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Winter camping

Take A Sleep On The Wild Side

It can be unglamorous, bitterly cold and it’s certainly not for everyone – but once you’ve caught the winter camping bug nothing else will do, says Cool Camping’s Andrew Day.

“Apart from being paralysed and blind, yes I’m fine”, bemoans Liam with a can of Vimto pressed against his bloated ankle. I pour another whiskey, peering out at the hallucinatory blurs, which solidify for an instant into late-evening kayakers, before vanishing once more into the fading light. As the sun sinks behind distant fells, we receive a reminder of the regions violent mood swings. Clouds gather in seconds and a driving snowstorm has us clambering for shelter and extra layers. I ducked under my frosted tent flap and into my thick sleeping bag, before falling asleep to the ‘eep-eep-eep’ of a Red Kite, skimming the gentle lake below us. This is not, it’s fair to say, the sort of soundtrack or scenery one experiences when visiting an official campsite.

Wild camping – out on the hills, away from organised campsites – is technically illegal almost everywhere in England, unless you have special permission. So I would like to deny any suggestion that, in the company of my best pal Liam, set out from the Lanthwaite Wood National Trust car park and onto the surrounding snowcapped peaks of Crummock Water for a first-hand taste of camping's edgiest subculture.

This all began with an argument. During a bar queue, I had unwittingly struck up a conversation with a hairy Canadian, who, much to his friends pleasure had established me as a “slightly uglier version of James Blunt”. In typical Anglo-bashing fashion he began listing all the reasons why Canada was better than my England. He served up Toronto’s CN Tower, I knocked it back with Big Ben. When he delivered Stanley Park, I could easily return with Hyde Park. But when he brought up The Rockies, I found myself at something of an impasse. “Well, yes, they are beautiful…” was all I could muster, sounding more like James Blunt with every passing second. Sensing weakness, he finished me off with Niagara Falls. Game, set and match.

Fast-forward three weeks and we had arrived in The Lake District, England’s most hyped scenic area. “You realise it’s forecast minus five tonight - minimum." His expression was one of utter confusion. Carrying a 12-pack of Hula Hoops and sheep now weaving between his legs, Liam wasn't used to being exposed to the elements. The outbreak of nightfall usually meant heading home for a microwave Lasagna and a hot bath. Not tonight. As dusk began to bruise the afternoon sky, we trudged across boggy farmland, packs weighing down our backs, and headed towards the dramatic rocky buttress of Grasmoor.

As our climb began, adrenalin started to spike the stomach. There is something wonderfully unnerving about heading skyward, away from civilization at the onset of evening. The Cumbrian mountains were now obscured by eye-level clouds and the sparks of villages below resembled embers of a campfire. Liam had to take my word for all this. He had left his glasses on the counter of an M6 service station, rendering him practically blind. As we stopped to rehydrate, the haunting hoots of tawny owls echoed across the water; night was closing in.

Choosing a good campsite is all-important. Look for the most uninhabited places on the map – don’t expect to get away with pitching near the shores of Ullswater. An earlier ‘map recce’ revealed a contender at Grassmoor’s summit: a flat patch that required some serious scrambling to reach. As the walking became tougher, far tougher, our legs turn to jelly as boots squelch through heavy mud and up rocky steps. “Jeezy peeps; 175 per bag!” I turned round and did a double take. We're in one of England's most isolated corners but Liam seems more taken by Hula Hoops calorie count. Our eventual arrival confirmed the uphill effort was worthwhile. Crummock Water shimmered in the early evening sun, silver flashing across its mystical black depths.

Time to put the tents up. I say tents, mine was; Liam erected his tarpaulin and two-stick combination whilst applying a generous amount of ‘Cocoa Butter Lip Balm.’ “You won’t be laughing with chapped lips”, he warned. I couldn’t help but think if Liam can survive a night in the wild, anyone can. Then came the brews. Hot tea is always therapeutic, but up a cold mountain with lactic acid surging through your calf muscles, it is truly divine. We threw on our hats and gloves as the constellations began to appear, taking turns to stir the bubbling tomato soup. Whilst serving tea I heard an almighty wail. Poor Liam - on a spoon search - had tripped over my guy rope, falling awkwardly on his ankle. With only whiskey to ease the pain, we sat beneath Cumbria’s star peppered ceiling, sipping a heart-warming bottle of single malt.

I awoke the next morning, slightly heavy of head and lying cross-legged - perhaps too much soup and whiskey the night before. Bladder dutifully drained, I rustle up some porridge and we enjoy breakfast with a full 360-degree panorama: Fleetwith Pike, Green Gable, Scafell Pike and Great End all revealed. The contrast between the russet coloured bracken and Crummock Water, now just a tiny turquoise dot, was breathtaking. Blinking away the image of a hot shower, I turn my attention to matters in hand - getting my partially-sighted, hobbling friend back down a mountain.

By the time we returned to the absolute madness of London, I had become infatuated with wild camping – a kind of addictive, high-adrenaline sport. But it was more than just an overnight buzz I was searching for. I wanted to prove to both myself, and that hairy Canadian, that the landscapes available right here in England could rival anything found elsewhere in the world. That although this is only a small island, there are still wild places far away from crowds, just waiting for intrepid travellers to discover.

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