‘But it’s got no zip!’
I’m staring down at a limp piece of khaki-coloured plastic, laid out on a darkening woodland floor.
It’s a bivvy bag, but not like the one I used last time, which was thick and had a zip around the head which meant you could seal yourself in against the elements.
This one is open at the top. It can fit a sleeping bag, a sleep mat and then your head pops out at the top in a kind of plastic hood.
‘There’s no..seal! It’s open!’
‘Yeah- that makes it so much better than the one you used before. With this one you can breathe much better and it’s way more comfortable,’ says my wild camping mentor, puzzled at my panic.
Comfortable? The ground is thick, rich with rotten leaf litter and wet from earlier rain. Berries, mud, decaying wood, brimful of dead and rotting things. Full of insects. Detrivores. Invertebrates. Millions of them.
Wondrous beings but not my choice in bedfellows. Not creatures I want crawling onto my face. Or into my sleeping mouth.
‘I didn’t realise the bivvy would be open! This is….I’m not sure I…I’m out of my comfort zone!’ I stand aimlessly in the woodland, fixed to the spot.
My friend is irritated. It’s getting dark and I’m having a meltdown about a piece of plastic. He suggests a grassy spot further on, but it’s overlooked by houses and not as secret and sheltered as this. I lie down on the bivvy and stare up at the sky through the canopy. It’s a beautiful thing to do. And it’s really soft underneath me.
I take a few deep breaths and decide to go for it. I need to know whether I’m up for hardcore bivvying, and I might as well find out tonight. If it all goes Indiana Jones at 3 am, and I find insects crawling over my face, then I’ll stagger to the bench on the grassy spot and perch there til it gets light.
Sleep in a bivvy and you cross a threshold. With a tent you’ve got a very visible barrier between you and the elements, albeit a thin one. With a zipped, thick bivvy you’re making yourself that bit more vulnerable – but there’s still a barrier. With an open bivvy like this one you’re no longer separated from all that nature. You’re in it.
Amidst the death, birth, fecundity, slime, crawling things, stalking things, singing things. Bring it.
I put up my super light mini tarp with my friend’s help. If it rains in the night, I’ll be protected from above. But the land and I are one. I raise my head up with my rucksack, draw the bivvy hood around me and take great care NOT to use my torch when tucking myself in. I know I will see things moving.
It’s so dark that I can’t tell if my eyes are closed or not. After an hour or so, I fall asleep. In the night I hear a flutey duet at a distance. Owls? And then: joy. The male owl comes to us. I know, because his screeching song is so loud and so harsh, his claws and beak flash in my mind’s eye. I’ve never had a wild animal so close to me.
I wake refreshed, despite the wind, the wet tarp, the owl calls. Thank God, the insects were discreet. I get dressed in a shaft of sun, my naked skin drinking in its warmth. The sea roars faintly below. I’m blissed out by nature’s gifts. And I realise that a woodland makes a great walk-in wardrobe: plenty of hooks to hang underwear and clothes. My initiation is complete.
The next evening we camp in a high cliff meadow to the east of Sidmouth. A shelter belt of trees behind, sandmartins granting us exclusive flybys, a faint smell of cannabis from teenagers congregating at a nearby viewing spot. The falling sun throws golden light on the grass, the ultimate light technician.
I walk away to pee and then gaze at the final remnants of sunset. Devon falls away to the west in folds of purple, indigo, blue and black. The nearly-full moon is like a soft lamp, throwing a honeyed shaft of light onto the blue sea. If an Arthurian knight came riding on a white horse towards me right now on that shaft of light, it would not look out of place.
On the path, patches of stone start glowing; crystals in the granite reflecting back the moonlight. Our moonshadows walk back to the bivvies with us. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen my moonshadow. The gratitude, the joy in being alive, comes easily on evenings like this.
My final night of bivvying takes me out of my comfort zone in a different way. A packed campsite, our bivvies and tiny tarps perched right next to other campers playing amplified music and watching TV. Earplugs and a small wall of tarp are my only protections. I feel really vulnerable. In the night, when the wind blows my tarp into me, I jump – it almost feels like a large hand grabbing my shoulder.
I only lived like this for four days. But for those four days I lived entirely outside, and when we got back to my mate’s flat in Exeter both of us felt disoriented to be inside a building. Ecopsychologists reckon that civilisation is only four days deep and that after about 72 hours of being out in nature, profound internal changes start to happen. You don’t need to travel to Papua New Guinea to experience the so-called Wilderness Effect. This was just the South West coastal path. And now it felt strange to be under a ceiling. Protected by walls. To have no wind on our faces. It felt like luxury and like something important was missing. Maybe the insects?