Whether you're out for a jolly with a group of friends or immersed in the wild on a soulful solo trip, camping up in the hills far from civilisation is one of life's essential experiences. As outdoor activities go this one is refreshingly simple and takes no special talent at all; indeed it mostly involves just lying down. But if you're a wild camping novice you may still have a few questions. What sort of tent is best? What other gear should you carry? What should you look for in a campsite? What are your rights? What if there's a storm? And are midges really as bad as everyone makes out? Here's a run-through of a few basics.
The rules on informal camping vary across the UK. In most of England, Wales and Northern Ireland campers have no legal rights, and have to be a little bit furtive. It's generally best to stick to the more remote spots and hope no one minds (or even finds out). Arrive late and leave early, too. Scotland enjoys a more relaxed regime, and freedom to wild camp responsibly is enshrined to some extent in access legislation. Even here there are exceptions though. Wherever you are, if you pitch up too close to civilisation, make no effort to be discreet, leave tents pitched all day, and cause a nuisance then the only wild thing about your camp may be the reaction of the landowner. For more info on wild camping and the law see this UKH article.
First and foremost get off the beaten path and avoid the popular honeypot 'wild' camping areas where overcrowding, litter and toilet waste are all too common. If you join the throng you might as well have gone to Glastonbury. The best camps are carried out in solitude. The ideal site will be conveniently close to your route, rather than a huge detour away. It'll be secluded and sheltered too - though remember that in still summer weather there is such a thing as too sheltered (see midges). Hopefully it'll offer great views, and some nice flat-well drained ground. Proximity to drinking water saves to-ing and fro-ing, but be wary when pitching close to streams in wet weather in case the water level rises overnight. You might be surprised how high a swollen stream can go.
Prior map research will give some clues about likely sites, but you'll only find out for sure when you get there. That promising level area may turn out to be bottomless bog (they usually do); and where you'd hoped for soft comfy turf you could well find rocks or lumpy tussocks that make it impossible to pitch the tent as neatly as they do in catalogues. Picking poor ground can mean a sleepless night and acute backache. Some hunting around for better options might be preferable, and it's often worth factoring this into your time estimates as it's better done in daylight.
3. Weather ...or not
Camping is about meeting nature halfway, and communing with it in all its moods. So what about the full-on tantrum? Riding out a storm can certainly be a memorable adventure, but with madly flapping fly sheet, lashing rain and the thought of snapping poles a restful night is unlikely. Add lightning and the atmosphere tips from tense into downright scary. You'll probably be damp, cold and uncomfortable too, but you haven't truly lived unless you've spent the night in a flooded tent, venturing forth every hour to check the guylines are still there. You can't beat it. Most of us won't be anxious to repeat the experience too often though, so if the forecast is for very high wind or torrential rain there's no disgrace in putting off the camping trip til the following weekend. It's that or buy a better tent.
The British summer may be unpredictable, but one thing is guaranteed - at some point in the season you will suffer midgey misery. Nothing can ruin a camping trip more utterly than a million merciless bloodsuckers. From Snowdonia to Sutherland, Kinder to Kintail, wherever there are boggy uplands, lush woods or sheltered glens the swarms will be waiting. You might outrun them, but you can't hide. Campers are sitting ducks, and on still humid evenings the torment is total. In calm weather avoid camping in sheltered hollows at all costs, and head to higher ground. The good news is that even a light breeze can keep them at bay. Sometimes a bit of bother is unavoidable however, so unless you fancy spending all evening zipped into your tent then pack a headnet. And take up smoking.
If you've a choice of tents then it's generally worth downsizing for wild camps, since you'll be lugging it a long way from the car. A wee backpacking tent is obviously going to be lighter than a base camp behemoth, and if split between you and your mate its weight and bulk will be negligible. When flat pitches are at a premium it's easier to find room for a more compact groundsheet footprint too, so if there are several of you then two smaller tents may be better than a single larger one. In areas where subtlety pays a smaller tent is also less obtrusive – unless it's dayglo orange. As ever though, the ideal tent size is a compromise between weight and liveability. For a night or two you can put up with a lot (or rather, a little), but the longer you plan to spend under canvass the more you'll appreciate a bit of room. Head space is nice – at least the ability to sit upright – while a spacious porch is useful for gear storage and cooking in wet or midgey conditions (though always consider carbon monoxide if cooking under cover). But you don't need a tent at all of course. Some people prefer a bivvy, while others get their kicks bodging makeshift shelters with tarps; these are like tents, only not as good. Either alternative has its merits, but on the downside both leave you at the mercy of midges and rain.
6. Remember the essentials
Camping might be simple, but it's not often truly minimalist. Add a wild camp to your hillwalking weekend and watch the kit mountain rise alarmingly. Amid all the clutter of optional extras and semi-necessaries it's easy to forget something small but vital. A lighter, say, or your bog roll. It's a bit sad, but I sometimes resort to making a short written list for the genuine essentials. It looks something like this:
With supplies for a night or two this lot should squeeze into a medium sized rucksack of about 40L. On longer self-sufficient trips you need a fair bit more food space, and 60L starts looking like the minimum.
Get this wrong and the results may be messy, as one or two of my tent mates have discovered over the years. Running water is generally safer than still, and it's best collected as close as possible to the source - think bubbling mountain brook, not the Thames at Tilbury. When using the same burn for several refills (at a camp, say) it can be reassuring to check immediately upstream for animal carcasses or other undesirables. I failed to once, only to discover, next day, a decomposing cow resting sedately in a further pool. I had wondered what the whiff was. If you have to drink from tarns or pools it's often worth boiling or purifying the water first. In heavily walked locations be similarly wary of running water too, particularly downhill of any major paths. Where do all those walkers go to the bog? You have to wonder. And watch out in sheep country – they can carry unpleasant parasites. However you can worry too much about all this. Compared to many countries our hill water is remarkably safe. In wilder parts of Scotland for instance, walkers could spend a lifetime drinking straight from the burns with no ill effects.
To ensure the water sources stay clean, campers should follow a strict toilet regime: go at least 30m from water; carefully bury poo in the soil, using a trowel; and ideally bag up and pack out used toilet paper and sanitary products, but failing that burn them (very cautiously).
Getting back to basics needn't be an ascetic or masochistic experience. A few minor luxuries can really lighten the mood in camp, and they needn't weigh much in your pack either. If you sleep better with an inflatable pillow or a thicker mat then go for it – there are no prizes for suffering. I struggle to get started without a morning caffeine fix, but find instant coffee tongue-shrivellingly repulsive, so for me real coffee and a filter or little plastic camping plunger are worth ten times their weight in Nescafe. Maybe you're a chocoholic; or perhaps you prefer stronger stuff? A cheeky tipple shared between pals can really add pep to a night out. To keep the weight and volume down it's worth decanting your chosen poison from glass bottle to plastic; and of course it's simply smart thinking to prioritise alcohol content in the pursuit of more bang for your bulk. Wine is good for this, but whisky is better since less goes further. And if you want a really wild camp, try spiking your mate's water bottle.
As Ray Mears should know all too well, living entirely off the land at our latitude is nigh-on impossible; that's why supermarkets were invented. But still there's no better way to feel like you're getting back to nature than eating little bits of it. Why not take time to experiment occasionally when wild camping? Nettle soup, clover tea, fried puffball, poached trout, a handful of bilberries – there's usually something edible to be foraged in the hills, and it's often a lot tastier than dehydrated meals. Though you won't glean much nutrition from it, there's plenty of quiet satisfaction to be had. But make damn sure what you're eating is safe – particularly with fungi. And if you're fishing then bear in mind the legal situation. You may need a permit.
Shifting the odd stone from your pitch might be forgivable, but avoid heavy landscaping and always replace any rocks you do move. Creepy crawlies need homes too, and they were there first. Digging drainage ditches is a no-no (you should choose a better drained site in the first place). All rubbish should be packed out, including fruit peel, and toilet arrangements should be carefully considered. If there's any risk of heath fires then campfires are definitely out, and really there's no justification for lighting one at any time. Bring a stove. It's usually wise to move on after a night or two to avoid upsetting anyone, but if you've set up a longer-lasting basecamp then try to shift the tent around periodically to allow the grass beneath to recover. There's more on the dos and don'ts here.