What a way to go exploring – pack a tent, and all the other gear you’ll need and go anywhere – well sort of. The legalities are a little confusing but as Stephen Neal explains you can pitch up and pitch up in more places and more ways than you might think
Wild camping or sleeping outdoors has been a feature of travel over private land for thousands of years in Britain, and was decriminalised in 1935.
Every square metre of our British Isles is owned and managed by either an individual, a family or a collective of people representing a charity, trust, group or company. The rules these owners and managers must observe regarding sleeping rights over their lands fall into four categories:
1) Wild camping enshrined as a legal right, and no permission required from owner or manager (e.g. Scotland and Dartmoor).
2) Wild camping allowed under a presumption of historic use, but not as a “right” (e.g. hill walking in upland areas of Wales and northern England) bothies, fishing on canals or 50 percent of foreshore owned by the Crown; vessels that become marooned on the Crown-owned foreshore by the tide as part of a tidal navigation; on board or next to moored vessels/canoes on the network owned and managed by the Canal and River Trust.
3) Considered on a case-by–case basis, but only on request from the individual (the majority of landowners outside of 1 and 2), sometimes with a presumption against permission, sometimes not.
4) Byelaws or policies introduced that make wild camping an offence because of the potential threat to the environment. There are many places in Britain where we don’t have to ask permission; there are many places where asking permission is polite.
But in most cases where asking permission is polite, it is unpractical – usually because finding the owner at dusk is unrealistic. In a tiny portion of cases, wild camping is out of the question without written permission, because byelaws (usually indicated by signs) have defined and specific actions as constituting a criminal offence.
There are several differences between criminal and civil law. Trespass is civil law and not a crime. No one can be prosecuted for trespass.
A crime is an offence against the state: murder, robbery, theft, assault. Breaking a civil law is therefore an offence that only an individual can bring to court for damages. A civil wrong is known as a “tort”.
There is no civil or criminal wrong aligned with sleeping. But the act of wild camping and being inside a structure such as a tent can be defined as “trespass” if the landowner has not granted permission.
Although the act of trespass is actionable in the courts, the landowner will only be granted nominal damages of a few pounds if there is no loss or damage. The question, really, is whether it is worth it if someone is moving on soon.
The most obvious way to avoid court action is not to damage anything and to move on if asked. Don’t break trees, don’t cause criminal damage and don’t light fires unless you have permission to do so.
Most landowners are reasonable when it comes to travellers sleeping out on their land while passing through. However, there are times when an owner will insist the camper moves on. Negotiating a small fee is an option, but a refusal to leave after that, or an angry outburst, means the civil “trespass” can become more serious. Acting in a threatening or abusive manner is criminal.
There’s no excuse to remain on private land to sleep once asked to leave, unless in an emergency. Common sense should always prevail.
I’ve wild camped since I was 17, and only been asked to move on a few times. Once I pitched up my bivy too early at 4pm, on a sunny day, and decided to boil a brew. A few hours later I was off the owner’s land, and pitched in a hammock between two trees.
Happy, safe and legal. You will almost never have to explain yourself. Although signs that say “Trespassers will be prosecuted” are rare and inaccurate, they’re a good indicator that this is not a good place to sleep.
The National Parks Authority website has a section on wild camping, which advises campers to ask landowners’ permission, and also offers basic tips, nationalparks.gov.uk
It can be complicated to know exactly where you can pitch your tent. However
hear are some guidelines:
From Cape Wrath to Gretna; every loch, trail and white-sand beach. The lowlands, peaks and what’s left of the forest.
It’s impossible to overstate how liberating it feels to roll a tent into the wild virtually anywhere without fear of
being asked to move or pay. Freedom to sleep and wild camp was restored as a right in 2003 under the land reform act.
Although not enshrined in law (except in Dartmoor and Scotland), camping on mountains is mostly considered acceptable as part of a traditional and historic use of hills dating back centuries. Many landowners consider the minimum necessary height for wild camping to be 1500 feet – literally hundreds of hills fall within that category.
3) The foreshore
You are unlikely to be breaking the law if you sleep on the foreshore. You are free to night fish, navigate water or to rest while waiting for the tide to return.
4) Middle Earth
You are not breaking the law when you sleep outdoors in Middle Earth if you have the owner’s permission, either directly or implied (e.g. kayaking or fishing with a license on a canal). (Middle earth references the largest bit of land, wedged between the foreshore and the mountains.
Camping is not illegal here, but it is polite to ask first – see also caveats noted previously).
The 100 camps in my book fall into the four bedzones. The camps are all associated with a single trail, river or canal that is either a place to sleep or an important link to other sites.
4 Great Wild Camping UK Islands
England Scilly Isles
The Scilly Isles archipelago comprises of 140 islands and islets 28 miles off Land’s End. Just five are inhabited. They’re owned by the Duchy of Corwall and since 1930 the islands have had their own county council.
Many of the islands can be walked to at low tide. There is a campsite on St Martin’s, near to the beach. Wild camping is not allowed but 24-hour fishing is which necessitates the need to sleep, as is the right to navigate the islands by canoe or kayak.
The waters are shallow so it is wise to carry a bivy, warm clothing and food to wait for the tide to return after six hours.
Practical information: Forage on seashells and fish 24 hours around the Eastern Isles, south of St Martin’s. (49.948536 – 6.2625177).
Travel Fly from Exter, New Quay or Land’s End or by ferry from Penzance. Kayaks and canoes can be taken on the ferry.
Wales – Anglesey
Anglesey is Wales’s largest island, although it is connected to the mainland by two bridges – this connection does not detract from the nature of separation. The Anglesey Costal Path navigates almost the entire costal circumference (124 miles) and the route passes farmland, foreshore, woodland and costal heath and very rarely leaves the sea.
Practical information: Walk more than 20 miles anti-clockwise along the costal path, from just south of the Menai Strait/Britannia Bridge (53.185465 – 4.2218399) to Carmel Head (53.185465 – 4.5737457), and find caves, sandy coves and foreshore all the way for camping and foraging.
Travel Railway stations on Anglesey include Holyhead Valley, Rhosneigr, Ty Croes, Bodorgan and Llanfairpwll.
Ireland – Salt Island
Walking and cycling trails are allcaround. The Castle Ward Boundary Trail follows eight miles from the Shore car park to Audley’s Castle.
Separate walks for example from Delamont County Park and Kilyleagh lead down to the waterside. Waiting for the tide to go down is a good time to access the quieter parts. Canoes can explore the island. A bothy is located on Salt Island just south of Kilyleagh – one of 11 canoe launch places on the circular Strangford Lough Canoe Trail.
You’ll have to pay to use the bothy but it’s free to camp on the other side of the island at North Bay or along the shore at one of the loading stations.
Practical info: Explore by canoe or kayak and wild camp in any one of 40 islands off the coast of Whiterock (54.470087 – 5.6222534). Walk the causeway to the six-acre Rough Island at low tide (54.56438613).
Travel Trains and buses to Belfast, Bangor, Newtownards, Killinchy, Greyabbey, Portaferry and Strangeford.
Scotland – Summer Isles
The Summer Isles are drenched in thousands of acres of sea forest. Weed and algae bulge from the Atlantic blue. The clear waters around these islands are refreshingly warm as they are heated by the Gulf Stream. Mind you I still wear a wetsuit in case someone has turned the temperature down over the pond!
The seaweed can be eaten or explored. One of the Summer Isles is developed – Tanera Mor has a café and post office and a single-track that navigates the eastern anchorage. The other islands require basic living. Canoe-camping is the easiest way to explore the coves and tracks.
Priest Island is off the west coast of Wester Ross. There are several caves, one of which (on the south side) is thought to have been home to a Popish priest. The Cape Wrath Trail passes the main shore next to the Isle of Martin and Loch Kanaird.
Practical info: Go snorkelling off Isle of Ristol’s sandy white beach (58.048228 – 5.433830); canoe-camp on the foreshore of any of the uninhabited smaller islands in June for a chance to see basking sharks and whales (57.98718 – 5.5096436).
Travel Buses run to Ullapool; ferries to the islands; or drive to Altandhu and kayak out to the islands from the shore.
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