A year of wild camps
As opposed to a year wild camping! My year has been punctuated with many nights under canvas, and reflecting on them seems like a good way to reflect on an excellent year.
Around this time last year, I said to myself how good it would be to spend more time outside. Not just the lovely days on the river or wandering through the countryside, but time spent just sitting outdoors, soaking in the location, amongst the wildlife. There is no better way to do this than to spend the night out there.
Lowland England, in particular, is not exactly set up for wild camping. Firstly, its not technically legal, though doing so on private land is only cause for a civil suit not a prosecution, assuming you are behaving with respect to the environment and other people. Secondly, somebody pretty much owns everywhere, though it is not at all easy to know who at times, making asking for permission difficult at best. Finally, there are few wild spots that won't be quite close to residences and other people. So to camp out here means doing so quietly and respectfully, and obviously leaving no trace.
I am fortunate that where I live we have the rivers. For often, rivers pass through land that is not suitable for agriculture or building, being on flood zones or places difficult of access. This means that here there are water meadows and scrubby areas that are perfect for wild camping and for watching nature. Here, the residents and landowners rarely visit, and if you do meet people, if they can see you are behaving appropriately they are interested, not annoyed. One such river is my local river Wey and, without going into too much detail, here I have found a number of spots that are perfect for a simple overnight stay.
My first few camps of the year were solo, by choice really. I haven't done a huge amount of solo wild camping, and it had been sometime since I had. Some people find the idea of heading out alone into the outdoors overnight to be a little intimidating, and I'll admit that on my first time I was a little bit nervous as to how I'd feel sat out alone in the countryside. The reality was a joy. After a dusk paddle along a twisty bit of river, I arrived at a spot I've used before with others, just after dark. Knowing the spot already makes a huge difference, for it can take quite a while to get set up when you're on your own, and carrying both a small tarp and a tent to sleep in. The tarp is one of the things that makes the whole thing special; a shelter to keep the wind rain and cold off you, that allows you to sit in comfort whilst still being part of the outdoor environment.
By the time I'd set up, and was cooking my meal (a canoe allows you to cook a little more luxuriously, so this is often steak!), I was perfectly at ease in my surroundings. Had I been forced to be cooped up in my tent, I may have got bored or resorted to simply reading a book. Being outdoors, under shelter and in a comfy folding chair, I could just sit and absorb my surroundings. I carry a firebox normally, and the sheer pleasure of the fire helps that feeling of comfort, but the real joy is being out in the countryside, part of it. I simply sat and watched, listened and pondered. Hours passed without any thoughts of boredom, the sounds of owls and foxes reaching my ears, the flickering of the fire holding my eyes. Later, I slept like a log.
When the weather is suitable, I just take the tarp on its own. To wake up and already be outside is a wonderful feeling, and so often the hours around sunrise are the most magical part of the day. One of my tents has a full mesh inner, sometimes when the insects are busy in summer I just use this inner on its own, thus being able to see and hear everything without being eaten. Through this gauze I have woken to the ghostly shape of a barn owl drifting soundlessly past my camp, and watched an adult buzzard teaching its juvenile young to hunt by flying past camp and dropping an unfortunate rodent for the apprentice to catch.
As the winter progressed, I spent several more nights alone out by the river, each one an utterly relaxing experience, apart from the lugging of gear into and out of the canoe. For I take far too much when canoe camping, as it makes it so much more pleasant to sit outside. One of the heavy items is my folding firebox. In itself, it weighs a couple of kilos, but the wood I need to carry to burn weighs a lot more! There are a few occasions when foraging locally for standing dead wood can be appropriate, but generally speaking I will only do this in wilder places where there is an abundance and feel it is important not to be seen by others taking and burning wood as this can set the wrong example. On group trips into the wilder parts of Europe, we will both take wood and forage, but only when the impact will be minimal. It is also crucial to be aware of any fire risks. Almost always, fireboxes are used on both my solo and group trips, though there are occasions when we will use a no-trace fire, for example on camping by a beach. As far as I'm concerned, you should leave not the slightest trace of any fire you do build, and if you don't know how to do this, don't have a fire, or use a firebox or similar, well off the ground.
At Easter, we headed for the North West Highlands. The story of the trip is told elsewhere, but we spent 9 days wild camping by canoe across the lochs and hills of Inverpolly and Coigach, an epic experience in many ways. One of the most remarkable things to me, though, was living outdoors in wild locations, for a whole week, without seeing and speaking to another single soul outside of our own group. It is remarkable, and wonderful, that you can still manage to do this in our crowded isles. Admittedly, it did take a pretty unusual route to take us away from others, for the canoes and the long moorland portages steer clear of the walkers' paths and trails that generally head for the hills.
The best bit of the trip though, was the wild camping, in wild places. Two stand out as amongst the most perfect places I have spent the night. The first, after battling a strong wind to get there, was perfect little sheltered cove under a scrubby slope of ancient woodland, beneath the towering heights of Cul Beag. Here there was just enough flat space for our tents, a sheltered bay for the kids to paddle the canoes around on Easter Egg hunts, and the most magnificent view of the towering flank of Cul Mor. We rested here for two days, just revelling in being in this wild and beautiful place. The second was a place we have used before, where a little woodland has plenty of flat pitches for tents, but most importantly of all, it sits behind a perfect arc of golden sand, on the far side of a loch from any road, looking at a panorama of the most spectacular little mountains of Stac Pollaidh, Culs Mor and Beag, and the outliers of Coigach.
As we entered summer, friends started to join me on my local wild camps, never more than 3 of us, and the pleasures of good company added to the enjoyment of the outdoors. Its always a good feeling to wander back towards the camp after a call of nature, and see the firelight reflected on the underside of the tarp, and the faces of friends having a good time. There's some sort of connection with the past, when our ancestors would return to their shelter and the warm glow of the fire.
Late summer saw a trip to Sweden's lakes and forests. Here, there are far fewer people, though the area we visited, Glaskogen Nature Reserve, has sensible rules for camping, which mean that most camps will be in designated places with a firepit set up and often a wooden laavu wind-shelter. Not exactly the same as true wild camping, but just as enjoyable. The canoe is the perfect tool to explore the many lakes, linked by portages, but some of the chief memories are once again of sitting in our camps gazing at a peaceful, beautiful landscape of water, wood and stone. Its the time spent just living outdoors for a whole trip that really makes up the memories, and gives you such an insight into the life in the landscape in which you stop.
Returning home, a wet trip to a Lake District campsite, where the weather forecast was grim enough for me to head elsewhere, was quickly followed by a fleeting visit to southern Wales. Parking up on a tiny single track road a couple of hours before dark, I grabbed my pack and wandered up to a perfect lake-side spot beneath the flanks of Fan Brycheiniog, the highest top of the Black Mountain ridge to the west of the Brecon Beacons. This was a solo trip, the only one to the hills I managed this year, and it was a pretty wild night with the wind swirling around my tiny ultralight tent, after a lovely early evening. That tent didn't miss a beat though, standing up to the gusts extremely well, the only problem being a rhythmic strumming from the taught fabric, about 6 inches from my ear. It was a wonderful spot to wake up though, before a hasty descent to beat an oncoming front. By 9am I was in a cafe in Brecon having a second breakfast, happy to have grabbed a quick moment in a week of poor conditions.
October, November and into December, a few more local wild camps were highly enjoyable, to a soundtrack of owls and a little classical guitar from mate Jim. The rivers have been high for weeks, but I can still get to my favourite spots with a bit of hard work battling upstream.
And so ends a year of wild camps, though a final few days in a campsite will round it off nicely at New Year, just as it began. I've never spent quite as many nights out, and easily beat my ambitious "50 nights under canvas"; next year I'd like to add a few more in the hills, and more under just the tarp if the weather plays ball.