Camping, as we know, holds the key to the freedom of the great outdoors. Who could possibly resist the prospect of a few days immersed in nature; golden hours spent wandering through acres of beautiful woodland and meadows, meandering streams, cool summer breezes, rosy sunsets...
The commonly shared urge to clear the diary, kick off our urban shackles, and escape for a few days, can often seem like a bad idea when you find yourself pitched only yards from other people in search of the same thing, unluckily finding yourself confronted with noise, unwelcome interactions and the smells of onsite facilities. It's at times like this we yearn for solitude and often our thoughts turn to wild camping ie. camping in wild natural surroundings, far away from the organised campsite.
Wild camping and the law
If you're a born-to-be-wild camper, then you'd best understand that in many parts of the British Isles, the law is not on your side. Though ramblers may have a 'right to roam' in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings, this rarely extends to a correspondent 'right to camp' anywhere you fancy.
The problem is that every wilderness tract in the UK landscape, however barren, isolated and inhospitable, is actually a piece of real estate which most definitely has an owner – which could be a private individual, or an institution such as the National Trust. In other words, regrettably, our 'advanced' society has long dismissed poetic notions of communal ownership, such as the beautiful Native American concept that land 'was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.' In general, you must always seek permission from the owner before you set up camp, though there are exceptions.
At present, wild camping – defined by lawyers, park rangers, irate hill farmers and night-duty police officers with torches, as camping “without express permission” – is against the law in England and Wales, though it is allowed in parts of Dartmoor National Park. It's not exactly legal in Ireland either, but in Scotland, wild camping is legal in all but a few sensitive areas.
Wild camping on Dartmoor is restricted to two consecutive nights at the same location, and tents must not be pitched within 100 metres of any public highway, enclosure or otherwise restricted area. Wild campers in Scotland may pitch their tents in any hill- or upland area other than the eastern section of the Loch Lomonds National Park.
Wild camping: custom and practice
Having stated the legal position, the reality in some parts of the country can be very different. Though it is still expressly prohibited, the National Parks Authority and many landowners will generally tolerate limited and responsible wild camping in the more remote districts. In such circumstances there is an expectation you will 'pitch late – leave early', staying just a single night and leaving no trace of your presence. Other than seeking permission in the first place, this is your best chance of enjoying a peaceful overnight stay.
Discretion is the key here. You should fully understand your legal position, and be prepared to move on immediately if requested to do so.
Wild camping conventions
The main argument against wild camping is simply that too many wild campers cannot be relied upon to act responsibly and respect the natural environment. All wild campers, therefore, should scrupulously adhere to best environmental good practice and accepted conventions of camping behaviour. This means, as a minimum, you should:
- pitch late, leave early;
- leave absolutely no trace of your presence;
- bury toilet waste no less than 100 feet (30 metres) from any watercourse;
- select a dry pitch to avoid constructing drainage channels;
- ensure your camp cannot be seen from roads or pathways;
- pitch just one or two tents to minimise noise and environmental disturbance;
- avoid damaging vegetation by moving on after one or two nights;
- steer clear of lake or riverside locations which harbour and support local wildlife;
- ensure your actions do not disturb wildlife or livestock;
- take away everything you brought in;
- remove all on-site litter.
As a responsible wild camper, it must be a given that you are totally sensitive to the demands and restrictions of the landscape. This can mean, for example, not camping in wilderness areas during dry spells when the fire risk is exceptionally high.
Wild camping equipment
Do remember that with wild camping you may well have to be totally self sufficient: so most, if not all, of your party should be suitably experienced and everyone should be in good health and reasonably fit.
Of course, you will have to carry your own tent, mat and sleeping-bag, cooking stove and accessories, food rations and plentiful supplies of water for drinking and cooking, plus at least a trowel or spade for toilet and hygiene purposes. Take care, because carrying your 'home' on your back is always heavy work, and investing in good-quality, ultra-lightweight equipment always pays dividends – especially if the tranquillity and special magic of wild camping sets your soul on fire and has you hooked.