Roadside Camping Bans - The Case For and Against

© Dan Bailey

Informal roadside camping has become a hot issue in recent years, with the Scottish highlands bearing the brunt. From rubbish and human waste to drink and drug-fuelled anti social behaviour, abandoned tents, felled trees and a proliferation of fire pits, the impact of problem camping is hard to miss at every accessible loch shore and scenic layby.

Understanding why it's happening is clearly the first step towards a workable solution. Everyone agrees that something needs to be done, but there consensus ends.

Has roadside camping become a victim of its own popularity?  © Dan Bailey
Has roadside camping become a victim of its own popularity?
© Dan Bailey

Is this a problem of 'wild' camping per se, or merely the behaviour of some campers? England and Wales are not immune from anti social campers, but does the particular severity of the experience north of the border suggest that something different is happening in Scotland? Could this be an unforseen consequence of Scotland's famously liberal public access? On the other hand, might it just be the result of a failure of education? Perhaps, before proposing more legislation, we can ask if existing laws against littering are being adequately enforced?

Advocates of a beefed-up legislative approach point as a potential model to the bylaws introduced to control informal camping in Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. But access campaigners are having none of it.

We've asked an advocate from each camp to make their case.

Highland-based Councillor Kirsteen Currie favours giving local communities the power to control roadside camping

Kirsteen Currie

Our young people are particularly concerned about the issue and are very worried about the impact that it is having on our environment.

Introducing no camp zones would allow local authorities to encourage responsible tourism and limit the burden... created by wild campers.

Kirsteen recently initiated a petition to urge the Scottish Government to create legislation that would enable local authorities to across Scotland set up targeted no-camp zones along the lines of the regime in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

Abandoned tent at Loch Achray  © Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park
Abandoned tent at Loch Achray
© Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Can you explain the problem of anti-social camping, as you see it?

The problem lies with folks who choose to camp in places that are either damaging to the environment or a liability in terms of public or animal safety. In Scotland we have the right to roam, which I believe is exceptionally important, but this right comes with responsibilities to the environment that you are in and unfortunately there appears to be an increase in irresponsible camping.

For example, this year has seen literally hundreds of campervans stopping for the night in passing places at the sides of the road, which is hazardous for other road users. They can also often be seen in make shift camps at the side of the road, on areas that are not tarred and unsuitable for the weight of vehicle. Often, they leave behind human waste.

In many other places, again close to roads and settlements, we see tents appearing and camp fires being set up. There have been many devastating wildfires throughout Scotland ignited as a result of careless camping.

Again domestic and human waste is being left behind and many campers refuse to accept that cutting down trees for their campfires is exceptionally harmful to the environment. Not only does it damage our flora and fauna, wet wood (green wood) doesn't burn efficiently at all. Campsites are left in a mess and local organisations and authorities are left with the task of tidying up.

Campfire remains are everywhere...  © Dan Bailey
Campfire remains are everywhere...
© Dan Bailey

Are there any particular areas where you think it's especially an issue?

I'm speaking from my experience of the NC500 route, but I note that there is a real issue in Lochaber too. To be clear though, the issue is around free camping near a road, mountaineers and hillwalkers have been enjoying our fabulous environment for centuries without the problems that we've found recently.

Have you had many representations from local residents about it?

This has been an issue growing in the minds of our communities for years, escalated with the creation of the NC500 in 2015. Every community in the Highlands has an opinion on it and I've received a plethora of representations about the issue, from crofters and farmers to families and community activists. Our young people are particularly concerned about the issue and are very worried about the impact that it is having on our environment.

Damage from a suspected camp fire in the Cairngorms, which took two days to bring under control  © Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve
Damage from a suspected camp fire in the Cairngorms, which took two days to bring under control
© Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve

Does the Loch Lomond experience, where this regime has now been in place for some time, suggest we should look at rolling out wild camping prohibitions more widely? I'm interested to know if you think the system in the park is working effectively

I'm totally opposed to a blanket ban that is imposed, what I am calling for is community empowerment to allow the community to make the decision based on areas that they know are suffering as a result of the "wild camping".

I think there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from places such as Loch Lomond, New Zealand and other countries in Europe as to how to deal with the problem and then tailor legislation to allow the best solution for Scottish communities.

How would you envisage local bans being implemented and enforced?

That's really a question for the legislators and is why I've taken my idea to the parliament for consideration. As I've mentioned there are schemes that we can look at from across the world and develop something that would suit our needs here. Signage and partnership working would be my preferred route of dealing with anyone who did choose to camp in a no camp zone.

Glen Etive rubbish 4  © Glen Etive the dirty truth
Picture copyright: Glen Etive the Dirty Truth

Litter and toilet waste blight many roadside locations  © Dan Bailey
Litter and toilet waste blight many roadside locations
© Dan Bailey

Why do you think existing powers to prevent anti social behaviour are not sufficient to meet this problem? It is already illegal to litter, for instance.

Existing powers rely on a police presence and resource that simply does not exist in remote and rural areas in Scotland. I think its important to be both pragmatic and practical.

What would you say to objectors worried that camping bans undermine Scotland's hard-won right to roam?

This is not an attack on the right to roam. This is empowering communities and protecting the environment and would compliment the right to roam. I understand why some folks are concerned, however, are we really suggesting that we should allow unchecked wild camping on SSSI sites? Being able to have a constructive conversation about the rights and responsibilities of those of us who enjoy the outdoors in Scotland would be really positive.

I've had many discussions with folks alarmed that this would be an attack on the right to roam, each time I've tried to make them see that a) this is a suggestion to ask the experts and legislators to come up with a solution to the problem that would work within the law – a starting point and b) that even though the vast majority of folks who enjoy camping and spending time in the hills are not behaving in an anti social way (myself included), people still do and that c) The right to roam was never designed to provide free car camping sites to folks who want to park up by the side of the road and the only roaming they do is between their closely parked vehicle and their tent!

Are there enough campsite places to accommodate all the wild campers who would be displaced by local bans?

That's a hard one to quantify because there is very little data being gathered on the problem and the reality on the ground. At present we only have anecdotal evidence, but having chatted to many formal campsites this summer its clear that they've had spaces when a few miles down the glen and by the side of the road there are folks camped out. Many communities are improving their own facilities at the moment, like in the case of Shieldaig and others have plans for the future to create formal provision. That being said, the local economy is suffering when campervans and tents do not spend any money in the economy, so its almost a chicken and egg situation.

Some would say our time and money would be better spent improving facilities, upgrading roads and educating the public about good practise – what would you say to them?

If only we had the money! As a local authority Highland Council do not have the resources to maintain the roads that they currently administer, never mind investing in improvements to them. The current political climate has led to funding being at a real premium and as such priorities have to be made.

In terms of education, a vast sum of money has been spent on this by various agencies over the past decade. Endless campaigns and leaflets are not changing behaviour and indeed the problem is getting worse. I now feel that legislation is the only way to prevent this problem escalating further in pressured areas. In general terms I think that new signage which was clear about how to camp and what is acceptable under the code needs to be placed in every area that is used as a campsite.

Helen Todd head shot  © Helen Todd

Helen Todd, Ramblers Scotland's Campaigns & Policy Manager, would prefer measures that don't compromise Scotland's hard-won access legislation

Scotland's access rights are the envy of the world, but as with any legislation, they require investment to perform most effectively.

Rather than banning campers, the best solution is to try out various visitor management measures, such as investment in infrastructure like low-cost campsites, toilets and litter bins, and lots of education

But if you arrive late, depart early, and leave no trace, then where's the harm...?   © Dan Bailey
But if you arrive late, depart early, and leave no trace, then where's the harm...?
© Dan Bailey

Can you explain the problem of anti-social camping, as you see it?

Sadly there are ongoing issues in hotspot areas with an anti-social minority who are damaging the environment, the reputation of campers and the outdoor experience for everyone who loves our countryside.

The entire outdoor community shares the frustration of residents about these people, whose selfish actions impact upon communities, landscapes and the thousands of responsible people who enjoy camping away from formal sites across Scotland.

We are calling for anti-social camping to be tackled through stronger enforcement of the existing laws, provision of facilities and more low-cost campsites, and investment in education on responsible access – rather than new costly and ineffective laws or bylaws, which themselves would need enforced.

It is also worth remembering that roadside problems blamed on tents often have nothing to do with campers. They can instead be caused by drunken all-night parties, fly-tippers, day-time picnickers and passing litter-lout motorists. This is evidenced by the laybys beside busy A-roads across Scotland that will never have seen a tent, yet are ruined by litter, human waste, discarded nappies, burned-out bins and building site rubble. In most locations a minority of inconsiderate wild campers are just part of a wider societal problem that won't go away simply by banning camping.

Does the experience to date in LLTNP - where seasonal restrictions have been in place for some time - bear out the idea that the solution to problem campers is found through banning camping, or does it cast doubt on the bylaw model?

We enjoy working alongside LLTNP colleagues on a huge range of issues, and we completely agree that irresponsible campers have caused problems in parts of the park. However, we disagree on the solution - and experience over the last two-and-a-half years shows that bylaws are far from a magic bullet.

The bylaws are deterring people from camping, criminalising responsible campers and failing to resolve many of the issues they were designed to tackle. We know around 2,000 people have already been cautioned, simply for trying to camp in this beautiful part of Scotland. Real trouble-makers were reported to the Procurator Fiscal, just as they could have been before bylaws.

Sadly there continue to be serious issues with anti-social behaviour, litter and environmental damage within Camping Management Zones, despite the permit system.

The bylaws have come at a massive cost to the park authority, money which we believe could have been better spent. For example, the park has failed to provide enough facilities to deal with the numbers of people who understandably want to come and enjoy their special environment. There are many permit sites with no toilets nearby, and inevitable issues with human waste. To some extent, the bylaws have condensed the problems with over-use, putting even more pressure on the small number of sites.

We welcome the new sites at Loch Chon and Loch Achray, but we had expected to see much more infrastructure to better manage camping – such as more toilets, new peak-season campsites with water and portaloos at pubs and farmers' fields, as is commonplace in other national parks in the UK. This hasn't happened.

If bins are emptied infrequently, or there are no toilets, can we be surprised about rubbish or human waste?  © Dan Bailey
If bins are emptied infrequently, or there are no toilets, can we be surprised about rubbish or human waste?
© Dan Bailey

Critics of camping bans suggest that existing powers are already sufficient to deal with problem campers, but if that's so then why are they still such an issue?

People in Scotland are rightly proud of our fantastic access legislation, secured in 2003 through the Land Reform Act. Our access rights are the envy of the world, but as with any legislation, they require investment to perform most effectively.

In recent years we have seen far too many cuts to the services that help people experience all the health and wellbeing benefits of camping and being outdoors – such as local policing, ranger services, toilets, litter bins, access officers and education. We must remember that bylaws are not cheap – in fact, the camping management strategy cost the national park more than £1 million in its first two years. We would love to have seen the positive impact of this money being invested in championing access and making existing legislation work more effectively.

Rather than banning campers, the best solution is to try out various visitor management measures, such as investment in infrastructure like low-cost campsites, toilets and litter bins, and lots of education. This should be monitored and adjusted as time goes on to find out what works best. In addition, enforcement of existing legislation like breach of the peace, vandalism and littering, can be carried out by the police in areas known to be hot spots.

We obviously can't discriminate between different types of campers, car campers versus proper outdoor folk, so wouldn't it be easiest and fairest just to prevent everyone from camping by the roads?

I think there's an unhelpful snootiness in this idea of 'proper outdoor folk'. For lots of people, particularly from lower income families, a weekend car camping with their family as a child will be their first taste of the magic of the outdoors, which could lead to a lifelong love of outdoor recreation. It's so important that this type of budget experience is still available to everyone.

In many instances, responsible roadside camping away from houses is legal, legitimate and simply the best option. For example, winter climbers arriving late ahead of a pre-dawn start, cycle tourers, disabled campers who benefit from being near their car, canoeists and anglers at road-circled lochs and long-distance walkers.

I'm an outdoorsy person myself and I often roadside camp, leaving absolutely no trace. I take pride in leaving the outdoors carrying more litter than I created – and I feel that all of us within the outdoor community can do more to foster a culture in which this becomes the norm.

If you remove camping rights because some people are abusing them, you will also affect the many thousands of people who - like me - camp responsibly.

You're better off cooking outside when weather permits  © Dan Bailey
No one's talking about restricting this sort of camping, high in the hills - photo Dan Bailey

Is roadside camping really the same thing as wild camping far from civilisation, and isn't it the latter that access campaigners and the outdoor community should be seeking to protect?

'Wild camping' is lightweight camping, well away from civilisation, usually by climbers and walkers. 'Informal camping' is a wider term for those who are camping outwith a campsite, perhaps by a road or loch, and often near a car. Quite rightly, both are covered by statutory access rights, if done responsibly.

There is a complication in that using a campervan or motorhome away from a site is sometimes referred to as 'wild camping'. Vehicles can only be parked by right on the public road or a layby, although you're not causing an offence if you park up to 15 yards from a road. However, landowners can withdraw that permission, for example by erecting "no overnight parking" signs. If the people with these vehicles are dropping litter, emptying chemical toilets, etc, then again these are offences covered by legislation.

The problem of anti-social camping, litter, human waste, fires and roadside camper van congestion seems to be growing across Scotland. The impact of numbers looks increasingly unsustainable in some places. Doesn't it require a radical solution, and a willingness to think the hitherto unthinkable?

Promoting motor travel through routes such as the NC500 without providing the proper visitor infrastructure has caused problems.

It hasn't helped that many councils are trying to cut costs by closing public toilets.

Instead of seeing rising numbers of tents and campervans as a problem, we should be glad that people are visiting and enjoying Scotland. We must invest in the facilities they need to make this booming tourism sector thrive.

For example, every village or hotel in the Highlands could set up a couple of campervan charging points in their car park with a small fee, to encourage people to stay for a night or two and use the local facilities, rather than camping down the road.

There are a number of laybys in the Western Isles where this has happened, to help manage the number of campervans. Likewise, hotels like the Craighouse Hotel in Jura or Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe welcome wild camping in their vicinity because they know that campers will use their restaurants and bars – and in some places showers have even been provided. This is a worthwhile business opportunity that should be capitalised on.

If local communities are asking for powers to introduce camping management regimes appropriate to their locality, what right have national bodies and the outdoor lobby to object?

Better visitor management is the key. If an area is getting damaged through too much use, there are perfectly legitimate ways under the Land Reform Act of temporarily closing off a piece of land for short periods to allow the ground to recover.

It is worth remembering that the Scottish Government ran a major review of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act only five years ago. It found the legislation to be working well, and didn't recommend any changes.

We were part of a National Access Forum group which developed guidance on managing informal camping when the legislation came into effect and we are keen to update that guidance and help to share good practice. For example, we have long called for guidance on responsible use of motorhomes and campervans and are pleased that the NAF is now starting to work with partner organisations on drawing this up.

Guidance alone isn't the answer, but it does give a framework for local authorities, communities and land managers who are trying to deal with problems. Likewise, the police need to play their part in tackling anti-social behaviour.

Supporters of local bylaws point out that the right to roam was never meant to cover roadside, booze-fuelled, litter-dropping camping. What would you say?

It still doesn't! The 'right to roam' (as some call it) only applies if used responsibly and anti-social behaviour or litter-dropping are illegal activities covered by other legislation.

Are local camping management zones really the thin end of the wedge, as some objectors contend, or is the potential undermining of public access rights being overblown?

I believe that many more people would rather stay for some nights in informal campsites if they were available, including temporary areas set up at peak weekends. This would reduce pressure on other busy areas and enable people who really want to camp informally to do so without causing damage from overuse.

Shouldn't visitors to the highlands support the local economy by paying for their accommodation? What about the environment – doesn't protecting that override our selfish desire for a free campsite?

For over 15 years, I've spent three or four weeks each year on holiday in Scotland as well as long weekends and have enjoyed the freedom and spontaneity of camping informally on nearly all these holidays, whether with a car or cycle touring. I've spent money in cafes and restaurants, B&Bs, hostels and hotels, village shops, craft shops and local garages. It's mistaken to say that people are only camping to avoid spending money.

Is the exercise of our rights currently being allowed to trump our responsibilities?

Absolutely not, but that doesn't negate the need for constant educational work, enforcement and visitor management measures.

If not legislation, then what…?

At the risk of repeating myself: more education, enforcement of existing laws and low-cost campsites.

Support UKH

As climbers we strive to make UKHillwalking the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKH Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate UKHillwalking then please help us by becoming a UKH Supporter.

UKH Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support UKH porter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

25 Sep, 2019

It should be clear to all in the outdoors community where we stand - it's not even a debate. Do we want to see our rights eroded or do we want to defend our rights? Litter, human waste, erosion, etc. are problems. But, they can all be dealt with. There should be investment in wardens and facilities like parking, bins and loos. Unfortunately, austerity and Tory funding policies have undermined councils' ability to pay people to look after the land, to collect bins, to manage toilet blocks, etc.

Austerity has also created homelessness, and attacks on "irregular camping near settlements" are often disguised attacks on some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Instead of dealing with these problems in democratic and constructive ways, people reach immediately for the most authoritarian solution, dressing up the undermining of our rights in the most Orwellian distortions of language - "empowering communities", "protecting the environment" and "compliment[ing] the right to roam". These are fabrications. No one is empowered by a ban, except landowners who don't want people on their land. In fact, Councillor Kirsteen Currie writes: "As a local authority, Highland Council do not have the resources to maintain the roads that they currently administer, never mind investing in improvements to them. The current political climate has led to funding being at a real premium and as such priorities have to be made." The reality of what she is saying is that it is ok to attack people's rights in order to balance the books. Redistributing wealth from tax payers to banks, financiers and hedgefund managers means letting roads go to ruin, cutting local jobs and facilities, and banning people from the countryside. And she as a councillor is quite content to "make priorities" that include reducing people's rights in order to reduce the Council's bills. It's right there.

25 Sep, 2019

I think the problem with Local Authorities designating areas as "No Camping" areas, is that it will just move the problem, without actually dealing with it.

I wouldn't go to the extreme of expecting Local Authorities to provide toilets and bins etc. If you want to wild camp, be prepared to take your crap with you. People need to be educated about their responsibility. Wild camping isn't just the clear night skies and beautiful sunrises, that we see on Social Media; there are less pleasant aspects too. A price you have to pay, if you want to reap the rewards so to speak..

I can't honestly see a solution that doesn't involve some sort of Warden/Ranger program. Yes there will be some cost in employing people to keep tabs on the area, but that could be offset with some sort of Permit. Obviously, if they were to get silly with the cost of the Permits, there might be repercussions with loss of tourism etc, but there's no need for them to be expensive. A LOT of people head to the outdoors nowadays, so a nominal fee should be more than enough to pay for a Warden.

25 Sep, 2019

Would it not be cheaper to just pay to maintain and keep the existing toilets open, as opposed to closing them down, as has already been done in many areas of Scotland, and provide bins at regular/known wild camping hotspots - would be cheaper than employing wardens/rangers I would imagine.

And try and educate the populance about littering - seems to have been forgotten about recently.

25 Sep, 2019

I have no time for the clatty bastards that vandalise the Scottish countryside every summer.

If camping was banned within 100m of a road the problem would disappear.

25 Sep, 2019

No one has a right to cut down trees and try and burn them, destroy vegetation with disposable barbecues, shite where they feel like it and drive back to the central belt leaving piles of rubbish behind them that they managed to bring with them in the first place.

These people should be prosecuted for criminal damage and littering, not catered for. The Scottish countryside is a precious asset to us all and should be respected and protected.

More Comments

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email LinkedIn Pinterest