What is wild-camping?
Wild-camping is camping away from formal camp sites. In the UK, wild-camping is legal in almost all of Scotland, but against the law in England and Wales (with the exception of parts of Dartmoor), unless you have explicit permission from the landowner. Here’s where things get a bit complicated: yes, wild-camping is against the law, but it’s not a crime. In simple terms, what this means is that if you are wild-camping on my land, I cannot have you arrested. The best I can do is tell you to leave, and only if you refuse to leave can I start the process of taking legal steps. You see, in England and Wales, wild-camping is trespass, which is not a crime. When I go cycle touring, I always wild camp – I call that cycle camping, as I carry all my camping gear on my bicycle.
Be sure to read my updated post about the legality of wild-camping in the UK, in the wake of the new Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill. Obviously, this post is aimed at people going cycle camping, but it also applies to backpackers and hikers.
So I can go wild-camping anywhere?
In theory, you could, but there are practical implications. For starters, say you were wild-camping on my land, and I was very unimpressed. Obviously, I’d tell you to leave, and at that point, you could try to stand your ground, or pack up and go. In legal terms, if you refused to pack up, I won’t be able to do anything without first having gone to court, but how would you know whether or not I’m some sort of evil maniac that would release a very grumpy bull into the field in which you’re camping?
How to wild-camp and get away with it
It starts with respect: respect the land, respect the landowner, respect the public and respect the environment. In reverse order, the most important rule of the outdoors is simply this: Leave No Trace. After you packed up, the only sign that you were ever there should be a patch of flattened grass, which in a day or two will have recovered.
There are other rules to wild-camping, too:
- Always keep a low profile – that means no fires, no music, no large crowds, no breaking anything and no attracting attention.
- Never camp in a field that has livestock in it – most farmers are nice people, but when you mess with their livestock, they’ll get grumpy quickly.
- Always leave gates in the state that you found them in.
- When asked to leave, leave. Think about it: do you really want to risk an argument with someone who will know where you’ll be sleeping?
- Whenever possible, set up camp late, and break camp early.
- Avoid areas full of litter, especially alcohol cans or bottles – those places attract people you’d rather avoid.
- When camping in a field, stay on the edge that’s never ploughed, especially if there are crops in the field.
- Be as stealthy as possible. This includes opting for natural, muted colours for your equipment and tent. If nobody knows you’re there, nobody’s likely to bother you.
- Stay out of sight from roads.
- If you carry it in, you carry it out. Take your rubbish away with you. And yes, that includes banana peels.
- If in doubt, ask. The worst a landowner can do is say no.
But wild-camping on Dartmoor is legal, right?
That’s not quite true: Dartmoor National Park permits wild-camping on roughly half of Dartmoor, subject to certain by-laws. The by-laws specifically state that you’re not permitted to camp for longer than two nights, and you must stay at least 100 metres from any roads. Remember, that new tent you’re so proud of becomes a blight on the landscape to passers-by. Dartmoor also prohibits the use of hammocks, due to the damage they cause to trees. Having said that, most of Dartmoor is treeless, so even if hammocks were permitted, they’re not quite the most realistic option out there. Additionally, you’re not permitted to camp inside any enclosure, and tents permitted are small. Wild-camping with a large family-sized tent is not permitted.
The map below shows you where you’re allowed to wild-camp on Dartmoor.
How do you pick a wild-camping spot?
I’m a map geek, and to me the adventure begins by studying maps. That very much includes Google satellite view, and Streetview. When planning a ride somewhere I’ve never been before, I’m heavily reliant on studying maps to find suitable spots for wild-camping. Even then, the reality of what you find on the day might be substantially different to what you saw on Streetview. The first time I cycled the the Somerset Circle route, the first two potential wild-camping spots I identified were unsuitable. I always try to identify a minimum of three potential spots, precisely because of this issue.
In addition, if I was approached by the landowner at 11pm, and told to get off their land, I’d like to know beforehand of potential other spots to move to, should I suddenly have to pack up and go.
Some final thoughts
A small minority can easily spoil things for everyone else, so be absolutely sure that you are not one of those. If anything, be a beacon of good practice! Always be a responsible, respectful wild-camper. I almost always wild-camp, and I’ve never ran into any trouble, and I expect you will be fine, provided you stick to the guidelines above. Just, whatever else you do, do not share lists of wild-camping spots. There are apps that allow you to do so, and that’s a sure-fire way of ensuring that once-idyllic spot gets over-run and quite possibly destroyed. If you’re going to share a location, only ever share it with people you know you can trust to wild-camp responsibly, and leave no trace.