Wild camp­ing

On le­gal ground? Just what is the deal on wild camp­ing? And what does the fu­ture hold?

Trail (UK) - - Contents - WORDS BEN WEEKS

“To head out into the wilds with all you need in your back­pack and to know that you can sleep where you choose with­out all the trap­pings of mod­ern life we think we need, is the most in­cred­i­bly ex­hil­a­rat­ing feel­ing.”

S poiler alert: in most of the UK, wild camp­ing is il­le­gal. That’s the usual (and per­haps sur­pris­ing) rule of thumb when it comes to pitch­ing tents any­where other than ded­i­cated camp­sites. Scot­land is the glow­ing bea­con of ex­cep­tion. Here there’s pub­lic ac­cess to all land (with a few lim­i­ta­tions) for a range of ac­tiv­i­ties – in­clud­ing camp­ing. The Scot­tish Out­door Ac­cess Code ex­plains that where camp­ing is light­weight, done in small num­bers and only for two or three nights, you can camp wher­ever these ac­cess rights ap­ply (al­though there are con­di­tions at­tached – see www.out­doorac­cess-scot­land. com). This pro­vides some of the most gen­er­ous and per­mis­sive ac­cess any­where in the world, al­though it’s worth not­ing that it can be with­drawn un­der cer­tain con­di­tions such as dur­ing deer stalk­ing or grouse shoot­ing sea­sons. But in the rest of the UK, things are far less open.


In North­ern Ire­land ac­cess is re­stricted to land in pub­lic own­er­ship and to which the pub­lic are in­vited to use, pub­lic rights of way (which are far fewer in NI), or where the pub­lic have the landowner’s per­mis­sion. In Eng­land and Wales the Coun­try­side and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) grants the pub­lic right of ac­cess to land mapped as ‘open coun­try’ (moun­tain, moor, heath and down) or reg­is­tered com­mon land for uses such as walk­ing, climb­ing and run­ning. But camp­ing is ex­plic­itly pro­hib­ited. The only ex­cep­tion is Dart­moor, al­though even here per­mis­sion to camp is not uni­ver­sal and many ar­eas are no­camp zones (see www.dart­moor.gov.uk/about-us/ who-we-are/byelaws for a list of ex­clu­sions).

The specifics of the law mean that to avoid com­mit­ting tres­pass (a civil rather than crim­i­nal mat­ter), per­mis­sion is re­quired from who­ever owns the par­tic­u­lar patch of moor, moun­tain or heath you wish to pitch on. But this can be prob­lem­atic. Andy Strange­way is a cam­paigner and ad­ven­turer who in 2007 com­pleted his goal of wild sleep­ing on Scot­land’s 162 is­lands over 40 hectares. But it was dur­ing a sub­se­quent chal­lenge to sleep on the county tops of Eng­land and Wales that he en­coun­tered a prob­lem. “Due to data pro­tec­tion, Nat­u­ral Eng­land could not give me landowner con­tact de­tails so I could seek such per­mis­sions,” Andy in­formed us. “I re­alised that the law could never leg­is­late against a two-month old baby fall­ing asleep in its fa­ther’s arms and so de­vel­oped my think­ing from there. As camp­ing is stated to be in a tent, cabin or hut, I sub­mit­ted the fol­low­ing state­ment to NE: ‘On pub­lic rights of way, I have a right to pass and repass, take rest and/or sleep so long as it is not in a tent.’ They did not dis­agree. As a re­sult I slept on the sum­mit of 49 out of the 52 county tops of Eng­land and Wales in my bivvy bag.”


Se­man­tics aside, Andy’s ex­pe­ri­ence high­lights an es­tab­lished dif­fi­culty. Many of the ar­eas in which we might choose to wild camp are main­tained by Na­tional Park Au­thor­i­ties, but these NPAs are not nec­es­sar­ily the own­ers of the land. This can con­fuse mat­ters when it comes to seek­ing per­mis­sion. For ex­am­ple, the Lake Dis­trict Na­tional Park has an ex­tremely use­ful guide to wild camp­ing on its web­site (www. lakedis­trict.gov.uk/vis­it­ing/where-to-stay/wild­camp­ing) where it states that, “wild camp­ing is an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence and the Lake Dis­trict is cer­tainly a stun­ningly beau­ti­ful part of the coun­try to pitch your tent.” But the same page also ex­plains that they, “do not have the power to al­low camp­ing on pri­vate land and do not per­mit camp­ing on the land that we own.”

We raised this seem­ingly con­flict­ing ad­vice with Richard Leafe, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Lake Dis­trict Na­tional Park. “There’s a tra­di­tion of tol­er­ance when it comes to wild camp­ing in the Lakes,” Richard told us. “It’s a great way to en­joy the park and I’m per­son­ally a fan of it. The Au­thor­ity doesn’t have the abil­ity to un­re­servedly per­mit camp­ing across the park, but we have an un­der­stand­ing within the rel­a­tively small num­ber of landown­ers within the cen­tral Lake Dis­trict that re­spon­si­ble wild camp­ing by well-be­haved mem­bers of the pub­lic should be tol­er­ated on the pro­viso that it’s not to the detri­ment of other users or the en­vi­ron­ment.”

When asked if he had any in­ter­est in mak­ing wild camp­ing ‘le­gal’ in a more of­fi­cial man­ner, Richard’s an­swer was un­equiv­o­cal. “It’s not on my list of things to do. We don’t want to end up in a sit­u­a­tion like that in Loch Lomond. We’d rather keep it tol­er­ated than per­mit­ted and main­tain the un­der­stand­ing that this tol­er­ance can be with­drawn.”

Ah, yes – the Loch Lomond sce­nario. As stated, the right to wild camp in Scot­land is en­shrined in the Land Re­form Act 2003 (LRA). Sadly for those who would use this priv­i­lege re­spon­si­bly, the be­hav­iour of a mi­nor­ity of dis­re­spect­ful campers – such as lit­ter­ing, fire light­ing and de­lib­er­ate dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment – led to an un­for­tu­nate out­come. As of March this year, a by-law was in­tro­duced mak­ing it nec­es­sary to ac­quire a paid-for per­mit from the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs Na­tional Park in or­der to camp in cer­tain lo­ca­tions around the loch. This was met with out­rage by pro­po­nents of un­re­stricted wild camp­ing who ar­gued that the re­stric­tions flew in the face of the ad­vances made by the LRA.

Phoebe Smith, au­thor of Ex­treme Sleeps and a wild camp­ing evan­ge­list, is one of those ag­grieved by what she con­sid­ers a ret­ro­grade step in ac­cess rights. “The Na­tional Park are ef­fec­tively crim­i­nal­is­ing wild campers who could now face a crim­i­nal record and hefty fine. As the near­est NP to Glas­gow, it’s often the first place that in­ner city chil­dren go to ex­pe­ri­ence the great outdoors. Now swathes of the most suit­able wild camp spots are out of bounds. It’s a com­pletely short­sighted and back­ward step and the start of a slip­pery slope at a time when Eng­land and Wales should be look­ing to Scot­land as a lead­ing light in ac­cess rights.”

The Na­tional Park claim they were left with lit­tle al­ter­na­tive. “(The Park) is vis­ited by over four mil­lion peo­ple ev­ery year. The by-laws are needed be­cause the sheer num­ber of vis­i­tors to some of our most eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble loch shore ar­eas, com­bined with dam­age from an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour, is caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to both the en­vi­ron­ment and to the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.”

As it stands, the Camp­ing Man­age­ment Zones cover less than four per cent of the park and are only in ef­fect be­tween March and Septem­ber. How­ever, other sites around Scot­land (such as Glen Etive) whose prox­im­ity to roads and wild scenery mean they are suf­fer­ing from sim­i­lar ail­ments will be fol­low­ing de­vel­op­ments around Loch Lomond with in­ter­est.


Out­side of Scot­land, there’s still the is­sue of landowner per­mis­sion. One of the largest landown­ers in the moun­tain ar­eas of Eng­land and Wales is the Na­tional Trust, so what’s its take on wild camp­ing? Gareth Field, out­door ac­tiv­ity li­cens­ing project man­ager, told us that, far from be­ing op­posed to it, the Trust not only tol­er­ates re­spon­si­ble wild camp­ing – but ex­tols the virtues of the true wilder­ness ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We value and love get­ting away from so­ci­ety, into the wild and camp­ing. If done re­spon­si­bly, wild camp­ing is a fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence – one that many Na­tional Trust staff en­joy reg­u­larly. The term ‘wild’ is key; for ex­am­ple, in the moun­tains, high above the fell wall where the camp­site is se­lected to min­imise im­pact upon the land­scape or other peo­ple. We be­lieve that camp­ing in the val­leys and lake shores is best done through ded­i­cated camp­sites.”

It would seem that al­though they wish to stop short of pro­vid­ing carte blanche per­mis­sion, both the Lake Dis­trict Na­tional Park and the Na­tional Trust are tol­er­ant of wild camp­ing. With things look­ing up, we con­tacted Snowdonia Na­tional Park (SNP) to see if their ap­proach was equally open-minded. Peter Rutherford, ac­cess of­fi­cer at Snowdonia Na­tional Park Au­thor­ity replied to our email: “The SNP’s stance is clear. There is no leg­is­la­tion that al­lows wild camp­ing in Eng­land and Wales so there­fore, un­less per­mis­sion is granted by landown­ers, this ac­tiv­ity can­not take place.”

Given the dif­fi­cul­ties in es­tab­lish­ing who the landowner might be, would it pre­pared

Phoebe Smith makes the most of Scot­land’s ac­cep­tance of wild campers in the South­ern Up­lands.

by Ben Weeks

Cover pho­to­graph: on Bristly Ridge, Try­fan be­yond

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