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The Unwritten Rules of Wild Camping

By Leon McCarron

One of the great joys of going on adventures is the prospect of being spontaneous and unpredictable; of not know what will happen next, which direction the path might lead or, indeed, where and when the day will finish.

Over the last ten years, I have spent hundreds of nights sleeping outside. Sometimes I have been tucked up in a tent; others, wrapped in a bivvy bag. Occasionally, I haven’t needed either. A few of these experiences have been in campgrounds, with the luxury of toilet blocks and grocery stories and a place to charge my phone in the morning but, for the most part, I choose to spend my time under the stars in the wilds of the world; in other words, wild camping.

The beauty of wild camping is multi-faceted. It allows us to travel in a minimalist fashion, carrying only the essentials for a day (or a week, or a month) out in the hills. It frees us up so we are not beholden to a predetermined schedule. It actively encourages a carefree approach and, perhaps most importantly of all, it is the most direct way to become authentically immersed in the natural world. There are few greater joys in life – and if you haven’t yet wild camped, you’ll have to trust me on this – than tramping out into your wilderness of choice, with a few key bits of kit on your back, and choosing the spot with the best view and the flattest ground in the most peaceful setting to lay down your head for the evening.

If that sounds appealing – and it should – then there are a few things to bear in mind. Below are some of my top tips for the ultimate wild camping experience. Some are designed to be instructive and to help you maximize the enjoyment. Others are the unofficial rules of the wild; the codes that you must not break in order to respect the places that you are passing through. I hope you find them helpful. Happy wild camping!

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    Be Aware of the Legalities

    The specificities of this will change depending on where you are, but for now let’s focus on the UK. First, the good news: wild camping is perfectly legal across Scotland. The less good news, the laws are different different in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. By the letter of the law, you should ask permission from landowners before you camp, and ensure that you have looked into the regulations for the area in which you are travelling.

  • Leave No Trace
    Leave No Trace

    This concept will already be familiar to most of you, and the principals for wild camping are much the same as time spend in the great outdoors in general: leave things as you found them. Carry your own supplies in, carry your rubbish out.

    When answering the call of nature, do it respectfully (i.e. dig a hole); stay well clear of private properties, and be mindful of causing a disturbance to others with lights/noise. Don’t damage the vegetation (and don’t sleep on top of wildflowers) and take care around water sources not to pollute them through carelessness.

    Finally, be very careful when making fires - and ensure you have fully researched the rules of the land you are travelling through, many national parks across the UK and internationally do not allow the lighting of fires. It’s safest not to bother, but if you really must then make sure your fire is minimal and manageable , causing no damage to the surrounding flora and fauna, ensuring that the fire cannot spread. It’s worth reinforcing here that following these guidelines actually aids the experience, by making you feel more of a part of the place that you’re passing through. Those that follow in your wake will thank you too.

  • Pack Well, Leon McCarron, Calgary
    Pack Well

    The biggest question to ask yourself is whether you need a tent, or if a bivvy bag will do. If the weather is set to be poor, then a tent is a safe option (though a bivvy and basha covering could also suffice.) In general I prefer the simplicity of a bivvy bag – it makes for less pack weight, and you can see the stars when you wake.

    Choose your sleeping bag and mat wisely, taking into consideration the temperatures of where you’ll be going. Finally – for an overnight trip - fill out your pack with water and food, a small stove and cutlery, a headlamp, toothbrush and toilet roll. You shouldn’t need much more than that and, in my experience, the more minimalist the pack, the greater the enjoyment.

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    Choose Your Spot Wisely

    Find somewhere that excites you – there’s no point in camping somewhere you find dull, or where you’re worried you might be in someone else’s way. Get off the main tracks and, ideally, find a spot with a view. Make sure there’s enough flat ground to lay out your mat, and look for shelter if the weather isn’t on your side. It’s always safer to camp high if there’s rain on the horizon – nothing ruins a wild camp like waking up to find yourself floating downstream.

  • Bring Whisky
    Bring Whisky. Or Rather, Don't Forget The Odd Luxury

    Another title for this section might be simply: Allow yourself the odd luxury (I’m aware that there are some people who don’t drink whisky…) My point here is that wild camping is designed to be fun and, while you want to be respectful of the landscape and any other people/wildlife in the vicinity, you should make sure you enjoy it.

    If that means bringing a few friends and drinking whisky around a (well-tended) fire, then do it. If it means going alone and arriving early enough to set up and watch the sunset with a hot chocolate and a hearty meal, do that instead. Maximise every moment out in the wilds. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

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