Sub Zero Winter Woodland Wildcamp - No Tent
2nd February 2019
My ribs healed as January progressed, much quicker than I'd hoped for. Rich and I had been exchanging messages for weeks, organising a winter overnighter (somewhere hilly to be confirmed) for the weekend before this, but the weather was shocking (high winds, rain and sleet, no visibility) so we postponed. Snow and very chilly temps from Tuesday onwards had meant the Vespa was out of action (my one rule - never scoot in snow and ice) and I had been walking the 11k home from work most of the week. This took me through local woodland at dusk each evening, and the dusting of snow looked very inviting in the twilight. Thoughts turned to squeezing in a sneaky one on Saturday night...
I had really enjoyed my last day camp with the steak and eggs. The tarp shelter I made was very cosy and the location wasn't bad at all, so I decided I was going to go there again and do much the same, but this time stay until morning. Despite saving some weight in my pack by leaving the tent behind, I still left on foot at midday with 18 kilos on my back. This made the 8 kilometer hike there pretty hard work for my post-Christmas corpulence. Despite being barely 2°C, it was lovely and sunny and I'd worked up a right old bead, so a stop off for refreshments was needed. The first beer garden pint of the year was most welcome, especially after a dry January.
Back on with the pack and off through the Uni campus, with a brief stop at the shop to get in a bottle of beer or three to see me through the evening. More weight! By three I was at the pitch, and very glad to ditch the rucksack. I got my bedroom sorted first, and by the time I had set up camp and faffed around with gathering/sawing dead wood for the fire it was sunset.
Once darkness fell around half five I commenced the usual routine of getting the Honey Stove going, hot drinks, cooking tea (this time back to my bombproof Mattessons sausage and Uncle Ben's savoury rice) and attempting some night photography. This last task yielded nothing but disappointment - all I could get was an orange splat in the middle of complete blackness, despite my actual view of pleasingly flame lit trunks and crisp, twinkly stars peeking through the treetops. Knackers! Back to the ugly flash it was...
I'd brought a new lightweight camping chair with me which was super comfy, but the gentlest of breezes (only a few mph) seemed to be leaching any warmth out of me in the by now firmly sub zero air. I didn't make much use of it, favouring sitting on the floor of the tarp's 'porch', where the small blaze in front of me just helped take the edge off.
Before long the wood supply was dwindling. My mate Steve (an ex Marine) has told me since to 'think about how much you'll need, then double it, and you're still not close' - good advice for next time. So boots and outer coat off, it was into the sleeping bag/new bivvi combo at around 8 for another couple of hours, just to chill a little with a beer and the smouldering embers before sleep.
The bivvi was a new purchase and, along with an extra roll mat underneath my usual airbed, I was perfectly warm and relaxed inside despite the gaping hole in the front of my 'tent'. I lay there in the very still night air enjoying looking up into the trees and listening for a while. There was the ever present hum of the M6, and the occasional boastful rasp of a boy racer's souped up Fiesta in the distance, but woodland noises were virtually non existent. None of the expected spooky cracking twigs or scuttling feet to make me edgy. A perk (some would say a drawback) of deep winter - animal life is all but non-existant. At one point I heard a very light rustling of leaves nearby, but switched on my head torch for a second and it went away for good. It was quite a different experience to the 'four walls' of a tent, and I liked it.
Beer quaffed, it was brewers droopy eyelids by 10pm and I slept for a solid, cosy 4 hours or more before the bladder started twanging away at my dreams, like the bastard it is.
It was -4 at this point. Getting out of the bag for a wee meant I lost all that preciously accumulated warmth and had to start again. I was just on the edge of comfort, temperature wise, for the rest of the night. I had to put my coat and gloves on but they didn't do much. I wasn't freezing by any means, but just had the odd rush of icy fingers along my upside flank. The ground part of the sleep system was doing grand - the cold air above me seemed to be the only problem occasionally. My breath formed snow on the inside of the tarp, and if I brushed it inadvertently with my head or elbow, I was greeted with my own private flurry.
Considering I was doing all of this on the coldest night of the winter, and without a single bird's feather being plucked on my behalf, I wasn't doing too bad. I do think though that I should consider in future the inelegant solution of a dedicated, in the bag wee bottle... eww
Got a good couple more hours eventually, and before long the sky started to turn to that depressing pre dawn gunmetal so familiar to the insomniac. Time to get up and get a brew on. I was warm enough pottering about in the gloom, except for my toes - luckily I had a couple of those cheap as chips disposable hand warmer things, so one was put in the end of each boot and I was soon fine and toasty.
As the video above shows, in the process of brekkie I was treated to an unepectedly pretty sunrise through the trees. This golden light coupled with the iced up tarp felt very nice to see. A text message came through to tell me that an appointment I had made for late morning was now cancelled, so I didn't feel much need to hurry and enjoyed a luxurious morning taking snaps and packing away.
The 'leave early' rule was softened by the fact that I hadn't come across a soul nearby the entire time I was there. This over confidence in my supposed stealth, and love of relaxed mornings, will no doubt prove to be my downfall one day.
After endless hot drinks in the comfy chair I realised I had to get a shift on, confident that some streamlining would allow a record speed pack away. It still took an hour and a half from getting off my arse to leaving no trace and wandering off. An improvement, but still a long way to go. I was only a few yards from my pitch when a spaniel scampered into view in front of me - it's owner was miles away in the distance on a footpath and couldn't see me, but it was a close one!
Not long after heading off I had a happy attack whilst walking in the crisp, winter sunlight with snow crunching under my boots. Another big hurdle to tick off - a solo woodland sleep over. The fact that it wasn't the most spectacular of suroundings was balanced by the buzz of leaving the house on foot. For a few months I had been more worried about spending the night in familiar local woodlands than I was about the side of a potentially very hostile, new and remote mountain in Wales. Weird that, isn't it? But it was now done. With an ever so slightly lighter rucksack I tackled the walk home with no rests - well, that is, until I got to the pub 10 mins from home, at exactly midday.
So there I was, rattling the doors for what I felt was an well earned Sunday lunchtime pint...
©R. Lane 2019