Give Me Shelter

Peter MacfarlaneLast December I included the Lomo Emergency Shelter as part of my winter gear round-up and it’s proved a useful bit of kit for getting out of the winter winds on the hills. Lunch can be eaten with a friend in relative comfort on a blizzard-blasted ridge, but the name on the tag isn’t lunch shelter, it says Emergency Shelter on it. I couldn’t help but wonder what a night inside it would be like.

To test it properly I couldn’t just have it replace a tent, but as it was still winter conditions I couldn’t risk safety too much and take no other gear so I compromised and carried one extra piece of kit that I wouldn’t have in a day pack. This extra kit was the PHD Alpine Ultra Half Bag which is a shorter length sleeping bag, reaching from my feet up to the bottom of my ribs. The bag is designed to pair with a down jacket which works as the top half of your sleeping bag and it made sense to take the PHD Yukon Down Jacket from January’s winter insulation test. Both are lightweight with top quality down fill and have the same shell fabric. That felt quite close to a sleeping bag, I could tell myself that anyway on my way to camp.

Scene setter

One other concession to comfort would be an OMM Duomat which is a half-length lightweight foam sleep mat which I use in various packs as it adds stiffness to light or flexible packs as well as being a handy sitmat, especially in hastily dug snow shelters.

The rest of my kit was standard, but that’s standard for me of course. I almost always carry a stove and a little food and drink bag, I love the roar of the stove burning as I sit on the summit and a fresh cuppa always beats a fusty flask. I did add a porridge pot for breakfast, which I’ll admit isn’t standard, but as I was carrying no main meal for night time I knew I’d be needing it by morning.

Planning to use an emergency shelter seems like a contradiction of terms but in case anyone saw my lights or shelter and reported a possible casualty I had to tell the local Mountain Rescue Team what I was up to and where I was likely to be. The Arrochar Alps are my local hills and Beinn Narnain is my home from home so that’s where I’d head, plenty of corners to squeeze into, plenty of shelter to be had, even just off the summit where I’ve camped several times in the past. But there’s a limit to my powers to follow any plan, so to make sure I got off on the wrong foot it was late when I left home, I didn’t even leave the car park at Arrochar until ten past midnight.

Gear 3

I climbed the track without a head torch, the moon was nearly full and the cloud was patchy only occasionally blocking its pale light but my night vision was working well so the climb through the forest was pleasant. Through the trees and onto the track by the Allt a’ Bhalachain I felt a little different about things as I stopped and looked ahead. The snow line was lower than I was expecting, it was colder and windier and I was I now shuffling and stretching, suddenly aware I was head to toe in test kit I’d been pulling the hand tags off of earlier that day in preparation for the next six months reviews on here. I was now unsettled, it was too late to climb higher into the sheltered corners I knew, I was getting tired, I’d have to sleep in the open, somewhere lower down. Maybe this was a more realistic mood to be testing the shelter in, I’d head for the Narnain Boulders and it would all be fine.

I got to the boulders around 1am and looked for a spot to bed down. It’s actually not that good a place to stop as it’s mostly a mix of bog and rock but not having a tent-sized flat spot to look for does open up more possibilities and I found a little groove by a small boulder half way between the two main landmark boulders. It didn’t take me long to get set up and I was glad to be under cover and out of the chill. The shelter blocked the wind, there was room for my rucksack inside and once I had wriggled into my half a sleeping bag and pulled on my down jacket I felt quite happy. Then I heard the patter of sleety rain as it landed on the fabric around me, the wind got up a little more too and just how complicated it would now be to get the stove on dawned on me.

Night time 2

I tried propping up one side of the shelter and leaning out but the ground around me was too rough for the stove to stay upright. My footwear was now my pillow and I didn’t want to cool my feet down by taking them back out of the sleeping bag to put damp boots back on to wander away looking for a good spot for the stove. The only option that I had the energy for, turned out to be the worst possible choice I could make; lighting the stove inside the shelter. I pulled the side of the shelter next to the boulder up to my elbow to let air in and got on with it. I had to hold the billowing fabric away from the stove but my need for a hot drink out-scored the danger of fire and I willed the water to boil. When it did the shelter instantly filled with steam and my glasses misted over, but I got the flame out, the vents in the shelter did their job and the place was liveable again very quickly.

I sipped my hot chocolate and thought about it, it was too late, I was too tired and I was doing something a bit stupid. I wouldn’t light the stove inside again.

I’m a life-long camper, a night in a tent or a bivy bag is easy to prepare for and admin my kit for at any time of year, I’ve even slept in caves in the Arrochar Alps and had no trouble but here and now I was definitely out of sorts.

Night time 1

The rain fizzled out and through the little window in the shelter which by accident had positioned itself above my head I could see the stars sparkling into view in a rapidly clearing sky. It was time for sleep so I stretched out and my feet popped out of the shelter. At six feet I’m fine inside in the recovery position, but lying flat my feet are outside, just as well I had a waterproof pack liner to slip my feet and sleeping bag inside. My feet were already on top of my rucksack which is a trick I’ve used many times, I can use half a mat for the top half where comfort is more in demand and the legs can just make do.

The shelter is well shaped and its bottom edge tucked under my mat and stayed there all night even when the wind tugged at with some strong gusts.

I jammed my arms down into the sleeping bag and my hands warmed up, it felt a bit strange but I was cosy enough. I had pulled my Buff up from my neck around my chin and with my down hood fastened up I was as covered as I would be in a sleeping bag. I settled down and started to doze.

I soon started to shift around, I was getting cold. It was coming from the ground, the frozen turf was sucking the heat out of me through the thin mat. Every dozy turn I made warmed me back up a little but soon the cold spots where I was leaning heaviest on the ground crept back into my sleepy mind and it prevented me from getting into a good sleep. I roused once to see the sky brightening through my little window and pink clouds streaking past the dark rocks leaning over me. The day was creeping up on me, no way I was getting any useful sleep now. I peeled back a corner of the shelter and breathed in the chill air while I took in the scene around me. The Cobbler jagged and white over my shoulder with Ben Lomond‘s graceful profile picked out by the ever sharper rays of the rising sun. I was suddenly awake, awake and hungry.

Dawn 2

I sat up and started to pull my boots back into shape after their night squashed under my head. As I extracted myself from my down bag and stuff-sack cocoon I noticed that both the shell fabric of the sleeping bag and the inside surface of the shelter were surprisingly dry. I’d expected condensation to be a big issue, but it wasn’t much a factor with the two vents left open other than when I boiled the stove, which is the last time we’ll even mention that particular episode.

Breakfast 2

I got up, got my boots on and made breakfast under a clear blue sky while I aired out the sleep kit in the sun. The temperature was rising with the sun, it was going to be a beautiful day.

I thought over the night’s events and the shelter had done its job and done it well, it had kept me dry and out of the weather. If I’d had a sleep mat better suited to the conditions I would probably have had a decent night’s sleep which is beyond the remit of an emergency shelter.

Camp 1

Waking up in the mountains is always better than waking up early at home and then driving to the mountains, so for me it was already a win just being here which pulled my thoughts away from emergency equipment and brought me to something else very important. It was 8 in the morning, the hills were empty apart from me, the sky was clear and the fresh snow fall was bright in the sunshine, I had to make a decision, climb Beinn Narnain or The Cobbler?


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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.