Wild camping for beginners in the UK

Tent, sleeping bag, and jetboil at the ready? Here’s everything you need to know before your first wild camp in the UK.

open tent door looking out to Ambleside fells

Shout out to all freeloaders – wild camping is camping that you don’t pay for. It’s not cozying up at a site with electricity, a shower block, and line dancing on Wednesdays – but you’re likely to get the same kick out of it.

Though basic campsites often cost as little as £10 a night, most wild campers don’t sleep off-grid to save cash. Instead, wild camping is often born out of necessity. You might be embarking on a multi-day adventure through remote areas, or perhaps all available campsites are full. It might even be that you don’t want the noise some campsites bring and just want to enjoy the sunrise, all alone, on a clifftop in Pembrokeshire. 

The problem is, with the exception of Scotland and Dartmoor in England, wild camping is illegal in the UK. As optimists we hope that wild camping will not always be so restricted, and you can support the Right to Roam Campaign to help.

Here’s how to go on your first wild camping trip, and what to do if you’re caught camping where you shouldn’t be.

Editor’s notes

Wild camping is something every outdoor enthusiast should experience at least once. Our complete guide shares how you can pitch off-grid in a safe and responsible manner across the UK.

What is wild camping?

Wild camping is camping anywhere other than a campsite – be that a clifftop, secluded woodland, or a supermarket car park (please note: we don’t recommend the latter, and nowhere in this guide will you find advice on camping in supermarket car parks).

Tent pitched by a lake in the UK

Is wild camping legal in the UK?

Short answer – wild camping is only legal in Scotland and one specific part of England. Long answer –  there are still places where you can wild camp in the rest of the UK without getting on the wrong side of the law. For example, you may have seen that the decision to forbid wild camping on Dartmoor was recently overturned, reinstating a much-loved area for the outdoors community to reconnect with nature.

Other unofficial campsites often appear across England, allowing you to stay for a day or two without issue. These places exist all around the country, but you won’t find a guide listing them all – you’ll need to find them through hearsay. 

The wild camping workaround

There’s one key clause you need to pay attention to in wild camping legality: wild camping is illegal in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland without the express permission of the landowner. This means that if you ask a farmer to camp in their field and they say yes, you and your tent suddenly become legitimate. 

In Scotland, wild camping is legal pretty much everywhere, but use your common sense. Pitching up by a loch in the Pentlands is a great idea, but setting up camp on a golf course or on the grounds of Balmoral is ill-advised. Here’s a clearer picture of wild camping legality across the UK.

Wooden post with a no camping sign.

Wild camping in England

Dartmoor is always a great choice for wild camping in England, but if you want to pitch up elsewhere, we recommend checking out Nearly Wild Camping – this offers quiet and secluded camping spots with landowner permissions.

Camping on Nearly Wild Camping grounds is often much cheaper than regular sites, and much wilder – you won’t find shower blocks or hair dryers here. It’s also more experience-based, meaning you might be able to feed the land’s chickens or enjoy a spot of badger watching whilst immersed in nature. 

If you’re still set on camping completely in the wild in England, pitch your tent late, rise early, and leave no trace. If anyone comes to turf you out, simply apologise and move on. Don’t argue, just accept that you got busted and you shouldn’t run into further problems.

England has some gorgeous national parks where wild camping is all too tempting. While technically illegal in each, the Lake District National Park Authority gives guidance on its website to those planning on wild camping, suggesting a degree of tolerance to it. In the Peak District, Burbage Valley is thought to be a good spot for wild campers as it’s wooded, meaning it’s easier to conceal a tent. 

Wild camping laws in the New Forest are pretty strict due to fears of environmental impacts, so here, we suggest forking out for a campsite. 

We always recommend scouting out spots for yourself – most wild campers don’t share their spots at risk of overcrowding, or bringing attention to authorities/landowners. 

As a general rule of thumb, the more remote the place, the less likely it is that you’ll encounter anyone or have any issues with wild camping. Somewhere vast and remote like Northumberland, for example, tends to be a better bet for pitching your tent in the wild than the South Downs.

Tarp pitched in Windermere, England. The sun is rising behind.

Wild camping in Scotland

Hooray for Scotland, whisky, AND wild camping! This is the last country in the UK where you can wander lonely as a cloud and pitch up just about anywhere. Scotland has great ‘right-to-roam’ laws which mean people can hike, camp, and swim freely in nature. As such, we should all aim to preserve these rights by leaving places exactly as they were found – we all hold the responsibility to give campers a good name.

If the weather is being typically Scottish and a night under canvas leaves you feeling colder than a discarded battered Mars bar, why not stay in a bothy? These stone huts are all over Scotland and are largely free to stay in. You’ll find a full list of bothies on the Mountain Bothies Association, along with how many people they accommodate, and what (if any) facilities they provide. Remember to always leave bothies exactly as you found them.

blue tent pitched in Welsh woodland

Wild camping in Wales

Even with its plethora of green spaces, wild camping is sadly not legal in Wales. The easiest place to wild camp in Wales is in Bannau Brycheiniog, formerly known as the Brecon Beacons. 

You’ll still need to seek the landowner’s permission, but the Brecon Beacons Visitor Centre has helpfully put together a list of landowners and farms that are typically welcoming to wild campers. If you’re hiking in Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire, or anywhere else in Wales, you’ll need to do the legwork yourself in finding a place happy to accept wild campers. 

Wild camping in Northern Ireland 

At the risk of sounding repetitive, wild camping is only legal in Northern Ireland with the landowner’s permission, although the Northern Ireland Forestry Service does issue camping permits for certain sites.

Wild camping for motorhomes

While sleeping in a van can’t quite be called ‘camping’, it falls under a similar vein. Oddly enough, it’s much easier to wild camp if you’re in a van, and there are numerous designated spots for van life across the UK. There’s no law preventing you from pulling over into a layby by the side of the road and having a kip, but as soon as you attach a tent awning to it you could be in trouble – make it make sense! 

To find a good spot, we recommend downloading the app Park4night. Anyone can upload locations and reviews to this app, and it has lots of suggestions for free parking spots for your van all over Europe.

You can even live in your van in the UK if you like. Provided it’s fully legal and has passed its MOT, the road can be your home.

Two campervans with roof tents pitched up for the night

What is the punishment for wild camping in the UK?

If you’re found illegally camping in the UK you’ll usually just be asked to pack up and leave – maybe with a bit of a telling off. It’s highly unlikely that the punishment will go any further than that, unless it’s a repeated offence in the same area.

In some cases, however, you could be fined – the maximum you’re likely to receive is between £200 and £300. While this is a stinger, it’s unheard of (at present) for it to go further than this. 

Man treks across crags at sunset with backpack

In the vast majority of cases, the person who catches you wild camping is likely to be the landowner. It’s left to their discretion whether or not to let you stay, and whether to take further action. 

All this said, it’s important to note that wild camping technically falls under ‘trespassing’ in the eyes of the law. This is a civil offence, meaning that if you leave when you’re told to, you cannot be arrested. However, if you refuse to leave or you’re a repeat offender, you could be committing an aggravated trespass, which is punishable by a £2,500 fine or up to three months of jail time.

Is it safe to wild camp in the UK?

This is a question I’ve often asked myself when setting up camp in remote spots, imagining that every tiny noise is a) a herd of angry cows, b) the landowner waiting to spear me on their pitchfork, or c) a murderer whose niche target is wild campers in the Cornish countryside. 

Like most outdoor pursuits, wild camping comes with risk but I still firmly believe you’re safer spending a night in the wild under canvas than walking home by yourself in a city at night. If you’re camping solo, there are several ways to add extra elements of safety to your trip. Try leaving an extra camping chair outside, and sharing your plans with friends and family.

Four empty camping chairs with a view of grassy fells

People can be a danger, but you’re more likely to face problems from the environment or wildlife. Be extremely careful about camping in fields, even if they’re empty when you arrive. Cows are curious and will smell food in your tent, and I know more than one camper who has woken up to find a cow sticking their head through the awning, or trampling their belongings. To prevent this keep your food in sealable containers. 

If you’re wild camping abroad, there are many places where you should never, ever keep food in your tent. This is particularly relevant if you’re camping anywhere with bears. In this instance, food should be stored at least 100 feet away from your tent.

How to choose a wild camping pitch

The first rule to choosing a wild camping pitch is to put some distance between your tent and civilisation. If you wild camp right by a road, or in a park in the middle of town, you’ll be too obvious and it won’t be long before you’re asked to move. Remember that you’re camping for the views, and not for the motorway fumes. 

If you’re camping in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, where you’re technically breaking the law, we recommend choosing somewhere subtle. Leave the giant festival flag at home. 

Quechua tent pitched on the top of a fell in the UK. Sun setting in the background.

Try to find flat ground as sleeping on a slope is never comfortable. It’s also important to make sure your camping spot is as dry as possible – never pitch up right by a river or stream. This often makes the ground boggy and you could contaminate the water source, even by simply washing your dishes. Always camp at least 200 feet from a stream, and the same applies to going to the toilet – stay at least 200 feet away to avoid contaminating the water.

Look for a pitch that is as sheltered as possible. Camping on the top of a mountain is very exposed, and if the weather turns, you risk your tent making a bid for freedom. It’s also much colder to camp somewhere exposed. Even on a hot, summer day in the UK, temperatures drop greatly at night. Boulders and trees provide natural shelter, and a good sleeping mat will do a lot of the hard work for you.

How to plan a wild camping route

You’re ready for a multi-day adventure and you’re going to wild camp it – fantastic! If you’re not familiar with the area you’re visiting, have a look on Google Maps (satellite) to get an idea of the lay of the land. 

You’ll probably want to be near a water source for drinking and cooking water, but as stated above, don’t camp too close to it, and don’t forget a water filter such as a LifeStraw to make sure you’re not drinking a bottle full of debris.

Mal and female sat on a picnic blanket with a map to plan a wild camping route.

Plan roughly how far you’ll be travelling each day so that you have an idea of where you’ll set up camp. Remember that it’s dangerous to hike and set up camp after dark, so if you’re going slower than expected, have a contingency plan in place. Pitch your tent a little earlier, then get up and go early the next day. To plan your route, use a navigation app. Many of these have detailed satellite imagery too, which is useful for choosing your wild camp spot.

Facebook groups can be a great way to get local intel on where to camp in different areas. There’s a Wild Camping Forum with almost 3,000 users on Facebook where people can ask for advice with where to pitch up on their next adventure. There’s also a Reddit page where wild campers in the UK offer advice.

How to pack a rucksack for wild camping

Lucky you, we’ve got a whole guide on this. Read it here. If you’re in a rush, here are the basics on what to pack:

  • Your shelter, be it a tent, tarp, or hammock. The Sea to Summit Alto TR1 is super lightweight and spacious.
  • A sleeping mat. You’ll lose a lot of heat if camping on the ground without one. I particularly like the Trekking Inflatable Mattress from Decathlon, which provides great value for money.
  • A sleeping bag. Again, even if the temperatures during the day are warm, we guarantee you’ll be chilly without one at night. 
  • A headlight. Invaluable for those midnight toilet trips. Black Diamond Spot 400-R is rechargeable and has a very powerful beam.
  • Camp stove and fuel. Of course, if you’re just going on a one-night adventure, you might want to rely on cold food.
  • Suitable clothing for your environment. In the UK, that means a raincoat, no matter the season. Don’t forget sunscreen, too. 
  • Toiletries. Consider using biodegradable toothpaste, such as Truthpaste and a biodegradable soap, like castile soap.
  • Food and water. We recommend packing a water filter.

Order your bag in terms of accessibility. I usually leave my raincoat, sunscreen and a few snacks at the top, and my camping gear at the bottom, as I’ll only need to take it out when I set up camp. It’s also a good idea to have heavier items at the bottom to balance the weight of your pack.

ROARK 55L 5-Day Mule Backpack Front

How to go to the bathroom when wild camping

Once an elderly dog walker asked me disdainfully “how do you people go to the toilet?” when I’d set up camp in a rather ill-advised spot. The answer: the same as her dog. When nature calls, unless there’s a public toilet in the vicinity, you’ll be going al fresco

If you need to go for a poo, dig a hole (it can be a good idea to take a trowel with you). Whether it’s a number one or a number two, bag up your toilet paper and take it with you. Don’t burn it, you could start a fire – and imagine how embarrassing (and damaging) it would be to end up on the News at Ten for starting a fire by going for a wild poo.

A row of blue and purple portaloos against a purple sky.

How to leave no trace when wild camping

You should always leave your camp spot exactly as you found it, except for a patch of flattened grass. This means taking all of your litter with you. If you build a campfire, make sure it is fully extinguished and the ashes (once cool) scattered at the end. 

If we all wild camp responsibly, people are much more likely to tolerate rather than see us as a nuisance. Happy adventuring! 

Looking for more tips on wild camping in the UK? Feel free to reach out to us via our email (info@adventurepending.com) or socials!

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