Wednesday, 21 May 2014 12:38

Ease your way into wild camping

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Ask an American about wild camping and the chances are they'll tell you all about pulling up next to a lake in their 40ft RV and surviving with just a generator for power. Ask your average high street Brit and their mental image will probably something out of a Bear Grylls or Ray Mears TV show. Of course the reality is that wild camping in the UK is somewhere inbetween the two. In the UK wild camping essentially means camping away from a camp site, or supporting services, where you have to carry everything in. While at the extreme end this can include a Ray Mears style bushcraft experience it more commonly equates to lightweight backpacking with a tent (or tarp), sleeping bag, stove and associated accessories.

Wild camp at a popular Lake District hotspot - 3 Tarns

If all your prior camping experience has been based around turning up in a car at a site complete with shop, showers, toilets and perhaps an onsite pub the idea of going without all those facilities at hand can be both attractive and simultaneously scary. When you're car based there's little restricting you on what to take but once the reality that you need to carry everything on your back sinks in you soon realise that it's not just the bricks and mortar support of a site's facilities that you'll be leaving behind; wild camping is the art of compromise between weight and comfort. Carry too much and the whole trip will be an unendurable struggle, carry too little and you'll start your next day sleep deprived and hopelessly inefficient. Within that compromise you also need to factor in cost; lightweight and durable kit comes at a premium price. Looking at it objectively it's no surprise that the vast majority of campers will never take the step off site and into the wild - outside Scotland there's legal issues for a start and just listening to a conversation between wild camping enthusiast can make you think you'll need a re-mortgage just to start.


As we said above, however, wild camping is a compromise and while you can easily spend well in excess of £1000 on a top notch setup that's like saying every car driver should splash out on an Aston Martin or Bugatti. Over the last few years companies like Terra Nova/Wild Country and Vango have made big strides in filling the middle ground with tents that weigh a bit more than the top-end lightweights but cost little more than the standard camp-site focused tents. Likewise the trend in outdoor clothing has been one of reducing weight across the range without losing performance and although most noticeable in cutting edge products the result is yesterday's cutting edge becomes today's mainstream. What would have been a top-end lightweight 5 years ago is now average, and, importantly, the price is average now rather than cutting edge. The chances are that the kit you use for site based camping will be perfectly OK for your early forays into getting wild and with a bit of thought and planning you can ease your way into the experience.

Wild camping with a tarp at The Roaches


The first question you need to ask yourself is why you want to wild camp. It seems an almost pointless question but in fact the answer to that single question will determine what you carry in. If you're wild camping to get an early start on a climb or crag the esential hardware of ropes and racks has to find room in your pack, while if you're on a multiday walk you'll need space for food. Space is the second most valuable commodity to a wild camper after weight and for the first time wild camper without specialist products your kit is likely to be both heavier and bulkier than a regular wild camper's. In the same way as you wouldn't expect to compete with Leo Houlding as a first time climber or lewis Hamilton driving round a race track you don't need to compete for the lowest weight and the smallest pack size - those days will come when you've worked out where your personal comfort zone is in the compromise between weight and comfort.


Put at its simplest if you set the balance too much in favour of carrying the lightest weight so you can move fast you're going to risk compromising your comfort, and particularly sleep. Sleep, or lack of it, can have a much bigger impact on your performance the following day that carrying an extra kilo all day, and quite often the difference can be as little (or as much) as a single kilo between a good night and a heavily disrupted one. If you're looking at a single night out, however, for a first experience and with no strenuous plans for the next day you can err a bit more towards the comfort side than if you're on a multi-dayer or set for a high intensity day.  If you sensibly choose a less than strenuous walk-in for your wild camp debut, allowing you a quick retreat if you find it's really not for you, your first experience can allow you to carry a little extra weight. In time, if you catch the wild camping bug, you can become obsessed with saving fractions of a gram and "base weights" but in the same way a cheap bike can put you off cycling for ever a bad first wild camp because you've forgotten you need to be comfortable can easily make your first trip your last.

Wild camp at Esk Hause


Most dedicated wild campers prefer to steer clear of the "hotspots" commonly used, preferring the solitude of an isolated and often "secret" location but starting out the hotspots are ideal. They're hotspots for a reason; they generally have the essentials of easy access to water, reasonably level pitches and a degree of protection from the elements, but equally important for a beginner they provide company. There's a definite skill set to wild camping and it's a skill set you pick up throuh a combination of watching, discussing and experiencing and when you're on your first trip it can be very reassuring to have the company usually available at a location like Angle Tarn in the Lake District. Hotspots like Angle Tarn also tend to be easily accessible and short walk-ins and usually have relatively spacious areas in which to pitch; both very much in favour of the first time wild camper. With a short walk in you can afford to carry a little more to make the first experience one to remember, perhaps a beer to chill in the lake or that thicker, heavier, sleeping bag you weren't sure about for a better sleep, and with plenty of room to pitch your choice of tent you can ease into the experience.

Camping under Scafell at Great Moss


Although weight and volume aren't as critical in your first few wild camps as they become if wild camping becomes your chosen obsession there's still a few tips and techniques that apply equally to the beginner as to the converted. While on the camp site you may have a headtorch to guide you around the site and a lantern in your tent the lantern is surplus to requirements once out in the wild, the headtorch will do the job of both products perfectly well. Likewise a rolled up jacket under your sleeping bag will replace a blowup pillow and a spork will replace 2 utensils with one. If you can find a product that will do two jobs instead of one then use it, the space and weight you save may seem minimal but added up it can mean space for a book or a camera - or just less weight to carry in and out. If you're travelling as one of a pair look at spreading the load and sharing equipment. A 2.5 kilo tent can be bulky and heavy for one but split between two with a shared stove and pans and without spending a fortune you'll be carrying a not dissimilar weight to someone who's spent hundreds of pounds to get lightweight solo kit. Learn the art of nesting, filling open objects in your pack with anything from spare socks to a gas bottle, to make the most of the available space bit by bit you'll learn what things you need and what things you don't. This way rather than a sudden shock you can ease your way in to wild camping.

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