Ullswater Wild Camp

2/3 June 2021

With a big increase of interest in camping during the ongoing covid period, comes an increased interest in wild camping, which is basically camping away from a proper campsite. I thought it’d be a good time to go away for a couple of days and write about the experience, in the hope that it gives people a better idea of what the experience was like, what to expect if you’re heading to the area, and of course what to pack.

First off, a quick note on wild camping in the UK. Specifically, England. It is technically illegal, you are doing this without permission etc. So being stealthy is key – this isn’t the sort of trip where you take 20 mates, a few crates of beer, and go and try and have a party and bbq out in the open; you’d be better off on a campsite so at least you have a toilet and access to more beer. Wild Camping is essentially hardcore mode – no facilities, and only the kit that you carry with you, heading into the vast empty wilderness far from civilisation. It’s a great experience, if you get it right.

In the UK, it’s legal in Scotland (except around Loch Lomond) but illegal without landowners permission everywhere else, so making friends with landowners will give you much better access. Scotland therefore is a great choice, and most of it is wild anyway.

  • Brecon Beacons has a list of farms available that will allow you to wild camp
  • The Peak District is becoming heavily policed, especialy after a spate of incidents involving idiots with barbecues in warm weather on tinder-rich moorland
  • Dartmoor allows wild camping, and has designated areas for it
  • Exmoor, Cornwall, Snowdonia and the Lake District will tolerate wild campers, though it’s best to get somewhere high up and out of the way. Great excuse to explore, in the Lake District you ideally want to be looking at spots above 450m.

The idea is that you go alone or as a pair (don’t make it too crowded, though I’d advise that if it’s your first trip, you take a friend in case of emergency, and also for support), go out and enjoy nature, and take in some peace and quiet. Set up camp late in the evening, as the sun is setting. Try and stay at least 100m away from footpaths, and out of sight. The next morning, make sure you’re up, packed and moving on as early as possible to avoid detection. These aren’t hard and fast rules, although there is a widely accepted code along these lines among the UK wild camping community. The last thing anyone wants is for a crackdown on it, because it’s a great experience.

Choosing a route

With all this in mind, and being in the north of the England, the Lake District is an obvious choice. I’ve been a regular visitor and keen walker since I was ten, and grew up nearby. Joining me on my trip is my friend Mike, someone I’ve known since school days, also a keen Lakeland walker and runner, so he’s in good physical condition for it. We’ve been camping a bit too, although still fairly new to the wilder option. Given our collective experience, we’d decided on a pretty ambitious route for our first wild camp as a pair, taking in as many mountains as possible, away from the crowds on the popular routes. It’s important to know what you’re capable of physically before loading up a 20kg pack and setting off, especially when it comes to the Lake District. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a hilly/mountainous part of the UK, with lots of lakes and streams strewn across the landscape, and is renowned for being generally the wettest part of a wet country – though the weather here can change quickly and throw up unexpected and extreme conditions. As stunning as it looks in photos, they don’t fully convey the size and scale of some of these mountains, and paths can vary from heavy, wet bog to near-vertical rock scrambles. The wild camping is a challenge in itself, but secondary to the weather and terrain, as we were to find out.

Our starting point was the busy little village of Glenridding, on the south shore of Ullswater. Generally speaking, Windermere and Ullswater are the more popular parts of the Lake District, and Ullswater in particular is the first attraction for many coming off the motorway, and attracts a wide range of people, many of whom will not be venturing into the mountains or will be following the crowds heading to Helvellyn. Helvellyn is the second biggest mountain in England but still seems to be a magnet for under-equipped or inexperienced visitors. There are some very visible and well maintained paths as a result, so we decided to start off on the north side of the river instead. Towering over Glenridding itself is the rugged and imposing Sheffield Pike. To the right in this picture is Glenridding Dodd, where Mike had previously done a wild camp without straying too far from the village below.

Glenridding

Setting off

We set off early to arrive into Glenridding for around 8am, before the car park fills with tourists, and giving us some time to visit the excellent walking shop Catstycam (named after a local peak) and enjoy some refreshments before setting off. We check the local mountain weather forecast (use the mountain one rather than a regular weather forecast). Unusually for the area, the sun is already beating down with barely a cloud in the sky, which feels nice in the car park but isn’t ideal for hiking. Already it feels like we’re in for a challenge. On picking up our rucksacks, we agree that they’re both heavy. Very heavy, Mike’s pack around 16kg and mine a couple of kg heavier still. We had decided against spending hundreds of pounds extra to get superlight, high tech kit. Personally, as I do with the airsoft side of the blog, I like to find cheap but good kit that will do the job, although it comes at a different cost – the weight. Normally for an overnight kit, most wild campers will take a 10kg, 50 litre pack. Mine is an old Regatta 65-85l and it’s packed, Mike’s a Berghaus 65 litre. I’ll admit from the word go, it didn’t feel great. And it wasn’t going to get any easier.

Our plan is to first get some altitude, climbing sharply to 450m (around 1500ft) towards Heron Pike, the lower peak of Sheffield Pike, before heading west to explore nearby mountains and scout out some possible camping spots. The heat and the weight of the equipment on the sheer, loose stone path of the initial climb to Heron Pike had me stopping every few minutes to rest and try to wrestle for a better position of the shoulder straps. In cooler weather, with a jacket on bearing the brunt of the abrasion, it’s not as bad, but in a thin technical tee shirt it was getting uncomfortable fast and I was wishing I’d picked a different rucksack. It’s like putting two 10kg dumbells on your shoulders for the day and trying to climb a mountain with it. The key was to take it slow and steady, avoiding any injuries or accidents, and if we didn’t make it much further than the top of the first mountain, then we were happy to accept whatever progress we could make.

Slowly, surely, we managed to haul ourselves to the top of Heron Pike (612m/2007ft), and it’s one of those mountains that feels like it never ends; you see what you think is the top, only to reach it and find there’s another mass of rock just beyond it. Actually reaching the top was a great relief and offered fantastic views of Glenridding and Ullswater below, as well as the trails up to Helvellyn, which by mid morning were littered with people, like watching ants from where we were sat. There are many people that visit the Lake District, my younger self included, that become obsessive over the biggest peaks and the highest numbers, but some of the best trails and locations are often hidden away on the quieter peaks, far from the masses. All we’d encountered so far was one guy walking his dog much lower down, which for a hot day in the school holidays in a nation determined to escape the clutches of lockdown, wasn’t bad at all. We continued up the rocky route to the summit of Sheffield Pike (675m/2214ft) and took break for lunch.

As punishing as it had been, the decision to make a quick ascent meant we’d got the hardest bit out of the way first and we’d got up to an altitude from which everything to follow would be much easier – the plan was to traverse the ridges between the local peaks and try and identify a good spot to set up camp in later, and there was only a maximum of 300m more elevation we could do, though over a much longer distance and period of time. The only problem was, that the sun wasn’t the only weather we’d have to deal with. Winds of up to 55mph (88kph) posed a serious risk to our reasonably priced tents, which meant we’d have to be more selective with finding a spot; we needed something like a rockface, a dip, a wall or whatever we could find to provide a windbreak and protect our kit. Otherwise we’d be waking up without tents.

Descending Sheffield Pike, we did notice that the summit offered some protection, which was good, but with most of the day to fill with something before we could pitch up, I suggested going to attempt some more summits and see what we could find on the way. The path led west…

Unfortunately, it’s generally a bit bleak in this part of the national park. The mountains are more like very big, grassy hills. This meant we had nothing to shelter behind. The relentless heat was sapping both energy and water supplies, the rucksacks getting lighter but feeling heavier. Each step, whether through lack of practice, physical deterioration during lockdown, or over-confidence, was an effort. Every rest break welcome, but slowing us down and doing little to ease our problems. We weren’t far off the next valley, and the lake of Thirlmere, still without a suitable spot, and faced with three options. To our left, Raise (884m/2900ft) which led towards Helvellyn and the crowds we wanted to avoid. Right, towards Stybarrow Dodd (846m/2775ft), another featureless mound of a mountain that didn’t look on the map like it would give us the camping spot that we needed, or straight ahead and down Sticks Gill/Ghyll (a stream) towards Thirlmere. Ahead we went, looking to drop just over the brow of the hill (the wind behind us) in the hope of finding a flat sheltered spot.

Unusually, we hadn’t noticed much running water on our trip to this point, only some stagnant looking pools and insect-ridden bogs. I’d packed a Sawyer Mini water filter for this trip, which I’ll cover in more detail in the kit list, and it allowed us to refill our bottles of warm tap water with fresh, cold, clean(ed) mountain water, which was a great relief.

The route down Sticks Gill however offered no flat areas, being a steep and grassy descent, and we’d be choosing to drop down the mountain much further, putting us further away from Glenridding Car Park – the parking ticket expired at 9am the next morning which meant we’d be racing to get back and with the going being very slow, it seemed unlikely. The only place we’d seen on our trip so far that ticked any boxes was Sheffield Pike, effectively right back at the start, but the wind wasn’t going away and we had to make the decision to head back, choosing a lower path under White Stones that brought us back to the base of Sheffield Pike, albeit halfway up already. We move up towards the north face of the mountain.

Setting up Camp

There is a lot of boggy, marshy ground across the Lake District and it can be hard to avoid, the alternative usually being a thin layer of grass covering solid rock, neither of which are ideal for pitching a tent. Having two individual tents, we needed a bit more space than solo wild campers do. A decent water source nearby would have been a big help, luckily we’d done a final top-up on the path back east so that was a less pressing issue. As we trudged up the north west side of the summit, every flat looking area we could see was waterlogged. Disappointed and resigned to a waterlogged wild camp, I (gratefully) dropped my rucksack one last time and went to peer over the edge to look down at the valley below for an option down there. I saw a flat, grassy looking shelf and we went down to investigate. Not only was it flat, and reasonably dry, but in coming around the corner of the mountain, the valley fell away spectacularly giving a stunning view over the lake of Ullswater, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. At the front of this shelf was a slight mound, covered in heather, that gave just enough wind protection to deflect the wind up and over our low tents.

It was now 5pm, and exhausted, we dropped our rucksacks down and took a break, both agreeing to wait until 6pm to pitch, after which we reckoned on most walkers having returned to campsites, cars and cottages, although to be fair we’d barely seen anyone on the whole route, which was surprising considering how popular the area is. After the hour had passed, and hearing and seeing nobody, although we were well hidden away from the paths, the tents came out and we got busy setting ourselves up for the night. The two tents on show here, both 2-man, are Mike’s Vango Nevis 200, and my Wild Country Coshee 2, which has seen a lot of use but never for wild camping. The only drawback to it when you’re out is that if the weather is bad, the vestibule area is pretty exposed, and because the bigger pole is almost at the head of the tent, you’ve got to do your cooking lying down and resting on an elbow, which is uncomfortable.

The Nevis 200 has one taller pole across the middle, allowing you to sit up better, although only has the vestibule on one side compared to the Coshee which has one either side. Neither would ever get a second person in, and the internal space is sufficient for one with a few valuables, and everything else shoved in the vestibule. I had an emergency plastic bivvy bag in my EDC pouch that was repurposed as a groundsheet for the vestibule to keep my kit dry during the night.

It did take us nearly 40 mins to get everything out and set up correctly, which is fine when you have all night with little else to do, but would probably need improved in wet weather. And cooking in wet weather would be even more difficult; both of us tested different stove setups but both were set up outside the vestibules, largely owing to the good weather. We’d carried rocks with us to use as fireproof bases for our cooking, to avoid any accidents with dry grass.

This is my more traditional option. The brilliant BCB Crusader mk1 cook kit, updated for this trip with a mk2 stove which is taller and allows me to use a classic trangia alcohol stove in the bottom, filled with bio ethanol instead of hexamine tablets, which only last long enough to boil a pot of water. Fine for boil-in-the-bag type meals, but not so good for sitting boiling pasta and then adding a soup sachet in. The mk2 stove has much better ventilation, allowing air in through the holes and with the windy conditions, soon whips up an impressive flame. It’s slow going overall to be fair, but when the evening meal is the only activity you have to keep yourself busy for the evening, I’m happy sitting watching the flames and relaxing. The Crusader set nestles nicely together into an army style utility pouch and I absoluetly love the design of it. I have a thing for older, more robust camp kit, usually army surplus if I can get it (my other set is based around a German army ww2 mess kit). Mike on the other hand is far more modern, going for a much more efficient and lightweight setup.

This is his MSR Pocket Rocket stove, which screws into a gas canister, is noisy, and cooks things in less than half the time. With it, he uses a lightweight OEX Sola-X cook set. Its a superb bit of kit, the pot sitting securely on most gas stoves and giving a bit of wind protection while still allowing air in. The gas and burner fit nicely inside to save on space, and the heatproof handles are a nice touch. It’s a great setup, but I’m just not a fan of gas cartridges. As Mike discovered the following morning, it’s impossible to know how much is left. A trangia full of fuel is much smaller and will do fine for a one night trip. Whatever you choose though, it needn’t be any more complicated than some kind of heat source with a lightweight pot on top. If it’ll stack, I may well consider a more lightweight 750ml titanium pot for the next trip.

For sleeping, after years of suffering on self-inflating mats, I purchased a Trekology UL80 inflatable mat, which is something that’s been getting a lot of attention lately on YouTube. It’s deep, cushioned and very comfortable, although lacks insulation. I’ve attempted to find a lightweight solution to this by getting a mylar foil lined, reusable plastic bivvy, which was a suggestion on an ultralight campers group. The mat fits inside and the foil and plastic help insulate it from the cold ground. I chose not to bother due to the warm temperatures, and used my old Snugpak TSB sleeping bag, which is cheap and has a comfort rating of -2, extreme -7, although I’ve been freezing in it at temperatures around 5-7 degrees so I’m not too sure about the “comfort” rating of that. Mike runs a Vango self inflating mat, which is fine on the soft long grass, and his new Berghaus Intrepid 1000 sleeping bag, which is much smaller than mine (he shops well) and a third lighter. It’s a nice 3 season bag, rated as comfort 5 and extreme -15. There’s a lot more info on keeping warm in The Camping Guide section elsewhere in the blog.

After food, we crack open a beer and go and sit on the heather mound looking down on Ullswater as the sun sets. Although it has been a tiring day with a lot of fruitless walking, we reflect on what we’ve learned about the environment, our kit, and ourselves. It’s so still and quiet, we even end up whispering the conversation.

When we set out to do this, and we did spend a couple of months collecting kit and planning hundreds of routes, I guess we could have just googled “wild camping locations” and found one straight away to save all the looking, but part of the experience is in finding these spots, and learning where to look and what for. Lots of wild campers are very guarded and secretive about it, and won’t share info. It isn’t, as we learned, something you can find on Google Earth, which isn’t detailed enough to find a flat 5x5m square on a mountain, or off a 2D map, it’s something you need to scout out. If it helps anyone else out though, I’ll reveal our location anyway :

Head to the summit of Sheffield Pike, face N/NW and walk down off the summit about 50 metres, it’s hard to miss from that side, although well hidden from all other approaches and paths.

We’ve learned a lot about comfortable rucksacks, or at least how uncomfortable our budget ones were. And how heavy, although at time of writing it’s hard to see where weight can be saved. Everything got used at some point, and we’re not looking to spend hundreds of pounds more to save a few grams here and there, simply because budget won’t allow, but experiencing the outdoors shouldn’t be expensive anyway.

As I mentioned earlier, the best piece of kit I brought along was undoubtedly the Sawyer Mini water filter, which was a new purchase to test out on this trip. Water is very heavy, but you need it and lots of it, for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Using a water filter to keep topped up as you go, means you can get away with carrying only a couple of bottles (I’d always have one “active” and then one reserve one just in case). Its a brilliant design, with a foldable plastic water pouch that you fill up under a stream or wherever, then screw on the water filter and squeeze the pouch into your container or mouth. It’s good for 100,000 gallons too, which was a lot more than the next best filter I could find. Empty, it weighs next to nothing and is very compact, and will be the first thing in the bag next time.

The other piece of kit I’ve been particularly impressed with, though not photographed here, is the Omeril head torch. Usually I’d run a heavy metal hand torch, but this thing is light, bright and has a red light function. It’s much easier having hands free for stuff, but it’s also very handy as a lamp in the tent too. Rechargeable and excellent value given the price. Maybe there is something in this modern kit after all…

Here’s my full kit list then for the trip;

I thought it was pretty basic but still tipped the scales at around 20kg. Most wild campers seem to take 12kg or less, so if anyone has any suggestions on reducing weight I’d be very grateful to hear them!

One thought on “Ullswater Wild Camp

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