In the pale grey half-light before sunrise, shadowy charcoal forms start to emerge from the gloom. It’s probably around 4 o clock in the morning, and the first pale rays of sunshine have yet to lift their fingers over the horizon, although the sky is just starting to turn from blackest black to inky lavender-blue, and already the robins and blackbirds are filling the air with their orchestral trill. My nose is cold and my back is stiff, but every sense is tingling with an aliveness I had forgotten. I can smell the bitter earth, I can hear the whispering trees, I can feel the air warming as the twilight gently gives way to a lemonade dawn.
I have spent the night resting on the mossy forest floor in the Tangled Bank woodland, under a night sky with stars like crushed diamonds spangled across the heavens. Nestled in a bivvy bag propped against a fallen oak tree, I watched, spell-bound, with night vision I didn’t know I possessed, as a family of deer passed me by, moving silently through the trees to graze. The dusk chorus gave way to the hooting of owls and other strange sounds of the wild at night, and I slept lightly, as our ancestors would have done.
This is wild camping in its simplest sense; no tent, no pitch, no facilities. Just you, a sleeping bag, and the great outdoors. Wild camping creates the chance to reconnect with the elemental rhythms of nature, and a simpler, stiller, more natural way of life. It reawakens primitive senses and intuitions that are all but annihilated in our modern, screen-locked world, and creates time for deep reflection, an appreciation of the natural world, and space to think, feel, and breathe. I have heard the difference between camping in a designated campsite, and hiking into the wilds to camp alone under the stars, is similar to the difference between swimming in an indoor pool at your local gym with ten other people in your lane, versus a skinny dip in the sea in a secluded cove at twilight.
How often do we give ourselves permission to switch off from our roles and responsibilities in our society, to slow down and reconnect with who we are and the earth that we inhabit?
There are a huge number of benefits to a regular dose of wilderness immersion, benefits we can ill afford to ignore in this modern age of screens and sedentariness.
For a start, it makes you more active; walking, finding firewood, building camp, keeping warm, all these activities raise your heart rate and stimulate metabolism, burning calories, exercising muscles and releasing endorphins to add to the feel-good factor.
It resets your circadian rhythms – the invisible processes that occur in the human mind and body over a twenty-four hour period, such as your sleep/wake cycle, hormone release and body temperature. These processes are controlled by your body-clock, which is heavily influenced by sunlight. In our modern 24/7 world of alarm clocks and electric lights these rhythms can become disturbed, but a few nights wild camping, rising with the sun and bedding down as twilight sets in, can bring the regulation of these important bodily functions back to a more natural state.
Being out in the sunshine has the added benefit of giving you a much needed vitamin D boost, which in turn aids calcium absorption and helps to keep your bones strong. It’s difficult to get sufficient vitamin D from your diet, so some exposure to the sun can produce a beneficial amount of the nutrient.
Wilderness immersion gets you out in the fresh air; away from the pollution of big cities it gives you a chance to breathe deeper, doing wonders for your overall health and wellbeing. It also reduces stress; creating space for you away from the daily anxieties of high pressured jobs and commutes. Stress is a contributing factor in many illnesses and when experienced – even in low levels – on a daily basis, can put you at increased risk of issues such as digestive problems, cardiovascular problems and sleep disturbance. Being off grid means a complete digital detox, time away from screens and emails, enabling quality time for real rest and relaxation.
And on the note of the digital detox, this type of off-grid experience fosters reconnection and the strengthening of relationships. Swap screens for candlelight and social media for fireside stories and enjoy getting to know one another again.
To find out more about wild camping, see https://www.countryfile.com/uk-travel/holiday-ideas/a-beginners-guide-to-wild-camping/, and for specific information about wild camping on Dartmoor, see here; https://getoutside.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/guides/wild-camping-on-dartmoor/.
For those who want to dip their toe into the wilds without committing to a full night of off-grid camping, at Tangled Bank holiday cottages in North Devon we offer a unique blend of wilderness immersion set against a safety net of home comforts. Stay in a luxury boutique cottage with far reaching views to distant Dartmoor and make use of eighteen private acres of rolling flower meadows and ancient woodland to rest and relax, and reconnect with the natural world. Cook dinner in a Dutch oven over an open fire, lie back in a beanbag and gaze at the stars, taking in the theatre of some of the best dark skies in England, or laze in a hammock in the orchard as the sun sets and the night steals in. You can stay out, or creep back to your cottage, as you wish. Down in the woods, find a quiet spot and make space for some deep reflection, or hunker down and watch the wildlife emerge from the trees to feed.
Whether you are a die-hard off-gridder spending a wild night up on the Dartmoor Tors, or a city-dweller who is longing for a gentler reconnection with nature, there is no doubt that getting outside, immersing yourself in the natural world and reconnecting with the rhythms of the sun and the seasons, will have a seriously positive impact on your mental and physical wellbeing.
So as I gingerly step out of my bivvy bag and stretch in the early morning sunshine, listening as the wrens, warblers and song-thrushes rush to join the cacophony of birdsong, I am thankful that there are still wild places left where we can leave our worries behind and reconnect with a wilder, more primitive ancestry.