Wild camping can feel a bit intimidating when you’re a beginner. There might seem to be an impossible divide between people who wild camp and people who want to give it a try. But wild camping is possible for absolutely everyone.
Don’t worry if you don’t have much experience with hiking or camping right now. You’ll need a bit of research and practice to get your skills up to where they need to be but we all have to start somewhere!
This article will help you get started on your wild camping journey. I’ll tell you about the skills you need to develop and the kit you need to pack. I will also give you pointers on camping safely and responsibly, so you can enjoy the great outdoors for years to come. Let’s get started!
What Skills Do I Need to Go Wild Camping?
You don’t need to know how to build a shelter from fallen trees or light a campfire with pieces of flint! In fact, wild camping is not a high-skill activity.
Of course, some of those who wild camp are incredibly talented outdoors people and mountain leaders.
But even ordinary people like you and me can safely wild camp after brushing up on a few of our skills.
You will need some understanding of:
- Emergency response
- General camping skills
Let me more clearly explain what you’ll need to know.
- Do you know how to use a compass?
- Do you know how to read the natural landscape to determine where you are on the map?
- Do you know what those funny little contour lines mean?
If you don’t know how to use a paper map, you need to learn.
You can’t trust electronic maps in a pinch. Your phone could run out of battery power. You could get out of cell range. You could drop your device in a muddy puddle.
Paper maps are much more reliable than electronic ones, and they aren’t that hard to read once you’ve had some practice. Consider taking a short navigation course or asking more experienced friends for help.
There’s nothing wrong with using your electronic map as well, but you should always have a paper backup in case of emergencies.
Do you know what to do in an emergency?
The kind of emergencies you’ll encounter will vary depending on where you’re wild camping. Here are some ideas of the kinds of things you might need to know:
- What to do if you run into a bear (not likely in the UK but perfectly possible in the USA)
- How to react if you get bitten by a snake or venomous insect
- How to perform first aid if someone collapses or gets injured
- How to adapt plans if the weather suddenly changes
- The best action plan if you get lost
- The best thing to do if you get sick
- When to stay put and when to push on
Of course, you can’t prepare for every eventuality but you do need to think about the risks you might face on your route and have an idea of how you’ll respond.
The best way to prepare is to build up experience with a more experienced friend or paid guide. You don’t want to just head out into the wilderness and “see what happens.”
Many wild camping injuries are avoidable. If you are not well acquainted with the great outdoors, you need to be aware of a few things.
- Don’t light campfires when there is a risk of wildfires (far more common than most beginners think!)
- Don’t swim in any lake or river without knowing whether it’s safe. What are the currents? What are the algae like? What’s the temperature and pH?
- Don’t forage for food unless you 100% know what you are doing. Many plants look extremely similar. Some of them will kill you.
- Don’t overestimate your abilities. Can you really make that hike in that time? Are you really prepared if the weather shifts? Do you know when it’s time to call it a day?
- Do follow the Leave No Trace principles. Have you packed out all your litter? Have you removed all evidence of your camp? Have you minimized your impact on the local wildlife?
Outdoormanship is a skill that you can’t learn in a classroom or article. You slowly build it over time by being in and observing nature.
The key to this skill is humility. You know far less than you think you do. (No offense. I’ve been wild camping for years and I still haven’t scratched the surface.)
General Camping Skills
As I said, you don’t need to be an outdoors survivalist to go wild camping. But you need to be able to pitch a decent campsite.
- Do you know how to best pitch a tent in rough weather? How will you respond to heavy winds and rain?
- Can you fix leaks in your tent?
- Can you prepare a meal with all the calories and nutrition you’ll need after a long hike?
- Do you know how to go to the toilet without leaving any trace?
- Can you set up your camp to attract as little wildlife as possible? (Yes, I love nature. No, I don’t want a bear to eat my breakfast.)
Try not to feel overwhelmed by everything you need to learn. You can start enjoying your wild camping before you’re an expert. (When I began wild camping, I had no idea what I was doing. I went with my far more experienced boyfriend, which made all the difference.)
You just need to understand the limitations of your knowledge so that you can choose the best place and time of year to camp according to your current skill set.
If you start with an overnight wild camp in an area that you know well, you’re going to be fine. If you can go with someone you trust, all the better.
What Equipment Do I Need?
I could write a book about equipment and still not cover everything you might need to know. But here is a packing list with a few notes to get you started.
- Lightweight tent. It needs to be suitable for the climate you’re camping in. Ideally, you want a vestibule for storing your backpack, but don’t expect it to be completely waterproof. Some people also camp with bivvies or hammocks.
- Sleeping bag. Check that it will be warm enough for nighttime temperatures. Mummy sleeping bags (with a hood) are best for cooler nights.
- Sleeping pad. Insulated sleeping pads are important in cold weather. You can choose between foam and inflatable; each has its pros and cons.
- Clothes. Take plenty of layers, even in the summertime. (You might be surprised at how cold it gets at night.) Don’t forget a waterproof coat and bottoms if there is any chance of rain.
- Comfortable hiking boots or walking trainers or sandals. If you haven’t broken in your shoes, bring blister plasters too.
- Water, lots of it (or water treatment tablets/a mini-filter if you will be picking up water along the route).
- Cooking system and pans (plus washing-up sponge and soap). Try to get a plant-based soap that won’t pollute the local environment.
- Food to cook and ready-to-eat snacks. Bring more than you think you’ll need!
- First aid kit including an emergency blanket, bandages, rehydration sachets, search and rescue phone number, and bug bite ointment.
- Personal toiletries including a toothbrush, toothpaste, flannel, toilet paper, menstrual products, insect repellent, and sunscreen.
- Shovel for burying poop. Or you can pack it out with the rest of your waste.
- Head torch, plus spare batteries.
- Paper map and compass.
- Phone and a backup power bank for emergencies.
- Entertainment like a card game or a book for the evening.
- Backpack. It needs to be comfortable and adjusted to your height. Women’s bags have better straps around the chest, but women can also use men’s backpacks. Your total backpack weight shouldn’t be more than 20% of your body weight.
This kit doesn’t have to be expensive. You can get second-hand equipment, or choose a decent quality, affordable brand. It’s worth investing more money in your sleeping bag, waterproofs, and tent. You can get by with budget versions of the rest of your kit for now.
Where Do I Go?
Depending on where you are in the world, wild camping might be illegal, tolerated but not legal, legal but frowned upon, or openly encouraged.
Even in countries where wild camping is legal, there are often zoning laws and behavior codes to follow. I’ll give you some background on Scotland and England, as I’ve extensively wild camped in both of these countries.
Scotland has the Right to Roam.
This means wild camping is legal. It doesn’t mean you can pitch up in someone’s garden or corn field and make a big mess. You are expected to be discreet, pitching late in the evening and leaving early in the morning.
You must camp in a way that doesn’t disturb people, crops, or livestock. Whenever possible, you should be out of sight of walking trails or houses, and it’s always good practice to ask the landowner’s permission.
In a few areas in Scotland, wild camping is banned to protect delicate ecosystems.
When you step over the border to England, you’ll see a completely different picture. Wild camping is illegal nearly everywhere in England.
New trespass laws are looking to make wild camping even more complicated, and landowners can and will call the police if you don’t move after they have asked you to.
That doesn’t mean nobody wild camps in England. Some people contact farmers to ask for permission.
Some people make sure they are high in the hills, where they aren’t disturbing anyone, while other people book onto ‘wild camping sites.’ This means the site is very cheap to book and there are no facilities or other people around. (Think a small woodland plot in the middle of nowhere.)
But regulations have been tightening up in recent years, so we’ll have to see how things develop.
What Makes for a Great Spot?
Here are a few things to keep an eye out for when you’re seeking a wild camping pitch.
- Water. You’ll want to be near a source of moving water if you need it for cooking. Also, treat the water before using it. You can do this by boiling, filtering, or purification tablets. Warning: Stagnant water will attract mosquitoes and other insects.
- Dry pitch. You don’t want to be so close to that water source that you’ll get flooded if it rains. If rain is forecast, you also don’t want to be in a valley bottom where water will gather. Be aware that camping very close to the water can disturb the wildlife that usually drinks there.
- Flat pitch. You aren’t going to sleep well if your pitch is bumpy. Also, make sure there aren’t any sharp rocks or plants that could rip your tent floor. If your pitch isn’t totally flat, you should position your head uphill, so you don’t wake up with a head rush.
- Sheltered. Use natural features like contours or boulders to protect you from the wind.
- View. Nothing beats an awesome view when you open your tent in the morning. However, that doesn’t mean you should camp on a cliff edge that could crumble!
Do’s and Don’ts of Wild Camping
I already gave you some dos and don’ts when I spoke about outdoorsmanship. Here are a few bonus dos and don’ts that I’d like to leave you with!
- Camp high, not in a field full of grazing cows next to a farmhouse.
- Set up camp late and leave camp early.
- Cook on a camping stove, so you don’t start a wildfire. Be particularly careful in the dry season. If necessary, clear away dry twigs and grasses from the area where you will be cooking.
- Have search and rescue’s number available just in case.
- Tell a friend where you are going and when you plan to be back. They can call for help if necessary.
- Go with a friend before you’re experienced enough for a solo camp. They might need some persuading!
- Post the exact location of your wild camp online. Many beautiful places have been damaged by people who didn’t take the time to do their research. (Not you, you’re reading this article. Thanks!)
- Set up a campfire anywhere other than on a beach.
- Hack off live wood from a tree to start a fire. Never ever. Never!
- Leave any trace that you were there. Don’t leave any litter, don’t damage trees or delicate plant life. Pack out or bury your poop 6 inches deep, far from trails and water sources. More info here.
- Prioritize getting a good photo over the well-being of wildlife. Leave the wild animals alone; they don’t want to be your friend. That goes for your own well-being, too. Posing on a cliff edge for an Instagram photo isn’t worth it once you take a tumble!
You can read a million articles online, but nothing will prepare you for wild camping better than getting outside and enjoying nature. Start with some day hikes if necessary, then progress to an overnight trip with trusted friends or a guide.
So long as you respect nature and your limits, wild camping is an incredible experience that you’ll never forget.
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Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.