Wild Camping in England: Sleeping Alone in the Forest
My eyes snapped open when I heard a screech.
Or was it a howl?
I had been asleep beforehand, so couldn’t tell if I had just dreamt it. I waited to find out, staring up at the dark sky, my nervous breath condensing in the air before my face.
Ten seconds later, it called out again.
The second screech came from a different location – it was on the move. Continuing at intervals for another few minutes, this high-pitched, throaty call ended up on the other side of me, opposite to where it first started. I felt like I was being circled. By this point I was sat bolt upright, squinting my eyes to try and catch sight of the mystery creature. I turned my torch on, then quickly off again because I feared the light was giving away my position.
That’s when I started laughing at myself. This isn’t Predator, Emma. Nothing is going to eat you in the middle of the Chisbury Wood in Wiltshire.
It was 1am and I was wild camping – pitching up in the middle of no where – in Wiltshire, southwest England. I say ‘pitching up’… I didn’t have a tent. Instead, I used a bivvy bag (a hooded waterproof covering that goes over your sleeping bag) to make me more inconspicuous. It was a mild, dry night in early March, and the first time I had been wild camping in England – and alone.
At 1.30pm the previous day – 12 hours before the screeching incident – I had thrown my backpack over my shoulder, laced up my hiking boots, and walked out my front door. Aside from my sleeping bag and bivvy, I took only a camping mat, some food and water, a map, very old mobile phone, and my beloved iPod classic. No GPS, no internet connection, and only a handful of people had my phone number. I was unplugged. My goal was to walk as far as my legs would take me, sleep in the wilderness for the night, then walk back home in the morning.
I turned right after stepping out my house, and aimed for my first destination: the neighbouring village of Froxfield, just over three miles away. I had never ventured to these villages, so once over the hill behind my house, I was in undiscovered territory. For the next 18 hours, almost everything was new to me. The first mile or so was along main roads; a few cyclists swept past me and humongous tractors trundled by. The weather was glorious – the first day of spring. A footpath appeared on my right, and happy to get away from passing traffic, I took it and ventured into the forest.
At first, it was an odd sensation – just walking. I felt like a lunatic, and during the course of the day I got a few glances that suggested I looked like one too. But as I was getting used to it, I thought Why? Why does just walking across the countryside make me feel and look crazy? If anything, it’s natural – to roam free on our own two feet. I felt grounded and primal, and settling into the adventure, I relished my unhurried pace.
The first time I interacted with another human being was when I came to a clearing in the forest and onto a public footpath that went through farm land. A man on a ride-on lawn mower with a Jack Russell on his lap whizzed by and gave me a wave. I of course waved back, but I was nervous – although many people wild camp in the UK, it is illegal (apart from in Scotland and Dartmoor National Park) and getting caught was one of my greatest concerns. I had a sleeping mat strapped to the bottom of my backpack – it was obvious I intended to camp somewhere – so I was worried a farmer would question me. But with reassurances from the wild campers I knew – my brother, colleagues, and other avid adventurers – in the back of my mind, I decided not to anticipate a problem that might not even occur.
I pushed on through the forest before the footpath took me across the sides of some fields, where snowdrops lined the edges and inquisitive cows took a break from munching grass to stare at me for a moment. I reached Froxfield after an hour of walking, and stopped in a sunny spot on the side of a graveyard to fuel up on food and water. Consulting the map, I traced my finger along the route I had already taken, and looked to where the footpaths lead out of this village and onto the next – along the canal.
The River Dun – which flows through Wiltshire, alongside Froxfield onto neighbouring villages Little Bedwyn and Great Bedwyn – was alive with activity. Canal boats chuntered along the waterways – I watched two young boys masterfully haul the docks open for their father who was directing their boat through the gates below. Other walkers and their dogs passed by me, and we exchanged chirpy greetings, commenting on the glorious weather. A group of rowdy children paddled two large boats downstream (some a little more reluctantly than others), led by a man who barked instructions at them from his own kayak. I fed off the energy that these scenes and interactions provided as they comforted my solitary adventure.
I reached the village of Great Bedwyn at about 4.30pm, and this was the moment I had been anxious about – finding somewhere to sleep. My plan was to take a look in the forests just outside the village, locate a suitable camping spot, head back into Great Bedwyn to have some dinner at a local pub, and return to where I was sleeping after dark, when no one could see me. Thankfully the execution of this plan went rather seamlessly: Chisbury Wood is a two-minute walk from Great Bedwyn, a quiet, forested area, sheltered from the wind and away from anyone that might pass by. I took the footpath into the woods, then wandered off the track around 200 metres into the forest, finding a dense area that seemed a reasonable amount of deserted – my bedroom for the night.
Dinner was satisfying and rewarding. Regardless of the adventure ahead of me that night, I had just walked for three hours across a part of Wiltshire I had never seen in such detail. I pulled up a chair in the pub, with a pint of cider in front of me, and let my legs get used to being still. I felt the whoosh of blood running through them – the gratifying sensation of vigorous exercise. The skin on my face felt tight, beaten by the wind and sunshine that I’d been walking into all day. On any other occasion, I would be fast asleep after a day like this, but the nerves flitting around my stomach told me I wouldn’t be sleeping soundly that night.
After two pints, a very large dinner, and as many bathroom breaks I could squeeze in before leaving (savouring access to a toilet), I ventured through the now dark streets of Great Bedwyn, to the other side of the village and up the track that led to the forest. I found my sleeping spot, rolled out my mat, got into my sleeping bag, lay down, and listened.
Nothing. Not even the sound of a car in the distance.
Adrenaline was shooting through my body – it was 9pm and I was hours away from sleep.
So what now?
This is why I had bought my iPod along. I hadn’t listened to it at any point during my walk – I like being able to hear the sounds of the countryside – but when you’re lying in a bivvy bag, a little cold, a little tired, a little scared, the sound of an audiobook or podcast in your ear is comforting. Plus, it gives off no light and allows you to stay hidden but entertained.
I listened to three hours of podcasts that night. I hoped I would fall asleep sooner, but as it grew darker and colder, the stretch of time ahead of me before I would get up – about 6 hours – seemed longer and more daunting. This is when I started questioning what I was doing, and I lay there considering how easy it would be to call home and get a lift back to my comfy bed just a 10-minute drive away. Although it was a warmer night than it had been the week before and I had a sleeping bag designed for sub-zero conditions, I was shivering slightly. I tightened up the hood on my bivvy so that only a small part of my face was exposed, but that made me feel claustrophobic, which didn’t help with the anxiety rattling around in my head. I felt alone and vulnerable, and tried to concentrate to get myself to sleep – which as we all know, doesn’t work.
Regardless of these emotions, I still didn’t want to go home. Not even when the unknown beasts of the forest began to stir did I want to pack up and leave. And in the back of my mind, below the self-doubt, fear, and the cold that was seeping closer to my bones, I felt exhilarated and accomplished, and revelled in every extra minute I stayed in the forest.
Having travelled for three years alone, I’ve gotten quite used to overcoming travel’s obstacles – safety, material and personal, being by myself in a new city, not knowing the local language – and find myself no longer afraid of many of them. This first wild camp was a thrill I had never experienced, a challenge unlike any I had faced in a long time. It was the next level of adventure; another achievement on a list of things I never thought I’d be able to do. Pushing myself further forward to see how much I can accomplish has become something of an addiction for me, so despite this feeling difficult and overwhelming at times, I refused to give up because I felt I needed to find a new way of travelling and experiencing my surroundings. Wild camping gets you as close to them as you could possibly get, and in these few hours I had found one of my most sensational adventures to date – eight miles away from home.
After finally getting a few hours of disjointed sleep, I got up at 5.45am when the sun was just starting to rise. I packed up and walked out of the forest, onto the hills, and watched the sky turn different shades of orange, pink, and purple. A plane tore through the light blue and left a trail of cloud behind it, a streak that the sun turned pink as it began to appear. I enjoyed the still and calm for a few moments, leaving my worry back in the depths of the forests.
I walked back through the woods, north towards home. A few deer lolloped around the trees, and a symphony of birds began to put on their show – a far more pleasant experience compared to the sounds I heard in the middle of the night. I came out of the forest and back onto footpaths through villages and fields, and as the sun rose it lay a hazy blanket of its rays hanging in the air, lifting my spirits. I had never known the middle of the countryside at this hour, now around 7.30am.
The walk home was hard because I was tired and stiff from the previous day, but the thought of a cup of tea at the other end helped push me along. I was taking a different route back, but after about two hours of walking I met with a path I recognised – I was about half an hour away from home. A little flurry of excitement brewed inside of me as I realised I was close to finishing what I set out to achieve. I may have only been a handful of hours ago that I was walking in the other direction along this path, but in terms of what I had experienced, learnt, and challenged myself with over that short time, it may as well have been months or years.
I got to the bottom of the hill behind my village, onto a path I’ve taken dozens of times, and rounded the corner onto the street my house is on. I had managed to impeccably time my arrival at the strike of 9am, and when I was just a few metres from home, the church bells began to ring. I laughed at this absurd coincidence, but enjoyed the fanfare it created for the end of my adventure. I reached the front door with a little sigh of relief, but also a tiny pang of sadness that it was all over. Tapping the mud off my boots, I stepped inside, threw my backpack on the floor in the hallway, and went to put the kettle on.
Have you ever been wild camping?
Would your ever want to go?