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Wild Camp 101 – choosing a site, getting comfy, staying clean

David LinternDavid Lintern shares a few basics for staying out in the mountains.

After last month’s column about backpacking food, I thought I’d follow up with a few camping tips and tricks. I’ve met a fair few dedicated Munro baggers who are still a bit unsure about camping, especially for more than a night or two, but if that describes you, please – don’t miss out any longer! After a good walk, staying out in the mountains really is the icing on the cake. Even if the weather is a bit sketchy, camping out equals more time in the places you love, and a more immersive experience overall. But if the learning curve seems a bit steep, here’s a few hacks and some best practise that will hopefully make things more comfortable.

 What you miss if you go home at the end of the day; the sound of rutting stags on a perfect autumn evening, high above Loch Mullardoch.


What you miss if you go home at the end of the day; the sound of rutting stags on a perfect autumn evening, high above Loch Mullardoch.

Choosing a campsite

It all depends on the weather and your surroundings – there’s no definitive ‘right answer’ here. High winds and stormy summits? Common sense suggests you’d be wise to stay off the tops… and you’d be right. Bealachs or cols often provide good shelter, especially on the lee side, but beware the wind can change direction overnight. If in doubt, seek shelter lower down, but if the winds are really high, avoid camping in woodland areas if the trees look overgrown or unstable! Areas at the edges of woods or behind small hummocks are great – it’s amazing how little cover you need to moderate the wind enough to get your tent up and you inside.

Interestingly, camping lower down the hill isn’t always warmer – cold air sinks, which is worth bearing in mind when you are researching your route at home, thinking about where you might stop and what kit to take. Lastly, it’s worth thinking about water. Having some on hand is nice, but if it’s raining hard, don’t camp too close to a burn or loch – that water level may well rise overnight! If you’re concerned about how biting insects will affect your camp location, see the end of this article for further reading.

However, before you consider any of this, it’s well worth equipping yourself with the lightest bit of kit available – knowledge, in the form of the weather forecast. This will help you consider the campsite options early in the day, and plan your route accordingly.

Sheltered from heavy rain and high winds in an Assynt birchwood.

Sheltered from heavy rain and high winds in an Assynt birchwood.

Getting comfortable

The convention is to look for a flat site, but reality doesn’t always play ball – just do your best, without moving rocks or disturbing the site if at all possible. If you are on a bit of an incline, try sleeping head down for a while – it can help with sore legs, as it drains the lactic acid which builds up from heavy muscle exercise. Anything you do move, make sure you return it when you strike camp.

It’s worth collecting water from river or burn at the start, so you don’t have to later on, especially if it’s raining. I like to carry a collapsible water bottle or two for this – I’m not a morning person, so it’s great not to have to fetch water first thing, too. It can also help if you want to camp high or at a dry site – having extra capacity means you can carry for a short time if you need to.

A ‘dry’ camp on the South Glen Shiel ridge, made possible with collapsible water carriers.

A ‘dry’ camp on the South Glen Shiel ridge, made possible with collapsible water carriers.

One of the most common questions beginners have is how what clothes to take. The reality is, for most trips you only need 2 sets – One to walk in, and one to sleep in. For longer trips, or those in spring or autumn, add some cosy extras – maybe a warmer pair of gloves, thicker socks and a warmer insulation layer. Don’t be tempted to take loads of changes of clothing – you won’t need them and they will weigh you down, making forward progress slow and uncomfortable. Pack your change of clothes in a drybag or two – these compress down small and keep your gear dry, which on a longer trip may be the difference between comfort and hypothermia. The black bin liner beloved of so many of us when we start out doesn’t keep the dreich out for long…

When you’ve put up your tent, it’s time to get out of your stinky hill gear and dress for dinner! Take the inner soles out of your boots or trailshoes and stand them up in the shoes to air. Remove your socks and if damp, put inside your puffy jacket pockets – if you use your puffy to sleep in (a good way of boosting the warmth of your sleeping bag) they’ll dry overnight with the warmth of your body. Whilst your feet are airing, change the rest of your clothes. Get out of your day kit before the sweat dries – you’ll feel better and this allows it to air. Need to dry off your feet properly? Don’t bother with a full size towel – it’ll take up a ton of room, smell and weigh more when damp. Bring a couple of J-cloths – one for your feet, and one for your arms and face. They pack small, can be rinsed out, dry fast and are cheap to replace.

Keeping clean

This brings me nicely to a backpacking washkit. Here’s the contents of mine, honed to economy after years of getting it wrong. It’s stored in a small mesh bag, which allows any damp to escape.

Clockwise from bottom: toothbrush (cut down not to save weight but to make it easier to pack), antiseptic cream (cuts and scrapes), organic peppermint soap concentrate (cleans cup, pan, spoon, me and my teeth), chapstick, concentrated handcream (for chapped hands and feet), liquid alcohol hand sanitiser, floss (for teeth and kit repair).

Clockwise from bottom: toothbrush (cut down not to save weight but to make it easier to pack), antiseptic cream (cuts and scrapes), organic peppermint soap concentrate (cleans cup, pan, spoon, me and my teeth), chapstick, concentrated handcream (for chapped hands and feet), liquid alcohol hand sanitiser, floss (for teeth and kit repair).

Your kit will of course vary, but we’re going on a hike, so please leave the deodorant, hair products and/or makeup at home! Trust me – after 2 days out there, you won’t even remember why you use those things. The only thing I’d add to this would be midge repellent (in season) and toilet roll. This doesn’t include my first aid or repair kit – perhaps that’s for another time.

I’ll get to all matters bathroom related in a minute, but first, some ground rules for scrubbing up at camp. Please, do use an organic soap, but don’t wash directly in a stream or river. Even organic soaps can cause phosphates to build up in watercourses and seriously impact waterborne wildlife. We’re here to enjoy these places, not destroy them, right? Freshen yourself up – face, arms, feet and anywhere else, with a tiny amount of organic soap on a j-cloth using water from your cooking pan. This water needs to be disposed of away from the watercourse to minimise its impact. Similarly, no-one want to see tiny bits of your previous meal floating downstream, especially if they are collecting their own water from that same burn! Collect some water, clean your cooking gear, and empty the ‘grey water’ onto dry land at least a few metres away from running water.

Here we see the consequences of a slack routine – a clean camp means the mountain trolls of Arrochar can’t track you down as easily.

Here we see the consequences of a slack routine – a clean camp means the mountain trolls of Arrochar can’t track you down as easily.

Perhaps all this routine seems a little picky, but I’ve learnt with experience that a small amount of camp discipline can go a long way to improving comfort levels. Tea and coffee tastes better if it’s not got bits of the previous night’s soup floating in it, and clothes stink less and last longer between washes if you take time to have a quick flannel down now and then. In hot weather, less salt build up means less chaffing from rucksack, and belt straps, too. This applies especially to feet, and blisters – keep those puppies clean!

A poo with a view

Understandably, going to the loo outdoors is a big area of concern for beginners, but with a little knowhow we can leave that concern at home and enjoy a relatively carefree, alfresco bathroom experience – just as nature intended.

Prepping a comfort break on a snowy mountain, digging down past the snowline. Please note a T rated axe is not essential, although it can aid an effective brace position.

Prepping a comfort break on a snowy mountain, digging down past the snowline. Please note a T rated axe is not essential, although it can aid an effective brace position.

First, find a suitable spot at least 30m from water and 200m from the crag or bothy, if there’s one nearby. For your own health, it’s essential to go downstream from camp and away from the fresh water supply. The earth needs to be soft enough to dig a hole 15cm deep – a trowel or ice axe will make this a lot easier. Don’t just scrape away the topsoil, put your back into it – you’ll need to really dig down. In the winter, dig past the snow and right into the ground. This all takes time, so allow for that and don’t get caught short!

Assume a crouching position and make your peace with the world. After you’ve finished, cover the hole completely with the loose earth you dug. Don’t just dump a rock on top – it stops decomposition. What about the toilet paper? Increasingly, the thinking is to carry out. There are more of us than ever enjoying the great outdoors, and we need to keep it healthy and beautiful for the future. You can use biodegradable (cornstarch or water soluble) bags to store the used paper until you find a bin to dispose of it properly. When you’re done, use the hand sanitiser to clean your hands – you’ll probably be eating trailmix with those grubby mitts inside of an hour!

The perfect peace of first light on the Cruachan range, seen from a very frosty bealach camp in the Etive hills. It just wouldn’t be the same with some used loo roll in the picture.

The perfect peace of first light on the Cruachan range, seen from a very frosty bealach camp in the Etive hills. It just wouldn’t be the same with some used loo roll in the picture.

If you’re thinking ‘eeeugh’, then it’s time for a deep breath (perhaps not too deep) and a quick recap – it’s our mess, we need to clean it up… and before you get too precious, think about where you’ve just had your hands. Without getting overly preachy about it, our ‘business’ is serious business – here in the UK we are used to flushing loos, but bad sanitation is still the single highest cause of death and disease in the world, so it pays not to be complacent. There is real evidence that our laziness (or is that squeamishness?) is causing increased pollution, especially in more popular mountain areas. So please, if you use paper, any paper, pack it out – this applies to ladies and gentlemen, liquids and solids. And if you can’t dig down into the ground because it’s too icy or rocky, then do your worst onto a piece of toilet paper, and pack the whole lot into a disposable bag. And no, it’s not OK to hang it on a tree!

The Cairngorm National Park runs it’s very own Poo Project to encourage packing all human waste out – you can find fresh bags and containers for use at the Cairn Gorm ski centre. There’s also a useful leaflet produced by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, here . http://www.mcofs.org.uk/assets/access/where-to-go-leaflet.asp.pdf

Grinning and baring all in a storm isn’t the most comfortable experience I’ll admit, so you might want to pick your moments. But there’s no need to be embarrassed – we all have to go. I’m not ashamed to say that when the weather is fine, I quite enjoy a poo with a view.

Further reading from David:
Outdoors eating made easy
Scottish Winter camping – a work in progress
Stop Bugging me

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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.