A family camping trip is the ideal way to bond, explore nature, and create unforgettable memories. Or, it’s an occasion ripe with rifts, rain and soggy sleeping bags. The determining factor here isn’t often, surprisingly, familial harmony, but rather, your choice of pitch.
And for the family with a particularly adventurous spirit (or, simply, for those families looking to do things on a budget), the allure of wild camping is undeniable. You get to hammer your tent pegs in somewhere rugged, remote and, best of all, remuneration-free! What a wonderful opportunity to teach the kids some Bear Grylls-worthy survival skills and some Martin Lewis-deserving thriftiness. What’s not to love?
Well, there are a couple of things not to love, in fact, the first being the potential for a fine that stretches into the thousands of pounds for the offence of aggravated trespass. More likely though, you’ll be asked to move on, which can be pretty annoying if you’ve pitched up, lit the barbie, and put the keds to bed (or, rather, sleeping mat).
Avoid the pitfalls, tripwires and bear traps, with our guide on the best places in the UK for families to camp for free.
Dartmoor National Park, Devon
Nestled within the picturesque landscapes of Devon, Dartmoor National Park offers an unparalleled camping experience for families. With its vast moorlands, ancient forests, and fascinating archaeological sites, there is no shortage of activities for families to enjoy.
While camping at Dartmoor, families can take advantage of the park’s excellent facilities, including picnic areas, toilets, and car parks. Moreover, the surrounding area boasts numerous attractions, such as the famous Dartmoor ponies, Becky Falls, and Castle Drogo. For a fun day out, consider visiting the Miniature Pony Centre or taking a leisurely stroll along the scenic Wistman’s Wood trail.
Until very recently, Dartmoor was the only national park in England where wild camping was legally allowed in specific areas, following the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985. Sadly, a high court ruling made earlier this year means permission may soon need to be sought, but for now wild camping is permitted within the park, though only in certain areas. You must also follow their wild camping code:
- Camp at least 100 metres away from roads or public rights of way.
- Only camp on open moorland, avoiding enclosed farmland and archaeological sites.
- Do not camp in the same place for more than two consecutive nights.
- You must carry everything you need in a backpack (including your tent)
- Keep your group size small, usually a maximum of 2-3 tents.
- Leave no trace. Take all your litter and belongings with you, and never bury or burn waste.
- Be respectful of other visitors and minimise noise.
- Use a stove for cooking instead of making fires.
- Keep dogs under control and stay away from farm animals and wildlife.
- Be prepared to move on if requested by the landowner, park rangers or police.
Please note that specific areas within Dartmoor National Park may have additional rules or prohibited camping zones. It is always wise to check with the local authorities and visitor centres for up-to-date information before setting up camp.
Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
Galloway Forest Park, also known as ‘the Highlands of the Lowlands’, is a sprawling woodland reserve in southwest Scotland, with plenty of wild camping opportunities available.
Here, you can enjoy the stunning views, rich wildlife, and clear night skies. As wild camping is generally tolerated in Scotland, you can pitch your tent in many places. However, remember to follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and Leave No Trace principles. Carefully choose your spot to avoid damaging the environment.
Some prime wild camping spots in Galloway Forest Park include:
- Loch Trool – A beautiful loch in the heart of the forest, with many secluded spots to pitch your tent along its shores. The Glentrool Visitor Centre is also nearby.
- Clatteringshaws Loch – Another stunning lake with picturesque sceneries, ideal for wild camping. There’s a visitor centre near the loch, which provides useful information on the area.
- Loch Stroan – A peaceful spot to camp with beautiful views, located to the northeast of Newton Stewart.
- Loch Doon – A large freshwater loch, offering plenty of options for secluded spots to camp. It’s also close to the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Observatory, making it an ideal location for stargazing.
- Glentrool Camping and Caravan Site – If you prefer a more structured camping experience, this campsite is located within the forest park, providing a base for exploring the surrounding area. Pitching a tent costs just £7.
Families visiting Galloway Forest Park can indulge in a wide range of activities, including hiking, cycling, and stargazing. The park is a designated Dark Sky Park, making it an excellent spot for admiring the night sky. Nearby attractions include the Red Deer Range, where families can observe these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, and the Galloway Activity Centre, which offers various water sports and outdoor activities.
Interestingly, from April 1st to October 31st, 2023, Galloway’s ‘Stay the Night’ program allows self-contained motorhomes, campervans and caravans to park overnight for one night in some designated car parks. Make sure to check the specific car parks included in the programme before planning your trip.
Exmoor National Park, Somerset
Exmoor National Park, located in Somerset, is another fantastic option for families seeking free camping experiences.
Whilst wild camping in Exmoor National Park isn’t officially permitted, as much of the land is privately owned or managed by the Exmoor National Park Authority. However, informal camping may be allowed in some areas with the landowner’s permission. The UK has a strong wild camping culture, and with a respectful and responsible approach, you may still be able to find a few incredible spots to pitch your tent.
In instances such as this, it might be a wise move to become a member of the non-profit co-operative Nearly Wild Camping. A unique UK-based initiative, Nearly Wild Camping connects passionate nature enthusiasts with off-the-beaten-track camping spots through an ever-growing membership network. This community-driven platform enables landowners to offer their undiscovered, pristine pieces of land for environmentally conscious, low-impact camping experiences, all while supporting rural economies in the process. On a more practical level, being a member is a great way to gain permission to camp in Exmoor National Park.
Once you’re settled in, rest assured that Exmoor National Park is renowned for its diverse landscapes, ranging from moorlands and woodlands to dramatic coastlines. Families can explore the park’s numerous walking trails, visit the historic Tarr Steps, or take a scenic drive along the Exmoor coastline. For a memorable day out, consider a trip to the Valley of the Rocks, where you can marvel at the unique rock formations and enjoy stunning views of the Bristol Channel.
For perhaps the most perfect pitch (weather permitting!) in the park, make for Dunkery Beacon. Known as the ‘Summit of Somerset’ and the highest point in Exmoor, it offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Camping near the summit may offer an incredible sunrise or sunset experience, but be prepared for sudden inclement changes.
This summit is one best tackled with proper camping gear. Bringing your own camping supplies, such as a tent and cool bags, not only adds to the affordability of camping but also offers long-term value – and we did promise this thing was being done on a budget, after all. Using your own gear also offers a sense of familiarity, which is essential for the younger members of the gang getting used to their first adventure!
While there may be an initial investment in purchasing such items, they can be used repeatedly on future camping trips, making them a worthwhile investment. By owning your own gear, you eliminate the need to rent expensive camping equipment each time you go camping, saving you money in the long run. Keplin Group offers a range of essential camping supplies and equipment which will help your family camping trip run smoothly.
Snowdonia National Park, Wales
There are few more beautiful places on the planet than rural Wales on a certain type of crisp, cold day, and Snowdonia National Park, situated in the country’s northwest, is probably the most beautiful of the lot. It’s also a haven for adventure-seeking families, and while wild camping is not officially permitted, responsible campers who follow the ‘leave no trace’ principle are generally tolerated.
Keep in mind that much of the land within Snowdonia National Park is privately owned, so you should seek permission from the landowner before setting up camp. To stay on their good side, avoid camping near popular trails, water sources, or in large groups. It’s a good idea to arrive late, leave early, and leave the area exactly as you found it to minimise your impact on the environment.
Now that admin’s dispensed with, let’s savour Snowdonia’s dramatic mountain ranges, crystal-clear lakes, and charming villages, all offering a wealth of activities for families. Embark on a hike to the summit of Mount Snowdon, take a ride on the famous Snowdon Mountain Railway, or explore the magical village of Portmeirion. For an adrenaline-pumping experience, visit Zip World, home to the world’s fastest zip line and a variety of other thrilling adventures.
The Lake District, Cumbria
While wild camping is not explicitly allowed in the Lake District as it mainly falls on privately-owned land, it is generally tolerated if done discreetly and responsibly in remote locations, away from popular trails, car parks, and residential areas.
Indeed, many landowners and park authorities turn a blind eye if campers follow these guidelines and exhibit good environmental stewardship.
For some of the most secluded spots, consider:
- Nestled beneath the towering Langdale Pikes, the Great Langdale Valley is an idyllic spot for families to set up camp. Here you’ll find a sense of seclusion and remoteness, allowing the whole team to truly reconnect with nature (and avoid interruption from the authorities!). Families can spend their days exploring the surrounding fells, embarking on scenic walks, or enjoying a tranquil picnic by the bubbling valley stream. At night, in the absence of light pollution, it’s all about the stargazing.
- As one of the most remote lakes in the Lake District, Ennerdale Water promises a serene wild camping experience. For the family who loves to don their walking boots together, the lake boasts plenty of gentle walking paths; you could even attempt a walk around the entire lake. Fishing is also a popular pastime here, and for the little ones, skimming stones across the lake’s clear surface is as magical as it gets.
- The Borrowdale Valley is another fantastic location for adventurous families seeking both picturesque landscapes and engaging activities. Set up camp near the banks of the River Derwent and enjoy the mesmerising views. Then, explore the hidden caves and gorges that surround the valley. The kids can build dams and splash in shallow streams, while parents can look forward to relaxing walks amongst the verdant woodlands (not separately, of course; you might want to keep an eye on the kids when they’re building those dams).
- The second-largest lake in the Lake District, Ullswater provides families with picturesque camping spots and plenty to do. Along the eastern shore, you’ll find charming, secluded areas perfect for wild camping. During the day, families can get stuck into watersports such as kayaking, canoeing, or paddleboarding. Additionally, you can hop on the Ullswater Steamer for a lazy afternoon cruise, where you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding fells and valleys.
The Bottom Line
Though not strictly ‘campsites’, the UK is home to numerous free places for wild camping, some of which cater very capably to families seeking budget-friendly outdoor adventures.
From the enchanting landscapes of Dartmoor National Park to the awe-inspiring mountains of Snowdonia, these destinations offer a unique camping experience without breaking the bank. So pack your tents, gather your loved ones, and embark on an unforgettable family adventure at one of these incredible free campsites. Just remember to not leave a trace!
*The rules and legislation regarding wild camping here in the UK may change at short notice. Do check with the national park’s official website before setting off on your adventure. Please also be aware that rules differ between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland*