Lydia at Ben Klibreck

One of the great joys of owing a campervan or motorhome is being self-sufficient, able to park up and stay overnight away from the crowds.  People often talk of ‘wild camping’ – camping for free and away from a formal, managed campsite.  But what does the law actually say about this ?  What exactly is allowed ?

Interestingly, when researching this topic I uncovered widespread misinformation and misunderstanding on this topic.  While this isn’t a straightforward issue – and informal ‘free camping’ is tolerated in many parts of Scotland – let me try to clarify matters.

What does the law say about wild camping ?

There’s currently a common perception that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allows wild camping which relates to camping on foot or by bike, as well as in motorised vehicles.  This is incorrect since access legislation does not apply to motorised vehicles.

Camping in a camper van or motorhome should therefore more properly be called ‘free camping’ or ‘informal camping’.

The Land Reform Act provides rights of access to most land and inland water, subject to responsible behaviour as defined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.   These rights extend to informal camping – which is likewise subject to responsible behaviour.  According to the Code (my emphasis in bold):

Access rights extend to wild camping.  This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place.  You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply but help to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farms animals and by keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures.  Take extra care to avoid disturbing deer stalking or grouse shooting.  If you wish to camp close to a house or building, seek the owner’s permission. Leave no trace by:

  • taking away all your litter
  • removing all traces of your tent pitch and any open fire (follow the guidance for lighting fires)
  • not causing any pollution.

An SNH guidance document for land and recreation managers on managing informal camping (both motorised and non-motorised) provides further detail.  In particular, it highlights very explicitly (again, my emphases in bold):

Scottish access rights apply to non-motorised recreation and do not therefore extend to activities that are entirely based on the use of a vehicle, such as sleeping in cars, camper vans or caravans.

Another section suggests how landowners and land managers can manage informal car parking:

  • Managing car parking – It may be appropriate to consider locating and designing parking areas so as to influence the spread and location of campers.  Access rights do not extend to motor vehicle access, so it might also be appropriate to restrict parking, perhaps including measures to make road verges difficult to park on (such as soft mounds, planting or ditching).  These approaches should be considered in conjunction with the relevant planning authority.

Under the Road Traffic Act 1988 (Sections 34 and 22) “It is an offence to drive a motor vehicle without lawful authority on:

  • land of any description (not forming part of a road), or
  • a footpath or bridleway except in an emergency.”

Section 34 makes an allowance for a motor vehicle to be driven off-road for no more than 15 yards solely in order to park the vehicle. However, it specifically notes that this exception does not confer any right to park the vehicle on the land, and clarifies that this may constitute trespass if done without lawful authority.

Section 22 makes it an offence to park or leave a vehicle or its trailer in a position likely to cause danger to other road-users.

What about camping in a layby ?

Camper vans and motorhomes are often seen parked overnight in laybys – a related but separate issue to that of wild camping covered under the Land Reform and access code described above.  You may also frequently see ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs preventing this.

Andy Strangeway led a successful campaign to have these black on yellow ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs removed across the Highlands, since he pointed out that they were installed without a relevant Traffic Regulation Order.  Non-prescribed signs such as this require special approval from the Scottish Ministers but there is no record of them having received any such authorisation.

In practice, I know that ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs are commonplace in many parts of Scotland and the UK.  The difficultly is that you won’t know whether they have a Traffic Regulation Order supporting them and so the responsible course of action is to always obey the signs.

What’s the problem we’re trying to address ?

Let’s be clear, in return for the right of access to land the Scottish Outdoor Access Code sets out responsibilities that we all need to adopt.  What’s not acceptable is behaviour that includes:

  • littering
  • causing pollution, including noise pollution
  • damaging crops and/or disturbing farm animals
  • using threatening behaviour.

We’ve seen particular issues with irresponsible informal camping in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, which have escalated in recent years.  This has led (in March 2017) to the National Park Authority introducing byelaws so that you now need to apply for permit (costing £3 per night) in order to camp in the new camping management zones between March and October each year.  These camping management zones cover the most popular lochside locations (around 4%) of the total Park area, and restrictions don’t apply outwith these zones).  In addition, as I reported recently, the landowner in Glen Etive has taken steps to prevent informal camping right down the 12 mile length of the Glen, politely suggesting that camping take place at a designated campsite at the foot of the Glen at the head of Loch Etive.  This is to address the growing problem of littering in Glen Etive.

These are controversial developments – and there are many vocal critics of the Park Authority for introducing such draconian measures.  By introducing a blanket ban on wild camping (in tents) and informal camping (in campervans or motorhomes) between March to October unless you buy a permit, the anti-social minority have effectively restricted access for the responsible majority.  I’m not aware that owners of campervans or motorhomes are in any way guilty of irresponsible behaviour.  The police have always had the power to give fixed penalty notices to people camping irresponsibly (littering, adopting anti-social behaviour) and so there’s a strong argument that the Park Authority should simply have enforced these existing powers to fine people for unacceptable behaviour.

It’s a real shame that Scotland’s world-leading land access legislation is now being rolled back: is this the beginning of creeping restrictions in popular beauty spots elsewhere ?

But I’m even more angry about those people who think it acceptable to litter and cause damage to lochside locations, to overstay their welcome by pitching a tent in a popular spot for weeks on end or to stage a weekend party with fires, beer and barbeques.  And so I’m keeping an open mind.  If the National Park Authority and landowner in Glen Etive manage to curb irresponsible camping with these steps in a way that educates people – and doesn’t shift the problem elsewhere of course – then this is a price worth paying.  National Parks in the US and elsewhere have tightly-controlled camping and this seems to work.  Let’s hope this is a temporary measure that isn’t extended.

Camping now discouraged down Glen Etive

So what should I do if I’m a camper van or motorhome owner ?

I’m not aware of any particular issues relating to camper van and motorhome owners acting irresponsibly or antisocially.  However, this doesn’t mean that issues don’t sometimes arise.

I’ve noticed increasing antagonism against campervans and camper vans in certain hotspots such as St Andrews and some Scottish islands (eg Tiree, Colonsay).  In these locations, local residents are concerned at the number of vehicles parked overnight, creating a visual eyesore, sometimes blocking roads and entranceways, and putting pressure on public toilet facilities (if they exist at all).  When I wanted to take my camper van to Colonsay earlier this year, for example, I was politely told that there are currently no facilities to allow vans and motorhomes on the island.  This is as a direct consequence of previous instances of littering and leaving human waste.

In spite of being a camper van owner who loves informal camping, I have much sympathy with these views.  I have personally been annoyed to see people in large white motorhomes parked up beside the road in remote, treeless Highland locations creating an eyesore.  You would think that people would have the common sense to hide these monstrous vehicles somewhere far less instrusive.

A couple of years ago Big Tree Campervans teamed up with a few other campervan rental companies, as well as Scottish Natural Heritage and Visit Scotland to produce some simple, commonsense guidelines about camping informally with campervans in Scotland:

Access Rights

Scotland is rightly proud of its access rights; however when you’re looking for places to ‘camp wild’ in a campervan or motorhome, it is important to bear in mind the following key points:

  • Scottish access rights and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code don’t apply to motor vehicles.
  • The Road Traffic Act 1988 states that you can drive a vehicle up to 15 yards off a public road for the purposes of parking, but this does not confer any right to park the vehicle. Most un-metalled roads, unfenced land and beaches are private property, and you don’t have the right to park unless it’s authorised by the landowner by verbal agreement or signage.
  • In practice, informal off-road parking takes place in many parts of rural Scotland, often in well-established places, without causing undue concern.
  • Some communities (eg Calgary Bay on Mull, and the whole island of Tiree) have established their own guidance for campervans and the use of designated overnight parking spaces… if you’re in such a place, follow the guidance!

Common Sense Guidance – Do:

  • Use common sense and think whether the spot you have found is suitable for a vehicle.
  • Think about the cumulative effect of camping in the ‘fantastic secret place which I’m sure no-one else has ever been’… it is very likely that others will use the same spot, not just you!
  • Take great care to avoid the fragile ground/sensitive habitats, (eg wild flowers rich machair on the Western Isles) – never drive down to beaches or onto grass verges as it destroys the habitat.
  • Avoid over-crowding. If another vehicle is parked in a secluded spot, try not to park right next to them and find your own spot elsewhere.
  • Use only biodegradable detergents and drain kitchen waste water tanks in campsites at designated areas. If it has to be emptied in the wild, keep away from watercourses and be aware that animals will be attracted to the scent.
  • Carry a trowel to bury any human waste and urinate well away from open water, rivers and burns. Toilet paper should be bagged and taken away with you – not buried (animals dig it up).
  • Do a full ‘litter-pick’ before you leave, taking all your rubbish, and any you found there already, and disposing of it properly when you’re back in ‘civilisation.’
  • Support a sustainable tourism industry – buy groceries in local shops.

Common Sense Guidance – Don’t:

  • Park in areas where signs state ‘No overnight parking’
  • Park overnight within sight of people’s houses, even in car park bays.
  • Block access tracks to estates and fields.
  • Light BBQs or fires unless it is safe to do so, and you can supervise it properly. They should be fully extinguished when finished and no evidence left behind.
  • Empty any chemical toilet waste anywhere other than at a designated chemical waste area. The majority of campsites have facilities for emptying a cassette toilet. Most public toilets are not suitable places to empty chemical toilet, as it upsets the sewage treatment process.

Postscript:

I have personally enjoyed low-impact (“stealth”) informal camping in my camper van on many occasions.  However, I have  never written a blog post to share details of good locations since I would be acting irresponsibly in actively promoting the overuse of such sites.  I therefore don’t condone those sites (largely run by motorhome enthusiasts it has to be said) which encourage people to share GPS coordinates of free camping sites.

By all means, enjoy Scotland’s outdoors – but please act responsibly so the rest of us can continue to enjoy it in the future too.

PPS  This post has been edited to clarify that camping away from a designated campsite in a camper van or motorhome should more properly be called ‘informal camping’ or ‘free camping’ rather than ‘wild camping’.  However, the title of this post remains unchanged to highlight the current misunderstanding surrounding this issue.

30 Comments on “Wild camping in Scotland – Camper vans and motorhomes

  1. “I have never written a blog post to share details of good locations since I would be acting irresponsibly in actively promoting the overuse of such sites. ” 100% support that view

  2. Parking up isn’t really wild camping, is it? I don’t even think pitching a tent by the side of the road is wild camping. If you’re within sight of a road, it’s not wild. Maybe that’s where the whole discussion has gone wrong – the idea that anything you can do for free is ‘wild’.

    • Hi Steven,

      Thanks for raising this, a point which I didn’t make in my post but is absolutely valid. Being a keen backpacker who often camps wild miles from the nearest road I completely agree that parking just off a road (in either a tent or camper van) really isn’t wild camping – it’s free camping.

      More than this, parking in a layby isn’t a positive experience (particularly if it’s near a busy road) and possibly isn’t that safe either. It serves a function but nothing more.

      However, the reality is that people in camper van and motorhome circles do call this wild camping. And you’re right, this is why people confuse this with wild camping covered under the access legislation. So we probably should change the terminology and start only referring to this as ‘free camping’.

      The most important aspect for me in all of this is the quality of the experience. There are some great free camping spots which give a greater sense of enoyment of Scotland’s outdoors. However, I question why some people park in laybys beside busy roads – I’d much rather be on a campsite in those circumstances.

      • However, some camping sites are no better than a layby of a road (a number are even alongside a busy road). I’m quite happy to pay some quid on a small and quiet site with minimal facilities but not for a cramped mass- camping which is no better than a Tesco- parking place.

  3. A great post. I like your sense of responsibility, and think you have some great advice for others, so thank you for sharing. However, camping from a car or in a motorhome is not wild camping, by definition, as you note in the references to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Wild camping is lightweight camping, and must be done well away from habitation, including roads.

    Perhaps it would be advisable to try spread the use of the terms free camping or informal camping to more accurately describe when car and motorhome campers use locations outside designated camp sites?

    • Hi Vicky,

      Thanks for clarifying this. I aimed to address the misunderstanding around this issue, including the common use the term ‘wild camping’ by camper van and motorhome owners (in forums etc). In the light of the comments from yourself and Steven I’ve now revised the post to make a clearer distinction between true wild camping and free or informal camping in camper vans and motorhomes. I hope that helps clear things up ! Thanks again.

  4. Thanks for the clarifications – as a person who is not so physically able I do love to camp on the side of a loch in my van (definitely not on the side of a road tho), and you’re right, its free camping but for me, a bit on the wild side! There are plenty of wonderful campsites in lovely locations which only small vehicles can access. As for people leaving litter; that’s thoughtless and selfish and I’m sure those sorts would be the first to complain bitterly should anyone have the temerity to dispose of their litter on their doorsteps.

    • Hi Jane, Yes, I agree that littering is so easy to avoid yet has such a damaging impact not only on the environment but also others’ enjoyment.

  5. Being able to camp up at “wild / free” locations is one of the great advantages of having a campervan, we have had some fantastic overnight stops since we got our van this year. You need to use common sense and consider others when deciding where to park up, at some of our favourite places we arrive late (catch a sunset) and leave early as doing as otherwise may cause irritation. I totally agree that sharing grid references with motorhome “free camping” websites is not a good idea, these locations are good because they are not overused.

    I have seen us binning other peoples litter from some of our stops because it annoys us so much, what makes some people think this is acceptable is beyond me. I recall one camp, in a tent at Glen Etive, a family of 3 arrived near where we had pitched our tent, we went to the river for swim, the family got a instant BBQ out, had a picnic and what a surprise, left the whole lot when they left. Instant BBQ = Instant Arseholes it seems. We took the lot and binned it as they should have.

    No question real wild camping is with tent , in the mountains.

    Parking for an overnight stop in a layby? only of you have broken down surely!

  6. I can’t say I disagree with any of this, Stuart. Unfortunately, I see lots of people who do park up in laybys (even on busy roads) …

  7. Having worked as a Ranger in Scotland (so I could probably recite the access code!) I think this is a very responsible post. It’s such a shame some people can’t act responsibly and mar the countryside with litter!

  8. I understand the sentiments here regarding informal parking and irresponsible behaviour etc but I do think there is also a higher fundamental argument about just why can’t we park in lay-bys / car parks etc? Why should the authority responsible have the right to place “no overnight parking” signage illegally and the “responsible course of action” is to not park there? Surely the whole purpose (and legal requirement) of a sign is that it must be unambiguous and the fact that there has been a documented case proving these signs illegal means there is a reasonable assumption to doubt the validity of all such signs in the area concerned. My personal opinion is there is as much abuse going on by landowners such of the National Trust trying to herd people into overpriced campsites and nimby-ism as there are irresponsible campers.

    I think this whole “lets ban overnight parking” philosophy is skewed and what SHOULD be happening is that a positive approach is taken like on much of the continent where free parking areas are made available in areas where there is a problem. I think that if people can wild camp then we should be able to camp in our vehicles and I’m not convinced a camper van overnighting in a remote lay-by has significantly more impact than a couple of backpackers wild camping if done properly.

    • Thanks very much for taking the time to comment and putting an alternative view. I do agree with you that a camper van overnighting in a remote lay-by has very little impact on the environment. Other than what I was told about motorhome owners leaving litter on Colonsay I’m not aware that camper van owners are a particular problem. However, it is a shame that when local bylaws and/or signs are introduced they apply to everyone, irrespective of their behaviour. Clearly, the policing in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park has been ineffective (at 1,865 sq km) the Rangers or Police can’t be everywhere) and this is why blanket bans have been introduced. And seeing some of the littering from irresponsible ‘party-goers’ I for one am happy that the authorities take a hard line in such problem areas.

      Fortunately, there are many other parts of Scotland (particularly in remoter areas) where the litter louts don’t bother going to – and in practice, the authorities turn a blind eye to informal camping by the responsible majority.

  9. Can’t argue with this. As a frequent dog walker at St Andrews beach I often see MH parked up. No problem with that although the signs re not staying are getting bigger! Where di you find the bye law?

  10. I find its disappointing that we punish responsible people for the wrong doings of others. It is about time that we took a different view on wild camping and the overnight parking of camper vans and pursued the people who abuse our country side through the courts. You see the thing is the people who abuse and break the law will always do this as they go unpunished.
    In a more gentile age not so long ago where people had morals , people were encouraged to enjoy the beauty of our countryside and the vast majority would never have dreamed of leaving a trail of destruction. If only we had a time machine!

    • I agree it is a real shame that the actions of a minority do sometimes spoil things for the responsible majority. Most people understand and abide by codes of good practice (such as ‘leave no trace’) which means that we can safely enjoy the outdoors knowing that others are living by the same principles. Unfortunately, even in the hotspots the police and National Park staff are too thin on the ground (and often not working at weekends or overnight when the issues arise) to make much difference. I’m not sure what the solutions might be, other than publicising widely the worst examples of littering, fires and such like.

  11. A very interesting article, and I appreciate and take in the facts shared. Not so keen on what I perceive as “attitude”. You say that you have a camper van which I think implies “OK”, but then mention “large white motorhomes” and wish that “people would have the common sense to hide these monstrous vehicles somewhere far less intrusive.” Monstrous vehicles? Am I being over-sensitive? And yes, I travel in one of these monstrous vehicles!!
    As a general comment, I would agree with everything I have read here about NOT leaving a footprint. Litter is litter is litter and is completely unacceptable, and sadly not confined to people in motorhomes, campervans or tenting. A national disease 😦

    • I wish I’d taken a photo of the offending “monstrous vehicle” at the time. It wasn’t a normal-sized motorhome but a truck-sized one, parked up in a tree-less area (the Destitution Road in NW Scotland, if you know it). Sadly, it was a real eyesore and the people driving it clearly didn’t have the self-awareness to think that it might stick out like a sore thumb in a remote, exposed location.

      So I’m not having a go at motorhomes, I’m just making the point that informal camping should be discrete and unnoticed. I’ve previously posted about ‘stealth camping’, the idea that you arrive late and leave early so you minimise any impacts, visual or otherwise.

      I hope that clarifies things. As I say, if I’d taken a picture at the time I would have posted this up so you could form your own judgement.

  12. Pingback: Stealth camping or Free Camping using motor vehicle in Scotland | Nissan nv200 camper van from dinkum

  13. Since the early 1960s I’ve been travelling in Scotland in camper vans and motorhomes, staying in laybys or out-of the way locations where it isn’t in anyone’s way. Not camping, just parking. Never dropped a single piece of litter: no need: I have my own litter bin on board.

    Why don’t I use camp sites? Why would I want to? my motorhome is entirely self-sufficient: I need to fill the water tank and empty the waste water and toilet tanks about every 8 to 10 days. In between, the facilities offered in a camp site are irrelevant. Of course groceries and fuel don’t last 8 to 10 days, so I shop en route.

    What has changed in the last 50 years or so? More people doing it, You could go for days without seeing another motorhome then, now it’s not unusual at all. To some extent this is a pressure on the environment. Perhaps dedicated motorhome parking places, as provided in France, with waste disposal facilities and water supply at a sensible price would attract business. This would benefit the local economy.

    Make no mistake, many users of motorhomes are people with significant disposable income and the time to spend it. Trying to force them into campsites won’t work at all.

    • I agree that Scotland could do with more French style ‘aires’ for campervans and m/homes, small scale, low cost, beside villages, hotels, pubs whatever, mixture of free, honesty boxes, or say vouchers that need to be spent locally… VisitScotland? On subject of littering, this is really bugging the s*** out of me, it is beyond moronic… I see it almost every road verge now never mind the usual layby and camp spot areas, what a contrast to Ireland where the Tidy Towns scheme etc seems to have helped to keep all the Wild Atlantic Way areas we saw looking amazing. We need to address this, it must be the cheapest way to make people feel good and bring in more tourism and investment.

      • Scotland has always had a problem with litter. Beaches used as rubbish dumps, laybys strewn with bottles and food wrappers. Nothing to do with motorhomes: the problem is cultural.

      • … except that when motorhomes commonly use lay-bys and car parks they tend to be (unfairly) targeted as the culprits …

    • Thanks for spotting this. I couldn’t find the article online any more so have removed the link. Glad you enjoyed the article – now updated in the light of recent developments with the introduction of new camping byelaws in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park in March 2017.

  14. Oh dear,, I’ve just hired a medium motor home as a birthday present for hubby who has always wanted to buy one,, now I’m scared to go anywhere in case we cause a problem,

    • This post is about responsible wild (informal) camping and so as long as you follow the advice given then there shouldn’t be an issue. There are lots of campsites too, which are designed to cater for motorhomes and campervans.

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