Saturday, 23 February 2013

Wild Camping In Winter

Camp beside the Allt an Dubh-Loch in the Southern Cairngorms

This piece first appeared in TGO magazine a few years ago. As a few people have reacted with horror at the idea of winter camping, as described in my last post, I thought I'd post this to explain, maybe, why winter camping is wonderful.
“It has been said that winter camping doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Sometimes, it may reveal that you’re out of your mind.”

Laura and Guy Waterman. Backwoods Ethics.

Just the thought of winter backpacking, of heading into the hills in the cold and frost and ice makes some people shudder, including many summer backpackers. The idea that winter backpacking means hiking through blizzards, pitching tents with freezing fingers and shivering through long dark nights appears masochistic to the inexperienced. And winter backpacking can indeed be uncomfortable, unpleasant and even dangerous. But with the right skills and equipment it can also be wonderful and exciting with no need for numb fingers or cold nights. The world is different in winter and so is the backpacking experience. The winter landscape is wilder and more dramatic. The hills seem bigger and more mountainous, especially when snow-covered. Packs are heavier but there is less time to walk so less time spent carrying the extra weight. Short daylight hours mean time has to be measured carefully. Off at dawn, camp at dusk. Maybe start or finish in the dark, walking by torchlight or, ideally, moonlight. When it’s clear winter skies are brighter, vaster and have a depth lacking in summer. When it’s stormy the shelter of the tent is even more appreciated. With fifteen or sixteen hours of darkness a winter night in a tent can be strangely relaxing. There is no need to hurry. Meals can be simmered slowly, books read, journals written, the sky watched. The sounds of the winter wild can be listened to – ice cracking, snow softly brushing the tent, the wind whistling down the valley. (The last is the reason I don’t listen to music or a radio in the tent – I might miss something important like the start of a snowfall or the wind beginning to build). Long hours in a warm sleeping bag (and it must be warm!) are a way to unwind and feel refreshed. There’s no early sun to wake you nor do you have to close the tent up to keep the midges out. I leave my tent open far more in winter than summer, relying on sleeping bag and clothing to keep me warm. Often I use a floorless single-skin tent or a tarp, something I never do in the insect season. I love being warm and comfortable under cover yet still able to look out at the world and not have to seal myself inside to keep the midges out. January is a better month for wild camping than August!

The perfect winter landscape for backpacking is snow-covered, a pristine white alpine or arctic world where all signs of humanity are buried. Of course in Britain winter days are as likely to bring rain and sleet as snow and grey damp skies rather than the brightness of sun on snowfields. Warmer temperatures might seem preferable to the inexperienced winter backpacker and less demanding to deal with than freezing cold. This is not so. Wind and rain and damp air in above freezing temperatures can be more difficult to cope with than snow and sub zero temperatures. Keeping warm when it’s dry and -5 is easier than keeping warm when it’s wet and +5. Dampness is a real enemy in winter and why winter backpacking in Britain can be more challenging and difficult than in countries with colder winters.

December Camp in the Coulin Hills

Even when the temperatures are below freezing there is still often no snow. Then the frozen icy world, the landscape bound hard as iron by frost, can be beautiful and demanding at the same time. Some of my most memorable winter backpacking trips have been in conditions like this. Two years ago in late December I headed into the Coulin Forest hills above Achnashellach in cold, clear weather. The hills were sharply etched against the blue sky and the sun gave little warmth. The path was a ribbon of rock solid frozen earth interspersed with patches of ice. As the low sun sank towards the horizon shaded Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh became monstrous black cliffs hanging over me. Across the glen Beinn Liath Mhor glowed red in the sunshine. I camped on a col at 650 metres where I had to hammer my tent pegs into the frozen soil with rocks. The temperature was -5ºC and a cool breeze made it feel much colder so I was glad to slide into my sleeping bag, light my little gas lantern and start the stove for a warming drink. There was no sound but the occasional sigh of the wind and no lights but mine. All I could see was mountain and sky. A half moon hung high in the black sky and the stars were brilliant. The great constellation of Orion, a symbol of winter backpacking for me as it’s not visible in the summer sky, rose between the black silhouettes of Beinn Liath Mhor and Sgorr Ruadh. The next day I climbed those two peaks, looking down on cloud-filled glens out of which the mountains rose stark and majestic while the mist flowed like water, pouring over the lips of corries. The going needed care as there was much ice – frozen streams and puddles, bubbles of ice in the grass where water had overflowed, a thin veneer of ice on rocks. The concentration needed to walk safely heightened the intensity of a breathtaking day of sunshine and astounding air clarity with sharp, distant views. Sitting on the summits in the faint warmth of the winter sun I looked across at the snowless Torridon summits etched hard against the pale blue chilly sky. There was no snow but it was definitely winter and definitely memorable.

Frosty Gaick Pass Camp with Cameron McNeish

Such perfect weather is to be relished but not expected. Many times the real joy in winter backpacking is making camp and getting out of the damp cold air. Such was the case in December 2008 when I hiked through the Gaick Pass with Cameron McNeish. Low cloud covered the hills and cold rain fell intermittently. Underfoot slushy snow made the walking hard. Everything was damp and grey. In the heart of the pass steep slopes vanished into mist and the lochans were half-frozen. We walked into the dusk and camped after dark on a frosty patch of grass. During the night the rain turned to wet snow then returned to drizzle at dawn. But our camp was peaceful and warm and the dull dampness ceased to matter as I lay in my sleeping bag cooking, eating and reading. Why would I have wanted to be anywhere else?


  1. Beautiful piece Chris.
    I remember my first winter camp - It was in 1982 in Snowdonia. I was 15 years old and foolhardy as only the invincible young can be. I was ill prepared and suffered because of it, but learnt so much and went back 2 years later better prepared.
    I love winter wild camping and your post can only inspire others to enjoy its unique delights.

  2. Beautiful piece Chris.
    I remember my first winter camp - It was in 1982 in Snowdonia. I was 15 years old and foolhardy as only the invincible young can be. I was ill prepared and suffered because of it, but learnt so much and went back 2 years later better prepared.
    I love winter wild camping and your post can only inspire others to enjoy its unique delights.

  3. The quote at the start of your article made me go and dig out my copy of "Wilderness Ethics - Preserving the Spirit of Wildness" - I'm surprised Guy Waterman's writing and ideas about conservation never received much publicity over here.

    A great article Chris. We sometimes forget how crazy the notion of winter camping sounds to most folk. I recently made the mistake of mentioning my plans for a trip to the Glenfinnan hills for Feb half term to new work colleagues. I think I'll keep quiet next time!

    Dave Porter

  4. Off on a winter wild camp near Helvellyn tomorrow.
    Bring it on ..

  5. Why would I have wanted to be anywhere else? "Great Ends Man !!"

  6. What tents are they in the pictures?

    1. The tents in the top picture are a Hilleberg Nallo 2 and a GoLite Shangri-La 3. The latter is in the middle picture too. The tents in the last picture are a Hilleberg Soulo and a Hilleberg Akto.

  7. Great piece Chris. I've learnt the hard (stupid?) way to not get cold, is to not get cold in the first place! Twenty minutes of grumpy misery first thing is soon forgotten once the legs get going. Apt piece as I'll be wildcamping/snowshoeing in the Pyrenees next couple of weeks. The hills here look enticing, but it'll be judging -8?