Wild Camping – The Essentials

Wild Camping – The Essentials

If you have never wild camped before then please don’t go and spend a fortune on buying everything in this list. You might find that you absolutely hate it, or like me you might fall in love with sleeping outside. I love the outdoors, have been wild camping for the last 25 years and collecting great bits of kit along the way. And I could still spend a small fortune on new improved lightweight gadgets. With outdoor kit, you do get what you pay for, however, some brands are just ridiculously expensive for no apparent reason other than the name. Others are cheap and cheerful, but there are plenty of middle ground options who do reasonably priced gear that will last. I am a massive fan of Decathlon, they do great clothing and equipment at great prices, especially now that we go adventuring as a family, it’s just not one set of kit we need but 4!

Ask around, you will find you have friends and family you can borrow stuff from, I still do this, and happily repay the favour when friends ask me if they can borrow any of my kit.

So, here we go, the absolute essentials for wild camping:

1. Tent or bivvy bag.

When wild camping you are not always going to find the perfect piece of flat ground, the smaller the tent the greater your chances of finding the best spot. If you are camping with a friend or group of friends, then sharing the weight of a two-man tent is always a good way to go. There is almost too much choice when it comes to tents. I have a very light weight 1 ½ man tent which I use for mountain marathons and backpacking, there is no room to sit up straight in it, and if I am sharing it with a friend then things can get very cosy. You must take in turns to do everything, one person always has to be lying down, or sitting cramped out of the way, while the other is getting dressed. Great when the weather is good as you can do everything outside, but more interesting when it’s peeing down. I also have a two-man backpacking tent, it is still fairly lightweight when carried between two people, and you can sit up properly in it instead hunched over.

The most lightweight option is a bivvy bag, essentially a water proof cover, shaped like a sleeping bag, in which you put your sleeping bag and mat, and it keeps everything dry. Bivvy bags are great when it is dry, in bad weather it is advisable to also carry a small tarp (waterproof sheet that you erect over the bivvy bag) for a bit of extra protection. If midgies are out in force, unless you do up the draw cord really well, you could have a very miserable night!

It’s all about comfort verses weight, remember, you have to carry everything with you.

Very lightweight 1 1/2 man race tent on left and more comfortable 2-man backpacking tent on right.

2. Sleeping bag

To help you choose which sleeping bag, you firstly need to decide when you will be using it. Do you want a bag that you can use all year round, or do you just want one for summer hill walking use? One important thing to always remember with a sleeping bag, is that wearing lots of clothes once in your bag will not necessarily help to keep you warm. Your body heat is what is used to warm up the tiny air pockets within your sleeping bag, and ultimately what then keeps you warm. If you wear lots of clothes, your body heat struggles to get through all the layers to the air pockets and therefore not warm them up.

Sleeping bags are made according to a particular season:

  • Season 1: Ideal for UK lowland summer conditions or travelling in warmer climates.
  • Season 2: Normal summer conditions but barely adequate in the hills.
  • Season 3: Ideal for most hill walking in the UK from April – October.
  • Season 4: Winter conditions.

The temperature rating of a bag will also help you. This is displayed as a set of three temperatures on the label, as shown in the picture:


  • Red: Comfort Temp – this is the temperature at which a ‘standard’ adult woman can expect to have a comfortable night’s sleep.
  • Orange: Limit Temp – this is the temperature at which a ‘standard’ adult male can expect to have a comfortable night’s sleep in a curled position.
  • Blue: Extreme Temp – this is a survival only rating for a ‘standard’ adult woman. At this temperature there is a serious risk of hypothermia and other temperature related ailments such as frostbite.

Note: on average women feel the cold more than men, hence adult woman and adult man above.

The next question is whether you go for a down or synthetic sleeping bag? The differences are:

a. Down:

  • Pros – Brilliant at retaining heat, lightweight, compresses well.
  • Cons – Lose their insulating properties when wet, take a long time to dry out, expensive.

b. Synthetic:

  • Pros – When wet perform better than down bags, quicker to dry, cheaper.
  • Cons – Do not retain heat like down, bulkier and heavier than down.

A couple of other things to look for when buying a bag: a good hood with a draw cord, a neck baffle* and a zip baffle, all of which help to keep the warmth in and cold out. It might seem like a bit of a minefield, but if you know the sort of temperatures you will be sleeping outside in, and how much you want to spend, then you can’t really go wrong.

* a baffle is a extra tube/flap of insulation that prevents heat from escaping.

3. Sleeping mat

A sleeping mat is essential to help keep you warm, it acts as an insulating layer between you and the cold ground. It will also give you some comfort for your bony bits. There are three types of sleeping mat:

a. Foam pad: These basic pads are made of dense foam, filled with tiny closed air cells. They are either rolled up or folded in a Z formation.

  • Pros: They’re lightweight, inexpensive, durable and offer good insulation. You don’t need to worry about punctures or leaks. They can be carried on the outside of your pack without fear of damage. They can also double as sit pads in camp.
  • Cons: They are less comfortable. They don’t compress so tend to be bulky.

b. Air pad: A pad which you inflate with your breath.

  • Pros: Comfortable, lightweight and the most compact type of pad when packed.
  • Cons: More expensive. They can be punctured or ripped, but can be easily repaired.

c. Self-inflating pads: a combination of open-cell foam insulation and air. You open the valve and the pad inflates automatically due to the foam inside.

  • Pros: Comfortable, compact and give excellent insulation. Made with stronger fabrics than many air pads so are a good choice for children.
  • Cons: Heavier and more expensive than simple foam pads, not as compact as air pads. They can be punctured or ripped, again easy to repair.

4. Head Torch

Whoever invented a torch that you could wear on your head, therefore giving you the use of both your arms was a genius. Again, the choice is massive, you can pay anything from £5 to over £100. What you are looking for is brightness or lumens (lm). Head torches vary from 20lm right up to 1000lm. So…….how many lumens do you need to be able to see around the camp? 80 – 100lm will be absolutely fine, but if you want to be able to see whilst walking in the dark, then you are looking for more like 160 – 200lm. Remember, always take spare batteries!

5. Clothing

I will always go for layers, this way you can put on or take off clothes depending on the activity. I can get very warm whilst walking, particularly when going uphill. I therefore prefer to wear less when moving, but once stopped I can cool down very quickly, especially if I have patches of sweat from working hard. It is important to put layers on once you have stopped to prevent you from getting cold. Materials to think about: cotton takes a long time to dry and will make you cold if wet. Wicking fabrics, take moisture away from your skin and rapidly evaporate that moisture. Merino wool is excellent, synthetics tops often get smelly very quickly, but merino, wicks, keeps you warm and somehow never (well rarely ever) gets smelly.

a. What to wear:

  • Comfortable long-sleeved top – base layer.
  • Comfortable trousers – no jeans – EVER!!!
  • Just one pair of socks.
  • Walking boots or walking shoes.

b. What to carry:

  • Spare warm layer/fleece/down jacket – mid layer.
  • Waterproof jacket and trousers – outer layer.
  • Hat & gloves, plus a buff if you have one, this is a fantastic, versatile bit of kit.
  • Spare pants & socks….although for one night you can sometimes make do without.

6. Toiletries: For one night I would take a small pack a baby wipes, toothbrush and tooth paste & personal sanitary items.

7. Food: It depends how long you are going for, where you are travelling to and the options for buying food. For a one-night wild camping trip you will need the minimum of an evening meal and breakfast, plus hot drinks. There are no hard and fast rules, you can opt to not cook, take cheese and oatcakes for dinner and a cereal bar for breakfast. This is not something I would ever do as I love a hot brew, plus cooking, for me, is all part of the adventure. De-hydrated food these days are actually pretty good, if a little expensive, but if you want to go light, and avoid washing up then these are a great option. If you don’t mind a little extra weight, then go gourmet, I have been known to take the ingredients for a veggie thai curry on an overnight trip. It really is up to you.

thai curry
One pot thai curry

8. Cooking equipment: stove, pans and a spork (spoon and a fork in one!), lighter or matches.

9. Water: 1 litre water bottle is plenty, there is always lots of water about in Scotland where you can refill your bottle. When picking a wild camping spot, access to nearby water is very important.

10. Rubbish bag: ‘Leave No Trace’, the first rule of wild camping, or in fact being in the outdoors full stop, if you take it in, you carry it out.

11. Backpack: Finally, you need something to carry everything in. You will find that you will fill whatever size backpack you have. Go as small as possible so that you are not tempted to add the kitchen sink!

Fine example of woolly hat, head torch and sleeping mat (orange)…however, not so fine an example of lighting a candle in tent, that is a tent crime – but it was my birthday.

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