River Crossings

On the Landmannalaugar To Thorsmork trail there are apparently many small crossings of watercourses. But there are also a couple of larger ones including one that may require waiting for a friendly vehicle if the bridge has washed out again.

I’ve never done anything much in the way of serious river crossings having always managed to avoid them outside of an ML course.

So for the last year or more I’ve been soaking up any knowledge I came across on the subject and thought I’d put it up here. If anyone has more to add I’d love to hear it.

The one thing that I do remember from my own experience becomes quickly and intuitively obvious; always aim for a point upstream of your entry point since that way the water is hitting your knees from the front. If it is catching them from behind it will tend to make them buckle.

But I only remembered that once I read the excellent Backpacker’s Handbook by Chris Townsend. Chris also mentioned Iceland specifically as an example of a trip where his route changed completely due to high water levels in rivers!

He advises stripping-off down to shorts and t-shirt where practical and putting your clothes in a waterproof bag. Zip off trousers are a good idea here unless, like us, you’re planning to take swimming kit for the hot pools (hmmm, maybe I should just use the zip-offs…).

It’s usually best to cross in a huddle, or in a sort of “conga line” with the strongest at the front, and preferably carrying a stick for support.

Also, find the widest spot as that will be shallowest and slowest. Don’t cross any white water!

The way you carry your rucksack is critical. Hip belt and chest strap must be undone or else they could hold you under, with the bag floating on-top of you. People have drowned in just that way.

Opinions vary on whether to also take off one shoulder strap. Chris advises keeping both on. I’d definitely use both since it would give far more load stability. The last thing you want is to instinctively move to balance a wayward pack and have that movement itself throw you off balance.

He also advises that since you’ll probably be cold on the other side, have some high carbohydrate (very sugary) snack ready since carbs are the quickest way to sort out hypothermia.

Crossing in bare feet is highly inadvisable. Stones and freezing-cold water make for an incredibly painful combination especially with the weight of a pack. As we found out a couple of years ago in the very far north of Sweden (I must post something on that one day…). It may also mean that you cannot feel that you are shredding your feet on sharp rocks.

One option is to take light shoes of some kind specifically for crossing and camp/hut use. Lighthiker, as ever, has come up with some very good options there. But with the amount of food we’ll be carrying, we don’t want to carry extra footwear. So we’ve decided to use Inov8 Terrocs only. Probably remove socks before crossing, possibly replacing with Sealskinz afterwards.

Of course the final option, other than turning back and trying another route, is to simply wait and let the waters subside. This can happen surprisingly soon after heavy rain and will scupper your itinerary less than a watery grave!

A GPS Cozy

I carry the little Garmin Geko 301 GPS unit mainly as a backup to the map and compass and partly to allow me to note any tricky-to-find wild camp sites. It’s very light at 87gms so I don’t begrudge the weight too much.

However the screen looks like it would be very easy to break and the on/off button very easy to accidentally press. Especially since I keep it in a silnylon stuffsac on the outside of the pack along with other things that I want to-hand like sunglasses and torch.

So I’ve constructed a very simple and very light “GPS cozy” from some duck tape, a little bit of foam sleeping mat and the side of a plastic bottle. It only weighs 14gms.

The plastic bottle is one of those square-sided Finish Dishwasher Cleaner containers. It’s purpose is partly to add more protection for the screen but mainly it’s to stop the foam being compressed into the on/off button thereby accidentally switching the unit on. Without the hard plastic to protect that button, it doesn’t take a great deal of pressure on the outside of the cozy to activate the switch.

Construction is fairly obvious from the pictures. You can just see the inset I’ve made so that cozy isn’t permanently pressing on the buttons. That inset also means that once the unit is slipped into the cozy, the buttons pop-up into the gap and therefore stop the cosy slipping back off again.

There’s also a chamfer cut along the front edge of the foam where the buttons first contact it as the Geko is slid inside. It’s the same principle as used on any door catch, a chamfer on the catch lets it slide back inside the door, only to pop back out once the door is closed.

To start off, you need to make a hoop of tape, just big enough for the GPS to slide into, with the sticky face outermost, with each end stuck to the foam/bottle-side. That then gets covered by a second layer of tape, sticky side in, that forms the outside face of the cosey. Trust me, it’s easier to see what I mean when you start playing around with it.

It might not be the slickest design ever but it’s very functional and has been shaken around in the pack for nearly two years now and is still in one piece. I’ve used the same technique to make a camera lens cozy that’s also worked rather well. Especially when I managed to drop the lens…

Inov8 Terrocs – Early impressions

If you live in England, Wales or Scotland, take a weekend walking in the Peak District. Whilst you’re there pop in to Outside in Hathersage and get Mike Pickwell (head of their footwear dept.) to fit you with a pair of Inov8 Terrocs.

They are the most amazingly comfortable, functional footwear. Always assuming they fit your shape of foot of course – but they are very soft and flexible so I expect they fit more than most.

You’ve probably heard of their lightness, their comfort, their ability to dry even after stream crossings. Well, from what I can tell from the last eight days we’ve had them on the hill everything you’ve heard is true.

Three of the Iceland crew have been wearing them; myself, LB and Kev. They also come in women’s specific fit which does actually seem to be a differently designed shoe. We tried them with Smartwool socks, up a clough scramble to get our feet nicely wet with the air temperature at only about 6C (43F) and water a couple of degrees less. Afterwards, everyone’s feet became warm, and eventually dry, as the day progressed and were never uncomfortable.

On a colder, wetter day we found that our feet didn’t dry. But reversing the route the next day with us all wearing Sealskinz socks instead of Smartwools we found it perfectly comfortable.

To me, they’re far preferable to an eVent or Gore Tex lined shoe since when a lined shoe leaks (and they will, one way or another) you are stuck with a plastic bag full of water on your foot, which generally refuses to dry.

Since we’re going to be crossing many small waterways in Iceland, their ability to dry is invaluable. I’ve tried crossing (very shallow!) glacial-melt barefoot and it’s not something I want to repeat. I’ve also looked at carrying sandals but I’d rather avoid the weight. These look to be a good solution. Combined with some waterproof Sealskinz if our feet get too cold, I think they’ll do everything we need.

Of course it’s early days so I can’t comment on their durability which I know Lighthiker had a slight problem with. I’m not expecting them to be as durable as a leather boot though and fortunately I think the price reflects that fairly well. They’re about two thirds of the price of a really sturdy pair of three season clumpers.

The most interesting thing about them is the way that they bend. Look at a normal pair of shoes or boots as you stand up on your toes. They’ll bend almost square across the shoe from side to side. But the Terrocs (and all Inov8 footwear apparently) have a deep groove which runs across the base of all your toes, where they join your foot. And that line is diagonal. So when you stand on your toes in the Terrocs they bend exactly where your toes bend. Which is actually a very odd feeling! We found that if you tried it whilst imagining you were barefoot it felt fine. Very interesting.
The picture on the left shows how the Terrocs bend naturally, across the top of the long bones of your foot. The picture on the right shows where a “normal” shoe bends. Notice how I’m having to grip the toe hard to force the Terrocs into bending there.

What was also interesting was that in the first day’s walking, I got a single, very sore quadriceps muscle. It was the one quad that’s weaker than the others and that I’ve been doing physio-advised exercises to strengthen (thanks Rachel!). The fact that just that one muscle was sore, and the rest weren’t suggests to me that my leg is working in a far more natural way whilst wearing them. With all the muscles doing their share of the work. Making less strain on the knees and more energy transmission into actually propelling me along. Since then we’ve all noticed that our feet seem to be tired in an “unusual” way. As if muscles in them have been working more than usual.

Whether it’s the weight, the improved bio-mechanics or both, we’ve found that we really fly along wearing these. We did a route recently that we’d done last year, whilst at a relatively similar level of fitness and we found it was far too short. We could have done it in half the time easily.

I’d been thinking of getting them last year but hadn’t found a shop where I could try them on. It was an interview with Mat Hazley that convinced me (not sure which one – one of Bob’s perhaps?). Initially he rejected them as too odd-feeling. But then he was sent a trial pair, free, by the owner of Inov8. Once he’d tried them on the trail rather than the shop floor he was convinced. He now says he wouldn’t wear anything else. I already know how he feels.

Are they the ultimate walking shoe? No. Such things only exist in the breathless, sticky dreams of marketing folk. But for the summer they’re certainly the best we’ve found.

The only question I have now is; why didn’t I get them last year?