It is completely normal to have some fears and questions before heading out to go wild camping. We get used to sleeping in a cosy bed, surrounded by walls in a warm and safe environment. Why would anybody in their right mind want to head out into the wild and sleep there? You may ask:
Is it legal? Will I be safe? Will I get a good nights sleep? Do I take a tent or sleep with just a bivvy bag? What is a bivvy bag?
These are all very reasonable questions that I also asked before I first wild camped.
I have spent many nights under the stars with the Army in an organised Platoon harbour area. This is when a group of 30 soldiers go into a defensive position so they can conduct administration (cleaning weapons, resupplying ammunition, eating and sleeping). We would normally sleep under a military poncho (basically a tarp) to protect ourselves from the wind and rain. In hot countries, the tarp would be usually used to provide some decent shade.
Wild camping alone feels much different to spending your nights in the wild with the Army. At first, when I was wild camping alone, I felt much more nervous and worried. Worried that I would be disturbed during the night. Worried I would be found by somebody. The safety of sleeping alongside 30 soldiers, with your protection provided by machine guns and assault rifles was no longer there. Looking back now, those initial fears were understandable but unnecessary.
Wild camping is liberating, cheap and lots of fun. You will naturally feel safer in a tent than you would out in a bivvy bag in the open. But once you have slept without a tent, that feeling of freedom is addictive. You will even look forward to escaping the confines of your synthetic box and will start to embrace those slightly drizzly, British nights. It is no safer in a tent than it is in a bivy bag. You will be harder to spot in a bivvy which means you are more likely to be left alone.
What is 'wild camping'?
Wild camping will have different meanings to different people. For some, a night in a campsite, in a tent or caravan could be wild camping. For others, it can mean going to some remote corner of a national park, away from all civilisation and sleeping on the side of a mountain. Wild camping is what you make of it. It can be all of the above. As long as it's outside and you are camping, in my book, it's wild camping. The perfect campsite would be flat, dry, have a running water source nearby and have an epic view. So that other people can also enjoy the wild, you should always aim to leave the least trace that you possibly can.
Is it legal?
This is slightly more complicated than it should be. In Scotland, it is legal pretty much everywhere. It's also legal in Dartmoor. In rest of the UK, it is technically illegal unless you have the landowners permission. This being said, I have wild camped all over the UK and have never encountered any problems. I have slept in abandoned barns, by rivers and in woods and even on a golf course. As long you treat the space you are staying in with respect, leave no trace and don't stay for more than one night you are highly unlikely to encounter any problems. My advice - it's often better to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask permission. For me, this is part of the adventure. For others, you may want less risk, which is understandable. Check out this website for a risk-free way to wild camp: https://nearlywildcamping.org/
What kit do I need?
Many external factors will assist you to decide on the most suitable way to wild camp. The way you are travelling will be one of the biggest factors, be it walking, cycling, paddling in a canoe, hitch-hiking or any other wonderful and crazy form of transport you can think of. If you are travelling on foot you will want to pack light. A bivvy bag and a light sleeping bag will be best. If you are cycling, you will be able to take a tent for more comfort.
Other factors that will affect the manner in which you camp will be weather conditions and length of the adventure. For a weekend trip to the hills or in the woods, you could get away with sleeping in a sleeping bag and a bivvy bag. If you are going to be spending time in some horrible weather, it is advisable to take a tent and a sleeping bag.
The essential bits of kit you need are:
- Bivvy bag. This is basically a waterproof cover for your sleeping bag. They come in all shapes and sizes. I use a light one that cost about £20 or a much heavier and robust military issue one. Both have their merits. The lighter, cheap one isn't anywhere near as reliable as the very durable but heavy military issue bag. For a comprehensive list of bivvy bags with all of their benefits check out this website: http://thenextchallenge.org/comparison-best-bivi-bags/.
- Sleeping bag. For most UK adventures, you will need a sleeping bag. Again, these come in all manners of shapes and sizes. You need a bag that you will be comfortable in, but not too heavy and cumbersome. A three season bag should cover most conditions that you are likely to encounter in the UK. If budget is not an issue, I would recommend the Rab Infinity 300. I like to pack light and usually use a very thin, military issue one (also because I hate spending lots of money on equipment). If you are using a very thin sleeping bag, you can increase the warmth with a silk sleeping bag liner. When I walked home for Christmas, I took a super heavy sleeping bag that is suitable for arctic conditions. After the first 20 miles, I regretted taking such a heavy bag. Next time I will pack light and just put on an extra layer of clothing if needed.
- Roll mat. You will regret not taking one if you decide to go fully hardcore. Using any roll mat is the difference between a decent night sleep and a sore back. My advice is to keep it simple. I personally do not like the inflatable roll mats. They are fine if you are sleeping in a tent but as soon as you take it somewhere more rugged, there is a chance it will pop and with that goes your good night sleep. If you do have an inflatable roll matt, try and put it in your bivvy bag. It will give it extra protection. Or just buy a cheap foam one. I use this foldable roll matt: Zip Zap Zooom Highlander Z Army Sleeping Mat Folding Fold Up Camping Mattress Foam DPM Camo.
- Map and compass. Having a map and compass is invaluable when wild camping in the wilderness. Even with GPS and mobile phones with pretty accurate mapping software, nothing is more reliable than a paper map and a compass. Being able to use these tools effectively is a skill that takes lots of practice. There will be times when you get away with using google maps or the app, view ranger but only if you have access to power.
With this kit, you are pretty much set to go and wild camp anywhere in the UK. It may not be the most comfortable but it allows you to have the freedom to camp with a minimal footprint.
For extra comfort you can add the following:
- Tent. I would only recommend a tent if you feel you are able to carry the weight or if the weather is going to be particularly rough. I use a really cheap, 2 person tent that I purchased for a music festival from sports direct. It's a terrible tent but it is better than sleeping out in the rain during a thunderstorm. When you can get away from using a tent, go for it.
- Pillow. Use a jacket or a dry bag with warm kit in it. Don't buy one of those travel pillows. Unnecessary and a waste of space.
- Torch. You will probably need some sort of light. I use a Petzl Tikkina Head Torch. It's simple, fairly cheap and uses AAA batteries.
- Water bottle. You will need to store water to drink or to cook with. I use the 1 Litre CamelBak Chute as my main water bottle. I also use a 3 Litre Camelbak Antidote Reservoir Bladder . Camelbak makes some great bits of kit, I have used them for years and have always been happy with the reliability.
- Loo Roll. Or use some leaves. Each to their own.
- Knife. A small pocket knife is always worth taking. It can come in handy in many different circumstances when spending time outdoors.
- Cooking system. If you are travelling on an extended wild camp adventure, it pretty likely that you will want some hot water for drinks. You can also cook rice and noodles with just a small stove. I use a JetBoil Zip Cooking System. This one is great for cooking for just one person. I have had my JetBoil for 7 years and it is still going strong. It gets plenty of use so I see this bit of kit as an investment. Don't forget to bring a spoon or even bring a spork.
One of my favourite things about wild camping is the fact it is usually free or at the least very cheap. Once you have some very basic equipment, you are set to head off onto your first wild camp.
Top tips when wild camping
Picking an epic wild camping spot depends on a multitude of different circumstances. Here are some of the key things to bear in mind:
- Pick somewhere dry. There is nothing worse than waking up in a bog or puddle. If you are in a national park, don't sleep in the very low areas. These are likely to collect water. Consider sleeping in a wooded area. This will give you the extra benefit of protection from the wind.
- Leave no trace. Always take your rubbish with you. Don't surface lay a poo. Dig a hole and bury it with the paper. Digging a hole without a shovel is much harder than you think but do your best please. Worst case, cover it with leaves and bag your paper.
- Sleep away from urban areas when possible. I have spent many nights sleeping in urban areas and near busy roads. They are often too bright, noisy and not the nicest place to sleep. If you are forced to sleep in an urban area, check google maps for some green or wooded areas. It's often easier to find somewhere quiet than you may think. Settle in when it's dark and leave before first light.
- Camouflage. If you are sleeping in a more urban area, camouflage is the key to an undisturbed night. Occupy your wild camping spot after sunset when nobody is looking. It will make setting up slightly more challenging but will add to the adventure. Try to avoid using white light. If you must use light, use a red filter on your torch. Most head torches can be set to use red light. Take an extra couple of minutes to drop further into the woodline or bushes rather than sleeping on the edge. Don't use a brightly coloured tent. If you are taking a bike, cover it with some local foliage. Grass and leaves are good for this. Take off any reflective tags on your bike or tent or at the very least, cover them with leaves. If you are in the wild and have the land owners permission (or are in Scotland, Dartmoor) disregard most of this advice regarding camouflage.
- Campfires. I love a good campfire. They can almost become hypnotic at night time. I've spent many a night, aimlessly staring at a roaring campfire. Don't start a fire if it is particularly dry or if there is a high risk of it spreading. This is not often a problem in the UK but in hot and dry countries like Spain and Cyprus, this is a real danger. Check local information boards to find out the fire risk and to see if they are allowed. When you go to sleep, ensure the fire is out. If you leave the fire burning through the night there is a risk it could spread or even set your tent on fire.
- Be bold. Some of my favourite wild camping spots have come from being bold. I've spent the night in a tiny abandoned church in France, a barn in the midlands and once I asked to sleep in a friendly Belgians garden. He not only let me sleep in his garden, he offered me a beer. Be bold. Fortune favours the brave.