Legalise camping – the debate is driving me wild!

Wild camping in England – it’s a fair cop!The debate over whether or not to legitimise wild camping is catching fire.

Various forums are debating the issue including this one,  here, which I visited tonight and was sufficiently roused to compose a lengthy response.

The post hasn’t appeared yet, presumably awaiting vetting or the site’s administrator to authorise my posts as a new member, so I’ll post it here to give it an earlier airing. Please read it in conjunction with the original thread here.


Well, I just had to register in order to respond to some of the comments here which leave me feeling pretty cold.

I’m being overwhelmed by the “I’m alright Jack” attitude (“if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”) of most posters who seem to prefer the idea of sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring the fact that, according to the law, you’ve no legitimate right to be woken in the morning by the song of skylark or the call of curlew.

If the law is to be adhered to, as it stands, you’d all be tucked up in your own beds at night waiting to be woken by the grumbling sound of traffic every morning. Will you be happy simply to dream of wild places?

Most of the arguments being wielded here in favour of maintaining the status quo are the very same arguments that landowners used to lobby against the increased RIGHTS of access that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2001 gave us.

Litter. Vandalism. Noise. Fires.

None of these has anything to do with responsible, considerate Leave No Trace wild camping as is practised by the majority of genuine hillgoers in Britain.

Each of these is a separate offence, which can be dealt with, quite rightly, by existing laws covering litter, public nuisance, vandalism, criminal damage and more. They certainly should not be used to oppose a legitimate right to wild camp.

Any claim that litter, vandalism, noise and fires etc are arguments against wild camping are akin to saying that we should all be banned from shops because a handful are bound to shoplift. Perhaps driving should be banned because there’s bound to be someone who breaks the speed limit?

There are people who’ve stated in this thread that they’ve camped wild, left no trace and moved on without being caught and that to draw attention to the illegal status of wild camping would only cause them problems. That has a very selfish ring to it; I’m sure most of those campaigners who took part in the Kinder Trespass 76 years ago had regularly hiked the forbidden moors of the Peak without being challenged every time, but they didn’t just keep their heads down in case campaigning drew attention to their private enjoyment, they protested and went to jail to win us the right to walk on those same moors.

It’s not enough, either, to claim that “idiots would get the wrong idea” – there would have to be a process of education here, a process in which Trail and Country Walking magazines could, along with other UK outdoor titles, play a part.

Bear in mind that someone who’s going to abuse the right to camp isn’t going to wait for wild camping to be legalised before they go out and make that mess though – chances are they’ve already done it somewhere. A legitimate right to wild camp, accompanied by rules similar to those embodied in the Scottish Access Code, could lay down a best practice code. Anyone breaks it, they’re prosecuted.

There’s no call being made, either, for the right to camp in people’s gardens, just as there was never an argument in the CROW Act for people to be given the right to walk through gardens, and to suggest so seems a little naïve. Nor has there been a problem with wild camping on roadsides in Scotland: camping on a roadside isn’t wild camping. If there’s damage the perpetrators can be dealt with by the law.

Existing problems at Styhead can’t be cited as a reason for maintaining the illegal status of wild camping, either. Again, littering is an offence. A code of conduct could help educate more folk in the proper ways of wild camping. Legalisation could be the start of a process of greater awareness and understanding of the practise.

“I think leave it as it is to protect the wild camping that we have, rather than make it legal which may lead to uncontrolled wild camping and all its side effects,” says one poster.

Wild camping ISN’T protected; as the law stands, we DON’T have any wild camping. What wild camping we do have IS uncontrolled.

Titaniumdude gives the truth to the lie when he points out that wild camping is accepted, promoted and has worked on Dartmoor for many years; there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in England and Wales.

The debate is a worthy one, granted, but I can’t believe that so many confirmed outdoors folk are posting here to argue for one of their favourite pastimes to remain outlawed.

I don’t imagine for a minute that legalisation of wild camping will lead to hundreds more heading into the hills with a tent and a six pack turning “the popular wild camping haunts … into rubbish tips with people all over the place”. Granting legal status to wild campers is likely to only benefit those who already wild camp responsibly and those few currently too timid to try due to the threat of persecution. There’s no realistic danger of them demanding toilets and clean water. If they wanted that the solution is simple – they’re not wild campers in the first place and they’re not going to camp somewhere wild; they’re going to go to a commercial campground, just as they do now, just as they’ve always done.

What worries me most about the general overall tone of the comments here is the lack of willingness to even add names to a petition calling for the legalisation of what we all already enjoy.

If backpackers aren’t going to fight for the right to backpack, who on Earth is?


John Manning

Freelance outdoor writer John Manning and his family are based in the Yorkshire Dales

14 thoughts on “Legalise camping – the debate is driving me wild!

  • 17/02/2009 at 4:55 pm

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  • 17/02/2008 at 9:23 pm

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  • 12/02/2008 at 9:34 pm

    I have just finished writing once again to the Welsh Assembly about the lack of access to inland waterways, so here is another area which those who enjoy the outdoors have to fight.

    It is about time both those who legilate for England and my own Welsh Assembly just “pinched” the Scottish Law.

    And hopefully before I get to old to do it!!

  • 06/02/2008 at 9:26 pm

    John, like yourself I was more than a little taken aback by the ‘Let’s not rock the boat’ approach, which seemed to be the dominant point of view. Hardly carrying on the legacy of Benny Rothman.

    Access rights should not be in the gift of the landed and wealthy to dispense as some sort of largesse to the appreciative masses; there’s simply too much risk of informal arrangements being reneged on, should it so suit. These rights need to be embodied in – and protected by – strong, sensible, legislation. Legislation which imposes sensible restrictions as part of the deal. There’s a perfectly good blueprint for such a code already operating in Scotland.

    The idea that wealthy and powerful owners of huge tracts of wild land will simply behave reasonably as long as we don’t poke them with a stick is quite honestly inane.

    By the way, for all of the criticism it attracted in its formative times, well done to the Scottish parliament.

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  • 31/01/2008 at 8:41 pm

    Nice one John – a bit of balance on the pro side. Thanks.

    One good thing that is shininh thru all the debate this week, no matter what the point of view – the real concern and sensible points being made

    Which underlines how serious we all take this particular issue.

    Expect plenty of links to this post over the coming days

  • 31/01/2008 at 5:03 pm

    Faint hearts John. They’re always a problem,

    There is a little difference between running a campaign and signing a petition. Why nobody will sign a petition is quite beyond me!

  • 31/01/2008 at 10:24 am

    The Scottish Access Code does lay down some fairly simple rules which most folk with a little help could adhere to – yes, even in England and Wales! Perhaps and amendment to CROW with such guidelines, supported by literature available via Plas-y, info centres, inserted into magazines etc etc etc., And online of course.

  • 31/01/2008 at 10:17 am

    As you say John, I cannot imagine hoards of people heading to the hills just because there is a change in law concerning wild camping. Often in magazines such as TGO there is mention of camping in the hills etc. With proper legal status for backpackers and all who wild camp, would also come, surely, a code of conduct. Ok, the high majority of us already that in place. Leave no trace etc. If though there is a written code, maybe, just maybe, high profile figures, youth groups, magazines and so forth can take that on board and teach those skills to those starting out in the outdoor life. Guide lines more than rigid control.

  • 31/01/2008 at 9:32 am

    Cheers Alan,
    There’s a real debate going on all over the forums and blogs at the moment and I am stunned at the strength of feeling there is for leaving it all alone.
    I’ve just read gayleybird’s info at which sets things in a much better context than I could and makes me feel even more that not only does this legal hitch need overcoming, but that it could be done so with no harm to anyone and only benefits on most if not all sides.
    I hope Darren’s petition helps bring about that change – at least it’s raising the issue.
    If no change comes about then I hope that the nay sayers in future stick to the letter of the law and stay home in their beds at night!

  • 31/01/2008 at 9:20 am

    Nice writing fella: Agree with you 100%

    I am amazed at them on the Trail website, but there again, that mag has always attracted a different sort.

    The trouble is they seem to be migrating to the TGO now as well.

  • 31/01/2008 at 8:01 am

    Many thanks for that – I managed to post my thoughts at the Trail forum this morning; there was nothing sinister going on, I’d just written far too much. As several editors will confirm, it’s a bad habit of mine. But who was it who coined the phrase “I would have written less but I didn’t have the time…”?

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