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Wild Winter Camping

After a long day spent backpacking in the Cairngorms, it was a relief to head downhill to our planned pitch for the night. Despite the energy-sapping deep snow, the day had been glorious as had the weather. Warm, dry and comfortable in layers of high tech clothing, we were determined to get camp set up long before it got dark.

As it happened, short daylight hours and slow progress meant we ran out of time and it was in the growing gloom – the gloaming, in fact – that we shuffled up and down to make a level base for the tent in the snow. Having used ice axes to shift the top few inches, we now had a firm base with low walls to deflect any breeze that might develop.

Ice axes and a couple of chunky snow stakes secured main guylines, flysheet valances were packed down with snow whilst light stuff sacks were filled with more snow (there was no shortage) and buried as anchors to complete securing the guylines. Using a variety of methods reduced the potential for a disastrous change in the weather as we slept.

Moonrise now flooded the nearby frozen lochan and snow-clad slopes making head torches redundant. Tasks were split through long practice. One to collect water – carefully – while the other spread out a light fleece blanket to cover the whole groundsheet, opened up the full-length sleep mats, laid out and fluffed up sleeping bags and assembled the stove.

It was the work of only a few minutes, followed after a few more with hot Ribena laced with a tot of brandy. A review of the day accompanied the heating of the main meal and the obligatory competition to outdo each other with snacks and starters. Livening up freeze-dried meals with extras is a doddle and adds key dimensions to winter fare.

The head chef needed a head torch to cook and serve the food but, despite the cold, we sat outside, relishing the hot taste sensations. A wee dram and a few squares of chocolate rounded off the meal but, through long experience, we gave coffee a miss. It is no fun struggling out of sleeping bag and tent through the night to empty an aching bladder. Unfortunate pee bottle accidents had ruled that option out with no need for negotiation.

Cleaning pot and bowls was followed by heating up more water to rinse our feet, wash hands and fill our metal water bottles. As long as the water was not boiling, they made excellent hot water bottles thrust into the depths of the down-filled bags along with our fleece jackets, trousers, gloves and socks. The clothes would be warm for the morning and the water handy for getting a brew underway before leaving the down cocoons. Base layers and hats were essential nightwear.

Boots stayed by the door doubling as handy cup holders and stash for head torches, glasses and lighter. In the morning, they would be cold and stiff but this was not the Arctic and they would have warmed up on our feet by the time we had breakfast, packed up and moved on. It was time for the traditional ‘G’night, Gran’ma; g’night, Gran’pa’ and to embrace the sleep of the bone-weary.

By way of contrast, meeting up with friends on a commercial campsite for a series of winter day walks had two key differences. Whilst the getting ready for bed routine was similar, a larger tent, handy showers and toilets and the shelter plus facilities of a friend’s much-maligned caravan turned the experience into camping in the winter rather than true wild winter camping. Still fun though.

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