There lives and there leaps in me
A love of the lowly things of earth,
And a passion to be free.
To pitch my tent with no prosy plan,
To range and to change at will,
To mock at the mastership of man,
To seek Adventure’s thrill,
Carefree to be, as a bird that sings,
To go my own sweet way.
– Robert Service
Whenever I told people that I slept rough, they were horrified by the dangers. Wild animals, psychopaths, lumpy ground, and a lack of showers and toilets all come up as reasons to book into a hotel. Even people happy to camp wild at home baulk at the thought of it in far-flung lands.
Whenever I ride with new companions, I see their hesitation in choosing a shelter for the night. Perhaps there is some vestige of animal instinct that urges caution when we are asleep and defenceless. Perhaps our imaginations conjure spectres of monsters and murderers. The first time I camped alone, behind a hedge in a muddy field near Calais, I read The Times, ate a Pot Noodle and jumped at the slightest gust of wind or cracking twig.
But familiarity had bred contentment, and I began mastering the arts of wild camping. I came to love sleeping rough and free, and I never tired of it, though it was often hard work and stressful.￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
Sometimes I miss the simplicity of turning a key in a lock and opening the door to a safe home, warm and dry, with a shower, a table and chair, a light to read by, a fridge full of food, running water, and a comfortable bed waiting.
Every time I camp it is in a place I have never been before. I have to search for a site and set up the camp. Every day there is an element of risk. Should I stop early to savour a beautiful campsite, or squeeze out as many miles as possible? If I am close to a town, should I hold steady for the night before I reach it, or push on past it before stopping? Is the town small enough to pass before darkness? Are there likely to be safe hiding spots on the other side, or should I take what I can find now? Do I have chores to do in the town in the morning, or do I want to get past it and maximise tomorrow’s distance, unhindered by negotiating a new city? Is this area safe enough to camp wherever I feel like, or must I hide, or even wait for the cover of darkness before camping? How remote is the land? Will I be discovered here? Do I need to hide under a bridge or in a forest? Should I ask permission to camp? It’s always safer and more interesting, but do I have the energy tonight to explain my life to strangers yet again? Do I have the strength to ride fast until darkness or would I rather loaf early with a book, popcorn and a cup of tea? Do I have enough food and water to stop for the night?
I set myself daily targets, choosing a time, a distance or a hilltop that has to be gained before I allow myself to begin scouting for a campsite. I am an expert now at seeking out a place to sleep, weighing up the variables in split seconds as I ride along, knowing that a comfortable, safe, un-detected sleep depends on a good decision. I look for places out of sight of people and buildings and the road, and away from dogs that pick up my scent and bark all night.
I look for good cover: hills, dead ground, trees, hedges or walls. I look for flat land, grassy or sandy and free of thorns. Running water is an irresistible luxury for the chance to swim and wash. I look for paths or tracks that lead away from the road and noisy traffic.
Some nights are paradise. Others are no more than a safe place to lay my head for a few hours like a fugitive. Between the rows in a cornfield, a steep hillside, a ditch, under a motorway bridge, a rubbish dump, a drainage pipe, a central reservation and an abandoned building all offer refuge.
Upon spotting a potential campsite I have to decide in a moment whether to brake and check it out, or to continue in the hope of finding something better. If I stop, I leave the bike and walk to check out the site. If it is OK, I then wait for there to be no vehicles passing, so that I am completely unseen.
Then I wheel the bike from the road and into my hide-out. Finally I lie down and relax. Another day is done.
This is an extract from my book Moods of Future Joys.