Posted on

Cul Mor & Snowshoes

Cul Mor & Snowshoes – a walk in Coigach, February 2019

by Hazel Stachan

The conditions on the drive up to Ullapool on the Friday evening. giving me cause to rethink my hill plans. Fresh snow had fallen with a good depth of snow at the side of the road. The snow at such a low level in the glens, after that walking onhigher ground would be torturous with bigger volumes of snow. The summit of Seana Bhraigh might be a snowdrift too deep and too far for me to reach. I played with the soft white foam from the top of my latte as I looked at the Loch Assynt map: thinking time this morning. Finding a hill with a big open back or ridge where the contour lines, were not too closely spaced together to walk with my snow shoes. Traverses across steep ground were an option but one I didn’t relish undertaking as it could prove to be time consuming.

The conditions on the drive up to Ullapool on the Friday evening. giving me cause to rethink my hill plans. Fresh snow had fallen with a good depth of snow at the side of the road. The snow at such a low level in the glens, after that walking onhigher ground would be torturous with bigger volumes of snow. The summit of Seana Bhraigh might be a snowdrift too deep and too far for me to reach. I played with the soft white foam from the top of my latte as I looked at the Loch Assynt map: thinking time this morning. Finding a hill with a big open back or ridge where the contour lines, were not too closely spaced together to walk with my snow shoes. Traverses across steep ground were an option but one I didn’t relish undertaking as it could prove to be time consuming.

North of Ullapool are the haunting mountains. (Coigach and Assynt – Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Mor, Cul Beag, Suilven and Canisp). The remains of the process of glaciation from a far distant time. Their summits barely touched 840m in height. My eye was drawn to the contour lines which described the gnarly form of Cul Mor. This scenario was perfect – a moderate incline would take me up to Meallan Diomhain at 600m and onto a ridge. I would take my crampons with me as well; the ridge from 700m up to the summit was very steep. Besides I didn’t know if it was going to be a heavily boulder strewn ridge, unsuitable for wearing snowshoes or a smooth grassy ridge. The forecast was good. Any snow showers would dissipate by lunch time and there would be phenomenal views over to Suilven.



Looking over to Ben More Coigach and Sgurr an Fhidhleir.

“You don’t see many walkers using snowshoes in the Scottish hills.”

I’m in a minority. You don’t see many walkers using snowshoes in the Scottish hills. I’ve been using snowshoes for seven winters now and I would never go back to the arduous and often brutal game of ‘post holeing’. Which we seem to embrace so readily as an outdoor activity in Scotland. Most of my snowshoeing trips are undertaken in the early winter in areas such as the Cairngorms. (Drumochter, Corrour, Creag Meagaidh and the Monaliaths). When snow becomes consolidated and easier to walk on from late February I start exploring narrow ridges wearing crampons.

I first read about snowshoes being used on the Cairngorm Plateau in the snowy winter of 2010/11. Spending that winter as an armchair mountaineer as my physio started a big job on me. I was happy to be watching the hills. From afar reading blogs and reports on how walkers and climbers were coping with travelling in the deep snow. There had to be a better way to travel on snow than ‘post holeing’ a way to a summit. Snowshoes could be the possible solution: I can’t, and have no inclination to ski.

Modern Snow Shoes

Modern snowshoes have evolved in design over the years; being miles away of the simple tennis rackets that we think of as snow shoes. Steel frames produce a more durable frame and crampon than aluminum designs. Nylon plastic is used to make the platform. I use a pair of Women’s MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes. A very durable mountaineering snowshoe with excellent traction in all snow conditions.

I notice the 4lbs of weight (per pair) is on my back. Strapped to the rucksack and not on my feet. A small price to pay for the dividends they offer once I’m using them on snow. Two sizes of snowshoes are generally available. 80 kg of Combined weight of a person and gear, therefore 22″ would be recomended. Use 25’’ snowshoes are for heavier weights. The underside edges of the snowshoes are serrated to give additional grip while there is a large steel crampon positioned under the ball of each foot.

The snowshoe hinges. This allows the crampon to be kicked aggressively if required into hard snow on steep ground. Many models also have a heel bar. This can be locked at your heel to keep the foot horizontal. It is worth buying a pair of snowshoes that can be adjusted so that each footprint is parallel to the other if you walk with a pigeon footed gait. Otherwise you will trip up on your snowshoes and plant your face in the snow.

I walked through the gate below Knockan Crag opposite Cul Mor. The snow was almost knee deep. Taking my rucksack off, released the straps which were holding my snowshoes onto my rucksack and strapped my snowshoes onto my feet, pulling the straps round the back of my heels tight. I was still wearing my gloves as there was a sharpness to the cold morning. I wished I had replaced my summer stoppers on the ends of my walking poles for snow daisies; if I pressed hard on my walking poles I was going to find out how deep the snow was at a given point. I followed the deep footprints which someone had created with such a huge amount of effort. They had followed a route which is a good foot path when uncover by snow.



Looking up at Cul Mor. I was following footprints

Only once or twice the domed tops of tussocks indicated the edge of the path in an otherwise smooth white landscape. I flattened down the top of the prints with my large footprints. The snow was soft and light and very easy to walk on today. At times I walked beside the deep footprints, my prints only sinking down a couple of inches. It’s not always this easy though; at worst traversing thawing snowpack I can sink down to almost my knees but that is still better to sink this far rather than sinking down to my thighs in the same snow. The same goes for breaking through a frosty top crust into soft snow.



Showers coming into Suilven.

Ridges receded into the distance to the north east were the bulk of Braebag, Conival and Ben Mor Assynt blocked the views further across the wild country. Cloud was gathering on the summits, above me, the blueness of the morning sky had been replaced by the grey clouds of the snow showers which were driving in off the Atlantic. The feeling that the summit of Cul Mor would be enveloped in cloud.
Gaining a wide ridge below Meallan Diomhain, most of the snow had been blown from the ridge to reveal ice, last week’s snow before a brief thaw. I would be back walking on a good depth of wind deposited snow to the north of this tiny summit in a sheltered Corrie.  The stones on the ridge I had to weave through, sometimes following long runnels of snow which had been deposited in the sheltered areas.

All of a sudden Suilven came into view.

Firstly, There is no hill in Scotland like Suilven. Fore that matter, nor either in the rest of the world. Nothing! Suilven’s summit cap can be viewed from Lochinver to the northwest of Cul Mor, rounded, its rocky sides plunging more than 600m (2000ft) to the lochans which pepper the bog lands below. The hill’s unusual shape is a result of glaciation. In fact the Norse origin of Suilven translates as Pillar Mountain such an appropriate description for this mountain.



Looking over towards Suilven

I wonder how the Norse regarded the mountain – evil because it looked like a place where demon gods lived or simply a place of awe because of its unusual formation. From where I stood on Cul Mor, Suilven was almost 3km long seemingly unclimbable wall topped by a ragged edge of summits. I stood mesmerized watching the clouds empty their wintery contents at the western end of the pillar; Suilven was an obstacle stopping any clouds from moving across to the higher ground on Braebag, nine miles away to the east.

The wind had picked up for the first time in the day and I became cold – time to move on. After Meallan Diomhain, I was back to snowshoeing on a good covering of snow, which I was expecting, but I barely made a mark on the hard surface of the snow. The ridge would take a semicircular curve up onto the summit but increase dramatically in its steepness for the last 200m in height. I carried on snowshoeing until the steepness made me asses my situation.

Looking up at the steepening ridge: There did not seem enough room to maneuver the length of my snowshoes amongst the boulders. I kicked myself a platform in the snow and removed my snowshoes. The rest of the ridge looked like it would be best tackled by kicking the edges of boots into the icy snow, if needed, steps could be cut into the hard surface with my ice axe.

“out of the bouldery terrain”

I was out of the bouldery terrain. Now plunging my feet deep into the soft wind slab, a snowball’s through from the summit. The views opened out to the Coigach hills. (Cul Beag, Ben More Coigach and Sgurr an Fhidhleir) A truly spectacular collection of hills flanked by huge black cliffs, their feet submerged in deep lochs. Snow showers enveloped this area; no world existed beyond the soft horizon.


Looking over to Conival and Ben More Assynt.

I retraced my steps back to the snowy platform I had made earlier and then put my snowshoes back on. I walked back down Cul Mor with ease and at a fast pace, happily kicking up a plume of snow behind me. Perhaps this is the nearest feeling of absolute freedom a mountain hare feels as it bounds across a winter hillside. Give me a snowy hillside and a pair of snowshoes any day. This had been a wonderful day!

Posted on

The last ten Munros

Diary extracts from closing a tenth round of Munros, September to November 2018

photo by Craig Allardyce
photo by Craig Allardyce

Written by Hazel Strachan.

Photos by Hazel Strachan, Tim Hall and Craig Allardyce

Beinn Bhuidhe, Beinn Ime, Ben Narnain, Ben Vane, Ladhar Bheinn, Luinne Bheinn, Meall Buidhe, Ben Cruachan, Stob Diamh and Carn an Tuirc

‘Only ten Munros… Just ten Munros. That is all.’, I wrote in my diary in the middle of September 2018. I was on the verge of fulfilling an ambition to climb, to ‘complete’, all of Scotland’s 282 mountains over a heightof 3,000 ft for a tenth time. One ‘round’ of climbing all 282 mountains was never going to be enough for me. I was poised to become the fifth person,(first woman) to do this.

 It’s customary to throw a party or at least open a bottle of Champagne at the summit to celebrate the end of a journey climbing the Munros.

 How easily was Igoing to find it to climb these last hills? Was the weather going to take me bysurprise and prove to be the biggest challenge to planning abilities? It was early autumn, a season which can be counted on to providing some beautifulstill days in amongst incoming wet weather from the Atlantic.

Thursday 27thSeptember 2018.

Diaries out tonight. I’m a bit worried in case work spills over into the weekends because the weather has been abysmal this September to make any headway with outdoor work. I’ve set my ‘compleation’ party date for the 3rd November. The date feels far away just now but I may just need all the available time. I need three days to get into Knoydart to climb Ladhar Bheinn, Luinne bheinn and Meall Buidhe – the crux of the ten mountains. Their remote location and westerly situation could prove to be a problem If the weather isn’t reasonable. It’s agamble which goes with having to climb specific mountains within a time scale. Raincould shroud the far west from Mallaig up to Skye for days. Carn an Tuirc in Glenshee will be my last Munro – an easy short ascent with ample parking so my non-hillwalking friends can come along. It’s a central location to travel to from anywhere in the country, and being easterly there is a better chance of adry day.

Saturday 29th September. Climb Beinn Bhuidhe. 

I changed over the plans for each of the days of the weekend; poorer weather of low mist then rain for Saturday, brighter but gusty for Sunday. I’ll leave the better day to Climb Beinn Narnain, Ben Ime and Ben Ime as it is a longer day out. The views down Loch Lomond and Loch Long aretremendous, a vista worth saving for a good day.

I didn’t expect the mist to swath the hills almost down to the bottom of the glen. Once I left the track at Inverchorachan  I followed the small path up the side of the burn right up onto the face of the mountain. I relaxed and enjoyed the autumnal colours in the small world around me.Conditions were windless. I loved feeling the awareness of my body moving over the rough path. I ascended 3,000ft with ease.  

There was strong wind on the summit so I didn’t linger. Still no rain but the mist was damp.  I moved quickly down into the windless vacuum of the side of the mountain.

Sunday 30th September. Climb Beinn Narnain, Beinn Ime and Ben Vane

The best place to be at moment was lying face down on the steep ground. I hadn’t expected the strong gusts blowing between BeinnChorranach and Ben Vane. Showers blasted in with the wind and stung my eyes. Justas quickly as the wind came it disappeared. I had started walking fromInveruglass in the half light of dawn. The cold wind had been increasing as I had ascended Beinn Narnain. Cloud held off the summit until the last 200ft of Beinn Ime. A quick calculation of a compass bearing and it wasn’t long till I was back out of the greyness of the mist into the dull autumn colours. I had to adjust my hat and hood as the wind was blowing straight into my face. The Tyndrum Hills were shrouded in cloud. I was glad to be on hills so far to the south which, by their nature and location, didn’t hold as much cloud.

I picked myself up only to be knocked back onto to the ground.  I would be back on the ground orelse bracing myself against the wind a couple more times on the gnarly back off Ben Vane. The summit came quickly. Climbing into a notch between two rocks Iwas finally out of the grasp of the cold wind and I have a late lunch. To my amazement, as I descended down the gnarly twisting path, there was very little wind on this side of the mountain.

Saturday 22nd September. Climb Ben Cruachan and Stob Diamh.

I’ve not often traversed Ben Cruachan and Stob Diamh in the summer as I love saving it for a winter traverse. I walked out from a sea of cloud along the top of Cruachan dam. The summits rose up into the blueness of the noon sky. I hadn’t started to walk until mid – morning as the forecast waspoor. Unfortunately I was to summit Cruachan in thick mist; a band of cloud hadswallowed up the ridge. I climbed down the narrow chimney down onto the path,the usual route in winter as the south face is banked up with snow I followed the distinct path for the rest of my time on the ridge.

looking back to Ben Cruachan – 23rd September 2018
looking back to Ben Cruachan – 23rd September 2018

Not long afterwards the cloud cleared away to above the summits. It is only when  I was starting to descend from Stob Diamh that the summits became shrouded in cloud once again.I’ve been so lucky today, the wind speed is low, the views beautiful all around. It’s not easy fitting such a high west coast peak into a short timescale and getting good weather. I hadn’t been expecting to have left So Many West Coast Mountains until the end of the round but that is how it’s turned out. Today I’m lucky, very lucky.

Wednesday 3rd October.

The weather forecast is looking good; in fact it’s simply fantastic- a weather window sandwiched between days of endless rain and strongwinds.  A consistent line of ‘E’ forexcellent visibility in the weather forecast; wind speeds are dropping throughout Friday into Saturday. A summit bivvy is a distinct possibility; I feel excited at the possibility. Temps will be freezing and below, wind chilldown to -5C on the summits. By 8 pm I’m packed. I’ve remembered my down booties for additional comfort for the two nights I’ll be out. I’ve been through my check list in my head to make sure all is packed; route plans have been discussed with Ian, my husband, and he has a paper copy of my route.

Thursday 4th October.

I can’t remember the last time I was THIS tired after  a short week at work. I need a good sleep tonight. The next two days are going to be a lot of climbing and the last thing I want to be is tired before I’ve set off. I’m parked up at Kinloch Hourn, currently sitting in the boot of the car wrapped in my sleeping bag. It’s raining.

Friday 5th October. Climb Luinne Bheinn and Meall Buidhe.

I walked into Barrisdale Bay in sunshine. This must be one of the most beautiful bays in Scotland. Ladhar Bheinn was reflected in pools of water on the beach which had been left by the receding tide. Nobody around. I felt nervous – not because of the remoteness of this place but because of what walking over these three Munros meant to me. I’m never this nervous in the hills. I need to summit all three Munros or it might be hard finding the timeto get back here.

looking towards Ben Lomond from Ben Vane, 30th September

The first of the big hail showers hit as I was near the summit Luinne Bheinn: a huge dark grey curtain filled the glen. I turned to face theslope so the hail wouldn’t sting my eyes. There were to be numerous showers driving through for the rest of the day; double rainbows would fill the glensby nightfall.

Thin mist was tickling the summit of Meall Bhuidhe as I reached the summit of Luinne Bheinn. I was feeling happy and strong; the views were uplifting, simply stunning.  Another hour and the mist would have dissipated from the summit. I headed down into a wet bealach before weaving my way around bands of rock onto the connecting ridge.

Loitering is the best word to describe my half hour I spent on the summit. A view to Ladhar Bheinn finally opened up. It was beautiful – a huge mountain, ragged ground formed its ridges; beyond the high ground of Kintail formed the distant horizon. More sleet drove in on bands of showers.There was not enough shelter on the summit slope for an evening bivvy so I decided to head back down the ridge as I had spotted a couple of potential places to spend the night if the summit was going to be unsuitable.

lookingto Ladhar Bheinn on 5th October.

Saturday 6th October. Climb Ladhar Bheinn.

There was a light dusting of snow on the summit of MeallBuidhe. I slept right through last night’s weather. Cool morning but I was warm as I packed away my bivvy. Mirrored surfaces to the lochans, cloud starting to tease the surrounding summits as I headed for Mam Barrisdale. By lunchtime I was ascending up onto Stob a’ Chearchaill and cloud was swirling round about me. At times it lifted high above me, only to descend and obliterate the mountains around me. I would have loved to have reached the summit, like somany other times, with a view of the jagged horizons of mountains around me.

Hands on rocks, a couple of long reaches, a step and I was up on the summit ridge.

Sunday 7th October.

The first rain drops on my bivvy bag woke me up. Not even the noise of the tide could stir me from my deep sleep during the night. I wriggled out from my bivvy bag to be greeted by low cloud blanketing the mountains. By the time I had quickly packed up the air was heavy with fine drizzle. Only a two hour walk back to the car. I was changing my footwear at the car when a dog walker greeted me with ‘driving a car is the best place to be today’. It sure was, as I drove home in heavy rain. I feel calmness, a relief at being in a good place with how the month is progressing. What can possibly go wrong now?

bivvy site by Loch Hourn

Friday 12th October.

Storm Callum blew through today, the culmination to a week of incessant rain which was broken by an unexpected beautiful sunny day. An amber, be prepared for flooding warning was in force for wales and plenty of rain forthe rest of the UK.  If I hadn’t managed to get leave on Friday 3rd October I’ve have been toiling to squeeze Knoydart into a period of reasonable weather this month. Tomorrow I’m litterpicking on Ben Nevis on the Real 3 Peaks Challenge.

Real 3 Peaks Challenge 

Saturday 27th October.

A band of snow now swathes the mountains from Lochaber to the Cairngorms in the east. The Glenshee road was closed due to overnight snow.It’s October and this never happens in October! If I had scheduled to‘compleate’ today nobody would have been able to get to the bottom of Carn anTuirc let alone climb it. A lot of weather can push through in a week.

 Ladhar Bheinn

I bailed out of my plans for a bivvy up on Buachaille Etive Beag last night and stayed at home because the forecasted snow would extend through most of the evening. However the weather is stunning for today so head to Glencoe. I have a photo shoot with Andy Coxley from The Sunday Post in front of Buachaille Etive Mor. I never thought that I would be posing under the mountain which I completed on for a first Munro round thirteen years ago.

Monday 29th October.

There is a hint of bad weather for the weekend, the end of Hurricane Oscar is still lingering out in the Atlantic and there is uncertainty how much it will affect the UK.

Wednesday 31st October.

 I think I must have accessed every UK mountain weather forecast several times throughout the day for updates for the weather on Saturday. I’ve seen confirmation that there is a storm coming in on Friday night which would continue through out Saturday. Constant rain with wind gusts up to 60 mph are not conditions to be climbing mountains. By 6pm I had made up my mind to move the ascent of Carn an Tuirc to Sunday 4th November, the following day. It felt the right and obvious decision to make, a relief to take control of a disappointing situation. There can’t have been many Munro parties rescheduled over the years. Friends are travelling from all over. I was nervous messaging everybody about the change. I shouldn’t have worried. The feedback was extremely positive and many people hoping I would change the party day to the Sunday. I finally read the updated MWIS forecast – ‘winds 50-70, gusts 80 mph’ for Saturday – the best confirmation to move the day.

Saturday 3rd November.

A cake and coffee day in Ballater. Rain held off through theday. Wind increased just before bedtime and continued throughout the night. I woke up several times wishing the wind would drop.

Sunday 4th November. Climb Carn an Tuirc – final Munro

I pushed the car door against the wind to open it. The wind is strong but not as strong as what I was expecting. I had been worried aboutthe forecast – no rain now but winds 45 mph, gusts 55mph – still strong; walking still possible although likely to be arduous. Only when I started walking I was able to relax and realise that the day was manageable. I was more worried what the others would think and be able to deal with the conditions.

There were 20 friends with me. Once we had been walking foran hour there was a line of bodies were strewn out across the hillside. As Ilooked to the silhouette of the stony slope I knew just how little of the hill there was left to ascend. Thoughts about the strength of the wind disappeared; I was filled with a sense of happiness and peace.

I dropped my rucksack on to the ground. Not far now – 30 steps. There was the summit cairn before me. People moved and formed an arch from walking poles and then the cheering started.  I walked, focused on the pile of stones ahead. A big smile and a complete feeling of Joy. I touched the top of the pile of stones. All finished, all ‘completed’. A sense of relief that all had gone well today and on all the other days which I had been on the hills. What a marvellous journey I’ve had.

Posted on

A to Z of Bivvying and wild camping

A to Z of Bivvying and wild camping

By Hazel Strachen.

A is for apple, B is for ball. I was teaching my friend’s little girl alphabet letters the other week. I started to wonder what words I would have in my bivvying and wild camping alphabet. I’ve tried to find 26 different aspects to what captures the heart of bivvying and wild camping. Would your alphabet be the same?

A is for Adventure Almost Anywhere. We are so fortunate in Scotland to be able to adventure almost anywhere. Our access to the outdoors is covered by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which lays out our rights and responsibilities for accessing wild land. However, it should be noted that the right to access land doesn’t extend everywhere in Scotland. The thorn in the side of this magnificent access legislation is the seasonal restrictions on wild camping in the LLTNP (Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park). With the exception of Dartmoor National Park in the south of England, wild camping in England and Wales is not legal without permission.

B is for Booties. I wear a pair of down booties when bivvying or camping in cold conditions to keep my feet warm. They are a complete luxury and I sleep better as well!

C is for Condensation. Condensation can be an issue when bivvying so be prepared to dry off the excess moisture on a sleeping bag in the morning. Gore-Tex is a good fabric but even it even it cannot technically do the impossible on a very dewy morning.

D is for ‘Dreich’ a very descriptive Scottish word for a wet and drizzly day. On a Dreich day I ideally want to be snuggled up in a sleeping bag reading a book or e-reader listening to the rain drumming off the fly sheet of the tent. A dreich day lets me appreciate all the beautiful weather which I experience on the hills.

E is for E- readers, the best entertainment for a long evening especially in winter. With the advent of the back light e -reader there is no need to wear a head torch to read in the winter. How often have you woken up on a winter’s morning with dead batteries in your head torch because you fell asleep reading a book?

F is for Food be it gourmet, instant, fresh, dehydrated, foraged or freeze dried we all have our favourites. Eating enough food ensures a good night’s sleep, shortage of food a miserable trip.

G is for Ground. In good weather bivvying gives me more options where I can spend a night. The footprint is smaller and I can get tucked away in sheltered spots on ridges and rocky ground where I could not possibly erect a tent – a recipe for a unique adventure.

H is for Hills. It was noted by Hamish Brown that Scotland must be the only country in the world to describe their mountains as ‘hills’. The Scottish mountains will always be ‘hills’ to me, the hills of home which I love so dearly.

I is for Insects. Do not forget to bring midge repellent when wild camping in Scotland in the summertime. Be aware of tick habitats and how to avoid getting ticks on your body and learn how to correctly remove ticks.

J is for Jackets whether they are waterproof, windproof, or warm winter down or synthetic jackets. I own a lot of jackets as Scotland gives a lot of different weather throughout the year.

K is for Kit Care. Dry out your tent thoroughly after use so it doesn’t grow black mould – the same goes for the rest of your kit and it will last longer and maintain fabric performance.. Washing kit in Nikwax Techwash and TX Direct prolongs its effectiveness. If you can’t wash sleeping bags send them off to a specialist for cleaning. Boots should be dried out away from artificial heat.

L is for Leave No Trace. This speaks for itself: carry out all litter, even litter which you find while out walking. If you are camping on wet ground consider moving on after a couple of nights so as not to damage vegetation. Leave the area for others to enjoy as you found it.

M is for Mat. I once mistakenly took a summer sleeping matt on a winter wild camp to Loch Ossian. That night I found out how important insulation was! The rest of the night was spent sleeping on a mat which was laid upon an elaborate platform constructed from boots, ice axe and rucksack to try and keep the mat off the cold ground. A good sleeping mat should not only insulate but be comfortable as well.

N is for Newby. We all have to start somewhere.  Learn from experience and be honest with yourself about your fitness and your plans.

O is for Ordnance Survey Maps. Maps make addictive ‘reading’, especially on a stormy winter’s evening. I love unfolding a map and spreading it out across the floor and looking for possible routes across the landscape. My favourite map is Landranger sheet 19 Gairloch and Ullapool. It’s a remote area – on the map there are few roads and a lot of orange contour lines which rise from big blue expanses on the map. Remember to leave a route card and travel details with a responsible person just in case something does go amiss.

P is for Pee, Poo and Periods. Ever read the book ‘How to shit in the woods: An environmentally sound approach to a lost art’ by Kathleen Meyer? It’s honest, up front and informative. I couldn’t put it down – no wonder it’s a classic! The book, however, is more relevant for the American National Park experience, but there is a lot of good information in there to answer nature’s call. Grab your trowel and dispose of your poo and pee responsibly – at least 30 meters away from fresh / running water. Ladies pack out your used sanitary products.

Q is for Quality. No mobile phone reception, no distractions from the ordinary stressed out life. Time spent in the hills and mountains is quality time, time to de-stress and reconnect to myself and nature.

R is for Responsibilities. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 lays out our responsibilities and outlines the best guidance which should be followed when exercising our right to wild camp and access wild land. If you are new to wild camping in Scotland the Act provides helpful advice.

S is for Solo. I love the freedom which going solo gives me.  I can stop earlier and pitch my accommodation when I see bad weather coming into the hills. I may continue walking until almost darkness if my heart desires it. The biggest draw to going solo is that I notice more in the landscape, the plants and the birds around me.

T is for Tent. I always buy the best tent I can afford. Try and cut down on unnecessary consumption of goods with buying cheap and throwaway gear. I will thoroughly research what I want to buy and will often wait for stores to offer discount codes before I buy.  I like tents where the outer can be pitched first, especially in wet weather as I can organise myself under the flysheet in the dry and keep my kit dry.

U is for Unexpected. I plan for the expected and use common sense to guide me in my decision making. However, I love the unexpected cloud inversions, broken spectres; the beautiful sunrises and sunsets which planning could never foresee.

V is for Vulnerable. I’m disappointed that the word ‘vulnerable’ appears in outdoor blogs written by women. The context can relate to feelings of insecurity which have been generated from society’s expectations of us. Go solo. Go wild camping. Go bivvying. All these activities are truly empowering. Society needs happy confident women.

W is for Water. Flowing water above farmland is generally considered safe to drink. If in doubt filter it – there are lots of lightweight filters available.

X is for Xmas. Santa always gives the best and most expensive outdoor presents. Funny, he always knows what I want as well!

Y is for Year Round. Bivvying and wild camping isn’t just for summer. Some of the best weather comes in early spring and autumn and there’s no midges to send you into a mad rendition of a ‘Highland Fling’ either. Celebrate the changing seasons: camp by a frozen waterfall in the depth of winter in a remote glen; camp on a summit in the spring when the cold has been shaken from high ground; bivvy on a high plateau in early summer in a mist of Mountain Pinks; lie in a bivvy bag in the autumn listening to rutting stags bellowing.

Z is for Zips. Unzipping the door of a flysheet to greet a sunrise; closing a down jacket to keep out the cold; unzipping a bivvy after a snowstorm to see how the snow has obliterated landscape. Zips are simple closures which we don’t give much thought to how many memories do they help to create?

This alphabet captures the heart of bivvying and wild camping for me.

Posted on

Bivvy Bagging

Making the most of bivvying on the Scottish Mountains

Insider tips from a bag lady

The words ‘bivvy’ and ‘Scottish Mountains’ are not very often found in the same sentence which is a pity because a good bivvy is a truly memorable experience.

A bivvy bag is a waterproof cover for a sleeping bag which transforms it into a very rudimental shelter. Space is extremely limited. You’ll fit your sleeping mat to insulate from the ground, sleeping bag, small pillow and yourself into a bag and well, not much else. The word ‘bivvy’ or ‘bivi’ is both a noun and a verb; as a noun it described the bag itself, as a verb ‘bivvy’ is the term given to sleeping out in the open without the aid of a tent in a ‘bivvy’ bag.

Bivvying can be used as an exercise in cutting weight from you weekend kit. However, it’s not a survival exercise but it can be if you really want to! I bivvy as a means of connecting with the landscape around me.

“The bag was a welcome relief from lugging a tent”

I love the simplicity of a night on the mountains in a bivvy bag, the closeness to nature and the elements; gazing up at the stars and watching the sky change through the night. I love lying on my front gazing out, watching grasses blowing in a soft breeze on a summit ridge; marvelling at small beetles and spiders which I never knew existed in the delicate mosses which grow on the mountain summits. An evening bivvy can be as exciting as a beautiful day stravaiging over the mountains.

 

I bought my first bivvy bag in Alaska for a summer adventure nearly a quarter of a century ago. The bag was a welcome relief from lugging a tent around on short adventures.  However I fell back to relying on the tent when I had no idea what the weather would bring. My current bivvy bag, an Outdoor Research ‘aurora’ bag, is a less ‘flashy’ model than my first bag, not that the simplicity of a bivvy bag could ever be described as ‘flashy’.

Dorain & Knoydart April 2017

Bivvy bag v’s Tent and Tarp

There is literally no stopping you from where you can bivvy for a night. The footprint of a bivvy bag is small compared to that of either a tent or tarp. I’ve bivvied on summits, on rocky terraces sheltered from a strong wind, in woods, by rivers, behind boulders, in gorges and on a terrace which was dug out from a snow slope. I couldn’t have erected my tent on a lot of these sites.

From a performance point of view, however, a bivvy bag has some issues compared to the reliability of a tent or tarp for shelter. Condensation can, but not necessarily, build up on the inside of the bag and make sleeping bags damp, even when the bivvy bag is made from highly breathable Gore-Tex. Humidity plays a role in the effectiveness of Gore-Tex. Because of this I use a synthetic sleeping bag.

If you’re using a down filled sleeping bag make sure it’s a hydroponic one as damp or wet down doesn’t insulate. It’s worth washing your sleeping bag using a technical wash such as Nikwax Techwash to help maintain the DWR coating so that the outer will shed any moisture which you get on your bag from condensation.

Bivvys in Scotland are best done for one or two nights unless you have means of airing your sleeping bag. One beautiful March day on the Cairngorm Plateau I aired my sleeping bag by hanging it out of my rucksack whilst I walked as I had to cover a lot of miles that day. If the weather forecast is to be good for several days there is no reason why you couldn’t do the entire trip using a bivvy bag. If you are not counting grams but more interested in performance take a tent or tarp instead.

If you dislike being in a small space, you’re not really going to like being cooped up in a bivvy bag.

Challum bivvy Feb 2018 note the Bin bag

Design

My ‘Aurora’ bivvy bag is a half and half bag - Gore-Tex upper layer which is highly breathable and a less breathable but waterproof base. This combination of fabrics makes the bag cheaper than buying a full Gore-Tex bag. E-Vent is another good fabric option if you want to push the boat out. You could use an emergency big orange ‘survival’ bag for an impromptu night out if you wish but you will get damp/soggy from your own condensation on the inside of the bag. If you want a cheap bivvy bag to start you off on your adventures there are ex-Army bivvy Gore-Tex bags which can be picked up quite cheaply on eBay. They are larger in size and heavier than any bags made by Outdoor Research, Rab, Exped, Alpkit or Snugpack.

Bivvy bags can be hooped, resembling small tents, which creates a little bit more space around your head to keep any claustrophobic feeling at bay. They can be as simple as a bag with a draw cord to tighten up around your face (ideal if you sleep on your back). My bag has a clam shaped opening. I like this design as I sleep on my side and breathe out of the bag. It also gives my face more protection as I can partially zip up the opening to stop weather coming into the bag which is a good idea for Scotland. You cannot breathe into your bag or you will condensate the inside fabric of the bag even more. If I’m feeling claustrophobic I can wedge my air pillow behind my head to create a bit more room. I’m lucky that I have loops on my bag so I can securely peg it down so I’m not caught unaware with it blowing away when I’m away taking photographs. Very few bags have this feature. Please do not place boulders on top of your bag to hold it down as you could damage the fabric.

 

Sleeping arrangements

It’s best to use a comfortable sleeping mat although in very dry conditions it’s possible to sleep on your rucksack and still get a reasonable night’s sleep (been there, done that and did get a good night’s sleep.) In winter you can spend up to twelve hours in the same small space, believe me comfort is paramount! I use a Exped Down Mat UL and can sleep on my front, side or back in complete comfort. To be honest it’s comfier than my bed at home.

My sleeping mat is placed inside my bag. If you are using a full Gore-Tex bag you will sleep in your bag on top of a sleeping mat.

Bivvy bags and bin bags

If the forecast is for a clearing night and I have to set up in mist or fine drizzle I like to carry a large heavy duty bin bag (rustles less in the wind than a thin bin bag). It’s useful for keeping my kit dry when setting up my bivvy when I’m pulling gear out of the bottom of my rucksack. As I don’t have a rucksack cover I can also use the bin bag to store my rucksack overnight so it doesn’t become sodden from the overnight dew: there is no room in a bivvy bag for storing a rucksack when you are sleeping.

 

Planning a bivvy trip

Flexibility is the key to having a good bivvy experience. I’m always watching weather forecasts, searching out small weather windows of clear evenings and almost windless weather. A time scale can be as short as the time between sunset and sunrise or as long as a prolonged settled period. Aiming for a bivvy on a mountain summit when the cloud is clearing late in the day is more risky for an adventure as the summit may not become free from cloud. Sometimes choosing to sleep out on a satellite summit will guarantee a cloud free night which has happened quite a few times for me. Note the forecasted wind direction – will it change during the night making your bivvy exposed? You can always use your rucksack to deflect the wind from your head.

When I start out walking I never know where on a mountain I’m going to be sleeping for the night. I let local conditions decide for me. On Beinn Fhionnlaidh I found a windless spot on a rocky outcrop, two minutes walking further up or down the mountain and the wind was very strong. One January on the South Cluanie Ridge I found a very small hummock on a bealach which deflected the wind - oh boy, it was a ‘warmer’ spot than a summit bivvy would have been! If I have to walk back to an ideal spot I will do so rather than suffer an uncomfortable night.

 

Keeping cool, frozen boots and food

I try to walk cool before a bivvy so as not to get my clothes damp from sweat as I’ll be sleeping in my day clothes; I’ll make sure the bottoms of my trousers are turned up and tucked away behind gaiters and are not getting wet from any damp vegetation I’ll be walking through. If I’m sleeping wearing my trousers I don’t want soggy trouser bottoms creating a cold damp patch in my sleeping bag. The same rule applies to the rest of my clothes.

When setting up for the night I’ll put on extra clothes to retain my body heat: it’s easier to stay warm rather than having to generate heat after being cold. When sleeping I’ll wear just enough clothes to feel comfortable to sleep in; too many clothes can feel colder than fewer clothes. Bringing along an extra pair of dry socks or down boots is a worthwhile luxury. A hat or hood is essential.

I carry a small pair of barefoot trainers to change into so I can step easily into my bivvy bag instead of performing an elaborate balancing act trying to take my boots off while stepping into my bag. A couple of plastic bags to cover your socks will also suffice. Over the years I still have not taken to wearing frozen boots first thing on a cold morning. I will either stash my boots away in my rucksack or under my air pillow.

Having a good warm meal or food intake before crawling into your bivvy for the night – nobody ever had a good night’s sleep on an empty stomach.

 

The worst night…. ever?

I’m starting to think that any luck which may help me to win the National Lottery has been redirected to providing me midge free bivvies. Only three midgies turned up on an August bivvy one evening on Aonach Eagach, the total for an entire summer. A night bivvying in the Scottish mountains could end up being your worst night ever in the mountains. Midgies will start to hatch from early June and stay around till September. The best advice is to keep to high ground and bivvy in a breeze to keep the blighters away. Even then you could still run into some midgies. A bivvy bag with a bug net is a good investment. Repellents like ‘Smidge’ are great for protecting your hands and arms, but a midge net an essential protection for your head – Midgies will crawl up your nose and in your ear canals and I haven’t yet found the courage to spray Smidge up my nose given the advisory notice on the can for where not to apply the repellent. Best of luck!

 

A bivvy bag isn’t just for summer

Some of my favourite bivvy nights have been in the winter. The best winter bivvies take a bit more waiting for ideal conditions. I will never forget a fifteen hour day crossing Fisherfield and bivvying next to the Abhainn Gleann na MuiceI gazing up at a snow covered An Teallach which appeared so luminous in the darkness of night. The starry sky was just so beautiful.

A thaw and re-freeze to consolidate snow can produce a friendlier environment to sleep in without spindrift filling your bivvy bag or making your eyes nip (goggles are useful for a drafty night). Pits dug in snow can provide a good windbreak: stamp down the snow to make a firm platform on which to sleep. Even a frozen loch can be an unusual but acceptable place to sleep providing you a using good insulating mat.

 

A beautiful night sky

The period of the new moon will create a dark sky which shows off the stars to their maximum. Watching a full moon track along a summit ridge in winter is a beautiful experience and enhances the wow factor of a wilderness trip. If you don’t know how to find your way round the constellations a good starting point is to use apps which will identify the constellations for you. For ios devices use ‘Night Sky’, for android use the app ‘Sky Map’. If you like learning from reference books ‘Star Finder for Beginners: A step-by-step guide to the night sky’ published by DK takes you through steps to learn how to find constellations in the sky.

I’ve never managed to see the Aurora Borealis in Scotland but there have been a lot of amazing photographs posted on social media. You can get aurora alert updates from the website aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/alerts. Now that would be quite a sight to see from the warmth of a summit bivvy!

The longer days and better weather is just around the corner. I hope I have given you enough information to inspire you to take your first bivvy. One year I had twenty bivvies in the Scottish mountains - the conditions are there for having lots of top trips. Happy adventures!

Bivvy Bagging in Scotland by Hazel Strachan.

South Torridon 2018

Shop

Shop