Many years ago, I drove up on the edge of Salisbury Plain and pitched our small tent in the dark. Touring the South-West in the school holidays had resulted in being turned away from packed campsites time and again. As dawn broke, my partner slipped out of the tent for a pee and was greeted with laughs and whistles from the infantry platoon that had settled in quietly behind us through the night.
As a hazard of ‘wild’ camping, it was hardly the norm. Of course, for most of us, truly wild camping rarely happens in the UK – unless you are a backpacker or canoe camper. I’m thinking about camping with a car with pitching off-site better described as ‘free’ camping. But not free from responsibility.
Legally, in most of the UK, you must have the permission of landowners to camp on their land; there is a tradition of wild camping in many areas but usually only high in the hills. The situation in Scotland is rather different with guidelines based on common sense, consideration and best environmental practice. Wherever you pitch your tent off-site, aim to be non-intrusive with being considerate and environmentally friendly as priorities.
Wild camping with a car usually means taking less gear, leaving large tent, kitchen unit, camp beds, wardrobes and large tables behind in favour being able to set up camp and slip away quickly. A dark colour for the flysheet combined with light folding chairs and table and self-inflating sleep mat all reduce the time needed to set up camp for an overnight stay.
You also have to ask yourself, “Do I really need to camp here?” Pitching in an otherwise pristine spot can be quite selfish, even if you are careful not to leave any trace behind. That’s a personal choice, of course, but it is worth considering as you look out over a quiet sea loch in Scotland.
If your chosen spot looks well used, pass it by and give the ground time to recover. Assuming all is well, then try to pitch late and leave early. As cars can cause significant damage to vegetation, park carefully, avoiding soft verges and not blocking a passing place. Remember that it is better to walk to your car than to drive to your tent from an environmental impact angle as well as it being less likely to get the car stuck.
Fires are a bad idea when camping wild as, apart from the scarring of the ground, there is a risk of fire spreading. Better to cook on a stove or barbecue. However, the recent development of compact portable outdoor firepits means that you can enjoy the romance of dancing flames without leaving a mark on the ground.
A good compromise on pitching in the ‘wild’ – or trying to – is to stay on a simple campsite. Generally speaking, there’s a happy correlation between lack of ‘facilities’ and lovely landscapes. Even the simplest sites will have a toilet and wash basins but hot showers, washing machines and dryers are less likely. Finding them can be tricky so if you come across a likely prospect make a note for future reference.
Far easier to find are the Certificated Sites of The Camping & Caravanning Club; the Caravan and Motorhome Club has Certificated Locations. Only Club members can stay at these small sites and they are a pretty good reason for joining.
Wild camping tips
We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope – Edward Abbey, ‘Desert Solitaire’.
- It may sound obvious but be discreet by picking a private spot that is considerate of other people living, working or just enjoying the outdoors.
- Remember that running water may be the water supply for a house that’s out of sight. Make sure you are at least 30m away from any running or apparently still water when you pick your loo site.
- That loo should also be at least 50m from paths and 200m from huts and bothies. Where possible, dig a 15cm deep hole with a small trowel (good outdoor shops will sell light plastic ones) and bury your poo. Better still, take it away with you to dispose of it.
- If you can’t dig a hole, spreading it thinly, with a covering of soil and/or loose leaves and vegetation, helps the process of breaking down the poo. Digging or spreading in areas of sensitive vegetation should be avoided.
- Squashing poo under a rock to hide it will slow decomposition and should be avoided. If other techniques can’t be used then allow air to circulate by leaving a gap between rock and poo.
- Consider using loose natural materials instead of toilet paper.
- If you do use toilet paper, even biodegradable, then pack it out in a plastic bag. Burning it is a fire hazard and burying it is not acceptable as it inhibits decomposition.
- Burying tampons and sanitary towels is not a reliable way to dispose of them as they take so long to decompose and animals may unearth them so it’s best to pack them out using a secure container.
- As the results of an upset stomach can be more serious than at home, it is absolutely vital to wash your hands after a loo break. If you use a biodegradable soap, don’t use it directly in running or still water; hand sanitiser is a good bet.
- Use a proper toilet when you find one.