Many campers aren’t sure where they stand with the law when it comes to wild camping in the different regions of the UK. That’s why we’ve decided to explain the different wild camping laws and rules for each of England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland to help put your mind at ease!
England & Wales
Wild camping is legal in England and Wales, but only if you have the landowner’s permission, since most of the land here is privately owned, stretching way back to the feudal system they used to have around 1000 years ago. It’s only classed as a civil offence (non arrestable), as opposed to a criminal offence (arrestable), so the police would most likely just ask you to move along if they caught you doing it. If you then refuse to move, you’ll risk escalating it into the criminal offence of aggravated trespass.
The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 is a law brought in to make it easier for the police to move people along from trespassing on private land that they deem to be causing damage, disruption or distress by raising the punishment for not moving residence. Although it’s not technically said in the law, there’s wide speculation that this new legislation was mostly approved to give the police more power to punish Gipsies more harshly for refusing to move from the spots they decide to reside in. Despite the reasoning behind the law, it may also technically apply to wild campers too. The new criminal offence will be punishable by a prison sentence of up to 3 months, or a fine of up to £2,500, or both, and/or seizure of the vehicle, BUT only if you don’t leave the location when asked by the landowner or police, so our advice would be to vacate the area as quickly and politely as you can if asked.
So if you’re planning on wild camping in England or Wales and don’t know how to contact the landowner beforehand, you may wish to weigh up how likely you are to get caught by a landowner or a police officer if you’re pitching up in the middle of the countryside at night and if the inconvenience of potentially being asked to move to a different location is worth it to you.
You might also like to take into consideration that if you follow the Leave No Trace code of conduct, landowners are generally pretty accepting of any wild camping on their land. We feel the most important rules for you to follow from this etiquette is for you to avoid lighting ground campfires that damage the land and choose to cook your food on alternatives such as barbecues instead, for you to dispose of your waste in order to prevent littering the area and that you should be respectful of any people and/or wildlife you may encounter while camping by ensuring the noise you make is kept to a minimum and you keep your distance from wildlife. It’s also an unspoken rule to only stay in the same spot for one night at a time to ensure you cause the least amount of disruption possible too.
As well as wild camping, there’s also what’s sometimes referred to as ‘free camping' in the UK, which is when the landowner has expressed permission for people to camp on their land for free. This makes it 100% legal. You can use various apps, websites and other places to find these spots. Here is a guide we wrote earlier on exactly how to find them in the UK - The Top 3 Best Ways How To Find Free Wild Camping Spots (UK Edition).
To add further complexity to the situation, it’s actually legal to wild camp in some areas of Dartmoor National Park without needing to get the landowner’s permission. However, there are some additional exceptions to this too such as only being able to wild camp in backpacking tents and not roof tents, large family tents or motorhomes. You also need to make sure you’re at least 100m away from any roads, only camp in the same spot for two nights or less and follow The Backpack Wild Camping Code Of Conduct.
Update: As stated on the Dartmoor National Park's website "The High Court declared on 13 January 2023 that that Section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 does not confer on the public any right to pitch tents or otherwise make camp overnight on the Dartmoor Commons. We have reached an agreement with The Dartmoor Commons Owners’ Association to discuss how wild camping on some parts of the Dartmoor Commons can continue".
To put this simply, you are still allowed to camp on areas of Dartmoor for free as indicated on the Dartmoor National Park Wild Camping Map, as long as you follow all the same rules as before.
The only difference is that Dartmoor landowners will now be paid a fee by the Dartmoor National Park Authority to allow people to wild camp on their land.
Update: In a ruling on 31st July 2023, Sir Geoffrey Vos, Lord Justice Underhill and Lord Justice Newey granted an appeal by the Dartmoor National Park, finding that the law “confers on members of the public the right to rest or sleep on the Dartmoor Commons, whether by day or night and whether in a tent or otherwise” as long as bylaws are followed.
To put this simply, visitors are still only allowed to wild camp with a backpacking tent on the areas in the map above, so as far as we understand this ruling doesn't affect members of the public very much because the landowners and the DNPA already came to a financial agreement to allow limited wild camping in January 2023.
However, it is a positive result for the Dartmoor National Park Authority nevertheless, as they no longer need to pay a fee to the Dartmoor landowners for the public to wild camp.
We will continue to monitor this situation closely and provide any updates if and when they happen.
Scotland has its own separate rules from the rest of the UK, which mostly came in during the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 that made it completely legal to wild camp virtually anywhere in Scotland without the landowner’s permission. This doesn’t mean campers don’t need to follow any rules at all in order to enforce their rights though. They’ll need to follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code in which it states that private gardens, farmyards, industrial sites, paying visitor attractions and fields with crops are off limits. Campers will also need to follow a somewhat common sense approach to acting responsibly, like taking care of the environment and wildlife, not littering, respecting the privacy and needs of those living and working on the land, being mindful not to obstruct farming or other activities, not damaging fences or walls, following detours suggested by those engaged in activities such as tree felling or hunting and keeping dogs under control near livestock or ground nesting birds. So overall, wild camping is widely accepted in Scotland as long as you act in a respectful manner while doing so.
The one exception is that as of 2017 you can no longer wild camp on a 9 mile stretch of land on the east shore of Loch Lomond between Drymen and Rowardennan from March 1st to October 31st because of the authorities experiencing multiple problems with particularly disruptive campers, who were drinking heavily, littering the landscape and generally acting in an anti-social way. This area is said to be getting policed heavily now and they’re enforcing fines of up to £500 if they find you wild camping here, so we recommend avoiding it for now.
We’re following this situation closely in case they either drop this new byelaw or expand the bans into other areas of Scotland, where they’re having issues with anti-social campers too. We’ll make sure to update this after any new information is found!
Wild camping in Northern Ireland is legal, but only if you have the landowner’s permission beforehand, so in this regard it’s very similar to the law in England and Wales. It’s also a civil offence, rather than a criminal offence, so there’s no chance of being arrested for wild camping if you’re caught and move along in a polite manner. If you refuse to leave the private land after being asked by the police or landowner, it may then change into being classed as the criminal offence of aggravated trespass, where the punishments are more serious.
In general if you follow the Leave No Trace code of conduct rules again to minimise your disruption, most landowners are likely to be quite tolerant of it, but always respect their wishes if they ask you to move along.
Also similar to England and Wales, there are various apps, websites and other places where you can find places where the landowner has expressed permission for wild campers to stay on their land and it’s therefore completely legal for you to stay. You can check these out in our The Top 3 Best Ways How To Find Free Wild Camping Spots (UK Edition) article.
The only real difference between England & Wales and Northern Ireland’s law on wild camping is that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 doesn’t apply to Northern Ireland, so in general the potential fines/punishments for refusing to leave the site when asked to do so by a police officer or the landowner are less severe. Obviously it’s still highly recommended you follow their wishes and move off the land politely to avoid getting in any trouble though!
So there you have it, you’re now an expert in UK wild camping law!
To sum it up, it’s legal in 99% of Scotland and you shouldn’t run into many problems in the rest of the UK as long as you follow the general codes of conduct and respect the wishes of the police and landowners in the fairly unlikely scenario that they ask you to leave the premises.
Happy camping!- or should we say happy wild camping!
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