How to winter bivvy on a budget

The last two years i’ve enjoyed going on campouts throughout the winter. In the UK this rarely gets too extreme (sub-zero temps are rare) but it is undoubtedly a very different undertaking for someone who has only tried a summer microadventure.

frosty leaf

The obvious answer to this is to pony up and invest in some decent winter kit. A three or four season sleeping bag and maybe an arctic puffa jacket. The trouble is a decent down sleeping bag will set you back several hundred pounds at least. One of the things i truly love about microadventures are that they are pretty inclusive and expressly don’t require a major financial outlay. What to do then?

I have some thoughts on how to stay cozy on those cold cold nights without breaking the bank. I’ve assumed here that someone owns at least a bivvy bag, a sleeping mat and a summer sleeping bag.

Sleeping bag solutions
Ok, so a 1-2 season bag isn’t going to cut it in the winter months. How about buying (or borrowing) a second 1-2 season bag and put one inside the other? Decathlon (one of my favourite shops) do a 2 season synthetic bag for £30.

If you don’t quite want to lay out for (or have to store) another sleeping bag but need a bit ‘extra’, how about a sleeping bag liner. Silk is ideal but expensive so why not try a micro fleece for £15?

Boxhill awesome Campout

Sleeping mats
Some kind of insulating mat is a good idea even in summer months but on frozen ground it’s a good idea to double up (or is that down?). Foam roll mats are relatively cheap but if you want to maximise your ‘bang for your buck’ try something like this aluminium backed roll from Amazon for only £5.70.

Insulating yourself from the ground will make a huge difference in winter.

Hot water bottle
A few pounds will buy yourself a hot waterbottle that you can fill from a stove just before bed. It won’t last all night but it will start you off toasty. You can also get some chemical heaters that may make a useful contribution.

Shorne Woods Country Park

Pack on the layers
I’ve heard quite a few times how not wearing much to bed somehow makes you warmer. The basic laws of thermodynamics refute this i think. In a frosty situation wear many layers, even your coat if you have to. In the morning you can get up and move around to stay warm.

Get some extra socks to go over your normal socks. If you have a spare jumper or coat, put it down the bottom of your bag to keep those toes toasty.

WEAR A WOOLLY HAT, a scarf (or a buff) and some light gloves if need be. If you have a hoody pull it up. The neck and head areas lose a lot of heat otherwise.

Don’t breathe in your sleeping bag
I realise that this is a tough one but try to keep at least your mouth and nose exposed to the air. One of the enemies of warmth is being wet and breathing inside your sleeping bag may keep it damp.

You’ll need the BIG rucksack
Quite a few of the tips i’ve suggested here will add considerable bulk to your microadventure kit – 2 sleeping bags, 2 roll mats, extra clothes, a stove etc.

There is an old trope – light/small, effective, cheap – pick two. In this case i’m suggesting we go for effective and cheap.

Good luck microadventurers! If you have any of your own tips, let me know. 

Boxhill awesome Campout

Microadventure: Bath Skyline

I’m lucky in that my job occasionally takes me around the country (and sometimes even abroad). So when I had a speaking engagement booked in Bristol it was obvious to see if I could squeeze in a #microadventure.

Bath microadventure

My adventure friend Emma is lucky enough to live in Bath (conveniently close to Bristol) and was kind enough to scout a few locations for us. By the time I arrived though, lady luck did initially look a bit against us. It was raining steadily and all the pubs were completely full due to the Bath vs Bristol Rugby match. After a swift half and a gastro pub dinner (we are classy microadventurers!) we were on our way climbing up the steep atmospheric streets of Bath.

Bath microadventure

I like to think that I’m not overly superstitious but when crossing a field our head torches caught what seemed like a thousand devil eyed creatures charging towards us. Don’t panic, it wasn’t devils, it was cows but they were definitely running our way which is worrying enough. I did my usual tactic when confronted by cows which is to stand my ground and wait for them to stop. They stopped. Big sigh of relief all round.

Bath microadventure

We made the skyline and were able to find a mostly convenient spot away from the path with some trees to rig a tarp. At least by now the rain had stopped and there were even a few stars about. As well as a shelter the (camouflaged) tarp also made us very tricky to spot. The night was cold but it was dry and I was warm enough in my sleeping bag plus a few more layers.

Bath microadventure

The morning was bitter cold but a warming cup of coffee and a bit of malt loaf did the trick of reviving us enough to get going.

16 campouts in 2016
Instead of just coffee I had been tempted to bring some booze as this was my 16th campout of the year and the target that I set myself in January. In just over a year I’ve gone from someone who had never slept outdoors without at least a tent to what feels like a microadventure veteran.

The question did arise as to what I should do next year – 17 challenges in 2017. Some early thoughts:

What was definitely a wonderful bit of luck was the amazing sunrise over a frosty field that welcomed our walk back into Bath. About five minutes after this it started raining. Every gorgeous sunrise just fills my heart with joy and makes it sing.

Bath microadventure

Bath microadventure

Bath microadventure

Bath microadventure

A fantastic night out to complete this challenge. I’m sure i’ll be doing more campouts but I’m sure I won’t be keeping score from now on.

A huge thanks to Emma who was such a great adventure companion!

Tour de Turret – The plan

A couple of months ago I did a 2-day cycle (and campout) to Ditchling Beacon and back with the awesome Fiona Quinn. It was something that i’d not done before and the total of 110 miles felt like quite an achievement for me. But of course, when you break through one barrier, you need to line up the next one.

One bike, four days – where to go?
At the end of my two day trip I was very very tired and the prospect of doing another day on top seemed pretty daunting. So obviously I’ve set myself the goal of doing a four day cycle this time. It scares the hell out of me and there is a real jeopardy of not finishing. However, it is this very fear that will make  this trip worthwhile. Please let this statement be true!

With my current levels of bike fitness (just infrequent commuting into town) I didn’t want to push my mileage too much. I figure, therefore, that 50 miles a day is challenging but doable. The next question is where to go to and from? I very much like the idea of cycling home so if London is the destination where is 200 miles away? My answer is Nottingham!

A Theme?
Very much inspired by the wonderful adventure themes of Helen Proudfoot (Ham sandwich, Wellington Boot and Sauce to sauce) I was keen to do or visit something memorable. I am quite happy to be gimmicky!

I like a bit of history and in particular I quite like to visit castles. Call it a weakness if you like. So if I started in Nottingham, how many castles can I visit on the way? The answer is less than I imagined (most castles are in ‘trouble’ border areas or the coast). If I dodge about the midlands and squeeze in Windsor it looks like I can get in eleven castles. It also helps if I extend my definition to include folly’s, fakes, towers, fortified farms and in Nottingham’s case just being on the site of an iconic castle. The goal is therefore:

Nottingham Castle
Elvaston Castle
Ashby de la Zouche Castle
Tamworth Castle
Maxstoke Castle
Kenilworth Castle
Warwick Castle
Broughton Castle
Boarstall Tower
Windsor castle
Tower of London

I wanted a cool name to go with this trip (obvs). My ideas included ‘Battlement bike-ride’ and ‘Crenelation cycle’. It took the wonderful Helen to come up with ‘Tour de Turret’ which I think we can all agree is the winner!

I’ve booked a train up to Nottingham and given myself four clear days to cycle back to London. It’s now or never. Here goes.


Microadventure: Happy Valley

This is almost pure microadventuring for me: arrive late and leave very early. It was a campout organised by Laura M on behalf of the YesTribe. I put the kids to bed and by the time i got in the south croydon area that ‘happy valley’ is in it was already dark.

Happy valley camp

From the bus stop I had to make my way down some dark paths, through a remote car park (please god let this not be dogging night) and finally into the valley itself. For some reason I thought it would be fun to try and not use a torch (there was a little moonlight). Fifteen minutes of stumbling later I found the spot we’d agreed on but where was everyone? Was that a feint light of a head-torch through the trees? I crept through (ahem, crashed through) the undergrowth till I found my buddies. I was ‘home’.

We sat round in almost a circle, ate cake, biscuits and crisps and told a few stories by torchlight. I love this!

It had rained earlier so the ground was a bit damp and teeming with beetles and other creepy crawlies. In the night I was viciously mauled by a couple of slugs. By which I mean they crawled (or fell) on me and i picked them off.

Campout at dawn

We got up, packed up and were on our way more or less at first light. And what wonderful light!

Sunrise on one side, noon on the other. Perfect.

Fab morning after a lovely campout in Happy Valley

The walk back to Coulsden station over Farthing down was fantastic. This makes it all worthwhile.

This was my 13th campout as part of my #16in16  project. Not many to go now….

Microadventure: Hadleigh Castle 2016

Nearly (but not quite) a year since my first ever bivvy under the stars I found myself back at the wonderful Hadleigh Castle with a mostly new bunch of YesTribers.

Hadleigh Castle 2016

It is amazing how much has changed in the last year. I certainly remember how nervous I was last time, both of meeting a new set of people but also of sleeping out, exposed to the elements and to potential ne’er-do-wells. Now I feel a relatively seasoned microadventurer or at least experienced enough to be giving advice, lending gear and, of course, leading my own campouts.

#microadventure in a castle!

It was a nice change though to not be leading this one and I could take it easy a bit and just enjoy it. The weather looked quite threatening for most of the evening but apart from a few drops we were pretty lucky and it stayed dry.

Hadleigh Castle 2016

Hadleigh Castle 2016

Hadleigh Castle 2016

I even managed to meet up with my friend Sophia, who lives in Leigh over a wonderful breakfast.

Love this place and I’m sure i’ll be coming back again soon. This was my 12th campout of the year as part of my #16in16 project. Only four to go!

Microadventure: SUP the River Cam

It is good every now and again to try something new. If it also scares you a bit all the better right? Well on that slightly iffy principle I signed up to have a go at Stand Up Paddle-boarding (SUP). The sensible thing would have been to have had a few lessons and then planned an adventure. I skipped phase one of that plan and went straight for an expedition.

SUP the Cam

My friend Fiona had already completed the first two parts of her ‘Cam Triathlon’ project (walk and cycle the River Cam) and the SUP was the third and final leg. It was all a bit of a major faff on the logistics side but Fiona managed to organise the hire of some boards and was kind enough to give me a lift there too.

SUP the Cam

So there I was, without any training and only some useful hints from my friends, pushing the board out into the river and I was away. I have to confess that it all felt fairly wobbly and unstable and I was well out of my comfort zone. I did what I often do in these situations and do my best to fake confidence and competence as best I can. Not sure it particularly worked but you have to try!

SUP the Cam

We ambled along on a gorgeous day with loads of people out by the riverbank enjoying the sunshine and opportunity to swim, punt or kayak. I found going at a gentle pace on a calm river to be fairly ok. The excitement levels rose the nearer to Cambridge we got as the number of boats became quite an issue. It was a lot like dodgems and in its own way, quite exciting! So exciting that at one point I fell in. I can’t even blame anyone else, I just lost my balance. If you are going to get a soaking I do recommend that it is on a really hot day when it feels quite refreshing.

SUP the Cam

After we were through Cambridge it dawned on me that we’d really not gone that far and we needed to get down to some hard paddling! This is where I found that pootling along was fun but clocking up the miles was distinctly tougher. I never really got the hang of going in much of a straight line, it was essentially veer one way for a few strokes, change hands on the paddle and veer back again.

We were in the very interesting position of having more people than boards so when we got to the 10 mile mark I was a bit relieved to have someone take over my board for the last bit.

SUP the Cam

Tired but very happy we bivvy’d by the river in the grounds of a pub. This was my 11th campout of 2016 as part of my #16in16 project.

Clearly it was a bit ambitious to sign up to two days of paddle boarding with absolutely no experience or any training. I am a bit disappointed with myself, however, that I didn’t push it a bit more though. On the positive side, I did manage to paddle ten miles which can’t be too bad?

Would I try Stand-up Paddleboarding again? Probably, though it would be good to get some actual lessons on technique. On balance (literally) I think I’m a lot more in favour of kayaking. It seems more efficient and stable a way to travel on water. Time will tell.

SUP the Cam

Microadventure: London to Ditchling Beacon Cycle (and Campout)

When I was twenty years old, after only a little bit of training, I took part in the BHF London to Brighton cycle ride. It was a great experience but the thing that has stuck with me is that I walked, rather than cycled, up the majority of Ditchling Beacon. I vowed that one day I’d return for a re-match and defeat my nemesis! This was that day. Would I make it or would it be another defeat?

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

London to Sutton
With only a week’s notice I asked on Facebook if anyone wanted to join me in my mad-cap scheme to cycle to Ditchling plus climb the beacon and then overnight bivvy there. Luckily for me the (Cam triathlete) Fiona joined me for the cycle and (walking superstar) Astrid planned to meet us there for the campout.

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

I set off from Sydenham in beautiful sunshine worrying that I might get sunburnt. About half an hour into my cycle the heaven’s opened and it torrentially rained. I stubbornly kept my sunglasses on. Fiona and I had agreed to meet in Sutton as the nearest place between us. We even shot a little video:

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

Sutton to Crawley
The sunshine and showers routine was something that continued for most of the afternoon. At least it was clear and bright when we had lunch and also when we found this delightful lavender field.

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

The miles rolled by and we crossed the M25 and I was feeling pretty good. it was here that my lack of route preparation started to come in to play. I naively just expected that we could follow Google maps bike route to our destination. Bad call. What I had sort of known before but hadn’t thought about is that Google maps takes you down any path and bridleway it sees. This could be fun if we A) Had mountain bikes, B) Had all the time in the world. We had neither.

The real kicker was when I got pretty much lost in the suburbs of Crawley with Google maps directing us down little hidden alleyways. It was very frustrating! This was, therefore, the absolute perfect time to also get a puncture. Especially as I’d not packed a spare tube (always carry a spare tube folks!). I did have a puncture repair kit but very little experience of actually using one. Luckily Fiona (my hero) was brilliantly patient, both with the navigation and my panic over the burst tire. My first field repair held! Go us!

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

My knees were looking even less pretty than normal after dealing with the wheel. We eventually did get out of Crawley.

Crawley to Ditchling
From here on we at least managed to not get lost any more plus the sun was out and the rain all gone. Tiredness, however, was starting to creep in and climbing the many rolling hills was getting a bit tough now. We did revive ourselves a bit with some enormous gourmet burgers (and a shandy for me) at a pub before finishing the final 12 miles.

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

We passed this wonderful viaduct and made our way through Haywards Heath, the last significant town of the day. It was getting late by now and it seemed odd seeing lots of folk out drinking and enjoying themselves on a Saturday night while we toiled on our bikes.

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

My original aim was to get to the beacon and watch the sun go down, however, our various delays meant I got this ‘sundowner’ en route.

Coming up to the beacon itself I had to decide if I was going to ‘go for it’ or not. My legs were a tiny bit sore and my lower back actually quite painful but I thought I had to at least try. This was a dragon I really wanted to slay.

The beacon looms menacingly from quite a ways out and seems impossible from the bottom but as you climb, the summit is never in view so there is no way to gauge the end. I just kept chugging along, knowing it would be quite painful and there was at least one occasion when I thought I would have to walk. I’m so pleased I didn’t.

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

Going round that final bend and seeing the South Downs Way sign I could have cried with joy! I had done it. Finally. This was a story over 23 years in the making and now it was over. I honestly haven’t been this pleased with myself in a very long time and it feels really good.

An Awesome Campout
At the top of the beacon we met up with Astrid, who was out training for some more ultra walking events (she had walked 30 miles that day). After some hugs, whoops (from me) and smiles we set up our bivvy stuff. There seemed a chance of rain so we rigged some bashers up too. Astrid came good with a pole and some pegs and best of all some beer (what a legend).

This is what it’s all about, sharing a wonderfully fulfilling day with some friends with a view and a beer. There was even some fireworks on the horizon although I suspect it may not have been celebrating our ride.

Tired but happy we went to sleep. I was woken at 0430 by the most amazing sunrise and felt blessed to be here.

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

After a quick brew and a couple of hot cross buns we packed up and went our separate ways. Fiona had picked up a bit of a knee injury and understandably didn’t want to risk it getting worse. Astrid had another long training day to do and i thought I’d try and cycle home. We seem pretty darn happy:

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

This was also campout number 10 in my #16in16 project!

Ditchling to Home
I set off at 0700, starting with a fast freewheel back down the road i’d laboured up so painfully the night before. The sun was bright and it was good to have the wind in my face.

I feel that I’d learned a few lessons from yesterday with regard to route planning and this time I did some way points rather than the whole route.The first major one was Turner’s Hill in which I stopped for a breather and some refreshment courtesy of the convenience store. My second breakfast consisted of a pint of milk, a carton of coconut milk and a snickers. I take nutrition seriously! What I didn’t get was any water as I assumed i’d be able to pick some up on the way. A foolish schoolboy error that was.

London to Ditchling cycle (and camp out)

Carrying on, I skirted East Grinstead and then hit the most direct way home – the A22. This is not a great cycling road in that the cars had to pull out to overtake me and I know I held a few of them up as several hooted me and one nice man called me a c**t. What I did do was make good time.

Broken by Marden Park
I was getting very tired now and more than anything, my back was killing me and I found I was stopping every 5 miles or so just to have a stretch. What almost finished me off though was when Google maps took me off the A22 near Woldingham and sent me up to Marden Park. This, it turned out, was up an incredibly steep hill, one I thought was much harder than Ditchling and one I certainly didn’t finish cycling up. I felt a little defeated by having to push after my ‘heroics’ yesterday. I feel better about it now.

The Finish
After the north downs were done it was mostly downhill or flat and I kind of coasted home. I was a tiny bit sunburnt, a tiny bit saddle sore, my back was killing me but I felt like a million bucks. The cycle from Ditchling had only taken me 5 hours which seemed pretty quick.

Cycling for two days straight, 60 odd miles the first day and 50 or so the second is a huge accomplishment for me. I can’t say that I feel very able to do a third day of 50 miles but this has still given me a lot of confidence. I’d like to do a 4-5 day cycle later in the summer and this actually feels pretty doable now.

When you smash through one barrier, you line up the next one!