I’m a bit torn on the wild camping issue. On one hand, I believe that nature should be accessible to all and belongs to both no one and everyone. On the other hand, I know that there are a lot of idiots who’d leave their trash all over the place, feed the wild animals, and probably set forest fires if wild camping was legal.
Assuming that you aren’t the type of camper who is going to do all of these things, then I do strongly believe that you shouldn’t have to pay for nature. This post is for you so you can plan a wild camping trip right.
Yes, Wild Camping Does Take Planning
I know a lot of wilder campers who just drive around backroads until they find a nice spot to set up camp. I also know a lot of bike tourers will wild camp wherever they find a place.
This sort of random camp-wherever-you-end-up wild camping isn’t for me. With the bike touring wild camping, the bikers are only spending 1 night at the spot.
In this case, as Tom points out in his post about how to camp for free anywhere, you can literally put your tent under a rest stop picnic table. Or camp next to a park bench. No one is going to bother you so long as you pack up by daytime.
But, if you want to stay more than 1 night, you’ll probably have to do some planning!
Even with the car wild camping, you’ve still got to do some planning. I don’t want to have to pack up my tent and gear every morning and carry it all around with me on day hikes. I don’t want to spend all day driving around in a car hoping to find a good spot. I really don’t want to spend my getaway in nature camping next to a road with an ugly view. Oh, and I don’t have a car. Or a driver’s license!
Without a car, I really do have to put some extra planning into my wild camping trips. I’ve got to make sure that I can get to the camping location by a combination of train/bus/hitchhiking, that the location is safe, and that I have all of my food and supplies with me because I can’t just drive to the nearest store.
Scouting Out a Wild Camping Spot in Advance
Unless you are OK with the idea of walking/biking/driving for hours until you find a suitable wild camping spot, I’d recommend scouting out your camping spot in advance. Of course, this isn’t necessary if you are only going to crash for 1 night and don’t really care about getting the “perfect” spot.
There are a lot of great ways to find a wild camping spot. The first is to simply go online and search for “wild camping + location”. This works well for popular camping locations. If you are going camping somewhere not-so-popular, then you’ll need to search a bit further.
Here is how I find wild camping spots:
- Use Google Earth: Choose a region where you want to camp. Then go to Google Earth and zoom in. I mean really zoom in! You will be able to see where there are water sources (very important when camping multiple days) and how many houses are in the area.
- Flickr: Flickr is a place where many amateurs post their photos. If you search for “location + camping”, you are bound to get some wild camping pics. Click on one that looks nice and you may get some more info about the location. You can always send the photographer an email to ask for more info. In this screenshot, you can see some results which show up when you search Flickr for “camping Greece.”
- Get Advice in Forums and Online Groups: As I talk about in this post about planning a wild beach camping trip, online platforms are a great place to get advice about wild camping spots. You can ask the locals directly. I use Couchsurfing for advice. Without it, I would have never been able to find this amazing wild camping spot on the beach in Greece.
- Ask Locals When You Arrive: If you can’t scout out a wild camping spot before you arrive, then just ask someone when you do arrive. Of course, they will probably tell you that you are crazy and camping outside is dangerous. Maybe try asking them if there is a “nice place for a picnic nearby” or something along that lines instead.
Once you’ve chosen a general area to go camping, you’ll need to narrow it down to an exact location. For that, read this post about how to scout out a wild camping spot.
Know the Local Laws about Wild Camping
Some places are a lot more relaxed about wild camping than others. For example, in the USA, California is really strict about wild camping – which isn’t surprising considering the forest fire risk. States like Colorado and Utah are a lot more relaxed. I live in Serbia now and no one cares if you wild camp. Though they are confused as to why you are camping in the first place. In Greece, wild camping is illegal everywhere so you’ve got to be really careful near the beach where there are lots of hotels. Go to the mountains in Greece and no one will care.
In the place you want to wild camp is very popular (such as the Grand Canyon), you are going to have a really tough time. These places are highly patrolled by park rangers. Be prepared to pay a large fine and maybe spend some nights in a local jail for trying to wild camp! Or just be really discreet about it.
Tip: Since I am with my young daughter, I like to have a backup sleeping plan. I will generally look up some nearby cheap hotels in case we get kicked off the spot. I’ve never had to use it, but having a backup makes me feel like a more responsible parent 😉
Wild Camping in Isolated Areas is Really Easy
If you are going to the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization, then wild camping is easy. After all, no one can forbid you from wild camping when there is no one there!
This type of isolated wild camping is generally what we call backpacking.
With backpacking, you’ve got to be completely prepared and self-reliant. You will need to:
- Be able to walk a long distance with a pack on your back (read how to calculate the length of a hike)
- Be near water and have a way of filtering it (I use this water filter for backpacking)
- Have all of your food with you (read what to eat when backpacking)
- Have a tent or other form of shelter
- Know basic first aid in case someone gets injured (read what to put in your first aid kit)
- Know how to navigate
- Practice wilderness safety (see how to hanging a bear bag)
Overnight backpacking is forbidden in some places. But, aside from in national parks, you don’t really have to worry about anyone bothering you if you are far enough into the wild – like on top of a mountain. If there is no one there to see you, then you aren’t going to get in trouble with anyone! It is also highly unlikely that someone is going to steal your gear that far into the wild.
Many places do allow backpacking so long as you get a permit first. Unless you are against the idea because of moral reasons (believing that nature should be free for all), then just buy the permit if you can afford it. They hopefully use the money to take care of the area, so buying the permit helps support nature.
Wild Camping in National Parks
Last summer, I almost went wild camping in a national park in Montenegro. I ended up not going there because it seemed too complicated to do with my 4-year-old daughter (instead we wild camped in a beautiful area outside of the national park). This doesn’t mean that wild camping in national parks can’t be done – you’ve just got these things to consider:
1. Is There An Entrance Fee?
A lot of national parks make you pay an entrance fee. When you pay, you get a pass to enter the park. The rangers can easily check your pass when they see you or when you exit.
I highly doubt that park rangers are going around asking hikers to see their passes. But, if rangers see you leave several days after they see you pay entrance, they’d presumably know that you’d slept in the park.
The way of avoiding this is to enter the park illegally so they don’t know you are there. This requires having a good map of the park and knowing how to navigate off-trails. I’m not thrilled about stealth off-trail hiking with a preschooler, so I’ll save this until she gets older.
2. You Probably Won’t Be Able to Make a Fire
Depending on the size of the national park, wild camping might mean that you can’t make a fire. Because a ranger will obviously be able to see the smoke. I doubt they will run up to you in the middle of the night, but they might wake you up early in the morning to issue you a fine.
Making a fire is the best part of camping for me, so this makes me not want to wild camp in national parks where it is forbidden.
3. You Might Need to Hide Your Tent Too
In popular or strict areas, you’ll need to be extra discreet. That means keeping your tent away from any popular trails. You might even go as far as wanting to camouflage the tent by putting branches over it. This seems like a big pain to me, which is why I eventually decided against wild camping in the national park with my daughter. There are plenty of beautiful areas outside of national parks, and they’ll have less annoying tourists too. J
Because of these 3 issues, I’ve never wild camped in a national park. I have, however, wild camped right outside of national park boundaries. The areas are still really beautiful. And, as an added bonus, you avoid all of the annoying touristy day trippers going to the park.
Wild Camping in Villages and Remote Areas
In Eastern Europe, I’ve gone wild camping in remote areas many times – such as the outskirts of small villages and next to local swimming holes. I particularly love these camping spots because they are easy to access. Remember, I don’t know how to drive and my daughter (now 5) can’t really walk 10km to a secluded wild camping spot. Well, she can…It just takes a really long time.
Villagers are often really nice to visitors. If you ask to camp on their property, they’ll probably offer you a free bed in their home – then you have to explain that you actually want to sleep in your tent! If they offer a free bed, do ask to use their toilet! It is better to knock on their door at night to use the bathroom than dig a latrine in their yard.
This doesn’t mean that wild camping in villages is without worries. My biggest fear is that someone will steal my gear while we are out on a day hike (something bike tourers don’t have to worry about when wild camping since they are usually there just one night).
I’ve never had any of my gear stolen (knock on wood). But I do make a point to carry all my important valuables with me when I leave camp. That means my passport, wallet, phone, and camera.
To prevent theft, you can also “check in” with a local. In small villages, the locals know everyone. They will be able to tell you whether you should worry. And if something gets stolen, they’ll probably even know who did it!
Wild camping in villages also means you’ll probably have good company. If you want to be alone, then this isn’t exactly a benefit. But I love it when some locals gather around the fire at night. I particularly love it when they bring me cooked food, homemade alcohol, and sweets for my daughter. These are things which I can’t carry in my backpack for the trip! Thanks local villagers!!! <3
Wild Camping in Conspicuous Areas
I haven’t done too much wild camping in conspicuous areas because who really wants to sleep next to a loud, dirty road? But I have done it a few times – like when we slept next to a road outside of a town because our camping friend had a train to catch in the town early the next morning. And there was the time that we camped on the Serbian-Kosovo border after we got kicked off the bus at 1am (the reason has to do with crappy politics and us having the wrong stamps in our passports). Borders are skeevy places, so I didn’t exactly sleep calmly that night!
Unless the local police are being complete dicks, no one is probably going to bother you camping at places like next to gas stations, rest stops, or in fields. That said, there are some tips you should follow when wild camping anywhere highly populated or obvious:
- Scout out your camping spot early on.
- Wait until the last moment to set up your tent.
- Hopefully your tent is green and not bright orange.
- Make sure your tent isn’t visible from the road, if possible.
- Forget about making a fire 🙁
- Be friendly to anyone who goes by. A smile does wonders at easing suspicions and making friends!
No Matter Where You Wild Camp, Leave It As You Found It!
Even if you are wild camping next to a road littered with trash, it doesn’t mean you have permission to throw your trash along with it. Remember that the reason wild camping is illegal in many places (aside from them wanting to make money by commercializing nature) is that irresponsible campers do things like leave trash or start forest fires.
Be a responsible camper! Always take all your trash with you. Bury your poo. Don’t leave food for wild animals. Build fires safely… If everyone did these things, then no one would have a (good) reason for banning wild camping.