Scott Jurek Interview | We Talk Veganism With the Most Famous Ultra Runner in the World

Jurek ran the 2189-mile Appalachian Trail in a record time… powered only by plants

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There has long been a prevailing wisdom in the mainstream that if you stop eating meat, your sport and athleticism will suffer. For a while vegans have always been regarded as ethical animal-lovers, who display admirable restraint in a world that includes bacon, halloumi and Haagen-Dazs, a meat-free diet had never been associated with sporting prowess or athletic endeavour.

Fast forward to now and many of the world’s top sporting titans have come out as vegan, including the tennis player Venus Williams and boxer David Haye, while others, including the footballer Lionel Messi, follow a vegan diet during competition season. Sportspeople shunning meat and animal products is by no means widespread, but mindsets are slowly shifting.

“He was often putting in 50 miles of running per day, a feat he kept up for almost seven weeks”

The American ultrarunner Scott Jurek has always been ahead of the pack on this. In 2013 he published his autobiography, Eat and Run, which chronicled his experience as a multiple ultramarathon-winning vegan athlete. It was a bestseller, and very much changed the conversation of what athletes should eat to perform at their best.

Jurek turned 40 the same year his book came out, but instead of quietly retreating from the punishing sport of ultrarunning he decided, like a hero in a heist movie, to take on one last challenge. He planned to run the Appalachian Trail (AT) in a record time and then bow out of the sport on a high. A feat he managed to achieve though only just, having faced injury setbacks at the start, and intense physical and mental fatigue towards the end. He’s now released a book about the experience titled North: Finding my way while running the Appalachian Trail. The title a nod to the fact he chose to run the trail from south to north.

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Enjoying the sunrise at McAfee Knob (Day 16). Photo: Luis Escobar.

“Nothing about the map – or the Appalachian Trail itself – invited even the contemplation of speed. For starters there’s the magnitude of it…2189 miles long…imagine running 84 marathons. Consecutively over the gnarliest and oldest mountains in the world…”

The AT runs between Georgia and Maine through a combination of deep, dank forest, wild grasslands and rocky mountain stretches. It’s thought to be the longest hiking trail in the world and as one of the oldest National Scenic Trails has a quasi-mythic status in American public consciousness. Over two million people are said to hike at least a section of it each year; it’s rarely something people attempt to run.

When I caught up with Jurek last month, he told me the AT had thrown up some interesting challenges for his veganism. “We were in remote locations. Down in the Deep South or even in the mid-Atlantic, where you’d think it might be easy, [finding vegan supplies] was difficult and challenging because we were so rural a lot of the time. You’d find cafes and a grocery store in town, but you don’t get the selection.” Especially compared to what he was used to back home in vegan-friendly Boulder, Colorado.

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Cooling off in Laurel Creek. Photo: Luis Escobar.

“I was craving Thai food, especially coconut curry but it was very hard to come by, so anytime we were close to a town I’d say to my poor wife Jenny: ‘Can you go get some Thai food!’ I’m also a big fan of Japanese food. I like things centred around tofu or tempeh, really simple food, so that my body and stomach isn’t irritated, but trying to find these ingredients in these small towns was tough.”

At home Jurek usually does the cooking but it just wasn’t possible while running the AT, as he was often putting in 50 miles of running per day, a feat he kept up for almost seven weeks. So it was left to his wife to cook from their campervan, where the two of them slept, Jenny having driven to their pre-designated rendezvous each night. Sometimes even dodging creepy stalkers along the way, as they both discuss in one of the more unsettling sections of the book.

“A stubborn, lingering vinegary scent was actually his body digesting its own amino acids”

Jurek needed to take on a lot of calories, at least 6-8000 a day, which was not an easy task. He says: “It was always about the density of calories. Jenny was adding olive oil to my pasta, and avocado and extra vegan mayo to my sandwiches to try and increase that calorific content. Smoothies were big too. She’d pour coconut milk in or a little extra flaxseed oil. They already had fruit and carbs but fat was really important.”

It took a lot of planning, even for a race nutrition pro like Jurek who had competed as a vegan throughout his 15-year plus ultrarunning career, which had included multiple wins in the Badwater Ultra, Hardrock Hundred Miler and Spartathlon 152-miler in Greece amongst other victories.

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Restocking somewhere in Central Virginia. Photo: Luis Escobar.

At one point in North he describes realising that a stubborn, lingering vinegary scent was actually his body digesting its own amino acids. He also mentions a photographer who joined him at the start and end of his challenge finding him almost unrecognisable physically from the person he’d been at the beginning of the AT.

Jurek hadn’t grown up vegan. “I was definitely at the other end of the spectrum,” he says, and then proceeds to paint a picture of an idyllic wild and nature-filled childhood. “I was a hunting and fishing boy from northern Minnesota. I lived out in a really rural area. I didn’t have neighbours or kids close by, so I had to find ways to entertain myself and that meant going to the woods behind my house, building forts and chasing animals. I would go out for hours at a time, relatively close to home but I always had the freedom of exploring the surroundings.”

Does he think that feeling of being comfortable in nature helped him later with his ultrarunning, especially in the kind of brutal conditions you can encounter on the AT? “Oh definitely. That adaptability and connection to nature, and just valuing that time outside and understanding it as such an important part of being a human being.”

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Wrapping up 53 miles on day one. Photo: Luis Escobar.

Jurek tells me he didn’t like running as a kid. He did local cross-country races and watched the Olympics but was more into basketball and baseball. “Running was kind of punishment for a lot of the sports that I did, you’d be sent off to do laps,” he says. In high school he got into cross-country skiing and was told to run in the summer to stay in shape, but he still wasn’t keen. “I remember dealing with all the side-aches and runner’s trots, having to go to the bathroom all these things, I really didn’t like it.”

But then in college in his 20s, his skiing friends introduced him to trail and ultrarunning. He says: “I’d looked up to these individuals for their free thinking, eccentric lifestyle and I thought: ‘Wow this sounds kind of wild and crazy, and kind of stupid…’ There was something attractive and appealing about it.”

“You have to suffer for a little bit but you come away from it a changed person with a different perspective”

Jurek placed second in his first ever 50-mile race, a phenomenal result and surprise to many of the officials as he was very much the long-haired hippie rather than serious-looking athlete at the time.

“It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, amazing and agonising at the same time. Right away I said: ‘Never again, one and done!’ but then it started dawning on me that maybe this is my thing, maybe I should explore it a bit more.”

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The beginnings of knee trouble (Day 6). Photo: Luis Escobar.

“I loved running in the woods, so it was kind of a natural progression to be able to handle those things and have fun. It seemed more appealing than just going out and running on pavement.”

A sentiment he still holds: “I’ve done some road races but even in my darkest times on the AT there was still always a beauty to the trail, and things to be happy about, like the orange newt running across the trail or the views.”

“Even in my darkest times on the AT there was still always a beauty to the trail”

In North, Jurek writes of the wonder of running through green tunnels of vegetation, of seeing fireflies on the trail at night and the pretty blue smog given off by the plant life. He talks of taking power naps on rocks and in patches of leaves. He describes his fear when stumbling upon a black mama bear guarding her cubs and blocking his path north, and his amusement at a naked hiker who had a strategically-placed sign which read: ‘Hey Scott Jurek, this sausage is vegan!’

He also mentions a stretch of the AT around Bear Mountain, where he guides his friend Thomas, a blind runner, for two miles. I ask how that went? “I’ve paced blind runners in ultras and marathons before and it really is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had because I’m getting to see for two people.”

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Crossing the Fontana Dam (Day 4). Photo: Luis Escobar.

“So I’d try to relay for him what I was seeing, and also giving him all the strategies like we’re hitting a hill, there’s a hole, but I was also trying to give him the experience of other senses so it’s like the rain is really doing this… I found it to be a really interesting perspective in a sport I’ve been doing for a long time.”

For Jurek veganism and ultrarunning have always gone hand in hand, as he got into them both around the same time, but he had to ditch a love of junk food first. He says: “In college I was eating McDonald’s at least once a day. I was running and skiing so I could get away with it, but then some of my friends influenced my thinking on food. I started looking at more wholesome foods, more wholefoods… It was interesting for me to think how can I do this now with a plant-based diet? I found reading the research behind it fascinating.”

“At the same time I’d been working in hospitals, my mother had suffered with MS. I wanted to avoid chronic disease but also maybe help my performance along the way. There has been this ingrained mentality of: ‘If you want to be strong, you have to eat meat and have animal protein.’ But I’ve been able to test that. [Being vegan] has made me stronger and actually feel better. It takes a bit of learning and a bit more planning initially, but it’s opened my eyes to what I can do for my human body to allow it to perform at its best.”

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The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Photo: Luis Escobar.

Does he think being vegan has helped him run faster? “My energy levels increased. I did lose a little extra body fat but my muscle mass stayed the same, all those were great things to have happened but it’s really been the long term benefits. It’s helped with my recovery, and longevity in the sport, which is very applicable to the AT. I was 41 years old, towards the end of my career but still able to do something as demanding and gruelling as that. Diet isn’t everything, it’s just one piece of the puzzle but it’s a very important piece of the puzzle.”

Jurek is a humble guy, who doesn’t see himself as extraordinary, in spite of all evidence, the records, the race-wins, to the contrary. He tells me an ultramarathon is within reach for all of us. He says: “A lot of people assume: ‘Oh I can’t run very far, I’ve got bad knees…’ but unless you have bone on bone osteoarthritis or something significant, for most people their knees or joints get better when they run. You have to be willing to challenge yourself, it’s really about getting over that mental hurdle, and starting to open your mind to the possibilities of what you can do. Even I struggled with that on the AT, it was hard to get out there and put myself in that situation day after day [for 46 days…] but the rewards are exponential.”

“Diet isn’t everything, it’s just one piece of the puzzle but it’s a very important piece of the puzzle”

“Nowadays our lives are so comfortable. We live in climate-controlled buildings, drive cars that allow us to travel at great speeds… we don’t have to challenge ourselves much to achieve. So putting ourselves in the arena of challenge and adversity, those are transformative experiences; something you can’t buy or obtain by hitting a button on a computer. You have to suffer for a little bit but you come away from it a changed person with a different perspective.”

It’s a compelling mindset, and the fact Jurek has achieved all that he has without eating meat or animal products makes it even more impressive and inspring.

North: Finding my way while running the Appalachian Trail is published by Penguin Random House and out now.

For more info on Scott Jurek, head here.

For more from this month’s Green Issue, click here.

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A Land Faroe Way | Exploring the Green Haven Of The Faroe Islands

The setting for the climbing film ‘Land of Maybe’ is aiming for 100% renewable energy by 2030

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Photo: Jack Clayton

“Where you off to then?” asks my early morning Uber driver.

“The Faroe Islands,” I reply, still very much half asleep.

“Faroe Islands? Never heard of them, mate.”

“They’re… er… sort of between Scotland, Norway, and Iceland.”

Before being invited to visit the Faroe Islands, my knowledge of the place was minimal to say the least. I knew roughly where it was, I knew that the people there were mad keen on whaling, I knew that their national football team had been a thorn in the side of Scotland on more than one occasion and I knew that the landscape there was becoming an increasingly regular feature on my Instagram newsfeed. I did not know much about the Faroe Islands.

“The sea turned red with blood”

I wasn’t the only one. A friend, for example, had them pegged as a part of the UK when they’re actually a self-governing part of Denmark. This overriding sense of mystery about the place is evident in the title of The North Face’s Faroe-set climbing film ‘Land of Maybe’; a 15 minute short that focuses on James Pearson, Cedar Wright, and Yuji Hirayama tackling one of the world’s highest promontories – Cape Enniberg. The climb up the 754 metre-high sea cliff saw the trio battle bad weather, unpredictable terrain, and even an army of puking birds.

After a two hour flight to Copenhagen followed by another two hour flight to the Faroe Islands’ only airport, I find myself standing on Vágar; the third largest of the 18 islands that make up the Faroe archipelago. Vágar has an area of 69 square miles, which is roughly a ninth the size of the Isle of Skye. Despite being only 336 miles (as the crow flies) from Inverness, it feels other-worldly from the second you get off the plane. Factor in the scenery, on top of the pervading sense of isolation, and it’s easy to imagine Luke Skywalker living in exile here.

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Pictured: The Faroese village of Bøur. Photo: Jack Clayton.

We drive straight from the airport, 10 minutes down the road, to a Faroese village called Bøur. Along the way, we go past the town of Sørvágur and down the bay it’s nestled neatly at one end of. This, we’re grimly told, is a location commonly used for whaling.

Last summer, when they were on the islands for the ‘Land of Maybe’ shoot, climbing power couple Caro Ciavaldini and James Pearson witnessed the controversial practice firsthand. The hunt resulted in the death of over 100 whales.

“The sea turned red with blood,” says Caro.

During my stay on the Faroe Islands, the topic of whaling comes up a lot. It’s clear the locals, who share out the spoils of the hunts amongst their community, are passionate about the tradition and feel that many of the outsiders who criticise them for it are guilty of hypocrisy. One of our Faroese hosts, for example, tells us of a popular old t-shirt slogan which said “In the Faroe Islands, we kill whales. In America, you kill people.”

A quick search of the internet, and you’ll soon find yourself reading a piece published on The Spectator website with the eye-catching headline: “Yes, I butcher whales. What’s all the fuss about?”

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Pictured: Wind turbines on the Faroe Islands. The territory is aiming for 100% green energy by 2030. Photo via Getty Images.

Written by the lead singer of the Faroese folk metal band Týr, Heri Joensen, in the wake of a campaign to stop venues from booking his band after he posted a picture of himself cutting up a long-finned pilot whale on Facebook, the article defends whaling by highlighting how many of the people who are against whaling happily turn a blind-eye to the fact that a lot of the meat they consume stems from factory farm cruelty. In a YouTube video, Joensen mockingly states that “People get this Disney-fairytale-like relationship to meat where livestock is willingly and painlessly slaughtered behind closed doors and wildlife is sacred.”

Bøur itself is as typically Faroese as you can get; a tiny little church that looks halfway between a real church and one you’d get at a model village, epic scenery as far as the eye can see, and grassy sod roofs scattered about the place like they’re the most normal thing in the world. Minus a load of dead whales on the beach, and an embarrassed Scottish football team, it’s basically the Faroe Islands I’d imagined in my head before coming.

“The territory is aiming for 100% green electricity production by the year 2030”

I soon discover that it’s not only the grassy roofs in the Faroe Islands that are green. In a move that should be celebrated by environmentalists everywhere, the territory is aiming for 100% green electricity production by the year 2030. This renewable energy will come from a combination of hydro, wind, wave, tidal and, to a certain extent, solar power sources.  

Based on the fact that, during my stay, I’m battered by some of the most extreme winds I’ve ever encountered, it seems that wind farms are a logical step for the region. And while the Faroe Islands’ carbon footprint might be virtually microscopic when sized up next to those of giants like China and the USA, it’s nevertheless heartwarming to see them taking such a step in response to overwhelming evidence about climate change.

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Pictured: British climber James Pearson during the shooting of The North Face film ‘Land of Maybe’.

After sampling some local soup, and moreish homemade bread at a traditional Faroese house called Pakkhúsid, we’re all taken upstairs for a screening of ‘Land of Maybe’ and a talk from James Pearson. “This project began because I decided to google ‘biggest sea cliffs in the world,” says James. “Cedar [Wright] was convinced it was going to take just four hours but the whole climb took somewhere between 14 and 16 hours.”

Following a quick tour of Bøur, we’re then back in the vans for a 10 minute journey to Gásadalur; a mythical sounding place that feels like it should be the name of a character in The Lord of the Rings. The small and isolated village of Gásadalur, which sits on the edge of a waterfall and is surrounded by mountains, is accessed via a long and narrow road tunnel that seemingly stretches on forever.

“I’m confronted by quite possibly the most stunning view I’ve ever set eyes upon”

Before the tunnel opened in 2004, the village was completely cut off by the landscape. The postman, we’re informed, used to hike over the mountains once a week to deliver the residents here their mail; something, I imagine, that must have been a particularly frustrating process if the only thing they were delivering was updates on whatever the Faroese equivalent of Tesco Clubcard points is.

One brief little stroll after getting out the van and I’m confronted by quite possibly the most stunning view I’ve ever set eyes upon. Mulafossur Waterfall is the kind of beautiful natural landmark that even an elderly relative, with failing eyesight and zero camera training, couldn’t fail to take a decent picture of. If it wasn’t for the fact I’d left my jumper in the car and was starting to feel the chill, I might have watched its water cascading down into the North Atlantic for days, weeks, months, maybe even years. It really is spectacular.

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Walking the epic ridge between Krosstindur and Húsafell. Photo: Jack Clayton.

The next morning, it’s time to experience a full day in the Faroese outdoors. Somehow, today’s wind is making yesterday’s notably strong breeze seem like a gerbil’s gentle fart by comparison. We’ve been out of the vans for less than a minute, and already it feels like this wind is in danger of picking people up and chucking them into the sea as if they weighed the same as an empty crisp packet. It’s brutal stuff; the type of weather that can make you involuntarily swear out loud whenever it hits. It hits often.

Rather than ushering us back into the vans and waiting for all of this to blow over though, our keen guide Johannus Hansen from Reika Adventures is soon rounding us up and getting ready to lead us on our big day out. Despite the near constant threat of being blown away never to be seen again, we all end up being very grateful for his proactive approach. The route he takes us includes a stunning view of Trøllkonufingur (aka “Witch’s Finger”) and a breathtaking ridgewalk from Krosstindur (574m) to Húsafelli (591m).

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Pictured: The inside of Ravnagjógv (Raven’s Gorge). Photo: Jack Clayton.

In the afternoon, after I’ve been treated to the Faroe Islands’ veggie option of a cheese sandwich and a peeled carrot, and a few of our group’s bravest members have sampled some very pungent whale meat (“extremely fishy” – the general verdict), things escalate a notch when we’re given the chance to do a 31m rappel into Ravnagjógv (aka “Raven’s Gorge”). The rain is absolutely chucking it down and while I’m tempted to stay in the tent getting drunk on lung-warming aquavit, it’s an opportunity I’m not going to pass up on.

“Don’t let me fall and die,” I say to Caro, half-serious, half-joking, while she double checks my harness.

“It’s easily the best impression of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft that I’ve ever done”

Before I have time to change my mind, I’m stepping off the edge and working my way down to the bottom of the gorge. It’s easily the best impression of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft that I’ve ever done.

“You looked like a pro,” says a grinning Johannes, as he helps me take the harness off, “I thought it was James Pearson coming down.”

He’s joking. He’s definitely joking, but I’ll take it.

That night, we’re introduced to “heimablídni” – a Faroese way of doing things that literally translates as “home hospitality.” Put simply, it involves being given the full-on, five-course, restaurant style dining experience in someone else’s house. The house, in our case, being one on the Faroe Islands’ largest island of Streymoy; a house that belongs to Anna and Óli.

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Pictured: (Left) The writer, up top, begins his rappel down into Ravnagjógv//(Right) The writer celebrates his descent.

The food, 100% organic and sourced from Anna and Óli’s farm is mouth-wateringly good. Throw in one picturesque panoramic window view, and a supply of local beers that seemingly never run outs, and it all adds up to make one great, uniquely Faroe, night of culinary delight.

One hangover later, a hangover that’s cleared up efficiently by exposure to the clean Faroese air, and I’m at the end of my short but sweet stay. With an annual weather pattern that includes roughly 300 rainy days a year, it seems rather fitting that my scenic van journey back to the airport comes with a downpour so torrential that water starts leaking in through the closed windows and forming tiny puddles on the floor.  

Wet, windy, and wild; the Faroes certainly isn’t your average holiday destination but then isn’t that the whole point of adventure? To go outside the comfort zone, to go and lose yourself somewhere far away from your own normality, to wind up in a place where you’ve got all the questions and hardly any answers.

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Pictured: Trøllkonufingur (Witch’s Finger). Photo: Jack Clayton.

Leaving the Faroe Islands is like waking from a dreamscape, a faded transition back to reality where you end up unsure of whether what you saw was real and whether you were even there at all.

“Been anywhere nice?” says my taxi driver, back in London.

“The Faroe Islands,” I reply.

“Where’s that then?”

“It’s… er… sort of between Scotland, Norway, and Iceland.”

Do It Yourself:

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We flew to the Faroe Islands from London Heathrow, via Copenhagen, with SAS. On our first night, we stayed at the Magenta Guest House in Sandavágur. On our second night here, we stayed at the Gjogv Guesthouse. Food on the second evening was provided at the home of Anna and Óli. The hiking and rappelling was organised by Reika Adventures.

For more information the Faroe Islands, visit the official tourism website.

Big thanks to The North Face for kitting us out with a Summit Series range.

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Talking Rubbish | We Try Out ‘Plogging’, the Swedish Fitness Craze Sweeping UK Streets

Eco-friendly plogging is a combination of jogging and the Swedish ‘plocka’, meaning ‘to pick’…

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It’s a sunny Tuesday night in Edinburgh, which is a rarity for early Spring. It may surprise you to learn that Scotland is not actually a nation known for its exotic tendencies.

The Meadows, the go-to spot for a sun-soaked evening in the Scottish capital, are packed with slackliners, guitar players and the city’s finest not-so-discreetly smoking marijuana. The usual group of mountain bikers are heading off on their Tuesday ride-out in the Pentland Hills. Others are flocking to beer gardens to watch Roma take on Liverpool in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final – a match being billed as one of the most exciting of the football season, and a game which will eventually end 5-2.

We, on the other hand, are going ‘plogging’, a statement which almost certainly requires further explanation.

Plogging is a portmanteau made from combining the words ‘jogging’ and the Swedish ‘plocka’, which means “to pick”. Basically, it’s a combination of jogging and litter picking, and contrary to how that may sound, it has nothing to do with law-enforced community service.

Plogging is the latest Scandinavian craze to make its way to the UK, and in Edinburgh, Swedish 43-year-old eco-warrior Anna Christopherson runs the only plogging club in the city.

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Anna in the Swedish Akva bar in Edinburgh, which runs a bottle return scheme. Photo: Anna Christopherson

“Someone tagged me on Facebook asking if I had heard about it about a year and a half ago,” she tells me. “I hadn’t, but I said to them that we should do it tomorrow.

“We have a running club which has been going for about 10 years and they’re always up for anything. They said yeah, of course.”

The club is in almost every way your regular running club. They meet each Tuesday at 7pm for a run outside Joseph Pearce’s, one of the bars Anna runs in the city. Anna’s bars run a bottle deposit system, where if you bring in an empty plastic bottle you can either get the bottle refilled with water for free or trade in up to five for 10p off a coffee per bottle.

“When you actually start looking for it, it’s horrendous…”

“We’ve been pushing for the bottle system to go ahead in Scotland and just between our bars I think we’ve got 1000 signatures,” Anna says.

Before leaving for the meet, I had tentatively text Anna to ask if I should bring anything, “i.e. a bin bag?”. Anna responded that she’d bring the bags, but to bring gloves along if possible.

This may seem like a simple request, but it spirals into an adventure of its own after three seperate express supermarket chains fail to serve up the obvious, lightweight plastic gloves.

In a panic, and losing all sense, I end up buying a pair of bright yellow “heavy duty” kitchen gloves, then realise Anna may have meant that she actually wanted me to bring gloves for the both of us, and before I know it I’m having an existential crisis.

What if I turn up to the meet in Inverleith Park, on the posher, north side of the city, wearing heavy duty kitchen gloves, looking like Roger Bannister dressed for a Cillit Bang advert, and become the butt of a new joke, as would be expected if you turned up to most new running clubs wearing bright yellow kitchenware? Oh dear.

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Anna plogging on the streets of Edinburgh. Photo: Anna Christopherson

I cave and text Anna asking for glove recommendations. She saves the day by saying she’ll bring two pairs, and on arrival I’m relieved to see they are indeed standard running gloves. Given the disposable nature of plastic gloves, I probably should’ve guessed this in advance.

Anna hands me a bag and we get on our way.

Inverleith Park is, as aforementioned, in a well off area of the city. It’s just a stone’s throw from Fettes College, who can list the likes of Tony Blair and Tilda Swinton in their alumni. It’s not so surprising then that at first glance the park already appears to be fairly spotless.

“At least they’ve got bins here,” says Anna, “but there’s litter everywhere, and it’s getting worse. When you actually start looking for it, it’s horrendous.”

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The view over Inverleith Pond on Park Terrace in Edinburgh’s new town.

She’s right, too. Even in the Pentland Hills, the 100km hill range on the edge of the city, I often come across plastic bottles. With no bins around, I normally stick them in my bag as I go, but this seems a far more alien concept in cities for some reason. Perhaps because of the sheer scale of the issue in urban environments.

Littering is an issue close to the bone of the Scottish outdoors scene – especially after the controversial wild camping ban put in place by Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park in 2017 which forbid camping on the west shore of the famous loch.

“On Earth Day we ran a total of 10km for two hours and picked up a total of 37kg of litter”

The national park cited antisocial behaviour and littering as their reasoning for the by-law, and while the parks faced a backlash from those claiming they were threatening Scotland’s forward thinking approach to wild camping and the great outdoors, the one thing they couldn’t argue with was the littering taking place in these spots.

On my way to Inverleith Park, with litter-picking in my head, I start spotting it everywhere. Crisp packets in hedges, bottles and bags at bus stops. The overflow from communal bins seems to be the worst. I’ve got a heavy head of guilt already over a crushed Vimto can I stepped over just a few strides outside my flat.

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An unfortunately common sight across the UK.

We start jogging around the perimeter of the park, and immediately it becomes clear that the edges of any building or fence seem to be the resting place of lost litter, partly due to the wind and, of course, largely due to human laziness.

“If everyone just stopped throwing things away and lids were closed on bins then loads would change,” says Anna. “It’s the takeaway culture.”

Indeed, 33 million plastic bottles are bought in the UK every day, and up to 2.5 billion paper coffee cups are thrown away in the UK each year. Most people assume the cups are recycled but in reality only one in 400 cups actually are, because it’s normally too challenging to remove the plastic coating inside the cup in order to recycle the cardboard.

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Takeaway coffee cups are one of the most common pick ups while we’re plogging.

In March 2018, Starbucks pledged $10m (£7m) to producing a fully recyclable and compostable coffee cup within three years, and while that would undoubtedly be a start, you have to wonder how much even that would do.

“Even with recyclable coffee cups,” Anna points out, as we pick some off the ground outside a playpark, “if you don’t group them with compostables, with food waste, there is no point. You have to recycle them with food waste.”

Along the back of the pavillion in the park our jogging ends up coming near enough to a halt.

“Some days we only do plastic bottles, because as you can see, sometimes it doesn’t leave much running,” says Anna, before going on to tell me about one of the groups more recent large-scale plogs, for Earth Day on 22 April.

plogging jogging litter picking edinburgh mpora 4

Picking up litter, thanks to plogging, is something that is becoming increasingly common for outdoor activists.

“We ran a total of 10km for two hours and picked up a total of 37kg of litter,” she says. “We did things a little differently too – we split into teams for landfill and recycling.”

The recycling team won, so to speak, gathering an equal measures concerning and impressive 25kg of discarded litter which they then recycled.

“After that we were tired,” she says. “Running for two hours is one thing, but this… [going down to pick litter and back up again as you go] it’s tiring, but it’s brilliant exercise.

“You can see how quickly the bag fills up?”

Within 15 minutes of running we’ve already had to empty our bags into bins twice. It becomes a competition to see who can spot and collect the most litter.

“If everyone just stopped throwing things away and lids were closed on bins then loads would change. It’s the takeaway culture”

Most common are the chocolate wrappers and bottles, but all sorts pop up, including two condom wrappers and even a collection of untouched oranges. We don’t know what you’re up to in the dark of night, Inverleith Park, but we want no part of it.

I even come across the contents of one of those condom wrappers at one point, but I don’t have the heart or stomach to pick it up, especially wearing borrowed gloves.

With the rise of the keep-cup across the UK, and campaigns against plastic straws rising, I ask Anna if she does believe that every little helps, and that it’s all making a difference.

She says: “I think it is [a start] but at the same time there are so many people who aren’t ignoring, but who just aren’t aware of it all yet.

“I’m talking about it every single day, to everyone. There are so many one-use items that are just waste, and you have to remember everything just ends up in a massive pile.”

plogging jogging litter picking edinburgh mpora

It is, unfortunately, not hard to find a bin that looks like this.

I remark again about how much rubbish you start to notice when you actively looking for it, and Anna jokes: “now you will never not notice!”

We end the day meeting up with the rest of the running group, probably the only other people in the city who know the definition of plogging, and head out past Inverleith’s scenic pond to one final climb where I forget about the litter and focus on my lung capacity.

Whatever your thoughts on plogging, it’s certainly a workout, and Anna’s not wrong, the ideology and the awareness of the litter does stay with you.

As I make my way home, I research the facts – over 150 plastic bottles litter each mile of UK beaches. Approximately 5000 items of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach, and since 1950, we’ve produced more than 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastics, enough to cover the UK ankle-deep, ten times over.

And as I think about all that, I pass the same crushed Vimto can I walked over at the start of the day. I duly bend over, pick it up and put it in the bin. This whole plogging idea might not be so crazy after all.

For more from this month’s Green Issue, click here

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The Fjällräven Classic | Conquering the King’s Trail in Sweden

A multi-day hike through the wilderness of Northern Sweden sounded exciting on paper. But we weren’t prepared for just how exciting things would get…

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It’s only day three of our week-long trek, but as we struggle to pitch our tent behind the shelter of a boulder it’s obvious our best-laid plans have already gone out the window – or at least the mesh flap which passes for one. With the winds gusting at over 40 knots (a force nine gale in layman’s terms) we’re lucky the whole thing hasn’t blown away.

The following morning, a grim-faced volunteer at the next checkpoint tells us: “It’s been bad. I’ve just been looking at some statistics. We had 60 tents pitched near here last night and maybe 11 or 12 collapsed.”

“The Classic was dreamt up by Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv.”

None of this, it’s fair to say, fits with the picture I’d painted to my long-suffering girlfriend Simona when I’d persuaded her to come on the walk with me a month or so before. “Hiking, camping and cooking in the open air. It’ll be fun,” I’d said. “Plus loads of people do it every year, how hard can it be?”

Started in 2005, the Fjällräven Classic is a multi-day trek along a stretch of the trail known as the Kungsleden (or “King’s Trail”) in Northern Sweden. It was dreamt up by the brand’s founder Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate not only the company itself, but also the peculiarly Scandinavian conception of adventure it embodies, known as friluftsliv.

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Twisted fire starters. Wild camping and lighting your own fire is expected in northern Sweden.

Literally this translates as “free air life” but (as you might expect from the people who invented flatpack furniture and the Tetra Pak) there are multiple layers of meaning folded into this neat little word. It’s not just a description of an activity, it’s also tied to a set of beliefs – the idea getting outside is good for you, that access is a fundamental right, and that the outdoors is for everyone, not just the hardcore.

Given the everyman ideals he’s espousing, Nordin’s idea of a fun hike looks quite daunting, at least on paper. The route stretches for 110 kilometres, beginning where the tarmac road ends at Nikkaluokta and winding through broad glacial valleys and past Sweden’s highest peaks. The finish line, which we’re told will take around a week to reach, is in the small frontier town of Abisko, nearly 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

However, I wasn’t lying to Simona when I told her that lots of people complete the trek every year. From its humble beginnings when just 152 took part, the event has grown exponentially. In 2016 more than 2,000 people finished the Classic, and as we line up at the start, it’s obvious that our fellow trekkers have come from far and wide. We see Canadians, Germans, Koreans, Japanese, many of them obviously fans of of Fjällräven, who’ve dressed head-to-toe in the company’s kit for the occasion.

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Simona, wearing the blues, not feeling them.

“There are actually people from 38 nations at the Classic this year, and only one quarter are Swedish,” says Anna-Luisa Stadelman, one of the startline volunteers, who admits to being something of a Fjällräven fangirl herself. “It’s my seventh year here,” she explains. “I’m German originally but I studied in Sweden in 2002 and first came on the Classic in 2008.”

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Toytown. On certain sections of the route, like the Alesjaure Lake here, boats ferry people and goods between huts and the few tiny settlements.

As we set off, it’s easy to see what keeps people like Anna-Luisa keep coming back to the Classic year after year. Everything is as well-organised as you’d expect a mass-participation event to be. Maps, camping gas and free freeze-dried food are handed out to participants, and there are busses to take us to the start line. When we start walking the group quickly strings out, so it never feels crowded however, and by the time we stop to pitch our tent on the first evening, we’re completely alone.

When you’re this far north of the Arctic Circle in August it only gets dark for a couple of hours each day, and even then the light never fully leaves the sky. This means the sunsets are long, drawn out and spectacular. We cook our dinner in front of an incredible display as the sun goes slowly down over the snow-capped peaks ahead of us, painting the sky orange, red and purple as it sinks.

The following morning is equally idyllic. We’re in no rush, and wander down to the shore of a nearby lake to wash before hitting the trail. The water is bright turquoise, the result of glacier run-off further upstream, and icy cold. Simona, who’s Italian, thinks I’m mental for wanting to swim in it, but the sun’s shining and I warm up quickly once I’m out.

The hiking remains relatively easy until we reach the first checkpoint the picturesque fjällstation, or hill station, beneath Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Fjallraven Classic rules forbid us from staying in the pretty wooden huts (you have to camp from start to finish for the challenge to count). But thankfully they don’t stop us from eating in the restaurant.

Named Elsa’s kök (Elsa’s kitchen) after the legendary hostess who managed the hill station from the 1930s to the 1960s, it’s impressively gourmet given the remote location, serving modern Swedish food to guests seated at long, communal tables.

Our fellow diners are a mixed bunch – day trippers who’ve flown in on one of the distinctive red helicopters that resupply the Kungsleden’s network of huts, hikers who’ve been up the mountain (a hike that’s apparently the equivalent of going up Ben Nevis) and the properly hardcore.

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Still as a millpond. Fresh water is everywhere on the Kungsleden, and you never go long without finding a drinkable source.

One side two wealthy 40-something women from Boston tell us how they come hiking in a different destination every year, travelling from hut to hut while someone else transports their bags. On the other side there’s a young Belgian couple who have already been on the trail for fifteen days. They obviously take this sort of thing very seriously. “We bought a kiln this year so we can make our own dehydrated food,” they tell us.

If the hiking thus far has shown us what attracted the Americans here, then the next few days will give us a taste of the more serious side of northern Sweden – the reason people like our Belgian friends consider the Kungsleden a challenge worthy of their attention.

“As we’re cooking breakfast, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite.”

It’s cold when we wake up, and drizzling slightly. Even through the trees that surround our tent, we can feel the wind is beginning to get up and as we set off and walk out above the treeline, both the rain and the wind get worse. Extra layers are put on, hoods are put up and rain covers are stretched over our backpacks.

We lean forward onto our poles, drop our shoulders and power on. But it’s exposed up here, and the storm seems to make the packs on our backs feel heavier. Suddenly carrying the extra camera gear, which has made my pack a hefty 25kg and taken Simona’s up to 19kg, doesn’t feel like such a good idea.

At one point we pass two fellow Classic participants, a Russian mother and daughter team from St. Petersburg, huddled behind a rock, sheltering against the wind.

They look like they’re struggling, and we’re glad when we see them make it to checkpoint two later that evening.

They’re far from the worst off though. A look at the route map on Fjällräven’s website shows images of happy hikers splashing around in a stream at the next checkpoint, Sälka. Yet it was here that the storm hit hardest, flattening all of those tents. “Some people carried on,” says Marie Olsson, the volunteer who’s been helping people pick up the pieces. “But because they’re staying in the huts it won’t count as completing the Classic.”

One couple have decided to call it a day altogether – as we’re eating our lunch one of the resupply helicopters lands next to us and they climb in, looking very grateful for the rescue. “Their tent was one of the ones that was destroyed,” says Marie sadly. “But also their boots were not good, their backpacks were too thin.” We thank our lucky stars that we’re kitted out in the right gear.

Certainly if the next few days teach us anything, it’s that neither the Kungsleden as a trail, nor the Classic as an event, should be underestimated. The terrain is never particularly steep, but the pathway is often strewn with rocks and can be tricky underfoot. For long sections the trail is just planks over boggy marshland and when the winds aren’t high enough to be an issue, the mosquitoes definitely are.

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Down from on high. The highest point on the Classic route is only 1,140 metres but this far north snow isn’t infrequent even in August.

At the Tjäktja checkpoint we find three volunteers, Mathias, Tomas and Frederick, bundled up in multiple jackets and sheltering inside the check-in tent against the weather. “You wouldn’t believe it,” says Frederick, “but sometimes it’s so hot at this time of year people are walking the Classic with no shirts on. You have to jump in the streams to cool down.”

“Hmmm,” says Simona, as we warm our hands around the cups of tea they’ve kindly poured us. Then we head back out into the rain.

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Somewhere over the rainbow. Stunning moments more than made up for the sometimes inclement weather.

But if there are moments where the Fjällräven Classic doesn’t feel like a summer holiday, they’re few and far between. More often, we find ourselves revelling in the sense of space, blown away by Lapland’s bleak beauty.

As we’re cooking breakfast one morning, with not another soul for miles around, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite. They stop just long enough for me to grab my camera and fire off a few frames, before they disappear over the next ridge.

On our penultimate day we find ourselves heading northwards across a wide open plateau, the sun dipping slowly behind the tents of a traditional Sami settlement to our left. Off to the right, we can see the tongues of two massive glaciers, reminders of the ice age that shaped and sculpted this ancient-looking landscape. “I feel like we might see a dinosaur here,” says Simona. If we did it certainly wouldn’t look out of place.

In the end, we don’t come across any sauropods. But we do come away with an appreciation of why this part of Sweden has attracted generations of outdoor enthusiasts. The Svenska Turistföreningen (the Swedish Tourist Association, or STF), has been managing and promoting this wilderness since it was first formed in 1885.

At strategic points along the trail, they’ve created what they call meditationsplats (meditation spaces) marked by stones carved with quotations by Däg Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat and author.

As the second Secretary General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld was a man who gave his life to the cause of peace (quite literally – he was killed on the job in 1961). And when he wasn’t working this part of the world, where he had a house, was where he came in search of it.

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A sun-soaked section of trail near one of the meditationsplats.

Taken from his book Markings, the quotes are carved here in Swedish and Sami. Neither are languages that I speak. Nor am I normally given to meditation. But standing next to the stones and looking out at the rugged landscape which surrounds them, I start to understand why it was that Hammarskjöld thought this place was so special.

It’s the same reason Åke Nordin was so keen on enabling other people to explore it. Friluftsliv might be a tricky concept to define in English, but spend a few days hiking here, in Fjällräven’s home country, and it’s instantly obvious what the whole thing is about.

Do It Yourself:

Getting there:

Norwegian Airlines (norwegian.com) and SAS (flysas.com) both fly from London to Kiruna via Stockholm, from £305 return.

Accommodation:

Contestants on the Classic must stay in the tent that they carry with them. However, you can stay in the STF huts along the Kungsleden if you’re not part of the event. Visit swedishtouristassociation.com for the English language version of their website.

At the end of the Classic, we stayed in the Abisko Guesthouse (abiskoguesthouse.com)

Joining the Fjällräven Classic
You can sign up for the next Fjällräven Classic Sweden (or any of their global spin off events) at classic.fjallraven.com.

As a way for international visitors to explore this unique part of Sweden, it really is hard to beat. Fjällräven provide food and gas to participants, as well as organising a finishing party. Navigation is very straightforward but it’s worth remembering that while there are regular checkpoints, you’re on your own for the most part, so make sure you have everything on Fjällräven’s helpful packing list.

The Fjällräven Classic Sweden usually takes five to six days to complete, although you can definitely do it faster – the first pair across the finish line when we took part were trail runners who completed the whole thing non-stop in under 20 hours!

Tristan and Simona’s trip was hosted by Fjällräven. For more info visit fjällräven.co.uk

To read the rest of The Remote Issue, click here.

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Camping with Kids in Winter | A South Downs Bothy Adventure

Two mothers, five kids, and a lot of mist. What could possibly go wrong?

Words by Sam Haddad | Photos by Sam Haddad & Jonquil Pinto 

We’re walking through a world that is almost entirely white, save the bark-brown skeleton of an oak tree looming large to our right. At this point I’m not sure the pack of kids I’m with, which includes two of my own, have even noticed. They’re too busy telling ghost tales that are “definitely true, 100 per cent, for real, this actually happened…” Though maybe the fact we’re marching through the thickest, most soupy of fogs is precisely why they’re telling such spooky stories in the first place.

We drop into a patch of trees where the mist clears but the shadows darken. The path narrows to single-file and the story pace quickens. Before long the group is borderline hysterical, in a kind of kids from Stranger Things way, albeit without the BMXs or ever-present Demagorgan threat.

“It’s easy to take your children camping in summer and emerge all-smiles. But this winter, we wanted to experience the outdoors in an opposite season. To dive into the weather headlong…”

Still, I’m not complaining, and nor is the other mother I’m with. Eerie stories are a rite of passage and we’re just happy with how far they’ve walked in the dank without fussing. Especially as the five of them have ages ranging from four to eight and no one slept excellently in our stone manger-style bothy last night.

It’s easy to take your children camping in summer and emerge all-smiles. But this winter, we wanted to experience the outdoors in an opposite season. To dive into the weather headlong, and notice it in a way you rarely do when you spend the darkest months hiding indoors or bolting from one building to the next.

Credit: Sam Haddad

This is what an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty looks like in fog. Credit: Sam Haddad

I say we meaning my friend and I, I’m sure our kids would have rather gone to Legoland or Eurodisney given the choice, like many of their school friends were doing this holiday. If you can handle the crowds and the costs that kind of fun of course has its place but there’s something about being in nature and taking on a bit of a challenge that I hope might leave a more lasting impression on them, even if they’re too busy having fun with their friends to realise it.

Gumber Bothy is a National Trust Bunkhouse just off the South Downs way in West Sussex. It’s in the shadow of a hill sheep farm but you can’t drive there directly, you can only reach it via a two-mile hike through a deep forest. When we’d arrived the day before, in spite of the drizzle, the children had found the idea of needing to walk through the woods to reach their bed for the night a surprisingly enticing prospect.

“In spite of the drizzle, the children had found the idea of needing to walk through the woods to reach their bed for the night a surprisingly enticing prospect.”

And there was something quite sweet about watching them head off ahead waterproofed-up to the max, with their backpacks stuffed with soft toys and sleeping bags for the night. It was the tail end of autumn so some of the trees were still aflame with brightly-coloured leaves and we even found the odd super-sweet blackberry to power on the smallest ones.

Carrying their little lives in backpacks. Credit: Sam Haddad

Backpacks stuffed with sleeping bags and soft toys. Credit: Sam Haddad

Fortunately, we reached Gumber Bothy before morale and energy levels dipped too low. You can camp in the grounds but we’re not hardcore enough for that at this time of year so we opted for the hostel and were pleased to find we had one of the 12-bunk rooms to ourselves. It wasn’t heated though and with temperatures set to hover around four degrees the night ahead looked potentially interesting.

“We didn’t end up lost, lost, as such but…”

We’d also promised them a campfire but it had been damp and rainy for days so the prospect of finding dry wood was slim. But it felt good to let them roam free in the woods below the bothy, with the older ones in charge, in a way you could never do in the built environment back home. When they eventually returned arms full of soaking-wet sticks we persuaded them to wait until the next morning for a fire in the hope the wood might have dried out by then.

The bothy had a good basic kitchen so we loaded up on pasta for dinner. By now it was dark but too cloudy for stargazing, which was a shame as the South Downs is now an International Dark Sky Reserve, thanks its great night-time viewing opportunities. My friend then pulled out some sparklers which more than made up for it as far as the kids were concerned.

Forestxxx. Credit: Sam Haddad

It felt good to let them roam in the forest unsupervised in a way you could never do back home. Credit: Sam Haddad

To get ready for bed we put on all of our clothes like a comedy character from a storybook. We then played a few rounds of Uno and listened to some folk story podcasts I’d forgotten I had on my phone, while trying to stop the now-hyper youngest two from jumping from bed to bed. Eventually they calmed down and went to sleep, and a good few hours later my eldest son and I fell asleep too. Though both my kids woke up me a few hours later and to be taken to the toilet, which was outside and in the rain. Leaving my warm sleeping bag for that was a trip low-point for sure.

Diving headlong into winter weather. Credit: Sam Haddad

Diving headlong into winter weather. Credit: Sam Haddad

In spite of the fitful night and mist that was now enveloping this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with an even greater vigour than the day before, everyone woke up with high spirits and after a hot cocoa porridge breakfast and aborted fire-starting attempt, we headed directly into the void for a walk.

We didn’t end up “lost, lost” as such but it’s also fair to say we had no phone reception or exact idea of where we were for most of the hike, though we were also quite confident of the vague parallelogram shape we were tracing out, based on a laminated map we’d found in the bothy. There were no sights to speak of only fog, sheep and the bare bones of trees, but that didn’t matter, as there was something pure about experiencing the South Downs way and winter weather in whatever form it took.

Gumber Bothy and the author's two sons. Credit: Sam Haddad

Gumber Bothy in all its flint-stone glory and the author’s two sons. Credit: Sam Haddad

After a couple of hours of gentle walking, and many snacks, the ghost stories switched to silly songs mostly involving the kind of bum/wee-type humour kids of this age can’t get enough of. We swung past the bothy to pick up our backpacks just as the day’s next hardy guests were arriving, and hiked the final stretch out, wet, muddy and the kind of tired with rosy-cheeks that you only get from time spent in the cold outdoors.

At this time of year all instinct tells us to hole up inside and hunker down for winter. Netflix and screens, cocoons and hygge vibes, but if you do get out into the wilderness for a while you’ll always feel better for it. I know I did, as did my friend, and I’m pretty sure all our kids did too. They certainly talked about the bothy adventure for a long time afterwards, which means they probably didn’t hate it, so that’s a win in my books.

To read the rest of December’s ‘Family’ Issue head here

To read more Great British Adventures head here

Sparklers in lieu of a campfire. Credit: Sam Haddad

Sparklers in lieu of a campfire. Credit: Sam Haddad

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The post Camping with Kids in Winter | A South Downs Bothy Adventure appeared first on Mpora.