TGO Challenge Planning Help

I thought I would pass on/distribute a few useful sites for folks like me who are planning on applying for the TGO Challenge for the first time. Several excellent information sources I have found include:

  • TGO Challenge (http://www.tgochallenge.co.uk/) – The official website chock full of excellent information from the general guidelines to specific information. The Message Board has a wealth of info from the old timers to excellent questions and worries of those starting out. Also, since the 2017 event concluded a month ago there are some fantastic links to blogs, videos, and photo galleries sharing many of the experiences.
  • Section Hiker (https://sectionhiker.com/category/trip-report/scotland/) – Philip Werner has consolidated an excellent page of information for those planning to hike in Scotland (TGO Challenge or otherwise). From trip reports to advice on planning and equipment, his experience and perspective coming from the US is invaluable for someone like me planning hopefully for the first time next year. Plus he spells his name right with one L!
  • On Historic Routes (http://on-historic-routes.com/2015/08/11/planning-the-tgo-challenge-from-abroad/) – Another great site with experience planning the TGO Challenge from outside the UK. Excellent suggestions to make things easier.

I hope these help fellow first time international hopefuls for the TGO Challenge – maybe I’ll see you in the Highlands!

Trip Report – Back to Mt Rogers, June 2017

Thrilled to be back on the trail!

FINALLY!  See my previous post for the frustration of being kept off the trail…

My work schedule had me in Winston-Salem on a Friday afternoon and the better half had a busy weekend, so I threw the pack in the car and took off for the closest high ground to get out of the early summer heat…Grayson Highlands and Mt Rogers again.

Brier Ridge
AT – The Green Tunnel is coming back!
First pony sightings.

I expected a ton of people at the outset and planned to spend little time on the Appalachian Trail in order to avoid the crowds.  Turned out that it wasn’t really busy at the Elk Garden Trailhead (I am sure Massie Gap was packed!).  I trotted in about 4 miles or so starting with some nice views and then the green tunnel of the AT (a lot different from my last trip here). Around 5:30 I diverted off the AT to Brier Ridge and a wonderful first night campsite…

Brier Ridge Campsite

The new Tarptent Stratospire 1 was a breeze to set up and allowed for wonderful views.  I didn’t bring a ground sheet on this trip so was very careful in campsite selection and despite my adherence to LNT principles I removed a couple of small briers from under the inner tent footprint.I could post the 10 or more photos I took of the Stratospire, but will save most of those for a future gear review.

The  evening was not too warm and I even slipped on a wind shirt while enjoying a wee dram of scotch after a filling pasta dinner (Knorr pasta mix with fresh supplemental ingredients from home).

Slainte mhath!

A great night’s rest in the high country, followed by waking in the pre-dawn to watch the sunrise.  Can’t beat this!

Sunrise over Wilburn Ridge

After a breakfast of instant coffee and Packit Gourmet West Memphis Grits Souffle (delicious!), I packed up camp and took my usual photo of the site to see how little “impression” I left.

Just a trace of camp left

I headed back along Brier Ridge and around the west side of Mt Rogers onto the spur trail down to the Lewis Fork Trail. This is a muddy horse track but a good test to see how fast my new boots would dry out!

Brier Ridge pony
Mt Rogers trail forest
Blooming rhodos on Pine Mountain
Reaching the crest again

I took the high route (there are two choices on the Lewis Fork Trail as it does a big U) to avoid the killer climb of Cliffside Trail since I hadn’t been out in a while. I quickly found myself back on top of Pine Mountain…one of my favorite areas. After watering up at the reliable spring near the Crest Trail, I headed east and found a shady spot with a good view south to Stone Mtn for a lunch break.

Pine Mtn looking southwest
More rhodos and views

After lunch, I had no real plan so headed through Scales, which had a large group of campers and some backpackers resting up, and up onto Stone Mtn. My planned campsite that night was going to be near the Bear Pen Trail with a view back to Wilburn Ridge, but I got there really quickly and decided to hoof it along the rest of the trails in the area and spiral back toward camp. I have done much off trail diversion in this area, so kept it easy on the AT, Scales, and Bear Pen trails just to add some miles and see if I cold find water down slope of the campsite.

AT and ponies on Stone Mtn
Flame azaleas on Stone Mtn

The campsite I had picked out on a previous trip lived up to my expectations…a nice flat area for the Stratospire and a great view of Wilburn Ridge and sunset. The only down side was unexpected heat…it got to over 90 in the tent that afternoon. I addressed that by sitting in the shade of the rocks where it was about 70 and watching a few of the ponies grazing for a couple if hours. Very peaceful!

Bear Pen Trail camp looking at Wilburn Ridge

Camp at sunset

I lugged a couple if liters of water up from a spring near the Bear Pen Trail -more than enough for dinner and breakfast. Dinner was my new staple on trips….Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili!

Texas State Fair Chili with toppings!
TSFC – it tastes even better than it looks!

In my opinion, there isn’t a better way to a spend a couple of hours than sitting on a rock in the wilderness and watching the sunset while sipping on single malt whisky. This trip it was Lagavulin 16 to celebrate getting over my health issues and back on the trail!

Selfie with the Stratospire I

After a very restful night I packed up camp and headed back over Stone Mtn and along the Pine Mtn Trail. The rhododendron were in full bloom all weekend along with the flame azaleas.

Post camp photo
Grayson longhorn
Pine Mtn rhodo tunnel

Overall it was a fantastic trip…I put 26 miles under my belt from Friday at 4 to Sunday at 12. This gives me confidence that my back and leg are doing well and future fun is ready to be had!

I’ll leave you with a few more photos…

Looking south from AT near Thomas Knob Shelter
Cloud shadows!
A look back at Wilburn Ridge and Rhododendron Gap
Trees and rocks along the slope of Mt Rogers
Still feeling good after 26 miles
Crest trail and Whitetop in the distance
View after view!
More cloud shadows!
A last short walk to Elk Garden

Off the Trail…and back ON!

Sometimes life gets in the way of trail time…either family obligations or health issues. In my case for the last two months a combination of both. While it can be frustrating not to get that regular break from the rat race, I fill the time with gear analysis and trip planning. Right now its a late June trip to the White Mountains of NH and long-term planning for the TGO Challenge across Scotland.  I have also been tracking the progress of the current Challengers the last two weeks.

Since early April I have been sidelined with back and leg issues…but FINALLY things are in good shape and it looks like there is a chance for a quick trip the first weekend in June.  This is one of the longer breaks from backpacking I have taken in the last few years, and my excitement to get back on the trail even for a couple of nights is hard to describe.  When my schedule gets in the way its one thing, but when I know I physically can’t get out, that really wore me down.  Now I am back on the elliptical an hour a day (although it can’t simulate a 2000 ft climb!) and feel ready for the woods again.  Trip report to follow in a couple of weeks…

Tarptent Stratospire I – First Impressions

So after much more research and a chat online with Henry from Tarptent, I decided my new tent would be the Stratospire I for several reasons:

  • Suitable for folks of my height (6 ft) – although its a little tight compared to my Solong 6 the carbon fiber rods create head room and if I brush against the netting, it’s a double-wall tent so no condensation issues like the Solong single wall section.

  • Double walled with removable inner.  This is a big advantage over my Solong 6 for trips with multiple days of rain and no time to dry out the tent.  I can set up the Stratospire in the rain and then get underneath and set up the inner, as well as pack everything up in the rain and keep it dry before getting out into the weather to take down the wet tent.
  • Two doors – I really have got used to having an entrance/exit on my solo tent, and having a second door/vestibule for gear and tent cooking.  It’s a luxury that is worth some extra weight to me.
  • Large vestibules allow lots of room to dump wet gear outside the inner tent and have at least some drying out in long rainy days.
  • MLD Trailstar and Duomid look like great tents as well, but I personally went to the Stratospire so I could have two doors and less bending of my lower back getting in and out compared to the Trailstar (I have constant back issues so this was a major item).
  • I liked the weight savings over the Scarp, and Henry said the Stratospire has been used a good bit in Scotland.  Therefore, it should suffice for high wind situations assuming I guy it out properly.

The initial back yard setup was a breeze.  I got it almost perfectly pitched the first time with minor adjustment in two stakes.  The ends with the carbon fiber poles make the setup and adjustment very easy and give a little more head room inside when laying down.

The last week I have played around with different stake types at the different corners to see what works best, and also worked with the trekking pole adapters to see if I prefer the pole handle up or down. The pole adapters work fine, but are a little more finicky during setup so I decided to ditch them and deal with dirty handle tops if that occurs. You have to be careful to make sure the pole tips get in the grommets but the one time I allowed that to slip out the reinforced tent suffered no damage – well constructed!

As far as tent stakes go, I decided to carry two of the long Easton stakes that come with the tent for the ends with the carbon fiber poles, 4 Y stakes and 4 titanium nail stakes for the other corners depending on the rockiness of the ground, and a couple of larger ascent stakes and really light shepherd hook stakes for guying out the lines in different terrain.

On top of that I have seam sealed it twice -once all over, and again on the upper pole grommet stress points.  This worked for the most part but not 100% as I still got a drip or two and could see moisture built up in the reinforced area (photo above).  I queried Tarptent and Henry suggested that I use the two week old thicker sealant solution without wiping it off after application.  I did this and it seemed to work.  You can see below that the sealant is inside the seam (dark areas), and this did the trick under another soaking from the hose.

Overall I am very happy with the Stratospire I, in theory, as a balance of weatherproof, room, accessibility, and weight, but have not been able to real-world test it yet…a combination of work deadlines and lower back issues have made me cancel my monthly wilderness trips for now…stay tuned for a full review and update once I get back on the trail!

New Gear Reviews: Marmot Ether Driclime Jacket and Sawyer Picaridin & Permethrin

Just a quick note that three new gear reviews are available on that page…I have time on my hands while stuck in the house with a bad back/sciatica along with a busy work load.  New gear reviewed is:

TGO Challenge Obsession

The Great Outdoors Challenge

In the last few months, I have become infatuated, maybe even obsessed, with the idea of walking across Scotland – either on my own or hopefully, if accepted, in the TGO (The Great Outdoors) Challenge.  This annual event in May organizes a two-week crossing of the Scottish Highlands for around 300 folks.  They keep the entrants to a mixture of about half new and half returning walkers.

I can’t pin down one reason this event has captured my interest, but realistically it is a combination of multiple factors:

  • Interest in going back and hiking some of the areas I walked with my grandfather in distant memories growing up in Scotland.
  • The passing of my Scottish mother last year, leaving me as the last Scottish-born member of the immediate family.
  • My love for high, open country and walking in all sorts of weather.
  • The descriptions of the hiking including bog and stream crossings, that I have “trained” for all my professional career slogging through all types of wetlands.
  • Vague memories of towns and vacations in the highlands coming back stronger when I look at maps of Scotland.
  • My enjoyment of single malt Scotch whisky and good Scottish food (especially breakfasts and pies!).
  • Turning 50 in 2018 and hoping to celebrate with the walk through my birthplace in the highlands.

I’ll try to document my progress in researching, planning, applying, and (hopefully) going on the TGO Challenge from the start.  There are many excellent blogs associated with the Challenge, including some from newcomers.  I’ll add those to the links page as well over time as I read through more of them.  I am looking forward to this journey in a way I have never felt about any other backpacking trip!

Backpacking and Alcohol

I rarely strap a backpack on for an overnight or longer trip without a flask of my favorite single malt scotch tucked in a side pocket. For this week’s trip, I have decided on The Glenlivet 12 Year.

This is a habit I got into in the 90s and don’t mind the extra weight. Having a daily dram after dinner while watching the stars is a perfect ending to a day in the wilderness.

Some say it’s dangerous to drink in the back country, and I don’t disagree if you over indulge. Excessive alcohol can impair judgement during critical situations and can lower your body temperature and contribute to dehydration. However, a small amount like I enjoy doesn’t seem to make a significant difference even after a long day and in sub freezing temps has not made me noticeably colder (in fact seems to warm me up a bit!). Note that at high altitudes alcohol has a larger effect, so reduce or eliminate it for high mountain trips.

If you are going to carry something to sip on, check out my review of the GSI flask on my Gear Review page and drink responsibly.

Slainte mhath!

Trip Report from Grayson Highlands on a cold February weekend (finally)!

I just posted a new trip report from last weekend’s excursion to Grayson Highlands in VA and adjacent wilderness areas.  Highlights include:

  • Cold and windy weather with lows near 10 and wind chills to -15
  • Beautiful views and clouds rolling through
  • A lost boy scout
  • An off-trail excursion through thickets and bogs
  • Horses, and more horses

Enjoy!

Low-cost way to reduce backpacking weight

 

So I worked out the other month that my current normal (3-5 day 3.5 season) backpacking kit cost me around $1,000 over the last five to ten years (much of that funding came from selling old gear on Geartrade.com – I am no millionaire!).  That was money well spent for my bad ankle and knees after years of playing soccer.  My base pack weight was near 30 and now is around 15 pounds.  That is about $67 per pound of weight reduction.  A worthy investment to reduce wear and tear on my body, and hopefully extend my backpacking adventures later in life.

Since Dec 1 2016, I have reduced my backpacking weight by another 16 pounds by spending about $100.  That is a much cheaper $6 per pound of reduction!  Notice I say “backpacking” not “backpack” weight…

I bought a Fitbit and dedicated myself, as I approach 50, to get in better shape.  I have dropped 16 pounds so far of middle age spread, and feel better (before photo above and after photo below).  There is a lot of good and bad press about the Fitbit and other health trackers.  Are they extra gadgets that are unnecessary?  Are they accurate at all?  Do they really help get your overall fitness level up?  The answers to these questions in my personal opinion are Maybe, Somewhat, and Depends on the Person.

For me, the Fitbit is exactly what I needed to get focused and increase my stamina, reduce some weight, and generally get healthier.  I was not significantly overweight (around 187 on a 6 ft frame), but didn’t exercise enough due to my natural resources career keeping me very active during the day.  As my job roles have converted over to desk work and meetings while the younger guys have fun in the field, I put on about 10 pounds over a 5 year period without noticing much.  I was in my late 40s and relatively good shape but never established an exercise habit due to the job.

I have attempted several times to get going on the regular exercise routine but always dropped back off with excuses about being busy and replacing workouts with yard work etc.  With the reduced backpack weight, I have been able to go further and see more areas while enjoying the hills more than I used to (especially the downhills on my weak knees getting easier).  Now with training ahead of time I don’t take as long to get my trail legs under me, and I notice the hills on some of my regular routes are a lot smaller!

Why I didn’t do this years ago is a good question.  To make the trail miles easier it seems just common sense to focus on dropping weight on my feet.  I guess it is our focus on cool new gear that distracts from the obvious and less fun moderation of diet and regular exercise. This may be obvious to some, and I knew it intellectually but didn’t apply that knowledge without some prodding.

Fitbits and other devices are not for everyone…they aren’t that accurate on heart rate (they are decent averaging but don’t use them as a medical device) and many other apps can track calorie intake.  But for folks that don’t like to exercise unless it’s fun, this is a great little motivator. The app let’s me track sleep, weight, and exercise without much effort. I also used it for the first two months to track calorie intake until I got comfortable with my eating habits.

I am not trying to pitch yet another device, but suggest that for those like me who naturally don’t have to watch weight and exercise there are still ways to improve your backpacking experience beyond switching out gear and choosing new areas to hike.

A Tent for Wind and Rain

And so it begins again…every few years I end up looking around for a new tent.  Two basic reasons….one, I enjoy tent shopping from scouring detailed reviews and videos on line to putting together a list of my key features and rating each potential tent’s pros and cons (yes I geek out and use Excel spreadsheets for that).  Secondly, there is no such thing as a perfect tent!

I still really like my Lightheart Gear Solong 6. It’s relatively light at 36 ounces (seam sealed but not including stakes), uses trekking poles for support, and is gigantic inside – large enough that my 6 foot frame has ample room and all my gear can go inside as well.  The two doors are a must for me – one entry/exit and one for rainy day operations and cooking.  This is still my go-to tent for most trips in the southeastern US and many other areas.  It’s not the lightest option but really fits my “comfortably light” style of backpacking.

However, this is not the tent I will need for a future trip to Scotland.  Whether I get lucky and am accepted into the TGO Challenge to walk across Scotland in 2018 or if I instead go on a solo trip to the highlands of my birth, I am planning to do a lot of training in the high country treeless areas during wind and rain – the only real way to prep for a Scottish walk!  The Solong 6 is not the tent for this environment although it has held up well to some significant storms.  The awning is great, but it is not enough room for me personally to operate during multiple days of rain.

So here are my thoughts on the new tent for 2017:

  • Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) Trailstar – this seems like the bomb proof option for Scotland based on many reviews, but it’s only in the top 3 for me right now but hanging in strong due to its unique nature and great reviews.  I will probably go visit Ron at MLD sometime to see a Trailstar in person. The livable space is unbeatable, but I have concerns that the low pitch and crawling in and out won’t be great for my lower back issues.
  • Pyramid Tent – either the MLD Duomid or another similar tent from other manufacturers.  I have looked through several of these but none seem quite to fit my tastes.  Lots of really interesting options, but several top contenders were dropped due to issues like no really good shelter area for rainy day cooking or (like the Duomid) a requirement for a pole extension to reach the right height for me.
  • Tarptent Scarp 1 – after an initial infatuation with Trailstars, I moved over to the Scarp as my number one choice (it is now second or maybe tied for second with the beautiful Trailstar).  This is another bomb-proof option that can be seen in many blogs, videos, and photos of Scottish hiking.  I really liked this one and it seemed to fill the gap of Hilleberg without the price tag of those fantastic tents.  It weighs 52 ounces though, and that is tough to swallow for a longer trip.  On top of that it is a lot smaller than the Trailstar or the Scarp’s cousin the…
  • Tarptent Stratospire 1 – this is my current favorite option, but the real details have yet to be analyzed.  It seems to bridge the gap of relatively light weight (36 ounces) compared to the Scarp and close to that tents windproof ability.  The key to my interest is the vast amount of room – 48 inches height inside, ample inner netted living space, and two large sheltered vestibules with two doors.

So right now as we round the third turn, the Stratospire 1 is in the lead.  I can see myself living out of it through multiple wet and dreary days, and on the sunny day(s) I can have both doors wide open for the views that I really enjoy.   I’ll update once a final decision has been made but there is still work to be done on all the details, and a couple of tent manufacturers to talk to….always fun and educational as these guys know what they are talking about (and have my dream job)!

Backpacking reviews, trips, and random thoughts