In the Safety of the Hills
I am lucky enough to have been brought up in Carmarthenshire with the countryside right on my doorstep. I have spent a lifetime hiking through the rolling hills of Wales and sometimes I feel more at home outdoors than I do under my own roof. I volunteer with Mountain Rescue so am privileged to have turned something I love into a way of helping others. Hiking gives me time to just think, clear my head and go at my own pace. It encourages me to focus on my surroundings and put things into perspective. The health benefits are innumerable. Besides the obvious improvement in fitness, spending time outdoors can help with depression and anxiety, stress reduction, improved sleep, boosted immunity, improved emotional wellbeing and so much more. “To me, hiking is empowering, it’s freedom, it’s euphoric, it’s exciting and ends with a real sense of accomplishment.”
Another way of getting off the beaten track and experiencing the pure tranquillity of the outdoors is wild camping. You’re not going on your own are you? Is that safe? What if something happens? Won’t you be scared? These are just some of the questions I get asked when I go on a wild camp. Of course, they’re all valid and I completely understand where they’re coming from. Women especially are programmed from a young age never to go anywhere alone. Most of us have that little voice in our heads, the voice that keeps us safe and tries to keep us away from danger. We constantly hear these terrible stories and so it’s no surprise that many have reservations about venturing off alone with a tent, away from people and in isolation.
So why do I do it? It’s peaceful. When all the hikers have gone home, you have the mountain to yourself to watch the sun disappear behind the peaks and a beautiful blanket of stars fill the dark night sky. In the morning you unzip your tent to watch the sky almost on fire at first light before the sun rises. It’s just magical. “But isn’t wild camping illegal?”, I hear you cry. Well, no. It is actually legal in Scotland, and while not technically illegal in England and Wales, it is a civil offence unless you get the landowner’s permission. However, it is generally tolerated as long as you camp respectfully and leave no trace.
Finding the right kit is half the battle and honestly, I’m still working on it. Each time I camp I come back with a list of things I could do better, don’t need to bring or things I wish I’d brought. The main things that I consider when buying or packing kit is weight and warmth and I think, besides safety, this is the main barrier for most people when wild camping – “How am I going to carry all that up a mountain?”.I’m not going to lie and tell you that it’s easy because it isn’t but there are things that you can do to make it easier. First things first, get a good backpack that fits well. I started off with a unisex one which was just a little too wide for my back and I ended up really hurting my shoulder. You’ll need to get a minimum of 65L which sounds like a lot but trust me, you will soon fill it. Next on the list is a lightweight one-man tent. Look for something 1kg-2kg in weight that ideally packs down small. I have about 5 different tents, depending on the season and whether I take someone with me. I think my lightest is just under 1kg.
Sleep. I’m going to be frank, don’t expect the most restful night’s sleep. The more you do it, the better you will get at it but for the first couple of camps you will wake up a lot and you’ll probably convince yourself that, that gust of wind that just blew against your tent was actually some crazed lunatic trying to get in. I was once woken up by what I believed was some kind of monster outside trying to eat me when in fact it was one of the horses that roam the Brecon Beacons munching down on the grass just a little too close to my tent for my liking. It gets cold even in the summer so invest in a decent sleeping bag and mat, in the winter I also use a reflective sleep pad under my mat. I take a small hot water bottle with me and it honestly makes such a difference. Walking poles are an absolute game changer and will help get you up those inclines as well as keep you steady coming down them too. The final essential item, in my humble opinion of course, is a torch to light the way when nature calls in the middle of the night!
Ok, so let’s talk about safety, I was always apprehensive about camping alone. My rational side tells me how unlikely it is that a crazed murderer just happens to be at the same remote spot ready to get me as soon as I fall asleep. I live, hike, travel and work alone but still… There are of course things you can do to reassure not only you but your family and friends. Let them know your plans and send them your live location. If mobile signal is sketchy you can also get mini satellite communicators, I have a Garmin inReach mini which allows me to send messages to loved ones as well as the emergency services. They can also track me and see my exact location.
Make sure you know your route and feel comfortable navigating in the dark just in case. I pick my camp spots while I’m out hiking and sometimes I will walk it several times before I actually camp there. Ensure you have enough light for the route that you’ve picked and if you feel yourself running out of time, maybe reassess and see if you can camp where you are. I’m sure this goes without saying but avoid any extreme weather – there is no shame in turning back if the weather turns. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you won’t but you won’t know until you’ve at least tried it. It is now one of my favourite things to do and I head out every chance I get to sleep in the safety of the hills.