If you read my last post you’ll know that I’ve been getting into the Wild Camping thing this year. I’ve gone on a few UK trips with my siblings, I’ve trekked and camped along Norwegian fjords with friends, and I’ve met new pals sleeping under the stars as part of the Adventure Queens Autumn Equinox sleepout.
All of these experiences were incredible – and I certainly do have a good tale to share for each. However today I’m going to tell you about a far less perfect and much more challenging adventure: the time I went wild-camping on my own.
My previous camping trips have always been memorable because of the good pals I have shared the experiences with. Reaching the summit of a big hill, campfire chats or even the less pleasant moments of midge attacks and getting utterly lost – all become happy or hilarious memories when toiled in good company.
But nevertheless, I had always been curious about tackling an adventure on my own. Having read of the solo expeditions of women like Anna McNuff, Phoebe Smith and Lizzy Hawker (to name just a few), I couldn’t stop thinking about the mental strength required to rely on yourself so utterly, motivated by you and you alone to complete an expedition of epic proportions.
This summer, my own goal was much more modest but, for me, no less daunting. Could I spend a night all alone in the wilderness? I decided to find out.
On a sunny Thursday evening, I packed up my adventure bag and headed out from our Lakeland holiday cottage up into the surrounding fells. I had chosen to camp next to a little tarn just below the summit of Great Bourne – about a 90 minute walk from the nearest village. It was a beautiful summer’s evening: vast blue skies, gentle breeze, perfect temperature. I set off imagining the delicious meal I would cook for myself under the setting sun up in the wilderness.
As I mentioned in my last post, wild camping is not technically legal in the UK but campers are tolerated in the Lake District as long as they are well above the wall line and discreetly positioned. Whilst I had planned my route well, I had not realised that I would be passing through the farmland of a rather unwelcoming landowner.
The first clue was the dead and decomposing sheep ominously situated just as the footpath entered the farmland. Second was the thick and near impenetrable bush of thorns and nettles that surrounded each stile. And third, perhaps the most barmy of all, were these signs pinned up on the farmer’s old barn as the footpath passed by his property…
Now, I don’t wish to judge Mr. Farmer’s footpath predicament without knowing the full details, but a quick google search revealed that he is well-known for his aggression towards ramblers and has in fact served a prison sentence for obstructing the right of way. Needless to say, I was not up for an angry farmer encounter whilst out on my Larry, so I hot-footed it off that footpath as quickly as is possible with a giant backpack.
Creepy farm aside, I very much enjoyed the rest of my walk up into the fells. Once past the wall of the last farm, the land opened out in front of me, rolling waves of grey green emptiness disappearing into the horizon. At dusk, with the dark clouds rolling in and nobody in sight, I felt very alone indeed.
However, no sooner had I picked my sleeping spot and pitched my tent, reality hit home with the onset of a massive rainstorm. Hopes of a summer’s evening of al fresco dining now fully dashed, I had no choice by to chuck everything and myself into my tent and hunker down for the night.
Except everything in that last sentence is way easier said than done. Tent, for the record, is a very generous description for the contraption I now found myself walled up in. Discovered by my mother in the bargain bucket at Go Outdoors, it is about 2.5 metres long but only 70cm high. In other words, lying down – fine. Sitting up – no chance. It is basically not far off a bodybag.
Cooking was out of the question, so I munched my cold dinner reclined à la Roman Emperor and pondered what the hell I was doing voluntarily subjecting myself to a night of torrential rain and thunder. 300,000 years of Homo sapiens’ ingenuity has thus far transpired to lift us out of such shitty weather. Yet here I was, well and truly stuck in it, “for the lols”.
As you can tell, I was not best impressed with myself at this point. But there was no way I was going to head home in the pitch dark in the middle of a storm, so I shuffled around as best I could in my bodybag and prepared myself for the night ahead.
Once settled, I reflected on actually how comfortable I was. The bodybag tent, despite its bargain bucket origins, was doing a stellar job at keeping me dry. And its low profile meant I escaped the worst of the buffeting winds and remained well camouflaged amidst the dark landscape. My sleeping bag was warm and snuggly, and my pillow was very comfortable. My dinner, though cold, had been filling and had included some of my mum’s homebaked goodies.
Food, warmth, shelter – I realised that my basic needs had been met. With no signal on my phone, the only thing really to confront over the next ten hours was that staggering sense of alone-ness.
With the aid of some downloaded podcasts, I drifted in and out of an uneasy sleep throughout the night. My dreams featured flooded tents, irate farmers and rampaging sheep. My awake moments were filled with alertness, rather than fear, and a general irritation at the din of the torrential raindrops on the roof of my tent.
Finally, at 4:45am, the sun woke up and I rose with it – keen to return via Creepy Farmer’s land before he awoke to chase me off it. The rain died down as I packed up my tent and the growing light revealed the sheer desolateness of the landscape I had just spent the night in.
If you have ever read any George Monbiot you will know that, despite its beauty, the Lake District should truly be appreciated as an ecological disaster. Human-led deforestation and over-grazing of sheep have left a landscape bereft of any life other than tough grass and agricultural grazers. I felt a much greater understanding of Monbiot’s argument as I picked my way off the fells, now reduced to slow-moving bog, with rain-sodden sheep the only notable feature for miles and miles.
After a few hours of walking, in which I successfully avoided the wrath of any irate farmers, I reached the shores of Lake Ennerdale. Sat on the pebble beach, I fired up my stove to make breakfast and a hot brew. My solo wild-camp had been distinctly uneventful and, given the weather, definitely not instagram-worthy. But unlike my other adventures, I had found it to be a real challenge – at least in the mental sense.
So connected are we these days that true solitude – both geographically and electronically – is a rare event. For the first time in a while, friends and family were not just a phone call away; and with no fellow travellers, the entire experience was mine alone. The whole thing had been well and truly out of the comfort zone, but as I sipped my tea by the lakeside I realised I felt bizarrely proud of myself for having gotten through it without being too scared. Maybe I’m made of tougher stuff than I thought?
Arriving at the holiday cottage at 7am, the return to civilisation was swift. Freshly brewed coffee, steaming bowl of porridge and a Netflix-binge with my sister – all doubly appreciated after my night sleeping in a bog.
Wild camping is definitely best enjoyed with friends, but I do think I would go solo again. I am especially keen to explore the Scottish wilderness and Dartmoor National Park, where wild camping is legal. Regardless of where I end up, I will take the weather forecast much more seriously next time…