Everything you ever wanted to know about tree camping
Camping used to be simple but a new type of adventure experience is allowing outdoorsy types to elevate their stay, writes Liz Connor.
My hair is scraped back into a hard hat, I’m pulling my bodyweight with my bare hands and I’m swinging in the air with a 20ft drop underneath me. I’m enjoying the back-to-basics pursuit of tree climbing, with a very specific end goal in sight: hoisting my way to the top of the canopy so I can bed down in it overnight.
Tree camping (quite literally, sleeping in the tree’s branches) is already popular in friendlier climates like Canada and the US, but now intrepid people from the UK can test their mettle on the Isle of Wight, experiencing what it’s like to wake up with the dawn chorus in a hammock suspended 33ft in the air.
Meet the tree climbing experts
My accommodation for the night is a hulking 100-year-old beech tree that stands in a wooded area on a privately owned stately home in Shorwell. I’m met by Matt and Paul, the instructors from Goodleaf (goodleaf.co.uk) who operate the experience, to run over a few safety rules before fitting me with the necessary ropes and harnesses that will help to get me off the ground.
The pair have taken thousands of people up and down trees in nearby Ryde, but decided to rig up the hammocks to let island visitors get closer to life in the canopy.
How does it work?
Using a rope system, it’s up to me to hoist myself up the length of the tree until I’m within grasping distance of my hammock. The technique seems complicated at first — a ‘footlock’ method of ropes and carabiners — but I soon get the hang of it.
The heights feel death-defying — the lowest branch is about six times my height and the pulley system looks precarious to the untrained eye, but I’m assured by Matt that it can comfortably hold the weight of an adult rhinoceros.
Aside from the stomach-churning drop underneath my feet (dangling from the tree can be incredibly daunting, so make sure you’re pretty comfortable with heights before you even consider giving this a go) the hardest part is the physical effort required to huff and puff myself to the top.
At times it can be towel-bitingly difficult, but it’s all worth it for the exhilarating views of the rolling fields on the ascent, and the euphoric ‘ahh’ moment when I finally drop into my hammock.
Toilets, rain and vertigo — all you need to know
My first question is, “What happens if I need the toilet?” Thankfully, nothing has to be done from height. The instructors sleep on the ground below and can assist you in ziplining down your rope to the bottom, and guiding you to the nearby outdoor toilets.
You’ll also sleep in your harness overnight, so there’s no chance of falling out, with an attachable dome-shaped cover protecting you from the rain.
After I’ve unrolled my sleeping bag, we descend and make a short walk to local pub The Crown Inn, where we’re met with a well-deserved glass of wine (they recommend just one) and a three-course meal of hearty pub grub.
The tree can take up to three people at a time, which means that a small group of you can easily make a night of it, although you have to be aged over 16 to give tree camping a go.
Is it really all sweet dreams?
Before the sun sets, it’s time to make my way back up the tree, armed with a book and a head torch.
Drifting off to sleep with the noises of the forest surrounding you gives you a strange feeling of vulnerability (I’m told inquisitive badgers often snuffle around the tree trunk), but I’m so tired from the efforts of the day that I pass out almost immediately. If you do find yourself with a case of vertigo, it’s reassuring to know you can park your hammock lower to the ground and get a similar experience.
What happens when you wake up?
Birds strike up their song at around 4am, but the atmosphere is so peaceful. Living on a busy high street in London means I don’t stir until Matt and Joe start firing up the camping stove below.
The island is catnip for wildlife lovers, and we manage to identify several different varieties of birds from our prime viewing spot, although we’re not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an elusive red squirrel during our stay.
There’s a generous camper’s breakfast to reward our efforts: pastries from ex-royal bakers The Island Bakers, dairy products from Briddlesford Farm and coffee to shake that fuzzy, ‘just slept in a forest’ feeling.
The final verdict
Climbing a tree — especially a Goliath like this one — feels like such an achievement; on the ferry back to the mainland, I’m still buzzing with adrenaline. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s certainly a stay I won’t forget in a hurry.
Given the public’s growing thirst for adventure experiences and sustainable travel (camping in the trees means you barely squash a blade of grass on the forest floor), this quirky overnighter has all the millennial zeitgeisty boxes ticked.
Prepare to see more happy campers on your Instagram feed.