Eight steps to trans-Dartmoor hiking heaven
I'm dusting the moss off my rucksack after another fantastic crossing of Dartmoor National Park on foot to my home in Chagford.
With friends, on possibly the warmest weekend we've had on the moor this summer, we departed Dartmoor Inn on the western side of the moor and made a 26km traverse to the Northeast of Dartmoor. Given we spent a night wild camping on the moor you might think 26km in 2 days sounds a bit leisurely. But in fact because no signage exists on central Dartmoor thus requiring navigation, plus the rough conditions underfoot, ensure that the going can often be slow. But the rewards are great. Dazzling rock displays (like the picture of Watern Tor above), tiny carnivorous sundew plants around the oil-black tarns, wild streams for swimming and fished by grey herons, and on the rare occasion it isn't raining ... the best sunsets I have ever seen.
It's quite fashionable to bang on about micro-adventures these days but crossing Dartmoor presents challenges that even over-priced kit won't overcome. You need to be self-sufficient. There is not always a mobile phone signal. You need some navigational nous. And definitely waterproofs. Did I mention midges? Perhaps I won't as they offer painful memories. So below I have presented 8 quick tips for a safe and enjoyable hill walking experience:
1. Check for Live Firing:
The military use 3 designated firing ranges on Dartmoor. Range posts are marked with red flags if operations are taking place but save yourself any hassle by checking firing times before setting off.
2. Learn to use a Compass
This is such a satisfying test of skills rather than just settling for an app on your phone or GPS and far more fun. To understand how you get to a place is almost as important as just simply arriving. Try out a course. I've heard good things about this moorland leader.
3. Peat Passes
Great trenches of peat cut across the landscape enable access across the mires and bogs. They date back over a century ago. They make excellent navigation aids and if you set your compass to aim roughly halfway along these linear features it won't matter if you are a few degrees out as you'll hit them and know instantly where you are.
4. Pointing Tents
I woke up some years back after a night of wild camping to find my tent shrouded in thick mist that never broke all day. It was disorientating at first. You can feel like you know where you should be going but this conflicts with what your compass or GPS is saying. From then on, if the terrain allows, I point the entrance of my tent towards the direction I plan to set off from in the morning to at least get me off on the right track mentally before striding (or squelching) out.
5. Death by Midges
Somebody told me once that if you camp high on a tor top you'll avoid the summertime midges. This is a fallacy. On Dartmoor they have mastered the skills of high-flying and during June-August can blight any camping experience. I take a head-net nowadays for when it just gets a little too bad. Equally, any tor top or ridge that catches a breeze will blow the little b******s away.
6. Sheepish Water
Water can be a bit of an issue on Dartmoor. Heavens Above we get enough rain but the small brooks may be a little stagnant and tainted by acidic tannins and of course who knows what livestock may have expired and fallen in the stream or peed in it. I try to look out for springs issuing straight out of the rock, which you have to listen for rather than look for. But otherwise make sure you have a strong filtration and water purification system. I quite often boil up a bottle too before bed and let it chill overnight for next morning.
7. Keep High
I am not advocating narcotic substances as the breathtaking scenery and isolation is always a natural high. But plotting your course to run along the ridges and shoulders between the granite tors may look circuitous on the map but trust me it saves so much time than taking short looking cuts through boggy pasture or spiky gorse-covered dips with sensitive plants. Excessive red-topped grass colouring and cotton grass simply shout out ... DON'T CROSS HERE!
8. Keep it Sustainable
Dartmoor is as old as the hills, as they say, and hewn from granite. But it harbours a fragile natural ecosystem and its true beauty comes from an unfettered and dramatic landscape. I'm sure I don't need to tell anybody reading this that if you wild camp leave no trace of your visit. The national park offers guidelines to wild camping and in summer because the park fringes gets clogged with road traffic try to source a bus to the start of your walk.
Above all have fun and if it does rain ... make sure you comeback and try again until you have woken up to silence, maybe the odd bleating sheep or meadow pipit, then peered out of your tent to see some of Britain's oldest landforms on fire at sunset!