I’ve done lots of wild-camping in my life. Interestingly, wild-camping is a term I only learned after moving to the UK. In South Africa wild-camping is what you mean when you say you’re going camping.
My wild-camping experiences include only carrying a small daypack, with water and food and almost nothing else, and simply sleeping on the hard ground in the clothes I was wearing, with the daypack as pillow, through to stuffing an expedition-grade backpack full of camping kit, and solo hiking across parts of the Drakensberg for a number of weeks.
In the last ten years or so, I started increasingly cycle-camping here in the UK, obviously carrying what I need on the bike. Up until December 2020, all my camping trips had one thing in common: warmer weather. Naturally, my camping gear reflected that fact, too.
For years now, I’ve organised an annual New Year’s Day ride – just a 20-odd mile loop from Plymouth, to Yelverton and back, but COVID meant there’s no way I was doing an organised ride, as doing so would simply be utterly irresponsible.
Nevertheless, I wanted a good New Year’s Day adventure, and that started me thinking about cycling Devon Coast To Coast on the 1st and 2nd of January, wild-camping along the way. As it happens, COVID meant I had to cancel those plans, too.
However, prior to cancelling my plans, I figured I’d best test my camping gear out, and shortly after Christmas, I pitched my little tent in the garden, and camped overnight. I simply carried what I needed from the house to the tent, and neither cooked, nor ate in the tent.
It was a fairly cold night, with temperatures down to just about zero, though rain all night long meant no frost in the morning. I was mainly fine in my little tent, and once in my sleeping bag, I was lovely and warm. One issue was the fact that the fly-sheet of the tent touched the tent inner in a few places, and I knew I had to remedy that.
To fix that, I purchased some plastic clamps that screw-tighten, to clamp onto the edge of the flysheet, giving me additional anchor points, along with some extra tent pegs, to peg it down.
Originally, I was worried about thermal insulation from the ground, and wasn’t sure if my Vango 3 self-inflating mat would be enough to give me the thermal insulation I need. There was only one way to find out: test it.
I was pleasantly surprised that the Vango mat did it’s job and kept me insulated against the ground coldness.
Of course, that night wasn’t a proper test of all my gear, as I didn’t pack my panniers at all, so another test was needed. That was last night – a sort of dress-rehearsal for cold-weather cycle-camping, and pretty soon it became obvious that I simply couldn’t fit everything I’d need into my panniers.
Cold-weather camping requires a lot more items to keep you warm, especially once off the bike, and those items, unless you’re prepared to pay very high prices for space-grade kit, made from twice-refined Unobtanium, will take up a lot more space.
Still, this is why I do kit tests – to see what works and what doesn’t, so all of this are positives. In the end, I loaded my panniers with most of what I needed, and went for a short ride of just a few miles, before returning and pitching the tent.
As my previous test showed the Vango sleeping mat was up to the job, again I didn’t use a closed-cell camping mat underneath. That proved to be a mistake, as I woke several times in the night, due to cold seeping through the self-inflating sleeping mat. That’s another lesson learned, so I’ll chalk that down as a positive, too.
Supper was a pasta Bolognese meal, from Wayfayrer – not something I’d tried before. Top tip: NEVER take food you’ve not tried before on a real camping trip. This is why I used the Wayfayrer meal while kit-testing – I had no idea what it’d taste like, or what effect it’d have on my body.
I needn’t have worried – the meal was simple to heat, and delicious. My only criticism is that the portion was far too small. If you’ve already done a day’s riding, on a laden bike, you’ll need far more than just one packet, regardless of how tasty it may be.
When wild-camping, doing dishes can be a pain, and use a lot of water – you will be surprised at how much water you go through! That was another reason to use pre-cooked food that simply needed heating in water. The water afterwards can be used for coffee, and there’s no pot to clean. Usually, though, supper would have consisted of two packets of Uncle Ben’s rice. The rice packets require no refrigeration, are easy to warm in a pot of water and importantly, cost a fraction of the Wayfayrer meals.
I had some new bits of kit that I used the 1st time in anger last night: a collapsible kettle, and a collapsible saucepan (normally, I wouldn’t take the glass lid along, but I packed it last night. I also had a new fold-flat aluminium wind blocker, to go around my little Vango stove.
My sleeping bag, in case you were wondering, is optimistically rated as a 3-season bag, which I got from Lidl. I’m perfectly happy with it, and have no plans to change it. Equally, my tent – supposedly a 2-man, but just big enough for me to sleep diagonally – I bought for £11 at Tesco, around 10 years ago.
I’ve had to adapt my kit somewhat: I use a fleece blanket that compresses well as a sleeping bag inner. The secret to staying warm is to create pockets of warm air all around your body, and a fleece blanket inside a sleeping bag does that well. It also means I have an easy-to-wash inner, which keeps the sleeping bag clean for longer. I was warm in my sleeping bag last night, with the only problem being coldness from the ground, and I know a simple closed-cell roll-up sleeping mat underneath the self-inflating one will fix that.
My tent, as I mentioned earlier, had the annoying problem of the flysheet touching the inner tent, and I fixed that by adding additional pegging points. That worked perfectly well last night, even when it rained quite heavily for a while. It also stops wind blowing underneath the flysheet.
The outdoor-leisure industry has been remarkably effective in their marketing, leaving the vast majority of people believing they need kit of such high quality, that someone trekking solo across Antarctica would be jealous, even when only camping in a formal campsite. There simply is no need to spend hundreds of Pounds just on a sleeping mat, and as my experience proves, you can get away spending far, far less.
I’m no cold-weather camping expert, and I’m still learning about how different it is to the camping I’ve usually done, but I’m making progress. I’ll let you know how it goes once I finally get the chance to do some proper wild-camping, in the snow, but I’m confident my gear will be up to that now.
I’ll leave you with a last tip: no matter how good your panniers are, at very least, always pack your sleeping gear inside a waterproof bag. In my case, I use heavy-duty rubble bags. It doesn’t matter how good your cold-weather camping gear is, if your bedding and warm clothes somehow got wet, you’re in deep trouble.
Have a blast out there!