Wild Camping in the UK
The ‘Holy Grail’ of nights spent in the outdoors and possibly the subject that has raised most questions in all my years of working in outdoor education and adventure training.
My earliest memories of camping in the ‘sticks’ without the home comforts would be as a young 7 year old boy scout spending overnighters in the Pennines - summer and winter, hail, snow or shine, as soon as one venture ended we were planning the next and under the mentorship of excellent seasoned leaders and my fellow peers, this young boys desire to constantly run away from home and seek adventure was channelled in the right direction, the wild camping bug was well and truly established in my system from that day on.
What is Wild Camping?
In the UK, the term ‘wild camping’ is commonly used to describe camping in wild country far away from the urban home comforts and the confines of established campsites with showers, flushing toilets, cafes, shops and so on that you find on the tourist sites that cater mainly for families and caravanning enthusiasts enjoying pub grub and a few frothy pints within staggering distance.
During those early trips into the Pennines, we didn’t care what it was called, we just simply called it camping, it’s name wasn’t important, the only thing I was concerned about was the ‘buzz’ it gave - the chance to live out the boys own stories of our time and a freedom from an education system I struggled to embrace.
The first time I came across the term ‘wild camping’ was many years later whilst undertaking my Mountain Leader Training Award, as it is a crucial part of the syllabus and is defined by the following paragraph:
“Wild camping takes place in moor land or mountain terrain remote from roads and habitation. Wild camping has the potential to adversely affect the locality by vegetation trampling and pollution through food and human waste. It therefore needs to be undertaken with sensitivity combining care for the environment with personal enjoyment”
Source – Mountain Leader Training UK
Camping enthusiasts around the world might also use the terms such as "boondocking", "dry camping", "free camping”, "stealth camping" and even "guerilla camping".
Is it legal in the UK?
The most common answer I’ve seen to this question is sadly a flat “No”, topic closed – really, so does that mean elements of the MLT UK syllabus and activities as defined above are illegal? – Of course it’s not, but it certainly creates debate in the same perspective as the debate about the legal implications for outdoor enthusiasts to carry a knife.
How I deal with the question personally is by providing the following answer:
“Wild camping in the UK is legal in certain areas with expressed permission from the landowner, in addition, there are also access rights in local regions, in particular Dartmoor and Scotland that favour the camping enthusiast.”
So what is the law?
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and Scottish Outdoor Access Code came into force on 9th February 2005. The Act establishes a statutory right to camp and the Code describes the responsibilities and best practice guidance that should be followed when exercising your right to camp wild.
A section in the Trespass (Scotland) Act 1865, which contained an offence of camping on land without the consent of the owner or occupier, has been repealed via Schedule 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. The 2003 Act confirms that camping is a lawful activity when done by a person in the exercise of the access rights created by the Land Reform Act.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code contains guidance on the responsibilities that accompany the access rights in the Act. The Code provides specific advice on wild camping and recommends that in order to avoid causing problems you should not camp in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals.
In England and Wales:
In short, camping on private land without permission is trespassing and on open access land wild camping is prohibited under Schedule 2 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, a recent petition to the Government to address this gave the following response:
“This Government appreciates the potential benefits of wild camping in England and its attractiveness to campers who already have the opportunity to camp in the wild in Scotland.
The Land Reform Act in Scotland allows for wild camping, but the land issues and the legislation in England are somewhat different. The introduction of wild camping in England would be a controversial issue, which would require both significant consultation and legislative change.
On open access land wild camping is prohibited under Schedule 2 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which lists all restricted activities. Therefore, new Regulations would be required to exclude wild camping as a restricted activity. Any change to the current rules on wild camping in National Parks and Ministry of Defence land would require new primary legislation.
The Government has no plans to allocate the necessary resources to consider proposals for such legislation at present, and is concentrating on following up the successful introduction of 750,000 hectares of open access land with new legislation on access to the coast in the Marine Bill Act which is currently going through Parliament.”
Source – Legalise Wild Camping petition in England and Wales
So what do I do now?
Many National Parks in the UK have an extremely proactive view to genuine ethical wild camping, Dartmoor national Park actively encourage it and it would be worth researching their websites and asking their information centres with regards to this, you will also find that some information centres have details of acceptable locations and even contact details for landowners. Ask the information centres if they have a ‘camping on farms’ or ‘camping in wild country’ information sheet or list.
With regards to finding private land to use for camping activities I have also compiled a separate article called ‘Seeking and gaining land access permission' and a link is provided below.
Is there a ‘Wild Camping’ code?
Yes, most outdoor enthusiasts will be familiar with the age old tried and tested countryside code, which is very much the basis for the ‘wild camping’ code and is defined by the Mountaineering Club of Scotland with the following do’s and don’ts.
The larger the group, the harder it is to keep impacts to a minimum. Keep groups small.
Remember that people have to make their living from the land.
Camp as unobtrusively as possible.
Remember that noise travels from tents disturbing wildlife as well as humans
Camping on the same spot harms vegetation. Aim to move frequently and do not stay for any longer than 3 nights in the same place.
Vegetation is more sensitive at higher altitudes. Aim to camp lower down in glens where vegetation recovers more easily.
Dead wood is an important habitat for insects and many small animals, so it is best to avoid fires even for cooking.
Lighting fires poses a high fire risk on peaty soils and close to tinder dry grass. A high risk of fire can exist at any time of year, and not just in times of drought.
Minimise Disturbance to Wildlife
Watercourses and loch sides are important sites for birds and animals. Take extra care when camping near burns and lochs, and try to avoid camping immediately beside them.
Food scraps (even when buried) attract scavenging birds and animals, some of which prey on more vulnerable nesting birds. Carry all scraps of food out with you.
Be prepared to move if you become aware that you are disturbing nesting birds or animals.
Always find a spot at least 30 metres from fresh/running water when going to the toilet.
Bury excrement in a small hole (not under boulders). A trowel or ice axe can be used to lift a flap of turf. In areas of sensitive upland vegetation, such as the Cairngorms plateau, vegetation takes a long time to recover, so holes should not be dug at all.
Be particularly careful to bury excrement properly when the ground is snow covered.
Burying tampons and sanitary towels doesn't work as animals dig them up. Please carry them out. Placing them in a container with a tea bag helps to absorb odours.
Follow the more specific guidance on Human Sanitation in the MCofS Human Sanitation Code. (See links below)
Leave camp as you found it
Remove all litter (even other peoples!) Think ahead and only carry in what you are prepared to carry out. Do not bury or hide litter under stones as it can harm wildlife and offends those who visit after you.
Choose a dry site to pitch on rather than resorting to digging drainage ditches and removing vegetation and boulders. In replacing boulders, return them to the same place, the same way up.
Are there more information resources available?
Yes, below I have compiled a list of resources that give clear information with regards to wild camping and access within the UK and if any folks have any more resources they would like to add please feel free to contact me and I will add them in.
Thankyou for reading and happy ‘wild’ camping folks