Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

How to… go wild camping

Expert guide to living in the wild
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home,”
John Muir in 1901

Today, where most of us live in large cities, breathe in car fumes and have a hard time finding privacy, these words are still spot-on. Wild camping is a perfect stress buster. For once, we can trade our daily problems for a much more primitive – if temporary – solution.

The legal issues

Every year about 20,000 Britons pack their bags and head for the wilderness, but wild camping in the UK is not always easy. As Mike Rhodes from the Peak District National Park Authority points out, unlike Scotland, all land in England and Wales is under the ownership of a person or organisation, and to camp legally, you must seek permission.

“If you fail to do so, you will be committing a trespass and will effectively forego your right of access,” says Rhodes.

An Internet petition to legalise wild camping in England and Wales gathered 2,022 signatures before it was sent to the Prime Minister’s office. The government responded diplomatically – the introduction of wild camping in England would be a controversial issue, which would require both significant consultation and legislative change.

“The Government has no plans to allocate the necessary resources to consider proposals for such legislation at present,” was the official announcement.

Simon Carter, the Assistant Director of The Scout Association, is not a little bit surprised. “Today when we have so many more important things to worry about it’s very unlikely this law will get changed. Everything that’s not based around government, elections, education or financial crisis is very unlikely to get any airtime.” Carter raises an important point: does the law need to get changed?

“The law doesn’t stop anybody from camping. Let’s face it. Most of the people who plan to go camping on the weekend have no clue about this law and if they knew they would go anyway.”

How to wild camp

Despite the difficulties, wild camping has never been more popular. Carter says that in the course of 25 years the biggest increase in Scout membership has happened in the last four. “It’s getting trendier considering our present financial climate because it’s cheap and fun to do,” he points out.

Geoff and Vivian, the two founders of the Backpacking of Britain web page have also noticed the change. “Its popularity has increased somewhat over the past few years, but it’s usually only for a few nights over the summer. A few do go on to become dedicated backpackers and fairly regular wild campers but it will always be the province of a pretty small minority, simply because few people can make that mental leap to being totally self-reliant and abandoning the relative comfort of a valley campsite with homely facilities,” Geoff points out.

The basics

Wild camping itself is very easy. The first thing to ask yourself is: “What do I need?” Start off by purchasing a good tent and comfortable hiking boots. Yes, the boots: the beginner’s biggest mistake. “The worst thing anyone can do is to buy boots that don’t fit. Hiking and camping both require a lot of walking so sturdy boots and high-quality wind and waterproof clothing is something worth investing in,” explains Carter.

If this is your first camping experience it might be smart not to wander too far. You might want to save some energy to figure out how to put up the tent, cook a meal and even enjoy the sunset. “The biggest mistake by far of many beginners is excess weight, which arises from a double whammy: For one, taking items of kit that are individually heavier than they need to be and secondly taking far too much unnecessary kit,” says Geoff.

What you need

  • A rucksack: Choose a wide padded belt rucksack that takes the weight off the shoulders on the hips. For two-to-three day wild camping trips you don’t need more than 50-60 litres.
  • Sleeping bag: Goose and duck feather sleeping bags are warm and light but don’t let them get wet.
  • Sleeping mat: Self inflating mattresses are comfortable, well-priced and last a long time.
  • Stove: For summer camping, choose a detachable gas stove, for winter petrol stoves are the best.
  • Tent: Try to keep your load light, so no more than two kilos per person.

Minimum-impact camping

More important than equipment is wild camping etiquette. Enjoyment comes with experience and there are certain techniques to learn, such as minimum-impact camping.

Landowners often get flak from the walking community, but judging by reports of the behaviour of some walkers we have to sympathise with their dislike of the idea of wild camping. One farmer, living close to a national trail, reported that people had relieved themselves on the open ground, heaved a stone from a dry-stone wall and just dropped it on top!

Mike Rhodes from Peak District National Park points out that where he works there is no resolute code on how to deal with wild camping as most of the wild campers in their region just come and go without anybody noticing them. “If it’s genuine wild campers that are encountered, just one individual or a couple, they would probably be asked to make sure they leave no trace and move on. It really depends on the situation, attitudes, time of year, and fire risk on the moors. It’s down to the discretion of the rangers in these circumstances,” explains Rhodes.

“Problems start when there is noise (i.e. loud music – raves) and litter, fires, abandoned tents – none of which is true ‘pure’ wild camping – but usually groups of people having camping parties. If these parties are disturbing people, it’s usually down to the police to deal with it. Our rangers have to pick up the mess afterwards and these problems do seem to be on the increase.”

Most of the experienced campers agree on few things.

For one it’s smart to avoid agricultural land. Be discreet. Try to camp out of sight of any inhabited houses or farms. Put the tent up late and leave early. Don’t light a fire. Be prepared to move if asked. Keep groups small and quiet. Pack light. The most important for me was to leave the ground you camp on exactly as you found it. Pick a site where water doesn’t drain into your tent, point the rear into the wind, and carry out every scrap of litter. Toilet duties should be performed a hundred feet from water and the results buried with a shovel. Burn the toilet paper.

Best spots

Whilst wild camping code is something all the hardcore campers agree on, camping locations and spots are not. It’s a beginner’s mistake to head for the popular wild camping locations, which can resemble Butlin’s on a summer evening. The joy of wild camping is finding your own spot in a lovely location in complete solitude. Apparently there is an unwritten code that campers do not publicise particular spots. Feelings run very high indeed about this: some spots have been ruined because of big-mouths shouting about them.

One outdoor forum received a suggestion from a beginner to compile a list of “good spots” and there was an instant response begging them not to – fortunately it never happened. As mentioned above, the idea destroys the whole ethos of backpacking and wild camping in good isolated spots that you find yourself.

For those who have no imagination, or are too afraid to trek too far from a beaten path here is a list of best general areas to go camping:

Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park is the only area in England where wild camping is expressly permitted provided that you choose your spot sensibly and don’t pitch your tent on farmland. The Two Moors Way is a 102 mile (163km) long-distance walking route between Ivybridge and Lynmouth, making it an ideal week’s walk.

The North Pennines

The North Pennines offers one of the last places in England where you can expect to walk for a day or even a weekend without seeing a soul. It gets a lot of rain but it’s great walking country during dry spells. Its most famous walk, the Pennine Way, is a popular tourist attraction but South of Middleton-of-Teesdale has plenty of quiet spots and camping grounds.


Scotland is a great place for wild camping mostly because you don’t have to hide your tent. The landscape diversity here is equally startling, ranging from the historic villages and rolling farmland of the Black Isle to the complex mesh of sea and mountain that makes up the western coastline. Head to highlands for wild and remote places but be cautious. Distances in highlands are greater, weather unpredictable and help is far away.

Cumbria’s Lake District

Cumbria’s Lake District is probably England’s most popular camping and hiking area. During the summer and long weekends hundreds of people head there to climb Scafell Pike or/and Great Gable. It’s crossed by narrow lanes and dotted by pubs, so while a walker can lose themselves in the scenery, they can easily escape back to safety.

England’s South Downs

England’s South Downs is recommended as great beginner’s territory for not being too remote. If you look for solitude stay away from Springhead Hill and Fulking Hill which are crowded through summer. Most people take eight or nine days to walk the whole 100 miles (160km) at 12 – 15 miles (25km) a day.


Snowdonia in North Wales, which attracts people with its railway train which takes you all the way to the summit is still a great hiking region. The walking here is as varied as the scenery, with rocky rambles over the highest peaks, breathtaking scrambles across knife-edge ridges, easy strolls along the banks of tumbling rivers, and woodland walks that are suitable for all the family. Head to Clogwyn du’r Arddu or the small mountain lake of Llyn du’r Arddu.

The Brecon Beacons

The Brecon Beacons in Southern Wales is home to the tallest peaks in the whole Southern Britain and another great hiking destination. The area has a wide range of bunkhouses and camping spots. For a change the summits are grass not rock. Head for Brecon Beacons highest top Pen-ya-Fan, Sugar Loaf, Ystradefflte waterfall and Forest Fawr, and the Black Mountains.

The Peak District

The Peak District ranges from the high wilderness moorland of Bleaklow and Kinder Scout, two tough and respectable sized mountains. The region takes in much hill country and narrow winding dales that make for dramatic walking which can be make as hard or easy as you like. Head to Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill fro ridge walks or Mam Tor and Loose Hill.