Wild Camping puts the free into freedom. From Chicago to the Lake District, from the Rockies to Rouen, whether you want to sleep in a cave or in the more traditional tent, wild camping is the best way to see the world — when the weather’s good.
Lower down the page, Simon Willis tells you how to get started and where to go in the UK. And Climb365 web site tells you all about “interpreting the weather and knowing what to carry and where to camp as a result …… essential to your enjoyment.”
And wherever you go you need to know the local laws and customs as regards pitching your tent in any quiet spot that takes your fancy. In Scotland, Wild Camping is legal. In England it is tolerated. In France it is illegal, and in Australia there are designated places so you can be wild in a nice safe way. Iceland has marvelous wild camping tours which, among other routes, can take walkers over the center of the island as soon as the snow lifts. In Spain the best areas for wild camping are the desert-like national parks around Almeria. But if you are trying to get away from it all beware of hordes of tea-drinking Brits watching Sky TV in their camper vans. Just google “wild camping” plus the place name you are interested in, and all will be revealed.
Climb365 runs courses on mountain navigation courses and wild camping in the Lake District, Cumbria.
Their course will aim to teach you the skills to enjoy the mountains safely, even in bad visibility. These skills include the use of both 1;25000 and 1;50000 maps; ground to map interpretation; learning how to use contour lines; using a compass for micro and macro navigation; walking on bearings, timing and pacing; weather assessment and route choice; first aid “and lots more.”
Simon Willis, on his web site simonwillis.co.uk says wild camping is the best way to see Britain’s beautiful hill country:
“Sometimes I feel like a snail, moving ever so slowly, carrying my home on my back. At other times I compare myself to a tramp, with all my possessions squeezed into the nylon sack hanging from my shoulders. Such mental meanderings invariably occur when tackling the final stages of a particularly long and nasty hill. Wild camping is never going to be easy, but this is one endeavour when the end really does justify the means.
I have camped in a bay on a lonely lake, eaten dinner sitting on a rock, and shared a sunset with a herd of deer. No one else would have seen this, because for miles around, there was no one. I’ve pitched my tent in a sheltered fold below a mountain summit and woken to find myself high above the clouds, looking down on a fluffy white lake, encircled by the tops of distant peaks. Such beauty is out there every day, but is enjoyed by so few people, it might as well be mythical. We live in a land of cars and concrete, deals and deadlines – yet we can escape! Wild camping is the way into this other world.
It is enormously liberating to pare life down to the bare essentials and head out into the big, wild world, exchanging mental burdens for a physical load and, for a few days, becoming a nomad with no worries. Concerns centre around life’s immediate issues such as food, shelter and not getting lost.
It starts when I pack the rucksack and I ask myself “What do I really need”. If a group of friends are going to spend a few days in the hills, then that bottle of whiskey may not be a luxury, while the razor I can do without. But there are few such luxuries, because iron discipline is needed to keep down the weight of the sack. Little odds and ends soon mount up, and a heavy load can ruin a trip. Some hikers have even been known to cut the epaulets off shirts and drill holes in spoon handles, which may be somewhat obsessive, but it makes the point.
Wild camping is the perfect stress buster, as the wise have always known. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home”, was the way John Muir put it. The Scots born mountaineer, environmentalist, and driving force behind America’s National Parks, was writing in 1901 and his words are even more true today. On our crowded island we can’t find the wilderness of the United States, but we can seek out “wild-ness”.
Keen hill walkers can begin by picking a couple of one day hikes which run close to each other and then, rather than returning to a hotel in the valley, link the walks together with a high overnight camp. Bad weather is no deterrent. A good tent won’t leak and, when everyone else is scurrying down the hill at the end of the day, there’s great a satisfaction in snuggling into a warm sleeping bag and firing up the stove, knowing that tomorrow’s walk starts up here, not way down there.
However, a tent can’t be pitched just anywhere. Every piece of Britain is owned by someone or some organisation and, according to the strict letter of the law, permission must be obtained to camp. In practice, however, it doesn’t work that way and wild camping is usually tolerated in more remote areas – typically, more than half a day’s walk from an official campsite or other accommodation. Bob Cartwright, land manager at the Lake District National Park told me, “We encourage people to use official sites but land owners know there’s a long tradition of camping wild in the hills. Provided groups are small, and people leave the place as they found it, then the land owners will continue to allow wild camping.”
A word of warning – wild camping can be frightening. On a weekend expedition in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains, I’d correctly pitched the low end of my tent into the wind, but during the night the elements worked themselves up into a frenzy and swung round to attack from the side. Gust after gust bent the fibre glass tent poles double, flattening the roof onto my face. I wouldn’t have dared to go to sleep, even if I could. Stuffing everything into my rucksack, I clutched it to my chest, ready for the moment when the fabric would surely be ripped apart leaving me prone in my sleeping bag, lying in a storm, alone and in the middle of nowhere. It was a long night but, as is almost always the case, the worst never happened, although I still don’t know how that little tent managed to hang on to solid ground.
Good times by far out number the bad, and I’ve made some close friends on camping trips. In a darkened tent, sleeping bag hoods pulled so tight around our faces for warmth, with only our noses poking out, we’d chat long into the night, putting the world to rights and sharing confidences, secure in the knowledge that the nearest eavesdropper was at least twenty miles away. Tent life demands trust and co-operation, and friendships formed here have a way of lasting.
As with most things, enjoyment comes with experience and there are certain techniques to learn, such as minimum impact camping. In short, that means leaving the ground you camp on exactly as you found it. Pick a site where water won’t drain into your tent, point the rear into the wind, and carry out every scrap of litter, even other people’s. If it looks like someone has recently camped on a particular spot then give the vegetation time to recover, and find another place. And remember John Muir’s words;
“Keep close to nature’s heart…and break clear away once in a while, climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. …Go to the mountains and get their glad tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves”.
Minimum Impact Camping
* Keep groups small
* Camp as unobtrusively as possible
* Leave camp as you found it:
Remove all litter (even other people’s)
Carry out everything you carried in
Choose a dry pitch rather than digging drainage ditches around a tent or moving boulders
Toilet duties should be performed a hundred feet from water and the results buried with a trowel, not tucked under boulders. Burying tampons and sanitary towels doesn’t work as animals dig them up, so carry them out
* If in doubt about what you’re doing, find out more. Help preserve the environment
Where To Go Wild
Much of the joy of wild camping comes with finding your own special places. I’ve described three good wild camp sites in England, Wales and Scotland, not to encourage the use of these locations but to illustrate the type of place to look for, in the hope that people will seek out their own quiet corner to pitch their tent. When planning a wild camp, don’t aim to hike too far at first. It’s much harder work carrying a backpack loaded with camping gear than a simple day sack, and it’s meant to be fun!
England On most weekends, if you look very carefully, you’ll find tiny tents tucked away beside tarns and below passes throughout the Lake District. It’s probably England’s most popular walking area, and with countless guide books, it’s easy to fit a wild camp into a walking weekend. Styhead tarn, between Borrowdale and Wasdale, is a popular spot to spend the night. One option is to hike straight to this small mountain lake, pitch the tent, and then seek out the summits of Scafell Pike or Great Gable. Alternatively, plan a two day walk over one mountain then the other, carrying the tent all the way, stopping at Styhead tarn for the overnight rest.
Wales Although a railway train transports countless tourists to its summit, Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa in Welsh) remains a magnificent mountain. A popular wild camping spot lies below the awe inspiring craggy face of Clogwyn du’r Arddu, known as “Cloggy” by climbers. The small mountain lake of Llyn du’r Arddu is easily reached from the Llanberis path from where a vast range of day walks can be tackled, including the summit. Those feeling particularly lazy could reach this gem of a spot by taking the mountain railway as far as the Clogwyn Station, although that would not be true to the spirit of wild camping.
Scotland The vast open spaces of the Highlands are perfect for wild camping. However, distances are greater and help is further away, so fitness and experience should be built up before venturing too deep into these mountains. Once again, there are plenty of good guide books to suggest routes. One of my favourite places to camp wild is Barrisdale Bay on the Knoydart Peninsular, North of Fort William. It’s reached from a long single track road which ends at Kinloch Hourn, from where the six mile hike to Barrisdale along the shore of Loch Hourn takes about three hours. Here the sea, sky and mountains seem to fuse together, making wonderfully dramatic scenery.
Throughout the highlands, care must be taken not to disturb deer stalking which takes place from July until October, and grouse shooting from 12th August to 10th December. If in doubt, the book ‘Heading for the Scottish Hills’ published by the Scottish Mountaineering Trust gives the names and addresses of Factors & Keepers who may be contacted regarding access to the hills.
Kids & Camping
For children, wild camping will either be a magical adventure or a cold, miserable nightmare. There are simple rules to taking children on a wild camping expedition:
* The trip must be planned around their needs, not the adults. Whether they’re of an age to be carried or can hike themselves, select a route with them in mind, and save that rough scramble for another time. Anyway, you’ll probably be carrying much more equipment, so you won’t want to hike too far.
* If they’re old enough to walk, involve them in picking the hike, choosing the meals, packing their rucksack and everything else.
* Take toys and treats on the hike. Use them as rewards for achieving a goal, such as reaching the next hill top. While walking sing songs, tell stories, and ask them questions.
* Pick a wild campsite where there’ll be places to explore and things to do – they want excitement not solitude. Learn something of the history and geology of the area so you can answer questions and prompt their exploration. Enthusiasm is contagious, but don’t try to force them to have fun.
* Make sure their equipment is up to the task. Sleeping bags, in particular, must be clean, warm and dry.
* Take photographs, and if they’re old enough, give the camera to the child to use.
Equipment used for one day on the hills will be equally suitable for a hike lasting several days, but additional items will also be needed. The “anatomy of a rucksack” diagram shows what to carry and how to pack it. The main additional items are explained below, along with the names of some manufacturers whose equipment I’ve used and trust, plus phone numbers for details of stockists.
Rucksack: Most of the weight is carried on the hips, not the shoulders, so a wide padded belt is important. Since the weight of the pack adds to the load, I favour lighter rucksacks, and a specialist retailer should find one which fits you. Different sizes are measured by their volume in litres, and for two to three days wild camping you’ll need around 50-60 litres.
Look for: Berghaus (0191 415 0200) Lowe Alpine (01539 740840) Karrimor (01254 893000)
Sleeping Bag: Those filled with goose and duck down have the best warmth to weight ratio. However, their performance will suffer if they become wet, they’re comparatively expensive and difficult to clean. Bags with synthetic filling are catching up fast. Compression sacks squeeze bags into smaller spaces, but keep them dry in a bin liner.
Look for: Down: Mountain Equipment (0161 366 5020) or Rab (0144 275 7544) Synthetic: Snugpak (01535 654479) or Vango (01475 744122)
Sleeping Mat: These insulate you from the cold ground which draws away body heat. Closed cell foam mats are lightest, but self inflating mattresses are more comfortable. You only need insulate from the shoulders down to the knee area, so don’t buy one too long.
Look for: Self Inflating mattress – Thermarest (01629 580484) Closed cell foam – Karrimat
Stove: Those which run on detachable gas cartridges are easy to use and best for summer. In cold weather, the most efficient are stoves which run on white fuel, a clean type of petrol. Coleman has just produced what they claim is a year round gas stove, but I’ve yet to try it. Store the stove head in the cook pot and the fuel in a sealed bag away from food. Never cook in a tent – nylon fabric burns in seconds.
Look for: Gas stoves: Coleman (01275 854024) White fuel: MSR (01629 580484)
Cooking Pot, Cutlery, Mug: Meals are going to be cooked in just one pot, so one pot is all that’s needed. A lid helps water boil quicker, although the weight conscious use a sheet of aluminium foil. A spoon and pen knife is the only cutlery that’s needed, but a plastic insulated mug is great for keeping drinks hot, and a lid stops spillages in the tent.
Tent: Strong and roomy, but at the same time light. Tent makers try to achieve these conflicting requirements with varying degrees of success. Look for one with space to stow wet gear, but which weighs no more than 2 kilos per person.
Look for: Terra Nova (01773 833300) or Vau De (01434 320744)
Trowel: A cheap, light plastic gardening trowel helps with toilet duties.
Al Fresco Food
At the end of a hard hill walk most folk will eat just about anything. Nevertheless, backpacking food must be light, high in calories, and easy to cook in one pot. Outdoor shops mainly sell two different types of wild camping food.
* Dehydrated meals are light and provide energy. Although they’re an “acquired” taste, they’re ideal for long trips where weight saving is crucial.
* Precooked meals in foil pouches, which are simply prepared by boiling for ten minutes, are twice the weight for half the calories, but they have four times the taste and can be bulked up with rice or pasta.
After eating too many of both types of meal I buy most of my backpacking food from a normal supermarket, basing main meals around pasta, rice or noodles.
A typical menu
Breakfast: 100g mueslie with 20g added dates, made with powdered milk. This can be premixed with the mueslie, but I find it tastes better made separately.
Lunch: I snack all day on dried fruit and nuts. Along the way I’ll also eat about 6 oat cakes and 50g of a spread from a tube such as Tartex or Primula cheese. I carry energy bars in case I’m particularly hungry or in emergencies.
Dinner: Instant soup, followed by cheese filled tortellini, and tomato sauce (instant tomato soup made thick). A few shavings of fresh parmesan cheese and black pepper, kept in an old film canister, spice this up. Instant custard and soaked dried apricots are a tasty desert.
Courses: There are many outdoor centres and instructors offering to teach mountain-craft skills and they advertise in specialist magazines like TGO-The Great Outdoors.
Books: The Backpacker’s Handbook by Chris Townsend £16.95
Mountaincraft & Leadership by Eric Langmuir £14.99