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My Worst Night Out

© Ronald Turnbull

Inspired by a recent forum thread on the topic of unpleasant nights in tents and bivvy bags, we thought it'd be fun to ask some regular UKH contributors for their own tales of misery. Well, fun in retrospect...

Rather them than us!

John Burns - Bothy Misery

The blizzard intensifies, now it's close to a white out. I keep walking, following my flickering compass needle. The bothy can't be far now. I've been walking for two hours; my heavy rucksack and the knee deep snow are sapping my energy. I need to find that bothy.

How cosy it'd be to spend the night in there...  © John Burns
How cosy it'd be to spend the night in there...
© John Burns

It's then that I notice something angular and dark lurking in the whiteness. Could it be the bothy? I hardly dare hope. I head towards the mirage like shape in the sea of snow. It is the bothy! Thoughts of shelter, food and a warm fire spring to life in my mind. But there's a problem – it's a river between me and the bothy. I don't remember that on the map. Perhaps I missed it. The river is fordable but there is no way I'll stay dry. If I take my boots off I'll never be able to dry my feet in this snow storm. I'll just have to march through the river, at least I can dry my socks before the bothy fire.

I'm alternately choking on the smoke or freezing. There is nothing in between

Bracing myself for the shock of the icy water, I splash into the river. My boots fill instantly and by the time I reach the far bank my feet are numb. At least I'm there now. I approach the stone built cottage and my heart sinks. The doorway is an empty gap, the windows stare blindly and there is no roof. This is a ruin. I pull out my map and find these empty walls marked on it. At least I know where I am. Only another ten minute walk from here.

I follow my bearing and I am soon standing looking at the bothy. It is now on the far side of the river I just crossed. I curse and brace myself for the onslaught of cold. I emerge from the river, boots sloshing with water and slush but at least I have made it to the bothy.

Smoked like a kipper or frozen like a popsicle - what a choice  © John Burns
Smoked like a kipper or frozen like a popsicle - what a choice
© John Burns

The snow is knee deep when I push open the wooden door. It's a tiny bothy the size of a garden shed. Eagerly I light the fire and take off my soaking boots. At last I will be warm. The flames lick at the coal and the smoke begins to rise, but instead of exiting up the chimney it billows out into the room. Minutes later my eyes are streaming and I am forced to open the door to let the smoke out.

The whole night goes like that. The room warms up but fills with smoke. I stand it until I can't breathe and have to let the smoke, and what little heat there is, out into the frigid night. My feet are inches from the fire yet I can't get them warm. I'm alternately choking on the smoke or freezing. There is nothing in between.

Finally I climb into my sleeping bag as the temperature in the bothy tumbles. I spend the whole night shivering with my icy feet. In the morning my socks hang frozen before the dead fire and I sit coughing up soot. I make some tea before I head out into the snow. Beside my mug I notice the bothy book and idly open it at a random page.

Lucy from Glasgow has written. What a lovely wee bothy. What fun it would be to spend a cosy night in here.

She was here in July. Yes dear Lucy, a cosy night in here. What fun that would be… what fun.

  • UKH regular John Burns is usually a big fan of bothies. John began writing more than fifteen years ago, and at first found an outlet for his creativity as a performance poet. He has taken one-man plays to the Edinburgh Fringe and toured them widely around theatres and mountain festivals in the UK.

John is the author of three books, The Last Hillwalker, Sky Dance, and Bothy Tales.

See johndburns.com


"Three of us in a small tent on the Vallee Blanche (Mont Blanc) without sleeping bags or mats as one of our number said we wouldn't need them as it was Summer. Nearly froze to death. I've made my own decisions ever since" - brianjcooper


Kate Worthington - Blown away in the Lakes

January 2006 – 'Winter' camping in the Lake District. Ross and I had conceived a 3 day/2 night excursion around the delights of Patterdale, including a march over High Street and towards Helvellyn. All good intentions but a later than planned start (i.e. what happened to the first day's walking?!) only got us up to Angletarn Pikes before it felt entirely reasonable to pitch tents for the night. Had we assessed the incoming winds that night before we set out in a rush? Nope. Pitching up seemed fine, and a good site in theory. We'd already eaten a substantial meal before walking so we didn't choose to brew up or cook that evening. Hunker down for a quiet night…FAIL!

Cooked breakfast might be off the menu after all...  © Kate Worthington
Cooked breakfast might be off the menu after all...
© Kate Worthington

What started off as a fairly standard breezy and flappy affair into the evening, ended up being a 'hold on to your tent and each other for dear life' night with a face full of roaring nylon for the remaining hours of darkness. So loud, so uncomfortable, so useless for sleeping. But with the weight of two of us in the tent, we weren't going anywhere and with some nifty re-pegging through the night, our fabric palace held out. As soon as the winds dropped to allow an efficient pack away, we dashed for more shelter for a warm breakfast; feeling battered and tired. FAIL again! Our stove was not lighting as Ross persevered to tinker with it, with cold hands, while I ended up picking through dry bits of food and sharing bits out like WW2 rations.

A beautiful parade over High Street and down into Dovedale followed…and our next night's camping saw a few inches of snow fall on us overnight, 'unexpectedly' (or was that…we didn't have access to a weather forecast in detail again?!) So our next day's walking was fuelled with more cold food but in glorious winter sunshine, on fresh snow covered ground. Not all bad. 2006 now feels like a long time ago in terms of being able to access up to date mountain weather forecasts, via 4G on a mountain side – I'm sure today's access to information would have helped our planning. I think we grabbed a look at a printed forecast in YHA Patterdale for the day we arrived and that was it!

  • Kate and Ross Worthington run RAW Adventures, providing skills courses and guided days out on the hills of Snowdonia.

Being woken up at 3am by my old collie pawing at my face, followed by her being violently sick in the hood of my sleeping bag. Try getting back to sleep after dealing with that..." - Fozzy


Alex Roddie - Scout Camp Washout

The worst (or perhaps best) night I ever spent outdoors was the Eversden Bivvy Incident. This took place during one of the worst thunderstorms to hit the UK in the 1990s. I was a Scout at the time, about twelve years old, and we'd received permission from the owner of a local woodland to build survival shelters and enjoy a night out in the woods with open fires, Tilley lanterns, and all the rest. My dad urged me to take an orange plastic survival bag and tarp. "You might find them handy if it rains," he told me, a twinkle in his eye.

Lightning exploded between the trees, casting garish shadows  © Alex Roddie
Lightning exploded between the trees, casting garish shadows
© Alex Roddie

We built our shelters in the woods. I decided to use the tarp in the construction of mine -- a decision that later proved wise. After we'd attempted to cook burgers and baked potatoes on our campfires, after we'd made ourselves giddy on sugar from marshmallows, it was time to turn in. All was calm. I tucked myself in to my sleeping bag under a roof of dead wood, leaf litter and blue polypropylene, listening to the night noises in the forest.

At about two o'clock in the morning the thunderstorm began. The rain was absolutely torrential, accompanied by gale-force winds and a truly spectacular barrage of lightning bolts that exploded between the trees, casting garish shadows. Several of the shelters collapsed. Scouts screamed in terror (or more likely delight) and I remember seeing torch-beams flickering every which way as kids ran amok, howling like wolves in the storm. Everyone got thoroughly soaked. There were a few tears, and some of the Scouts retreated to the tents the leaders had pitched in the field nearby, but -- perhaps amazingly -- nobody was injured.

A young Alex exhibits an early attraction to camping and the outdoors  © Alex Roddie Collection
A young Alex exhibits an early attraction to camping and the outdoors
© Alex Roddie Collection

My shelter stayed up, and I remained more or less dry under my tarp. My orange survival bag kept the groundwater out of my bedding too. I got no sleep, however: the noise and the sheer spectacle kept me buzzing.

There was much hand-wringing from the parents afterwards -- 'It could all have been prevented if the leaders had looked at the weather forecast!' -- but we kids found this puzzling. As far as we were concerned, we'd had one of the most adventurous and memorable nights of our lives. My dad, of course, had seen the weather forecast -- which is why he'd sent me along with the survival bag and tarpaulin. He knew I'd find it thrilling and would be ok, and he had been right.

  • Alex Roddie is a writer, editor, author and long-distance backpacker. His latest book, Wanderlust Europe: The Great European Hike, is available now - see alexroddie.com

"My first ever solo wildcamp (Lowther Hills, August 2016) involved setting off at 11am with a 9-mile trudge through 20m vis.clag and light rain getting lost about 3 times and eventually calling it a day at 7pm on the slopes of Scaw'd Law. No sleeping mat, no pillow, a 1/2 season sleeping bag I'd bought the day before, phone and camera were on the verge of water damage, all my clothes soaked through with no spares, no stove so a dinner of sausage rolls and no water nearby. Managed to doze for 3 hours, but was awoken by a red grouse right outside; as it was claustrophobic and pitch black I panicked. Another 20km with about 1500m ascent the next day back to the bus still in 20m vis., but not before a 2-hour shivering wait" - iangpark


Mark Reeves - slumming it in Switzerland

Only two days before, I had been discussing with a climber who had a PhD in thunderstorms the process through which they develop in alpine regions, as we watched from a distance a hammerhead cloud coming over a ridge and growing into a storm. Like many British alpine climbers I was a dirtbag and decided that I would skip the hut below the classic Weisshorn ridge, the one that helped inspire a generation at the dawn of the golden age of alpinism, as described by Alfred Wills in his book Wandering Amongst the High Alps -1856.

The hole through which I was breathing rapidly became the funnel into which a deluge poured

Having had the most expensive latte know to man, I decided that Switzerland was definitely not a place I wanted to spend much time or money in. So I walked up past the alpine hut and to a point where I found a flattening below the pitiful excuse for a glacier. As I got my thermarest, sleeping bag and bivi bag out, the last people descended past me and I settled in for the night under a blue sky.

A distant rumble alerted me to a change. Over the ridge I could see some cloud, and suspected that the night was about to get 'interesting'.

What I'd learned from my epert friend was that every time a storm passes a ridge from one valley to the next it grows, a lot. The cold air flushing downwards fills the bottom of the valley, pushing the warm air upwards to fuel the convection and activity in the thunderstorm.

With each minute the skies got darker and the storm angrier. The rumbles became louder, echoing around the mountainside, and then the lightning started. There was nothing I could do, but wait it out. For the first hour I watched in terrified wonder as lightning struck the ridges around me and the rain started to come. Eventually I had to hide in the bivy. The hole through which I was breathing rapidly became the funnel into which a deluge poured, soaking the lightweight down bag and whatever clothing I was wearing. Shivering, I pulled myself further into my cocoon as darkness fell.

At this point the main cell must have past overhead; it was like a war zone erupting around me as the hail started. Even through the bivvy bag, sleeping bag and clothes I could feel the relentless bombardment of ice balls, and see the flashes of lightning. Within seconds there seemed to be three inches of ice around me. The rain continued through the night, and at daybreak as all the people who'd slept sound in the hut walked up under head torches I wandered down, cold, tired and dejected.

  • North-Wales based Mark Reeves is a Mountaineering Instructor and Winter Mountain Leader who runs coaching, skills courses and guided days of hillwalking, scrambling and climbing through his business Snowdonia Mountain Guides.

He is the author of new Rockfax guidebook Snowdonia: Mountain Walks and Scrambles


"Camped in the upper reaches of Glen Tilt on a hot, sticky night. Lying naked on top of my pit sweating, I hear a pattering noise on the tent and think I'd better shut the outer door. Upon opening the inner, a solid plug of midges joined us inside. At first, it felt like I was being tickled all over. Soon, the awful reality of what I'd done dawned on me and every inch of me was on fire. I jumped into my pit and thrashed around to ease the agony. The combined heat of two bodies drove the horde into the roof of the tent where we tried to massacre them. Eventually, we got the upper hand. Now both of us need a pee but to go outside was unthinkable. Thank God for Tupperware and sandwich bags!" - Lankyman


Ronald Turnbull makes a Great Cockup

Guilt and Misery. "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery," says Jane Austen. And so the expedition to the Peak District in Pride and Prejudice involves a quick trip to the caves and a stroll in Mr Darcy's garden. Not for Miss Bennet the ramble through the peat groughs of Bleaklow, the sunrise from the chilly bivvy above Kinder Downfall.

A murky Keswick at night from Skiddaw  © Ronald Turnbull
A murky Keswick at night from Skiddaw
© Ronald Turnbull

But it's a mistake to miss out on the misery. Any really nasty night out is a step change in your hill skills and gear. More than that, though – the midge-ridden bothy, the tent with the stream running through it – within 48 hours, at the latest, these become thrilling adventures, the fun you get in retrospect far outweighing any minor agonies at the time.

So it was, as I wandered in late afternoon up Great Cockup, blissfully ignorant of the dramatic irony embedded in my choice of start-up summit. Dusk saw me strolling along the ridge of Lonscale Fell, with stars blinking on and off between scudding clouds, and half-misted streetlights of Keswick like a nest of baby dragons far below. Midnight, at Little Man, and a sharp rainshower. Midnight-thirty, at Skiddaw summit, and the rainshower had doubled up into a downpour.

The dilemma is the same one faced by punk rock band the Clash back in 1981: "Should I stay or should I go?" Carry on down, and bivvy at lower level with me, my gear and the surroundings all soaking wet? Or bivvy down right now, right here? "If I go there will be trouble, If I stay it will be double," as the punk rockers so neatly put it. On the other hand, Skiddaw is one major Lakeland summit I still haven't slept on. I head along Skiddaw's northern end for five minutes, thus halving the wind speed. I unroll the bivvybag, stuff in the sleeping bag, and climb in beside it.

Skiddaw at night from Clough Head  © Ronald Turnbull
Skiddaw at night from Clough Head
© Ronald Turnbull

I wandered up Great Cockup, blissfully ignorant of the dramatic irony embedded in my choice of start-up summit

A certain amount of writhing about allows me to remove my boots, unroll the sleeping bag and writhe myself inside. Unzipping an arm-sized hole, I reach into the rucksack for some food and water. The rain beats the nylon alongside my ear almost as noisy as that classic rock track. And then comes the thunderstorm.

Interesting. Zero point five millimetres of proofed nylon was all there was between me and 300 million volts of electricity. Will the soaking wet bag act as a Faraday cage, carrying the current safely around my body? At least I don't have any damned tentpoles to act as lightning conductors.

"One day it's fine the next it's black": those punk rockers got it spot on. And to Jane Austen, thanks for the hint. Many, many bivvy bag hilltops in soft heather under the stars and sunrise – over 80 of them at the current count. But misery on Skiddaw is where my own pen loves to dwell.

The Book of the Bivvy  © Ronald Turnbull

  • Over a long career as an outdoor writer Ronald Turnbull has enjoyed and/or endured more bivvies than most. The 20th anniversary revised update of his classic tome, The Book of the Bivvy, is due from Cicerone Press in Spring 2021. The new edition is filled out with new insights, more pictures, and many more nights out - including some miserable ones.

For more info see cicerone.co.uk


"Mid '80s, attempting Welsh 3000s in under 24hrs. Moving light. 'Slept' night before dawn start on most easterly of the Carneddau. Pelting rain, cold, no sleeping bags. Or head torches. Just the 'flash ready' light on camera to see by. Miserable 8 hours in a stone sheep shelter barely big enough for two. We almost made it... Ran out of steam at Pen y Pass. Couldn't walk for two days afterwards" - MisterPiggy


Keri Wallace bears all on honeymoon

My worst night out would have to be the first night of my honeymoon - spent camping below The Chief, in Squamish. I was expecting to dream of swathes of immaculate granite and epic crack-climbing but it was not to be. I had been told that Squamish in August could be wet, but coming from the West Coast of Scotland I was a bit smug about what that might actually mean.

Annoyingly, I went to bed with a bit of a dodgy tummy, after a questionable camp cook-up. The night that ensued was one of biblical rainfall, the likes of which i'd never seen. The tent groundsheet began to billow with water and by midnight we were floating in the forest. What followed was the mother of all sense-of-humor failures as the combination of my fear of bears and sudden 'toilet-urgency' left me sitting on a make-shift loo in the tent porch (having frantically cut up my water bottle with a penknife), too scared to go outside. Squatting up to my ankles in muddy water, I wondered at where the romance had gone in our relationship. At least tomorrow's route was quick-drying.

Luckily things brightened up after that...  © Keri Wallace
Luckily things brightened up after that...
© Keri Wallace

  • Keri Wallace is an experienced fell runner and a fell/trail running guide with Girls on Hills in Glencoe.



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