Off Site Camping in the UK.

Opinions vary as to what is and what is not acceptable when off site camping. This section contains only factual information which can be supported by evidence. The information comes from the experience of over 6 years of in depth study of parking for motorhomes (including widespread enquiries to both official bodies and private companies to ensure accuracy) and the experience of actually being involved in the setting up of an aire (which, as it happened, tended to prove the point of lack of demand, being short-lived because it was not used).

I use the term "Off Site Camping" rather than "Wild Camping" deliberately. In Scotland (the only area of the UK where there are statutory rights to wild camp) there is a definition of Wild Camping enshrined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (set up as a requirement of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003). The Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives the following advice regarding wild camping: “Wild camping is defined as lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two to three nights in one place. You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply but help to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals and keeping well away from buildings roads or historic structures. Take care to avoid disturbing deer stalking or grouse shooting. If you wish to camp close to a house or building, seek the owner’s permission. Leave no trace by: Taking away all your litter; Removing all traces of your tent pitch and of any open fire (follow the guidance for lighting fires); Not causing any pollution.” Thus, camping in a motorhome is not wild camping. Other areas of the UK do not have such a definition in law but using the term Off Site Camping provides for consistency.

There is useful guidance for off site camping published on the CaMPA Website.

Within the whole of the UK, all land is owned by some body, be that a natural person, a private company or a public body.

Where land is a highway maintainable at the public expense (i.e. owned by a local highways authority or the Department for Transport) specific legislation governs its use. A highway normally includes more than just the road itself, encompassing verges, laybys etc. The question of whether or not there is a right to camp overnight at the roadside and/or in a lay-by is one which is raised from time to time. Enquiring of the Department for Transport established that there appears to be no national legislation which either specifically permits or prohibits roadside camping. There are, however, a number of restrictions which apply to waiting and parking. These are summarised in Rules 238-252 of the Highway Code. The text in the Highway Code contains details of the primary and secondary legislation which give effect to the restrictions. There are particular requirements for parking at night, including requirements for use of lights in some circumstances (Rules 248 – 250). In addition, some local authorities have passed Traffic Regulation Orders which permit/prohibit overnight camping in vehicles within the area over which they have jurisdiction. Overnight sleeping in a layby might be allowed for drivers of goods vehicles only. This is a result of recognition that their drivers are compelled by law to take breaks at certain times.

In regard to other (off road) land, any person or organisation offering overnight stops for motorhomes in the UK must do so in compliance with the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. For a brief analysis of the relevant parts of the Act Click Here. Without a licence or exemption, individuals and organisations lay themselves open to prosecution. That is why the major supermarkets and pub chains do not (officially) allow camping in their car parks. Where one camps without the landowner's permission, the civil offence of trespass may also be committed.

From time to time one sees claims on forums such as "we are only parking, not camping". In reality, though, we all know the difference between stopping for the night (including sleeping, eating &c) and mere parking. To comply with the legislative provisions noted above, legal off site camping is confined to those places where it is not restricted (basically those places with no Traffic Regulation Order banning camping). Repeated press stories and forum threads demonstrate that overnight camping where it is not allowed gives the wrong impression of motorhome owners as a whole to authorities and increases the risk that they will take action to introduce restrictions in more places (as has happened in some areas already).

We also see threads along the lines of "the government says we shouldn't drive when tired so should make provision for us to rest". That completely ignores the fact that motorhomers (unlike HGV drivers for instance) are masters of their own destiny and have every opportunity to plan their journeys such that their routes include places where they can take a break when necessary.

A third type of regular forum thread is the one complaining that the UK authorities should provide aire type facilities in a similar manner to countries in mainland Europe. Almost invariably, those who start the thread (and many of those who support them) have made no effort to contact any local authority to try to start constructive negotiations aimed at providing such facilities. The several on-line petitions that have been started in recent years have each attracted well under 1,000 signatures, a clear indication of the tiny minority of UK motorhomers who are actually willing to take the merest action to achieve aires.

Some claim that aires would bring economic benefit to towns because motorhomers would spend money there. That ignores the facts that many people stock up before leaving home and those that only want an overnight stop have no time to shop anyway. Such claims almost invariably discount the costs of setting up and managing facilities, often enough because the people making the claims simply have no concept of what is involved and make an inaccurate assumption that they are not significant.

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Last updated: 29 January 2020
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