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Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Shutterstock/Ann Rodchua
Opinion Wild camping in Ireland is a great, cheap way to push yourself to your limits
Rory McNab details how he and his girlfriend attempted to wild camp in winter, in Ireland – it was a challenge.

AS I PULLED myself out of the waist-deep, frigid water, sodden trousers plastered to my legs, I made a mental note to add to the list of camping ‘lessons’ my girlfriend and I were compiling for future trips: “In winter, don’t fall in a river within minutes of setting off.”

Trudging back to where she was waiting with our bags while I’d scouted ahead in search of a suitable campsite, I was grateful that she hadn’t witnessed the tragic sight of a grown man catastrophically failing to navigate a basic set of stepping stones.

With my trousers noticeably soaked, I parried her questions with the same flustered lack of sangfroid that a child who’d evidently pissed themselves might muster. “Rory, why are your trousers dripping wet?” “No reason, everything is fine. Absolutely nothing terrible has occurred to my lower half.”

After picking up my bag, and what little was left of my pride, I eventually agreed that we should stop vainly hiking up the steep trails of Wicklow’s Glenmalure Valley, in the hopes of stumbling across my ‘dream’ campsite, and instead turn around and set up camp in the spot we’d initially chosen some five minutes away from our parked car, and now, several hundred metres below us.

Thus, we made another crucial discovery: “When heading out laden with heavy bags choose a specific place to camp in advance.”

The spot that was to be our home for two nights was in the shadow of a large birch glade. While this may sound idyllic, another equally apt description for the location would be ‘swamp-adjacent’.

Some fussy people may even contend that we were actually in the swamp. Though it was difficult to tell whether the ground was genuinely marshy, or just water-logged from all the rain that fell through the duration of our trip.

Back to the wild?

Camping appeals to people for a variety of reasons. For some, it offers an opportunity for peace and reflection; for others, a sense of adventure. However, an unfortunate minority are roped into it simply to appease the whims of their partner who – after watching several bushcraft videos – has become radicalised by YouTube’s algorithms and wants to experience the ‘wild’ in some vain attempt to connect with a fatuous, primitivist idea of masculinity. My girlfriend found herself in the last category.

Over the previous two years, there’s been a surge in the number of people who, unable to journey abroad, have resignedly purchased tents and trudged off to their nearest woodland to try to eke out what could roughly be called a ‘holiday’. Yet, it may seem difficult to imagine true ‘wild’ camping in a country as small as Ireland.

Thanks to agricultural development, and Britain’s historic lust for tearing down Irish oak forests to make ships so they could travel around the world to conquer yet more countries, there are very few parts of Ireland that feel truly remote and untouched by humans.

As such, it’s possible to spend an hour trekking into a forest and to think you’ve arrived at some patch of remote wilderness, only to turn around and see your dentist and their family having a picnic in a glade.

Despite not boasting vast stretches of completely untouched wilderness, that’s not to say there aren’t still spectacular locations available for camping. In several of Ireland’s national parks for instance, such as Wicklow, Glenveigh, and Connemara, wild-camping is permitted as long as a strict code of conduct is adhered to. Though, unfortunately not everyone does.

Glenmalure Valley Sides Rory McNab Glenmalure Valley, Wicklow. Rory McNab

While many people resolutely stick to the camping adage of ‘leave no trace’ in popular camping areas, such as Glenmalure Valley, it’s distressingly frequent to stumble across a miniature landfill left by morons.

Like prehistoric middens, future archaeologists will one day unearth these buried heaps of trash and conclude that our diets consisted entirely of bags of crisps and industrial quantities of discounted continental lager.

So, in order to avoid any other campers who might simply be out looking to drink, we decided to avoid the summer months and instead head out in mid-November.

Our camping quarters

Before we set out, I was able to convince my girlfriend that, thanks to my near-decade of experience as a scout leader, and with the right equipment, we’d be able to cope just fine with the rain that was forecast to fall for the entire weekend.

What proved more difficult was making a reasonable case that, after some 18 months in lockdown together, spending a further two nights alone in the wilderness with me was an appealing prospect.

Unfortunately, we did not have the right equipment. Our accommodation for the trip was originally supposed to be a tent that had been gifted to me some seven years ago by a friend after Electric Picnic. Since then, it had remained unused in my shed, and this taught us another great lesson about wild-camping: “Always check your equipment before heading out.”

After dragging the tent from my shed, I decided to do some research on it to see whether it would shelter us safely during an Irish winter. My first moment of concern that it mightn’t be up to the task came when I saw that the tent appeared to be available exclusively from American retailer Walmart, and at the disconcertingly low price of $40.

What’s more the glut of 1-star reviews – featuring such damning criticisms as: ‘Cheap, Even By Walmart Standards’, and ‘Do not buy Do not buy this brand’ – severely undermined my confidence.

The second, and more fundamental problem we discovered was that the tent was full of toxic mould. Having taken it to a park to practise pitching it the day before we were due to head off, it became readily apparent that it was unfit for human habitation.

As the tent was last used at a festival, it wouldn’t have been surprising to open it and find some crushed cigarette butts, a discarded condom, or even a trapped reveller from Electric Picnic 2014 who – like the Japanese soldiers left of isolated Pacific islands who thought the Second World War was still raging in the ‘70s – believed they were in the heat of the action and were hoping to catch Portishead on the main stage. Any of these would have been preferable to mould.

While we had no expectations about living in luxury during our two-night, mid-winter camping trip on a rainy weekend – we were wild-camping, not wild-glamping after all – I don’t think it’s too fussy to not want your accommodation to fill your lungs with hazardous spores. So, I was required to buy a replacement tent at the last minute, which, in retrospect, was probably a blessing in disguise.

The warm glow of the fire

Thus, when we eventually found ourselves sitting at our camp-site, replete with a shiny new, hopefully mould-free, tent, and river-soaked trousers, I was fully sympathetic to the fact that my girlfriend’s confidence in my abilities to safely navigate us through a weekend’s camping may have taken a knock.

The time I spent huddling by the stove, desperately trying to dry my boots and warm my wet feet, while she frantically scurried about setting up our camp was – I will admit – a low point. I tried pointing out to her that, if I didn’t dry my feet, I could develop trench foot and then I would be even less help. She maintained that she couldn’t see how that would be possible.

In most national parks, campers are strictly prohibited from lighting open fires. If you like your food cooked, it’s therefore vital to bring some form of stove, such as a trangia, or an elevated wood-burner. Consequently, it’s important to remember that your cooking capabilities will be severely limited, so it’s imperative to plan simple, easy to prepare meals.

Homemade Portable Stove-BBQ Rory McNab Rory's homemade portable stove. Rory McNab

Tins of beans are a classic staple as they can be placed straight onto whatever heat source you’re using. Though remember to open the top of them beforehand, otherwise you’ve essentially created a sort of delicious IED using molten beans in lieu of napalm.

Thankfully, our food supply was one of the few things which did not turn out shambolically on the trip; eating steaks and baked potatoes on the first night, a fry up the following morning, and toast with beans and bacon the next.

The upside of such a meat-laden diet was that our concerns about having to dig latrine holes thankfully never came to fruition. Our near medieval diets, if anything, left us more in greater danger of developing rapid-onset gout.

Indeed, the camping stove we used – which I’d created from an old mini beer-keg – proved thankfully successful. It had started out as a project in thriftiness after I refused to spend €50 on an actual stove in a shop, proclaiming that I could: “Easily build one for less.” Some €150, and dozens of man-hours of research and labour later, I ended up with something that just about functioned. In fact, on that first day, it proved so successful at drying my wet boots that one of them briefly caught fire, which I tried to see as a positive.

We lived to tell the tale

It’s amazing how cold you can be inside both a tent and a sleeping bag, and while wearing several jumpers. Each night, before slithering into our respective sleeping bags, we would pull on layers of clothes until we basically resembled two people cosplaying Joey in that scene from Friends where he wears all of Chandler’s clothes.

So, after two nights of heavily interrupted, fitful sleep we agreed that, while we’d had a largely great time, we’ll go on our next wild camping trip when the risk of hypothermia isn’t quite so great.

Wild camping in Ireland outside of summertime is, even without making several calamitous errors, tough, and should only be undertaken when accompanied by somebody with adequate knowledge and experience.

It’s imperative to make sure that you have adequate equipment, clothing, food, fuel and shelter.

There is a terrific joy to be found in completing simple, everyday things that you take for granted. All of the most basic tasks are rendered utterly agonising. If you’re looking to make a cup of tea, clear your afternoon. Yet, once you’ve fished out the bits of twig and bean residue from your mug, that tea will be the best you’ve ever had.

The wild camping code:

  • Campsites must be at least 400m from a road capable of carrying a vehicle
  • Campsites must be at least 400m from a building
  • Tents must be moved after every second night to allow vegetation to recover
  • Campers must remove all food waste and litter, whether or not it is biodegradable
  • Buried waste is often exposed by foraging animals or by erosion
  • Soap and toothpaste must be kept at least 30m away from watercourses
  • Dish and utensil washing must be conducted at least 30 metres from water bodies
  • All wastewater should be strained and scattered. In no circumstances should wastewater used in washing be poured into lakes, streams or rivers
  • Campers are required to conduct themselves in a quiet manner, in an effort to avoid disturbing the local community, wildlife or other visitors
  • Camp-sites must be kept visually unobtrusive
  • Campsites must be left as found, or better
  • Latrine protocol – catholes for disposal of human waste must be located at least 30m away from watercourses and 50m from walking routes. Human waste must be buried or carried out of the site. No evidence of latrine use should remain visible. All toilet paper and hygiene products must be carried out.

Rory McNab is a journalist, editor and writer living in Dublin whose work focuses on politics, pop culture and satire.

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