The Cape Wrath Trail gear debrief
Please note that I wrote this piece in 2015. It doesn’t necessarily reflect my current opinions on gear for the CWT.
In June 2015 I hiked the 241-mile Cape Wrath Trail between Fort William and Cape Wrath, loosely following the mountainous terrain that clings to Scotland’s west coast. This was a landmark journey for me, physically as well as mentally, and in this article I’d like to talk a bit about how my equipment held up to the rigours of the trail.
Before I started the trail, I composed a gear list that I published on this website for others to examine and critique. This gear list was a vital part of my planning process. It enabled me to methodically cut several kilos from my overall base weight, and the advice I received helped me to optimise it for the conditions I’d face.
Although I’m generally pretty happy with the equipment I used on the CWT, there was certainly room for improvement.
My general approach to gear on the CWT was just about lightweight, but not ultralight. In keeping my base weight under 9kg I made a tangible impact on the amount of energy required to walk for a day through the mountains. I really can’t overstate how much of a difference this made – eighteen miles along the CWT, with the gear and footwear I used, felt more like ten miles using the gear I’d have selected three years before.
I have no doubt whatsoever that choosing to carry less stuff, and choosing to hike in running shoes, made the difference between finishing the route and not finishing the route. So, if you’re reading this and contemplating your own CWT thru-hike, get a digital scale, weigh all your stuff, and only take what you really need.
Experience is also important. I learned a great deal on my journey. When I started, I took two pairs of trail shoes with me in case one pair fell to bits – and while my main shoes did spring holes before I got to Ullapool, in future I think I’d pack sandals as camp shoes instead, and just make sure I was using fresh shoes at the start of the route. The Scarpa Sparks weighed 640g, which represented 400g more weight than I needed to carry for camp shoes.
I also devised an elaborate sleeping pad arrangement: a short self-inflating mat over a short very light foam pad. But the self-inflating mat sprang a slow puncture and overall the whole setup was only marginally more comfortable than a traditional foam pad, which would have been even lighter.
My stove setup was far more robust than I really needed. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find meths fuel for my Caldera Cone, so I ended up getting a titanium gas stove (which performed poorly – see below). My overall stove setup weighed 464g excluding fuel. For future summer hikes I’m actually considering going stoveless, which will make a huge difference to pack weight.
Overall, the main thing I learned with my approach to gear is that backpackers really do pack their fears – that is, take extra things as security against what-ifs. Only experience will help you to determine what you really need.
Now I’ll talk about a few of the items I took with me, and divide them into three lists: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Rab Neutrino 400 sleeping bag
This performed flawlessly, and was exactly the right bag for the prevailing cool conditions in June.
With a few caveats, the Notch did its job very well. It’s light and small, yet has plenty of space inside. However, as I discovered on a windy wild camp at the edge of Knoydart, its performance in severe winds was less good than my initial tests suggested – although to be fair I think that was mainly down to the soft ground and my choice of tent pegs. Nevertheless, the clips at the bottom of each vestibule zip are nowhere near secure enough, and come undone in even moderate winds. I also had a few issues with dripping condensation in prolonged heavy rain (although in most conditions condensation didn’t develop due to the excellent ventilation). In general I am very happy with the Notch and will continue to use it for future backpacking trips.
Mini Trangia saucepan with foil lid and pot cosy
I’ve used this saucepan for over a decade and am entirely happy with its performance, so no surprises there! The pot cosy made a dramatic difference to the efficiency of my cooking setup, and resulted in me using less than a single 250g butane canister on the entire trip.
Sea To Summit collapsable silicone X-Mug
This was a gift from Hannah and a fantastic addition to my camp kitchen. It gives you a decent-sized mug for hot drinks, and it has a graduated scale for measuring liquids. When collapsed flat it takes up negligable room and only weighs about 60g. It probably qualifies as a luxury item but, really, if you want to enjoy hot drinks then this is the best option.
X-Socks Trekking Light
These socks were comfortable, quick-drying and durable, and certainly contributed to my blister-free experience. Highly recommended.
Sawyer Mini water filter
Loved this little gadget. While it may not have been necessary to treat all of the water I came across, it was good to know that I could fill up from suspect water sources, e.g. bogs, without fearing contamination.
ULA Circuit rucksack
I absolutely love this rucksack. I can’t praise its performance or comfort enough, and many intelligent details added up to significant benefits. For example, the waistbelt pockets held all my trail snacks for each day plus my mobile phone, and the large mesh pocket at the back was used for storing my waterproofs and spare socks.
Harveys Cape Wrath Trail 1:40,000 trail maps
These maps were absolutely fantastic: clear terrain, clear marking of the trail, and intelligent layout resulting in the entire CWT (and all its main variants) fitting on two slim waterproof sheets. Everyone who walks the CWT needs these maps – it’s as simple as that.
This is a generic 100-weight The North Face fleece that I’ve had for years, and was the only insulating garment I took with me. I was a little concerned I might want something warmer but, actually, it was sufficient despite the cold weather. An insulated jacket would have been dead weight.
3/4-length self-inflating Multimat
I knew there was a fair chance I’d suffer from a puncture, but I decided to take a gamble on the Multimat. It actually performed pretty well until about halfway through the trail. That’s when I started to notice a certain squishiness a couple of hours after inflation. It suffered from a slow puncture for the rest of the journey and I had no reliable way of diagnosing where the slow puncture was located. I’m switching back to a foam pad.
Alpkit Koro titanium remote-canister stove
This was a last-minute purchase after hearing that alcohol fuel might be difficult to find in the Highlands, but it was a mistake. Meths was available at every shop; and the Koro, although fairly light, was not as light as my Caldera Cone setup. I liked its stability (something my Pocket Rocket lacks) but the fuel-control valve was very unreliable and for this reason I don’t think I’ll be using it again. I may contact Alpkit to see about returning it.
I’ve never liked this pack cover, and on this particular trail I was forced to use it most days so I liked it even less. I’d say it kept my rucksack contents 75% dry (the drybags inside took care of any water that got through). It flaps about in the wind and is generally a nuisance, and I wish I could do without it, but I suspect it’ll be difficult to find a pack cover that’s any better.
Scarpa Spark GTX ‘waterproof’ trail shoes
I carried these as camp shoes, and as a spare pair of shoes in case my main ones fell to bits, but they were terrible for use on the rugged terrain of the Cape Wrath Trail. The Goretex lining kept the water in and prevented the shoes from drying out. The sole units were nowhere near aggressive enough to cope with anything but easy paths. I sent them home when I got to Ullapool.
Sealskinz ‘waterproof’ socks
I’m not sure these should be in the ‘Bad’ list, because they did help keep my feet warm and comfortable – but they didn’t keep them dry. After a day of them leaking badly I stopped thinking of them in terms of waterproof socks and started to consider them as wetsuit socks instead. I used them on the genuinely foul-weather days; they would be far too hot to wear in warm conditions.
Goretex Paclite ‘waterproof’ jacket and trousers
Ok, a cheap shot maybe – any kind of membrane is going to be overwhelmed by the conditions I encountered, and admittedly I forgot to clean and reproof these garments before I began the trail. But it can’t be denied that the trousers leaked like a sieve and the jacket did an excellent job of keeping me cold, damp and clammy. I have now reproofed them so hopefully they will be a little better on my next outing.
I started the trail with a selection of short imitation Groundhog pegs and stubby titanium pins, but they just weren’t up to the task of anchoring my tent securely in the saturated boggy ground of the Highlands. I replaced them with genuine full-length Groundhogs at the first opportunity and had no further issues with pegs pulling out of the ground after that.
Inov–8 Roclite 295 trail shoes
I’m classifying these in the ‘Ugly’ column with great reluctance, because they were fantastically comfortable and made a dramatic difference to my quality of life on trail. The sole unit is grippy enough to cope with the roughest and sloppiest terrain, they fit like a glove, and I didn’t get a blister while wearing them. However, they wore out extremely quickly, developing major holes in the uppers (and alarmingly thinning soles under the balls of my feet) before I got to Ullapool. This was after a cumulative mileage of about 250 miles, which in my view is disappointing for such expensive trail shoes. In addition, the Roclites were nowhere near as quick-drying as I had expected, and took approximtely twice as long to dry out as the Merrell All Out Peak shoes I bought in Ullapool.
Ultralight pack towel
For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to take a 25g pack towel about the size of a hanky. It was useless, but I did use it for blowing my nose once or twice. I replaced it with something a little larger in Ullapool.
I took this as another line of defence against trench foot, but I found it messy, annoying, and of limited practical use. A combination of dry socks, Gehwol Extra and Athlete’s Foot cream did the job very well.
No idea why I packed these. I used them on the first day but ripped a hole in them after about ten miles, found them incredibly annoying, and threw them in the bin when I got to Glenfinnan. I didn’t miss having gaiters for the next 220 miles.