Last updated on October 28, 2021
It’s the night before and my hands are trembling as I’m packing my bag. The tent, the air mattress and pillow, the sleeping bag. The stove, the food, the torch. The fear.
My movements are delicate. I’m trying to convince myself I’m being precise and cautious, rather than hesitating, which is actually what I’m doing. It’s like I’m preparing for an interview for a job I already know I’ll hate. Do I really want to do this? Do I really need to do this? It’s not too late. No one’s making you.
Yes, I do need this, but I don’t know why. This primordial calling, a yearning that never boils but slowly simmers, needs to be listened to. An itch that will drive me insane unless scratched. I’ve tried to ignore it all summer, but the day has come. The day I’ve told my wife I’ll be disappearing for the night. The day the crowds won’t be manic. A Tuesday, early autumn. The day the weather is looking good. No more excuses.
Then I’ll need a power bank for my phone. My drone, my tripod, my lenses. And water? How much water for an overnight wild camp? Don’t forget the down jacket and raincoat. Jesus, is all this really necessary? One night on a hill, alone. It all fits snuggly into my Osprey 58L pack, though there’s not much room left for a change of clothes or anything else.
This is it, this is what my inner beast was craving. Everything I need to survive in a sack slung over my back.
But, Christ, it’s so heavy. I can feel my legs bow beneath me, my muscles twitch and joints jar. How do those young Youtubers carry all this? Am I weak or are they superhuman? I must be missing something.
I really haven’t got a clue, have I? Do I really need to be doing this? Should I really be doing this?
It’s the morning of and I’m hunched over my laptop, dealing with last minute requests from clients who have just decided to respond to emails I sent over three months ago.
I’m checking my route and searching for parking on Google Maps. Apparently there have been reports of cars being broken into overnight, of authorities sending out search rescue teams to find the owners of solitary cars left behind. Presumed suicidal.
But it must all be bollocks. Modern fables. Propaganda to put us off and resist Her call.
No, I’ll park at the Storey Arms and that’ll be that. Keep things simple.
Smash my windows, steal my car, but leave me tend to this aching need to be with Her, with Mother Nature.
It’s the minute before and I’m in the carpark, craning a constant stream of fruit and nuts in to my rabbity mouth.
My vision is sharp and scattered, taking in too much of my surroundings: people coming down from one path, couples walking dogs up another, buying shiny bundles from a burger van, strapping on tiny backpacks. Ignoring the signs to use the underpass and striding across the road with their waggly little friends in tow as if they own the place.
It is only I who is lost here.
There are security cameras overlooking the carpark, no doubt feeding back to the mountain rescue office. They must be watching. They’ll see my tent strapped to the outside of my bag and know I plan to camp overnight, illegally. I unclip it and stuff it inside my backpack, no longer precise or inhibited, but like a thief in a jewellery store.
They can steal my car, they can send out the rescue team. I don’t care. I need this, and it’s now or never.
It is two minutes into my ascent of Pen y Fan, the highest peak in south Wales’ Brecon Beacons. My thighs feel like they’ve been filled with wet cement and are readying to set.
The muscles in my calfs and feet are already tearing and needling, begging me to stop. Droplets of sweat are falling from my brow into my eyes, stinging like seawater. Lungs flaming with whisky fumes. Maybe I should go back and reassess my pack? Am I carrying too much water? I’ve made a mistake somewhere along the line.
I realise at this exact moment that it wasn’t “the challenge” of the climb that I needed, or the imaginary badge of honour I’d win for reaching the top. This is not a feat or physical endeavour, but a simple search for solitude, a disappearing act, somewhere out there.
In this case it really is all about the destination, and not so much about the journey.
It’s an hour and a half into the hike and, after many rest stops disguised as photo sessions, I’m at the top. But wait, that’s not the cairn I’ve seen in the photos, is it?
No, I’m not at the top. I’m at Corn Du, the second highest peak in the Brecon Beacons. 873m. But I can see the tip of Pen y Fan and I plod on, past the man with the noisy drone, past the gabbling school children who are telling their teachers in no uncertain terms that they’ll “never come back here ever again” over the tops of their phones as they walk.
Now I’m atop Pen y Fan and suddenly it feels as if it’s all been too easy, getting up here. It’s over too soon. I want more.
I ask a fellow hiker if he’d be happy to take a photo of me. “I was planning to get a few more peaks in today,” he tells me, “but my legs are done,” he tells me. I feel the same and wonder if I should do the same.
I could be back at my car in less than two hours. Home in three. In time for dinner, a hot bath and ice-cold beer. But no, it would seem silly to turn around now. I mean, is that what people do? Just hike to the top and then turn around? Surely the best bit is yet to come: setting up a camp to call home for the night. Sunset. Waking up to sunrise.
No, I’ll stick to my original plan, otherwise why did I both lugging all my camping gear up with me? With this decision comes the stretching of time. Now I’m running on a different clock to everyone else. They’re soaking in the views and nibbling on sandwiches. Not hurried, per se, but still very much at the mercy of the weather and the arc of the sun. Descent is not an option for these day-hikers, but a necessity.
Soon the mountains will be all mine.
It’s early evening and I’ve made my decision.
I climb down rocky steps built for giants, leaving Pen y Fan from the opposite direction I arrived. More peaks lay before me.
A couple leads the way and I wonder if they’re planning to stay overnight too. But on they go, disappearing with the light.
I spot a flat patch on low ground between Pen y Fan and Fan y Big. Two hours before sundown.
I’m tired and aching and salty to the touch, but according to my map Pen y Fan’s famous “Diving Board” is within strolling distance, albeit up a near-vertical climb. I’ve come this far, I think, so why not.
I sweat my way up and can see for eternity once I reach the peak, all the homes I’ve ever known. A gold haze kisses the deserted crowns all around me. I am on top of the world.
I’m far too scared to tip toe out onto the “Diving Board”, a narrow slab of rock that juts out over the plunging face beneath. It’s still and silent and I remind myself that there is no one here to hear my screams if I fall.
My knees crack and splinter on my way back down to the potential camping spot. By the time I get there, I have already decided it will have to do. I’m losing light now and don’t want to be searching for another spot in the dark.
My little green tent goes up in minutes and looks crude and ridiculous. It’s already shiny with the dew of dusk by the time I crawl inside.
The sky is purple and villages sparkle in the distance like glitter on Christmas trees. Suddenly it is night and I am, as hoped, all alone. No turning back.
I listen to my audiobook – Jaws by Peter Benchley – and boil water in my stove. Despite the heft of my pack, I still don’t have enough and am forced into ration mode.
I pour the boiling water into a packet of pasta with cheese and broccoli and shovel it down by throat before it softens. Then, still hollow, I make another, leaving barely enough water for a cup of coffee in the morning.
It’s the morning after and I rise at 7am, a little later than anticipated. I slept poorly, waking every hour or so to find myself sliding to the bottom of my tent. My camp ground wasn’t as flat as I’d thought, and horses reminded me of where was, so close that I could feel their gallops in the ground beneath me.
I’m anxious and rush to pack up before I’m “spotted”. My tent goes down in less than a minute and I stuff it, still soaking wet from the morning dew, into its sack. Another smash and grab.
By 7:15am I’m on the trail and heading back up Pen y Fan. I stop to fill up my water bottle from dribbling brooks and guzzle it greedily as I take in the silent vistas.
A thin blanket of haze is draped over the peaks and a fresh breeze makes me glad I packed a jacket.
My pack feels heavier today, despite having less in it.Finally I poke up through a thick cloud of mist, I find myself atop Pen y Fan, where a few disappointed hikers are trying to take photos. Visibility is poor and it feels like a different place entirely.
My knees are made of broken glass now, and I realise that the descent is, if not more challenging, more painful than the ascent.
I’m the only one heading down at this early hour and a few fellow hikers study me with misplaced admiration. “You can’t have made it up and down already?”
I feel I belong now and respond with an equally misplaced sense of pride. “Early start!”
It is the morning after and I’m back at the bottom of Pen y Fan, striding confidently across the busy A470 instead of taking the underpass.
I’m sleep-deprived and dehydrated, aching and hungry, yet I feel full and complete. Content, cradled in the bosom of Mother Nature, wrapped in Her pink cotton wool. I’ve been refilled. I am reset.
My car is still in one piece and, from what I can tell, there are no search teams trying to find me. I throw my pack on the backseat and climb behind the wheel. It feels cavernous and warm and safe.
I turn on the radio, ready to rejoin civilisation, ready to face the chaos of life once more. And I think: Yes, I do really need to be doing this. And, yes, I most definitely should be doing this. As much and as often as possible.
Tips for Wild Camping on Pen y Fan, Brecon Beacons
1. Take more water than you think you’ll need – you’ll be glad to have it.
2. Park at The Storey Arms. It’s free and apparently there are cars there day and night, so you don’t need to worry about causing a search rescue. There are also lots of lay-bys around where you can park.
3. Even in the summer, make sure you have a warm jacket and something waterproof. The Brecon Beacons are notoriously changeable and mornings are likely to be quite fresh regardless of the time of year you are hiking.
4. Don’t forget that wild camping is technically illegal – in most places including the Brecon Beacons in south Wales. Pitch up after at dark (or while the sun is setting) and pack up before sunrise and be willing to move on if asked to do so (though it’s unlikely as long as you are discreet and pitch your tent sensibly, away from the trail.
5. Leave no trace.
6. Leave no trace.
7. Leave no trace.
8. Leave no trace.
9. Leave no trace.
10. See rules 5 thru 9.
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