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Learning From Experience In The Field: Rain And Cold In Iceland

With no trees or hedges for shelter, we were exposed on the landscape. There was no escaping the rain.

Over 40 years ago, cheap student flights to Iceland one summer tempted me and my girlfriend to embark on our first ‘proper’ outdoor adventure.

The prospect was not encouraging. By being dropped off in the middle of Iceland by a walking tour operator’s 4WD bus and left to our own devices, we had to walk out. No problem. That was always the plan. Fording dozens of streams has also been considered but even at our most pessimistic, we had not anticipated never-ending torrential rain.

Between the rain and the rivers, we were embarking on a crash course in coping with wet weather. Fortunately, there was no wind to speak of and it wasn’t all that cold in July – yet. The problem was the tent – too small, no storage space, leaking seams, porous groundsheet and, being a single-skin proofed nylon model, it streamed inside with condensation. It was all we could afford and we had to live with it.

At home, it had seemed like a bargain and a weekend in the Cheviots to try it out the week before we left had shown up some limitations but far from them all. However, this was the real world. The tent was all we had and it was going to take us about six days to reach our goal of a remote youth hostel and the possibility of a ride back to Reykjavik. With no trees or hedges for shelter, we were exposed on the landscape. There was no escaping the rain.

Having accepted that reality, we had to make a plan. As the miles unfolded, it came together. Considering the months of scheming that had gone into the trip, it was a rueful duo that faced the dismal failure of the scheming on the ground. Happily, the views were grand and the land felt wild and remote despite the rough tracks we followed.

With only the odd bird for company, we strode on and worked out how to be as comfortable as possible. In fact, we burst out laughing. It was either that or sob in frustration at the combination of swift bitterly cold streams and, in sharp contrast, warm heavy rain.

In reviewing our situation, a tenuous scheme emerged. With no tent flysheet, there was nowhere to cook or park the rucksacks overnight. With feather-filled sleeping bags, we couldn’t let them get too wet if we wanted to sleep comfortably. At least the virtually twenty four hour light of a northern summer meant we didn’t have to cope with the dark.

The attraction of bothy-based walking holidays was becoming much clearer by the hour. A tentative routine emerged which became the pattern for the following days.

We walked until we were really tired as walking in the rain was far better than hanging about in it. Having picked a site, the first job was to pitch the tent. As it was fastened to the lid of my rucksack, nothing else got wet and it took no time to have it pitched.

With doors at each end, we each knelt at an entrance and helped each other to lay out Karrimats and sleeping bags on top of a Sportsman’s Blanket. That dealt, more or less, with shelter and sleeping needs. Everything we needed for our main meal was laid out in a doorway and the kitchen was next.

Wedging our rucksacks upright, we draped a survival bag over them to create a sheltered space for the stove with open access on two sides and another through them on the ground to sit on whilst we cooked and ate in our waterproofs.

There was no incentive to hang around so once the food had been devoured, it was time for bed. The budget tent had tape closure to the flimsy doors and, even without a breeze, rain drifted through them. Our answer was to strip off, thrusting boots and clothes into the rucksacks and leaning them across the doorway at one end.

Skin being both breathable and waterproof, we took it in turns to roughly dry off as we crawled into the tent at the other end. One of us turned back to the entrance to roughly shake the water off our waterproof jackets. Zipped up, they were pulled over the feet of the sleeping bags to deflect the worst of the rain and condensation.

We settled back to sleep; despite the light, that was no problem. In the morning, the routine was reversed. As there really was no let-up in the downpour, everything got damper each day and our comfort level dropped. At the same time, our learning curves steepened and a few days later we felt we knew how to cope and what to do next time.

Probably the key lessons were to opt for a big tarp if we couldn’t afford a reliable lightweight tent and to buy synthetic fill sleeping bags.

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