Monday, 11 February 2019

Sleeping on tour, when it's very cold outside

Those four views look pretty bleak, don't they? They were taken on 20th April 2010, travelling north on the A836 between Crask and Tongue in the far north of Scotland. It was midday. The sun was in the sky, but big clouds were blotting it out every few minutes. The wind was bitingly cold. From time to time you drove into a sleet shower. Not weather to treat lightly.

I wasn't yet driving Fiona, my trusty Volvo. I was still waiting to take delivery of her. I was driving the Honda CR-V that came before, which had started to feel less reliable than it once was. Nursing it along, in fact. It would be no joke if the Honda faltered when out on a lonely road like this, in such inhospitable terrain. The caravan (and civilisation) was back at Brora. No sleet showers there, but a constant cold wind nevertheless. M--- had insisted on pitching as far as possible from the Brora site entrance, in order to be close to the beach. Here's the beach, a nice one to be sure, though a bit exposed:

But it meant that doing the ordinary daily chores was  a bind. Getting rid of waste water, and filling the containers up with fresh, and emptying the toilet cassette, were outdoor tasks I normally thought nothing of (and still don't, in 2019) but in a wind that cut through your clothing, and a longish trek to the taps and chemical waste disposal point, it was a minor ordeal. (I doubt if I complained much at the time, but I would now)

This is where I am going next April, except that it will be in early April, and those mountains will look somewhat whiter with snow and ice. And that wind will be keener.

I shall initially be pitched at Dunnet Bay for a few days (not far from John o'Groats) and then reprise Brora (further south) for a few days more. These will be my bases for some day trips along the coast and into the interior - taking emergency clothing, blankets, food and drink with me of course - in a bid to see as much as feasible of the Far North. It's mainly about the awesome photographic possibilities. But also about just being so far north, and seeing it in Fiona, whose furthest north so far has been Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth coast.

That car has served me so well, but she's middle-aged now, and I'm getting careful with her. I've no serious worries that she would falter in cold weather, but I'm not going to go anywhere that would test Fiona to the limit. So day trips using proper roads - as far as Durness and Ullapool certainly - will be fine. But a scary twenty-mile detour along rough interior tracks to (say) ultra-lonely Altnabreac station, just to see it, probably not. I imagine the chances of getting a rescue within six hours on such tracks, if I have a puncture, are pretty slim. No mobile phone reception, for one thing. Indeed, the possibility of at least occasional mobile phone reception is a prime reason for sticking to proper roads.

This is going to be a holiday that involves a lot of daily driving, and I'll need to get a good night's sleep every night. And that means a warm, cosy and comfortable night's sleep. But I know that nights so far north can get very chilly indeed, even on the coast. Naturally, the electric heating in the caravan will be left on, at its low setting, but this won't be sufficient. I'll need proper bedding.

Before 2014 I used sheets and a duvet. Then, for the sake of convenience, I started using a summer-weight sleeping bag, over which I'd spread extra coverings according to the season. Here it is. It featured in a post five years ago, in which I speculated on how old it was. You couldn't tell from the labels, but it must have dated from sometime in the 1990s.

As you can see, it's a straightforward rectangular bag, with a zip up the side. It's cotton with some kind of polyester filling, nothing very fancy. I like the jazzy bright blue colour, and the white interior. It washes up very well. Despite being at least twenty years old, it still looks almost new. It's perfect for the caravan. During the day, I fold it up and tidy it away. At night it comes out and gets used with my usual pillow, brought with me from home. I do like my familiar creature comforts while away!

With no extra covering, it's fine as it is for the warmest months. In spring and autumn, I might drape my fleecy dressing gown over it, for a little extra warmth. If it's a particularly cold night, a fleece blanket as well. That's been good enough for all my caravanning adventures so far. But I think I may need something better for those early-April nights in the far north!

So I've been looking in outdoor shops in the High Street and online, to see what they have in the way of winter-weight sleeping bags.

It's been disappointing. Attractively-coloured rectangular bags for one adult person are hard to find. The offerings are mostly compact, close-fitting mummy-shaped bags with integral hoods, all in unexciting or frankly drab colours. These are obviously for the backpacking and music-festival markets. They may be sophisticated, lightweight and likely to stand up to rough conditions - but they are not what I want, which is basically what I've been using, only with a winter specification.

This is discouraging.

In fact I've now decided that my best plan is to take along my winter and summer duvets, and wrap these around my existing blue sleeping bag. Those duvets will take up space inside the caravan, but at least I will be warm. And this plan makes it unnecessary to buy another sleeping bag just for very occasional winter outings.

Goodness knows how I will stash the duvets away during the daytime. I can put them somewhere of course, but they will be very much on show, and frankly the front end of my little caravan will be dominated by bulky bedding. I will have to shift it around a lot, and it will be a nuisance, especially when once again back in England towards the end of April, when it will be distinctly warmer and these duvets won't be needed. There will be no room to entertain anyone in the caravan: where can they possibly sit?

But it will have to be like this. There's nothing worse than wanting to sleep, but being unable to because you're just not warm enough. It was at times like that in New Zealand in 2007, when in South Island, touring around in a campervan without insulation, and no adequate bedding. It takes the edge of a holiday if you're forced to sleep in your clothes night after night.


  1. I used to sleep in an uninsulated VW van, ( which was very unreliable! ), at that time of year and it was fairly comfortable. There are plastic storage bags which can have air pumped out to shrink things like duvets for smaller packing.

    On that 2010 trip I suggested a visit to the Whaligoe steps, there is even a cafe nearby now! Ordinance map ref ND321404, bit of a steady climb but fascinating.

  2. Thanks, Coline. Whaligoe is certainly a possible place to see.



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