How To Sleep On a Summit

Whether you go for a tent, a tarp or a bivvy bag, you really can't beat a summit camp. What better place to spend a quiet summer night than right on the top of a mountain? The crowds have melted away; twilight fills the valleys while the last evening sun catches the peaks. Later there might be stars; and in the morning, just maybe, an inversion. Best of all the breeze will hopefully be enough to keep the midges down. These tips should help you enjoy the experience.

Travels with a Phoxhole - Meall Meadhonach of Suilven, view NE, early morning, 14/6/88
© streapadair

Go (or not) with the weather

You might sometimes like to picture yourself stormbound in a tent on Denali - don't we all - but in Britain getting caught out by a mountaintop maelstrom is something you do by mistake, not for the fun of it. Our hills may be small and relatively tame, but our weather is often neither. At summit height conditions are at their wildest, and foul weather can be anything from unpleasant to genuinely dangerous. That's where dedicated mountain weather forecasts come in. Before making the final decision to go, check out the latest from MWIS and the Met Office. If it looks too stormy to sleep on top then you might still salvage the trip by camping somewhere more sheltered; but if it's too wild to go out at all then be philosophical. At least with an obvious show stopper the decision has been taken out of your hands. But what if it's 50/50 with the weather? Judgement calls like this can be agonising. If you do make the wrong choice, either going high when you should've stayed low, or staying home when you could really have gone, then if nothing else you can chalk it up to experience.

Think about shelter

Ideally there'll be just a light breeze, but more often than not wind can be a pain on mountain camps, sapping body heat, blowing out your stove and thrumming loudly enough in tent fabric and guys to keep you awake half the night. Which direction is it coming from? What if it's forecast to strengthen in the night? To minimise its effects make use of any available summit shelter, either hunkering down into a hollow or putting a boulder or wall between yourself and the incoming weather.

Ben Aden from Meall Buidhe  © Dan Bailey
Ben Aden from Meall Buidhe
© Dan Bailey

Bring plenty of water

By their nature mountain tops tend to be arid (if not always totally dry), and any reliable water sources are likely to be a long haul down-slope. To save unnecessary leg work come with sufficient water for drinking and cooking from the evening through to breakfast next morning. This shouldn't entail lugging litres of the stuff all the way from home, but it will inevitably mean a heavier load from the last water source up to your chosen summit. For this you'll obviously need to carry empty water containers. It's also worth considering a filter or some such, since any standing water you find in high puddles or pools is likely to need treating.

Remember the camera

Sunsets and sunrises from on high; night time star trails; morning cloud inversions - all are the stuff of classic summit photos. It'd be a shame not to capture any of the magic moments. Just remember to really experience them at the time as well as taking pictures for later.

Summit camp with plenty of water   © Dan Bailey
Summit camp with plenty of water
© Dan Bailey

Tell someone your plans

That's arguably good advice for all hillwalks, but perhaps most of all when you're intending to spend a night away. If something did go amiss it might be reassuring to know that you'll be missed by a given time. On the other hand if nothing is wrong then being unnecessarily saved by a Mountain Rescue Team called out on your behalf wouldn't half disturb your nice quiet night - and theirs.

Don't fall off!

Truly razor sharp peaks may be rare in Britain, but crags and treacherous steep ground can be found a stone's throw from many mountain high points (not that you should go throwing stones). That's what summits are all about, after all. Keep these potential hazards in mind when picking a place to settle, and do watch your footing if you nip out for a pee after dark.

Getting ready for a good nights sleep on the ridge!!
© Wilbur, May 2007

Don't be a waster

Summits attract crowds, and it only takes one or two idiots to make a mess. Popular tops can often be found scattered with a confetti of fruit peel, sweet wrappers and empty pop bottles. Don't be that person. Then there's the issue of poo. If you're camped in an out of the way spot somewhere down in the corrie below it might be fine to discreetly bury human waste, but not anywhere near the summit cairn where footfall is going to be heaviest.      

Try some extra reading

For more high camping hints these other articles from the UKHillwalking database might be useful:   

Ten Top Tips for a Better Bivvy

Ten Top Tips for Wild Camping

Wild nights Out - Responsible Camping and The Law

Backpacking - a Few Tips

And here are some destination ideas that could easily include a summit sleep:

Lakeland 3000-ers, Plus a Few

Lap of Loch Monar

The Eskdale Round

Tour of Kinder Scout and Edale

Tranter's Round



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