Wild camping – A first-timer’s guide

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked if I’m ever afraid when I go wild camping. The answer is yes. That may come as a surprise, as I still go and sleep outside.

Alpkit Hunka and Rig 7 tarp Wildcamping in the High Atlas sub zero nights
Fear is often cited as a reason for not doing new things, so I fully understand how this can be an obstacle. Sometimes when I’m all by myself in my cosy little house, my head fills with all sorts of irrational thoughts, such as thinking an intruder is behind the bathroom door or lurking under the bed. Guess what – I’m always wrong. And that is true of sleeping outside. Imagination is powerful, reality less interesting. In my head, the tickle of a feather turns into a killer spider. I have to remind myself that these are simply thoughts and I have control over them.Raft and tarp shelter Nepal

 

The first time I went wild camping was in Nepal. I slept under a raft in a rented unbranded down sleeping bag. I wasn’t expecting it to be exciting, but it was. And a lot more fun than the night I slept rough in a garden shed. Since then, I’ve spent Christmas Eve in an oasis in the Sahara (and I didn’t get killed by scorpions, snakes or palm rats), slept on a ridge in the Purbeck Hills, camped overlooking the sea on Valentine’s night and braved sub-zero temperatures on a bikepacking trip in Morocco to the High Atlas Mountains . Alastair Humphreys described one of my adventures, on his website as ‘A polka dot microadventure beginning with a pretty wedding frock and ending in a field’.

I was pleased as punch to be included in The Sunday Times Travel supplement (albeit as a ‘Modest explorer’).

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What’s the attraction of wild camping?

You know that moment in Braveheart, when Mel Gibson shouts, ‘Freedom’? That says it. Freedom, a feeling of remoteness, self-sufficiency and being at one with nature. There is no silence. Listen and you will hear blades of grass brush against each other, birds singing, insects clicking and water flowing. Perhaps you’ll be wowed by the hoot of an owl.

You might see creatures such as badgers, deer, foxes and rabbits too. There is nothing to fear. Bears and wolves no longer roam the British or Irish countryside. We are the scariest creatures out there.

When should I go wild camping?

When Dan and I were sailing to Africa, he asked me if I wanted to know how to avoid getting wet and cold. Having had more than my fair share of ice cold soakings, I eagerly awaited the answer. ‘Stay warm and dry!’ he said, with a chuckle. So, if reliable weather forecasters predict warm dry conditions, that’s a good opportunity to get going.  Pleasant conditions will make for an enjoyable and memorable first time.

What’s best for wild camping Tent or Bivvy? 

Sometimes I prefer a tent and sometimes I prefer to bivvy. Here’s what I consider the pros for each choice.

Tent

  • Protection from the weather
  • Protection from plagues of midges or mosquitos
  • Warm(ish)
  • Cuddling is easier
  • Privacy to change clothes or remove them if you feel like doing what they do on the Discovery Channel

If you choose to take a tent for wild camping, keep it small and select a subtle colour such as green, brown, or grey. Avoid orange and red as the whole idea is to be discreet.

Wild camping on Isle of Wight

Bivvy

  • Small and light
  • Quick to setup and pack away, even in the dark
  • Feels closer to nature. You only have to open your eyes to see shooting stars and watch moon shadows dance
  • Every breath is a breath of fresh air
  • Smelly farts vanish in seconds
  • Feels wild

A bivvy bag will help protect from the elements. I have an Alpkit Hunka, which  I use with an Alpkit Rig 7 tarp (for 2 or possibly 3 really close friends). It’s not necessary to use a tarp.

Alpkit have hinted that a double bivvy bag is in the pipeline, so cuddling could be possible in a bivvy bag. I’ll keep you posted.

Update 8th June 2015: The double bivvy bag from Alpkit is available and is known as Wide Horizons. I’ve no idea how it will work with two bodies in a bag, so if anybody gets one, please let me know how you get on.

A decent sleeping mat is crucial. Trust me. This is one piece of kit that will make wild camping the pleasure it should be, any camping for that matter, wild or mild. I have an Exped Synmat UL 7, which is inflated manually. I’ve come up with a solution to do this without getting breathless and it will prevent mould from growing inside your mat. Check it out here.

A warm sleeping bag is essential, you’d be surprised how cold it gets at 4am. You are the only person who can judge how warm you need to be when asleep. Women tend to feel the cold more than men and I’m one of them. Err on the warm side, you can always open the zip to ventilate.

What food and drink do I need when wild camping?

Bring plenty of water or wild camp near a fresh water supply.

You’ll need to eat something too. Some folk like to pop into a pub or a chip shop before bedding down, but I’m always peckish. There’s something about being outdoors that gives me a whopping appetite. Pack more food than you think you’ll need and keep it simple. Here’s an example of the food I pack for an overnight bikepacking night out.

Soup and noodles is a good low budget option and dried expedition food is surprisingly tasty though costs about £5 per person. Inspired by my trips to Morocco, I’ve come up with a really tasty Couscous with vegetables recipe that keeps your pots clean.

Remember to pack some breakfast. You can find our super fast and easy ‘porridge’ recipe here.

A couple of slugs of cognac or home-made sloe gin from a hip flask makes for a moorish nightcap. Combine that with your favourite devilish treat and you’ll be half way to heaven. Here’s my recipe for Sloe Gin / Vodka.

Hip flask and Chococo Chocolates

A small stove is perfectly adequate for an overnight wild camping adventure. You can make your own or buy the same version we use from Bearbones. Remember to bring a lighter or matches. Leave the stick rubbing techniques to the hard core survival set.

Bearbones stove
What should I wear when wild camping?

Layers are key. Wear what you’ve got to get you started. Base layer, mid layer and jacket. Merino wool and a down jacket is my wardrobe of choice. Even my socks and knickers are merino wool. A spare pair of socks takes up little space and it feels glorious to put on at least one clean, dry and fresh item.

Bring as much as you like, just remember, you have to carry it, whether  you’re backpacking, rafting, kayaking, climbing sea stacks or bikepacking, every gram counts.

I’ve drawn up a full pack list that you can use and share with your friends.

Where do I do this wild camping?

I love a great view, though when the elements are against you it’s not always possible.

Pick somewhere high and south facing (assuming you live in the Northern hemisphere) so you’ll catch sunset and sunrise.

Select somewhere with as little light pollution as possible for the best view of the sky.

Wild camping is essentially sleeping on somebody’s land, therefore permission should be sought before setting up camp in England and Wales. Scotland is the exception (though there are some exclusion zones) and in England, Dartmoor welcomes responsible wild campers.
I’ve never managed to find any signs telling me who owns what and where, so have never bothered asking permission. I live by the, ‘It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission’ rule. If a landowner ever asks me to leave, I will do as he/she wishes.

Wild camping Code

  • Arrive late and leave early. I admit to leaving a little later than most, usually because I can’t bear to leave.
  • Leave no trace means exactly that. Take all your rubbish away including food scraps, cigarette ends, tampons and condoms.
  • Stay well away from watercourses when you pee and if you must poo, bury it.
  • Avoid pollution.
  • Be mindful of the natural environment – do not break trees or trample plants to make pitching camp easier, find somewhere else if you need to.
  • Chill out, relax and enjoy.

Here’s a short film of our wild camping bikepacking adventure in the Sahara Desert.

Do you have some helpful tips or questions? Please share in the comments below.

Meraid Griffin

Freelance writer, adventurer and public speaker. Descibed in the Sunday Times as a 'modest explorer'. Nothing modest about me.

7 Comments:

  1. Great post. I’d add a small portable shovel, gel hand sanitiser and loo roll to your otherwise brilliant kit list.

  2. Great post! Where did you hear Alpkit hinting about a double bivvy bag? I suggested it to them a while back but they said they didn’t think there was demand. We zip two sleeping bags together inside one of those double orange survival bags – but it’s essentially like sleeping in a plastic bag.

    • Meraid Griffin

      They said it on twitter Luke. I said I heard rumours of it and they responded with ‘coming soon’
      I’m not so sure it would be a great idea if you get hot as it could end up steaming!
      Thanks for sharing the plastic bag tale. Love the video of you and your tandem partner pedalling for pints on LEJOG 🙂

  3. Jem (Sooper8)

    The British landed classes are so uptight and hostile ….Go to Norway and you can walk almost anywhere.
    Different culture and history I suppose…?
    Which is ironic when you think about it. The British upper classes invited themselves onto lots of other peoples land..not just for the night but for years, and then stole the resources, enslaved the indigenous people and well and truly buggered them up.
    Now they get shirty about a bit of canvas that is almost invisible.
    Great post by the way, sorry about the colonial diversion.

  4. Meraid Griffin

    Land ownership has caused much angst around the world. As an Irish person with an Indian grandmother (dead now sadly), I’ve heard many stories about colonialism.
    Good rant.
    And thanks for the thumbs up on my post.

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