Traditional camp sites are great for a lot of people, a warm shower and site shop are conveniences usually within walking distance of your safe and secure pitch. Derek and Margaret who have arrived and set up four metres to your right may become your friends for life but what if this isn’t your idea of camping?
Fundamentally camp sites are the ultimate contradiction of what camping means to me: the desire to escape modern life and immerse myself entirely with my surroundings. I choose to enjoy rural tranquillity with as few disturbances from people as possible. How many times have you stopped somewhere and thought it would be amazing to watch the sun set here or wake up to this view only to then move on to a dedicated camp ground?
Let me be clear, wild camping in England and Wales is technically illegal. I’m therefore denying that I’ve ever pitched my tent anywhere other than pay per night camp sites and all details from this point in are purely hypothetical. However, in Scotland the general right to wild camp is established in law along with the right of open access, and is allowed provided you keep well away from the boundaries of any dwellings and roads.
Some of the UK’s National Parks welcome wild camping, as long as you act responsibly and leave no trace of your visit. Dartmoor have a map of areas where you can camp on common land, and the Brecon Beacons provide a list of farms that welcome campers. In the Cairngorms, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs the Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives everyone the right to wild camp as long as you follow the guidelines. All the land in the National Parks are privately owned and in England and Wales you should get the landowners permission before camping. Common land, like a lot of the New Forest does not mean there is a right to camp on it, especially as this could conflict with commoners rights to graze animals. Some farmers and landowners may allow camping if you ask them and follow their guidelines.
If you’re considering wild camping for the first time it may seem a risky and unusual way to camp but there’s a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts that will only pitch up off of the beaten track. We arrive as it gets dark and move on at first light without any trace left on the land and without disturbing anyone.
My first wild camping experience was forced upon me. In the thick of winter I had decided to take a weekend bike tour along the South coast intending to use camp sites. Day one was a seventy mile ride in minus temperatures with sleet blowing in from the English channel. It was dark by the time I reached my chosen camp site, I entered the reception with my helmet and bar bag under one arm, the warden looked puzzled, he glanced over my shoulder through the glass door and caught sight of my loaded bike. “Our tent field’s shut” said the warden, ” I checked on your website before I left and it said you’re open all year” I replied, “we are….for motor homes”. I asked the warden if there was a spare bit of grass for a solo cycle tourist with a one man tent but apparently to put me on the same field as the motor homes and caravans was a health and safety issue worth more than his job.
I ended up riding out of the camp site and making the best of a bad situation I pitched my tent alongside the perimeter fence. During the night the thought that some official may bust me for illegally pitching my tent did cross my mind but I was genuinely in a bit of a dilemma and I hoped this would excuse me from any type of prosecution. In the morning I woke early, packed up promptly and as I rode on to the next camp site I couldn’t help but consider various different spots for their attributes to wild camping. Because I had started my day earlier than I had planned I reached the next camp site at just gone two o’clock. It wasn’t getting dark until four or five and by pushing on for another twenty or so miles would really help out my travel plans for the following day. It was at this point I became a wild camper, I had made the decision to ride on, to pass on the camp site and by doing so I knew I had to find a spot in the wild, this time by choice.
I rode on until four pm, it was quiet, I was deep in the countryside but on a fairly main road with farmers fields to either side. Low hedgerow divided the fields but there was a small copse of trees forming part of the division where four fields meet, this looked an ideal spot for the night. I waited for the approaching cars to pass and made sure there were no walkers around, I then made a beeline to the trees, slightly crouched down I pushed my bike making the most of the hedgerow for cover. Once in the small copse, I pitched my tent as normal, hid the flames of my stove from the direction of the road, ate my dinner and settled down to watch the winter sun go down through the trees. That night I slept well, I was woken, not by the drunken campers I was used to but by an inquisitive muntjac deer.
Since that weekend I’ve wild camped a lot and my attitude to it has completely changed. Although I understand that ultimately the land owner holds all the cards, I am comfortable pushing my luck. I arrive at the end of one day and leave at the beginning of the next, I treat the ground with total respect, I effect no one by being there. On this basis I choose not to seek permission for my stay, I see no reason to draw attention to myself. I’m no longer nervous about spending a single night where I technically shouldn’t be, obviously if I’m challenged I move on without an argument but in all my time spent on private land I doubt anyone knew I had even passed by let alone pitched my tent.
My Tips for Wild Camping
Wild camp worry free –
If you like the idea of camping wild but worry about the legalities; try it out first in an area where you’re legally allowed. As mentioned above there are large areas of land where wild camping is permitted. There are also landowners that advertise wild camping stays on their land (for a fee) and although this sounds like a contradiction it will give you a good taster of wandering off, pitching up and really being out there alone just without the worry of being moved on. Check out these grounds on pitchup.com
I take a look at a map at the start of each day and plan roughly where I’ll be stopping for the night, I consider how far I intend to travel that day and which route is best to take. Sometimes I change the route so I’m on course for what looks like a better camping opportunity. On the map I’m looking for open countryside some distance away from civilisation.
Once I’m in a suitably quiet area I look for a spot away from the road, my favourite is a hedgerow that runs parallel with the road. Make sure you arrive in daylight. Could this area could be used for anything during the night? Take a good look round for clues of it being used by anyone else, rubbish, cigarette ends or needles on the floor? If so, move on. Look for scrub land, woodland and land showing signs of neglect. Stay clear of working farms, stores and equipment, look for ground which has no obvious need for patrol by the owner.
If you’ve camped before you’ll be used to positioning your tent doorway from the prevailing wind so that you can cook in relative comfort. When wild camping you need to consider this but you’ll also need to keep yourself and your stove flame hid from the direction of roads and houses etc. Again, this is where some form of structure comes in handy, hedgerows and tree copse can be hid behind and provides shelter from the elements too. Take note of the wind direction and use your tent and structure position combined to shelter you from the weather and any passers by.
Arrive late and leave early
Plan to arrive at your chosen location just as it’s getting dark and be packed up and leave early, this way it’s very unlikely anyone will stumble across you.
You don’t need any specialist gear but the more time you spend wild camping the more consideration you may want to give to adapting your kit to suit this style of camping. Obviously the smaller the tent the better, you can’t wild camp with a four man frame tent! I regularly wild camp so I’ve made some changes; my tent originally came with hi-vis orange guy lines which I swapped for some subtle flecked red line. I replaced my bikes shiny chrome mudguards for a matt black set and all my bike luggage including straps are plain black. Obviously turn off lights, cover reflectors and wear dark clothing without reflective detail.
Never light a camp fire
The lighting of a camp fire is a definite no. Not only will it work like a flare to give your position away but it signifies complete disrespect for the land owner. Fires are a massive unnecessary risk, don’t do it! There are plenty of camp sites that permit fires if you want the camp fire experience.
Taking a wee is easy enough but should you need a dump there’s a way to go about it. Pick a spot well away from any water and dig a hole at least eight inches deep. Do your business and in fill the hole. Remember to take a small plastic bag with you for the used toilet paper, don’t bury it!
Leave no trace
Make sure you take all your rubbish with you, the site should be left exactly as you found it.
I’ve been spotted dozens of times by dog walkers and members of the public, the normal response is that they look at the floor and keep walking, occasionally I’ve been acknowledged with a friendly “evening” or even casual conversation . Only once after being spotted was I reported to the landowner who understandably confronted me. I apologised and explained that I had suffered a few mechanical problems, had lost daylight and was stuck there, I’d be off again at first light, I even pulled my emergency five pound note from my bar bag and offered it for the inconvenience. The land owner refused my offer, sympathised with me and asked if I was in need of anything to see me through the night.
I’ve never had a single problem or ever felt threatened when wild camping. I wouldn’t advise pitching on inner city heathland or parks or anywhere likely to be a late night hang out (see reconnaissance paragraph) . I’d also advise against pitching on land close to car parks and lay-bys especially those adjoining main roads as these can attract night time gatherings too. As with most things, a bit of fore-thought and common sense and you’re perfectly safe. Take the usual precautions of telling someone what you’re doing, where you are and when you should be back, then get out there and enjoy it!