Does a Yeti * in the woods?

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Well no, usually in the mountains as it happens.

Going to the toilet outside “properly” (as my dad used to call it) is either one of the highlights or one of the worst parts of a trip. If circumstances and your body allow, you can enjoy a quiet moment, able to do nothing more than stare at some amazing scenery and really feel connected to nature. On the other hand, waking up in at tent with the runs in the middle of a storm is “character building” at best.

There is a lot of advice on this subject out there on the web from how to avoid having to carry toilet paper, to how to avoid getting ill after doing it. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has a very good page that’s well worth reading. So I’m not going to spend time repeating too many details.

In essence, find a spot that’s as far from a watercourse as you can but a minimum of 30 metres (100 feet) and dig a hole. Make sure it’s between 10 and 15 cms deep (4-6″). Deep enough to stay put. Shallow enough to have enough air to rot quickly. Then either burn or pack-out your paper.

Of course, only burn as long as there is NO risk of fire, so basically only if the ground and the vegetation is wet. Remember that peat is burnt as a fuel and even though it might be cold and overcast, the wind-blown grass may be tinder dry. Overall, unless you’re certain everything is wet, do not burn.

Replace the soil, re-plant the plug of vegetation you removed and wash your hands!

There are also some special techniques for particular areas, from smearing on to a rock in some desert areas to bagging it and removing it in many mountain areas including, the winter Cairngorms.

But, as ever, I want to concentrate on the gear.

The “gear” for going to the toilet in the mountains can be very simple. The easiest thing to use is a garden spade, as found outside any good Bothy. Especially if you’re in a hurry.

However there are some lighter options.

For anyone that wants something nearly as efficient as a spade, the u-dig-it trowel is apparently very good. But Bob and Rose have managed to source something far lighter and apparently also very easy to use. I notice the amazing Roger Caffin has decided it’s still too heavy and cut it down further.

I found a very light and dual-use alternative mentioned on a forum some time ago (I can’t recall where). It’s an MSR Blizzard Stake, used for holding down tents in snow.

MSR Blizzard Stake as Toilet Trowel-Attached to bag With a handle made from duck tape. Hence the dual-use, the handle is also my roll of duck tape. I glued a tiny bit of cork in the gap to stop mud working its way up.

The stake weighs in at only 25 grams. Enough gaffer to get a reasonably comfortable handle only puts another 25 grams on it. It’s not the most elegant looking thing and the above mentioned trowels are almost certainly easier to use but it’s worked well for a couple of years now.

MSR Blizzard Stake as Toilet Trowel-Showing cork to stop mud

Then of course there’s the paper. It’s best to sort this out so that it’s completely grab-able before you need it since you’ll have enough to do with trying to stay upright and stop everything blowing around. I’d even go to the extent of pulling it off the roll and folding it, ready torn to length, into a resealable bag. That way you can avoid the whole roll getting wet in a downpour.

On shorter trips, I like “travel tissues”, the sort that come in fives in little plastic bags. Also when looking for a suitable spot – grab a stone to stop everything blowing away. Chasing toilet paper with your trousers around your ankles might be fine for a bad sitcom but in real life it could result in a highly inconvenient sprain.

As the phrase goes; “Now, wash your hands”

Again, some forward thinking regarding getting a bottle or Platypus set-up just right before hand so you can do it one-handed (you’ll know which hand!). Or better still, have your friend briefed and waiting for your return with a water bottle primed.

But using plain water won’t do the job properly by any means.

Some people carry alcohol based gel (better for the environment than something based on some other sanitiser) and in lab tests, alcohol based gels do a better job of killing pathogens than soap and water. But in actual use, soap and water is far more effective. At least according to research mentioned in an excellent article in TGO June 08 by the always fascinating Eddy Meechan. In it he also outlined the use of a water-pistol and a surgical glove as a way to avoid using toilet paper altogether – as I said – fascinating!

A bar of soap might appear to be lighter, but it’s hard to stop it turning to mush, it’s prone to becoming full of bacteria and you often don’t need that much. So a concentrated liquid soap is the way to go.

It will probably come as no surprise that I now use Dr Bronner’s. It’s very concentrated and environmentally friendly in production and use. The bizarre rantings on the label gave me pause for thought but it seems that Bronner was just a very eccentric guy with an incredible knack for making soap. You can find it on-line but a visit to the local health-food shop will probably turn up a bottle. Like most, I prefer the peppermint.

So a mini bottle of that for weekends and a larger one for longer trips and you’re done!

Some Thoughts On Sleeping Bags

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One thing I seem to get asked about a lot is sleeping bags. I suppose that’s inevitable, I’m a well known kit-junkie and apart from a tent and a pack they’re the most expensive items most people carry.

The trouble is, for that same reason, I’ve not got that many! Well okay technically I have four. But for ten years of buying proper bags it’s quite restrained (I’m discounting ones bought for LB and of course all the earlier ones as not worth thinking about!)

So, more than any other posting this is “in my opinion” and it’s one that I’m hoping won’t cause a ruckus…

So, if I was buying a bag, what would I buy?

PHD, Peter Hutchinson Designs. As far as I’m concerned they make the best bags. Others are very, very comparable. Rab look excellent. I hear very good things indeed about Western Mountaineering and Montbell. There are others that you may think even better (that’s what the comments section is for!). But from what I’ve actually seen and used it’s PHD for me.

The Hispar range for winter (LB has one of the 800 fill power ones they used to make before getting the amazing 900FP down) and the minimus for summer.

We both have minimus bags. They worked fine with it just above freezing on a weekend in snowy Snowdonia as long was we wore duvet jackets and extra clothes (I have a PHD minimus – top class jacket). The bags certainly wouldn’t have been enough on their own. The alternative was to take LB’s Hispar and my ME Iceline. They are both wonderfully warm (rated to -30C) but they’re also bulky and quite heavy so we were very glad that particular experiment worked out.

If money is an issue – try the Alpkit Pipedreams. But for me, not the Skyehigh range – less lofty down makes them heavy. In fact beware of any down below 750 fill power – it’s false economy in my opinion (more on that below).

Okay so here’s the potentially controversial bit: I reckon with Alpkit you get a good 90% of what you’ll see from PHD. I feel rather sad to see PHD so undercut but maybe I’m being silly about that and I should just accept that it’s the commercial reality of the situation. I’d better make clear that I do like Alpkit and have a lot of respect for the guys that run it. And I know of at least five bags bought from them as a result of my recommendation! And for balance; I know of at least that many from PHD too.

So, Alpkit, very good but I’d always go for the PHD option for the main summer and winter bags.

Bear in mind that a down bag has an expected life of around 25 years+ so any expense now can be amortised across that time. Conversely any expense spared now you’ll pay for in terms of weight carried for many, many, many days. In ten years will you really look back and think “I’m glad I saved that £100”?

Of course, with technology improving all the time, who’s to say we won’t all be using helium filled synthetic bags weighing a few tens of grams in ten years? For now, I’m assuming not.

There are tons of others out there – you can spend days making a sleeping bag choice! These are just the ones that I’d consider personally.