It's dank, cold and drippy outside, so why not embrace autumn by sleeping somewhere dank, cold and drippy too? Caves may lack creature comforts, but they're not short of crawly creatures. At least it's not windy, much. No one said this was going to be cozy - but it should at least be memorable.
From full blown caves to 'howffs', boulder crannies adapted into rough shelters by hillgoers of the past, natural accommodation can be found all over the hills. The best known spots are busy year-round, while a secret few are still strictly for those in the know. Whatever your hovel of choice, it's always worth bringing a tent or bivvy bag in case you find it already occupied, or otherwise uninhabitable.
We've only scratched the surface here. Who knows what hidden gems are out there awaiting your discovery?
Natural nights out do not get more famous than this, the ultimate Highland howff. A spacious crevice beneath a boulder the size of a house, the Shelterstone, aka Clach Dhion, has been a magnet for generations of stoical Cairngorm hillwalkers. Secreted among a scatter of huge rocks at the head of the wildly impressive Loch Avon basin, and dwarfed beneath the eponymous Shelterstone Crag, its enviable destination must help account for its popularity. First class accommodation it ain't. Over the years the shelter has been improved with a bit of judicious wall building, but though these walls turn a full gale into a mere draught, these are still spartan digs, with hobbit-height headroom, a slimy floor and a ceiling that persistently drips in rainy weather. Well what did you expect?
Clach Dhion was once described as providing space for 18 armed men, but people must have been smaller then. By modern standards it can hold five or six in 'comfort', though I daresay twice that number have squeezed in for kicks. Weapons optional. If necessary, less salubrious overspill accommodation is available under smaller nearby blocks. As you drift off, listen out for the rustle of mice... or was it the tread of the dreaded Grey Man of Ben Macdui? Sleep tight.
Hidden away in a boulder heap in wildest Langstrath, this Lakeland bolthole must once have been a real find. Legend has it the cave was fitted out by Barrow shipyard workers, whose expertise with a blowtorch in confined spaces resulted in the ultimate hillwalkers' secret hideout, compete with a stove, a cunningly concealed flue, and a metal door camouflaged to the rock. All very Swallows and Amazons. Sadly the beans were spilled, and the location of the cave became an increasingly open secret. Time has not been kind to the builder's efforts, while decades of litter louts have made a mess of the immediate vicinity too. Let's be frank - it's now a hovel, fit only for a novelty night if you really must. Yet the cave still takes effort to find, and since the hunt is an essential part of the fun I'm going to offer no clues. Google is cheating, by the way.
Snowdonia's hills are riddled with holes, relics of its mining and quarrying heritage, but you might not want to sleep in many of them. Head to the Moelwynion for something a little more accommodating - with the emphasis on little. I don't know if there's a Welsh word for howff, but that's exacty what this is. Loosely resembling a prehistoric dolmen, this cramped space sandwiched between two flat boulders has been partially walled up to keep the worst of the weather out - though it does nothing against the midges. Found on a jumbled hillside southwest of Bwlch y Battel, just west of Cnicht, the cave sleeps two if you're close friends. We won't tell you exactly how to get there, but let's just say a 1:25,000 OS map is all you need...
Priest's Hole, Dove Crag
Star of magazine articles, and site of more than a few mountain rescue call-outs, this is as far from being a secret as caves get. It even has its own visitor's book. But the Priest's Hole (snigger) is popular for good reason. Nights out up Lakeland fells don't come more spectacular than a bivvy in this cliff-top hidey hole. Invisible from above but obvious from below, the cave, really just a scoop under a roof, can be seen as a narrow horizontal slot in the rambling cliff immediately above Dove Crag's crazy overhangs. A scrambly path traverses out left onto the crag to reach the cave - an ascent to think twice about in wet weather or poor visibility. Though a rough stone wall helps deflect a proportion of the elements the entrance is wide and the cave shallow, so depending on wind direction you can expect to get wet and cold. The Priest's Hole is a must-have experience, perhaps, but not a luxury stay. With a ceiling at headbanging level, and limited flat floor space, it's only viable for a handful of people - and such is the reputation that you can't gamble on finding it deserted. Bring plenty of water - there's none nearby - and if nature calls in the night then tread very carefully.
The Secret Howff
Built by Aberdonian climbers of yore, strictly under the radar and out of sight of local gamekeepers, the existence of this mysterious shanty may have been common knowledge for decades, but its precise location remains a secret to this day. Solidly constructed and well appointed, the Slugain Howff provides a novel base camp for Beinn a' Bhuird, sleeping four or five in more comfort than you'll find in many full-blown bothies. By all means go hunting, but if you do find it, whatever you do keep it under your hat. Some things are too special to share. Fail to unearth the Secret Howff and you have another shot at shelter closer to Beinn a' Bhuird; squirrelled under a boulder between Coire an Dubh Loch and Coire nan Clach, the Smith-Winram Bivouac has space, of sorts, for two.
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