Choosing what to buy and what to take when you head off on your adventures can be a complex and confusing time. Often if people are heading off on a supported trek where accommodation and portering are included in the package, there is little else for them to buy beyond a decent pair of boots that are fit for purpose and a sleeping system that will keep you warm at night. So for those of you headed off on a supported trek sometime soon, with an eye on your budget, here are some top tips to help you on your way.
Kitted out on the Ausangate Trek, Peru 2011
Think about where you are going and how the climate might be. This should be the best guide on what you need to pack.
Manmade and wool based fibres wick sweat away from the body.
Lighter colours reflect sunlight better than darker shades, and are therefore cooler.
Layers are good for controlling temperature.
Comfort – if it isn’t comfortable, be it boots or rucksacks, don’t buy it. You won’t use what you don’t like. Try everything on in the shop before parting with cash.
Waterproofs (shell layer)
Advising a Brit on waterproofs is like telling a Frenchman what wine to drink – so I generally think that any walking enthusiast in this country will probably be equipped well enough for a trek that is probably going to take place in (a) a country that is drier than the UK or (b) so hot that you’ll be in shirt sleeve order even on a wet day.
Membrane/hard-shell technology (Gore-Tex or Event for example) is good when if there is a heat differential between you and the outside – otherwise it might not be as breathable as you may think. If your body is a fast breather (i.e. you sweat lots and easily) maybe you should sacrifice your pursuit of waterproofness for breathability. Personally I’m a keen advocate of soft shells – with two prime examples being Paramo and in cold wet climates, Buffalo.
Essential features of a jacket can include a hood with a stiffened peak and storm flaps covering or lying beneath the zips and pockets. With a hard shell, the garment’s seams need to be taped. It should also be large enough to wear on top of several layers.
Fleece jackets vary enormously in price. The aim of the fleece jacket is to keep you warm as part of the layering system. The layering system works by trapping warm air between the layers, so baggy fitting layers are not effective. Fleeces wick (expel) moisture from the body and retain little water, but beware of cheap imitations that will not wick efficiently and weigh more. The majority of fleeces are not windproof, and nor do they really need to be. If it is cold and windy the additional warmth can be gained by wearing the shell garment on top.
Down time and down jackets
Treks to altitude can be cold. The chances are there will be plenty of free time when you will find yourself in a mess tent or in the tea-house. This is when a down jacket will be especially useful to you. Light in weight yet packing in loads of feel good warmth – going to altitude without one would be a decision likely to end with regret. They’re a lot cheaper these days so shop around, but also check with your operator with what might be available for sale at your destination. My first one was a fake Mountain Equipment jacket bought from a shop in Kathmandu filled with chicken feathers. It wasn’t light but it was warm, and at £20, cheap too!
Thermals are the first layer or base layer and should be close fitting to work effectively. Their aim is to wick moisture away from the skin and dry quickly. Avoid any made from cotton, as cotton does not wick, and can hold ten times its weight in moisture before taking heat from your body to dry. Wearing a cotton T-shirt will negate the best properties of the fleece and breathable coat you may have just spent so much money on! Merino wool costs a bit more but smells far less. Check out what’s on offer from Planet X Bikes – often they offer merino tops at great prices.
Ausangate Trek, Peru 2011
Rucksacks and day-sacks
About ten years ago I was leading a school group on expedition in Uganda which included a trek up Mt Elgon. On the day that we met our trek crew I eyed up which porter might be best to take my rucksack. I found my man and handed him my bag. Naively, following a process of fitting it to his back, adjusting and pulling on various straps, I smiled and gave him the go ahead with a thumbs up. At this point, with a return smile, he took it off and stuck it on his head. If you’re never going to carry heavy kit on your own back, often the best big bag to take will be a robust zip up kit bag. If mules aren’t used then invariably porters around the world will always use their head (literally) to carry your sack.
More likely you should invest in buying a good day sack. Remember that if it’s uncomfortable when loaded then your life will be made a misery! When buying your bag, do try on several in the shop. Put weight in them, take plenty of time to walk around and adjust the straps to see if the pack is suitable.
Last of all, never believe that your bags are waterproof – whatever the sales blurb tells you. There are few things worse than climbing into a wet sleeping bag after a long day on the hill; so be sure to buy some sort of waterproof liners for all your packs. Avoid kitchen disposal bin bags – these are too flimsy: better is a rubble bag from Wickes!
Pyrenees 2005 – not happy!
The bigger the sack, the more you will be tempted to carry in it. Too small though and you will end up strapping cumbersome objects onto the exterior. For your main pack, something between 60 and 75 litres should be enough for you. Day-sacks should be somewhere between 30 and 40 litres in size. They need to be large enough to carry sufficient water and provisions for the day, including any additional clothing that may be required for the day.
Long days of exercise in the fresh air with good company and sleeping whilst on trek should be easy. Get the wrong sleeping system though and the whole trip could be jeopardised. So this is one key area I like to get right. Again, consider first the climate of where you are going: hot, cold, wet or dry – these all play into the decision making process.
There are two types of filling used in sleeping bags, down (i.e. feathers) or synthetic. Down bags are usually warmer for the weight and pack size but offer virtually no insulation if wet. Synthetic bags remain warm when wet but will be bulkier than down bags. For a supported trek, weight shouldn’t really be an issue, so synthetic bags are always going to be a good and cost effective choice.
You should also consider buying a sleeping bag liner. Designed to help keep your sleeping bag clean they can also add a couple of degrees warmth. They come in different forms though so shop wisely. Silk liners are expensive but are a better weave for keeping you bite free from bed bugs in that pre-trek hotel bed. Cotton liners are cheap and fleece liners are best for adding warmth. A fleece liner will also pay dividends in terms of flexibility. At lower and warmer altitudes it might be all you need. A bit higher up a mid-range sleeping bag might suffice. And, for the one or two nights at high altitude the combination of the fleece liner and your sleeping bag might then be enough to keep you warm and toasty.
Broadly boots fall into two categories: leather and fabric. As a general rule of thumb a good pair of leather boots will give slightly better support to your ankle and will last longer but simultaneously will take longer to break in. Fabric boots lined with a membrane are getting better and offer a lightweight alternative to leather. Whichever boot you choose, it must have rigidity in the sole, have good tread, offer ankle support and be comfortable. Purchase your boots well in advance so that you get ample opportunity to break them in. Make sure that your boots are fit for purpose too. If you are headed out onto terrain where crampons will be needed make sure your boots are B1 crampon-compatible as a minimum. The chances are, your boots are a comfortable pair rated at B0.
One top top tip – wear your boots on the flight. If your baggage gets lost en-route, you can replace practically everything bar your boots.
Keeping fully hydrated is essential, you will drink far more water than normal whilst trekking. Whilst on trek carrying two 1 litre bottles works well for me. I use one to purify my water in, and one to drink from. Hose fed drinking systems have failed me for too many years now that I’m out of love with them. That said, they are great for keeping hydrated on the move.
These are particularly useful for longer treks (5 days plus) or high, mountain treks. Research shows that the use of two walking poles can reduce the strain on the back, leg-joints, ankles and knees by up to 60% especially on down hill stretches when carrying weight. They also offer essential support when crossing rivers, and are a great aid in the event of an ankle sprain.
Be careful about buying any old pair … For me buying a pair in Kathmandu was the biggest waste of £9 – they lasted about two days. Also it could be worth having a go with someone else’s first. Personally I prefer sprung loaded poles since without the springs I get tennis elbow. Typically however the lightweight ones are not sprung loaded. Decide which you prefer.
Like boots, two are better than one, and one is better than none at all!
Cost Versus Quality
Before you go out and double the cost of your trip with a credit card bill at the local outdoor retailer think about how much long term use you need from this extra kit. Where possible keep the cost sensible, try to borrow kit, and as fun as this may be, try not to spend unnecessarily. Beg, borrow, scrounge and shop around in stores and on the internet. The following outlets offer some good kit at decent prices:
Outside – top end kit for big mountaineering expeditions (at prices to suit)
Cotswold Outdoors – they have quite a varied and wide discount system. They offer many interest groups, clubs and companies a discount ranging from 15% to 25%. Google it.
Go Outdoors seem to be dominating the retail quarter of every town. Again, buy nothing at face value, the combination of their discount card and a price guarantee mean that a well researched trip to this store can bag you a bargain.
Alpkit.com – a lovely brand with a personal touch. In particular I’d look to them for their sleeping bags, down jackets and waterproof bag liners.
TK Max offer some perfectly adequate waterproofs and fleece tops. Before you go anywhere maybe try here first.
When it comes down to it, you don’t need much
Finally when you’re prancing around the store wondering if the kit you’re about to spend a second mortgage on will be up to the job, remember Mallory. He climbed Everest (well almost) in a tweed jacket and with a pipe for oxygen. How hard can it be!?