Sunshine slants in from the west, low and flat, casting our shadows in long spindly movements across the slope. It’s early evening and still really warm, low-twenties at least and hardly a breath of wind. The last of the day’s hillwalkers shamble past us, descending on tired legs, red faces flushed with heat and exertion, their mountain done.
For us, it’s just the beginning. I’m with my seven-year-old son attempting his first Munro. We’ve decided not to race up and down in one day, but instead, to turn the climb into an adventure – a wild camp, up high on one of the ridges and then a push to the summit the next day.
Spending time on a mountain in this way is always a rewarding experience. It enables a switch in mindset, the pace can be slowed and you have more time to take in your surroundings. Reaching the summit no longer becomes the main focus of the journey. The way up becomes just as important as reaching the top, and choosing a good ridge to camp on can often be the most satisfying part of the climb.
Wild camping seems inherently wilder the higher up the mountain you are. Eating, resting and sleeping above forestry and glen, looking down on lochs and rivers enriches the mountain experience in ways that can’t be achieved at lower levels. Scotland’s mountain ridges are a great place to enjoy this: high enough to have a truly mountainous perspective, yet not as exposed as spending the night on the summit.
What’s more, an abundance of hills carved from long, sweeping acts of glaciation offer endless possibilities for ridge camping in Scotland. Unlike the Alps or other greater ranges, Scotland’s mountains are blessed with relatively gentle inclines; spurs, shoulders and ridges that are often broad enough and long enough to include (at least at some point) flat sections suitable to take a tent or two.
Once a spot is chosen, the full range of light and mood on a mountain can be enjoyed, from the last piercing rays of sunset and the strange shift into dusk, to star-crowded night and the first brightness of dawn. From a ridge you can see it all.
Midge free zone
There are other benefits of ridge camping too. Normally, even on the stillest of days, there’s enough of a breeze to push away any midges, whereas a camp lower down can find you choking in clouds of the little blighters. I have also often used ridge camps as a kind of staging post, a base camp from which to make a quick romp to the summit either last thing at night or first thing in the morning, escaping the day-crowds and having the top to myself.
This is what my son and I plan to do. We climb the steep southern flank of Stob Binnien, and after an hour and a half of lugging heavy packs, we reach the grassy ridge of Na Staidhrichean. The wind has picked up at this level. A stiff breeze blows in from the southwest and the fly sheet snaps and bellows as we set up camp.
It’s one of the considerations for camping up high, and even more relevant for ridge camping. Wind can behave strangely on this kind of topography, gaining considerable speed as it pushes up and over the shoulder of a mountain. And of course it’s chillier. A general rule of thumb, known as the ‘lapse rate’ determines that it will be 1oC colder for roughly every 100 metres of ascent gained. A lack of near-by water can also be a challenge the higher up you go, and depending on the steepness of the ridge, safe access to a water source can sometimes be an issue.
But planning around the practical aspects of ridge camping are more than worth it. In fact, choosing where to go becomes the biggest dilemma. Do you want to wake up looking out on the islands of Loch Lomond from Ben Lomond’s Ptarmigan Ridge, or do you want to see the sun setting across the Atlantic from one of the Knoydart hills? Perhaps you’d prefer the sense of wildness that comes with sleeping out on Carn a Mhaim above the Lharig Ghru pass in the Cairngorms, or maybe camping on Sgurr na Lapaich with an eagle’s eye view of Loch Affric Forest. The choices are endless.
We cook our dinner and eat it with the tent door wide open, protected from the wind, but enjoying a panoramic view. Directly in front of us we watch the last of the evening’s sun lighting the opposing hills. They glow amber, then gold, with every detail contrasted delicately in shadow. It’s a sight only gifted to those rising very early or those staying up late. My son is quiet, taking it all in. I hope that he’ll remember it all. But now it’s getting late, and I can tell he’s tired. I check the tent pegs are secured one last time, then I crawl inside the tent, and for the few moments before sleep we listen to the wind strengthening from the west. ‘No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it’, wrote the poet and author Nan Shepherd. I think she was right.
Patrick Baker is author of The Cairngorms: A Secret History. Buy it here.
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