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Wild camping in Scotland: the basics

Whether itís an idyllic summer camp near the banks of a gently flowing stream, or the austere pleasure of a winterís night on the high tops, the rewards of wild camping are sufficient to tempt many away from commercial campsites.

But because the essence of wild camping is getting away from it all, itís important to make sure you get things right. If youíre wild camping miles from the nearest road you canít go to the campsite shop when you realise youíve forgotten the milk. And you canít just retreat to the car if your tent starts leaking, or if it collapses in a gale.

Wild camping also means not causing disturbance or problems for others. Donít camp in enclosed fields, keep away from roads and buildings, and be careful not to disturb deer stalking or grouse shooting. The emphasis of responsible wild camping should be on leaving no trace of your visit.

Be familiar with your tent. A windy hillside is not the place to try pitching a new tent for the first time. Practice until you are happy you can pitch it quickly and easily in most conditions.

Also, make sure your tent is suitable for the conditions you expect to face. Modern tents are good, but all are a compromise between price, weight and robustness. A super-lightweight tent thatís ideal for summer might be too cramped or lack the stability for a night in a full-on blizzard on the Cairngorm plateau. So talk to someone experienced about what sort of tent you need, based on your intended use and budget; then start looking at the choices available.

Waking to a cloud inversion on Braeriach. Photo by Alistair Young.

In general youíll be looking for a flattish, sheltered spot of ground that will take a tent peg and that isnít too far from a source of fresh water. But thereís a lot to consider in choosing your pitch for the night, and a lot of that depends on the weather youíre expecting: that flat, grassy spot by the side of the burn might not be so attractive if heavy rain is forecast and the burn bursts its banks, and the endless vistas offered by the hilltop camp wonít be appreciated if the cloud is down and youíre too busy hanging onto a boulder in a hurricane!

So donít just think about the terrain, consider how the weather might change things, and in summer, consider whether your idyllic campsite will turn into a haven for the midges once the brightness of the day begins to fail.

First priority, once youíve chosen your camping spot, is to get the tent up. Donít dither about and end up getting chilled, or wait for the light to go or the weather to take a turn for the worse Ė just get the tent up. Youíll have sussed out water availability while choosing your spot so, once you have the tent pitched to your satisfaction, fill your water container and get everything arranged to suit. Itís a good idea to get your sleeping mat laid out and spread your sleeping bag on top to allow it to loft up for more warmth.

Donít set too much store by the romantic images of sitting round a campfire. Fires are strongly discouraged in woodlands, peaty ground and where thereís a lot of dry vegetation or other fire risk; they range between difficult and downright impossible in the rain, and you may find thereís no fuel in the area anyway. The practical solution is a camping stove. You can choose between many different types and brands. Just choose one that meets your needs and use it carefully Ė tents and the countryside both are very flammable. If you havenít camped before ask advice on how much fuel youíll need; itís good to carry a little extra, but donít go daft. Youíll need mess tins too, or at least one pot to boil water, depending on your choice of food. With a little bit of planning you can easily prepare ďboil in the bagĒ food and use the hot water for soup or a brew. Or you may prefer to use dehydrated food which is lighter, but does require you to use the hot water youíve prepared meaning more fuel gets used. Whether you make do with one pot for cooking in and eating out of, or whether you go for a more elaborate set with multiple pots and plates is a matter of taste (and weight), but do remember cutlery Ė and a mug is better for drinks than sipping out of the pan. Lightweight fold-away drinking bottles are also excellent as you can use them for your drink during the day and they double up for your evening brew, while Ďsporksí (a combination fork/spoon) provide a lightweight alternative to more traditional camp cutlery.

Breakfast with a view, on the summit of Blaven. Photo by Alistair Young.

This is another item where you should think about the sort of camping you are going to be doing. Factors to consider are warmth, weight and bulk Ė along with the old down v man-made insulation argument. You want a bag which you can get into your rucksack along with all your other kit, and which doesnít weigh too much. But you also need a bag which keeps you comfortably warm right through the night, so thatís a compromise you have to think about. Down gives more warmth for weight than artificial fibre, and also packs smaller, but it is more expensive and you have to be sure you can keep it dry, as sodden down offers very little insulation (although recent developments in Ďhydrophobicí down may change this). In general, added warmth means added weight and bulk: donít skimp, but donít insist on a four season sleeping bag if youíre only going to be camping in the glens during the summer months. As with tents, seeking advice from someone experienced can help greatly as there is a lot of choice out there. There's an excellent article on the subject on the UKClimbing website.

Thereís all sorts of stuff you can take on a camping trip, and some people will argue long and hard for their favourite pieces of kit being essential while others will just dismiss it as surplus weight. As a general rule, beyond tent and sleeping bag the necessities are a sleeping mat, cooking gear (cooker, mess tins, mug, cutlery), a water container and a torch (a head torch is best). And a lighter. Donít forget a lighter or waterproof matches.

Some take only the clothes they stand up in, others have at least one complete change of clothes. It really depends on personal preference and the weather you expect on a trip. If you get soaked through the day itís good to have dry clothes to change into in the evening. Remember, too, that you may be sitting around camp for some time, so an extra warm fleece or lightweight insulated synthetic jacket is handy for chilly evenings and mornings. If you take nothing else in the way of extra clothing, a spare warm layer and a dry pair of walking socks for your second day will definitely be worth their weight! Oh, and donít forget the hat and gloves, even though itís summer!

You can check a list of essential clothing for a summer day trip here.

A warm jacket can make all the difference in the evening.

When you pack up and leave in the morning no-one should be able to tell that you were ever there. That means when you pitch your tent you choose your spot so that you donít have to disturb the ground or break down vegetation. Donít dig drainage ditches round your tent or ring it with stones. Once youíve packed everything up have a good look over the site to check for stray tent pegs or small bits of gear. Above all, donít leave any rubbish or food waste. Plan for rubbish before you start: no-one wants used food wrappers messing everything up, so make sure you have a sealable bag to carry rubbish like this.

Read our advice on Minimal Impact.

If you have had a campfire Ė and itís usually best not to Ė then you need to take especial care to make sure it is properly extinguished and that all traces of it are erased. Where thereís high organic content in the soil Ė such as peaty areas Ė a fire may smoulder undetected in the ground itself, flaring up even days later to start a forest or heath fire. Even with the fire out you should still scatter the ashes and made sure you have not left a burnt circle on the ground.

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code has this to say.

Avoid causing pollution by urinating at least 30 m away from open water/rivers/streams and burying solid waste as far as possible from open water/rivers/streams and buildings. Used toilet paper should be carried out and disposed of appropriately on your return to base. Remember to pack a lightweight trowel and carry enough toilet paper (with resealable bags for when itís been used) and some suitable hand sanitizer gel.

In winter, donít just dig a hole in the snow, because when the snow melts your solid waste will still be there, unsightly and polluting. If you cannot bury solid waste in the ground it should be carried out in a designated container and disposed of appropriately.

Check our Where to Go in the Outdoors leaflet for further information.

You should always follow the advice of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. The website also has information specific to camping.

You can also read Mountaineering Scotlandís Minimal Impact brochure and the Where to Go in the Outdoors leaflet.

For more on camping and general hill hygiene see our Health and Hygiene section