Monday, 20 July 2020 09:10

Wild camping - a fight or flight dilemma

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Over the last couple of months there's been countless column inches in the mainstream media devoted to "wild camping", and none of it has been good.

Headlines like "It was like a bomb had hit an off-licence" have seen what was once a secretive pastime splashed across the pages of the newspapers and the outrage the images have ignited is entirely justified. 

Guardian Screenshot 1


Naturally the outdoor community has both joined in the condemnation and simultaneously thrown up its hands asking "what can we do".  While all sides agree that it's a problem that needs to be adressed, and urgently, it's not a simple problem and a solution isn't going to be simple. Before even considering the causes the terminology is a cause of dispute.  To a campervan owner a wild camp is an overnight stop off-grid, and it's a term they've used for decades. To backpackers wild camping is essentially camping in the wilderness, leaving no trace of your stay behind, and again it's been recognised terminolgy for generations. To many, however, any unpaid-for camping, off site, is wild camping and it's this third option that's been the go-to terminology of the mainstream media and as a result the meaning that's made its way into the mindset of the general public.

Some, myself included, have looked at this confusion over teminology and have asked if the term "wild camping" is now part of the problem. Some have said it's not the teminology or even the activity but the behaviour of particularly those engaged in what the newspapers then describe as wild camping - a statement that looked at simplisticly is true. It is the bahviour that's the problem, but it's far from being a pattern of behaviour limited to "wild campers".  The last decade in particular has seen a dramatic rise in almost identical behaviour on a commercial basis as the incidence of fly-tipping has exploded. In the approaches to, and subsequent easing of lockdown we've seen countless images of identical behaviour on beaches from Bournemouth to Bridgend; who can forget the news footage of thousands crammed into Lulworth Cove and the mountains of rubbish? The issue isn't one of irresponsible "wild campers", it's a deep seated problem with society.

 On a personal level I've camped high in the mountains, invisible to civilisation, and I've pulled the campervan into a layby for an overnight stop. I've pulled over late in the evening and put a pair of hooped bivis up less than 20 feet from a quiet country road. To me only the first of these examples is truly wild camping, with "wild" being a shortening of "wilderness", but it's pointless to think thousands of, largely responsible, campervan, motorhome and RV users are going to stop using a term they've used around the world for decades because backpackers don't like it, More importantly, the newspaper and media editors aren't going stop calling it wild camping to please people doing something that even done responsibly is technically illegal across much of the UK.  The term is embedded in the media's language and as a result the media's portrayal of the worst examples means the general public have an ingrained perception of what the "wild" in wild camping means - and it's not short for "wilderness".

3 tarns wild camp akto

 In The Guardian article, Ben McCarthy, head of nature conservation and restoration at the National Trust says “We are seeing a disposable festival mentality which we’ve not experienced at our places before." - one of the most insightful comments I've seen in recent weeks. In our backpackers' bubble we see camping as something  elemental and romantic, it's something that connects us with the natural world, but to the general public it's anything but elemental. When the public see news coverage of tents it's predominantly tens of thousands of disposable shelters at Glastonbury or some other festival, and the festival coverage inevitably concludes with the annual obligatory images of abandoned tents, sleeping bags and the waste of a week of excesses. The camping experience shown has nothing to do with connecting with nature, the "camping" element is a means to an end, nothing more. The value of the experience is the music, the atmosphere and the connection with people. To many the camping infrastructure is disposable from the moment of purchase. Instagram images of the "hardships" of "camping" have become a badge of honour and the less spent on kit the bigger the bragging rights.

Of course it would be easy to say manufacturers should take the responsibility - if they didn't make tents as cheap as a fish and chips dinner perhaps they wouldn't be seen as disposable.  But we want affordable kit; we just don't want it to be seen as disposable. But are the images of post-festival destruction a cause or a symptom? Are the tents and sleeping bags seen as disposable because that's how they've been portrayed at festivals or because today's society values disposability? 

castleton 5

Recent research by GoOutdoors shows a significant rise in young people camping since the lockdown and 13% of people across a sample size of 12,000 indicated they would be wild camping. Add this to the 7% intending using the purchases for "solo" camping and you're looking at around 1 in 5 people buying kit  post-lockdown for a use that outside Scotland and Dartmoor is potentially illegal as things stand. This issue of legality has always been an issue; and the legal status gives rise to different perceptions across both time and location. For decades wild camping, as backpackers understand it, has been predominantly illegal in the UK and as a result public discussion has been shackled; it's hard to differentiate between good and bad examples when the argument that you're breaking the law is hanging over you either way. Even a few years ago getting the grid reference of a decent, remote, site from a dedicated wild camper was akin to getting blood from a stone. We minimised our involvement because it's illegal, guarded our favourite sites because we didn't want them becoming noticed. And then Scotland happened.

When Scotland introduced the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 it changed everything. It set down in law what wild camping was definied as and a code of conduct governing it. At its core is the concept of Leave No Trace. In the years that have followed the Land Reform Act wild camping has taken on a normality it's never achieved in England and Wales and that normality has brought both positives and negatives.  Normality and entitlement have led to abuses; but as is the way with these things it's the abuses that make the headlines, not the innumerable instances of law-abiding wild camps. There's not much call for images of a Leave No Trace campsite  after striking camp and no general interest in "campers leave overnight site looking exactly as they found it".  Many of the most offensive images related to abuses in Scotland turn out, in fact, to be roadsite, or minimally detached from the road, vandalism not wild camping. It's not a breach of the LRA to chop down trees or dismantle gates - it's not wild camping as defined, it's criminal damage. The headline shouldn't be "wild campers cause carnage" it should be "vandals cause carnage".  In describing it as wild camping the media insult both the legislation and the vast majority of true wild campers who pass unseen through the glorious wilderness areas day in day out, year in year out. What makes it worse is the more it's described as wild camping the more the public associate the abuses with the term.

Roaches wild camp in mist

In England and Wales the Scottish legislation was a cause of hope; hope that one day our governments would become as enlightened despite the massive differences in land ownership. Organisations like the National Trust and forward looking national parks like the Lake District and Peak District have become accepting of responsible wild camping, despite it's legal status.  While not promoting or advertising wild camping these organisations have published guidance on how to do it properly, and in general it's an approach that's worked until now. Progress was being made. But this progress is fragile and where intially we could point to the success of legalisation in Scotland it's harder to push for similar status in parts of England and Wales if authorities and the general public see it in its must abusive instances.

The abuses of the terminology and the behaviour provide an existential threat to wild camping in the UK. Already,in Scotland, we've seen the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park impose bye-laws restricting "wild camping" in specific times and places. We have to recognise that continuous abuses will only see further restrictions. In England it could be even worse. With national parks operating on shoe-string budgets and a patchwork of miniscule land ownerships wild camping in the same way as Scotland benefits from were never going to be attainable in the short term but even tolerance is tenuous if our activity is seen as incurring a cost to the landowner/authority.

 The reality is that our hold on wild camping is tenuous. The terminology is disputed and while the responsible wild campers, both backpacking and campervan/motorhome, are reluctant to let go of the description out of principle their defence is hamstrung because it's illegal or because we've lost ownership of the term. We have responsible wild campers who refuse to accept any other name and a mainstream media who've invested so many column inches to their use of it as a deragotary term they're not going to change their usage for a bunch of law breakers. That leaves us with two choices, to try and retake ownership of the term "wild camping" or to cut and run; to differentiate what we do by adapting another description - whether that be bivuoac, wilderness camp, backcountry camp or some other term. 

Car and Bivvys

If we're going to try to reclaim the term we have to drown out the volume of negative images of wild camping on social media with images of responsible wild camping, so that becomes the norm. We have to challenge every single instance described as wild camping in the media with letters of complaint, en-masse, telling editors "this is not wild camping, describe it as what it is - criminal damage or vandalism" .  We need to show that the vast majority of wild camping trips are trips you never hear about because there's nothing to see. In England we have to do so  from a position of people who are breaking the law (Dartmoor excepted) so it's not going to be easy.

If instead of fight we choose flight then we need a name that encompasses all off-site, responsible, camping. We cannot and should not stigmatise the nature lover who can no longer carry a pack up into the mountains to camp but can pitch a bivvy beside their car or pulls their kayak out of the river and sets up camp. We'd have to find a name that respects the activity, is instantly recognisable in concept to even the uninitiated, and dissasociates it from the misconceptions. Again, it's not an easy option, but  the choice is fight or flight; there is no option of doing nothing. If we do nothing we stand to lose far more than progress; There is already legislation proposed that will criminalise trespass, and with the reputation "wild camping" is getting it's going to be mighty hard to try and persuade anyone that wild camping should be exempt from this law.