Getting into Wild Camping
Updated: May 10, 2020
If you've never done it before, wild camping can be quite a daunting experience, especially if you're relatively new to spending time in the mountains. My own first wild camp was traumatic. I pitched by the edge of a woodland, next to a lake. The mist came down and it was already getting dark when I arrived. It got worse as the night progressed. I heard noises in the woods behind me... branches snapping. Animals breathing.. I had visions of being dragged out of my tent by a ghoul. I literally had nightmares! I did survive the night and the sense of reward the next morning was worth it. So satisfying. Then I got to practice some nav on the way back to to the cafe. All in all: Success!
I love it now. I take my daughter and we camp in the mountains with Gwen. What an experience for any young child to have.
I'm guessing if you're reading this, you're interested in giving it a go, so I've written a little guide to help you get started. Part of the satisfaction for a lot of people is refining their kit over time. We go out, make mistakes or just have the occasional 'moment' and learn. Make adjustments and the next one is a bit better.
The first thing I will say to you is:
Be patient. It's OK to get things a bit wrong occasionally. Stick with it. You're probably not going to die. You probably are going to have a crap night or two, but It's all part of the learning curve. Don't give up.
Extra kit you will need.
Amassing the kit for wild camping can take time and money. Some things are necessary and some things aren't. If you take your time and get a bit here and a bit there, it's not too painful. Don't feel like you have to have the best, the lightest, the smallest - the most expensive of everything right from the start. If you are able to get the best equipment, go for it. If you can't, don't stress. I'm going to assume you have a standard walking kit that you already carry for a mountain day and so, for this blog, I will focus only on additions for camping.
Definitely a good pace to start. I carry a vango banshee. I have two versions, the Banshee 200 & Banshee 300. Each tent cost me in the region of £100. They're not top spec but they work. They do the job and I've never got wet inside them apart from when I've spilled a drink. Shop around, see what you can afford. Balance weight/quality vs. affordability. I'm quite rough with my tents. My dog and my daughter often camp with me so I just won't spend hundreds of pounds on one. I carry my tent in a 40L dry bag, in the bottom of my back pack. You should also think about your walking kit when picking your tent. Will you be able to store it all inside overnight or will it have a porch where you can leave your boots & bag? Will you be camping alone? As a rule, I like to think of a one person tent as little more than a bivvy bag with poles. A two person tent is good for one person and some kit. A three person could squeeze two people and maybe a small dog!
I'd recommend you look for a 3 season bag to get you started. Try to keep the weight and size to a minimum, balanced against cost. Remember, it doesn't have to be gucci. Shop around before you commit. Try to keep it less than 1000g. Again, I keep mine in a dry bag. They are good for keeping them as compact as possible.
There are many out there. I use a Mountain Equipment Helium. It might be worth having a look at the Alpkit website. I would definitely recommend getting one that rolls down small so that you can store it inside your bag. As a rule, I like to keep all my camping kit inside my bag where it is dry, tidy, safe and secure. Snowdonia is wet and windy at times!
Large Backpack: Around 60L.
While you're getting started, go big. Give yourself plenty of space to carry everything you will need plus some things you just might need! If you talk to people online, in groups on facebook or in the cafe, you'll always get that one person who tells you they can carry enough kit to survive for 16 weeks in the arctic in a handbag. Ignore them. Be kind to yourself. Remember that part of the pleasure of wild camping is refining your kit and figuring out what you need/want. Over time you might get all the best and lightest kit and shrink down your pack size but for now, just make sure you can carry what you think you will need. I carry an Osprey Aether 70L. I can fit everything I need inside it with no issues. It's incredibly comfy and I can walk with it for as long as I can walk with a smaller bag. It is worth getting a quality bag right from the start. This can make a huge difference, especially on multi day walks. Get fitted at an outdoor shop like Cotswold Outdoor.
There is an almost endless array of options. I carry an MSR Wind-burner. It is relatively compact and everything fits together. I cook my food inside it and eat straight out of it. It's simple, easy to use and hard wearing. Most importantly, my plunger from my home cafetiere fits nicely! I keep this flint stick inside the pot so I always have easy ignition, even with cold hands. A spoon, fork & knife comes in handy and is often forgotten. Sporks cut down on weight! (Don't get cheap plastic ones that snap)
Another wild camping pleasure is the food you take. When I first started, I used to carry the same food that a ten year old would take to a sleep over. Over time I have gotten a little smarter and more sensible. I have also become more environmentally conscious. The trick is to carry as much food as you can without adding excessive weight. If you're getting out the car and nipping a few hundred metres up the nearest hill, then you can probably afford tinned food, bacon, eggs and any other luxuries you fancy but if you're going on a two day adventure, it will be a good idea to carry as much dried food as you can. There is a company called Firepot, offering expedition meals in compostable packaging. If you want easy to prepare meals, have a look at them. I carry a tub of porridge oats pre-mixed with dried milk which will see me through a few days worth of breakfasts with minimal weight and packaging waste. The more packaging you carry, the more likely you are to accidentally lose some. Not all litter (pollution) is intentional. I carry a hip flask with some Honey JD as a treat. I keep a separate little brew bag, too, with a mix of morning refreshments. I really try to minimise my environmental impact, on and off the hill, so I'm going to experiment with preparing all my own food and dehydrating it at home. Then I can choose exactly what I eat and carry it in re-useable containers.
Carrying enough water for multiple days or even just a day and a night is quite impractical. I carry my 1L bottle and fill it up as I need to. I will use all my cooking water straight from a local source (stream, river, lake) as it will be getting boiled anyway. If I can't be sure that there is a clean source of water to fill up my bottle throughout the day, I will boil extra in the morning and let it cool somewhere out of the way as I eat breakfast and pack my kit up.
Food. Please do not leave any food waste at the site as this can harm wild life. You might want to carry a separate plastic bag for your meal waste and packaging, which you can empty at home and recycle. Again, think about the wider environmental impact of carrying excessive amounts of packaging in the first place, whether you loose it or not. Even if you take it all home, what happens then? Landfill? I think it's more important now than ever that we think bigger than the immediate moment of use. I know it's practically impossible not to create any waste at all and we all use some non recyclable/biodegradable packaging but that doesn't mean we shouldn't at least try to reduce our personal impact.
Human. You will need a trowel or a knife to dig a hole. Bodily waste goes in the hole. Paper & sanitary waste goes out with you. Biodegradable dog poo bags are a good option. You can then tie them up and put them in your food waste bag, to be disposed of when you get home. Don't fling it in a tree. If you are going on multi day trips, you will need the toilet. It's something that has to happen. People have been shitting in holes for thousands of years, there's nothing weird about it! You might want to think about carrying a small bottle of hand sanitiser.
If you're not prepared to dispose of your toilet waste appropriately, then hold it in until you get to a toilet or maybe stay on a camp site. Never leave bits of toilet paper on the hill. It doesn't break down as fast as you might think and it's unfair and disgusting when other people find it.
Spare torch, batteries or charging unit.
I like to know I will have a torch ready to use when I need it, so I carry a charging unit. Just a small one does me. My torch has a USB recharge socket, so I will give it a charge in the morning if I've used it a lot while camping. There are also small tent lights that you can use and hang inside your tent of a night. The important thing is to not use up all the battery on your main head torch that you might need to get off the mountain another time!
Hat & Gloves.
Even if it's high summer, nights can still get cold when you're out watching the stars.
Your body will thank you for it, especially if you travel for long periods of time or over difficult terrain with an extra heavy back pack.
Essential for unexpected weather or events. At the least one for your clothes and one for your electrics. I keep my tent in one, too, and my sleeping bag!
Wild Camping Responsibilities.
Before we start thinking about how to plan for the best night, we have to look at some of the issues around wild camping. In Scotland, you have the right to walk and camp pretty much wherever you choose, on open land. This is NOT the case in England and Wales. You simply do not have the legal right to camp on open access land without permission. To understand open access land, you should read about the CRoW act, which 'normally gives public a right of access to land mapped as open country (mountain, moor, heath and downland) and 'registered common land''
You can argue the moral point of who really 'owns' the land we all walk on, but to the best of my knowledge, you can't argue the legal one - unless you're prepared for a fight!
Good News/Bad News.
Bad news: Unless you gain permission from the land owner, wild camping in Snowdonia is technically trespassing.
Good news: Most landowners are realistic and understand that wild camping happens and accept it on the grounds that we as campers respect the land and it's uses. It's give and take on both sides.
There are different kinds of landowners and uses that we should be mindful of; primarily land that is used for agriculture and land that is managed for environmental purposes. We have the right to roam across the vast majority of it, with exceptions to specific areas and some which is private. On OS Explorer 1:25k maps, the open access land is shaded in a yellow tint and the private land is white. Please don't camp on land marked as private without permission and when passing through, if you are allowed, keep to the marked path or designated areas.
To keep the balance of fair access for us, alongside respecting the workers of the land and protecting the environment, we should keep to a code of conduct. We should also be respectful of other recreational users of the land. The underlying principle is about being respectful and discrete.
Be discreet when choosing a wild camping spot. Set up camp away from any main paths, lakes, houses, farms or basically anywhere where other people are likely to pass in close proximity to you. Camp in a tent that is discreetly coloured and camp high.
Only camp on open access land where possible. If you are planning to camp on private land. Always seek permission before setting up.
Set up late and leave early. Stay in one place for one night, two at the most. If you do stay for two nights, pack up your tent during the day.
Don't camp in large groups. If there are a few tents, spread them out over a larger area to reduce the impact. This might mean a little pre planning to find a suitably sized and discrete location.
Be respectful with your behaviour. Don't rock up with speakers, bags full of alcohol and have a rave. If there are other people around, respect their space.
Respect the animals that live there. You are in their home after all. Check out this blog for some more info about camping near wild life and respecting the environment.
Leave if you are asked to do so. If a landowner does approach and wants you to leave, please respect it and leave.
Protect the environment. Don't move rocks, damage plants or interfere with habitats. Don't dig the ground other than for small toilet holes. Don't remove anything.
When going the toilet, dig a hole about 30m away from any water source (stream, river, lake) and at least 15cm deep. Bury your bodily waste and carry any paper & sanitary items out, using bio-degradable bags.
Only use eco-friendly soaps when washing, and carry the water away from the source so as not to contaminate it.
Do not light fires. Snowdonia National Park, the BMC, landowners the National Trust all request people not to light ground fires when wild camping. You can buy lightweight Fireboxes which keep a small fire enclosed and off the ground. (Please don't go breaking fences, trees or anything else that might be a handy source of wood!) If you insist on making fire, maybe use one of these. Under no circumstances should you scorch the earth. Cwm Idwal was abused with wild camping and fires during summer of 2018. This is a SSSI site and the potential for habitat destruction resulting from an out of control fire in an area like this could be devastating. Remember that the more remoter sites where we choose to camp are often home to rare plants and animals. Please respect it. If you absolutely can't camp without a fire, maybe stick to camp sites or take up bothying. You only need to look at the Saddleworth Moor fire to see the damage wild fires can cause.
Leave no trace. When you are packed up and ready to leave, the only evidence of you ever being there should be a little flattened grass. That's it. Tread lightly, camp discretely, leave early. Definitely no scorched earth or toilet paper. No waste.
The same good habits apply to wild camping as when simply walking in the mountains.
Don't build piles of stones next to the path. Other people only have to waste their time removing them.
Close all gates.
Keep your dog under control at all times. Keep it on a lead any time there are sheep near and whenever you pass through private land. Your dog might be 'playing' but it can still kill a sheep, especially when lambing. It would only ever be your fault and it is your responsibility to protect the sheep from your dog and to protect your dog from being destroyed if it is caught harming livestock.
Help people if you see them in need.
Do not damage walls/fences/structures.
If you see a bit of litter, don't just take an angry picture for social media - clean it up.
Planning a wild camp.
The ability to read a map will help you plan for successful wild camps. When you're first getting started, maybe plan your camps not too far from the car. Build up your confidence and check your kit.
Look for somewhere quiet but accessible. Close enough to the car to get back to it if something goes wrong, but far enough from the road to feel like you are wild!
Look for a site near water. Though you could carry that bit extra if you are only going a few hundred metres.
Look for flat ground. Sounds obvious but even a slight angle can mean an awkward sleep.
Look for shelter. Sometimes, camping just off the summit, nestled near some rock can mean the difference between a sound night's sleep and a night of tent trauma or - worse still; damaging your shiny new tent on your first night!
Tell someone where you are going.
Check the weather. If it's going to blow a hurricane over night, maybe give it a miss!
When you have checked your kit, had a little practice setting the tent up and are ready to start doing some larger challenges, good planning will really help.
When planning a multi day walk;
Check the weather. Check the weather for both days or for as many days as you are going. Three day forecasts are usually pretty good for giving you an idea of what is on the horizon, but any more than that and you will be getting more and more of a rough estimate. Read the weather blog for some planning tips. Pay particular attention to wind speed & direction during the night of your camp.
Plan your camp location to be achievable. When setting up camp, remember the wind forecast and pick a spot that will shelter you from the worst of it. Sometimes, just behind the right lump of rock or hilly ground can make all the difference. A good guide is about 2.5km per hour average walking time. (This is including stops for food, photos, conversations) Read the route planning blog for some tips
Identify water sources along the way. Carrying two days worth of drinking water and enough for evening meals and breakfast simply isn't realistic. You can always boil enough to fill up your bottle each morning and evening if you're not confident of finding clean stream water.
Leave a route description with a reliable person. Tell them where you're going, how long you'll be away, what your fall back options are, when you'll be back and what do do if you don't actually come back! If you ask someone to look out for you, you have the responsibility to keep to your end of the deal and let them know when you have completed the route and are safe. Don't just disappear to the pub and have mountain rescue looking out for you all night.
Include alternative descents into your route plan. Identify sections of the route that may present hazards and give yourself a safety barrier. Same for if the weather unexpectedly turns. What if people are at your camp, will there be enough room? Maybe identify a back up camp location not too far away that you can get to, same night. Maybe even keep a quiet tenner (£10) tucked away for the emergency taxi if you do need to take an emergency descent. Again, good map reading skills will pay dividends.
Don't panic! Things will occasionally go wrong. weather will be worse than expected, walks will take longer (headtorch!) things will be forgotten. It's all part of it. don't give up. You will be rewarded! If the worst happens, just set your tent up and sleep it out. Get up the next day and figure things out. Wild camping should be exciting and confidence building and inspiring and challenging and amazing. Learn from your mistakes, refine your kit. Have fun!
Now get out and give it a go!
I hope this blog has given you some food for thought and will hopefully help you get out and have some good times.
I will also be running a small number of wild camping & navigation weekends in Snowdonia & Scotland during the summer months, so if you'd prefer to get out and learn together, drop me an email.