08 October 2022
Pack up your Land Rover, point your steering wheel north and get ready for the sweet taste of adventure
Wild camping may not be legal in most parts of the UK, but when you cross the English border into Scotland the possibilities abound. Here you’ll be treated to endless epic mountainscapes, rushing rivers, and tucked-away beaches, and if you’ve got a home on wheels like us, it’ll all be on your doorstep if you follow a few simple laws of the land, be respectful to the locals, and ensure you leave Scotland as wild as you found it.
Two years ago, we rolled onto Scottish soil for the first time in Tango, our Defender 110. This wasn’t our first Scottish experience, but rather the first one in our Land Rover. Ever since then we’ve been hooked, and for good reason. Anyone who’s been knows how incredible it is, and anyone who hasn’t has surely heard the rumours. But, in recent years, there’s been ever-increasing chatter around the threat of overtourism, with eyes focused on those travelling by motorised means. Subsequently, questions are being raised whether wild camping should continue to be allowed, as surges of holiday-makers make their way north, leaving a wake of debris and destruction. Before we dive into how we can all work together to do it properly and respectfully, so we can all continue to explore the Scottish terrain for years to come, let’s travel back to the trip that sparked our own love of the wild north.
Christmas and the North Coast 500
Cruising into the Highlands
It’s Boxing Day, 2019. Still full from Christmas dinner, we’re packing up our new-to-us Land Rover Defender to head up to the Scottish Highlands for its first test run. We purchased this orange beauty, previously a Derbyshire Council vehicle, mere months before, from an auction website. At the time, we were in Bolivia making our way down the Pan-American. Now, back in the UK and keen to get out and try out our new rig, we decide to head north on the hunt for that same sense of adventure and freedom that we found in South America.
We set off north, cruising up the A1 to the tunes of Oasis, exchanging musings and ruminating on which must-sees we can unite with our route. We pass by the Angel of the North, a sure sign we’re on the right track, before taking a detour to wind through Kielder National Forest. Time seems to fly by, knowing that every mile we’re a little closer to the magic that is the Highlands. In a blink of an eye, we’re crossing over the River Tweed and pulling up for an obligatory picture with the ‘Scotland Welcomes You’ sign. We’ve been here before, but this time we wouldn’t be stopping in Edinburgh or the other touristy hot spots – we’re charging on, hunting for the true Scotland experience: a taste of the wild.
We curve our way through the winding landscape as the mountains emerge from what feels like thin air. Before long they are towering over our small speck of a vehicle, and we know we’ve made it: we’re officially in the Highlands. The fog rolls in, and as the sun sinks lower in the sky, we begin to look for a place for the night. We’ve been recommended a cool spot not too far away from where we are, so decide to push on to check it out. The sun begins to set as we turn off the main road and onto a well-trodden narrow, but paved, single-lane track. Immediately, to our pleasant surprise, all signs of tourism dissipate and we soon find ourselves alone in nature, just the way we like it. We find a good pull-off spot near the end of the lane, out of the way of others on a large gravel lay-by, with only one other campervan in our distant sight. This is our home for the night.
Andy whipping up lunch on our new friend’s farm
The next morning we awake to the sounds of a rushing river and a couple of two-winged locals fluttering overhead. It’s time for some breakfast. We set up our camp kitchen – a single-burner propane stove – and grab our reusable baggies full of fresh goodies from our Dometic CFX fridge. As we’re finishing up our breakfast with a view, we spot a 12-point Red Stag in the distance. This is the Highlands we’ve always dreamed of and the trip is only just getting started.
As we weave through the endless pastures that serve as home to the most iconic Scottish native, the Highland cow, we spot a muddy lane, begging to be driven down, that leads to a forest in the distance. The only trouble, it’s clearly on someone’s private property. As tempting as it is, it’s a no-go if we can’t find the owner of the land – something that we know isn’t likely in these vast parts. But as fate would have it, right on cue, we spot a large tractor headed towards us in the distance. I pop out of Tango and stroll down the mud path to meet him halfway. He took one look at me, eager as ever, and one look at our Land Rover waiting at the gate to his farmland, and gave us a big ol’ “come on with it” wave with a smile. He laughed, appreciative, as I thanked him for letting us on his land and told him that what he had was most people’s dream. The next two hours we explore, taking in every ounce of his tucked away gem, before enjoying lunch overlooking the river.
Taking our Defender for a coastal spin
Over the next few days we work our way up to a must-stop in any Scottish road trip: the Isle of Skye. Known for its spectacular scenery and historic roots, it’s a tiny island that’s jam-packed with highlights: iconic cliffside lighthouses, world-renowned whiskey distilleries, good-as-gold hidden coves, secluded glens and towering oceanfront waterfalls, with perfectly placed wild camping in between. We’re using an app called the Local Guide to help us with our route. It’s like having our own personal tour guide in our backseat, but with all the best spots and none of the small talk. We ring in the New Year in Portree, a thriving historic town known for its colourful array of houses, freshly-moored fishing boats and an endless selection of restaurants, each with perfectly curated menus offering a selection of coastal and Scottish favourites. Our plan is to refuel here for the night, before venturing back out on the island for more hiking and exploring the awe-inspiring landscape. But, it’s here, as we sip wine and enjoy our Haggis starter, that we decide to forgo our previous plans and switch gears to instead drive the full North Coast 500.
Exploring rugged coastal roads
Over the next week, as the weather turns south, we cruise north. It’s wet, muddy and miserable by any other holiday standards, but it suits the Highlands and somehow only adds to the ambiance and experience. We make it to Dunnet Head, and then onwards to John O’Groats, taking a moment to celebrate the milestone of making it to 58.6°N, the furthest north we’ve ever been in any of our Land Rovers. It’s time to begin the journey home, down the breathtaking eastern coast and through Cairngorms National Park, but we’re hooked and planning our next trip back.
Lochs, lockdowns and laning
Campfire hanging out with the Dometic crew
Over the next two years, Scotland is our go-to destination for all things adventure. Time and time again, we are drawn north. It even serves as a place, during the pandemic, to cure our longing for a taste of open road and freedom, something that would feel scarce in 2020.
This month, as the pandemic scares start to settle, and the world begins to reopen, we find ourselves making our way back up to the Scottish Highlands again, this time to meet up with the Dometic crew and a few fellow adventurers in an area that’s close to our hearts: Glencoe.
On the way up we stop in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. This area is the perfect warm-up for any wild-camping road trip, as it mixes the security that comes with a reserved campsite, with the experience of wild camping. Unlike other areas in the country, the byelaws here require an easy-to-book permit. The permit acts as your ticket to paradise for some of the best camping around, and with the limited numbers of permits given per day, you’re almost guaranteed to feel like you have the place to yourself.
Watching the rain roll in, from the cover of our awning, in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park
We drive into the pines and make our way along the dirt road to the hilltop campsite, a spot we found on one of our previous journeys. This is not your typical campground by any means. We’re hidden among the towering pines, overlooking a neighbouring loch, with only four other campers in sight, a mix of campervans and tent campers, each with their own private patch for the night. We pop out of our Defender and immediately take a stroll down the dirt track to take in the loch in all its glory. There’s not so much as a quiver of wind, leaving the lake in a mirror-like state boasting a flawless reflection of the surrounding woodlands. Before long we notice countless tiny ripples dancing on the water’s surface. The rain is starting. We stroll back to camp and as we settle in, we’re greeted by a fellow camper, an adventure motorcyclist and our neighbour for the night. Over the next hour, as the rain rolls in, we exchange stories, go-to gear and beers. As the weather picks up, we take refuge under our awning and cook up tonight’s special: venison burgers garnished with caramelised onions and skillet potatoes. The next morning we pack up our site, say our goodbyes and press on to Glencoe.
Ferry crossing to a remote island off the Highland coast
We spend the next week in the Highlands exploring on what quickly becomes one of our favourite trips north. I have to admit, although we love exploring new places, my partner and I are both creatures of habit. We find a place and we go back to it, time and time again, experiencing a sense of home with the familiarity of it all. On the flipside of that, if we’re in a new area we’re also known for cranking out the miles to try seeing it all. This time is different as our new friends and colleagues are the ones picking the spots and setting the pace, forcing us to open up our eyes and see a different side of Scotland that we’ve never known before. Over the next few days we go wild swimming in rivers, take ferries to remote islands, hike new terrain and explore tracks new to us that lead to secluded beaches. We cook up riverside feasts, paddleboard in hidden coves and share stories over a campfire along the rocky shores. It’s pure bliss. We don’t crank out the miles. We don’t cram in every must-see spot. We find our own wild locations, together, in the moment. Every corner we drive around gives way to another adventure. We’re taking it slow, taking it in, and truly enjoying the beauty of Scotland.
A sustainable road forward
This leads us to today, as I sit here and write this piece. The last few trips we’ve taken, including our latest trip with the Dometic crew, has really opened my eyes to the environmental impacts of what we’re doing, not just in the Highlands or parts of the UK, but around the world. Travelling in a Land Rover, or any vehicle for that matter, is good fun, no doubt. But it’s crucial that we’re cautious of the mark we’re leaving behind as we enjoy ourselves.
We’re not alone in loving Scotland and, understandably, over the last two years tourism has surged in the UK’s northern gem, with an influx of campers, outdoor enthusiasts, and holiday-goers alike flocking to find themselves among the rugged terrain, causing an uprising of questions about the sustainability and longevity of it all.
For that reason, it’s more crucial than ever to ensure that we all band together and ensure we’re travelling as responsibly as possible, protecting the environment, and hopefully our rights to explore some of the UK’s, and the world’s, most-loved terrain at the same time.In all my research related to this article, I learned there is more I can do personally to leave places better than I found them. No human, even those with the best intentions, wakes up in the morning and lives a flawlessly sustainable, perfectly environmentally-friendly life and anyone who travels knows that it can take that much more effort when you’re on the road. I hope that this piece can help others, in the same way it’s helped me, and together we can continue to enjoy the unspoilt wild for years to come.
How to find epic wild camp spots in Scotland
Afternoon beach break to soak up some sun
• Apps: Some of our favourite apps for wild camping in Scotland are iOverlander or Camp4Night. These are a great way to see other tried and trusted spots.
• The Internet: There are countless blog posts and articles online with some great recommendations. Get researching.
• Local knowledge: Don’t be afraid to ask the locals. We’ve found some of our all-time favourite camp spots this way over the years, not just in Scotland but around the world.
• Finding them Yourself: You can’t beat finding a place yourself. As long as you’re being respectful to the locals and the environment, and doing your best to follow the ‘leave no trace’ principles, you’re sure to uncover some hidden gems of your own along the way.
Rules of the Road: Where can I park up?
Contrary to popular belief, the Land Reform Act of 2003 that gives visitors the right to roam, and thus wild camp, in Scotland does not extend to vehicles. For that reason, you cannot just pitch up on any patch of grass that tickles your fancy. Ultimately, it all comes down to respect. You should be mindful of your effects on the environment and locals, minimise your impact using the ‘leave no trace’ principles.
Here are some guidelines, courtesy of the Scottish Access Code, that you should follow if you’re taking to the roads up north:
Using a car park if one is nearby:
• Don’t block access roads or entrances, this includes farm entrances.
• Don’t park in dangerous locations or passing places.
• Do not make it difficult for other people to use a road or track.
• Try not to damage the verge.
• Have regard for the safety of others.
• Keep a distance from houses and historic monuments.
Tips for choosing a campsite:
• Use campsites when readily available: wherever possible stay in managed campsites or in official wild camping areas for vehicles, such as the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. You’d be surprised by some of the magnificent spots that are on managed land right around the UK.
• Mind the signposts: if it says no camping, move on. If the land is enclosed, gain approval from the landowner before entering.
• Don’t overstay your welcome.Use this unwritten rule – never stay in one place for too long, and not more than two nights if you can.
Leave No Trace: Principles for every camper
Before you head out on your own Scottish adventure, we recommend taking the time to read the Scottish Access Code (outdooraccess-scotland.scot) and Leave No Trace principles (lnt.org/why/7-principles/) for yourself. Here are some of the key takeaways:
• Pack out all litter: Make sure you’re collecting all litter, packing it out and disposing of it properly, ideally in a place with good infrastructure, not at some remote bin at the end of a single-lane track. One easy way we’ve found to limit the amount of litter you produce when you’re out in the sticks, is to pre-dispose of all the food packaging while you’re still in a town or village and transfer everything into reusable bags.
• Stick to the beaten track: Whether hiking or driving, rather than blazing your own trail to explore or to find your camp, stick to the tracks. This will ensure no wildlife or native vegetation is harmed in your adventures.
• Reduce the impacts of campfires: Use a stove or an elevated, off-the-ground, fire where possible. Consider the placement (is there a pre-existing campfire ring nearby), the time of year and the current conditions. If you are going to have an open fire ensure it’s small and controlled. Remove all traces of an open fire before you leave.
• Carefully select your campsite: If you’re in a high-traffic area, it’s best to camp on sites that have clearly already been used to ensure that additional damage to the surrounding vegetation and wildlife is not inflicted.
• Don’t cause any pollution: Choose products that are free of harsh chemicals and biodegradable.
• Dispose of your waste properly: Yep, we’re talking about human waste here. This is crucial to avoid pollution of water sources and minimising the risk of spreading diseases, among other things. The most widely used means are:
• Catholes: A shallow hole is the most widely accepted means to dispose of waste and are allowed in most locations. Ensure you’re at least 60 meters from water sources, trails and campsites. They should be around 15 cm deep and 10 cm wide. Once finished they should be re-covered with the original dirt and disguised with natural vegetation if readily available. For this technique, only toilet paper should be left in the cathole, wet-wipes, etc., should be packed out.
• Pack out: This one’s self-explanatory. In some instances, for example where it’s not possible to make it 60 m away from a river, this will be required. Don’t leave behind toilet paper, wet wipes, etc., but take these with you. A Ziploc bag does the trick.
• Portable camp toilet: If you do have the space in your vehicle, a camp toilet is a great hassle-free solution. With this option, be sure you are emptying any grey water properly, down a toilet at a rest stop, or at home.
Be respectful of the environment as well as other people around you. Keep in mind that we’re all visitors here.
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