The freedom of the road

As the main summer holiday season starts we’re now seeing more visitors on the roads, including motorhomes and campervans.  It’s great to see people enjoying what Scotland has to offer and also spending in the rural local economy.

That’s how tourism should work, right?  You travel, experience new places and activities, and support incomes and jobs in the local economy by buying food, accommodation and so on.

However, there seems to be a growing trend among a minority towards ‘free camping’, deliberately searching out car parks, lay-bys and roadside beauty spots where they need spend nothing.  I frequently receive e-mails from people asking me to supply them with a map of “wild camping spots”, particularly along the North Coast 500.  I don’t share such information, but politely direct them to great campsites instead, since attracting even more people to increasingly crowded hotspots just puts more pressure on local communities and the environment.

I appreciate this is a sensitive topic that can often divide opinion but I’d like to move beyond the ‘blame game’ to discuss constructive solutions.  But first, let’s set out what’s actually happening just now.

Responsible tourism?

I’ve written previously about ‘informal’ or ‘free’ camping in motorhomes and campervans.  The motivation for many people, including myself, is to get away from the crowds and deliberately search out informal camping spots in remoter locations.  The responsible approach is to arrive late, leave early and leave no trace.  This is good practice and I want to make sure that those of who do behave responsibly like this aren’t penalised for doing so.

However, I do take issue with websites and forums designed to share GPS coordinates of free camping spots.  Deliberately avoiding staying at campsites deprives local communities of much-needed income and is surely inconsistent with the idea of responsible tourism.

Take a popular beach location on the Moray coast, for example.  I was contacted recently by someone highlighting the fact that up to 12 motorhomes, campervans and minibuses regularly stay overnight in the beach car park.  This is in spite of the fact that there’s a ‘No Overnight Parking’ sign … and there’s a caravan park just 800 metres away.

A quick Google search reveals why.  The car park is incorrectly listed on a motorhome wildcamping website as allowing overnight camping.  But still, the many vehicles that continue to turn up ignore the sign – as well as the nearby caravan park.

This practice is a long way from what I see as low-impact informal camping.  While one motorhome staying for a single night might seem reasonable to their owners I wonder if they stop to consider the cumulative impact of dozens of motorhomes turning up every week from April to October?  Given such car parks generally don’t have facilities other than litter bins, what about rubbish collections, toilets, waste water and so on?  In the Moray example, the car park belongs to a popular visitor attraction, so that local residents and other visitors sometimes can’t get parked.  Some of those free campers sometimes even have the gall to walk along to the nearby campsite to use their showers and toilet facilities!!

Let’s scale up this single example across the whole of Scotland.  The growing popularity of owning as well as hiring motorhomes and campervans means that there are more people touring Scotland – which in itself is a good thing.  The recent impact study of the North Coast 500, for example, showed that it attracted an additional 29,000 visitors in its first year, with traffic volumes also increasing 10%.  However, the report also highlighted challenges to ensure long term success of the NC500.  These include maintaining the condition of the route, ensuring sufficient parking, waste facilities and public toilets, and continued efforts to encourage better driving.  While more visitors to Scotland should of course be welcomed the fact that the report highlights the additional pressure placed on local services underlines my point.

Four possible solutions

So how do we encourage people to do the right thing?

Here are four ideas that I think now need more active consideration.  They’re not necessarily new but equally, they’re not currently being taken forward.

  1.  Do we need a network of aires in Scotland?

In France, there are over 2,000 aires – or serviced stopover sites – which are normally run by the local council and of varying sizes.  They offer low-cost overnight parking for motorhomes, often with basic services such as water, chemical disposal and waste water disposal facilities.  Toilets and showers generally aren’t provided since motorhomes tend to have these facilities anyway.  Some are free and only charge for services, and others charge for overnight stays.  Tents are not allowed so aires wouldn’t replace the great many good campsites across Scotland (and of course we need to continue to promote these).  An approach similar to aires is already used on Tiree to help protect the fragile machair as well as on Harris, where the West Harris Trust reinvests the £5 overnight charge into community projects including site maintenance.

The Britstops scheme already operates across the UK where their guide contains details of pubs, visitor centres, farm shops and so on who are happy to host motorhomes and campervans overnight on the expectation that visitors will support sustainable tourism by buying local food and other products.  The overnight stops don’t have facilities but are free to use, all for the £27.50 cost of the annual guide.  Creating an additional network for aires would essentially extend this successful model.

For:  Attracts overnighters to places where there are proper facilities; generates ongoing income; successful models already exist 

Against:  Cost to introduce; reduction in income for campsites.

2.  Can we shut down the irresponsible websites and forums?

These sites often aren’t up to date and are only as good as the information they contain.  But when they direct people towards particular locations without the proper facilities it’s no surprise that this inevitably leads to issues resulting from overuse.

For:  Tackles the cause of the issue

Against:  Can only request that the wild camping maps are removed.

3.  Can we have motorhome and campervan hire companies sign up to a code of practice that promotes responsible tourism among their hirers?

There’s clearly an education issue, and this includes people hiring motorhomes and campervans who may be under the impression that Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ land access legislation covers vehicles (it doesn’t).  A few years ago a code of practice was drawn up between SNH, Visit Scotland and several hire companies but I can’t find any information about it any longer.  I’m pretty confident that the number of hire companies has mushroomed over the last five years so reintroducing this would seem a sensible action.

Tourism promotion agencies should also promote this code of practice, including Visit Scotland and the North Highland Initiative, who run the North Coast 500 project.  The Scottish Tourism Alliance, the industry body, already has a clear position on the importance of sustainable tourism.

For:  A straightforward and obvious solution 

Against:  Nothing.

4.  Can we raise awareness of the principles of responsible tourism?

This is also a no-brainer and I would have thought this message is already communicated via the popular guide books to touring and camping in Scotland.  But given so many rely on social media these days, are the messages around responsible tourism clear enough on Facebook and Twitter?  We hear a lot about “filter bubbles”, where people only take in the information on social media via the sites they ‘like’ or ‘follow’.  So is there something more that needs to happen to raise wider awareness, particularly for those who might miss mainstream messages?

For:  Needs to remain a priority 

Against:  Some people may still miss these messages unless the campaign goes sufficiently wide.


What do you think?

The bottom line is that we need to ensure that Scotland is open for visitors to enjoy – and that more visitors get to enjoy its fabulous scenery and experiences.

But there’s a fine line between being open and welcoming to visitors while making sure that tourism hotspots are managed in the interests of everyone as well as the environment.  The popularity of motorhome/campervan touring is increasing and with it, the demand for free camping.  So how do we make this work for everyone?


35 Comments on “Four ideas to manage the growing demand for “free camping”

  1. I realise this comment will probably hit a raw nerve with many people, possibly yourself included, but it’s my opinion that if people can afford to spend several thousand pounds on buying well-equipped motorhomes and campervans then they can also afford to pay to stay on proper camp sites. And parking a motorhome in a tarmac car park isn’t exactly ‘wild camping’ in the true sense is it?!

    • I agree, affordability shouldn’t be the issue – and there are many great campsites around Scotland. But since parking in a car park definitely is a world away from ‘wild camping’ I can’t see what the motivation for being squeezed in like sardines in a car park is other than to save money.

    • I was about to say exactly the same. I am a camperowner. And I love to camp in remote
      places. But not to save money. I can afford
      to travel. So I think it is fair to support the local economy. Of course: sleeping at a beautiful spot, totaly on my own, for free is nice!
      But cramped on a parkingspot because you don’t want to pay for facilities is kind of cheap…
      Let wildcamping be for tents. Let camperowners contribute.

    • Over and over again I read the same “Use a camp site” nonsense.
      The whole point of a motorhome is that it is is self-contained and does not need the facilities of a camp site. All that is needed is a fairly horizontal space to park on.
      Leaving aside the fact that it would be selfish to take scarce camping spaces which get booked up through the season, few motorhome owners want to park in the mini-suburbia of a campsite, miles from anywhere they want to be.
      What motorhome users do want is the equivalent of Aires in France. They are more like car parks than campsites, are cheap, convenient and provided all that motorhomes need

  2. Anyplace as beautiful as Scotland needs to stay that way and people should receive on the spot fines for parking where they shouldn’t overnight. I believe in paying for the privelege of veiwing beauty–it cost money to maintain!!

    • “I believe in paying for the privelege of veiwing beauty” you say. No comment on your general points but that specific sounds very odd to me. We should all pay to view beauty? Really?

    • The scenic beauty you mention costs little or nothing to maintain as long as users act responsibly and respect the local environment.

  3. There is nothing wrong with 1 or 2 responsible self contained motorhomes stopping off for a night or two in an off road layby . I didn’t buy a motorhome to spend in campsites – I bought it for spontaneity. You mention French Aires but the best I have encountered is in German towns where car parks specifically for motorhome stays are routinely available – free and often with water and waste disposal facilities. What do we get in the UK – 2nd class campsite facilities with undeserving high inflated pricing. The UK facilities are very poor value for money in omparison to other countries in Europe.

    • I agree with your first comment up to a point. 1 or 2 motorhomes staying for a night (possibly two) could be low impact as long as that same off-road location wasn’t occupied by another 1 or 2 motorhomes every other night of the week.

      What would you do if you reached somewhere you’d found as an informal place to camp but there already were two others there, would you stay also? And if someone else arrived, what would you think? How many vehicles would be unacceptable? I just think there’s a complete lack of common understanding – and advertising ‘free campsites’ just encourages overuse.

      Just as in any free market situation, my view is that if you (or others) don’t rate the campsite then vote with your feet and go somewhere else. There are some superb campsites in Scotland – see my Top 10 – and unfortunately a lot of duffers I just wouldn’t dream of staying at.

      • My usual haunts are in the North of Scotland – off road lay -by for example and preferably with another motorhome there. I always ensure that I email the local authority of the areas I will be visiting for their individual parking policies beforehand and usually it all boils down to obeying signs and being responsible.Where there is no signage , where it is well away from local residential housing and where I consider to be safe then I have no hesitation in stopping over at such a spot.

  4. I totally agree with you, I think aires as you find in France would be a great idea only if they don’t charge extortionately as some campsites are doing now

    • I guess the principle should be: you pay for the level of services you receive? Aires with few facilities should be cheaper to maintain and therefore have lower charges. Campsites generally have more facilities and you’d expect them to charge a bit more. (But at present, what you pay for a campsite definitely doesn’t always reflect its quality and location!).

  5. I fully agree with Jonathan, lately on our travels, we decided to spend the first night on a very nice site, we arrived at 8pm, didn`t hook to power, didn`t use the facilities on site, and left at 9am next morning, cost £28.00, and although it was very convenient to just draw in for one night, over a period of 1/2 weeks it does add considerably to the holiday, for the rest of the week, we wild camped in peace and in some of the most beautiful areas, doing no harm to the environment, moving on each day, leaving no signs of having been there (well, maybe tyre tracks ?). I rest my case.
    Tom Forsyth

    • It seems the answer lies in the exercise of common sense and mutual respect for the needs and desires of others particularly of local residents.

      Mutual respect should hopefully rule out excess fees for inadequate services and encourage trade at some level between visitors and hosts.

  6. Unfortunately for someone who lives on the NC500 route the increase in traffic is not appreciated. Along with a growing number of people who live along or close to the route the increase in traffic is not welcomed. NC500 was a marketing idea dreamed up to increase bed numbers in hotels. No local community council to my knowledge was ever consulted about the impact of increased traffic would have on local amenities and infrastructure. What we have experienced is a huge increase in noise pollution. Today I counted, without really trying, 6 different motorbike convoys speeding through our village. Then a couple convoys of high performance sports cars roaring through the village. Highland Council has,like all other local authorises, been engaged in cutting back local services. This means closing public toilets and not spending money on road maintenance. Local garages along the route are making money towing cars with broken suspensions or repairing wheel bearings.

    As regards local toilet facilities, the toilets at Braemore Junction are no longer open and haven’t been for years. There are no plans to reopen them. The result is that given the number of visitors to Corrieshellag Gorge, the paths to the bridge and surrounding area have become an open sewer. The NTS have set their public tallies a Slattadale at the car park at Loch Maree. They were continually blocked because of people getting rid of their chemical toilet waste. Now “wild campers” are simply dumping this effluent into Loch Maree. I even came across a person blatantly pouring his chemical toilet waste from the bridge at the Inveranivie River at Gruinard Beach. This is all happening in the small area of NC500 that I am aware of. No doubt it is being repeated along the whole route.

    NC500 goes through some very sensitive environmental areas that are not suited to this mass tourist approach. In the past many people did this route quietly and unhurriedly exploring this part of Scotland. Now it has been hyped as a “must do” journey. So many people are coming to consume it do it as quickly as possible and tick it off. It is having a cost on the quality of life on ordinary people who work, live and commute to work on the road. Anecdotal evidence from people who rent holiday cottages or run some caravan sites is that the increased business of the route and the noise is putting off those visitors who were repeat visitors who stayed for longer periods. These are the kind of visitors who marketing campaigns should be aimed at. This is a better more sustainable business model that will attract visitors, leading to the enjoyment and the protection of a beautiful and fragile part of Scotland. Something to be appreciated and not merely consumed.

    • Thanks very much for giving us your perspective as someone who lives on the NC500 route. As I said in my post, this topic will divide opinion and my personal view is that attracting additional visitors to enjoy what Scotland has to offer is a good thing. This includes repeat visitors as well as those who haven’t yet visited Scotland before.

      However, your point about the pressure that additional visitors are putting on to local facilities (roads, toilets etc) is very well made, and this echoes my concern about free camping. Having captured people’s imagination internationally, the popularity of the NC500 has grown significantly over the last two years since the route has been packaged and marketed. The tensions are now starting to show.

      Just as any growing business knows, once demand for your product starts to take off you then need to invest to make sure supply keeps pace with growing demand. This is the point the NC500 is at just now, and without investment in camping facilities (eg aires), toilets, footpaths and so on then dissatisfied customers will go elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how this debate now takes shape.

    • I routinely dump my “chemical” toilet waste into my toilet at home. It has never ever blocked up. Are these toilets you refer to in some way different? Why are they blocking from having been used?
      Of course, I don’t put chemical.toilet fluid in – that’s bad for digester systems. Just a tiny bit of washing liquid to dissolve the solids – which it does brilliantly.

  7. 1 or 2 motorhomes staying for a night (possibly two) could be low impact as long as that same off-road location wasn’t occupied by another 1 or 2 motorhomes every other night of the week. There is nothing wrong with 1 or 2 responsible self contained motorhomes stopping off for a night or two in an off road layby .

  8. I’ve had my camper for 15 years, and I love wild/free camping. However, I don’t like laybys/disturbance/crowds, and I certainly don’t want to be sandwiched in a car park with loads of other campers/motorhomes – I’ll simply move on and find somewhere more discreet. I maintain my own database of places to park up (all over Europe), and I wouldn’t routinely share that list – but maybe I would with someone I trust.

    It’s also nice to use campsites every few days and make full use of their facilities, but campsite owners are not owed a living, and should offer good value for money. This isn’t always the case, particularly if you’re on your own. French and German campsites generally charge per person – why can’t sites in the UK do that?

    There’s a strong case for introducing Aires de Service, or Stellplätze as they’re known in Germany. France and Germany are camper van (and campsite) heaven, and Scotland could learn much from them. Local authorities/owners could charge a few pounds a night, and local pubs, shops, restaurants and businesses could benefit from extra custom.

    Having said all this, there’s still also a place for discreet, ‘stealth’ camping.

    I found this page because I’m actually visiting northern Scotland in a couple of weeks. It’ll be interesting to see how things work out. I’m hoping to combine ‘stealth’ camping, with some less stealthy stopovers, with a campsite say every third or fourth day.

    Does that sound like a reasonable approach?

    • Thanks for leaving such thoughtful comments. Yes, that does sound like a reasonable approach to me. I similarly enjoy stealth camping (away from others and with as unobtrusive a stay as possible) but I do think that in doing so, we need to be sensitive to others, arriving late/leaving early etc.

      Unfortunately not everyone has this same view and I therefore agree that a network of aires would help take some of the pressure away from the roadside spots that are sadly overused. It will be interesting to get your feedback in a couple of weeks (albeit after the peak season).

      As a matter of principle I think campervan owners should contribute to the local economy. Staying on campsites is an obvious way to do this although I do agree that the quality of some sites is below par. My approach: praise the good and then hopefully the poor will either go bust or will improve!

      • Thanks. Will report back after the trip. Outside of peak season wasn’t accidental!

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  11. Most modern motorhomes are indeed self-contained. They don’t need any facilities at all except a level parking space.
    My motorhome needs water supply and waste disposal less than once a week, so I can see no advantage in paying for such facilities each night.
    The websites that share overnght parking spot locations are to be encouraged, not closed down. They can (and should) be used to encourage people to use suitable places and not use unsuitable ones.
    Yes, provide a network of service points where motorhomes can take on water and dispose of waste at a reasonable cost. They don’t have to be colocated with parking spaces, but they can.
    If you want to encourage tourist spend, provide parking spaces where motorhomes can stop.
    There are many places we drive past instead of stopping and shopping because small parking spaces or height barriers make parking too difficult.
    But don’t expect motorhomes to use campsites. They don’t need campsites, don’t want to be in that sort of environment and they will just go elsewhere. You don’t expect HGV drivers to vernght on campsites. Why do you expect motorhome users to?

    • I think the central issue for me is that the facilities needed (waste, water, toilets) are not sufficient for the number of motorhomes in the summer months, especially in the Highlands & Islands. A network of dedicated aires would go some way to addressing that.

      A decade ago there were nowhere near as many motorhomes on the roads so informal camping was tolerated. Issues (of littering etc) seems to be exacerbated by the ‘free camping’ websites since they drive people to the same parking spots night after night, many of which are simply car parks with not so much as a litter bin.

      I’m a big fan of campsites. That’s where the facilities exist and with tourism so seasonal it’s a case of ‘use them or lose them’. Unfortunately Councils are so cash-strapped that even when there’s been a boom in tourism with the phenomenal success of the NC500, they haven’t (so far) invested much in improved facilities. So in Scotland at least, campsites have to be part of the solution.

      • You may be a fan of campsites. I sometimes use them when I am camping in a tent. But they offer almost nothing that is of benefit to me in my motorhome.
        I really don’t need or even want washing facilities, showers, toilets, games rooms, playgrounds, carefully and neatly spaced pitches, mains hookups or the like. The whole suburban isolation of such a site seems the opposite of what I want.
        So it isn’t just that I don’t want to pay for things I don’t need: I actively want to avoid such places.
        All that is needed is a parking space where parking won’t inconvenience or offend anyone. A separate useful item would be a water supply and waste disposal facility, but there is no need for it to be in the same place.
        Why do people think motorhomes need campsites? They simple have no use for those facilities.
        If you want to inct Ase spending by motorhome users, offer things they want, near parking facilities they can use. It really is as simple as that!

      • I think we can agree that serviced aires would be a welcome development. The purpose of my article was to draw attention to the growing pressure caused by informal camping in places where the facilities just don’t exist (yet).

        However, until such time that someone (who??) decides to invest in aires, campsites remain the most appropriate places for motorhomers to stay at given that’s where waste, water etc facilities are. In fact, many campsites have invested in more hard-standing pitches suitable for motorhomes (at the expense of tent space) and so that’s why I say campsites need to be part of the solution.

  12. I think that common sense is key, as are the rules 1) not to cause any pollution; noise, litter, eyesore, etc. and 2) to give something back in return. As in so many aspects of life too many people don’t give adequate consideration to others.

    We have a yacht that we love to anchor in the many secluded bays around the West Coast (or in a marina if we have to) and we also have a motorhome that we use to access the hills overnighting away from the crowds (or in a campsite if we have to).

    Whenever we stay somewhere for free we pick our spot carefully (and as responsibly as we can). We give back to the area by picking up any litter in the surroundings and making a point of using local shops / pubs whenever possible.

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  14. I live in a coastal area near to a City. I’m sure most campers, campervan owners, and motorhome owners are responsible but it is the attitude of the few who refuse to use campsites – even when there is no suitable other option – who spoil it for local residents and for other campervan owners.

    In my local area littering, emptying grey waste, emptying toilet cassettes in public toilets combined with an massive increase in numbers (from one or two discretely parked vans to a row of 12 or 15) has resulted in the local council putting in a overhead height restrictor. Now vans have moved to completely inappropriate locations in clearly residential areas or have taken over small car parks which are relied on by the local community. One such car park close to my home has places for about 8 cars. Tonight there are 2 motorhomes (the size of small buses) and a campervan, and no room for any cars. Not surprising the locals get frustrated, and it can only lead to more and more restrictions.

    There is a place nearby, half a mile away, which allows overnight parking / camping, but it is not in such an attractive location and selfish people would rather park on a residential street!

    I have a campervan of my own and love wild camping, but I also accept that it is not always possible and then I’m happy to use a campsite, and to pay for it.

    • Based on what you’ve said I would blame the council for making the initial restriction. If councils weren’t under such pressure they could take a couple of steps to manage the increased numbers correctly as they do in other countries. If they did this the local businesses would feel the benefit of inceased numbers with little negative impact on residents such as yourself. Making a restriction is often an easy & short sighted quick-fix.

    • I have sympathy if you are experiencing packs of motorhomers in the one restricted parking area. Wild Scotland is big enough to find somewhere to inobtrusively park up. Actually the local policeman I was referring to in my earlier post (near Drumbeg) was laying emphasis on the point that he wasnt targetting his comments at motorhomers who own their own vehicles ( as distinct from those who rent for a short holiday). Rather his comments were aimed at anybody who was disrespectful of local communities and of the environment. He was also very critical of the council in the lack of balance ( promotion of North 500 v lack of infrustructure and facilities to meet the inevitable demand) . Car users, motor bikers, cyclists etc were equally ( if not more ) guilty than motorhomers in his view.
      And as for locals who complain about the noise of increased traffic etc – that is the way the cookie crumbles I am afraid. When home, we live in a small secluded cul de sac and recently the community council decided to open a thoroughfare opening it up to a cycle trail and ramblers. I have had no objection with those who behave in a responsible and respectful way. Same goes for motorhomers and anyone else using our spectacular Scotland.

  15. Just back from a few days up in Western Ross and Sutherland. We always use sites when abroad but never in the UK – quite simply because we like to park up in the wilds of Scotland but also because of the many sub standard sites around.
    We did the loop from Lochinver to Kylescu and stopped off at a large viewpoint overlooking the Minch..Spoke to the local policeman and he was relating to me the problems being encountered on the North 500 and the complaints of locals. I explained to him that I had been visiting this area for 40 years – long before the North 500 was dreamt up ! Interestingly , his complaints surrounded
    1. Speeding motorists in fancy cars who are doing the route in 1 – 2 days
    2. People who hire motorhomes and are inexperienced in driving such narrow roads and who cannot reverse when the inevitable passing place problem arises
    3. Inconsiderate bikers and motorists who camp out in a tent and dump their waste.

    We parked out for a week in off road locations . No shortage of places, inconvenienced nobody and respected the environment. No problems whatsoever !

    • To be fair, I think lots of communities in Skye and along the NC500 would take quite a different view of your last paragraph. The whole point of this article – reflecting the considerable concern that’s increased in Scotland’s tourism hotspots over the last few years – is to suggest solutions to the problems that are now common.

      You’re right that Wester Ross and elsewhere have long been popular destinations but the NC500 marketing has captured the attention of many, many more people over the last few years. Many hotspots (especially Skye) are really struggling to cope with the demand, and infrastructure is yet to keep up.

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