One of the things recommended in some druid training material is the idea of a druid retreat. In effect what this consists of is spending a period of time alone, perhaps in woodland, to performs rituals or to reflect and contemplate. Maybe even living off the land, and experiencing a slower pace of life.
For some this is a simple matter. With access to or ownership of private land, you can pretty much do what you want. For the rest of us though this presents a challenge for which there are a couple of options. One option is to pay to go to a retreat, or to rent some space in some other way such as a campsite. Another way, and my preferred option is to go wild camping.
Wild camping in England is a minefield of Laws. It is important to know where you can wild camp and when you can and can not have a fire if you intend to have one. The short answer is pretty much nowhere, but there are exceptions.
One of the most important considerations when planning a wild camp ritual is what to take with you, how much that weighs, and how awkward it is to carry. After much trial and error, I just about have the correct balance now. Cutting back to light weight essentials is key, especially if you are going solo as I do. But taking non-essential ritual items is also important. This article will discuss how to strike that balance, and other considerations for a wild camp ritual. Before I go into a detailed kit list, lets first discuss a few important points.
To have a fire or not should be your first question. Assuming you have understood the legalities of fire and are free to proceed, there are a few other things you might want to consider. How will you start your fire? Personally I feel that using paraffin fire lighters is cheating a bit. So is using a lighter really. In Druidry a fire can be an important part of a ritual, sacred. I just feel that trivialising it’s importance and the difficulty in obtaining it is somehow profane to the spirit of fire, if what you want is a “sacred” fire? For this reason I much prefer to start the fire from a spark. It is much less effort than rubbing sticks together, and is fairly easy with a bit of practice and the right preparation.
To get your spark you will need a flint and steel which are widely available, or if you prefer you can also use flint and iron pyrite (fool’s gold – pyrite from the Greek “Stone which strikes fire”). Once you have the tools for creating a spark you need something delicate and flammable to catch that spark and become an ember. Charcloth is what most people would use for this but if you are looking for the more “nature based” way then you can use any number of dry fluffy flowers or catkins. But the best way is to use Amadou, a fluffy leather/felt like material that is obtained from young Horse Hoof fungus, also known as tinder bracket.
The next step is to get fire from that ember. What ever it was you used to catch your spark is placed in a bundle of dry flammable material. Every year the council go around mowing parks and fields. Once the mowed grass has dried for a couple of days I collect some of it up and store it for use in fire lighting. So I grab a good bundle of grass and then a place the ember in among it, hold it up to the air so any wind helps to fan it up, and then blow hard into it. It will begin smoking more and more as the ember lights the grass and eventually it will burst into flames. As soon as you have flames, you place the grass fireball into a pre-prepared firepit.
Now you have a fire, what are you going to burn? It’s no good just chopping up trees willy nilly to feed your fire. You need dry dead wood. If your wood is not dry it will create a lot of smoke, and if you are trying to keep a low profile (because who wants their ritual interrupted?) then a lot of smoke will give you away. Don’t get me wrong, if you have a fire, you will get smoke, but it is a question of how much. To find dry wood look for dead wood which is off the ground. Wood that has been this way for some time is the best. Try not to select any wood that is on the ground or obviously wet. Alternatively you might want to dry wood at home and carry it into the woods with you, which will considerably add to the amount of weight you have to carry. After a period of rain this can be a good option if you don’t think you are going to find anything dry and you don’t want to give away your position.
I am always surprised when I watch other people with fire at just how few people can actually maintain a fire properly. At too many rituals I have watched people struggle to start them with wet wood, smother the flames and constantly worry it until they put it out. It is a skill we have lost and it is worth practising before you find your self sleeping out on the winter solstice. First build your fire on exposed earth, not on grass, and avoid tree roots and anything else that looks flammable, so if you are camping under pine trees clear an area of dry needles. On grass you can pull up the turf and put it back when you are done. Dig if you need to but ultimately leave no trace. Next surround your fire with stones to keep it contained and prevent it from spreading.
Everything you have used to get your grass fireball can be considered tinder. Next you need kindling. Dry thin dead twigs, and plenty of them reasonable long, say 6-8 inches. As soon as your grass bursts into flames, begin adding twigs. It is important that the grass (which will smoke by the way) burns for long enough for the twigs to catch. Keep adding twigs as needed, but don’t smother the fire. Never put a new twig directly on a flame, place it just touching the flame instead. Give flames material to grow onto. Keep adding small twigs and sticks as needed, gradually increasing in thickness, but don’t put anything on you would consider a log just yet. What you are trying to get is a nice bed of hot red coals. Once you have this you can start adding logs.
In order for the logs to burn well it is best to split them with an axe and expose the wood inside, rather than the fire having to get through all the bark first. Doing that is a good way to put your fire out fast, especially if the logs are slightly damp. The inner wood is more likely to be dry and will catch better. You should only need to place 2 or 3 logs on your fire at a time. You don’t want it to get to big, and the objective is to maintain that bed of hot coals. If you begin to loose this, add more small material until you can build the bed back up.
The resulting kit list for a fire then is something to start it with (flint and steel), something to dig with (trowel/shovel), tools for cutting wood (axe, saw) and pre-prepare tinder and possibly kindling and wood. There is a fair amount of weight there just for a fire, and we have not considered cooking utensils, food or anything else you might want to use the fire for. Nor have we discussed what woods you might use to add significance or sacredness to it. Fire then, is an important consideration.
Shelter and Sleep
Different people are comfortable with different shelter arrangements. The obvious choice is a tent, but a tent can add a lot of weight to your equipment and requires the correct amount of space. Another option in nice weather is no shelter at all and to just sleep under the stars. The weather should play an important role in your choice of shelter, especially if like me, you go in all seasons.
My preferred option, regardless of season, is a tarpaulin and a ground sheet. There are two big advantages to a tarpaulin over a tent. The first is weight. All you need is the tarpaulin and some cord. There are no poles, no inner and outer skins etc to add to the weight. It even packs down to a smaller space too, and no struggling to get it back into the bag, it goes in a pocket of my main bag. You can even avoid carrying pegs and just make what you need from sticks as you set up. It is just a much lighter smaller option. Even with the addition of a sleeping bag and mat and the groundsheet, the entire sleeping kit list is a fraction of the weight of a standard dome tent. The Second benefit of a tarpaulin is flexibility. It can be put up in a myriad of ways, especially when you are among the trees. Even out on open ground all you need is a walking pole to create a free standing structure with a tarpaulin. Now, I don’t have a walking pole, but I do generally have my staff when I want to do a ritual. For me, using my staff to support my tent also allows my staff to represent an axis mundi right in the middle of my tent. Finally, if you are not keen on sleeping on the floor, another popular cheap option I have not tried is a hammock.
The resulting kit list for shelter then is a tarpaulin, groundsheet and para-cord instead of a tent, and a sleeping bag, sleeping mat or hammock. Either way, avoiding the tent will save a lot of weight. Using Staffs or sticks optional.
Clothing and Ritual Dress.
Dancing naked in the woods is one tried and tested option that some might want to embrace. For most other people warmth will be the first priority when considering what to wear for a night of ritual in the woods. Some people feel strongly about ritual dress, but for me, practicality comes first when wild camping. Long white druid robes will quickly get dirty sleeping in the woods, and wearing anything long around fire is a risk. If it is warmth you want, I would avoid anything synthetic too. Wool is your best option if you want to stay warm. To some, ritual dress is about extravagance and a way of marking the time as special by wearing special clothing. I do not really go in for that, and I often feel it is one of the biggest mistakes of the pagan community. To the general population, seeing pagans dressed in quasi-medieval clothing is nothing more than LARPing and a reason to ridicule us. For this reason I take another approach, and guide my self with the following rules.
- Clothing must be practical.
- I am not a druid part time, so I will not dress as a druid part time.
- Clothing must pass in everyday society without looking like LARPing.
Depending on the season, you will want a number of layers too. In the summer I wear a light cotton/linen shirt, and a wool jumper as it cools down, possibly two. A sleeping bag is enough to stay warm with that. In the winter I add a extra wool jumpers and a 2-layer wool coat. I also add a blanket to my kit when it is cold. On my legs I wear a pair of combat trouser with the extra pockets, and in winter I add a pair of linen trouser underneath. Other clothing in my kit list include a pair of wool arm warmers and a pair of felted wool mittens as well as a wool hat. On my feet I usually have one or two pair of wool socks and water proof walking boots, though I often take them off during the ritual if it is dry and go bear foot. For me then what makes this clothing “druid like” is the colour scheme, and buying jumpers and coats with oversized hoods. The colours for me are earthy browns greens and greys. The oversized hood has a practical purpose too beyond just looking “druid-like”, and that is the ability to pull it down over your eyes and plunge your self into darkness for meditation and inner journeying.
So the kit list for clothing is layers of wool. As many as you need for the season and good boots.
If you are stopping out over night in the woods, and plan to put up a shelter and collect logs and stones for your fire, then you are going to be there long enough to want to eat. But what can you eat? How much food should you take with you? It would be really easy to take a load of meat and have a BBQ on your fire, but you won’t want meat in your bag on a hot day for too long, But is there anything else that could add to the experience of the ritual?
For me a wild camping ritual is at least in part about connecting with the spirit of the landscape. One way of connecting deeply with the landscape is to eat it. Why not forage your dinner during a wild camp? It is still worth planning what you are going to eat because you can’t forage everything you would need (well you can but it would take months of foraging, processing and storage for later use). For example on my last wild camp ritual I cooked an Omelette. So all I needed in my pack was a couple of eggs, some cheese and a little salt and pepper. The rest I collected from the landscape I was camping in, the landscape I am connecting with. There is only one of me, I did not need to collect much.
In addition to the image above, I also added a leaf of wild garlic I had in my pack, though Jack-In-The Hedge also grows in this location, and I could have used that. Its a pretty simple recipe. peal the pignuts and chop up a little. Peal the outer leaf off of the Hogweed to, and then fry them together.
In the meantime I choped the remaining flowers and wild garlic, then chucked all that in with a couple of eggs, cheese, salt and pepper.
Both Hogweed and Pignut are part of the carrot family that also includes Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort, so careful identification is necessary. Hemlock is of course poisonous, and Waterdropwort along with Giant Hogweed and a few others can cause serious burns if you get the sap on your skin and it is exposed to sunlight.
The law states you should not forage roots like Pignut too without the consent of the land owner, to prevent damage to the environment and local habitats. Here is a picture of the land being manged by its owner.
One last point on food before I move on. Never forget the importance of water. There is nothing worse than running out of water miles from a safe clean source. I recommend taking no less than 2L of water per day you plan to be out. It is tempting to consider rivers, springs, wells etc, but with the current pollution of our environment, I am not willing to risk it. Even with purifying tablets and boiling I would be cautious.
In terms of equipment. I try to keep to a minimum. I have a small folding camping pan set, which is ideal for one person, a set of cutlery, and a BBQ utensil set. Other than that I have a small grill I place over the fire to rest pans on or grill.
Ritual and Ritual Equipment
What else might we take with us for a night in the woods? Everything discussed so far has been focused on practicalities. Warmth, shelter and food. But many people when conducting rituals like to use tools as well. Staffs and wands, incense, mead, wine, candles, drums and so on. The choice is yours what you take with you but remember, anything you take has to be carried both to your site, and back again in the morning. The concept of a crane bag can be useful here. In the modern druid tradition a crane bag can be any one of a number of things, but one description is a “ritual in a bag”. I.E. everything you need to do an impromptu ritual, that you can carry with you at all times.
Where possible, I try to keep ritual items in a single bag. So if I want candles, my journal or any thing else like that, they go in that bag. The exceptions are the big items such a my torches, my drum and my staff which are either carried or strapped to my main bag. Remember though, it is all additional weight.
In addition to my main bag and my crane bag, I also take a belt bag where I keep my fire lighting and other tools. Also on my belt when camping are my axe, folding spade and water bottle.
Is it for me?
Perhaps not. Sleeping alone on the floor in the woods is not for everyone. I have had encounters with deer, foxes, rats and other noises in the night. I have been awoken by a blackbird hopping around my fire and chirping away, and I have seen mice pinching an offering from an alter made the night before. The wind blowing through the trees can make some odd noises too. The fear of being discovered, of being told off by the authorities can also be off putting. Seeking deep spiritual experience in the woods can be scary, and there are things you can do towards deepening your experience that make it scarier still. For some simply getting to woodland is a near impossibility let alone sleeping there. Only you can decide what is right for you. If you do decide to go wild camping then I hope I have offered some useful pointers. One last piece of advice though. Always leave your site as spotless as you found it.