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Activity Guide: Backpacking
We’re of the firm opinion that there’s nowhere you can’t backpack – including the moon if you can fix it to get there; just look at those pics of Neil Armstrong backpacking across the craters. So, here we’re sticking to a few classic routes together with a hardcore definition and some essentialtips.
Inspired architecture, a heavenly bit of peace and quiet and the chance to see and experience ancient traditions still being practised today are just a few of the potential highlights of a classic backpacking trek. You don’t have to be religious but it’s surprising how many are rooted in religious history. Truth is, whether you’re a devotee or a not-really-sure, if you do manage to score some divine one-on-one time communing with the big guy in the sky, well that would be a bonus wouldn’t it?
Machu Picchu, Peru
Nowadays the only people who really count the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu as a pilgrimage site are, of course, wide-eyed travellers.
But one theory says the journey to Machu Picchu from Cusco could have been a ceremonial one for the Ancient Incans, who built the Inca Trail to Magli to prepare pilgrims for entry into Machu Picchu.
The final leg would have been a climb up the steps to the Intihuatana stone, the highest spot in the main ruins.
India spoils you for choice with its many sites, from the Taj Mahal to the stone carvings of Mumbai’s Elephanta caves.
And the Lotus Temple in Delhi is definitely one to stick on your must-see list. A Bahá’í House of Worship, it welcomes people of any or no faith through its doors.
The temple doubles up as a learning centre, as there’s an information centre and library where you can read up on the monotheistic Bahá’í Faith.
The man, woman, animal or Wookie upstairs aside, this is a tremendous place to visit.
Inspired, obviously, by the lotus flower, its design features 27 free-standing marble petals arranged in clusters to form nine sides, which is a traditional feature of a Bahá’í temple.
Nine ponds surround the marble lotus, which makes it look like it’s floating on water, too.
The creative design has won the Lotus Temple countless architecture awards and other accolades for its dramatic illuminations at night – after dark, the curved petals are flooded with blue, gold and green light.
Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India, is supposed to be the site where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment and is considered the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site of all for followers.
Not only will a visit here get you up close and personal with the giant 82m Great Buddha Statue, but you’ll be in excellent company – both the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere have made pilgrimages here.
The Vatican, Italy
The Vatican’s website has a rather unsettling picture of His Holiness, surrounded by twinkling stars and reaching out as if to give you a sharp clip around the ear.
But don’t let that put you off a visit to Vatican City.
The Sistine Chapel’s ceilings are there to crane your neck at, as well as St Peter’s Basilica and the Apostolic Palace.
If you make it on a Sunday, you’ll probably get to catch a glimpse of the Pope, too.
Dome of the Rock, Israel
There’s no missing the iconic gleam of the golden Dome Of The Rock, which sits at the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, dominating the skyline.
A sacred site for varying reasons to many Jews, Muslims and Christians, it’s also one of the most vehemently disputed holy places in the world.
Not surprisingly, extremely strict rules apply to tourists wishing to visit the site, including restricted hours for different religions and a conservative dress code.
Backpacking – but not as you know it
The BMC (British Mountaineering Council) says backpacking is “not to be confused with what drunken twenty-somethings do”. It is,the Council says, “for walkers looking to take their first steps into walking far and sleeping wild”.
Okay, that’s us told. Now tell us more.
Here goes, it’s “the art of being self-contained, carrying everything you need to survive in the outdoors such as a tent, sleeping bag and food, while walking/cycling from one location to another on a multi-day journey through a natural landscape.”
Phew. At the heart of that rather exhaustive definition is the act of sleeping in the wild, away from the trappings of civilisation. This is the essential thrill and challenge of backpacking, but it can be a daunting prospect for beginners. Here are some tips to get you started.
It’s a good idea to not bite off more than you can chew at first. Start with small one or two night trips at weekends to get a feel for the pack, your gear and the experience of sleeping in the wild – and whether or not you actually like it.
Choose your gear carefully
Planning is often just as big a part of backpacking as the execution, and working out what gear you need to take is one of the most important things to get right. Honing your setup is something that takes time and you can’t expect to get everything perfect at first, but when starting out you can avoid some of the most common equipment-related pitfalls by thinking things through beforehand. How will I keep my gear dry? What items do I need backups for in case they fail? What if I have no phone signal? Try and strike a balance between leaving non-essential items behind and having enough to ensure comfort and safety. You can tweak this balance with experience.
Choose your route wisely
Another vital component of planning is your choice of route. When starting out it’s wise to keep things manageable; don’t choose some epic backcountry expedition with huge daily distances for your first trip. Remember what looks straightforward on a map in the comfort of your home may seem very different when you’re out there. Choose a route with civilisation close at hand as a backup and have plenty of ‘Plan Bs’ and escape routes to allow for a change in the weather, kit failures, emergencies or other unforeseen problems.
Don’t go it alone
When attempting something new in the outdoors, it’s often best to it attempt it with others, at least at first. Backpacking is no exception – companions give you company, moral support and backup kit in case yours fails.
Use blogs and expert advice
Backpacking, particularly of the lightweight and ultralight variety, has a cult following, and there are hundreds of blogs and websites out there run by people who live and breathe it. The depth of the enthusiasm – geekiness, to put it another way – of some of these folks can be intimidating, with detailed pack lists, equipment analysed down to the gram and thousands of words expended in the minute analysis of stoves and tents. But in the midst all this, there are many gems of wisdom to be found – don’t be afraid to wade in.
Don’t be afraid to experiment – but stick with what works for you
The world of backpacking gear is a big one. Gear companies range from huge brands to internet-only cottage companies, while the gear itself covers a spectrum from wooden-frame backpacks to ghostly cuben-fibre lightweight rucksacks, from hefty synthetic sleeping bags to lightweight down wonders. Most gear also comes in countless different shapes and sizes; stoves operate differently and run on different fuels, tents can be alloy or carbon, and most types of equipment run the gamut from relatively affordable to extremely expensive. A backpacking setup is something you can go on tinkering with endlessly, and what works for one person may be a completely different experience for another. Finding a balance between sticking with what works and keeping an open mind is another key part of the art of backpacking.
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Munro bagging in Scotland
To talk to some of the devoted guides and guided in the Highlands of Scotland and watch them come over all wet-eyed about the heather, the hills and the pipes, you’d think this was a religious experience.
For those unfamiliar with the perverse rituals of posh universities, bagging doesn’t mean pulling your trousers up. As in Munro bagging, it means collecting big Scottish hills.
The big hills - and there are 282 of them - are called Munros. Each is over 3,000 ft high, a condition of being called a Munro, and named after Sir Hugh Munro who first made a list of them in 1891. People (not all nerds) collect them, as in climb them, and tick them off the list.
The record holder for collecting the full set is a very non-nerdish bloke called Steven Fallon who has done the lot. 13 times. He just happens to run races up and down them too. By the way, if you think this allsounds a bit sedate, each year people die on these hills.
The most famous Munro is Ben Nevis but better, and quieter to begin your collection by bagging something like Beinn Sgulaird (it’s evidently quite common for Sassenachs to make up alternative names they can pronounce). Starting from sea level at the head of Loch Creran on Scotland’s craggy west coast, a rough track soon morphs into a faint path which gradually disappears into barren wilderness. No dramas, but the panorama expands dramatically with the islands of Mull, Jura and Arran coming into view.
There are a couple of 'minor summits' to hike over before reaching the Ben’s cairn (that’s the pointy pile of rocks that tell you you’re at the top). Get back by detouring up Creach Bheinn - a hill they call a Corbett which, being less than 3,000ft but more that 2,500ft, is a lesser beast than a Munro. It all takes about eight hours.
You can bag two in a day by tackling the Dalmally Horseshoe. From a lay-by on the A85 near the Cruachan hydro power station visitor centre (the power station itself is under the mountain), nip beneath the railway line and start up 'a steep' hill to reach the Cruachan Dam that holds the power station’s water. A leisurely walk around the reservoir later, aim up to Ben Cruachan's summit. One down.
Turn east next via 'some easy Grade 1 rock-scrambling', including a large smooth slab half the size of a house hanging at an acute angle looking out over not very much. Actually, it does have one hand hold. Then it’s towards Stob Daimh to bag the second Munro.
The big one is in Scotland’s most scenic glen, the often dark and broody Glencoe. This is Aonach Eagach. It means ‘the notched mountain’. And it’s where the mainland’s narrowest ridge connects two Munros. Once you’re on it, there’s no way off. No way off that you’d want to think about, that is.
The first summit is just 2,000ft and therefore no Munro. Nor, being a mere ‘Munro top’ (high enough, but too near a proper Munro to be a proper Munro), is the next peak, Am Bodach. There’s a scary view of a rock called the Chancellor and, yes, it looks as mean as its name suggests.
Head west along the crest to Munro number one, Meall Dearg, otherwise known as Red Hill or the hill of the brown underpants. As might equally well be the next two notorious pinnacles dubbed 'terror city' by Munro bagger and TV presenter Muriel Gray.
This stuff is not for the faint hearted although they say people with vertigo do bag Munros. It’s ‘only’ two kilometres between the Munro peaks but it takes a good two hours to the second of them, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.
Eventually, ‘home’ via the road that’s a good three kilometres from the car park, is 900 metres down a sharp screed wall that “will be okay if you treat it like an escalator moving under your feet - just go with it”.
With backpacking, of whatever sort, being the most fun, sometimes tough, way to travel, here’s a list of backpacking essentials, products that'll make your life on the road easier and safer.
Here are the top 10 best travelling essentials, gadgets and products no backpacker can be without.
Compression base layer
You've no doubt seen your favourite sportsperson wearing one of these performance-enhancing compression 'base layers' on the box, but big travellers have discovered another use for them: If you slip one on just prior to your flight they can do wonders in alleviating post-flight malaise. Some travel journos we spoke to say they always feel ten times better after a long flight if they've worn one. We've no idea how it works, but it does.
Backpacking can involved some pretty rough and intense journeys, be it train, coach or boat, a person can only tolerate so much I-Spy. Try the Belkin headphone splitters, allowing more than one pair of headphones to listen to your device means you can share your music and movies with a friend, making the voyage that much more bearable.
Water filter bottle
Water can be incredibly expensive abroad, and just in case you’re on a budget and the H20 isn’t safe, then try The Travel Tap. A simple bottle that filters any debris, disease and bacteria from the liquid. It uses the same technology as most aid agencies and peacekeeping forces around the world, and has been tested in everything from lakes to horse troughs!
Don’t be fooled by the fact that these are mostly used to dry cars. They are incredibly absorbent Chamois leather towels, that dry almost instantly, and are so easy to roll up and store. Very popular amongst campers and travellers at the moment so grab yours for this summer.
Travelling can be messy, especially hopping from one train to the next, and running through busy cities with backpack strapped on. Hand sanitizer is a must. All sorts can be contracted through not having clean hands, particularly as a traveller because using the public toilets will become necessity.
Safety when it comes to your essentials is very important. A money belt or bum bag will lie flat under your clothing, allowing items such as passports and currency to stay hidden away. Perfect if you are on overnight trains when sleep is needed!
Backpacking is an incredible experience, and a journal is an ideal way to capture that. You could write a diary of your experience, or perhaps do some sketches when lying at the beach, but they are also perfect for before you leave, writing down contact details and phone numbers for family, friends, and for anyone you meet on route. Moleskine notebooks are durable and just the right size for a trip.
It is pointless to take an expensive and complicated phone abroad. If you need internet, most hostels will have computers for you to use, so invest in a cheap phone that if broken, won’t cause your bank account pain. It is easier as the charge lasts longer and they are far more durable.
Laundry when travelling is expensive, and messy if you pack your own detergent and a leak occurs. These laundry papers are simple, and come in a compact case. They are ideal for washing underwear, socks and smaller items of clothing on the road.
Travelling door lock
Be it your hostel hasn’t provided enough security while you’re sleeping, or you won’t be doing any sleeping that night but you don’t want your roomie bursting in on an awkward situation. The Instant Door Lock is just the thing, it is easy to use and adds the extra safety you need.