Epic Gear Fails and How to Avoid Them

Long-distance backpacker and record-breaking ultra-runner Will Renwick has had more than his fair share of trials and tribulations. He looks back on his biggest trail fails, so you don’t make the same mistakes.

18th November 2023 | Words and photography by Will Renwick


If I were to be honest about myself, I’d say I’m a little bit ‘twp’ – that’s a word we use in Wales to describe someone lacking in common sense. Unfortunately, this has meant I’ve learnt quite a lot of things the hard way. That’s not only in my daily life – I’ve got the scars to show for it – but also in my experiences as an outdoor enthusiast, more specifically as a long-distance hiker and runner. Over the years, I’ve hiked the several long-distance trails including the Cambrian Way through the length of Wales and the Alta Via 2 across the Italian Dolomites. I’ve even got a 500-mile FKT under my belt, but I still seem to make some fairly consequential mistakes. Some of these are too embarrassing to reveal here, but there are one or two that I’m happy to share, in the hope that I might actually spare others from the same misfortune. So here goes…

The simple joys of a hot meal on the trail.

The simple joys of a hot meal on the trail

Pitching Up

What not to do: Turns out the ‘calm before a storm’ is a real thing. I wish I’d known that back in 2018 when I was hiking the Cambrian Way. I was about a week into the trail and the day had been rough but the evening was beautifully calm. I decided to pitch my tent on a nice viewpoint on the slopes of Cadair Idris so I could take in the last light on the valley below. Only a few hours later, I was jolted awake as my tent thrashed about violently. The wind only got stronger as the hours passed by. I began packing up my gear, knowing that I’d probably have to bail soon. Sure enough, one big gust arrived and the next thing I knew, the whole tent was wrapped around me. I jumped out, bundled the tent into my backpack and headed back down the mountain in the rain. I knew exactly where I was going: the public toilets at the foot of the trail. On reaching them, I rolled out my sleeping mat in the space between the sink and the urinal and climbed into the sleeping bag. Truth be told, I ended up with quite a good night’s sleep. It’s not one I’d want to repeat, mind.

What I’ve learnt: Obviously, examining (and trusting) the forecast is important, but this also taught me to absolutely always seek a sheltered spot to pitch up, whatever the weather. Don’t be tempted to choose a spot that’ll give you a nice view for your Instagram feed.

The night in the WC

The fateful night in the public toilets at the foot of Cadair Idris, after my tent collapsed and I had to retreat down the mountain.

Packing Your Kit

What not to do: I’ve never been unfortunate enough to forget something like my tent or camping stove when heading out backpacking, but I have forgotten crucial components that go with them. On the first night of a fastpacking adventure from London to the coast on the Vanguard Way a few years back, I realised – as I was pitching my tent – that I’d forgotten to pack the poles for it. I ended up sleeping under a flysheet propped up by a couple of branches. In similar vein, I was once forced to eat Idahoan instant mash with my bank card, having forgotten to bring any form of eating utensil with me on a backpacking trip.

What to do: Of course, having a kit list and checking things off is a good idea, but I’ve also come to find that it really helps to think about scenarios when I’m packing. Have I got everything I need to pitch my tent? Have I got everything I need to cook food and to eat with? Have I got everything I need to sleep comfortably?

A makeshift bivvy on the Vanguard Way, having forgotten to pack the tent poles...

A makeshift bivvy on the Vanguard Way, having forgotten to pack the tent poles...

Cooking Your Food

What not to do: Sadly, I’ve had to eat cold dehydrated food on a number of occasions. The most recent instance was during my attempt to run the length of Wales while climbing all 189 of its mountains along the way. I’d got into the habit of storing my lighter inside my stove pot, which seemed to work just fine. That was until about halfway into the challenge when, as I settled down for the evening high on a mountain, I opened the pot to find the lighter had broken apart from rattling around inside it all day. Instant chicken ramen noodles are delicious when they’re steaming hot, but the taste isn’t quite the same when they’ve been cold-soaked.

What to do: Always bring a back-up lighter or better still, do what the experts do and carry a firesteel – Wolf and Grizzly make a good one and so does Exotac.

On my Wales run

One of the more miserable moments on my Wales mountain run.

Picking the right wet weather kit

What not to do: The picture below shows me on Pumlumon looking like a Soviet-era Slovakian grandmother. Once again, I had found myself in some very difficult wind and rain and unfortunately the inadequateness of my waterproof jacket’s hood had been fully exposed by the unforgiving climate of the Cambrian Mountains. All my rain shell offered in the way of adjustment was one flimsy Velcro tab at the back of the head and this did virtually nothing to prevent the hood from blowing down, over and over again. It offered no protection and became virtually useless.

What to do: When you’re choosing a waterproof jacket, always check whether you can adjust the hood closely around your head. Some jackets just have a single drawcord, while technical shells often come with three-point adjustment.

Battling the elements in a woefully inadequate rain jacket, somewhere in the Cambrian Mountains.

Battling the elements in a woefully inadequate rain jacket, somewhere in the Cambrian Mountains.

Looking after your valuables

What not to do: About ten years ago now, I spent 63 days walking the entire perimeter of Wales. While I had the time of my life overall, there were still some very tough days. The hardest of the lot was during a storm on Anglesey. I’d spent a whole day in the rain and was desperate to find a pub to shelter in. Eventually, I found one, rolled into it squelching wet and cold to the bone but happy to be out of the elements. Unfortunately, my happiness turned to despair when I discovered that my chest pocket had filled up with water, with my phone right at the bottom of it.

What to do: A decent waterproof case is a wise investment. On my three-week run across Wales’s mountains I relied on a sandwich bag – and it actually worked really well.

Desperately trying to dry kit on the Wales Coast Path. Didn’t work.

Desperately trying to dry kit on the Wales Coast Path. Didn’t work.

Drying your gear

What not to do: Like many outdoor enthusiasts in the UK, my first proper taste of backpacking came as a teen, on a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition. That wasn’t what got me hooked on outdoor adventure though. In fact, I think it almost totally put me off hiking because, unbeknownst to me at the time, my jacket had a huge 10-inch hole in the waterproof membrane. I spent a whole five days in the mountains wondering why the layers under my jacket were getting totally drenched. Where did the hole come from? From trying to dry out my jacket on a radiator, of course.

What to do: Stick your jacket on a hanger near a radiator but not on it. Or if the care label states that the garment is suitable for tumble drying, stick it in your tumble dryer on a low heat cycle.

Wet and claggy conditions in the mountains – classic Welsh weather.

Wet and claggy conditions in the mountains – classic Welsh weather.

Those are some of the main lessons about gear from me then – that’s all I’ve come to realise so far anyway. Unfortunately, I’m sure there’ll undoubtedly be plenty more mishaps to come. One day, maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a backpacking trip that goes to plan. I’d be very surprised if that were to happen though.

Of course, on those days when it all comes together, the suffering and the misfortunes all fade away. Spectacular views on the Cambrian Way.

Of course, on those days when it all comes together, the suffering and the misfortunes all fade away. Spectacular views on the Cambrian Way.

Will Renwick is an outdoors writer, long-distance runner and backpacker, originally from Cardiff. At 22, he was the first person to walk the entire perimeter of Wales. More recently, he ran all 189 of Wales’ mountains in one continuous fastpacking journey, a feat chronicled in the short film Taith Galed, currently touring across the UK.

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