I was on top of a hill in Dumfries and Galloway and it was blowing a hoolie. Actually, to be more accurate, I was on top of a hill, on top of a Fiat Panda, in a tent that was attached to the roof, and it was blowing a hoolie. Was I enjoying myself? Yes, despite the fact I felt I might be about to lift off and fly to Ecclefechan.
Tents on top of cars aren’t new. Google the concept and you can see East Germans pootling off with them on smog-belching Trabants back in the 1970s. And safari companies offer them in Southern Africa too. But now several small British manufacturers are producing new versions that suddenly seem to be all over my social media feeds. I decided to give one a spin in Scotland.
Mine was already fixed to the car roof for me, which, as someone who struggles with IKEA instructions, was probably no bad thing. Friends assured me that all you need is a pre-check of your vehicle’s “dynamic roof load” (how much weight it can take), roof bars, some elbow grease, six minutes of your time to watch the how-to video, half an hour to install and you’re away.
The version I borrowed was entry-level, with space enough for two people. It requires you to do the grunt work of putting it up, but it can go on a small car. (Pricier models are larger and effortlessly pop-up on gas-filled struts in under 60 seconds.) With practice, I got the set-up to under five minutes and it’s doable by one person after a few goes, although two would be handier.
You need to unstrap the outer cover, then fold the tent out over the side of the car by pulling an attached ladder, which also acts as support. Then – the fiddliest bit – you stretch to put in some struts that keep the roof taut and flaps extended and hook those in, which is all fine and dandy in a day-lit car park off the M3, less so with a head torch in the pitch black on top of a hill outside Dumfries.
There’s a comfy built-in mattress and on balmier nights, vents to let a breeze through, as well as zip-open skylights to fall asleep under the stars. For me, there was no sense of being especially high off the ground: the tent is sturdy and well supported by the ladder and strong hinges, so there’s absolutely no feeling of instability.
Is it foolproof? Apparently not. I awoke the next morning to a damp patch around my head, but that was my fault. In my haste to escape the storm, I hadn’t fully extended one of the side flaps because it was at an awkward-to-reach angle on the other side of the car, and I was tired. Not only did it slap against the canvas all night long but it must have allowed rain in through a vent I’d left ajar; the lesson being, don’t take shortcuts. It didn’t happen twice.
My initial plan had been to park up and ramble free o’er brae and glen, spending the night where the winds of freedom and a portable gas stove took me. Scotland has well-defined right-to-roam and wild camping laws thanks to the 2003 Land Reform Act. There are a few exceptions but generally, if you’re respectful, you can pitch your tent wherever you want as long as the land is not enclosed.
However, that right does not extend to motor vehicles, even if you have a tent screwed on top. So, you can’t just overnight where you want with a car. My plans, therefore, were scaled back from wild to wildly remote-but-legal.
My first night’s location, at Marthrown of Mabie, certainly fitted the bill. I turned off a side road then bumped along rutted tracks through a forest, climbing higher and higher for 10 minutes until I could go no further. A rather splendid view of South-west Scotland unfurled in front of me before night blanketed my Panda. There was a spot to park near an open-sided timber kitchen, shower block, long-drop loos, hooting owls, and that was it.
With my head torch on, I clambered into the tent just before the heavens really opened, then drifted off to sleep accompanied by gusts barrelling over the Solway Firth. I must have been tired because even the loose flap didn’t really keep me awake. Any downside? Yes, that 4am battle between my requirement for the loo and the need to stay tucked up, warm and cosy under the duvet. No way was I fumbling for my head torch, putting on shoes and a jacket, climbing down the ladder and stumbling 40 yards in the rain. Two hours later my bladder won.
My intention over a long long-weekend had been to do some hiking around Moffat but the weather was against me. Instead, I headed west towards Galloway Forest Park (Britain’s largest) and met up with Warren Sanders at the café in Clatteringshaws, as dense, dark clouds rolled down the hilltops on the other side of the loch.
Warren – originally from Staffordshire – ended up here after cycling round the world for four years with his partner and now guides small-group biking trips in the area through Galloway Cycling as well as organising the annual “Raiders Gravel” biking festival that attracts hundreds of enthusiasts from around the globe.
We set off to pedal about 20km along gravel paths originally cleared for forestry vehicles, under dramatic skies that occasionally let sun pour through. We were totally alone with not another soul seemingly for miles around. From time to time, I paused to soak in the solitude and dramatic scenery, then pedalled on until we stopped at a small bothy to crack open a Thermos of coffee and some chocolate bars.
Not far away, as evening crept in from the west, Matthew McFadzean – aka the Dark Sky Ranger – leads night-time astronomical tours in this area that offers some of the lowest levels of light pollution in the country. It was one of the first places in Europe to be given Dark Sky Park status. Matthew was fascinating and passionate, and also a cracking photographer who produced some amazing shots of the star-splattered skies.
“In Edinburgh with all the light pollution you might see one hundred stars whereas here on a clear night you can see around 7,000,” he told me.
My last night was by the sea in the fishing village of Isle of Whithorn where Alastair Scoular owns the Steam Packet Inn and lets people stay overnight for free in a field behind the pub if they eat at the inn’s restaurant.
By now I’d got my tent set-up in under five minutes. I was pleasantly full after a dinner of fish and chips and a plate of Dumfries and Galloway cheeses. I was lulled to sleep with the soft crash of waves and the call of seagulls, and it was those same sounds that woke me the next morning.
I packed up, dismantled the struts, pulled up the ladder and folded the tent one last time then stretched the cover over, cleaned my teeth, and headed off. When your car is also your accommodation it’s easy to have micro-adventures around the country. I plan to do more.