(The Gear Loop) - While the Lake District is probably England's most popular wild camping destination, pitching a tent out amongst the region's jaw-dropping fells is still technically illegal. Yes, we're not one for following all the rules either but, if you want to abide by the letter of the law, there's only place in England where you can legally get your wild camping fix: Dartmoor.
Nestled between Exeter and Plymouth, there are over 160 mapped tors – those distinctive granite outcrops – spread across nearly 370 square miles of Devon countryside. Combined with open access on much of the private and common land, as well as nearly 450 miles of public rights of way (such as permitted footpaths and bridleways), Dartmoor is a veritable playground for day hikers and wild campers alike.
For the latter though, there are a number of dos and don'ts to adhere to in order to both play by the rules, protect this unique environment and – most importantly – have a great time in the wild. Don't worry though, we've got you covered.
Despite the extensive open access across the moorland, you can't legally wild camp everywhere in Dartmoor. Thankfully, the Dartmoor National Park Authority has put together a map highlighting all the permissible areas in purple (hey, Ordnance Survey, fancy adding this as a plugin for your app?) And, although, the purple patches only accounts for about a third of Dartmoor's land mass, it does feature many of the remotest sections so don't panic, you'll still have plenty of space to escape into.
The other thing to check before you head out into the wilderness is the Ministry of Defence's firing times. The major block of camp ground in the northern reaches of the national park is home to three different firing ranges: the Willsworthy range on the western fringe, the Merrivale range just north of Princetown and, the largest of the trio, the Okehampton range in the north.
While the boundaries of these ranges are marked with red flags and beacons when the army is training, it's still worthwhile planning ahead. After all, we really don't want anyone straying into the firing line.
There's an old military adage that goes: "prior planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance". No doubt, the recruits at Okehampton camp have had the seven 'Ps' drilled into them.
While we're not expecting you to plan your trip with military precision (part of the excitement of thru-hiking is the ability to just head in a direction and see where you end up), Dartmoor can be an unforgiving place. Don't say we didn't warn you…
Unlike those hardy northerners, the south might be filled with shandy-drinking softies but, that doesn't make Dartmoor less of a challenge than Snowdonia or the Lake District. In fact, unlike the latter (where it feels as if a quaint village packed with pubs and hiking supply shops is never more than a day's walk away), the plains of Dartmoor, especially in the north, can be a desolate place. As with any thru-hiking adventure, tell some friends or family roughly where you're going, pack clothing for all eventualities and carry some extra food.
Understanding the climate
If it's your first time exploring the area, it's worth keeping an eye on the weather forecast and scheduling your trip during a period of fair conditions. Like any high-lying area, Dartmoor's peaks can feature snow in the winter and a strong south-westerly often blows in off the Atlantic, which can cause the climate to change rapidly.
Because of this, even after a clear evening, it's not uncommon to wake up in the mist and cloud. Therefore, brush up on your navigational skills, carry an Ordnance Survey Explorer map of the area (OL28 covers the majority of the park) and a proper compass; the Silva Classic is an excellent entry-level option that easily fits in the hip pocket of most thru-hiking packs. While we often rely primarily on the excellent OS app, nothing beats the reliability of doing it the old-fashioned way.
Even in the summer, Dartmoor is filled with bogs too (especially on the higher plateaus north of Princetown). Obviously, these are at their worst after periods of prolonged rain. One of the safest options (short of planning a route that avoids boggy ground entirely) is to always walk with a partner and use walking poles to test out the ground in front of you.
It's also handy to get to know the sorts of flora and fauna that grows in the bogs. Patches of the reddish-brown sphagnum moss in the distance are often a useful tell-tale that things are about to get squelchy.
As well as making sure you're inside the aforementioned purple zones, you've also got to make sure your Dartmoor wild camp pitch is more than 100 metres from the nearest road and isn't on a site of archaeological interest (the park is home to countless stone circles, Bronze age burial mounds and settlement ruins).
Of course, on top of all this, it's best practice to follow the Wild Camping Code too, so that means arrive late, leave early and leave no trace after a maximum of two nights in the same location.
When it comes to cooking your camp meals, Dartmoor is extremely susceptible to bush fires thanks to the numerous peat bogs. For this reasons, camp fires and barbecues are a big no-no (not that you want to be lugging a heavy disposable over the moors anyway).
For this reason, a lightweight camping stove is an essential part of any Dartmoor thru-hiking kit. We love our venerable MSR Pocket Rocket stove kit but, if you're a dedicated follower of hiking fashion, you could migrate to the increasingly popular Jetboil clan (the latter an additional Java Press add-on for that vital morning coffee too). Whatever your chosen cooker, make sure you set it up on a flat surface for ultimate stability and safety.
When you're thru-hiking, buying the lightest gear you can afford is a surefire strategy. However, featherweight kit also has to be functional, especially if you're to enjoy your Dartmoor wild camping experience. Here are a few of our top picks for your pack.
Sea to Summit Telos TR3 tent
Sea to Summit's Telos range of fully-freestanding backpacking tents provides probably the roomiest interior we’ve ever experienced thanks to the innovative Tension Ridge system. By straightening the sides of the tent, the Telos gives unrivalled headroom compared to its lightweight competitors.
There are a number of other nifty features too, such as the Fair Share packing system that allows the tent to be split into two separate compression sacks (one for the inner and one for the fly) as well as a draw-bag for the DAC aluminium poles. Even if you choose to carry the whole tent yourself, being able to separate the constituent parts makes fitting in to your pack a whole lot easier than other designs.
We plumped for the palatial three-man TR3 version (which hits the scales at around 2kg) however, if you're travelling alone or as a pair, there are also TR1 and TR2 equivalents. Keep an eye out for our full TR3 review coming soon.
Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Mat
Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to a successful thru-hike but, some sleep mats can be heavy, bulky and not that comfortable. Not so with the S2S’s Ether Light XT Insulated offering.
At 10cm thick and utilising the company’s Air Sprung Cell technology, it’s supremely plush and surprisingly quiet for an air mat. Two types of insulation (Exkin Platinum and Thermolite) help to give it an R-value of 3.2, making it a solid three-season performer and, at just 425g for the regular size, it’s well into the ultralight category.
What's more, there’s a women's-specific version too, which boasts a wider shoulder shape and an increased R-rating of 3.5.
MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove
We've been using our trusty MSR PocketRocket stove for some time now, but the second generation is arguably even better than ever, proving smaller and lighter in design and able to boil 1 litre of water in 3.5 minutes.
Precision flame control goes from torch to simmer, while the WindClip windshield boosts efficiency in breezy conditions.
The addition of new folding pot supports mean it packs down even smaller into a bag and can accommodate a wider variety of cooking and drinking vessels.