Just three years ago, Paul Messner was working a full-time job in a local factory. Nowadays he’s inspiring thousands of people every week with his well-documented wild camping adventures on YouTube. We caught up with him to discuss all things outdoor…
Let’s start from the beginning, because it’s fair to say you’re relatively new to the wild camping circuit, taking it up as a hobby around six years ago. What initially sparked your passion for the outdoors and wild camping?
I stopped playing football at the age of 40, so needed a new hobby. Just before then, during my late 30s, I started to enjoy watching videos by Bear Grylls and Ray Mears. I became really fascinated with the art of bushcraft and would spend hours watching YouTube videos on topics such as foraging and fire lighting. I joined a local bushcraft Facebook group and went along to regular meetups. As my passion for the outdoors continued to grow, I came across a guy called Dean Read on YouTube, who did a mixture of bushcraft and hiking in the Peak District, and I decided to head outdoors myself. I fell in love with it and became obsessed with learning about and testing outdoor gear.
During one of my regular bushcraft meetups, a friend dared me to make a video. I got home that night and made a video in my back garden about this little wood stove I had. I didn’t appear on camera, and put on a terrible, posh voice that wasn’t my own. It’s fair to say my videos have improved since then, but that was how it all started.
In May 2019, you were named YouTube Creator on the Rise. How did that make you feel? Did it add more pressure to continue your success or take some away?
To be honest, when I first got the email from them, I had no idea what it meant. I had to Google it! I was told my page would be featured on the homepage of YouTube UK. From reading about other people’s experiences of this, I’m thinking, “this is going to be something life changing”. I was proud as punch to be chosen. When it happened, it did generate extra views and subscribers, but wasn’t this massive growth I was expecting. I think I had around 3,000 subscribers at the time and it went up to around 5,000. But it was a confidence boost, if nothing else.
When COVID hit in 2020, how did that affect your wild camping journey both physically and mentally?
It was horrible. At one point, we were allowed to leave the house for just an hour a day and it was really restrictive. The great outdoors is my escape and a chance to recharge my batteries and when that was taken away, I felt trapped.
In October 2021 you quit your job to pursue your passion full time. What made you decide to take the plunge, and do you have any regrets?
I have absolutely no regrets about taking the decision to quit my job. I never started making videos with the intention of becoming a full time YouTuber, it was just a hobby that was a bit of fun. However, as the channel started to grow, it became difficult to maintain alongside a full-time job. I was starting to earn a similar amount to my day job and began to question whether I wanted to be stuck in a 9-to-5 job for the rest of my life. I couldn’t do it all and you only live once, so I decided to take the risk. The backing from my wife was a major factor in this decision too.
You’re sometimes accompanied by like-minded individuals; Andrew Beavers, Stephen Reid and Wiltshire Man to name a few. Do you prefer exploring with others or going it alone?
Both have equal merits. It’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off and have a conversation with. I did the Cumbria Way with Andy, walking 80 miles over five days, and I don’t think I’d have enjoyed that as much on my own. Having said that, I’ve done three-day hikes on my own and have some planned for later in the year too. The solo hikes allow me to get the camera out and do some filming which is something I love. Sometimes it’s nice just to have a bit of peace and soak it all in too.
And when you’re going it alone, how do you keep safe?
Almost all the time, I know where I’m going and I’ve got a route planned. I’ve got maps, backup maps, GPS and a satellite communicator with an SOS button. I keep in contact with my wife; Jo, and she knows all my hike details. I’ll always plan for worst case scenario with the weather too based on forecasts and make sure I’ve got the kit to handle it.
Where’s your favourite location and which time of the year is best to visit?
I love Buttermere in the Lake District. The lake itself is gorgeous and it’s surrounded by beautiful mountains. You can hike up any of those for an incredible view from every direction. However, the Peak District is literally on my doorstep, and I love it. I can be there and ready to camp in just half an hour.
I’m partial to challenging conditions. I could be at the top of Mam Tor when it’s blowing 50mph winds with rain pouring down and absolutely love it. My least favourite time to hike is the height of summer because there can be a little too much daylight.
What do you love most about sleeping in the great outdoors?
It’s the freedom of it. Just you and Mother Nature with a tiny sheet of fabric between you. Every time I head out it’s an adventure and there’s a different experience every time. You don’t know what’s going to happen or what challenges you’ll come across.
In your most-watched video on YouTube you talk about how you fit all your equipment into your rucksack. You must have packed hundreds of times over the years. What makes a pro packer?
I wouldn’t say I am a pro packer! Looking back at that video now, I wouldn't pack like that again. There was too much stuff in there, most of which I wouldn’t take now, but it’s some impressive packing nonetheless. Everyone has different priorities when it comes to packing gear, but I would say as long as you know where everything is, and you can easily get to things you need, that’s all that matters.
You’ve been fortunate enough to field test thousands of pieces of camping equipment. What items never leave your rucksack?
There’s actually nothing in my current setup that I’ve had since day one. But firstly, a good sleeping pad is top of my list; you can’t have a comfortable night’s sleep without one. I went out a couple of weeks ago with a new sleeping pad and didn't sleep a wink. I always take a first aid kit along with me. I’m obviously never without my camera either. All my other equipment constantly changes because I love experimenting and trying new things out.
What’s been your most dangerous trek and has it taught you anything for future trips?
I’ve had a couple of scary experiences. I went winter camping once in Buttermere and didn’t have any microspikes with me and I overshot the path. I had to come back down, and it was that slippy I didn’t think I’d make it down because my footwear had no grip. Needless to say, the first thing I did when I got home was purchase some microspikes! There was also one occasion in the Peak District where I was up on a mountain and fork lightning was coming down on all the hills around. The storm came and torrential rain flooded the area, so I swiftly packed up and left.
How much planning do you do before each trip? What makes a great location?
I do a lot of research before each trip. I use Google Maps and OS Maps to plan my location as well as making sure there’s somewhere safe to leave the car. I’ll always check the forecast and if there’s storm or high winds then I’ll save it for another day. I love a good view too so sometimes I’ll take inspiration from photos on Instagram when planning my next location. My video content often dictates my location too.
And when you’re there, what do you look for when choosing where to pitch up?
Ideally somewhere that’s as flat as possible and not too hard or rocky so you can easily get your tent pegs into the ground. Consider wind conditions too – it might be better to pitch behind a rock or a sheltered area. Work out which way you want your tent opening to face so you’re not trying to battle winds to get in and out. If the weather’s on your side, it’s always nice to face the sunrise for a perfect view in the morning when you open your tent. Sometimes you might see what looks like a path, when in reality it could be a game trail. Try and avoid pitching on top of these unless you want to be woken by a rabbit, badger or deer in the night!
Looking back, if you could have done anything differently, what would it be?
I’d do it all again. I’ve got to where I am now by the decisions I’ve made. I might have made mistakes along the way, but they’ve made me stronger, and I’ve learnt from them.
What’s next for the Messner brand?
I’d love to do more multi-day trips because I really got a taste for it when I did the Cumbria Way. I’ve been looking at trails like the Cleveland Way, the West Highland Way and the Hadrian’s Wall Path. I’d also love to tick off Ben Nevis. I’ve got no interest in exploring the longer routes such as Coast to Coast or the Pennine Way though. A hundred miles is probably as far as I can stretch myself. I’m an old man now! Family’s really important to me too, so shorter trips fit much better around my life.
Finally, what advice would you give to first-time wild campers?
Try not to do too much too soon. Pick somewhere that’s familiar and walk there first to scout out some potential camping spots. Ideally choose a location that’s not too far to walk but far enough that you won’t get asked to move on. Have a reserve location too in case you get there and find someone else has pitched up. Test your gear, do your research and make sure it’s suitable for the weather conditions. Don’t start out in freezing cold or wet conditions because if you have a bad experience with your first camp, it may put you off going again. Practice with your gear in your back garden or on a campsite first. Take a bit more than you think you’ll need for your first trip and over time you’ll work out what’s essential to you. The first time I went camping I took a backpack that was 120L with stuff strapped to it so it must have weighed about 30kg. In contrast to that, last week I took a 30L rucksack which weighed about 5kg.
Follow Paul Messner’s YouTube channel for all his latest wild camping adventures.
Paul Messner is a YouTuber and content creator who is addicted to wild camping and anything outdoors, including bushcraft, mountain walks and hiking. His channel has over 170,000 subscribers, and his videos have racked up more than 24 million views.