Ultimate Wild Camping Guide - Everything you need to know.
WILD CAMPING - Everything you need to know
Your Ultimate Guide To Wild Camping
- To spend a night (or more) outside, with the use of a tent or other temporary shelter, away from designated campsites or other forms of official accommodation.
WHY SHOULD YOU LOVE WILD CAMPING?
We will all have our own reasons and favourite motivations for Wild Camping. But for us, above all, the answer to “why wild camp?” is; simplicity. To wake with first light through the thin fabric of your tent, to smell the dew on the grass that surrounds you, to hear the dawn chorus in the valley below and with nothing more ahead of you than a day filled with hiking, climbing and exploring.
Your world is at once reduced to the minutiae of camp; cooking, packing, carrying, brewing tea, collecting water, finding the next spot for the night and at the same time your horizons are wider than at any other time in your day to day life. You can walk in any direction with all you need on your back. Shelter, food, fuel and warmth, all held within a small parcel of nylon.
To spend a wild night in squalls and gales, to feel the wind and rain tap at your walls and to be dry and warm within your cocoon of fabric is a pleasure unknown to many yet in its essence it is all the vast majority of our ancestors ever knew.
A rekindling of our connection to the natural world or is it a test of a mettle as we sit up on our first night away from the safety of the valleys and listen to every scrape and scamper, every hush of grass and owl hoot as we find ourselves invaders into this wild world?
Whatever it is, there is no doubt that wild camping is one of the greatest pleasures and portals to adventure open to most of us mere mortals who must work a nine to five and fit these things in around IKEA and parent’s evening.
Two days spent alone or with a good friend in the open spaces of the UK is one of the finest things you can do. Not to mention it is cheaper than a B&B and gives you an excuse not to shower.
Aside from the philosophical considerations, wild camping allows you to access objectives that would otherwise be impossible in just a day. It allows you to go further, cover more ground and ultimately spend more time outside.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
As discussed below, there are a few guidelines for choosing where to camp, in order to stay within the law and also respect the environment but other than that, what considerations are there for selecting the perfect spot?
- View: Let’s be honest, this has got to be one of the main driving factors behind camping out. Waking up to a sunrise over your favourite mountain range or going to bed, watching the sun set over hills you’re yet to climb, must be one of the great pleasures in life. So, when planning, think about the aspect of the slope you’re on, the openness of the land, do you want to face east for sunrise or west for sunset? Or do you go for a summit and choose both (which brings us to the next consideration)?
- Shelter: By reading the landscape, studying maps and paying attention to the weather forecast, you can select a spot that provides shelter from prevailing winds and the weather they bring. Even a slight rise in the ground can make the difference between a pleasant, midge-repelling breeze and a screaming gale. Look for natural scoops in the landscape but be wary of drainage. A natural bowl is also going to collect water if it rains and many inviting troughs in the ground will funnel water towards you and your camp.
- Ground: Maps indicate bog, marsh and mosses that are going to prove wet underfoot in all but serious droughts. They will also show you scree and gravel which would prove an uncomfortable bed. Look for areas of level, grassy ground with no obvious signs of collecting water. Well drained soils with a comfortable bed of grass are the ideal but you may need to get creative if your trip takes you over rougher ground. Finding a level area will also help your night’s sleep as trying to stay on your mat when lying on a slope can be a challenge and sleeping with your head downhill is a recipe for a headache.
- Hazards: While the UK hills may seem relatively benign there are still dangers out there. If camping in winter, beware of avalanche risks if camping at the foot of a slope. Similarly, if using a cliff or escarpment for shelter, be aware of rockfall danger (and are those mountain goats as surefooted as they appear!?). Camping near the edge of a crag or cliff is appealing for the sense of exposure and views but think about that night-time toilet call, will you remember the 200ft drop as you stumble out of your tent? If camping in wooded areas, avoid dead or unstable trees, as the old saying goes; if the tree falls in the forest; it really does make a mess of your tent. And probably the biggest risk in the UK outdoors, especially in the summer but increasingly year-round, is wildfires. With warmer, drier summers, our upland areas are becoming increasingly at risk of igniting and inflicting widespread damage on the delicate ecosystems they support. Even if you do not plan on lighting a campfire, your stove still poses a risk. Avoid setting the burner down low in grass or scrub, try to flatten down any nearby foliage (without damaging it unduly) or use a level rock as your kitchen counter and be careful with matches, lighters and strikers; a spark from these could be all it takes.
WHAT ARE THE RULES?
"Take only memories, leave only footsteps"
Leave no trace is a powerful maxim and embodies what is great about wild camping; moving through a landscape, spending time living, eating and sleeping in a wild space and enjoying what that brings to us. This does not hold true if we arrive at our chosen camp spot and there is the remains of a campfire, rubbish, human waste and permanent scarring to the ground from digging or trampling. This is no longer wild camping. Similarly, if we decided to hike out somewhere quiet and pitch our tent for some peace and solitude, this would not be possible if there was already a large group of tents and many people already gathered there. This too, is no longer wild camping.
So how can we reduce our impact and keep wild camping...well, wild?
- Carry out whatever you carry in (not just plastic and paper waste but tissue, fruit and vegetable peel etc)
- Choose a spot that does not require digging or excavation, the removal of rocks etc. Leave only flattened grass, not great divots that may take years to recover plant or moss cover.
- Avoid fires; lighting a fire whilst wild camping in England, Wales or Northern Ireland would change your civil offence of trespass to a criminal offence (discussed below) as you could potentially be accused of criminal damage to the owner’s property. Not only that but perhaps more importantly, you risk starting wildfires which have already devastated large portions of the British countryside in recent years and at the very least, you are also likely to leave unsightly scorch marks. You will also presumably require fuel which, unless you’ve carried your own in, means collecting it from the local area, further disturbing the ecosystem or even cutting down trees or shrubs which is of course not a nice thing to do; just so you get the perfect Instagram shot. Scottish laws are a little different, but the Outdoor Access Code strongly recommends you use a stove or similar for means of cooking.
- Consider where and how you are going to go to the loo. It is a safe bet that if you are spending more than a few hours in the hills, you are going to need to poo (even on a diet of rehydrated meals and dense energy bars!). You could fill an entire book (indeed someone already has) with the do’s and don'ts of wild-pooing but as a rule of thumb you need to do it at least 50m from any paths, water sources or other features, you need to bury it and if you use tissue you need to carry it out (ziplock bags are your friend). Tissue does not break down in the environment very quickly, it does not burn well (especially as it also tends to be wet) and it risks being eaten or trampled around by wildlife or hill sheep etc.
- Avoid camping in honeypots. As perfect as Easdale Tarn or the shores of Loch Rannoch may be, they are also popular destinations for hundreds of other people, be they walkers or other campers. They are very likely to already have campers there and the visual pollution of several tents dotted around these spots is considerable. Plus, camping where loads of other people are also camping is, again, not wild camping; it’s just a free campsite with poor facilities and a view. Instead, plan ahead and select several potential sites on your route and be prepared to move on if the first one or two you have chosen are already taken.
- Choose a tent, bivvy or tarp that is not going to stand out a mile off. As cool as those mountaineering tents look with their bright orange panels and fluorescent guylines, you are not at Annapurna Basecamp, you’re in the Brecon Beacons. Try to blend in with your surroundings, again aiming to preserve what it is about these spaces that makes us want to spend time in them.
- Protect the environment. Wet wipes may seem like a great solution to keeping clean in the hills, but most are actually made of plastic fibres and do not break down. If you do choose to use them, carry them out. Better yet, find a clear running beck or burn for a dip (providing it is high up, away from habitation and not obviously a water source for nearby dwellings).
- Don’t spend more than a night or two in one spot and if you do intend to spend two nights in one place, take down the tent during the day to reduce visual pollution. As a rule, arrive after everyone else has left and leave before everyone else arrives, therefore, further reducing your impact.
IS IT LEGAL?
The legality of wild camping depends where you are in the UK, though there are some general rules worth applying wherever you are.
In England and Wales there is the CROW act (Country Side Rights of Way Act, 2000) which opened up large areas of upland with what is commonly known as the Right To Roam. This is what lets us get off established paths and explore hidden corners of the English and Welsh hills. But the CROW Act does not include the right to camp.
Pretty much every square inch of England and Wales is owned by someone. Be it utility companies, estates, the crown, farmers or the government. The CROW Act means you no longer need their permission to leave rights of way (in designated upland areas, indicated on maps) but if you were to pitch a tent or bed down for the night, you would be committing the civil offence of trespass. A civil offence means the police aren’t going to be involved but the landowner has the right to ask you to leave. If you refuse, that’s aggravated trespass, for which you can be arrested and taken to court!
In Northern Ireland the situation is similar except there is no CROW Act, though there are still right of way.
One exception to this in England is Dartmoor, that has local bylaws permitting wild camping in designated areas.
In Scotland the situation is a little easier following the Land Reform Act (Scotland, 2003) which included the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. This code set in law the principle that everyone and anyone has the right to access the land (and inland waters) of Scotland for the purposes of outdoor recreation. Now, obviously you still need to behave responsibly and considerately, ensuring your recreation does not impinge on the enjoyment, rights and freedoms of others. There are also, of course, local instances of private property law that forbid access, but these are marked and signed as such.
Within the Scottish access laws, there are clear guidelines around wild camping, including special measures in high traffic areas such as the shores of Loch Lomond and the wider Trossachs National Park.
Those wishing to wild camp in Scotland must do so without leaving a trace, away from roads (good rule of thumb is out of sight and 100m away), not within enclosures such as fields with crops or livestock and away from buildings or monuments (it wouldn’t be very wild otherwise!).
This all makes it sound like you can only wild camp in Scotland and that is the case from a legal standpoint but if you follow the rules outlined above, even in England & Wales, you are unlikely to encounter a problem and if you are asked to move on by the landowner or their representative, you would be wise to do so, in order to avoid possible legal action.
The truth is that if camping high in the mountains, away from enclosures, livestock or structures and away from human habitation, you are unlikely to encounter a problem but there are other considerations to be made to ensure you are acting responsibly and protecting the wild areas we wish to spend time in (leave no trace, outlined above).
THE WILD CAMPERS DILEMA: Weight v Comfort
Something that may put people off wild camping is the idea of lugging all that kit around. And it is true, on top of all your usual day hike stuff, you will be carrying your tent, sleeping bag and mat plus extra food, stove and fuel but with the correct approach and some weight saving tricks, it is possible to keep your wild camping pack weight low enough to still enjoy your hike.
We have put together a suggested kit list, with weights, below and this will give you some idea of what it takes to be self-supported in the hills.
It is probably true to say that on everyone’s first wild overnight, they carry too much. Learning what is essential and what is luxury, what is safe and what is overkill is part of the skill of being a good wild camper.
It is also a good idea to get used to carrying that extra weight (<10kg) and to be able to modify your plans to account for it. A long route with demanding climbs may be a challenging day hike but with the added weight of a full pack, it may prove unobtainable. At first, at least, be prepared to cover shorter distances, if only to ensure you have time at the end of the day to enjoy your camp spot and soak in the atmosphere of a night in the hills.
Make sure your pack is comfortable before heading off for 5 unsupported days in the Highlands. Learning how to pack a bag will help this too:
- Aim to keep the heavier stuff closest to your centre of gravity, somewhere around your lumbar.
- Don’t cram angular or hard objects in so they protrude against your back.
- Fill voids with softer things and resist the temptation to stuff everything down to tiny little balls, these do not efficiently use up space.
- Instead, use dry bags and flatten to the shape you need.
- Strip out anything you don’t need such as extra stuff sacks, labels etc. Over all, this can make quite a difference.
- Keep things you will need during the day handy, using the lid or external pockets for food, water, maps etc. Use the main body of the pack for your overnight kit, with spare clothes etc accessible on top.
KIT LIST: The Essentials
What makes a wild camp not a bivvy? The obvious answer is a tent! Other than that, there is a quick checklist of things you need for a night out and, at the very least, if you pull up to the carpark and you’ve forgotten everything else but these, you will still be able to complete your trip:
- Sleeping Bag & Mat
- Water Bottle
You may have to eat your dinner with a twig and drink hot water from the pan instead of coffee from a mug but you will survive and still have an enjoyable night. This is by no means a recommended comprehensive kit list but if you use these basics as a starting point, you are almost guaranteed a successful weekend.
KIT LIST: 9.5kg example setup
Tent (950g) - Choose something lightweight with a small pack size. When wild camping, you are not going to spend much time in the tent, just in the evening and overnight, unlike when camping for a longer period of time in a campsite, so you can afford to go a little smaller. If camping with a partner, consider splitting the tent down so one carries poles and pegs, the other carries the fly and inner.
Sleeping Bag (800g) - Like your tent, this should be light and packable but consider the temperature you are likely to encounter. Choosing the right sleeping bag is an article in itself but take time to weigh up your options and priorities. Use a dry bag for packing it, especially if you are likely to encounter bad weather.
Sleeping Mat (300g) - A good sleeping bag is almost useless without insulating yourself from the ground. Not only does it smooth the lumps and bumps and soften hard ground, a mat serves to keep you warm. Again, choose this based on the conditions and your priorities. At the very least a half-length foam mat will be better than nothing but a self-inflating insulated mattress will be a home from home.
Sleeping Bag Liner (150g) - not an essential piece but this makes a big difference. A liner not only protects your sleeping bag (meaning you need to wash it less) but it also adds warmth. Go for a silk or cotton liner for a touch of luxury or a fleece liner in winter.
Pillow (100g) - Many would consider this a luxury but many inflatable pillows are light and compact enough to justify bringing, plus a good night’s sleep leads to a great day in the mountains. If you decide not to take one, use a small dry bag and fill with clothing (see Insulation).
Stove & Fuel (83g / 100g) - Weight and pack size yet again are your consideration, but also fuel type. Petrol stoves work in a range of temperatures, fuel is easier to find when in remote locations away from outdoor shops. They are also very efficient and create a good, controllable flame but they are heavier and bulkier. For shorter trips in the UK a gas stove is often the best option. Light and compact, they allow a quick brew or meal to be made anywhere. Solid fuel and alcohol stoves are sometimes lighter but they tend to have a slower boil time and less controllable flame.
Pots & Pans (280g) - If using dehydrated meals, you only need to be able to boil water so a lidded pot is adequate. If planning on getting more creative, you’ll need to consider a larger pan set plus more utensils.
Lighter/Striker + Spares (35g) - A lighter is easy to use but is also prone to damage, running out of fuel or blowing out in bad weather. Matches can get wet and fail to light. Stormproof matches will light in bad weather but are still not 100% reliable. A fire steel will create a spark when wet and will never run out of fuel.
Cutlery (25g) - Consider what you are going to be cooking and eating. Do you need a butter knife, teaspoon, dessert spoon and fork or will a spork and pen knife do the trick? Titanium cutlery is very light but more expensive, plastic utensils will bend and melt when stirring over heat.
Mug (75g) - A lightweight mug makes drinking your morning coffee or bedtime cocoa a lot easier (burning your lip on the edge of a pan is not fun!). Enamel mugs are Instagram friendly but transfer heat rapidly, cooling your food or drink and burning your lip. A plastic mug is light and compact but loses heat quickly too. An insulated mug will let you linger over your brew for longer but tend to be slightly heavier and bulkier.
Food & Drink (100g per meal pouch plus extras) - Always bring a little extra (as discussed in Tips) but don’t be tempted to carry loads of heavy ‘wet’ food. Dehydrated meals are much better than they used to be and are perfect for a few nights away. They are fuel efficient and do not require much in the way of pots and pans. Carry the makings of hot drinks, these will help you stay warm overnight, hydrate you and give you something to do while sat around camp looking at the view or wishing you’d brought a book when caught in low cloud.
Water Bottle (1litre = 1kg / Bottle 35g – 75g) - No brainer. A litre or two capacity for during the day and also gives you something to purify water in too. Go for one with measurement scales on the side for making dehydrated meals etc. If using a pee bottle be sure to label it clearly and keep separate.
Water Filter (65g – 150g) - There are lots of options but the in-line versions are very efficient.
Headtorch (120g) - Go for something with a decent lumen count (300 ish). Rechargeable are more eco-friendly but have a shorter burntime.
Spare Light Source (100g) - A handheld light or other smaller headtorch can be handy if your primary fails but also for lighting your camp and reading at night.
Batteries (60g) - The above two items would be fairly useless without power. If using a rechargeable product, invest in a spare battery pack and keep them charged.
Rucksack (650g) - To carry it all in! Choose one that is comfortable but not so heavy as to already be a burden before packing. Go for something with enough capacity for your kit without having to over stuff it, this will make it uncomfortable. Similarly, strapping too much on the outside will affect the balance. The flipside of this is not to go for something huge that will tempt you into carrying more than you need!
Dry Bags (30g – 60g)- Keep your kit organised and dry. As discussed in Tips, try to use the same bags each time to help you know where everything is. Go for a variety of sizes.
Footwear & Clothing (1.3kg / 1kg) - Make sure you are comfortable and prepared for the conditions. The weather can change rapidly in the hills and the longer you are out, the more likely you are to experience a change. Lightweight, quick drying, fast wicking fibres will deal with sweat while warm midlayers and a waterproof shell will make sure you’re ready for anything.
Spare Clothing (500g) - Not only is this worth having in case you are soaked by a cloudburst or fall in a bog but gives you clean dry clothes to change into once at camp. Great for a morale boost.
Insulated Layer (250g) - As discussed in Tips, it is always cooler overnight than you think, especially if you are tired. Carrying a warm, insulated down or synthetic jacket will make a big difference plus double as a pillow (stuffed in a dry bag).
Basic Toiletries (50g) - You don’t need much! Some biodegradable, non-toxic soap will do for hands, body, hair, clothing etc while a travel toothbrush and mini tube of toothpaste will do the rest. Deodorant, aftershave or perfume can damage technical fabrics plus who’s going to be smelling you. Wet wipes are discussed in Leave No Trace.
Ziplock Bags (20g) - As discussed in Leave no Trace, you should carry out whatever you carry in. This includes food waste and tissue paper. A good quality ziplock bag, stored on the outside of your pack will do the trick. They are also useful (used separately from the waste ones!) for dividing up food; pack each day’s worth of trail mix and goodies or portions of oats ready for breakfast.
Charged Mobile Phone (120g) - Even if you leave it on silent or off in your pack to avoid disturbance, it is worth having a phone with you just in case (and for essential photos!). Download the OS Locate App or similar as a back up in an emergency.
Groundsheet/Footprint/Tarp (380g) - Not an essential but this will protect your tent and provide extra protection, as discussed in Tips.
Hat & Gloves (75g) - Basics of being in the hills but even in summer you can get cold when sitting still high up in the hills. A lightweight hat and gloves will help prolong your tent-porch star gazing.
Map & Compass (60g) - And knowledge of how to use them!
Whistle (12g) - Not for a late-night rave but an essential piece of safety kit for drawing the attention of help in an emergency.
Foil Bag (110g) - Even though you are carrying a tent and sleeping bag, if you or your partner fall and hurt yourselves or you come across someone else in need of help, you need to act quickly. A foil bag (not blanket) will shelter the casualty, trap body heat and help prevent hypothermia. They are also useful when camping in winter to line the floor of your tent and reflect heat back!
Duct Tape (1 or 2m wound around a pencil is plenty) (30g) - Essential for repairing rips, breaks and tears. Be aware, most adhesives will not stick to siliconized nylon flysheets. Carry some silicone glue and a patch of fabric for field repairs if using a Siliconised flysheet.
First Aid Kit (95g) (at least with some burn dressings, antiseptic wipes, adhesive dressings, plasters, tape and painkillers) - A First Aid Kit is only as good as your ability to use it but a few basics will help you deal with the most common issues encountered and may be of use to the person that attends to you if you get into trouble.
Approximate Total Weight (if you choose to carry everything): 9.5kg
TARNS, GHYLLS, BECKS, RIVERS, LLYNS, LOCHS.... WHERE SHOULD I FILL MY WATER BOTTLE?
The majority of uplands, certainly in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are still grazed by sheep (and/or deer) and this means that most water sources cannot be considered completely safe.
Unless you are lucky enough to find a running spring (which is entirely possible, they are marked on maps and are well worth noting on your chosen route), you are probably best purifying the water you collect.
Opinions vary on what sort of treatment (if any) you need to give the water but at the very least, consider carrying chlorine tablets. They are light, take up very little room and are effective against a wide range of contaminants.
Better still, consider carrying a filter. The same goes for Scotland, its just you are more likely to find areas without livestock but there will still be deer and other wildlife that may act to contaminate water sources.
There are several waterborne diseases that you would not want to contract when far from a road, let alone a hospital!
NORDISKS' TOP TIPS FOR WILD CAMPING
- It is worth the (minimal) extra weight of bringing a change of underwear and t-shirt to wear overnight. And go for the comfort of a cotton or merino tee over a techy baselayer. The psychological value of a little home comfort is well worth it.
- You will be burning more calories than normal, carrying extra weight, so be sure to replace these and stay hydrated. Bring a little extra high calorie food (some extra chocolate for dessert, say). This will help keep you warm overnight, recover for the day ahead and make you happy. Similarly, be sure to drink plenty of fluids and replace salts lost through sweat, either using a specialist electrolyte drink or ensuring your food provides it (stock cubes weigh little and add favour to any meal).
- Arrive with plenty of daylight left, so you can get set up easily and enjoy the surrounds. It is tempting to push on further and cover more ground but selecting a good camp site in the dark is difficult and time consuming, plus you are likely to be hungry and fatigued and so decision making can be hampered.
- Pitch your tent with the foot to the wind. This is usually the most aerodynamic shape and means your porch is in the lee of the tent, stopping the whole thing turning into a windsock.
- Carry spare pegs and guylines and be prepared to get creative if you can’t get a peg in; tie the guy off around boulders or rocks or extend it to reach better ground.
- Carry a repair kit and learn how to use it!
- The aluminium tube that comes with most tents is not a mini tin whistle but in fact a pole repair essential. If you manage to break a pole, slide the tube over the break (fix in place with tape if you have it) and make do until you get home.
- It gets colder than you think overnight, bring an extra warm layer.
- A kitchen sponge or scourer (chopped in half if you’re really keen) will make washing up a lot easier. As will a non-toxic, biodegradable soap.
- Hand sanitizer is your friend
- A kettle is only ever just a kettle; a pan with a lid is a pan, a crock pot, a frying pan, a bowl, a cup, a pan stand, a book rest, a stove carrier and a kettle.
- You don’t need to carry a huge knife or hatchet; a small, sharp, folding knife is useful, however.
- Dry bags obviously keep your kit dry but also help you organise your pack. Try to use the same ones for the same job each time, so you know the red one has your sleeping bag and the blue one your dirty clothes; this helps avoid confusion and embarrassment when tired.
- Keep your headtorch handy. For some reason, camping out shrinks the bladder and you will need to get up in the night!
- Obviously you are unlikely to need it but try and pack your First Aid Kit somewhere accessible, at the very least it means the plasters are handy if you get a blister and at the worst it is to hand in an emergency.
- A lightweight tarp can turn a basic overnight into a luxury basecamp. Use it to extend your porch and provide shelter for cooking and kit storage or else peg it out under your tent as a footprint to protect your groundsheet and provide an extra barrier if forced to camp on saturated ground. It also provides a floor to your porch and keeps things clean.
- If using a gas stove, check your gas blend when using in low temperatures. Go for a specific winter mix for a better burn in cold weather.
- Take note of how much fuel you use over the course of your trip (weigh the canister before and after) and so learn how much you need to carry.
- Check your pegs and guylines before bed. Tighten and retie any that need it. Over the course of an evening they can loosen either due to wind or the change in temperature. Similarly, you may find the guylines are loose in the morning, give them a quick check before getting on with breakfast and packing, it will help the fabric dry before packing away.
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