Camping wild. The choices we make.

I love wild camping. I’ve done it regularly ever since I learnt to surf way back in the eighties. It was a necessity back then. I was a skint student and didn’t live near the coast. The only way to do it was to hitch a lift with friends who owned campervans and kip down with them wherever the surf took us. We slept in boatyards, on quaysides, among dunes and in pub car parks just so we could go for an early surf the next day. And it was brilliant fun. I still do it now and recently spent 10 days in Wales and Ireland in my camper van without paying a penny for accommodation. We had no hassle. At home in Devon I have a few of my own wild camping spots that are near great surfing beaches. From time to time we camp to make the most of the sunset or just to get away from home. We are lucky. But the fact remains that wild camping is illegal in England and Wales.
As ever, the choice to drive a campervan is something that I do for all the right reasons. I do it because I don’t want to have to pitch my tent on over crowded and expensive campsites and I want to have a little more luxury than a few wet nights under canvas (don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there. I know the feeling.). The campervan is all about freedom, about choosing your own path and seeing where the road takes you. Oh yes.... until you realise that you are committing an offence just by parking up and kipping the night.
The Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 makes it a civil offence to pitch your tent or park your camper without permission on someone else’s land or to operate a caravan site or camp site without a licence. There are exceptions (for clubs and societies and for licensed gatherings) but on the whole the act means that you are causing an offence by camping on unlicensed sites without permission. Landowners too, are restricted by the amount of time that they can allow anyone to camp on their land, even with permission. However, it is a civil offence, which means that it is a matter for the courts, not the police. You make your own choices there but it is as well to remember that parking up on the hard shoulder or in a layby (that is a part of the public highway) means that the police do have the power to move you on. Although in my experience a policeman in a good mood would rather see you snatch a few hours kip than drive tired. Just don’t have a glass of wine with dinner.
So, on to more about choices. The law also offers choices to landowners, particularly local councils, when it comes to allowing campervans on to their land for overnight parking. Some (enlightened) councils have designated spaces on their car parks where campervans can park up overnight and make use of washing or toilet facilities for a small fee. It is similar to the Aire system you find in France. Find out more about them here. I think it’s a great idea. How many times have you found a beautiful parking spot only to find you can't stay for the night because of the ‘no overnight parking’ signs? It’s infuriating. Here, where I live in Torridge in North Devon, there are a few beachside or quayside car parks with great toilet facilities that could be earning the council money after everyone else has gone home for the night. With a little careful management they could attract people to their towns and villages who want to wake up in beautiful locations and who aren’t going to trash the place. They might even spend some cash in the local pubs and restaurants. Start with the owners of the 170,328 motorhomes that are registered in the UK (figure from DVLA) and then start thinking about the thousands upon thousands of campervan owners who might like a little bit of that too. Councillors do you hear me? But no, they are paranoid about gypsies and travellers and riff raff. And more than likely own a campsite themselves and can’t face a little bit of competition. For goodness’ sake.
However, there is a part of me that can understand the worries. At Easky in Ireland the local council set up a fantastic shower and toilet block for travelling surfers. It encouraged people to come to the village and surf the great waves there. People came and spent money and stayed for weeks on end. It was a good place with a good vibe. Then, one day, someone made the choice to abuse the facility. And then someone else decided they couldn’t care less and didn’t clean up. And so on. Today everyone has all but given up on the place. The building remains but it is full of people’s camping trash: old tents, beer cans, clothes, broken cookers, bits of campervan. Shit even. It is truly disgusting. I stayed there on my trip last month but sadly the vibe has gone.
Then you have to look at Scotland. The land reform act makes wild camping legal on public access land. It is a great and truly liberating thing that means Scotland is viewed as the holy grail of wild camping by wannabe wild campers all over the UK. I’m heading up there soon with my family and can’t wait. But it isn’t without its problems. When I camped at Lunan Bay in Angus during the making of One Man and His Campervan the local landowners told me that they have had problems with wild campers leaving rubbish, toilet mess and even discarding tents on their land. It’s not pretty.
In the Trossachs I also saw appalling rubbish at the most beautiful spots. It wasn’t as if someone had been fly tipping, rather a general level of dirtiness between the pine trees around the loch I fished at. Again, not nice. On certain areas of Loch Lomond there are areas where wild camping is now illegal. These measures came into force on June 1 2011 and, as I understand it, are as a direct result of people making the choice not to respect the environment and not to camp responsibly. Bad choice for the rest of us wouldn’t you say?
The reality is that local councils will always look to the few to make their decisions. So if those few make a mess then we’ll all get marked with the same brush and the ‘no overnight parking’ signs will stay in place.
Of course, where wild camping is tolerated it’s up to us to take charge and make sure that no one has any reason to complain. Ever. Yes, it is our responsibility to take our litter home but I’d like to propose that it is also our responsibility to protect our hard earned rights and the places we love by doing more than that. So it becomes our duty to have a word with those who cause litter or even clear up after them.
As a surfer I am at war with beach plastic. I pick up other people’s plastic bottles because I don’t want them to get into the marine environment. As a camper I should be doing the same (and I do). So should we all. The old hippy notion of ‘leaving nothing but footprints, taking nothing but photographs’ needs to be updated. It’s not enough anymore. It should now be ‘leave it better than it was when you arrived. No exceptions.’ Admittedly it hasn’t got that romantic ring to it but who cares? When what we love is at stake it’s not important how the tag line sounds. It’s the environment and our ability to slip under the radar that matters. I’ll fight for it.
So go safe, camp happy. And if you camp wild, please remember to leave it better than it was when you arrived.
No exceptions.

This blog first appeared on Camperstar.


  1. Well said Martin, I know a lot in Club 80-90 go wild camping and follow the same principles you mentioned. It's a shame some people think more of themselves rather than those that follow later and have to put up with the rubbish they leave.

  2. I couldn't put it more beautifully like you did, wonderful post.

    man and van in London

  3. Well said, fantastic column. I'm emailing this to everyone I know who goes camping to spread the word. Leave it better than you found it !

  4. Are there any resources that indicate where boondocking *is allowed* in the UK?

  5. Camping can be a fun experience for the entire family. There are things that you need to consider to keep your family, and yourself, safe from wild animals. Food is a great concern while you are camping at a place where bears and other animals live. Bears are very attracted to the food we keep at our camping site and bring with us. There are bear resistant containers obtainable on the market otherwise you can keep any food you bring with you in your car.
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  6. Hear hear! We always try to pick up any old litter we see when out walking or camping - if you stuff an old carrier bag in with your kit, its ready to fill & dispose of neatly. Infuriating that it won't affect the behaviour of the knobs who leave it behind, but if like-minded souls see us doing it then hopefully more people will catch on.

  7. Great post, totally agree about picking up litter to keep the places we love clean. There are places in England such as Dartmoor you can wild camp but it is very restricted. I never understand people who want to walk out to nice places only to lave litter.

  8. My gripe is with dog owners who are responsible enough to bag their dogs' poo but leave it unbinned. Why do they do this? (Almost better just to leave it as the dog left it)

    1. I don't get that either, I have two dogs and always remove mess, just don't understand why some people bag it and toss it in the hedge

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