Monday, 1 October 2012


Life on the Road by Ffion McKeown.
Picture this: You've just had an awesome day out adventuring. The sun's going down and you park up your beaten-up old van in a beautiful spot for the night. The location is discreet, and in the morning when you leave someone could pull up for their lunch and never know that you spent the night there. The night draws in, you close the curtains, and settle into one of those deep sleeps - no alarm in the morning, just the open road and the next day of your adventure. But it doesn't quite work out like that. You wake suddenly. You wonder where you are - in the city perhaps? Sounds like a prolonged car horn. You peer out the curtain and it's someone giving you grief for what has now been termed "freedom camping." If you're really unlucky, it could be a policeman about to hand you a whopping great fine...

Until this time last year wild camping was something we'd never really pondered over too much. Usually on a trip we'd always just get on with it and pull up not far from the road to spend the night. Of course we were always responsible and chose somewhere discreet and out of the way, to make sure we didn't piss any locals off, and also mainly for our own privacy to enjoy the peace and quiet of the hills. The camping life and freedom is one of the best things about holidays. In fact, we don't want to go on holiday to anywhere we can't camp out. However last October we touched down in New Zealand...

Purakaunui Bay DOC campsite, NZ.
We'd been desperate to get out to NZ since hearing all sorts of stories from paddlers, climbers, bikers, students who had been out on gap years, Kiwis working in the UK, shepherds who head out every year to help with the shearing... All raved about the place. Big mountains, roaring rivers, "Adventure Capital of the World!" "Yep, you can travel about in your van and camp wherever!" Whilst getting excited about to the trip we remember reading in the NZ Whitewater guidebook:

"New Zealand is a camper's paradise. Uncluttered spaces, clean and unhassled by the law. It would be very unusual to be woken up at one in the morning by an over-zealous officer of the law and be inspected, inquested, neglected, rejected and finally ordered to leave. There are many such stories throughout Europe and the US - lets leave them there." Graham Charles, New Zealand Whitewater 4th Edition.


Nope, 'cause that just isn't true anymore, is it?

It turns out we weren't the only people going out there with that expectation. In fact, there were so many people out there doing the exact same thing, that New Zealand has found itself with a problem on its hands. Everyone has got involved, and with the mob has come the consequences.  As always seems to happen, it only takes a few people to make a mess to spoil something good for the rest of us. Just to clarify, we're focussing on camping in a vehicle, not wandering off into the wilderness with a tent, which is still more than encouraged in New Zealand.

So where did it all go wrong??

Many people will blame the irresponsible campers leaving litter (and worse) in once pristine spots. Yes, this is the issue, but perhaps they are not the root of the problem. Perhaps the finger could also be pointed at the New Zealand tourism industry. Years and years of advertising hype and countless numbers of motorhome rental companies wanting a piece of the pie have helped to increase the crowds of numpties loose in the countryside. 

Hans Bay DOC campsite, Lake Kaniere NZ.

When we arrived in Auckland, the Rugby World Cup was just coming to an end. The city was booming, and hundreds of people had travelled out and either bought or hired campers. It seemed a bit odd to us that it was only once the rugby was over that the Freedom Camping Bill was introduced. If the reasons for banning freedom camping really are the impacts of people pooing all over the countryside and overcrowding laybys, would it not have important to pass this act before thousands of rugby fans stream into the country and hit the roads? Why deliberately delay it until the the rugby was over? It was as though the country decided to milk the World Cup for all it was worth, and then only once the capital had been obtained, bring the fun to a halt.

Fortunately for us, NZ did have one saviour: Department of Conservation Campsites. Always incredibly cheap and situated somewhere nice - whether just outside a town or along a windy road into the wilderness. A traveller's paradise really. What New Zealand really needs is more of these campsites. In the end, when freedom camping risks fines and nasty wake-up calls, we decided we'd rather just pay up and be reassured that we weren't doing anything wrong. It was just unfortunate that some areas of the country didn't have these DOC campsites, as the price rise for a normal 'campsite' where you would be crammed in between rows of hedged-in caravans, was rather large.

But let's not just pick on New Zealand. What's the score in the rest of the world? 

Norway, Sweden and Finland are famously camper friendly. They have official policies stating the people's right to access: The Outdoor Recreation Act in Norway, Jokamiehen oikeude (Everyman's Right) in Finland and the Swedish AllemansrĂ€tten. You can park up and camp in a good spot for one night in Sweden (perhaps more if permission is obtained from the landowner), and up to two nights in Norway and Finland. This applies as long as you are a sensible distance from houses and farmland (150m), and the location is discreet and out of the way. In more remote areas, this rule does not apply. If you remain unseen and there is no one around to be disturbed, the campsite is yours to enjoy as long as you like. How is this possible? Do these countries not have the same issues with crowds of campers making a mess? Where are all the litter dumpers and bog paper spreaders? People still shit in the woods, right? Maybe people are brought up with good wilderness etiquette.  Perhaps nature is not so commercialised as a tourist commodity like it is in New Zealand. Or perhaps we're wrong and it's the cost of beer which keeps the foreign hoards at bay.

Home on the banks of the MĂ„r, Norway.

France certainly has regulations, especially in it's national parks. However, they also have a very forward thinking system too with their Aires de Services. These facilities dotted about the country are little laybys and carparks specially set up for motorhomes, with toilets, drinking water and chemical toilet dumps. Some even have electric hook-ups to charge your batteries. Many are free and some you pay a small fee for. By providing such an amenity means that campers go to villages and contribute to the local economy they might otherwise shy away from if free or very cheap camping was unavailable.

In Germany, freedom camping is forbidden by law, but there is no explicit ban on "Overnight Parking". As long as you simply pull into a car park where it is legal to park your van you can spend one night there. The moment you put anything outside of your van e.g. camping chairs, a barbeque, or roll out an awning then this is considered 'wild camping'. Usually it is also deemed 'wild camping' if you stay on the same spot for more than 24 hours. As a rule of thumb, as long as you can drive off at any time without leaving the vehicle or leaving anything behind, then you are only parking. Germany does however provide it's network of 'Stellplatz' sites very much like the Aire du Services in France.

Living out the back of a van.
And what of our own Small Islands? In Scotland, like Scandanavia, one is free to freedom camp so long as the rules of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code are followed. Leaflets are produced so people "know the code." And yet, at the same time, Scotland does not flaunt and over-advertise this freedom. The country has not invested in ridiculous numbers of camper van hires and the over-commercialisation of the countryside. Instead of anti-freedom camping campaigns that have gone all the way to government policy, Scotland asks for responsible camping: if you're going to wild camp, here's how to do it properly. An education in freedom camping for all. 

Yet it's hard to educate everyone. Scotland has had issues, for instance in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. There have been a number of instances of people wild camping and leaving terrible messes behind. In the end, the Park Authority has had to introduce a by-law to ban camping in undesignated spots in the east of the park. The reason Loch Lomond has had this problem is almost entirely due to its close proximity and easy access from Glasgow and its urban outskirts. So it's not perfect, but it's a work in progess.

In England and Wales however, things are a bit less clear. Frankly it's all about getting the landowner's permission, unless you're camped high on a hill, some distance from any road, with only the sheep for company. You won't find any "No Freedom Camping" signs, but have a look next time you're out for a drive as we have plenty of "No Overnight Parking" and tipis with red crosses through them. What exactly is the difference between stopping in a layby for a picnic at lunchtime and doing the same 12 hours later only to get some shut eye? Because people can be gross. That's why! Need a poo? Grab a trowel and go dig a hole, nae bother. Problem is people don't do they? After crumpling up their fast food wrappers and dropping them out their car door, they creep off into the boulders behind the car park and lay a big soft curly wurly topped with some fresh white tissue paper. Rightly enough councils and landowners are fed up of cleaning up after such individuals and the only thing they can realistically do about it is put a stop to the main cause: folk pulling up for the night who can't be bothered to find a litterbin and need a bedtime trip to the bathroom. 

Is this our only choice? It's quite frustating that because of the ignorant few we now always have to pay to sleep. It feels as if a basic liberty has been taken away.

So what can we conclude? 

We want our freedom back and the only way this is going to happen is if we show that "freedom camping" doesn't create any issues. So please, find out the rules before you go, camp responsibly, buy a trowel and LEAVE NO TRACE.

Thoughts from Ben McKeown & Rachael Haylett.