Wild camping in a motorhome or campervan is on the increase in the UK. With many campsites only accepting fully self-contained vans – because of the pandemic – more and more of us are venturing into the wild.
But during the summer last year things got close to being out of hand. Reports flooded in almost daily of police fining people sleeping in vans and litter being left strewn all over the place (even though much of this was left by people in tents).
Our concern is that if we’re not careful, wild camping in a motorhome, RV or campervan could become a thing of the past.
On this page we’ll look at safe, responsible and respectful wild camping and we’ll cover the many things you can do to stop yourself getting into trouble and protect the environment.
Let’s go into the wild…
- Into the wild
- What exactly is wild camping?
- Our first wild camp
- Wild camping precautions to fend off mad axe murderers!
- Seven things we learned on our first wild camp
- The basic rules of wild camping in a motorhome
- Being prepared for the wilderness
- Our biggest wild camping issue
- Using motorhome service points
- Can I empty my motorhome loo in public toilets?
- The campaign for real Aires in the UK
- Finding places to wild camp
- Apps to find wild camping locations
- Wild camping in Scotland
- Wild camping in a motorhome – summary
- Can you help us? Please answer our wild camping questionnaire
Into the wild
When Chris McCandless left the confines of modern life and set up camp in an old bus in the wilds of Alaska, he was addressing a yearning in us all. Getting back to nature and reconnecting to something more essential in us is what drives the urge to wild camp.
If you’ve not seen the film or read the book, ‘Into the Wild‘, put it on your list! It’s one of our favourites.
Referred to as ‘boon-docking’ in the US, wild camping is something we’d wanted to do for ages but kept putting off for one reason or another. Our imaginations had gotten the better of us…
What if the police tell us to move on? Maybe there’ll be a gang of rebel-rousers looking for trouble? What if there’s a mad axe man in the night?
See, when we first got our van we always used campsites, booking in advance and planning our route before we left home. We knew exactly where to go and that we would be spending the night somewhere safe.
Being risk-averse curtailed any spontaneity though. So, we got a little braver, looking for a campsite, trusting to chance, whilst actually out on the road.
This gave us the freedom to turn left or right but the downside was that we’d waste time searching the internet on our phones for a nearby campsite which was a) open and b) answering their phone. Many were not.
In the end we decided we had no alternative. The call of the wild became overwhelming. We bit the bullet and went for it, stepping way out of our comfort zones!
What exactly is wild camping?
Well, ok, we were not going into the wilds of Alaska, like in the movie. There would be no grizzly bears lunging at us from out of the darkness of the forests!
So, when it comes to wild camping in a motorhome, what are we actually talking about?
To most people, wild camping is perceived as trekking miles away from anywhere with a backpack carrying basic supplies – including a trowel in case you need to dig a hole! Wild camping is about sleeping in a small tent somewhere in a field or in the woods, or on the mountainside.
To some RV-ers and motorhomers, wild camping is about sleeping overnight in a fully-fitted van on a small campsite without electric hook up. Being off the electric grid is about as wild as it gets.
To others – us included – wild camping in a motorhome is really about the freedom to park up and settle down for the night anywhere you choose, within reason. Campsites and electricity don’t come into the equation. It’s proper off-grid van life, for one night at least.
Wild camping in a motorhome is a bit more complicated than wild camping in a tent and questions abound…
- Where will we sleep tonight? (Will we be able to find anywhere to park up?)
- Will we be safe?
- What happens if there’s trouble? (Do we have a strategy in place?)
- Will we get any sleep?
- Are we breaking the law doing this?
These questions – and many more ‘what ifs’ – are an inevitable part of wild camping. We all ask them. You just have to accept that you probably won’t feel as safe out in the wilds as you would on a campsite.
Our first wild camp
So let’s take you right back to our first ever wild camp. We still remember it well. We were out in the wilds of the North Norfolk coast…and it was dark already. Very dark…
Being out in your van, as you probably already know, creates a space to drop the workaday worries and find yourself. It gives you a chance to nurture your soul and reclaim a sense of peace.
Sitting in an out-the-way spot with a simple meal and a mug of tea, watching the sun set or listening to the rain on the roof doesn’t matter; the weight of the world drops from your shoulders.
But when night approaches – and if you haven’t booked up anywhere to stay – where do you go? This was the dilemma we faced.
We’d made up our minds to risk the perils of motorhome wild camping – roughing it without a campsite – and tonight was the night! No electric hook-up. No designated pitch. Not even a campsite. This was way out of our comfort zones…
A foray into the wilds indeed, we sneaked into a small empty car park close to a nature reserve, spending the night feeling like naughty kids wondering if we would get moved on at any moment. See, you just never know.
That feeling is a constant companion on wild camping trips but you will get used to it after a while.
On a psychological level, wild camping is about stepping into the unknown. And whenever faced with uncertainty, it is human nature to prepare for any eventuality.
So, we put some safety measures in place…
Wild camping precautions to fend off mad axe murderers!
One of our primary human needs is to feel safe and secure. Being the cautious types, we agreed to the following on our first wild camp. These safety measures apply to this day and we’d recommend you follow them or make up something similar of your own.
To feel safe when wild camping overnight we decided….
- There would be no opening of any van doors to strangers during hours of darkness. If there was a knock on the door we’d keep the door closed and locked and talk to the person through the hab window. (Of course, if it was the police, we’d have to open up!) Mike Hudson talks about this in our favourite van life book. He tells of a night when a stranger knocked on his van door asking to borrow…a knife!!!
- We had to be able to get away quickly if need be. If there was any sign of trouble, such as boy racers hanging about, we wanted to be able to drive off easily. For this reason don’t use chocks or your stabilisers and have the van facing the way you want to drive away.
- Hobo Gav would always sleep closest to the door. This is still the case today!
Funnily enough, as it turned out, the wildest thing about that first night was the weather!
However, we were perversely happy to have been reported to the warden the next morning. It made us rebels! He came and gave us the, “don’t do it again,” chat. He was a nice guy though, telling us a lot about the wildlife.
The warden explained that the main reason that motorhomes were not welcome to park up overnight was that some campers emptied their onboard toilet into the little stream behind the car park, contaminating the wildlife area.
We were indignant and ashamed to be grouped with such people. Who would do such a thing?
Seven things we learned on our first wild camp
So let’s list some things we learned from our first venture into the wild…
#1 Some people wild camping in motorhomes have no respect for others or their surroundings. Have a look at the scenes of chaos in Applecross in Scotland. This type of behaviour will get wild camping outlawed.
#2 We learned that wild camping in a motorhome is not easy, especially in England. In August 2020 the BBC reported that police in Wales were issuing £70 fines to anyone caught wild-camping in their vans.
#3 Time and diesel are wasted looking for a suitable place to park up; most motorhomes are not stealth vehicles!
#4 We also learned to arrive late and leave early! Perhaps very early!
#5 We learned that taking a risk and leaving a few matters to chance can be fun. Sometimes you’ve just got to trust that all shall be well!
#6 We learned to (eventually) relax and enjoy the moment, to enjoy being out overnight in the van, somewhere far from the madding crowd, closer to nature.
#7 And this first night’s experience prompted us to research the laws about motorhome wild camping, which are rather unclear in places.
But even if the laws have several grey areas, there are definite rules you should abide by. This is our list…
The basic rules of wild camping in a motorhome
The prime directive, as far as we’re concerned, is leave nothing – bar tyre tracks.
Follow these points when you’re wild camping to help keep you out of trouble…
- Take nothing except photographs and happy memories
- Avoid going through gates or up driveways which indicates private land
- Avoid car parks with ‘no overnight camping’ signs
- Do not park in a group with other vans; it attracts too much attention. Find a secluded spot of your own
- Do not put the awning out or set seats up outside your van. You should not be seen to be camping. You are simply staying overnight
- Don’t ever empty waste tanks onto the ground or a nearby manhole. It may not lead to a sewer
- Take your litter home with you or use the nearest bin
- Try not to park where you can be seen from a house – chances are they will report you
- Think security – trust your instincts if a place feels wrong
- Look out for gates or height barriers which could close behind you
- Make sure you have enough fresh water, fuel, and a fully charged battery (or a means to charge it, such as solar)
- Be careful with fires and barbeques. It’s probably best not to attract attention to yourself. Who wants to be giving off smoke signals when you’re trying to be inconspicuous?
The bottom line is this…
Be respectful and responsible and the dreaded “NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING” signs won’t turn up to haunt us all.
And here’s another good idea…
Usually we wild camp at any one place for one night only unless it is a recognised wild camping spot where we know the authorities are turning a blind eye. Remember, you’re not setting up camp – you’re simply staying the night.
The wild camping rule of thumb is this: if you keep a low profile the police or anyone else generally won’t ask you to move on. Low profile means no noise, no rubbish, no fires, and no awning set up. And please be polite if you see anyone or are asked to move on. It’s about being responsible and respectful to others and the environment.
If you are willing to adhere to the ‘rules’ – and brave enough to deal with the uncertainty that is par for the course with wild camping – you’ll want to go fully prepared…
Being prepared for the wilderness
If your van has all the latest gadgets and uses a lot of electricity, make sure that when you go off-grid your leisure batteries are fully charged or that you have a way of charging them. The thing is, batteries won’t last long if you’re using too much electricity.
Solar energy is great and in 2020 we bought ourselves a solar panel. If you wild camp a lot, it is worth looking into. You must have some way of charging things and solar seems to be the most eco-friendly way of doing it.
We use a USB and three-pin plug adaptor in the cigarette lighter whilst on the move to charge computers and phones. That works well if we have a long drive. Parked up, it becomes an inverter that connects to the solar power’s control panel.
RELATED CONTENT: See our full solar panel set-up in our RV Extras shop
A good quality torch is essential if you’re in really dark places. You just never know when you might need to venture outside the van.
We’ve already mentioned not using levelling chocks when wild camping. But if you’re on really uneven ground and it’s blowing a gale (and if you feel the place is safe) you might still want to use them.
We’ve had a few rough nights in Scotland and Wales where the wind rocked the van all night. We could have lowered the stabilisers but that, of course, would have prevented a quick get-away if needed.
Amusingly, we saw a chap testing an uneven car park with a spirit level. Yes, we’re not kidding. One step too far, we decided, but who were we to judge? We had already taken the flattest space!
Our biggest wild camping issue
Perhaps the most essential item you’ll need – wild camping or otherwise – is toilet paper!
We’re going to get a little bit personal here and hope you don’t mind…
See, the biggest wild camping issue for us was not about the possibility of our lives coming to an end via the flailing arms of a mad axe man. No, it was about using the onboard loo for number twos! It just seemed wrong.
Maybe because we don’t have an en-suite at home? We’re just not used to doing this in close proximity!
In the end we overcame our inhibitions by turning the radio (or You Tube) up loud and just got on with it. Sometimes you just gotta go! This became our favourite loo song…
But a question arises here…
What do you do with the waste if you’ve been wild camping for a few days, the grey and black water? Where do you empty it all? Well, this is what we do…
When on a ‘wild camping tour’ we will book onto a campsite every few days to empty grey and black waste tanks, and fill up with fresh water. Simple.
But having to venture onto campsites every few days is a stark reminder that facilities for motorhomers in the UK fall way short of our European neighbours…
Using motorhome service points
It is possible to avoid campsites altogether by using motorhome service points at garages – if you can find any.
The thing is that the UK is miles behind when it comes to service points for motorhomes. In France, for instance, there is an extensive network of ‘aires de service‘ all over the country.
Not so in the UK…
Here, you might have to resort to emptying your toilet cassette into a public loo. Though this is not going to make you popular! And is it even fair on local folk who need to use (and pay for) these facilities?
Even grey waste must be disposed of responsibly: grey water (from your sinks) can smell as offensively as black (the toilet). Cree, our van, certainly has a malodorous whiff at times! If you use “green” environmentally-friendly products, so much the better.
Can I empty my motorhome loo in public toilets?
In response to an email we received, we asked our Twitter followers about emptying toilet cassettes in public loos. It seems that many motorhomers have used public toilets at some point without apparent problems.
However, the Highland Council told us that they’ve had to close public amenities due to blockages. Whilst we may not all agree that this is solely due to motorhomers, it seems that us motorhomers get the blame – like we do for much of the litter left behind from people wild camping in tents.
The thing is that emptying the motorhome loo into public toilets can be a contentious issue with local people. Are we really sure that the toilet is not subsequently blocked as we travel obliviously onwards?
As responsible motorhomers, we are keen not to upset anybody living in the area where we wild camp. We accept that motorhomes are not always popular when they arrive en masse along small country roads. Therefore we stress that it is vitally important to dispose of black and grey waste and onboard litter carefully. This must – if at all possible – be into designated receptacles.
In our opinion using public toilets to empty your black water cassette should be an absolute last resort. If it’s full to the brim and you cannot find a designated waste disposal facility or campsite, you might have no alternative but to use a public toilet. Rather that than tipping it down a drain or into a ditch (heaven forbid!)
The campaign for real Aires in the UK
What all this points to is the lack of proper facilities in the UK for motorhomes.
CaMPA (campervan and motorhome professional association) provide a map of Scottish waste disposal points. There are far more disposal points than we realised. It also reiterates correct and responsible procedures for disposing of your motorhome waste.
The more responsible motorhome owners are, the less trouble we cause people who live in the lovely areas we wish to visit. Then we are welcome – or at least tolerated. The dreaded No Overnight Camping signs and height barriers don’t get erected.
The thing to remember is that many “out of the way” places beloved by motorhomers are not connected to mains sewers. Motorhome loo chemicals may prevent a septic tank from working properly. Also someone has to pay for the tank to be emptied. Consider the chemicals you use and have green ones for when you are asked to use them.
But, the main point is that if locals are not happy, then we will have problems. So be mindful at all times. Respect the land and those who live there!
Hopefully the day will come when Britain finally makes an effort to catch up with our friends across the channel. You can do your bit by signing the petition and joining the Campaign for Real Aires in the UK…
Finding places to wild camp
Since our early wild camping experiences, we have spent many nights on unauthorised ground. We always respect “no overnight camping” signs, we respect our fellow travellers, we respect the environment.
Some places have a spectacular view, others are simply somewhere to park up and sleep.
The good news is that some councils in tourist areas are waking up to the fact that motorhomes are becoming increasingly popular. They are providing designated parking spaces and overnight stop areas. There are plans in Scotland to provide motorhome service points along the NC500.
Closer to home, in our birth town of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, you can park in your van all night in Ram Meadow car park for just £1.
However, sadly, some councils are making motorhome parking more difficult. Many car parks have height barriers, leaving us with the impression that, as motorhomers, we are not welcome. And more car park signs now clearly state that overnight camping is not allowed.
So, if it’s difficult to find a place to park up and sleep in towns and cities, it’s best to stay in the countryside.
Apps to find wild camping locations
We have spent a few nights “roughing it” in Wales, including one night at the Pen Y Pass car park along the Llanberis pass in Snowdonia. We paid £10 for a 24 hour ticket and slept in our van all night. We’re not sure this was legal, but nobody said anything. We suspect you wouldn’t be able to get away with this now, not after the wild camping shenanigans of last year.
So, instead of trusting to luck, what can you do to locate some of the best wild camping spots?
Britstops – although not strictly wild camping – makes for a good back-up if you can’t find anywhere to stay, though you do need to be a member. And, of course, there is the Pub Stopovers scheme. Both of these offer an alternative to using campsites.
Wild camping in Scotland
And then there is Bonnie Scotland, land of the free. Or is it?
The rules seem to be different here, compared to other parts of the UK. Although the right to pull over and sleep is not actually enshrined in law in Scotland – it is certainly more tolerated north of the border.
From August 2020 in Scotland a new scheme was trialled called ‘Stay the Night’ where you could park your van in forest car parks. It was designed for motorhomes and campervans only – not for people in cars with tents. The trial went well and the scheme is being repeated in 2021. We feel it’s a great idea for us motorhomers. After all, 99% of us are decent, responsible people.
Our advice, whether you’re north or south of the border, is to be sensible, considerate, and respectful. If you’re in any doubt about a place, either ask for permission from the landowner (if there’s anyone about) or move on and find somewhere else.
The thing is that we wild-camped all over Scotland during our honeymoon road trip in 2019 . We drove until the sun got low before pulling over. We had no trouble from anybody. And we caused no trouble for anybody. That’s how it should be.
Each morning we woke to a different view. The header picture on our home page was taken in the Cairngorms. Another time we parked up overlooking a loch on the way to the Isle of Skye. And the night we spent beside a babbling mountain stream was our best wild camp ever.
Wild camping in a motorhome – summary
So, in summary, wild camping in a motorhome is about being able to stop almost anywhere, without relying on a campsite. It is about having the freedom to roam; to turn left or right as the mood takes you and to pull over and rest up when need be. But it must be done responsibly.
It’s clear that in the UK it is easier to wild camp in some places than it is in others. Indeed, in some parts it is becoming more and more difficult. For the most part though, if you are respectful to others and the environment, your wild camping adventures should pass without too much trouble.
And even if there is a brush with the law, a landowner, or boy racers, you’ve got a great vanlife story to tell! Please share it with us in our questionnaire (see below).
If you’d like to be kept up to date with all the latest changes to wild camping regulations and the development of Aires in the UK subscribe to our free monthly newsletter.
Before we end this article we’d like to ask you a question…
Can you help us? Please answer our wild camping questionnaire
2020 saw a massive increase in wild camping in motorhomes and campervans – and for a while things were not looking good!
As pointed out above, litter was often left strewn about by mindless idiots, giving us all a bad name. Councils, landowners, and the police started clamping down to the point that we now fear for the future of wild camping in a motorhome.
Unless we do something it looks like we’re all going to be marshalled onto warden-controlled campsites, like sheep into a pen.
We mustn’t let that happen!
Please help us gather some objective data by completing our short questionnaire about your wild camping experiences in your motorhome, RV or campervan. We must all fight for our freedom!
P.S. If you’ve already sent your answers we’d like to say a huge thank you! We’re going to continue to gather data throughout 2021 as we suspect the wild camping situation won’t be resolved for some time to come!
Remember, keep updated on all that’s happening by subscribing to our mailing list. We’re keeping an eye on what’s going on and we will publish our findings in our newsletters so you won’t miss a thing.