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Legality and Safety of Sleeping Wild

Playing at Robert Jordan

“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings”
– Macbeth

Sleeping in a tent is great. I love it. But for a quick, cheap, single night microadventure a bivvy bag is brilliant. Granted, if it pours with rain you won’t have the nicest night of your life. But on a clear, dry night when you can stare at the stars until you fall asleep and then wake with the first rays of sunrise on your face, there’s nothing better.

As well as beautiful camping spots such as those above, I have also spent more than my fair share of nights sleeping wild in built-up areas. It’s easier than you might imagine:

The last night of our "desert" expedition

Sleeping under the road as traffic roars by

One of the main concerns that stop people heading off to sleep on hilltops is the legality and safety of wild camping. Here then are a few pointers to try to set your mind at ease.

  • Even after all the nights I have slept wild, I still feel more exposed and vulnerable in a bivvy bag than in a tent. It’s a normal way to feel. It adds to the child-like sense of excitement. The imaginings of ghosts and giant snakes never entirely go away!
  • The reality though is that you are more inconspicuous without a tent (though perhaps not to ghosts / vampires…). You are also far safer than you feel. Consider the pictures above. Many people would feel uneasy camping next to a motorway on the outskirts of Dubai, or in a drainage pipe beneath a busy road. But nobody knew we were there. There were no pedestrians. Nobody could or would do us any harm. It was safe. It was also amusing, which is always important!
  •  There are no giant snakes / scorpions in the UK. Relax!
  • There are, however, farmers and early morning dog-walkers. Not many are likely to stumble across you in your slumbers between dusk and dawn. And if they do they are overwhelmingly more likely to be amused / curious than angry or threatening. However, just to be on the safe side I try to sleep where I can’t be seen. This may mean hopping over a gate away from a footpath, retreating a few metres into a wood or heading to the far end of the beach.
  • If you are particularly nervous (perhaps it’s your first time or you are in a quite built-up place) then try this. Find a nice spot to sleep. Then move away from it – to a cafe or comfy clump of trees – and relax until nightfall. Once it is dark you can return to the spot you scouted out. With this method you can sleep, safely, just about anywhere in the world.
  • Wild camping is legal in Scotland (except, recently, around Loch Lomond), but not in the rest of the UK (much of Dartmoor is more or less fine). All over the world though nobody nobody has ever complained, told me off, arrested me, or been in the slightest bit concerned. I suppose really there are two answers about where you can sleep wild: the theoretical, legal one is “almost nowhere” and the practical one is “almost anywhere”. In the same way that nobody would mind you having an afternoon snooze on the beach, nobody minds wild camping, so long as you’re not blatantly on private land, near someone’s home, or otherwise being annoying.
  • A lot of countryside is privately-owned. If you want to sleep on private land it is polite to ask the landowner’s permission. Or don’t get caught. Or, more specifically, don’t get caught in the night because it’s really annoying having to move on and find somewhere else to sleep. If you get caught in the morning you can just apologise politely and leave. Use your discretion as to whether your camp spot is appropriate. Whilst my legal disclaimer is that you must always ask permission, there’s a big difference between sticking your tent up in the middle of a corn field right next to a farmhouse and lighting a massive fire versus discreetly tucking your bivvy bag behind a hedge a mile or two from a village and heading on your way nice and early in the morning.
  • In this spirit make sure you always take your litter with you. Bury your poo. Leave no trace. The only trace I would ever leave are the marks from a campfire. And so I only light a fire in places where this is not a problem.  Here are a few more tips on courteous wild camping.

In conclusion: sleeping in a bivvy bag for the first time is certainly a slightly un-nerving experience, particularly if you are not in a very wild place. But it is also incredibly simple, cheap, fun, memorable and liberating. You just need to try it once or twice to reassure yourself how incredibly simple it is. Remember, you are acting far more illegally and dangerously every time you break the speed limit in a car.  I honestly would not worry too much about the theoretical legal aspects of sleeping in a bivvy. If you act with common sense and courtesy you will be fine. Ghosts are another matter though…

If you do head off on a microadventure, please let me know. Tag it on Twitter with the hashtag #microadventure or pop something on the new Microadventures Facebook Page.
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Thank you.


Some Other Useful Microadventure Posts

I’mve been working hard to encourage people to get out and try a microadventure. Microadventures are a refresh button for busy lives.

But I’mm very aware that the hardest thing is getting out there for the first time. So I have produced a few infographics which hopefully will serve to give people the prod necessary to take that first step. (Thank you, Andrea, for all your hard work!)

Click on the image you prefer to open a PDF file that you can then download and keep (Right Click, Save) or share the link with any friends who need a gentle kick up the backside to get out there and do stuff! A lot of the text on the PDF infographic is clickable, leading you to relevant web entries.

Please feel free to use, distribute, print, put on your Facebook page, edit or hack as much as you wish.

Microadventure infographic

Microadventure infographic

Microadventure infographic

Microadventure infographic

If you do head off on a microadventure, please let me know. Tag it on Twitter with the hashtag #microadventure or pop something on the new Microadventures Facebook Page.

Thank you to the many people who have kindly “bought me a coffee” for just £2.50 as encouragement to keep this blog going.

“Yes, I too would like to donate a couple of pounds to this site..!”


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Do you have any thoughts on this article? What have I forgotten or got wrong? Please have your say in the comments below…

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  1. The hunters in France always made me nervous when sleeping out. That was until one damp dawn in the forest of Les Landes, I met a couple. Just teenagers and a curious dog. A nod, a smile, they went on their way. And all the mystery, and with it the trepidation, evaporated like the dew.

    • Reading the above takes me back to early nineties, I was sleeping at the back of a beach amongst the dunes and scrub not far from the Mexican border near Tijuana. I was awoken in the middle of the night by several Mexican men scampering past me. I will never know who was the most surprised that fine eve, a young Mancunian or the scurrying Mexicans passing me by. I have just handed my notice in at work and will leave the UK in early April on a two year round the world cycle adventure. Fingers crossed I will see the stars much more that the roof of my tent.

  2. I’ve never done a bivvy camp but I know that in the UK where I’ve wild camped a lot in a tent there are no axe murders after dark. I think they are too scared. I’ve been spotted once in 5 years and that’s because I put the tent up in broad daylight.

  3. John Mitchell Posted

    urban camping is my favourite! Of all my nights I have had very few issues and never been moved on during the night. Even when police found me at 1am they just said to try and pack up fairly fast in the morning. I do remember sleeping in a park one night and waking up as the groundsman swerved around my bivi while cutting the grass!

    • Alastair Posted

      Ha! That reminds me of one of my best ever sleeps – on the 1st XI cricket pitch at Oxford University on the warm summer night I graduated.

      • we once ended up camping on a golf green at the mouth of the Spey following a slightly dramatic canoeing accident – tents, canoes and all – the grounds man found us in the morning and very cheerily helped us pack up and took the canoes on the back of his trailer to the car park where we settled in for breakfast much to the surprise of the arriving golfers – not a single complaint…

  4. A friend of mine once rented out his apartment in Stockholm for a weekend and decided to camp outside Skansen (with all the homeless people). A way to earn some extra money plus I bet it was a fun (if not, at least interesting) microadventure. What do you think? Have you been in Stockholm?

  5. John Mitchell Posted

    I’ve not slept out in Stockholm but have done in other Scandinavian cities, including a few weeks in Helsinki. As a tangent, but as a fairly amusing story, one night in Helsinki I met a gorgeous girl and ended up going back to her flat at the end of the evening. She said upfront that she couldn’t sleep with someone else in her bed so I would have to leave when she wanted to sleep. Well that was fine, and so at 4 or 5 in the morning I left. Only to realise once outside that I had left my bag in her flat, with my wallet, passport, camera etc in it. The door was locked, the buzzers were turned off at night, I didn’t have her number, and anyway didn’t have a phone. So I looked around, trying to find another way in, but all other doors were locked, there were no open windows even. Then I noticed that there was actually an open window, it was on the first floor and while I couldn’t really see inside I had the feeling it was a communal kitchen (I was drunk at the time, it didn’t occur to me that real flats weren’t like student flats). So I left my flip flops on the pavement and climbed up a drain-pipe. My plan was to get inside, leave the kitchen, find the girl’s flat, get my bag, then go and sleep in the park. Well, I got inside this room (not a kitchen, but it was empty) but the door was locked. At that point I had had enough, I was really drunk and really tired, so I lay down on the wood floor and went to sleep. I woke up at around 8am to the sound of a key unlocking the door. So this guy opened the door to his presumably new flat only to see me, bare-footed with long hair and a bushy beard. I didn’t say anything because it was hopeless to try and explain myself, but he somehow guessed that I was English, or at least foreign, and as I slouched past him he simply said “this is not OK”.

  6. Andy Ganner Posted

    When the Iron Curtain came down I spent 5 years touring Eastern Europe before it changed too much. While travelling down the East German border I got into a command watchtower and camped on the top. It was a weird feeling because the border fences were still intact and many minefield areas were still cordoned off awaiting to be cleared. The strange thought while up there was that just over a year before I’d have been shot for being there!

  7. I’m definitely going to do this. Always liked camping but i think this would be awesome to do. I’d be taking my dog with me so will need to find somewhere with no animals grazing so the farmers don;t get spooked but I think ti sounds like a brilliant adventure.

  8. Joe Atkins Posted

    Another great post Al. I’m about to upload a video of a microadventure me and a friend did last weekend. I’ll tag it on facebook when I do!

    In brief, we had the idea that during the coldest easter weekend in a long time, and whilst everybody stuffs their faces with chocolate, we would walk the Norfolk Coastal Trail (47 miles) in 3 days. It was an overwhelming success and a perfect microadventure, we camped wild both nights, cooked over open fires, drank sloe gin and played the harmonica. We even had a cold, brief swim in the North Sea during a snow storm!

    It really provided a great challenge, especially carrying so much weight with us and being able to fit in the walk around bank holiday bus times! The sense of achievement was enormous and we both cited you as a real inspiration, this was our third microadventure, and we continue to search for crazier and more challenging ways to fill our weekends!

  9. I’d like to add a couple of things, as someone that’s works in estate, farm & forestry management, is a deer manager (that involves hunting/stalking them) as well as being a wild camper. I’d never say I spoke for anyone apart from myself, so this is just me. I agree with all the above, generally people don’t mind when you camp on their land and go without trace, I think that most farmers etc. can understand that other people want to share “their” countryside and I certainly am happy to see people enjoying it when they aren’t “getting in the way”, for want of a better term.

    If there is signs there saying “Beware Stock” “Shooting in progress” etc. or something obvious is going on, such as lambing, pheasant pens or whatever then keeping well away is the best policy, especially with the shooting one.
    With the likes of lambing it can mean the difference between his kids getting a birthday present or not, as camping could/will stress the sheep and could mean still born lambs and no profit. Understandably that can mean that through experience some people don’t want anyone camping on their ground, however if you’re sensible and stealthy they probably won’t know.

    I’m the biggest fan of fire going, I love them, but please, please please, think about where you’re making. Ideally no one would have a fire on peatbog, because of it’s ridiculous ability to hold the heat for up to 6 months (I’m told) before the ground is dry enough; and whose, you’ve set some of the most important habitat in the world on fire without meaning too and following all the codes of practice.

    On the note of hunters, mentioned above, as a fairly frequent deer stalker all over the UK but especially Scotland and Northern England, I enjoy talking to people a great deal, especially about what I’m doing. I’ve had some fantastically interesting talks to various people on the hill, walkers, climbers, bikers, adventures and I’ve only had one experience where we parted on poor terms (I don’t think it was my fault). Talk to people, be they farmers, shooters, gamekeepers, shepherds or estate managers – make friends with people on behalf of wild camping and the world will be a lot more fun.

    Thanks for reading,
    Sam Thompson.

  10. Scott Couper Posted

    Camping in or out of a tent is perfectly legal almost everywhere in Sweden. Allmansrätten, or “Every Man’s Right provides a freedom to the Swedish countryside for all. Again just respecting the owner of the land and the land itself where you camp and cleaning up afterwards are the main things. “Do not disturb, do not destroy” There are a few snakes, wolves and bears here and there though….

  11. I had my first two solo bivvy bag wild camps last year, one in a Suffolk wood, the other on a Norfolk beach. Both were utterly magical and I can’t wait for the nights to get a little warmer so I can start again this year, this time with a hammock.

  12. Fist proper wild camping for me was hitch-hiking through Europe just after the Berlin wall came down.
    I’d emphasize the importance of picking your spot in the daylight (preferably in a sober state) then set up camp after it goes dark.
    Packing up your kit with a hangover under the gaze of 50 kids and a dozen teachers on a German school football pitch is definitely to be avoided. Though it does provide lasting memories 8)

  13. Can anybody recommend a good place to wild camp in Norfolk or Suffolk?

    • Try Thetford forest or the dunes at Holkham beach (if for nothing else you could recreate the all saints video for ‘The Beach’ that they filmed there!)

  14. bmxbandit Posted

    what a refreshing site! Been wild bivvying and camping since mid 1970’s, prefer it to any other accomodation as your’e already out in the environment you want to be in the moment you wake up. Cycletoured in 40 different countries wild camping with just wife then two children – freedom!!! Now trying to find reliable information about wild camping in Ecuador – it’s absolutely no good asking non-wild campers they just don’t understand. Me – just go down a footpath or track out of sitght of any building or road, move off the track and camp – easy. In 40 years only been turfed off by angry bull in New Zealand and Swiss Rangers at 10 am on rainy morning. Best incident – 5 of us on Machynlleth golf course, groundsman comes by in morning ‘You cheeky buggers’ in broad wlesh accent. Anyway – advice on Ecuador please………..

  15. What about wild camping in the US, have you done that? Any advice?

  16. Blackisler Posted

    The only time i’ve ever been wild camping –
    I was on my own on the hill/forest behind my village, I was in my sleeping bag in some thicket under a pine tree, 1am pitch black with a cloudless sky i’m still awake and I hear a twig snap…
    Senses heightened and heart rate increasing I keep hearing whatever it is and its circling around me, by this time my breathing is shallow trying not make any sound…this went on for a few minutes… then all of a sudden it must have sensed my fear and it bolted right across my chest, stamping on me as it went, I immediately let out a roar, packed up and tramped home.

    I dont know what ‘it’ was, maybe a hare or small fox, but it certainly gave me a fright and i’ve not been wild camping since!

  17. Fluffy the Cat Posted

    It struck me that the sensible green bivouac bags are more appropriate for wild camping, when you don’t want to be seen. The bright blue bags might work better half way up a mountain – when you might well want to be highly visible, for safety reasons.

  18. I love this site – and many people suggest Norfolk, which is where I live, so that’s great!

    I’m planning New Years eve on the beach with my GF 🙂

  19. Thinking of a winter coastal walk and wild camp on the North Yorks coast , Flamborough area.
    Anybody have any experience in this area?

  20. Great site. Just after leaving school (many years ago) me and my friends would often have a few beers in the pub and then head out to nearby woods in and around Suffolk and camp out for the night. Mostly in hastily erected basha’s, sometimes in the car when it rained. (20 years later & I still have my old Army poncho that I used).. We only got questioned once by a famer the other side of the river – turns out we were in the grounds of a private school LOL.
    Since moving to Australia we quite often free camp and ‘swag’ it. Free camping is allowed in all State Forests in NSW 🙂 Zipped swags are a little more secure from the snakes than a bivvy bag however.
    We’ve also pulled over many times for a sleep in the overnight rest areas and on the remote outback roads. Sleeping out in the desert 100’s of KM from any other person and light source is an incredible experience. Though waking up in a canvas swag as a 53 metre road train pulls up is damn scary!

  21. Malcolm Walker Posted

    If you’re unsure about wild camping another good option is to stop off in a local pub, get some food or drink and get chatting over the bar. There will normally be someone with an empty corner of a field nearby that you can use.

    If you’re lucky they might even let you pitch in the beer garden!

  22. Took my son camping early this summer. I was quite nervous about us not being on a campsite, but his Scout leader assured us the local hill side was fine. At about 11.30 while we were on our 100th cup of tea i spotted a light coming towards us, then going out and repeating.

    As they got closer it was apparent there were two of them and they had a dog. I made a point of saying hi first.

    They insisted they were doing some “pest control” for the farmer (we were on some common grazing land)…

    Do farmers employ suspicious looking guys with a large lurcher and a big torch to pest control?


    Was a bit unsettling but our 12.30 view of the ISS and few other moving bodies in space relaxed us until about 3.30 when the sun started to lighten the sky…

    • I live in Snowdonia and wild camp with my husband and son. Men do go out on an evening ‘Lamping’ to shoot and control the rabbits.
      Looking to wild camp myself next weekend on a hidden beach in North West Wales

  23. Great article 🙂 Looking to do my first spot of solo wild camping tomorrow

  24. Great article Alastair. Makes me miss my own days of sleeping “wild” in Hong Kong, and despite some nights being terrible, I now actually find myself yearning to do it again, perhaps in the UK. I’d imagine it would be very hard to do in winter in the UK though, unless in the south west maybe? Great page, and good to hear others have done this too.

  25. I have had quite a few bivvy/wild camp nights out… a few years ago I walked the South West Coast Path (630 miles) and mixed wild camping with a few camp sites. The best wild camps were those on the fringes of beaches; its lovely to wake up and have a brew, still warm and toasty in your bivvy, watching the ebb and flow of the waves. The most amusing nights were those spent on the big, family orientated camp sites… being allocated a pitch large enough for a small bungalow and sitting on my pack cooking tea with apparently no shelter brought out the kindness in many people… some thought I was homeless and offered me food and drink. Once I explained what I was doing, and got out my bivvy bag people generally became very curious, wanting to know ‘what was it like’ without a tent etc. Sleeping on these campsites was when I also felt most vulnerable from theft (everything in my rucksack outside the bivvy) and stampede (campsite cricket gets very heated).
    I have done a few one nighters in my bivvy, in the Lakes, Lincolnshire and on the top of West Somerset’s Quantock Hills (woke to a small herd of deer grazing about 5 metres away).
    I am a teacher and have just begun an outdoor education programme that includes a night out under the stars bivvying… I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes.

  26. Any suggestions for wild camping around Wirral? There are plenty of country parks. What are the rules around these type of places?

    • Carlos Posted

      Wirral country park, up around Thurstaston beach is a great spot to bivy out. Stay on the top though because of the tides.

  27. Another great piece Alastair, Personally I find an Ipod (or equivalent) excellent, to sooth any tensions just before you drift off to sleep. The soothing comes partly from the music but mostly because it masks any noises outside your tent!

  28. I first started wild sleeping the summer I left home in Ontario. I found myself in Banff Alberta working nights at a Korean restaurant and hiking, climbing or rafting during the day. I had a little spot under some cedar on the banks of the Bow river, a small elk herd in the nearby clearing to keep me safe from cougars and a reliable police officer who’s morning rounds helped me wake up and get out of sight. I think it was technically ‘ ‘sleeping rough’ but it was a perfect way to spend the summer. Magpies and chipmunks raiding my food bag blew me away with their brazen ingenuity.

  29. Another old post 🙂 But I’m new to 24/7 UK. You talk about bivvy bag and it seems great, but for UK conditions… if it pours, what do you then? Do you just go with it, get wet and walk wet the next day?

  30. You’re all mad, Camping is the most dangerous thing in the world lol.

  31. Nice article.

    My first experience of wild camping was when I did a cycle tour from Liverpool to Gibraltar; had some good experiences wild camping through France, Spain and Portugal.

    I spent a couple of months wild camping throughout Britain a couple of summers ago. Had only one occasion, just outside Bakewell, when a landowner was a bit wary of me being there but let me wild camp nonetheless.

    Over the next few weeks I’ll be doing a bit of wild camping at local (Supposedly haunted.) hill forts.

  32. Edwin Deady Posted

    Just do it. Bivvying is one of the finest things you can do in the open without your boots on. Spooks! Pah! You can feel the Spiritus Loci of the land and it is welcoming. Sleeping as I did years ago on the ramparts of a hill fort, no angry warrior ghosts just comfort on the Wiltshire chalk and turf.

  33. How many times have I slept in my bivvy on the banks of rivers across the Himalayas. Simply too many to count. UK bivvy spots that stick in my mind. A clear night in Cwm orthen. Or in shop doorways….but that’s more rough sleeping.



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