Go Wild In The Country
Go wild in the country – wild camping top tips
There’s something magical about moving through the mountains carrying everything you need to survive for several days on your back (or in your kayak or panniers!). At one with nature, savouring the pristine natural environment and enjoying the simplicity of being able to stop exactly when and where you want – it’s something every nature lover should experience. But, having said all that, wild camping also brings with it some important legal and environmental responsibilities that need to be considered. Here’s some vital things you need to know.
Where can you wild camp?
As usual with legal mumbo jumbo there’s no one rule fits all. In England and Wales you have no right to wild camp unless you have obtained the permission of the landowner (which is often impractical). To confuse matters more, different areas then complicate things by offering varying advice on acceptable practice. The Peak District Planning Authority, for example, state that camping is not allowed on open access land whereas the Dartmoor National Park Authority is supportive of the practice and has even produced a downloadable publication (Camping and Backpacking on Dartmoor) that gives clear guidance and lots of handy info. Amazingly, the right to wild camp in Dartmoor is even enshrined in law (National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 – Amendment Dartmoor Commons Act 1985) – what an enlightened approach! In Wales and the Lake District wild camping is generally tolerated provided you camp on high ground and act responsibly. Remember, however, that you may be asked to moved on if you are camping somewhere without seeking permission (although we have never had this happen in 20 plus years). Don’t forget that the peat moors of the Peak District and North Yorks can become a serious fire risk during dry spells.
In Scotland the situation is different. North of the border there is now a statutory right to camp on access land providing certain rules are followed. These are really just the common sense rules that apply to all wild camping and include things like camping away from buildings, crops or animals, not camping in enclosures and away from roads or historic structures. A much simpler and better defined approach but please ensure you know the full guidance before you visit (full details are available here).
In Ireland there is again no legal entitlement to camp and the landowners permission should be sought. In reality wild camping seems to be tolerated providing campers are considerate and follow good practice rules. More information can be found on the Mountaineering Ireland website here). Some areas, such as the Wicklow Mountains National Park, have a published Code of Practice that is well worth a read (full details are available here).
Where is a good place to camp?
When you are planning a walk then taking a good look at your map to identify some good camping spots is time well spent. Trouble is, all the features you think are important (near a tarn for skinny dipping, not too far off the footpath but with lush flat pitching spots) will also be the ones everyone else has also identified and if you’ve ever camped with the crowds at places like Sprinkling Tarn in the Lake District you’ll know exactly what I mean!
The trick is to look at your map, find a suitable place with a water source nearby, then just make it part of your overall walk by linking to it from your main route. This means it will be further off the beaten track and that you’ll have the wilderness experience you were after in the first place. Your map will also help you spot ground that is likely to be well drained (by finding a spot higher than the surrounding ground), sheltered from the prevailing wind (use the weather forecast to help with this) and also somewhere that offers that peachy vantage point so you can enjoy the view with your night time cocoa (or single malt!).
Obviously the size of the group will also affect where is or isn’t suitable. A solo backpacker has different requirements to a large group and this also needs consideration at the planning stage. Oh yes, and think about the visual impact of your camp – that florescent orange tent might be perfect for the South Col on Everest but is it really the best option at Llyn Bochlywd?
As a young scout one of my first wild camping experiences was near Styhead Tarn. I still vividly remember the plastic bottles slotted between boulders, the rocks moved to secure tents but not replaced and the crushed cans pathetically hidden in the heather and bracken. Well, I didn’t know much in those days (and still don’t!) but even as a rebellious teenager it struck me just how wrong that was. Some people walk miles from civilization to savour the pristine wilderness and leave it looking like their local landfill site – how does that work?!
It’s a ‘no brainer’ isn’t it? Always leave your camping area at least as pristine as you found it. You can minimise the amount of your own rubbish you need to pack out by careful menu planning and this may even leave space to pack out a few bits of the extra rubbish you will inevitably find. Always pack out food scraps because if you bury them animals will just dig them up once you’ve gone. If things get particularly blowy you may need to move a few rocks to reinforce tent-pegging points but always put them back exactly where they came from.
Don’t light fires. We all love a good ol’ Ray Mears style bonfire, but lightweight trips in wilderness areas usually aren’t the time or place. The only exception to this is if you’re wild camping on a coastal beach. A small, well-controlled fire will work here provided it is below the high water mark because the incoming tide will soon remove the signs (although it’s still essential to assess the risk of the fire spreading). If you are camping on dry moorland or near to dry grasses then any naked flame (including stoves) is potentially hazardous and you should even assess the safety of using a stove at each site.
Water sources are precious. Never pollute them with detergents or other contaminants as it may alter the ph balance of the water and affect delicate ecosystems. That babbling brook may also be the main water supply for a property downstream, so save that Vidal Sassoon moment for your return to the valley - no one cares how you smell in the mountains anyway!
When you need water for things like washing pots or brushing teeth just fill a container and then use the water several metres away from the source. Some people also say that bathing in water sources contaminates them but that’s a tricky one because a bit of wilderness skinny dipping is one of the true pleasures of escaping civilization after all – best to judge each situation individually whilst being sensitive to the environmental (and decency) issues.
Studies have shown that vegetation starts to suffer only a few hours after you have covered it with things like your suffocating tent groundsheet. If you’re staying at the same spot for several days then move your tent in between. It’s also important to be sensitive to wildlife that may be near your site. If you find you have inadvertently camped near nesting birds or other wildlife then please move on – it is their home and you’re only squatting after all! This is especially important during the main breeding time which is usually between April and June. For similar reasons always keep the noise level down - I’ve often stayed on campsites where fellow campers seem to think a couple of featherweight nylon layers actually makes their tent soundproof!
We’ve all seen those piles of excrement covered in pink toilet paper by paths and under rocks (why is the paper always pink?!). This is both inexcusable and totally avoidable. When you head for the backcountry just arm yourself with a small lightweight trowel, a lighter and some antiseptic dry wash and you’ve got all you need for an environmentally friendly and hygienic number 2!
Then when you need to go just find a discreet spot at least 50 metres from a water source, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep, do you thing and burn the toilet paper before filling the hole in again. Obviously there are times when burning your paper could be a serious fire risk and a good alternative is biodegradable toilet paper such as the stuff made by Coghlans. It is essential that the hole is deep enough otherwise animals will be attracted to the smell and dig down – which obviously rather defeats the object of burying the stuff in the first place! Any female sanitary products should be carried out for the same reason. Urine is sterile so doesn’t create the same hazards – but its still vital to do it well away from water sources.
Finally, once you’ve finished don’t forget to sterilise your hands with drywash or wash them thoroughly (in water carefully removed and used away from the water source). This hygiene step is essential as you want to avoid getting ill at all costs when you’re out in the wilderness – at the least it will put a dampener on your adventure and the worst case scenario could make it a serious safety issue.
When you head out for several days carefully consider where you leave the gas-guzzler. Use designated car parks whenever possible and always make sure you have left no valuables in the vehicle. It’s also worth avoiding the habit of leaving a note on the dashboard with your return date written on it. If you are delayed you are likely to have the rescue team looking for you and the other possibility is you are simply telling the car thieves how many days they have to strip your vehicle! We left 2 cars overnight in the Peak District some years ago and returned to find them both on bricks with kit littering the surrounding moorland! If you do have to park on the road make sure you are not blocking drives or gates and there is room for emergency vehicles to get past if required. Its worth asking permission at nearby properties if you can – all part of maintaining good relationships between landowners and outdoor users and you might even get offered a cup of tea and crumbly cake when you get back! Sometimes you might be able to arrange to be dropped off (or use a taxi) then be collected at the end. This also has the advantage that you can do an end to end rather than a circular route which will give your adventure a real journey feel to it.
Of course accessing that beautiful wild camp brings its own problems. Ecologists have spent years studying ways to minimise footpath erosion and protect our rights of way – but they are still deteriorating. The issue is complex and different areas suit different solutions. In the Peak District thousands of tons of gritstone slabs have been laid on some popular moorland trails and parts of popular long distance footpaths. In Scotland gravel tracks have replaced vulnerable peat and parts of the Lake District have areas closed off for periods of time so the vegetation can recover. The solutions vary but the cause doesn’t – more and more people are escaping to the hills…and that includes us. Fortunately, there are a few ways we can help.
Footpath erosion gets worse when people skirt around the most boggy or damaged parts to avoid the mud and puddles. This process, known as creeping, can lead to trails becoming motorway width in a relatively short time. Having said that, it’s hard to walk through puddles and mud when there is that tempting looking heather at the side. Avoiding vulnerable paths in wet weather has been part of Peak Mountaineering’s policy for years. It does rely to some extent on local knowledge but your map will still give you lots of useful info. For example, after heavy rain tracks, bridleways and laid surfaces will usually be better than paths that run across open moorland and routes that scramble over rocky terrain will handle the traffic better than loose gravely surfaces. Sometimes, heading off the beaten track is better than being one of the thousands on the trade routes and is all part of the wild camping experience. It will have the added benefit of sharpening your navigation skills too.
If you mountain bike then you can easily churn up boggy tracks and the above rules are even more important to you. We stay right away from the open moorland around the Derwent Valley after heavy rain and stick to the disused railways and surfaced tracks – save those peachy routes for drier weather and you’ll enjoy them more anyway.
If you are really feeling green there are many other ways to help. I had a great week working alongside other gnarly mountain goers repairing paths in the Cairngorms during my student days – lots of footpath restoration is manned by volunteers. If you are in education the key to our countryside’s future is to educate and inspire the next generation. Getting children camping and enjoying nature has been proven to improve the way they treat wild places. The John Muir Trust has lots of activities and resources and an award scheme for young people to work through, many of the National Parks have rangers that will run educational walks and schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme get thousands of young people camping every year.