Beginners Guide to Wild Camping
Words by: John Gordon
Do you like the idea of packing all your kit into a rucksack and heading off the beaten track for a few peaceful days in the British countryside?
There are a lot of mental and physical benefits to getting away from our busy lives and enjoying the peace and simplicity of sleeping out in the wilds. But while wild camping is seen as wonderfully carefree for those in the know, it can be a little daunting for first-timers. Do you know exactly what to pack and how to travel light? Do you know where you are allowed to wild camp? And have you thought about how you will cope if the weather turns a little... British?
John Gordon, a regular wild camper from Scotland, smiles wryly as he recalls his first back-to-basics camping trip. He says: "I remember I was really nervous and worried about taking all the right kit and making sure I was well-fed and warm overnight".
"I packed too much, and I found the rucksack pretty heavy, so I only walked a few miles to find a camping spot. But I loved it, camping away from other people and totally surrounded by nature. It was peaceful, thrilling, beautiful and more."
These days, John has his wild camping kit list down to a minimum. "I know what I need to take to stay safe, warm and well-fed and this means I can travel lighter and further. I would find it hard going back to a campsite because I like doing my own thing so much."
Basic Kit For Wild Camping
If you are keen to go wild camping, the chances are you are already a walker. You don't need to be an intrepid walker but someone who can use a map and compass and knows what to wear and carry for safety in the great outdoors.
It's important to consider the weather on an outdoors trip that will last a few days or more. In the UK, conditions can change hour to hour and will rarely be the same for a few days in a row.
A walker's kit list will include baselayers (Merino will stay whiff-free over many days of walking and camping when compared to synthetic materials), a mid-layer top or jacket (softshell or windstopper), a high-quality waterproof jacket and trousers, several pairs of walking socks, hat and gloves.
As well as a map and compass it's a good idea to take a mobile phone, portable phone charger and GPS gadget. Nights can be chilly even in the summer in the UK so an insulated jacket stuffed into the bottom of your rucksack, inside a dry bag, will be a bonus on a wild camping trip.
Best Tents for Wild Camping
Wild campers should look for a tent that is lightweight but robust and durable. Choose a one-man tent for one person and two-man for two people. This might sound obvious, but wild camping is less about lots of interior space and more about weight-saving.
If you are carrying the tent, set yourself a maximum weight limit of between 1.5kg and 2kg. If you are sharing the load with a fellow wild camper, you might allow the weight to creep up to 3kg.
In general, the more you pay, the lighter and better designed the tent will be. This is because lightweight fabrics that are also strong will tend to be pricier.
Backpacking tents will be one or two-man and usually of the low-profile, outer-and-inner-pitched-together design with two or three colour-coded foldable poles and a bag of lightweight pegs.
Two wild camping tents to recommend are:
- Weighing in at an ultra-light 1.75kg (1.54kg min) (perfect for two people), the tent boasts a good weight to strength ratio.
- Its unique pole configuration results in maximum comfort with ample head and elbow room.
- It is classed as a three-season tent so will work well in the UK spring, summer and autumn and at lower altitudes in winter.
- The Helix is a very easy to pitch lightweight two-pole tent that also packs down small.
- Its quality PowerLite 7001-T6 alloy poles utilise a simple colour coding system that results in a tent that is straight forward to pitch with increased stability for all weathers.
- The value for money that this 1.90kg tent provides makes it an ideal first-time wild camping option.
If you want to lighten your wild camping rucksack, even more, a bivvy bag is a neat solution. It offers a low-hassle, quick-to-set-up alternative to pitching a tent.
Essentially, a bivvy bag is a sleeping bag that is also waterproof and windproof. It is easy to erect (you just place your sleeping bag inside your bivvy bag), without the need for pegs or poles. (Some bivvy bags have a small pole to keep the fabric away from your head, while many others do not.)
A bivvy bag can take a bit of getting used to, but if you are looking for an adventurous night, sleeping beneath the stars, it's an excellent choice.
A sleeping bag that suits the seasons and conditions is vital. Again you will tend to pay more for lighter-weight bags. In all but the warmest situations, a three-season sleeping bag is going to be more of a belt-and-braces option for keeping you warm while wild camping in the UK.
While down bags offer the greatest warmth, a synthetic fill is usually lighter and keeps you warmer when damp. Some brands have now launched hydrophobic down sleeping bags so these could be worth a look if you have more money to spend.
A self-inflating mattress or foam roll will help to keep the cold and damp from your sleeping bag (and you) and also offer comfort on the hard ground. Choose a mattress that quickly deflates and rolls up into a small bag for ease of carrying.
A pillow can be created by stuffing the clothes you wear in the day inside a dry or stuff bag.
Cooking Gear & Food
You could pack a host of items, but as a minimum, you'll need a lightweight single burner stove, gas canister and lighter, pot, spork (all-in-one fork and spoon) and mug for a hot drink.
To keep weight down, wild campers might choose to eat a one-pot meal from the pot or put their meal in the mug that they can then use for coffee or tea.
Taking dehydrated camping food is one option or pack lightweight foodstuffs such as couscous, pasta or flavoured rice, which only require water for cooking, and perhaps a ready made tomato-based sauce.
Tuna and dried meats add extra ingredients and calories to meals. For breakfasts and lunches, choose long-lasting food products such as oatcakes, cereal bars and porridge rather than bread. Energy snacks are also a good idea.
Water is another essential, but if you know you'll be camping near running water you can carry less bottled water with you. Boil collected water for cleanliness or bring a water filter bottle, or take a water purification device with you.
Added luxuries might be a hip flask of whisky and chocolate or crisps for evening time hunger pangs. The only limit on what you carry is how much your body can cope with.
There are a few things to think about when choosing a rucksack for wild camping. The bigger it is, the more you can – and most likely, will – fit into it.
If you buy a lightweight pack, the chances are it will be pared down and therefore offer less comfort, such as cushioned shoulder straps and waistband
We recommend you go for something in the middle. Choose a good quality “hiking” pack rather than a “running” pack and go for a 45l or 55l pack to ensure kit is kept to a minimum, although if you are going for a longer trip take a 60+ pack.
Added Extras For Wild Camping
You'll also need a head torch and if you think it will be chilly take a lightweight insulated jacket to sleep in and a small hot water bottle.
Wearing a woolly or beanie hat at night can be a life-saver on a chilly night but don't wear socks that are too tight. Loose socks are ok, but tight socks will only cut off circulation.
It is vital that you have some method of dealing with toileting and waste while wild camping. Take a pocket trowel and dog poop bags, or similar.
Other useful items are dry wash gel or baby wipes, for a substitute “shower”, and a tick remover.
Where Can You Wild Camp?
There are distinct differences in wild camping laws between Scotland and the rest of Britain.
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which was introduced in 2005, sets out the rights of access and the right to camp throughout of Scotland. The Act established a legal right to wild camp anywhere in Scotland so long as campers follow a few guidelines. Camping must be lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in one place. Campers must act responsibly, cause no pollution and leave no trace.
The only exempt areas are enclosed fields of crops or farm animals, and campers must pitch tents well away from buildings or roads. In recent years, some smaller areas such as Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park have introduced by-laws that restrict wild camping requiring you to have a permit/camp in designated areas.
Check out our Beginner's Guide to the Countryside Code for more details.
In England and Wales, it's the opposite. There is no right to camp in the wild without the express permission of the landowner. There are some areas where wild camping is fairly common. For example, in the Lake District and Snowdonia, there are large areas where the camping is accepted, providing reasonable precautions are taken, and campers must be out of sight of all roads and human habitation. But it's still not a right.
Dartmoor is a little different because you have a de facto right to camp and the national park does encourage responsible wild camping. See this useful Dartmoor camping guide.
The advice is to camp high up, pitch late and strike camp early, and to definitely leave no trace.
Other wild camping tips
- Take care not to damage vegetation, especially at higher altitudes where it can be susceptible to human trampling.
- Do not light fires on top of peaty soils and dry grass because of the risk of fire.
- Do not pollute water courses with careless camping – and never go to the toilet within 30m of fresh or running water.
- Carry all waste home or to a proper bin.
- If it's not possible to take toilet waste away make sure it is buried at least 15cm below ground and covered. Do not bury used toilet paper.
- Remove all food and waste that might attract scavengers and put animals at risk.
John says: "From the very first wild camping trip I was hooked. I love the adventure of walking all day and camping surrounded by the natural environment. I have now become an expert at what to take, and in summer I do not need a heavy pack. So long as everyone camps responsibly we will continue to be able to enjoy our incredible freedoms for a long time to come. I recommend everyone gives wild camping a go."