Campsite or wild camping? Which makes the best UK campervan trip?

Okay. It’s a fair cop.

I don’t always travel by train.

Mr D and I also have a campervan, in which we enjoy road trips to interesting places near and far. Places which often seem include railway stations.

You can tell who plans our road trips! 

Our campervan (Greta) is our only vehicle and a tad expensive to run, which is just one of the reasons we walk (me) and cycle (Mr D) so much when we’re at home.

Greta enjoying beach life in Wales

As well as having adventures by train.

If you’ve been on a campervan or motorhome road trip in Europe or further abroad, you’ll know that many countries are better organised than the UK when it comes to having the freedom to camp where you want to.

I call this ‘freedom with caveats’.

Here in the UK, especially in popular holiday areas like the Southwest, it’s often easier to book into a campsite than find a welcoming spot in which to park up for the night. My intention in this blog isn’t to argue the case for or against campervan or motorhome ‘freedom’ camping. That one’s a complicated issue and very much dependent on a wide range of local pressures.

Pressures which considerate road-trippers will take into account.

Instead I wanted to consider whether campsites or wild/freedom camping make for the best UK road trips when you’re travelling in a campervan or motorhome.

So far my personal record for non-campsite camping is ten days in northern Norway (cue the snow wash) but on our UK road trips, Mr D and I almost always opt for a mixture of both campsites and wilder locations.

As well as a few rather surprising car parks.

On our recent trip to visit some Scottish islands, that’s how one of my holiday days started with a poo in a hole next to a scurrying rat (loo roll packed out) and ended with luxuriation in a heated infinity pool overlooking Loch Fyne.

Some of that day was planned!

Freedom camping or wild camping

Ivanka our first campervan

Anyone who has slept in a bivvy bag or spent a night under soggy canvas will tell you that ‘wild camping’ is not the most accurate term with which to describe the luxury of a solid roof, running tap and off-the-floor bed that a campervan gives you.

Read my advice on solo wild camping…

But the search engines like it.

‘Freedom camping’ isn’t much better because one person’s freedom inevitably has an impact on someone else’s. By parking up in my ‘secret’ beach spot, I might detract from the view of walkers across the loch or risk damage to local wildlife.

But the search engines like that one too.

So, as we look at the relative pleasures of campsite or elsewhere campervan camping, I’m going to use ‘wild camping’ to refer to campervan (or motorhome) overnight parking that gives you somewhere to stay outside the bounds of a regular campsite.

Not wild but wonderful – freedom campervan life

Fred enjoying campervan life in a car park in Scotland

Let’s start with wild camping in your campervan. There’s plenty to be said for more remote campervan nights but when you’ve experienced as many of them as I have, you’ll realise the pull-up-where-you-please lifestyle isn’t all beach sunsets and cosy duvets.

In other words Instagram has been lying to you.

But let’s take the pros first. There are reasons so many of us seek out beautiful, lonely places in which to park our campervans.

And it’s not just because we’re antisocial.

Finding space away from crowds to gaze at nature and breath in fresh air can be the perfect panacea to busy, over-social lives that often don’t leave space for thought or self care.

Advantages of wild campervan camping

  • You’re less likely to be bothered by noise from other people
  • You might feel you’ve found your own slice of heaven
  • Campsites are far more expensive than they were a few years ago
  • You get the opportunity to contribute by picking up litter

Disadvantages of wild campervan camping

  • It can be quite stressful looking for a spot to stop for the night
  • You risk negatively impacting nature
  • You may get moved on (please be polite and leave)
  • You may run out of water/gas/fuel and be nowhere near services
  • Some communities prefer you not to camp wild (find out before travelling)
  • Some off-site camping spots are now busier than some campsites
  • If you’re not self-contained, you’ll need plan for your toilet requirements

Campervan camping on a campsite

Some campsites are more crowded than others

We have some wonderful campervan and motorhome campsites here in the UK. Whether you want piped TV and somewhere to blow-dry your dog (I kid you not) or an empty field and a long walk to the compost loo, it’s all available.

But you do have to pay for it.

I’ve been doing a bit of research. If I wanted to take my campervan to Devon in the first week of the summer holidays, the cost for a pitch with facilities could be as much as £35 a night.

Which makes me very happy that I already live here.

Campsite costs represent a complicated picture. Regular campsites with facilities to run will be facing the rising cost of being in business just like the rest of us.

It’s also worth noting that the current proposals for extending the permitted development right for temporary campsites (the cheaper pop-up campsites we have enjoyed post-pandemic) suggest rights be extended for tents only, and not campervans, motorhomes or caravans.

Advantages of campsite campervan camping

Even on a campsite it can be fun to shower outside
  • On a campsite you can be reassured that you’re ‘allowed’ to be there
  • A shower is a wonderful thing when you haven’t seen one for a while
  • Campsite stops allow you to fill up with water and often gas or food
  • Campsite owners are often great sources of local information
  • By buying a campsite pitch you are contributing to the local economy

Disadvantages of campsite campervan camping

  • You don’t know how noisy your neighbours are going to be
  • Some campsites have incomprehensible rules
  • The area you want to visit may not have campsites
  • You may miss out on the ‘wilder’ experience you are seeking

One rising issue (for me at least) I have found on campsites is the increase in numbers of people wanting to smoke cannabis. Each to his or her own but I prefer my air fresh when I embark on a camping trip. 

Not quite campsite, not quite wild

We have overnighted several times at all three of the Westmorland services

If you want to move around freely, the reality of most campervan or motorhome trips is that you either have to plan to the nth degree or you have to take your accommodation where you find it.

Whilst we don’t have the advantage here in the UK of the aires and stopover opportunities we find in Europe, there are ways you can travel around and stay overnight without using campsites or completely wild stops. Most of these won’t be completely free but they all cost less than many campsites.

Here are a few of our favourites.

Overnight campervan stops in the UK

  • Motorway service stations (we regularly use the Westmorland Group)
  • Pubs that offer a park for the night if you buy a meal (ring and ask)
  • Stay the Night services at some Scottish Forestry locations
  • Some local authority car parks (plenty of research required)

Just a note on the Park4Night app that so many of us use to find motorhome or campervan spots. You really do have to take these suggestions with a pinch of salt and remember that your standards may be different to someone else’s. In general the Park4Night community is respectful to locals and the environment but we’ve come across some poor suggestions and misinformation. Whenever we do I try to take time to correct errors.

Be a considerate camper

In the end it’s not so much where we camp as how we do it that has the most impact on the areas we visit. If we all arrive with the intention of leaving as little trace as possible, clearing up after other people as well as ourselves, and spending as much money as we can afford in the local community, we’ll be giving back to the places we visit.

If you don’t want to do the above there’s always the option to stay at home.

Can I do yoga here? In my very small campervan?

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