A beginner's guide to wild camping

Forget canvas bell tents, and in fact forget canvas entirely if you like — go wild camping to enjoy the big outdoors in the purest way possible.

Thursday, October 27, 2016,
By Sarah Barrell
Wild camping means pitching up in an untamed, non-campsite environment.

Wild camping means pitching up in an untamed, non-campsite environment.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Check local laws

Wild camping means pitching up in an untamed, non-campsite environment. In many countries and regions, it's a no-no. That said, convention dictates that people still flagrantly do it in some places. In the UK, Scotland offers endless legal wild camping terrain (campers are encouraged to follow the Outdoor Access Code), and it's permitted in parts of Dartmoor, but it's largely illegal elsewhere. That said, if you get permission from the landowner and follow camper's etiquette (see below), there are lots of places in the UK where you can wild camp.

Read more about microadventures in the UK here

2. Follow etiquette

Be courteous, arrive at your destination late in the day and leave early doors, before walkers or farmers trip over you, leaving nothing behind. Don't light a fire unless you're sure it's safe/legal (carrying a stove means you shouldn't need to light a camp fire). Always camp on high ground and keep your site discreet.

3. Know the lie of the land

In exotic, wilderness areas, where you're miles from the nearest town, you want to know what's a risky spot. When setting up camp, check the ground for holes and crevices where spiders or scorpions might be lurking before laying a tarp. Dry riverbeds may make great flat camping spots, but ensure flash flooding isn't a possibility.

You need to be self-sufficient but the whole idea of wild camping is to get back to basics and feel free, so pack just the essentials.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Travel light

You need to be self-sufficient but the whole idea of wild camping is to get back to basics and feel free. The very basic wild camping essentials are: a tent or other shelter; sleeping bag and mat; compact stove, pot and spoon; basic food and water bottle; torch and compass; and a rucksack lined with a drybag. The clothes you hike in are enough, plus an extra layer and hat.

5. Tent or bivvy bag?

You don't need a tent to stay outdoors. From zip-up suspended hammocks to lightweight bivvy bags (a waterproof cocoon for your sleeping bag and mat), there are lots of options. However, in certain exotic camp spots you may need a tent to keep bugs and beasties at a safer distance. Keep your provisions sealed and away from sleeping areas. Snakes, for example, aren't keen on human food but love to eat reptiles and insects that are attracted to food waste.

Read more about wild camping in Antarctica here

6. Grin and bear it

If you're camping in the US or anywhere else that's home to brown, black or grizzly bears, anything that smells makes you a sitting duck. Most US national parks that allow wild camping will have a bear locker at the trailhead to dump stuff you don't need overnight (and this should include highly perfumed cosmetics/toiletries). The rest should go in a bear canister — a tight cylinder with a Pooh-proof lid.

7. Go north, my friend

Wild camping in Norway, Denmark and Sweden is considered a human right. Allemannsretten (right of public access for all, enshrined in law) means it's easy to find a wild pitch throughout both countries. Pick your season carefully to avoid a plague of biting flies, and go north for the most dramatic destinations. Anywhere inside the Arctic Circle comes with the bonus of sleeping under the midnight sun.

Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) and updated in June 2020

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