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Scottish winter camping, a work in progress

This past season I’ve been trying to get better at wild camping in the cold and wet. I love staying over in the mountains, and here in Scotland we have access laws that are the envy of the world, it’d be rude not to try ‘wild’ camping all year round, wouldn’t it? But in the winter months I’ve found it’s a real challenge staying out for more than 2 or 3 nights at a time without things getting critically wet, and therefore cold.

To be fair I probably could have chosen a better year to put in more practice! This year saw a long run of low pressure storms, but even in a more stable year, that Atlantic seaboard means dealing with relatively wet, warm and changeable weather. Scottish winters are capricious – everything from gales, rain and sleet, the dreaded breakable crust, either not enough snow or way too much. So, what follows is definitely a work in progress, but here’s what I’ve chanced upon so far to stay in my own comfort zone for longer:

Looking over Ben Lawers from the icy summit of Beinn nan Oighreag
Looking over Ben Lawers from the icy summit of Beinn nan Oighreag

It’s all gone Modular: High humidity and condensation is my enemy number one. Kit that is wet now may freeze later, and me with it. Down is warmer for it’s weight, but suffers in the damp. Synthetics tend to be less heat efficient for the weight, but conversely works better than down when damp. I read on a Norwegian website that a good trick is to add a synthetic layer on top of down. The ‘dew point’, where warm water vapour from one’s body meets cold air and condenses on our clothing, is moved away from the down layer and into the synthetics. It turns out this technique has been used by high altitude mountaineers for decades, so I’ve taken to using a synthetic quilt (a bottomless sleeping bag) on top of a 3-season sleeping bag. Alongside a similar weight down jacket and synthetic belay jacket, this has got me through some really chilly, slightly soggy nights. Combining gear like this is also cheaper than buying winter specific equipment. I also started using different dry bags for separating down and synthetic kit to keep the down dry. The synthetic bag stays near the top of the pack and the contents get air dried whenever an opportunity presents itself (OK, that hasn’t happened that often, but I’m ready to go when it does!)

Extremities count: Hats, especially one of those goretex ones with fleece and ear flaps, and a beanie or two. I always have a minimum of 4 pairs of gloves, at least 1 of which is a pair of wind and waterproof mitts. They get wet (funny that), but I’ve found the best way to dry them is inside my insulated jacket pockets (I wear my jacket when I’m asleep) and inside my softshell or fleece in the day. Even when really soggy this seems to take about 24hours, which isn’t bad if I have enough pairs to recycle through the drying process. Probably my most useful clothing purchase last season was a pair of really warm primaloft trousers, which has further extended the use of my sleeping setup and are really useful for boating trips. I also use primaloft booties for camp. All are have proved worth their winter weight in gold, and have stopped me going home early.

At the start of the season, a frosty wind on the North Glen Shiel ridge
At the start of the season, a frosty wind on the North Glen Shiel ridge

Fast food: This one has taken me ages to realise! Summer and winter I tend to eat the same porridge for breakfast, and noodles, cous cous or rice type concoctions in the evening. But for lunchtime, the oatcakes, cheese, fruit and nuts I subsist on in the summer are impractical in the colder months. For winter, anything which is packed full of calories and easy to stuff straight from the packet into my begoggled face with wet and freezing gloves, works well. Oatbars, yes, but especially pies – lots of pies! All that front pointing on epic winter hills takes energy, and lots of it, but convenience and practicality are as important in the middle of the day.

Burn Baby Burn: On a related note, this year I invested in a petrol stove. Once over the learning curve (thanks Walkhighlands gear editor Phil Turner!) this has proven amazingly convenient in deep cold – it’s really fast, efficient and reliable. On the pricey side, but a great investment and something I look forward to using.

Can you dig it? I used to think this was overkill, but taking a small collapsible avalanche shovel has been brilliant for digging my way into soft snow, building a wall around my shelter to protect me from the gale force arctic windchill, and even digging myself out in the morning! It also makes a great main guyline stake. Recently camped in Coire Mhic Fhearchair in Torridon, and in a very blustery Cairngorms a month earlier, making a wall around the shelter made the difference between noisy nights where I’ve managed to stay put, and needing to evacuate camp due to high winds.

Digging in out of the wind under Beinn Eighe, Torridon
Digging in out of the wind under Beinn Eighe, Torridon

I’ve also been experimenting with digging down inside the shelter or tent porch when the snow is deep enough. Cold air sinks so making a good sized footwell inside my shelter made for a much warmer night. It was also somewhere to put the stove, and my feet (meaning I can sit up and be more comfortable in all those hours of darkness).

Snow pegs: I bought these at the end of last season and in deep snow and high winds, alongside an ice axe and the shovel I’ve found them invaluable at keeping the whole operation grounded. I still take and often use my regular 3 season pegs, either doubling up, as ‘deadmen’ (buried in the snow lying down) or in an X formation. Phil has some great tent peg recommendations here.

Water works: In the summer, I use collapsible plastic ‘platypus’ style bottles, which are light and pack small. After a cold camp under Ben Alder last year, I woke up with a platy frozen rock solid – even on day walks, I find the narrow necks freeze too easily. So I bought a wide mouthed Nalgene. Skiers store the Nalgene upside down so that water pressure acts on the threads to postpone freezing. Snow insulates, apparently, so packing snow around the bottle can help too. It also makes a great hot water bottle when things get a bit desperate in the wee small hours.

Early morning deep in the heart of the Cairngorms, and a wall made from 2-inch windslab tiles to protect our shared shelter from the gale
Early morning deep in the heart of the Cairngorms, and a wall made from 2-inch windslab tiles to protect our shared shelter from the gale

Route Selection: In the winter, my pack is a lot heavier, the days shorter and the terrain more difficult. As a result I’ve tended to adopt more of a base camp approach to camping in the colder months, which means I can get camp comfortable and get onto the hills with less weight to slow me down. It’s not the only way to travel in the winter, but it does mean I can start to look at some more challenging winter ridge routes, and means I only have to haul a full pack over that breakable crust once in, and once out…

Share and Share alike: Initially I was cautious about this – it’s useful to have some ‘redundancy’ in group gear especially given the conditions, but this season, perhaps just knowing my own limits more, and having better kit has meant I’ve done a few trips with shared items. Given the extra weight, it makes a lot of sense. Stove, shovel and shelter are the obvious ones. Everything takes longer in winter so sharing jobs is useful and makes for a better dynamic (one of us makes a brew whilst the other tends to the shovelling, and so on). It’s also warmer in the shelter with two sharing.

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