What is wild camping?
The first question has to be about the nature of wild camping itself. What is it, and how is it different to normal camping? Basically, wild camping is where you pitch your tent or bivouac out in the natural or unpopulated world, as opposed to an organised campsite. That, of course, means no mains electricity, running water, toilets or shop nearby, and probably no neighbours.
It may or may not involve hiking or paddling between stopovers – you can wild camp for just one night if you want – but for many wild campers, the actual sleeping is just a small part of a whole lived experience out in the untamed land. Obviously, you have to take everything you need with you, from food and water to medication and emergency provisions. Depending on how far you are from civilisation, you’ll need to do some very careful planning before you go to remain safe.
What is the attraction of wild camping in Scotland?
We asked Stevie Christie, Wilderness Scotland’s Head of Adventure, what makes wild camping such a unique experience. His top four reasons should tell you all you need to know about why he does it:
1. Lying under the stars. This one might sound like a cliché, but it’s very true in Scotland. We also have some amazing dark sky areas making for spectacular stargazing.
2. The satisfaction. You’ve travelled all this way by your own hands and feet, whether you’ve walked to this spot, or paddled here.
3. The silence. We tend to take noise for granted, and even though we might experience silence when out hiking, silence at night takes on a whole new element.
4. The freedom. Wild camping gives you the luxury of deciding when and where to stop and allows you to visit normally hard-to-reach places, particularly if paddling.
Are you convinced yet? The darkness is something that really has to be experienced to be fully understood. Even in most countryside areas there’s the faint glow of the urban environment on the horizon, and campsites always have lights dotted around. Only when you’ve sampled total dark skies, and seen the Milky Way arcing above your head, can you appreciate true nature – and our place in the universe.
Where are the best spots in Scotland for wild camping?
Choosing a spot is vital, and can make or break your wild camping experience. But Stevie won’t be tied down – when we asked him where’s best in Scotland, his answer was “All of the Highlands! But for true isolation and a wilderness experience the Cairngorms or Knoydart are hard to beat.”
Energy drink maker Red Bull has its own list of wild camping havens in Scotland – look at the photos and say you wouldn’t want to wake up in one of these places:
- Peanmeanach Beach, Ardnish
- Quiraing, Isle of Skye
- Rackwick Bay, Orkney
- Gleann na Muice, Fisherfield
- Kilmory Bay, Isle of Rum
- Bonaly Reservoir, near Edinburgh
- Barrisdale, Knoydart
- Glenfeshie, Cairngorms National Park
- Glen Sannox, Isle of Arran
- Inverarnan, Loch Lomond
Wild camping advice for beginners
We asked Stevie what three pieces of advice he would give to the first-time wild camper to make it an enjoyable experience. His priorities are as follows:
It might seem basic, but make sure you choose a location that suits your ability level, but also one that has plenty of things to do during the day, be it walking, climbing, biking or paddling. Do your research ahead of time!
Pack plenty of the right kind of clothes
It can get very cold at night, even in summer, so you’ll want warm clothes for the evenings. As always when hiking, pack layers to match Scotland’s changeable weather. Also, pack extra clothes in case you get wet.
Bring a supply of food
Pack foodstuffs that are easy to cook or just need to be heated up. Plan your meals in advance so you only bring what you need.
Know your kit
Make sure you pack the gear that you’ll need, but also that you understand how your kit works. Practice setting up your tent in your garden, especially if it’s a new tent, or it’s been a while since you used it. You don’t want your first time setting it up to be up a mountain under wind and rain!
What is the right kit for wild camping?
You might already have a tent from your last visit to Glastonbury or that camping trip in Wales a few years back. But the chances are, it won’t be light, rugged or warm enough to cope with the changeable conditions up in the Highlands. Don’t forget – you could be hours away from help if you get into trouble.
The appropriately named David Scotland runs Outdoor World Direct, a supplier of specialist camping equipment, and he’s an avid wild camper himself.
“It can be hard to know what to pack for your first wild camping outing,” says Steve, “but the best thing to do is keep it as lightweight as possible. Taking a huge tent is an absolute no-no; you must take a small, discreet tent to be respectful to the environment and other campers.”
“Also, opt for a high-quality tent from one of the top manufacturers such as Vango, Outwell, Robens etc. The environment is often harsher and more exposed to the elements when wild camping than at a campsite, so you will want a robust, reliable tent that can withstand high winds and heavy rain rather than something cheap and cheerful.”
Specifically, you need to choose the right type of sleeping bag. “Your sleep system is equally important,” he says. “If you're camping in the winter you will need a 3–4 season sleeping bag to ensure you are warm enough. Sleeping bags have a comfort rating, which indicates the temperatures at which the sleeping bag is suitable. Vango has even introduced a heated sleeping bag, which is ideal if you are someone who really feels the cold. I highly recommend a form of sleep mat too; you can choose between a basic mat if you’re on foot or something more sophisticated such as a self-inflating sleep mat that adds even more comfort to your adventure.”
What safety measures should wild campers take?
Back to Stevie for the most important part: safety. Don’t forget you could be hours from the nearest person, and you might not get a good mobile signal, so as well as essentials like a first aid kit, here are his recommendations for staying on top of events.
- Bring a good map and know how to use it. We recommend purchasing the right Ordnance Survey (OS) maps for the area(s) you’ll be exploring. You can find them online at ordnancesurvey.co.uk or at most bookshops. There is also an app, which can be handy as a secondary map, but it’s always good to have the low-tech option that doesn’t rely on a full battery.
- Check the weather and be prepared for it. The weather may be out of your hands but always check the forecast before you leave and decide if it’s a good idea to go. The most accurate information for the Highlands can be found on the Mountain Weather Information Service website.
- Pack the right gear, and be prepared for an emergency. Check Wilderness Scotland’s kit guide here: wildernessscotland.com/blog/wilderness-walking-what-to-pack/.
Getting there by train
Avanti West Coast goes as far as Glasgow and Edinburgh, but the Scottish railway system extends as far North as Thurso, passing through the Highlands and stopping at places like Aviemore, Fort William, Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh in the West. From Kyle of Lochalsh you can go by road to Skye, and then on by sea to North Uist, Harris and Lewis. Head to Oban for ferries to Mull, or if you’re more adventurous, Barra (population 1000) or South Uist (population 2000), where you can easily spend days without seeing another soul.
Wherever you’re going, take Stevie’s and David’s advice and plan ahead, do your research and take the right equipment with you. You can book any train journey through our Journey Planner, even if the stations and services are not run by Avanti West Coast. Get it right and you’ll have an utterly memorable experience, which will no doubt be the first of many.
After all, which would you prefer – a five-star hotel, or a billion-star hillside?