  Thank goodness I opted for half solid walls to the inner, particularly as last night’s weather included some wet snow.  I am deeply saddened by what I have read about other bloggers experiences with Oookworks because this inner is a great piece of kit.

Note the ultralight tin of haggis

Not your average field

People lived here quite recently


How long does it take to pitch a Tent?

One dogmatic blogger claimed that anyone who takes more than 3 minutes to pitch a Trailstar is doing it wrongly.  Another suggested a new type of Mid might be pitched in under a minute on a good day.  I assumed that pitching my old Phoenix Phantom took 5 minutes until I timed myself at Chapel Stile.  My friends got started before me and finished quite a long time after me because pitching the Phantom had gone very smoothly.  But it had taken a full ten minutes.  Usually, I’m much slower than that.


Here is a picture of my Akto at the stunning campsite just opposite Iona.  You’ll be thinking that this will have been a speedy pitch.  Nope.  Just look at the choice.  I spent more than half an hour trying to decide which bit of perfection to use.  And then there is the mess in the car’s boot.  Digging out the tent, poles and pegs are easy enough for an Akto as the bits are all in one bag but with a tarp I have seperate bags for the fabric and for the pegs as well as poles to set to the right length.  The peg bag has usually worked its way to the bottom of my rucksack and, if I’ve been using them, carbon Makalu trekking poles can be quite hard to readjust.  With the Akto in a car boot, assembling the bits could take from a minute to several.  With a tarp, assembling and adjusting the bits never takes less than several minutes.

The Trailstar brings its own unique problem – finding the label.  Presumably I’m the only one who spends a fair amount of time shuffling armfulls of fabric.  Then there’s deciding where I want the long guy.  Is it in the right place or should I move it?  If I decide to move it, in the absence of one of those clever, mini carabiner solutions, undoing, moving and re-tying the guys consumes more time.  Finally, we arrive at the bit which ought to take 3 minutes and for me never does at the start of a trip and probably doesn’t at the end of the trip, although I will have improved.

Fancy kit before the snow

Faffing is the last act.  The Trailstar probably won’t need much.  I’ll have stopped and started several times, moving the main pegs on each occasion, during the pitching phase and will only have completed the pitch when the floor is a nice pentagon.  If the Akto’s floor is more of a parallelogram than a rectangle, the tent will not pitch well.  This means re-pitching one end of the tent and isn’t too time-consuming.  My favourite hill accommodation, the Golite Cave 1 is an absolute swine at faffing time.  Moving one peg invariably means moving others and, by the time I’ve finished, the headroom is almost certainly no greater than it was before I started faffing.  I’ve got into such a mess trying to perfect the shape of the Cave that starting again has several times been the easiest option.

So brilliant achievement, I think, to pitch a Trailstar inside three minutes.  Your shelter will be erect before I’ve decided where to put mine!

A Cave