Camping near the road

Camping in a tent by the roadside can be an important way of getting away from it all and enjoying Scotland’s amazing landscapes.

If you’re in a vehicle it’s always best where possible to move away from your vehicle to camp, both to have a better experience and reduce your impact on others.

If you’re not disturbing the local community, or causing any damage to the environment, you should be acting within your access rights. But what about your car? Access rights don’t cover motorised vehicles, and how can you be responsible if there are lots of other people with vehicles all trying to camp in the same space?  

It’s not always easy to know what the right thing is, but here’s some basic guidelines to help.

Why camping is great – and why sometimes it’s not great

Of course, many cyclists enjoy camping by the roadside as a fun, low impact – and discreet – way of way of exploring the country while touring on their bikes. 

But there’s also long been a tradition for those touring Scotland by car to pull up and camp in a tent near a quiet roadside for a night. This is a much-valued activity for many people and there are many reasons why we do it.  

  • Walkers might arrive late and set up camp to make an early start into the hills. 
  • There may not be a formal campsite nearby.
  • If you have kids, camping near a vehicle is a great way to introduce them to the idea of wild camping while having the reassurance of the car at hand. 
  • For those with a disability, roadside camping may help them to experience a night away from home with all the equipment they may need.
  • This is a relatively low cost activity and means that people on low incomes can enjoy a holiday.

But in recent years some things have changed, from climate change to Covid-19, promoted routes like the NC500 and the increased use of campervans. 

This means we all need to look carefully at our own impacts and make sure we’re not causing problems, or adding to existing ones, by continuing to camp near – or sleep in – our vehicles.  

Scotland has seen a steep rise in visitors to more remote areas. 

However, even before the pandemic we were warning that the lack of proper investment in visitor facilities like toilets, ranger services and low-cost campsites was leading to problems.  Many rural communities are now under increasing pressure from the sheer number of people trying to camp by the roadside in popular areas. 

While one individual camper may not cause problems, if everyone is doing it then it can be hard to be responsible without causing a negative impact. 

What’s the legal position on camping near a road?

The tradition to camp away from formal campsites is legal, as long as you do so responsibly as set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. This generally means lightweight camping, in small numbers, for only two or three nights in any place.

The Code also advises keeping away from the roadside, but there is no exact guidance on how far this should be.

Instead, campers need to think about what is responsible in different locations, taking into account factors like how visible the tent is, how many people are camped there, how busy the road is and how far you are from buildings, before making a judgement on what responsible behaviour is in that place. 

You can find more information on your responsibilities and how to have an enjoyable camp here.

Camping in a vehicle, such as a campervan, motorhome or caravan – or even sleeping in your car – is not covered by access rights and there are some legal restrictions relating to parking, even if you are sleeping nearby in a tent.

Where can you park legally and responsibly?

For many of us, a car is almost essential to get to Scotland’s more remote and rural areas to enjoy our outdoor activities, but we need to think about where to leave it without causing anyone else problems.

You generally have the right to park your vehicle at the side of a public road, including in laybys. This is an important safety measure, enabling drivers to pull off and avoid falling asleep at the wheel, though obviously you need to park without causing any obstruction.  

You can also park on a verge within 15 yards of a public road without causing a traffic offence. But it’s important to recognise that you don’t have a right to park off road, it’s done on the basis of presumed permission from the landowner. Verge parking is illegal when the road has a solid white line or double-yellow lines or a clearway order. 

That’s why you should always respect restrictions on any signs and if you’re asked to move your car by the landowner you should do this – even if you’re in a car park. 

You should use a car park if there is one nearby, but if you’re parking off the road, make sure you don’t damage the ground or leave your vehicle in a way that will stop others getting by. This is especially important on narrow roads where large farm or emergency vehicles may need to get past. Find out more here

How can you keep your impact low?

There are lots of things we can all do to reduce our impact, such as choosing where to pull off:

  • Avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or animals and by keeping away from buildings & communities – and, where possible, walk a good distance away from your car to pitch a tent.
  • If there are already lots of people camping, move on to find another place. At really busy times there may not be enough campsite places or roadside space in popular areas. Plan ahead and always have alternative options if you arrive at your favourite pulling-off spot to find other people already in residence.
  • If you’re asked to move your vehicle by the community or landowner, please follow their advice. Often in the Highlands and Islands, areas of grass are used as common grazings for livestock and aren’t suitable for wild camping. Overnight parking in a car park is done on the basis of permission from the landowner, although laybys on the public road are always available.
  • Don’t park in a passing place on single track roads, they are there for a purpose and even quiet roads can be used by emergency vehicles or logging trucks.
  • Consider using a formal campsite for part of your trip as they can be the most responsible way to camp in some places – and you’re helping to support the local economy. For those in campervans or motorhomes, Forestry & Land Scotland is trialling some low-cost sites in 2021.
  • Remember that while it may seem like a remote place to you, someone lives there so be respectful. Save the barbecue, deck chairs and awning for when you’re on a campsite and don’t stop near people’s houses. 

Make sure you leave your camping spot better than you found it:

  • Leave no trace – there should be no sign that you’ve been there apart from perhaps some flattened grass.
  • Take away all your litter – including litter that was already there when you arrived.  And don’t leave your litter neatly tied up in a bag in a layby – there is rarely a public rubbish collection along roads in rural areas.
  • Fires are often seen as an integral part of a camping trip – but this simply isn’t the case. Even with Scotland’s high rainfall, climate change means a greater risk of wildfires. It’s best not to have a fire unless you’re on a beach, and even on the shore you should fully extinguish and remove all sign of the fire after you leave. Remember that fires on peat soils can burn downwards and carry on burning for weeks, so that circle of stones isn’t any protection.
  • Take advantage of any public toilets you pass before getting to your campsite, but if you do need to go, take a trowel and bury your poo in a hole 30m away from any loch or burn.  Take used toilet paper away with you – bring a small plastic bag for the purpose.

Give something back

Focus on keeping your impact low and being responsible – and don’t forget to give something back to the local community.

You may be enjoying a free night by the roadside but make sure you’re also using their shops, cafes, equipment hire and any activities that are on offer, as well as staying in a hostel, B&B, campsite or hotel during your trip where you can.

Webpage updated 7 July 2021