Wild Camping 2: Camp Harder – In The Lake District
16 minute read
I’d been hearing voices in my head.
And for all of last autumn, winter, and the early stages of spring this year, I’d been tormented by them.
It wasn’t the voices of demons, nor was it voices that told me to do evil things; instead, it was a voice that kept whispering two words to me…
For anybody that read the story of my first wild camping adventure (and for those that didn’t, you can check it out here – Wild Camping in the Lake District), you’ll already be aware that despite the adventure having been a success in so many ways, ultimately I’d failed in one big aspect. I’d failed to reach my intended destination.
Incorrect packing methods and misunderstood map-reading had both combined to leave me some distance short of where I’d envisaged setting up camp. What I’d aimed for was a still mirror-like mountain tarn, but what I got was a patch of grass and a big rock.
Regardless, what really mattered was that I’d lost my wild camping virginity; yes it had been messy, and yes it was a little bit awkward at times (a bit like losing my actual virginity), but overall I’d had a wonderful experience (unlike losing my actual virginity).
I’d been bitten by the wild camping bug and I couldn’t wait to get out there again, but those voices that were in my head, mocking me, wouldn’t allow me to move on just yet. Despite having considered a number of different destinations for my second wild camp, I knew that there was only one option for me; I had to return to the Lake District and finish off what I’d started.
I arrived at Wastwater Lake two hours behind schedule. The traffic on the M6 had been very M6-like, meaning that I’d spent more time staring at the arse-end of a stationery vehicle than I did doing any actual driving. It also meant that I spent more time swearing in frustration than I did singing along to my music.
I was conscious that it was still only early April and so to be arriving here at 4pm meant that I had just three hours of daylight to make it to my intended camping spot at Low Tarn; the very spot that I’d hoped (but failed) to reach before.
At the start of my previous adventure I’d made a last minute decision to change my route and it was a decision that cost me dearly. This time I would stick to my Plan A and cut into the hills on the west side of the lake at a place called Overbeck Bridge.
I’d managed to grab the last parking spot in the tiny car park, situated alongside a beautiful and fast-flowing stream. I climbed out of my car, stretched my legs, and turned towards the sky so that I could soak up the sunshine.
It had been a long and gloomy winter here in England but I was being treated to a beautiful day with clear blue skies. It really did feel like the long-awaited and much needed start to spring.
I walked across the car park, found the start of the trail, and consulted my map.
Yep, this was definitely the right spot, and it was time to get started.
As I walked back to my car I could hear the sound of the mountain stream cascading over the rocks. It was tranquil, it was serene, it was…what the hell!?
My heart sank as I reached the back of my car, because what I’d not noticed when I first arrived was a tiny little signpost. It was a signpost that was small in size but massive in consequences, and it was a stupid little signpost that was about to compound the problem that had already been created by my late arrival. I looked at it again, hoping that I’d misread the warning that was proudly displayed across its woodwork, but alas, it did in fact read…
NO OVERNIGHT PARKING
I was screwed.
Sometimes it’s not so bad when history repeats itself. I mean, if I were able to experience another beautiful sunset at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, then I reckon that would be pretty cool. And if I were able to see Muse rocking the stage of the Royal Albert Hall for a second time, then I’d find that pretty sweet. And I’d probably even settle for reaching down the side of my sofa and finding that mysterious fifty pence piece once again. I still have no idea where that came from.
But what I do not appreciate is being back at the village green at Wasdale Head facing yet another massive walk while carrying a backpack that weighed the equivalent of a young hippopotamus.
This was the situation that I was now facing.
Once again I stood at my car filling up my portable water carrier. Two litres became four, four litres became six, and as a result, that young hippo started to feel like it had developed the first documented case of hippo-obesity.
I pulled on my backpack, cursed myself, and then set off on the two mile walk alongside the road and back down towards Overbeck Bridge.
The walk felt never-ending, but when I finally reached the start of the trail I was hit by a sudden surge of energy and enthusiasm. I was about to hit brand new territory.
Although I’d failed to learn my lesson about not carrying too much weight, what I had learned was the art of keeping the weight closer to my body.
Last time I’d brought a smaller backpack and had hung a number of items on the outside, but this only resulted in gravity pulling me backwards and upsetting my balance. This time, however, I’d brought a larger backpack and had fitted everything inside it, thus keeping everything closer to my body and eliminating the gravity/balance problem.
Sadly though, weight was still a massive issue and I knew this was something that I’d have to drastically reduce if I were to ever get the best from my wild camping experiences.
I mean, what’s the point in being free to wander if the weight of the things you’re carrying won’t actually allow you to be free?
It’s a wonderful feeling when you first set off on a new trail; the feeling of freedom, and heading into the unknown with the promise of adventure awaiting you.
The majority of us live pretty predictable lives in the sense that we need to go to work, pay the bills, and put food on the table. We drive to the same places, we do the same things, and life takes on a certain routine. This is by no means a bad thing and for most of us it really is quite unavoidable.
But too much of it can definitely be a bad thing and a life lived entirely within our comfort zones will most certainly lead to the death of our spirit. Yet all it takes is a moment of spontaneity and to take a step into the unfamiliar and without even realising it that inner flame can be reignited.
We must be trying new things, testing ourselves, and constantly evolving so as to avoid stagnation.
Wild camping is not excluded from these rules either, and as I ventured up into the lush green hills and looked back over my shoulder and saw Wastwater Lake growing smaller and smaller and disappearing in the distance, I made a promise to myself; to make sure that I mix up the destinations, the environments, the conditions, the durations, and the distances in which I travel.
Having now walked some two and a half kilometres since starting the trail, I stopped to take a breather, consult my map, and record a little video for you.
Low Tarn was situated somewhere to the west of me and as I turned to my left and peered upwards, I knew that I was getting closer to my goal. I could practically smell it.
All that stood between us was a pretty significant change in gradient. From the map I was able to pinpoint the highest peak, and I knew that Low Tarn was located very near to this. In this instance I felt I didn’t really need to use a compass and that I could just use landmarks instead, and so I simply turned towards where I believed the tarn should be, and then I set off.
I’d been surprised at how well I was handling the challenge up to this point despite the fact that I was carrying so much weight on my back. But as the steady incline now gave way to a much more severe incline, the weight of the challenge combined with the weight of my backpack, and then I really began to struggle.
Although the weather was glorious on this particular day, the week building up to the trip had seen a lot of heavy rain fall across the country. The Lake District had not missed out these downpours and so as I pushed up the embankment, my feet sank into the earth, amplifying the volume of work that I had to do.
My carefree spirit suddenly turned ultra-serious and I spurred myself on using a combination of methods, ranging from reassuring little pep talks, to all out swearing and self-abuse. I was like one half a loving and nurturing parent, and the other half was like a cruel and sadistic drill sergeant. In one breath I’d be saying…
“Come on buddy, just one more step. That’s it, well done! You can have a cookie when you’re finished.”
And in the next breath I’d say…
“You are an absolute disgrace! You are a worthless piece of shit! Come on you big wimp…is that the best you can do!?”
I pushed on, leaning into the hillside and using my walking poles to keep my balance. I was panting, I was sweating, but I was nearing the top.
I just needed to take a few more steps.
Just a few more.
And then I was there! I was there at the top! But as I looked around I could see…nothing.
Where was the bloody tarn?
At the very top of High Fell I could see rocks, I could see grass, and I could see sheep; lots of them. But I couldn’t see the damn tarn.
With the sun steadily lowering in the late afternoon sky, I knew that I was running out of time. My legs were shaking with exhaustion and I really didn’t feel like I could carry my backpack much further, especially when I felt like I didn’t know where to begin walking.
I was tired, I was thirsty, and I was struggling to work out exactly where the tarn would be. I felt I needed to go exploring but I didn’t want to carry all my things in case I ended up walking in circles, and so I made the decision to lighten the load and to ditch my backpack.
Thankfully I had the common sense to leave it in a place where I knew I’d find it, and so I chose a unique looking rock face situated alongside the largest and fastest flowing of the mountain streams. With the sudden loss of weight I felt lighter on my feet and so I began to run around aimlessly, just like the proverbial headless chicken.
But this chicken really didn’t know where the hell he was going. I ran and ran, noticing that the sun was lowering even deeper in the sky.
And as the sun lowered, so did the temperature.
I was really beginning to panic, worrying that I might fail for a second time. But failure really wasn’t an option.
I had to succeed!
And then it hit me. While I was in panic mode I’d lost all ability to think rationally, and in doing so I’d missed the bloody obvious.
I’d left my bag next to the biggest, fastest, and most prominent of all the mountain streams. Wouldn’t it make sense that the water must be coming from a pretty significant water source?
I retraced my steps, found my backpack, and then picked out the map. While I glanced over the familiar words, numbers, and gradient lines I took a moment to reflect on what I’d just done. Yes I’d left my bag in a place where I knew I’d be able to find it, but how easy would it be to leave my bag in a place where I knew I’d be able to find it, but then not actually find it? And what if that unique looking rock face actually turned out to look like all the other unique looking rock faces?
Without my backpack I had no food, no water, no warm clothing, and no shelter. I also had no phone signal and nobody there to help me if the shit really hit the fan.
Thankfully I knew how to get back to my car in a worst-case scenario situation, but it was a stark reminder of just how wrong something could go if I failed to think rationally.
And it was in one of these moments when I realised I’d wasted valuable time and energy as a result of this; because looking at the map I was able to confirm what I’d already suspected.
The stream would lead me direct to Low Tarn.
While I’d been running aimlessly around the top of High Fell, it turned out that I was only about 50m away from Low Tarn. It was that feeling of being ‘so near, yet so far’.
But when I finished the steady ascent alongside the stream; all the drama, the frustration, and every bit of exhaustion was immediately forgotten. Low Tarn was beautiful.
I stood with my mouth wide open as I looked around at the picture-perfect scene. The setting sun allowed the mountainous backdrop to glow up in the same incredible orange that you’d normally expect to see in the Arizona desert. And when I looked into the perfectly still water and saw the reflection of Red Pike looking back at me, I had one of those special ‘travellers moments’.
It was one of those moments that felt like it was meant to be; like I was destined to be there. And right at that very moment all the sounds of the afternoon disappeared completely, like the volume knob had been turned right down to zero.
There was nothing, nothing at all. And in a world in which we face constant distractions and endless noise, moments of complete and utter silence can be almost impossible to find. It was an overwhelmingly beautiful moment, and one which I’m unlikely to ever forget.
But the moment passed, and as the volume knob was steadily turned back up, it felt like the thermostat was now being turned down instead. The sun was disappearing fast, and whereas a moment before I’d been stood in just a t-shirt, I now scrambled to get a warm top out of my bag.
The temperature was plummeting and I needed to get my tent up fast.
Although I’d been blessed with a beautiful spring day, the weather report had already forewarned that the temperature was expected to reach minus three during the night. But that was at ground level, so I expected it to drop even lower up here in the hills.
My fingers were trembling as I put my tent up and this was the first time I’d felt such a sense of urgency while camping. It all became very real and was very different to any other camping experience I’d had before.
As soon as I was happy that my tent was properly set up and everything was in place, I reached for my stove.
Ten minutes later I had a perfectly brewed cup of coffee in my hands, and I allowed the steam to warm my face as I leaned forward and breathed in the aroma. Once again it served as an important reminder as to how crucial it is to prepare properly for wild camping, because it would only take for one key item to have not been packed and I could’ve been in trouble.
To a more experienced wild camper and to mountaineers who survive in extreme weather conditions, I may sound a little bit melodramatic with what I’m saying. But as a ‘newbie’ to this kind of adventure and as somebody who is still gaining experience and building my knowledge, this was a very important lesson for me.
I poured out some more water so that I could boil it and cook up some food, but my water had become so cold that it was taking an age to get it warmed up. And so I made the decision to move the stove into the porch area of my tent; shielding it as best as I could from the elements while ensuring there was enough ventilation too.
I curled up on my sleeping bag, sipped on my coffee, and as my boil-in-the-bag meal cooked away on the stove, I felt truly content. It was going to be a cold night, but for now I was warm, toasty, and I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Later that evening, with food in my belly and a hipflask in my hand, I climbed back out of my tent to take part in a little star gazing. I’d poured the left over hot water from my camping stove into one of the empty metallic water bottles and placed it inside my sleeping bag. This makeshift hot water bottle would hopefully be able to provide me with a couple of hours of warmth once I returned to my tent.
But for now, as I stood out in the darkness with my head torch on, I could see my breath and feel the cold of the evening really starting to bite.
After turning off my head torch and allowing my eyes to steadily adjust to the darkness, I stood in awe of what surrounded me. And as I took another sip of whisky I looked up, slowly turned around, and took in the full 360 degrees of a star-filled night. It was beautiful, and with a three-quarter moon dominating the night sky, a bright light was upon me, casting a silhouette of myself onto the frosty ground.
I took another sip of whisky and began talking to myself which could either suggest that the initial stages of madness were creeping in, or that maybe I was completely lost in the special moment that I found myself in. On my first visit I’d been graced with a warm evening and very few stars. Tonight however, I’d been blessed with a sky that was full of them.
I stayed outside and continued to enjoy the views until the whisky was gone.
A little while later I climbed back into my tent, unable to take the cold of the night any longer. There seemed very little point in staying awake and so I prepared my sleeping bag and set up a makeshift pillow.
I’d decided to use my portable water carrier, which in essence felt like a pillow version of a water bed. I ensured that the valve was securely tightened and with no leaks, and then I got into my sleeping bag, turned off the lantern, and settled down to grab a few hours sleep.
The pillow worked a treat, and the water bottle had kept the sleeping bag unbelievably warm. It was super cosy and I really believed I’d managed to nail this wild camping thing.
Well, for a very brief moment…
…because about fifteen minutes later I suddenly started to feel very cold, and, very wet!
I jumped up and turned on my lantern, only to find that the water carrier-cum-pillow had sprung a leak and that there was now a torrent of icy cold water running through my sleeping bag. This super-innovative idea suddenly turned into a completely moronic idea. I was now cold, wet, and the night had long since fallen into minus temperatures.
Scrambling around the tent I managed to find my microfiber travel towel which I was able to use to soak up the water. But the real damage was already done, and I was now to spend the rest of the night in a damp tent. I cursed myself for my idiocy as I tried to salvage the situation as best as possible.
After turning out the lantern and in an attempt to get to sleep, I curled up into the foetal position and hugged up to my hot water bottle, desperately clinging onto any warmth that I could get from it.
I’d managed to fall asleep at some point, but then at about 3am I woke up with a start. I was freezing! My sleeping bag only had an extreme rating of zero degrees, but tonight was well below this. The water bottle had gone completely cold and I removed it from my bag as it was now doing more harm than good.
After summing up the courage to get out of my sleeping bag I quickly undressed and then redressed myself with a new base-layer, a thicker pair of socks, and a woolly hat. I got back into my bag and tried to get back to sleep, but I just couldn’t get warm. The ground itself was freezing and I suddenly found myself feeling grateful for every penny that I’d spent on the Thermarest that now separated me from it.
But despite trying to cover up the damp sleeping bag as best I could, there’s very little doubt that the moisture was contributing to the coldness that was now attacking me.
With one final attempt to keep warm, I put on my down jacket and zipped it up, and then pulled the woolly hat down over my face so that only my mouth was exposed.
I had no way out of this and there was nowhere to go. It was literally a case of just having to see the night through.
All I had to do was make it through until morning.
The night seemed to last for an eternity. A few minutes felt like several hours. And the remaining four hours felt like an entire day.
I’d been curled up in a ball, patiently waiting for the sun to rise. And when I opened my eyes and found that the pitch black of the tent had gradually turned to brightness, I knew that daytime had arrived.
“I’m alive.” I whispered to myself, somewhat melodramatically.
“Oh my God, I’m alive!”
I felt reluctant to move in case I lost what little warmth I’d manage to create for myself, but after a count-of-three I sat up, unzipped my sleeping bag, and climbed out of the tent.
Although dawn had arrived, the sun was still hidden behind the mountains and wasn’t quite high enough to show itself yet. I did a few star jumps to get the blood circulating and my heart pumping, and then I reached for my stove and set about brewing a cup of coffee.
Ten minutes later with my mug in hand, I cast my eyes towards the horizon, waiting for the sun to show itself. Despite the coffee warming my hands and face, my body was still cold and trembling.
“Come on, come on.” I whispered.
And then it arrived.
The uppermost part of the sun steadily broke above the mountaintop, and then the rest gradually followed. And as that big, bright, and beautiful orange ball of light slowly began to get bigger in the sky, the temperature increased with it. It was literally like somebody turning on the heating.
In no time at all I was able to take my coat and my hat off, and I stood there with my eyes closed; the brightness penetrating my eyelids, providing a bright orange glow. My face was warming up and I couldn’t help but smile. The feeling was incredible.
It was in this moment when I began to think about sun worshippers. And by that I’m not talking about people who like to laze around on the beach until they burn to a crisp and turn their skin into leather, but rather the sun worshippers of ancient times; those who cast their eyes towards the skies, acknowledging the life and energy that the sun provided them with.
It can be so easy to take nature for granted when we’re sat in the comfort of our own homes, but this experience in the Lake District allowed me to truly feel the life giving properties of our beautiful earth and sun. It was a special moment, a truly magical experience.
Happy, I sat down on a rock and started boiling up a bag of all-day breakfast. I couldn’t help but smile to myself, and as I looked around I saw the morning mist rolling through the valley, accompanied by the beautiful sound of birdsong.
And then I heard sheep bleating. Looking up to my left I saw the first sheep and lambs of the morning steadily walking down the hillside towards the tarn. While they casually enjoyed their early morning drink and looked at me quizzically, I chewed away on my beans and sausages as I looked right back at them.
“Meeeeeer.” They said, roughly translating as “Morning human, what are you doing here?”
“Meeeeeer.” I replied, translating as “Morning sheep, would you like a cup of coffee?”
But this just confused them further and so they halted their approach and didn’t come any closer.
I guess sheep don’t like coffee.
Half an hour later I’d packed up my tent and was all set to leave.
I looked around to ensure that everything would be left exactly the way that I’d found it; there was no damage, no waste, and you couldn’t even tell I’d been there.
I’d now completed two wild camps and I’d managed to meet the rules of this concept adventure on both occasions; no landowners had been upset, and no damage had been done to the land. I breathed a sigh of relief, happy in the knowledge that my adventures could continue and that a third wild camp could be arranged.
Having returned to Wastwater with a specific task in mind, I’d now ticked Low Tarn off my list and could put the previous torment behind me. It had been a priceless experience with some genuine highs and lows, and I knew that I’d be returning home with a little more wisdom and experience under my belt.
I have a long way to go until I’ll be able to feel like I’ve mastered the art of wild camping, but I feel optimistic that I can get there. And over the coming articles I’ll be fine tuning my skills, trying new things, experimenting with new kit, and trying to lighten my load (especially where water is concerned) as much as possible. I will also keep you updated every step of the way.
Not only am I excited about the journeys that I’ll be able to go on, but I am also excited about the personal journey that I’ll be undertaking as I steadily learn my craft. This, indeed, will be an education for me.
There is so much to learn and so many questions to ask.
But the first question I need to ask is the most important question of all.
Where do I go next?
Have you ever been wild camping and have a story to share? Do you have any hints and tips that you could share with me and any fellow wild-campers? What are your thoughts on the subject in general? Or do you have any questions you’d like to ask which either myself or the readers could help answer? Please feel free to leave your comments below so we can get a conversation started.
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