In his classic “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, John Gray stated that when men feel stressed, they tend to withdraw to a ‘cave’. Men prefer solitude to solicitation, addressing a problem rather than discussing it. Indeed, many tend to revert to their cave-man origins when overextended or uncomfortable. For a small minority of us this reversion isn’t just metaphor; wild camping is a way to escape the clutches, and crutches, of modern life, however temporarily.
I live in a city of some 7.7m souls. The sounds I hear as I go to sleep are as likely to be a drunken couple arguing as wind through leaves and owls hooting. I am woken up not by the dawn chorus, but the sound of bellowing diesel engines as a parade of buses crawl their way up a hill. London is not truly a 24 hour city, but it is close enough that the difference is normally moot. As a Londoner, if I’m not careful, I live as often on perpetual fast-forward; I walk fast, snort in annoyance at the tourists ambling aimlessly in front of me, and heaven help the fools who stand on the left on the escalators! Work hard, party hard. Is it any surprise that sometimes it gets to be too much and the wanderlust strikes?
Wanderlust, a strong or irresistible urge to travel. Its German origin however is more specific, being from wandern (to hike) and lust (to enjoy or desire). Sometimes this urge drives me to travel internationally but over my ever-increasing years I have learnt some things: I don’t like people, air travel sucks, and most other countries/places around the world either suck, or are actually not that different to the UK when you get past the superficial differences in language and cuisine. It’s not uncommon therefore for my wanderlust to be closer to the original meaning of the word. And then some. And that’s when I go wild camping.
What is wild camping?
It may be easiest to describe this by comparing it to ‘normal’ camping.
Most people have gone camping at some point in their lives. You drive up to the campsite where you join at best a dozen or so other families, and potentially many hundreds. Like you, these families have quite literally brought the kitchen sink. You’re all in tents which weigh 20+kg, and can comfortably sleep 6+ people. Also in the car are footballs, games, a large gas canister, multi-ring gas hob, water carriers, and a plethora of other things to ensure that the outdoors have as many modern conveniences as possible. Some people even bring televisions and generators…
Don’t get me wrong, some camping is better than none, and kids are a nightmare to keep occupied. Camping used to be a cheap way to do a holiday, but campsites now appear to be amazingly expensive for singles, or even couples. Also how close to nature can you really feel when surrounded by screaming kids, and sometimes screaming adults.
The actual definition for wild camping varies greatly. I’m going to use my personal definition, which is a lot more extreme than many. Wild camping is to normal camping, as backpacking is to a package tour. There’s no assigned area for camping, you just set up your tent (or less) wherever you’d like. You’re on your own, not surrounded by others. There’s no potable water, or showers (unless there’s a handy waterfall nearby). The location can vary from bog-average countryside, to the real back of beyond. You may be in a real but lightweight tent, used a base-camp for multiple days, or an uber-lightweight bed roll which you carry as you walk. You’ll be carrying in your supplies, carrying out your trash, and having the minimum possible impact on the wildlife around you.
No matter how you do wild-camping, a common aim is to be as close to being in a natural, wild, environment as possible in today’s over-populated increasingly tamed and urbanised world. Personally I hope to not see a soul the entire time I’m away.
It is difficult to describe how great the feeling is when it appears you’re the only person left in the world; when your only decision is should I go North, or East for the next mile; to see a large hill, wonder what the view would be like at the top, and just walk up it, and then tired after what was a surprising slog, to just set up your camp where you fall, and to be dozing only 10 mins later, snug and warm, with a postcard-worthy view your last sight before you drop off.
Whilst you’d imagine it sucks to wake up cold and shivering in the morning dew, it doesn’t take long for the morning sun to begin to warm you, and the contrast between them is very sweet. It’s an amazing feeling to be surrounded by cloud so thick you can’t see any landmarks, and grasses seemingly untouched by the feet of man. To be alone, and so at peace you could weep.
I can’t imagine feeling any closer to nature than when I’ve been dozing off under the cover of a poncho, wrapped in a bivvi, and startled awake from the sound of light footfalls behind me, to roll over and see deer grazing in the moonlight only a couple of meters behind you.
Of course, it’s not all summer evenings and gently gambolling deer. But even the days when it never stops raining, or the wind is blowing hail sharp as needles into your face, are completely worth it. It makes you feel alive, in a way that’s difficult to describe, as long as you’re willing to let go the shackles of comfort from the modern world.
Wild camping really isn’t for everyone. I strongly recommend you go ‘normal’ camping a couple of times first. Your first wild-camp shouldn’t be too wild or extreme, and do it in the summer months in good weather. Over time you can ramp up the difficulty and extremeness, to a level at which you feel comfortable.
Types of wild camping
It is impossible to fully define wild camping, other than to say that it is camping at places other than organized campsites, ideally in the ‘wild’. It can generally be grouped into four categories though, based more on the equipment used than the type of camping performed (although they tend to be linked).
As the name implies, you use a car or motorhome to both get to where you’re going, and as a place to sleep when you get there. This may be some car park or lay-by in the middle of nowhere, or even a car park in somewhere more urban. It’s cheap, easy, and relatively comfortable, and allows you to cover large amounts of distance. You can carry all sorts of modern conveniences with you. However you lose any real flexibility on where to go or sleep.
For semi-wild camping, where you’re going to have to walk at most a few miles to get where you’re camping, you can take a normal tent. This especially works for groups of 2-4 people, sharing a single tent, as you can split the components between you.
Most people in this category don’t wild camp. Setting up, and taking down, a camp with all the equipment takes too long, and so it will generally be used as a base-camp, in an established camp site, for several days. Where people in this category do wild-camp, it will be to do something different, and not that much distance will be covered.
For one person, in semi-okay weather, carrying a normal tent and full camping gear is excessive (and rather heavy).
Thus lightweight camping has been born. As camping technology has progressed, it has proven possible to do the same but with lighter weight components. Tents, sleeping bags, matts, all have been made lighter over the years.
Lightweight wild camping is about more than just using lightweight equipment though. It’s about paring down the list of kit you take, and removing some of the unnecessary items. Do you really need 3 changes of clothing? Or the spare everything you take just in case?
Most solo travellers will fall into this category. You want to take enough with you to be comfortable, but not so much that it’s a pain to carry.
For some people, even lightweight isn’t sufficient. This is for a combination of reasons: you may want to travel long distances each day, or cover very arduous terrain; you may not be in especially good shape, and want to minimize the weight on your back (well, hips technically); you may want to feel the challenge of surviving comfortably with a minimum of kit.
The Ultra-lightweight campers are all generally wild campers, as if you’re going to be staying at established campsites you may as well not worry as much about weight. Daily distances of 20+ miles are not uncommon in this category.
The ultra-lightweight camper will know, and worry about, the weight of everything. Why have a full length sleeping mat when a ¾ length will do, and will save 100g. By taking pre-cooked hydrated food for 3 days, you increase weight by 400g, but save 500g as you don’t need to take a stove. By using a bivvy-bag instead of a tent, you can save 1kg.
I fall in this category, for several reasons:-
- I’m lazy, I want to carry as little as possible,
- I like to cover distance – I want to walk reasonably far, which a heavy pack will make harder
- I tend to sleep when I drop, and walk when I wake – setting up a tent etc adds time, is harder to hide when in England, and isn’t trivial to do in the dark
- I like to rough it – my normal life is very comfortable, and I really like the contrast of the hardships of the ultra-lightweight camper
Ultra-lightweight very much isn’t for everyone. Generally the lighter an item, the more expensive. You have to spend real time weighing options and considering alternatives. You need to have experience camping, to know what is optional and what really is a necessity. But the rewards are, in my opinion, completely worth it.
Law in the UK
All of my wild-camping thus far has been in the UK, where there are a hodge-podge of rules and laws. You need to be aware of these when considering where, when, and how to wild-camp.
England and Wales – All terrain in England and Wales is owned by someone, and you need the permission of the landowner to wild camp. That’s the law. The reality though is that you can normally get away with it, the more rural the better. Snowdonia and the Peak District are generally okay, as long as you follow certain guidelines: pitch late and rise early; don’t stick out, use dark colour equipment; camp out of sight of paths and away from roads and properties; leave no sign of your presence when you leave; only stay one night, and only in very small groups; don’t use open fires (or any fires in many cases – see hints, tips, and rules, below); avoid anywhere with livestock or crops. The one exception on the legality rule is Dartmoor. It is legal to wild-camp there, however you need to be careful to avoid the military live-fire and training scenarios. Also, Dartmoor is very marshy in many places, and the weather can be dangerous at times, so be careful.
Scotland – The right of foot access is established in law, and wild camping is legal with some caveats. You mustn’t camp where crops are being grown, and must be away from any properties etc. Overall, follow the guidelines for England, and you’ll be fine.
International – I have no direct experience outside of the UK, and laws vary wildly. Many countries do allow wild camping however, and in general the more rural the area, the more acceptable. You should always check the local laws before camping. Note also for British wild campers, there are dangerous wild animals outside the UK, which must be taken into account – for example you may need to keep a fire going, cook and store food several hundred metres from your campsite, and take other precautions.
Hints, Tips, and Rules
Below I’ve tried to highlight some of the things I’ve gleaned over my years. Overall though, the key things are to:-
- Pitch late, leave early
- Leave it as you found it
- Be considerate of others
So, first of all, some rules:-
- Carry out all trash. This includes my pet peeve – cigarette butts. Anything which isn’t biodegradable over a month or so, pack out. Anything that is, you may be okay burying. When in doubt, pack it out.
- Go to the toilet at least 100m from any water (lakes, streams, whatever). When having a crap, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep, and cover it up after. You may be able to also bury used toilet roll, but any sanitary products must be packed out as they don’t biodegrade, and animals will tend to dig them up.
- Keep groups small and unobtrusive
- If asked to move off, apologise for causing a hassle and do so with minimal fuss
- Don’t dig drainage ditches etc if at all possible
- Don’t have an open fire. Whilst romantic sounding, they’re a blight on the countryside. Furthermore, in the summer they can be dangerous
- In the summer months, when everything is dry, and especially on peat, don’t have any fire whatsoever. Be careful even with glass in sunny conditions.
- When you leave off, there should be no sign (other than some depressed grass etc which will bounce back quickly) that you were ever there.
Hints and Tips
And now some hints and tips:
Tent placement: When placing a tent, you need to consider four things.
- Ground levelness: The more level the better, try to avoid or slightly flatten any humps, tussocks, etc
- Ground slope: Have as little as possible. Sleep with your head above your legs if there is a slope
- Drainage: You don’t want to be in a dip which may get flooded if there’s any rain. Remember, water flows downhill, and collects at the lowest points. Don’t dig drainage ditches though, as they damage the environment.
- Wind: Most tent manufacturers specify how a tent should be oriented in wind. When in doubt, put the entrance opposite to the expected wind.
Water: There’s no need to buy expensive flasks etc, any plastic bottle will do. I definitely recommend that, in addition, you have a camelback type system, to allow easy hydration when walking. When you can sip whenever you want, it’s remarkable how quickly 1.5L of water disappears! If you’re high up then you won’t need to purify water realistically, but when in doubt you can do so easily with Chlorine or Iodine. Rather than paying for expensive neutralizing tabs, Vitamin C effervescent tablets do the same task. Note that chemical purification will not kill all organisms, so if you’re really worried, then you’ll want a reverse-osmotic filter. But frankly I think that’s all overkill. Just be sure to only take water from actively flowing sources (no lakes or pools), as high up as possible, and not downstream of any active livestock farming. To refill the camelback, you will want a hard container – doing so without in a stream is a real pain in the arse.
Sleeping mat: It is absolutely necessary to have a sleeping mat. It is remarkable how much heat gets lost to the ground otherwise. There is no need for a full length one however, all you need is something from shoulders to hips or knees. I also recommend air rather than foam – the thermarest ¾ length models are generally excellent.
Cooking: Avoid solid fuels, use either gas or spirits. You’ll only need 1 pot/pan per person, get something like a mess tine. Evenings are long so there’s no need to rush cooking. Have (rehydrated) soup as your last course, as it warms you up before bed, and partially cleans the pan during cooking. Pick food that is light and dehydrated, as it will be easier to carry – pasta, rice and noodles are all good options. I also take some dried meat and some granola, for trail eating. Alternately, during the summer, don’t take any cooking equipment. There’s plenty of food you can eat which will both keep without refrigeration and you can eat without cooking, and it will save you weight. When cooking, remember that the stove itself will radiate heat outwards, so be carefully about accidentally starting fires. When in doubt, wet down the area around the stove.
Head torch: Absolute necessity. Don’t bother with any other torch or lamp, but make sure you have spare batteries.
Plastic bags: Always bring a few with you, for packing out waste (incl. bodily, potentially), and also for ad-hoc waterproofing.
Trowel: Don’t forget your trowel, but try to find a (strong) plastic one for weight reasons. You will need it if you need a crap, and you may end up having to dig in quite hard soil. Where possible though, make use of public facilities, and hold it in if you don’t need to go. I often do 2-3 day trips with no actual need to go. If you do go to the loo, do so at least 100m from any water.
Navigational equipment: Always have a paper map with you, and know how to use it. A compass is often very worthwhile as well. I often take a GPS, but that is more for route archiving than more navigation. It can be useful just to double-check your position if you’re not 100% sure (e.g. in very foggy weather).