I’ve been forced to delay a planned winter camping trip on Dartmoor by a combination of having to do out-of-hours work over several weekends, and the severe weather we’ve been having for a while. Seriously, going camping in such a remote spot as I was planning to, while there were 80+mph gales blowing, is beyond stupid. Eventually, a weekend arrived with nice weather, and without me working, so off I went camping.
Like all good adventures, this one wasn’t without mishap: the outer of my gear cable failed. As I was cycling, shifting gear at the back suddenly became very difficult, and soon the derailleur moved to the smallest cog – not ideal for an incline that averages 4% over several miles of rough, rocky track. At first I thought the gear cable itself snapped, but closer inspection showed the outer casing failed, causing it to double up, and the inner cable to be directly exposed. I managed to do a makeshift repair, involving an Allen key and three cable ties, leaving me able to use first the smallest 3 cogs, but later the smallest 2. This meant that getting to Redlake was harder work than it needed to be.
I’m nursing a meniscus tear in my right knee, and it’s been steadily improving, but the reduced gearing options caused additional strain, and my knee certainly felt it as I was forced to push harder on the pedals, to keep my fully laden bike going. Though mostly clear skies, there was quite a wind, and the handful of walkers I encountered on the trail were all dressed warm, to protect against the cold. While riding, I was able to keep warm enough, despite only being dressed in Lycra cycling shorts and a long-sleeved jersey, but when I had to stop to try and repair the gears, I cooled down rapidly.
I’d set off quite late in the day, and was hoping to get to Redlake before sunset, a race I lost by around 200 metres. When I set off, it was a lovely 11C, but by the time I made it to Redlake, the temperature dropped to 4 degrees. The Puffing Billy track, which leads to Redlake, has always been mainly clear of vegetation, and – barring a few segments – mainly dry, but then I’ve never before cycled it in winter. The stormy, very wet weather we’ve been having for weeks meant that Dartmoor was very wet, and huge chucks of the track was wet. In many places, it was like cycling through a marsh, and the water across the track was often deep enough for my wheel rims to be fully submerged. Given that the track is rough, with loads of sizeable stones sticking up at odd angles, and many more fist-sized loose stones, not being able to see what my wheels would be hitting certainly made that ride a bit more challenging!
Even on the dry stretches, there was a lot of moorland grass growing on the track, in places in clumps perhaps 30cm high. You can take your chances and hope there were no large stones hidden by the grass, or you can be sensible – I was sensible and slowed right down each time I had to ride through such clumps of grass. That was a good strategy, as several times my front wheel was deflected by stones hidden in the grass. The Puffing Billy track is usually pretty straightforward to ride, but all the water, mud and grass combined to make it somewhat less than pleasant.
The last segment of the track is always a quagmire that I avoid, by pushing my bike along the vague trail made by walkers, to the side of the track. Remember, the track is a disused railway that served the china clay mine at Redlake, and for most of it’s length, however bad it may be in places, it remains better than going off the track, but there were a few exceptions this time, where I simply had to get off and push my laden bike along. A few times I slid in the peaty mud, and ended up stepping in the murky water, so by the time I finally made it to Redlake, both feet were sopping wet, and my toes were icy cold.
The wind was blowing stronger, and I rapidly pitched my tent, so I could have some shelter from the wind for a bit. I saw the forecast for the weekend, and knew I was in for a cold and windy night, so packed some warm clothes. As soon as the tent was up, I dived inside and put on ALL my warm clothes. Well, except for my socks: my cycling shoes were dripping wet, and I didn’t take any other shoes along, so to keep my socks dry for sleeping, I walked around barefoot. Usually I take a pair of neoprene shoes, meant for scuba diving, but I’d packed in a hurry and couldn’t find them.
I was looking forward to a cup of coffee, and took out my Aeropress Go, only to discover I was out of filter papers! I’m a coffeeholic, and that was a massive disappointment to me (and underlines the need to always use your packing list!) Cold-weather camping bring some serious challenges with it, with the most obvious one being the need to stay warm. With coffee rudely being off the menu, I still unpacked my camping stove, figuring I needed to boil water to warm my meal (Uncle Ben’s rice, with Sticky Toffee pudding for afters, if you must know). The plan was to eat a warm meal, and at very least drink some hot water.
If you know anything about gas stoves, you’d know that most of them use butane as fuel. Butane is cheap, but has a huge drawback: when it gets cold, it doesn’t burn very well, or even at all. It is for this reason that I opted to use Coleman’s Performance Gas, which is supposed to be a mixture of propane and butane. Propane still burns well at very cold temperatures, and as my Garmin showed the temperature to still be 4 degree Celsius, I had every confidence in my little stove. Indeed, it burst into life with a healthy-looking blue flame, and in no time I had a mug of water on the stove.
Sadly, in a very short space of time, the stove went from roaring with flames to fizzling out altogether. The bloody useless Coleman “Performance Gas” was too cold, and wouldn’t burn! I only managed to get the water in the mug to lukewarm temperature! I will NEVER buy Coleman gas again! I actually emailed the company, but the response I received was rather poor.
Here’s the thing, as I said before, hypothermia is a silent killer, and if you’re going cold-weather camping, you must factor that into your planning. My advice is, especially when you wake up from the cold, to immediately heat some water on your stove, and drink it, to raise your internal temperature. I’ve used Coleman gas before in similar temperatures, and it worked then. The fact that it failed me so badly this time simply means that I cannot trust their products again, and will from now on always use an alternative. You have to be able to rely on your kit! I also decided to get an alcohol stove as backup, for any future cold-weather camping trips. As for what alcohol stove I’d choose – well, that’s simple – I’ll just follow Kajsa Tylen’s superb lead (honestly, she’s brilliantly hardcore, and extremely funny with it, so do yourself a favour and watch all her Youtube vids, and subscribe to her channel, and follow her on Twitter):
My evening meal consisted of my usual emergency peanuts, as well as 3 chocolate bars I took along – not exactly a balanced meal, but it did the trick.
Previous cold-weather camping taught me that my Vango self-inflating mat wasn’t good enough to protect me from ground cold, so this time I had a segment of closed-cell foam mat, which I wrapped around my tent while cycling. The plan was too lay that on the groundsheet of my tent first, then have the sleeping mat on top. It started life as a yoga mat, and was far too large, so I cut it down. I only need a piece as wide as my body, and long enough to cover from my shoulders to just below my hips. This worked well, and despite camping on already wet ground, I felt no ground cold seeping through. As an added bonus, it’s a bunch more comfortable, too.
It was a clear night, and being far from any sources of light pollution, the stars were bright, and crystal clear. I tried taking photos, but my phone camera couldn’t do it justice. Don’t you just wish you could take photos with your eyes, so others could see exactly what you saw? I scribbled some thoughts in my notebook, then curled up to go to sleep. Because I shave my head, I wear a Thinsulate beanie when out in such cold weather, and I sleep with it on. I woke in the night, needing a wee. When I checked my phone, it was 03h05 and when I unzipped my tent, I could feel the ice on the outside. I took off my socks (to keep them dry, obviously) and went outside barefoot, with the frosted-over grass crunching beneath my feet. Once back in the tent, I dried my feet, put my socks back on, and was soon back to sleep.
When camping, unless I have a train to catch at an early hour, I never set an alarm, and I woke just before 07h00 to a stunningly beautiful morning. When I stepped out of my tent, I found most of it was covered in ice, roughly 1mm thick. Back in my tent, I had breakfast – Crunchy Nut cereal, if you were interested – from a collapsible bowl. I didn’t take anything but a tin mug to use on the stove this time, so I put that on my stove, and lit a tealight candle, which I then placed inside the mug. My Garmin told me the temperature inside the tent was almost 4 degrees, but with the sun rising, and the feeble warmth from the tealight, it soon rose to 6 degrees, and I started packing up. It doesn’t take me long to pack up, and soon everything was back on the bike.
Going back was simply a reverse of the Puffing Billy track, and again I had to push my bike past certain segments. In one photo you can see the frosted grass, and if you look very carefully, you can just about make out the partially iced-over water – it certainly was a cold night! I was cycling slowly, partly because the track was in such a dire condition, partly because I had limited gearing available, and partly because my knee was complaining a bit. Still, it wasn’t overly long before I had tar back under my wheels, and all too soon I was back home.
I wanted an adventure, and I certainly had one! It was absolutely gorgeous!