“Wild camping”, sometimes called “freedom camping” is the nirvana of some. It is, they say, the only way to camp.
What could be better than finding some beautiful, wild or secluded location and throwing up your tent or parking up your van and enjoying what nature has provided for free?
The short answer is nothing at all. The longer answer is, well, longer, and could land you in court!
In some parts of the world, wild camping is legal, but in most of Britain it is not. So unless you have permission from the people who own the land you want to camp on, you could be heading for trouble.
Cue images of top-hatted, moustache twiddling well-to-do villainous types and shotgun toting farmers.
Like most stereotypes, this is far from true. Landowners come in many shapes, sizes and political persuasions and there aren’t many who are going to welcome people pitching or parking on their patch for free.
The National Trust, the Forestry Commission, the RSPB, Wild Life Trusts, Co-operative Farms, Local Councils and the Ministry of Defence are just some of the many big landowners who don’t allow you to camp on their land and beaches without permission or without payment.
There are many reasons for this.
For a start, they are already using their land for something, whether that be farming, nature conservation, military training or some other public good, and you being there interferes with their right to do what they need to on their own property, unhindered. It could also be putting you in danger.
The mantra of the wild and freedom campers is “arrive late and leave early”. This is largely a recognition on their part that what they are doing is at best unwelcome and at worst illegal. The idea being not to be seen, not to be heard and not to be caught. The downside side of not being seen is the difficulty of risk-assessing your chosen campsite if you cannot see it yourself. What looks like an empty field or piece of wilderness at night, could turn out to be packed with cattle or part of a firing range by morning.
Another issue is rubbish. Every wild and freedom camper you’ll ever meet is “one of the responsible ones”. They never leave litter. They never light fires. And yet the easiest way to spot sites used for wild and freedom camping is by the rubbish, scorch marks, excrement and smell of urine left behind.
The two main reasons for this are that even “responsible” wild campers aren’t always as virtuous as they’d have you believe. Nor are they as invisible (or as tight-lipped) as they’d like to think. Consequently where the “responsible” wild camper leads, the irresponsible rest will follow - often for a party.
It is a huge irony, that the capacity of wild campers and freedom campers to transport plastic water bottles, beer cans and bottles of wine is limitless as long as they are full, but almost non-existent once emptied. Likewise disposable BBQs.
All of which helps to explain why camping is generally a regulated activity throughout the developed world. Even countries with a shed load of wilderness to play with, like Canada, the United States and New Zealand, have controls on who can camp where, how long they can stay, what they can do and how many people there can be. Often these rules are enshrined in law and enforced through hefty fines.
In the UK there’s some scope for wild camping legally in some parts of Scotland, but even here there have been “issues” and the law’s been tightened up. And “wild camping” north of the border is defined as camping without your car.
In England and Wales the new Countryside Access and Coastal Access laws specifically prohibit camping and the lighting of fires on “access” land. Similarly, the bylaws of the National Trust have prohibited camping and lighting of fires on all the land it holds for the nation for decades.
Camping is also covered by UK planning legislation. You could no more stick up a campsite on a piece of land without planning consent than you could build an extra house in your own back garden.
Temporary campsites can operate with the landowner’s permission, but only for short periods. As all the facilities have to be temporary too, they are often pretty low grade - “Slum Dog Bogs” and a standpipe.
But even that has a cost attached to it for the landowner, so it is not surprising that even 28 day sites levy charges for camping. Not something wild or freedom campers always appreciate and may try to avoid.
Some are willing to risk pursuing the “arrive late and leave early” mantra to the full to avoid payment on whatever site they choose. This is a high risk strategy and one likely to end badly. “Making off without payment” is an arrestable offence under the Theft Act and could land the perpetrator with a criminal record. Odd then that those who attempt it, seldom seem like the type to drive away from the petrol pump without paying or to lift goods from a shop and then leave. All of which are offences covered by the same law and all unlikely to endear you to current or future employers.
In this sense, trying to grab a “free” night’s camping could be costly and potentially life and career changing.
And it’s not just the risk of ending up before the beak on a theft charge. Other issues and potential offences include damage to property, littering and the unpleasant practice of opening campervan waste cocks in car parks and on the open road.
There is even the possibility of arson charges.
A couple camping in the US left a fire smouldering which they thought was out. It set thousands of acres of the wilderness they’d gone to enjoy alight and left them with an eye-watering fine and a bill for the huge cost of putting the fire out and for the environmental destruction they’d caused.
So, getting back to the short answer, if you can find a place to camp all by yourself somewhere beautiful, it is great and camping at its most pure. But make sure you ask permission first and don’t be surprised if the answer is no. After all, having campers on your land has costs and hassles attached to it. For most landowners the little they could get from one or two tents for a few nights won’t make it worthwhile. And whilst wild campers may be looking for something for nothing, no one wants to get nothing for something.
The long and the short of it is, any place you are likely to want to camp, others will want to camp too. And with extra campers comes extra poo and a need for extra water and rubbish disposal. There being no such thing as a free lunch, someone has to carry that cost, which is why campsites, temporary and permanent, aren’t free.
The good news is that there are already plenty of campsites in Dorset where campers can pitch up and enjoy the countryside and coast. But make sure you choose the right one for you. If you want to party late and loud,don’t choose a site where the owners and other campers will expect to hear nothing at night but the wildlife, the sea and the wind in the trees.
And if quiet nights are your thing, don’t end up on one of the sites that model themselves on a festival. Sound travels a long way at night and music and loud raucous laughter in the small hours may mean they’re having fun, but you won’t be.
In some parts of the world, wild camping is legal, but in most of Britain it is not. So unless you have permission from the people who own the land you want to camp on, you could be heading for trouble...."