Sunday 24 August 2014

Down to the Woods

Ancient forest in the North Cascades National Park

 Returning from a trip to Edinburgh recently (urban pictures to come soon) I felt relief at seeing the woods of Strathspey and again remembered just how signficant forests are for me. I've also been writing about forests and looking at pictures of them for my forthcoming book on the Pacific Crest Trail. With these thoughts in mind here's a piece about my love of forests I wrote for The Great Outdoors several years ago.

Camp in the Glen Feshie woods
Forests have been an important part of my outdoor life since I was a child. Brought up on the Lancashire coast, the first woods I encountered were the Formby pine woods. Too young to be allowed to venture into them I can remember staring into the dark forest and longing to wander down the sandy paths I could see vanishing beneath the trees. Those paths spoke of mystery, adventure and the unknown, a secret, hidden world where anything could lie behind the next tree. When I was allowed to venture into the woods I found them just as exciting as I’d imagined. Much of my early route-finding and outdoor skills were begun amongst those pines – I carried no map or compass, I had no waterproof clothing, just wool and cotton garments that soaked up rain (and bog and pond water from when my exploring took me into damp areas). I often returned home wet to the skin. But I learnt how to find my way in the woods, how to recognise and remember subtle changes in the terrain, how to understand the landscape. And from the first day I loved walking in the forest, loved the silence, the solitude, the patterns of light and shade, the coolness, the wildlife, the whole “other world” feeling of being in the midst of thousands of trees. Then there were the storms, the winds shaking the tops of the trees so they sounded like the surging sea and bringing down cones and needles and twigs and occasionally branches and even whole trees. At those times the woods were stimulating and energising and it seemed as though the whole rain-lashed forest was alive, a single sentient being responding to the gale. In winter when snow lay on the ground and the trees were white I tracked squirrels and foxes and other rarely seen animals, tracing their signs in the snow and working out what they were doing. Bird song was important too, a musical background to the silent trees that came and went as invisible flocks passed through the branches seeking seeds and insects. In the woods only nature existed.

Woodland in winter in the Pennines near Hebden Bridge

My first camping experiences were in forests too, not backpacking but with the Scouts at Tawd Vale Scout Camp (which I’m pleased to see is still there and offering the same experiences) where I learnt about camp fires, building shelters and other stuff now called bushcraft. Mainly though I learnt to love camping in forests, something that has remained with me ever since, though at Tawd Vale that meant sleeping in a canvas tent with a dozen and more others. Putting together the camping and the walking made for backpacking, for moving through forests day after day, waking every morning surrounded by trees and the sounds and smells of the woods. When I hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail a few years ago I was in forests much of the time, sometimes for weeks without a break. There were clearings, big meadows, views across lakes and rocky summits but all were contained in the forest and were part of it. It is a glorious feeling to move through vast unbroken forests every day and sleep under the trees every night. The Pacific Northwest forests are not all magnificent old growth forests of giant trees, though some are, such as the magnificent western red cedar forests of the Cascades National Park and the lichen-draped Douglas fir rain forests of Olympic National Park. Many though are young forests, the old woods having been felled or burnt by lightning fires. Most are regenerating naturally but a few have been replanted. Yet all these still have a presence, still produce the deep emotions engendered by all forests, and I relished being in them. Only in fresh clear-cuts, where the felling was so recent no new trees had started to grow, and active logging areas did I feel I would rather be somewhere else. 

Camp in an aspen grove in the San Francisco Mountains in Arizona
This general pleasure in forests is a major part of the positive feelings towards the Forestry Commission despite all its regimented conifer plantations, which make up most of Britain’s woods. Even these are still forests and bring forth the same feelings. It’s easy to denigrate these plantations – I have done so myself and I am certainly in favour of them being changed and more diverse forests being created – but they can still be pleasant to walk through and camp in. Just being surrounded by tall spruce trees is relaxing and there is a feeling of safety camping in their dark confines. Hearing people talk of their intense feeling for forests that are not “heritage” or “old” or any other special designation but just local woods to wander in and connect with the natural world in has made me rethink my views of conifer plantations and realise that they are better, much better, than no woods at all and also a starting point for expanding more diverse and natural forests. 

Forest camp on the Pacific Northwest Trail below Mount Baker
Sadly, there is nowhere in Britain where you can walk for weeks through woods as I did in the Pacific Northwest. Linking up forests to create woodland corridors that enabled longer backpacking trips to be taken would be wonderful. In the meantime there are forests big enough for trips of several days and more, especially if circular routes are taken. The Cairngorms, where I live, has some of the finest remaining native woods and it is possible to walk through the Abernethy, Glenmore, Rothiemurchus and Glen Feshie forests for several days with many excellent wild camping options along the way. Wild camping is of course a legal right in Scotland so there’s no concern about whether you can camp or not. In many English forests it’s different – though that never stopped me camping in woods when I lived in England and I was never discovered. It is, after all, easy to hide in a forest!

Night in the Glen Feshie woods


  1. Chris, you didn't mention the smell in forests. It is very comforting. Not just in coniferous forests. I can't describe it of course. Musty, peaty, piney, soily, lovely. Despite this I've never wild camped in one. Your post has prompted me tp plan to put that to rights.

  2. A great article Chris and some wonderful wild camps.

    I think it takes time to adjust to walking all day through forest. We are so used to the open nature of the British hills. I can initially find forests a bit claustrophobic and in Canada this summer, I found myself sometimes longing for open views and Alpine country (as well as sometimes cursing all of the downfall which can block trails). However, now back in England, I find myself really missing the trees and that great sense of anticipation you get when finally emerging from dense forest into the open meadows and the first glimpse of big peaks. You're right, the closest we get is in the magnificent woodlands bordering the Cairngorms. Your camp photos are making me think about our next trip North.
    Dave Porter