Wild camping, as a term can mean a significant variety of things, depending on the perspective of the person concerned. For many it involves striding out into the ‘wilderness’ with only the clothes, food and equipment we can carry with us. For many others, it is any form of camping that isn’t on a designated camp site. The validity of those respective viewpoints is looked at below, as is the closest we have to a formal definition of ‘wild camping’. Continuing on from our recent series of articles covering the legal aspects of camping, we thought it worth a quick look at exactly what the rules are that we need to adhere to, when wild camping in the UK.
Wild Camping On Private Land
Strictly speaking, all land in England & Wales is owned by someone, meaning that we should, ideally, seek permission prior to camping any where. In reality, however, a degree of wild camping is tolerated, especially in areas such as the Lake District, in England, and Snowdonia, in Wales. The main exception, in England, is Dartmoor, where wild camping is, actually, allowed, provided it is within pre defined parameters. Dartmoor has pre defined camping areas where longer term wild camping is allowed, however, even outside of these areas, it is still permitted, provided it is for no more than two nights, and it is not within 100 metres of a public road, dwelling or enclosure.
One area where wild camping is very actively discouraged is the Peak District, especially in very dry conditions, as the huge deposits of peat are an accident waiting to happen, in the vicinity of a camp fire.
The law for Scotland is, somewhat, different. Wild camping, there, was made legal, with the introduction of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. This act made wild camping legal in any unenclosed land in Scotland. Of course, in Scotland, as with anywhere else in the UK, consideration and common sense is key. In Scotland, the guidelines are laid out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, but they apply equally well, anywhere in the UK, and are covered later in this article.
The only place, in Scotland, where wild camping isn’t, currently, allowed is in the East of the Loch Lomond National Park, where it was banned in 2010 (along with alcohol) following a spate of vandalism and anti social behaviour.
‘Rules’ of Wild Camping
The general rule is clear, and simple; apart from the exceptions listed above, you are not allowed to camp anywhere in England and Wales “without express permission”.
The reality is, this is going to be virtually impossible to obtain, and most wild camping is tolerated, provided we stick to the rules listed below.
At this point, it is, of course, worth mentioning that; even if you do stick to these rules, the land owner does have the right to force you to abandon your camp, regardless of the time of day / night, and you must be prepared to accept this, as, without permission (and, technically, even, with it) you have no automatic rights to camp on any low level private land.
Of course, that is the rule. The reality may be a little different. Whilst the land owners will always have authority to remove us, with immediate effect, wild camping does tend, in the main, to be tolerated, as long as we follow the basic guidelines;
- Avoid over crowding, and move on to another location, where applicable.
- Carry a trowel to bury toilet waste, and keep well clear of water courses.
- Use a stove, or leave no trace of any camp fire. Never cut down or damage trees.
- Take away your own rubbish, and, where possible, any other litter you come across.
- If in doubt, ask the land owner, who may be able to suggest a better camp site.
These 5 key pointers are as listed in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, referred to above. They all relate to the central maxim of being unobtrusive whilst camped, and leaving no trace when you depart. An extension of this is the unwritten rule of; ‘pitch late, leave early’. The less we are around to annoy local land owners, the more we are likely to be left alone to enjoy what we love doing.
‘Wild’ Camping Other Than In Tents
For those of us with folding campers, caravans and motor homes, we are far more likely to be pitching up, in a lay by or similar, for the night rather than an obscure corner of woodland, or remote mountain peak. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code advises as follows;
“Wild camping is defined as lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two to three nights in one place. You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply but help to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals, and keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures. Take care to avoid deer stalking or grouse shooting. If you wish to camp close to a house or building, seek the owner’s permission. Leave no trace by; taking away all your litter, removing all traces of your tent pitch and of any open fire (follow the guidance for lighting fires), not causing any pollution“.
So, by the closest thing we have to an official definition of wild camping, this doesn’t really qualify, and will often be referred to, by those in the know, as ‘off site camping’. OK, so, for those of us that off site camp, what do we need to know?
Firstly, the standard access rights, and those stated in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code do not apply to campers, caravans and motor homes.
The Road Traffic Act 1988 states that you can drive a vehicle up to 15 yards off a public highway, in order to park, but this does not confer any automatic right to park there. Most un metalled roads, unfenced land and beaches are private property, and, just like wild camping, you have no rights to park there, unless authorised by the land owner, either in person, or by way of signage. Again, much like wild camping, informal, off road parking takes place extensively, without causing undue concern.
Just like wild camping, there are a number of guidelines we need to follow, including;
Common Sense Guidance – Do’s:
- Always ensure your chosen spot is suitable for your unit
- Think about the cumulative effect of parking there, if it is obviously extensively used.
- Take care to avoid fragile ground and sensitive habitats, and never drive down onto beaches, or grass verges, as it can destroy the habitat.
- As with wild camping, avoid over crowding, and never park too close to another unit.
- Use only biodegradable detergents and drain waste water tanks in camp sites and designated areas, wherever possible. If you have to empty it in the wild, then keep well away from water courses, and be aware that animals may be attracted to the scent.
- Ensure your unit is self contained, with toilet facilities and waste water containers / tanks.
- Do a full litter pick before leaving, taking not only your own rubbish, but any found about the area, and dispose of it, properly, when you get back to appropriate facilities. Always ensure that litter is stored inside the unit, so that it isn’t prone to having bags ripped open and contents strewn everywhere by the local wild life.
- Support a sustainable tourist industry – buy groceries etc in local shops.
Common Sense Guidance – Dont’s:
- Park in areas where signs state; ‘No overnight parking’, or where there is a camp site nearby.
- Park overnight, within sight of people’s houses, even in car park bays.
- Park in an area where security may be an issue. Anywhere that looks a little ‘dodgy’ probably is, but anywhere too remote can also bring its own fair share of problems.
- Block access tracks to estates and fields
- Light BBQs or fires unless it is safe to do so, it can be supervised properly, and it is fully extinguished, when finished, with no evidence left behind.
- Empty any chemical toilet waste anywhere other than at a designated chemical waste area. Most camp sites have facilities for this. It is important to be aware that public toilets are not suitable places to empty chemical toilets, as it upsets the sewage treatment process.
- Cause any damage to trees, crops or other property.
- Make a camp of it. Chairs, awnings, wind breaks etc should not be used, unless you are extremely remote and not over looked. Anything that looks too ‘permanent’ is likely to illicit a knock on the door, and a request to move on.
- Be careful with your alcohol consumption. At least one person should remain able to drive, when camping off site. You could be asked to move on, at any time, and it won’t help if you are unable to do so, due to alcohol levels. We also have to be careful of the potential to fall foul of the ‘Drunk In Charge’ law in the UK, as well as some European countries. Technically, you are committing an offence, just being in charge of a vehicle, whilst over the drink driving limit. Granted, if you are in your pyjamas, or (God forbid) a onesie, then common sense dictates that you probably weren’t intending to go anywhere, but there are no guarantees, especially bearing in mind the issue of, potentially, being asked to move on.
‘Wild’ Camping On A Public Highway, Car Park, Etc.
Just like storing a unit on the roadside, outside our own house, there is no fixed national law preventing us from parking up on a public area, such as a lay by or car park. That said, there will, often, be local bye laws preventing us from doing so, and many public places now include the obligatory ‘No overnight camping’ signs on every car park and lay by in the area. If we follow the usual common sense rules of; arrive late, leave early, leave no mess, we are unlikely to be disturbed, but, if we are, we may have to smile politely, and move on.
In our recent article; Storing A Folding Camper At Home. What is The Law? we made reference to Rules 238 -252 of the Highway Code which governs all aspects of waiting and parking on a public highway. As long as we comply with these provisions, we are, technically, within the law, but that won’t help us, where local bye laws prevent any form of over night camping. Local authorities may, also, impose Traffic Regulation Orders which determine who may park overnight in areas under their jurisdiction. For example, they might permit HGV drivers, only, to park over night in their lay bys, as they are required, by law, to take designated breaks, where the rest of us are not.
This really leaves us with two other alternatives to look at, for over night parking, in a public place. These two options are private car parks and motorway services.
As we saw in our other recent article; Spacing On Camping Pitches. Just What Are The Rules? any person or organisation offering overnight accommodation for campers, caravans and motor homes must do so in compliance with the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. Failure to do so can leave them open for prosecution, and this is why the major supermarkets and pub chains don’t, officially, allow overnight camping in their car parks. If we chose to ignore this, as with any other camp site utilised without permission, we run the risk of action being taken against us for the civil offence of trespass.
Some motorway services, however, actively encourage overnight camping, for a fee. The key advantage with these is that they are, usually, pretty much on the route to your destination, so little or no diversion from the main route, but with the ability to rest up for the night, and break up what would be an, otherwise, unduly arduous journey.
If you would like to check out a list of motorway services offering this facility, there is a comprehensive list of them on the Lifesure Group Blog, which is worth a look.