Daylight is already failing, turning the glass-like waters a majestic purple. Steep crags reach up behind the coast, and the tallest peak, still snow-streaked despite a run of dry days, is edged with orange by an invisible sunset on the far side of the island. For an hour I’ve been scanning the roadside verges for trailheads, for gaps in the undergrowth, for patches of unused land behind the trees, but I still haven’t found the place I’m looking for.
This place will be entirely unremarkable to the untrained eye. It will be nothing more than an arbitrary spot in the landscape.
But to me it will be immediately clear that this is the spot.
In a split-second of practiced analysis I will note that the ground is flat and smooth and free of rocks and thorns and thick foliage. It will be free of trash, too, and perhaps exhibit a telltale circle of scorched earth; not too fresh, but neither too old.
I’ll notice that the land is dry and well-drained, but a glance at the sky and a measure of the breeze will tell me that it will not rain tonight. There’ll be running water nearby, and just enough driftwood of just the right size and shape to boil two mugs of water.
I’ll judge the spot’s proximity to the nearest settlement, considering its size and character and the fact that a handy clump of bushes will be sheltering it from view. And I’ll know that likelihood of someone wandering this way after nightfall on a Sunday is zero.
I’ll look at the nearby trail, estimate the quality of the morning view, and know that a dog-walker will get a surprise they hadn’t bargained for. But dog-walkers have always made for reliable alarm-clocks, so this will be a good thing (for me, if not for the dog-walker).
But I’m climbing into the fells now, steep and thick with bracken, and the spot looks unlikely to reside up here. I make a quick decision and pull a U‑turn, freewheeling back down towards the coast. It’s almost dark, so I need not be shy about pulling off the road and heading through the trees towards the beach. I trudge the sandy trail that’s been hacked through the gorse — and there it is: my perfect wild-camping spot.
I dump my bike. A full moon is rising in a clear sky: I will not need my head-torch tonight. I gather enough rocks to build a three-sided wind shield. Then I gather dry sticks and driftwood and lay a log-cabin fire. I apply a generous amount of lighter fluid and set a match to it. Bushcraft can wait: I am hungry.
The lights of the village are half a mile away, visible every time I stand up. And some eagle-eyed curtain-twitcher might spot the smoke trail and a dull orange glow behind some distant bushes. But people in this part of the world would sooner remain in front of the telly than investigate. It feels bizarrely thrilling to know this; that people are so dependable in their ways, and that my night will pass undisturbed.
A three-minute boil is enough to sterilise my mug of river water, no matter what its concentration of sheep’s piss or blue-green algae. I dump a load of pasta into the water and unroll my bivvy-bag, give my sleeping bag a shake, and inflate my mattress. The last traces of light fade from the sky as I ease into the makeshift bed, slurp hot pasta with a dash of seawater seasoning, and push the burning logs further into the heart of the fire. Tonight is going to be a cold one.
* * *
I sit up quickly: daylight is already growing, turning the glass-like waters at my feet a cold shade of pink. Steep crags reach up behind me, and the tallest peak, still snow-streaked, is tipped with orange by a sunrise hiding behind the eastern horizon.
My bivvy-bag is coated with frost, the fire now nothing but ash. I scramble from my sleeping bag. A figure in the middle-distance stands in silent bewilderment. The dog sniffs at my shoes.
A dousing of lighter fluid makes for a quick hot breakfast: bushcraft can wait. I finish packing the last of my belongings, scatter the fire with sand, and begin to walk away. And I look back at the spot which, to the untrained eye, is entirely unremarkable; nothing more than an arbitrary spot in the landscape.
For a single night it was my home. I will never come back. Nobody will know what happened here.
Nothing happened here.
These are the things I love about wild camping. And it is good to be reminded of this, even on a simple twenty-four-hour excursion to the Isle of Arran and back on a rare free Sunday in February.
16 replies on “These are the things I love about wild camping”
Wild camping started for me as a way to avoid hostels/rooms with wifi — I’m oversensitive to electromagnetic pollution and strong wifi -, but then I realised, all the other advantages… it’s free, fun, and sometimes with a really nice view…
Brilliant article. Very inspiring and shows how simple life can be if we make it so.
I had a similar experience on Barmouth beach a few weeks ago, armed only with a sleeping bag and a stove. Not the best of sleeps but so worth the experience, keep up the good work mate your an inspiration to us all.
I made my first venture into wild camping, full of trepidation, about ten or so weeks ago. I’m so glad that I did. What a pleasure it is, and like you, I am becoming very good at finding just the right spot.
Practice makes (almost) perfect. I love how the lifestyle fine-tunes your instincts.
Thanks for this! Very edifying. I am 23 year-old about to embark on my first bicycle tour of Europe and afar, inspired considerably by your blog. I have many trepidations about wild camping, but looking forward to overcoming my fears and reaping the benefits! Thanks.
Safe roads and good luck!
[…] Travelling also created opportunities for microadventures on home turf. Swimming to Peel Island and sleeping there was the most satisfying jaunt I’ve been on for months. And I can barely remember waking up to a morning as superb as the one I had on Arran. […]
You’ve inspired us to cycle Arran!
That invoked the spirit of wild camping beautifully. Do you often carry lighter fluid in your panniers?
Not usually; I prefer unleaded petrol for starting fires. But I didn’t have my stove this time, so took a tip from Mr Humphreys and got some lighter fluid to do the same job. Works remarkably well!
Wild camping is a delight and it is free, how wonderful is that?!
It is wonderful when you find a spot like this!
But not so wonderful when you end up in a spot like this.
In the Alps I ended up wild camping between a dual carriageway, a railway, and a vast logging yard. Then the slugs invaded… Not pleasant, but character building.
In Bulgaria I found myself in an industrial town as it got dark. The receptionist in the only accommodation had one word of English, “no”, as in “Do you have any rooms?” and “Is there another hotel anywhere?” I found a bus shelter on the edge of town opposite a factory and next to a petrol station that had closed for the night, just as the drizzle turned to a torrential downpour. The petrol station turned out to be where the local police parked up for cigarette breaks all night. Fortunately all but one turned back into town rather than past me, and the one that passed me didn’t notice. Not the best night’s sleep ever, and to cap it all I woke up with food poisoning and ten minutes after I set off I came across a motel.
There is nothing quite like hearing the sound of the waves all night long. Reviewing campsites for http://www.campoutcolorado.com I don’t get much chance to sleep on the beach of the ocean but have spent plenty of nights lakeside, and even better, riverside.