With many UK campsites re-opening – but only accepting self-contained motorhomes – wild camping is on the increase. It seems we’re all yearning for freedom after a long lockdown.
But things are close to getting out of hand. More and more reports are coming in of police fining people in vans and litter being left strewn all over the place.
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 you getting into trouble.
Let’s go into the wild…
- Into the wild
- What exactly is wild camping?
- Our first wild camp
- Wild camping precautions
- Seven things we learned on our first wild camp
- The basic rules of wild camping in a van
- Some helpful wild camping gadgets
- Our biggest wild camping issue
- Using motorhome service points
- Finding places to wild camp
- Scotland – freedom to roam?
- 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 is what drives the urge to wild camp.
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?
Are we safe here? 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 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 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.
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 out of our comfort zones and properly going into the wild!
What exactly is wild camping?
To most people, wild camping is perceived as trekking miles away from anywhere with a backpack carrying all you need – including a trowel! It’s about sleeping in a small tent somewhere in a field or the woods, or on the mountainside.
To some RV-ers and motorhomers, wild camping is 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 vanlife, at least for a night.
So, wild camping in a motorhome is a bit more complicated than wild camping in a tent and questions abound…
- How are we going to find somewhere to park the motorhome?
- Will we be safe?
- Will we actually get any sleep?
- Are we going to get into trouble doing this?
These questions – and many more – are an inevitable part of wild camping. We all ask them.
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 decided to risk the perils of motorhome wild camping – roughing it without a campsite – and there was no going back! Tonight is the night, we told ourselves.
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, spending the night feeling like naughty kids wondering if we would get moved on at any moment.
That feeling is a constant companion on wild camping trips. You get used to it after a while.
You see, wild camping is about stepping into the unknown. And whenever faced with uncertainty, it is human nature to prepare for the worst case scenario.
So, we put some safety measures in place…
Wild camping precautions
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 adhere to them or make up something similar of your own…
- No opening any van doors to strangers during hours of darkness. If there’s a knock on the door keep the door closed and locked and talk through it. (Of course, if it’s the police, you’ll have to open up!)
- Make sure you can move off quickly, just in case there’s any trouble, such as boy racers. Don’t use chocks or your stabilisers and have the van facing the way you want to drive away in the morning
- We decided that Hobo Gav would always sleep closest to the door
Funnily enough, the wildest thing about that first night was the weather, as it turned out.
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 there.
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. And just this week (the first week in August) the BBC reported that the police in Wales are now 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; our van is not a stealth vehicle!
#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!
#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 led us to research the laws about wild camping, which are woolly, to say the least.
But even if the laws about motorhome wild camping have several grey areas, there are definite rules you should follow. This is our list…
The basic rules of wild camping in a van
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.
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 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.
Here are some of the things we’ve found useful when going off-grid…
Some helpful wild camping gadgets
If your van has all the latest gadgets and uses a lot of electricity, make sure that when you go off-grid your battery is fully charged or that you have a way of charging it. The leisure battery won’t last long unless it’s re-charged.
Solar panels are great and we’ve just invested in this 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 road to charge computers and phones. That works well if we have a long drive. Parked up, the solar panel does the trick.
Then there is always the thorny question – is it really wild camping if the van is levelled with chocks? We’ve had a few rough nights – particularly in Scotland – where the wind blew through the glens. We could have lowered the stabilisers but that, of course, would have prevented a “quick get-away” if needed.
We were amused one evening when 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
We’re going to get a little bit personal here and we hope you don’t mind…
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 up loud and just got on with it. Sometimes you just gotta go!
But a question arises here…
What about 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 to fill up with fresh water. Simple.
But the need to have to do this leads to another important point about wild camping…
Using motorhome service points
It is possible to avoid campsites altogether by using motorhome service points at garages – if you can find any in the UK – or public toilets.
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 along the motorways.
In the UK you might have to resort to emptying your toilet cassette into a public loo, which is not going to make you popular! So, we suggest you smuggle it in, in a large backpack. Yes, we’re serious here! These are the things we have to do in the UK!
However, a point of caution: empty it slowly and quietly, though, if you don’t want a concerned fellow citizen to call an ambulance for you!!
Joking aside, grey water (from your sinks) can smell as offensively as black (the toilet). Cree, our van, certainly has a malodourous whiff at times!
If you use “green” environmentally-friendly products, so much the better.
Finding places to wild camp
Since those early experiences, we have spent many nights on unauthorised ground. We always respect “no overnight camping” signs, we respect our fellow man, 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 and they are providing designated parking spaces and overnight stop areas.
In our birth town of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk you can park in your van all night at one car park for just £1.
Two benefits of this: having designated spaces means that it prevents motorhomes from clogging up car parks and it leads to more tourists using the town.
However, sadly, some councils are making motorhome parking difficult. Many car parks have height barriers, leaving us with the impression that, as motorhomers, we are not welcome.
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. After all, that’s what wild camping should really be about.
We have spent a few nights “roughing it” in Wales in places where Cree could hide. A decent map or roaming data to access “searchforsites” – is always handy.
We stopped overnight for £10 at the Pen Y Pass car park along the Llanberis pass in Snowdonia. We’re not sure this was legal, but nobody said anything. We suspect you wouldn’t be able to get away with this now!
Scotland – freedom to roam?
Finally, a word about Scotland, the land of the wild camp! 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 for us motorhomers – it is certainly more tolerated in Scotland.
As of August 2020 there’s a new trial scheme in Scotland called ‘Stay the Night’ where you can park your van in forest car parks. It’s designed for motorhomes and campervans only – not for people in cars with tents.
We really hope this trial goes well and think it’s a great idea for us motorhomers. After all, 95% 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 in 2019 – driving until the sun got low before pulling over…and we had no trouble from anybody. That’s how it should be.
Each morning we woke to a different view. The header picture for our site 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.
But things are definitely changing and we’ll all have to wait and see how 2020 pans out over the coming months.
So, in summary, wild camping in a motorhome is about being able to stop almost anywhere, without relying on a campsite. It is about 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. For the most part 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 story to tell!
Before we end this article we’d like to ask you a question…
Can you help us? Please answer our wild camping questionnaire
As the lockdown eases in the UK an ever increasing amount of people are turning to wild camping in motorhomes and campervans – and it doesn’t look good!
As pointed out above, litter is often left strewn about by a few mindless idiots, giving us all a bad name. Councils, landowners, and the police are clamping down to the point we fear for the future of wild camping.
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 both before and since lockdown.
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 for a bit longer as we suspect the wild camping situation won’t be resolved for some time to come!
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