A friend, who is hoping to be having some amazing adventures in the not too distant future, asked for some top tips for wild camping.
Our experience of wild camping was six weeks, in a campervan, in Scotland. It was during September and October, but we saw the season turn fairly dramatically during that time from T shirt weather to snow.
Scottish law on wild camping is different to that elsewhere. We have friends who have traveled in other countries in campervans where all sorts of different considerations have to be made in terms of safety, security and ensuring you are not breaking any actual laws or codes.
Here is a list of the things that I would keep uppermost in mind when planning wild camping or touring based on our experiences:
- Whatever you think you will spent on petrol is less than you will actually spend on petrol. In the highlands petrol stations are few and far between and fuel is very expensive. Going up very steep hills takes far more petrol than you’d expect. We did not budget enough really but that was the case for our entire adventure and meant we had to hang about in places and eat more cheap food in order to keep the petrol tank going. If I was planning that in advance more I would probably research petrol station locations and plot them on a map, consider carrying fuel for top ups and anticipate spending more. All of that said it would have totally taken the fun out of playing Petrol Chicken which Ady and I got hours of edge of our seats thrills from!
- Ditto food. Supermarkets become like mirages in a desert – you start to hallucinate that you can see neon signs for a 24 hour Tesco and can almost taste sausage rolls and Fanta but then you realise that no, it’s just another car coming towards you with it’s headlights on and it being 100 miles and four hours since you last saw another vehicle you’d forgotten what they look like. We had grand plans to catch and hunt our food, maybe sample some roadkill, do a spot of fishing… in the end what we hunted for were places to buy it and what we pounced on were reduced to clear bargains. We still talk with wonder in our tone about the day Ady bought four carrier bags of food out of a Co Op ten minutes before closing time and we dined like kings for two days afterwards for the princely sum of £1.87. My advice here is learn 101 ways with flour and tinned goods. Some gems of meals for us included tinned steak which when topped with a suet and flour pastry lid made a very nice pie, served with tinned potatoes and tinned mixed vegetables it was a great meal. As was tuna fish cakes made with tinned tuna and instant mash potatoes. Our store cupboard included tinned meat, fish, potatoes, fruit and vegetables. Long life milk, tinned rice pudding. Dried foods include pasta, noodles, rice, flour, suet, yeast. We carried a selection of herbs and spices, stock cubes and tubes of tomato and garlic puree. We also had those part baked rolls that you can keep for months. When we could get fresh food we topped up dairy -fresh milk, butter, cheese and fruit and vegetables. It’s a toss up between ensuring you are not carrying so much stuff your weigh down the van but knowing you have sufficient food to eat well and cheaply if you’ve blown your food budget on petrol! Oh and emergency stashes of chocolate are essential. These must be kept topped up at all times.
- Route planning. We had a vague notion that we’d head up the east coast from Inverness (which was the starting point for our wild camping time), go across the north coast and then down the west coast ending at Mallaig. We bought a map, more or less plotted our route and timescales to get from our starting place to our finishing place and then researched all interesting looking places along the way. We had ideas of things we wanted to see – John O Groats, Falls of Shin (for salmon leaping), Applecross, Skye, Smoo Cave etc. If I had plenty of time I would probably have planned this more but then again part of the joy of that period was the sense of adventure and going where the road took us. We had a policy of definitely turning off in the direction of a brown sign if it looked interesting – that led us to Badbea village, a sheepskin rug making place, The Old Man of Storr. I think having an idea of where you are heading for every few days and then making your way there slowly with plenty of time to get distracted is the best idea. Allow more time than you’ll need and then if you find yourself pulling off the road frequently to walk on beaches and gaze at sunsets it doesn’t matter at all.
- On which subject ALWAYS pull off the road to walk on beaches and gaze at sunsets! We had a policy of pulling over as often as possible to make cups of tea and enjoy the view because we could!
- Plan in campsite stops, both into your budget and your route. Depending on your arrangement in your campervan and no matter how well set up you are for us having one night every ten days or so when we pulled off the road and into a campsite and could shower three times a day, plug everything in, empty stuff, fill stuff up and just touch base with civilisation again was great.
- Our biggest stresses really were finding somewhere to empty our toilet and somewhere to fill up our drinking water. In Scotland there are public loos which almost always have drinking water in the sinks – unless it states it is not drinking water then it will be. We had three five litre plastic water bottles which I used to go and fill from the taps. Take a beaker as you won’t fit a five litre bottle under the tap! Ady would be emptying the loo while I was doing this. We never used chemicals in our loo and used loo paper that breaks down quickly so on a couple of occassions we dug a deep hole and buried the toilet contents instead. In an ideal world you’d barely have much to empty, in our world we had four people including two children and with the best will in the world you can only coordinate your toiletting with finding a public loo so much so you will end up carrying some crap (pardon the expression!) Make sure you have plenty of loo rolls and handwash and water containers.
- Cleaning us and our clothes was another challenge. A friend recommended carrying handwashing soap (the green bars), a lenth of washing line and some pegs. We never actually did it but you can string a clothes line between the two front windows by capturing the ends of the line in the windows and peg your pants on it to dry overnight. We had a plastic trug which we used for washing clothes and people. Boil a kettle and ensure you have plenty of flannels. Consider inside and outside clothing if the weather is wet or muddy or you are going to places where you may get grubby then you can just wear outdoor clothes for longer without having to wash them. Ady used baby wipes lots, the rest of us prefered flannels. I washed my hair in four different public loos, if the sinks had hot water I was in there with my beaker, shampoo and a flannel to dry my hair with. Pretend you are Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan in the handdryer scene – it adds glamour to what could otherwise feel like a bag lady experience. Talc is your friend.
- Have stuff to do inside. We had packs of cards, books, a couple of travel games, pen and paper, the radio. Dragon and Star still refer lots to the time spent wild camping as such a happy one when we all sat together and talked lots. Take binoculars, spotter books for identifying birds and other wildlife. Take a camera, watercolour paints or pencils and try and capture your surroundings as best you can with words, photographs, sketches or just drinking in your fill of the view and committing it to memory forever.
- Make best use of everything. We used to charge stuff up using an invertor that ran from the campervan cigarette lighter and charged our phones, kids DSs, cameras, my netbook. I ran the heater in the van and dried our pants and socks down by my feet on the big floor area in the footwell or put towels on the back worktop in the sunshine. We had small solar chargers which we moved around the van to keep charging too. Try and anticipate what your needs might be in advance and research some of the gadgets and gizmos available for this. If you will be without electricity then look at a small generator or power pack if you think you will struggle without it. Check out lighting options – for us the day we bought a really decent battery lantern was a life changing one as we went from 25 little led torches barely lighting the van at night to one big light illuminating everything. Consider things like shaving, electric toothbrushes and anything else you regularly plug in now and work out what you will use instead while traveling.
- Finding your space. For us the wild camping period was the most intense in many ways as we were all together all the time. We’d already been on the road for months so were used to being in one space together all day but still had other people diluting our company for chunks of each day while WWOOFing. We had very few times when we struggled with being in that small space but knowing it could be a potential issue ensured we had ideas to deal with it should it become an issue. It’s tough to flounce out of the room and slam a door on the way if there is just the one room and no doors! Being able to articulate your need to be left alone for a while, or working out ways to understand the needs of the other people with you was very important for us.
- Record it! Take pictures, blog it, mark your location every night on a map, write about it and if the kids don’t fancy writing their own diaries of the adventure then interview them and write it down for them / video them being interviewed. I promise they will thank you for doing so as the memory starts to dim of what you did each day.
In summary I would take the same approach to wild camping as I would for anything else – work out in advance what you are wanting to get from the experience and then work hard to ensure you do. If there are very specific places you want to see then plot your route accordingly. If you are wanting to see particular wildlife or other such experiences then research the best places to spot them and make sure you have plenty of time. If you are hoping for a chilled out relaxing time, pottering along with no rushed feeling and the option of changing plans to see what happens along the way then cover the basics such as ensuring you have enough food and fuel and turn the satnav off and toss a coin every time you get to a junction to see whether you should go left or right.