Wild Camping in Britain: Laws and Best Practices

Tents on top of a mountain at Snowdon, Caernarfon, United Kingdom – Beginner’s guide to wild camping in the UK

Unlike many parts of the world, you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere you like on public land in Britain. England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales all have different rules about wild camping. And even then, there are different rules between the regions and counties within each of these countries too.

Navigating the maze of regulations for wild camping in Britain can seem daunting at first. But understanding where it’s legally permissible to set up camp in Britain isn’t too complex once you’re familiar with the designated areas. That’s because, in reality, there aren’t that many.

But once you’re armed with this wild camping knowledge (so you won’t get the police called on you in the middle of the night!), you’re set to experience some of the most tranquil and untouched natural landscapes the country has to offer, far, far away from the crowds.

As an avid camper, I’m here to share insights into navigating the wild camping landscape in Britain, complete with legal guidelines and best practices, to ensure you have an enjoyable and comfortable outdoor adventure!

Defining Wild Camping

Before we jump in, I guess it’s important to establish what exactly ‘wild camping’ is.

In the UK, wild camping, (sometimes referred to as free camping, backpack camping, wilderness camping, or boondocking), involves setting up a tent in remote natural settings away from official campgrounds. This could be in the heart of forests, amidst the rugged terrain of mountains, or within the expansive openness of moorlands.

The essence of wild camping lies in self-reliance. It demands that campers bring along all necessary gear, from their cooking to sleeping equipment, and of course take it all with them when they leave.

Essentially it’s just you, a tent, and what you carry on your back, without any modern conveniences like toilets, showers, or other plumbed facilities! 

Why Do People Wild Camp?

People wild camp in the UK for a whole range of reasons, but if you asked around, I’m sure they’d all pretty much have a similar theme.

Wild camping allows you to connect deeply with nature, experiencing the serenity and beauty of remote locations away from crowded campsites. It affords a sense of adventure and freedom to explore the countryside in a minimalistic way, with most modern conveniences stripped away.

Wild camping can also be a cost-effective alternative to traditional accommodation, appealing to those seeking a more rustic and self-sufficient outdoor experience.

The Legalities of Wild Camping Across Britain

The rules surrounding wild camping vary across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, largely due to differences in land access rights. Here is where you can wild camp in each country:

Wild Camping Spots in England 

Wild camping in the Dartmoor National Park is the only place in England where it’s officially legal, thanks to the Dartmoor Commons Act. However, that doesn’t mean you can camp anywhere in the national park, only in designated areas. Here is an interactive map highlighting where those areas are. 

Whilst you’re allowed to wild camp in Dartmoor at present, there is currently a legal battle going on with one of the largest landowners, and so the right to camp here is under threat. It’s best to check the Dartmoor Government website for the latest, in case anything should change in the future. 

As for the rest of England, most of the land here is privately owned, and so camping on it without consent is technically trespassing. 

In reality, attitudes are often quite relaxed in most UK national parks especially, where discrete wild camping is tolerated in upland and remote areas. For example, when I am on walks in the North Yorkshire Moors, my local national park, I will often see a lone tent pitched within the moorland. No one really has an issue with it, so long as they leave no trace. 

Wild Camping Spots in Scotland

Scotland stands out for its welcoming stance on wild camping, largely due to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code established by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. 

This legislation grants the freedom to camp on most open land, with the condition that campers adhere to the code’s principles of responsible access. 

Among the most popular spots for outdoor enthusiasts to wild camp in Scotland are the breathtaking Cairngorms National Park, the remote Orkney Islands, the Isle of Arran, and the Isle of Skye.

It’s important to remember, though, that certain areas in Scotland, such as Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, have stricter regulations and there are some parts where it’s not permitted. Before setting out, it’s crucial to consult local bylaws and be on the lookout for signs indicating camping permissions, to ensure compliance with the rules.

Wild Camping Spots in Wales

In Wales, the situation regarding wild camping shares similarities with much of England, where it’s technically not allowed without the consent of the landowner. However, in some parts of national parks, wild camping can be tolerated if done responsibly.

Particularly in the Brecon Beacons National Park, there are spots where wild camping is more readily accepted, though it’s always wise to confirm with the National Park Authority or directly with local landowners.

Wild Camping Spots in Northern Ireland

Wild camping is not permitted in Northern Ireland without the landowners’ consent. There are no specific laws like Scotland that allow it, so it’s best to stick to designated campgrounds. 

Wild Camping Etiquette & Leave No Trace Principles 

The unwritten rules of wild camping in Britain emphasize respect for nature, wildlife, and fellow land users. Here are just a few things that you should always ensure you do whilst camping in Britain’s wild spaces: 

Don’t Stay too Long

Staying no more than two nights in one spot helps to ensure that the land where you’ve pitched has time to recover, especially in bad weather.

While it may seem appealing to reuse a spot that shows signs of previous use, this can lead to environmental degradation over time.

That being said, it’s also not wise to pick a fresh spot on plants or flowers that will likely die, so use your judgment about what spot will have the least amount of impact.

Keep a Low Profile 

Respecting the privacy and peace of others is also key. Selecting a site out of view from residences and roads ensures a discreet presence. You’ll often find people pitching at night and leaving at sunrise to help maintain the tranquillity of the wilderness.

Music and general loud behavior are also disrespectful and can bother locals, wildlife, and other wild campers. So switch off and enjoy sleeping under the stars in peace and quiet!

Stay Away from Water Sources

To prevent contamination, you should be aware of your proximity to water, and aim to stay a reasonable distance away. It’s recommended to be at least 200 ft/60 meters away from rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, and the sea.

For personal hygiene and washing, try to just use water if you can. Otherwise, move 30-50 meters away from water bodies and use biodegradable soap to minimize the ecological impact.

Campfire Etiquette

If lighting campfires are permitted where you camp, and you think you need one, you should bring your own portable fire pit wherever possible.

If not, then aim to use an old fire pit someone else has used, ensuring it is thoroughly put out before you sleep, and never leave it unattended to prevent wildfires, or your gear going up in flames.

If you’re camping somewhere it’s not technically allowed, then it’s best to not light a fire to draw attention to yourself. 

Bury your Poop & Pee!

When wild camping, there are no toilets unless you’re near somewhere like a visitor center. You should bring a portable/foldable trowel to dig a hole around 20cm deep for you to do your business in and then bury it again. That goes for number one’s and two’s!

Make sure your hole is at least 50 meters away from water bodies, trails, and camp areas to keep the area pleasant for everyone.

Oh, and ensure you bring biodegradable toilet paper too!

Take Everything Home

Whatever you bring with you, ensure you take absolutely everything away again, so you can leave your pitching spot looking absolutely untouched, or even better than when you arrived. 

All these wild camping practices are not only courteous but essential for preserving the pristine nature of wild camping and ensuring their continued availability for all to enjoy.

Incorporating Activities into Wild Camping

The wild camping experience involves much more than just setting up a tent; it’s about engaging with the environment in meaningful ways, using your tent as your base. 

Wild camping can top off an active day out in nature doing some awesome outdoor activities. Here are some great things to do during the day, before you find a great spot to pitch:

  • Mountain biking: bringing along bicycles allows for exploring the many thousands of rugged bridleways and hundreds of rail trails across Britain. Just keep off footpaths which are for walking only.
  • Foraging for wild edibles: Foraging adds an element of survivalism and deepens the bond with the land. Even if you don’t pick something to eat, it can be great fun to explore the area to identify edible plants, berries, nuts, and more. However it requires an understanding of best practices, including having a good foraging guidebook or sound knowledge of flora, and of course a respect for local ecosystems. 
  • Birdwatching: Setting up and sitting still for birdwatching is a serene way to connect with the local wildlife, offering moments of quiet reflection. Pack some binoculars if it’s something that interests you. If you’re in Scotland, you may well even spot some rare birds like osprey (once considered extinct), Scottish Crossbills, and the Capercaillie, one of the rarest birds in the UK.
  • Walking and hiking: Of course walking through the varied landscapes offers unparalleled opportunities to appreciate the natural beauty and vastness of Britain’s wilderness, and it’s the most common activity coupled with wild camping.

Essential Gear for Wild Camping

Wild camping is a little different than camping at a designated ground, in part because as mentioned, there are no facilities. You have to take a few extra essential pieces of gear, which will help maintain the leave no trace principles and provide you with a comfortable stay.

Here’s a list of some essential gear you’ll need for wild camping:

  • A Good Tent: Unless you’re camping in summer and expecting hot temperatures, you’ll likely need a lightweight four-season tent to camp in Britain, as it can get very cold at night. I love the brand Helliberg.
  • Sleeping Mat & Sleeping Bag: A good quality mat and sleeping bag will insulate you from the cold. Ensure the r-value is suited to the temperatures you will experience. 
  • Cooking Equipment: A small stove, fuel, lighter/matches, and a lightweight pot or pan are essential.
  • Water Purification: A water filter or purification tablets to ensure safe drinking water, or bring enough water with you for drinking, cooking, and washing.
  • Food: Non-perishable, high-energy food items that are easy to prepare. Lots of snacks are always a great idea too.
  • Navigation Tools: A map and compass or a GPS device for navigation.
  • First Aid Kit: A basic first aid kit for minor injuries and emergencies, including blister plasters, antiseptic wipes, and painkillers.
  • Clothing: Waterproof and breathable clothing layers to adapt to changing weather conditions.
  • Headlamp or Flashlight: With extra batteries for nighttime navigation.
  • Emergency Shelter: A bivy sack or emergency blanket in case of tent failure.
  • Rubbish Bags: To carry out rubbish to leave no trace.
  • Multi-tool: For repairs and various camp tasks.
  • Foldable trowel: For digging holes to do your business. 
  • Biodegradable toilet roll and soap: To ensure you do not contaminate the land.

Conclusion

It’s clear that while the rules and regulations of wild camping within the landscapes of Britain might initially seem like a thicket to navigate, they’re actually pathways guiding us toward sustainable and respectful outdoor adventures.

Equipped with the right knowledge and a respectful approach (which I hope this ultimate guide to wild camping has conveyed!), this activity opens up opportunities for connecting with nature in the purest form imaginable. 

Whether you choose somewhere in Scotland, the Dartmoor National Park or decide to risk it at a national park elsewhere across the country, you’ll have a blast wild camping in Britain – enjoy!

Tammy is editor of Adventure Brits, a community-driven publication celebrating the epic and everyday adventures to be had across the British Isles (and the people behind them!). She’s also been writing about solo international travel for over 7 years on her blog, Travelling Tam.