The United Kingdom is an incredible place to camp. While it may not quite have the isolation on offer in other, larger countries, it does have beautiful areas of mountains, forests, and lakes and is well worth a visit. Perhaps the only downside is the difficulty in wild camping. Most places will encourage you into campsites, often packed side by side with other campers. It’s not quite the wilderness we’re all after. Wild camping is possible, though and it can be a spectacular and uplifting experience that is worth the extra effort to seek out. Here are some tips and bits of advice for anyone who wants to just hit the road with a tent and a sleeping bag, and not book a campsite.
The legality of it
The big problem is the debatable legality of wild camping in the UK. Here’s the bad news; all land in England (this isn’t necessarily the case to the same extent in Scotland) is owned by someone. You may be standing on a barren mountainside but someone owns it and may even use it at some times of the year. Wild camping is therefore technically trespassing, which probably sounds very off-putting.
If someone asks you to move on, just do it, politely.
There’s good news, though; a bit of trespassing, in this context, isn’t that big of a deal. It’s not a criminal offence, it’s only an issue if you cause damage or refuse to leave when asked. And since there is a strong tradition of wild camping in many of the national parks and open spaces, farmers are highly unlikely to object, if they even know you are there, as long as you follow some basic guidelines:
Setting up camp
Camp away from the main trails and paths, so you’re out of sight of other hikers. Don’t cause any damage or leave any trace. Take rubbish with you, and bury any human waste at least 50 metres from water sources. Don’t set up camp in fields and pastures that are marked out by hedges, fences or stone walls. Go for the wilder open spaces or woodblocks where you won’t damage crops and are unlikely to bother livestock.
Be very careful with fires. Camp stoves are by far the best option but if you must build an open fire build it somewhere that won’t cause damage and avoids any risk of wildfire. Make sure it is completely out before you leave, and then destroy any trace of it rather than leaving a blackened circle on the ground.
Don’t stay in one place too long.
One night is best, two at a maximum, and you should plan to pack all of your stuff up and take it with you if you are leaving the campsite during the day.
If someone asks you to move on, just do it, politely. But it’s unlikely to happen if you follow the guidelines above.
Even official websites, such as the Pennine Way national trail site acknowledges that wild camping may not be legal, but it’s not exactly ‘illegal’ either: “Wild camping is not legal in England although there is a tradition of backpackers sleeping in the hills and there are a few suitable sites along the Pennine Way.”
Don’t be put off; be bold but be sensible and respectful of the property you are camping on.
Pick the right kit
Don’t take what you don’t need. The wise wild camper packs light and avoids unnecessary equipment. Those who arrive at their marked out campsites in cars may well bring large tents, inflatable mattresses, chairs and tables and picnic baskets, and that’s fine. Those of us who wild camp, however, arrive under our own steam and set up our simple tent at the last minute before it gets dark. As long as we’re warm and dry while we sleep, we’re happy. A small tent, or even a bivvy bag, a stove, and a sleeping bag will do nicely. Throw out the things you don’t really need and simplify your pack, you’ll be glad of it in the long run. In particular, avoid putting things in ‘just in case’. You’ll curse the unnecessary weight as you realize you never needed all the spare clothes and extra cooking utensils, and nothing makes you feel sillier than unpacking a painfully heavy bag at the end of a trip and realizing how much of the stuff in it simply never got used. As a trail runner more than a hiker, I pack for wild camping by thinking of it as a trail run with an overnight stop. That helps to keep the unnecessary kit and ‘just-in-case’ items out.
But don’t neglect the small luxuries
The only danger with packing like it’s a trail run is that it’s easy to go so minimalist you end up having a miserable experience, and then what’s the point? When you’re tired at the end of a long day, don’t underestimate the morale benefits of having some real (even if dehydrated!) food rather than yet more trail mix and biltong. Equally, when you’re cold and/or wet, nothing will raise your spirits like being able to make a hot drink. On any overnight trip, I always take some kind of stove. Where weight allows, it’ll be my Jetboil which boils a large volume of water quickly in almost any conditions, but even when I’m trying to pack ultralight I’ll at least chuck in a little folding stove and some hexi-blocks. I think of it more as an essential item for keeping myself safe and well, rather than a luxury.
Aside from food, don’t ignore things like some kind of jacket to wear in the evenings. If you know you want to be able to sit out at the end of a long day and watch the sun go down without freezing to death then a jacket isn’t a just-in-case item, it’s good planning.
Finally, don’t be afraid to chuck in a book or a Kindle. Sure, it’s ‘unnecessary’ weight, but nothing about wild camping is particularly necessary. You’re doing it for the experience, and if enjoying the experience means being able to read a book for a bit as you drink your hot chocolate and enjoy the peace and quiet, then go for it.
Test your kit
If any of you have seen the film Wild with Reese Witherspoon, you’ll remember the scene early on where she gets onto the trail on the first night and decides that’s the best time to work out how to put her tent up and use her stove. It’s a bit of a cliché of inexperienced person goes camping films and books, and I’d like to think it doesn’t happen that much in real life, but I suspect it does. People get all excited about buying and packing their kit, and don’t even think about what it’ll be like to try and use it all for the first time as the sun is going down, in wind or rain, after a long day of hiking. I’d honestly recommend camping one night in your garden first to make sure you’re comfortable, not missing anything essential, and know how everything is put together.
Walking and camping in the UK can be absolutely spectacular. Whether it’s closely-packed fields and small woods in the Home Counties, rolling hills and lakes in Northern England, or serious Mountains in parts of Wales and Scotland, it’s varied and pretty and the weather is often perfect; neither outrageously hot nor dangerously cold. Local people are almost always friendly and welcoming to hikers, and the food is often excellent; classic pub food, in particular, is not to be missed. Public transport is also decent, allowing you to get to and from many of the best walking areas by train.
So, don’t be put off. Grab some lightweight camping gear, a good camera, and a book, and just start walking.