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July 24, 2017

Wild camping in England, if you are brave enough!

Camping in the wild – a great experience for those who seek adventure

It is the middle of the night, and the only light comes from a full moon.

Despite the potentially frightening surroundings, and the low temperature, I am glad to be here in a forest in the county of Suffolk in the east of England.

Nestled inside a sleeping bag, I can see the moonlight casting shadows as it passes through the rows of pine trees on either side. Underneath are layers of brown pine needles that the trees have shed in previous seasons.

While sleeping in a tent in a campsite is usually lots of fun, it cannot compete with the enjoyment of finding a secluded spot in the countryside and deciding to bed down there.

Known as wild camping, this is an excellent antidote to urban life, offering as it does the chance to reconnect with the natural world, even if for just one night. As anyone who has done it will know, sleeping in a forest, or in a clearing in a national park, or in a small deciduous wood, is very different to going for a walk through such places during daylight hours.

It is an experience that outdoor enthusiasts all over the world have come to enjoy.

One favorite area of mine for outdoor sleeping is Thetford Forest, a plantation of mostly pine trees scattered over a wide area on the border of the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.
I have never pitched a tent here – I don’t think you are supposed to – but I have slept several times here in a bivy bag, which is a waterproof cover that goes outside a sleeping bag. Underneath is a plastic groundsheet.

On a typical evening, I arrive after dark and walk down one of the forest’s tracks before heading into the lines of trees to find a suitable spot – ideally flat and somewhat secluded – at which to spend the night. Setting up my things takes just a few minutes: first, a ground sheet is dug out of my rucksack and laid down before a bivy bag is placed on top. I slide into the sleeping bag and insert a liner before completing the set-up with a couple of camping pillows.

There are few pleasures to match that of lying in a forest at night listening to the occasional sounds of birds and – if you are lucky – the call of a deer. Sometimes I take along a small wind-up radio: it’s slightly surreal to listen to a political debate program or an art review show while in the middle of nowhere in the dark.

Even in wild winter camping can be well worth doing, as it’s perfectly possible to sleep comfortably when temperatures have dropped as long as you have a good quality four-season sleeping bag.

For all its appeal, wild camping can, however, be disconcerting too. It is hard to think of somewhere less dangerous than an isolated area of countryside at night because, as others have noted, no one walks through woods or fields at night looking for people to harm. Even so, convincing yourself that a malign figure is not about to appear out of the shadows is difficult. Even if civilization is just a short walk away, you feel out on your own in the world.

Perhaps this is why the best part of wild camping can be when the morning arrives, and the sun rises and casts a beautiful orange light across the ground.

When it comes to discussions of wild camping, the issue of legality is never far away. Although in some countries, such as Scotland, the right to wild camp is protected by law, in most places, including England and the Czech Republic, you would be expected to secure the landowner’s permission before settling in for the night.

Often this is impractical, so the advice often given is to arrive late and leave early, and ensure that no trace of your presence is left behind. Wild campers should take all their rubbish with them, bury any toilet waste and not disturb wildlife. Nature reserves are usually not seen as suitable for wild camping.

Aside from Thetford Forest, I have slept at the edge of beaches in the east of England and small deciduous woodlands. In all cases, discretion was important, and I was usually up and away before there was any likelihood of anyone else being about.

England’s Lake District, happily, has a tradition of tolerating wild camping, as long as it is done high up in the hills. The area, which lies in the northwest of the country, has plenty of fantastic locations where walkers can pitch a tent or bed down in a bivy bag. Last year I enjoyed a night beside a small lake called Stickle Tarn. It was tremendously windy and, if I got out of my sleeping bag, it was freezing, but it all made for a marvelous – and very memorable – experience.

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