Saturday, 6 February 2016

Camping in Scotland: going wild in the hills

Wild camping - it isn't for everyone

Recreational camping, as everyone knows, means living in a tent for fun (RV's don't count!). For most people it takes place in an organised campsite which provides full facilities - showers, toilets, a shop, etc. Wild camping takes it one step further and refers to camping outwith organised sites but usually not too far from civilisation. True wild camping takes it even further and can be defined as the art of living in a tent in a remote (preferably very remote) location well away from roads, trails, people and any signs of the modern world. Why would anyone wish to do this?

A small tent in a lonely valley

True wild camping away from the well-frequented areas will take you into corners of the Highlands you didn't know existed. Remote lochs, narrow glens, wide straths and lonely beaches edged with sheer cliffs thronged with nesting seabirds. You can trace the source of some of Scotland's best-known rivers, climb tree-lined gullies following beautiful burns and tumbling waterfalls where scarce a foot has trod before you. It is a solitary occupation and I generally go alone, with the occasional exception of my Wingman (my son), the only person on this planet with whom I am willing to share a small tent for any length of time.

Travelling alone (and quietly) allows you the chance of seeing wildlife you would not otherwise see. If you are very, very, lucky you may see the 'Tiger of the Highlands' - the rare Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris grampia (I have never seen one). A little bigger than a domestic cat they are the UK's largest land predator with a reputation as being untameable and are an endangered species.

A Scottish wildcat walking on snow
Photograph by Peter Trimming/Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 2.0
Choose your place carefully and you may catch sight of an osprey taking a fish from a high lochan or one of the recently reintroduced sea eagles quartering back and forth along a rocky shoreline or a golden eagle snatching an unwary mountain hare. You might sit, spellbound (as I have) watching an otter teach its cubs to fish and smile as they sit on a rock and eat their first catch or see a beaver (yes, there are beaver in Scotland) gnawing through a tree.

A remote highland loch with hills in the background

You might climb a craggy hill and see peaks stretching from horizon to horizon, most of them quiet and rarely visited by that ubiquitous breed of walker, the Munro-bagger and his close cousin the Corbett-bagger. Why? Because none of them are on any list of 'must climb' hills - none of them are high enough to attract attention from that group of persistent box-tickers who roam the Highlands in droves every weekend, but all of them are part of a landscape which was once the living, vibrant home to a surprisingly large population.

A man crouching on top of a mountain on Rannoch Moor

Everywhere you go you will find evidence of the people who used to live here. Ruined houses (usually just a bare stone outline - occasionally a partial chimney breast), long-disused and broken-down cattle fanks (a stone corral), and areas of grass which look strangely green and lush against a backdrop of rough, tussocky, yellow hill grass (where tethered goats were grazed and their droppings fertilised the ground).

A broken down stone cattle fank on a hillside
Photograph by Gordon Doughty/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
The people are long gone now. Entire families, men, women and children of all ages, forcibly evicted from their homes and crofts some 150 years ago by cruel lairds and landlords seeking to replace crofting with the much more lucrative sheep farming. These Highland Clearances are the reason so many Scots ended up in foreign lands and why so many people around the world proudly claim Scots ancestry.

The lucky ones found succour amongst other communities in different parts of Scotland but many were forced to emigrate and went to the Americas (north and south) and Canada. More to New Zealand and Australia. Some became seafarers, some became soldiers of fortune and travelled far and wide. Most of them never returned home but the cruel wrench of a forced passage (few had any choice) is not forgotten in Scotland. Folk songs are sung and there are memorials here and there, in remote places and in the many books written about the Highland Clearances.

All this - the history, the wildlife, the scenery - lies waiting for you in the Highlands. All you have to do is go exploring and find those hidden places and hear the stories the land whispers to you - if you are willing to listen. You will find the journey worthwhile.

A man standing on the summit of a scottish mountain as it gets dark


We in Scotland are very lucky when it comes to where to go in the countryside. For many, many years there has been an accepted 'right to roam' more or less anywhere in Scotland's wild lands. This meant that anyone who went hillwalking or climbing or who used the countryside for any type of recreation had a 'right' to do so - except that they didn't!

This 'right' was dependent on the landowners tacit agreement to 'turn a blind eye' to any person crossing or using their land. Most of them did so but some landowners - particularly those large shooting and fishing estates, didn't like this. They regarded the land as their own property whereas many Scots (particularly working-class socialists, who were at the forefront of modern Scottish hillwalking and climbing's formative years) saw them more as 'caretakers' of the people's land.

Understandably, this caused a certain amount of friction. There were many instances of landowners and gamekeepers barring people from their land (with the unspoken threat of a casually-slung shotgun). Battles were fought in the courts over rights of access and, particularly after the end of the Second World War, a growing demand by a more and more literate cadre of social reformers eventually led to a formalisation of access to the countryside with the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

Basically, this Act enshrined in law the public's right to access otherwise unused 'private' land anywhere in Scotland. In practice this means that YOU can go anywhere in Scotland's wild places you wish with the proviso that 1) You do no damage; 2) You stay away from inhabited places (remote houses and farms, etc.); 3) You do not interfere with necessary activities on private land. This Act is complimented by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code - list of do's and dont's for countryside users.

A man standing on a path leading down a hill towards a loch

The biggest benefit this brought the public was that it was now possible to walk and climb all those hills which had previously needed a certain amount of subterfuge to reach! You are in fact free to go anywhere you like provided you are sensible about it. Certain restrictions are still placed on access for the purposes of hill farming (particularly during the lambing season), deer stalking and grouse shooting but in Scotland the latter two activities do not take place on Sundays so every weekend is pretty much free time in the hills!


Any time you like really. I tend to do most of my wild camping in spring and autumn. I avoid winter because it's too cold and because of the risk of an unexpected heavy snowfall stranding me out in the middle of nowhere. I avoid the west of Scotland and the islands in the height of summer because of the scourge of the Highlands, that mini-vampire known as the West Highland midge!

A man on a hillside with more snow-covered hills in the background
I also try to avoid forecasted spells of heavy rain and wind but it isn't always possible to avoid those two in Scotland. All you can do is plan your trip for a spell of reasonable weather and hope it doesn't rain too heavily and that the midges aren't too bad. Actually, avoiding the midge isn't difficult and to help you there is a Scottish Midge Forecast website which runs from early summer to late autumn and it has proved to be as accurate as the pollen forecast for hayfever sufferers!

There are also websites which will give you an accurate Scottish mountain weather forecast for several days ahead but if it tells you it isn't going to rain I would take that with a pinch of salt - mountains can create a micro-climate around them and even when it's sunny everywhere else there still may be rain on the hills.


Wild camping is a whole different ball game from camping in an organised campsite or camping from a vehicle. You will be alone in a remote area for several days and (with luck) won't see anyone else during that time so you must be well prepared and take everything you are likely to need and it should all be good quality equipment. The last thing you need on a stormy, night in the middle of nowhere is for something vital to break or fail to work!

There is a plethora of rucksacks, sleeping bags, clothing and equipment available today and these things are all subject to the whims of fashion and developments in technology. All I will say about them is that they must be suited to the journey you are planning and the weather you are likely to experience but I will say a special word about the tent you choose.

A shallow ford over a river
I recommend a good quality two-man tent. This is what I use even though I usually travel alone. I find that the extra room it affords over a one-man tent is worth the slight weight penalty - all my gear will fit inside my tent thus keeping it out of the rain. When my wingman is with me our gear goes outside wrapped in big plastic garbage bags (but our boots stay in the tent).

Don't be a cheapskate with your equipment. Buy the best you can afford - it will make the difference between a warm, dry, comfortable experience and a cold, wet, miserable one!

Food is a personal choice. There are many types of prepared foods available to backpackers and campers. They come pre-packed as a complete dehydrated meal and only need boiling water added to the packet to reconstitute them into something resembling real food - you eat them straight out of the packet.

I will take a couple of these packs along with rice and pasta but I will also take foods which don't need to be cooked - tinned meat and long-life bread. This is a precaution in case my stove or gas cylinder develops a fault and can't be used. At least there is still something to eat!

I also take a selection of sweets and chocolate bars or chocolate biscuits which can be eaten on the move but my favourite hill food is oatcakes and cream cheese - very filling and easy to prepare during a rest stop and save the main meals for the evening camp. Coffee is my preferred drink. It has no residue (unlike teabags) and with some coffee creamer it makes a welcome hot drink on a cold day. I use sweeteners instead of sugar (less bulk).

A tent pitched on the banks of a highland loch

A wild campsite must be chosen with some care. It should be away from trees, overhanging cliffs and steep drops. It should be fairly close to a water source (but not right on the bank of a river). It should be flat but not water-logged or liable to flooding. It should be free of objects (stones, etc.) which could puncture the groundsheet. It is possible to buy a rubberised ground mat called a 'footprint', over which the tent is pitched, as a protection against sharp objects.

You should not camp within sight of an inhabited building and you should not camp in one place for an extended period. I normally only camp in one place for 2-3 nights before moving on. This gives the land a chance to recover from your activities and doesn't overload one place with human waste.

There are many types of lightweight camping stoves available and the choice is largely down to personal preference. The only advice I will give here is that a gas stove is more convenient than liquid fueled types which run the risk of spilled fuel and subsequent fire hazard. I much prefer a gas stove with the gas cylinder separated from the burner by a length of hose. The type in which the burner sits on top of the cylinder tend to be unstable and liable to fall over. In remote areas you should never light a fire!

Pots and pans must also be taken but here you need to be sensible. There is no need to take a whole range of cookware. Think about what you are going to eat and pack accordingly. I take just two small pans one of which is used solely for boiling water and the other for cooking my main meals - eaten straight from the pan.

A lochside scene of a pot of food being prepared

You will also need a cup. Plastic insulated cups are best, not tin mugs - you will burn your lips! And, of course you will need cutlery. There are many fancy camping cutlery sets available which will enable you to turn out a three-course meal. They are completely unnecessary. Take a spoon from your kitchen - that's all you need! Some kind of multitool or Swiss army knife should also be taken (mainly for the tin opener and the knife blade).

When deciding what to take keep it to the minimum. This is actually quite a difficult thing to do. Even after many years experience I still find myself taking items I just don't use! Bear in mind that you will have to carry everything you take so keeping the weight down is crucial. Think about each and every item - do you really need that toast rack or that pepper mill?

Other stuff

There are a few extras things you will need if you decide to try wild camping. Good map(s) of the area you choose to go to are essential and Ordnance Survey Maps will help you choose the right map for your purpose. When you wander off the beaten trail you must be aware of your location at all times. The last thing you need is to get into trouble and not know exactly where you are or which is the quickest way to civilisation. Global Positioning Systems are useful but they can fail or you may find yourself in an area with no reception. A traditional compass (and the knowledge of how to use it) are a must-have. This can be self-taught from books (that's how I learned) or you could go at first with a knowledgeable companion and learn from them.

A man crossing a narrow footbridge with chains for hand holds
A phone is a good idea but again remember that you may find yourself in a location with no signal (or the battery could die) so you can't rely on that to get you out of trouble. A torch will be necessary and some kind of backup should be taken in case it fails - I suggest chemical light sticks. They are cheap, lightweight and reliable and come in a variety of colours. They can be used as emergency markers if need be.

Since you will be out in a remote area it is wise to take a reasonably good first-aid kit. Cuts and burns are the two most common camping injuries and you should be prepared to fall victim to one or the other at sometime (I have). If you regularly take any prescription medications don't forget to take enough to last for the length of your trip - and maybe some extra just in case.

You will also need personal hygiene products. Toothpaste, soaps, washing-up liquids and toilet paper can all be had in biodegradable versions and these are the only types which should be considered when wild camping and don't wash your pans in the nearest river! Take a pan full of water some distance away from the riverbank and carry out your ablutions there.

On the subject of toilets you should go at least 100 yards away from any water source and solid waste should be buried - at least that is the 'tradition', if we can call it that, in Scotland but it is not one I agree with. Much of Scotland's wild land is quite wet or boggy and burying solid waste simply helps to spread contaminants into the ground water.

I won't go as far as to advocate doing what special forces soldiers do (poop in a plastic bag and carry it out with you!) but I think that leaving solid waste exposed to the elements and letting natural bacteria take care of it is the best way.

Any empty wrappers, containers or other garbage materials should be wrapped in a plastic bags and taken out with you and that includes waste food. Leaving uneaten foods behind simply encourages scavengers which soon learn to take advantage of human presence - if you carried it in you can carry it out! You should leave no signs that you were ever there - leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories.

A man fording a shallow river

I walk and climb solely in Scotland and I have no experience of walking or camping in other countries (save one - the island of Madeira - a walkers paradise) but the advice given here is common to hill and mountain ranges worldwide - with one or two additions. In Scotland it is usually safe to drink from mountain streams. The higher up the hill and the faster flowing the water the safer it is but I realise that this is not the case in every country. If you are in any doubt as to the safety of a water supply then some form of water purification is advised. This is entirely up to you - I can offer no advice on water purification systems since I have never had to use any.

Similarly, Scotland has no dangerous wild animals. There are no large predators and no venomous reptiles save one - the European Adder - and its venom is fairly mild and shouldn't cause a real problem to anyone who is fit and healthy and in any case they are shy and rarely seen. The only creature hikers in Scotland need fear is the West Highland Midge! During the autumn rut red deer stags can be aggressive (attacks on hikers are occasionally reported) but they are easy to avoid - you can hear them roaring from miles away. Again, any precautions regarding local wildlife are up to you. I can offer no advice on this subject either since I have never been stalked by a mountain lion!

So that's about it. The ball is in your court now - will you go wild camping or won't you? I urge that you try it at least once, wherever you are.

Final word

Just in case this article has given you the impression that all is hunky-dory when wild camping in Scotland take a look at this short video of a wet and windy morning as experienced by myself on the Isle of Skye. Just to make a point about the variable weather which can be expected in Scotland this video was taken in late August - a month which most people expect to be warm, dry and sunny!

All photos and videos by the author or his wingman unless otherwise credited


  1. Scotland sounds like a wonderful place to hiking or camping at. Great blog!!

  2. Wow, that was a great tour! I love the photos, the scenery is breathtaking! How I would love to go camping there!

    1. I am not a particularly good photographer and my photos don't really do justice to the hills but I'm getting better at it!

  3. I think I'm past the days when it would be wise for me to camp alone away from help should health issues arise. I can see though, why younger and healthier people would find camping in this beautiful area inviting.

    1. I used to think like you but have come to the conclusion that when your time comes it doesn't matter where you are and, speaking personally, I wouldn't complain if the hills simply took me to their bosom one day.

  4. I need to go camping to get back in balance with myself. I love how you explain everything. You should be writing a book!

    1. There are enough books out there already! I am content to write about what takes my fancy.

  5. As usual, your photos of the countryside are awesome! Love your photo essays.

  6. I love the Scottish countryside and the way it seems to be always changing with the weather and the light. You have captured it beautifully.

    1. Thanks. Scottish weather can be both unpredictable and mesmerising!

  7. Beautiful photos and details. I envy your love of adventurousness and the outdoors. Great article.

    1. Thank you - and may the adventure never cease!

  8. Camping w the girl scouts at the state park was wild enough for me! Intriguing but after watching your video, not sure I am a hardy enough scout for that!

    1. It isn't wet and windy in Scotland all the time - sometimes it snows too! :)

  9. My ancestry on my father's side is Scottish. Loved this little peek at the countryside there. Pinned.

    1. Many Canadians can claim Scottish ancestry - thanks to the highland clearances!

  10. Hi there, I am planning to be wild camping for the second half of may this year. I have been doing some reading since I've never been to scotland before and people were talking about poacher, hunter, and dog dangers. Do you have an advise on these things? When is hunting season and are there areas that are more dangerous than others for poachers? Also I read that property damage and car break ins are on the rise? We were planning to have a car to get around and camping a little ways away from it at night. All this reading has gotten me a little worried! I'm used to camping back home where no one will bother you!