Wild camp at Styhead Tarn

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A walk from Seathwaite in Borrowdale via Sprinkling Tarn to spend a stormy night wild camping at Styhead Tarn

Wild camping at the head of Borrowdale

I’ve done precious little wild camping in 2017, partly to injury (since healed), partly due to awful weather when I was free. As it was getting near to the end of my camping season (no wild camping for me in winter as the hours of darkness are too long) I had one last opportunity to expand the year’s camping log.

However on checking the weather forecast, it wasn’t looking great. But I’ve been out in worse. And anyway, forecasts can be wrong.

After poring over my maps I decided to head out on a well-trodden hike at the head of Borrowdale. There were a variety of routes to take so plans could be adapted as I walked, and there were a number of places en route to spend the night. Plus, if the worst came to the worst, I knew the route well enough to head back down in the dark.

Dripping wet at Seathwaite

And so it was that I parked at the end of the Borrowdale road at Seathwaite. It was tea-time on a grey day and it was dry. So far, so good. Sadly it wasn’t to stay that way.

On opening the car boot I realised that I hadn’t tightened the top of one of the water bottles and water was dripping out of the bottom of my rucksack. I did stop to wonder if my sleeping bag (which was in the bottom pocket) was dry. I guess I would find find out when I set up camp but time was of the essence and I wanted to get going.

Finding somewhere to camp above Borrowdale

The short three quarter mile walk along the track from Seathwaite to Stockley Bridge went by pretty quickly. There were relatively few people out as it was midweek and all them were coming the other way, back down into Borrowdale. I would like to think the ones that smiled were pleased to see me but they were probably glad to be near the end of their day out and a chance to get shelter and warmth. I wasn’t jealous. Much.

By the time I arrived at the packhorse bridge and the first fork in the path the wind was starting to pick up. If it was windy here it would be blowing a gale up at Esk Hause so that was off the agenda for the night. After quickly weighing up my options I decided to get the climbing out of the way and head up the Grains Gill path. This would get me higher up than I needed to be but I could then take a saunter downhill to find a pitch for the night.

On the way up I kept stopping to turn round and look back. I knew the view looking down Grains Gill was great but there was no light whatsoever. Just a cloudy, grey, flat scene so the camera stayed in its bag.

Within half an hour I had climbed out of the top of the gill and reached the junction of paths at the top. As I predicted it was very windy here so I didn’t bother turning left for the climb to Esk Hause. Turning right I headed down towards the more sheltered Sprinkling Tarn.

It was only when I arrived at Sprinkling Tarn that I remembered being here a few years before. On that occasion it had been raining quite a lot. The result was that most of the open ground where a tent can be pitched was at best very wet, at worst waterlogged.

Sadly conditions were exactly the same this time too.

Keen to find somewhere to camp I spent some time wandering round and did find somewhere dry enough. Unfortunately it was a couple of metres away from the only other tent there! It did cross my mind to make camp but I wouldn’t be too chuffed if someone else pitched so close to my tent.

And so I moved on, heading downhill to Styhead Pass. The light was just starting to go and I had that one option left.

Fortunately having walked down the path to Styhead Pass I found Styhead Tarn was totally free of tents. Being lower down and less exposed than Sprinkling Tarn it also seemed to be the better option. And just in time too as sunset was only about half an hour away.

The ground here was much drier than beside Sprinkling Tarn. After a quick wander I chose the area over the stepping stones at the Wasdale end of the tarn. Thanks to plenty of rain the stones were submerged but could still be seen in the water. And thankfully I had no mishaps when carrying all my kit over them. I’m sure I will one day but not on this day.

Time to get my tent out and my kit ready for the night. Fortune was on my side as I discovered my sleeping bag was dry after my earlier water bottle leak. Phew!

Stormy night at Styhead Tarn

Tent pitched I had time for a wander in the remaining light. It might not have been the most pleasant of weather but I was holding out for a gorgeous dawn. Reccying now would be useful.

This was the view from the mountain rescue box at the head of Styhead Pass, looking back down towards the tarn. My tent was somewhere off to the right of the photo.

It might not have been raining but it soon would be. Time to take shelter for the night.

I’ve had a few rough nights in the fells in my time: nights when the sound of the wind and rain makes sleep nigh on impossible. And this turned out to be one of them.

I must have nodded off at some point though as I remember waking up as the first light of dawn arrived. And it wasn’t accompanied by the sound of rain on the tent. Maybe it had cleared up? On unzipping the tent I realised it hadn’t though. Low cloud had come in with the overnight rain and the top of nearby Seathwaite Fell’s crags were covered.

As the tent was wet I decided to leave it to dry for a bit and wandered down the path towards Borrowdale. My old bones needed warming up.

I only went as far as the wooden footbridge over Styhead Gill and managed to take this photo. Ok, the beck wasn’t bathed in wonderful dawn light but its a pleasing image nonetheless.

Back down into Borrowdale and home

While packing up my tent I decided that as it was only 6am I could afford to take my time heading back down. There was still no rain so I may as well make the most of being in the fells. Taking the direct route back down would be far too quick so I decided to retrace my steps.

And so it was that I ended up climbing back over the shoulder of Seathwaite Fell, past Sprinkling Tarn.

There was no sign of movement from the sole tent there as I crept past but it was still upright. The wind had evidently dropped in the night but there were no views to be had from here. The low cloud saw to that.

Luckily by the time I reached the top of Grains Valley there was a small bit of light to play with. During a break for breakfast, I took this photo.

With a bit of post-processing it came out quite well, the stubborn little tree acting as a good point of focus. And it was about as much sun as I saw on the whole trip. Having eaten breakfast and started off downhill again the rain started. And this time it didn’t stop.

I did stop though, one last time at Stockley Bridge.

I didn’t think there would be many people heading into the fells on this day, especially not so early. As a result this was a rare chance to take a photo of the bridge without having to pause while people walked past. However driving rain and a wet lens meant this was the only photo I took that was worth keeping.

And with that I’d had enough of getting wet. Ten minutes later I was back in my dry, warm car driving home.

Ok, so the night out wasn’t very comfortable and didn’t result in loads of photos. But this is the Lake District and it wouldn’t be same if it was sunny all the time. As is often said the water in the lakes has to come from somewhere!

On the plus side there is now another entry in my list of wild camping spots in the Lakes. And, after going through the few photos I did take, more than one made in into my collection of Lake District photographs. That’s more than I upload from most camping trips.

Wild camp at Styhead Tarn was last modified: January 10th, 2022 by Gavin Dronfield

Further reading:

  • Great Gable and Green Gable from Borrowdale
    May 2015 : A day that started out in a murky Borrowdale turned out to be one the most memorable days in the Lake District fells, taking in Great Gable and sunset from Green Gable

  • Great End wild camp in summer
    June 2016 : The tale of a nine mile walk from Seathwaite Farm at the head of Borrowdale in the Lake District to the summit of Great End for a great night’s wild camping

  • Lake District Wild Camping
    July 2023 : A list of wild camping locations in the Lake District National Park tried and tested out by yours truly, including tips and advice

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