How To Safely and Successfully Wild Camp
by Ruth Murdoch | August 2018 (updated August 2019) |Traveling Help
What is Wild Camping?
Also called free camping, freedom camping or wilding, wild camping means different things to different people.
In this blog I share our tips for how we wild camped successfully in hundreds of stopping spots during our two years plus of travels through thirty European countries. I will share with you places to dump black water (toilet), where we found water, and most importantly how we keep safe. I will also show you how we insert two different GPS coordinates into our Garmin and share the technology we use to find great spots for where to wild camp.
For us, wilding is not about being out in the bush surrounded by bears and moose but is when we find a place to stay for the night, away from the usual options of campervan parking, Aires, and camping grounds. We may be parked on wasteland, car parks, laybys, picnic spots, or any other area of open and preferably flat ground we can find. We might be near the beach, in the mountains, overlooking lakes, beside a motorway, at a marina, or down a road out in the country. Anywhere really where it is free to stay the night and suitable for parking and sleeping. There are usually no facilities like electricity or places to dump your black or grey water in these areas, so it’s important that you are self-sufficient. If you are lucky you might find a rubbish bin and a fresh water tap.
Pros of Wild Camping
You may ask why do we choose to wild camp as opposed to using camping grounds or camper parking areas. Here are our reasons:
1. Cost – it’s cheaper. We are long-term motorhomers and if we were to spend €30 per night on camping grounds that would add just under €11,000 onto our costs, or 54% of our annual budget. If the cost was just €20 it would still be a whopping €7,300 a year, which equates to 36% of our annual budget. In our first year we spent just over €700 (3% of our annual budget) on camping grounds and €585 (2.8% of our annual budget) on camper parking. If we didn’t wild camp, we couldn’t afford to travel for as long as we want or see as much as we want. We wild camp more than 80% of our time.
2. Wild camping spots are found everywhere if you know how and where to look. So you can travel and stay where you want, not just where there are suitable camping grounds nearby.
3. Peace, Quiet and Privacy. We rate this very highly. When wilding, if there are noisy neighbours then just leave and find a quieter place. There are usually no dogs barking, kids screaming, or people sitting outside late at night talking loudly. Certainly, we have come across some spots that are noisier than others and that is where a good set of earplugs comes in handy. Although on the subject of earplugs we are careful when we use these as at times we want to hear if there is anyone else around us.
4. Space. Unlike the few camping grounds we’ve visited, when wilding we are not crammed into a small pitch with neighbours sandwiched close enough beside us so we can hear them change their mind. Often there is just us in the places we find and if there are others around they are usually a respectful distance from us.
5. Location. By far one of the great advantages of wilding. We find that camping grounds are often located outside the city centre or away from the attractions and are unlikely to have much of a view. We have had stunning views, unobstructed ocean vistas, and mountain top outlooks. Just look at some of the photos to see what we are talking about.
6. No public transport needed. When wilding we can often locate ourselves near a port or marina and then take a short walk or cycle into the city centre.
7. No check-in or check out-times. I like to stay up late and work*, which means I tend to sleep in later in the morning. Therefore having a time when I have to check out doesn’t suit my lifestyle. You don’t have this issue when wilding.
*My work consists of writing travel blogs, so it’s a far cry to call it ‘work’. Lol.
Cons of Wild Camping
It wouldn’t be fair to only give one side of the story. It is important to acknowledge that there is a price to pay for wilding and here I show the other side of this lifestyle.
1. Security would have to be the number one issue on people’s mind when wild camping, especially when you are parked alone at night in an unknown area in a foreign country. To date we have not experienced any frightening situations that would have us reconsider our choice of having so many wild nights.
Safety for us is a top priority and over the last two years, we have developed principles and procedures which have given us the confidence to wild camp in most of the countries we have visited. I share these with you later in this article however, nothing is foolproof and everyone needs to make their own choices about where to stay and what feels ‘safe’ for them.
2. There is no guarantee of finding a suitable location to park for the night. At least with a campground, you can book ahead of time to be sure of and secure your spot.
3. It takes time to do some of the basic things that are easy at a camping ground including finding and filling with water and dumping grey and black water and doing the laundry.
4. Unlike wilding where there is no electricity available (unless you are very lucky). At a camping ground you will have the opportunity for electrical hook up, usually referred to as EHU. This gives peace of mind when it comes to switching on lights or charging up the laptop computer without worrying about your batteries or whether there is enough sun for your solar panels.
5. While wild camping is tolerated in most countries, typically you are not allowed to exhibit ‘camping behaviour’. This includes setting up chairs, winding out awnings or hanging out the washing. You can normally get away with some of this in more secluded spots. We save up our washing until we are parked somewhere we feel comfortable to hang up the clothesline. Or else, you can always find a Laundromat but this is the last resort for us as it’s not only expensive but often difficult to reach in the city centre with a 7.5m moho. We have our own washing machine that makes life easy for us.
6. In a camping ground, you don’t have to actually check around for signs to see whether or not you are in fact allowed to stay in the area.
Technology to Help with Wilding
1. Park4Night. This is the free mobile application and website which is our go-to source for places to park. The app looks like this:
1. Search For Sites is similar to Park4Night, although the website is free, the app is paid. Again we use this on the few occasions where a suitable spot isn’t obvious or available on Park4Night.
2. Campercontact is another app and website that people rate highly, however, we do not often refer to this – not because there is anything wrong with it but just because we use the other tools first and they usually have all we need. The paid version of this is required to get the full details on sites.
Note that all of the tools above also give information on campsites, paid camper parking areas and camper service areas. Some are better in some regions than others so it is best to have access to all three.
3. Google Maps has been fantastic when the other apps above haven’t come through for us. For example, when touring around the Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland there were no sites listed on one particular island, so we looked at Google Maps to find a suitable looking place, e.g. a clearing, a church car park, or a marina. If we find any good new spots then we add them to Park4Night for other travelers to use.
4. Garmin GPS. This beats Google Maps for navigating hands down as it’s quicker and gives information on when to turn further ahead of time. If you have used Google Maps as a GPS you would have found that it can be slow to refresh your location and give directions. The Garmin doesn’t rely on the internet which is quite often hit and miss in some of the locations where we’ve been traveling. There are other great GPS’s on the market, which others swear by, however, we have only had Garmins so can only comment on them. Our Garmin is the Camper model which usually directs us away from low bridges and super-narrow streets.
I’ve included two videos below to show how we easily program the GPS coordinates into our Garmin. The reason there are two videos is that you may come across different formats of coordinates. One will look like this: 60.1234 20.1234 (typical of the format from Park4Night) and the other will be in degrees, minutes and seconds which will look something like this N 60° 12.34′ 56″ E 20° 12.34′ 56″ or some variation thereof, i.e. sometimes the N for north is at the end of the numbers. You could also have N (north), or S (south), and W (west) or E (east). Each combination will give you either a N or S and an E or W.
5. Converting GPS Coordinates. It is also possible to convert the coordinates from one to another by using this tool found online: https://www.fcc.gov/media/radio/dms-decimal
6. Maps.me is another app that many people use. This again doesn’t require an internet connection to use and the navigation works well provided you have downloaded the map base for the region you are traveling in.
Successful Setup For Wilding
I am going to share our tips for how we have set ourselves up for wildling and what we’ve learnt along the way.
The additional items we have to set our Motorhome up for successful wilding included two solar panels, extra leisure battery, large 1500W inverter, portable washing machine and two good quality water containers (22 litres in total). We also have electric bikes, which makes life easier when it comes to hunting and collecting fresh water. For a full inventory on what is in Betsy, click here.
For added security, we have a good alarm system with internal movement sensors as well as sensors on the windows, cab doors, habitation doors and garage doors. The alarm can be set on ‘sleep mode’ that lets us move inside without setting it off. We had an extra alarm siren fitted inside the habitation area which is extremely loud and uncomfortable to be present when it is sounding. Our alarm fob, which sits beside the bed at night, has a panic button that allows us to set off the alarm manually.
Another thing that we did was to get some stickers made up that said ‘Alarm’ and have a picture of a bell. They are UV resistant and some were made to be on the outside, and some on the inside of the glass. Each window has a sticker as does our accommodation door and garage doors.
Extra security is provided by dead locks on the habitation and garage doors and a tie-down that we use to strap the cab doors together (in case someone broke the glass or locks and tried to open the door).
Safety When Wilding
For us, safety usually starts before we leave the current parking spot. We know that many people love to fly by the seat of their pants and just drive until they find somewhere that looks good to stay at. We prefer to have a bit of a plan for the day’s travel and research potential parking spots around our destination using something like Park4Night. We read the reviews for each spot, note if anyone has had issues with security or break-ins, and may reject a spot or increase our security measures accordingly. Using locations from Park4Night often means that there will be other moho’s in the same spot, which adds to the security and social interests of a location. We will check Google Maps to get as much information about the spots as we can and to also scout around for other possibilities. We will normally have at least two potential places programmed into the GPS with some idea about where else we could go if those don’t pan out. Having a plan gives us peace of mind which we like. Others prefer more excitement and the feeling of the unknown. Everyone is different.
Listen to your gut. We have a rule in our Moho that even if one of us has a bad feeling about a spot or a concern for safety, no matter the reason, we don’t question it but move on. What’s interesting is that if one of us voices a concern, quite often the other person was thinking something similar. Communication is important here so don’t let your desire to park and sleep override the need for safety.
Good general principals to follow include:
- Avoid using levelling chocks if possible, as you may need to drive away in the middle of the night. We have a cheap set of small chocks which we would be happy to leave behind for the sake of our safety.
- We generally park out of sight of main roads and public areas wherever we can.
- If possible, we like to park where there are one or more other motorhomes as there is definitely safety in numbers.
- Have a backup for where you might go is important if you have to move in a hurry, e.g. park at a service station for the night.
- Ensure you know the phone numbers for police and other emergency services. Have these written down or in your phone. The main number throughout Europe is 112.
- Limit the alcohol consumption so the driver is not over the limit should he/she have to drive. It’s important to know the different alcohol limits in each country (some countries have a low or zero blood alcohol level limit)
- Park your motorhome so it is facing forward and has a clear unrestricted exit, preferably having open space in front of you rather than a single track. Pre-plan what you might do if your Plan A exit is blocked.
- Beware of parking on grass if there is any rain forecast as you may get stuck in the mud.
Preparing the Cabin for Sleeping
Every night before going to bed we have a routine called ‘preparing the cabin’. Here’s what we do.
1. Make sure everything outside is put away at night – chairs, awning, doormat etc, and the garage doors are locked and dead-bolted.
2. Turn the front seats forward into the driving position.
3. Ensure the keys and alarm fob are beside the bed for easy access.
4. Put the computers, wallet and valuables (passports, documents and drivers licenses) in the locked safe. (Most of this stuff tends to stay there in any case, but if we’ve had them out for some reason we make sure they are returned before hitting the hay.)
5. Push all buttons to cupboards and drawers in to secure them.
6. Secure the TV and shower doors (or anything else that would typically be secured before driving away).
7. Ensure the dishes are either washed and put away, or at least stacked so if we have to drive off quickly they’re not going to crash into a thousand pieces across the cabin floor.
8. Draw the curtains around the front windows but we avoid putting up the reflective/insulating screens as these are slower to remove and can cause a lot of condensation on the inside of the windscreen especially in colder weather.
9. Remove the GPS and dash cam from the windscreen but have them handy should we need to take off quickly.
10. Set the alarm on sleep mode.
There are always going to be places where you feel 100% safe and other places that feel less comfortable. When we are in those places we take some extra precautions to make it harder for anyone to break in. We lock the external deadlock on the habitation door then run a tie down between the front cab door handles.
Leaving the Moho Unattended in Wild Spots
Here are a few tips about what we do when leaving Betsy alone in a remote location.
1. Our first tip is don’t do it. The first choice is always to re-park somewhere more public.
2. If for some reason we are going to leave Betsy unattended, then we ensure that the area ‘feels’ safe to leave. If we have any hesitations then we will simply drive to another car park, e.g. supermarket parking area.
3. The fabric strap that we use at night may not be sufficient if someone breaks a window, because they could reach through and cut the strap. Therefore we have a secondary system – a light chain that we thread around our door handles and secure with a combination padlock. The door handles have Velcro around them to protect the plastic from the metal scratching them. See photo below.
Whilst nothing is full proof, this system will give an opportunist burglar a bigger headache. If someone is prepared they may be carrying bolt cutters which would make short work of this. Our intention is to slow the burglars down and have them look for a softer target.
4. We put our TV under the pillows so it’s out of sight and not obvious from a quick look around inside the vehicle.
5. The speaker system goes into the safe, as does the remote for the TV.
6. All our important documents and devices are put into the safe including extra credit cards, passports, driver’s licenses, computers, tablet, kindles, etc. Whilst this seems obvious, we have heard about people leaving these in a cupboard and them being stolen.
7. We remove our GPS and dash camera including brackets and cables from the windscreen and these are also put into the safe.
8. Important medicines are also kept in our safe, particularly things that need a prescription to replace and are not used on a daily basis.
9. We have drilled a hole in the drivers seat base. We rotate the seat to face backwards and place a huge padlock in there. This prevents anyone from being able to sit in the seat and drive away with our Betsy. See photo below.
We have a big, good quality, and heavy-duty safe which is bolted and screwed down to the Moho. Some pretty specialised wrecking equipment would be needed to rip it out and they would then need to carry a very awkward and heavy (16kg) safe somewhere they could take their time to break into. That’s unlikely to happen easily or without someone noticing, we hope. By that time our credit cards would all be stopped and our passports reported. We have electronic copies of our passports and credit card information stored up in the cloud as well as recorded and in the safe .
The most anyone could hope to find inside our motorhome is food, clothes, a microwave and the odd bottle of wine. If they are desperate for that, then they are welcome to it.
Chain for Daytime Locking as it can’t easily be cut and a Strap for Night time locking as it’s easy for us to remove in a hurry if need be.
The drivers seat is turned around and a huge padlock keeps it from being turned towards the front for driving. It is difficult to drive away in a vehicle while facing backwards!
Being Moved On – Whoops
In our first year of motorhoming we spent 275 nights wild camping including stopping at car parks, beaches, on top of mountains, in marinas, on the side of the road or tucked away somewhere else out of sight. Few of these places are specifically signposted as allowing overnighting by motorhomes. Therefore there is always the risk of falling foul of some local regulations, or parking in an unauthorised location and being confronted by someone in authority. Of these 275, we have been moved on three times by officials. In our second year of travelling the only place we were moved on, for our own safety, was once in Morocco.
The first time we were moved on was in Gallipoli where we were inadvertently staying on a national park. At 8.00pm a security guard came around and asked us to leave, and gave us until 10pm to do so.
The second was in a supermarket car park in Naples where security were going to lock the gates for the night and suggested we went to a motorway service area close by. Whilst we did that and were okay, we would not usually stay in such places as they are not considered generally the safest overnight place for motorhomes. On that note, the Motorway Aires in France have a particularly bad reputation among the motorhoming community and should be avoided– just read the many posts on forums about people being broken into.
The third place we were moved on from was in Amsterdam where we had parked in a designated bus parking area within a larger car park. We had been hoping some cars would leave on so we could take their place but were moved on before this could happen – it was worth a crack and we then found a nice quiet residential street for the evening.
It is important to note that anyone official will not bang on your door at 1am and yell in a drunken holler for you to move (as happened to us in Denmark). We stay quiet and trust they will just go away but be ready to move quickly if the situation looks as if it may be threatening. In the Denmark case, there were eight other moho’s beside us so we didn’t feel in any danger and after waking everyone, he left.
Our number one rule for night time is…
“DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR TO ANYONE!!!”
Should you have a bang on the door from someone who is persistent and you want to respond then talk through the closed window. They will still be able to hear you. But under no circumstances should you open your door at night and definitely do not leave your vehicle at night.
One fellow camper told us a story of when he had someone bang on his door. He yelled back in his strongest, angriest voice ‘for goodness sake (ok, he wasn’t quite that polite) why can’t everyone leave me alone’. He said this puts people on the back foot immediately because they think you are angry, already been disturbed, and may be a danger to them.
If for any reason you have a need to knock on the door of another motorhome during the night, make sure you announce yourself and what you want. We had someone banging and banging one night, and of course, we ignored him. He eventually spoke in English (we were in Italy) to share valid information. Had the chap announced himself and said something like “hi there, I’m John from Australia and I just wanted to let you know our motorhome has been broken into tonight”, we would have answered him (through the windows) a lot earlier.
Water, Toilet, Electricity and Rubbish
Here are five practical matters that full-time wild campers need to manage as a result of not being on campsites regularly.
1. Fresh Water. For us, we can go four or five days on our 100-litre tank, plus back up water containers. However, we normally start keeping an eye out for water supplies after two days. Whenever you have the chance, top up your tanks. Some countries have been easier than others, for example, in Greece it was relatively easy to find water as there were many public taps, however south of Italy, in Sicily we really had to hunt as most of the public water taps had been disconnected. France, Germany and Sweden were easy and by using one of our apps we generally found a service point at an Aire or Stelplatz. Usually these are free but sometimes a token charge is made. Most cemeteries have water taps you can use to fill containers and many service stations have a tap you can connect a hose to. A big tip here is to always taste the water before putting it in your tank, especially if (as we do), you drink water straight from the tank (we have an in-line filter after the pump). Some of the water is highly chlorinated or just doesn’t taste good. We always make sure that we have a 12 litre container of known good water in the garage, for drinking and making tea/coffee, just in case we end up with a tank of tainted water as has happened three times.
We can carry our water containers on our bikes and have frequently ended up cycling around an area to find a suitable tap. We then just make a few trips to ferry 22 litres at a time back to Betsy and fill her up using a funnel which has a filter in it.
We have recently been told of a great way to find water. Use the App Maps.me as it has water taps shown.
2. Black water (toilet cassette). Getting rid of your black water can be a challenge and you need to continually plan how to manage this necessary activity.
Again using Park4Night (or other apps) provides a source of dumping spots as these will show you the service points ahead and you can use these to plan your black dumping (and usually fresh water filling and grey dumping at the same time). Hint – you can often access the services at many of the paid camper parking locations even if you don’t stay there.
If you find an unlisted authorised dump location then please share the details on the apps so others can benefit.
Many of the motorway or main road service areas now have purpose built motorhome service points where you can take care of all these needs.
Campgrounds may also allow you to dump, usually for a nominal fee, which is much lower than spending the night there. However be aware that fundamentally when you free camp, they miss out on business so don’t be surprised if they refuse you.
Local tourist information centres may be able to direct you to services for motorhomes.
Service stations sometimes allow you to empty your cassette into their toilets, especially if you are buying something from them. Just ask first and leave the toilet clean. Emptying a full cassette into a toilet without making a mess takes practice but it can be done. We take a separate container of water in with us so we can rinse the cassette out a couple of times.
Many people carry a spare cassette just in case. We have one, in a separate box in the garage, but so far have not had to use it.
‘Boys pee in the bushes’ is a good principle for extending the time before the cassette is full, as long as you are somewhere wild, secluded and private.
Some motorhomers we have met put a plastic bag into the loo before doing Number 2’s then remove the bag and put it in the bin. This a more extreme way of keeping the smelly stuff out and making the cassette last longer but it wouldn’t appeal to everyone.
In an emergency, some public toilets can be used however be careful to leave no mess that would give motorhomers a bad reputation. Also be aware that many of the toilet treatment chemicals can kill the good bacteria in septic tank systems so use environmentally friendly chemicals if you might use public loos on a septic tank system.
On that subject, there is a widespread debate on what to put in your cassette to break down the solid matter and control the odours. Just check some Facebook Groups or Motorhoming Website Forums and you will find lots of opinions and solutions that you can try out. In our experience, after trying many different variants, the commercially available tablets still work the best and keep the smells away for the longest.
We recently came across this map which gives a lot of dumping points across much of Europe. The details are in Swedish but the information is gold.
Camper Dumping Points
4. Electricity. Whether this is a problem depends on how well set up for wild camping your Moho is, how much power you consume, as well as local factors such as the weather and time of year. If you run out of power, you will usually need to find an Electrical Hook Up (EHU), which may be on a campsite, or paid motorhome parking.
Some campers receive all the power they need by recharging their batteries while they drive. They will usually run everything off their 12V system and won’t have laptops, TV’s or other power hungry appliances. Most of us will need more.
The ideal accessory needed here is one or more solar panels to recharge your leisure batteries. The larger your solar panels and the bigger your leisure batteries, the less you will need to rely on an EHU and the more independent you will be. However, bigger panels and batteries mean more cost and more weight. We run with 2 x 160W (watts) solar panels and 2 x 100 Ah (amp hour) leisure batteries and that has given us enough power and storage summer and winter so far. Note that if you intend to wild camp over the winter, the solar panel output can drop dramatically (down to less than 10% on a wintery day) so you may need to check into a campground occasionally if there is a long spell of bad weather. Be aware of where you park. If you want your solar panels to work efficiently then park in the sun – pretty obvious really but we kept parking in the shade to keep cooler in our early summer days and ended up running our batteries way down.
The experts tell us that your batteries lose storage capacity over time and that occasionally putting them onto an EHU restores some of this capacity. Therefore take every opportunity you can to plug in and give your batteries a birthday treat.
It is also good practice to avoid letting your batteries go too flat because this can cause permanent damage and reduction in performance. A good rule of thumb is to not discharge to less than 12.2V, which is about 50% battery capacity. A fully charged battery is around 12.7V. If you discharge to under 12V you are risking damage. Be aware that what your display says is not necessarily correct. If you are actually using power, then the display will probably read a ‘lower than actual’ figure. Turn everything that may be using power off, give it 15 minutes to settle down, then check the voltage, preferably with a meter at the battery terminals. Believe me when I say this has taken us a lot of time to figure out, and a lot of questions to forums and other experts, not to mention my husband constantly looking at the battery display. He’s much more relaxed these days.
5. Rubbish. It is surprising just how much rubbish we generate and we normally dispose of it daily. If you look around, you can usually find a public rubbish bin. These can be found near parks, shopping precincts, beaches, or if you are really struggling to find one, then look at shopping malls or supermarkets (after purchasing your groceries, of course). On the odd time where we cannot find a nearby bin, we put our rubbish in the moho garage and just wait, hoping we don’t forget to dump it. Wherever possible, we try to respect the local recycling efforts and sort our rubbish into the appropriate plastics, glass, paper etc bins.
We will usually try to leave a location cleaner than when we turned up, so will pick up other peoples rubbish from around us. At least we feel we are giving something back to the wonderful place where we stayed.
Phew, if you’ve read all the above well done. There’s lots of information here and I know that many of you would already be wise to this stuff. However, we have had to learn it all from scratch and I wished that someone had given us the heads up when we were newbies.
So, thanks for tuning in thus far. That’s about my lot for how we wild camp successfully. I hope you have picked up some hints and tips to make your travels safe and rewarding. If you see our Betsy out and about, please pop over and introduce yourself (after parking a reasonable distance away first). Lol.