Wednesday 3 June 2015

TGO Challenge 2015: Wining, dining and sleeping

Essential re-hydration in the Tipsy Laird, Kingussie
When not actually walking on the Challenge, three activities that fill up much of the rest of the time of the average Challenger must be wining, dining and sleeping.  I did not do a great deal of the former this year. Over the two weeks, I managed to down a hip flask containing half a bottle of Tobermory Single Malt, had a couple of pints in each of the Strathcarron and Park Hotels, and also managed a few more pints in the Tipsy Laird at Kingussie, the Moorfield in Braemar, the Alexander Hotel in Ballater and at the two restaurants I ate out in.  Apart from the somewhat over abused excuse that drinking beer is absolutely necessary to rehydrate after a day's walking, alcohol consumption is not vital for an enjoyable crossing.  Eating, of course, is essential and it is interesting to see the approaches various Challengers take to getting their several thousands of calories per day.

Now I love my food, but my approach on backpacking trips to eating has always been functional and basic.  Lots of brews, and lots of hot food, the simpler and quicker to cook the better, ideally with no washing up.

Brewing up in the early morning on Day 2

Thus, my breakfasts are monotonous but edible and seem to do the trick.  I can't get going without a mug of tea. Being a very early waker-upper I brew up lying in my sleeping bag, sometime after half-five in the morning.  I add what I regard as my one food luxury to this - Carnation condensed milk which comes in tubes.  Sweet, sickly and yummier than powdered milk.  I got the taste for this whilst in the school cadet force in the early 1970s, when it was a staple of the '24 hour ration pack'.  If the weather is good, one of the highlights of backpacking for me is lying drinking tea as the sun warms the tent, doors open so I can take in the views and the freshness of the air.  Soon after six I am brewing up again, this time with sufficient hot water also to make up some porridge.  I just add this hot water to a pre-prepared (at home before the trip) zip lock type bag of Oats So Simple, mixed with dried milk and sugar and eat straight from the bag. This, and a cereal bar, does me until I start snacking on chocolate and trail mix during the walk.
Breakfast at Tarfside
Lunches used to be just trail mix and chocolate, but now I also carry a tube of Primula, that most refined, versatile and sophisticated of cheeses, and spread this on tortilla wraps, which is far more filling than snacking on its own.  But the bulk of my calorie intake has to come from my evening meal which I tend to make soon after setting up camp.

This year, as on previous Challenges, I stocked up with several commercially produced dehydrated 'just add hot water' meals and had one of these each evening, preceded by a 'cup-of-soup', and usually followed by a tasty dessert such as Bird's Instant Custard or Semolina, made by adding water to the powder in a zip lock bag, again eating straight from the bag. Towards the end of the Challenge, variety was added by the purchase of a Jamaica Ginger Sponge for pudding.  In the privacy of my tent I savaged this in chunks torn straight from its sticky wrapper.  This diet was supplemented by bacon butties and cake from various cafes en route, one bar snack and two meals in restaurants.

My habit of eating out of food bags is a practise which seems to divide Challengers.  Some feel it eminently sensible; others look on horrified, before, I fondly imagine, they go off to cook fresh scallops, or perhaps moules mariniers, followed by a piece of well hung sirloin, with baby carrots, sauteed mushrooms and onion rings as side dishes, all washed down by a glass of vintage claret. 

Perhaps influenced by meals I have seen other Challengers producing, my views on backpacking food changed during the course of this trip.  I will never again rely night-after-night on commercially produced dehydrated stuff in a bag.  In the past I have found most of these 'just add hot water' meals tolerable when hungry after a hard day's walking.  This year I found them more and more inedible, nay even repulsive.  This began when I started to eat one after a longish day in the Monadhliath Mountains.  I gave up after eating less than half as it seemed rather unpleasant.  My feeling that it was not quite right was confirmed at four in the morning as I headed out in the squally rain with Mr Trowel and his accompaniments.  Two other dehydrated meals were also abandoned, hardly touched, on subsequent nights.  Perhaps my taste buds have finally had enough.  From now on I plan to cook ordinary dried stuff like noodles and savoury rice and perhaps carry a small pot of chilli powder and some dried herbs.

I was going to use this post partly to name some of the poor meals that I had this year, but that might be unfair. They came from a variety of makers and sources. I am not convinced that any manufacturer produces universally good dehydrated meals, and some even seem to vary when theoretically it is the same meal.  And they are universally pricey.  But I can say that I did find the instructions on LYO meals to be both amusing and idiotic.  The Pork in Green Peppers (one of the better meals I had), for example, required the addition of "393 ml" of water. The LYO Beef Stroganoff  packet stated "add 348 ml". Not 400 ml or 350 ml but 398 or 348ml.  Well the idiocy made me laugh on a couple of rainy evenings as I poured in a rough and ready half a pot full of hot water.
Camping by the Allt Coire a Charra, first night out
Cooking and eating is phased across the evening to help pass the time. Walker midnight occurs at about 9 pm, and sometimes earlier.  Then it is time for bed.  Some Challengers camp out every night.  Others, me included, like the occasional stay in a B and B, but when the weather is good and you find a decent spot, camping out in the hills can not be beaten.  One of the best wild camps I have ever had was the first night this year, camped by the Allt Coire a Charra.  I had never been to the area before, and for the last few km of the day I was starting to think I would have trouble finding anywhere reasonably dry, let alone level. But just as I crossed the stream, my planned destination, I came upon a fabulous place to stop, and spent the lovely sunny evening knowing how lucky and how small I was in this massive, lonely landscape.

My second night saw me lower down in Strathfarrar, again in a beautiful spot in the sun.  This time with the added attraction of herds of red deer; and the horror of large numbers of ticks trying to invade my tent, successfully on quite a number of occasions.  

Strathfarrar Wild Camp
Another superb wild camping area is Glen Feshie.  Having stopped here two years running I planned to go a different route this year but circumstances led to me stopping at the same place for the third year running.  "And so what?", I says, for it is idylic.
Glen Feshie wild camp.  Note Mick ' Crocodile' Dundee sorting out his Akto under the shade of a Coolabah tree in the background.  As he is showing off rather too much builder's bum you are strongly advised NOT to enlarge this photograph. I managed to avert my gaze and look at the adjacent River Feshie until he was all done.
The Challenge also throws up less conventional places to camp than wild on the hill, or on a public campsite, thanks to individual or community generosity.  I have, in the past, camped in a private garden, and two favourite spots with Challengers are the Sutherland's field at Allt na Goire and the Tarfside Sports Field, both of which I used this year.  And very nice they were too.

Challengers making use of the Sutherland's generosity at Allt na Goire
A cold and frosty Tarfside sports field, the very early morning after the night before

Another gratuitous early morning brew photo above the Linn of Dee
And looking at these photos and the June sun now shining outside, I am thinking I need to get out in the hills again.  Must go get out my maps....


  1. I enjoyed that read David. Although a different context, I ate a total of zero backpacking meals on my LEJOG ride, preferring to carry/buy and cook proper food: sausages, eggs, bacon, pasta etc.
    Do your own thing, that's what I say.
    Well done on your challenge.

    1. Thanks Geoff. Firstly very well done on your cycling LEJOG. A magnificent achievement. I do feel I will definitely moving on from the conventional dehydrated backpacking meals. And whilst frying bacon or sausages whilst out sounds a bit of a faff it appeals more and more....

  2. I notice you have mentioned intentions of future you? Have you truely been bitten by the bug?

    1. *haven't
      Sigh. All sorts of fat thumb issues today.

    2. I swore blind half way across this year, in the middle of a peat bog, that I would never, ever, do it again. So I am thinking about an Oban start in 2016.....

      I suspect if you come back for a second crossing you're hooked.

  3. Hi David,
    Now that you mentioned it, I might give oatmeal another try for trail breakfast.
    If you're looking for an alternative for a snack for lunch, try to get RawBite bars. They might be a bit pricey but are really tasty.


  4. Hi Jens
    I will look out for the RawBite bars and try one. Thanks!

  5. I generally have muesli for brekky. I make my own up mostly but sometimes use commercial stuff - Aldi do a really nice one. I pack a portion into a resealable poly bag along with a dollop of Nido dried milk and a teaspoon of sugar. Adding a sachet of honey (liberated from a cafe / B&B or whatever) really makes for a yummy breakfast.
    I add hot or cold water and eat straight from the bag - putting the bag into my mug makes eating a less sloppy performance.

    1. Hi JJ
      I went off Muesli in the 1970s when climbing in the Alps with my university mountaineering club. Eating it with water at 3.30 or 4 in the morning when doing an alpine start was an unpleasant, never to be forgotten, experience. Perhaps I should try it again. I'm glad that someone else eats from the bag. I used to stick the bag in my pot cosy to give it rigidty but this year used Sainsbury's 'Pour and Store' zip lock type things which are very good (but not cheap) and have a sort of base to them.

  6. As someone who follows the same 'keep it simple' principle of boiling water and pouring it into various different bags - I'd be interested to know how much fuel you carry with you and how much you actually end up using.

    I'm usually only out for 2-3 days, so one of the smaller canisters does me, with plenty to spare, but I'm now planning on a 9-10 day trip and don't have a feel for how much gas I'd use. Any suggestions welcomed.


  7. Hi Stu

    For the TGOC which is 13 days I set off with one of the medium cannisters (that's the type with 250gr of gas). I tend to buy another en route but in two of my three challenges I never needed to start this ie one gets me almost across - but I do spend 3/4 nights in B and Bs. Whilst my cooking is simple ie no simmering etc I do boil up a lot:
    Two brews in morning plus porridge
    Arrival in camp: One or two brews
    Evening: Soup, dehydrated food, dehydrated dessert, hot chocolate.
    Hope this helps. If you can resupply after a few days on your 9-10 day trip then I would probably start with one 250gr cylinder and then buy another one (or possibly a smaller 100gr) on the way across, just to be safe.

    1. Thanks David, it sounds like you use more gas per day that I'd expect to. One boil for a brew in the morning, one mid-walk if the weather's nice and then two or maybe three in the evening for a dehydrated meal and a couple of brews. I'm hopeful of getting by with just the one 250g canister now.

      Many thanks