Top Ten Tips for packing for a wild camping trip…
After a recent guided wild camping trip I realised that last year I had intended to write a blog post about the general outline you need to consider when packing for an overnight stay in the mountains. Now this list can and should be adapted for the environment you are travelling through, the weather, your experience level and even your desired level of comfort. For some a bivvy bag and cold food will be fine, for others nothing short of a four-season tent and fresh hot meals is required. That’s the beauty of playing in the mountains – you can make it as much ‘fun’ as you want!
1. Something to put it all in
Let’s start with the piece of kit you will be most intimately connected with – your rucksack. The size required is dependent upon how much stuff you are taking with you, how much discomfort you are willing to put up with and how long you are going for. I’ve done overnight trips with a bivvy bag and a 30-litre bag, and multi-day expeditions with no re-supply options en route carrying a 120-litre military rucksack referred to as a ‘bergan’. Your options are generally to go lightweight and suffer some discomfort and a smaller margin of safety, or go heavyweight and have to lug it around with you. Experience is the best way to find out which approach is best for you. Whatever size you take, you need to look for a bag with a waist strap, preferably a chest strap and (most importantly) one that fits your back shape and length. Most manufacturers offer a variety of sizes for back length, and often a female-specific fit as well.
2. Something to sleep in
Tent, tarp or bivvy bag? You will need some shelter from the elements (or midges!) and your choice will be based on how good or bad you expect the weather to be, and how comfortable you want to be. Tents are the heavier option but offer 360º protection from wind and rain, and enough room to get changed in and even cook in. They are often the heaviest option though, so try to look for a tent that weighs about 1-1.5kg PER PERSON, as you can often spread the load with a walking partner (one of you takes the tent, the other takes the poles and pegs). Beware of claims about how many people a tent is suitable for – some 3 person tents I’ve shared would only be suitable for three persons if they got on VERY well with each other! Try before you buy/borrow.
Bivvy bags are great for going lightweight, good-weather overnighters and alpine excursions, as well as sleeping in other shelters such as caves or bothies. They are made from a breathable waterproof fabric, and can range from a glorified sleeping bag cover to a miniature single skin tent (often called a ‘hooped bivvy’). They tend to weigh less than a kilo and pack down to a small size, but despite being a breathable fabric they are prone to being damp due to the condensation from a sleeping body. Further reading can be found in the excellent “Book of the Bivvy” by Ronald Turnbull.
Tarps can either be used on their own, or with a bivvy bag or hammock. They are surprisingly effective in poor weather as they can be rigged so that they provide full coverage on the side the wind or rain is coming from but open on the lee side. The downsides can be weight and limited pitching sites; the combined weight of a tarp and bivvy bag can be very close to that of a lightweight tent, and tarps need somewhere to be hung from so often trees or even trekking poles are required to tie onto.
3. Something to sleep in 2
Once you have sorted your accommodation let’s look at your bed. A sleeping bag is the most common choice, although insulated quilts are becoming popular for lightweight backpackers. The insulation in a sleeping bag is either synthetic or duck/goose down. Down is warmer gram than synthetic, but if it gets wet then it loses most of it’s insulation value. It does however pack down to a very small size. Synthetic insulation is generally heavier, but is better suited to wet conditions as it stays warm when wet. Manufacturers give temperature ratings for their sleeping bags. These are guides only, so do your research.
Pick your insulation type based on where you are going and how much you can spend – down tends to be 30-50% more expensive than synthetic.I would also suggest taking a set of thermals to sleep in. Nothing feels better than getting out of uncomfortable wet clothing and into a set of dry clothes after a particularly tough day walking.
4. Something to sleep on
You need a sleeping mat of some kind, either made from foam or inflatable. Sleeping directly on the ground is bad idea, partly because as it is very uncomfortable but mostly because the ground is cold and will leach the heat out of your body and sleeping bag. There is a wide variety of options available to suit all budgets – just make sure it’s big enough!
5. Something to cook on
A cooking stove is a good idea no matter where you are going, even if you think you will be able to cook over a fire. Modern gas and liquid fuel stoves are reliable and work well in most conditions. Gas stoves tend to suffer at altitude or in cold conditions, and gas isn’t always easy to source in some countries. Liquid fuel stoves are heavier and often have slower ‘boil times’ than a gas stove but are more reliable in poor weather.
6. Something to cook in and eat from
Together with a stove, your cooking pots will make up one of the heaviest, least compressible items in your bag. Find a pot just big enough for your cooking needs, and make use of its internal space to pack other items in.
There are products available, such as the excellent Jetboil, which come as a cooking system. The stove and pot all lock together, and are designed to pack together and be used as one item. They have very fast boil times, but are only really suited for boiling water and either heating ‘wet’ ready meals or re-hydrating ‘dry’ meals.
Remember to pack some cutlery! Cheap plastic BBQ sets will do, or you could buy the beautifully designed Light My Fire Spork.
7. Something to drink from
A plastic mug is much better than a metal one. They retain the heat better, and reduce the risk of burning your lips. The round tupperware-type pots are excellent spill-proof mugs as you can clip the lid in place whilst waiting for a drink to cool down.
8. Something to light your way
A head torch is a must. Hands-free lighting for reading in your tent, moving around camp or late-night toilet trips is invaluable. Most head torches use LEDs now, which mean longer battery life and no need to carry a spare bulb.
If you are planning on goind for a wander away from your tent after dark make sure you pack a glowstick and attach it to your tent first. It is not unknown for people to lose their way and not be able to relocate their camp!
9. Something to keep it all dry and organised
Rucksacks aren’t waterproof, and ‘rain covers’ are nigh on useless. To keep British weather out of your gear I strongly recommend at least a bin bag to wrap everything in, or a plastic rucksack liner. Even better would be to build a collection of roll-top dry bags. These can be found quite cheaply and in a variety of sizes. I have one for my sleeping bag, another for food, another for spare clothes and so on. If you pick a range of colours you can organise your gear so that you can easily locate the item you are looking for without turfing everything out of the rucksack.
10. Something you should normally carry
On top of this you need to take your usual hillwalking gear – waterproofs, warm layers, hat and gloves, first aid kit and so on. Obviously, depending on how many days you are traveling for and where you are going you will need to change these items or take duplicates. Toilet paper, hand sanitiser and a toothbrush are also a good idea. You will also need to take any medication you would normally take/need, plus a few ‘luxury’ items such as a book or MP3 player (in a waterproof bag!).
Of course we have only scratched the surface of what you could take on your wild camping trip but hopefully it has given you a brief guide of what to think about. When faced with a cavernous 70-litre rucksack it is very tempting to keep throwing stuff in until it’s full, but carefully think about every item you pack – you have to carry it and the weight soon picks up. I go through a debrief process every time I unpack. I put items into two piles – used and unused. If I used an item (headtorch, mug etc) it will go with me again next time. If I decide that I either didn’t use an item or barely touched it (binoculars or MP3 player) and it ISN’T an emergency item (first aid kit, map, spare clothes) then I don’t choose to take it next time. There is a certain sense of pride that comes from only carrying what you need, and using your experience and judgement to enjoy a comfortable night out in the hills.