A quick google of ‘wild camping tips’ just gives you lists of really obvious things like “don’t forget to take a tent”. Well yes people, okay. I think we’re all past that. If you’re reading this, either you’re new here (hi!) or you’re well enough versed in wild camping that a reminder to take a tent is pretty patronising. What about wild camping tips to help finesse your camping game and make everything a bit smoother?
This idea came lying in tent while I couldn’t sleep. It was a rather damp, rather miserable night and, try as I might, I would not go to sleep. I didn’t even feel tired. So I lay curled up in my sleeping bag, listening to the rain and the wind and the tent rustles, waiting for it to be tomorrow. And while I was lying there, I thought about how much camping like this I’ve done in my life. Which got me on to things I do that you won’t find in books or guides or even those sorts of articles online. Because so much of wild camping is passed on through an oral tradition and sheer experience.
So this is my list of things I’d want to pass on to someone else if they asked me about wild camping tips. I chose fifteen fairly arbitrarily – I was trying to fall asleep after all. And though I did eventually fall asleep, this is what I came up with.
15 Wild Camping Tips from me to you
Here are my top fifteen wild camping tips. The list is long, but it’s all genuinely things I do that I’ve learnt along the way. I’ve been sleeping in tents on the moors (and everywhere else) for some 15 years now. That’s a long old time to polish my system into something unique to me. Hopefully you can find some useful tips to add to your system too.
1. Put a keyring on your sleeping bag
Sleeping bag zips are hard to find in the dark. They’re small and fiddly. I always add a keyring to the zip of my sleeping bag so I can find it quickly and easily in the dark. Personally I used the ones that you get in Christmas crackers because they’re light and not too bulky. Big enough to be able to find but not so big that they get in the way when you’re packing up your sleeping bag, or add any unnecessary annoyance.
2. Plastic bags for boots
Bring a plastic bag that you can put your boots in, so that you can bring them inside the tent. Never put your boots inside the tent otherwise. It makes everything muddy and wet – and as far as I’m concerned tents are a pain to clean. If you leave them in the porch, they’re usually fine. But they might get wetter or freeze overnight. Bringing them in gives them at least a chance to dry on a wet night. You could bring some newspaper too, if they’re really wet inside. Scrunch it up and put it inside to suck the moisture out.
3. Put kit on jackets or dry bags
Inside the tent, if you’ve camping on anything but perfectly dry ground, it’s worth laying out dry bags or waterproof jackets first, then putting kit on top of that. I mean sure, technically the DWR of a tent floor should be enough that the water won’t leak through. Equally if you have an extra tent footprint, to go underneath the tent, that will help too. But you don’t lose anything from doing it, so you may as well!
I guess it’s just habit for me: anything I take out of a dry bag inside a tent goes on top of the dry bag. If I’m camping in a bog (most of Dartmoor is very wet underfoot most of the year) then I’ll lay my waterproof jacket out flat between the tent door and the end of my sleeping mat. This means that my head strays off the end of the mat, the pressure won’t let water through and get my sleeping bag wet. Which brings us nicely on to…
4. Make a pillow from clothes
Never have I ever taken a pillow wild camping. Not even one of those fancy inflatable things. You can make a more than adequate pillow using only your clothes. Here’s how I do it:
- Get in your sleeping bag
- Take a fleece you aren’t wearing and turn it inside out, but not the arms.
- Do up all the zips fully. You’ll be left with something torso shaped.
- Stuff a spare layer or two inside this fleece, through the bottom. I use a belay jacket usually but if you like a firmer pillow, experiment with more or other layers.
- Arrange the clothing inside to make sure there are no zips or toggles sticking out on top, where your face will be.
- Secure the open end of the fleece with a hair tie.
5. Keep a few key items close
Before I go to sleep, I make sure to have a small pile of key items that are very easily accessible from my sleeping bag. So that, the instant I wake up, I can easily reach out and grab them, without having to rummage around the whole tent. These are usually a head torch, my watch, a phone and often a hat if the weather is cold. I put these where my bedside table would be: level with my head on the side I tend to wake up, within a short arm’s reach. This dramatically simplifies things if you wake up in the night.
6. Don’t fully inflate your roll mat
If you have an inflatable roll mat, it’s often much more comfortable to not inflate it fully. Unless you normally sleep on a hard mattress, try taking out some of the air so it’s still a bit squidgy. A roll mat isn’t meant to be a lilo. If you allow some give – particularly in the thick, mostly air ones – it will be more able to absorb the curves of you and the floor. Of course, don’t inflate it so little that your hip is on the floor. That’ll be a cold old night.
7. Spare socks and leggings are worth it
It took me until I started leading groups to do this wild camping tip. Beforehand I would simply sleep barefoot in my clothes – wet or otherwise (but I did have a synthetic sleeping bag). Nowadays, I take a spare pair of socks, never to be walked in except on the last day of a trip. That means my tender, damp or cold feet have something warm, soft and snuggly to sleep in. It’s so much more comfortable. Even if your feet aren’t wet, if you’ve walked the day in the socks you wear to bed, they’re all compressed and dirty. I find it it’s worth carrying the spare for overnight, then putting the old ones back on in the morning.
The same goes for a pair of thermal leggings or long johns. Nowadays, I sleep in the baselayer I wore during the day, plus a pair of thermal leggings that essentially act as pyjamas. Often people don’t know what to sleep in while they’re wild camping and this is what I’d recommend. They are dry, clean (well, baselayer aside) and not sticky. They give you an even heat and you don’t end up sleeping on zips or the contents of your pockets that you forgot to empty…
I bring these regardless of the weather – and actually take a spare, thin, long sleeved baselayer when in the daytime I’d be wearing a t-shirt. Again, it’s like having clean sheets. You sleep better, you’re separated from the unfamiliar texture of the sleeping bag. And you don’t get your sleeping bag muddy.
8. Use the hood on your sleeping bag
I am a side-sleeper and I spent years ignoring and generally fighting with the hood on my sleeping bag all night. I would always find myself waking up in a tangle with it. Or I’d turn over and it wouldn’t turn with me. The trick I’ve settled on is to have the hood up and have it tight enough that the air doesn’t get in. Most bags will have a series of toggles that allow you to cinch in the hood around your neck and your face. Find the happy medium for you. And make sure to tie up the excess loop of elastic inside your sleeping bag, so it’s out of the way. I have woken up with my elbow caught in it before!
Other benefits of a hood is that it keeps you extra warm and blocks out the sound of the rain. If you really can’t stand it, wear a hat instead and roll the hood down or inside out. Also down quilts exist and are genuinely worth considering if you can’t get on with a sleeping bag.
9. Sleep with your gas
If the night is going to be cold, put your gas bottle at the bottom of your sleeping bag with you. This will stop it from freezing overnight and make your breakfast a happier one. This might work for other types of fuel too, but be sure to wrap it in a plastic bag if there’s any chance of it leaking. Also, I’d recommend wrapping it in an item of clothing before putting it inside your bag. That way, if you accidentally touch it with your foot in the night it doesn’t feel really cold and hard.
10. Classiest wild camping tip: Sock Drying
If you are desperate, it’s possible to dry your wet socks using body heat. Wring them out in the porch as much as you can. Then bunch them up and keep them between your knees or thighs while you sleep. Definitely not glamourous. Certainly not recommended with down sleeping bags. But quite effective if you only have one pair and they’re wet. Similarly, the quickest way to dry damp clothes while camping is to wear them. It’s unpleasant putting them on in the morning but they’ll dry off quickly as you start walking.
11. Get to know your tent’s rustles
If your brain is on high alert all night, you are never going to get any sleep. So it’s well worth getting to know what “normal” sounds like in your tent. Unless you are in a completely silent, completely flat, rocky and windless area, your tent will move in the night. Heck, you will move in the night – the number of times I’ve mistaken the sound of my sleeping bag rubbing against my roll mat, the other side of my head, for outside…
Your tent will move against blades of grass even in the smallest breeze, causing a rustle. It really pays to know the difference between a tent-fabric-on-grass rustle and a sheep-investigating-your-tent rustle, for instance. And the noise of your tent pole gently creaking in the wind vs tent pole about to snap from ridiculous storm weather. On the flip side, if you find the complete silence unnerving, wind or rain (or both) make good background distractions. Obviously not so much it becomes annoyingly loud, but we can’t be too picky can we.
12. Create an air hole
You don’t need me to tell you this, but breathing is a good idea. In some of the thicker, multi-season tents, it’s harder for air to get in and out. To get a better night’s sleep, create some ventilation by opening the zip on your inner. It doesn’t need to be much – a centimetre or so at the top of the door makes a surprising difference. And make sure it’s at the top, just for peace of mind that no animal might be able to wiggle their way through the gap.
If there are mosquitoes or other flying nasties, some tents have a fly screen that you can unzip of the door, instead of the actual door itself. Maximising air flow without getting eaten alive. I say the door because that’s where my tent has it, but you might find vents in other places on your tent – worth having a look before you go out.
13. Tent sizes are skinny
Tent sizes are not particularly spacious – at least in the mountain type tents that are designed for one to three people. Or let’s say, sold as that. The pictures usually show two imaginary people lying side by side, but are actually spooning all night. Yes, you can fit. But it’s usually very cosy. If you want a little bit more space to move around, you might use a size up. I confess that I regularly camp in a tent that’s sold as a three man, but is more like a two. The extra space gives extra flexibility in case anything happens and in most cases I use it, pack weight isn’t an issue. If you’re living out of the tent for long periods of time (think cycle touring) then a bit more space makes a huge difference. On the flip side, bigger tents are colder if you don’t fill them with people.
14. Less is more in sleeping bags
I mean this in several ways. Not temperature rating. But it is genuinely better to wear as little as you can inside your sleeping bag. As I’ve said before, baselayer and thermal leggings is where it’s at. Wearing loads of fleeces and coats makes it harder for your body heat to warm up the air inside the sleeping bag. Of course, this only holds within reason. If you’re breaking below the comfort rating on your sleeping bag, then definitely do start layering up.
The other side of this wild camping tip is that it’s also good to have a sleeping bag that fits you snugly. Women’s specific fit bags are one occasion where it really does make a difference. The same with making sure you get the right length sleeping bag. If there’s an extra foot of at the bottom of that bag that you’re not it, you’ll have cold feet all night. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but minimising large pockets of air will help you stay warm. Or alternatively, fill those gaps with down quilts or sleeping bag liners to stay extra warm.
15. Don’t try to sleep
Yes, you read that correctly. My biggest wild camping tip is: don’t try to sleep. It’s really not about sleeping. That’s why I find it weird how people sometimes make the camping the activity. Personally, camping has always been about allowing me to go further, or do more, because I can sleep on the way. And I associate wild camping with dreadful weather; long, cold, sleepless nights; and sore feet. A very long time ago, I rationalised this (thanks, Ten Tors). When you’re tucked up in your sleeping bag, you’re not trying to sleep. You’re just appreciating not standing up, glad that you’re roughly dry, warm and horizontal. Or not being out there in whatever horrendous weather and darkness that surrounds you. Let go of the “I must sleep to recover” and, ironically, you might find it easier to sleep.