Solo gear set-up for the South Downs Way

In a few weeks times I’ll hopefully be setting off to do the South Downs Way (SDW), and for the first time, I’ll be hiking and camping a trail solo. This is partly because Barry is too constrained by work at the moment, and also, I am interested in what it will be like to walk and camp alone for several consecutive days. I already walk alone at lot anyway, and have camped solo before too, so walking for 5 days on the SDW is really just an extension of that. Mostly on the SDW I plan to use small, rural campsites en-route, with some wild-camping if there is the opportunity. Sometimes it will not always be possible for Barry and I to hike together and it is not always the right thing to do either. There are some trails I want to do that he is not so keen on, I also tend to want to go hiking more often than him, so it makes sense to strike out alone this time as a trial before doing anything further afield. Solo hiking is a very different experience from walking as a couple, and both ways have their pros and cons, Barry and I certainly have more trails planned together, but the chance to walk solo will be a new adventure for me in other ways. I should also say that my claims to walking the SDW alone are not entirely true as I will have a Jack Russell for company.

In this post I am going to provide a run-down of my gear set-up for solo hiking, in addition to some key changes I’ve made since last year. Keeping gear weight low is perhaps more important and harder as a solo hiker, because I will have to take certain items that might otherwise be shared between the pair of us. On the other hand, I tend to be more disciplined than Barry when it comes to what I take, and am prepared to go more minimalist, so believe that this will help balance things out. I will talk more about where I am making these weight savings below. As I mentioned in my previous post ‘learning to go lightweight‘, my pack base-weight is getting ever lighter as I make refinements and gain in confidence, and on the SDW I will be walking as close to ultralight as I ever have. I am slightly amazed by this, as a couple of years ago I couldn’t see how on earth it was achievable. The gear set-up I take on the SDW will be equally applicable to longer, remoter hikes too, and I am very glad that by closing in on my ultralight target, I can look forward to walking with less strain on joints and with more energy to enjoy what I see and experience.

sologear57My solo gear system, with a current base-weight of 6.2kg.

My solo system has a lot of similarities with our shared set-up, so in this post I am only going to deal with my shelter, carrying and cook system, as these have either been changed recently or are the most modified for solo use.  A full gear list is here.

Shelter System:

This will involve the biggest change from our shelter as a couple, because at 1.6kg, the Hubba Hubba tent is rather too heavy and big for solo needs. With this in mind, I recently bought a DD Superlight Tarp, which at 460g offers a lot of protection and flexibility for its weight. A tarp is not a substitute for a proper tent in all circumstances, I would probably always choose to take the Hubba Hubba on longer hikes with Barry, and always appreciate the protection and comfort it offers us. By contrast, a tarp is effectively just a flysheet, and along with potential for more drafts, also does not provide bug protection- so tarp-camping in Scotland in midge season is a out of the question for example!  However, since I’m not ready to consider a ‘proper’ lightweight solo tent yet, using a tarp is a cost effective solution that will enable me to keep my pack-weight low and also develop a new set of camping skills.

I have long been interested in tarp-camping, having seen other hikers use them so elegantly, but have never had the confidence or impetus to go that minimalist before. This minimalism does allow a hiker to reap big rewards in weight saving, mainly because tarps dispose of an inner net and groundsheet and use trekking poles (or sticks/trees etc) as a support. This ability to use my trekking poles as ‘tent poles’ is very appealing and very much in line with the ultralight mantra of multi-functionality. I also like the sense of being more connected with the environment and having more visibility around me.

tarpsize07The DD 3 x 2.9m Superlight Tarp, a compact little bundle and an amazing amount of shelter for its weight. The tarp comes in various colours, but I chose ‘coyote brown’ for maximum stealth!

Being a more minimalist camping solution, I would say that tarps take more experience/skill to use effectively, which is one of the reasons why I am testing mine locally on the SDW before deciding to take it on longer trips. If I don’t like it in the end, it will still be an ideal, and very subtle overnight shelter for wild-camping in the UK countryside where a tent can be too obvious. I chose the 3 x 2.9m double tarp because, as a beginner, it offers me more material to work with to create more protective designs, and also gives flexibility to shelter two people when Barry joins me. Smaller solo tarps are often only viable with a bivvy bag to protect the sleeping bag from damp/dew/rain. So, to avoid the extra weight of a bivvy bag, the larger tarp should ensure I stay dry inside, as long as the pitch designs I use are roomy enough.  The necessity for this internal roominess has another function also, namely to stop my sleeping bag or gear from touching the inside of the tarp where condensation could make them damp. At all times I will be using the tarp with a ground sheet, but again need to select a spot carefully to ensure water does not ‘pool’ and/or run underneath it.

tarpgear8This is all I need for my shelter system: Two trekking poles, a 3×2.9m tarp, 10 pegs, 4 guylines, 2 carabiners and a polycro groundsheet. I could add more guylines and tie-outs if I wanted more choice of tarp configuration. My groundsheet is an ultralight sheet of polycro. This featherlite, but deceptively strong material, is actually the stuff used as a film to add extra insulation to window glass!

There are potentially hundreds of ways a tarp can be rigged, and this is one of the attractions, inasmuch as I can choose the best pitch for a given set of conditions. The 3×2.9m model also allows me the flexibility to ‘build’ more enclosed configurations too, which are much more like a tent in the protection that they offer. In most configurations though, a tarp is less protective than a tent, and the user has to be attuned to conditions, such as rain (or the potential of rain), wind direction and speed to determine the best pitch and orientation. Moreover, tarp users must also be prepared and able to modify the pitch if the weather changes. Getting a tarp pitch right requires practice, and I have spent a few days experimenting with different options, watching videos on YouTube to see how its done and drawing sketch diagrams to help me remember them! My plan is to have 4 – 5 configurations that I can pitch quickly and well, and then have this choice to hand when deciding on the best shelter for a particular night.  One factor to bear in mind is that tarps do not have ventilation flaps in the same way a tent does, so condensation on the inside of the flysheet can be a problem if the design is too enclosed. For this reason, I will mainly select designs that have at least one open side, with perhaps one option for a fully enclosed shelter if the weather turns really bad.

Below are a series of photos from my trial and (much) error pitching practice. The DD tarp is excellent in that it has 19 attachment points distributed around the edge and along a central ridge-line. Trekking poles act as the supports, although trees and other things in the environment can also be used to tie onto to create lift. Finally, the central ridge attachment points are reinforced underneath, which allows a trekking pole to be extended within the tarp to create lift from below.

tarpdesign2One of my favourite pitches (and I think Oscar likes it too…)- protected from the wind on two sides and open at the front. Inside there is plenty of space to lie full length and enough width to spread out. Gear can be stored at the far left end to block any extra drafts. I’ve seen this pitch used by solo hikers and love the way it keeps you in touch with the surroundings. 

tarpdesign4This is another simple, solo pitch, low profile (so no sitting room), but more protection if there is heavy rain, and plenty of length and width underneath to sleep comfortably and store gear as well.  Oscar was bemused at all this strange activity…and, being a creature of comfort, won’t be happy when he finds out he’s sleeping under there with me!

tarp837A low profile pitch with lots of internal space to spread out. It can be pegged down on two sides to block drafts. If orientated away from the the wind and rain, it should provide fairly comprehensive protection. 

tarp753Probably the strongest, most protected pitch of the ones I tried, using two poles inside as support to create lots of internal space for 2 people and gear.

tarpdesigq6Not pegged-out and tensioned properly in this picture, but done right,this pitch provides good stability, wind-proofing and enormous internal space- comfortable enough for two people (with sitting height) and gear storage. When Barry and I hike together with a tarp, we’ll use this model often.

Load Carrying:

I have recently downsized to an Osprey Exos 48L pack, replacing my 58L version that I have done all our hikes with so far. I can’t really fault the Exos model on comfort, weight or features, it is a superb pack and great value. Both our 58L packs are getting a bit worn, and with our ever lighter/more compact gear, I was ready to drop 10L in capacity and make further weight savings on the pack itself. This frees up my old pack as a spare for Barry when he needs it. Taking the Exos 48L out for a ‘test drive’ at Easter, fully loaded with camping gear and food, I was surprised at how much space was still left in the main compartment. This bodes well for future hikes when I/we may need to carry more food and or pack additional layers of clothing. You might notice the foam pad tied to the bottom of the pack in the picture below. This is a cut-up section of a Thermarest Z-lite sleeping mat. Having a little square of foam to sit on when taking a break or sitting around camp is such a luxury compared to the hard/cold/dusty ground, and I would not go without a piece now.

exos482734The Exos 48 fully packed for our Easter camping trip. 

Cook System:

Instead of taking a cooking pan and the titanium MytiMug as we do as a couple, I’ll just be taking the MytiMug, which, at 650ml, is adequate for solo use as a cup and a ‘saucepan’. Mostly I’ll be heating water to re-hydrate couscous, or boiling noodles, and have the option of eating these straight out of the mug itself. Once cleaned, the mug can also be used for boiling water, brewing and then drinking tea out of, so it really is a one-stop-shop for my cooking needs. I’ll pair the mug with an ever reliable titanium ‘spork’ and a small plastic pot (the bottom cut off a Smartwater bottle) to pre-mix milk power in.

solocookset736A simple, reliable and multi-functional set-up that will fulfill all my SDW cooking needs.

The stove I’ll use is the new MSR Pocket Rocket 2 (PR2), which combines the lighter weight and compactness of the Micro Rocket at the lower price of the classic Pocket Rocket (both of which have now been discontinued). This little stove lives up to its name and delivers a powerful flame and good spread of heat beneath the pan, along with a wide and stable pot stand and a bigger heat control. For me, this makes the PR2 a stove well suited to both solo and duo hiking. Most of all though, I like the fact that it folds away much smaller than the older Pocket Rocket and can be stowed neatly inside the MytiMug. I carry a small sponge for cleaning and a microfibre towl as part of my cook-kit, the latter to wrap the stove in, as the mug can be damp after use- it also prevents the whole thing from rattling! Lastly I use an aluminium windshield, which makes for more fuel-efficient cooking.

rocket29The MSR Pocket Rocket 2. A powerful, stable stove that folds up into the palm of my hand. 

So, that’s a review of my solo gear for the SDW, I hope to post more thoughts about this hike in the next few weeks. Although the SDW is not a remote or technically difficult trail, the way I plan to walk it will challenge me in new ways. This potential to keep learning is one of the things I find so fulfilling about long distance hiking, and I look forward to exploring new directions that it can take me in.

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