Words by: Nina Zietman
“I hated hiking and camping when I was younger. Absolutely hated it.” Phoebe Smith is an award-winning travel writer and author of seven books on hiking and wild camping in Great Britain.
Growing up in the beautiful Snowdonia National Park, you might have imagined that Phoebe was a born adventurer – but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“My dad says when I was little, they had to force me to leave my pushchair. I just wanted to be pushed around on the walk. My brother did the Duke of Edinburgh award but I never did anything like that. I even went to university near the Lake District – and didn’t bother hiking there once.”
Now, as editor of Wanderlust travel magazine and an experienced adventurer, Phoebe has made a name for herself as someone who will happily sleep alone outside under the stars, miles from the nearest person. So how did she discover she had an adventurous side after all?
It’s not just hardcore outdoor aficionados who go wild camping and love these wild places – anyone can do it…
It all started when she was working for a backpacking magazine in Australia. She went to the Red Centre to spend a night sleeping outside without a tent.
“We were told to watch out for these deadly snakes and spiders. I thought, ‘what am I doing’? But I had the most peaceful night out there. From that moment, I promised myself I should do more in my own backyard – and keeping pushing my boundaries.”
When she came back to the UK, Phoebe spent the next ten years revisiting places she hadn’t been to since she was a kid.
She squeezed in adventures on the weekends, shooting off at the end of a Friday shift on a newspaper and heading into the wild alone with her backpack and sleeping bag.
Phoebe went on to write a novel about her experiences sleeping in some of the wildest places in the British Isles, called Extreme Sleeps.
It opened up the possibility to thousands of people that you don’t have to travel halfway across the world to have an adventure. It can be found right on your doorstop.
But not everyone had the confidence to head out wild camping alone like Phoebe. “The one thing that came back to me was people wanted to do it, but they were still scared to give it a try.”
So she decided to write Wilderness Weekends, a practical guide for those wanting to go wild camping for the first time – from bringing the right kit to where to sleep and hike. There are 26 weekends to choose from, stretching from the wilds of Dartmoor to the northerly tip of Scotland.
We need to create a society that loves these wild places – but what if you’ve never had the chance to explore and fall in love with it?
“The outdoor community can be can be a bit closed off. They don’t always want to share these places.” But Phoebe doesn’t see it this way.
“I heard recently that the Peak District are selling off their land because of budget cuts. The problem is we are all so disconnected from the land. We need to create a society that loves these places – but what if you’ve never had the chance to explore the outdoors and fall in love with it?”
“The idea with Wilderness Weekends was to break down the boundaries, so it’s not just hardcore outdoor aficionados doing these wild camps and loving these wild places. I wanted to speak to the people who want to get out there, but don’t have the confidence or know-how to take the first step.”
The response was phenomenal. Phoebes tells me she regularly gets tweets from readers on one of the routes. “One lady said she had always wanted to take her daughter out wild camping, but was too scared. She bought the book, they went and had the best time.”
However, not all of the feedback has been so positive. Not long after Extreme Sleeps was published, Phoebe was hounded by trolls on Twitter.
“I had people saying, ‘Oh she’s not really going out to these wild places’ and ‘How could she possibly survive without her make-up bag?’ Anyone that knows me knows I don’t really have a make-up bag – and anyway that’s just ridiculous.”
Surely there were points when Phoebe felt a little scared, particularly camping completely alone in the middle of the wilderness?
“Of course. The first time I camped alone, it was very scary. There’s no one to fill the gaps with conversation. You’ve got no one to reassure you that sound was just a rabbit outside your tent.
“When I first decided I was going to my first solo wild camp, people were telling me I was going to get mugged. A guy from Mountain Rescue gave me his personal mobile number, in case anything went wrong.
“People always think it’s an axe murderer coming to chase them. If someone was going to attack you, would they linger in a wild remote place on the off chance a lone woman came along? You are much more at risk by getting caught out by the weather or not having the right kit than you are being attacked by someone.”
While there are increasing numbers of women like Phoebe, paving the way for female adventurers in the UK, there still isn’t much coverage of their exploits in the mainstream media.
“It’s still the case today, if you ask someone to draw an adventurer, the chances are it’ll be a man with a beard,” says Phoebe. “When I was a kid, I wasn’t into the outdoors, but then which women did I have to look up to?”
If you ask someone to draw an adventurer, the chances are it’ll be a man with a beard
She mentions Alison Hargreaves, the famous British mountaineer who sadly died climbing K2 in 1995. “I remember the media outcry was all about, how dare this woman leave her children. Men were also going out there and leaving their children behind all the time. Luckily, the whole climbing community was behind her – but I still think there’s a long way to go in changing the face of who is an adventurer.”
It’s the same with female outdoor gear. “I’m always asking brands to make more women’s specific kit – not just ‘shrink it and pink it’.
“And the flowers!” she groans. “I know some people like flowers and that’s great, but not everyone wants a flowery top to wear in the outdoors.”
“The key thing to remember is the outdoors itself is completely gender neutral. The mountains, the lakes and the rocks do not care whether you are a man or a woman, young or old. They just exist. There’s no reason why anyone can’t go into the outdoors and have a good time.”
While wild camping is technically illegal in the UK, those who do sleep outside abide by a set of unwritten rules. Be responsible and quiet. Don’t litter. Steer clear of livestock. Has Phoebe – as someone who has been wild camping for ten years – ever got into trouble for sleeping in the countryside?
“No, that’s the funny thing. I recently challenged myself to sleep in the most northerly, southerly, easterly and westerly points of the UK. When I got to the most eastern point, it was actually in front of a Bird’s Eye factory.
There was security all around the fences, obviously to protect some top-secret fish finger recipe. I thought, oh crap where am I going to sleep? Someone is going to find me and tell me off. But no one did – even there.
A ranger in the Lake District once happened upon me – but he was just really pleased to see me out there, enjoying the outdoors.
In the ten years I’ve been wild camping, I’ve never been asked to move on
In the ten years I’ve done it, I’ve never been asked to move on. That’s the key point. The worst thing that will happen is being asked to move on, which isn’t a big deal. Remain polite and don’t push the issue.
As long as you aren’t lighting fires, littering or just out there with a bunch of people to get pissed, then the chances of someone seeing you and telling you to move on are slim.”
So what would Phoebe say to someone who doesn’t feel they have the time or money to go wild camping and explore Great Britain as much as they’d like?
“I would say yes, you do! Stop looking at what everyone else is doing. Stop wasting time complaining you don’t have time. It’s easy, anyone can do it. Get a tent, go to place you know well and spend the night there. The hardest step is the first step. No more excuses. Just go and do it.”
Bradt Travel Guides is offering readers of Cooler Magazine a special discount of 25% on Wilderness Weekends. To claim your discount, visit www.bradtguides.com and enter discount code COOLER at the checkout. Offer valid until 31 October 2015.
Fancy winning a copy of Phoebe Smith’s Wilderness Weekends? Enter our competition below. Deadline is 30 September 2015. The three lucky winners will be contacted by email shortly afterwards.