‘How far are you going?’
Was the first question I was asked as I puffed my way up the track, on my way to my first solo wild camp of 2022. I was already regretting the last-minute addition of a wool jumper to my outfit.
I could have taken the jumper off of course, but I would have had to carry it.
My rucksack was already stuffed to capacity.
In an effort to develop a lightweight camping mentality, I had abandoned my 60-70 litre backpack for the 50-60 litre Lowe Alpine I usually take on day walks.
With my one-woman Vango tent strapped safely to the side, all my usual wild camping kit, and an Alpkit down blanket to supplement my ageing sleeping bag, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find room for a piece of flapjack, let alone another jumper.
Neither was I sure how to answer the question.
‘I haven’t decided yet.’
Was what I came up with. It sounded unfriendly, and wasn’t even true. I had a clear plan to backpack camp at a Dartmoor location I’d visited on previous day walks.
Mind you, I wasn’t sure I could walk that far.
‘I might go up to Three Barrows, or perhaps a bit further.’
Was my next offering. The chap seemed happy with my ability to name a location but obviously needed more information to satisfy his curiosity.
Or concern, it was hard to tell which.
‘Are you camping out?’
Given the state of my rucksack, it seemed both rude and pointless to lie.
‘Well have fun. There are some lovely spots up there.’
Is wild camping alone safe?
We parted ways amicably, and I was left pondering my reaction. I was a woman on my own, setting off on only my second solo wild camping adventure. Should I have answered differently? Was it safe to let a stranger know what I was up to?
Would I have asked the same questions if I had spotted a chap setting off to camp?
Probably yes. As well as being a freelance outdoor writer, I’m an experienced hill-dweller, and understand the risks of wild camping, especially if I’m doing it on my own. On top of that, I teach expedition skills to adults and young people.
Which makes me feel responsible for almost everybody I meet outdoors.
What is wild camping?
Perhaps better described as backpack camping, wild camping involves carrying everything you need for a safe (but not always comfortable) night, and heading off on foot, by wheelchair, or on a bike, as far away from roads, buildings and other people as you can.
Sounds simple doesn’t it.
In one sense it is but although wild camping can be a wonderful experience, it’s not always an easy one. If you relish challenge, and want to learn more about yourself, and your ability to cope in unusual circumstances, I definitely recommend it.
If you want to look Instagram-ready in the morning, I don’t.
To my mind a successful wild camp is the one where you’ve gone completely unnoticed. A whole night, with no trace left, not even a centimetre of noodle. That doesn’t mean you need to walk or wheel for miles, just that you need to choose your location carefully.
And hang on to your noodles.
Isn’t it weird to go wild camping alone?
I guess that depends on your perspective. I love wild camping with family and friends, as well as with teams of young people but solo wild camping gives me something really special.
And it’s not just the lack of snoring!
Even if things don’t go to plan, when you wild camp alone you’ll probably come back feeling more capable than when you left. This can be an affirming experience. Here’s how solo wild camping can give you that feeling.
1. You’ll get out more often
It can sometimes be difficult to coordinate camping trips with friends, especially busy outdoor-loving ones. Once you decide you can get out there on your own, you’ll find yourself with more opportunities to do so.
I’m a freelance writer. Whilst this does mean I’m often working when other people aren’t, it also gives me short-notice opportunities to get outside that I’m learning to take rather than ignore.
2. You’ll be able to make your own decisions
From deciding what to pack to planning your walking route, and choosing your tent location, every decision you make on your solo wild camping trip will be your own.
And so will the consequences.
Even when this doesn’t quite work out as planned, you’ll learn something new from each decision.
By the time I’d realised I’d forgotten my torch. It was too late to pack up and head back, I was going to have to face a long night of misty darkness alone.
Deep breath time.
I wasn’t looking forward to it but as the night progressed I realised something that will impact my camping from now on.
Outside darkness without a torch is a dull grey, it shortens your horizon considerably but offers a gentle and even circle around you
Outside darkness with a torch is a completely different matter. Beyond your small circle of vision, the torch casts shadows so dark you have no idea what’s lurking in them.
I now know which I prefer.
3. You’ll sharpen your outdoor skills
You might be surprised, when there’s nobody else to rely on, how important your own level of outdoor skill is. Whether it’s being able to navigate safely, packing enough calories, or pitching your tent in windy weather. If you couldn’t do something well when you set out, you’ll have improved by the time you come back.
You’ll also have learned how to use multiple skills at once.
All I could think about was getting back to the track. I managed to shove a chocolate bar in my pocket but I didn’t stop for breakfast, and I didn’t make a hot drink.
I knew this was a mistake at the time.
My repacked bag only just did up. The last thing I wanted to do was open it again to get food and my stove out. So I just kept walking. Two hours later I felt light-headed.
My decision-making ability was compromised.
Luckily this route just required me to follow a track. If I’d been doing more serious navigation I might have got things wrong.
Note to self: Breakfast is important.
4. You’ll feel epic when you get back home
There’s really nothing like that, ‘I did that’ feeling. Wild camping can often be type two fun; tricky and uncomfortable at the time but a fantastic memory afterwards. Do it on your own, and you’ll be able to attribute all those positive feelings to yourself.
You might also decide to take a friend next time.
There’s no doubt about it, having time on your own to really contemplate the stars, the sunrise, even the rain, is a marvellous experience. You’ll be making memories to hold on to.
Just don’t expect to capture all of that in photos.
Wild camping scenes are usually more soggy and bedraggled than social media would suggest. Those brilliantly lit tent-at-night pictures require good lights and great cameras, most nights you won’t want to keep the tent door open long enough to photograph the view.
And as for the hair, well best not to think about that.
Is it safe to wild camp alone?
Although wild camping in the UK has gained in popularity, solo wild camping is still a relatively niche experience. The thought of a night alone on a dark hill isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
And it does carry certain risks.
Although not as many risks as being remote without your camping gear. Let’s face it, with your home on your back, you can stop anywhere if you have to. Most problems look easier to solve in the morning than they do in the evening.
Even if you haven’t slept well.
Accidents however can happen, and there’s no doubt that managing an injury alone would be more tricky than if you had help but being adequately prepared can help mitigate those risks. Pack a first aid kit, keep your phone battery for emergencies, and let at least one sensible person know your planned route and return time.
What about risks from other people?
In all my years of camping, I’ve only been concerned about another person once, and that was on a campsite.
One of the great things about wild camping, whether you’re going solo or not, is that you can be pretty sure nobody else is there.
Is solo wild camping scary?
We are all subject to certain fears, and wild camping alone can be scary. Whether it’s cows, strangers, or the dark itself, each time you face a particular fear, you’ll understand better how to deal with it next time.
Solo camping is a mind game but it’s one you can win.
Some fears can be counteracted by recognising them before you set off. If you’re worried about being too cold, pack extra gear or a hand warmer, if you’re concerned about your navigation, get some skills, and visit your camp spot in daylight first.
If you’re worried about going to the toilet outside, just give it a go (but take your loo roll home).
Other fears may come to you overnight.
In my panic I couldn’t find the tent zip. My torch was at home, my phone was in my sleeping bag somewhere. The zip was nowhere.
I felt something behind my head. It was my walking boots. They had moved. My panic grew.
I took a deep breath. Then another. I started to calm. All that yoga was paying off. My sensible thought patterns returned. My boots hadn’t walked on their own so something else must have moved.
That something else was me.
In my tiny tent, I’d managed to turn 90 degrees so that my boots, and the tent zip were behind me.
Is it illegal to wild camp in the UK?
This is possibly one of the most contentious questions you could ask about wild camping. The answer is fairly straightforward.
But the relationship between the legalities and what actually happens isn’t.
I’ve listed a few basic ‘where can I wild camp’ answers, and given you some useful links below but my advice would be to talk to local experts in the area you are planning to visit. In national parks, this would be the relevant National Park Authority.
Remember, your goal should be to be invisible.
- In most of Scotland access rights extend to lightweight, small number, no more than three nights, wild camping. This doesn’t include within enclosed areas or near buildings, structures or roads. It also doesn’t apply to campervans or motorhomes. You’ll find more information on responsible wild camping in Scotland here.
- In the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park seasonal bylaws affect camping rights between March 1st and September 30th every year. This restricts wild camping in some areas, where a permit scheme has been introduced. Some permits but not all, allow for campervan and motorhome camping. You’ll find more information on permit camping in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park here.
- In England and Wales there is currently no legal right to wild camp without permission from the landowner. To obtain this, you can either contact a landowner before you set off (your Ordnance Survey map might help with this but a national park authority may not be able to) or you could ask a local farmer for permission to camp overnight in a field. If you do decide to wild camp without permission, choose a high, lonely spot, away from towns, villages, beaches and lakes.
- On Dartmoor there are permitted camping areas but you need to check the camping map and advice from Dartmoor National Park Authority to check which areas. You also need to check for Army live firing if you plan to camp on the North Moor. Campervan or motorhome wild camping is not permitted on Dartmoor.
Dartmoor wild camping updateJanuary 2023The picture for wild camping on Dartmoor has changed following a well-publicised High Court decision.This is a developing and controversial situation. Thanks to efforts by the Dartmoor Commons Owners’ Association and Dartmoor National Park Authority, there are currently some areas on Dartmoor where you are still permitted to backpack/wild camp. You can read the news release from Dartmoor National Park Authority here. Please find below a summary.
- You can currently wild camp on a reduced area of Dartmoor
- You can view the new Dartmoor wild camping map here
- If you camp within this area, you don’t need to seek the landowner’s permission
- If you camp within this area, you don’t need to make an individual payment
- This is a permissive agreement, which means it can be removed
- Which means it’s more important than ever to make sure you adopt a leave-no-trace approach
- Large groups, barbecues and campfires on Dartmoor are still prohibited
- If you’re keen to stick to all of the rules, you might find a basic camping site more manageable. Since the pandemic, there have been more of these available, especially in the summer months. Check out the Greener Camping Club and Nearly Wild Camping for some great options.
How do you pick wild camping locations for a solo camp?
We’ve all written so much about where to wild camp that the advice has started to conflict.
‘Camp near the road!’ ‘Don’t camp near the road!’
‘Camp near water!’ ‘Don’t camp near water!’
‘Take a Pot Noodle!’ ‘Don’t take a Pot Noodle!’
This is where a bit of common sense can go a long way.
Once you’ve understood the legalities and niceties of wild camping, most of the rest is down to a bit of good old fashioned sensible thinking.
If you have mobility issues, a location that is nearer the road but still invisible might make sense. If it’s been raining, pitching right next to a river won’t.
By the way, I’m a secret Pot Noodle lover but they don’t make a good expedition food. Try to hydrate one on a really cold day, and you’ll find out why.
My best wild location camping tip would be to stay within the parameters of your ability.
Choosing a location is much easier if you’re wild camping solo because the only abilities you’ll need to take into account will be your own. Ask yourself these questions.
- How strong are my navigation skills?
- How fit am I (with a heavy rucksack on)?
- How much discomfort can I put up with?
Then make sure you take the answers into account when you do the planning for your wild camping trip. If you’re a great navigator, head off into the middle of nowhere. If you’re super fit, plan lots of hills into your route. If you’re happy to be a bit chilly and damp, try an out-of-season camp.
If you’re none of the above, don’t worry. There’s a wild camping location that will suit you. All you need to do is get your map out, and start exploring.