Monday 5 December 2022

Book review: The Hot Tent Diaries by John D. Burns

John D. Burns is very keen on bothies and stays in them regularly, as readers of his previous books will know. However the pandemic put a stop to this, with bothies closed for the best part of two years. Reluctant to give up his nights in remote wild places but also reluctant to give up the comforts of a warm fire and plenty of room Burns cast around for an alternative, quickly rejecting lightweight camping* before discovering the concept of the hot tent, a large canvas shelter with a wood-burning stove inside. He bought one, learnt how to use it, and proceeded to take it camping in the Scottish Highlands. This book tells the story of how he did this. There’s much information on pitching a hot tent, setting up a stove, and living in one. This could be just dry instruction – useful but hardly entertaining – but in Burns hands it isn’t. Anything but in fact. The necessary information is there but presented in an amusing sometimes hilarious manner with many anecdotes and tangents. The author’s delight and enthusiasm in hot tent camping shines through.

The book isn’t just about hot tents though. The book is peopled with idiosyncratic characters, some of them friends, some chance encounters, all of them interesting. And not every adventure is a hot tent one. There are wonderful stories of bothy trips, at least one of them definitely fictional (I hope!), and even a long poem.

The author has a fine sense of humour and doesn’t take himself too seriously – many of the stories are told against himself. There is a serious side to the book as well and the author touches on the major issues of conservation, landownership, and wildlife, again always in a highly readable manner.

John D. Burns is a great storyteller and able to weave together different threads. I can imagine his tales entertaining a group of walkers in a bothy (or a hot tent) late into the night.

This is the first in a series about Burns’ hot tent life. I’m really looking forward to reading the next one. If you like outdoor stories The Hot Tent Diaries is highly recommended.

*I can’t resist a personal note on hot tents and lightweight camping. Much as I enjoy John Burns’ stories and can see the attractions of a hot tent I won’t be trying one**. I like to get much further away from roads (Burns does this a little by using a cart to carry his weighty and bulk gear along tracks but he’s still never far from a road) and unlike the author I’m quite happy using a small lightweight tent (the first chapter makes it clear why he isn’t). I will concede one point. Midges can make lightweight camping a nightmare. I’ve learnt how to deal with them over the years, though I wouldn’t claim it isn’t sometimes difficult or unpleasant.

** I have in fact used a hot tent, though a rather different one to John Burns’ tipi. This was on a ski tour in the remote Groulx Mountains in Northern Quebec. The outfitter who was guiding us had large hot tents set up using poles cut from the local forest as poles. These slept six or more and the stoves certainly kept them very warm. They were cosy and comfortable. I liked them. And in that place they made sense. I’d still rather camp in my own little tent though.

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