The door to the snug opened and two huge rucksacks entered the room. I’d had ten seconds notice of the new arrivals so it was the two young men, rather than me, who were surprised to find they had company. They seemed friendly enough, and weren’t wielding axes, so I was happy to stay in the nice warm snug sipping whisky rather than looking for a comfy spot for my bivi bag in the forest.
University friends, who now met up in remote places for New Year, they were expecting two more friends and a dog to arrive shortly. One of the guys was local and I was soon emptying his head of knowledge of huge fords, absent paths and woman-eating bogs in preparation for the morning.
Their friends were due to arrive shortly after nine but, with no phone signal and with no way of contacting them, we were metaphorically thrown back in time to the days when people either turned up or didn’t and you had no way of finding out why until afterwards. Shortly after 10 pm, deciding that their friends and dog must be spending the night in the car on a forest track, the two lads decided to turn in. With hindsight I find this quite funny. 10 pm really isn’t late – especially on New Year’s Eve – but in a forest bothy in the middle of winter it feels like the middle of the night.
We’d all been tucked up in bed for about 15 minutes when we saw more lights outside. The wanderers arrived and had no idea that anyone may have thought they were late or had gone missing. I think they were slightly disappointed that, instead of the promise of a remote and wild (in the positive sense) New Year party, they found a room full of dozing bodies hissing comments about keeping the door shut to keep the heat in.
Stella the dog seemed slightly puzzled by the experience. This was her first bothy night and it was plain that she couldn’t recall if we’d met before but, being a friendly hound, she soon adjusted to the bothy mentality and got on well with everyone. I’m not sure if anyone stayed up to welcome in the New Year but I was well away by 11 pm. January was going to arrive whether I was awake or not.
It was raining in the morning when I went for a brief wander into the trees. The weather forecast had predicted a wet and windy day which was a shame as this was the night I had to camp unless I could stumble across an unlocked building I could kip in. My plans had changed several times when I’d realised that public transport times would limit the amount of daylight I had on day 1 and would force me to walk to Llandrindod Wells to catch a train on my final day. I’d not really done the maths and now, sitting here with aching legs and sore feet, I realise I could have made different choices to reduce the distances and remove some road-walking.
One of my bothy-mates had suggested a route which avoided the fords and which – if still passable through the forest – would soon put me on one of the forestry tracks. Thankfully, the route was relatively clear and I was soon on a hard track. In TGO Challenge terms I was already considering my Foul Weather Alternative. The cloud was low, the drizzle was persistent and yesterday’s bog-snorkeling adventures had put me off straying from the beaten path. Anyway, I had a few miles of track to cover before I had to reach a decision about going off-road.
I didn’t take many photos. In fact, I only took one all day as I didn’t want to get my camera wet. The views were nicely bleak and I’d definitely like to come back here on a day when it isn’t raining.
Very conscious of a) how far I had to walk in total, today and tomorrow, to catch my train and b) just how much every part of my body was aching, I decided to stick to the roads and tracks rather than going cross-country. I’m unfit at the moment and, as well as the 15kg I was carrying on my back, I seem to be carrying an extra 3kg round my waist. I really don’t know where it comes from but it probably has something to do with a simple ratio of calories in to calories out. Pah!
All day long, I had a mildly anxious feeling about the night’s camp. I hadn’t brought a tent but, instead, had brought my new Alpkit Rig 7 tarp and my bivi bag. I’d looked at loads of photos on the internet and had practised in the back garden but I’d never made a proper weather-proof shelter for real and was beginning to doubt my abilities.
I had a rough idea of where I intended to walk to that day but the weather was now starting to get really nasty. The rain was lashing the back of my legs and was soaking through the zips in my Paramo trousers. I was getting miserable and knew that I would need some daylight if I was to stand a decent chance of making a good shelter out of a flappy piece of material and a few lengths of string. My plan for a self-sufficient wild-camp using only basic materials and my back-country skills was now looking, to put it bluntly, really stupid. But, hey-ho – I could always cower in my bivi bag for 14 hours until the sun came back up!
I saw a spot, down by a river, which looked flat and sheltered enough to build my tarp. I knew I could be seen from the road – but only for the next half an hour while the sun set.
I’m not yet familar with the names of different tarp configurations but my original plan had been to peg out the long side, perpendicular to the wind, then – by raising the middle of the opposite long side and bringing in the shorter sides slightly – make a squat pyramid that would have a small door on the leeward side. I gave this a go and soon realised that I was presenting far too much fabric to the wind which was creating handy buckets for the rain to collect in. Even with one of the lifters tied out on the windward side, I was creating a kite rather than a shelter.
Option two was to make an inverted V-shaped tunnel but with the windward end pegged down to create a wedge which should channel the wind over the top of the bivi. This worked well although I would have liked to have more headroom. There was plenty of room to spread my gear out, and I was warm and dry, but sitting up was only possible right at the open end of the shelter.
I took a couple of photos when I was packing up at around 7:45 in the morning – so I had to use flash as it was still quite dark.
I have made no attempt to improve these awful photos but you may be able to make out that I used my walking poles to lift the tarp using a pegging point at the front and a lifter at the rear. I also used a second lifter at the rear, attached lower down the trekking pole, to create a little raised foot area and I tied out a lifter at the side to create some volume in the main body of the shelter.
I had underestimated how many pegs I would need. This was a stupid oversight as pegs are relatively light and it was a false economy to leave the spares at home. Thankfully, the ground was so soggy that I was able to use a few fallen sticks as improvised pegs. I was surprised to see them still there in the morning but they did the job well.
My proudest success was that my newly learned Midshipman’s Hitch worked well as a guyline adjuster. This hitch can be used to tighten a line – say between a tent and the tent peg. The hitch can be made to slip up and down to lengthen or shorten the guyline but does not slip under pressure. I was well chuffed that I could remember how to tie it in a real-world situation and that none of them slipped during the night.
The rain continued to bucket down for half of the night and the wind was vicious. Thankfully, though, it did not change direction and I got only occasional sprays of mist on my face during the night.
At about midnight the rain eased off and the clouds cleared. I then had a lovely view of the stars. This openness and feeling of being a part of the environment rather than cut off from it is the main reason I want to learn how to bivi in all weathers.
Despite the inclement weather, with its accompanying anxiety, I was snug and cosy in my shelter and the evening’s nervousness changed to quiet satisfaction in the morning when I knew that my shelter had survived the night, none of my kit had got wet and I’d had a good night’s sleep. Yes, I’d learned a lot but that was part of the point.
I was on the road by 8 am and the day had the air of the latter stages of the TGO Challenge about it. I just had to keep plodding along the road and ticking off the miles. However, I was not constrained by TGO Challenge rules so I was wondering if I’d be able to get a bus from Newbridge to Llandrindod. I did have enough time to walk the whole way but supping a pint of beer whilst waiting for the train seemed a better idea.
A woman on a bike pedalled alongside me for a few minutes while we chatted about the beautiful weather and the prospect of catching a bus. She didn’t have the details of the buses in her head but she suggested that the staff in the Post Office would be able to help. Half an hour later, the same women came pedalling up the hill with a bus timetable for me! She’d been to the Post Office and discussed my options with them. She’d also got the numbers of two local taxi firms and – the icing on the cake – gave me a mince pie. I was very grateful for this show of kindness; some of those hills were very steep and she’d climbed them twice to help a complete stranger.
The bus timetable helped, as it told me there was a bus I could get in about 20 minutes, but I did have to throw myself in front of the bus to get it to stop. It wasn’t really the driver’s fault; they just have a strange approach to bus stop signage in that town. They put the timetable on the wrong side of the road and don’t put anything on the right side of the road. But all’s well that ends well; I reached Llandrindod with a full 3 hours to spare before my train, which was just long enough to sample the Real Ales and Food Served All Day in the Llanerch Inn.
The trip gave me lots to think about. Do I really need to carry so much? Could I have fit everything in my nominally smaller, and more comfortable, Osprey pack? What are my default tarp configurations for different weather conditions? I think I would have had a simpler, more predictable night in my tent as I know the routine so well, but I did enjoy the openness of the tarp and will certainly be giving it another outing soon.