Wild camping: How to master the art of bivvying

Forget the tent and spend a night under the stars, says Paul Kirkwood

Thursday 13 May 2021 14:48
Bring on the bivvy: Paul Kirkwood gets ready for a night outdoors
Bring on the bivvy: Paul Kirkwood gets ready for a night outdoors

The trouble with wild camping, it’s always seemed to me, is the tent. It’s too much to carry, especially after you’ve factored in all your bedding, cooking equipment and food. On top of that, why do you need cover if the forecast is fine and dry which, if you’re a fairweather camper like me, are the only conditions you’ll camp in?

The answer? Bivvy. Bivvying is basically sleeping under the stars in a sleeping bag within an outer waterproof bag. You can’t get much closer to nature than that.

Bivvy bought and having spent the previous 48 hours scrutinising every weather forecast on the net, I set off on an early June afternoon with my son, Bertie, for the wonderfully named Wild Boar Fell on the northwestern fringes of the Yorkshire Dales. What could possibly go wrong?

We began at the stark (and open) ruins of the 12th century Pendragon Castle. It seemed strange beginning a major walk so late in the day but the timing was part of a weird, warped schedule intrinsic to the outing’s appeal. We were exploring time as well as space. The first mile was inauspicious. A local resident made it abundantly clear that what appeared on the map to be a public right of way down the side of her property actually wasn’t. Blissfully, she was the last person we saw until our return and a minor diversion soon had us back on track.

Sand Tarn in all its splendour

Our initial objective was Sand Tarn. We boldly contoured off the path and, to our relief, the water suddenly appeared over a hummock on a ledge below the fell summit. In the evening sunshine we sunbathed and ate sandwiches on the little beach, then went for a dip in our very own infinity pool. We had to stagger over pebbles and mud for a veritable age, as if venturing into the sea at low tide, until the depth was sufficient to launch ourselves in, kicking and gasping.

A final steep clamber provided a superb view over the tarn and took us to the summit plateau at 700 metres. As darkness descended and the sun set we watched sporadic car headlights edging slowly along the Sedbergh road way down below and Kendal twinkling in the far distance. And so to bed. Bertie had spied some hollows, like golf bunkers without the sand, close to cairns on the western side of the plateau. Positively bijou once we’d flicked out the dried sheep dung. We had our own ‘rooms’ too. Getting into our sleeping bags wearing everything we’d brought with us was quite a procedure; once cocooned, the body bag comparison was inevitable.

I wasn’t going to sleep but the earth was, and it felt so special to witness it

A blanket turbaned around my head, I gazed directly up at the moon and tried to identify constellations. Does anyone know any of them other than the plough? Around the lip of the hollow, grasses jiggled gently in the breeze. The hush was almost palpable. I wasn’t going to sleep but the earth was, and it felt so special to witness it. The fell was ours for the night.

Suffice to say we didn’t need alarms to wake us at 4am, a time I’d normally experience only if catching a flight. We packed in minutes, then scampered to the far side of the plateau for sunrise, glad of the exercise to get warmed up in the pre-dawn chill. Glassy red light spilt over Mallerstang Edge on the far side of the valley. The closest thing we had for company were three curious sheep and four giant slate cairns standing sentry beside us.

Sun rise on Wild Boar Fell

After a breakfast eaten on the move, we walked along the Nab viewpoint at the northern end of the plateau, then descended into and along the sanctuary of the River Eden valley. As we neared journey’s end, the only sounds were the river rushing over the rocks, the breeze rustling in the trees and the calls of oystercatchers and cuckoos. We’d happily traded a solid night’s sleep for an unforgettable 16-hour micro-adventure.

Tips for bivvy virgins

  • You can buy a bivvy bag from around £25-30. For ultimate economy, choose a survival bag for £5 but, being all plastic, they will get very moist inside from condensation. Take an inflatable sleeping mat – I recommend the Alpkit Numo, which is like a Lilo – and an inflatable pillow too if you have space.
  • Ideally, choose a route with a tarn for swimming and washing. We each took two litres of tap water which lasted us. In the past I’ve topped up with water from a stream using Boots water purification tablets.
  • Tempting though it is, don’t set off too early. There’s not much to do on a mountain top waiting for sunset, and it can get chilly.
  • Don’t forget that the temperatures in weather forecasts are given at ground level. The temperature drops by around 0.6C with every 100 metres of ascent. It’s also likely to be windier higher up. Check the Mountain Weather Information Service (mwis.org.uk) for summit conditions and take more layers than you think you’ll need, plus a hat.
  • To save weight and hassle, don’t bother cooking on your trial bivvy. Have a big lunch before you go and make do with sandwiches in the evening. We brought a boiled egg and cold sausages and bacon for breakfast. Make up the calories with brunch in the first town you reach on the drive home.

Wild camping technically isn’t permitted in England, Northern Ireland and Wales without the land owner’s permission (with the exception of Dartmoor in Devon). Find out more at woodlandtrust.org.uk.

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