27 Aug Kit & Equipment for Trekking the GR5
Quite a number of people have shown interest in or commented on kit and equipment I’ve been using on the GR5. Some have asked for a blog about it. So, here it is.
Paddy Dillon in Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone suggests you need no more than 10kgs. It’s not clear if that’s dry or wet weight (with or without water). 10kgs dry would seem to be an optimal weight to aim at. However, all this depends on why you are dong the GR5 and what you intend to do on it. As I’ve indicated in earlier blogs, Richard is carrying 22kgs. This is because he’s writing a book along the way and literally has his office in his Bergen, in addition to all the other stuff that I’ll cover, some of which is essential and some of which is nice-to-have.
The first thing to point out is that we’re trekking. We’re not climbing mountains or summiting them, nor are we rock climbing. Therefore, there’s less emphasis on technical equipment – ropes, helmets, belays, ice axes and all the rest of that mountaineering paraphernalia.
What you take for extended walking, i.e. trekking, largely depends on how you intend to sleep at nights. If you plan to keep your costs down and follow your nose you’ll require a tent a sleeping bag and a sleeping mat of some sort in addition to your other gear. This obviously ups the weight and bulk.
If, on the other hand, you intend, as we have done, to get into hard accommodation (refuges, auberges, gîtes, cheap hotels) then you can dispense with that stuff and concentrate solely on what you’ll need day to day over a protracted period.
The other factor that’s important is remoteness. In reality, although the GR5 takes you into spectacular scenery and terrain, you are never far from shops and shelter, so carrying a month’s worth of supplies is unnecessary. So, in that sense Dillon is entirely correct.
The Fools on the Hills (FOTH), the informal trekking club of ex-Para Regt and Special Forces fellows that I’m part of, adopt a philosophy of going as light as possible whilst carrying enough to mitigate most normal risks one might encounter in the mountains – inclement weather, the odd via ferrata section and precipitous routes. That said, FOTH gambols are about enjoying the hiking and the company in the evenings, so carrying so little that you have nothing to change into in the evenings defeats the object of the exercise. So, the trick is to take enough but not too much.
So, when thinking what to take here are some of the major considerations:
Footwear for hiking and the evening.
Navigational equipment (maps, compass, guidebooks).
Clothing for hiking and the evenings.
Protective clothing – inclement weather (heat, rain and cold).
Protective equipment – harnesses, slings, carabiners, crampons.
Hydration – water bottles, salts, water sterilisation/filtration.
Emergency survival – bivvi bag, rations.
Personal hygiene – washing kit, towel, washing liquid, first aid kit (personal).
Electronic equipment – devices, chargers, leads, batteries, solar panels.
Sleeping – silk or cotton liner (most refuges supply blankets and pillows).
Water boiler and brew kit or Thermos.
I first started hiking when I was about ten years old at a prep school called Nevill Holt (since closed down due to a paedophile scandal that raged during my time there – hardly surprising that most of us ended up in either the Parachute Regiment or the SAS). Each Easter we’d go hiking for a week in the Lake District. I think the boots we’re school-owned and grabbed on a first come first served basis (it was a Lord of the Flies type school). The kit was really basic. An orange over-the-head thing called a cagool acted as a waterproof. The teachers all wore plus fours and woollen hats. Gloves? Probably not. I think they were seen as wimpy.
At Plymouth College the CCF would go off to the Brecon Beacons for a week each Easter. The kit was marginally better but not much. Army boots made from compressed cardboard. Waterproofs were poncho cape type things that were fairly impractical for walking in, but made you look like Clint Eastwood in A Fist Full of Dollars. But the rucksacks were better – tubular aluminium frames with a bag hanging off them.
In the army kit was also pretty primitive. The same boots, puttees, the dreaded woollen ‘shirt KF’ (I have been put right by one of the Fools, Tim, who assures me that KF stands for ‘knitted flannel’ and not ‘khaki fatigue’. I don’t doubt him for a minute. It simply reinforces the point that some sadist decided that the British army should wear sackcloth on its skin) and rubberised cammo waterproofs, which had to be worn under, not over, your parachute smock (in case the enemy heard it rustle).
But, backpacks, or Bergens, as we called them, had improved somewhat for Paras and the SAS. Unlike the rest of the infantry which had to struggle with ‘large packs’ (they were neither large, nor could you pack much into them, and were made of canvas that soaked up water like a sponge), we got Bergens – steel H framed robust nylon back packs that carried a reasonable load, could take the impact of parachute landings, were not prone to soaking up water, but weighed 10lbs before you put anything into them. The guys in the mortar platoons would jump and carry Bergens weighing up to 120lbs (50kgs). But, kit was still pretty primitive until the GoreTex and Cordura revolution hit the army. Since then it’s steadily improved.
But, the explosion in clothing and equipment available for civilian outdoorsy types has increased exponentially over the past ten to fifteen years. It’s hard to know where to start and what to buy. A legion of brands offer vast ranges of clothing and equipment that go out of fashion each season.
With all that in mind, over the past year or so I’ve got my gear to where it’s manageable but not so minimalist that life becomes dreary. A lot of what is carried may never be used, but is important in managing risk. These are items that become critical when things go wrong but which, for the most part, you won’t use. That’s just the way of it.
So, here’s what all my gear looked like laid out at Les Houches after a week of walking in the Haute Savoie:
This is an Osprey 36 litre Stratos. It’s ideal for loads up to about 10kgs. I’ve never quite understood why manufacturers rate these things by capacity of volume and not weight. It’s the weight of items that’s key, not their volume. I’ve been carrying about 15kgs wet, so that’s 13kgs dry and two litres of water makes up the final two kilogrames. While the pack is ergonomically great and has an air gap between your back and the sack, the fact is that the straps are not up to distributing the weight evenly across the front of your shoulders. Consequently, after about five hours they feel like cheese wire cutting into your shoulders.
In hindsight, it’s far better to opt for a larger pack with wider shoulder straps. Nature abhors a vacuum and always tries to fill it. But, if you can take a larger pack and resist the temptation to take more gear then the cheese wire effect of taking just too small a pack will be mitigated. I wouldn’t take a pack like this for an extended trek again.
These are Scarpa R-Evolution Pro GTX, which I bought for Julian’s Gambol in Solovenia last year. These have a B1 stiffness Vibram sole, but achieve lightness by making the remainder of the boot out of one piece of material – the so-called glove fit. If correctly fitted they are ready to wear with no real need to break them in. Some in the ultra mountain marathon world wouldn’t go near boots like these and prefer trail shoes. Quite right. They are racing for a relatively short period of time. On balance, I would not recommend doing very long distances and long duration hikes in trail shoes. Ultra events tend to be over quite quickly, comparatively speaking. A proper hiking boot offers a good compromise between durability, stiffness (of sole) and protection. There’s a reason why armies still favour boots over trail shoes.
I’ve experimented with a variety of sock combinations on this trip starting with a thin Bridgedale CoolMax under sock and a summer Bridgedale over sock. It worked well in Slovenia. But I soon binned that on the GR5 – too hot. Then I tried just the summer sock. Then just the thin sock and finally barefoot. The last option was the best for comfort. But, by the end of the day my feet and boots reeked. So, I’m back to the the thin wicking sock. Horses for courses.
Very simple. On top I wear a Merino wool wicking shirt with a half-zip front and a pair of cotton/polyamide shorts. I’m a recent convert to Merino wool and was drawn to it because my synthetic tops were all stinking after a day of sweating. Really unpleasant. Merino has seemingly magical properties: it keeps you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cool; it wicks sweat away efficiently; it dries in a jiffy; it does not pong (though I wash it every evening). It’s really important to get into the habit of rinsing clean your clothing each night, which avoides a number of skin issues associated with salt and rubbing. I’ve chucked out all the synthetic fibres and only have Merino tops.
Shorts or longs? There’s a question! I prefer shorts in the heat for obvious reasons – ventilation. But, the downside with shorts is that small stones and grit drop more easily into the top of your boot and then work their way around your boot until you’re forced to stop and de-stone periodically. I’d rather put up with that than wear longs. But that’s just a personal preference.
Against excessive wind I have a Pertex cagool and pants (only worn in the evenings sometimes) and against rain a Mountain Equipment Lhotse jacket and Berghaus Pack Light trousers. For me, GoreTex is nothing more than a plastic bag that enables you to sweat more. It would have to really rain hard and cold for me to even consider putting it on. I prefer to get wet in warm rain than sweat in a plastic bag. So far this trip we’ve put on our GoreTex tops once when the temperature plummeted and rain came on hard. I’ve never yet worn the waterproof trousers.
The Thinsulate hat and Sealskin gloves are also there ‘just in case’, but have never been worn and probably won’t be. But I’ve used the Pertex cagool top during windy stops and the Rab puffa jacket in the cooler evenings at altitude.
I also carry a Rab GoreTex bivvie bag. Again, this remains unused, but if one of us becomes injured and immobilised on the mountain its value will become quickly appreciated.
We weren’t sure of the state of the cols en route particularly in the Haute Savoie. It would have been stupid to have been blocked by icy snow on a col for want of a pair of light-weight crampons.
Until Val d’Isère I carried a set of pull on light-weight crampons, a lightweight ski-touring harness, a sling and three carabiners.
But, we encountered no snow-encrusted cols that couldn’t be walked around (as happened on the approach to Le Brévant where the English boy fell) and no via ferrata ironmongery. So, we backloaded that lot to UK at Val d’Isère courtesy of Geoffrey Grimmett’s wife, Rosine.
Evening clothes double as spare clothes. These consist of a pair of long black North Face pants, suitable for hiking in if necessary, a Merino wool T shirt and a Merino wool half-zip long sleeved top. If it gets really cold in the evenings, as it can at some refuges at altitude, I have a lightweight Rab insulated jacket, which packs up quite small (see first two photos in previous section). I also carry two pairs of spare socks.
As mentioned above in the bulleted points, most hard accommodation provides pillows and blankets, though rarely sheets. It’s not necessary to take a sleeping bag, but a silk or cotton liner is a must.
Hygiene and 1st Aid
I carry a small bag with some disposable razors, toothpaste, toothbrush, some foot powder, small bars of soap liberated from hotels and auberges that offer them. Shampoo – never use the stuff. It’s the biggest con ever invented. You only need to rinse your hair out with fresh water. Your body really looks after itself quite nicely. A half-size travel towel is a must as some refuges have no towels.
The 1st Aid kit is reasonably robust: plasters, a couple of bandages, disinfectant, zinc oxide tape, plastic skin, and critically anti-inflammatory cream and pills, some pain killers (only if necessary) and Imodium to stop you craping yourself if you’ve eaten something dodgy.
It’s been pretty hot right the way though since our start in St. Gingolph at Lake Leman. I always start the day with four 0.5L flexible hydration packs, one of which contains rehydration salts. The benefit of these over a solid water bottle is that they take up virtually no volume when empty and are super light. The downside is they are less robust than an aluminium flask and you therefore need to take more care of them. But, they work for me.
Since the picture above was taken I have replaced the 1L bladder at the very top of the picture with two more 0.5L hydropacks, making four in total. It makes managing and storing water easier.
I also carry a small Sawyer water filtration kit that weighs 2oz but is remarkably fast at filtering river water – less than 30 seconds for half a litre. While most streams at altitude are okay to drink from, you don’t want to be doing that where cattle or sheep have been grazing, so filtering water or using sterilisation tablets (I don’t) is sensible.
After Merino wool, my number two bit of kit is a small rubber flexible cup (bought at vast cost because of the branding) that has proved so useful for drinking water on the hoof. Potable water sources are very common in village centres and sometimes on the GR5 route itself. This little collapsible rubber cup is perfect for taking on water without needing to take off your pack.
Richard has done some of his own calculations based on the composition of the body in terms of water content (60% for men and 50% for women). Thirst kicks in when that level drops by 2-3%. That’s about 0.8-1.2L in men. So, his rule of thumb when the climbing hard is 0.5L of water per hour. So, for a reasonably long 8 hour day 4L of water is not an unreasonable amount to be taking on board in heat like this. So, you definitely need the ability to forage safely on the hoof, hence filtration/sterilisation and ad hoc potable water sources.
Richard prefers to take a Thermos of tea up on the hills for the day. It’s a neat solution. But once drunk, there’s no more. My preference is to take up a Jetboil butane/propane burner. It’s a bit of volume and weight luxury but it boils water in 90 seconds and allows you to get a fresh brew on whenever you want and also cook up some noodles in an emergency. Thermos v Jetboil? Either or frankly. It’s a matter of preference…as is my inclination to take up a fresh lemon for my tea. There’s no point ruining a brew with that preserved cream muck. Lemon tea is very refreshing and thirst-quenching.
Where to start? Fifteen years ago this wouldn’t have made an entry in a blog like this except to say ‘take spare batteries for your GPS device’. But, our lives have become so entwined with technology that we now carry about all manner of energy hungry devices. I’d say, at least a fifth of my weight is due to electronics. Here’s what needs charging:
Phone – iPhone X plus 6,000mAh battery case
Watch – Garmin Fenix 5X watch
GoPro Hero 6 video camera
MP3 Player – Sony Walkman
Headphones – Bose BlueTooth headphones
Keyboard – Logitech lightweight keyboard
A key issue is the energy budget and ensuring that you can either recharge these devices from a socket (not always possible) or from a portable battery. The latter needs to be kept topped up.
Most of the time we’ve had access to power in most places and a charge will last a good day. I have never run out of power on any device during the day.
Top tip: take a more powerful 2 pin 4 x USB port output charger (Anker make a good one) through which you can recharge all your devices quickly than a feeble lightweight two pin charger that takes longer. In some refuges and auberges there’s a lack of sockets, which can be hotly contested. Here’s my black Anker 4 port job mating with Richard’s multi socket thing to give us a total of 6 USB ports out of the only available socket in the Refuge de Chésery:
But, as insurance, I carry a 13,000mAh battery with two USB outlets. This is kept topped up using an Anker solar panel strapped to the back of the pack. It’s extra weight, but is efficient and sufficient to recharge all devices. It easily recharges itself during the following day’s walking.
If you bought 1:25,000 mapping for the the southern half of the GR5 from St. Gingolph to Nice/Menton, you’d need an extra pack to carry the 21 map sheets. This is clearly impractical.
Some GR5ers don’t bother with any nav aids and simply rely on guide books or sign posts. I’d never take a risk like that. In places the GR5 is poorly marked while in others it’s ambiguously marked.
Richard has a half-way solution – a set of maps that are a mix of 1;75,000 and 1:25,000. Even at the greater resolution of 1:25,000 these are insufficient to untangle the spaghetti-like track junctions that seem simple on a map but on the ground are complex and sometimes misleading.
I opted to go completely digital on my iPhone X. It has a large 256GB capacity. I use the Gaia GPS app (free) and for £40 I have have access to the mapping for the whole of France down to 1:12,000 resolution. At that resolution I downloaded the GR5 corridor into the phone before I left for Geneva (total memory consumption about 9GB). This means that the mapping is in the phone and completely independent of being online or having a mobile signal. It has been tremendously accurate and worked very well indeed. Below is a screen shot of what the display looks like.
And here’s one in real time taken as I write this next to a lake in a park in Briançon. The blue trace shows where our trek ended on Saturday at the Hotel de Paris, while the brown dart/arrowhead shows my location. If I have one complaint about this system it’s that it can sometimes be hard to see the arrow against the background colour of the map, particularly if it’s brown. I haven’t found a way of changing the arrow colour:
In hindsight, I’d advise anyone going down this route to take a spare device/phone with the mapping in it just in case your primary phone breaks, is stolen or is lost. Digital is great, but you need a back up.
As mentioned above, power for this device is critical. The phone is in it’s own 6,000mAh battery case which extends the phone’s life by 250%. I have never run out of power and have rarely had to switch on the spare battery. I guess I check my position every 10-15 mins so the phone is getting quite a lot of use. So far so good.
As with everything else, poles have also improved in design. I’m using lightweight Leki Vario Carbon poles. Cleverly they break down into four parts for easy stowage inside the rucksack when flying (they don’t allow sicks in the cabin) but are sturdy and robust enough on the hills.
Richard and I got over our ‘stick shame’ pretty early on and now use them on all uphill and downhill segments. They take a lot of the pressure off your knees going downhill, give you a boost uphill and are a massive aid to stability. I couldn’t imagine doing any of this without them.
Bits and Bobs
Inevitably, there are other bits and bobs to carry: passport; money, glasses, sunglasses, sun hats, sun/UV creams and lip protection, spare laces, head torch, knife, and all those little personal luxuries that keep life sweet: dried fruit, sweets, a lemon and the pork sausage that Geoffrey Grimmet gave me as a going away present!
And some emergency rations.
Kit and equipment are a personal matter. There are items that are critical to success and then there are those nice-to-haves that transform a walk like this from a Spartan military expedition into something rather more civilised and enjoyable. The degree of each is measured in the weight you are prepared to carry. If you risk-manage your hike correctly, you’ll inevitably carry gear that you may never use, or may use only once. But, to be caught out without it would be foolish. That’s just the way of it.
As a minimum you need: good reliable and solid footwear that will not let you down; suitable clothing and barriers to meet all weather conditions; something to sleep in; something to wear in the evenings; some way of keeping regularly hydrated; some means of maintaining personal hygiene and dealing with aches and pains; a means of navigating accurately; equipment to manage your power budget; some emergency rations and some luxuries…
…and a sense of humour!
The Clare e bellePosted at 16:26h, 27 August
Very impressive. I thoroughly enjoyed this darn good read… kit, kit, kit. At the risk of stating the obvious…where the bejeezus is lego Tatiana? Snuggled safely in the depths of the rucksack, or balancing precariously on top, to take in the scenery?
Milos StankovicPosted at 16:29h, 27 August
That is a very good question. She travels in my left shorts pocket and comes out regularly to admire the views. Best of both worlds.
The Clare e bellePosted at 16:30h, 27 August
Fab! And she’s probably working your legs, too! That’s why it’s such an easy jaunt!!!
Milos StankovicPosted at 16:33h, 27 August
You’ve rumbled me!