How sleeping solo in the outdoors means I get the best night’s sleep…
By Phoebe Smith
I always set off at dusk. When the sun hangs low on the horizon and the sky fills with a muted pink glow. On my way in I pass other walkers, those heading back from the hills or trails towards their cars and the comforts of their warm houses. Yet I have all I need on my back.
Sometimes a hiker will nod or smile at me, then double take as I pass them, wondering where I am going and what I’m doing at the hour most of us associate with ‘going home’. They seem to want to ask – ‘why are you going out, when you should be going in?’. Yet, they have it the wrong way round because, to me, I am going in, while they are going out.
As I walk I hear the crunch of my walking boots as my feet step on the little stones that coat the pathway. I look around as I go, hunting for the place I will spend the night. Here in the UK, what I like to do is known as ‘wild camping’, that is sleeping in the great outdoors away from an official campsite. I won’t enjoy the convenience of hot running water in a shower block, or the comfort of a bench and campfire pit, but what I will escape – the payoff for losing modern conveniences – is the confines of a designated pitch, the chatter and small talk of noisy neighbours and the hum of generators from motorhomes.
This isn’t the kind of trip I plan days and weeks in advance. In fact, often I don’t even know I’m going to go for a wild sleep until a few hours (or sometimes even a few minutes) before I leave. A number of things can trigger it – be it a stressful day in the office, the promise of a clear night sky, or little more than a stirring deep in my belly that, for some reason – one that I can’t necessarily explain – I just have to go.
Once out there I pick the landscape where I want to be – a hilltop, under a rocky overhang or snuggled down beneath an old oak tree. I always take a good camping mat, a warm sleeping bag and an inflatable pillow – @@‘enjoy not endure’ has long been my motto@@ – and, if the weather looks good, I also try to forgo the tent, choosing instead a bivvy bag (a waterproof sack that covers your sleeping bag).
I’m always lead by my gut feeling when choosing nature’s own mattress. Sometimes I find it quickly – the ideal spot presents itself as though lit by a sparkling spotlight. Other times it takes a while of hunting. But when I do find it I set about transforming my little patch of wilderness into my outdoor bedroom – unfurling my mat, shaking up my sleeping bag so the feathers inside it loft and fill the baffles. Then, using my stove, I boil some water and make a warm drink to clasp between my hands as I take in my surrounds and begin to feel the stresses and worries melt away.
Relaxing starts slowly at first. Gradually I feel my breathing begin to deepen and slow. Then, one by one, my muscles start to unclench. My shoulders, hunched over from hours staring at a computer screen, slowly begin to drop. My head feels lighter somehow and I feel myself beginning to smile.
Next I begin to notice things – a tiny bird flitting between the tree branches above me; the wind sweeping across the grass causing it to sway and flatten in concentric shapes; the clouds scudding over the hills ahead.
Then come the sounds, be it the buzz of an insect, the tap-tap of a woodpecker or the subtle soothing swish of the leaves rustling as a squirrel leaps in the treetops.
My nose fills with the earthy scent of the dirt beneath my feet, the smell so good I can practically taste it. My neck tickles with the gentle touch of an evening’s breeze. I stay very still.
Soon I am no longer an observer of this world, but have actually become part of it. More wildlife begins to emerge, unconcerned by my presence, and the whole scene plays out around me while I simply sit and watch. @@The deadlines and concerns of the office and my daily 9-5 grind are replaced by the wonder and fascination of this other world that exists outside of the confines of four walls.@@ Conversations with colleagues and the sound of keyboard clatter are replaced with the hoot of an owl and the gentle crunch of a hedgehog in the undergrowth.
I snuggle down into my sleeping bag and drink it all in. I am thirsty for it, starved of it until this point. As the light fades and the stars begin to pinprick the sky, I feel primal again. Away from the unnatural tungsten strip lighting, my eyes begin to feel heavy. And, almost without noticing, I fall into a peaceful night’s sleep…
The birds are normally the first cue that it’s time to rise. The calls of the night-hunters are replaced by the tuneful whistles of the morning chorus. First one begins – chirping a hopeful ditty, and then another joins, then another, until this, my perfect bedroom – still and silent just a few minutes earlier – builds to a symphony of sounds.
I stir. Creeping daylight entices me to open my eyes. I rise and sit surveying the scene. My bivvy bag is coated with a film of morning dew, cool and refreshing under my fingertips. I know it’s nearly time for me to leave, but I don't rush. I take my time rolling up my mat and repacking my bag, eager to soak up every minute I spend out here.
When I’m ready, I begin to walk away, always taking a minute to look back at where I was asleep merely minutes earlier. @@It may only have been a few hours I spent there, nestled in the wild, but I feel as though something inside me has been re-set, refreshed.@@ I am ready to return to my busy life, to the pressures and stress of meetings, emails and social media, because I know that when I next need a proper sleep, the outdoors will always be here, waiting for me.
About the Author
Phoebe Smith is an adventurer, author, presenter, and filmmaker. She has written seven books including Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camper.