Everyone who takes a tent out into the country to camp asks the question with frustration, why is wild camping illegal in England and Wales? The answer goes back a thousand years, and when you dig a little deeper, the frustration increases.

The history of wild camping laws – The Norman Invasion

Wild camping laws did not exist in the UK before the Norman invasion in 1066. There was an intricate and bountiful mosaic of landowners across the island who governed their own land. This model of land ownership made it difficult to introduce any sweeping laws or boundaries concerning access to these lands. However, following the invasion of Anglo-Saxon UK lead by William the Conqueror, this land was confiscated from the many landlords. The land entirely surrendered to the monarchy.

Ben Vorlich wild camp
Ben Vorlich wild camp, Scotland

The Rise of the Feudal System

The decision was made to divide this land up among a select group of people. The majority of land divvied out to those who became appointed as the kings or queens of their given land. It was to them to decide upon who could reside on their land, thus introducing the idea of landlordship to the UK. Furthermore, what was previously collectively owned land became privately owned land essentially making forests, and mountainous areas the property of the monarchy or a landlord. The division of the land during this time has lasting effects to this day with 0.6% of the UK population owning two-thirds of the land.

How to make a lean-to shelter
Lean to shelter, made with permission from the landowner

The Reformation

The next significant alteration to land laws was during 16th-century reformation under Henry VIII. It is during this time that landlords themselves introduced the idea of land enclosure. The novel concept of land enclosure shut off many pastures that commoners previously had access to and dictated whether a landowner could build a dwelling on their land or not. What previously had been an ‘open field system’ changed as fences and walls were erected around the periphery of the land. During the 18th century, the UK parliament assumed regulation of these land enclosures, thus forging the first enclosure act. A slew of enclosure acts was introduced leading into and throughout the 19th century.

Sleeping in Millican Dalton Cave Hotel
Sleeping in Millican Dalton’s Cave Hotel

The Act of Vagrancy 1824

It was during this time of changing land laws and regulations that saw the rise of The Vagrancy Act 1824. The Vagrancy Act officially made it an offence to sleep rough regardless of a person’s reasoning behind doing so. This decree of parliament not only had devastating ramifications for the homeless but also hindered those wishing to sleep in the open such as during camping. The Vagrancy Act also placed regulations on roaming which essentially negated the Pass Laws formed during the medieval ages.

Hammock camping in the woods
Hammock camping in the woods

This law remains in force in both England and Wales to this day making it a civil offence to camp anywhere in these countries excluding some exceptions such as Dartmoor national park. The Vagrancy Act was repealed under the civic government (Scotland) act in 1982, meaning that camping is legal across Scotland apart from some areas that are subject to bylaws that prohibit camping.

Scottish Wild Camping Laws

Scotland further elaborated on their land laws by introducing the Land Reform Act in 2003 that created a legal framework for land access in the country and led to the Scottish outdoor access code that outlines the regulations of camping and roaming. These regulations amount to being discrete while camping and leave no trace behind.

Wild Camp Ben Lawers
Wild camp on Ben Lawers

Some of the areas in Scotland that do not adhere to this act are East Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. Private land (enclosed land) such as schools, houses, golf courses, or working sites are also deemed off-limits to campers.

England & Wales

Camping is a civil offence in England and Wales that can become a criminal offence if the wishes of the landlord are not followed. However, if permission is obtained from the landlord to camp on their land, then no offences are committed. Wild camping is permitted in Dartmoor national park, but there are limitations in-place to stop over-crowding. It is prohibited to remain camped on the same spot for two consecutive days, and the campsite must be at least 100m away from any road or walkway. There are, however, numerous remote campsites around both countries that can provide the free feeling of camping while remaining within the law.

Red Tarn Helvellyn wild camp in the Hilleberg Akto
Red Tarn Helvellyn wild camp in the Hilleberg Akto

A more notable form of camping seen around both England and Wales is camping around mountainous or in forestland. In areas of England such as the lake district of England or Snowdonia of Wales, landlords often turn a ‘blind eye’ to campers on their land as long as they are discrete and respectful. A general rule is that a camper on owned land must remain as unobtrusive as possible and only stay for a single night.

Lighting campfires without permission from either the local council, government, or landowner is prohibited in England, Scotland, and Wales. The scorched earth left behind by fire is considered an ‘eyesore’ and is thus not permissible under any outdoor access code.

So, is wild camping illegal?

Are you going to be arrested if found having a nap on the hillside? The short answer is no. If you cause no trouble, leave no trace and move on if you’re asked to, you should have no problems.

Where can I wild camp?

Let’s start in the South and head for Scotland. The Dartmoor National Park in Devon, established in 1951, covers an area of nearly a thousand square kilometres. Wild camping is perfectly legal here and you can camp for two days in the same spot.

Wild camping in the Peak District Higher Shelf Stones
Wild camping in the Peak District Higher Shelf Stones

The Peak District, Snowdonia and the Lake District tolerate wild camping in the hills. There are ‘conditions’ but using common sense and having respect is key.

Wild Camping in Scotland

As I said earlier, in Scotland, the Land Reform Act of 2003 when it was made legal to wild camp anywhere, with the exception of enclosed land such as schools, gardens, etc. In 2017, a bylaw came in to force restricting camping in the wilds of Scotland. There are some areas around Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park where, between March and September, you must buy a permit to camp. Here are the sites from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park website. When you wild camp, these sites are not really problem, I’ll never need to buy a permit.

Permit areas around Loch Lommond and the Trossachs

Enjoy wild camping

Work around the restrictions, unless you’re going to campaign for change and win, that’s the best you can do. Get a tent, or any kind of shelter, and get out there (after reading my Wild Camping Introduction blog). Using what I’ve written about above, find somewhere to go, take a map, a stove and a good sleeping bag and head off into the wild. Feel free, relax and de-stress.

Why Not Read…

Vango Banshee Pro 200 on Ingleborough wild camp
Vango Banshee Pro 200 on Ingleborough wild camp

Best Value Wild Camping Tent

Get yourself out there, away from the camp sites, up into the mountains, wild camping. Here, I’ll tell you straight, which is the best value wild camping tent you can buy.

9 thoughts on “Why is Wild Camping Illegal?”

  1. Done plenty of camping on camp sites and plenty of walking on fells but at the age of 64, I was just planning to start my wild camping experience in either The Lakes or Snowdonia – until blasted Covid arrived! I’m already a late starter, hopefully it wont be a case of never starting!
    This is really useful info Chris – as your blogs always are. I’ve got one saved from a while ago in which you covered what kit you take on a typical wild camp (if there’s such a thing!).
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Sounds like a great idea John, first wild camp at 64 (might end up being 65 😉

      That kit list covers me on any wild camp and I never think, ‘I’ve forgotten…’. It’ll serve you well when you get there.

      Reply

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