In praise of Wild Camping

David Lintern is asleep on his favourite job

Wild camping is quietly embedded in most of the things I love to do outdoors, the silent partner to hilltop wanderings, bike rides and paddles, so it’s been no surprise that under lockdown I’ve pined for it every bit as much as the journeying itself. If moving through landscape is the story, then staying over in the mountains provides the punctuation, a resting place to take stock before the next chapter begins.

Without a regular outdoor sleep over I don’t really function properly, and like many of us, my mental health has begun to slip a little as lockdown has dragged on. I don’t mean to be flippant or disrespectful to others dealing with more, it’s just an acknowledgement of personal well-being. For me, the cares of the day aren’t jettisoned like stages of a rocket or pulled out like a splinter, they need to be given time to ebb away, to work their way out of their own accord. Without my direct attention, tensions fall away quietly in the dark. Wild camping is my reset switch.

The land of nod in Glen Feshie

Each camp is different in character yet they all share humdrum commonalities: Erecting a shelter, unpacking a sleeping bag and changing into dry clothes, collecting water, cooking and washing up. There’s a bare minimum that needs to be attended to, which allows those worldly woes to unravel in their own time. None of this is rocket science, which is probably the point. At its most memorable it’s about the passing of time in silent immersion, encounter, even reverence for place. It’s about the art of doing nothing, of being content with less, and paying attention to everything that remains.

There can even be something ritualistic about it. The photo above shows a camp in Glen Feshie on the winter solstice specifically for the longest sleep of the year, to mark the passing of time and the coming of winter. Under the canopy and lulled to sleep by the pink noise of the river, I awoke a little before dawn, utterly rested. I had broken away from the rhythm of work and carved some space for some low-key magic.

Time travel in an autumnal Glen Cona

But the camps that really stand out for me aren’t sandwiched in between everyday life, they are part of longer journeys – even if it’s only 2 or 3 nights, it can be enough. I’m drifting back in time now to a night in Glen Cona with friends on a short backpack, hunting amongst a sea of tussocks in the gloaming and finally finding a patch of clear ground just big enough for 3 shelters. Tired and bedraggled, we soon sloped off to bed.

Morning didn’t so much break as creep silently into the glen. In that wordless peace before the brain was full woken, soft sunlight glided gently up the slope of Tom na h Elide. We stood transfixed. In my mind’s eye I visualised the hind that gives the tump its name silhouetted on top, and imagined I saw the place as those who lived in the glen centuries ago might have seen it. It was a sort of time travel. An otter even conspired to emerge from the grasses and slip into the burn close by to mark the sense of quiet majesty. These moments will only ever happen once. Each is unique. And they only happen in exactly this way, here in Scotland.

All ablaze – Sunset in the Coulin forest

There’s something different about staying high in the hills though, even if it’s not right on top – something about elevation and perspective. Arriving early under An Ruadh Stac allowed plenty of time to fully explore the art of doing nothing. I mooched around the bleached white boulders, thinking of nothing in particular; watching grasses move in the wind, flighty meadow pipits dart in those solar winds that pick up before sunset, later the tiny moths that danced in the low light of dusk above the crunchy lichen that formed my mattress. The nearby lochan hung pregnant with a knowing that I wasn’t privy to, the outflow muttering soothing sweet nothings under its breath. The mountains are places of such extremity – placid one day, rage and chaos the next. How can that be? It’s such an honour and a blessing to be welcomed so, to be able to say ‘this is home’.

The baby pinks and blues of a freezing pre-dawn in the Fannaichs

It can also be a frantic scramble for comfort in brutal conditions. My last camp before lockdown was a spartan affair, blustery and exposed and fiercely cold. Again we arrived at last light, tired and dehydrated, fumbling with our shelters and leaching body heat fast. In winter, camping is harder work – those jobs that take up no time in the summer can take all evening. It’s a huge effort to get dry and warm, to prevent spindrift blowing in and keep everything as dry as possible. And that’s aside from melting snow to cook with. I enjoy the hardships, even find them slightly absurd, but operating efficiently in minus double digits is tiring and time consuming and there’s much less opportunity for quiet contemplation. In those circumstances, the morning ablution is generally not a comfort break!

Some light relief – dawn from a forced bivouac, Pyrenees.

Now I’m casting back much further to another hard camp, perhaps one of the hardest. To call it a camp is an overstatement, but it was certainly wild; more a forced bivouac on a small platform of rock, lost and benighted high on the side of Palas, a mountain in the Pyrenees. We’d been looking for a pass, a notch in the ridge which would lead us to the French side, but cloud had swept in and I became separated from my two friends. I finally found the notch after an incredibly foolhardy downclimb in the dark, climbed back through and rejoined the group. We were just sensible enough to stay put. The cloud finally cleared at 11pm but we shivered with the shock and the cold through the night. Finally, dawn broke on the Spanish side and we picked our way down from our eyrie, feeling humbled and very lucky to have got away with only bruised egos. For me, it was a life changing sleepover; a grave lesson in compound errors and group dynamics in the mountains.

No sleep till bedtime – grubby but happy families off the beaten track in the Cairngorms

Now I’m travelling back to more recent times and enjoying the gentler side of mountain sleepovers, with the weans in tow. There’s more stuff to manage than I’d like, but bikes and a trailer make wild camping with kids possible. All the ‘simple joy’ clichés abound, but actually it’s the rich vein of discussion that comes out of camping with curious little people – the opportunities for learning through real life experience – that have remade the experience for me too. A straightforward thing like collecting water can involve personal risk assessment as well as a Q&A on the finer points of weather systems. It’s changed the way I speak to my kids, from ‘be careful’ to ‘be aware.’ Don’t expect them to go to bed at normal time though.

Kettle’s on – a camp under Ben Alder

As we emerge from strict lockdown in the coming months and trips further afield still feel too risky, there’ll undoubtedly be a new appetite for wild camping. Anything that improves our connection to our natural landscapes is welcome and by its nature, wildcamping is socially distanced and great for soothing away the blues. But unless it’s done with respect, we may lose our right to do it at all.

If you are new to it, when we get to phase 3 of lockdown easing here in Scotland and can travel again, start small and work up an appetite. There’s plenty of tips on Walk Highlands in the links below, but the only real rule is that no-one should be able to tell you have stayed over somewhere, after you have left. The secret life of glen and mountain top can be yours to enjoy as your own, but as my nanna used to say ‘don’t sh*t in your own nest’ – unless you want to park your tent on someone else’s jobbie?

For us old hands, kindness and clarity sit side by side. We all start somewhere – I started with an Argos tent, army surplus sleeping bag, disposable BBQ trays and not a single scoobie, how about you? I know the scenes of littering and fire circles are maddening, but genuine wild camping can be a really inclusive way into the outdoors, so let’s support people to learn more about leaving no trace, rather than mock or condemn online. If you don’t know, you don’t know.

More information:

Choosing a camp site, going to the loo and other practicalities https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/news/wild-camp-101-choosing-a-site-getting-comfy-staying-clean/0014910/,

Outdoors grub – cheap and easy food to make and take https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/news/grubs-up-outdoors-eating-made-easy/0014729/

Fires outdoors – separating fact from controversy

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.