Classic Camping Fails

© Sarah Jane Douglas

When it comes to camping disasters, Sarah Douglas has it down to a fine art. From losing the tent to hospitalising yourself, here are some big mistakes you can try to avoid when you're next out.

My catalogue of camping mishaps has reduced my incredibly tolerant other half to exasperation. I get blamed for his head of thick sandy coloured hair turning white because of the stress. It bothers him that it seems I don't think twice before merrily disappearing off on some hill trip or other. While he, on the other hand, fills with worry. A few incidents in recent times have caused him to say I ought not to go off anymore without either supervision or a rumble cage. Poor Paul. The phone rings, he sees my number and his immediate thought is, 'What now?' Reflecting back on things I suppose I can see where he's coming from.

Don't Lose the Tent

Schoolgirl error number one. It was the end of March. I'd felt positively brimming with joy as my car carried me further from my 'real life' and closer towards the glorious landscape of Wester Ross. After enjoying a short day on Beinn Bhan by Applecross I decided to drive to the walk start point for An Ruadh-Stac, where I'd go find a suitable spot to wild camp for the night. Well. What a pigging trauma that turned out.

An Ruadh-stac from Maol Chean-dearg... but where's the tent?  © Dan Bailey
An Ruadh-stac from Maol Chean-dearg... but where's the tent?
© Dan Bailey

Firstly, my attempt at pitching my son's most excellent lightweight tent (a Nordisk, if you were wondering) was an epic fail. Couldn't figure it out at all – and there was only one bloody pole to deal with! After an embarrassing amount of wasted time I abandoned my sorry effort – along with my sleeping bag, sleeping mat and rucksack, plus other essentials including my GPS (duh!) – and returned to the car to get my own tent that I'd had the foresight to also bring (the not so lightweight but bullet proof Terra Nova Quasar).

By the time I returned along the track it was pretty dark, then just plain dark. Where the fuck was the tent? I squelched about lumpy bumpy ground in circles for an eternity, cursing myself, then laughing, then feeling glum at the prospect of a night in the car with no covers. I was about to give up when, fantastically, light from my headtorch bounced off a reflector on the borrowed tent. What a heightened sense of joy to be reunited with my belongings. Even the stars seemed to twinkle a bit more brightly, as though they shared my elation.

Next morning, it all seemed so straightforward  © Sarah Douglas
Next morning, it all seemed so straightforward
© Sarah Douglas

Try not to be a clumsy clot

I always make a checklist before I head to the hills, especially when overnighters are involved. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail and all that, but that of course does not always preclude crap from just happening.

It was the end of another March and I was toiling on the long trek toward Beinn Airigh Charr, heading into the remote Fisherfields. The path climbed into Coire nan Dearcag and, unburdening myself from my pack, I stopped to fill my water bottles in the river. Heaving the rucksack back on I neglected to remember my camera case was threaded through the pack's belt loop – and off it tumbled into the stream. Realising it was gone I did a 180 spin and, to my horror, saw the bobbing case, semi-submerged. With haste I plucked it from its watery grave, unzipped the lid, removed my tech and poured the river water out. My good camera – goosed. Mobile phone – goosed. Ipod – goosed. Only the car key survived.

The best I could do with a drowned phone  © Sarah Jane Douglas
The best I could do with a drowned phone
© Sarah Jane Douglas

I was not thrilled, but did (surprisingly quickly by usual standards) surrender to the irreversible fact I'd trashed my beloved gadgets. Not completely disheartened, I made my summit camp and sat for a while facing the sun to feel the last of its warmth on my skin, moisture from my breath already forming little white clouds with each exhale. Views beyond Beinn Lair to Slioch, and across to A'Mhaighdean and distant An Teallach were sensational, row after row of mountain architecture bathed in glorious peachy tones. I traced the sun as it made its journey below the horizon, 'Three . . .two . . .one . . . gone!' 

Time for a hot chocolate – which would have been tremendous if I didn't then overboil the milk, which clogged up all the wee holes and screwed my Jetboil igniter (so cheese and onion crisps for tomorrow's breakfast it was, ffs). Retiring to bed, already dressed in clean, fresh clothes for the morning, I snuggled into my sleeping bag. And it was a comfortable night until 3am. My dismay coupled with resignation when, still half asleep, the bottle I was aiming into with my shewee overflowed and spilled its warm contents over my clean bottoms. What a soggy, little bit smelly, mess. How could I have expected anything less?

And finally, just to add a bit of injury to insult, walking the long miles out with a still heavy pack made the titanium plate in my left ankle feel like it had buckled. Took two weeks for the swelling to go down. But you know what, it was still a great camp and shit happens.

Jetboil (Owner) Fails: Part One

I was high on Beinn Leoid in Sutherland. Part of the plan was to catch something of the Lyrids Meteor shower, but the moon was already visible against the blue Spring sky. No matter. Joy surged through me as I took in views east to Klibreck, north to Ben Hope, and all the Corbetts in between. Shadows of clouds drifted lazily across mountainsides. Lochans of the deepest ultramarine blue lay perfectly still. It was almost as though time had stopped, and everything laid before me was mine alone.

Worth the long, cold, hungry night  © Sarah Jane Douglas
Worth the long, cold, hungry night
© Sarah Jane Douglas

At the summit I assembled my son's Nordisk no bother (give the bonehead a medal) and by the time I'd pumped my mat and sorted my stuff I was ready to eat my own fingers. Stuffing dinner into my belly I admired Quinag and The Minch, sunset was guaranteed to be sumfink else, ooo la la.

As dark fell and the temperature plummeted it was time to make a hot water bottle. My demeanour transcended from a gentle, purring kitten-like state to a rage that was completely off the scale when I couldn't get my Jetboil to fire up. I tried and tried to no avail. In desperation I called Paul who was unable to offer any advice without being able to see the thing. He'd definitely cleaned out all the clogged-up holes, I'd seen it myself. I swore. I catastrophised. 'I'm going to die of fucking hypothermia!' Then I swore some more when I realised it was crisps and a chocolate bunny for breakfast again. Every available layer I had I put on, and for sure it was a long cold night. 

Well you're not going to get any help from up there...  © Sarah Jane Douglas
Well you're not going to get any help from up there...
© Sarah Jane Douglas

But it could've been so much worse. When I returned home Paul, within seconds of seeing the Jetboil, had it going. The ignition was too close to the holes; raising it almost to a right angle gave the spark enough drop to light the gas. Lesson learned.

Jetboil (Owner) Fails: Part Two

I'd returned down off Beinn Sgritheall, on Scotland's West Coast soaked to the bone and shivering. The forecast wasn't brilliant but I decided to camp low and walk the two nearby Corbetts the following day. Even at this lower elevation it was sufficiently cold to warrant a hot water bottle so I duly went about the sequence of decanting water, boiling it, and decanting it again into a sock covered Sigg bottle.

Halfway through the process the second lot of freshly boiled water was ready. To be clear, the Jetboil was outside my tent. I was sitting at the entrance inside my tent. (You know where this is going, right?) Somewhere between removing the Jetboil cup and setting it on the ground, and unscrewing the Sigg lid, the cup spilled forward into the tent and over my feet, its contents chasing up my leg, scalding the seat of my butt and groin. It was hard to know which bit of me to save first. Like a jumping bean on a pogo stick I frantically, and probably comically, bounced my way into the corner of the tent in a bid to escape, all the while yanking at my trousers to ease the burning sensation before being able to then remove both socks.

Beinn Sgritheall Sunrise  © nosweat
Beinn Sgritheall Sunrise
© nosweat

Fleetingly I wondered if I'd be able to still do the Corbetts in the morning, then decided I should take a look at my feet. Hmm. Skin above my ankle had slid off and gathered like the folds on a pug's face, and the tops of my feet were the same. The fright of seeing them caused me to howl and, in fairness, the pain was excruciating. I phoned Paul. Not because he could do anything, but to let him know I was coming home via hospital.

It was a long (and noisy) drive out of the Glenelg peninsula on a misty single-track road. I'd have given zombies a run for their money, I swear. To make matters worse when I reached Glen Sheil it soon became apparent the road to home was not going to be the straightforward affair it should have been. An earlier accident meant an investigation was being carried out forcing the road closed both directions. There was nothing else for it but to turn the car around and get myself to hospital in Inverness via Lochcarron - quite some detour, if you don't know it. I'd like to say here that the doctor who treated my burns was totes impressed I'd made the long drive by myself and thought I'd done really well. Of course, he hadn't heard the hours of dedicated wailing I'd put into the car journey.

Miscellaneous Misdemeanours

Tent pole snapped. Luckily some random motorbike man gave me some tape to carry out a temporary fix. I now carry my own.

I own three compasses but, incredibly, found myself without a single one of them on a summer summit camp up Breabag and the Bone Caves, in Assynt. Wasn't ideal when I had to descend in clag the following morning. Compasses are now secured into each of my backpacks to avoid any future oversights.

And finally, that recent call to Paul which induced the, 'What now?' - I managed to drain all the power (don't ask) from my car battery while on a camping trip 250miles from home. The car is still stuck on a lonely mountain road in the arse end of nowhere waiting on a tow. Does any of this stop me from wanting to get back up those mountains and camp? No, sir! But I'd like to think I'm learning from my mistakes.

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22 Nov, 2021

That's quite a list!

I once forgot to bring our spork. Think that's about it. ;)

Forgot the poles on a family camping trip.

Bivvied on an ant's nest.

Camped the other side of a wall from a rotting cow. Wondered what the smell was. Found out in the morning.

Friend left with the flysheet in his pack, and the rest of us had to sit out a rainy few hours in the Cwm Bychan car park in a leaky inner, with no food, waiting for my Dad to come back and fit the rest of us in his car (about 3 decades ago, and I still remember the misery).

Inadvertently pitched on a human turd. That was the worst.

22 Nov, 2021


22 Nov, 2021

Brilliant article.

25 Nov, 2021

Entertaining stuff - I bet we've all had camping disasters. But - come on, Sarah, you didn't need the F-bombs.

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