Wild camping may sound extreme, and it’s certainly not for the inexperienced. However, if you’re looking to immerse yourself in nature, it’s as close as you can get short of being stranded on a desert island with just a volleyball for company!
The UK has lots of incredible camping locations, but with some of the world’s best spots for wild camping, Scotland is the go-to place for a wild adventure. The mountains, valleys and streams give the territory a rugged beauty that’s a joy to wake up to.
The diversity of the landscape also means there’s always somewhere that suits your favourite style of camping.
So, if you’re planning an exciting, wild camping trip, we’ve had a chat with two experts in the field (literally) to get some invaluable wild camping advice. We’ve also gathered a list of some of the best wild camping spots Scotland has to offer.
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 when you pitch your tent or bivouac out in a natural or unpopulated location, as opposed to an organised campsite. That, of course, means no mains electricity, running water, toilets or shops 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. However, for many wild campers, the actual sleeping is just a small part of the whole experience.
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 also need to do some very careful planning before you go to remain safe.
Is wild camping legal in Scotland?
Despite recent changes to wild camping laws, Wild camping is still legal in Scotland.
This is because the Scottish Outdoor Access Code essentially states that everyone has the right to access Scotland's outdoor spaces. This includes everything from forests and lochs to beaches and rivers. as long as they do so responsibly.
Naturally, there are guidelines that campers are expected to follow. They must respect the countryside, be responsible with how they camp, and ensure you stay safe.
What is the attraction of wild camping in Scotland?
We asked Stevie Christie, Wilderness Scotland’s Strategic Director 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:
Lying under the stars
This one might sound like a cliché, but it’s very true in Scotland. We have some amazing dark sky areas which make for spectacular stargazing.
You’ve travelled all this way by your own hands and feet, whether you’ve walked to the spot, or paddled, the accomplishment is very satisfying.
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.
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 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.
Some of the best places to wild camp in Scotland are located in the country’s dark sky parks and stargazing spots.
Wild camping advice for beginners
We asked Stevie what advice he would give to the first-time wild camper to make it an enjoyable experience. His priorities are as follows:
Find the best wild camping locations
It might seem basic, but make sure you choose a location that suits your ability level. Also, choose a location that has plenty of things to do during the day, be it walking, climbing, biking or paddling. Do your research ahead of time!
Pack the right kind of clothes for wild camping
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 good 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!
If you’re a complete novice, you may prefer to ease yourself in by spending time in one of the many wild campsites Scotland has available.
With both paid-for and free campsites, Scotland and its wildlife can still be thoroughly enjoyed, just with the added security of nearby amenities and support if required.
These camping spots, like Long Beach Campsite in Knoydart, are often referred to as ‘nearly wild’ or ‘almost wild’ campsites and can be great stepping stones for those planning a fully wild camping trip in the future.
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.
Chances are it won’t be light, rugged or warm enough to cope with the changeable conditions up in the Highlands. Don’t forget, in rural Scotland, wild camping spots 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 David, “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.”
“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, it’s not like camping in regular campsites, Scotland and its wild landscapes are beautiful but brutal.
You could be hours from the nearest person, and you might struggle to get a good mobile signal in an emergency.
Here are Stevie’s recommendations for staying on top of events and preparing for the challenges you may face.
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 in 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 or a mobile signal.
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
Wilderness Scotland has a great kit guide for wild camping which includes the best clothes, food and essentials to pack for a comfortable and safe trip. Make sure you do some research and gather as many tips as possible for wild camping in Scotland.
Where are the best spots for wild camping Scotland has to offer?
Choosing a spot is vital, and can make or break your wild camping experience. But Stevie won’t be too tied down.
When we asked him, where are the best wild campsites, west coast Scotland, east, north or south? His answer was “All of the Highlands! But for true isolation and a wilderness experience the Cairngorms or Knoydart are hard to beat.”
With so many beautifully wild landscapes across Scotland, wild camping spots are plentiful but which locations should be at the top of your list?
These are some of the most beautiful wild camping havens in Scotland to experience:
- 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
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. It passes through the breathtaking 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 1,000) or South Uist (population 2,000), 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?