One of the main attractions to vanlife is waking up in a different spot every day. From beaches to mountains and forests to urban stealth spots, the possibilities are endless when you are wild camping in the UK. If you are new to vanlife and want to know more about where you can sleep in your van, you are in the right place! We have put together this comprehensive guide to help you overcome your nerves, fill you with knowledge and give you some inside tips!
Sleeping in our van but not on a campsite was something that we were both a little nervous to do when we first started so we know how it can be! Will someone knock on the door? Should I respond to it? Could we get arrested? Now, a year later we feel much more confident about wild camping in the UK and have some great locations that we like to visit.
The first time is the hardest!
We had done a few trial nights in the run up to our adventure of full time vanlife to get us used to it and have camped all over England and Wales since. One of those adventures was a week-long tour of North Wales where we found spots in Trawsfynydd, Betws-y-Coed, Caernarfon and Anglesea.
Maybe we have been really lucky. Perhaps we mastered the art of parking a massive campervan where she wouldn’t cause too much of a problem. At 7.2 meters long, she isn’t very subtle! Having only been asked to move on once in our travels and that was because we had parked somewhere out of our norm and was totally our fault. We moved straight away and went to another spot nearby that we had been to before.
What is Wild Camping in the UK and is it legal?
It depends on who you ask. Some adventure enthusiasts refer to wild camping as a tent and a sleeping bag. No luxury, no bed, no leisure battery, no vehicle etc. For vanlifers we often refer to wild camping as sleeping in our van away from home, not on a site and without hook up to electric. It is also referred to as free camping.
Almost every piece of land is owned by someone in the UK. Without permission you do not have right of access to their land, even if they leave the gate open! If you are asked to move, you must do so. That being said, there are some spots where ‘wild camping’ is tolerated in the UK and as long as the basic rules of decency are followed you should be able to enjoy your trip without interruptions. The more remote your location, the easier it tends to get so busy tourist resorts can be hard to wild camp in and you may need to look at sites if you are planning a holiday in the south west of England in peak season!
Scotland is a lot more tolerant to wild campers
However in the last few years campers and motorhomes have been flocking to the country in their droves and over the last 6 months we have seen the Scottish councils putting up barriers and making it harder. We will touch on this later on in the post.
Essentially, whilst wild camping is not technically legal in the UK, if you are discrete and courteous, do not camp where there are signs that state no overnighting allowed, and move if asked you should be ok. Vanlifediary will not be held accountable for your decision to wild camp. We provide the info. Please do your own research in case rules have changed.
What types of camping are there?
If by the end of this article you are not quite ready to leap to wild camping in the UK, there are other places that you can go to bridge the gap from campsites to wild camping. This will help build up your confidence in staying in more unusual places without the luxuries found on campsites.
Pub Stop Over
Some pubs, like Tuckers Grave Inn in Somerset, welcome campervans and will either charge a minimal fee for you to stay or just ask that you eat dinner as payment in return for sleeping in their car park. It is not always cost effective. We tend to relax and have a few drinks which is fine as we are staying overnight. If you are on a budget it may not be the best option but it is a great way to relax and have a nice evening with not far to stagger.
Please note that you must be careful if drinking when in charge of a vehicle. Do your own research but you must be able to demonstrate that you are not intending to drive the vehicle when under the influence so if like us you have a separate key for the engine and the doors, perhaps ask to keep the engine key behind the bar! We do not drink unless at a site or pub stop over. Otherwise you could be asked to move on at any point and be over the limit.
Finding spots like farm shops, thatched country pubs, vineyards and breweries can be tricky however if these sounds like places you may like to investigate we suggest you look at Brit Stops. They aim to enable direct contact between you and the providers. They aim to encourage motor homers and caravaners to try local produce and for sustainable tourism through links to local communities. Although not Wild Camping, these can give you a good taste for being off grid in the UK.
Several different options on this site including NightStops, a scheme overseen by the Motor Caravaners’ Club in conjunction with the monthly magazine. Comprising of around 50 individual properties from pubs to community areas, they offer overnight accommodation for motorhomers in their vehicles. You can stay for free at one of the pubs if like above, you buy a meal in exchange. You do need to be a member of the club to benefit.
Sites like Pitchup.com or the Camping and Caravan Club do offer more basic sites for you that vary in facilities. Some are just a field with hardly any facilities. It will get you used to being off the grid and away from hook ups.
Basic rules of ‘free/ wild camping in the UK‘
Don’t litter or empty your toilet!
Some people are very disrespectful when ‘wild camping’ by littering in the UK. Either by leaving rubbish or emptying toilet cassettes along with chemicals and waste matter. We have witnessed this ourselves on many an occasion, walking through a forestry car park a couple of months ago there was toilet paper and human faeces by almost every tree stump around the car park. We found washing up sponges and food wrappers, tin cans and cigarette butts all over the place in another location.
On one occasion, in a car park by a canal in Coventry, we filled 2 bin bags of rubbish that we found there and took it to be responsibly disposed of. Most campsites that we asked during one of our earlier posts advised that they do allow campers and motorhomes to come in for an hour or so to use the facilities such as showers and toilet disposal for a small fee or donation. It is not impossible to be responsible and is part of being in nature and respecting it. Emptying your toilet and leaving rubbish is a sure way to get into bother.
Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.
Local councils in the UK are ending wild camping spots. By putting in height restricted barriers and no camping signs they quickly eliminate a subgroup. Councils will not allow us to use areas if they are being treated like a tip. I am one of the first to say that caravan and motorhomer’s get blamed for a lot of the rubbish and not all of it is theirs. Vanlifediary feel that if everyone left a location a little tidier than you found it and the rubbish was removed, we would get positive reviews instead of negative ones.
Don’t outstay your welcome
It is best not to park in the same spot for more than 2 nights in a row. It is OK to revisit stops as long as you are not there permanently or so frequently that you could become a nuisance. If you have a vehicle that stands out a little then it will be easily noticed by the local community and authorities. By having a few options and moving around every night you can offset the impact to the community and have more luck at being left alone. If you are going to be in the same area for a few days, it is good practice to have a list of night spots and day spots.
Do not get too comfortable! Don’t put up your awning, get you deck chairs out with washing lines and make a garden like you would on a campsite. Keep everything close and inside the van as much as possible. Taking up more room than necessary is a quick way to make enemies and upset the locals! ‘Setting up camp’ may make it look like you are planning to stay a long time.
Do not enter areas where there are farm animals, crops or historical sites.
Farmers are not the most tolerant. As tempting as it may look to just nip into a field where the gate is left open for a safe camping spot, It isnt a good idea. Also good to note, farmers tend to have big guns so tread carefully however we have never put ourselves in a situation where we are on farmers land. Their animals and crops are their livelihood and they will protect them. You can approach the farm and enquire as to whether they would be happy for you to stay a night or barter manual labour to stay longer. That is always an option!
Use common sense and trust your gut. If you find a nice spot but something in your gut gives you an uneasy vibe, move on. It is telling you something for a reason and while it might turn out to be wind from last nights vindaloo, better safe than sorry! On the flip side, if you have a thought that says “I wonder if its ok to park here, maybe this isn’t the best spot” listen to that too. The last thing you want is to be uneasy all night expecting a knock on the door.
Give others space. If you pull into a car park or park-up and there are already other campers there, don’t park up 6 inches away! Take the opportunity to park further away and give each other space. Do feel free to introduce yourself once parked and strike up conversation if you feel it is safe to do so.
Get used to the sounds.
Before you set off for your first night wild camping in your van and opt for the UK wilderness, spend a few nights on a site so that you can ensure that everything is working in your van and that you are used to the noises that it makes. Like a house, the van will make noises as temperatures change and the metal expands and contracts. The weather will also make noises such as the wind finding the one hole in the van you thought you had fixed and whistle through it all night and the rain will make varying sounds depending on how hard it’s hitting your roof!
By getting used to these noises it will be easier for you to determine what is normal and what isn’t. When parking in an urban area expect to hear traffic, sirens and people as the norm, where as when is more rural places you are more likely to hear owls, branches cracking and be woken up by wild cows having a scratch on your rear bumper making you question if there is an earthquake on the top of the Gower Peninsula! Wild camping in the UK can be just that!
Aside from the rural setting of opening your door and doing yoga just outside on the beach at sunrise, the practicality is that at some point you may need to be a little stealthier or camp in an urban situation. The key is to try and blend in to your surroundings. Try to make your van look as generic as you can, if it looks like commercial work van it wont draw as much attention as an older style van or one covered in stickers and a cool paint job that will stick out in a crowd.
Try to make it look as though the van is empty. If you have blacked out windows and curtains this will help not draw attention and alert the locals that you are there. If they notice you are sleeping in your vehicle, they could call the police and report suspicious activity and get you moved on.
Be cautions when cooking.
On the odd occasion we have needed to urban #stealth camp, we have cooked our dinner elsewhere and then moved late in the evening to our sleeping spot, climbed in to the back and drawn the curtains. This way we are discreet and try to draw as little attention to ourselves as we can. The smell of food cooking is a sure way to get noticed.
Playing music loud or standing on the pavement to brush your teeth is a sure way to raise eyebrows so try to keep your noise and activity to a minimum.
When it comes to actually sleeping, pay attention to how close you are to traffic. If you are on a road, be aware that there is a possibility of someone having an accident and crashing into you so where are you sleeping in relation to where impact could be? Try to make sure you are safe and that your head is away from an exposed corner. If possible, use a lay-by where there is a clear island between the road and the lay-by.
After a few nights in the van you will get used to the noises of people passing and tune out the sounds but for the first couple of nights you may find that you wake at every noise. This is normal. There are so many options of places to experience wild camping in the UK that you do not have to use areas that seems risky.
Ideas for places to park
There are apps such as searchforsites and park4night that will show you places that others have parked up before with pictures and reviews others have left. These can range from campsites, pub stopovers, carparks, laybys on the main roads which we would never do personally for security and safety reasons but some people do. You can search around you using GPS or by a specific area. Each pins are colour coded and the sites are easy to navigate. You can get a good variation of wild camping spots to campsites in the UK and some abroad too.
If you don’t want to use these apps there are places that you can look that will usually come up trumps. Do check signs in the car parks and obey any local bylaws. We look for places that are out of the way of most people and where it may not be unusual to see a van parked up. For example, we have looked on the map for canals and areas where they moor up. It would be quite normal for vehicles to park here if the owners were on a barge. Forests are a good idea too as there are often large car parks set back off of the main roads.
To Urban, or not to Urban?
Side roads are an option however if you are in a residential area, do be warned that there has been an increase in people getting very protective of the car parking spots outside their houses! In America Walmart allow overnight stops however this hasn’t really caught on in the UK yet. Some stores are happy as long as you purchase items in their store. You could ask store owners for permission and see what they say. Look at industrial areas where lorry drivers park up. Although there will be a lot more coming and going as they finish their breaks and move on, there will also be safety in numbers. Again, if you don’t feel safe don’t do it and secure your vehicle when you are sleeping.
In terms of safety, instinct is under-rated. Trust it. It is there for a reason. Be that for a positive decision or a negative one. Use your 6th sense and take time to take in the area you are in. Do you notice anything unusual? Can you see any evidence that the area is a dogging site after dark or that it is used for drug taking? Are there people around? Is it lit? Does it feel safe? We always spend about an hour or so looking for a suitable spot to sleep and if we do not feel safe, we move on.
Break ins. Yes they can happen but more often than not, it will happen when you are not in the van. Have as many security devices as you can to keep your possessions secure. From a portable safe for your valuables to extra bolts on the inside of your van, anything you can do to make your van more secure is a bonus. Do make sure that you can always get out of the van quickly if you are in danger or a fire starts.
What to do if someone knocks on your van door?
First and foremost, your safety is paramount. There are very differing views on the best course of action should you receive that dreaded knock and we would advise that you treat each situation as an individual case and weigh up the pros and cons as you deem safest.
If is it just someone trying to see if you are in the van you could choose to be quiet and still. They may get bored and wander off. If it is someone scouting out the van for a break in they are more likely to return if they believe the van to be empty.
It may be the police or a local resident for example. If it is the police it is likely that they were on patrol and came across you or that they were alerted by a local that a van had parked up that was suspicious. Either way, it is best not to ignore the police. We were on our way to a park up in the back and beyond in Wales when we passed a police car who stopped to talk to us. He was very pleasant and just let us know that there had been a spike in break ins lately due to more vans arriving and people going hiking. Not every interaction will be a bad one.
With unknown people knocking on the door these can be more risky. If you are a solo traveller be especially careful. Always keep your doors locked when you are inside. You can shout through the door “who is it” without putting yourself at risk. You do not have to open the door unless you feel safe to do so. If someone is being aggressive and you feel that you have the right to be there, call the police yourself but be prepared to move on.
Always be ready to move.
If you find yourself in a confrontation, you can quickly drive away – hard to do if you have all of your stuff everywhere! Make sure your drivers seat is always empty and your keys close to hand so you can jump in and go at a moments notice.
At the end of the day it comes down to how you feel about the situation. If you feel able to handle yourself in a confrontation then make a call on it yourself. We would never suggest using weapons in a confrontation however if anything escalated you should be able to defend yourself. Pepper spray would be a good call, a rape alarm – depending on how rural you are or self defence classes are always a good shout. Weapons can be used against you so if you do decide to be armed – make sure you keep yourself as safe as possible. Call the police and lock yourself in/drive away if you can.
What 3 Words
It is easy to get carried away in the wilderness, so to speak, and get used to not quite knowing where you are! In the eventuality that someone has an accident or is taken ill you should always know where you are. You can not always rely on having internet and using google maps to find your location so having an idea of where you are is essential. If you are going hiking take a map and compass.
There is an app that we have seen called ‘What 3 words’ that will tell you your location using 3 unique words designated to each 3m square in the world. Many emergency services can use this app to pinpoint your location to get to you quickly.
This is a GPS location app that you can set up with your loved ones so that they can look at the app and see where you are. This is especially helpful if you haven’t checked in for a while and people can see if you are driving or stationary, and where you are (signal permitting)
Iphone Find my friends.
An app between iphones so that you can find your friends using GPS.
First Aid Kits
Sounds obvious but always have a first aid kit in your campervan so that if you get into a scrape or are taken ill, you have some emergency care in your possession. You will also be able to help out if you come across someone that needs aid.
Food and water.
Always ensure that you have water on board and plenty of it – especially in hot weather. Ideally around 2 litres a day per person plus extra for washing up and cleaning. You need to be prepared for emergencies such as if you break down and are delayed getting to water source should you be very rural. You need to ensure you also have food for your survival!
Keep a close eye on the weather and make sure you are prepared for the forecast weather. For winter, ensure you have working heating and blankets to keep warm. Your vehicle should have a winter service and essentials such as a shovel for if you get stuck in the snow.
For information on other places we have visited, click here for Locations
For more articles like ‘Wild camping in the UK’ click here.
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