ViewRanger catches up with UK-based outdoor journalist and author Alex Roddie, a lover of Scottish wilderness, European backpacking adventures, and lightweight gear.
What is it you love about wilderness adventure?
It’s difficult to define, but for me, the radically different pace of life on the trail is a huge attraction. When you're travelling through remote country, you forget about the stresses and pressures of everyday life, and your schedule relaxes back to an older pace: getting up with the dawn, walking until dusk, and sleeping while it's dark. That simplicity is rarely to be found in our over-civilised world.
How easy is it to still find those wild places in the UK?
You have to know where to look, but it's surprisingly easy! Although there is no pristine wilderness in the UK, there's plenty of wild land. These places are usually to be found in the mountains, especially the Scottish Highlands. The Cairngorms, Knoydart, and the NW Highlands are all favourite locations for getting away from the crowds.
The time of year matters, too. A June walk in Great Langdale in the Lake District can feel quite unthreatening, with mild weather and other walkers everywhere. Take on the same ascent in January and you could be looking at full winter conditions and a far greater challenge. In winter I think far more of our upland places feel truly wild than in the summer.
Tell us about some of your most memorable adventures…
I've been walking and climbing in the British mountains for many years. Although I started out mainly as a climber (especially Scottish winter), since 2010 I've been gradually moving away from the vertical stuff and focusing more on long backpacking journeys. One of my most memorable adventures in recent years took place in 2015, when I hiked the 250-mile Cape Wrath Trail between Fort William and Cape Wrath in the far NW of Scotland. This is arguably Britain's toughest established long-distance hike, and although I walked it in June, I faced plenty of foul weather. Fortunately, many bothies dot the route and I often had the option of shelter if I needed it. Crossing Knoydart in a storm was certainly a memorable experience!
Since completing the CWT, I've hiked the Tour of Monte Rosa in the Alps – a 100-mile circumnavigation of Switzerland's highest peak, including a glacier crossing and a great deal of ascent and descent. This year I hiked 280 miles through Scotland, starting along the West Highland Way before striking east through the mountains towards Aviemore. I called the second part of this journey the Alder Trail, and hiked it for Trail magazine (the resulting article was published in the November 2016 issue). I also made my first visit to the Pyrenees this year.
As a freelance writer for British outdoor magazines, when I hike I'm in my office. I consider it a great privilege to be able to do what I love as part of my job.
What’s the next big trip you have planned?
Plans for 2017's big stomp are still up in the air. I like to do one international trip each year, and this time I'm considering a return to the Jotunheimen mountains in Norway, which I last visited in 2010.
Where did the inspiration for your outdoor fiction novels come from?
I wrote much of my mountain fiction during the years I lived in Glen Coe, between 2008 and 2010. At that time I was a committed winter climber and also a student of 19th century mountain literature. I fancied trying out the climbing techniques of the past, and in 2010 I completed several easy winter climbs with the standard Victorian hill gear: tweed coat, nailed boots, long ice axe, and a woolly jumper. It's a beautiful way of climbing but not entirely practical!
This experience, inspired by my literary interest in the period, led to me writing about some of the key climbers active in Scotland and the Alps during the 1890s (The Only Genuine Jones). A few years later, I wrote The Atholl Expedition, based on the Scottish geologist James Forbes, who visited the Atholl region in 1847 and – in my fictional version of events – got mixed up with a royal shooting party in Glen Tilt.
If you’re on a big backpacking trip, what are your most valuable bits of kit?
I've been steadily reducing pack weight over the last couple of years, so I try to only carry items that are absolutely essential. However, I'd have to say footwear. Poor footwear choice can break you on the trail, but the right shoes can make it feel as if you have wings on your feet. I hike in lightweight, fast-draining trail shoes in summer these days. It's surprising how far you can push them in cold and snowy conditions, too, although I still use big boots in winter.
My favourite item of gear is the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar: a unique shaped tarp, ideal for the British hills. It has a pentagonal design which, when pitched correctly, can withstand incredible winds. I've successfully used it in conditions that would have flattened tents I've owned in the past.
How long have you been using ViewRanger, and how does it enhance your adventures?
I've been using ViewRanger for over five years now. I first downloaded it when I had a Symbian phone, and it revolutionised both trip planning and navigation on the hill. Previously my experience of GPS was limited to very basic Garmin models, and although I still use a simple Garmin wrist GPS in winter, I wouldn't be without ViewRanger for most of the year. With careful preparation and the right experience, I've found that it can even replace the need for traditional map and compass much of the time. Although I would never venture onto the hill without having these items in my pack, these days they usually stay there and are not needed. It's a real time saver to be able to look down at a phone screen and see your exact location, rather than faffing about with bearings and grid references. I'm looking forward to trying out the new Skyline feature, too.
Although I don't foresee phone navigation completely supplanting traditional methods in the immediate future, ViewRanger makes an enormous difference to the speed and convenience of mountain navigation. You still need that baseline of navigation knowledge and experience, however – no phone app will ever replace the need for those skills!
If you could spend a day walking anywhere in the world, where would it be?
The Sierra Nevada in California, without a doubt. I love Scotland, but sometimes I yearn to visit somewhere a little drier...
Alex Roddie is a freelance editor, writer and photographer with a passion for Britain's wild places. He is a regular contributor to UKHillwalking, TGO magazine, and others. www.alexroddie.com
Download and follow Alex’s routes using ViewRanger, including the Tour of Monte Rosa and Haute Route des Pyrenees.