That’s what my newly made friend Jayne Thompson told me as we ploughed through a muddy forest on bikes, the wind in our hair and puddles beneath our feet.
As we cycled, those words stuck with me. Because for the first time on one of my adventures, I didn’t have any idea where we were going or where our bed for the night would be.
We were wild camping – the act of sleeping somewhere untouched and rural, without toilets, showers or indeed a fee, which is technically illegal. However, it is mostly tolerated as long as you leave no trace, don’t light any open fires and aren’t really seen. It was my first-time experiencing this form of exploring, and the place I had chosen was perfectly suited to the task: the New Forest National park. Remote, beautiful and positively wild.
The idea of going wild camping popped into my head after seeing numerous posts from other outdoor enthusiasts in adventure Facebook groups. It just seemed so simple. Grab a tent or bivvy bag, make your way to somewhere wild and pick your own camping spot, (normally with some pretty rewarding views) all for free.
So I decided to do it. I posted on Facebook for advice and asked if anyone wanted to come with me, which is where I met Jayne. I ordered a tent, told my mortified mother, and later that week we were off.
Seems simple, right? Well on paper it was, but in reality it didn’t quite feel like that.
A couple of days before I started to get nervous. Everyone I told about my trip was looking at me as if I was crazy. ‘Why would you want to do that?’ ‘It’s not even the right time of year for camping!’ ‘Where are you going to sleep?’
I didn’t know, and their reactions were starting to put me off. They were making me doubt myself and my reasons for doing it, which is when I realised that wild camping, although growing in popularity, is still a relatively misunderstood concept. I wanted to go so I could feel a connection with nature, for some solitude and peace. I will admit as the date drew nearer doubts did manage to burrow their way into my mind a bit, especially when I was sat on the train, biting my lip and wondering what the hell I was actually doing, but I managed to be brave and ignore them.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to put yourself first and go.
Of course, as well as being nervous another feeling that coursed through my veins was excitement. Adrenaline. I was going on an adventure! I was going to be sleeping under the stars!
I got off of the train at Beaulieu Road station and met Jayne who I soon discovered was lovely as I imagined, and we cycled off from there. We had decided to make a day of it and go on a ride before we camped, which was not only fun but a great way of exhausting ourselves so we’d sleep well later.
Once out there, we didn’t follow a map, we just went whichever way we fancied, which felt great.
I struggled a bit to keep up with Jayne as I’ve only got a road bike, and we decided to leave the boring tarmac and instead ride along mud ridden trails and grass pathways, which was a bit of a struggle for my thin tyres. But I managed it, and it was all part of the challenge.
After a couple of hours, and unfortunate thing happened. The weather forecast defied what it’d told me earlier and it started to rain, which was a bit of a problem because I didn’t have my waterproof with me as I couldn’t find it, and I suddenly, those earlier doubts returned and felt quite silly and unprepared.
Getting wet meant getting cold, and the rain soon soaked into my skin. As we headed back towards Beaulieu along the road my legs were aching and I was starting to feel more and more anxious. Getting these clothes wet meant very little attire left for the night ahead, as I didn’t have room in my bag for much. However, once again nature put a fresh smile on my face.
Perhaps the best rainbow I’d ever seen appeared behind us, so huge that I couldn’t fit it all in one photograph.
Spurred on by the rainbow and the blue skies ahead of us, we cycled the rest of the way back in no time and stopped off at a pub to dry off and get a sandwich.
By that time it was getting dark so we left to find somewhere to camp, which may have been the most exciting bit of all as we had the whole forest to choose from! After a little cycle, we stumbled across an absolutely perfect looking tree a couple of hundred yards from the trail, with thick branches for cover and a fantastic circle of green beneath it.
We set up camp quickly and Jayne got out her stove so we could cook some soup before bed. It was only 7pm but by then the stars were already out and we both stood and marvelled at them for a while. I was shivering a little and I could see my breath coming out in clouds in front of me, but when your view is an unpolluted blanket of starry night sky I can tell you, you don’t care.
I got into my tent and Jayne got into her bivvy and we chatted for a few hours until we felt tired enough to sleep. It was then that I discovered my second problem of the trip.
My roll mat was broken, leaking so much air there was barely any point blowing it up. This meant that I was forced to sleep on the freezing ground (it was 2 degrees) instead of a layer of air, and I was really surprised at the huge difference that made. Every time I would feel myself start to drift off to sleep a shiver would run down my spine and I’d realise, ah, the mat’s flat again.
This did lead to a very uncomfortable and cold night’s sleep (I resulted in folding the mat in half at one point but still to little avail), which was a shame, but it by no means ruined it, and I know for next time to buy a proper durable roll mat to keep me off the ground.
That said, being awake did mean I heard a fair few animals: birds, geese, owls, and a large bark/growl that sounded as if it belonged to something big. I googled it and perhaps it was a wild boar or a just a regular pig, but whatever it was it gave me a bloody fright!
At about 7am, just when it felt like I’d finally got cosy and had stopped shivering; it was time to wake up and see the sunrise, and oh boy, I’m glad Jayne persuaded me to get out of bed so I didn’t miss it.
It was beautiful. The most stunning sight I’ve seen in a long time. Frost glistened on the ground beneath us, birds sung and chirped. It may sound cliche, but in that moment that view really did make everything worth it.
We sat for a while and had some tea and porridge for breakfast, the view just stunning. With the fresh air in our lungs and sun on our faces. One thought kept running through my mind. This is it. This is feeling alive. Isn’t that what we live for?
After breakfast, we sat and procrastinated packing up and leaving. Shortly after that a dog walker nearly caught me going to the toilet and I had to dash behind a bush! So after that we did finally pack up and get going, which I understand is common courtesy anyway with wild camping: you arrive late and leave early so you’re not seen by passers-by.
After a short ride back to the train station we parted ways and our adventure was over, but I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat. Just those few hours of peace and that connection with nature were worth the nervousness and the cold. I think times like that are really valuable for everyone, but especially people like me who live in a built up, fast-paced areas where you can rarely switch off and find some peace. I needed that.
For next time, a few things I’d do differently is: buy a new roll mat for a start, but also find some gear that packs down small. The less weight the better, and one of the reasons I was cold was because I couldn’t fit as many clothes as I’d have liked into my bag.
So, coming back to what Jayne said: ‘You can’t get lost if you don’t have a destination.’ I would agree wholeheartedly. Being prepared, yet not knowing and not overplanning this adventure was half of the fun. We never would have found that beautiful tree and the peace that came with it if we’d booked into a campsite for the night.
If you’ve been thinking about going wild camping but haven’t quite made the leap yet, go. In my humble experience, it won’t all be perfect, but it’ll probably be pretty damn good.