Wild-camping, at least in England and Wales, is strictly speaking against the law, unless done with the explicit consent of the landowner. Here’s where things immediately become murky: against the law is not the same as being a crime. In fact, under the law (at least in England and Wales) trespass is a civil offense, not a criminal offense.
What this means in practice is better explained with an example: Imagine you own a piece of land somewhere, and I trespass onto that land, for whatever reason (but I’m not breaking any other laws, and certainly not damaging anything on your land). In this scenario, your options are extremely limited. Basically, you can ask me to leave. If at that point, I humbly apologise, and start packing up, legally there is nothing further you can do. If you tried to frogmarch me off your land, I can charge you with assault, which is a crime, and if you break anything of mine, that may incur some extra charges.
Should I refuse to leave your land, you can at that stage contact the police, but legally you can only force me to leave once you’ve obtained a court order.
There is another charge of aggravated trespass, which is a criminal offense, and for which I could be arrested. However, it’s quite different – you have to be doing two different things to commit aggravated trespass: You have be trespassing AND you have to be intentionally obstructing, disrupting or intimidating others, and in doing so be preventing them from carrying out lawful activities. Unless you do wild-camping seriously wrong, then you should never be committing aggravated trespass.
The UK Government is trying to pass the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB) and you may have heard that one of the many unwelcome changes that law would bring is to make trespass a crime, for which you could be arrested. So, does that mean the end of wild-camping in England and Wales? Surprisingly, not, it doesn’t. That part of PCSC Bill, if passed as is, will make it a criminal offence for someone with a vehicle to reside, or intend to reside on land without consent from the owner. It applies to vans, campervans and caravans, but not to tents or bivvies.
In simple terms, for those of us who do wild-camping, it simply means that the law hasn’t changed to impact on us, regardless of how dreadful the proposed new law might be for others. And yes, dreadful is the correct phrase: several police Chief Constables (serving and retired) have come out in sharp criticism on the PCSCB bill.