Star-filled skies, fresh air, no other people – there’s nothing quite like a night spent out in the wilds. Unconvinced? Phoebe Smith explains why you need to bed down in the great outdoors
There was definitely a snake on my sleeping bag. It was 2am. All was silent; the sky a stretched piece of black velour studded with thousands of twinkling gems. And there I lay, afraid to move, suddenly very aware of my breathing as my brain went into overdrive: was it the ‘safe’ kind of snake? Or the dangerous variety? Would it be in a bad mood? Should I stay still or throw it off? And when, precisely, should I begin to really panic?
It had been hours since I’d watched the sun set on Uluru; hours since the giant rock had burned burgundy while sweeps of sulphur-yellow danced over its crevices, highlighting gaps that crumbled like broken biscuit. I had ooo-ed and aah-ed with the crowd, supped champagne and eaten a barbecue. Then I’d looked on as the other people slowly retired to their hotels, minibuses or cars while my guide and I made our way deeper into the Red Centre desert for a night out in the wild. Somehow – and I wasn’t entirely sure how it had happened – I had been persuaded to swap a comfy mattress for a camping mat; real bathrooms for a hole I’d dug in the ground; the safety and security of a locked door and solid walls for a flimsy swag – basically, a sleeping-bag cover. Here I was, a giant gift-wrapped snack for any one of the hundreds of deadly creatures that Australia is famous for, and now a slithering beast was working its way up and over my feet. Just how had I got myself into this?
Travelling was the culprit. Heading overseas has an uncanny knack of making you try things you wouldn’t conceive of doing at home. Before this trip I would never have entertained the idea of spending a night on a sandy floor to stare at a giant rock. Yet once abroad I could be persuaded to try pretty much anything. Which had lead to my current situation…
After holding my breath for what seemed like an age, I dared to look down. It was long, it was dark, it was… a sock – one I’d kicked off earlier after getting too hot. A sock. Not a snake then. Relief swept over me. I fell back to sleep, survived my night in a swag, and woke up to a blazing sunrise feeling a tiny bit like Bear Grylls.
That’s how it started, all those years ago. That’s how I got hooked on what I call ‘extreme sleeping’ – that is, sleeping outside, sometimes with a tent and sometimes without, in some of the wildest locations I could find. After Australia I ventured to Wadi Rum in Jordan. I spent a week walking and wild-camping with the Bedouin, scrambling up the rocks by day and sleeping out on ledges under stars with nothing more than a bedsheet by night. Snakes, lizards, wolves and foxes didn’t bother me – I was too busy looking up at the Milky Way curving across the sky like a white rainbow.
From there I journeyed to Finnish Lapland where, after days spent snowshoeing through frozen forests, I curled up for nights in traditional tipi-like lavvu, peering out to watch the northern lights before falling asleep by a crackling fire.
So it’s no surprise that when I returned to Blighty I was still thirsty for adventure. Time and responsibility stopped me heading away to places more exotic – at least not as regularly as I would have liked. So I set about seeking out the wildest places in the UK.
Wales was an obvious choice, in particular the mountainous interior of Snowdonia National Park. One summer afternoon, I arrived at 4.30pm to climb up and into Twll Du, aka the Devil’s Kitchen. I left the car as many walkers were returning to theirs, and began up the path behind Idwal Cottage.
More people descended past me as the path wove up and across a small waterfall, and out onto the undulating terrain at the foot of the Glyderau mountains. Every time someone passed, they looked puzzled, as if I was clearly mistaken to be heading the ‘wrong way’ at this time of the early evening.
There’s something special about visiting a place after usual ‘opening hours’. We humans seem conditioned to stick to our usual nine-til-five routines and can’t imagine staying in the great outdoors beyond that. But that’s the time when it’s at its most magical: every sound is amplified, every detail more noticeable. Animals begin to emerge from hiding and – given the right conditions – the light at sunset is dazzling.
So I climbed higher, tracing the edge of Llyn Idwal. Not only is this patch of water spectacular, sitting as it does at the bottom of a huge scooped-out hanging valley carved by glacial action, but legends are attached to it too. According to myth, Prince Idwal Foel (its namesake) was murdered here; however, more likely, said Prince was killed in battle with the Saxons and was merely cremated on its shores, in keeping with Celtic traditions.
Continuing on under Idwal Slabs I could make out the shapes of the last two climbers abseiling down the rock faces, calling it a day. Not for me. I went higher, up and through the boulders that make up the Devil’s Kitchen, and eventually out onto the flattened land of the col between the two peaks of Y Garn and Glyder Fawr. In front of me the smaller tarn of Llyn y Cwn sparkled with an inviting sheen. This was where I decided to spend the night.
Pitching my tent on a raised section beside the water, I was completely alone. I sat for a good ten minutes, drinking it in, feeling serene. Above, the sky turned diluted shades of violent and cerise, framing the mountains like a theatrical curtain. It was then that I decided to do some exploring.
Leaving my tent, I headed up the scree path to the summit of Glyder Fawr. This peak marks the boundary between two counties – Gwynedd and Conwy – and rises to 1,000m above sea level, so it was no surprise that the views from the top were magnificent.
To the east and north-west, the rest of the magnificent mountain range stretched out, clearly visible as I stood on its highest point. Below my feet the ground disappeared into the Ogwen Valley, before rising up again to the conical peak of Pen yr Ole Wen. Best of all was looking south where the mighty Snowdon (Wales’ highest peak) bit into the sky with its sharp, serrated teeth. Sunset was still a way off but now, in an early evening haze of pink, the granite rocks that littered the summit appeared soft and rosy. And yet I was the only one to enjoy it.
Still wanting more, I descended back to my campsite, refuelled on chocolate, grabbed a warmer jacket and headtorch, and headed up to Y Garn. It’s a big hulking mass and took much longer to ascend than I’d anticipated, but adrenaline was moving me on; after conquering it, I continued further along the ridgeline, pushing on to Elidir Fawr. Finally, as the last of the light turned the landscape deep-orange, I made my way back along the rough track, the final few metres undertaken by the beam of my little headtorch.
My canvas cocoon was there waiting for me at the lake, with all I needed for a comfy night’s sleep. I fired up my stove to heat my camping meal and poured a hot chocolate. Above, the stars began to show themselves, shining just as impressively as they had way back in Australia, as awe-inspiring as they’d been in Wadi Rum.
I sipped my brew and listened. Somewhere to my left something was digging, likely a rabbit taking advantage of the camouflaging darkness. The trickle of water feeding into the lake rivalled the bubble of my boiling stove. I made my way towards the shoreline to see if the stars were reflected in its surface. Away from the comfort of my sleeping bag I felt a chill and snuggled into my down jacket. A light wind briefly rendered the water’s mirror-like quality useless, but I was happy to wait for calm to return, breathing in the fresh outdoor air.
On my quest to find the best extreme sleeps in the country I’d made my way from the southern tip of England right up to the northern reaches of Scotland. I’d slept in caves, empty barns and remote homesteads; I’d bedded down among the wreckage of a Second World War Superfortress bomber and camped in secluded coves only reachable on foot. And, ironically, with each new sleep I was awoken to the fact that in Britain we are blessed with swathes of great wilderness – you just need to know where to look; looking about me now I felt lucky that I did.
Feeling my eyelids grow heavy, I made my way back to my trusty tent. I finished my meal and, with its warmth spreading through my body, I climbed into my sleeping bag. I decided to leave the tent flaps tied open. With no fear of deadly creatures lurking, I could relax while gazing out at the faint outline of the distant mountains, dimly illuminated by the stars. At some point I drifted off, stirring only once to zip up my tent when the wind picked up and specks of rain began to tap the canvas.
When I woke the next morning the fine panorama was concealed by cloud – but that didn’t worry me. As I packed up my things, I remembered the sight that had been mine alone only hours before. Whether drizzle or desert sunshine, slugs or snakes, wild camping has always delivered my most memorable sleeps.
Room with a view? No thanks: give me the view without a room.
Wanderlust editor Phoebe Smith is author of Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camper (Summersdale, £8.99) – out now.