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Sidetracked Guides: Wild Camping (Part Two)

Andrew Mazibrada

Finding a memorable, inspiring and comfortable place to lay your head is one thing, but careful kit selection will keep you safe and ensure the next days exertions benefit from a good night’s sleep. In Part One of the series, Andrew looked at selecting pitches, where to camp and how to respect your surroundings. In this second part, he examines the kit you may want to consider.

What To Take

Camping wild usually means a minimalist approach to kit selection which will make your journey more comfortable. Carrying masses of kit to keep the weather off you overnight is not essential, nor desirable. You may want to plan for your conditions. I’m going to deal with what you might want to take when traveling on your own two feet. If you’re packrafting or cycle-touring/bikepacking, whilst there’s an overlap, some different considerations apply – I’ve asked a couple of experienced chaps to help you with those areas. So let’s get a little technical and remember – my suggestion to you is that lightweight is the name of the game here.

Shelter

Try to start as you mean to go on: remember your shelter is your home. Whatever your choice – dual skin or single skin tent, tarp alone or tarp and bivy marriage – it should be sufficiently spacious to house you and your kit, and sturdy enough to withstand whatever weather you’re going to face. You won’t want a dual skin tent in hot, dry conditions (or hot and humid for that matter) – take a tarp and keep light showers off – but in Arctic Norway, different rules apply. If insects annoy you, have a mesh inner or a bivy with a mesh head.

A dual skin tent has the advantage of an enclosed inner shelter, often partly mesh, beneath its weatherproof flysheet and a porch for your kit. Some say they are less prone to condensation than single skin shelters and retain slightly more heat, but they’re usually heavier. Selection is a personal choice and fiercely debated. I would aim for one weighing less than 1kg if possible, and certainly no more than 1.25kg. You need to feel comfortable and secure and you won’t have a great deal of space – such are the trade-offs when it comes to weight. You’ll want enough room to move around, conduct your personal administration, organise your kit, get dressed and undressed and be happy. It should be tall enough to sit up straight in and long enough to lie down in. I advise you not to cook with the porch door shut, although many of us do cook in the porch in bad weather with a small vent.

It will be helpful to be able to put your shelter up in a few minutes, whatever the weather. Practice in your back garden. Look for a simple system, which allows for adjustment but does not require hours of fine tuning. Some shelters are erected fly first, so that the inner remains dry. If your shelter pitches inner first, keep the fly over the inner whilst erecting it as this will protect it. Also, I would carry a pack towel (MSR, Sea to Summit and Lifeventure all do a good one) to dry out the inside of your shelter if necessary – let’s be realistic about the chances of rain getting in as you pitch! One good piece of advice is to improve the pegs which come with your shelter depending on the ground you’ll be camping in. Titanium is strong and light but expensive. V- or X-pegs are excellent and both will go into hard ground without bending. Easton Blue and Gold stakes are superb and recommended by some of the most experienced wild campers out there. You might want to consider carrying 2-3 spares and, on longer treks, a small repair kit for your shelter.

Sleeping System

Once you have squared away your shelter, I suggest you get your sleeping system (that is to say your bag and mat) right. Warmth ratings are hotly debated and I’ll begin by saying you might want to add 5C to any rating on a bag to be safe. Most sleeping bags are rated according to the European EN13537 standard (although not all manufacturers agree) and bags should display the temperature ranges for the following categories:

  • Upper Limit — the temperature at which a normal man could sleep without sweating too much, with the hood and zippers open and arms outside of the bag.
  • Comfort — the temperature at which a normal woman could sleep comfortably (women are assumed to sleep warmer than men).
  • Lower Limit — the temperature at which a normal man, wearing underwear, could sleep comfortably.
  • Extreme — the minimum temperature at which a normal woman can remain without risk of death from hypothermia (though frostbite is still possible).

You won’t want a dual skin tent in hot, dry conditions (or hot and humid for that matter) – take a tarp and keep light showers off – but in Arctic Norway, different rules apply. If insects annoy you, have a mesh inner or a bivy with a mesh head.
The sleeping mat is the most unsung item most packs. If you lie on cold ground for a whole night you’ll be cold – you cannot beat thermodynamics. You need something between you and the ground and clothing is not going to cut it. Check warmth ratings on mats – you’ll want a summer mat for late spring to early autumn and a winter mat for everything else. This is not a place to skimp – you want to be comfortable. If you plan on sleeping in some inopportune places – bus shelters, garages, petrol stations to name some of Tom Allen’s favourites – then a more durable mat would make sense.

“If you want to reduce your pack weight, some of the most significant savings can be achieved by modifying your approach to camping. Think of your shelter and sleeping equipment as a flexible system that can be adapted to suit different circumstances. Much like clothing layers, a multifaceted shelter system adapts to different conditions or seasons: a single-wall shelter, when combined with a bug inner or bivy creates multiple options for long treks. Similarly, by integrating your clothing into your sleep system, you can carry a lighter bag or quilt, and extend its comfort range by wearing your insulating layers at night.” says Mark Roberts. Read more of his ultralight tips here.

Clothing

You won’t have a hot shower and cosy housing at the end of the day so you need to stay warm and dry some other way – a breathable waterproof jacket, breathable waterproof overtrousers, an insulation layer, base layer(s), socks, boots whilst on the move and whatever you might want to wear in camp are all good places to start. Dry camp clothing is not necessarily a must – ultralighters would eschew such luxury – but we all travel at a level of comfort appropriate to our enjoyment. Nevertheless, whilst in camp you won’t be moving and you will get colder than when you are walking. Consequently, a dry insulating layer is essential and will make a great difference to your comfort in colder weather. They pack down well and come with reams of features, but the you’ll want a hood, hand pockets and an adjustable hem at the waist. Everything else is just gravy. The insulation ‘fill’ will depend on your environment…

Down vs Synthetic

This applies equally to sleeping bags (discussed in Part 1) and to insulation layers. Down is made from the fleecy undercoating of a water bird’s plumage and works by trapping body heat. Gram for gram, no man-made fiber can compete with down for warmth. It’s extremely compressible and lightweight – far more so than synthetic insulation. Here’s the nub – it’s useless when wet. It begins to lose its insulating properties even in damp weather and is slow to dry, especially in a humid climate.

Conversely, synthetic insulation is essentially polyester threading that is woven to imitate down. Light, thin threads trap warm air, and thicker threads help loft and durability. It is water resistant and will still provide insulation when wet. It is quick drying and also less expensive than down. It is easy to maintain as most kit using synthetic insulation is machine washable. It is also hypoallergenic. Although synthetic insulation has come on in recent years, it is more bulky and less compact than down when compressed.

In short, down performs badly in the wet and is expensive. Synthetic insulation comes in a wide variety of applications which varies in cost and effectiveness but all of them perform much better in wet or damp conditions. Whatever you choose, keep your insulation layer and your sleeping bag in drybags. This is non-negotiable.

The sleeping mat is the most unsung item most packs. If you lie on cold ground for a whole night you’ll be cold – you cannot beat thermodynamics. You need something between you and the ground and clothing is not going to cut it.

Eating And Drinking

You need to eat so how are you going to do it? You won’t get invited into the homes of local people every night, nor will you always have access to street markets/restaurants/bars/shops, so are you reheating food already cooked like a stew or rehydrating dried, freeze-packed food? In a warm climate you may not even want to cook at all – grab local food and picnic if that option is available to you. Don’t take food with you if local cuisine is available to you – try new things. If you’re in the hills, desert or jungle however, you’ll need something else. Don’t cook from scratch as the food to be carried will be heavy and fuel consumption makes it prohibitive but it’s a matter of personal taste. Try freeze-dried food for long treks and to stay lightweight – it’s far better than it used to be!

There are several fuel options as well – meths, wood and gas, for example. There are several types of gas stove – those which sit on top of the canister, those with a heat exchanger and pot built in (e.g. Jetboil, Primus ETA or MSR Reactor) and a stand alone stove with a hose running to the cannister. Some are lighter, some are quicker and some are more stable.

If you are only boiling water, a meths stove will likely be lightest, but they’re less effective in winter. Many meths systems also come with a woodburning option – useful if you think you can find dried twigs en route, but also quite slow. You’ll also need a pot to heat water, cook in and/or eat from, although if you are eating freeze dried meals you’ll eat from the bag (but still need a pot to boil water). Get a system which fits into your pot along with the gas canister to save space in your pack.

Drinking water is a tricky topic and another Sidetracked Guide will deal with filtration systems and the claims they make in more detail, but essentially, you should treat any water you drink to be sure. Filter systems are very lightweight and last for years. Ensure you have one, no matter where you are camping.

Personal Administration

Washing is something you have to make a choice about depending on your environment. If you camp high in the hills but near a water source, you cannot abide by the leave no trace principles if you taint it with soap! Maybe use wet-wipes for a quick wash in the morning, or if you’re on an overnight camp simply wait until you get home. You can of course wash without soap if you so wish – or even go for a quick wild swim! Or use public facilities if you get the chance – in New Zealand, we were able to negotiate the use of yacht club facilities more than once. Toilet duties are not complicated but it is essential you abide by the rules – carry a plastic trowel with you (cheap from a DIY shop) and dig a hole at least a foot deep around 30m away from any water source. Do what you need to do and fill the hole back in. Carry your dirty paper out with you in a ziplock – animals will dig it up long before it degrades.

First Aid/Survival Kits

What you take in your first aid/survival kit is a matter dependent on your chosen environment but if you’re not going to have access to civilisation for a while, you need to plan ahead.A good first aid kit should contain:

  • A couple of triangular bandages which can be used for slings and dressings as well as bandages – take some variously sized safety pins too.
  • At least two wound dressings (a medium and a large) to stop bleeding.
  • Antiseptic wipes.
  • Steristrips – various sizes
  • Some crepe bandages – for holding on dressings and to support/immobilise fractures, strains and sprains.
  • A roll of general purpose medical tape such as micropore tape – others might even suggest some duck tape.
  • A selection of plasters – there are special types which are rugged and don’t come off when a little damp.
  • Ibuprofen – better than paracetamol as it is also an anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine for insect bites/hay fever.
  • Pen knife or multi-tool with scissor attachment is very useful.
  • A pair of latex gloves.
  • Some blister pads such as Compeed.
  • Signal whistle.
  • Firesteel.
  • Water purification tablets (for emergencies rather than general use).


There are several fuel options as well – meths, wood and gas, for example. There are several types of gas stove – those which sit on top of the canister, those with a heat exchanger and pot built in (e.g. Jetboil, Primus ETA or MSR Reactor) and a stand alone stove with a hose running to the cannister. Some are lighter, some are quicker and some are more stable.

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