Thursday 29 September 2011

The Joys of Wild Camping

Here's another piece from the past. I wrote this five years ago. My views on wild camping haven't changed!

Rain falling on the flysheet. Hypnotic. Rhythmic. The sound rises and falls, speeds up, slows down. The tent shivers in the gusting wind. Cold air swirling across the thin nylon skin. Inside a candle burns in the porch, casting flickering shadows on the walls from its golden pool of light. A pot of thick soup sits simmering above the blue hissing flame of a tiny stove. I lie in my thick down sleeping bag, lulled almost to sleep by the rain. I am hungry though. I reach out an arm and spoon up a mouthful of soup. The vegetables are soft. It’s done. I sit up, shivering suddenly as my arms and shoulders hit the cool air. I pull on a down vest over my thin base layer and feel instantly cosy. The storm has changed. The wind comes in gusts now, each one accompanied by a staccato burst of heavy rain. I listen to the spattering on the flysheet and the dying sighs of the wind between the storm showers as I drink my hot soup. Then I drift off to sleep protected from the cold and wet by my skimpy nylon cocoon.

I find such nights in the wilds, sheltered from the elements but still in contact with them, magical and satisfying. The closeness of the storm makes me feel close to nature, close to the source of life, and strangely at peace. I tend to sleep long and deep in such weather. More exciting and keeping me more wakeful are calm nights with the sky full of stars when I can lie in my sleeping bag free from the constraints of a shelter and stare at the vastness of the universe, at the great wheeling black sky stretching from horizon to horizon and back, far back, to the very dawn of time and the creation of the universe. Such nights are best on a high isolated mountain top or a flat desert plain, places where the sky is big and the world small.

Then there’s the waking. The dawn. The wonderful realisation that I am in the wilds with the freedom of a day’s walking ahead of me. Sunrise is the coldest time of day and I have often lain in my sleeping bag feeling the frosty air drifting over my face and watching as the sun lights the rocks high on the mountain above, turning the dull grey red and gold, then creeps slowly downwards, bringing light and colour, until it suddenly bursts over me, a startling explosion of warmth and brightness. I never tire of such mornings, such beginnings. Then there are the mornings when you wake to a strange diffused light in the tent and an unusual sharpness in the air. Touch the flysheet and there’s a soft slithering sound. The light is suddenly clearer and brighter. Snow has fallen in the night and the world is untouched and perfect.

Wild camping, far from roads, towns, bright lights, noise, and all the rest of industry and society that separates us from nature, is a joyful experience, a delightful game, a thrilling simplicity. It puts us back in close contact with the real world, the natural world. It also puts back in contact with our prehistoric and primeval past, to the period – the long period, covering most of human existence – when everyone lived in the wilds, when there was no civilisation, no urban life and we were all nomadic. Then shelter was a tent of animal skins or tree branches, perhaps a cave, at best a simple hut made from natural materials. Cooking was done over a wood fire, the smoke drifting through the trees and out into the sky. Sleeping meant curling up in furs and skins in front of the same fire. Those times are there still there in our nature, part of our inescapable past. The feelings of wonder and joy when wild camping are, I suspect, in part an acknowledgement of this, a connection with our ancestors.

These feelings from the distant past also link in with one of the fun aspects of wild camping, which also comes from childhood: den making, home creating, building your own private hideout in which you can be secure and outside the world. When a child I used to build shelters from fallen branches and in tree wells and the roots of fallen trees and relished these secret lairs. I think camping, especially with a small backpacking tent, reflects such children’s adventures. The creativity of building the shelter may not be there but creativity exists in selecting a site and pitching the tent to resist the weather. And with a tarp it all comes back, perhaps why I find tarp camping more satisfying than tent camping. A tarp can be fitted into the landscape, pitched to follow the curves of a hollow or adapted to the shape of a huge fallen tree root or steep bank. Tents I usually pitch quickly. Tarps I may spend an hour or more playing with shapes and possibilities. There’s a sense of pride and success sitting under a tarp in a storm too, knowing that you pitched this sheet of nylon so it would resist the weather, choosing the shape and adjusting the sheet to make the best shelter.

Camp cooking also connects us with our primeval ancestors and with our childhood. There is a delight in being able to produce an edible meal in one pot over a small stove, even if it did come out of a packet and just needed heating up. That food provides warmth and energy, which seem much more essential in the wilds. The stove is the modern campfire and hence jealously guarded by many campers. Criticising someone’s choice of stove is like criticising their fire making ability and likely to be fiercely resisted. The stove is the heart of the camp because that is where meals and hot drinks are produced. In Britain I normally cook in or just outside the tent porch, often sitting in the tent to avoid wind and rain. In the Western USA and Canada, where there are bears that may raid your camp, I often cook some distance away from my shelter so any visiting bear will go to the kitchen area and not to me when I’m asleep. In such camps I spend my time in my camp kitchen by the stove, the tent becoming just a bedroom. If the weather is bad I erect a tarp as a kitchen shelter and sit under that.

You can’t stare away an evening watching a stove however. You can with a camp fire and in areas where they can be built safely and without doing any damage I still like to light one. There’s magic in the warmth and flickering flames that can’t be found in a stove. I can remember one night on a 1000 mile walk through the Yukon Territory, a walk on which I lit many camp fires, when I camped in forest in the rain at the end of a long day feeling rather fed up with the weather and the difficult going. I slung a tarp between two trees and lit a fire in front of it, putting my mini grill over one end so I could make a hot drink and cook hot food. Sitting under the tarp with a mug of hot soup listening to the rain hiss and spit as it landed on the blazing fire and looking out into the blackness of the forest, just shadowy, flickering tree trunks lit by the flames visible with beyond them the dark stretching to infinity, my mood changed and I felt calm and relaxed, pleased to be there, in front of my little fire, alone in the vastness of the wilderness. It turned into one of the most enjoyable camps of the walk.

Sometimes makeshift camps can be like that. Of course arriving at a spot you worked out in advance would be a good place to camp can be satisfying. There’s a challenge however in finding a site in unpromising places, especially when the selected one proves unusable. On a long walk in the Canadian Rockies I came to a lake whose shore I had thought would be a good place to camp. I was wrong. The lake was surrounded by tussocks and bog. After circling it and confirming there was no dry or flat ground I continued on down a narrow trail into steep dense forest, worrying about finding a site as the day was late and darkness would soon fall. The trail dropped into a narrow valley with a stream trickling down it. There was no flat ground beside the stream but it was the only water I’d seen for a while so I wanted to camp nearby, especially as it was now almost dark. I climbed a little way up the far side through the now gloomy trees and scouted round for a site. A gap between two pines looked just big enough. I lay down on the pine needles. There was barely enough flat ground. I squeezed the tent in between the trees, distorting the ends round their trunks. It would do. And it did. A wonderfully comfortable camp on soft pine needles in the quiet of a dense forest. I slept like a log, an appropriate saying given my surroundings.

On another occasion on my walk over the Munros and Tops I descended from Bidean nam Bian into the Lairig Eilde on a day of torrential rain and strong winds. The whole glen was waterlogged with pools of water on every flattish spot and cascades pouring down the valley sides. I stumbled through the wetness, cursing the rain and feeling glum as I searched for a site. I wanted warmth and shelter, food and rest. Eventually I found a flattish knoll that wasn’t too wet with just enough room for my little tent. I pitched it, tightening the guylines against the wind, stripped off my wet waterproofs, boots and socks and crawled in. Suddenly I had shelter. I donned a dry fleece sweater and slid into my dry sleeping bag. Now I had warmth. I lit the stove and made a hot drink. Outside lay a saturated world, the rain still hammering down. Now it looked wild and exciting though and I felt glad to be there. Wild camping is like that. Even the most unpromising even unpleasant situation can become pleasurable. I recommend it.

The pictures show camps along the Arizona Trail, in the Northwest Highlands, in the Cairngorms and in the West Highlands.


  1. The wild camping is why I go backpacking. I love the walking, but camp is the best time. I even love it when it's raining (which it has done for me rather a lot recently!).

  2. Words fail me, that was incredible reading.

  3. "a delightful game, a thrilling simplicity"

    Summed up perfectly, Chris.

    Mike fae Dundee

  4. Whenever I plan a walk the route revolves around the camp spots. I hope the weather will be wonderful so that I will be able to sit out and watch the meteor showers.

    But the camps I have the fondest memories of are the ones when all hall lets loose and I am all snug inside Wanda listening to the gravel being hurled my way with the noise of the wind coming at the tent like an express train in a tunnel.

    Great post, Chris. Brought back really good memories.

  5. Nail on the head, as usual. Beautiful post, loved the stuff about childhood dens!!

  6. A wonderful read which I can relate to in every way. Coming from the other half of the globe where wild camping as a concept does not exist (because you can camp anywhere) here in the more populated regions up north finding a place where you can enjoy cooking a meal, sleeping under a tarp, look at the stars becomes much more important. But it is achievable you just need to look harder.

    Thanks Chris for a wonderfully inspiring post.

  7. Wonderful and inspiring post, you old romantic, you! THe rain beating down. The wind zapping the pines. The stars blazoning the skies. The comforting glow of the stove, promising grub to come. The snugness in the sleeping bag. Aah ...

  8. In wild camping, you will be able to relish the experience of being close to nature. The view of the mountains, the stars, the trees, and the smell of grass are such things that made this a very joyful activity indeed.

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  9. Your post hits the spot. The greatest camping experience is roughing it up in the wild. I feel that I am closest to nature.
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  10. Camping is one of my hobbies along with trekking and backpacking. In short, I love adventures. With this, I always make sure to have all my basic tools needed when doing outdoor activities in my bag. That includes cold steel knife, compass, GPS, and tents among others. I will go on camping this coming weekend. I'm sure it'll be fun.