Wild camping: Sleep smart with our guide to this trekking trend

All the info on where to do it, what to look out for and what the rules are for anyone heading out into the wilderness
How to wild camp like a pro

For an experience that connects you with nature, doesn’t cost the earth and offers an unrivalled sense of freedom, there’s nothing quite like camping. But if you want to take the experience to the next level then wild camping may be the way to go. The freedom of wandering out into the wilderness, choosing the perfect spot, pitching up your tent and spending the night under canvas – or with just the stars as your ceiling on a fine day – takes some beating.

But you need to know your stuff before heading out. For a start, it’s not legal to simply pitch up wherever you like – and there could be serious consequences if you do. We’ve covered the main rules around the world, from the UK to the USA, so you can comfortable set out on your adventures.

As well as legalities, there are also some simple rules that every wild camper should follow to ensure they make as little impact as possible on their surroundings. From what to do with your toilet waste to how to interact with the wildlife, we’ve got you covered.

And if you’re unsure about what you actually need to take with you on a wild camping trip, look no further that our handy guide, which will remind you what to pack, from tents to toothpaste.

What is wild camping?

A guide to wild camping

Wild camping is essentially camping in the wilderness instead of in a designated campsite. The premise is simple: choose your area, pack your kit (more on what that involves below) and head into the great outdoors for a night – or several – under the stars. It’s long been popular with adventurers, hikers and climbers who find themselves off the beaten track and in need of a base for the night without heading back to civilisation and booking into a hotel. Now it’s opening up to amateur campers and general outdoor enthusiasts.

Though the concept is easy, getting wild camping just right can be a little more tricky. For a start, in most cases it’s not technically legal to just pitch up wherever you like, and you’ll have to follow proper camping etiquette to keep landowners happy (read on for more on that). But follow the camping code, ensure you have the right equipment and above all stay safe, and you’ll be in for an al fresco treat.

What’s the appeal?

A guide to wild camping

Camping is all about getting away from it all, and wild camping takes this to the extreme. What the experience lacks in basic amenities, it more than makes up for with scenery and solitude. Avoiding the busy campsites and caravan parks allows you to find your own bit of silent, empty wilderness – so you can spend time truly alone with nature.

It’s also a more flexible form of camping – unlike with most campsites, with wild camping you can pitch up when you want, on the exact patch of grass, sand or forest of your choosing. Another benefit is that it doesn’t cost you a penny, as unlike with a proper site, you won’t be charged a fee for your pitch.

Few experiences can rival the excitement, thrill and unadulterated sense of freedom that sleeping in the wild brings. So if you’re happy to swap a flushing loo for a magical view all to yourself, you’ll want to give this form of camping a go.

Is it legal to wild camp?

Sleeping under the stars comes with different rules and legal restrictions depending on where you are in the world. Each country has its own laws, and in many places, camping anywhere you like simply isn’t allowed.

The laws in the UK and Europe

A guide to wild camping

In France wild camping is not technically allowed but is generally tolerated with the permission of landowners, as long as you don’t start a fire or stay beyond 9am the next day. In Ireland, Spain, Portugal and eastern Europe, you can’t camp on private land unless you have the express permission of the local landowner. In Greece it’s illegal, though this rule is frequently ignored and the policing of it is almost non-existent.

But in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, wild camping is enshrined in the Allemannsretten – every man or woman's right of public access. You can pretty much pitch up anywhere on open land, so long as you'e travelling on foot and are more than 150 metres from inhabited houses and cabins.

It’s also legal in most of Scotland, where, under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in 2003, you are legally allowed to wild camp on unenclosed land. There are some exceptions, though, with bylaws introduced to restrict overnight camping in popular spots such as Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

It’s a different story in England and Wales. Unless the land is in the hands of the Forestry Commission or the National Trust, it’s likely to be privately owned – which means you can’t freely pitch up there. Strictly speaking, you’re supposed to ask the landowner for permission first, even though this is often impractical or impossible. Dartmoor is the only place in England where you’re legally allowed to wild camp, although you are reminded on the National Park’s website to take a “no impact” approach.

USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

A guide to wild camping

In the USA, you can camp for free in US National Forests & Grasslands, except where otherwise marked (check before setting out as each forest has different rules). Similarly in Canada, wild camping on crown land is allowed (covering around 89% of the country), unless there are restrictions in place. You can also wild camp in the “backcountry” of national parks, but you’ll need a permit first.

Australian laws on wild camping are surprisingly strict – it’s generally illegal, though there are plenty of designated rest areas where people can pitch up. But you can still get an ‘authentic’ wild camping experience at numerous ‘free camping’ sites in national parks, state forests, and other rural locations. Things are a little more relaxed in New Zealand – unless expressly prohibited, you are allowed to wild camp on public conservation land.

What are the rules of wild camping?

It all boils down to 'leave no trace'. You should leave your pitch exactly as you found it, which means taking all rubbish home with you, burying your toilet waste and taking all your paper and sanitary products back with you. Keep your group small and camp well away from roads, villages, towns and people’s houses. Respect 'No Overnight Camping' signs and move on if asked to do so. Leave what you find (wildflowers, rocks, shells) and respect wildlife by observing quietly from a distance and storing food securely.

When should I wild camp?

A guide to wild camping

Aim to arrive late and leave early. Don’t pitch up in the daytime – wait until sunset – and make sure you’re packing everything away to leave at daybreak. Wild camping can be done in any season, but you’ll need a more robust tent and warmer sleeping bag and clothing for winter trips.

What should I take wild camping?

The main bit of kit you’ll need is a tent (don’t forget the pegs and a lightweight mallet) and a decent sleeping bag. For an even "wilder" experience, you could opt for a bivvy bag, which is basically a waterproof bag into which your sleeping bag (and you) slot inside. Some people prefer to be out in the open, while others like the space of a tent and a zippable door. If the weather is fine, a bivvy is hard to beat, but a tent is advised in rainy conditions.

Other kit to pack includes a sleeping mat, camping stove and fuel, food (including spare rations), a mug and spork, refillable water bottle and water treatment tablets, headtorch, first aid kit and a toothbrush. Clothing-wise, opt for layers instead of bulky jumpers and don’t forget your waterproofs and a warm hat.

A word on fire safety

A guide to wild camping

If you’re planning to light a fire, do your research first. Make sure you know if there are fire restrictions in place – this is even more crucial in summer as forest fires have previously been started by careless campers. If an open fire is permitted, only use dead wood and existing fire rings if possible. Keep the fire small and supervise it at all times. Using a gas stove instead of lighting a fire means you won’t scorch the earth and you’ll leave the site pristine. As a general rule, wherever possible, use a stove rather than light an open fire.

Useful websites for wild campers

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is a useful rulebook to follow if you’re wild camping in Scotland

For camping maps and codes in Dartmoor, check out dartmoor.gov.uk

Handy info on where you can camp in New Zealand can be found from from New Zealand Tourism.

Sweden’s public right to roam is covered in detail by Visit Sweden.

Find more information on Leave No Trace – low-impact camping practices at lnt.org.

Tags:   Trekking
Tagged   Trekking