Open Air Business explores the concept of wild camping and how pre-pitched accommodation can cater for this market
Wild camping is a most romantic notion that brings to mind the discovery of an uncultivated and remote location with no signs of habitation as far as the eye can see. You can sleep under the stars, breathe the pure air and be at one with nature. A few branches to provide shelter or a basic canvas tent and an open fire might be all you need to ‘survive’ without the urban comforts of home such as running water, flushing toilets, cafes and shops.
All land in England and Wales is owned, so permission must be obtained before camping. However, wild camping within reasonable limits is often tolerated in upland and remote areas. One exception is Dartmoor, where camping is allowed for up to two consecutive nights in the same spot. You can stay for longer in a permitted camping area, except within 100 metres of a public road, or in any enclosure or other restricted area.
Wild camping in Scotland became legal in 2005; camping wild on highlands and lowlands is allowed, but any nearby dwellings or livestock must be respected. The east part of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park are exceptions – wild camping (and alcohol) was banned in 2010 due to anti-social behaviour.
In Ireland, wild camping is not strictly legal, but is tolerated in many upland and remote areas. Across the border in Northern Ireland, the Forestry Service issues camping permits at some of its sites.
For the outdoor enthusiast it might appear to be a bit of a minefield but there is growing demand for the freedom and romance of a wild camping ‘experience’, which can even involve staying in a pre-pitched structure while maintaining that all-important feeling of being at one with nature.
As Jason Thawley, innovation director and founder of Tree Tents International, explains: “Truly wild camping, as we see it, is real camping; venturing out into the wilderness, relying on nothing more than what you take with you. Your trip and your time will concentrate on three main fundamentals – appreciation of your surroundings, sustenance (food and water) and shelter. It’s all about appreciating the simple life, camping under the stars and enjoying the great outdoors.”
But Thawley recognises that there is a market for a wild camping experience in the pre pitched accommodation market. Tree Tents International supplies handmade, low-impact products and structures that were born out of a passion for trees and woodland. “What we’re trying to create are structures that don’t look out of place in their environment, provide shelter from the elements and a comfortable place to sleep, and offer up the great outdoors on a plate and enhance it,” he says.
The idea is that the ‘tent’ is positioned among the branches of a tree and actively moves with it. “The structure/shelter should replicate nature – the structures that the animals and insects may make for themselves. Facilities should be wholly eco-friendly and sustainable – reminding the camper where they are and, to some extent, how our modern lives impinge on the environment, but making that fun and educational,” he explains.
For Jake Watson, the owner of Landpod, a company that designs and builds innovative all terrain sleeping pods, wild camping is all about exploring the great outdoors away from the usual campsites and getting right back to nature. His advice to would-be wild campers, in the true sense, is to encourage them to: “Stick to the simple rules and etiquette. They should take all their rubbish with them, not stay in the same spot for more than one night, never have a camp fire and take care when using a stove, as well as when choosing where to go to the toilet. All in all, respect the environment.”
Creating a pre-pitched ‘wild’ camp
The Landpod is a great option for a pre-pitched wild camping experience. The all-terrain legs and platform give the freedom to set up a camp in any location, including on uneven or rocky ground. To keep it ‘wild’ the company suggests they are placed away from other campers “so you can enjoy the freedom and wilderness without having the campsite disruption”.
With this in mind, The Secret Campsite runs three campsites that are described as being “as close to wild camping as you can get.” As owner Tim Bullen explains: “We create the wild feeling by ensuring that all of our sites deliver on a detailed list of criteria. This includes pitch-black skies at night (a rare commodity in the south east), a secret location, and that they must not be blighted by noise and light pollution from roads, towns or other neighbouring land. We keep cars and dogs out of the camping areas and we don’t allow music.”
Glamping sites are certainly meeting a desire for the comforts of home in a different setting, but fully embracing the wild camping experience doesn’t have to mean digging your own latrine. “We do love campfires, which become the focus for an evening of cookery and relaxation after a long country walk or a swim in a nearby river,” says Bullen. “However, this is complimented by great washing, toilet and shower facilities and, perhaps, a fridge and freezer. We are keen to avoid the fear that most wild campers have of that trip to the loo first thing in the morning or when it is pitch black outside.”
This approach to camping is proving to be a huge attraction for campers who are keen to escape their everyday lives for a brief break. As Bullen explains: “These customers are the sort to respect and enjoy the place they are staying, which bodes well for the peace and tranquillity that our sites embody.”
Connecting with nature
Environment is key for a wild camping experience and in the hills of rural Herefordshire Crown and Canopy lets the surrounding environment of the woodlands in which it sits, and the views on offer, dictate the design of its sites. Co-founder Bill Goddard, who specialises in design and build, describes the design process as natural and ever-changing.
He says: “An experience of wildness and, more specifically, wild camping in any form is exciting, different and makes you feel alive and connected to the natural world. Being out in unfamiliar environments, where you are likely to come into contact with wildlife and flora, is refreshing and goes a way to reconnecting people to the natural order of things. It also serves as a reminder that we not only share this planet, but we are very much a part of it, a way of thinking that can be forgotten, insulated as we often are by the wonders of the modern world.”
Guests are encouraged to bring only what they need to the site. “We make sure all the supplies are topped up, restock firewood and clean and change the necessaries, then let them get on with it! It is their experience and we want it to be as wild and natural as possible. We like to give our customers an experience where they are not thinking about what they are missing so they can concentrate on all the wonderful things that they are surrounded by,” he adds.
According to Thawley, what makes a wild camping experience is, “Waking up with the sunrise and spending your day being busy in the job of being, tending to those three main fundamentals – appreciation of your surroundings, sustenance (food and water) and shelter. It’s a feeling that the world is bigger than you.”
Bullen agrees that a critical factor to the wild camping experience is a strong connection with nature and, of course, to supporting and enjoying local wildlife. “We achieve this by landscaping our sites to encourage lots of wildlife for our campers to enjoy,” he says. “Each year we run a Secret Wildlife Festival with the local Wildlife Trust,” he continues. “This festival is a fund-raiser, which is aimed at connecting our campers with the natural world, and to date we have raised in excess of £5,000 for the trust.”
The festival relies on a wildlife-rich habitat where the talks, walks and events create opportunities for campers to see unusual animals, which might include adders, glow worms, nightingales, elephant hawk moths, bats or white admirals.
According to market analyst Mintel, Britain’s camping and caravanning market is growing – the total number of trips is expected to rise to 17.9 million in 2017 and to more than 21 million in 2020 – and is expected to be worth £3.2 billion by 2020. Of those choosing a camping holiday, ‘getting away from it all’ is one of the key attractions, as is ‘connecting with nature’ (41 per cent), which, of course, represents an opportunity.
“Our type of wild camping comes at a premium,” explains Tim Bullen. “It’s not cheap camping, it’s real camping with nature and the audience that is looking to experience this is growing fast.”
Having gained a unique insight into the requirements of the wild camper, the team at The Secret Campsite have positioned themselves to help landowners tap into this growing market, while creating a fantastic destination that considerably enhances the value of the land it is based on. “It can also act as a source of significant revenue for other local businesses such as farm shops, pubs and tourist attractions,” Bullen explains.
The idea is to help land owners capitalise on the interest in this phenomenon, rather than spending their time worrying about trespassers and any suspected rural vandalism. “To achieve this, we look for sites that are suitable for planning permission and landowners who are happy to invest in the infrastructure and facilities that we need. In return, we set up, staff, market, manage and run the site,” Bullen continues.
“The landowners get to share in the sales revenues that we generate. A typical return will be in the region of £2-2,500 per acre per year, for eight to 10 acres, while leaving the site free for five months of winter grazing. Better still, we offer the security of a 10-year lease, making this an excellent business opportunity for a landowner in the right location, with access to funds for investment,” he adds.
An ideal location
So, what is the ideal location in which to embrace the wild camping experience? Mountains, forest or beach – a mix of all three would be ideal.
“Choose somewhere away from any roads, higher ground and away from human habitation,” suggests Watson. “Try and find a spot that can offer shelter from the wind if you are on high ground. Our ideal location would be up a mountain, nestled in some woodland.”
For some, wild camping may still mean packing up a tent and heading out into the wilderness away from the hustle and bustle of normal life and exploring the great outdoors. “Traditional campsites don’t offer the wild camping experience because there are other people around, toilets, showers and potentially a shop on site,” says Watson. “Wild camping takes us back to nature’s basics and gives you a huge sense of freedom when looking up at the stars, no noise and the beautiful fresh air,” he adds.
Ultimately, when it comes to wild camping, there are few rules. As Thawley concludes: “Take nothing but pictures (or memories). Leave nothing but footprints. I think the saying speaks for itself.”