Colin's Munros


Route Planning

7. Kit Wisdom

My kit list is probably as boring as everyone else's, but I start with one pair of boots and a complete set of socks for each day I'm away. Usually it was 4 days, so 4 pairs of boots. That means a dry pair for each day. Without question that enormously reduces problems with feet. If you don't have that many comfortable pairs, take some newspaper with you. After finishing a walk, stuff wet boots with newspaper to soak up the water, and repeat the process with fresh paper every hour or two as necessary.

I rarely found Gortex-type trainer-like boots to be of any use. Scottish hills abound in wet vegetation, wet bogs, wet weather, wet everything. So waterproof boots are the only option except perhaps on a very good day on the one or two mountains where a path has been carefully engineered from start to summit. Light-weight boots definitely require much less effort to lift over boulders, and so I used them even with crampons. Heavy boots seem to make blisters much more inevitable. If there were still hob-nailed boots around, I would recommend them. They would bite better into the slippery rocks and icy paths that one frequently encounters. I didn't take spare boot laces: they are generally long enough to be knotted if they break.

After the boots, there is the waterproof, windproof jacket (brilliant yellow so that I can be spotted from afar), optional waterproof over-trousers, spare pullover and scarf. I took duplicates of these in the car in case they were soaked one day and I wanted dry for the next, leaving the wet ones at the BnB to dry out. Actually, I climbed most of the Munros in a kilt. I reckoned that must be fairly suitable as the highlanders had used them for centuries. They are as warm a trousers, except on the knees in a wind, but I found a kilt superior to trousers for sitting on cold rocks and for typical showery weather when waterproof trousers would have sweated up inside and stuck to my knees. Wind speeds at knee level are much less than at head height! May be someone has found a combination of trousers that works? Anyway, I don't believe in Gortex, and it always makes me sodden. People I trust swear by Páramo, but I've not yet tried that. Sometimes I take an old leather jacket (as well as waterproofs) and use it in preference unless the rain is going to be heavy or persistent. I would take an umbrella because that stops one's clothes getting wet, but usually it is too windy or I'm in cloud, so it only makes sense for a valley walk.

I usually took two hats, both giving protection to ears and neck, and at least two pairs of gloves. Gloves always get wet, dropped, blown away or lost, so a spare pair seems essential to me especially in wet winter conditions. Wind chill can be considerable, with most heat escaping from head and hands. Hence the double protection, including a scarf. Average wind speeds and maximum gusts on the top of Ben Nevis are twice those in Fort William directly below! Moreover, they are almost zero a few inches off the ground and increase up to head height – so it's warmer to sit down or even lie down in a wind.

I take sun tan cream (at least factor 25) and lip salve somewhat more rarely than anti-midge cream (which doesn't work). I now limit taking plaster (only the fabric variety) to visits to the Cuillins where just looking at a rock will cause a graze. However, it is necessary if you might get blisters. There's the compulsory toilet paper, map, compass, whistle, emergency bag, torch, mobile phone, watch and plastic bags for everything.

Usually the torch was just a small flashing type to attract attention in the dark, but sometimes a heavier one in case the sun went down before getting back to the car. I have used one successfully only on good paths, but distance is difficult to judge by torchlight so that one's feet can fall heavily where the ground is nearer or farther away than expected. In fact, torches don't seem to be of much use away from paths and tracks. They are hardly bright enough over difficult terrain and it is the difficult terrain that causes one to be benighted. I found it better to pick the time in the month when there was a full moon for a few hours after sunset. When there are no clouds the moon also gives very useful visibility into the medium and far distance. A mobile phone gives enough light to read a map and compass if you don't have a torch with you. I suspect, but don't know, that a mobile phone signal could be tracked by mountain rescue (even where there is no reception). That is certainly technically possible these days, but, if you need rescuing at night, there is probably nothing better than a torch light.

I saved weight by omitting the camera on many occasions. Nowadays a mobile phone will solve that omission very satisfactorily in most instances. However, there was one occasion when so much rain penetrated my Gortex jacket that my phone failed even though it was in a plastic bag. That can be a disaster if all phone numbers are locked inside (including your main contact who is about to call out the mountain rescue), so thereafter I always wrote down the essential phone numbers on paper as well. The watch is necessary to prevent one being out too late, but the mobile phone can be used to provide the time instead.

For comfort I never bothered with a map bag round my neck, but that was probably a mistake. I was always taking my rucksack off to get my map out in the mist, then having it getting wet, and, of course, having problems folding it up in the wind in order to put it away again. Most of my maps ended up with many rips and corners missing. One blew away into a puddle and became sodden. My worst nightmare was definitely losing my map as a result of wind or rain.

I took a couple of sticks with me. Not only do these reduce the strain on knees very noticeably during descent but they also enable much faster and safer descent on steeper slopes. By having more continuous contact with the ground, slipping is less likely and one can recover from a slip more easily. They also help in crossing burns as they enable one to balance with only one foot on a rock, so that time can be taken to plan the next hop. Consequently, I think having a pair of sticks is a safety issue and always take them for difficult terrain. Their adjustable length means that, like haggis, you can have a short leg on the inside of a slope and a long one on the outside.

Crampons are certainly a wise precaution for at least most of the winter months – December to April – even if they might stay in the car. It may have been warm and sunny for several weeks but ice will remain on the tops. Clear skies mean much colder nights than days, and will cause freezing temperatures on the tops at any time of year. With an average decrease of over 5°C between sea level and 3000 feet, it just needs to be an average over both day and night of 5°C or less at the roadside for ice to have no chance of melting on a Munro. Lots of feet on paths compresses snow into ice, so paths sometimes become quite dangerous. I will certainly consider avoiding the direct line of the path if this is the case, but it does not help any erosion problems.

Only once or twice did I wish that I had taken an ice axe but had not done so. An example was was climbing steeply out of the hidden valley off Glen Coe. To need an ice axe you have to be climbing up something pretty steep, or need something to break a fall if you slip on ice where there is a large drop below. With so much other gear in winter, it often seemed more sensible to omit the ice axe and take pains to choose a route that definitely avoided any need for one. However, the choice depends on many factors, and accurate map reading in the worst conditions is one of these.

Snow shoes would have been a good idea once or twice, but I don't have any.

Gaiters are just more gear that seems to be aimed at giving a good impression rather than being of much practical use. I only take mine when there is liklihood of prolonged rain, trudging through deep snow or high, wet vegetation. The last two can make socks, and therefore boots, completely sodden within minutes. If worn, plastic trousers should be on the outside so that rainwater does not get inside the gaiters.

For food I only took Bounties, chocolate biscuits and, when I could obtain it, a sandwich or two. Bananas would have been healthier! Drink is rarely a problem except for long ridges on hot days. I limited myself to carrying at most one litre in an old lemonade bottle unless the weather was really hot when much more was necessary and I could compensate for the extra weight by omitting extra clothing. I kept lots of drink and food in the car for the end of the walk. If necessary, burns are generally safe enough, especially higher up where there are fewer animals. I replenished the burned calories in a restaurant in the evening. If necessary the body can survive overnight without food and water. Cold and wet are the killers, so more clothes seem better use of weight limits.

Last, but not least of course, and once again, a compass and the right map, the route plan and a pen to take notes.

I used a 35 litre rucksack and placked everything in the same place every time so that I knew where everything was and could find anything quickly in the worst conditions. One pair of gloves were always in a zipped pocket of my jacket so that they were handy. The compass was always tied to my jacket so that it was also handy but could not be left behind or dropped. Once I had to secure the compass under my rucksack's waist belt to prevent it hitting me in my face in strong winds. On that occasion my mobile phone was in the closest pocket and this affected the compass when I needed it most. I thought the compass was mis-behaving but could not work out why. Indeed, the two had to be positioned carefully with respect to each other for the compass to be influenced. Now I always keep both well apart in my packing scheme. The car keys always go into a zipped pocket and they have a loop of string to tie them to the zip pull so they don't drop out and get lost.

Back at the car I always have food, drink, and a dry set of clothes & footwear to change into.

Copyright © 2007 & 2012 Colin Walter