Fundamental to wild camping – or freedom camping – is self-reliance. Pitching a tent or throwing down a bivvy bag anywhere you like is a romantic concept, but intrepid travellers beware: sleeping under the stars comes with different rules and legal restrictions wherever you are. It also comes with responsibility for the environment and for your own safety.
To make sure you're clued up, here’s our complete guide to responsible wild camping.
Where in the world am I permitted to wild camp?
Each country has its own rules and, in much of the world, pitching up anywhere you like simply isn’t allowed. However, there are a few places where you can live out that idyllic wild-camping dream:
In Scotland, the public’s right to (non-motorised) access has been assured since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in 2003 – you are legally allowed to wild camp on unenclosed land. However, bylaws to restrict overnight camping have been introduced in a few popular spots such as Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is a useful rulebook to follow.
There is plenty of countryside in England and Wales, but if the land isn’t in the hands of the Forestry Commission or the National Trust, it’s likely to be privately owned – in which case you can’t pitch up there. Wild camping is only legal in parts of Dartmoor (and even here there’s small print). Everywhere else you must seek the permission of the landowner.
The common right of access is a big deal in Norway, Denmark and Sweden – although it does come with a one-night restriction. You can pretty much camp anywhere on open land, so long as you are on foot and more than 150m from inhabited houses and cabins. Visit Norway has some useful advice and explains that “open land” means “uncultivated”, so it usually applies to shores, bogs, fields and mountains.
The rest of Europe
Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and eastern Europe have similar rules to England and Wales: you cannot camp on private land unless you have the express permission of the local landowner. To protect wildlife, you are not allowed to camp in national or regional natural parks. Italy and Germany don’t have a wild camping culture and it’s not widely tolerated.
Land here is managed by various national, state and local governments, and there’s also Indian Reservations and privately owned land. You’ve got to do your research to find out who owns the land and whether you’ll be trespassing (in some cases, trespassing comes with serious consequences).
Wild camping in Forest Service or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) areas is better known as dispersed camping and is a safe bet – if you follow all the usual rules (see below). The same goes for Canadian Crown Land. In National Parks and National Monuments, backcountry camping is common, but this is regulated and permits are required.
Australia and New Zealand
Camping is a national pastime in both Australia and New Zealand, but set up in the wrong place and you could be landed with a big fine. Camping locations are regulated by local bylaws so look out for signs prohibiting overnight stays.
It’s slightly more confusing in Australia as there are six states, all with different rules. It’s becoming harder to find land that doesn’t have restrictions – even national parks require a permit for backcountry camping.
New Zealand is a bit more relaxed and you are permitted to wild camp on public conservation land, providing it’s not expressly prohibited (or restricted to self-contained camper vans that have a toilet). In both countries there are some stunning DOC-managed sites that are free or just a few dollars, so there’s little need for stealth camping.
What are the rules when it comes to wild camping?
Everything comes down to “leave no trace”. Keep the site as you would want to find it: take all your rubbish home with you and don’t pick wildflowers or take shells or rocks. Wild camping is a beautiful privilege and campers need to do all they can to protect the fragile environment. Here are a few basic rules to follow:
Ditch the car
Although some people park their camper van by the side of a road and call it wild camping, we’re talking about really getting back to nature here. In Scandinavia and Scotland, leaving the car behind is a condition of the right to wild camp. Elsewhere, it’s far more likely that landowners will give hikers and cyclists permission to camp over drivers.
Take proper care of human waste
Dig a deep hole away from your site and any nearby water supply. Toilet tissue needs to be disposed of properly and shouldn’t be buried (it takes a long time to biodegrade and can be dug up by wild animals).
Keep out of sight
Keep your group small and camp far away from roads, towns and villages. Respect “No Overnight Camping” signs. Otherwise, set up at dusk and move on at first light.
Understand your environment
Be aware of the local wildlife and respect its right to roam. You don’t want to attract bears, foxes or rodents to your camp, so store your food securely (in the USA and Canada it’s advised to hang food from a tree branch or take bear-proof food canisters).
There’s nothing better than camping on a beach, but to avoid a rude – and wet – awakening in the middle of the night, be aware of the high-tide line. Choosing a site on a gentle slope is also a good idea if there’s a chance of rain.
Be aware of fire safety
Make yourself aware of any fire restrictions – this is particularly important in the summer months as forest fires have been started by careless campers in the past. If you are permitted to have an open fire, use only dead wood and existing fire rings where possible, and keep it small and supervised. Using a gas stove to cook instead of lighting a fire means you avoid scorching the earth and you can leave the site pristine.
What should I take wild camping?
Some camping checklists are pretty comprehensive. But wild camping means going out on foot and being able to carry everything in (and out). This means taking only the essentials:
• Tent (with pegs and a lightweight mallet) or bivvy bag
• A sleeping bag
• Torch or headtorch
• Trangia or single burner stove and pan
• Food and food storage containers (leave the packaging at home)
• A refillable water bottle, plus a water filter or treatment tablets
• Warm clothes
• Toothbrush and toothpaste
• Toilet paper (and plastic bags to take the used paper with you)
• Hand sanitizer
• Map and compass – don’t rely on your mobile phone!