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What Is Wild Camping?

Updated: 3 days ago

A common question asked by many is, what is wild camping? It seems to be a very misused term in the UK. Generally, it seems to be a phrase used to describe camping without any facilities or not at an official site. It can be camping using a tent, hammock, bivi bag, sleeping on the ground, on a bike or even a campervan. The important part is not on an official site.

This article discusses its meaning and purpose and how you can go about it. Although it is accepted as the definition above, many say wild camping is not in a campervan and is reserved just for people camping out in the wild using their own legs. I will leave you to decide if that is the case, but for the purposes of this article, I am going to agree and say I believe wild camping is about hiking or cycling and then camping.

For me, wild camping is about freedom in nature. The freedom to plan a route and then pick a spot for the night where you please (within reason). This right to roam style freedom is common in Scandinavia, but in the UK it really only applies to Scotland. Camping on a chosen campsite is not freedom, having a bar to drink at or a pool to lounge in is not freedom in nature.

Is it legal?

It depends on where you are. Broadly speaking, it is legal in Scotland and some parts of Dartmoor in England, but not legal in the rest of England and Wales to camp without the landowner's permission. Although many national parks do allow it if you follow their wild camping rules, e.g. no fires, camp late, leave early, 1-night stay, leave no trace. Let us discuss each of those in more detail:

Dartmoor: Wild camping is allowed on some of the open moorland parts, denoted in their Interactive Map. As long as you follow their Backpacking Guide you should be ok.

Scotland: This is covered by the Land Reform Act of 2003 which grants people access to most unenclosed land. In addition to access, it also includes the Scottish Outdoor Access Code which grants informal camping on the same land, subject to some obvious restrictions. Local authorities do still have the ability to enact local bylaws to restrict access. Some areas in peak season are by permit only. This was apparently introduced due to overuse and litter problems.

Rest of England & Wales: All land is owned by an individual and wild camping without the landowners' permission is illegal. However, some of the National Parks do tolerate it, such as the Lake District. The Countryside Right of Way Act 2000 does give you the right to access land designated as "open land", but technically only allows access, not camping like Scotland. Wild camping still goes on and for the most, especially on open access land, you will not have any trouble as long as you camp late, leave early and use Leave No Trace principles. Trespass is a civil offence, refusing to leave then becomes aggravated trespass which is a criminal offence. If you are challenged, just be very polite, apologise and move on.

Northern Ireland: The situation here is very similar to England and Wales. Officially wild camping is not legal but is overlooked on public land. Unfortunately, a lot of the mountain trails are on private land and you need to gain permission to even just hike them.

In addition to the about, the UK also publishes a voluntary Countryside Code which follows many basic principles of other schemes.

Basic Camping Pitches

Many campsite directory websites, e.g., will list "wild camping" as a category on their website, but this is really misleading I believe. They really should just call it "basic" or something similar. Most sites are just classifying basic facilities as "wild camping" which is not correct. These are typically just farmer fields with a toilet and maybe a drinking water tap, typically at about £10 a night. Also NearlyWildCamping specialise in these basic campsites.

Legalising Wild Camping in England & Wales

Most wild campers would welcome a "freedom to roam" policy similar to Scotland and Scandinavia, but currently, it is not on the table.

Recently an organisation using the website domain attempted to start a scheme to apparently "legalise" wild camping in England. They launched with press articles in the Telegraph and Guardian and very shortly after closed. What happened? According to online articles, the organisation was led by Will Harris a former marketing director who managed to somehow secure just under £5K of government money from DEFRA. Here are some of the issues

  1. The name UKwildcamp is wrong, wild camping in Scotland is already legal.

  2. They misused the term wild camping. The outdoor community values this term and was not impressed with its misuse.

  3. £20 a night, what can I say, ridiculous, this alone shows how they really do not understand the issues.

  4. They appeared to be just a glorified campsite directory selling basic pitches. Other sites already do this, NearlyWildCamping has been running for a few years and specialises in just this. As already mentioned other campsite directories such as also offer this as a category. Fortunately, the wild camping community highlighted the flaws in the UKWildCamp scheme.

  5. The press articles seemed to imply it was a movement to legalise wild camping. It was nothing of the sort, in my view just a private company wanting to cash in on nature.

I think it is shocking that a company was able to secure public funding for such a poorly thought-out scheme. For now, they have suspended the scheme while they rethink it. I hope they do not revisit the scheme. I wonder what happened to the public money from DEFRA?

One day we do hope that the relevant law is enacted to allow this pastime in England & Wales, but it isn't on the horizon in the near future. Until then we do not need private companies trying to cash in on nature.


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