What did you do on New Year’s Eve? I went wild camping on Dartmoor

Leaving the comfort of a warm campervan to ‘sleep’ in a sloping, wind-bent tent might not seem like everybody’s idea of a New Year’s Eve party but, for Mr D and I, it was the perfect way to end a year, which hasn’t contained quite as many outdoor adventures as we would have liked it to.

Camping on New Year’s Eve has become something of a tradition for Mr D and I. Our first Dartmoor New Year wild camp was seven years ago, and involved damp bivvy bags behind a not-so-lonely Dartmoor rock.

Interestingly that particular rock is about to be removed, under current proposals, from the permitted Dartmoor wild camping area map, a shame because we have become quite fond of it but no matter, if there’s one thing our favourite moor isn’t short of, it’s rocks.

Last year’s (2020) New Year’s Eve not-so-wild camp is definitely one we won’t forget. It involved our local woods, two hammocks, lots of party noise from nearby houses.

And the loudest set of midnight foghorns you could imagine.

I live in Torbay, and our waters were at that time home to several pandemic-redundant cruise ships.

We did sleep though.

We eventually slept this year (NYE 2021) as well. But not before we had added a few ‘experiences’ to our strange adventure list.

Our hope is always to sleep, exposed to the sky, in our bivvy bags when we wild camp. With a down sleeping bag, and a mat, a bivvy bag is surprisingly warm, and there really isn’t anything to beat the wafts of chilly air,  the drift of gentle mist, or even the flutter of snowflakes across your face, as you gaze at the subtly adjusting star scape above you.

However bivvy camping isn’t really that great in the rain.

Well it is if you sleep under a tarp but on this particular occasion, despite packing dinner, bivvy kit, a stove, a book to read, and emergency morning chocolate (always essential for good humour), I had neglected to add my walking poles (aka shelter poles) to my rucksack.

As it turned out, I was glad I had.

After deciding to take the tent, and opting for dinner in the campervan, we set off up the hill. And almost immediately experienced a significant ‘forecast/experience imbalance’. We all know how to look up the weather online but it’s easy to forget that walking uphill into rain and 20mph winds can feel a lot like running into an over-friendly, giant wet sheep.

Never walk into a giant wet sheep.

I should mention here that I’m an experienced land navigator. I regularly train other people to navigate, and feel perfectly at home walking across Dartmoor in the dark.

But only if I’ve taken my map and compass out of my bag.

Which I hadn’t done on this occasion.

Which wouldn’t have been a problem if we had had more friendly weather and visibility. However both of these had been invited to New Year’s Eve parties of their own, leaving us with the giant wet sheep.

 There’s something to be said for modern mapping tools.

My first recommendation to anyone contemplating a life outdoors, would be to learn how to use a map and compass. Once you have the skills, these tools are, quite simply, more reliable, and more flexible than mapping and route plotting apps.

However my second recommendation would be to install a route finding app on your home computer for planning, and your phone for emergencies. Half way up a shortish hill with a giant wet sheep didn’t really constitute an emergency but a quick glance at my phone gave me our location, then it was out with the compass to help us head for our usual camping spot.

Which we didn’t get to.

As we approached the ridge of the hill, it became clear (the forecast/experience imbalance again) that our tent wasn’t going to do very well if we went any higher. It was also clear that the giant wet weather sheep was starting to impede our progress.

So we pitched the tent really badly.

Well, in truth the tent pitching itself was okay. The canvas took some clinging onto, and the pegs hit a couple of rocks but we didn’t argue. I had packed spare pegs so we double-pegged the windward side, and crawled inside.

And realised our mistake. 

What had looked, in the darkness and mist, like a gentle slope, was in fact a rather large, diagonal, head downhill one. It was far too wild outside to contemplate pitching again so we decided to sleep with our heads away from the door. If you’ve ever slept in a small tent, you’ll know how low the far end of it can be. On a still night this isn’t an issue.

But our tent had apparently taken up yoga.

And was moving into such odd positions, my side in particular, that I spent all night being buffeted by over excitable nylon.

Mr D. didn’t fair much better.

Although sheltered on his side from the worst of the yoga-tent experience, Mr D. had ended up sleeping on what can only be described as an s-bend. Imagine a sideways sloping bed that stretched, not flat, but with a sudden drop of about 20cm in the middle, and you would be there.

Although you might have forgotten mat slippage.

Modern camping gear, you might have noticed, is designed to slide around. In a flat tent, this can be an asset. No struggles to adjust your sleeping bag, no difficulties wriggling around to get dressed.

slippage is not an asset in a super-sloping tent.

In the vague hope of stars, or even midnight firework views, we had opted to leave our tent door open. We had got one thing right, and managed to pitch so that the rain wasn’t coming in.

However most other things were trying to slide out.

My sleeping mat was the worst culprit. Within minutes of lying down, I was sitting up again, wondering which wild animal was grabbing the end of it.

There wasn’t a wild animal.

My mat had already slid so far out of the tent, it was being caught by the wind, and flapping up towards my toes. It took a couple of goes pulling it up  before I realised I was going to have to shut the tent door. If only to keep myself, and my gear inside the tent. This I did, and I wedged my empty rucksack under the bottom edge of the mat to try and smooth out the slope. Comfortable? No. Effective? well a bit.

If this sounds like a disastrous wild camping night.

It wasn’t. After a few consolatory sips from the hip flask, we settled down at around 22:30. I was up again at 23:30 (bladder), 01:30 (bladder again), and 05:30 (twilight) but count those in-between hours of sleep as a success. I didn’t hear Mr D. (woken by fireworks) wish me happy new year at 00:00, but I was up taking photos at 07:00 the next morning.

The most memorable adventures.

I’ve always maintained the best camping adventures aren’t the ones that go exactly to plan, sit bathed in sunshine, or look fabulous on Instagram. At least those aren’t the ones we remember. When the wind, rain, and actual sh*** all hit the weather fan, it’s then that we develop resilience, grasp skills, and learn to find our sense of humour.

All useful life skills, I’m sure you will agree.

My top tips for winter wild camping

  1. Check the local bylaws with regard to wild camping
  2. Use the MWIS weather website for mountain areas
  3. On Dartmoor check for Army live firing
  4. Pack a sleeping mat and bivvy bag for extra warmth
  5. Learn to navigate using a map and compass
  6. Keep your phone switched off and dry for emergencies
  7. Remember that wild camping should always equal backpack camping
  8. Unless you’re sleeping in the snow, in the garden…

Fi Darby – outdoor writer and small explorer

It could rightly be said that, as an outdoor writer living in Devon, Fi is ideally situated. With two National Parks, the South West Coast Path, and amazing adventure opportunities on her doorstep, she has plenty to offer her growing portfolio of outdoor clients. Fi teaches navigation skills and loves weaving stories of encouragement to get people outside, creating entertaining walks, and giving outdoor advice. She is Blonde Two of the popular walking duo Two Blondes Walking, and a long-serving Ordnance Survey Get Outside Champion.

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