Saturday, 17 May 2014
The Pennine Way is a tough hike! Make no mistake about that. Don't underestimate it! I've hiked the Coast to Coast, Offa's Dyke, The Two Moors Way, both North and South a downs Ways, the London Loop and much of the Greensand Way and trust me, the Pennine Way is much harder than any of them. It is very remote, shuns towns and villages and is at times very poorly signposted. You will be going through some very rough, high country where there may be no visible path, no signposts, and if the weather is bad, no visibility beyond a few metres. While parts of the route are paved, it seems at times impossible that you are actually on a National Trail because the path is so invisible and messy! Put a foot in the wrong place and you can slip off a cliff or into a potentially quite deep wet bog! You need to prepare, get fit, be competent with map and compas and know how to cope with all weathers and terrains. Though people do, I personally wouldn't consider doing it in the winter.
I did the trip alone, but I wouldn't do that again. You have to travel through some regions that are very remote and should anything happen to you, you have no way to raise an alarm. If you slip into a bog, you will have nobody to help pull you out. Most of all, the isolation of the entire route can play on your mind. You need a strong conviction that you want and are able to do this hike on your own or you will cave in when you are faced for example with the vista of miles and miles of bleak, windswept, rainy, boggy moors and you have to somehow thread your way through.
It's a great hike, but it is lonely. I've never encountered any other trail that day on day excluded me from the real world to such a extent. For that I have a new respect and love/hate for Yorkshire! I am grateful to all the friends who stayed in touch by email or WhatsApp while I was hiking. You lot kept me sane! It would have been much harder without you so thanks! Also thanks to all the people and organisations that sponsored me to do the trip. I didn't see a penny of the money myself by the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme did and some young people will benefit as a result. Also nobody wants to look like a failure so your sponsorship interest also helped to keep me going during tougher times!
So if you must go, ask yourself if you really are committed? If you are in doubt, wait until you are more certain. The trip will test your resolve! Then get the right kit and know how to use it! Don't scrimp! You will get a soaking more than once and you need to stay warm and dry. From comfortable waterproof boots to durable outer shell. Screw up and you will be in trouble. Make sure you have a map and compas and know how to use them. It's no good just having them and trying to figure it out when your nice GPS enabled iPhone is in the middle of the river!
If you are certain you want to go and you have all the skills, strength and kit, then I wish you a great hike. It's a trip of a lifetime. Enjoy!
If you are mad enough to want to do this or a similar trip, you are going to need a whole lot of kit to be able to go the distance safely and in any kind of style. Emphasis on safely!
Here's a list of the kit (and services) I took with me on this hike and that made my life manageable!
Meindl Burma Pro GTX Boots
If there's one thing that you need to get right, it's your boots and I love these! For me they are super comfortable, easily adjustable and have never let the water in. I've walked a couple of thousand miles in a single pair and while they are now getting toward the end of their life, they are still as comfortable as the day I bought them. On my hike, I was shocked to meet many people that blindly accepted that hiking through wet places eventually meant wet feet! Not with these boot it doesn't!
In common with many other quality boots, you might be surprised to find that the supplied insole is not as great as the rest of the boot. If you feel this to be the case, get a set of insoles either off the shelf or custom made. They transform a good boot into an excellent one.
It's hard to fault these boots and I love 'em!
Ellis Brigham custom moulded insoles
When I asked they assistant in Ellis Brigham how much it would cost to have a pair of custom insoles made, I was a bit shocked and decided not to bother. But after 10 minutes thinking it over, I went back and got them made. I'm very glad I did! They transform the comfort level of a boot and make them 'your own'. If you are going to be walking all day, you need your footwear to be perfect and this is not money wasted. I'm not actually sure what brand they used when they made these for me but their level of customer service was exemplary and you are in good hands if you go there and get them to make you a pair. Your feet and knees will thank you for it!
Berghaus Freeflow 25 Rucksack
I've owned this daysack for a couple of years and hiked a long, long way with it! It is generally comfortable, very adjustable and holds about the right amount for a day out. You can easily shove two 330ml bottles of water in each zip-up side pocket and that's plenty for even a long trek in the sun. The elasticated side pockets have never lost their stretch so you can safely shove gloves etc in them and they stay put.
Two criticisms I have are that it's impossible to attach hiking poles and use the supplied rain cover at the same time and the shoulder straps do tend to bite into the side of your chest when everything is done up nice and snug. My solution for the poles has always been to attack a short bungee round the sack and shove the poles through it, putting their handles into the elasticated side pockets. Works for me, but maybe the design could have been better. I don't have a solution for the staps, and think there may be a better way of designing the attachment of the chest strap to the shoulder straps.
Nonetheless, I like this sack and happily use it over and over for day trips.
Leki Makalu Jasper Anti-Shock Poles
These are stylish, light and comfortable poles. They bite into most surfaces without slipping and are very comfortable in the hand. The supplied wrist straps are velvety to the touch and super comfortable.
I do have a problem with the design of the poles though in that the adjustment mechanism tends to jam making it impossible to adjust their length. Perhaps this is a maintenance issue (and I have been guilty of just collapsing the poles and storing them without more ado after a day out) but it may be that the design needs improving. Once adjusted, they are very secure and support your entire weight reliably. I always take these poles with me as they are very lightweight and when you need them, you really do need them! If I can get the adjustment mechanism issues resolved, I'd say these are highly recommended, otherwise, let's see what else it out there.
I'm sure this needs no introduction. I use it to run a MemoryMap GPS app to show me where I am as well as using it as my primary camera on all my trips. Lately I also run RunKeeper in the background to track my hikes. Oh yes, it's a phone too!
If you are considering taking this with you on a trip, you must take a spare portable external phone battery charger too. If it's got your main map in it, you cannot afford for it to run out of power. Also, load it full of your favourite music and podcasts before you set out. You'll be glad you did when you have a boring day and just need something to lighten up those endless miles.
Anker Astro 5600 mAh Portable External Battery Charger with built in flashlight for iPhone
If you intend that your phone should play a significant role in your hike, and it will if it runs a GPS app to show you where you are, then you need to make sure it doesn't run out of power. This little battery pack will recharge it from from dead several times over and will certainly keep it running all day, no matter how you use the phone. If you are talking your phone, take this too but treat it gently! It's not a robustized bit of outdoor kit! With a little TLC it will serve you well and tolerate really quite extreme amounts of wet and damp. It's USB connector needs to be treated with respect though. No sticking it in your pocket with a cable attached and bending over to pick something up! You'll snap that connectors internally! I did! (But I had a spare!) And remember, if this breaks, your phone is dead! Sobering thought! They are not that expensive... take two!
Apple Lightning to USB Cable
If you are using your phone, you need it to stay powered up and with iPhones not being the greatest on battery life, you are going to have to charge it while out there on the hills. So an external battery pack is obligatory as is a cable to connect the battery to your phone. Apple rip you off like crazy for these cables but even so, if the cable breaks, your phone is dead so ignore the cost and take two... at least! I did and one of mine did break! But the spare meant I could carry on and complete my trip. So the cost of the extra cable was insignificant in the bigger picture.
Griffin Survivor Plus Catalyst Waterproof Case for iPhone 5
iPhones hate water. So if you are taking your phone at all, even if you don't need to rely on it, take this case. Any hike in the UK is likely to include a good soaking and your phone will die if exposed to that. Once it's safely inside this unit though, you can throw it in the river and it will be fine, though how you get it back is your own problem. It's lightweight and works very well. You can operate the phone in the rain, though you may have to wipe excess water off the screen before it functions correctly. Sounds from the phone speaker are as clear as if the box wasn't there and you can make calls perfectly well too.
Watch out for when the phone is not in the unit though. The membrane that normally covers the phone screen is quite delicate and without the phone behind it, it is very easy to press on it and damage it. It would have been helpful if the manufacturers supplied a lightweight dummy phone to put in it when it's not actually in use. Then you could shove it into your rucksack and not worry too much about that membrane. As it is, you have to be very careful with it when it's not actually in use.
MemoryMap GPS Navigation with Ordnance Survey 1:25000 maps
This is a really great app. Sure, I have a map and compas with me in case the phone decides to die, but frankly, this is my map of choice and it works very well indeed. You get full GPS linked access to up to date OS maps of your choice.
MemoryMap do try to sell you a huge map bundle to go with the app but this is expensive and probably unnecessary. If you register at www.memorymap.co.uk/activate you can buy bundles of square kilometres at your chosen OS map resolution (I recommend 1:25000 for hiking) and then it's up to you which patches of the UK you enable the map for. The smallest area you can enable is 6 square km. If you are prepared to spend an hour enabling patches of the map to cover your hike, you have a very affordable solution for even a very long hike, offering genuine OS maps to boot! I have done this for several long distance paths, making sure I enabled patches a few km of either side of my path in case I needed to get off the hills and onto a road or into a town in an emergency.
The app shows you to within a few meters where you actually are on the map. It's just very hard indeed to get lost. And if you are in the middle of pathless, featureless moorland, it is very comforting to be able to locate yourself accurately. It can make all the difference between hacking your own way through the heather / wet bog and finding the existing path so you can sail along trouble free using the existing bridges and rocks to help you cross the streams and gullies.
I love this app and It works great for me. But don't go out without a real map and compas and the knowledge to use them, just in case.
Garmin eTrex H Handheld GPS Navigator
I used this before I discovered the MemoryMap software for my iPhone and I still carry it with me on all trips now. Why? Because it gives me an accurate OS grid reference of my current position. If my phone dies, I need to know where I am on the map. And yes, I do carry a real map too! Sure, if all else fails, you can use a compas to take fixes on features to triangulate your position, but I'd rather not have to. This unit tacks how far you have travelled too, though I think it track flat-map miles, not hill-miles. And hill miles actually are physically longer because of the slopes! And it can go a full day on a single set of batteries.
My unit does have a bit of a habit of switching itself off which is very annoying. It means it totally loose track of how far you have walked since it doesn't know how far you travelled while it was off. I cut a small piece of foam material to insert into the battery case to help pack the batteries in nice and tight and stop them jiggling around just in case a momentary bump caused disconnection and power down. It only partially worked. But I live with it because everything important gets done on my iPhone. What i really really need this unit to do, is give me an OS grid reference should my phone die. And all I have to do is turn it on to get that information.
It's a bit dated, has no USB interface and is kind of hard to configure when you first get it. But for all that, it does just work so it's on my 'A' list for taking on any hike.
Exped Waterproof Fold-Drybags
You need the stuff in your rucksack to stay dry. You really do! And for years, I used all manner of dustbin liners to achieve that. But sooner or later they always rip and in any case, all your stuff is rammed into the one bin liner and you can't find anything. These guys fix that. Don't bother justifying their expense, just get them and use them. Stuff stays dry and you can find what you are looking for since it's all in different coloured bags. They don't weigh much and just do what you'd expect.
Sof Sole Gel Heel Pads
Even with good boots and a good insole, bashing through those miles can start to make the feet ache. My heels often start to complain after a few hours and these little guys can help take the bumps out of things by cushioning every step. They look like fried eggs and are made out of a kind of stretchy rubber. Just pop them in your boot where your heel will go and bingo, less impact! They do tend to wander around inside your boot I have to say, so the solution is only temporary, unless you stop and reposition them. But for me, the pain of doing that is much less the the pain of a damaged foot so they are always with me, just in case I start to get sore and feel I need a little extra cushioning.
1000 Mile Fusion Sock
These socks are brilliant! I cannot praise them enough. They seem a bit expensive when you consider you are getting one pair of ankle socks, but stop worrying, they are worth it. I've hiked hundred and hundreds of miles with these on (and a cheap Primark sports ankle sock on top of them) and have never ever had a blister. Not one! If it's these socks that achieved that, they they are worth twice the price. They are comfortable, wash out and dry easily and are still useable after tumble drying, though they do shrink a bit! Get them and kiss blisters goodbye.
Blacks Trekmates Rannoch Moor Dry Gaiters
If you are going places where it's muddy, you have a choice. Get your trousers filthy and soaked or get gaiters. On a multi-day hike, I don't carry fresh trousers for each day and generally press a single pair into use for about week! (It's actually not as gross as it first seems! Honest!) So gaiters it is then for me!
These gaiters are comfortable and are easy to put on and take off. The sales material says that they are breathable and so don't get wet inside. I disagree with that. They do. After several hours hiking, take them off and take a look. Plenty of drops of water all over the inside. But that's sweat, not wet from the outside. And curiously, my trousers stay dry. Not sure how that happens, but it's true.
My big bug bear with these is that they do slip tend down your legs, especially when you are banging downhill! It's a problem common to lots of gaiters, but it's very annoying. You can tighten them as much as you like around your calf, but sooner or later, they slither down toward your ankle. I'd like to see a better method of anchoring the draw string at the top since I think that it slowly works it's way through the adjusting toggle and they work loose! I'm sure it's a hard problem to solve. Too tight and your leg complains, too loose and the gaiters fall. I'd be prepared to try another brand, but in the mean time, these always come with me.
Berghaus Men's Hurricane Jacket
You need to stay warm and dry when you are on the hills. And you need to be able to play about with the number of layers you wear to regulate how warm you are. This jacket is ideal as an outer layer. It is lightweight and scrunches down to just about nothing but when it's on, you stay totally dry inside. It's quite thin so I doubt it would survive well in an encounter with a barbed wire fence, and you will be close enough to many of those for sure so take care! But for me, it is a fantastic windproof, rainproof outer shell. The hood has a wired peak so you can set it where suits you best, along with a draw string so you can adjust its tightness so it just will not blow off, no matter how hard the gale! (Though you will look a bit like a crazed red nun in the gale!) You don't get wet inside it no matter how hard it rains or how hard the wind blows! I definately tried both those aspects of it out! The zipper pocket on the front looks like it is waterproof, but it isn't! I had some electronic stuff in there thinking it would be accessible and dry. Big mistake!
This remains one of my favourite bits of outdoor gear because of its portability and utility. Your life depends on not getting exposed to the elements and this is a primary defence. Highly recommended.
Decathlon Quechua Forclaz Rain Overtrousers
Great over trousers. They fold up really quite small, don't weight too much and when they are on, they really do the job well. They have a double ended zip up the side of each leg making it very easy to get a booted foot into them in a hurry when the rain arrives. Also, the zipper is covered with a flap of material which is fixed in place periodically by Velcro. This means that the rain doesn't even hit the zip and you stay nice and dry. It also means that on those annoying days when it rains on and off, you can undo the zippers, but leave the Velcro tabs fastened to let some air in without having to take the entire trousers off. Well designed and I've never got wet inside them, no matter how hard the wind blew and the rain fell!
Trekmates TRKFSM FoldingSit mat
Well sometimes after you've hiked up a mountain, you really want to sit and enjoy the view! But the rocks at the top are wet, for freezing! Here's your solution. These weigh nearly nothing, and somehow, there's always room to slip them into a full rucksack. They fold up small and when you sit on them, rock becomes cushion! End of story! Get one and carry it everywhere!
Energiser Intelligent AA/AAA Battery Charger
If you are going to use battery operated kit, you either have to carry a large supply of fresh batteries or get rechargeable ones and a charger. Here's my preference. This charger seems to do the job though I have no strong attachment to the make or model.
SoundMAGIC E10M Isolating Earphones
There are going to be days when the wonder of being in the great outdoor seems to have turned into utter boredom or misery. Trust me on this one! Having a phone full of your favourite music or podacasts is going to help a lot! Get some earphones that sound good, block the outside noise fairly well and stay in your ears once inserted. Then plug them in and bash out those miles singing your head off like a complete loony! Theres nobody around for miles so nobody will ever know will they! And if by Sod's law, a herd of hikers should come round the corner and look aghast at you, well.... who cares!
BT Internet Access
Our in the middle of nowhere land, you are almost certainly going to have no mobile phone signal. So lesson number one is NEVER rely upon being able to call for help! Lesson number two is that even when you are in a village, you are probably not going to have any mobile phone signal. But if you happen to use BT for your phone and internet at home, you will almost certainly have been included in their program to make WiFi available to the public. A tiny portion of the bandwidth of your home router is hived off for public use. And in return, you get to use that same bandwidth from everyone else when you are out and about, wherever you happen to be. So, all you have to do is make sure your phone / iPad is registered with the BT service before you set out and then, slowly walk the streets with your phone sniffing out WiFi networks. Because BT is such a huge provider, it's almost certain that you will pretty soon come to a stop outside someone's house where your phone reports it has found a WiFi signal. Bingo! You are in business! Now you can do email, WhatsApp and all the other good stuff, entirely free..... If you don't mind standing in the fresh air! But at least you can let your nearest and dearest know you are safe!
This has got me out of a hole more than once and it's well worth being aware of!
Whetherspoons pubs all offer free access to the internet via the Cloud! You can register the first time you want to use it, but it's a lot less hastle to have done it before you really need to use it! Get set up ahead of time, then you can be sure that if the town/village has a Spoons, you have internet access too, along wit a good pint and reasonably priced food!
I used Brigantes to book all accommodation and to transfer my baggage between BnBs every day. True, they charge a premium for doing this but their local knowledge is invaluable and in addition, if you don't show up at the end of a day, the BnB owner has an organisation to contact and there's just that little bit more chance that someone is going to come looking for you. Could be a life saver. Sure you can make all the arrangements yourself with the same effect and a lot cheaper too. But in a busy world where we all work flat out, do you have time? They did their job flawlessly and my accommodation was correctly booked and my luggage arrived without issue. The standard of accommodation varied from basic to extremely good. To some extent this may be out of necessity, since you will be visiting some quite remote places and the choice of accommodation might be very limited, but I also wonder if sometimes, there may be a touch of 'economy' going on either with Brigantes or the hotelier in terms of whether you get the en-suite room for example! I booked well in advance but still didn't get the nicest rooms! Don't be put off though. I'd use them again.
Total distance covered so far : 448 km
So the last day! Hard to believe! It's been so long that I have been getting up, packing up my suitcase, putting on my rough hiking gear and setting off on another long day's hike that I can't remember what it was like to not have to to it!
This morning, my BnB host arranged a ride back to the foot of Windy Gyle, put me down at Trows farm, wished me well, turned round and drove off. It felt vey odd to be deposited in the middle of nowhere, hemmed in by interlocking hills, with only roaming sheep and a stream for company. Something about the transition from the wam interior or a Land Rover with good conversation to just being left in the big solitary outdoor lonely outdoors was quite a jolt! In moments, the land rover had disappeared around the first corner and I was all alone! So backpack on; poles out; get on with it!
The 2.5km from Trows (286m) up to the top of Windy Gyle (619m) is quite a climb. Most people do that kind of thing once in a long while and call it a day. But that's the second time I climbed it in less that 24 hours! Oh boy!
It was quite breezy on the top and there's a shelter made out of rock there. Theres a picture of it here somewhere. It's just a circular wall about 3 feet hight made out of rubble on top of the huge cairn-like pile of rocks on the summit. No roof, just a simple construction offering some respite from the wind. The wall has a break in it on one side (presumably the side that's most often downwind) so you can get in and out easily. I though I'd take a little rest from the climb and sit inside and look at the view for a while; which is what I did.
After about 10 minutes, I heard the distinctive sound of rocks crunching and realised that 'that ain't no bird out there' and that shockingly, though it was still only about 10am, someone else was on the summit too. So I slowly stood up to have a look and as my head and body popped over the wall, came face to face with and elderly man and his wife just outside! He nearly died!!!!! That was last thing he'd expected! Lol.
So onwards with the trail. For about 3km heading towards King's Seat the way is 'paved' which is welcome because it is in part quite boggy. Then you are on your own to scramble up the black peat and grassy knolls to the summit. And it was very windy up there too. The forecast had been for a lovely warm day. Wrong! It was a lovely, chilly and very windy day! In fact very, very windy! The gusts were heading for 'blow you off track' strong!
From the highest mountain, The Cheviot, the view offers the promise that you must be able to see the end of the trail, but as it turns out it is not a straightforward nor easy hike to get there. From that height, you can see where you must have to go to end the walk, but Kirk Yetholm is situated in such a way that it hides in the folds of the hills and until you are only half a mile away from it you can't see it at all! Also, the Pennines don't give up easily and through they are dying away, they become even more aggressive in their spasms of ups and downs before finally expiring. The last three miles are indeed trying! And on top of those last few hills, the wind was again strong enough to nearly blow me over! But after fighting my way all these hundreds of km, it would take more than a few last hills to stop me, and arrive I did!
And that's it! The last kilometre on the road into Kirk Yetholm and the trip was done. A free pint in the Border Hotel and a certificate to say I completed the trip.
Nothing more to say I suppose! An incredible, long, hard, wet, lonely trip. I loved it and despised it in equal measure. I'm so glad I did it, but I won't be doing it again any time soon. The hills and moors have a wonderful allure, but for me, for now, the warmth and safety of my own home is what I want most. It's been a fantastic trip of a lifetime, but I'm tired and ready to go home!
Finished, showered, clean, safe and sunburned!
I'm going home!