The complete beginner's guide to wild camping
In its simplest form, wild camping is sleeping outdoors in a tent or bivy away from busy campsites and as far as possible from roads or buildings.
It’s all about getting away from the stresses of the daily grind for a night or two and exploring the vast, beautiful wilderness that still exists in the UK.
A family camping trip can involve the sort of planning normally reserved for invading a small country. You might have a trailer packed to the brim with camping gear: a tent, sleeping mats and sleeping bags, tables, chairs, cooking gear, storage furniture and lighting. You name it, it’s in there.
Then you pack the boot and roof box with holdalls, bikes, coolboxes, food, etc. By the time the car is packed half the day is gone, and you’ve still got to unpack at the other end. We're all in favour of taking as much equipment as possible to make camping as comfortable as possible for all the family.
But at its heart, camping is supposed to be about simplicity and getting closer to nature. That’s what wild camping offers, and in these unsettling times, that’s never been more important.
Is wild camping legal?
You've probably heard that wild camping is illegal everywhere in the UK apart from Scotland. This is not quite true. Outside of Scotland there is no legal right to camp wild in the UK but that doesn’t mean that wild camping is ‘illegal’.
In most of the UK you can set up camp with the permission of landowners to camp on their land. And in many hilly areas, such as the Lake District, responsible wild camping away from roads and cultivated land is tolerated. You can also enjoy lightweight camping legally on Dartmoor for up to two nights on most of the unenclosed common land.
The situation in Scotland is very different as there is a legal right to camp almost anywhere, constrained by some guidelines based on common sense, consideration and best environmental practice. Permits are required to camp in some areas around Loch Lomond - check with the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park authority for more details.
Wherever you pitch your tent off-site, aim to be non-intrusive, considerate, responsible and environmentally friendly. This means leaving no trace and not disturbing people, animals or vegetation. Don’t light a fire without permission – in fact, lighting fires is not a good idea, full stop – and never be rude to a landowner who chooses to move you on.
Set up camp late in the day and move on early the next morning. 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.
What do I need to do in advance?
Wild camping is about spending the night in a remote spot, far from civilisation. By definition, this generally means leaving the car behind and hitting the trail, either on foot, bike or maybe even by canoe or kayak.
Pack everything you need in a rucksack, research a route in advance and plot it out on a map. When you’re out in the hills, mobile phone apps are all very well, but when you get out into the wilderness the chances are you will lose signal or your battery will run out, so a traditional paper map and compass (and the ability to use them) are essential.
It’s also vitally important to let someone know where you are planning to go – even if it’s just a rough location.
Where should I camp?
After a few hours of tiring yourself out ploughing through the countryside, you need to find somewhere to sleep. This is the important bit. You’re looking for some flat, dry ground in a discreet and sheltered place as far away from the footpath as possible. A water source nearby would be handy and, of course, a wonderful view in the morning would be perfect, but it’s not essential. Focus on all the other factors first.
Start looking for a suitable spot about an hour before darkness falls, giving yourself enough time to pitch your tent before it gets too dark. If you find somewhere early on that looks suitable, stop there and then – don’t be tempted to carry on and expect to find another site, because sod’s law means that you won’t and you’ll have to return to the original spot – assuming it’s still free.
Leave no trace
Recently, wild campers have suffered some bad press thanks to the inconsiderate behaviour of a few individuals. We’ve all seen the photographs of piles of debris left behind in the countryside – abandoned tents, camping furniture, and sleeping bags, not to mention enough empty beer cans to keep the local recycling plant in business for a year.
As bad as these pictures look, these are not the actions of true wild campers. For those of us who love the outdoors, the idea of anyone polluting the landscape like this is beyond belief. But, like it or not, the reality is that everyone will be tarred with the same brush. That means it’s more important than ever that we all act responsibly when we’re camping out in the wild.
The aim is to have minimum impact on the environment so that when you leave, the area looks exactly as it did when you arrived. Try not to move any branches or rocks and if you do have to, make sure you return them to the site before you leave. After packing up your kit, check the area for any items of gear or litter you might have missed to make sure you don’t leave anything behind.
Can I light a fire?
If you have a stove with you, there should be no need to light a campfire, tempting as it might be. As well as the risk of damaging the ground or starting a larger wildfire, a bright orange glow in the darkness is only going to draw unwanted attention.
But if you do decide to light a fire, make sure it’s done as safely as possible. Pay attention to No Campfire signs and never build it on vegetation; instead scatter some gravel, dirt or sand to create a fire bed. Gather fuel – twigs and branches – from the surrounding area but never cut anything from trees or bushes. Let the fire burn out completely to lessen the impact on the environment.
Burn all the wood until there’s nothing left but ash. Pour water over the remaining fire and mix the ash with the sand/dirt on the fire bed. When that is done and it has cooled down completely, disperse everything around the area.
Is It safe to drink water from a river or lake?
Water is heavy to carry so you will probably want to be camped near a water source. Running water from a river or stream is generally cleaner than still, but either way you should filter or boil any water before drinking.
A good example of a filter is the LifeSaver Liberty bottle – as used by the British Army and Oxfam – which has an innovative two-in-one design that means it can be used as either a personal drinking bottle or an in-line filter to pump clean water into other bottles and containers. The bottle’s hand pump forces water through the ultrafiltration membrane and then an extra carbon filter, eliminating the risk from water-borne contaminants such as viruses, cysts and bacteria.
How do I keep clean while wild camping?
For a couple of nights in the wilderness, you should be able to go without showering. But hygiene is still important.
Take an antibacterial handwash with you for using before you eat and a small bottle of washing-up liquid to clean pots, plates and cutlery.
If you are planning to be on the move for a few days and want to be able to freshen up, you could use large wet wipes but these aren't particularly environmentally-friendly. A greener alternative is the Bottleshower, a nice piece of lightweight kit that allows you to convert a plastic drinks bottle into a shower.
What gear should I take?
By its very nature, wild camping means getting back to basics. So leave the kitchen unit, camp bed, wardrobe and tent carpet behind. All you really need to set up camp for an overnight stay is a small tent, a sleeping bag or quilt, a self-inflating mat, cooking gear, food and a water bottle.
Of course there is lots of other gear out there that can make your adventures more comfortable, and as long as you can cope with the weight, then go for it.
A 55-litre backpack should be enough for a couple of nights’ camping. We's also suggest a two-man tent weighing in at between 1.5kg and 2kg, as well as a lightweight sleeping bag. A Thermarest self-inflating mat is perfect if you are packing light.
For cooking you’ll require a small lightweight stove and a pan. When it comes to eating, packets of pre-prepared dry and wet camping food, such as Firepot, Wayfayrer and Summit To Eat are very good but as a cheaper alternative, make your own spag bol at home, take it with you and heat it up at your tent. Another tip is to have a bowl of porridge in the morning as it can give you fuel for the whole day.
Clothing is all about layering, starting with base layers or thermals for sleeping. Clearly waterproof trousers and a jacket are very important. But don’t forget a hat and gloves, especially in colder months – you are going to be out of the tent a lot of the time. Walking poles will help give you balance and take the weight off your knees.
Once you’ve decided what you’re going to take, look at it again and pare it all down. You’ll almost certainly be able to get rid of some unnecessary stuff.
You’ll find any number of people prepared to give you advice on the best way to pack your rucksack, but really there’s no good or bad way. Some will tell you that you should always put heavy items at the bottom and lighter things at the top, but the best approach is trial and error and find out what works best for you.
Do put important things like torches, toiletries, snacks and coffee sachets somewhere you can access easily, such as a top pocket.
Camping magazine editor Iain Duff runs through his wild camping kit list...
Some wild campers will happily sleep in a bivy or under a tarp, but personally I prefer the security of a tent.
My current shelter of choice is the Meteor 3000 from Sierra Designs. It’s a lightweight two-berth model which I find suits me best, as I prefer to have a bit more room.
I also have a trusty MSR Hubba Hubba, which is light, easy to pitch and stable – and also has a great name! I also prefer a square sleeping bag as opposed to a mummy bag, but these are more difficult to find in lightweight styles.
Hardcore lightweight campers will probably be horrified at the amount of gear here but the list below covers everything you might need (and more!):
● 55 litre rucksack
● Lightweight sleeping bag
● Self-inflating sleeping mat
● GPS locator
● Solar power bank
● Head torch
● Map and compass
● Water filter
● Stove and fuel supply
● Lightweight pot
● Food and drink
● Walking poles
● First aid kit
● Tick removal tool
● Fire lighter
● Waterproof stuff sack
● Washing-up liquid and scrubber
● Wet wipes/hand cleaning gel
● Insect repellent/sunscreen
● Toilet paper
Your choice of clothing is about staying dry and at the right temperature, which will obviously be determined by the time of year. As a minimum, you’ll need:
● A base layer
● A fleece
● Waterproof jacket
● Waterproof trousers
● Walking boots or shoes suitable for the terrain
● A hat (for warmth or sun protection)