Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Camping guide to wild camping


Many years ago I drove up on the edge of Salisbury Plain and pitched our small tent in the dark. Touring the south-west in the school holidays had resulted in being turned away from packed campsites time and again. As dawn broke, my partner slipped out of the tent for a pee and was greeted with wolf whistles from the infantry platoon that had settled in quietly behind us through the night.

As a hazard of wild camping, it was hardly the norm. In fact, it could not be called ‘wild’ as we saw village lights in the valley below as we pegged out the tent. Of course, for most of us, truly wild camping rarely happens in the UK – unless you are a backpacker or canoe camper. Here, we are looking at camping with a car with pitching off-site better described as ‘free’ camping. In South Africa, the townships that spring up without planning permission are euphemistically referred to as ‘informal housing’ and we could adapt that here as ‘informal camping’ except that our informality is just about recreation.

Legally, in most of the UK, you must have the permission of landowners to camp on their land; there is a tradition of wild camping in many areas but usually only high in the hills. However, such free camping can often be found through a polite request to a farmer for a quiet corner of a field. An enquiry about camping made to a pub landlord over a pint or two and meal will often find you an after-hours space for the tent in the beer garden.

The situation in Scotland is rather different as there is a legal right to camp anywhere, constrained by some guidelines based on common sense, consideration and best environmental practice. Wherever you pitch your tent off-site, aim to be non-intrusive with consideration, responsibility and being environmentally friendly as the watchwords.

Preferably, that tent will not be a huge family model that takes up loads of space and dominates the landscape. Wild camping with a car usually means taking less gear, leaving kitchen unit, camp beds, wardrobes and large tables behind in favour being able to set up camp and slip away quickly. A dark colour for the flysheet combined with light folding chairs and table and self-inflating all reduce the time needed to set up camp for an overnight stay.

Silverwood campsiteYou also have to ask yourself, “Do I really need to camp here?” Pitching in an otherwise pristine spot can be quite selfish even if you are careful not to leave any trace behind. That’s a personal choice, of course, but it is worth considering as you look out over a quiet sea loch in Scotland.

It is hard to think of camping as ‘wild’ anywhere you find a road but, in Scotland, you can meander along a single track ‘highway’ to places that really do feel remote.

Before hauling out the tent, check for any houses in the area and ask the residents if you want to camp nearby. If your chosen spot looks well used, pass it by and give the ground time to recover. Assuming all is well, then try to pitch late and leave early. As cars can cause significant damage to vegetation, park carefully, avoiding soft verges and do not block a passing place. Remember that it is better to walk to your car than to drive to your tent from an environmental impact angle as well as it being less likely to get the car stuck.

Fires are a bad idea when camping wild as, apart from the scarring of the ground, there is a risk of fire spreading. Better to cook on a stove or barbecue. However, the recent development of compact portable outdoor firepits means that you can enjoy the romance of dancing flames without leaving a mark on the ground.

A good compromise on pitching in the wilds – or trying to – is to stay on a simple campsite. Generally speaking, there’s a happy correlation between lack of ‘facilities’ and lovely landscapes. Happily, even the simplest sites will have a toilet and washbasins but hot showers, washing machines and dryers are less likely. Finding them can be tricky though so if you come across a likely prospect make a note for future reference. Far easier to find are farm sites and the Certificated Sites of the Camping and Caravanning Club and they are good value for money. Only Camping and Caravanning Club members can stay at certificated sites; with over 1,200 to choose from they are a pretty good reason for joining.

Often providing only minimal facilities, many will simply have just a fresh water point and somewhere for waste disposal; some offer toilets and showers.

On the website, sites labelled ‘H’ in red - for ‘Hideaway’ – are noted for being quiet or secluded.

As the Club website puts it, "A Certificated Site doesn't have to be all-singing and all-dancing. It just needs to be a small site we would want to recommend to our friends". Can’t be bad.


It hardly counts as conventional camping and is usually enjoyed by ultralight backpackers but I’ve ‘camped’ out next to my car many times. From Iceland to South Africa, a Gore-Tex bivvy bag and Therm-a-Rest mattress have made a handy home from home after knocking up a meal on a small stove. A quick brew in the morning and it was on the road again with nobody aware about my budget bed.

  • Do not stay longer than one or two nights in one place.
  • Be aware of any seasonal restrictions on access and move on if you think you could be disturbing birds or wildlife.
  • Pitch well away from settlements and out of sight of any houses.
  • Camping in fields with crops or grazing livestock is never acceptable.
  • Use a tent that does not stick out like a sore thumb.
  • Never dig drainage channels, move stones or raid dry stone walls for any purpose.
  • Even if it is obvious that others have light real fires, avoid doing so yourself.
  • If you do not have your own cassette-style toilet, dig a 15cm deep hole and bury poo at least 30m from any water or 50m from roads or tracks.
  • As well as packing up your own litter, take away any you come across rather than burying or burning.
  • Carry out all sanitary items, as it is believed that burying them does not work - decomposition is hindered and animals may dig them up.
  • Leave your pitch as it was when you arrived.
  • A dodgy tummy can have more serious implications than at home, so it really is important for everybody to wash their hands after a loo break. Sanitising hand gel that needs no water is easily available these days in supermarkets.
  • Whenever you get the chance, use a proper toilet when you find it.
  • Generally in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, landowners and their representatives have a legal right to order you to pack up and move on. Details on wild camping legally on Dartmoor are available on-line at dartmoor-npa.gov.uk
  • Wild camping is a legal right in Scotland. For full details, check out outdooraccess-scotland.com
  • For details of joining the Camping and Caravanning Club visit thefriendlyclub.co.uk
  • The Outdoor Industries Association has developed a section in the Public Zone of its website that deals with minimising our impact on the environment and is well worth visiting. Just go to outdoorindustriesassociation.co.uk
For more top camping tips, click here.

Back to "Practical Advice" Category

30/05/2013 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

We reveal the alternative camping equipment that no one ever tells you to bring but will massively improve your tent life ...

How to dry your tent at home

Make sure your tent is completely dry before packing it away or it will get mouldy. Here's how to do it ...

Campsite cooking: Vegan chilli non carne

Sitting around the campfire with a spicy bowl of chilli is one of the best things about camping and you don't ...

Around The Campfire: Camping photo competition

Share your favourite camping pictures and you could win a great prize from Coleman! Here's June's winning ...

Other Articles

Off-grid camping is about getting away from the stresses of daily life for a few days and enjoying the tranquillity of the natural world. Here’s how ...

Campsite cooking: Lamb curry

You simply can’t go wrong with this foolproof recipe for a delicious, aromatic campsite curry ...

The best sleeping bags for camping

The quality of your sleeping bag can be the difference between a brilliant camping trip and a disaster of a ...

Campsite etiquette: the unwritten rules for camping beginners

Tent life should be simple and uncomplicated – and following basic campsite rules and advice helps make it ...