Thursday 30 July 2020

Confessions of a Reluctant Camper

Do you like camping? I'll be honest, I can take or leave it. It's something to be endured as a means to an end. And if that end can be achieved by other means, like getting up earlier, or going faster and lighter, I will take it! I've never slept well in tents, and summer brings midges, so that's even more reason not to camp! Even somewhere as lovely as this...

A wild camp in the North-west Highlands:

But sometimes a night under canvas can't be avoided, either because you are heading off last minute and there's no accommodation to be had, or because you want to base yourself for a few days somewhere remote. I'd love to know your personal tips and tricks for a comfortable night's camping! Here's mine:

  1. Don't. Sleep in your own bed and set the alarm for 3am!
  2. Accept that camping is not meant to be fun, and you will be mentally prepared.
  3. If you must camp, camp in spring when it is no longer dark all day and before there are midges around.
  4. Choose your suffering. I'd rather go as light as possible, and not sleep, than carry a heavy pack and get a sore knee. I've 'slept' in the pissing rain on the Cuillin ridge covered in nothing but a foil blanket. That's taking it a bit far though, I would carry at least a sleeping bag these days.
  5. Take a blow-up airbed. My Thermarest is ridiculously expensive for a small piece of plastic, but it has transformed comfort compared to the roll-up yoga mat I used to lie on.
  6. Get a down sleeping bag. They are warmer, lighter, and pack down smaller. They usually cost hundreds of pounds, but you can get a decent one from Eurohike for £60.
  7. Wear cosy bedsocks, as warm feet help you sleep.
  8. Don't bother with cooking equipment. There's two schools of thought, one says that a hot meal or drink is a morale booster. But I will happily forego those things to save some pack weight.
  9. Don't drink anything within 2 hours of bedtime. Getting up in the middle of the night for a pee is a faff!
  10. Sleeping in your own dried sweat is uncomfortable, so find a river to swim in to wash yourself before bed. I like the 'press-up' method as it minimises contact with cold water - get naked in the river on your hands and feet, head facing upstream, and do a few press-ups to enjoy an invigorating natural shower.
  11. Have an afternoon nap to catch up on sleep because let's face it, you won't be sleeping much overnight.
  12. Camp in the windiest, most exposed spot possible! Normal advice is to do the opposite, but normal advice doesn't consider midges. If you are camping low, find some machair or dunes near a beach. There's usually fewer midges on that terrain compared to a forest or moor.
  13. Avoid high-fibre foods. It's nice if you don't need a number 2 during your camping trip. But if you do...
  14. Dig a wee hole and bury human waste under a couple of inches of topsoil and vegetation. Do your business well away from paths and running water. Choose a different spot each time. You might even consider carrying bags specially for it, and pack your waste out!

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Sleeping on Suilven

Suilven and I have unfinished business.


Years ago (twenty-six years ago in fact!), I climbed Suilven on a March day of deep snow and sunshine, the kind of day you gladly endure a week of rain to experience. But just below the top, little balls of snow rolled spontaneously and continuously down from the summit. It looked like it could avalanche at any moment. I refused to go further. And so we contented ourselves with a sunbathe in the snow before heading back down for a night in the bothy. I would have to return. I didn't realise it would be twenty-six years.

But here we were, in 2020, looking for an experience to kick-start the end of the hillwalking lockdown.

Approach walk:

The plan was ambitious, but beyond the hard grind it had several points in its favour. Camp on the top of Suilven. A high camp gave us the best chance of avoiding midges. A late/early start would avoid the crowds who, in these NC500 staycation times, are surely drawn to this internationally famous peak. And watching a spectacular sunrise and sunset from the top of Suilven would be, as I said excitedly to my friends,
"a once-in-a-decade experience!"
It didn't quite work out like that.

High camp, Suilven:

Having spent a cold, wet night, we lay around a while waiting for the weather to improve, but at 9am we gave up and headed back down.

Which was when this happened...

"I'm going back to the top," I said to my friends, who decided to carry on downhill, missing this:

The cloud never stopped swirling around but, if I am honest, it added something special...

One day, I'd like to head over to Suilven's second summit as well. But it was time to catch up with my companions. The day had been a wonderful gift.

Suilven from the walkout to Lochinver:

Wednesday 15 July 2020

You Know You're Wild Camping When...

Wild campsite with migde hood, on the northern shores of Loch Maree:

When you head out this weekend, will you be wild camping? Or will it be another kind of camping?

There's an easy way to tell. If you want to know if it is wild camping, ask yourself the question:

Did anyone even know you were there?

Were you in a small group or go solo? Did you camp high, out of sight of any roads or houses? Did you carry out any litter? If you needed to go to the toilet, did you dig a shallow hole, a long way from any watercourses, and cover your mess up with turf - or even better, carry it out in a bag?

In short, did you camp like a ninja?

That's wild camping.

Unfortunately the phrase 'wild camping' has been repurposed. Anybody pitching a tent ten feet from their car in a Highland layby, having a party, setting fire to things, leaving behind beer cans, cigarette butts, NOx canisters, barbeques, plastic bags, dog shit, and human shit, nowadays claims to be wild camping.

That's not wild camping.

That's feral camping.

Big difference.

Did you camp like a shit-flinging chimpanzee?

That's feral camping.

Of course, there's gradations in between. And the main complaint against roadside campers, apart from their sheer numbers in some popular places like Glen Etive or Loch Lomond, where feral camping is now banned, is the litter and excrement they leave behind.

So even if you are camping by the road, you can avoid feral status just by clearing up after yourself.

If nobody could have known you were there after you have gone, then good job! At a time when official campsites are still shut, you are being about as responsible as it is possible to be in the circumstances.

Just please, don't go feral!

Saturday 11 July 2020

The First Hills After Lockdown

What were, or will be, your first hills after lockdown? Your first taste of freedom? Previously I mentioned Suilven, but I just couldn't wait...

Breadalbane hills:

At the last minute my companion couldn't come, so I decided to go somewhere that appealed to me alone. I would start early, slaister through pathless bogs over two unfashionable Corbetts at the head of Glen Lyon, and see nobody all day. 

The day couldn't make up its mind - would it rain, or would it be sunny? In the end, it was both.

Glen Lyon morning:

I decided to head straight up the hill from Pubil, so once I'd worked out where to discretely park, I was off! My first new Corbetts all year! A wet-footed squelch up Sron a'Choire Chnapanich revealed Loch an Daimh with a deep tide mark. With so much rain this month, I wondered why the dams are so low?

Glencoe and the Blackmount from Meall Buidhe:

From the top, the Blackmount appeared draped in raincloud across Rannoch Moor, and I headed down through peat hags for a steep reascent of Meall Buidhe. I didn't mind the terrain though. This was a secret place, full of deer and frogs, a kestrel of some kind hunting along the burn. I scared a grouse and saw dozens of wheatears.

Looking back towards Loch Daimh from Meall Buidhe:

After Meall Buidhe, the usual thing is to head back to Pubil. But I had a rendezvous with a special place that I had read about decades ago, and have wanted to visit ever since. This is a unique set of stones who live in a small turf-roofed house and are brought in and out with the turn of season. It is miles from anywhere, west of Meall Buidhe. The terrain became even more isolated, wheatears giving way to plovers circling and crying at my intrusive presence, sheep staring at me and deer making themselves scarce. I descended by a series of cascades and took a look at my prehistoric curiosity in Gleann Cailliche. To my surprise I met a couple, eating sandwiches. I hadn't expected to see anyone. They told me they lived in Glen Lyon and came here regularly. Apparently I was the first person they'd ever seen here.

Loch Lyon:

All that remained was to jog back out along the track along Loch Lyon, legs tired from the first decent-sized hillwalk all year. The traffic heading back south via Callendar was horrendous. But here's to more trips around Scotland in the second half of 2020!