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Advice: Wild Camping

First time wild camper? Here's the important information you need to know...

If you want a real back to nature experience, then nothing beats a night wild camping in the UK. Don’t get us wrong, campsites are great, but if you don’t mind foregoing some of the comforts the modern world affords, being out in the wild offers a raw authenticity that a mown, grassy meadow covered with kids just can’t compete with. Campsites are on the map, they have signposts, websites, telephone numbers, hell, we’ve even written guidebooks about them! Wild camping, on the other hand, is wonderfully undefined. The power is in your hands and, provided you follow a few simple steps, you have the chance to truly create your own unique camping location. Grab a map and head for the hills, here’s what you need to know…

What are the rules? Where can you camp?

There’s a great history of walkers and mountaineers camping out on the hills and, in Scotland, this has thankfully been preserved. It’s also allowed in Dartmoor National Park in Devon but across the rest of the UK wild camping is technically illegal – or rather, you’re supposed to ask for the landowner’s permission before sleeping on their land. The good news, however, is that some places still tolerate wild camping and in many of the UK's national parks it holds enough tradition to outweigh the rules. After all, the very point of wild camping is to tread lightly and blend seamlessly into the surroundings, so if you’re doing it properly no one should notice anyway.

Is it safe?

Take the usual precautions – tell someone where you’re going and what time you plan to be back – but otherwise, yes, wild camping is perfectly safe, especially when compared with nights wandering around a busy city. You won’t be the only person who gets scared by the sound of the breeze in the bushes or a rabbit scurrying through the grass, but embrace the great outdoors and remember those rabbits aren’t going to hurt you!

What do you need?

It’s easy to take too much when wild camping. If you’re the type that likes a four-man tent and a big blow up mattress, then it’s probably not for you. The essentials are a tent (or shelter), sleeping bag, sleeping mat, torch, cooking gear, food and water, plus plenty of warm clothing. The lighter it all is the better, since you should be aiming to walk a little way off the beaten track in order to be well hidden from roads or footpaths.

How do you decide where to pitch the tent?

A good wild camping spot should be flat, dry and sheltered from the wind. Anything after that is an added bonus; look for soft grass and moss that might add some extra comfort. It’s always handy to have water nearby, it means you can carry less for cooking and, if you have the ware with all to purify it, drinking too. But don’t camp too close; the edges of rivers and streams are likely to be boggy and wet and the water level may change while you’re asleep.

Is it ok to light a fire?

The simple answer is no. Never build a fire on vegetation (dead or alive) or surround a fire with a ring of stones. The first rule of wild camping is to leave no trace and a big black scorch mark on the ground definitely counts! Carrying a stove means there should never be a need to light a campfire anyway. The one, rare, exception is if you find gravel or sand such as a beach or beside a river. Even then, all wood should be burnt down to a fine ash and then scattered and mixed into the sand when you leave.

Any other important ‘rules’?

Aim to arrive late and leave early so that you don’t impede on the experience of other walkers and try to avoid camping too near to footpaths. The idea is to have a minimal impact on the site you chose, so aim for shorter grass and vegetation that will bounce back in the morning when you pack your tent away again. If you move twigs or stones before pitching the tent, remember to scatter them back again afterwards and do a thorough check that you haven’t left any litter as you leave. From a short walk away it should be impossible to tell anyone has even camped there.

Break it down – a final summary

✓ If possible, always ask the landowner’s permission.

✓ Don’t be scared, there’s nothing unusually unsafe about wild camping.

✓ Take time to find a good pitch that will cause minimal disturbance.

✓ Remember the golden rule: leave no trace.

✓ Try to arrive late and leave early.

✓ Don’t light open fires.

✓ Keep groups small. Only one or two tents.

This Cool Camping article was originally written by James Warner Smith for the GoOutdoors spring/summer magazine.