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Everything You Need to Know About Going Wild Camping — Legally

by Morwenna Muir Jones Jun 29, 2018

Sleeping under the stars, waking up to the smell of fresh air, and really getting away from it all — the appeal of wild camping is easy to see. Also called dry, free, or freedom camping, wild camping is overnighting away from organized campsites, and their noise and crowds, to set up camp among the wilds of nature instead.

After seeing all those Instagram images of carefree wild camps, you may be ready to grab a backpack and set off yourself. But a wild camping trip requires more preparation than a stay at your average campground. To save you from paying a hefty fine for trespassing or waking up freezing at 2:00 AM, here’s everything you need to know before you pitch your camp in the great outdoors.

How wild camping is different than regular camping.

tent pitched in Norway

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Wild camping might seem as easy as just trekking off into the nearest woodland. Don’t be fooled. It can be dangerous and even illegal, since the laws that govern where you can and can’t pitch camp vary from country to country.

Before you set off, make sure you’re prepared to deal with the following:

  • Fire:

    While sitting around a roaring fire trading campfire stories might seem like part of the wild-camping-trip experience, never light an open fire. And, if you’re camping in a region where wildfires are a risk, exercise extra caution, pay attention to local weather forecasts, and plan a safe escape route from your camp should you need to abandon it.

  • Water:

    Unlike campsites, nature doesn’t come with an easily accessible water source. Plan to camp near running water. Then pitch your tents at least 150 feet away and designate an area for taking care of nature’s business that’s at least 200 feet away to avoid waste and litter pollution. Also, never drink from still, unmoving water.

  • Weather:

    can change quickly and present real dangers. Check the weather before your trip and pack accordingly. As well as clothing, you should also think about food: if it’s cold, a flask might be a good addition, but if it’s hot you may need to take more water.

  • Animals:

    Humans might be the biggest danger, but they’re not the only ones on a camping trip. Research whether any local animals or reptiles, like bears or snakes, pose a risk to you before you set off. You can then avoid mistakes such as leaving food out where it’s likely to attract unwanted visitors.

  • Local laws:

    Even with everything else worked out, you still need to make sure you’re not going to be woken up by an angry farmer — or worse, a park ranger — telling you to pack up and get out at 3:00 AM. Here’s a rough guide to some countries’ laws on wild camping:


Scottish Highlands, UK

Photo: Martin M303/Shutterstock

Practically every European country has different rules and regulations on wild camping. To simplify things, these are the areas of Europe where responsible wild camping is encouraged, even if not strictly legal:

  • England and Wales — Wild camping is legal only in Dartmoor National Park.
  • Scotland – Camping must be lightweight, done in small numbers, and only for two or three nights in one place.
  • France — Wild camping is permitted only on private land with the consent of the owner.
  • Sweden — Camping is permitted for a maximum of two days.
  • Norway — The right to roam, also called the right of access, or allemannsretten, confirms the public’s right to wild camp.
  • Finland — Campers must be a suitable distance from homes or cabins.
  • Denmark — While it’s illegal to wild camp wherever you want, you can pitch a maximum of two small tents together in at least 40 approved forests.
  • Romania — Although not strictly allowed, wild camping is widely tolerated. Check with the landowner first.
  • Iceland — Camping with no more than three tents is allowed on uncultivated ground for a single night, although the use of campsites is preferred.
  • Slovakia — Wild camping is legal but forbidden in areas with a level three protection and above. Campfires are not permitted.
  • Turkey — Wild camping is legal, and the Go Turkey Tourism website even provides some helpful tips.

Across the rest of Europe, wild camping is either strictly illegal — as in Italy, Croatia, and Portugal — or allowed but only in certain regions, such as in Spain. If you have any doubts, ask the landowner for their permission. You never know, they might be more than happy for you to set up camp for a night or two.

Australia and New Zealand

Southern Alps, NZ

Photo: Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock

Although you can wild camp pretty much anywhere in the Outback, Australian laws on wild camping elsewhere are surprisingly strict. Over the Christmas and New Year period alone, Byron Shire council doled out 218 infringement notices for illegal camping.

The good news for wild campers is that you can still get an “authentic” wild camping experience at thousands of certified “free camping” sites in national parks, state forests, and other rural locations across the country. As the name suggests, many of these offer few to no facilities and cost nothing to stay at, although for sites within the national parks you’ll need a permit and, in some cases, to book in advance.

If the above sounds too civilized and you’re still determined to wild camp, New Zealand’s regulations are more relaxed. Providing it’s not expressly prohibited, you are permitted to wild camp on public conservation land.

USA and Canada

Banff National Park

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Americans and Canadians have it easy. Legally, you can wild camp in US national forests and grasslands (unless otherwise marked), on Bureau of Land Management lands (providing they’re suitable for camping and not being used for cattle grazing or mining operations), and on Canadian Crown Land. You can also wild camp in the “backcountry” of national parks and national monuments, but you’ll need a permit and regulations apply.

Elsewhere various national, state, and local governments manage areas of land, and there are also private properties and Indian reservations to take into consideration. If you want to wild camp outside the permitted areas above, do your research beforehand to make sure you’re not trespassing.

Africa, South America, and Asia

Andean landscape

Photo: Calin Tatu/Shutterstock

While it is possible to wild camp in some nations in Africa, South America, and Asia, in large parts of these regions it is either illegal or too dangerous to do so, particularly if you’re not familiar with the local area or political climate. To experience camping in any of these places, it is strongly advised that you employ a guide who’ll be able to show you the safest place to camp.

What to pack:

You know all the essentials you’re supposed to bring camping: wool socks, warm layers, bug spray, sunscreen — you get the idea. But when you go wild camping, you need to pack a few extras to see you through your trip safely.

  • Water filter/purification tablets

    While purification tablets might seem cost-effective, they usually have a strong taste. Water filters, on the other hand, are easier to use and more convenient. If you’re planning on camping a lot, it’s worth investing in a filter, or even getting a bottle with an built-in filter like a Lifesaver.

  • A map and compass

    National Geographic and Gaia GPS both have excellent maps you can download or print in advance. Just make sure you keep them somewhere dry or that you have plenty of battery on your phone.

  • A method of dealing with toileting and waste.

    “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints” applies to everything when you’re wild camping, including poop. Pack unscented toilet paper, a trowel (small, pointed shovel), and dog-poop bags or something similar. Then, if nature calls, bury your business at least six inches underground, and at least 200 feet from water. In some places you can burn the toilet paper in the hole, but in other areas all fires are prohibited. Best of all is to pack it out with you.

  • A mobile phone

    It’s easy to be lured into the trap of cutting yourself off completely, but make sure you have a fully charged mobile phone to use if there’s an emergency. Even if you’re out of range where you’re camping, you’ll have it with you as soon as you find a signal.

Do you really need a tent?

bivvy bag

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While any tent you buy for wild camping should weigh less than 4.5 lbs. (or 6.5 lbs. if you’re sharing the load between two), tents can be bulky and inconvenient to pitch and dismantle, not to mention expensive.

Bivvy bags (thin, waterproof bags used over the top of a sleeping bag) are a cheap, lightweight alternative. They’re only good for short trips of one to two nights, given the condensation that even the best ones leave inside sleeping bags. If you use one for longer, you’ll have to find a place to hang your sleeping bag to dry out. That said, bivvy bags are the best way to properly experience the outdoors — unless it rains.

If it does rain, you’re guaranteed to get wet in a bivvy bag. In that case, you can always rig a tarpaulin over you to keep the worst of the elements at bay. But if snow or heavy rain is forecast, or if you’re planning on wild camping for more than a few days, stick to the tent.

Setting off:

woman walking in woods

Photo: Poprotskiy Alexey/Shutterstock

You’ve packed. You’ve prepared for every eventuality. You’ve double and triple checked that camping is permitted in the area you want to set up camp. Now, the only thing to do is get going!

Just remember, wild camping doesn’t have to be a 100-mile, week-long trek. It could be as simple as packing a bag with enough gear for one night, setting off for a micro adventure, and getting home in time for breakfast. Although, as most wild campers will tell you, bacon and eggs cooked at sunrise somehow always taste much better.

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