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Highs and lows from a winter of outdoor gear testing: spooky summit camps, exploding stoves, and more

Alex Roddie
Alex Roddie
7 min read
Highs and lows from a winter of outdoor gear testing: spooky summit camps, exploding stoves, and more

Now that a long winter here in Scotland has finally come to an end, it's time for me to look back on the highlights of my season.

Regular readers will know that I have been on the team at The Great Outdoors testing and reviewing equipment for some years now. This year the number of reviews and the testing team have both expanded, and as a result I've had far more products in to test.

It started with insulated jackets and lightweight waterproofs back in October, and soon expanded to include midlayers, tents (both two-person and budget models), backpacking meals, ice axes, and hiking trousers.

With such a wide range of equipment to test, I've been out and about in the Scottish mountains quite a bit – mostly short backpacking trips of one or two nights. I've roamed all over the Cairngorms as well as several trips out to the Western Highlands, and have also clocked numerous overnight camps on the summit of Kinpurney Hill, my local mini mountain.

In no particular order, here's a handful of memorable moments from my winter of gear testing. I'll leave it to you to decide whether they're highlights, lowlights, or maybe a bit of both.

Look out for my reviews in print copies of The Great Outdoors magazine – or online at https://www.thegreatoutdoorsmag.com.

The first real snow of the season

November can feel like the most brutal month in the Scottish hills. Temperatures often fluctuate around freezing, there's a lot of moisture around, summer is still a recent memory, and newly winter-heavy packs can feel a bit punishing. All of these were true in early November when I headed up into the Munros above the Spittal of Glenshee.

With a good range of conditions from whiteout to sunshine, plus a spooky summit camp, this was a memorable trip. From my trail journal:

A restless night on Mam nan Carn. In addition to the noise from the tent being hammered by gusts, my mattress deflated three times overnight, which meant that I had to keep waking up to reinflate it. Worse, on several occasions I was absolutely convinced that I could hear someone unzipping the tent from the outside. Even opened up the porch to check – nothing. And I could hear voices on the wind. Just one of those places, perhaps.

Snowless sunshine on Ben Lui

Later in November, the weather turned very cold... and stayed cold for weeks. A run of fine, clear weather meant plenty of opportunities for the mountains. It had been many years since my last trip over to Ben Lui, so I decided to return to climb some of the Munros I missed last time.

Despite a lack of snow, exceptional cold (great for testing down jackets) and a fine display of aurora made this trip memorable. A descent in the dark from Beinn Dubhchraig involved some of the most horrendous bogs I've ever seen, though.

Deep cold on the Ring of Tarf

In the first week of December the gloriously cold and clear conditions were still with us, and I decided to venture into a remote area west of Glen Tilt that I'd never visited before. Big miles in big country, some remorseless off-path heather-bashing in deep snow, and a sketchy river crossing characterised this trip. I don't think I've ever seen so much sunshine in the Southern Cairngorms in December before. During my summit camp, overnight temperatures dropped a long way below zero (I don't carry a thermometer, but I'd estimate at least -12°C, probably lower).

The Northern Cairngorms just after New Year

The best trip of the season! I planned a big three-day loop from the ski centre during yet another spell of fine winter conditions. By this point a narrative had started to form online that the 2023/4 winter was turning out to be a 'bad' season, but honestly this puzzled me, as it did not reflect my experience. On this trip, which totalled around 25km and took in three Munros and two summit camps, I found some of the finest conditions I'd ever seen. I was testing a tent, down jacket, trousers, lightweight shell, and ice axe on this trip.

I'll let my trail journal pick up the story...

The tent is stable and comfortable, with a huge porch. I set about melting snow. Temperature below freezing but perhaps only –2 or –3°C. Soon got dark.
Later: the stove exploded!
I heard the hissing get louder, and suddenly there was fire everywhere. Luckily the tent door was open, so I kicked it out into the snow where it burned furiously, illuminating the surroundings in a garish glow. The noise! Spitting like some kind of demon. I crawled over to look and saw it gradually boring its way down into the snowpack, like a nuclear reactor undergoing meltdown. So I buried it in snow. It hissed and steamed and eventually died. I'll leave it until morning and then dig it out. Maybe another failed O-ring.
I have almost 2L of liquid water and plenty of food that can be eaten without rehydrating, so I think I'm ok. Should be able to collect liquid water at lower elevations tomorrow. What a fright!

The Ben Lawers Range

Late February saw another brief spell of fine weather, so I headed over to the Lawers Range. Nothing dramatic here: just an enjoyable outing over classic hills, incorporating a summit camp on the wonderful little peak of An Stuc.

A blizzard in the White Mounth

March began with fresh snowfall in the mountains, but in general conditions remained a bit thin for the time of year. In the first week of the month I made a big two-day crossing from Deeside to Glen Doll, taking in several Munros in the White Mounth. Conditions were a lot poorer than the forecast had led me to suspect; my trail journal mentions 'filthy conditions'. This was probably the most exacting test of any tent in my winter, and I'm glad that I had the solid Hilleberg Allak 2 to shelter me.

Blizzard overnight with high winds. Woke at about midnight to find a huge amount of snow between inner and flysheet, and a massive drift in one of the porches. Woke properly at half six – deep drifts around tent. Everything I left in the porch got totally buried. Glad I brought my boots into the inner. Now for the job of melting snow, then digging myself out...

Winter climbing in Glen Coe

Finally, the swansong of my winter: a weekend in my beloved Glen Coe. Although I was camping down at the Red Squirrel campsite, I got two good days in on Bidean nam Bian, climbing the mountain by old favourite routes that I first explored when I was in my twenties. Conditions weren't the best, and I was pummelled by incredible winds near the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan – it's no exaggeration to say that I was hurled to and fro like a rag doll. But I found fine snow conditions underfoot, great for testing ice axes. And the poor visibility was a good test for my navigation skills. The mountains always have something to teach us.

If you'd like to support my writing and photography, you can buy me a coffee. Thank you!

All images © Alex Roddie. All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.

Notes

Alex Roddie

Happiest on a mountain. Writer, story-wrangler, digital and film photographer. Editor of Sidetracked magazine (I make the words come out good).

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