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.
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.
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.
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.