Do contact lenses freeze? That was the first thing I thought as I checked the evening’s weather forecast. Why my first concern of spending a night in a hammock in a wood in subzero temperatures was my contact lenses rather than, say, my inadequate sleeping bag, I have no idea! It was New Year’s Eve when, after chatting to a friend about his outdoor plans for the new year, I had agreed to join him at the local bushcraft meet a few weeks later. Perhaps thanks to the festive ale I was consuming, I had also apparantly (my recollection is a little vague) agreed to leave my tent at home and borrow one of his hammocks. After last year’s 1000 mile challenge, I had decided that 2012 was going to be about experiencing the outdoors (rather than clocking up mileage) – so why not spend a night in a hammock in a wood?!
The wood in question is located just south of Towcester – it is rented out by a local group of bushcrafters who hold regular meets there. My friend Steve (@sandbag47) and I arrived just after lunchtime on Saturday to be greeted by a handful of friendly bushcrafters who had survived the previous night’s freezing conditions. There was a fire going in the central communial area, which was sheltered by piled up wood and tarps, and dotted throughout the small wood were hammocks and shelters, including a tent and a wig wam. We selected a few suitable trees, and Steve patiently demonstrated how to put up the hammock and the tarp cover – I tried to be a good pupil but, to be honest, I cannot remember any of the useful knots I was shown!
Once our hammocks were up, and after a quick trip to the garage for alcohol provisions, we settled down for the evening in front of the communal fire. The guys were an interesting bunch, and I picked up some great tips applicable to backpacking, including a quick play with the Petzl e-lite. One of the group gave a fantastic demonstration of fire cooking: venison stew and mixed plum crumble with custard, all prepared from raw ingredients on the fire in Dutch ovens. It was delicious! There was of course a knife show and tell – I do not have one, but there was an impressive collection. It was also great to discover one of the group is a regular visitor to Social Hiking.
After a bit more fire chat (and some more wine and whiskey) I made my excuses and headed back to my hammock. Outside the fire’s warmth it was cold – heading towards minus 2 (minus 5 with wind chill) – I slipped into my sleeping bag (complete with silk inner) and gingerly got on. Once the initial swaying had died down (I do suffer a little from montion sickness) I was comfortable. Very comfortable. And surprisingly warm (well not warm exactly but not cold). My sleeping bag (an old Technicals Transition 500) is a 3 season and does not tie up at the hood so I kept my fleece and down jacket on but had stripped to my Icebreaker leggings (a bargain at £20). Along with a merino / posum hat and neck scarf from Chocolate Fish and a pillow made up from another jacket I was very snug and quickly drifted off to sleep.
I awoke at 4am needing the toilet – a situation troubling enough in a tent. There was frozen condensation on the tarp and the ground was icy so, whilst I plucked up the courage to leave my cosy nest, I lay quietly enjoying the night: the hooting of owls, the rustling of nighttime animals and the gentle snores coming from various corners of the wood. It was bliss. I relieved myself and returned to my hammock and attempted a sit up maneuver, discovering that I do not have the balance to sit up in a hammock and fell out – waking Steve, who was hanging off the neighbouring tree, in the process. Feeling slightly embarrassed I snuggled back up and drifted off to sleep again.
I was awakened again at 9am by the bright winter sun which had drifted into my line of sight from behind the tarp. It was a glorious sight – the bright sun was causing the ice around me to glisten spectacularly. I lay there, still comfortable and still not cold. 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep outdoors is pretty rare for me, so that is a good indication if how comfortable I was.
Eventually I clambered off the hammock – the communal fire was burning, thanks to an early riser, and after some morning tea (and a trip to the nearby Super Sausage cafe) we packed up and headed home. I am a total hammock convert – it was (as various people on Twitter warned me) the best night I have had in the outdoors (impressive considering the weather conditions). Plans are already being made for taking a travel hammock (which can be used as a bivi bag) for a whirl. I may need to practice (well relearn) those knots!