Wild Camping in the Cairngorms

I did it!

I actually didn’t know that I had a hankering to wild camp until I came across Life Coach Shona MacPherson’s Instagram feed.  I found her by chance through someone else I was following and somehow the name @walkwildcoach intrigued me.  (I’ve been interested, though I only play about at the edges, for a long time in what is sometimes called Human Rewilding; natural movement rather than ‘exercise’, connecting with the seasons, barefooting, foraging, making traditional remedies etc.  I highly recommend Glennie Kindred’s beautiful book ‘Letting in the Wild Edges‘ if you would like to explore that further.).

So I followed @walkwildcoach for a while, checked out the website and at some point saw that Shona, with Mountain Leader Simon Greaves of Cairngorm Treks, takes small groups of women into the hills for 3 day treks.  Hmmm, now you’ve got me interested!  I like small groups and I’ve generally found women-only groups to be really supportive.  I liked that these treks are aimed at people who wouldn’t be confident to do it by themselves.  And for some reason, I REALLY liked the idea of camping in the wild – no facilities and all!

A few days before the treks, Shona sets up a private Facebook group for the trekkers.  This was lovely because it felt like we broke the ice before we actually met in person on the day of the trek.  The maximum number for the trek is 6 but we were only 3 in our group.  That didn’t stop us chatting away the evening before we left, getting to know each other and sharing our anxieties about the trip.  Two of us were newbies but the third had trekked with Simon and Shona before, and that in itself was reassuring.  Coming back for more is always a good sign!

We met up in Aviemore on a wet Friday morning, with the drama of Mountain Rescue crews and helicopters searching for climbers who had been missing overnight on Braeriach!  Fortunately they were found and taken safely off the hill.  Cairngorm Treks supply all the equipment needed for the trek, so the first thing we did was transfer our spare clothing into their rucksacks which already contained our tents, sleeping bags and food.  All we had to bring was our own boots, clothes and waterproofs.  The rucksacks looked intimidatingly heavy, but once on our backs with everything adjusted to fit us and spread the load, they were absolutely fine to carry.  I had set off with a pretty sore lower back but the rucksack seemed to act like a supportive corset and it was actually less sore by the end than it was at the beginning – who’d have thought?

We walked about 6-8 miles each day, and as I had chosen the low level trek it was undulating rather than hilly and pretty easy going.  As we walked we naturally fell into conversation with whoever was nearest and I really enjoyed my conversations with everyone.  Walking and talking always seems to lead to deeper conversations than sitting over a coffee, I find!  Simon was very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the area too which was so interesting.  I ate a juniper berry for the first time – tasty but astringent, so one was enough – but none of us were confident to pick the chanterelles, of which there were many.   Now that’s something I’d like to learn ….!  Simon also coached one of the group who wanted to improve her navigation skills and had her working out at each juncture which direction we needed to take next, which must have been very helpful.

We camped both nights by streams so that we had water to drink and use to rehydrate our meals.  It was easy to get chilly once we stopped but we quickly learned to get all our warmest gear on straight away.  We got our tents up with a lot of help from Simon, and his knowledge of how to orientate the tent so that it wouldn’t get too much buffeting inspired a lot of confidence – we had a very calm night the first night, but wind and rain the second.  I didn’t sleep very well either night but I have to say that I tend not to sleep well in a strange bed anyway.  I certainly wasn’t uncomfortable (blow-up thermal sleeping mat) or cold (lightweight, thermal sleeping bag) and in fact I think two of the highlights of my trip were tent related – on the first night, I sneaked out to pee around 2am and was rewarded with one of those incredible starscapes that you only see on a really clear night with not much moon and no light pollution; and on the second morning, because I was pitched at the edge of the site, I unzipped the tent to a bright morning view of nothing but heather and hills as far as the eye could see – took my breath away!

The food was tasty and plentiful – hot, milky cereals in the morning; snack bars, sweets and a big bag of nuts and raisins (with a few added M&Ms) for topping up; homemade sandwiches for lunch; and cuppa soups and rehydrated meal bags for evening.  All accompanied by tea, coffee or hot chocolate.  Simon carried a tiny stove for heating the water, and a windbreak that we could all huddle under.  I think we all found sitting on the ground more uncomfortable than sleeping on it, which makes me think that I need to sit on the ground more!

Shona did a life coaching session with us as a group each day, as well as walking with each of us individually when we could either just chat or use the opportunity to get a different perspective on whatever was causing us to feel stuck in our lives.  In the group sessions we were given something to think about, a visualisation or meditation, and time to journal – so no need to bare our souls to each other which I know can be off-putting for some (I think we probably did a fair bit of that anyway as we walked and talked!)  The session I particularly enjoyed, and benefited from, involved working through a process to identify our values and then being guided through a visualisation to meet and question our future selves who are truly living those values.   Shona says on her website ‘the combination of holding self limiting beliefs & lacking clarity on what we want, holds us back from living our best life’ and this exercise was really helpful in giving me that clarity and showing me the direction I want to be travelling.  I’ve met a few life coaches in my time – when I was working as an Aromatherapist, we’d often find ourselves at the same ‘wellbeing days’ – and up until now, I’d never met one that I would have considered working with.  Shona, however, is so clearly walking her talk, and her approach is so supportive and enabling, that I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending her.  She’s based in Inverness, but with Skype these days distance is no object.

So I’ve left till last the bit that made all my friends and family say ‘nah, couldn’t do that!’ – the lack of washing and toilet facilities.  It wasn’t overly warm when we were away – autumn is definitely coming in – and we weren’t walking up steep hills so I didn’t feel hot and sweaty and was quite happy with wet wipes instead of a wash for a couple of days.  If it had been warm, I would have been up for washing in a stream.  Once I got over the embarrassment factor of having to ‘go’ outside, it wasn’t bad at all apart from the second campsite which was very open and exposed.  Hard to find a spot where you weren’t visible from either the camp or the path, and I really didn’t want to be caught out by one of the many Duke of Edinburgh groups who were in the hills that day!

Would I do it again?  You betcha!  It’s made me want to get back out walking in the hills, even if that’s just day tripping rather than camping, but as I said at the start it was the wild camping that attracted me to the trek and it didn’t disappoint.  Simon provided the very best of lightweight gear and made it a great experience.

That was a long post this week, so thank you for sticking with it to the end!  Getting out in nature, moving our bodies and enjoying the company of others are all so important for our health and longevity – this was a truly wonderful way to do it.