There are two schools of thought when it comes to camping – one is the labour-intensive, mother-led attempt to recreate suburban living in the countryside. This requires being able to drive your car onto your pitch to disgorge your paraphernalia, including kitchen sink, which will entirely fill the interior of the car, plus the roof rack and/or trailer.
The other, as recounted in the misty-eyed memoirs of Scotland’s mountaineers, involves the long walk in, and the ability to go for three days without washing or shaving. My husband holds the world record for converting from city slicker to wild man of the woods in less time than it would take Grizzly Adams to take out a racoon with tobacco spit.
It took a week in the Western Isles however to turn me into a convinced wild camper. A week of pitching and striking camp every day and trying to repack a car into which I’d crammed everything from beach volleyball to a fondue set convinced me I was wrong. Now I go with no more than we and the children can carry easily for a couple of miles. A tent I bought from Lidl for a tenner is my favourite because it is so light and easy to pitch, though its name – High Peaks – probably promises more than it can deliver. (Our other tent is the real McCoy from Tiso, so we are prepared if the weather turns.) Sleeping bags and Therm-a-Rests to lie on. A pair of pants and a toothbrush. A torch. Some emergency food, but not too much – we like to buy food locally.
On that Western Isles trip we had by far our best meal when we found the fish factory on one of the islands. After pleading with a man in wellies and a white coat we handed over a fiver for a bag of enormous langoustines – the kind that Paris restaurants have airlifted in – which we barbecued over a fire on the beach.
So what if you can’t shower for a couple of days? A dip in the sea is nearly as good and after a couple of days spent cooking over an open fire you acquire a sort of wood-smoked odour which is not unpleasant. It can be a relief to leave the gadgets and gizmos of modern family life behind. Children love to go wild, and as long as they remember to brush their teeth and are careful round the fire it won’t do them any harm. It might even do them some good – my children have benefited hugely from time spent sitting round a campfire swapping stories and songs.
I generally insist on them going to bed before they are ready, though. They shattered my illusions recently by saying the worst thing about wild camping was listening to the adults’ terrible singing while they lay in their tents.
A free pitch near a beach where you can hear the waves crashing – after the grown-ups have crashed out – still beats the hiss of that iPod, pet snake or nocturnal domestic arrangements you can hear from neighbouring tents on an overcrowded campsite.
Unlike in the United States, where national park campsites provide huge pitcheswith shady trees and fire rings, Scotland’s campsites often seem to cram the punters in cheek by jowl. And then there are the notes. Washblocks and games rooms are often festooned with hectoring handwritten notes, often badly punctuated. Few sites allow you to light a fire. We have even been angrily told off by a campsite owner for sitting chatting round a barbecue after our meal was finished. On top of that, the charge will often be nearly £40 for a family of five.
Scotland now has some of the most open land access rights in the world – the right to camp for two nights on private land, although not within 50 metres of a house, and the right to make a fire if done without causing undue hazard. These laws, modelled on those of Scandinavian countries, have opened up Scotland to everyone.
And that does mean everyone – the downside being that not all Scots resemble Scandinavians. The most popular wild camping sites are near roads, and in the summer “party camping” brings its own hazards. At Loch Lomond, theTrossachs and parts of Royal Deeside, land rangers have complained of the menace of several vehicles congregating near a lay-by and punters putting up tents on the verge. They then proceed to get loudly drunk, urinate and worse without much thought for any damage they cause. One land manager I spoke to even caught wild campers chopping down trees on a golf course to feed their bonfire.
This kind of behaviour is simply ignorant. True wild campers observe some dos and don’ts:
Don’t take too much stuff – you will need to carry it.
Do walk at least a mile from the road.
Do take a trowel and bury your toilet waste.
Do take your litter home.
Do be sensitive about making a fire.