wild camping and the law

Wild camping is a pleasure for many. But should it be a guilty pleasure? What exactly does the law say about where and when you can pitch your tent? And is it time these regulations were changed? With input from those who set the rules and those who would challenge them, Trail examines the rights and wrongdoings of…

Loitering within tent

Wildcamp Blencathra Summit

Spoiler alert: in most of the UK, wild camping is illegal. That’s the usual (and perhaps surprising) rule of thumb when it comes to pitching tents anywhere other than dedicated campsites. Scotland is the glowing beacon of exception. Here there’s public access to all land (with a few limitations) for a range of activities – including camping. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code explains that where camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights, you can camp wherever these access rights apply (although there are conditions attached – see www.outdooraccess-scotland.com). This provides some of the most generous and permissive access anywhere in the world, although it’s worth noting that it can be withdrawn under certain conditions such as during deer stalking or grouse shooting seasons. But in the rest of the UK, things are far less open.


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On public rights of way, I have a right to pass and re-pass, take rest and/or sleep so long as it is not in a tent.
— Andy Strangeway, campaigner and adventurer

The situation

In Northern Ireland access is restricted to land in public ownership and to which the public are invited to use, public rights of way (which are far fewer in NI), or where the public have the landowner’s permission. In England and Wales the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) grants the public right of access to land mapped as ‘open country’ (mountain, moor, heath and down) or registered common land for uses such as walking, climbing and running. But camping is explicitly prohibited. The only exception is Dartmoor, although even here permission to camp is not universal and many areas are no-camp zones (see www.dartmoor.gov.uk/about-us/who-we-are/byelaws for a list of exclusions). 

The specifics of the law mean that to avoid committing trespass (a civil rather than criminal matter), permission is required from whoever owns the particular patch of moor, mountain or heath you wish to pitch on. But this can be problematic. Andy Strangeway is a campaigner and adventurer who in 2007 completed his goal of wild sleeping on Scotland’s 162 islands over 40 hectares. But it was during a subsequent challenge to sleep on the county tops of England and Wales that he encountered a problem. “Due to data protection, Natural England could not give me landowner contact details so I could seek such permissions,” Andy informed us. “I realised that the law could never legislate against a two-month old baby falling asleep in its father’s arms and so developed my thinking from there. As camping is stated to be in a tent, cabin or hut, I submitted the following statement to NE: ‘On public rights of way, I have a right to pass and re-pass, take rest and/or sleep so long as it is not in a tent.’ They did not disagree. As a result I slept on the summit of 49 out of the 52 county tops of England and Wales in my bivvy bag.”

Complications

Semantics aside, Andy’s experience highlights an established difficulty. Many of the areas in which we might choose to wild camp are maintained by National Park Authorities, but these NPAs are not necessarily the owners of the land. This can confuse matters when it comes to seeking permission. For example, the Lake District National Park has an extremely useful guide to wild camping on its website (www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/visiting/where-to-stay/wild-camping) where it states that, “wild camping is an unforgettable experience and the Lake District is certainly a stunningly beautiful part of the country to pitch your tent.” But the same page also explains that they, “do not have the power to allow camping on private land and do not permit camping on the land that we own.” 

We raised this seemingly conflicting advice with Richard Leafe, chief executive of the Lake District National Park. “There’s a tradition of tolerance when it comes to wild camping in the Lakes,” Richard told us. “It’s a great way to enjoy the park and I’m personally a fan of it. The Authority doesn’t have the ability to unreservedly permit camping across the park, but we have an understanding within the relatively small number of landowners within the central Lake District that responsible wild camping by well-behaved members of the public should be tolerated on the proviso that it’s not to the detriment of other users or the environment.” 


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Wild camping isn’t just camping for free – it’s how you go about it.
— Richard Leafe, chief executive of the Lake District National Park

When asked if he had any interest in making wild camping ‘legal’ in a more official manner, Richard’s answer was unequivocal. “It’s not on my list of things to do. We don’t want to end up in a situation like that in Loch Lomond. We’d rather keep it tolerated than permitted and maintain the understanding that this tolerance can be withdrawn.”


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To head out into the wilds with all you need in your backpack and to know that you can sleep where you choose without all the trappings of modern life we think we need, is the most incredibly exhilarating feeling.
— Phoebe Smith, author of 'Extreme Sleeps'

Ah, yes – the Loch Lomond scenario. As stated, the right to wild camp in Scotland is enshrined in the Land Reform Act 2003 (LRA). Sadly for those who would use this privilege responsibly, the behaviour of a minority of disrespectful campers – such as littering, fire lighting and deliberate damage to the environment – led to an unfortunate outcome. As of March this year, a by-law was introduced making it necessary to acquire a paid-for permit from the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park in order to camp in certain locations around the loch. This was met with outrage by proponents of unrestricted wild camping who argued that the restrictions flew in the face of the advances made by the LRA. 

Phoebe Smith, author of Extreme Sleeps and a wild camping evangelist, is one of those aggrieved by what she considers a retrograde step in access rights. “The National Park are effectively criminalising wild campers who could now face a criminal record and hefty fine.
As the nearest NP to Glasgow,  it’s often the first place that inner city children go to experience the great outdoors. Now swathes of the most suitable wild camp spots are out of bounds. It’s a completely shortsighted and backward step and the start of a slippery slope at a time when England and Wales should be looking to Scotland as a leading light in access rights.” 

The National Park claim they were left with little alternative. “(The Park) is visited by over four million people every year. The by-laws are needed because the sheer number of visitors to some of our most easily accessible loch shore areas, combined with damage from antisocial behaviour, is causing significant damage to both the environment and to the local communities.” 

As it stands, the Camping Management Zones cover less than four per cent of the park and are only in effect between March and September. However, other sites around Scotland (such as Glen Etive) whose proximity to roads and wild scenery mean they are suffering from similar ailments will be following developments around Loch Lomond with interest.

Application

Outside of Scotland, there’s still the issue of landowner permission. One of the largest landowners in the mountain areas of England and Wales is the National Trust, so what’s its take on wild camping? Gareth Field, outdoor activity licensing project manager, told us that, far from being opposed to it, the Trust not only tolerates responsible wild camping – but extols the virtues of the true wilderness experience. 

“We value and love getting away from society, into the wild and camping. If done responsibly, wild camping is a fantastic experience – one that many National Trust staff enjoy regularly. The term ‘wild’ is key; for example, in the mountains, high above the fell wall where the campsite is selected to minimise impact upon the landscape or other people. We believe that camping in the valleys and lake shores is best done through dedicated campsites.”

It would seem that although they wish to stop short of providing carte blanche permission, both the Lake District National Park and the National Trust are tolerant of wild camping. With things looking up, we contacted Snowdonia National Park (SNP) to see if their approach was equally open-minded. Peter Rutherford, access officer at Snowdonia National Park Authority replied to our email: “The SNP’s stance is clear. There is no legislation that allows wild camping in England and Wales so therefore, unless permission is granted by landowners, this activity cannot take place.” 

Given the difficulties in establishing who the landowner might be, would it prepared to provide this information on request? “Snowdonia National Park Authority has supplied details of landowners in the past for individuals or sometimes outdoor centre groups who wish to wild camp properly.” That’s something. 

With the National Trust tolerant of responsible wild campers and the Park Authority open to providing contact information for landowners, wild camping in Snowdonia might still be on the cards. And Wales could potentially be following Scotland’s lead when it comes to access. The legislation is currently under review by the Welsh Government. Proposal 11 of the Taking Forward Wales’ Sustainable Management of Natural Resources consultation document suggests revoking various restrictions on access provided in the CRoW Act 2000, including camping. This would make wild camping permissible on existing open access land. 

But while excellent news for campers, SNP are less enthusiastic. “From the National Park’s perspective you can imagine what the outcome may be in allowing wild camping,” Peter Rutherford explained. “On Snowdon we have some 500,000 walkers per year; 200,000 in the Ogwen Valley. If only a small percentage decided to camp then how would we control this? Significant issues would arise: typically litter, antisocial behaviour, health hazards, open fires and stock disturbance. This would beg the question of how to police this and at what cost.” 

Valuation

Phoebe Smith would love to see Wales (and England) following Scottish footsteps. “In Scotland the thinking is that everyone has the right to wild camp. In England and Wales the opposite is true. I wild camp all the time, and every ranger I’ve met has been pleased to see me enjoying the outdoors. But the fact that technically you ‘can’t’ puts off a lot of people, and while ‘proper’ campsites are great they are not to everyone’s liking. Opening up the outdoors to allow wild camping will actually ensure that people fall in love with it. And if you love something you fight hard to protect and
look after it.”

One of the issues that continues to crop up is what wild camping should mean. Richard Leafe recounted a personal experience which highlights the problem for authorities looking to balance the desires of wild campers with maintaining the wilderness of the environment. “I’d pitched my tent in a quiet spot near Angle Tarn. But then a large group arrived. They pitched several tents, lit a fire, and began barbecuing. They were running around with a dog and clearly enjoying themselves, but it rather spoilt the mood. I’m inclined to think they might have been better off in a regular campsite.” 

So, would Richard agree that wild camping is as much about the ethos of experiencing the wild in a sympathetic manner as it is about the location? “Exactly. It isn’t just camping for free – it’s how you go about it.”


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Wherever you wild camp, certain responsibilities and conditions should be observed to protect the environment and maintain the tolerance of landowners and management organisations.

  • Camp high on open hills away from main tracks, houses and farms.
  • Minimise numbers of people and tents. Large groups should use official campsites.
  • Where possible use neutral-coloured tents that blend into the landscape.
  • Pitch your camp late in the evening and leave early in the morning.
  • Do not dig drainage ditches, trample plants or move rocks in order to pitch your tent.
  • If you’re in any doubt about whether you can camp, choose another location.
  • If asked by a landowner to move on, do so respectively without argument.
  • Don’t light any fires; use a proper camping stove for cooking.
  • Toileting should be well away from any water source or path (30m or more) with waste buried at least 15cm deep.
  • Paper and sanitary items should not be buried as animals will dig them up. They should be bagged up and carried out.
  • Do not use streams or rivers for washing with soaps or detergent. Take a small bowl, use eco-friendly products and dispose of this away from watercourses.
  • Maintain the peace by aiming to be as quiet as possible during your camp.
  • Don’t remain in the same spot for more than one night or two nights maximum.
  • Bag up and carry out all litter, including food scraps.
  • Leave no trace that you’ve camped.

So, what have we learned? The wild camping waters are still muddied when it comes to legality. In Scotland you’re generally okay, with the exception of specific sites around Loch Lomond. In the Lake District wild camping is tolerated as long as it is carried out responsibly and with consideration. The National Trust takes a similar approach on their land. But other organisations, such as Snowdonia National Park, are less enthusiastic and would prefer campers followed the letter of the law and request landowner permission. Unless, of course, the legislation currently under revision is changed, in which case Wales could join Scotland as a wild camper’s paradise. And down in Dartmoor wild camping is fine – but not everywhere. No wonder people are confused. 

What is clear is that people will continue to wild camp: “To head out into the wilds with all you need in your backpack and to know that you can sleep where you choose without all the trappings of modern life we think we need, is the most incredibly exhilarating feeling,” Phoebe Smith explains. “Whether you bivvy out under clear skies, wake up with frost on your eyebrows, or fall asleep to rain tapping on your  tent, it will make you realise that the best things in life aren’t things at all.”

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