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(The Gear Loop) - Picture the scene: your canvas is fluttering gently in the pre-dawn breeze. The constant pitter patter that was present when you dozed off is now conspicuously absent. It takes a moment to recall exactly where you are. And then you remember. You pull on your down jacket and, lacing up your hiking boots, you awkwardly sit half in the inner tent and half in the outer’s small porch. And then, in the one moment in life that’s most akin to stepping through the wardrobe into a magical kingdom, you unzip your tent.

Yesterday evening, your tent’s surroundings were veiled in grey, but this morning, nature’s most incredible light show is just beginning. The sky’s hues evolve from black in the west to brilliant navy blue above to molten yellow in the east. The horizon is broken by immense upthrusts of gneiss, terraced sandstone and quartz, towering mountains for as far as the eye can see. Massive, brooding dark shapes in the silent pre-dawn. Ragged clouds, like the sorry remnants of a spoilt spider’s web, drift below the peaks and a silver veil of mist coats the glen, far, far below.

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This is why you’ve journeyed so far, why you’ve made the effort to haul your camping gear up to sleep on an ancient peak with an almost unpronounceable Gaelic name. You’re completely alone, the sole witness to this awesome spectacle. And that’s a special thing. No 5-star hotel can match this. At this moment, you feel as though you are the most privileged person in the world.

This is just one verbose example of the buzz a successful wild camp can bring. It’s liberating, confidence building, worry quashing and absolutely epic all at once. The ultimate escape from everyday cares and the reason why we are a little bit obsessed with it at The Gear Loop. 

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Wild camping can be done solo (if you’re confident enough) or with a group of friends for a true bonding session. However, get it wrong and it can be a stressful experience, a real suffer-fest and not one you’ll want to repeat. This is why we’ve compiled this guide to give you an idea of how to go about it, dealing into the minutiae of where you can and can’t camp, how to abide by the Wild Camping Code and a few suggestions on what to take.

What is wild camping?

At its most simple level, wild camping is nedding up for the night away from official campsites in the countryside. The classic image of a wild camp is of a small, windswept tent high on a mountainside or a cosy pitch by the lapping waves on a remote beach. However, wild camping also applies to stringing up a hammock between two trees somewhere off the beaten path or to the more stripped-back approach of bivvying – sleeping under the stars with nothing but a bivvy sack or perhaps a tarp for shelter. Something ardent adventurer and friend of The Gear Loop Sean Conway knows lots about. 

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Where can you wild camp?

Geographically speaking, it is a bit of a mixed bag across the UK. All of the land in Britain is owned, either privately or publicly and, in many places, you have no automatic right to wild camp. In England and Wales, wild camping is technically illegal without the landowner’s permission. The exception to this is Dartmoor National Park, where wild camping is fully permitted in certain areas. See here for more information. 

The good news is that wild camping is generally tolerated in England and Wales’ national parks and other wilderness areas, as long as you follow the Wild Camping Code, which we will come to in a moment…

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Thanks to the Land Reform Act, you are permitted to wild camp anywhere in Scotland, aside from a few designated ‘Camping Management Zones’ in the relatively busy Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park between March and September. However, you can apply for a permit should you wish to camp in one of the designated zones. You can hit this link for more information.

So, where specifically can you pitch your tent in order to avoid the wrath of landowners, not attract the attention of the authorities and not be met by a barrage of tutting form other outdoorsy folk? This is where the Wild Camping Code comes in.

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How to follow the Wild Camping Code 

Here's the big secret: there’s no set Wild Camping Code, with different iterations cropping up here and there. However, they all broadly follow these similar principles:

  1. Camp high on open hills away from main trails, houses and agriculture.
  2. Keep numbers of people (and therefore numbers of tents )to a minimum and only use the same camp spot for two nights, at a maximum.  Official campsites should be used by large groups.
  3. Set your camp up late in the evening and pack away early in the morning. 
  4. If you’re in any doubt about whether you can camp, choose somewhere else.
  5. In England and Wales, if asked by a landowner to move on, do so politely and without argument.
  6. Aim to keep the noise to a minimum to maintain the quiet of the countryside.
  7. Respect the land you both hike in on and set up camp on. Don’t trample plants, move rocks or dig ditches and camp at least 75 metres away from lakes and rivers.
  8. Take nothing but photos. Your surroundings should be left as close to how you found them as possible. This includes bagging up and carrying out litter, food waste, toilet paper and sanitary products.
  9. Don’t light any fires. Use a camping stove to do your cooking.
  10. Bring a bowl for washing with soap or detergent; don’t contaminate streams and rivers with cleaning products.
  11. Finally, if you need to "go", do so at least 50 metres away from any paths, streams or lakes. For a "numero dos", you’ll either need to use a trowel to dig a hole of at least six inches in depth and bury your waste, or carry it out with you using a biodegradable bag.
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Above all else, the ability to wild camp, particularly in England and Wales, relies on people following these guidelines. We never want to lecture here at TGL, but we are very fortunate to have the freedom to wild camp, and sadly, it is a case that if we abuse these freedoms, they may one day be lost.

What do you need to pack?

One of the main differences between wild camping and car camping is that weight is suddenly a crucial consideration. If you’re going to have to haul your tent, sleeping bag, cooking system, food, water and clothes up a hill, you’re going to want them to be as light as possible. 

Most people save their wild camping exploits for the warmer months, but some brave the fierce conditions found in winter, which can make for a spectacular experience. However, if this is your aim, you’ll need to acquire gear specifically designed for winter camping, which is more expensive. The recommendations made in this guide are tailored towards 3-season camping only, which is predominantly aimed at Spring/Summer expeditions and is generally more comfortable anyway.

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Firstly, you’ll need a large expedition pack, ideally with a capacity in excess of 40 litres to fit all your gear. Most people take a one-person or two-person tent, the lighter the better. Bear in mind that tent sizes tend to be on the small side, so a two-person tent is likely to fit two campers side by side, but little else. If you’re camping with a buddy, you might want to go for a slightly larger tent and split its components between your backpacks for the hike in.

Your sleeping system should comprise a warm sleeping bag, a sleeping pad or mat and some form of travel pillow. Self-inflating sleeping pads are an excellent option, as they pack down very small and weigh very little. Instead of bringing a separate pillow, to save space and weight, many wild campers use spare clothing, like a fleece or down jacket.

The usual hiking apparel applies to backpacking. Hiking boots give your ankles the protection they’ll need, as you’re likely to be carrying a heavier load than usual. Keeping yourself and your clothes dry is crucial if you are to stay warm in the dead of night. Because of this, a waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers are a solid investment. 

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You should bring at least two sets of clothes. Store the set you’re not wearing in a dry bag within your main pack. That way if you get wet on the walk-in, you can change into your dry clothes for bedtime and for the next day.

Plenty of water is recommended but you don’t want to weigh yourself down too much, as water can be collected from streams if you have a way of purifying it. Water filters or purification tablets are highly recommended, or you can boil the water you collect. 

A camping stove, fuel and an ignition source will allow you to cook up some food and a brew or two. Nutrition-wise, expedition meals or dehydrated meals are a fuss-free option, while plenty of snacks will keep morale up on wet weather days.

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Don’t forget all your usual toiletries and a travel towel. Wet wipes are useful, as is a bowl for washing up or washing yourself. Zip-lock bags are great for storing things like tea bags, while also useful for taking out unsavoury items like used toilet paper. 

Don’t forget a bin bag for taking away rubbish. A first aid kit, blizzard jacket or emergency blanket, sun cream, insect repellent and a tick twister are all important, as well as items like a head torch, batteries or a power pack, map and compass, a multitool and the odd luxury item. As you can see, it all adds up and kit bags quickly get heavy. 

How to plan for a wild camping expedition

Firstly, decide where you want to go. If you’re heading for the mountains, remember that conditions generally get tougher the higher you go and that saddles, ridge-lines and summits are more exposed to the elements than other locations. It is preferable to choose a sheltered spot to camp and use your tent as the base from which to explore your surroundings and the peaks. Lugging everything all the way up to a high summit can be hard work.

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Once you’ve chosen your region, check a designated mountain weather forecast. Unless you’re specifically using it to gain experience, you won’t get a great deal out of a miserably wet weekend. Wait for a good forecast before setting out. Pay close attention to wind direction when planning your exact camping spot. If gusts are forecast to come in from the west, aim to pitch your tent in lee of a barrier, such as on the eastern side of a ridge. When you erect your shelter, make sure your entrance isn’t facing into the wind, too.

Study a map closely before setting out. Ideally, your walk-in should be on clear and well-maintained paths. The last thing you want is to be on difficult ground carrying all of your gear. Having a stream close to your wild campsite is beneficial for collecting water, but remember not to wash directly in it. Finally, always tell a trusted friend or family member where you intend to go and the planned duration of your off-grid adventure before you set out.

Essential wild camping gear

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MSR Hubba Hubba

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This award-winning, two-person tent is ideal for backpacking and wild camping expeditions. It’s light, sturdy and affords a surprising amount of head room, as well as two large side entry vestibules for your gear. It’s pricey, but worth the investment. Oh, and it has the best name ever. 

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Wild Country Zephyros Compact 2

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For those on a budget, Wild Country’s Zephyros Compact 2 is a tried and trusted stalwart of the wild camping scene. Easy to pitch and pack down, lightweight and durable, this is a near-perfect 3-season backpacking shelter. 

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Jetboil Flash

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Boasting lightning-fast boil times and push button ignition, the Jetboil has quickly become a legend of the stove world. Its FluxRing heat exchanger was a real game-changer when it first emerged, roaring like a mini jet engine. It’s ideal for boil-in-the-bag or dehydrated meals, as well as for that rapido morning brew.

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Lowe Alpine Manaslu 65:80

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Designed to carry weighty loads in comfort, the Manaslu allows you to organise your gear with a generous main body that can be expanded to 80 litres capacity. As well as this, a front stash pocket, large mesh side pockets, zippered hip belt pockets and attachments for items like ice axes and trekking poles make this a superb, fully-featured trekking pack.

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Platypus QuickDraw

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Easy to use and durable, the QuickDraw is an ingenious piece of kit from Platypus. It effectively filters 99.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of protozoa (parasites that often cause illness) from backcountry water and can be sipped directly from the QuickDraw or is compatible with bottles and reservoirs for easy water storage.

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Tips from the Pros

Emily Scott is a professional mountain leader and wild camping aficionado, who in 2018, famously completed the 282 Munro peaks of Scotland in one continuous journey. Here, she shares her tips for a successful wild camp.

"Wild camping can be one of the most rewarding experiences. The success of a wild camping trip can depend on a number of factors, but knowing you will be able to be dry and warm overnight are key! I do a lot of wild camping in Scotland where the weather can be unreliable and, even with a great forecast, I always make sure my sleep system is in dry bags . This way, I know my sleeping bag, a set of long base layers and cosy socks will be dry, regardless of what the weather decides to throw at me. 

Persoanlly, I use Nalgene bottles for camping and will often fill one with hot water and pop it in my sleeping bag before bed. Not only have I got a hot water bottle, it also means I have my water for breakfast ready to go. 

When wild camping, it's easy to overpack, thinking of all the things you might need, but don't forget that you are going to have to carry everything you're bringing, both to camp and back out again. Trust me, when you're seven hours into a hiking day, you might question whether you really needed that extra luxury item. Having said that, some small items can provide a big morale boost - a hot chocolate sachet or a custard sachet are very welcome pick me ups after a tough day."

Watch the film of her epic Highland exploits here.

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Wild camping inspiration

The author divulges some of his favourite spots to set up camp for the night

There are almost endless possibilities for spectacular wild camps in Britain. A few of our favourites include watching the sun rise beyond St Sunday Crag from Grisedale Tarn in the Lake District; witnessing Buachaille Etive Mòr emerge from the clouds from Beinn a’Chrulaiste in Lochaber; marveling at Torridon’s giants from Beinn Alligin in the North West Highlands; sleeping under a veil of stars at Llyn y Fan Fawr below the Black Mountain in the Brecon Beacons; and waking up to the sounds of the ebbing tide and sight of the Black Cuillin from Camasunary Bay on the Isle of Skye.

Writing by Alex Foxfield. Editing by Leon Poultney. Originally published on 12 November 2021.