I first put on a backpack and boots proper at about the age of 16 and walked the South Downs Way with a couple of friends. This was then called hiking, and the equipment was either rubbish and likely to fall apart or incredibly durable with a weight to match. My very first ill-prepared Long distance effort was a family affair walking a stretch of the South-West Coastal Path between Youth Hostels carrying too much in a metal framed, canvas Bergen rucksack that would have looked perfect in the movie The Heroes of Telemark or today in a retro shop in Shoreditch. My neck developed an acute ache after a few miles but I put up with it. Seeing basking sharks in the beautiful turquoise waters of Cornwall didn’t make up for the pain. I didn’t want to do this, not in this way, again.
A little older, wiser and still keen to get into the outdoors and endure everything Sussex could throw at me, I invested my minimal teenage savings for our South Downs adventure. I bought some proper kit. I didn’t know they were called the ‘big three’ but I realised that backpack, sleeping bag and tent were the key items for comfort and survival.
The first of the three was the now (and probably then) legendary Vango Force 10 Mk3 tent in more discreet green nylon which was a new innovation at the time, cutting the weight drastically over the cotton version, with the option of either single centre poles or super strong ‘A’ poles. I loved this thing and it could easily accommodate three adolescents and you could cook in it. It never occurred to me that I would ever do any camping without companions so it was ideal.
The second was my framed Cobmaster backpack. Ohhh… the joy. The frame was aluminium, the fabric light but durable, it had external pockets, padded straps and it even had a hipbelt. Plush heaven.
The third was was a feather filled sleeping bag, I think it was from Blacks and it did the job so much better than the nylon filled car camping beast that preceded it. It wasn’t very warm but it packed down so well.
I added to my wardrobe over the next couple of years. Was made waterproof with an unlined, yoked Barbour Durham jacket, with similar qualities to Fjallraven’s G1000 fabric jackets, which worked brilliantly. I was warmed by a thick woollen jumper, ex-army shirt, woolly bobble hat/balaclava and some tweedy gamekeeper pants bought on my first visit to the Cairngorms. Fleece had yet to make it into our household. The family Optimus 8R stove served well in all weathers, Army Cadet ‘DMS’ boots were replaced in error with Scarpa boots that were too stiff for walking and my foam sleeping mat did a fair job but I wouldn’t put up with it today. At College I traded my Vango tent for (I think) an early Mountain Equipment or Ultimate Equipment mountain tent. Erected as one, it had an orange fly coated on the outside, reflective silver on the inside, nesting poles and a fetching blue inner tent. I felt totally protected. I loved it. The feather bag was replaced by an ‘Ultimate’ sleeping bag which I still have. it lofts to 8 inches nearly 40 years on. I also traded up from the Cobmaster in 1980 to one of the Lowe Alpine Systems backpacks in bright blue and red Cordura base which offered two compartments separated by a vertical zip. Over engineered for my meanderings but the change was welcome in terms of comfort and load carrying, particularly as I think I was carrying 30 lb minimum on my first trip through the Lairig Ghru.
Then I started work and I gave or loaned nearly all my old kit to friends and family who found it useful as I stopped walking for pleasure. And they lost, further loaned or whatever and my kit was dispersed. I didn’t mind. In my early twenties I just had other things on my mind. Busy working it didn’t occur to me to get on the sleeper to Scotland or hitch to the moors as I regularly did while at College. There was so much to do.
I still have the sleeping bag and 8R. Would I take them with me on a trip today? No. Since re-discovering the joys of walking in the hills I have also discovered the absolute delight of lightweight gear. Being older and less able, lightweight technology has been a Godsend.