At the start of this trip our closest experience to free camping had been asking for permission from a farmer to use one of his fields while cycling LEJOG last year, so basically we had never done it before. Since our very first night on the road in the UK we have had to embrace free camping whether through choice or necessity.
Although we still consider ourselves newcomers to free camping its something we get asked about a fair bit so I wanted to put together a few notes on some of our experiences and our free camping methodology.
The rewards from free camping are almost always great whether its the sense of independence it gives you or the chance to witness an unspoilt sunrise from your tent. Our favourite sites are ones where we feel at home but even a wet evening in a field can often be better than a wet evening in a packed campsite.
So far we have had no negative free camping experiences even when camping very publicly on the seafront in Gosport before we left the UK. The range of places we have camped includes empty fields, picnic spots, out of season campgrounds, disused river rafting wharves, walking tracks and unexplained (but very well sheltered) log cabins. As you would expect we try to remain out of sight of people when free camping however to date when we do encounter people they tend to ignore us.
Through experience we have learnt that the environment of a free camp site can be a lot more variable than at a campsite. You will usually have small things like uneven ground, debris, many and varied bugs to deal with. However you may also have some more unexpected problems like larger animals scavenging for food or inspecting the tent, cold temperatures and our most common problem very hard ground for tent pegs. Usually we will cook dinner a distance from our tent and store rubbish over night hanging from a tree at least 20 – 30 metres away.
We always try to minimise our impact on any site by removing all rubbish and trying to ensure it returns to the same state as before we arrived.
Something that we found hard to get used to is the routine that free camping requires. When staying in regular campsites you can pretty much arrive and depart when it suits you but not so with free camping where the aim is to pitch late and leave early so as to reduce your visibility.
Generally our routine goes something like this:
- 16:00 – Discuss if we would prefer to free camp or stay in a campsite if we find one. If preference is to free camp we identify an area on our route around three hours cycle away where we think there will be free camping options.
- 18:00 – Start looking for initial sites and maybe stop to inspect a few on foot. Unless we are desperate and its late we always avoid any areas that are marked with signs indicating they are private or are behind fences.
- 19:00 – 20:00 – Hopefully we find a suitable site in this time frame giving us at least an hour before sunset to hang out at the site and observe traffic, people, bugs etc.
- 20:00 – Unpack our bikes but only take out things required to wash ourselves, get warm (if needed) and cook dinner. Inspect the site for a suitable tent pitch and clear it of any debris also making noise to scare bugs and anything bigger away. Cook dinner and clean up before repacking kitchen stuff into the panniers.
- After dinner or when it gets dark – Pitch tent as quickly as possible only taking sleeping bag and mats into tent from our front panniers all other panniers stay packed up and go into the rear tent vestibule. Quick inspection of tent visibility from road or path before into tent and off to sleep.
- Sunrise – Get up as quickly as possible to take tent down, repack sleeping stuff into panniers and load bikes before exiting the area the tent was pitched in. Depending on the site we may also prepare and eat breakfast before we head off.