What the heck is a bothy? Where can you find them and how do you use them? For those of you who don’t know, the tent on your back isn’t the only free accommodation you’ll find in the mountains. There are a bunch of little buildings called bothies dotted up and down the country too.
If your brow is furrowed and your head hurts from trying to figure out what on earth I’m talking about, then let me explain. Bothies are simple shelters generally found in remote mountainous areas, and they’re free to use. The majority of them are looked after by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) and its army of volunteers — those number about 100 across the UK.
Most used to be old farmsteads or shepherd huts, but after being left disused, have been increasingly used by walkers, cyclists and climbers. If you’re a history nut like me, the MBA’s page on where the bothying culture came from is a really interesting read.
With bothies, it’s all about the quality of the location. Look for a picturesque, secluded spot and you’ll probably find one. Well — it’s not quite that straightforward, but you get the idea. They can also be quite well hidden, so you might have to wander off the beaten track a little. If you’re sold on the idea and are already planning your next bothy adventure, the MBA has a handy map of bothies across the UK.
Of course there are other bothies, but you might have to do a little more detective work to find those. If when planning your adventure, you spot a building on the OS map that you think might be a bothy, just type the area and some other distinctive features — like rivers, mountains, grid references or the like — into your search engine, along with the word ‘bothy’ and you might strike lucky. Let me know if you do!
What can I expect?
Bothies are no five star hotels, but they make for a welcome refuge after a long day’s walk and also offer more protection and warmth from the elements outside. Four walls, a roof, generally a wood burner and sometimes some chairs and a table, these shelters are basic, but they’re warmer and cosier than sleeping in a tent — especially if it’s lashing it down outside.
You can find some photos of bothies on the MBA website and if you do some googling, you might find a few more. But there’s no knowing what condition they’ll be in till you get there — wouldn’t be an adventure if you could plan every detail now, would it?!
There’s also no knowing if someone is gonna be there already. Bothies work on a first come, first served basis, so it’s worth having a back-up plan, like a tent or a bivvy. But even if you discover others in the bothy, it’ll just be a cosier night. Plus, after a little sloe gin or beer — whatever your preference — you’ll more than likely have some new besties come morning! Chocolate Hobnobs work a treat too.
So, “What’s inside these four walls?” you ask. We stayed in Grwyne Fawr in the Brecon Beacons recently and it was pretty tiny — a communal room and a mezzanine level that slept four. But most bothies are bigger than that, you might even find multiple sleeping rooms. So, apart from the walls and roof, what else is there? Like I mentioned, generally some chairs, a table and a wood burner or fireplace, as well a broom for sweeping out the twigs and mud and a spade for hiding your… Um, poop?
You often have to forage for your own wood, or come prepared. But people tend to leave all sorts of useful things for the visitors after them. Things like tea lights, matches, plastic bags, cans of baked beans — bizarre I know — cutlery, other non-perishable foods, the list goes on… Call me strange, but on approach to any bothy, I always get super excited about what we might find. We once found a pack of cards — really brightened up our evening!
They’re completely free to use, but there is a code of conduct, which you’ll usually find pinned to the wall. A general rule of thumb is…
- Even if the bothy wasn’t clean and tidy when you arrived, try leave it that way. Some dry kindling would also make the next visitors very happy
- Make other visitors feel welcome, maybe make them a cuppa — they might let you have the best sleeping spot
- If you accidentally damage something, tell the MBA, so they can sort it out
- Any rubbish you can’t burn, take with you. Burying it will pollute the lovely environment you’ve just been enjoying. And don’t leave perishable foods, as this could attract little furry animals
- Be careful with candles and make sure the fire is out before you leave
- Be sure to close the doors and windows at the end of your stay
- If there’s a toilet — lucky you — but if there isn’t, use the spade to bury your poop far away from the bothy and any nearby water supply
- Only use twigs and logs lying on the ground or dead wood. Leave the living trees to do their thing
- Groups of six or more should ask permission from the owner before overnighting in a bothy
And finally… After your stay in a bothy, be sure to leave a note — short or epic — in the logbook. It makes for real interesting reading after a long day’s walk! And if you fancy helping the MBA out, they’re always happy to welcome new members.
A special thanks to my buddies on the UKClimbing forum who helped me out with a little insider info…
All photography courtesy of LJM Photography