What could be more magic than an invention that brings the world seven, eight, even ten times closer? A shy bird, a dangerous animal, the moon and planets, a distant and questionable 4x4 route (or, in the above photo, a possible poacher): a thousand things can be enjoyed, evaluated—or apprehended—with binoculars.I’ve used binoculars for fun for many decades, and I never tire of simply sitting and looking through them at anything that catches my fancy. However, I’ve also used them professionally, as a sea kayaking, natural-history, and birding guide, and the latter experiences in particular have taught me a lot about both choosing and using them the most efficient way. Like many products, to a large extent you get what you pay for—but there are ways to ensure you get the best instrument for your needs regardless of how much you plan to spend.(I’ll note here our weird misuse of the term “binocular,” which means, of course, two oculars. So technically we look through a binocular, rather than a “pair of binoculars,” which would be something both you and a friend could look through at the same time. However, the term is so ingrained you’ll probably catch me using it in the next paragraphs.)
The single most visible diagnostic component of a binocular is the front, objective lens. All other aspects of construction being equal, the diameter of this lens determines, 1) how much light the binocular gathers and how bright the image appears, 2) how much magnification the binocular can effectively deliver, 3) how bulky and heavy the binocular will be to carry and use, and 4) how much it will cost. Small—e.g., 20 or 25mm—objectives equal low light-gathering, low power, light weight, and lower cost. Larger—30 to 60mm—objectives gather more light, allow higher magnification, are heavier and bulkier, and cost more.
Objective lenses. Left to right: 20mm, 32mm, 42mm
Remember that as objective diameter increases linearly, objective area increases geometrically. The 32mm objectives in the middle in the photo above have two and a half times the light-gathering power of the 20mm objectives on the left.Binoculars are referred to by their magnification factor (the number of times they make an object appear closer) followed by the objective diameter—6x20, 8x42, 10x42, 10x50, etc. The compromise between objective-lens size and magnification is one of the main decisions you’ll need to make when selecting a binocular. So let’s look at the relationship.Hold a pair of binoculars a foot or so from your face. See the little circle of light in the eyepiece? That’s called the exit pupil.The diameter of that exit pupil is a function of the objective lens diameter and the magnification of the instrument: objective diameter divided by power gives you the exit pupil diameter—in any binocular, regardless of construction or cost. A 10x40 binocular has a 4mm exit pupil; so does an 8x32 binocular. An 8x40 binocular has a 5mm exit pupil, in a compact 8x20 binocular it is 2.5mm.Why is this important? It has to do with the variable diameter of your own pupils as they react to light. In bright sunlight your pupils will contract to just 2mm or so, but near dusk they will expand to 5, 6, or even 7mm, depending on your age (as we age our pupils cannot expand as much). Consider that compact 8x20 binocular and its 2.5mm exit pupil. Looking through it in bright sunlight, with your own pupils constricted to 2mm or so, you’ll see a full, bright view. But look through it near dusk, when your pupils have expanded to 5mm or more, and you’ll see dark clouding around the central image, because your pupils are larger than the exit pupil. This vignetting means that binoculars with small exit pupils don’t perform well in low light (which can also include a shaded forest, for example). Thus binoculars with larger exit pupils are better for viewing near dawn and dusk. Years ago I had a pair of 7x50 binoculars with a stupendous 7mm exit pupil. Despite otherwise modest optical quality they excelled at low-light viewing.
Comparison of the exit pupil of an 8x50 binocular with an 8x20.
So, all else being equal, a larger exit pupil equals better low-light viewing. However, magnification has an effect as well. Note the 10x40 and 8x32 binoculars I listed above. Despite identical 4mm exit pupils, the 10x40 will perform better at dusk due to the greater magnification. (As we’ll see, many other factors also contribute to brightness.)Herewith my first guideline: For all-around use I do not recommend a binocular with an exit pupil smaller than 3mm, and 4mm is notably better. Those 10x25s in a company’s catalog might seem like a wonderful combination of high power and compact size, but their 2.5mm exit pupil will be a serious hindrance in low light.
The same binoculars, showing relative size. These are all roof-prism instruments—note the oculars in line with the objectives.
Now let’s look at the next most important feature of binocular construction: the prisms.All modern binoculars except a few toys and cheap opera glasses employ prisms as part of their optical system. There are two reasons for this. The first is to correct the image orientation, which as it comes through the objective lens is turned upside down and reversed. The second is to allow the binocular to be shorter than it otherwise would be to gain sufficient magnification.You can make a simple telescope—as Galileo did—with nothing but a convex objective lens and a concave eyepiece that can be moved back and forth to focus. The image will be erect and the right way round with this simple arrangement, and those toy binoculars and opera glasses are made this way. But the Galilean telescope and binoculars are extremely limited in magnification, and the image blurs quickly toward the edges.
The Keplerian telescope (for Johannes Kepler) was an improvement in that it used two convex lenses, allowing longer focal lengths and much higher magnification. However, the image in the eyepiece or ocular was reversed and upside down—not an issue for astronomy, but definitely so for terrestrial viewing. Adding an additional convex lens rights the image, and the classic collapsible “spyglass” of pirate movies and highland stag hunts is made this way. They are, however, necessarily long for their magnification. A binocular made this way would be unwieldy to say the least—thus the prism.
Prisms can be used to do different things. We’ve all seen dispersive prisms—the triangular versions that break up white light into its lovely constituent colors. Binoculars employ reflective prisms, which at their most basic work on the principle of internal reflection—light entering perpendicular to one surface is reflected and redirected off the angled surface behind it. As long as the light hits the back surface at what’s called a critical angle, no mirrored surface is needed; perfect reflection is achieved at the glass/air interface. You can see this effect by looking up at the surface of an aquarium at an angle that turns it into a mirror.
The first prisms used in binoculars (by a smidgen) were porro prisms, named after their inventor, Ignazio Porro; they’re still employed today. In binoculars, two porro units are cemented together at right angles to each other in each optical tube, which gives binoculars in which they are used the classic offset configuration, where the objective lenses are set outboard of the oculars (or, in some compact binoculars, inboard). The advantage to porro prisms is that they obtain perfect internal reflection using nothing but glass—no mirrored surfaces are needed. This gives them intrinsically better light transmission and clarity than Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms (see below). Additionally, porro-prism binoculars with objective lenses set outboard of the oculars can render a slightly better three-dimensional view. Disadvantages include poor close focusing ability ( also an artifact of the wide-set objectives) and more difficult weather sealing, along with greater bulk and, frequently, weight.
A porro prism unit as used in a bincocular
Roof prisms overcome those bulk and weight issues. The most commonly used roof prism configuration in binoculars, the Schmidt-Pechan, comprises two prisms separated by a minuscule air gap. In part because incoming light rays are “bounced” more times in a tighter space than in a porro-prism instrument, roof-prism binoculars are more compact. Note in the diagram how the incoming and outgoing rays are in line; thus roof-prism binoculars can be configured as straight tubes, saving the weight as well as the bulk of the offset tubes. But there are downsides. Collimation—that is, the internal alignment—of roof prisms is critical and expensive to replicate consistently and durably. Also, every time light is reflected it loses a tiny bit of brightness, and one of the prism surfaces in the Schmidt-Pechan design reflects at less than the critical angle, so it must have a reflective coating applied. Finally, the internal reflections of the Schmidt-Pecan design first separate the light beams, then recombine them, which causes slight polarization of the beams, reducing contrast. Manufacturers counter these issues with phase-correction coatings, which porro prisms do not need, and by using either a silver or, much better, dielectric coating on the reflective surface. Schmidt-Pechan prisms employing phase-correction coatings and a dielectric reflective surface come very close to the performance of a porro prism. Nevertheless, making a high-quality roof-prism binocular is more complicated and more expensive than making a high-quality porro-prism equivalent.
Another type of roof prism, the Abbe-Koenig, does boast perfect internal reflection and has no need for reflective coatings (although it still requires phase correction). However, as you can see in the diagram here, Abbe-Koenig prisms are significantly longer than Schmidt-Pecan prisms, and are rarely used except on large binoculars such as an 8x56, where light weight and compact size are less important than ultimate light-gathering power.
The two binoculars on the left employ Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms; the two on the right, Abbe-Koenig roof prisms.
So far this sounds like an open-and-shut case for porro-prism binoculars. However, if you’ve ever carried full-size binoculars around your neck for an hour or two, or looked through them for more than a few second at a time, you’ll be well aware of how much difference a few ounces can make in preventing fatigue and image shake. A roof-prism binocular of the same objective and magnification can weigh several ounces less than an equivalent porro-prism instrument, in addition to its reduced bulk. Roof-prism binoculars are generally easy to use one-handed when necessary—often impossible with porro-prism instruments. For this reason (in addition to their easier weather-sealing and close-focus capabilities), virtually all ultra high-end field binoculars are roof-prism models. And manufacturers have developed roof prism technology to the point that the differences between high-quality examples of each type would be difficult, if not impossible, for a casual viewer to detect. In fact, given the relative lack of development in porro-prism technology in the last couple of decades, I’d wager that the best current roof-prism binoculars are equal or superior in terms of light transmission and clarity to the best available porro-prism binoculars.With that said, do keep in mind that manufacturing a bright and durable pair of roof-prism binoculars is significantly more difficult than doing so with porro prisms. If you are on an extremely limited budget, you might find you can get noticeably better quality out of the latter than the former, for the same price.Not all prism glass is equal. The very best we have today is called BaK4, for BaritleichKron or Barium Crown, a glass made by the German company Schott AG. It has a very high refractive index (1.569 if you want to know, which is, like, really high, to be technical). Many cheap binoculars claim to be made from this glass when in fact they are not; there is essentially zero enforcement of such marketing lies. The manufacturer’s reputation—and price—is nearly the only way to be sure you’re getting Schott BaK4. And even given that, manufacturing tolerances, coatings, and a dozen other parameters will make or fail to make a high-performing prism.The next critical aspect of binocular design is the lens coatings. Look at the objective lenses of your binoculars and you’ll notice a definite tint—purplish, greenish, reddish, more or less of each depending on the brand. Why is this?
All glass reflects some light—look at a piece of window glass and you’ll see this. Furthermore there is a reflection both when the light enters the sheet of glass—or a lens—and when it exits the back of it. This reflection can reduce the amount of light making it all the way through a lens by ten percent or more. Multiply that by the several lenses in a binocular and the light fall-off is severe. In 1886 the 3rd Baron Rayleigh, John William Strut (who would win the Nobel prize in physics in 1904), found to his surprise that old, slightly tarnished glass he tested transmitted more light than new, clear glass. This led to the development of specialized anti-reflection coatings, introduced by the Carl Zeiss company just prior to WWII. In one leap of technology, the total light transmission through a typical 8x30 binocular increased from 50-60 percent to 70-80 percent. Today’s high-end binoculars are fully multi-coated—that is, every glass surface has an anti-reflection coating comprising up to seven layers—and total light transmission is well over 90 percent. However, like BaK4 prisms, “fully multi-coated” can mean a lot or not very much at all. Simply put, a $150 Chinese binocular with “fully multi-coated optics and BaK4 prisms” will not have the same stuff inside as a $2,000 binocular with “fully multi-coated optics and BaK4 prisms.”Next in line is the clarity and contrast of the image controlled by the objective lens or lenses, the focusing lens behind it, any field-flattening lenses behind the prisms, and the lenses comprising the ocular. Careful grinding/polishing of high-quality glass will ensure a crisp image, but color rendition raises its own issues.Remember the dispersive prism and its colorful rainbow of colors? To some extent this happens with light passing through any lens. The different colors of the spectrum bend at slightly different angles, and if they are not brought together somehow by the time they reach the eyepiece, the image will display a fringe of spurious color around it—almost invariably blue, because blue light is more sharply diffracted then yellow or red.Chromatic aberration, as this is known, can be reduced using an achromatic objective lens, comprising two layers of different types of glass that together reduce diffraction, and/or with aspheric lenses, which accomplish the same thing by altering the shape of the lens, and/or with extra-low-dispersion (ED) glass, which doesn’t diffract as much to begin with. As with everything we’ve discussed, this adds to the cost of the binocular as well as the quality of the image.
The best binoculars in the world can be ruined if any moisture is allowed inside. Fogging obscures the image and damages coatings, and fungus or mold will completely destroy the instrument, necessitating a complete disassembly and restoration at best. For this reason good binoculars are fitted with O-rings to seal out moisture, and then purged of air with pure nitrogen (sometimes argon) at slightly higher than atmospheric pressure. These gasses are dry, cannot fog, and do not support mold or fungus. Better binoculars incorporate better seals yet retain ease of focusing (the focusing mechanism is one of the most vulnerable entry points for moisture).
Many high-end binoculars now incorporate a field-flattening lens behind the prism, designed to increase edge-to-edge sharpness. This is especially useful for those who use binoculars on a tripod for long periods, scanning the entire field of view rather than moving the binocular around. Is there anything else? Oh yeah, a lot of it. Proper internal baffling to prevent flare; shielding and blackening of the sides of the prisms to prevent spurious light entering them; reinforced housing of the prisms to prevent de-collimation; proper size of the prisms to capture all available light; grooving the hypotenuse face of the prism to control abaxial rays. Construction of the housings—aluminum, or lighter and more expensive magnesium? Hydrophobic objective-lens coating? You get the picture, and perhaps begin to see why the price of two binoculars that are to outward appearances identical might have price tags that differ by an order of magnitude.
The best binoculars available today offer brilliant, sharp, true-color views comfortable for hours of viewing without eye strain; complete weather sealing; shock-proof construction; light weight, and a lifetime guarantee—often transferable. A premium binocular represents a considerable investment that will repay itself every time you use it, and continue to do so for decades.Next up: Choosing the best for your needs.Companion workshop: View our Field Arts workshop on optics, with Swarovski’s Ben Lizdas joining us for a Q&A, here.
Field optics are vital tools for naturalists and explorers. But the range of options can be confusing: Porro or roof prism? Best magnification / lens diameter combo?Close focus?Field of view?Waterproof?What is meant by BaK4 glass? Flat field? Multi-coating?Jonathan and Roseann have been using field optics professionally for over 35 years—and were early fans of Swarovski Optik: Jonathan used an early pair of 10x50 Habichts in his sea kayaking business in the 1990s. They will walk you through all the elements of what makes a quality pair of binoculars or spotting scope, and what is worth paying for—or not. Using Swarovski, Leica, and a few other brands as examples, they will also make recommendations based on workshop attendees’ field uses (we’ll send you a questionnaire before the workshop).This workshop is suitable for anyone who uses or is considering buying field optics: naturalists, travelers, explorers, birdwatchers, and hunters.An interactive Q & A session is included, with Ben Lizdas of Swarovski Optik.Length: 1.5 hoursSPECIAL DEAL: Note that for a limited time (March 13 – 28), 7P Overland will be offering select Swarovski optics in their shop with a special Exploring Overland deal: free shipping and a free cleaning kit. https://7p.io/product-category/expedition-optics/
Cooking over the campfire is one of my favorite things to do at camp. The smoky flavor and primitive feel fits the camping vibe so well.
Read this article for the best campfire kitchen setups to cook a delicious fire grilled meal.More
Wondering how to make pizza over a campfire? This post will teach you three
easy ways to make camping pizza - dutch oven pizza in a cast iron skillet,
melty campfire pizza, and pie iron pizza (aka pudgy pie pizza).
This guide will help you create a simple and complete camp kitchen box for
your camping adventures, with a detailed printable checklist, and tips on
gathering the essential camping kitchen supplies on a budget.
There’s no doubt that technology has the power to enhance our travel experiences by making our lives a little easier and more comfortable. Any of these 11 cool travel gadgets are sure to get you even more excited about your next adventure.
So, whether you’re the kind of traveller that likes to relax in the calming ambience of white-sandy beaches with some of your favourite music playing, or one that likes nothing more than to get all muddy on some hiking trails in the great outdoors, there’s something here for everyone to enjoy and love.
Which cool travel gadget will you be adding to your suitcase on your next adventure?
We’d love to hear any other suggestions you have for cool travel gadgets that you really “must-have” for the most unforgettable trip.
Leave us your thoughts in the comments and we’ll be happy to include them in this list.
Stay safe, stay curious and travel deeper!
Honestly, the best car for camping will be one you already have. Give it a couple of tries before you get a vehicle completely kitted out and dedicated to camping adventures. Unless you own something really small like a Peugeot 107, then we recommend buying or renting out a roof tent (your car needs to have railings). Make a test setup at home by folding down your seats, putting a mattress, pillow and a sleeping bag to get a better understanding of how it’ll feel when you’re staying away from home.
Even a very modest car can be a great choice for camping, so don’t hesitate and just give it a go! It will most likely be better than you expected it to be.
If it’s a diesel and you plan to camp in the winter months, you can mount a diesel heater inside and enjoy the cosy nights just like at home! It’s definitely a good idea to pick a diesel over petrol engines, especially for longevity and fuel efficiency. And the warm nights, of course.
Hummus, the king of dips, is a great choice for road trips. Thanks to its neutral flavour, it can be enhanced with almost anything!
Our personal favourites are: smoked pepper caramelised onion, sun-dried tomato and flaked almonds.
It’s very filling and tastes great. Our tip: buy hummus in a big container and add different spices to create the ultimate experience of flavour and texture.
To make your very own flavoured hummus, just add 2 tablespoons of ingredients of your choice per cup of hummus.
For dipping, try chunky-cut slices of bell pepper, celery sticks, carrot sticks, cucumber slices, rice cakes, sweet potato chips, pitta bread or cheesy chips (read on!)
After a (very) leisurely holiday break, I thought I would bring in the new year with an eye-rollingly obvious metaphorical piece on camp lighting, symbolizing 2021’s new beginning in either calendar or political terms, or both if you prefer. (Edit: I started this piece before January 7. Perhaps I need to wait a bit before actually turning on any metaphorical lights in the darkness.)This is a specific bit of camp lighting, however, and one we keep coming back to no matter how much we experiment with alternatives. I’m referring to the classic kerosene lantern (aka hurricane lantern or storm lantern).The hurricane lantern—that is, the universal style you’ll recognize that incorporates a hollow tube on each side of the glass globe, and a perforated cap above—is not the simple device most people believe. It came about as a product of evolution and ingenuity.The first moderately efficient oil lamp was invented by Francois-Pierre Aime Argand, the son of a Swiss watchmaker, in the late 1700s. His lamp employed a fuel tank at the bottom, of metal or pottery, with a wick controlled by a knob, and a glass globe to provide some protection for the flame. It was a huge improvement on earlier, open-flame oil lamps with no control, which flickered with the slightest air movement, but not very bright due to poor oxygen supply, and still susceptible to gusts of wind. Also, if tipped over or broken it could easily start a fire.Later oil lamps incorporated perforated rings at the base of the globe, which allowed fresh air to enter at the base of the flame, creating a hotter and thus brighter light. These were still susceptible to gusts, however. These lamps are referred to as “dead flame” lamps, since they rely on a simple, unchanneled supply of air.In 1869 a young man named John Irwin, whose father had complained about oil lamps that blew out, received a patent for the “hot blast” lantern, which employed hollow tubes arcing from the base of the burner assembly to the vented top. These tubes returned some of the heated air from the burning wick to the base, and by providing this draft-free supply almost completely shielded the flame from gusts or movement. Robert Dietz, a manufacturer of oil lamps in New York, quickly bought the rights to produce the hot blast lantern.Four years later Irwin introduced the even more revolutionary cold blast lantern, which has survived nearly unaltered to this day. In a cold blast lantern, the hot air rising from the flame, which is depleted in oxygen, is vented away from the tubes, which draw in only fresh air to feed the flame, significantly enhancing efficiency. Another happy characteristic of the cold blast style is that if the lantern is tipped over, the flame extinguishes itself, an enormous benefit in safety. While Dietz makes a retro hot blast model, virtually all hurricane lanterns you find today are of the cold blast type.
The Dietz company went on to produce millions of cold blast kerosene lanterns, eventually starting production in China in 1957—at the time more in an effort to capture developing-world sales than to save production costs. As things turned out, of course, the China factory was the only one to survive. Meanwhile, in 1877, a German silverware maker named Karl Hermann Nier started producing miner’s lamps and household lanterns. In 1902 he established the Nier-Feuerhand (literally, fire-hand) company and began manufacturing high-quality cold blast lanterns, incorporating many patented improvements along the way. By the 1930s the Feuerhand company was the largest maker of storm lanterns in the world. The end of WWII changed that, as the family’s manufacturing facility was in Beierfeld, which became part of East Germany. The company’s machinery was confiscated and shipped to the Soviet Union, and the family fled to West Germany, where they eventually managed to resume production. Eventually rights to the name were bought by Petromax—a legendary maker of gas pressure lanterns. Todays’ Feuerhand company produces exactly one model, the #276 Baby Special, still made in Germany.So . . . to our camp lighting—and, specifically, to our dining lighting. Dining lighting is different than general camp lighting. We have an extensive collection of devices for the latter, ranging from plug-in 12V LED strips to rechargeable LED lanterns to propane lanterns to a pressurized white-gas Coleman lantern. The LED lamps are cold and harsh for atmospheric dining, and the pressure lanterns are too noisy at a small table. But candle lanterns, which we tried, are really not bright enough.We were reminded about the correct way to do things by Graham Jackson and Connie Rodman, on a trip across Australia. We’d been experimenting with a (very nice) rechargeable LED lantern, but Graham and Connie had brought their customary kerosene lantern, and when both were put on a table the LED’s glow looked gruesomely sepulchral next to the golden yellow of the kerosene flame. We fixed things next trip by purloining one of the half-dozen Feuerhand lanterns we use for casual lighting at our off-the-grid desert place outside Tucson.
The Feuerhand #276 is Goldilocks perfect. It’s silent, casts a warm light exactly bright enough for comfortable dining and conversation without being glaring (look up and you can still see the stars), and simply adds a lovely comforting air to a camp meal. It’s not so big that it steals table space, yet runs for hours on a single fill. Admittedly, a kerosene lantern is a bit more bother than a 12V appliance. It needs to be stored upright, and unless you’re also into charmingly obsolete brass camp stoves (more on that later), it takes fuel you can use in nothing else. But trust me, it’s worth it. A wonderful source for kerosene lanterns and the history thereof is W.T. Kirkman, here.
In this series of 7 chapters, I tell the bizarre and unforgettable stories of my most recent motorcycle journey of 7 weeks, during the summer of 2020.
The aim of this motorcycle adventure, was to do everything differently to how I’d grown used to. I ditched as many creature comforts and technological aids as possible in an attempt to uncover the most realistic, undiluted experience of frugal motorcycle travel, completely alone through Europe,during the outbreak of this deadly virus.
I wild camped in urban locations and creepy, rural settings. I ended up in scary situations and many times feared for my life, and if I would even make it home. At one point I was attacked in my tent, and at other times, parts of my motorcycle left my hanging onto my safety by a shoestring. But keeping my chin up and my eyes on stalks, I managed to prevail from the uncertainty of darkness and had probably the most rewarding solo travel experience I’ve had so far, even if it wasn’t by any means the easiest or most enjoyable.
So if you’d like to get yourself comfortable and a warm beverage to hand, I’ll try my best to retell these experiences in the frame of mind I found myself in. Thanks for reading.
#1 – Somme
Hitching a lift from beside the motorway is difficult at the best of times I thought. And that’s without factoring in other inconveniences, such as the day being Sunday, and I should mention there was a deadly viral pandemic wreaking havok across the continent, and indeed the rest of the world.
It was late into a Sunday afternoon, during the final days of July in rural France, not far from the killing fields of the Somme. Somehow I’d managed to run out of fuel in a place so remote, a mention of the nearest town would raise even the most well-travelled of eyebrows.
I probably looked crazy, covered in sweat, arms acting as fleshy coathooks for my cumbersome leather garments – far from suitable attire for this arid summer heat, sans sufficient cooling provided by movement. Subtly, I was concealing a red plastic container full of gasoline as I stood there at the entrance to a motorway rest stop – trying my best to appear like the opposite of what I really was, a pain in the ass you don’t need on your Sunday.
An hour passed. Still no luck. To comfort myself through the despair of waiting, I’d been absorbing information from all around me, countless rejections had me considering other options. With only 3% of my mobile battery remaining I figured I had about 3 hours of daylight left, then intevitably I’d be alone in the dark.
I always feel like some kind of movement is progress, so I made my way down a corkscrew path bedded with unkempt grasses that led to a vast open meadow, the crunchy hacked remains of crops harvested long before stretched for as far as the eye could see. I walked a bit, then quite a bit more. I stopped for brief rests every so often to give my arms a break from the luggage I was carrying. Pauses just long enough for me to catch my breath and for the painful lactic acid to leave my muscles, before lifting my belongings once more, and trudging on through the prickly ground below me. I knew the general direction to head in, but unfortunateIy, I also knew it was a long way ahead of me.
As far as my eyes could see, undulating fields of emptiness stretched to the horizon, with woodland running the flanks. For what was probably 2 hours, I had walked, faintly able to make out the sound of cars to my right through the barrage of trees. All I had seen were deserted fields of gold, a few distant wind turbines for reference and not a single living soul. I knew that my only option was to keep on walking. On one particular arm-break, I could see a car in the distance, it was merely a small coloured speck, appearing to drive right across the fields. It was a promising discovery, perhaps there was a road there, I thought to myself.
Half an hour later and I had arrived at a small country lane, winding up over the hill with a few snaking turns. The remnants of a blazing sunset were now only a faint glow on the tarmac. The light would start to fade soon. As I looked to the motorway to my far right, I noticed this small road passed underneath it, maybe there was a way to access it nearby? I tried to wave-down a few cars but with no success, it was becoming a real problem. My motorcycle was still grounded beside an SOS phone up there somewhere, kilometre marker 106. The only reason I didn’t use the emergency phone, is that the fee for being rescued roadside is a staggering €130. I just wasn’t willing to pay that, not for the convenience.
This adventure was supposed to be all about stripping away the comforts and luxuries that I was so used to, if not dependent on, in the hope that I would gain a more realistic perception of what travel, exploration and indeed this mysterious existence that we cling on to, truly represents. ‘More challenging with the hope of greater rewards’ is probably how I would’ve worded it back then.
I hadn’t seen any cars for a while now. The more thought I gave to the likelihood of being rescued at this hour, the more my brain was conguering up increasingly daring plans in order to reach the motorcycle. I looked up at the motorway in the distance and noticed there was a steel wire fence running all the way across the visible section. Theorizing ways I could cut through the fence to climb onto the motorway, I lost my mind. My strategy for the next car that I saw? I was going to wave my arms like a lunatic windmill, real panicky but hopefully not appear threatening.
Not even 10 minutes later, a small navy-coloured hatchback approached from over the hill. I waved and flapped my arms with more conviction as it exited the final turn in the sequence. As it approached me even closer, it pulled over to the side of the road. I didn’t want to immediately get my hopes up when the car stopped, so I approach the window slowly, leaning in to make friendly eyes with the driver. I was so exhausted, the desperation must’ve been written across my sweaty face without any need for an act. Without hesitation, a stocky young man gestured for to me to climb in. I collected all my things messily piled on the edge of the field, politely dumped them in the back seat and clambered inside, bilingually thanking him as I shut the door beside me, that sound of closure being the note of safety.
A drive lasting 20 minutes had allowed us to satisfy a certain curiosity we had about each other, to learn more about what we were doing in this current point in our lives amongst other things. He wanted to know exactly how I had become stranded in such a way, and where I was planning to visit on this journey of mine. I too was fascinated by his presence, why was he driving on the small road where we met and what thoughts or assumptions posessed him to rescue me. Now in some degree of safety, I pondered on the way of life he must have, trying to understand how it would be to live in such a remote part of France. He was a student with great ambitions, soon to be travelling to a university in the nearest city. He revealed that he just fancied an evening drive as he had only recently gained his driving licence. It was friendly conversation with laughter, as the last of the lightness in the sky escaped this beautiful rural landscape, we approached my estimation of the motorcycle’s location. Miniscule reflections bouncing off the glossy bodywork contrasted against the pitch dark shadowy shrubbage that curtains the motorway. We said our last words and parted ways.
I endured 4 hours of rigorous perseverance to acquire 5 litres of gasoline from just 10km away. Finally, the show could go on.
I emptied every last drop into the fuel tank of the motorcycle and started the engine. No problems there. Whilst putting on all of my leather gear I really felt a true sense of happiness that you don’t often experience, a respect for human kindness and the whole situation leading to a positive climax. Straddling the machine once again, it felt as good as arriving home after a long journey. I had longed for our return so much, it didn’t feel strange to experience emotions normally reserved exclusively for living things.
With the engine now warm and responsive, I engaged the clutch lever, stepped down into first gear with my left foot and, without even time to glance over my left shoulder… the dingy 3-lane motorway became illuminated with an attack of blue and orange beams of light approaching from behind.
What had I done?
Perhaps it’s just a natural instinct, but often when I see the lights from police vehicles racing in my direction, I always feel a guilty panic that I have done something wrong, even if I haven’t the faintest idea what it could be.
I thought to myself, maybe it’s some kind of misunderstanding and I’m not actually in trouble. It’s crazy how so many thoughts can run through your head in what seems like a single second.
I surrendered the engine and prepared for the imminent approach of an authoritative uniform and purposeful stance in my peripherals.
Perhaps it was just tiredness taking its toll on my otherwise rational perception, but I swear Jean-Claude Van Damme walked alongside me in full Gendermarie get-up.
“What is the problem?” the officer asked me.
“What is the problem? I don’t know” I replied with bona fide confusion.
For a moment, neither of us seemed to understand why the traffic stop was taking place.
“Was there an accident?” as one of his eyebrows raised.
“No, there was no accident” I said, reassuringly.
“Oh” now he seemed less clear about the situation than before we exchanged words.
There was a fleet of 2 highway patrol vehicles and a van wearing the Gendermarie livery. For a few minutes, Van Damme, another police officer and a couple of highwaymen were discussing me in French, trying to figure out the mystery. The French paused once more and Van Damme focused on my direction.
“Have you been drinking alcohol?” He asked, bearing an austere facial arrangement.
“No, I’ve just been walking for 4 hours so I’m pretty tired” I told him.
Without hesitation, his partner removed a testing device, promptly moved it up to my lips and instructed me to blow into it until he told me to stop. It all felt quite surreal, being breathalyzed by the side of the road at night, without a millilitre of alcohol in my blood, yet blue and orange light repeatedly discovered every nook and cranny in the surrounding terrain.
By the way, this was only the first day of the adventure.
The test revealed there wasn’t any alcohol in my blood, they all looked at each other with a shrug – one more potential lead eliminated.
“So what are you doing parked here?” Van Damme was getting closer to more sensible questions it seemed.
I briefly explained my treacherous journey and confessed that I was now fully equipped to continue on my way.
“Ah!” – Van Damme finally realised the situation, his exclaimation bringing the others grouping closer to hear the revelation.
Some French conversation resumed between the men as I looked around at the situation I was in. At least I knew I wasn’t in any trouble. My mind however, was already wandering on to the next obstacle, where could I sleep at this time?
A gaggle of masculine laughter broke out from the group. I wondered what could have amused them, I hadn’t heard nor understood a single word. Van Damme told me that the SOS phone beside me had been activated several minutes before, so they hurried to my location to see what the emergency was. Being stranded during the daytime can mean that you are potentially waiting for a very long time to be assisted. But because of the inherent dangers of an incapacitated vehicle in complete darkness, the urgency of rescue is multiplied exponentially.
Initially, they suspected I was driving under the influence, involved in an accident, or perhaps both. For them to find out that this was just a poor guy that had run out of fuel on his holiday came as a pleasant surprise to them. A situation that had been so uniquely challenging and exhausting was entirely trivial and hilarious to them, that didn’t bother me though. Van Damme insisted I followed him to the next service station in case anything else happened to me along the way.
I have to say, they were so kind and thoughtful towards me, even if it was their job. I went from thinking that the people of France were rather conservative and not especially inclined to help others visiting their country, but now, those naive assumptions had been thrown out of the window like a hotel television set handled by an arrogant rock ‘n roll band. I just felt so grateful to be reunited with my independence in the form of a rather scrappy looking motorcycle.
We arrived at the service station and I filled the motorcycle to the brim with fuel before doing anything else, like forgetting. Van Damme seemed so pleased to be in my presence, watching my every move in apparent admiration, and reflection on his own life experiences. We continued conversing under the bright lights of the petrol station’s forecourt as I handled the fuel nozzle, making sure not to overfill and splash gasoline everywhere as I have done before as a result of being preoccupied.
“Why did you not take your jerry can monsieur?” Van Damme asked.
I told him,
“I had to leave it back at the SOS phone because I have no more space to carry it, you can go back for it, if you like” – at this point I really just wanted to keep moving.
“No, no monsieur but it is your jerry can, you must take it!” he insisted with a joyful smile.
We both laughed and wished each other a good evening. Soon after, they cruised away from the floodlit forecourt and back into the darkness of night, no doubt preparing to respond to another call.
After refuelling, I sat on the kerb (as I often do when I need some time to process events) and thought about what my plan of action would be, now that it was so late. I left the safety of the service station to rejoin the gloomy motorway, without an inkling of where I could sleep.
A few kilometres turned into twenty and then thirty. The cool evening air was creeping further into the sleeves and collar of my leather jacket, adding to the already uncomfortable physical condition of driving overtired. I realised I didn’t have any energy remaining to ride around searching for a campsite or a hostel, so I figured my only option was to wild camp somewhere. Quickly it was becoming too cold for me to ride safely, I had to pull-in to the next available stop.
In France there are two kinds of rest stop on the motorways, both accompanied with the prefix to the name, ‘aire de’. One kind is equipped with toilets, fuel and a place or two to eat and drink. The other kind bares more resemblance to a picnic spot, offering only ‘hole-in-the-floor’ toilets, some benches and a lifeless selection of grassy areas. It just so happened that I arrived at the latter, more basic offering.
As I rolled into the rest stop, it was poorly-lit and deserted, quite a few of the lamp posts were inactive. Many years ago these picnic areas would be filled with cars and campervans, families travelling or migrating to locations all around Europe and North Africa. A quiet, relaxing place to catch a few hours’ kip before getting back on the road again. In more recent times, they had become a hotspot for vehicle theft and organised criminals looking for an opportunity to loot some valuables while families slept unaware. This knowledge only contributed feelings of fear to the already uncomfortable situation I was lumbered with.
It was definitely quiet there, maybe too quiet. I noticed some trucks parked together, maybe 3 or 4 with all the internal lights switched off from what I could tell. I figured they were all sleeping so I respectfully killed the engine whilst still carrying momentum as I got close enough and rolled to a stop beside one of them.
I felt so much fatigue from the hours of riding and then the stress of breakdown and the walking that ensued. I never would’ve guessed that I would be sleeping in such a place on the first night of the trip, and that it could all go so wrong. I looked around for somewhere inconspicuous to pitch the tent. I didn’t want to be seen by any vehicles passing through in the middle of the night while I sleep. I would be such an easy target while I feel into a deep, much needed sleep. I came across a few mature trees on the grass that cast large shadows from the street lamps.
Wild camping is not new to me, I have been several times in England, but by no means would I say I’m experienced or even any good at it. I always seem to forget something I later on really need, only to find ways to adapt without said item. When you are wild camping it’s almost always in a place that prohibits such a thing. The remoteness of your location often provides adequate safety from prying eyes. Unfortunately here, I didn’t have that luxury, the entrance roads and parking spaces were clearly visible from every potential pitching spot.
Constructing the tent was such a struggle in my state of fatigue, a couple of times a car cruised through the parking area and then left to rejoin the motorway. I found myself sitting under a tree during these instances, trying my best not to move or be seen, I felt myself almost gritting my teeth as the headlights of intruding vehicles licked my silhouette. Perhaps I was spotted and my questionable behaviour is what caused those drivers to reconsider stopping there.
By now, I had set-up the internal structure of my makeshift bedroom and carelessley flung the outer layer over the top. The ground was nearly impossible to penetrate without a mallet to accurately drive the pins into the hard, sun-baked soil with force.
Once complete, if you could call it that, the tent looked far from it’s best state but it did at least feature a fully functioning door for me to climb through and no doubt could provide me with some shelter. I sat there, gazing out of the tent as if I was only down to a few remaining brain cells, no doubt ‘catching flies’ trying to somehow make sense of today’s curious events. I remember the highlighted, fluffy outlines of white rabbits glowing in the distance, scurrying about gracefully for food. Looking up at the sky, sparkling lights from stars surrounded a bold, white moon. I’m not sure if I would have felt more comfortable if I could see other people around or not. Exhaustion seemed to immerse me in the depths of my sleeping bag, fully-zipped and foetal.
Something kept disturbing me throughout the night, what seemed like every 5 minutes. I blinked myself awake, my ears tuning-in to frequencies that could mean danger, before drifting back into a thoughtless slumber. You know even on this first of nights, I was waking up to unusual noises that caused me to hurriedly rustle around for my flashlight and knife for either hand.
The night passed for what seemed like just an hour before the chugging rumble of a large HGV engine idled outside. It was a comforting sound, despite it extinguishing my sleep – it meant someone was awake out there and that they were not a threat to me. I unzipped the tent. By this time some light had emerged from the horizon, but not much. I looked around and for the first time, with fresh eyes I got to see just where I had slept.
What a triumph it was, I survived sleeping some of the night outside, by myself. It was a big deal for me, I didn’t think I would have the courage to pull that off in such an obvious location. And how amusing it was to observe the calamity that was the tent construction as a result from such a wild day. A nursery child would have no problems bettering those efforts.
The truck driver didn’t spare a glance in my direction so I took it upon myself to quickly deconstruct the tent down and pack it away. Some cars slowly started to trickle in to the parking area just as I was leaving the grassland with my luggage.
I had a lot of miles to cover today, I wanted to reach Chambery, the start of the Rhone-Alps which would provide me with passage to Italy. I would be looking at a good 8 hours in the saddle, without the luxury of maps or mobile internet.
Rooftop tents have become a hot commodity in the off-road community. They are easy to deploy and turn your ordinary car into a camper.
This guide is meant to help you consider the pros and cons of ground tents and rooftop tents, and determine whether it is worth it to buy a rooftop tent.More