Beginner's guide to wild camping in the UK: law, where to camp and kit
Fancy getting off the beaten track? One of the joys of wild camping is the chance to sleep under the stars in beautiful rural locations. Our essential beginner's guide shares expert tips on how to camp safely, kit to take and how to wild camp legally in Britain.
Wild camping is a peaceful activity which offers the chance to sleep immersed in nature. After a long day of walking on a long-distance trail, falling asleep to the sound of a hooting owl in the distance or snuffling badger is a life-affirming experience and the perfect tonic to the stresses of modern life.
The rules around wild camping in the UK are strict in order to protect the natural environment and wildlife from damage But how do you know if it's legal to camp, and what should you bring? Whether it’s leaving no trace to ensuring you’ve packed that vital piece of kit, our essential wild camping guide explains how to get started, where you can legally camp in the UK, best camping kit to take and explains how to camp in the wilderness safely.
What is wild camping?
Essentially, wild camping involves setting up camp outside of a campsite or caravan park and sleeping in your tent in the wilderness. You might be doing a multi-day hike and camp in a national park (checking first it is legal to do so) or fancy a micro adventure sleeping in nature.
Tempting though the solitude of the wilderness may be, wild camping can be daunting for first-timers, which is why our handy guide explains how to wild camp legally and safely in the UK.
Is wild camping legal?
The general rule for wild camping is to check whether you can legally camp - or get permission and it is vital to leave no trace.
Before heading to the wilderness to wild camp, it's important to check the rules in your region. The majority of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, campers have no legal rights so check before you camp or get the landowner's permission. Some sites in Scotland, including Loch Lomond now require campers to get a permit so do your research before you go.
Wild camping England
Most land in England is privately owned by landowners. While wild camping isn't banned, the only way to wild camp legally in England is by seeking permission from the landowner.
The only place that wild camping was legally permitted in England was in Dartmoor National Park. However, following a legal court case against the national park by Alexander Darwall, a hedgefund manager and landowner of the 4,000-acre Blachford Estate, wild camping is no longer permitted in Dartmoor without seeking the permission of the landowner. Dartmoor National Park Authority has decided to appeal the recent High Court judgement that determined wild camping in the national park is not a legal right.
Wild camping in Wales
The rules surrounding wild camping in Wales is much the same as in England – permission must be gained from the landowner. Snowdonia National Park owns only a small amount of land within the national park so it recommends speaking to the landowner for permission to camp – or find a campsite within the park.
Most of the land within the Brecon Beacons National Park is privately owned so again permission needs to be gained before pitching your tent. It can be tricky to determine who owns the land, but much is owned by farms so contacting the local farmer can be a good place to start.
Wild camping in Scotland
Wild camping is legal in most of Scotland, thanks to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Under this law, wild campers are allowed to pitch up on most unenclosed land.
On exception is Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park which is now subject to wild camping byelaws following overuse and damage to the natural enviroment. This means that camping is only permitted within campsites or with a camping permit.
The wild camping 'leave no trace' guidelines remain vital in Scotland to avoid damaging the natural environment or disturbing local wildlife. It is worth reading up on the Scottish Access Code before you go.
How to go wild camping
It is important to do your research before you set off on a wild camping trip (which is where this guide comes in). Plan your walking routes carefully, check the weather conditions, terrain and ensure you've got all the gear you need to hike and camp safely.
Many wild campers opt to camp during multi-treks, pitching up late in the day and continuing along the trail early the next morning. This is only allowed in certain parts of the UK, so check before plotting your route as you may need to head off the trail to pitch up in a campsite instead.
Here are a couple of key things to remember each and every time you wild camp.
Arrive late and leave early
The golden rule of wild camping: arrive late and leave early - remembering to leave no trace! Plan arriving at your chosen location late in the day to avoid disturbing others and leave early before other walkers are out and about.
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This is the crucial rule of wild camping and ideally you will create minimum impact on your desired area so it still remains natural and wild. Better still, you should leave the site so no one can tell you've even been there.
Litter — this goes without saying, but ensure you collect all your rubbish and take it with you. Walk the site slowly before leaving to check that nothing is missed.Leave the site as you found it - don't leave holes, fire damage, litter, and take care not to damage vegetation. This includes toliet duties, which should be well buried and covered with turf so your waste can biodegrade naturally.
Fire — If you are allowed to light a fire, ensure you do so correctly and leave no trace that you were ever there. Many sites don't allow fires so again do your research.
Keep group numbers small — try to minimise disturbing wildlife by camping in a small group and reduce noise and light where possible.
Stay just the one night — and then move on. It is possible to stay more than one night in some areas but try to limit your stay.
Stay just the one night - and then move on
It may be possible to stay more than one night in some areas, but try to limit your stay to reduce impact on the local environment.
Keep group numbers small
To minimise the chance of disturbing wildlife by camping in a small group and reduce noise and light where possible.
Source clean water
Water is heavy to carry, so chances are you will need to camp near a water source. Running water is generally safer than still and is best collected as close to the source as possible. Check immediately upstream for animal carcasses or waste. Use a tried and tested water filter or boil any water before drinking.
Find a remote spot - but tell someone where you're going
One of the many joys of wild camping is that it gives access to remote and wild places. Finding a remote spot with a view to enjoy at sunrise will make all the aches and pains of hiking through the wilderness seem worthwhile. However, it is also important to let others know where you're planning to go in case of emergency. It doesn't have to be the exact location, but leaving a rough plan of your route could be vitally important in a rescue situation. If you're staying in a hostel or guesthouse, let the owner know your plans and when you expect to return.
Ensure you've got the correct equipment
The British weather is notoriously changeable – particularly in the mountains, so it is vital that before any outdoor adventure that you pack the right kit to keep you warm, dry and safe.
What do you need for wild camping?
Finding yourself without a vital piece of kit in the wild is not only annoying – it can be life-threatening. While packing that extra warm layer or waterproof might add a bit of weight to your pack, if the weather suddenly changes it will make a night outdoors much more enjoyable – and safe. Being a bit cold and wet could soon turn from a miserable experience to a deadly one if the weather takes a turn for the worse, so don't risk it.
If you plan to walk with your camping kit on your back, a lightweight approach really pays dividends. The rule of thumb is to keep your pack weight under 10kg – a goal this super-light camping kit will help you achieve.
If you can, we recommend trying camping at a campsite or even back garden to test your kit out before heading to the wild.
Start with a tough and light tent
You'll be carrying everything on your back, so the weight can soon add up. Carrying too much can turn an enjoyable hike into a slog, so you may want to consider shopping around to find the best quality and lightest equipment you can afford.
If you're hiking alone and only camping out a night or two, then smaller is better. However, if you're walking with company or very tall, then you may want to share the load and opt for a roomier tent. Tent size very much depends on how comfortable you are in a fairly cramped surroundings, so if possible visit an outdoor store to get an idea of what size would suit you. Have a look at our top picks for ultralight tents for backpacking.
Zephryos 2 Tent, Wild Country
A relatively affordable alternative to sister brand Terra Nova’s classic Laser Competition 2 model, this is hardy, reasonably easy to pitch and weighs a mere 1.81kg packed.
Jack Wolfskin, Exolight 1
This excellent solo tent for backpackers is pleasantly light at 1.43kg, and highly wind resistant thanks to a rigid external pole structure. Extremely easy to pitch, the headroom is good inside at one metre. Although the inner tent is narrow at 60cm, there is room either side for storage, including a 70cm porch large enough for a big backpack. The inner tent is well ventilated for summer camping, its sides being mostly mesh.
Robens, Goldcrest 1
When you are tramping for miles, every gram you are carrying counts. At a thrillingly light 1,170g – not much more than a bag of sugar – this little solo tent spells adventure.
Frills are necessarily few. There’s an internal line to hang a light or a pair of wet socks or a light. The inner tent is a pleasant pale yellow. What matters more is its ability to offer shelter in tough conditions. The Goldcrest’s streamlined profile offers excellent wind resistance: in tests Robens say it copes with an average 130KMH wind speed.
Pitching is easy, though you might have to work to make the flysheet’s mid-section as taut as you would like. A pair of short poles provide some clearance at the lower end of the tent. Guys are simple to use and lock easily.
Finally, the neutral grey-green helps you blend in to your surroundings – ideal for wild camping.
Keep comfortable at night
Overnight adventures are more fun if you get a good night’s kip. A sleeping mat and quality sleeping bag not only makes the ground softer to lie on, importantly it will also help keep you warmer. Choose from the cheaper, foam roll-up mats or a self-inflating sleeping mat. The pros of the foam mats are the relatively cheap cost and weight, but the cons include bulk (they generally have to be attached to the outside of your bag, which isn't ideal in wet conditions). Self-inflating mats can pack down incredibly small and provide a softer and warmer bed for the night
Ultralite Treklite sleeping bag, Vango
Breathable, comfortable and just 1.1kg, this lightweight three-season sleeping bag is a good, solid all-rounder. Contains an anti-snag zip and the additional chest room, which means you can turn over in the night without getting tangled up.
Montane, Featherlite Sleeping Bag
Comfortable and light at 860g it packs down small in its stuff sack. With a mummy-shaped with a hood, it has a PERTEX outer shell, so it is tough and breathable and a down filling makes it feel luxurious. Clever zips glow in the dark, which is a great and properly useful innovation. But the comfort rating – the lowest temperature at which you ought to feel comfortable – is 9C.
Sea to Summit, Ultralight mat
Some inflatable sleeping mats can be exhausting to inflate, even worse to deflate and impossible to get back into their stuff sacks. This mat was a revelation. It has a two-way valve which makes it very easy to inflate with just four or five puffs, and it deflates instantly too. It’s a mummy-shaped mat, a good full length so you can have both head and feet on it. When inflated it looks like the bottom of an egg carton – the surface is not flat but a collection of ‘Air Sprung Cells’. Incredibly comfortable, it never deflated during the night and super-easy to pack away.
Terra Nova, Competition Tarp 2
Super smooth, quick-drying, and packs down easily into a small pouch. At2.48m by 2.9m, it's big enough for two. Although light at 290g it is also strong and robust, and provides shade and protection from rain and frost. The eight reinforced rings allow it to be used to make a range of shelter designs (we tried six) in combination with cord and pegs (not provided) and / or walking poles. It also made a good groundsheet.
MSR, Windboiler Stove
Jaw-dropping fuel efficiency, impressive wind resistance and a speedy boil time all wrapped up in a thermos-sized package. If you walk in all weathers and need a compact, fuss-free cooking system then this award-winning stove is for you.
Primus, Eta Lite+ stove
This all-in-one stove weighs just 390g and is neat and cleverly designed. It takes the form of a large mug, with an insulating jacket and a lid and when you're not using it, the gas burner can be stored inside, so it all packs up very small. It comes with a stand which a gas bottle can clip into to keep it stable on uneven ground and it boils quickly.
Firepot Dehydrated Meals
Good flavour and texture compared to many dehydrated meals – the porcini risotto and the orzo Bolognese not only taste good, but somehow managed not to be reduced to a stodgy mush in the rehydration process.
LifeStraw, Go Water Filter Bottle
If you are going lightweight, you don't want to be carrying loads of water. This bottle has a built-in water filter, so you can literally fill it up from a stream and drink the water straight away through the mouthpiece. No chemicals, no waiting, genius.
HydraPak, Shape-Shift water bladder
Stopping to take a bottle from your backpack is a faff and many summer hill walkers end up dehydrated as a result by the time they pitch camp in the evening. It’s much easier to keep sipping all day via a tube to a water-reservoir like this, which slides easily into most backpacks. A wide-opening slide-seal top makes this one really easy to fill and clean – you can even pop it in the dishwasher. Available in 3L, 2L or 1.5L sizes.
Petzl Tikkina headlamp
A hands-free, guiding light for those night time re-adjusting-the-guy-rope-sessions or for a spot of nocturnal wildlife watching. If you’re planning on doing the latter, try and source a head torch with a red light feature, so as not to disturb nesting animals.
If you're into your gadgets then our sister publication Science Focus has compiled a list of some of the best camping gadgets for you to peruse.
Beat the bugs: insect repellent
Despite our temperate climate, our rivers and lakes still seem to attract those pesky midges. If you’re planning on venturing up into the highlands or camping near a water body, be sure to pack some insect repellent to ease the discomfort of being nibbled. If you are sensitive to the ‘Deet’ component found in most insect repellent’s, Cotswold Outdoor offers a skin-friendly alternative
Other useful items include: box of water-proof matches, first-aid kit, spare set of warm clothing, water-proofs and coffee for the morning. Sleep tight!
Where are the best places to wild camp in the UK?
If you're not confident about wild camping or haven't got permission to legally camp then we strongly recommend booking a place to stay or camp before taking a trip if you're unsure of the laws or rules.
Here's a small selection of our favourite locations for wild camping in the UK
Isle of Mull, Scotland
The Isle of Mull is the largest of the islands of Argyll and welcomes wild camping in certain areas of the island. Enjoy its 300 miles of coastline, which provides a haven for birds and wildlife. Lochbuie Estate has also created a site specifically for wild camping. Unchanged: The Isle of Mull is the largest of the islands of Argyll and welcomes wild camping in certain areas of the island. Enjoy its 300 miles of coastline, which provides a haven for birds and wildlife. Lochbuie Estate has also created a site specifically for wild camping.
This breathtaking National Park in the eastern Highlands of Scotland is home to mountains, glens, moorlands, rivers and lochs and a vast array of wildlife. It is legal to wild camp here – provided you do so in a responsible manner.
Loch Lomond, Scotland
Wild camping is a great way to experience the spectacular scenery of this National Park. Take extra care to avoid disturbing deer stalking or grouse shooting. New seasonal by-laws came into force restricting camping around Loch Lomond and in the Trossachs earlier this year, so you will need to get a permit before pitching up.
Following the new ruling, permission is now required from the landowner to camp.
Inspired? Here are 10 adventurous places to wild camp in Britain