After being cooped up for months, many of us will be craving the escape of a wild camp in the hills. There's no better way to feel close to nature than by sleeping in it. Anyone can camp wild - there's no barrier to entry - but if you've not yet tried it then you may be wondering where to start. To enjoy the experience in reasonable comfort, and to minimise your impact, there's more to it than just plonking a tent down and hoping for the best (though you could...). From gear selection and the best camp food, to midges, toileting and choosing a good place to pitch, three wild camping old hands share their hard-won wisdom.
- It's worth drawing a distinction between wild camping and free car camping. One is done close to the road, and is currently causing a stir thanks to the mess that anti-social campers leave in their wake, from overcrowding, litter and human waste to felled trees and wildfires. The other takes place far from roads and habitation, and with (hopefully) minimal impact. In this article wild camping means just that - under your own steam, up in the hills, and away from it all.
Tent or Bivvy?
When it comes to this key decision, you should ask yourself a number of questions:
Where do you plan to spend the night? Most British hills are tent-friendly, with plenty of grassy corners to pitch up on. But there are exceptions. The obvious one is the Skye Cuillin, where spots high on the ridge tend to be small and rubbly, and much better suited to a bivvy than a tent. Ditto many stony summit plateaux on the more rugged mainland hills.
What's the weather forecast? High wind, persistent rain and snowfall all tend to be easier to deal with in a tent than out on the open hillside in a bivvy bag. On the other hand it's hard to beat the feeling of sleeping under the stars on a clear, calm night, with no canopy to obscure the heavens.
How bad will the midges be? For anyone who's endured a still summer evening in the British hills, this should need no further explanation. If the wee biters are out in force then having a safe space to zip away into is worth its weight in gold.
"I love my little tent, it is like a second home to me" says Mountain Leader Lorraine McCall, who has spent more time in tents than most.
"My tent is lightweight and compact it is not much heavier than a bivvy bag. There is porch space to cook in if the weather is bad and I have plenty of space to spread out and read inside if it is too midgey to go out. Being able to peg it down is also a bonus. If the weather is good and you are camped high you can still unzip and watch the stars!"
"One particular night in Glen Shiel really stands out when I camped beside a river in the full moon late enough and cool enough to have missed the worst midge attack. Contrast this with the next morning when it was midge hell, but I could still eat and pack up before venturing out."
"I do remember one special night bivvying on The Cobbler, no moon and a tip off of the northern lights. Lying there with strobes of white then pinks and greens dancing across the sky has never been forgotten but neither has the next morning when I realised I had gradually slipped half way doon the hill."
Go alone, or with company?
"Even during lockdown when I craved the company of friends on the hills, when it comes to a big hike I mainly prefer solo" says Lorraine.
"Some people meditate but I find that same mindfulness from walking on my own, finding a rhythmic pace and the gradual awareness of the sights and sounds of the countryside. The cry of the first cuckoo late spring, the drumming of a snipe, watching the spring dance of the lapwing or walking on a carpet of sphagnum moss. Choosing how far to go, deciding to go further or stop short, are all decisions it is much easier to make on my own. I also like my tent space, everything has a place and it is much easier to get in and out for that night pee when you are on your own or even use that bottle!"
"It is great to come together and see other people now and then. Events like the TGO challenge are good for getting a combination of solo walking and company."
What to Bring, with mountaineering instructor Jamie Bankhead
Packing. It's a heavy subject. I'd really love to make it lighter, but the reality is, the moment you add overnight stops to your hill time, weight carried starts to rise noticeably. This piece will touch on how you can reduce that load, but even with space-age lightweight materials, there is no denying that you'll have to work harder to transport your home-from-home and achieve a decent degree of comfort when you do find that dream campsite.
After the tent, this is liable to be your second heaviest single item, but that weight is very necessary. Just how heavy will depend on the season, the forecast, and possibly the height you camp at. I find a 3-season synthetic bag will usually do me from spring through to autumn, and although in fine midsummer conditions a lighter bag is possible, I've had nights even then when I've been a bit tired and damp and have appreciated the greater warmth. One trump card I can heartily recommend is a silk or cotton liner. For virtually no extra weight and (for cotton) a small cost this will bump up your comfort level by about 5 degrees, and is also good for bag hygiene.
Closed cell foam roll-mats take up a lot of space, usually strapped to the outside of your rucksack, and offer only limited comfort. The only real advantage over inflatables is price, and knowing that you can drag it outside to sit on without worrying about punctures. Personally I just sit on my emptied rucksack. I would pay a bit more for a decent inflatable mat. An add-on that I recently treated myself to is a very lightweight inflatable pillow – so much more comfortable to my head and neck than folded up fleeces and something I wish I'd bought years ago. As inflatables can occasionally let you down (literally!), always carry the repair kit that normally comes with them.
Team work keeps things light: one stove for two or even three people should be ample. Of the different fuel options available, for me the simplicity of gas cartridge models has always been the winner. They're less efficient for sub-zero conditions, but you can overcome this by sticking the cartridge in your sleeping bag prior to use.
You can save weight/bulk in your pack by eating direct from the pan. Beyond that a plastic/titanium "Spork" and a cup for a brew should cover all your needs.
I gave up trying to keep matches dry a long time ago – invest in a flint "firesteel" or the cheaper option of a cigarette lighter or two. Always two for me, the thought of a morning without a brew is not worth considering. It's also good to have a small cut-down pot scourer with you – lightweight pans can be quite sticky even if watched carefully.
Depending on how many nights out, this could be the biggest total weight to be carried, and I'd encourage everyone to experiment and look at food from a "calories per gram" mindset, as well as having a few treats.
The longer the expedition, the more I embrace dehydrated food. It's not always as appetising as something freshly prepared, and dedicated expedition food is not cheap, but the weight factor wins it for me, as well as the simplicity of preparation if I'm tired and hungry. Everything tastes great when you're tired and hungry, and exped food has improved hugely in recent years.
Cheaper and equally good supermarket options are porridge sachets and couscous, which for me is vastly superior to rice or pasta for prep time and gas used. You can perk it up a bit with lightweight add-ons like dried chorizo, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, etc. Powdered custard will also add a great bit of "stodge" factor to a bit of cake for dessert.
Often overlooked is the food that you'll consume through the day – you'll probably be on the move and might not have the luxury of getting the stove out. Cereal bars, dried fruit, nuts and some chocolate should help to keep the show rolling. I also tend to have a massive breakfast (possibly two) before I shoulder my bag on day one, on the basis that I can carry calories more easily in my tum.
Opinions differ on the safety of drinking from upland streams, and while I'm happy to make a value judgement based on the volume/speed of flow and the presence or otherwise of livestock, others are more cautious. If you're not sure, carry purification tablets or a filtration bottle. You can also boil water, but this isn't really practical for much beyond cooking.
I have a one litre bottle for during the day, and a 3L roll-up bladder which packs away to nothing but can hold enough when full to get me through the night and breakfast without having to stumble back to the water source. On one-nighters I often take my beloved Italian mocha pot, and it's worth every pound of metal for the joy of a good coffee, but for longer trips I live by the tea-bag. I've never yet been forced to re-use one and I hope I never will. Take plenty – they ain't heavy!
If you can't always trust the weather to behave as forecast over a day, you have even less control over four days, so be prepared for anything. A warm jacket (down or synthetic) is well worthwhile for those cool nights or mornings when you want to sit outside your tent, or for that time (it's happened to most of us) when your sleeping bag isn't quite warm enough. I like to sleep in thermal leggings as they weigh nothing, pack to nothing but make those midnight toilet trips much more agreeable! For more than one night or a wet forecast I always pack a change of underwear – thermal top, pants and socks. These can be quite unpleasant if damp, so being able to change can be a real boost. Keep an eye on drying opportunities – if the sun does come out, take advantage. I tend to take a summer hat and a winter hat – it's good to keep the sun out of my eyes with a cap, but usually in the evening it'll be cool enough on my bald head to want it covered.
It's nice to get your main footwear off at camp, and maybe even a little bit drier (not dry). You'll usually see me with crocs on top of my bag for campwear, and those inevitable midnight toilet trips. These are also a potential boot-saver for river crossings, a little bulky but weighing very little.
Hand sanitizer is going to become the "new normal" anywhere where shared surfaces are concerned (gates, stiles, etc) but I've been carrying a small bottle for years for more traditional hygiene issues. In addition to a first aid kit appropriate to your training, I'd always want some antiseptic wipes (also use on food kit), Compeed-style blister plasters, a small wrap of gaffa-tape for repairs, and (optional) a small bottle of talcum powder for (ahem) chafing. This last (along with dry pants) could save you a great deal of discomfort in very wet conditions. Finally (I think?), mini toothbrush and paste, lightweight "pack-towel" and (optimistically) some sun-cream. The sun does shine sometimes…
Gadgets and gizmos
For multiple days a battery power bank is essential – keep it in a dry-bag and get a waterproof/drop-proof case for your phone. If you ever do drop to a low battery reading, consider just switching it off – after all it is your principle safety mechanism should anything go wrong. More of my peers are now using SPOT-type trackers or locator beacons as a safety back-up, and these could certainly be considered for more remote areas with uncertain phone coverage. A more basic essential is your headtorch. You might not reach your campsite in daylight, or you might just want to read a book in your tent. It's worth getting one with variable output for these different jobs, or you'll burn through the batteries faster than you need to. But always take spare batteries…
Bagging it up
I can get all of the above (including four days food) into a 55 litre sack, and my kit is not the lightest or most minimalist. It's a squeeze, and needs a bit of thought, but once you get into a system it'll get easier. Always do a trial pack before you leave home and a final edit on what you're taking. Keep the food down to what you'll actually consume by dividing it into plastic bags for each day, and take plenty of spare bags for rubbish, used clothes, etc. Where kit has to be kept dry (spare clothes, toilet paper) think about kayak-style drybags. These are completely wet-proof but not that pricey – ziplock food bags although not quite as good are however even cheaper. When you pack, think about what you will need first, through the day. Have snacks and drinks easily accessible, either in external pockets or at the top of the main compartment, along with waterproofs and hat/gloves in case the weather changes, and obviously your map and compass. Over time your rucksack will become your office – you'll lay it out so that everything you might need can be quickly accessed when it's required.
Check the weather forecast
"You're probably well used to doing your homework and planning aspects of a day walk, and this process will feed into your planning for an overnight camp, too. Among other questions to ask yourself are: what weather can you expect during the day? And how will the weather and conditions influence where you go?" says Kate Worthington of RAW Adventures.
"And with the concept of staying out longer with the added adventure of an overnight camp, your forward thinking about weather and conditions is really important. Think how weather can change rapidly in mountainous terrain. You want to be looking at a few different mountain-specific forecasts for the area you're intending to visit, to spot any changes (positive and negative) to the current forecast.
"Are wind speeds predicted to rise or drop during your overnight period? What about rain – is there a weather front due to arrive later in the evening, as you're planning to set up camp, which might bring stronger winds and rain for a time? Will any changes in the mountain forecast affect water levels in streams, wind speeds on exposed plateaux or the arrival of midges (drops in wind, sheltered sites near water). Consider the possibility of electrical storms passing over your location – a feature of humid, mid-summer weather in the UK.
"Look ahead at hourly forecasts for the next 24-48hrs, depending on when you're venturing out, and base your overnight plans and location on the forecasted overnight weather. Don't dream of a beautiful location for a camp, only to find that when you arrive the wind direction has changed and rendered your ideal location into hard work keeping your tent up, or a dank, midge-ridden hollow. Or, worst nightmare, is a quickly rising stream starting to encroach upon your pitch in the middle of the night. Think; if there was a chance you needed to exit this camp location for an unforeseen reason overnight (illness, change in weather, accident etc), is there a feasible escape route that you'd be happy navigating in darkness? Do always include a 'what if?' in your pub planning party…"
Picking a pitch
"The weather factor will undoubtedly influence how and where you select your glorious camp location" advises Kate.
"Will it be sheltered from a certain wind direction? High enough to avoid trees and midges? Are you selecting a site that is away from private dwellings, farm workings, and areas that might pose a hazard overnight: hidden mine entrances, streams, trees in high winds, crag edges, rockfall, inquisitive livestock?
"You will want to have passed a good water supply on your way in to your camp site, or be near one to retrieve water for cooking. You will also look for a site where you can easily stomp off for a socially distanced trip to the toilet, and do this in an appropriate way. Some areas you might consider camping in will benefit from you thinking about packing out all your toilet waste (not just the tissues). Regularly used wild camp sites do not want to become public health hazards. Once you've spent time working through all these logistics to ensure an appropriate choice of location, for you and the expected weather, do also think about the time it will take to get there, with a heavier load, and how long it will take you to exit the next morning.
"And, the added bonus: is the location going to offer something special? A specific view to the west or east, for a sunset or sunrise treat? A feeling of remoteness and of quiet solitude? If so, you're probably on the right lines to finding a modest spot that will not impact on other people."
Going to the toilet
"Unless it's a very short trip or you have some strange powers, you'll be going to the toilet" says Jamie Bankhead.
"This can hold a great deal of terror to the uninitiated, but gets pretty matter-of-fact in no time. Unless you're being a true eco-hero and packing it out, you'll need a lightweight trowel (metal or hard plastic) which you'll probably want to keep bagged on the outside of your pack, along with some bog paper. The rest is pretty self-evident, although my advice would be to pre-dig your hole in daylight, as you don't want to be doing so in a hurry or while under midge attack."
For a bit more gritty detail, see this:
Beating biting beasties
"Ah yes, midges. How did we get this far without a mention?" muses Jamie Bankhead.
"They can make or break your trip: Generally okay when you're moving or zipped into a tent, potentially awful at other times. In terms of repellents, Smidge is currently the market leader by some margin – it appears to meet the requirements of being repellent to the flying sharks but not to you. DEET-based chemicals can melt plastic and are therefore not going on my skin. A midge-hood is another cheap and weightless no-brainer to take, and can be used instead of or in addition, although unfortunately not while eating. Parasitical ticks can be carriers of all sorts of nasty diseases like Lymes, and I'd definitely urge you to check for them regularly, and carry a specialist hooking-tool for removal."
Know the law... and the countryside code
The legal status of wild camping is a little complicated, since it varies across the nations of the UK and even between locations in the same nation. Before heading off for the weekend it's worth looking into the situation in your chosen destination.
In Scotland, the right to wild camp is enshrined in law. However that doesn't mean anything goes. Access comes with strings; we only have a right if it's exercised responsibly - and not everyone behaves themselves. At accessible spots throughout Scotland there's a big problem with litter, fires, human waste and anti social behaviour. In a local attempt to address this, the exception to Scotland's liberal access situation is in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, where seasonal anti-camping bylaws effectively prohibit most roadside 'wild' camping.
Even on Access Land, there is no statutory right to wild camp in England and Wales. Though it's unlikely to happen in remote areas unless you do something to deserve it, a landowner could in theory ask you to move on. In practise, if you camp under the radar and above the busy valleys there's rarely anyone to notice, let alone object. Keep it discrete, and minimal impact. England's big exception is Dartmoor, where camping is officially permitted in large parts of the National Park.
For more advice see:
Leave no trace
Start no fires, pack out all rubbish (including anyone else's you find), toilet responsibly and return the site to its undisturbed state. All this should go without saying, but if we don't all abide by the highest standards then we'll end up spoiling the wild camping experience for everyone.