When I was a youth, going cycle touring was a much easier affair than it is now. There was little in the way of choice for both cycling and camping. If you wanted to go away you took what you had and you went. If you got into trouble in a far flung place you had to dig yourself out again. That was all part of the joy and experience of travelling, even within the UK. Nobody worried about being away or being somewhere there was no phone signal because there was no signal anywhere. When you left home you were unattainable to the rest of the world unless you chose to make contact.
I still remember the excitement I felt when my parents bought me a UK map book. It wasn’t one of the flimsy kind that we would today happily tear the pages out of, it was a properly bound book. At three miles to the inch it was also about as detailed as you might ever need when cycling and I quickly found myself turning the pages, looking for those sections where the terrain turned brown in colour, signifying the higher and wilder ground in the UK. More importantly, it meant they now trusted me to go out into the greater world solo.
I was naturally drawn to the places where there were less people and more space. I have no understanding as to why that was as. All I knew at that time was that I would always head of away from home and into the country because that’s where I felt happiest and the emptier it was, the happier I felt. Whether it’s mountains or flatland open spaces soothe my soul, allowing me to breathe and relax in a way I never can elsewhere.
A real eye opener for me was my first truly wild camping experience. I had started rock climbing when I was sixteen and by the grand old age of seventeen was ready to go anywhere and climb anything. Although I had spent many years camping with family and the scouts I had never used paraffin or petrol stoves and had never actually set off into the hills with no intention of returning for a few days.
My friend and mentor, Graham, wanted to go away for Easter. We both had time and decided to make a trip to the Lake District as the weather forecast was so good. We had to carry all our camping equipment, rock climbing gear and food for four days. In those days there was little in the way of ultralight camping equipment, the tent alone weighed 8kg and our climbing kit weighed a tonne relative to what you can buy today. All I remember was that we arrived at Wasdale Head at midnight and decided to walk up Scafell via the infamous Brown Tongue, a path that wanders up a particularly steep flank of the hill.
Hillwalking by headtorch with a towering pack weighing in the region of 35-40 Kg was a new thing for me. I loved the freedom of mountain walking at night, even though I felt as though I was being slowly crushed by the weight of my rucksack. We arrived below Scafell Craig at around 3.30 A.M and decided to make camp there. Getting there had been an absolute flog and I can’t imagine repeating it now. Despite our tiredness we pitched our tent at Hollow Stones, took a few hours sleep before waking excitedly and hitting the crag. It was a pristine blue day and completing four fantastic climbs the first day made all the effort worthwhile.
My ever lasting memory of this trip was watching people disappear in the evening whilst sitting on a ledge halfway up the crag staring out to Wastwater and beyond. I was mesmerised by our situation. As those leaving spent a couple of hours packing up and walking down we could spend that time climbing more routes. We repeated this for several days completing everything we were capable of climbing in one swoop and taking a walk into the bargain.
Once we arrived back at our tent we would eat, sleep and be halfway back up another classic climb as we watched people flogging back up in the morning. In between climbing I just sucked up the peace and quiet and the sense of belonging I felt as the area emptied of people. This was something I had never previously experienced and something that drives me back to the mountains to this day.
Whatever your equipment levels, you can still go and explore. All that matters is that you are inquisitive enough to leave your home behind. Even the world around your house seems different when you walk or cycle. You connect to our planet in a way you never can do in a motor vehicle and you will find that people open to you if you’re are alone on a bicycle.
All too often people think they need high quality equipment to go out safely and explore. It’s true that you may require some of this if you intend, as we did, to explore mountain ranges and be self-sufficient, but any tent will do for a first cycling foray on a well-chosen weekend. If you know the limits of your equipment you can go anywhere safely as safety tends to be about what you do and not what you have with you.
I know people who have travelled across Europe with nothing more than a cheap tent from Tesco. They know its limits and when it gets extreme they bail out to somewhere that has a roof and a bed. I met another chap who spent a whole winter camping around the UK. His tent was a double skinned pop-up festival tent. When it really threw it down he would place a tarp over the top of it for extra protection.
Winter is a great time to think about what you might do next spring. It gives you time to explore possibilities and to prepare yourself. When I suffered my breakdown, everything changed for me. I lost the confidence to go out in the world and feel safe. My journey to this day is to try and rebuild that as far as is possible within the boundaries that I now have to live. Winter planning and thinking has been a large part of my recovery to this point.
I first left home in April 2010 on a folding bike with a folding trailer as I thought I might need to get home quickly in the event of panic setting in. I created a route that never took me too far from home, but instead went around in a circle. The route was a big challenge at the time and was the first step toward everything that has followed.
I spent time on the internet browsing campsites where I might stop and booked one for my first night that was well within my expected range. In doing that I removed a great deal of doubt from proceedings. I also knew where I would shop for food on that first day. I left the second day looser, although I knew where I was heading and that there would be opportunities to buy food.
In doing that I extended my experience and confidence a little at a time. I took a comfortable (3.5kg) tent and a gas cooker that has since died. My sleeping bag weighed a tonne and my waterproofs were hardly breathable or waterproof, the jacket having cost £15 from a discount shop and my trousers being the ones I wore on my motorcycle during summer showers.
Another aspect of touring that people often worry about is not being fit enough to ride far from home. I would say that it doesn’t matter how far from home you range at all. I enjoy camping at Orchard Café, just fourteen miles from home, almost as much as I enjoy time on Scotland’s west coast. Getting away is always a treat when the sun shines and heading off to local campsites can be a great motivator to better things. Cyclists can be obsessed with distance, average speed, height gain and such like. You don’t have to be. It’s entirely your choice. As you gain experience and confidence you will go further.
That first cycle tour I mentioned was a trip around Dartmoor (This pre-dated the Dartmoor Way by some years and I made up my own route). I remember it to this day and can now smile fondly at how much kit I carted around on those early tours. I was uncertain at the time, found it hard to leave home without panicking and had several times run out of shops as I couldn’t stand being amongst so many people. Luckily for me I had pre-booked my overnight accommodation, something that left me feeling like I had made a contract with myself to go. No excuses and kit packed ready and waiting, I set off feeling more like I was going on a ‘round the world’ trip than down the road.
As long as you are realistic in where you go on your early sorties you will soon find out what’s best for you. Make allowances if your health is not at its best and don’t expect too much, especially on successive days. For me, just being away from home was a huge thing. Doing it for three nights (I had planned to be away for two) was a bonus and a sign that I could still be flexible in my thinking. Adding a night boosted my confidence whereas taking a night off would have almost certainly felt like failure.
Another thing to consider is whether to travel solo or with others. I enjoy both but when I’m traveling distance I prefer to do so alone. I find it easier to meet and engage with other people when I’m solo and it allows me a flexibility that I could never have if I had to consider another person. Simple things like making decisions, where to head for and how far to ride can become complex when a group of riders is involved. People see your vulnerability when you travel alone and I feel they are much more likely to engage you in conversation when you are solo.
Of course the opposite is true to some extent. When you travel with another person any problems are halved (hopefully). You can share in those magical moments that are impossible to describe to others who weren’t present when it occurred and life can seem easier as you divide everything including cooking and pitching tents.
I have ridden motorcycles all my adult life and prior to cycling I would head off to the mountains, camping alone. On one such trip to Scotland I met another chap travelling solo. Paul and I hit it off immediately when he started laughing at how wet I was when I arrived at the campsite. This was followed quickly by his offering me a cup of tea while I put my tent up. We joined forces for the rest of the trip and completed another tour of Scotland the following year along with many happy weekends away between. It’s pot luck with other people and until you have been through something stressful together you never know how they might react, regardless of how long you’ve known them.
Paul and I always took our own tents and having spent all day together we would separate out after cooking dinner for some much needed solitude. We never had a cross word and had many laughs along the way. I’m not sure this would have worked had we been sharing a tent. In my experience of sharing tents on climbing trips it requires great understanding, give and take and a willingness to make it work. If you have even the slightest doubt, take your own tent.
So, what are the barriers to your leaving? I think you have to be honest here. If you are honest with yourself the world will be your oyster but if you’re not it will come back and bite you firmly on your bottom. You can practise all the skills you need when camping without leaving home. In doing this you remove another level of uncertainty prior to leaving. And that’s why it helps? By the time you go away, you are only dealing with the leaving and not everything else it entails.
If you do go away I can guarantee that the first starry night you spend in a tent will be remembered forever. With a little forethought it can be for all the right reasons.
Until next time…………………………