Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

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Tuesday 14 May 2013

A different slant

My last blog entry, on my winter kit list, certainly seems to have been popular. I guess that's the gear geeks showing themselves. I also hinted that I was looking to change a few items as we hit the better weather and I have been keen to try the whole bivvy and tarp option that many lightweight backpackers and bikepackers are now using. To this end, I bought myself a Rab Ascent bivvy bag and a Siltarp tarp. 

The Ascent met my number 1 criterion - it has a midge net. Now maybe I'm just unlucky, or I was born with the wrong gene, but I'm an absolute midge magnet. Having tried a few products over the years I've found only two that work. Deet, at a high concentration, seems to keep the blighters at bay but it smells & tastes horrid and can damage certain materials and plastics. I found Smidge a couple of years ago and that seems to work just as well but with none of the side effects. However, I'm still not confident enough to want to fall asleep out in the open in a Scottish summer. The midge net on the Ascent bivvy bag can be removed if not required but neatly zips across the opening ensuring loads of fresh air without being eaten alive. 

The tarp I bought has enough loops on it that it can be used in number of configurations so I practiced in the garden, learning and re-learning a few knots that would be handy out in the wilds. 

Tarp in "Flying V" configuration
Another option - requiring a couple of poles or handily placed trees.
Keen to use the new equipment, I asked a few friends if they were also up for a night out at a spot I had spotted a couple of weeks previously near Blair Atholl. Before long we had a small posse together and Saturday afternoon saw us heading north up the A9, past all the Etape Caledonia entrants doing their registration stuff in Pitlochry. A couple of beers in the Bothy Bar at the Atholl Arms (and a plate of Haggis Nachos for a very hungry me) and we were then heading up around the Glen Banvie loop. This is a straightforward section of estate road with a couple of wee climbs to gain some altitude and makes a pleasant 9 mile cycle in the country. However, I had decided to see if we could get to the top of the little summit of Fair Bhuidhe reckoning that the views would be more open. That meant a good bit more climbing, including a  bit of pushing as the terrain got wetter and my Marathon Mondial tyres started to lose traction. 

Almost at the top, we made a detour to a the remains of a very old watch tower overlooking Blair Castle. I have to say that I was very surprised. I'd expected an old Forestry Commission wooden tower but this was clearly much older and had been much more substantial.

Who's the king of the castle?
Beside this tower there was also a little ruined building that would have been an ideal spot to set out a bivvy bag. However, as the the other three were in tents and this little ridge was a bit blowy and exposed we opted to head to a clearing right at the very summit. This necessitated a push through some draggy heather that was particularly bad for Jimmy as he'd opted to tow a trailer. However, he struggled on bravely and we were soon inspecting potential pitches. 

This was where I had to start thinking a bit differently. I hummed and hawed for a bit before finally selecting a little hollow between some heathery bumps and under the spreading branches of a tree. While the other guys were cracking on apace with their tents, I had to search  around a bit for a decent stick I could use as a prop for the tarp, then guy it all out. Even a simple chore like getting the sleeping mat organised turned into a potential issue. The other guys had already started cooking before I was settled and I was lucky it wasn't raining as I got everything sorted out. 

When I eventually started on my dinner, Andrew was collecting firewood from the substantial amount of windfall and, after a couple of attempts, eventually had a fire going. 

Primitive humans gathering around the fire for safety
It's strange this one. I very rarely bother with such a thing. By the time I've ridden or walked all day then cooked a meal I'm usually happy to sit and contemplate nature/the sky for a while then head into my sleeping bag. However, get four guys together in the wilds and some elemental change seems to occur. It was certainly a lot more sociable and it was as well I'd brought some wine as well as whisky as it was well after midnight before we were all ensconced in our various sleeping systems.

And how was I feeling about this? Well, pretty cosy actually. In the pitch black it was impossible to tell I wasn't just in a tent. Only the amount of fresh air really gave the game away and I was soon fast asleep.

I awoke around 5am, just as the sky was getting lighter, to discover that (a) my sleeping mat had gone flat and (b) the inside of the bivvy bag was very wet. I think these two things might have been related. With the mat flat, the bivvy bag had got twisted in the night and I'd managed to pull the much less breathable bottom part round to the top. That meant my body vapour was condensing on it. The part of the bag that was made of the Event fabric still felt OK. As for the mat, the best I could do was blow it up again, hoping it would retain some air until it was time to get up.

Room with a view

I don't know that I slept much after that. I was content to poke my head out of the bag and watch the sky gradually getting lighter. Eventually though, approaching 8am, I decided it was time for breakfast and set about doing this from the comfort of my sleeping bag. Much as when in the tent, organisation of your gear is vital so that everything is handy and easily found. In fact, it's probably even more essential under just a tarp as it's easy for things to get lost in the heather.

When packing everything away, I was again grateful it wasn't raining. Simple tasks like getting a sleeping bag packed away into a dry bag are just going to take much more care when not having the comparative luxury of a tent to do it in. 

The route I'd chosen back to the car park involved another heathery fire-break to a mapped estate road. However, this road was frequently blocked by trees and very wet in places. Again, I was cursing my tyre choice as my steering was often non-existent. Upon reaching the main Glen Banvie track again, I somehow persuaded everyone that it would be better to do the slightly longer route back. This also gave us the opportunity to check out what had been my fallback camp spot had the weather been too wild the previous evening. A wee detour to the Falls of Bruar and we were soon enough back at the car park for a slap-up chippy!!

Safe from predators at last

So - what are my impressions of bivvying?

On the down side;
  • I was surprised how much time it took for me to get it all set up. On the right terrain, a tent would be quicker.
  • Organisation is pretty essential. I was forever losing stuff in the grass and heather.
  • There's not a massive amount of weight saved once a tarp and pegs (and potentially a warmer sleeping bag) are factored in.
  • My sleeping bag was definitely more damp than it would have been in a tent, though this was due to the bivvy bag twisting.
  • There is definitely a wider selection of places to bivvy than to camp. I'd have been happy in the wee ruins we'd passed.
  • If it hadn't been for the other guys having tents I'd have pitched up further into the woods where the ground was flatter and less heathery.
  • There's certainly a pleasant vibe from waking up in the open. I really enjoyed that aspect of it and on a summer evening I can imagine enjoying it even more.
In short, I obviously need to do more. I reckon some of the disadvantages will reduce or disappear with experience and, even if it's only for single-night trips, I'm sold on the concept. 

Packed and ready to roll

Edit: the leaky mat was due to a known manufacturing fault which is supposed to have been resolved. I've been asked to return my mat to the UK distributors for inspection and replacement. I'll provide another update if/when it arrives. 

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