Introductory note. It had been on mind for some time to write about the code, or principles, of wild camping. Recently I was shocked and saddened by what was mooted as ‘wild camping.’ I was also angered also at the level of disrespect shown to the countryside and landowners. There were pictures of trees cut down in conservation areas, open fires next to tents sporting plastic chairs, camping right next to a stream or river, and so on. Not only that, the countryside is increasingly scarred by the remains of open fires, litter from people ‘wild camping’, habitat destruction, and so on. I felt unable to write a ‘celebratory’ piece on wild camping in view of this but thought I might be able to share the basic principles of wild camping and the responsibilities that come with it.
Wild camping is simply camping away from a recognised and/or designated camping area. In England and Wales there is no legal right to wild camp except on Dartmoor. In Scotland the situation is different with access to the countryside enshrined in law. For the most part landowners in England and Wales tolerate wild camping as long as the appropriate code, or principles and rules, are respected and followed.
The code is sometimes referred to as ‘Leave No Trace’ (LNT). In simple terms, if you don’t respect the countryside you are not wild camping. You are simply damaging the countryside and creating problems for landowners and other people who use the countryside responsibly. If you need to be advised on the sort of equipment and kit you need to wild camp responsibly then you are probably not yet ready to wild camp. There a number of introductory ‘wild camping’ campsites where you can start building experience and learning about what it takes to be comfortable outdoors without all the facilities. (See also, for example, National Trust, the RSPB, the British Mountaineering Council, the Ramblers, for relevant organizational advice on Wild Camping.)
At the heart of wild camping is respect for the countryside, its wildlife, the people who live and work there, and other visitors. The seven LNT principles or rules help ensure wild camping is responsible and does not cause lasting damage and minimises disruption. They are explained below.
- Plan ahead and prepare. Poorly prepared people have a high impact on the countryside and often damage the environment and put themselves and others at risk. Proper planning reduces the impact and the risk. Plan where you are going, find out about eh area, look at suitable campsites before you set off, work out what kit and equipment you need to take. For example, you will need some sort of portable stove, some sort of water purification, a bag to take your rubbish out with you, a trowel to bury your human waste, a sleeping mat and sleeping bag, and so on. On the other hand, you will not need a saw or axe to cut wood, any form of seating. And do not take your dog with you or if you do keep it on a leash at all times. You will also need to plan for water. Ideally you will want to camp close, but not too close, to a source of clean water that will need minimum treatment. Running water is usually more suitable than still water but all water should be filtered and boiled or purified. Read up about the area, the people who live there, it’s history, the sort of wildlife that lives there, and so on.
- Always travel and camp on durable surfaces. Land is damaged by mass footfall and by extended periods of camping. Surface vegetation and organisms can be damaged beyond repair resulting in barren and eroded areas. Two nights is the maximum time you can camp on a site before damaging it and you should plan to avoid staying any longer than this. Also look for harder surfaces where you are least likely to cause damage.
- Dispose of waste properly. Carry out what you carry in. You should leave nothing behind that you have taken in to the countryside, and especially so when you wild camp. Proper planning is essential here and you should not take disposal items with you. Toilet waste should be buried and be a minimum of 50m from any water source or footpath. Otherwise it will contaminate the water. Be aware that toilet paper, toilet wipes, sanitary products, and the like do not degrade and will need to be carried out. Urinating runs a far smaller risk of contamination but an appropriate distance of 50m from any water source should still be observed. Any plates, dishes, and cutlery should be washed at least 50m away from camp and well away from any water source. If any sort of soap is used it must be biodegradable to avoid negative impact on the environment. Dirty water should be disposed of quickly well away from any water source and spread over a wide area so that it evaporates quickly and does not attract wildlife. If you find other people’s rubbish carry out as much of it as you can rather than leaving it there and moaning about it.
- Leave what you find. You should not alter the natural environment or countryside in any way. Do not dig trenches, cut branches from live trees, hammer nails into trees, clear areas of rocks or twigs, remove natural items, or build structures of any sort. There is no reason to either alter the environment, make some sort of mark to show you were there – no one cares other than about the damage you have caused – or to take ‘souvenirs’ home with you. All this does is create problems for the wildlife, landowners, and other people. And if the place you want to camp is not ‘comfortable’ don’t alter it to suit yourself, find a suitable place to camp instead
- Minimize campfire impacts. The natural environment gets degraded quickly by open fires, and unless you have carried a lot of wood in with you it is questionable how you are going to make a fire. Furthermore, open fires can create high levels of disturbance to the wildlife and pose a serious risk to the environment. If there is scope to light a small fire, using only dead wood that has already fallen, and cover the remains over in the morning. However, great care should be taken and you should never assume you will be able to light an open fire. Always have a suitable camping stove with you to cook food and boil water.
- Respect wildlife and minimise your impact on wildlife, ecosystems, and the wider environment. You should not attempt to interact with the wildlife. Do not leave food out, or leave food waste assuming the animals will eat it – it is inevitably damaging to their health. If you discover a nesting ground for birds, or young animals or baby animals, move on quickly and find another spot. Parent animals can become aggressive when they have young and they may abandon them if the area has been disturbed or the young have been handled by humans. Any natural water source will likely be used by animals as well, especially at night, and you should camp well away from it and take care to be quiet in the evenings and early mornings. Noise should be kept to a minimum and there is no place for loud music, noisy radios, and loud talking and shouting in wild camping. The point is to get out into the countryside to experience the peace and tranquillity. Animals are also spooked by loud noise and excessive light.
- Be considerate of other visitors and landowners. Following proper countryside etiquette and maintaining quiet minuses impact on the countryside and on other visitors and landowners. When wild camping you should always Arrive Late and Leave Early. Make camp just before the sun goes down and break camp as the sun comes up. This helps you be inconspicuous and cause minimum disturbance. When possible ‘camp high’. That is, camp on higher ground away from settlements and avoid disturbing the privacy of others. Only stay one night and then move on. This limits the damage to the environment and the disturbance to wildlife. It also limits the disruption and disturbance to other visitors and landowners. In some places it may be possible to stay for two nights but any more than this will damage the vegetation and other organisms. Keep group numbers small and keep the number of tents to a minimum. Again, this helps keep any disturbance and damage to a minimum. Don’t make a lot of noise or loud noise.
If you do want to wild camp, and want to continue doing so, you will need to contribute to conserving the places where wild camping is possible. You can do this by abiding by the LNT principles and by joining the relevant conservation bodies such as the National Trust, the RSPB, the British Mountaineering Council, the Ramblers, and so on, all of whom are involved in the conservation and protection of our countryside. They are always looking for volunteers to help with conservation programs. There are a good number of places where wild camping has been abused that you can visit to see just how big an impact it can have. A visit to Red Tarn, in the Lake District, will give you an idea of the sorts of difficulties wild camping can create. We often come across the scars of fire pits, trees with branches hacked off or even cut down completely, piles of rubbish, heavily eroded patches of land, and other similar signs of where people have disregarded the LNT principles. By adhering to the LNT principles it is possible to enjoy and appreciate the countryside for what it is and what it has to offer.