Sunday 2 October 2011


A recent statement by a fellow blogger gave me pause for thought. ( He is a man who stands apart from the majority of folk who pursue all things related to outdoor activities. Sir, I stand in amazement!  What is it that so fascinates many of us about gear?
My own interest stems from my studies in social history; plus which, it is interesting to hear of other peoples experience with outdoor equipment. One gentleman in London in the early 1900s spoke of having a tent made of Japanese silk and a bamboo pole, a meths stove and and a light cooking kit, his all up weight complete came in around six pounds in weight..
 In the Victorian period though, there where few working class people involved in any form of climbing, hill walking and so forth. The reason was simple, they where too busy working, there where no paid holidays; they worked long hours on low pay. Equipment was largely specialised and designed for men. It was considered a man's domain, women where considered too delicate. Mind, even then some people where experimenting with ultra light gear.  Women where supposed to remain at home, the ever faithful wife raising children while hubby went off to far flung climes to perform heroic deeds.  What a shock to the system when a few brave women bucked the trend and decided they too wanted to participate in these activities. Society was scandalised,  Opposition to their efforts was strong;  but these pioneers went ahead  breaking new ground for women in climbing and trekking activities.   Often they climbed in the clothes they had, long skirts that iced up in the ice and snow; they proved more resilient than anyone could imagine. Women climbing in trousers was considered scandalous and for a women to do so caused outrage and at times met with great hostility.
In many respects it was not until after the second world war that the working classes began to take up climbing and hiking, cycling and a range of other activities. A shift in social conditions, where responsible for this. Not that they had money to spend on equipment. The Craig Dhu lads for example, Glasgow ship workers, had a fearsome reputation. They made do with army surplus or old clothes adapted to their needs. Some stuff they  needed they made themselves in the shipyard workshops. They had no money but their passion for climbing was awesome.
Hiking and outdoor activities in general was not that well catered for by the retail trade. People adapted or made do with what they had. There was however, a large amount of army surplus equipment that was cheap and served the purpose. For a while I used an adapted combat jacket on the hill and my rucksack was a canvas ex army. Boots where leather, weighed an awful lot and took ages to break in. Items such as stoves where heavy duty; my first one was a Primus half pint paraffin, messy, paraffin had a habit of tainting everything. An alternative stove I had was an Optimus one third of a pint petrol. It self pressurised as it got hotter. There where reports of them blowing up, but I never had any problem. Mind, I can recall wandering in to a garage in the wilds of Scotland and asking if I could buy a pint of petrol. The  chap who operated the pump never even blinked; it took a bit of juggling but we managed to fill the fuel bottle with hardly a drop spilled. Gas was starting to make an appearance but they where heavy and bulky. Nylon was starting to appear on the market in the shape of such items as as the cagjack. My first tent though was Egyptian cotton, a heavy brute when wet. Clothing was largely wool pullovers and ventile anoracks. Fantastic but one once again heavy and took ages to dry when soaked. One winter on Snowdon mine froze and it was like wearing a suit of armour.
As the leisure industry took off, so equipment became lighter. The first faltering steps where by individuals who experimented and adapted with new materials. Climbers and walkers, who could not find what they required on the high street, began to design and manufacture equipment specific to their requirements. It was the start of a new era.
Over the course of the twentieth century the outdoor industry has burgeoned in to a major industry. Kit has radically altered, as prices reflect. Walk down Keswick high street in the middle of the summer season and anoraks  boots and rucksacks are de rigueur. How amazing it is to see folk with boots oh so clean, anoraks pristine and daysacks looking spotless!
Interestingly, as outdoor clothing and equipment has become readily available, churned out on a production line basis by business conglomerates; so a few folk have stepped aside from the main stream and setting up cottage industries and once again are producing specific equipment to specialised requirements. They have a dedicated following of people who prefer to purchase from them. It is hands on stuff, kit once again made by people who are know what they require, outdoor folk. Through the medium of the internet ideas can be shared world wide.
As for me, well, I am getting older, am no longer so capable of hauling around thirty or forty pounds on the hill. Having served my apprenticeship with a my fair share of leaky, heavyweight equipment, have tarped in the Scottish winter, froze in tiny tents on Snowden, bivi ied, survived an epic or two; possibly I have achieved a smidgen of knowledge. So, maybe I deserve a wee bit of comfort in my travels, gear reviews are of interest, they keep me in touch and though I cannot afford big money, I am always keen to see the latest developments in kit. Obsessional? Well maybe, but I am sure many folk will agree with me; it is part and parcel of being an outdoor enthusiast. Maybe, one day in the future, People will look at today's equipment and consider it heavy and obsolete?