Wednesday 5 April 2023

Of Winds & Tents

Rainbows and strong winds on the Isle of Skye. As the storm was forecast and I wasn't walking far I took a heavy geodesic tent that really handles strong winds well. The story is told in this post.

Wind speed is the most important factor for me when camping. On short trips forecast wind speeds can determine where I go, where I plan to camp, and what shelter I take with me. On long trips the wind can determine where I camp. Rain and snow aren't a problem. I know whatever shelter I'm using will keep them out. Wind is another matter. Whilst, mostly, my shelters have stood up to very strong winds buffeting and roaring are not conducive to sleep. Sometimes the wind is so strong I do worry that my shelter might collapse, enough that at times I have moved camp in the dark, as told in the story below. Of course I always try and find a sheltered pitch but sometimes I can't and sometimes it's not as sheltered as I thought.

I'd been thinking about tents and wind anyway as I'm currently finishing a review of tents for The Great Outdoors (June 2023 issue) when my friend Tony Hobbs contacted me to say his Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, a shelter both he and I really like, had been damaged by high winds and he'd abandoned the camp. He's since posted a video of the trip in which you can see the moment part of the already damaged Trailstar actually fails and also see just how strong the wind was. I'm glad he wasn't anywhere very remote and that this didn't happen in the middle of the night.

Over the years I've learnt what makes a sheltered site and what doesn't, though I don't always get it right. I've also learnt how the wind is likely to act given the topography and its overall direction. I've never gone into this in detail though.  Geoff Fisher and Helen McKerral have. They've posted an excellent detailed piece on their Slower Hiking website called Tents in Strong Winds: Terrain and How to Choose the Best Pitch. I hadn't come across this great site before but they saw Tony's video and contacted him and he told me about it. I still love the interconnectedness of the internet!

Thinking back on windy nights I've experienced I remembered a couple with Terry Abraham in the Cairngorms and the Lake District and one on my Scottish Watershed walk where the wind changed plans. 

Just after we'd decided to retreat from the Lairig Ghru

The first was when making the video called The Cairngorms In Winter. Terry and I had planned to walk through the Lairig Ghru pass and camp. As the day progresses the wind grew stronger and stronger and in the mouth of the pass we decided to retreat back down into the forest, which we did, pursued by clouds of spindrift. 

Terry looks out of his tent with spindrift swirling all around

We found a seemingly sheltered site but the storm reached us here and after a wild night I suffered a bent tent pole. Terry's tent was bending down to the ground and springing back up. The full story is told in this post

Camp in the forest just before three pegs pulled out and the tent pole bent

A couple of years later I was in the Lake District with Terry and we planned on camping on Threlkeld Knotts where Terry Wanted to do some filming for Life of a Mountain: Blencathra. The forecast wasn't good but we reckoned we could find a fairly sheltered site. 

Terry watching the approaching storm. I took no photos of the camp.

We failed. As I wrote in this post I went for water and then  "stumbling back to camp dripping with rain, clutching heavy bottles with numb fingers and knocked about by the wind I began to wonder if camping here was a good idea. My tent appeared, one side pushed in and out by the gusts. Terry was outside, filming with his phone. His heavier more solid tent was moving less but he said the vibrating flysheet was really noisy. In my tent I’d have been hit repeatedly by the fabric. I held up my anemometer. The wind was 25-30mph with gusts to 54mph. We decided to seek a lower site and wrestled the tents down and into our packs. We were only at 470 metres here so there wasn’t much lower to go before reaching fields and farms though. The wind was strengthening as we descended. A prospective site was considered during a brief lull. Then the big gusts returned. No go, we decided. A full retreat was in order". 

That's the only time I've abandoned a camp before I'd even settled in but there have been others where I've repitched the tent to face a different way during the night and sometimes even moved camp. One of these was the Scottish Watershed night when I camped on a high col and then moved camp twice to escape the wind. The story of that night appears in my book about the walk Along The Divide and I retold it again for for The Great Outdoors last year in the short piece below. 

First pitch on the col before the storm arrived

                                                        Moving Camp In A Storm

The day had been cloudy, but the skies cleared as I reached the summit of Beinn Dubhcraig to give a superb view over the hills to distant Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond. The light was glorious. For half an hour. Then the clouds covered the sun and the brightness faded, but that view had been magnificent and sent me off to the next Munro, Ben Oss, feeling exhilarated and energetic. After crossing the latter I camped on the col below Ben Lui with the wind picking up. It started to rain as I fell asleep.

The big storm came in just before midnight with ‘ridiculously heavy rain’ and very strong winds that shook the Trailstar violently. I didn’t think it would collapse but I also didn’t think I would get any sleep with the noise and movement. Reluctantly I donned waterproofs on my bare skin and staggered outside in bare feet. In the dark and mist and rain I dragged the tarp with all my belongings bundled in it a little way downhill and pitched it again. The winds strengthened. I got out and repeated the process. I was now only about fifty metres from where I’d first camped but the difference was enormous. Here the hillside sheltered me from much of the wind. Tired now I slept well, waking occasionally to the sound of heavy rain. It was still hammering down the next morning and I dawdled over several mugs of coffee, happy to stay in the dry. The barometer on my little portable weather meter showed the lowest pressure of the trip so far.

The third pitch, sheltered enough for sleep

Eventually I hauled myself out into the rain and packed up. Often when you do this it turns out not to be so bad outside after all. That wasn’t the case on this occasion. The rain and wind were both fierce and dense cloud shrouded the hills. A good path led up Ben Lui where four others stood by the summit cairn, the only people I saw all day. They were going on to the fourth Munro in this group, Beinn a’Chleibh. It’s not on the Watershed so I watched them disappear into the mist before starting down the north side of Ben Lui.


  1. Strangely enough Chris, I camped at almost the exact spot Tony was pitching a few years ago in my Hilleberg Akto. It didn't feel crazy windy but it snapped the pole just before midnight, so I also had to make a retreat! The only time I've ever damaged a tent in almost 50 years!...and a lot of wild weather camps.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experiences as always.
    Cheers Alistair

    1. Did you have to drive home or find accommodation . Luckily I called hotel from previous evening and got a room. A side thought to you and Chris…. Could you have changed the pole ie how practical is it to use the spare piece Hilleberg supply ?
      Tony yes me ;)

    2. As I live in the Lakes I drove home! Changing the pole section wasn't an option in the conditions I was experiencing at the time...I bought a new pole because not only had it snapped 1 section it had badly bent 2 other sections! As I mentioned in the post above I was (and am) no stranger to wild weather in the hills/mountains both in the UK and overseas.
      I would also mention that I had another freak gust at Small Water above Haweswater which completely flattened the Lightwave tent I was using on that however bounced back up! the carbon fibre poles undamaged!!
      In winds such as those we are speaking of there is no substitute for a true geodesic tent (4 poles or more!) and speaking from experience have sat out incredibly violent storms in an Ultra Quaser..old style with snow flaps, not the later flimsy efforts.
      Hope you manage to get the Trailstar repaired
      Cheers Alistair

  2. Hi Chris, Thanks for the link to the excellent Slower Hiking site. Fascinating stuff. I'm a fan of the security provided by the Trailstar, but Tony's video is a salutary reminder of how important pitch selection is and how conditions can change/deteriorate quickly, particularly in upland areas.

  3. follow up video