How To Drive In Europe: The Basics

Ever wondered whether driving in Europe is different to driving at home? Are you planning a trip that will involve you driving in Europe? This article is an explanation of everything you need to know to drive safely in Europe (including the UK), broken down into key aspects so you can drive safely and confidently on your next European Road Trip.  This is very comprehensive but I’ve written it as concisely as possible from both my own experiences and research I’ve done to check current driving laws around Europe; I have this article saved to my computer to print out to take with me whenever I drive in Europe.  Feel free to do the same.

Contents:
Side of the Road,
Roundabouts,
Multi-Lane Roads,
Indicators and Overtaking,
Smoking in Vehicles,
Things You Need In Your Car,
Tolls and taxes,
Speed Limits,
Carrying Hazardous/Dangerous Items in Your Vehicle,
Further Reading.

 

Side of the road:

1. In Malta, Cyprus Ireland and the UK (excluding Gibraltar), you drive on the left.

2. Everywhere else you drive on the right.

Roundabouts:

Roundabouts are often used instead of traffic lights where roads intersect each other.

Where you drive on the left (in the UK etc):

Go around the roundabout in a clockwise manner. Always give way to oncoming traffic from the right hand side and ignore traffic on the left (unless it’s cutting you up in which case peep your horn at them to warn them of your presence). You can imagine most roundabouts as a complicated type of crossroads, and some of them have traffic lights on them as well. You indicate as you approach the roundabout to inform people that you are either not getting off the roundabout yet (indicate right, for right turns or straight ahead) or you indicate to inform people that you are getting off the roundabout at the very next exit (indicate left, for the very next left turn). If it’s busy and you are in the wrong lane, people will cut you up as you try to get off the roundabout so always check mirrors and blind spot before changing direction unexpectedly and position your car so other road users know you’re changing roundabout lanes before you pull out.

Where you drive on the right (in France etc):

Go around the roundabout in an anti-clockwise manner. Always give way to oncoming traffic from the left hand side and ignore traffic on the right (unless they’re cutting you up in which case slow down). To indicate, do so whilst you are on the roundabout (or two or three cars away from joining it) and indicate left (staying on the roundabout) or right (getting off the roundabout), EXCEPT in Slovenia where you only indicate to show when you’re leaving the roundabout. If it’s busy and you are in the wrong lane be aware people will cut you up as you try to get off the roundabout, so check your mirrors and blind spot before changing lane unexpectedly, and position your car so other road users know you’re changing roundabout lanes before you pull out.

Multi-Lane Roads:

Where you drive on the left (UK, Ireland etc):

Stay in the left hand lane until you need to overtake someone. If you are on a motorway (3 lanes or more) you may see big blue signs showing that the road is going to split into two new roads. When this is happening, pick the lane that follows the correct blue sign to where you are going. If in doubt, keeping right at a fork is usually to stay on the road you’re currently on. As soon as you are on the new road or as soon as you have passed the fork or new road split, return to the left hand lane if it’s safe to do so.

When overtaking, it’s good practice to pull back over to the left after you’ve overtaken, however, because other people don’t always do this, and because people don’t leave a sensible amount of space between themselves and the cars in front, it can sometimes be more efficient to stay in the right hand lane if you know you need to overtake again soon, because it can be very difficult to rejoin overtaking traffic once you’ve had to slow down. If you see a police car, pull into the left hand lane because it is now illegal to just drive in an overtaking lane (which is every lane apart from the left lane), although nothing’s changed in terms of how people drive because UK police don’t appear to be enforcing this OR the new law against tailgating.
In Ireland, there are a lot of elderly drivers but people seem to be more mellow and courteous on the road, so I always pull back to the left after overtaking although not everyone does. Ireland doesn’t seem to have the same horrific traffic congestion as the UK does, probably because people drive with courtesy and are more tolerant of mistakes (such as being in the wrong lane).

Where you drive on the right (France, Germany etc):

Stay in the right hand lane until you need to overtake someone. If you are on an Autoroute or Autobahn or Autostrada (freeway, motorway), the left hand lane is the overtaking lane. If you need to overtake someone, check your mirrors (especially in Germany where there’s no upper speed limits on some routes) and only pull out where there’s no-one approaching at speed – if someone’s passing you at 150 miles an hour and you’re pulling out at 60, it’s not going to end well for anyone. When you are done overtaking, pull back in, and remember to overtake EACH VEHICLE INDIVIDUALLY. In the UK people have a tendency to stay in the overtaking lane when they shouldn’t, because they can see another car ahead that they will want to overtake in a couple of minutes – in Europe, this can get you pulled over by the police, but not before a VW Kamper has tailgated you for a couple of miles flashing his lights at you to draw your attention to the fact that you’re in the wrong lane. Once you’re done overtaking, get out of the overtaking lane.

Near some European cities such as Florence (and Glasgow), there are now moments when you will either get corralled through the city on a motorway that avoids all the junctions, or you will be moved onto a motorway that HAS all the junctions. It is critically important here that you are aware a) how long you will be on a no-junction motorway and b) whether you will miss your exit. We didn’t understand the signs because the with-junctions motorway was signposted with suburbs of Florence (which should have been closer than our exit), and the without-junctions motorway was signposted with Milan, which was a VERY long way away compared to where our exit was. We were trying to get to Verona. We chose the Milan motorway, thinking the other was a ring road type system around Florence. Big mistake. We were shuttled 50km north of our starting point, all the time in slow moving traffic in 40 degree (Celsius) heat, with no air conditioning and a thick fog of petrol fumes surrounding us; we had realized as we passed the exit to the other motorway that we were on the wrong road. We then spent three hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling until we FINALLY reached the first exit off this road which was far, far beyond the exit we had needed. For the first forty minutes on the shuttle road, our road was directly alongside the road we should have taken, and there was no way to get to it. We had to turn around at the first exit 50km later, and then we had to sit through another two hours of traffic to get back to the place where we could turn around again to choose the correct road because it wasn’t reachable from the other side of the road. Many road signs in Italy make no sense and I would highly recommend you get a sat nav as well as a paper road map if you intend to drive in Italy (and don’t rely on the Google sat nav on your phone because a) you’ll wear your battery down by charging it and using it at the same time and b) it’s dependent on you getting a phone signal as well as a GPS one). The moral of the story here is to be aware of these shuttle roads (I don’t know if they have a fancy name) if you plan to drive anywhere in Europe.

Indicators and Overtaking:

In every European country, you must not overtake a school bus while it is stopped to let passengers on or off. In the former Eastern Bloc countries (such as Serbia) you may not overtake any buses that are stopped. Use your common sense – if the rest of the traffic has overtaken the bus, or if the bus is clearly stopped for a lunch break, it’s probably safe to overtake if you take care and do so slowly, so you don’t hit any pedestrians crossing in front of the bus.

On autoroutes/autobahns (motorways, freeways) some nationalities continue to indicate even after they’ve maneuvered, until they have pulled back into the right hand (non-overtaking) lane. This might seem strange to people who have driven in the UK where many high end cars (BMWs, Audis, Mercedes etc) don’t actually appear to be fitted with indicators since their drivers just pull out without warning. It is not compulsory to indicate with the expressive gusto of drivers from Luxembourg, but it is compulsory to use the correct indicators to inform other traffic that you are changing lane or turning.

On roundabouts in Slovenia, you do not indicate when entering a roundabout, you only indicate to show that you are leaving the roundabout.

Smoking in Vehicles:

It is now illegal to smoke in any vehicle where children are passengers in the UK.  It might be illegal to NOT smoke in any vehicle in Montenegro (joking; the UK one is true though).

Things you need in your car (by law):

Some things are needed everywhere in Europe, other things are needed only in one country. In general, the Eastern European countries require you to take more stuff than Western Europe. As far as enforcement goes, unless you get stopped by the police and your vehicle checked for some reason, you shouldn’t really have any problems, so if you’re a flexible good driver (as opposed to one who inflexibly follows every letter of the highway code regardless of situation) you will probably never need to prove these items are in your car.

The UK:

A spare wheel.

Most countries in Europe, including France, Germany, Austria, Spain and Scandinavia:

Warning triangle (always 2 in Spain, 2 in some other countries IF you’re towing a caravan)

Hi-Viz vest

First aid kit

Spare bulbs

A spare wheel

A bumper sticker showing which country you have driven from (eg. GB sticker) unless your registration plate states a country code on it.

Countries where it gets very cold and snowy, including Austria, Scandinavia and most of the former Eastern Bloc:

Your vehicle MUST be fitted with winter tyres, usually between October and March. Check each country’s requirement on the AA website before taking your vehicle.

Countries where it is very hot:

In Spain, most window tinting is illegal.

In most hot countries you are not allowed to carry spare petrol, but you are generally allowed to carry diesel.

Former Soviet-Bloc countries (Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Former Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Albania, Moldova, Montenegro, but not Greece):

These are the countries which will often check at the border whether your car has all the correct items, so if you’re travelling to or through any of the former USSR countries, you need to tick all the boxes because they still have a culture of bureaucracy at border checkpoints.

Spare bulbs,

Spare wheel (this must be the same size as the wheels fitted to the vehicle),

First Aid Kit,

Reflective Jacket,

Tow rope and tow bar (or loop e.g. on the Citroen Xsara Picasso),

Warning triangle (two if towing something),

Winter Tyres between November and April (with a minimum tread of 4mm, or 6mm in Ukraine),

Additionally, in all of the former Soviet Bloc countries, you must get the border control officer to certify in writing any damage to your car (dents and scrapes etc) before you enter the country, otherwise you may have serious problems when you try to leave. This is to prevent people from having accidents in these countries then fleeing without prosecution.

It is NOT compulsory to adjust your headlights from a left hand drive to right hand drive country (or vice versa) the laws all state that you must not DAZZLE oncoming traffic. Often this means a headlight adjustment but the law is clear it’s the dazzling that’s the problem, so dip your headlights enough and you will actually probably do a better job at not dazzling traffic than those people who incorrectly use the headlight adjustment stickers.

Tolls and Taxes:

Tolls:

Most freeway type roads (autostrada, autoroute etc) charge a toll.  The exceptions are Germany’s autobahns, which are currently free, and the countries which require you to pay road tax or a vignette.  Tolls in Italy are generally fairly reasonable (usually under E5 every 50-100 miles-ish) and tolls in France are utterly arbitrary (we paid E16 to drive 25 miles at one point and E3 to drive another 40 miles).  This is where buying a roadmap comes in handy – the one I had detailed which roads were toll and which were not, along with the location of the toll booths, so we knew which roads to avoid in France after getting robbed by a toll booth.  The map doesn’t tell you how much the tolls are, but most toll motorways have a non-toll smaller road running next to it which will take you longer, but won’t cost as much in tolls (whether this increases your fuel consumption is another matter).

On trying to enter Eastern European countries, I’ve heard of some drivers being charged a car washing fine for an official to throw a bucket of water over their car because it was too dirty to continue.  This was apparently in Slovenia, although it is definitely illegal to drive an unwashed car in Romania so budget for a car wash every so often.  Then you won’t get charged a E150 fee to enter any of these countries.

Car Tax or Vignettes:

The countries which charge longer term for you to use their roads are:

Austria (the road from Italy to Innsbruck still costs E9 on top of the vignette) which requires a relatively cheap vignette (pronounced vin-yet) which you can buy at petrol stations approaching the Austrian border (say: “eine vignette fur Osterreich bitte” to the clerk then how long you want it for.  “Funfzig tage” is fifteen days and “dreizig tage” gets you thirty days, sorry about my spelling for any native speakers).

Switzerland requires a vignette that in 2016 costs 40CHF (one Swiss Franc is usually worth roughly the same as the Canadian dollar on the exchange rate) and runs from 1st January to 31st December.  If you are travelling during January or December you might get ripped off.  They don’t do smaller units of tax in Switzerland.  According to the Swiss government website, non-EU citizens can buy Swiss road tax online here although I’d get it when approaching the Swiss border to be sure it arrives (and because that exchange rate on that website is very badly messed up).

The UK has a very complicated vehicle taxation and roadworthiness system that I’m not going to go into, because if you’re only there for less than 28 days you can ignore it completely and if you’re there for longer you can consult the British DVLA.

Speed Limits:

Speed limits are signposted very clearly everywhere in Europe, it’s really easy to follow the speed limit and we found there was a way to change the mileometer on the Picasso so it showed the speed in kph.  Germany has very clear speed limits except on the Autobahn, where there is no upper speed limit, only a suggested speed limit in adverse weather conditions.  This teaches you to look at the state of the road, the congestion, the road surface (e.g. is it icy, wet or dry) and use your own judgement.  If you lack this judgement, or if you’re a new driver, stick to 70-80 miles per hour and you’ll generally not be out of place amongst the traffic.  Remember, it’s illegal to take a slow moving vehicle on a motorway or freeway in most European countries so you MUST make an effort to keep up with the slowest moving flow of traffic on the road.

Carrying hazardous/dangerous items such as weapons in your vehicle:

Check the individual country’s requirement as it ranges from 100% legal to hold it whilst driving (swords in Poland) to 99.9% illegal to have it in the car (guns in Britain).  Each country has it’s own definition of what is hazardous or dangerous, just to complicate matters even more.

Further Reading

You may also want to check out these other articles I’ve written to help you drive in Europe and beyond:
Buying petrol in Europe
International Window Tinting Laws Around the World
Travel Money Guide a helpful article explaining how to access your money and what sort of money to take when travelling in Europe, including answering questions about working in Europe, using credit cards and ATM machines. Essential reading if you’re planning a European road trip or driving in Europe.

Coming soon:  Driving with your pets in Europe, and pet-transport laws.

Advertisements

How to Choose a DSLR Camera

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” 
― Dorothea Lange

Cameras are a complete minefield once you want to do more than take family holiday snaps.  I was really squinchy about spending money on an expensive DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera, and when mine arrived I was really excited to try it out, but I hated using it at first (I was terrified of breaking something) and it took me about 1,000 photos before I actually knew how to adjust the settings without having to take loads of sample pictures.  After a weeklong trip to Aberdeen, however, I was completely in love with the superior picture quality of the DSLR compared to my old Fuji Finepix-S Bridge Camera, and after a few months it became second nature to get the settings adjusted perfectly.

1. Identify your budget.

What can you reasonably afford to buy?  Are you looking for the cheapest thing that takes pictures (in which case you might like a bridge camera)?  Or are you making an investment in a potential future career?  Do you want something with all the features or do you just want the pictures to look like they weren’t taken on a cameraphone?

DSLR cameras start at around $399 for the Canon EOS Rebel T5 1200D which is an entry level DSLR and is missing a few features you might require (such as a lens), and prices go up to $3249 for the Canon EOS 5D Mark III which comes with one lens and is generally agreed by photographers to be the very best camera that Canon make.  On top of these costs you will need lenses which I will write a separate post on.

2. Identify what you’re going to use it for: video or stills?

Some cameras don’t do video or don’t do it well – some don’t have microphones, or don’t have a jack for your microphone to be attached.  The Canon EOS 600D, 650D and 700D are all good for Youtubing but some of the older DSLR cameras don’t record video at all, so would be a complete waste of money for a Youtuber, however, they still take great (not outstanding) photos so a secondhand older model could be excellent for a budding photographer who was strapped-for-cash.

3. Take a look online to see what you can afford.

Amazon.com is a good place to see how much the different cameras cost.  Canon and Nikon tend to be the most expensive but they have the best features and are compatible with a wider range of add-on equipment.  I haven’t seen anything done by a professional photographer who didn’t use a Canon or a Nikon camera.

4. Read reviews.

I was on the verge of buying the Canon EOS Rebel T5 1200D before I read a review saying that the viewfinder was fixed, not movable.  As someone who does self portrait, timed shots and presents Youtube videos, this was unacceptable to me, and I’m glad I found this out before I bought the wrong camera for my needs.  I finally settled on a Canon EOS Rebel T5i which is everything I want it to be.  Your mileage may vary, and that’s what’s so wonderful about the sheer amount of choice on the market.

5. Buy camera.

Buy it from a reputable store which you’ve heard of or which has a physical location.  There is a LOT of fake crap on the market and some of it is VERY convincing.  I’ve not seen any fake camera bodies or lenses, but when you’re spending that amount of money you need to keep your wits about you.  I love ebay bargains, but I’d never buy a DSLR camera from ebay, or any website where the description is written in broken English, because you need to buy it from somewhere which will take action to sort out a bad transaction.  A second hand camera can be a great bargain, but it’s very easy for someone to sell something because (for example) they dropped it, and you won’t know it doesn’t work until you’ve handed your money over, at which point they can claim you dropped it.  For this reason, if you are buying a secondhand camera, get it from a physical shop and test out the camera before you buy it.  If they’re giving you excuses such as “the battery isn’t charged” then walk away from that purchase.

6. Write a review so other people know how good (or bad) it was.

If the site doesn’t accept reviews, unless it’s the official manufacturer’s site, I wouldn’t buy from there.  A good review lists two or three good points and two or three bad points.  Why waste time even writing a review that looks like any of these:
“Great thanks”

“Arrived ok.”

“Havn’t tried it yet but I’ve still givn it 5 stars.”

Have you got any other tips for buying a camera?  I’d love to read them in the comments!

Ben Lomond? More like Ben SNOWmond!

Having just got back from climbing Mount Snowdon, I thought I should write up my ascent of Ben Lomond from early April.  I’ve written this from beginning to end rather than as a “travel piece” as I wanted to share some useful information about the climb.

Ben Lomond.
Ben Lomond.

Ben Lomond is 974m high and it’s a Munro but it’s not even in the top 10 highest mountains in Scotland – which starts with Ben Lawers at 1214 metres high, which is over 200m higher than the highest mountain in England (Scafell Pike, 978m), as a reference. Ben Lomond is only 4m lower than Scafell Pike, so I thought Ben Lomond would be a better climb since S.P. was an abortive mission back in February due to flooding and the whole of Wasdale (where S.P. is) had given me a VERY eerie “get out” kinda vibe so I was in no rush to return. Also Ben Lomond was on my ORIGINAL 30 list before I subbed it for S.P. when I posted about my list as I thought it was unfair to England if all the mountains from the UK were from Scotland (and one from Wales). I retract this wholeheartedly – Scottish mountains are just the absolute best in the UK, seconded by their milder friends, the Welsh mountains.

Scottish mountains are like dogs – they’re so excited to see you and boisterous and so much outdoor fun (but they can bite you); Welsh mountains are like rabbits – they’re very mild mannered and friendly, but they’d never eat you unless you looked like a carrot (but they might nibble); and English mountains are like cats – they just refuse to co-operate even when you bring them treats, and insist on hanging out in hard-to-reach places.

It started off in Rowardennan car park, which is on the East side of Loch Lomond.  To get to the car park, you have to drive to take a left at Drymen (Rowardennan is signposted) and drive up a very long country road with forest on one side and Loch Lomond on the other.

Parking was fairly cheap, although, being early April, it was still the off-season when I went (which surprised me as I’m used to the tourist season starting a month earlier, in March, in England).

There is a set of public toilets that are near the beginning of the route, and these were excellent with benches to sit on to put boots etc on since it was drizzly raining outside.  I decided since it was drizzling to go up in my trainers.  My husband went up in his walking boots, which he has had since about 1997, which were a poor choice as they have cracked, hard soles.  His feet got wet before mine.

A mysterious trapdoor in the ladies toilets.  I wondered where it led, but couldn't get it opened to find out.
A mysterious trapdoor in the ladies toilets. I wondered where it led, but couldn’t get it opened to find out.

The initial climb is in a straight line and everything seems easy if somewhat steep as you get up past the treeline.  Then, out of nowhere, it makes you choose a path, left or right, neither of which seem to be going UP the mountain.  But that’s okay because the summit straight in front of you isn’t Ben Lomond, it’s the taller one to the left that looks like it’s on a separate mountainside (because it is).

So it’s very important to go left here, otherwise you will spend a VERY long time being lost.  When we climbed it, starting at about 7am and ending around 11am, it wasn’t teriffically busy.  We were literally the only people on the mountain until we started our descent, so if anything had gone wrong we would have been a bit stuck.

I Considered the Evidence for The Fauna of Ben Lomond

As soon as we started on the left hand path, we were suddenly attacked by a very very harsh strong wind and it still drizzled constantly on this bit.  Loch Lomond was on our left at this point.  We kept going and saw loads of what we thought was dog poo, although since seeing so much of it that looks the same, I think it must have been fox poo.  There are no wolves in Scotland, as they were hunted to extinction, so it definitely wasn’t wolves.  Which was odd because all the poo was larger.  This probably doesn’t matter to most readers, but being an archaeology graduate, this did bug me, so I did some research and found two possible animals – the Scottish Wildcat, or a special red-fox subspecies (a giant red fox breed) called Vulpis vulpis vulpis (it’s apparently much larger than the standard red fox vulpis vulpis crucigera).  This giant red fox is apparently only native to Scotland.  Since there was also plenty of what looked like giant oval-shaped rabbit poo, I inferred that the giant rabbit poo came either from deer, because sheep do similar droppings, or mountain hares.

This theory was borne out when we turned a corner slightly and came face to face with two grazing deer.  They must have heard us coming but they still seemed surprised, and only ran off when my camera made it’s “beep beep beep beep” turning on noise (the MOST annoying thing when trying to photograph ANY animals at all as it always makes them move).  So we could tick that mystery off as solved (although I was disappointed that it wasn’t mountain hares, but you can’t be TOO disappointed because deer are soooooo adorable).  We saw quite a few other deer out and about at this time of the morning, so I think the droppings probably weren’t from mountain hares.

Shortly afterwards, I saw an interesting-shaped rock on the ground.  It was a pentagon, and it was almost regular, which was amazing because it was clearly done by natural processes such as weathering – there were no cut marks on it at all!  This was not evidence of animal activity, but it was still an interesting feat of nature so I took a photo.

An interestingly shaped rock.
An interestingly shaped rock.

We reached a gate thingy then we went along another path for quite a while, then we went through a second gate where we soon found a sign that said Ben Lomond.  We joked with each other that we must have reached the top -although we knew full well that this was clearly the start of its prominence.  The prominence is the part of the mountain where it’s not part of another peak, mountain etc, which is almost always lower than its elevation.  When people talk about “Ultras” or “Ultra Prominents” they mean mountains whose prominence is over 1500 metres, but that just means that 1500 metres or more of the mountain sticks up above all the rest of the mountains in a group or the rest of the land if it’s on its own.  The first “Ultra” on my list of 20 mountains is Arcalod, in France.

Are we there yet??
Are we there yet??

We carried on past the sign and the drizzle remained stopped but the wind started to blow worse, after a little while I took this next picture of the view, it’s the last picture I got before we came back down.

This was the very last picture I got before that whiteout in the distance reached us and started gnawing at my face.
This was the very last picture I got before that whiteout in the distance reached us and started gnawing at my face.

Those clouds moved VERY fast, the wind must have been blowing them across, and we then fought with side winds of over 60mph and some very vicious hail at one side of us.  There was no shelter from it, as Ben Lomond is a very exposed mountain, and we basically had to climb it with one hand covering our left ear to protect us from the 60 mph hailstones.

Whiteout in April

As we trudged ever upwards, we discovered that the snow we’d seen from below was actually made from these same hailstones that were attacking us – millions of them combining to form icy snowlike stuff, covering the surfaces more and more, until a bit where we needed to scramble (a climb not long or steep enough to require rope) up a 20 foot section and suddenly the ground was totally white.  The path was just about visible.  Then as we kept going the path disappeared completely, and it stayed like that with the biting hailstones and wind, which my husband found he could sit backwards on, and be kept upright (literally, he was sitting as if he was on a chair, and the only thing holding him in place was this strong wind).  We were frequently being blown sideways and progress became very very difficult, until we finally got to the top.  The wind and hail were awful, and I couldn’t get my phone out to take any photos because I was afraid it would get blown away.  All the “respect the mountain” type information goes on about taking an ice axe and crampons, but I don’t think they consider that these aren’t the ONLY solution or the ONLY things you need to take up a mountain, because the main problem was the wind and the velocity of these sharp hailstones, they would have just been dead weight in my pack.  I think the crampons at least would have been useful on the top but they wouldn’t have solved the worst difficulty which was not being able to open your eyes because of the barrage of projectiles.  It was like being repeatedly shot in the face with an airgun, and we both had a lot of redness and bruising on one side of our face from our ascent (and I had the lower half of my face covered with a cotton scarf for protection).  There was no view, just hail in our faces causing a total whiteout, so we didn’t linger, and turned back, making our way back down the mountainside a lot more quickly.  The wind and snow stopped again when we reached the Ben Lomond sign (peculiously) and by this time of the day, the path we had climbed was now covered in water and we were paddling back down the mountain.

My face on the way back down.
My face on the way back down.

Mountain Survival

I didn’t really feel much of a sense of achievement because it was mostly a survival issue from before we reached the summit (the top):  The temperature was about -10 and we needed to get down to the tree line as quickly as possible before hypothermia set in, because I’d brought my standard winter gloves instead of my amazingly protective +3 Gloves of Snowboarding (I’ve never snowboarded, I have them for when I go to the Alps).  Standard gloves are fine for normal ground-level snow (when you’re not at any altitude) or for hill walking, but when you get over about 700m above sea level, I would strongly recommend using skiing gloves or snowboarding gloves (not those shitty thinsulate ones) as my hands went numb in my gloves!  It’s good to learn the exact limitations and appropriate times for equipment from experiences such as this though – as I said when I didn’t get to the top of Scafell Pike, sometimes you learn more from what you FAILED to do than what you did do, because you can often see what you need to do next time.  This time, I failed to take appropriate gloves, and I can now see exactly when I need thicker gloves (and when I went up Snowdon, I did NOT make the same mistake, and I will never take the wrong gloves up a mountain ever again).  On the flipside, I was glad I took my trainers and not my snow shoes because they are lightweight and flexible and don’t cause me excessive ankle strain or leg tiredness, and in fact keep my feet more comfortable because I get too hot in big boots.  I find that while all the respect the mountain type people have a point that walking boots are a good choice of footwear, I strongly disagree that they are “essential” for any of the non-technical climbs in the UK.  I have struggled to complete mountains in boots (I wore my snow boots to do Scafell Pike because it was February and I would have needed to wear them with my crampons except there was no snow on S.P. in Feb) because as my grandma used to say, “heavy boots weigh you down” and I find I can walk much further, climb higher and balance better in trainers.  Different strokes for different folks.  There’s more than one way to climb a mountain.

On the way back down we took a different path for a small section where we ended up climbing down a waterfall which was awesome and really pretty:

The second waterfall we climbed down.
The second waterfall we climbed down.  Going round would have been just as slippery and also muddy and therefore less awesome.

Farewell, Lovely Trainers

This was the footpath on the way back.
This was the footpath on the way back.  It’s underwater at the front too, just a different depth.

The streams on the descent were the first point my trainers got wet, but ultimately it was their death toll because we had nowhere to dry them, since we didn’t check into a hotel for another day, so they went mouldy or something, and I washed them twice in the washing machine when I got home, but they just had to go to the bin in the end because they smelled absolutely foul.  Ben Lomond might have been their swan song, but they were a very good pair of trainers and they got me up and down the mountain with no blisters or anything.  While some very expensive walking boots would have kept my feet dry (cheap ones generally don’t), I didn’t really have a problem with getting wet on the descent.

Back at the car, I changed into my jelly sandals so my feet could dry out while I drove us to the Loch Lomond entertainment complex (there was an exciting adventure with a dog cafe).  I think the whole climb took about four and a half hours up and down, because we set off at about 7am and got to the car at 11:30am.

The next day, we checked into our beautiful hotel (we were staying in our car camper around Loch Lomond, which is really hard as there are major byelaws so you have to follow the rules or risk getting a big fine) and I found for the first day that it was hard to walk down the stairs because my leg bones just under my knees were really swollen and couldn’t bend properly on stairs!!  I had done loads of training and particularly built up the muscles around my knees but my bones seemed to let me down.  I do have a problem with them anyway ever since I bruised the bone on one leg (and the swelling tore the skin right open – I have a very sexy scar on one leg because of it) a couple of years ago, when I fell down the stairs and landed with my full body weight on something sharp with my shin.  The other leg seemed to get compression problems from being walked on for six weeks straight because I didn’t take a single day off because it happened during teacher training and if you take more than three days off (at all) you fail it at the training provider I was attending.  As an aside, my childhood dog died two weeks later at the ripe old age of 16, so I took a day off for that instead.  I will write an article on Dillon one day because he was the best dog in the universe.  But that was all 2 years ago.  The bone pain from mountain climbing went away after a few days, although I’ve got it again today, the day after climbing Snowdon.  I will have to look into this at some point.

Phew, I’ve FINALLY posted about this trip up Mount Ben Lomond. Expect another mountain post about Snowdon very soon.  I am aware I keep saying I climbed Snowdon yesterday, and the date stamp will say this was published on Wednesday, but it’s going to be posted just after midnight so when I say yesterday all through the start and end of this blog post, I mean Monday, when I climbed Snowdon.  It’s only taken me all afternoon to finish writing this post what with seeing the (private not NHS) psychiatrist today and everything else!

[travel] HAUL – Outdoor Walking and Snow Gear

Outdoor Walking Gear Haul
The past two months have been pretty awful, so I decided to cheer myself up with a little shopping spree with the Sports Direct sale:

corner boots1

haul outdoor gear

sandals2

Let’s start with the Karrimor Walking Sandals.  The box said they were reduced from £49.99; I actually paid £13 for them because there had been another reduction since they were first put on sale.  I wore them the very next day to walk two miles and they were very comfortable – apparently needing no “breaking in” period, as most shoes do.  They felt odd when I first put them on at the store, until I realised that the strap at the very back needed loosening, then they were super comfy.

Karrimor walking sandals

I really like the ’90’s style they’ve got going on and I also love how lightweight they are – I can’t wait until summer to go hiking in them.  They also have super-grippy soles so I think these would be good for hillwalking.

Karrimor walking sandals

I bought size 6 which is an EU 39.5.  I’m usually a size 40 (which gets interpreted as a 6, 6.5 or 7 depending on brand of shoe) but these fitted fine in the 39.5.

box for walking sandals

The snow shoes I bought were also intended for hiking.

snow boots karrimor

Those of you who have been following for a while will remember I have a list of 20 Must-Climb Mountains in Europe that I want (no, I NEED) to climb before I turn 30 in 20 months’ time, because they’re on my to-do list.  I had the opportunity to tackle Scafell Pike recently and had to turn it down because I didn’t have any footwear that was suitable for winter mountains or for fitting crampons to.  I have now remedied this with these beauties:

How nice are these snow boots?
How nice are these snow boots?

I was a little bit disappointed because they also had them in pink but didn’t have anything resembling my size, so I went for the blue ones which were allegedly for boys.  The only difference I could see was that the blue ones were blue, and the girls’ ones had pink laces.  If you really wanted them to be more like the girls’ version, you could always buy some pink laces to put on them.  They didn’t do a version that was strictly “for adults” but since the children’s ones went up to a UK size 6 (which was actually an EU 39.5 again) I was more than accommodated, which is interesting because it’s the first time I haven’t had to get a size 7 in a walking boot.  One thing I like about sports direct is the staff never try to steer you to a particular gender or target-age of a shoe, they just let you get on with it.  They were so comfy (in the words of a furniture store we saw in Salzburg, they felt “so schlaft, man”) I actually felt like my feet had got their own cosy beds to sleep in.

Sorry about my feet, the boot wouldn't stay put!
Sorry about my feet, the boot wouldn’t stay put!

I felt a bit sad having to take these off both in the store and after taking the photos.  The inside is padded with something that feels suspiciously like memory foam, which, along with their fake-fur plush lining, is what makes them feel so comfy.
Another thing I really like about these is that they have a 100% waterproof part at the bottom, so that you can’t get wet from stepping through puddles etc.  While I’d love to be able to afford something in Gore-Tex that was completely waterproof, as a cheap boot for winter walking these really look a lot better than all the others – I always slightly distrust nylon-looking fabric that claims to be waterproof because in my experience it’s “light rain proof” not “puddle proof” but as you can see, these are 3 inches of rubber so unless you’re fording a stream you’re gonna be dry:

snow boots waterproof karrimor

The label says they’re completely waterproof, and certainly in the snow they shouldn’t get my feet damp.  They were £29.99 which was a reduction from £59.99, as you can see on the box:

snow boots karrimor waterproof
I really can’t wait to go walking in these boots.

Next there was a pair of No Fear winter sports gloves.  I wasn’t expecting to buy any gloves, but then ended up spending quite a bit of time in the shop trying different ones on.  The ones I settled on were reduced from £24.99 to £9.99, and I couldn’t be happier with them:

No Fear winter sports gloves

They have a clip so you can clip them together when you’re not wearing them, to avoid losing them, because there’s nothing more irritating than losing one glove under normal circumstances.  Out on the slopes in the snow, you could end up with frostbite if you lose a glove, so it’s extra important.

No Fear winter sports gloves with clip

There’s also a good grippy bit where your fingers go – unlike another pair I tried, the grip on this one felt comfortable in the Make A Fist test (make a fist, if you’re fighting your glove all the way, get a different glove, it’s going to make it hard to hold things when you wear them).

No Fear winter sports gloves waterproof snowboarding grip side

I also liked the baffle inside the glove – a strip of fabric that went all round the inside to stop wind blowing down the glove and making your wrists cold.

No Fear winter sports gloves with clip

These ones had elastic at the wrists AND adjustable velcro on the back of them, making them give a good fit without letting the cold or wet in.  Lastly, the label said they were waterproof.  I tested this in the sink today, and they didn’t let any water in when the tap was running over them.  I absolutely LOVE these gloves.  They were Extra Large size because they were “for girls” not women, but I found the fit more comfortable and felt I was getting more features than any of the ladies gloves.  Additionally, they didn’t have any for adults that looked this good.

Lonsdale mini backpack

I bought a Lonsdale Mini Backpack for £5.99 because when I went to Italy, I was a little fed up with having to drag my shoulderbag up and down big hills and endless steps around Salzburg.  I thought a nice lightweight backpack would be perfect.  I looked at all the daysacks, but I found them all to be overly-technical and overly expensive for what I needed (we were talking over £20 for one, and I don’t need it to be Camelpak compatible or have an MP3 headphone port or an air cooled back).  I wanted something I could roll up and stuff in my suitcase.  So I got this, an absolute steal at £5.99.  It comes in a range of colours, I picked the black one because I thought it would suit every outfit and mood.  It’s much smaller than most “sports” backpacks so my lunch and bottle of water won’t be bouncing around everywhere inside it when I walk around, and there’s a little pocket on the front where I can put postcards.

Lonsdale mini backpack rear view
I liked this one better than the Nike version because they only had the Nike one in Lime Green.  The Lonsdale one (which I bought) also had the advantage of padded straps, which a lot of standard sports-type backpacks don’t have.

Then there was the waist pouch.  I have been toying with the idea of a handsfree type area around my waist for festivals, concerts and other places that require the use of my hands to declare my love for whatever song is playing.  I liked this one because it was the smallest one available so I thought it wouldn’t look as bulky on my tiny size 8 frame:
pouch1

It’s another Karrimor discount, and it cost £5.99, so the same price as my backpack.  I like it because it has a little pocket at the front to keep your MP3 player or iPod, and a headphones out port, so when you’re at a festival and that band you hate starts playing, and you can hear them still across the other side of the field, you can drown them out.  Not that I have ever done this, but I did consider it during one act at Sonisphere last year.  I shan’t tell you which band it was because I profoundly loved most of the bands that played and don’t want to be mean spirited.
The back of the pouch looks like this:
karrimor belt pouch for money etc

I can’t wait to try this out so I can keep my coins on me without having to worry about the safety of my purse while I rock out like a loon at my line-up of festivals and concerts which I’ve got planned for this year, and I also thought it would be very handy when I go to Spain and Morocco later this year as well, to avoid pickpockets, because the zipped money pocket is on the inside.

Lastly, I got some spare laces.  Every time I see some cheap ones I buy them because, in a house filled with five rabbits, shoelaces often get chewed when you are least expecting it, and this means a supply of new ones is essential.  They were only 99p:
karrimor spare shoe laces

I was pleased with the whole experience on my shopping trip, and I really enjoyed the shopping process because I didn’t feel pressured into buying anything and felt like I could still ask for help when I needed it.  Even at the till when I changed my mind about something and was super-apologetic, they were really nice about it and just put it to one side to be re-stocked.  The equipment I bought at Sports Direct will help nicely with my plan to do some of the Via Ferrata in Andorra this year as well, since for Christmas my aunt got me a Via Ferrata Harness and safety line, and a guide book on all the Andorran Via Ferrate.  I will show you these and tell you what I think of them in a future post.
Have you done any new equipment shopping so far this year?  Let me know in the comments.