Wildest dreams

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We head into the forest with Scout Adventurer and wild camping expert Phoebe Smith, to learn why getting a good night’s sleep should be your next big adventure 

Words: Hannah Ralph | Illustrations: Shreya Gupta

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,’ toils Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ‘Chief nourisher in life’s feast.’   

As it turns out, a good snooze was just as important back in 1601 as it is now, but somehow we’re getting less sleep than ever before – and the nourishment, when it comes, isn’t lasting long. Swap your bed for a sleeping bag and, suddenly, things start to sound a whole lot trickier. 

And while camping remains for many one of life’s most nostalgic, detoxifying pleasures, we’ve all been there: teeth chatteringly cold, canvas beating against midnight winds… Yet, for those who get it right, there’s no greater joy than sleeping beneath the stars. Surrounded by nothing but pines, your alarm clock genteel birdsong, wild camping is a powerful addiction for those who’ve known its charms. That’s how, to fully understand these not-so-snoozy thrills, I found myself tucking up with one of wild camping’s staunchest advocates, and all-round adventure guru, Phoebe Smith – your new Scout Adventurer.

‘You won’t fall out, I promise,’ Phoebe assures me, pulling each side of the hammock up into a caterpillar’s cocoon. I, on the other hand, was certain that falling out of this hammock was my destiny, slipping and sliding under the silk sleeping bag liner as punishment for its lavishness. 

But, like with everything Phoebe puts her mind to, success was on the horizon, and it lasted all the way until 6am, when the tweeting birds nudged me awake to the sight of an ethereal, fog-slicked forest, and one teeny, tawny rabbit, hopping out of sight.

‘It’s all so natural,’ Phoebe mused the previous night, as we fried doughy bread over the Kelly Kettle. ‘First you’re rocked to sleep by the breeze, then you wake up to the sunrise. It’s about disconnecting – leaving social media, emails and deadlines behind – and reconnecting with the natural world. It’s about remembering that the best things in life aren’t things at all.’

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The science of sleep

A recent study at the University of Geneva showed rocking to sleep not only meant a shorter time drifting off, but a deeper sleep. Now, you could buy a specifically designed ‘rocking bed’ – popular ones will set you back £2,000 – or, you could sling up your hammock for a fraction of the price.

Meanwhile, at the University of Colorado, physiology professor Kenneth Wright has proven that sleeping outside is an easy way to regain your body’s natural circadian rhythm (the sleep/wake cycle that works best for your body). This is largely due to the lack of tech, as fluorescent screen lighting continues to wreak havoc on body clocks.

The campers in the experiment, quickly in touch with the natural cycle of the sun, demonstrated newly balanced sleep cycles, fewer cases of the ‘morning grumpies’ (a scientific term, if you’d believe it), increased melatonin levels (the king of sleep hormones) and an overall more restful sleep. So, what are you waiting for?

Well, a few guiding principles may help. Luckily, Phoebe’s 12+ years of wild camping in just about every hidden corner of the UK (not to mention the books she’s written on the subject), means there’s no one better clued up. ‘Pitch late and leave early is the big one, but there are lots of tips to make sure you’re warm, safe and following the rules while wild camping.’ The first? Phoebe’s favourite: enjoy not endure. ‘You have to have kit confidence, but then it’s about the little bonuses – like my extra-warm, down-filled sleeping bag and inflatable pillow. I like both to get a really good night’s sleep outdoors.’

Next up: the recce. ‘For your first few wild camps, go somewhere you know well. And visit in the daytime, because everything looks so different in the dark.’ Last but not least: don’t underestimate the niceties. ‘I spoke to a girl once who said she’d had an awful wild camp experience. Turns out, she’d only packed a salad. Wild camping is the time for hot chocolates and bowlfuls of hot food. And just because you’re outdoors doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a hot water bottle. It’s probably my biggest essential.’

Just before bed, Phoebe fills a Sigg bottle with boiling water from our little stove, pops it in a sock, and hands it to me. It’s deliciously warm. ‘In the morning,’ she says with a grin, ‘we can use that water for breakfast.’

 

Back to basics

But what if, unlike my instant-snooze in Phoebe’s expertly strung hammock, you just can’t doze off? Naturopath and author of Sleep: The Secrets of Slumber, Lisa Varadi, says the worst thing you can do is wallow. ‘Whatever you do, don’t lie back and accept fate, spending the night tossing and turning and thinking. Get up, move around, have a snack – foods high in tryptophan (like pumpkin seeds and almonds) will encourage melatonin production in the body. Temperature, too, is important to sleep, with 16C–22C being the optimum heat for those deeper stages. Take a sleeping bag designed for lower temperatures than the ones you’re sleeping in, and curl up – a fetal position means your body has less contact with the ground.’

Suspended in Phoebe’s hammock, marvelling at the nothingness beneath me and faintly exhausted from the day I’d long since forgotten, something clicked. That peculiar thrill. The feeling that I’d taken on the frenetic pace of the outside world, and won. I’d come into nature a tired office worker, and it was sending me back a re-energised spirit, my batteries buzzing. Which is exactly what Phoebe knew would happen. ‘Doing this, you appreciate everything so much more. You have to source your own water, wait for it to boil, find your head torch. Then suddenly, you’re back in your own home where you flick a switch, and it’s light. You turn on the tap, and it’s hot.’ Out here, she says, we had absolutely no choice but to slow down. 

Turning this little patch of earth into a discreet home with nothing but the kit on our backs and our wits to hand, I noticed something else, too, was up for the taking: confidence. ‘Sleeping wild makes you so much more confident as a person,’ Phoebe admits, ‘especially if you do it alone. The more I’ve pushed my wild camping, the more successful I’ve become in my life as a professional writer and adventure journalist. It gives you the skills to feel like you can do anything.’

After all, wasn’t ‘To sleep: perchance to dream’ one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines? So dream big, wild campers: the great outdoors isn’t here to snatch your eight-hours’ kip, it’s here to make them count.

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Phoebe’s wild camping hotspots

 

Dartmoor, England

‘Beautiful and safe, I love a remote area called Erme Plains, home to the world’s longest stone row, at the end of which is a circle of stones called “The Dancers”. Legend says a few local girls skipped church on a Sunday to come here and dance,
and were turned into stone.’

 

Snowdonia, Wales

‘Snowdonia is a real favourite of mine. I would go to the Carneddau mountains – usually ignored in favour of Snowdon or the Glyders. There’s a wonderful bothy just by Llyn Dulyn (Black Lake). The unwritten rule is, there’s always room in the bothy, but you could always just camp outside.’

 

Sandwood Bay, Scotland

‘I have a soft spot for Sandwood Bay, a beach sleep in the far north of Scotland. It’s a 5k walk from the carpark, so it’s always empty,
and has gorgeous golden sands.’

 

Wild camping is legal in Scotland if you follow the ‘leave-no-trace’ code, but illegal in most of England and Wales. On private property, you need the landowner’s permission. Learn more here. 

Make sure you don’t forget to pack the home comforts when you go camping. Tasty treats, bowls of steaming food and hot water bottles can all help to make the experience more relaxing and aid a good night’s sleep.

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