Gear on this trip wasn’t the elephant in the room so much as the elephant on my back. To break it down, I’ve divided things below into three parts. First: a general overview of some basic gear issues I experienced. Second: comments on particular items of equipment I used. Third: a litany of everything I carried. I was an experienced backpacker before I started this trip, and I’ve also worked in outdoor equipment stores, so gear is something I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with, thinking about, and talking about.
The list of things I would carry with me started big enough, shrunk a little in the first two months, and then, emboldened, continued to grow to daunting length. Along the way, electronics had to be repeatedly repaired, I opted for a drier tent, I utterly destroyed two pairs of boots and finished with a third, and the seasons occasioned a waning and waxing in my complement of insulated clothing. By the end of the walk, I had a much healthier respect for the value and fickleness of waterproofing than when I started.
A basic premise of my route and schedule was that I had to avoid cold weather as much as possible, so I didn’t carry much in the way of insulation. I subsequently found, to my surprise, that it was impossible for me to keep my body temperature stable in even moderately cool temperatures once I had gotten wet, so staying warm became synonymous with staying dry. Waterproof everything, by the time I finished; and when the snow finally did swallow me for the last two days in Scotland, I was, hey presto, dry-ish, and warm so long as I kept moving.
My assortment of gear was a somewhat unhandy combination of backpacking basics and video tools, squeezing the apparatus of city life into a backwoods package, in a landscape where backwoods are few and far between. In a nutshell, I was emerging from a downpour, fleeing a stampeding herd of cows down a rock-strewn valley, carrying a backpack full of fragile electronics toward a village cruised by luxury sedans. I was hugely confident and willing that my body would bear the load, and my knees and my feet bore a grudge a long, long while.
My first two pairs of boots were long-shanked, full-grain-leather, medium-height backpacking boots (first Montrails, then Kaylands, both specific models now discontinued), and my third pair (Meindl, also discontinued) was only lighter and more flexible because I couldn’t find a burlier pair in the UK that fit. I wore heavy boots because I was carrying a heavy pack, and because I aimed to tackle several mountain ranges along the way. I was very glad to have strong boots on Botev and on the Karnischer Höhenweg, where the trail was often surprisingly rough and where I wound up going cross-country twice; but the second pair of boots literally wore the skin off parts of my feet as I broke them in. When I put on my third, much softer pair of boots in Wales, my arches suffered immediately on Cader Idris, and the pain stayed with me not only for the remaining thousand miles of the walk, but for months afterward as well. The only good news about this third, cloth-upper pair of boots, aside from their perfect fit, was that they dried out more quickly than the first two pairs ever did. All three pairs began as waterproof boots, then spent months leaking water in without draining it back out, and finally became more comfortable again as they fell apart at the seams. I’m not buying waterproofed boots again if I can help it: this is the major exception to my waterproofing mania. My current boots, which are about as burly as hiking boots get, are Lowa Baffin Pros. They aren’t the most comfortable things to wear even at the best of times; they do gruesome things to my feet pretty often; but in the worst of times, they’re absolutely reliable, and that counts for a lot.
I used my trusty Osprey Aether 60. It works excellently for backpacking stretches up to about a week long at a time. The pack is fairly light, fairly simple, and fairly tough. Its tall-narrow profile keeps it from catching on obstructions or bouncing around. The top pocket always seems to have room for the things I want to put into it, and the side water bottle pockets are placed so that I can grab and replace my bottles without taking off my pack. There are plenty of attachment points. On my model, the side compression strap buckles are almost completely ineffectual, but Osprey has fixed this feature on later models of the pack. I sometimes wish the interior of the main compartment wasn’t so dark and hard to see into, but it’s not a big problem. After thousands of miles of use, the right shoulder strap has taken to slipping chronically; maybe that’s how this pack gets long in the tooth.
I began the trip with a much-used Tarptent Cloudburst, which had performed excellently in summer trips in the Sierra Nevada. The first night I unpacked it in Turkey, however, the Cloudburst leaked viciously in that night’s rain, and it continued to fill with water on a regular basis from then on. The bottom soaked through with snowmelt the night I slept on Botev, and only a combination of obstinacy, shortness of money, and a lack of better options kept me using it for as long as I did. Thanks to a rescue in the UK, I finished my trip with a Tarptent Scarp 1. Overall, this a very nice tent for this sort of trip: light, sturdy, well-ventilated, roomy enough to fit a fairly tall person and a large amount of gear, and compact enough to set up in cramped spaces. While I later ran into persistent condensation and icing issues using this tent in cold weather during my walk across the United States, on the Europe trip, I only experienced one persistent awkwardness: with so many pole-ends needing to touch the ground in roughly the same plane, the Scarp 1 tends to go up slightly askew on uneven ground, which interferes with the canopy tensioning. The tent weighs just under 1.5 kg – a little more pole weight, and you can make it freestanding.
Until I got to Scotland, a hammock might have been much more efficient and comfortable than a tent on this trip.
I began the trip using the same rain jacket I’d been using since childhood. By the time I reached Serbia, it was almost useless as waterproofing. I kept using it anyway until I got to Liverpool, where I picked up a Marmot Spire. Long sleeves, decently long torso, cavernous wire-brimmed hood, pit zips, tough material, pockets placed above the pack hipbelt. I like that the sleeves are wide enough that I can pull the cuffs above my elbows when I’m going uphill. The collar on this jacket flares quite high up, which is great if you’re completely bundled up against a gale, and which also makes it easier to tuck the hood away when you don’t need to use it. At first, I worried that the enormous collar might funnel water into the jacket if I left it half-open, but, over time, I’ve actually come to wish the collar were just a bit larger still, so that I could zip it closed over my nose in particularly ghoulish conditions without ducking my head or hunching my shoulders.
I resisted getting rain pants for years, but this trip finally convinced me of my folly. At the same time that I got my new rain jacket in Liverpool, I picked up a pair of Marmot PreCip Full Zip Pants. The full zips up the sides are very handy: they let you put the pants on or take them off as quickly as circumstances might require, and they also allow for ventilation and access to any pockets you might have underneath. On the other hand, every zipper on this particular pair of pants snags with an almighty vengeance. There’s a superfluous amount of material along the zipper tracks which often gets caught, and threatens to stay caught, at the most inopportune moments. The PreCips are on the cheap end of the spectrum of rain pants that actually work, and they’re not especially durable. Considering how vulnerable rain pants in general are to snags and tears, though – and how expensive all but the cheapest rain pants are – I’m not convinced more expensive options would have been worth the additional cost.
I carried a 15″ MacBook Pro in order to handle video data and editing. The laptop failed twice, first in Slovenia and then in Scotland, but both times I was able to get it repaired locally. The first time, I was told that the fault was in the cable running into the display; and the second time, Apple replaced the logic board, among other repairs. While a miraculous machine, this particular computer is not built for off-road travel.
Neither were the external hard drives that I brought for video data storage. I wound up going through several of these, and the experience was increasingly nerve-wracking. On the one hand, I had to make backups of data for security; on the other hand, there was so much data that backing it up required more drives, all expensive, fragile, and patently prone to sudden failure. There were a few caddy swaps along the way, when a cable port proved to be the point of failure rather than a storage mechanism.
Solid state storage seems like a way to improve one’s chances, but it’s even more expensive.
I originally intended to carry my laptop in a Pelican case for protection, but discovered at the last minute that Pelican’s 15″ laptop case didn’t actually fit a 15″ Mac laptop. Instead, the laptop traveled in a neoprene sleeve inside plastic bags inside my two polyurethane dry bags. I had no confidence that this arrangement would keep the computer dry after more than about half a day of rain.
I didn’t use trekking poles. They would have spared my knees a lot of stress in the mountains, but I was stubborn. I don’t think I’ll be quite so stubborn again the next time I’m looking at a similar situation.
Osprey Aether 60 backpack
Osprey medium pack cover
Sea to Summit medium dry bag
Sea to Summit Big River 65-L dry bag
Eurohike Packable 20L Daysack
Peter Storm Thinsulate Knit Beanie
Marmot Spire Jacket
Wind-resistant fleece jacket
2 polyester long-sleeved shirts
Sealskinz All Season waterproof insulated gloves
2 pairs Columbia zip-off nylon pants
Marmot PreCip Full-Zip rain pants
SportHill 3SP XC pants
2 pairs wool-synthetic hiking socks
2 pairs mid-weight mid-length Sealskinz waterproof socks
Boots: Montrails, followed by Kaylands, followed by Meindl Montanas
Columbia Kaibab shoes
Ryders Porter sunglasses (replacements for a par of broken Julbo Angels, which replaced a broken pair of French manufacture, which replaced a lost pair made by Columbia)
Scissors in a cardboard sheath
Silva Carabiner 10 compass/thermometer on a neck lanyard
Silva Siju headlamp (replacement for a Swiss-Tech keychain light)
Casio W59-1V watch with strap cut off
Tarptent Scarp 1 (replacement for a leaky Tarptent Cloudburst)
Marmot Hydrogen sleeping bag
Cocoon silk mummy liner
Trespass 4 Season Camping Mat, trimmed (Fort William onward)
Birdiepal Swing Liteflex umbrella
GoPro spare battery
GoPro head mount
GoPro chest mount (Turkey only)
GoPro waterproof monitor (never used)
Canon Vixia HFS200
Maximal Power BP-827 replacement battery
Zoom H4n audio recorder
2 M-Rock Joshua Tree camera cases
2 spare AA batteries
Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom tripod
Apple MacBook Pro 15” laptop
Built 15” laptop sleeve
2 microfiber cloths
3 Hitachi G-Drive Mobile 750 GB hard drives (including the replacement for one that broke)
Cardboard-and-duct-tape hard drive case
Hitachi 300 GB hard drive (from Bangor to Glasgow)
Sandisk Cruzer 16 GB flash drive
Eagle Creek Pack-It Cube bag
Energizer 4xAA battery charger
3 IEEE 1394 (FireWire) cables
4 USB cables
6-socket power strip
REI two-way universal adapter plug
2 Pentalic hardbound plain-sheet notebooks (one was more than enough)
Pad of lined paper
Waterproof marker (never used)
2 Sakura Micron 0.25-mm pens
Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint 0.5-mm pen to replace a Micron pen that went missing
Katadyn Hiker water filter
Potable Aqua Tetraglycine Hydroperiodide tablets (never used)
2 Nalgene 1-L water bottles
Hard case for a broken pair of sunglasses
Small phillips screwdriver
Lip balm (never used)
Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss
REI medium pack towel
Folding plastic fork/spoon (never used)
Plastic single-serving supermarket salad container
Eagle Creek Undercover Leg Wallet
2 rolls gauze
Petrolatum (never used)
Clortetraciclina cloridrato (never used)
Curapor Chirurgischer Wundverband (never used)
Scholl Druckstellen Pflaster
Comfeel Plus Ulcer Dressing
A safety razor and spare blades
A small scrap of cotton from a pillowcase
3 spare shoelaces
Several feet of nylon cord
A rubber band
Needle and thread
Loctite Sper Glue
SilNet Silicone Seam Sealer (never used)
Sea to Summit Trek & Travel Laundry Wash (never used)
Several dozen plastic bags