Who selects the camping spot?

TGO Challenge 2021 preparations part 3 [click here for part 2]

Every now and then I read French philosophers. It makes me feel intelligent, after only a single paragraph. Last week I read Roland Barthes. He’s brilliant when talking about signs and language. He said of Jules Verne – the 19th century writer of adventures – that it’s not the adventures that are so appealing to the reader, it’s the compatibility with childhood. Let’s elaborate on that. Verne delights in the finite, on a ship’s deck, aboard a submarine, watching the wild world. I remember treating any piece of wasteland, like a building site in preparation, or the fringes of my granddad’s farm, as a world in itself, however small. My world. Indoors, any child builds huts and tents using chairs and bedlinen. The man-child walking the Highlands likes to hide in a tent, snug inside the sleeping bag while the storm (the infinite) batters the flysheet. From all this, I deduce that the TGO Challenge is not an adventure (almost everything is under control), it is rather a very nice celebration of things boys and girls like.* 

Engraving by Alphonse Neuville, in 20,000 leagues under the sea

Prospect and Refuge
25 years ago I read Yi Fu Tuan (a China-born American geographer) about the experience of landscape. He reduces the experience of landscape to two words: Prospect and Refuge. To rest, to plot the next move, man seeks refuge. To hunt and to conquer, man seeks prospect. You want the hilltop, and for that you go out on a limb, into the open. When tired, you seek the glen or the woods. Every lover of mountains recognises the relief when the tree line is reached. In Scotland, prospect and refuge are conveniently close together.

tent view
Many Challengers and other wild campers take this kind of picture: looking out from the safety of the pod. (Loch Hourn, March 2013)

While summits are precisely located points, known to everyone, the camping spot doesn’t exist, you have to create it. I like that, the strictly private action that is the placement of a tent. On the TGO Challenge Route Sheet you have to fill in camp coordinates. But pinpointing a camping spot is a bridge too far: I need to see for myself where I make my home. I select an area, where I expect to find a good spot. I’m not ashamed to tell you I spend quite some time walking up and down the area, not necessarily because I cannot find a flat spot, but because I have to get used to the place, it has to feel right. Don’t ask me what that is, for who selects the camping spot? The child. Don’t expect it to be a rational thing.

The extremes
Once you recognize what wild camping does for you, you can optimize it. The high camp unites prospect and refuge: safely inside the tent, looking down into the night between the hills, the lights of roads and ships on the horizon. And in the morning, you’re on top of the world right from the start. The low route disappoints: after resting and planning inside the shelter, no prospect is gained, because the safety of the glen is chosen over the ridges. Many Challengers complain of boredom on their low routes. For a reason. The child likes the snug tent, but its snugness is greatly enhanced by venturing out, and returning to it. I’d like to put it stronger: not venturing out eventually kills the tent’s attraction. Feeling vulnerable out on the hill? The lightweight tent is the perfect solution: whenever you feel you’ve had too much openness, you can turn prospect into refuge by just pitching it. Magic.

In Jules Verne’s books, the Ship is also an important, very finite, very enclosed place. I’d say tents are a below deck space turned upside down. Some tents feel and look like sails, coming down from a mast. I guess that’s why single pole shelters are so popular. (Noordduinen, Netherlands, 2020) 
This type of photo is very common with wild campers: frost on the tent to prove that hiding inside a small space was necessary (there was danger outside). In reality, most frost on a tent is the result of camping low, near water and away from wind (some wind would prevent the frosty cover) (Near Loch Gorm, Ben More Assynt in view, april 1996, and yes, the tent’s a Phoenix Phreebooter)
Refuge can be reduced to the bare minimum. A camp is a camp even when it’s hardly a camp. (Bivy on a nine day trek from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, Greenland, 2001)
Badly pitched tent after a one hour search for a camping spot. Low terrain & flat terrain was too wet, high terrain was to windy. (Loch Dubh Mas Holasmul, South Harris, 2018)

*an important condition: free will. There’s many children and adults living in tents involuntarily, in refugee camps or on the run. This kind of tent still provides refuge, but it’s anything but a celebration. Awfully privileged, wild camping in the hills…

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