A photo of three tents and a touring bicycle pitched on the edge of a woodland in the morning light.

No Stupid Questions: Should You Ask Permission To Wild Camp In Britain?

A reader writes:

Hi Tom, 

Having cycled LEJOG and stayed at Airbnb and a couple of youth hostels, I’m planning on bikepacking/ wildcamping. Cycling until I’m either too tired to continue or where a convenient place appears.  Questions are, do you ever get or attempt to get permission to camp or bivvy, and do you plan where to stop in advance? 

I’m looking to be free from a schedule. Apart from getting the Caledonian sleeper back south from Inverness. 

Thanks for the question! It’s never a bad time to discuss wild camping on bike trips. Confidence in where you’re going to sleep can have a huge impact on your day-to-day enjoyment of cycle touring or bikepacking. This is important!

Indeed, not knowing if/when/where you’re going to be able to wild camp for the night is one of the biggest and most commonly stress factors I hear about from people planning cycle tours and bikepacking trips, wherever they’re planning to go.

I’m guessing from your question that you don’t yet have much wild-camping experience, at least on the charming little island of Great Britain. In general, it’s one of the more challenging places in the world to wild camp. For all that is great about cycle touring in England, it also has woefully little public land, no wild-camping rights (local bylaws for Dartmoor excepted), heavily enclosed and intensively farmed countryside, and limited access to what marginal undeveloped land is left. I’m guessing you know this, and that’s partly why you’re asking.

On the other hand, enlightened Scotland – encompassing almost half the distance of a typical LEJOG – has since 2003 had the right to roam and camp overnight enshrined in law, among many other attractions for the rider. Again, I assume you’ll already be familiar with this.

In any case, take a look at a map of the island of Great Britain and you’ll notice it is peppered with green spaces and pockets of wilderness. The prospective wild camper quite naturally zooms in on these places. It’s a good starting point: I’ve cumulatively spent a couple of months cycle touring or bikepacking around both England and Scotland, and I’ve never failed to find a wild camping spot when I’ve looked for it.

My general advice on successful wild camping can be found here, but to address your questions specifically:

If there are people in or around my preferred wild camping spot, and it feels they’d be in a position to “give permission”, I will typically ask before pitching. 

Note that this doesn’t assume they’re the actual landowner: if you’re in a park, or on a beach, or in some other common space, they could just be local community members whose sense of ownership is informal. I’ve never had someone refuse “permission” in this scenario, but occasionally I’ve been told why I might want to look elsewhere. Either outcome helps!

But if there’s no-one around and night is approaching, I’ll rarely go out of my way to ask.

In general I feel it’s best not to draw attention to yourself after dark, even if you think you’re secluded and invisible. For the same reason I avoid campfires and headtorches and rely on the night-vision that develops if you allow it to. I’ll typically pack as much as possible that evening, sleep early, and be ready for a sharp exit the following morning. The moment my tent’s packed, I’m just another cyclist.

Regarding planning your wild camping sites in advance, there’s a certain amount of personal preference involved here, especially when you’re getting used to the wild camping routine as part of a cycle tour or bikepacking trip. The more experienced you become, the larger your comfort zone will grow.

Planning your wild camping strategy ahead by (let’s say) a day, or maybe two if you have a good sense of likely daily distance, may give you the peace of mind you need to enjoy the day’s riding. This may be true even if you don’t actually end up on the site you intended, while at the same time helping to impart the schedule-free feeling you’re looking for.

I took this approach last spring in New South Wales. I’d never toured in Australia before, and I wasn’t yet in tune with the character of the land and how it was managed, so rather than dive in at the deep end I spent a little time every morning looking at maps of my intended route and pinned two or three likely-looking camping options. That gave me both flexibility and concrete starting points for the search, while pushing the decision itself a few hours down the road.

In my experience, planning wild camping sites in advance requires a combination of good information and an understanding of landscapes and land use patterns.

Maps are your friend: find the best quality maps you can and be prepared to study them in detail. They’ll give you both promising camp locations and help you avoid unlikely areas too. This blog post lists several apps giving access to a variety of digital map sources, and not just for the UK.

In England specifically, I tend to look for canal towpath verges, riverbanks near bridges, country parks or forests, rural trailheads (where people park to go walking), unpaved byways or off-highway cycle paths through rural areas, and other miscellaneous patches of green on the map. I then use these as branches off my main route to find isolated spots to sleep. This is a crowded isle; I’ll usually pass the first couple of obvious places, avoid anywhere with litter or signs of frequent traffic, and end up somewhere just out of range of the typical fellow wanderer. This strategy served me well as I rode the length of England without any money in 2014.

More recently I’ve been making use of platforms that crowdsource information for travellers that wouldn’t otherwise appear on maps. 

Of the ones I’ve used, iOverlander seems to have the best worldwide coverage. It’s aimed primarily at overland drivers and motorcyclists, but since their needs intersect with those of cyclists when it comes to free overnight camping spots, I’ve found it often worth checking to see if someone’s already found a perfect riverbank or panoramic viewpoint nearby. There are other platforms and apps, some of which are specific to countries or regions. WikiCamps now covers the UK, for example, though I haven’t tried it myself.

In Scotland, as previously mentioned, the puzzle is a bit easier to solve, because you have the right to camp on any land as long as doing so doesn’t harm the owner’s livelihood. That doesn’t mean you’d actually want to sleep in the middle of a roundabout, of course, but it does reflect the observation that there is, on the whole, a lot more undeveloped (and unenclosed) land north of Hadrian’s Wall. This can make wild camping an absolute joy.

Beyond that, most of the above advice still applies, with the additional peace of mind of knowing that the law (and the expectations of anyone who might stumble into your camp) is on your side.

By the way, if you’re set up for off-road riding, don’t forget Scotland’s relative abundance of bothies.

Although much popularised since my first bothy-to-bothy mountain bike trip in 2006, these are still a culturally unique means of stringing together adventurous bike routes and sleeping indoors in a great diversity of locations while you’re at it. Do try and donate to the Mountain Bothies Association if you make use of them.

Finally, although you wrote that you planned to ride until ‘too tired to continue’, I wanted to mention that I always try to keep a bit of energy (and time) in reserve when wild camping. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions regarding my camp location as a result of being too tired and unable to think straight! In some places this doesn’t matter because the entire landscape is one giant campsite, but in others it will take a bit more brainpower to discern a tent-sized spot among all that’s packed into this little island.

Hope this helps!

Comments (skip to respond)

2 responses to “No Stupid Questions: Should You Ask Permission To Wild Camp In Britain?”

  1. For the UK, learning to ‘read’ (interpret) an OS map is a very useful skill and then check that digitally with a Google Earth enlargement. Bridlepaths can be useful overnight stopping places. You do not have to go far down one to be out of sight of the road you accessed it by and access is rarely difficult with a bike.

    1. Absolutely! For the uninitiated, the Ordnance Survey Explorer series of maps at 1:25,000 cover the whole of the UK and are extremely detailed and accurate for the kind of micro-navigation you’ll need to find wild camping spots. You can get paper maps, or Microsoft’s Bing Maps has a digital OS map layer that’s free to use.

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