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A sideways look at outdoor gear

Peter MacfarlaneThere’s no getting away from it. If we have shoes on our feet, a jacket on our backs and we’re carrying something on our back to keep our lunch in, we’re using outdoor gear. Of course as we’re human beings it’s not as simple as that – gear isn’t just a means to an end or a tool. We can’t help ourselves, we get enthused, we want to know more about it, what’s it made of, what’s coming next season, what’s the best?

Many will roll their eyes at the thought of this enthusiasm and are happy in the same gear they’ve been using for 20 years, and I’ll tell you something, when I’m not testing gear for reviews my old favourites come out too. Last week in the Arrochar Alps my ice axe was strapped to my early 1990s Karrimor Alpiniste 45+10 rucksack, a benchmark model and still a source of design inspiration for rucksack manufacturers today. Being an enthusiast can mean that you spot that continuity, see that sometimes new gear or ideas is an evolution rather than just everything being a marketing exercise. So being a gear geek does have its advantages, maybe the more you find out, the more immune you become to advertising and hype.

GS1

Gear is also something to fuel your fire when you’re away from the hills. Wandering around an outdoor shop, flicking through the rails you can’t help but feel the possibility of escape from the urban high street. It’s not just the clothes and boots, the books speak of adventures, the rows of maps show you how to get there and just for a little while your head might be in the hills while your feet are taking you back to the multi-storey car park. Probably with a pair of socks or special “mountain-specification” lip balm in your pocket, because you had to have something, in fact you needed it, it was vital. Vital, that’s what you’ll say to yourself to justify the purchase.

A while back I was talking to a magazine editor about plans for new content and he said that all the readers really look at are the gear reviews and the routes. I’ve also heard one cynical writer remark that features are just there to space out the adverts. Maybe that was a little tongue in cheek, but it does show the importance of gear. Outdoors print magazines are supported by its advertising revenue, expeditions are funded by it and many jobs at home and abroad rely on it. Originally outdoor gear was made in small workshops and sold through specialist shops but now we have huge multinational companies and superstores. This industry is far too big a beast for its original user base so the gear manufacturers have to sell to a wider audience and dilute the product ranges to cater for the casual user. Most of the big brands have realised that this has had an effect on their image and now have small technical ranges that belong in the hills and nowhere else. In the ultimate contrast, at home and abroad, especially the USA, enthusiasts have turned artisan and specialist technical gear is made in sheds or garages and shipped worldwide to an audience eager for something different and perhaps better. The lightweight movement has thrived on this and these fresh thinking designers have had an influence that has spread to the mainstream. The big box brands have responded to various degrees with varying success to win back the hearts, minds and wallets of those who have gone elsewhere.

GS7

This does mean that there is an awful lot of gear out there and sometimes it’s tempting just to shut it all out and sew up that tear in your Tracksters once again. But great gear can make your day better as you’re in charge of it, not the other way around. The hills aren’t there for you to use gear, I want to climb a hill and not notice my gear until I need it, I want that hood to fit well, I want that shoe to grip, I want that stove to roar when it’s -15 in my tent.

Getting it right first time is a gamble, how many of us have had blisters in boots that felt perfect in the shop? Reviews always help, they won’t give you a definitive answer but good reviews give you a real insight into how something performs in use without having to spending any money. Of course on the internet you’re never too far away from an opinion, is it too optimistic to say that the truth is somewhere in the middle?


With this in mind instead of a regular review this month I’ve got a few wee tales of what gear has done to get me up the hill and back. I usually tell you about the gear, this time come with me while I use it.

I’ll often take a lightweight stove on what others might regard as simple day walks. On one occasion we’d walked for a couple of hours in the blazing sun, a tiring climb up to a bealach and then back down to a lochside. I needed a break and declared it was lunchtime. I dropped my pack in the shade, set up a mini gas stove and pot set I had for review, scooped up some water from the loch and dug out some cup-a-soup. My companion, who I hadn’t been out with before, shuffled and eyed me with a little bemusement. We chatted about it, making a flask is quick and simple, but I was 6 hours from home by now so it wasn’t an option, standard camp cooking gear can be bulky but this set-up I had was quick, tiny and had made the difference between having a proper break and not bothering at all. There really is nothing quite like making a fresh cuppa on the hill and so few folk seem to do it. I like to slow down the day, if I’m sitting in the rain or the sun makes no difference, I’m still taking in the atmosphere of the mountain and the view too if I’m lucky.

GS11

If I had to name the gear that has made my hills days better deciding on the top three would be easy, mini gas stoves with their faff free operation are straight in there. Even when I’m on ranger duties in the Kilpatrick Hills I’ll pack a stove and scoop water from a burn.

In there too would be trail shoes. Nothing new in the concept, back in the 70s I was in the hills in my sannies but as I got into gear later on I was sucked into ever stiffer and more depressing boots and the foot problems that they brought with them. Trail shoes for me is just going full circle, it’s the best way to feel a hill under your feet. Come with me in the summer and I’ll show you.

GS5

Number one on my list would probably have to be the lightweight one person tent. Now a common sight from the big brands and the specialists, when tents started dropping down to and then under a kilo a few years ago it was a revelation. I could suddenly pack a few days gear and easily carry it over the mountains, not just camp in the glen. It completely changed the way I approached the hills, there were no more 5am starts to tackle long drives, I would leave whenever and start my walk when I got there because I had everything on my back for the night, in a rucksack barely bigger than a day pack. It led to me start spending nights on summits, it just seemed to be where I ended up. It brought me closer to the hills, it felt more of a living environment, not somewhere I visited like a theme park. I could tackle bigger walks or longer routes at a more realistic pace so I got the most from my time.

I saw and still see sights I would never have seen if I’d been hurrying back down for the long drive home. In a blizzard on the top of Beinn Eibhinn I sat face to face with a ptarmigan that had sneaked into my tent porch for shelter. Moments that will stay with me for life.

Yes, gear is just products in a shop like anything else from corn flakes to flat pack furniture but you can change that around by seeing if it has possibilities beyond costing you money and just looking nice in a photo. What can gear unlock for you, can gear make anything better? It can, and you don’t have to be a geek about it. But it’s fine if you go that far, you won’t be alone.

GS8

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