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TGO Challenge Gear System Review

Zpacks Cuben Fiber Backpack

Major Gear System Changes

I made some pretty big changes to my gear list for The Challenge this year, replacing leather boots with trail runners, swapping in an ultralight cuben fiber backpack, using chlorine dioxide tablets for water purification instead of a filter-based purifier, and carrying some new electronics.

All of these changes proved to be extremely successful across the Scottish terrain and I’ll be gradually working them into my core gear systems for hiking in New England.

Trail Runners

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Inov-8 – Terocs were a major factor in making my hike a success: I didn’t get one blister during the entire Challenge!!. In fact, I may completely give up leather boots for 3 season hiking. The Terrocs proved to be fantastic for fording streams and rivers, drying within an hour after immersion on a warm day. Plus, I didn’t experience any foot discomfort given my past history with plantar fasciitis. I think I’m a convert.

Pro-Tec ITB Compression Straps

Given the ITB problems I had last year in the 100 mile wilderness, I wasn’t going to take any chances on The Challenge and brought along two Pro-Tec Iliotibial Band Compression Straps which I wore coast-to-coast. They worked, but I could tell that I’d have had a problem if I hadn’t worn them all the time. The only issue I had with them was a heat rash that developed after a week of wear, but applying hydrocortisone cream to the affected areas reduced the irritation.

Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid Tarp Shelter

Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid

My cuben fiber Duomid is well on it’s way to becoming my primary spring, fall, and winter shelter. It withstood the ever present Scottish wind without any stability issues and provided a dry, comfortable shelter under heavy rain. While I did experience some internal condensation on humid nights, it has so much interior room for 1 person, that it is easy to avoid touching the interior walls.

One thing I will probably change going forward are the stakes I use. The 8″ Easton stakes worked well for the base tie-outs (I used 6) and gave good grip in poor soil. However, I had some problems with the Easton caps coming off and I may move to a notched stake instead.

I’ll be doing a detailed review of the Duomid in a week or so. I got a lot of experience setting it up on different types of terrain and there are some tricks worth knowing to get a perfect pitch. Plus, there are some limitations with this shelter that are worth knowing about, especially in hot weather.

Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy

I’m very pleased with the special mods I had made to this bivy sack by Ron Bell at MLD, including the bug netting and extra length options. I did have bugs on a few nights and having enclosed the netting ensured a very comfortable nights sleep. While I experienced very mild internal condensation on the top of my sleeping bag on one or two nights, this was easily dried during breakfast before putting the sleeping bag into its stuff sack.

For storage, I kept my NeoAir sleeping pad in the bivy and rolled the two together. That proved to be a good way to eliminate an extra stuff sack and made it easy to set my sleeping arrangements each night. My friend Quoddy suggested this.

Therm-a-rest NeoAir Sleeping Pad – Short

I switched from a 14 oz. regular size Thermarest Neoair Sleeping Pad to a 9 oz short-sized one  just before leaving for Scotland in order to shave some more weight from my pack. Unfortunately, this had some unexpected consequences which I’d rather not repeat.

As a side sleeper, my knees were unsupported at night because the pad only reached to the top of my thighs. This resulted in some knee pain because my knees were suspended out beyond the bottom of the pad without support. I mitigated this by stuffing all of my extra clothing each night under my legs in my bivy sack, but it wasn’t optimal. From now on, I’ll use the full length pad.

Hydration: Chlorine Dioxide Tablets and No Hose

I didn’t use a filter-based water purification system on The Challenge, opting instead to use Katadyn Micropur chlorine dioxide tablets. Some would argue that the water in Scotland is so pure that no filtration or purification is necessary, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Using chemicals like this was a big departure for me, but it provided a significant weight reduction, and waiting 30 minutes for the chemicals to react didn’t prove as inconvenient as I imagined it would be.

I also didn’t use a reservoir and hose system, using a recycled one liter water bottle (bought at the Dublin airport) instead. Remaining hydrated during the day without a hose proved to be less of a concern than I’d feared. I simply made a point to finish a liter of water every two hours.This worked very well for Scotland because there are so many streams and rivers along the way, that there is no need to carry more than one liter at time. I used a 2 liter reservoir in camp simply for convenience.

I’ll have to see how well carrying less water works in the eastern US, but I am encouraged by this experience.

Ultralight Camping Gear Blast 32 Backpack

I’m pretty sure that I was the only person on The Challenge this year with a 10 oz cuben fiber backpack. It certainly was a great conversation starter. The Zpacks Blast provided ample room for my gear and food and the side mesh pockets were, as always, invaluable for holding maps, my water bottle, Duomid and other odds and ends. That said, I payed very close attention to gear volume on this hike in order to use a lower capacity pack.

Given the damp conditions on The Challenge, I was glad that I’d seam sealed the base of the Blast to prevent moisture from leaking in on wet ground, but the fact that the cuben fiber is waterproof, meant no pack cover was needed in the rain.

The only complaint I have about the Blast are the shoulder straps, which proved a bit to narrow for a 20 lb load out including food and fuel. This wasn’t a problem when I’d eaten my pack weight down, but I did experience some discomfort after several high mileage days in a row when I was carrying a lot of food.

Spot 2 Satellite GPS Messenger

I used a SPOT on this hike to keep my wife and Challenge Control appraised of my health and location, sending an OK message every morning and evening during breakfast and dinner. This system worked well except for a 2 day window when I apparently entered a blind spot in the SPOT’s satellite coverage.

Despite that glitch, I liked the fact that the SPOT is only an outbound communication channel because it provided me with more privacy than a cell phone. I hate phones because they always interrupt something and I avoid turning them on during hikes for that reason. I’ll be doing a more detailed review soon. Overall this is a useful device, but the packaging and web interface could stand a lot of improvement.

Garmin Gecko 301 GPS

I’m not a big fan of electronic navigation, so it was a big departure from the norm for me to bring a refurbished Garmin Geko 301 GPS on my trip. This model is brilliant because it can display the OS grid coordinates needed for reading UK hiking maps.

I used it in the most minimal way imaginable, to get an occasional position fix, and to record the location of good future camp sites.

The Geko proved to be a very worthwhile 3 oz and I’ll bring it on future long distances hikes that don’t run along well defined trail corridors and for bushwhacking back home.

Ultralight Camping Gear

Unnecessary Gubbage

I brought a bunch of crap along that I just didn’t need and which added some unnecessary weight to my kit. Chock these up to lessons learned.

  • I didn’t used the DEET I brought. I need to repackage it and bring 0.5 oz instead of 2 oz.
  • My head torch proved unnecessary. I don’t think I ever saw the black of night during the entire hike. Daylight hours are so long during this time of year that I should have brought along a tiny photon light instead.
  • I never needed to recharge my phone (no service) or camera batteries. In the future, I will leave both device chargers and the UK power adapter behind.
  • I brought a large Loksak as a map case and opted instead to roll up my map and keep it in my Rab shell pocket like I do back home. Not my thing.
  • I brought and resupplied way to many extra lithium batteries. Next time bring four, tops. I only used two.
  • I never used the 12 oz Katoohla Microspikes that I’d brought for my day 2 ascent and ended up discarding them in Fort Augustus rather than carrying them another 140 miles.
  • I carried a full pound of OS maps coast to coast. There’s no need for that – I should have posted them to Challenge Control along the way.


  1. looking forward to your review of the Duomid as a possible near future purchase.

    ps… hi :)

    (found your blog a few weeks ago while researching gear for my own walk I was planning at the time, from Inverness to the Isle of Skye.. looks like I was only a glen away from you at one point, behind the munro of Mam Sodhail)

    great blog and good reading…

  2. Welcome. I expect the duomid article next week, so stay tuned. Love your landscape series on flicr. Are all of the pictures from Scotland?

  3. How much strong wind and rain did you get? How would that have effected your kit choice over say four days out in the hills? Glad the kit choice worked out well.

  4. Rather than my hunting down and rereading your big diary posts; did you wear gaiters with your trail runners? I tend to gather lots of debris in low cut shoes so I prefer boots.

  5. I don't think I would have changed anything if I'd had bad weather. Actually, I had packed expecting it and wished it had been a lot cooler. I had a Montbell synthetic jacket with me and a capilene underlayer for nights and if it had gotten cold.

  6. "Love your landscape series on flicr. Are all of the pictures from Scotland?"

    Thanks very much. They are indeed, I am very fortunate to live pretty much in the middle of the Highlands :)

  7. My girlfriend and I both found the same problem with the NeoAir short. I think it depends on your height and where your knees hit though as a lot of people find it fine. We both switched to Regular models for lux trips.

  8. lost – I did wear MLD light snow gaiters. They were overkill, but they made me feel safer when walking though (poisonous) snake-filled heather. I didn't wear them at the end and didn't have issues with stones, but I was wearing long pants throughout.

  9. What did you have done to the MLD bivy? Was it the full net hood and extra length?

    I'm trying to fine-tune my sleeping set up, and had a nightmare battle with a Ptarmigan Bivy last night. There just wasn't enough room for me, my NeoAir and my clothes bag/pillow. Then the bug netting on it ripped.

    I was thinking of selling it and the NeoAir and replaceing them with a MLD Superlight and POE Ether Elite 6, but do you think there will be enough room for turning at night (I tend to roll around a lot)?

    I'd like the bigger netting on the Superlight, but I liked how the Ptarmigan could also be used with a more water resistant head cover. With the Superlight it seems to be one or the other.

  10. Hi Phil,

    I get the impression that you did not get any blisters on the 2010 GTO Challenge, in which you used the Inov-8 roclite 320 Trail Shoes in combination Rocky Gore-tex socks and Smartwool merino hiker liner socks.

    How did you use this system while on the trail?

    If you did not get blisters, what do you attribute this too? I have read that other people did get blisters on the 2010 GTO Challenge. If you did not get blisters, what were they doing different than you that caused them to get blisters?

    Could you hike in similar trail shoes with a merino hiker sock, get your feet wet, and still prevent blisters some how?

    If you do get a blister, what is the best way to deal with it so you can keep walking? And, what should one do to prevent them in the first place?

    As well, if one does not have the money to throw at Gore-tex socks, is there something durable they can improvise with and find for free, such as some type of plastic bag, that will last for awhile?

    Your thoughts and ideas on these questions are greatly appreciated.

    I am hoping to do some backpacking on the Bruce Trail in August.

    Thanks alot.

  11. That's right – no blisters.

    I used the gore-tex socks mainly when tromping through ice water or when I was feeling chilled. I don't carry them for summer hiking even when I'm walking through frigid stream water in the mountains because my feet warm right up after emerging from a stream.

    Other people get blisters on the TGO because they tend to wear shoes, and boots especially, that don't dry or that have hard internal walls. Blisters are caused by friction, so the harder your shoe, the greater your likelihood of getting a blister. You can mitigate this by breaking in your shoes/boots, or avoiding boots and leather altogether and hiking in a really soft shoe like the Terrocs.

    The other reason I didn't and don't get many blisters is because I have hard feet. Do a lot of hiking and the blisters stop happening.

    I honestly don't think that Gore-tex socks had anything to do with me not getting blisters. They provided a thermal barrier to ice cold snowmelt. I honestly could have gotten by just as well wearing two layers of sock liners.

    When I get a blister, and it does happen occasionally, I do one of two things. I cover it with duct tape to eliminate the friction. If it hasn't popped already, I don't pop it and let the fluid reabsorb back into the skin. If it has popped, I just cover it with duct tape, but mostly I don't get many blisters anymore.

    Hope that helps. Soft shoes – hard feet – and duct tape. That's the answer.

  12. There is probably a large degree of consistency to what you are saying, as far as people essentially not getting blisters is concerned, if they use soft shoes, and do hike alot. However, I was totally surprised that veteran ultralight hiker, Ray Jardine and his wife Jenny were getting a fair amount of blisters on their 2003 IUA Hike/Bike Trip, especially in relation to what you are saying regarding soft running type shoes and hiking alot.

    Ray to a large degree pioneered the use of lightweight, soft, low cut running shoes for ultralight hiking, or at least focused the attention of hikers on considering their use, and has tons of miles under his feet, so, you would think that he would not really be getting any blisters.

    Now, it does seem that this was essentially due to the shoes that they were wearing. In the article about this trip, Ray says they were wearing new soft shoes that were mesh, but that the mesh was a more open weave to some degree, so it was holey, so to speak, and that this allowed dirt and/or sand to get into the shoe through the open holes of the mesh.

    Now, he also says in the article that, clean feet when hiking, are happy, BLISTER FREE feet. If this is the case, and given his hard won knowledge over the years as an ultralight hiker, then I have to wonder, why on earth was he using this type of soft running shoe with a more open weave that let dirt/sand into his shoes, which then caused the blister issues for he and his wife? It does seem that it was in the interest of having a lighter shoe, and perhaps one that dried even quicker when it became wet, that he chose to go with this shoe.

    What are your thoughts as to why he and his wife were getting blisters in this case? And, what should he have done to not get them in the first place?

    Thanks alot.


    Eric Waymann

  13. I couldn't say. You'd ask to ask him.

  14. I note that you used a butane bottle stove and not an alcohol stove – what was your reasoning here? from what I have read alcohol stove/caldera is very efficient light and one can calculate alcohol use so you only carry what you need – given the number of towns you crossed (and where alcohol should have been available) – I'd be curious to understand your thought process as I consider getting/building an alcohol stove/caldera


  15. Laziness. I hate priming alcohol stoves. On hindsight, alcohol would have been a better choice.

  16. I agree with you're choices or re-choices on the challenge, by the way I have never used any kind of water filtration or tablets of any kind in 40yrs of backpacking….I.always drink straight from the stream/brook /river/burn.

    I have hiked in switzerland, italian alps, french alps every year for last ten years and had "the runs" twice there even though the water is suposed to be the cleanest in the world…it probobly is if you get a good source (most of the time) but filling up rom water troughs 20 times a day. I never carry water, or maybe a small bottle in side pocket. but uk fine for me at least!!!

    I have a funny story when I started 14yrs old with a group of friends, we drank straight from a river in the low lands less than 1000ft. in yorkshire dales, north England. but only ONE of my friends added purification tablets…and he was the only one ILL !!!

    I'm a great believer in not being too "obsessed" with hermetically sealed lives, you go to India and the first day you are there you will get "Delhi belly" but the locals will laugh at you…as they have never had it !

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