I did my first wild camp ever last weekend, and, yeh, I don’t know if any of you saw at the time on Instagram Stories, but I … may have had a few issues with it. I’ve created a 10-min video about the experience too, but here’s the text version.
A bit of background; as you may know, in the summer me and my buddy Becky are hiking across Great Britain – 800 miles along mostly long-distance footpaths. Our intention is for most of the trek to wild camp as much as possible. It occurred to me that perhaps I ought to test out how I feel about doing that since, er, I’d never actually done it before. As an aside, the longest I’ve ever hiked for was a combination three-day hike across the Vanuatan island of Malekula, so this summer’s adventure will be, uhm, ‘a challenge’.
I had toyed with the idea of a several day hike somewhere I’d never been before – remote parts of England or Wales maybe, or around the coast of the Isle Of Man – but in the end it made better sense to dabble in the nearby Peak District – that way if it all went horribly wrong I was only an hour from home, even though I’m a perfectly sensible and intelligent chap and nothing would go wrong.
Day One: Penistone to Crowden
After overnighting with a friend in Sheffield on the Friday, I headed off on Saturday lunchtime, still not quite sure what route I’d be taking or how long I’d even be hiking for. I’d packed enough clothes for a couple of days, and some dried food and an awful lot of chocolate, but I figured whatever I chose it would all work out in the end. I’d at least three routes in my mind, but in the event my impatience decided that I’d head to the differently-pronounced town of Penistone and hike from there.
Some images from Penistone town centre
Penistone lies on the Trans-Pennine trail, a long-distance footpath that crosses the width of Britain from Southport to Kingston-upon-Hull – it is, in fact, a series of old railway lines so the path is pretty flat, wide, and comfortable. My tactic thus was to hike across the Pennines to Crowden, reach the Pennine Way, and head South from there back to Edale in the Hope Valley – this would probably involve one overnight stop and I’d see how I felt after that. As it turned out, this was probably one of my better decisions on the hike.
Not long after starting the hike. So full of beans. Ahhh, that didn’t last!
After a very late breakfast, I left Penistone around 14.15; this would give me about 6 hours to reach the Pennine Way before it got dark, some 12-14 miles away. A simple task, I felt. However, a combination of stopping to practising creating video, and hiking barefoot on a slightly stony trail with a heavy backpack, meant I managed the first two miles in about an hour and a half. Foregoing much video, and with sandals applied, I power-walked the rest of the trail. This may not have been my best decision.
Scenery from the Trans-Pennine Trail.
I reached the turn-off for the Pennine Way at Crowden, pretty much the other side of the Pennines, just before 19:00. It’s a spectacular walk by the way – really easy and comfortable, although this segment pretty much doesn’t pass by any civilisation en route. There’s three or so miles between Dunford Bridge (where I took a 5-minute rest) and Woodhead where what was the railway line disappears into tunnels (now sealed off) and the footpath goes firstly along a country road through the moorlands, then along a couple of off-road trails through farmland, at one point forcing me to encounter one of my nemeses. Fortunately the cows in question didn’t move at all, even when I walked right past them, instead being happy to just stare at me.
Mooooooooove out the way!
As an aside, the old railway line in question, and the tunnels at Woodhead in particular, are pretty iconic in the history of British railway history, Constructed as a double-track railway line suitable for heavy freight, it was closed to passengers in 1970 and freight in 1981, perhaps controversially, as it was deemed the Hope Valley line through Edale was ‘more important’ (in that it served places that were much more remote and needed to keep the connection). The Woodhead line was the more direct and logical route from Manchester to Sheffield (trains wouldn’t have to reverse direction), but having walked along the route across the Woodhead Pass, I can honestly say the Hope Valley line is … prettier, if nothing else. And of course easier to use to get to Edale …
Woodhead Railway Station, and tunnel portals.
Anyway. According to the map, the Pennine Way went up a hill, then flattened out on a ridge near a fairly flat plain, and it seemed this was a good place to camp up for the night. As I was wild camping, I didn’t want to set up my tent too early, to give myself the maximum possible chance that no-one would come by and myther me, but equally I didn’t want to be too late and set up in the dark, bearing in mind I’d never set up this particular tent before and wanted to make sure I could see what I was doing.
The hill darned near killed me. After about 10 miles of power-walking with my backpack, I was already a bit drained, and the hill was much, much, steeper than I was anticipating. By the time I reached the crest, I was conscious that I didn’t have much time left, so when I came across some wild land to my right, I headed into it to camp up.
Readers, it was incredibly boggy. Squishy and soft underfoot. On the plus side it meant it was really easy to peg my tent out. However, on the minus side …
That I’d never put this tent up before came to bite me in the backside. The instructions made little sense to a gradually-rising-in-panic solo backpacker. In addition, as the sun got lower in the sky, so the temperature dropped. What had been a fairly comfortable day rapidly turned into a windswept chilly evening and my fingers started to freeze, making untying guide ropes quite tricky (and I’m pretty bad with ropes at the best of times). The sun had gone down by the time I came to trying to attach the inner tent lining, and by that time my fingers were so cold that I physically could not connect up all the hoops. In addition, my vague mild panic, coupled with my lack of spacial awareness, meant I mentally couldn’t figure out how to attach it anyway. In the end I gave up and used the supposed inner lining of the tent as a pillow. Being up a hill, probably about 400m up, also meant the wind was stronger,
My first wild camp tent.
So there I was, lying in what was basically a glorified bivvy, wind rippling under a badly-constructed and incomplete tent, in a several-year-old sleeping bag, lying on damp boggy ground. I went to bed around 21:00 (it took me almost an hour to set up camp; the instructions to the tent said it was buildable in 7 minutes), and … honestly I’m not sure I slept. Despite being fully-clothed (a hoodie, t-shirt, thick PJ bottoms, boxer shorts, and some thick walking socks that appear to be getting a bit threadbare now, something else to add to the list), and all wrapped up, I was bloody freezing – took me an hour to stop shivering, and even with both the hood from the hoodie I was wearing, and the hood on the sleeping bag, I could feel the cold on my little bits of my face that were sticking out. I had a sleeping mat that helped for comfort on the boggy ground, but I always find them a bit too thin and not long enough. At least this time I could fit inside the tent – the last time I went camping I borrowed my friend’s son’s pop-up tent which … well he said it fitted him. But he’s 14 years old. I could hear the wind outside, and feel lit creeping under the gaps between the tent and the ground, and had this bizarre sense that it was getting stronger as the night got deeper. The rustling in the gorse sounded like footsteps, but I knew I was alone – I could barely even hear the distant sheep on the next hillside.
Day Two: Crowden to Edale
I woke up, well, I decided to give up, at any length, about 6am. It was pretty light outside by then, and I figured I might as well make an early start. I wasn’t sure how far it was to Edale, or how long it would take – somewhere between 4 hours and a day – but it made sense to make the most of the early daylight when there’d be fewer people around. Packing up the tent was much easier than setting it up, although the presence of ice, ICE, on the roof of the tent and in the eyelets of the structural poles reminded me just how cold it had been. No barefoot hiking for me today; I had been undecided about bringing walking shoes because they were bulky but oh my they went on as soon as I’d got my trousers on. Over my PJ bottoms. When hiking, being warm > smelling good. I also wore socks. On my hands.
I also noticed the incredibly cold night had affected something else too. I switched on my phone, where I store all my maps, and saw the battery suddenly drop from 49% to 2%. I just had enough juice to check I could get out of Edale on a Sunday before it died. No matter, I thought, I had a power bank with me, plus it’s the Pennine Way, it’s pretty much the only path in the area, I can’t possibly get lost.
Despite it all though, just being in that place, at peace, was worth the hassle.
View from my first wild camp spot.
As I was walking mostly along ridges and across hilltops, despite the sun coming out pretty early on, it stayed quite chilly and windy, even after a couple of hours hiking. The route was mostly easy to follow, with no real tricky bits in terms of terrain – although quite rocky and hilly, I never felt precarious at any point. The scenery switched frequently between views across valleys, to large flat mossy/boggy plains; it all felt particularly remote and quiet, especially in the first few hours of hiking.
In the end, the hike back to Edale took exactly 7 hours. It probably should have been quicker, but at one point, because I didn’t have map access, I did take a slightly incorrect route late on, at a cascade called ‘Kinder Downfall’ and spent the best part of an hour hiking across the bleak boggy moorland of Kinder Scout. By this point there were starting to be other hikers on the trails, doing daytime loops between nearby villages, and so I wasn’t the only person to take this route (indeed by the time I did reach Edale it was pretty much a procession of hikers on the trail going both ways). Unfortunately they took it because they had been following me…still, no harm done, we just all saw a bit more of rural England.
Kinder Scout of course is famous for the Mass Trespass in April 1932, where several hundred ramblers congregated on the mountain to protest about the lack of access rights to open countryside; this protest indirectly led to the creation of long-distance footpaths like the Pennine Way and also the cause of my temporary lack of direction.
Now, you may be wondering, surely at this point my phone, with my maps on, would have recharged? Well, apparently not; despite charging for several hours the power bank was dead and when switched on, the phone was only on 36%, and that dropped to 19% within around a minute of use. Fortunately, we knew we were heading due South so at some point would reach a ridge with a footpath, so no hope was needlessly lost.
As per the previous day though, I was hiking quite speedily and taking few rests; even though I was becoming really knackered with weak legs on some of the later, steeper, inclines, my rest stops were still only a minute or two in general, with only a couple of 5 minute stops to feed my chocolate fix. In addition, my backpack was new so I was having some teething troubles in how to wear it correctly, so by the end of the hike my shoulders were also quite sore. This all meant that the last mile, across a couple of fields with some sight inclines, took forever and I really struggled with my legs.
The End of the Pennine Way, Edale. I was rather glad to see this.
The first thing I did when I reached Edale was go to the cafe by the railway station and pick up some brownie and a lot of water. I’d been hiking with two refillable water bottles but that only accounted for about 1.25 litres, and even though one of them was a filter bottle, I hadn’t found much in the way of fast-flowing streams to refill it, so I’d been rationing myself quite a lot. It was lucky it had been so windy at camp actually; I’d brought with me a small gas stove and some instant noodles but by the time I’d set the tent up I just didn’t feel like going through the hassle of that too, especially in the wind.
It felt good to get the backpack off on the train back to Sheffield, and even better to celebrate my return to civilisation with a couple of beers in the pub at the station, and then, for reasons of self-cafe, I booked myself into a cheap nearby hotel for the night rather than trying to head back home.
Much needed rest and relaxation. It’s called “self-care”!
I purposely didn’t write this post immediately after finishing the hike, as I wanted to leave it a few days for my memories to settle. I knew the hike was always going to be one of those things that would feel much more enjoyable having been done, rather than in the act of doing, if you know what I mean. But it has given me a bit more time to consider my takeouts from my first wild camp experience. So, in no particular order …
1) Learn how your tent works.
If I have but one takeout, it’s this.
I know it’s often hard to build a tent in your front room, but even if you just get it out the bag, read the instructions, and have a bit of a play with it, just familiarise yourself with how its constructed, how many poles it has, where they go, etc. Even just working out which way round it all goes. If you do that before you set up your tent for the first time in live conditions, you won’t be in the situation I was in where because the setup was unfamiliar (it was quite different from my normal tent), and because I had quick drops in both time and temperature, I ended up putting it up loosely and thus my night was much more uncomfortable than it really needed to be.
I’m sure you all know this, but I felt I needed to say it because some people, without openly admitting it, are bloody-minded clutzes like me.
2) Take more water.
My backpack has two side pockets that can each hold a decent-sized bottle. However, and especially if you’re cooking, I’d suggest taking more than this. I know Becky likes to carry a 2L plastic ‘canteen’ that can fit comfortably in a specialised slot on her backpack, but even a third refillable bottle in the main part of your bag will do wonders. I know it adds to the weight (remember, at standard temperature and pressure, 1L of water weighs 1kg, because the metric system is logical like that), but it’ll soon be used up and anyway, better to have more water and carry slightly heavier load than to run out halfway.
3) Don’t push yourself too hard, and take regular and longer rests.
This, this is the one thing I need to remember and act upon though.
I know I’m prone to over-exerting myself and saying things like ‘oh, it’s only another two miles, that’s half an hour, it’s easy’. But if you’re walking upwards of 14-15 miles, every mile counts. You physically can’t just ‘keep going’, especially at that sort of pace. You will start to get very tired, and your legs will start to hurt, to the extent that a small incline in the path will feel like an Alpine mountain. Especially if you’re carrying a loaded backpack.
Walking too far and too fast is something I do by default – I aim for 4mph,and I can keep that up for quite a while. This means, when I’m thinking about how far I can walk in a day, in my head it’s a two-digit figure and the first digit is a ‘2’. But I need to realise that this is unrealistic, especially over multiple weeks.
Partly this speed is also helped by my reluctance to stop and rest. When I’m walking I feel I don’t need to, plus in my head it’s kind of wasting time – I could be using that time to be going further and doing more. It’s the same reason I never used to take rest days when I travelled the world; I always used to feel time was precious and that I’d gone all that way so spending time doing nothing felt like a misuse of my time.
The trouble is, if I don’t rest, my body doesn’t recover. This has cumulative effects; I could barely move on the Sunday evening and while I was reasonably fluid on the Monday I was still a little achy Had I taken longer rests on my hike on the Sunday, I may not have reached Edale until, say, 4 or 5pm, but I’d have been much more refreshed. If I’m going to be walking for two months, I need to make sure I don’t walk too much, and when I do walk, that I take regular rests as I go.
4) Work out how best to pack and wear a backpack.
I’m so used to travelling light, with a backpack that can fit in carry-on on aircraft, so having a 65L backpack feels very strange. It was the first time I’d used that too, so although it felt pretty comfortable, it wasn’t quite riding right – it needs to be adjusted to properly fit my back but that’s better done with someone around to help. Also, because I haven’t got used to its size and its segments, for part of the Sunday the top segment kept banging against my head because I hadn’t pulled the straps into quite the right place, something I only discovered going home on the Monday.
I also need to get used to what each pocket and section does, how best to pack efficiently (it doesn’t have sticky-out pockets where I tend to store my electricals etc), and the best way of spreading my gear around. For my big hike, I think I know what I’m taking, but need to work out the best distribution of it.
5) Equipment and clothes need warmth too.
The temperature overnight dropped so much that pretty much everything I’d taken out of my backpack overnight got incredibly cold, and therefore a little damp, especially has without the inner lining of the tent it was also resting on the boggy ground, which itself was slightly soggy. This caused issues with my phone’s battery dying overnight even though it was switched off, but also some of my clothes getting a little wet. It’s something I need to be aware of.
I do have a collection of ‘dry bags’ of various sizes, and indeed took a couple on my hike which helped slightly, though again because I’m not used to them I didn’t quite use them properly. A bit like everything else I took with me, I guess.
In summary, maybe, if there’s one takeout above all else from this, it’s this:
Know your stuff before you start. Don’t be me, be sensible.
Hopefully though, because I’ve done this now, my hike will be much easier. And in any case I won’t be doing it alone, which will help.
It all seemed so simple at the start …
[Disclaimer: the backpack and the dry bags, which weren’t pictured, were gifted by Osprey, while the water filter bottle was gifted by Water-To-Go, both for the purposes of the #E2WChallenge hike. The tent was not gifted, but it would have been cool if it had been!]
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