Wild camping, or free camping is where you park your vehicle in an acceptable place, such as a beach car park, and camp for free. Camping is perhaps a misleading term. In most countries erecting a tent is not accepted, and you should ensure that all of your things remain in your vehicle. Sitting outside with a table and chairs is fine, as is hanging out your washing. The key thing is to make no noise and mess, leave the spot as you found it.
The ups and downs of wild camping
Free camping is a great way to reduce your daily costs, by not paying campsite fees. The downside is that you do not have the facilities that the campsite offers. For smaller vehicles, such as camper vans, the biggest problem is normally that you will not have a toilet or shower at the free camping location. Many beach side areas have cold water showers, and some have toilets. You can of course get a chemical toilet to store in your vehicle. Large vehicles often have a toilet and shower room. It is possible to work around the lack of facilities by using the beach showers and using toilets in local places such as bus stations, train stations, supermarkets and of course public toilets. If you have the nerve it is possible to enter a larger restaurant, when it's busy, and just use the toilets. It is unlikely anyone will notice or challenge you. You must respect the free camping area to ensure it's continued use.
Security when wild camping
Your vehicle is always at risk from thieves and damage not mater where you are. Free camping spots are known by locals and most leisure vehicles are very obvious. Always park sensible, never leave anything on display, and always lock your vehicle. If others are parking in the area park next to them, not just close to them. A vehicle is safer when in a pack of vehicles, rather than a lone vehicle on the edge of the pack. When you park up chat with the people camping around you. Don't be put off by people with dreadlocks or by surfers, which you will find in seaside areas. These people are normally very nice, friendly and also looking for a secure place to park.
You should always get permission before free camping. This is not always easy as it can be hard to determine who to ask. It is made more difficult when travelling in a country where you do not speak the primary language. If you do not seek permission when you must accept that you may be awoken by the police or land owner, moved on or issued with a fine. This is very rare though. In acceptable or designated free camping areas very few troubles occur. In my experience I have had no trouble, meet lots of nice people and saved a lot of money.
In France there are many official free camping sites, knows as aire de camping. These may charge a small overnight fee during peak months, but are free during off-peak times. Responsible free camping is generally accepted elsewhere.
In Spain and Portugal free camping is tolerated in most car parks around beach areas. In some areas it is not tolerated, and will be signposted. Note: free camping is illegal in the Algarve region of Portugal.
Free camping is accepted in many areas as the local people accept that the visiting travelers will spend their money on supplies, fuel and restaurants in local establishments. It is important to not upset the local people, police and authorities. If you do upset people you, and everyone else there, will almost certainly be moved on. This may also jeopardise the future of the free camping location. If you follow the simply rules and use your common sense you can enjoy free camping in lots of lovely areas, meet lots of nice people and save money.
Suitable wild camping areas
Beaches are a great, and for many, the best place to free camp. You can normally park up in a sandy or dirt car park, facing the sea. Beach areas are normally quite and have beautiful views and sounds. Some have toilets, and some have cold water showers. It is often possible to get water from the showers to use for washing, etc.
Many cross-country main roads have truck stops where truckers stop overnight. Almost all are free, some not being much more that dirt areas to the side of fuel stations. These areas can be good places to stop for the night. Safety is generally good, as you will almost always find at least 1 truck parked up. If you do stop stay out of the way of the trucks. The trucks need a lot of space to turn, and won't be happy if you are parked in the way. Look on the dirt surface to see their tire tracks, this will indicate where they turn and park.
It is often possible to find nice road laybys in which to park. Often around lakes or mountain areas. Parking next to a busy road isn't a good idea. Crime can be high in roadside areas.
Supermarket car parks
Some supermarkets allow vehicle to park overnight. Tesco in Britain accepts a few vehicles when parked out of the way. ALWAYS ask permission before stopping for the night.
Many city parks have large roads or avenues around them. It is often possible to find somewhere to park for the night.
If you have a small vehicle, such as a camper van, you can often park in urban areas. Always be aware of your profile though, crime is everywhere. If you have a stealth camper your chances of a free nights stop are much better. I have done this many times and had no problems. However, friends have had people try to pick their locks.
Wild camping etiquette
- Never leave any rubbish or waste behind.
- Never make excessive noise. If you are playing music ensure only you can hear it.
- Park sensible, so that people can use the parking bays around your vehicle.
- If you have to run your engine to charge your leisure batteries, do so during the day, and not at night or early morning.
- Don't ever use a generator, as they are noisy and everyone will hear it. If you need mains electricity then you probably need a campsite.