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Friday, 5 December 2008

WILD ABOUT IT - Why and how we wild camp

All to ourselves - perfect

This article was submitted to MMM magazine in January 2008, was accepted, but never published.....

The term “wild camping” has a habit of raising a smile, raising eyebrows, raising hackles or even raising eyes to heaven, depending on which motorcaravanning circles you are moving in. There are even those who consider that you are not a "proper" motorhomer if you don't wild camp.
Thus it’s almost guaranteed to polarise opinions (closely followed by the running of generators) - but what is it really all about?

Scotland. Sorry, but you don't get many campsites like this

We should declare our position first. Our first night outside of a campsite was in our old camper (the silver machine) on the banks of the Loire. We hardly slept a wink and sat bolt upright every time some late night lovers or fisherman drove past.
In the past five years in our new van we have spent nearly 800 nights on board – over 500 of those have been free camps. Wild, or free camping, is now an integral part of our motorhoming life – if we couldn’t wild camp we would probably sell the motorhome.

What is “wild camping”?
A simple, accurate and memorable definition can be the hardest thing…….. Free camping? Open camping? Off-site camping?....
“Wild camping” is the one that everybody recognises, but “free camping” is probably the more accurate because it encompasses not only the monetary aspect but also what we so love about it - the freedom from schedules, bookings and other irritations.

Sometimes you get unexpected guests!

The essence for us is that we find somewhere which feels right, suits us for that particular night and costs nothing or next to nothing. Put it another way, we stop when and more or less where we want, and are not paying for facilities or services that we do not need. Thus we avoid the hassle, crowding, irritation and regulation of campsites, not to mention the ever rising cost, which, when you are on a budget as most long term travellers are, eat into your allowance for more pleasurable things.
And when the campsites are closed or non-existent, of course, you have no choice. The good thing is that our money is nonetheless going into the local economy by way of the food, fuel, meals and drinks that we buy.

Dont forget France Passion, life in the vineyard, only the guidebook to pay for

Why do it?
Initially we stayed constantly on campsites because “wild camping” was something that other people did and seemed a bit too risky. Now we free camp most of the time, not only because it saves money that can then be spent on more enjoyable things than wardens and kiddies play areas, but because it suits our touring lifestyle and we simply enjoy it more. We have stayed in places where the surroundings simply take your breath away, and frequently alone too, to enjoy the splendour, the peace and the wildlife.

Portugal. Weekends it was packed, weekdays - deserted

But it is horses for courses, others head for the beach and are happy to herd up with dozens of like minded travellers in “satellite cities”
We like to head for the remotest spots because that’s what gives us a buzz.

France. At night we are alone, daytime the ski bus runs past every 30 minutes

So, choose between the solitude of a snow filled valley high in the Alps, or the cheek by jowl existence of 98 vans parked on the dirty sand at Torremolinos city limit - in our view, the sublime and the ridiculous, but it is all free camping.

Torremolinos city limits. Sun, Sea, dirt, rats....seems to suit many but not us

There is of course a middle ground, of mundane car parks, aires and remote laybys, and we frequent them often, with many others.

Portugal. P is for parking - it can be that simple

Is it safe?
The fairly obvious answer to this question is: “it depends where you choose to camp”. If you camp by a beach near a popular tourist resort in southern Spain (for example) you can be sure that you run the risk of being targeted by an organised group who are out to rob you. We have heard tales of damage, theft and one of vandalism - graphiti sprayed on the side of the van at night - but thankfully, none of physical attacks on the person.
If on the other hand you camp in a remote place, away and out of sight of main roads, you have cut down the odds that persons of ill intent are: a) aware that you are there, b) figure it is worth their while to go the distance to trouble you.

Spain. Note the added dustbin lid!

Why the anger? somebody dump their cassette perhaps?

The arguments about parking up in groups, parking up under lights, near police stations etc. (to my mind) can work both ways. A big group makes a more lucrative target, lights make you more obvious and easier to assess, and why has the police station been sited there in the first place?
In over 500 nights of free camping we have only been disturbed once – that was in eastern Spain when we parked in a layby off a busy main road, not something we normally do. Somebody hammered on the rear side window at 0130 and yelled loudly, seemingly abusively. To this day we cannot decide weather this was an abusive attack, a test to see if the van was occupied or a warning. We moved swiftly to a location on a minor road some miles away and had no further trouble.
(In Italy ths year we had an attempted break in, but our heosafe locks meant they went away empty handed)

What about security?
Common sense dictates that the more security you have the better – the greater is the deterrent effect, and the longer and more violent an attack would have to be in order to gain entry. At some point though, you have to decide whether your security measures are impacting too much on the enjoyment of your lifestyle.
In our view, the bare minimum is lockable deadlocks on all access doors and a “perimeter” alarm system which will sound if any doors or lockers are opened - we have a bike loop too.

Above all, we park in a position and a condition ready to drive away in a hurry, keeping a set of keys, a phone and a large torch to hand. All valuables that are really important to us go under the bed, in which case we would have to be physically moved to gain access to them. We never open the door to anyone unless positive of their identity, negotiating through a window if necessary.
Really, we have taken more security measures than most people take in their home, (despite the risk of attacks) and we are sleeping in our escape vehicle!

How do you find an overnight spot?

I think that just about covers it - where shall we go instead?

We are still honing our antennae as to where to find and what makes a good wild camping spot, but we are definitely discussing an art, not a science. With experience we get swifter at sniffing out suitable spots and quicker to satisfy ourselves of its suitability. Our preference is for out of the way and remote places, but it depends hugely on you, your attitude to risk, your tolerance to noise, the size of your van, etc.

A good starting point in any country is to ask at a tourist office. "Where can I park my campervan overnight" is slightly ambiguous, but is not hard to work out in any language, and will often get you a positive result, such as a circle on a map.
Study your map, with experience you can get a head start by matching your kind of location to common features on the map. Reservoirs, National or historic monuments, woodland, parkland, all can provide a rich vein of car parks accessible to the public, though with limitations in Great Britain.

Portuguese barragem (reservoir). Days like these can be tough!

If you have the right approach, farmers, publicans, restaurateurs and local inhabitants can also be a source of suitable locations.
Don’t forget word of mouth - websites exist of course - but the hottest and most valuable tips are the ones you get from fellow motorhomers on the road.

How do you know if it’s OK?
Listen to your instincts. We have a golden rule that if either one of us is uneasy about a location (for no particular reason), we move on, no arguments.
If there is a local inhabitant you can speak to, ask if they “think anyone will mind” if you park there overnight. Don’t park in view of peoples houses in remoter locations, or block access and/or deny parking space to locals.

Don’t overcrowd or create a “circus” - hard as it may be, look for another location. Check that you are not in an area used for traders markets, we have all done it, waking up surrounded by bustle and white vans!

Don’t ignore “No Overnight Parking” signs without some inside information. Go into the nearest tourist office/garage/shop/pub and ask. At the very least it will give you a clue as to the official/prevailing attitude.

Scotland. The locals we spoke to said - one or two vans, off season - ignore the sign

Don’t stay where you see abandoned vehicles, broken fences, ugly graffiti, etc.
Don't stay on motorway aires or service station car parks - the tales of theft and attempted break in are legion, the risk of being targeted high.
Don’t put out your awning and chairs in public car parks – this will immediately set all sorts of people's alarm bells ringing.
Above all, don’t take the mickey – ask yourself if you were a neutral observer, would you think “that motorhome" was being obstructive, inconsiderate, asking to be moved on, etc?

What about water and waste disposal?
What follows will seem old hat to some, patronising to others maybe, but for those who, like us, are still learning - here goes.

Rubbish. Obviously enough, the less you create the less you have to dispose of - and it’s not difficult to find ways of cutting down, from buying more loose fruit and veg, to repacking stuff into reusable containers you as you buy it. If we accumulate rubbish we store it and dump it in a public or council bin, not one belonging to a householder or café owner - that would make me angry.
It still stuns us to see supermarket bags, filled with waste and neatly tied up by the handles, dumped in the remotest beauty spots. Why bother to come if you are going to mess it up, and do you really think you’ll be welcomed back?

Now the constant thread through a wild camper’s life - water, waste water and toilet disposal. If you are in France of course, it is all so easy, an aire will likely be not far away, and many campsites will let you "pump & dump" for a few euros. Germany and Northern Italy make life easier as well, even Spain is setting up a network of aires

Note what constitutes camping in Andalucia - leave your chairs and awning stowed

Where do I empty the toilet?
Our primary venue is public toilets. We are opportunists and make a cassette disposal whenever it is worthwhile. If you're cringing at this stage, remember that with a few types of public toilet system excepted, we are disposing of nothing more than the system was designed to cope with. The only difference is that the quantity is rather more than usual, and a little environmentally friendly chemical has been added to help it break down. I take a large plastic coke bottle of water for flushing purposes and some kitchen towel for accidental spills. I obviously pick my time (to avoid standing in the queue!) but have never been challenged by anyone.

We have met Brits, of our own generation, never mind other nationalities, who are still, in that infamous phrase, "making clandestine nocturnal visits" with the toilet cassette. Don’t empty your toilet “over the hedge”, We cannot see how this practice can be justified if you have the long term interests of yourself and other motorcaravanners at heart.

If, as in Spain, the public facilities are often closed, try the garages, many have outside “truckers” toilets. Portugal has plentiful public toilets. Naturally, you will leave them as clean, if not cleaner than you found them.
If all else fails, and you are really out in the sticks, then a latrine or “camping” spade is a viable option (Scouts do it all the time!) but discretion is still needed, to my mind, to avoid raising concern.

Some motorhomers we have spoken to carry a selection of lifting handles for street sewage covers, but this is not a practice I have adopted, primarily because I don't need another hernia! Nevertheless, in Spain and Portugal it appears to be an option, though I would not fancy explaining why to the Guardia Civil!

We have even heard of campers using cling film in the pan and disposing of their collection in the receptacles set aside for our canine friends. Seems environmentally sound to me, why should dogs have exclusive use of facilities!

Where do I dump waste water?
When was the last time you were told by your local water authority to save your bath water and “recycle” it on the lawn or flowerbeds? I know people get exercised about this, but small quantities are soon absorbed, indeed, when asked, some campsite owners have told us to "water the plants" Out in the wilds we find some open ground, preferably with grass, where it will swiftly drain away.
In more urban areas, an alternative is a garage with a pressure washing bay. They are an ideal place to dump waste water and will often supply you with water as well.
Remember, it is illegal to dump any fluids on the public highway, and you can never be sure that the water is going into a sewer, rather than a watercourse.

Where do I get fresh water?
In the absence of aires, we find garages the most reliable source of fresh water. In general the small local garages are more amenable and we have rarely been refused. Always ask, and if they hesitate, offer to pay - many are now on meters and have to watch the pennies. Who knows, it might help stimulate a garage chain to actually offer more facilities for motorhomers.
If you're stopping for a drink or meal, publicans and restaurateurs will sometimes provide.

Spain. Asked the bar owner if it was ok, huge fire, simple food - what characters

Public toilets also come into the frame, a short piece of non-collapsing hose with a soft funnel and a couple of large mineral water containers will enable you to get water from virtually any tap. We also have compehensive collection of tap adaptors.
Don’t take fresh water from private taps without permission – we have seen it done and it leaves you wondering where these people think they are, just imagine their reaction if someone ran a hose up to their garden tap!

Scotland. If you wild camp like this you will not be popular

Are you ready?
Finally, to sum it all up really, Don’t take the p***, put yourselves in the local residents shoes, how would you react to what you are doing? Do spend your money in local shops and garages – it may cost a little more, but hey – you’ve just enjoyed a peaceful night in a beautiful location – its time to show your appreciation.