My First Solo Camp Aged 14 And Still Hiking My Own Hike.

As a traditional hiker and, traditionally, a solo hiker for over 30 years I have always hiked my own hike before I even heard of the expression ‘Hike Your Own Hike’. By ‘traditional hiker’ I mean that I have hiked using whatever clothing and gear that I could both afford and carry without putting too much emphasis on its weight and, to a certain extent, its performance. Taking whatever necessary (and arguably unnecessary) equipment and accessories I wanted for my own enjoyment of my hiking and backpacking adventures.  As long as I could hike for a day, a week or sometimes longer then I was content. As a solo hiker I didn’t have anyone to compare my hiking gear with and, whilst I read the occasional outdoor magazine such as TGO and later Trail, I didn’t follow any ‘trends’ or buy equipment based on gear reviewers recommendations (the recommended gear was often out of my price range anyway).  I also didn’t use social networks such as Twitter or Facebook as these are relatively new communication methods and didn’t follow any online blogs relating to the hiking community – until only a few years ago I didn’t even know such blogs existed! I truly was ‘hiking my own hike’.

Pack and Tent very similar to those I used 30 Years ago
(nylon, external frame backpack & heavy cotton tent)

packandtent
My first solo camp was in the summer of 1981 (at the tender age of 14) in a farmers field just outside of Ashbourne in Derbyshire. My mother dropped me off in the town of Ashbourne on a Friday morning and would pick me up at the same place at noon 2 days later on the Sunday – in time for my Sunday dinner! I remember walking out of the town itself and, using an Ordinance Survey map, heading towards a farm indicated on the map. I hadn’t made any pre-arranged plans as to where I would camp – something that I still do (or rather don’t do) to this day. I just headed towards a farm and asked the farmer if I could camp somewhere on his land.  Even now I rarely plan a backpacking adventure; I decide where I want to go and simply head off. To a lot of you this might sound insane and I know my good friend and sometime hiking companion Stuart Greig still struggles to get his head around my lack of trip planning, but it works for me.  Nowadays I do plot a route out using ViewRanger on my smartphone, but I never know how many miles I will walk or where I will pitch my tent from one day to the next.

I pitched my then new cotton ridge style tent with built in plastic groundsheet in a field with a stream running at the bottom and unpacked my nylon sleeping bag, foam sleeping mat and old Coleman camping stove from my bright orange nylon, external frame backpack. I don’t have any photos of my gear from those days, but the photos above (sourced from the internet) show very similar pack and tent to what I had back in 1981. I recall the backpack being very light of itself, but the tent, being made of cotton, was very heavy! I had to buy waterproofing fabric spray to waterproof the tent and if rain did penetrate the single skin shelter then it got very wet inside. And the tent became even heavier to carry when packing away if it hadn’t had time to dry! Of course there were synthetic alternatives back then, but they cost a lot of money and I only had a paper round to fund my camping equipment.

The Model of Coleman Stove I used
(I bought this kind of stove second hand in 1981)

coleman 576 stove
However, I remember the feeling of pure joy as I sat outside my tent making a cup of tea, listening to the summer sounds of nature, watching rabbits bound across the field and thinking how free and unfettered I was. No one to answer to, no school, no paper round (I walked 3 miles every morning 6 days a week and then again after school every afternoon for the princely sum of £5!) and no city noise! (I lived in Nottingham at the time). I knew, in that moment, that solo camping was going to be something of a passion in my life. Yet the concept of backpacking and hiking long distances didn’t even register in my brain at the time; that would come in the following year, but more on that in a future blog post. My plan for this, my first solo adventure, was to be alone in a tent overnight, walk to Alton Towers the next day to meet friends and enjoy the amusement park rides and then walk back to my camp, sleep and be home in time for Sunday dinner 🙂 A grand plan for a 14 year old city boy.

Mum had made me a stew that I could re-heat for my supper, but after setting up my camp and finishing my brew it was still only mid afternoon. I wandered around the the farm and surrounding area for a couple of hours just enjoying the heat of the summer day and exploring the land around me. I didn’t wander far – I was content just bimbling around and feeling overcome with a sense of freedom I hadn’t known before – I could wander at will and stop when I wanted and just BE. As I write this emotions of over 30 years ago come flooding back and they are a vivid reminder of what makes me happiest in life! It’s hard to relay to you the intense and heady mixture of excitement, anticipation and peace I felt at the time – I felt so alive!

Finally returning to my camp I just lay in the sun for a couple of hours or so listening to my small transistor radio. I remember Kim Wilde’s first UK hit ‘Kids in America’ being played and I developed a teenage crush for her at that moment – such memories! Eventually my stomach made its presence known and I set about making a fire to cook my stew on. The farmer had said this was ok and I remember making a fire pit about 6 feet in front of my tent and, using twigs and dry grasses, I soon had a good fire going.

 

Adventure Trail

I have a book called Adventure Trail which was a 14th birthday present and I took this with me. It contains a lot of bush craft skills and is a real ‘Boys Own Adventure’ type book. From how to collect water from dew to fishing with a split rod, from creating a bivy from whatever is in the woods to catching, skinning and cooking a rabbit it remains one of my favourite books and I speculatively eyed the rabbits still bouncing around in the adjacent field. I have caught and cooked a rabbit since then, but I was content with the smells of beef stew emanating from the cook pot currently hanging over my fire pit – another skill learned from the excellent Adventure Trail book. After eating my supper and washing up in the brook at the bottom of the field I fed a few more faggotts to my fire and settled down to read my book in the remaining light, imagining I was in the wilderness in some far away place. Once the light faded I extinguished the embers of the fire and climbed in my roomy tent and settled for a good nights sleep on my first ever solo camp.

 

The route I took to Alton Towers
(or as close as I remember it)

I awoke about 6am the following morning knowing I had a 2-3 hour walk ahead of me to meet up with my friends for a fun day at Alton Towers. I may be enjoying my first solo camp, but I was still a 14 year old lad who loved theme parks and exciting fun rides with my friends 🙂 About 20 minutes after I had awoken the farmer came along with fresh eggs, bacon, sausages and milk – all farm produced and made – for my breakfast. What a treat! There is no better way to set yourself up for a day after camping than eating a full breakfast you have cooked yourself. Thanking the farmer and ensuring I could leave my tent pitched for the day in his field I cooked and ate the delicious breakfast,  washed up and prepared to enjoy a 7 mile walk to meet my friends. I felt life couldn’t get any better. The map above shows the route to Alton as closely as I remember it; I plotted my walk on an Ordinance Survey map at the time and followed that route. Unfortunately I don’t have that map today.

I arrived at about 10.30am and after a fun day I hiked the 7 miles back to my camp. My friends were amazed that I was camping and had walked 7 miles to meet them – they were even more amazed when their parents came to pick them up and realised I was walking 7 miles back too. They were true city kids who rarely walked more than a mile and thought me a bit weird. I liked that! However one of my friends, Richard, subsequently quizzed me about my camping experience and we ended up as real good friends and he was to hike with me the following year on my first long distance walk – The Pennine Way. I will write up that experience in a future post.

I was very tired by the time I got back to my tent at around 8pm. I had walked over 14 miles, spent a fun, yet energetic day with my friends and now all I wanted was a cup of tea and to relax (in those days I didn’t drink coffee which is my preferred camp drink these day). I set the kettle on my Colemans and set about for my last night camping solo. I was lucky with the weather – it had been warm and sunny just as it should be during school summer holidays – and the evening was balmy so I went to bed warm and content. I had an hours walking tomorrow to meet my mother at the prearranged pick up point, but I knew I would wake early to enjoy what has become my favourite time of the day – the tranquillity of early morning in the great outdoors. It was waking up that Sunday morning almost 33 years ago and experiencing the sounds of the natural world waking up with me that has stuck with me the most. Listening to the silence of slumbering Mother Nature and gradually hearing Her wake as I sit outside my tent was, and remains, one of my absolute joys in life. 

These days I camp both solo and with friends and each offers it’s own rewards. I never tire of the pleasure of simply walking in the hills and valleys, through the woods and glens, traversing mountain ridges and ambling along river banks, whether alone or with a sympathetic hiking friend, but the thrill I still experience when pitching my shelter at then end of such a walk can be traced back to my first solo camp back on a farm when I was 14 years old. I never tire of the memory of that magical summer weekend and always look forward to a solo camp with a unique anticipation.

I still don’t follow ‘trends’ when it comes to hiking and backpacking, although I do read gear reviews from certain reviewers whose opinion I have grown to trust over the years. I still don’t worry too much about pack weight – 30 years of carrying heavy loads have given me a certain core strength now – or worry about carrying perceived unnecessary items. If I want to take a mobile phone, a radio, enough battery power to light Blackpool for a week and enough coffee to open a coffee shop in Kendle for a day then I will because they all add to the enjoyment of my hike. Whilst I try and replace worn out gear with lighter and better performing options, I only buy gear when absolutely necessary – I still don’t have much more disposable income than I did when I was 14 🙂  But what I DO do is enjoy my hikes and backpacking adventures because I hike my own hike and enjoy meeting fellow hikers on the trail hiking their own hike too.

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