How – clothes and boots

Keeping warm and dry (and blister free!)

Throughout this walk I faced three challenges : keeping warm, keeping dry, and saving weight. 

After a lot of trial and error, over the years, I’ve found that the best clothing material that seems to achieve all three is merino wool. It also has the big advantage of not getting smelly when worn for several days at a stretch. This was a real practical advantage on a walk like this, as I didn’t want to have to be washing clothes every night. Not just because it took time and effort, but mostly because on a camping trip like this there was no way of getting things dry

Selection of the Merion gear (mostly "Icebreaker") that I wore while hiking
Selection of the Merino gear (mostly “Icebreaker”) that I wore while hiking

(Before I set off I had naively – in this as in so many other things – thought that I would be able to just tie my washed clothes on the outside of my rucksack to dry as I walked. In reality, this wasn’t really practical as even a thin T shirt would take days to dry out, because the weather was generally so cool and damp. So I tended to do washing just once a week, whenever I was staying in a B&B, and where I could normally find a central heating radiator to get stuff dry).

So I mostly walked in merino underwear and t shirt (I found Icebreaker was the best brand, though expensive) with a merino long sleeve zip top and merino fleece. I wore lightweight “Craghopper” walking trousers and “Sealskinz” goretex merino wool waterproof socks (a brilliant invention for keeping your feet dry, though I did find that they wore out at the heels alarmingly fast and they are really difficult to get dry after washing).  I had a merino wool hat, which I wore most of the time, and a merino wool buff to keep my neck warm. I had a pair of Outdoor Research touch-tec gloves which were essential as I always have cold hands.  These gloves met the twin needs of keeping my hands warm while also allowing me to use my touch-screen iPad while I was wearing them (see tech – navigation page).

The advantage of this system was that it was lightweight and warm, and multi-layered. So if it started to get warmer, I could take layers off easily and adjust my temperature to suit. From about Bristol northwards, I preferred to walk in shorts and got some Icebreaker woollen hiking shorts which were ideal for the job.

I had one complete, identical, change of clothes with me. Once I had got the tent up and had a shower, I changed into the spare set and wore them in the evening (sometimes I wore both my merino fleeces if it was particularly cold. (And on frosty nights I often slept in all my clothes and hat, in an effort to stay warm). Then, after about a week I swapped over and washed my “walking” set and walked in my clean “evening” set.

Wet-through-everything.   Within a day, everything was soaked.
Wet-through-everything. Within a day, everything was soaked.

I found that keeping dry was a very big challenge. The UK is essentially a wet place and there is nothing you can do about that. It rains a lot and when it isn’t raining it is often cold and humid.

Desperately trying to stay warm and dry en route to Lynton
Desperately trying to stay warm and dry en route to Lynton

So I found I was wet much of the time – either with rain or with clammy sweat. And at night, everything – inside the tent and out – got soaked with dew. I think I only had one night on the entire trip when the tent wasn’t wet through in the morning when I put it away, and that was when I camped in a gale on the top of Rannoch moor.

Goretex model - still looking remarkably clean and dry as this was only the first day..
Goretex model – still looking remarkably clean and dry as this was only the first day..

There isn’t really any solution to the rain / sweat problem. I invested in goretex overtrousers and an eye-wateringly expensive Arch’teryx goretex cagoule and wore them whenever it rained or whenever there was a strong cold wind. Goretex is ok for keeping the wind off, but in my view is vastly over-rated as a way of keeping dry. I’ve been using it for at least the last 30 years and have found that when it rains hard, it always leaks and if it isn’t raining when you wear it, you get soaked I sweat. So pretty useless for everything it’s supposed to do I fact. (Actually the only material I have found that actually works is Ventile cotton. But I think it went out of production decades ago, and if it got wet, although it did keep you dry, it would take about a fortnight to dry out again. Plus the fact that in the winter, it would get wet then freeze solid, effectively encasing you in an icy straightjacket).

So by trial and error I’ve found that the best solution when it rains is to put the goretex on, but first to take off as many clothes as possible, to reduce the risk of overheating and sweating, and to reduce the amount of wet clothing that has to be dried out afterwards. Typically, if wearing goretex, I would just wear a t shirt and shorts underneath, unless it was very cold, in which case I might wear my long sleeve top as well. If I was walking briskly and the temperature wasn’t below about 10 C, then I managed to stay warm enough even in pouring rain.

I completed the goretex collection with a pair of waterproof over-mitten, which  made a significant difference to my ability to keep my hands warm when it was tipping down with cold rain.

Actually, the over-mittens didn’t quite complete the goretex collection because I also wore goretex boots when hiking. I’ve tried about a million different types of boot over many decades of walking and have always struggled to find a pair that was waterproof, comfortable, lightweight, and blister-free. Everyone has their favourite – some swear by leather, others by nylon, and some prefer lots of ankle support over lower-cut varieties.

By a process of trial and error, I found that the combination that worked best for me was lightweight goretex boots, combined with goretex socks – a reasonable balance between weight, comfort and waterproof-ness. I also found that different makes of boots have different shapes even if the same size, and it’s really important to find a boot that is cut to the actual shape of your foot. I eventually discovered that Scarpa Men’s Vortex XCR worked best for me. I also found that size 47 was just right for me – even though I don’t actually take size 47 in anything else.

Sarpa Vortex XCR boots at the end of the hike - the third pair I got through and now looking rather the worse for wear.
Scarpa Vortex XCR boots at the end of the hike – the third pair I got through and now looking rather the worse for wear.

The boots were pretty good though the laces were a bit thin and broke much sooner than I thought they should and had to be replaced with stronger ones. Also, they didn’t last all that long. I found I could only do about 700 miles in them before the soles wore down, the lace-eyes gave way, and the uppers started to develop holes. So that meant I started in a pair of half-worn boots which I had to change for a new pair at Glastonbury. Those lasted the 700 miles to Glasgow, where I had to swap for another pair which lasted to the end (and which I’m still using today). So although the boots met my needs, I got through some £350- worth of footwear on my journey!

Merrill lightweight running shoes - featherweight at 390g
Merrill lightweight running shoes – featherweight at 390g

For the evenings, by the way, I carried a pair of ultra-lightweight “Merrill” running shoes which at only 390g added almost nothing to my walking burden. They were psychologically important too. When I’d walked the West Highland Way in 2012, I’d had a major boot-catastrophe when the sole came completely off my right boot just before Loch Lomond. I was unable to replace them for 3 days so had to walk in a pair of extremely uncomfortable deck-shoes that I had with me, and which I had to tie into my feet with straps from my rucksack.

On the West Highland Way in 2010 after emergency boot repair
On the West Highland Way in 2010 after emergency boot repair

I didn’t particularly want to repeat that incident so I reckoned that if I had a footwear failure, I’d be able to walk for a day or two until I could replace them, using the lightweight running shoes. To make them more comfortable, I checked that I could take the sorbothane shock absorbing insoles out of my boots and put them into the shoes. This would reduce the risk of causing more pain to my knees when I was wearing them. Fortunately, I never needed to resort to these measures, but it was reassuring to know that my walk wouldn’t come to a crashing halt if my boots let me down in some inconveniently remote spot.

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