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:
- 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.
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:
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.
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.