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Everything You Need to Know About Going Wild Camping — Legally

by Morwenna Muir Jones Apr 9, 2024

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

Photo: Jens Ottoson/Shutterstock

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: It 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:

Wild camping in the US and Canada

Banff National Park

Photo: canadastock/Shutterstock

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.

Wild camping in Europe

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 generally not allowed in England and Wales. This is because most of the land is privately owned. However, there is one exception: Dartmoor National Park in England.
  • Scotland — You can camp pretty much anywhere in Scotland that isn’t fenced in or cultivated land, as long as you follow a few simple guidelines. 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 in Turkey exists in a bit of a grey area. Technically, it’s not allowed, but the enforcement is lax. Many campers have reported success finding beautiful spots to camp for free, especially in the western part of the country.

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.

Wild camping in 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.

Wild camping in 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 for a wild camping trip

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.

LifeSaver water purifier essential gear for wild camping

Photo: LifeSaver

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 compact Lifesaver water purifier, or even getting a bottle with an built-in filter.

Also pack enough food for your entire trip, plus a little extra in case of emergencies. Choose foods that are high in calories and don’t require refrigeration.

In remote areas, phone signals and GPS can be unreliable. A compass, used with a topographical map, allows you to find your bearings, orient the map, and pinpoint your location. This is essential for staying on track, finding your campsite, and safely navigating back to civilization if needed. National Geographic and Gaia GPS both have excellent maps you can download or print in advance. Just make sure you keep them somewhere dry like a waterproof case.

“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.

bivvy bag

Photo: Amazon

A good quality, lightweight tent such as The North Face Stormbreak 2 Tent, is essential for wild camping. Choose a tent that is appropriate for the conditions you will be facing, such as the number of occupants, the season, and the expected weather. Also a decent three-season sleeping bag will do the trick for most trips and sleeping pad will help to insulate you from the cold ground and make you more comfortable.

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.

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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