If you’re planning to wild camp in Scotland, Bradly of “Dream Big, Travel Far” shares his 15 top tips and tricks to make your experience safer and more pleasant. They’ve been driving around the world since 2020 and have expert tips for wild camping in Scotland and beyond.
How to Wild Camp in Scotland
Since converting our van (who is called Helen), we’ve driven to dozens of countries across Europe, as well as to North America & South America. However, Scotland remains very close to our hearts as we spent more than 4 months there, living in our van and driving around this spectacular country.
It is hands-down one of our personal favourite places to visit anywhere in the world. Particularly for vanlifers, due to the many amazing spots for wild camping in Scotland. Teeming with extraordinary nature and wildlife, there’s no better way to explore the country than in your own vehicle. Without further ado, let’s get right into it!
1. Understand what wild camping is
But first… what is wild camping?
Also known as free camping or boondocking, it’s essentially camping overnight outside of registered campsites, or at a location where you don’t have to pay for.
Wild camping is not the same as camping in general. While setting up tents in wilderness areas is a form of wild camping, so is sleeping in an RV, campervan, or motorhome! Some examples include parking in a field, near a lake, or in a public car park.
As the latter is what we’re best accustomed with, our suggestions today are for vehicle-based wild camping. However, many of the points actually apply to the other form of wild camping, such as in a tent. Check out a Scotland road trip at: North Coast 500 – The Ultimate Trip Guide to Scotland’s Epic Drive
2. Choose the right motorhome or campervan
The first thing you should do before starting your adventure is to choose the right vehicle. Whether you’re buying your own or renting a campervan, it’s important to pick the best one for your needs. Some features to think about include:
Size – Are you travelling alone or with someone else? Make sure that you can confidently drive your chosen vehicle. While a larger motorhome may be more comfortable to live in, they’re harder to navigate rough terrains and off-the-beaten track. This is crucially important to remember, as most roads in Scotland are very narrow; even along the NC500 and particularly in cities. Number of beds – Likewise, pay attention to the number of berths or passengers that a vehicle can accommodate. Budget – Don’t forget to determine your budget, which will affect the type of vehicle you can get and its condition. Full service history – This last one shouldn’t be a hassle if you’re renting from a reliable rental company, but crucial if you’re buying your own vehicle. Ideally, you want it to come with a full service history to ensure that it’s well-maintained.
When considering which camper or motorhome to get, remember that it will not only be a vehicle, but also where you will sleep, cook, eat, and relax throughout your trip.
We saw all kinds of campers across Scotland. Some travellers were even in large converted 4×4 ex-military vehicles that can be driven onto beaches. You can rent all sorts of vehicles from large rental firms like McRent.
Or even from local Scottish people through sites like Outdoorsy. It really does depend on your personal preference; though I would recommend the smaller the better if you are unfamiliar driving in the UK, and on smaller narrow roads.
3. Know the wild camping laws in Scotland
Make sure you’ve read up on all the wild camping laws in Scotland. Is wild camping legal in Scotland? The short answer is no, but it is tolerated and generally allowed, as long as you do it responsibly.
Land Reform Act 2003
This Scottish land reform act doesn’t consider parking overnight in a motorhome as wild camping. While it’s definitely easier to wild camp if you’re on foot or bike, as you don’t have to worry too much about where you can or cannot park, it’s generally quite easy to get permission.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code grants you responsible access to the Scottish outdoors. This includes forests, hills, beaches, rivers, lochs, parks, and some farmlands.
Respect others, care for the environment, and be responsible for your actions. Basically, show common sense and decency while you’re wild camping. More on Scotland Travel at: 7 Crazy Adventures in Scotland
While this law gives access to all unenclosed land and inland waters in Scotland, it doesn’t actually include vehicular access. It does, however, allow wild camping as long as it is “lightweight and done in small numbers”.
Road Traffic Act of 1988
The Road Traffic Act of 1988 recognizes most roads as private land, which means it’s imperative that you ask for permission before parking your vehicle anywhere.
Loch Lomond Byelaws
Wild camping is generally possible in most places within the country, except for one: the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Between March and September, camping is only allowed on official campsites or if you have a camping permit.
This byelaw aims to protect the National Park from environmental damage, which makes sense because Loch Lomond is one of the top tourist destinations in Scotland!
Overall, the general rule of thumb when wild camping is to respect any “No overnight parking” sign. And as long as you park somewhere remote and sensible, you should be fine.
We will cover more principles below that you should follow to have a safe and fun wild campaign experience in Scotland. But long story short, we never once had any problems wild camping in Scotland after dozens of nights in every single part of the country.
4. Download Park4Night
Park4Night is by far the best place to find wild camping spots all across Scotland (and Europe). It’s a free mobile app available on both iPhone and Android that shows you all the spots where you can park up overnight.
Whether you’ve lived in a van before or this is your first-time wild camping, this is seriously such a useful app that will make your trip less stressful. No more hours of researching online just to discover that a parking spot feels dodgy and unsafe.
I love that the database is made by fellow van lifers and that it’s always updating every day. Plus, you can share personal experiences and thoughts about a spot, and reading updates from other users will give you insightful information.
The interface itself is super simple and easy to use. My favourite function is the quick search, which lets you browse specific points like nature spots or water refill stations, and filter only 5* areas.
5. Use Google Satellite to find new locations
Another great tool for finding new locations is Google Satellite. You can use the satellite view on Google Maps to find large open car parks or spaces where you could potentially stay the night.
Or simply search “parking” in any area of the map, which will then list parking spots and you can zoom in to check if it’s viable.
Alternatively, if you already have a specific spot in mind, this is still a great way to scout the area and see what it looks like.
When you’re wild camping in Scotland or anywhere else, always try to be as prepared as possible. This includes having an idea of what the site you’re planning to sleep in looks like.
6. Ask at pubs & restaurants if you can stay there
For times when you’re wanting to stay near the city, it’s worth asking at pubs and restaurants if you can park your vehicle nearby and stay the night. We have done this a few times ourselves and people are often very nice about it. Just make sure to ask in advance.
On a similar note, asking locals is also a great way to find the perfect camping spot. This way, you can find places that aren’t even mentioned in guidebooks and online databases. A friendly hello could take you to a hidden gem or two!
7. Buy the Brit Stops book
This one is a really cool concept. You buy a physical Brit Stops book for the year (it’s released on a yearly basis) which will then give you access to over 1000 wild camping spots across the UK, including Scotland, where you can stay at for free.
It was inspired by the company Harvest Hosts in the USA (which we also love), so this is like the UK version. The list features lots of unique spots, from country pubs, wineries, and fruit farms to tourist attractions, antique centres, and more.
The book itself costs £32 and gives you the chance to stay in some really cool locations. You can also purchase some local goodies if you want whilst visiting.
What’s more, they now offer a brand new app with the purchase that you can use to meet local hosts. It’s definitely a great way to meet new people and get local recommendations of things to do around the area!
8. Don’t leave any mess (Leave no trace policy)
Following Covid lockdowns, van traffic and wild camping in Scotland has exploded. And the poor behaviour of many of these new van lifers has really upset locals. As a result, many of the best wild camping spots have started to close down and now have barriers, signs and police patrols to stop the practice. Be a part of the solution, not the problem.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code encourages campers to avoid causing problems for local people and animals, hence the “leave no trace” policy.
This includes things like:
Removing all your litter Keeping fires small and putting them out completely afterwards Not causing any form of pollution Travelling and camping on durable ground, such as rock, gravel, dry grasses and snow Not damaging what you find (flowers, plants, old archaeological structures, etc)
In general, try to minimise any lasting impact on the grounds!
9. Be respectful in other ways
In addition to cleaning up after your own mess, it’s also good to be respectful in other ways. This is relevant no matter where you’re wild camping, and being considerate while camping out in nature or public places goes a long way.
For example, don’t be noisy, especially once night falls. Noise may disturb other campers in the area or worse, drive away surrounding wildlife from their natural habitat! I always go about it by remembering that I am merely a guest and to keep quiet as much as I can.
I’d also recommend buying locally whenever possible. Whether that means going to local pubs and restaurants or shopping from local stores, you’ll be helping boost the local economy while being more supportive to the practice of wild camping.
Also, don’t go setting up like you’re at a campsite. This really winds people up, especially if it looks like you intend to stay in the same spot for many days! As a rule of thumb, I would say that staying for only a night or two is best.
10. Avoid drinking alcohol
If you are asked to move on by police and you are over the alcohol limit, there is a chance you will get fined and prosecuted for driving under the influence. So, it’s always best to avoid drinking, especially when you’re moving to a new city or area.
We personally haven’t had this problem, but have heard horror stories of this happening to people in Scotland and other countries. If you are in your vehicle with the keys accessible, and you are the driver and over the limit of alcohol, then it is classed as an intention to drive drunk.
Your call; but in my opinion, the risks simply don’t outweigh the costs. If you plan on having a few drinks one night (which, let’s face it, you’re in Scotland so why not?!) then stay in a campsite.
11. Be prepared for temperamental weather
Here’s the thing about Scottish weather: it’s almost entirely unpredictable, and you can’t rely on forecasts. This dramatic climate and shifting weather is, in part, what has helped make Scotland so wild, rugged and beautiful.
The climate also varies between regions, but it’s generally quite changeable. For example, the West gets twice as much rainfall as the East.
As you might expect, summer is the best time for wild camping in Scotland in terms of weather, though the traffic may get intense. Despite the sunshine, you should still prepare for cloud, wind, and rain all in the same day! As well as midges, which are famously horrendous to deal with so you will need bug spray if you visit in this time period.
Winter in the Highlands means snow and ice, with the temperature reaching as low as minus 4 at night. It’s all a bit overwhelming if you’re unprepared, but really, I think the changeable skies add to the experience…
12. Pack blackout curtains in summer or headlamps in winter
Scotland is quite far north and the hours of sunlight can be quite an extreme during peak winter and summer months.
You can get up to 18 hours of daylight in June in the Northern Highlands, which is a lot of opportunity to explore the wilderness! But that also means sleeping can be a bit of a problem.
I recommend using blackout curtains that can keep the inside of your vehicle (or tent) super dark. Oh, and don’t forget lots of sunscreen too!
On the other hand, you might get sunlight only from 9am to 3pm in December. Pack enough headlamps and flashlights so you can still do stuff outside. Otherwise, you’ll just be stuck inside your van all day, which isn’t an exciting way to camp.
While it’s probably not the best time for wild camping, the snowy landscape of the winter months does have its own charm…
13. …what about the bathroom situation?
One of the most common concerns people have when wild camping is the bathroom situation. This shouldn’t be a problem when you’re staying close to civilization. And if your vehicle has a toilet, it’s all a matter of responsible waste disposal. If not… Well, time to learn the art of doing your business outdoors.
In the wilderness, it’s typically okay to choose any spot that’s well away from trails. Avoid waterways and sapling trees, though larger established trees and bushes are ok. Don’t go directly in small bodies of water, but bigger lakes or rivers can dilute any urine. In alpine areas, it’s recommended to do it on a rock surface.
Now, when doing number two, you should be more careful. Walk at least 200 feet away from a trail or water source, then dig a hole of around 6 to 8 inches deep. This is a good depth that will still decompose the waste while preventing others from stepping on it.
Once done, you should cover the hole with the original dirt. If you use any toilet paper, make sure to bring it back with you and dispose of it properly!
14. In busy season, plan ahead
Many of the best wild camping spots in Scotland will fill up very early on, especially in the busy summer months of June, July and August. In some cases, you may want to arrive at your location by around 2 or 3pm to have a better chance of securing a spot to set up overnight.
Better yet, consider visiting during the off season! We did North Coast 500, a 500-mile trip around the Highland area of Scotland, back in November 2020. It was fantastic because we pretty much had the route all to ourselves.
15. Try The 2:1 Rule
Intimidated by the idea of wild camping for the entirety of your trip? There’s no reason you can’t approach it slowly. For a lot of first-timers, it’s a great idea to break up the adventure with more comfortable campsites.
You’ll be wild camping for two nights and staying on a campsite for one night. This is a nice way to enjoy the excitement of wild camping while still enjoying the benefits of a campsite’s facilities. A nice toilet, hot shower, stocking up on essentials, and more.
All in all, wild camping is truly one of the best ways to experience Scotland. You can stop anywhere and don’t have to rely on registered campsites, so in a way it’s much more freeing.
The Scottish countryside is indeed an oasis of breathtaking sceneries and diverse wildlife. I hope these tips will help make your upcoming adventure go more smoothly.
If you remember only one thing from this massive list, it’s to be respectful and considerate everywhere you go!