PAGE UPDATED: 8.12.2021
The number of people wild camping in a motorhome has seen a dramatic increase over the last two summers. With overseas travel restricted – and a deeper appreciation of being in nature – it seems like we’ve all wanted to venture into the wild.
But what exactly does it mean to wild camp in a motorhome? Is wild camping legal in England and Wales? What about the situation north of the border: can you wild camp in a motorhome in Scotland?
These are just some of the wild camping questions we’ll be answering on this page.
Our concern is that if we’re not careful, wild camping in a motorhome, RV or campervan could soon be banned entirely if the last two summers are anything to go by…
Almost every day we saw news reports of police fining people sleeping in vans and litter being left strewn all over the place (even though much of this was left by youngsters camping in tents).
Not to mention the ever increasing number of ‘No Overnight Camping’ signs going up.
So, on this page we’ll share some of our personal experiences and look at safe, responsible and respectful wild camping that will stop you getting into trouble with locals and the police – and help protect the environment at the same time.
Let’s go into the wild…
- Into the wild
- What is wild camping in a motorhome?
- Questions about wild camping…
- The first wild camp in our motorhome
- Wild camping precautions to fend off mad axe murderers!
- Seven things we learned on our first motorhome wild camp
- The basic rules of wild camping in a motorhome
- Getting your motorhome ready for wild camping
- Our biggest wild camping issue
- Where do you empty the motorhome loo when wild camping?
- Using Aires and motorhome service points
- So, can I empty my motorhome loo in public toilets?
- The campaign for real Aires in the UK
- How to find wild camping places
- Using Apps to find wild camping locations
- Can you wild camp in a motorhome 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 America and set up camp in an old bus in the wilds of Alaska – as told poignantly in the book, ‘Into the Wild‘ – he was addressing a yearning in us all. Getting back to nature and reconnecting to something more essential is what drives the urge to wild camp.
It’s about getting off the beaten track, going off-grid, and (if you’re lucky) finding your own private utopia, far from the madding crowd.
Referred to as ‘boon-docking’ in the US, wild camping in our old motorhome 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 axeman 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 on the internet searching 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 is wild camping in a motorhome?
Ok, we were not going into the wilds of Alaska, like McCandless did; 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 and perhaps more ‘rustic’ 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 has nothing to do with campsites. Indeed, campsites and electricity don’t come into the equation. It’s proper off-grid van life, where you find a quiet, secluded spot, hopefully out of the way of others, where you can settle down and sleep for the night.
That’s the theory, anyway! The truth is somewhat different and questions abound because wild camping in a motorhome is far more complicated than wild camping under canvas.
Questions about wild camping…
If you’ve not ventured into the wild yet, you will no doubt be curious about it and have a heap of questions that need answering such as…
- Where will we sleep tonight? (Will we be able to find anywhere to park up?)
- Will we be safe? (Are we cut out for this?)
- What happens if there’s trouble? (Do we have a strategy in place?)
- Will we actually get any sleep?
- Are we breaking the law?
- What if the police tell us to move on?
These questions – and many more ‘what ifs’ – are an inevitable part of wild camping. We all ask them.
One thing’s for certain: you probably won’t feel as safe out in the wilds as you would on a campsite. This might seem unnerving to begin with – even scary – but it gets easier after a while.
With that in mind, let us share with you the story of our first wild camping experience…
The first wild camp in our motorhome
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 in mid November and by 6pm it was dark already. Very dark…
As you probably already know, being out in your van 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.
On a psychological level, wild camping is about stepping into the unknown, like going on your own Hero’s Journey.
But, 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 motorhome 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 being away from other people and closer to nature.
#7 And this first night’s experience prompted us to research the laws about motorhome wild camping, which are rather woolly 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, in a ditch or stream, or even into a 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 panels)
- 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 important point…
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…
By that, we mean you will need certain gear if you’re going off-grid…
Getting your motorhome ready for wild camping
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.
RELATED CONTENT: See our full solar panel set-up
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, the same gadget becomes an inverter that connects to the solar power’s control panel.
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 uneven ground 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 most level area!
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 axeman. No, it was about using the onboard loo for number twos! It just seemed wrong.
Maybe because we don’t have an en-suite back 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…
Where do you empty the motorhome loo when wild camping?
What do you do with the toilet waste if you’ve been wild camping for a few days? And what about ‘grey’ waste from the sinks and shower? Where do you empty it all?
The thing is that a full toilet will begin to smell after a while, as will the grey water tank, so you’ll want to empty them well before they get full. But how, if you’re away from any facilities?
Well, this is what we do…
When on a ‘wild camping tour’ we will book onto a campsite every second or third day to empty grey and black waste tanks, and fill up with fresh water. Simple. Yes, it means you’ll have to pay to camp but that’s far better than having your toilet waste overspill into your van – or tipping your waste into a ditch – heaven forbid!
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 Aires and 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!
So, 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.
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, such as on the NC500.
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 than tipping it down a drain or into a ditch. Please don’t do that!
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.
We use these environmentally-friendly products, for our motorhome toilet.
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!
The good news is that the UK is piloting some Aires which should be up and running for 2022. We’re finally making 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…
How to find wild camping places
So far we’ve talking about some of the practicalities of wild camping in a motorhome and reassured you that over time it does become more comfortable.
Indeed, since our early wild camping experiences we have spent many nights on ‘unauthorised’ ground. But we always respect ‘No Overnight Camping’ signs, our fellow travellers, the local people, and the environment (often cleaning up other people’s rubbish).
Some places have a spectacular view, others are simply somewhere to park up and sleep.
As well as pilot schemes for Aires in the UK, some councils in tourist areas are waking up to the fact that motorhomers boost the economy and 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 and others have length restrictions 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.
RELATED CONTENT: Why do councils make it so difficult to park? And why are motorhomers getting the blame for everything? Read our thoughts in ‘Vanlife Vendetta’
Using Apps to find wild camping locations
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.
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 if 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 the last two summers.
So, instead of trusting to luck, what can you do to locate some of the best wild camping spots?
We’ve used these apps to find places to wild camp…
- Search for Sites – a really popular app/website
- Park 4 Night – both Search for Sites and Park 4 Night can be really useful, though some of the locations shown on their maps have since disappeared
- Britstops – although not wild camping, Britstops makes for a good back-up if you can’t find anywhere wild to camp, though you do need to be a member.
- And, of course, there is the Pub Stopovers scheme which, like Britstops, offers you an alternative to campsites.
RELATED CONTENT: See what we say about Britstops in our blog post: Is it really free?
Can you wild camp in a motorhome in Scotland?
Ah, Bonnie Scotland, the land of the free. Or is it? Can you stop anywhere in a motorhome in Scotland?
Short answer: NO!
The ‘rules’ certainly seem to be different north of the border, compared to other parts of the UK. In Scotland there is a ‘right to roam’ and although wild camping in a tent is allowed, the Access Code states that the freedom to wild camp doesn’t include using motorised vehicles.
That said, even though the right to sleep in your campervan is not actually enshrined in law, wild camping is certainly more tolerated in Scotland.
Our advice, whether you’re wild camping north or south of the border, is to be sensible, considerate, and respectful. Try to get permission from the landowner (if there’s anyone about). And if in any doubt about a place, move on and find somewhere else.
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 was repeated with similar success in 2021. We feel it’s a great idea for us motorhomers. After all, 99% of us are decent, responsible people.
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 can be if you follow the advice in this article.
Each morning we woke to a different view. The header picture on our home page was taken in the Cairngorms. On another occasion we parked up overlooking a loch on the way to the Isle of Skye. And our wedding night 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 having to rely on campsites. 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 and mindfully.
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 van life 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 and 2021 saw a massive increase in wild camping in motorhomes and campervans – and sometimes things got out of hand!
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 – or at least campaign for better facilities like Aires!
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 right into 2022 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.