Thursday 27 August 2020

A great camp, fine hills, and thoughts on coping with midges

In my many years of wandering in the Scottish Highlands I’ve often looked at a spot and thought it would be a great place to camp. Usually I’ve then forgotten about it. However, looking at the map years later can bring back the memory and sometimes spur a return visit to actually camp there. This was the case with my most recent camp, which was by Loch a’Mhadaidh Ruadh below An Ruadh-stac in the NW Highlands.

On a cloudy evening I followed footpaths to the Bealach an Ruadh-stac then dropped down rough slopes to the loch, which is actually two and almost three lochs. The ground here is mostly boggy with a few stony patches. There are many tussocks and rocks. It’s a lovely spot but finding a passable camp site is quite difficult and I spent a while searching before settling on the top of a stony bump above the loch that was reasonably dry and reasonably flat. It would do. 

From this camp there were splendid views of the great rock pyramid of An Ruadh-stac, the long ridge of Meall Chean-dearg, and distant Ben Damph. Set in the heart of the mountains there was nothing to see but rock, mountain, loch, and sky – exactly why I was here. The evening was quiet and cool. The night was cold for August, the temperature falling to 3°C. The chill was probably why there were few midges around at dawn. There was lovely early light on the mountains, and I spent an hour ambling round taking photographs and revelling in the wild beauty.

Leaving camp set up as I planned on a second night here I spent the day on An Ruadh-stac and Maol Chean-dearg. The light faded a little with high thin clouds softening the views, but it was all still splendid. An Ruadh-stac is a dramatic peak. There’s only a sketchy path up it’s quartzite slopes and a little easy scrambling is required. It doesn’t quite reach Munro height and doesn’t seem often visited. I saw no-one. 

Maol Chean-dearg is a Munro and there is a path, steep and rocky and eroded in places but easy to follow, and I did meet a handful of people. It’s not as spectacular a peak as An Ruadh-stac but the views from the summit were the best of the day, especially dizzyingly down to Loch an Eoin and north to the line of the jagged Torridon peaks with Liathach seemingly merging into Beinn Eighe. Out across the sea the mountains of Harris were surprisingly sharp and clear. 

I lingered on the summit, speaking briefly to a walker who arrived, commented on how tough the boulder field was on the ascent , took some photos on his phone, then set off down. I was reluctant to leave this idyllic spot but after a while the midges found me and became irritating enough to get me moving. Devils in paradise!

Back at camp the midges were out in their millions or billions, or trillions, great clouds erupting around me. Insect repellent stopped them biting but the swarms were still irritating. It was late afternoon and still very warm. Retreating into the tent was not appealing, it would be hot, stuffy and sweaty in there. I knew rain and wind was forecast for the next day and my plan had been to return to the car then anyway. I might as well do that now I thought and escape the midges. Breaking camp required composure and gritted teeth. Every time I bent down to pull out a tent peg midges enveloped my head. I was glad when I was on my way, despite a rather badly packed rucksack. Back at the car the midges were just as bad. I had clean clothes to change into. That could wait until I was home!

This was the worst midge experience of the summer so far. On social media I’d seen many reports of people suffering similar attacks, some asking if the midges were worse than in other years. I can’t say if that is actually so, but I have had appalling midges too many times in previous years to feel this year is any different. The crucial factor is the weather. This summer has seen many calm humid days, which are ideal for midges. Stormy summers are less so. When I walked the Scottish Watershed some years ago I encountered few midges as the weather in the Highlands was generally wet and windy.

Over the years I’ve developed a strategy for coping with midges that just about makes life tolerable. This is based around three items – insect repellent, mosquito coils, and a tent with a large enough porch to cook in safely with the doors closed. As soon as I stop to camp the midge repellent goes on any exposed skin. Once the tent is up I light a mosquito coil in the porch. Water collected – I bring enough containers to only do this once – I shut myself in the tent. Except when cooking I keep the inner doors closed. The outer door is always shut.  On warm nights this can result in a very damp hot atmosphere with condensation pouring down the flysheet walls – I find this preferable to the midges. A pee bottle is useful too – going out in the night is not advisable!

If I wake to midges filling the porch and slithering down the tent walls I light a mosquito coil in the inner tent, unzip as little of the door as I need to slip the coil into the porch, then zip up the door again. Five to ten minutes usually sees the porch clear of live midges and I can open the inner door and start the stove. Breakfast over I then pack everything before leaving the tent. Then it’s a question of getting the tent down as quickly as possible, stuffing it into the pack, and walking briskly away.

This procedure requires efficiency and speed. I don’t like it but it’s the best way I’ve found of dealing with midges. Camping somewhere breezy is much better but not always possible.

Midge nets are an option I sometimes use if the midges are really unbearable. I find them hot and stuffy though and plain ones can be hard to see through. I have one called Netspex with built in glasses that is much better – unfortunately, it’s no longer available. I always carry it in midge season.

I never let the midges stop me going out but by the end of a summer when they are bad, I am longing for the first frosts. Roll on October!


  1. That looks like a great trip for late autumn when the wee buggers have died off. I'll be in the Cairngorms over the next two weeks but I have abandoned my plans for wild camps in favour of long, day walks. If we get early snow in November as we did last year, the tent will be coming with me.

  2. Mosquito coils are extremely effective when used inside a tent. Just a few minutes will kill them all off. I also light one just before I break up my tent, because they are often perched on the inner side of the fly.

    In Torridon I once found a newt on my groundsheet between inner tent and fly when breaking up my tent. It appeared to be feasting on the (dead) midges!

  3. Interesting post, as always, Chris. What's your thoughts on the best midge repellent? Skin so Soft and Smidge are the 2 that I have found best so far.

    1. Thanks Bill. I mostly use Smidge and MosiGuard. On this trip I used one I bought in the States on my Colorado walk last year. It worked fine. I never use anything with DEET in - it melts plastic. I haven't tried Skin So Soft.