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Hillwalking Equipment

Some basic information on hillwalking in Scotland

I have provided a list of the hillwalking equipment you should have with you, followed by notes. You will notice that I have assumed that all equipment is personal and not group. It is easy to become separated in bad weather on the hills and you should always be capable of acting independently. The Scots have done it for centuries! If you wish to risk having one map between several people for example then you must stick together. The entire equipment field is a highly competitive one, with research producing new materials and variations almost monthly. Relax. If you purchase good equipment now it will do you very efficiently. When you're ready you can upgrade. It's like buying a computer really...


For All Walkers Winter Equipment Hillwalking Equipment Notes

The list of recommended equipment for hillwalking falls reasonably conveniently into two main categories; Summer and Winter. Although snow has been known to fall in every month of the year, we'll make the rash assumption that summer for Scotland runs from about late April to early October. You should be aware however that severe weather can occur in any month, with the possibility of snow blizzards and freezing weather stretching well into May at one end, and beginning in September at the other. I have climbed in a heatwave at the beginning of June; friends found the same cliff covered in snow the previous week. Mountain weather certainly keeps you on your toes.

A short description of the current theory of outdoor clothing might be useful. This is based on the by now well-known layer system, whereby three distinctive layers of clothing, Base, Insulating, and Shell, all have their own function to perform, in order to keep the wearer warm, dry, and hopefully comfortable. The primary aim is to prevent your core temperature from taking any life-threatening dips.

Base Layer (Underwear):

the main function of a base layer is the effective transport of moisture away from the skin. Ideally, you should walk, work, and stay dry at all times, as wet clothing leads to heat loss both through impaired insulation, and through evaporative losses. Control of the space immediately adjacent to your skin is crucial to staying warm. Originally, wool was used, as it has the marvellous property of retaining some warmth even while wet. But it was also heavy and itchy. New, high-tech fibres such as polypropylene came along and revolutionised the base layer. Since then, even better materials have appeared, such as polyester. Normally, the base layer then will consist of two garments; a long-sleeved vest, and the trousers (pants in the U.S.) or long johns. Another name for this layer is Thermal, as in thermal vest and thermal long-johns. The first time I heard of them in use in Scotland the owner jokingly referred to them as his 'thermo-nuclears!'

For summer hillwalking in Scotland, the long johns are not worn, though a vest may continue to be useful, either on its own, or under a shirt, for wicking moisture from the skin. As there are different thicknesses of material, a thin vest for summer use, and a mid- or full-weight vest for winter makes sense. For winter use also, a zip turtleneck is great, as it allows for an extra degree of temperature control. The make and thickness of base layer used is a personal decision, as individuals vary widely in their needs, not to mention personal, in-built insulation! As an alternative to a thermal vest many summer walkers use a cotton T-shirt. It will become damp with exertion, but if the day is reasonably warm the comfort level is acceptable. On the rare hot day a cotton top will protect skin from the sun, while also helping to keep cool.

An important point to note is that no matter what layer, or layers of clothing is being considered, the clothing should be of a fit so that there are no cold spots exposed. So a vest should be long enough to always cover the waist area, no matter how much bending over or walking with a sack is done, while sleeves, particularly of the outer waterproof layer, should also be long enough to always cover the wrist area.

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Insulation Layer: This middle layer is based around the fleece material which began to appear in the 1970s. Lighter and warmer than wool, and drying much more quickly, it has all but replaced the woollen sweater for hillwalking. There is, as with the other layers, a huge choice of manufacturers and designs, but the Polartec material as made by Malden Mills dominates the market. As with underwear, there are different weights, qualities and types. The original system used the weight of fleece in grams per square yard, with 100, 200 and 300 Series being available. The 200 Series, and its current close equivalents is a commonly used thickness, being a light-to-medium weight suitable to common hill pursuits. The heavier weights are usually too bulky, while the very lightweights are designed for high-energy output games such as cross-country skiing etc. Personal variation again enters into the equation.

The fleece sweater: Commonly with a full-length zip, is often worn with another layer such as a shirt. Avoid cotton for winter use. Fleece shirts are available. It is better to have too many layers than too few, as an extra layer can always be removed. With the insulating layer, ensure that there is sufficient space; better too loose than too neat, as moisture wicked out by the base layer has to be allowed to escape.

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Britches: What to wear over the lower half of your body depends on the time of year and personal choice again. For summer many walkers use tracksuit trousers, or shorts if the weather is good. The increasing prevalence of poly-cotton and other synthetic fabrics has allowed many brands to market walking trousers. Some models have zip-off section, transforming them into shorts. Another winter choice is your choice of fleece-lined trousers, over which a windproof shell can be worn. Instead of trousers, salopettes can be used. These have the advantage that there is no problem at the waist area, with clothing being tugged out through use. My feeling is that there is no ideal system which covers all conditions for leg cover. Not yet. Though microfleece has much promise. For many winter seasons I have worn Lowe Alpine microfleece pants and top. I found them to be very versatile, being remarkably warm and comfortable even in a strong wind.

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Shell Layer: this is the outermost layer, and as the label for this waterproof jacket might suggest, its purpose is to keep out wind, rain and snow. It also has to be robust as it will be dragged over rocks and icy slopes by its owner. Many shell garments have a full-length zip, built in hood, various pockets, and perhaps underarm openings controlled by zips for extra ventilation. The fabric used must obviously be waterproof to as high a degree as possible - while also being breathable. In other words, while keeping out big rain drops, it should allow small molecules of water vapour to pass through. The best-known, and generally agreed best system, is still Gore-Tex. This is not a fabric. It is a membrane of expanded Teflon, which is then laminated to literally hundreds of different fabrics. If you want numbers, the pores in Gore-Tex membranes total some 9 billion per square inch. As they are about 20,000 times smaller than a drop of liquid water they will keep these out. As they are about 700 times larger than a molecule of water vapour these can pass through. It's all a question of proportion really!

Other membranes include Sympatex and MemBrain. The former is a hydrophilic film of polyester which has no pores. Instead, water is transported to the outside by the film breaking down the liquid molecules and releasing it as vapour on the outside. MemBrain, fairly new on the market, promises to be interesting, as it increases its breathability as the user warms up. In addition to these breathable membranes, there are coatings which are stated to be waterproof and breathable, such as Entrant. The effectiveness of these microporous, polyurethane coatings depends on their thickness. As this can vary even within batches of material, the waterproof level may also be variable.

Paramo produce garments which are designed to be worn with minimal clothing (or no clothing) underneath. I tried a jacket in ideal testing conditions; i.e. rain and warm. I was very impressed, staying dry yet without the usual moisture buildup. It felt odd putting on a garment designed as a 'one-stop' shell, yet it worked. In fact, if I was not already the owner of several more traditional jackets still in good condition, I would have switched!

Whatever shell garment you use, one basic fact remains. In conditions of high energy output and high humidity, no membrane or coating can breathe fast enough. You will still have dampness inside! What is important is that you find the garment which fits correctly. There must be sufficient freedom of movement when wearing all the layers, and these should include your heaviest garments from each layer. At the same time it should not be too loose when wearing the minimum underneath. It is this 'fine-tuning' which will probably persuade you as to your final choice. Don't be overly impressed by 'gimmicky' features; it's the fabric and fit that come first.

Unfortunately, some features cannot be easily tried out while buying, such as the performance of a hood in high wind and rain! As high wind and rain are fairly common Scottish conditions, it is important. A hood which is part of the shell garment but can be rolled up behind the head when not needed is preferred. Try out the hood for comfort and visibility when tightened round your head. Remember to wear your usual hat when doing this. See if you can make adjustments while wearing your normal gloves or mitts.

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Waterproof trousers: can be bought to match the shell garment. A full-length zip in the trousers is useful, particularly if you will be using them in winter with crampons. It will add considerably to the price of trousers if you wish them to be breathable, but the extra comfort will make it worthwhile. Whether you use waterproof overtrousers in summer depends on how warm it is and also on your personal preference. Very often, the discomfort they can cause on a cool but wet day can outweigh their protective factor. If you can easily dry your clothing on your return, or have a dry change for your return home, you might not bother wearing them.

The layer system does have an interesting alternative, in a system of clothing which attempts to mimic some ancient ways of dressing. This is where one wears a garment directly over the skin, with the inner surface consisting of fleece pile, and the outer surface a smooth, water- and wind-resistant nylon. The theory is that perspiration escapes readily while heat is maintained. The fact that half of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team seems to use this must mean something. It does require a deep breath and a whole new way of dressing, but it has something going for it. To help stay cool while working hard, these garments open up widely. Try asking for Buffalo equipment for example and keep an open mind.

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Boots: there is now a wide and sometimes bewildering choice of boots available for hillwalking. The ideal solution, for an all-year walker, is to purchase two pairs of boots; one pair for summer, one pair for winter. The winter pair will have extra stiffening so as to permit the comfortable and safe wearing of crampons. This will automatically make them heavier. Being stiffer will also make it safer to walk on hard snow, as the boot will not curl up and slip out of a hold so readily. If however you are restricted to one pair of boots only which have to do all year round, then the obvious compromise solution is to purchase a 3-4 season boot. A good retailer will always provide advice on this aspect.

For walking, there is also the option of either leather or a fabric boot, which is usually made up of a mixture of synthetic fabric and suede. These are generally light and comfortable, though some may not provide sufficient protection from rocks etc. Several models of fabric boots also incorporate a waterproof, breathable lining, such as Gore-Tex or Sympatex. It is debatable whether the extra cost is worth it. For much less you can buy a waterproofer for treating the boots.

The truth is that on a long, wet walk, no boot will remain completely dry inside. Perspiration takes place down there too! Moisture can be wicked down via socks. Boot seams will have water forced through them eventually. A good quality leather pair, looked after with a wax dressing or other waterproofer, still remains the most popular choice for regular hillwalking. The subject is a difficult one with many solutions; find a good retailer who knows the boot market and has trained staff to assist you. To help you find the right size of boot, the notes here should come in useful. Boots are the most important item of equipment you will buy and it is essential that they fit you correctly. Take time over choosing and trying on the boots.

Put the boot on over the socks you would expect to wear; leaving unlaced, slide your foot forward until your toes touch the front of the boot. Then, standing with your weight on this foot, see if you can slide a finger down behind your heel, between your heel and the boot. If you cannot do this, or it is a hard push - the boot is too small. If you have enough length, tap your foot back to bring your heel firmly into the heel cup and lace the boot securely. The boot should now feel snug around the heel and ankle and the arch should be comfortably supported, but your toes must be free to wriggle and curl.

Now check the heel fit by walking around and, if possible, up and down stairs or on an inclined slope. You may experience some heel lift at this point, this is normal and quite acceptable, provided the heel lift is not more than about a ½ ". If you have no heel lift at all, you are either very lucky or the boots may be a fraction too small. Please check this point carefully. You may get away with boots slightly overlarge, but not the other way. The heel lift experienced will not cause blisters and will decrease as the boots mould to your feet and break-in.

Now check the toes. Your toes should not touch the front of the boot; check this by tapping the toe of the boot gently on the floor and your toes must not touch the end of the boot. Once you have found your ideal foot companions, a good retailer can advise you on their maintenance.

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Socks: for walking are found in several lengths, from knee-length to calf-length to ankle-length. Obviously knee-length provide the greatest warmth in winter and protection in summer from vegetation, biting and sucking insects. In Scotland, sheep- and deer-ticks wait in the grass for an unsuspecting victim. You usually don't find them until you hit the shower! The best material is a wool-rich mixture; about 70% wool, 30% nylon. Loopstitch manufacture provides extra warmth and comfort. One pair is often worn alone, though some users find that a thinner inner pair can add comfort and protect against blistering. If you wear breeches make sure there is no gap between the top of the socks and the breeches. The knee joint needs to be warm for efficient lubrication. When it's hot you casually pull down the socks and expose your manly/shapely/feeble legs (choose one option). I am aware that some walkers have real problems with cold, damp feet. They have benefited from using waterproof, breathable socks, made using Gore-Tex or Sympatex.

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Gaiters: are knee-length coverings worn in winter to keep out snow. The magazine adverts would have you believe that they are worn all-year round, but this leads to incredible over-heating of the legs and you will become just as wet inside. They also keep out mud of course. They usually have a front zip to facilitate easy placing and removal. The more expensive use breathable material for extra comfort; if you insist on summer use you will be more comfortable with that option. Some gaiters include a strap running under the boot instep but many users find this is not needed. The top model of gaiter has a rubber rand which encloses the entire top of the boot. It is very difficult to get wet with this model, but it is costly and as it is a struggle to place and remove it is usually left on winter boots permanently.

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Gloves: should be carried in virtually any month of the year, unless you are setting out for a short walk in obviously stable, warm weather. The choice here includes mitts or gloves with individual fingers. In winter, mitts are usually warmer and can be wool or synthetic. Another option is to carry overmitts for severe or wet weather. For warmer weather, lighter gloves could be carried. One traditional type of mitt used in Scottish winters is the Dachstein, an Austrian-made thick, pre-shrunk woollen mitt which is still warm when wet. Wring out the excess water and soldier on!

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Hats: are also subject to personal choice, though as a significant amount of heat can be lost from the head it is important that a good, warm hat be chosen for cold conditions. Wool or fleece, the hat should be capable of covering the ears and nape. A balaclava is another traditional headcover which is very suitable for severe weather. Developed during the freezing winters in the Crimean War, it covers the entire head and neck, with an opening for the eyes. It can also be rolled up and worn as a cap. Made in several fibres; wool, poly, and silk. For more severe conditions Lowe Alpine (that company again!) make a fleece-lined, waterproof outer with adjustable ear flaps and a pointde, wire-adjustable brow hat. Recommended.

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The rucsack: during a walk carries whatever will be and might be needed, as well as excess clothing removed for the walk. The length of walk often determines the size of sac required, from a small daysac, to a larger day or weekend sac, to a giant expedition sac. A good compromise is to find the size that can do everything from a short day to a weekend with camping equipment. Or, like boots, you could end up with two sizes. The bigger, more expensive models will probably have an internal frame, and may be adjustable for the height of the user. Some of the bigger and more aware manufacturers provide ladies' models.

Whatever the sac, useful features include an accessible zipped hood pocket, allowing gloves, hat or camera to be got at quickly, an ice axe loop for winter, and a padded back for comfort. Line the inside of the sac with a strong, large poly bag. This will prevent any water soaking the contents. For heavy loads, a padded waist belt is invaluable, taking much of the load off your shoulders. As with boots, a good retailer will be happy to provide advice and fit the sack correctly.

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A map and compass: must be carried for hillwalking. The 1:50 000 O.S. series is the standard for maps, while the Silva-type compass is also excellent. It's not difficult to learn navigation, and with the benefit of a short course or a series of lessons from a friend the rudiments can be taught. Practice is invaluable, in all conditions. Better to learn during a short walk on a good, clear day, than to suddenly realise, in the middle of a Cairngorm whiteout, that one is, er, lost. Many use a map-case which both protects the precious map and allows it to be conveniently read during a walk. Some maps are waterproof, and it is also possible to have a map proofed. In a gale, with a wet map, it takes only a few seconds to see the map shredded and useless.

The satellite navigation system, GPS, is becoming more accessible. With an average accuracy on the hill of 10m, it is more precise than the best of manual map-reading for the Scottish peaks. It should not replace the reliable and non-battery dependent map and compass, but I make a prediction here that some time in the future it will be the dominant tool for navigation, with a map and compass as a back-up. This web site provides free data files for downloading which if installed into a GPS with sufficient memory, show the contour lines on scree, allowing for a better visual representation of the underlying topography. Go to Publications | Downloads for more information.

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Headtorch Other items that should be carried in the rucksac include a headtorch. Reliable models are now available, allowing your hands to be free for scrambling, map-reading etc. Carry a spare battery and bulb. The Scottish winter day can be very short, and, conversely, the nights long. Some models of headtorch have a focus ring, giving you the choice of beam width on the ground. They also allow you to tilt the light unit up and down. As you become more tired and your head droops you tilt it up. Or as the angle of the slope changes, the beam can be adjusted accordingly. Simple really. The prevalence of LEDs has revolutionised their use, with long battery life and good, adjustable light.

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Bivvy-bag: For the unwelcome but always hovering possibility that you may have to spend a night out on the hillside you should carry a bivvy-bag. Bivvy is short for bivouac, which my spell-checker defines as to 'lodge temporarily'. In essence, a bivvy-bag is a large, strong poly bag which will allow one or two adults to shelter inside. Being wind- and waterproof is essential for surviving a night out and this cheap survival aid has literally saved many lives. Two adults, jokes apart, are warmer than one. Ideally, the last thing you want to happen is such an enforced bivvy, but extreme bad weather, inexperience, being lost, exhaustion etc. can happen. At least if you have a companion then you can tell each other your life's story, discuss the perilous state of the economy etc. A whistle does not weigh much and may come in useful for attracting attention in suitable conditions. Mobile telephones are inevitably beginning to appear, as have unnecessary calls. But there have also been useful calls for summoning help, and they will probably do more good than harm, if used sensibly. Be aware however, that many hill areas will have poor or non-existent reception, so do not rely on them. The MCofS have published a Technical Booklet on mobile telephones.

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Food and drink: are of course a necessity. A thermos or insulating flask allows hot drinks to be carried. Metal flasks are now fairly robust, and very recently Thermos produced an aluminium flask, light and strong. The choice of food is personal, as long as it contains sufficient calories, has a long-lasting and sustaining effect, and has some components which can be easily eaten from a jacket pocket on the move. Time is short in winter. Trail mix or gorp works very well, being a mixture of dried fruits, nuts etc. Health bars are also worth their weight. I've been off chocolate for years, both because of newer, tastier food, and also because I value my teeth. Nothing worse than wrestling with a frozen stick of chocolate. It's surprising also, particularly in winter, how much water is lost on a walk. A cold wind is dehydrating without seeming to be, and some carry water in addition to a hot drink. Small cartons of fruit juice can be useful and are weight-efficient. A pocket with sweets or candy of the type which last a long time is always good, but the penalty for forgetting them between walks can be a horrible, sticky mess! Put delicate sandwiches in a plastic box. It can then also be used for taking your litter back home for disposal.

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Insect repellents can be very useful, especially in summer and autumn. There is a range available, with most of the effective types relying on DEET as a component. A new range of repellent has recently appeared, based on natural ingredients. First reports are that they do not work as well. Some form of sun protection also makes sense, as occasionally the clouds have been known to part. Increasingly, with more spells of hot, dry summer weather, many walkers can be beaten into submission by the sun and heat, so it can happen! There is little worse than to have a walking trip spoiled by sunburn, which is, in any case, a serious hazard to health in general. A floppy, cotton hat can be an appreciated item on a hot, sunny day. Clothing now available includes fabrics with built-in UV protection, designed for travel in hot countries, but increasingly useful in the UK.

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Lip-salve:helps prevent the drying effects of the wind. It's difficult to fully appreciate a deserved malt whisky at the end of a day when your lips are cracked and dried. Going along with these small but useful objects might be some kind of basic first-aid kit, but we are really talking of a few headaches pills and some Band-Aids. To add much else without first-aid training just makes your rucksac heavier. The use of walking poles has increased. In general use in Europe for some time, and used since ancient times by hill peoples for support and balance, many find them useful, whether used singly or in pairs. They are lightweight alloy poles adjustable in length, useful not only for owners of different heights, but for going up- or downhill. Walkers with joint problems can also benefit. You can fit ski-type baskets for winter walking. Apparently a recent scientific paper has showed that walking with poles actually consumes more energy. A little thought indicates that as you are carrying more weight, this must be so. However, as I have found, they can make it possible to walk faster, so they must be aiding efficiency somewhere.

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Winter Equipment: In addition to the above, for winter hillwalking you will need to have, and know how to use, an ice axe and a pair of crampons, worn on suitable boots. The ice axe provides extra support when walking up or down a snow-covered slope, and should you slip (the most common cause of accidents in winter), then it will allow you to self-arrest or come to a rapid halt by braking. In conditions of hard snow or on icy slopes, wearing walking crampons, usually with 8 or 10 points, will give you a secure foothold. Be aware that it is easier to walk uphill than down, which can lull you into thinking that it is all right to continue. I have been caught out by this on a hill in April, and had to retreat from the tops as I had an ice axe but my summer boots without crampons. A good retailer will help you choose both items.

The walking axe, lighter and simpler than a technical climbing axe, should be of sufficient length so that when holding it with your hand curled round the head, and held down at your side, the spike at the end of the axe shaft should be just above the ground. The crampons should fit snugly enough on the boots (they can be adjusted), so that they will stay on the boot when shaken, even with the straps unfastened. Find a good teacher and practice both walking with crampons, which is not entirely natural at first, and braking with the axe, on a safe slope. It makes good sense to practice self-arrest every year, as it must become instinctive in the case of a slip. To wear crampons with boots which are unsuitable is both uncomfortable and unsafe. Some manufacturers have been known to be slightly optimistic with their definition of a winter boot, but again a good retailer will help.

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