There’s a comedy video doing the rounds featuring a dog who spends the entire day staring out of the window. A human asks the dog if this is entertaining. The dog replies, “No…. but also yes.” And that’s pretty much the answer to whether wild camping is illegal in the UK. Except this is no laughing matter.
For those who enjoy striking out on their own to pitch a tent somewhere a little off the beaten path, it’s a source of great frustration.
Outside of Scotland options are pretty limited, and in reality there aren’t many at all. The long and the short of it is that for much of the UK wild camping is illegal.
In England the only place where you can turn up and wild camp without permits or permission is in sections of the 368 square miles Dartmoor national park. Here it’s known as backpack camping.
You’ll need to carry your own equipment as there are rules banning vehicles anywhere you can wild camp. You must also pitch at least 100 m from any road or path, stay a maximum of two nights in any one place, only use a small tent, not be part of a large group, don’t light any fire, and leave no trace.
Other than that the only time you can wild camp in England is when a private landowner gives you permission to pitch your tent. Plenty of landowners are accommodating on this score, but these are probably going to be smallholders. Ask, be polite and you may well be given the nod. However, the top 50 landowners alone own roughly 12% of the land in the UK and they’re not in the business of greeting enthusiasts of wild camping.
The reason our opportunities are so limited is nearly all of the land is owned by somebody. Bodies such as the National Trust or The Crown Estate, who between them own huge swathes of the land, don’t allow wild camping.
And over the centuries acts of parliament also curtailed our rights to wander and set up camp. Some, like the Vagrancy Act of 1824, still contentiously remain in force. When it was introduced, its aim was to punish, amongst other things, “every person wandering abroad and lodging… in the open air, or under a tent.”
Just be grateful that the 1547 Vagrancy Act doesn’t apply these days. It stated that any able-bodied person who wandered about, and didn’t work, should be branded with a V on the forehead, and sold into slavery for two years. The penalty for repeat offenders was execution!,
These days the Countryside Rights Of Way Act (better known as Right to Roam), gives us legal permission to wander off official rights of way paths in certain areas – they’re mostly hills, mountains and forests but also include some coastal areas. There’s a website where you can check these places:
Unfortunately, while this legislation means we can go hiking over private land, the act specifically bans us from camping.
It’s a similar position in Northern Ireland and Wales. Although in the principality there’s an unofficial policy in some parts to turn a blind eye to wild camping. And this is where the real debate about wild camping happens.
Head up into parts of Snowdonia and it’s easy to get well away from civilisation, pitch a tent and have the place to yourself. The same goes for other remote parts of the UK. And there are unofficial guidelines which are followed by wild camping fans.
It essentially boils down to be discreet and leave no trace. Make sure you’re not visible and make sure you’re not heard. Arrive late and leave early. The experience of the vast majority of campers is that you’ll be in for a quiet and untroubled time.
However, even if you’re spotted, you’re only committing a civil offence. Just be polite and when you’re asked to leave, make sure you do. Hanging around leaves you up to the criminal offence of aggravated trespass.
In Scotland things are thankfully a lot easier and certainly not outside of the law. In fact quite the opposite. The 2003 land reform led to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code which states that access rights to;
“…hills and moors, forests and woods, beaches and the coast, rivers and lochs, parks and some types of farmland.”
Scotland is the promised land of wild camping. In return all you’re asked to do is show Respect, Care and Responsibility for people, places and animals.
The only limitations to wild camping apply in parts of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park from March to the end of September each year. Camping Management Zones (see map below) are in place to protect the environment. You’ll need a permit to camp, and you must stick to official sites. However, there are plenty of areas in the park, including other large lochs where wild camping is allowed throughout the year.
Arthur Penlington is the former Senior Editor of the BBC TV News Channel. He spent 18 years with the corporation. He covered three wars from the frontlines and stories from five continents.
He’s passionate about travel and the outdoors. After moving to Australia he sold his house and travelled the world for almost eight years. He’s written a top 3 travel humour book – Around The World In Wonder Socks – based on a year backpacking the world with no plan. Destinations were decided by the toss of a coin.
He’s camped in Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa and spent time with a former headhunter tribe, deep in the Borneo Jungle.