What the Scots Taught Me About Gear…And it Has Nothing to Do with Kilts, and Only a Little with Sheep

©istockphoto/RyanDeanMorrison

Years ago, I lived in Scot­land, the land of strong winds, side­wise rain and hail, and sur­pris­ing­ly rugged moun­tains. Hill­walk­ing and Munro bag­ging (that’s hik­ing and climb­ing to us Yanks) taught me a few things about gear. It’s still ille­gal to import hag­gis into the U.S.. But here are some ideas about gear worth bring­ing across the pond.

Small is The New Big
After my accent, the next thing the Scots mocked was my 1,800 cc day pack. The fact that it could hold a lot of stuff and had ice-axe loops, and a fan­cy sus­pen­sion sys­tem was only a fur­ther source of deri­sion. “If you have a big pack, you’ll just fill it up with more shite” was the mantra. That weight would just slow you down. A coat, a hat, and a few oth­er things are all you real­ly need. The lighter you can move over the land­scape, the far­ther you can go with the least work—and the more you’ll see.

Tough Trumps Light
Fan­cy light­weight fab­rics didn’t make it. By the end of two months of hik­ing, my light­weight rain pants (“water­proof trousers”) were cov­ered in patch­es from hik­ing through heather and climb­ing over the many sheep fences that criss­crossed the High­lands, Cairn­gorms, and Grampians. The obses­sion with light­weight kit often means that we just end up replac­ing stuff more often. The rain pants I bought after that first pair were shred­ded are still in my clos­et, alive and well.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
With­out fail, those small packs would con­tain a mas­sive head­lamp (“head torch”) and bat­tery pack that looked more suit­ed to a min­er or spe­lunk­er than a hill­walk­er. I quick­ly learned why: in Scot­tish win­ters, dark­ness comes ear­ly, and to get a good day of Munro-bag­ging in, you would be return­ing in the dark. Head­lamps were about max­i­mum can­dle-pow­er, not weight and com­pact­ness. The dif­fer­ence between a head­lamp read­ing in your tent and one you can use to hike with after dark is con­sid­er­able. Get one that casts a glow.

©istockphoto/zakochana

Ther­mos
The heav­i­est thing in those small packs was invari­ably a ther­mos (“vac­u­um flask”) of strong tea. I was embar­rassed to admit that I’d been hik­ing in all sea­sons for years, and had nev­er thought of bring­ing along warm drink instead of a cold water bot­tle.

Exoskele­ton Tents
Camp­ing in the wide-open tree­less, wet, and windy Scot­tish land­scape taught me some­thing about tents. After many days of strug­gling to keep the tent dry while strug­gling with a fly that kept try­ing to fly off in the wind, I final­ly real­ized that my mates’ tents looked different—the poles were on the out­side. Land­scapes like the Scot­tish high­lands favor a Euro­pean con­cept called the Exoskele­ton tent, where the poles run through the fly instead of the inner tent, which hangs from clips. There’s no wrestling a fly onto the tent in the wind, and the tent stays dry the whole time. I’ve since learned that Exoskele­ton tents, while a tad hard to find in the states, are per­fect for camp­ing on windy beach­es or alpine tun­dra, espe­cial­ly in the rainy Pacif­ic North­west.

Bivy Bags
Scots also car­ried some­thing called a bivy bag: a slick, non-breath­able bag made out of thick emer­gency-blan­ket type mate­r­i­al. It’s not the same thing as bivy bags that moun­taineers use in the states when camp­ing with­out a tent. They served two func­tions: one was trap heat, so you could slide into it dur­ing lunch and be sur­pris­ing­ly warm, even on cold win­ter days; the sec­ond use—not what they were intend­ed for, but the real rea­son we packed them up the mountain—was to make the descent fun and fast. Turn the slick side out, climb in, and slide down the moun­tain, steer­ing with your ice axe. We def­i­nite­ly got going at speeds we shouldn’t have, but the Scot­tish land­scape is wide open, with few things to hit. And it’s cer­tain­ly fun.

Be Nice to the Nose
Long before high-end meri­no wool became the lat­est out­door won­der fab­ric, the Scots had plen­ty of it. After all, there are all those sheep walk­ing around. Wool is far less stinky than synethics, which makes it per­fect for the oth­er hal­lowed Scot­tish tra­di­tion: com­ing off the trail and head­ing straight for the pub.