The weekend was spent ‘shadowing’ a Duke of Edinburgh Bronze practice expedition. Not in preparation for my own attempt – they tell me I’m too old – but as something of a ‘trial shift’ for future employment as an instructor on said expeditions.
What I learned from my shadow
1. Even the bronze expeditions are hard work.
These little guys (they were 13-14) have to carry 65 litre packs across two days of 8-12km hiking. Some of them were lugging 85 litre packs stuffed to the hoods. Lucky fools.
2. Why can’t most people get camp cooking right?
For millennia, humans just like us cooked out of doors. So why did even the instructors (at least those who didn’t drive back to their warm home, or slide open their luxury camper vans) make do with rehydrating packet noodles, or reheating leftovers?
For the kids, camp cooking is part of the syllabus and, for fear of getting it badly wrong, they exclusively plumped for easy cook pasta and ready-made stir-in sauce. The most accidentally ambitious of the kids brought along bacon lardons to add to his pasta – but only because he thought they were pre-cooked.
I have perused (in a scoffing sort of way) campfire cookbooks in the past, but if I am to commit to broad enjoyment of the great outdoors, then it’s time to take campfire cooking seriously.
On a continental bike tour in 2016, we took a humungous Camping Gaz hob burner. Nothing in our packs brought greater ridicule from other tourers; nothing brought greater pleasure to us.
3. I still can’t sleep in a tent.
I could blame the mummified claustrophobia of the sleeping bag, or the pattering of rain on canvas, or the rowdy teachers up late, or the ironic anxiety that I would oversleep, but where does that get me?
4. Kit is crucial.
Between the 50 or so kids and the half dozen instructors, we showed off the full range of hiking kit.
Within 10 minutes of leaving, we knew who had the right rucksack and who didn’t. By the end of the second day, you could easily see (or hear) who had decent walking boots.
It’s easy to be smug when you recently dropped £100 on boots and another £50 on a rucksack, but these two make such a difference to your enjoyment of an expedition that they have to be worth the investment.
If it’s going to rain more than a little, you can add waterproofs to that list.
5. There will be moments when it’s all worthwhile.
Walking and talking with people more than two decades younger than me; watching the sun rise through the morning mist; strolling alone through a dappled beech forest as I waited for the expedition teams to come past their final checkpoint.
6. I’d like to do more of this.
For too long I have equated ‘typing at a computer’ with ‘making a living’. This new outdoor office is a whole new liberation.
Computers are all well and good, and I am lucky to be able to write for a living, and join people up with words. But perhaps the most valuable thing I can do right now is help kids enjoy the outdoors.
As the lead instructor said: ‘our interventions make a difference to the lives of these young people’.
A friend was recently featured in a BBC photostory about escaping the city into the mountains. It’s a beautiful reminder of why we go outdoors, and why we share our skills and enthusiasms with others.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sipping a hot cup of tea after six hours of freezing rain hitting you in the face.